The blog and the social media

Because The Wire had signed up to be some kind of A-listed publisher with Facebook, The Wire‘s staff was required to create Facebook Pages under each writer/editor’s name. So I created the ‘Vasudevan Mukunth’ page. Then, about 10 days ago, Facebook began to promote my page on the platform, running ads for it that would appear on people’s timelines across the network. The result is that my page now has almost as many likes as The Wire English’s Facebook Page: 320,000+. Apart from sharing my pieces from The Wire, I now use the page to share my blog posts as well. Woot!

Action on Twitter hasn’t far behind either. I’ve had a verified account on the microblogging platform for a few months now. And this morning, Twitter rolled out the expanded tweet character limit (from 140 to 280) to everyone. For someone to whom 140 characters was a liberating experience – a mechanical hurdle imposed on running your mouth and forcing you to think things through (though many choose not to) – the 280-char limit is even more so.

How exactly? An interesting implication discussed in this blog post by Twitter is that allowing people to think 280 characters at a time allowed them to be less anxious about how they were going to compose their tweets. The number of tweets hitting the character limit dropped from 9% during the 140-char era to 1% in the newly begun 280-char era. At the same time, people have continued to tweet within the 140-char most of the time. So fewer tweets were being extensively reworked or abandoned because people no longer composed them with the anxiety of staying within a smaller character limit.

But here’s the problem: most of my blog’s engagement had already been happening on the social media. As soon as I published a post, WordPress’s Jetpack plugin would send an email to 4brane’s 3,600+ subscribers with the full post, post the headline + link on Twitter and the headline + blurb + image + link on Facebook. Readers would reply to the tweet, threading their responses if they had to, and drop comments on Facebook. But on the other hand, the number of emails I’ve been receiving from my subscribers has been dropping drastically, as has the number of comments on posts.

I remember my blogging habit having taken a hit when I’d decided to become more active on Twitter because I no longer bore, fermented and composed my thoughts at length, with nuance. Instead, I dropped them as tweets as and when they arose, often with no filter, building it out through conversations with my followers. The 280-char limit now looks set to ‘scale up’ this disruption by allowing people to be more free and encouraging them to explore more complex ideas, aided by how (and how well, I begrudgingly admit) Twitter displays tweet-threads.

Perhaps – rather hopefully – the anxiety that gripped people when they were composing 140-char tweets will soon grip them as they’re composing 280-char tweets as well. I somehow doubt 420-char tweets will be a thing; that would make the platform non-Twitter-like. And hopefully the other advantages of having a blog, apart from the now-lost ‘let’s have a conversation’ part, such as organising information in different ways unlike Twitter’s sole time-based option, will continue to remain relevant.

Featured image credit: LoboStudioHamburg/pixabay.

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Do your bit, broaden your science menu

If you think a story was not covered by the media, it’s quite likely that that story didn’t feature in your limited news menu, and that it was actually covered by an outlet you haven’t discovered yet. In the same vein, saying the entirety of India’s science media is crap is in itself crap. I’ve heard this say from two people today (and some others on Twitter). I’ll concede that the bulk of it is useless but there are still quite a few good players. And not reading what they are writing is a travesty on your part if you consider yourself interested in science news. Why I think so is a long story; to cut it short: given what the prevailing distribution mechanisms as well as business models are, newsrooms can only do so much to ensure they’re visible to the right people. You’ve got to do your bit as well. So if you haven’t found the better players, shame on you. You don’t get to judge the best of us after having read only the worst of us.

And I like to think The Wire is among the best of us (but I can’t be the final judge). Here are some of the others:

  1. The Telegraph – Among the best in the country. They seldom undertake longer pieces but what they publish is crisp and authoritative. Watch out for G.S. Mudur.
  2. Scroll – Doesn’t cover a lot of sciencey science but what they do cover, they tend to get right.
  3. The Hindu – The Big Daddy. Has been covering science for a long time. My only issue with it is that many of its pieces, in an effort to come across as being unafraid of the technicalities, are flush with jargon.
  4. Fountain Ink – Only long-form and does a fab job of the science + society stories.
  5. Reuters India – Plain Jane non-partisan reportage all round.

I’m sure there are other publishers of good science journalism in India. The five I’ve listed here are the ones that came quickest to mind and I just wanted illustrate my point and quickly get this post out.

Note: This is the article the reactions to which prompted this post.

Featured image credit: Hans/pixabay.

How infographics can lose the plot

By this point it should’ve become apparent to most people who engage with infographics on a semi-regular basis that there are some rules about what they should or shouldn’t look like, and that your canvas isn’t actually infinite in terms of what you can create that will a) look good and b) make sense. But just when you think everyone’s going to create sane visualisations of data, there comes along one absolute trash-fire of an infographic to remind you that there are still people out there who can and will ruin your day. And when that someone is a media channel the size of News18, the issue at hand actually transforms from being a molehill to a mountain.

