Social Media Activism: Scientists Take to the Streets


Courtesy of ShaneMcC

Where Twitter really works is when people are on the ground witnessing events and sending out real-time texts and pictures. On Twitter it requires the physical presence of observers to make the news come alive and have meaning. Twitter coverage which is no more than the retweeting of the already processed news stream lacks immediacy, scope and depth.

The coverage of the #scienceisvital march in London last week was an example of Twitter being used at its very best. Lots of accounts from real people at an ongoing event. It was fascinating to observe how so many people recounted so many different aspects of the same event even though at times they could have well been standing beside each other. There is nothing like that sort of coverage anywhere else in the media and it is something that makes Twitter truly unique.

The campaign and march was conceived and organised by Dr. Jennifer Rohn, a cell biologist and editor of the online magazine LabLit.com which concerns itself with “the culture of science in fiction & fact.”

On the 8th of September, 2010, the UK Government Business Secretary Vince Cable gave a speech which revealed that there was a strategy to cut science funding.

Jennifer was not present when the speech was given but she heard about it from the buzz it was causing on Twitter. She says, “I got very angry and I dashed off a blog post in about five minutes, put that live. Then on Twitter I linked to my blog post and said, forget this let’s march on the streets.”

Original tweets – read from bottom up.

“There was loads of retweets and people were really excited about what I said. Within about an hour I had been contacted by Imran Khan who is the director for the Campaign for Science and Engineering. He said, “I’m with you. What can we do to help?” About another hour later I got contacted on Twitter by Evan Harris who is a former MP and science friendly politician. He said, “I’m willing to help.” And from that it completely spiraled out of control.”

Five days later the first in-person meeting took place at the Prince Arthur pub in Euston, London. There was just a few weeks to put together a campaign and organise a march to make sure the voices of scientists and interested parties are heard before the Government’s Comprehensive Spending Review on the 20th of October. That is when the announcement will be made as to exactly how much funding science in the UK will receive.

Jennifer describes how effective Social Media was in organizing the rally, “If it wasn’t for Twitter we would never have gotten almost 35,000 signatures on our petition. And that’s all down to, basically, famous people tweeting to their thousands of followers to sign the petition.

“People like Brian Cox and Dara O’Briain, We had a bit.ly link so everytime somebody famous retweeted we had a huge boost in people linking to our website and signing our petition. It was vital. I can’t imagine this would have ever happened without Twitter, well certainly not within three weeks or a month.”

Roughly 2,000 people turned up on the day of the march to publicly voice their concerns about the Government cutbacks. But thanks to mobile phones and Twitter thousands of others who were unable to attend could follow the proceedings via the use of the #scienceisvital hashtag.

One of the virtues that nearly all the social networks have is the ability transmit information extremely rapidly but there are times when even the most worthy of messages needs a helping hand.

“We actually had to work behind the scenes to get these people to retweet us.” Jennifer explains, “So one thing I would advise to those who want to change the world is sometimes you have to ring people up and say, “Listen, I’m going to tweet this at 5 o’clock can you be prepared to retweet it?

“You need a strategy. You can’t inundate your followers with Science is Vital 24/7. We were very careful to mix up the campaign stuff with fun stuff that had nothing to do with the campaign. We spread the load a bit. We had about twenty people who were strategically tweeting and we made sure they weren’t all doing it at once. We focused on events. OK, we’re at almost 10,000 signatures now let’s make a push. So we tried to do sort of news hooks…things that weren’t just over and over please support Science is Vital. You have to keep people’s interest going. So it’s important not to overload people with the same message.”

Despite all this effort the future for the UK Government’s investment in science looks grim. There is a hope that the work that Science is Vital has done in getting a traditionally reserved community involved in acts of social activism by means of Social Media may alleviate some of the worst of the cuts.

The Science is Vital petition asking Government to recognize that science is vital and to not reduce science funding is due to be handed into Downing Street on Thursday, October 14th. But the campaign will go on and you can find a guideline for writing a letter of protest to your MP on the website.

You can also engage with the campaign by joining the Science is Vital Facebook group which has over 5,000 members at the time of writing.

Dr. Jennifer Rohn is also a novelist. Her next book The Honest Look is due out in November.

She also has a blog called Mind the Gap

Blaine Cook Introduces Us To Webfinger

Blaine Cook was in charge of building Twitter for the first couple of years of its existence before moving on to pastures new. At the moment, he is working with Osmosoft which is the open source innovation arm of BT. Last month, he came to Galway, Ireland to speak at BlogTalk 2010 about another one of his current projects, Webfinger.

The current situation that we have at the moment with the walled gardens of Facebook, Twitter, and so on can be likened to a type of sharecropping. In that scenario, you get to work on the farm, but you don’t get to own the farm. The owners of the social networking platforms, like the landowners of old, get to call the shots, and at any point you can lose your farm. Or, in our modern world version, you lose access to your accrued data and any kind of community you may have created. As Blaine says, “It’s a very tenuous situation to be in.”

How do we manage having control over our network and be able to create rich networks?

“Social networks are premised on this idea of the network effect. If you have a single fax machine in the world, it is not a very useful device. But if everybody now has a fax machine, it is now a very powerful communications device. So, if you’ve got one user on your social network, it’s not a useful social network. But if you’ve got all 150 million users from Twitter and 500 million users from Facebook, you can use your social network for, potentially, a much more powerful and engaging story. You can build much richer communities.”

So how do we get away from relying on Facebook and Twitter, and actually move towards a more internet-like approach where people can construct these networks themselves?

“The analogy from the past is that in the semi pre-internet days when the Internet existed but most people didn’t have access to it, there were a couple of providers: CompuServe, AOL, [Minitel in France, and a few elsewhere.] They all had e-mail facilities, but you couldn’t e-mail between them. If you wanted to send a message to someone and you’re on CompuServe, they had to be on CompuServe. Eventually we ended up in a situation where now we just use e-mail. These other networks don’t matter… because we moved to a technology, SMTP, the infrastructure that powers e-mails nowadays.”

How do we replicate this transformation with the current stage of the Web?

“How do we make it so that if I set up a photo sharing site I can share photos with someone that is on Flickr? Or say if I use software for my conference planning, I can share my conference planning on Lanyrd with someone not on Lanyrd without having to sign up with Lanyrd. There’s plenty of these sites and I don’t want to sign up for every single one of them, and I don’t want to duplicate my social network and do all of this work multiple times. These are the questions that have brought me to working on Webfinger.

“There is another challenge. Even if we accept that it’s okay to have one social network in charge of the whole world, the reality is that our real world existence is much more complicated than that. The reality is that we have very diverse interactions with people. You’ve got co-workers and you have family and you’ve got friends. If you’re a school teacher, you have co-workers and you have students. So we have all these complicated relationships with different people, and we actually present [ourselves] in a different way to them. We are performers in our own social existence, and we put on different masks and different identities to carry out these different interactions.

“Facebook is like a wedding from hell. Because it’s everybody you know, everybody you’ve ever met is just kind of hanging out. And if you were ever in a physical social space that would be like Facebook, it would be the most horrific experience you’ve ever had. Your mum who’s sitting next to your boss who’s sitting next to your first girlfriend who’s sitting next to your current wife, and then you have a couple of students from school or something. It’s a really, really broken situation.

“Really what we want are diverse networks that allow us to communicate in more rich ways and more specific ways.”

So where does Webfinger come in?

“The first problem that comes up is how do we deal with naming people? How do we deal with names and how do we address people? We have addresses for people in terms of postal addresses, through phone numbers, e-mail addresses. Your postal address is one of the first things you learn as a child. I am sure today kids would learn their phone numbers and e-mail addresses very early on. But we don’t have that for the social web.

“So, when we are thinking about these identity questions, the most important thing in all of them is not the technology that drives them, the data formats or any of the technical bits – that’s very, very secondary… There’s literally dozens of different ways to approach the technological side of things. But I think we lose sight, too often, of the social side of things… The thing that brought me specifically to Webfinger and the way that it works is thinking about how people use the Internet.

HTTP addresses and web URLs don’t really make sense to people. You have people googling for Yahoo and yahooing for Google. They don’t get the URLs but my grandmother is perfectly happy to e-mail me. She does that all the time, and she understands how to write down an e-mail address and contact me that way. What I wanted, essentially, was the usability of an e-mail address where you have a name and a place.

“So, how do we take this e-mail address which is name at place, and turn that into web URLs? Because we know how to work with web URLs. We know how to build technologies around them that allow us to do identity, to do data exchange, RSS and Atom feed syndication stuff – we know how to do that.

“Webfinger is really just a way to translate e-mail addresses to web URLs and that’s it… it takes literally minutes to set up for the simplest cases, so it is something that is very, very accessible. We’ve designed it to have minimal impact on the technology we need to use in your site to make it work, so it’s very adoptable.”

Webfinger is now supported by Google, Yahoo and AOL, and there is a chance that Microsoft may join the fray. At the beginning of the year, there were almost 1.5 billion e-mail users, which is an enormous base to bootstrap from. We will be talking to Blaine in the next couple of months to see how things are progressing.

