Tag: social networking (page 1 of 2)

Twitter, algorithms, and digital dystopias

Introduction

My apologies for the long post. I’m channeling my inner Mark Twain when I say I didn’t have time to write a shorter one.

I woke up this morning to a couple of great links shared by John Johnston on Twitter. Don’t Be a Platform Pawn by Alan Levine led me to Frank Chimero’s From the Porch to the Street and then onto a post about The Evaporative Cooling Effect which, in turn, cites this paper.  The other link, Waffle on Social Media took me to a post called Community Services which led to What’s a Twitter Timeline?

What did we used to do before Twitter?

The first time I came across John would have been in the 2004-5 academic year, I reckon, when I started blogging. This was a pre-Twitter time, a time when Facebook and YouTube had only just been invented. We used RSS readers like Bloglines, and Technorati (then a blog search engine) a was a big deal. Back in those days it was easier to sort the signal from the noise as I could literally follow everyone’s blog that I wanted to read. As you would expect, this number grew exponentially over the years and, by the time Google Reader shut down, the number of unread articles I was faced with numbered in their thousands. This, I believe, is what Clay Shirky calls filter failure.

So, although I know of people (like Stephen Downes) who are notable exceptions, we collectively swapped our RSS readers for easier-to-manage, and less guilt-inducing social streams such as those provided by Facebook, Twitter, and (later) Google+. These services made it more acceptable not to keep up – and provided a way, in the form of Like, Favourites, and +1’s, for the most popular content to bubble to the surface.

I’m not being facetious when I say that Twitter had a helping hand in me landing my last three jobs. In particular, the 2009 interview where I mobilised my followers to show the panel how powerful the network can be remains my all-time favourite example. But Twitter has changed since I joined it in 2007.

How we are now

What’s so problematic about all of this, of course, is that whereas we used to be in charge of our own reading habits, we’ve outsourced that to algorithms. That means software with shareholders is dictating our information environment. I have to admit that sometimes this works really well. For example, although I’d prefer greater transparency around the algorithm that powers Zite, it consistently surfaces things that I care about and otherwise would have missed. Other times, and especially in the light of Twitter’s changes to the way favourites are used, it makes me more wary about using the service. And don’t even get me started on Facebook.

I’m at the point where I have a love/hate relationship with Twitter. It’s so useful for me in terms of keeping my finger on the pulse of the sectors I’m involved in. However, especially at this time of year, I can become overwhelmed and I can’t see the (human) wood for the (technological) trees. Frank Chimero pretty much nailed it:

This may be overstating or overthinking the situation. Twitter is just a website. Yet, I can point to many opportunities, jobs, and (most importantly) friendships that sprung from it. Some married friends met on Twitter. It’s tempting to give an importance to the service for those of us who joined early and were able to reap these benefits, but that doesn’t mean Twitter needs to stick around forever. It matters. Or mattered. To me, I’m unsure which just yet.

How we might be in the future

During the height of the Web 2.0 boom, there were a plethora of services vying for attention and users. People jumped between these based on a small pieces, loosely joined approach. The thing that tied everything together 10 years ago was your domain name, which was your identity on the web. Nowadays, even I link to people’s Twitter accounts rather than their domains when I’m blogging about them.

It’s all very well saying that other social networks will come along to take their place, but will they? Really? In an age of megacorps? I’m skeptical. So perhaps we need a different approach. Something like Known, perhaps, or a service we can own and install ourselves that allows us to personalise our online experience rather than monetise it for shareholders. It’s heartening to see that the publication of The Circle by Dave Eggers seems to have made us question the sprint towards a digital dystopia.

As a parent, the mindset that goes with social networking concerns me. One thing I notice every year when emerging from my yearly (and grandly-named) Belshaw Black Ops period is how shallow my thinking is when I’m doing so in tweet-length morsels. It’s easy to think that I’m ‘doing it wrong’ and that I should use different services, but  what I think we need is a different approach. Perhaps I should be advocating POSSE, as championed by the Indie Web Camp folks. This stands for Publish (on your) Own Site, Syndicate Elsewhere. However, it seems a touch reactionary rather than future-facing. People don’t comment on blogs like they used to, so I’d miss out on a boatload of interaction with people from around the world.

Conclusion

Twitter is a company listed on the stock exchange. So is Facebook. And Google. Pinterest will be soon. In fact, every successful social space is, or is likely to end up being a monolithic corporation. As such, they need to provide shareholder value which, given the web’s current dominant revenue model, is predicated on raising advertising dollars. Raising the kind of money they need depends upon user growth, not necessarily upon serving existing users. After all, if they’ve provided the space where all your friends and contacts hang out, you’re kind of locked in.

