Sometimes you can get very valuable insights from someone out there, if you try to listen instead of continuously ‘shout’ on your own. It’s especially crucial, if you’re building a startup, because you want to understand and learn how your potential market relations (especially potential customers) think about what you have to offer, and how they see the world and what their problems are. In the oft-quoted but still wise words of Steve Blank, “opinion is inside the building, data is outside the building”.
Recently I received an email from Søren Storm Hansen, a Danish blogger, from whose blog I had shared a handful of posts using Google Reader, Ifttt and Kaplak.net. Søren didn’t want his posts ‘republished’ on Kaplak.net. Apparently not because he wanted to keep his readers fixed to his site (he publishes full feeds and every item carries ads) but because he didn’t want “his name associated with services, which didn’t contribute anything”.
As it is of no paramount importance to me personally whether Søren’s stuff is shared on Kaplak.net or not I ended up removing Søren’s feed from my Google Reader subscriptions, so in the future I will not read (and therefore not share) items from his blog. But his request still left me slightly puzzled, because why would you want to risk losing readers or potential readers like this, if you’re a blogger? I suppose even a successful blogger wants more readers? Apparently Søren shares no similar reservations as to whether his readers share items from his blog with services such as Google+ and Facebook, and they’re not even so kind to email him a pingback (which I do precisely because I want the sharing to be noticed which may spur conversation), and they do not carry his ads.
As a blogger I’ve had stuff shared or republished from my blogs in the past too. Some of my writings have even appeared in self-published antologies about web entrepreneurship. I do not share Søren’s reservations about this as I do not believe my ‘personal brand’ is associated in particular with any one particular item, or with any one context in particular (which potentially could damage it beyond repair, or more plainly, risk not to contribute anything to it). Similarly I do not believe in copyright, because I don’t think I (or others) would or should benefit financially from any particular work. Rather I believe I benefit from what may be termed my total brand equity value – what I’ve proven I can do in the past, and so in what I may be able to do in the future. In fact, this is the crucial factor which got me my current job, which has gotten me earlier engagements, and no doubt will help me receive offers in the future.
What I learned from Søren’s request is something along these lines : the distribution as well as the ‘non-distribution’ (control of distribution – in so far as this is possible) of one’s online activities and the contexts they create, seem to be two sides of the same concern : to build one’s online reputation (or ‘personal brand equity’ in advertising speak) to a level where one may successfully convert this to financial benefits, job offers, speaking engagements etc. – and therefore also take steps to protect it. If one specializes in one line of work, one may not be interested in seeing one’s stuff in a context which puts it in another light. The question is though, if the cat is not already out of the bag, once you hit the “publish” button? Meaning – is it really up to you, how your recipients use what you’ve given them yourself?
As many people building websites are, I’ve been preoccupied with eyeballs, i.e. the problem of ‘how many’ a given message or product may reach. I’ve seen Kaplak through the lense of aggregation and syndication of RSS feeds, and as such, my first instinct upon receiving Søren’s request was to jump in and talk feeds and the ‘grey zone of syndication’, as I’ve discussed previously on this blog. But this turned out not to be Søren’s concern. His perception of Kaplak is more in line with a ‘xerox for the internet’ – a place where you can make a copy of an article or blog item and share it with others to read. This certainly makes sense, although this has not been Kaplak’s primary focus – instead we use already established technologies and services such as RSS/Atom feeds, Google Reader, Ifttt and Posterous for the ‘xeroxing’, while Kaplak admittedly (yet) doesn’t contribute much, except try to make a number of shared items available in a new context, where they may ultimately reach recipients, they would otherwise not reach, and reduce costs in creating these new connections, so that products on the ‘slim end’ might benefit from these.
I’d certainly be interested to hear other POV’s on what online sharing (or ‘xeroxing’), aggregation and syndication mean for the value of one’s online reputation or ‘personal brand equity’. In what ways are the ‘xeroxing’ of items on Kaplak.net different from the context, one’s published items may appear in, in say, search results or in one’s feed reader?
If we put a number on it, people will try to make the number go up.
Now that everyone is a marketer, many people are looking for a louder megaphone, a chance to talk about their work, their career, their product… and social media looks like the ideal soapbox, a free opportunity to shout to the masses.
But first, we’re told to make that number go up. Increase the number of fans, friends and followers, so your shouts will be heard. (…)
This looks like winning (the numbers are going up!), but it’s actually a double-edged form of losing. First, you’re polluting a powerful space, turning signals into noise and bringing down the level of discourse for everyone. And second, you’re wasting your time when you could be building a tribe instead, could be earning permission, could be creating a channel where your voice is actually welcomed.
