My top blogs 2017: Stories, statistics, and social media

Post-its patterns of my blogposts

I was talking to a Bikram friend today, who said that the first 20 minutes of the Bikram yoga sequence is us getting back in touch with ourselves and she has wondered for a while how to take that off the mat and into her life.

I love it when someone articulates clearly something that I have been pondering but didn’t know where to start. I know that connection to others is necessary, not least of all, because we learn about ourselves. But, in order to connect to others in a meaningful way, we first of all need to be able to connect to ourselves.

Each December, I like to reflect on what I have been blogging about all year. I did so in 2015 and 2016 and in this way I connect with myself, and my words, which makes it easier to connect to others and their words, especially with WordPress Reader.

And then, the stats themselves can tell a story. As I said in Top Blog No 3 (below), we are living in an age when we have lots of data and very little narrative, or insight, which is why everyone is nuts about big data as they think it will give them insight. But, to get the insight, you need to see patterns, and then make them into a story.

So, let’s take a look. My top 10 blogs of 2017 are:

  1. Katie Hopkins’s #fatstory one year on
  2. Fifty shades of my grey hair
  3. Storytelling: Narrative, Databases, and Big Data
  4. Maslow’s hierarchy of social media
  5. Aggression: The social animal on social media (6)
  6. Prejudice: The social animal on social media (7)
  7. User motivation: Maslow’s hierarchy of needs
  8. Designing story (3): Archetypes and aesthetics
  9. Game theory in social media marketing (2): Customers and Competitors
  10. Alone together: Is social media changing us?

In all honesty, given the nature of 3.6 billion people online and how Google gets people to come to this site, the only real common thread in these blogs is that I wrote all of them. That said, I could make all manner of patterns out of these 10 posts because if there is one thing statisticians know: if you torture the data long enough it will tell you anything. But, what I really see in these top posts is that I have been blogging away about social media and storytelling for a few years now, and I have come full circle.

I started off with no. 10, actually my first social media blog was: Emerging Technologies: What’s the story? back in 2013, but when I wrote Alone together: Is social media changing us? I wasn’t sure about us learning about ourselves online, but now 60+ blogs later I think: Absolutely yes, it is true, we do come online to learn about ourselves, in the same way we learn about ourselves in conversation with others.

I found this out during the series The Social Animal on Social Media, and how stories matter. We interpret signs and symbols and make stories semiotically to make sense of the world and ourselves. We then tell them to others which creates an intimacy, and an energy which yes, causes a connection.

The constant theme running through all the blogs is connection and also understanding how to connect (which is why 4 and 9 have made it on, we like to make sense of our connections, 1, 5 and 6 are about making sense of bad behaviour or when connection goes sour). Now I only have two blogs left to write (one on social computing, and one on connection) and then I will have said everything and much more than I intended to, when I set out to talk about social media.

I am a year behind schedule as 2017 has been painful with some difficult life events, some heartbreak, and a lot of soul-searching, so to have felt a connection to others, more often than not online, throughout 2017, has been truly lovely. We do connect and have proper conversations on social media, contrary to what some sociologists might think.

I love blogging here. I make sense of the world and of myself, and as psychotherapist Matt Licata puts it, I satisfy that innate yearning for intimacy and aliveness.

So for that, and for the conversations, the connections, and for the laughter, especially the laughter, I am so very, very grateful, and I can’t wait to do it all again next year!

Women (Conclusions): Society, Storytelling, Technology (9)

We cannot live in a world that is not our own, in a world that is interpreted for us by others. An interpreted world is not a home. – Hildegard of Bingen

[Women Part 9 of 9: 1) Introduction, 2) Bodies, 3) Health, 4) Work, 5) Superwomen, 6) Religion, 7) In Tech, 8) Online 9) Conclusions]

Back in 2001, I attended a series of seminars in the Department of Sociology at Lancaster University led by Professor Lucy Suchman about how women felt excluded online as software felt masculine. At the time I was a new lecturer in the Department of Computing and I was intrigued by the idea that software could be seen as having a gender.

Now I see that my route into the field of technology was unusual. I have ‘A’ Levels in English Literature, French and History and turned up to do a computing degree with my total computing experience consisting of 10 minutes of trying to play The Hobbit on a Spectrum ZX 48k before my older brother took it off me (it was his computer). I had no expectations of what I would be doing, and for much of the time I had no idea what I was actually doing either. So, it was my humanities background rather than my gender which made me feel a bit of an outsider.