Because it’s News18, it’s no longer just about following good practices when making an infographic but also about moving the hundreds of thousands of people who will have seen the infographic (@CNNnews18 has 3.4 million followers) away from the idea that News18’s effort produced something legitimate. It’s like you and your squad are guiding a group of people quietly through a jungle at night, almost unseen, when an idiot decides he has to smoke a joint, lights his match, gives your position away to the enemy and you all get killed. To the wider world, you were all idiots – but only you will know that things would’ve been rosier if it hadn’t been for that junkie (and spare me your consternation about what a lousy analogy this is). Without further ado, the trash-fire:

Fonts and colours, not bad, but that’s it. Here’s what’s wrong:

  1. The contours of the chicken-leg and the leaf appear to have dictated the positioning of numbers and lines in the graphic, whereas it should’ve been the other way around
  2. The same length represented by 25% for Rajasthan also signifies 31% and 33% for Haryana and Punjab, respectively
  3. The states (in the graphic) from Bihar to Telangana all have less than 10% on the veg side – but the amount of leafy area would suggest these values are much higher than actual
  4. If anything, West Bengal and Telangana are the worst offenders: the breadth of leaf they have for their measly 1% is longer than that of Rajasthan’s 25%
  5. The numbers say that only 4/21 states have more vegetarians than non-vegetarians – but a glance would suggest that fraction’s closer to 13/21
  6. Also: wtf are these irregular shapes? Why not just pick regular rectangles and shade them accordingly?

In fact, across the board (of mistakes), it seems the designer may have forgotten or ignored just one guiding principle of all infographics: that they should give a clear and accurate impression of the truth as represented by the numbers. This often requires the designer to ensure that the axes are clearly visible, that representations of values through parameters like distance, area, volume, etc. are consistent and predictable throughout the graphic, that the representation of relative values is proportionate, that colours and/or stylisations don’t mislead the reader, etc.

These are the reasons why the ‘3D’ pie-chart offered by MS Powerpoint hasn’t found wider use. It offers nothing at all in addition to the normal ‘flat’ pie-chart but actually make things worse by distorting how the values are displayed. Similarly, you take one look at this chicken-leaf thing and you take away… nothing. You need to look at it again, closer each time, toss the numbers around a bit if they make sense, etc. It’s really just an attention-whore of an infographic, to be used as bait with which to trawl Twitter for a flamewar around the Indian government’s recent attitude towards the consumption of meat, especially beef.

Also: “So what if it’s a little off the mark to get some attention? It’s done its job, right?” → if this is your question, then the answer is that if you don’t force designers – especially those working with journalists – to follow best practices when making an infographic, you’ll be setting a lower bar that will soon turn around and assault you with all kinds of charts and plots conceived to hide what the numbers are really saying and instead massage your preconceived biases while playing up ‘almost-right’ propaganda. Yes, infographics can quickly and effectively misguide, especially when you don’t have much time to spend scrutinising it. Hell, isn’t that why infographics were invented in the first place: to let you take one look at a visualisation and get a good idea of what’s going on? This is exactly why there’s a lot of damage done when you’re screwing with infographics.

So DON’T DO IT.

The metaphorical transparency of responsible media

Featured image credit: dryfish/Flickr, CC BY 2.0.

I’d written a two-part essay (although they were both quite short; reproduced in full below) on The Wire about what science was like in 2016 and what we can look forward to in 2017. The first part was about how science journalism in India is a battle for relevance, both within journalistic circles and among audiences. The second was about how science journalism needs to be treated like other forms of journalism in 2017, and understood to be afflicted with the same ills that, say, political and business journalism are.

Other pieces on The Wire that had the same mandate, of looking back and looking forward, stuck to being roundups and retrospective analyses. My pieces were retrospective, too, but they – to use the parlance of calculus – addressed the second derivative of science journalism, in effect performing a meta-analysis of the producers and consumers of science writing. This blog post is a quick discussion (or rant) of why I chose to go the “science media” way.

We in India often complain about how the media doesn’t care enough to cover science stories. But when we’re looking back and forward in time, we become blind to the media’s efforts. And looking back is more apparently problematic than is looking forward.

Looking back is problematic because our roundup of the ‘best’ science (the ‘best’ being whatever adjective you want it to be) from the previous year is actually a roundup of the ‘best’ science we were able to discover or access from the previous year. Many of us may have walled ourselves off into digital echo-chambers, sitting within not-so-fragile filter bubbles and ensuring news we don’t want to read about doesn’t reach us at all. Even so, the stories that do reach us don’t make up the sum of all that is available to consume because of two reasons:

  1. We practically can’t consume everything, period.
  2. Unless you’re a journalist or someone who is at the zeroth step of the information dissemination pyramid, your submission to a source of information is simply your submission to another set of filters apart from your own. Without these filters, finding something you are looking for on the web would be a huge problem.

