Three Simple Things Twitter Should Do to Improve the User Experience

Twitter-Logo-150x150As everyone who reads this blog knows, I run hot and cold on Twitter.  On the one hand, I just don’t  get what’s so magical about trying to have a conversation in a what amounts to a public chat room often inhabited by a horde of spammers. MLM’ers and self-promoters.  I didn’t like chat rooms in the nineties, and I don’t see the appeal now.  On the other hand, a lot of my friends really love Twitter, and I have been wrong before (about Facebook, among other things).

So I keep trying to figure out how to use and enjoy Twitter.  During this process, I came up with three simple things that would greatly improve the Twitter user experience.  Without further adieu, here are three things that Twitter should do right now, today, that would help me and a lot of other people use and enjoy Twitter more.

1. Escalate the Spam Battle

I can’t give you numbers, but I am confident that a large number of the people who follow me in any given day or week are doing so only in the hopes that I’ll follow them back so they can turn around and send me some sort of spam.  MLM crap, outright scams, you name it.  I am equally confident this is the case for other people as well.

Twitter should fight the spam fight for us, or at least give us better tools to fight it ourselves.

Sure, you can send a spam report off into the ether.  I have reported a number of users for spam.  Maybe some action has been taken on some of them, but you can’t prove that by me.  Twitter should value the quality of its network- not just the quantity- and take a stand against spam.  I can’t remember the last time I saw a story about Twitter’s efforts to reduce the spam that runs rampant on its network.

But make no mistake.  There are ways to fight spam.

One of the most effective ways would be to take a page from the message board book and appoint a class of community “moderators” (call them whatever you want) who volunteer to monitor the network for bad behavior and who are empowered to take action against it.  Sure, you have to clearly define what is grounds for action, and you have to err on the side of allowing content, but I can tell you from experience that it can be done.  Cheaply and effectively.

Why hasn’t Twitter done this, or something similar?  The cynic in me says the developers are too busy reading their own press.  But maybe I’m wrong about that too.

I hope so.

2. Allow Embedded Media

This is something Pownce did years ago, and Facebook and Google Buzz do now.  You don’t have to host the files.  You just need a way for people to link content and allow others to hear or see it in line, right there on Twitter.

Some will want to play the copyright card, but if you aren’t hosting the content, I see that argument as a canard.

And even if someone who matters at Twitter thinks this is a bad idea, I don’t think Twitter has a choice.  Why? Because other services are doing it.  Twitter has all the mindshare right now, but as we’re seeing with all the Buzz hoopla this week, things can change.

Spam might kill Twitter.  The failure to stay feature competitive would, for sure.

3. Better Subscription Management

I try to keep up with my inbound and outbound Twitter follows, and in this regard let me give a mighty shout out to and recommendation of Topify.  If you don’t use it, you should. In fact, Twitter should buy Topify and make it part of the core Twitter code.  It’s that good.

Even with Topify, it’s inexplicably difficult to manage your Twitter follows and followers.  There’s no way to mass unfollow people, for example.  There are some services that try (or used to try) to provide this sort of thing (Your Twitter Karma, for example), but Twitter doesn’t like them, and has taken the position that some of them violate Twitter’s terms of service.

Here’s the problem with that.  Why is it OK for spammers to follow 999 people a day, unfollow them and then spam them, but there’s no way for a user to generate a list of people they follow and choose (e.g., by uncecking a box) which ones to unfollow?  Stated another way, why doesn’t Twitter allow us to manage our subscriptions any way we want?

Sure, you can unfollow people via the list of people you follow (click on the “following” link below your photo), but the list doesn’t easily tell you if the person follows you.  You can figure it out by clicking the Actions button and looking to see if you have the ability to DM the person (yes, they follow you; no, they don’t).  But why does it have to be this hard?

Last night, I decided to browse my follows and remove obvious spammers and most of the people I follow who aren’t major media writers and don’t follow me back (you know, my Pink Floyd policy).  This should have taken 60 seconds, but it took forever, because I had to find this list via FriendOrFollow, and then unfollow people one at a time.

Note: my Pink Floyd policy is not absolute.  There are plenty of people I find interesting enough to follow, regardless of whether they follow me.

