Me First. Then Social.

Rachel Lovinger   May 4, 2012

What sets a social network apart from its peers? (photo by josemanuelerre)

Though it’s almost hard to imagine now, there was a time not too long ago when the most convenient way to make travel arrangements was to call a travel agent who could look up airfares and hotels in a specialized computer system and find you the best times, locations & prices. My travel agent was a friend who mostly worked with business travelers, but was willing to use her expertise (and access) to help her buddies plan trips. Once she was helping me book a last minute flight to Los Angeles and she mentioned that a mutual friend of ours was going to be there at the same time.  This was a pleasant surprise and I was able to meet up with him in LA. Shortly after that everyone switched to making travel arrangements online. It was more convenient and possibly cheaper, but we lost that serendipity factor.

That is, until services like TripIt came along. Here’s how Tripit works: you forward your confirmation emails to the site from any number of airlines, hotels, train services, or general travel sites and it creates a trip itinerary with all the times, addresses, contact info and confirmation numbers in one place. You can also link to people in your network, and it will alert you if someone you know will be in the area during your trip. When I book a flight to Austin for SXSW, from any travel or airline site, I send it to Tripit. Along with all the data it stores about my trip, it lets me know which of my contacts will also be there during the conference.

I have to admit that when I was first invited to TripIt, I didn’t see a reason to join. I was already on Dopplr, a friendly, elegant and delightful site that also let me enter travel plans and connect to my friends and colleagues. It seemed to facilitate the same kind of serendipitous discovery, but it was a very manual process to keep it updated. I couldn’t imagine entering that information on two different sites. What won me over to TripIt was the email capability. With minimal effort on my part, nearly all the information I would need for my trips was automatically entered into the site and gathered in one place. I wouldn’t even have to print everything out before going on a trip. That made it useful in a way that went well beyond the social aspect. As you can imagine, I let my Dopplr account grow dormant.

But I was kind of sad about it. Dopplr’s aesthetic and social features are much more elegant than TripIt’s. It has more interesting travel metrics, visualizations, and other features which provide information and inspiration for the adventurous traveler. TripIt’s visual design seemed awkward by comparison, and was crowded with upsell opportunities. Dopplr should have been the frontrunner.

Subsequently, Dopplr has added the ability to submit trips by email, SMS and Twitter. But on top of being late to add this fundamental usability feature, it still lacks many of the other basic features that are critical to business travelers. As a result it even lost ground in the one area where it initially had a competitive advantage – the social realm. My network connections have all gone elsewhere.

While we’ve come to expect our online tools to include social connections, there has to be something more to a digital experience in order to make it truly engaging. The service and content it offers has to provide an inherent benefit to the audience because we all already have dozens of ways to connect to people. No one’s going to take the time to join a social network of “people who buy groceries” unless the service addresses other unmet needs. The value of these two sites as social discovery tools depends on deep connections to your social network, but also on the quality and thoroughness of everyone’s travel data. What makes people diligent about keeping their data complete? The personal benefits and ease of use. TripIt won the majority of the audience not by being the first to market, not by being the most delightful, but by having the more self-centered product.

To Tweet, Perchance to Dream: Three Twitter Myths Dismissed

Robert Stribley   February 28, 2012

Communication tools ain’t what they used to be (image via El Bibliomata)

Despite Twitter’s outrageous success, we advocates (or addicts) of the medium often still find ourselves justifying it as a meaningful communications platform. It’s generally the same few myths about Twitter which get regurgitated, and since many folks fail to use Twitter to its full potential, it’s not hard to understand how by only taking a quick look at it, they reach the conclusions they do. What are those misconceptions then? Let’s start with Ralph Fiennes’ recent fulmination on the subject of Twitter.

Twitter Dumbs Down Our Language

No less an expert in online discourse than Mr. Fiennes recently sent ripples through the Twittersphere (a tedious descriptor, I agree) when he complained about Twitter dumbing down the English language. Such social platforms, he opined, are part of the problem that leaves drama school enrollees unable to cope with “the density of a Shakespeare text.”

Fiennes claimed that language “is being eroded,” due to “a world of truncated sentences, sound-bites and Twitter.” (His whole quote might fit within a tweet, actually). Not a middling education system. Not a predilection for thumbing a joystick over thumbing the classics. But Twitter.

Well, Voldemort, turns out you are wrong.

So says Mark Lieberman, a linguistics professor at the University of Pennsylvania anyway. Lieberman studied 100 tweets from a single newspaper, The Daily Pennsylvanian, and discovered that the mean word length in any of the paper’s tweets is 4.80 characters. The mean word length in the Shakespeare’s Hamlet? A piddling 3.99 characters. Seems the bard really needed to up his game.

