Retweet Reach, Randomness and the New News

Disclaimers

This one is R-Rated. It’s really about technology and how it affects the world, but also touches a subject that’s impossible to write about without offending half your readers. So, gentle souls probably want to go elsewhere.

0. I want to believe I’m writing this objectively. However, I live in Jerusalem now so my experience of the events mentioned is relatively personal.

1. Obviously all figures below are approximate. There are no hard numbers on the Internet: Twitter follower counts change all the time, messages added and deleted, site traffic estimates are ballpark at best, etc.

2. Also obviously, I hope, I’m not trying to judge the people mentioned in any way. I don’t know that much about neither, from what I’ve learned they both seem well-meaning and obviously highly capable individuals.

The New Media Moguls

During the recent Israel-Gaza clashes, David Zirin posted an column in The Nation’s website on the bombing of a soccer stadium in Gaza.

The incident was not heavily covered: In the grand scheme of war’s horrors, an attack on an empty soccer field merits perhaps a line inside a bigger story. No civilian casualties were reported and, moreover, the IDF owned up to the strike, providing aerial photos of Hamas rocket launch sites in stadium.

But news travel differently now. One of Zirin’s readers was Paul Graham, prominent VC and entrepreneur who tweeted the article to his 85,000 followers:

This tweet was retweeted 85 times. That’s only %0.1, but it amplified the story’s reach considerably. To figure out by how much, you have to use Twitter’s API (Twitter’s UI only displays the first 20 retweeters). Time to break out Twython:

rts = t.getRetweets(id = 270592944891912192, count=100)
total = 0

for i in rts:
	followers = i['user']['followers_count']
	print "@%s\t%s" % (i['user']['screen_name'], followers)
	total += followers

print "TOTAL REACH:", total

The total comes down to 1,428,698. Adding @paulg’s own followers the audience for this tweet was over 1.5 million people.

I ran the same code on Zirin’s own tweet of his article. The result is 11,472, adding Zirin’s almost 15,000 followers the total audience for author’s tweet of his own article is only 26,500.

According to compete.com, TheNation.com gets about 400K visitors/month (relatively little, compared for example to Salon.com’s 2 million). In a day, that would be 13,000 people, obviously not all of whom read Zirin’s column. Generously the total viewers of Zirin’s tweet + the article might come to 30,000.

Graham’s tweet multiplied the article’s audience 50 times.

Breaking Down Retweeters

It’s interesting to see how this audience of 1.5 million is divided among the rewteets. Feeding the output from the code above into google docs produces this:

Obviously, not all retweets are remotely equal. The big blue slice represents Chris Sacca, a fellow VC who has over 1.3m followers. Without Sacca, Graham’s original tweet would reach 200,000 people instead of 1.5 million. Sacca’s single retweet increased the audience 7.5 times.

Randomness

Perhaps the real measure of a Twitter user’s influence isn’t number of followers but potential retweet reach. Maybe Sacca’s college roommate is on Twitter and has 10 followers. But one of them is Sacca who has 1.3 million followers. That gives him a potential audience larger than that of users with 100,000 followers who are less well connected.

This is where linearity breaks: There’s reasonable correlation between a person’s prominence and their number of followers, but things get a lot more chaotic when you account for the followers’ followers.

This accounts for what I think is the most significant trait in this new distribution model: its randomness.

Randomness isn’t only in the network, but encouraged by the process: A retweet involves a click on “Retweet” and then a click on “OK”. It takes less than a second. If not immediately, it probably won’t be done at all, on an active account you usually don’t see the same tweets twice.

If Sacca was traveling that day, or busy in meetings, or had poor reception, Zirin’s audience would be a fraction of what it ended up as.

I believe we’re seeing this random amplification typical of a highly networked world not just in news. They are changing lives and moving billions of dollars around, and affect every member of our society.

In the Olden Days

A single journalist or publisher could always have had a big effect on a story. But it would normally take considerable effort, often involving professional risk. It would require some amount of time, and at the very least a conscious decision.

In the new model, it’s done casually, almost subconsciously. There’s no real risk. Sacca and Graham are not journalists, their reputation is not at stake.

