What to do about Facebook?

Ah, Facebook.

On the one hand:

…this is the single most dynamic, engaged and engaging platform for user generated content that there has ever been. 500 million people, converging on a single web application. Wait, read that again – 500 MILLION people. That’s a noticeable chunk of the entire global population.

That’s a totally, utterly and completely insane amount of user penetration. And when you use it (I don’t, much, but I watch my wife and her friends and I dip in to see what is happening every so often) – it’s obvious why. Facebook is slick, it’s user-focused and it’s all about the connections. Critical mass + friends + photos? Of course it works.

On the other hand:

…Facebook is regularly cited – actually, cited is way too gentle a word – screamed about – for being EVIL. Reasons vary, but they tend to focus on what is seen as a hugely lax approach to privacy. Actually, it’s layer upon layer of laxness – from totally baffling privacy controls to requiring a PhD to delete your account to the latest “facetracking by default” functionality. It’s a general “don’t give a ****” thing, it appears.

When it isn’t privacy, it’s concerns about “domination of the web” (particularly now things such as the Like Button are out in the wild) or how closed their so-called “Open Graph” is in reality, or the possibility that Zuckerberg did something wrong once or – well, go read “10 reasons to delete your Facebook account” for some more.

And here’s the tension, beautifully summed up by Jason Scott in a stunningly entertaining rant about Facebook. Cover your body organs if you’re of a sensitive disposition:

People aren’t just eating Facebook’s Shit Sherbet of overnight upgrades, of lack of guarantees and standards, of enveloping tendrils of web standard breaking. They are shoveling it down. They’re grabbing two crazy handfuls of Facebook every minute of every day when they’re not forced to walk down a hallway or look up from their phones or ipads or laptops or consoles. They’re grabbing buckets of Facebook and finding ways to shove it down with one hand while pawing around for a second bucket.  People have bought the fuck in.

So what to make of this? For someone like me – a generalist who straddles two very different groups of people – the tension is very often felt. I have geeks in one ear talking about open standards, pushing for privacy controls and hoping upon hope that the Semantic Web will get here one day. In the other ear I hear people who couldn’t give a monkeys about open standards, probably have “password” as their password, and seem remarkably relaxed about posting pictures of themselves hunched over a bucket bong. With these people there’s no denying the pleasure, the engagement, the rich content and the opportunities that Facebook offers.

On thing seems sure: rant as much as you like, but there’s no escaping. Facebook – in fact, big companies of all sizes – will dominate the internet landscape for a long time to come, and they’ll always find success.  There’s a reason why there is no alternative to Twitter, no alternative to Google and no alternative to Facebook: these are the places where everyone goes. It’s horrible, and uncomfortable, and we all wish people weren’t so terribly dumb, but the fact of the matter is – people choose social, and they do it at the expense of – well, lots of things: privacy, openness, safety. The utility of these tools is easy to underestimate in the general scheme of things, especially if you’re a geek – but utility, ease, sociability are the non-geek world’s open standards, the defining shape of their lives.

This seems to be the sting in the tail of large-scale social web activity. In order for it to be compelling, it requires a large social graph. In order for a large social graph to work, you normally need a big company or concern behind the scenes. Where there’s a big company, there’s money. Where there’s money, ethics almost always start being eroded. Bang.

I don’t think anyone should be under any illusions that everyone is going to delete their Facebook account (when they can work out how) just yet. Learning, awareness, going into this with eyes (yours, or your institutions’) seems to be the only possible answer to the question in the title. A moderate, not polarised approach.

Clearly I’m getting old.

What if Twitter goes rogue?

Since the dawn of Twitter, the big question about the micro-blogging service has always been “but how will they make money?”.

To date, Twitter have taken a now-very-typical approach to this: rely on funding to grow a massive, engaged and dynamic community without worrying about the money, and then once the community is in place, apply the business model.

There’s three recent-ish developments that many people think point to the fact that things might be changing soon:

  • First, Twitter made some changes to their API which essentially takes the developer focus away from Twitter clients and instead suggests a focus on data,
  • Second, they just announced the acquisition of Tweetdeck for an astonishing $40m,
  • Third, they have just in the last few days started sending emails by default on all replies and re-tweets

These things might look slightly disparate in nature, but the overall shift is one in which Twitter has more control over the stream of content emanating from the service. Tweetdeck is an interesting acquisition for Twitter in this sense – yes, it may  be an extremely powerful and widely-liked client but it also crucially allows users to filter what they see.

When you consider that the most likely business model for Twitter is to start populating the Twitter stream with ads, suddenly all these developments start to appear a bit more strategically connected. Once Twitter has control over the stream and has moved control away from client developers, ads are going to be much harder to filter. You can bet too that those incoming emails will be ad-populated before long too.

