Dealing with social media addiction

The internet is silting up with ego-driven dross. It’s little wonder that the anti-network-neutrality brigade would like to turn it into freeways and side streets, depending on willingness to pay. And, equally, it’s no wonder that the network neutrality supporters want everything to stay the same and for the pipes to be fattened ad infinitum.

With limitless capacity and fixed price access, anyone who can afford a few dollars a month is able to promulgate whatever they want out to an unsuspecting world. They could do it with blogs, podcasts, videocasts, social networking sites, Second Life or Twitter.

It doesn’t matter that most of the utterances are ignored by most of the world. For most people the joy lies, I suspect, in the uttering. It’s like vanity publishing. Everyone has a story and this is a way to get it out.

Most people like making connections and ‘friendships’. By participating in a social site like Twitter, they can delude themselves about their connectedness. Enough of the digital glitterati hang out there to make it worth dropping by and picking up what these A-listers are up to. Even if it is as boring as ‘stuck in traffic on 101’, or whatever.

If we were able to really restrict our appetite for social media consumption to our genuine friends and work colleagues, for example, then we’d probably derive a lot of value from it. I wouldn’t mind knowing what my four analyst colleagues at Freeform Dynamics were up to at any time although I really wouldn’t welcome a continous stream of the stuff.

And this is the issue really. If you get involved in any big way with blogs, podcasts, videocasts and social sites, it can be like a drug. But this drug doesn’t so much mess with your head as mess with your time. "I’ll just see what [name your own guru] is up to at the moment" and that’s another chunk of your life thrown away, never to be recovered. It’s even worse with videos, which are becoming all the rage in Twitterati circles. A bit of puff and a tiny URL and, if you’re not careful, you end up watching some nonentity on an ego trip.

I think we ought to start accounting for our time in the same way that lawyers do. And then measure the value extracted from each social media engagement. Did it entertain? Did it educate? Did it inform? Choose your own criteria and monitor your online activity. If you’re dissatisfied with the outcome, ask yourself what else you would have spent that time doing. If the answer to that is ‘something better’ then you have a problem. Only by recognising the consequences of the addiction can you form your strategy for beating it.

PS For social accounting purposes, that probably took you 135 seconds to read.

To Twit, to who?

Okay, I confess. I’ve been Twittering over the holiday period. As part of my social computing beat for Freeform Dynamics, it’s up to me to try and understand what the heck’s going on, even if it isn’t (yet?) mainstream.

Like blogging, Second Life, instant messaging, Facebook and all the other social computing activities before it, at first glance Twitter looks a bit mad and potentially very disruptive. It is, essentially, mini-blogging. 140 characters to say what you like when you like. Your posts appear on your followers’ screens or on their phones.

You can be certain that companies like IBM and Microsoft are watching with interest. And, no doubt, many of their staff will be participating enthusiastically. As with all the previous social activities, they’ll mine value out of it, if there’s any value to be mined. Then they’ll try to either replicate it within their own collaboration suites or, if they have to, make sure that this stuff can be surfaced within their own offerings.

The early adopters of social media tools are a fickle bunch. They swarm. Because they are so connected, ideas spread rapidly and they find themselves flitting to the next new thing. And, presumably because there are only so many hours in the day, marginalise whatever social computing activity they previously indulged in.

Facebook was de rigeur among these people and now they’re Twittering. I have no doubt that they will be on to the next good thing very soon. But they leave a trail. I was going to say like animal spoor, but that sounds rather negative. First of all the creators of these tools have probably worked for nothing and shared their tools freely. If they end up with a ‘hit’ on their hands, then they have masses of beta testers, also working for ‘nothing’. (In actual fact, they disclose a lot about themselves.) They will have identified value in the offering, even if they subsequently move on.  For the Microsofts and IBMs of this world, this amounts to free research.

When blogging first caught on, it seemed to comprise mainly of people wittering on about nothing in particular to an audience that largely couldn’t give a toss. Some bloggers, though, actually made sense and started to attract followers. Just like journalism, some educated, some informed and some entertained. It didn’t really matter. By writing authoritatively about their interests, they started to attract those who were interested in similar things. Communities started to form, through adding comments and including links from their own blogs. This often led to other more conventional forms of contact. Beside this undeniably valuable human aggregation, a massive pool of permanently stored information is there for anyone to explore in the future.

