February 2010 Archives

Online norms

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It seems to be turning into Christian Crumlish Week here on The Social Enterprise, but the man's on fire right now! If you're not reading Mediajunkie, you really should.

Christian has been blogging recently about the various essays written by guest contributors to the book he co-authored with Erin Malone, Designing Social Interfaces. The most recent guest essay is by Gary Burnett, who writes about Explicit and implicit norms in online groups:

Social norms may be defined as a set of values particular to a group, the purpose of which is to provide a sense of balance, a mechanism by which people may gauge what is "normal" and acceptable in a specific context or situation. Such norms are not defined by outside factors; rather, they emerge directly from the activities, motives, and goals of the group itself. Social interfaces function as settings within which such a process may take place. The sociologist Robert K, Merton, in a classic formulation of social norms, distinguished between attitudinal and behavioral norms. However, since attitudes are visible in online settings only through visible behavior - only, that is, through the medium of textual production - it seems more appropriate to think of norms in online interactions in terms of a different distinction. Online social norms can be divided into two types: Explicit and implicit norms.

He then goes on to discuss explicit and implicit norms in more detail, explaining how they are formed and how they affect the community. Read the whole essay, it's well worth it.

Social network overload?

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Are we getting swamped by social media? David Armano thinks so. I think that it's a little bit more complicated than just trying to amp up the signal in the noise and has to do with a whole bunch of issues involved in, well, just being human:

1. We're all interested in status
Actually, we're all obsessed with status whether we realise it or not. Social networks make status explicit in some way, or at least they seem to. Number of followers on Twitter is a very bad proxy for our status within the different communities we inhabit, yet we can't stop our status-obsessed brains from over-interpreting it.

2. We're all interested in success
Status and success are two sides of the same coin: If you have success you probably also have status, although it very much depends on your definitions of success and whether others share them. We often don't define success and can't recognise it when it happens, so we use apparent status as a proxy for it. If you believe that in order to prove to yourself that you are successful you also need to have high status within your community, and your community is online, then you're looking for high status there too... which means you're looking at numbers which are a proxy for a proxy. Great stuff!

3. Phatic communication is as important as informational communication
Social media makes a lot of phatic communications, i.e. that stuff you say to show the world you're not dead yet, explicit whereas we are used to them being almost unnoticeable. Those little grunts, sighs and snarfles you normally make to tell the people around you, "I'm still here" become "Making a cup of tea" on Twitter. Because we're use to the written word containing useful information we get frustrated when it contains phatic information and fail to realise just how very useful that info actually is.

4. We're completists
We evolved in a world where it was possible to know everything everyone else knew: Where to hunt, where to gather, how to cook, who's in charge. Now there is so much information in the world that we can barely learn a tiny fraction of it, yet it feels like somehow we ought to know it all. Our dopamine system rewards us for seeking and there's no end to what we can find. There is no end to the internet, so the seeking just goes on and on and on.

5. We're stretching our wetware
Armano is right that we're using tools that allow us to shatter Dunbar's Number into tiny bits, and this is causing us some problems because we are trying to treat everyone as 'friends', instead of accepting that some people are closer than others. In actual fact, then number of close friends we maintain remains at around ten, or less. It's the number of acquaintances that's booming, and we're not quite sure what the social etiquette is for our interactions with all these people we my well like but barely know.

This is problematic, to be sure. The technology is evolving faster than we are figuring out how it fits into our social natures. Manners and etiquette vary wildly between communities and society has not settled on a common ruleset. But I think a few simple guidelines can help us all:

  1. Don't try to be everywhere
  2. Don't try to know everyone
  3. Feel free to ignore content and people
  4. Don't be offended if someone ignores you or what you write
  5. Accept that your brain is not the size of a planet and you can't know everything. Yet.

Of course, all bets are off once the Singularity occurs.

The cost of inauthentic communities

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Roger Martin has an excellent post on Harvard Business Review that looks back at how business executives used to be embedded in the community they served but are now disconnected from it, as are the businesses they work for. It is a must read.

In the 60s, business were smaller, executives knew their customers and their staff. Shareholders were in it for the long run so tolerated long-term planning. Companies had more loyalty to their home city, so "doing things to benefit the city made sense both corporately and personally."

