1. “Falling down these miserable holes”

    Posted December 13, 2017 in social media, twitter  |  No Comments so far

    The following passage from Slate’s “The Year In Push Alerts” touched a nerve with me:

    As a computer programmer, White said, he gets frequent 30-second breaks while the software he’s working on is loading, rendering, and searching—and during those tiny intervals he feels helplessly drawn to the news. “[I’ll see a] tweet about some bizarre behavior… Look at the article. Click through to another article. Post that on Twitter. Get a like. Look at that person’s feed. See another take on how awful Trump is. Click on it. Feel guilty. Try to focus on work. Someone walks into my office and says, ‘Can you believe that Gorsuch says …’ And so on.” During the first few months of the administration, White said, he was losing approximately half of his work time falling down these miserable holes.

    For me, this pattern started to take hold during the immediate aftermath of the Brexit vote and I’ve had to work hard to break out of it. It’s part of the reason why I stopped being a smartphone person and took a step back from Twitter.

    Oh yes, mentioning Twitter reminds me of this thing I saw about Twitter, on Twitter. It’s depressingly accurate and makes me even more keen to run screaming from the noisy blue bird:

    “How a day on British Twitter works”, by @TechnicallyRon. Click for full version


  2. Google+ has lost its early momentum. Is it the new Chrome, or the new Wave?

    Posted August 4, 2011 in social media  |  1 Comment so far

    Remember Google Chrome? It was a browser that Google launched in 2008. They said it’d be as well-known as Firefox and Safari and Internet Explorer and Konqueror. And it had a logo that looked like a Pokéball.

    Google Chrome logo mashup

    Image courtesy of labnol.org

    Ring a bell? Yes? Of course, I knew you’d remember the Pokéball. So what happened to Chrome? At first everyone was really enthusiastic about it but then they got bored and usage dropped off. People who look at browser statistics started saying that Chrome was a failure within a few months of launch:

    Usage of Chrome peaked soon after its launch to about 3.1% share of the browsers market, after which users pretty much lost interest and went to their usual browser making Chrome’s market share down to a steady 1.5%…

    And I was describing Chrome as a Google mis-fire in December 2008:

    Like around 3% of the internet I installed and started using Chrome when it came out. However, I’m not among the 0.83% of the internet who are still using it…

    So given that the writing was so obviously on the wall for Chrome, it’s not surprising that hardly anyone remembers it nowadays, right? Right?

    …OK, time to drop this strained rhetorical device. The point, in case you haven’t guessed, is that a lot of people – me included – called time on Chrome when its brief honeymoon period ended. A couple of years later and these doubters – yes, me included – were proven wrong. In fact, Chrome’s just overtaken Firefox as the UK’s second most popular browser. An early stumble doesn’t always mean impending doom.

    More recently, another new Google product has come off the starting blocks only to falter in its first few strides: Google+. Despite initial enthusiasm the buzz is dying down and traffic has dropped off from its early weeks. People are talking about “giving up” on it.

    Can Google+ take heart from what happened to Chrome? Or is it doomed? Let’s look at a couple of arguments either way.

    “Google+ will rule over us all and bring light to the darkest corners of the Earth”

    Let’s compare Google+ to Twitter. To begin, how many of you had even heard of Twitter in May 2006 when it was as old as Google+ is now? I hadn’t, and I’m a committed geek. It took Twitter ages to get even recognisably close to its current levels of popularity.

    Remember spring 2009, and how there was so much confusion about what Twitter was for? That was three years into Twitter’s lifespan. Google+ has only been around for three months, and already has 25 million users. Judged by Twitter’s standards, that growth rate is positively stratospheric.

    The same applies to Facebook – it didn’t get to half a billion users in its first three months, did it? So who cares about a minor dip in traffic? Google+ is destined for greatness.

    “Google+ is doomed! Escape before it sinks beneath the waves or you’ll be doomed too”

    Let’s go back to the comparison between G+ and Chrome. So Chrome had an early stumble but then recovered? Fair enough. But there are differences between G+ and Chrome – big differences.

