Twitter Tools and the Art of Un-Following

Here are some tools I use to improve my, and hopefully my followers’, Twitter experience, and some thoughts on un-following, based on an article I read today.

Sharing Interesting Articles

One of the first things any Twitter user should do is to figure out how you can add value to other users.  Not only because that will lead to a better experience for you, but also because the more value you add, the more followers you will acquire over time.  Which leads to more interaction, which improves the experience, etc.  As part of this process, I wanted a way to add my “Interesting Reading Elsewhere” list of shared items from Newsome.Org to my Twitter feed.  I have a good reading list and believe that I can add value by directing readers to the most interesting posts and articles.  I use Google Reader to save my shared items, which means that I generally add several items to the list whenever I read my feeds.  And since I read my feeds anywhere from zero to three times a day, I can go days without sharing anything, or I can share lots of items at once.  I don’t want to pull a Kawasaki, because there is a definite marginal utility to blasting links on Twitter.  So I wanted to add a couple of items an hour, at most.

My answer for this is Twitterfeed.  Twitterfeed allows you to add items from any RSS feed to your Twitter feed.  You pick the frequency of these additions (I picked every half hour), how many of the new items in the RSS feed get pushed to your Twitter feed (I picked up to 2), whether to include just the title or the title and a description (I use the title only), a link shortening service (I use TinyURL) and a prefix for the Twitter post (I use “Interesting:”).  It took about 5 minutes to set up, after which up to four of my shared items get pushed into my Twitter feed each hour (though in practice it ends up being only a handful a day).

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Twitterfeed is free, although donations are encouraged (I donated a few bucks).  I would almost certainly pay for a premium account, because Twitterfeed is very useful.

Tracking Your Follows

For enhanced Twitter email notifications, I use Topify.  Once you sign up at Topify, you use your Topify generated email address as your Twitter address, and Topify notifies you via email of new follows and more.  It tells you whether you already follow the person, sets forth in the email the person’s last few Tweets and allows you to follow them back merely by replying to the email.  It sounds and is pretty simple, but it really improves the Twitter experience.  I hope Topify adds the ability to track who un-follows you at some point.

Topify is also free.  A few more features would make a premium account worth a couple of bucks a month.

Wallowing in Your Un-Follows

Since Topify doesn’t notify you of the people who un-follow you, you need another service for that.  For this, I use Qwitter.  Qwitter is about as simple as a service can be.  Add your Twitter credentials and Qwitter will email you when someone un-follows you.  I have found Qwitter to be very sporadic.  I won’t get any emails for days and then I’ll get several at one time.  Since I doubt multiple people are un-following me at the same instant, Qwitter must be accessing my Twitter data on some regular or irregular schedule and blasting out emails afterwards.  I’m not interested in trying to track which of my Tweets run people off, so getting a bunch of emails every now and then is fine with me.

Generally, I find that most of my un-followers are obvious multi-level marketers, spammers or others who I have elected not to follow back.  Knowing who un-follows me is not all that important to me, but I’m interested enough to use Qwitter.  I doubt I’d pay for it, however.

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I guess that’s the end of the road for the Wagon Train.  Bummer.

And About Un-Following

Don Reisinger posts 8 reasons why he will un-follow someone on Twitter.  Here are my quick thoughts on this list.

If you follow him merely because he follows you.  When someone follows me, I look at their Twitter page and unless they are obvious spammers or multi-level marketers, I’ll generally follow them back, at least initially.  After that, they stay on my list or not based on the content of their Tweets.  I agree with Don that schemes to garner followers is gaming the system.  Why would I want several thousand followers who don’t share any of my interests?

You’re a company that doesn’t contribute to the community.  I think he’s talking about people who are clearly only there to advertise their goods, and not to add any additional value.  I agree.  The other day someone followed me who posts a link to their store at the end of every single Tweet.  I did not follow him back.

You’re a music lover (to a fault).  I don’t agree that music posts are not “real content.”  I guess no music post could be as fun or important as this:

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I actually like music content better than a bunch of navel gazing about the latest social networking non-feature.  I know at least one other person who agrees with Don, though.  The bottom line is that people should try to populate their Twitter content with stuff that interests them.  I think Don should chill out to a little Europe ’72, but what do I know?

You’re an adult film star, cursing fool, bot or celebrity imposter.  I can combine those four into one big “amen.”  I would even delete the word “imposter.”  I’m not much of a celebrity worshipper offline or on.  Having said that, I think @mrskutcher provides good Twitter value, notwithstanding that she’s a celebrity.

You’re a constant updater.  Don wants to hear from you in small doses.  I think my tolerance is higher than his, but I agree that some people can over-share.