While not perfect, this structure enabled the executive to live a reasonably authentic life; the way he wanted to live personally was largely aligned with her corporate responsibilities. He wanted to make the customers -- whom he was likely to know personally -- happy. He wanted to support his employees' well-being -- employees who he and his family probably knew. He wanted to be a respected figure in the city, a city that was important to his company and his family. And he wanted to make his shareholders happy because he knew that they had placed a long-term bet behind his company. If he worked on all those aspects of his community, he could be successful and happy. And by serving customers and employees well, the corporation was likely to keep on prospering.

But now companies and the executives that work for them have become dissociated from their environs, their staff, their customers and, crucially, from long-term thinking. Martin says:

[T]he idea that shareholder value was a corporation's principal objective function took hold, largely, I think, through the agency of business schools, whose dramatic rise coincided with the decline of the traditional business community.

This disintegration of community is not a good thing for the exec, his business, the community or frankly, anyone else. It leads to the sort of short-termist thinking that led to the Crash.

Martin paints a fairly bleak picture, but I think there is a cause for hope: Social media. Blogs, Twitter, LinkedIn and a host of other tools provide a way for the people in business, whether executive or not, to get back in touch with their wider community. It also allows customers to collaborate and to become a countervailing force to shareholders, Wall Street and analysts who encourage companies to make bad decisions.

The new community that businesses find themselves in isn't a geographically constrained community, but a community of interest, or rather, a community of people who have an interest, whether they are customers, staff or curious onlookers.

And there's nowhere to hide, either. The sunshine of the public's attention can illuminate any previously hidden nook or cranny, and behaviour that businesses once got away with can now be exposed and challenged. The broader reach of businesses also frequently allows customers to swap away from the worst offenders, using their dollar or pound to vote against a company's policy or behaviour.

I think we have a long way to go before we make real progress, and the largest of companies frequently have the longest journey, but I think the tide is finally on the turn.

Book: Building Social Web Applications, Gavin Bell

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I've yet to see a copy of Building Social Web Applications , but Gavin Bell is a not only a friend but someone whom I respect and admire, so I'm already convinced it's going to be a good read! The official blurb is:

Building a social web application that attracts and retains regular visitors, and gets them to interact, isn't easy to do. This book walks you through the tough questions you'll face if you're to create a truly effective community site - one that makes visitors feel like they've found a new home on the Web. Whether you're creating a new site from scratch or embracing an existing audience "Building Social Web Applications" helps you and your fellow web developers, designers, and project managers make difficult decisions, such as choosing the appropriate interaction tools for your audience, and building an infrastructure to help the community gel.With this book, you'll learn to: understand who will be drawn to your site, why they'll stay, and who they'll interact with; build the software you need versus plugging in off-the-shelf apps; create visual design that clearly communicates what your site will do; manage the identities of your visitors and determine how to manage their interaction; watch for demand from the community to guide your choice of new functions; and, plan the launch of your site and get the message out. "Building Social Web Applications" includes examples of different application types - member-driven, customer service-driven, contributor-driven, and more - and discusses different business models. If your company's ready to move into the world of social web applications, this book will help you make it a reality.

Christian Crumlish has a short review, GameDev take a bit of a deeper look and there are currently five 5-star reviews on Amazon.com. Personally, I can't wait to have the time to sit down and read this cover-to-cover!

Are we building better tomorrows?

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Via Christian Crumlish, I discovered the excellent essay Are we building a better Internet? by Matte Scheinker. Matte's essay looks at how seemingly small design decisions can have huge impacts on the way that the internet evolves. He says:

The first design meme I encountered with true deleterious power was the opt-out check-box for marketing emails on sign-up forms. Our argument for it to be opt-in instead was user-experience focused with a nod to the business folks. Undesired emails would hurt the brand, annoy the user, and not necessarily generate qualified leads. What we didn't consider back then was how that small decision would help create today's Internet. These undesired marketing emails -- along with the invention of V1@gra -- contributed to the cacophony of commercial noise that now pollutes the Internet. As far as I know, this noise hasn't killed anyone. Yet most of us would prefer the Internet to feel a little more like relaxing on a secluded beach with a good book and less like Times Square on a muggy Saturday night.

Imagine for a moment what today's design decisions will do to mold the Internet's future. What if every product decision you made last week became a successful design meme? Would that create an Internet where you'd want your kids to play?

Sometimes we get lucky and it's not difficult to discern the difference between right and wrong. Don't sell user data because you're short on beer money. Don't keep emailing users after they unsubscribe. Don't read user emails to find the next great stock pick. These are certainly over-simplified dilemmas, and sadly, most ethical dilemmas aren't as clear-cut.

