Colin Walker

on social media, tech, blogging and the internet.

Getting too social?

Social media is both a blessing and a curse.

We have the ability to communicate with many interesting people from all over the world in the easiest ways we have ever had available to us. The flow of information and responses is incredibly engaging and is making the world ever smaller – even if governments still have their differences, the citizens of the world are rapidly becoming citizens of the one global village.

On the other hand, however, social media can be a huge time-sink if not managed correctly and the danger exists that we become too engrossed so that other areas of our lives start to suffer. As I have said before: it is about finding a balance that works for us.

Different strokes

We all use social media differently, we have different goals and objectives, different reasons for using one service over another. Bloggers will use services to expand their audience and make items available to a wider cross section of the web thus enhancing their exposure. Nowhere, however, is is written that we must engage on all fronts and, as such, should not be criticised for not doing so.

We all have our favourite services and social networks; we may have accounts on dozens but we invariably use a core set of tools to get us through our daily lives be they Twitter, Plurk, FriendFeed etc. We have our followers across the web and can choose where we interact with them – our choices do not have to match and the variety in social media is what makes it interesting.

Echo?

We complain about the echo chamber and call for users of social media to broaden their horizons and use social media in different ways but, it seems, when certain individuals do this they are criticised for not being accessible or interactive.

A while back, Phil over at Scribkin called out Steve Gillmor among others for signing up to FriendFeed, importing their streams and not returning deeming those individuals Posers. Now, Tad questions how many of those “well known outside of FF” actively engage on the service (fftogo link)

Forgive me if I’m wrong here, but FriendFeed is an aggregation service that just happens to let you discuss items in situ. There is no obligation that the conversation must take place in any given location or even that a conversation should take place at all. Why is it then, that someone using a service for one purpose (aggregation) should de facto be using it in the same way as others? Doesn’t this go against our call for variety?

Following blindly

Social media ‘friending’ has always been pretty incestuous – once we follow someone in one location we tend to seek them out on the new services that we join so that our following/follower lists become ever more similar across the board. While it is always nice to have a few familiar faces on a new service there is no guarantee that we will use it to interact with each other in the same way and this should be recognised, understood and accepted.

It is our choice who we follow on any given network but if they don’t use it in the same way we do then so what? As Robert Scoble commented “God forbid somebody actually try to do something other than hang out in FriendFeed all day”.

Advertisements

July 31, 2008 Posted by | Social Media | | 19 Comments

Guest post: Is There A Way Back From Free?

Yesterday, I was privileged to do a guest post for Louis Gray and chose to do something a little bit different and wrote about the issue of whether APIs can be used to generate revenue for services such as Twitter, It was something I had been thinking about for a while but the news that they had throttled the unauthenticated API calls which are the life blood of many third party applications brought it in to context:

“It has seemed obvious to me for a while that an ideal aspect of a business plan for a social networking service such as Twitter would be to charge partners for premium access to the API, but once you have started down the free path, is it possible, or wise, to backtrack and start charging?”

You can read the full post over at Louis’ blog here.

I was a bit worried about this post as it could have been a potential banana skin; instead it garnered some good responses both in the comments and on FriendFeed so I wanted to follow up on a few issues raised as a result.

“The route to success is recognising that Twitter’s power is as a service”

Jeff Sonstein raised the above point that a successful way forward would be for other services to aggregate the data from Twitter for their own users – much as FriendFeed is doing. Jesse Stay argues that developers may not be willing to pay and go elsewhere such as identi.ca and that, instead, Twitter should consider premium features that they can offer their users for a fee.

As I mentioned in my post, services like FriendFeed are just as guilty as having no clearly defined business plan; the social web is running on venture capital but how close are we to running on empty? It is unlikely that many services will be willing or able to pay for API access and, although, both users and developers may move to a free alternative how then will thatservice support itself – we will enter into a vicious cycle.

