The Follower Game

Some thoughts on Twitter, where many people want to have as high a follower-count as possible, and the behaviors that leads to:

— First off, the very name “follower” makes me cringe. Yes, it’s meant to just indicate that your follower is “following” your updates; but it also brings to mind the images of cult-members, who are the obedient followers of their leaders. “Subscribers” would have been just as accurate, and less of a loaded term.

— Second: you can tell who’s genuinely famous (for whatever definition of “famous” you want to use) by looking at a Twitter account’s ratio of following to followers. Two accounts may both have the same high number of followers — say, 20,000 — but if account A is following 400 people and account B is following 19,000, you can rest assured that account A is a genuine celebrity of some kind. (Again, “celebrity” may simply mean something like “Robert E. Lee impersonator known to all Civil War reenactors in the D.C. metro area”.)

— So what does that say about account B? Yes, that person could genuinely be famous, and happen to also reciprocate everyone who follows him or her by following them all back. But more likely, that person has built their following through carefully following a lot of people, and dropping the ones who don’t follow them back. Because after all, you never want the ratio to get too lopsided in the other direction: someone who’s following 10,000 people but only has 200 followers will look like a loser to many people.

— The least engaging form of advertising on Twitter I’ve seen is when someone just follows you out of the blue without even sending you a tweet to say “Hey”. They’re of course hoping you’ll read their profile and tweets, buy their products, and follow them back.

— And some people will: the #TeamFollowBack (or #TeamFB) phenomenon is a strange one in which people publicly declare in their profiles that they will follow back anyone who follows them, no questions asked.

— Which leads to the question: why do these people even want all these followers? Unless you’re a business hoping to raise awareness of your products and brand, it’s hard to see why you want a bunch of strangers on Twitter to link to your account, with nothing more meaningful happening between the two of you than that. Team FollowBack people seem to be obsessed with their follower counts purely for the sake of the number. (Speaking of cults…!)

— As for the worth of a Twitter follower, that’s not clear to me either. The Consensus Bureau has a Twitter account (@ConsensusBureau), but I get far more engagement with my shameless ads for it through my Facebook account — where people who actually know me are — than I do through Twitter, where any tweet I issue is drowned out in the never-ending flood of other tweets on everyone else’s feed. The only way I’ve found to be sure the message is being received is to tweet directly at a follower, and that takes time, if I want to do it for each and every follower.

(And yes, I did blog earlier that the advantage of Twitter over Facebook was that it allows you to interact with strangers. But again, I’m finding that takes a definite investment of time; Facebook is way easier, since you already know all your “friends” on Facebook in real life.)

— A final point about the dubious value of Twitter followers: lots of people will make fake ones for you, which makes you wonder who’s fooling whom on Twitter. There was a great discussion of this in the New York “Times” a few months ago:

It even mentions a free app that claims it can tell you how many of a person’s followers are legit:

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Big Bird’s on the dole — and on Twitter!

I find it fascinating how “novelty accounts” can spring up on Twitter and quickly amass huge followings. Here’s the story of the account “@FiredBigBird”:

Summary: someone created this account after Romney mentioned in last week’s debate that he would cut PBS’s budget. Twitter has subsequently suspended the account not once, but twice, for reasons that are not clear.

Some other novelty accounts from the left that I’ve found that have come out of this campaign season include:

@MittensRomney (and many other parody accounts claiming to be Romney.)

@TheAngloSaxons (A reference to the Romney staffer’s gaffe this past summer, when he told a British counterpart that Obama wouldn’t understand the shared cultural heritage of the US and the UK.)

@InvisibleObama (Avatar is an empty chair — i.e., the chair Clint Eastwood “debated” at the Republican National Convention.)

Most of these have very small followings, but @InvisibleRomney has managed to get 70,000 followers. The copycats can do very well, too: @BigBirdRomney has gotten up to 10,000 followers itself.

I can only imagine there’s a similar plethora of novelty and parody accounts on the right. If you know of any, please share!

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Facebook and Twitter: Who’s Copying Whom?

Here’s an article I saw last week that I wanted to post about:

As you can see from the URL, the title of this article is “The Facebookification of Twitter”, which I found intriguing, since, if anything, I’ve been noticing ways in which there’s a “Twitterification” of Facebook.

In true journalist fashion, though, the writer has taken two anecdotal talking points (Twitter Headers and Twitter Cards) and inflated them into a trend showing how like Facebook Twitter now is.

