Monthly Archives: July 2009

Advertising as film: Virtuoso stop motion ad inspired by Takeuchi

[HT to the Daily Dish]

As I mentioned on Twitter, however, Olympus might have done well to more overtly credit the creator of “A wolf loves pork”, Taijin Takeuchi. That video is embedded below.

I retain my standard reticence to embrace commercial adaption of art. Both are technical and artistic achievements.

In this case, perhaps imitation is the truest form of flattery.

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It’s not about the numbers. It’s about the connections.

Image by Amodiovalerio Verde via Flickr

Last night, I had a surprise:  my follower count on Twitter dropped by 148 in one fell swoop.

At first, I thought it was something I had tweeted – oversharing about the Forrester tweetup, or disinterest in sharing a clip of Supreme Court nominee Sotomayor. That didn’t jibe, however, with my gut.

What was inflammatory? What had I done that resulted in a huge loss of followers? As I drifted off to sleep, I thought: how important is this, really, in the grand scheme of things?

I’ve long since learned one hallmark of netiquette on Twitter (Twittiquette, if you will) was not to talk about one’s follower numbers. (If only I could retrieve some of the replies I received back in 2007 after doing so, I’d be thrilled. No good.)

A paraphrase of most of them essentially boiled down to this: are you here to get followers or here to connect?

It didn’t take long to see where the real value was. And, more than two years later, I’m elated to look back and see how many marvelous connections I’ve made, many of which have led to friendships offline. Why is that important?

For me, that’s a a simple answer: we live in a number-obsessed culture. Thinks about how many metrics we track, filter and can recall: poll numbers, net worth, MPG, CTR, Web uniques, 0-60 in __, GPA, APR, circulation, P/E ratios, DJIA, TCO, Mbps, R/W speed…on and on.

And, naturally, for those in the social networking world,we count subscribers,  friends and followers. I’ve received far too many messages and spam promising me thousands of followers if I use this software or that service.

Honestly, they all leave me with the taste of fermented cough syrup in my mouth, with a healthy side of cod liver oil.

It’s not about the numbers: it’s about the connections.

Every follower or friend I’ve made has been through a conscious choice or organic growth. I’m proud of that. I’ve done it in what I might term the “new-fashioned way,” using much the same approach that Chris Brogan describes in his Twitter FAQ: “be helpful, share, communicate, use @replies a lot.” I tend to attribute “by @username” or “via @” nearly as much as directly @reply these days but the sense is the same.

Yesterday, I met Josh Bernoff, co-author of Groundswell. I had dinner with Shava Nerad and her beau, “Fish Fishman,” with Laurel Ruma joining in a bit later. I saw dozens of other friends from the local social media scene at two different tweetups.

I shared some groundbreaking journalism tools and advice, like best practices for journalists curating the Web. I shared messages and stories with newsies at the New York Times, Guardian, Wired, Gizmodo, Slate, The Register,The Center for Democracy & Technology and many others.

I read Stephen Baker on what may become of BusinessWeek and Bernard Lunn on creative destruction in publishing

I shared a lovely bit of science fiction made real, via the irrepressible Steve Garfield, watching the latest in augmented reality:

I reviewed my sources, notes and interviews from a conference earlier this week and wrote an article. I enjoyed a two hour workshop with my colleagues, analyzing the strengths and weaknesses of our journalism. I even enjoyed a late night cocktail with someone I love deeply.

In all of that, what does a dip in follower numbers mean? Not a helluva lot.

And, as it turns out, the scuttlebutt that Twitter is doing another purge of spammers and bots, a process that I recall from last year as well. My existential angst was unwarranted, my concern without merit – but the thought process and recounting it led me to was worth it.

I’m proud of my connections and my friends, of the social news network we’re all collaborating upon, and up the quality of the communication within it. I’m glad to bring it with me to Washington in a few short weeks.

The spammers can go live on whatever lower circle of digital Hades is reserved for ’em.

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Post from the comments: “Let’s go give away some oranges”

Fight Club
Image via Wikipedia

Yesterday, Chris Brogan wrote about Secret Fight Club, adapting the concept of Fight Club to social media for social change.

My first response? The first rule of #SecretFightClub: No one talks about Secret Fight Club!

In a comment on Chris’s blog, I suggested that “eTyler Durden is gonna be so annoyed. I suggest you change your soaps and don’t eat soup for months.”

The irony is that, given the reach of Chris’ blog, many people WILL of course be talking about SFC, though perhaps even more will simply keep on spreading that good will silently.

