My Son Attempts to Spend Donald Trump’s Money

Just before dinner tonight, I was watching the news about Hurricane Sandy, fretting about all the destruction, and wondering if people were all right. My son was in the room doing homework. He glanced at the screen, and said, “Why doesn’t Donald Trump take that $5 million he was going to donate for Obama’s transcripts and give it to the Red Cross?”

I thought that was a good comment, so I put it on Twitter. After dinner I was helping him with his math homework, and I peeked at my Twitter mentions. His comment had been retweeted twice, and someone responded by saying, “That would require ‘The Donald’ to have a soul.” My son thought that being retweeted was kind of cool.

But things were just getting started.

Over the next hour the mentions flowed in, as did the retweets. They kept coming. And coming … for the next two hours. Then it looked something like this:

Over 450 people had repeated it. Needless to say, he was really excited, even though he didn’t fully understand the dynamics of social media (or really, why his well-meaning comment about philanthropy had struck like a well-timed bolt of lightning).

But it made him happy. And I liked it when the commentariat started including Donald Trump’s Twitter address in responses and asking, “Well, how about it?”

As a former English instructor, I’d like to think this is empowering for him: that a good message will cut through all the noise, that it’s worth speaking up … that he might even affect change.

Will that happen? Hard to say. I think the tweet struck a chord because people were fed up with Trump’s grandstanding that if President Obama released his college transcripts, Trump would donate $5 million to the charity of Obama’s choice. It’s a gambit that looks particularly awkward, now that New York and surround states are facing billions in damages. Then again, about 10 percent of the mentions thought Obama should comply; apparently they were more concerned with how Obama did in college than they are about Hurricane Sandy wreaking havoc on the eastern U.S.

But you never know. Two hours after my son’s comment was out in the world, someone sent me a message that they had started a group on Facebook, called Donald Trump Should Donate His $5 Million to the Red Cross:

Can you see that first post? That’s the part that made me happy.

The Kase Against Klout

I’ve been kvetching about Klout for a few months. I blogged about it in June, complaining that the social media measurement company turns people into numbers. And then, when the company changed the way they measure people’s online influence, I had another hack (at a site called The Nervous Breakdown, in the technology section).

The same week, the mainstream media got in on the action. The New York Times picked up one of the stories I mentioned, about a woman whose children were assigned Klout profiles, without their knowledge or consent.

Salon.com ran a piece called “Klout is bad for your soul,” by a grad student studying social media, which made many of the same points (though I dragged out Michel Foucault to make my points … who’s sounding more grad-schooly now, eh?)

Anyhow. Turns out some of this backlash is making a difference. You CAN opt out of Klout, though if you’re on Twitter and/or Facebook, you should also update your privacy settings to disallow Klout access to those accounts (here’s how).

But once all that is said and done, know what you get? You get a really satisfying result (this is from Hootsuite):

Getting Klouted

As you can see on the right there, I’m on Twitter. Instead of going through twitter.com, I use a third-party app called Hootsuite, which shows followers, following, number of updates, and a number for something called Klout.

I’ve never liked the Klout number. It’s not even explained — you have to go looking for what it means.

The word clout means both a blow with the hand, and social influence, or political power. The company Klout gave the word a web 2.0 spelling (r you familr with Tumblr or Flickr, mothrfuckr?), and took it from there. They call their number “the measurement of your overall online influence.”

In addition to unfortunate rhyming, the About Klout page claims, “Klout isn’t about figuring out who is on the ‘A-list.’ We believe that every person who creates content has influence. Our mission is to help every individual understand and leverage their influence.”

Only one little problem: that’s bullshit.

Exhibit 1:  the wallpaper on Klout home page:

I have no idea whether these are actual people who have been piteously reduced to their Klout scores. (It’ s also possible they’re part of a human subspecies known as homo stockphotoicus.) But you see the issue, don’t you? These people have become their number.

Klout never exactly says it’s ranking people. They don’t have to. People will rank themselves, they way they would with IQ scores, SAT scores, income — it’s just how people operate.

Call it “social media” if you want, but once it gets quantified, it gets measured. Once it gets measured, it gets ranked. Once it gets ranked, you get squicky quotes like “My dating criteria: must have a higher Klout than me” (that’s on the Klout website).

