Hello, Twitter followers; hello, Facebook fans

On Wednesday, Twitter made itself less opaque and a little more understandable when it invited all its users to log into its analytics dashboard and get a detailed breakdown of who had been following them and reading their tweets.

I’ve had access to that feature for a while–I don’t know why, since my unverified account and unwillingness to buy Twitter ads left me outside of the two groups who were supposed to have access to it–but seeing this in the news got me to take a fresh look at my stats.

(To inspect yours, visit analytics.twitter.com when you’re logged in.)

Twitter and Facebook audience analyticsIt also led me to compare this data to the information Facebook provides about users who like my public page there. (People who only have personal profiles get no such report, one of the things I don’t like about Facebook.) Here’s what Twitter’s analytics and Facebook’s Page Insights tell me about my audiences at each social network.

Both are overwhelmingly male. Of my 14,088 Twitter followers, 74 percent are male; for the 2,472 people who like my Facebook page, that figure is 70 percent (while Facebook as a whole is 54 percent male). I don’t know why that is, and I’m not happy about it either. (9/1/14, 12:51 p.m.: If you were wondering how Twitter could determine its users’ gender when it doesn’t ask for that data point, see my friend Glenn Fleishman’s explainer at Boing Boing.)

Facebook seems more globally distributed. The top five cities for Twitter followers are all in the U.S. (Washington, New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Philadelphia), while at Facebook Cairo is in second place after D.C. India is the most popular country after the U.S. on both networks, but citizens of the world’s largest democracy constitute a larger share, about 4.5 percent, of my Facebook audience. Among those U.S. readers, Twitter says California is the most popular state for them while Facebook doesn’t show me state-level data.

Twitter followers are not quite as easy to attract than Facebook fans. From Aug. 3, 2012 to the present, my Facebook page went from 1,798 likes to 2,473, a 37.5 percent increase. From Aug. 1, 2012 to today, my Twitter follower count went from 10,376 to 14,088, a 35.8 percent increase. I didn’t expect that; on Twitter, your poor taste in technology columnists doesn’t get broadcast to your friends the way it does on Facebook.

Tweets can go unread just as easily as Facebook posts, maybe even more so. Over the last week, my most-read tweet was an item about Comcast reviving the hyperlocal news site EveryBlock that netted 4,514 impressions, or less than half of my follower count. At Facebook, my share of a Facebook blog post about clickbait headlines topped the list by reaching 1,783 users, almost three fourths of my page’s fan base.

Neither gives me an ethnic or racial breakdown. So I can only hope that those figures aren’t as unbalanced as the gender split of my social-media audience.

Twitter says you’re here for tech news. Twitter’s analytics include a list of the top 10 interests of your followers; “Technology” and “Tech news” top that list, each with a 79 percent share of my audience. (“Comedy [Movies and television]” appeals to 30 percent of my followers, so maybe I should quote from “Dr. Strangelove” more often.) Facebook doesn’t provide me with this category of insight.

Facebook says you’re probably older than 24. The 18-24 demographic is the largest slice of the Facebook population, but not on my page: men in that age bracket make up 17.9 percent of all of Facebook, but 10.2 percent of my page’s likes. For 18-24 women, the numbers are 14.4 percent and 2.27 percent. Instead, I’m doing best among women and men from 25 to 44. Twitter can’t display this kind of detail, since it doesn’t ask for birthdays.

Not all of this data may be true. Unsaid on either site’s analytics pages: Many users of each choose to provide incorrect data for reasons of privacy or creativity. And even if most of this self-reported information is correct, some of the sample sizes of subsets of my audiences are too small for my conclusions to stand up.

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A modest proposal: How Google can weigh “right to be forgotten” requests

I took part in a panel discussion of the European Union’s “right to be forgotten” privacy directive earlier today, and it didn’t take long for the conversation to turn to one of the thornier aspects of that rule: How is any one company, even one with the resources of Google, going to adjudicate all of those requests?