OK, that’s enough. I’ll end this overly-long post with a quotation from Jesper, the author of Community Services:

Social media has come to symbolize, for me, the tyranny of having to appear relevant, visible and clean to everyone else, the inability to define my own boundaries and the uncertainty about what’s going to happen tomorrow to the fundamental structure of this tool that I’m using – all the while someone either makes money off of me or adds to the looming amorphousness trying to stay afloat.

You don’t have to share these fears, but that’s why I’m writing this on hosting space I pay for myself on a domain I own myself. Not because I relish absolute control over every bit. Not because of personal branding. Not because I am a huge nerd (I am a huge nerd because I write these kinds of articles and quote Douglas Adams in them). I do it because it’s the worst alternative, except for all the others.

Image CC BY-SA Jennie

Why I’ve just closed my LinkedIn account

Update (February 2015): I’ve resurrected my LinkedIn account. Here’s why.

If you’ve ever read the Freakonomics book – or better yet, listened to the excellent podcast – then you’ll know about the sunk cost fallacy:

Sunk costs… influence actors’ decisions because humans are prone to loss aversion and framing effects.

I’ve had a Gmail account ever since I was able to get my hands on an invite – yet I decided to move away recently. Likewise, I’ve had a LinkedIn account since the beginning, but today I closed my account. Just because you’ve used something for a long time and become used to it doesn’t mean it’s still the best option right now.

Here’s my three main reasons for closing my LinkedIn account:

  1. Spammy emails – I’ve tried my best to stop these, but it’s almost impossible. Enough is enough.
  2. I want to own my professional identity – I’m not interested in ‘endorsements’. I’m interested in people finding out about me in spaces I fully control.
  3. The zeitgeist – there’s a growing backlash to LinkedIn. I noticed Audrey Watters deleted her account recently, and then there’s the fact that the company is being taken to court.

So it’s gone.

It’s up to you if you want to do likewise, but know that if you do decide to close your account, you’re not alone!

PS I recently replaced my about.me page at dougbelshaw.com with one created using Mozilla Thimble. You’re very welcome to hit the ‘Remix’ button on that page if you need a new profile!

Banner image CC BY Bryan Mills

Open Badges, Clay Shirky, and the tipping point.

The great thing about thinkers such as Clay Shirky is that they can put into pithy, concise quotations things that remain latent in our collective thinking. You know, things like:

We’ve reached an age where this stuff is technologically boring enough to be socially interesting.

I first used that quote in a post four years ago when I called for technology to be so commonplace and ubiquitous that it’s not considered a thing distinct from human interaction. Technology should be woven into the fabric of our identities not something set apart, alien and ‘other’.

Four years ago social networks weren’t woven into society the way they are now. Nowadays, of course, hashtags accompany the opening credits to television shows so that they can be discussed in a ‘channel’ on Twitter, it’s entirely normal to whip your mobile device when standing in a queue (instead of talking about the weather to a stranger), and you’d be shocked if brands didn’t encourage you to follow them on Facebook.

One way to explain this is through Clay Shirky’s lens: these things are now socially boring enough to be socially interesting. You can assume that almost the man or woman on the street knows what Facebook, Twitter and mobile devices are for without having to explain them first. That means we can talk about the next layer up- i.e. what we do with those tools.

Open Badges are still quite technologically interesting. There’s several aspects of them that the average person wouldn’t understand without having it explained. For example:

  • What metadata is
  • How an Open Badges consists of ‘baking’ metadata into an image
  • That anyone can host a badge backpack because it’s Open Source software
  • What is means that the various badge backpacks will be ‘federated’

Now, we could go about a mass education program and (relatively speaking) spend a lot of money helping people to learn about these things. But that’s not how things reach a tipping point. The way people become proficient with tools like social networks or Open Badges is because they scratch an itch (solve a problem) or because there’s a ‘hook’ interesting enough for them to be dragged, Alice in Wonderland-like into a deep rabbit-hole where they can find out more.

So in a UK context, Stephen Fry’s 2009 video interview where he explained his love of Twitter in layman’s terms meant that many people were provided a hook. In fact, this is how advertising and celebrity endorsement works: “I like Person X, and Person X likes Thing Y, so therefore I should find out more about Thing Y.” With Facebook, it was an itch to be scratched: when you’re excluded from a conversation because you’re not using a particular social network, then there’s a powerful incentive to join the tribe. Especially as the nominal cost of entry is ‘free’ and the difficulty level is ‘super easy’.