Clearly, any online business needs to make money or at least be self-sustaining, and having burned through a big pile of VC money Twitter is going to be looking to claw back wherever they can. It’s lovely that Twitter is free and not filled with ads, but it is also unrealistic to think that this might go on forever.

Working on the assumption that things are going to have to change, where does that leave the user? Talk of heading off to Identi.ca or other microblogging services is unrealistic; Twitter has (and knows it has!) a huge critical mass. The only other offering on the horizon (albeit what looks like a distant horizon) is Diaspora – a lovely model (you own your own stuff) but again totally lacking in real-world usefulness right now.

We’ve all invested hugely in Twitter. It’d be very hard for many of us to imagine life without it – but we’ve all bought into a service which is a commercial service, and one which is subject to the whims of profitability.

So – back to the title of the post. What if Twitter goes rogue – and by “rogue” I mean “starts doing something that you personally find unacceptable” (so for the sake or argument, imagine a scenario which makes you wince, be it ads in-stream / membership fee / company bought by the Chinese / content moderation at source / etc). What then?

Personally, I think I’d pay a membership fee in order to use the service. I’d also likely pay in order to not have ads in my stream. What about you?

The diminishing returns of size

I gave a workshop last week to a bunch of museums in the North East entitled “Bootstrapping the Web”. Well, actually, it started off as that but following a questionnaire asking what they’d like to learn, the focus changed a bit to “How to do social media well”. I’m hoping the attendees learnt something – I certainly did, which is always great when you’re delivering stuff like this.

One of the things that is readily apparent, both from this workshop and from many of the conversations I have and see, is that many institutions – museums, galleries, businesses – have climbed over the first hurdle when it comes to social media. Many of them – more than you would expect – now have a social media presence. Usually this is a Facebook page or a Twitter account, sometimes it is a collection of Flickr pictures, sometimes a blog.

On first glance, these networks are of value because of their enormous size. Facebook currently claims 500 million active users (that’s, what, about a 14th of the world’s population). Twitter has 200 million or so (or is it a mere 15 million? who knows).

At that kind of scale, though, these networks are just sub-silos of the web. Just “having a presence” on Facebook or Twitter means as little as “having a web page”. We all learnt a long time ago that creating a web page was merely the tiniest tip of the biggest iceberg and that all the hard work comes after that: maintaining, driving traffic, linking, content, content, content. These networks differ because of the ease with which they allow network effects to bloom, and they have power when there is a personal nature to the interaction. The size itself isn’t by any means a guarantee of success, and nor is the hype.

This is a big lesson that many institutions – and people, for that matter – are only just  beginning to learn. Social media and social networks aren’t a golden bullet. The ease with which you can set up a presence belies the hard and clever work that is required to maintain this presence.

The thing we talked about a lot in the workshop last week was about how you put social media into a strategic framework: one which asks “should I be doing this at all?” as regularly as asking “how should I be doing this?”. I’ve always argued that we needed a JFDI beginning in order to kick start a more strategic conversation, but the reason for doing it should be made very clear right at the beginning. I (shameless plug) talk a lot about this in my book.

Gartner casts a light on what is likely to happen in the near future: many institutions will fall down the trough of disillusionment as they realise that social media isn’t the save-all that they thought it might have been, and we’ll see interest wane as Facebook pages remain unfriended, Flickr pictures aren’t looked at, and blog posts aren’t visited. The people who have thought about things a bit harder and a bit more strategically – those who are in it for the long game – will weather this storm and realise that the ROI on social media comes later on, and only with more strategic thinking.

Many me

I first joined Twitter in 2007. In fact, if www.whendidyoujointwitter.com is correct, I joined on 20th February 2007.

My first account was @dmje. I tweeted in that way that everyone seems to first tweet – a sporadic few “just what the hell is this Twitter thing all about?” followed by a long gap, followed by a re-emergence as more people I knew found themselves on it. I also, of course, blogged (“All Noise, No Signal“) and have been slowly eating my words (some of them, not all) ever since.

For a long time, my @dmje account worked well. But after a while, I started to become very aware that the person that I am (opinionated, personal, direct, a little bit sweary..) was different from the person I either *should* be or was somehow expected to be (professional, supportive, focused).

At that point in time – in fact, prompted by a slightly sweaty moment in which I tweeted a few bits and bobs which I probably shouldn’t have from a professional perspective – I decided to make @dmje a private account and create a new public persona, @m1ke_ellis. Again, according to whendidyoujointwitter, this happened on 22nd May 2009.

I went through a fairly painful process of moving across *some* contacts to my m1ke_ellis account but leaving others at @dmje. My criteria? Very, very loose, but broadly based around: “If we’ve met and drunk a beer together then @dmje, otherwise @m1ke_ellis…”. There are exceptions to this rule, though. Obviously 🙂

I’m now maybe 5 months down the line, and I’m still not entirely happy with the outcome; although each time I think about the possible alternatives I always come back to what I’ve done as being the best way, albeit far from perfect.