Google RtbF searchThat’s turned out to be a much bigger problem than I’d feared when I covered this issue in a Yahoo Tech column in May. At the end of July, Google reported that it had received more than 91,000 requests from EU citizens asking to have particular links not shown in response to searches for their names. And many were sketchy in a way that wasn’t immediately obvious:

… we may not become aware of relevant context that would speak in favour of preserving the accessibility of a search result. An example would be a request to remove an old article about a person being convicted of a number of crimes in their teenage years, which omits that the old article has its relevance renewed due to a recent article about that person being convicted for similar crimes as an adult. Or a requester may not disclose a role they play in public life, for which their previous reported activities or political positions are highly relevant.

At the panel, I suggested there was only one fair way to resolve this, and I’ll expand on it here.

It’s clear that Google will have to research each “RtbF” request carefully to see if it falls under the EU’s exceptions for people in public life or whose activities would otherwise involve the public’s right to know. The history of search-engine abuse shows you can’t count on everybody to act ethically about their image online–and when that kind of manipulation goes uncaught by unscrupulous individuals, innocent people suffer.

But that’s not enough. Lest Google inadvertently hide material from somebody about to launch a business or a political campaign, it would be wise to check for evidence of any upcoming ventures into the public sphere by an individual. The history of “RtbF” abuse so far leaves little other choice.

EU citizens, in turn, deserve a timely response to their right-to-be-forgotten queries. The simplest way to do that for a company with Google’s search traffic and computing capabilities would be to do some advance work: It could merge its own records with other sources to determine which EU citizens clearly qualify as being in public life, which ones rank as private citizens and which ones seem likely to cross that threshold either way. To avoid unduly burdening smaller search sites also subject to the “right to be forgotten” directive, Google could allow them access to these records as well.

And so Google would come to protect the privacy of EU citizens by maintaining a massive database about them.

An extreme solution for a problem that can be solved by easier, simpler means in the real world? Yes, that’s my point.

Hey, can you be more specific in your Facebook/Google greetings?

What’s a three-letter word for “I want to converse in real-time on a social network, and I will leave it to you to guess what about”?

Hey intro“Hey.”

Somehow, a message consisting only of that vague salutation has become a standard greeting from pals looking to kick off a conversation over Facebook messages or Google+ Hangouts. I wish that were not so.

As conversation-starters go, this is a nonstarter. It tells me nothing about what’s on your mind or the urgency of your request–unless typing it in lower case should be read as indicating a lower priority.

It’s also unoriginal. If you tried to grab my attention with the equally content-free “Ahoy,” at least I’d be thinking “ah, the salutation Alexander Graham Bell wanted us to use on the phone.”

Instead, why not just get to the point and state your question, compliment, complaint or humblebrag? You were going to do that in your next message anyway; why wait? Don’t let me hold you back!

That more direct practice seems to be how we–even those who “hey” me on Facebook or Google–have settled on using Twitter direct messages, like plain old text messaging before them.

At the same time, I have to recognize that these meaningless greetings come from friends who mean well, and that most lead to chats I appreciate. And things could be worse: I could have people trying to get my attention by saying “Yo.”

Getting flamed

You’re never going to please everybody in a job like this.; sometimes you intensely displease somebody. And so Tuesday’s Yahoo Tech column unpacking Apple’s WWDC announcements yielded an e-mail Wednesday from a reader with the subject line “Hater.” Here we go, I thought:

You are such an Apple-hater, it’s disgusting. I’m glad the Washington Post fired you. Your tech coverage sucked there. I stumbled across you today on Yahoo. Now I’ll know where to avoid you in the future.

FlamesThat kind of spittle-flecked invective goes by the name of “flaming” (or at least it once did; what do the kids call it these days?). Fortunately, it arrives exceedingly rarely and is vastly outnumbered by non-flame mail. The very next e-mail from a reader Wednesday began: “Glad to have found you on Yahoo Tech. I used to look forward to your Washington Post columns.”

(Note also that my possession of a Y chromosome makes my inbox easier to deal with. As in, I don’t have cretins expressing their disagreement with rape threats.)