All in all, a pretty good list.

So now that we’ve figured all this out, how about following me on Twitter?

Biz Stone and Transparent Opaqueness

On the heels of the recent brouhaha over Twitter’s Suggested User list, Biz Stone, one of Twitter’s founders, tries to give the appearance of clearing things up for us.

First, let’s briefly recap recent events.

sourgrapesDave Winer cried about a bunch of nobodies getting on the list in lieu of him and all his friends who feel entitled to be at the top of any internet-related list.  Rogers Cadenhead put another hilarious, mostly unrelated, beat down on Dave.  I was amused by the differences between Dave’s manifest point and his barely if at all concealed latent point.  I also mentioned that I don’t like the Suggested Users list because it is just another example of the harmful gatekeeping that virtually destroyed the blogging movement.

So let’s examine Biz’s post.

He noticed that a lot of users sign up, but don’t follow anyoneWell, Biz follows a whopping 182 people, out of 256,987 followers.  So maybe he needed some ideas?  And he’s not alone.  Many people, particularly those who already had a relatively high profile in the blogosphere before joining Twitter, follow very few people.  It’s also easy as following down (pun intended) to find people to follow on Twitter, by searching by keywords, finding “follow me” links on blogs and other websites or viewing the public timeline.  Now getting people to follow you back, well that can be a tougher chore.

So let me begin by saying that I don’t buy for one second the argument that this list was designed to help the newbie find some Twitter buddies.  This absurd argument is the foundation on which the defense of the Suggested User list is based.

Let’s continue.

Some dude at PBS asked for transparency.  Well, he may have asked for it. . . .  But, hey, those PBS people are plenty smart.  I can’t imagine what the explanation would be if someone from Spike TV had asked.

So how do they pick the list?  Well, it’s like the staff of a bookstore recommending books.  OK, but why couldn’t the Twitter staff actually roam the Twitter aisles and make some #FollowFriday recommendations?  182.  One hundred and eighty two.

And, of course, “there’s more to it than that.”

It seems their Chief Scientist (that’s a cool job title; almost as cool as Plaxo Privacy Officer) wrote a program that scans active Twitter accounts for. . . “a bunch of key ingredients,” such as:

1. How much of your Profile is filled out.  Well, there’s your time zone, a “one line bio,” a home page URL, your location and a picture.  Call me silly, but I’m not seeing a lot of distinguishing criteria to be mined there.  I’m going to call this one a head fake.

2. Certain indications that the account is interesting to others in some respects.  This, obviously, means number of followers and possibly number of ReTweets.  So we are going to once again confuse popularity with intelligence and influence.  The more followers you have, the more sycophantic ReTweets you’re going to get.  So we’re back to number of followers.  Sorry, but I just don’t think that’s a valid criteria of value.  And it’s certainly not evolutionary.  I would have expected Twitter to come up with something better than that.

3. A few other signals.  Now, that’s transparency if ever I’ve seen it.

Once this list is generated, Biz and some other Twitter people look at it to determine which users are list-worthy.  Biz mentions a couple of things they consider.  “Is the account a good introduction to Twittering for a new user?”   OK, that’s a good one.  “Does the person or organization running the account have a fairly wide or mainstream appeal?”  See, we’re right back to popularity again.

It all comes down to popularity.

Twitter is not paid to include people on this list.  Thank goodness.  That would open another can of worms.

And it works beautifully.  After that question raising, if not exactly eye-opening, explanation, Biz concludes that this little system “makes Twitter more relevant and valuable to users.”  Um, OK.  I’m thinking it’s really valuable to those on the list.  It may be valuable to Twitter.  The newbie?  Not so much.

A Beautiful Math.  But we shouldn’t worry about people on the list getting a follower windfall.  Because while “Suggested Users are getting more followers because they are suggested. . . that doesn’t mean everyone else is getting fewer followers.”  Actually, statistically it probably does.  But I’m not lobbying to be on the list.  I am questioning the legitimacy and value of the list.

So what do you do to get on the list?  Why, fill out your profile, silly.  Or be Oprah.

Eat at Twitter: Preserving the Customer Experience

Twitter is a fun and interesting place.  I haven’t been posting there as much over the past week, as I try to map out its place in my online genome, and my place in its.  But there is no arguing the fact that Twitter has momentum, and a big chunk of the public mindshare.  Like any public place, be it a park, library, beach or restaurant, the question becomes what will Twitter evolve into over the coming months and years.  And how the operators and users will protect- or not-  the experience that led them there in the first place.

wfucsufail Clearly Twitter has to make money to survive.  There are operational costs, and there’s the occasionally overlooked fact that the people who created Twitter weren’t looking solely to create a new age chat board where we could all debate whether Kara Thrace was or was not an angel (I say she clearly was) or bemoan our college choices.  They started it as a business venture.  To get rich.  Or richer.

