Bright Matrices

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

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.

Stop Celebrating How Many Followers or Fans You Have

One of the things that burns my blood most in social media is the posts that trumpet how many followers or fans an account has or is about to reach. “Only 10 more followers until we reach 1,000!” or “We now have 1,000 fans of our Facebook page!” I find these exceptionally annoying and thoroughly empty of meaning.

“But wait,” you may be asking, “isn’t gaining more followers or fans a good thing?”

Of course it is. The problem that I have with shouting to the heavens about a number is how arbitrary that announcement is. OK, so you now have 1,000 followers. What does that mean? Why is that number important? Why should anyone in your network care about that number? And, most importantly, what are you going to do about it?

The number of followers or fans you have, in and of itself, is meaningless.

This is like telling me your cholesterol number without saying whether that’s a healthy value for you (or at all, for that matter), whether you’re seeing a doctor to help lower your values, whether you have a family history, etc. If you’re truly interested in knowing how well your account is doing, you need to consider the number of followers or fans as a “health indicator” (just like your cholesterol number) that should be studied in tandem with many other metrics.

For example, have you had a rapid or sudden increase or decrease in followers or fans? Can this change be directly correlated to a single event or series of events? Did you post something amazing or controversial to the account? Did someone influential share one of your posts to their audience, giving you a larger number of eyes, if only for that post? Was your post covered, mentioned, or reviewed in a news publication?

Or, conversely, do your posts get a meager number of retweets or likes? Is no one responding to you or commenting on what you say? Do you wonder whether your network is even paying any attention to what you share? Is an uninteresting trend in followers or fans even a problem you have to worry about?

Are you getting the idea? You need to do work. Yes, work! And that work doesn’t include telling everyone, whether it’s your public audience or your senior management, about how well you think you’re doing as though you deserve some kind of medal.

Data is your friend. Figure out the story behind those raw numbers. Cross-check changes in your follower or fan numbers to other statistics, such as social mentions (how many times was your website, network, or article talked about in Google, Twitter, etc.), website analytics (page views, new visitors, search referrals), and the unique metrics each network offers you (Twitter for Business, Facebook Insights, etc.). In most instances, changes in your followers and fans will slowly and steadily increase over time. Even if folks lose interest, you’d have to do something annoying or distasteful (or both) to make them consciously unfollow or unlink you (versus simply skipping over or ignoring your updates). Look at any pattern of decreased numbers with a careful eye.

Qualitative analysis requires more effort than simply reporting a single value, but fortune favors the bold (and the diligent). Think for a moment about how much more successful your efforts could be if you move beyond “hey, we have 1,000 followers now” and think about “how can we use this information to make better decisions and improve the social experience for our followers and fans?”

I realize this level of analytics research is not something that everyone has the time or capabilities to manage, but, if you’re going to make a big deal about how many followers or fans you have, at the very least, do something worthwhile with them rather than making much ado about nothing.

Showing Favoritism for Twitter Favorites

Of all the features embedded within, and added to, Twitter over the past several years, the one I get the most mileage out of is the Favorites. For me, favoriting a tweet is the simplest way to hang on to a bit of wisdom or wit in the endless river of information in my timeline. I routinely save tweets throughout the day and review each of them when I have time. These could range from articles to read, music to sample and enjoy, or conversation points I want to preserve for future consideration. Most times, once I’ve reviewed the tweet and completed whatever task I set out for myself, I unfavorite the tweet and move on. Every month or so, I go through my Favorites list and filter out what I want to keep or discard. I’ve unearthed so many gems that I would’ve forgotten otherwise had I not had this short-term memory available. The lack of a similar feature on Facebook is one primary reason why I’m far more likely to follow accounts on Twitter instead.

