Twitter Stumbles

Twitter has always been special to me.  In our industry, social networks and platforms come and go.  Some are innovative.  Some gain incredible traction.  Some not only make a mark, but persist.  Almost all are driven by a vision and a business plan.

But Twitter is different.  Twitter was an accident.  Born from Odeo, Twitter was originally built as an easy way to text groups of people.  It worked so well they grew it into a product, and then into a company.

The Fail Whale

The Fail Whale

If you look at Facebook, Foursquare, Instagram, Path, Pinterest or other platforms, you can a cohesive, directed design.  Twitter grew up in a much more organic way.  @mentions, #tags, and other Twitter features were community driven.  The logo and branding are offshoots of visuals created by the Icon Factory.  Most of Twitter's UX innovation was driven by third party app developers, and even Twitter's official apps were purchased.  Even Twitter's search function was born out of a third party.

Twitter became a platform.  It's messaging model and API made it easy to use Twitter as glue between desktop, mobile and even SMS based platforms.  Twitter made great efforts to support and grow this community, and it helped Twitter grow into what it is now: one of The Great Platforms.  It may not have the reach of Facebook or YouTube, but who does?  What Twitter has is a community of connected, savvy followers.  It often acts as a place of refuge from the more dramatic Facebook.  It is a place where people who don't know each other, but share interests can connect and share.

But there's never been a business model.  Twitter has been a "let's just grow and figure out the money thing later" organization.  Facebook and Google are honest: we wan't your eyeballs to sell ads.  Dropbox or Valve want you to buy a product.  Twitter has never known.  The most I heard for years was "maybe we'll do ads one day."

This has created a tension for Twitter.  They now believe the way to revenue involved alienating some of the developers that helped them grow.  This is quite a gamble: Twitter's users may be uniquely sensitive to the plights of developers.  The distinction between influencer and developer is quite thin in the Twitterverse.

There is a lesson to learn here.  Business model decisions do not age well.  When you build a platform, there should be a clear path to revenue from day one.  Failure to make such plans means you may one day find your needs in opposition to those of your users.

Follow Me, Friend Me, Love Me.

I saw a link today on Twitter to a tool called Klout.  Klout is a cute and interesting Twitter analytics tool that graphs your profile activity onto a 4 quadrant graph.  By measuring your total audience and engagement, they place you in one of four categories: casual, connector, climber or persona.  It's a novel and valid way to measure the activity of a given Twitter account.

What concerns me is there is an inherent bias in the textual descriptions that it's important to move to "higher" categories.  The implicit statement is that everyone should aspire to have more followers and more engagement.  I see this over and over in different tools, and I see it discussed among social media professionals and marketers.  It's complete hogwash.

Most people using social media are not marketers.  They don't really care about gaining large numbers of friends or followers.  They want to connect with friends, family and people with similar interests.  They share information about their lives and the things the love.  They don't look for analytics on their profile.

They shouldn't.

I'm a professional social media marketer.  I derive my income from designing and executing social marketing strategies for major brands.  My social media accounts are not a test lab for my work.  I only accept friend requests from people I know on Facebook, and I only send invites to people I know well.  On Twitter, I follow people I know and people who make me laugh.  My goals for my personal profiles are to connect with those who I know and love, not to promote myself.  I believe the work I do for my clients is far more impressive than any follower count I could ever achieve.

That said, if you are a potential customer or partner for one of the brands I represent, you can bet that I'm doing everything I can to reach out to you in a non-intrusive way via company profiles or advertising.  I want brand profiles to reach the largest relevant audience and to engage as many members of that audience as possible.  Companies and people have completely different goals in social media.

It's important that we marketers, new media gurus and brands don't lose site of who is creating a revolution in social media--regular people.

The Next Big Thing™

One of the most frequent questions I'm asked in conversation is "What's next?" This is certainly a fair question as my job description contains the words "new media." The engineer in me always wants to say no one knows and offer a list of disclaimers. Even those industry moguls and mad scientists working for startups generally can't get a clear picture of what the market will reallydo with their shiny new toy. For this post however, I will throw caution to the wind and reveal to you the trends I see emerging.

We're all experiencing the transformative effects of the much-hyped social media technologies. The decentralization and democratization of human communication warrants the discussion volume we see–after all, any voice in the crowd can now address millions of people. The effects on human communication, and even human consciousness, from things like Facebook and Twitter will reshape much of western civilization. Even without the development of new technology, or even iterations of our current platforms the effects of extended mind theory are surfacing. There's no doubt in my mind that Google has become a vast, shared extended mind for many people. As more and more people adopt Facebook, Twitter and other tools, our extended mind may begin to become even more collaborative--and the emergence of a primitive collective consciousness will follow. In fact, I believe it already has--but that is the topic of another post for another day. The fact is, new technologies are emerging.

