Colin Walker

on social media, tech, blogging and the internet.

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

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

A static FriendFeed is a worthless FriendFeed.

ExcludedI jokingly posted a message on Twitter a while ago as I was travelling home announcing that I felt isolated as I was unable to ‘like’ or comment on FriendFeed from my phone. The thing is, it’s not actually a joke.

Steven Spalding asked: “Other than Twitter? What is your favorite online community?” My answer was obvious – FriendFeed of course. Now Twitter does some things better than FriendFeed (see later) but, as I mentioned before, it is just not suitable for full and proper discussion. FriendFeed doesn’t just import your tweets it exposes them, it enables you to follow up in a way that @replies on Twitter just can’t. Conversation can quickly get lost in the Twitter stream but, as Andrew Dobrow says:

The threading system of FriendFeed sets aside a little nook for each separate piece of information. And this nook is always there for you to come back to, and to add more towards if you so desire.

Each response to a thread also brings that conversation back in to focus so you don’t have to go looking for it wondering if anyone has replied.

Why just aggregate when you can participate?

Louis Gray posted about this and said the keys to FriendFeed’s success were participation and discovery. He’s completely right on this one. Take away the social aspect and FriendFeed is nothing – just another place to view the information you’ve got elsewhere. It’s like watching your friends at a party through the window because you weren’t invited.

FriendFeed is no longer an aggregator – an aggregator is just a tool that gathers threads of information into one central location; it is now a fully fledged community and commenting solution (particpation) that just happens to let you bring in your – and other people’s (discovery) – stuff and discuss in all in one location.

Going mobile

FriendFeed have been working on a new UI for the iPhone but it is now time to provide full functionality for other mobile devices just as slandr has done for Twitter. Full interactivity is needed – likes, comments, and the ability to send messages from your phone is desperately needed. Twitter was built with mobile devices in mind so beats FriendFeed hands down in that regard but the time has come for FriendFeed to develop and, in a way, negate the need for Twitter or the reliance it has upon it.

Perhaps we have become spoilt by the Web 2.0 bubble and the way in which our online communities have evolved, static pages are no longer enough and when faced with something that is not interactive we immediately turn away. FriendFeed and Twitter are perfect bedfellows but for them to truly complement each other we must be able to interact on all platforms. Part of Twitter’s success is that you do not need to be anywhere near a computer to participate – FriendFeed must follow its lead.

Your thoughts

Is an interactive mobile UI for FriendFeed too much to ask or is it a necessity? How do you view the relationship betweenTwitter and Friendfeed?

UPDATE: Rober Scoble advises me that he can comment from both his iPhone and Nokia N95 so maybe it is just Windows Mobile that doesn’t like the FriendFeed UI. Let me know if your phone does.

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Image by malias.

May 16, 2008 Posted by | Social Media | , , | 1 Comment

The impact of social media on journalism.

NewspaperAfter the blog post on the BBC, Sky News tonight ran an item on the events around Twitter breaking the news of the earthquake in China and had approached me to appear on TV as an ‘expert’. Unfortunately, this was too short notice and I was not able to go along but it illustrates the interest mainstream media is now having in social media as a tool for modern journalism.

As I mentioned yesterday twitter is ideally placed to distribute quick updates and ‘spread the word’ but with a 140 character limit cannot possibly be used as an authoritative news source.

Recent discussion has posited the idea of comments on twitter much like FriendFeed – with the speed and ease of Twitter combined with the facility to add more details a service would be ideally placed as a ‘go to’ source for as it happens, on the spot reaction.

Obligations

Yes, mainstream media has the obligation to check the facts and ensure they are providing as accurate a story as possible but the world – and media – is moving at an ever increasing rate. Mainstream media needs to keep up and the media watchdogs need to be realistic with the expectations placed upon journalists in this fast paced environment.

If mainstream media had been watching as Scoble was they could have reported a solid, breaking headline within 5 minutes of it happening but you can’t be watching everything (despite Scoble’s best attempts to do so). What do you do? Hire an army of researchers to monitor social media services 24 hours a day in case you get a scoop?

It is more likely that media organisations will have an outreach on the main social media services instead of just having their RSS feed pumped out to anyone wanting to subscribe. Just as they currently ask for text messages or photos there will be a social point for the public to get in touch with any breaking news. As search tools for social media services become more advanced news desks can be alerted to keywords and trends and then use the data they gather to enhance the traditional channels of delivery.

