Come back Kelly Evans! We’ll be good this time! I promise!

If we’d been born where they were born and taught what they were taught, we would believe what they believe. — attributed to Abraham Lincoln

(who also said, “The love you take is equal to the love you make”, but that’s another story)

Spring is in the air! On the East Coast, anyway.

Last week I was fortunate to get out to the West Coast, dodging storms on this side of the country and also over there. And this week I spent a little time sprucing up StreetEYE sources, deleting people who haven’t tweeted in a while, adding the popular, influential, prolific, and relevant new sources. Every year or so around this time I’ll do an updated ranking of the top people to follow. So I’m in the frame of mind to step back and take a look at the evolution of the financial Twittersphere.

And what I see is not great.

  • Churn. Losing great people like Kelly Evans.
  • Lack of growth. Churn has always been a factor, people fall in love with social media and burn out after a couple of years. But the all-stars like Kelly Evans are not being replaced like they used to be.
  • There’s a subset of influential FinTwit people who protect accounts, allow only approved people to follow them. Or who regularly delete all their tweets, so no one can start a shitstorm over something they said a year ago. Which hurts discovery. And discovery is hard enough. Which is one of the reasons I started StreetEYE, so I would have a way of systematically finding the top people to follow.
  • And the usual garbage troll accounts devoted to stirring up bullshit. Some of which are surprisingly popular. It turns out a judicious mix of clickbait bullshit and timely powerful commentary is a good way to amass a huge following. (Even if following those folks is a money- and sanity-losing game).
  • And the elephant in the room is Trump. Politics is all people talk about, even in the financial Twittersphere. Those Trump posts are great for engagement, terrible for intelligent conversation about markets and economics. (And possible terrible for Twitter, if the non-partisan-hacks start tuning out. Ever-increasing vitriol and engagement, ever-diminishing reach.)

The relatively low quality of online discussion is the thread that brings all of those together. Tragedy of the commons, adverse selection, I guess.

We generally think most people think more or less similarly to us. We are astounded when we encounter cargo-cultists, flat-earth believers, whole societies of magical thinkers.

When we go online, we find that while our own process of social construction of reality is pretty similar to other people, it takes us to very different places.

If we’d been born where they were born and experienced what they experienced, would we really believe what they believe?

It can be mind-expanding that social media takes you outside your bubble, brings opposites together, like some virtual A train to Times Square. But it leads to conflict.

Now, to me, it’s pretty obvious that women often get a raw deal from society. I follow some smart, funny women who are pretty feminist. And not gonna lie, even though my left brain mostly agrees with them, the litany of petty grievances nursed and amplified, the constant mocking of white male privilege, ‘mansplaining’ and whatnot, can get really irritating.

There are also some males who are into, shall we say, non-female-friendly male culture. Pickup artists, ‘red pill’ and whatnot. Immature maybe. Lacking self-awareness and empathy. Assholes.

When those two mindsets encounter each other on social media, they’re not gonna have a good time.

Cognitive dissonance arises. Sparks fly. Much heat is generated and little light. And both sides walk away with even more strongly confirmed priors, that the other side is mean and nasty and out to oppress or emasculate them.

I share an alma mater with Barack Obama, I was a freshman when he was a senior. He talks like me, thinks like me. Well, I wish, because I think he’s smart and cool and funny. I’m predisposed to like him.

That same intellectual approach apparently offends a lot of people who see it as condescending.

When Donald Trump sees Obama, clearly he see something totally different from me. I take personal offense at the whole birther thing and view it as an original sin that can never be expunged. But clearly it resonates with a lot of people, to my disgust and amazement.

And the Trump supporters confronted with what is apparently my sort of ‘condescension’ just dig in, double down, and reinforce their views.

You do have to put yourself in others’ shoes a little bit. It would help if people dialed down the online vitriol. But it’s a two way street. The online hate against Obama was really something. Aligning yourself with that, and calling people who disagree with you ‘enemies of the American people’ isn’t going to help.

