Facebook Home – the shape of things to come?Comments

Facebook HomeAfter watching the Facebook Home announcement I was instantly enamoured with the concept of people not apps, of content not containers, but after a few hours was left with one thought: is Home the future of Facebook?

While I am not a big Facebook user I am fascinated by the principles of network science so the company interests me because it displays the most obvious adherence to these principles both in structure and terminology. Networks are about people and the connections we make with those people rather than the means of that connection.

In this context Facebook Home seems a logical next step.

Mark Zuckerberg stated in his presentation that they had been trying to make Facebook a "mobile first" company. Mobile is leading the way, whether it be smartphones or tablets so it seems probable that innovations in the mobile arena will find their way to the desktop - indeed, this has been happening in some areas for a while.

Whilst currently only available on certain Android handsets, Facebook Home will be available on tablets in later iterations so it will be interesting to see how Facebook uses the extra screen real estate and then translates the experience to the browser.

#f5f5f5; border: 1px solid #e0e0e0;">"Coverflow is the social equivalent of sitting back and watching the world go by." (Tweet this)

Visual

The web is becoming increasingly visual and Home is the epitome of this: no chrome, no visible apps, just content. If our experience should be viewed according to people why do we need pages and layouts and menus? Just give us content and let us interact.

Based on a logical progression are we looking at the future of Facebook on the web? Are we heading for a time when the news feed is replaced by a version of cover flow? Or our time line? Perhaps both.

Coverflow is the social equivalent of sitting back and watching the world go by - a Flipboard for Facebook. And as Home was described as the best version of Facebook yet by Zuckerberg it could follow that the concepts behind it might be applied across the board, across platforms.

Content is king but relationships are key

Moving the focus from apps to people is not a surprise; the surprise is that it's taken a social network this long to implement something like this.

Three years ago I stated that relationships are the real social currency and social networks will do everything they can to utilise those connections between individuals and brands. Basing social interactions around people rather than the mechanisms we use to connect seems natural if networks are going to mine the data we generate.

By using Home to concentrate on those relationships that are most important to us Facebook will also be able to improve the effectiveness (and perceived effectiveness) of Graph Search.

Changing landscapes

I have long been a proponent of a unified social inbox where we just deal with people irrespective of, and independent from, the means of communication.

Chatheads combines Facebook messaging and SMS just as iMessage combines texts and data messaging. Google is reportedly combining its various messaging tools into Babble (or Babel) and future iterations of Android will no doubt combine this with SMS in the same manner as Home.

Whilst Home is strictly Facebook (although further notifications are incorporated on phones built using the Facebook Home Project) it might just serve as the catalyst we need for a more unified social experience with other developers taking both functional and design cues from the social giant.

Home may be the future of Facebook but might we also see a shift such that people, rather than apps, are the global future of social?

Facebook Home – the shape of things to come?

From interaction to transaction.Comments

Social networks are continually widening their scope to cover more than our just connections and status updates. As usage expands and we search for ever simpler means of achieving our online goals, how far will the networks go to become everything we need in one place?

Perhaps, more importantly, will the regulators allow them?

Back in 2010 I asked "Are social platforms the next Microsoft?" and then last year "Are social networks a threat to the internet?" meaning that their remit would expand beyond social to encompass other areas thus threatening to usurp companies already operating in those areas.

We've already seen the first steps:

  • Facebook comments and the open graph extending out to the web
  • Twitter eating into its ecosystem by adopting functionality originally offered by third-parties

Despite encroaching on other products and companies, however, these actions are still intrinsically linked to social. Google combining social with the rest of its ecosystem via the social layer started to move beyond this but Google is in the unusual position of already providing non-social services but now linking them with a social aspect. Could this be seen by some as an unfair advantage?

We have already had the case of Peoplebrowsr taking Twitter to court over what it feels is unfair loss of access to the full fire-hose so what would be the reaction of companies like PayPal, for example, if social networks cut out the need for third-party payment services?

Encroachment on the normal web by social networks is already making waves but if those networks extend their remit to other areas is there going to be sufficient ill will to cause an investigation into social practices?

Buy here, pay here

From interaction to transaction

Twitter recently introduced new Twitter Card types including Product which will show info about a product and link out to it on the web. Is it a stretch to imagine that the company could implement its own e-commerce system in future allowing for direct purchase via Twitter itself - perhaps in return for a small fee for each transaction?

Give Twitter your credit card details and cut out the middle man!

A number of third-party platforms already provide for the creation of "storefronts" on Facebook but what if the social network introduced a native system?

Give Facebook your credit card details and cut out the middle man!

Just as Google has created interactive posts which can include a Buy button why couldn't Twitter do the same thing? Currently, Google's interactive posts take you to external pages to complete the transaction but what if social networks decided to own the whole process?

With promoted tweets advertisers are charged on the basis of interactions rather than impressions so why not implement a system to charge per direct sale? Twitter's ad sales are said to be approaching $1 billion a year but inbuilt e-commerce could provide yet another revenue stream.

Give and take

Deep linking from the new Twitter Cards to mobile applications may be seen as the company extending an olive branch to developers by allowing them to build value but what happens when Twitter wants a piece of the resultant action?

European privacy regulators have already investigated Google over the single privacy policy so it is perhaps just a matter of time before social networks over-extend their reach and we hear calls of "monopoly" both from regulators and those services who have built a business on the back of these social platforms.

This post builds on initial thoughts over at Google+ here.

Image cropped from a Brent Moore original

From interaction to transaction.

It’s time for App.net to earn its stripes.

App.netAfter the initial anger at the news of Google Reader's closing came the realisation that this could actually herald a new era for RSS based news consumption.

Feedly have advised they are developing "Project Normandy" a clone of the Reader API and will switch to it automatically and other services such as Digg have announced plans to build their own alternative.

As soon as the new broke developers started discussing how they could replace, or even improve upon, the Reader based ecosystem and there is one obvious place where this might bear fruit.

Google Reader's demise is a perfect opportunity for App.net to earn its stripes.

Opportunity

From the outside, App.net has become little more than a developer friendly Twitter clone where third-party apps are free to innovate but the intent was for much more - the possibilities are enormous.

What is App.net?

App.net is an ad-free, subscription-based social feed and API. App.net aims to be the backbone of the social web through infrastructure that developers can use to build applications and that members can use for meaningful interactions.

That what the about section says and Dalton Caldwell emphasised the need for a "financially sustainable realtime feed API & service" when making his initial statement of intent.

As far back as 2008 there was talk about the folly in Twitter effectively giving away its business for free so something had to change. App.net was born from frustration over Twitter's ongoing efforts to exert greater control over its own ecosystem whilst also appearing to make choices that favoured advertisers over users.

This might have been the genesis of App.net but the vision was far wider reaching and is summed up very simply in Caldwell's proposal:

"Realtime feed API"

A feed doesn't just have to be a stream of status updates. In fact, the App.net API will have been wasted if it achieves little more than being a Twitter clone.

Potential

If App.net wants to fulfil its potential and actually become a social backbone rather than "just another social network" it needs to take on projects such as this and solve real problems.

It’s time for App.net to earn its stripes.

How Google+ could save RSS.Comments

RSS is dead, long live RSS!

Google Reader logoThe announcement yesterday that Google would be, finally, sunsetting the Google Reader service was met with disappointment, anger and confusion but with a small counterpoint of "it will force innovation".

Some say it might even be the final nail in the RSS coffin.

The focus on Google+, both as a service and an all-encompassing social layer, is being placed firmly in the frame for Reader's demise with Brian Shih, former Google Reader product manager, taking to Quora to give his thoughts on why this is so: social.

Ever since Google killed the social aspect of reader, because of Plus, the writing has been on the wall for the RSS reader with Shih saying:

"Ironically, I think the reason Google always wanted to pull the Reader team off to build these other social products was that the Reader team actually understood social"

Focus

The official announcement justified the move by saying "usage of Google Reader has declined" and that the continuing focus will lead to better products.

