Making the darkness conscious

I read this article arguing that Facebook should be regulated in the same way AIM was when the ill-fated AOL & Time Warner merger happened.

AOL was forced to open up the relationship data between individuals in AIM to allow third parties to interop. You could finally use your social graph in other apps.

This was all years before the major social networks we know today were even considered, let alone became the force they are now. The term 'social graph' wasn't even in anyone's vocabulary.

This was and is a big thing for the open web - it's not just the data that should be your own, transferable between different systems, but also your relationships. How two people converse on the web should not be solely controlled by a single company.

It instantly reminded me of a post I wrote back in August 2010 when I asked "are social platforms the next Microsoft?"

Microsoft was criticised and, eventually, censured for abusing its monopolistic position and forced to allow other browsers the same access to Windows as Internet Explorer while offering users an immediate choice of which one they used.

I wrote that Facebook and Twitter were acting like Microsoft of old, abusing their position and (effectively and literally) stealing the ideas of smaller startups who were unable to compete.

As such I wondered if this could put them at risk of censure themselves.

Fast forward seven years and they are still at it, especially Facebook which has made a not so subtle point of copying everything that Snapchat pioneered while amassing over 2 billion monthly users.

It's as though the reach and impact of social networks has been grossly underestimated; surely, those silly online services are nothing more than time sinks?

Wrong!

But it's only now that those pesky Russians are implicated that the need for some kind of regulation is being taken seriously. Maybe the Cold War never really end - it just moved online.

We've seen time and again that social networks can be dangerous places with equally dangerous degrees of influence.

Facebook has a de facto monopoly with a wider reach than any media company, no, any company in history. Connecting the world is theoretically a good thing but divisions will always exist - trying to force a utopian ideal upon everyone ignores those divisions and only causes resentment and an eventual explosive backlash when that resentment can no longer be contained.

As Carl Gustav Jung wrote:

"One does not become enlightened by imagining figures of light, but by making the darkness conscious."

We have to recognise and experience both sides in order to rationalise the whole.

Facebook and Twitter have been too reactionary: only acknowledging a problem after having it repeatedly pointed out to them. Then, of course, the issue becomes a priority with the promise of more hires to police it and the best minds to come up with a solution.

But then something else becomes a problem - subsequently a priority - and, before you know it, this "crack task force" is allegedly working on three, four, five issues with little evidence that any are actually being resolved to any degree of satisfaction.

To not realise, or blatantly ignore, that these systems which can be incredible forces for good can also be remarkably destructive is irresponsible, if not negligent, especially so as the warning signs have been obvious, and repeatedly pointed out, for years.

But Jung's quote above concludes with:

"The later procedure, however, is disagreeable and therefore not popular."

With this in mind, perhaps it's unsurprising that regulation has not yet occurred.

Making the darkness conscious

Pondering Doc Searls’ Thoughts about bloggingComments

John shared a post by Doc Searls from back in February that I had missed - Doc blogs in a couple of different places and this was one I didn't have in my feed reader.

In it Doc shares his thoughts about blogging now in contrast with how it used to be at the "dawn of blogging's golden age."

A couple of points really connected with me.

Firstly, he remarks that this "age" "seems to have come and gone: not away, but... somewhere."

I'm not sure if that's wishful thinking or an allusion to a recent rekindling in old school blogging, people trying to get back to how they used to write and interact, having got temporarily lost in the social age.

This leads to the next point which struck home:

"We lost something big when Twitter and Facebook replaced blogging for many bloggers. The biggest loss was readership."

He goes on:

"I had a very strong sense of connection with those readers, and that's gone now."

This is exactly how I feel the landscape has changed, and as I've mentioned before. The chances were that much of our readership also used to be bloggers so the author/reader relationship was widely reciprocated.

Even those that weren't bloggers used to be heavily engaged, regular commenters who would leave substantial replies to posts. It was common to say that the comment sections on blogs were just as, if not more, valuable than the posts themselves.

Such was the care, thought and consideration put into them.

You felt like you knew your readers and those bloggers, in turn, that you were a reader of.

But social killed much of that.

Social platforms claim to be powered by engagement but it's the wrong kind of engagement, the minimum social actions which are more advertisements for presence and "me too" curation fodder showing off the supposed breadth of someone's reading.

It's ironic that the more we are supposedly connected the more distant we become. Perhaps we are widening the circles of acquaintanceship too far.

We used to focus on our comment sections and those of a select number of blogs we subscribed to, and the intimacy we experienced with our core contributors gave a real sense of community.

That feeling is often replicated in the early days of new platforms and services when user numbers are low and you would see the same names and avatars all the time. Think Twitter, FriendFeed, Buzz, Google+ - even though it was called a wasteland the initial sense of community was amazing.

Each had that "new frontier" aesthetic for their devotees; the untamed badlands to be shaped in our image until they, the great unwashed, discovered it and suddenly the quaint little settlement, where everybody knew everyone else, became full of noise and traffic and strangers.

You can't argue when Doc says that it's "harder to blog when there is very little sense of connection anywhere outside of tweets and retweets, which all have the permanence of snow falling on water."

Such a powerful statement.

But I keep coming back to the notion that the golden age has not gone away, but... somewhere!

Where exactly? Doc says he's "not sure yet" but I think he's got an inkling which is why he phrases it in such a way.

Here's what I think:

The where is with those like himself who, despite it all, kept posting to their blogs even if the engagement wasn't there because it was what they understood and believed in.

It's with the backlash against the new tribalism of social networks, the desire to return to proper conversations rather than playground name calling and increasingly dangerous rhetoric.

It's with those who strive for an open, connected web allowing people to express themselves outside the walls and control of silos and corporate control.

There are pockets of "where" spread across the web - we just need to find them.

Pondering Doc Searls’ Thoughts about blogging

The sands are shiftingComments

Blogging is a particularly singular and personal act despite your posts being publicly available - the unedited voice of a person and all that.

Reading and commenting on blog posts, however, is an inherently social act carried out on a range of scales. Unfortunately, over the years, we have slipped towards the lower end of that range.