He goes on to talk about other ethical decisions that designers and businesses make and the impact that they have. You really should read the whole thing.

But Matte's questions are not just for web designers and developers, they are also for business managers: Are you making business decisions that might affect the future of the internet? Of your business? Of Business? If everyone behaved as you do, would the world be a better place?

Decisions that affect the internal world of your business don't just affect your staff, they affect their spouses, families, friends. If you've ever known someone who's unhappy at work you know how far and how fast that unhappiness can travel. And if you're making good decisions - enabling and empowering the people you work with to communicate, collaborate and be more effective - then your influence will also spread as the people you work with pick up good management habits.

Of course, this isn't just about feeling good: if you have passionate employees you have a whole raft of potential evangelists who can represent your brand in the wider community. If you treat your customers with respect, they'll be more likely to recommend you to their friends. And if you make good decisions about your website's design, you'll gain much more goodwill than abusing customer's trust.

Being ethical isn't just a nice thing to do, it's the smart thing to do.

ATA: What makes a good case study?

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Every now and again I find myself searching for social media case studies, and whenever this happens it's always a monumental pain in the proverbials. People aren't great at interpreting a case study from outside of their own context, so I like to find something that they can immediately relate to. But it can be really hard to find something relevant on short notice so I often wind up going back to my old favourites and then having to tell the client "Well, this may not sound exactly like you, but trust me, it's more relevant than it looks."

Although there are loads of social case studies on the web, they aren't particularly well organised. There are various lists kicking about, but many of them are poorly organised and it takes ages to plough through them. So I'm considering a quick and dirty solution in the form of a Google spreadsheet and form so that we can gather more detailed information together. What kind of information would be useful to you? Here are some possible ideas:

  • Name of the company
  • Whether the project was internal or external
  • Date of case study
  • Tools used
  • Is this good practice or bad practice
  • Overview
  • Link to full write-up
  • Name of person writing is up
  • Style of case study (blog post, formal case study etc)

What else would you like to see? I'll use your comments to create the spreadsheet and will post the form here when it's ready.

What does "content strategy" mean for social media?

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I stumbled across a blog post yesterday by Kristina Halvorsen about content strategy. The post looked at the difference between strategy and planning and was very interesting. But there was one small section that worried me:

But for a mid-sized or large organization, if social media content is conceived and created in a silo (or siloes) apart from the organization's other content channels, it opens the door for inconsistent messaging, irrelevant content for current target audiences, and so on. So it's important to understand that a blog, like all social media, is (among other things) a channel through which to distribute branded content.

This is an issue that needs untangling because, misinterpreted, it could result in a poor social media strategy.

The silo'd nature of many businesses is a significant problem and I entirely agree that a fragmented social media strategy, or content strategy, will result in a mess. A wise strategist will look at the business' aims, understand its market, and will create a strategy that will help the business meet its goals within the context of its market.

But blogs and social media are not "a channel through which to distribute branded content", they are a way for people within the company to form relationships with both other people outside the company and their own colleagues. These relationships create greater trust in the business, as potential customers feel that they have an 'in': access to a real person to whom they can take their troubles if they experience any. As trust increases, so does the likelihood that a transaction will occur between those trusted parties.

Branded content is inappropriate for social media because it's impersonal, it's not from the heart of the blogger (or Twitterer etc.) and so does not build trust because the recipient can see right through it. Indeed, one of the most common problems I am asked to fix is underperforming Twitter accounts, and they uniformly underperform because they are streams of branded content without a hint of humanity in sight. In fact, this comes up so often I may start offering Twitter Rehabilitation as a specific service to clients.

This doesn't mean, however, that social media should not have a content strategy, but it needs a very different approach to the sort of strategy one would apply to traditional communications. Rather than focusing specifically on the content, one has to focus on the people who are active in social media and the communities that they are active in. My process would be this:

  1. Examine your markets and understand what topics your customers are interested in
  2. Find people in your business who are passionate about those same topics
  3. Pick people from that group who are happy using social tools
  4. Agree with the bloggers/Twitterers/etc. which topics they are going to cover
  5. Let them get on with it
  6. Review regularly to make sure that the bloggers/Twitterer/etc. feel happy with what they are doing and that everything's going in the right direction

When we look at successful business bloggers, we don't see branded content, we see personality, transparency, authenticity, honesty. Those keywords haven't changed in over a decade and they aren't going to change now because these are the attributes that people respond most positively to.

Social media comes from the heart and needs very light touch management. More than that, it needs passion, freedom and trust in order to truly work.

