Making FriendFeed useful for Twitterheads

FriendFeed is cool, because it lets you have conversations about status updates, links, photos, and other objects posted on many services, such as delicious, flickr, and more. FriendFeed doesn’t have the “Facebook black hole” problem — content sent into Facebook becomes unfindable, since updates and conversations are visible only to the friends of commenters — because Friendfeed makes content is public by default, and you can “follow” without friending.

But there’s a big drawback for people who are avid Twitter users. Many Twitterites feed their Tweets into FriendFeed. The comment threads following Twitter posts are cool, but the cost is cluttering FriendFeed with a huge stream of redundant Twitter posts.

Here’s how to solve the problem: Create two saved searches in FriendFeed. First, create a search that is everything BUT Twitter. This is what I type into the search box: -service:twitter friends:aslevin Then save the search. Once you do a search, FriendFeed gives you a link to “save this search.” Second, create a saved search for only Twitter updates with comments. This is what I type into the search box: service:twitter comments:1

Voila! Now, you can see the non-redundant Friendfeed stream aggregating posts from other services. And you can see only the Twitter posts that have generated comment threads on FriendFeed.

This is making my FriendFeed experience more useful already. Once Seesmic and Tweetdeck add support for FriendFeed, you can have the searches running in standing desktop columns, too.

Designing for Community – variables and constants

Anthropology: The Art of Building a Successful Social Site is an good ReadWriteWeb articl about how Joel Spolsky & co built a successful social site for technical Q&A. One distinctive feature of the site the answers are wiki-editable, so they can improve over time.

The thought and care required to create a thriving community is a best practice in general. The specific items, however, vary by community. The sorts of rankings that appeal to competitive male programmers might be the wrong affordance for a more gender-mixed or female-predominant audience. Facebook, which is more mixed, has “like” as its only core rating. LiveJournal has lots of ways to show emotion. The need to design the affordances for community interaction is a constant requirement; the design itself will vary by community.

Social network nomads

There’s a migration in progress. Spurred by increasingly restrictive content rules, which barred content in categories ranging from breastfeeding to fan fiction, members of the LiveJournal community are flocking to Dreamwidth, a new service based on a fork of the LiveJournal code running on new servers. The first 200 seed accounts sold out in hours minutes. The Dreamwidth community is in a promising place because the LiveJournal code was open source, and the community had skilled techies who could port the code and run a new server.

Migrations for liberty are not uncommon. For example, the community of self-hosted blogging tool users migrated from MovableType to WordPress when WordPress tools got better for installation and extensibility, and MovableType moved to more restrictive licenses. The availability of self-hosted social network tools like BuddyPress will make it easier for communities to achieve self-rule with a modest cost and moderate level of technical skill.

In a 2004 Corante article, Clay Shirky argued that ownership of server space would be key to community self-determination. This pointed post about LiveJournal TOS issues observes that lack of server ownership may be a particular problem for largely-female communities, since the interests of women are under-represented. Come to think of it, not sure I agree with that, since more men pursue porn and porn is disapproved of under common terms of service.

As noted in follow up to Clay’s original post, owning the server isn’t the only way to achieve online liberty. In the early days of the US republic, only property-owners could vote. But that changed. Liberty, political thinkers concluded in the physical world, is not an attribute of property ownership — it’s an attribute of being human. Someday online residents are likely to organize methods to secure voting rights over their terms of service even when they rent the server and don’t own it.

The migration to a land where the community can be free to practice its own norms, of course, has a long history prior to the internet. Puritans moved from England to be able to practice their unpopular religion and be free to oppress folk they didn’t like. European peasants flocked to the US for economic opportunity in the 1800s and early 1900s. The human species has a nomadic history. Give us something to move from, or something to move to, and our tribe will pull up our tents and pitch them somewhere else. Social networks that pretend to lockin will find that the tribe has gone.

