Tag: twitter

We are the angry mob

Once again it feels like I’m accused being a member of an angry mob of twitterers. This time by Catherine Bennett in The Observer, over the censure of Rod Liddle, stimulated by his potential appointment as editor of The Independent. As far as I can tell Rod Liddle is a rather unpleasant individual both in terms of his personal treatment of those close to him and in his public writing, actually looking down the first page of his Spectator articles I would appear to agree with him approximately 10% of the time.

Catherine Bennett raised this as an issue of free speech, implying that we are attempting to remove Rod Liddle’s right to free speech and also the rights of those such as Jan Moir, whilst going easy on Islam4UK. As an articulate member of a mob, I’d like to say this is really not what I want to do. To my mind Rod Liddle, Islam4UK and the BNP should all have a right to let their views be known, I just don’t believe they have a right to express that freedom anywhere or any time. However, the corollary of this is that I believe that I also have the right to point out that what they say is stupid, unpleasant and wrong. When given a public platform the BNP and Islam4UK seem to do a pretty good job at making themselves look risible, remove that platform and you risk people imagining that they are eloquent and right  for lack of any evidence to the contrary.

The intriguing question with people like Jan Moir and Rod Liddle is that they have liberal backgrounds of a sort, they are clearly pretty smart. So when they write something that sounds illiberal, offensive and pandering to the basest of instincts are they simply being “radical for pay”? Do they really believe what they write, or do they just write what they know will go down well with their employers and their readers, happy in the knowledge that all publicity is good publicity. Writing a blog brings these questions to the fore, because it’s very obvious how frequently a post is read (or at least looked at). Should I write something worthy, but dull to most people and get a few hits or something that people are impassioned about which will get many hits and mentions?

What is it I want from complaint? In a way I want to shout that someone is wrong on an equal footing, I want access to the means of production (okay dissemination, but you have to turn a phrase when you can). In the past the right to provide public comment was a special privilege, available to the few who had a newspaper column or similar. What I have written here contains no more or less research than the Observer piece, I’d humbly suggest that my opinion is of equal value to Catherine Bennett’s. I am happy to accept that her writing is somewhat superior to mine. Is this the message for mainstream media? Ill-informed rant is no longer viable, because anyone can do that – genuine insight, research, knowledge and good writing are valuable because they are hard.

Follow Friday – a post for twitterers…

There is a tradition on Twitter, called Follow Friday in which, of a Friday, you mention people you follow who you think other people would be interested to follow. For me this is a cause of social stress for fear of forgetting someone I should remember, so I thought I’d try doing it in my own way. You can see all the people I follow here, and the people that mention me are here (I think you might need to login to twitter to follow those links).

And here, in alphabetical order to avoid accusations of favouritism, are my micro-biographies of people you should follow:

@alexconnor is an astrophysicist who now works on policy at the Institute of Physics. He shows his weekend DIY exploits to great acclaim.
@Allochthonous is a geologist, he writes the Highly Allochthonous blog. I mis-pronounce is name “allo-kan-thus”, I believe it’s a habit I cannot break.

@andromedababe Observer of shagging frogs, lover of shoosies. Blogs at AndromedaBabe’s Blog on teaching and other stuff.

@BarbaraMaller a closet writer and chatter from California.

@BillyGottaJob originally @BillyNoJob took us on a journey at his now named At Long Last I’ve Got A Job blog.

@Carmenego is a very cheerful musical lady from old London town, who blogs skeptically at Carmen Gets Around (II)

@ChristineOttery a journalist, doing an MA in science journalism, her blog is Open Minds and Parachutes but she is also published in proper media like the Guardian’s Comment is Free.

@Crafthole is a archeologist / historian person engaged married to @ladycrafthole. We share an interested in the scientists of the 18th and 19th centuries

@DaintyBallerina historian, and writer of the Fragments blog, is often the first with a #wine hashtag.
@DanielFurrUK is a libertarian Liberal Democrat, who blogs at http://danielfurr.tumblr.com/.

