Personal atemporal feedback loop

Paul Raven @ 21-02-2011

More fun and games with atemporal media: TwitShift offers a novel service, wherein they hoover up the last year’s worth of output from your Twitter account and repost every tweet on exactly the same day and time as they were posted originally… exactly one year later. [This link via LifeHacker, who aren’t getting their proper attribution links until they provide URLs that are guaranteed to deliver the viewer to the page I actually wanted them to see.]

Atemporal reportage is no new phenomenon, of course; for example, George Orwell has been (re)covering the fall of Europe to the Nazis for some time now, exactly seventy years since it actually happened. But the personal angle of TwitShift is curious, because it highlights a fascination with our own very recent pasts, a growing trend wherein – as the distance we can see into the future with any feeling of confidence decreases – we’re obsessed with building a narrative about how we got to where we are.

There are good and bad sides to this, I think; aphorisms about understanding history and the repetition of mistakes are plentiful, but the problem with looking back over one’s shoulder is that it increases the likelihood of one walking into a lamppost. Given the way my own life was unexpectedly upended by circumstance a year ago, I’m really feeling that tension: it would be interesting to revisit my own experiences with the benefit of hindsight, but I’m not sure how much genuine value I’d get from doing so.

I wonder how much further you could take this idea, though? Multiple atemporal feedback loops at different distances: last week, last month, last year, last decade? Become the sole academic of your own history! Be your own psychological panopticon! The doors of The Hall Of Mirrors are also mirrored! When the road ahead is foggy and strewn with rubble, what better recourse than to remind oneself of earlier successful swerves?


Careless whispers

Paul Raven @ 20-01-2011

This just in: Chinese whispers happen on real-time social communications platforms just as they do in real life, only faster!

Here in the UK yesterday there was a brief Twitter panic about a non-existant shooting in London’s Oxford Circus, highlighting the problems inherent to the 24-hour global peer-to-peer news cycle: namely that when an erroneous signal gets out onto the network, it’ll probably propagate more quickly than the less senational truth of the matter. Cue lots of “bad Twitter!” punditry, which largely misses the point: this phenomenon isn’t new, it’s just a faster version of the good ol’ scuttlebutt. Some sensible thinking from GigaOM:

Traditional media have struggled with the issue as well, with newspapers often running corrections days or weeks after a mistake was made, with no real indication of what the actual error was. In a sense, Twitter is like a real-time, distributed version of a news-wire service such as Reuters or Associated Press; when those services post something that is wrong, they simply send out an update to their customers, and hope that no one has published it in the paper or online yet.

Twitter’s great strength is that it allows anyone to publish, and re-publish, information instantly, and distribute that information to thousands of people within minutes. But when a mistake gets distributed, there’s no single source that can send out a correction. That’s the double-edged sword such a network represents. Perhaps — since we all make up this real-time news network — it’s incumbent on all of us to do the correcting, even if it’s just by re-tweeting corrections and updates as eagerly as we re-tweeted the original.

Taking responsibility for our own contributions to the global conversation? What a controversial suggestion! Of course, the problem is that “nothing much happening in Oxford Circus after all” just isn’t as interesting a conversational nugget, and therefore doesn’t get passed on as quickly or frequently. (Compare and contrast with the old aphorism that good news doesn’t sell newspapers.)

Related to this is the rush-to-explain (and rush-to-blame) that follows a story, real or otherwise: see, for example, the instant dogpile of people pinning the blame for the Tucson tragedy on Sarah Palin*. Again, it’s an age-old process that’s been scaled up to global size and accelerated to the speed of electrons through wires, and I suspect that we’ll adjust to it eventually: like a teenager adjusting to his or her lengthening limbs, we’re bound to knock a few things over as we grow.

[ * In the name of pre-emptively deflecting my own dogpile, I think that the political rhetoric from all sides in the US has demonstrably contributed to escalating tensions, and I find Sarah Palin an utterly repugnant exploiter of ignorance, be it her own or other people’s. However, the rush to find her prints on the metaphorical pistolgrip was not only counterproductive (that sort of political fire thrives on the oxygen of martyrdom), but was also precisely the same sort of demonisation of ideological figureheads that the left accuses the right of relying on. The further apart ideologically the two polar positions appear to be, the more alike in character they seem to become… and while it might be possible to pin that problem on The New Media™, I don’t think it’ll stick. More depressing still were the countless articles decrying Palin’s “it’s all about me!” attitude to the tragedy, coming as they did in the wake of half the damned internet telling Palin it was all about her. C’mon, folks, work it out. ]


Excellent Bill Gibson interview

Paul Raven @ 06-12-2010

The best author interviews are surely the ones where the interviewer asks the sort of questions that you yourself would have picked, had the opportunity arisen. Granted, the list of questions I’d like to ask of William Gibson is long enough that I could keep the poor guy occupied with them until the heat death of the universe, but Aileen Gallagher of NY Mag‘s The Vulture column has whittled a few of them away on my behalf [via MetaFilter]. Here he is, rethinking terrorism:

You also wrote in Zero History that terrorism is “almost exclusively about branding but only slightly less so about the psychology of lotteries.” How so?

