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Observations on Everything

Enough with the Omnibus Petitions

I’m getting really tired of online petitions that act like omnibus bills. The title says “Stop X” and I happen to think “Stop X” is a darn fine idea, but then you get to the actual text and it’s “Stop X, Build more Y, Change Z, and unionize everyone”.

That’s one less signature for “Stop X”, right there. We hate it when legislators pull this crap, maybe you should consider not doing the same thing in your petitions. Stick to a single issue.

How You Can Fix Facebook Right Now

Facebook like. Credit Sean MacEntee (Flickr) CC-SAMany people have noticed that they’re missing the posts they’d like to see on Facebook. This is because Facebook has implemented an algorithm for “Top Stories” that uses their version of what you want to see instead of yours.

This algorithm is heavily influenced by “likes” from people in your social network, but it’s also biased toward content that you are more likely to interact with, favouring Pages updates with images over text-only ones (see Socialmedia Today).

There are several problems with this. Most critically the algorithm can bury the human interactions that attracted people to Facebook in the first place; a closed cycle of “likes” can cause a news feed to become more and more focused on a single viewpoint by not displaying information that challenges “liked” content; and pages you are interested in may never show up if your network doesn’t share the same interest.

Facebook offers a “most recent” sort order that looks like it will address this, but that too is broken. First, it’s most recent activity on a post, so if someone adds a comment to something originally posted in 2010, there it is at the top of your feed. Second, it’s still filtered for things you’re likely to interact with!

Why is this the case? Revenue. If a brand (or even a person) wants to ensure they show up in their feed, they can just pay to have it bumped. There’s an excellent explanation of this on YouTube.

But the good news is it can be fixed, at least until the folks at Facebook determine that too many of us are using it and find a rationale for turning it off: Interest Lists. This is how you set it up:

Facebook InterestsOn the left hand side of the web interface you’ll see a little-noticed heading for “Interests”. click on “Add Interests”.

This will take you to a page that lists a number of preset interests. But up in the upper right of the centre column, there’s a “Create list” button:

Create list button

Click on everything you want to actually see. Each selected page will be highlighted with a box and a check mark. Tip: this is a great time to not select all those pages that you have no interest in but felt compelled to like because a friend sent you an invite; they’ll never know.

Pages selection in interest list

Do the same with the Following and Friends lists, then press Next. There’s no way to do a select all, so this can take some time. This gives you the save panel. Give your list a name, set the visibility to “only me” (unless you want to see which friends/pages you ignored; probably not a good thing).

Interests save panel

Now your new list shows up in the “Interests” section. Click on it, and voila! You now have a Facebook that reflects your interests, not the posts that make them the most money.

Props to my long time friend Mark Leenders for discovering this technique!

Wine Writers Behaving Badly, the Natalie MacLean Story

Let me start this with full disclosure. Although I am not a member of the wine writing community, I have close ties to it. I have a business relationship with two of the writers who have complained about theft of their content, and I know several more personally. Additionally I have business and personal relationships with several small wineries and winemakers.

I’m also a wanna-be writer, although not in the field of wine journalism, or more accurately in the field of writing about wine. I say that because calling some of this “journalism” would be an insult to the word, even the watered-down definition that has emerged in the Internet age.

Natalie MacLean stands accused of appropriating wine reviews from other writers, reproducing excerpts without permission or acknowledgement. The details can be found on this article from Palate Press. Interestingly, another set of allegations emerges in the comments, but that’s for others to pursue. Read more

Six Degrees of Redirection

This is a story of feature creep. We started with an idea that was truly useful: link shortening services. These services allowed people to take bloated SEO-laden links (like the ones on this blog) and reduce them to compact links under 20 characters. Perfect for pasting into an e-mail, even better for a length-limited Tweet.

But link shortening isn’t rocket science, and I’m guessing even the US Patent and Trademark Office thought the idea too obvious for a patent (I mention this only because that in itself is an anomalous achievement, but I won’t digress into another patent rant here). So competitors emerged pretty quickly. How do you distinguish yourself in the link shortening business? Simple, add statistics! (BTW “statistics” is the plain old boring word for “analytics”, which is a made-up crapword designed to fool marketers into thinking they’re not doing math).

Then after statistics, some brain cell thought up the idea of loading the target window in a frame, adding a “value-added” toolbar. Not that the value add was provided to the user, who got to lose a little screen space and not see the actual target URL, but for the person providing the link, who presumably could track minutiae like how long you spent on some page.