So becoming blind to media efforts at the time of the roundup is to let journalists (who sit higher up on the dissemination pyramid) who should’ve paid more attention to scientific developments off the hook. For example, assuming things were gloomy in 2016 is assuming one thing given another thing (like a partial differential): “while the mood of science news could’ve been anything between good and bad, it was bad” GIVEN “journalists mostly focused on the bad news over the good news”. This is only a simplistic example: more often than not, the ‘good’ and ‘bad’ can be replaced by ‘significant’ and ‘insignificant’. Significance is also a function of media attention. At the time of probing our sentiments on a specific topic, we should probe the information we have as well as how we acquired that information.

Looking forward without paying attention to how the media will likely deal with science is less apparently problematic because of the establishment of the ideal. For example, to look forward is also to hope: I can say an event X will be significant irrespective of whether the media chooses to cover it (i.e., “it should ideally be covered”); when the media doesn’t cover the event, then I can recall X as well as pull up journalists who turned a blind eye. In this sense, ignoring the media is to not hold its hand at the beginning of the period being monitored – and it’s okay. But this is also what I find problematic. Why not help journalists look out for an event when you know it’s going to happen instead of relying on their ‘news sense’, as well as expecting them to have the time and attention to spend at just the right time?

Effectively: pull us up in hindsight – but only if you helped us out in foresight. (The ‘us’ in this case is, of course, #notalljournalists. Be careful with whom you choose to help or you could be wasting your time.)


Part I: Why Independent Media is Essential to Good Science Journalism

What was 2016 like in science? Furious googling will give you the details you need to come to the clinical conclusion that it wasn’t so bad. After all, LIGO found gravitational waves; an Ebola vaccine was readied; ISRO began tests of its reusable launch vehicle; the LHC amassed particle collisions data; the Philae comet-hopping mission ended; New Horizons zipped past Pluto; Juno is zipping around Jupiter; scientists did amazing (but sometimes ethically questionable) things with CRISPR; etc. But if you’ve been reading science articles throughout the year, then please take a step back from everything and think about what your overall mood is like.

Because, just as easily as 2016 was about mega-science projects doing amazing things, it was also about climate-change action taking a step forward but not enough; about scientific communities becoming fragmented; about mainstream scientific wisdom becoming entirely sidelined in some parts of the world; about crucial environmental protections being eroded; about – undeniably – questionable practices receiving protection under the emotional cover of nationalism. As a result, and as always, it is difficult to capture what this year was to science in a single mood, unless that mood in turn captures anger, dismay, elation and bewilderment at various times.

So, to simplify our exercise, let’s do that furious googling – and then perform a meta-analysis to reflect on where each of us sees fit to stand with respect to what the Indian scientific enterprise has been up to this year. (Note: I’m hoping this exercise can also be a referendum on the type of science news The Wire chose to cover this year, and how that can be improved in 2017.) The three broad categories (and sub-categories) of stories that The Wire covered this year are:

GOOD BAD UGLY
Different kinds of ISRO rockets – sometimes with student-built sats onboard – took off Big cats in general, and leopards specifically, had a bad year Indian scientists continued to plagiarise and engage in other forms of research misconduct without consequence
ISRO decided to partially privatise PSLV missions by 2020 The JE/AES scourge struck again, their effects exacerbated by malnutrition The INO got effectively shut down
LIGO-India collaboration received govt. clearance; Indian scientists of the LIGO collaboration received a vote of confidence from the international community PM endorsed BGR-34, an anti-diabetic drug of dubious credentials Antibiotic resistance worsened in India (and other middle-income nations)
We supported ‘The Life of Science’ Govt. conceived misguided culling rules India succumbed to US pressure on curtailing generic drugs
Many new species of birds/animals discovered in India Ken-Betwa river linkup approved at the expense of a tiger sanctuary Important urban and rural waterways were disrupted, often to the detriment of millions
New telescopes were set up, further boosting Indian astronomy; ASTROSAT opened up for international scientists Many conservation efforts were hampered – while some were mooted that sounded like ministers hadn’t thought them through Ministers made dozens of pseudoscientific claims, often derailing important research
Otters returned to their habitats in Kerala and Goa A politician beat a horse to its death Fake-science-news was widely reported in the Indian media
Janaki Lenin continued her ‘Amazing Animals’ series Environmental regulations turned and/or stayed anti-environment Socio-environmental changes resulting from climate change affect many livelihoods around the country
We produced monthly columns on modern microbiology and the history of science We didn’t properly respond to human-wildlife conflicts Low investments in public healthcare, and focus on privatisation, short-changed Indian patients
Indian physicists discovered a new form of superconductivity in bismuth GM tech continues to polarise scientists, social scientists and activists Space, defence-research and nuclear power establishments continued to remain opaque
/ Conversations stuttered on eastern traditions of science /

