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In praise of James Cunningham

I met James briefly at Young Rewired State a few days ago. Young, highly talented, and with a gift for tinkering with data.

Clearly a gift for more than that, it would seem – his Twifficiency service ran wild and viral today, causing alarm, outrage, and yes – sadly – a big old share of Twitterhate.

Why? He created an algorithm to do some clever mashing of various statistics to try and find something insightful about the way people use Twitter. Did the resulting coefficient mean anything? I don’t know. Maybe not. Maybe just a bit of fun. But that’s how creativity works, so often. Throwing together seemingly meaningless factors and seeking insight from the results.

It also hit that sweet spot of vanity in many: “Oh look – a score! A way of finding out how good I am at Twitter” (or something like that). I reckon that’s why it took off like it did, anyway.

A sweet spot that turned a little sour when the service then tweeted, without warning, the fact that User X was just a little bit vain (well, just that they’d used the service, of course, but you get my drift). The resulting flood of tweets triggered further interest, and so it all multiplied. As wonderfully, infectiously, viral things tend to.

Sure, James broke one of the Twitter etiquette rules (not tweeting from someone’s account without explicitly seeking consent). But this is the guy that created a Wolfram-type search demonstrator in just one week. At age 17. And within ten days created another innovative service out of the blue. And has probably done dozens more. I think we can regard his social network capital as firmly in the black, can’t we?

He wasn’t duping anyone. He acted with courtesy throughout, and made it clear on his site as soon as he was able that if you didn’t want an auto-tweet, nobody was forcing you to use it. No snark, no sarcasm. More than many of us could have managed in the circumstances, I’d say.

The whole kerfuffle brought out a few predictably bovine reactions, of course – not knowing OAuth from a smoking hole in the ground, some worried (needlessly) about exploitation of their account. Perhaps taking a few moments to understand how and why it worked like that might have been a better use of their time than blasting off their squeals of outrage. Even better, they might try building something themselves before being so fast to shoot down those that can.

To the genius who set up @jamescunt [no, I shan’t grace it with a link – look it up yourself if you really want, but it’s not worth the keystrokes] I pity you and your jealousy. Really I do. Do yourself a favour and delete the account now. Forget you ever thought it was funny. (I am so impressed by the sanguine approach of James who just laughed off his imitators – more than I could have done then, or now).

Perhaps a little guilty myself of RTing a bit of satire from @mjrobbins (which I thought beautifully showed up the gullibility of many), I thought a little bit harder about what had happened, and then wrote this.

Well done James – keep them coming. Break a few rules sometimes. In disruption lies creativity. I salute you, sir.

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31 Responses

  1. Dan Thornton says:

    Nice post, and seems a reasonable point of view to take. It was pretty clear when I looked at Twifficiency that it was going to auto-tweet on my behalf so I skipped it for the moment – which is a different approach than the many, many services which hide the auto-tweet rule somewhere deep in the page…
    People love to blame someone else if they’ve made a mistake by not paying attention sadly…

  2. Joe Lanman says:

    In general I agree, impressive code from a young guy, I’m sure he intended no harm and has since apologised. However, not totally sure on your ‘acted with courtesy throughout… no snark’ comment – considering the following tweet:

    “There is a warning… if people don’t bother to read it, its not my problem.”
    http://twitter.com/jamescun/status/21400620048

    That’s a pretty disingenuous and dismissive attitude. The way he designed the app caused a lot of people to involuntarily spam their followers – it was his problem.

  3. Gary de Beer says:

    Hear, Hear.

    I have “broken” (and fixed) many a IT system in my career and never considered any of the experiences as anything but educational. They now call me ‘Fingers’ at the office, but who do they come running to when the problem is just too left field…

    I say James has shown his mettle and tech companies should be throwing job offers at him. For his part though, he might think about turning all of them down just so we can all see what else he might come up with in future..

  4. […] out of control. As Paul Clarke, a well-known and respected UK Twitter user who has met Cunningham, says: “Sure, James broke one of the Twitter etiquette rules (not tweeting from someone’s account […]

  5. […] app is the creation of 17-year-old James Cunningham from Dundee, England, and he’s facing backlash from the Twitter community, who are upset that the software automatically tweets results on a user’s behalf without […]

  6. ArunMarsh says:

    I agree that there is no point harassing a smart and well meaning guy for a fairly innocent mistake and I agree with your support for him personally, but I would fall short of actually praising what he did, because:

    Unauthorised autotweeting with a link is pretty much the definition of spam – and has surely resulted in the huge traffic he is experiencing.