That’s the way businesses work.  When a new restaurant opens, we don’t give the owner the key to the city for feeding us.  We know he or she is trying to make a living by creating a place we can go to have fun and eat good food.  The restaurateur is neither entitled to make money nor criticized for trying to do so.  He or she makes money or not, based on the customer experience he or she creates and manages.  It’s the same for online interactive sites like Twitter.  People will try lots of things once or twice, but you have to provide a superior, consistent experience to create a critical mass of loyal and regular customers.

The customer experience becomes the most important and valuable asset.  And one that must be managed carefully.

But what about all the other people who help create and manage the restaurant experience?  The waitstaff and bussers are integral to the experience, and they too are trying to make a living.  But much, if not most, of their pay comes in the form of tips from diners.  How does this analogy translate to Twitter?

One way or another, I think it has to.  Why?  Because there are lots and lots of waiters, waitresses and bussers on Twitter.  How do they get paid?  Are they entitled to get paid?  How is this going to work?  Are they going to improve or destroy the user experience?

I don’t know all the answers, but what I do know is that everyone who hopes to make any money via Twitter should be very concerned with preserving the experience for the users- those rare diner-equivalents who come not to sell, but to eat.  Imagine how fast you’d be out the door if instead of taking your drink order, the waiters at your favorite restaurant immediately began to badger you about tips.  When something like that happens, the user experience turns negative, the word spreads, the restaurant is doomed.  And nobody gets fed or paid.

And it’s not just outright badgering we have to be concerned about.  Very few marketers are as subtle or value-additive as they think they are.

Let’s say it again:  very few marketers are as subtle or value-additive as they think they are.

I worry about all of this, because it seems like 8 out of 10 people who follow me on Twitter are waiters looking for tips: marketer, consultant, PR representative, SEO expert, etc., etc. (and that’s not even counting the outright spammers and get-me-rich quick schemers).  Based on their profiles, all of these people are, at least nominally, on the clock when posting at Twitter.  Sure, they’re taking drink orders and not immediately negotiating for tips.  But if they are on the job, they must expect or at the very least hope for a payoff at some point.  How is that going to happen?  If my little slice is representative, Twitter is overrun with marketers, consultants, PR representatives, SEO experts and other forms of the same animal, all in search of what looks to me like a pretty small tips pool.

Which raises another interesting point.  While I don’t do it online, a significant portion of my job involves building my company’s brand and selling our services to clients.  It’s subtle- like Twitter today- but subtle or not, I’m brand building and, indirectly, selling all the time.  Every print article I write.  Every speech I give, etc.  And one thing that anyone who has ever sold anything knows is this:  it is very hard to sell something to someone who is trying to sell you something at the same time.  Some of the couldn’t sell water bottles in the desert marketers may disagree with this, but anyone who has spent a day in the trenches knows it’s true.

When someone calls me and asks to meet with me, I try to figure out what they’re really after.  Sales calls are like dreams- there is a manifest purpose and a latent purpose.  Sales people sometimes stupidly try to get in front of me by pretending that they want to hire me.  Once we get in a conference room or sit down for lunch, however, it quickly becomes clear that they are trying to sell to us, not the other way around.  We call this getting sold by the buyer.  Usually these people have no need for our services.  And even if they do, they either don’t know it or are so intent on getting through their sales pitch, they wouldn’t hear a word I said.  If I said any words.  I completely disengage when this happens.

So if all these people are flooding onto Twitter trying to sell their services, how are we to we preserve the good restaurant experience, and avoid a giant flea market where everyone is trying futilely to sell to the seller?  And destroying the user experience in the process.

I don’t know, but we better find a way before it’s too late.

Fatherly Advice, Spoken in Perfect Irony

When I see a La Quinta, I have been conditioned to look for a Denny’s.  When I see Batman, I know Robin is nearby.  And when I see a ridiculous post by Dave Winer, I know a smack-down by Rogers Cadenhead will soon follow.  Today was no exception.

I long ago made the journey from interested, to annoyed, back to interested and ultimately to apathetic about Dave, but this is just too good not to mention.

sourgrapesThis time, Rogers puts a beat-down on Dave for disguising another self-embrace as a fatherly warning to Twitter about launching people who aren’t part of Dave’s inner circle into the Twitosphere via Twitter’s Suggested Users list.  Oh, that and allegedly failing to mention that he previously did the same thing with Radio UserLand– one of the millions of things Dave apparently invented eons ago.  I don’t think Thomas Edison got the run for the light bulb or the record player that Dave gets for whatever it was he did back then, but that’s another story.