With old media imploding, I’m mostly sad to lose the archetypal street wise reporter who spent a career learning to tell truth from bullshit – whether the latter comes from a street corner drug dealer or the US President or a fellow journalist. We will not be getting this in the new model, where distribution is shaped almost randomly by people whose sensibilities were honed in streets very different from Gaza’s or Jerusalem’s.

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KalSMS Growing

It’s been a good first year for KalSMS, which I’m particularly happy about since I didn’t really have much time to work on it myself (nor, evidently, on this blog). It truly took on a life of its own.

In India, Sheldon D’Souza was using it to power a food ordering startup and contributed some polling code to the codebase (it’s still in a separate branch, I really didn’t have much time for non-work stuff).

In Liberia, local activists were using John Etherton’s Ushahidi KalSMS plugin to track conflict indicators and humanitarian needs.

I had the opportunity to give a talk on KalSMS at the inaugural Dar es Salaam GTUG meeting. Allen Machary, one of the engineers I met in Tanzania (an impressively sharp and passionate group, btw), later joined Bienmoyo and ended up using KalSMS for part of a mobile pregnancy care program he was working on. Here’s a photo I got from Lushen Wu, Allen’s colleague, of a training session in Tanzania.

KalSMS is not pictured, but is somewhere around here

I’ve been hearing from people interested in putting it to various other uses: cross-network SMS service in Poland, salsa club promotion in LA, activists communications in Northern Africa, marketing for a fashion boutique in Finland and so on. Who knows how many of these got built, and how many others I never heard of.

All that has been a pleasant surprise, since about a month after I released KalSMS Ushahidi project launched SMSsync, which has similar goals and obviously much more resources behind it. With my rapidly shrinking spare time and negligible Java skills, I assumed KalSMS was done for. But people still seemed to find a use for it, and improve it.

I was particularly happy to get an email recently from Jesse Young of Envaya, who have taken the codebase and added a LOT of functionality. Envaya’s version is now out as EnvayaSMS, the history page lists the major features they added.

If you’re looking for new features, EnvayaSMS is your best bet. I’m still going to keep KalSMS up, with minimal maintenance, in the same place, and it’s also out on the Amazon Appstore now for easier download. There may be a place for having a minimal feature and the super-simple UI it enables.

When I get some free time, I might integrate some of EnvayaSMS new features down to KalSMS, keeping the UI minimal. If Python/Ruby/etc on Android ever become viable I’d be happy to rewrite the whole thing in a language that doesn’t feel like it was designed by a committee of lawyers.

It’s been a fun ride so far. It’s a great feeling to see my code gets picked up and used all around the world, and have much better programmers than myself take it places I never thought it’ll get. Thanks everyone. Keep KalSMSing.

KalSMS

KalSMS is a small Android based SMS gateway I’ve released as open source. “Kal” is a Hebrew word meaning “lightweight” and “easy”, so it fits KalSMS’ primary goal of being very easy to install, maintain and work with.

KalSMS is a very thin layer between SMS to HTTP and back to SMS. For example, a simple SMS weather service works like this:

  1. A user sends an SMS “weather 10026” to a phone running KalSMS
  2. KalSMS intercepts the SMS message, and sends it to pre defined URL. In this case http://qkhack.appspot.com/weather?msg=weather+10026
  3. In this URL, a script uses Yahoo!Weather API to get the weather forecast for zip code 10025, and formats an XML response like:
    <reply>
      <sms-to-sender>
        Fair 37F today, Mostly Clear 34F tomorrow, Partly Cloudy 37F Friday
      </sms-to-sender>
    </reply>
    
  4. KalSMS parses the response, and sends an SMS back to the user with the weather forecast.

In effect the phone running KalSMS has now become an SMS server, running a weather application.

I’ve been working recently on applications that are meant to be used in places like India and Africa. This taught me that (a) SMS is accessible by a LOT more people worldwide than the web, and (b) it is MUCH harder to build an SMS app than a web app.

KalSMS tries to help this by leaving the heavy lifting to a web app, and just providing a simple, as thin as possible layer between SMS to the Web and back again. This means developers can work with the tools they already know, use state of art technologies like Heroku or App Engine that make launching a web app extremely simple and cheap, and just use an Android phone to enable the SMS part.

