I’ve recently been reading Michael Lewis’ terrific new book, “Boomerang: Travels in the New Third World.” It’s a well-written and highly readable trip around the economies that serve as the poster children of the current economic meltdown — Greece, Ireland, Iceland, and the US, among others. While many of the chapters were published in Vanity Fair previously, I don’t subscribe to Vanity Fair, and the material has been updated, so they’re all new to me.
One of the main lessons from the book is that short-term thinking without paying attention to fundamentals led to really terrible personal, institutional, and national decision-making — and, most depressingly, all at the same time. It seems that only the personal decision-making has somewhat righted itself even in the years following one of the most jarring economic potholes in generations — financial institutions and governments still seem to want to drive the car as if the engine wasn’t burning oil.
The past 10 years might be dubbed the “ignorance is bliss” decade — from terrorist attacks to wars to economic meltdowns, it seems there’s a resolve to keep the superficial aspects of our society as close to status quo as possible. In this regard, the mass media continues to report on financial markets as if worldwide economic turmoil hadn’t occurred, providing breathless minute-by-minute updates on stock prices, staging adrenaline-junky shouting matches about trends, and habitually posting daily summaries of market performance.
Meanwhile, we’re all in this for the long run, and ultimately whether stocks are up or down matters a lot less than whether jobs, wages, or infrastructures are improving. The daily narratives correlating stock market performance to some shamanistic or semiotic reckoning are worse than useless. Felix Salmon has a great blog entry on this tendency toward frenzied market reports, concluding:
Market reports should not be an everyday staple of news coverage. Sometimes, occasionally, there are stories in the markets. And then those stories can be reported. But when there aren’t any stories, there’s no point in trying to invent them. And so the daily report — let alone the intra-day report — is at heart a stupid piece of journalism. Some are better than others, to be sure. But none of them are any good.
Short-term thinking has become a way of life, something we need to fend off, as it often leads to dramatic over-steering or under-steering errors.
As publishers, we sometimes get caught in “fad surfing,” experimenting with social tools for a year or two when the fad is new or hot, then dropping it when the payback, rewards, audience, or participation underwhelms. In some ways, we’re victim to this same short-term mentality, despite the fact that many of us work for organizations with long-term staying power and multi-generational roles and goals. The long-term is not just a pastiche of many short terms — that leads to fads and bubbles. The long-term is about fundamental drivers, motivators, and trends.
This all came to mind as I was contemplating a poster presentation that has the potential to improve our understanding of the user of Twitter in scholarship. A team of researchers at the University of North Carolina have studied five US and UK universities to assess trends in the adoption and use of Twitter by faculty and others in academia. The results from the poster session presentation are available, as is coverage in ReadWriteWeb. There is also a nifty infographic you might want to look at.
While preliminary, the results suggest that a long-term trend toward adopting Twitter and using it to communicate a mix of professional and personal information is emerging in academia.
The methodology the researchers used is purposely conservative — that is, if the researchers couldn’t match a Twitter account to a scholar, there was no match assumed. This left out more than 3,000 candidates with common names and more than 9,000 who had scant identifying information on Twitter.
One interesting early finding is that faculty appear to tweet scholarly material at a significantly higher rate than do non-faculty. For faculty, 30% of their tweets were scholarly, while 15% of tweets from non-faculty were.
The reason I chose to conflate the economic, the reportorial, and the poster session observations may be a little cloudy by this point, but allow me to clarify — change happens slowly, especially in cultures that are strongly linked by many incentives at many levels, but change does occur. Focusing on short-term trends and immediate information often leads to missing the real picture.
For instance, Twitter has been dismissed by the academics I’ve encountered for years now, because they personally don’t use it. It’s as if Twitter would have to be adopted en masse within a month for them to believe it might matter. Yet, here we are, looking at preliminary data suggesting that a long-term trend is occurring — the utility of sharing short links is catching on, albeit slowly, and there is some value in sharing scholarly links.