Recent posts, discussion and approaches, however, are converging to give me renewed optimism that blogging can regain some of its status and power.

Firstly, micro.blog is a force for blogging connectedness, as I keep saying. Next, there is Richard MacManus' intention to reinvigorate a blogging community. And then Dave Winer's idea to make blogging more like Facebook (but not a silo) and his first efforts with the technology behind "Instant Dave" look interesting.

Then, of course, there is the indieweb movement which, as a whole, is built around the idea of interconnected personal sites.

It feels that there is a concerted effort not to usurp the social networks (they are ideal for certain things which is why they're so popular) but to ensure that blog posts are in the places most suited.

And not just that: to also get bloggers discovering and talking to each other again; to build a genuine dialogue rather than be isolated voices shouting into the abyss.

It may seem like I am repeating myself (and you'd probably be right) but this is something I think deserves repeating.

We have reached a point where a small number of outlets control the bulk of the web's communication, outlets that initially seem ideally suited to the task but operate according to their own rules and agendas. Outlets that control how information is presented, filtered and potentially removed.

Without any real accountability.

Medium tried to buck the trend attracting many influential people but their approach doesn't look sustainable, jumping between business models with no clear path.

What Medium did achieve, however, was to bring blogging back from the wilderness and reintroduce it (as an important means of expression) to the online conversation, raising awareness within the "social generation" who never knew life before Facebook and Twitter.

Never mind SnapChat and the multitude of messaging apps.

It may have become disparagingly known as the place to rant about losing/quit your job but the ease with which celebrities, CEOs and presidents could share extended thoughts with the world cannot be understated. In fact, that ease needs to be replicated by other tools allowing casual or infrequent bloggers to publish as often or as little as they like without a heavy investment or learning curve.

Just in a better environment.

Those looking to do something about it may be coming from different directions with different approaches but their goals are as good as the same.

The sands are shifting and I hope we can find a true oasis in the desert.

The sands are shifting

I don't know if it's just because I've been paying more attention to the #indieweb recently but striking out on your own definitely seems to be more popular lately.

Perhaps it's just a bit of observation bias where you see (or at least pay attention to) more of what you're focused on.

Bias or not, an increasing number of people are closing their accounts and leaving social networks but not the social web.

So, what's the difference?

What is social? It is interacting with others, engaging with them in some way, being part of something bigger than just yourself.

Forget about content silos for a moment, but "social networks" are still concentrated in a particular place. We may be able to interact with them in multiple ways and even POSSE our content back to them from outside via gateways and APIs, but the actual network is self-contained.

A network is comprised of nodes and edges (the connections between those nodes) and the activity graph is everything that happens across it.

A social network contains those nodes so, while we may map out our graph, it exists solely within their domain and is therefore owned by the network.

You may be able to export your data but you can't export your graph because the nodes and edges aren't transferable. Well, not without getting everyone to move all at once.

You can still be social without a social network - and by that I mean a centralised one owned by a company.

Of course, you need a social network; even if you only have one friend you still have a network - it is only small with just two nodes but it's still a network in a purely "connected items" sense.

Now, if we choose to map that network then we hold that map. My blog contains posts that are likes or replies while other posts contain links to other people. My directory page lists incoming connections from people who have liked, mentioned or replied to my posts.

It's disorganised but it's still a map, a social graph.

And I hold it.

Just as I have mine other people hold theirs and so on, and they are all sections of a much larger, interdependent network.

The difference is, however, that each section exists in its own space and is not centrally controlled. I will always hold and own my graph, just as you will yours.

We don't need to export or transfer anything because, as long as you remain at the same domain, all the nodes are always available, not locked away behind the walls of someone else's network.

We don't necessarily have the convenience of a centralised network for establishing connections, patterns and friends of friends, but we also don't have a landlord trying to leverage those connections for financial gain while we rent our space within their property.

Discovery may be harder but we can temporarily borrow the graphs of others, following the connections from our own.

We become more discerning when making new connections, adding new nodes, due to the greater investment in finding them. Our graphs become more meaningful, more valuable and more rewarding.

I know which I'd rather pick.

Status

Taking on the networksComments

While listening to the audio from a presentation by Tantek Çelik in 2014 (video on YouTube) I was struck by his contrasting the experiences offered by social networks and blogs/RSS readers.

He argues the most pivotal reason that social networks took over the web was they had "an integrated posting and reading interface" where you could see what everyone else was doing and instantly reply or add your own updates in situ.

But if you were reading blogs you would "go over to your feed reader, you'd read your feeds ... and then you go to a completely different interface ... to write a blog post."

Bang! Like a sledgehammer to the head.

It seems so obvious, too obvious, that we don't really see it until it's pointed out.

In situ!

The process we go through to read and write on the web is ridiculously disjointed and has been for too long.

Convergence

It's only now, in 2017, that something like Micro.blog is trying to blur the lines - there is the combined reading and posting interface but the content is hosted on your (micro)blog so you are reading other people's blogs and instantly replying or posting on your own.

It's a start but it's still not there. It's only for microblogs and only for those people actually on the service.

He goes on, however, to say that the silos are running out of ideas but here we are nearly three years later and the position is, sadly, even more entrenched with Facebook rapidly approaching two billion users.

That's over a quarter of the world's population.

Crazy!

The #indieweb movement takes us a little further by allowing us to interact with other "full" blogs from our own but we still have to go to one location to read, get the link for that then return to wherever it is that we write in order to respond.

Integrated

Why didn't the open web grow in the same manner and why, three years later, are we still asking the same questions? Tantek talks about learning from the silos and applying some of their best features to personal sites but it is scratching the surface.

Hearing him talk about integrated interfaces, my initial reaction was a combined feed reader/blogging environment.

It is becoming increasingly popular for enthusiasts to host their own web-based RSS readers so, surely it is a logical step to integrate this with your blog.

If you are able to read other's posts without your own environment then any action you take on them, like with Micro.blog, could be instantly posted to your blog and distributed from there.

Likes, mentions, replies, RSVPs, any type of webmention or length of posting could happen from within the reading interface - all from your own property.

Some people use browser extensions or bookmarklets to take certain actions directly from the source page, rather than returning to their own, but this is still only one part of a solution.