Current solutions require either collaboration from a local cellular provider, often a challenge for low budget projects, or setting up your own server – that is, an actual computer running the SMS gateway software connected to a cellular modem. This is non-trivial to install and maintain, and since the solutions out there are tightly coupled you have to write your actual application in a specific language or framework dictated by the SMS solution.

By being Android-based, KalSMS installation is a matter of scanning a barcode, maintenance means keeping the phone working – something almost all people in the world now know how to do. Basically an Android phone with KalSMS replaces a computer, network connection, cell modem, a UPS system and whole bunch of software.

I’ve got plenty of opinions on aid efforts and their effects over the years, but in keeping with the unwritten “produce or shut up” motto of this blog I’ll just say I think things will start to improve when more people pay attention to Bill Easterly than Bono. In my corner, I hope hackers will use KalSMS for various projects simply for its simplicity and reliability – and perhaps in time will seep into the developing world projects I had in mind when building it.

MacBook Time Lapse in Make Magazine

I had the the idea to use iSight for time lapse photography during a record setting blizzard in February, now we’ve just been through perhaps the hottest July on NYC’s records and the new volume of Make Magazine carries the print article. Make is one of my favorite publications, which makes me particularly stoked about the whole thing.

Randi & Patrick, thanks for your photos! Unfortunately Make had to pick just one (it’s only a two page piece..) I really appreciate both your help!

TheRealURL Chrome Extension

Lately I’ve been using Chrome quite a bit, and liking it a lot, which is why I was particularly excited to get a note from Don Magee at Tactical Coder saying he’s now using TheRealURL to power his Chrome URL Expander extension.

Don has some kind words for TheRealURL, too:

This is done by using the API found at: http://therealurl.appspot.com/. I know this is the second time I have switched backends. This new backend is even faster and supports every single url shortening service I have tried.

Thanks :)

I installed it on my Chrome and it works great. Note that the UI is a bit different from the Firefox extension – rather than displaying the long URL in the status bar, it inserts it in the HTML instead of the short one. So now we got Firefox, Thunderbird and Chrome covered (all, by the way, thanks to the kindness of developers I’ve never met, volunteering their code). If someone wants to do an IE/Safari/Opera extensions, let me know – I’d be happy to help any way I can.

Open Sourcing Crowds Machine

I’ve been way too busy recently to give Crowds Machine much attention, and since it’s such a resource hog I’m frankly not that motivated to improve it – better performance will just mean more users which will lead to higher hosting costs.

So I figure the best thing to do is open source the code, so that people would be able to install their own instance (and hopefully give it some much needed TLC): http://github.com/niryariv/crowds

The code is layers upon layers of Rails, much of it written when Rails (and myself) were young & naive. I updated it from time to time, but it’s not my submission to Beautiful Code. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported – if that’s a problem, let me know and I’ll see what I can do.

How To Disable Google Buzz (er, #GoogleBuzz )

[UPDATE: I didn’t like the original text, so I cut out most of it. If you’re getting this via a feed reader and this post appears twice, sorry.]

Here’s a short guide to the confused user: How To Disable Google Buzz. It’s not in sarcastic font but if you’re reading this you probably don’t need it. (BTW, I think a good indicator for when a community gets too big is that sarcasm needs to be explained: it means members don’t trust each other’s intelligence enough to assume outlandish claims are meant sarcastically).

My point obviously isn’t that Google Buzz should or shouldn’t be disabled, my point is that most of these things take only as much of your life as you allow them, so all the hyperbole around Google Buzz (or iPad, or whatever) is pointless.

It’s my first time trying out AdSense too – please feel free to click on the ads, I’m sure these are all fantastic products and services.

While we’re at it, I’d like to suggest a one reason why Google botched Buzz’s launch like that: when you launch something on top of Gmail, you just don’t get the chance to grow organically, learning from mistakes and user feedback as you go. There are a lot of benefits to size, but also some drawbacks.

Finally, I really enjoy my new habit of adding pictures to posts. I hope readers like it too. Here’s a photo of a shiny object: