Impromptu Podcast 41: What Are You Willing To Do?

Continuing a past topic from lovehatethings concerning the impact of social media on activism. What would it take these days for you to get off your ass and hit the streets over an issue or cause. Is clicking a mouse to join a Facebook page enough? Would friends, family, religion, or country move you to action? Lovehatethings wonders, ponders, blunders and flounders.

Tamil Toronto

Impromptu Podcast 37: Twitizen Journalism

Yeah, I can ramble a bit, but when someone says "Citizen Journalism" it kinda gets my back up a bit. It's not that I don't think the person on the street can't contribute to the ongoing dialogues and diatribes about everything from the crucial to the mundane. It's simply that, almost all the time, it ain't journalism. And with Twitter, there's even less of a chance... but I digress... give a listen.

twitter journalism

lovehate: The Online Petition

The online petition has become perhaps the most redundant form of social activism. Much like the Facebook group that can be set up for something meaningful or to talk about types of guacamole, the ease at which the online petition can be started has rendered the former effort that such an enterprise usually entailed monumental by comparison.

For the same reason that emails don't mean as much to politicians as a written letter, the online petition has become next to meaningless. It serves one purpose: education, although the same purpose could be achieved by a simple information page. The redundant act of pressing a "Join" button takes the same effort as eliminating one defunct square in a game of Minesweeper.

At least the paper petition took the time of having to listen to someone's pitch, ask one's questions and put pen to paper. There was, the sense that a commitment was in process due to the signing act that we normally attribute to contracts and marriage licenses. Traditionally our signature has been our word, our bond, our guarantee. Does any of feel the same way about clicking a "Join" button?

I'd never claim that the web hasn't been a great tool for social activism. If knowledge is power, the scope of independent media that is afforded to the average user far outranges anything that one could find in a local or national newspaper. Admittedly, the craftwork in telling the stories is mostly lacking, but the bare bones of issues and attrocities are often evident for all to see. And I certainly don't mind the Facebook Event feature that allows one to call attention to a real life rally, protest, or strike, although I'll admit the "Maybe Attending" has become my best friend in conveying the best of intentions while harboring no real commitment.

I admire those who spark interest in social issues and think the web is a great venue for fostering followers and growing a base, but if the end result is an online petition, there is a serious flaw in the effectiveness of one's political action. If over 1.7 million people made the work-intensive decision to join the uberactivist tour de force "Petition Against the New Facebook", how seriously can we really take online petitions. If a mouseclick is the end result of web activism, social justice is doomed.

But I'm really not that jaded. The social communities on the web can inspire. Those that would never have had the tools to inspire thought and critical thought now have a venue. Those that would have been doomed to a narrow view of humanity and the world, now have the ability to absorb the grand parade of lifeless packaging that is world society. Just don't let it begin and end with a click. Surely we could make it more difficult to commit to a petition than just a click. Maybe we could add audio and make people record their assent for all to hear. Perhaps we could add some calesthenics to the equation or a brain teaser or two.

I'm not sure that 1.7 million users against a new Facebook layout is any more impressive than 100 people who petition to get a new stop sign or 50 people who get a pothole filled. I do know that the work that went into getting the 100 or 50 people to commit, smacks of a greater effort and dedication than the mouseclick ever will. Here's a final thought: before you click "Join" next time, think about whether you'd put your name to paper or show up for a rally on the same cause.

Yeah, I know the above logic is all muddled. If you don't like it, go start a petition.


Podcast Thirty Nine: The 39th Step

"The 39th Step" of lovehatethings includes some ruminations on the "next" great social network, saving money on lethal injections through last meals, sleeping in a hamburger, and why I can't bring myself to care about award shows and Mac announcements.

lovehate: The "Next" Social Network

In the past few years, those of us who have been engaged in a wanderlust around Web2.0 have gone through a quick evolution of social networking platforms that included the big 3: MySpace, Facebook, and Twitter. The archetypal pattern that has developed through this continuum is telling in many ways save one - what's next?