Later, doing a PhD in Switzerland, I felt that it was my nationality and the fact I couldn’t understand what anyone were saying to me for a couple of years, which made me feel like an outsider, not my gender.

And, even when I created my first webpage with a photo of myself and five minutes later got email saying You look very nice, do you want to meet for coffee? It just never occurred to me that it had anything to do with my gender, because the Internet to me was a place for sharing research, even if it was with socially awkward men. It took a male colleague in the lab to explain exactly the kind of socially awkward man with which I was dealing.

Now I think I was completely naive and lived in a little bubble of my own thoughts. Last year when a male social media acquaintance told me that he liked to look at pictures of me online, sadly, I knew what that meant (although to be honest, I like looking at pictures of me online too). It also meant that I could never have a professional working relationship with the man, which is something I am still furious about because I didn’t get a say. This man decided exactly how we were going to relate to each other, irrespective of my feelings.

I want, as a woman, to have choices, in what I do, how I relate to people and what sorts of relationships I want with people. I am so tired that a patriarchal society dictates to me how these things go down based on my gender. And I am sad that many women feel the same way about computing and software because some men wrote it completely from a male perspective and the whole field is populated by men who leave no room for women to breathe in. They are not doing it on purpose either – well not all of them. It is semi-institutionalised now, which is really sad, though I have worked with loads of lovely, kind, generous men.

I was going to finish this series with facts about how women make better software engineers than men. But, the truth is I don’t really care and it doesn’t really matter. It is not about which gender is superior. It is not a competition. It is about equal opportunity, feeling welcome and comfortable in a given domain.

The government has spent millions on encouraging women into STEM but they don’t go, and I don’t blame them. I wouldn’t have done had I got a place on an English Lit degree course. Women do not go into Computing because they cannot recognise or see themselves in it. This is because there are:

  • No role models – we are not taught them as part of the history of computing.
  • No tribes – research shows that women are more likely to show up on forums to discuss technical solutions if there are already other women present.
  • No stories which make it seem worthwhile, there are just loads of stories about women being harassed ‘cos of their gender or excluded because of male-group think.
  • No rewards – research shows that women are systematically penalised if they take time out to continue the human race.
  • No equal pay.
  • No respect for their work. Women have justify themselves over and over and over again.

I could go on. Indeed I have already for at least 10,000 words and seriously, I could go on forever about rage, about boundaries, about ageing, about sex, about love, to name but a few topics which I think about when I think about women.

We need to reevaluate the role of women in both STEM and society. For inasmuch as society is stacked in a man’s favour, it is women who raise these men, and give them legitimacy and excuses from a very early age. The boys my girls interact with on the playground are raised by women who would call themselves feminists but I have heard them say things like Oh he is such a boy. But these women were raised by women who were raised by women etc.

In order to make a change, we need to reclaim language, we need a genealogy of women and to make space for women in history whilst we learn again to respect the life of women in the home and elsewhere online and offline.

As the naive optimist I have always been and hope I always will be, I believe that change is coming, and that as more women write books (like this one with the awesome title: A Uterus is A Feature, Not a Bug), do TED talks and go on marches, I believe that change for the good is on its way. I really do.

And, one of the ways in which the Internet can help is that all our interactions are recorded and can be analysed to further understand and hopefully change the bad ways in which we have learnt to interact. It also makes it easy to share the stories about women that we don’t know. For example, Hedy Lamarr was an inventor as well as a movie star.

In a lovely Facebook post psychotherapist Matt Licata says that we all have an innate yearning for intimacy and aliveness but often between men and women this gets misconstrued as sexual and erotic rather than the honouring of one soul by another. If we could teach this honouring to the future generations, in particular, those men and women who will go into marketing and media who by their messages, form society, then perhaps we could see a change in the way the world works – a world which is more peaceful and more respectful and a lot less heterosexy. Now, that would be a world I’d like to live in, it would be just like that bubble I used to live in way back when the world felt like it was magic and new, online and off.

Game theory & social media (3): What are you playing at?


[Part 3 of 4: Game theory & social media: Part 1Part 2, Part 4]

Whatever else anything is, it ought to begin with being personal – Kathleen Kelly, You’ve got mail (1998)

Kermit drinking his tea and throwing shade makes me laugh. However, I think we all understand his frustration. It seems that in business and personal relationships, people play games. We may not know why, and we may not know the rules. But as we saw in part 2, before we react, we might want to find out more: if a game is being played, which one, and if we want to play or not.

