Should Academics Try Twitter? [en]

Yes. Absolutely. According to this tongue-in-cheek chart. No, but seriously. You absolutely should  — at least — try it.

(Thanks, @amisamileandme for forwarding this chart to me)

At the beginning of August 2016, a Guardian article written by an anonymous PhD student attacked the use of social media for academic work. It was published under the patronising title “I’m a serious academic, not a professional Instagrammer”. It sparked a healthy and very interesting debate on Twitter under the hashtag #SeriousAcademic.

Many academics in various stages of their careers wrote tweets and articles contradicting this article. They mentioned many uses of social media for their work (as well as their social life and entertainment).

One of the most interesting and complete responses I’ve seen came from Jacquelyn Gill, an ice age ecologist at the University of Maine (Thanks, @kevinmarks for bringing it to my attention). Her two-tweet response and the discussions that ensued are worth a read.

Academics with blogs also reacted strongly.

Leigh Sparks (@sparks_stirling) from the Institute for Retail Studies, University of Stirling, offers My Serious Academic Use of Blogs and Twitter. This retail specialist summarizes lessons learned on the usefulness of social media to his career.

Dean Burnett (@garwboy), doctor of neuroscience, comedy writer and stand-up, parodies the original article. Doing so, he offers many links on the problems usage of social media in academia may address with I’m a non-serious academic. I make no apologies for this also on the Guardian platform. Social media provided him with alternative prospects since his field is oversubscribed.

Kevin Gannon (@TheTattooedProf), a history professor at Grand View University in Des Moines, Iowa offers a rebuke to the original article and deconstructs the notion of “serious academic” in I’ve Got a Serious Problem with “Serious Academics”.

Main benefits of a presence on social media for academics put forth by these articles and tweets are:

  • Sharing enthusiasm and supporting each other
  • Adding researchers to your network and create stronger ties which might lead to cooperation opportunities
  • Exchange sources and references which may be useful for research and/or funny.
  • Increase the circulation and readership of your work (books, peer-reviewed articles, blog posts, quotes in the press, etc.)
  • Increase the odds journalists will contact you for stories.
  • Have control of your online image and not depend on your institution’s staff web pages.
  • Using it as a back-channel for conferences and other events to get noticed by participants and organisers.
  • Promoting your field and providing expertise to the general public simply by inhabiting those online spaces and having your exchanges archived. For the Liberal Arts and Humanities, such a presence makes it easier to present our disciplines in a positive light outside of the frame of crisis / being set aside that has been pervasive in the media these last few years.

Social media is only a drag if you try to control too tightly. You have to find and/or define boundaries, yes. However, most academics who report seeing benefits use social media as humans first and foremost because that is how you can connect with people. That’s the charm of social media. Again, don’t take my word for it:

If you do social media like this, you’ll reap benefits and it won’t feel like yet another professional task. Putting on a mask is orders of magnitude more complicated than learn to inhabit those spaces as yourself.

There’s a range of openness, of course. It is a matter of personal style, how visible and likely you feel to attract unwanted attention from racists and misogynists.

One thing is for certain, trying to remain 100% on-brand on social media will exhaust you and make you come across as fake. You should be yourself, inhabit the online public space as best you can and try to be a good online citizen. As long as you let your passion and your expertise shine, you’re on the right track.

Done well, your online presence can be about work, show a bit of yourself and feel genuine while you maintain boundaries that seem clear and healthy to you. Clara Nellist’s Twitter feed is a great example. I follow her because particle physics is cool (and she seems nice). Although we don’t interact directly, her tweets are full of value and the occasional glimpse into her life as a postdoc makes her relatable. Tweets about her travels or some of her outside activities make it easy and fun to connect. For example, learning that she finished the 20 kilomètres de Paris and seeing her proud selfie put a smile on my face.

The more human you are the easier it will be to make genuine connections with other humans. That’s why it’s called social networking. You can find out all about this approach in Stephanie Booth’s one-hour talk entitled “Be Your Best Offline Self Online“. (She helps people get started and manage their online presence in one-to-one and one-to-many workshops. She’s nice and very knowledgeable. I met her through her blog.)

