Archive for the ‘Social Media’ Category
The polarising effect of Twitter never fails to amaze and entertain me. At last week’s Civil Service Live event, Twitter had managed to make two entries onto the “cool wall” – one under the heading of “Sub-zero” and the other under the heading of “seriously uncool”: I can think of no better illustration of the divided view on Twitter.
So what are the reasons from those people so adamantly resistant to Twitter’s charms? A lot of people just tell me, “I don’t get it” – and I can absolutely understand that. I didn’t get it at first either, and even now – after a year of sustained use – you’ll still find that my search for explanations of what Twitter is and why it’s so successful dominates more than its fair share of blog posts and del.icio.us links here, so I’m still trying to figure it out.
The other reason people give for not wanting to touch Twitter is usually: “It’s just a fad.” And this one, I confess, does confuse me.
First of all – how do you know it’s just a fad? No one is able to tell this sort of thing with any reliability. I remember sitting around with clients in the late 90s, talking to them about websites, and all too often they would have a pained expression on their face that said “When will this ‘internet’ fad be over with and let us get back to our comfortable world of print publications?” Sometimes they would say this out loud in the middle of meetings, too.
These people would have been delighted by the bursting of the IT bubble a couple of years later which they would have taken to have proven them right. They probably still think they are, even as they do their banking online and log on to Ocado to do their grocery shopping. The bubble might have burst, but the ‘fad’ just took a detour, came in through the backdoor and took over while everyone was congratulating themselves at seeing off the revolution.
But for every fad that becomes a true phenomenon, there are thousands which crash and burn – from Netscape and AOL to FriendsReunited and – it seems on the verge – MySpace. And I’m inclined to think that Twitter will indeed prove an over-hyped short-lived craze and that there’s a good chance that this time next year it will be forgotten and consigned to history. I’m actually surprised that it’s not already drowning in copycats, overrun by spam, floundering in the absence of a business model and overpowered by the hubris.
But so what if it only lasts 18 months? Does that really make any difference? Certainly while it’s here it’s proving to be a game-changer (I hesitate to use the clichéd phrase ‘paradigm shift’, but that’s what it is.) It’s introduced the concept of ‘real time’ into areas like search and blogging, and made crowd-sourcing and citizen journalism a genuine attainable activity for the first time instead of an abstract concept.
Those lessons and advances won’t disappear when and if Twitter burns itself out: if Twitter does flame out and disappear, it will still have made its mark. Twitter DNA will be embedded in the Next Big Thing to come along, so if you’ve turned up your nose at Twitter you’re even more likely to miss the next Next Big Thing to come along, and the next, and the one after that. And if and when you do decide to jump onto one of the bandwagons, you’ll find yourself disadvantaged and behind the pace of everyone who was already up to speed on and genuinely engaged with the previous trend.
By being involved in Twitter or whatever the current ‘fad’ is, you not only give yourself a fair chance of ‘future proofing’ yourself and being in a good position to spot the next trend, you’ll also get to see first hand what works and what doesn’t. And you can take that knowledge into the services and products you design yourself, and maybe the next fad is the one you’ll be at the head of. And maybe it will prove to be not just the next ‘fad’ at all.
Okay, slim odds I grant you. But people play the National Lottery for less chance of success, and given that your only outlay required is to try out a free service with an open mind and see what it’s all about, it seems like a small price indeed for a big reward.
June 2, 2009 in Social Media
links for 2009-06-02
I posted the following item to del.icio.us the other day:
But it got swept up into a “tidy up” aggregation of such items and the original post was moved, which broke a link to this page from Public Strategy as a result.
Public Strategy was using the link as a jumping-off point for a really interesting article about “zombie press notices” – about how the piecemeal coverage in press notices and resulting web site articles made it hard to actually get to the meat of the story in question – a real failure of (a) people writing press releases, and (b) too many journalists who do a mediocre job of processing the press releases they are spoon fed. C’mon, guys, journalism is more than just a bit of word processing! (That’s my spin on the situation, by the way, and not necessarily the thoughts of the Public Strategy article – don’t mean to misrepresent. Go see the article if you want to see what they say!)
I thought it was a great pick up on a topic that had never occurred to me when I was grazing the original Computing magazine piece linked to via de.icio.us when I was really just interested in the headline figures.
I make no such claims to be a journalist, so while the irony is not lost on me – that I was as content as the journalists with the original Computing magazine piece as it stood for the basic data – I can still claim that there’s a difference between bookmarking an article and writing one professionally, and I’m sticking to that line!
Anyway, I wanted to reinstate the original link so that Public Strategy‘s link wasn’t broken, and more importantly to allow me to point to a really interesting new post that I’m happy to be name checked in and to have been even peripherally involved in sparking off.