And yet. A message like that requires some sort of response, and one of my character flaws is the pleasure I take in crafting a politely snarky reply–one that can withstand publicity if my cranky correspondent thinks posting it online will help his cause. So after reciting a certain line about customers from “Clerks,” I wrote back to note my history of buying and using Apple products (see, I’m a self-loathing hater!) and of complimenting them when warranted. I closed with an observation and a suggestion:

But my overall evaluation of this company’s work—or any other’s—is not a binary state. I am capable of appreciating some things it does while finding fault with others to come up with an assessment that’s neither 0 nor 1 but somewhere in between. I’m sorry you seem to be having trouble with that concept.
BTW, if you’re going to accuse somebody else of being a “hater” you might not want to delight in another person’s unemployment.

Will it persuade my reader? Maybe. About half the time I send back a civil response, the other person realizes they were talking to a fellow human being, not a thumbnail image on a Web page, and apologizes. The other half of the time, there’s no response. We’ll see how this one goes…

Mail merge? Work, home and other e-mail addresses

I keep telling myself that one of ways I maintain what’s left of my work/life balance is to have separate home and work e-mail addresses. And yet I have to ask who I’m kidding when these two Google Apps accounts, each at its own domain name, constitute separate lines or windows in a mail client, and when I’m sometimes corresponding with the same person from each address on alternate days. Meanwhile, many people I know seem to function perfectly fine with one all-purpose e-mail address.

MailboxIn a prior millennium, it was an easier call. After having lost a bunch of messages from friends during a transition from one e-mail system to another at the Post–and then discerning the dreadfulness of the new Lotus Notes system–I had little interest in trusting personal correspondence to my employer’s IT department.

I also figured that I would have less trouble staying on top of friends-and-family e-mail if it weren’t competing for space and attention in the first screen of my inbox with random PR pitches, interoffice memos and chit-chat with other journalists. And the address that wasn’t listed on a major newspaper’s Web site should, in theory, get vastly less spam.

(Because I am this persnickety about my communications tools, I also have a regular Gmail account that I use for almost all of my online commerce, financial transactions and other things that are neither personal- nor work-related. I don’t mind the ads there, while my Google Apps inboxes have no such distractions, courtesy of Google ending ad scanning for Apps users–even those on the free version it no longer offers to new users.)

It’s been years since I’ve had to worry about IT-inflicted mail misery. What about the other virtues of this split setup?

  • Being able to flag messages for follow-up means I’m now less likely to forget to answer an important message, whatever address it was sent to.
  • But I don’t need 11 different folders to sort my home e-mail after I’ve dealt with it. Less cognitive load is a good thing.
  • Having to ask myself nit-pick questions like “since I’m asking a friend about something that may lead to him being quoted in a story, should I send this message from my work address?” increases my cognitive load.
  • Searching for messages and then looking over the results is faster when I’m excluding an entire account’s worth of e-mail. But when I ask Mail for OS X to query all of the gigabytes of messages that have accumulated at both addresses… ugh.
  • My anti-spam strategy has been a total bust. When I checked earlier this morning, Google had quarantined almost 1,500 spam messages in my home account, about 100 of which were messages on my neighborhood mailing list that shouldn’t have been screened as junk.

On that last note, here’s a question for you all to ponder: That mailing list will soon be moving to a commercial hosting service subsidized by ads, and of course I haven’t yet read its privacy policy. Should I switch my subscription to my Gmail address, where I can read those messages alongside those from my neighborhood’s smaller Nextdoor group, or should I keep using my home address there?

 

Rocky Agrawal says hi

I woke up Sunday morning to an unexpected e-mail from my Bay Area pal Rakesh Agrawal: Friday afternoon, he’d quit the high-ranking job at PayPal he’d started only weeks earlier and was starting a new company.

A quick check of Google showed that Friday night, he’d gone on some sort of Twitter rampage – a stream of tweets, many incoherent and some talking trash about his now-former colleagues, and of course somebody screen-capped them all before he’d deleted what he said were supposed to be direct messages. Saturday afternoon, PayPal’s Twitter account suggested he’d been canned, reporting that he was “no longer with the company.”