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Another  problem: there are a ton of people who follow me, that I don’t follow back.  My general Twitter approach is to follow back anyone who follows me who (a) has more than a few posts, and (b) isn’t an obvious spammer or  MLM’er (Topify makes this pretty easy by including recent posts in the new follow email notice).  But, again, I come and go with Twitter, and I get behind.  There are tons of people who follow me that I’d like to follow back.  But I don’t have time to visit each person’s profile and decide whether to follow or not.

Twitter makes this a little easier by showing whether you you follow your followers (the “followers” link below your photo).  This is clearly designed to encourage following and to discourage unfollowing.  Why?

You should be able to slice and dice your follows, any way you want.

Users should have access to a page with profile information and a box that can be checked or unchecked to follow or unfollow people.  Candidly, I can’t conceive of why there isn’t something like this already.

That’s it.  Three simple things that would vastly improve the Twitter experience.  For me, and for everyone else.

Why Does Real Time Always Equate to Twitter?

I think Google’s introduction of real time search results is interesting and potentially a step forward in the web search experience.  If, for example, I want to search for the latest development in Tiger Woods’ utter and complete implosion, it would be fun to sit back and watch the stories- and new alleged mistresses-  float by.  In an ideal world, a real time Google search would be like an instantaneous Google Alert, notifying me close to immediately if an article or blog post is published on a topic I am interested in.

What I totally and completely do not get is why whenever people talk about real time, the next word you hear is Twitter. . .

 

Twitter-Logo-150x150First of all, the large majority of substantive Twitter posts are links to other content.  That has been posted somewhere else.  Already.  So by definition and math, much of what is posted on Twitter is not only not real time.  It’s after the fact.  Wouldn’t it be better to talk about real time results from the actual source of the content?

Secondly, does anyone without skin in the game really- I mean really– think Twitter is all that informative?  To index and serve search results of Twitter posts, in real time or otherwise, is like recording elevator conversations and calling them feature films.  I search Twitter from time to time to see who’s talking about topics that interest me (alt. country music, my hometown, etc.).  80% of the results are spam, 15% are other nonsense, 4.9% are things I’ve already seen and .1% are things that might interest me.  That’s a really bad success ratio, particularly compared to a regular old Google search that generally gives me relevant results.  Or used to.

In sum, there is almost nothing that originates on Twitter that I’d want to see in my search results, real time or otherwise.

Compared to MySpace, however, Twitter is like the New York Times.  The fact that Google includes MySpace in any search results makes me actually pull for Bing.  Or maybe not.

Seriously, who decided this was a good thing?  I feel like everyone talking about this dropped acid while I was chugging Red Bull.

Screwing Over Users Is Not a Business Plan

Let’s all say it together:  the way to make money on the internet is not to screw over your users.

Once more: if you have to make things worse for users in order to make money, maybe your business plan sucks.

imageFirst, I read a little more about this ad.ly thing.  How in the wide world of sports can any portion of the legitimate internet embrace, applaud or permit what looks to me like nothing more than organized, high tech spam?  Seriously, if I am going to un-follow someone for tossing another idiotic multi-level marketing scheme in my Twitter feed, why in the world would I accept blatant ads from people?  Legitimize an in-Tweet ad-based economy within Twitter and you will be overrun by a horde of eyeball prospectors whose sole or substantial objective is to entice eyeballs inside their tent in the name of money.  If the philosophy isn’t enough to make you say “hell no,” then spend about one second considering the impossible logistics.  Twitter can’t keep the spammers off the line now.  Imagine how bad it will get if in-Tweet ads gets blessed by Twitter.  You’ll see a ton of automated links to stuff we’ve already seen, purely as a set-up for the ad-hosting, money seeking Tweet.  Spam may kill Twitter as things stand now.  Why make it easier?

If you still aren’t convinced, then remember that Tweets are short, 140 character posts, most of which are either completely un-newsworthy or link to content elsewhere.  If you want to pay people for Tweets, then you better pay them for links.  And recommendations.  And good karma.  Word of mouth is the benefit of a good product, not the product itself.  If I tell my friends to watch a particular TV show, I don’t expect to get paid for it.  And if I did, the value of my suggestion would be nil.