Twitter’s managed to avoid the high profile rows with its users that have beset Facebook from time to time, but it had to happen eventually. And last night might be their first falling-out with their previously besotted membership.
Twitter have previously avoided annoying their members by not doing anything much of anything at all. The service has been kept simple with only cosmetic changes; the biggest alteration, the cessation of SMS messages outside the US and Canada, was unfortunate but clearly understood as a matter of economics forced upon Twitter rather than a choice.
But a new change has come out of the blue that fundamentally changes how many people – myself included – use Twitter.
The change is that now I will no longer see messages from people I follow if they’re sent to someone that I don’t. Apparently it’s because many people find it irritating to only get “half a conversation”, like listening to someone talk on the phone but not hearing the other end of the conversation. Of course, on Twitter I could opt to now follow the person they were talking to as well so that I got both sides; and in fact that’s how many people have built up their Twitter social network, by getting introduced to friends of friends.
Unfortunately this new change now means that the people I’ve opted to follow are now sending out messages that I’m not seeing – I’m not even hearing their side of the phone conversation, so I don’t even know anything’s been said. I don’t even get the opportunity to join in the conversation. I not only lose a fair proportion of their messages that I expressely wanted to follow, I also lose a whole way of getting to know new people: it cripples a lot of networking functionality of Twitter, basically.
I can understand people who don’t want to use Twitter in this raw social networking way: either those who get too many messages and find the level of noise is affecting Twitter’s value to them; or who just want to have their own circle of friends and not get cluttered up with loads of other conversations that they’re not interested in. That’s fine: if Twitter had added a preferences option that allowed you to select “Only show @replies to people I follow” then I’d be quite happy; I wouldn’t have opted to select it, but anyone who wanted to would be properly served.
But to change this without that choice and without warning or discussion is something that is almost designed to provoke the membership. And like any other social media businesses over the years, Twitter is starting to discover that the members own the service not Twitter and that you provoke them at your peril. Remember: the size of Twitter’s membership can do down as well as up.
You can look at Facebook’s spats with its members (such as the debacle over new terms and conditions) and say, “oh, people will get over it”. But Facebook have learned from that incident that they need to cooperate with its members to keep them on board and find a middle ground. And that contre-temps was over something abstract that didn’t even affect day-to-day usage, unlike today’s Twitter change.
Is it hyperbole to call this change “fundamental”? Well, Twitter’s sole input box asks “What are you doing” and allows you to post your current status. If that status is no longer shared with people just because I directed it @ someone, then it no longer fulfills its original, single purpose as a service. Surely that justified “fundamental”?
So today, Twitter enters a new phase of its growth, and we get to see what kind of company it’s going to be: a true social media company that makes notice of its users, or a Microsoft/Apple that knows what’s best for its members and makes sure they get it; whether they like/want it or not.
I really hope it rises to the task, and is quick to #fixreplies.
Clarifying a misapprehension
A lot of tweets about the issue (and even the TechCrunch article covering the row) seem to think that this is the same issue as the old preference option that allowed you to choose to see on your home page all @replies from people sent to you, whether you followed them or not. It isn’t, although that’s been changed as well so that now you have to use the “mentions” tab to see them. At least there’s a fairly simple workaround for that.
Whereas this latest change is more crippling: the only way I can “workaround” this one is to go to every single one of the people I follow to see if they’ve posted something that hasn’t shown up on my home page because they started it with an ‘@’ to someone I wasn’t following.
That’s not a workaround, that’s a disaster.
UPDATE: Good post by long time Twitter user Darren Waters over at the BBC blogs entitled “Twitter tests users with changes” and also ReadWriteWeb’s “Twitter Puts a Muzzle on Your Friends” and “Is This Why Twitter Changed Its Replies Policy?” posts.
UPDATE 2: And seems that I was behind the times on the last bit of the post, and it’s my misapprehension that needs correcting. Apparently Twitter offered three settings: show all @replies, no @replies or @replies to people I’m following and it is indeed, as TechCrunch and others say, this preference setting that’s been removed. That differs from the way I remember that setting functioning, so either it changed since I originally looked/set it or else I simply misremembered the options it gave. But it does seem a lot of people are not entirely getting what this latest change means in practice, that they will be missing posts sent by people they are following which is my main issue with it. Thanks to the blog post by Jon Bounds for extra info.
UPDATE 3: And now, oddly, Twitter founder Biz Stone has changed the reason why the feature was removed: “there were serious technical reasons why that setting had to go or be entirely rebuilt—it wouldn’t have lasted long even if we thought it was the best thing ever.” Okay … Weird not to say that in the first place. Like the withdrawal of SMS, if a feature can’t be sustained without collapsing the whole then even die hard fans concede there is a good case to withdraw it. Only the unfortunate thing is, by changing stories, Twitter now look a bit untrustworthy: is it really technically unsustainable, or are they simply rolling out the technical reason the feature had to go because of the backlash and they needed something more than the original somewhat condescending announcement? Actually, I’m always more inclined to go for the cock-up theory of history than conspiracy.
