Colin Walker

on social media, tech, blogging and the internet.

The five C’s of social media.

Yesterday I wrote about the five base opportunities afforded us by social media and wanted to expand on them a little. As I said, they are:

  • the opportunity to contribute – easy sharing of information
  • the opportunity to comment – your chance to have your say
  • the opportunity of conversation – getting involved in discussions with others
  • the opportunity to collaborate – work with anyone, anywhere to achieve a common goal
  • the opportunity of community – building relationships online

While social media allows us to do many things it is these five C’s that form the core of what it means to me and affects the way in which I use it.

Contribute

This is pretty self explanatory and, in the current context, would include posting to sites like flickr, blogs etc. – essentially providing some form of content for the consumption of others. Content sharing has never been easier and, with methods of delivery such as RSS, subscribing to those shared items is a breeze.

Now, not everyone using social media is a contributor in this sense of the word but may contribute in other ways as we shall see below.

Comment

Mark Dykeman remarked on FriendFeed that he is “starting to see more users on FriendFeed who aren’t importing any RSS feeds into their lifestream” and asks “Are they just here to talk/comment?”

As mentioned above, social media does not automatically imply that you are a content creator but may still have a perfectly good contribution to make by way of making comments. David commented on my earlier post that comments and conversation could be merged but, as he himself admits, making comments does not necessarily mean that you are entering in to a conversation.

There are a number of scenarios where ‘comment’ is a standalone action and so warrants a classification of its own. A comment is an opportunity to stand up and be counted or to voice your opinion. Real world applications could be voting (political or otherwise) or surveys.

While standalone comments may not be viewed by some as truly within the ‘spirit’ of social media they are just as valid and often lead to intelligent discussion.

Conversation

The real bread and butter of social media is the discussion it promotes. While we have always had conversation in one form of another, social media extends the scope of those conversations by increasing the ease with which we can have them with more people in increasingly diverse locations. We are also, therefore, able to expand our own spheres of influence far beyond that which we would be able by traditional means.

While real world applications for what we call social media may be limited there is no reason why we cannot apply the concepts to other areas. Take for example the use of mobile phones. The ubiquity of these devices is without question and we would feel lost without them but in so far as their base function (making calls) is concerned there is so much more that we could do with them.

We take conference calls for granted on the phones in our office but it seems unnecessarily complicated to set up a conference call on a mobile. Carriers do sometimes offer the facility but generally only to business customers. Why not provide this facility to personal contracts? We are encouraged to set up our favourite contacts so that we can reap the benefits of reduced rate calls but why not enable us to configure a group of friends and call them all at once just as we would send them all a text message? An instant social application of existing technology – teens would love it.

Collaborate

As a direct consequence of enhanced conversation and connectivity comes the ability to collaborate more effectively. Collaboration tools of all types already existed before the current race towards making things more social but the social element acts as a facilitator. The business implications are obvious but the reach should be extended beyond the corporate setting – clubs and groups, student projects, volunteer work can all benefit not only from the utility afforded but also be doing away with the need to come together in one physical location

Community

I won’t apologise for repeating myself – social media is all about people. The tools exist because people demand them and those people, and the inspiration they provide, are the most valuable resource that social media has to offer.

While the meaning of ‘friend’ is distorted we can build great online relationships with like minded individuals from all over the world which should supplement (and not replace) our normal face-to-face acquaintances. If possible we should also strive to take these new friendships away from the computer, be it by voice or in person, non-typed communication can extend our connections far beyond that which we can achieve by keyboard alone.

In life we build a circle of friends based on our location and experience, the same applies in a social media context but with the advantage that we are not constrained by those same factors. Not only do we extend our sphere but we can gain additional benefits with regards to our reputation.

New blood

There are a number of users who are not social media mavens already on services such as FriendFeed but these are the tech savvy crowd who would otherwise find alternative means to achieve what they currently can with whatever service they are using. When people talk of the desire to see social media go mainstream these are not the target audience being discussed.