I leave it to you to weigh each of these types of stories as you see fit. For me – as a journalist – science in the year 2016 was defined by two parallel narratives: first, science coverage in the mainstream media did not improve; second, the mainstream media in many instances remained obediently uncritical of the government’s many dubious claims. As a result, it was heartening on the first count to see ‘alternative’ publications like The Life of Science and The Intersection being set up or sustained (as the case may be).

On the latter count: the media’s submission paralleled, rather directly followed, its capitulation to pro-government interests (although some publications still held out). This is problematic for various reasons, but one that is often overlooked is that the “counterproductive continuity” that right-wing groups stress upon – between traditional wisdom and knowledge derived through modern modes of investigation – receives nothing short of a passive endorsement by uncritical media broadcasts.

From within The Wire, doing a good job of covering science has become a battle for relevance as a result. And this is a many-faceted problem: it’s as big a deal for a science journalist to come upon and then report a significant story as finding the story itself in the first place – and it’s as difficult to get every scientist you meet to trust you as it is to convince every reader who visits The Wire to read an article or two in the science section per visit. Fortunately (though let it not be said that this is simply a case of material fortunes), the ‘Science’ section on The Wire has enjoyed both emotional and financial support. To show for it, we have had the privilege of overseeing the publication of 830 articles, and counting, in 2016 (across science, health, environment, energy, space and tech). And I hope those who have written for this section will continue to write for it, even as those who have been reading this section will continue to read it.

Because it is a battle for relevance – a fight to be noticed and to be read, even when stories have nothing to do with national interests or immediate economic gains – the ideal of ‘speaking truth to power’ that other like-minded sections of the media cherish is preceded for science journalism in India by the ideals of ‘speaking’ first and then ‘speaking truth’ second. This is why an empowered media is as essential to the revival of that constitutionally enshrined scientific temperament as are productive scientists and scientific institutions.

The Wire‘s journalists have spent thousands of hours this year striving to be factually correct. The science writers and editors have also been especially conscientious of receiving feedback at all stages, engaging in conversations with our readers and taking prompt corrective action when necessary – even if that means a retraction. This will continue to be the case in 2017 as well in recognition of the fact that the elevation of Indian science on the global stage, long hailed to be overdue, will directly follow from empowering our readers to ask the right questions and be reasonably critical of all claims at all times, no matter who the maker.

Part II: If You’re Asking ‘What To Expect in Science in 2017’, You Have Missed the Point

While a science reporter at The Hindu, this author conducted an informal poll asking the newspaper’s readers to speak up about what their impressions were of science writing in India. The answers, received via email, Twitter and comments on the site, generally swung between saying there was no point and saying there was a need to fight an uphill battle to ‘bring science to everyone’. After the poll, however, it still wasn’t clear who this ‘everyone’ was, notwithstanding a consensus that it meant everyone who chanced upon a write-up. It still isn’t clear.

Moreover, much has been written about the importance of science, the value of engaging with it in any form without expectation of immediate value and even the usefulness of looking at it ‘from the outside in’ when the opportunity arises. With these theses in mind (which I don’t want to rehash; they’re available in countless articles on The Wire), the question of “What to expect in science in 2017?” immediately evolves into a two-part discussion. Why? Because not all science that happens is covered; not all science that is covered is consumed; and not all science that is consumed is remembered.

The two parts are delineated below.

What science will be covered in 2017?

Answering this question is an exercise in reinterpreting the meaning of ‘newsworthiness’ subject to the forces that will assail journalism in 2017. An immensely simplified way is to address the following factors: the audience, the business, the visible and the hidden.

The first two are closely linked. As print publications are shrinking and digital publications growing, a consideration of distribution channels online can’t ignore the social media – specifically, Twitter and Facebook – as well as Google News. This means that an increasing number of younger readers are available to target, which in turn means covering science in a way that interests this demographic. Qualities like coolness and virality will make an item immediately sellable to marketers whereas news items rich with nuance and depth will take more work.

Another way to address the question is in terms of what kind of science will be apparently visible, and available for journalists to easily chance upon, follow up and write about. The subjects of such writing typically are studies conducted and publicised by large labs or universities, involving scientists working in the global north, and often on topics that lend themselves immediately to bragging rights, short-lived discussions, etc. In being aware of ‘the visible’, we must be sure to remember ‘the invisible’. This can be defined as broadly as in terms of the scientists (say, from Latin America, the Middle East or Southeast Asia) or the studies (e.g., by asking how the results were arrived at, who funded the studies and so forth).

