The state of blogging, update: recovery and discoveryComments

In September last year I wrote that a lot of the blogs I historically followed had shut down or just stopped being updated. People didn't appear to be writing any more - at least not on their own sites.

We are constantly told there are millions of blogs out there but our experiences often imply that the numbers and reality don't always tally.

But, more recently, I think the problem is not that people aren't blogging, but finding those that are.

Recovery

Blogging seemed to die back for a while but, as I wrote more recently, getting involved with the Micro.blog and, now, #indieweb communities has meant finding people who are, again, enthusiastic about their own sites.

As a result I have been gradually re-populating my RSS reader with good, old-fashioned personal blogs.

But I still want more!

One of my hopes for Micro.blog was that it might encourage more people to write in long form once they got used to self-hosting their microposts.

Since the launch to Kickstarter backers I have, indeed, seen a number state it has prompted them to return to their sites with more vigor and become re-engaged with what they are, or could be, doing.

This is fantastic, but more needs to be done. A lot more.

Discovery

The biggest issue, as with so many other areas online, is of discovery. I'm not so sure that the blog rolls, directories and blogging networks of yesteryear, however, are the right solutions to the problem.

We need to get better at both sharing and advertising blogs, those of others and our own. We need to reclaim the conversation from social media by using our own sites to reply and comment - this is where elements of the indieweb come into their own.

But, most importantly we need to keep reading and writing, engaging with each other via our blogs to, at least, enable organic discovery.

The state of blogging, update: recovery and discovery

Can we ever make the Medium we want?

Forcing change.

Maybe the algorithms have become more responsive or maybe I have changed the way I use Medium and not previously noticed how responsive they can be.

Follow new people, recommend different posts in different tags and a host of new content based on those actions instantly appears in my feed.

It has become a lot more obvious how certain aspects of the algorithms work and how we can use them to "fix" our feeds. But there are still gaps, little black holes where content gets sucked in and we don't exactly know to what degree.

"Show fewer stories like this" sounds like a good way to remove unwanted clutter but how does it account for nuance? Where is the event horizon beyond which nothing returns, nothing is visible?

But there are also crazy wormholes, story spewing singularities that respond to our actions in ways we would rather they didn't.

A follow or recommend will immediately give us more from that person but there seems to be no flow control, no finesse. The algorithms get over zealous, regurgitating unrelated stories from years ago just because they are by the same author.

It's all or nothing.

This is the problem with follow and block, with algorithms that work on rules - I like posts about Twitter, I don't like listicles.

Include and exclude.

What happens when those rules intersect and clash? There will always be exceptions so what takes priority?

We are creatures of habit, sure, but "something about us compels us to learn, explore" and an algorithm cannot match that compulsion, that curiosity, that nuance of thought and taste.

How many of us leave the safety of our feeds and jump with both feet into Reading Roulette or scan the trending topics?

Despite our best efforts and digital snobbery, we run the risk of getting caught up in the same filters bubbles we so detest on Facebook. We constantly need to keep things fresh but how much effort do we, should we, expend in tweaking the algorithms?

Is it even possible or are we wasting time pursuing an unobtainable facsimile?

Are we forever chasing the white rabbit?

Can we ever make the Medium we want?

Explore and Discover: an evolution five years in the making

After publishing yesterday's post news emerged that Twitter is testing a new "Explore" tab in its apps to replace and build upon Moments and existing means of content discovery.

According to the piece over at Mashable the Explore tab will be a mixture of search, trending topics and Moments harkening back to the Discover tab which preceded Moments.

Now that Jack Dorsey has settled on Twitter's role in the world getting good content in front of people is of paramount importance and it is good to see continued efforts in making this happen.

In fact, the whole strategy depends on it.

Concerns

However, I have two initial concerns over the Explore tab as reported:

  • timing, and
  • presentation

Moments has recently passed its first birthday and the ability to make Moments has just been opened to everyone. In my opinion it's been a revelation and one of the best features Twitter has launched in some time. I hope Explore doesn't detract from what Moments has achieved; it seems a backward step to lessen its presence just as it is becoming a fully fledged feature.

As Explore will be presenting a range of information it will need to be both well structured and useful. The current Moments tab is visually appealing with effective presentation and ease of use.

Combining multiple sources of data in one area means that each has less immediate exposure. The screenshots shared by Mashable (below) do not, in my view, show an overly useful or useable approach.

If handled properly, however, the Explore tab could be a good thing and we could be on the cusp of a new, focused product drive.