The Browser

Jonathan LaCour pointed me towards some thoughts he had written on the subject but I wanted to get my own down before reading his post.

He makes a number of similar points to those above but states that the browser itself is an ideal vehicle for uniting the consumption and creation experiences as they are the delivery mechanism.

I would argue that we would be better served by our own hosted solutions as we could then access them from any browser regardless of whether it was capable or personally configured.

Still, as he says, the building blocks are all there; it just needs someone to put them all together.

Taking on the networks

Levels

Aristotle may have been describing connected drainage systems when he said "water seeks its own level" but it is a perfect metaphor for the social web.

Given time and freedom from interference everything finds its level, especially our communication methods.

Things settle.

You will see an extended version of the above quote adding "and water rises collectively" attributed to Julia Cameron, the American author. Like the traditional aphorism "a rising tide lifts all boats."

But here the metaphor ends; not all boats are seaworthy, just as some forms of communication seem destined to cause more problems than they solve.

Now, more than ever, we need our communication tools to bring us together but some are doing exactly the opposite.

In a recent conversation I suddenly realised why.

Ownership

One thing I've come to appreciate over the past months is that a lot of this comes down to having ownership of our words which most don't have when they throw them away on places like Twitter. I'm not talking about physical ownership but moral and philosophical.

Even when our names are attached, what is said on social networks is not always part of "our message" - despite all the talk about branding. By this I mean our personal message not a business one; it's almost like it doesn't count and the level drops.

But words connect us.

We can only define our lives and experiences in accordance with the vocabulary we own, yet all too often that vocabulary is not sufficient to completely grasp the meaning of who or where we are and what we are doing.

That's why we need the words of others and their phrasing to grant us those eureka moments; only by having what we almost know described to us in a different way do we truly understand.

It's powerful!

The right level

Email lists and newsletters have had a massive resurgence in recent years, it's almost a romantic nostalgia for the way things used to be.

Perhaps, instead of throwing away their words, it's just people finding the right level, controlling and truly owning their personal message.

We'll never recapture the web's heyday, the genie is well and truly out of the bottle, but I feel positive as long as there are people willing to try "better."

Levels

Blogs are thrivingComments

If there's one thing that backing the Micro.blog Kickstarter has taught me it's that blogging is really holding its own.

The enthusiasm for self-hosted, independent blogging (beyond microblogging) is amazing and the range of available platforms, from CMS style set-ups to static site generators all of which I was unaware, is diverse.

Jekyll, Blot, Pelican, Kraken, Kirby, the list goes on. There are now so many ways to get your content online with just as many levels of complexity, most of which make my current setup seem ridiculously simple.

Still, it doesn't matter how you post just that you do!

What does matter is finding the best tools that fit the goals, knowledge and experience of the individual.

Some need as frictionless a solution as possible to encourage them to post more frequently while others enjoy a more complicated setup the complexities and challenges of which contribute to their blogging experience.

Although the passion for blogging is evident social networks have still taken most of the attention but self-hosting microblogs could have a dual function.

While the aim is to create a distributed social network, as self-hosting allows for both short and long form posts, those who start with just the former may be encouraged to mix it up and further reinvigorate the blogosphere.

Now there's a word that takes you back!

Blogs are thriving

Life without Twitter

For a number of reasons I decided to take a break from Twitter - some of you out there may moan "not again!" as I've taken social hiatuses before.

But, with the way 2016 has been, and things going on in my life offline, I decided to step away. So, on December 1st I stopped tweeting1, uninstalled the app from my phone and took the drastic step of deleting all 13K plus of my old tweets.

I needed to reevaluate how and why I was using the network and, as Twitter is "live", when/if I return I considered the old tweets to be largely irrelevant.

For now, however, I decided to live life without Twitter, but there's a catch:

It doesn't exist!

Twitter is where people go to announce and denounce, congratulate and complain, celebrate and mourn.

News happens ON Twitter and gets reported elsewhere - you can't avoid it. Journalists no longer need to conduct interviews and seek out sound bites, they just fire up Twitter and write their stories 140 characters at a time. Tech press, mainstream media, it doesn't matter; exposure to Twitter (or at least tweets) is now almost universal.

The amount of coverage it gets is grossly disproportionate compared to the likes of Facebook with a much larger active user base. It just illustrates how wrong active users is as a benchmark for how vital a service actually is.

Twitter flows through the veins of modern culture. Even if you're not tweeting, don't visit the site or use the app, it is always there.


  1. with the exception of a tweet on 26th December commemorating the 10th anniversary of joining 
Life without Twitter

The smartphone as a barrier

Reading Andrew Sullivan's piece "I used to be a human being" I was struck with conflicting emotions. He described the addiction to online life compounded by the prevalence of the smartphone.

The irony was not lost on me that I was reading it on my phone.

No doubt, like so many others, I was instantly hit with a sense of recognition but also with a realisation of the inherent contradictions in play.

As he rightly says, we are more connected to far more people than ever before, we have a window to the world in our pocket, but the connections we make are often less intimate, less rewarding, leaving us feeling lonelier.

The dopamine effect with no substance.

Whilst lamenting the loss of direct, personal interaction and togetherness he also pines for the lost silences. As Brian Eno has said about his vision of ambient music, it's not so much the notes but the gaps in between and the space it creates.

I love that idea.

Inner space

The bustle of modern life continually invades our personal space yet we appear to exacerbate the issue with our networks, our news feeds and the incessant distraction of notifications. However, quite perversely, we also need distractions.

There is another side to the coin.

We need distractions to reprogramme the brain and temporarily remove us from the stresses of our daily grind.

Our smartphones can become an oasis in the infertile desert of noise, a place where we can focus our full attention and escape, if only for a few minutes.

Sullivan talks about situations where "everyone is engrossed in their private online worlds" and the person next to them might as well not exist - it's true, but this is often a self defence mechanism.

It is harder than ever to find the space, quiet and solitude we need to hear ourselves think. A walk in the woods is a luxury we often cannot get, and even if we do we are surrounded by dog walkers, shouting children and mountain bikers.

