‘There are drawbacks to being this accurate’

At a recent research and marketing summit, the great and the good of statistics and data gathered to talk about their latest studies. Men in suits from the Office of National Statistics rubbed shoulders with those from OPTA and the US Federal Bureau of Statistics, discussing trends and coefficients as they toyed with their canapes. For me, representing @madeupstats, having gained entry via a forged security pass, it was a real thrill just to be among them all, drinking in the data. And the free wine.

But something didn’t quite feel right. Despite being possibly the most influential source of information on the Internet, and definitely Twitter, I was being totally ignored. Blanked, even. If you put it down to the food stains on my tracksuit or drunkenness, you’d be running away from the truth – I was being ignored because of my accuracy. They were just intimidated by me. Such was their envy, I was eventually escorted off the premises and told never to come back.

Throughout my adult life, I’ve been constantly reminded of my unerring accuracy with figures. Even last week, the Inland Revenue wrote to me to say that my tax return was ‘outstanding’ which, considering I put no effort into it whatsoever, was just confirmation of my skills. No calculator, no documentation, just effortless. Come to think of it, I don’t even recall sending that tax return off. It was that easy!

When I put a statistic out, every retweet serves to remind me of how people have come to rely on my figures, and I dread to think how the stats world would function without me. If you’re a statistician, reading this, I can almost sense your hostility, which we all know is concealing a deep-rooted fear that I am basically more of a natural than most of the so-called experts with their research teams.

I’ve felt the resentment and fear from all quarters – I’ve offered my services as a statistical commentator to leading publications such as the FT and the Economist, and they send me shortly-worded letters to please leave them alone, or they’ll start legal proceedings against me. When someone gets this angry, it just makes their insecurities all the more transparent.

It’s a sad state of affairs, but I’ve just got used to this – it’s been going on throughout my career. My first job was working as a trader in the City of London during the dot com boom, and my job was to value all of the new web businesses springing up all over town. My technique was ingenious in its simplicity – first, I’d work out the value of the name of the company in Scrabble points, and then add six noughts, and frankly, with the notable exception of Queer Zebra Media, it worked a treat. When Queer Zebra folded, losing us £800 million, I was summoned to see the senior management, and once I’d explained my technique, I was punched in the kidneys and escorted off the building. The impact of my departure was instant – within 48 hours, the company went into administration. People tried to pin it on me as a ‘rogue trader’, but you can’t argue with the fact that I probably kept that place going during the time I was there.

Since then, I’ve taken jobs here and there, got some fairly good stints in journalism, but each time the story is the same – people find out that my technique is a natural one, unburdened by research or verification, and they suddenly feel the fear and get rid of me. At the end of the day, it’s no surprise – after all, if you’re paying six figure sums for Harvard research fellows and their entire entourage to spend weeks coming up with data, and then I’m in the same office, churning out about 6 big stats every hour, people start whispering behind your back – you’re showing them up.

I’m sure the world will move on, and people will recognise my techniques in time. In the meantime, I’ve got quite a juicy-looking commission with the Daily Mail reporting on health risks, so I’ll be sure to be working among my own type, free from the resentful glare of the so-called ‘proper’ data people.

Engagement – up 400%

Experts have been alarmed by a new study that has shown that usage of the word ‘engaging’ is likely to quadruple by January 2013, propelled by its widespread popularity among new media professionals. Other experts have warned that the word’s meteoric rise may even render some adjectives completely obsolete.

The signs aren't good

“I’ve not seen anything like it; not since the word ‘social’, anyway”, said industry analyst Dr John Wroughton. “As little as 2 years ago, people were actually using proper adjectives to describe stuff, such as ‘fun’, ‘amusing’, ‘scary’, ‘disturbing’ or even just boring old ‘cool’ – now, it’s enough to ignore these words and just describe things as ‘engaging’, probably adding the word ‘content’ for good measure. It seem even clever people are completely thrown by this”.

Viewed on the figures alone, the emergence of ‘engaging’ has been breathtaking, overtaking popular buzzwords such as ‘synergy’, ‘strategy’ and even outstripping adding the word ‘key’ in front of every single noun available.

“By our calculations, at any given time, at least 60 people are simultaneously saying the words ‘engaging content’, most likely to an audience of fellow new media professionals” said Dr Wroughton, “probably in a meeting room with wall charts, fresh fruit, proper coffee and at least two attractive young women”. For some reason, the word’s hypnotic power is such that people rarely think to ask what they actually mean by ‘engaging’.