If you feel motivated to start on social media, I would advise you to start with Twitter: Messages are short, it is public by default, there is very little to misunderstand.

The London School of Economics and Political Science published “Five minutes with Patrick Dunleavy and Chris Gilson: “Blogging is quite simply, one of the most important things that an academic should be doing right now” on their IMPACT blog all the way back in 2012.

They also have a Twitter Guide that may be a bit dated as it is from 2011. More importantly though, they have a list of Twitter users active in the Humanities and Arts for you to follow.

What is social media anyway? [en]

Technology might change and forms of communication might shift but, at its heart, social media is based on basic human impulses of sharing. Social media platforms are a space — most often extremely public — set up to share. Sharing interests. Sharing insights. Sharing questions to get answers or more interesting questions. Sharing to make friends and meet collaborators. Sharing to be a good citizen. Sharing to raise one’s profile in a group. Technical ability will always be secondary to social abilities and the beautiful impulse to share.

The internet was always social: even before it had pages to access via web browsers (like Firefox or Internet Explorer). Groups had synchronous communications via chat rooms on IRC servers and asynchronous communications via newsgroups on Usenet.

Web pages to access via browsers and interconnected with hyperlinks date back to Christmas 1990 (only!) when Sir Tim Berners-Lee, a British computer scientist working for CERN near Geneva in Switzerland, invented the web. His invention spread over the whole internet during the first half of the 1990s.

Not long after, the first blogs started appearing. “Blog” is the contraction of the words “web” and “log”. These publications are defined by their format: a series of entries in ante-chronological order. They were varied in their styles, tone and lengths. Early bloggers chronicled their discoveries on the still relatively young world wide web, they shared insights about their interests, some were diarists or journalists… People started pouring their passions in this format.

In the early days, blogging required knowledge of code and web servers. In 1999, easier to use services such as LiveJournal and Blogger.com launched. Using these services, running a blog got easier. In the following years, there was an explosion in the number of blogs. By 2004, blogs became mainstream.

Most bloggers are read by few people. Social media is, among other things, characterized by smaller readership / viewership. Mass circulation and audience metrics aren’t the point. As you may know, mass media and their pretences of objectivity are recent (and crumbling) historical phenomena. Early in the eighteenth century, opinionated publications like The Spectator (1711) and Tatler (1709) circulated in small numbers and flourished. People read and debated them in coffee shops. They wrote and published in agreement or disagreement. Vigorous debate and fecund struggles shook the public square. In many respects, early social media was a return to these days. Bloggers knew each other and published articles in reaction to other articles frequently.

In 1999, Rick Levine, Christopher Locke, Doc Searls, and David Weinberger wrote the Cluetrain Manifesto. The Manifesto is a series of 95 theses insisting that the web enables global conversations between people in which the polished/cold language of organisations feel foreign. It says organisations will have to adjust and join these conversations with a genuine human voice or risk becoming irrelevant.

What the Cluetrain Manifesto observed and prophesied did happen. Online conversations influence people in big decisions such as choosing a university and a degree; or for whom to vote in elections; as well as in purchasing decisions such as choosing a refrigerator. We are more suspicious than ever when we face messages in traditional one-way channels. We base purchasing decisions more on our peers’ recommendations and on online searches.

Although blogging remains a great way to disseminate longer forms of writing, the quicker and more spontaneous sharing started happening more and more on the various social media sites which have emerged. Let us resume our little historical overview.

Social networks as we know them today with interconnected user profiles started in the late 1990s. We could go through the evolution of Friendster, the rise of MySpace, etc. It would stoke my nostalgia but it would not give you much value. If the subject interests you, there are many resources out there. Any history that I might offer would also centre around the US and/or Europe. In other regions of the world, other social networks held dominion. Suffice it to say there were many options and rapid evolution.

The most popular ones today — around here — are Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and LinkedIn.  That’s where the party happens and everyone meets.