Leadership (even idea leadership) scares many people, because it requires you to own your words, to do work that matters. The alternative is to be a junk dealer.
The game theory pushes us into one of two directions: either be better at pump and dump than anyone else, get your numbers into the millions, outmass those that choose to use mass and always dance at the edge of spam (in which the number of those you offend or turn off forever keep increasing), or
Relentlessly focus. Prune your message and your list and build a reputation that’s worth owning and an audience that cares.
So, what I wondered when reading this, is this : is Seth Godin himself “polluting a powerful space” – or “building a tribe”? Who are cases of one or the other? What category does a Guy Kawasaki or Robert Scoble fall into? What case was Barack Obama’s use of social media? What case is Seth Godin?
I would have liked to ask Seth this on his blog, but his blog doesn’t allow comments, which I find smart, because it provokes me to write an entire blog post instead while I link back to his article, but somewhat paradoxical for someone who wants to build context, which is what I presume Seth Godin wants – and not as smart as allowing comments, which shows the ability and capability to listen as well as to “shout”.
It’s not that I am in complete disagreement with what Seth writes in the above, but I believe there is a bit more to the case. There is a thin thin line between ‘polluting a powerful space’ and ‘relentlessly focus’. Largely they depend on who is on the receiving end, what they expect from you and what they are looking for. And I do not see that they are so easily identifiable, except you know when there is a signal, and when there is noise. Thankfully, we all have the power to turn off noise and filter our incoming information streams ourselves. Increasingly, we rely less on the editorial filters of others, although we do rely a lot (too much, IMHO) on the information architectures built by others (especially when using social networks such as Facebook or Google+). The web that you describe and hope for, where we can focus relentlessly, is the same I want – but right now numbers are rewarded, and numbers are what makes the web (or large parts of it) a frantic race for PageRank, clicks and impressions. SEO, linkspam, noise, waste of time and waste of eyeballs. Lots of it comes from design faults of this space, which we can work to eradicate and improve upon. More so, than from the noise of any particular noisy individual ‘polluting’ our much-agreed-upon intensely ‘powerful space’.
Here’s where I’m going with this: The marketplace that matters is the primary one where we live and work and shop. Not the secondary one where people we don’t know are sniffing our digital butts to see what we’ve consumed and might want to consume instead (or again).
To which I had to add the following comment (replicated in this space for convenience) :
Is the world really this simple?
I believe one of the great promises of the internet/web is to help us create a much more pinpointed communication and accordingly a much more efficient and less wasteful distribution : in other words, let producers sell their products to their customers in more targeted ways, and let their customers more easily find what they’re looking for (and find what they’re not looking for, but are intensely interested in). In other words, a more connected world, with less waste of eyeballs, time, energy and ressources. Local producers need to reach their potential customers on the other end of the internet, especially if they’re producing within a niche, which does not make economically sense if based solely on their local customers (say, those within driving distance).
I agree very much the “sniffing of digital butts” (what a magnificent expression!) has come much too far. It extends and twists the thinking of conventional one-way marketing to “fit” an internet context and sees internet users as nothing but consumers in need of convincing to (occasionally) click on banner ads. It is indeed one-dimensional and short-sighted.
But where I disagree is that “local” businesses won’t need to connect with their current and potential customers on the other end of the internet, and in the process collect data on their transactions along the way. I believe you can do this respectfully and transparently, and partly have to, because you want to deliver the best possible (and less wasteful) communication and service.
I’ve recently been provoked to take a serious look at Kaplak again. I thought I would drop a few lines in this place to announce that I’m back to work on Kaplak – if only in a tiny slice of my time – but no less ambitiously.
The truth is I’ve never really left. For various reasons, it made a lot of sense to close down the company Kaplak and focus on other things, but I’ve never quite left the ideas we worked with in Kaplak, and I believe the world still needs what we had coming for it. In the meantime there’s not much else to do but figure out ways to build upon the experience we had then.
So in the back of my head, this is what I have been doing. I am right now on three months of parental leave from work – which among other things, have lent me some long-missed time to think about the meaning of my life and the connected world. When teaching one does actually do a lot of thinking – but it’s mostly about teaching and planning classes and lessons, and not much else. Since August 2009 I’ve been teaching history and media full time at Aabenraa Statsskole – and since the summer of 2007 I’ve also had two kids (one now aged 4 and one nearly 9 months), which in sum means that my life is totally different today than what it was when I first started Kaplak.
So what did provoke me to take yet another long arduous journey to the far far away land of the slim ends of the long tail? (Plural because they come in large numbers!) Among other things, I’ve come across a couple of online phenomena which deserves a few words in this space.
Earlier this year Google launched Google+ which I have embraced and played with – at times enthusiastically, at others somewhat reluctantly. It’s like Friendfeed has come back – but different and with a whole new feature-set, which combines the best of what Twitter and Facebook have to offer. But it’s still a proprietary monster, where Google (among many other things) gets to decide what their users are ‘allowed to call themselves’, simply because while Google+ empowers users to share their stuff in ever more flexible ways, the network is still owned by Google and this ownership is never in question. Nevertheless, the ease of sharing stuff on Google+ has made me into a regular poster.
Google has been quick to add hashtags to it’s service, and I’ve now begun to add hashtags to my stuff, which makes it easy to find #copyfight stuff and posts on #landvaluetax, as well as all those #thingsthatmakeyouseetheworldjustalittlebitdifferently. It often has stricken me though, that I ought not to use Google to make what is in essence niche micro sites much like the ones we were developing with Kaplak Stream. Instead, I’d like to share stuff using WordPress as a platform as we did in Kaplak, and only use Google+ as a secondary channel.
If this then that
Just recently I stumbled (via my Google+ network) across an online service which goes by the name If This Then That, which stirred up a lot of thoughts about Kaplak in the back of my head. Occasionally I come across something which contributes a piece to this ongoing puzzle. Ifttt, I believe, is such a piece. Now these stirred-up thoughts have fallen into place again, and although a lot of the ideas we worked with in Kaplak remains (making a sound business out of less-than-popular (“long tail”) products – and transforming work life and the universe as we know it in the process), some have landed in new places.
My instinct tells me that Ifttt (and similar services) paves the way for the future of the internet. Ifttt truly empowers users because it puts users in charge of the what, when and where of their online activities – not the services they use. It widens a door already opened by the APIs of online services, which adds a new parameter to the equation. Companies such as Facebook, Google and Twitter will increasingly have to compete on how well they serve the needs of users to bring their data where they need them to go (and in that process make more data available flexibly and cater to the needs of services such as Ifttt) – and not where those companies would like them to go.
Now, what does this entail for Kaplak?
We had two working strategies in Kaplak – one was widgets, the other was Kaplak Stream. Both aimed at the same target : selling niche products in rich niche contexts, which would easily be found by their niche customers, and in doing this connecting seller with buyer. The middleman – the “skipper” making the connection, would in turn earn kaplak, a percentage of the product value given by the seller.
Now, it’s a top priority to concentrate efforts on making Kaplak economically feasible. This means, that with the greater ease and the less hazzle we can create these connections, the better, as the turnout (kaplak) from each sale must be expected to be very small. Therefore, we will focus on the “stream”-approach, but with a few decisive changes to make sure we must do as little “clean up” and maintenance as possible – more on this at a later time and place.
This aligns well with what my life looks like right now. Among other things, I can not dedicate as large a portion of my time as I would like to build up Kaplak, at least at this point in my life. I will keep teaching history and media, and continue to devote a large part of my spare time to my precious family.
But what I do have, are those spare minutes during the day, which cannot be used for much else. I will continue to cruise the web and share stuff, using my phone, my laptop and my PC. But increasingly I will ‘share with Kaplak’ i.e. develop a sharing platform and work out posting routines accordingly, using Kaplak – rather than use Google+ just because I am too lazy to use my own platform. Google+ has other excellent possibilities and uses – but should never be the end destination for shared stuff, no less so than Facebook or Friendfeed should.
Using services such as Ifttt we can easily distribute items to their proper place, and since I’ve last worked seriously with WordPress, useful and valuable plugins such as FeedWordPress has only improved – and will assist to help create the niche sites, which in turn will deliver the helpful contexts for future Kaplak products.
What is important though, is that I sense that it is in fact possible – right now, using the tools that we have right now – to build a site architecture, without the need for a lot of coding, which will (if very slowly, to begin with) help accomplish the beginnings of what we set out to do with Kaplak.
I felt a bit sad yesterday, when I heard. Google has now pulled the plug on Google Wave. Not because I used it much. In fact I didn’t. I’ve used Google Docs, where I had a lot of my work already, and where I could easily share and (as it turned out) collaboratively develop documents. Even the live typing known from Google Wave made it’s entry into Google Docs.