In sum, this in-Tweet ad business may just be the worst idea ever.  Other than this one.

Microsoft has proven that it can’t get its ducks in the same zip code where the internet is concerned.  So rather than create something that gets the herd to migrate voluntarily, it is apparently considering trying to buy the herd via some thankfully doomed from the start deal with News Corp, the other big company that doesn’t get the internet.  Here’s the thing: people are going to use Google, that’s why it’s a verb.  If you take your content out of the Google search results, people won’t see it.  Merchants go where the people are, not the other way around.

And if you pay someone else to take their content out of those search results, I, for one, will consciously avoid whatever corral you’re trying to force me into.  That’s just not OK.  If you want eyeballs, create something people want to see, and make it easy for them to find it.  There’s way too much internet content supply to artificially manipulate the demand.  So don’t try to gain customers by making things harder.  It won’t work.

The things that make money are the ones that are good for users.  Not unnecessary obstacles that only serve to leverage off of them.

Why It’s Good that Scoble Un-followed Me

unfollowRobert Scoble, the incredible hulk of the social networking space, un-followed over 100,000 people on Twitter this week.  I was one of them.

But that’s OK.  In fact it’s a very good thing.  Here’s why.

My single biggest gripe about social networks in general, and Twitter in particular, is that far too many people use them to blast out the content they want others to see.  With little or no concern about what others are saying.  When that happens, the platform becomes a stage at best and a spam-fest at worst.  I’m all about conversation and back and forth.  And face it, that is impossible when there are 100,000 people in the room.

There’s nothing even remotely social about trying- or pretending to try- to interact with that many people.  A follow becomes a virtual autograph.  Most of us don’t want autographs, and even real celebrities are beginning to realize that they are better served with a more direct connection to a smaller group of people.

So when an influential person like Scoble makes a considered decision to manage his content in a way that is actually manageable and allows meaningful social interaction, that’s a very good thing.  If Robert rejects, even indirectly, lecturing as a proxy for interaction and follower numbers as a proxy for authority, then maybe others will follow suit.  When that happens, the social networking space might actually become social.  And useful.  Maybe even a little conversational.

Granted, it would have been better to adopt this approach from the start, before building up a six figure following.  To do it this way necessarily opens the door for criticism- non-reciprocity, the gatekeeping thing, etc.  There’s nothing to be done about that, and I say better late than never.

A manageable social network is better, in every way that counts.  I hope others will un-follow me too, if that’s what it takes.

How TweetDeck Could Take Over the World

And maybe kill Google, Microsoft and Wolfram Alpha in the process.  OK, that was a joke, but since all tech blogs use absurd, over the top headlines in a juvenile effort to attract readers, I thought I’d give it a try.

Back to TweetDeck. . .

tweetdeckI’ve dabbled with TweetDeck for some time, using it periodically but always finding my way back to my home-grown Content Master.  The Twitter part of Content Master, of course, is the excellent TwitterGadget, which does a lot of really neat things that other Twitter apps have surprisingly not implemented.  TweetDeck comes about as close as any desktop app I have used.  With a few additions, I think TweetDeck could become my Twitter app of choice.

But make no mistake, for that to happen, this has to happen:

First, it absolutely must allow multiple columns of “All Friends,” to allow users to better manage screen space.  The most important part of Twitter is the river of posts from the people you follow.  Having a single column to view this limits you to 6-10 posts on your screen.  That is far too few (sure, I could scroll down, but I’d rather allocate more screen space).  Users should be able to allocate multiple columns to the river, with new posts appearing in the first column and then moving to next column(s) before they rotate off your screen.  This is a must-have feature that should be implemented today.  Literally.

Second, how about a Google Reader implementation.  There’s already a way to add your Facebook data to TweetDeck.  Give me a way to access my Google Reader information from within the application and I’d be hooked.  Something similar to, but more robust than, the Google Reader gadget would be a great start.  I’d be happy with Google Reader.  I’d be thrilled if other apps were also incorporated, like Delicious, Read It Later, Photobucket, Dropbox, etc.  In other words, make TweetDeck as good for publishing Twitter content as it is for reading it.