Of course, the real difference in language between Shakespeare and Twitter is likely due to the fact that many of the words in Shakespeare’s verse no longer flourish within the parlance of our times. If Fiennes complained that specific words from Shakespeare’s time have fallen out of favor, then he’d have a better point. It’s quite possible, however, as Lieberman’s admittedly limited study indicates, that they’ve been supplanted, actually, by words of an even beefier breed. Shakespeare would likely approve of this practice, since he coined many words himself – like “buzzer,” “bump” and “besmirch” – in order to communicate and entertain in his signature style.

Lieberman goes on to point out that Twitter’s requirement that we keep it to 140 characters or less “ought to lead to higher information density, and therefore less per-word redundancy.” That rings true. In other words, Twitter isn’t dumber, it’s simply more efficient. More succinct.

Related then: When tweeters use shorthand like RT or BTW, it doesn’t mean they’re encouraging poor English, that they’re lazy – often, they’re just smartly dispensing with commonly used expressions, so they can use the balance of their tweet to communicate more important material.

 

There’s a difference between dumb and efficient – between simplistic and simple.

Also, just for fun, let’s consider how much of Shakespeare actually proves eminently tweetable:

  • Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo?
  • Something is rotten in the state of Denmark
  • The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, But in ourselves, that we are underlings.
  • To be, or not to be, that is the question
  • The course of true love never did run smooth

And there’s plenty more where those came from. Hell, you could even string multiple quotes into a single tweet.

Twitter Ruins Our Attention Spans

Another complaint about Twitter is that, like MTV and the three-minute pop song, it’s yet another product of modernity, which contributes to abbreviating our already withering attention spans. Now, if you’re following entities such as Ashton or Britney on Twitter, that may, indeed, be true, but it needn’t be the case. Twitter’s more sophisticated users may communicate in spurts of 140 characters, but they’re often linking to long-form content. So, just because I’m scanning dozens of tweets (which adds up to a lot of discretely presented content), doesn’t mean I’m not also jumping off Twitter to read the long-form content which I’ve discovered there. Indeed, that’s precisely what many people enjoy about Twitter: the serendipity of being presented with meaty, meaningful content you otherwise might never have been exposed to.

 

In fact, a cogent strategy for any organization’s Twitter feed would be to consider the (ultra) short-form content presented on Twitter (or Facebook for that matter) as a hook or promo for more detailed, long-form content. Are you a journalist writing a long-form piece on a human rights issue? Drive readers to your work who may have otherwise missed it by pulling a salient fact from your article to promote it. (The New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof has this down to a fine art.) Are you a financial services company with a slew of data-rich 30-page white papers languishing in an online repository? Turn that static repository into an active library by highlighting the papers on Twitter. You may even provide the catalyst for an online conversation around them in the process. Engage Twitter to promote your thought capital.

It works, too. Late last year, Lewis DVorkin took a look at two Forbes writers who also enjoy a healthy following on Twitter. Both of them drew more page views as a result of their followers in the social universe, but the writer known for his longer pieces continued to draw more and more page views, even as the number of posts he produced per month fell off dramatically.

Similarly, Poynter’s Nisha Chittal writes about long-form writers learning to balance their time with Twitter, some of them even reinventing journalism as they curate tweets during international upheavals. On the flip side, she also points to short-form tweets evolving into long-form products, the two obvious examples of this being Shit My Dad Says, which became a book and a television show and the fake Mayor Emanuel feed, which also became a book.

Twitter Is Full of Meaningless Content

A third criticism often leveled at Twitter then: We’re told it consists primarily of useless updates from extroverts intent on broadcasting their every mundane activity. The responsibility for overcoming this issue, however, falls squarely on the user and his or her curating abilities. Twitter’s ability to provide value depends upon whom you are following.

If you’re following celebrities like Kim or Kourtney or Khloe, then, sure, you’re subjecting yourself to updates ranging from the simply pedestrian to the awfully insipid. However, Twitter also allows you to follow the more provocative and engaging musings of celebs like, say, Ricky Gervais or Stephen Fry. But Twitter plays host to all sorts of intriguing minds:

Of course, practically every news organization, corporation and nonprofit you can think of is on Twitter, too. And there are sites, like Muckrack, also, which tracks what thousands of journalists are covering on Twitter, Facebook and other social media.