Now, I could be accused of jumping on preliminary data just like those financial reporters I’d dun. Fair enough. But I’m jumping on it to help you track a long-term trend, not to cause a short-term reaction. The difference between the two is immense. It’s akin to noting in 1999 that e-ink is a big deal — while arguing that it won’t be a big deal in 1999 or 2000, but it will be, and sometime in your lifetime. Now, e-ink has proven that it can upend an industry in the right hands — it’s revolutionizing the book industry thanks to the Nook and Kindle and other devices leveraging the same basic technology.
Yes, Twitter is about short messages that tend to vanish within minutes or hours. But it represents a long-term trend in communications, even in academia.
I’m suggesting you keep your eye on this area over the long haul because there might be something here worth watching. The financial bloodhounds are baying at any scent they catch, so much so that you’ve probably tuned them out by now.
I’m talking about cultivation, not hunting.
A recent post by David Worlock, reporting in from the Frankfurt Book Fair, also underscores the importance of cultivation. Worlock rightly notes that “big data” is a big trend in science publishing, but meanwhile, publishers are arguing about how to maintain their version of the status quo, whether it’s open access, traditional subscription, or some hybrid:
I took away a picture of a sector holding its breath and hoping that things would revert to normal, and traditional business models would prevail. But we all knew in our hearts that when “normal” came back it would be different. Postponing the trek down the road to Dogpatch Labs only loses first mover advantage, the experience born of re-iteration, and ensures that it will be more difficult to change successfully in the long term.
Like Worlock, I’m recommending that you note the fundamentals at work — that is, in academia, there is value and reputation to be had by sharing information with peers; self-promotion is an implicit driver; and having a following beyond the institution you’re in makes sense. So, fundamentally, using a service like Twitter fits logically with academic behavior, and publishing your data using a service that curates it well both make sense. It’s just going to take a while for these things to catch on and bring the change they presage.
Technology adoption in the academic space may occur more slowly than it does in the public sphere, especially when the technology requires a bit of what feels like hackery to become adept at it. But it does occur. And by watching the long-term trends, recognizing the compatibility of the motivators and reward, and watching the fundamentals, we can think about their implications now and for a while to come — and gradually position ourselves correctly.
11 Thoughts on "Short-term Thinking, Twitter, Economics, and the Change Process"
Twitter messages are more influenced by what’s happening at any moment rather than based on some rational…
Twitter messages, yes, but the people writing them are consistent sources of information, in most cases. I know certain people I follow write about scholarly publishing or medical studies or retractions or sports or politics or writing. These (and others) are the themes of my Twitterverse. Yours may differ, but an update from an academic studying any one of these would be welcomed. In fact, some of the people I follow ARE academics or scholars, so no problem. Knowing what they’re seeing, thinking, or reading at any moment is interesting and useful more often than not.
Great post Kent. We do seem stuck in an era of short-term thinking, making this quarter’s report look good at the sacrifice of the company’s long-term health. On the financial front, Mark Cuban has a superb set of suggestions for how to turn our economy back into one that cares about actual investment and long-term health, rather than just a game to hack and make a quick buck:
As far as things like Twitter and the scholarly community, a few thoughts:
A quick look at the study you mention shows that in their sample, only 2.6% of professors, postdocs and students were using Twitter. Of those, only 15% of tweets were labeled scholarly for non-faculty tweeters, 30% for faculty (thought it’s a bit unclear how they define “scholarly”). So you’re talking about a tiny percentage of people using a tool primarily for non-scholarly purposes.
The question that must be asked, as it should for all new technologies and trends, is whether this 2.6% are the leading edge or are outliers.
The key is to focus not on the technology itself, but on the service it provides and how that fits in with the culture and demands of academia. I’m not sure that we’ll ever see the majority of researchers sharing information on Twitter, but we will certainly see aspects of the types of communication that Twitter enables adopted by researchers.