Social isn't just online

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The British Psychological Society's Research Digest Blog carries a post about how much better we feel when we get absorbed in a social task than if we do the same task on our own. You've probably heard of 'flow', the feeling of being so absorbed in something that time stands still. Flow "is highly rewarding and usually provokes feelings of joy afterwards", but Charles Walker has discovered that "social flow is associated with more joy than solitary flow - 'that doing it together is better than doing it alone'."

The 'social enterprise' isn't just about using social media to make connections between people via technology, it's also about using that technology to bolster face-to-face relationships. Wouldn't it be great if we could provide people with opportunities to experience social flow on a regular basis as a part of getting their job done!

Data security vs agility and cost

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Third party social media tools really are a two-edged sword. On the one hand, they allow you to get up and running almost instantaneously for little or no money, but on the other hand you have no data security or guarantee of uptime.

I'm reminded of this dichotomy by the recent closure of a number of music blogs by Google's Blogger service. Despite the fact that these blogs were all operating legitimately and within the law, Google removed their content from Blogger without either a warning or an opportunity to back up. This appears to be bad behaviour from Google, but they are not alone. Yahoo! has a track record of closing down Cinderella services without much of a by-your-leave, resulting in confused and unhappy users whose data has been lost forever. And, of course, there was the catastrophic server meltdown at Ma.gnolia, a Delicious.com rival, which resulted in their entire bookmark repository being lost.

Whether it's a company targeting a few users, closing down underachieving services, or suffering massive data loss, there is just no guarantee that the information you put online is still going to be there in the morning.

So does this mean that corporate information should never be entrusted to third party sites? Not at all. Firstly, it's not always possible to run your own internal version of a third party tool, and often it's not even desirable. You could never replicate the networked nature of a third party social network, for example.

Sometimes you can install software, such as Wordpress, on your own servers, but if your IT department is maxed out or uncooperative, you may be forced on to Wordpress.com instead. There could be a significant cost to the business if you have to wait months for your own installation to be set up and for your project to get started, in which case the hosted option becomes the most viable option.

The answer? Your social media tools should, where possible, be regularly backed up just as with your own servers. Recovery of your social media presence should be at the top of your disaster recovery plan, if only because if something serious happens to your company or any of your other data, your blog could be a key communications channel. (This is also a good reason not to host your own blog on the same servers as your main website, by the way! If everything else goes down, you need to have some way to communicate with the outside world.)

Perceived barriers to wiki adoption

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Alan Porter writes a great blog post - one I wish I'd written! - over on Ars Technica examining some of the perceived barriers to wiki adoption that he has come across. He says:

As I continue to research and write my upcoming book on wikis, I keep hearing one word over and over again. That word is "BUT" (complete with all-caps), as in, "I would like to use a wiki, BUT..." or "We tried using a wiki, BUT..."

What follows is usually an excuse for why the speaker feels that a wiki isn't a worthwhile tool for collaboration in his or her environment. I use the word "excuse" deliberately, because rarely does anyone articulate an actual business reason, such as a lack of need. When I ask deeper questions, I invariably find that the objection isn't to the wiki technology itself, but instead to the concept of collaborative authoring and a perceived loss of control over the content.

Porter's post is an excellent view into the cultural and technical barriers people erect in order to isolate themselves from change. Cultural excuses include:

  • We tried one once and no one used it
  • The cost/benefit ratio is too high
  • I'm too busy doing actual work to try anything new
  • It's overwhelming, and I don't know where to start
  • If my management doesn't care, why should I?
  • It won't be accurate
  • I prefer meetings

Technical excuses include:

  • I need to learn a mark-up language
  • Search doesn't work
  • It's a black hole
  • It isn't like (name your favorite application here)
  • It's a security nightmare

Porter debunks each myth with great care, and then poses a set of questions that everyone should ask themselves before they embark on a wiki project.

The whole post reminds me of the Why Don't You/Yes, But... Game from Transactional Analysis where one person offers the other help, but that help is rejected every time with an excuse. I have certainly observed managers (even quite senior ones) playing Why Don't You/Yes, But... around social technology, particularly wikis and blogs. Let me write you a sample script:

Manager: We need to improve collaboration and capture knowledge.
Consultant: Why don't you use a wiki?
M: Yes, but it'll take us 18 months to get it through IT.
C: Why don't you use a hosted wiki?
M: Yes, but then our data won't be secure.
C: Why don't you create a regular back-up schedule?
M: Yes, but that's too difficult.
C: Why don't you go with a vendor that backs up for you?
M: Yes, but that's too expensive.
C: Why don't you install open source software on an under-the-desk server, Trojan Mouse style?
M: Yes, but if IT ever find out, they'll kill me.

