Results tagged “twitter”
July 11, 2015
Everybody’s got advice on what Twitter needs to do at its current crossroads. The answer might lie in revisiting the moment they first broke geeks’ hearts.
I took it as a bad sign that Will.I.Am was hanging around backstage at a conference for software developers.
It was hard to understand why nobody’s favorite rapper was in the building, since he had expressed no particular interest in software engineering prior to that moment. To be fair, Will.I.Am’s interest in technology has become clearer in recent years; he recently put out a smartwatch called PULS, which is a good alternative to the Apple Watch for people who prefer a smartwatch that doesn’t work. But back in 2010, Am’s inexplicable presence at a technology conference was a good indicator that things were changing in a way that didn’t necessarily favor the folks who were there to hear stories about Apple apps, not apl.de.ap.
We were at Twitter’s first developer conference, an event called Chirp. And indeed, Will.I.Am’s armchair interview was just one of a few clear indications that Twitter really wasn’t just for geeks anymore. Instead, Twitter had suddenly blossomed into a company that aspired to be a player in media and entertainment and advertising, with its eye focused on becoming the giant, publicly-traded company it is today. Twitter began to take its first tentative steps away from its geeky roots, which set the stage for a nerd backlash that still hasn’t fully abated.
But the business types whom Twitter had been courting as its new BFFs turned out to be just as mercurial as the early geeks once the company finally did go public. Investors and pundits have taken issue with everything from the company’s CEO to its often-desultory product direction to its lackluster growth in the number of active users logging into the service each month. This led to a precipitous recent drop in its share price, the delivery of a 360-tweet-long diagnosis of the company’s ailments from shareholder/cheerleader Chris Sacca, and culminated in today’s announcement that Twitter CEO Dick Costolo is stepping down from his position.
While the Internet has never shied away from offering unsolicited advice to Twitter’s leadership, it has perhaps never faced such impassioned arguments about how the company can get its mojo back from some of its closest supporters. While many businesses would envy the fact that Twitter has pretty huge revenues and a user base that is enormous in comparison to almost anything except Facebook, it’s become conventional wisdom that the company needs to work to find its bearings again.
And oddly, getting Twitter back on track may mean taking another look at one small bit of news that got overshadowed by a Black Eyed Pea on that day five years ago.
Let’s Get It Started
In the spring of 2010, Twitter was just graduating from being the hottest startup in tech to being a genuine cultural phenomenon. Chirp was the company’s first big conference, a glitzy coming-out for the company and its leaders. Advertised as its “first annual” event (there have been none since), Chirp showed that Twitter was a big enough institution to be able to command the attention of a theater full of geeks and press. I found myself there as a sort of legacy admission, thanks to the fact that I’d been working on building some apps on top of Twitter’s platform, and had known the founders of the company back when they were just ordinary geeks.
Twitter’s spate of announcements at Chirp included big news like Dick Costolo announcing the company’s first real foray into offering advertising. But within the tech industry, the real headlines started the night before with a low-key announcement that Twitter would be buying or making its own Twitter-branded apps for smartphones. (As absurd as it seems now, until that point, searching for “Twitter” on most devices wouldn’t yield a Twitter app that you could just use to read or post tweets. Instead, a confusing array of Twitter “clients” offered a selection of blue bird icons and terrible portmanteau names beginning with “tw-”.) At Chirp, Twitter made clear it would be offering its own, official app, just like Facebook and all the other popular services.
Then-CEO of Twitter Evan Williams at Chirp, explaining the biggest challenge facing Twitter as a company. (Photo by Scott Beale/Laughing Squid)
The announcement of Twitter’s first-party mobile apps, coming just on the eve of Chirp’s start, rankled some of the most influential developers in the crowd, despite the obvious logic of the company’s rationale. These developers were independent coders who now faced the challenge of competing with the very company whose service made their products possible. From the standpoint of the market, or of regular users, Twitter was right to dismiss the complaints of these developers at the time. Twitter’s decision to make its own client apps did yield a significant simplification of the experience for normal users, and set the stage for the company to be able to display ads on the service, which might have been impossible through third-party client apps.
But unfortunately, this dismissal of developer concerns, however legitimate, would leave a lasting mark on the company’s relationship with the geeks who had first embraced the service. Even though the vast majority of programmers who built tools on top of Twitter weren’t making client apps, the mood of the entire developer community was led by those who were. And once the developers got upset, their disgruntlement informed the attitudes of the entire early-adopter tech community. Later announcements to these same geek audiences would be plagued by vague messages, unclear goals, or accurate communication of actual bad decisions on the company’s part. All of this merely confirmed the suspicion of many developers that Twitter didn’t love them anymore. For nerds, Chirp could be seen in retrospect as marking the official end of Twitter’s Good Old Days.
Where is the love?
Twitter’s struggle to win over investors is mostly due to the fact that most folks on Wall Street don’t really have a nuanced view of how social networking and social media platforms work. The market wants metrics, but picks and chooses which metrics they care about pretty arbitrarily, based on the whims of not-exactly-Zuckerberg pundits like Jim Cramer, or by looking at the numbers of other services like Facebook’s much-vaunted Monthly Active User (MAU) count — the number of people who log in to use the service each month.
The thing is, MAU numbers are a pretty arbitrary measure of the utility of a media-based service like Twitter. Google’s investor briefings almost never ask about how many YouTube users are logged in each month — they care about how many videos are watched, and how many ads are seen, and maybe they care a little about the fact that YouTube is the second most popular search engine on the Internet after Google itself.
By contrast, relatively few users go to Facebook to do a search on a news story or to find a particular video. And being measured against Facebook really only makes sense if there’s a zero-sum game where people are replacing one service with another. For example, in the photo-sharing realm, Flickr’s lead a decade ago has been almost completely supplanted by Instagram’s dominance today. In that context, a user-for-user comparison makes sense.
But when Anita Baker and Cheryl Lynn have beef on Twitter, it’s only on Twitter. And a ton of people are going to read about it by seeing their tweets embedded on a blog or news site, just like they discover YouTube videos that are embedded on those same sites. Whether they’re logged in to the service or not is irrelevant. (The fact that no ads are displayed along with those embedded tweets certainly is relevant.)
So what about some non-MAU metrics? Would that appease? What about shifting the conversation entirely? Other companies have been able to broaden focus from their ad-based businesses by getting into nascent markets that hold a lot of promise. This is where we encounter things like wearable 3D goggles and smartwatches, but R&D-intensive hardware folly is generally the domain of much bigger (and richer) tech titans like Apple and Microsoft and Google. And, uh, Will.I.Am.
When Will.I.Am DJed the afterparty for Twitter’s Chirp conference, he literally followed Don’t Stop Believin’ with Sweet Child o’ Mine, which is hard to read as anything but contempt for the conference’s attendees.
I Gotta Feeling
The funny thing about many developers being convinced that Twitter doesn’t care about them is that it’s pretty clear that Twitter is better to its developers than almost any other social networking or social media company. I was at Chirp because I’d helped built a tool that relied on Twitter’s data, not as a client app but for analyzing and understanding a user’s activity on the service.
Lots of other companies went that route, too—with a number of them selling for hundreds of millions of dollars as “enterprise analytics services”, and many more getting lots of funding for the apps they’d built on top of Twitter. That’s a striking contrast to the ecosystem around, say, Instagram or Pinterest, which have almost no similar success stories. In fact, if we look at the landscape of major social networks or messaging applications that developers could have relied upon in the years since Chirp, a striking pattern emerges:
- Google: They launched Google Buzz (hey, remember that one?) and then mercy killed it a few years later. They’re about to do the same thing with Google+. There has never been a meaningful client app for Google+ from any developers outside of Google.
- Instagram: There are a few third-party tools that do specific tasks like regramming images or making collages, and some reading apps for platforms like iPad where Instagram was late. Still, Instagram hasn’t really spawned many successful full-featured client apps. A handful of analytics apps exist, but none of them have gotten that huge.
- Tumblr: The few attempts at building client apps or services have generally been stymied by the company. Almost none of the analytics services built for Tumblr have been very successful.
- LinkedIn: There used to be a few ways to build apps and services around LinkedIn, but almost all of them were shut down over the past year.
- Pinterest: The company promised an interface for developers for years, but has only shipped a limited release of some tools for brands to be able to interact with the service. There are no Pinterest client apps.
- Snapchat: Pretty much nothing.
- WhatsApp: Same deal, you take what they give you.
- Facebook: They’re not too bad, providing access to a lot of useful data, but recent privacy improvements for users have meant fewer features for developers that were relying on previously-accessible data.
The truth of it is, when compared to other social networking companies, Twitter ends up looking like one of the most developer-friendly big platforms.
As a developer trying to build on top of all of these services, most of the ones that were of the same vintage as Twitter screwed us. The newer ones don’t care about third-party developers at all. None of these companies have ever cared about enabling developers to make a client app. Yet none of them has earned the same scorn or derision from developers as Twitter has.
This may be changing a bit, as we see a generational split amongst developers, with newer coders unaware of Twitter’s polarizing past. Indeed, Twitter’s recently made available a whole new suite of developer tools to simplify everything from displaying ads to keeping track of what’s making a mobile application crash on your phone. It’s still early, but every indication is that these new developer tools are already becoming popular, and that the developer services that Twitter acquired haven’t lost any credibility by becoming part of the company’s portfolio.
Twitter's Fabric is already the No. 2 mobile analytics SDK for iOS. http://t.co/HrrmQmBdJh (select itunes and analytics)— dick costolo (@dickc) May 14, 2015
Enough years have passed that some of the older disgruntled developers may either have mellowed over time, or simply may not be relevant in shaping community opinion anymore. It’s actually possible that Twitter has another chance to make its core platform appealing to developers again, if it can find the right tools to offer them.
Scream & Shout
If we go back to that day in 2010, we can find out exactly what kind of things excited Twitter’s first wave of developers.
The start of the Chirp conference was a flurry of speeches from top execs, and of course the headlining Will.I.Am appearance. But by afternoon, the splashier news had passed, and it was time to get down to nuts-and-bolts developer conversations. The highlight for coders was a preview of an upcoming developer feature that seemed incredibly promising: Annotations. This nerdy new capability promised that developers would be able to pack more information into each tweet.
Annotations promised to upgrade tweets from being a 140-character postcard to being a 140-character message written on the outside of an envelope. What was inside the envelope? Whatever a developer could imagine.
At the time, this idea for Annotations was radical. Twitter’s core service had only just begun to stop displaying the fail whale, a whimsical and all-too-common illustration that popped up whenever the service was too overloaded to respond. To imaging going from not just being able to deliver tweets in realtime to anyone in the world, but to delivering almost any message in realtime to anyone in the world was a shocking leap forward.
And Twitter Annotations too. That's pretty exciting. I've been wondering about Twitter as a transport for non-social information for a while— Tom Coates (@tomcoates) April 14, 2010
Reaction from developers was immediate, and ranged from enthusiastic to downright rhapsodic: "Twitter Introduces Annotations; Hash Tags become Obsolete"
Even some of the more sober analyses of Annotations saw the potential for Twitter to be transformed as a service. And the excitement over the feature was clearly justified — many of the ideas that developers immediately suggested for Annotations, such as including photos or videos in tweets, have become indispensable parts of the platform’s current success.
Even Twitter’s most interesting newer features, like the “cards” in tweets that show excerpts and thumbnails of linked stories, or the experimental “buy” button that the company has been testing to enable e-commerce, are all things that Annotations had promised to make possible years ago. These capabilities were hinted at in the first reviews of the feature written back in 2010.
But more exciting than the ability to add new little buttons or links within Twitter is what Annotations could enable outside of Twitter. But that potential was never discovered, because the company soon stopped talking about the upcoming feature, and eventually abandoned the effort altogether without even so much as a tweet marking its demise.
One of the fastest growing categories in consumer technology these days are smart devices, which take ordinary household items and connect them to the internet. Each one usually comes with its own app. One app will tell you when your smart lightbulb is going to burn out, and another app for your smart toaster will tell you when it’s going to burn your toast. Each of the individual gadgets is pretty cool, but all of this noise on top of the nonstop barrage of notifications that light up your phone during the day seems like a recipe for message fatigue. It’s not difficult at all to make the argument that these notifications would be a better experience as delivered in Twitter’s signature stream.