I don’t know or particularly care whether or not someone got paid to put a former MTV veejay’s feed (you know the story is dated, since I don’t think MTV has played a music video this century) in the default Radio UserLand (whatever that is or was) subscriptions.  But I am tremendously entertained by a couple of the things Dave said in his post.

I also find it interesting that Mike Arrington took the time to comment on Rogers’ post and remind everyone that Dave sent traffic to TechCrunch back in its infancy and that secret deals happen all the time.  Mike’s attempt to defend Dave while reminding everyone else that they are above the contempt of commoners doesn’t strike me as all that helpful to Dave’s case.

When I first read Dave’s post, it was clear to me that Dave’s latent complaint is that he wasn’t on Twitter’s suggested users list.  Oh, and that some little people supplanted some of his buddies who feel entitled to be at the top of the Twitter heap, even if they have to pay to get there.  If that sounds familiar, it’s because these people guarded the blogosphere with the same zeal, until they abandoned it in a fit of Facebook/Twitter lust.

But the best part of Dave’s post is this glorious nugget:

Bottom-line: This isn’t the way the Internet works. The guys at Twitter should know this. I think they’re living in a bubble, and creating one at the same time. No one likes someone who pops the bubble while it’s still building. So be it. We need to get that power out of their hands, or they need to disclaim it.

For Dave, probably the least inclusive of the blogosphere insiders, to tell Twitter that this is not how it works and that Twitter needs to give up the power to control online influence may be the single most ironic (and hilarious) thing I have read in months.

Here’s a further irony.  I actually agree that Twitter should not select and promote suggested users.  It’s another form of the sort of gatekeeping that I have consistently criticized.  But the need to disagree with the self-and-crony-serving way Dave makes his point is greater than the desire to agree with his manifest, if not latent, point.  In other words, saying the right thing the wrong way is a sure way to convince no one.

I can’t tell if Dave believes all this crap or if he thinks people are so dumb or sycophantic they’ll just take whatever he says at face value.

Either way, it’s priceless.

Begging for Retweets: Anatomy of a Tweet Gone Wrong

The other day Mashable reviewed this pox on your web service that lets people put annoying Retweet links in their Twitter posts, or Tweets as the cool people refer to them.  Being all concerned about the betterment of the online experience, I immediately spend all day writing this great Twitter Best Practices post so everyone could completely ignore it, thereby simultaneously proving the dire need for best practices and the complete absence of a need for blog posts about best practices.  All in all, it was a fine time.

Still, I held out hope that this ridiculous trend of begging for Retweets like homeless drunks beg for Thunderbird dollars would not get legs.

But lo and behold, while I was trying unsuccessfully to engage in conversation with @stevegillmor and @stoweboyd, both of whom I’ve met in the real world; actually engaging in a little conversation with @guykawasaki and @ajkeen, neither of whom I know in the real world; and bombarding @amyderby and @Joe_the_Stoner with witty and topical quotes from Raising Arizona and The Holy Grail, I saw something more horrifying than Woz dancing.  I saw a Tweet from Mashable with a Retweet link at the end.

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Right there, bigger than Elvis, were some Tweets from the same Mashable that has 216,497 followers (oops, they’ve already gained 128 followers since I started this post), asking people to Retweet its posts.  Not just once, but multiple times.  Dude, I love Mashable, but do you really think you need Retweets?

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And while every Mashable Tweet was not infested with these stupid links, there were lots that were, including a couple of self-Retweets asking for third party Retweets.  That is everything wrong with Twitter marketing in one Tweet.

Maybe I don’t get Twitter after all, but isn’t there supposed to be at least some conversational element to Twitter?  Isn’t there some natural law equivalent that dictates how we are supposed to act on Twitter?  Or is it just a giant flea market where everyone’s out to make a quick buck and the new people are the easy marks?

Sure, I used Mashable as an example of a content provider that is exempt from the Fg/Fs Ratio, and, at least up until now, it’s probably my favorite web site for tech news.  But don’t these leading companies have some obligation to help keep Twitter beautiful?

Somewhere Iron Eyes Cody is shedding a tear.

Twitter Best Practices (Version 1.0)

Now that I’ve been pretty active on Twitter for a few weeks, I have come to some conclusions about the best way to use it.  Here, for review and comment, is Version 1.0 of my Twitter Best Practices.