In the first instance I don’t think it’s a case of getting other users on existing services but more a case of identifying where people could benefit from the things social media hopes to achieve. We should perhaps be taking the lessons we learn and using them in other real world applications to improve existing tools rather than try to thrust new ones in peoples faces. Once we see a shift in offline behaviour we may then be able to migrate people but they will not want to use “social media” just because we say they should – it generally goes against what people currently accept as the ‘right’ way to do things.

Social media is a product of the internet but everything we strive to achieve has it’s derivation elsewhere: in what we call life so why draw distinctions between the two. We must employ the same tactics we use online to our daily dealings, perhaps then we will be able to convince others of the utility afforded by online services. We need to be selling social media as merely an extension of what we already do – just another tool to change life for the better. Perhaps then we can add a sixth C to the social media list: culture.

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June 30, 2008 Posted by | Social Media | | 16 Comments

What brings us to social media?

OpportunityWhen Mark Dykeman commented on my post “People who need people” he remarked “Perhaps many of us do drink the KoolAid more than we should but… it’s hooked us for a reason”. So what is it that attracts us to social media?

No doubt, at least in part, inspired by his comment, Mark shared his story detailing what attracted him (and keeps him coming back) to social media and I’m sure his story will ring true with many. However, his or my reasons are not going to be valid for the majority. As Steven says, things may be nice and rosy is out bubble but what about those “who still look forward to a Sunday brunch with their newspapers”?

As early adopters we have a different mindset to Joe Public – what floats our boats will not necessarily float those of others – a rising tide drowns those who cannot rise with it.

Task oriented

A lot of the time we use social media for the sake of it whereas most will only use it if it is task oriented (as I have said before) but even then would still need a lot of convincing before taking the plunge.

For example, take my mother-in-law. She is perfectly happy to use email when it suits a purpose but is still far more comfortable with the phone and mainly uses the web to plan holidays but soon realised that you can’t get the same information, opinion and flexibility as when speaking to an actual person.

You frequently get good deals on price if you book online but without the flexibility – her solution is to get all the details online including the deal but then ring up saying the online booking form wouldn’t work – the travel agent will then generally honour the deal and, at the same time, you can speak to a person and tweak your package in ways that you couldn’t online.

So, would some kind of social media endeavour get her to change her behaviour? Probably not.

Undoubtedly, for many of those already established on the interent it came as a natural progression from bulletin boards, IRC, forums, or Instant Messaging – depending on how long they’ve been around. The ideas behind social media are as old as the hills, what’s new is the ease of use and the scope – it is now a question of scale and simplicity.

For others there will have been a desire to keep in touch with friends who are already using a particular social media service. And finally, there will be those who were attracted to the newest bright, shiny object; attracted by the buzz and hype.

The five C’s

At it’s core social media gives us five base opportunities:

  • the opportunity to contribute – easy sharing of information
  • the opportunity to comment – your chance to have your say
  • the opportunity to collaborate – work with anyone, anywhere to achieve a common goal
  • the opportunity of conversation – getting involved in discussions with others
  • the opportunity of community – building relationships online

We early adopters willingly embrace these opportunities but many see little or no need to enhance their traditional forms of communication – perhaps rightly so. The internet is not a replacement for face-to-face communication but can certainly facilitate and encourage offline activity so how can we extend the reach of social media and invite in those who would otherwise show no interest?

Over to you

What brought you to social media, and why do you stick around? And how can we use our stories to educate others?

UPDATE: added collaborate to the base opportunities.

Image by Eric Rice.

June 29, 2008 Posted by | Social Media | | 6 Comments

Twitter: robbing Peter to pay Paul?

Twitters’ success was undoubtedly originally due to its simplicity; it was a service that anyone could use via a browser or mobile phone. Then it grew beyond its initial remit with @replies and an entire ecosystem springing up around the API – geek heaven.

That was until the crash.

Without effective scalability Twitter has been suffering and drastic measures have had to be taken to prevent the service disappearing in a puff of smoke. I would, however, question some of these decisions that have been made to keep the service running.

One of the most frequently used parts of the Twitter web UI is the replies tab but in times of stress this is one of the first things to get dropped for the greater good. Call me old fashioned but replies, and the conversation as a whole, are now what makes Twitter what it is so who is Twitter trying to keep happy those developers of third party applications or their core user base?

