Bright Matrices

Writings & musings of Mike Zavarello (a.k.a. brightmatrix), a "red mage" web developer.

Why I Think Lists Are More Harmful to Twitter than Moments or Epic-length Tweets

Folks have been abuzz over recent and planned features they feel will sound the death knell for Twitter. When Moments came out, it was derided as forcing the conversation and overemphasizing trends. Next, we have this planned increase of tweet length from SMS-style messages to epic-length, 10,000-character novellas.

Every new addition to a network is going to have its detractors, but there’s one feature that’s been around a lot longer than I think is having a stronger and more negative effect on Twitter: Lists.

The original intent of lists was to focus a user’s assumed “multifaceted” tweet stream into more meaningful “buckets” of topic-based content. I can have all my synthwave folks in one bucket, my gaming folks in a second bucket, and political commentary in a third. A simple and noble concept, right?

As with other Twitter features, actual use has shifted from its intention. Rather than being something to curate or organize messages, lists are becoming a safe haven for folks with Twitter’s growing population and its heightened noise-to-signal ratio.

Unfortunately, there are no reliable trends or metrics for use of lists (not that I’ve found). I personally feel users are turning to lists for two key reasons:

  • It reduces the “feel-bads” that come from unfollowing someone. Whether you believe so or not, “following” someone on Twitter always feels like a commitment or affirmation, whereas lists are a heck of a lot more arbitrary. Grooming your lists instead of purging who you follow involves significantly less reputational risk (yes, that’s a thing), since you’re still, in effect, connected. Facebook did something similar in 2014 by adding a “following” feature alongside the “friendship” network it was founded on.
  • Lists can be private. Everyone and their mother can see who you follow. Lists, on the other hand, can be completely private, which allows you to curate with no fear of outside curiosity or commentary.

The big problem I personally have with these reasons is they make the Twitter ecosystem far more disingenuous. You have this group of followers who have made a voluntary decision to join your public conversations, but due to their use of lists, are pretty much turning a deaf ear to you. This is no longer real life. The bonds are weaker.

In hindsight, I think Google was on to something with their whole “Circles” ecosystem for Google Plus, but, as with other products like Buzz and Wave, it was a few years ahead of its need.

To sum up, I really, truly don’t like Twitter Lists, and it I don’t think the current use of the feature bodes well for Twitter. We already have this growing plague of folks “talking past one another” instead of talking to each other. Add greater reliability on lists and now it becomes just “sound and fury, signifying nothing.”

I really wonder whether this will affect adoption of new users, since they’ll be pretty much tweeting to empty air if they continue to assume that followers equals visibility.

“Never read the comments” … and product reviews?

Over the weekend, I had a thought regarding the Internet age adage “never read the comments” and product reviews. Aren’t reviews, in a sense, comments on a product? If we’re advised by the wise sages of the internets to not read them, how are we supposed to make what we feel as educated decisions on something that’s going to cost us time, money, or both?

Let’s start with comments.

I most always read the comments, or, at least the first few of them. Why? It’s the commentary, y’all!

In enough cases to warrant reading said comments, I’ve found enough enlightenment and details in back-and-forth discourse between commenters (and more fun if the original poster or author chimes in) to enrich the article, essay, diatribe, etc. The glaring exception is YouTube videos, which are riddled with spamvertisements.

I also use comments as a bellwether of the source document’s tone and agenda. You can tell a lot about an article by what chatter it stirs up in the digital pot, such as its reputation, its readership, and its (though I’ve grown to dislike this term) authenticity.

Now, for reviews.

As a general practice, whenever I see product reviews for something on, say, Amazon, I go and read both the “most recent” and “most helpful” sets to get a general consensus.

“Most recent” tells me whether there are problems or improvements that may affect my decision to buy this product. You see this a lot on the Apple App Store when a particular app pushes out an update. In that regard, low ratings due to past grumbling about quality or performance may now be fixed with a new version. It could also tell me whether the product has consistent problems back through time.

I take the “most helpful” reviews with a mighty strong grain of salt. There’s been quite an influx of “professional reviewers” getting paid to “gloss up” a product’s overall rating, and that unfortunately muddies up the waters. Professionally-written reviews are not always explicitly marked as such, but they always seem to have the same glossy platitudes in their writing style; they’re all trying to tell (or sell) the same story.

Here’s the flip side: I find that too many reviews are full of “complaint noise:” users or consumers who have no effective way of getting to the manufacturer or creator other than posting negative reviews, or, those who are confused or ill-informed about the proper use of what they purchased.

