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Social Media – Echo Chamber or a Learning Tool?

It was 22 days since I quit twitter and it’s interesting that I did not feel like I was missing anything. But I am back. The free time has also given me a lot to think on whether Twitter is what Morgan Housel would say, a product that solves a customer’s problem or a product that scratches a customer’s itch.

Much of Twitter is dominated by Politics – both paid and unpaid. In fact, the unpaid actually show much greater determination to showcase why their leader / party is right than what even good paid PR can generate.

Who doesn’t love to discuss politics – in the evenings, this used to happen at coffee joints while during the day at offices it took place near the water-cooler / lunch time. Twitter being available 24 * 7 has meant that rather than this being a one off past-time, this is not a full time venture of bashing anyone who doesn’t believe in what you believe.

In the area of Finance, much of the debate is how people are stupid to invest in X when you can invest in Y and get better returns. Are Direct funds better or Regular. Does advisor add value or not. Should you follow Momentum or Value. Does…

Depending on one’s own bias and job description, every one of the answers can be easily guessed. A advisor believes he is adding value his client. Mutual Fund managers dependent on Distributors for raising money believe that Regular is better for Clients versus Direct. Value investors believe that Momentum at best is a fad and worst is fraud.

The nice thing about Twitter is that since it remembers everything, most of us are chained to our views even when there seems to be evidence to the contrary. Changing tack is difficult even though most of us are happy to quote Keynes.

When you login to Facebook, you know what to expect. You like to connect with your friends – mostly friends from School / College / Work. You like to share your new experiences with them in the same way you may have shared with them physically if you met them. You love to read about what is happening in their life among countless other small things.

What is the expectation when it comes to Twitter? Most will say, here to Learn. But does that really happen in Twitter or do we consign ourselves to an echo chamber which keeps repeating what we like or what we believe in.

While there is only one Warren Buffett, Twitter is full of Buffett gyani’s who spend their whole time quoting him as if that act itself will lead to better decision making when it comes our finances.

One key output of being on Twitter is the enormous amount of blogs / tweets and books that are recommended as good reads. While many are indeed good reads, the question is, how much of it is implementable. Charlie Munger had this to say on reading;

“We read a lot. I don’t know anyone who’s wise who doesn’t read a lot. But that’s not enough: You have to have a temperament to grab ideas and do sensible things. Most people don’t grab the right ideas or don’t know what to do with them.”

Reading for the sake of reading barely achieves any meaningful objective other than being able to discuss any topic that seems to have taken the twitter by storm.

As I was writing this, I stumbled upon a very interesting blog post by Josh Brown of The Reformed Broker fame. While in the post he doesn’t refer to Twitter, which isn’t surprising given that his firm’s entire strategy has been evolved around Social Media, one particular phrase caught my attention.

You’re asking someone to deviate from every public pronouncement they’ve made and all of the comfort and support they currently have in their community of likeminded fellow Unreachables. You’re asking them to betray what they’ve already told the world they are!

And what are you offering in return? Facts? Logic?

Nobody cares about what your facts are. People have facts of their own that they like better. And when has logic ever been the crucial factor in human decision making, like, ever, throughout world history?

The timeless XKCD Cartoon “Duty Calls” laid out the fact that there will always be people out there who in our view are wrong.

My inspiration for quitting twitter came from Cal Newport’s book, Deep Work where he lays out how the achievers were able to reach their goals by avoiding noise and twitter is similar to trying to study for the exam sitting in the stadium watching one’s favourite game.

But there is a catch.

When you are starting up a new business, twitter can be great at attracting the eyeballs to initially give momentum. But the sticky clients are those who like your product and are willing to come back to you, not people who have randomly spotted you on the internet.

If you are fund manager, Twitter may help spread your word, but your own name and fame comes from the actual ability to manage and deliver returns. This holds true for most other businesses as well.

If you are an advisor, you can get a few clients by being active on Twitter all day long answering all kinds of mundane questions. The ones who shall stick though are one who believe that they got the better off in the bargain.

In 1848, James W. Marshall struck gold in the California, it started what is now known as “California Gold Rush”. While miners took enormous risk to mine gold, the actual beneficiaries who ended up with far more money were merchants. Samuel Brannan made it big by providing supplies and Levi Strauss who sold Demins to miners.