We are seeing an increasing number of people who, like Mel McBride, are having to turn to Summize in order to see their @replies. You can still make them and they are still logged but Twitter just doesn’t show them. Surely, it is going to be far more resource intensive to perform an API searchg for them that it is for them to be displayed natively in Twitter.

Admittedly, API calls have been reduced from 70 per minute to 20 but if the explosion of third party applications has had such a huge impact on Twitters’ performance why have they not been temporarily blocked in order to keep the core functionality intact? Why continue to support others at the expense of your own offering?

I’m sure the community would understand.

June 28, 2008 Posted by | Social Media | , | 2 Comments

People who need people.

PeopleJust as with technology my thoughts seem to be moving away from just social media for the sake of it and instead trying to focus on what it allows us to achieve.

In my time away from the blog it seems that very little has changed with the same conversations still doing the rounds. It’s almost like I’ve not been away (or rather than the past few weeks didn’t happen) – almost like those in the social media space have been caught a time loop. Perhaps this is the danger of being an early adopter stuck in the echo chamber – caught in perpetual echoes. Occasionally a new stone gets thrown in the pond but the ripples bounce back off the sides and cause interference patterns preventing us from seeing clearly and moving on.

Looking back

I want to take you back to the conversation started by Alexander van Elsas regarding TV as a social media channel. This was an example of social media at its best but, even then, things can only so far when the conversation is contained within a few early adopters.

It did illustrate how different people from different walks of life all around the world can get together to consider a particular issue. It’s not because they are experts in the field or engineers but because they share an interest and passion for improving the way they communicate with others.

If we use this as an example we can see how social media can translate to a business environment.

There are two potential target areas for social media in a business environment: the internal network purely for employees; and the external – be it for connecting to partners or vendors, or to your customers. A social network established in both of these areas could be used for good effect.

Interest in any given subject extends beyond our normal work hours, duties or opening times and the uptake in social media shows that people like to communicate and discuss issues even on their down-time. We may have great ideas but if they are not written down they are soon forgotten so is it not best to provide a forum where they can be stored?

Many a true word

Imagine if the above conversation was being held on an internal social network by engineers and developers working for a cable company (maybe it already has been). The old maxim says “many a true word said in jest” and often great ideas arise from just chewing the fat and jokingly suggesting ‘fantastic’ propositions. We throw mud at the wall and see how much sticks then, before you know it, you have a viable product idea created by a ‘free’ think tank.

Why limit this process to your staff? As part of your customer outreach why not allow your customers to provide a ‘wish list’ and demonstrate that you are listening and taking valid requests under consideration?

As people, we benefit from having a sense of ownership and inclusion and are more likely to remain loyal both as employess and customers if we feel we are valued especially if contributions are incentivised. Social networks provide an ideal way to facilitate this.

Going forward

It has been interesting to see that, despite me having absolutely no presence on any social media service or the blog, that there have been quite a high number of posts by other bloggers over the past few weeks referencing me or my content – obviously out of sight isn’t out of mind. This is quite refreshing and helps to confirm that quality content can exist on its own without being permanently shoved down peoples throats. But published content is only one side of the conversation.

Sal nailed it in her recent post about social media and mums: do they need it? No! But used in the right way and at the right time it can be incredibly beneficial.

People

The weekend of father’s day (15th June here in the UK) saw me have a great time with the family and it is times like this that make you realise it’s people that are important and this extends to social media. It’s not the tool, it’s not how many ‘friends’ you can gather but it’s the people behind the avatars – what they think, what they’ve got to say and how we can connect to affect change.

It is great speaking to a number of like minded individuals who view social media in a similar way but everything we discuss as early adopters is just speculation until we start getting some real world examples to show that social media can penetrate the world outside our little bubble. It needs this validation or all our positing and gestures are effectively empty.

Chris Brogan asked on Twitter what the early adopters will do once the rest of the world “get’s it”. Instead, I would ask what will we do when we realise the rest of the world doesn’t care?