Sudha Jamthe suggested that Twitter could “go to traditional media companies to build new services upon their API, similar to what Sphere did with NY Times” but I don’t see the potential for the same kind of relationship here. Admittedly, Twitter has a large body of data but a lot of that is quite frankly useless and banal – even some relatively interesting content is worthless when taken out of it’s original context.

Trend analysis

Perhaps the main use for the bulk of Twitter data is in trend analysis which could, in turn, be used to plan advertising campaigns or for targeted marketing. Is this why Twitter bought the best search tool and has limited the API requests for all the rest? Could they make money by selling their analysis results or by charging for full access to enable companies to perform their own?

The folks at Twitter have never completely ruled out advertising so full trend analysis of your conversations and your friends could provide the only way to effectively target you as an individual and provide ads that you are actually likely to act upon.

Whatever the future brings I feel it will be quite different from the way we are operating now. Users may still get free access and developers might only be charged a small amount (perhaps an initial one off fee to get a licence to use the API) but advertising or data analysis is probably the way way to get most bang for the Twitter buck.

July 19, 2008 Posted by | Social Media | , | 3 Comments

Dispensing with the trappings of technology.

I wanted to post something a little different today and look at how my use of technology has altered which, in turn, gives an idea as to how my perception of social media has changed.

This blog took over from the old Randomelements site which I had self-hosted on one flavour of SharePoint or another since 2003. I was also running my own Exchange Server and handling all my own emails. Initially, these endeavours were useful in that they forced me to learn: managing and maintaining a Windows 2003 based network and the related server applications but, once things were established and I was able to troubleshoot any issues that arose the learning stopped.

While other people were content to have their sites and mails hosted remotely I was dealing with everything locally just for the sake of it; being able to say I could.

I changed ISP and in doing so lost the static IP address I had been using. While dynamic solutions exist – such as DynDNS – managing things became a chore, especially when it became apparent that the IP addresses I was being assigned by the new ISP were on the PBL. Any change of IP address meant that I had to request it be removed from the PBL before emails sent from my server would be accepted by an servers checking the originating IP address. At the same time, SharePoint no longer cut it as an effective blogging platform.

Consequently, the move to WordPress and remotely hosted email have been made and life has been simplified from a technical perspective. Outlook and my phone are both accessing email via IMAP this keeping in sync and I have been able to shut down the server at home – it is no longer being used so why waste the power.

I was using technology at home just for the sake of it under the misguided impression that it made a difference but I still have full control over my blog and emails so what is the difference? I treat them now as a means to achieve something rather than as a focus in themselves, and this is how I see social media. Social media should not focus on the tool in use but on what that tool allows you to do so we must not get caught up in the trappings of the technology as they will distract us from our goals.

July 15, 2008 Posted by | Blogging, Social Media | , , | 4 Comments

How social media affects our identity.

This post was inspired by an item in my referral log: “Google Search: how media affect our identity”. It started me thinking about how we behave when using social media and online in general. Do we just be ourselves or do we play a role?

Shakespeare famously wrote

All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players:
They have their exits and their entrances;
And one man in his time plays many parts

I can’t help wondering if our normal behaviour is influenced by the online communities we join. Do we participate for ourselves or for others? Do we share things we like or things we think our followers will appreciate?

As has been discussed before: do we have an obligation to our followers – the, so-called, implied “social contract” and is the correct way for us to act?

It is readily apparent that some act in a certain way in order to try to fit in to a given group and, despite the openess of the web and social media, clique forming is rife and probably exaserbated by the ways in which we connect.

Extremes

Chris commented that “small focused groups can readily turn into extreme pots of shared interest, and manifest ideological amplification” – a bold statement but a true one. We have the option of who we follow but, on many social networking services, we also have the option to block others which can cause divides between groups if used inappropriately; if you don’t fit in then you can’t be part of the conversation.

We also have the ability to hide behind the technology and deviate from our normal behaviour and intent so we have a responsibility to police our own actions or the internet will just become the playground of cowards.