1. Respect the Fg/Fs Ratio.  This is the ratio of Following to Followers, which is indicative of conversational intent.  For example, at the moment I follow 354 people and am followed by 412 people.  That’s a ratio of .86, which is not bad given that some percentage of your followers will always be quasi-spammers and extremists/nut jobs (see below).  I need to follow quite a few people I missed along the way, and plan to use Friend or Follow to do that later tonight.  People with a very low Fg/Fs Ratio should be unfollowed, subject only to the legitimate news source exception (see item 2 below).  For example, @JasonCalacanis has a Fg/Fs Ratio of .0027.  He should be unfollowed immediately.  @fredwilson‘s is .0022, he too should be unfollowed.  Compare for example, @guykawasaki‘s ratio of .92, which proves that you can be a well known internet figure and maintain a decent ratio.  @Scobleizer, perhaps the most famous Twitterer of all, has a ratio greater than one (1.1), though Fg and Fs numbers that high tend to lose some of their relevance.  Even @ajkeen, who thinks we’re all a bunch of idiots, has a ratio of .60.  Sure, you have no control over who follows you and maybe you find most people boring, but the internet is full of places where you can pontificate (blogs, RSS feeds, Gillmor Gang podcasts, etc.), we want Twitter to be better than that.

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2. But Acknowledge the Legitimate News Exception.  We all read certain blogs and other web content without the implied expectation that the people who post that content will read our blogs and engage us in conversation.  There are old media examples of this like CNN and C|Net, and there are new media examples like Mashable and Engadget.  So it’s OK for those sites to have a Twitter presence with a low Fg/Fs Ratio, as long as they aren’t quasi-spammers (see item 3 below).  One important caveat: the threshold for this exception is high.  If you aren’t completely convinced it applies to you, it almost certainly doesn’t.  Lots of people with very low Fg/Fs Ratios mistakenly believe this exception applies to them.

3. Don’t Be a Quasi-Spammer.  We don’t want spam in our email inboxes, and we don’t want spam in Twitter.  You may fool yourself into thinking you are adding value, but if all you do is promote yourself or your product, you are not adding value and should be unfollowed.  You may think we want to see repeated links to your latest get (you) rich quick scheme, but we don’t.  It’s perfectly appropriate to link once to your new blog post, but if that’s all you ever do, you’re abusing the system.  Leave Twitter and go buy a real billboard.  There is, of course, a subjective line to be drawn between what is quasi-spam and what isn’t.  The best way to approach this issue is to act communally (see item 8 below).  If you don’t want the rest of us to bombard you with links to our stuff, then don’t do it to us.

4. Use Reasoned Conversational Etiquette.  Just because you aren’t face to face at a cocktail party or nerd gathering doesn’t mean you can be rude.  Don’t stand for unkind or hateful acts.  Act honorably and demand the same from others.  Become a better conversationalist by learning how to listen.  Remember, unless you follow someone, you will not see his or her tweets.  If people engage you in a positive way and try to add value to your conversation, you should generally follow them, at least long enough to assess your common interests.  For example, I generally respond to @DaveTaylor‘s polls and questions, but I have no idea if he sees my replies because he does not follow me back (that is going to come across as whining, but I’m not offended or mad at Dave- I am just giving the best personal example I can think of).  The point is that it takes some effort at reciprocity to nurture inclusive conversation.

5. But You Can Ignore the Extremists and Nut Jobs.  Twitter, like the rest of the internet, is comprised of all sorts of people.  Most of them are cool and rational.  Some of them are extremists, some of them are nut jobs, and some are both.  In life, I avoid those who are so psychologically bound by their positions that they cannot understand why people feel otherwise (Rush Limbaugh is the best example of this, and there are others on both ends of the spectrum).  When I inadvertently end up in a conversation with an extremist/nut job in real life, I simply turn and walk away.  It’s perfectly OK to do the same thing on Twitter.

6. ReTweet Wisely.  There’s nothing wrong with retweeting an especially good tweet for the benefit of your followers.  Retweets ad value.  But you have to do it wisely and with moderation, and for the benefit of the recipients and not just for the benefit of the content producer.  Tweets are not ads.  And unless someone’s safety is in jeopardy, you should never ask that your tweets be retweeted.  Anyone who does that more than rarely should be unfollowed.  And anyone who puts retweet links in every tweet should be immediately unfollowed.  We need to get together on this before Twitter becomes overrun with quasi-spam.

7. Take the Bjorn Borg Approach to Your Profile.  Seriously.  Do not write something like this: “Mr. Cool is the world’s leading authority on social networks and ginger ale.  He’s your real daddy and has an IQ of 7000.”  I’ve seen some that are pretty close to that.  Everyone knows that you wrote your own profile, so take the Bjorn Borg approach and let your game speak for itself.  Absurd, bragging profiles should result in an immediate unfollow.