  • Facebook is 1.71 billion monthly active users (June 30, 2016) and 14,495 employees (June 2016)
  • Twitter is 313 million active users (June 2016) and 3,860 (June 2016)
  • LinkedIn is 106 million active users (March 2016) and 9,732 employees (March 2016). Figures come from Wikipedia.

Is WordPress indie web? Should I publish on Medium? [en]

We spend more and more of our time in walled gardens owned by private companies: still love Twitter, ever ambivalent about Facebook, on LinkedIn out of obligation to HR departments everywhere, reading on Medium. Yet, I still think we should maintain independent spaces. So I blog here (albeit not regularly enough).

But. Is this important? Does it really make a difference? I use the default theme of WordPress. WordPress, even though it is open source, is heavily influenced by its parent company Automattic. It is becoming a default because it powers about a quarter of all websites and plans to conquer more. It is convenient but it is eating the web too and its open source nature isn’t enough to give me warm fuzzy feelings about it any more.

Waterhouse, John William; A Mermaid; Royal Academy of Arts; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/a-mermaid-149322
John William Waterhouse, A Mermaid (1900).

I hear the sirens of Medium.com calling. Their song is loud and melodious. 300 people follow me over there without me having published a word on the platform. When I compare these numbers with the analytics of this site, the potential seems very clear.

Am I shooting myself in the foot? If I were to make the jump, what would I publish here and what on Medium?

Because one does write to be read. Sometimes, you know, readers are nice.

I could scrap WordPress, transfer all the worthy content to a flat-files CMS like all the webdev hipsters do. Would that be roots enough to satisfy that part of me? Would it make a difference in the grand scheme of things? It might make my site faster for sure but it would do zlitch to get me more readers.

It all comes down to two questions: Is self-hosting WordPress indie web? If not, what would be? Are these concerns genuine or am I just hiding?

“Béton armé” de Philippe Rahmy [fr]

En revenant de Los Angeles l’an dernier, je ne trouvais pas de fil conducteur à mes expériences en essayant de les raconter. Je n’avais que des bribes difficiles à faire tenir dans un ordre chronologique. Ainsi, j’ai demandé à mes amis grands lecteurs des références de récits de voyage qui parvenaient à se passer de chronologie. @Invidiosa m’a de suite répondu en me conseillant “Béton armé” de Philippe Rahmy. Je l’ai commandé en un clic. Lorsque le livre est arrivé, il est resté longtemps sur la pile à lire (c’est une fatalité). Mais j’ai fini par le lire presque un an après: je savais qu’il me fallait le lire (sans doute était-ce aussi une fatalité).

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J’ai bien fait car le narrateur de “Béton armé” se demande aussi comment décrire le voyage au début de l’oeuvre. Et sa réponse est très très bonne. Le récit raconte un voyage et une plongée dans un autre monde. Le narrateur tout comme l’auteur est atteint de la maladie des os de verre. Un mieux dans son état de santé coïncidant avec une invitation de l’Association des écrivains de Shanghai, il décide de partir. On suit le narrateur alors qu’il entre dans Shanghai, comme il le perçoit… La langue travaillée et poétique de Philippe Rahmy s’emploie, pleine d’élan, à décrire ses découvertes.

Le récit narre un voyage en solo souvent difficile. Le voyageur prend les transports en commun. Il aime revenir aux mêmes endroits et y passer du temps. Les obligations protocolaires draînent son énergie. Il est absorbé par les scènes de rue. Et comme tout voyage, c’est aussi l’occasion d’une touchante et fructueuse introspection: une exploration de souvenirs personnels.

Je n’ai pas fini d’y penser et mes idées autour de ce livre n’ont pas fini de prendre forme. “Béton armé” fait partie de ces oeuvres qui restent à l’esprit longtemps. C’est un beau voyage.