@deborahshelton is an interior designer, see here. She hangs around with the historians.

@doyle2718 – it’s me mate from work: Doylie! The only one on twitter, the rest just think I’m odd…

@dr_andy_russell is an atmospheric physicist at Manchester University. Writes a blog. Handy for a knowledgeable opinion on climate change.

@DrEvanHarris is former LibDem MP for Oxford West and Abingdon, and was the party’s Science spokesman. He joined twitter recently and immediately gained a massive following of nerds and geeks, he uses twitter like a pro and is responsive to queries. His website is here.

@Drop4three an enigma I have yet to crack, he blogs at dropped

@Duddy an author of several novels of a scientific bent, and Cestrian and Keeper of Snails blog. She has retired from Twitter, but the blog is still well worth visiting

@Essiefox a historian and the writer of the Virtual Victorian blog, we seem to share a taste in music.
@FyreFlye a chatty lady, who I always associate with the big sunflower in her avatar.
@Gelada is a mathematician and makes pretty sculptures with maths, his blog is Maxwell’s Demon.

@GentlemanAdmn a gentleman and an administrator, he writes an eponymous history blog.

@graemearcher is a statistician and a relatively unpolitical politician who writes an occasional blog post on Conservative Home. He likes swimming, cats and Mr Keith.

@hangbitch always happy with an acerbic comment. She has a blog at Hang Bitch.

@HappyMouffetard is my wife, so I must mention her. Cruelly deprived of twitter at work, when she can she tweets on nature and gardening. Curator of The Inelegant Gardener

@iknowhim I always think of as mysterious, a cause de her avatar. She has a blog, Last Tango in Dulwich. And her twitter background is a very fine, if not sensible, shoe.

@Jackpot73 another friendly soul of the interwebs, who has been sharing my sense of humour, which may or may not be a good idea ;-)

@jme_c is many things including college lecturer at Somerville and MSc Science Communicator at Imperial College, he is suffering geek-envy for my HTC Desire. His website is here.

@jordancdarwin is a fellow code monkey, these things are important. He is also an enthusiastic atheist, as you can tell from his website.

@KateKatV is @PaoloViscardi’s mum! I know this is an impolite way to introduce someone, she also has a blog here.

@laales is a split between Hong Kong and Dorset (which is where I come from), she is a member of the historical faction.

@LadyCrafthole is a photographer who blogs at Lady Crafthole’s Blog. She makes little planet photos.

@lahossner is most mysterious, I believe she is a fan of books.

@langtry_girl was best able to finish the sentence: “Understanding the Periodic Table is very much like making love to a beautiful woman…” is an economist, so nearly a scientist ;-)

@Lesanto is a social media consultant with a difference, speak to him and he’ll speak back: he tries interesting things on twitter. His company is media140.
@localbuilderuk Lover of snowboarding and wine, of which I approve – not so sure about the golf ;-)

@louwiseman joins me from the gardening faction, she seems obsessed with insects at the moment.

@LucyInglis historian and writer of the awarding winning Georgian London blog, she attracts the strangest blog search terms and seems to like cricket, or possibly cricketers…
@Margit11 was living in Edinburgh but is now living in Munich. Blogs at Intercultural Musings, on being a foreigner in the UK but things will change.

@markgfh science editor of the Times, and fellow science-politics geek.

@MarkReckons is a fellow LibDem, and political blogger – you can find him here. A moderate in all things.

@masticatingmanx is a fan of food, no indication as to how this has affected waist-line but his blog looks pretty healthy. An inhabitant of the Isle of Man, which I have only seen as a distant shadow.

@MentalIndigest a macho biologist, proud of his snowsocks, my main competition in the race to identify the Friday Mystery Object (see below). He writes the Mental Indigestion blog

@Morphosaurus a teacher who was able to recognise tunicates from my inept description, keeper of Bastard the Cycad and author of multiple blogs.

@nemski is that rare creature: the American Liberal he comes from just down the road from Malvern (Mrs SomeBeans comes from the UK version). Various sciencey tweets.