Connected

These events remind us that we are now more connected than ever and, as such, expectations as to our availability are increased. We live in an always on world with 24/7 coverage and, if at all possible, we should seize opportunities whenever they present themselves. I will be making a few changes at the blog in order to reflect this.

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Image by GiantsFanatic.

May 13, 2008 Posted by | Social Media | , | 2 Comments

Twitter is a facilitator.

I had already planned to write a post about Twitter acting as a facilitator and the unfortunate events in China today re-affirmed what I was going to say.

Back in February I posted:

“Twitter is more the facilitator of communication rather than the end channel so it is probably better to take deeper discussion and analysis away from this environment in order to effectively extend a particular conversation.”

With recent events this has never been more apparent. There have been complaints about Twitter as a medium being limited but such complaints also show Twitter’s true nature, for example:

Exactly. You can’t talk politics in 140 characters. It’s simply not possible. Must be done in person over beer. 🙂

Twitter is not intended as a public discussion forum but is a way of bringing people together, breaking news and spreading the word so that the conversation can be shared and then discussed in the most appropriate place – FriendFeed comments or blogs, for example. Admittedly it has moved on from its initial ‘status update’ beginnings and, as people find more uses for Twitter and spend more of their time on it, perhaps it is natural to want something else from it.

Tipping point

Breaking news is widely cited as the one thing that could force twitter past the tipping point and in to mainstream usage. A number of instances have occurred recently and today Robert Scoble remarked about twitter being quicker than mainstream media in reporting the Earthquake in China.

I replied that it is due to there being no limits, no restrictions, and (perhaps most importantly) no fact-checking with Twitter as people are reporting what’s happening directly to them as it happens. No news service could ever hope to keep up.

Recognition

It was interesting to see Rory Cellan-Jones refer to Twitter breaking this news on his BBC Blog and he wondered if this would be “the moment when Twitter comes of age”. The fact that Twitter was only mentioned in the context of a technology blog (albeit from a stalwart of mainstream media) rather than as part of the main story does little to boost Twitter even though a professional journalist is singing its praises. I think it is fair to say that not many people would read his comments, and probably those who do read his blog are already on Twitter – he is therefore just preaching to the choir.

Mainstream media has an obligation to be accurate and unless there is a policy change I can’t see organisations such as the BBC quoting the likes of Twitter as a source for breaking news without undertaking any due diligence. They may announce “unconfirmed reports” but the source of those reports would most likely never be given. Maybe there might also be a conflict of interests, why tell your audience to look elsewhere for their news?

A different animal

Twitter can indeed break reports faster than anywhere but is this news in the traditional sense? Probably not. Even when a service is fastest it is still acting as a facilitator, especially when you are limited to 140 character posts. Twitter allows us to see what is happening and gives us access to the aspects of the story which we must follow and piece together for ourselves. It is fantastic that so many threads can be interwoven from all over the world in such a short space of time but a service like Twitter is a tactic and not the target. It is a means of distribution rather than a destination and, as such, may never take over from traditional ‘reporting’.

Mainstream media may look to sources such as Twitter for breaking news and ‘on the ground’ reactions but the service will remain a way to link people to information rather than being the information source and until mainstream media acknowledges such services in its reports Twitter, and other social media services, will remain a means to an end and not the end product.

Your thoughts

Could a social news service hope to compete with mainstream media? Is it responsible to quote such a source without fact checking or are the inherent delays in reporting unavoidable?

May 12, 2008 Posted by | Social Media | , | 5 Comments

My favourite Twitter tools.

I have been tagged by Julian Baldwin of “notes, thoughts, ideas and responses” to share my favourite Twitter tools and continue the collaborative list that has started in reponse to a few posts.

Part of the beauty of Twitter is the whole universe that has emerged around the API. While the simplicity of the service itself makes it a joy to use Twitter really comes in to its wn once you start using the applications that have sprung up around it.

So, down to business. I’ve written about most of these before and it’s interesting to note that my preferences haven’t changed – perhaps it’s a case of sticking to what you know.

Quotably

Quotably allows you to track conversation threads relating to a Twitter username you specify, it shows both conversations started by that user (with related replies) and those threads the user has contributed to. This is especially useful in tracking any answers to a question you may have asked and getting a screen dump of them all in context.

Quotably
(click for full size image)

Twitter has a habit of not referencing the correct tweets in a thread so Quotably let’s you re-organise them so that they appear in the correct order.

