Rob Minto

Sport, data, ideas

How to think about Twitter (in the new Musk era)

There is so much going on with Twitter right now, that there’s no point in trying to summarise. Aside from to say – this is the early stages of the Musk takeover, November 4 2022.

If you want to think critically about Twitter, here are a few pointers.

Twitter punches way above its weight.

The thing about Twitter was never the numbers, but the quality of contributors. You have academics, agencies, politicians, policymakers, journalists, engineers, soldiers, thinkers, all mixing it up. That’s amazing.

But Twitter’s numbers were never that great, whether overall users, revenue, market cap. That was a problem for Twitter as a business. But as a utility, a service, Twitter was everything. Twitter was where the world broke news. This is and was its value. Facebook might have 2.whatever billion users, but had negligible impact in news-making.

Why? Let’s break it down into Content, Tech, Verification (blue ticks), and Advertisers.

CONTENT

One reason is journalists and the media. If Twitter has succeeded in anything, it’s harnessing the mainstream media (MSM). MSM might be ‘bad’, but actually, the MSM is how most people access the news, on whatever platform, even if it’s packaged as social. Social media’s greatest ‘trick’ was to convince the world that the MSM didn’t matter, when in fact, it amplified it, and gave it a bigger voice. I don’t watch GBNews, as I’m not interested in right-wing shitposts dressed up as news. But I’ve seen it on Twitter. Equally, I never tune in to GMB, or Jeremy Vine, but I’ve watched clips loads of times, when people like Owen Jones or Femi are debating some idiot like Ann Widdicombe about immigration or Brexit. It pops up on Twitter.

It’s not linear broadcasting, or traditional MSM. But most articles you see shared, most clips laughed about, are MSM. And if they aren’t, they get verified and amplified by the MSM, who repost them, so around it goes.

But the content isn’t just shared on Twitter – it IS Twitter. People like Trump, Musk, and others who are newsworthy in whatever they say, and say a lot, and say it on Twitter. Obviously, Trump’s gone, but his legacy is that saying X on Twitter, if you are important enough, IS a story. Not part of a story, evidence of X eleswhere, but X itself.

TECH

Rarely mentioned, but really important, is the ease of embedding. Almost all news websites embed tweets as source material. It’s part of the appeal. You can pad out your content easily with a few tweets, as well as doing serious journalism. Other social platforms are far harder in this regard – Facebook makes it very cumbersome. It’s also a function of aspect ratios.

What, you might ask? Well, embed an Insta story, TikTok post, snap or whatever, and it’s designed vertically. If you are embedding into a CMS, that’s annoying – it pushes down your content, tries to fill up the width, and generally looks too big. Tweets, on the other hand, are horizontal. That’s useful – they fit more neatly into the CMS, don’t clutter up, and their design is pretty minimal. Overall, a tweet in a story doesn’t screw up your page load or get in the way of ads. It’s a win-win.

VERIFICATION

Let me talk about ME for a minute. I have a blue tick. It took me a long time to get one. I have applied I think 3 or 4 times in my life. When I was at the FT, I was refused a blue tick as I didn’t use my FT address for Twitter – I preferred by personal address. As an author, I was refused one as I wasn’t part of an ‘organisation’ that Twitter recognised. As a freelance editor, I hadn’t accumulated enough bylined pieces – no name, no cigar. At Newsweek, I have accumulated bylines and – it seems crucially – an author page, so that worked. Boom, blue tick. Do I deserve one? I think so, I’m a sensible person with a public profile who has done some decent work in journalism and publishing over my career. Will I pay $8? Fuck off. I wouldn’t pay $1, once, for a blue tick forever.

The whole blue tick issue has become very toxic. Yes, you can argue it’s feudal. Or managed badly. But the thing Musk gets wrong, so utterly, totally wrong, is that it’s a reputational mark, and by definition you CAN’T BUY REPUTATION. You can improve the criteria, but reputation is nothing if you can pay for it. To make a blue tick (or white tick on blue badge, whatever) an $8 fee, makes the whole idea redundant.

So blue ticks were a good system. Not perfect, but good. They made people aspire to be credible. That’s useful on a platform where anyone can jump in to the debate. It helped Twitter stand out, create authority, which fed back into the small-but-important user base.