AND FINALLY: Last update, I promise. I’m getting bored with the whole subject now. but I wanted to pass on a brilliant post/idea from Space Miner (Laura Brunow Miner) who outlines how this change is as much opportunity as problem, simply by creating your own “Twitter group accounts“. Really smart thinking.
NO, REALLY, THIS TIME IT’S FINAL: Sorry. Fast moving story, and I didn’t see this one coming so quickly: Twitter have relented. Sort of. They’ve changed their changes so that you will now continue to see replies even if they are to people you aren’t following. Unless someone uses the actual ‘reply to’ button. Errr – got that? I can see their logic in the new position and it might address some of the technical problems they mentioned, but it’s not exactly crystal clear. Now I feel sorry for all the people who had the previous “no replies” default setting who are suddenly going to get all the extra noise in their home page stream. Sigh. Coverage and explanations in TechCrunch and ReadWriteWeb.
Personally I don’t think this really satisfies anyone fully. It probably appeases the #fixreplies crowd well enough, and maybe the noreplies crowd won’t mind/notice all that much. It’s not the “choose your own preferences” solution but Twitter is promising more personalisation controls down the line, it’ll just take a while so this is an interim fix.
But what is good is that Twitter listened, and did its best to respond. They’ve done some good social media practice today.
So the choice of Director of Digital Engagement was announced today. And the job goes to … Andrew Stott, who has been serving as Deputy Chief Information Officer at the Cabinet Office until now.
I don’t know him personally, but several of my colleagues have worked closely with him on projects and he’s come along to our team meeting to give a talk about the progress of the service transformation strategy that he’s been heading up at e-Government Unit.
Most of the projects that I know he’s been working on have been related to getting blogs, wikis and microblogging (Twitter) working for and across government, so he’s certainly very familiar with the government scene in the online engagement areas and will be hitting the ground running.
I think many – including myself, if I’m honest – expected a new face from the private sector to make a bold splash and shake everything up. Which, to be honest, wasn’t a very appealing prospect to those of us who have been plugging away at this for a while now and thinking that we were finally getting some real progress on many fronts. To suddenly change direction and start all over again would have been both irritating and time-consuming, just when there is no time to waste. This appointment means we should be able to get on with things, but with a high profile person at the head of things to drive it forward still faster.
According to reports, he’ll be based in the Government Communication department of the Cabinet Office, overseen by permanent secretary for Government communications Matt Tee, which should also mean he’ll be working closely with the new COI Chief Executive Mark Lund when he starts work next month.
It’s nice to finally know who will be filling the role; the next key step is learning what Andrew Stott’s plans are and how he will take the role forward. It should be very interesting to watch it all take shape.
One nice touch: the appointment was “a Twitter exclusive“. If Twitter was good enough for Barack Obama to use to announce his choice of running mate, then it’s certainly the right place to announce who will be leading the government’s efforts on digital engagement!
UPDATE: Interesting blog posts on this around the place:
So of course everyone’s slightly obsessing over swine ‘flu at the moment. I was out of the office on leave (no, not in Mexico) when the news broke, and I rather thought that when I got back to my desk on Wednesday the whole organisation would be diverted to working full time on pandemic contingencies.
Alas, no such thing. It’s very much business as usual, with the regular projects continuing normally. I’m sure some of my colleagues might be working on swine ‘flu-related work but I haven’t found anyone so far. But there’s certainly chatter about it around the proverbial water cooler – the slightest cough gets playful shouts of “swine ‘flu!” directed in your direction, and a couple of folk are suspiciously off ill today all of a sudden … Hmm, yeah, right!
But the elevation of the WHO alert status to ’5′ (one short of full-blown pandemic) has certainly kicked off some official responses even at a local level, with information emailed to everyone about symptoms, what to watch out for, what to do in the event you suspect someone you know might be coming down with it, we’re collecting home emails for everyone in case it’s necessary to contact people en masse at home, and so forth. It’s all part of the pre-planned response to the alert level being raised, but it’s interesting to see all those plans being utilised for real.
The government’s producing a Swine ‘flu information leaflet (PDF, 119Kb) that will go out to everyone in the next few days; the slogan for the information drive seems to be “Catch it, Bin it, Kill it” – I’m biased, but I can’t help but think that it’s not a patch on the old “Coughs and sneezes spread diseases” wartime campaign from our predecessor, the Ministry of Information.