Not all people see it as a bad thing, however. Crispin Frick, Business Development Director at Shoreditch agency Beige Tomato Riot says “last month, we had our biggest haul of all – we went in to the clients, and got them to sign up to a year of engaging content for six hundred grand. We didn’t even have to explain what it was – it might as well have been pictures of wet paving slabs – we celebrated by going off to the members’ club and got out of our little minds on coke and vintage champagne”. Frick declined to name the client, indicating that it could compromise a bigger, more engaging deal in the pipeline.

Concerns have arisen that the word may lead to the extinction of other, more specific adjectives, and traditionalists are already planning a response. “When any virtually-educated, stubbly fuckwit can stand up and get a room full of intelligent people nodding to this word, something has to be done”, says an industry source, who declined to be named. “We’re going to set entrance exams for people entering new media – they’ll have to be able to use at least five different adjectives before they can get a job. And operate a fax machine”.  Until this point, the traditionalists are likely to be, er… engaged in a bitter battle to stop this word achieving ubiquity.

Twitter theft – too big to care?

On average it takes 1,500 hours to write a book. This is coincidentally the same amount of time that Madonna spends doing bicep curls every month, or indeed the average age of a Justin Bieber fan. But spent alone at a computer, typing sentence after sentence, it’s is an offputtingly long amount of time, and for most of us, it’s much better spent wandering aimlessly through YouTube, pottering around the house, or catching up on all those iTunes Ts and Cs you were meant to read.

But what if you summoned the huge effort to write a book, put it out there, got a bit of good feedback, and then someone copies it word for word, and publishes it in their own name?

This very experience, if we switch back to the world of Twitter, is exactly what has started to happen to us over the last few weeks. With a follower count the size of a small, unremarkable market town in England, @madeupstats has grown much larger than we ever thought it would. And among the thousands of retweets, occasionally the odd person copies a tweet and claims it as their own. They’re normally a Twitter newcomer, and it’s to be expected.

But when @whattheffacts; a colossal 2 million-follower outfit, began to repeatedly copy and paste our stuff, things changed. To kick things off, they copied one of our stats, then hastily deleted it when we spoke up. Then a couple of days ago, they copied another (this time ignoring any protest), and then today, they’ve copied another. Clearly, in one of their editorial meetings, they took the bold, innovative decision that Twitter is much easier when they use other people as unpaid editorial interns. For some reason, they have decided that the retweet, a Twitter feature that is good enough for the rest of us, isn’t worth the hassle.

The real point is, there are a lot of people out there who have decided to have a real go at writing on the internet; Twitter or wherever else they put it. We’ve seen the effort go into developing a good idea for an account, grafted away at it, and follower after follower, they have built up a crowd, all based on their own words, pictures or whatever. It’s hard work, but many do it because they want to see if it can evolve into something bigger, such as a book, column, film or novelty loo roll. For some, such as @dianainheaven, or @shitmydadsays, it works out, and we won’t hide the fact that we’d love to do the same.

So – if you’re still with us, we’d love your support to spread the word about this. We’d like @whattheffacts to simply tweet out an acknowledgement – they could even do a proper RT. On our own, we’re clearly too small for them to worry about, but if you can share this story, maybe they will take notice and play nice. And who knows, they may even follow us…

(Big thanks to @brandondecae, @fleq and @russeldbrown for letting us know about the thing in the first place.)

 

***Update: Thanks to an overwhelming response to this blog post (special thanks to @thenextweb), @whattheffacts have sent a tweet saying sorry, and reposted the tweets with a credit. Thanks to everyone who weighed in and helped.***

Madeupstaturday – as and when

As announced on Twitter yesterday, there’ll be no #madeupstaturday today. This isn’t because we’re away, or too busy, or one’s partner has issued a furious ultimatum asking for a break from the computer at the weekend, but because we want to keep it spontaneous.

 

 

One big principle we follow on Twitter is that you shouldn’t fall into the trap of feeling like you have to say something on a regular basis – it’s a guaranteed way of losing momentum. In the same way, if #madeupstaturday happens as frequently as Saturday itself, it will run out of steam, we’ll run out of topics and @fyneales will run out of beer.