A good example I found just the other day is the Disney XD app for iOS, which I downloaded to watch the latest episode of Star Wars Rebels. A good percentage of the reviews were low- or one-starred. The 10 most recent reviews seemed to be written by a lot of tweens and teenagers looking to stream Disney XD shows but getting deflected by an internet service provider login or parental restrictions. Having an ISP and being a parent myself, I don’t have those obstacles and, as a result, their experiences aren’t reflective of my own.

OK, so comments are often noisy and argumentative and reviews suffer from authenticity issues and grumbling. Should we start saying “never read the comments or the reviews?”

I say “no.”

In this day and age, it’s good to see differing perspectives and opinions, so long as you, the reader, have the discipline to read objectively, not get pulled down in the abyss of petty arguments or controversies, and dive no deeper than page or two of the paginated results.

“Don’t give in to hate,” as Master Obi-Wan Kenobi once said.

My “Laptop in Miniature” Setup

I’ve become an avid note-taker over the past few years of my career, recording and documenting webinars, conferences, and workshops as fast as I can key. Once I’ve had a chance to smooth out my transcripts, I enjoy sharing them with my colleagues so they can benefit from what I observed and learned. The act of note-taking is also an effective way for me to commit things to memory, which means I’ll walk away from a panel or workshop with a stronger understanding of what was shared.

What I’d like to share with you all today, however, is not the notes I take, but how I take them. I call it my “laptop in miniature” setup.

Being a web developer by trade and a passionate user and advocate for social media, the conferences, events, and workshops I attend all fall into the technology, marketing, and user experience sectors. These events are usually heavily attended and sparse on room. Keynotes usually take place in lecture halls with stadium seating. Panels and roundtable discussions can often be found in cramped rooms with rows upon rows of chairs all packed together. Depending on the venue, there’s few opportunities to pack up all of your belongings and find a comfortable and roomy spot in the next session. Thus, I’ve learned to travel light and have a modest setup for taking notes.

I find laptops uncomfortable to use. The screen is rarely at an optimal angle in tight conference halls and the heat from the air vents makes me feel like a slowly roasting marshmallow. Tablets are awkward for me to type on and a challenge to balance without a hard surface. My solution is my trusty iPhone, a phone case with a kickstand, a portable power source, and Apple’s light and sturdy wireless keyboard.

Behold!

my laptop in miniature setup

The case I’m using is made by Aduro (here’s a link to the iPhone 5 version). It has a slim form factor (not at all bulky like the Otterbox armored cases) and the fold-out kickstand allows me to stand the iPhone straight up or on its side. The price is also super-reasonable: Amazon carries them for around $12.

The portable backup battery is my newest acquisition (thanks to the good folks at Swagchimp) and has become a valued member of my technical arsenal. Twitter’s iPhone app is very hungry for battery power, so having the ability to keep at full strength if outlets and power strips are out of reach is invaluable to me.

I can’t sing the praises of Apple’s wireless keyboard enough. It’s modest size, light aluminum frame, and quiet keys are ideal for fast breakdown and setup between sessions. The Bluetooth connection is highly reliable and its consumption of battery life is minimal. It is without hesitation the best $70 I’ve ever spent on technology.

My only non-tech concession is a folded-out, hard-backed notebook to serve as a level surface for the entire setup. That packs up nicely as well and can help for sketching out wireframes and concepts, as needed.

The Perpetuating Lie of “Friends” in Social Media

This week I was pointed to a succinct and astute essay by social media pioneer Chris Brogan entitled, “We Don’t HAVE to Be Friends.” For those of you who have strong interests in social media relationships and their potential, it’s well worth the read.

The crux of Chris’ essay is that social media networks have twisted the meaning of a “friend” such that folks have taken their “loose bond” online relationships on Facebook, Twitter, etc. a bit too personally. This specific paragraph resonated most with me:

People get emotional about the whole following thing. I get it, technically. I know that one of our HUGE triggers as a human is: “What? You don’t think I’m worthy?” But that’s not what this software-based transaction is about, and it’s not our emotion to deal with. The people who tend to feel that the most (I’m not worthy) are still working on their own issues, and it’s not ours to fix.

