Colin Walker

on social media, tech, blogging and the internet.

Whose stuff is it anyway?

SharingI started thinking about how we use certain social media services a couple of months ago and Alexander reinforced the path my thoughts were taking.

More recently, Allen Stern stated on FriendFeed “i think sharing on google reader is finished – the value for so many sharers has continued to drop from my perspective” which garnered a number of contrary responses.

The real issue as I see it is that the value offered by various services has not been lessened rather it has been altered since the emergence of mashups with data from multiple services all feeding in to each other.

Isolation

Prior to aggregation services such as FriendFeed we looked at other services in isolation and everything had a set perceived value; you knew exactly what you were getting from your RSS reader or your social networking service.

Now we have aggregation and lifestreaming and it is becoming less clear where the boundaries of any function begin and end.

Distinctions

Lifestreaming is an over used term and is often employed when we really mean aggregation. Lifestreaming is traditionally more a Truman Show type experience (literally your life streamed) rather than aggregation which is the collection of your actions on different services in to one location, but what exactly is our stuff? Is our stream a record of our actions or a share of the content of others?

Are there now distinctions between sharing, aggregation, social bookmarking and the like or have they all merged in to one process? When are you just bookmarking as opposed to sharing? As Alexander said: it’s about your intention but, with the way services like FriendFeed operate, is intention enough?

The social contract

I discussed before about the implied social contract of blogging which has caused a number of arguments over exactly what bloggers owe their audiences and perhaps we should be asking if an implied social contract should extend to the way we utilise sharing and aggregation services.

One aspect of FriendFeed, as an example, causes a big divide in opinion and that is the way in which it handles multiple instances of the same item.

Consider the following scenario:

  • User A has their Google Reader and Delicious streams fed in to FriendFeed
  • User B has their StumbleUpon and Social Median streams fed in to FriendFeed
  • User A shares a specific item in Google Reader and also bookmarks that item in Delicious
  • User B stumbles the same item and also clips it on Social Median

Two users have between them now created four instances of the same item within FriendFeed and other users will create further duplication upon sharing the same item.

Is this enabling a wider audience to discuss the same item leading to wider ranges of opinion or is it leading to a fragmentation of the conversation and cluttering peoples streams with useless duplicates?

Intention

With isolated services out intention was clear – we would bookmark something for our own reference or share an item to our link blog but now just about any action we perform becomes a ‘share’ if we have our online activities aggregated. This leads to a number of new questions:

  • do we share things differently based on where we know the share will be seen?
  • does our potential audience affect the actions we take on our subscribed services?
  • should we be tailoring our behaviour to our online environment and the community that we are a part of?

Prevously, a single action would have one consequence but with aggregation thrown in to the mix we set off a chain of events. A bookmark or a Digg is no longer just that, it also becomes a share which contributes to the duplication on our aggregation services so should we be asking ourselves whether we need to perform the initial act based on our environment or whether we actually need to have these streams aggregated in the first place?

If a number of our ‘friends’ have shared an item and it already has multiple conversation threads do we hold back so as not to muddy the waters or do we go ahead with the share to boost the item up the rankings of a particular service (ReadBurner for Google Reader shares for example) but at the risk of clogging up our streams with further duplicates?

Is this a conflict of interests? Should we help an item gain more exposure or should we accede to the implied social contract and not clutter the streams of those subscribed to our updates?

Social dilemma or over-analysing?

What do you think?

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Image by Andy Woo.

September 8, 2008 Posted by | Social Media | | 5 Comments

Lessons learnt or common sense?

So, I took most of August out and distanced myself from social media and blogging – it seemed a good time to do it as I had some other stuff going on (a mini cruise to Amsterdam and a weeks holiday).

I had an occasional glance at FriendFeed but only very rarely and Google Reader went begging – there are thousands of unread items I need to wade through/mark as read and a number of feeds that I will most likely unsubscribe from.

Before I start anything here I’d first like to say thanks to Mark and Hutch for thinking of me while I was away, it’s always nice to know that out of site isn’t always out of mind.

Have I learnt any lessons from my time away or is it all really common sense? Let’s have a look.

Who needs social media?

What did we do before we had what we currently think of as social media? We found other things to occupy ourselves, and that’s exactly what I did during last month.

As a family we have started playing World of Warcraft so that’s good to eat up a few hours and it also helped that the UK domestic football (soccer) season has started again so that provides something else to keep me occupied.

Do I need social media? No, and to be honest I haven’t really been missing it as I have been spending more time with my family in the ‘real’ world.

Social media, just like anything else, is habit forming – we can create our own addictions by getting, and wanting to stay, involved. Conversely, distancing ourselves from something for long enough reduces the craving until you can quit. Will power is needed and having a distraction is very beneficial.

