Bright Matrices

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

Category: Observations (page 2 of 4)

The Social Media Neophyte Who Flew Too Close to the Sun

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Image credit: Unknown; source: http://englishihonorsmythology.wikispaces.com/Icarus

I love social media. Ever since my first tweet in June 2009, I’ve learned an immense amount about the mechanics, arcana, and vagaries of these networks and their inhabitants. I’ve become an “expert neophyte” of sorts, and my experiences have become beneficial for both my career and my colleagues. Along with my first love, Twitter, I hold digital citizenships in Facebook, Flickr, LinkedIn, Foursquare, Tumblr, WordPress, and Google+. My time spent in social media been equal parts amazing and enriching, but I’ve also found how overwhelming it can be if you’re not careful.

Around July of last year, shortly after I joined the hordes charging into the virgin wilderness of Google+, I had enough. I’d spent too many hours stressing over whether I was as knowledgable, “authentic,” and influential as I should be. I flipped back and forth between networks constantly, checking what I missed since my last visit and who had interacted with me in the interim. I was also in the midst of a years-long, strenuous redesign project where I was a key technical lead, and I simply had fewer and fewer cycles to spare for my alter egos. One day, I simply dropped off the grid. I posted nothing to Twitter for weeks, kept a lazy, glazed eye on Facebook, and put all my other presences, including this blog, in stasis.

I had burned myself out. I had flown too close to the sun.

It took me eight months to understand that my personal limit for fully-engaged social networks is two. I can maintain a presence in a few ancillary networks as well, but if I spend more than a cursory amount of time there, I feel the psychic strain from spreading myself too thin. I realized how easy it can be to get mired in keeping up with the digital Joneses: crafting the next clever blog post or witty comment, absorbing all the latest articles on Pinterest, getting the next Foursquare badge, or sustaining a Klout score. One simply can’t read, write, like, comment on, or share everything. It seems stupefyingly obvious, but I found that you really do start seeing trees instead of a forest if you’re not careful.

So, I’ve narrowed my focus back down to the essentials: Twitter for news, trends, professional connections, and real-time conversations, and Facebook to share life’s little snippets with family and friends. LinkedIn is delegated to my digital Rolodex; Foursquare an idle curiosity best suited for waiting at airport terminals; Tumblr a rare time waster; Google+ purely for research on how it works. Don’t even get me started about my feelings on Pinterest, Instagram, or the other new kids on the social media block.

I’ve invested a lot of time in Twitter and Facebook. To me, they’re now among the “established” social networks. As much as the landscape has changed over the past several years (AOL to LiveJournal to Friendster to MySpace and so on), I can’t shake the sensation that they’re here for the long run. As such, it will take a great deal of convincing for me to pull up stakes and move to another digital country. Because that is the choice I’m making from here on out: rather than collect more and more social profiles, I’ll replace them, swap them out. But it has to be worth it.

No more double-ended candles for me. I love social media too much to burn out again.

Another New Social Media Network? Sorry, But I’m Not Pinterested

Over the past several weeks, the dominating social media trend has been Pinterest, an “online pinboard.” In essence, Pinterest allows you to share and organize batches of images in a multi-column format. Like other networks, users can like your images, follow your feed, and comment. My initial impression of it is a Tumblr blog on steroids, showcasing a virtual parade of photographs, illustrations, and diagrams in streams of Polaroid-style boxes.

Pinterest is yet another “niche” or “boutique” style social network. We had plenty of those last year, most notably Quora (a knowledge-sharing service similar to Yahoo! Answers) and Empire Avenue (where you could buy and sell “stock” in key influencers). The social media echo chamber was full of folks talking endlessly about how individuals, companies, and brands needed to pay attention to the influx of activity here and how they could make the best use of them.

Pinterest is the new Quora, it seems. There’s plenty of fervor about it, with many chiming in with their thoughts, projections, and predictions. Much has also been discussed about reports that Pinterest is “driving more referral traffic than Google+, LinkedIn, Reddit, and YouTube.”