This might have resonated with me more if I’d actually seen either of these features on Twitter lately. Supposedly Twitter Headers resembles the much maligned Facebook Timeline, and Twitter Cards allows companies to put their logos into tweets, which is supposedly something companies can already do in their Facebook statuses.

To the above I have two things to say:

1) Whatevs.

2) Now it’s my turn to be a true journalist and inflate two anecdotal talking points into a trend. Here are two ways in which I’ve noticed Facebook becoming more like Twitter:

a) Only in the last month or two have I started seeing Facebook “shares”, which to me are the FB equivalent of retweets. Only they’re sneakier than RTs. At least with an RT, there’s a very clear attribution of who wrote the original tweet. I still remember the first time a friend of mine on FB “shared” some photo that had gone viral, and I in all innocence thought she’d taken that photo herself, and went to leave a comment praising it — when I noticed that there were 5,000 comments already, all by people I’d never heard of. I’d overlooked the fine print: “[Brother Pelagius’s friend] has shared a photo by [Lucky Viral Guy]” was there in the FB message — or, at least, it is now — but I hadn’t noticed it initially, and I don’t think I’m alone on that.

b) One of the key differentiators between FB and Twitter is that on Twitter you can “friend” strangers, but on FB you generally can’t. At least, that’s not what it’s original intent was: FB was simply a new kind of Rolodex to catalog people you’d met In Real Life. (I once saw a tweet that said, “Facebook: all the people you’ve already had sex with. Twitter: all the people you want to have sex with.”)

Well, why is it that, these days, FB has started suggesting people I might like to “friend”, just like Twitter does? And why are these people so often complete strangers to me? — Hey, that’d be totally appropriate on Twitter — Twitter is all about interactions with random strangers — but it’s very off-brand for FB, I can throw around some marketing lingo here…

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Secrets of “Lactose Intolerant”

Hey everyone,

It’s been a week since we announced our “Lactose Intolerant” video, and we’ve almost hit a thousand views! Many thanks to everyone who watched and retweeted/shared on Facebook — y’all are the best!

And that’s why you deserve to know the top five secrets of the filming of “Lactose Intolerant”:

5. We accidentally left the camera tripod in one of our shots. See screenshot above — it’s off to the left.

4. The milk we poured wasn’t milk. It was actually flour mixed with water, which was one of the ways for making fake milk that the Internet recommended. Incidentally, the main use for fake milk seems to be for filling the wee baby bottles that come with dolls. So, if you know a six-year-old girl who wants some verisimilitude with her baby doll, you now know what to do.

3. Our drummer PEZ has the world’s fastest-growing ‘stash. The video was shot on short notice, so I bought some fake mustaches from a costume shop, but they were totally unnecessary. PEZ’s epic ‘stash put them all to shame.

2. We had a guy on the inside. We timed our visit to the grocery store strategically: a source who shall remain anonymous here was able to tell us when the managers go off-duty. So, although an employee did scold us and ask whose permission we had to be filming there, we were able to brazen it out. Incidentally, on our way out of the store, we did pass a cop in uniform who’d been roaming around the store — a near miss, that…

1. The guy singing the song is not actually lactose intolerant. But the guy who wrote the song is.

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Crash Course in Bagpipes

Now and again, I have one of those experiences that remind me why living in New York kicks so much ass. As if I needed to be reminded!

At a quarter to two today, I remembered that I needed to get some toner for the home printer, so I went out to go to the Staples around the block. But the weather was so nice I decided to walk down to Washington Square and back first.

When I got there, I saw a pair of bearded bagpipers standing by the Arch. You get used to buskers with unusual instruments in New York, so I thought nothing of it, and continued to walk down one of the paths.

Then I heard the strains of “Hava Nagila” burst forth, and I thought, “All right, all right, let’s check these guys out.” What was odd was that they were playing it in a major key. They only played for a minute or so, then stopped mid-song and started talking amongst themselves.

Now that I’d got a good look at them, I noticed the bags of their instruments were deep purple, with the NYU logo on them. Similarly, their black berets had silver NYU badges pinned to them.

Anyway, I decided I had to go up to them and ask them why they’d played “Hava Nagila” in a major key. The taller of the two (and taller than me as well) immediately began to explain by showing me the instrument’s chanter. “Look, there are only nine notes on this thing. It’s a major scale and a flat-seventh. I’d have to put more tape on to get a minor scale.”

