Tuesday, January 31, 2012

StockTwits and the "Wishdom of Crowds"...

Here are some new fun phrases to whip out at your next cocktail party... "the crowdsource investing movement", "the facebook of finance", and "news dissemination in a social finance world".

All have been used to describe StockTwits, a website that aggregates Twitter messages about individual stocks and displays them on a single organized screen.

A fuller description as written by SmartMoney Magazine...

Various parts stock-market news feed, rebel community and investor kvetch-fest, Lindzon's free service essentially plucks out Twitter messages focused on individual stocks and other investments and streams them across its home page (or the user's Twitter feed) as though it were a stock ticker. But here, instead of mere price updates, the ticker ticks off snippets of gossip, prediction and raw information, all of it coming from StockTwits members -- many of whom, in turn, are shrouded in anonymity.

For a quick example, take a look at the StockTwits page for Google (ticker: $GOOG). You'll get the idea.

What's particularly interesting is that this entire business - a website with over 150,000 regularly posting members - is essentially little more than a content filter for Twitter. Again, all StockTwits posts are actually Twitter posts, just harnessed in one place.

But here's where things get problematic. Four in 10 StockTwits users self-identify as novices, and this often makes financial regulators wary. As Dyan Machan's article points out, "online investing communities, say experts, are ideal environments for market manipulators to engage in schemes like 'pumping and dumping': repeatedly hyping a stock to lure in gullible investors, then selling the moment the price rises".

StockTwits says it addresses that problem by 1) banning discussion on ultralow-priced "penny stocks", 2) kicking off anyone peddling products or posting repeated messages on the same stock or other tweets that don't "offer members value", and 3) maintaining three paid, full-time editors who troll for tweets that violate the rules or spirit of the site and award star ratings to certain "helpful" members. Above all, as its passionate members will quickly tell you, the community of StockTwitters keeps a vigilant watch on itself - akin to the Wikipedia model of self-regulation.

But I see other problems besides just the pumping-and-dumping threat. How about with the business model itself?

StockTwits has been proud to highlight the fact that, unlike most social-networking companies, it doesn't try to earn revenues through advertising, nor does it offer a paid, premium version of its product. Instead, StockTwits plans to make its money by offering an Investor Relations package to the companies profiled on the website - the StockTwits IR Suite - will give an investor relations team access to the company’s page on StockTwits and to a dashboard that lets those companies push their updates directly to Twitter and Facebook, and then measure the results.

One has to wonder, then, is StockTwits just a promotional, marketing tool for publicly-traded companies? Furthermore, add in the fact that StockTwits makes it a practice to share revenue with bloggers. You don't have to be a conspiracy-theorist to see potential conflicts of interest here.

All of this belies the point that the website is really a lot of fun! It's just that when you have this confluence of money, information, and anonymity, everybody just really needs to maintain a healthy dose of skepticism and to pay close attention to who's writing what.

Sunday, January 29, 2012

How States Are Using Online Cloud-Based Voting Systems...

For the past decade there has been a gradual, but hesitant, move towards Internet voting in elections. During this 2012 presidential primary season, several states including Virginia, Florida, and California have enabled such online balloting for U.S. citizens living overseas.

If you were making a pros and cons list of Internet voting, it generally looks something like this... Internet voting is great because it makes voting more accessible, but not-so-great because it can lead to electoral fraud. There are other issues that arise as well, such as the importance of a paper trail, aiding voter intent, and requiring transparency in the software's code. But the discussion usually hinges foremost on the conflict between these two core values of increasing accessibility and preventing fraud.

How does the current system work in those states? According to Information Week, an application named LiveBallot - based on Microsoft's Azure cloud infrastructure - ensures the ballots are from legitimate voters by having people use unique identifying information to access their ballots online. Once received, the signature on the ballot is matched with registration records to further verify identity.