Delivering these notifications is already done regularly by developers today, but each has to reinvent the wheel when it comes to handling tons of users or building the necessary code to support features on each new phone or device platform that comes along. If a smart device is fortunate enough to succeed, its makers get to face the same kind of fail whales that plagued Twitter for years. Piggybacking on Twitter’s infrastructure and could solve a lot of these issues, especially if they relied on an updated version of the features that Annotations promised.
This concept already exists for coders — it goes by name like a “messaging bus” or a “message queue”, though these services tend to be far more complex and expensive than it is to simply send a tweet. More to the point for developers, Twitter’s also a lot more fun than using an “enterprise message bus” service.
There’s a more subtle point here, too: Twitter enables connections between accounts. What exists today as a social network between people who follow and reply to each other could tomorrow expand to be an information network between devices that could follow and reply to each other. Telling your smart smoke detector not to set off the alarm when the smart toaster has said it’s about to burn the toast is currently a task for only the most stalwart geeks. There’s no reason that kind of connection couldn’t be a new use for the “follow” button.
But the point here isn’t to outline every possible interesting feature that can come from a fully-networked Internet of Things. Hell, I don’t even know what the most interesting capability would be. The key here is that Twitter is the best service to offer these features. It’s simple, fun, familiar, and available already on every device that matters. None of those things are true about the other “Internet of Things” platforms that have been announced.
Twitter could charge apps or devices (or humans!) that send high volumes of messages with Annotations, diversifying its revenue stream from simply being advertising-based, and building trust with any developers who still had lingering concerns about Twitter’s developer strategy by making these new features sustainable.
Chris Sacca speaking at Twitter’s Chirp conference in 2010.
Boom Boom Pow
The thing is, it’s easy to write fan fiction imagining all kinds of features being invented by Twitter. I want a pony! And a new CEO who’s from an underrepresented community!
But most of the smart suggestions are probably already on Twitter’s roadmap, including those on Chris Sacca’s list. These suggestions tend to assume, though, that the only audience that matters are Twitter’s mainstream, non-technical users. This is an odd assumption given that many of Twitter’s most engaging signature features were pioneered by its early adopter nerds.
And it’s essential for Twitter to get out of the MAU metrics game with investors. We can imagine a hundred different ways to juke the stats and try to distract fickle financiers, but revisiting Annotations may be one of the few ways to do so in a way that’s based on substance — actually providing the kind of meaningful platform innovation that developers actually want.
There’s something unique and distinct in being an information network instead of just a social network. Twitter has been that network, and can be again.
Revisiting Annotations wouldn’t be a magic bullet. But it could be a way to reconcile Twitter’s past and its future, to appease both developers and investors. And it might be a chance to rekindle some of the unqualified enthusiasm that so many saw for the company at its coming out party half a decade ago, before it’s 2000-and-late.
May 24, 2015
What it’s like to have the social network of a celebrity, without actually being famous
I’ve got more Twitter followers than you. I’ve got more Twitter followers than Ted Cruz, and I’m only a little bit behind Björk. If my followers were a state, we’d be creeping up on Wyoming in terms of population. Having half a million followers on Twitter is a genuinely bizarre experience, especially considering I’m just a random tech nerd on the Internet and not an actual famous person.
For celebrities, maintaining a large social network is just part of the job. For a regular person, things get pretty weird pretty quickly once a couple hundred thousand new friends show up.
Some background is necessary here. I didn’t actually earn my giant Twitter network. Sure, a lot of my followers are people who wanted to keep up with my updates (I write for outlets like The Message on Medium where this piece first appeared, and talk about things like technology and pop culture and politics, which always drive conversation on Twitter). But somewhere around half of my followers are only there because I was included on the “Suggested User List”, a now-retired feature that used to recommend people to follow when you joined the service.
Basically, somebody who worked at Twitter back in 2009 added me to that list, and all of a sudden my online network got upgraded to the kind of numbers that are usually only reserved for rock stars. It doesn’t bother me that I didn’t end up with a ton of followers online because of any merit of my own; these things are always arbitrary. But in addition to getting onto that one weird list, I picked up a lot of my real followers simply by being early to Twitter. That’s a tactic that definitely helps you get more followers, and I’d strongly recommend joining Twitter in 2006 if you have the option. #helpfuladvice
The strangeness doesn’t end on Twitter. Once you get popular on one social network, it sort of bleeds over into other networks, since lots of apps let you import a list of friends from other services when you sign up. As a result, I have an absurdly large network on almost every popular service:
- About half a million followers on Twitter
- About 150,000 followers on Facebook
- Thousands of followers on Instagram, Vine, and most of the other common social networks
- I’ve got that insipid little blue checkmark on Twitter that indicates I’m verified. I even have a blue checkmark on Facebook! (Did you know Facebook has verified users? True story.)
So there must be some kind of awesome payoff for all this, right? Like I can just flash my Twitter profile at the door to the club and I get escorted back directly to Jay & Bey’s booth?
Ehh, not really.
Champagne Wishes, Caviar Dreams
A few times some misguided publicists have sent me advance copies of books, I guess in the hope that I might promote them on my Twitter account. (If I had the attention span to read a book, would I be spending all my time on Twitter? C’mon now.) If I ask for cooking tips or technical support, I tend to get pretty good answers from my network. And of course my friends like to mock me for being a pseudo-celebrity, though the novelty of that has worn off after a few years.
But I’ve never gotten a better seat at a restaurant because of it. The few times I’ve been added to the guest list for an event has typically been because I’ve written for some old-fashioned print magazines; Those invites became a lot more scarce after I stopped, even though my social network is a lot bigger today.
At a technological level, most of the tools and apps for using social networks completely fall apart once your network becomes huge. A lot of Twitter-related apps just crash as soon as I log in to them, and of course I have to turn off email notifications on any service I use in order to avoid being buried in a tsunami of alerts. The “notifications” area of Twitter typically sends me about 1,500 updates in a day, though there have been days when I get more than 5,000 notifications. I know there are people who have followed me who have wondered why I never followed them back, and it’s because at a certain point it can become impossible to identify particular individuals within the giant mass of incoming messages.
In all, aside from making people roll their eyes at me, the biggest impact of having this absurdly distended online network is that it makes my online life really weird. The weirdness is probably best demonstrated by a few of the recurring conversations that arise as a result:
- “Yo, can you listen to my mixtape?” This is perhaps the most frequent side effect of having a lot of followers: People think there must be a reason people follow me, and assume I can do something for them as a result. In my case (and I don’t know if this is because I like hip hop, or is just random), I regularly get messages from people asking me to listen to their mixtapes or watch their YouTube videos. If this seems like an absurd request to you, then perhaps the next time you talk to Drake you should ask him how much my cosign on his mixtape meant to him.
- “Hey, can you get me verified?” A variation on wanting attention or amplification for one’s work are the young folks (and they’re invariably under 25 years old) who very insistently plead for me to help them get a verified checkmark. Of course, I have no say in who gets verified, and I don’t even really understand the criteria by which the networks choose whom to bestow their blessing upon. But more importantly the checkmark doesn’t do anything! It’s the most clear case of star-bellied sneetches I’ve yet been able to find in adulthood, but this fact does nothing to temper the deep conviction of some that getting a blue checkmark on their Twitter or Facebook account would change their lives. Sometimes I want to email these people and ask how they think a few blue pixels on their Twitter account could have this kind of impact, but I haven’t yet figured out a way to do that without revealing what a complete asshole I am.
- “Please RT!” And then, of course, there are the incessant requests to promote or retweet or amplify people’s work. “I wrote a thing!” or “Your followers will love this!” or “Can you just share this real quick?” The politeness of these requests is typically in inverse relation to their merit. Sure, some of these are cool things I’m thrilled to get to share with a (theoretically) larger audience. But the overwhelming majority is just crap, or things that nobody would believe I was sincerely sharing. Worst of all: Nobody clicks. Well, not nobody, but out of about 550,000 followers on Twitter, it’s very common for fewer than 400 of them to click on a link I share. (That’s .07%!) And yet dudes (yes, it’s always dudes) feel like they’re doing me a favor by asking. I cofounded a company that helps people understand their behavior on social networks, and looking at some of my most popular content that I’ve shared shows about 1700 people clicking on a link, in total.
- “Kill yourself!” If you have a lot of followers online, and especially if you have the temerity to do so while being a woman and/or a minority of some sort , you’ll often just face waves of harassment and abuse, regardless of how innocuous your statements are. I’d talk more about this, and what the social networks could do to fix things, but then the GamerGate hordes will just show up and start sending threats again, and ughhhhh who has the time? Anyway, this isn’t unique to having a big network, but having one may paint a larger target on one’s back.
- “Help?” In an era where everybody’s got a Kickstarter or an IndieGoGo to promote, it’s no surprise that people looking for crowdfunding success beg for links from the loudest voices online. Some of these are laughable (shout out to the 20-year-old guy who desperately wanted us to help him buy his first dirt bike), but there are a substantial number of people in real need. Almost every day, I hear a story of someone who needs help with their medical bills, or who went through an ugly divorce, or who lost their job, and they’re hoping that just getting in front of the right person online will change their luck. These are the conversations that I struggle with the most; I try to help as many as I can personally, but I generally don’t share their messages because so many turn out to be either misleading or sketchy and I don’t have the time to verify each one that I would share with my followers.
Be my soapbox
Some typical statistics on my Twitter activity, as reported by Twitter’s analytics features
What becomes clear after a few years of having a large social network is that people are desperate to be heard. Some of this is related to the fundamental question of conversation online, “Why wasn’t I consulted?” But much of it ties back to people feeling powerless, of flailing toward any person who seems like they could provide opportunity or a way forward.
I sometimes respond to people with facts and figures, showing how the raw number of connections in one’s network doesn’t matter as much as who those connections are, and how engaged they are. But the truth is, our technological leaders have built these tools in a way that explicitly promotes the idea that one’s follower count is the score we keep, the metric that matters. After more than a decade of having that lesson amplified across the Internet, the billion or so people who rely on online social networks have taken the message to heart. It’s no wonder so many people want to believe that the only thing that’s kept them from all the promised benefits of the World Wide Web is that they haven’t had access to the kind of giant network that I was arbitrarily gifted.
In some ways, the people who ascribe almost-magical powers to a big social network are right. My network confers a wide range of privileges upon me. Having a few hundred people read something you want to promote is meaningful, and it’s a power that I have in my hands, at least some of the time. Getting that kind of attention by buying an ad on Twitter or Facebook probably costs a couple hundred dollars, so there’s a clear incentive to try spamming popular accounts in the off chance that it will eventually succeed.
But more broadly, people have been sold a bill of goods. They want to believe that celebrity of any form, even fake online celebrity, has some kind of value, despite the evidence to the contrary. Signifiers like a blue verification checkmark or a number of followers are given an enormously prominent display on our social profiles. Yet despite their visibility, their capricious nature is never explained, and so people tend to wrongly see these as indicators of the quality a person’s social media presence.
The thing that’s forgotten is, people don’t have huge social networks because they’re good at using the Internet. Beyonce got to having millions of Twitter followers before she ever even wrote her first tweet.
The fact is, online celebrity is just a simple reflection of the existing networks of privilege that confer benefits on people in every other realm of life.
In my particular case, being picked as a suggested user on Twitter changed the trajectory of my online life, but how is having a friend who was an early Twitter employee any different from the Old Boys’ Club? It ain’t.
My First Million
Once we realize that, a few unusual accidents aside, our social networks have the same foibles and biases as the rest of our culture, that leaves a basic question: Is there any value to any of this?
Yes. First, there is the privilege of getting to connect to an extraordinarily large group of people, and get a small window into their thoughts and desires. Hearing an unfiltered stream of people shouting their wishes into the vast expanses of the Internet has permanently made me more aware of the humanity of the strangers who tweet at me every day.
My outsized online footprint has also made me more keenly aware of the effects of the things I do share. If I’ve been given a preposterously large platform through no intrinsic merit of my own, how can I be worthy of it? Can I be mindful of whose voices I amplify? Can I challenge myself to raise issues that could benefit by greater visibility? Can I be more generous with the subtle gestures of social networks like favoriting or liking things, and convey a bit more kindness to those around me?
I’m still not good at it. I get self-conscious thinking that my words might be watched by some kid I went to high school with, or some random person in my neighborhood, or my father-in-law, or an ex-flame, or an unknown enemy. Even though I know most tweets that I send out just flow by are ignored by the vast majority of people on the network, every once in a while I wonder what would happen if half a million people did see what I wrote?