 

But if you’re really organized, you can create your own Twitter lists on any theme or category you like, So you can train your focus on archeology or Australian politics or content strategy or gay rights or Scandinavian electronic bands or financial services or Occupy Wall Street. The only limit is your imagination. So, perhaps the fiercest critics of Twitter are simply the least imaginative.

 

***

 

Is there no legitimate criticism of Twitter then? Sure, there is. It certainly could be used to create a remarkable echo chamber. We’re all susceptible to confirmation bias. We’re tempted to pay attention to that information, which reinforces our existing political, cultural, and religious beliefs.  And the ability to create and maintain lists of people who agree with us certainly could contribute to calcifying one’s understanding of the world. However, any social media venue nowadays lends us the opportunity to set up a remarkable flow of information which confirms our every belief, seldom challenging us to scrutinize our beliefs, to determine whether they’re worthy of holding on to. See not only Twitter, but also Facebook. And Google+. And YouTube. And Tumblr. And Pinterest. And any other social platform, which allows us to curate our interests, to create filter bubbles, and to ignore others who may hold a dissimilar opinion. In other words, practically all social platforms. But that’s not a problem unique to social media; it’s an information processing problem endemic to our species.

Like a knife or a net or a gun or a rock, Twitter is just a tool. How we use it is up to us.

Everyman in the Social Narrative

Lisa Park   July 26, 2011
Has the face of journalism changed forever? (Image via Roscura Ochoa)

The July 20th Hacks/Hackers meetup put the spotlight on the latest web platforms, built using YouTube’s API, that focus on delivering breaking news via social and video. The meeting is a timely one considering recent events around the world—YouTube’s News Manager Olivia Ma referenced the Arab Spring as a prime example in which the everyman became the reporter, being the first to alert the world via all manner of online social media to what exactly was going on in that region.

Even more recent headlines touch on this very topic: A Norwegian National Tragedy That Unfolded On the Web and How to: Follow the Norway Terror Attacks Online. In the latter Mashable write-up, Storyful and Storify—both of which use YouTube’s API and were featured at the Hacks/Hackers event—are included as “key ways for people around the world to send out and receive information.” The Mashable writer goes on to add that “online news reports were delivering the news faster than television.”

In comparing Storyful and Storify reports on the tragic events in Norway, Storyful’s does a better job of demonstrating how seasoned editorial and the average wo/man on the street with just a smartphone and/or internet access can team up to deliver the—often raw—news, almost as soon as it’s happening, and in a powerful and comprehensive social narrative.

It may be that Storify, still in beta, just needs a bit more finetuning—or that it needs to get a better handle on curation. Because what’s clear is that professional curation of the raw content (amateur video, tweets, blog posts, photos, etc.) is still a vital component in making the story one that’s impactful, engaging and accurate.

During the meetup’s Q&A session, a hack expressed his concern that giving the power to the people would put journalists out of a job. The presenters disagreed, insisting that curation is still a necessary component and in fact what these tools do is change the landscape for the better—giving voice to the larger community and therefore, enriching the narrative by leaps and bounds.

Their argument has legs. After all, we’re already witnessing the groundswell around this type of social narrative. And so, as long as content strategists like us learn about and adapt to what’s relevant to our practice, whether it’s in the social realm or elsewhere, we’ll continue to have clients clamoring for our specific skillset and expertise.

Here’s a quick rundown of the featured developer partners using YouTube’s API, along with excerpts of their About Us spiels:

  • Storyful was founded by journalists to discover the smartest conversations about world events and raise up the authentic voices on the big stories. … Sometimes our sources are local journalists, amateur photographers, or filmmakers. But often the people with the best view of the action are citizens in the right place at the right time.
  • Storify is a way to tell stories using social media such as Tweets, photos and videos. You search multiple social networks from one place, and then drag individual elements into your story. You can re-order the elements and also add text to give context to your readers.
  • Shortformis a new social entertainment medium, delivering endless channels of short videos, curated by our community of video DJs (VJs).
  • GoAnimate is founded to provide an outlet for everyone’s creativities and ideas. With GoAnimate, you can customize your videos with a large number of features that allow you to create unique works of expression.
  • Link News is your connection to unique news videos from around the world. From breaking news to stories you haven’t seen elsewhere, our vision is to offer video as an entry point to seeing the world from different points of view.
  • YouTube Direct allows you to embed the upload functionality of YouTube, enabling your organization to request, review, and re-broadcast user-submitted videos with ease. News organizations can ask for citizen reporting; nonprofits can call-out for support videos around social campaigns; businesses can ask users to submit promotional videos about your brand.