The Network is the Infomediary – 10 years later

Ten years ago, John Hagel and Mark Singer published Net Worth, a visionary book describing an opportunity for companies to take advantage the internet-fueled trend toward customer power by managing customer data on behalf of customers. At the time, I wrote a critique, The Network is the Infomediary predicting that the “infomediaries” would arise from social networks that participants trust to manage their data for them.

Hegel and Singer predicted that the Infomediary business would be a single application handling household purchases — something like a cross between a butler and a corporate procurement application. The SAP of household purchasing would cover every aspect of household commerce, soap and travel, housing and entertainment, requiring a vast customer base, and huge information processing infrastructure. The infomediary would will have “lockin” over customers because they have gathered so much customer data.

At the time I thought that the “monolith” scenario was unlikely because consumers would be unlikely to trust the behemoth. It seemed more likely that infomediaries will grow out of networks and communities. At the time, though, the leaders in the online community business were far from being worthy of community member trust. Providers like AOL and Geocities, Amazon and Yahoo were doing a poor job of protecting participants’ data.

Where are we now

The 1999 essay has held up remarkably well. I still believe networks are the seeds of infomediaries – but the universe described hasn’t quite arrived yet. Social networking has grown and flourished, and is developing more tools and practices for customers to express preferences to vendors. Twitter is showing some dramatic examples of online expression of customer feedback (think #amazonfail). Yelp has product reviews and rather embryonic social networking. Social media monitoring helps aggregate consumer feedback from individual viewpoints across social networking services.

The biggest social networking service, Facebook, still hasn’t proven itself trustworthy as a steward of data for customers. However, the power of their networked customers has helped pull them away from practices that customers perceived as abusive, including using browsing behavior without consent, and terms of service that take ownership of customers’ contributions.

And there still aren’t good ways for people online to weigh in, and to have feedback be cumulative, and to have that feedback be weighted by data about what people actually do. And there really aren’t good ways for people to express affiliation with a community to have their voices count more.

Most of recent action these days is around the realtime. Aardvark and Hunch let people ask the community for advice. But we’re not yet seeing tools that enable customers to organize to request service from vendors. But realtime is just the tip of the iceberg. Realtime can help fix a problem but can’t create alternative solutions. For example – I recently organized a Drive Less Challenge for Menlo Park, CA and surrounding communities. We had a network of people participating in a contest to do less driving alone for the week after earth day. People did what they could, and also observed barriers to driving less. Where aren’t there enough bike racks? Where do people need shuttles to the train? How many people are scared of putting their bike on a bus? It would be great to aggregate that feedback and make it available to service providers.

What did I miss
In the 1999 essay, I probably underestimated the ability of analytics to scale to the level needed to run an infomediary application. But I’m still skeptical of the “strong AI” required for an agent to make purchases on personal buyer’s behalf. Browsing and asking for human recommendations is a learning process – I often change my mind based on browsing – and I don’t want to cede browsing to a bot.


Paul Saffo says never to mistake a clear view for a short distance. The vision that the internet will reverse the power balance between marketers and customers, popularized by Esther Dyson in the 90s, is now getting a step closer to realization. Social networks and social media are a key part of realizing this trend, but the tools and practices to make it happen are still in an early stage.

Facebook OpenID is a really big deal

The news that Facebook will allow users to log into Facebook with a 3rd party OpenID may sound alike a technical detail but it is a really big deal. One of the crippling aspects of the Facebook Connect strategy is that it welded together user authentication with every other Facebook service available to developers. And it gave unto Facebook the ability to aggregate individuals authenticated actions across the web. This bargain leaves everyone dealing with Facebook feeling used – developers give up far too much, and end users give up far too much.

By supporting OpenID, Facebook decouples authentication from the providing of services. This gives more power to developers, and more power to end users. And, by enabling a more win-win relationship, increases the chance that Facebook will take advantage of its position at the core the big social graph to offer immensely valuable network infomediary services.

Facebook Open? not til they fix the privacy model

FaceBook has just taken two important steps away from being a walled garden by opening the API to stream data and by supporting OpenID. These things are very good. As someone who’s complained about the walled garden model, I think these are steps in the right direction. But these steps do not get FaceBook very far until and unless they fix the privacy model.