More than anything shutting down Google Wave seems like a strategical decision, and even one which has been a long way in the coming. Google probably could choose to invest more and develop Google Wave much further, if they chose to do so, even without as large a user base, as ‘they had hoped for’. But they choose not to. In short, in my analysis, Google Apps is where the money is, and by slowly introducing aspects and elements of functionality from Wave into Google Apps, like they’ve done with Google Docs, they get to monetize what they’ve built with wave, scrapping the rest.
But I felt sad because I love the paradigm, that the Google Wave team were spearheading. We need something other than desktop documents, this has long been obvious, ever since wikis came along. We need something other than email, because email has lots and lots of drawbacks and disadvantages despite it’s broad adoption. It is foolish to send back and forth desktop documents and revisions. Google Docs, which basically is MSWord on the web, has now sadly succumbed even further to the WYSIWYG crowd, which makes the loyal user experience slower and more painful, in order to, apparently, please people who are not willing to learn new things and load a lot of fluff, which is basically not needed to ‘just craft documents’.
I agree with all that the Google Wave team said and did. Yet I did not use it very much. Few people I knew used it. It was (too) hard finding information in it, a bit surprising given the fact that it was built by a company based on search and information filtering. I couldn’t delete waves, so I felt my space was too cluttered with half-hearted attempts and crap, which didn’t make me want to come back very often. I couldn’t decide who or precisely how many I wanted to invite to the party. I didn’t feel I had sufficient control over my data. I couldn’t export my waves to something useful I could work with outside of Wave, like a pdf or html-like file. Surprisingly, waves could not even be imported into Google Docs, despite both products being developed by the same company. Wave had awesome filesharing potential, but noone used it for this. Obvious way though to share torrents and other useful bits, but then again, one can do the same with Google Docs. All in all, I never came to use Wave as much as I would have liked.
Still loved the paradigm, though. And we still have wikis, which are still a lot better in many ways than what Wave had to offer. We still have free software. We will see the paradigm through, with or without Google Wave.
[I lost the expanded version of this post in a server-hell-knows-what-happened thing, which caused WordPress to make a freakshow and develop massive swap... The ridiculous thing is, I had refused to save the draft of the piece I had already created in Notepad, thinking it was safely saved as a draft on the server. Seems I was wrong. Never, never, never trust the web 100%. Never never trust your internet connection. Always always always keep backup.
Anyway the piece had seven points about Google Wave and it's problems with defining it's space, re: ownership, private/public sphere, control of & location of data, access to waves, ability to delete waves etc. It was all very interesting at the time of writing but I don't have the inclination to recreate it all right now. I'll rather rant about my data losses. Maybe some other time.]
I have not had the slightest piece of time, opportunity or reason this last year to revive the Kaplak Blog – or the Kaplak Log, as I think I’ll soon rename it – until now.
For one thing, Kaplak doesn’t exist as a proper company any longer, and for another I have a new job and position as a teacher of history and media. I’ve had my hands full, and I’ve still got a lot of new things to learn.
And there’s the thing, that in a company blog like this, every post always seemed like it was building up expectations for the next, even longer and more insightful piece, and it became impossible to live up to. Eventually the blog simply lost it’s pace, along with the energy and ideas which went down with the company and it’s troubled work relationships.
Yet, I have never quite stopped thinking about the problems that we worked to solve in Kaplak. If I have, it has been only briefly and because I’ve been preoccupied with other thoughts and work. But I’ve watched and used the web and tools of the web just as intensively in my new position, yet with the major difference that I no longer has to study them, just because I have to find a way to make a living out of them. I use and study them because I find them interesting, and actually find myself in the position of someone looking for obscure niche products (such as documentary films, for instance). And I’ve realized over the past year, that we’re nowhere near solutions to the problems we set out to solve – connecting products on the slim end of the long tail with their distant markets.
And this in spite of the widespread use of Twitter and Facebook, the improvements and new products of Google (Google Wave being the most interesting), lots of affiliate networks and business models (Amazon’s model still in a prominent position), experiments with paying web contributors (Knol, Mahalo, Squidoo and others). In many ways, the web seems a lot more like in a standstill today than when we started out with Kaplak in 2007. Or when I first started out working with the web in 2003 and 2004. Back then Wikipedia was still a young experiment, and YouTube was a daring startup, not yet consolidated by Google. Peer-to-peer services were alive and well – and bittorrent was looking very promising. It still is promising, but has failed to expand into popular use, despite the efforts of startups such as Bittorrent.com and Joost (which was never a true p2p service, after all) and lots of free publicity for services such as The Pirate Bay. And despite the widespread sharing practices on services such as Facebook. Facebook never became a great place for sharing torrents, as the company was very quick to ban and remove users’ links to torrent sites such as The Pirate Bay. Lots of startups have died trying, and Google and Facebook looks even more dominating in the webspace today than 5 years ago.