8. Act Communally.  It’s impossible to cover everything in a list of best practices.  Technology and current events will always present new opportunities and challenges.  When this happens and you are about to do something new on or with Twitter, ask yourself one question: “if everyone started doing what I’m about to do, would that improve or detract from the collective Twitter experience?”  The answer will generally be pretty clear.

That’s version 1.0.  It’s open for comment!

Zebra Melody Rocks with a Great Twitter App

Earlier tonight, my buddy Dave Wallace tipped me off to a great music site, with an even cooler Twitter app.

zm Zebra Melody is a new music aggregation site where you can search for and view music videos and hear songs from your favorite artists.  For example, a search for one of my favorite bands, Slobberbone, turned up a bunch of songs, including excellent live videos of Josephine and Engine Joe, two of my favorites, and an audio link to Lumberlung, my favorite Slobberbone song.

After finding an artist, there’s a music discovery tab (“Similar”), where you can explore for new music.  The “Similar” tab for Slobberbone includes Old 97’s, Uncle Tupelo and the Drive-By Truckers, among others.  That seems pretty accurate.  There’s also a tab where artists can add tour info and other events.

Now for the cool part.  Send a Twitter message containing the name of an artist or song to @getsong, and magically, Zebra Melody will send a reply with a link to the Zebra Melody web page for that artist or song.  I first threw a softball by inquiring about Whiskeytown.  I got a reply with a link to this page, full of videos and song files.  Interestingly, some of the listed songs are covers (see Dancing with the Women at the Bar, for example).  This is cool with me, as anyone who has been following my recent Blip.fm covers series would know.  Next I threw a little heat by inquiring about another of my favorites, the Deadstring Brothers.  I immediately got a reply with a link to this page.  More musical goodness.

The navigation (particularly clicking on songs in the “Top Melody” list) is a little shaky, but all in all, I think this service rocks, figuratively and literally.   Check out their blog for more (eventually).

Tech for Grownups: What is Twitter and Why You (Might) Need It

I’ve actually heard a few adults I know in the real world mention blogs lately.  This is a good thing, as blogs are not just the nerd-infested web diaries many people (still) think they are.  Rather, blogs are a new, convenient and (at least theoretically) interactive content management platform.  As more and more “old media” sites migrate to a blogging platform, the distinction between blogs and traditional media continues to blur.  The bottom line is that the content determines the usefulness of a web site, not the software used to publish that content.  Producers of good (read accurate, reliable and well written) content will thrive and producers of bad content will not.

dsom Take the Drudge Report, for example.  That web site looks like something some kid tossed up on Geocities back in the nineties (as does all of MySpace, for that matter).  Notwithstanding these aesthetical challenges, the Drudge Report is one of the most popular and useful web sites in the world.  I check it at least once a day for news.  It’s not a blog by any definition, but it is extremely useful.  On the other hand, consider TechCrunch, the once and perhaps future home of nobody’s spittoon, Mike Arrington.  While TechCrunch is a blog by any rational definition, the content published there has the same quality and characteristics of an old media site (except for some of the temper tantrums).  Same with Mashable (sans the tantrums).  These are blogs, and they are also extremely useful.

Again, a blog, like the web in general, is a medium for distribution of content.  It is not the content itself.  As blogging platforms and other methods to publish and manage information make it easier and faster for content producers to deliver content to their readers, everyone benefits.  Much like the internet made the evening news stale and redundant years ago, these new platforms are making traditional “old media” internet formats stale and redundant.

Along with the expansion of the blogging platform, other applications have sprung up to facilitate the efficient (e.g., faster) delivery of watercooler information.  One of the most popular of these is Twitter.  Twitter is a virtual water cooler where people share information and post short, generally one-off messages.  It’s not so much an evolution of the blogging platform as the message board platform.  Now that Google has taken care of the archival requirements for internet information, where information is stored becomes largely irrelevant.  For example, if you search Google for “William Gay Books,” it doesn’t really matter where the information you find is located.  If Google is working as designed, you can zero in on the information you’re looking for, courtesy of Google’s algorithm.  The content can be spread all over the place, as long as Google or some other search engine helps you find it.  While not yet archival, Twitter takes advantage of and helps manage this sort of broadly originating content.  It allows you to consolidate information and communication from various people into a stream of information, at reasonably close to real-time speed.  Just as you can choose what blog content to read via Google Reader, you can also decide whose Twitter posts to read.  You “follow” those whose posts you want to see, and not those whose posts do not interest you.  A good way to find people who share your interests is to search Twitter posts via keywords.

Wikipedia describes Twitter as follows:

Twitter is a social networking and micro-blogging service that allows its users to send and read other users’ updates (otherwise known as tweets), which are text-based posts of up to 140 characters in length.