@Nora_Lumiere is an animator and writer, and a friend of food. She blogs at Animated Writing, where she has been kind enough to invite me over as a guest blogger.
@opheliacat a member of the historical faction, she is our woman in New York.

@PaoloViscardi biologist and proper curator at a museum. Also master of the Friday Mystery Object, on his blog Zygoma, which provides me with much distraction.

@PatrickBaty and @PapersPaints are one and the same, analyser of historic paints and one-time instructor of tank drivers. He blogs at News from Colourman, he’s been on the TV but was upstaged by his cat, Caspar.

@philipmcdermott is a research associate and software engineer. He blogs at http://number23.org/

@Quackwriter author of Kill-Grief and alumni of the Wirral, curator of the Quack Doctor blog, which reports on the wacky medical adverts of the past.

@rebekahthornton is local. She sometimes has a mathematical air about her and is fond of darts.

@ripplestone is from the gardening tendency, although her name makes me think of geology. She blogs at Ripplestone Review.

@robajackson chemistry lecturer, card-carrying red, and trombone player. He blogs on chemistry and politics.

@rosamundi I associate with a pair of purple shoes, which she used as an avatar for a long time. She is a lady of mystery, and is often found with the historians.
@rose_darling Writer. Editor. Poet. Dreamer. Music lover. Conversationalist. Gastronaut. Traveller. I love it when people write their own biographies! She has a blog here, which I don’t think she pimps enough!

@sallybercow  I started following all sorts of people for the election. Sally, self described #1950shousewifebot with a familiar surname is by far the most fun

@Samiahurst Doctor, teacher, blogger, and sometimes apprentice chocolate maker.

@sarahsiddons seems to come to me from the historical faction, curator of the Weird, Ordinary, Wonderful blog.

@Schroedinger99 is a fellow skeptic, how did I manage not to add him sooner? He has a blog at Bad Reason.

@Sciorama a scientist I know from some time ago, a biological physicist with very red hair.

@Scisu interested in things sciencey, she blogs for BioData.

@smithatcity is a doctor and a Science Communicator in training at Imperial College, she blogs at in bed with medicine.

@Stephen_Curry a fellow scientist, who scatters x-rays from crystals. He blogs at Reciprocal Space.

@stephenemoss a biological scientist, his work was on the BBC website recently. We hang around together at virtual science policy gatherings. He blogs at a little bit at The Mad Professor.

@Steve_P_Knight is the king of lasers. I think we must have met over something sciencey, but I can’t remember what!

@TiggerTherese is of the gardening tendency, her bio mentions being an ex-banker – but she doesn’t like to talk about it.

@thecredo I think may have escaped from The Thick of It. Originally the owner a mad old bearded-man avatar, this is how I will always see him.

@ThetisMercurio is in her own words rationalist, humanist, satirical… Staunch opponent of Steiner-Waldorf schools, the homoeopathy of education.

…and now I find I have shifted my social stress to a different sphere. My plan is to keep updating this post, if you spot any factual errors, find my biography offensive, or feel left out then please let me know.

Added Saturday (16/1/10): @scisu @Stephen_Curry, @Sciorama, @Samiahurst, @Quackwriter, @PatrickBaty, @paperspaints, @PaoloViscardi, @Nora_lumiere, @morphosaurus, @mentalindigest, @lucyinglis, @lesanto, @jackpot73, @happymouffetard, @GentlemanAdmn, @Gelada, @FyreFlye, @duddy, @daintyballerina, @ChristineOttery, @Carmenego, @BillyGottaJob, @BarbaraMaller

Added Friday (22/1/10): @AlexConnor, @Allochthonous, @GraemeArcher, @Rosamundi, @StephenEMoss
Added Friday (29/1/10): @opheliacat, @ThetisMercurio, @rebekahthornton, @LadyCrafthole