The Web-Wide World

Jake Keyes   June 7, 2011

In your computer and IRL (photo by Junhao)

A few weeks ago, Google announced the Google Wallet, a payment service that will allow customers to use the Android phone itself as a kind of cloud-connected credit card. There is a lot to talk about, here: the privacy concerns, the PayPal lawsuit, whether Apple will follow Google into the Near Field Communication arena, etc. But from the digital consumer’s point of view, the Google Wallet hints at something broader: the boundary between the digital and the physical has started to disappear.

It started with smartphones and data plans. Or maybe it started with the discovery of electricity. In any case, the border is blurring. As Internet-connected devices have become effortlessly portable, and their cameras and touchscreens have become increasingly good at letting us throw content up into the cloud, the content we generate has been freed of its tethers. A piece of content — say, your paycheck — can start its life as a physical object, be scanned and parsed by a bank app, and end up a figure in a checking account, stored in a database. Then, with a service like Google Wallet, it can be summoned back down into the physical world, with a swipe at a cash register and a merchant-side cash withdrawal. The essence of the check, the content it represents, can be transformed easily from physical object to digital object, and back again.

A range of apps and web services serve as gateways for these digital-physical transitions. Take Postagram, an app that allows you to “make your Instagram come true” by sending a $0.99 postcard, printed with an image you select from your iPhone. Remember the early days of the camera phone, when the photos you took would often die with the device that took them? Those boundaries are long gone.

Or take location-based social networks. Foursquare and others leverage ubiquitous GPS tech to give transmittable social value to, say, my being at a certain restaurant at a given time. Watch one of your Foursquare-using friends for a few minutes. You get the sense that there’s a hidden digital world layered over our own, with its own invisible system of status and reward.

We’re only beginning to imagine the specific economic possibilities. Pepsi is experimenting with “social vending” soda machines, which let customers send gift codes to friends or strangers, redeemable at other Pepsi social soda machines. Codes can be redeemed, or passed along to someone else. The gaming industry, too, is testing the digital-physical divide, with Wii, Kinect, and Playstation Move. A few years ago, Nintendo even put out a kind of Pokemon pedometer, which allowed players to accrue redeemable game points by walking around in the real world.

What does this all mean for people who create and curate content? Well, for one thing, the dream of a paperless ecosystem is inching closer. Taxes, visa applications, ID cards, deeds, and so on may soon have no reason to exist on paper — at least in any permanent way. And more than ever the physical location of things is less relevant: points of sale, documents, and consumer identities are portable, sharable, and extremely easy to touch.

But this is what’s most important: digital content is coming into its own as a consumable, trade-able, valued good. The exchange rate is evening out. We’re moving closer to the point where an object is universally useful, whether it lives on a desk or on a screen. 

How Egypt Got Her Voice Back

Robert Stribley   February 7, 2011
In Tahrir Square, a man thanks Facebook. (image via monasosh)

The job of a despot just ain’t what it used to be. Ask Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. He tried taking down the internet. He tried cutting off cellular communications. Still, the Egyptian people found a way to speak. Not just to speak though, but also to communicate their message broadly, through the Internet, to all the peoples of Earth.

Dramatic stuff, huh? Indeed, we’re lucky to live in such times. A hundred years ago and for eons before, such an uprising would’ve been put down quickly and violently and few would have heard or seen the details of what unfolded beyond the immediate area. Now, however, there are cameras and cell phones recording. And there are content distribution platforms like Facebook and Twitter and Tumblr to feed the resulting information quickly to the rest of the world. For this reason, many believe that the current uprising in Egypt originated not with any political or religious faction, but with what’s been rather loosely referred to as the “Facebook generation.” That may be a somewhat inexact descriptor, but it speaks to something that feels like the truth.

When Mubarak and company shut down the phones, the Internet and any other form of communication they could get their grubby hands on, some suggested that reliance upon social media as a coordinating force had been overrated, since the crowds continued to gather in Tahrir Square anyway. Regardless, we began to see an interesting pattern: whenever communications channels were cut, the Egyptian people and those sympathetic to them found effective ways to restore those channels – or to create new channels. The need for communication proved a rushing stream: throw a few boulders in it and the waters soon began to lap, then run as a torrent around them. Give people the ability, the technology to communicate and not only will they embrace it, but they’ll fight to keep it.

How’d they go about this? Who helped them? Let’s have a look.