Like blogging in general, people use Twitter for various reasons.  Some treat is as a popularity contest, trying to amass as many followers as possible.  Others (and I am in this camp) follow less people so the level of interactivity will be higher.  Some people, most notably Robert Scoble (one of the early bloggers who did as much as anyone to bring blogging to the mainstream), have the ability to follow an insanely large number of people, while remaining fairly interactive.  Some use Twitter as an interactive business card.  Others use Twitter as a graffiti board to send random thoughts or notices of new blog posts.  Others, of course, use Twitter to spam or to impersonate famous people.  I was so excited today when I thought the Dalai Lama was following me on Twitter, only to find out it was not the Dalai Lama, despite lots of news reports to the contrary.  On the other hand, some celebrities do blog, including Demi Moore.

For me, Twitter is a quick and easy way to find pointers to events and breaking news stories.  When that airplane crash-landed into the Hudson River last month, Twitter was an early and reasonably accurate source of information.  It’s just another faucet for a quick drink of information.

Twitter is not perfect.  It’s not terribly interactive- like in real life and the blogosphere, most people are much more interested in talking than listening.  There are some users who are looking only for self-promotion opportunities.  And just like every real and virtual schoolyard, there are some who want to create distinctions between those “in the secret club” and those who aren’t.  But even with the warts, Twitter is a free and often interesting tool that gives you access to near real-time information with very little investment.

It’s not for everyone, but maybe it’s for you.  There’s only one way to find out.

If you are (or end up) on Twitter, here’s my Twitter page.

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Not Digital Luddites, Busy Grownups

nosocialmediaDwight Silverman asks why some people have elected not to use social media, having received some decidedly anti-social media comments on his blog.  Before I answer that question, let me point out something Dwight said that bears repeating.  Many social media haters already use some form of social media: message boards, comments on blogs, etc.  I’ll go one step further.  What about group email?  Text messages?  What about Amazon?  The best thing about Amazon is the user reviews.  There is a difference, however, between social media as a way to manage your existing network, and social media as your network.

Take Amazon, for example, Amazon helps you evaluate a purchase, make that purchase and have that purchase delivered.  That’s a time saving benefit you can’t get anywhere else.  Email also serves a distinct purpose that helps you efficiently manage your network.  So does texting.  While these things help you navigate through your real-world network, they are less concerned with helping you create a network.  If you’re interested in communicating with strangers, denoting some of them as cyber-friends, and nurturing the most promising of those ephemeral relationships into something tangible, there are real friends to be made through some of the social media applications.  Friends and the resulting transitive connections make a network.  There’s value in that, and in no way am I denigrating those who do this.  But at that point, the social media applications, either singly or in the aggregate, have become your network.  To the profit of the developers, but that’s another story.

And then there’s the troublesome problem of separating those who want to be your friend from those who want your money.  It’s much harder to evaluate the motives of online friendship, where the barrier for entry is low, the anonymity is high and just about everyone is out to make a buck.

There are billions of us out here who don’t want to create our networks online.  We simply want help in managing our existing, real-world networks.  I’d rather have dinner with someone than read his Facebook page or hear what he ate via Twitter.  And, to be honest, I think there is a collective feeling out here that a lot of these applications are toys, to be left for kids.  I share a little of that.  No matter how hard I try, I continue to think of Facebook as a place for young people.  When I’m there, I feel like I’m playing with a GI Joe or something.  MySpace is the Geocities for this generation: ugly, free web sites, with ads.  Twitter is semi-interesting, but the majority of the traffic is people talking over each other or thinly disguised spam.  There’s little there that can’t be handled via email.

Additionally, I think human nature prefers order over chaos.  And content bits spread all over the various social networks is chaotic.  Which is why I think aggregating sites like FriendFeed may get legs faster than the 112th Facebook clone.

In the end, I agree with Dwight.  People who don’t use social media are not digital Luddites.  Many of them are just busy grownups.

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Why Grown-ups Don’t Care About Social Networking

social networkingIf some alien traveler landed at an intersection in any decent-sized town in America, wandered into any of the four Starbucks there, borrowed the barista’s laptop to tap into the internet and read the first six blogs he came across, he would instantly conclude that social networking is more important to Americans than work, family, religion, sports and all three Elvises combined.

But like the blind fellow who happens to grab the elephant’s tail, he wouldn’t have the whole picture.