I’ve been on both sides of this equation. While I’ve argued several times over the years that social media networks are ours to manage and curate as we see fit, I’ve also felt the nagging sensations of guilt and, for lack of a better term, ennui about my interactions (or lack thereof) in social networking. My very first post on this blog was about Facebook’s not-so-obvious attempts at using psychology to draw you into their world using personally-charged terminology. To their credit, and as Chris points out, Facebook has given its users a “humane” option by allowing them to remain “friends” while “unfollowing” their updates. It’s a practical, if a bit passive-aggressive, way of better curating your intake without rocking the boat.

“Humane curation” methods like Facebook’s, as well as switching words around from “friends” to “followers,” as Foursquare did last August, while helpful, still maintain the perpetuating lie about online relationships. There’s far too much static, curated lives, and “shouting past one another” in social networking without having to agonize over the care-and-feeding of “loose bond” friendships for the sake of themselves.

The advice Chris gives is simple and powerful: “It’s your platform.”

Make it yours once again.

Author’s note: I credit inspiration for this essay to Karima-Catherine Goundiam, who brought Chris’ essay to my attention.

Imposter Syndrome and the Fear of Critical Failure

Something that I’ve been struggling with for some time now is a nagging “background noise” of smallness and mediocrity often triggered by what I read and observe online (in particular, Facebook and Twitter). A tweet I came across the other day pointed me to a name and definition that I had never associated with my own feelings: “imposter syndrome.”

Here’s how the good folks at Wikipedia define imposter syndrome:

“Impostor syndrome is a psychological phenomenon in which people are unable to internalize their accomplishments. Despite external evidence of their competence, those with the syndrome remain convinced that they are frauds and do not deserve the success they have achieved. Proof of success is dismissed as luck, timing, or as a result of deceiving others into thinking they are more intelligent and competent than they believe themselves to be. Notably, impostor syndrome is particularly common among high-achieving women.” (“Imposter Syndrome,” cited April 17, 2015)

I’ve written before about the slippery slope of careless comparisons, and how one can never expect to keep up with a curated life. Still, I’ve found it exceptionally difficult to shake off the cloak of inferiority that comes with imposter syndrome. Because folks are curating the highlights (or lowlights) of their lives, you never see the whole picture … mostly, the mundane middle stuff that is the majority of what makes up a person. Awareness of my mundane moments is what I feel contributes strongly to the feeling that I’m not worthy or deserving of the things I have, say, or do. This is a classic fool’s errand! If everyone else presents themselves as polarized highs and lows, of course they’ll seem so much more talented or deserving than me.

That’s why I found the following diagram, which was included in that tweet, so illuminating. It really nails down what I feel versus what’s really going on. I’m not some subset of someone else. I share an overlapping set of attributes, beliefs, and talents. The strengths and depths of where we overlap can and do differ, but that doesn’t diminish who I am or who you are.

Imposter Syndrome diagram

Now, the second part of my thinking today is a personal fear that often collaborates with imposter syndrome: what I call the “fear of critical failure.”

In role playing games such as Dungeons & Dragons, you roll a 20-sided die to determine how well you accomplish an action, goal, or task. A higher number yields a better result. A roll of 20 is called a “critical hit” or “critical success,” and is usually accompanied by an extra bonus for doing an amazing feat. A roll of 1, on the other hand, is a “critical failure,” which produces a “comedy of errors” type of result (your character trips, drops their sword, etc.) that simply wouldn’t happen if you merely rolled lower than necessary for a successful outcome.

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“Fear of critical failure” is drawn from, and stacked upon, my misguided sense of imposter syndrome. As a self-perceived “imposter,” I’m already running the risk of being “unmasked” or “found out” as inferior or unskilled. Add the fear of a critical failure into the mix, and it’s all paranoia and madness. It can range from the vital (fear that I missed a critical step in selling a house) to the ordinary (fear that I’ll botch an opportunity to get a better deal on my cable bill). It’s made me risk-averse, and, frankly, a bit of a coward. I’ve missed chances to save money, fight for my convictions, and be a good example for my family.

And so, finding this message on Twitter has been so immensely helpful as a reminder … and as a mantra.

So, why I am telling you all of this? Two reasons:

First, writing is therapy for me. Getting my thoughts organized into a coherent structure, like this essay, helps me better sort out the mish-mash in my head. When I can better identify what’s swirling around inside, I can formulate a plan of attack to prevent these thoughts from affecting my daily life. It’s also helpful from a personal accountability aspect. When I choose to make something public, it’s harder for me to simply ignore my problems and retreat into old habits.

