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Our Facebook newsfeeds can be better than RSS readers ever were

Like many others, I used to get up in the morning and check my RSS feeds. It didn’t matter where these feeds were. I always had them on call.

Now I get up in the morning and check my Facebook. And there we are: the daily dose of politics, courtesy of NYT, Al-Jazeera, the Daily Mirror, Colombo Telegraph. The best of Techcrunch and Wired. A dose of the Anti-Media. A few scattered longform blogs and a smattering of what a very limited circle of my friends are up to.

There you go. News.

I’m not alone. Ever since Facebook added the Follow mechanic, the screen I see when I log on has been changing from random noise and those horribly shareable Aunty Acid pictures to a highly curated news website, customized and served up for my consumption.

Why it works so well, and why we like it more than ye average news site, is because of a curious psychological effect. I follow certain individuals who have three things in common:

a) They constantly seek new information
b) Because we’re friends, they tend to share more tastes or personality traits with me than the rest of my online associations
c) Each of them has a dedicated interest in one or more subjects than I care about

Anything shared by these people is inherently given a significantly higher weightage in my mind. Their untold endorsement (that this content is worth reading), in my mind, is practically a trusted judgement.

And again, because we share certain tastes and traits, I often find that I do like what they push out onto Facebook. This in turn reinforces my acceptance of their endorsement. Now I’m even more likely to click on what they share. It’s a feedback cycle that builds my mental image of these people as a fantastic source of news. Add to these a couple of follows to the brands you absolutely know and trust — like Wired — and you’re good to go.

This is why I’m really skeptical of news aggregation sites. Facebook’s personalized selection is doing such a good job of aggregating news – especially spreading memes – that plain old websites have it really tough these days.

Mind you, Facebook’s echo valley effect is a constant threat. This is groupthink, and groupthink is dangerous. To counter this I follow people who have drastically different views on the same subject. My mainstream Western Media is balanced with the Anti-Media. My Google Loon and death penalty discussions have hugely vocal for-and-against splits.

It isn’t a completely balanced system. This is because of b) — the similarities in taste and personality that make this interaction possible inevitably lead to, or arise from viewpoints that overlap; therefore, there’s always the danger of finding that all of your friends agree on this one thing (the New Zealand All Blacks, for example).

Nevertheless, Facebook is saving me massive amounts of time and effort.  Try it for yourself.   Follow some brands you like. Unfollow those idiots who reshare soppy love posts, Paulo Coelho quotes – generally avoid anyone who does not force you to learn something new with every other status. Follow a couple of good news brands.

Done right, you don’t have to visit a hundred sites; you don’t even have to visit one local news site every day —  if something serious has happened a whole lot of people will share it. We have a system, and it works.

Should Instagram Have Ditched The Square?

People have always speculated why Instagram picked the 1:1 square format for its photos. I always believed it was a love letter to those old Polaroid and Kodak cameras – until I came across a Quora post by Kevin Systrom, co-founder and CEO of Instagram:

“We realized that if we were going to do photos, that we’d have to be different and stand out. Square photos displayed really well in a feed format and frankly we just liked the aspect ratio better. It wasn’t much more complex than that.”

Of course he’s right. The square neatly eliminates the concept of landscape and portrait photography, which makes it surprisingly easy to browse photos. It took out the horrible shrinking that used to happen on Facebook and instead made a simple, one-size-fits-all solution for all and sundry.


Now that they’ve ditched that square restriction, Instagram’s apparently split into two schools of thought. (Yes, it’s is big enough that there are actual schools of thought):

1) It’s awesome

2) It’s sad.

Let’s look at Camp Awesome for a moment.

People use Instagram for one of two purposes:  to indulge in narcissism and to record moments. Both of these are harder when something’s limiting your field of view. That mountain range, for example. Bloody hard to fit it in, right? Or that group selfie. More is better, gentlemen.

(Unrelated note: the more is better viewpoint is one of the crowning perspectives of humanity. We’ve used it to justify everything from business expansion to six-inch phones to nuclear weapons.  It’s not necessarily wrong – it’s simply a part of who we are.)