We should, therefore, not be surprised that people are turning inwards, making their own virtual space where they can shut themselves off from the world.

Discipline

Of course, it very much depends on how we are using our devices, how disciplined we are and how much we allow ourselves to become consumed by the drip feed of instant gratification and the quest for approval.

The barrier we erect between ourselves and others can be a double edged sword; while Sullivan decries its impersonality, used in the right way it can be a force for healthy isolation.

It's up to us.

The smartphone as a barrier

The state of bloggingComments

Is blogging becoming a lost art?

Following on from my last post, and the assertions that Facebook is killing the open web, I started writing a post asking what we actually mean when we talk about blogs.

We think we know the answer, in fact we're certain we do. Aren't we?

This took me to Feedly, my RSS reader of choice, to examine and sanitise my subscriptions. Admittedly, it's been a while since I last did this properly but what I discovered shocked me.

So many of those whose feeds I had subscribed to, including from a number who used to be considered blogging stalwarts, are no longer updated, in some cases haven't been for years.

Individual feeds terminated with post titles such as "This Blog is Dead" or littered with scraps and remnants where the author tried to pivot but stopped publishing shortly after.

No explanation, no sign off, just dead air.

I went from over 200 subscriptions to just 51 with only around 20 of those being what you could call a blog in the true sense of the word, maybe less.

So what is a blog?

Do a Google search and you'll be given the following definition:

a regularly updated website or web page, typically one run by an individual or small group, that is written in an informal or conversational style.

The Wikipedia page for "Blog" extends this with:

consisting of discrete entries ("posts") typically displayed in reverse chronological order

Many sites that used to call themselves blogs, and may have actually started out as blogs, became media organisations or news portals written by an ever expanding staff. We are under no illusions that these can still be called blogs, they haven't been for a long time.

So what is it that really makes something a blog?

I would argue that a true blog is personal, individual, a voice.

A blog should be the unfettered thoughts and opinions of its author, singular, not even a small group. An opportunity for that individual to share their ideas with the world.

Blogs are a relationship with their readers whether that is two, two thousand or two million.

Personal

The written web has largely lost the personal touch; the informality which made blogs so special has been replaced by social media.

Blogs were supposed to be the simple way for individuals to publish to the web but status updates usurped them - for many they did away with the need completely.

Those left publishing to their Content Management Systems were left fighting for scant attention and page views while the neo-socialites traded privacy for simplicity in a race to the bottom.

A no brainier.

After the rise and fall of the six-figure blogger people still wanted to get paid to write. News became endlessly recycled, broken down into ever smaller bite-sized chunks; the "bloggers" paid by the post while the extra page views ensure the ad money keeps flowing.

No one, it seems, has time for the personal touch unless it's in less than 140 characters.

And why should they? No one reads any more.

The state of blogging

Social isn’t over, it just grew up

A couple of months ago it was reported that Facebook users were undertaking less "original sharing" - that is: personal updates as opposed to third party content. Facebook sees this as a big problem because it changes the very nature of the service.

Roll forward to the beginning of May and Mike Elgan authored a piece at Computerworld entitled "I'm calling it: social networking is over" in which he said:

And just like that, social networking is no more. The sites formerly known as social networks are pivoting to something else.

I said in a tweet at the time:

According to The Verge, Facebook is testing a new way of posting to help counter this which appears on the New Feed only and does not remain on your timeline. This new post type is intended to increase personal sharing and the article argues that it works more like a tweet, being more short-lived, as it falls off the bottom of the News Feed quickly.

Tweets, however, remain on your personal timeline so, in that regard, News Feed only posts are better although they can still be found by search. Still, I doubt that this will increase personal sharing to any great degree, if at all.

Public to private

There is no doubt that we have seen a shift from public networks to more ephemeral services and messaging based platforms such as SnapChat and WhatsApp.

With over 1.6 billion users, 1 billion of whom are active on a monthly basis, you can hardly argue that Facebook is "over" but the company recognised early that the nature of social sharing was changing - this is not a new thing. The $19 billion acquisition of WhatsApp may have seemed crazy at the time but has shown itself to be a most prescient move.

Combined with Facebook's own Messenger platform, WhatsApp has accelerated the move away from public updates which is obviously a worry for Facebook - hence the new post type. The network has always been predicated upon existing relationships but if these relationships are being taken private then the whole house of cards starts to look very shaky.

If personal updates are removed from the core product (by its users) Facebook is left with a more Twitteresque reliance on news and current events, but it it not set up to be this kind of network.

Scale and scope

Elgan contradicts himself: on the one hand, as mentioned above, he states "social networks are pivoting to something else" but also says that, with the exception of Facebook, none of the others were ever really social networks to begin with.

During the social explosion that was Web 2.0 social functionality was stapled on to everything in the hope of capitalising on the apparent "user created content" gold rush, but when a dominant player (Facebook) appears to have won it is not surprising to see them refocus on their core purpose.

The social explosion was just as much a psychological phenomenon as a functional one. Social was a novelty, largely unseen by the real world. The arrival of mass broadcast media was a novelty and the default position became "share everything" - each tiny nuance and facet no matter how banal or potentially embarrassing. As social grew more mainstream, however, the realisation kicked in that the consequences of your online actions were just as real, especially when tied to your identity.

The days of reckless abandon are over.

Elgan is right: there is a behavioural shift, just not in the way he describes. People have not stopped being social, it's just that their engagement is shrinking in scope from global broadcasts to targeted conversations with specific groups.

The actual scale of social is bigger than ever.

What is social?

Elgan distinguishes between social networking and social media as personal content versus professional content but I would challenge his definitions. He asserts people haven't realised that social networking is in decline as they equate the two.

Not so.

I would, instead, revert to the more straightforward definitions below:

  • social networking - the physical act
  • social media - the places we do it

We don't need to make it any more complicated than that.

In the beginning, how much personal sharing was considered pointless or trite? How many saw social networking as rubbish because it was filled with rubbish? You can't have your cake and Instagram it.

