Twitter Needs Trial Follows

I wish social media services had a trial function at the user level. I'd like to be able to follow someone on a 'try it and see' basis. Ideally that would be the default behaviour. After a week or a month I'd be prompted – "have you enjoyed following this person?" – and given a choice about whether to continue to follow them. That way I wouldn't have ended up following 400 people on Twitter and finding my stream boring and overwhelming. My stream would consist of the core group of people who I enjoy following. Same idea with Tumblr, Instagram, etc.

I think this would be good for everyone. Particularly for businesses and artists – people looking to use social media to grow their audience – since they wouldn't simply be looking to acquire new followers but to actively keep them. Everyone would need to be more entertaining, insightful, and interesting.

Twitter and Conference Rage

[NOTE: this post originally appeared on Datachondria, a blog dedicated to technology, data, and modern life.]

An interesting post by Michael Fienen about David Galper's keynote presentation at a recent HighEdWeb conference -- and the Twitter backchannel that resulted (it starts at 12pm).

Twitter allows two things to happen very well: mobs feed on themselves, and the slippery slope gets very steep and extremely slick. There’s also the snowballing analogy... Bottom line, there was a lack of respect for the topic, a clear void in researching the audience, and just bad presentational ability. A perfect storm, if you will. And once the tweeting started, it simply became more fun to be in the stream than put up with the presentation. In a way, it was less about being snarky towards the speaker, and more about amusing each other by sharing and exaggerating the pain.

We touched on this a few months ago: the idea that Twitter is, as yet, a social space largely unregulated by norms of behaviour. There are further thoughts elsewhere about this particular example and some possible lessons: are we moving from a model of passive consumption in conferences to one of active participation? Does the 'unconference' model so successfully employed by, for example, BookCamp Vancouver last week, provide more value to attendees? Has the burden changed from audiences (to pay attention to the presenters) to presenters (to better know their audiences)?

In Twitter, No One Can See You Being Rude

[NOTE: this post originally appeared on Datachondria, a blog dedicated to technology, data, and modern life.]

The guy at the back will be on Twitter when the Powerpoint starts

A number of people have remarked recently that the environment in which someone can switch from being a Twitter neophyte to a true believer is a business conference. Conferences give Twitter users the opportunity to provide commentary (and factual corrections) to what is being presented; to provide updates to a remote audience; and to engage with one another on a number of levels from professional networking to semi-anonymous flirtation.

It's fascinating that the feeling of a 'back channel' can provoke not only a more open and participatory discussion, but can also license behavior that would otherwise be frowned upon. A 'kids at the back of the class' mentality can develop, wherein the shortcomings of the presenter's style or of the venue are called out. These kinds of things would not be considered appropriate if they involved passing notes or calling across the room. But Twitter doesn't just make these things surreptitiously possible; it is also so new that the ground-rules for social behavior have not yet been established.

But part of it may be that the medium itself allows such a broad variety of messages that social norms can never become established.

Within this, of course, lies that rather tedious discussion about the extent to which one's online identity -- masked by some measure of anonymity (or, at least, not-there-ness) -- can exist distinct of one's "real-world" identity. But it's telling that several newcomers to Twitter ask questions about whether they should establish separate accounts for personal and professional identities. That's part of the appeal of a Facebook app like Selective Twitter: it allows you to filter your output for potentially different audiences.

But as you spend more time with Twitter, it becomes clear that people's expectations of the media are that it provide a constant mixture of personal and professional. It isn't at all unusual for you to learn what a business contact ate for dinner, or to read a friend filtering a technical business conference. Part of that is the openness of the platform: you can choose who to follow, be it Neil Gaiman or your best friend. With that range of participants, what kinds of social rule set could we collectively agree to apply?

These are, of course, just a handful of the social reasons for Twitter's popularity, quite distinct from its more frequently cited technical adaptability. It provokes an extra level of interaction that simply didn't -- couldn't -- exist before. And it may remain, to some extent, permanently wild.

And I Don't Much Want Your Business Card Either

[NOTE: this post originally appeared on Datachondria, a blog dedicated to technology, data, and modern life.]

For various reasons too boring to get into, I've been handed an awful lot of business cards over the last few months. It was a relief, while attending BookCamp Toronto a couple of weeks ago, to escape the day w entirely ithout any of those sorry floppy items being apologetically proffered. I felt like some kind of temporary respite had been granted from my tenure in an extended episode of Life on Mars. What was behind it, of course, was that most of the participants at BookCamp had made the leap that something like Twitter is not just an improvement on Cro Magnon technologies like email, but geological epochs ahead of the Neanderthal business card.