Common sense. The above can apply to just about anything and not just social media.

Who needs blogging?

I have had no inclination to blog during my time away and have had to force myself to write this; do I feel I owe it to myself to summarise what happened, or owe it to you the reader? Why should we owe anyone anything?

Blogging is a tough mistress and we often put undue pressure on ourselves. Whether it is because we feel that our readers have invested their trust in us by subscribing to the feeds so we feel compelled to explain ourselves I don’t know but we are always our own worst critics when. let’s face it, most others couldn’t care less. For every social media blogger who disappears there are dozens more to take up the mantle – this is not an area that will dry up anytime soon.

Hutch remarked that if you are having problems blogging then you should return to what interests you but it can be worse than that: what do you do when the blogging process itself doesn’t interest you? You just have to step back like I did and wait for the enthusiam to return. I think I’ll be waiting for a little while longer yet.

Addiction

I’m the kind of person who becomes addicted to things very easily but I also have a very low boredom threshold. If I’m not kept interested then even the strongest addiction doesn’t stand a chance (alcohol and gambling in my past can attest to this) so I need to keep myself challenged in order to thrive.

We’ll have to see what happens over the coming weeks.

September 2, 2008 Posted by | Blogging, Social Media | , | 9 Comments

Before I go…

I’d just like to thank those who left positive comments in response to my post yesterday.

The question now for anyone who agrees with any of what I said is: what can we do about it, or is it now beyond our control? Should we even try?

You are most likely reading this because you have an interest in some aspect of social media so, to keep you going while I’m away, I thought I’d share my list of those bloggers I have turned to for intelligent discussion in this area. I tend to mainly clear of the larger blogging networks and stick to those who, while they might not be the biggest names on the web, I consider to have the most to say – and not just about social media.

In no particular order:

Louis Gray
Mark Dykeman
Steven Hodson
Hutch Carpenter
Alexander van Elsas
Daryl Tay
Eric Berlin
Rob Diana
Ryan Brymer

I’m sure they’ll take good care of you.

August 6, 2008 Posted by | Blogging, Social Media | , | 7 Comments

Hiatus?

You’ll have noticed that things have been a little quiet around here lately, as they were for a bit not too long ago. It appears that it is not just me. Others have been quieter than usual with Corvida giving an eloquent explanation as to why.

I completely agree with her.

It’s not just that the technology has plateaued, it’s not just that the conversation stalled but, somehow, that the social web has lost its spark.

We moan about the echo chamber and dream of social media ubiquity but once things get more ‘mainstream’ our precious corner of the web seems to become less relevant. We seek out friends who are not talking about the same old stuff but end up with a screen full of items we have no interest in.

I’ve spoken about balance on many occasions but it appears that a balance is almost impossible to achieve. Do we embrace the noise or just stop lying to ourselves and admit that the echo chamber is where we belong and is what brought us here in the first place?

We demand a wider scope of interest but get bogged down in the inevitable banality that accompanies it.

Mark mentioned that we can welcome the late adopter if we can be willing to go over old ground but we have already been recycling the same things over and over amongst ourselves even without the late adopter exacerbating the problem; it is hard to stay positive and focused amongst the endless repetition.

I have had post ideas but have not been able to complete them, is that burnout or just apathy? Perhaps a bit of both.

Social media can be tremendously addictive and I’ll admit to getting addicted – wanting to miss a trick and having the desire to be involved in every conversation. Now, however, I am like the addict in therapy going through the withdrawal looking for a less potent substitute to wean me from these stuff.

I had a post in the works about the causes and nature of addiction as it related to social media and the web as a whole (is there a better or worse type of addiction) but lost the flow. I also know many would not read it all as they do not like long posts so there developed an element of ‘why bother’.

There is a lot of rubbish spouted in the name of web 2.0, SEO, blogging and social media – a lot of what gets rolled out as trade secrets is really just common sense and breaking the so called golden rules is really normally more effective.

Who created these rules anyway?

Do we really want a web full of generic content because a few individuals show us the ways to be a success? Of course not and if you flood the market with an army of clones then nobody wins as there is only so much ‘success’ to go round.

What was special about the social web has been swallowed up in our quest to educate the masses.

Looking back over recent posts I suppose that that has been coming for a while; I have spoken about the need to do something different and to change the record so that is what I am going to do.

I am going to take a break from blogging and even the social web itself. Perhaps after some time away I will be able to return refreshed and maybe, just maybe, the conversation will have moved on. I have a couple of short breaks coming up so this seems the ideal time to get away for a while.

In the meantime please feel free to get in touch by email as I’ll at least always have that to hand on my phone.

August 5, 2008 Posted by | Blogging, Social Media | , | 12 Comments

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”.

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?

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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