“Drawing Blood” by Molly Crabapple [en]

Molly Crabapple is an artist, journalist and author. Her work is in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art. She’s drawn and reported from Guantanamo Bay, Abu Dhabi’s migrant labor camps, and in Syria, Lebanon, Gaza, the West Bank, and Iraqi Kurdistan. She is a contributing editor for VICE. Her byline appeared in The New York Times, Paris Review, and Vanity Fair among other publications. Most recently, her latest painting series “Annotated Muses” is on view at Postmasters Gallery in NYC until Oct. 15 and a video narrated by Jay-Z she illustrated entitled “The War on Drugs Is an Epic Fail” came out last week. She also published a memoir entitled “Drawing Blood” last year chronicling her life up to this point.

I don’t remember exactly how I became aware of Molly Crabapple’s work. It must’ve been through “Week In Hell” since I featured the project in this tiny blog posts in French. It was then housed on fabulousse.ch a long forgotten cultural blog I wrote alongside my cousin.

Not being able to thank whoever made me discover this artist saddens me. Attribution is so hard on the web and attributing the discovery of something is even harder. Tools like Instapaper could work to make that easier… but I digress. I digress because footnotes aren’t supported by WordPress Core but that’s another digression.

“Week in Hell” is an art/endurance experiment wherein every surface of a hotel room was covered with paper and then drawings. It lasted a week and many of her friends visited her as she drew. The project worked great and gave rise to a book and a mini-documentary.

To this day, I regret not having anything to pledge at the time and/or learning of the campaign too late — can’t remember the details. Of course, in the meantime, I got a job, bought most her books and a couple art prints too which make me very happy when I see them. They also lend charm and sophistication to my living room.

When her memoir was announced, I immediately pre-ordered it. It was in March 2015. It came out and I received it around December 2015. Much to my shame, I just read it the week before last. In the last few years, since I finished college, in fact, reading on paper got very slow. To make matters worse, my unread pile grew fast, got shuffled and reshuffled.

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Now, I am well aware that none of the above ramblings could ever help you decide if you want to read the book or not. It shouldn’t even be a question: you do want to read that book. Writing a helpful review about it is difficult since I wouldn’t highlight anything in the beautiful illustrated hardcover. Such a prized object.

Seriously, though. Molly Crabapple’s memoir “Drawing Blood” offers insights into her path to becoming… her: a great artist and a distinctive voice. It is a tale of becoming. Many aspects of it were inspiring to me as I am living through my early 30s. Her focus and self-discipline in perfecting her craft push me to try harder with my writing. Her drive to get noticed and the business sense she developed to function in New-York City are inspiring to me as a young professional striving to show his work and get more in Geneva, another expensive and competitive city. Her search for meaning, purpose and political engagement makes me wonder how I can be more engaged with the world and find purpose for myself.

Not only does it contain inspiring facts. Her writing style is as distinctive as her art. I love her prose. Part of me can’t help being a little envious of it too to be quite honest. Her writing flows while also being, at once, precise and concise. She adds the exact amount of feeling and linguistic flourishes to convey her meaning and push the reader forward — never an ounce more. It is mastered, shows restraint and –unlike this blog post– merciless editing.

You do want to get acquainted with her work, follow @mollycrabapple on Twitter, and read her memoir. Trust me, you do.

“The Dead Ladies Project” by Jessa Crispin [en]

“The Dead Ladies Project” opens with the author convincing police officers that she won’t commit suicide and will seek help. She sieves her life down to two suitcases and leaves for Europe in search of her dead ladies: expats from different times and places. In her quest, she stays in Berlin, Trieste, Sarajevo, Galway, Lausanne… among other cities.

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From her travels, her confrontation with these dead people and her introspection, lessons emerge on how to be in the world and how to relate to it and how to relate to the self as well — “être au monde” as the French expression combining the three says.

The book is very much a tale of solo travel. In each city, she establishes a new temporary dwelling, new routines, overcomes hardships, meets people and describes the atmosphere in beautiful prose.

From Trieste on, street scenes come hurtling through her consciousness, her descriptions become breathless enumerations. In the midst of these momentous series of observations, there are always bitter-sweet gems of biting humour which never fail to connect with the curmudgeon in me.