- Take everything you read online with a pinch of salt and beware the echo chamber effect;
- Find a better circle of people to follow who aren’t going to spread misinformation.
Perhaps it is the people I follow (or the company I keep) but I can’t think of a single piece of information that I’ve seen on Twitter that hasn’t subsequently been verified – it’s just that Twitter has got there first. I even found out about all this early on Saturday morning on Twitter, and was taking it all with due caution because the BBC site had almost nothing, just a story about Mexico in its Americas section. It was another six or eight hours before someone in the mainstream media woke up and the BBC promoted the article in one bound to the lead story on the site; at which point I was already feeling very well informed thanks to Twitter.
Within hours of the news going mainstream, there was a Google map up and running showing the location and status of the various outbreaks: if anything was made for online mapping, then I suppose a potential pandemic is.
Of course, panic and hysteria and saturation coverage can be very dangerous in a situation like this. But now we’re getting to the next phase of public reaction, which is to blame the media and officials for the reaction and to reject the whole thing as over-the-top hysteria. “It’s just ‘flu, for Heaven’s sake” is the current refrain. Well, yes … But people forget how scary ‘flu can be. That’s real ‘flu, not “manflu” or the “‘flu you ring in to work with to take a crafty day off.” The best definition of the difference between a cold and real ‘flu is “if someone stands at the bottom of your bed dangling a £50 note then if you can reach out and get it, you’ve got a cold. If you can’t, it’s ‘flu”.
So ‘flu can be pretty serious even in normal times, and is certainly high risk for the very young and very old. But that’s ‘flu when large sections of the population have been vaccination and/or have natural immunities: with a completely new strain like the one we’re seeing emerge from Mexico, all of a sudden you have the risk that huge numbers of people will be hit simultaneously and without any of the immunities that protect us form the worst of regular ‘flu outbreaks. So, yes, it’s “just ‘flu” – but it’s the worst case scenario of ‘flu and no one should get complacent about it, just as they shouldn’t get hysterical.
For one thing, despite the raising of the WHO pandemic alert, we’re not there yet: we’re lacking key information about how fast this ‘flu spreads, and how severe its effects are. Why are there so many deaths in Mexico but only one outside (and that a 23-month-old toddler who would be at a greater risk from ‘flu even at normal times)? It may be that the virus doesn’t travel well or has already mutated to a milder version, for example.
Now, I’m not an expert in any of this of course, so pretty much anything you read here could be incorrect. It’s my best understanding, that’s all, and I’m happy to be set straight about any of it if I’m off the mark. And that’s a good caveat to remember when reading the vast majorty of blogs, tweets and social media comment about swine ‘flu: everyone’s guessing and no one really knows everything. So apply a common sense filter when reading about it all, don’t get paranoid – and don’t forget to use your handerchief when you sneeze!
So today’s hot rumour is that Google and Twitter are in ‘advanced talks’ about the search engine buying the microblogging phenomenon. Is the story true – and would it be a good idea if it were?
It’s been confirmed that Google and Twitter are talking, but it’s less clear what they are actually talking about: it may be discussions about working together on a Google real time search engine rather than a full takeover.
But there’s something “right” about the idea of Google taking over Twitter, in exactly the way that the prospect of Facebook acquiring Twitter felt completely “wrong”.
There’s been a slew of stories recently that Twitter is starting to encroach on Google‘s home turf of search – that Twitter is now more useful in finding news and links than the omnipotent but traditional search engine. That kind of story was always going to irritate Google high command, who don’t like incursions onto their turf from any quarter – and especially not from a pipsqueak operation of the likes of Twitter.
But there’s no denying that you can get an awful lot of information from Twitter, far faster than you can from a search engine: a case in point being the plane crash in the Hudson. That’s why the idea of Google and Twitter collaborating on a real-time search engine to capture this new ground is such a good one; but does it mean Google would be interested in buying Twitter lock, stock and barrel?
Google’s history shows a mixed track record on this. On the one hand, they’ve been quick to see new sources of information that can be fed into their search engines, from Google News to Google Blogs, from analysing the chatter in private emails in Google Mail to collecting priceless web stats information from Google Analytics, and finding out the stories people are reading via RSS by making Google Reader available. All of this information about what people are reading/talking about is very much Google’s core business. However, Google’s shortlived Lively rival to Second Life was a bust on all levels – not very good, not offering anything you couldn’t get far better from Second Life, and most of all completely unrelated to the Google core information business.
But would buying a service like Twitter succeed within the Google culture? Google will always love its own children more than the stepchildren it buys up from other companies: the purchase of YouTube has been a success in business terms, but it still looks out of their main business focus and there’s something semi-detached about YouTube’s operations.