Pinterest seems nice enough. The layout is clean, and it’s easier to scan through than Tumblr or similar services. Here’s the thing, though: I have to confess that I’m not really interested (or, should I say, “pinterested”) in taking on a new social media network.

I remain a relative newbie to the social media multiverse. I only joined Twitter and LinkedIn in July 2009, Facebook in September 2010, and Tumblr and Google+ in June 2011. I maintain a presence in Foursquare, have an Evernote account, and, of course, this blog you see here. Midway through last year, I came to discover how monumental the effort of maintain multiple social personalities can be, especially if you’re being present and engaged on each one versus auto-posting.

I get that companies need to be aware of new opportunities, and that exploring new avenues to share ideas, expand brand awareness, and building revenue are quite important. For me at the practitioner level, however, taking on new networks is less desirable purely by virtue of time and resources. Social media is not free, and folks like me (who wear quite a lot of hats) feel that pinch more than the “ideators” or marketing experts out the in wild.

These networks are communities. I’m not being social if I’m simply taking up digital space with land grab accounts and one-way, automated postings. I need to be quite certain that the time and energy that I’d invest in learning and participating in a new network, especially for my company, is worth the effort. I have no interest in half-hearted efforts. There’s also the danger of success to be mindful of. As Margie Clayman warned in her latest post, “Before you try something, you need to consider what will happen if it actually works really well.”

So, will Pinterest be the “game changer” that many think it will be? Like anything else, time will tell. Saying that anything is the next big thing is a risky venture at best, and I’m not partial to crow. I’ll certainly key an eye on the horizon for what’s next, but you’ll have to excuse me if I’m not as enthusiastic as others. I have lots to do.

Update (2-24-12): Hollis Thomases wrote a superb article for Inc. titled “4 Things Pinterest Isn’t Saying” that ties in nicely with some of the points I’ve outlined. Pay close attention to the “fair warnings” section, in which Hollis offers level-headed advice on proceeding with Pinterest, or any new social network for that matter.

Some Helpful Advice from a Nitpicky Web Developer

Ever heard the phrase “the devil’s in the details?” I’m here to tell you it’s true!

For every clean, elegant, and professionally designed website or web application, there are droves of slipshod, sloppy, or just plain lazy pieces of code I encounter every week. What pains me most is that many of these quirks are really simple to fix and can go a long way to adding to your reputation and credibility.

I’ve put together six examples of detail work that you should include in your digital design and development. These suggestions may seem nitpicky, but as a professional web developer who’s been coding and designing websites for over a decade, these “fit-and-finish” items are the ones that always jump out at me when browsing a site or web application.

1. Display Current Copyright Dates

Most websites these days have copyright dates in their footers, usually followed by the formal name of the company or organization and legal text such as “all rights reserved.” Make sure the year displayed here actually matches the current year! Nothing says “out of date” like a mismatched copyright year. This is especially glaring following New Year’s Day. Scripting languages such as ColdFusion, JSP, PHP, and JavaScript can easily handle dynamic dates, as can content management systems.

2. Match Link Names and Page Titles/Document Names

Your users want to get to your content as easily and quickly as possible, so don’t make the process more complicated or confusing by using mismatched names in your website links. Make sure the language you’re using in the link text is a good match, if not exact, to the document or resource at the other end. You want your users to be confident that what they clicked on is what they needed. And please, avoid acronyms or business jargon! Simple language is best.

3. Use Accurate Singular/Plural Descriptors

This is one of my personal pet peeves: if you’re going to display a list of items, show a group of updates, or otherwise show a collection of objects dynamically, always add a condition in your code to change the descriptors from plural to singular when there’s only one item. I can’t stand to see phrases like “1 search results found” or “1 new tweets.”

4. Link Banner Graphics Back to the Home Page

Users have come to expect that clicking on the website’s banner or logo will take them back to the main page of the site. Make sure your banner is linked this way so users won’t get frustrated, or, at the very least, give them an obvious way to get there using a “Home” link or icon (a house is typical). For mobile applications, a “Home” icon in the contextual menu can help solve this problem.