I moved my focus from technology to social media as I see the potential it has to improve communication and flow of information, to connect people and to break down barriers but when others are reinforcing those barriers you have to question why.

The intersection for most between our online and offline lives is small so our behaviours will differ but, even taking this in to account, what part are you playing?

Related Posts

July 11, 2008 Posted by | Social Media | | 1 Comment

Escaping the echo chamber.

EscapeI am reminded every day of what social media can achieve by Sal who continually amazes me with her creativity and ability to use the tools available to draw focus to things that matter – for example, the MooMag project and yesterdays post on cyber bullying.

She is connecting to people for a reason and using social media as just another tool rather than as the end point and this reinforces the idea that I have been mulling over since my ‘break’ a few weeks ago:

Social media must be applied

Social media must not become a self congratulatory love-in unless there is actually something worth celebrating. The call to arms is for this to go mainstream but if early adopters want to debate the minutiae of service operation from here to eternity then we cannot possibly expect the public at large to see the value in those services. There will always be the industry commentators in any environment but social media seems to be an industry that needs to mature. We already have ‘complaints’ such as this one from Jason Carreira:

What percentage of posts on FriendFeed are ABOUT FriendFeed? 50%? More? Web 2.0 has a collective case of navel gazing…

Obviously, the conversations you are exposed to will be influenced by those people you are following and there is a lot of discussion that is not so self referential but I can see his point. It is up to the early adopters to find worthwhile uses of social media to demonstrate the possibilities it can afford or it is in danger of imploding in a puff of its own self indulgence. As Marco has said: if the early adopters are still working through what role this technology should play in their lives how can we expect the 99.9999% of the other people in the world to readily and easily latch on to something like this?

Boring

Julian Baldwin posted a while ago “Social Media gets damn boring when…” and proceeded to give a few examples. I replied that it becomes boring when “the same topic goes round in circles and, just when you think it’s done with, someone else throws in a ‘me too’ post and rakes over it all again but with no insight or added value.” It also gets boring when everything is the killer of something else – why get too anal about it and spend all of your time comparing services when you could just be using them to good effect? Often, the debate is a huge waste of both time and effort.

Each service has its good and bad points; nothing is perfect and no single service will become all things to all people without becoming over complicated and bloated. We should, therefore, be picking up on the positives of the tools we use and achieving something worthwhile.

Discuss

What will YOU do with social media?

Image by Sam Judson.

July 10, 2008 Posted by | Social Media | | 12 Comments

Social media: casual user or addict?

Social media use no doubt differs depending on why you’re in it. The global conversation is always there: ambient noise, a constant buzz in the background. What differs between us is when we shift our focus to concentrate on that buzz.

Casual users can dip in and out as they see fit – as has been suggested there is no pressure to be involved beyond chatting with your new found ‘friends’ and even then there may not be the expectation for us to invest quality time in these online relationships.

Bloggers and early adopters, on the other hand, have more of a self inflicted need to be involved, to stay current and to keep their profile visible – especially those who cover aspects of the social web. If you are trying to build your exposure levels then time away from the streams is not considered an option.

My recent 3 weeks out lost me about 200 RSS subscribers according to Feedburner and, despite recent regular posts, those figures have not yet recovered. Add to this that social media is inherently addictive and you have quite a heady mix.

Pressure

If we are keen to make an impact then we put pressure upon ourselves to participate, to post, to gain more subscribers or followers – not doing so feels like failure.

As I said in a comment yesterday, investing time in conversations is akin to reading a really good book – you want to know what happens on the next page, in the next chapter, at the end of the story. It is not human nature to just walk away from something we don’t consider to be finished. While we can and, probably should, put the book down we feel compelled not to as we want to see things through to their conclusion.

Drinking from the fire hose

It has often been said that social media addicts do not want to miss anything; they are glued to the services they use 24/7 as they feel they must have their finger on the pulse and be involved in everything and all conversations. This will obviously have an impact on the way the services and other resources are utilised compared to the more casual user.

