Bright Matrices

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

Category: Observations (page 1 of 4)

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

My “A-ha” Moment About the “Spiral of Envy”

Today’s entry from Mark Schaefer’s {grow} blog, “Facebook, the ‘spiral of envy,’ and our Botox life,” put into succinct words precisely what has nagged and pulled at me about social media for the past two years. The crux of Mark’s essay was that we put so much gleam and shine on our online lives that it drives others into this descent into digital madness, where we constantly feel the need to one-up our friends, or we succumb to the illusion that our world is a grayer, less exciting version of what we see on Facebook, et al. One of the commenters labeled this the “Jones effect” (as in “keeping up with the Joneses”), and that’s the perfect way to describe it. It’s an dramatic arms race: our friends showcase their (so-called) awesome lives, and we feel we need to make ours more awesome as a result. No wonder folks get all bent out of joint in these realms.

This phenomenon affected me in the latter way: feeling what I was doing here was less important and less worthy than what others were saying out there. I’ve written a few times about the so-called “silent partners” in our online relationships: those folks who follow you on Twitter or friend you on Facebook, and yet never seem to either read, acknowledge, or respond to you from that point forward. I couldn’t figure it out, despite my best efforts, and I dropped my usage to the ultimate bare minimum for several months last year as a result. Now I have something I can use to identify this sensation, and it makes that much more sense.

People put so much guilt around our online relationships. You do it, and others around you do it. Don’t dare unfollow someone on Twitter or unfriend someone on Facebook lest they find out! Better to use some curated list or hide posts instead. It’s all so much unnecessary subterfuge. We need to be honest and just realize that we’re all people. We post because we want a reaction. Sometimes they’re trivial things, but we want a reaction all the same. So, it seems natural that people will decide to share things that are the pinnacle of wit, wisdom, weariness, or woe. Mark’s right: we don’t hear about the paint drying or toddler accidents; that’s the unattractive back alley side of life. But, we also need to realize that not everyone wants to hear those shards of our shiny lives, so it shouldn’t faze us if some folks tune out.

Your life is awesome. Perhaps not today, but your life is awesome. Don’t let those shiny “Botox lives” tell you otherwise.

 

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