Tag Archives: social media

How much do your twitter follower numbers matter?

Sunil Malhotra ¬†just asked a question: To what degree is your number of followers an indication of your influence on Twitter? Asking for a friend. ūüėČ

Well, I am ahead of my deadlines today so I have time to respond and it’s a subject most of us have wondered about once in a while.

Answer: a small degree

If you have millions, like Katy Perry, with 100 million, then obviously you would have more influence than a village class pub singer. But her influence is restricted almost entirely to the sort that worship celebs. That’s a big market for sure, but I rather suspect that she doesn’t have much influence in physics circles, or philosophy, or finance, or anything other than fashion, celeb and pop culture. Celebs overestimate their political influence all the time, but recent elections and referenda have shown that they are actually mostly irrelevant.

Many twitter accounts follow huge numbers of people, because they want to get lots of followers, and many accounts automatically follow back, as if it were good manners or something. Many big number accounts that follow me unfollow a few days later because I haven’t followed them back, and other users say the same. I’d say that almost 100% of those followers and accounts are of zero relevance. Nobody can read tweets from more than a few hundred people. If I have a spare few minutes, I can only just keep up with the tweets that come in from the 440 or so that I follow, and some of those have died or must have left twitter, since I haven’t noticed anything from them for ages. Probably only 200 are active.

So if someone follows you who has 100,000 followers, and follows 100,000 people, marketers might say they are valuable because of their retweeting potential, but I’d say they are of very little value because they won’t see anything you tweet. Also, if they are trying to get all those followers, it’s because they are marketing their own material, so are unlikely to engage with yours, and are also more likely to be using social media scheduling apps to tweet regularly, so won’t even be on to see anyone’s tweets, let alone the 1 in 100,000 you wrote. So ignore the ones who follow large numbers of people.

The accounts that are most valuable are those that are very focused, such as industry sector magazines or other aggregators, because they quickly supply tweets that keep you up to date on what’s happening in your field, and that’s why most of us are on Twitter isn’t it? Most have massive numbers of followers but only follow a few accounts. Most people read magazines or papers but few write them, so that’s fair enough.

Next up are the many individuals who notice things of relevance or who say insightful or stimulating or encouraging things, people like Sunil for example. They are the other reason why we are on Twitter apart from keeping up with our sector news. Insight is valuable, stimulation and encouragement are too. Many such people have few followers. That’s not because they don’t matter, it’s because there are simply so many people out there who occasionally say something you would want to hear, but you can only follow a few hundred accounts tops, and many of those will be sector news feeds, so you can only listen to 200 others. Bear in mind that most people don’t use twitter, and most of those that do are professional people who have something worthwhile to say once in a while. Dividing the number of good personal accounts by the large numbers on twitter and multiplying by 200 means that each only gets a few followers.

Some of these people will have obviously have more influence than others. They may say more insightful or stimulating things, so they add more value, so are worth listening to. Those that talk more are heard more too, so numbers of tweets relates to numbers of followers eventually, though you can quickly lose some if you say anything controversial. That’s true in any area of life. But the differences are small. A few thousand followers is quite common, but a few hundred is far more common. There will always be people more popular, louder, more extrovert, more eloquent, more important, funnier, whateverer. That’s life.

Far more important than the number of people who follow is whether they read your tweet, think about it, are engaged by it, and maybe retweet it. Even Twitter understands that and they offer lots of advice on increasing engagement, like tweeting at weekends, including pictures, using careful wording, latching on to current trends.

So it’s quality rather than quantity that matters, as always. But another important factor is that retweeting is not a direct measure of influence. For what it’s worth Sunil, I see a lot of your tweets, and they often make me think, and you will remain one of the valuable accounts I follow for that reason. If I don’t often retweet them, it’s because I try to keep my own account on theme as much as I can, and while I find them good to read, that doesn’t necessarily mean they are best suited to a futures sector account. So it is probably true that influence rides far higher than retweets. Many people will have been made to think, but for any of many reasons, retweeting is inappropriate.

The fact is that most of us know all of these things anyway, and we just tweet our stuff when we feel like it, and if someone engages, great, and if they don’t, so what? Don’t worry about it.


OK, Sunil’s question dealt with. What about twitter’s state of health?

Twitter seems to be in a permanent state of voluntary decline. The design and values decisions the company makes often seem to be either invisible or aimed at self-destruction. The change most of us noticed and hated most was the idiotic change to the timeline, which shuffles all the tweets from the accounts you follow, to show the most relevant first apparently. In practice, since I check only now and then, it means I see many tweets several times and many presumably not at all. If I wanted to see only those accounts that Twitter thinks are most relevant, I wouldn’t be following the others, would I? If Twitter thinks it knows best what I should see, why bother letting me choose who to follow at all?