On the other hand, ‘the hidden’ is what will – or ought to – occupy those journalists interested in digging up what Big X (Pharma, Media, Science, etc.) doesn’t want publicised. What exactly is hidden changes continuously but is often centred on the abuse of privilege, the disregard of those we are responsible for and, of course, the money trail. The issues that will ultimately come to define 2017 will all have had dark undersides defined by these aspects and which we must strive to uncover.

For example: with the election of Donald Trump, and his bad-for-science clique of bureaucrats, there is a confused but dawning recognition among liberals of the demands of the American midwest. So to continue to write about climate change targeting an audience composed of left-wingers or east coast or west coast residents won’t work in 2017. We must figure out how to reach across the aisle and disabuse climate deniers of their beliefs using language they understand and using persuasions that motivate them to speak to their leaders about shaping climate policy.

What will be considered good science journalism in 2017?

Scientists are not magical creatures from another world – they’re humans, too. So is their collective enterprise riddled with human decisions and human mistakes. Similarly, despite all the travails unique to itself, science journalism is fundamentally similar to other topical forms of journalism. As a result, the broader social, political and media trends sweeping around the globe will inform novel – or at least evolving – interpretations of what will be good or bad in 2017. But instead of speculating, let’s discuss the new processes through which good and bad can be arrived at.

In this context, it might be useful to draw from a blog post by Jay Rosen, a noted media critic and professor of journalism at New York University. Though the post focuses on what political journalists could do to adapt to the Age of Trump, its implied lessons are applicable in many contexts. More specifically, the core effort is about avoiding those primary sources of information (out of which a story sprouts) the persistence with which has landed us in this mess. A wildly remixed excerpt:

Send interns to the daily briefing when it becomes a newsless mess. Move the experienced people to the rim. Seek and accept offers to speak on the radio in areas of Trump’s greatest support. Make common cause with scholars who have been there. Especially experts in authoritarianism and countries when democratic conditions have been undermined, so you know what to watch for— and report on. (Creeping authoritarianism is a beat: who do you have on it?). Keep an eye on the internationalization of these trends, and find spots to collaborate with journalists across borders. Find coverage patterns that cross [the aisle].

And then this:

[Washington Post reporter David] Fahrenthold explains what he’s doing as he does it. He lets the ultimate readers of his work see how painstakingly it is put together. He lets those who might have knowledge help him. People who follow along can see how much goes into one of his stories, which means they are more likely to trust it. … He’s also human, humble, approachable, and very, very determined. He never goes beyond the facts, but he calls bullshit when he has the facts. So impressive are the results that people tell me all the time that Fahrenthold by himself got them to subscribe.

Transparency is going to matter more than ever in 2017 because of how the people’s trust in the media was eroded in 2016. And there’s no reason science journalism should be an exception to these trends – especially given how science and ideology quickly locked horns in India following the disastrous Science Congress in 2015. More than any other event since the election of the Bharatiya Janata Party to the centre, and much like Trump’s victory caught everyone by surprise, the 2015 congress really spotlighted the extent of rational blight that had seeped into the minds of some of India’s most powerful ideologues. In the two years since, the reluctance of scientists to step forward and call bullshit out has also started to become more apparent, as a result exposing the different kinds of undercurrents that drastic shifts in policies have led to.

So whatever shape good science journalism is going to assume in 2017, it will surely benefit by being more honest and approachable in its construction. As will the science journalist who is willing to engage with her audience about the provenance of information and opinions capable of changing minds. As Jeff Leek, an associate professor at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, quoted (statistician Philip Stark) on his blog: “If I say just trust me and I’m wrong, I’m untrustworthy. If I say here’s my work and it’s wrong, I’m honest, human, and serving scientific progress.”

Here’s to a great 2017! 🙌🏾

Twitter isn’t impressed with what we’re doing about climate change

The Wire
May 26, 2015

English is a happy language. At least the 10,000 most used English words are positively biased, according to a 2012 study conducted by mathematicians from the University of Vermont. To reach their conclusion, they used a tool they’d built called the hedonometer – an evaluator of happiness in natural (English) language.

The hedonometer works by assessing how happy or unhappy a particular corpus of text is based on the words used in the corpus. The happiness score of each word is set before the assessment begins: in the case of the English language, 50 participants drawn from Amazon’s Mechanical Turk marketplace rated each word on a scale of 1 (least happy) to 9 (most happy). Then, the hedonometer tracked how much they were used and in the presence of which other words.

Since its building in 2011, the tool has also been used to identify individual happiness expressed in literary corpora as well as which the happiest cities are.

