Who am I? Who does the web think I am?Comments

One of the biggest issues facing us on the web is identity. Who are we or, perhaps more accurately, who does the web think we are?

We have become an amalgam of usernames, email addresses and profiles, and who we appear to be depends on which instance is being viewed.

You may say that this is no different to offline life where we are "different people" when interacting with family, friends or work colleagues - and you'd be right. But, even against this backdrop, we have our birth certificate, driving license and passport: officially sanctioned ways to say "this is me."

We need this for the web.

Half way house?

I'll admit I am conflicted about different aspects of the #Indieweb like comments, replies and other cross-site actions.

When relaunching the blog last year I deliberately removed all commenting functionality as I didn't want the hassle of handling them at my own site. I did have to re-add a simple comment loop to account for webmentions (how Micro.blog will let you know if replies to posts) but still don't really want to go beyond that in order to support additional elements.

Without the various cross-site actions is it a bit pointless going the #Indieweb route if I'm not all in?

I don't believe so and here's why.

The most important aspect of the Indieweb is owning your identity, your proper identity as mentioned above. Everything else stems from that. And, the most stable way of creating an identity is by owning your own domain and all that's connected to it.

Owning your content is a key part of this but that is not entirely possible without your own site.

Controlling who you are and having a fixed identity (not one framed in the context of a social network) is liberating.

Being able to sign in as you on another web property - literally as your domain - rather than as an external and fragmented instance of you, e.g. your Twitter account, is fundamental to what the Indieweb is all about.

We may be able to associate our domain based identity with these external aspects of ourselves by way of rel="me" links but, what if everywhere allowed you to sign in with a single account.

Truly you

What if you were truly you on Twitter or Facebook, if accounts on disparate services were actually all the same identity. Everything related back to a single point. Your single point.

No confusion, no ambiguity.

It won't happen as these silos want to control this identity, have it feed back and work for them.

So, we should support those services that, in turn, support this ideal. Beyond that, we can always dream.

Who am I? Who does the web think I am?

The cross-posting dilemma

They say exposure is everything on the social web and best practice advocates cross-posting to multiple platforms to gain the most exposure we can. I can't help but have a dilemma with this.

Much of the reason I stopped posting on Twitter was the environment I found myself in every day and a key trigger was when my Nuzzel daily summary email had Trump in the title of every story.

Twitter has changed.

Not so much as a company or a platform, but what it contains. We are at a turning point where just about everyone is talking about the same things. Everyone is political now, whether it's about Brexit or Trump or beyond.

We follow specific accounts for specific purposes but now even those are talking about news and politics.

We used to talk about serendipity on social networks, those happy accidents when people and content would briefly align but serendipity is all but dead because everyone is talking about the same thing.

Breaking stories would always gather pace, trend and take over for a few news cycles, but now our feeds are one never ending story, inescapable and all consuming.

An unsatisfactory social experience is often blamed on bad account management and following the wrong people. By that definition, just about everyone has become "the wrong people."

Medium

Escaping to concentrate on the blog seemed the only solution. There I can cover the topics I want and cross-post to Medium for (hopefully) that all important exposure.

Medium, however, is suffering from the same ailment as Twitter, although to a slightly lesser degree.

It is good that people are passionate. It is good that they want to become involved and push for what they consider the best interests of society. But the vitriol being poured forth in the name of what's best is often as intolerant as the ideas being complained about.

The platform is suffering and people are leaving because of it.

Medium's strength is also its biggest frustration - the network effect empowers us, exposes us to more people but having to rely on others in order to be seen is hard.

We see a bump in reads but realise that it is only for our responses and not for our original content - making us just an observed contributor, viewed because we have become attached to someone else's work.

The dilemma

A feature of Micro.blog will be cross-posting back to Twitter so your followers there can keep up to date with what you're doing. Having sworn off Twitter, however, I am dubious I want to start pushing updates and getting dragged back into that environment.

Just like Medium, the value is in the network and its engagement; just pushing updates and not interacting has no benefit, it's like whispering into the Grand Canyon and people don't follow links any more. But that required engagement risks becoming mired in a quicksand of negativity.

Considering this, and the double-edged network effect, also makes me wonder why I persist in cross-posting to Medium. Am I being hypocritical?

Hope

Rather than just hitting publish and letting the WordPress plugin do its thing, that I am still investing time and effort on Medium reflects that it has not yet plumbed the same depths as Twitter.

With the uncertainty over Medium's latest pivot and any new business model it is natural to wonder if this is still the place to entrust our creativity to. There is hope they have caught it in time.

With Micro.blog being a completely new network fuelled by that pioneer spirit there is hope that it can flourish whilst avoiding the pitfalls experienced elsewhere.