Monday morning, he got on a plane from New Orleans to Newark, after which the Twitter strangeness continued: a string of reports about a phone’s declining battery, veiled insults about former co-workers, requests for a new iPhone, some outright gibberish. After a few lucid tweets following a nap that acknowledged people’s concerns, the tweetstorm got hard to follow all over again. Mutual acquaintances, one of who’s known him much longer than me, started asking about his well-being. I had the same question in mind.

So I met him for dinner with no idea what to expect. I can report that contrary to the Hunter S. Thompson-esque persona he’d been creating, he seemed in command of his wits and confident in the ultimate success of his social-media strategy. In my experience, he has not been a dummy or a newbie on that subject, which has made all of this so confounding to watch. It’s… well, not how I went about publicizing my departure from my old employer.

We talked for a little while about people he’s liked at AOL, Twitter and PayPal and hiring and retention practices he didn’t like at those places–the kind of banter I’ve had more than once with other tech-industry types–and he invited me to record and post that conversation. Have a listen if you want, and please forgive the crummy audio quality caused by recording at a crowded bar:

Note that as he was saying a few nice things about PayPal president David Marcus (whom I met last year at Mobile World Congress and thought a pretty sharp guy), Marcus was posting a note on PayPal’s blog denouncing Rocky’s “mad rants.” My friend no longer seems so fond of his old boss, going by this a.m.’s tweets.

We also discussed the company he’s planning to start up–I can’t report much about that, owing to Rocky revealing so little–and for which he says he has ample funding. There was a vague job offer too. He does not have my answer yet.

10:27 a.m. Revising and extending my remarks to answer one question: So how do I know this guy? Rocky worked at the Post during some of its earliest and more awkward ventures into online publishing, although I didn’t get to know him all that well until years later. If management had listened to people like him who grok user experience and customer behavior (see also: being right about Groupon’s business-model weaknesses way before a lot of other people), my old industry might be in better shape. Don’t count the guy out, in other words.

Re: Reader mail

I started answering e-mail from readers in the summer of 1994, and I’m still not done.

Close-up of OS X Mail’s interface.People keep sending more messages, true, but I’m not sure that I’ve ever reached Inbox Zero with respect to audience correspondence more than a handful of times, none of which followed the invention of blogging and social media.

The sad thing is that even as the tools I use to report and write keep improving, my options for staying on top of reader feedback haven’t advanced much since IMAP e-mail gave me the ability to flag a message for follow-up and see that annotation everywhere I check my mail.

So aside from those occasions when I have the luxury of writing back almost immediately, I still save too many of my replies for a frantic catch-up session, usually staged when I’m trying to finish a workday or during travel-induced idle time.

(Feature request for e-mail developers: Let me bookmark the point in my inbox at which I set aside reader e-mail and should resume answering it when I next have time.)

The “good job!” messages take the least time to reply–you write “thanks” and that’s about it–while I can’t resist taking the time to craft clever, snarky responses to the angrier feedback. That’s not healthy, and yet my colleagues at the Post and I used to debate the best way to reply to an unhinged reader’s spittle-flecked missive. I recall one more diplomatic reporter saying he’d simply write back “You may be right,” while a crankier co-worker half-jokingly suggested “Thanks for reading, as difficult as it must have been.”

E-mails asking “how do I do this?” or “how do I fix this?” take the longest amount of time to answer but can’t be neglected at all: They feed my USA Today Q&A column, and before that the Q&A I did for the Post.

The easiest way to get me to answer your message quickly is to tell me something I didn’t know. Think things like some breakdown in service or violation of the rules at a company or a government office, an error nobody’s seen before, or one weird trick to get a gadget or an app to do something that’s not in the manual. Otherwise, I can only fall back on the usual guidelines, which happen to overlap with the advice I’ve been giving to PR professionals for years: Use a descriptive subject header (as in, not “Help”) and make your case in the first sentence or two.

I’d like to tell you that from now on, I will do better, but I would be either lying or foolishly optimistic. This is a most honest statement: Please hold, and your e-mail will be answered in the order it was received.