Games, payoffs, and winning

A game is normally defined as having two or more players, who have a choice of possible strategies to play which determine the outcome of a game. Each outcome has a payoff which is calculated numerically to represent its value. Usually, a player will want to get the biggest payoff possible in order to be certain of winning.

Dominance, saddles, and mixed strategies

Playing the strategy with the biggest payoff is known as the Dominance Strategy, and a rational player would never do otherwise, but it’s not always easy to identify which strategy is best.

So, players sometimes take a cautious approach which will guarantee a favourable result (also known as the Saddle Point Principle). Other times, there is no saddle point so players have to choose at random what strategy to play and hope for the best. They can calculate the probability of mixing up strategies and their chances of winning. If their probability skills are not great they can play experimentally and record their results 30 times (for statistical significance) to see which strategies work.

How does this work on social media? Well, no one knows how social media works so a trial and error approach whilst recording results can be useful. Luckily, Twitter and Facebook both provide services and stats to help.

Free will, utility, and Pareto’s principle

A major question is whether players have free will or not and whether their choices are predetermined based on who they are playing with and the circumstances in which the game takes place. This can depend on the amount of information players have available to them,  and as new information becomes available, they play a specific strategy, thus seeming as if they didn’t have free will at all.

Players assign numbers to describe the value of the outcomes (known in economics as utility theory) which they can use to guide themselves to the most valued outcome.

This is useful if we have a game where the winner doesn’t necessarily take all. If the players have interests which are not opposed and by cooperating the players can end up potentially with a win-win situation or at least a situation where everyone gains some benefits and the solution is not the worst outcome for everyone involved. This is known as the Pareto Principle.

On social media? Retweeting and sharing other’s businesses news is a nice way of ensuring everyone gains some benefits because with a potential market of 307 millions and there is enough of a market to go around for everyone to win-win and of course, reciprocate.

The Nash equilibrium

Taking this further is the Nash equilibrium which was named after John Nash, who proved that every two player game has one equalizing strategy (either pure or mixed) in each game. By looking at the equilibrium strategies of the other players, everyone plays to equalize. This is because, no player has anything to gain by changing only his or her own strategy, so it is win-win.

Are you chicken?

Ducks have been known share out the bread thrown to them so they all get some rather than one duck eating everything. This is known as the Hawk-Dove approach in game theory. When there is competition for a shared resource, players can choose either conciliation or conflict.

Research has shown that when a player is naturally a hawk (winner takes all) and plays amongst doves, then the player will adapt and cooperate. Conversely a dove amongst hawks will adapt too and turn into a fighter.

If there are two hawks playing each other the game is likely to go chicken, which is when both players will risk everything (known as mutually assured destruction in warfare) not to yield first.

We adapt very easily to what is going on around us, and on social media this is totally the same. In a 2014 study Pew Research Center found that people are less likely to share their honest opinions on social media, and will often only post opinions on Facebook with which they know their followers will agree – we like to conform.

The volunteer’s dilemma

In contrast, the volunteer’s dilemma is an altruistic approach where one person does the right thing for the benefit of everyone. For example, one meerkat will look out for predators, at the risk of getting eaten, whilst the rest of the meerkats look for food. And, we admire this too. We love a hero, a maverick, someone who is ready to stand up and be different.

The prisoner’s dilemma

But we hated to feel duped which is why the prisoner’s dilemma is one of the most popular game theories of all. Created by Albert W. Tucker in 1950, it is as follows:

Two prisoners are arrested for a joint crime and put in separate interrogation rooms. The district attorney sets out these rules:

  1. If one of them confesses and the other doesn’t, the confessor will be rewarded, the other receive a heavy sentence.
  2. If both confess each will get a light sentence. Which leads to the belief that:
  3. If neither confesses both will go free.

It is in each prisoner’s interest to confess (dominant strategy = 1) and if they both do that satisfies the Pareto principle (2). However, if they both confess, they are worse off than if neither do (3).

The prisoner’s dilemma embodies the struggle between individual rationality and group rationality which Nigel Howard described as a metagame of a prisoner cooperating if and only if, they believe that the other prisoner will cooperate, if and only if, they believe that the first prisoner will cooperate. A mind boggling tit-for-tat. But, this is common on Twitter with those: Follow me, I will follow you back and constant following and unfollowing.