What if we make it even simpler by looking at the definition of social; a quick search returns:

  1. relating to society or its organisation
  2. needing companionship and, therefore, best suited to living in communities

We have an even more coherent, and perhaps relevant, definition from Miriam Webster:

relating to or involving activities in which people spend time talking to each other or doing enjoyable things with each other.

We actually have two separate definitions of social in play simultaneously, and Elgan is really just lamenting the move from one to another. The act of being social has not gone away, it has just moved, shifted.

With the emphasis moving from personal updates to news, social networks such as Facebook and Twitter (yes, I'm still calling Twitter a social network here) are now fulfilling a role that better reflects that first definition of social: relating to society.

Social networking has matured, platforms and behaviours have changed, but it is still as alive as ever. It is positively thriving.

It just grew up!

Social isn’t over, it just grew up

An idea of its time

strawberryj.am
History is filled with instances of simultaneous invention, also known as multiple discovery, where more than one person or team arrives at the same point independently.

Classic examples are Newton and Wilhelm with calculus, Darwin and Wallace with evolution, or Bell and Gray with the telephone. It's as though the answer was always there just waiting to be discovered and was destined to be found at that time.

But multiple discovery doesn't always have to be simultaneous; it is possible for people to reach the same outcome independently at completely different times without being aware of, or influenced by, the other. This happens when something just makes sense and takes an existing situation to its logical conclusion.

From my own experience, one instance is the notion of channels on Twitter which I first proposed in 2011, was separately suggested by a Twitter engineer in 2012, attempted with Event Pages, and which we now see evolved into "followable" Moments.

But one example I'm surprised more people don't mention is the invention of social link gathering services.

Nuzzel

Nuzzel has rapidly become a tour de force on the social web born out of the frustrations associated with content overload. Incredibly popular, loved by those who use it but it is not the first of its kind.

Strawberryj.am began in 2011 as a web based system to find and show only the most popular links shared by those you follow on Twitter with a count of how many shares each received. Sound familiar? It also let you search by specific users and hashtags. I used to use it all the time but, unfortunately, it did not survive and never emerged from beta.

I recently asked Jonathan Abrams, founder and CEO of Nuzzel, if Strawberryj.am had influenced its development but he was not aware of the previous service - to be fair, I think it did slip below a lot of people's radar hence the lack of comparison between the two.

jonathan abrams twitter

Two services, extremely similar in function and purpose, so why should one succeed and the other die out?

Nuzzel has captured the imagination in a way its predecessor never could and I can think of three reasons why:

Users

In September 2011, around the time Strawberryj.am launched, Twitter reached 100 million global active users - less than a third of its currently reported MAUs. In comparison to other social networks, 300+ million is now considered small fry but, for an auxiliary service, there must be a tipping point that allows it to maintain sustainability; a point when the percentage of Twitter users that would utilise such a service is enough.

Nuzzel, however, also supports Facebook which instantly exposes it to a much larger audience of potential users, although I suspect that it curries greater favour amongst those who link it to Twitter.

Smartphones

Mobile has changed the world with smartphones giving life to so many apps that would not have otherwise existed. While both Strawberryj.am and Nuzzel started out as web based apps the latter's native move to mobile devices has undoubtedly fuelled massive growth.

Although we were firmly in the grip of the mobile revolution back in 2011 the desktop web still controlled far more of our attention and the impact of mobile apps was not felt quite so keenly.

The rise of social news

RSS readers had been in decline for a while, with many preferring to source their news from their social networks, but they were far from dead. Google Reader closing in 2013 reinforced this move to social news which is a big shot in the arm for something like Nuzzel; it instantly boosts the percentage of users who are more likely to use such an auxiliary service.

Timelessness

Solutions are usually built in response to a particular need, often that need is an individual one that just happens to coincide with the need of others. When someone is not aware of an existing solution, but experiences the same pain points, it is not unusual for them to build a similar solution.

Some ideas are timeless and will succeed whatever the prevailing conditions but others, whilst being obvious in their need, require a specific set of circumstances to come to fruition. If conditions had been different in 2011 perhaps Strawberryj.am would have thrived and there would be no need for Nuzzel.

An idea of its time

App.net broadcast channels and an SOS.

What are ADN Broadcast Channels, what could they become? Could a variant be used to reduce the noise and save our streams?

App.net BroadcastAt first glance, App.net's new Broadcast feature could be seen as just an RSS replacement; dig a little deeper and you might see some parallels with Twitter's emergency alerts but what exactly is it?

Dalton Caldwell describes broadcasts over at the App.net blog as follows:

"A Broadcast is a new type of message that is always received as a push notification. A user only receives a Broadcast when they have explicitly subscribed to a Broadcast Channel. No "promoted content", no black box algorithms, just a simple way to subscribe to valuable information that might otherwise get missed in a busy feed or overloaded inbox."

The idea is for anyone to be able to publish and subscribe to push notifications about anything as long as it can push alerts to a broadcast channel via the API.

Do we need more notifications?

You may be forgiven for wondering why we would need yet another subscription/notification system and, on the face of it, I would agree but Caldwell makes an important point when defining how broadcasts should be used:

"A good Broadcast Channel will send at most 1-2 Broadcasts per day, and most likely even fewer. A successful Broadcast publisher will only publish the most important and high value messages to their subscribers."

We respond more positively and consistently to notifications than to items contained within a pool of feeds so a system to reliably deliver important information that subscribers will both see and act upon is desired.

App.net is designed to act as a standard, open social platform (the emergence of the Twitter-like Alpha was largely a proof of concept) so the potential is for us to receive various notifications from anywhere on the web and have them all appear in the same place. Using one app to manage notifications - regardless of their source - makes far more sense than the current scatter gun approach requiring us to switch between multiple apps and services.

The intention is not to be yet another source of notifications but the source.

Beyond broadcast

PushMy immediate reaction in response to broadcast channels was that the process sounded similar to my idea for push curation last year?

While broadcasts are intended for high value, low volume notifications (no "promoted content", no black box algorithms) I see no reason why the model could not be expanded for the purposes of social curation. Along with the targeted channels we could also have broader, more topic focused, dynamic subscriptions.