Steve Spalding has a great illustration in his post “The death throes of feed subscriptions”. He argues that the rise of social media and content sharing services means that we no longer need to subscribe to the RSS feed of a blog as we will be able to find the interesting content collected in those social environments with the added bonus that they are filtered and annotated by our peers.

This scenario leaves us in a quandary when you consider the desire to keep abreast of the flow. On the one hand, consuming our content via RSS means that we can peruse it at our leisure but by doing this we are ensuring that we do not miss anything. Alternatively, using social media to find our content means that we are just skimming the surface of the items available but reacting to them in real time while we are connected.

If the very reason we subscribe to RSS feeds is so that we do not miss anything then to achieve the same result via social media would require us to be always on, always connected – undesirable and unachievable. We must therefore aim to achieve a happy medium.

Balance

How much is too much? If you are not a professional blogger (or maybe even if you are) where do you draw the line and say enough? What is the best way for the addict to emulate the casual user and only dip their toe in the water?

There is no need to continually dive in up to our necks so, as well as our social responsibility with social media, we must address our personal responsibility and not become overloaded. We must become our own social media role model.

Related Posts

July 9, 2008 Posted by | Social Media | | 2 Comments

What are social web sites?

ConversationI have said before that Twitter is a facilitator for communication rather than the conversation medium itself and to a degree the same thing can be said of all social networking services it’s just that the scale and details vary on a per service basis.

Jason Goldberg posted that he saw FriendFeed as a school lunchroom where “conversations that may have started elsewhere are picked up and rehashed, commented on, and amplified”. He also states that FriendFeed “isn’t a place for deep thoughts and debate”.

Social networking services, and especially aggregation sites like FriendFeed, are places to gather information for easier consideration where you can converse with your peers to spark the imagination and gain inspiration. But can deep conversation or discussion really happen in an online enviroment?

Friendfeed rooms initially seemed like they would be the place for the meaningful thought and debate as you would be able to isolate given topics and take them out of the public stream in order to concentrate on the matter in hand; it seems, however, that this usage has not really taken off as expected.

The domain of thought

Blogs are still the domain of thought as you have no limits to what you can say – you are in control. While Friendfeed has a higher character limit per post than, say, Twitter any limit in any service inhibits really deep thought as you are constantly mindful of your words getting truncated. This is not particularly conducive to an active discussion.

Also, we can blog and post comments but often the spark and spontanaiety of a face to face conversation is lost – as Jason says, he thought about his post for two days and it took twenty minutes to type. How often do we plan what we are going to say but things get lost in translation between the brain and the keyboard.

The inherent delay of communicating by the typed word and the impersonality of this type of interaction can create a conversational barrier so when should we be taking our discussions offline?

Exposure

The obvious advantage to social media services are the exposure they offer; a conversation can be played out in front of the watching world and anyone is free to participate whereas an offline discussion (maybe even via VOIP) is closed to the rest of the community. Each may have it benefits and shortcomings so we need to establish when the best use can be made of any means of inteacrtion that we might employ.

So, what are social sites?

Are they hotbeds of active discussion or are they merely facilitators, enabling us to process our data in covenient locations so that we may address the important issues in another. more appropriate forum?

Image by Jason Schultz.

July 8, 2008 Posted by | Social Media | | 4 Comments

Freedom of conversation vs social responsibility.

It is noticeable that bloggers and the social media early adopter crowd (myself included) are very keen to make a good online impression. Why wouldn’t they? As has been said before, it is not necessarily the act of blogging or the participation that gets us what we want but is often the secondary benefits resulting from our exposure in those environments.

It seems only natural, therefore, that we should conduct ourselves in an appropriate manner for the majority of the time. There are some exceptions who use potentially inappropriate behaviour as a promotional tool but it is rare that this can be pulled off in an effective manner.

