Bright Matrices

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

Category: Social Media (page 1 of 5)

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.

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.

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.

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