The “Smart” In “Smartass”

After noticing that his snarky or critical tweets tended to get more social media mileage than his more positive ones, Clive Thompson got to wondering if there was an explanation for this disparity:

Indeed, there is. It’s called hypercriticism. When we hear negative statements, we think they’re inherently more intelligent than positive ones. Teresa Amabile, director of research for Harvard Business School, began exploring this back in the 1980s.

She took a group of 55 students, roughly half men, half women, and showed them excerpts from two book reviews printed in an issue of The New York Times. The same reviewer wrote both, but Amabile anonymized them and tweaked the language to produce two versions of each—one positive, one negative. Then she asked the students to evaluate the reviewer’s intelligence.

The verdict was clear: The students thought the negative author was smarter than the positive one—“by a lot,” Amabile tells me. Most said the nastier critic was “more competent.” Granted, being negative wasn’t all upside—they also rated the harsh reviewer as “less warm and more cruel, not as nice,” she says. “But definitely smarter.” Like my mordant tweets, presumably. This so-called negativity bias works both ways, it seems. Other studies show that when we seek to impress someone with our massive gray matter, we spout sour and negative opinions.

China vs #OccupyCentral


Beijing’s censors have been working overtime to scrub coverage of the Hong Kong protests from social media:

Weibo censorship hit its highest point this year at 152 censored posts per 10,000, according to Weiboscope, an analytics project run by the University of Hong Kong. (“Hong Kong” and “police” were the day’s top censored terms.) To put that in perspective, the Sept. 28 censorship rate was more than double that on June 4, the 25th anniversary of the crackdown on the Tiananmen student movement — an event so meticulously censored in both traditional and social media that many of China’s younger generation are largely ignorant of the event. …

Despite 2014’s many politically sensitive and potentially destabilizing events — including a March 1 terrorist attack at a busy train station, the July 29 announcement of an investigation into former security watchdog Zhou Yongkang, and the Sept. 23 sentencing of prominent Uighur scholar Ilham Tohti on charges of separatism — the three most censored days on Weibo nevertheless all related to Hong Kong. Beijing’s official rejection on August 31 of open nomination of candidates in Hong Kong came in second, while the annual July 1 pro-democracy march in Hong Kong took third.

Alexa Olesen monitored the reaction after China blocked Instagram on Sunday:

A handful of Chinese Weibo users blamed the Hong Kong protestors for getting their Instagram service axed. But many Chinese appeared oblivious to the situation in Hong Kong, unsurprising given the current mainland news blackout on the escalating situation and the scrubbing of Weibo messages that mentioned Hong Kong. Weibo also was blocking searches for the keyword “Instagram,” forcing users to resort to calling the service “Ins” in order to grouse about the shutdown.

Most mainland Chinese still likely know nothing of the Hong Kong protests, now continuing into the early hours of the morning. But online chatter about the Instagram blackout could backfire on Beijing, leading otherwise indifferent Chinese web users to feel the personal impact from events transpiring far away — and to begin asking why yet another popular online tool has, at least for now, been taken away.

And Lily Kuo looks at how Chinese netizens are getting around the censors:

Bloggers are findings ways to get around the censors by searching for the English transliteration of blocked Chinese phrases—substituting “xianggang” for Hong Kong or “zhanzhong” for “Occupy Central,” for example. Entering a space in between the two Chinese characters for Hong Kong is another way around the restrictions, [Chengdu resident] Li said. Censors are adapting swiftly. Searching for the phrase “zhanzhong” already prompts a notice on Weibo that results cannot be displayed. Even posts critical of the protesters are being removed, including a comment that read, “So violent like this, and you tell me you want democracy. I don’t want this kind of democracy!” was deleted.

(Chart via Lily Kuo)

When Facebook, Twitter And CCTV Solve Crimes

Last Thursday, a brutal gay bashing took place in the City of Brotherly Love:

Sources tell NBC10 the 27-year-old and 28-year-old victims were walking from a restaurant in the area of 16th and Chancellor around 10:45 p.m. Thursday. Suddenly they were approached by a visibly intoxicated group of two men and six women. Witnesses say someone in the group asked, “Is this your fucking boyfriend?” When one of the victims told them yes, the group allegedly attacked them, punching and kicking them in the face, head and chest.