FaceBook is simultaneously too private and not private enough. This gets in the way of using it for information sharing AND for private information.

Facebook’s model for information about people is symmetric and mostly private. (Pages are a limited exception) I can only see information about you and from you if we mutually declare each other to be friends. This puts a break on the discovery of new people and new information. If you post an interesting link in Twitter, I can navigate to see your stream of tweets and choose to follow you. If you comment on my friend’s link in Facebook, I can’t see enough about you determine if I want to know more. Even if I could, “friending” is a different social gesture – I won’t friend you because I don’t know you. The mostly-private nature means that search is useless except to find people you already know.

ReadWriteWeb explains how this dramatically limits the utility of the newly open API:

Unfortunately, the data that developers are able to work with is severely limited. They will simply be able to make a call for a user to Facebook and get back the friends’ streams that this particular user has the permission to see. … Terms of Service will prohibit eyes outside of a user’s Facebook friends from seeing the massive amounts of friend-limited data. In other words, this is permission to build more interfaces for Facebook. That’s cool, but that’s not really what the world needs – more interfaces for giving Facebook love.

Meanwhile, Facebook’s model is not private enough. Facebook has been trying to be private but viral, and that makes it really hard to be private. Facebook actions leave trails all over the place. For example, if I comment on my friend’s link, others can see my comment. Facebook does have some granular controls over categories of friends and what is exposed to them. But these controls are not very easy to use. The API makes it possible to for developers to disclose information about your activities in unintended contexts, which may open new opportunities for privacy violation.

Until Facebook fixes its privacy model so that what’s open is open and what’s private is private, supporting open standards doesn’t make Facebook usefully open, and may make privacy issues worse.

Empathy for Amazon (but not that much)

When the #amazonfail kerfuffle hit over Easter weekend, I wanted to give Amazon the benefit of the doubt, at least a little bit. It was clearly outrageous that books about gay and lesbian themes were classified as “adult”, and removed from main search results, including kids books like “Heather has Two Mommies”. But the tweets and posts assuming organized homophobia on Amazon’s part were premature. The braindead customer service response simply citing policy didn’t convince me that malice was behind it either. Customer service people are trained to use existing documentation to respond to questions, which is often correct and sometimes lacking in common sense.

If you’ve worked at an organization, you know that things go wrong, sometimes badly. When this happens, people need to figure out what went wrong, and coordinate a response. When the rain of wrathful posts was falling on #amazonfail, I was imagining Amazon folk being pulled from family dinners around the world to investigate what happened and figure out how to respond, including fixing the problem and communicating to people affected. Socialtext is much smaller than Amazon but this process is painfully familiar.

Amazon’s response fell short of what it could be. Their first public response was that it was a “glitch.” This may be technically true, but it doesn’t consider the genuine and valid outrage that a powerful service like Amazon was marginalizing a group of people that faces real discrimination. Even if was a technical accident, the right response was “I’m sorry that this glitch has the affect of suppressing books by GLBT authors, we have no intent of discriminating, we support gay rights, and we will fix this as soon as humanly possible.” Their next response was posting a form letter to the comments section of a few blogs. What they should have done instead was to have spokespeople talking like human beings. It’s hard to do. It’s easier to post a form letter. It’s much harder to be human and nondefensive in the face of customer outrage. Amazon missed an opportunity to respond in a human way, and earn back the respect of angry customers with interest.

Watching the GetSatisfaction crew handle the complaints about their policy about non-company sponsored pages, and improving their service with the criticism, and watching Rashmi at Slideshare handle customer anger at a misunderstood April Fool’s prank provided inspiring examples of companies really engaging in a professional and human manner with angry customers.