Third, once all that additional source data is available from within TweetDeck, allow articles to be dragged from the applicable column (i.e., the Google Reader column), into the Tweet message box.  Populate the message box with the title of the article you dropped in there, and populate the link box with the URL, which should then be automatically shortened.

Fourth, provide a way to export all, filtered portions or individual items from your TweetDeck to other services, via RSS feeds.  That would allow you to use TweetDeck as the publishing platform not only for Twitter, but also for other services.  If I could selectively embed some of the content I read and publish in TweetDeck to my blog or some other site, that would be very helpful.

Fifth, create a top row of tabs for different TweetDeck page layouts, content and implementations.  If I could have my Twitter stuff under one tab and my Google Reader and Facebook stuff under another one, that would give me the flexibility I seek.  iGoogle, My Yahoo and other apps already have tab or tab-like features, so this shouldn’t be hard to add.

That should keep you busy for the rest of the day.  What are you waiting on?  Time’s a wastin’.

Spymaster: Big Fun, Twitter Spam or Both

I don’t live on Twitter, so Spymaster, the Twitter-based online spy game, didn’t cross my radar until I got a DM from someone I follow inviting me to join her spy network.  I followed the link and discovered an apparently easy-to-come-by invitation to Spymaster’s public beta.  It looked like a pretty well-designed site, so I decided to give it a try.

After signing up, you first decide what spy organization you want to work for.  I was hoping for CONTROL (Don Adams version), but it wasn’t a choice.  So I picked the CIA, being an American and all.  Afterwards, you’re a junior spy working for the Company.

In sum, the game then involves performing various spy tasks that, if you are successful, result in payment and an increase in experience points.  Pretty standard game fare.

As you accumulate money, you can buy weapons and defensive gear- body armor, etc.- for yourself and your spy ring, which consists of your spymasters (those of your Twitter followers who also play spymaster) and your regular spies (those of your followers who do not yet play the game).

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As you accumulate experience points, you progress up the spy ladder.  I am currently a Level 11 spy.  As you move up the ladder, you can perform more difficult- and lucrative- spy tasks and buy better gear, thereby increasing your attack and defense numbers.

You can also assassinate rival spies, though your success or failure rate is tied to the overall strength of your spy ring in a way that is not easily discernable.  As a result I have, thus far, generally engaged only in retaliatory strikes and public service first strikes against those who link bomb Twitter by adding a bunch of Twitterfeed posts at one time.

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If you are successfully “assassinated,” you don’t die.  You just lose money and perhaps other assets.  If the attempt fails, you get a portion of the assassin’s money.  Thus far, I’ve made a little net money via unsuccessful assassination attempts against me, but not much.  I tend to see the assassination thing as an annoying distraction so far, which is odd since I assume the interactivity of assassinations is intended to be the focal point of the game.

As you accumulate more money, you can- for a price- deposit it in a Swiss bank account, so it won’t be subject to loss via assassination.  You can also purchase “safe houses” in remote location to generate additional revenue.  So far, this has been the focal point of my game, with some success and a little uncertainty.  While risk and payment numbers are provided, it is not clear how that matrix works, and it is not clear how often safe house payments accrue.  In sum, there should be a lot more detail about some of the game play details.

But the purchase of safe houses keeps my account balance low, which is a disincentive for those who might seek to assassinate me.

There’s been a bit of an uproar on Twitter over the game feature that allows players to increase their power by recruiting their Twitter followers to the game, via DMs, and the game setting which increases your payouts if you post certain game events to your Twitter feed.  Personally, I haven’t been overwhelmed by DMs, so I don’t have a problem with that feature.  I only post two major game events to my Twitter feed (level ups and assassination attempts), but I have seen a bit too much game related activity in my Twitter stream.  So while I wish people would keep their game-related posts to a minimum, I haven’t un-followed anyone for posting game-related stuff.  Yet.

The big question, of course, is whether Spymaster is a brief diversion or something that will have the staying power to become a permanent part of the Twitter experience.  While it’s clearly in beta at the moment, it needs more depth to have the permanence it seeks.  At present, there’s a lot of clicking on tasks, waiting for your energy level to return, and clicking on more tasks.  Notwithstanding the “social” nature of the game, interaction with other players is limited and, as far as I can tell, interaction with those in your spy ring is non-existent.  On the plus side of the ledger, those of us with game playing pedigrees are conditioned to climb up the money/experience ladder and will probably do so, at least for a while.  And the web site is well designed and highly functional.

