Is social media just talk radio on meth?

Through social media I’ve been following a couple of issues recently. It has lead me to have questions about social media, particularly the conversation aspect. A news story, a blog post or a Facebook page has comment tools or “like” tools and the original item acts as an initiator to a conversation.

I’ve noticed a few things in the ones I’ve been following and it’s possible the nature of the topics has influenced the character of the discussions, but here they are:

The emotional quality of the comments have not been reflected in the real world. While the pro/con aspects seen online (most in favour or most against) may be reflected there, the emphatic nature of the opinions is not. In fact, what has appeared online as something people were raging about was reflected in the real world as calmness and sometimes indifference.

I’ve also seen the negative appear to be much more engaging than the positive. In other words, there appears to be a desire to vent against something, more so than a desire to promote or cheer something. In one case in particular, a Facebook page was created to support something and gained many followers – people who were giving their support. However, though doing this, for the most part they were venting against the reasons for the need of support.

In many ways, it reminded me of talk radio. Having worked in radio, including talk radio, I know that giving people a chance to be against something, to vent, gets listeners much more quickly engaged than the opposite. That’s why there are so many talk radio shows that sound like angry cranks run them: that’s where the audience is, it’s where the money lies.

One of my questions then is this: does what we see via social media reflect how people actually think and feel?

Other questions: If it does reflect how people think and feel, does it do so in a way that distorts it? To what extent can we give it credence? And why are people so eager to rant and less eager to voice what they like? Is that question even valid?

I noticed something else about Facebook pages that I think leads to distortion. A page had been set up to “Say No!” to a particular issue. It grew as such things tend to do. Looking at the wall comments, people were angry and venting and making various statements.

Here is my problem: Seeing the comments, I occasionally wanted to comment, such as saying a fact wasn’t accurate or an argument was illegitimate. I couldn’t do so without joining the page which would add me to their numbers and suggest I supported the position when the opposite was true. So there was little or no debate on this page – it was people telling one another things they wanted to hear.

To some degree, this is a Facebook problem due to wording and how pages are set up but it is more our problem due to how we choose to see and interpret such things. And that leads me back to the questions I have about the legitimacy of what we see as social media conversations.

Is social media simply a handy tool for cathartic venting? Or is there some value to what we see? If so, how do we determine how valuable it is, to what extent does it really reflect the opinions of people and, perhaps more importantly, the emotional commitment we have for issues, artists, products and on and on?

Facebook grabs FriendFeed: a speculation festival

Logos - FriendFeed and FacebookWith just about everyone weighing in on the Facebook acquisition of FriendFeed, I thought I’d add to the noise and toss in my riveting insight (or lack thereof).

First of all, I’ve no idea what it means. But then, no one else does either — there is interesting speculation, however. One of the first notions that was tossed out there on the Internet was that it had less to do with Facebook getting FriendFeed itself and more to do with getting the talent behind it. As one story (PC World) puts it, “… the team behind FriendFeed has quite the impressive collective résumé.” Many of them are former Google employees and worked on things like Gmail and Google Maps. So, yes, I could see why Facebook would want them.

And according to a BBC article, “As part of the agreement, all FriendFeed employees will join Facebook and the company’s four founders will be given senior roles on the social networking site’s engineering and product teams.”

From a user perspective, given how awkward, clunky and user bewildering much of Facebook is, I’m hoping this will be a good thing.

This morning the thinking appears to have shifted from yesterday’s and appears more focused on the challenge this acquisition poses to Google and Twitter. (See that BBC article, for example.) The business-tech world loves nothing more than to see these things in Stanley Cup playoffs terms.

I can, however, see this as an accurate assessment. For example, from that BBC item:

“Google is the king of regular search. FriendFeed is the king of real-time search. This makes the coming battle over this issue much more interesting,” Mr (Robert) Scoble told the BBC.

For me, someone who uses these social networks and the tools but who doesn’t spend much time understanding the technology, only enough to know it works, I’ve always seen these networks this way:

Size: Facebook biggest, Twitter smaller, FriendFeed smallest.

Theoretical usefulness: FriendFeed most, Twitter a bit less, Facebook least.

Practical usefulness: A crapshoot between Facebook and Twitter (for me), FriendFeed least.

Put another way, of them all, it’s FriendFeed I like most, though it’s the one I know the least about. Maybe I just haven’t used it enough to see all its flaws and maybe it does things the others also do, but I’m unaware of them. The problem with FriendFeed, however, is the old retail thing about location, location, location. So far, Facebook keeps winning not because it’s best but because that is where the most users are and most users means most useful (to me).