Consumption of news and blogs via RSS has declined partly because of a shift towards social news and, for Google Reader specifically, because of that very move by Google: hamstringing their own product in order to migrate people's social activity to Plus.

The decision to streamline services into a cohesive structure and improve the user experience is welcomed but what hasn't happened yet in a number of cases is any move to integrate certain obvious products with Google+.

Blogger has always been an obvious target for integration followed very closely by Reader.

Saving Private RSS

Equally as ironic as social killing Reader, it could also be its saviour - Google+ in particular.

The recent Google+ profile redesign gives us more control over how our information is viewed and compartmentalised. As well as our "links" and "contributor to" sections why not have an option for RSS feeds both for Profiles and Pages?

Any RSS feeds we own could be published on our profile and, when circled, our feed items could automatically be placed into smart "Feeds" Circles displaying just those items from all the authors we follow as a river of news.

Why stop there?

Why not then give us the ability to categorise feeds just as we can create categories for posts within Communities? An RSS "Circle" could then become an amalgam of the best of both Circles and Communities. Could we then even stretch to allowing others to follow our curated RSS streams?

The emphasis is on getting as much data into Google+ as possible in order to generate a wealth of social signals; while Google has resisted adding the ability to auto-post, the social sharing of content from those authors we explicitly follow would be prime example of the good use of such behaviour.

Integrating elements of the technology behind managing RSS feeds, which currently exist in Reader, into Google+ and providing a much easier and more consistent means to re-sharing the content to our Circles fits with the apparent aims and simplifies the processes involved for the end-user.

Confused

Whilst I completely support Google's move to amalgamate services and combine our data to provide a more valuable, streamlined experience the methods employed sometimes seem haphazard and confused.

Integrating RSS feeds into Google+ would not only serve to continue the rich tradition built with Google Reader (thus appeasing current users) but also expose additional users to consuming news via RSS feeds (without, perhaps, even realising it) and meet Google's goals of sharing more data to the social product.

Update

Further discussion on this topic has suggested that Google could/should consider integrating its other news reading application Currents which might easily fit with the more visual direction Google+ is taking.

How Google+ could save RSS.

Is Bing beating Google to the Author Rank punch?Comments

Author Rank coming, YodaIs Google in danger of losing out to Bing in the race to implement a robust relevance engine for content authors?

For over a year, talk of Google Author Rank (based on the search giant's Agent Rank patent) has been fueling speculation of how it might operate and affect search rankings for content authors.

As quoted by AJ Kohn in the seminal article "Author Rank", the patent sets out that:

"The identity of individual agents responsible for content can be used to influence search ratings."

Identifying authors and then associating them with their content (Authorship) is just half the story, however, but many continue to think that Author Rank and Authorship are interchangeable, assuming that setting up Authorship will improve their ranking in search results.

Expertise

The key concept behind Author Rank is that people will be associated with, and ranked on, given topics based on their knowledge or expertise. Ranking involves building reputation and trust using, amongst other things, a combination of peer review, links and citations. Again, from the patent we have:

"an agent should have a higher reputational score ... if the content signed by the agent is frequently referenced by other agents or content"

Not all links are equal as the patent goes on to say that links from those with a higher reputational score will carry greater significance - it is, therefore in the interests of authors to gain the attention of recognised experts in any given field whilst those experts will, obviously, get a high ranking themselves.

Rather than relying on Page Rank content will be linked to the author, anywhere on the web, using a "digital passport" - using an online identity such as a Google+ profile is such a passport: a way of reliably connecting people to their material.

But do we need Authorship?

Bing news authorsGoogle and Bing have different strategies when it comes to providing social data within search results; the former feels that consumers benefit from having their results tailored using social signals whereas the latter presents social data separately from the normal blue links results enabling users to more easily distinguish (and ignore) those social signals.

By creating this distinction between search and social is Bing able to bypass the Authorship stage and dive straight in to Author Rank?

As social results are not included within the main search results there is less of a need to establish an explicit authorship structure to identify authors in a sea of links. Instead, relevant news authors are listed as "People Who Know" in the social sidebar (in a manner not too dissimilar to Google's Knowledge Graph information) implying that these authors - and, consequently, the links listed - are knowledgeable, relevant and topical.

Indeed, on Bing Blogs the addition of news authors was introduced in a post with the following:

"Behind every article is a journalist, writer or author who has worked hard to research and report on a story. These professionals are experts in their fields, sharing the latest news, developing events and information out with the greater world."

This sounds very similar to Google's plans with Bing's sources stated as including "friends you know and experts and enthusiasts you may or may not be familiar with" who frequently write articles related to the search query.

Bing is utilising its partnerships with Facebook and Twitter in conjunction with standard ranking signals to provide extra information from authors who already appear to be ranked based on relevance. The roll-out of Facebook's Graph Search, including the addition of Open Graph data, coupled with an effort from Twitter to make content more discoverable may serve to give Bing even stronger signals on which to base any ranking.

Identity not a factor

While Google is seeking to instil trust in authors by linking them back to a standard identity service (Google+) Bing is relying on a combination of authors producing consistent output and social signals to determine what we might like to see without restricting itself to any single identity scheme.

One doesn't want to accuse Google of fiddling while Rome burns but the latest Agent Rank patent was filed almost two years ago (expanding on an original application from 2005) and is one of the most eagerly anticipated developments in search for content authors.

By taking a different approach Bing is stealing a march and potentially beating Google to the Author Rank punch?

Is Bing beating Google to the Author Rank punch?

Facebook’s updated news feed owes as much to Twitter as it does to Google+

Facebook new news feedMuch has already been written about the new redesign for the Facebook News Feed (and I have purposefully tried to avoid most of it) including the inevitable comparisons to Google+ but that is only natural - Plus is constantly compared to Facebook after all.

I have said a number of times about how products and services will gravitate towards the "social norm" because of trends and customer expectations. Facebook says that the new look is following current trends for cleaner apps and a more visually appealing approach so, to call the new News Feed a Google+ clone is too short-sighted.

Conformity

Just as with individuals, products and services are influenced both by competitors and current prevailing themes; when writing about social influence recently I stated:

Normative conformity is compliance with the influence of others so that we may be liked and accepted. There is no guarantee that there will be an attitudinal shift but there will be a behavioural shift to conform with the social norms of the influencing group.

For products and services conformity means adapting to current fashions and the whims of your customers; since the rise of services such as Instagram and Pinterest the fashion has been for an increasingly visual web resulting in images and videos taking priority over the written word.

Competitors constantly influence each other - Google+ recently rolled out new profile pages with larger cover photos, for example, just as Facebook, Twitter and App.Net have all done before.

#f5f5f5; border: 1px solid #e0e0e0;">"Conforming to social norms creates a degree of homogeneity with periods of innovation being short-lived" (Tweetable)

Clean and consistent

Rather than just copy Google+ (a service currently in the ascendancy) Facebook has taken a leaf from Twitter's book in designing a simplified and unified experience. Twitter sought to make the core user experience with its network across all platforms as consistent as possible and Facebook has followed suit whilst realising that a "mobile look" is cleaner than the existing web site.

Despite redesigning both desktop and mobile versions of its service a number of times Google has not yet achieved parity between them with key functionality not being available for smartphones or tablets - the mobile versions also differ between platforms (iOS and Android) and devices (phones or tablets) giving rise to a sometimes frustrating and fractured experience.

Inevitable

In such a competitive sector as social it is inevitable that services will respond to trends and consumer demands in an attempt to maintain a high user base - frequently this means becoming more like a dominant competitor. Conforming to social norms creates a degree of homogeneity with periods of innovation being short-lived.

This time it is Facebook playing catch up, next time it will be Twitter or Google or someone else seeking to be in vogue or meet consumer demands.

