My election night doodling. Just click for full-size images in glorious grey!
One of the most seductive things about social media is the way it allows us to quantify things. I have more friends than she does – I must be more popular. That blog post got more hits than this one, so that one’s more effective. We have more Twitter followers this month than last month, so we’re on the right track.
Numbers are lovely that way. In a world where everything seems open to interpretation, numbers offer certainty. Five is bigger than three: end of argument.
Problem is, a beautiful number can hide an ugly bunch of oversimplification. Trying to quantify the complexities of human interaction in a multidimensional matrix of influence and activity in a few simple numbers is next to impossible (although potentially very attractive to venture capitalists).
Which is why, despite a valiant effort, social-media-analysts-turned-political-prognosticators fell so heavily on their virtual fannies in trying to use online metrics to predict last Tuesday’s Iowa Republican caucus.
The good folks at Trilogy Interactive summed up how woefully short those predictions fell in a handy infographic. (Only one prognostication came close – eerily so – until a glitch in the data it was based on got corrected, and then it fell into line with the others.)
So why are retweets, likes, mentions and follows such poor predictors of electoral success? As Trilogy points out, it’s partly because of the difficulty of focusing that information geographically. And it’s partly the way those numbers confuse conversational buzz and notoriety with support. Micah Sifry puts it well:
Saying simple, stupid things that lots of people want to tell their peers about can get you tons of followers and retweets. But it doesn’t mean anything definitive about grass-roots support. Otherwise, right now we’d be talking about Herman Cain’s amazing victory in Iowa.
More fundamentally, the information that Twitter, Facebook and other platforms can offer us about our relationships to brands, candidates, ideas and each other is still pretty crude. And it would take a far more subtle, sophisticated and complex reading of the things we say to each other to infer anything very meaningful from those blunt-instrument statistics.
Which is worth remembering the next time you find yourself or your organization getting hung up on the number of followers, fans and subscribers you have. Those numbers can be useful… but they couldn’t predict Newt Gingrich’s future, and they shouldn’t dictate yours.
It was a cold, cold Saturday night by Vancouver standards. I headed toward the Wall Centre in a state of frigid apprehension, my anxiety only partly numbed by the cold, and the knowledge that my trusty sketchbook was in my backpack.
While nearly every objective measure suggested the party I was supporting, Vision Vancouver, was about to win the city’s municipal election, a few recent polls suggested the race had tightened up sharply in the last few days. And they suggested the momentum was with the NPA, Vancouver’s right-wing civic party.
The NPA’s campaign had focused on several targets they evidently considered tempting, including the city’s urban agriculture policies, and new separated bike lanes on a few downtown streets.
In retrospect, I shouldn’t have been so worried. One of the NPA’s last public events included someone dressed in a chicken suit holding a sign that said “Homeless Chickens.” Here’s a handy rule of thumb: If, a day or two before an election, you find yourself appearing at press events with people dressed as chickens, chances are the Big Mo is with your opponent.
The TV coverage I saw was on Shaw’s Community Channel 4, which (as far as I could tell) had managed to find a panel of four white male commentators. Come on, people, what is this? A tech conference?
For a brief while, Gregor Robertson’s NPA challenger, Suzanne Anton, was ahead by several hundred votes. But then a few more polling stations reported and their positions flipped. Not long after that, it became clear that every Vision candidate was cruising to victory, and the mood at the party switched from Confidently Hopeful to Awfully Damn Happy.
Once the results were more or less clear, Anton delivered her concession speech. It was classy and gracious, and I liked the part toward the end refuting the idea of politics as a thankless job.
Now, classy and gracious are good. But just once, I’d like to see a defeated candidate really cut loose on the voters.
Speaking of speeches – if you’re ever in the position of writing a victory speech (and here’s hoping you are!), you have one big challenge: the crowd is deliriously happy. That means every line for the first five to ten minutes is an applause line.
(In my defence, a] I never claimed to be a caricaturist, and b] I was standing up and juggling a sketchpad, a beverage and a Sharpie fine-line marker.)
Hi, Elections Canada. We go back a long way, you and me. I’m the kid who had your colour-coded riding map masking-taped to my bedroom wall.
So let me offer some friendly advice. You want to stop people from tweeting election results from Eastern Canada before folks in Western Canada have had a chance to cast their ballots?
