lovehate: Social Search and the Law of Diminishing Discovery

Ask not for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for Serendipity.

While I've posted on a similar topic before, I found last week's announcements regarding Google's social search and Bing's full pipe search of Twitter and Facebook APIs cool, yet, at the same time, also a bit disconcerting.

In as much as one the greatest downfalls of early search algorithms was the assault of flotsam that was returned with every query, it is precisely an aspect of that muddled result that I fear losing. A great characteristic of the early graphic web was serendipity. 

We're talking Web 1.0 here. It was a time before the great permeation of referral engines and aggregators, when a reader had to scour through fathoms of muck and mire NOT to find something good, but often just to find something of interest. If it was good, that was an added bonus.

There were regular occurrences of finding fantastic useful and interesting stuff, that enabled you to expand your horizons and knowledge, which had nothing to do with your original search term. Such is one of the great benefits of raw research; you don't only hope to find what you're looking for, you hope to find a whole bunch of other bizarre, eclectic, and brilliant knowledge as well. Click this webpage randomizer link five times and tell me that, by the end, you haven't learned something.

When Social Network algorithms become integrated into your average Google or Bing query, your results will be throttled tighter than they ever have before. And I'll be the first to acknowledge that's probably what most people want. We love the idea of not having to wade through the morass of Web 1.0 where it sometimes took hours to find what we wanted. We lust after authority-based aggregation and recommendations that will point us in the right direction so that the content-drenched world of Web 2.0 won't swallow us whole.

There is a little part of me, however, that enjoyed the search and the discovery that went along with it. There is a piece of my brain that expanded by being forced to make connections in wondering why, when I queried one term, would I get a result that included this specific link. Don't we all have a small part of our brain that yearns for the open road, not caring where we're going or how we get there; productivity be damned! Don't we wish that upon being asked "where you goin'", we could just say "not here"?

One of the things I love doing is going to a site like StumbleUpon and doing random "stumbles". But, even then, they aren't completely random. They are a subset of the users of service, who, by themselves, are a generally pretty savvy group of web users. It is still fun nonetheless.

The search tools are necessary. There are plenty of times that I need to really find something, and swimming around in the trillions of bits and bytes of information trying to find one piece would be useless and foolhardy. It's the evolving pattern that is beginning to scare me a bit. The pattern dictates that as information multiplies, search results become more focused.

When static web pages ruled, results were more widely varied, partially due to the fact that web communities were less automatic and SEO was above the head of the average Geocities or Lycos user.

When social networks emerged and blogging ballooned, subjective content resulted an exponential explosion that threatened to muddy up you average search, but, conveniently enough, technology allowed the results to get even better. SEO, easy tagging, and a more educated internet-savvy content creator was being bred, and we found what we needed easier.

As "social search" and like-minded approaches start to filter into user habits, every search will now pass through yet another filter, distilling the purest result to the end user. This is great for answers. This is a boon to productivity. This is what everyone wants when they search for something. This is what I want when I search for something. But has serendipity died online? Does filtering a search through ever-increasingly effective algorithms which factor in popularity, and adding a filter of authority based on a list of people I have on Facebook or Twitter allow me to expand my horizons or does it effectively quash them.

If you walked into a bookstore and in the first room there was only one shelf with "Books You Will Like", would you be tempted to forage beyond the curtain at the back of store to see what's being hidden?

Maybe it's just the adventurer in me, but sometimes I like the open road, even with the occasional undercooked Stuckey's chicken and glaring billboards for adult stores and firework warehouses.

thinglets: The United Colors of Facefeed

With news today that Facebook has fed on Friendfeed, I suppose the only question left to ask is will everyone FINALLY hear about Friendfeed now? At least I’m sure the cable news will report it… if they can tie it to Twitter.

Our hope: that the new amalgamation will be called Facefeed, because Facebook has essentially become the junkfood of social networking anyway (I would say MySpace, but they’ve dropped to the dollar store canned food of the genre). And since we love nothing better than to FEED OUR FACE, I propose we all bow down to our new Lord of Timesuck: FACEFEED!

lovehate: Tension and Release in Social Media


In exploring the archetypes of any media (and especially entertainment media) I like to think that there are fairly common standards in which my emotions are tugged at for enjoyment's sake. Though the paradigm can be exercised in many ways, depending on the medium, I like to simplify the pattern by commonly calling it "Tension and Release".

In music, tension and release can occur in many ways. Sometimes it's a musician simply playing with volume. Think of the grunge standard of the quiet verse followed by the loud chorus ala Smells Like Teen Spirit or Creep. While these examples are very basic approaches to tension and release (T&R) volume, made effective by immediate contrast, slow builds culminating in auditory climaxes have been around from early drumming to classical to jazz to rock. But music also allows for T&R through harmony and dissonance, varying speeds, rhythmic complexity and simplicity, and varying tonal densities. How many people have had cerebral orgasms upon hearing the cutting single guitar bend that breaks through repetitive vamp of a chord progression?

The basic concepts of T&R extend to novels, films, poetry, visual arts, and basically any other sensory media. It's why the action film often inserts comic relief. 120 minutes of non-stop action eventually becomes wallpaper without contrast in the same way that thrash metal bands have to consider some sense of dynamics if they don't wish to become redundant.

So, I ask myself the question. If most (maybe all) of enjoyable entertainment consumption contains T&R, where does paradigm fit, if at all, with Social Media or Networking. While set pieces like songs, films, and novels have, at their core, a sense of time constraint that contributes to the anticipatory set that one comes to the medium with, what which set do we approach Social Media?

The problems that arise in applying such parameters (and I'll fully admit the marriage of this paradigm may seem forced with SM) lie in the multi-pronged creative approach to the content output. It's kind of like a freeform jazz odyssey with musicians from virtuoso's to drunken karaoke performers. But I think the tools have offered some parallels that help to form the T&R of Social Media.

Twitter is the noisy, fast, guitar solo full of notes that run the gamut of multi-octave scales. Facebook is the dissonant amalgam of everything we want and don't want at the same time. Seesmic is the sample ripped from another artist and dropped in to the pastiche of sound. Youtube is the brief respite leaving the cacophony of sound behind for a time... well, to be replaced by other sound anyway. And blogs are the deep sweeping textures and swaths of sound that allow us to escape for periods of time and consume by... reading. How can all of these content creators possibly orchestrate anything so intentional as an artisitic process like T&R? They don't - you do.

In the ultimate vindication of "reader response" theories, we inherently mix or consumption to achieve appropriate T&R. I could just use Twitter all day or watch Youtube clips or sift through pictures of people's kids in Facebook. I can, however, mix and match, often by instinct to achieve the ebb and flow that best suit my sensibility. Because like anything, there is an "artistic" component if you fly high enough or zoom in enough.

And if you haven't bought any of this, consider the experience of reading it nothing more than the the long sustained notes of a Klaus Schulze composition or the outer movements of Shine On You Crazy Diamond. You may now return to the metal solo.

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

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.