Facebook’s updated news feed owes as much to Twitter as it does to Google+

Taking social identity to the non-social web.Comments

The role of the social web is expanding and its influence is felt far beyond the networks we use to connect. The next step was always to incorporate more data from the rest of the web.

Identity service

Google+ Sign-InFrom the beginning, Google+ was always intended as an identity service but some expressed surprise when Eric Schmidt, Google Executive Chairman & former CEO, remarked that the social network aspect of Plus was simply bait for it.

When using Google+ (the social networking component) the lack of in-stream ads means it is often forgotten that Google is an information and advertising company which seeks to feed its algorithms with data by any means it can.

Google has been concentrating on building integration internally but this can only go so far; it is, therefore, unsurprising that Google should want to extend its identity service across the "normal web" with the recently announced "Google+ Sign-In" - thus taking the next big step in challenging the other large social networks.

As Danny Sullivan writes over at Marketing Land, Google's move to roll this out isn't entirely altruistic.

As I have said on many occasions Google's social layer (and now, obviously, the Open Graph equivalent) allows Google to collate ever more data on our browsing habits, our likes, our shopping patterns etc. so that this can all be assimilated and provide us with the "enhanced experience" we were promised with the single privacy policy.

Google dangles the carrot of a free, integrated service encouraging us to fill the coffers with vast amounts of crowd-sourced data.

What does this amount to?

More accurate targeting so that we get:

  • more relevant ads so that we are more likely to react to them, and just as importantly
  • less irrelevant ads which reduces our frustration making us more likely to use Google's services as we feel we are getting a better deal.

Larry Page (current Google CEO) has also stated that "people" will be a first level search item and that we all need to grab a profile and play the game if we want to be included in the knowledge graph.

Nothing new under the sun

We could already sign in to third-party services with our Google account so some question why a new system is required with the added complexity (and potential privacy issues) of Google+ Sign-In. Most would probably agree but we now have a true social login to connect the normal web experience back to Plus and, hopefully, encourage users to push some of their actions and data back to the social network.

As Danny says in his post, promoting the new service as a "spam free" social alternative is disingenuous as the types of data collected and shared is on a par with Facebook - the obvious target here which has actually pared back the amount of shared data. An empty boast?

Google+ uses Circles, Facebook uses lists and groups but being able to restrict the visibility is not what really matters; the fact that finally extending its social identity outside of Plus (with more than +1s) is the important issue here - an Open Graph for Google.

Google initially promoted Plus with the tag line "sharing is broken" and the elevator pitch for Google+ Sign-in is simply continuing in the same vein - it has to or it will be tantamount to admitting that the initial model wasn't really anything new (it's just that the term "social circles" is already in popular vernacular so sounds better than groups or lists).

Compare and contrast

AlikeAs much as many hate to admit it, Facebook and Google are growing ever more alike but they are approaching the social/search singularity from different sides.

Facebook is driven by Zuckerberg's relentless passion for connecting everyone and, while this may be a noble goal, the unfortunate reality is that the company has had to become a business in order to support that goal; it's an "ends justify the means" approach which many don't appreciate, don't agree with and are unwilling to understand.

Google, however, is already a business that is now utilising social data to further those business goals even though it all began with a seemingly selfless intention to "fix search".

Facebook introduced Graph Search to build some additional structure and utility around its mass of data but it will take time to incorporate data from the Open Graph whilst concurrently perfecting the search mechanics. Google already has the advantage of having the world's best search engine so just needs to introduce that extra data - no simple feat but the search giant is currently in a much better position than Facebook.

But for one thing...

Adoption

ProblemGoogle's big problem is that options to sign in with Facebook, Twitter and even commenting services such as Disqus, are everywhere; even if they haven't got an account most people know what these offerings are.

Knowledge of Google+ as a social network is still limited with many failing to see why they need yet another social network so a battle is being fought on different fronts. With a recent softening of attitude by much of the tech press, however, this might not be as much of an issue as first thought.

The intense competition most specifically with Facebook could, however, be of benefit to both companies with regards to the concerns of having such integrated services.

Facebook has long been criticised for the amount of data held within its walled garden while Google is facing censure from European regulators over its all-inclusive single privacy policy. With both companies seeming to converge on a common central point it could be argued that they are no longer in such a damaging position due to loss of monopoly.

Action and reaction

When I wrote "What is Google Plus?" last May I played devil's advocate by asking:

What if the social network is just a reactionary response to a company realising that it was becoming irrelevant in the social space and being left behind by others (e.g. Facebook) who could far better identify a user’s interests and behaviour due to holding their social graph.

Although this was partly said in jest the actions of the major web entities reflect that the web has changed and knowledge (or rather data) is power, now more than ever.

Just as Google intends for every Google user to eventually become a Google+ user so the varied data gatherers also intend for the whole web to eventually become the social web enabling more of our actions, habits and likes to be monitored, modelled and manipulated and modelled.

Both Google and Facebook are in it for the long game with only a fraction of their potential realised. Users will have their preferences and prejudices with regards to these social giants but the companies will be ultimately judged on how they use the data they collect.

Images by Google, @jbtaylor and antwerpenR

Taking social identity to the non-social web.

Of trust and relevance.Comments

Trust!Relevance comes first enabling us to filter for content that matters to us.

Trust comes after as we establish who to listen to within our fields of interest.

Discovery is vital and relevance will be a key "people" metric for search.

Relevance is like SEO - getting eyes on, getting traffic and ensuring people are exposed to your message; trust is the good copy which makes people stick around to hear what you've got to say, converting that traffic to a sale.

Trust, like reputation, must be earned but trust is truly personal. Reputations are public and can be gamed. (Tweetable)

Besides time, our trust is our most valuable commodity but we outsource it with curated lists, groups and shared circles.

Instead, we must decide how best to distribute our trust so that it is not wasted on the undeserving.

Image by thorinside

Of trust and relevance.

Authorship, identity and the wider web.Comments

Within search results, information tied to verified online profiles will be ranked higher than content without such verification, which will result in most users naturally clicking on the top (verified) results. The true cost of remaining anonymous, then, might be irrelevance” - Eric Schmidt.

idWhen Google's Search Plus Your World (SPYW) first launched the company was taken to task over unduly prioritising Google hosted content - probably rightly so - and had to back down a degree or two.

With Authorship tied to Google+ it seems that we are heading back in that direction so the company have to be careful or might find themselves back in the firing line of the regulators.

Putting a face to the name

As has been said before, Google is trying to remove the faceless nature of the web with Authorship. While it is currently seen as having a quasi-SEO benefit - an author's image next to an item in a sea of blue links makes it pop out - a lot of this advantage will be lost once more "authors" sign up.

By attempting to use Authorship as a "quality" measure, we are outsourcing an element of trust: recognising that content is linked to a verified account provides an impression as to its quality.

qualityThe act of just connecting an account to content, however, is not strictly a demonstration of quality but it is a demonstration of the author's willingness to be publicly and visibly linked to that content as if to say "I'm proud of this" or "I'm right, this is the result you want."

Whether, on the whole, we can infer any degree of quality from this scheme remains to be seen but the implied threat within Schmidt's statement above means that we see a fundamental shift in the way SEO operates: those that don't sign up to Authorship being penalised rather than those that do seeing a benefit.

Branding

Trust, reputation, identity - content creators will be (and already are) relying on Authorship to help establish personal branding, but by limiting the "verified" accounts for Authorship to Google+ is too restrictive on different levels.

While we have the ability to search with or without social signals and, currently search on Plus is separate from traditional blue links, introducing greater emphasis on Google based signals could get them in more trouble with the regulators.

Monopoly

Google has a monopoly on AuthorshipEnabling content creators to visibly connect their work to an online identity via Authorship is a fantastic idea and someone does indeed need to tackle the faceless nature of the web but maybe Google should think about opening Authorship to avoid the inevitable cries of "monopoly!"