Added Friday (5/2/10): @dr_andy_russell
Added Friday (26/2/10): @crafthole
Added Friday (6/4/10): @jme_c, @MarkReckons, @TiggerTherese, @smithatcity, @DrEvanHarris
Added Friday (30/4/10): @hangbitch @nemski @louwiseman @sarahsiddons
Added Friday (7/5/10): @sallybercow @jordancdarwin @rose_darling @markgfh, @Schroedinger99
Added Friday (5/6/10): @laales, @KateKatV, @iknowhim, @doyle2718
Added Friday (30/7/10): @masticatingmanx, @robajackson, @deborahshelton, @lahossner
Added Friday (27/8/10): @ripplestone, @Steve_P_Knight, @Margit11, @langtry_girl
Added Friday (3/9/10): @andromedababe @thecredo @localbuilderuk
Added Friday (17/9/10): @philipmcdermott


Twitter, rumours and physics

The twittersphere avoided making a bit of a mistake this morning. Wikileaks had obtained a new version of the BNP membership list, which they released (the BNP claim this list is a fake). Prior to release it was claimed that a peer of the realm was on the list and immediately post release that peer was named. Only it turns out it wasn’t him, someone who styled himself Lord with a very similar name was the man on the list. Fortunately the released list was detailed enough that this could be checked, someone had the wit to check before blindly repeating the name. Once they’d done this they started correcting the false rumour (in what looks like quite a vigorous manual effort). It’s worth noting here that the fact-checker appears to be a trained journalist.

But it could so easily have been very different. It could have been very difficult to establish the rumour was false, it could have been that the diligent fact checker stopped to finish his cup of tea before tweeting his correction, the rumour could have been re-tweeted by someone with many followers. All of these things could have happened but didn’t, will this be true the next time?

On the plus side, twitter rumours do appear to be traceable back to source and it’s very easy to find the individual rumour-mongers and put them right. This is certainly true for non-malicious rumourmongering (that’s to say where people have not made a special effort to propagate a rumour, nor hide their tracks).

There is a scientific link here, modelling of all sorts of networks has long been a respectable scientific field. For example, there’s Per Bak’s forest fire model and work that follows on from there. More recently there’s been work focussing more explicitly on computer networks and social networks. To a physicist Twitter represents an example of a simple system which has nodes (with ingoing and outgoing links) and messages that are propagated between the nodes. The nodes could be trees in a forest and the thing passed could be fire, or the nodes could be computers in a network with the message being network traffic; the nodes could be scientific papers with the messages citations of other papers. The physics doesn’t care about the detail of these things, it cares about a small number of parameters in the system: how many links in and out of a node? What’s the probability of a message being transmitted from one node to the next?

So there’s an interesting bit of network analysis to do here. How fast can a rumour propagate on Twitter? What fraction of people refrain from tweeting a false rumour to stop it propagating? What’s the best way to squash a false rumour?

Having watched the no doubt frenzied activities involved in squashing today’s rumour. One useful tool would be an automated rumour-quashing robot. It would search for tweets containing the rumour (probably based on a manually selected keyword) and tweet the originator with a rebuttal.

Think before you tweet!

Confessions of a Twitter addict

Twitter is my new addiction, twitter is an elephant described by a group of blind men.

Instructions for using twitter:
1. Sign up here: www.twitter.com (It’s worth selecting a short username)
2. Follow @stephenfry
3. Start twittering like a monkey

After a while things might start to become clearer.

Twitter all depends on who you follow; I started off following a bunch of people around Ben Goldacre (@bengoldacre) (who writes the Bad Science column in the Guardian), so naturally I ended up with a load of skeptics and science journalists. I therefore assumed that twitter predominantly contained skeptics and science journalists. But that’s not true, twitter contains many groups and subgroups and they’re invisible unless you go looking for them (or more precisely, follow them).   So finding people to follow is key, if you’re not following anybody, twitter will be awfully quiet. It’s also worth remembering that by default everyone can see everything you write.

Here are a few strategies for finding people worth following:

1. Keep an ear out for the rich and famous announcing their twittery-ness – don’t expect them to say anything back to you but it does give you something to read. @Stephenfry has something like 750,000 followers, if he points to a website and says “Look at this”, a large fraction of his followers simultaneous click the link….and the website falls over. @Stephenfry then tweets “Oh bugger”.