    Imagine you’re a Chrome user and you love it. You uninstalled IE. You uninstalled Firefox. Hell, you even uninstalled Minesweeper – Chrome is that good. Then you find out that no-one else in the world uses Chrome, no-one apart from you. Do you care?

    No, not at all. Your immediate experience of using Chrome is unaffected by others using it or not. But Google+, as a social product, is more exposed to network effects – if no-one you know uses Google+, it’s next to useless. If everyone you knew uses it, it is useful even if it’s a shockingly poor product (cf. Myspace). So the sophomore dip in traffic is meaningful for G+ in a way that it wasn’t for Chrome. When a social product like Google+ loses its users, it loses everything.

    So what’ll happen to G+?

    My gut instinct isn’t all that positive. I like it – there’s something a bit “old-school-internet” about my own personal experience of G+, probably because of the specific people I’ve been connecting to there. But I’ve been involved in launching and running quite a few “online communities” (remember them?) in my time and I notice some telltale signs among the people I follow. Not enough posts. Too many ghost speakers, links cast off into the void that spark no discussion, no debate.

    Healthy online communities need some tension, some arguments, some passion, some disagreements. Maybe that’s what Google+ needs so that it feels less like a lab and more like a space for life and all its anger and mess. So let’s post some flamebait and check back in six months to see how it’s getting on.


  3. How recruiters are posing a threat to LinkedIn even though they don’t mean to

    Posted May 17, 2011 in comment, social media  |  4 Comments so far

    One of LinkedIn’s strengths is its “how you’re connected” feature, which shows how you’re linked to second degree contacts. Seeing who you have in common with someone helps you understand who they are, what they’re like, and whether it’s worth getting to know them. It’s often more informative than the blurbs people write about themselves.

    LinkedIn's "how you're connected" feature

    "Any friend of Joe's is a friend of mine"

    But this LinkedIn feature is becoming less useful due to an insidious form of network pollution. Like coastal erosion, this network pollution is a slow process that’s barely noticeable from one day to the next, but could be hugely damaging in the longer term. And I think I know who’s responsible for this network pollution – recruiters.

    Before I continue, I should say that this isn’t an anti-recruiter rant. Recruiters may be responsible for this network pollution, but the blame lies with LinkedIn, and I’ll talk more about this later. Building a big contact list is essential to a recruiter’s job and they can’t be expected not to do this. But this is what’s weakening the value of LinkedIn’s “how you’re connected” feature, and quite possibly its network as a whole.

    If you’re a LinkedIn user, you’re not just a person – you’re a “node”, which is a fancy way of saying that you can connect people to one another. If one of your contacts finds another one of your contacts on LinkedIn, you will be the node that connects them. And as a connecting node, your usefulness comes from the quality of your relationships with those two individuals. If the person searching knows that you’re picky about who you connect with (which you clearly are, only highly discerning people read this blog after all), your connection to that person is itself a notable endorsement.

    Network diagram based on The Wire

    If you were Marlo, you'd probably be more interested in people you knew through Prop Joe than through McNulty

    Not every “node” on LinkedIn is as discerning and useful as you are, though. Some nodes are far more promiscuous, connecting to lots of people they’ve never met, let alone worked with, and the more promiscuous someone is the less useful they become as a LinkedIn node. This is where recruiters come in. They hoover up connections, which means that you often find your second degree contacts are connected to you through recruiters. But as connecting nodes, the recruiters aren’t all that useful because they’re not very choosy about who they connect with.

    Bubbles causes network pollution

    Bubbles pollutes Marlo's network because he knows so many people. Now everyone's a second degree contact

    OK, maybe I’m stretching the analogy by comparing Bubbles to a recruiter, so I’ll drop it now. The general principle is that, if you’re connected to more than a couple of recruiters, searching LinkedIn will turn up more and more people who are second degree contacts, but that you only know through recruiters. The value of someone being a second degree contact slowly declines, because when a recruiter is the common contact you learn nothing more meaningful than that you both once looked for a job, or once tried to hire people.

