Rob Minto

Sport, data, ideas

Category: Best (page 2 of 2)

The lazy journalism of citing Facebook and Twitter

I’m getting very annoyed with the phrase “such as…” in journalism. It’s becoming a lazy substitute for not having concrete facts, and is used especially to write about websites and  social networks where the writer usually has no idea what they are talking about.

In other words, the phrase “such as Facebook and Twitter” really means “something’s going on online and it must be going on on Facebook and Twitter so just say that as that’s the only new thingy we’ve heard of in the newsroom”.

Some examples:

From the Telegraph: “Teachers believe social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter are to blame for pupils’ poor grades, a study has concluded.”

From the FT (see, I’m not biased): “Banks are searching out fresh ways to engage with customers on social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter as they look to capitalise on the growing popularity of these mediums…”

I thought the other day – if I had a pound for every time I saw that written… So I googled it. Over 9 million instances of that exact phrase. And then I got curious. What about the other combinations. LinkedIn and, say, Orkut? Why should Facebook and Twitter be the only show in town?

So here’s the grid:

Source: Google results for exact phrase “such as x and y”. Here’s the data.

I’ve given anything over a million a red background, 100,000 – 1m in yellow, under 100,000 white, and put grey on anything less than 10.

So Facebook and Twitter is the killer combo, although MySpace does well with Facebook. But look at the rest – it’s a joke. It’s not as if they have that magnitude of users less than Twitter – or even Facebook.

But the real joke is that Twitter and Facebook are so radically different. To lump them together that often in a lazy format is ridiculous. The network effect of journalists is not far removed from the network effect of social networks, or software, or other monopolistic services. Once everyone starts to say “such as Facebook and Twitter”, there isn’t much point in bucking the trend.


The internet of 1901

There was a curious story today of a woman who cut off an entire country’s internet access. A Georgian woman digging in her garden cut off Armenia from the net.

Impressive in a way, but it also got me thinking about the internet, and how, despite all the talk of the cloud and cyberspace, the internet is a very real thing of servers and fibre optic cables.

In fact, the cabling around the world is very mappable – the Guardian did this great infographic after a previous cut-off in Egypt. And then I saw a picture of telegraph cables from 1901. See any similarity?

What Sarah Palin has in common with Ludwig Wittgenstein

My college philosophy tutor* once told me why Wittgenstein was the most important philosopher of the 20th century. It was because he permanently changed the debate. All philosophers who came after him could agree, or disagree – but they couldn’t ignore him.

I’m worried that Sarah Palin’s Facebook page is going to become the modern equivalent of Wittgenstein on every news event –  you agree or disagree (in my case, strongly disagree), but you have to have an opinion. The latest use of her forum as a prism for news is the controversy over the Arizona shooting and whether she is inciting violence.

In fact, it’s not just her Facebook page. She has, like Wittgenstein, changed the debate, whether it’s via her silly comments on Twitter, or her TV show, or her book, or the fact that the entire 2012 presidential race will be in some way about her.

Sarah Palin has also one other thing in common with Wittgenstein – it’s all about language. Wittgenstein would have recognised her language games as having rules all of their own. Whether it’s the new word “betcha”, a conflation of two words (bet you) one of which is already a shortening, or “refudiate” with reference to the ground zero muslim centre, she’s mangling language like crazy. Allies or enemies? North or South Korea? What’s the difference? Palin didn’t know, but it changes nothing – her supporters couldn’t care less.

Sadly, Sarah Palin seems unlikely to follow Wittgenstein’s maxim which ended the Tractatus – “whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent”. (Translation for Palinites: If you don’t know what you are talking about, shut the hell up.) Somehow I think we’re going to hear a lot more from her on things she knows absolutely nothing about.

* My tutor was Peter Hacker, the world’s authority on Wittgenstein and a wonderful philosopher in his own right. So he knows what he’s talking about.

Zuckerberg vs Hirst

Sounds good, doesn’t it? The billionaire geek of Facebook vs the once bad-boy of BritArt.