5. Use Clear and Distinct Timestamps

If you’re managing a news website, blog, or any site or application that has time-specific or time-sensitive content, always show the publication date or the “last update” and make sure it’s easy to locate. This is especially important for users arriving at your site from search engines; they’ll want to know that the content you’re providing is the most current or up-to-date for their needs. I personally prefer to see timestamps right below the headline/byline, or, if that’s not possible, at the bottom of the article before any comments.

6. Make Your Social Channels Prominent or Easy-To-Find

Is your organization or corporation on Twitter, Facebook, or YouTube? That’s great, but don’t curtail your efforts by burying the channels in your “Contact Us” or “Resources” pages. If you’re actively using these channels, place social icons in prominent locations, such as the header (near the search box is a great spot for visibility) or anywhere where other contact information, such as phone numbers, is displayed.

What Advice Do You Have?

What about you, my faithful visitors? What common mistakes or omissions do you come across in your browsing that you would suggest as improvements to the site’s owners and developers? Share your recommendations in the comments below.

Scales and Sheen: How Very New Social Media Accounts Can Amass Influence So Quickly

As social influence metrics like Klout continue to gain, well, clout in the industry, instances will arise where folks will cry foul over perceived inconsistencies in how scores are generated. An example I’ll use in this post is how very new Twitter accounts are able to amass very high influence scores in a very short period of time.

Let me preface this discussion with influence as opposed to popularity. Numerous articles were written last year that clearly illustrated that one does not equal the other. Hollywood celebrities, musicians, and other popular figures have a great deal of popularity, but this does not translate well into influence, which is defined as being able to convince others in your social network to take action. Mark Schaefer, author of the {grow} blog, described just how challenging and difficult it can be to get your followers to do something, even if you have the popularity and reach of Alyssa Milano.

So, how can new accounts become so influential so quickly? Let’s study the Twitter accounts of a well-known and controversial actor and well-known, and currently missing, snake.

First, the actor. Charlie Sheen opened his Twitter account on Tuesday, March 1, 2011 to much fanfare. At the time, Sheen had a much-publicized falling out with Chuck Lorre, the director of his CBS show, “Two and a Half Men.” Folks speculated, and were quickly confirmed, that Sheen would use Twitter as a mouthpiece to share his perspective on the situation. Once word got out that his account was up and verified, the followers piled on fast. According to TwitterCounter, Sheen’s account accumulated 519,343 followers on the very first day. March 2 saw a subsequent increase of well over 530,000 additional followers, leading Sheen to reach the 2 million follower mark in well under a week. With over 3.3 million followers as of March 30, @CharlieSheen currently holds an astronomical Klout score of 94.

TwitterCounter chart for @CharlieSheen

Now, on to the reptile. On March 27, 2011, a venomous Egyptian cobra was found missing from the Bronx Zoo’s reptile house in New York City. The zoo promptly closed the enclosure as the search went on for the wayward serpent. It didn’t take long for a clever mind to make light of the situation, and on Monday, March 28, a Twitter account appeared under the handle @BronxZoosCobra that posted updates of the cobra’s adventures around NYC. On the first day the account was opened, TwitterCounter shows 86,140 followers tuned in to follow the cobra’s exploits. By 11 a.m. ET on Wednesday, March 30, the account has nearly 140,000 followers. While not as dramatic as Sheen’s account activity, the trend clearly shows a strong demand from folks on Twitter, resulting in a Klout score of 73 for the cobra (as of March 30).

TwitterCounter chart for @BronxZoosCobra

So, what can these two accounts teach us about social influence and the algorithms that determine their scores relative to others? It’s simple.

Demand, in particular, a sharp increase in your network, is a strong factor in measuring overall social influence. Both @CharlieSheen and @BronxZoosCobra attracted a massive number of followers in a very short period of time, and, in Sheen’s case, the demand has risen over the four weeks since the account’s creation (although it is starting to level off a bit). While their influence scores may not indicate that their network will take any kind of action on their behalf, it does clearly show that they’re producing content that folks want to consume and share with their own networks.