Ryan of Tilling the Soil wrote a great series of posts about communicating with integrity and recently commented on an earlier post saying:

Why is it, though, that it is so easy to intentionally contribute (blogging everyday, liking, etc.), but it seems to be so hard to be intentional in real life?

Perhaps he has a point. It seems that we do tend to interact with people in different ways depending on the forum for that interaction. Is that only natural or a worrying phenomenon?

Appropriate

Louis Gray has sparked a lot of conversation with his post As I Get Older, Some Online “Friending” Gets Creepier which looks at the issue of age on social media services. Should age be a factor when considering who to accept as ‘friends’ or who to follow?

We live in a difficult age and must be seen to be doing the right thing so do we have to temper our (perfectly innocent) use of social networking sites in order to conform with a sense of social responsibility?

While we may have perfectly good intentions society is increasingly aiming at the lowest common denominator so that even the likes of teachers are fearful of being branded paedophiles should something be taken out of context or a disgruntled student see an opportunity for revenge.

With the increase of people using the internet as a way of grooming children etc. it is natural that this view of society would start to cross the boundaries and self policing this issue may seem an obvious way to avoid future complications. As society itself embraces online life more the divides will lessen and an online community leader will be viewed in the same way as a Scout leader and be equally scared of the implications of their position. We are all being seen as potential criminals.

Perception

we have a different perception of how we act communicate in real life and online – perhaps we have traditionally seen life online as an escape and our interactions not necessarily having to follow the same rules as our offline interactions. It is then rather ironically that we seem to concentrate more on how we deal with people online – is it because our communication is limited so we have to be careful about what we say for fear of misinterpretation?

In real life we have perhaps been more guarded; our face-to-face interactions form part of the daily grind so we are constantly mindful of the pressures we are under so, perhaps, we are less inclined to engage our colleagues (and potential rivals) in the same way that we would an online acquaintance.

Alexander van Elsas agrees that our (expected) behaviour in these different environments differs:

unlike in the real world where we are expected to invest time and effort to keep these relationships valuable, there is no such behavior needed online. We use these friendships for the conversation taking place, but no one really expects you to invest in such a relationship

Are our online ‘friendships’ really this casual and why should this be? Or is it that we are in the early stages of our expanse in to this territory? I would imagine that future generations will become more adept at reconciling both our online and offline interactions as distance ‘friendships’ become more prevalent than at present. We are probably still trying to come to terms with the explosion in global communication.

Impact

Although we use our real names and even our own photo as avatars there is still a degree of anonymity when talking to people on the other side of the planet – we can be more open, more expressive and more opinionated without the fear that it will have a direct impact on our normal lives. Say the wrong thing to your manager and you could get fired but say the wrong thing to a ‘friend’ on a social networking site and you can put it down to a misunderstanding or breakdown in communication. Generally the actual impact is minimal – they may stop ‘following’ you, big deal!

But online communication seems to be a constant contradiction – especially with those of us who are investing a lot of time in social media and blogging. While some may see it more as a ‘throw away’ society our focus on online interactions can be to the detriment of our offline lives.

Perhaps we just have to ask ourselves what is appropriate in any given setting and learn to strike a balance between the two.

Related Posts

July 7, 2008 Posted by | Social Media | | 7 Comments

Of social bookmarking, relevance and the needstream.

IntersectionsYesterday, Julian Baldwin coined the term “needstream” saying:

Basic needs are “needstream” so mainstream doesn’t necessarily need to include everyone

I commented that as everyone doesn’t need the same thing then everyone’s needstream is going to be different and no one service can encompass everyone.

Alexander says that the future focus will be on smaller, more localised social networks and I think Julians’ quote goes a long way to explain why – the larger the audience the less relevant things will become. As I have said before, the global conversation will remain – and even grow – but there will be a bipolar existence on the web where people will “drift between the global and local conversations as needed”.