Exhibit 2: What’s in a Klout score, anyway? They can’t exactly tell you that either, but rest assured, it’s a scientifical factorizing of the innumerative quantifiables in a proprietary and patent-pending equation-matrix that includes:

Followers, Mutual Follows, Friends, Total Retweets, Unique Commenters, Unique Likers, Follower/Follow Ratio, Followed Back %, @ Mention Count, List Count, List Followers Count, Unique Retweeters, Unique Messages Retweeted, Likes Per Post, Comments Per Post Follower Retweet %, Unique @ Senders, Follower Mention %, Inbound Messages Per Outbound Message, Update Count, List inclusions, Follower/Follow Ratio, Followed Back %, Unique Senders, Unique Retweeters, Unique Commenters, Unique Likers, Influence of Followers, Influence of Retweeters and Mentioners, Influence of Friends, Influence of Likers and Commenters.

I don’t know about you, but when I’m checking out a hottie, the things I want to know most are her Comments Per Post Follower Retweet %,  and her Inbound Messages Per Outbound Message figures. Hubba hubba!

Know what’s not on the Klout website? The Klout scores of Chief Executive Officer / Co-Founder Joe Fernandez, Chief Technical Officer / Co-Founder Binh Tran, and Advisor Thomas McInerney. Here’s a memo, guys — want to walk the walk? Then quantify yourselves. Drink your own Kool-Aid.

If you’re certifiably datafiable, you can log in to learn even more about your Network Influence, Amplification Probability, and True Reach.

Not that there’s anything to worry about, right? I mean, this is a positive experience, their mission is to help us, and we wouldn’t want to instill anxiety in people, to make them conform in any …

Hmm. Guess not. Better suck it up and try harder at social media, or your score will go down and you will plummet in the rankings. Or if you think you suffer from social media anxiety, talk to your doctor about … etc.

In his brilliant 1996 book The Mismeasure of Man, paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould cut straight to the heart of problem with IQ tests. He argued,

…the abstraction of intelligence as a single entity, its location within the brain, its quantification as one number for each individual, and the use of these numbers to rank people in a single series of worthiness, invariably to find that oppressed and disadvantaged groups—races, classes, or sexes—are innately inferior and deserve their status.

Klout scores don’t have the same kind of serious real-world repercussions the way IQ did, of course (to my knowledge, no one has been sterilized because of low Klout). But the process is the same: your “overall online influence” reduced single entity, assigned a number, and then ranked.

Though to be fair, Klout is hardly the only one reaming your information. There’s a story on the wires this week that all your online information (Facebook, Twitter, blog)  is being archived by companies that provide pre-employment screening and background information on potential employees for clients.

Let’s not forget monetized — did I mention that Klout is backed by three venture capital firms? In the strangest little coincidence, the day after I started this post, along came …

Exhibit 3: A  story in FastCompany, “Facebook gets new VIP Sections.” The gist of it is that Facebook is developing a new VIP page, and today Audi and Klout are creating tools for it. A Klout VP told the magazine that “the new exclusive page is about finding influencers, movers, and shakers in their niche markets. Brands will be able to give favored treatment to visitors.”

To its credit, FastCompany almost addresses the creepiness of this:

“The creeping influence of money on the Facebook experience could have serious psychological impacts on how users begin to see what was once simple recreation. Facebook and Twitter have allowed few initiatives to permeate the wall between money and fun, but their data gives brands increasingly clever ways to exploit the precise monetary value of each user.” (my emphasis)

Klout says, “Our mission is to help every individual understand and leverage their influence.” But that mission has nothing to do with what fattens its bottom line: namely, getting in bed with other companies (Facebook, Audi) to mine, process, analyze and sell user data for corporate benefit.

Turns out there’s a lot to that little number: It’s a nice bit of metonymy, reducing me to a number so that Audi and Facebook and Klout and God Knows Who Else, Inc. can understand my precise monetary value to their brands.

Oh, no!