Steve Rubel says the portals – AOL (does it even exist anymore), Yahoo, Google and Windows Live (OK, that one’s a stretch) – will win the social networking wars.  I’m not sure what that means, other than they will give away more stuff for free to more non-paying customers, but I digress.  Steve says, correctly, that every site on the net is adding social networking features.  That’s because 99% of the internet is one giant, reactive momentum play, but I digress again.  Clearly, every site in the world is trying to become Facebook Jr., which from a design and usability perspective is like every NFL team trying to become the Dolphins.  But since the entirety of Web 2.0 is ad-based, all that matters is where the herd is grazing at any given moment.  Steve’s point is that we jump frog-like from one social networking site to the next, but rely on the trusty old portals to manage our online experience.  I tend to agree with that, for a couple of reasons.  One, my personal experience.  I use My Yahoo to get my news, weather and sports and my personal portal to manage my web surfing and research.  Two, logic (a concept rarely featured in the Web 2.0 mania).  Everyone who fires up a web browser has to start somewhere, including the billions who have never heard of Bebo.

I think there is an implied assumption in Steve’s post that people want more data, information and interaction, when I believe most working adults want less.  But between whatever social application is plastered all over Mashable and the old, boring, Web 1.0-associated portals, the portals will always have the superior numbers.  Some say that the teens of today will bring the Facebooks of tomorrow to main street and corporate America.  I don’t think so.  When those teens get kicked out of the nest, get a job or two and a family of their own to worry about, keeping up with what some online “friends” they’ve never met had for dinner is going to lose its place in the sphere of concern.  A lot of younger guys I know used to have MySpace and Facebook pages.  Few use them anymore.  My theory, which I can’t footnote with empirical data, is that they used the social networking sites primarily as a means to meet and advertise themselves to girls.  Once they got jobs, wives and joined the rat race, they no longer had a need for the new-personals service those sites provided.

Now comes Stowe Boyd, who’s selling something, although what it is isn’t exactly clear (“As we catapult headlong into a social revolution…”).  Stowe says that Steve is wrong.  He says because the newspapers and magazines didn’t own Web 1.0, it’s wrong to think the dusty old portal sites will own Web 2+.  Maybe, but old media didn’t own Web 1.0 because they threw it in the dumpster, thinking it was of little value.  Now that all of those ad dollars that used to support so many more magazines and newspapers have migrated to the web, you can be sure old media will follow them like cavemen followed wooley mammoths- and likely with the same result.  If there was any doubt of that before yesterday, the crumbling of the Wall dispelled it.

Sure, the distribution of information changes reasonably fast.  Sure, a lot of the social networking slag tossed up by web sites will be poorly thought out and terribly executed.  But the herd that Stowe is tracking is the loud but smallish herd of technophiles and prospectors.  The ever increasing number of substantially similar social networking sites and the chaotic bloat at the hands of unnecessary features will drive the larger herd – those billions of users who don’t care what song you’re listening to – back to places they know.  Places where the idea is to manage your information, not merely to open your online experience to the unfiltered, irrelevant and often adolescent mosh pit.  Adults, both today’s and tomorrow’s, want less data.  Not more.  The assumption that people want more is the biggest fallacy of the Web 2.0 mania.

Ask yourself how many mid and senior management people in corporate America are actively using Facebook or MySpace as their primary online management tool.  For one thing, those sites are blocked at many companies.  For another, there are better alternatives.  More does not always translate to better.  Sure, there are corporate Facebook users.  But compared to the millions of corporate users who click over to Yahoo every morning to read their news or get stock quotes, the number would surely seem miniscule.  Remove the tech industry, the marketing industry, the recruiters and those with skin in the game from the list, and it becomes even shorter.  LinkedIn has some corporate mindshare, but anyone who’s paying attention can tell that, for better or worse, LinkedIn is very different from MySpace.  I suspect it is also much less sticky, which is why its greater utility plays second fiddle to Facebook’s greater page views.  The fact that LinkedIn can’t decide if it wants to be a roadmap or a destination at least gives it the chance to make the correct decision.

Another factor?  Portals make it easy to aggregate your data and your communications.  No need to install a widget to get the weather if it’s already there on your My Yahoo page.

I think Stowe is spot-on about one thing:

The network — the Web — belongs to us, the indigenous people of the Web: the Edglings.

That’s undoubtedly true.  And while there are other issues for the Edglings – such as the conscription of their creation by others for a profit – there is a segment of the population that will never return to AOL.  Just like there is a segment of the population that thinks using Linux is more efficient than using Windows.  But those folks will always be in the minority numbers wise.  And many of them will capitulate to the inevitability of Windows as they get older and busier.  Much like many of them will capitulate to a portal when they want to stem the flow of information they suddenly discover they don’t really need.

That poor alien sitting in Starbucks, reading those blogs and wondering why all those people sitting around talking on their iPhones aren’t at work may conclude that Facebook is the future.  But it’s not.  It’s just the present.  For a loud but mobile herd.

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