Using Social Media in Bursts. Is. Just. Normal.

I have seen lots of turkey pictures last week and this has reminded me of an anniversary: When I saw those last time I have just started using Twitter, Google+ and Facebook.

So a review is overdue, and I also owe an update to my Time-Out from social networks this summer. (If you don’t have time to read further – the headline says it all.)

I am not at all an internet denier. Actually, I had crafted my first website in 1997 and had pseudo-blogged since 2002. I made these pages – not blogs in the technical sense, but content-wise – the subject of last year’s Website Resurrection Project.

There have been two reasons for my denial of modern interactive platforms, both are weird:

  1. Territory Anxiety: It made me uncomfortable to have my own site entangled with somebody else’s via comments, reshares and the like. I prefer platforms that allow me to make them mine. Facebook and Google+ require you to ‘fill in form’ and put you at the mercy of their designers.
  2. Always-On and Traceability: For many years my job was concerned with firefighting – an inherent feature of working with digital certificates that have their end of validity embedded cryptographically. I considered it odd if panicking clients would see me sharing geeky memes while they are waiting for my more substantial responses. Notifications by corporate online communication tools conditioned me to loath any piece of technology that tried to start a conversation via flashing pop-ups.

These two reasons haven’t been invalidated completely – I think I just care less. Social media is an ongoing experiment in communications.

I am using social media in the following way: (This is not at all advice for using social media properly, but an observation.)

  • If I use a network, I want to use it actively. I don’t use anything as a sole channel for announcements, such as tweeting all new blog postings (only), and I don’t use automation. I don’t replicate all content on different networks or at least there should be enough non-overlap. Each network has its own culture, target group, style of conversation.

A detailed analysis of the unique culture of each network remains maybe subject to a future post. But I cannot resist sharing my recently started collection of articled on the characteristics of the most hated most analyzed network:

How to overcome facebook status anxiety
7 Ways to Be Insufferable on Facebook
Does Facebook CAUSE narcissism?

I became a Google+ fan, actually.

  • The only ‘strategic tool’ I use is a simple text file I paste interesting URLs to – in case I stumble upon too many interesting things which would result in quite a spammy tsunamis of posts or tweets. This is in line with my life-long denial of sophisticated time-management tools and methodologies as Getting Things Done (which is less down-to-earth than it sounds). I don’t believe in the idea of getting mundane things out of your head to free up capacity for the real thing. I want to keep appointments, tasks, the really important items on the to do list, and thing to be posted in my mind.
  • Using social networks must not feel like work – like having to submit your entries to the time-tracking tool. I said often that my so-called business blog, Facebook site, Google+ site can hardly be recognized as such. (Remember, I said this is not perfect marketing advice.)
  • I don’ care about the alleged ideal time for posting and about posting regularly. It is all about game theory: What if everybody adhered to that grand advice that you should, say, tweet funny stuff in the afternoon or business stuff on Tuesday morning? My social media engagement is burst-like, and I think this is natural. This is maybe the most important result of my time-out experiment:
  • Irregularity is key. It is human and normal. I don’t plan to take every summer off from social media. I will rather allow for breaks of arbitrary length when I feel like that.

And I have found scientific confirmation through this scientific paper: The origin of bursts and heavy tails in human dynamics by renowned researcher on network dynamics, Albert-László Barabási.

The abstract reads (highlights mine):

The dynamics of many social, technological and economic phenomena are driven by individual human actions, turning the quantitative understanding of human behaviour into a central question of modern science. Current models of human dynamics, used from risk assessment to communications, assume that human actions are randomly distributed in time and thus well approximated by Poisson processes. In contrast, there is increasing evidence that the timing of many human activities, ranging from communication to entertainment and work patterns, follow non-Poisson statistics, characterized by bursts of rapidly occurring events separated by long periods of inactivity. Here I show that the bursty nature of human behaviour is a consequence of a decision-based queuing process: when individuals execute tasks based on some perceived priority, the timing of the tasks will be heavy tailed, with most tasks being rapidly executed, whereas a few experience very long waiting times. In contrast, random or priority blind execution is well approximated by uniform inter-event statistics.