As mentioned above, Authorship (and the concept of Author Rank) could be seen as having an implied SEO threat if you do not have a Google+ profile: no profile = poor search engine visibility, but is that really the case?

A post by Ruud Hein at Search Engine People tries to flesh out this statement by saying that a "verified online profile" doesn't just have to mean a Google+ profile. While nothing in Schmidt's statement precludes the use of other identity providers, the current reality is that Google+ is the only option available.

What if...

What ifWhat if Authorship, and consequently its associated Google Juice, wasn't solely reliant on a G+ profile and that other, trusted identification systems were permitted?

Should Google allow us to establish Authorship with a Twitter profile, for example? Perhaps Twitter could extend the verification process (maybe even for a small fee) to become more trusted - who we are, what we do, what is our field, etc. and this could then be relied upon by Google to establish a meaningful identity that we can hang Authorship upon.

What if academics, professors, researchers, etc. could use their EDU credentials as the basis of a trusted identity for the purposes of Authorship? How about business professionals using their LinkedIn profile?

Any web-wide system needs to be as inclusive as possible to both work and be seen as reliable or trustworthy.

tl;dr

Google should be applauded for trying to standardise, or make sense, of identity on the web so that we have a system we can trust - Authorship is such a system. However, being both a "search provider" and a "service provider" can lead to potential conflicts of interest which need to be resolved.

Images by Daniel*1977, aithom2, urbanwide, libraryman (cropped)

Authorship, identity and the wider web.

Is Google building its own influence measurement system?Comments

ViralEver since it first started ranking pages Google has been in the influence business - the influence of content.

Gaining content influence has been the role of SEO but, regardless of how often Google re-writes the rules and modifies the algorithms, this can be gamed.

A new way is needed.

Influence measurement

For a while now, I have been saying that data hosts such as Google, Facebook and Twitter are better placed to gauge influence due to having full access to data within their own environment.

Is Google putting together the building blocks of an internal influence measurement system? By combining data compiled from different sources Google can paint an accurate picture of who we are, what we like and what we do within its ecosystem.

The combination of numerous, disparate privacy policies into the single privacy policy last year combined with the creation of Google+ as a "social glue" and an identity service gave Google an ideal starting point for looking at us rather than our content.

Consider these elements and how they all help Google paint a picture:

  • Page Rank
  • Authorship
  • Author Rank
  • Analytics, and now
  • Virality

As Bill Slawski advises, a patent granted to Google in December last year details how Google could use the "content propagation likelihood" - or, how well things spread - of items (here called entities) you share, endorse, comment on etc. to determine what content could be placed before a user. According to the abstract:

A user’s content propagation likelihood is computed using weighted measures of various ways in which an entity can spread through a social network. A user’s content propagation likelihood may also be set for a given vertical (e.g., music, sports, etc.) and/or a given media type (e.g., images, videos, etc.) that pertains to the particular user.

I have said elsewhere that "virality is an extension of influence" and, considering the possible extension to topic and media type, fits with the relevance criteria I outlined in The 3 R's of Influence.

No score

Of course, unlike influence measurement systems such as Klout and Kred, Google will not be labelling us with a score (at least not one that's publicly visible) - instead, our "rating" will be seen in SERPs, in suggested user lists and even for alternative content views on Plus should Google ever wish to explore this avenue.

As I wrote in 'Influence redefined':

We cannot rely on a single system to calculate influence for all and we also cannot rely on a single score to reflect our own influence and reputation across the whole social web; moving to service specific grading may be a viable alternative.

Google will employ any internal influence measuring system as a means to ensure that users, and their connections, continue to see the most relevant information based on all the data available across its product base.

tl;dr

Is Google building it's own influence engine? Based on all the existing and potential elements that could be brought to bear, absolutely! What is certain, however, is that it will be unrecognisable from any existing influence measurement system if it is even visible to the end user at all.

Image by John Harwood

Is Google building its own influence measurement system?

Graph Search could encourage a sense of social responsibility.Comments

Rather than being something to fear, exposing the likes and decisions of Facebook users via Graph Search may encourage them to develop a greater sense of social responsibility.

Graph Search may increase social responsibilityIf there is one thing that the Graph Search launch taught me it's the strength of the anti-Facebook sentiment in some areas.

Consume you it will

People fear Facebook and its motives leading to a deep distrust and even expressions of hate. This can be a blinding force and, as we all know, hate leads to the Dark Side.

I have said before that advances in attitudes towards the social web have been largely fueled by the risks Facebook has been willing to take even if the company does push the envelope too far at times and get things wrong.

Opting out?

Facebook has been repeatedly criticised (rightly so) for automatically opting all users in to certain features but the news that there will be no opt out of Graph Search has recently angered a section of the online community.

Why should this be?

The primary complaints about Graph Search appear to be one related to privacy and that, as the primary social currency of Facebook is likes, there will be a low quality signal.

Facebook went to great depths to show that Graph Search will not override our privacy settings and, consequently, not reveal anything we are not permitted to see - it just makes it more "seeable". This seems to be scaring a lot of people despite them complaining that EdgeRank means their friends may actually miss many of their posts.

While users should have the option to opt in or out of Graph Search I personally fail to understand why you wouldn't want to be included. To me, opting out of Graph Search is like saying:

"I'm going to share this with a certain audience but I don't actually want them to see it."

Hypocrisy

There is a growing Facebook/Google divide with staunch Facebook users claiming Google+ is not a challenger while devout Google users argue that Facebook is faceless and evil - the fact that you cannot opt out of search backs up this view.

It is worth noting, however, that you also cannot opt out of search on Google+ and - as the privacy details note - your information is actually open to a much wider audience:

"Your name and any other fields that you make public in your profile are searchable on the web and may appear in Google Search results."

Google search, both in Plus and the more traditional blue links page - applies to your posts, as they are indexed almost immediately, and the personal information you specify. Why should it be okay for Google to do this but not Facebook?

Both companies use out personal information, habits and social graph to improve their advertising businesses so is it because Google gives at least an element of control?

Social responsibility

The Like is a throwaway act and, as such, people tend not to associate it with any potential consequences but each "social action" leaves a trail of bread crumbs that can be followed.

Graph Search makes following that trail far easier than ever before.

What if Facebook search makes users consider their actions or actually be the catalyst to ensure that their privacy settings are updated correctly? What if it encourages them to share more reservedly rather than pushing everything to public when perhaps they shouldn't?

If search makes us all think twice about what we do before throwing Likes at everything like confetti at a wedding then this will serve to improve the intent behind our actions and, as a result, improve the reliability of signal that such a search provides.

Choices

The social web is constantly evolving with the "freaky line" shifting as people grow comfortable and live more of their lives online and in public.

Always in motion is the future.

Change is inevitable as technology and familiarity serve to alter our online habits - for better or worse.

Ultimately, we must all be responsible for our actions and the information we place online - in any forum - and make our own choices with regards to what we share with whom. The saying says "the internet never forgets" and we would be wise to heed that lesson.

Image cropped from a picture by indy_slug.

Graph Search could encourage a sense of social responsibility.

Frustrations of the small time blogger.Comments

FrustrationThe internet, much like fashion, goes in cycles with themes re-emerging from obscurity. One such theme that never seems to go away is that bloggers, developers and technologists lament the passing of the good old days.

Frustrations

This post has been floating around in draft for over two years and originally came over as a bitter moan about small bloggers (read myself) finding it hard to get both the audience and recognition they deserved when crafting ideas months - sometimes even years - before one of the tech blogging powerhouses turns up to take all the credit for a similar post.

This is not that post.

While it was hard to publish such a post back then, the movement by some established names to criticise the current state of the web makes it much easier to voice frustration without seeming like a petulant child complaining when the other kids get all the toys.

The web we lost

This critical movement largely began with a post from Anil Dash entitled "The Web We Lost" detailing the rise of "social" and how it is lauded as a huge win for all. Anil's complaint, however, is that this success came at a price with the value only really passed on to the networks rather than the citizens of the web as a whole.