She addresses darker moments with the same grace. Hardships of solo travel are often difficult to bear: making all the decisions and arrangements, schlepping luggage, feeling OK. She writes, for example, she wishes for a companion in her adventures: an Isabel to her Richard Francis Burton.

Reading “The Dead Ladies Project” provides literary discoveries on each page. Numerous authors, all of which should be more widely known, make appearances. The book might send you on a journey through the world or through a library or both. Her recommended reading section may very well house your next favourite author.

Jessa Crispin’s point-of-view is refreshing. Her prose moves forward with momentum and a quiet resolve, just like she travels through Europe staying in cities weeks at a time.

“The Dead Ladies Project” is a book of the best brand of criticism. Jessa Crispin searches for her dead ladies in their cities, their biographies, their texts and the spaces in-between. In doing so, she effectively questions key elements of our contemporary culture beyond literature. At one point, she questions self-help and the pathologizing of emotions. In her Maud Gonne chapter celebrating magic, spirituality and the power of story, she pokes giant holes into the reigns of materialism and rationalism. Much to this reader’s delight.

This memoir is a very enjoyable read. There are insights in there that spoke to me and my own issues. No doubt it will do the same for you. It gives me hope that one can open their own path. Change. Enter a truce with the self and the world. You should read it too.

Delayed reading and the pace of modern life [en]

I can’t recall exactly how I became aware of Jessa Crispin’s work. Artists usually enter my consciousness through social media, interviews or recommendations from Maria Popova’s Brain Pickings blog. Jessa Crispin’s “The Dead Ladies Project” found its way to my wishlist three days after coming out. I must’ve started following her on Twitter at that point too. Even if I was aware of the book all the way back then, I’m only reading it now.

After finishing Molly Crabapple’s memoir in which her self-discipline and her quest for meaning shook me to actually write every day. The dull sadness of finishing a good book was starting to take hold. I knew I had to start “The Dead Ladies Project” right away. I pondered getting a physical copy but then the momentum would have been lost as I waited for the book to show up. So I am reading it on my tablet.

I wish I had started sooner. It always takes me that kind of time to come to a book, no matter how important it seems that I read it. My unread book pile gets shuffled and reshuffled as if the books want to be read in a certain order. This makes it very hard to connect with the conversation as it happens. The zeitgeist remains ever elusive. But then, I do not know that it makes a difference.

France has what they call the “rentrée littéraire”. Books come out all at once in September. There are more every year. It has therefore become impossible to read any significant portion of them. Not that I have tried. Of course, it’s the same online. Everyday seems to be a “rentrée littéraire”. Good long form magazine pieces come at you all the time through social media. It’s hard to discern what is important from what should be avoided.

We all have our own circles on social media and, therefore, we get different recommendations. It is freeing everyone to pursue their own interest but at the same time it is lonely. It is hard to find common ground with friends. I get a little ping of satisfaction when what I read during a particular week matches links in Ann Friedman’s newsletter (which I recommend) because I know a couple of my friends at least will have come across the pieces too.

There still are cultural moments, even if they concern fewer people at once, but they’re so fleeting as to be impossible to catch. Online life has a devilish pace. Even if you and your friends read something, will you have time to discuss it? A magazine piece, a book, a film is big on Twitter for a few hours and then, it drifts onto a pile: wishlists, read-later lists… to resurface again much later maybe or not at all.

A few good links, 2016-09-08 [en]

We have the day off in Geneva. Here are a few good links…

Theranos’s story shows Silicon Valley is terrible and we should think twice before mimicking it. White nationalism grows fast. The Swiss vote on intelligence and mass surveillance will never work. Yanis Varoufakis wants us to choose Star Trek over The Matrix as the template for our economic and political future. Star Trek politics chronicle the decline of US liberalism, according to Timothy Sandefur. This summary of The Matrix in French is funny, by the way.

Magic might save us all. Peter Bebergal, author of “Season of the Witch: How the Occult Saved Rock and Roll”, talks about magic and music with Marc Maron. Jessa Crispin points out feminism was born out of Spiritualism. Laurie Penny examines links between liberalism and Harry Potter.