    It’s like sharing a mild dislike of rain – common ground, yes, but not very meaningful. This is what I mean by “network pollution”. The value or interestingness of the network is dropping because of recruiters and other “super-nodes” who are turning nearly everybody into your second degree contacts.

    LinkedIn isn’t the only service susceptible to this kind of network pollution. Twitter will sometimes recommend another user to you because you have a “follow” in common. And if that “follow” is, say, your best friend, that’s good grounds for a recommendation. But if the common follow is Stephen Fry, Barack Obama, or any other celebrity account with millions of followers, that’s pretty useless. If Last.fm recommended someone to you because you both listened to the Beatles, that would be pretty useless too (which is why music recommendation algorithms are hard to get right). All social networks have to deal with problems like this where “super-nodes” undermine the value of recommendations based on shared connections.

    So as I said earlier, this is a LinkedIn issue and not the fault of recruiters who are simply trying to do their jobs. Recruiters will continue to add connections, other people will continue to accept them, and the usefulness of “how you’re connected” will continue to drop. It’s not a very serious problem right now, but LinkedIn needs to think of how it can design for this aspect of its social graph, which is something it seems to take pretty seriously – and rightly so.


  4. Felix Salmon on the problems with Twitter’s transience

    Posted December 31, 2010 in comment, social media  |  No Comments so far

    I’m posting this from my phone, so apologies in advance for any typos. But I wanted to share this article from Felix Salmon on how the Wired/Wikileaks discussions of the last few days have highlighted a problem with Twitter’s new role in online debates:
    http://blogs.reuters.com/felix-salmon/2010/12/30/the-evanescence-of-twitter-debates/

    As commentators use their blogs for increasingly journalistic content, the conversational aspect of blogging moves on to Twitter. This leads to two problems.

    First, these conversations become very hard to join mid-stream. If you weren’t following from the beginning, you’ll have a hard time catching up. This is especially true of conversations that involve more than two people, as the “in reply to” functionality is no help. A commment thread on a blog or forum, on the other hand, can be read from the beginning even if you’re coming late to the party, and its linear structure makes it easy to catch up.

    The second problem is that Twitter loses these discussions after a couple of months, so they’re not available for future reference. This ephemerality is part of Twitter’s appeal for users, but from an archiving point of view it’s definitely a weakness. It’s good to be able to look back on how topics were discussed in their time, but Twitter currently doesn’t let us do that.

    Maybe Twitter will evolve to address these problems over time. If it doesn’t, however, there could be an opportunity for third party products that do.


  5. The thing with Ping

    Posted September 24, 2010 in social media  |  No Comments so far

    Ping, which launched a few weeks ago, is a social network for music built on top of iTunes. So far it’s been a bit of a damp squib. Immediately after launch some were extremely enthusiastic about it:

    The future of social commerce… It can tell me who my friends think are cool… Some of my friends are famous deejays. Others just have eclectic musical tastes.
    Om Malik, GigaOM, 1st September 2010

    Others, however, were more guarded:

    The interface is still buggy and slower than molasses in January at the North Pole during a legitimate Ice Age. And that slowness is a big turnoff and an inherent factor of working within iTunes. We don’t love Ping yet, but we don’t hate it, either.
    Jolie O’Dell, Mashable, 1st September 2010

    In the last few weeks discussions about Ping have become increasingly negative. Analysis of online chatter published by Buzzstudy on September 15th showed that:

    With the exception of a huge spike on the day of its release, Ping chatter has been surprisingly low… [sentiment analysis revealed that] iTunes Ping was clearly the most negatively talked about service.
    Buzzstudy, September 15th 2010

    Some recent coverage of Ping has the tone of a post-mortem, an instructional case study of historic business failure, with inside sources dishing the dirt on what went wrong:

    …Apple launched Ping without insight from a major part of the industry: the A&Rs and digital marketing teams, the people whose job it is to connect artists with fans. Perhaps this accounts for why Ping is so, well, boring.
    Austin Carr, Fast Company, September 22nd 2010

    The prevailing wisdom seems to be that the breakdown of talks with Facebook has been to blame, and indeed Facebook is being portrayed as a bit of a villain:

    “Working with Facebook as a large company is challenging at this stage, very similar to mid-late-90s Microsoft,” says one Silicon Valley veteran.