The MySpace world was, if nothing else, a simple way for people to get the concept of adding friends and really pushed the notion of "friends" as currency. It was at this time that the first serious criticisms started to arise about people adding friends to simply build their lists. Bots were written to invite thousands upon thousands of friends. And what MySpace did better than anyone else at the time, and perhaps its remaining effective residual today, was the amalgamation of topic-specific pages for music, comedy and the like. When I first joined MySpace and created a music page, I saw it as the great equalizer in web music because my page looked exactly like Radiohead's or Beyonce's or an indie band from across town.

The interface to tweak one's page was far from elegant or intuitive however. The results often looked like a crazy mashup of early graphic browsings in Mosaic or Netscape Gold where people were experimenting in animated GIFs, frames, and blinking marquee text. In the end, MySpace started to fall under the weight of its own interface and clutter. Change was needed in terms of ease of use, customization, and intergration.

Facebook came into immense popularity through a mashup of the widgets available on MySpace, the complete lack of ability to change the basic page look, and the best aspects of old standby Classmates. By mandating a standard layout and inability to change color scheme, Facebook retained a sense of elegance that may have been achieved more through perception than execution. When you don't allow people to add hideous looking backgrounds or customize their html, things go smoother in the end. What Facebook really did right though, was to allow itself to become a hub for all social networks. You could update status, upload photos, bookmark and digg and everything would appear as an action on your Facebook status if you wanted it to. Facebook also allowed highly customizable privacy settings which drew millions of people in who may have been afraid to commit to online networking in any previous fashion.

The Facebook brand is now the largest in the world with a readily adopted cross-culture and demographic. With over 200 million users and countless pictures and video one has to imagine that there must be some success in the ad placements on your profile or I can't find the monetization. While the number of "friends" on Facebook was important, consideration was given to being more selective in that much more personal information was potentially available.

Now that the explosion of Twitter (over 1300% in the past year) has blown through the roof, patterns are starting to become discernable about what people want in a social network. Twitter had been called microblogging for a period of time, but the term has ended up being insufficient. Twitter is a social network, yet its true power is derived from its open API which has allowed third party applications to aggregate the Twitter stream. Twitter is simple - status updates, 140 characters or less. No one really cares what your Twitter profile looks like. People only care about the feed. Twitter is the TV Guide of the Internet.

Let's examine some of the continua involved here:

  • Design: MySpace = clunky and gaudy, Facebook = busy but streamlined, Twitter = mundane but irrelevant
  • Ease of use: MySpace = learning curve to do basics and customize, Facebook = easy to do basics, widget-based permission, Twitter = a chimp could use it.
  • Content Delivery: MySpace = less about message than environment, Facebook = understandable content, but an assault of it, Twitter = you've got 140 characters, learn how to shrink your urls.
  • Portability: MySpace = although you could get content to MySpace from without, not so easy the other way around, Facebook = could push content from within outwards, but became much more satisfied in trying to be the content hub, Twitter = is becoming more and more about portable content and nothing else.

And, to summarize, MySpace is dying, Facebook is a monster, and Twitter is exploding.

Seeing as we have gone through this evolution in the past few years alone, the only sure thing is that something else will come along and be the next social network of choice of geeks for two years before anyone else adopts it. What will that platform look like?

What Twitter knows, and Facebook is quickly learning, is that the key is in the API. I never used Twitter regularly until Tweetdeck. Tweetdeck allowed Twitter to become more than feeds of the followed, but a social news aggregator. Try going into Tweetdeck and typing in a person, place or thing in the news and you'll end up with thousands of bits of information from around the world. A Twitter news feed is like the hive mind, unparsed wiki. But as much as I'm praising the upstart Twitter, there is a harsh truth that will have to be faced as the service moves forward. An open API means the site and profile become essentially useless. The ability of Facebook to monetize through profile ads is far less likely to work on Twitter.