Perhaps we could set up channels based on user-created filters and the App.net Passport application (or similar) would let us build these filters from posts based on a range of criteria. If we are willing, I also don't see why we could not subscribe to channels that are based on recommendations and algorithms.

When Google Reader was closing I said that it was a perfect opportunity for ADN to show it wasn't just a Twitter clone. I also suggested that RSS functionality could be incorporated within a social network using Google+ as an obvious candidate.

Wheat from the chaff

While Broadcast aims to rescue the important notifications from the chat, we sometimes also need to rescue the chat itself from the deluge of links and shares.

One of my big criticisms of Twitter has been that it rapidly became a sea of links - the company calls itself an information network rather than a social one - so could a version of broadcast channels serve to keep curation within a social network but separate from the primary stream?

We like having curated links within a social network as it means we can get all of our news and conversation in one place but if curation overwhelms the social element, as it has done on Twitter, we start to lose out. A broadcast style arrangement could help us view exactly what we want if combined with better display and filtering options.

Maybe regular curators could use broadcast channels rather than sending shared content to the stream or links shared by "designated curators" could be automatically filtered. Normal client applications could include our subscriptions as well as our usual feeds - viewed separately or integrated based on personal preference.

Just the beginning

App.net still suffers from being considered an ad free, developer friendly alternative to Twitter rather than the social platform it actually is and Broadcasts is the first big attempt to demonstrate its possibilities.

Social news consumption has been touted as an RSS killer for a few years but never quite achieved it. I can imagine, however, that a derivative of Broadcast could become the mechanism for "push curation" letting us rescue our streams and still keep up to date with news or important updates via the same network.

App.net broadcast channels and an SOS.

Thoughts: building a new global village.

"Social as a quality is still something we're trying to (re)discover..." +John Kellden

BuildWe are social animals and throughout history have gathered in groups for various needs: protection, food, social companionship. Recently, however, we have been less social as a species than at any time in our history.

20th century thinking, self-absorption and technology have made us isolated within crowds but we are finally learning to use that technology and social tools to rekindle that old flame (albeit virtually) beyond political, societal and geographic limitations - rebuilding a new global village with 21st century social presence and collaboration forming key pillars.

The internet replaces the garden fence and our "neighbours" could now be anywhere.

Image by Karin Dalziel

Thoughts: building a new global village.

The social jigsaw.Comments

The social jigsawSocial
/'sōSHəl/
adjective

  1. of or relating to society or its organization.
  2. needing companionship and therefore best suited to living in communities.

Social is a series of shared experiences.

We join networks to communicate and share data with our peers. We may gather in subnets (communities or groups) to better manage resources but there is something more fundamental:

Social is building a jigsaw.

Social is sharing little pieces of you so that others might fit them together and see the full picture - our individual jigsaw, but there is the wider scope.

We identify our corners: our starting points, a base from which to grow.

We find our edges: the connections to others and work out how they fit to establish a social framework.

We recognise shapes and patterns so that we might see how we can build this framework together.

We might think that we are imposing our own structure on the network, defining our own topology but, in reality, we are trying to find our place and, in doing so, uncovering the bigger picture of which we are all a piece.

We don't have the box lid when we start out so don't know how it is all supposed to look. In fact, everyones part of the jigsaw looks a little different even though we are sharing some of the pieces.

Flux

Our jigsaws are never finished as we are always able to add more pieces, move sections we have built to establish their proper place and take pieces out when we realise that they do not belong.

Using social we are organising new communities beyond the influence of politics or geography, outside of the old narratives.

This post originally appeared on Google+ here.

Image by craftivist collective

The social jigsaw.

Does the IPO herald a new dawn for Twitter?Comments

How can Twitter grow to satisfy investors after the IPO? Is change essential, will it foster much-needed engagement or does it come at a cost?

TwitterOver the past couple of years I have found myself going in circles when writing about how Twitter might develop; ideas that seemed fanciful wishes might actually become a semblance of reality. In the run up to its IPO, the company is making the news on a regular basis with much of the focus around how it will make money for potential investors, if at all, and whether a new design or functionality may contribute to this.

When the company's S-1 filing revealed that there were only around 50 million monthly US users and that mobile growth seemed to be stagnating (a worrying sign for a "mobile first" company) talk, obviously, turned to growth, where it might come from and how it could be achieved.

Mainstream

Some tech news outlets took to wondering if Twitter would ever become mainstream but, as I wrote before, being mainstream isn't just about the number of users but exposure to data and how engrained into our daily routine a service can become.

Just as when Google+ was accused of being a ghost town, seemingly low monthly active users isn't necessarily cause for alarm just yet (numbers did increase slightly in the latest figures albeit at a reduced rate) but the network does still need to expand its user base and this is indeed a challenge.

As Josh Costine pointed out over at Techcrunch Twitter's very nature could be part of its problem.

I first asked if Twitter needed to change at the beginning of last year and, while it is widely acknowledged that filtering the main Twitter feed would be a bad idea, you have to wonder about other options to both present and consume the data.

Visual

It was reported recently that Twitter is working on the next, more visual, revision of the service with new mobile apps to enhance the user experience. Part of this reworking is said to be the removal of the #Discover tab in favour of a more media led main feed. If #Discovery is to be removed, how much of its functionality is going to pass to the primary stream?

Part of my original idea for change was iteration of the #Discover tab and for it to become the default view - the main, unaltered feed would still be available. Are we seeing the network take a similar approach but by merging #Discover with the main feed?

I have no doubt that #Discover would have been far more popular if it had not been a secondary view.

Contradiction

Twitter falls victim to contradiction: it knows it needs more engagement, which is why we have the conversation view, but the current appearance is not very engaging. I have previously referred to it as being "awash in a sea of links".

At the risk of repeating myself, there needs to be enhanced discovery to allow people to find interesting content. In this context many tweets would become almost comments on those discovered items - a ready-made conversation starter.

The new @eventparrot account illustrates that although Twitter is already a real-time broadcast network it needs to make better use of the data and actually get it in front of people. By sending notifications of breaking news events via Direct Message you not only engage those who are currently online but also, because many will have either email or SMS alerts set up for DMs, draw people back to Twitter to see what's going on.