There are really two things about FriendFeed that I like: 1) the interface, which I find cleaner, easier to read and understand (overall) than either Facebook or Twitter and, 2) it aggregates all my other feeds so, for example, my Flickr photos show up without the need of using Facebook’s incredibly slow and frustrating photos tool or some clunky third party app.

Currently, however, no one knows what the real impact of the acquisition will be. One thought has been it’s the end of FriendFeed. If that’s the case, it brings up an interesting issue, one that hasn’t received much attention that I’m aware of: Data portability, as discussed here. What happens if, for example, Flickr were to end for some reason or other? What happens to your account? Where do your photos go?

Or, what happens if you no longer like Facebook and decide that’s it, I’m going elsewhere (maybe even drop social networks altogether)? What happens to your content? How do you get it, download it to your own computer or some other storage device?

How are you protected from data loss? Or are you protected? That’s a lot of data to just let it go “poof!”

Readers have responsibilities too

I saw some tweets to a post, The Trouble With Twitter (Melissa Hart, The Chronicle review), and something occurred to me. The essay is another of the many Twitter critiques that, personally, I’m finding a bit tiresome. After reading it, I thought that what it amounted to was, “I don’t want to change.”

That’s fine. No one needs to. At the same time, those who do want to are free to do so.

In some ways the essay is critical of the 140 character length imposed by Twitter and almost seems to confuse a headline with a story or, as I’ve put it before, a postcard with a letter. It doesn’t quite get to that point however. The essay seems to be more focused on the time element involved with Twitter and the idea that it takes time to fact check, absorb and understand, and then write the story. And I agree. However …

In the case of the Twitter streams I follow, that’s what happens. Tweets are more about: “This has happened,” and “Something appears to be developing here,” and “Trying to confirm a report …”

In other words, they are often about the progression of the story, not the end piece. They are about keeping followers involved in the development of a story. And eventually, when all is said and done, the story itself –a link to the full piece.

What is often overlooked in all the pro and con debates about tools like Twitter is the responsibility of a reader. It’s not just the journalist, or blogger, or whoever is doing the tweeting that has a responsibility.

Readers have a responsibility to question what they are reading and consider its merits and to understand its intent, meaning and so on. If a story is unconfirmed, it is unconfirmed. That means it could be true but could just as easily be false. And anyone who has done any reading at all of news stories knows that what you read today can very easily change tomorrow because journalism has to wade through facts, PR spin and rumour to find out what exactly is true and many stories are ongoing.

The essay mentioned above is entirely from a particular journalist’s perspective. It is about how she wants to research, understand and present a story and that doesn’t include a desire to keep readers informed of her progress as she does this. Again, that’s fine if that’s how you like to do things.

The problem, however, is that as a reader I don’t want to wait.

I don’t want to wait till all is said and done and everything can be put in context before I find out what is or has been happening in my world. It is happening now and I want some information, even if incomplete, about what is going on. I want to know it’s being investigated. I want a heads-up that a complete assessment is in the works and headed my way.

And I understand that, as a reader, I have a responsibility to give a tweet or post the appropriate credence and to see it for what it is.

Journalism is a two-way street. I know that. Give me some credit for being able to assess and judge the merits of something.

What you save in dollars you spend in time

my_point01.jpgFor my headline to be complete it should read, “What you save in dollars you spend in time because, as you probably know, time is money.” In other words, saving dollars doesn’t always save dollars.

I’m thinking about businesses and web sites and social media. The other night I was at an event, talking to a number of people, many of them business people, and we talked a bit about business, marketing and the various tools available to leverage on the Internet.

I was talking to one guy, a small businessman, and said to him that what I usually tell businesses is that if they’re not sure what the tools are and how to use them, it’s best not to jump in. You should have a specific reason for using them and a good idea of how to go about using them so they’re effective. The biggest problem that I’ve seen is that the tools appear to have all kinds of potential – and they do have loads of potential – but what most people don’t see is the real cost, which is time.

Creating a web site and putting it in place, or getting accounts on social media tools like Facebook and Twitter, is relatively easy and there is an almost zero dollar investment – it seems. But maintaining these things is hard. And it involves time, which usually ends up as a cost.

Imagine business cards for example. You get one designed and spend a bit of time figuring out exactly what information you want on them and what message you want them to communicate. And you’ve hired a company to help you with the design, information, and message aspects, and to produce the cards. And they charge you something for all this and that is an expense.