ADVERTISERS

Twitter gets revenue from ads. Any ad business is inherently tricky, for two reasons.

1) Ad revenue is pretty much a zero sum game, because ad spend is not exponential. Otherwise, Google wouldn’t have killed newspapers. Everyone is chasing the same ad dollar.

2) While everyone talks about network effects for users, which is how Facebook got to 2.x billion and MySpace didn’t etc, advertisers don’t give a damn. They aren’t locked in to Twitter any more than you are locked in to buying a brand of coffee. Switching is relatively easy. So if Musk allows free-wheeling hate speech to run rampant on Twitter – and he’s just fired half the company, so there’s every chance it will – then advertisers will flee. Suddenly, $44bn looks like a lot of money for a slightly-more intellectual version of Parler or Truth Social.

Social media has had a virtuous circle with the ad business, up until around this year. The next new thing attracted a keen audience; advertisers chase audience, especially hard-to-reach demographics. Ad revenue means investment in product, which makes system more attractive to audience, and round we go.

That revenue is needed to monitor content, because dangerous content can harm: harm people, communities, the environment, democracy. As a libertarian businessman, Musk hate moderation. It’s a black hole, in his view. But it’s key to keep the ‘good’ audience, and advertisers, engaged and happy.

The opposite, vicious circle, is also true. Platforms get stale; audience declines; ad revenues fall, so investment and moderation decline; and the degregation means more people leave (or become dormant). Shares plummet.

Meta is now the 25th most valuable company in America. It’s tanking. There are lots of reasons, which I won’t go in to, but the very fact it’s now below Pepsi is evidence to the fact that Big Tech isn’t a one-way bet. It’s an advertising vehicle, and people don’t like ads that much.

So what’s the answer?

There is no easy answer, in that Musk has control of Twitter, is clearly keen to change it in terms of less interference and more anything-goes; and I predict it will become a useless wasteland in less than a year. Advertisers will disappear, major voices will tire and find somewhere else.

The true value of Twitter was in authority. The fact that serious people used it. In that regard, it should have been protected like a utility, not left to the mercy of an eccentric firebrand billionaire with dubious politics and a penchant for spreading conspiracy theories.

If Twitter fails, what will the impact be?

One thing is that centrist/left voices will be potentially digitally homeless. Something should fill that void, something commercial. But it’s not the be-all.

More important is the public service element of Twitter. A digital, non-profit platform is needed for announcements, public broadcast, probably with no conversation around it, for people to follow as a service. Twitter is amazing in emergencies, for delivering news in the purest sense – not opinion, but up-to-the-minute facts. Where does that go without Twitter? We are left scrabbling around on a myriad of disparate websites.

And that’s where I’ll leave it.

I’m going to post this on Twitter, and then I may never post anything again. We’ll see.

How (not) to think about the ESL

The European Super League is a bust. As the 6 English clubs pulled out, there was no way it would work.

The mistake that most commentators are making is this: the clubs that made up the 12 initial members are NOT one and the same. They don’t have the same goals, ownership structures or ethos. It was remarkable that they even got together at all.

You can think of the 12 clubs in the following five categories: US-owned; Petro-dollar; Poor Euro royalty; Faceless business; Family business

Of the 12, they fall into the following categories like this:

US-owned: Arsenal, Liverpool, Manchester United, AC Milan

Petro-dollar: Manchester City, Chelsea

Poor Euro royalty: Barcelona, Real Madrid

Family Business: Altletico Madrid, Juventus

Faceless business: Tottenham, Inter Milan

Each has their own interests, but they are most closely aligned in those groupings. In detail:

US-owned
The US-owned clubs have owners who see nothing wrong with closed leagues. Most US leagues work perfectly well in this way – but that’s because they have levelers – the draft, salary caps and so on. The US owners want to maximise revenue, guarantee glamour match-ups, and cut the dross. This is business, after all. Plus, the US sees no issue with long-distance rivaliries. Seattle – Miami is four times further than London – Milan. They totally misjudged the backlash. Whoops.
Upshot: The Super League makes sense structurally and financially to the US business mind