And Google has actually already bought a microblogging social network platform, a year and a half ago. It was called Jaiku, and you probably won’t have heard about it. After taking it over, Google closed Jaiku to new registrations while it mused what to do with it .. and then at the start of 2009 decided not to reopen it at all but to close it down and release the source code onto Google AppEngine instead.
This is very odd, because it looks like Google had the superior platform for microblogging (Jaiku is streets ahead in technology from the archaic, trouble-prone Twitter tech base), but completely missed the boat and throttled the life out of it’s own candidate by shutting down registrations. And now, having completely botched that, they’re in the position of possibly paying out hundreds of millions of dollars to buy up Twitter instead.
Would they treat Twitter any better than Jaiku? Well, yes: and the amount of money involved is one big reason why. You tend to value and treasure things that cost you an arm and a leg, whereas Jaiku was more like an impulse purchase that you forget to take out of the bag until months later.
Twitter would certainly benefit from the huge technological know-how and sheer quantity of resources Google could bring to it – the fail whale would become part of folk memory, lost to the ages with Google’s server farms on tap. The real time information and search possibilities that Twitter has created make it the kind of service that will appeal to Google techies, who will have countless innovations to bring to it. All in all – it’s actually hard to see a downside to a Google/Twitter buy-out.
Many would question that conclusion and find too little synergy between a search engine company and a social networking one. Surely the more obvious tie-up would be between Twitter and Facebook as they operate in similar areas?
Well – no, that would be disastrous, as I’ve argued before. What would Twitter add to Facebook? Absolutely nothing. Facebook already has a status update features, and recent (much-hated) changes to its home page have added Twitter-esque rolling news. How could Facebook see Twitter’s less sophisticated service as adding anything to what’s on offer already?
The thing is that Twitter succeeds because (like the original Google home page) it does one thing, and one thing only – but it does it brilliantly. Add a whole lot of things around it, you take the focus off that service and you end up with a mishmash – like Yahoo! when it went all portal. Even today, with all the difference products and services it offers, Google’s homepage retains that simplicity and clarity, it’s just that it’s been very clever in how it integrates all its new services in the results page you get next without distracting the user in the slightest.
Google’s not a perfect solution for a takeover partner for Twitter, but it’s better than just about any others you could name like Adobe, NewsCorp or (God forbid) Microsoft. The latter in particular seems to be really struggling in Web 2.0 and is tone deaf to almost any aspect of social media, which is quite extraordinary for such a leading tech company.
Twitter does need someone to buy them up. As hugely successful as they are at signing people up at the moment, the fact is that they’re not making any money out of it. While they flirt with Google AdWord-style boxes on the home page, Twitter’s executives don’t seem to have a business plan capable of sustaining the service long- or even medium-term. And in these recessionary times, it’s going to be hard to attract more investment funds while remaining independent.
So personally I think Google’s as good a potential suitor as Twitter could hope for. A deal with Google may assure Twitter of a long life, while any others risk having the Friends Reunited effect (which essentially fell apart the minute that social networking site was bought by British broadcaster ITV.)
Let’s hope that Twitter, after almost being the blushing bride with Facebook in aborted and ill-tempered talks in 2008, can find lasting happiness in the arms of its new suitor.
So starting yesterday, Twitter is back in the SMS game in the UK after an eight-month lay-off. Will it make any difference – or has Twitter already moved on from its text messaging roots?
Twitter’s original model was based around allowing people to send and receive updates to and from all their friends from their mobile phone while on the go, so when Twitter had to pull their SMS service from the UK back in August 2008 it looked like a body blow for the still-fledgling online service. I’d only just been on Twitter for a couple of weeks at the time – and hadn’t even got around to using the SMS feature – and I remember distinctly thinking “So, I joined just in time for the service to implode?”
That’s because at the time, SMS seemed so core to the Twitter model it was hard to imagine it without. Twitter’s 140 character status updates have always been distinctly text message-like, and a large part of the appeal was being able to use the service to “mass broadcast” text messages to a whole group of your friends at the same time. It was mobile instant messaging, in other words.
That basic concept still exists in the US and Canada, but the different billing model of telecoms companies in the UK meant that Twitter was haemorrhaging money by producing these free SMS updates to people’s followers. Considering Twitter then (and now) didn’t have a revenue model worth two cents, the prospect of having to pay out huge sums (up to $1000 per user according to some reports) so people could update their friends on their lunch habits was truly horrific. Hence the axe swung and the SMS service was rescinded overnight (although it’s still been possible to send a text to Twitter to update one’s status on the go.)