Image by Peter Dutton.

June 25, 2008 Posted by | Social Media | | 7 Comments

What is the real aim of social media?

We are connectingWe get so caught up in the pros and cons of individual services that we forget to look at the bigger picture and ask ourselves exactly what we are trying to achieve with social media. What is the purpose behind it and why do we devote our time to using it?

The simplest answer is this: getting people connected. No matter how you want to dress it up this is what we are trying to do. Whether it be connecting people to information, businesses or each other the connection is at the core of everything we are trying to do.

These connections are not limited to just being online, in fact our goal should be to carry our connections away from the computer and into real life.

Television

Alexander van Elsas wrote a post on yesterday arguing that the humble television is actually the most effective social media channel we have to date. What? I hear you cry! TV doesn’t fall in to our cosy definitions of what a social service should be so what is Alexander going on about?

The act of watching television may often be a very singular and individual pastime – especially with households having more than one TV set – but it is not theat act that we are interested in. Alexander used the example of a major sporting event to demonstrate how television will create a link between people and parts of the community who would not normally associate with each other. Spectator sport is about just that: the spectators. It is the sense of belonging we get when we are involved in something bigger than us that we know hundreds, thousands, if not millions of other people are experiencing.

It doesn’t stop there, however. While gathering in pubs and bars, and even in public spaces when large screens have been erected, to watch an event with your peers is an obvious connected at the time of the event we can also look to the after effects, the water cooler moments that are generated by our normal viewing habits and not just large sporting occasions.

We like to build common ground with our friends, peers and colleagues and television can help us do this. We are social animals and like nothing better than to discuss the minutiae of our favourite soap operas, drama series, or the documentary that just blew our minds.

Building bridges

Ryan over at Tilling the Soil talks about social media building bridges between individuals in order to avoid the need to catch up; if you are communicating online then you already know the “what have you been doing” parts of the conversation so can move straight to the good stuff. This is okay for people who already know one another but it about relative strangers? It is often difficult to engage in small talk without a common interest – television fills the gap and gives us something to discuss where there would normally be uncomfortable pauses.

It may be argued that television is killing the art of conversation – and unchecked there is no doubt that this can be the case – but it can also be argued that that the box in the corner of our rooms encourages different conversations, perhaps not the ones we may have had in the past, but wider ranging conversations with potentially more people (a gathering at work or school instead of a couple of members of the family).

The ability of this medium to act as an ice breaker cannot be underestimated and the real challenge for ‘social media’ is how to replicate this type of behaviour. Granted, television has had time to become integrated in to our lives but it too started small with many failing to see how it could be of benefit. What we now have to ask is how can we promote social media in order for it to achieve a higher level of adoption. How can social media penetrate to this degree?

Ryan states that he uses social media to supplement his real life relationships but we should be going beyond this and using it to forge new relationships which we can then continue in an offline setting. Social media needs to be giving us the common ground so that we can avoid the embarrassing silences and dive headlong into fruitful, meaningful relationships and conversations with those people that we may only be meeting in the flesh for the first time.

So what’s new?

Don’t we already do with with existing media? What about the telephone and email and any other means we use to keep in touch and share information? Indeed we do but the speed, ease of use and range of the connections we can make with social media are adding an extra dimension to traditional means of communication.

Still, just talking about the future doesn’t make it happen so saying that social media will be more prevalent in 2,5 or 10 years and change the way we live and communicate isn’t enough – we need to start working out how we are going to reach that point.

Image by takuya miyamoto.

June 11, 2008 Posted by | Social Media | | 11 Comments

Early adopters and a social media experiment.

ExperimentWith all the talk about early adopters and whether they help or hurt a service I decided to conduct an experiment and try to shed my geek hat for a while and become your average Joe user in order to see what utility I could achieve from my service de choix: FriendFeed.

The aim of the experiment was to sign up a fresh account, completely unrelated to my normal login which would not be subscribed to any of the usual people I converse with on the web. I would then pick some topics of interest outside of the social media sphere and see where the conversation took me.

The obvious concern, as also expressed by others, was whether I would be able to change my mindset and truly behave like a “regular person next door“.