Some big names stepped up to fill the communications gaps Mubarak enforced in Egypt. Namely, Google and Twitter rushed voice-to-tweet functionality to market, specifically for the Egyptian people. People can call one of two numbers and leave a message, which is then posted as a tweet to the Speak to Tweet account on Twitter. Clicking on a tweet sends users to SayNow, a company recently acquired by Google, which hosts the files as audio you can listen to and share. These tweets include #Egypt as a hashtag, so they can be found easily, or any other country calls are originating from when possible.

I’m not sure how successful this effort has been, especially since the tweets apparently aren’t curated and, other than the hashtag, each tweet gives no hint as to its precise content. However, the new functionality was certainly trumpeted far and wide, and it must be a valuable trough for anyone with the time and skill to wade through it.

The Arabic-language news network Al Jazeera also found some creative ways to give Egyptians their voice back. Using services like ScribbleLive, Al Jazeera has been able to expedite stories from their reporters online via technology as clunky as a landline, if cellular networks aren’t available. Analog again meets digital for the benefit of the people. ScribbleLive’s service allows calls to be saved as mp3s and published with minimal hassle. It’s a service that first emerged when it enabled another news service to extend a megaphone to the voice of the people: Canada’s Global News used it to cover the protests at the 2010 G20.

Deprived of access to the Internet, some Egyptians are really kicking it old school, resorting to Bulletin Board Systems (BBS) and other computer-to-computer communications to exchange information. You’ll recall that BBS were originally set up to mimic real-world cork bulletin boards, where people could pin up flyers and community announcements. They also allow users to communicate via something called a “modem.” You remember those, right?

Word of these creative if retrogressive steps can be found in the chatter on Twitter, where so much of the news from Egypt has surfaced first due to Twitter’s extraordinary immediacy. For that reason, the networks and the news channels find themselves constantly referring us to Twitter, with ABC, CNN and NBC even highlighting and referring to the tweet aggregator TweetDeck by name on occasion, which must mean a boon for that little company.

Those tweets aren’t just coming from Egypt either. They’re coming from Tunisia and Jordan and other points across the Middle East, too. Worldwide, people yearn to be free. We’re still learning exactly how powerful and provocative the Internet can be in enabling them towards that freedom.

What creative ways have you seen people use to reestablish and maintain channels of communication under duress? Share your thoughts in the comments.

Want to know more?

User-Generated Chaos

Rachel Lovinger   December 22, 2010

Our holiday advice: don’t leave your stuff unattended. (image via kalebdf)

The Breakdown: Rachel shares a holiday tale about the first time she encountered the downside of the “wisdom of the crowd.” Luckily, the same Internet that brought the attackers to her door also gave her a window on what they were thinking and doing.

The holidays: so much to do, so many memories. For me, one of the things I find myself reminiscing about at this time of year is my first professional run-in with the trolls. Today the cautionary tales of social media mishaps are reported, analyzed, and reanalyzed almost as they happen. But in 2001 – almost a decade ago – we were so much more innocent about the possibilities. I learned my lessons the hard way, but I’m glad I learned them when the playground was a lot less crowded, and a lot less rough than it is today. Here’s what happened.

In 2001 I was the manager of the developers and producers at a website for a national entertainment publication. Our editors decided to put up a write-in poll for Entertainer of the Year, right before Thanksgiving. We had never done a write-in a poll before. A write-in poll, where people can type in whatever answer they want. There was no login required to submit an answer to this poll, but we were assured that the “robot protection” features of the in-house polling system were in good standing. Nonetheless, I was very wary of having this go live right before a four-day weekend, and I strongly advised against it. But the editors were determined to get it posted so that they would have a good set of responses by the end of the month, in time to do a follow-up poll of just the finalists by mid-December.

I checked in on the poll over the weekend, and it was immediately evident that it was being hit by robots. A script was voting for Janet Jackson hundreds of times a minute. Most of these duplicate votes were detected and removed, but many of them still got through. Similar efforts were weighting the tallies for Joss Whedon, Christina Aguilera, and others.

In the early hours of the poll’s victimization, the names showing up in the top 10 were still well-known, mainstream entertainers. But it wasn’t long before several online communities started to mobilize, most notably Fark.com and SomethingAwful.com, and things started to shift. On the discussion boards they conspired to elect their favorite geek-hero personalities, and people posted scripts that others could run locally to rapidly submit votes. The readers of Something Awful backed the site’s founder, Rich “Lowtax” Kyanka, as well as several of its other contributors. Fark readers mostly backed their patron saint, Wil Wheaton.