Now, a part of the Vermont group, together with a researcher from the University of Adelaide, has put the hedonometer together with one other – and far more brazen – gauge of human opinions and sentiments, to understand how the Twitterverse might feel about climate change. Specifically, they collated 1.5 million tweets that mentioned “climate” between September 14, 2008, and July 14, 2014, and adjudged their collective happiness against the happiness of some 100 billion general tweets from the same period.

Although the mathematicians found that not all tweets that mentioned “climate” at least once were about climate change (being about the social climate, for example), they also calculated that their exclusion didn’t change the happiness index of the overall set. However that was in hindsight.

Their results, submitted to the arXiv pre-print server on May 14, 2015, are accompanied by three telling charts.

1. Sadder than happier

tw_chart1

The average happiness index of the 100 billion tweets logged in the six years was 5.99, its daily variation indicated by a red dotted line in the chart. And the average happiness index of tweets about the climate was almost always below this line (ending up with an average of 5.84).

Though there were occasional outliers – in the form of spikes – there were also more negative outliers than positive ones. So, people on Twitter aren’t happy about the climate.

The mathematicians note that “the week of October 28, 2012 appears as one of the saddest weeks of climate discussion on Twitter” as this was the week “when Hurricane Sandy made landfall on the east coast of the US”.

2. “Science” v. “denial”

tw_chart2

Relative to the set of 100 billion unfiltered tweets, which words made tweets mentioning “climate” happier or sadder? The mathematicians built a so-called word-shift graph, which ranks words by their influence over tweets’ sentiments.

The words on the left contributed to sadness and those on the right, to happiness. Moreover, yellow bars indicate happy words, purple bars indicate sad words, and the up/down arrows indicate if they were used more or less frequently.

So, it’s reassuring to see the increased use of “science” contributed to making climate-related tweets happier. At the same time, the words whose increased use made tweets sadder were “threat”, “pollution”, “denial” and, toward the bottom, “poverty”.

The nature of denial of climate change has focused not on refuting the warming of Earth itself but on the aspect of humans having caused it. Thus, if climate-deniers are persisting on Twitter, it’s not clear how they could’ve contributed to the sadness. On the other hand, “denial” and “denying” featuring on the sad side of things signals that the persistence of denialism is a cause of distress (which you could say is a kind of reassurance).

Aside: the more frequent use of “hell” saddened tweets more than the more frequent use of “heaven” made them happier.

3. Three happiest days

tw_chart3

On April 30, 2012, April 9, 2009, and December 28, 2008, the happiness indices were the highest for tweets mentioning “climate”, clocking 6.36, 6.27 and 6.27 respectively. What happened on these dates? From the paper…

  1. April 30, 2012 – “On this date, Twitter users were reaching out to Brazilian Dilma [Rousseff] to save the Amazon rainforest”
  2. April 9, 2009 – “Twitter users were discussing the release of a new book called Sustainable Energy Without the Hot Air by David JC MacKay. Also on this date, users were posting about a Climate Prize given to a solar-powered cooker in a contest for green ideas”
  3. December 28, 2008 – “This is due in part to a decrease in the word “no”, and an increase in the words “united”, “play”, and “hopes”. On this day, there were “high hopes” for the US response to climate change”

Similarly, the three saddest days were…

tw_chart4

  1. October 9, 2008 (5.29) – “Topics of conversation in tweets containing “climate” include the threat posed by climate change to a tropical species, a British climate bill, and the US economic crisis”
  2. April 4, 2010 (5.37) – “Popular topics of conversation on this date included a California climate law and President Obama’s oil-drilling plan”
  3. August 6, 2011 (5.38) – “A topic of conversation on this date was the Keystone XL pipeline, a proposed extension to the current Keystone Pipeline”

Blurry reflections

Even if the averaged outlook seems gloomy, there exists a demonstrable appreciation of positive action – even if the action is small. This is evident especially when Twitter users caused a spike in happiness on April 9, 2009, tweeting about the solar-powered cooker (the Kyoto Box, made from cardboard and able to boil or bake food).

Another example is the Forward on Climate Rally, which brought together nearly 50,000 people in Washington DC on February 17, 2013, to call on President Barack Obama to veto the Keystone pipeline bill. According to the authors, on the day, “the happiness of climate tweets increased slightly above the unfiltered tweets during this event, which only occurs on 8% of days.” The bill was eventually vetoed.

However, the paper isn’t perfect. There are two factors skewing results – both having to do with locations. First: In the six years during which the mathematicians parsed the tweets, the volume ballooned from 1 million tweets/day to 500 million tweets/day. The underlying expansion in the user base will have been accompanied by a shift in the demographics as well, including more people who are less likely to have tweeted about the climate than others. In the absence of user demographics, thus, the more accurate weighted average of the happiness index remains out of reach.