Rather than create an entire new identity (having other services that I can import in to FriendFeed) I decided that a good place to start would be to use FriendFeed as a search engine to see what information was being shared about one of my favourite topics: football (that’s soccer not American) and, more specifically, Southampton Football Club.

A quick search – after taking a little time to look at the Advanced options – revealed a couple of account sharing some Southampton related items as part of generic football and sport feeds – subscribed. Ten minutes in and everything seemed to be going well. Next up – some searches about psychology and sociology. Again, there were plenty of ‘hits’ and plenty of items being shared – as there were for a number of other searches – but…

And this is a big but!

Unlike Sir Mix-a-lot I’m afraid I don’t like big buts, big buts normally mean something not going to plan and this was certainly the case here.

While there is far more be posted on FriendFeed than social media it is evident that social media seems to be the only thing consistently ‘discussed’ and talked about in any depth. Maybe it is the nature of the beast but there is a massive usage difference between those who communicate as a way of life (social media mavens) and those who just USE the tools to chat to their friends.

Do a FriendFeed search on any topic you like that’s not related to social media – go on, I’ll wait. You’ll find that the vast majority of items returned (even on searches for current hot topics like Obama) have very few likes or comments. It seems that a lot of other people are using FriendFeed purely as an aggregator rather than a communication tool – in my opinion they are missing out!

The everyday crowd appear to be focused on doing whatever it is they do at the source (Twitter, Flickr, etc.) rather than within the confines of FriendFeed. They may be talking about things just as much as the early adopters but it certainly isn’t in the same locations.

Even flicking through the stream on the everyone and you notice the same pattern – only those items that relate to social media have any steady flow of comments.

Why is this?

As I have said in the past, your average user generally wants to perform a particular task and, when it comes to that task having a social context, it makes sense to deal with it then and (more importantly) there. I think that many don’t see the need to go beyond the walled garden they are currently inhabiting as it contains their community and _that_ is what is important to any of us. Moving your focus means that – to achieve the required return on investment – you have to take your friends with you and it is not an easy task to achieve.

It is hard enough to get people using a straight social media service in the first place without trying to convince them of the need to gather their threads in to one location when they can be exposed to a never ending river of news; they barely take a sip from their own cups without trying to be shown how to drink from the fire hose.

Early adopters may be useful in working out the kinks of any given service but their usage patterns do not reflect the norm. We cannot, therefore, predict how a service will scale or what the key features may eventually be. Developers may be creating a bassline for us to work from but what happens when that line is set too high for the public at large to reach?

A failure?

On the face of it the experiment could be seen as a failure as there is no way that I can completely switch from one identity to another and get a true insight in to how a non-early adopter will use a service but the apparent patterns have shown a stark contrast in behaviour. If anything it has been a success in highlighting how far the early adopters have advanced in the way they utilise the web and the tools available to them.

A service like FriendFeed will only ever contain what has been explicitly shared by its users and, while this may be enough for such an insular crowd as the social media regulars, simply will not be able to compare with any of the regular search engines that are crawling the web and following link after link. FriendFeed fails as a search engine until you add in the human elements of recommendation and discussion and if these parts of the service are not being used by the world at large then there is little value in the initial share.

More questions

Once we pass a particular point can we ever hope to understand (or remember) how it is for those who don’t obsess over every nuance of online interaction? What is the true benefit of early adopters?

Image by L. E. MacDonald.

June 9, 2008 Posted by | Social Media | | 10 Comments

Ask not what social media can do for you…

…but what you can actually achieve with it.

Yesterday, I looked at how our continuing desire for the tools we use to develop could cause them to lose their original purpose but, while Marco at the Aurelius Maximus blog asks the ‘tech elite’ to continue navel gazing, others are gesturing that it’s all well and good talking about the technology of social media but what they really want to know is how will it affect business? How will it affect politics? How will it affect our lives?

It is argued that what we should really be interested in is moving away from what the technology is and, as I have mentioned in comments on FriendFeed, establishing the distinction between what any social media tool does and what we can do with it.