Petro-dollar
You can chuck PSG in the mix here as a counterpart. Why do these owners own these clubs? To launder their reputations and oil money. Manchester City want to be benevolent owners. They have invested heavily in the local area, and want to be seen to care. Roman Abramovich wants to be welcome in London – Putin’s Russia is a risky place to be. They have money – so why do they need to rock the boat? The only real motivation is for glory – if there’s a big tournament going on with your rivals, you want a piece of the action. The calculus was that the fans would go along with it. They didn’t. PSG saw the ESL for what it was: a poorly-thought out half-idea, and ran a mile.
Upshot: Never that committed

Poor Euro royalty
Barca and Real are both in a financial mess with big debts. Owned by supporters but somehow controlled by horrible chairmen, the ESL made total sense. Big payday, cut the matches with the minnows, keep the gravy train rolling.
Upshot: The Super League makes total sense financially

Family business
Hard to say what the motivation is here. Super League money would be nice, but these clubs are doing OK overall. Why rock the boat? Not being left behind is one motivation, added to a bonanza payday, but the ire of the fanbase was a big risk.
Upshot: Poor call – should have seen the backlash coming

Faceless business
Money isn’t an issue; nor is reputation. Again, the motivation to not be left out is strong; the profit motive always a nice-to-have. Ultimately, these clubs don’t have quite the same history as their bigger local rivals and need to move with the times. If that meant Super League, so be it
Upshot: can take it or leave it, just want to be part of the gang

The one chart you need to understanding the European Super League (and why it’s not going to work)

Is this:

Read the full analysis on my new substack account here.

Tom Brady: winner, passer, extinct?

As Tom Brady works out which finger to put his seventh Super Bowl ring on, there are plenty of ways to admire his performance and achievements. As a friend (Leo in HK) put it to me today, he’s a statistician’s dream.

But there’s one statistic for me that stands out for Tom Brady, 2021 edition. In the regular season, he rushed for a total of six yards.

Six. Yards.

That’s not a lot for a quarterback in a single game. For a whole season?

OK, so Brady is 43, which means I’m going to cut him some slack. He’s not there to scamper about and pick up yardage with his legs. He’s there to pass in the pocket and run the game like the old pro he is, still the best around.

However, his rushing yards mark him out as a dying breed. Here’s why.

The NFL is a constantly evolving league in terms of tactics. Some are inspired by rule changes. Some rules are coach and stats-led – for example, more teams are now willing to gamble on 4th down and risk giving the ball back to the opposition, rather than punt the ball away. And some tactics evolve given the personnel at teams’ disposal. For example: the running quarterback.

Traditionally, the quarterback passes the ball from the “pocket” – an area where he is protected by his linesmen. Some quarterbacks are more mobile than others, making passes as the pocket breaks down and being able to pass on the run (Patrick Mahomes and Aaron Rogers are amazing at this). Others have been known as scrambling quarterbacks – able to run the ball when pass options downfield were covered by the defence. But scrambling was a last resort, when-things-break-down move.

Now, some quarterbacks are now such good runners as well as throwers of the ball that plays are being designed for them to run straight away. Lamar Jackson of the Baltimore Ravens and Kyler Murray of the Arizona Cardinals are the two brightest examples in the league. More will follow.

This presents defences with a nightmare. Normally, a defence has to guess what the opposing offence is up to: will they try to run the ball, or pass it? And the formation of the offence gives away a lot: you can sometimes see by how players are positioned whether the offence set up to run or pass. If there is no running back and four or more wide receivers on the field, that would mean it’s a passing play. But if a team has Lamar Jackson, that might be misdirection – he could be ready to run.

And Jackson is running – a lot. In both of the past two season he has rushed for over 1,000 yards, a mark that is usually only attained by specialist running backs. Murray rushed for over 800 yards in 2020.

Overall, the total yards rushed by quarterbacks has risen over the last few seasons. In 2020, it was over 9,000 – the highest ever.