That's not just because you have to carry business cards around and remember to input them into some kind of storage system later (usually, let's be honest, the desk drawer). And it's not just because, while they are occasionally gorgeous, creative, and inspiring, business cards usually showcase the most appalling and amateurish use of appalling and amateurish typefaces like Comic Sans. Let's not even mention the clip art.

No: these folks didn't give out business cards because exchanging contact details is, counter-intuitively, pretty much the worst way to go about developing contacts. It places an enormous burden upon first impressions and upon your powers of recall. Is that person you met several months ago at a technology conference really the right person to email about the idea you have just had at work? Did the person seem reliable and personable? Can I glean some insight into either of these questions from the sorry-looking creased piece of tree bark in front of me? Probably not. So I just won't bother.

The barriers of the medium just prevented me from getting something done.

Following someone new on Twitter, by contrast, allows you to enter their orbit -- to see what they think on the topics which, presumably, are of some shared interest. And, because of the mixture of personal and professional that Twitter allows, permits, and almost requires, you can develop some sense of whether their approach to life is likely to be conducive to yours. It will also allow you to get a glimpse into this new person's ability to engage (and survive) in a medium that allows all of that to happen. Does this person seem good at managing multiple streams of their life -- and maintaining the contacts necessary to do so?

You can then use Twitter to continue to lurk until an opportunity presents; to participate in a public conversation which by default is a casual interaction requiring less formal follow up; or to contact them privately via a direct message.

What's more, because there is only a single piece of information -- the username directly associated with you -- you don't risk losing every potential contact the moment that your phone number changes and those pieces of card you so diligently distributed become, everywhere, instantly, obsolete. (For those who simply can't live without lines and lines of personal contact information that you have to remember to update whenever they change, you may want to check out twtBizCard.)

In short, exchanging contact details is a waste of time. Don't give me a list of fourteen different means to contact you and try to entice me into doing it via some showy logo design. Give me access to your orbit. I'll take it from there.

First thing tomorrow morning, destroy your business cards. Let's make a stand.

Don't Tell Me Your Email Address

[NOTE: this post originally appeared on Datachondria, a blog dedicated to technology, data, and modern life.]

An interesting generational moment (one of many, to be entirely honest) at BookCamp Toronto yesterday. At the end of one session, the panel made a plea for all concerned to share any ideas, practices, or projects that might overlap with (or contribute to) the initiative that the team had spend the last 50 minutes outlining. A member of the audience asked for the resource at which this sharing would take place.

One of the panel members pointed to the email address that he had pinned to the wall about fifteen minutes earlier.

There was an awkward collective silence -- one of those "ah, what?" moments -- as everyone realized that, yes, that email address (an email address) was going to be the conduit for idea-sharing and contact management for the project.

Email is a terrible media for this kind of thing, and to this crowd -- a significant proportion of which had their Twitter usernames pinned to their chests through the day -- it carried a heavy implicit message. Email is not only a closed hatch, behind which activity is invisible, but it also suggests a very distinct model of information management. By emailing your information or ideas to someone, you are putting yourself at their disposal. It's a private communication vessel -- entirely inappropriate to a public plea for information sharing, and implicitly antithetical to an open source model of participatory innovation. And it's completely dependent on the recipient's ability to efficiently manage their inflow of information -- not something that most people are good at.

Twitter, to pick only the most obvious contrast, may allow for private 'direct messaging', but it is a public medium. The default means of a conversation -- the @ reply syntax -- makes the dialogue visible for all to see.

Positioning your email address as a the place at which I should post my ideas or contact details requires that I trust you to efficiently do the following things:

  1. Receive and record my information.
  2. Understand it completely, not only within the terms which I used to express it, but in all the possible implications it might carry for other people coming from a complete diversity of backgrounds.
  3. Distribute it to the most suitable members of the community.
  4. Do all of the above in a timeframe that is most appropriate to my ideas and best rewards my sense of engagement with the project.
  5. Warehouse all of that information in such a way that you can repeat steps 1-4 if someone new comes to the table later whose ideas and identity might have a fruitful relationship to my own.

In short, you're asking me to bet on your superhuman efficiency to understand information in all its possible permutations and maintain an encyclopedic knowledge of the network. But for most people of my generation that just isn't how we're used to interacting with the world. We like the instant public archiving of the internet (including the kudos and bragging rights that that provides), and the distributed networking that exposure to the crowd allows. In short, we'd rather rely on a network to do the things that a network does well.

I can understand that the team at this presentation might not yet have had time to put together a robust software solution (a forum? wiki?) at which open participation might take place. But a Twitter username or hashtag would have been better -- much better -- than someone's email address. Particularly when the topic was technological innovation. You guys know that email is 40 years old, right?