What would you do if you had half a million Twitter followers?— Anil Dash (@anildash) October 2, 2014
I once took the time to ask my network what they would do in my position. I got 120 real replies. The first set of replies to the question were jokes (mostly fairly gentle ones at my expense). Another small but significant set of replies were self-promotion, saying that they’d get the word out about the projects they’re working on, or just that they’d ask everyone for a dollar. A handful had darker responses about how they’d quit the network or steadfast replies about how they wouldn’t change a thing.
But by far, the most animated, most considered responses were the group that eventually became the single largest set of replies. Dozens of people each suggested that the one thing they would do with a celebrity-sized social network was directly address the issues and causes that they care most about.
Maybe we don’t have to wait until we’re famous to do that.
February 12, 2014
I wrote a bit about why I only retweet women. As an exercise, let's guess what stupid things I'll hear in response! If we check off all these items, then we've won Internet Sexism Bingo. And by "won", I mean "lost".
- "You should just retweet the best people!" I do.
- "This is reverse sexism!" No, if I were calling for a few centuries of you being treated as property and said you shouldn't be able to vote, that would be reverse sexism.
- "You're just doing this to get laid." Oh, son. You know what I do to get laid? I treat women as humans while being super smart and attractive. This is a trick that works really well, so I've kept doing it solely for my wife's benefit.
- "This is political correctness gone amok!" I get it, you miss being able to use racial and gendered slurs, and feel censored. So be free: Please publish the denigrating slurs you love so much on your LinkedIn profile.
- "You don't deserve all of those Twitter followers!" Yeah, I know. I wrote about that four years ago. Now you have some idea of what it might feel like to not have male privilege, except it applies in realms such as physical safety and equal pay, instead of just meaningless follower counts.
- "Can you get me a verified checkmark?" No, man. No. I don't know how, and it doesn't mean anything anyway. But you can read a bit about what happens when you're chosen to be verified, if you want.
- "Are you going to start retweeting men again?" Probably not? I don't feel like I've missed out on anything.
- "This is censorship!" You are a dumb person who doesn't know what that word means.
Okay, let's see how we do!
Update: Oh good, Leah made an actual bingo card. I think we've gotten dudes who've checked off every space already.
November 8, 2013
[This piece was originally written for CNN on the occasion of Twitter's IPO.]
The Internet is buzzing with news of Twitter's initial public offering on Thursday, inspiring enough enthusiasm from investors to push the company to a $23 billion valuation in its first day. It has been quite a ride for a company started just seven years ago, attracting just a few geeky users at first, and then accelerating to eventually reach more than 232 million active users each month.
The company has been through an extraordinary set of triumphs and tribulations along the way. I've watched much of this happen—I work in the tech industry and count many of the leaders and founders of Twitter, since its earliest days, as friends—and I think I can identify some of the more human lessons we might take away from Twitter's milestone. The rest of us aren't going to get rich from Twitter's IPO, but the people who are embody some basic truths about what it takes to take a small company big.
Their work informs the work I do each day, both in my own new startup ThinkUp and in my life overall.
Dick Costolo, CEO: Costolo is widely acknowledged as one of the most innovative executives in the tech industry, creating a series of companies focused on delivering real-time information. But while he famously has a background in stand-up comedy (he shared the stage in Chicago years ago with folks like Steve Carell), there's a bigger lesson to be had here: That serious business can be informed by a sense of improvisation. Improv is based around the idea of saying "Yes, and..." rather than "No, we can't," and that's a fundamental philosophy for building a business that can adapt to the real world.
Katie Stanton, head of international strategy: In between her stints building products at Yahoo and Google and her current role heading international efforts at Twitter, Stanton worked both at the White House and the State Department. That she did this showed an awareness of the importance not just of having a global perspective, but of serving—and interacting with--one's community, one's city, or country. More of the tech industry, and every industry, would benefit from being more civic-minded.
Jason Goldman, former vice president of product: One of the least-heralded leaders of Twitter during its early days, Goldman was a quiet but forceful voice for improving the process of running Twitter as a company. Much of the hardest work in building anything big and ambitious gets done in roles that aren't glamorous, that focus on just trying to get a little bit better each day.
Chloe Sladden, head of media: Sladden was one of the first people at Twitter to think systematically about how the company would connect to more traditional media, like television. Inside the tech industry, people are used to making big distinctions between technology and media, or between "new media" and "old media," but it's a huge insight to realize that those boundaries are increasingly arbitrary. That kind of thinking is how opportunities are created.
Alex Macgillivray, former general counsel: At several points in its history, Twitter made choices to do the right thing when it didn't have to, choices that a lot of companies have backed away from. From its stand on free speech to its efforts to be more transparent about the ways it utilizes users' data, many of Twitter's initiatives happened because the company and its lawyers were willing to do extra work on behalf of what was right. One of the most consistent advocates for fighting the good fight was Alex Macgiillivray, who left the company last summer. His advocacy has hopefully influenced all kinds of companies to stand up for people's rights.
Biz Stone, co-founder: In the many stories and books that have already been written about Twitter's history, the role of Christopher "Biz" Stone is one of the least understood; reporters have often left it as, essentially, "He seems like a nice guy." His contribution to Twitter, and to the many projects he has worked on before and since, has been so much more than that. He has displayed a consistent ability to articulate—in human language, understandable to all-- what's valuable about a piece of technology. This is perhaps best exemplified by his early description of Twitter itself: "The messaging system we didn't know we needed until we had it." In a tech industry that often seems disconnected from regular people, this is one of the most crucial skills to have.
Jack Dorsey, co-founder: Though he's become one of the most famous names in technology, the most striking thing about Dorsey's career is his focus on every small detail of how things are presented, whether that's a product or a company or a process. That kind of sweating the small stuff is what propels a company's ambitions, and it's a trait Dorsey has carried into his mobile payments company, Square.
Michael Sippey, vice president of product: Sippey was among the earliest people to create a blog on the Internet, and more than a decade and a half later, he's working on building more features like photos and video into Twitter, based on the fundamental ideas of multimedia sharing that were pioneered during the early days of the blogosphere. That kind of fixation on a big, meaningful problem like finding better, richer ways to communicate with friends and communities, is a tough thing to stay focused on in the short-attention-span tech world, let alone on which to build a long career.
Evan Willams, co-founder: Perhaps no one person is more responsible for Twitter's existence than Evan Williams, who bankrolled the company out of his pocket in its early days, and serves on its board today. The headlines from the financial press will be about how Williams became a multibillionaire after Thursday's IPO, but the bigger story is one of his sheer persistence. Williams was co-founder of Blogger, where the company went through a near-death experience before being acquired by Google, and just a dozen years ago, he was tapped out. But he kept with it, and brought that same persistence to the ups and downs of Twitter--and is putting the same ethos to work in his new company, Medium. There's an important lesson in that example of never giving up.
The strengths and stories of the people who built the company to its success—and there are many more--are instructive for any company. At the same time, of course, they are just people—smart ones, but imperfect, and lucky, too. Certainly it helps that all these smart people grew up in America, where they never had to worry about clean water or good public schools or political instability.
The privileges we enjoy in the United States allow us to succeed on this level, and it's why I challenge Twitter to extend these kinds of opportunities more broadly by expanding the diversity of its board, and in the process better reflecting its increasingly international and diverse user base.
On a day when many are celebrating Twitter for its financial success, and lauding the value of its stock price, we can find a deeper value in the personal stories of this handful of people who helped build Twitter. Hopefully the positive values that helped Twitter get to this point are what this newly public company can use as its definition of "success" going forward.
March 1, 2013
Update: After this post was published, I had a chance to talk about Twitter verification at a live show of the Untitled Kondabolu Brothers Project, with Hari and Ashok Kondabolu. It turned out pretty well.
Twitter verification is an interesting phenomenon on the service; It's very visible since everybody sees and follows accounts which are verified, but also sort of secretive because nobody really knows how it works or how Twitter defines the criteria behind having one's account blessed.
It seems like Twitter verifies certain accounts in waves, bringing in new batches of verified users on an ongoing basis, with an obvious bias toward people who are famous, but also including those who might be impersonated or the occasional odd exception for people (like me) who aren't famous but happen to have a large following.
I can't explain how Twitter makes the decision to verify an account, but after seeing another recent spate of users being verified, I thought I'd give a little glimpse into what the experience looks like. (I'm told that some celebrities who are invited to use Twitter or coached on its use skip this process, but this is what us non-celebs see.)
- First, you wake up on a day that seems like any other day, but then, out of the blue: It's a direct message from the mysterious @verified account! It says "We at Twitter would like to verify your account. Please click this account and follow the instructions." and then gives you a link to a little guided setup process. I got this on my mobile phone, and wasn't surprised to find out the whole thing works just fine on an iPhone.
- The first thing the setup guide says is "Hi!" and then it explains "Twitter's verified badge is our way of making sure that this is you."
- Then Twitter starts to give a few bits of advice on how to be a good tweeter; These are clearly aimed at people who aren't too familiar with the service. Interestingly, they're grouped under the heading of "Learn how to tweet effectively." Each one offers a sort of Goofus-and-Gallant version of "which one is better?" and the first asks explicitly, "Which Tweet will help double your rate of new followers for the day?". The choices in this first test are between a bland recitation of having watched the Oscars and a little more lively take on watching the show.
- The next step of the guide tells you when you've made the right choice about how to tweet effectively, offering the tidbit that "Live-tweeting a relevant event can increase your daily follower rate by 260%." Pretty heavy promotion of the Twitter-is-for-celebrities idea.
- After that, there's another quiz question: "Which Tweet will more of your followers engage with?". Interestingly, this mimics one of the big things we've learned from working on ThinkUp — you have to ask answerable questions on Twitter. It seems obvious in retrospect, but lots of people don't do it.
- Again the indomitable Melisa provides the right answer to Twitter's training class, yielding the insight that "Your audience loves to interact with you. Invite questions for a Twitter Q&A to increase your followers and engagement!"
- A final question, fundamentally challenging the about-to-be-verified tweeter about whether they know how to drive their biggest stats on Twitter: "Which Tweet will get more clicks, favorites and retweets from your followers?" In addition to boldly eschewing the Oxford comma (U.S.A.! U.S.A.!), they provide two options on how to talk about running into Taylor Swift backstage at the Grammies, which happens to all of us blue checkmark people all the time. One choice is awesome and has a photo and the other choice is for idiots.
- Okay, you did it! You passed the test. (I didn't grab a picture of whatever affirmation they offer after the third "Learn how to Tweet effectively" page.) So now it tells you to "Increase your trustworthiness by following other verified users", which in my case included Gavin Newsom, who was formerly the Mayor of the hair club for men. I did not follow him (instead I clicked "Next") but they let me become verified anyway, and I have not yet heard any complaints about my diminished trustworthiness.
- After all this setup, they get down to the nuts-and-bolts stuff, telling you to "Protect your account", by asking for your phone number. "Phone numbers allow us to contact you in case there is a security issue with your account", which made me think someone has the job at Twitter's office of calling celebrities and asking them "Is this stupid tweet really from you?"
- Success at last. A happy little confirmation screen (which oddly didn't show up properly on my iPhone browser) affirms that you're now a proud new owner of one blue checkmark on your Twitter profile. Fawning followers sold separately. The very top of the screen says "Congratulations, [your name]! Your Twitter account is now verified!" The fine print says, "With your newly verified account, you will receive weekly activity reports with information about the number of people following you, and simple tips about how to increase that number. Stop getting the report by choosing 'unsubscribe' in the email footer, or uncheck the box in your email notification settings in your profile settings." That weekly email seems to be the same one that everybody else gets (I get it for my other Twitter accounts), but I was verified about six months ago, so maybe they just extended the verified email to everyone when they added those notifications.
- And then a little postscript. This is the notification I received immediately after finishing the verification process. It let me know that the official @verified account was following me. I followed it back, which reminded me that I hadn't been following it in the first place, so how had it send me the DM to start the process?! Twitter Magic.
Life With the Blue Checkmark
Other than of course gaining membership to an exclusive worldwide Illuminati cabal, there really isn't any difference in using Twitter when you're verified. Some folks think it matters a lot, and there are definitely teenagers (and aspiring hip hop acts?) who desperately want a verified checkmark next to their name, judging by the rash of @ replies I got immediately after verification, from people asking how they could be verified.
