A bag of Avocados

Posted in News and Politics | Tagged ,

I was working on an article on the US presidential elections for another website earlier today and made an offhand remark that if the Democrats nominated a bag of Avocados for the presidency that California would faithfully line up and vote for it.  And then it hit me – a bag of Avocados would actually be a better nominee than either American party’s candidates.  Here’s 10 reasons you should join me in writing in a bag of avocados on your presidential ballot this fall.  Continue reading

To be a man

Posted in Feminism and Men's Liberation, News and Politics | Tagged ,

I’ve self-identified as a feminist since my late teens and have been very vocal about it, sometimes to my own detriment.  Not that I’m some sort of knight in shining armor, I’ve made my share of mistakes along the way despite my best intentions and I can’t claim to be motivated entirely by altruism.  While I am very much interested in equality and women’s issues in their own right, I’ve always been at least as interested in what Feminism could potentially do for men. Continue reading

For God and Country

Posted in fiction | Tagged , ,

The sound of artillery was thunder, earthquakes, and every bad dream he had ever had as a child rolled into one.  A sound more felt than heard, it made his bones ache as the vibrations poured through him.  He had never particularly wanted to be a soldier, but when you are a young man with no prospects in a nation at war it’s hard to avoid the front lines. Continue reading

Opportunity Cost

Posted in Life | Tagged , ,

I’ve been looking to buy a house here in Oakland and the whole experience is a bit surreal.  I’ll save you the blow by blow, but looking at home values, school rankings, and the OPD’s crime map; a few things jump out at me.

Firstly, people talk a lot about crime in Oakland but looking at that map there’s crime almost everywhere (except Albany apparently – it’s a big blank spot on the crime map.  Either criminals avoid Albany like Kryptonite or they just don’t report their crime statistics).

Secondly, the quality of education a child receives in California varies even within a city.  This is not terribly surprising – lower income students whose parents are working two jobs to survive lack the support at home that wealthier kids get and are more likely to require extra resources to thrive.  What is surprising is not that there is disparity, but the degree of the disparity.

To put it bluntly, it is a crime that there are ANY 1-star public schools. Continue reading

Keep your God out of my Marriage.

Posted in Life | Tagged ,

The issue of whether Marriage is a civic institution which should be available to all consenting adult or a religious institution with theological restrictions is one of those debates that just won’t go away, no matter how bizarre it might seem.  It’s been a major source of stress in my family and in many others.  For me, it’s never even been a question which side of the debate I’m on. Continue reading

The Race Game

Posted in Life | Tagged , ,

This is one of those things that’s been rattling around in my head for years – why is it that video game manufacturer’s – especially makers of MMO’s – are so enamored with using “race” as a defining criteria for their character creation?  Species makes sense in many fantasy and SciFi settings, so does faction, but race seems so … outmoded.

Continue reading

Is Twitter Censoring the Revolution?

Posted in tech | Tagged ,

(Originally posted on the Involver blog at http://blog.involver.com/2011/09/29/is-twitter-censoring-the-revolution/)

At this point pretty much everyone who works in Social Media has read at least a couple articles talking about the role played by Twitter and other social media sites in coordinating and publicizing protest movements around the world. Social media has been alternately credited and blamed for everything from the ouster of Mubarak in Egypt to the recent riots in London. Now personally I take these claims with a very large grain of salt, but there’s a lot of truth to them as well. Today, just about everyone with a message to spread is using social media and Involver has customers scattered all over the political spectrum.

One of the interesting things about social media is the neutrality of the mediums themselves. Now of course if you talk to just about any activist you’ll hear that “the media” is biased against them. Conservatives think that the media is too liberal and Progressives think it’s too conservative. But up until now it’s been generally assumed that social media is a relatively even playing field because anyone can broadcast on it and build an audience.

Barack Obama may have 10x as many followers as republican front-runner Mitt Romney (10,252,333 to 108,426 as of this writing) but Romney’s numbers are rising fast – he just hit 10k on 9/23/2011 and is looking to at least double it in the next 60 days. The thing is, you don’t need to be either Obama or Romney to build an audience using social media, you just have to say things that people find interesting and want to hear more about. And because social media content is created and promoted by users it’s not subject to the same accusations of reporter bias that traditional media is – there’s essentially no gatekeeper. So when I saw tweets last week claiming that Twitter was taking on a gatekeeper role and censoring hash tags related to the execution of Troy Davis, I figured it was worth investigating.