Honeymoon period

What we now call social media is in its relative infancy so our reaction towards it is very much like an eager child with a new toy who plays with it every waking moment of the day until they either become bored or just accept it as part of their life; the novelty wears off.

I think that we are still very much in the social media honeymoon period especially with new tools and services cropping up all the time; there is always something new for the early adopters to ‘play’ with so, in a way, much of the emphasis can’t help but be on the technology, what the tool is, what the tool does and how it differs to its competitors. It’s an unfortunate circumstance but this is where we currently sit as early adopters and it is a tricky situation to be in.

As I said before it’s not in the interests of services to stay still – they have to move on, offer something new and demonstrate differentiation. Although the tool will be migrating away from its original purpose and possibly sounding its own death knell amongst a subset of users the business of the internet, being what it is, forces services to move on for fear of being dropped in favour of the competition. Those competitors themselves have to provide their own differentiation and so may even be knocking themselves out of the market even at launch – perhaps even before.

How many services can we use? How many should we subscribe to? How many will survive?

It is this constant barrage of tools and services that is taking the focus but part of the ‘job description’ of the early adopter is to look at the technology and the trends, to find out what really works and what just has a short lived novelty factor and will fall at the first hurdle. Here is the key point, however, it is the early adopters who are kicking the tyres and paving the way but if you’re not an early adopter what can you do?

Target your tools

One possibility is to simplify but you can’t simplify the industry. You can’t say to developers to stop creating new tools or services. You can’t say that development should stop on those already available and, in fact, we shouldn’t. We need technology to advance and for those advances to make our lives easier but we should first be focusing on what is important.

Outside of the early adopters we should, as individuals or as groups or organisations, behave as with any other resource in any other industry and reach a consensus to identify a strict set of tools with which to achieve our purpose. Identify those tools we like and feel provide us the required utility: do they offer adequate communication? Do they offer adequate information sharing and distribution? If you can answer yes then move on and de-emphasise the tools. We have to draw the line somewhere and say this is what we have, this is what we know how to use now let’s get on and do some work.

Needs

But the early adopters and evangelists must accept that no single tool will achieve ubiquity – get over it. Different groups have differing needs and there will not be one tool to please them all. Even as our own circumstances change so will our needs so our own choice of tool will differ; this is only natural and should be incorporated into our routine and our normal review process.

We should periodically assess our tools and process and can then, at that point, look at what else is out there; look at the reviews from the foot soldiers (the early adopters) who have been treading the boards then consider if new tools give you improvements, enhanced utility or greater ease of use. Don’t, however, make change for changes sake as you are then distracting yourself from your core purpose and the time you spend re-educating is time taken away from achieving your aims.

We have to be aware of and open to developments and to the reviews and opinions of others but we don’t all have to play the early adopter role, we don’t always need our finger on the pulse. Alexander is right, we will learn to pick out what is important and to focus on that which we actually need to.

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June 5, 2008 Posted by | Social Media | | 6 Comments

Are we killing the things we love the most?

The discussion surrounding Mondays post took on a life of its own with some well crafted responses but I am also seeing a trend that could only be likened to growing pains.

While what we currently call ‘social media’ is still in its infancy we are reaching the point where innovation is giving way to a pile ’em high mentality: duplicate services with little differentiation, or simply throwing more functionality at existing services and hoping it sticks. It is little wonder that individual services are not getting the uptake that advocates expect, or even demand.

“The nazis did propaganda!” (Eddie Izzard)

We are bombarded with opinion, we are told what services we should like and why but the truth is, that outside of a specific subset of internet users, there is little appeal for the functionality offered by any given social networking service.

A number of good points have been made with regards to the concerns that many of the services currently in existence have been designed to cater for the needs of early adopters – that 1% of the internet population that are the thought leaders, the content creators, the “tech elites” who constantly demand more from what they use. Herein lies the problem.

The complaints that services such as FriendFeed are too complicated are perfectly valid for a lot of people. FriendFeed is obviously geared towards the early adopter, those already on a multitude of other services and are looking to pull it all together in to one melting pot with comments. Joe Public doesn’t work, think or behave like this – many just want a simple messaging system which is why Twitter clicks and FriendFeed doesn’t. Service designers and early adopters need to rethink how things are done in order for social media to really appeal to a wider audience.