Second, it’s the hope that I can help someone who’s struggling with similar issues. I’ve come to believe that each of us has purpose in life … not just a singular, overarching objective, but many overlapping reasons for being that connect us to others, whether we realize it or not. Also, finding out that you’re not alone in your struggles is undeniably helpful. I have a very bad habit of not reaching out for help, whether that’s family, friends, or faith, so I want to do what I can to ask for help on a regular basis, even if it’s just the hope that someone will read this and connect with it … and, in turn, help someone who may not know how to ask themselves.

Thanks for taking the time to read this today.


Author’s note: If either of the images shown in this essay are yours, or you know whose they are, please let me know and I’ll be happy to give the proper credit that’s due.

Stepping Away from the Abyss

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I’ve had a gnawing sense of dissatisfaction in the back of my mind for some time … a near-constant hum, like a distant machine that’s switched on in the background of your awareness. I figured out part of this sensation earlier this year by taking time off from a hobby that chewed up far more of my time and brain power than it should have, but some of these these feelings of disconnection still remained, quietly humming.

I’ve known for a few years now that social media use can lead to a sense of mental separation. If you’re not present and not paying attention, you start to think that everyone on these channels knows more than you, is having more fun than you, and is more talented than you. If you’re not careful, you start to feel small. Boring. Insignificant. Unheard. As the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche is famously quoted, “And when you gaze long into an abyss the abyss also gazes into you.”

It’s not true. None of those feelings are true.

A lot of what you read, see, and watch are curated, hand-picked pieces of a life: the best of times, the worst of times. Everyone’s starring, directing, and producing their own entertainment channels, and it’s an unconscious competition to outshine everyone else. I’ve fallen victim to it quite a bit. “I have all these followers. Why doesn’t anyone reply to what I post? Am I talking about the right things? Am I boring? What should I be talking about?”

I finally realized yesterday that the source of my disconnection is this: I’ve been putting too much importance and too much emphasis on distant (weak) relationships, rather than the close (strong) ones. It’s absolutely backwards to stress over some sort of “legacy” on Twitter when I should be strengthening the connections with my family and inner circle of friends. I have a wife and children who are so happy when I come home from work and spend time with them on days off, and colleagues at the office who trust and value my thoughts and talents. Fussing about whether I’m funny enough, interesting enough, or worth talking to on Twitter, when I have so much to be grateful for in my “real life,” is bordering on low-level madness.

I’ve said many times in the past that I love Twitter, but that is a false statement. As my church’s pastor said to us in one of his summer sermons, words like “love” are charged with immense power and should not be used for trivial or material things. Let me say then, that I enjoy Twitter, but I love my family and my friends. I will continue to enjoy Twitter, but for what it is, not for the displaced need for connection that I’ve been using it for to date. I want the folks close at hand to be my focus.

I’m no stranger to self-doubt and have dealt with confidence issues throughout my life. To this day, I continue to learn and practice strengthening my faith, my listening skills, and my sense of self-worth. Realizing now where I truly need to put my focus is another step away from the abyss and towards peace and enlightenment.

Followers With Benefits?

The folks over at ReadWriteWeb posted an essay today that outlined the changes Foursquare, a location-based social network, was making to its model. Rather than asking members to become friends with others in order to fully experience all that Foursquare has to offer, they’ve moved the personal interaction piece into a separate app (Swarm) and moved to the “follow model” pioneered by Twitter. As the essay points out, Facebook did much the same not so long ago by allowing you to “subscribe” to accounts instead of asking to be their friends.

What’s fascinating to me about this trend is that we’re seeing digital evolution at its finest.

Twitter’s superiority and pervasiveness as a social network has always been its simplicity. In its early days, this was a source of great confusion among new users. They were dumped into the network without understanding how it worked or what they were supposed to do. Now, however, I see Twitter being used increasingly as a personal news and entertainment network: you “tune into” whatever suits your fancy and, quite literally, follow along. It’s the ease of following, without the baggage of asking to be someone’s friend, that makes this so effortless and so successful.

Asking to be someone’s “friend” is awkward and often charged with emotion and implied meaning, whether it’s old high school friends on Facebook or the unsolicited network invitations on LinkedIn. You’re asking to be granted permission into the walled gardens of someone’s domain, and everyone reacts to that in different ways. The “follow model” is cleaner and less cumbersome. You make yourself available to the world, as with Twitter, and let folks “tune in” and “tune out” as they see fit. There’s no agony over accepting or declining these personal invites. Plus, it makes whatever social network follows this model, such as Foursquare, feel less invasive and more welcoming.