Why I Suck at Goodreads

I have a slightly embarrassing confession, which if you read the title of this post you might have guessed: I suck at Goodreads. For those of you who aren’t obsessive book types, Goodreads is a sort of “social cataloging” site where you can make reading lists, make friends, compare friends’ reading lists, write blog posts, book reviews, see how many books you have in common with a friend, etc.

A wonderful idea, in practice. But that depends on you practicing things like logging in and participating. With pretty good intentions I updated my reading list some time late last year.

Between then and now, I haven’t stopped reading. I had Tinkers listed as the book I was reading, and the sad fact was, I stalled on page 81 (or you might say, I stopped tinkering with it). But that’s one of the problems with social media sites: despite heroic efforts by software engineers to make the sites robust yet easy to use, one of my apparent destinies on earth is to be a use case that throws a site’s shortcomings into sharp relief.

For example, I have every intention of finishing Tinkers. I’m leaving the bookmark in. I’ll come back to it one day.

Or maybe I won’t.

But how do you express that on Goodreads? The four default lists are good and commonsense: all, to read, currently reading, and to-read. But really, I start a lot more books than I finish. I get them out of the library, I get them as gifts, I swap them with friends …. I start some, some sit by my bed, others on my dresser, others in stacks around the house.

In the broadest possible terms, I guess my books fall into “to read,” “currently reading,” and “read.” But almost every book has its own shade of gray. Tinkers was a gift from a good friend, so I am more motivated to finish it because of that. I have three books by the same author. I’m about 100 pages into the first. Probably won’t read the other two. How do I express that on a list?

I’ll probably finish the ones on my list now (in the screen grab, above). But what about the music instruction book I have? It’s nonfiction, and not the kind of tome you read from beginning to end. You dip into it, you know? Am I reading it? Well, yeah. Also, no. Am I done with it? Yes. No. Depends. But since I’ve started it, it shouldn’t be in the “to read” list, right?

Except there’s a section that’s over my head right now, but when I can play more, I’ll go back. At some point I am going “to read” more.

I’d argue that I have a separate relationship with almost every book I could conceivably put on my list. And I could put books into groups, but the groups wouldn’t have simple names. For example:

  • Books that I was hot about when I bought them, but then I cooled off (Cloud Atlas, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle)
  • Books by authors who are friends of mine
  • Books I picked up on a whim
  • Books I stopped reading because I’m a feckless dilettante
  • Books I read because everyone else had, yet I felt slightly icky and disappointed with myself for having finished them (Da Vinci Code, Dragon Tattoo)
  • Books I ought to read because they appeared on some goddamned BBC Book List challenge, and despite having an MA in English, I somehow missed

Can’t you just see some programmer shaking his head at that last list, and saying, “No no, that’s much too long to fit into the book-list-name parameter string”?

That’s sort of my point. Zadie Smith makes this point too, as does Jaron Lanier. Smith wrote a good essay for the New York Review of Books about Facebook, and mentioned Lanier’s book You Are Not a Gadget: A Manifesto. Here she is summarizing him:

Lanier is interested in the ways in which people “reduce themselves” in order to make a computer’s description of them appear more accurate. “Information systems,” he writes, “need to have information in order to run, but information underrepresents reality” (my italics).

Smith asks whether we’re reducing ourselves to fit into the software. My answer is, of course we are.  She floats an extreme stance (though her piece is, as is all her writing, considerably more nuanced)

Shouldn’t we struggle against Facebook? Everything in it is reduced to the size of its founder. Blue, because it turns out Zuckerberg is red-green color-blind. “Blue is the richest color for me—I can see all of blue.” Poking, because that’s what shy boys do to girls they are scared to talk to. Preoccupied with personal trivia, because Mark Zuckerberg thinks the exchange of personal trivia is what “friendship” is.

I’m not so naive to think social media would be possible without limits. That’s actually part of the fun, to work within parameters. And for all its shortcomings, social media allows me to keep distant friends visible on the periphery, to get a condensed version of what’s happening in their lives. And there’s no better break from being a productive worker bee than a little slack-jawed happy time on Facebook or Twitter.