The growth of social networks created data silos and API restrictions and the openness of the web decreased once money and business became increasingly important factors.

Now, it cannot be denied that the rise of mainstream social has made for a more connected world but the chief complaint is often that the quality of those connections is deteriorating as we become saturated with more information (due to the barriers of entry being removed) and the demands on our attention becoming unrealistic.

This is not a new thing.

In a 2008 post called "The social media time crisis" I wrote that connections to a group of bloggers who would regularly examine, analyse and reply to each others posts were what "online communication is all about" but that the increasing time spent consuming the deluge of small status updates was becoming overbearing.

Back in April 2011, blogger Ian M Rountree wrote "What Happened to Blog Reactions?" asking where were the "high caliber blog engagement actions" that we used to see. My response was "Is social killing conversation, or have we just found other ways to talk?" but are these other ways necessarily better for us?

Lowest possible engagement

More recently the idea of "lowest possible engagement" has come to represent much of what ails the social web: Likes, retweets, +1s - throwaway actions which have become the mainstay of our social interaction often at the expense of more meaningful responses.

Where people used to visit blogs and leave genuinely thoughtful comments or even write a response on their own blog the propensity is now to "plus one and run" at the site of the social share rather than at the original post itself.

Our self-imposed attention problems brought on by trying to follow too many people on too many social networks demand that we head for the easy solutions, the curated lists or groups, the bite size chunks of news in an attempt to consume as much in as short a time with the least effort as possible.

The focus on consumption leaves us with little or no time for reflection, response or even creation.

Back to blogging

If it was hard for a small blogger to gain audience and recognition a few years ago then, with the increasing dominance of "old media style" blogging sites, it has become exponentially harder today and the real catalyst for finally publishing (a version of) this came in the form of a post from Jon Mitchell - staff writer for ReadWrite (formerly ReadWriteWeb) entitled "How to save blogging from itself."

Despite working for a publication which is accused of "shovel-blogging" (piling endless, mainly low quality posts in front of an audience for the revenue page views and advertising generate) criticises the move of blogging and social towards "mass media" - including his own employer:

"every single second of the day is an opportunity to mediate someone. That's mediate as a verb meaning "to inundate with media," in case that wasn't clear.

Attention is scarce. Communicators and entertainers are in an arms race to spend effort and money capturing attention. If your message isn't more useful or fun than everything else when it reaches its recipient, it was a waste of your time. So news, entertainment, marketing, all of it goes for the lowest-hanging fruit.

Welcome to the downward spiral of making shit for the Internet."

So blogging, like engagement, is heading for the lowest common denominator of sensationalism and the irony is that Jon had to publish probably the best thing he has written in a while on his own blog in relative obscurity while soulless news is reported to the masses elsewhere.

Saving the web

The blogging companies are selling out, mirroring their struggling mainstream media owners and failing their readers but opportunities for solo bloggers to shake up the market are virtually non-existent. The so-called "6 figure bloggers" got in early and filled all the slots; you have to be extremely lucky or play the corporate game and become another slave to the pile 'em high, sell 'em cheap school of "journalism".

If things are this hard why do we write? Because we have a passion, because we feel that we have something to say or contribute, because we want to communicate.

We may not be able to rebuild the web we lost without those holding the purse strings being brave and taking risks but how do we at least make a web where the little guy can get an audience and be recognised for their contribution?

Image by sheeerin

Frustrations of the small time blogger.

Branching out – should Twitter acquire the Branch conversation platform?Comments

Branch builds on the Twitter experience by providing a framework for curated conversations but could it succeed as an integral part of the social network?

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BranchTwitter is due a shake-up and I maintain that the #discover tab could become the default view thus enabling the service to further engage the silent 40%. The site has been growing but whether this growth is sustainable with the status quo might be open to debate.

Something needs to change.

Twitter is not a social network, we are repeatedly told this and it is becoming increasingly true as our feed is filled with links. It is hard to have a conversation within the fragmented 140 character environment but people still do it - an enjoy it - and choose Twitter as their primary social destination.

For years I have described Twitter as a facilitator and once a spark has been ignited we should take the resultant conversation to the most appropriate forum.

Is branch that forum?

Branch, when recently opened to the public, is a conversation platform that can be used to discuss anything but its reliance on Twitter for authentication and its close association with the network (via the Obvious Corporation) raise some interesting questions.

For Twitter to continue to grow and become more powerful there need to be mechanisms in place to connect users to information they want and this includes targeting them with relevant ads. As Promoted Tweets are priced on a Cost-per-Engagement (CPE) basis Twitter needs more users interacting with those tweets to gain revenue.

I was asked if Twitter would buy Branch (ignoring whether Branch would even want to be acquired) and my initial response was no, why would they, but further thoughts on the matter present arguments both for an against.

Could Branch be an ideal way for Twitter to achieve the growth it needs? Some knee-jerk, back of a napkin logic says no for a couple of reasons:

  • conversations on Branch are taking you away from the seemingly sacrosanct 140 character limit, and
  • any time you create a branch you are removing people from the feed, away from those all important promoted tweets and away from the ability of onlookers to see - and potentially get involved in - the conversation.
  • and what about losing the service outside of Twitter itself?

On the face of it, an acquisition of Branch would not make sense but what if the Branch functionality were to be re-purposed and redesigned so that it becomes a part of the Twitter interface and user experience? Part of the workflow.

Building conversations

For many, a key component of Branch is the browser bookmarklet which allows a user to "branch out" a single tweet to use as the basis of a curated conversation rather than trying to continue it within the confines of Twitter's restrictions but what if these conversations could be kept inside the network?

Branch conversations from Twitter

If we work on the earlier assumption that the #discover tab (or a future iteration of it) will become the default Twitter view then could Branch-like conversations be an ideal way to get users discussing key topics?

As well as a traditional reply, normal tweet conversations could also employ this mechanism (perhaps via a built-in option to "branch this") with a reference to the branch included within an expanded tweet; could branch become an alternative conversation view so that even multi-user conversations can be better followed and managed?

But, what of the 140 character limit?

Twitter has been keen to stick to its mobile roots so that those without smartphones, perhaps in emerging markets, or in circumstances where there is no reliable data service (such as countries where the government controls web access or during times of crisis) can tweet via text and keep their sharing their messages.

Would the service want to develop a two tier system? Perhaps we could argue features such as #discover and expanded tweets are already doing this but neither the consumption of tweets (either in the stream or on #discover) nor the use of expanded tweets preclude users from sending messages and receiving those from subscribed users via SMS.

As I have previously suggested, users would still be tweeting to their feed if not browsing the latest updates on #discover and there would be no reason to change the 140 character limit for this purpose.

Channels

Almost two years ago I first suggested that Twitter could employ a method of using"channels" to enable discussion about a particular topic in a focused stream without spamming the main feed. Last year, Twitter trialed event pages which showed a separate, curated stream for a particular event - although the tweets still remained in the public feed.

Branches could achieve a similar result by removing potentially noisy, topic based discussion from normal view but with the conversation visible to all just a click away.

Taking a risk

We have to consider if the current system is enough or whether enabling alternative functionality is essential to the continued expansion of Twitter?

Both switching to #discover as the default view and the introduction of an alternative conversation mechanism would be incredibly risky but, if introduced as options, would let users tailor their experience based on their requirements whilst allowing the purists to stick to 140 characters in the primary feed.

Branch is a natural expansion to the Twitter experience and one which could provide significant value for the network if it was brave enough to pursue it.

Branching out – should Twitter acquire the Branch conversation platform?

Facebook Graph Search – half way there.

Social networks are crammed full of data about our likes, interests and connections but all too often this is not available in any useful, reliable or easy accessible state. Is that about to change?

Graph Search

Search within our social networks has historically been poor, even Google+ launched without it until Google deemed it ready for public consumption.