Poisson statistics is used to describe, for example, radioactive decay. I learned now that it can also be applied to traffic flow or queues of calls in a call center – basically queues handled by unbiased recipients. The probability to measure a certain time between two consecutive decays or phone calls taken decreases exponentially with time elapsed. Thus very long waiting times are extremely unlikely.

The exponential dependence is another way to view the probably familiar exponential law of decay – by finding the probability of no decay in a certain time via the percentage of not yet decayed atoms. Richard Feynman gives the derivation here for collisions of molecules in a gas.

Radioactive Decay Law Decay Constants

Radioactive decay – the number of non-decayed nuclei over time for different decay rates (half-lives). This could also be read as the probability for a specific nucleus not to decay for a certain time (Wikimedia)

Thus plotting probability over measured inter-e-mail time should give you a straight line in a log-linear plot.

However, the distribution of the time interval between e-mails has empirically been determined to follow a power law which can quickly be identified by a straight line in a log-log-plot: In this case probability for a certain time interval goes approximately with 1 over the time elapsed (power of minus 1).

Power-law distribution, showing the yellow heavy or fat tail. This function goes to zero much slower than the exponential function.

A power function allows for much higher probabilities for very long waiting times (‘Fat tails’).

Such patterns were also found…

…in the timing of job submissions on a supercomputer directory listing and file transfers (FTP request) initiated by individual users, or the timing of printing jobs submitted by users were also reported to display non-Poisson features. Similar patterns emerge in economic transactions, describing the time interval distributions between individual trades in currency futures. Finally, heavy-tailed distributions characterize entertainment-related events, such as the time intervals between consecutive online games played by the same user.

We so-called knowledge workers process our task lists, e-mails, or other kinds of queued up input neither in First-In-First-Out-style (FIFO) or randomly, but we assign priorities in this way:

…high-priority tasks will be executed soon after their addition to the list, whereas low-priority items will have to wait until all higher-priority tasks are cleared, forcing them to stay on the list for considerable time intervals. Below, I show that this selection mechanism, practiced by humans on a daily basis, is the probable source of the fat tails observed in human-initiated processes.

Barabási’s model is perfectly in line with what I had observed in deadline-driven environments all the time. When your manager pings you – you will jump through any hoop presented to you, provided it has been tagged as super-urgent:

This simple model ignores the possibility that the agent occasionally selects a low-priority item for execution before all higher-priority items are done common, for example, for tasks with deadlines.

It gets even better as this model is even more suited to dealing with competing tasks – such as your manager pinging your while you ought have to respond to that urgent Facebook post, too:

Although I have illustrated the queuing process for e-mails, in general the model is better suited to capture the competition between different kinds of activities an individual is engaged in; that is, the switching between various work, entertainment and communication events. Indeed, most data sets displaying heavy-tailed inter-event times in a specific activity reflect the outcome of the competition between tasks of different nature.

Poisson processes and the resulting exponential distribution are due to the fact that events occur truly random: The number of particles emitted due to radioactive decays or the number of request served by a web server is proportional to the time interval multiplied by a constant. This constant is characteristic of the system: an average rate of decay or the average number of customers calling. Call center agents just process calls in FIFO mode.

Power-law behavior, on the other hand, is the result of assigning different priorities to tasks using a distribution function. Agents are biased.

Barabási is very cautious is stating the universal validity of the power-law. He also discusses refinements of the model, such as taking into account the size of an e-mail message and required processing time, and he emphasizes the dependence of the calculated probability on the details of the priorities of tasks. Yet, the so-called fat tails in the probabilities of task execution seem to be a universal feature irrespective of the details of the distribution function.

He has also shown that these bursty patterns are not tied to modern technology and e-mail clients: Darwin and Einstein prioritized their replies to letters in the same way that people rate their e-mails today.

Considering a normal (typically crazy) working day you may have wondered why you could model that without taking into account other things that need to be done in addition to responding to e-mail. And indeed Barabási stresses the role of different competing tasks:

Finally, heavy tails have been observed in the foraging patterns of birds as well, raising the intriguing possibility that animals also use some evolutionarily encoded priority-based queuing mechanisms to decide between competing tasks, such as caring for offspring, gathering food, or fighting off predators.