Next, services hopped onto the bandwagon. Twitter, Facebook, RSS feed aggregators and others all started adding a link-shortening, information gathering layer to any links posted on their sites.

So now we have a link on Twitter that goes to a short link generated by the author of the tweet. The author of the tweet has copied a link found on Facebook, which then redirects to a short link to a blog aggregation that goes to the bloggers short link that then goes to the post.

Six degrees of redirection. Each one making the web more brittle, more subject to the loss of an intermediary, less permanent, less connected. Every time one of these services goes out of business, hundreds of useful connections between content will get lost forever. None of this is good.

Audience: The Social Media Killer

I’ve been engaged with social media since forever. Always found it fascinating, even exciting. I really like Twitter. Now Quora seems interesting, but in a semi-social-media sort of way. There’s a bit of a shift happening. A lot of “early adopters” have been doing the Quora thing for a while and now it’s on the upswing of that familiar knee function of exponential growth.

Meanwhile, Twitter seems a little less vibrant. Is it because all the cool kids are playing with Quora? Partially. After all anyone with a real job only has so much time to dicker with this stuff, unless you’re a rare beast: a Professional Social Media Guru that’s a real job. So maybe Twitter is a little less shimmering with excitement because really interesting people are spending less time on it.

But that isn’t all. That only explains part of it. Read more

Social Media: Why Facebook; Why Twitter?

As either a younger member of the boomer generation, or an older member of Gen-X, I’m a member of a big demographic that seems to have a hard time understanding social media. The most common reaction I get to mentioning something on Facebook is “I will never have a Facebook account!”

I realize now that part of the bad reputation that social media has with middle-aged adults is due to the fact that most of these people are parents, and everything they know about social media sites has come from their kids.

This led me to a great insight. Good social media sites are malleable to individual users, and that’s what makes them so powerful. I am certain that my Facebook experience is vastly different from that of your average teenager’s, and that’s a good thing.

A middle-aged friend recently asked me about Facebook and Twitter, with the subtext “I don’t ‘get’ either of them.” I’ve reworked my response a bit in hope that it will be helpful to others:

The main purpose of Facebook is to get found by people you already know but have lost touch with, think of the people you would invite to a high school reunion. Simple as that. It’s also good for keeping up on the big stream of small things that winds up being news in a nominally mundane life. It works well if you’re not “always on” the net. You can pop in every week or so and catch up. If you ignore the clever little time-wasting applications and notification noise, it’s a useful tool. In short, Facebook is good at making an electronic link to people you already know.

Twitter is much more geared to making new connections and is really something for those of us who are “on the ‘net” most of the time. What it’s best at is finding new clever people, and getting breaking news. Information travels very quickly in Twitter, and to a large extent it’s filtered to the interests of the people you follow, which means you get more information about the things you care about. As a writer, it’s also superb at making you edit things down. The 140 character limit is brutal, but it enforces the practice of a clarity that can carry into other writing.

So how did I do? Is there anything else that “defines” these sites?

“Word of Mouth” + Campaign = Oxymoron

With the rise of social media sites and services (Myspace, Facebook, Twitter, and so on), a whole new field of “Social Marketing Expert” has been created. Aside from the obvious fact that it’s hard to be a credible expert in a relatively new domain, the silliness of some of these “experts” is laughable.

By far the best of this bunch are those who have been discredited elsewhere and are hoping that their bankrupt strategies can somehow find new life in a new medium. It may be true that “the medium is the message”, but sometimes the message sucks universally and thus transcends all media.

The prime example here is “word of mouth” marketers. These aren’t the people who say, quite correctly, that word of mouth is the most powerful form of marketing communication anyone can get, but those who figure that somehow word of mouth is a tool, something that can be created out of thin air.

Surely manufactured word of mouth has been sufficiently discredited that we don’t have to bear through more ill-advised campaigns in the social media space. Is there anyone still doing the “paid shill” scam, where people are paid to go into public spaces and talk up specific products? Have sufficient bloggers been roasted over online flames for accepting money in exchange for talking up products? Apparently not.

