Category Archives: Twitter

The Sounds of Email

Over on Twitter, Amie Stepanovich shared adapted lyrics to Simon & Garfunkel’s “Sound of Silence” to email.

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I helped finish the song there yesterday, and thought it was worth pulling together today. You can listen to an excellent version from their concert in the park in the embedded video below, if you’d like some voices in your head as you read.

The first verse is hers, the rest are mine. I shared a lightly edited because I enjoyed the writing exercise & it made me smile. Perhaps reading will do that for you, too.

Hello email, my old friend
Don’t think that you’ll ever end
Because an inbox that is heaping
Keeps on growing while I am sleeping
And the unread that are waiting in the cloud
Are disavowed
To be met with the sound of silence

In restless dreams I browsed alone
Narrow screens of Apple phones
‘Neath the halo of a desk lamp
I moved my fingers as they were cold and cramped
When my eyes were stabbed by the flash of a laptop light That split the night
And heard the sound of email

And in the naked light I saw
Ten thousand emails, maybe more
People writing without speaking
People reading without listening
People sending spam that servers never shared
No one dared
Disturb the sound of email

“Fools” said I, “You do not know
Email like a cancer grows
DM me so I might teach you
Text my phone so I might reach you”
But my words like silent raindrops fell
And echoed in the bowels of email

And the people refreshed and prayed
To the smartphone gods they made
And my inbox flashed out its warning
In the words that it was forming
And the screen said, “The words of the spammers
Are written on Facebook walls
And firewalls”
And whispered in the sounds of email.

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Trumping Trump on Twitter

[Editor’s Note: This post was originally published in 2012. It was recovered from the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine and republished in 2018.]

This is the most retweeted tweet I’ve tweeted to date:

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It blew up so much it attracted Donald Trump’s notice. He responded:

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I dream of the day when I get nearly 1,700+ retweets of a story instead of a sentiment. Apparently, I touched a nerve. My tweet just kept going and going and going.

By the numbers, my tweet was amplified five times as much as Trump’s, with a bit less than 10% of the followers. On particular count, I may have “trumped” the real estate mogul on Twitter, although I think it’s safe to say that this is an imperfect gauge of public opinion. He also shows no signs of shifting his course.

On a more qualitative level, Trump’s @mention of me exposed me to a day’s worth of emotional feedback online. I received many negative @replies on Twitter when the @WhiteHouse retweeted me last July. The angry responses after Donald Trump @mentioned me this week, however, were worse in scale and composition.

As I gain more surface area online and in the media, through television appearances, I’m finding that I’m encountering more hate, fear, ignorance and anger everywhere. Honestly, I have a hard time not responding to people online. I’ve never liked seeing broadcast journalists and celebrities ignore people, even angry viewers or fans. It’s not how I’ve worked over the last decade and I don’t intend to change.

As I gain more of a platform to focus attention on issues that matter, this won’t get easier. The Internet mirrors what is worst in humanity, along with what’s best in us. The Web is what we make of it. It’s a bitter reality, though I think it’s been part of the public sphere as long as we’ve had one.

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The White House Has Working WiFi!

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In the nearly 7 years I’ve lived and worked in Washington, finding working wifi has been a constant battle around the District. Yesterday, I was astonished and elated to find a working, robust wireless network operating in the basement of the Eisenhower Executive Office Building at the White House.

This shouldn’t be that exciting in 2016, but it was, and remains so, particularly in the basement theater that’s a deadzone for cell phones. I’ve gotten online there in past years but rarely without difficulty or disruption.

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Functional White House wifi enabled the people at the forum I attended to get online to share what they were experiencing, including participating in the online backchannel on Twitter and uploading selfies. This was the first time I’ve been asked to take a selfie with strangers at the White House. As precedents go, it’s not earthshaking, but it’s an interesting reflection of our wired moment.

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It’s taken the Obama administration most of two terms to upgrade this aspect of White House’s IT infrastructure — when staff showed up in 2009, they found computers still running Windows 98 — but they’re leaving the place better than they found it.