He gestured at the holes on the chanter, and sure enough, they didn’t look completely round: there appeared to be black electrical tape already sealing over the top parts of the circular holes.

It turned out that they were playing not one but two events today: one for which they would need their pipes to be in a major key, and one later at the nearby Center for Jewish History, for which they’d need to tape the chanters some more so they could play “Hava Nagila” in the correct key.

He went on to explain to me a number of fascinating things about bagpipes. Some of them, like why B-flat-minor and E-minor are so hard to play on a bagpipe (“It’s because of how they wrap”), were beyond me. But I managed to absorb a few things.

For instance, I asked what key a bagpipe is in, and he said, “Nominally, it’s in ‘A’, but these instruments predate modern notation systems.” He described the bagpipe’s “A” as being at 478 Hz. No 440 Hz for this instrument.

“So,” I asked,  “a tuned piano and a bagpipe both playing an ‘A’ together would sound dissonant, right?”

“Oh yeah, they’d sound awful,” he replied, “but people forget that for most of history, all instruments were solo instruments.” He went on to say that when a bagpipe plays in an ensemble with non-bagpipe instruments, the piper usually plays with music transcribed just for bagpipes, while everyone else plays with a different score (which made me think of “concert pitch” for trumpet). He also said that when rock bands play with bagpipes, they usually have to play in B-flat. (Note to self!)

“They’re not well-tempered, either,” he said, almost forebodingly. “It’s all Pythagorean: a fifth is three over two, a fourth is four over three, and so on.” I’ve had just barely enough exposure to this arcana to know what he was even talking about.

When I asked him what his background was, he said, “Just an engineer. I like numbers. Most guys who have been playing bagpipes for twenty years don’t even know this stuff.”

At one point, he was trying to illustrate a point that had eluded me by playing the instrument. Unfortunately, his illustration was lost on me, but it was absolutely the closest I have ever been to a bagpipes in operation. It was pretty amazing (and also pretty loud!).

His colleague asked me if I was a student at NYU, or even an alum, because if I was, I could join the band. I’d never regretted not going to NYU until that moment…

Incidentally, I’m pretty sure I was talking to the guy in the photo here, which I got from the band’s website. The band appears to be open to newbies, so long as you’re part of the NYU community, and even tells you that, with the right instruction, you should be able to play bagpipes in about a year. Now you know.

I talked with the guy for about ten minutes, and then he had to leave. Amazing to think that if I’d not decided, on a whim, to leave the office when I did and walk down to the park, I might never have had this encounter. Amazing, too, that so many of the best musical and theatrical performances I’ve ever seen have been just around the corner from where I work, on the street or in a park.

I ♥ NY!

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Wisdom from Cookies That Taste Like Cardboard

This time on Wisdom of the Fridge, we examine some interesting specimens of Chinese fortune-cookie fortunes we’ve come across.

First, here’s the most circumlocutious fortune I’ve ever seen:

Pretty pithy, right?

Unlike the one above, this next one doesn’t really lend itself to the old gag of adding the words “in bed” to the end of the fortune:

Uh… I’m pretty sure that severing the legs off a sheep is not going to automatically turn it into a mass of water droplets and ice crystals. And, while I’m normally all in favor of a healthy skepticism, I’d prefer you not test this out yourself.

[More Wisdom of the Fridge.]

[Click here for music that sheep and clouds may safely listen to.]

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Au revoir, the London I thought I knew!

My first visit to London was over ten years ago. How strange and exotic a city it seemed to me then! Their accent was impenetrable to me, another language it seemed. But oh, how they could cook! The dreaded English cuisine I had heard so much about was soon debunked by one delicious meal after the other — delectable cheeses, voluptuous wines. When I left that city, my mind was filled with its images of fashionable women, sidewalk cafés, and bicyclists with loaves of bread under their arms.

Imagine my shock on visiting London a decade later. How everything had changed! Globalization has evidently taken ahold of the city. Everyone speaks a more comprehensible English, which is convenient, it’s true; but at what price?

That delightful steel spire in the center of town — gone, and replaced with a stuffy old clock tower they call “Big Ben”. Gone are the Gothic cathedrals and the artists’ terraces.  The nation’s very flag, once an elegant arrangement of three stripes — one red, one white, and one blue — has been replaced with a hideous sunburst of red and white stripes on a blue field, all jammed together as if wondering which way to point.

Possibly the most bizarre development of all is that the people have all decided to drive on the lefthand side of the road. This may be their way of fighting the creeping homogeneity that is globalization. If so, I salute the intent, but wish they had found a more practical way to express it.