And, in any transaction we hate feeling like we have been had, that we were a chump, that we trusted when we shouldn’t have, which is why some people are so angry and like to retaliate. Anger feels better than feeling vulnerable does. But, great daring starts with vulnerability, the fear of failure, and even the failure to start, the hero’s quest shows us that.

Promises, threats, and coalitions

As we add more players, all rationality may go out of the window as players decide whether to form coalitions or to perform strategic style voting. If we introduce the idea of the players communicating then we add the issues of trust in promises, or fear of threats and it all starts to sound rather Hunger Games.

On social media aggression and threats are common, because of prejudice, or group think, especially on Twitter where there is no moderation. And, online and off, we have all been promised things and relationships which have ultimately left us disappointed, and told us that we have been misinformed, like the fake news, we’ve been hearing about a lot lately.  Fake news is not new, in other contexts it is known as propaganda.  And, if it is not completely fake, just exaggerated, well that’s not new either, New Labour loved spin which led to a sexed up dossier, war and death.

Kermit’s next move

Philip D. Straffin says in his book Game theory and strategy, that game theory only works up to a point, after which a player must ask for some clarification about what is going on because mathematics applied to human behaviour will only explain so much.

And so we turn back to Kermit. What is he to do?  He has passive-aggressively asked for clarification and had a cup of tea. What’s his next move? Well, he could wait and see if he gets a reply (tit for tat). Who will crack first (chicken)? But, with the texts he has sent her, it is likely that her response is somewhat predetermined, or perhaps not, perhaps she will repond with Nash’s equilibria, or at the very least the Pareto principle of everyone not getting the worst outcome.

Alternatively, he could take a breath and remember that he is talking to someone he likes and with whom he wants to spend some time, someone human with the same vulnerabilities as him. He could adopt the volunteer’s dilemma approach and send her an honest text to explain that his feelings are hurt, he thought they had something special, and that she liked communicating with him as much as other people. By seeking clarification in this way, Kermit may just end up having a very nice evening after all –  or not. Whoever said: All’s fair in love and war, didn’t have instant access to social media and all the complications it can cause.

[Part 4]

Game theory in social media marketing (2): Customers and competitors


[Part 2 of 4: Game theory & social media: Part 1, Part 3, Part 4]

In part 1, we saw how people love to play games. Game theory was first recognised in 1928, by John Von Neumann’s paper which was about two people playing a game together with only one winner (known as: two person game-zero sum).

If we apply game theory to social media marketing, we could say that the customer and the marketer are playing a two person game, zero sum – winner takes all. Before social media, this might have been the case, for customers believed that shops were acting in their own self interests and so they, the customer, did too. Everyone was out to get what they could. In reality though, the relationship is more of a win-win: Without the marketer, the customer might not learn about the product on offer and not buy or benefit from the product, and without the customer, the marketer doesn’t have a job at all.

Playing your customer

In his book, Social Media Marketing, Eric Anderson describes the marketer-customer as a two-way mutually dependent conflict and, points out that in the world of marketing everything is described combatively. There are marketing campaigns, killer apps and dead lists, which fit with game theory: Two parties with opposing and mutual interests both engaged in winning the outcome of combat.

For if the customer doesn’t engage and play the game then, they effectively kill the product, or even the market the product exists in. More worryingly for a marketer, if a customer engages and is an influencer, this customer with a few well placed tweets and reviews on a social computing site (their blog, Amazon, Goodreads) can begin a campaign which can sink a product. On his blog, Nathan Bransford describes how books have been effectively killed prior to publication due to bad reviews on Goodreads.

A nice equation given by Kyle Wong on Forbes describes what an influencer does as follows:

Influence = Audience Reach (# of followers) x Brand Affinity (expertise and credibility) x Strength of Relationship with Followers

Influencers have immense power to kill or create sales, which is a totally new thing in marketing. This is potentially such a powerful way to sell to millions across the globe, especially amongst certain demographics – mums, millennials –  that many companies view social media marketing as the only way to market nowadays. They know that they must, like influencers,  build relationships with their customers. One way to do this is by creating content.

Playing your competitor

In a great blog on, Julie Niedlinger, describes how game theory approaches to creating content can help marketers decide whether their strategy (another military word) is appropriate with the competitors and with their customers.

Niedlinger advises marketers to take a moment, before reacting to comments that potential customers will leave on blogs, in order to ask whether there is a game going on. If so which game? And most importantly, are the rules clear? Once they are then and only then should a marketer make a move.