Twitter is the new headline: how blogging and Twitter are complementary

A couple of weeks ago, Jay Rosen asked whether this was the dumbest newspaper column about Twitter ever. A game critic blogger at the New Orleans paper makes fun of Twitter by attempting to write his review of an xbox game in 140 character increments. The reason this is idiotic is that the author misses the complementary relationship between Twitter and blogging. You don’t write your review itself on Twitter. You write a normal essay, and then share the link on Twitter with a catchy phrase.

The conventional lament is that Twitter is killing blogging, since bloggers are now spending their time and sharing their ideas on Twitter. As Robin Hamman observed last fall in this Headshift post, Twitter (and Facebook) are siphoning off a lot of the energy from personal diary blogging – the proverbial sandwich post – or simple link sharing. Bloggers observe that they post less frequently because they tweet ideas more often.

While Twitter may be siphoning blog energy from very short posts, Twitter also increases interest in more substantive blog posts and discussion around blog ideas. An increasing amount of blog traffic is driven from Twitter and Facebook status (good stats welcome). Through link posting and retweets, the social network is used to share and spread interesting posts and call attention to good bloggers. Essentially, Twitter is the new headline. Blogger Louis Gray takes this a bit too far, I think, when he recommends that bloggers change their headlines into catchy twitteresque phrases for SEO purposes. A good blog title is catchy enough to be interesting, and explicit enough to make sense in search results months later. A good Twitter callout is catchy, makes sense in the current social context, and doesn’t need to be as explicit. There’s no reason to make all blog titles into Twitter callouts.

Reactions and conversation about blog post ideas take place in Twitter, Facebook status, and Friendfeed. Journalism professor Jay Rosen is developing a phased process for developing ideas, using Twitter for mindcasting short thoughts and links, Friendfeed for assembling links and ideas together with discussion, and blog for long-form essays. Update: Science blogger BoraZ writes about a similar social journalistic workflow, carrying the process all the way through composing articles and books. Christian Crumlish has actually used the workflow from twitter through book composition, with a wiki as tool for book editing and feedback for O’Reilly’s Designing Social Interfaces.

The relationship between social messaging and blogging can be particularly handy in the workplace, where social messaging is used to call attention and discuss timely and relevant work-related posts and updates. The ease of sharing and discussion motivates people to write useful things, because they will be shared, discussed and used.

In summary, Twitter and blogs are highly complementary. The role of Twitter isn’t to limit thoughts to what can can be expressed in 140 characters or less, it’s to call attention to longer-form writing, and discuss the ideas through the social network.

The Yiddish Policeman’s Union

Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policeman’s Union was excellent Passover reading, for reasons I’ll explain. The book is set in a counterfactual present where secular Yiddish culture wasn’t crushed by the Holocaust. Instead, it migrated to a gritty frontier district in Alaska with yiddish-speaking cops, crooks, lowlifes, idling chess-players, dissolute klezmorim, pork-loving secularists and insular hassidim. According to a review at the Yiddish Book Center website, “the entire project actually began life as an essay from the late 1990s about a phrasebook called Say It in Yiddish, which seemed to Chabon to be a guidebook to a land that has never existed, where one needs to know how to say “What is the flight number?” and “I will call a policeman” in mameloshn.

In the book’s fictional world, Sitka Alaska becomes the refuge of millions of Jews after the Holocaust when the Zionist settlement in Israel was crushed. The refuge was temporary, the 60-year agreement is about to expire, and most Jews are facing deportation once more. The irreverent homicide detective hero is estranged from his ex-wife and nurses his alienation in a worlds-fair shot glass of slivovitz. The villains of the piece are a secretive chassidic sect who operate an organized crime ring and conspire to bring about redemption with a violent Messianic plot. The book explores classic Jewish themes of exile and redemption from thoroughly secular antimessianic perspective, making for tasty Passover reading.

The book was heavily advertised as the adventure of a literary author in the wilds of genre fiction. I was concerned that I’d find it over-written (for example, I hated Everything is Illuminated). But Chabon did a fine job of translating Chandler. His figurative language is apt. A few examples culled by a NYMag review Landsman’s ex-wife “accepts a compliment as if it’s a can of soda that she suspects him of having shaken.” A pretentious, overly formal journalist speaks Yiddish “like a sausage recipe with footnotes.” An awkward father-son hug “looked like the side chair was embracing the couch.” The neoyiddish slang is entertaining – a cellphone is a shoyfer and handgun is a sholem.