On the other hand, Facebook’s mobile app asks for my location EVERY SINGLE TIME, and its contact fields don’t include a field for Twitter. For its part, Twitter has the de facto effect of quantifying your popularity, either by number of followers, number of retweets, number of favorite stars (don’t ask), or even third-party algorithms with crappy spelling, like Klout. If there had been numeric popularity rankings in my high school, I might have seriously considered moving to Alaska to work as a fry cook.

On the other hand, one thing I like about Twitter is its lists. I don’t actually use them much, but it’s fun to see the lists I appear in. A short list of list names:

  • Sweet supportive saints
  • froods
  • inkpunk-types
  • 1-800-400
  • locomocos

Do I know what those mean? Not really. But the randomness is what makes it great.

To its credit, Goodreads allows you to edit your “shelves,” which is to say you can make up your own names for your own lists. Naturally, I had to try it. How did it work?

books-i-ought-to-read-because-they-

… Yeah. I sort of figured.

The Social Contract

As a writer who submits and someone who works with social media, I’ve been following a recent Twitter spat with some interest.

At the risk of stumping for Twitter, I think all writers serious about getting published should be on it. I’ve met writers, had literary agents answer questions, participated in contests, and been exposed to a lot of great information about writing and publishing. It’s like a perpetual writers’ conference and kaffeeklatsch.

I’ve also seen agents use Twitter to publicly react to queries in real time. Because Twitter messages are can’t exceed 140 characters, the query, book and writer remain anonymous. Most of those were one-day experiments. Then along came @InternAmie, an account where an intern at a literary agency reacted to queries and submissions as she read them, using the hashtag #queryfest. Here’s a two-part example:

“Memoir-lover that I am, I almost cried when this otherwise stunning memoir opened with an intense scene, but then … Nope–nevermind. The women’s fiction started out great, but major plot inconsistencies would’ve made agent frown & pass.”

The @InternAmie account is now closed, apparently a result of an online backlash. Afterwards the opinions were mixed:

theborderlord I found #queryfest incredibly helpful – it gave a rare insight into how the query system really works. Shame @internamie has vanished.

Tessasblurb If you have a problem with people judging your writing surely you’re in the wrong business… #writing #queryfest

yabreviewed Anonymous as it is #queryfest makes me more nervous about sending mine. To have it end up being a topic of discussion on twitter? No thanks.

Writers of fiction spend hours creating imaginary situations, but it’s nearly impossible for them to picture their work sitting in a huge pile along with hundreds of other submissions. This is @theborderlord’s point: @InternAmie was reading and reacting to submissions objectively, andoutlining the reasons she did or didn’t think they were working. In other words, she was an unbiased beta reader that didn’t sugar-coat things. (If you ever get a beta reader that does this for you, consider yourself very, very lucky.)

I think @Tessasblurb makes a good point, too. After I’d been working as a journalist and freelancer for years, I went back to get an MA in creative writing. Journalism schools understand that their degree is vocational, so getting out there and working is part of the process. But unlike J-school, submitting pieces is optional in an MA.

My MA program was full of people who desperately wanted an authority figure proclaim them Good Enough to Be Published, as if this were some absolute, like knighthood. So these writers worked in a fretful vacuum, like kids from the suburbs afraid of going downtown. I wanted to see them submit, over and over again, until they learned that rejection and having people dislike your stuff isn’t the end of the world–it’s a necessary part of being a writer.

That said, I agree most with yabreviewed. Querying is the first step of a business relationship, which works when both parties operate in good faith. But if a stranger discloses details of your query or pages (even if they can’t be traced back to you), that disclosure violates one of the evolving tenets of social media, which is to ask permission to use other people’s stuff.

Imagine an agent’s website with a submission form containing a checkbox and this: “I agree to have my work paraphrased, excerpted, and possibly commented by an anonymous party online for all to see.” Would you agree to that? I wouldn’t.

I’m not sure what the final chapter of the InternAmie saga will be. I hope she’s still reading submissions, since I want everyone reading my submissions will be like her, turning to the next query in the hopes it will be great.

I also hope the publishing community learns from what happened, instead of pointing fingers. But there are still agents who make sport out of the slush pile (such as Slush Pile Hell, which I find terribly unprofessional), just as there are writers who excerpt from agents’ e-mails, or snipe about them on forums.