It should have crippled Twitter’s expansion plans in the UK, but in fact in the first few weeks it seemed to have almost no effect. People already addicted to Twitter simply readjusted, and apps for mobile smartphones such as TwitterBerry, Twitterrific, TwitterFon and Tweetie flooded into the market offering a far richer experience than plain text messages ever could. Far from being the end of Twitter in the UK, it almost seemed as though (for smartphone users at least) this was a radical upgrade to the experience.
And then SMS-less Twitter use simply exploded even without text: take a look at this TechCunch graph of usage and you’ll see that after an initial flat period in August following the SMS withdrawl, the takeup figures then went out of control. Last month, HitWise UK reported that Twitter became one of the 100 most visited websites in the UK for the first time. All of it without the SMS functionality.
And now, just as abruptly as it disappeared, SMS functionality resumed last night – at least for Vodafone users, although there are rumours that other networks including O2 and T-Mobile also doing deals in the next few days, which is surprising as you’d have thought that the exclusivity of the arrangement would have been worth one telecom making a deal for given the potential customer appeal. So once again, as it was a year ago, receiving SMS tweets will be free for all Vodafone customers while outgoing SMS tweets will come out of customers’ text message bundles.
I’m not a Vodafone user any more (I left the service last year after a minor problem with service turned into major exasperation at their lack of any kind of customer service) and so the current announcement of SMS restoration doesn’t affect me. But if O2 do a similar deal in the days and weeks ahead, I’m wondering: will I really care? Would I use it?
I’d certainly try it. Well, you have to, don’t you? Until you’ve actually tried something for yourself there’s no telling how useful or not you’ll find it. Twitter itself is a perfect example of that, something that you look at from the outside and wonder what on earth the appeal of it could possibly be; and then after a week of using it you suddenly find it’s become as addictive as crack cocaine. And even then, you still can’t figure out why.
It would certainly be useful to know instantly that someone’s sent me a reply rather than have to consciously use the iPhone apps to login and check. But then, I do this so regularly and automatically that I could in some circles be classified a push notification service in my own right (who needs iPhone 3.0?)
But this isn’t about me, or about any of the current users of the Twitter service, all of whom have evolved and adapted. No, this deal to bring back SMS is about the massive as-yet untapped and unconverted audience out there who haven’t been lured over to Twitter-heroin, including who typically don’t have smartphones that can compensate for the lack of SMS integration: the teenagers who genuinely do live by text message alone. If Twitter can tap into that market with the same zeal that they have invaded the niche market in the last six months, then current spectacular growth will look quaint and whimsical by comparison in a year’s time.
That’s why it was vital for Twitter’s new business development director – who is charged with creating a viable business model for Twitter – to get this SMS deal done in the UK as soon as possible, because to miss the boat and not cement on the current high profile and massive growth would be to throw away all opportunity of making Twitter a lasting business success. Already you wonder if the “It” moment for Twitter hasn’t peaked and passed, such that the hyper-cool texting teens haven’t already tried and dismissed SMS-less Twitter and moved on to the Next Big Thing. If they have – can they be lured back?
It’s a big moment for Twitter, and the irony is that this step change is all about a brand new feature … that we had and took for granted a year ago. It’s almost as sly a move as Apple ‘reinventing’ cut and paste as a brand new feature of iPhones!
There have been several eye-catching Government site launches in the last few weeks, showing how seriously Government is taking social media. But is the drive for digital engagement at odds with another key online policy?
The most high profile of the recent launches has to be Real Help Now, the government’s new brand for tackling the effects of the economic recession by introducing and demonstrating the practical help available to families and businesses during the recession. In some ways it seems like the fulfilment of a Campaign story from January that reported:
Liam Byrne, the Cabinet Office minister … wants COI to consider branding the Government’s anti-recession measures in an umbrella ad campaign. Such a move could provoke allegations that an umbrella campaign would also aim to convince voters that the Government is acting to limit the scale of the downturn.
In fact COI wasn’t involved in this particular website launch and credit has to go to Simon Dickson, Dave Briggs and the rest of the Downing Street team who put it together in a very short space of time. Steph Gray notes that instead of WordPress it is “using the cloud as its CMS, via tagged items from Delicious and YouTube,”
Simon writes that:
We aren’t making any great claims for this site: it is what it is, a pretty front end, courtesy of regular collaborator Jonathan Harris, pointing to other people’s material, plus a (first person) message from the Prime Minister. But if it can establish itself, there’s naturally plenty of scope to extend and expand into something more communicative and interactive.
And a very nice front end it is too – the purple design is both striking and classy, reassuring yet dynamic – not an easy trick to pull off. It’s been criticised by the media as being merely an attempt to use a “coloured logo to convince public it is doing something over recession” but that seems very unfair to a site that is clearly doing a lot more than simply post a few PDFs of generic advice that no one will ever read, which was the approach of the first wave of websites “tackling” the recession. But at the same time it’s not a match to the US federal website Recovery.gov either and Dougald Hine points out that there’s an awful lot more that social media could be used for to tackle the recession.