As Wikipedia says, ""Why Don't You, Yes But" can proceed indefinitely, with any number of players in the [Manager] role, until [the Consultant's] imagination is exhausted, and she can think of no other solutions. At this point, [the Manager] "wins" by having stumped [the Consultant]."

Every time I have found myself embroiled in this game, the project has stalled, often before anything has happened. It's so easy to think of reasons why something won't work and much harder to think of ways to make sure it does. And when I say Manager in the above example, I don't just mean middle managers; I have played this game with CxOs, people you would think could just say, "Make it so", people who are supposed to be the ones setting their company's technology agenda.

We have to recognise that many companies behave like dysfunctional mega-personalities, with each member of the collective reinforcing each other's bad behaviour. We can't always use logic and evidence to deal with people playing these games, but instead must draw from other sources of inspiration such as psychology in order to understand how to move things forward. And that's easier said than done!

Google Buzz: A user testing fail?

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Yesterday i wrote a long piece about Google Buzz over on my own blog, Strange Attractor. The long and the short of it is that Google has released a Twitter-clone that is embedded in Gmail. Various privacy concerns rapidly came to light which resulted in quite a few concerned blog posts from various quarters.

Once alerted to these concerns, Google immediately addressed some of them, although not everyone is convinced that it has gone far enough to correct the problems. Jessica Dolcourt has written a detailed set of instructions for how to fully disable Buzz for those unhappy with its intrusion into their inbox.

On the one hand, I'm not at all surprised that Google could mess this up so badly. Whilst a brilliant company from an engineering standpoint, it has a history of not really understanding people particularly well. When it does attempt social applications, it tends to do them clumsily.

Most of the stuff that was (and is) wrong with Google Buzz is obvious right from the get-go. A small user test with a handful of people would have picked it up. I wonder if Google did any user testing at all with Buzz, or whether they did it with people who work at Google and therefore, dare I say it, probably don't think the way we do. Had they reached out to wider user community I think they would have rapidly discovered that Buzz made people feel squicky and that privacy was a serious concern.

We do know that Google does testing. They famously "couldn't decide between two blues, so they're testing 41 shades between each blue to see which one performs better." The question is, do they do user testing, and do they do it right? The mistakes made by Google Buzz would indicate that good user testing is not used uniformly across the business.

Everything you need to know about comments

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Today's blog post is shamelessly stolen from inspired by Adam Tinworth.

Report: Edelman's Trust Barometer 2010

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Edelman's yearly Trust Barometer survey results are out, with trust in business, governments and NGOs up, whilst trust in the media continues its three year decline. However:

Although trust in business is up, the rise is tenuous. Globally, nearly 70 percent of informed publics expect business and financial companies will revert to "business as usual" after the recession.

Interestingly, trust in "credentialed experts" is up, compared to a drop in trust in "[people] like me", perhaps because in a recession people become aware that their friends don't have better information than they do. I don't think this necessarily points to a decline in word-of-mouth and would expect this metric to bounce back once we're out of recession. But then, your word-of-mouth is only as good as people's experience of your actual product or service and businesses do need to understand that you if you put lipstick on a pig, people will still see that it's a pig.

Edelman also found that:

A vastly different set of factors - let by trust and transparency - now influences corporate reputation and demands that companies take a multi-dimensional approach to their engagement with stakeholders.

Another good reason to use social media to engage with customers, clients and other stakeholders!

I'm slightly surprised it's taken us this long to see this happen. People are much more aware now that businesses can act deceptively towards them. There are many examples of deception (whether deliberate or through incompetence) and subsequent climb-down that persist in the public consciousness because the story has been so efficiently transmitted via the internet. It's hard not to view business in general with a certain level of mistrust these days.

Businesses that are deliberately transparent, on the other hand, counter this background mistrust by laying their cards on the table and emphasising that they are made up of human beings with whom we can interact, rather than corporate droids who only know how to say their equivalent of Computer Says NO! It is, after all, much harder to mistrust a real person for no reason than a faceless megacorp.

Here, Robert Phillips, UK Ceo for Edelman, talks about how trust pans out in the UK:

As usual, Edelman's report provides us with much food for thought.