    Dan Frommer, Business Insider, September 21st 2010

    A lot of the problems with Ping are pretty glaring. You’re only allowed to like three pre-defined genres of music, artists are added to the system manually, and you can only use it within the iTunes application. When you think about it, it seems like it was conceived as the antithesis to everything we’ve learnt about successful social networks in the last five years.

    But there’s another big problem that I associate with Ping. It’s not a flaw in Ping itself – it’s something that Ping has brought into focus, something more general about the relationship between music and social interaction. In a nutshell, the problem is this: do people really want to know what music everyone else is listening to?

    Don’t get me wrong – music plays a huge part in my social life. Most of my closest friends are people I got to know through shared musical tastes and activities. Social discovery and enjoyment of music is important to me, and I don’t think people should be separated into isolated bubbles of mutual musical ignorance.

    But at the same time I don’t think that social discovery & enjoyment of music works well in the larger social networks, which is what Ping aspires to be. Broadcasting one’s musical taste to the world at large doesn’t feel right. I wouldn’t put my Last.fm listening history on my LinkedIn profile, for example, and I don’t think I’d gain much from seeing that information on other people’s profiles.

    Music is one sphere of life where there is still a strong case for communities of interest, rather than communities of acquaintance. It provides a great example of how most of us partition our lives, similar to the famous “work/life balance”. Religion and politics are other examples. Some relationships, especially professional ones, can work better when these subjects don’t take centre stage.

    For me at least, music networks are better if they are decoupled from the larger social spaces and allow me to control how much of my musical taste leaks through into them. And this is a basic problem with Ping as I see it. A Facebook-sized, music-based network that uses real names and forces people into a set of pre-defined genre boxes doesn’t really fit with how a lot of people engage with music. Music is a social experience, yes – but it’s a private one too.


  6. Not the YouTube election, and not the X-Factor election either

    Posted May 7, 2010 in politics, social media  |  No Comments so far

    Back in December 2009, Steve Grove, YouTube’s head of politics and news, gave a sales pitch to a London audience of parliamentary researchers and policy wonks. Drawing on the the 2008 US presidential election as a case study, he encouraged his Westminster audience to place YouTube at the core of their campaigns for the 2010 election.

    Also at this sales pitch was Rory Cellan-Jones, the BBC’s technology correspondent, who gave a detailed account of it on his blog. Despite the obviously commercial nature of the presentation, Cellan-Jones was fairly unquestioning in his write-up and went as far as suggesting that 2010 would see the UK’s first “YouTube election”.

    That was then and this is now. As I write, the UK is in political limbo after voters returned a hung parliament and it’s obvious that the election wasn’t a YouTube election at all. But in truth, it was never going to be. YouTube is less of a social tool here than it is in the US, or than Steven Grove seemingly led Cellan-Jones to believe. If any online services were going to play a role here, it would have been Facebook or Twitter, which revolve around interpersonal communication rather than YouTube’s quasi-broadcasting model. But even these services seemed to have little effect on the course of the election.

    Rory Cellan-Jones has today written a post describing how political parties used the internet in their campaigns – Labour’s “sophisticated use of Google’s AdSense system” and the Tory purchase of ad space on the YouTube home page are among the examples cited. I don’t think these are very inspiring, however. Ultimately the political parties simply bought media space, a part of election campaigning that’s nearly as old as the ballot box itself. It means little that the media space purchased was digital and not tree-based.

    So social media didn’t play such a central role as some thought it would, and the political parties took a pretty humdrum approach to their digital activities. But how different were things in the world of “old” media? Did it turn out to be more of an X-Factor election than a YouTube election?