One minor thing I've noticed is that verified accounts have access to Twitter's analytics, which I think are otherwise only accessible to advertisers. Users who got verified because Twitter officially brought them onto the service (who don't go through this setup process) have told me that Twitter actually showed them the analytics features. In my case, I didn't know I had access to it until I accidentally discovered that fact, and this setup process didn't give any hints to that fact.
In all, despite the oddly celebrity-centric nature of the tips they give users in the setup, I think Twitter's designed a good process for users that they want to verify. In fact, the coaching concept is terrific and should probably be incorporated into everybody's Twitter experience somehow. It's obviously far too intrusive to put into the signup flow for regular users, and the tips as written are only appropriate for bigger accounts, but the idea of teaching people how to tweet is a great one.
That fundamental idea, that we can teach people how to use social media more effectively, is in fact one of the big goals for what we're working on with ThinkUp. In our case, though, I think we assume users can have a more goals than simply increasing your daily follower rate or, um, your trustworthiness. Although those are fine goals, too, I think normal users have a broad range of things they're looking to get out of their networks.
I spend a lot of time around very digitally-savvy Twitter users, who sort of understand the Verified checkmark to be an arbitrary, Twitter-run program. But the less tech-savvy folks I talk to, if they're familiar with the Verified marker, see it as much more of a status symbol.
What I'd love to see is ways to either make more accounts have meaningful verification (I'm not sure how that would scale) or at least ways to indicate a Twitter account is an "official" one for a particular website or organization. Twitter's analytics tools already allow me to claim my domain name and get stats on tweets about it; Being able to verify that @anildash is the official Twitter account of Dashes.com might be a happy medium between verifying every account on Twitter and simply providing another layer of trust and identity on top of Twitter's existing account names.
December 18, 2012
We have the obligation to never speak of our concerns without suggesting our solutions. I've been truly gratified to watch the response to The Web We Lost over the last few days; It's become one of the most popular things I've ever written and has inspired great responses.
But the most important question we can ask is: How do we rebuild the positive aspects of the web we lost? There are a few starting points, building on conversations we've been having for years. Let's look at the responsibilities we must accept if we're going to return the web to the values that a generation of creators cared about.
- Take responsibility and accept blame. The biggest reason the social web drifted from many of the core values of that early era was the insularity and arrogance of many of us who created the tools of the time. I was certainly guilty of this, and many of my peers were as well. We took it as a self-evident and obvious goal that people would even want to participate in this medium, instead of doing the hard work necessary to make it a welcoming and rewarding place for the rest of the world. We favored obscure internecine battles about technical minutia over the hard, humbling work of engaging a billion people in connecting online, and setting the stage for the billions to come. To surpass the current generation of dominant social networks and apps, which have unsurprisingly become arrogant and inflexible during their own era of success, we'll have to return to being as hungry and as humble as we were when the web was young. Because last time, we were both naive and self-absorbed enough that we deserved to fail.
- Don't just meet the UX standards, raise the bar. Obviously, the single biggest reason that the new era of social apps and sites have succeeded where the early efforts did not is because of their massively superior user experience, from the front-end user interfaces to the back-end performance. The expected thing to do would be to hope that a new generation of user-respecting apps came along and matched the best that Facebook and Twitter and Pinterest to have to offer. But actually, due to the profound entrenchment that these platforms already have across culture, the new apps have to be an order of magnitude better in user experience. The good news is, as the rest of the web transitions from making pages to making streams, they'll all be revisiting the tools and technologies they use to connect, and that'll form a big opportunity for new players to participate.
- Rethink funding fundamentals. As we've seen over and over, the giant social networks seem to inevitably piss off their user bases by changing product features and terms of service in ways that catalyze huge waves of user-generated discontent. But the fundamental reason these sites refused to accommodate so many user demands is because of economics. Those sites make their revenues on models dictated by the terms of funding from the firms that backed them. But as we've discussed before, it's possible to fund contemporary startups either without venture capital, or with a level of efficiency that allows mom and pop startups to reach web scale. To be clear, venture funding powered much of the first wave of social startups and were a big reason they were able to achieve many of their successes, so VC will be part of the ecosystem in the next wave as well. But the terms and dynamics can be profoundly different, supporting startups that are intentionally less efficient, perhaps even making use of the skills of blue collar coders to provide a lot of people will good, solid middle-class jobs instead of optimizing, as current companies do, for making a small number of people enormously wealthy.
- Explore architectural changes. One of the fundamental reasons that the economics of doing a startup at web scale are different is because of the proliferation of cloud computing and very, very high-performance, reliable open-source components that provide advanced functionality which was prohibitively expensive a decade ago. Instead of backing up a truckload of Dell servers to a data center and then installing a few hundred thousand dollars worth of Oracle software, we can pick and choose a few components off the shelf to get started. More importantly, consumers will start to be able to use the cloud themselves, which removes the current constraint around having to build single, centralized services to provide a great consumer experience. Today, big social apps have to spend millions of dollars handling DMCA takedown requests and FBI investigations into illegal content and in general fighting the web's fundamental desire to be centralized. New apps don't need to obey those constraints.
- Outflank by pursuing talent outside the obvious. The current wave of the social web doesn't just demonstrate its arrogance through its product decisions. The people involved in creating these platforms are hired from a narrow band of privileged graduates from a small number of top-tier schools, overwhelmingly male and focused narrowly on the traditional Silicon Valley geography. By constrast, the next wave of apps can harken back to many of the best of the early social startups, which often featured mixed-gender founding teams, attracted talent from geographically diverse regions (Flickr was born in Canada!) and were often created by people with liberal arts degrees or even no degree at all. Aside from being the responsible thing to do, having a diverse team generates a variety of unexpected product features and innovations that don't come from the groupthink of homogenous cultures.
- Exploit their weakness: Insularity. Another way of looking at the exclusionary tendencies of typical Silicon Valley startups is by considering the extraordinary privilege of most tech tycoons as a weakness to be exploited. Whether it's Mark Zuckerberg's unique level of privilege limiting his ability to understand why a single, universal public identity might ruin people's lives, or the tendency to launch apps first to a small, clubby circle of insiders, new startups don't have to repeat these mistakes. And by broadening their appeal from the start, new apps and networks can outflank the big players, paying attention to audiences that hadn't been properly respected last time. That insularity even extends to the tech industry typically ignoring the world of policy and regulations and government until it's too late. While the big tech players have formed their own RIAA, the best case is that they'll focus on overall issues like spectrum policy and net neutrality, ignoring the coming reality of policy changes that will try to protect regular users.
- Dont' trust the trade press. Another essential step for breaking out of the current tech industry's predictable patterns will be for entrepreneurs and creators to educate themselves about the true history of the tech industry and its products. Our business tends to follow a few simple, repeating cycles, like moving from centralization to decentralization and back, or from interoperable communications to silos and back. But as we've discussed, you can't trust the tech press to teach you about the tech industry, so you'll have to know your shit. Fortunately, a lot of us old-timers are still around, and still answer our emails sometimes, so it's possible to just ask. Imagine if Instagram had simply asked the folks who used to work at Flickr, "Did you ever change your terms of service? What freaked people out?" And even better, we can blog our own progress, because if you didn't blog it, it didn't happen. In that way, we form our own community of practice, our own new peer review process for what we learn about making the web work the right way.
- Create public spaces. Right now, all of the places we can assemble on the web in any kind of numbers are privately owned. And privately-owned public spaces aren't real public spaces. They don't allow for the play and the chaos and the creativity and brilliance that only arise in spaces that don't exist purely to generate profit. And they're susceptible to being gradually gaslighted by the companies that own them.
Overall, there are lots of ways that the current generation of social sites are vulnerable. There are users that the current tech industry considers undesirable, and technology choices that are considered taboo, and traditions around hiring and product strategy that force them to concede huge opportunities right out of the gate.
As is obvious from the responses I've gotten, many, many people care about a social web that honors certain human and creative values. As I've spent years thinking about the right way to write for this blog, and to build ThinkUp, and to sit on the board at Stack Exchange, and to advise clients at Activate, and to work on all the other stuff I do, I just keep running into the fact that there's a huge opportunity to make a great new generation of human-friendly apps with positive social values.
These new companies will be recognizable in that they'll impact culture and media and government and society, and that they'll invent great new technologies. They'll still make a bunch of money for the people who found them. But they'll look different, both in terms of the people who make them, and the people they serve. And they'll be more durable, not optimized based on current fashions in financing, but because they're built on the accurate belief that there are people who care deeply about the web they use, the works they create, the connections they make, and the humans on the other side of those connections.
December 13, 2012
Update: A few months after this piece was published, I was invited by Harvard's Berkman Center to speak about this topic in more detail. Though the final talk is an hour long, it offers much more insight into the topic, and I hope you'll give it a look.
The tech industry and its press have treated the rise of billion-scale social networks and ubiquitous smartphone apps as an unadulterated win for regular people, a triumph of usability and empowerment. They seldom talk about what we've lost along the way in this transition, and I find that younger folks may not even know how the web used to be.
So here's a few glimpses of a web that's mostly faded away:
- Five years ago, most social photos were uploaded to Flickr, where they could be tagged by humans or even by apps and services, using machine tags. Images were easily discoverable on the public web using simple RSS feeds. And the photos people uploaded could easily be licensed under permissive licenses like those provided by Creative Commons, allowing remixing and reuse in all manner of creative ways by artists, businesses, and individuals.
- A decade ago, Technorati let you search most of the social web in real-time (though the search tended to be awful slow in presenting results), with tags that worked as hashtags do on Twitter today. You could find the sites that had linked to your content with a simple search, and find out who was talking about a topic regardless of what tools or platforms they were using to publish their thoughts. At the time, this was so exciting that when Technorati failed to keep up with the growth of the blogosphere, people were so disappointed that even the usually-circumspect Jason Kottke flamed the site for letting him down. At the first blush of its early success, though, Technorati elicited effusive praise from the likes of John Gruber:
[Y]ou could, in theory, write software to examine the source code of a few hundred thousand weblogs, and create a database of the links between these weblogs. If your software was clever enough, it could refresh its information every few hours, adding new links to the database nearly in real time. This is, in fact, exactly what Dave Sifry has created with his amazing Technorati. At this writing, Technorati is watching over 375,000 weblogs, and has tracked over 38 million links. If you haven’t played with Technorati, you’re missing out.
- Ten years ago, you could allow people to post links on your site, or to show a list of links which were driving inbound traffic to your site. Because Google hadn't yet broadly introduced AdWords and AdSense, links weren't about generating revenue, they were just a tool for expression or editorializing. The web was an interesting and different place before links got monetized, but by 2007 it was clear that Google had changed the web forever, and for the worse, by corrupting links.
- In 2003, if you introduced a single-sign-in service that was run by a company, even if you documented the protocol and encouraged others to clone the service, you'd be described as introducing a tracking system worthy of the PATRIOT act. There was such distrust of consistent authentication services that even Microsoft had to give up on their attempts to create such a sign-in. Though their user experience was not as simple as today's ubiquitous ability to sign in with Facebook or Twitter, the TypeKey service introduced then had much more restrictive terms of service about sharing data. And almost every system which provided identity to users allowed for pseudonyms, respecting the need that people have to not always use their legal names.
- In the early part of this century, if you made a service that let users create or share content, the expectation was that they could easily download a full-fidelity copy of their data, or import that data into other competitive services, with no restrictions. Vendors spent years working on interoperability around data exchange purely for the benefit of their users, despite theoretically lowering the barrier to entry for competitors.
- In the early days of the social web, there was a broad expectation that regular people might own their own identities by having their own websites, instead of being dependent on a few big sites to host their online identity. In this vision, you would own your own domain name and have complete control over its contents, rather than having a handle tacked on to the end of a huge company's site. This was a sensible reaction to the realization that big sites rise and fall in popularity, but that regular people need an identity that persists longer than those sites do.
- Five years ago, if you wanted to show content from one site or app on your own site or app, you could use a simple, documented format to do so, without requiring a business-development deal or contractual agreement between the sites. Thus, user experiences weren't subject to the vagaries of the political battles between different companies, but instead were consistently based on the extensible architecture of the web itself.
- A dozen years ago, when people wanted to support publishing tools that epitomized all of these traits, they'd crowd-fund the costs of the servers and technology needed to support them, even though things cost a lot more in that era before cloud computing and cheap bandwidth. Their peers in the technology world, though ostensibly competitors, would even contribute to those efforts.