Actually, that last bit’s untrue; the lovely folk at @fyneales will be supporting us on other, less routine initiatives – expect to see some quickfire giveaways for spontaneous, topical competitions in the future. Also you’re in London, we may arrange a @madeupstats and Fyne Ales meet-up where you can sample their various beers, meet the brewer and, um drink more beer. If you’re up for this idea, then tweet us back, or leave a comment.

Have a good weekend.

USA: Back in the game

US trade enjoyed an upbeat start to 2012 when new figures emerged putting the States back in the lead in one particular race for global supremacy. The US is now the world’s leading producer of statistics about China’s economy.

“People don’t think the USA makes things any more”, said a US trade representative, pausing for effect before adding, “But that’s where they’re wrong”.

Once again showing them who's boss

Indeed, the new study has confirmed that the US has emerged as the leader among countries producing awe-inspiring facts and figures about the global powerhouse in the East.

Chances are, if you read a statistic about 4 in 5 toys being made in China (1 in 5 comes from Taiwan), or 94% of sex aids being made there, this statistic probably originated in the US. Stateside statisticians account for 80% of all figures in circulation about how big China’s economy is, and how fast it’s growing.

“In 2014, 80% of the internet will be in Chinese. Do you recognise that one? That’s one of mine”, said a smiling Zach Smart of large US data firm Analystics. “The average Chinese worker earns two dollars an hour making smartphones, whereas I can make two hundred dollars an hour writing reports on that same worker!” He continues; “We’ve really stolen a march on the Chinese, considering we are obtaining this information from under their very noses, and getting it to market faster than anyone else. We feel we’re reversing a trend.”

In all other respects, the US seems to have thrown in the towel on being bigger and better than the Chinese, being outgunned in every department – from the production of porn to corn, and even guns themselves, alarmingly. Still, adding the reassuring words ‘designed in California’ has restored some pride to a lot of US businesses.

“We’ll fight for our right to lead the world in telling everyone how huge China is” added Zach Smart. “We’ve built up so many facts and figures about the place, we don’t feel we can be caught any more. I mean, if you printed them out in a long line, they’re stretch all the way along the wall of… well, they’d be visible from space, that’s for sure”.

Breaking your friends in

If you’re reading this, it’s 97% likely that you’re on Twitter.

If you’re on Twitter, you have most likely ended up chatting to one of your friends about it. There’s a high probability they “don’t know where you find the time” for it.

Still, your friend wants to give it a go, but doesn’t have a clue who to follow.

Beyond Stephen Fry, naturally.

Your friend is vulnerable.

At this point, you’re probably in a social situation, holding a drink, and it’s tricky and impractical to both get out your smartphones and hold the screens together, reading out the names of accounts that they should follow. On the attractiveness scale, doing this is right up there with checking each other for nits.

A much better idea is to create a Twitter list called a ‘starterlist’. This can be your list of must-follow accounts that would make anyone see the point of Twitter.  Not the acquired tastes, unfunny anarcho-activism, nob gags and in-jokes. They’re for later, as are those nutcases who tweet every time they breathe.

All you then have to do is direct your friend at your ‘starterlist’. This then frees up time to talk about more interesting things with your friend, such as the price of diesel or your current workload.

To get the ball rolling, we have created a starterlist ourselves, prepared in a Rio Ferdinand and Charlie Sheen-free environment, but have gone further, and actually listed who is on there and why. Some are obvious, some less so, but they’re all accessible to anyone. Most of them are funny, too:

@twoptwips – A laughable, crowdsourced confetti of absurd, sometimes vile tips for modern life.

@thepoke – The Clapham Junction of humour – everything good will eventually pass through here.

@badbanana – A wry, deeply laconic worldview from a bloke in the US; drier than a dessicated dry thing.

@octoberjones – He leaves doodles on trains. Thinking about it, that doesn’t sound very funny. Oh, but it is.

@thejeremyvine – A filter to the day’s essentials – only room for one DJ, (ignore the fact that he’s on Radio 2)

@caitlinmoran –  No, haven’t read her book, but the Twitter account is magnificent. Watches TV so you don’t have to.

@realtimeWWII – One of those rare accounts whose name sort of gives the game away. Ambitious and brilliant.

@guardiannews – It’s free news, for Christ’s sake. One day, you may be telling your grandchildren about this era.

