A new threat has emerged, just when airlines began to think that Wi-Fi and cellphones could be safely used without “interfering with the aircraft’s navigation systems”.  The danger arises from packages containing bombs that could be detonated by a cellphone itself, or via a Wi-Fi connection to a handset.

So passenger aircraft may continue to create “black holes” in our web coverage, at a time when our appetite for constant contact is becoming insatiable.  

Social media is heightening this hunger.  When a young woman I know sits drinking coffee with a friend, her eyes are constantly flickering down to her cellphone screen for messages.  (Perhaps that’s a new meaning to the word “Flickr”.)

A young man I know was an hour late for band practice on the day that daylight-saving was introduced.  He was disappointed that his iPhone did not automatically adjust its alarm: Another black hole?

But back to Flickr for a moment: Consumer magazine (issue 507) has praised Flickr for the feature that allows you to copyright your own work with creative commons licenses.  That’s an important protection in an era in which disregard for intellectual property appears to be a trait of social media.

The same review in Consumer talks about the “netiquette” of social media.   Its commonsense advice focuses on “oversharing” and recommends that you don’t accept just anyone who wants to befriend you.  (Remember Dunbar’s number in an earlier blog on this site.)

Not that oversharing is likely to be a problem in China.  Apparently Twitter is only accessible to those in China who have the skills to penetrate what The Economist (Oct 30, 2010) calls “the great firewall”: Another black hole.

Mind you, people there are enthusiastically adopting weibo, China’s own heavily-censored microblogging service.  But like all anti-matter, black holes attract their opposites and light is flooding into weibo.

According to the Economist, efforts by authorities to delete mention of imprisoned activist and Nobel prize winner, Liu Xiaobo, were circumvented by bloggers using homonyms of Liu’s name, or abbreviations in Latin characters.  The other morsel in that story was the statistic from a China Youth News survey that reported more than 94% of weibo users saying it had changed their lives: Darkness is dramatically diminishing.

The biggest black hole for social media has always seemed to be the developing world, where only 18% of the population have access to the internet.  But wait… According to The International Telecommunication Union more than 50% owned a mobile-phone at the end of 2009, and this allows texting.  That presented an opportunity to Nathan Eagle, an MIT academic who did a teaching stint in rural Kenya.  So he introduced txteagle, an app which encourages crowdsourcing* of a kind (*see earlier blog on this site).

Nathan Eagle’s version of crowdsourcing allows the breaking down of work into small tasks that can be sent out by text to be performed by lots of individuals – such as local people checking street signs in Sudan for a satellite navigation service. 


Maybe, with social media, there soon will be no telecommunication black holes left except for airline passengers.


Posted by Joseph Peart

How Tweet the sound


How Tweet the sound:  When this pun popped into my head as a title for this blog, I binged it, mainly to tease Google.  I came up with http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BOrlCYp8TgU&feature=related

If you feel like something sweet then click on that as you read on about the debate which has raged since before I first studied psychology.  It is the vexed question of nature versus nurture.  It is again being raised, but this time in a business management context, linked to world of social media.

For instance, it looks as if Twitter has decided it needs more of a salesperson at the helm, as co-founder Evan Williams, @Ev, has stood aside for his colleague Dick Costolo, @dickc, to replace him as CEO @ Twitter.

This underscores the truism that different people are differently talented and differently suited to different management roles, such as entrepreneur, leader, creative genius, or salesperson.  This revived my interest in the question:

“Why are some people more likely than others to be leaders?”

And the related question: “Are leaders made or born?”

To find the answer, I looked at some of the most recent work done in the field pioneered by Sir Cyril Burt, who compared identical with non-identical twins.  Since Sir Cyril researchers have continued to regard this as a good way of separating the effects of identical genes with those of the same upbringing.

The latest work I looked at was that by Professor Scott Shane of Case Western University in Ohio, who has reviewed studies of twins in an effort to resolve the effects of heredity and environment.  His work is reported in The Economist Sep. 25, 2010, alongside that of Dr Richard Arvey who examined the role of genes in leadership potential.  Arvey and his colleagues at the NUS Business School were interested to find that wealthy and supportive parents tend to be more important than any genetic presence or absence of leadership potential.

The Economist quipped that there must still be some truth in the saying: “The battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton”.

But it was Shane’s work that really caught my eye.  He observed that some occupations, notably those in the creative industries, were strongly linked to genetic make-up, while salespeople were more likely to be the product of their environments.

Other work by numerous researchers has shown that salespeople tend to be optimists and radiate happiness.  That can turn them into leaders, like Dick Costello? @dickc, because they build positive and productive relationships.  Other people like them and want to do things for those leaders, because they make those other people feel happy.

And so this blog on social media arrives at one of the most important social questions for all of us:

“Wherein lies the secret of happiness?”

Stephen Brewster, University of Glasgow, is keen to synthesise some happiness into AudioFeeds that alert us to our social network messages and news shots. His team have developed a 3D theatre of natural and pleasant sounds that could be built into a cellphone app.  

For example, Facebook updates could be signalled by a collection of joyful birdsongs, whereas stop-press news could be heralded through your earpiece or desk speakers as different bells, music and other happy sounds, according to the concept presented by Brewster to the Association for Computing Machinery’s Multimedia conference at the end of October.

So finally: Will that cellphone app make us happy?

Well, not necessarily, we are told in New Scientist, Sep 25, 2010, where Dan Jones summarises the research into human happiness by numerous social scientists in the words:

“Genetic differences account for about half the difference in happiness between people.”

Jones goes on to emphasis that it is that the same interaction between inherited characteristics and our social environment which explains the other half of our happiness.

To demonstrate that money does not bring happiness, Jones produces a riveting graph from www.happyplanetindex.org which shows UK GDP per capita increasing by about 60% over 30 years, while UK ‘Life Satisfaction’ wobbled along without much change.

To find out what does make you happy, you could log in to http://s.psych.uiuc.edu/~ediener/SWLS.html and measure your own ‘Satisfaction with life scale’.  The web page also has a link to explanatory notes, to interpret your results once you have completed the simple test.

If you have survived this blog and its forced segues from one idea to the next, you have probably had a glimpse of the smorgasbord of knowledge that makes me happy.

Posted by Joseph Peart