So get ready for a (hopefully brief) onslaught of bull masquerading as recommendations. It will be easy to spot, let’s take a look at a quick example:

Slimeball: Good morning.
You: Good morning Slimeball, what’s the weather like over there?
Slimeball: Pretty good, it’s a great day for DumbProduct!
You: So, it’s warm and sunny or something?
Slimeball: Actually it’s raining quite heavily, perfect for DumbProduct.
You: I see, and how are the kids?
Slimeball: They’re happy, thanks to DumbProduct.
You: Just hold on a second while I block you and write a negative blog post about DumbProduct’s unethical marketing techniques.

Bottom line: if you’re a marketer don’t do this. Just don’t. Build genuine word of mouth by delivering a great product and providing great service. Encourage your customers to talk about you, but please, never cross the line and start trying to pay for it. No good can come from this.

A List of Twitter Types

I’ve been “hanging out” on Twitter for about three weeks now. My interactions with it have evolved quite a bit over that time.

When I first got on, my attitude was “what’s the point?” That became “okay, so this is the best part of Facebook minus the dumb applications and a lot of FB’s cool-but-useless user interface.” But along with this functionality came a challenging signal to noise ratio. How can you decide who to follow? It’s certainly not by popularity. Some of the most followed accounts are little more than posts of the form “(hook text) (external link) more on (topic) at (posters_site).” In other words, “Here’s something vaguely interesting on a topic we cover. Hopefully the first link will generate the expectation that our site has even more useful information, and you’ll start using us as a source.”

If that’s all Twitter had to offer, I’d be gone by now. But despite the noise, there’s quality in the signal when you find it. I have interacted with people with unquestionable intelligence, people with expertise in interesting areas, and people with humour and insight. Twitter is also undeniably a superb source for news, both global and local.

The other problem is that few of us are consistently brilliant, so even on an individual level there’s no telling how many mundane posts you’ll have to read before encountering the gem that makes it worthwhile.

So I have developed a list of user types for Twitter that I use as a guideline when deciding who to follow:

  • The “I am a Channel” type is interested in their follower count above all else. Every post they make returns to a gateway on their site, so they can pump up their traffic stats. Some are more subtle, but the ultimate goal is to make their web properties a destination.
  • The “monetize” type is intent on convincing you that they know how to monetize your online presence. Inevitably this leads you to a pitch for their e-books and/or training courses. Somehow I get the feeling that these people are all modern equivalents of the “Make $1 Million from Classified Ads” artists. why do I get the feeling that the way you monetize is by selling e-books telling people how to monetize?
  • The “I am a social media maven” type — which is distinct from an actual social media expert — is a variation on “monetize”. All you have to do is buy/subscribe, and they’ll show you how to get to the top of the social media heap. By and large, these folks would fare far better if fewer of them appeared to be laid off auto workers living in their mother’s basements. The ones who seem to have some class wind up being the ones who value connections above all else. As I’ve said before, there’s something unsettling about “hook up with me on LinkedIn as a trusted source, even if I don’t know you from a serial killer”.
  • The “random link” type finds purportedly interesting information and tweets it with a useless explanation, as in “wonderful (link)”. I suppose that somewhere out there, the simple act of posting makes the link worthwhile, but in my experience so far, 85% of the links go to stuff that is old, dull, boring, or just plain not interesting. A complete waste of time. Explain what’s interesting about the link, please.
  • The “topic feed” type usually picks a well-defined topic to post about and either relates facts about that topic or posts links with information relevant to the topic. Focus is the key to success here. If the topic is pig farming, it no good can come from posting random comments on abstract art.
  • The “expert” type goes one better than the topic feed. These are people with a real interest and some expertise in their field, and they regularly post observations and insights along with the “topic feed” fare. A significant number of posts from these people reference original content that hey have compiled or authored.
  • The “personality” type is someone who has a real world profile and is using Twitter as another channel for communicating to their audience. Think Obama.
  • The “community” type is a member of a smaller community that uses Twitter to keep up to date. This is what Twitter seems to have originally been designed for. Some of these communities have “personality” types, who have a significant profile in within the scope of that community.
  • The “shared mundanity” type posts nothing but tidbits from their life. As in “listening to x while doing y”. There’s a fine line here. Much of the charm of Twitter is getting a snapshot into other people’s lives, but we don’t need the whole film; odds are that you’re just not that interesting. If none of these posts have any meaning, if they don’t transcend mere observation, then the unfollow button is not far away.

The real challenge here is that most people exhibit a mix of these types, and probably a few more that I haven’t identified yet. Twitter is all about constructing your own community and becoming a part of it. It’s social media at its most fascinating.