The company now also allows you to receive DMs from anyone who follows you without the need to follow them back first. This is opt in (at least for now) and is obviously designed to increase engagement (especially for brands) but could be a double-edged sword as it leaves the door open to increased message spam.

It would appear, however, that Twitter may have tried to preempt this as some are reporting that most links can no longer be included in DMs, although this could be a glitch or the first signs of a complete messaging revamp.

It's in the cards

Twitter CardA new visual approach will make much greater use of Twitter Cards and the network has been sowing these seeds for a while. Things could go further.

If more media is going to be available pre-expanded and visible in the stream then Twitter could work with e partners to provide better text summaries of news items and, maybe, allow more characters.

We are not online 24 hours a day and often miss breaking news (especially in other time zones) so why not utilise cards to summarise key tweets while you were away? Resurfacing popular or breaking content from when users were offline could be a good way of kick-starting a new wave of engagement.

Management

As has been demonstrated time and time again, people are usually terrible at managing their social circles: lists are underused on Twitter, Circles are poorly managed on Google+ etc. To counter this could Twitter benefit from employing Facebook-esque smart lists? Would automatic classification of some of our connections into pre-defined groups help us manage our feed more effectively?

Twitter placed the hashtag firmly in our minds but has since seen its implementation surpassed by the likes of Google+ inserting up to three related hashtags automatically. While Twitter has maintained its simplicity this could have been working against it.

The network could take advantage of the automatic application of related hashtags for enhanced discovery and extend the conversation especially when a tweet is identified as relating to a trending topic.

With an increasing amount of data appearing outside of the body of a tweet can the network start adding meta data of this nature to cards? It was always argued that all data had to be retained as parts of the tweet body because of those using the network via SMS but with the increased prevalence of smartphones running applications capable of displaying this data is it time for Twitter to give in or, at least, offer a two-tier service with available functionality scaling to your method of use?

All will be revealed

Twitter has been trickling out new small features regularly in the run up to IPO no doubt in an attempt to convince the market that it is innovating and has more tricks up its sleeve.

It is unlikely we will see any major changes before the company goes public as there is a danger that drastic action could negatively affect the opening share price. Although this will be a risk at any point post IPO, after the Facebook fiasco, there is a need to make a good initial impression.

Twitter has plenty of options to modify the service in an attempt to increase engagement but it all depends how far it is willing to go without over-complicating the service or alienating existing users.

Does the IPO herald a new dawn for Twitter?

Jungian archetypes in the social age.Comments

Collective Unconscious - Jungian archetypesDoes the spread and impact of social media allow us to redefine the archetypes behind the core of our personality and behaviour?

Jungian psychology proposes that we take on the traits of established personality archetypes - patterns and images that define our behaviour; derived from the collective unconscious and a counterpart to instinct.

Once an archetype is imprinted upon us it is modified according to the experience of the individual and cultural influence but the archetype remains as the central core to our personality.

Collective unconscious

Does the collective unconscious exist? Is there really a reservoir of primal knowledge and experience that we all tap in to or is it merely a derivation of instinct from prehistoric times?

We might wonder what's the difference?

Are personality archetypes simply a natural product of parental, societal and cultural influence?

If personality traits are reproducible across social, class and cultural barriers then what does it matter where they come from. Just as eusocial species like ants are imprinted with their roles in the colony are we, too, imprinted with a base, instinctual purpose but one which has become diluted due to evolution?

Does social change us?

The rise of social media on a global scale causes us to reassess our interests, our behaviour and our relationships. The meaning of the word "friend" became diluted as our social circles widened and our sphere of influence increased.

Suddenly we are part of a global village with global concepts, global trends and global concerns. Our day-to-day experience is no longer limited by physical location or restricted to a tiny fraction of the population. We share ideas across social and cultural boundaries which would have been previously thought impossible so are we changing?

In the social age are we heading in a more eusocial direction with crowdsourcing turning us into temporary colonies with a natural division of labour according to our archetypes as opposed to enforced division according to power or status?

Knowledge is power

Does direct access to knowledge and the thoughts and experiences of others via social media and the internet now allow us to define new archetypes or redefine our own nature?

If archetypes are modified by parental, social and cultural influence is social media - despite its global impact - merely an additional cultural influence forcing us to remould the archetypes according to our experience?

As we evolve so the collective unconscious should evolve with us; surely, it is not an intransient thing but a fluid amalgam of what it means to be human. With technology and social media changing our thoughts, behaviour and relationships the collective unconscious should, over time, adapt to match the human experience. At what point do we cross a boundary and an existing archetype become sufficiently moulded as to form a new genus?

If we as a species are changing (culturally and intellectually, if not physically) then how long before the traditional archetypes no longer apply?

This post is a rewrite of an original discussion on Google+ here.

Image by Justin Davila, Wikimedia Commons

Jungian archetypes in the social age.

Twitter going mainstream by not being social.

Not a social networkIt's hard to believe that it was over five years ago that I started talking about social media's dream of going mainstream.

I said that it would happen when social services became part of everyday life, part of what we normally do and sat invisibly in the background.

We can talk all we want about having billions of accounts but numbers are only part of the story; we need to look at how services are used. Twitter, more than the others, seems to finally be achieving this new status with the likes of TV agreements (making it the second screen network of choice) and the recent announcements of instant NFL replays and crisis alerts.

By being a data channel rather than a social channel (albeit one that allows for social interaction) Twitter is positioning itself as a bite-sized traditional media style service for the Internet age.

Context

Service updates such as the recent conversation view keep us in the social mindset but the new ethos leading up to the IPO involves making Twitter a point of discovery for anyone with or without the need to actually be social.

Social discovery is something I've been going on about for a while, especially in the context of Twitter. The service has needed a way for new users to be able to find interesting content and things that matter to them in order to invest in the platform and, possibly, start tweeting.

The #discover tab started moves in this direction but didn't iterate as much as expected. The rumours that it will be shelved in a future update is, therefore, not that surprising but a better alternative must be found.

Why Twitter?