What we need with Open Badges, and which we’ll certainly have by early 2013, are compelling examples of how they can be used in education and other contexts. At the same time we’re working on ways to make ‘onboarding’ easier for issuers, displayers and endorsers. We’re also working on the UX and UI for badge earners. In other words, we’re ready for badges to be huge next year.

Watch this space. 🙂

Image CC BY Joi

Why we need open, distributed social networks.

Private land

An article by Michael Erard has been doing the rounds recently. Entitled What I Didn’t Write About When I Wrote About Quitting Facebook, it simultaneously pokes fun at the growing genre of ‘social media exile essay’ whilst raising an interesting issue about the ways in which social networks mediate relationships. Erard concludes (my emphasis):

In the standard Social Media Exile essay, one doesn’t mention or announce when one returns to blogging or Twitter. For each platform or network one leaves, there’s another one to return to. Sometimes they’re the same. So I’m going to close this piece by breaking that convention and mentioning how easy it turns out to be to reactivate Facebook. When you sign back in, all your stuff is there, as if you’d never left. It’s like coming back to your country after a month in a foreign land, and it makes one feel that the whole reason for leaving is to make the place seem strange again. Being away from Facebook was certainly that. But I had to come back. That’s where all the people are. I’ve got a book coming out, and I need to let my friends know. Anyway, you know where to find me and what to talk about when you do. I’ll have some cookies baked.

Let’s cut to the chase: for better or worse, online, we currently act like brands. We can (and do) consider things like using a standardised avatar to increase recognition; we’re careful about what we say in certain kinds of company; we align ourselves with other brands (people, organizations, objects) to gain social capital. The trouble is that, in a similar way to a mall, we’re setting up shop on private property. We can be (and sometimes are) kicked out of spaces for violating lengthy, arcane user agreements written in legalese that few of us take the time to read. On various levels we control our digital identity, sometimes by self-censoring. This is problematic.

Some of us can play the game; Twitter and my online networks and reputation certainly helped me gain my last two jobs. But playing this game can be tiring. Each medium has its own vocabulary and syntax that one has to learn, as Erard demonstrates:

Instead of writing about any of this, once I was not on Facebook anymore, I found myself sending emails with some witty insights or photos of my baby, but it just wasn’t the same; a request for housing help for a friend via email got no responses.

Despite my impending Black Ops period, I’m actually not of the opinion that everything would just be alright if we all just got offline and talked to one another face-to-face. I remember reading recently that talking about the superficiality of social media is more than slightly disingenuous given the type of weather-related chat and insincere ‘how are you?’ questions that make up much of our offline interaction. There was no golden period of offline communication. Updating your Facebook status probably not  time you would have otherwise spent in deep philosophical face-to-face conversation with your next-door neighbour.

But, nevertheless, there is a problem with online communication. Superficial conversations are (usually) neither recorded nor commodified in the ways they can be online. Erard again:

I hadn’t written about feeling like Facebook was a job. Like I was running on a digital hamster wheel. But a wheel that someone else has rigged up. And a wheel that’s actually a turbine that’s generating electricity for somebody else. That’s how I felt, which is what I should have written.

What we’re doing, in effect, is akin to renting houses when we should be buying them. The tools that commercial operations such Facebook, Twitter and Google+ give us are ‘free’ so we often don’t think through the issues clearly. Like a low-income people forced into dealing with a disreputable car dealers, we’re forced into hire-purchase with no real prospect of ownership.

Let’s run a quick thought experiment. Imagine Facebook started charging and, instead of a mass exodus, people (for whatever reason) kept using it. What would change? I think, for one, we’d question where our data was going and we’d want to get rid of the advertising. It’s been repeated so many times that it’s almost become a cliché, but if we’re not paying for something then we’re not customers. And if we’re not customers, we bring something to the marketplace that’s being sold on our behalf. We’re being tracked, packaged-up and sold to the highest bidder.

All this sounds alarmist, and it is, but all I’m trying to do is lift the veil a little. Discontent leads to a search for alternatives, so I suppose I’m trying to stoke the fires of discontent. We’re all in the same position: we need open, distributed social networks to avoid the above. But we’re in a Catch-22: no-one wants to make the first move to Identi.ca or Diaspora because it’s not social until all your friends are there, right?

Image CC-BY-NC-SA [ jon ]

What do new Social Networks tell us about Digital Literacies?

20110711-053222.jpg

As I mentioned in a previous post, I’ve started to blog occasionally for DMLcentral. My first post has now been published and is available here. 🙂

Why Google+ is like an extended unboxing video.

N.B. I wrote this last night just before Google opened things out via the ability to invite others. I’m posting it as a historical record of my thinking.