Noone talks much (or just as energetically) about Chris Anderson’s ideas about ‘the long tail’ as many did just a few years ago, yet I still see the same opportunities in it for transcending core aspects of western, industrial society. While the economics (one can earn more in the tail than in the head) may or may not be true for particular types of businesses and product categories, the long tail helps demonstrate (and helped demonstrate at the time), that there is much more out there today than previously, and that there is a demand for it (however slight). Whether a business model is feasible in the long tail (with or without the head to support it), however, remains, in my humble opinion, a matter of finding the right business model and cutting costs appropriately. The vital component of both these priorities is an architecture which supports them, i.e. makes products accessible to their precise markets at the right time, and at very low cost. Now, what makes this difficult is that one has to build such an architecture in a totally convergent and converging field, where concepts such as producer, product and ownership to information changes rapidly.
Connecting niche producers and niche markets much more precisely and efficiently might and would transcend our dependencies on time – just as the industrial revolution transcended our dependencies on land to our present dependencies on time. The last turned out to be a much more flexible arrangement for western societies. The workforce was no longer tied to the land, but could earn their livelihoods manning the machines. No longer could one harvest and produce only in one season of the year, production could be kept up, as long as there were hours in the day, energy provided by steam engines and electricity and a sufficiently large workforce to man the machines. Welcome to the world of economic growth as we know it.
Now, what we can do, and what we have the technology to do, is loosen our dependencies on time. We already do it, we already have it. We can work everywhere, thanks to wireless networks, we can meet and arrange to meet each other up until the last minute, thanks to mobile phones. We can keep ourselves informed and filter our incoming information streams, thanks to RSS and services such as Twitter or Google Reader, and countless other web services. We can construct our own information architectures, in our own webspaces, using free software such as WordPress and MediaWiki. We can sell our own homegrown products with everything from eBay to osCommerce. We can buy home-delivered groceries over the net, which meets our needs precisely. We can produce and sell our own soap and beer thanks to recipes found online and our own experiments. We can write, print and sell books-on-demand, more cheaply than ever, without the wasteful mass printing of big publishing houses. We don’t have to rely on schedules, workhours, heftily regulated industrial workplaces – and we don’t have to rely on the editorial filters of others.
But, and there’s a big but, many of our laws, courts and workplaces still not recognize what’s going on. Our lives and businesses are regulated nationally, even though we operate nascently internationally via the internet. We predominantly receive our salaries dependent on how much time we spend doing something, or based on how high up in the command-chain we are – not so much dependent on how useful it is what we do. We pay taxes to local institutions and obey local laws, despite the fact that the problems we have to deal with are increasingly of a global nature, from terrorism (which is, in this context, a very small problem) to the threat of environmental disasters. We may add information to radically open and globally reaching information systems such as wikis, yet our educational systems (broadly speaking) are hopelessly medieval in their narrow focus on classes, professors and courses.
The final blow will come the day, if/when the ‘old’ economic system breaks. I’m not sure the present crisis is just it – I expect a transition to a ‘new’ economic system to take longer and be more painful. There may not even be a ‘visible break’. If you can’t see or feel it now, I wonder if you will at a later stage. Many of these changes are not clearly documented or reported by our mass media-based news system, and our networks-based information filtering still needs a lot of work – it is still polluted by much noise.
The question is how deep these changes will go politically? Can our political institutions handle radically big transitions of our economies and property-based systems? One area is patents and copyright, for example. Can our political parties and institutions reform this? Is it possible? A lot of things leaves the impression it isn’t possible, yet some of us has to insist that it is. If it isn’t possible, p2p will be driven underground, reserved as an outlet for the few privileged, who knows how to circumvent the official pathways. If it is, what new institutions may emerge from the battlefield, what new types of infrastructure will we need, and what should they be like?
It seems to me that this is much more the world of the Jeltsins. Of a web that consolidates itself into major players, which are not as intent to empower their users, as they are intent to profit themselves and keep the industrial system in place.