Allowing scheduled tweets has eroded its usefulness enormously. Some that I follow send the same tweets again and again, presumably using some social networking app or other. That means that you quickly get annoyed at them, though not quite enough to unfollow them, you quickly get annoyed at Twitter, though not quite enough to leave, and because their computer is attending twitter instead of them, they probably aren’t even seeing your tweets either, so you wonder whether it is worth bothering with, but not quite enough to stop. So this change alone has dragged twitter to the very edge of the usefulness cliff, and presumably many have already gone over the edge. Its profitability hangs forever in the balance because of idiotic decisions like that.

Allowing photos and auto-playing videos is two-edged. It takes longer to read, and an insightful text tweet is hidden among pages of brain-dead video repeats. On the other hand, it is nice to see the occasional cute kitten or an instantly informative picture or video clip. So I guess that one balances out a bit.

The last bunch of redesigns totally escaped my notice until they were discussed in a newspaper article, and some of the things that had changed, I had never even noticed before. This is a problem common to many industry sectors, and especially in marketing circles, not just a twitter issue. People who think of themselves as the professionals and experts are far more interested in the opinions of their peers than those of their customers. They want to show that they are in their industry elite, bang up to date with the latest fashions in the industry, but often seem to know or care little about what customers care about. So tiny changes in the shape of a bird that most users had never even noticed take on massive significance for the designers.

As for its politicization, I am very aware of it, but I don’t really care. All media seems politicized so I am well used to filtering and un-spinning.

If Twitter stop allowing social media schedulers, allow people to choose how tweets are organised, make it easier to do basic things like copying user IDs and pasting them in, then I for one would find it 10 times more useful and 10 times less annoying. Their user base would increase again, people would use it more, it would be more valuable and their financial woes would end. But they won’t, because they believe they know better, so they are doomed.

AI Activism Part 2: The libel fields

This follows directly from my previous blog on AI activism, but you can read that later if you haven’t already. Order doesn’t matter.


Older readers will remember an emotionally powerful 1984 film called The Killing Fields, set against the backdrop of the Khmer Rouge’s activity in Cambodia, aka the Communist Part of Kampuchea. Under Pol Pot, the Cambodian genocide of 2 to 3 million people was part of a social engineering policy of de-urbanization. People were tortured and murdered (some in the ‘killing fields’ near Phnom Penh) for having connections with former government of foreign governments, for being the wrong race, being ‘economic saboteurs’ or simply for being professionals or¬†intellectuals¬†.

You’re reading this, therefore you fit in at least the last of these groups and probably others, depending on who’s making the lists. Most people don’t read blogs but you do. Sorry, but that makes you a target.

As our social divide increases at an accelerating speed throughout the West, so the choice of weapons is moving from sticks and stones or demonstrations towards social media character assassination, boycotts and forced dismissals.

My last blog showed how various technology trends are coming together to make it easier and faster to destroy someone’s life and reputation. Some of that stuff I was writing about 20 years ago, such as virtual communities lending hardware to cyber-warfare campaigns, other bits have only really become apparent more recently, such as the deliberate use of AI to track personality traits. This is, as I wrote, a lethal combination. I left a couple of threads untied though.

Today, the big AI tools are owned by the big IT companies. They also own the big server farms on which the power to run the AI exists. The first thread I neglected to mention is that Google have made their AI an open source activity. There are lots of good things about that, but for the purposes of this blog, that means that the AI tools required for AI activism will also be largely public, and pressure groups and activist can use them as a start-point for any more advanced tools they want to make, or just use them off-the-shelf.

Secondly, it is fairly easy to link computers together to provide an aggregated computing platform. The SETI project was the first major proof of concept of that ages ago. Today, we take peer to peer networks for granted. When the activist group is ‘the liberal left’ or ‘the far right’, that adds up to a large number of machines so the power available for any campaign is notionally very large. Harnessing it doesn’t need IT skill from contributors. All they’d need to do is click a box on a email or tweet asking for their support for a campaign.

In our new ‘post-fact’, fake news era, all sides are willing and able to use social media and the infamous MSM to damage the other side. Fakes are becoming better. Latest AI can imitate your voice, a chat-bot can decide what it should say after other AI has recognized what someone has said and analysed the opportunities to ruin your relationship with them by spoofing you. Today, that might not be quite credible. Give it a couple more years and you won’t be able to tell. Next generation AI will be able to spoof your face doing the talking too.