@DMreporter – Daily Mail satire. Also free – more amusing than the Guardian

@sixthformpoet – We were recently beaten to the title of ‘funniest non-celebrity on Twitter’ by this one. Follow and see why.

@paulcarr – Bit of a dick, tries to be wry about technology, and generally pulls it off. Which is why he’s a dick.

@thesimonevans – Comedian with a DVD and gig tweet count of 0.2%. (Which allows him to inspire and amuse instead)

@sarahpalinusa – Always scare yourself once a day

@campbellclaret – If you’re weighing up whether to follow Piers Morgan or Alan Sugar, follow Alastair Campbell instead.

@darthvader – Because of the things that might happen if you don’t.

@serafinowicz – Did you know that the spelling of his name means he doesn’t see 26% of his @ messages?

 

In compiling this list, it transpired that @garethaveyard disappeared – he’s a treat, so we hope he’ll return.

 

If this ‘starterlist’ thingy catches on, we reckon we could shorten the length of conversations about Twitter by up to 70%. And that has to be a good thing.

Feature: About beer. And Twitter too.

Keen-eyed followers will notice that we now and again drop the name @fyneales into conversation, mostly around the #madeupstaturday thing we do. Who are these people? Is this a major sponsorship deal? Why is this a good thing? How do some people manage to place two fingers in their mouth and whistle really loud?

We’ll answer 75% of those questions in this blog post. If you dislike a) Twitter, or b) beer, we may lose you to a different part of the internet before you get to the end.

The idea here is to write a little about what the collaboration with this brewery is about, why we do it, and how it came to happen. If it inspires a copycat act in a different part of Twitter, then this post will have been worth it.

Inspired mainly by the now-obligatory @twoptwips, who occasionally give away beer for the best tips, we thought we’d go about doing something similar. Yep. Basically we copied giving away beer. But it’s the way in which Twitter paved the way to make this happen within an hour – no paperwork, no phone call, that is so remarkable.

First of all, when you have a niche-but-growing Twitter account, how do you approach people and get them to support you? Rather than write loads of grovelling emails, and cope with endless rejection (never good for anyone on Twitter), we searched through our existing followers to see if a brewery was already among them. Indeed there were – for some reason, we had actually already attracted a few real ale and craft breweries. Get in. The next step was to pick the right one.

Miraculously, there were a few familiar names on there; the one that jumped off the page was Fyne Ales – a name that rang a bell after once finding “Fyne Ales – relly niiiiice” (sic) scrawled in what resembled one’s own handwriting on the back of a beer mat in a jacket pocket after the Peterborough Beer Festival. It was someone else’s jacket, too.

Fyne Ales is not yet on the FTSE500

 

Fyne Ales is a small family business run from a disused milking parlour on the slopes overlooking Loch Fyne in an almost unpronouncable part of Scotland. They make countless different varieties of beer, eschewing fusty old names like ‘Bishop’s Ballsack’ and ‘Swampy’s Last Swig’, and they do it all with the same water that whisky enthusiasts rave about. All of their beers are great, and drunk in sufficient quantity, will make the world more attractive, hilarious, and eventually, begin to rotate. Indeed, having given one’s liver a gruelling time over the past few years, we feel compelled to point out that their pale ales in particular are the best we have ever tried*. Just try the one called Jarl, and you’ll see. Committed lager drinkers have been seen, first hand, rocking back and forth, mumbling incomprehensibly at the trauma of realising they’re actually enjoying real ale, much as you might if Coldplay started to give you goosebumps.

So anyway, we started chatting via Twitter, we suggested ‘doing something’ and then via a couple of DMs and an email, threw together the informal, loose kind of agreement that lawyers are put on this earth to try and stamp out – we’ll help you spread the word, and you give us prizes for a weekly comp, right? Oh, and we’ll take liquid payment once in a while. It was friendly, uncomplicated chat, and a deal done with not a penny in sight.

The final bit was to try and create some kind of event for the prize; to give the whole thing an actual point. We selected Saturday as the best time to do it, because no one’s pretending to be at work, no news seems to happen, and people are too skint to shop, and so stay at home, watching a slow, deathly ticker tape of football scores and Ebay auctions. Well, ahem… other people do this, anyway. And this is where madeupstaturday was born. Since then, it’s started to get going, and (hopefully) more people have heard of this tiny brewery.