Click for full size

Not only that, quarterbacks are rushing at crucial moments – rushing touchdowns by quarterbacks have leaped up – in 2020, there were 126, a record. That’s 40 more than in 2019, and double the number from only five seasons ago. Quarterbacks now account for around a quarter of rushing touchdowns. A decade ago it was about one in ten.

click for full size

The rushing quarterback might also be changing other stats. The recently-completed 2020 season saw the fewest interceptions (on a per game basis) ever. The defence caught opposition throws on only 395 occasions – the first time under 400 since 1982 (a strike-shortened year). Why is that? It could be that quarterbacks are more accurate, or there are softer defences. But it is also noticeable that in crucial moments when a team needs yards to keep a drive going, quarterbacks are trusting themselves to run for it rather than throwing risky passes.

So how will this evolve? There are a current crop of young quarterbacks who are comfortable running if needed – Patrick Mahomes and Josh Allen for example – as well as out-and-out runners like Jackson and Murray. And some of the less mobile old guard will retire soon – Tom Brady and Drew Brees, both two of the all time greats, are over 40. Even some of the longer- established quarterbacks are good scramblers – Russel Wilson and Aaron Rogers pick up crucial first downs on the run.

Into the league will come talented players such as Trevor Lawrence, a college player soon to be drafted in the first round and touted as a potential great. Lawrence’s passing ability is hugely exciting, but he can run too. The role of the quarterback is evolving, and defences will have to keep up.

Sources:
https://www.statmuse.com/nfl/ask/qb-rushing-yards-percentage-each-season
https://www.pro-football-reference.com/years/NFL/

A visual history of Coups

Was the violent invasion of the US Capitol on 6th January this year a coup? It certainly had the hallmarks of a coup, even it it might be expedient for politicians to refer to it as insurrection.

Because a coup is distinctly un-American, right?

Well, up until now.

The Cline Center of University of Illinois run the Coup D’état Project, and their data reveal a story of coups through the last 75 years.

The history of coups in the post-war period is dominated by personalities – strongmen such as Idi Amin and Col. Gaddafi. But those are the winners – leaders who took power and held it for many years.

So how successful are coups? According to the Project’s data, coups are a less than 50:50 shot – they are successful 45 per cent of the time.

The coup heyday was the 1960s and 70s, in the post-War, post-colonial settlement period where independent statehood was still nascent in many parts of the world. And although Latin America has a reputation for coups, fuelled by spy movies, sub-Saharan Africa is the most coup-prone region.

Since 1980 there has been a move to relative stability – the number of coups has declined, with the 2010s having the fewest of any decade. The last ten years has seen only 17 successful coups, with 30 attempted or conspired.

Some other insights… since 1945:

  • Although Sub-Saharan Africa is the most coup-heavy region, Bolivia is the most coup-prone nation with 37, including 16 successful coups.
  • Coups are more of a Spring / Autumn thing. November is the month with most coups, closely followed by October, April and March.
  • 1975 was the busiest year for coups with 32. 1979 was the most successful with 18 out of 22.

Anyway, here is the visual history – click for the the full size image.

So was 6th Jan a coup? The Cline center say… maybe.

Euros, ATMs and the price of walking 150m

Imagine the scene. You are standing at the London Eurostar terminal in St Pancras. You need some euros. Yes, you could wait until you get to Paris, but you have a connection, or some reason to not mess around at the other end. You want euros, and you want them now.

You wander into the main concourse of the station. Left, or right?

If you turn right, you will pass some smart shops and, just before you get to the domestic train bit, you will come to a cashpoint (ATM). It will dispense euros. Great – job done.

But if you turn left, and walk just outside the station, across the busy Euston Road, you can find several bureaux de change. They do a quick turnaround of currency. Job equally done.

So which should you do?

If you turned right, you may have stayed in the comfort of the station and avoided the scary world outside, but you lost money. Big time.

Let’s say you wanted €100. No more, no less.

The ATM would have ‘sold’ you euros at a rate of 1.0105 (euros to pounds) as of September 9th, 2019. I know. I put my card in to check. (I didn’t complete the transaction, fwiw).

Outside? Shop around, and you could have got a much more agreeable rate of 1.065, or even 1.09. However, avoid the Post Office – they were offering 1.030. (All checked on the same day.)

Savvy travellers using a MoneyCorp payment card could have got 1.0873 that day. My Revolut card was offering an even better 1.1195.