Fix Threading

Quotably has also recently introduced a new feature which tracks the most popular things happening on Twitter in real time.

Quotably Popular

TwitThis

TwitThis is an easy way to post a link to any page to your Twitter feed and can be used via a browser bookmarklet, a button on your page or even a WordPress plugin. TwitThis gives you a number of options to choose from for telling the world what you are doing such as: Reading, Looking at, Responding to in order to give a bit of variation with your Tweets. An example looks like this:

TwitThis Example

Intwition

There are a number of Twitter search tools out there but Intwition is different in that it is designed to search for URLs. Bloggers can perform ego searches to see who’s been discussing their blog. A good twist on this is the “reach” stats – not only can you see who has been posting links but also the total number of Twitter users potentially exposed to that link. You can even subscribe to your query as an RSS feed.

Intwition

Hashtags

Another great way to track tweets about specific topics is to use hashtags: simply a word proceeded by a hash character, e.g. #hashtags. Tweets that include these tags can then be collated in order to get an overall picture of conversation about a particular subject. There are a couple of sites you can use to track them but hashtags.org gives by far the best information.

There’s my favourites so it’s my turn to keep the ball rolling and tag someone else. If we’re playing by the same rules that Julian set then whomever I choose should not duplicate any of the tools already mentioned here or in the other posts in the series – this could start getting tricky.

I’ll tag Mark Dykeman of the Broadcasting Brain, over to you Mark.

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

Advertising on Twitter, kill or cure?

Any service needs a business model in order to survive, a social media site is no exception. Twitter has come in for some flack about not appearing to have one in the past so it was interesting to see the mistaken story that Twitter had been testing adverts during some performance issues last night.

A recent opinion pieceon The Industry Standard website included twitter in their 10 net services that would probably fail, their thoughts:

There’s no compelling reason for most people to use it, and many existing services — ranging from AIM to FriendFeed to social networks — have overlapping functionality. And how is it supposed to make money?

Twitter is growing quickly and has become ingrained in to many of our lifestyles so it is hard to imagine that a service this popular could fail, but this is still early days as it has yet to go properly mainstream. Does it need to?

The key to Twitter is its simplicity – it is one of the easiest ways to facilitate conversation but if it is going to survive then it must be sustainable – how else can this be achieved if not via advertising?

The poll on the TechCrunch story asking if we support ads on Twitter currently has the No’s in the lead but I think it is both inevitable that ads will appear at some point – they must, however, be implemented correctly. Personally I voted Yes, I would support ads (under my proviso). We are so used to advertising in our daily lives that we have become accustomed to filtering it out.

In a way we are already being subjected to advertising on Twitter, albeit not in the traditional form. If you use a third party client or web service to post then this will be indicated by a link at the end of the individual tweet – isn’t that advertising? As others have commented, and time we post a link to our content on Twitter we are advertising our wares. Users are creating profile background images which again advertise their sites etc. around the Twitter UI so are not traditional ads only a logical next step.

Your Take

Rather than ask again if you support ads on Twitter I would like to ask if you think something like Twitter needs a conventional business model. How else could such services raise the capital required to sustain themselves if they are going to remain free to the end user?

April 15, 2008 Posted by | Social Media | , | 9 Comments

Web applications and their desktop clients.

cloud Once a social web application gains popularity the developers invariably look to create client applications for use on our desktops to make the data more convenient to access and use but is this really the case?

Twitter has a plethora of client applications for Mac, PC and mobile including the likes of Twhirl, Witty and Twitteriffic, and now FriendFeed has the unusually named Alert Thingy. Does these applications make it easier to use the services they hook in to? Some claim that the applications are indispensable but I have personally never found them as useful as the native cloud based application – I hope to explain why.

The native page

Perhaps it is just the way that I work but I find the data in social media services easier to work with on the native website that I do in a client application for a number of reasons:

  • everything is in its native form and you are not trying to fit a lot of data in to a small client
  • you can browse it at your leisure
  • you can avoid the distraction of a client app beeping at you every couple of minutes
  • the web app is better at dealing with larger quantities of information

I am not someone who works on the same PC at the same desk all the time so only use social media services when I am settled and have the time to do so. In fact, many of the sites I have worked at block the likes of Twitter under their Instant Messaging firewall policy. This leads me to have a larger set of data to look at when I do use the service.