But in what context? What are you on about, I hear you ask. It’s simple really. What actually counts in this world: ideas, or execution?

Yesterday I saw an ad on the train for the Judge Institute in Cambridge (my home town) quoting Alfred North Whitehead:

The vitality of thought is an adventure. Ideas won’t keep. Something must be done about them.

That was in the 1880s. So what has this got to do with Zuckerberg or Hirst?

A lot, in fact. If you think the idea is all important, and don’t care about execution, then Hirst is your man. You can “own a Hirst” which has never been touched by Damien. Who cares about the execution? It’s the idea. Hirst gets the credit, the money, the process is immaterial. This was recently discussed in the FT’s arts podcast – the artist as businessman.

But if it’s all about execution, then you’re in the Facebook camp. It wasn’t the first social network, or the second. Facebook, if you believe the movie, wasn’t even Zuckerberg’s idea. It was brain child of the Winkelvoss twins. But, as the character says in the film, “if you were the inventors of Facebook, you’d have invented Facebook.” Even if Zuckerberg didn’t come up with Facebook, he executed it. It’s his. He is the one worth x billion, rather than with the $65m settlement.

If you are a Zuckerbergist, then Hirst should be worthless – he just has an idea of the art. Someone else puts it together. Where’s the execution? It’s just mindless reproduction.

Somehow in this world both Zuckerberg and Hirst are very very rich. One is richer than the other, by a big factor, but that’s not the point. Both models seem to co-exist. Maybe this is to misrepresent Hirst. Perhaps his big idea is about the endless reproduction, about pushing art as a brand, and in so doing retains both the idea and the execution of the idea, even by not using his own hand. What does he do? The idea is to market the idea. It’s a meta-economy.

Or perhaps we were all moving that way. Martin Wolf, my colleague and the world’s most influential financial journalist, summed it up in 2007:

Neoclassical economics analysed economic growth in terms of capital, labour and technical progress. But, I now think, it is more enlightening to view the fundamental drivers as energy and ideas. Institutions and incentives provide the framework within which the development and application of useful knowledge transforms the fossilised sunlight on which we depend into the stream of goods and services we enjoy.

If you have an idea, it’s worthless. If you execute that idea, you’ll make money (assuming it’s a good one). But if you can sell that idea over and over again, and yet retain the rights – well, that’s priceless.

The X-factor flaw: the new demographics of pop

As the X-factor’s dominance of the TV (and therefore our lives) continues unabated, plenty is being written about the contestants, and the cult-like figure of Simon Cowell.

The Observer portrayed him as a bond villain on their magazine cover, but the really interesting picture was the Sgt Pepper style montage inside. Here is a section of it.

From the Observer

How many people do you actually recognise? This, in a nutshell, is the X-factor’s problem and why it will face a key dilemma very soon.

The X-factor has an in-built problem of supply and demand. Not the show itself – it is pure entertainment, coupled with bitchy drama. The demand from viewers for the show is clearly there. It is what the show is supposed to produce, which is a bona-fide popstar for us all to know and recognise.

X-factor is asking us to care about a new person each year. Steve Brookstein, Shayne Ward, Leon Jackson, Joe McElderry: all winners of the UK X-factor, all going nowhere. Leona Lewis is doing well. The jury is still out on Alexandra Burke. And then there’s all the rest.

We don’t have the capacity. We don’t buy the CDs or download enough. We don’t have the emotional room to care about every winner. And it’s not just the winners – JLS and Olly Murs are both now welcomed back to the show as “stars”. They came second. We are also supposed to care about winners of Britain’s got Talent – which produces singers too. Even people booted out before the final are reeled out as stars. Stacey Solomon is now in the jungle, being a “celebrity”.

Pop stars don’t disappear as fast as they used to. In the past they died young, or faded away. Now everyone looks at the Rolling Stones and thinks – why not us? U2 released their first albums in the 1970s – that’s over 30 years ago now. Plus there’s all the comeback tours – the Police, Madness, Take That. It never ends.