This isn't our web today. We've lost key features that we used to rely on, and worse, we've abandoned core values that used to be fundamental to the web world. To the credit of today's social networks, they've brought in hundreds of millions of new participants to these networks, and they've certainly made a small number of people rich.
But they haven't shown the web itself the respect and care it deserves, as a medium which has enabled them to succeed. And they've now narrowed the possibilites of the web for an entire generation of users who don't realize how much more innovative and meaningful their experience could be.
Back To The Future
When you see interesting data mash-ups today, they are often still using Flickr photos because Instagram's meager metadata sucks, and the app is only reluctantly on the web at all. We get excuses about why we can't search for old tweets or our own relevant Facebook content, though we got more comprehensive results from a Technorati search that was cobbled together on the feeble software platforms of its era. We get bullshit turf battles like Tumblr not being able to find your Twitter friends or Facebook not letting Instagram photos show up on Twitter because of giant companies pursuing their agendas instead of collaborating in a way that would serve users. And we get a generation of entrepreneurs encouraged to make more narrow-minded, web-hostile products like these because it continues to make a small number of wealthy people even more wealthy, instead of letting lots of people build innovative new opportunities for themselves on top of the web itself.
We'll fix these things; I don't worry about that. The technology industry, like all industries, follows cycles, and the pendulum is swinging back to the broad, empowering philosophies that underpinned the early social web. But we're going to face a big challenge with re-educating a billion people about what the web means, akin to the years we spent as everyone moved off of AOL a decade ago, teaching them that there was so much more to the experience of the Internet than what they know.
This isn't some standard polemic about "those stupid walled-garden networks are bad!" I know that Facebook and Twitter and Pinterest and LinkedIn and the rest are great sites, and they give their users a lot of value. They're amazing achievements, from a pure software perspective. But they're based on a few assumptions that aren't necessarily correct. The primary fallacy that underpins many of their mistakes is that user flexibility and control necessarily lead to a user experience complexity that hurts growth. And the second, more grave fallacy, is the thinking that exerting extreme control over users is the best way to maximize the profitability and sustainability of their networks.
The first step to disabusing them of this notion is for the people creating the next generation of social applications to learn a little bit of history, to know your shit, whether that's about Twitter's business model or Google's social features or anything else. We have to know what's been tried and failed, what good ideas were simply ahead of their time, and what opportunities have been lost in the current generation of dominant social networks.
So what did I miss? What else have we lost on the social web?
A follow-up: How we rebuild the web we lost.
September 24, 2012
There are lots of different ways to measure how friendly a company is toward developers, and whether a tech company complies with the values that its developer community cares about. I'm a big believer in what I earlier called "radical institutional empathy". What this entails is not being an apologist for any one company or institution, but rather trying to understand its decisions within the context of what the people who work there must be trying to do.
The problem is, it's hard to do that in the current world of tech writing; people want to bring their own biases (things like whether a company is "good" or "bad", or whether a particular technology or strategy is "open") rather than applying a fairly consistent set of evaluations to all the players in a space.
One useful recent example is the conversations about Twitter's APIs. When I wrote What Twitter's API Announcement Could Have Said, people both mistook it to be my personal feelings about what the company could have said, or my literal interpretation of what Twitter was trying to describe. It was neither. Instead, it was an attempt to show a developer community that's largely abandoned any attempt at logically understanding a platform's changes and is now fully in the throes of emotional responses to anything that happens. Now, I understand that Twitter's own communications have been part of the reason there's been that breakdown, but all big companies are bad at communicating. That's just a fact. So we have to have a more reasonable way of reading the tea leaves.
Let's try applying a reasonably consistent set of commonly-held developer values to the flagship platforms of two of the tech world's favorite companies, Apple and Twitter. Obviously, the companies are wildly different in the audiences they serve and in what they provide to developers, but this is a useful comparison precisely because the loudest developer voices on both platforms comprise many of the same people.
|Has introduced the Innovator's Patent Agreement, an extensive new effort ensuring its software patents will only be used defensively, which makes developers optimistic.||Has a history of aggressively pursuing patent protections, which even when justified open the door to ever-more-expansive interpretations of software patents, leading even sympathetic developers to worry.|
|The company fought tooth-and-nail to avoid giving over a user's private information, defending the case against the government to the maximum of their legal abilities.||The company refused to allow news to be published on its platform because it was "not useful".|
Roadmap for Third Parties
|Published an obtusely-worded but generally reasonable set of guidelines for third-party developers on its platform, without explaining how those guidelines align with its business model. There is no documented process of appeal for apps which are cut off.||Publishes a concisely worded and clear set of extremely restrictive guidelines which are subject to change regularly. Has a well-documented process of appeal for apps which are cut off.|
Competing with Developers
|Told third-party developers to focus on analytics and value-add instead of read/write clients two years ago; Reiterated this recently. Hasn't shipped any apps that compete in other categories, but is tightening restrictions on apps in the read/write category.||Provides no guidance beyond the platform terms as to which areas apps should avoid, but has expanded to digital wallet, voice search, podcasting, video chat, reminders, reading, game networking, and other apps in competition with third-parties that had released earlier apps on the platform.|
Turning the Table
I understand that these comparisons are necessarily imperfect, and selective in their focus. Apple is very different from Twitter in that it plays the role of a payment middleman. (I find the defense that Apple allows ways around its platform shortcomings through use of the web to be spurious; If we grant it for Apple, then we'd have to grant it for Twitter. The web doesn't have these weaknesses.)
My point here is not to defend Twitter or Apple, though partisans of either company will undoubtedly say I'm being unfair to their favored platform. But rather, we should look fairly at their stances on important issues like free speech, intellectual property rights, self-expression of users and stability of developer opportunity when evaluating them.
Given that the most prominent pundits who've opined on the merits or weaknesses of these platforms often develop for both, I'd be curious to see how they interpret these facts about the company's positions in the context of how the companies see themselves and their goals.
We can rightly be frustrated at Twitter having targeted some apps in its upper-right quadrant; Rather than simply waving off client developers, Twitter could have said "it'll get increasingly expensive and difficult to compete in that market" and it would have had the same chilling effect without being punitive. But if we are frustrated at that, then certainly we should consider that the majority of popular iOS applications which aren't games are in Apple's virtual upper-right quadrant. Maybe that's fine. If so, then it should be fine on any platform.
And if we think changing the rules of the game as developers are playing it is unfair, then clearly neither of these companies, nor any major platform company, can be considered to be fair. As I make the decisions for how my own company will invest in these various platforms, I feel reassured again and again that the open web is the safest long-term bet for retaining control over my own destiny.
August 30, 2012
I sure do like talking to people! Here's some recent conversations:
- MIT Tech Review offered up A Twitter Tweak or a Revolution in Online Discourse? as a look at Branch. (Where, full disclosure, I've graduated from unofficial advisor to slightly-more-official advisor.) I have to reject the "Best Thing Ever or Completely Meaningless?" framing of the headline, but I liked the thoughtful understanding of the history of comments online that informed the piece.
- Oh, and speaking of Twitter (AS WE ALWAYS DO), here's me on Bloomberg West talking about Twitter's policy changes. TV is fun!
- If you're a regular reader of this site, you of course love animated gifs, since we've been talking about them for years. The Content Strategist (that's a real publication!) jumps into the fray with What the Rise of Animated GIFs Means for Content, a delightfully serious look at the editorial strategy around animated GIFs. A year ago we were discussing GIFs as ascendant, six years ago we discussed GIFs as having finally been worthy of artistic recognition and a scant 23 years ago, they were just being invented. Progress!
- David Jacobs ruminates on #NOFOMO. I'd shared some of the same misgivings about that phrasing, but the concept is useful.
- Data on the country club from Benjamin Jackson over at Buzzfeed. I like it as a data-driven view into the ideas I was exploring a few weeks ago.
- Oh, and I had some fun talking to Microsoft's Twitter account on they day they announced their new logo:
Aaaaand I think that's it. You all keep on writing, and I'll do the same, and we'll meet back here in a little while.
August 16, 2012
A few years ago, I wrote about the Law of Fail: Once a web community has decided to dislike a person, topic, or idea, the conversation will shift from criticizing the idea to become a competition about who can be most scathing in their condemnation.
This is relevant today because Twitter announced some upcoming API changes. From my standpoint, these are mostly pretty reasonable, and in fact should have almost no impact on any normal Twitter user. Naturally, super-geeky developers are incensed. And of course, the people who most eagerly participate in the pile-on usually have the least skin in the game — they just want to complain.
But to be fair, a valid annoyance for developers is that the communication from Twitter about these kinds of changes has been vague enough to leave them uneasy. Combine the tech blogosphere's Law of Fail behavior with the tendency that crowds have toward assuming the worst rumors in any given situation must be the truth, and you have a recipe for panic.
So, as an exercise in radical institutional empathy and the real-time exploration of alternate histories of the tech industry, I wrote my own version of the Twitter API 1.1 announcement.
My goal is to communicate the exact same points, but with the clarity that would inspire the least amount of user-generated discontent possible. It's also shorter by about 500 words and omits the 2×2 grid of API clients. Edits, corrections or criticisms are welcome!
Our biggest Twitter API upgrade ever
We have awesome news for Twitter developers: Today we're announcing the upcoming release of the biggest new set of features and changes to the Twitter API ever, which we're calling Twitter API version 1.1. We know change is scary, so we'll talk about what's new, why we're making these changes, and when you can expect to see them. Don't worry — it'll be worth it!
The TL;DR version of what's new:
- More API calls for almost every kind of app, with per-endpoint rate limits
- Better security by extending OAuth to all APIs
- A clear roadmap for Twitter app developers to know what's encouraged, including detailed instructions on how to show tweets and timelines
- A few new restrictions for people making traditional Twitter clients
- When version 1.1 is officially released, you'll have six months to migrate from API version 1.0
Huge increases in API call limits:
In today's API 1.0, we limit authenticated API requests to 350 per hour. Good news: We're going to blow that limit away for your apps providing 60 calls per hour per endpoint - so you can literally hit every different endpoint every minute and not go over the rate limits. Endpoints that are really in demand, like Tweet display, profile display, user lookup and user search go all the way up to 720 calls per hour.
This is a big increase for almost every kind of app, and we'll give you the full details of the new extra-legroom limits when API 1.1 is released.
All Auth Everything
The big new API call limits come with only a minor change in what's required from you: You'll have to use OAuth for all of your API requests. This shouldn't be a big deal because it works the same way as the OAuth requests you're already making. (If you are not yet using OAuth, OMG shame on you, you've got until March 2013 to get with the program.)
An awesome side bonus of this new auth regime is that people who are abusing the Twitter ecosystem we all share by scraping or writing spammy bots or other annoying behaviors will be able to be reined in using their auth tokens, instead of the brute-force block-by-IP method we're stuck with now. Here's crossing our fingers for less spam!
We Love Your App!
Sure, there's been some hand-wringing about what direction we're headed with our API, and whether third party developers are "safe" working on Twitter. Good news: Your app is welcome here, and we appreciate you developing on Twitter.
In order to make sure we don't ever get the community worried again (and to hopefully stamp out some of the scarier rumors that pop up in the ever-reliable tech press), we want to give some detailed outlines of how to make sure you're in the clear while working on the Twitter API.
Obviously, our greatest wish is that your app is hugely successful on Twitter, and we of course need to make sure to support our business model, including promoted tweets and sponsored tweets and whatever else we come up with.
So, the first thing we're doing is offering up detailed documentation of how tweets and timelines have to be displayed when using the new 1.1 API. This is mostly to ensure a consistent, simple interface for users who are hopefully switching between lots of cool Twitter-powered apps, including yours. But this also cuts down on apps that introduce confusing buttons or UI to try to pull people out of their Twitter experience, and makes sure the advertisers who actually pay for this whole thing to run get what they're expecting, too.
You can read the guidelines on your own, but the bottom line is that Tweets will start to look really consistent everywhere. That also means that apps which deliberately try to change the way Tweets or the Twitter UI looks can be shut down, so don't do that.
Oh, and if you need a lot of user tokens (like, more than 100,000), get in touch with us and we'll take care of you personally. If you try to make that volume of calls without a special request, you might get shut off.