Camp Sad is mostly made of people who really love the quirks of the 1:1 format. We – I count myself in this camp – actually like working within that limitation: it leads to some strange shots and a lot of serious contemplation on photography and light. At the heart of the statement is that Instagram and its 1:1 madness made us fall in love with photography, and it’s going to be sad to see that change.


Clearly, Facebook wants Instagram to become the de facto space for sharing your photos online. Unfortunately, Instagram is not going to be that space until the 1:1 format is relaxed. Much as a subset of us love 1:1, most of the best photos in the world are shot with DSLRs and framed with 4:3 or 3:2 aspect ratios in mind.  From what I’ve seen, photographers will readily transfer photos to a phone and upload to Instagram, but as for these carefully composed large photos – they’d rather upload it to Flickr than chop it up with the 1:1 knife. It makes obvious business sense to try and be the biggest fish in the market. After all, that’s what these companies do.


Should they have done it? I don’t believe they should have. 1:1 was working – Instagram was generating enough content that this practically unused, archaic format became one of the most common image formats on the web – practically a cultural mainstay.

A more appealing route would have been for Facebook to up its photo game instead. Facebook has been fantastic for photographers – albums, pages, the whole nine yards – except where it really matters: photo quality. High-quality photos uploaded to Facebook end up looking like someone had a field day with the GIMP export settings.

Heck, it probably would have been easier. Instead of a UI change, all you’d (probably) need is more space. Or more compression (note: yes, much easier said that done). After all, the photographers are on Facebook anyway. Everybody’s on Facebook.

Win-win, Facebook. Why are you not doing this?

Mapping Election Influence On Social Media: Part Two – Facebook

A couple of days ago, I was analyzing who the biggest political influencers on Twitter were. The numbers were small, because despite the number of selfies generated by the average TweetUpSL, Twitter in Sri Lanka is still a small circle. It’s Facebook that reigns supreme for now, so let’s get on the Zuckertrain.

Warning: you’re in for a spreadsheet. Friendly graphics appear after the spreadsheet. 

Before we begin, let me declare that I, Yudhanjaya Wijeratne, while having my own political preference, have not in any way willfully misrepresented any facts here due to those preferences.  This analysis was conducted as part  of a larger effort spearheaded by the Sri Lanka Press Institute. 

Unlike Twitter, conversations on Facebook are much harder to follow with data tools. This is because of the way Facebook presents information: it weighs thousands of factors, including the user’s likes, dislikes and history of interaction before creating a feed likely to engage a person. Anyone trying to search data from Facebook receives stuff that is biased to suit their own tastes. The obvious solution is to look at the political pages. I looked at the outflow of content and the engagement received by the top political pages in the week before the General Election: that should give us some idea of it.

Here are the top 25 political influencers on Facebook.  

Name Total likes Likes of SL origin SL as % of Total likes Increase from last week Posts This Week Engagement This Week
Maithripala Sirisena 726,552 555,599 76.70% 11% 43 28,855
Mahinda Rajapaksa 712,216 562,372 79.00% 2% 134 473,952
Namal Rajapaksa 593,891 428,533 72.20% 1.10% 18 146,909
Rajitha Senaratne 356,792 284,935 79.90% 0.70% 34 29,049
Ranil Wickremesinghe 308,898 266,798 86.80% 4.00% 164 153,497
Ranjan Ramanayake 301,690 235,685 78.30% 2.70% 117 405,169
UPFA – A Brighter Future 286,934 218,059 76.10% 1.10% 245 188,703
Sajith Premadasa 279 727 238,850 85.40%
Sujeewa Senasinghe 259,668 232,228 89.50% 1.30% 41 120,893
United National Party 239,182 210,212 87.90%
Patali Champika Ranawaka 214,918 175 626 81.70% 16.80% 250 38,812
Buddhika Pathirana 201,169 150,093 74.80% 3% 96 67,358
Field Marshal Sarath Fonseka 182,288 142,869 78.40% 1% 139 24,020
Anura Kumara Dissanayake 176,079 137,052 77.80% 1.60% 199 239,490
Ravi Karunanayake 170,006 126,069 74.20% 13% 129 48061
Daya Gamage 160,859 144,193 90.00% 4.30% 183 62,705
Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe 141,395 128,700 91.10% 1% 170 28,342
Duminda Silva 130,843 98,248 75.10% 1.10% 1 849
Mahinda Pathegama 119,750 33,511 28.00% 3.40% 7 126
Rakitha Rajapakshe 102,162 97,412 96.30% 6.40% 5 13,063
Udaya Prabath Gammanpila 100,340 78,344 78.10% 5% 53 49,879
Harsha de Silva 100,304 91,986 91.70% 3.60% 83 23,012
Harin Fernando 98,417 88,204 89.70% 0.90% 73 95,791
Rosy Senanayake 96,801 92,320 95.40% 11.60% 121 9,030
Thilanga Sumathipala 90,493 82,762 91.50% 10.30% 101 9,093