Twitter search is still limited to a short period despite the acquisition of Summize and, as far as Facebook search goes it been a case of the less said the better.

Due to a number of privacy concerns and other issues, such as the recent fracas over the Instagram Terms of Service, Facebook has been coming in for a lot of flak - some warranted but much unjustified. Many people have decided that the just don't trust Facebook and that's that!

When App.net launched it promised to be "what Twitter could have been" and, with the controversy over ongoing changes to the APIs, became a hotbed of anti-Twitter sentiment. Similarly, Google+ seems to be harbouring an unhealthy dose of anti-Facebook rhetoric again much of which is unjustified.

People don't trust Facebook.

So Facebook is asking its users to trust each other and has been building a tool which allows us to do just this.

As anticipated, Facebook announced a new search product which formed the third of "three pillars of Facebook" namely: the newsfeed, Timeline and, now, Graph Search.

Graph search is exactly as its name suggests: a search of the Facebook social graph allowing us to find information shared with us so far encompassing people, photos, places and interests while all relating back to the privacy settings for each piece of information. It is planned that mobile, post data and the Open Graph will be indexed in future but this will take a while to complete.

My initial reactions were that the Graph Search beta content was a promising start but that will not be fully realised until the extra data - especially from the Open Graph - is included.

Playing catch-up

Yes, Facebook is playing catch-up to Google on search but as Google is originally a search company so you would expect that.

Does Facebook have to beat Google at its own game? Absolutely not!

In order to succeed with Graph Search, Facebook has to make a system that works well for Facebook users which:

  1. makes use of the connections between them
  2. uses the search queries/results to improve the experience
  3. is good enough to make users want to use it rather than jumping out for a web search

Google is blurring the lines between a traditional web search and a search of the social graph but we still have two places we can instigate this which gives us two different sets of results (Google Search and Plus).

Google web search is a blue links list which is now personalised based on our interests, data provided from other Google products thanks to the single privacy policy and the actions of others (+1s) but it is still primarily a blue links search. For those who have not yet upgraded to Plus then it is still only a blue links resource.

Facebook does not have a blue links engine - so has to partner with Bing - but is not (yet) interested in having one. Instead, the blue giant is using the power of the networkto find stuff using recommendations and trust - Facebook is not building a search engine but a "trust engine".

Yes, Google is also building this based on sharing and +1s but when you have two search locations returning different results from different data sets then something needs to change there as well.

Half wayHalf way

Graph search appears to be pretty powerful and fast and is not limited to friends but also public information which you would expect - anything visible to us can be returned via a search. It is not designed to give us a definitive list of "plumbers in Yourtown" (as would be exposed by a web search) but instead "plumbers in Yourtown which people have used and would recommend" - it builds on the relationships we have with those we are connected to and the trust we can place in their experience.

Graph Search is half way as the data held on Facebook itself is only half the story; people will be liking pages and services across the "normal web" and taking other Open Graph actions which help to flesh out their interests, likes and opinions. Once all of this data has been indexed Facebook will really be able to flesh out the trust engine.

I have stated previously:

Facebook has no need to build a full search engine as the indexing of external content is crowd-sourced to its users with likes and frictionless sharing.

As Zuckerberg said during the announcement, he doesn't expect people to come to Facebook just to perform a search when they are used to blue link sites and may not even be regular Facebook users. What he does hope it will be is a valuable resource for those people who are already on the site and want some information while they are there.

Admittedly, Facebook will also be able to mine that search data in order to further identify our likes and intentions which will, no doubt, increase the ability to target us more effectively with relevant advertising even if there are no plans to immediately monetise Graph Search itself.

Good enough, but when?

As with other features Facebook has included, Graph Search doesn't have to beat the likes of Google but be just good enough to catch the majority of users and save them the need of going elsewhere.

Zuckerberg admitted that this is not something that will roll out overnight but the key will be how quickly they can release something, how reliable it is and then how long it takes to introduce Open Graph data.

With the talk of "years of work" Facebook can, however, be seen to be in it for the long haul - just like Google with Plus.

A version of this post originally appeared at Google+

Image by mtsofan

Facebook Graph Search – half way there.

Thoughts: Inverse influence.

When the influencer becomes the influenced.

Inverse influenceI have written before about how we might "play a role" on social networks based on what is expected of us.

Influence is normally considered as the ability to affect the thoughts, actions and ideas of others but what if those actions create a feedback loop and thus affect our own behaviour?

Inverse influence

We may seek to influence and, in this regard, are reliant on the responses of our audience to determine what is popular or where our expertise appears to lie.  Problems arise when we allow ourselves to be unduly driven by audience response.

By reacting to our audience - and placing too great an emphasis on its feedback - we are in danger of becoming the ones influenced where the actions we seek to influence may instead determine our path.

Image by Sean MacEntee (flipped)

Thoughts: Inverse influence.

6 years on Twitter.

Twitter26th December 2006.

Today marks the sixth anniversary of my joining Twitter and what a ride it's been despite me not even being the most prolific of tweeters.

Six years is an eternity on the internet but, while the core principles behind the site remain unchanged and the maxim of 140 characters is sacrosanct, the service has developed in ways we never envisaged.

Third party tools allowing us to “tweet longer” rose in popularity but Twitter was adamant that this was not the way to go. Somewhat ironically, the service now has an inbuilt mechanism which lets us display more info that ever in the form of Twitter Cards.

This time last year I made a number of predictions as to where Twitter (amongst other things) was heading and, with the exception of saying that a more Flipboard-esque UI would be introduced for the #discover tab, was pretty close.

#Discover continues to iterate become more personalised as it caters to the 40 percent and I still maintain that, in future, it will become the default view - the official face of Twitter - or that users may be given the choice between this or site feed depending on how they use the site.

What is fascinating is that, even in the early days before SXSW 2007 when there was virtually no one using Twitter, some of us instantly saw the potential it had to offer and were willing to devote our time to what many viewed as a gimmick or a fad.

I'm glad we did.

6 years on Twitter.

With Google+ Communities social goes full circle.Comments

Social networking on the Internet has been around longer than most realise, albeit not in the form most currently associate with it. Bulletin board services and, later, forums formed the bulk of our social interaction even before the days of messaging applications and was inherently interest based.

Instant messaging began the obsession with connecting to people which continued through to the social networks we know and love today.

Communities

Interests

Social has moved on from the early days of Facebook and Twitter with an increasing noise to signal ratio meaning that it is getting ever harder to find quality within the mass of information.

Users have been crying out for ways to manage their interests with existing solutions not coming up to scratch; I have long said the social network that works out how to manage the interest graph will find itself in a very strong position.

It makes sense that we should try to manage our time online in accordance with our interests, as I have mentioned before that:

Apart from family and existing friends ... the interest graph is actually the primary driver behind expanding the social graph.

Our social networks need to reflect the implicit groups brought together by shared interests or circumstance rather than the continual reliance on explicit user lists.

Twitter is iterating the #discover tab to better facilitate discovery and it is being increasingly personalised but this falls short of the true interest based discussion that I proposed in Going Beyond the Hashtag.

There have been a couple of instances of Twitter "event pages" for NASCAR and the London Olympics but that feature appears to have gone quiet. As I wrote previously:

Events pages give a curated stream specific to a topic or event using "a combination of algorithms and curation"

The key here is that event pages stream to their own timeline so are as close to my concept of channels as any network had previously achieved.

Communities

CommunitiesThe launch of Google+ Communities is a direct recognition by a major player that we need the ability to focus on topics as well as people. We have already had the ability to use hashtags and saved searches but these are treated as second class data.

Communities are given equal prominence to the Stream and, unlike saved searches, treated in a similar way to Circles allowing us to share directly to a community from anywhere, including a +1 button out on the "normal web".

Google+ was launched under the auspices of being "real world sharing rethought for the web" with Circles intended as the means to segregate our contacts enabling us to target specific groups with matching content but, as we know, people are multi-faceted and this type of grouping is not sufficient even with tight management of our Circles.