On Friday at 6pm, the only names most people would recognize in the top 10 were Wil Wheaton and Joss Whedon, and you’d kind of have to be a real entertainment nerd even to recognize those two. Kyanka had over 200,000 votes, almost twice as many as the person in second place (who was also someone you’ve never heard of), with a pretty steep drop-off after that. By 5pm on Sunday, Kyanka had 561,895 votes. Believe me, this poll was not getting that much legitimate traffic on Thanksgiving weekend.

On Monday we came in and the IT folks scrubbed the results, but the discussion on the various communities ramped up, and they renewed their robot activity with even more vigor. Luckily, these discussions were happening in such localized places on the web that I could actually follow along with them in real time– a fact which seemed to baffle the people who were publicly discussing their attempts to rig the vote. 

When their votes stopped being counted (either because their IP had been identified as a source of robot votes, or because they and others were running scripts that were overloading the system, essentially causing a partial denial of service), the tenor of discussion on the boards became paranoid and indignant. They seemed to think we were somehow identifying them and singling them out to ignore their votes. They started saying things like “Why do they even bother having an open vote if they are just going to fix the results?” and “We should all email them to complain about the rigging (I did).”

I couldn’t tell if comments like these were outright hypocritical or just naïve. On the same boards, people were not only sharing code for various voting scripts, they were also posting information about how to use IP spoofers. And still they acted like it was terribly unjust that we would “rig” our poll to deflect their attempts to hijack it. At the same time, they made fun of us when we failed to deflect the attempts. We were being portrayed both as ignorant chumps who deserved to be messed with because we should have known better and as evil media bullies who were tricking the innocent public into being interested in something that was really just a thin marketing ploy for the entertainment industry.

Eventually I started to feel frustrated with these people who seemed to think that they were performing some kind of righteous social action by messing with a meaningless entertainment poll. That’s when I did something that I really shouldn’t have done. I sent the trolls a message.

At around 5:30 Monday evening, after a full day of trying to fight this thing as it played out in public, we changed the results page so that it no longer showed the running tally. It said something along the lines of “Thanks for voting. Come back later to find out the results.” In a brief show of very poor judgment, I hid the following comment in the HTML of the new “results-less” results page:

You run a bunch of scripts that vote hundreds of times a minute for some geek with a superiority complex, and then you complain because *we* rigged the poll by dropping those votes?

The only way to see this was to look at the source code of the page, something that most normal people would never think to do. Around midnight someone noticed it. In their discussion board, they posted a message that said, “I looked at the source code of the “Thanks for voting” page… Think the guy is bitter?”

The next day my boss came to see me and asked if I had put some comment in the code. He asked me to take it out, it was only aggravating things. To his credit, he was probably really pissed, but he didn’t yell at me, he just seemed exhausted. What I didn’t know at the time is that members of another community who had been thwarted in their attempts to mess with the poll – a community that shall remain nameless – had become so irate that many of them had emailed my boss death threats. Security and the legal department had gotten involved, and I imagine it must have been pretty nerve-wracking for him.

So, I took the comment out and by that afternoon the communities started posting about that, too. “Hmm… now that comment is gone… I wonder if they get paid for reading Fark at work?” (Of course I was! They were publicly discussing how they were sabotaging our poll!) Luckily the whole game was starting to lose steam, and it didn’t go anywhere. But I realized later that baiting the trolls like this can be really dangerous, and the backlash could easily have been much worse.

If the same thing happened today, I suspect that their response would have been more aggressive, swift, and distributed. Having that visibility on the unfolding drama taught me to expect the unexpected when it comes to inviting user participation online. And while it’s true that some people will mess with things just because they can, there are others that feel they have a moral imperative to shine a light on the gaps in your security.  Don’t let this scare you off from incorporating audience contributions, but make sure you’re aware of where the weaknesses are. You may not be able to anticipate everything that the Internet-abusing segment of the public might throw at you, but you can be prepared to react and adapt. 

Turning the Page on Q & A

Haven Thompson   November 1, 2010

Got a smart question up your sleeve? (image via Oberazzi)

I started thinking about Q & A sites after spending time this weekend on Quora.com, a website which opened to the public this summer. Former Facebook employees founded Quora, aiming to build a product with a new spin on the Q & A site. When you create an account with Quora, the site connects to your Facebook profile. It uses your personal information to suggest question topics you might be interested in and enable you to easily find other friends to “follow” on Quora.

Because of this, almost every question you ask or answer is linked to your real identity. There is an option to ask and answer anonymously, although it isn’t heavily used. So unlike sites like Yahoo Answers, Answerbag, or Askville, your true signature is attached to nearly everything you contribute to the site—and your reputation affected as you post.