Secondly, she looks at competitors producing a similar blog of content rich potentially market cornering information and asks what is the next move?  Do you steal their writers? Mimic them? Join forces? Or, follow trends in an effort to win their share of the market.

It is important to know your game, it’s rules, and the moves you should be taking.

In part 3, we will look at specific game theory theories and see what moves and games we could play.

[Part 3]

Game theory in social media (1): Fate and power

Early dice made from knucklebone in Ancient Greece © British Museum

[Part 1 of 4: Game theory & social media: Part 2, Part 3, Part 4]

Humans love games. We just love playing them.

The earliest proof we have, so far, dates back to 3600BCE: Six-faced dice with coloured pebbles made from heel bones of sheep and deer have been found on archaeological digs in Assyria, Sumeria, and Egypt.

Today, a walk around the British Museum, one of my favourite places, (which you can now do on Google), shows us that places where guards sat, probably for hours, like the entrance to the palace of King Ashurnasirpal II (883-859 BC) at Nimrud, has a board and a tally scratched into the side of one of the enormous winged human-headed lions.

By the time of the birth of Christ, many types of random number generators, including dice, were common, and were used for betting on or with board games. They were often spoken of as the workers of the blind goddess of fate, fortune, or destiny. And, it says in the Bible, that they cast lots to decide how to divide up Jesus’s possessions (Matthew 27:35). Even nowadays we talk about the roll of the dice when we talk chance and the things which happen to us.

By 10th century Europe, cards were the most popular thing with which to play games. There might be some skill, but really, a lot of it is up to chance, and don’t we all know that cliche about playing the hand you were dealt?

Highs and lows on the roll of a dice

The first formal attempt at analysing games, especially of chance, was written in 1520 (but published in 1663) by Gerolamo Cardano and has been recognised as the first step in probability theory. Cardano was a compulsive gambler, so would have felt the highs and lows of the roll of the dice more than most. He was foremost in the minds of Pascal and Fermat who published a book in 1654, continuing his work. And, it was Fermat’s last theorem which remained a phenomenon until it was solved in 1994. Imagine, it took three hundred and fifty years to solve a puzzle.

Later,  writer Fyodor Dostoyevsky described our love of excitement and chance when playing games and how our fortunes can flip in an instant. He wrote about it in letters to his sister and his short novel, The Gambler. He was convinced that you needed to detach and keep a clear head, but had difficulty doing either, for it is much easier said than done. Consequently, gambling and games are ubiquitous, from church bingo to nationwide lotteries. Life can really change with a roll of the dice – or so it seems.

Game theory not gamification

It was in 1928 that the first theory of game theory was first written about by (rock star) John von Neumann who amongst many things designed the first computer architecture in 1945.

But, it has to be said, game theory isn’t the same as gamification, at all. Please don’t mix them up. Gamification is about turning things into games such as business objectives and anything else we want to make more engaging and more fun. When gamification is well designed, it works really well. But game theory is much bigger, and much more than just games.

In 1944, von Neumann and Oscar Morgenstern translated and expanded von Neumann’s theories in order to produce: The theory of games and economic behaviour. For his 1928 paper was mainly about two people playing a game together with only one winner (known as: two person game-zero sum) but game theory is much bigger than this, and it is not just about games and game playing.

It might be based in mathematics, but game theory has people in it, of course, which is why it can be used to think about everything: economics, political science and psychology. And, it has the crazy assumption that people behave rationally, which if there is one thing I know about life, people never behave rationally, nor should you expect them to. The other thing is that, we can only partially model any prescription because the world is huge and constantly changing, and we can never model everything in a computer. It really doesn’t matter how clever computers get. We have a long way to go yet when modelling humans and behaviour, but game theory is a start.

That said, power is the name of the game: group voting, economic theory and how to influence people, especially in areas like interpersonal cooperation, competition,  conflict, labour negotiations, and economic duopolies, can all be understood in terms of game theory.

Game theory for explaining social media

Social media is the big new tool of the Internet, for business, politics, etc, and as of yet, no one knows how it works. So, this series is going to take a look at some of the big hitters of game theory: the prisoners dilemma, the Nash equilibrium, and so on, to see if these strategies can help us understand better how social media works. Are people cooperating or conflicting in ways these models describe on social media? If yes, can we understand and anticipate behaviour?  If not, what other theories could we come up with?

Let’s take a look.

[Part 2]