In other words, social media is a little like publishing: What you post on a blog, or as a comment, or in a forum, or on Twitter is widely accessible and will be around for a long time. So you don’t want to use other people’s stuff without asking, and you want to make sure what you said isn’t something you’ll regret later.

Avatar Fatigue, or, I Want a New Face

From time to time I get sick of my avatar.

(What’s an avatar? Here’s wikipedia’s thorough but geeky definition: “An avatar is a computer user’s representation of himself/herself or alter ego whether in the form of a three-dimensional model used in computer games,  a two-dimensional icon (picture) or a one-dimensional username used on Internet forums and other communities….”)

For a long time I had a photo up, but even an above-average photo of myself staring back at me gets kind of old.

Before that I had a Simpsons avatar, which a friend of mine made for me:

This is not inaccurate . My goatee trends toward the feral, my hair trends toward lump-on-toppishness, and there are many days that allergies and fatigue conspire to make my eyes look like I’ve been huffing airplane glue.

But I’ve already used it. Over. Done. Next. Then the other day I saw an avatar from a guy I follow on Twitter:

Urban, a bit of an anarchist vibe … not bad, eh? Better still, he gave me a URL to make one of my own. Here’s my effort:

Hmm. Not so good. This one looks like it had some kind of tragic facial-hair mishap.

But my son took a crack at it for Father’s Day. Here’s his effort.

Oh, you could quibble (no eyebrows, a block head, my left eye looks like an “after” picture from a hockey fight, my nose is … ?), but still, I quite like it. So for the time being, this is my new look online.

So Ugly They’re Beautiful

I was having a discussion about curling with someone on Twitter a while back. She was saying she didn’t get it, was playing devil’s advocate, etc. Needless to say, I defended the game, despite mentioning that is is possible, if you wanted to, to wear a cardigan and smoke while playing.

I even found a vintage curling photo to bolster my case:

But no sooner had I leapt to the defense of rock on ice, than I run across a photo of the Norwegian curling team, and their pants (warning: graphic images):

Bill Graveland/Canadian Press

There must be something in the ice this week, because the best links floating my way on Twitter today were all about teh ugglez. Consider, if you will, this inspired photo essay from England’s Telegraph: “Psychedelic patterned carpets in Las Vegas casinos designed to keep gamblers awake.” A sample:

But then — but then! — a sport comes along that has worse clothes, and comes close to Las Vegas carpets in its sartorial ickitude. What sport? Why, figure skating. Who says? Why, Time Magazine, who trotted out “The Top 10 Worst Figure Skating Costumes

For example:

In light of these, I’m thinking the Norwegians don’t look all that bad.

When Hockey Gets Weird

First, I was on Twitter, and one of the election memes was “Zamboni Palin.” WTF? Turns out it’s from an upcoming interview with People Magazine, in which she also considers herself an intellectual (more here).

… well, “intellectual” might be a stretch, since last I checked, she’s on record as mentioning that “dinosaurs and humans walked the Earth at the same time.”

Anyhow, it also turns out that one of her intellectual excursions is into baby naming, and she told People that she always wanted a son named Zamboni. No, I’m not kidding.

Then, in breaking news from Alabama, this past weekend’s Disney on Ice show screwed up the rink in Huntsville that the local hockey team (the Havoc) had to cancel their game. (Insert your skating rodent joke here.)

Finally, this verbatim headline: “Swedish hockey fans delay match with dildo downpour.”

I won’t bother explaining. I know you’re going to click the link anyway.

How Do You Put Your Twitter Address on your FaceBook Profile?

Here’s an oddity. I’m on Twitter (jjochwat), and I wanted to add my Twitter information to my FaceBook page. So I went to the My Info section on my profile, and got this:

So the question I had was, where do I put it? The drop-down for IM screen names is limited to Google Talk, Skype, Windows Live, Yahoo, Gadu-Gadu, and ICQ.

I couldn’t put it in e-mail because it said “Please enter a valid email address.”

I couldn’t put it as another website, unless I wanted it to show up looking something like http://jjochwat.twitter.com — that’s no good.

Finally, I had to add it to my About Me section. Lame. It makes me wonder if FaceBook sees Twitter as a competitor in the microblogging sphere.