Maybe there is even hope that Twitter will settle or that we'll get new ways to see what we want to see and avoid what we don't.

Maybe then I'll start cross-posting.

The cross-posting dilemma

Social Proof

Over the years I've written a lot about online identity and influence but, for the average user coming to social media without an agenda, what does it actually mean?

Look at the term "social proof."

The definition of the term in psychology reads as follows:

Social proof, also known as informational social influence, is a psychological phenomenon where people assume the actions of others in an attempt to reflect correct behavior for a given situation.

In other words, if you don't know how it is appropriate to act in a given situation you will observe what others are doing, assume it is correct, and act in the same way.

Conformity through uncertainty.

Contrast this with normative social influence which is the state of conformity in order to be accepted and liked by others.

In marketing, social proof works by using ratings and reviews to convince potential new customers that this is the product or service they should be buying. Businesses use queues (often artificially engineered) to create the impression of popularity while price and admission policies create the illusion of exclusivity.

On a social network such as Twitter we have none of this. All that we have available is what users can see on your profile which is why social media rapidly became a numbers game.

The number of followers and the number of tweets.

That's it. That's all we've got.

We hope that people will follow us because others already do - that potential new audience makes a decision based on numbers as to the worthiness of an account: are they popular and do they post regularly in sufficient volume to be interesting.

That's not enough. That's not social proof.

Some people will fall into the trap of normative social influence, liking the same accounts and sharing the same links as everyone else in order to be liked themselves, to get likes, and hopefully followers. They do what they think is expected of them rather than what they want to do.

And we fall into a vicious cycle where these accounts grow because they are seen to be popular but are only popular because they aim to share what is deemed popular rather than being the voice of an individual.

False and fake

The degree of falseness on social media is extraordinary and depressing.

Social proof also falls down when a large proportion of the numbers at play are false. When so many of the accounts on our networks are bots which like, retweet, reply and even follow purely based on keyword triggers.

We have recently seen how damaging and disruptive fake news can be but, stepping away from the more nefarious intentions of some, we can see a wider problem when we consider the "social proof loop".

Although fake news is a problem when used by certain parties as propaganda it is also becoming a spectator sport with individuals on the lookout for items to share for their entertainment value.

Unfortunately, this isn't always clear.

Sarcasm and satire get lost in translation thanks to those three little words: shared without comment.

Enough!

Social Proof

Verification, identity and freedom of speech

A lot has been written about account verification on social networks, especially Twitter, including my comments on Jason Calacanis' idea to open verification to all.

Details emerged recently of a new social network called Gab rapidly growing in popularity - no big deal you may think, new social ventures appear (and usually die shortly after) all the time. In fact, the news has gone quiet just as quick.

What piqued my curiosity with Gab, however, was that, while it may have started life as a hotbed of conservative rhetoric and insult, in reading about its structure I couldn't help noticing that it employs some of the ideas proposed by Jason Calacanis in his letter from the (Twitter) CEO:

Verification as standard to anyone who can demonstrate their identity, and the option to only show posts from verified accounts.

Gab's premise is in relaxing its editorial stance (beyond the standard banning of threats of violence, illegal pornography, and revealing personal information about others) thus placing the onus for dealing with trolls and harassment firmly on the users, providing a number of tools to make this possible.

Why verify?

Anyone on Twitter can now apply for verification but only certain types of account will get "the coveted blue tick" - if Twitter deems them of public importance. This would not be the case in Jason's vision and it is not the case with Gab.

As Andrew Torba, the network's CEO, tweeted in reply to me (11th September, now deleted):

Every user will have the choice to verify. Not a status symbol on Gab. Unlike here.

This highlights the different approaches to using verification for identification:

  • to avoid confusion and ensure public interest accounts are who they claim to be
  • as a means of confirming identity for all users

Anyone on Gab that provides a recognised form of ID will be verified, by necessity making the user's real name a requirement. 1

Freedom or licence?

While Gab may provide features such as filtering and muting to help users combat harassment is it right for a platform to divest itself of responsibility for the content it holds?

Freedom of speech or expression may be a right but must not be abused - there are limits and such freedoms are not intended to protect speech that is designed to incite hatred or cause harm.

The quote from Salman Rushdie on the homepage sets the scene:

What is freedom of expression? Without the freedom to offend, it ceases to exist.

What Rushdie is saying is that it is fine to have different opinions, to believe in different things and sometimes this is going to cause friction, even offence. Unfortunately, some extrapolate this as a licence to be abusive.

Offence is an unfortunate byproduct of such freedoms, not its raison d'être.

Why should social networks be such a special case? Just as we demand our freedoms we demand our protections and take pride in society's fairness.

Just because a user is provided tools to combat harassment is it reasonable to expect them to spend their time avoiding attacks?