Trying to handle a large amount of data in a client application is virtually impossible. For example, whilst checking out Alert Thingy I left it to run through a few update cycles and was immediately lost – so many comments had come through that data was dropping off the bottom thus needing me to actually visit the website in order to read the bits I had missed. The same situation happens with the various Twitter clients I have used.

Attention seeking

juggling Client applications may be able to deliver you the information almost straight away but they are constantly demanding your attention leaving you in a constant state of partial attention. With a couple of applications open, an IM client and your email there is little hope that you will keep up to date with everything or be able to concentrate sufficiently on what you should be doing.

You may say that, just as with a web browser, you can close the client application if it is a distraction and go back to it later but I feel that this negates the need for it. It is supposed to be delivering you up to date content rather than being used to dip in to. This can be done just as easily via the original web page.

Clutter

Corvida of SheGeeks replied on Twitter that she doesn’t "like having so many tabs open in Firefox and most sites won’t auto-refresh for updates" – a good point but what is the trade off between clutter in a browser and clutter on your desktop? With numerous applications all vying for both our attention and space on our screens how long before things get unwieldy?

Your take

Perhaps it is just the way that I use both computers and social media services that I just can’t use client applications successfully so I ask you: which do you prefer – the native site or the desktop client and why?

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

Let your Twitter followers know what you’re reading.

I came across another third party Twitter service this morning called "Twit This" which is an easy way to show your Twitter followers what you’re reading or, conversely, a way to get your site/blog readers to tell their followers and hopefully drive a bit of traffic your way.

Twit This is used in a couple of ways:

  • a bookmarklet on your browser toolbar to submit which ever page you are viewing
  • a link (either by button or text) added by the site author

There is also a WordPress plugin for those of you using that platform.

As with the previous blog I have at the end of each post I have added a "Tweet This" link (let’s face it Twitter messages are generally referred to as Tweets) but have modified the code involved to dynamically include the post ID and title rather than that of the page itself (as happens with the original code) – you can therefore tweet individual blog posts from the main page.

 

Podcast novel author JC Hutchins says that he wishes more people would use Twit This on their sites as it is an "Easy way to empower readers to evangelize blog posts" and I agree but perhaps there should be just as much onus on us as readers to use the bookmarklet and share those sites we find interesting.

Once you have submitted your tweet it will show up in Twitter something like this

 

Choice

Twit This is another prime example of the whole ecosystem that is developing around Twitter. Twitter itself succeeds because of its simplicity but these third party tools mean you can make it as useful and as complicated as you like – it’s all about personal choice.

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April 3, 2008 Posted by | Social Media | , | Leave a comment

Making more effective use of Twitter.

Twitter is starting to become more mainstream – it’s not just the geeks anymore. With so many users making so many updates how can you possibly keep track of topics, conversations etc?

The two easiest, and probably most effective methods of keeping track of your recent responses and those back to you are by using quotably and employing what are known as hashtags.

Quotably

The quotably site is designed to track conversations by looking at the thread of responses related to a given Twitter username. Included in the search results are recent conversations that user has taken part in including both the tweets they have made in response to others and those made back to the user.


(click for full size image)

The great thing about quotably is that you can correct the reply threading when things don’t seem to be in the correct order. I’ve noticed that the reply to link   doesn’t always seem to point back to the right tweet and this is reflected in the order shown by quotably. Fortunately, you have the ability to fix the threading and ensure that tweets are correctly ordered:

Cool stuff, eh?

Hashtags

Another popular method of tracking tweets about specific topics is the use of hashtags: simply a word proceeded by a hash character, e.g. #hashtags. Tweets that include these tags can then be collated in order to get an overall picture of conversation about a particular subject.

Third party sites are used to monitor hashtags:

Twemes.com (TWitter mEMES) presents recent popular tags in a traditional "tag cloud" format for a quick visual reference whereas hashtags.org opts for a tabular layout with a 24 hour activity graph for each tag. Hashtags.org is the more functional offering different views based on popularity and time and seems to be the more widely used site by tweeters. It does require you to follow @hashtags in order for your tags to show up on the site – twemes.com doesn’t.

Something I intend to do is to use hashtags to generate more blog traffic. Before tweeting about a new blog post I will first check if it is relevant to any existing hashtags (the more popular the better) and ensure that the tweet is tagged accordingly.

Do you use either of these methods for tracking twitter activity?
What do you think of them?
Is there anything else that you use?

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April 3, 2008 Posted by | Social Media | , | Leave a comment