Now, it can be assumed that an accelerated drop in a network’s size (think rats jumping from a sinking ship) would result in a corresponding plummet in influence. To a lesser extent, steady or very slow changes in network size would result in a similarly consistent influence score. I’ve observed this in my own personal account: my network size is growing, albeit grudgingly and gradually, and my Klout score has remained relatively stable for several weeks.

What’s the take-away from all of this?

  • First, the systems themselves aren’t broken or being gamed. Demand is one of many factors these algorithms are using in their calculations, and sharp changes in network size seem to greatly influence (pun intended) the weight this specific metric has on the entire score. It would be informative to study Sheen’s and the cobra’s accounts after several months to see whether their overall influence continues to maintain itself over time. As always, don’t just look at the score itself. Do your homework and dig into the underlying metrics to figure out just what’s driving that high number.
  • Second, don’t look for demand alone to change your fortunes. It’s already been shown how sizeable networks don’t always translate to positive action from their audience. Exercise proactive listening and active engagement to energize your followers and fans. Learn about them and their interests, understand their needs, and give them what they want.
  • Third, be creative and innovative. Whoever created the @BronxZoosCobra account used a captivating news story about the cobra’s release to create something fun and clever for the folks on Twitter. This adaptive and nimble thinking is precisely what Jay Baer and Amber Naslund describe in their book, “The Now Revolution.” Another excellent example is how Aflac turned its fortunes around by creating casting call for their signature mascot after their principle voice actor, Gilbert Gottfried, was fired from the job.

Update (4-1-11): About midday on Thursday, March 31, 2011, it was reported that the Bronx Zoo’s cobra was found, apparently in a “non-public” part of the reptile house. No status update from the @BronxZoosCobra Twitter account as of 8:45 a.m. today, but I suppose the zookeepers took its iPhone away. It will be informative to see whether the owner of the account keeps up the cobra’s commentary, and also whether its followers and influence will fade over time.

The parody account @BPGlobalPR, set up after the Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf Coast last year to poke fun at BP’s series of public relations flubs, is still active but seems to be slowly losing followers as the attention around the incident fades. Its Klout score, however, has stayed relatively steady over the past 30 days, hovering around 64.

Editorial note: I also updated the title of this post to read “Very New Social Media Accounts” vs. its original “Very New Social Media Networks.”

Taking Aim at the Cloud of Doubt

It seems that ever since I dove into the realm of social media, specifically Twitter, I get this nagging, flagging feeling of doubt every six weeks or so. It’s like some miniature existential crisis, but on a recurring basis. I wonder: how can my works matter in the presence of other great thinkers? Why didn’t I think of that concept, that idea, that perspective?

When you’re part of a swift-moving current of constant thoughts, adamant opinions, and vibrant conversations, it’s easy to be overwhelmed by the sudden awareness that talent is all around you, and you’re the least of it all. It can be a crushing weight, that sensation of mediocrity. But really, if you think about it, the new challenger who’s arrived is that awareness. Never before have we been able to tap into so many creative minds at once. Industry leaders and luminaries have always been generating ideas, writing books, keynoting conferences, etc. It’s that level playing field tools like Twitter offer that make it seem like you’re in direct competition with the heavyweights.

So, what can both you and I do about all this?

Get over it, shake it off, and don’t get sucked into an imaginary popularity contest.

Did you make a mistake? Learn from it and grow. Do you admire another’s work? Absorb their teachings and add to your knowledge and skills. Are you questioning your own professional self-worth? Take both the good and bad from your colleagues and connections for a balanced viewpoint; learn not only what ideals you want to obtain, but which to avoid.

We’re each our own worst critics. I firmly believe a hallmark of the creative thinker is the constant criticism of our own works coupled with the incessant drive to simply do better. It’s the motive power that keeps us questing and questioning the world, ourselves, and our place within it. The key, I think, is to continuously remind ourselves of that, accept the times of uncertainty alongside the great works we do produce, and realize that this too shall pass. You’re not in a race to win with these folks; you’re out there to do the very best with your life and your talents.