Report: Pew's Social Media and Young Adults

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Pew's Internet & American Life Project has recently published their report Social Media and Young Adults, which looks at social media usage by teens and young adults.

Two Pew Internet Project surveys of teens and adults reveal a decline in blogging among teens and young adults and a modest rise among adults 30 and older. Even as blogging declines among those under 30, wireless connectivity continues to rise in this age group, as does social network use. Teens ages 12-17 do not use Twitter in large numbers, though high school-aged girls show the greatest enthusiasm for the application.

The report goes on to say that whilst blogging amongst teens and young adults has dropped since 2006, down to 14% of online teens compared to 28%, it has risen amongst the over 30s from 7% in 2007 to 11% in 2009. 73% of online teens use social networks now, compared to 55% in 2006 and 65% in 2008. 47% of online adults use social networks, up from 37% in 2008. Furthermore, adults are "increasingly fragmenting their social networking experience" as 52% have two or more different profiles.

There's lots more information, about Twitter, connectivity and gadget use. I haven't yet had a chance to read the whole thing, but none of the above statistics should surprise anyone.

Teens never were particularly into blogging and if they were going to blog anywhere it was going to be on LiveJournal. Different blogging tools had radically different profiles in 2006, with tools like Typepad having a middle-aged, white male demographic and LiveJournal attracting mainly teens, 75% female, with a focus on cultural minorities. The blogging landscape has changed a lot since then, and the tool-specific cultures have grown or receded along with the tools themselves. LiveJournal, which had just been bought by SixApart was sold to SUP, a Russian media company and now has 11.6 million users. Movable Type/Typepad seem to have decreased in popularity. Wordpress has developed is now one of the most usable and extensible platforms available. It currently has 202 million users.

Culturally, blogging has moved into the mainstream - a good enough reason for many teens to see it as 'something old people do' and that they should, therefore, avoid. And those teens who were on LJ in 2006 are growing up, hitting 20 and going to university or getting jobs. And I can say from experience that blogging really is easier when you're underemployed!

The wider social media landscape has changed too. Facebook had started off as a closed, school-/university-only site, accessible only to those with an educational email address. In 2006 is opened its doors and so all of those teens/early-20-somethings who were facing having to leave their friends behind as they lost their university email address could continue their activities into the workplace. MySpace, which in 2006 was the most popular social network, became a lot less cool. In 2008, Facebook took MySpace's crown and it is now pretty much seen as Facebook's ugly little brother (even though MySpace is a year older).

Twitter, of course, barely existed in 2006, and whilst it's still not hugely popular amongst teens, plain ol' SMSing is. Teens have greater access to mobile phones now than they did, with 75% of American teens between 12 and 17 owning one. I'd suspect the pattern is the same in the UK and Europe. Text bundles are now very generous, so teens have no need of Twitter - their social circle is based on their school friends and neighbours for whom texts work well enough.(In most cases, they have yet to develop geographically scattered networks that tools such as Twitter are useful for sustaining.)

As for adults using more social networks, but fragmenting their social experience, well again, there are a lot more networks to join now than their were, and they don't all do the same thing. I can't do on Twitter what I do on Flickr or Dopplr. So I would expect to see usage and fragmentation continue to increase.

I love the Pew reports. We don't have anything like this in the UK, although we desperately need this sort of research to be done. As I've said before, Ofcom and the Office for National Statistics do some work, but it lacks the focus and detail that business and government need if they are to base decisions on evidence instead of anecdote. However, it is important when we read these reports to remember that the digital landscape is continually shifting, and we can't separate out the changes we see in online behaviour from the development of the web. As such, I'd say there is nothing that surprises me in this report, nothing that seems out of place within the wider context of technology change and adoption.

How important is Twitter to your blog's traffic stats?

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Last Friday I wrote a blog post on my own blog about The Impenetrable Layer of Suck and did what I usually do with blog posts these days: I Tweeted it. I saw a few people reTweet it, so thought I'd check my stats. This is what I saw:

How important is Twitter?

I've heard many a time from friends at Guardian Technology, who all regularly Tweet links to new articles and blog posts, that Twitter is a greater driver of traffic than Google News. I've found it to be true here as well. On days that I Tweet a link, traffic is much, much higher than days I don't.

I rarely see links from other websites listed in my referral stats, apart from my own site where there's a feed in the sidebar and weekly roundups. The decline of the trackback is an interesting, and sad, thing. They got so polluted by spammers that they became unworkable for most people and now I rarely see functioning trackbacks. Blogrolls have also fallen into disfavour, probably because they were such a pain to keep up to date and the technology to look after your blogroll didn't develop much functionality beyond very basic add/delete/sort links.

