Friday, 5 April 2013

The virtues of the virtual pub and FF to you all

Once upon a time, I spent a lot of effort promoting the concept of a "virtual pub" as the heart of a good financial market research team (or any other research team, for that matter).

A pub (in my experience at least) is a place where colleagues, friends and acquaintances can go and argue vociferously without falling out. The rules of engagement  are that you arm yourselves with alcohol, stand very close to each other and disagree about almost anything, sometimes because you hold different views, and sometimes just because it's more fun to argue than agree. Views are expressed with considerable conviction (helped by tongues alcoholically-lubricated) and fingers are often poked in the direction of other debaters' faces. But it is considered extremely bad form for the argument to become violent, and it is of absolute imperative importance that at the end of the evening/argument, all participants leave, still friends and still respecting each other. If anyone drinks too much, or crosses any social lines of decent behaviour, a huge amount of embarrassed apology is required the following day.

I have had pub arguments about many things though perhaps mostly about cricket,  football, politics, and economics. Lots of them. Not all of these debates answered important questions, but they were almost all the very opposite of the group-think which is the arch-enemy of constructive thought and analysis. It's easy for a sterile office discussion to end up with a bland consensual view of the world; much harder to get to that point in a pub argument where if someone says something stupid, there will be heart-felt howls of derision, rather than polite nodding of heads.

An American once told me that a pub argument is a very British concept and that other folks are a little too straight-laced to be able to cope without being offended. Maybe that is true. In certainly find that if I embark on a tirade against the accepted view of the world or of a particular asset market, I get a lot of silence and nervousness from continental European colleagues. Which is a shame because I am not trying to upset them, only to shake them out of their railway-track thought process. It's easy enough to see with hindsight that most asset bubbles, (EM, credit, dotcom, to name the last three) are the product of, or the very least aided and abetted by, groupthink.

What has this got to do with social media? I think that Twitter, in particular  is replacing the virtual pub as the best mechanism for checking consensus and challenging it. If I think that someone on Twitter is talking codswallop, I don't have to start a fight, nor do I have to agree and seek a middle ground with a consensual view. I can gently challenge, or I can move to a different part of the pub. I can argue with the more robust souls who like that kind of thing, and I can listen in on the arguments and conversations of others without causing offence. I might try and be polite, but the worst someone can do is 'unfollow' me.

Facebook and Linkedin serve very different purposes. Linkedin would (I am told) allow me to keep tabs on the vast legions of people I have worked with, studied with, played with. Which might be useful if I were any good at networking. But I'm not. If Ex-colleagues, and clients, tend to ask if they can be on my research distribution list and the answer is usually yes. if they send me an email asking if i want a beer or coffee, the answer's usually yes, too. Why would I want Linkedin?

Facebook is a way for me to keep in touch with my friends - something I am incredibly bad at doing. But it appears time-consuming. I have agreed to befriend my wife, because it seemed wise and my brothers and sisters out of politeness. I know my children don't want me as a Facebook friend. To anyone else, I recommend sending me an email.

So one of the main social media helps people network, but I don't do that, and another is a way to chat with friends, but I've got better ways of dong that than Facebook. Twitter allows me to discuss with kindred souls about a subject dear to my heart but without leaving the comfort of  my study. I can save my real pub time for arguments about politics and football. As for fellow tweeters, those I follow or those that follow me - I'm grateful for the debate, for agreeing with me or for telling me I'm talking horse-manure. This is how I find my way to answer questions about where the world's markets are headed. FF to you all, as they say on Twitter.

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