If so many users leave the "entirely left-leaning Big Social monopoly" (that Torba argues isn't qualified to define what harassment means) what is it going to be like on a network that makes no attempt to maintain order?

Surely, it is the law that defines harassment and Gab's obligation (and others) to abide by it.

Verification as a means of identity is designed to hold users to account for their words and actions; with such a laissez faire approach it seems pointless implementing such a scheme.

Fair and just?

As with Jason's fictitious Twitter, being able to see updates from only verified accounts means we run into the problem I described previously: unverified accounts (for whatever reason) become second class citizens.

Hardly fair.

Besides, many will choose to see everything anyway, partly from the fear of missing out but also to ensure no one is attacking them from behind the filter curtain.

Torba states that anybody is welcome to express themselves on Gab but I can already imagine the "if you can't stand the heat..." and "you knew what it was like..." responses already.

Some might argue that the trolls should just be left to wallow in their self-made, toxic cesspits but we know from experience with the likes of 4chan that these things just don't stay contained.


  1. Unless the network is willing to become a custodian of identity, linking screen names to real people in the background, and users are willing to let it. 
Verification, identity and freedom of speech

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

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

goo.gl – keeping it short.

goo.glSo, Google made their URL shortener goo.gl publicly available and, while some have questioned the need for yet another address shrinking service, most welcome the addition due to its minimal downtime and implicit staying power backed as it is by the search behemoth which, let's face it, isn't going anywhere.

I mentioned a while back about the potential for Google to use their shortener for tracking, statistics and finding related content or users. 

If all google products use their own native shortening service then they still have a wealth of data to mine both for strict info purposes but also as a means to improved the functionality of their existing portfolio - most noticeably, search - but is goo.gl really ready for prime time? Goo.gl presents click statistics in a nice, granular format listing referrers, browser, platform and country but does not list shared instances such as tweets a lá bit.ly.

Why switch from bit.ly?

Bit.ly is a great service but doesn't appear to have moved with the times. I would suggest it needs to update or risk losing users. For example, Friendfeed is virtually dead in the water since its acquisition by Facebook but bit.ly still references the number of shares on the aggregation service as a metric for your links - this is no longer of any real use.

How about Google Buzz? I, and others, often draw parallels between Buzz now and FriendFeed in its hey-day with the former being very much in the plans of Googles social endeavours. It would make far more sense for a link tracker to reference Buzz rather than another service which is going the way of the Dodo.

Integration, integration, integration

How can goo.gl improve? The obvious answer is for it to have integration with other Google services. As stated above, link or mention tracking in Google Buzz would be an obvious place to start; indicating the number of shares with the service, who shared it and providing a link to that share would be very valuable in order to track discussion.

While goo.gl has launched without an API, which may possibily a bit short sighted, there is promise of one being made available which will only appeal to developers and content producers further. The ability to automate shortened URL creation and include statistics directly in your product or site will be a boon. Combine this with the built in creation of QR codes just by adding .qr to the end of the shortened URLs and you are on to a winner. 

Risky Business

The news this week that the Libyan registration service NIC.ly is pulling .ly domains (such as vb.ly) which are considered to break local Sharia law - amongst other reasons - has obviously caused some concern. When you add that it is felt those domains with less that 4 characters should can be given to locals then sites like bit.ly should be concerned.

We may have now seen the update in which NIC.ly say that had vb.ly been a normal URL shortener then it would have been okay but it doesn't get away from the fact that using .ly is still potentially risky.

If bit.ly were to disappear in this fashion then goo.gl could really benefit but needs to up it's game and iterate to provide at least some of the functionality offered by it's rival.

goo.gl – keeping it short.

Twitter: the bird must fly the nest.Comments

FledgeThe web is already filled with the recent news that Evan Williams is being replaced by Dick Costolo as CEO of Twitter which could well herald a new era for the self-described news & consumption network. Since his arrival, Costolo has been behind a lot of the current plans to increase revenue and now the target for that new era is to build Twitter into an effective, self sufficient and profitable company.

I suggested last week that those in charge might be too close to the product to really get the best out of the business and it would appear that the powers that be at Twitter feel the same way with Williams now moving on to focus on product strategy leaving Costolo in control of the business side. Costolo has already confirmed that Twitter is not for sale.

Things are changing with the imminent arrival of targeted advertising and promoted accounts but that is no doubt only the beginning; things are bound to go further with the possibility of selling space in #newtwitter's right hand pane - the web version of prime real estate up for auction.

Advertising

Advertising on Twitter is bound to become a lot more prevalent, invasive and unavoidable so it will be interesting to see if this has an impact on the number of users jumping out to third party clients or, perhaps, leaving the service altogether. The client option may not, however, be an entirely safe haven as the likes of promoted tweets are due to be heading in that direction.