This list is political influencers rated by the number of likes they have on Facebook – their potential audience. I’ve also included the numbers for how many of those likes are actually Sri Lankan, and therefore with a higher probability of being able to vote than the rest. For some reason, Facebook’s insights tool isn’t giving me the engagement numbers for Sajith Premadasa’s and the UNP’s pages.

Some takeaways are immediately apparent:

1) Far more than political party pages, politicians’ personal pages show the biggest presence on Facebook.

2) Mahinda Rajapaksa and Maithripala Sirisena are in a league of their own.

3) Most politicians maintain a majority of Sri Lankan likes. The top two on the list – Mahinda Rajapaksa and Maithripala Sirisena – have roughly similar amounts of total likes and Sri Lankan likes.

Rosy Senanayake, Harsha De Silva, Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe and Daya Gamage have best Likes /  Sri Lankan likes ratio – 90% and above.  Mahinda Pathegama is the exception to this – only around 28% of his likepool are Sri Lankans. One wonders who’s reading Mr Pathegama’s posts – as it turns out, it seems to be a lot of Pakistani click-farmers.

As much as I like the data, I have to admit it’s horribly unappealing when viewed this way. Let’s visualize it. Here’s the top five, by order of the number of likes:


Notice that while Maithripala Sirisena and Rajitha Senaratne have large numbers of relevant likes, their engagement is almost pitiful compared to the others. At the end of the day, all that matters is the people you can engage in: if the President isn’t engaging the People, who is?

This is where Ranjan Ramanayake comes in.

Facebook-2This is what happens when we sort by engagement.

Engagement here is everything – clicks; post likes; post comments; shares; video plays.

The engagement statistic  quickly reduces many of the ‘largest’ pages to irrelevancy. R. Duminda Silva, for example, engaged only 849 people in the week prior to the election. The top influencers on Facebook, therefore, were:

Mahinda Rajapaksa – 473,952 accounts  engaged

Ranjan Ramanayake  – 405,169 accounts  engaged

Anura Kumara Dissanayake  – 239,490 accounts  engaged

UPFA – A Brighter Future  – 188,703 accounts engaged

Ranil Wickremesinghe  – 153,497 accounts engaged

Namal Rajapaksa  – 146,909 accounts engaged

With Sujeewa Senasinghe being the only other person to break the 100K influence mark.

Here’s a better visual:

Facebook-4It’s startling to see that One Shot, pre-election, was garnering a lot more attention than President Maithripala Sirisena: he’s clearly playing a much better social media game. Only Namal and Mahinda appear again here – they’ve got large Facebook pages that are well taken care of.

It’s easy to assume that the President wasn’t interested in social media at all, or his media team just wasn’t good enough. Another likely explanation, however, is that since the President wasn’t contesting, he chose to stay away and not stir the fires. Acceptance of this last theory seems to depend mostly on who you voted for.

As the last stage of the analysis, let’s dig deeper: what type of content have these people been posting?

Based on the 25 most recent posts, as of Sunday night:

Mahinda Rajapaksa posts 6.61 posts a day. 41.7% of his posts are images; 58.3%   of them are videos. On average, he gets 5,154 likes, comments, and shares per post.