We used to need new popstars. There was a replacement rate, much as in a normal population. But like in many developed economies, life-expectancy has increased. A pop career is longer, a pop star is healthier. They will die, artistically and creatively, a lot later. The demographics are no longer stacked in favour of the young – older people are staying with their music, young people have less spending power.

If the programme makers don’t acknowledge the problem, people will get fed up with being told “X is a star” when they clearly aren’t. They have two options: admit that the “prize” is less of a guarantee of stardom, and effectively have a devaluation of the currency, or reduce the supply, and only have a show every two years.

The two-year option isn’t going to fly, as the show makes too much money. But devaluation of the prize undermines the process.

It was once said that pop will eat itself. In this case, it’s more the supply will outstrip demand, and the bubble will burst.

Changing the clocks – how the numbers (don’t always) stack up

At the end of October, there were the yearly “news” pieces (here, here, everywhere) arguing about the merits (or lack of) for turning back the clocks in the UK.

The arguments trotted out in the press are fairly well-rehearsed now. They boil down to four main areas:

– Lighter evenings are better for the population in general and that’s when we want to do things. This clocks thing is for farmers in Scotland.
– We shouldn’t make our children walk home from school in the dark
– It’s better to be in sync with Europe
– Changing the clocks is annoying for people

Let’s make some assumptions. Most schools have kids in from 8.30am and close at 3.30pm, and most adults get to work around 9am and finish work around 5 or 6pm.

The problem here is no-one is looking at the data. Here they are in html and in google doc (data from

Quite simply, for most of the year there isn’t a problem for school children. Leaving aside whether they are picked up in cars, and whether any child old enough to walk home can do so quite perfectly well in the dark, the fact is that they don’t. The earliest sunset time in London, according to the data, is 3.51pm – 20 minutes after school usually ends. The sunrise time is around 7.55am at that time – when most children would be leaving for school. If this really is about our precious offspring, then the clocks in winter seem to fit the school day rather well. Since when should children be any safer going to school in the dark in the morning than in the evening? By moving the clocks forward an hour in mid-winter sunset would be at just after 9am in late December and early January.

Well, what about the rest of us? Don’t we want to play sport after work and enjoy a cafe-culture lifestyle in the evenings? Perhaps. But assuming that we need sunset to be 7pm or later (so we can get out of work and do something), pushing the clocks forward an hour in winter would mean we free up 16 days in March, and 26 days in November – less than 2 months in the year. It’s not exactly life-changing, is it?

And if we did that, the winter mornings would be, well, a little depressing, wouldn’t they? For 32 days in 2010, it wouldn’t be sunrise until after 9am – when most people are in work. And it would be sunset every one of those days before 5.25pm – a whole working day in the dark for some people, especially those office-bound workers behind a desk.

The other arguments are so poorly thought out it’s a joke.

Scottish farmers don’t care, apparently. (There’s the obvious solution of Scotland adopting another timezone if it was really necessary.) So let’s ignore that.

Being in sync with Europe would push the UK another hour away from US time. Which is more important – being the same as Europe when it’s only one hour out, or six hours different to New York – and nine from LA when five and eight is bad enough? Is there any proof that we lose business by being out of sync with Europe? And what would it mean for our US business? I haven’t seen any coherent answers to this, but my instinct is that it’s not a simple win-win – there are complex knock-ons we may not have foreseen. What does reducing an hour of markets trading overlap with the US do to banking?

What about health benefits? Again, the even the most balanced pieces have so many assumptions and caveats that it’s hard to point to any one major benefit, sensible as many of the suggestions seem.

Of course changing the clocks is annoying, especially if you have around 20 devices in the home that run off a timer. But more and more of them update automatically anyway – internet radios, TV hard drives, mobile phones. The connected home takes away much of that hassle. We had to change three clocks this time around – hardly a problem.

I’d personally rather the clocks didn’t shift, and we stayed consistently an hour ahead. But if we are to make an economic argument, which is what journalists and columnists are sort-of doing when they talk about benefits to people or society, then let’s use the data to back it up. Otherwise it’s just a yearly copy-and-paste job.

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