Thus we might even seem evolutionary hard-wired to process challenging tasks in this way.

I am asking myself: Is this the reason why I find automated posts on social media feel staged? Why I find very regular blogging / posting intervals artificial? Why I don’t like the advice (by social media professionals) that you need to prepare posts in advance for the time you will be on vacation? What happens next – program the automation to act in a bursty fashion?

I planned to connect my Time-Out experience with Barabási’s Bursts for a long time. But now this burst of my writing it down may finally have been triggered by this conversation on an earlier post of mine.

I enjoyed Barabási’s popular-science book Linked: How Everything Is Connected to Everything Else and What It Means for Business, Science, and Everyday Life on the dynamics of scale-free networks.

There is also a popular version related to his research on bursts: Bursts: The Hidden Patterns Behind Everything We Do, from Your E-mail to Bloody Crusades. Bursts is a fascinating book as well, and Barabási illustrates the underlying theories using very diverse examples. But you should better be interested in history in its own right and don’t read the book for the science/modelling part only. Reading Bursts for the first time, I came to similar conclusions as this reviewer. It is probably one of the books you should read more than once, re-calibrating your expectations.

Further reading: Website of Barabási’s research lab.

Barabasi Albert 1000nodes

So-called scale-free networks. The distribution of the number of connections per node also follows a power-law. Scale-free networks are characterized by ongoing growth and ‘winner-take-all’ behavior (Wikimedia, user Keiichiro Ono)


24 thoughts on “Using Social Media in Bursts. Is. Just. Normal.

  1. Pingback: Random Things I Have Learned from My Web Development Project | Theory and Practice of Trying to Combine Just Anything

  2. Really good and helpful analysis of your social activity, Elke.

    Plus it is a feel-good piece! My recent lack of posts does not reflect lack of discipline – I am simply burst-ing! 😉

    • Thanks… and that you mention it: I should try my hands at self-help literature and craft academically sounding, physics-inspired theories on down-to-earth facts! 🙂

  3. Reading your analysis focused my own attention on our individual motivations for participating in and using social media. Why do we do it? [I’m sure many PhD theses have already been written about this very topic.] What about the human condition has lead us so quickly to adopt all of these technologies such that the connections are now irreversible? I have wondered, many times, why I blog … why don’t I simply write my thoughts on paper … or into MS Word .. and be done with it? Why must I post to the internet? [On a side note … your description of post activity as occurring in bursts has its direct parallel in the theory of (evolutionary) Punctuated Equilibrium … long period of evolutionary stasis, followed by very short bursts of rapid evolutionary activity.] Do we do it for self-gratification? Do we do it for the appreciation of others? What about those of us who do not have many followers … or don’t collect many ‘likes’ on a platform such as WordPress? It would be very interesting to study the relationship between feedback and longevity on any particular platform. Do those of us who don’t receive much feedback feel less motivated to keep posting … while those that receive lots of feedback are motivated to keep going strong? I really wonder. What’s the half-life of an author who is read quite frequently as opposed to one which is read less often? I enjoy knowing that my stuff is read and appreciated and feel poorly when material goes unnoticed. I wonder if that has anything to do with the frequency with which I post? This is all very interesting … I am sure there are a multitude of incipient PhD students out there in Psychology who are studying this very thing – you are, once more Elke, ahead of the curve! The psychology of internet use fascinates me in a general and in a very personal way. D

    • Interesting questions, Dave!
      I had pondered about “why do I blog”, too, and came to the following conclusion: I started pseudo-blogging at a time when blogs were hardly used and technology was less advanced. So these websites were (are) not interactive, and I hardly shared the URLs anyway. From a self-marketing / feedback perspective these pages were as useful as writing on a sheet of paper in a clandestine way. Of course I cannot deny the impact of likes and comments now, but my original motivation was (and this is still an important part of my motivation today) more like accountability based on people _potentially_ reading my stuff.
      I have been writing to develop my ideas in an honest and authentic way, and to deal with my inner ambiguities – by making them public. The idea of somebody theoretically reading my websites enforced utmost scrutinity. I have watched my opinions evolve and started experiments like sarcastically commenting on older articles of mine.