I’m taking aim at the cloud of doubt, and I hope you are, too. Let’s wish ourselves great victory!

Related goodness: Here’s two outstanding posts related to my train of thought that I discovered in this morning’s blog reading:

The Mystery of the Silent Partner, Part II: Three Additional Theories

In a post this past August, I discussed a relationship I had observed on Twitter that I called the “silent partner”: accounts that follow you but never interact with you, or those who follow you back, but seemingly refuse interaction. I had put forth some proposals on why these connections occur, but I’ve since developed three additional theories on why you may find yourself linked up with a silent partner.

First, you may have become trapped in what I call the “follow-back haystack”. If your silent partner follows back everyone who follows them (a custom I find unnecessary), their timeline will become choked with thousands upon thousands of tweeters. Your questions, observations, mentions, and references get lost in the shuffle: the needles in their haystack. Or, to use another analogy, it’s like trying to raise your voice in a crowded restaurant or bar. You’re not silent, and neither is your partner, but they’re dealing with far too much noise to hear you. Some follow-back users are better at getting back to mentions than most, but even then, it may simply be a matter of your post getting viewed a just the right moment.

Your silent partner could also be a “list-exclusive conversationalist”: one who only pays attention to those they’ve added to a Twitter list or TweetDeck group. This is especially true if they’re the follow-back type: what better way to cut through all the noise of their timeline then to converse only with a select group of friends, colleagues, and peers? These users may tune back into their timeline now and again, but if you’re not on one of their lists, you may as well be tweeting into the ether.

Or, lastly, your silent partner may be an “inattentive idler”: someone who is either sporadically active on Twitter or who dropped off the map altogether. They may have followed you after comments you made in a Twitter chat, or a mention in one of their friend’s timelines. In the meantime, though, they either lost interest or were never really that much into Twitter in the first place. If the idlers only post once every few weeks or months, they’re not likely to spend time scanning back through their timeline’s history to catch up on your posts. Plus, mentions may fall on deaf ears if they’re away for extended periods.

I’m sure there are other ways to diagnose the syndrome of “silent partners”. What symptoms have you observed in your travels through the Twitterverse?

The Conundrum of Critical Mass

How much noise must you tolerate in a social network to attain a reliable set of responses to your posts? Would the content and value of those responses be sufficient to balance the “wheat vs. chaff” formula in your network? What’s that magic number or ratio that marks the “critical mass” of your network to essentially guarantee feedback? Should such an objective even matter to you? What about privacy concerns?

This is a philosophical thought exercise I’ve been bouncing back and forth in my head for a while now. I call it the conundrum of critical mass.

You can keep a smaller, more meticulously pruned network to have stronger control over whom can view and comment on your content, but you suffer a larger chance of being lost in the crowd. Or, you can expand the network to whoever’s willing to join, but risk having to wade through the waterfall of content coming your way and deal with folks commenting randomly on any piece of content you post. Sure, you can tweak your settings to view only the specific folks whose content you’d like to read and interact with (which helps with the input on your end), but it can be more labor-intensive to adjust which members of your network can read and interact with your content.

The risk of the tighter network model is that any of your given posts have a higher risk of missing the mark. You have a smaller audience, which could result in either 1) the post wasn’t interesting or relevant to them, or 2) they weren’t online when it was posted and it’s lost in the stream of posts from their other friends.

Or, you can play the indifferent or uninhibited cards and simply not bother to care. There are plenty of folks on Twitter, for example, that will just ignore the vast majority of mentions and direct messages from their followers, even if they’ve made the effort to follow them back.

Yep, I realize this post is self-examination. I don’t claim to be a brilliant, witty, or inspirational person (despite what you may have been told), but it’s the interactions between individuals in social networks that really interest me. I’m always curious to know what content gets people interested and engaged without coming across as chatty or self-serving. At the same time, I’m constantly conscious of the privacy implications in social networks: basically, avoiding whatever content would be sharing too much.

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