If Twitter is to allow targeted advertising based on who you follow then this must be done carefully and correctly so as to avoid any privacy concerns that may arise. Twitter must strive, at all costs, to avoid any comparisons to the controversial Beacon system employed by Facebook. There may not have been a backlash against #newtwitter, mainly because the new design is a genuine improvement, but you can be assured that any suggestion of improper use of the new possibilities providied by the updated site will cause an uproar.

Questions

The question many will now be asking is: how else can Twitter monetise the service?

Other possibilities could include 'wrapper ads' around video media in the right hand pane, a tactic many sites already employ, but it would depend how far they wanted to go. The problem with something like this would be that it removes the immediacy that is inherent in Twitter and so may frustrate users.

Could a 'freemium' model possibly be adopted where users pay a monthly premium for an ad-free version much like that which many forums adopt? While studies may have shown that people would not pay for using Twitter I would suggest that a number could be persuaded to change their minds depending on the amount of advertising they were exposed to and how it impacts their use of the service.

On a daily basis, Twitter continues to become an increasingly important part of online life both from a personal and business perspective and I don't doubt there are many who would be willing to part with a small monthly premium to use the service without distraction.

Whatever the possible options for successfully monetising the service Twitter must tread very carefully or risk alienating the user base. What is patently obvious, however, is that Twitter must be allowed to spread its wings and fly the nest of original ideals when money didn't matter.

Image by Teddy

Twitter: the bird must fly the nest.

The social media economy.Comments

I originally wrote a version of this post in July 2009 for a different site which is now defunct so it can no longer be found on the web. Rather than lose it completely I have re-posted it here with a few ammendments to bring it up to date.

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EconomySocial media and the global economy - the parallels are striking and significant.

Now that the global economy appears to be on the upward curve of a major economic "downturn" it is obvious why things have failed. Hindsight is a marvellous thing but too often we don't learn from what hindsight has shown us.

Perhaps, more importantly, we also don't learn from those with the foresight to realise when things are about to go south. There were those who had been forecasting a major financial crash and there are those that have long been forecasting problems ahead with the social media "industry".

Bubbles

Social media has seen the expansion of the biggest online bubble since the whole dot-com boom and, just like the money markets, it was not hard to see that this level of growth was unsustainable.

Just like our economies, social media services have their own "interest rates". The more compelling a service (just like a savings account) the more we invest our time in it and, consequently, the more "interest" is paid. If a service becomes less interesting we invest less and, as it can no longer support the same levels of excitement, the "interest rate" falls.

These relative rates between services, and the cross over of features/interoperability, can be likened as the social media equivalent of the exchange rate between currencies. The rates will be in a constant state of flux depending on what facilities they offer and the perception the users have based on comparisons with similar offerings. As consumers we cannot help but compare our network of choice to the alternatives and the networks themselves should be doing likewise in order to consistently offer the best service they can.

The mighty dollar

As far as 'mainstream' usage is concerned, Facebook is the equivalent of the US dollar against which all other services are judged. While those in other markets may not feel that the Facebook dollar is the most relevant currency, the market needs a point of reference and that falls to the service with which 'Joe Public' is most familar.

Just as "real world" companies had been surviving on debt the social media sphere has existed on "borrowing" ideas from somewhere else, mimicking the functionality of other services. As there are only a finite number of ways you can communicate with someone else over the internet we obviously can't go on with this borrowing. The credit (ideas) either runs out or no-one wants to lend to you. This is when we get the creation of walled gardens - businesses doing their own thing in isolation: a retreat from the global sense of openness that social media tried to instill in all of us.

Reduce, re-use, recycle

Aggregators and other services quickly became a repository for rehashes of information held in other places - trading (and potentially profiting) on the returns made elsewhere - money for (essentially) nothing and, perhaps, could be seen as the social web's version of the "fat cat" bankers.

In the past year or so it has been interesting to see that - like a number of banks - various social media services have folded; the social web became too disjointed with too much replication without innovation. The mistakes have been recognised in hindsight and now, with curation services, the next wave is trying to provide additional value. Just as the banks are now required to hold more capital inventive presentation, intelligent filtering and recommendation are the tools being used by the new breed of services to prevent themselves become functionality bankrupt.

Caution

Consumers are now considerably more wary about where they invest their online time so services are forced to adapt to meet these premium needs rather than target themselves at the sub-prime market of the past where just about anything would pass as a social application.

Social products must now provide real utility rather than merely just a platform to communicate.

Image by simonk

The social media economy.

Why social networks cannot now be open.Comments

ClosedThere have long been calls for a federated Twitter with the likes of Dave Winer leading the way.