It's about time.

What took so long?

I wrote back in 2011 that Twitter should iterate the Discover tab and make it the default view for new users. The Explore tab, if done right, seems like it could such an iteration.

I still maintain that it should be the first thing new users see and, by extension, the new face of the "logged out" homepage.

It's frustrating that I, amongst others, have been writing about this for so long but it is only now that Twitter seems to have caught up.

Take this statement from my post "The changing value of Twitter":

"Everything points towards Twitter placing a much greater emphasis on its identity as a news and media network with the movement away from the main stream as the focal point."

And this one from an even earlier post:

"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?"

These could have been written any time within the past few months considering Twitter's media partnerships and the new direction. But no, they were written over four years ago but the network appeared to stagnate meaning we are only just seeing this come to fruition.

Identity

Twitter's problem has been that it never knew exactly what it was; there were various ideas and concepts but it seemed to see-saw between strategies.

On his return Dorsey may have been regarded as having the necessary authority that comes from being a founder to right the ship and set the product direction, but you cannot plot a course without having a destination.

Instead, he has defined (maybe we could say admitted or finally accepted) the company identity so that the corporate vision is now in line with public expectation.

Rather than setting any particular product goals this may be his greatest gift to Twitter since his return.

Explore and Discover: an evolution five years in the making

Does Twitter finally know where it is going?

I wrote recently that we could argue Twitter is too culturally important to fail because it is democratising. In fact, I am in favour of any product that levels the playing field:

  • blogs enable anyone to have a voice and publish it on the web
  • Twitter is the same but in 140 character chunks with a much greater chance of being seen as you can @mention people
  • Instagram enables anyone to post pictures of a similar quality as, to a degree, its filters level out the photographer's skill
  • Anchor removes the hassle from podcasting allowing anyone to record and share their spoken thoughts in two minute "waves"
  • Talkshow enables people to have public conversations without unwanted interference from the audience

But things can often be easier and products step into the gaps like Medium has for blogging.

Too difficult?

Twitter has long been criticised for being too difficult for new users to understand but, at its core, nothing could be simpler: anyone can create an account then instantly start sharing 140 character thoughts.

Where Twitter starts to become more complex is with the various conventions that have emerged over time, often at the behest of the user base. Perhaps we only have ourselves to blame for always wanting more features and a more mature experience.

Everyone will agree that its worst problem, however, is discovery and being discovered. Without interaction and acknowledgement tweeting just amounts to shouting into the wind.

And this is often why users leave.

News

At long last Twitter seems to have finally decided what it wants to be when it grows up.

Jack Dorsey's recent memo to staff repeated the "live" and "what's happening" stance we are used to but went one stage further by calling Twitter "the people's news network."

By the people, for the people. Democratising.

While other areas of Twitter's recent performance may have disappointed users, investors and potential acquirers alike, the one thing Dorsey has suddenly achieved since his return a year ago is the creation of the most cohesive narrative the network has ever had. It's just a shame he "spent a good part of the year getting to the truth" when the rest of us reached the same conclusion ages ago.

Dorsey's promise to "deliver a better Twitter faster than they thought possible" (they being Twitter's users) may be viewed with a mixture of skepticism and cynicism given the apparent failure of efforts so far, but without a definitive sense of direction any approach was bound to be scattergun.

Now that Twitter appears to have that direction perhaps it will also have a more defined destination with a clearer idea of how to get there.

Does Twitter finally know where it is going?

Filter bubbles in an echo chamber

Much has been written about the danger of filter bubbles and echo chambers over the years, especially with regards to the social web.

New research into political news consumption indicates that most people actually use centrist, mainstream sources rather than those at either extreme.

So what's the worry?

Although most would appear not to live in echo chambers, media consumption is widely skewed and those who do are disproportionately influential.

Birds of a feather

The social web is a different beast and it is widely recognised that we follow accounts and sources which are sympathetic to our own views rather than subject ourselves to confrontation - although it often comes looking for us.

I have deliberately made a point of following some accounts that I probably normally wouldn't based on my every day interests but recent events have made me consider how much further I need to go.

The "chosen tribe" comment was unfounded but, on reflection, I can see why it might have been made based on the subject matter at hand and who was being referenced during the conversation.

But it was cleaning up my RSS feeds that really got me thinking.

It wasn't so much reducing the feeds I follow from over 200 to just 51 but the realisation that over 75% of the feeds I had subscribed to were no longer active - this meant that the hundreds of items I review each week were coming from such a small number of sources and I didn't even realise.

