Colin Walker

on social media, tech, blogging and the internet.

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?

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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.

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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.

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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

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