If you’re a terrorist (or a national hero, depending on who’s looking at you), there are relatively few of you and relatively a lot of the big guys you’re up against. Terrorism is about branding because a brand is most of what you have as a terrorist. Terrorists have virtually no resources. I don’t even like using the word terrorism. It’s not an accurate descriptor of what’s going on.

What do you think is going on?

Asymmetric warfare, when you’ve got a little guy and a big guy. [There are] a lot of strategies that the little guy uses to go after the big guy, and a lot of them are branding strategies. The little guy needs a brand because that’s basically all he’s got. He’s got very little manpower, very little money compared to the big guy. The big guy’s got a ton of manpower and a ton of money. So this small coterie of plotters decides to go after a nation-state. If they don’t have a strong brand, nothing’s going to happen. From the first atrocity on, the little guy is building his brand. And that’s why somebody phones in after every bomb and says, “It was us, the Situationist Liberation Army. We blew up that mall.” That’s branding. By the same token, you get these other, surreal moments where they call up and say, “We didn’t do that one.” That’s branding. That’s all it is. A terrorist without a brand is like a fish without a bicycle. It’s just not going anywhere.

And a vindication of Twitter:

I’ve taken to Twitter like a duck to water. Its simplicity allows the user to customize the experience with relatively little input from the Twitter entity itself. I hope they keep it simple. It works because it’s simple. I was never interested in Facebook or MySpace because the environment seemed too top-down mediated. They feel like malls to me. But Twitter actually feels like the street. You can bump into anybody on Twitter.

[…]

Twitter’s huge. There’s a whole culture of people on Twitter who do nothing but handicap racehorses. I’ll never go there. One commonality about people I follow is that they’re all doing what I’m doing: They’re all using it as novelty aggregation and out of that grows some sense of being part of a community. It’s a strange thing. There are countless millions of communities on Twitter. They occupy the same virtual space but they never see each other. They never interact. Really, the Twitter I’m always raving about is my Twitter.

Lots more good nuggets in there; go read.


Twitter’s mood predicts the stock market?

Paul Raven @ 20-10-2010

I can’t really reword this one to sound any less (or more) incredible, so I’m gonna go straight to quotes:

The emotional roller coaster captured on Twitter can predict the ups and downs of the stock market, a new study finds. Measuring how calm the Twitterverse is on a given day can foretell the direction of changes to the Dow Jones Industrial Average three days later with an accuracy of 86.7 percent.

“We were pretty astonished that this actually worked,” said computational social scientist Johan Bollen of Indiana University-Bloomington.

You and me both, Johan, you and me both… but then, it’s a weird old interconnected world we live in, isn’t it?

“We’re using Twitter like a psychiatric patient,” Bollen said. “This allows us to measure the mood of the public over these six different mood states.”

As a sanity check, the researchers looked at the public mood on some easily-predictable days, like Election Day 2008 and Thanksgiving. The results were as expected: Twitter was anxious the day before the election, and much calmer, happier and kinder on Election Day itself, though all returned to normal by Nov. 5. On Thanksgiving, Twitter’s “Happy” score spiked.

Then, just to see what would happen, Mao compared the national mood to the Dow Jones Industrial Average. She found that one emotion, calmness, lined up surprisingly well with the rises and falls of the stock market — but three or four days in advance.

As daft as it sounds on the surface, this is probably pointing at some sort of core truth; it’s pretty much established that markets are emergent systems born of human interaction, so why shouldn’t you be able to get an idea of where things are going by finding a way to sample the mood of the planet?

That said, I’d very much like to know how wide-ranging the Twitter sampling was: did they use multiple languages, for instance, or just English? I suspect that Twitter’s demographic in geographical terms is still very white, Western, male and middle-class, too; would these results be strengthened by using more data from wider sources, or has a sort of accidental cherry-pick taken place? (White Western middle-class males are more likely to be stock owners or investors of one stripe or another, I’m guessing, so there’s probably some sort of inherent bias in using Twitter as a sample source.)

Even so, I’m fascinated by research that treats human civilisation as a system-of-systems with observable properties, and the rise of social networking is probably the catalyst for this growing field. Whether knowing how the system reacts and correlates will allow us to control it more effectively is another question entirely, of course… feedback is a powerful thing, but as any guitarist will tell you, it comes with risks. 😉


Futurismic (finally) on Twitter

Paul Raven @ 01-08-2010

Yeah, I know, some cutting-edge futurist organ, this one – blighters ain’t even on Twitter yet, are they? Sheesh.

Well, now they are – so please follow @futurismic for the latest updates from the site, occasional editorial rants, links to cool stuff that we didn’t have time to write a full post about, and hell knows what else. Also, if you have a tip for something you think would make a good Futurismic post, please consider Twitter a fast and convenient channel for sending ’em in. We always hat-tip our tipsters, too.

So, you ready for some fresh fiction tomorrow? Yeah, I thought so… 🙂


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