If all these numbers sound a bit abstract, let’s break it down.

PROVIDEReuro rate (as of 9 Sep 2019)£ spent for €100
ATM1.0105£98.96
Thomas1.065£93.90
Bureau de Change1.09£91.74
Post Office1.03£97.09
MoneyCorp card1.0873£91.97
Revolut1.1195£89.33

To get my €100, at the ATM I would have spent nearly £99. Outside, I could have got it for just under £92.

So I’m calling that £7, for the sake of simplicity.

How much more walking is it? According to Google maps measurement, to get to the outside Bureaux from the Eurostar entrance is 266m. To the ATM it’s 115m. So for the sake of walking an extra 150m, you’ve spent £7.

Is that worthwhile? Most people can walk at around 1.2 metres per second. So 150m is 125s or say 2 minutes. Add in 30 seconds of crossing the road, and walking back – that’s 5 minutes.

Is £7 worth 5 minutes of your time? That’s £84 per hour. The London living wage is £10.55 per hour.

Then again, this is for €100, which doesn’t exactly get you a full weekend in Paris. If you want €500, it’s suddenly a cash difference of £35, all for walking 150m. And that’s suddenly £420 per hour. We are getting close to serious lawyers fees here.

Why is the ATM so much more expensive?

It’s not the costs – they are minimal. Rent is a factor, but it’s essentially a 1.5m cube in the wall. No staff needed, compared to the bureaux outside. It needs to be topped up by a security guard now and then, but all banks and money shops need that anyway.

So why do Rafael’s Bank (the ATM provider) give such a poor rate? The answer is simply that they can. It’s a case of total price insensitivity. If some people aren’t going to shop around, you can over-charge them all you like. But next time you are tempted to use that ATM or a similar one, think about the location, your time, and whether you can afford £84 per hour – or far more – just to not walk that little bit further.

Sport Geek #88: cash, cuts and cheats

Brexit be damned. It’s been a while, but here are several sports pieces that I think are worth a read.

FOOTBALL

We think of the Premier League as a money machine. But a great look-back by the Guardian shows how it was nearly destroyed by all that cash.

A bit of a dense read, but some great insights in this Reuters piece into how players are traded. Murky.

BOXING

Is there a weirder job in sports than the cuts-man? A guy who literally has a minute to patch up a face before it gets pummelled again? This BBC article has some great quotes, if you’re not feeling too squeamish…

BASKETBALL

Great charts, non-hysterical analysis of LeBron vs Mike. I’ve read so many GOAT pieces in so many sports that they can get a bit much. But if (IF) you are going to do a greatest of all time piece, this is a fantastic way to do it. Kudos to the WaPo.

NFL

And now for something a bit lighter from the NYT – player rituals. Fun. And some downright strange: “he would then lie on a bed of towels he constructed in front of his locker, where he would always read People Magazine cover to cover”

CHESS

The Indy on how chess and cheating reads like something out of a spy novel. Also fun.

Ta

Sport Geek #87: shame, Qatar, and video games

It’s been ages since I last did the newsletter – so welcome to the new people. Due to the long hiatus, a quick recap: I pick interesting sports stories that you should read. That’s it. I try and group them by sport, usually, but not always.

With no further ado, this is the best of the last few months. Savour.

GOLF

How crass can you get? The Tiger vs Phil bet-athon showed that golf has decided to learn all the worst bits from boxing – and still get it wrong. (Note – golf can’t afford to lose Woods).

FOOTBALL

The 36 hours that shamed Argentine football.

It’s 4 years – just 4! – until Qatar completely ruins the World Cup for ever more. I’ve always been a sceptic about Qatar, but I thought Russia would be awful, and it wasn’t, so I could be wrong. However, the Guardian wrote a rather flattering puff piece, which I thought was an advertorial initially, accompanied by a much more hard hitting one on the workers. Odd. The i just went straight for the jugular.

News – Fifa to stage WC every 2 years? 48 teams? They can’t leave a good structure alone.

I’m not sure you can make this argument with a straight face, but apparently Lionel Messi is underrated

RUGBY

Ireland are the best. Here’s how and why.