      I had come to a rather Stoic attitude in relation to feedback as so much “positive feedback” on social media is based on strategic thinking anyway. But the main reason I don’t care about “missing” comments or likes is that I very often realized – with hindsight, based on communications over different channels incl. real life – that many people read my blog without ever commenting. This holds true in particular for people who know me personally, often people I once knew and haven’t seen since years.

      As for longevity my anecdotal evidence of reading other blogs tells me there is a typical half-life of blogs – about 1-2 years. Many bloggers I had followed disappeared after about that time.

  4. Elke that was a very interesting post. You’re absolutely right in your analysis, and your key point “Is this the reason why I find automated posts on social media feel staged? Why I find very regular blogging / posting intervals artificial?” is absolutely spot on. I actually find these artificial blogs, posts, tweets pretty repulsive, and rather than sucking me in they actually turn me off, and I make a point of ‘unfollowing’ or ‘unfriending’ accordingly. But am I being a hypocrite? I wouldn’t be able to deny it if I was accused of using the social media to market my music, and I have on many occasions tried to use these tools with a strategy in mind, so even though I don’t think I’m doing the same thing because I think I’ve got something nice to sell, I probably am. I suppose the key is to try to be mostly honest, because I think people know if you’re just using them. Although I have to say, some of those automated tweeters seem to have thousands of followers, so maybe people are more gullible than I thought. Anyway I love what you do and what you have to say, and nobody could accuse you of being anything other than 100% genuine which, these days, is a pretty rare quality 🙂

    • Thanks, Mike – I really appreciate your feedback. “100% genuine” – now that’s a badge of honor!!
      Actually I would issue the “100% genuine” badge to you, too!!
      But I haven’t developed a very precise definition of what I consider as hollow automated non-genuine spam and what is reasonable strategy. You could say every human utterance is in some sense strategic. Irregular natural posting could be called strategic in a subtle way.
      But as Judy said below – the more social media is used for aggressive marketing, the less joyful it becomes…. and worse: if you want to promote something “a bit”, in a modest way (such as your music) you might feel compelled to “shout” as anybody else is shouting, too.
      It seems we can just put our hopes on serendipituous connections with like-minded human beings who will really follow your stuff no matter what other distractions are spamming the “timeline”, that is: users e.g. clicking on your profile / Facebook page / blog actively – even if some algorithm hides some posts (as FB does that punishes you for not posting by a few days… and letting you see the declining numbers.)

      • That’s a good point about facebook but I suppose I just don’t really care, I don’t want to join the throng jockeying for position because, as you and Judy have pointed out so well, it all becomes so joyless. The great thing is, if lots of us try to keep it real and organic, there is some wonderful and interesting content out there to learn about and see and in that respect it’s pretty wonderful

  5. Skimming through my facebook feed and noting that the majority of it is reposted memes, recipes and pictures of dogs & cats it becomes pretty obvious that you have given more thought to social media than most have 🙂
    If I can pull your thread in a different direction, it’s become very clear to me that the vast majority of what we term as ‘news’ is really not terribly informative in the sense that the information has no effect on behavior. Reading about disasters does not tend to make people help. listening to crime stories has no effect on lessening the amount of violence in the world. To me it seems that news stories, and that includes most social media posts do two things:
    – put aside peoples’ fears that they are not ‘in the know.’
    – provide some mindless entertainment.
    Funny–news presents itself as something important, serious. No way! As far as I can see it’s mostly a waste of time and people would be much better off interacting around a game, a social event, reading a book or perhaps writing a thoughtful wordpress article…
    …like you just did.
    Elke, once again you’ve stretched my mind a bit further. Good stuff 🙂

    • Thanks, Maurice! I tend to say that even “real news” – as presented by serious broadcasters – are not really news anymore. I have seen a disturbing trend in Austrian late night news: At the end of the program they present a story that is intended to be funny – and these stories are taken from tweets or Youtube videos.
      Nassim Taleb states he never reads daily news, and an Austrian entrepreneur-philosopher has given me the same advice years ago–too much daily fluctuations and volatility without substance.