Is social media making us worse people? Is it making us dumber?

I’ve written a little bit about fake news, since I know a little about news and machine learning.

Cathy O’Neil has made a career out of saying that big data is a ‘weapon of math destruction’ and problems like fake news can’t be solved by machine learning.

She’s largely wrong…the fake news we’re talking about, of the ‘Pope endorses Trump’ variety, is easily detected by the 20% of the informed, critically thinking population, and so it can also be detected by robots with much more information about where it came from and how it spread. Google does a good job with spam and it’s essentially the same problem.

Cathy O’Neil is largely correct that big data relies on patterns of human-created data, that data will reflect human biases (an even worse example), big data is garbage in, garbage out, and you can’t dispense with old-fashioned evidence-based critical thinking, gumshoe reporting, to prime that big data pump.

And also that it may concentrate winners and losers and wealth. (Same may apply to passive investing, machine learning-based investing).

There’s a classic bias/variance tradeoff.

If you say, I’m only going to use Bloomberg-vetted information in investment decisions, you’re going to be slower to respond to new information than if you react to every tweet and blog and market rumor.

You need a filter that is adaptive enough to surface good social media experts without necessarily waiting til they become Bloomberg pundits, while not trusting every source of flackery, disinformation, and idiocy.

If everybody followed Cathy O’Neil’s advice no one would ever have started reading some obscure but clever blogger like Cathy O’Neil, who owes her career as a big data pundit to social media, and maybe some big data assisted discovery like Google searches, Twitter’s recommendation engine.

You need both shoe leather and tools. You need to be selective in which sources you trust, and you need technology to deploy against the armies of bots and data scientists looking to manipulate you.

Social media can make you smarter and quicker. You need both, the Cathy O’Neils and big data.

And social media does allow the id to rise to the surface at the expense of the superego.

Does social media make us more vile, primitive, and unhappy?

Facebook and social media are the McDonald’s of social interaction. Ubiquitous, convenient, enjoyable, not necessarily unhealthy if consumed mindfully and in moderation. But they are engineered to be highly addictive and appeal to worst impulses.

The types of social interaction they favor are single-serving emo BS for ‘likes’. Extreme views. Comment wars. Trolling.

Sometimes there are positive viral movements like the Ice Bucket Challenge, petitions, GoFundMes for Jo Cox and Pulse victims.

But often it’s pretty mean and nasty stuff.

One thing I think we should have learned is that Facebook’s real names work better than Twitter’s pseudonymity. (Which maybe they are moving away from, gradually). Social media needs reputation management. People should be able to control whether random trolls can interact with them. Maybe people should need to accumulate reputation to post stuff, or for their posts to have reach, or people should be able to filter who can interact with them based on reputation. Maybe people should accumulate mod points to bump or bury others’ posts. But it should be transparent (which Facebook is not, at all).

Another thing we should have learned is, folks spending their entire social lives in this highly engineered environment, is like people who only eat at McDonald’s, or never get off their couch from watching Fox or CNBC, or out of their cars.

It’s not just ‘fake news’. The whole social media ecosystem bias/variance tradeoff needs to be re-tuned for more quality and less noise.

Maybe social media would be better if there were mechanisms that encouraged people to limit their usage. It costs reputation if you are constantly tweeting. Maybe there should be options to remind you if you’ve been online more than an hour a day, or to cut yourself off entirely when you hit your daily budget. The reach and activity might go down a little, and the quality might go up a lot, paradoxically increasing reach and activity in the long run.

It seems beyond argument that social media created Trump. And Trump is shaping up to be a total disaster. Ergo, social media is a failure?

When I started StreetEYE, I thought social media, people freely sharing information, the best information and the greatest people percolating to the top, was the way of the future. It hasn’t happened yet. The tools may need to evolve. It may take a new generation of tools. But it’s going to happen.

Man cannot remake himself without suffering, for he is both the marble and the sculptor — Alexis Carrel.