Bright Matrices

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

Tag: social networks (page 1 of 2)

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.

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.

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.

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.”

Social Authority in Search Results and Lessons from the Past

I read a very interesting article on Mark Schaefer’s blog {Grow} today that discussed some relatively new topics in the search world: “social scoring” and “social authority.” He cited excerpts from interviews with Google and Bing that explain how both search firms are considering changes to their algorithms to account for the influence of content authors.

The concept of “social authority” is a sea change in how online content is indexed and discovered. With the rise of user-contributed content over the past few years, the fact that Google and Bing are giving more credence to this medium is, to me, a logical outcome. We’ve already borne witness to real-time search results appearing in our queries; calculating the weight of one’s social authority is merely the next step.

Reading through the comments, however, this trend doesn’t seem to sit well with folks.

Is social authority going to be gamed? Of course it will. One of the reasons the phrase “search engine optimization” still tastes funny in many mouths is due to “black hat SEO” that used sneaky and misleading techniques to propel biased or unrelated content to the top of search engine rankings. Google’s Page Rank, once considered a key metric in figuring out the overall importance and relevance of your online real estate, has pretty much fallen off the radar due to numerous attempts to exploit the algorithm.

Social authority doesn’t have to be scary. What needs to happen to prevent a dark future for this concept is twofold.

Google, Bing, and other search entities need to be relentlessly proactive in how they integrate social authority into their results. I expect results that incorporate author authority to improve steadily over time as the search firms gather more data on the authors, their influence (including how that influence is generated and calculated), and the nature of their publishing platforms (Twitter, Facebook, blogs, etc.). Evolution of search algorithms needs to be intelligent enough and sophisticated enough that the relevant content “naturally” rises to the top.

Content authors need to come clean and stay that way. We all witnessed how black hat SEO came to ruin the party for those who genuinely and continuously thought about how to get the right content in front of the right viewers. We have to heed the lessons of the past and do things right this time around. Authors must be counseled on how to continue to create excellent content, in the proper medium, in the proper context. They must understand that silver bullets do not exist and that cutting corners will come back to bite them in the end.

Let’s fight hard to prevent “social authority” and “social scoring” from becoming the next four-letter words in the content world.

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.

The Mystery of the Silent Partner

Social media produces some interesting and downright curious behaviors. Over the past few months, I’ve noticed a rather compelling relationship that’s popped up in my social interactions. It tends to manifest in two similar fashions:

  • Someone chooses to follow or friend you. They’re active within their own network; it’s not a spammer or automated account, but a real person, just like you. No matter what you post, write about, or discuss, they never talk to you, retweet you, or share any of your links. And yet, after weeks or months of time, they’re still a follower or friend of yours.
  • You choose to follow or friend someone, and they then follow or friend you back. You like what the person posts, writes about, or discusses. You retweet them, comment on their activity, and try to engage with them. No matter what you do, however, they never respond (except, perhaps with invitations to be their friend on other social networks).

I call this relationship the “silent partner.”

For those watching at home, there are key subtleties to the “silent partner.” First, they are always connected to you by their own will. They chose to follow or friend you, not the other way around. And, for Twitter, it’s not always an auto-follow, either. Second, they’re not the New York Times or Mashable accounts; big names or key influencers in their respective fields who post and share content but don’t engage with specific individuals, even if you make an attempt to do so. They’re personal or corporate accounts who are otherwise talking and sharing with others, just not you.

What mystifies me about the “silent partner” is, well, their silence.

For me, I’m curious about the value you bring to their network. After all, they’re connected to you for a reason. You couldn’t possibly be that boring, chatty, or annoying to them, otherwise, they would have severed the connection long before now. And it’s not because the “silent partners” have massive numbers of followers or friends, where my posts would be small ripples in their community pool. Some of the accounts I’ve studied have very manageable numbers, and my chatter would be noticeable. Not to mention, I regularly engage with accounts with thousands or tens of thousands of connections; they’re talking back to me.

Based on these assumptions, it seems that neither the content you produce nor the size of the partners’ communities are clear, straightforward causes of their silence. So, what could it be?

For the “silent partners” who follow but never engage, my guess is that they pay attention to only a core piece of their community, using either Twitter lists or groups within Facebook, for example. Perhaps they desire the status of having a large number of friends or followers and focus only those who matter to them. Or, maybe they’re reluctant to let go of those they’ve attached themselves to and simply put up with you. In any case, they tend to fit the classical profile of the “lurker”: the person who simply reads and consumes without contributing back.

As for the “silent partners” with whom you try to engage with but never get a response back, that’s a trickier assumption. It could be the same thought as above, but they’re obviously ignoring you for some reason. Maybe what you say isn’t worth their time. Maybe you haven’t passed some sort of litmus test to be “worthy” of their engagement. Maybe they’re just watching to see what you’re all about.

Overall, the concept of the “silent partner” is one I want to examine further.  I’m considering directly contacting some of mine to see if my assumptions are correct.

What about you, my dear followers? Do you have similar experiences? Or are you yourself the “silent partner” of your community? I’ve love to hear from you. That is, if you’re willing to break your silence…

Update (10-25-10): After a few additional months of observation and some excellent feedback from my fellow twitternauts, I wrote a follow-up post to this entry. I’ve introduced three additional theories on why “silent partners” exist.

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