AI can (and will) evolve. Deep learning researchers have been looking deeply at how the brain thinks, how to make neural networks learn better and to think better, how to design the next generation to be even smarter than humans could have designed it.

As my friend and robotic psychiatrist Joanne Pransky commented after my first piece, “It seems to me that the real challenge of AI is the human users, their ethics and morals (Their ‘HOS’ – Human Operating System).” Quite! Each group will indoctrinate their AI to believe their ethics and morals are right, and that the other lot are barbarians. Even evolutionary AI is not immune to religious or ideological bias as it evolves. Superhuman AI will be superhuman, but might believe even more strongly in a cause than humans do. You’d better hope the best AI is on your side.

AI can put articles, blogs and tweets out there, pretending to come from you or your friends, colleagues or contacts. They can generate plausible-sounding stories of what you’ve done or said, spoof emails in fake accounts using your ID to prove them.

So we’ll likely see activist AI armies set against each other, running on peer to peer processing clouds, encrypted to hell and back to prevent dismantling. We’ve all thought about cyber-warfare, but we usually only think about viruses or keystroke recorders, or more lately, ransom-ware. These will still be used too as small weapons in future cyber-warfare, but while losing files or a few bucks from an account is a real nuisance, losing your reputation, having it smeared all over the web, with all your contacts being told what you’ve done or said, and shown all the evidence, there is absolutely no way you could possible explain your way convincingly out of every one of those instances. Mud does stick, and if you throw tons of it, even if most is wiped off, much will remain. Trust is everything, and enough doubt cast will eventually erode it.

So, we’ve seen ¬†many times through history the damage people are willing to do to each other in pursuit of their ideology. The Khmer Rouge had their killing fields. As political divide increases and battles become fiercer, the next 10 years will give us The Libel Fields.

You are an intellectual. You are one of the targets.

Oh dear!


AI and activism, a Terminator-sized threat targeting you soon

You should be familiar with the Terminator scenario. If you aren’t then you should watch one of the Terminator series of films because you really should be aware of it.¬†But¬†there is another issue related to AI that is arguably as dangerous as the Terminator scenario, far more likely to occur and is¬†a threat in the near term. What’s even more dangerous is that in spite of that, I’ve never read anything about it anywhere yet. It seems to have flown under our collective radar and is already close.

In short, my concern is that AI is likely to become a heavily armed Big Brother. It only requires a few components to come together that are already well in progress. Read this, and if you aren’t scared yet, read it again until you understand it ūüôā

Already, social media companies are experimenting with¬†using AI to identify and delete ‘hate’ speech. Various governments have asked them to do this, and since they also get frequent criticism in the media because some hate speech still exists on their platforms, it seems quite reasonable for them to try to control it. AI clearly offers potential to offset the huge numbers of humans otherwise needed to do the task.

Meanwhile, AI is already used very extensively by the same companies to build personal profiles on each of us, mainly for advertising purposes. These profiles are already alarmingly comprehensive, and increasingly capable of cross-linking between our activities across multiple platforms and devices. Latest efforts by Google attempt to link eventual purchases to clicks on ads. It will be just as easy to use similar AI to link our physical movements and activities and future social connections and communications to all such previous real world or networked activity. (Update: Intel intend their self-driving car technology to be part of a mass surveillance net, again, for all the right reasons: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/sciencetech/article-4564480/Self-driving-cars-double-security-cameras.html)

Although necessarily secretive about their activities, government also wants personal profiles on its citizens, always justified by crime and terrorism control. If they can’t do this directly, they can do it via legislation and acquisition of social media or ISP data.

Meanwhile, other experiences with AI chat-bots learning to mimic human behaviors have shown how easily AI can be gamed by human activists, hijacking or biasing learning phases for their own agendas. Chat-bots themselves have become ubiquitous on social media and are often difficult to distinguish from humans. Meanwhile, social media is becoming more and more important throughout everyday life, with provably large impacts in political campaigning and throughout all sorts of activism.

Meanwhile, some companies have already started using social media monitoring to police their own staff, in recruitment, during employment, and sometimes in dismissal or other disciplinary action. Other companies have similarly started monitoring social media activity of people making comments about them or their staff. Some claim to do so only to protect their own staff from online abuse, but there are blurred boundaries between abuse, fair criticism, political difference or simple everyday opinion or banter.

Meanwhile, activists increasingly use social media to force companies to sack a member of staff they disapprove of, or drop a client or supplier.

Meanwhile, end to end encryption technology is ubiquitous. Malware creation tools are easily available.