One rather recent trend I’ve found fascinating is folks using the Favorite feature to indicate approval. There have been automated Twitter bots (often called some variation of “Favstar”) that send you congratulatory messages whenever your tweets get more than a certain number of favorites (25, 50, 100, etc.). This behavior has also led to an uptick of spam accounts favoriting random tweets of yours, for what reasons I’m not entirely sure (other than to simply spam your e-mail account if you signed up for certain Twitter notifications).

What’s really neat about this is how a rather simple microinteraction can be used in radically different ways. It’s another example of how Twitter’s simplicity has led to innovative ways to interact with one another on that network.

How do you use Favorites on Twitter? Leave your thoughts in the comments below.

Why Do You Unfollow?

I’ve been fascinated for a long time about how users interact with each other on Twitter, especially how and why folks decide to follow or unfollow. Last month, I asked my followers what would drive them to make that decision. Here are some of their responses:

I realize this is an exceedingly small sample size, but I believe these responses bring up some common themes in why people decide to stop following a person or feed.

What does this mean for professional Twitter accounts?

  • Stay on topic.
  • Keep a consistent tone and voice.
  • Provide value to your audience: avoid too much marketing or promotional fluff.
  • Don’t post too frequently (unless that’s the service you provide, such as news feeds or real-time event reporting) or all at once (posting to Twitter via a third-party application).
  • Mind your hashtags and scheduled tweets as they relate to real-time events.

What does this mean for personal Twitter accounts?

  • Mind your tone and manners. As Jerry Seinfeld once said, “let’s keep this sophisticated.”
  • Avoid unnecessary updates from third-party applications (games, Foursquare, paper.li).
  • Avoid excessive retweeting.
  • Watch the self-promoting and preening. It’s OK to market yourself, but tone it down.
  • Move long-form discussions and extensive back-and-forth conversations to another venue.

Remember, a lot of folks, myself included, look at Twitter as an information and entertainment resource, not just a way to talk about things ourselves. As such, we’re free to “change the channel” to shift the threads to topics and personalities we find worth the time we spend here.

That said, people are absolutely free to post whatever they like, especially on personal feeds. But, for those who have an interest in learning why their followers drop off, and want to do something about negative trends, I hope this information will prove helpful.

Corporate Social Media Monitoring, Privacy Settings, and Codes of Conduct

I came across a Forbes article in my Twitter feed yesterday that talks about how users of social media react to corporations monitoring their conversations or responding to comments they make online. It should come as no surprise to anyone that corporations are monitoring what is being said in public social media channels. Social media has become a massive communications tool for sharing experiences, insight, feedback, and criticism of how businesses and other organizations conduct themselves. We’re come to rely on rating systems and peer reviews to make decisions on where to go and what to buy, and this is valuable information for companies. It’s important to them to learn more about their customers (both potential and current), what they want, what’s working well, and what’s going wrong. Many corporations are using an array of sophisticated social media management and sentiment analysis tools to parse through the enormous amount of data shared every day on numerous platforms.

Now, while I agree with the basic premise that it may be unsettling for a corporation to just start talking to you out of the blue on social media, what got my attention most was this except (boldface is my edit):

… a recent survey from J.D. Power points to the risks associated with monitoring: 51% of consumers simply do not want companies to eavesdrop on their conversations and 43% believe that monitoring is an intrusion on their privacy.

Seriously? 43%? That, to me, is absolutely absurd, and it raises some issues about people’s perceptions of how far and wide their digital traffic can range.

First and foremost, there is absolutely no expectation of privacy on any social media channel if you are posting in a publicly available forum. “Public” means “public.” If you don’t have privacy settings enabled on your account, then you’ve opened your stream to anyone who can use a search engine. This includes corporations. There really should be no earth-shattering revelation here. Folks can use the “overhearing a conversation” argument for whether anyone should be paying attention to something that doesn’t involve them, but that’s not really how social media works. The people, or, in this case, corporations, who can “eavesdrop” on you is not just whoever is around you physically, but anyone in the world. Plus, everything you post publicly is likely indexed by Google, Bing, Yahoo!, and their kin for anyone outside your network to find. If you don’t want folks to listen in, and this includes corporations, take the conversation to private messages, lock down your settings, or don’t post certain things to social media at all. Plain and simple.