I had only two quibbles. The book has a characteristic of many mystery-thrillers – the plot climax is convoluted and cartoonlike; I stop caring, skim, and then read back to parse what is supposed to have happened. I care about the resolution of the characters and themes, but the plot to destroy the world, whatever. I’m glad to see that the book is getting a film treatment by the Coen brothers, and you can read the wannabe movie scenes in the vehicle chases and underground escapes.

The other quibble is a bit of political correctness. Spoiler alert, if you haven’t read the book yet and care….
There are two key characters who die; one is a closeted gay man, and the other a macha bush pilot described as “lesbian in everything but sexual preference.” I thought we were 30-40 years past the date when people with sexuality off the center of the bell curve needed to meet a tragic end. It was entertaining that the woulda-been messiah was a gay ex-chassid junkie who tied off with tefillin, but I wished that he had found a nice boyfriend somewhere along the line.

I strongly recommend the book. Chabon has written a fun translation of Chandler into “Jewish”, does a great job with language, setting and atmosphere, a decent job with character and theme, and adapts the traditional plot in an entertaining manner. If you haven’t read it yet, enjoy.

How Twitter creates serendipity

Josh Porter makes a good observation: “a big difference between Facebook & Twitter is serendipity. Stuff “happens” all the time on Twitter. Not really so much on FB.” Twitter’s serendipity is an outcome of its design. Twitter asymmetrical, mostly-public, searchable network creates serendipity. Facebook’s mostly-private symmetrical network doesn’t.

Twitter generates serendipity with visible mentions and searches in your extended network. You can see replies from people you aren’t following. This allows you to expand your contacts and knowledge beyond people you already know. When someone asks an interesting question, you can do a search and watch the answers and responses unfold, bringing you to references and people you didn’t know before. By contrast, Facebook’s mostly-closed, symmetrical network makes it hard by design to see outside of your social network.

Handles and hashtags also help with serendipity. Handles are unique, so you can do a search for @bokardo and see the stream of references to Josh Porter, much more easily than if you searched for Josh Porter. This is a major advantage of Twitter over Facebook and LinkedIn, where searches for common names yield enough results that it’s nearly impossible to find a person with a common name. Hashtags make it easy to generate a topic by social convention and follow the thread. It is doubtful that Twitter intended handles to be useful for search and serendipity – they just used a convention that’s ubiquitous in consumer web services. Twitter doesn’t even have any explicit support for hashtags – they arose as social convention in the community. But as search became an integral part of the Twitter experience, handles and hashtags help.

My favorite thing about Twitter serendipity is that “pivot search” on people and tags kicks in when you get actively engaged in a topic. Most design patterns intended to support serendipity do a query for you, and deliver “recommended results” using some algorithm. An article about bank bailouts has several other suggested articles on the same topic. When you’re reading, you may or may not be reading more. Personally, I’m more likely to follow hand-picked links the author has chosen within the context of the article. The human mind is a better filter than the algorithm.

By contrast, when a person or topic is interesting in Twitter, you can easily pivot on the person or topic and explore. A twitter hashtag search is likely interesting — more interesting than generic tag searches — because a tag points to an active conversation created in a social context, rather than an abstract topic. When you get interested in something, you can easily pursue it and discover interesting results. This “pivot search” design pattern may be ideally suited for infovores like me, and too implicit for people with other styles, but I really love it. It would be interesting to find out how many others use Twitter for pivot searches in this way.

In sum, there are properties of Twitter’s design: asymmetrical, mostly-public, searchable, easy-pivot, that foster serendipity. Some of them were probably designed by Twitter designers on purpose, others may be sweet side effects. As part of the evolutionary experiment in social software, they provide great lessons to learn from.