Meanwhile, successful hacks into large company databases become more and more common.

Linking these various elements of progress together, how long will it be before activists are able to develop standalone AI entities and heavily encrypt them before letting them loose on the net? Not long at all I think. ¬†These AIs would search and police social media, spotting people who conflict with the activist agenda. Occasional hacks of corporate databases will provide names, personal details, contacts. Even without hacks, analysis of publicly available data going back years of everyone’s tweets and other social media entries will provide the lists of people who have ever done or said anything the activists disapprove of.

When identified, they would automatically activate armies of chat-bots, fake news engines and automated email campaigns against them, with coordinated malware attacks directly on the person and indirect attacks by communicating with employers, friends, contacts, government agencies customers and suppliers to do as much damage as possible to the interests of that person.

Just look at the everyday news already about alleged hacks and activities during elections and referendums by other regimes, hackers or pressure groups. Scale that up and realize that the cost of running advanced AI is negligible.

With the very many activist groups around, many driven with extremist zeal, very many people will find themselves in the sights of one or more activist groups. AI will be able to monitor everyone, all the time.  AI will be able to target each of them at the same time to destroy each of their lives, anonymously, highly encrypted, hidden, roaming from server to server to avoid detection and annihilation, once released, impossible to retrieve. The ultimate activist weapon, that carries on the fight even if the activist is locked away.

We know for certain the depths and extent of activism, the huge polarization of society, the increasingly fierce conflict between left and right, between sexes, races, ideologies.

We know about all the nice things AI will give us with cures for cancer, better search engines, automation and economic boom. But actually, will the real future of AI be harnessed to activism? Will deliberate destruction of people’s everyday lives via AI be a real problem that is almost as dangerous as Terminator, but far more feasible and achievable far earlier?

We need to reset society by bursting the bubbles

Looking at the state of democracy across the whole of The West right now, we are in deep poo.

I’ve written often about my concern that tribalism is increasing, that the live-and-let-live attitudes that used to prevail have been evaporation, that people are too quick and too willing to be aggressive against those with whom they disagree, ¬†that common civility and manners are¬†vanishing¬†from politics, and that if we continue, we will end up with the Great Western War, essentially a civil war between an increasingly polarized Left and Right. Although I’ve never been sure about how fast the speed of change would get there, I’ve usually estimated mid-century¬†or soon after.

Recent trends do not encourage optimism. In many cases, people are actually proud of their intolerance of the other side, proud to wear it as a badge. Even more ridiculously many of them call holding such a set of attitudes ‘love’, accusing the other side of being ‘haters’ even as they go out rioting against their existence and vowing never to live peacefully side by side with them because they stand for ‘hate’. It doesn’t bode well for peace, or for language. The love on display in the #lovetrumpshate demos is a doubleplusgood love, 1984 doublespeak for hatred and despising of ‘the other’, not the sort we used to understand. This new ‘love’ is love for those with who you share allegiance, and a deep hatred for everyone else. The very dangerous sort of love that wars are made from. The love I was brought up to understand is a love for others that doesn’t depend on who they are or what they believe. The sort that hates sin but loves the sinner. That’s actually a hard thing to understand and a tough principle to live by but many generations managed to do that. You may disagree with what someone says or does, but you can still love them as a person. That is love, not ‘intolerance of intolerance’, or ‘hating haters’. When you hate others for who they are, even if you rationalize that as being¬†because they are evil, war is a short step away. In rare occasions, such as when it’s Hitler, doing what he did, then war is justified and we actually do take up arms.

If I only had friends I agreed with, I’d have none at all. I disagree often with many of the people who I follow or who follow me, but I am very happy to share the planet with them and to get on as best we can. Thankfully, almost all share that same view and accept me with all my differences. I hardly ever get trolled or called names. I sometimes tease, and sometimes get teased, sometimes I point out a few home truths and sometimes people point out a few of my faults too. And that’s about the limit for what should happen in civil society.

If you really do want a war and you’re prepared to kill others and die yourself for it, then fine, but have a good think about that first. If you’ve never lived through violent conflict first hand, and the nearest you’ve ever got is using a hashtag, waving a banner, emoting or virtue signalling, then grow up, get out of your playpen or safe space, and start behaving like a civilized adult. That involves discussion of tough ideas, it often involves looking at hard and unpleasant facts and it involves reaching very difficult compromises with other people, not just calling them names or sulking in a corner because you didn’t get your way. It’s the difference between being a kidult and an adult, the difference between a luvvie and a leader.