Now, following comments from Alex Payne (ex-twitter employee) repeating the call that Twitter (and other networks) should be decentralised, there has been a new focus on why this should happen. Jesse Stay, for example, blogged that the first network to open up "gets the opportunity to lead the pack, and hundreds of millions will follow"

Too late

Perhaps in the early days of social networks this might have been a possiblility, not now. A few years ago when there were no defined business models and networks lived off of Venture Capital there might have been the opportunity for a bold new vision but I feel that it is now too late to change direction. Social networks are like lumbering super tankers resistent to changes in direction. Unfortunately, once they have been set in motion along a particular path it is increasingly difficult to deviate from it.

Being a social network is a business and when you are in business you want people to use your product. Decentralising and allowing users to take their data and social circle elsewhere in its entirety is a frank admission "you don't need us". The networks, on the other hand, need their users and need to excert a degree of control over them for monetisation purposes.

Reports show that around 70% of Twitter traffic is via the website - the new Twitter is obviously a tactic to raise that. With this level of market share Twitter are willing to live with the third party apps as they add some value to the network without too much potential impact on revenue.

Consider, however, if the network was distributed with users jumping out to alternative sites or even self hosting? At what point would Twitter say "enough is enough" as they lose revenue due to a decline in market share within their own network?

Louis Gray #NewTwitter" href="http://blog.louisgray.com/2010/09/social-media-experts-marketers-egoists.html" target="_blank">posted earlier:

The New Twitter also reduces the options for some services to market themselves. Instead of seeing "From TweetDeck", "From Tweetie for Mac", "From Seesmic for Android" and so on down the line, the New Twitter no longer displays Tweet sources. I assume this is to reduce confusion from new users, and to focus on the content of the tweet instead of its source.

It could equally be a way of reducing the impact of third party tools as the Twitter website aims to be more of a permanent destination without the need to hop out.

Jesse has also recently pointed out that new twitter also removes the link to RSS feeds for streams. I commented at the time that this may simply be because it is an underused feature, Twitter have done the metrics and removed it. It is entirely possible, though, that is has been deliberately pulled to prevent the easy access to the feed from external clients.

Defensive

The networks are going to be protective over their estate and this is perfectly understandable. In order to maximise their returns they are going to want full control and will not be willing to share user base, advertising opportunities etc. Now that the networks have matured they are plugging their own gaps and, as I said before, taking back what they now consider to be rightly theirs.

Social networks may well be heading in the wrong direction as far as advocates of an open web are concerned. Some may feel, perhaps rightly so, that Twitter and other networks need to open up or die but the consequences of doing so could be equally catastrophic.

Social networks are, perhaps, realising that the old ways just don't cut it any more and repurposing is the way ahead; by becoming destinations for more common activities such as news and media consumption they stand a much improved chance of survival.

Image by Jasoon

Why social networks cannot now be open.

Why are people scared of Google’s Social Layers?

scaredSince it was announced that Google are building a social layer, and choosing to do things a little differently, into their apps rather than a separate social network there has been criticism and outright rejection of the idea. But, as I have previously said, taking this approach actually makes quite a lot of sense.

TechCrunch reported:

“Google Me will produce an activity stream generated by all Google products. Google Buzz has been rewritten to be the host of it all. And the reason Google Buzz isn’t currently working in Google Apps is because they’ll use the latest Buzz to support the activity stream in Apps…All Google products have been refactored to be part of the activity stream, including Google Docs, etc. They’ll build their social graph around the stream.”

There has been some disappointment to Google taking this direction but it does not need to build a new social network from scratch - it already has one in the form of Google Buzz. It just needs to develop it further. With the rumor that Buzz will form the aggregator for the various social layers it would appear that this development is already on the cards.

Context

Fred Wilson raised the issue of context and likened this approach to FriendFeed. He cites FriendFeed's failure to make a big impression as an indicator that Buzz as an aggregator could fall flat on its face.

He argues that the likes of Twitter have succeeded because of 'social intent' - users visit the site with a specific purpose in mind (a view I touched on a couple of years back) - whereas, FriendFeed failed as there was no specific intent and items appeared out of context.

I replied to his post with the following comment:

"The key difference to FriendFeed here, as I see it, is that each Google product will have its own social layer specifically tied in to that product - the specific social intent as you describe above.

If the reports are accurate then activity from each of those social layers is aggregated separately (allegedly in Buzz) - so Buzz is the equivalent of FF where you can access all of the social interactions from the products you use in one location.

The fact that each app is social in its own context means that you interact at whichever level you choose. Only use Picasa? Fine just interact there - there is no need to dock with the Buzz mothership. Want to use multilpe products and see what's going on in one central location? Cool - head to Buzz.

In my opinion, it offers choice and flexibility."

This layered approach will afford greater flexibility and allow users to choose how they interact socially - there would be no obligation to use Buzz.

Did FriendFeed really fail?