Both men suffered shattered cheekbones and one had to have his jaw wired shut. But a combination of CCTV and social media – especially by a lone and heroic tweeter – caught the fuckers who did it:

The Philadelphia police department on Tuesday released surveillance video of the large group of suspected attackers as they walked along the Philadelphia street where the attack occurred. Within hours, the above photograph [shown in the lower-right corner of that tweet by Greg Bennett] surfaced on Twitter that purports to show many of the suspects at a dinner party taken that evening at a nearby restaurant. …

According to reports, a Twitter user named @FanSince09 turned to Facebook Graph Search to see who had checked into La Viola after it was determined that the photo first surfaced on Facebook. After matching the photo from people who called into the restaurant, he notified police.  It wasn’t long after that Philadelphia police detective Joe Murray credited @FanSince09 with helping to crack the case with this tweet: “S/O to @FanSince09 This is what makes my job easy. Sure, it’s up to me to make the arrest but we are all in this together.”

Late Tuesday evening, WPVI-TV reported that attorneys representing the suspects have contacted police and are marking arrangements to turn themselves in for questioning on Wednesday.

It reminds me a bit of our Window View contest. It’s amazing what you can do with Google earth, let alone with CCTV and Facebook clues. It’s also a sign of the power of social media to replace conventional sources. In the old days, a newspaper would have had to do all the legwork – probably not as swiftly – and have far fewer resources to do it. Now, independent, social media sleuthing can make all the difference. In a pretty demoralizing and depressing time, this cheered me up no end.

When Fighting Back Means Tweeting Back

Heads up that this video from the State Department contains some really graphic stuff:

Zenon Evans has details:

Playing catchup to ISIL’s spread throughout social media, the U.S. government is also posting daily on the Facebook and Twitter. The campaign is called “Think Again, [Turn] Away” and it’s geared at English-speakers who are tempted to join the terrorist organization. Britain recently raised an alarm because its defense department believe around 600 citizens have taken up arms for ISIL, though some estimate as many as 1,500 have. There are also an estimated 100 American citizens and a sum total of 3,000 Westerners who have joined the fight to establish a Caliphate throughout much of the Middle East. America’s information front focuses a lot on kids: ISIL isn’t letting kids go to school, ISIL is eating meat while children eat bread, ISIL is killing children and using them as suicide bombers. It also features on individuals who became jihadists but are now disillusioned with the fight, as well as Muslims who denounce ISIL as hypocritical and unfaithful to the religion’s teachings.

Alex Altman measures what the US is up against in this battle:

Much of the terrorist group’s work has taken place on Twitter. “2013 was the year of Twitter for Al-Qaeda and ISIS,” [Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications coordinator Alberto] Fernandez says. Since May, more than 60,000 Twitter accounts have been set up to herald the group, including 27,000 since the murder of Foley last month, according to an analysis conducted by Recorded Future, a web analytics firm, for the British media outlet Sky News. ISIS has used the platform both to spread grotesque photos of decapitated heads and bloodied bodies—”jihad porn,” as government officials call it—and to recruit potential conscripts. As Twitter cracked down on some of the gory imagery, an ISIS adherent even called for themurder of the site’s employees.

In the meantime, many of the group’s members have fled the site, terrorism analysts say, for more obscure social-media platforms like Friendica, Diaspora and VK (a Russian social-networking site used by the Boston bombers). The U.S. still finds itself outmatched as it tries to suss out and rebut all this activity.

Enjoy The Silence?

by Phoebe Maltz Bovy

Separate from all of the other debates raging online is the question of whether you are, in fact, a terrible person if you’re steering clear. Or, conversely, if you’re joining in. Which is it? First, the counterpoint:

Nick Bilton is also skeptical (NYT):

Trying to discuss an even remotely contentious topic with someone on social media is a fool’s errand. Yet still we do it. My Twitter and Facebook feeds over the last month have been filled with vulgar discourse about Israel and Gaza. For example, someone posts a link saying Hamas hailed rockets upon Israel, someone else responds by accusing Israel of killing hundreds of civilians, and next thing you know it’s chaos on social media. A link quickly devolves into vicious and personal attacks.