Twitter is becoming something close to that especially with the great Indian bull market being in full force. There are more and more sellers of shovels than actual risk takers. Why bother with managing real money when it’s easier and much cheaper to teach or advise for a fee.

“Nourish yourself with grand and austere ideas of beauty that feed the soul.  Seek solitude” – Eugène Delacroix

On Twitter, everyone wants to be seen as Intelligent folks who have the answer to all queries that life may throw, so let me end this post with a brilliant quote from who else but Charlie Munger

It is remarkable how much long-term advantage people like us have gotten by trying to be consistently not stupid, instead of trying to be very intelligent. There must be some wisdom in the folk saying, ‘It’s the strong swimmers who drown.

So, why am I back?

For all the negatives of twitter, there is also the biggest positive of you getting feedback that you may not have received otherwise. If one is open about really learning, Twitter friends can provide you with instantaneous feedback on which is invaluable.

While I was frustrated with the relentless on your face selling by many, I do understand the power of twitter is second to none. All that hype means that even snake oil sellers appear to hold crystal balls as they try to make it sound like they have figured out everything. Yet, for every 100 oil snake oil vendors, you also have 1 genuine advisor who is willing to provide you the information you look forward to without any quid-pro-quo.

Coming out with cheeky 128 character tweets is easy, writing a 1000 word blog post is tougher for it requires deeper understanding of the issue on hand. Writing a 30 thousand word book? That requires one to distil years of experience into a comprehensive document that is easy to read yet adds value to the reader.

These days though, everything is in oversupply. It’s not surprising hence to see Nassim Nicholas Taleb recommend one to read books that been around for long. Books too are fragile – only those that survive are worth spending time upon.

The problem with social media is that the deluge of information in small chunks can eat up precious amount of time and energy without a output which can be measured upon. Long ago, my former boss, Dr.C.K Narayan commented that one of the reasons he wasn’t (then) on Twitter was that thanks to the endless supply of reading material, one link led to another which led to yet another till we ended up reading all kinds of nonsense & exhausted all our energy not to forget time.

My influence for “trying” to quit Social Media came from Cal Newport’s book, Deep Work. While I didn’t last 30 days (Twitter deletes all stuff at end of 30 days & I wasn’t going to test its limits), in the book, he asks two questions

  1. Would the last thirty days have been notably better if I had been able to use this service?
  2. Did people care that I wasn’t using this service?

While the twenty odd days without twitter can be regarded as a small sample size, I felt that my ability to read and work improved tremendously. While I bought books to fulfil my itch, in the last few weeks, my reading per my own belief improved tremendously.

Friends did ask the reason for me quitting twitter, but I am 100% sure no one is missed. We start forgetting loved ones who have passed on after a bit of time, who can even remember anonymous tweeters who are quickly replaced by other charmers.

The key reason for me being back is bit of selfishness – while I have nothing to sell (at the current juncture), I still hope that my writing, however shoddy it is, is read by more than a handful. Logging off from Twitter crashed by traffic by 90% and that was a tough pill to swallow.

My reading during these intermittent days didn’t suffer for technology has made it easy to pursue blogs that you love to read and surprisingly I found even more and far better book recommendations that I may have missed out earlier.

Social Media is a godsend for those who can build a business around the hyperbole. But if you are catering to a genuine need and not just a customer’s itch, your business will not suffer even if you don’t tweet for months on end. After all, they do say the proof of the pudding is in the eating.

I recently stumbled upon the twitter account of a very famous fund manager who is very well known in the circles. He had exactly 2 tweets – one, when he joined twitter and second when he changed his job recently.

Another fund manager who has made a lot of waves and manages a few hundred crores of other people’s money on his own and yet the number of tweets he has put out is less than 1 per month since he came onboard.

Finally, some time back was given a presentation of a fund manager who is supposed to manage a very large sum of money for very high HNI’s but doesn’t have a website or a social media account. He picks clients rather than clients picking him and is said to be pretty choosy as well.

Real business doesn’t need the crutches of Social Media. If you are successful, people will chase you regardless of how easy or tough it’s to access you. If you aren’t, well… its not tough to speculate on how many want to be associated with you, let alone chase you for your inputs.

If you aren’t here to sell, you are here to entertain yourself. The question you need to ask yourself: Is the Entertainment worth the cost of time and effort you are investing.

 

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