Similarly, the second factor is that results largely concern American sentiments. The mathematicians don’t mention that they’ve drawn tweets put out by users located in the United States, yet the outcomes and the saddest and happiest dates are dependent on American opinions. This makes a weighted average of the happiness index that accounts for country-wise differences all the more meaningful.

Despite these pitfalls, the paper provides a blurry reflection of the popular perceptions of climate change. Given the affinity for positive action, in fact, the conclusions provide ample reason to believe people on Twitter don’t think enough is being done to tackle climate change. The period of 2008 to 2014, when the tweets were tracked, was also the time in which faith in the Kyoto Protocol and its subsequent amendments declined, and the disappointing Copenhagen summit happened in 2009.

Hey, is anybody watching Facebook?

The Boston Marathon bombings in April 2013 kicked off a flurry of social media activity that was equal parts well-meaning and counterproductive. Users on Facebook and Twitter shared reports, updates and photos of victims, spending little time on verifying them before sharing them with thousands of people.

Others on forums like Reddit and 4chan started to zero in on ‘suspects’ in photos of people seen with backpacks. Despite the amount of distress and disruption these activities, the social media broadly also served to channel grief and help, and became a notable part of the Boston Marathon bombings story.

In our daily lives, these platforms serve as news forums. With each person connected to hundreds of others, there is a strong magnification of information, especially once it crosses a threshold. They make it easier for everybody to be news-mongers (not journalists). Add this to the idea that using a social network can just as easily be a social performance, and you realize how the sharing of news can also be part of the performance.

Consider Facebook: Unlike Twitter, it enables users to share information in a variety of forms – status updates, questions, polls, videos, galleries, pages, groups, etc – allowing whatever news to retain its multifaceted attitude, and imposing no character limit on what you have to say about it.

Facebook v. Twitter

So you’d think people who want the best updates on breaking news would go to Facebook, and that’s where you might be wrong. ‘Might’ because, on the one hand, Twitter has a lower response time, keeps news very accessible, encourages a more non-personal social media performance, and has a high global reach. These reasons have also made Twitter a favorite among researchers who want to study how information behaves on a social network.

On the other hand, almost 30% of the American general population gets its news from Facebook, with Twitter and YouTube at par with a command of 10%, if a Pew Research Center technical report is to be believed. Other surveys have also shown that there are more people from India who are on Facebook than on Twitter. At this point, it’d just seem inconsiderate when you realize Facebook does have 1.28 billion monthly active users from around the world.

A screenshot of Facebook Graph Search.

A screenshot of Facebook Graph Search.

Since 2013, Facebook has made it easier for users to find news in its pages. In June that year, it introduced the #hashtagging facility to let users track news updates across various conversations. In September, it debuted Graph Search, making it easier for people to locate topics they wanted to know more about. Even though the platform’s allowance for privacy settings stunts the kind of free propagation of information that’s possible on Twitter (and only 28% of Facebook users made any of their content publicly available), Facebook’s volume of updates enables its fraction of public updates rise to levels comparable with those of Twitter.

Ponnurangam Kumaraguru and Prateek Dewan, from the Indraprastha Institute of Information Technology, New Delhi (IIIT-D), leveraged this to investigate how Facebook and Twitter compared when sharing information on real-world events. Kumaraguru explained his motivation: “Facebook is so famous, especially in India. It’s much bigger in terms of the number of users. Also, having seen so many studies on Twitter, we were curious to know if the same outcomes as from work done on Twitter would hold for Facebook.”

The duo used the social networks’ respective APIs to query for keywords related to 16 events that occurred during 2013. They explain, “Eight out of the 16 events we selected had more than 100,000 posts on both Facebook and Twitter; six of these eight events saw over 1 million tweets.” Their pre-print paper was submitted to arXiv on May 19.

An upper hand

In all, they found that an unprecedented event appeared on Facebook just after 11 minutes while on Twitter, according to a 2014 study from the Association for the Advancement of Artificial Intelligence (AAAI), it took over ten times as longer. Specifically, after the Boston Marathon bombings, “the first [relevant] Facebook post occurred just 1 minute 13 seconds after the first blast, which was 2 minutes 44 seconds before the first tweet”.

However, this order-of-magnitude difference could be restricted to Kumaraguru’s choice of events because the AAAI study claims breaking news was broken fastest during 29 major events on Twitter, although it considered only updates on trending topics (and the first update on Twitter, according to them, appeared after two hours).

The data-mining technique could also have played a role in offsetting the time taken for an event to be detected because it requires the keywords being searched to be manually keyed. Finally, the Facebook API is known to be more rigorous than Twitter’s, whose ability to return older tweets is restricted. On the downside, the output from the Facebook API is restricted by users’ privacy settings.