If you look just at the numbers then, perhaps, FriendFeed could be considered to have failed. Adoption rates aren't up there compared to services like Twitter and usage has dropped off significantly. But let's use Fred's argument of context against him: when you consider that FriendFeed was bought lock, stock and barrel by the single biggest player in the social space and many of it's features found their way in to Facebook itself then you have to consider FriendFeed to have been an ultimate success.

One crucial difference between Google Buzz and FriendFeed is that with the latter there was an explicit requirement to go and sign up an account; with Buzz , if you have a GMail account (and presumably an account with any Google application) you will automatically have a Buzz account. Google needs to ensure that Buzz is advertised but not forced down peoples throats.

#newtwitter, Buzz and context

Look at how Buzz currently operates: items shared into the stream are shown in full. Google Reader shares show the full text of the post (on the proviso that the feed itself publishes full text), images and videos are presented inline, etc. By bringing each social object directly into Buzz the context is largely retained. Discussion about a post makes sense as you have the post itself to refer to, Google just has to be careful what content is aggregated and how it is presented.

The new Twitter website is being hailed as a great way to get the most out of discovery on its network. Context is being introduced by showing images, videos and conversation threads right in the site but do we hear concerns that this will break Twitter and remove the social intent? No, we instead hear that it will facilitate easier discussion and discovery and the information is presented all in one place without so much need to leave the network itself.

I ask you, what's the difference?

Image by Scr47chy

Why are people scared of Google’s Social Layers?

Subscription v CurationComments

Battle
The battle is drawn

I started writing this post over a week ago and in that time the argument has sprung up in many different places with advocates on both sides.

Content curation and social sharing is rapidly becoming widely established ranging from casual curation via link sharing on social networks to dedicated services such as Amplify. Its popularity is such that curation advocates are arguing that it is sounding the death knell for RSS readers (as distinct from the format) and traditional news outlets, especially now that Bloglines is being shut down, but is this really the case?

Personally, I don't believe so.

Curation is great - you can't deny that - and has been with us in one form or another for as long as the web. Sharing files or links on bulletin boards, forums, blog posts listing "best ofs" or "top 10 resources", and more recently sharing items from RSS feeds via Google Reader have all set the scene.

Getting news and links via your social circle allows you to consume things you would probably never find through your own surfing. Consuming social news also means that you don't have to manage your own news sources.

Should you wish to target your consumption you can use something like Twitter lists but it is not essential to actively play a part in the delivery of news beyond initially following people on your network of choice.

The down side

There are, however, distinct disadvantages to relying on your social circle for news. Firstly, social news is immediate - it appears in your stream and within no time at all is buried under a pile of new status updates. Recent reports mentioned that the effective life of a popular tweet was only half a day.

Could you imagine it if you could only see emails when they hit your inbox as they would be deleted within 12 hours?

We are not always plugged in to our social circles 24/7 and can even go for days without being connected (rare for us geeks but it does happen). There is, therefore, a high chance of missing items that you would normally like to read unless you are using lists to add your own level of curation to the mix.

It has been said that if news is important enough it will find you but it cannot do so if you are not there.

The second drawback of curated lists is that they invariably consist of mainly links with little explanation or guidance as to what they contain, especially within the 140 character restrictions of Twitter. You are, therefore, constantly forced to jump out to a browser or a different client in order to read the item. You may be able to peruse more tweets in a minute that posts in other places but how much value is actually gleaned from them?

The primary advantage of subscription based consumption is that your feeds are gathered in your reader and retained until marked unread just like your email. We can therefore consume items at our leisure days, weeks, even months after they were written should we want/need to. Providing the feed publishes full text you need not even leave the RSS reader.

The argument that news is just what's new and anything else doesn't matter is, frankly, wrong. In the wider context than tech journalism and the echo chamber we consume more than just news. We are not all chasing the latest and greatest. Research around a topic may rely on older information where newer work may not exist. If we restrict ourselves to the here and now we are missing out.

That perfect blend

Subscription alone means that we are limited to the feeds we have discovered thus requiring a greater effort on our part to search out new sources of information.

The sweet spot is a blend of subscription & curation: discovering sources via the curation efforts of our social circle so that we may then subscribe to those sources that interest us most. Just because one of our friends has shared a particular item there is no guarantee that they will then share further items from the same source (or that we see those shares even if they do) so the ability to then follow those sources directly is still a must.

We are entering a time where our online behaviour is altering but, as with so many other things, it is an evolution and not a revolution and our readers and applications must adapt to match this behaviour.

Perhaps RSS will alter over time but there is plenty of life in the old dog yet.