Unboxing

I’ve never understood unboxing videos, those rambling, self-glorifying, badly-shot YouTube shorts that literally show somebody taking a gadget out of its box. Whilst I understand the excitement of getting a new piece of tech, I’ve never felt the need to share the unboxing of it with others. Nor, surprisingly, have I been overcome with a desire to watch others do something similar.

Part of the appeal of the unboxing video, presumably, is a glimpse of the previously-unobtainable. For the person doing the unboxing, they get to show the world how lucky they are; the person watching the video gets a caffeine-like hit of anticipation that someday (soon?) they may also be able to get their hands on the shiny-shiny.

In many ways Google+ is like one big and seemingly-neverending unboxing video. There’s the haves frolicking within the magical and enchanted walls whilst the the have-nots try everything they can (purchasing invites on eBay, cajoling friends, begging Google) to get over, under or through to get in. Those enjoying the merry wonderland occasionally post enticing screenshots to the have-nots in spaces that were previously sufficient for social interaction. And just to rub their faces in it, they throw in the occasional link that those without Google+ passes won’t be able to access (“Oh, sorry about that!”)

I’ve been within the walls for a week now. As I explained over at Synechism Ltd. yesterday Google+ is almost there in terms of usefulness. But I’ll stop here before I become one of those annoying people who are equivocal about a space not everyone can access. It’s never about the technology, it’s always about how it’s used – and that’s why we need to get more people in there to start building the same habits, customs and practices we’ve developed together to make Twitter such a useful social tool.

Image CC BY-NC-SA dansays

Greplin: potential solver of a huge problem?

I’m not Stephen Fry. Nor Ashton Kutcher.

What I mean is that I don’t have enough followers on Twitter for each of them to realise that I can’t keep up with them all. At the time of writing this post, I’ve 3,615 Twitter followers – 3,465 more than Dunbar’s number. In other words, people expect me to be able to remember my conversations with them when I can’t even remember who they are.

This is potentially embarrassing within the increasingly business-focused world I’m operating. I need a quick way to find out if I’ve spoken/tweeted/emailed/shared a doc with someone very quickly.

Enter Greplin. When I read about it on TechCrunch yesterday, it was a bit of a eureka moment:

It’s a personal search engine for all that data you keep locked away in the cloud. If you’ve used desktop search like spotlight, you’ll get Greplin right away. It’s like spotlight for your cloud data.

After you use it for the first time you’ll understand that you’ll never not use it again. And there are nice touches like showing real time results as you type. And Greplin only uses OAuth and other APIs for authorization, so they never see your third party site credentials.

I’ve signed up and added the services (GMail, Twitter, Dropbox, LinkedIn, Google Calendar, Google Docs) that I want Greplin to index. If it’s as good as it look in the video below, I may just drop the $45/year required to ‘go Pro’ and unlock indexing of Evernote and email attachments…

In terms of user outcomes, this is awesome. It provides ‘just-in-time’ data to allow you to make decisions, have meaningful conversations, and (perhaps most importantly) prevent social awkwardness. 😀

5 genuinely useful Twitter tools.

There’s eleventy-billion Twitter apps, tools and services all vying for your attention. Some of them are pretty, some tell you some type of score (as if Twitter was some kind of competition) and some, well, some just seem to be side-projects for bored programmers… :-p

But the following five Twitter tools are those that I find genuinely useful. They add value to my little social networking world. 🙂

1. Mr Tweet

(http://mrtweet.com)

There’s plenty of services that will help you find people to follow, but I find Mr Tweet usually gets things spot on. It’s also really easy to follow people directly from the website.

2. Packrati.us

(http://packrati.us)

You can configure Packrati.us in many ways, but I’ve got it set up so that anything I ‘favorite’ on Twitter automatically gets added to my Delicious links. This makes composing my Things I Learned This Week posts a whole lot easier! 🙂

3. Trick.ly

(http://www.trick.ly)

You don’t always need industrial-strength encryption to share something. There are definitely times when a shortened link coupled with a password (you can provide a clue!) does the job.

4. Screenr

(http://screenr.com)

If a picture paints a thousand words, a short video must paint a million! Screenr allows you to create quick screencasts and share them via Twitter. Great for everything from remote support to e-learning opportunities.

5. TwapperKeeper

(http://twapperkeeper.com)

If you create a hashtag (for example #movemeon that I helped make into a book) then it’s good to have an archive of tweets for future reference. TwapperKeeper does just that.

Which Twitter tools do YOU find useful? Share them below! 😀

The first new media election?

Disclaimer: I usually hit delete when I get unsolicited email requests by media consultants, but this intrigued me. You can take it or leave it but, as ever, the thoughts in this post are my own!