Been there, done that. While I do scan Twitter and Facebook to see what others have linked to or are discussing (and, ahem, linking to the things I’ve written), when it comes to actually posting things myself, I’m ever more drawn to Pinterest, Instagram, and the upbeat, apolitical world of adorable pets, space-age fashion, and from-scratch yuba preparation. (No, that was not a gratuitous link to a Saveur article that, yes, happens to include a photo of a fit, shirtless man. That was just the best explanation of yuba I could find!)

But there’s also a strong case that social-media silence is itself unethical. Writes Janee Woods:

For the first couple of days, almost all of the status updates expressing anger and grief about yet another extrajudicial killing of an unarmed black boy, the news articles about the militarized police altercations with community members and the horrifying pictures of his dead body on the city concrete were posted by people of color. … And almost nothing, silence practically, by the majority of my nonactivist, nonacademic white friends – those same people who gleefully jumped on the bandwagon to dump buckets of ice over their heads to raise money for ALS and those same people who immediately wrote heartfelt messages about reaching out to loved ones suffering from depression following the suicide of the extraordinary Robin Williams, may he rest in peace. But an unarmed black teenager minding his own business walking down the street in broad daylight gets harassed and murdered by a white police officer and those same people seem to have nothing urgent to say about pervasive, systemic, deadly racism in America?

They have nothing to say?

Why? The simplest explanation is because Facebook is, well, Facebook. It’s not the New York Times or a town hall meeting or the current events class at your high school. It’s the internet playground for sharing cat videos, cheeky status updates about the joys and tribulations of living with toddlers, and humble bragging about your fabulous European vacation. Some people don’t think Facebook is the forum for serious conversations. Okay, that’s fine if you fall into that category and your wall is nothing but rainbows and happy talk about how much you love your life.

Woods goes on to discuss factors beyond social media pertaining to what she sees as white silence regarding Ferguson (worth reading), but let’s pause on her analysis of what it means to remain silent on social media. Woods is ostensibly referring to two different phenomena: First, to the people who are very much part of the conversation, but who’ve skipped a particular topic, and next, to those who have active social-media accounts but tune out. These are, however, two sides of the same coin. If someone’s weighing in, but only in uncontroversial cases (does anyone support depression or ALS?), they may be making the world a better place, but they’re not risking anything.

But! Before weighing in, there’s something to be said for knowing a little bit about what you’re talking about. Like Woods, I found that a disproportionate amount of my social-media reading material (links and commentary) on Michael Brown has come from non-white (specifically: black) Facebook friends and Twitter users, but… I’m actually fine with that. Listening-to rather than speaking-for, you know? Everyone should be upset about what’s happening, and it relates to all Americans, but when it comes to figuring out what’s going on and what to do about it, I would, all things equal, rather hear what black people have to say. I’m not sure what’s added if white people, responding principally to an “in case you missed it” social-media environment, start holding forth before… well, before doing what Woods advises later in her post: “Diversify your media.”

Is abstaining from these squabbles a noble way of focusing on more serious debate (or of leaving important problems to the experts)? Or is engaging what it means to be an informed citizen? It’s hard to avoid the sense that some of the weighing-in is see-I-care posturing. An appropriately-timed status update that hits just the right notes garners “likes”; is the warm feeling that ensues about what those “likes” say about how one’s friends stand on this key issue, or is it maybe just the teensiest bit personal? But it’s also hard to hear justifications of prolonged silence on certain issues as anything other than defensiveness.

Do you battle it out on social media? Email to let us know.

Bearing Witness, Or Wearing Us Down?

The firehose of social media allows both reporters and citizen journalists to reach massive audiences in real time. David Carr weighs the ups and downs of this immediacy when it comes to war reporting:

Bearing witness is the oldest and perhaps most valuable tool in the journalist’s arsenal, but it becomes something different delivered in the crucible of real time, without pause for reflection. It is unedited, distributed rapidly and globally, and immediately responded to by the people formerly known as the audience. It has made for a more visceral, more emotional approach to reporting. War correspondents arriving in a hot zone now provide an on-the-spot moral and physical inventory that seems different from times past. That emotional content, so noticeable when Anderson Cooper was reporting from the Gulf Coast during Hurricane Katrina in 2005, has now become routine, part of the real-time picture all over the web. …

So now that war comes to us in real time, do we feel helpless or empowered? Do we care more, or will the ubiquity of images and information desensitize us to the point where human suffering loses meaning when it is part of a scroll that includes a video of your niece twerking? Oh, we say as our index finger navigates to the next item, another one of those.