You can watch this video of Blaine explaining more about Webfinger at BlogTalk 2010.

Maureen Evans Talks About Her New Book “Eat Tweet: A Twitter Cookbook”

Maureen Evans is the author of “Eat Tweet: A Twitter Cookbook.” It contains over a thousand recipes and each one conforms to the 140-character limit that users on Twitter are limited to when writing their tweets. The book evolved from her Twitter stream @cookbook and it is the opposite of any kind of contrived gimmick. Maureen is a poet and this work is a work of poetry: poetry from which a fine meal or a quick snack can be derived.

She has always been interested in food. While living in San Francisco and having access to all of the fine California produce at the Farmer’s Market, she became inspired to write the original tweets.

How did you come to write it?

“[I have] lots of friends who love cooking equally as much, but they also tended to be geeks. [They were] working in the tech industry, maybe too many hours a day to have the ideal conversations about food that I wished we could be having after work: talking about what’s really great this season. I started this stream in order to communicate with these friends of mine, literally what I was doing in my kitchen and putting it out on Twitter.

“I really didn’t think in the beginning that the condensed form was going to be remarkable, but after challenges from my friends to tweet increasingly more complex recipes I kept it up. After a few years of writing the stream, I was approached by a reporter from the New York Times who, amazingly, wanted to do a feature on my Twitter stream, and this brought it to the attention of some agents and publishers. I was lucky enough to be approached by my favourite cookbook publisher, Artisan Books.”

How much of a challenge was it to turn your stream into a book?

“When I was approached by Artisan they asked for about a thousand recipes, which is approximately the size of Mark Bittman’s “How to Cook Everything” or a Julia Child book. So it’s an incredible number of recipes, and I wasn’t sure I could write that many and stay sane. It involved editing the web collection and adding an additional six hundred. So it was a challenge but I was surprised by how constantly inspired and really easy the work was because there is so much dimension to cuisine. Especially, as the work involves different ethnicities and approaches to food, I never got bored for a second.”

There’s a definite poetic element to it. Was it approached as a work of poetry?

“Certainly, I have many ideas of similarities between these recipes and poetry. One is that the reader has to bring their own knowledge and their own creative mind to either genre of art. A poem is a little unlike a novel in that it relies entirely on the mechanics of the reader’s mind to that purpose. We’ve all read poetry that does nothing for us. We’ve all read poetry that just hits us like something heavy in the heart. That’s the work of the reader. So in the same way I attempted to make [the recipes] poetic in their own way. I tried not to make the language inhuman, but at the same time they rely entirely on the reader to come to life.

“Recipes that hold your hand and tell you exactly how to shake the pan […] are very much in vogue and I think there’s a place for that. But there’s also a place for a traditional sense of empowerment in the kitchen that one can figure out a problem creatively and add their own flair to the solution. So that’s the service these little recipes provide for people.”

A lot or work went into the production of the book itself.

“This is where writers are indebted to the publishing community and the amazing people you find in publishers. The designer of this book was fantastic. They tried to give it a community feel, like an old cookbook that your workplace or your children’s school might put together, [but] at the same time giving it a contemporary typographic look. Their expertise was concentrated on this project for an appreciable amount of time. That in combination with the editors who were willing to take this new form of writing very seriously, as seriously as I do, at least, if not more – it raised it to another level.”

What do you mean by new form of writing?

“A new genre of cookbook, which is a funny thing to say, as we think of cookbooks as reference books, sometimes we think of them as a coffee-table book or something you read for entertainment. This is more a book of maps. These maps are to give you guidance to your own experiences, like any map. If offers you a path to getting there and where then is up to you.

“Whether you are going to use this book because you are in a rush and you want to send a recipe to yourself on your phone so you can do your grocery shopping, or [to] try a dish from a foreign cuisine you never heard of before – it’s very much a choose-your-own-adventure puzzle book.”

Would you call yourself a poet and how does this project fit into your body of work?

“I’m definitely a poet… This breaks away in many ways from what I normally do, but in some ways it’s similar. I’m interested in very spare forms like haiku… I love concision and form, but only when it lets me do unexpected or contrasting things. So the similarity there is that I think that haiku lets you fit whole seasons or experiences of feeling into just seventeen syllables… These recipes allow me fit not only a whole cooking experience, but every recipe is a kind of gift to the people you meet.

“Cooking from these recipes is more like coding. Techies will appreciate the metaphor. It’s more like coding because you would never just read a reference manual for a programming language from start to finish and expect to be able to be proficient in that language. It’s all about experience, tinkering, trying to build something that you might not have built before. So that’s the approach that I hope people [will use who] to take to this book rather than thinking they have to become fluent in twitterese or something. It’s intuitive and it’s intelligent and as long as you are too it’ll work out fine.”

Maureen’s book “Eat Tweet: A Twitter Cookbook” will become widely available on September 16th. She can be found on Twitter as @maureen and her recipes can be found as @cookbook We are hoping that more of her poetry will become available online and when it does we will be sure to notify you all in our blog stream.

Flipboard: A Quick Demonstration


Click on image to view video.

We made the short video above to demonstrate the wonders of Flipboard, a free app for the iPad. It has revolutionised the way I gain access to my social media channels to the point that if Flipboard isn’t to hand I simply don’t bother. Normal apps like TweetDeck and Nambu now seem so utilitarian and dull in comparison.

Apart from being very beautiful and extraordinarily elegant to use, it has added an entirely new dimension of relevance to my Twitter stream and status updates. It opens the links that are contained in the timelines I follow and renders them, text and images, onto a page in a very newspaper-like style. As you browse through the pages, the layouts vary so you never get bored with the sameness of a given pagination.

You can skip and skim topics or you can go right down to the original linking site itself.

It is one of the most workable apps that I have ever come across, and I so wish others would put this much attention to detail into their work and make using the actual application itself so enjoyable.

The publicity describes it as a “personalised social magazine” and that is a fairly accurate description. But it doesn’t capture the living dynamic of the form. Everytime you access Flipboard, you access a world different to the one previously visited. When you have been reading a while and flip back to the front, it is as though a new adventure has started all over again right in front of your eyes.

Worth robbing banks for.

How To Influence On Twitter: Research Results from New Algorithm Give Guidance

Recent work done at HP Labs, the exploratory and research group for Hewlett Packard, shows what most of us suspected as being true all all along; that just because a person has a lot of followers, it doesn’t mean they have a lot of influence.

In September 2009, using an algorithm they devised called the IP (Influence/Passivity) algorithm, a team of researchers from HP Labs continuously queried the Twitter Search API for 300 straight hours for all tweets containing the string of letters ‘http’. Finding this string in a tweet would indicate the presence of a URL, and demonstrate that a web page was being shared or retweeted by means of a link.

In that time period, they acquired 22 million tweets with URLs present. This accounted for 1/15th of the entire activity of Twitter at the time. The URLs were checked for validity, and by revisiting the Twitter API they could determine who the user for each URL was, and in particular who their followers and followees were as well. From that information, a complete social graph was constructed from the dataset generated by the users sampled.

The research team worked on the following assumptions which are taken from their report “Influence and Passivity in Social Media“:

  • A user’s influence score depends on the number of people she influences as well as their passivity.
  • A user’s influence score depends on how dedicated the people she influences are. Dedication is measured by the amount of attention a user pays to a given user as compared to everyone else.
  • A user’s passivity score depends on the influence of those who she’s exposed to but not influenced by.
  • A user’s passivity score depends on how much she rejects other user’s influence compared to everyone else.

A whole industry has grown up around Twitter with the aim of developing various tools that enable Twitter users to increase their number of followers. But now all these efforts seem to have been in vain. An average Twitter user retweets only one in 318 URLs. It seems most users are passive information consumers, and do not forward the content to the network at any kind of rate that could be described as ‘little more than partially engaged’. Consequently, having a large follower count is not a lot of use from a message propagation perspective if most of the followers are made up of these passive users.

If you want to be a person of influence on Twitter, then the way to do it is to acquire engaged followers who are themselves active on Twitter. That would at the very least mean being active and engaged yourself.

Of course, this makes life difficult for marketers and others engaged in viral activity who want to take advantage of the enormous reach that Twitter has. They can no longer rely on a single dubious metric, follower count, as a guide to how far their message gets out.

It also means that to find active and engaged people, they will have to become active and engaged themselves. Fun, maybe. Time-consuming, certainly. But it is only through interacting with highly connected people that they will be able to propagate themselves and their message through the social network.

Through the process of finding the most influential people on Twitter, the team also managed to turn up the most passive users on the service as well. The majority of these users tended to be spammers and robot users.

It is as important to identify the highly-passive Twitter user because “they provide a barrier to propagation that is often hard to overcome.” It’s good to know where the Twitter dead ends are as it gives us a useful benchmark to contrast with someone who is influential. This information aids navigation through the vastness of the Twitter network, and knowing where not to go can be every bit as useful as knowing where to go.

The HP Lab report finishes with the following conclusion:

“This study shows that the correlation between popularity and influence is weaker than it might be expected. This is a reflection of the fact that for information to propagate in a network, individuals need to forward it to the other members, thus having to actively engage rather than passively read it and cease to act on it. Moreover, since our measure of influence is not specific to Twitter it is applicable to many other social networks. This opens the possibility of discovering influential individuals within a network which can on average have a further reach than others in the same medium regardless of their popularity.”

In a way, it is understandable that the findings from this research on Twitter would be applicable to other social networks as well. Influential people tend to be influential wherever they are. The IP algorithm that has been developed by the HP Labs team is going to be very useful across all of the social media domains, wherever people gather and exchange ideas and news via links.

The key metric to determining how effective any given person is in propagating information is to measure how often a URL that they tweet or retweet is clicked. And it is important to allow for the fact that not everyone is very adept at giving credit for their shared links, and some shared links go beyond the Twitterverse on to other services.

But unless you have access to a given individual’s bit.ly account or other some search service which keeps tabs on retweets, the only sure way to know if they are a person of influence is to get to know them.

Happy twittering.

BlogTalk is returning to Ireland on 26-27 August; check out the speaker list.

Twitter Grows Up: The Start of a New, More Mature Era


Number of Twitter posts per day, and projected growth.

It seems that Twitter has grown up. From work undertaken to determine the growth rate of Twitter at the Discipline of Information of Technology which is part of the National University of Ireland, Galway, it appears that Twitter is now growing at a constant rate. It’s growth is no longer dramatically and somewhat erratically determined by early adopters and the subsequent wave of trend followers.

This constant rate of growth reflects Twitter’s now established role as a social tool and people are joining this online social network when and as they find it useful.

From December 2009 until June 2010 myself and Josephine Griffith ran an experiment to track the growth of Twitter. To measure the rate of growth of this online social network we used two key metrics: The number of Twitter users and the number of tweets posted.

To track the users we ran a script written in python that accessed the Twitter API. We ran this script once a week over the duration of the experiment to collect the highest user ID (this is the number twitter uses to identify your account as an alternate to the name you chose for it.) count on the public timeline over the course of an hour. To track the growth posts (tweets) we created a script to find the highest post ID (each tweet also has its own numerical identity) count on the public timeline over approximately fifteen minutes. We ran this script at the same time each day.

We found, through watching the stream of post IDs on the public timeline, that new post IDs tend to increment by one. Before April 2010, the public timeline showed 20 of the most recent tweets published on Twitter, with post IDs incremented by 1. Allowing for account deletions and other known factors we could use these number counts to guage both the size of the traffic flow and the absolute size of twitter itself.

From the graph at the top of the page it can be seen that we can reasonably predict that Twitter is likely to start regularly exceeding a hundred million tweets a day sometime in the autumn.

Post numbers grew over the period at a Compound Annual Growth Rate (CAGR) of 510%. The number of daily posts more than doubled, from 33,898,378 on December 3rd to 67,981,000 by 16th June. Our findings are largely consistent with reports from February 2010, which claimed Twitter was processing 50 million tweets per day.

In April 2010, Twitter announced that the service had 105,779,710 registered users, and was signing up 300,000 new users per day (2.1 million per week).

The week before this announcement, our data showed a highest user ID of 127,701,101 and a weekly increase in user ID of 2,183,211. Our data on user growth over the period seems to accurately reflect the truth; user ID does correspond closely to the number of users. We can use it with confidence to discern the growth in new users signing up to the service.

Comparing our figure for that time of 127 million user IDs and Twitter’s figure of 105 million users, we suspect that the disparity between the two figures is down to accounts suspended for spamming, and users who have deleted their account.


Total Twitter users by date.

The chart above shows the highest Twitter User ID counted for each week over the period. The line of data in the graph suggests that Twitter assigns new users with IDs in a sequential fashion. CAGR for Twitter user ID growth was found to be 155.36% over the period. On December 2nd, 2009, the highest encountered user ID was 94,130,941, rising to 153,268,741 by June 7th, 2010.

Tracking the post ID of new Twitter posts, and the user ID of users, is an effective way to track Twitter growth. The service enjoyed significant growth over the period both in new users and in the amount of activity in the community. The number of Twitter users is growing at a CAGR of 153 % to June, 2009. User involvement is growing much more quickly at a CAGR of 510%.

The correlation between the growth in new users and the far larger growth in growth in user activity suggests ongoing challenges for the scaling of the service. This has enormous financial implications for the engineering and architectural aspects of Twitter. But with a steady growth rate it will be much easier for them to make realistic plans for the future.

How very grown up of them.