The accusation was that Twitter had admitted blocking the hash tags #TroyDavis and #TooMuchDoubt from trending because the tags were “offensive.” As you can imagine, that set off all sorts of warning bells. Digging deeper , however, I found hundreds of tweets repeating the claim of censorship but none with a link to a reputable source. Now that’s not proof that Twitter didn’t censor the tag, but it certainly doesn’t help prove that they did. It’s particularly sticky because while Twitter’s spokespeople are adamant that they don’t censor political news, they’re forthright in admitting that they do censor out “offensive” topics. But offensive to whom? And by what criteria?

Accusations that social media sites like twitter censor results are common, but are they accurate?


A quick Google search for “twitter censorship troy davis” reveals a dozen blogs taking various positions on the subject – some adamant that the #TroyDavis was actively censored and others equally adamant that no such censorship took place. None offered much in the way of evidence but that didn’t stop people from tweeting and repeating those stories and citing them as proof. This week I saw similar claims that Twitter was censoring #OccupyWallSt (the ongoing protest camp in NYC based on the model pioneered in Egypt during the Tehran Square protests against Mubarak). Thinking back, I can recall claims during the last election about Ron Paul being censored. A broader search revealed blog posts claiming that twitter had censored trending topics related to #wikileaks, the aid flotilla to Palestine several months back, and several other topics.

Now Involver provides a development platform that’s used by campaigns, companies, and brands with wildly diverging interests and ideologies. Our role isn’t to advance any particular agenda but to build some of the best social media tools in the marketplace and empower our clients to effectively achieve their goals, whatever those may be. In the aggregate, all of those different ideas and ideologies enrich everyone because they contribute to the marketplace – both the literal marketplace and the marketplace of ideas. So if the companies that provide the core platforms upon which our industry is built take it upon themselves to actively distort that marketplace of ideas it has an obvious impact on our clients. The thing is, after hours of digging I was unable to find proof that any censorship had occurred. Which was both reassuring as someone working in the industry and disappointing because I wanted a juicy story for this blog. Unfortunately for me, facts got in the way.

Part of the issue is that claims of censorship are very difficult to verify or disprove and many people don’t let facts get in their way. In the Guardian story linked above, the #flotilla topic disappearing from the trends list was put down to a faulty algorithm and a bit of coincidence. Apparently, there had been another trending topic about a different #flotilla the week before and twitter automatically downgrades recurring tags. Twitter strongly denied it was practicing censorship, and the Guardian writers judged that their explanation made sense. The Wikileaks post shows a lot of aggregate data comparing third party tools with Twitter’s own reporting and that looked like the strongest potential documentation of censorship, except that trending isn’t just based on how many times a hash tag is retweeted but also by how many people and the rate of change. That ‘Rate of Change’ factor is critical especially for grassroots political causes since their activity tends to build slowly over time. Because the frequency graphs for tags like #occupywallst and #troydavis look like gently rolling hills with long starts and trailoffs instead of sharp changes, they are much less likely to trend – even though their total numbers may end up being much higher then the currently trending topics. That’s by design because it allows Twitter to prevent Justin Bieber and other celebrities from staying at the top of the trending list 24/7.

Now you can argue that the end effect of the algorithm is inherently unfair to grassroots movements, but you can’t argue from that that twitter is actively censoring those movements. It’s a subtle distinction but a crucial one. In real terms, the extreme difficulty of getting a topic to trend based on organic spreading of the topic without media assistance is an (ironic) side effect of our media-obsessed culture. All of which is hopefully useful information for any of you who are working on campaigns that leverage Twitter! For their part, Twitter routinely denies all charges of censorship and, at least until #Wikileaks runs an expose on Twitter’s secret plans for world domination, I’m inclined to take them at their word.

I suppose the point of this story comes down to credibility. Tweeting that you’re being censored because you don’t have the audience that you want does not help one’s brand or cause, in fact all it does is damage your credibility. It’s one thing to say CNN should be covering something that it isn’t, there are all sorts of plausible cases that can be made and argued about an opinion-based judgement like that. It’s another thing entirely to claim that a social media site is manipulating the playing field when you don’t have the hard evidence required to back up such a claim of fact. Incautious tweets are much more likely to damage your personal brand then they are to damage Twitter’s credibility. Worse yet, it makes it increasingly likely that genuine instances of censorship will be ignored as just another user crying wolf. That said, if you have evidence and can make a convincing case please do us all a favor and come forward.

What are your experiences? Have you seen topics pulled that you expected to continue to trend? Do you have raw data that can help prove or disprove these claims? We’d love to hear about it!