2. Follow a hashtag and follow people you find there. You do this by searching for something like #xfactor or #electricdreams – if you follow the hashtag for a TV program whilst it’s on then you get live commentary, which may be a good or bad thing. I was introduced to this with the debate between Lord Drayson(@lorddrayson), science and technology minister, and Ben Goldacre on science journalism (#scidebate). Twitterfall is rather good for tracking a hashtag, it automatically updates a search in real-time – new results fall from the top of the screen.

3. I searched for scientists under “Find People”, birds of a feather flock together. David Bradley (@sciencebase) is compiling a list of scientist-twitterers to which you can add yourself.

4. Once you’ve found a few people, have a look to see who they’re following and who is following them, services such as twubble or MrTweet will help you do this.

5. Try out a directory service like wefollow.

So what are they up to once you follow them?

Chatterers – some people are pretty conversational.
Linkers – some people just drop loads of links, sometimes this is automated, other times it’s just what people do.
Pimpers – famous people pimp their newspaper columns and TV progs, the riff-raff like you and I pimp our blog posts. So overwhelming is this meme that I felt obliged to kick the old blog into action, in order that I would have something to pimp!
Proclaimers – some people are proclaimers, they produce a long stream of one liners. Some of them do it in the style of a historical character:

@KingAlfredRex Pærværted Skunke Signor Bærlusconi bemoanes hys Posytion as Moste Vyrtuous Manne yn Alle Ytalie… through noyse of Bangyng Head-Board.

Robots – some people aren’t people, they’re robots. Try a tweet with tea, oblong or wasp in it (prize for making any sense). I suspect a Monty Python fan wrote the @stoningbot. I’m scared to try putting two robots into a loop…
Britney and her sausage – the less said about this one the better, suffice to say if said lady starts following you best block her.

I must admit before I tried twitter I thought the 140 character limit was ridiculous (particularly since most people are not posting over SMS – which is where the limit originates). However, having used it for a bit – it’s actually really neat. How many people can bore you in 140 characters? And fitting a thought into 140 characters is an interesting exercise. Some people do seem to be able to start an argument in 140 characters (but very few) – my twitter is very civilised.

The strengths of twitter are it’s flexibility and simplicity; communities can coalesce around a hash tag or an individual very rapidly. Applications can coalesce around it’s simple messaging and following system. If you don’t like how your twitters looking, treat it like a big soft pillow – push it around until it’s comfortable.

Basic twitter functions

There are five routes to seeing tweets on your twitter homepage:
1. Home – shows the tweets of those you are following
2. @[username] – shows tweets mentioning your username (Mentions)
3. Direct messages – shows direct messages (only you can see these)
4. Favourites – shows favourites tweets
5. Search – search for tweets containing a word or phrase

When you are posting a tweet:
@[username] directs a public message at someone. They’ll see it as a mention, along with anyone following both of you. (Not realising this in the early days caused me some embarassment). If you put a character before the @ i.e. _@[name] then all your followers can see the tweet.

d @[username] sends a private message to someone (but doesn’t work if they’re not following you).

#[label] is a hashtag. Clicking on a hashtag will bring up a list of all the tweets containing the hashtag

If you like a tweet, you can retweet it, RT @[username] is the usual form for doing this although it’s just convention and doesn’t fire up any special behaviour.

With only 140 characters to play with you’re not going to want to post full length links bit.ly and other similar services squash your links down to minimum size (and allow you to compose your tweet at the same time).

If you want to break the 140 character limit then you can use twerbose, although I suspect this violates the spirit of twitter.

There are loads of twitter clients around I use hootsuite  it’s a web-based service and supports tabs so you can collect twitters and searches related to one area on one tab. To be honest, the twitter homepage does a pretty good job. If you’re interested in getting more stats on your followers then tweepular is okay.

For the data visualisation fans here’s a list of twitter visualisations, and trendsmap is fun too.