Image by Lovro67

Subscription v Curation

Why Ping will succeed as a social network.Comments

pingI don't own any Apple devices, haven't use a Mac since OS7 when you had to have a 3rd party TCP/IP stack just to get on the web, have never installed iTunes and probably never will so am looking in from the outside, experiencing Apple's Ping vicariously from the comments of others.

It would be fair to say that it has come in for quite a bit of criticism from many including being called non-intuitive, not a social network, and merely an underhand ploy to generate sales through iTunes.

The basics

Ping is currently a fledgling network, a version 1.0 in every sense. We are spoilt by the current state of Facebook and Twitter et al so any new offering coming to market that is not all bells and whistles seems incomplete. We need only look back a few years and remember how our current favourite networks behaved when they were young and we can draw instant parallels.

Holes in the service leading to a plethora of third party applications helped growth but also caused fragmentation and inconsistencies in the Twitter ecosystem - some of which Twitter is now trying to resolve. Facebook is more like Apple in that it has a much tighter grip over what happens with its service but, obviously, still comes nowhere near having the element of control that Apple has over its whole domain.

Many have said that the fact Ping only exists inside iTunes is a big failing - the obvious parallel here is Google Buzz only existing within Gmail. This obsessive control, however, will mean that Apple can grow Ping exactly as it wants with little outside interference, although the comments of its users would be the most valuable tool to ensuring a happy camp. Giving people a sense of investment in your product is a sure-fire way to breed loyalty - the "I made this" factor is very powerful (Microsoft have been using it for years with their beta testers) and should not he ignored.

Perfection

Apple, and specifically Steve Jobs, is a perfectionist and will not take criticism of Ping lightly. Over time we will see Ping run through a number of iterations with features being revised, completely re-written, added and even removed in order to transform the network into the most effective social music platform it can be. After all, the better the network and the more comfortable iPod/iPhone/iPad users are with it the more likely they will stick around, share their suggestions and - most importantly - make new purchases based on the shares of their friends.

As some have suggested, it is most unlikely that Ping will sit on its laurels but instead it will morphine and grow to encompass other areas of online life in the Apple sphere. Music, video, games and applications, even Apple hardware itself could become a topic of conversation.

Apple may have fallen out with Facebook just prior to launch over the "onerous terms" the latter wished to impose but the two won't stay mad at each other for long. The two will most likely become bed-fellows as some point in the future. As Ping grows Facebook will realise it is missing a trick and make further advances to Apple but more on the latters terms. Apple was obviously keen to have a connection in the first instance but balked when faced with possibly the only other arrogance on the web to equal its own.

Linking to Facebook will be the first step to getting a wider platform for Ping so that it is available outside of iTunes. A separate client for the various Apple mobile devices would be a good start - the larger iPad would be an obvious first choice. Being inside Apple's walled garden whilst, not being ideal, would not be the death of Ping on its own as long as Apple let you discuss and recommend items you already have rather than revolving around new purchases; better tie-ins between Ping and iTunes are a must.

As the service grows "taste profiles" will no doubt improve - they have to, as do building more accurate recommendations based on what you already like and the likes of your friends. As one of my friends on Twitter put it:

"It would make more sense if it actually compiled tastes from your entire collection & listening habits and didn't suggest Katy Perry"

There will no doubt be promoted albums and artists, new releases and popular items across the board but the distinction between social recommendations and promoted ones will need to be made. Apple will quickly realise this and move to appease their customers or risk a backlash and reduced sales - cash is king.

The bigger conversation

It is understandable why Apple have not opened up Ping to additional conversations and updates outside of the current experience - they are no doubt concerned that the banality of conversation from other networks may dilute the goals of ping in getting customers to part with their hard earned but, without the ability to enter into a wider dialogue, users may become disillusioned.

I feel it is, therefore, inevitable that Ping will widen both its scope and remit in the coming months after an initial period of bedding down. Apple invests itself whole heartedly in its products and is not prone to admitting failure; because of this Ping will be made to work, by hook or by crook.

Why Ping will succeed as a social network.

Who do you think you are?Comments

Remember who you areThere are some arguments that won't go away and that over the value of social media seems to be one of them.

Sarah Lacy over at Techcrunch has suggested that those complaining about how the social web does or doesn't work are actually using it incorrectly. She has received a varied reaction and, while I may not see eye to eye with the full post, I would be inclined to agree that some have lost sight of what they set out to achieve on the social web.

As I posted recently, the value you get from social networks is very much determined by your usage scenario. To all those who say that the social web does not work for them I would say that the 500 million people happily sharing, updating and playing games on Facebook don't seem to be complaining. What have they achieved that others have not?

They have found themselves.

It may sound a bit zen and esoteric but your average user on Facebook is there for a specific purpose and the service itself fits that purpose perfectly. They are there as a private individual sharing photos and updates, catching up with their friends or playing games. Usage is casual and many are actually following their "flesh and blood friends" and relatives.