As you note, there is currency in sharing information with peers, with being “the authority” on a subject area. That needs to be balanced with the downsides of working in an incredibly competitive industry, where one’s insights and perceptions are one’s competitive edge against other researchers. If forced to guess, I’d predict something that’s more of a combination of Google+ and Mendeley, rather than Twitter. Google+ for the privacy controls and ability to strictly limit one’s audience to the types of trust groups in which researchers already confide (the lab, collaborators, the department) and Mendeley for the direct ties to the literature (speaking of which, have you seen ReadCube, a Mendeley/Papers/PubGet competitor recently invested in by MacMillan http://www.readcube.com).
That Mark Cuban post is right on the nose. He’s a wild man, but he’s very, very smart and savvy. The more we shift our economic incentives back to mid-term to long-term growth and investment, the better off we’ll all be. Short-term incentives drive speculation, and as Cuban notes, there is ZERO moral hazard at this point for speculation that goes off the rails, so why not bet big?
You raise some good points here, David, as always.
First, it is indeed little unclear what our content analysis categories represent. We plan to include some more description and examples in the paper. For now, it might help to know that the “scholarly” categories (darker gray on the bottom-left chart) required that the information be closely related to the tweeter’s scholarly field. We were pretty conservative on this–if we weren’t positive (esp. in cases where we had just one side of a conversation), it’s non-scholarly.
It’s true that the majority of Twitter use is for non-scholarly purposes. I reckon the majority of my use of the Web is non-scholarly, too. But that doesn’t stop it from being a powerful tool when I do use it in a professional context.
You’re also right to note we find the percentage of scholars active on Twitter is pretty small — unsurprisingly, a lot smaller than the estimates from the survey work, which suffers from response bias (as you’ve noted before). But I think the bigger story here is the growth in percentage of scholars tweeting, which has been strong pretty much since the beginning. This is the pattern I’d expect to see if tweeting scholars were the leading edge of a bigger movement, rather than outliers.
As you point out, the important thing isn’t the technology but how it maps to what scholars need to do. We’ve known for a long time that invisible colleges power scholarship, and that these are reified and organized in loose but powerful networks of informal communication like letters and conference attendance. Twitter is another way to bind and strengthen these networks, and it’s a particularly powerful way because it combines some of the best parts of correspondence and physical presence.
That said, I agree that Twitter itself is a stop on the journey toward Web-transformed scholarship, not the destination. I certainly hope so, at least. I think, like you, that the future will provide for finer-grained access controls, and I like to think that it’ll be less dependent on a central, for-profit service. On the other hand, if the Web has taught us anything, it’s that the winning framework or technology tends to be the one that’s just barely good enough, and works now. Either way, I’m excited about these results, and I think most of us can agree that when we think long-term, social Web tools are likely to be an important part of scholarly communication.
Kent, there is so much here in your post, you have my mind running in a hundred different directions all at once. A few things that popped into my head as I was reading this:
1) At what point does twitting about your research move from being just a short comment to violating pre-publication rules of journals? If a researcher has already revealed a substantial part of her results on Twitter – has she violated the pre-publication rules of most journals?
2) You are correct, Twitter is a great self-promotion tool, Sarah Palin immediately comes to mind. Once a study is published it seems to me that both the publisher and the researcher would have an interest in using Twitter to promote the study results.
3) I agree with your post (for the most part). I would disagree that twitting represents a new trend. It is in fact, a new manifestation of an ancient trend – self promotion. But you are right, the more researchers become aware of the power of Twitter to promote their career the more important it (and its successors) will become – again see reference about Palin. However, the immortal Sarah also points out the dangers of Twitter. It ultimately is a short-term device. It is all too easy to write things before you think and you can easily outlive your welcome. What at first starts out as fresh and bright quickly becomes trite and formulaic.
4) As for short term thinking on a more macro scale; I quote the great economist John Maynard Keynes; “in the long-term, we are all dead.” The problem with long-term thinking is that our basic needs are not long-term, our needs are immediate. We need to eat every day, we need shelter every day and we need clothes on our back every day. We are hard-wired to think short-term. There is rationality to the view that the future is unknowable; so why plan for it. Not that I disagree with your assessment of our predicament, I am just pointing out that the current situation is not as irrational as it seems.