Mathew Ingram’s take:

Although Carr doesn’t get into it, the other downside that some have mentioned is that the news environment has become much more chaotic, now that everyone with a smartphone can upload photos and report on what is happening around them — including the terrorist groups and armies that are involved in the conflict that is being reported on, and the ultimate victims of their behavior. Hoaxes and misinformation fly just as quickly as the news does, and in some cases are harder to detect, and those mistakes can have real repercussions.

At the same time, however, there are some fairly obvious benefits to the kind of reporting we get now, and I would argue that they outweigh the disadvantages. For one thing, as Carr notes, we get journalism that is much more personal — and while that personal aspect can cause trouble for reporters like Mohyeldin and Magnay when they stray over editorial lines, in the end we get something that is much more moving than mainstream news has typically been.

But Micah Zenko fears that this environment has encouraged “chicken-littleism” to run rampant in the media:

The long-standing phenomenon of “if it bleeds, it leads” is now significantly amplified and spread in near real time via social media. For example, virtually anyone who uses Twitter for news gathering will notice that tweets run overwhelmingly toward the alarming, negative, or just horrific. Social media also makes this bad news more intimately personified, since a photograph of human suffering will generate more clicks, retweets, and favorites than a 140-character description alone. Incredibly brave activists, researchers, and journalists in conflict-prone countries wittingly feed this insatiable demand with emotional stories of intense heartbreak or tragedy, and an occasional story of personified heroism in the middle of all the chaos.

Dismal descriptions and perceptions of the world are reinforced by the near absence or minimization of positive international news stories. Now if it doesn’t bleed, it isn’t even newsworthy.

Data Geeks Are Watching You Flirt

In a post yesterday cheerily titled “We experiment on human beings!”, OkCupid co-founder Christian Rudder admitted to conducting Facebook-style research on OKC users. As Sonali Kohli sniffs, the experiments “mostly show that people are extremely shallow and easily manipulated”:

For example, here’s what happened to traffic when OkCupid removed all the pictures from profiles for a day:


When people couldn’t see photos, they left the site in droves. Users who stuck around wound up responding to first messages faster, spent more time chatting than usual and exchanged contact information sooner. But when the photos returned, the blind dates generally stopped talking.

That’s “extremely shallow”? More like extremely human. The way we scope out potential partners doesn’t end when we go online. As Jacob Kastrenakes notes, another experiment involved the outright manipulation of users:


[I]n [that] experiment, the dating site began telling people who should have been bad matches for one another that they were actually good matches, and vise versa. In doing so, it found that just being told whether you’re a good or a bad match for someone was enough to increase or decrease correspondence with them. It wasn’t enough to fully offset the calculated compatibility between the two, but it did have a noticeable impact.

That undoubtedly made for some interesting first-and-last dates. But Brian Fung argues that OKC’s experimentation is more forgivable than Facebook’s:

People join OkCupid for a very specific reason, and that’s to find dates. To the extent that knowing how profile pictures affect your likelihood of getting said dates, the research furthers users’ own objectives. … [T]here’s no such motivating factor when it comes to Facebook. Unless you’re a page administrator or news organization, understanding how the newsfeed works doesn’t really help the average user in the way that understanding how OkCupid works does. That’s because people use Facebook for all kinds of reasons that have nothing to do with Facebook’s commercial motives. But people would stop using OkCupid if they discovered it didn’t “work.”

Jay Hathaway isn’t so sure:

How is this any better than Facebook using our news feeds to see if it can make us miserable? OkCupid doesn’t have a very thorough justification. “[G]uess what, everybody: if you use the Internet, you’re the subject of hundreds of experiments at any given time, on every site. That’s how websites work,” is about as close as they get to giving a fuck.  But perhaps we’re more willing to accept this sort of thing from OkCupid because online dating already feels like consenting to participate in a social experiment. It’s a game we play with virtual strangers, while Facebook is a place we trust with our “real friends,” even when we know we probably shouldn’t.