    He also only added the warning after the kerfuffle
    “I added a little warning about the tweet until I add the check box…” about 5 hours ago via web
    http://twitter.com/jamescun/status/21395852799

    Someone who has obviously studied Twitter apps this much should know better about autotweets w/o permission.

    Most people complaining about it don’t know its been done by a 17yo and certainly haven’t met the guy – If it had been done by Coca-Cola, McDonalds or Habitat would you be defending the service?

    The most annoying thing that I found was the fact the figure could have been pulled out of thin air – how do I become more twefficient? What am I not doing enough of? Effieciency refers to getting the most from a given amount of effort but i’m not sure how this is calcualted in this case.

    I didnt think that my password had been stolen and I dont have a clue what Oauth is, I was just a bit annoyed at wasting my time going through the permission from Twitter etc for no return in knowledge – its not very efficient you see.

  7. Chris says:

    Its worth noting that when I used the service, there was absolutely no warning – obvious, hidden or otherwise.

    I did the oAuth thing, it generated my score and 2 mins later I spotted the tweet in my stream. That was it.

    Yes, he added a warning later on, but as Joe (above) pointed out, he then followed it up with this tweet:

    “There is a warning… if people don’t bother to read it, its not my problem.”
    http://twitter.com/jamescun/status/21400620048

    This isn’t a case of blaming someone else – they’re blaming the person that’s at fault. And that attitude from him isn’t exactly the most mature way of dealing with something that quite clearly pissed a hell of a lot of people off.

  8. Good post. I really hope James sees this from the right angle:
    a) he created something that went truly viral. Congrats, many try, few succeed! Very cool
    b) he made a few mistakes. Small mistakes. Mainly communication, both on the site and with his tweets. However, if something goes big, there is no room for even small mistakes. Plus, some will complain no matter what. James just learnt that the hard way, but hey, in the end, no harm done, right? So next time, make it better, no big deal, just learn from it.
    Again, cool stuff and thanks for the clarifications :)

  9. Anonymous says:

    Let’s face it. He took his lumps really well. Esp for a 17 year old kid. And oh my days does he have some chops for creating interesting apps. With a little polish and good old fashioned moxy I reckon he’s capable of much more.

  10. Chris Neale says:

    What James’ site did today was demonstrate the lack of understanding that many people have when you click the OAuth authorisation button on a website. James might have had no intention of abusing the accounts of user’s who allowed his access, but that’s not really the point here. People need to be more careful with who they grant permission to. James’ use of the accounts that allowed him to tweet on their behalf showed that.

    I would also point out that Twitter’s OAuth API does allow a developer to only apply for read access rather than read/write. Had the app only been authorised to read from a user’s timeline I wouldn’t have had anything against it – it was entirely the fact that it requested write access *seemingly* without reason.

    Hopefully people will learn a little about their security from this affair. Don’t just allow any old app to use your account. Next time the person behind it might not be as innocuous.

    Full disclosure: I’m the person who Paul is referring to when he says some people were needlessly worrying about exploitation. My tweet about going to your Twitter account settings and revoking access from James’ site has been retweeted a bit.

  11. Paul Smith says:

    “I think we can regard his social network capital as firmly in the black, can’t we?”

    No, because he clearly wasn’t aware that using OAuth to tweet without consent was considered spam. Social Media 101. The warning on the site in red simply wasn’t there earlier in the day.

    The fact that something viral has been created is always interesting. But the meme doesn’t have any value and was presented without context.

    James didn’t build the site to create a viral smash, he did so to learn programming. By all accounts he’s a brilliant coder, but like plenty of great coders he gave scant consideration to the end user or the consequences. That isn’t jealousy, it’s perspective.

  12. ArunMarsh says:

    a) Many want that viral hit, they usually achieve it through talent, luck and a bit of initiative, this guy achieved it through, at worst deception, at best shoddy design/lack of forethought.

    b)”some will complain no matter what”. I’m still not sure what it does so while I won’t complain about it, I won’t be recommending it any time soon.

  13. Good, level-headed words Paul.
    I reckon James will be just fine :)

  14. Anonymous says:

    I think we can rule out deception. It’s interesting though that the spread seems to have continued (looking at his server stats) pretty constantly even after the addition of the ‘red text’ warning about the auto-tweet. Does that tell us something about the propensity of users to get their ‘score’ (pun intended) no matter what?

  15. Tom Whitby says:

    I owe James an apology. I tried Twifficiency once and it did not work. I tried it a second time and it did not work. I was a bit suspicious but did nothing. I then got a tweet from an Australian friend indicating that he got word Twifficiency may be a hacker seeking access to Twitter accounts. I immeadiately recalled the Mafia game of last year. I tweeted a caution out to my 6,000 followers and it was off to the races.I apologize, but I did have a serious concern.
    That being said, what is with a 23% Twifficiency rating?
    Thanks for taking out the mystery and setting everyone straight.