Shared circles were designed to enable us to share groups, primarily with a similar focus, with others but, as each person is free to customise the shared Circle in their own way, there is no guarantee of a consistent community via this method. Even though the Circle members might have been collected in relation to a given topic we are still adding them as individuals along with all their facets.

CategoriesOld tricks?

Communities are forums for the social age.

A community is focused on a topic rather than on the individuals which contribute to it and, in creating them, Google has turned the social web full circle.

Each community is, in essence, a forum dedicated to a specific interest but with the advantage of being located within our existing social environment which facilitates easier sharing. The addition of categories - to guide conversation and create sub-topics - is directly akin to sub-forums and we are able to filter by these categories to restrict the view to exactly what we need.

My primary argument for content channels was to keep focused content out of the primary stream thus reducing the noise for others. Communities, acting as forums, achieve this perfectly whilst allowing for all posts made to also show on you profile should it be viewed directly - exactly as I proposed it would operate for tweets.

Communities and social gravity

While the community itself is topic focused it is inevitable that some communities will initially be more popular due to their owner or members being influencers. The success of these groups to stay popular and, indeed, of smaller groups to attain more popularity will be subject to the principles of social gravity.

As discussed, social gravity is a property of groups as well as individuals with the relationships and engagement between members just as important as the content they post although this must obviously stay focused, consistent and accessible.

What next?

Communities are given greater prominence than saved searches and assist in removing unwanted noise but they are still separate from the stream and create a divided environments which deflects attention - I'm not sure if this is ideal.

As stated above, Communities are treated more like Circles but, in my opinion, this does not go far enough and we should be able to integrate their contents into our main feed if we wish using a volume slider to control the amount of posts seen.

After Google announced that 135 million people are active in the stream alone a worry is that many will migrate their activity solely to communities - possibly private ones - thus reducing visible activity and reinforcing the misconception that Plus is a ghost town. By allowing user to integrate Community posts into their main view this might be avoided.

By taking a step back from the person oriented perspective so prevalent on the social web Google has, in one day, made its social network far more usable and appealing.

Along with Hangouts, Communities will provide genuine differentiation on the social web.

With Google+ Communities social goes full circle.

So, what is social influence exactly?Comments

With the discussion firmly rooted on how to gauge and measure social influence we need to take a step back and look at the concept of influence itself. What exactly is it, how does it occur and how does online influence differ to offline?

Social influence is an umbrella term covering a range of actions causing a range of consequences. The concept originates in the social sciences but is now very much the topic du jour on the social web.

What are the "offline" definitions of social influence, how do they relate to the online experience and do we need to expand the definition for the age of the social web?

Variety

VarietyThe Harvard psychologist Herbert Kelman described three varieties of social influence:

  • compliance - where people appear to agree but keep dissenting opinions private
  • identification - where people are influenced by someone liked and respected
  • internalisation - where people accept a belief or behaviour and agree both publicly and privately - they fully take it onboard

Compliance is a state of artificial influence and is described as a change in behaviour but not attitude - it is often referred to as submission as we may need to comply without necessarily agreeing with the issue at hand but feel the need to act in the way expected of us due to societal pressures.

Identification has its roots in the work of Sigmund Freud and, in its simplest form, is a behavioural change as a result of an emotional attachment to something or someone. We adopt the behaviour of those we like or respect, be they existing connections or those we would like to know or emulate. Celebrity advertising relies on this concept.

Internalisation is the complete adoption of behaviour and attitude and will normally occur when these are in accordance with our existing moral values or beliefs. It is far easier to influence those who already think or act in similar ways as there is minimal shift in mindset.

ConformThe need to Conform

Compliance and identification are viewed in some fields as different components of Conformity - the need to modify behaviour and/or attitude in order to fit in with a group.

Conformity is traditionally divided into two types:

  • normative conformity (compliance)
  • informational conformity (internalisation)

Normative conformity is compliance with the influence of others so that we may be liked and accepted. There is no guarantee that there will be an attitudinal shift but there will be a behavioural shift to conform with the social norms of the influencing group.

Virality on social networks can be a direct result of normative conformity with users wishing to be seen as cool by contributing to the spread of the latest meme.

Informational conformity, otherwise known as social proof, is a change to reflect what is seen as the correct behaviour for a situation due to the assumption that the influencers have more knowledge and experience of that situation so know how to respond - even if that assumption is incorrect. The belief that behaviour is correct can also result in an attitudinal shift giving rise to internalisation.

Behaviour on social networks is frequently affected by informational conformity as social media "experts" espouse notions of correct procedure such as when to tweet or the length of the ideal blog post.

Informational conformity can ultimately lead to a state of self-fulfilling prophecy when the proposed behaviour and attitude are so prevalent that they become the de facto standard.

Social impact

ImpactSocial impact theory, created by the social psychologist Bibb Latané, states that the impact of social influence is a function of its:

  • strength,
  • immediacy, and
  • number.

The theory uses mathematical equations to calculate impact (so cannot directly account for the humanising aspects of influence) but we can relate it to the concepts suggested for the definition of social gravity.

Immediacy (proximity or distance) and number (size of the influencing group) are the traditional gravity elements while strength can be interpreted as the more human elements, outlined as reputation, relevance and value.

The larger the influencing group, the closer it is both within the structure of the network and in terms of current behaviour and attitude, and the greater the reputation and relevance then the more persuasive it will be.

Social networks

Influence on social networks shares some similarities to that described in the social sciences but is distinct from its offline counterpart as there is a much larger gap between affecting behaviour and attitude.

Much of what is deemed influence on the social web is actually minor activity rather than a behavioural or attitudinal shift. While there is the potential for compliance, identification and internalisation to occur, social networks have introduced a new variety of influence: acknowledgement.

Thumbs upAcknowledgement is the quick hat tip, the Like or +1 to say "I've seen it, thanks". The implication is that acknowledgement is positive behaviour due to the language involved (liking) but there is no guarantee of actual behavioural influence or, indeed, any lasting impact.

There is no satisfactory offline equivalent to these actions apart from a quick thumbs up but this is strictly "in the moment".

As influence measurement on the social web is both incredibly difficult and limited in scope it places far greater importance on acts of acknowledgement as they are a permanent record despite, in many cases, being a throwaway action.

The phenomenon of acknowledgement is a double-edged sword in that it allows us to give or receive these quick messages of approval - it is nice to say thank you or to feel your efforts have been appreciated - but it also ambiguous and, often, a lazy alternative to something more meaningful.

Aiming high, hitting low

The goal of influence is to affect the attitude or behaviour of others (ideally both) so as to reinforce the position or opinion of the influencer.

True influence occurs when an idea is accepted and internalised but this is difficult to achieve. Consequently, the degree of influence will often slide from internalisation through identification and compliance to the lowest common denominator, acknowledgement, as the impact of influence decreases.

The very existence of social media has been influential in modifying our behaviour with arguments that the status update culture and visual web are shortening attention spans and reducing focus; perhaps we could say that this, in itself, is a negative aspect of conformity and compliance and a barrier to achieving social influence.

Images by dklimke, gentlemanhoganguila40 and MyEyeSees

So, what is social influence exactly?

Social gravity, a new definition for the social web.Comments

Current suggestions for measuring the impact we can have on the social web are considered inadequate and there is an ongoing backlash against them. How can we, therefore, better define our ability to influence others?

Gravity

As we have already seen, the science behind influence measurement services is actually pretty sound but even the best algorithms are only as good as the data they are run against.

Influence measurement is not going away and is rapidly becoming a vital mechanism in understanding impact on the social web but, building on the concepts in network science we should be looking at other ways to interpret our "influence".

Social gravity can help.