Here’s the thinking:

The good:

  • I can continue to rant, unabridged and privately (except, obviously, to a group of trusted and known personal friends) using my @dmje account. I use this account far more than my public one (sadly, nearly 10,000 tweets…)
  • I follow about 120 people, I have about 110 people who I’ve allowed to follow me. These people are real to me. In true Dunbar style, I see my Twitter stream for @dmje and feel a personal connection with each and every person on that list.
  • …I can therefore cope with the quantity and noise
  • Tweets to and from the @dmje account are much more conversational, much less “broadcast”
  • I can retain a “professional” persona at @m1ke_ellis, tweeting about work and technology related stuff. This is particularly useful at conferences and so on
  • Having a public account of some description is useful when it comes to feeding a stream to blogs, profile, and so on

The bad:

  • By far and away the single worst thing about this approach is this: I’m not two people, and although this can sometimes get ugly (yes, I ranted about Creative Spaces; no, I wasn’t particularly “professional”, but I feel passionate about some things..)
  • From a marketeers perspective (and I don’t subscribe to this viewpoint at all, btw), I’ve done A Bad Thing by splitting my Twitter accounts. While I’ve watched some people moving up to thousands of followers, I’ve split my juice (urg!) across 2 accounts. Actually, more – I also use @bathcamp and @eduserv for other specific purposes. If I was after followers (I’m not), I should probably have stuck with a single “me” account.
  • Maintaing two or more accounts is challenging, logistically. Although Tweetdeck (my preferred desktop client) and EchoFon (mobile) both support multiple accounts now, it is very easy to tweet the wrong thing to the wrong account. More to the point, it is hard to maintain momentum with an account if your attention isn’t on it all the time

There is a deeper point to all this: Embracing social media requires a fairly complex understanding of personality and tone of voice. I might be a more professional me over at @m1ke_ellis, but how is that me different to the me at @dmje? You’re not likely to hear about my kids, my wife, my life, my hangovers, the gig I just went to, the #bus14 journey I nearly got killed on.

But there again, if you’re listening to the professional me then you probably don’t want to hear that anyway, right? Or do you? How real is the me who just talks about work? Not very, in one sense, because my family and that other stuff is (obviously) waaaay more important than my working life. And it’s not like I can effectively split my interests in that way. I live and breathe web stuff – this is far from being a day job for me.

Actually, I think the most successful social media people and companies manage to balance this rather better than I have. Take @andypowe11 for example. He’s public and not only tweets about metadata and work stuff but also rants on occasion, too. He’s got better self control than me (he’s as rude, but swears less..), but still.

I don’t like Twitter as broadcast mechanism, and I think naturally once you pass a level of followers/followees that is what it becomes, unless you’re on top of it all of the time. Personally I dislike it when I “@” someone and they don’t reply; clearly someone with thousands of followers is unlikely to respond all of the time. Twitter then moves from being a conversation to being something different, a something which I feel doesn’t carry the personality which social media perhaps should.

The person is the point

This is just going to be a quickie, mainly so I get it out before I go away on holiday never to remember it again. At some point I might expand on it.

Over the last few weeks in particular, we’ve seen the public finally sitting up and noticing Twitter. It’s been on the BBC, all over the news and makes for interesting watching on Google Trends, too:

Twitter / UK / 12 months

Twitter / UK / 12 months

About a year ago, my assessment of so-called “lifestreaming” was that it was all a timesink. Back then, I hadn’t pulled as deeply on the Twitter crack pipe as I have since, or do now. Looking back (nearly 5,000 tweets and 300 followers in), my thoughts are on the one hand changed – radically – and on the other, mostly the same.

My views have changed in terms of signal / noise ratio because Twitter has deeply, deeply affected me, the way I work and the way I consume and receive content and news. I can’t think of a technology that comes even close. The panic – and it is panic – that I feel when I consider a world without Twitter is, actually, pretty worrying.

On the other hand, my views about institutional Twitter have changed only a little. Back then, I questioned that Twitter has a place at all in an institutional setting. Now, with some water under the bridge, I’ve tuned my assessment of this. My current take on this is that there are only a few ways in which institutions can create convincing, fun, and followable Twitter streams.

The first of these is when it is automated (for example, Towerbridge – and this particular example is a genius use of various bits of technology). The second is at the opposite end of the spectrum, and that is when institutions are given personality, usually because the person doing the tweeting can sit outside the corporate MarketingFluff (TM). The obvious example is the always-great Brooklyn Museum. The third is when it is just plain useful, giving rapid updates on a topic in a way that other channels can’t.

