On Twitter.

May 10th, 2009 § 2 comments § permalink

Last Friday, Alex and I went to the keynote speech and alumni reception of “Blowing up the Brand“, a conference put on by our old department at NYU, partially to say hello to some old professors and bum a few free drinks from the University. The keynote, given by Rob Walker of The New York Times Magazine‘s “Consumed” column, focused on how one can, and whether one should, think of oneself as a brand. The genesis of Mr. Walker’s remarks was a question posed to him at a conference some months ago, wherein he suggested, off-handedly, that one ought to think of oneself as a brand in order to market oneself in–I think–the employment marketplace. His speech delved into the consequences of this for personal life and, to some degree, civil society in general.

However, what struck me most about the talk, was how often–especially during Q&A–the topic turned to Twitter, the social network and online communication tool du jour. Questions went something like “What do you think of x marketing campaign on Twitter?” “Can you think of any company using Twitter effectively?” “Marketing consultants say you have to be on Facebook, MySpace, and Twitter, is this true?”

The questions, and their answers, indicated a greater truth than the effectiveness of any given usage of Twitter: Nobody knows how to use Twitter. Absolutely nobody. Sure, there might be interesting individual usages of Twitter that integrate with a billboard in Times Square, or through which customer service representatives respond to complaints. But nobody has a very good idea of how one ought to use this new tool. It got me wondering: what’s different about Twitter when compared with the last big online hit, say, Facebook. My thoughts go something like this:

Twitter is searchable

This is a pretty big deal. Facebook is only searchable insofar as individual users allow you to search their names or selected metadata. Twitter is full-text indexed for all its users’ content (except those users who have closed their updates to the world). What’s more, it’s not natively categorized. Sure, there are a few attempts to get users to include metadata in their posts, like hashtags, but when posts are only 160 characters long, there’s not much space for anything other than the most distilled content you can cram into one. Twitter does make arbitrary-text searching easy and fast, though, so a given company can easy find the latest instances of “Comcast” or “Skittles”, and use that data in some other application.

Twitter is conversational

Twitter engenders public discourse in 160-byte chunks. Find a post you agree with/disagree with/love/want to roundly excoriate? Reply @to_the_user and you can, instantly, in public. The only thing is that there are no conversation threads, like on a message board, no “Reply All” as in email, just your own voice added to the multitude. Combined with searching, this is a new way to get an idea of the general zeitgeist on a particular topic.

Twitter encourages integration

Twitter feeds and searches can be exported in XML and integrated into any application you like, from the simple (witness the twitter feed on this page), to the complicated (a billboard in Times Square that responds to tweets). Facebook and MySpace don’t allow for such fast data export and re-use over their global populations of users.

Yet, with all that, there is no specific, canonical usage of Twitter. Twitter is somewhat unique in that it is simply a tool for moving data around and searching and slicing it in interesting ways, then shipping it off to be used elsewhere. On the small, user-scale, that could be a few friends talking about where they’re going for drinks via text message. On a global scale, it could be used to pin down a global conversation about a product, service, company, politician, and so on. There are no rules, just a loose framework. Every company with a marketing budget is, apparently, trying to figure out how to use the tool to its best effect, but, to date, don’t seem to have come up with a consensus. This shouldn’t be surprising; it’s like asking “how do I use the Postal Service?” You use it however it’s useful–do you want to send a package, a letter, do direct mail, register with the Selective Service, or contact a pen pal? The postal service does all of that. Twitter is just a mechanism for moving data — it can be used as effectively as one wishes. The sooner marketing consultants realize this, the better.

Facebook and Live Search

October 7th, 2008 § 5 comments § permalink

Today, Facebook unveiled a new feature: built-in Live Search. According to a recent post to the Facebook Blog, “This is the first step in giving you the ability to find content from across the web while using Facebook”. I’m sure it’s no coincidence that Microsoft made a $240 million investment in Facebook last October.

I think this is the wrong direction for Facebook, for three reasons:

First, the Facebook brand has nothing to do with searching the Web. Attempting to integrate social-networking and a wider Web search in the same site will serve only to dilute the Facebook brand. In short, nobody goes to facebook.com to search the World Wide Web. They go to Facebook to find out what their friends (and friends of friends) are doing, send a quick message, and tell their friends what they’re doing, and all the classic social-network activities. Running a comprehensive web search? No way. The above-mentioned blog post suggests that the new integrated Live search will allow users to find information about what friends are doing on-the-fly. Unfortunately, most users already have a search bar built into their browser to do that, and it probably points to Google. I know I’ve got my cmd+T, tab routine down quite nicely at this point to open a new tab and perform a search.

As much as convergence is supposed to be the new face of the Internet, Facebook should be very, very careful about extending their product beyond their area of expertise by bolting on a third-party’s application. Facebook’s very good at communicating the nitty-gritty details of my friends’ lives, but I have no idea about how good it is at searching the Internet–I’ve already got a place for that, and its proven itself to be pretty excellent at it.