My favorite public place to log onto a public wireless network, however, still remains the House Public network in “the People’s House” in the Rayburn Office Building.

Creative anti-#sopa activism in the wifi options in the hearing overflow room.

A photo posted by Alex Howard (@digiphile) on Nov 16, 2011 at 7:21am PST

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Yes, it matters if senior staff at your institution use social media. Here’s why.

Over at GigaOm, Mathew Ingram asks whether it matters whether some editors and reporters at the New York Times tweet or not, riffing on the “Twitter graveyard” that Charlie Warzel dug up at Buzzfeed. As Warzel notes, dozens of Times staff are dormant or are “eggs,” with default accounts. My answer is simple: yes, it matters, and as I clarified to Patrick LaForge, a long-time, active Twitter user who I think uses it quite well, this isn’t about how they tweet but whether they do it at all.

Full disclosure: I gave the Times a much longer, richer answer regarding social media when their researcher interviewed me for the innovation report that leaked earlier this year. I was constructively critical then and will try to be now, as well.

It’s true that Twitter is being actively used by a smaller percentage of American adults online (19%) than other platforms, like Facebook. While I think that underbills Twitter’s influence and reach, I would be interested to see Charlie Warzel or a media reporter audit the NYTimes use & participation on Facebook, Instagram, Tumblr, Pinterest, Google+ Hangouts with readers, Reddit, or comment sections. That would be more representative of total commitment and action on reader engagement, as opposed to a Buzzfeed post that may feel like a potshot to people internally. As someone who has watched and participated in discussion about Times content on all of those channels, I can say with some certainty that there is a gradient of demonstrated use & active listening. As long as @deanbaquet is silent, though, folks at 620 Eight Avenue should be prepared for negative comparisons to Alan Rusbridger (@arusbridger) at the Guardian and external analysts wondering whether he understands how the top editor acts sets the bar, high or low, for a media organization. Reasonable editors can differ, as Lydia Polgreen does:

I’ve consulted for a number of people on this front over the years and done internal training at past gigs. Showing you are listening with a favorite or retweeting a reply that advanced a story is valuable; it’s the first step to ‘tweeting your beat.’ For instance, for Baquet, retweeting a different reporter sharing her or his big story once every day would demonstrate that he was reading his own staff and using the audience that he has accumulated to amplify stories would be a safe approach. From where I sit, leading a media organization now includes a profoundly public component, and as the “sources have gone direct,” top editors are ceding ground by not using social media to get their perspective into discussion; posting a press release online or emailing statements is a limited and limiting approach. As for whether someone can lead a newsroom effectively or not without paying attention to Twitter, knowing what your staff or those you respect in the industry are saying about you or your leadership, or how they are responding to public critique or your journalism, is relevant to understanding what their challenges or needs are.

I don’t understand some arguments I see elsewhere online that engaging with readers, across platforms and email, doesn’t make the product better or make someone a better editors. The best reporters I know have active inboxes, busy phones and are constantly vetting stories with sources. The idea that products and services don’t get better through exposure to the customers, clients, readers, buyers or users and listening to their responses goes against the grain of everything we’ve learned about iterative, user-centric design over the last decade, in media organizations or out. I find that many comments, @replies, email or calls I get about my journalism makes it better — not all, by any stretch, but a lot, particularly by people who do research in the space, who do what I’m describing, who report on it or are affected by it. If you don’t think so, that’s fine. It’s been my impression that Margaret Sullivan (@sulliview) is a great public editor because she is an active listener online, not just in her inbox.

I understand that some people may still feel that Twitter is dumb, inane, hobbled by a character limit or not a valuable place for senior staff to spend time. In response, I would suggest looking at how another executive editor at a towering media institution in the United States that’s also working to transform from a print-centric model is handling Twitter: Marty Baron, at the Washington Post: @PostBaron. It sure seems like Marty Baron has quite similar working conditions and roles and constraints as Baquet, and yet manages to approach public communication in a different way.