So, Quora’s utility lies as much in its value as a social network as it does in answering user questions. Users get to show off and share their expertise as they post, often discussing topics among a group of their peers (the start-up and tech communities are particularly active). This is further emphasized by the fact that questions asked on Quora rarely have a sole correct answer—instead, they encourage debate. It is interesting to see how social media principles have integrated themselves into, and arguably improved, a stalwart web product like the Q & A site.

Have you noticed other examples of social media integrating with web products in thought-provoking ways? Are you an active user of Quora or any other question and answer sites? Please let us know by adding your comments below.

The Communo-editron™ 2000

Rachel Lovinger   October 20, 2010
Robot arm, writing textWhen will robots start writing all the copy for us? (Image via Mirko Tobias Schaefer).

Yesterday I spoke at the Smart Content Conference. In one of the morning talks, Jeff Fried of BA-Insight emphasized the point that analytics, semantics, and machine learning are powerful technologies, but not perfect technologies. As such, he advises that business innovators should be realistic about their capabilities.

Over the course of the day, there was much talk about the interaction of these technologies with social information, and about how these tools could be used to help people (such as content creators and call center reps) to fulfill their responsibilities more efficiently. At the end of my presentation on semantics and publishing (based largely on the Nimble report) someone asked, among other things, which analytic or semantic tools could serve to automate the creation of ongoing stories.

My answer:  this is not a task that can be 100% automated. To be fair, she may not have meant 100%, but I wanted to reinforce this point. There are tools that can help – semantic media monitoring tools for research and tracking, machine-assisted tagging tools for more thorough metadata, and many others – but these are still just tools. For optimal results, they should still be wielded by a person.

In fact, by the end of the day-long conference, I had started thinking about how to combine the content creation efforts of machines, experts, and crowds to benefit from the strengths and overcome the limitations of each. Maybe it will be the topic of one of my future conference presentations.

To Tweet or Not to Tweet

Haven Thompson   August 23, 2010
Just one tweet away from 100% customer satisfaction? (Image via The Next Web)

The Breakdown: It’s an ironic twist that trash-talking flight attendant-turned-folk hero Steven Slater hailed from JetBlue, a company hallowed for its customer service. In particular, JetBlue’s well-staffed, responsive Twitter account is a model of customer relations. Other companies are still perfecting their strategies, as evidenced by some of our true stories from the social media trenches.  Read first hand accounts from fellow Razorfish employees below to see who’s doing it well and who’s not.

THE GOOD:
Zappos Love
Minora Uchida, Senior Information Architect

I once tweeted about @zappos because of a nice experience I had on their site. They saw the tweet, and automatically gave me a VIP status. They somehow connected my Twitter account to my Zappos account, and sent me the news over email, then tweeted me to go check my email. Way cool.

Vegas, baby!
Andrea Harrison, Vice President, Strategy

I use Foursquare and recently I said I’m checking in at the Wynn Encore, and I do my standard “Vegas, baby” comment, and I post it out. Within 30 seconds, I get an @ reply from Wynn Encore on Twitter, saying, “Hey Andrea, welcome to Las Vegas, hope you have a great time, let us know what we can do to help.”

Alternatively if you are managing a brand, you can also set up either Tweetdeck or CoTweet or another search service to alert you when someone mentions your company. This is a quick easy way to view updates from Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, Buzz, Foursquare, and MySpace all from within TweetDeck’s interface.   I’m surprised that every brand is not doing this.

Hot Water
Jenny Arden, Experience Lead
I tweeted to Equinox gyms complaining about the lack of hot water in the showers last winter. I had said something to the front desk but never saw an improvement. I tweeted and received a reply and problem solved. I think the real-time public exposure of customer thoughts, good and bad, makes companies much more proactive.

Feed Me
Chris Boese, Senior Information Architect

I can usually  tell right off if a company is using social monitoring tools on Twitter. How? If you mention a company or brand, even in passing, on Twitter, and within minutes you have a direct reply from a customer service rep or even someone higher up in the company, that’s a good sign. My favorite for responsiveness is feedly, the magazine-style start page and feed reader that’s a Firefox add-on.

Feedly.com is always listening, so if I mention it or bring an issue to their attention, I hear right back. Other brands have done the same, which could feel a little unnerving. Do you really want to hear from a Kleenex service rep responding to an automated bot ping every time you talk about a sad movie?

THE LAME:
Out of Ink

Rachel Lovinger, Content Strategy Lead

Sometime this past winter I was having a lot of trouble with an HP photo printer and not getting the help I needed from customer support. Basically, I wasn’t even sure if the problem I was having  was due to the printer being old, if it was the materials, or if there was a flaw with the printer.