The reason I write this post is I still see opportunities to revive Kaplak, not as a company, but as an idea and set of ideas which can still be worked with and developed upon to build better tools, which can help take a crack at our original problem : connecting products and markets on the slim end of the long tail. But it is even clearer to me today that this battle is also political. It cannot be fought without taking a political stand. It can’t be reduced to just business or just a company. It has to have a wider scope. I will keep this blog a space to explore this further – the construction of concrete tools and information architectures as well as the politics.
As you will know if you’ve been following my FriendFeed lately, Kaplak.com and all subdomains suffered a a major wreck when the server crashed due to the change of some hardware. What was worse is that the latest backup of the database turned out to be 3 months old :
I’ve now managed to reconstruct the lost articles on the blog – now in a new home at http://blog.kaplak.net (hosted by Slicehost) as well as the lost comments, partly thanks to Google’s cached versions of the articles, partly thanks to Backtype for comments to the latest article which was not cached by Google. Unfortunately Backtype doesn’t carry the accurate timestamp information of posted comments, so the timestamp information on those 6 comments remains permanently lost. But it’s a small price to pay in order to recover almost all Kaplak Blog data.
Over the course of the next half year or so I will begin to redefine the purpose of Kaplak (a process already in the works). To a very large degree I will have my hands full as a teacher of history and media studies – especially as someone learning and aiming to become a good teacher. But for one thing, I still very much want to maintain and improve my web building and web developing skills in my spare time. And for the second, I still want to explore the problem we set out to solve (“helping niche producers have an easier time connecting with their markets”), which in turn have shown to be a wide set of interwoven and ongoing challenges to be worked with continuously rather than just one problem to “solve”. In other words, the Kaplak site will take form and shape again, as we continuously rebuild.
The social messaging service Twitter, which has been called the Swiss Army Knife of online communications, has seen a few changes under the hood since the inception of the service. Among these are the hardcoded follow rule which was introduced on Twitter in late 2008. Those most hit by this rule are users who are unaware of the limits and are very generous with their follows. When I myself bumped into that limit, it gave rise to thoughts about how I use this service, what kind of value it has and how I need to follow and unfollow others.
Important stuff? No, not really. But then again it touches on some pretty important things, like our ability to speak and be heard via the online architectures we use. And that warrants some lengthy attention IMHO. I hope some influencers and “high profile” Twitter users will take note, reconsider their stand and build up their capacity to deal with larger information intakes.
The follow rule
Chances are you won’t have bumped into this limit if you’re new to Twitter, but if you follow many people, and specifically if you follow more users than follow you back (typically celebrities or other high-profile influencers), you’ll likely bump into it when you hit 2000 follows.
Before Twitter introduced this rule, following was free game. Everyone could have as many or as few followers and follows as they liked. Everything was open and one could be generous with one’s attention without fearing that one would “run out” of slots. This changed dramatically with this rule.
Basically, if you’re followed by 2000 users, you can follow 2200 yourself. If you’re followed by 10.000 you can follow 11.000 yourself. This rule, while good-intended, has some bizarre effects when you take a closer look at it. Among other things, it raises significantly the value of the commodity on Twitter known as a follow (i.e. attention), and even more that of a mutual follow (mutual attention), i.e. someone who follows you where you follow that someone back too.
Background : “bait-following”
This rule was introduced to combat “bait-following”. This is also sometimes referred to as Twitter “spam”, but I don’t acknowledge there is such a thing as “spam” on a service like Twitter. Many users have experienced this particular obnoxious phenomenon. Some users, either by themselves or using tools which utilize the Twitter API will track you down depending on your profile description or keywords in your tweet track record and follow you. What makes them different from users who genuinely want to connect with you, is that they do this en masse, following thousands of users, in the hope that some percentage will follow back. Hence the baiting. Those who do follow back can then be exposed to the advertising or other spam-like messages such as affiliate links to products you’re really not interested in or links to services which “help” you get “more followers”.
In Twitter’s early days, it wasn’t uncommon to browse around and follow other users somewhat randomly and sometimes stumble over interesting profiles and make new genuine connections. But automated tools made it considerably easier to “exploit” the fact that most Twitter users were generally willing to follow back others who were interested in connecting with them (and maybe still are, to a large degree).
These tools and the users who employ them (I’ve experimented with some myself at one time) use Twitter as a broadcast platform. It is the same logic applied to the online medium as is daily applied to television. It doesn’t matter if you waste 99% of your audience’s time, if you can sell something to the remaining 1%. That may be enough to make it worth it. Trouble is, the 99% still think it is a waste of their time, and therefore using methods like these to “increase following” is doomed to dry out sooner or later, as most will quickly see through the scams and unfollow such scammy attempts at gaining some attention.