Time is not the issue at the Times or elsewhere. It’s culture. It takes 10 minutes a day to log on to Twitter, read replies, search for responses to your stories (just put in URL) and send a tweet and RT another one. Anyone in government, media, academia or nonprofits who portrays doing that as a bigger time commitment is being disingenuous, perhaps because they simply don’t want to use the platform, given years of negative media reports about how people act there. It’s certainly true that building and engaging an audience takes time, training or experiential learning, but it’s also worth noting that former Timesman Brian Stelter reported his heart out daily and managed to balance building large, engaged social networks. This isn’t the false dichotomy that I keep seeing, where it’s either you report or you use social media: it’s both/and.

Creating an account on a two-way platform and then walking away, ignoring people talking to you, is like going to a cocktail party with strangers and spending your time looking at your phone and ignoring people — or occasionally saying something at dinner and ignoring what people around the table say in response. It may be better strategically, from my standpoint, not to create an account at all than to do so and then abandon it. Your mileage, as ever, may vary.

UPDATE: Folks who said critiquing the lack of tweets by Dean Baquet wasn’t reasonable, take note: the NYT executive editor responded to Steve Buttry, writing that “the fact that I have made so little use of Twitter is fair game for criticism.” I’d take this as tacit acknowledgement that it’s fair game to critique other folks in the media, too. (In other news, I should have asked him for comment on this post, too.)

As Steve notes, though, Baquet adds an observation that I suspect will create more concern than it tamps down:

“One of the biggest criticisms aimed at my generation of editors is that we created a priesthood, that we decided who was a journalist and who was not. If you hadn’t done cops and courts you weren’t a journalist, etc. That characterization was right on. We deserved the hit.

As I observe the criticism nowadays, you will forgive me for noting that it sounds like a new priesthood is being created, with new rules for entry. Don’t take that as saying I should not tweet more. I should. Just a warning that each generation of journalists seems so certain they know what it takes to be a journalist.”

As it happens, the metaphor is one I know well: Back in 2009, when I met Arianna Huffington for the first time at the FTC, she asked me to write up our conversation for her site. So, I did. Its title? “Is Journalism Going Through Its Own Reformation?

Maybe I’ve misread the criticism of Baquet that I’ve seen elsewhere, but my view is exactly the opposite: the smartest young journalists coming up and the Generation X-ers (ahem) that preceded them, along with their wise elders, understand at visceral level that social media, online video and smartphones have shifted how newsgathering works, democratizing publishing to all and enabling any connected person to report and commit acts of journalism.

The people formerly known as the audience, per NYU journalism professor Jay Rosen, certainly know and experiences this during every breaking news situation, with all the confusion and misinformation it creates For much of the public, a top editor publicly choosing not to participate in the hurly burly of online conversation, even to the point of not contributing, much less demonstrating listening or acting as a hub to redistribute confirmed reports, might look like he or she is remaining aloof, choosing to preach from in front of the cathedral, not minister to a circle of friends.

Personally, I look forward to Baquet joining these conversations. I have faith they will be better for having him in it.

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Twitter opens analytics platform to public [TL/DR: images get more engagement]

I briefly logged into Twitter’s free analytics service again today, prompted by a conversation on (you guessed it) Twitter about the demographics of an account’s followers and the news that it was now open to all.

Today, any Twitter user can log in and access the online dashboard and see what Twitter says about how people are interacting with your tweets, among other insights.

I was glad to see that dashboard is definitely working better now than when Twitter first gave me partial access. (I could see follower demographics but not impressions). I know that some people may see these stats as fake-ish numbers, but I wish Tumblr, Pinterest, Vine, Instagram & Google+ offered similar free dashboards for their users — certainly, it would be great if Facebook did for people who turned on the Follow feature.

What did I learn?

digiphile-Twitter-follower-demographics-august-2014First, looking at the highest impression number (155,000 impressions on this tweet) I was reminded that the concept of “free speech zones” remains controversial in the United States, and that tweeting about them can result in a different kind “engagements” than RTs or Favorites: angry @replies from lots of strangers.

This is particularly true if combined with a journalist embroiled in controversy over a misidentification of ammunition and the #Ferguson hashtag.