So what about Twitter? Time-wasting nonsense was my predominant reaction to it for several months. I made the same mistake that I did with blogging, predominantly that I thought I had to keep up with everything. It’s not possible. I thought the posts were largely pointless. Many of them are. Just like blogging, some are silly, some are irritating while some deliver direct value. Some Twitterers do all three, depending on their mood. The best ones are of the ‘hey look at this’ variety. If someone you respect enough to follow says this, then you’re probably going to welcome such a tip-off.

But then you get the "I am in a sushi bar in Times Square, yum yum". Most of us couldn’t care less, unless we happen to be in New York, in which case it’s an opportunity to make contact. If you’re thinking of calling someone and they’re on Twitter, you could look at their stream and see what they’re up to. Frankly, I think there are dangers in giving too much away. If I wanted to burgle someone, all I’d need to do was follow their Twitter stream to find out when they’re away. Okay – a bit silly maybe, but it is a reminder of how much we give away, wittingly or not.

But, behind this, values emerge. Sign up and find some people or entities (Twitterers are all people, but some go by their company name or their interest – ‘predictions08’ or ‘FTtechnews’ for example) that you know and see who they follow. This is a useful way of finding who’s out there who might be of interest to you. Watch out for the current courtesy of reciprocating ‘follows’. If you look at the list of people I follow, don’t assume I have the faintest idea who many of them are. I’ve just added them because they added me. (Unlike Facebook where I’m very fussy who I accept as a ‘friend’. ‘Follower’ is a much more sensible term.)

Conversations emerge on Twitter, but it’s not a good way to converse, any more than blogging would be. Do you track comments on your comments on someone’s blog post? So Twitter provides messaging as well. You can’t assume that anyone’s aware of anything you’ve posted. Twitter is just a stream of jumbled stuff into which you can dip to ‘catch the mood’ perhaps or pick up tips, links and like-minded (or not) souls. And, of course, it’s always a good idea to reciprocate with links to good stuff that you’ve stumbled across.

The very worst thing you can do is to try and catch up on everything that’s been said since the last time you were on. Accept that you’ll miss stuff. Or, if there are people whose every utterance you must follow, get them sent to your mobile or log in to their page when you have a moment.

I can’t predict whether Twitter will prove to be a fad or whether it will go mainstream. What I do know is that the entrails are being studied and if there’s anything of value there, it will surface in some form in the offerings of major software companies.

On social computing signal:noise ratio

Earlier this week Dale Vile – boss of Freeform Dynamicsposted about his frustrations following a deep dive into social computing. He’s been blogging and reading blogs for a couple of years but wondered if he might be missing out on something. By and large, he concluded he wasn’t.

I responded by email rather than comment. But Dale thought I should base a post around my response. Having read it through, I think I may as well share it in its entirety. Responses, private or as comments, are more than welcome.

Dear Dale

Read your ‘Signal to noise’ piece yesterday.

Reread it this morning.

Sounds like you’ve gone round the loop I went round a few years ago, except I did allow myself to become overwhelmed for a while.

Eventually, it was the realisation that you can’t keep up with everything, no matter how relevant/important, that stopped me. Along with the inability to keep up was a strong and growing sense of inadequacy which was fairly crippling.

Eventually I twigged that all this stuff is a river – continuously flowing, into which it’s possible to dip and sense the mood and perhaps go after the occasional fish or interesting piece of driftwood. There’s always Google blog search if you want to track down what’s been said recently on any particular subject. And, as you point out, tags. Although I’m less trusting of them because they’re not universally used.

When Netvibes came along, it allowed me to Watch the river without necessarily going for a swim. This is where the value of a good descriptive headline comes in. Netvibes just lists the feeds in little boxes – you can choose how items many you want to display in each, but the next/previous links mean you don’t have to miss stuff.

If you want to see the full degree to which I (don’t) track, see the attached picture. The bold numbers are how many unselected/unread items are outstanding in each category.

Netvibes

Am I bothered? Not any more. Like you, I go where I want when I need to. You’ll notice the ‘ego’ tab has no unreads. When I go to a tab with unread entries, it takes seconds to scan each one.

I agree about Twitter – lots of lost souls clinging together for comfort and reassurance. Facebook is heading the same way and they’re making some strategic mistakes at the moment. I hope it will pass because groups have good potential for business use as does the general theory of ‘find someone who knows’.