  16. wayne a. lee says:

    i’m not sure why you think that his “service” (which does nothing to explain the score) is “innovative”.

  17. […] defense calling Cunningham “highly talented” was posted by Paul Clarke, a well-known […]

  18. […] defense calling Cunningham “highly talented” was posted by Paul Clarke, a well-known […]

  19. […] defense calling Cunningham "highly talented" was posted by Paul Clarke, a well-known […]

  20. Documentally says:

    I have a feeling paul that you may be riding off the back of this tsunami of crap.. :)

    I just used this 5 minutes ago after seeing a tweet from a friend not normally duped by these waste of space sites.

    It auto tweeted without my permission. It’s still a useless tool. It may as well be switched off. I wish coders would think about what they are doing. How about he use his powers for good. There is enough spam out there.

  21. Anonymous says:

    At the time I wrote I could see a storm unfolding. I’d seen James present his natural search engine ten days earlier (built in only 5 days), so I think we can rest assured he *will* be using those powers for good ;)

    I felt things needed levelling up a bit, so wrote principally to support a man who was probably having a pretty ghastly time of it. That he didn’t just pull it all down (leaving a load of confusion around the web) last night, but sat there grafting until the early hours in an attempt to correct the things he probably should have done first, granted, is to his credit.

    It’s a tough decision to know when to blog and when not to. I try hard to pick on topics that will genuinely provoke thought, but yes, I can see your point in hindsight.

  22. Anonymous says:

    He’s worked on correcting this. It was a definite oversight not to have put in information about the score (and of course, not to make the auto-tweeting optional) but rather than just walk away from it, he kept on coding to improve things. That’s a good thing.

    But why innovative? He had the idea to take a load of quasi-independent Twitter user statistics that had been widely available for years, and do something with them that *might* reveal, in the right combination, a useful indicator of overall performance. When someone does that sort of thing well, e.g. as in Klout and other measures of influence – which rely on broadly similar analytical techniques – we praise that.

    That James was the first to try this particular analysis makes his service, in my opinion, innovative.

    I carefully titled the post “in praise of…” the man. Not “in defence” of. Sure, there were serious problems with the service, but this is the type of innovator I want to see thrive, not get pounded by an enormous volume of negativity.

  23. Dan Thornton says:

    True – but as he also said, he built the system to learn how to use OAuth, never intending many people to use it.
    I’m not defending anyone auto-tweeting on our behalf, but I am defending what appears to have been an honest mistake by one young coder attempting to learn some new technology, rather than the tens or hundreds of other examples from established companies and teams which do it on purpose…

  24. […] finding their feeds rather irritatingly full of twifficiency ‘spam‘.  Dan Martin and Paul Clarke both defended the author of the twifficiency measurement tool for his inventiveness and the speed […]

  25. […] Oh dear – the teenager got more than he bargained for and by all accounts he is simply a talented geek. Paul Clarke, who knows Cunningham, says: […]

  26. […] Oh dear – the teenager got more than he bargained for and by all accounts he is simply a talented geek. Paul Clarke, who knows Cunningham, says: […]

  27. Angus MacKay says:

    All you guys hating on him should haud yer wheest, hes sound as a pound and didn’t mean or cause any harm apart from mild irritation by people who obviously get irritated easily.

  28. I’m sorry, but if you allow an application access to tweet on your behalf, you have to know that it might just do that.

    “The application Twifficiency by James Cunningham would like the ability to *access and update your data* on Twitter”

    So, 17 year old created an application (for learning purposes, nothing more) a while ago that got picked up suddenly by a massive swarm of people, and he reacted fairly quickly to put safeguards in place, and people are putting the boot in?

    Massive companies, Twitter desktop/web clients and a whole array of contests on the web *require* an automatic tweet unapologetically. Seriously, well done kid.

  29. […] A defense calling Cunningham “highly talented” was posted by Paul Clarke, a well-known blogger. […]

  30. bunnyhero says:

    As you said, there are already other Twitter-“performance” scoring services out there. Trying yet another opaque algorithm does not make one “innovative.”

    Also, a month later, who’s talking about it now? Just another viral flash in the pan.

  31. […] SECOND UPDATE: since this post was first written, James gained a great deal of attention, was extremely open about his goals for Twifficiency, and has attracted significant praise. This blog post from Paul Clark does a better job than me in telling his side of things. […]

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