The problem with duplication of information is only an issue to when you expose yourself to an environment where it will occur, where multiple users will be sharing data via multiple avenues – the average user will just concentrate on one place with ‘their’ community of friends (more normally real friends) – in a single environment everyone is more aware of what the other members of their network post so there is no need for them all to share the same thing. Perhaps this loses out on the possibilities of multiple conversations among different groups but the average user doesn’t want to go that deep as it is more about just keeping in touch and having fun rather than using social networking as a serious discussion tool.

Ne’er the twain

We need a change of mindset to understand how others will use the services we champion or to just accept that fact that different services will attract different people and ne’er the twain shall meet. A service has to identify its target audience and then fully understand it, providing those features that the specific audience demands rather than trying to convince those outside of that demographic that it is the tool for them irrespective of their actual needs.

Where we see value and potential others may just see clutter, noise and complexity. Where others see ease of use we may just see something too simplistic that doesn’t allow us to do what we want.

Even with a target audience in mind the creators of a service set things up and announce their offspring to the world but, like all parents have to stand back and watch their ‘child’ grow up. The growth of social media services are largely dictated by the way they are used not just the functionality they offer; put a completely different set of people on FriendFeed than the the usual suspects who are there at present and you would see the service used in a different way and take a different route in its development, just as Twitter started out as a place for simple status updates but morphed in to a full messaging system because of the demands of its users.

What is acceptable?

A social networking service differs from our real world society in that it is more governed by the people for the people as opposed to having a central body ‘in charge’ but just like any society different generations (read waves of users) change the rules in that society and morality even more so. There will always be a shift with regards to what is acceptable at any given point – the internet is no exception, especially as we continue to use it in ways that don’t fit any current trends or patterns. Just as society itself has to adjust to changes over time so must how we view our actions and behaviour in any given environment. How far do we, or should we even, try to hold back the incoming tide and restrict the tools we use?

And to the post title

The popularity of Twitter has been its downfall. A combination of ease of use and an open, useful API have placed unprecedented strain on a system that has been playing catch-up with the demands of its users for most of its life. Robert Scoble asked “FriendFeed is NOT taking off … why?” and I would argue that it is following a similar pattern to Twitter. It is changing from the original idea that spawned it. The About page says:

FriendFeed enables you to keep up-to-date on the web pages, photos, videos and music that your friends and family are sharing. It offers a unique way to discover and discuss information among friends.

This may convey what FriendFeed is at its core level but the users have pushed the service beyond such a simple definition and, as such, the concept behind it is much harder to grasp just as the service becomes more complex than most people would need.

In conclusion

It is natural for things to grow and evolve but by continually demanding more, ever complex options we will alienate the late adopter. We will enter a cycle where new services emerge to cater for the new audience but these too will grow as it is not in their interests to stay static. We make a service undesirable for many by liking it too much and wanting it to expand.

The concept of social media may become a mainstream idea but any given application will only ever have a limited appeal.

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June 4, 2008 Posted by | Social Media | | 7 Comments

Take time out – gain perspective.

PerspectiveHaving not blogged or been involved in any significant way with social media for a week it’s been interesting to note the way my attitudes have changed, not just while away on holiday but also before that. It has been surprising to see how much can change in such a short time.

I’m no sure if it’s connected to all of the Twitter downtime but my online behaviour has altered recently and my usage on the service has reduced significantly. When you’re on holiday, however, you really notice that you use a service like Twitter as it was originally intended to operate; you find yourself just giving quick status updates rather than trying to use it as a full communication tool – 140 character limitations and all.

Once you strip away desktop clients and the like and are just using a mobile phone then you can’t conduct meaningful conversations in that kind of environment with limited updates and a small screen. It has been interesting to watch how my behaviour has altered and, now that I am at this point, I can’t see myself going back to using Twitter as a full messaging system.