One of the most exciting emergent tools is geo metadata. Thanks to the increasing amount of devices that incorporate both digital logic and GPS receivers, applications are emerging that take advantage of location to offer compelling services. Urbanspoon and Yelp on the iPhone are great examples. They show you restaurants and/or other local vendors along with reviews of those locations by people who have been there. Extending this model further leads to social networks build around location like Loopt and Google Latitude. These networks let you see where your friends are in relation to you and what they are doing. None of these services offer the user base or depth of functionality of Facebook, nor the quirky charm of Twitters communal stream of consciousness but they are great sings of what's to come.

As GPS hardware becomes ubiquitous, it will make sense for Facebook (or whoever the leader in social networking may be) to add geo metadata to their platform. Imagine if you could sort the Facebook Newsfeed by proximity to you instead of time, or if you could view your friends photos by location instead of by who's in them. The technology to do this exists today. All we need are more people accessing social networks from mobile devices with GPS to make this critical mass technology.

The addition of geo metadata sets the stage for the really amazing stuff--augmented reality. Augmented reality is a modern cousin to virtual reality of old. Simply stated, augmented reality is the ability to accurately place computer generated images in 3D space over live video. Most of the accessible iterations of augmented reality so far have been impressive marketing initiatives. My favorite is a site that will turn you into a Transformer if you have a web cam. It's completely useless but fun.

Much more useful, exciting and transformative is augmented reality applied to mobile devices. The easiest way to show the potential here is to share a video of an app already released.

In this demo, the iPhone becomes a veiw port to a hidden world.  It takes data and turns it into a virtual, physical world invisible to the naked eye.  Now imagine if the data set accessed by this application was not subway stops, but instead the location of your friends.  Or, your friends status updates.  Or, the sushi restaurants nearest to you, along with reviews made by your friends (or strangers if you choose).  What if images taken by your friends appeared in the locations they were taken?

The technology exists.  All of it.  Once these data sets connect and become accessible, books like Daemon and Snow Crash are less science fiction and more social commentary.

I can't wait.

Ding! You've got information.

The critics are right: information overload is killing us.  Let me explain.

I just returned from a week's vacation.  I went on a cruise to Mexico and the Cayman Islands and  I was completely without digital communications of any kind.  Forget email, instant messaging or Twitter–I didn't have my cell phone.  As a result, my communication with other people was much more focused.

Conversations with other people were much more cohesive.  I retained more of what was said, and the usual scattered nature caused by all participants checking their mobile was gone.  Likewise, information gathering via reading or TV was more streamlined.  Whatever I was doing received my full attention.

Now that I've returned to civilization, I'm shocked by how distracting my life is.  Even after I've worked through thousands of emails and countless messages in social media I still find myself bombarded by constant notifications that I have more information.  The combined feed of IM, email, Twitter, RSS and other messaging services is overwhelming.  It seems that in just one week I lost my ability to juggle it all.

I find myself asking if this significant.  Would my family, company and clients be better if I offered them my complete attention sequentially instead of partial attention constantly?  Have we sacrificed quality of focus in exchange for quantity of availability as a society?  Would I do better work if I shut down messaging while working on client projects, or would my clients be frustrated that I was more difficult to reach while doing work for them?

I don't know the answer, but I'm inclined to find out.

My Web 2.0 killed my blog

I've been an active blogger in the past, and experienced ebb and flow in the amount that I blog, up until a year ago when i stopped completely.  There was no intentional pause, in the same way that I've never blogged intentionally.  I blog when I have something on my mind.  Prior to my year-long hiatus, this blog had built up a regular following.  I assume that's because I wrote about things that interested me, and my fellow nerds found that my random interests compatible.

It took me a long time to remember I even had a blog.  The last two months, I've been peppered with questions from people I know and emails from people I don't about why I'm not blogging any more.  I didn't have an answer.

I'm very busy personally and professionally, but that was true a year ago.  The demands of parenting aren't killing my desire to write.  I'm reading more than I did a year ago, thanks to the Kindle.  Then I realized what changed.

I got into Twitter in a big way.  I was already a pretty serious Facebook user, and the addition of Twitter acted as a sort of creative heat sink.  Any time a thought of interest comes to me, I throw it out to the world in an embryonic 149 characters--then move on.  Facebook and Twitter are more than adequate for sharing links I find interesting, so that killed the rest of my blog content.

I still read blogs more than I read Facebook and Twitter.  Unlike so many of my ilk (nerds in marketing) I use Facebook and Twitter as very personal communication mediums.  I personally know every one on my Facebook friends list, and the people I follow on Twitter are friends as well (aside from a dozen or so people who interest me that I don't know).

That's shifted my online life in a subtle way.  I still draw from the well of thinking by reading people's blogs, but I then share back only with my tribe.  I'm not sharing things with the larger web via my blog (and by extension, Google).  Some of my older posts still get a lot of traffic because they are tech issues that people are looking for answers on.

How common is this socialification of minor-league bloggers?  How do you maintain the mental discipline to talk to your tribe and give back to the world at large.

It's tough stuff.