Jed Cohen

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Do Numbers Equal Value?


Every so often, someone new starts to follow me on Twitter.  Most of the time I look at the e-mail, click through to their profile, and decide whether I want to follow them back.  But every so often I get a follower notification that I just delete immediately.  More often than not it’s spam.  But not this time.

Here’s what Twitter told me about a certain “person” who just started following me (names omitted to protect the not-so-innocent):

Does this seem kind of ridiculous to anyone else?  What sort of earth shattering revelations must be in this person’s 99 tweets that over 40,000 people are following him?

Let’s take a look…

I decided to take a slightly scientific approach to this.  Here’s a few vitals:

  • According to When Did You Join Twitter?, this person joined Twitter on March 25, 2009.
  • I looked the handle up on Twitter Grader, where the account scored a 98.
  • I then used Twitterholic to get historical data on friends, followers, and updates.  Then I graphed the results:

To give myself a sense of perspective, I ran a number of other users through Twitter Grader as well.  Guy Kawasaki’s, Justine Ezarik’s, Drew Olanoff’s, Evan Williams’, Biz Stone’s, and Jack Dorsey’s accounts all scored a 98.2.  I plugged in another 15 or so users (not all celebrities), and only four of them had scores lower than 98 (sampling biases include following them and finding them interesting).  Only one had a score lower than a 90.

It’s absolutely obvious that this user is gaming the system.  They’re using any one of the hundreds of ways out there to increase their follower numbers, probably by agreeing to follow everyone back.


We’ve come to use following/follower numbers as a measurement of influence or value.  But it’s simply not true.  I don’t care what rationale you have, 99 tweets in 270 days can’t enrich the lives of 40,000 people.  It’s just not possible.

Numbers have become a heuristic for the social web.  We have a mental shortcut that says that higher numbers are better than lower ones, and we use it to judge authenticity or likability or popularity or any other number of traits.  But we can’t keep on using numbers as an indicator.  This user that I’ve featured here shows us that it’s much too easy to fake them.  And if you don’t believe me, consider that there are 15,740 experts on Twitter according to Mashable (Pete Cashmore scores a 100 on Twitter Grader by the way).

What else is there?

There’s a lot written on how to sell social media to your boss, and almost everything will at least mention return on investment.  And ROI is always going to be measured based on numbers – whether it’s sales, cost per thousand (CPM), click-throughs, subscriptions, or customer surveys.  It’s a numbers game, sadly.

But maybe, together, we can come up with some better numbers.  What do you think?

Written by Jed

December 27th, 2009 at 11:12 pm

Biased Negotiations

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I’ve already written about how I am a virtual intern for CAREEREALISM, a a blog/discussion forum focused on offering advice concerning the shifting concept of “career.”  Well, I have a guest post up at CAREEREALISM today called “Negotiating with Employers – It’s Not As Bad As You Think.”

The post came about because I started writing the following piece on some common mental biases that occur during negotiation.  As I was writing, I realized that I needed to provide a whole bunch of background information to make sense of what I talk about.  So I wrote a bit on integrative negotiation and realized that it was right up CAREEREALISM’s alley.  I sent it to JT O’Donnell, who graciously agreed to post it and made it CAREEREALISM friendly.

So go and check it out!  And then come back and read the rest of this – my original post on negotiation biases (you can just read the rest of this without visiting CAREEREALISM, but I do use a few terms that are defined there and not here).  So without further ado….

Biased Negotiations

Negotiations can be highly charged affairs.  People tend to get emotionally invested, and reason can often go right out the window.  So it can help to have a grasp of some common psychological traps that can harm you during the course of a negotiation.  We’re going to look at three here:

  • The agreement bias
  • The anchoring and adjustment heuristic
  • Framing

The agreement bias

This is exactly what it sounds like – being biased in favor of reaching an agreement.  The problem here is that people fail consider their alternatives!  If the offer on the table is worse than your BATNA (best alternative to a negotiated agreement), it’s up to you to recognize it and take the appropriate action (that would be to turn the offer down, in case you were wondering).  Just be sure not to do the opposite, which is to walk away from the table when the deal is good.

Anchoring and adjustment heuristic

The second tendency is the anchoring and adjustment heuristic.  If you haven’t heard of the term before, a heuristic is a basic guide to decision-making during complex situations.  It’s kind of a mental shortcut, and a good portion of the time these basic psychological rules will give you the right answer.  This is one of those times when it is not your friend.  The anchoring and adjustment heuristic says that when primed with an initial reference point, we start there and move towards our end goal.  But we don’t move enough.  (Want to learn more?  Read Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman’s original paper on heuristics).

Anchoring and adjustment tells us that when you walk into a negotiation, you want to be focused on your target price and not your reservation price.  Why?  Because if you start out primed with a low set of numbers, you’re not going to move as far up as if you started high and moved down.  Keep this in mind when considering numbers thrown out by the other party – they can anchor you just as well as your own needs and wants.  Anchoring and adjustment can also be used to your benefit though; making the opening move can anchor the other party as well.  Just be aware of overstepping your bounds based upon the social dynamic between you and the other party.


Framing is all about context.  The way we are exposed to a deal can impact how we approach it.  The effect of framing can be summed up as “losses loom larger than gains.”  In other words, if I position something in terms of what you gain from accepting my terms, you’re more likely to avoid risk than if I position something in terms of what you loose by not accepting.  This can be tricky during negotiations, as the way you perceive a proposal can influence your willingness to take risk.

Overcoming your own mind

Hey, I never said this would be easy.  Or simple – negotiating is complicated.  But you’ve actually taken the first step towards overcoming biases during negotiations – you’ve read this.  Now that you know about these mental quirks, you can watch your own behavior for them and work on overcoming them.

Which is why the best advice I can give you is this: practice.  Remember the old cliche “practice makes perfect?”  While you’ll never be perfect at negotiation, practicing can make you more comfortable and provide you with feedback that you can use to improve.  The more you try negotiating, the more comfortable you’ll be with your own style, and the better you’ll understand the highs and the lows.

Written by Jed

August 10th, 2009 at 8:28 am

The Role of Propaganda in Modern Democracy (aka My Colloquium)

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So school’s out; I’ve graduated.  Yipee.  This has naturally led me to think about quite a few things and to reflect upon some of my experiences at NYU.  I’ve written before on the wide range of classes I’ve taken and some of the opportunities afforded to me by my academic program at the Gallatin School of Individualized Study.  One of the few degree requirements (and as such one of the few guaranteed shared experiences among the students) is the colloquium.  The colloquium is Gallatin’s senior capstone, a two hour discussion on a topic of the students choice with three faculty members.  It is something that students look upon with a bit of dread, and it is a bit daunting – it is rare for a student’s academic career to hinge on a single event like the colloquium (not that many people fail, but it is still stressful).

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Written by Jed

May 30th, 2009 at 11:20 am