After the hardcoded follow rules, scammers must now unfollow all those users who don’t follow back (but this is comparatively easy with automated tools), but then they are free to repeat the stunt. In other words, this particular type of use of Twitter persists. It’s still very common, and there’s very little the hardcoded rules can do to prevent it, because basically Twitter is a very open platform which grants access to it’s data to a wide host of third-party tools (which, among other things, make it great).
I wouldn’t care about follow or follower numbers so much as I do here, but because I feel Twitter nurtures some misconceptions about their own tool, which will make it less valuable, to me and other users – and ultimately to Twitter too.
First, as I stated, it is hard for me to accept that the crude misuse of Twitter described above is spam. For anyone to deliver a message to someone on Twitter that someone has to follow that anyone first. So messages on Twitter are always solicited. That you have been tricked into soliciting the messages doesn’t make such messages unsolicited.
In my humble opinion, Twitter should have kept their service pure. They should have butted out. They shouldn’t have started becoming involved with determining what kind of interactions took place using their service. Twitter would have survived fine, in spite of the crude attempts to undermine it’s usefulness. They should have worked to ensure it stayed a strong platform, which could make it as reliable as a phone line, but way more powerful. Twitter is a strong versatile platform and people used it very creatively on their own, blocking users they didn’t like and following those they did like. It was brilliant.
But they did. Twitter as a company couldn’t just look quiet at the many paths it was conceived scammers went to undermine their service. Fear started to kick in, and demands came from some users that Twitter needed to regulate and filter conversations and connections. They started abolishing user accounts whose following behaviour patterns made them suspicious. And they introduced hard coded rules, with the aim to stifle that particular kind of baiting spam as described above.
Twitter has a perception of it’s own service as a stream of information, which has to be managed. Noone can manage an intake of more than 2000 followers. At least not without losing out on many messages. So the argument for such hardcoded rules goes. However, this perception is wrongheaded as an attempt to figure out how Twitter data is used. The truth is Twitter has no idea whatsoever about what creative ways users may take in the data in their streams. One user taking in a lot of information may analyze it with a piece of software Twitter knows nothing about. Another may write a tool which filters the incoming stream according to criteria Twitter wouldn’t ever understand. Fundamentally Twitter is optimized for filtering at the receiving end, as the information intake will almost always be much much larger than the outgoing information stream. What we need in other words, is not better ways to restrict access, i.e. hardcoded limits on the posting end of the information loop – but better filters at the receiving end.
Filtering the information intake
I’ve often had Facebook friends complain about the massive stream of messages from me coming their way, when I send my tweets via Ping.fm in that direction. True, some nerdy stuff in there which they could care less about, but I want to include them, not exclude them from my information circuits, that’s why I send it their way. If I know the precise recipient of a message, I will usually send a direct message or email to that person. But more often than not, there’s no direct recipient but the aim to strike a chord or strike up conversation and input, like when I write a blog post. Social messaging is sometimes referred to as microblogging, and that is perhaps a very accurate description of the way I use Twitter. I send it their way, because I hope some of it may create new connections, from where the conversation may rise. I may discover new things about my friends doing this, because I never quite know who possesses the information I seek or share my interests and concerns.
Increasingly, as recipients of large information flows, their job then is to learn how to filter what they take in (if they do not choose to block me or unfriend me because I am “too loud”). We all need to do this. We all need to learn how to filter out incoming streams, i.e. prioritize what is more important than something else. What we need to read before something else. What emails to reply to first. Etc. Increasingly, we also need to learn to code and use aggregation tools on our own as well as free licensing, if we want to be independent of the filters offered us by proprietary service providers.
A large information intake or large information stream may be overwhelming, but it has nothing to do with spam. Spam is unsolicited messages sent to a lot of people in the hope that a small percentage responds and buys something. Information streams can be managed, filtered, analyzed, put from one form into another form.