The system allows voters registered to vote in primaries who live overseas to have access to ballots 45 days before the election. It also helps solve previous problems with absentee ballots, where often voters did not receive their ballots in time to vote or where their ballots didn't arrive back in the U.S. in time to be counted in the election results.

To get a sense of some opinions on this matter, check out this Slashdot thread. Theories abound from the conspiracy-minded, as to be expected, but there are also some genuinely thoughtful questions being asked about, for example, why such an application needs to be cloud-based at all.

Will it matter? In Virginia, Florida, and California we'll see soon enough. Granted, this is just for the primaries, not the general election, and the number of registered primary voters living overseas who will participate is considerably small relative to those states' populations. For now, this is really just an alternative to absentee ballots. Nevertheless, it's worth following how the states fulfill their role as policy laboratories, experimenting with new ideas. Let's see what works and what doesn't before anything goes national.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

The SOPA/PIPA Blackout: How Much Does Cyberactivism Really Matter?

In case you haven't noticed, thousands of websites today are voluntarily shutting down as a show of protest against two bills before Congress - the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and the Protect IP Act (PIPA).

As described here before, both bills seek to protect copyrights on the Web by taking draconian measures that would severely curb free speech and enable the federal government to shut down any website even suspected of contributing toward copyright infringement, without a court order or due process. Both are the product of the music and movie industries' heavy lobbying muscle.

Thus today's Internet blackout. But not wanting to just rehash links to explanatory videos or online petitions which are proliferating all over the Web, I'd like to just highlight an observation about cyberactivism more generally. See, bloggers and cyberactivists have been ringing the warning bell over SOPA and PIPA for many months now, basically to no avail. It wasn't until a small handful of large websites like Google and Wikipedia made an effort today to highlight the dangers of the proposed legislation that any real meaningful awareness has been raised among the public. As I've argued many times before, despite what you might hear about the democratization of the Web and how it levels the playing field by empowering the little guy, the truth is that a small number of large and powerful actors are still more significant in affecting political change than are the large numbers of the mass public.

Even online, the grassroots be damned, at least until they get large institutional support.

Friday, January 13, 2012

The Bloggess Confession: The Most Commented Blog Post Ever?

Two weeks ago, The Bloggess - one of the most popular bloggers in existence - posted a confession of "self-harm" that has caught absolute wildfire in cyberspace. As of this writing, the post has 2480 direct comments, 4963 tweets, and 4630 Facebook "shares". These numbers do not even include indirect comments on external social media sites like Reddit or Digg.

The crux of her post...

I self-harm. I don’t do it all the time and it’s not enough to put me into an institution or threaten my well-being, but it’s enough to make it frightening to live in my body sometimes. I’m far from suicidal. I do it to self-sooth, because the physical pain distracts me from the mental pain. It’s one of those things that’s impossible to explain to people who don’t understand impulse control disorder. Honestly, I find it hard to understand it to myself and I’m working my ass off to fix it now before my daughter is old enough to see the things I don’t want her to see. It is one of the hardest things I have ever done.

The response was immediate and remains ongoing. Readers posted thousands of comments, almost completely positive and supportive, sharing their own stories of self-destructive behavior. On Twitter, a new hashtag was created, #travelingreddress, where people could show support for a project that The Bloggess created last year seeking to empower women.

All of this is a feel-good social media story, but I'm particularly curious about that astronomical number of comments directly on her site - 2480 for a single post. As any blogger can tell you, that is so ridiculously above the norm of even the most highly successful posts that I spent the better part of this morning trying to determine if it may, indeed, be the single most commented-on blog post ever.

What did I uncover? Only how frustrating it is to get that kind of information. Why does no one keep meaningful statistics about social media? To support this point, The Nerfherder once did a blog post almost three years ago on the top-earning blogs in cyberspace, and it remains one of the most-visited posts to this day, despite being outdated.