The water cooler/bonding aspect of these social media is important IMHO, providing it doesn’t descend into pointless natter (the social media gurus will argue that nothing’s pointless, it might come in handy some time). Sometimes our own Skype IM group is good, sometimes it’s noise. But there’s bonding going on there. These things can be good for distributed teams or collaborators.

Part of whether social computing has value lies in the size of the participating group. And this applies to wikis as well. Too few active participants in a community means that nothing happens and value isn’t extracted. Large organisations like IBM, BT or BBC get value out. Signal/noise can be improved with simple ground rules. And, of course, by the fact that people’s online activities are visible to all in the community.

Finally, there’s the question of why people do stuff online. Blogging in particular, but it could apply to Twitter, Facebook et al. Conventional wisdom is ‘post often’. I think the reason for this is that you then go up the various rankings. And, if you get visible, you go up further because people think you must be good. I’ve always thought this was barmy, and still do. The scheduled or frequent posting is not for the benefit of the reader, it’s for the benefit of the publisher or the individual doing the post.

You talk in your piece about how few blogs have something original to say. And I agree. It’s just noise. And, I suspect a lot of this is because people feel obliged to post at a particular frequency, regardless of if there’s any reason to post.

It’s all jolly complicated. I know there are Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays when I think "oh shit, it’s blog post day". Although, mostly, something has happened in the previous week to justify some kind of post. Then there’s the time it takes up…. But that’s another story.

David

Upheaval or opportunity?

The trouble with this business is that, almost every day, you meet honest and well-intentioned people who have a convincing story to tell. Then you get back to the real world and realise that however decent these people are, many are fundamentally deluding themselves.

I’m not going to name names, but take a company that has a technically superb product but it was designed by programmers and information scientists with the result that it can only be used by an elite with a similar background. Or, and perhaps this is deliberate, by spending a ton of dough on training – either from the vendor or by setting up their own internal programmes.

A bit of ‘user first’ wouldn’t go amiss and it would save customers a fortune. It would also make selling easier. One suspects that it might also result in a lower price, because it would then be seen as less esoteric and easier to use.

Another organisation might think it has come up with the most cracking environment within which to work. Top to bottom integration from applications, through operating systems, down to database and hardware platform. Enterprise rollouts are the dream with shedloads of revenue pouring in each year. Such systems pay lip service to the outside world of social networking but try to trap everything within their own walled gardens. The mantra could be, "You’re safe with us."

A variation on this theme is a multi-platform version which is slightly less obsessed with the operating system lock-in bit.

Either way, the sell is seductive –  a single backside to kick. The downside is that, once trapped and committed to a particular way of working and set of standards, it’s hard to escape. You depend on the supplier to keep up and quickly incorporate the more desirable elements from the outside world.

This sort of all-encompassing approach comes at the same time as a general drift toward consolidation and centralisation and away from the distributed computer operations that we’ve become familiar with. This is driven largely by cost savings but, for public consumption, they’re frequently camouflaged with greenwash.

Counterbalancing this centralising, regaining control, kind of world of individual major vendors, you have a decentralising world of hosted services, social computing and open systems. They look like a rag bag army from a distance but get close and you find some jolly effective regiments and platoons. The challenge is to wire them together as a cost-effective whole.

SalesForce.com is the poster child for enterprise SaaS. It took one aspect of a business which could be peeled off and delivered as a service, more or less bypassing IT.

Then you have the great mass of social software where people can link up with others of common interest, both inside and outside business. Many of these are platform plays which allow others to add functionality for the glory of so-doing, rather than in the expectation of making money. Some pretty major companies have given the nod to Facebook use among employees, not least because they haven’t had to expand their computer operations to accommodate the functionality.

It’s easy for IT and business people who are used to the first world above to sneer at people from the second world. But they know that every day, in their own lives and in those of their users, that the second world is an increasing slice of their lives. Connections between people are the life blood of knowledge work and knowledge work is an ever-increasing part of our lives.

The centralisers want to embed and control the somewhat freeform nature of informal and ad hoc communications. Apart from anything else, they’d like audit trails for possible regulatory actions. (Never mind that they can’t do it with normal human interactions – in the café, down the pub, in the restaurant and on the phone.)