NFL

You may have missed it, but the recent Rams v Chiefs game was astonishing. This is the new NFL model.

BASEBALL

Meanwhile, baseball is in trouble. Name a famous player? See. Plus, there are now more strike outs than hits.

US

Sports have become video games. Which is to say, the tactics have caught up with the video game age.

CRICKET

The story behind Australia’s great scandal.

TENNIS

There are still no major winners born since 1990. WTF?

DOPER

The Armstrong comeback. Really.

Tiger Woods and the Ryder Cup: why wild cards matter

The sense of anticipation for the 2018 Ryder Cup was always high before the US team picked Tiger Woods.

But with the former world number one – and arguably best-known sporting figure on the planet – winning the last big event, the Tour Championship, just before the teams headed for France, part of a career resurgence that is utterly improbable, the cup had a great PR boost.

Interestingly, Tiger Woods has a poor reputation at Ryder Cup golf. Too often he has seemed aloof or uncomfortable with the team spirit of the tournament. This is despite having a decent Ryder Cup record: his total points (pre-2018) is 14.5, which is 9th in the all time US list. However, his points percentage of 44 is the lowest in that list, and fairly middling compared to his peers.

However, his selection as a Captain’s choice – a wild card – is highly significant.

The Ryder Cup works differently to other national team sports. Where team managers can select whomever they like to play for the US soccer team, for the Ryder Cup there is an automatic selection for most of the team, based on a qualifying points system.

However, Ryder Cup captains, who are the equivalent of managers, have some discretion – they get three (in for European team) or four (for the US) selections. And these wild card picks have proved to be disproportionately good.

For the 32 teams that have played Ryder Cup with a captain’s pick, only two have seen those selected players underperform. If we look at the percentage of matches that the wild cards play in each event (not all players can be selected for each round, and each player can play between 1 and 5 matches), and then the percentage of the team’s points that they win, they are a net benefit almost every time.

Source: Ryder Cup

Sometimes it’s extraordinary – in 2010, the US team’s wild cards played 32% of the matches, and won 63% of the points.

I’ll admit, this isn’t a perfect analysis: players are paired up for 16 of the 28 matches, so in some cases a wild card may well have been carried to victory by their non-wild card partner. Equally, the wild card may well have done the heavy lifting in winning a match.

Overall, for all the Ryder Cups where wild cards have been used, the average difference between the percentage points won and matches played is +12. Given their outperformance compared to their teammates, a wild card is probably the most important decision a captain can make.

Whether Woods and the other three US wild cards return the vote of confidence with enough points to win is another matter: the recent European dominance in Ryder Cups may have been reversed in 2016 and the USA team is heavily favoured this time, but Europe have home advantage. The US haven’t won on European soil since 1993.

Sport Geek #86: animals, abominations, and aesthetics

Well, that was fun. Enjoy the glow while it lasts – I think that will be the last good World Cup. Why? First, Qatar can’t ever live up to that. It will be too hot, at the wrong time of year. Ethically, this might be the last time we turn a blind eye to authoritarian corruption (Putin was fairly absent from coverage). Plus, at some stage (2026?) it’s going to be the clusterfk of 48 teams, which makes no sense at all. Russia was peak World Cup. It’s downhill from here.

WC ROUND UP

The prediction game: Goldman were pretty useless; some South African data scientists were pretty good; and the animals were, well, animals.

Anyone buying a player on the strength of the World Cup is pretty stupid.

If you thought added time seemed a bit off, you’d be right.

Neymar and the art of the dive. Tip – don’t oversell it.

TROPHIES

The World Cup is awful. Wimbledon is perfect. An aesthetic look at the actual cup (orb?)

CYCLING

Why is there no women’s equivalent Tour de France?

BASEBALL

Don’t sugar-coat it: The New York Yankees are a moral abomination.

BASKETBALL

What’s happened to the salary cap?

TENNIS

I’m not going to bother you with the pros and cons of 5th set tie breaks as I think it’s so blindingly obvious (at 12-all perhaps). Instead…

Careers are getting longer. The wait for a male grand slam champion born in the 1990s goes on.

10 years ago the greatest match was played. Here’s a graphical version.

John McEnroe is always worth listening to.

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