A Note On Traditional Twitter Clients
The only kind of Twitter app which has real constraints under API 1.1 is traditional Twitter posting clients -- ones that offer the basic reading and writing experience and little else. While we appreciate these apps (our own official Twitter clients started out as one of these!), the reality is it's going to take more effort for third parties to maintain these apps than it has in the past, because we're going to be very strict about requiring updates to make sure your clients are in compliance with the user experience standards we set in our own first-party apps.
Put simply: If you have made a traditional Twitter client, you're going to be expected to hew very closely to our new display guidelines and will regularly be asked to make updates about the way you display content, sometimes with short notice. We recognize that might cause additional costs or stresses that make it less rewarding or more frustrating for this small but important community of developers, but this is essential for building a robust, successful Twitter business to support us all, and for us to shut down the small but persistent number of developers who use this kind of access to make spammy apps that degrade the Twitter experience for everybody. Client apps that don't keep up with these standards or that fail to immediately reflect changes that are required will have API access cut off.
That being said, many third-party Twitter clients have dedicated user communities and passionate developers, and with focus on keeping in step with our evolution, they should continue to thrive with their audiences.
People making stats apps and analytics tools and social media marketing platforms all have absolutely nothing to worry about -- the vast majority of Twitter client apps will move to the new 1.1 API with no changes expect better auth and higher API limits.
More To Come!
We're excited about the apps you're going to build on the new APIs, and we'll be unveiling even more powerful features for you to incorporate features like Twitter Cards which will make your apps and sites even more engaging. In the meantime, if anything in this announcement is unclear, let us know in the forums or by @replying to us on Twitter, and we'll answer any questions you have.
July 2, 2012
I know I usually try to be a thoughtful tech writer, but sometimes, holy shit you guys.
Twitter, because of their API, actually was a real-time protocol to connect various services in a novel way. I had debates with my other tech-nerd friends about whether Twitter could be one of the fundamental building blocks of the Internet via their powerful API. ... In this scenario, Twitter would have turned into something like a realtime cloud API company.
That's Dalton Caldwell (with my emphasis added), who is a very nice guy, but does nothing to break the pattern that everything I read on the Svbtle network exists solely to infuriate me for no good reason. I even tend to agree with him, and that's why it's worth questioning our conventional wisdom.
Here's the thing: I love the idea of a realtime cloud API company! I'm that dude. I write long, rambly blog posts about it, just like I did about Twitter itself, back when it was young. I love this kind of idealism.
But. Nobody wants a realtime cloud API company. I mean, I want one, but speaking from a statistical standpoint, that isn't what any normal person wants. For those who are geeky enough to want something, it ends up looking like Urban Airship or any one of the many other delivery as a service startups. Those realtime delivery thingys are awesome, but nobody would argue that they become the kind of household name brands that one represents entirely with a pictographic bird logo.
So why are smart folks like Dalton writing things like this? Why is Nova Spivack talking about a Twitter API problem? Because, in addition to some worthwhile technical requests, they're lamenting that Twitter isn't just for geeks anymore. This isn't some nefarious plan by the tyrannical cabal that controls Twitter to create a Horrible Commercialized Network For Kardashians; It's a result of the fact that so many normal people showed up to use the service.
Geeks are lamenting that they don't dominate and control this network, and expressing it in the only way we know how: Through technological triumphalism. If the culture of a giant network doesn't resemble the culture we prefer, then it must be a problem that can be solved by making the network more technically complicated.
What About The Open Web, Maaan?
Don't get me wrong; I would love if it made sense for Twitter to be some hippie utopian open protocol that also happened to support a multi-billion dollar company. That'd be great. But the amount of Kremlinology and hand-wringing over one short blog post from Michael Sippey that I've seen in the past few days reveals that people's concerns are not about what Twitter is doing, but rather the core technical community's own feelings about the fact they don't determine what Twitter is anymore.
Now, full disclosure, Michael Sippey's a friend and we worked together for more than half a decade. I haven't talked to him about his blog post, but this is a guy who was onstage with Steve Jobs at the original launch of the app store for the iPhone. He's not some crazy kid who doesn't understand how platforms work!
Yet we've got a lot of people using Aaron White's post as an example of Twitter's new clampdown on developers. I'll say this, because it's not Aaron's day job and he has other projects going on: His app TweetFavor should be shut down. It's an app for prompting others to robo-tweet about a project. It encourages people to repost crappy, spammy tweets, and that's when it's working properly. Now, Aaron did it as a quick hack to show off some tech, so I understand he was just scratching an itch, but man am I glad I don't have to read what that app would output in my timeline.
The other big example being used to raise alarms about Twitter's new direction? The disconnection of tweets from LinkedIn. Okay, show of hands, who loves that LinkedIn tweet integration? Who's gonna say Twitter sucks for taking away that awesome read-tweets-in-LinkedIn experience?
It’s inspiring to know Twitter’s pursuing SO many different ways to suck faster.Takes some serious vision to ruin something this awesome.— Merlin Mann (@hotdogsladies) July 1, 2012
I'm no expert, but I didn't think Merlin was that big a fan of LinkedIn. Huh.
It's about the ecosystem!
The most insidious and wrong-headed objections to Twitter's not-yet-disclosed future moves is the idea that somehow Twitter's moves are affecting the diverse and flourishing ecosystem around Twitter's API. Now, to be clear: The company needs to address uncertainty and doubt around their API intentions in order to make developers feel safe.
But diversity of the developer community? Let's take a look. Lots of people keep pointing to Tweetbot as an example of the kind of great third-party development that encourages a diverse ecosystem of Twitter developers.
Here's geek-beloved Tweetbot developer Paul Haddad on the diversity he wants to see from the developer community:
So all the folks pushing the women in tech issue are equally committed and supportive of men in nursing, right? twitter.com/tapbot_paul/st…— Paul Haddad (@tapbot_paul) May 25, 2012
Here's Twitter's statement on the topic from last week:
We are working with Girls Who Code, a new program that will empower high school girls to pursue a career in technology. blog.twitter.com/2012/06/workin…— Twitter (@twitter) June 26, 2012
Yes, why indeed isn't Twitter taking hints from this community about how to encourage more diversity amongst developers? If you want a diverse set of applications in an ecosystem, you have to have a diverse community of developers. Right now, the apps championed as innovators in the narrow, legacy tech community around Twitter are visibly fighting against those new voices entering the community. Is it any wonder why?
Sure, Twitter's made lots of mistakes with their ecosystem. But their track record of keeping it vibrant and growing is a lot better than most of the critics, and reflects a user focus that few other companies have. They can absolutely do a better job of making their branding consistent, but I'd rather have a few dusty corners in some Twitter apps than be cobbling together a hodgepodge of apps from developers who want to close the door behind themselves.
March 5, 2012
The idea of "public space" used to be pretty simple; There were places that we all agreed would be maintained by, and for, the public good. But the past few decades have offered up a valuable, if troubling, experiment with the nature of public space in New York City. For any of us who care about community, whether that's in our cities or on the web, there are some profound lessons to learn.
In 1961, New York City adopted a new zoning program that allowed commercial buildings to exceed the constraints which zoning regulations required of them if they made accommodations for use as Privately-Owned Public Spaces. Fifty years later, the legacy of that decision is documented well on the Department of City Planning website. (On a page which has this wonderful short URL: nyc.gov/pops!)
So, how did this experiment fare? Well, in the words of the city itself:
The results of the program have been mixed. An impressive amount of public space has been created in parts of the city with little access to public parks, but much of it is not of high quality. Some spaces have proved to be valuable public resources, but others are inaccessible or devoid of the kinds of amenities that attract public use. Approximately 16 percent of the spaces are actively used as regional destinations or neighborhood gathering spaces, 21 percent are usable as brief resting places, 18 percent are circulation-related, four percent are being renovated or constructed, and 41 percent are of marginal utility.
In response to the perceived failure of many of these spaces and to community opposition, the types of spaces permitted and their locations have been curtailed in recent years.
Just to highlight that again: only 16% of privately-owned public spaces can be considered successful. By the city's own reckoning, a full 41% are of marginal utility. How complete is the failure? According to all of the research I've been able to do, not a single POPS was used for any of the various #Occupy demonstrations except for Zuccotti Park, though one nearby plaza was used for Occupy planning meetings. (Note: I'd love to be corrected on this.) Imagine: there are ostensibly "public" spaces within the buildings that some of the major financial institutions actually work in, and yet they're so terrible and unusable that even protestors didn't make use of them.
The Beating Heart of the Atrium
Most POPS in Midtown Manhattan take the form of the atrium in an enormous office tower, where the owners post a sign declaring which hours the space is available to the public, and then decorate it with the POPS logo seen above. But there would be precious few New Yorkers who, even if they did recognize that symbol, could tell you what it means.
These public spaces, then are Captive Atria. They're ostensibly "public" spaces which, by nature of being owned by a corporation, are held captive to that company and thus fail in their intended use as public space. Put another way: Government is infinitely more effective and efficient in creating valuable, useful public space than private companies are. The evidence is all over New York City, in the grim, wind-blown pedestrian plazas and captive atria ghost towns which all of us hurry through with hunched shoulders on cold winter days.
What About The Web?
Tellingly, we seldom have discussions about web community in the language of urbanism or urban planning. But what we've seen documented through more than fifty years of experimentation in New York City is that we cannot effectively create public spaces in places that are owned by a company. Yet, we're increasingly ceding our public discourse to platforms and services which exactly mimic the traits of our sterile captive atria in the physical world.
While many in the Occupy movement bemoaned the fact that the private owners of Zuccotti Park had extensive control over what people could do in their space, that control is nothing compared to the typical Terms of Service of a social networking site. Whether it's Facebook, Twitter, Google+ or anything else, no meaningful act of protest would have to be tolerated at all by owners.
But let's put aside protest. What about all the simpler, everyday uses of public space? In captive atria, there are generally no food trucks offering distinctive meals, no performing artists even of the caliber of the musicians that play in the NYC subway, and there's generally such sparse usage that you don't even get the wonderful serendipitous meetings with friends and acquaintances that you get in a true public space.
What we don't realize is that our online public spaces are increasingly being given over to private owners whose spaces share the same weaknesses. It's difficult, if not impossible, to connect to or share with people with whom you haven't declared an explicit relationship. People who you don't follow or befriend or encircle may as well not exist.
More to the point, transgressions of the space, whether political or artistic, are prohibited in practice, even if they aren't always done so in writing. Imagine Improv Everywhere trying to perform its acts of rule-breaking brilliance in the confines of a space that was owned and controlled by a company. Now imagine you wanted to do the same thing online, carrying out an artistic performance which required you to impersonate another person's identity or to falsely claim affiliation with an organization that you don't belong to. In most cases, it simply can't be done.
I care about political protest, sure. But even more often, I care about being inspired by art, and being entertained by comedians and trolls and impersonators and other amusing rule-breakers. I'm happy that New York City has learned enough of a lesson that it's stopped giving license to companies to create POPS, and properly invested in true public spaces. Now I hope we'll take the same lesson to the web, and challenge the big networks to actually change their policies to make some of our shared online spaces truly public. That way, we get heart-warming public creations like this one:
December 15, 2011
Twitter's Bootstrap framework for creating web sites and apps is the culmination of half a decade's work by the web design community in creating CSS resets, grid systems and toolkits for easily building flexible, adaptable websites. While Bootstrap is only a minor evolution over past efforts such as Blueprint or the 960 grid from a technical standpoint, Bootstrap's polish, rapid adoption, endorsement by Twitter, and vibrant community leave it poised to have more significant impact than perhaps all such previous efforts combined.
From our own Federal Social Media Index at Expert Labs to interesting experiments like Jeremy Grosser's Exporter (which lets you export social networking data) and Brad Fitzpatrick and Nick O'Neill's Eight22er (which lets you access your Twitter DMs through POP email clients), nearly all of the most interesting projects I've seen in recent days are using Bootstrap.
As a result, I wanted to outline a few of the traits that I believe have helped Bootstrap reach an unprecedentedly rapid adoption rate, as well as the infrastructural investments that the Bootstrap community should make to enable its long-term success.
So why has Bootstrap worked so well? There are a few fundamental choices that were made particularly well:
- Reflect Current Practices: Bootstrap has the benefit of learning from a design community which has been iterating around shared CSS and HTML resources for a decade. Conventions around which browsers to target, which capabilities are commonly required for building sites, and informal traditions around everything from typography to navigation have all evolved to become de facto standards for consumer-facing sites. While many other past frameworks had preferences, they were still biased towards providing open-ended capabilities to developers; Bootstrap learns instead from the "convention over configuration" revolution that's happened in the other tiers of web development and is fairly prescriptive about many common design elements without being presumptuous about a developer's goals.