Then don’t use section 329 of the Canada Elections Act. The full weight of the law is way too blunt an instrument.
Instead, think about the medium. You’re trying to get people to change their online behaviour, right? So look to the social mores and codes of conduct that govern behaviour on the Internet.
And on the Internet, there are few sins more egregious, few offences less forgivable, than the spoiler.
By “spoiler”, I mean a post that gives away a key plot point or twist from a TV show, movie or — yes, even in 2011 — book before it’s common knowledge. And unless you take measures to prevent people from stumbling onto it and spoiling the surprise, you pay a heavy social price for posting one. (Most recently, an extra on the hit show Glee recently tweeted a massive spoiler about the show that brought the almighty wrath of the Intertubes down on her head.)
People on the West Coast resent seeing spoilers on Twitter the night of a big Grey’s Anatomy or Chuck episode. So why not position election night returns the same way? Play up the suspense, the drama, the thrills and chills that westerners will miss out on if those eastern swine insist on ruining the ending. (If there was ever a time to manipulate regional grievances toward a public policy goal, this is it.)
Next, encourage the use of the #tweettheresults hashtag… and then educate users on how to filter it out of their Twitter feeds for the hours between the closing of polls in Newfoundland and the end of voting in B.C. and Yukon. (As an added bonus, promote tools like the Canadian-made HootSuite, which lets you do that kind of filtering easily.)
Then publicize ways people can conceal spoilers on forums and blogs (if they’re still using such antiquated technologies) from the eyes of casual readers:
- the famed invisio-text markup that many forums like to use (which makes the text the same color as the background, requiring people to select the text with their cursor to read it)
- a “Spoilers follow!” warning, followed by spoiler space: two dozen or so hard carriage returns, to push the spoiler text below the screen; readers must deliberately scroll down to read it
The result? Casual online folks won’t accidentally discover early results, and the people who were actively seeking them out can still find them — but it’ll take roughly as much effort as phoning, texting or emailing an eastern friend or relative.
Let’s be honest: election debates are usually pretty awful for voters.
They get to passively endure an hour or two of overrehearsed talking points, dodged questions and set-piece arguments… washed down with the kind of analysis that usually boils down to "So, who won?" (In a few hours, Canadians will do just that, as they watch the first of two debates among the leaders of the four parties with seats in Parliament.)
There may be a few merciful bright spots — some fact-checking here and there, for instance — and maybe even some surprises. But on the whole, the debate experience is usually tedious — and in the social media era, it’s a prehistoric relic.
But this time around, a lot of prospective voters have a tool that wasn’t at their fingertips in past elections: Twitter. And if you’re planning on tuning in, here are five ways you can use Twitter to turn the debate into something a lot more useful and interesting.
You may not be able to knock the pols out of their message boxes — but you can convene and join an actual conversation about the issues you care about. Here are five ways to start doing that:
- Create your own panel of experts – or several panels – using Twitter lists. Use Twitter’s people search or a service like Listorius to find your experts. (This is an idea that came up in an interview Postmedia’s Misty Harris conducted with me this morning, and she deserves credit for getting me to think along these lines.)
- Well in advance of the debate, search Twitter for people who disagree with you, and follow a few who are smart, thought-provoking and civil. (Don’t want to follow them? Create a Twitter list and call it something like "Other views".) You’ll broaden your perspective and get to consider some new ideas — and even If you’re a dyed-in-the-w00t partisan, you’ll still gain a sense of what the other side is saying and be ready to counter it.
- Chances are this is going to be a firehose of tweeting, which Twitter’s web site isn’t really great for following. Instead, use a Twitter client like HootSuite, Tweetdeck or Seesmic, and follow your lists in separate columns. Add another column for the debate hashtag #db8.
- If you are using Twitter.com to follow the debate tweeting, some good news: they let you turn off retweets from individual users. So if there’s a particular user you’re following who’s cluttering your feed with retweet after retweet, just head over to their profile and click the green retweet button so that it’s greyed out.
- One more tip for Twitter.com users: get a picture of your local discussion by selection the "Tweets near you" tab.
And, of course, once you’re following the conversation, join in with your own questions, ideas, thoughts, reactions and options.
Hey, fellow Canadians – any other ideas before the first debate begins?