    • 🙂 Probably you need some level of alcohol saturation to deal with how we predictive we are, like bots – despite or because we think we act in such a random way.

  6. I don’t automate my use of any social media platform which is why they tend to be erratic. But it comes down to why you use them. If you want to maximise shares, retweets and exposure you will do some things, if you want to maximise the social aspects you will do others. I have found that the quality of my news feeds on all platforms has deteriorated with the adoption of these platforms by businesses for marketing purposes. I’m therefore leaning lightly on all of them at the moment.

    • Yes – I feel the same about marketing-driven social media activities. I remember the old days when I joined the first social network, a German equivalent of LinkedIn. Since there was no Facebook yet it was not that business-centered though. I had deep philosophical discussions with interesting people – mainly early adopters, some techies and other weird guys.
      Years later the network has been invaded by trainers / coaches and hard sellers who add their URLs and signatures to any posting and whose utterances are basically all self-marketing.

  7. Extraordinary! – I never thought to read about social networking in a mathematical framework. Frankly, I think you give it a higher meaning than it has by so doing. [grin]

    • Haha – discerning comment! 😀 I think social networks are perfect for cross-checking mathematical theories in game theory. And subjects participate in experiments and provide their data with glee.

  8. I agree with everything you say – I have pared down Google+ to their minimum – they push us into it willy-nilly, but I avoid it : I am nilly – nihil that is, as much as I can. I have no other social media.
    I made dear friends blogging and I did not follow any “rules”.. I post when I feel like it and have something to say. I thin out my followers too; there are ways to make followers invisible eh, eh, thereby eliminating the links I do not like : there is SMUT that appears from time to time, Word Press is very good at warning and or suspending such blogs, but others that are borderline go into my black hole. If this activity is not free and FUN and personal, what’s the use? I thank you for this appropriate analysis of social media.

    • Thanks, Vera!
      Actually my favorite network in addition to WordPress itself is Google+. I haven’t expected that as I have created that account just because of my (false) belief that this will make management of my Google (business) Places Page easier. And then I found a very interesting community of like-minded people. I even like the discussions on Twitter. But exactly because of that toying with different platforms (I like in particular when they cross – such as switching and back and forth between G+ and WP to discuss the same thing…) I don’t use either of them “efficiently” or “professionally”.

  9. I like the idea of having different content and culture for each social media platform. I’m trying to do that with my Facebook page. I mainly use Twitter in an automated capacity. I can’t get the hang of tweeting. Google+ is also harder for me to get into. On your main point about bursts, I find that’s true of me too. I tend to blog in bursts, for example, followed by periods of inactivity.

    • I have just replied to your FB-related post. It’s funny but everybody seems to complain about Facebook in the way demonstrated by these articles I have linked (which I really enjoyed). I have to do more ‘research’ on this. It seems the more overlap there is between a virtual social network and your real social network the more dreadful it becomes. Obviously we become very predictable social bots on Facebook… me no exception – I had shared the article about 7 ways to be insufferable on Facebook and commented that all my posts of course belong in the ‘Unsolicited nuggets of wisdom’ category’.
      On Google+ I found a community of people interested in science, technology, philosophy, society … and in discussing this – very similar to the WordPress community, and very different from Facebook. I also had some interesting discussions starting at Twitter – didn’t expect that either.

  10. I will return to this. The birds aside, it seems to apply metrics to responses/demands from an audience. Is the value of the perceived audience in direct proportion to response burst? You lose me in data out of my fields. Is all reaction here including silence? I will return.

    • Thanks, postmoderndonkey. In this research project anonymized e-mail data have been investigated – basically the times when e-mails were sent, and statistics has been done on the time elapsed between consecutive e-mails. There was no evaluation of content or audience, or the relation of the e-mail with a response.
      But Barabási’s group has analyized so many different aspects – probably there is also work dealing with audience and responses.
      I guess you might like his books – they are very accessible. Probably I should have done a review of Bursts, but I read this book because I had stumbled on the paper first. As I said, I need to give the book one more try as the percentage of history was rather high (in comparison to the science part).

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