While some would like to believe Friendfeed is the next step in the evolution, I would argue that the cosmetic appeal of Friendfeed is severely lacking and there is a valid reason for people loving their compartmentalized Facebook widgets. The definitive social network of the future will need to combine the streamlining and ease of use with some of the inescapable features that a mass appeal service must have to cross demographics.

Hence, I present The Anatomy of the Next Great Social Network

  1. Web page used only for modifications, all networking occurs through standalone apps.
  2. Status updates, kept 160 characters or shorter and transferable via an open API.
  3. Fully functional mobility apps for phone and portable devices.
  4. A portal (at least) to pictures and videos which people love to have available.
  5. A friend compare and suggest feature based on existing friends and status update tags.
  6. A drop dead simple sign up and start up process.

The model that is pushing of the open source social network may not be too far off. An app like Tweetdeck could be made to have a pop-up "groups" column that could aggregate everyone you follow by an interest or common workplace. The app could sort your followers by category and allow you to do the same for a friends followers. The apps will all be different, but the network will simply be differing flavors of content that can be aggregated.

Let's face it, it all revolves around new content which is most often status updates. The ability to aggregate, parse and present the snippets of wisdom or stupidity of everyone you follow will be the key determinant of success. The customizability will determine which app wins the platform war. The question remaining, is will the architects of the network allow others to profit from using their backbone in an independent application. Just as productivity applications are moving into the browser, social networks must start to move away from the browser into their own space. Such content is no longer a function of html, but rather Java, Python, and Air.

lovehate: Footnote to Favicon

Media authority is getting winnowed.

Even just within the world of the web we've moved from longer form blog entries to shorter form commentaries to microblogging. There has been a persistent belief, since our formalized education, that opinions should be backed up by proof or some other substantiative measure. Such examples used to be in the form of quotations with carefully constructed footnotes and bibliographies all meant to validate the expertise of our sources and the wisdom we showed in choosing them. There was an expectation that if one backed up an opinion from several so-called experts with innumerable of degrees after their names, that the opnion became valid. Authority was reduced to our effectiveness to parse the researched opinions of others and, in turn, call it research ourselves.

Blogging reduced the opinion authority down to a buy-in on the blogger's established integrity, established through experience, or some percevied experience found through a Technorati rating or the like. Opinions didn't have to be so much established as simply linked up to other opinions that, in themselves, were largely unsubstantiated. The authority of a blogger's opinion was given leeway as we expected more entertainment and information than hard facts. We didn't, and still don't, read blogs for news. We read for insight, and the currency that is not evident on most major news outlets anymore. After all, how often does CNN talk about tech gadgets or iPhone apps? Blogger authority was reduced to link selection and how many people linked back to you.

The explosion of microblogs has reduced authority even further because 140 characters offers little more than a sentence with an attached link. What we are left with is an implied opinion that can be gleaned only by a perceived "thumbs up" or "thumbs down" on the link's efficacy. But ingesting information from microblogs is often an exercise in profound filtering as one has to suffer through lifecasting and other such minutae. Not that there isn't a place for those things within the microblog environment, but when searching for information and authority, it seems like most of the credence we are willing to give a tweet or like entry is through what we assume the tweeter is trying to say, instead of what they are actually saying. A funny thing happens though with the persistent use of url shrinking utilities. With shrunken web addresses, it's become impossible to know the source before you actually go there. Relative web and domain experience gets rendered useless when trying to determine most microblog authority. Much of any positive or negative expectation comes down to the microblogger's avatar.

And so we move from footnote to links to avatar with the ultimate reduction in newsfeeds and the shortcuts that take you there from your row favicons on your browser's bookmark bar. A small pixellated area of real estate becomes the annotated bibliography of your life. Where the grad student still spends months putting together annotated bibliographies for research topics, we have reduced years of research to tiny graphics. If anyone asked you to rate or assign a value to any of those favicons, you could probably talk for minutes or hours on each one. You could rate their effectiveness, efficiency and usefulness to you in your daily browsing. Authority for you has been reduced to a small pixel box that guides your day to day web experience.