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.