Second, this mentality is a symptom of what I’ve observed happening with social media and the workplace. Most businesses have what’s called a “code of conduct” that states how employees should present themselves in public. As employees of the company, they represent the company, whether they realize it or not. There is typically a paragraph or clause that refers to “online public forums” as a place where employees should practice restraint and decorum. This was pretty much limited to e-mail and bulletin boards back in the day, but now includes any form of social media. In my professional experiences, I’ve found that employees need an “interpretive statement” to connect those codes of conduct to their personal use of social media channels. Why is this? They don’t think of Facebook, Twitter, and other channels as something they need to be mindful of. They just post away without really giving careful thought as to how their words relate to their role as an employee. There’s been plenty of instances where folks have been fired from their jobs for what they post online, on or off the clock. Obviously, the privacy settings you put into place can affect what your company can learn about you and act upon should they believe it breaks their code of conduct, but you should still learn what those rules are and do your best to abide by them. Ask your boss. Ask your human resources folks. Use common sense. And, for heaven’s sake, never expect any sort of privacy when using work computers on work premises or work time. If you’re using company property for personal use, expect it to be monitored. All the time.

“Use Browser X”? Spare Me This Mockery of Justice!

Spare me this mockery of justice!Today, I experienced something that, as a web developer, really burns my blood. When I inquired about a specific web application’s flaws within a certain web browser, I was informed that I should be using “browser X” instead. As the doomed Transformer proclaimed when condemned to the Quintesson pit in Transformers: the Movie, “Spare me this mockery of justice!”

There are exceedingly few reasons why you should ever tell the users of your web application to use a specific browser over another. If you’re on the public domain, or, if your users can pick from more than one browser to get to your application, account for it. Don’t force the users to bow to your decision; it comes across as exclusionary and elitist. The days of “best viewed in Internet Explorer/Netscape Navigator” are far, far behind us.

Of course, there are plenty of whiz-bang features in HTML 5, CSS3, etc. that have yet to be adopted by all browser variants. Publishing experimental or proof-of-concept websites and web applications that push the envelope and challenge previous assumptions on how we interact with the web is perfectly acceptable. However, if you intend to have a product that will be used by a broad audience, alienating a key portion of your users will do you no good, especially if the “unworthy” browsers introduce glitches or errors that break a key feature. Even minor flaws will make it seem as though your product is buggy, incomplete, unprofessional, and sloppy.

Now, I certainly don’t advocate building something that conforms to every browser variant throughout time; that’s a fool’s errand. Your web analytics program can educate you about which browsers and variants your audience is using. Pay attention to that data and use it to establish your lowest common denominator. My basic rule of thumb is to code for all browsers with greater than one percent of your total market share. You can also choose to “degrade gracefully,” where any fancy features unreadable or unusable for less modern or less compliant browsers can still be operated effectively and correctly. Check your statistics regularly, as market share can change quickly. Usage can often differ dramatically between countries, so, if, for example, your European users prefer Firefox over Internet Explorer, make sure that version of your website is ready for them.

Pay attention to your mobile users as well. Those folks using iPhones and iPads will show up as Safari users in your web analytics, so keep track of your mobile device usage in tandem with your browser statistics. You may wish to consider a mobile-friendly version of your web application, a dedicated app, or a responsive web design that transitions smoothly no matter where your users are browsing. Again, pay attention to your percentages to decide what path to take. It never hurts to ask your users directly, whether through site intercept surveys, focus groups, or simple e-mail questionnaires.

There are plenty of ways to avoid the “browser X” debacle. Spare us all the mockery of your self-imposed justice and build your web application for everyone. You have no excuses!

Image source, Google Images: http://www.anivide.com/gallery.html?view=158846&pid=1318514144.

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