The hard-coded follow rule imposes a limit in the wrong end. To get the best possible dataset, you don’t limit the intake, you take steps to make it easier to process the intake, to make it easier to get the desired data out. Twitter has no real idea if their users have need for a small or large intake of information for their data needs. But this is not the only place where Twitter don’t _get_ Twitter. I’ve often come back to how Twitter displays a huge failure to understand the value of their own data, when they don’t allow access to the full archives of tweets. You can go back only to what corresponds to three months worth of tweets. This means that all this data cannot be retrieved, filtered, analyzed and brought to use by clever people who want to know something about social behaviour patterns, particular brands, viral effects and all other things thinkable and mentionable. Twitter has a pre-conceived notion of what Twitter is, and if users don’t use Twitter that way, they are wrong and must be corrected with hard-coded rules to use Twitter as Twitter was intended. But the truth is the versatility of Twitter has made it much larger than itself – it has outgrown it’s initial purposes by milelengths. If Twitter doesn’t get that (and the true value they can offer as a business), they risk running their service into the ground, because they don’t make it profitable.
Now, I recently provoked some debate and diagreement among some of my followers when I provocatively asked why they didn’t follow me back. Actually, the message was not really aimed at those who do follow me, but at those who don’t. By those I mean the wide host of celebrities and influencers which are known to have a large following on Twitter, but only follow a small host of people themselves. I follow a wide host of them, but hitting the 2000-follow limit forced me to re-consider a lot of them. In fact, I unfollowed at least 800 users who didn’t follow me back, in order to allow me to follow others, who do follow me.
When someone follows me and I feel they are real people who are interested in what I have to say, I usually want to follow them back. Not only as a token of courtesy and respect, but because I feel strange when talking to someone and I have no idea what they are like. I want that influx of ideas from others and I honestly don’t care so much if I manage to read _everything_ but it’s there and I can take that data, do a search, create a filtered feed and other things if I want to, when I want to. You can too, if you want to, and if you want to learn how to do it.
What stopped me from following others back? The 2000-limit and the many many users that I followed, who didn’t care to follow back. It says I can only have 200 “non-follower” users I follow, if I want to follow everyone back who follows me (and I usually do). So what provoked me is that while high profile Twitter users such as Barack Obama, Scobleizer and Guy Kawasaki follows me back, why can’t others? If they can, why can’t you?
To me not following someone back is a message saying “I don’t care what you have to say” or “You’re less important than me”. Less worthy of attention. I’m worthy enough to be in your stream, but you can’t be in mine. That is the wrong message to send out, no matter what you want to communicate using Twitter, it’s a bad way to start a conversation with anyone. Don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing wrong with being very selective about who you follow, but if you overdo it, you also risk coming off as arrogant and disrespectful, because you do not take part in the exchanges on an equal footing.
I don’t care if Obama, Guy Kawasaki or Scobles actually reads what I have to say. I care about the gesture. I care about them saying with that gesture that if you give me attention, I will give you mine back. Even if it is not true. They will not occupy one of the most valuable rare 200 slots I can allocate to only information intake. These may be reserved for others, typically high-profile users whose opinion and information is so important to me, that I don’t care if they listen to what I have to say. As a company or as most people using Twitter, you don’t want to bet on yourself being in that category. You should follow back. Why reach out (have a Twitter account) and then don’t want to listen to what people have to say? Indeed, what those few who’s already decided they want to give you their attention, have to say (if anything).
I don’t consider myself an atypical Twitter user. There are many bloggers, companies, organizations and other users who use Twitter because they have a message they want out. We want to reach other people, make connections with others who are interested in what we have to say and offer. But I just unfollowed a lot of startups and internet professionals, who didn’t take the time, were too disinterested or too lazy to follow me back. They lost what tiny piece of my attention they had. They didn’t need to. With a small gesture, they’d still be in. Would it matter? I don’t know. Nobody knows. But they’d have given a small but important gesture, which doesn’t cost them much but may – just may – give them something of value back some day.
If attention matters to you, i.e. it matters that you reach someone out there with whom your message resonates, you can’t afford to throw away the tiny bits of attention you’re afforded when you’re afforded them.
What I really like about Trent Reznor’s style is that he hasn’t “worked it out”. He hasn’t discovered some magic formula for how to make money selling his music using the internet, and then simply lean back, enjoy the money and not care about developing his business model anymore. There’s no autopilot. He seems to genuinely want to connect and seems to enjoy the work involved in connecting, sharing music and creating new intriguing ideas for how to get his music out – and make a decent income in the process. That’s also why it works so well. He really do connect with fans, he really do give them value for their money. And he enjoys it too.
What Trent Reznor does so remarkably well may also serve as an example for all those engaged in promoting or selling a product online, to quit the thinking that they simply need to “work out” a method, which will instantly make them “connect” with thousands of people and let them become rich and successful overnight. That well will run dry for them sooner or later.
Make real connections. Engage others. Give them something of real value. And have fun!