So that’s it – if you have a following, why not team up with a like-minded small business, and see what you can do for each other. And finally, to make this all worth while, and if you actually fancy tasting this beer we’ve gone to so much trouble of promoting, just follow them on Twitter, and they will say when it’s available near you.

*We would naturally have no issue if any other brewery considers this a gauntlet thrown down, and sends us a batch to try. The title will remain in Scotland until then.

Can I just grab you?

Has your boss ever leaned round the door, smiled insincerely and asked if they can ‘grab five minutes’ with you?

New research has shown that when a senior member of staff asks you for those 5 minutes, the average actual time taken is 22 minutes and 40 seconds; an effective increase of 453%. The study of these awkward conversations also showed interesting trends within the workplace:

  • The longest times for informal one-to-one chats were recorded among bosses who suffer from halitosis and other personal hygiene issues – these can often exceed 43 minutes, particularly in enclosed places like stationery cupboards, broom cupboards or broken lifts.
  • At the other end of the scale, attractive lady bosses recorded the lowest figures, generally succeeding in confining their chat to within the 5 minute window.
  • It is thought that these brief, awkward chats cost the UK economy over £2bn per year in missed meetings, unanswered emails, and missed time spent on Facebook.
  • The research also found that if you were asked if you ‘have 5 minutes’, there is a 4% chance that you are about to be fired, and 2.5% that you are about to be sexually propositioned, offered illegal drugs, or Coldplay concert tickets.

“On balance, there is good reason for avoiding these little chats”, said HR guru Roy Dundant. “They take up way more time than initially promised, and it’s pretty much a certainty that you’re in trouble, something terrible is going to happen, or that you’re going to be given some work to do. The chances of getting a pay rise, or being told that Kerry in Finance has finally split up from her boyfriend are so infinitesimally tiny, it is not worth the trouble of attending. My advice is to ignore the request, and point out that you are not contractually obliged to be ‘grabbed’ in this way, and that a proper meeting be diarised.”

Still, business has yet to sink to the levels experienced on the high street – in a recent study, one female shopper in Leicester was heard to be “nipping into TK Maxx for 5 minutes”, and was next seen 3 days later, bankrupt, delirious and suffering from dehydration.

The cost of the letter ‘a’

The innocuous word ‘a’ has crept into restaurant menus and silently, deviously added £10-12 to every dinner bill.

Puzzled?

Well, compare the following two dishes:

  • Dish 1: Chicken in white wine sauce
  • Dish 2: Chicken in a white wine sauce

Which one would you go for?

They are in fact totally different experiences.

Just say the first one out loud – it’s impossible to sound posh when you say it. This one is generic white wine sauce that probably came out of a tin marked ‘white wine sauce’ (to help you distinguish it from wallpaper remover), and has a no-nonsense manliness about it. Just take a look at it, and you’ll see it’s done its job – it’s white, and even though you’re not sure it tastes of white wine, you won’t complain, for fear of getting beaten up. You can just imagine this dish being dolloped onto scratched plates in a café on the Northbound A1 in rain-lashed Lincolnshire. Or being eaten by Bear Grylls.

It will set you back £5.50, and no, we’re afraid the credit card machine is broken, so it’s cash only, mate.

White wine sauce

This is white wine sauce (minus the 'a')

The second dish however, is an entirely different proposition. Just say it and it will sound like you spent a year out studying at the Sorbonne. The addition of the ‘a’ has transformed it from mere sauce into a high concept that is worth talking about in its own right. Chicken with ‘a’ white wine sauce is a dish that wasn’t just made, it was ‘created’, or even ‘conceived’ by a restaurant that probably has its own creative director. If this sauce were a human being, it would be called Marc (‘Mark with a c’ to his mates), and wear shirts with floral, silly patterns. If it were to be introduced to other less self-important sauces, it would introduce itself as a ‘jus’, and start blathering on about the sought-after Sancerre it’s based on.

It would have no friends. (Partly because it’s a sauce)

Chicken that is privileged enough to be served in ‘a’ white wine sauce will cost you £14, and there’ll probably be a £5 service charge too.

A chef preparing a white wine sauce

This is 'a' white wine sauce

Why is there this difference? Where did it come from? We’re not entirely sure, but it’s difficult to get through a restaurant menu without tripping over this form of language. We’re not far off ‘chips with a tomato ketchup’ – if that happens, then it really is time to emigrate to somewhere where food is unromanticised and functional, like Bulgaria, Ukraine or Doncaster.