5) Finally, American capitalism is notorious for focusing on the short-term. As David pointed out, companies focus on this quarter’s earnings at the long-term detriment to the company’s future. As an investor, I try to avoid companies that focus on this quarter’s results and I often buy stocks of companies that have a bad quarter – it is an easy way to make money on the stock market (as long as you focus on the long-term). But long-term thinking is no panacea either. As evidence, I point to Japan. Japanese capitalism is notorious for focusing on the long-term. The intertwined ownership of Japanese companies protects them from short-tern gyrations of the market. This construct allows Japanese companies to focus on long-term trends. We need no more proof than the past twenty years of economic data out of Japan to show that long-term thinking is no guarantee for success. The problem with the future is that it never turns out like you planned.
I’ll respond to your Point 4 — that we’re hard-wired to think in the short-term, and by inference that that’s OK. We’re hard-wired to do a lot of things — go to war, be promiscuous, take irrational risks. Overcoming these for the sake of higher needs like society, culture, and family is also part of our wiring. Which is better for us in both the short-term and the long-term? I’d argue the latter. Our Malthusian needs are more readily addressed in a state of higher functioning and long-term cooperative activity. When we start exploiting one another, taking unnecessary risks, and so forth, that’s when we put our short-term interests at risk, as odd as that sounds. Behaving only with the short-term in mind doesn’t work in the short-term or the long-term. Easter Island, anyone?
I agree Kent. It would be wonderful if more people thought with a long-term mindset. My point was, 1) it would be nice, but building a strategy around an expectation that most people will think in the long-term most of the time would fail – you need to plan for short-term thinking and 2) long-term strategies (to be successful) must be reviewed and amended constantly. Japan is a perfect example of what can happen when a long-term mindset sets in and is not amended to reflect new realities. In the 60’s MITI had a vision for economic growth in Japan. MITI’s long-term strategy was extremely successful up until 1989. The facts on the ground changed in Japan yet the government’s policies have remained the same. In an odd way, the original long-term plan became the end and not the means to a goal (economic growth). You are right, we should always think long-term. We should also always be ready to reevaluate our long-term plans. Japan’s long-term thinking did not save it from its financial crisis.
I agree with you, up to a point, that our financial crisis is due to short-term thinking. We are experiencing a financial crisis, these happen periodically throughout history (every seventy years or so). They occur because of the inherent conflict between banks’ liabilities (short-term loans and deposits) and their assets (long-term loans). This particular crisis was made even worse by the investment banks short-term strategies to enhance their quarterly profits – you hit the nail on the head there. If you add to that our government’s removal of Glass Steagle, which was also a decision to enhance short-term growth – your position is well proven. But even without that silly and self-destructive behavior a periodic financial crisis is inevitable because of the unstable nature of the banking system. Our government should have been worrying about our long-term growth. But instead, they made decisions based on the short-term election cycle. Which proves my point, any long-term strategy (if it is to be successful) must accommodate the short-term nature of humanity.
I make all my investment decisions based on long-term objectives, but I always take into account the short-term nature of other investors. So in the end Kent, you and I agree 100%. I just have less faith that humanity can be changed.
A major problem is deciding whether the future will be like the past. With respect to stocks, investment advisers continue to encourage us to bank on the future repeating the past in expecting stocks to bring returns over the long term of 10% or more. But what if the future will not be like the past? Suppose stocks never again perform at that level, but only bring a return of, say. 5%? Many important decisions about our future depend on the answer to that question.
A parallel in scholarly publishing would be assuming that, just as TV did not kill off radio and video did not kill off TV, but they all ended up coexisting, so too will print continue to coexist with digital. How safe is it to make this assumption, and what if we are wrong?
As for Twitter, it’s not clear what effect, if any, it will have on scholarly publishing. Will acquisition editors start to follow the academic stars who use Twitter? Will publishers encourage authors to use it more for promotion of their books? What are the implications and possibilities here?