Social Gravity is an existing term with a number of different interpretations but none of which seem to fit the context of social influence; existing definitions include:

  • the forces which hold a person in the same societal sphere and may prevent them from being socially mobile (able to better their position) irrespective of merit
  • the ability of a business to keep customers "in orbit" around its brand to facilitate easy purchase (orbit strategies)

I would like to propose a new definition:

Social gravity is the ability of individuals and groups on the social web to both draw others to them and keep them close - it is a social "glue".

But it goes much deeper than this and we need to examine other areas for comparisons to better understand how it will operate within social networks.

Gravity models

The first law of geography according to Waldo Tobler is "Everything is related to everything else, but near things are more related than distant things."

"All animals are equal" anyone?

Newton's law of gravity states that bodies will attract each other with a force proportional to their masses (and inversely proportional to distance). It causes dispersed matter to coalesce, and coalesced matter to remain intact (a direct equivalent to the ability of social gravity proposed above)

A social parallel to Newton's law would be the size of a network cluster determining the relative pull that it may have on non-members but this is not sufficient to explain how groups form and grow on the social web.

Gravity models are used in social sciences to describe behaviour and generally contain elements of mass and distance, which lends them perfectly to the metaphor of physical gravity - a couple of examples are as follows:

  • trip distribution - more distant points will have less traffic between them than closer ones, common sense which can equally be applied to nodes within a social graph. Distance is generally inversely proportional to influence.

The term "friction of distance" goes on to explain that as distance increases so the effort required to overcome that distance also increases. In a social context, as the distance along a path between users increases so the amount of re-shares required for an item to be seen goes up thus reducing the likelihood that the person at the end of path will be exposed to that item.

  • migration model - used to estimate traffic flow and migration between areas as well as the sphere of influence of each. In a social context this would equate to the traffic between clusters within a network but sheer size and distance of those clusters is not sufficient for determining their pull.

At the risk of sounding crude, size is important but it's what you do with it that counts - a cluster that is.

Further considerations

Along with size and distance social gravity, regardless of if we are talking about an individual or a group, is linked to the following :

  • reputation,
  • relevance, and
  • value

As previously noted, there are times when members of social networks might establish connections beyond the influence of social gravity: they might seek out popular individuals or influencers to kick-start their experience rather than be drawn organically; others will gravitate towards influencers because it is fashionable - free-floating users looking for the next big thing to attach themselves to whilst it is in vogue before drifting away to something else.

At all other times it is social gravity which draws us together but, just as in science, there are additional forces that must be overcome.

Inertia and entropy

InertiaInertia is the resistance of an object to changes in its state of motion or rest, or the tendency for an object to resist such changes.

People, just like objects, will have a sense of inertia - we are creatures of habit and without external influence will often becoming stuck in a rut and resistant to social change. We may need to give individuals a nudge to get them moving. The goal is to overcome the inertia and extend social gravity wider to encourage engagement from more remote individuals

Social entropy is the measure of decay within a social system such as the breakdown of its structure.

Without interaction a group will naturally drift apart so much of the communication between members of a cluster will just serve to hold that cluster together even before any useful transfer of content is achieved. Engagement is essential for maintaining social bonds, members should also ideally have a sense of ownership (having their voices heard) to encourage them to stay within the group.

Social entropy increases as satisfaction with the status quo decreases for various reasons:

  • relationships with other members of the cluster
  • decline in engagement
  • loss of value possibly due to change of topic or focus
  • changes in the social platform which can lead to dissatisfaction with the user experience
  • external factors which impact behaviour and decrease engagement

We are, therefore, in a constant battle to maintain our existing connections. This may involve increased sharing, altering of social habits or even attempting to introduce new relationships to ignite new discussion.

What attracts us to Clusters?

Regardless of the structure of a group or cluster relevance and value really come in to their own. Just as an offline model will look at the shops and facilities available within an area so a model of social gravity will examine criteria such as group members, the shared content available and the depth of discussion.

Attract

A social group must be accessible in order to maintain a sense of gravity, and this doesn't just mean public. If a group spends its time sharing private jokes between members then, while the bonds may be strong within it, the group will not be an attractive proposition to outsiders.

Users are not going to associate with clusters that have no relevance. Additionally, a small cluster might have higher relative value when compared to a large cluster (even if relevance is equal) due to the content offered by that cluster.

The notion that larger clusters should afford more opportunities due to a larger population would hold true all things being equal but this does not account for the actions of its members. Indeed, size might even be counter-productive due to noise and network congestion.

Individual gravity

Just as with groups or clusters, individuals will be relying on the same principles to increase their own social gravity. We are constantly reminded that we must be open, honest, authentic and share quality content. Individuals will increase their relative gravity by their associations with others; to maintain relevance they must align themselves with like-minded individuals (as it is easier to preach to the converted) and share material in keeping with the interests of the target group to ensure a sense of value.

Engagement is key as - unless the individual is already a recognised leader in their field - others will not respond well to a one-way, broadcast relationship. Interaction is vital to cement those relationships with others which cause them to become advocates as without it we are unable to establish a positive reputation.

The bottom line

Social gravity, just as with influence itself, is not just about the level of activity maintained on social networks but the respect and trust that can be instilled in others by establishing reputation, relevance and value. The amount of social activity (between individuals or within a cluster) is secondary to its quality.

Social gravity is a core property of identity, the ability to extend the sphere of influence and is formed by the actions and affiliations of an individual or group. A group's gravity is also affected by its cohesion so it is imperative that stable relationships within the group are maintained to encourage new membership.

The mechanics of social gravity are complex and further illustrate the need to look beyond influence scoring.

Images by Rubin 110, bluekdesign and daynoir

Social gravity, a new definition for the social web.

Twitter serving the 40%?Comments

TwitterTwitter acknowledges that around 40% of its users do not tweet - they are consumers and must still be catered for; the company also needs to find a way to encourage them to interact further.

The writing has been on the wall for change for over 18 months.

April 2011:

It is widely accepted that Twitter is not for everyone but this may be a limitation of the timeline format. Perhaps it is time for a bit of a shake-up - they call themselves a consumption company now after all.

December 2011:

By placing an emphasis on content over people Twitter is making moves in a new direction which could encourage users to tweet and I feel that we will see the #discover tab iterate relatively quickly to facilitate this.

and...

Enabling people to comment on stories rather than reply to individual users or tweets Twitter may be able to kick-start the transition from being just consumers.

January 2012

Summify’s ability to filter your feed and pull out the salient items would be an ideal way of enhancing the #discover tab by presenting more personalised news based on your own network rather than a generic list from trending topics.

February 2012:

The feed is dead

Now that our feed is predominantly awash in a sea of links it is not a very inviting place. Perhaps the time has come for Twitter to move away from this means of display and instead use a new enhanced #discover tab as the primary view when arriving at the site.

and...

Could Twitter actually become a place where we “consume” news first and talk about it after? Is this too radical a shift from the service we all know and love or is it a logical conclusion based on recent events?

All fanciful ramblings perhaps.

But now, Dalton Caldwell (co-founder of App.net) has proclaimed that Twitter is pivoting:

The Discover tab is the future. Rather than forcing normal users to make sense of a realtime stream, they can see what content is trending.

and...

The main reason that “normal users” would write messages is as a backchannel to discuss media events such as the Olympics, Election Coverage, or a new television show.

Different message

Dalton is arguing that Twitter will complete its move away from being a social network to an information/media company - the idea is the same but the message is very different.

Where I have argued that Twitter needs to change to better facilitate content discovery in an age where the feed is a sea of noise Dalton suggests that Twitter is abandoning its roots (and consequently its users) in a thinly veiled attempt to further promote App.net.

He asks "how is Twitter going to pull off their mid-flight pivot?" but I have already answered: by making #discover the primary view. The feed will still be there but the average consumer will be watching a media channel.

Sometimes it's hard being a small voice thinking no one can hear you, especially when a big voice stands up to say the same thing 18 months later (albeit with an ulterior motive) and the world takes notice.

Twitter serving the 40%?