On the other hand, the open folk put their offerings out there and wait and see what happens. Sure, they evangelise like fury, by talking at conferences, blogging and pushing hard from their websites. But they don’t have armies of sales people. They rely on the conversational networks to spread the word. They provide free downloads and let people get on with it.

Some of them and this unnerves many, rely on unpaid developers to fix bugs and add features. They argue that real-time fixes and improvements are infinitely preferable to waiting for, and forking out for, the periodic ‘big releases’ of traditional vendors.

At some point, if ‘client’ companies get serious, they come to the provider and ask for support, hosting, education or whatever. At this point, the vendor starts to make money more or less directly proportionate to the effort they are expending. But the amount of money coming in doesn’t have to pay for a top-heavy, revenue-draining, sales force and channel. The vendor’s primary investment is in creating a robust and responsive computing and communications system which can scale to match demand.

In so many ways it seems we are at another transition point in computing history. Huge forces are demanding that we review how we run our computer operations. The open movement is challenging conventional publishing models. Broadband and mobile communications are transforming where and how many of us work. And interpersonal communications, on which so much of (western?) business depends, is moving centre-stage.

Who knows what the outcome will be? The important thing is to keep an open mind and, even if you’re presently locked in to a particular supplier, don’t stop looking at what’s going on elsewhere. And, although their demands might seem unreasonable at times, listen to your users. They are, after all, the ones doing the real work.

BEA struts its stuff

Quite like old times. Instead of PR folk tending our every need (whim), it was AR folk. Analyst Relations, for those who missed me  throwing my lot in with research/analysis firm Freeform Dynamics.

The venue? Barcelona. The company? BEA. My biggest training client in the late 90’s, as it happens.

Anyway, life moves on. Judging from the on-stage buzzwords, BEA is right up there with the hip Web 2.0 crowd, the social networking lot, the SOA and the BPM folk.

The story it tells is good and coherent. A bit like Sir Norman Foster’s, no doubt, as his gherkin took shape. A lot of the BEA vision already exists but parts have yet to be built.

Apparently we have to wait until November to find out which bits of its appropriately-named Genesis vision are expected to go live and when. Given the company’s track record, I fully expect it to do what it says. And, frankly, it’s going to take client company strategists a while to figure out what they want anyway.

So what’s on offer? Well, a kind of soup to nuts of a modern IT infrastructure, from virtualisation at the bottom to business process management at the top.

BEA’s separates the layers with clever technology so that design decisions at one level can be made independently of other levels. Thus business logic does not concern itself with the software components that provide the functionality. And software components don’t need to care much for the platform on which they’re run. This makes each level independently tweakable to reflect rapidly changing needs.

The software components themselves can be interlinked in various combinations to provide fresh applications rapidly. Think mashups for dummies. (No offence meant.) Unlike most conventional mashups these are all documented, filed, tagged and managed by the underpinning BEA software to make finding and linking them as easy as possible.

In-house social software is provided but popular third party software can be integrated too. This is probably a good point to mention BEA’s agnosticism. There’s no hidden agenda beyond helping clients derive value from their IT investments.

Having been out of touch with BEA for a while, I wasn’t really aware of its virtualisation efforts. It’s a hot topic, leading to more effective use of IT resources. It can also bring energy consumption/environmental benefits, especially in large data centres. But a lot depends on the  efficiency of the virtualisation.

Here BEA has come up with the novel idea of removing the traditional operating system wherever possible. The conventional approach means that, this means that as the underpinning hardware scales up, performance first stalls (at four cores) then starts to fall off. By contrast, the BEA/VMware combo scales with it. The curve flattens slightly towards the top but, essentially, BEA just keeps on going.

Social computing in 22 seconds

Here’s a 22-second run through of a recent presentation I created on ‘New Technologies’ – ie social software/web services etc.

Abd

I used images and everyday activities in order to build rapid bridges between the audience and the technologies. (The presentation slot was 35 minutes.) It also meant that the content and audience engagement could be flexible. I’m guessing here, but I suspect that most new developments could be slotted into the structure fairly easily.

It took a long while to prepare and it seems a shame to have given it only one outing. A friend suggested making it into a YouTube movie, but it would be fossilised in time. Not sure whether it’s a good idea or not.

Any thoughts?