I tweeted that I was getting fed up with the printer and someone from an HP Twitter account responded “How can we help?”  I gave a little more detail, and the person suggested I send a message to HPSupport. I tried, but I never heard from any of the HP accounts again.

Airline Frustration
M
inora Uchida, Senior Information Architect

I had a horrific time on the phone and email with American Airlines regarding their change fees, and I eventually reached out to the only official Twitter account I could find, @AAirwaves. They responded rather quickly, and asked for my info but eventually sent me back to the same channels I had had no success with. In short, I learned that corporate Twitter accounts are not effective unless they’re managed by people who are authorized to actually cut through BS to directly impact the customer’s issue.

After some repeated requests, they stopped responding to my request on Twitter, too. In their case, the Twitter is used as a promotion channel and only half-heartedly as a customer service tool. My issue was never addressed to my satisfaction, and I moved on, vowing to never fly American again – good luck to me with that.


What have your experiences been tweeting company complaints? Leave a comment and let us know.

Channeling the Wisdom of the Crowd

Melissa Sepe   December 22, 2009

ouija_board

Truth at your fingertips, courtesy of Hunch.com. (Image via Laurie).

This summer I found myself with an absurd amount of free time between finishing graduate school and beginning my new job. Amid marathon sessions of Rock Band and America’s Next Top Model, I logged many an hour on Hunch.com, the latest brainchild of Flickr co-founder Caterina Fake and a group of MIT and Harvard alums. For those unfamiliar with Hunch, it is a decision-making site that provides personalized answers to questions ranging from “Which camcorder should I get?” to “Do I have bipolar disorder?” Or even more timely inquiries like “Have I had an affair with Tiger Woods?” to “Should I get my DNA sequenced?” Hunch relies on its community to generate and maintain a myriad of content, much like Wikipedia. In addition to providing their own questions and results, users edit, flag, approve, and refine their peers’ creations to improve the advice that the site doles out.

I hopped onto to the site at the tail end of its public preview phase, and after the June 15 launch there was a noticeable jump in both the site’s membership and its coverage in the tech blogosphere. Industry buzz about the NYC-based startup intensified last week when Wikipedia co-founder Jimmy Wales joined the board of directors on December 7. Wales cited Hunch’s unique combination of algorithms and collective intelligence as its major draw, saying,

[U]ntil recently I hadn’t seen a great example of how the two approaches could come together, co-exist and truly complement each other to form something greater than the sum of the parts – which I believe is the future of the web.

Staff members pitch in as well – one of Ms. Fake’s most recent additions was a thoughtful list of pros and cons about her dishwasher. The quantity of submissions continues to rise with nearly 15,000 as of this writing, and while every submission would ideally jibe with Hunch’s witty tone, even expert users’ contributions probably won’t be 100% perfect. As a result, Hunch employs some unique features to manage this deluge of user-generated content.

The “Workshop” section of the site helps determine which topics are of publishable quality; it provides a space where users can view and edit recently created topics, promoting the stronger contenders and voting down weak or redundant ones. Once a topic receives enough votes the staff promotes it to the main library, while unpopular topics become dormant. Hunch also provides a “Training” feature in which users adjust the logic of both promoted and Workshop topics, after which staff members lock thoroughly trained topics to prevent further unnecessary edits. Finally, a system of badges and points – “banjos” in Hunch-speak – encourages a steady stream of new content by making participation addictive and fun. While the satisfaction of contributing to a greater cause may inspire altruistic types to remain active members, racking up pieces of flair provides the extra nudge that the rest of us need to do the same. I would be lying if I said that I didn’t go on a contribution spree while chasing after my “10,000 Banjos Club” badge.

Of course, just as information-seekers must remember that Wikipedia entries aren’t always reliable, it seems twice as true that Hunch results – especially regarding major life decisions – should be taken lightly. Whereas Wikipedia’s vast and active user base allows for rapid self-healing of its inaccuracies, mistakes seem less likely to be corrected on Hunch, which has a much smaller community. However, as Hunch attracts a larger and more diverse audience it will hopefully grow and evolve to truly harness the wisdom of the crowd. It is already far more content-rich than when I first logged on, and while I still wouldn’t seriously listen to Hunch’s advice on how many children to have or whether to leave the East Coast, maybe it will help me plan my next vacation or choose a new hobby. I’ll also keep doing my part to make the site smarter for my fellow Hunchers. Why stop now? There are so many more banjos to be had.

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