Second, this feels like it’s bringing Facebook a little closer to the portal territory of web search in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Check out a page from Yahoo from archive.org from a random date in 2001:

Yahoo in 2001

Yahoo in 2001

What does this website actually do? Notice that the ‘search’ functionality is lost amid the general chatter of the site. It’s apparently a directory, it’s my email, it’s my Personals Ads, it’s my Bill Paying, it’s…well, nothing, actually, because I never used any of those features, probably because I couldn’t find any of them. To Facebook’s credit, it gracefully integrates the Live search function behind the same search box that one uses to search for a person on the social network, adding a drop-down box that (correctly) defaults to searching only Facebook. But here’s the problem: Facebook’s not a search engine. It’s a social network that’s searchable, and should be extremely careful of attempting to integrate too many services into a single interface. That’s been tried, and it didn’t work.

Third, this is almost certainly an attempt by Microsoft to boost its share in the search market, which is currently hovering at around 3% by piggybacking on Facebook’s rising-star status, using its investment as leverage. The problem is that the web search in the Facebook user interface is almost entirely unbranded, so the user has no idea who’s providing the search results. I don’t think this provides much benefit to Microsoft, as users are unlikely to gain brand loyalty to Live if they don’t know where their search is going, and at worst may feel duped that their search isn’t being performed by Facebook if they decide to look under the hood.

I’ve been on Facebook for a long time; more or less since it was first opened to users at NYU which was shortly after it expanded beyond its initial confines of Harvard. If it goes public, I’ll be first in line to buy stock. But I think the Facebook team should be extremely careful about trying to score points with its (admittedly massive) investor by trying to bolt its flailing search engine onto its otherwise excellent social network.

RIP Humph

April 27th, 2008 § 2 comments § permalink

The chairman of one of my very favourite radio shows, the BBC’s “I’m Sorry, I haven’t A Clue“, the self-styled “Antidote to Panel Games”, died last Friday. Most of my Amerian friends will never have heard of ISIHAC, home of such classic games as “Cheddar Gorge” and “Mornington Crescent“. It’s impossible to explain it: the BBC has posted a tribute episode of the show online. You should really listen to it.

Pandora and Web 2.0

April 14th, 2008 § 0 comments § permalink

In about 1998, when we first had an ISDN line and a Pentium-powered computer at home, I set up an Internet ‘radio station’ with Winamp, ShoutCast, and my then-meager collection of MP3s. I found a tutorial somewhere on the Nullsoft website, fired up a server on my fat 64kbps pipe, published the URL someplace, and waited for someone to connect to my station. It was anyone’s guess what the title of the song was. Of course, that’s academic, since only one or two listeners could ever connect concurrently.

Not long after, I tried to set up a feed of ‘What I’m Listening To’ by automatically uploading a text file to my website, then using some shameful PHP code to put that text onto my horrendously ugly homepage, circa 2000. Naturally, it was a total failure and I abandoned the idea quickly. A year or two later, while I was working at KMIH/X104, I enlisted the help of my good friend Slava to create a system to do essentially the same thing, but this time using a snippet of XML code from the station’s automation system, which was uploaded every few minutes, parsed server-side, and placed on the home page. It was far more successful, but involved quite a few moving parts which broke often and failed in a pretty ugly way.

One of the things that continually amazes me about ‘Web 2.0′ is how those moving parts are handled seamlessly and effortlessly, allowing any old user to create and share media in domains that previously belonged exclusively to media outlets, the excessively geeky, or both. A moment ago, I added a widget to this blog which lists my favorite songs and stations on Pandora.com, based on the RSS feed from my profile there. Then it adds it into my site, integrated with the look and feel of everything else. Not only that, but the entire ‘radio station’ backend is taken care of for me, with a limitless supply of music that’s chosen based on extremely granular musical qualities, far better than I ever could at either the age of 12 or 21. I haven’t uploaded any files, parsed any text, set up any streaming servers, or even chosen much music, but with a few mouse clicks, you can check out what I’m listening to, and go and listen to it for yourself.

Moby visits my class

April 16th, 2007 § 0 comments § permalink

On Wednesday, Moby (yes, that Moby), visited my Culture Industries class, to share his opinion on the music industry. I’d paraphrase what he said, but I think it would be far more amusing to share the following quotes:

MTV only plays videos at night, so unless you run a crystal meth lab, you never see them.

Fame, wealth, and success only benefit those who aren’t very bright, or can use it to great purpose.

If there ever was an industry that deserved to die, it’s the record industry.

Most of the houses on MTV Cribs are rented for the show, which is why most of the people on the show look confused

The average artist has a six-month ‘shelf life’, after that they go back to working at Kinko’s.

Making the Band is like junk food and softcore porn. If I were somehow enlightened, I would never watch them, but I can’t stop.