- Better Infrastructure: When early front-end frameworks such as YUI arose, the backing of a big commercial vendor such as Yahoo was a significant endorsement of the long-term sustainability and stability of a framework, though as that company's technological relevance faded, its framework suffered as a result. Similarly, early frameworks relied on collaboration through sites such as Google Code or Sourceforge, using the first iterations of source control on the web. By contrast, Bootstrap earns credibility from its affiliation with Twitter, which is still a vibrant and growing powerhouse in the tech industry and confers a halo of trustworthiness on the framework even if it's officially just a side project for its creators. And as GitHub has completely surpassed Google Code and Sourceforge in its brilliant, socially-driven dominance as the version control platform of choice for cutting-edge developers, Bootstrap's evolution gets better as the GitHub network gets richer (See also: Forking is a feature) and developers benefit from the efficiency of asking questions in communities such as Stack Overflow (Disclosure: I'm on the board) rather than having to wade through traditional Google Groups mailing lists for every issue, though of course the list is an option, too.
- Excellent Documentation: The homepage is the documentation. The clarity of the examples acts as its most effective marketing. The roadmap is in plain English.
Okay, if Bootstrap's doing so well, then everything must be fine, right? Not so fast: Lots of frameworks have enjoyed a temporary popularity, only to fade over time as requirements (and fashions) change. To that end, here's a wishlist of things I'd like to see — and some opportunities that are wide-open for any developers who want to make the most of them.
- A Bootstrap Zen Garden: While Bootstrap's current aesthetics are inoffensive and pleasing, the framework's success may be its own weakness, as users (or more importantly, designers) see more and more sites featuring its signature graphical elements. If someone in the community steps up to provide simple, lightweight, easily-switchable replacements that users can download, modify and share to update the looks of their Bootstrap-powered sites, this will be the single biggest amplifier to the framework's longevity. I'd contrast this to the acclaim that WordPress' default "Kubrick" template had when it was first released to the almost charmingly retro feel is has now when you look at a blog like Clay Shirky's. These things age pretty fast.
- Documentation that covers the why, not just the how: For early-adopter developers, the current documentation is wonderful in its straightforwardness. But as the developer audience for Bootstrap goes, a more thoughtful examination of how to apply Bootstrap's design patterns thoughtfully to common user experience challenges will be necessary not just to guide developers, but to expand the audience for the framework overall. Somebody's going to make a killing on a Kindle single about this.
- A larger curated set of jQuery plugins: The current small set of scripts which can be used to enhance Bootstrap are fantastic, but I'd expect a radical increase in the number of people expanding the framework's capabilities through scripting. The dev team should officially bless jQuery as the scripting framework of choice for extending Bootstrap (this is already the default choice, but being prescriptive again here can probably only help) and then make tough choices about which carousel script or form validation plugin is preferred by the framework. Given that the jQuery plugin community's infrastructure has regressed from poor to "under construction" of late, there is a good opportunity to positively direct the energy of the community that lives in the intersection of Bootstrap and jQuery without negatively impacting the overall jQuery ecosystem.
- A user gallery: I don't generally care that much about who else is using a given framework if it meets my needs, but as Bootstrap broadens its audience, many developers will want the reassurance of being able to point to other big, successful users of the framework. This could also work alongside the Zen Garden to provide inspiration for people who want to find new ways to use the framework.
Of course, there are many other elements that will help Bootstrap reach its greatest potential; We can expect templates for most popular blogging systems and CMSes, along with the requisite spate of Illustrator and OmniGraffle templates for designing with the framework. Some more ambitious community members might even make "Bootstrap site generators" that will let you drag-and-drop elements to create your HTML, though I'm still a bit skeptical about those sorts of efforts.
In all, though Bootstrap is a triumph for Twitter in general and for its creators Mark Otto and Jacob Thornton in particular. It's always fun to see a particular technology toolkit take off, and since I'm sure I've missed some key parts of Bootstrap's future in this roundup, I can't wait to hear what everyone else thinks of its future as well.
June 9, 2011
By request, a bit of explanation of how and why I favorite things on the internet. (Or favor them. Or like them. Whatever.)
First, where do I favorite? On Twitter, certainly: I love lots of tweets! On Facebook! That's mostly for liking things outside of Facebook, around the web. I like lots of videos on YouTube and on Vimeo, the latter of which probably has the most satisfying like/favoriting animation on the web. I judiciously like things on MLKSHK. I suppose I still favorite things on Google Reader from time to time, which always involves me starring, sharing, +1ing and clicking 10 other buttons in their UI, since I don't really know which one does what. YouTube has both liking and favoriting, too, but somehow that redundancy doesn't bother me as much.
And, perhaps more visibly than anywhere else, I star all kinds of things on Stellar, which is also where many of these favorites get aggregated and shared with others; It's my, erm, somewhat enthusiastic use of favoriting on that service (I'm by far the most prolific star-giver in these early days of the awesome little site) which has inspired the most recent "dude, what the hell?" responses from many of my friends. As of 6 weeks ago, Jason showed me stats where I had about 1/3 more favorites than the next-highest person on the site.
Why am I so prolific with the stars? Well, one part is that I am just an enthusiastic person: I like lots of stuff! There's also social expectation; My favorite (see what I did there?) friend David Jacobs is a master of favoriting and taught me the wonders of the form years ago. In the early days of (now-defunct) Vox, David was specifically called out when the app added favoriting:
By popular demand, we've introduced the ability for users to mark posts, photos, audio, video and books -- from their own blog as well as other Vox blogs -- as favorites. We've nicknamed this feature the "David Jacobs" after friend and Vox user, who, at last count has favorited 1,677 photos on Flickr. It's a great way to keep track of good stuff you've seen on Vox, as well as keep a record of your own things that you particularly like.
Do me a favor
Despite my enthusiasm, my habit of enthusiastically clicking stars and thumbs-up all over the web is not unconsidered. Instead, my intention is fairly consistent, though I'm aware the semantics of these functions are slightly different in all these various services. A few common themes:
- Acknowledging good work: When someone writes a tweet that makes me laugh or think, or produces a video that's worth the time to watch it, I favorite it or like it as a "reward" of sorts to them. I don't know anyone who doesn't check the number of likes/faves on a work they've made at least some of the time, and that way they know I was rooting for them.
- Retaining for the future: Favoriting items increases my ability to retrieve them later. I've got Instapaper and Readability and Pinboard all hooked up together so that things I star get saved as bookmarks that I can retrieve later. Similarly, ThinkUp can show me a rough version of the links that were shared in tweets that I've favorited. Basically, I'm more likely to favorite something if I think it's worthwhile enough to return to later.
- Implicit sharing: These days, this may be my main motivation for favoriting lots of stuff on the web. Truth is, I often miss the curation and editorial fun of the link blog that I used to publish on this site. (Give me a shout if you remember that — it's been seven years since I stopped doing it, old-timer!) By judiciously favoriting good things across the web, I can share them with my friends, assuming they're on services like Stellar and Favstar and Facebook with me.
Now, there are a couple of factors that make my favoriting behavior unusual, compared to normal web users. (Beyond the fact that I probably waste even more time on the web than most people.) First, my social graph is extremely distorted. I have a lot of Twitter followers, so many apps and services that use "popular" Twitter accounts as fodder for link/tweet popularity factor in my favoriting behavior disproportionately. I'm not quite a suggested user on Stellar the way I am on Twitter (since Stellar doesn't have that concept), but I do have an exaggeratedly prominent placement on that site, too, so the impact of my favoriting is amplified.
In short, favoriting or liking things for me is a performative act, but one that's accessible to me with the low threshold of a simple gesture. It's the sort of thing that can only happen online, but if I could smile at a person in the real world in a way that would radically increase the likelihood that others would smile at that person, too, then I'd be doing that all day long.
- ToRead is To Be Human, from 2007, was about the fundamental optimism people have when they tag an article as something they intend to read in the future. Many people use favoriting this way today.
- An Interview with Paul Bausch that I did on the old Six Apart blog back in 2003. I've assigned the epithet "father of the permalink" to Paul for years, but in reality, just before Paul was implementing permalinks in Blogger, Jason was experimenting with them on Kottke.org. I think it's no accident that both are innovating on favoriting, Jason with Stellar and pb with continued experiments (some inane) on MetaFilter. Favoriting is the most fundamental, natural action to perform on the permalink, which is the atomic unit of content on the web.
- The Power of the Audience, from early last year, was the first time I really explored the idea of favorites as social, gestural feedback for creators. The situation here hasn't gotten much better since then.
- Actions are the Body Language. Back in 2008, I'd made a page to capture my social actions like favoriting, and wrote a bit about why. (The page of those actions is totally broken now, sadly, but being able to archive those gestures is one of the reasons I'm so passionate about making ThinkUp work well.)
- Matt Haughey's post on his feedback loops that he relies on online, from early 2010.
- And finally, last year at Web 2.0 Expo NYC, I asked API head Ryan Sarver why favoriting is an afterthought on Twitter, at 7:27 in this interview video.
I wish there were a website that just had "favorite" (or "like") buttons you could embed, without it being all tied in to all the other crazy stuff Facebook does. But I'd settle for someone hacking ThinkUp to better support archiving my Facebook "likes" so I'd have a record of all the things I enjoy on the web. Actually, what the hell: $500 to the charity of your choice if somebody wants to make that work. Plus, if you tweet about doing it, I'll favorite your tweet.
May 31, 2011
I've been waiting a year for someone to write about this, but my laziness has not yet paid off, so here are a few things that we all know about everybody's favorite Cupertino fruit company:
- Apple has client app software on hundreds of millions of devices in the form of iTunes on PCs and Macs and, well, all of the bundled software on iOS devices.
- Apple has an extremely large-scale realtime messaging service, in the form of Apple Push Notifications, which has scaled with high reliability to what must be an extremely large number of messages, certainly on the order of hundreds of millions a day.
- Apple has account info for every person receiving those notifications, usually including credit card information.
- Apple has lots of experience making client applications for short-length interpersonal messaging.
- Apple has a proven ability to get the attention and interest of artists and tastemakers who influence culture and inspire a following.
And here are a few things which Apple doesn't have:
- Any success or demonstrated ability in making compelling clients for social networking, whether in the form of Game Center or Ping.
- A usable API for developers to build on this realtime networking infrastructure in a lightweight way in web apps, or in languages other than Objective C.
But in short, the hardest, most expensive technical part of building a web-scale Twitter competitor already exists in Apple's infrastructure. What's missing, in an odd reversal of Apple's usual pattern, is a well-designed, simple user experience that makes people want to participate.
Could a small team of developers and designers within Apple make a credible realtime messaging service with first-rate native clients on every important platform? Could they graft on a simple, REST-based web-style APIs to the complicated, old-fashioned API that enables push notifications right now? It'd be a lot like building a usable, delightful user interface on top of well-established, but complicated, technological underpinnings, wouldn't it? I wonder if Apple has those skills.
January 4, 2011
Clive Thompson's newest Wired piece argues that the flow of short-form messages as we see on Twitter and Facebook is encouraging longer meditations in other media. I've been thinking about this phenomenon for a while in terms of the impact that it has on me and other bloggers, with the simple premise that I'd like to be writing the content that everyone links to in those media, instead of merely passing around links to other people's work.
I alluded to that concept in the lengthy conversation I had with Clive for the piece, and he captured one of the key points I was trying to make:
“I save the little stuff for Twitter and blog only when I have something big to say,” as blogger Anil Dash put it. It turns out readers prefer this: One survey found that the most popular blog posts today are the longest ones, 1,600 words on average.
Now, while I'd like to self-servingly pretend that everything I say here is "big" in the sense of being important, really what I meant is that some ideas are just bigger than 140 characters. In fact, most good ideas are. More importantly, our ideas often need to gain traction and meaning over time. Blog posts often age into something more substantial than they are at their conception, through the weight of time and perspective and response.
And blogs afford that sort of maturation of an idea uniquely well amongst online media, due to their use of the permalink (permanent link), which gives each idea a place to live and thrive. While Facebook and Twitter nominally provide permalinks as well, the truth is that individual ideas in those flow-based media don't have enough substance for a meaningful conversation to accrete around them.