On Twitter I follow less than 300 accounts. This has risen recently as I have tried to broaden what I am exposed to, but I can't help think that this is still too small a number and some of those may be dead accounts.

(Update: I went through those I follow and removed around 15 so it wasn't as bad as I expected.)

On Medium I follow a wider variety of people, largely due to the nature of the platform and my reasons for using it, but I still only follow 227 people - a list which I have never sanitised.

The problem

Discovery is a massive issue on social networks, as is pulling signal from the noise. Because we don't want a feed full of irrelevance it is only natural that we should follow those who provide information aligned to our interests.

It's not necessarily that we go out of our way to avoid others but that we are making snap, subconscious trade-offs between the value we derive against the potential for noise that may be created.

It is an inherent issue with following other people: because we are multifaceted, no matter how much our interests align, there will always be an element of irrelevance.

Without meaning to, and perhaps more importantly without even realising it, we inherit a narrow world view which gets further entrenched as we seek to eradicate the noise.

Noise

Noise disturbs and distracts us, makes us uncomfortable, and ruins our experience. I'm not just talking about social networks but the parallel is perfectly applied.

In life we will cross the street, move to another carriage on the train or turn our headphones up a couple of notches, retreating to our own little bubble.

Online we unfollow and block, maybe even move to another social network. Anything to escape the noise.

But we need the noise, we need to be pulled from our reverie and made aware of what's around us, no matter how uncomfortable it might make us feel.

Discovery

And so we return to the problem of discovery - not just the actual finding but the self-discipline we need to pull ourselves away from the safety of our filter bubbles.

We may flick to trending topics or browse Twitter Moments but these are merely sources of brief, instant gratification - a quick fix before returning to our regular programming.

The question becomes how do we as individuals locate contrary, challenging content without the conflict that so often arises with it?

Social networks are so focused on trying to show us what they feel we might like but there needs to be a way to surprise us, to throw us a curve ball and stop us in our tracks.

There needs to be a way to force us to think and reconsider, but it has to be subtle - that sounds like an oxymoron. It cannot be so forced upon us as to make us recoil and reject it out of hand.

Tough.

It is contrary to almost everything the networks are built on and how we are wired.

Filter bubbles in an echo chamber

Twitter’s big moment

The news that Twitter will open up its Moments feature to all is a real "at last" moment (pardon the pun) for the service.

Until now most users have had to rely on third party offerings like Storify to string a number of tweets together for wider consumption. Twitter, and probably most users, would much rather this behaviour and traffic remain in-house.

The feature is, in my opinion, the best thing that has happened to the network in recent times but I still believe the company can go much further with them.

As I have written before, enabling replies to existing Moments could be a useful way to boost engagement. This would feel more like leaving a comment on a blog post or news item, and these tweets could then be incorporated to provide ongoing, real time reaction.

Twitter is live!

This "read and respond" behaviour should also make Moments a priority for new users to see when they join.

Discovery

In a piece over at Recode Kurt Wagner argues that extending the feature in this way "doesn't help with Twitter's discovery problem" of "finding and surfacing the good Moments" but I can't help feel he's missing the point.

The Moments tab nicely breaks things down into categories like Today, News and Sport but, yes, users actually have to visit the tab. Some do, many don't.

So why is discovery not a problem?

I have long advocated that important/breaking Moments should be included in the feed and this may happen if Twitter's testing is anything to go by. Irrespective of this, anyone can share a tweet to the feed and I feel this is more where Twitter are heading.

Opening the creation of Moments to all is not about everyone finding all Moments right across the network. What it does enable is for a far broader range of topics to be covered. The team at Twitter currently do a brilliant job but, by necessity, can be limited to the big news stories, popular culture and memes.

We generally follow people because we have shared interests. Moments created by users on specific or niche topics will increase usage because they are relevant. This may attract new users or at least convince some others to stay.

After all, Twitter's user problem is not just in attracting new people.

Moments creators will probably be sharing them to the feed (you want people to see your work) meaning they are instantly discoverable to all followers - no visit to the Moments tab required. They will no doubt also be hashtagged providing easy discoverability as long as Twitter includes them in searches; it would be a badly missed opportunity it they didn't.

Following on from this, Moments created should also be added to user profiles alongside pictures and Vines.

Signal v noise

Kurt is right that volume alone won't help discoverability; flooding everyone with irrelevant Moments will merely cheapen the feature. Targeting our interests for greater relevance and providing increased visibility, however, will.

Twitter’s big moment