    Traditional media outlets were in triumphant mood after the televised election debates which delivered such a boost for Nick Clegg. Media Week claimed  ‘old’ media was reasserting supremacy and even some digital agencies talked about “old media striking back”.

    The consensus was that the Lib Dem surge, triggered by the first TV debate, was the election’s defining event. This proved that good old top-down broadcasting, not this new-fangled and un-Murdochian internet stuff, continued to shape the opinions of the public. But when election day came round the Lib Dem surge was nowhere to be seen. So it turned out that the effect of the TV debates was actually pretty short-lived and ephemeral.

    Television, newspapers, YouTube and Facebook have all been vying for the chance to claim it was them wot won it. Rory Cellan-Jones, Media Week, Rupert Murdoch, Steve Grove – none of these people really got it right in the end. Like the election itself, the “old” vs “new” media battle  has failed to deliver a conclusive and straightforward result.


  7. Google Buzz: a serious new fixture in the social web?

    Posted February 12, 2010 in social media  |  No Comments so far

    Not everyone is all that impressed by Google Buzz so far, but I am. Yes, questions are being raised about privacy – but such questions are a given in any modern discussions about social technology. And some have been quick to point out limitations in terms of interface (“I quickly found the Buzz user interface… visually uninviting“) and features (“Google Buzz: The Missing Features“) – but imperfection is inevitable when a service is only two days old.

    For what it’s worth, there are things about Buzz I’d like to change. Conversations shouldn’t be treated so much like emails, for example, with “read” and “unread” states – this brings “inbox anxiety” into the equation, something Twitter was wise to discard. And users could benefit from more fine-grained control over privacy settings.

    Inbox anxiety with Buzz

    Inbox anxiety with Google Buzz - I'm not looking forward to having hundreds of unread "Buzzes"

    But I’m happy to put these thoughts to one side: at the moment I’m more interested in the response it’s provoked among my own contacts, many of whom are tech-savvy but not really social web junkies. So far, it’s making me think that Buzz has an appeal for people who are active online but always disliked Twitter and had never heard of Friendfeed.

    Buzz has definitely been a conversation-starter in a way that Wave wasn’t. In the first few hours, many posts were as you’d expect – “what is this for?”, “can anyone see this post?”, that sort of thing. Today is day two for Buzz, however, and the conversations have started to move away from these meta topics. In fact they’re slowly starting to resemble the sorts of conversations these people have in real life.

    This is very different from Wave, which prompted a few discussions of the “what’s this all about?” variety before being largely abandoned even by early adopter types like myself. Obviously this might happen with Buzz as well – as I said above, today is only day two – but the acceptance trajectory so far seems very different. For example, the risk of being flooded with too much Buzz data seems much greater than that of Buzz falling into disuse.

    In many ways I’m tempted to think that Wave has been a kind of public beta for Buzz. MG Seigler at TechCrunch is thinking along similar lines in this post, If Google Wave Is The Future, Google Buzz Is The Present. Buzz certainly explains why Wave had no Gmail integration, something I wondered about at the time.

    Once again, it’s early days with Buzz. But my own anecdotal experiences so far make me suspect that – despite the contrary opinions of various mavens and competitors – it’s going to be a fixture in the social media landscape for some time to come.


  8. Charging companies for Twitter – what could it involve?

    Posted February 17, 2009 in social media, strategy  |  No Comments so far

    You’re probably aware that Biz Stone, one of Twitter’s co-founders, told Marketing magazine on February 10th that:

    “We are noticing more companies using Twitter and individuals following them. We can identify ways to make this experience even more valuable and charge for commercial accounts”

    How to decode this quote? It’s fairly vague, but I can think of a few possible charging models that Twitter might adopt. I’ve listed three of them here:


    1) “Twitter tax”

    Twitter will try to identify accounts that are run by companies rather than individuals. It will then attempt to extract money from the owners of these accounts. Failure to pay will result in closure of the account.