This is a shame. In the early days of blogging, I felt like I really was a part of this huge network of bloggers, all passionate about the opportunities this new technology gave us, all excited about the democratisation of publishing. Now blogs feel much more isolated from each other, less connected, less like the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. More like lone voices howling in the storm.

Twitter brings traffic, as sometimes does Facebook, but it doesn't make me feel that this blog is connected into a wider network. Whilst information flows through my network, just as it did before, that flow is mostly invisible. Twitter doesn't show me whose Tweet is sending me the traffic, it's all just a nameless wall of http://twitter.com. The network has slipped behind a veil.

It's great that Twitter brings readers, but I miss that sense of connection that my referrals stats used to bring me.

So, how important is Twitter to you, compared to other sources of traffic? Do you get most of your referrals from Twitter? Is Twitter now where you find most of your news?

IntraTeam 2010

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For any of you interested in intranets, I'm going to be talking at the IntraTeam conference in Copenhagen at the beginning of March. I'm onstage at 3.10pm on Wednesday 3rd, talking about email and how we can use social media to shift the burden of certain types of communication away from email and onto more suitable platforms.

If you're going to be there, please do come and say hello if you see me!

Listening - Connecting - Publishing

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Chris Brogan talks about a handy framework upon which to build your social media strategy:

There are three main areas of practice for social media that your company (or you) should be thinking about: listening, connecting, publishing. From these three areas, you can build out your usage of the tools, thread your information networks to feed and be fed, and align your resources for execution. There are many varied strategies you can execute using these toolsets. There are many different tools you can consider employing for your efforts. But that's the basic structure: listening, connecting, publishing.

This framework is ostensibly about external social media usage, but these concepts are just as important internally:

  • Listen to what staff what and need, and allow staff to listen to each other
  • Provide meaningful ways for staff to connect with each other
  • Allow staff to publish information in a way that makes sense to them

Does it work that way in your company?

Does your personality influence how you use the web?

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The British Psychological Society blog highlights recent research by Leman Tosun and Timo Lajunen (requires login) into personality type and internet usage:

Using Eysenck's classic personality test, Tosun and Lajunen found that students who scored high on extraversion (agreeing with statements like 'I am very talkative') tended to use the Internet to extend their real-life relationships, whereas students who scored high on psychoticism (answering 'yes' to statements like 'does your mood often go up and down?' and 'do you like movie scenes involving violence and torture?') tended to use the Internet as a substitute for face-to-face relationships. Students who scored high on psychoticism were also likely to say that they found it easier to reveal their true selves online than face-to-face. The personality subscale of neuroticism (indicated by 'yes' answers to items like 'Do things often seem hopeless to you?) was not associated with styles of Internet use.

'Our data suggest that global personality traits may explain social Internet use to some extent,' the researchers concluded. 'In future studies, a more detailed index of social motives can be used to better understand the relation between personality and Internet use.'

I wonder how long it will take for companies that use psychometric testing to add an additional "internet user type" section...

Shoot the alpha males

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I was listening to WNYC's RadioLab on the weekend, particularly the recent episode, The New Normal?. The first section was a story about a tribe of Kenyan baboons studied by Robert Sapolsky. The group got tragically infected by tuberculosis and most of the alpha males died.

Now, baboons are notoriously aggressive and when new males join a tribe, much trouble ensues. But after the death of the alpha males, a new culture took hold, one of gentleness and acceptance. When new males joined the group they were accepted much more quickly than normal. Grooming increased, especially between males. The group had changed.

Initially, it seemed that this was just a temporary effect, but now, 20 years later, the group still behaves differently to any other baboon tribe even though most of the original members are long since dead. The culture of tolerance has endured and has been passed on not just through the teaching of baby baboons, but also through the conversion of incoming adolescent males whom, it was assumed, would have brought their violent culture in with them.

I couldn't help but think of the different communities that I've been a part of over the years and the importance of first contact. What happens when you join a community influences your own behaviour there, like it or not. If someone is rude, aggressive or dismissive of you, then you are more likely to be rude, aggressive or dismissive back. When someone welcomes you to the community with warmth and openness, you return the favour to the next newbie to arrive.

Perhaps one step towards healthy online communities is to shoot all the alpha males (or females, for that matter) that barge in, beating their chest and picking fights with the youngsters. Metaphorically, of course.