And a calming GIF of a crab eating a cherry.

Cutting corners on social media [en]

I’ve been a part-time social media manager for a long time now. Other responsibilities and tasks have always made it hard to focus on the social media side of things. This is far from ideal. The stakes are high, opportunities to embarrass yourself and your organisation are plenty. There are opportunities to be seized and risks to be mitigated on social media platforms. To reap benefits, you have to engage. Yet, lots of managers throw social media responsibilities on people — often young people because they’re hip — as just another task in their job description.

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If you’re a manager, DON’T DO THAT.

If you’ve been tasked with starting social media campaigns with little prior experience and an already full plate, there are corners you can cut and methods you can use. Remember, however, that corner-cutting always comes at a cost. As a beginner, you won’t be good right away. You should manage expectations.

Chances are, your organisation is going to social media because they want to acquire traffic. Temptations are strong to dive head first in a paid campaign and get results on the spot. You should never start with paid advertising on social media. It would be best to establish a strategy and a baseline presence. That way, you may gather a following that will be an asset for future efforts too.

Be honest and strategize

Be very honest with yourself about the time and attention you can devote to them. Open only channels you can sustain and nourish. Think hard about what you have to contribute and what your audience wants.

What will you publish, for whom, and where? These questions are the most important. Answers depend entirely on what you’re selling and your unique constraints. No shortcuts there.

Start by listening. Research your topics, find what you can provide, find people’s pain points. This will help you determine what to publish. Once you start on social media, never stop listening and adapting. Monitor answers, comments, messages and answer them.

Before you do any kind of paid advertising, publish non-self-promotion updates/links. You should be able to publish helpful or entertaining things at regular intervals. Paid campaigns can help you build a following. It will be more effective if there’s valuable content on your profiles. People will follow your profiles in larger numbers if you have a track record of enjoyable and useful content.

Listening tools

Since you’re time-constrained and/or busy, you won’t be able to gather information actively. You’ll have to rely on tools to monitor the conversation online and find links to share with your audiences.

Large organisations circulate press reviews. You should subscribe. It will give you an idea of the conversation around your organisation and, perhaps, give you links to share.

Google Alerts remains one of my most prized tools. Set up one or several of these. Relevant Google results will pour into your e-mail account. Use straight quotes and the operators AND and OR. Like so…

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Be sure to play with the advanced settings (content types, language, …) until you get the best results.

Publishing tools

You should craft updates for each social network individually because each has its own culture and “traditions”. That’s the ideal. You’re time-constrained and/or busy so you may publish links and updates on several social media services at once using Hootsuite. Remain aware that updates tailored to specific networks are best. Make sure your updates work in all their contexts.

Hootsuite also makes it possible to schedule updates. Scheduling is antithetical to genuine conversation which makes it risky. Never do it more than a few days in advance. Social media should remain a conversation. When there are major world events or other ripples through your communities, you’ll have to change your plans. Remember…

  • Monitor the conversation and events closely.
  • Have a device that can access all your accounts and especially Hootsuite to delete/cancel updates with you at all times.
  • Give a trusted colleague access to the accounts in case of an emergency.

Be ready for the traffic you buy

Acquiring loads of traffic is the dream most organisations chase on social media. Getting hits on a page with incomplete information is a waste. People will turn around and leave in an eye blink the page doesn’t answer their questions. They will leave if they feel mislead, if the page doesn’t load fast enough, if it doesn’t capture their interest… Problems with your website content can annihilate all your efforts. Best make it good before directing tons of expensive traffic to it.

Work with the people who take care of that website to iron things out. Ask yourself and them… Once they get on this page, what do you want prospects to do? What is the end goal? You can try to get as many prospects to give you their contact information and have your sales team contact them. You may want prospects to send an application through a form or place an order. Decide on a desirable outcomes and trace the steps that’ll get you there.

You should have the basics of this process (the sales funnel) figured out before launching any campaign. You’ll never get it 100% right. Be ready to keep iterating and adapting forever.