Mahinda's strategy: "Picture this!"

Mahinda’s strategy: “Picture this!”

Ranjan Ramanayake, the real.rr, does 11.12 posts per day. 62.5% of his posts are images.  12.5% are videos.  8.3% are notes and 16.7%  are statuses. He averages 4,673 likes, comments and shares per post.

Anura Kumara Dissanayake makes 10.67 post per days. 58.3% of his posts are images and  41.7% are videos. He averages  2,107 likes, comments and shares per post.

The UPFA posts a whopping 43.41 times a day. 37.5%  of these are images,   37.5%  are notes and  25%  are text statuses. It averages 615 likes, comments and shares per post.  

Ranil Wickremesinghe. He averages 6.05  posts per day.  Most of his posts – a good 87.5% – are images.   8.3%  are videos.  4.2% are notes. These achieve 2,497  likes, comments and shares per post.

Namal Rajapaksa posts 2.78 times a day.  62.5%  of his posts are images;  37.5% are videos. He averages 7163 likes, comments and shares per post

Sujeewa Senasinghe posts 4.90 times per day. By type, his posts are 62.5% images, 33.3% are videos and 4.2% are text statuses. He earns 4,508 likes, comments and shares per post.

The Conclusion

There are many conclusions to be drawn from the data, depending on what you’re interested in; for example, a digital advertising agency will probably note that certain politicians’ pages are very poorly managed. My desire was to map out the biggest influencers, so my task is now done. A small portion of this is incomplete – Sajith Premadasa and the UNP, to my regret, have not been fully factored in for engagement.

The two people who consistently show up on both Twitter and Facebook are Maithripala Sirisena and Mahinda Rajapaksa. This is to be expected – in a sense, this election is still a continuation of debate between the ethos and values espoused by these two political behemoths. We saw many others rise to the social media game – what was basically a case of Maithripala + Ranil vs The Rajapaksa Clan and Assorted UPFA pages dissolved into a horde of individual politicians screaming for attention – but nevertheless, a sizeable fraction of the biggest influencers this time around were also the same people from the January 8th election. After all, audiences and reputations carry over, and people are listened to.

This dataset, as before, is free to download. The Facebook data requires no fancy visualization software – just Excel and a pair of eyes will do. See my previous post for the Twitter data.

Mahinda and This Facebook Thing

It’s been a busy week in Sri Lanka: we’ve pelted the Pakistani cricket team with stones, ranted about how shitty that act was, and watched Mahinda Rajapaksa do a Facebook Q&A.

Screen Shot 2015-07-24 at 1

Perhaps the old bear has gotten smarter after his recent licking, and perhaps the Old Guard is finally catching on to what the Younger Generation can really do to power in this country. At any rate, they seem to have acquired some MacBooks.

But I digress. The Q&A. My word, what an interesting Q&A that was.

“සර් මර්වින් සිල්වා වැනි අය රජයේ සේවකයන් ගස් බදිද්දි ඇයි ඔබ තුමා ක්‍රියාමාර්ගයක් නොගත්තේ ? දලදා මාලිගාව ලග රේස් පදින්න මහ නයක හාමුදුරුවො විරුද්ද වෙද්දි ඇයි අවසර දුන්නේ ? මම මහින්ද වාදියේක් එත් ඔබ තූමාට,අපිට ගිය ජනාදිපති වරනේදි වැරදුන තැන් මේවා.”

Sir, why did you stand by and do nothing as the likes of Mervyn Silva carried on with their antics?  Why did you oppose the Maha Nayaka and let them street race before the Temple of  the Tooth? I am a Mahinda loyalist, but these are sins that you committed during your previous tenure as President.