I half-dread what I’ll find in the other European capitals. What of Paris? If I were to fly there tomorrow, would I still find it full of bullrings and matadors, with the sound of distant castanets clacking in the night?

No, better I stay at home, where I can preserve unsullied my visions of these graceful cities: a Helsinki that echoes to the ballads of its gondoliers, a Berlin that stands in the shadow of its centuries-old Great Wall, visible from space.

[Music for people traveling to cities that may or may not exist.]

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“Free Range” is a flavor

Yes, folks, step right up and buy the one and only brand of cat treats whose flavor is that of FREE-RANGE CHICKENS! (More below.)

The bag doesn’t mention anywhere what it means for a cat treat to be “free-range chicken flavor”. The first ingredient is “chicken meal”: did that come from only free-range chickens? We can only guess.

What’s not left to our imagination, however, is how much our cat wants these treats. Behold this rather disturbing specimen of consumer ad copy. (The last word on the first line is “quills”, by the way.)

More Wisdom of the Fridge here.

[Free-range music is available here.]

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The Twitter Turing Test

There are a number of interesting scams on Twitter. “Scams” is maybe too harsh a word, because there’s not much harm being done; but there’s deception all the same.

Supposedly, the reason why social media is such an effective marketing tool is because of its “intimacy” and “authenticity”. But such things take a long time to cultivate, so people will naturally want a shortcut to the pay-off. And thus are launched a thousand Twitter scams, which are all variations on one key technique:

Make a bunch of fake Twitter accounts, but try to make them look real.

You can pay people to make these fake accounts for you and then have them all “follow” you on Twitter and tweet about how awesome you are. And if you did this, you’d be in good company: Mitt Romney’s campaign has been accused of doing it.

The only problem is, it’s hard to make a lot of fake accounts that actually look real. In fact, they’re usually quite inept. You know some hacker has written a program to automate the creation of the accounts and their tweets, and I’ll give the hackers some credit: usually, the accounts at least have profile pictures and plausible names, instead of having no pictures and names like “X11J9”.

But still, it’s not hard to detect the fraud. Just today, I saw I’d gotten two tweets from different people with the same exact wording — which, moreover, consisted almost entirely of a regurgitation of one of my own recent tweets:

All they did was add, bizarrely, the word “Lotta” to my tweet, along with a link — which happened to be to a site trying to sell you Kindle Fires for less than Amazon sells them.

Here’s a look at the tweets of “June Paterson”. Again, pretty transparent, but notice there’s at least some attempt at sophistication. First, “June” has more than zero followers, which would have been a dead giveaway that she was just a spambot. (Of course, June’s followers are almost certainly other spambots created by the same hacker.)


Second, the hacker has maintained a plausible ratio of, say, three to one, of June’s “personal tweets” to the tweets they really want to send (the ads for the Kindle Fire).

What I love is how nonsensical these “personal tweets” are. The next-t0-last one in the screenshot above (“vS”) surely takes the cake for the least convincing tweet ever. Here’s another sampling:


What I want to know is, what the hell is up with that next-to-last tweet? Do these auto-generated tweets draw upon a corpus that contains rap lyrics, or is this spambot just plain racist?

More Tales of Twitter here.

No scams here — just pure wonk rock!

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Astounding Quantities

By law (I presume), consumer packaging has to give us accurate measurements of what’s contained inside. But normally they do so in terms of weight, not actual quantity. And not so breathlessly, either, as the examples below.

First off: if you’re going to specify on your packaging a certain quantity of slices, and the quantity seems… I don’t know, a little meager… then you should definitely mention how BIG those slices are.


The same rule holds true for cookies.



Contrast the foregoing with the example below, where the quantity is by itself so impressive, that no added description of size is needed.

(Sidebar: Did you know that snack-food companies do statistical sampling of their wares to make sure that the containers really do contain as much as their packaging claims, so no one can sue them, this being America, Land of the Litigious? Doing this by weighing the containers sure seems a heck of a lot easier than trying to count the frickin’ chips. Maybe they’re just hoping they don’t get sued by a zealous amateur chip-counter. Or maybe they make sure to crumple and crush the bags a lot before shipping them: “There, now there’s gotta be 300 chips in there…”)

And finally, the crown jewel in our collection of astonishing quantities is the following:


More Wisdom of the Fridge here.

[An astounding quantity of free, HUGE music is available here.]

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