It’s a good start, for sure.  But the final story won’t be known until we see what else the developers have up their sleeves.  There’s not enough depth now, but there could be later.

As far as the Twitter spam goes, I have not sent any recruiting DMs, because I am a vocal opponent of anything resembling spam.  Given the free for all (and, candidly, already heavily spam and quasi-spam infested) nature of Twitter, I don’t consider the Spymaster-related communications spam.  But I can see how some people would.

For now, I’m mildly interested in Spymaster.  If you want to be in my spy ring, send me a DM and I’ll send you a return invitation.  Let’s go assassinate some geeks, shall we?

The Line Forms Here: How the Man Controls the Social Networking Game

Toss a bunch of nerds in a room and I guess generations of nerd conditioning combine with nerd DNA and compel them to form a line and then apply their Trekkie logic to sorting and resorting each other.  It’s like a supercharged version of that video of those two rats.  Actually, that’s not right.  Those rats are funny and you can tell by their expressions that they know they’re acting stupid.  There’s nothing funny about nerd self-sorting.  Boring, yes.  Sad, maybe.  Funny, not so much.

So why in the world someone would want to slice and dice their Friend-fracking-feed is completely beyond me.  It’s bad enough that I actually have a FriendFeed.  God, spare me the unmitigated embarrassment of ever talking about my FriendFeed stats.  If I ever start yammering on about the clicking average of my FriendFeed with readers in Tweeting position, please taze me bro’ and take me straight to man-camp for an immediate stones transplant.

But there must be a lot of people who, astonishingly, care about this sort of thing, because there seem to be tracking apps for everything.  In fact, I guarantee you that somewhere as we speak some pasty geek is working feverishly on a fantasy social networking league.  With the first pick in the first round, the Cucamonga Slide Rules take Robert Scoble.

The not-so-hot stove league is not limited to FriendFeed.

You can track your Twitter use various ways.  You can theoretically analyze your RSS subscribers (except, of course, for the fact that Feedburner is utterly and completely broken).  I guess if you have the time, you can spend 24 hours a day pouring over your social networking post and commenting percentage.  Of course that would be profoundly boring, but you could do it.  I guess some people do.

But here’s the thing.  The fundamental purpose of most self-policed lines is to allow those at the front to better their position at the expense of those who can be initially shoved to the back.  School children to sports pages- it’s all about the line these days.  There is- or at least used to be- a fuzzy correlation between line position and success, and so people latched on to the only objective criteria available and suddenly the place in line became the goal, as opposed to the result of achieving some more legitimate goal.  In online endeavors, the line often takes the form of traffic, evidenced by subscriber numbers, page views, etc.  So people want to find a shortcut to the goal- more traffic.  Why work to grow your readership when you can just spam people with the latest get more Twitter followers scam?

And of course as soon as the line is formed, the focus turns to guarding one’s position in the line.  And the entire system becomes a giant tug of war, often at the expense of merit or content.  Or logic.

Adding to the chaos are the ranking/listing algorithms that people trot out to validate their position in the line.  No matter how you dress it up, most of these allegedly analytical algorithms eventually come down to the same thing: popularity.  Popularity has been the stand-in for authority and value on the internet since Dave Winer invented it.  Not only is that a faulty and debilitating correlation, all of these algorithms that spit out the same oligarchical list propagate the falsely established order at the expense of those whose authority is eclipsed by their exclusion.  Stated another way, popularity does not equate to authority.  To say otherwise is to confuse People Magazine with an encyclopedia.

Python incoming.  Surely we all agree that strange applications lyin’ in internets distributin’ lists is no basis for a system of social networking.  Supreme social worth derives from a mandate from the masses, not from some farcical statistical hegemony.

People simply don’t need some algorithm or starter list to tell them who is interesting or who they should read or follow online.  People are perfectly capable of finding content they like without a helpful nudge from the establishment.  The whole idea of suggested reading lists and their ilk- which as noted are usually based on popularity, which is another word for the status quo- are just a confidence trick.

Designed to allow the man to control the game.