As the interest grows, we’re starting to see the cultural sector increasingly wanting a slice of the pie, and the first thing they’re asking is how do we engage with this new channel? How do we mix it into our offering and make it work for us?

Right now, many of the museums on Twitter are using it in an informal, below-the-radar context. The problem is that as the thing goes more mainstream, we’re likely to see the same old problem we’ve seen with institutional blogging: it just ends up becoming the same old shit from marketing leaflets, regurgitated into new channels.

Twitter, like blogging, needs an edge, a voice, a riskiness. As long as institutions can retain this – i.e., do it for a reason – then, IMO, things will get more interesting. If they don’t, we’ll probably all be unfollowing museums as quickly as we can slide down the steep, slippery trough of disillusionment

All noise, no signal. Lifestreaming is a timesink

The fascination with various “lifestreaming” tools continues apace. Brian Kelly has been getting particularly excited about the regulation (or not, as his fellow Twitterers are shouting) of these tools. “We should have standards” he says. “No! Standards are boring”, everyone replies…

In this particular area I have to say I pretty much fall on the side of the anti-standards bods – lifestreaming should be about spontaneity and not regulation – but there are still some interesting issues about the modes of use of these tools, and I can understand what Brian is pointing out.

The reason why there are issues is pretty clear: lifestreaming is a paradigm shift; it’s disruptive and hence different from everything that has come before. In some ways, tools like Twitter are IM-like in the way they work. In others they’re a little bit more like a chat room. In others, they’re like an email thread and in yet others more like a discussion board.

There’s no surprise therefore that we’re all a bit confused. Throw into the recipe tools like Twitterfeed (passes feeds to your Twitter stream), Hashtags (enables you to tag tweets), Twitter Facebook app (feeds your tweets to Facebook status) or Twittervision (type ‘L:’ for location…). Then lightly saute before throwing in some finely chopped Pownce (it’s the new Twitter, only ‘better’) or Jaiku (Google bought it so it must be good..) or Tumblr (who really knows what ‘microblogging’ is anyway?)…and it’s hardly surprising that we’re feeling the need for some sanity.

This is classic Gartner hype in action. The emergence and adoption of these technologies is rapid, exciteable, reactionary. Darwinian evolution is choking the ideas that don’t work and elevating those that do.

Take the Twitter Facebook app as an example. Both Brian and I installed it at pretty much the same time. It links your Twitter updates to your Facebook status. All good, you think – I only have to do this once, updates both – excellent. Then you realise that actually the use mode is different: Twitter isn’t being used as a “what are you doing” tool (the original intention) but instead has become a way of having a conversation with your fellow users. In this context, linking it to Facebook makes no sense, as the following screen shot demonstrates. Shortly afterwards, both Brian and I (independently) removed it.

twitter on facebook

In “conversation” mode, Twitter doesn’t actually work – if I’m friends with person B and they’re friends with person C then all is fine from my perspective if I’m having a conversation with B. If, however, B is having a conversation with C, I just get B’s side of the discussion. And that, frankly, is rubbish…

Pownce might be about to help out here – it gives you the option of posting comments to public/all friends/selected friend. But then we’re really back to square one: sending a message to “public” and you might as well use Twitter. Send it to a single friend or a group and you might as well use email or Facebook messaging.

And here, for me, is the rub. I’m going to go out on the line here (always risky) and suggest that essentially none of these tools actually adds anything. Let me rephrase that. All of these tools do add huge amounts of noise, but to me none of them add signal. Sure, they’re fun. Sure, I check mine every so often and take part in the conversation, but they’re not doing anything useful for me apart from…er…um…

It’s a bit like those 3D world conversations when you discuss the various technical aspects of the 3D world and actually find after an hour or two you haven’t actually shared *anything* useful. It’s technology for technologies sake. I think we’re getting caught up in the fact that we *can* rather than finding a gap in need and responding to that gap.

This is not to say that lifestreaming doesn’t have a place. I can see that during a conference, being able to send comments is useful. I can see that the mobile integration factor is a pretty exciting area of development. I can see how this might help during an emergency, or during a live event like a talk as a way of garnering feedback. Here on my desktop, however, it’s just a distraction, a timesink.

Within an institution, I’m also failing to see the applications. And this is where Brian and I both converge and diverge all at the same time. I think he has a point in trying to establish the modes of use, settle these down and try and get some clarity. But unlike Brian, I’m not convinced that institutionally there is anything in it. It may be that these tools and modes of use mature, and once we’ve all skidded through the trough of disillusionment we’ll find we’re in more informed place. But for now, I’m watching (and taking part…!) with an air of cynicism.

What do you think? Do you use these tools? Do you think they have a place in institutions? Should we look to standardise, either technology or modes of use? Comments please!