“Buying free plates of bacon at the bar” isn’t a bad metaphor at all — I can’t forget when someone did just that at the #140Conf — but passing out oranges to the homeless catches something closer to my heart.

A member of my family always carried oranges in Philly and Baltimore growing up, where there are major homeless populations, most of whom have major Vitamin C deficiencies.

Instead of giving them money, he passed out oranges. A few homeless people became upset, since they wanted $ for whatever other cause, but most were incredibly grateful.

Chris Brogan passes out oranges all the time.

He posts portraits of independence on his blog, tweets  about worthy causes, explains how he tweets, writes about favorite children’s books, pastors or software he likes.

Some cynics might say that’s name dropping or crass brand mentions, like the unfortunate choice of Magic Johnson to mention KFC five times during MJ’s memorial.

I don’t buy into that.

In the social media world, regardless of what digital outpost you’re on, sharing information and being helpful is the best and most important form of digital currency we have to share.

Instead of beating each other up to escape the banality of corporatized modern life, in order to FEEL something, we are all collaborating on building a global network of digitized human experience, caught on video, pictures or memorialized in 140 characters or more.

I’d say thank you to Chris for risking eTyler Durden’s wrath but I think it’s possible he’s playing him here. He remembers how long many of us have been at this online.

Do you remember when we all passed around The Hunger Site and everyone clicked to give rice? I do.

And guess what? That website just celebrated its 10th anniversary.

FreeRice gives away rice if you play simple word games. And charity : water just celebrated a similar digital success, borne on a wave of social media good karma.

The netizens using and sharing those ideas represent precisely the kind of Secret Fight Club I’m both proud to belong to and recruit others to join.

Let’s go give away some oranges.

Note: This post first appeared as a comment on Chris Brogan’s blog. I decided it was worth editing and posting here. I’m following Chris’ example when he posted “On Public Radio” as a surprise guest post on

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Amazon’s Mechanical Turk’s potential for social science, commerce

Today at Harvard Law Schools’s weekly Berkman Center lunch, Aaron Shaw presented into the potential  Amazon‘s Mechanical Turk(AMT) holds for social science and the culture that surrounds it. His talk drew upon research-in-progress from the Berkman Center’s Online Cooperation group, in collaboration with Daniel Chen and John Horton.

Although the presentation itself, cheekily entitled HIT me baby one more time, Or: How I learned to stop worrying & love Amazon Mechanical Turk,” was a bit light on statistics, the conversation within Berkman’s community around the issues of labor laws, privacy, methodology and technological potential were fascinating, as always.

Adam Shaw at Berkman

Aaron Shaw at Berkman

As Shaw noted, the origin of the name for  Amazon‘s Mechanical Turk lies in a chess-playing “automaton” that was no mechanical creation at all, but instead a clever contraption that hid a chessmaster inside. Amazon’s version farms out small tasks — or “HITs” — that require a human to accomplish.

As an aside, I have to note that, as Peggy Rouse pointed out in Mechanical Turk, Powerset and enterprise search, there may be considerably more to Amazon’s strategy than the creation of a crowdsourcing market for simple tasks. She thinks Mechanical Turk may play a role in enterprise search down the road. She’s a canny observer, I’d recommend reading her thoughts.

Early in his presentation, Shaw offered up a shoutout to Andy Baio (@waxpancake) who asked two questions late last year in “Faces of Mechanical Turk“: “What do [Amazon Turk users] look like, and how much does it cost for someone to reveal their face?”

Faces of Mechanical Turk [Credit: Andy Baio]

Credit: Andy Baio, Faces of Mechanical Turk

The aggregated image is shown on the right. $0.50 was the magic price, apparently.

As Shaw noted, however, when it comes to the Turk,  no public, trustworthy, aggregate data is available. What evidence is available derives from self-selecting surveys and experiments. Those samples showed a large number of women, from many countries of residence (although mostly in the US & India). Speculatively, he noted that the age of users appears to be low, while education and income is high.

Shaw posited that the geographically component is likely correlated to Amazon’s requirement that users hold a US banking account.  As a result, Shaw’s research relied upon whatever his team could collect on the Turk or through interviews with users and Amazon executives.

So, does the Mechanical Turk work for its users? Sometimes. Shaw noted that once you get a few people performing a given task, the accuracy rate for completion goes up overall, providing the example of machine-learning algorithms.

As he noted wryly, it’s “Not all bots, cheaters and scripts.”