Felix Salmon touches on this point well in his recent post about the evanescence of Twitter debates. In the particular case he cites, Twitter is the medium that hosted important disclosures that could be material to a case that a current Supreme Court justice has said could impact a future ruling on free speech.
This means that, in an upcoming court case with the highest possible stakes for self-expression in our country, we may be relying on content that will soon be unretrievable by design. (That linked page shows that Twitter will only let you retrieve your last 3200 tweets.) If Kevin Poulsen decides to write 3000 more tweets between now and the time this theoretical case hits the Supreme Court, then we're relying on the (admittedly likely) chance that Twitter, Inc. makes an exception to its policy in order to provide this evidence.
If You See Something, Say Something
But usually, the stakes aren't as high as the future of free speech in America. Sometimes, we just have ideas we're pondering. Maybe we aren't sure of the full implications of something we've noticed, but we want to help catalyze a conversation. It's that sort of brainstorming that led David Galbraith to invent the most popular form of autobiography every created. I get to experience small versions of it myself, as when I noticed a small trend in people's observations about Google lately, which seems to have helped to promote the idea that maybe there has been an inflection point in the evolution of Google's ability to search the contemporary web.
Here's the important thing: The only reason I was able to synthesize those few perspectives is because they were blogged. Certainly, Twitter helped bring those ideas to my attention, and Facebook or any other stream-based service could have played that role as well. But because these points were raised by people I don't always read immediately, the persistence and permanence of their words, as uniquely provided by blogging, is what made it possible for a pattern to emerge.
Capturing those ephemeral moments of observation in a permanent and persistent form is essential for the ideas to mature into something larger. I'd hoped, when I first recommended that everyone consider Twitter a few years ago, that Twitter would emphasize those traits about tweets sent on the service, but until and unless their current design choices change, there's an enormous amount of cultural data that gets lost every day, simply by having been shared through a platform with those constraints.
The Perils of a Low Stress Environment
Now, Twitter and other stream-based flows of information provide an important role in the ecosystem. Perhaps the most important psychological innovation of Twitter is that it assumes you won't see every message that comes along. There's no count of unread items, and very little social cost to telling a friend that you missed their tweet. That convenience and social accommodation is incredibly valuable and an important contribution to the web.
However, by creating a lossy environment where individual tweets are disposable, there's also an environment where few will build the infrastructure to support broader, more meaningful conversations that could be catalyzed by a tweet. In many ways, this means the best tweets for advancing an idea are those that contain links to more permanent media.
So, if most tweets are too ephemeral to reach their full potential as ideas, what do we do about it? Well, obviously, one big step would be to simply make sure to blog any idea that's worth preserving. It's perfectly fine to tweet about trivialities — I do it all the time! But if you're tweeting about your work, your passion, or something meaningful to you, you owe it to your ideas to actually preserve them somewhere more persistent.
And, of course, I should make a pitch that this is part of the reason I am so enamored of the work the ThinkUp community is doing. A free, thriving, powerful, relatively accessible app that archives Twitter and Facebook updates with a mind towards incorporating them into more persistent and meaningful media is an essential part of the ecosystem. This is especially true as political, social and artistic leaders start to rely on these ephemeral media, without realizing the cultural costs to those choices.
Given enough time, and without substantial changes to the way the big social networks work, if you didn't blog it, it didn't happen. In fact, I first wrote about this idea a bit on Twitter a few years ago. See if you can find it.
December 1, 2010
I love blogs. Nick Denton wrote over on Lifehacker about the pending redesign of Gawker's blogs, with a lot of great insights into the leading edge of web publishing today. As with any thoughtful, provocative writing of such length, it inspired some great responses, including two of my early favorites:
- Joel Johnson, in 133 characters, offered up "Gawker Media is the size of a moderately successful local McDonalds franchise. So I guess it's a compliment that it's so interesting."
- Felix Salmon, at 6000 words, covers Hungary and the Cayman Islands, Kinja and Blogwire, and probably other stuff that I missed.
“I think Nick [Denton] is eager to declare this a post-blog design as a sop to advertisers,” he said. “It’s still a blog, it’s just the blog is in a narrower column.”
This is true! I do think this — Gawker is still, and always has been, just a nicely designed blog. Same goes for its sister sites. But what neither Nick mentioned is an idea that I've shared with them both, that Gawker's redesign to me shows an interesting convergence around a pattern that is best exemplified by, of all things, the new Twitter design.
River On One Side, Party On The Other
Let's consider the core elements of a reverse-chronological headline flow, accompanied by a sort of "content well" where rich media items sit. I mumbled about this a bit a few months ago in Twitter, Transclusion and Trust, but basically a half-decade after RSS readers failed to take over the world, major media sites are all converging on the idea of a two-paned reader, with a river of news of headlines that can be clicked to yield an embedded article reader that prominently features video, photos or other rich content. Here's a side-by-side comparison, with the bloggy parts highlighted:
Interestingly, this sort of seems like blogs have finally adopted elements of web applications as part of their fundamental design. Many have noted how the new Twitter on the web seems influenced by Twitter on the iPad (though the order of the two platforms' release may not have been the order of their creation), but in chatting today Nick Denton mentioned that there has seemed to be a sort of convergent evolution around these ideas between Twitter's work, Gawker's redesign, and other apps as well. Nick specifically mentioned the Mail app on the iPad, and added, "When we saw Reeder on iPad, we thought: oh, wow, same thinking".
The relative widths of the columns accurately reflects the priority of the media companies that host them: Twitter is mostly about the stream, but also about the content; Gawker is primarily about the content but needs to have the stream.
In this way, blogs are emphasizing the trait that's always defined them, the fact that they're an ongoing flow of information instead of just a collection of published pages. By allowing that flow to continue regardless of which particular piece of embedded content has caught your eye, Gawker and Twitter are just showing the vibrancy and resilience of the format.
October 22, 2010
Here are some articles that have recently gotten attention amongst media obsessives. They are all fundamentally flawed:
- A list of the Top 25 newspapers on Twitter from Journalistics
- An expanded list of 200 U.S. newspapers, sorted by their Twitter follower counts
- A piece in MediaWeek about Elle UK's popularity on Twitter
The problem with all of these pieces? The data that underlie the assertions are fundamentally flawed.
Each story uses the advanced research technique of looking at a publication's Twitter account, then reading the sidebar of their Twitter profile and copying the number of followers listed there. This methodology is useless for determining how many people have chosen to follow a publication, and instead is indicative primarily of whether or not that publication is one of the suggested Twitter accounts that users encounter when signing up for the service. It's also correlated to how long that publication has been on Twitter accruing those incidental followers.
Big Follower Counts Are Horseshit
I covered much of this topic at the beginning of this year in a post called Nobody Has A Million Twitter Followers. While the literal point of that headline may no longer be true (I'm sure Justin Bieber or Nicki Minaj has actually earned a million organic Twitter followers), the point still stands: Being suggested as an account to follow when users sign up for Twitter so distorts the meaning of follower counts that citing such follower counts without disclaimers is either ignorant or misleading.
In the case of screaming headlines that say "The New York Times has more Twitter followers than subscribers!" we actually veer from misleading to so distorted it's absurd. Subscribers are people who have, in one way or another, indicated intent. They filled out a form, sent in some money, and established a relationship with The New York Times. The majority of followers of the New York Times on Twitter, however, only established a relationship with Twitter itself, and the Times came along for the ride. MediaWeek actually uses the headline "Elle has a hit with Twitter feed" and this cannot be proven — being on the list myself, I gain users at almost the same rate as Elle UK, and I'm no hit among fashionistas. All we're getting a measure of is Twitter's popularity.
If any of these articles included explanation of the fact that the publications with the biggest number of followers were merely those chosen by Twitter to be so, then we could start to have an honest discussion about impact or influence or popularity or whatever the hell it is these writers want to weigh in on. By analogy, if a publisher went and threw its paper on the doorsteps of millions of people without any conscious action on their part, and then crowed about how it had a bigger subscription base than someone else, we'd consider them ridiculous.
So statements like "Maybe The New York Times has such a huge Twitter following because it was the first of the Top 25 to join Twitter, way back in March 2, 2007. " (from the first article linked above, on Journalistics) show a fundamental misunderstanding of the very numbers they're trying to report on. If we're going to make a splash with articles based on numbers, let's at least pretend to know what the numbers represent.
October 12, 2010
As ever, the best thing about blogging is the conversations it kicks off. Some nice responses to recent posts here and around the web:
- In a follow-up to Gourmet Live and Rewarding Experiences, Mathew Ingram of GigaOm ruminated a bit about magazine apps as walled gardens. Overall, Mathew's got a strong skepticism about a lot of efforts in this area, but I was pleased to see him say "About the only magazine that has taken any kind of creative steps in this direction with its iPad app is Gourmet magazine". Ron Mwangaguhunga of eMedia Vitals continued the conversation as well.
- A few weeks ago I was quoted in the New Yorker talking about Facebook and its impact on culture. In this week's issue of the New Yorker, I pop up again, but this time quoted in Ben McGrath's lengthy profile of Nick Denton. Spoilers: The piece closes with me asking, "Who has more freedom in the media world than Nick Denton?" People seem to like lines like that, as the quote popped up in The NY Times Dealbook blog and elsewhere.
- I argued with Malcolm Gladwell's assertion that social media can't be tools for real change. Eric Harvey offered a thoughtful, well-reasoned counterpoint to my piece, which is well worth a read.
- Last week, Twitter changed CEOs with Ev Williams focusing on product and COO Dick Costolo becoming the new CEO. ReadWriteWeb's Marshall Kirkpatrick examined the transition, with a nod towards my piece on ten years of history behind Twitter's senior execs.
- At Web 2.0 Expo here in New York last week, I did an interview with Mac Slocum of O'Reilly. While I included the video here in an earlier post, Mac revisited the interview on the O'Reilly Radar blog under the title "Why blogging still matters", focusing on one of the points that came up later in the conversation. It had been a long day with lots of different ideas flowing, so I'd nearly forgotten that we even talked about that, but now I'm pretty glad that part of the conversation was captured.
- I was a judge in the Apps 4 Africa contest which ended last week with some amazing winners, including my favorite iCow, which came in first place. You can listen to an interview I did with Future Tense about the competition, or check out this video of Secretary of State Clinton congratulating the winners:
- This past weekend, I attended the Open Web Foo Camp hosted by O'Reilly. While the camp itself is off the record, Scott Rosenberg did an admirable job of documenting one of the key themes of the event — whether the present "open" phase of the web is merely an aberration. I tried to use my access to influential open web advocates at Google, Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter and other big web companies to push them to make their employers more open and to resist the urge to compromise on their principles despite the understandable pressure they must be under. Hopefully a little friendly urging can give them the support they need to make the right choices.
- Finally, with ThinkUp well into beta-testing and Expert Labs supporting its first deployment by Code for America, Gina Trapani and I joined John Moore on The Lab for a brief interview about Expert Labs and where ThinkUp is headed.
Okay, that's enough roundup of Other People's Content. We'll return to original content here again shortly.
September 30, 2010
In my blog here, I'm mostly a textual dude. I've made a few little video clips or animated .gifs over the years, but basically, I'm a writer. But today, today! We're going all futuristic streaming internet video with it. If you like it, then maybe I'll do more.
I got to be on The Pipeline, Dan Benjamin's awesome tech interview podcast (subscribe in iTunes, or download the MP3) and join the company of some amazing people that Dan's interviewed. I'm really pleased with how it came out, and if you've got an hour to waste, please do give it a listen. Tip: You can listen at double-speed on your iPod and only waste half an hour.
Then today, I had a great conversation with Ryan Sarver, who's Director of Platform for Twitter, as a keynote Q&A at the Web 2.0 Expo here in New York. We only had a short period of time, but I feel like we covered a lot of really interesting technical questions while considering them in a larger context.
Right after that, we continued the conversation by having Bret Taylor, CTO of Facebook, join Ryan and I. There, I tried to ask broader questions that applied to the efforts of both of these social networking titans.
Finally, I followed up with an interview about our work at Expert Labs, describing the mission a bit and hopefully offering a note of optimism about where Gov 2.0 is headed.
I like to play Words With Friends and Scrabble! Other folks do too. Sometimes I play well.
Finally, here's Jimmy Fallon and Justin Timberlake with a medley of great moments in hip hop history. I'm not involved in this, but I thought it'd be good if people could see why I like these guys, and also there should be something in this post that I'd actually enjoy watching.