Nevertheless, Kumaraguru’s conclusions paint a picture of Facebook being just as resourceful as Twitter when tracking real-world events – especially in India – leaving news discoverability to take the blame. Three of the 16 chosen events were completely local to India, and they were all accompanied by more activity on Facebook than on Twitter.

table1

Even after the duo corrected for URLs shared on both social networks simultaneously (through clients like Buffer and HootSuite) – 0.6% of the total – Facebook had the upper hand not just in primacy but also origin. According to Kumaraguru and Dewan, “2.5% of all URLs shared on Twitter belonged to the facebook.com domain, but only 0.8% of all URLs shared on Facebook belonged to the twitter.com domain.”

Facebook also seemed qualitatively better because spam was present in only five events. On Twitter, spam was found to be present in 13. This disparity can be factored in by programs built to filter spam from social media timelines in real-time, the sort of service that journalists will find very useful.

Kumaraguru and Dewan resorted to picking out spam based on differences in sentence styles. This way, they were able to avoid missing spam that was stylistically conventional but irrelevant in terms of content, too. A machine wouldn’t have been able to do this just as well and in real-time unless it was taught – in much the same way you teach your Google Mail inbox to automatically sort email.

Digital information forensics

A screenshot of TweetCred at work. Image: Screenshot of TweetCred Chrome Extension

A screenshot of TweetCred at work. Image: Screenshot of TweetCred Chrome Extension

Patrick Meier, a self-proclaimed – but reasonably so – pioneer in the emerging field of humanitarian technologies, wrote a blog post on April 28 describing a browser extension called TweetCred which is just this sort of learning machine. Install it and open Twitter in your browser. Above each tweet, you will now see a credibility rating bar that grades each tweet out of 7 points, with 7 describing the most credibility.

If you agree with each rating, you can bolster with a thumbs-up that appears on hover. If you disagree, you can give the shown TweetCred rating a thumbs down and mark what you think is correct. Meier makes it clear that, in its first avatar, the app is geared toward rating disaster/crisis tweets. A paper describing the app was submitted to arXiv on May 21, co-authored by Kumaraguru, Meier, Aditi Gupta (IIIT-D) and Carlos Castillo (Qatar Computing Research Institute).

Between the two papers, a common theme is the origin and development of situational awareness. We stick to Twitter for our breaking news because it’s conceptually similar to Facebook, fast and importantly cuts to the chase, so to speak. Parallely, we’re also aware that Facebook is similarly equipped to reconstruct details because of its multimedia options and timeline. Even if Facebook and Twitter the organizations believe that they are designed to accomplish different things, the distinction blurs in the event of a real-world crisis.

“Both these networks spread situational awareness, and both do it fairly quickly, as we found in our analysis,” Kumaraguru said. “We’d like to like to explore the credibility of content on Facebook next.” But as far as establishing a mechanism to study the impact of Facebook and Twitter on the flow of information is concerned, the authors have exposed a facet of Facebook that Facebook, Inc., could help leverage.

Yes, I had $50.

Last week, I paid $50 to sign up for entrepreneur Dalton Caldwell‘s new start-up App.net. I wouldn’t have found the service by myself until it’d have been too late for me to get on their bandwagon early – and getting early on a promising bandwagon is something I’ve always missed out on. So, on a friend’s advice, I signed up for the alpha as a paying member (the other tier being paying developer), and went about finding out what really I’d signed up for. I know, it sounds stupid.

From where I was looking, App.net – by leaving out advertisers – provided access to more definition for developers to work with. Sure, it looks like Twitter for now, but I’m hoping that in the near future, it could yield a unified service through which I could manage my entire web-based social graph in real-time.

I’m not a developer. Sure, I can navigate through the world of developers, but I’d only be a tourist at the most. What I am at heart is an information-collator and -distributor. I read almost 50 articles on various topics every day, and that’s just opinion/analysis pieces. News is separate. More than anything, I’d be thrilled if I had someway to represent myself through these commodities (like I’m doing now by sharing links and blurbs on Facebook and short quips on Twitter) in a more tractable manner.

Not to mention: I’d also like it if I was able to customize what I had to offer and serve it differently. For instance, Twitter-lists is a concept that comes closest to tracking, in real-time, news on my favorite subjects from my favorite commentators. However, Twitter’s social infrastructure has left the possibilities arising out of that fragmented. Imagine, instead, how great it’d be if I could set up one platform from atop which multiple authors could share their favorite reads in real-time, which readers could then customize and consume.

Perhaps I’m going too far, perhaps I’m imagining things, but I’d like to think such things will become possible, and that App.net will have a role to play in it. Sure, I had $50, and I could just be trying to salvage the sense in my decision right now. However, if I hadn’t thought these and such things would be possible, I wouldn’t have spent the money I’d saved up to buy some hosting space for this blog.