Needs and wants

What do we actually “need” on the web? The answer is very little and many, by not even being connected, demonstrate that in personal terms we need nothing. Our jobs may dictate specific needs but once we clock off the internet fuels our wants rather than our needs.

Everyone wants something different – we are the sum of our life experience so have our own individual likes and tastes. These may intersect with those of others at various points but the differences between us are what makes life interesting.

Social bookmarking

Our wants on the web directly reflect our interests and some turn to social bookmarking services to explore those intersections with the wants of others – choose a table, pull up a chair and shout hit me! With only around 20% of the world actually connected and a mere fraction of those using a social bookmarking service the number of available intersections is going to be severely limited.

Social bookmarking is certainly not for the benefit of the content producer. It is designed to assist the consumer in their discovery process but I would argue that it fails. Is this due to incorrect categorisation or tagging, or simply because the social population simply isn’t large enough?

Take yesterday’s post about MooMag for example which was submitted to StumbleUpon. It’s always nice when someone feels a post is worth sharing and it may drive some traffic your way but I have always maintained that this traffic is of incredibly poor quality – those people who hit your site but realise, once they get there, that it’s not really of interest to them. They may not read the full post, will likely not follow any internal links, will not subscribe to your RSS feed and in all probability will never return unless they hit the Stumble button and are sent back at random.

Conversion

The aim of any blogger is to convert the casual visitor to a repeat reader, subscriber or even evangelist but in the context of this post the true measure of conversion would be the number of click-throughs to the MooMag site.

Fortunately, I had been looking at the incoming and outgoing stats recorded by MyBlogLog so knew how many visitors had clicked on the outgoing link to MooMag prior to the post being Stumbled. In the period after there was only one click-through and there is no guarantee that this was from a StumbleUpon user. If we assume that this click was a StumbleUpon user then the conversion rate was only 1.2% – there were 83 visits from the stumbled share.

To me this illustrates that the already limited intersections we share with others are incredibly vague meaning that the percentage of truly useful intersections is going to be minute. We may share broad interests but they don’t bear much fruit when we get down to specifics and makes we question the role of social bookmarking. If the conversion rates are so low when we have a reasonably limited set of people using these services what are they going to drop to once the adoption rates increase?

Your thoughts

What do you gain from social bookmarking services either as a content producer or as a consumer?

July 3, 2008 Posted by | Social Media | , | 4 Comments

The private messaging divide.

PrivateSteve Rubel started a conversationon FriendFeed which really polarised opinion. He asked “Should FriendFeed have a private messaging system like FB, Twitter, et al?”

Divided

Responses ranged from the affirmative such as “Taking conversations private is a great way to further a business relationship” to the complete opposite “Please do NOT add another lame messaging service like the one that Facebook and Twitter have” with some people suggesting a solution where XMPP (Extensible Messaging and Presence Protocol) could be employed to hook FriendFeed up to Google Talk.

It is obvious from the divide in opinion that some kind of compromise is needed so I suggested that it might be an idea to use what’s already there instead of reinventing the wheel.

It can be useful to take certain discussions private but it is understandable that people do not want yet another inbox that they need to check. It would, therefore, make more sense to have some kind of ad-hoc system that exists for the duration of the conversation. FriendFeed has its rooms so it seems logical to me to create a temporary, private room on the fly which is destroyed once you are finished.

You would, of course, need some form of online presence system in place (there’s no point trying to start a conversation with someone who isn’t around) and if the person you wish to chat with is not online then – just like instant messaging applications – you could be given the options to fire off an email.

Self contained

Not everyone on FriendFeed uses (or would even want to use) something like Google Talk so why force a third party solution on to them. It is better to keep things in house if possible – one less thing to worry about. An ad-hoc system you only use if you want to keeps everyone happy; those who do not want private messaging on FriendFeed don’t use it – simple.

What do you think?

Is this a suitable compromise? Would it work for you?

Image by Richard Holt.

July 1, 2008 Posted by | Social Media | | 9 Comments