But Real Help Now isn’t the only site launch of late. There’s also The London Summit 2009, a website from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, which is a small masterclass in social media techniques which as Steph Gray notes:
In the emerging field of digital engagement for policymaking, this seems to be doing a lot right: a hub for news, early planning, serious resource invested original content (but not much new money thrown at technology), partnerships with innovative forums for debate, a strategy for engagement designed to work at the level of professionals as well as the public, and measurement.
And finally there’s the rather more low-key launch of a discussion site for the Digital Britain interim report consultation by the Secretariat for the Digital Britain Steering Board. This is more of a fix, if we’re honest, to the rather embarrassing oversight by the original report that made feedback to the report difficult: you had to hunt-and-seek the email address 72 pages in. There was none of the impressive interactive consultation you see on the likes of, for example, the Power of Information Taskforce beta report.
Now, okay, after all of that background, time to get to the point:
One thing that all these recent site launches share is that they are all … Well, recent site launches, with their own URLs. But hang on a minute, isn’t government supposed to be dramatically slashing the number of standalone websites across government? Isn’t Transformational Government talking about how website rationalisation has resulted in “another 712 government websites have been earmarked for closure – bringing the total to more than 900 since 2006 and making it easier for people to find the information they want and need online”? How can one part of government be working hard to close websites and discourage any new launches, while Downing Street, the FCO and Digital Britain are merrily opening brand new ones?
With Real Help Now, for example, the obvious transformationally-compliant approach would have been for Directgov to take responsibility for hosting this information, which is public-facing and bringing together information from across government – very much Directgov’s thing. So why wasn’t it part of the Directgov offering? Was it the need for a separate brand away from Directgov orange, needing its own URL? But many government departments have claimed that their pet project needs such standalone status and distinctive brand, and website rationalisation has put them in their place and told them “No” in the interests of streamlining the morass of websites the citizen previously had to traverse to find the information they needed.
Probably the short answer for why Real Help Now wasn’t done on Directgov is that it wasn’t technically possible to use the sort of social media tools on the Directgov shared CMS platform – at least not without spending a huge load of money to achieve it and taking far too long. I’ve worked with a client on a simple revamp of their website design on a similar shared services platform, and it took many months of delicate negotiations to achieve it when the IT supplier’s default response seemed to be “the computer says no.” And that’s just changing some cosmetic designs – who knows how long it would have taken to anything truly fresh and innovative?
But that opens up a whole new can of worms in this day and age of Web 2.0 fast track innovation: are we saying that the large “supersites” like Directgov, Businesslink and Schoolsweb (if that ever launches!) aren’t compatible with innovation, social media and fast turn around?
That’s an argument dangerous to the whole policy of transformational government online, for website rationalisation, and for Directgov: while all those initiatives seemed like a fine response to the out-of-control mess of online government real estate in 2005, it’s possible that it’s all already outdated and outmoded even before it completes its task, because with new in-favour initiatives such as the appointment of a high-level senior post of Director of Digital Engagement precisely to embed social media and innovative, cost-effective ways of using technology and the web, an infrastructure that impedes this or makes it too costly or time-consuming is going to find itself kicked into touch or into shape in the coming months.
Maybe it’s time for Transformational Government to come up with its own version 2.0 to take into account how it should be working to promote open source, small inspirational and novel microsites? Behind the scenes it already is – coming up with ways of using the semantic web to deliver services while retaining the core commitment to Directgov, Businesslink and a small number of central websites and forbidding any new ones. But the evidence suggests this core line might be breaking in 2009 and that it needs to have a more fundamental root-and-branch rethink or risk becoming the sort of block to responsive, user-centred design of government services that it was created to promote and achieve.
The last week has been full of discussion, complaints and general outrage about Facebook’s new Terms of Service that seemed to say, in summary, that they owned any data you put on the site – even if you deleted it and canceled your account.
As Google have argued before, there are sound technical reasons related to data storage and backup strategies to argue why a company may need to reserve the legal right to retain the data for a lengthy period. In addition, Mark Zuckerberg, the founder and boss of Facebook, arged in his case that – because the purpose of Facebook is to share your data and information with your friends – then your friends had a right to keep the information you had shared with them, rather in the way that they get to keep an email from you even if you decide to delete your own copy of it.
It shows that good intentions and sound technical strategies can still be torpedoed by legal intervention, because in writing a formal contract encapsulating these fairly benign – or at least understandable – intentions, the lawyers end up writing a statement that reads bluntly as “your data is ours and we can do what we like with it.” So the headline message is: never let your lawyers take control of something that is primarily a marketing/consumer message, or you’ll suffer the backlash.