All of this sounds like a “win-win,” right? You get to be “followers with benefits,” in a way; more of the good “newsy” stuff and less of the emotional baggage, right?

True, but the damage I see here is the signal vs. noise ratio. Twitter, for example, has already evolved over the past few years into a network where folks are “talking past each other,” posting whatever catches their eye, but not really engaging with one another unless the topic is narrow or the community a tightly-knit one. Folks want to be known. They want to be the next network superstar. They want to promote themselves and their ideas, be they whimsical, clever, thoughtful, or profane. Some days, it’s quite a lot of “sound and fury, signifying nothing.”

I’m curious to see how further adoption of the “follow model,” should that trend continue, contributes to the evolution of conversations and interactions on Twitter, Facebook, Foursquare, and other networks. This is still a very fluid medium, and it may surprise us to discover how we’ve adapted in the next social epoch.

A Confusing User Experience Betwixt Social Sharing Buttons in Twitter and SoundCloud

I recently joined SoundCloud, a social network for music and audio files (or, audiophiles, if you prefer). Overall, their user experience is simple, yet solid. As with other social networks, you can “like” a song, share it with your network (the user the term “repost”), add it to a list, or perform other tasks (download, share, buy). There are prominent buttons with clean, recognizable icons: a heart icon for “like,” a recycling arrow for “repost,” and a box with an arrow leading outwards for “share.” These are notably similar to Twitter’s “favorite” and “retweet” options, and, this is where I’ve noticed some problems.

When you view a single track in SoundCloud, the like, repost, and other icons are to the bottom left. On the right, there is a second set of similar icons with numbers next to them. These are “status” icons that show how many times this track has been played, liked, and reposted. If you click on any of these, you’ll see a page of the SoundCloud users who played, liked, or reposted the track.

A single track in SoundCloud. Note the sharing buttons at bottom left and status icons at bottom right.

A single track in SoundCloud. Note the sharing buttons at bottom left and status icons at bottom right.

Simple enough, right? Now, if you view your stream, which shows a series of tracks in the left-hand side of the page, related tracks will appear to the right in a sidebar. These have the same features as the single track page, except they are condensed in a smaller space.

Here's how the interface changes when you see SoundCloud tracks as related items. The icons are smaller and much closer together.

Here’s how the interface changes when you see SoundCloud tracks as related items. The icons are smaller and much closer together.

The play button is now mixed in with the like, repost, and share buttons, and these only appear when you hover over the track. They are now much closer to the status icons. What I’ve found is that I keep wanting to click on the status icons to perform a task, but, as with the single track page, this shows you who played, liked, or reposted the track. It doesn’t perform the action I expected.

This is a confusing action to me. Why? Because it is so similar to how Twitter handles these actions, and yet, the results are not the same.

On Twitter’s web interface, the main actions, reply, retweet, favorite, and more, are presented with their respective icons. The status icons, however, are shown as numbers (see the retweets and favorites titles below the tweet preview). Clicking on those numbers gives you the same result as SoundCloud (a list of who retweeted or favorited that tweet), but, because Twitter does not repeat the icons, there is a clearer distinction between these pieces of information and the actual actions you can take on this post.

A basic tweet. Notice how the actions are kept separate from the status icons, which are only numbers here.

A basic tweet. Notice how the actions are kept separate from the status icons, which are only numbers here.

The social media management tool Hootsuite does something similar in their interface. In Hootsuite, you view tweets as a series of vertical columns called a “stream.” The number of times a tweet has been retweeted is easily visible below the tweet itself. As with Twitter, clicking on this status icon shows you who did the retweeting. The actions you can take on that tweet appear when you move your mouse over the post. They are kept separate from the status icon, and, since they appear when you hover over the tweet, it’s clear that these are actions you can take right now.

Hootsuite's interface shows very simply the actions you need to take and who's sharing each tweet.

Hootsuite’s interface shows very simply the actions you need to take and who’s sharing each tweet.

I think it’s great that disparate social networks like Twitter and SoundCloud are using similar actions and iconography. It’s forming a universal language that reduces the burden on users, who now need to learn one less set of terms or icons when moving from network to network. The problem, though, is that if you as a user learn to expect one set of behavior on one network, it’s confusing when the expected behavior on the other network doesn’t match up to what you’ve experienced elsewhere.

I think SoundCloud would do itself and its users a great benefit by mimicking how its older cousin, Twitter, manages its action and status icons and limit the number of misclicks.

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