    I don’t think this is very likely, however:

    • Distinguishing companies from individuals would be extremely difficult. A lot of anger come from those who felt they’d been unfairly classified (e.g. if you’re a consultant and you discuss professional topics on Twitter, are you a “company”?)
    • No value would be added for those who pay
    • A lot of genuinely handy and non-revenue-generating information services would vanish from Twitter, diminishing the value of Twitter as an information utility
    • This diminishing of Twitter’s usefulness would lead many people to desert the service.

    2) “Singling out the marketers”

    Like the first option, Twitter will identify accounts that are run by companies. However, it will draw a line between companies that use it for information services and those who use it as a sales channel. Companies who use it as a sales channel will be penalised while those who use it for information services will not.

    This is a bit more viable than option 1:

    • Distinguishing sales from servicing would be easier than distinguishing companies from individuals. Rules could be defined, e.g. if you are seen to link to product pages or talk about offers or sales then you’ll be penalised
    • It would allow services that people find useful to continue – e.g. getting news updates from the BBC
    • It would encourage companies to use the service in an “ethical” way while heavily penalising spammers
    • As a result, there would be a lower risk of people leaving the service.

    3) “The enhanced service”

    Twitter will not try to distinguish companies from individuals. However, it will create an “enhanced” account which will provide additional features at a cost. Companies will be free to keep using the “basic” service if they want to.

    This is the most likely option, I’d say:

    • The challenge would be to come up with features that would make a paid account compelling
    • These could include things like offering brand protection (the account is marked as ‘official’), ecommerce features (people being able to pay over Twitter), advanced analytics (see reports on your followers and their behaviour etc), tracking abilities (find out how many people clicked the link in the last message you sent, etc)…
    • This would add value for people who chose to pay
    • There would be no need on Twitter’s part to pay people to detect and penalise companies
    • Things like news feeds and so on would continue to operate, meaning that the usefulness of Twitter wouldn’t be too diminished.

    Most of the commentary I’ve read so far seems to assume that something akin to the first option, the “Twitter tax”, would be introduced. But Twitter surely realise that it would be costly to implement and would seriously impact their growth rate. An enhanced service for which companies or individuals could pay is far more likely.

    In particular, keep an eye out for commerce features. Pay-by-Twitter might seem far-fetched at the moment but as the service becomes ever more pervasive a compelling user need for that service will begin to emerge.


  9. Missing the point of social media

    Posted February 5, 2009 in social media  |  No Comments so far

    I’ve just been reading an article on Netimperative (What’s the future of search?) which features the following quote:

    …if you find that very negative results at search engines show up following queries for your brand, products, services, you should evaluate if you’re doing enough PR in the social media space to counter it.

    This statement suggests that if a company’s customers are unhappy with its products or services the best thing to do is to spend money on social media PR. But doesn’t this miss the point somewhat?

    I’d suggest an alternative method for companies whose customers dislike their products and services: “improve your products and services”. If you do that, the conversations your customers have about you online will take a turn for the better.

    That’s not to say that companies shouldn’t take part in these conversations. I just think that approaching social media as another PR channel is missing the point of that medium.


  10. Another Twitter visualisation

    Posted February 3, 2009 in social media, visualisation  |  No Comments so far

    I promise I’ll stop posting links to these one day. Anyway, this is from a series of Superbowl-related interactive visualisations produced by the New York Times:

    Screenshot of NYT Twitter visualisation

    Unlike the visualisation of #inauguration posts I linked to recently, this isn’t based on hash tags but instead uses moving tag clouds to illustrate the volume of Twitter posts on various subjects during the Super Bowl.

    Examples include “Cardinals vs Steelers” (I know the Steelers are from Pittsburgh but from this animation I’d guess the Cardinals are from… Las Vegas? San Diego?), “talking about ads” (it’s vaguely depressing to see how much conversation the ads inspire) and player names (a guy called Fitzgerald obviously does something notable in the fourth quarter).

    This is maybe the most effective use of Twitter data I’ve seen so far, as it is centred around a single event but tracks various subjects of conversation related to that event. A far simpler and less interesting animation would have simply flagged every post with the hash tag #superbowl.