The level of the banality on such a service – even when you are choosing your ‘friends’ carefully – is also driving me away to the point where I will most likely not be using Twitter to interact but just to give status updates including new post notifications – they are after all just something else you are sharing saying “this is what I’ve been up to”.

What is spam?

The nature of what we refer to as spam as the service has evolved has altered and you will be criticised or even unfollowed if all you do is post blog notifications. Because people are now using Twitter differently to how is was envisaged it is almost unacceptable to just give status messages – I can’t help but feel that this is wrong.

As Alexander says, Social Media is about interaction and I now intend to focus my time on tools which allow me to do this more comprehensively; the best of the bunch currently being FriendFeed.

It has also been interesting to observe my opinions to the ‘conversation’. I was only away for a few days – and tried to keep an eye on things using FFtogo – but it seemed as though very little was actually happening whereas I would normally feel like a normal day on FriendFeed could get pretty busy. The only real discussion that caught my attention was around the “FriendFeed Likes Compatibility Index” – using commonalities between FriendFeed likes as a way to identify other users that you may be interested in following.

Now, I’m sure that the few days weren’t as quiet as they seemed but that it is more likely to be due to distancing myself from the conversation. Because the direct participation is limited it could well be that this lack of participation triggers a sense that things just aren’t as important as they would be were you immersed in the conversation. Involvement in something gives a feeling of investment in, and to a degree ownership of, a discussion.

Drift

The further you drift away from the conversation the harder it is to become enthusiastic about the direction it takes and this is the curse of social media: it is addictive in the sense that you need to keep an involvement in order to maintain an overview and monitor the breadth of conversation rather than trying to control it in one location. Conversations will occur wherever there are people – this is not going to change so people just have to get used to it. This distribution of the discussion is what’s really important; you are exposing a potentially greater audience to the conversation and allowing it to take twists that otherwise it wouldn’t take.

There will always be a gulf between those who see social media as a throw-away time killer that you can just dip in to and those who dive headlong in to the murky waters of the social media circus. Those who advocate services like Facebook are just in it for fun – they establish a ‘friend’ list, post on each others walls, play a few games and just provide basic status updates.

Facebook and its ilk, however, does not lend itself to more meaningful conversation. We need systems where conversations can spin out from a central point and take on a life of their own. We need systems with a greater level of interaction between members rather than with the site. We need systems where we can take ideas and communicate them effectively.

What we must always remember, however, is that the conversation will go on without you regardless of who you are. People will still have ideas and discussion will still develop around those ideas. If even Robert Scoble disappeared off the face of the planet for a week Twitter wouldn’t stop, FriendFeed wouldn’t stop – who you are is irrelevant. It may be argued that the exposure of any given conversation may be limited due to Scoble’s thousands of followers not getting to see it and this may be the case but how many of those followers actually get involved in the conversations?

Yes, we appear to have an echo chamber but this is an unintentional circumstance and not entirely the fault of those involved. With FriendFeed likes exposing items to a wider audience via the friend of a friend system the scope exists for a far greater number to get involved but the percentage of those that do is small. Out of Scoble’s thousands of followers you only ever see the same names cropping up as getting involved in the conversation and the same names dominate the FriendZone charts of FriendFeed users. This is not because of any elitist exclusion policy but because of a lack of involvement by others outside of the usual suspects.

Why is this?

Do some feel intimated and not able to participate? Are conversation threads seen as private members’ clubs with a strict door policy? Or is it just that there is only a finite number of individuals who actually want to be involved?

The problems that Twitter has been experiencing and the subsequent rush to Plurk show that a significant number of social media users are only after the quick connections that these types of services offer rather than wanting to become embroiled in deep conversation. Even when FriendFeed numbers increased significantly in recent times it is most likely that those joining did so due to disillusionment with Twitter rather than out of a desire to use the service and consequently will be predominately inactive.

The social media path we travel is determined by our goals – what we want to get out of the services we use; those services will, themselves, also be determined by our needs which is why there is always room for different types of network.

Over to you

What is your path and how often do you re-assess your social media goals?

Image by Natalia Osiatynska.

June 2, 2008 Posted by | Social Media | | 14 Comments