I don’t really need to labor that point, we all see this new intolerance and hatred every day now, whether it’s far right marches or far left ones, #lockherup or #lovetrumpshate, Brexiteers or Remainers, #blacklivesmatter or #alllivesmatter.¬†I’ve said this stuff many times before. We need to learnt to get along. Sure, by all means gently tease the other lot, but accept that while you may not agree with them, they¬†have just as much right to their views as you do to yours.

We may reasonably ask how we got to this state. When Thatcher was the most disliked PM the UK has ever elected, or when Reagan was elected, those who voted the other way accepted the result peacefully. They grieved and moaned a bit for sure, and argued against policies all the time of course, as they indeed should, but democracy carried on peacefully. When Tony Blair was elected, or Bill Clinton, or even George W Bush, it was still peaceful. Even when Obama was voted in just 8 years ago, it was still peaceful. The people who didn’t like it accepted that the pendulum would eventually swing back and they’d get their way again.

Some time during the last decade,¬†the foundations of civilized society have¬†badly eroded and collapse of the walls has started. If we don’t do some much-needed repair, then the Great Western War will go from an idea in a blog to reality.

There are several contributing factors. Replacement of religion by political correctness harnesses the religious zeal of a new convert to PC causes. The energy-intense fuel of sanctimony powers new-found hatred of their own community, as we see manifested in the white protesters whining about #whiteprivilege, cultural appropriation or joining the increasingly anti-white racist #blacklivesmatter movement. This is similar to the rejection of background, friends and family so often seen in new religious converts over the ages. Religion has declined quickly in recent years so this force is an important contributing factor, becoming a secular Spanish Inquisition.

But while secular religion substitution is a powerful force lying behind some of this new divide, it is not the strongest force. For that we need to look at the self-reinforcing social , information and cultural bubbles caused by social networking, and these are what really lie behind this divide growing over the last decade.

Social media such as Facebook provide a strongly insulated protected world where nobody ever needs to see views that differ from what they find comfortable. They are a safe space, a play pen, full of friends and same-thinking celebrities, full of being stroked, and safe from being attacked. Mostly anyway. They are therefore very dangerous places where group think is seeded, germinates and quickly matures, and where alternative views are kept away. Outside social media, the real media is populated and run by those who have become more polarized by these bubbles themselves, so the real media has also become far more polarized. People then watch channels they feel comfortable with and read papers that share the same spin preferences. So the social media and real media become aligned and a superbubble arises that accounts for the entirety of information input.

When people spend so much of their time in these bubbles and when they even get their news from them, filtered and spun to reinforce their existing groupthink, they can build an extremely distorted view of the world that bears little resemblance to reality. They may be wholly unaware of some events because their news source completely filters them out, or they might be aware of some other events, but via such spun reporting and presentation of the facts that they have no real understanding of hat actually happened. On the other side, another group is seeing different sets of events, or very different interpretations of the same ones. I read several newspapers every day, from different parts of the political spectrum, and I am often shocked by just how much difference there is in how they are interpreted and presented to readers. It really is no surprise that each side thinks of the other so badly, when although they are probably actually not very different people, they are seeing extremely different information. Even from the same set of events, people will come to very different conclusion if they only see some of what’s going on, and only though very distorted lenses and filters.

I’d therefore suggest that the biggest problem we face is not that half of the population are nasty horrible people who we should rightly refuse to peacefully co-exist with. The problem is that although the other side is really only slightly different from us, and probably share most of the same desires and¬†values, and really only differ a bit on how best to achieve pretty much the same fair and free society we want, where the poor and unfortunate are protected as much as possible, and people can get on with living free and happy lives as they see fit, but are seeing extremely different information about what is going on because they are¬†locked into different media and social media bubbles.

The problem therefore is the bubbles, not the people. Republicans and Brexiteers are actually not all uneducated misogynist omniphobic bigots. Democrats and Remainers are not all antisemitic antiwhite snowflake commies. A few on either side actually are, but most aren’t. Actually, almost everyone is quite a nice person who just wants to get on with life and will cheerfully help anyone else they can along the way. The problem is that each half thinks the other half are a bunch of idiots and nasties hellbent on wiping them out and destroying the world.

Social media was never meant to be the cause of division. We all imagined that networking would make the world a nicer place. We would all get to know each other better, learn that we’re really not that different, and peace would result. Actually, it has become a force for the amplification of tribalism.

I could speculate further that the deeper problem is advertising. Maybe the polarization has arisen because of self-reinforcement caused by tapping into small differences in personal preferences and pandering to them via advertising for commercial gain, thereby feeding them and making hem bigger. I could, but I need to develop that line of argument and leave it for another blog.