Ever since Barack Obama managed to sweep to victory in the US on a wave of personality and Web 2.0 savvy, people have been talking about the importance of ‘new media’ in politics. I see it as a good thing, especially engaging young people in the political process. It was great the other night, for example, to see the deluge of tweets with the hashtag #leadersdebate during the first ever live televised debate amongst the leaders of the main political parties.

It’s also encouraging to see each main political party – the Liberal Democrats, the Conservatives, and Labour – present their manifestos in such forward-thinking ways. Out are boring-looking printed documents and in are engaging videos, social media groups and ebooks.

But of course, the importance of new media isn’t that people who have always been able to get across their message continue to have their say, but that new voices are heard. That’s why I was buoyed to watch the following video by the Edge Foundation, set up when Edexcel was sold to Pearson PLC in 2003. They have invested millions of pounds in the promotion of practical and vocational learning for young people as well as funding two academies (Nottingham and Milton Keynes). But we’ll not hold that against them. 😉

(their YouTube channel features related videos – including politicians’ responses)

I’m not sure that highlighting the dichotomy between ‘academic’ and ‘vocational’ is necessarily useful. I’d be inventing new ‘third way’ terms to lose the historical baggage. What I am sure about, however, is that the so-called ‘academic’ courses I’ve taught as a teacher have turned into knowledge cram-fests and the so-called ‘vocational’ courses are nowhere near as demanding.

So what’s needed?

I agree with the Edge Foundation that young people need to be given choices.

I agree that there need to be more and different routes to employment.

I agree classroom-based activities don’t stimulate some (most?) learners.

But I’d go further. I’d say that all students need to be doing vocational courses. Not the spurious ones mentioned above, but proper, rigorous, out-in-the-field vocational courses. That’s how to improve our education system: real-world learning.

And I don’t know anyone who would disagree with that! 😀

More on new media and the election

Recommended election-related sites

  • Who Should You Vote For? – asks a series of questions leading to a recommendation of which party most closely aligns with your thoughts and values.
  • Voter Power Index – the first-past-the-post system in the UK means all votes are not equal; find out what yours is really worth here!
  • Electoral Registration Form – the place to go if you haven’t registered to vote yet.

Image based on original by hugovk (CC BY-NC-SA)

Social media, open standards & curmudgeonliness.

The problem:

Harold Jarche:

The increasing use of software as a service (SaaS)… is simple, easy and out of your control.

Luis Suarez:

I guess I could sum it up in one single sentence: “The more heavily involved I’m with the various social networking sites available out there, the more I heart my own… blogs“.

It all has got to do with something as important as protecting your identity, your brand… your personal image, your own self in various social software spaces that more and more we seem to keep losing control over, and with no remedy.

A proposed solution:

Harold Jarche:

Own your own data (CC-BY Harold Jarche)

I’ve decided to start the Curmudgeon’s Manifesto, which may serve as a call to arms to start dumping platforms that don’t understand how to play nice on the Internet. It’s our playground, and through our actions we get to set the rules of conduct.

Here’s my start (additions welcome):

  1. I will not use web services that hijack my data or that of my network.
  2. I will share openly on the Web and not constrain those with whom I share.
  3. I will not lead others into the temptation of using web services that do not respect privacy, re-use, open formats or exportable data.

An alternative solution:

Wikipedia:

An open standard is a standard that is publicly available and has various rights to use associated with it, and may also have various properties of how it was designed (e.g. open process).

The term “open standard” is sometimes coupled with “open source” with the idea that a standard is not truly open if it does not have a complete free/open source reference implementation available.

OpenSocial:

OpenSocial

Friends are fun, but they’re only on some websites. OpenSocial helps these sites share their social data with the web. Applications that use the OpenSocial APIs can be embedded within a social network itself, or access a site’s social data from anywhere on the web.

Harold Jarche:

Blog Central

One way to keep information accessible is to use an open, accessible, personal blog as the centre of your web presence.

OpenID:

OpenID is a decentralized standard, meaning it is not controlled by any one website or service provider. You control how much personal information you choose to share with websites that accept OpenIDs, and multiple OpenIDs can be used for different websites or purposes. If your email (Google, Yahoo, AOL), photo stream (Flickr) or blog (Blogger, WordPress, LiveJournal) serves as your primary online presence, OpenID allows you to use that portable identity across the web.

Conclusion:

Change the name of the Curmudgeon’s Manifesto to the Open Educators’ Manifesto (or similar). Back OpenID and OpenSocial. People like to sign up to positive-sounding things that cite big players or existing traction. I’m sure Chris Messina and other open (source/web) advocates have a take on this! 😀

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