Here's a challenge to any amateur researchers out there... how could one go about collecting such statistics? There are some inherent difficulties, but it's pretty clear that there has to be a market for this information for which a simple Google search doesn't provide an answer. Any ideas?

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Is Internet Access a Human Right?

A few days ago, Vint Cerf caused some waves by writing an op-ed in the New York Times exploring the question of whether Internet access should be considered a human right. Yes, it is THAT Vint Cerf, generally recognized as one of the founders of the Internet itself. He concludes that it should not be considered a human right, and that we should be careful not to mistake actual human rights like free speech and free assembly, which the Internet certainly helps facilitate, as being on the same level as the enabling technology. The Internet is a means to an end, not an end in itself.

Truer words have never been spoken. In the stated context of the Arab Spring protests, people put their lives at risk to protest authoritarian governments and totalitarian dictators and corrupt regimes; not restricted access to Twitter. This isn't to say that restricted Internet access isn't part of the equation - it is - but it's only a symptom of the larger problem, and not the problem itself. We shouldn't lose sight of the forest through the trees.

Perhaps this doesn't seem controversial, but if you read comment threads like this one on Reddit you'll see some strong disagreement. The most valid point made by a dissenter is that Cerf's analogy with the horse is false where he claims that, in traditional terms, owning a horse is not a human right, but making a living is. However, the more apt issue in a contemporary Internet context is whether the government could take away one's right to obtain a horse. In other words, framing the question "Is Internet access a human right?" may lead to a far different answer than framing the same question as "Should the government be able to restrict people's access to information and communication with others?".

Is Internet access a human right? No. But should governments be able to restrict people's access to information and ability to communicate with others whenever they choose? No. Maybe some folks believe these two positions run in conflict with each other, but my reading of Cerf's piece leads me to believe that they do, in fact, support each other. Governments should not be able to restrict people's access to communicative technologies, not because access to those technologies is a human right, but rather because doing so would infringe upon the actual human rights of free speech and free assembly. Those are the big picture rights that Internet access only serves.

People often get carried away with a belief in technology. Heck, Cerf himself currently holds the title at Google of "Chief Internet Evangelist". But it's vital to remember that technology is just a tool to be used in pursuit of other ends. Let's inject a little bit of perspective here.

Tuesday, January 03, 2012

Social Media and Presidential Politics: 2012

Our inaugural post for this upcoming election year has to, inevitably, focus on today's Iowa caucuses.

Four years ago, The Nerfherder began a series of posts examining to what extent online social media could be a meaningful predictor of electoral outcomes. The results showed that it was, in fact, pretty poor at doing so. Read this post from just after 2008's Super Tuesday for primaries and caucuses and see just where things stood. In retrospect, it's quite fascinating.

We're going to research this question again over the next 10 months and see if we get the same results. But, oh my, how the cyber-times have changed since 2008. In that election cycle, we used as our metrics MySpace friends, Digg friends, Facebook fans, and Technorati blog posts. Isn't that quaint?

Obviously, some updating is in order. This time around we're going to keep track of Facebook fans, Twitter followers, Twitter mentions, and occasionally even sprinkle in some Google+ fans.

So here we go. On this day of the Iowa caucuses, here's how things currently stand in online social media among the Republican presidential candidates...

Facebook fans:

Mitt Romney 1,259,515
Ron Paul 672,483
Michelle Bachmann 460,336
Newt Gingrich 223,558
Rick Perry 179,966
Rick Santorum 40,895
Jon Huntsman 30,622

Twitter followers:

Newt Gingrich 1,386,258
Mitt Romney 224,598
Ron Paul 151,899
Michele Bachmann 127,312
Rick Perry 112,272
Rick Santorum 57,520
Jon Huntsman 67,168

Twitter mentions in the past week:

Ron Paul 276,948
Mitt Romney 67,597
Rick Santorum 57,183
Newt Gingrich 46,087
Rick Perry 41,695
Michele Bachmann 16,798
Jon Huntsman 7,166