Facebook have today announced (see Media Guardian, TechCrunch and BBC coverage, as well as Zuckerburg’s own blog post) that they will revert to their old terms of service which should take the sting out of the growing row. It’s not the first time they’ve been forced to backtrack: almost two years ago, an application that would report back to your friends everything you bought online also provoked a vicious user backlash and a similar retreat.
So on a site that relies on user generated content, what’s the legal position of the site? If the site doesn’t ‘own’ the content, can it have a viable business model? But at the same time, if it moves to ‘own’ the user generated content, aren’t the users going to desert in droves and take their UGC with them? It is their content after all and it’s not unreasonable that they should take exception at the idea of someone trying to – let’s not mince words here – steal it from them.
A social media business is reliant almost exclusively on its user community. People join Facebook, MySpace or Twitter not for the features, but because their friends or people they want to link up with are on it. That’s especially true for Twitter, which has become a huge success despite the fact that it’s technically as primitive as it comes – but it doesn’t matter if that’s where the people you want to follow hang out.
If those people on Twitter (like Stephen Fry, Jonathan Ross, Tom Watson et al), Facebook or MySpace suddenly moved out and found somewhere else they preferred, then the original site would collapse with the startling suddeness of climate change onset. So you disturb your users with caution, because while users will put up with a lot without reacting, they can also suddenly stampede and leave you standing in the dust if you’re not careful.
[UPDATE 27 February 2009: How to turn a PR disaster into a win - by owning up and then throwing open the issue of writing new terms of servcie ot the user community. An impressive recovery from Facebook, who seem to have understood the importance of the membership to the success of the business and thereby co-opted them into the process. Bravo!]
More from meHere's links to other things that I'm doing: my tweets, my reviews blog (Taking The Short View), my motor sports blog (motorsports.ind), my Google Shared items. Please check them out if any of them sound like your sort of thing!
See the latest stories I've been writing for crash.net on GP2, IndyCar and NASCAR.
- Ooooh, that's bad. Whole left side. #f1 #monaco #grosjean 12 hours ago
- That was almost a super slo-mo pigeon snuff movie ... #gp2 #monaco 15 hours ago
- Basically, I could happily sit and look at #Monaco all day long. With or without cars running. #besotted #f1 16 hours ago
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- Taking The Short View - Doctor Who: The Name of the Doctor (BBC1) wp.me/p1lnud-zH 2 days ago
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- Taking The Short View - Star Trek Into Darkness (2013) wp.me/p1lnud-zB 5 days ago
- Doctor Who: The Name of the Doctor (BBC1) May 21, 2013
- The Fall S1 E1 (BBC2) May 21, 2013
- Star Trek Into Darkness (2013) May 18, 2013
- Ray Harryhausen: Special Effects Titan (2011) May 15, 2013
- Doctor Who: Nightmare in Silver (BBC1) May 14, 2013
- Murder on the Home Front (ITV) May 10, 2013
- What I’ve been watching (May 3-9) May 10, 2013
- Hannibal S1 E1 “Apéritif” (Sky Living) May 8, 2013
- ArchiveView: Star Trek (2009) May 7, 2013
- Doctor Who: The Crimson Horror (BBC1) May 6, 2013
- Steve Jobs: “Death Is The Destination We All Share”
- Innovation Starvation | World Policy Institute
- You'll freak when you see the new Facebook - CNN.com
- Mashable: Facebook to unveil iPad app at iPhone 5 event
- Ian Betteridge looks at Apple and Google's differences in the cloud at Tap! The iPhone and iPad magazine
- Coming out
- UKTI’s TechCityUK site: 100 WordPress pages, £53k
- New man in charge at Number 10
- Brits buy more e-books than other Euro readers • reghardware
- The RFP is dead: new concepts in audience discovery
- Will the 2012 Bahrain GP take place? April 10, 2012
- A first look at the 2012 season form book March 17, 2012
- Sutil convicted over nightclub fracas January 31, 2012
- A slumbering blog December 8, 2011
- Future/Present: who will be the faces of tomorrow’s F1? July 30, 2011
- F1: Sky finally claim the Grand Prix July 29, 2011
- NASCAR: Loudon success rejuvenates Stewart-Haas July 18, 2011
- INDYCAR: Recriminations rage on after Toronto July 15, 2011
- Comment on Will the 2012 Bahrain GP take place? by Bahraini youth vow ‘three days of rage’ during Formula 1 « This Day – One Day April 13, 2012
- Comment on F1: Sky finally claim the Grand Prix by andrewlewin November 1, 2011
- Comment on F1: Sky finally claim the Grand Prix by Chris Williams November 1, 2011
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