To which Mahinda replies:

ඔබේ මතය එක්තරා දුරකට පිලිගන්න මට සිද්ධවෙනවා. ඒක නිසා තමයි මම ඉතාම විවෘතව ස්වයං විවේචනයක යෙදෙන්නේ අපි කරපු වැරදි සම්බන්ධව. වැරද්දක් නිවැරදි කරගැනීමේ ප්‍රථම පියවර තමා වැරැද්ද වටහාගැනීම. මම හිතන්නේ වෙන කිසිඳු දේශපාලන ව්‍යාපාරයක් නොකල මෙම ස්වයං විවේචනය අපි කරලා තියෙනවා. අපි අපේ වැරදි නිවැරදි කරගන්නට සූදානම්.

I was honestly – and very pleasantly – surprised.  Not only does he accept this criticism (albeit with a bit of a stiff neck); he says that the first step to correcting a mistake is to accept it, and that they – I assume this is either his party, or his family, or both – are ready to correct their mistakes.

Does anyone realize what we have here? A written apology by a Sri Lankan politician – apparently typed by his own hand, too. That right there transcends gold and becomes platinum. Someone screenshot this so that we can print it, frame it and laugh at it. Talk about making history.

Dear Sir, If you became the Prime Minister in SL do you believe that you have guts to stop all wrong doings doing by your own party members without considering the number of votes they have?

Mahinda Rajapaksa: “Yes we will ensure all corruption is stopped and a transparent mechanism is introduced to ensure equal opportunity to all.”

Corruption stopped? Fat chance. Mahinda would have to start by disinheriting his entire family – from Basil (aka ‘Leaves’) to Gotabhaya ‘Aim4DaHead’ Rajapaksa to his nitrous-peddling, lawyerin’, high-ridin’ sons.

Realistically, nobody’s going to stop corruption. It’s as old as the world’s oldest profession; where there is power, there has always been a corrupt man doling out the favors. Ranil is not going to stop it. Maithri is not going to stop it. Mahinda is not going to stop it. Jesus Christ riding a T-rex with Ranjan Ramanayake in tow isn’t going to stop it.

If anything, what we will see – both with Mahinda’s government, and the Other Side – is a shift into a more sophisticated form of crookery.

There are, you see, two types of corruption: A) the type where you put a gun to a man’s head, and B) the type where you bribe a man with an expensive dinner and an expensive prostitute and top it off with some compromising photos. The Rajapaksas, for all their prowess, were unsophisticated: they practiced a great deal of A) and didn’t bother hiding it.

Whereas in civilized parts of the globe, type B is the weapon of choice. Would you like some oyster with that, my good man? And some hoppers? And -cough- the other kind of hoppers? We can get you anything, you know. All I ask is that you hear my son out for a few minutes, he’s got this idea for a street race, kids these days, you know…


If they do regain power, they’ll walk the path of B. Those at the top divide people into two categories: those you threaten and those you buy.  When one fails, you try the other. That, like it or not, is how the world works.

Which brings us to…

Mahinda Rajapaksa: “There will be a short term, mid-term and a long-term plan to uplift the economy that has fallen drastically during these few months. Development has come to a standstill and because of that, unemployment has also increased rapidly.”

…. uplifting the economy. Basil, by all accounts, uplifted a great deal of the economy into his pockets. Ranil and his ilk, if I’m not mistaken, are doing the same. But of course, short-term, we’ll be hiring more thugs. Long-term, we’ll be hiring better campaign managers. See, more jobs.

What about the Muslim communities? “We have done many initiatives on reconciliation and will continue to do so. A special charter will be floated to get opinions and ideas to improve harmony amongst all communities from grass root level with special programmes.”  In short: we have a plan. We know it sounds like an SEO expert wrote it for the keywords. We know our ‘initiatives’ thus far have mostly been to incite racism and harbour a Buddhist pseudo-ISIS. But it’s okay. That’s in the past. We have a plan now.

It’s pretty sad that a politician can sway voters with promises as vague as these. “We have a plan”. “We’ll bring more jobs.” “More development.” The answer to racism? We have a plan. Crumbling economies? We have a plan. Trust us.

The more I see this, the more I’m convinced that the only plan all of these politicians have is to win the election. Beyond that, they’re as clueless as Siripala on the street. The only choice we really have the lesser of two evils. 

It’s priceless.

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