Asymmetry: The problem with social networks

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Clive Thompson writes on his blog (and in Wired) about how social networks such as Twitter become dysfunctional when the network gets too big and, as a result, too lopsided:

When you go from having a few hundred Twitter followers to ten thousand, something unexpected happens: Social networking starts to break down.

This is a point I've been making for a long time, not really from personal experience but from observing various friends who have very high follower counts. Clive goes on:

Technically speaking, online social-networking tools ought to be great at fostering these sorts of clusters. Blogs and Twitter and Facebook are, as Internet guru John Battelle puts it, "conversational media." But when the conversation gets big enough, it shuts down. Not only do audiences feel estranged, the participants also start self-censoring. People who suddenly find themselves with really huge audiences often start writing more cautiously, like politicians.

When it comes to microfame, the worst place to be is in the middle of the pack. If someone's got 1.5 million followers on Twitter, they're one of the rare and straightforwardly famous folks online. Like a digital Oprah, they enjoy a massive audience that might even generate revenue. There's no pretense of intimacy with their audience, so there's no conversation to spoil. Meanwhile, if you have a hundred followers, you're clearly just chatting with pals. It's the middle ground -- when someone amasses, say, tens of thousands of followers -- where the social contract of social media becomes murky.

'Microfame' is a term I first heard used by Danny O'Brien at OpenTech 2005 in his keynote, Living Life in Public (available from the UKUUG site, embed coming soon!).

This was in an era before Twitter, before Facebook opened up to the world, when most people became 'internet famous' through their blog. But becoming 'microfamous' puts people at the centre of an uncomfortable social dynamic. As Danny said:

There are people out there who know something about you, but you have relatively little knowledge about them.

This becomes problematic because the microfamous rarely have the resources that the truly famous do to protect their privacy. But more importantly, it creates a disconnect, an unbalanced power relationship that we don't really have the societal experience to understand. Knowledge is, after all, power.

This relationship asymmetry has been amplified by Twitter especially. Twitter is a very good example of how poorly we understand these dynamics and how the tools that we create and use are not designed to take the microfame effect into account.

It's appears that there are a number of stages in the growing asymmetry of one's Twitter network. The first is when the majority of @ messages you receive come from people you don't know. That happened a while ago for me, probably at around the 2000 follower mark. Then @ messages from people you know get swamped by @ messages from people you don't. Finally, the @ messages to every last thing you say flood in, killing your ability to have a conversation with anyone and making it impossible to build connections.

I've not experienced those last two stages, but I've seen it happen to friends and it's not pretty. It puts them in a difficult position where the people @ing them feel put out that they don't get a personal reply, but the amount of time it would take to read and respond to every @ makes it extremely difficult.

This is the eternal problem of social networks. In order to be financially successful, social networks need to grow large. But in order to be socially successful, they need to stay small. Seemic was a good example of this. In the early days, it felt like a small, intimate community where one could upload a video and have a real conversation around it. As it grew, the conversational seeds, those first video uploads that broached a new subject, became so numerous that it was hard to find one's own, let alone the responses to it. In fact, it became so time-consuming to participate I had to give up.

With Twitter, the problem is just as much about the tools as the network itself. Twitter clients tend to be designed for people with small networks and don't deal well with asymmetry. Most tools, for example, have two ways to show @ messages: you can see @s from your friends in your timeline or see all @ messages lumped together, regardless of who they came from.

I've yet to see a tool (although clearly I've not used all Twitter clients) that gave you a third choice, to see all @s from people that you follow in a separate view. That would at least allow the Twitterer to focus on maintaining relationships with the people they have chosen to follow, whilst facilitating a dip into the faster-flowing stream of @s from the rest of Twitter whenever they wanted.

It might be tempting to dismiss this problem as one that only the cool kids suffer from, but that would be to miss the wider point. In some situations, creating small trusted networks with variably-permeable boundaries is key to creating a sustainable broader network. This is particularly of collaboration spaces, where you want to invite only key people to work with you, although that group may change from project to project.

(Now, you may think that Facebook achieves this, but it doesn't. It gives one the sense of being in a small sub-community without actually delivering on that promise - the boundaries are far too porous, and their porosity is not entirely under your control.)

We need to do a lot more thinking about this problem. It's relevant in a whole host of context - hot-desking enterprise, for example - and most social networks focus on creating broad opportunities for interaction without considering how to let people create natural boundaries where they feel comfortable.

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