Task selection and design is important to that success rate: skill matters, on both sides. It’s not just the skill of users and their ability to follow instructions – success also relies upon the skill of the creators of the HITs. Social scientists — scientists of any stripe, really — recognize the issue here in experimental design.

The uses of Turk cover a broad spectrum, though by nature each represents some form of crowdsourcing. Amazon itself used to Turk to generate product descriptions, questions and answers, thereby “spamming itself,” as Shaw put it.

Spectrum of users of Amazon Mechanical Turk

Spectrum of users of Amazon Mechanical Turk

How else is the Mechanical Turk being put to use?

  • The Extraordinaries: “micro-volunteer opportunities to mobile phones that can be done on-demand and on-the-spot”
  • is using it for transcription
  • uses Mturk to create art. For .02, he pays users to draw a sheep facing left. He then sells sheets of them  for $20, some portion of which is donated to charity.
  • Also noted: oDesk, reCAPTCHA, Threadless, Aardvark, liveops

Aside from commercial, artistic or volunteer uses, Shaw believes that Mechanical Turk has considerable potential to enhance social science.


  1. As a pool of subjects for randomized experiments
  2. As a pool of inexpert raters for distributed observation, or “coding”

Advantages to labs?

Low cost of use, ease of paying subjects, speeds, diverse subjects (potentially), one HIT = one person, workers do not (usually) interact.

Experiments can consist of contextualized real-effort tasks. As the Turk has created a real labor market, as for text transcription, there’s utility in many areas, like canonical games in economics and paired surveys.

In other words, its neither reducible to a manifestation of the “Internet hivemind” or some sort of “latter day child labor,” at least in Shaw’s view. The online conversation around the presentation, which included Esther Dyston, was more skeptical on the latter point, noting that the potential for skirting labor laws was not inconsiderable. Shaw readily conceded that the issue is salient, although he sees such labor issues as “downstream,” he expects to see more given that the “tension is so clear, so stark.”

Shaw has been advised by Yochai Benkler while at Berkman, who evidently considers the Turk to be of use for content analysis for distributed observations. In this context, the ability for researchers to randomly assign HITs for raters to code objects is helpful. Shaw brought up Klaus Krippendorf, of UPenn, in the context of understanding some of the theory here; I’ll need to go do my due diligence in understanding Krippendorf’s work.

Yochai has noted that specific groups involved in distributing computing types, like SETI, have performed admirably. According to Shaw, in fact,“The Knights who say “Nee” perform quite well when measured against other countries with distributed computing.”

I also heard about the “Turkopticon,” a Firefox extension that allows users to submit feedback about HIT creators. Although Shaw said that it is not widely installed, there’s clearly a step towards community self-policing.

When asked about the utility of using the Turk for searching for missing computer scientist Jim Gray or searching for Steve Fossett’s plane, Shaw immediately recognized the value but hadn’t examined the data sets in question at length.

The question itself begged for a follow up, given the release of Chris Andersen’s “Free” this week: How and why are users motivated to provide hits when altruism is involved? Is work of higher quality when there is money involved?

Shaw offered a cautious affirmation, though with reservations: Payment vs free is “such a loaded issue in society. The symbolic value of money or donation is humongous.”

A Berkman Fellow in attendance, Chris Soghoian, noted that his advisor pays 5-10x the market rate and gets email about when the next task is coming, along with decent results.

In Shaw’s view, there needs to be “a more serious examination of the question. Experimental evidence of research suggest sub-populations of people who would respond differently. Some people will be motivated by doing good, others don’t care, want the .05. We need better ways to test. It’s situation-specific.”

As he wryly noted, “We’re not all homo economicus.”

As usual, this was an excellent lunch.You can view the archived video of the presentation as a .mov.

Following the presentation, Aaron wrote me to add the following:

“Daniel and John’s contributions to the field of experimental research on online labor markets include

  1. recognizing that AMT could serve as a venue for experimental studies;
  2. conducting the earliest labor market experiments on AMT;
  3. solving a bunch of difficult problems so that they could make valid causal inference based on the results of these experiments.”

I have to note one other organization I learned about today: “TxtEagle.” TxtEagle is a innovative concept for active “mobile crowdsourcing,” distributing small-scale jobs via SMS and payment the same method. 

In other words, microjobs with micropayments. The mobile platform’s founders recognize that there are more than 2 billion mobile phone users in the developing world that could potentially be leveraged to perform tasks. The BBC wrote that “txteagle is changing the dynamics of outsourcing labour.” Hard to disagree with that.

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