Set up your analytics right

There’s money on the line. For each paid publication or ad, you should estimate how many sales you made, how many prospects decided to contact you, etc. depending on your end goal.

Make sure the site where the traffic from the social network will land has Google Analytics enabled. Your objectives (form completions, post-sales thank you pages…) should be set as goals. Get help from the website’s developer for that. Make sure the data is *actually* collected. Require access to all relevant analytics panels to keep an eye on things.

Google Analytics makes it possible to create unique URLs to differentiate traffic sources. For each paid publication, create a unique URL and you’ll know which paid publication generated the most traffic. It will permit to accurately follow which link was clicked. You can, therefore, compare various versions of your ad and campaigns. Use the URL creation tool from Google Analytics. Everything is explained in the detailed help section.

A word of caution… You will most probably have big discrepancies between numbers from Facebook Ad Manager and from Google Analytics. This may feel weird to you and your bosses. There’s not much you can do about that. Analytics are only indications. Most marketers have to accept this as a fact of life. There are various ways to explain these differences in this Quora thread.

Take your time and let algorithms take theirs.

The more time you have to prepare and execute a campaign, the more bang you’ll get for your buck. On the contrary, the less time you’ll have to invest, the more money it is going to take to get results. With enough sharp thinking in your targeting (the criteria used to select people you want to see your ad) and enough time for the social networks’ algorithms to test and optimise your campaign, clicks, likes, comments or video play will be cheaper.

If you feel overwhelmed by these notions, you understand why this is a job ;). Being a beginner at this stuff and be put in a position in which you have to perform is stressful, I know. Don’t get discouraged though: read articles online, make mistakes and correct them, get help…

Thoughts on the latest Twitter abuse piece [en]

The Buzzfeed piece about Twitter abuse that makes the rounds since last Thursday proves to be a very interesting read. The way the abuse problem has been left to fester is infuriating. So much so that while reading I took notes. Notes laced with profanity. Here are a few thoughts.

Free speech radicalism is an easy extremist tenet to hold in many ways. First, it is often defended by people who don’t know abuse at all. They, therefore, don’t have to make any sacrifices for this radical belief of theirs. Second, it is — in theory — a steadfast policy that protects the company from liabilities. They can then say that they’re a utility and don’t make content decisions.

It stems, however, from a weird idea of free speech. Free speech is great. I wouldn’t want the government to silence me but I want to be held accountable for the shit I say. Free speech radicals seem to have another definition. To many of them, free speech as being allowed to say whatever you want, often without suffering any consequences. Allowing people to be protected from the consequences of shitty actions and shitty words is not a moral imperative. It creates a toxic environment where a few assholes can police the speech of all the others by unleashing barrages of abuse and threats. It doesn’t help foster more productive debates. Just the opposite.

Yet, once people accept something needs to be done, the search for the ‘perfect solution’ begins… This search lead to paralysis as Vivian Schiller is reported as saying in the piece. Extremists always ask for a perfect solution before letting go of their own problematic one. Always seeking to swap an extremism for another. But that’s not how the social space works, that’s not how humans function and communicate. There needs to be moderation in every sense of the word. We need kind and intelligent judgment calls and concessions. There needs to be consistency obviously but no solution will ever be perfect.

Jack Dorsey is quoted as saying “No employee should ever be in the position of having to decide, subjectively, what qualifies as free speech and what does not”. This makes me doubtful that this problem will ever be mitigated. It will always come down to human judgment whether the judgment of a moderator or the judgment of an engineer designing an algorithm. Stress cases will always arise where the meaning of free speech will need to be discussed. Putting the burden completely on the users to moderate is again non-committal safe in the sense that investors might not punish the company and it won’t unleash lawsuits but it won’t fix the problem that for a vast majority of users, being on Twitter is very tiring work, an energy drain and often even a safety concern.

Large organizations all have things they’d rather not discuss (*cough* web governance *cough*), power struggles they’d rather not address, ambiguities that are preserved even if they hurt the business because it is believed that somehow these discussions would never end and distract everyone. I firmly believe leaders should encourage these discussions nonetheless. Especially in this case.