The complications occur when social media is used for business and those involved are not differentiating between business use and their personal activity. We need to decide who we are and why we are using the social web. We need to ask ourselves which hat are we wearing at any given time as our goals and expectations will differ.

Personal or business

For the vast majority, personal use is just for fun - there is no pressure. Conversations are purely ad-hoc and genuine, there is no pretention or sales pitch distorting how they communicate. Value is quickly achieved under these circumstances as expectations are simple and easily met.

Business users will also not have problems when a specific purpose is defined; be it brand management, monitoring the competition or a customer service channel. The goals are set and results clearly identifiable.

Ideally, we should be in a position where we can segregate our usage based on the role we are undertaking - the easiest way to achieve this would be to create a different account for each purpose. Separate accounts, however, are not always possible especially for those in startups or for those people whose persona IS their work - this is why the announcement of the new group functionality in Orkut caught the imagination.

Too much

Those crying foul tend to be the new media revolutionaries, the mavens, the gurus who are trying to do everything and be all things to all people. It is impossible for these people to separate business and private use as the two are intrinsically woven. By necessity they are spreading themselves across the social web - an all ecompassing brand - but are being spread too thinly. The ability to interact efficiently can be lost; the balance between broadcast and engagement skewed until, eventually, the audience can become embittered.

Constantly riding the crest of the social wave can only be achieved by allowing the avenues of least effect to ebb away. Attempting to maintain the flow across all services will only result in the wave crashing beneath us.

Image by m kasahara

Who do you think you are?

Are social platforms the next Microsoft?Comments

StolenJason Calacanis may have been shouted down when he warned startups that Facebook could, potentially, steal their ideas but he makes a number of good points, especially when you consider recent history.

In the early years Microsoft were viewed as the bad guy: frequently accused of bullying tactics, stealing technology and abusing their power due to their shear size. Eventually, a mixture of backlash and the increasing interests of the US Department of Justice and the European Union necessitated a better business ethic (admittedly a simplified overview but you get the idea.) Much of Google's appeal came from the "do no evil" mantra which became a direct counterpoint to how many viewed the Redmond software giant.

Fast forward a few years and, now, Twitter and Facebook are essentially being accused of the same thing. Stealing ideas and bludgeoning their way through the social web in an attempt to monopolise as much traffic and advertising revenue as they can.

Smash and grab

Both Twitter and Facebook have a demonstrable history of mistreating the third party developers working in and around their ecosystems. With growth comes an increased sense of power and entitlement. Devs have been filling holes in social media services ever since they began but the services are taking back what they now consider to be rightly theirs.

The social platforms are taking ideas from the developer community surrounding their infrastructure and modifying them for their own ends. In some instances they have purchased or absorbed the original developer but how much of this is "sell up or we'll crush you"?

Twitter

Twitter bought Summize to integrate the excellent search functionality but has consistently reduced the value of search by making the available history smaller. Facebook bought Friendfeed and vowed to keep the site alive but it has stalled and all but died. Both, as I have mentioned in the past, were technology acquisitions for purely selfish reasons.

Twitter has had its share of controversy with the attempted killing of old style Retweets and now taking back the Tweet button from about the most successful ecosystem startup Tweetmeme. While Twitter may have partnered with Tweetmeme an licensed some of the technology powering the tweet tracking functionality you have to wonder about the outcome had Tweetmeme decided not to play ball. In any event, the Twitter Tweet Button functionality is grossly underpowered when compared to its predecessor causing some to migrate to Topsy.

Startups have been criticised for purely basing their business around Twitter but bit.ly can probably feel rightly aggrieved now that the social network has decided to implement its own URL shortening system and replace bit.ly as its default shortener. It could all, however, be irrelevant when Annotations eventually become a reality and URLs are moved to metadata rather than being part of the tweet itself.

Facebook

Facebook has been surrounded in controversy from the Beacon advertising fiasco to the privacy debacle surrounding Instant Personalisation. The attempts to make the entire web an extension of itself via likes and the social graph caused some to question Facebook's motives.

Coming more up to date Facebook has been accused of trying to squash Quora with its Questions and Answers feature. Also, with Places, Facebook might hope to kill the likes of Foursquare and Gowalla despite supposedly being in partnership with them; although this appears to be backfiring so far as Foursquare is seeing record growth.

Size is everything

Microsoft ran in to trouble when it was considered too big and was using that size to an unfair advantage. Can we envisage a time when a social platform is large enough to attract the attention of the authorities for anti-competitive behaviour?

Will we see complaints from one service against another or will complaints come from outside the social web as other areas start to feel threatened as social platforms look for new areas to expand to beyond their traditional domains?

Image by redbike606

Are social platforms the next Microsoft?