Second, the gender numbers in the demographics of my followers continues to be heavily skewed toward men (81% vs 19%), a situation that has endured more or less ever since the beginning of 2010, when Twitter began recommending me to new users in its technology vertical.

I invite and welcome any and all women who like to follow me to do so here, if you’re interested in the sorts of things I tweet about, just as I do on Facebook or other social networks.

digiphile-engagement-twitter-august-2014Finally, what Twitter Media and News staff had already told people who are listening is backed up by what they’re showing me: including pictures, maps and graphics in your tweets will raises your “engagement” numbers, at least as measured by people resharing tweets, favoriting them, @mentioning or @replying to them.

I’ve intentionally done that more over the latter half of August, and it shows up in the data.

It takes longer to find the right image for a tweet but the effort can pay off.

Adding that to the process reminds me of how I described Twitter back in 2008: a distributed microblogging platform.

While a few tweets may still be produced and received as simple, humble text messages, as in 2006, many more are much more complicated, and have been for some time.

Back in 2010, the map of a tweet already looked like this under the hood, with some 30 lines of meta data.

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Years later, updates to the platform are much more complex, with integrated cards, videos and pictures. As Twitter rolls out e-commerce from within tweets, I wonder if better dashboards for sales, subscriptions and other conversions might be on the way for the social media company’s customers, if not, perhaps, all of its users.

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“High elf” arrested in Oregon, battling Morgoth

A sword-wielding elf spotted in Portland, Oregon by a local smartphone-wielding human, told police that he was “battling Morgoth,” who apparently had made his way back through the Door of Night and returned to Middle Earth in the form of a red BMW.

Morgoth is the evil higher being whose fall from grace as Melkor  in J. R. R. Tolkein’s mythical universe parallels that of Satan in John Milton’s “Paradise Lost.”  Sauron, who the general public knows from “The Lord of the Rings” movie epics, was one of Morgoth’s chief lieutenants.

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The fact that the young man in Oregon was wearing chain mail is a sign that he might just know what he was talking about: high elves in Tolkein’s universe wore mail, unlike the lightly armored wood elves in the Dungeons and Dragons universe and subsequent worlds.

In this case, however, it appears that he was a different sort of “high elf” — the man admitted to officers that he’d taken LSD before his epic battle with the Beamer — and that he wielding a machete, not an ancient elven blade forged in Gondolin.

According to KPTV, after treatment and release from a local hospital, the young human has been charged with criminal mischief, disorderly conduct, criminal mischief and menacing as a result of the elfscapade.

[IMAGE CREDIT: “The duel of Fingolfin and Morgoth,” by Silentwitness97 at the LOTR Wiki]

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White House goes direct on Instagram in advance of “Zillow Town Hall”

Tomorrow, President Barack Obama will be answering questions about housing during a live event with Zillow. Today, President Obama went directly to Instagram to ask the American people for questions about housing.

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In some ways, this is old hat. The source for the questions, after all, is the same as it has been many times over the past five years: social media. As I commented on Tumblr, five years into this administration, it would be easy to let these sorts of new media milestones at the White House go unremarked. That would be a mistake.

The novelty in the event tomorrow lies in two factors:

1) The White House is encouraging people to ask the president questions using the #AskObamaHousing hashtag on Twitter, Zillow’s Facebook page or with their own “instavideo” on Instagram.

2) It’s being hosted by Yahoo! and Zillow, a online real estate market place that has been a prominent supporter of the administration’s open data efforts.

As for Tuesday at 5:50 PM ET, there were only around a dozen videos tagged with #AskObamaHousing on Instagram, so if you have a good one, the odds are (relatively) decent for it to be posed. (Twitter, by contrast, is much livelier.)

Such informal, atomized mobile videos are now a growing part of the landscape for government and technology, particularly in an age when the people formerly known as the audience have more options to tune in or tune out of broadcast programming. If the White House is looking to engage younger Americans in a conversation about, Instagram is an obvious place to turn.

Today, politicians and government officials need to go where the People are. Delivering effective answers to their questions regarding affordable housing in a tough economy will be harder, however, than filming a 15 second short.

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