Then you come across a tool that allows you to do all this yourself with almost no cost, and you do so, and you save a bunch of money and that looks good on the books. But …

The problem is, for the card to have value, for it to be effective, you have to rewrite it every week because now you’re on the Internet. And you can’t just rewrite it with anything. You have to think through what it says, each week, and in many cases, spend some time doing a bit of research to ensure what it says is accurate. And you have to present the information in a way that prompts people to read what the card says, not just toss it aside without a look.

In other words, every week (maybe more often, maybe less), you have to spend time on it in order for it to be effective and justify its existence and your effort. Nothing works online the same way it does in the tactile world. That’s why many ads fail online.

In my experience most businesses, especially small businesses, don’t have that time. Even if they do, they don’t have the writing expertise or the social conversation skills to do it well enough to make it work and become a valuable marketing tool.

What they end up with is some reduced marketing and other expenses and some crossed-fingers as they hope it works, which it seldom does without a specific focus on maintenance. People come once, might even like what they see, but without a reason for coming back you won’t see them again.

Maintenance is critical to making any of these things work and maintenance means time and that means money. If you do it yourself, it’s whatever your time is worth to you – how much an hour? It’s also what you don’t do – “If instead of doing this I was doing that, I’d generate …” If you spend an hour of your time and that hour is worth $50 and, while you do it you are not doing something that would pull in $75, you’re losing $25. And that’s a cost. Lost revenue. It might not show up on the books that way, but that’s what it is.

You could pay someone to do it for you – in many cases, the best option. But in trying to keep costs down you go with cheap, that may be what you get and end up being how you’re represented – meaning your brand feels the impact. Regardless of the cost, make sure whoever is doing the maintenance knows what they are doing and are very good at it.

Rumours to the contrary, the web is not a marvel where a storefront can be put in place without a thought and social media tools aren’t a magic pill to reach the world with the message about your product or service … and never give either, your site or your social tools, another thought. They have to be maintained, smartly. They require time and effort in order to work.

Sometimes the desperate need to reduce costs bamboozles us into believing in the pixie dust of the Internet. But the Internet, like life, keeps teaching the same lesson: ain’t nothing free, ain’t no easy routes to financial Valhalla, work and only work makes things work.

The shelf life of social networks

Both Facebook and Twitter and similar sites, apps, utilities (whatever they are called) make me think of a Christmas long ago when I was quite young and … well, young. I had a cat. I think it was the first year I had the cat (the now much-missed Gonzo) and I thought it would be cool to get her a Christmas present. I bought a toy dog, battery-operated. It walked and made sounds and so on. I thought the cat would be fascinated.

On Christmas morning, the cat was fascinated. For maybe five minutes. Then, all it was concerned with was empty boxes and crumpled paper. It had the time of its life with those.

Kids are like that too. You get them the thing they’ve been pleading for and, after a short period, they lose interest and go on to something else.

Both Facebook and Twitter have captured the imaginations of truckloads of people. It seems everyone is on one or both. And with good reason. Both are useful, relatively easy to use and, perhaps most important, keep people connected.

I don’t think there is any question about their usefulness. However, at least with Facebook and Twitter, the usefulness is weighed, or will be sooner or later, in the scales that have the useful factor on one side and the annoyance factor on the other. No matter how useful they are, I think the annoyance aspect will win out. Another tool will come along, one less filled with constant smiles, tweets and memes.

In themselves, none of these things is annoying. They’re kind of nice, sometimes. But the operative word here is sometimes. Sheer quantity is a cancer that, I suspect, will kill both. Someone, somewhere will design a tool that manages to maintain the useful factor and minimize the annoyance. And that will trump all the other tools and sites and so on.

The real problem with both Facebook and Twitter and any other social networking tool is the inability to sense mood. Sometimes we’re open and eager to be tagged with “25 things about me” or get a tweet like, “Why can’t they make pants that fit me?” But just as often, maybe even more often, it seems a waste of our time, a trivial bit of nonsense we don’t have time for. That’s a mood thing. A state of mind thing. And the tool, the app, whatever you want to call it, can’t read that.

Very quickly, the bloom is off the rose.

My answer would be for both Facebook and Twitter to have something like a, “Don’t annoy me” setting, a button or something that limits what comes through. Of course, the question is how does it know what is to be blocked and what to let through?

I dunno. I find both useful. I like them despite initial reservations. But as with what appears to be an increasing number of other people, I also find them irritating and wish they would shut up and go away. Yet I don’t want to lose what they offer. I don’t know what the answer is.

My guess, however, is that if they don’t address this annoyance aspect and ramp up the useful aspects, the shelf life of both may not be a lengthy.

Of course, on the Internet, very few things have a long shelf like. The ones that do, though, are useful and are only minimally annoying, if at all.