You can see what Facebook was trying with Home: altering the context by taking your social content outside of the social sandbox. Facebook was also first to have strong connections to the 'normal web' with the Open Graph so why is Twitter the social network that seems to be making the biggest "mainstream" inroads?

There are two factors, in my opinion, which have caused Twitter to lead the way:

  • its innate simplicity, even after UI & service changes, and
  • the deals it has done for content originating outside of the network

Here is the news

Twitter made it's public mark as the go-to home of real-time, crowd sourced news as far back as May 2008 when a massive Earthquake hit China. On the ground reports from normal people "as it happened" far faster than normal media channels could manage made the world sit up and take notice of a service that had been previously seen as just a geek playground or a passing fad.

I remember watching Robert Scoble collating all the information he could find and retweeting it to the rest of us mere seconds after being published - it's a small world on Twitter!

Events such as this led many to view social, especially Twitter, as an RSS replacement years before Google decided to sunset Reader. Not only could you follow the accounts from your favourite blogs (who would be tweeting their posts) but get the thoughts of others and a wider context all in one place.

Bring this right up to date and you have shared links served up within Safari on iOS7 - social news without the need for a social app. Some have criticised Apple and Twitter for tucking this away in Safari Favourites but they are thinking "socially" rather than as Joe Public - there is a different mindset at work.

By the back door

I used to say that social would go truly mainstream via the back door (by incorporating it into our normal daily tasks) and this certainly appears to be the way we are heading with the current shift in focus.

Twitter is embracing the non-tweeters with content while Google+ seeks to expose itself to a wider audience via it's commenting service. The trick is to latch on to whatever people already enjoy doing and add a social element without placing too much of an imposition upon the user.

Twitter seems to be closest to finding the right balance.

This post is an updated version of one that originally appeared on Google+ here.

Image by whatleydude

Twitter going mainstream by not being social.

A social paradox.

This is the first post in which I will be looking at the ideas of motivation and self-determination in social media, less of the "what" and more of the "why". What affects our behaviour and how can we resolve our internal motivation with external influence.

Fork in the pathSocial appears to be heading along two discordant paths: one where identity and the individual are less important as discovery takes deeper root, against a need to be identifiable for systems such as authorship and influence.

What is obvious is that we come to social (and the internet as a whole) from very different places and for different needs; what's good for the goose is not always good for the gander.

Social platforms must accommodate both paths so that creators and consumers, storytellers and audience can meet in the middle - find a common ground on which to build their relationships.

But, herein, lies a problem: how to weave both paths so that all can conduct their journeys in their own way?

Search and discovery

Search and discovery are two distinct sides of the same coin; traditional search supplies an expected answer to a specific question, nothing more - you get what you pay for.

Discovery, however, leaves things open to chance, leaves us to stumble across gems beside the path that we might not have otherwise found; those serendipitous moments of realisation and recognition.

Despite what some quarters would have us believe, search is not dead and search engines are not facing extinction but search on its own is not profitable, search is not truly able to surface patterns or interests. Search needs identity to move to the next level.

All paths lead to semantics

Search engines are trying to coerce users, leaving a trail of breadcrumbs in the hope they will entice us to the same endpoint even if our paths vary. Knowledge Graph data, related authors, social results, they are all designed to catch the eye and draw us away from basic blue link searches.

Linking search to social networks introduces identity but doing it in such a way that we log in for one and stay so for the other - one account for all.

Without realising it we are feeding search engines with a feast of our interests, our behaviour and highlighting patterns which, perhaps, we were not consciously aware.

Interests, context, semantics, discovery, impulse: these are profitable and we are exposed to temptation.

The social paradox is, therefore, not that we walk different social paths but that all paths lead us to the same end despite the direction of our journey.

Image by hockadilly

A social paradox.

Thoughts: Twitter conversations

Twitter conversationsTwitter recently introduced an update to make it easier to identify and follow conversations "in stream" linking related tweets by a blue line and placing the tweets in chronological order (first tweet on top).

We are used to the reverse chronological nature of social streams but, to follow a thread effectively, it needs to emulate how we normally read text: all together and from the top down.

An enhanced conversation view should be welcomed but has it gone far enough? Is anything more possible in a stream-like context? By introducing the new feature Twitter has already broken convention so why not go further?

Softly, softly, catchee monkey

The new conversation view need not be the end of the line and could herald further changes in future. twitter, however, has to be careful and not rush too radical a change.

How could we move on from here? I have written before about different ways to implement more conversational structures within Twitter:

  • beyond the hashtag -> could be achieved with modified event pages
  • native chats -> could be achieved with modified event pages
  • buying Branch -> spin out conversations based on a tweet but within the context of Twitter

It is widely recognised that the Twitter feed does not suit everyone and it has never been a very strong conversation platform. In fact, the busier it gets and the more people you follow the harder it is. This is why Twitter's move to group conversations in a more obvious visual manner is essential.

The whole point of "social" media is talking to people but the Twitter feed makes that hard so that we can end up with a broadcast of contextually redundant statements and a sea of links. For the casual user this doesn't offer much value.

Twitter conversationsI went on record in the past to say that I will continue to use Twitter despite finding more utility elsewhere but the inability to have decent conversations, as opposed to somewhere like Google+, has limited my usage. It is harder to feel involved on Twitter when you are not part of a regularly conversing group.

Short and sweet

The decision to stay with the 140 character limit has been a subject of discussion for quite some time as many feel you can't have a proper conversation in such short bursts but, with a proper conversation view this need not necessarily be the case.

Social conversations tend to follow a status + comments structure and this is what Twitter has been missing. The new conversation view is certainly a step in the right direction but I still feel that the service could be bolder.

Any change to an established paradigm is obviously going to be divisive - people don't like change - but a change such as this (and subsequent user comment) shows the fickle nature of the tech press who first hailed the feature before later comparing it to Twitter's Quick Bar which was universally lambasted and later removed from the iOS app.

Thin Blue Line

The current UI change might not be perfect and will most likely be modified in future iterations but it does show that Twitter is taking conversation tracking and discovery seriously; it has to.

Personally, I hope that this is just the beginning and that more advanced views appear in future, possibly akin to my earlier suggestions.

Thoughts: Twitter conversations