An addendum few people will care about

Sort of related to the previous post, I realized recently that I’ve been using a seriously flawed metric for this blog’s RSS traffic. In a post a few months ago about the selfish benefits of using Twitter I wrote:

I no longer count on a blog post to get traffic on its own. My number of subscribers on Google Reader has languished around 160 for months while in a little over a year I’ve picked up more than 550 followers on Twitter. Today if I want a post to get attention I link to it on Twitter and Facebook.

The morning links feature and the prominent placement of the RSS icon at the upper right of the page are both intended to encourage RSS subscriptions, so the total failure to increase the number of subscribers in Google Reader was disappointing.

It turns out I just wasn’t looking in the right place. When I redesigned the site last year, I kept the RSS feed at the same URL so that it would keep working. However I did change the name of it from this blog’s old title, “Eternal Recurrence,” to simply my name. This apparently caused Google Reader to treat it as a new RSS feed and so none of the new subscribers showed up in the version of the feed I check in Reader. I thought I had lost 10 or so subscribers over the past year; in fact, I’ve gained about 120. That’s not a huge number, but taken as a percentage of where this blog started before the redesign it’s a major increase. Twitter still showed faster growth, however RSS for this site was not as dead as I’d led myself to believe.

If you’re a blogger keeping track of your RSS subscribers, make sure you’re accounting for all of your feeds. (I now have three, including one from my MovableType days that has only seven subscribers in Google Reader.)

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To link or not to link your feeds?

A few weeks ago I linked to an open letter by Tim Maly politely asking that we all unlink our feeds, i.e. stop automatically syncing our blog/Facebook/Twitter/Foursquare/etc. accounts. Here’s an excerpt, but read the whole thing:

I noticed that you’ve started automatically importing your feed from that other service. I can certainly understand why you’d want to do that. Heaven forbid that anyone miss any of your incredibly insightful commentary and linking, just because they don’t use that other service. But it creates a problem for me.

You see, I already follow you on that other service. This means that I see everything you post twice/thrice/quarce.

This puts me in something of a bind. I don’t want to stop following you on this service or that service. For one thing, sometimes you post things to this service that don’t appear in that service. For another, I’d miss out on the unique constellation of contacts and conversation that each service provides. But neither do I want to keep filtering redundant updates in each service.

There’s a lot I agree with in that letter and in the past few weeks I’ve had several conversations with friends about when and when not to link one’s feeds. Despite my general agreement with what’s written above, I actually do link some of my feeds. This blog’s RSS and my Twitter feed both export into Facebook. However I don’t link my blog to Twitter and I don’t link Foursquare to anything. Perhaps I’m just rationalizing my own behavior but I think this is a defensible setup. And if I’m wrong, I hope you’ll tell me; I’d like to not be annoying on the internet.

Reasons to link your feeds to Facebook: The main reason I link my feeds to Facebook is that Facebook is really, really huge. Facebook has made the leap from niche social networking site to essential fabric of the web. According to its statistics for the press the site has more than 400 million active users; by at least one metric, it receives roughly as much traffic as Google. Exact numbers are hard to come by, but RSS readers and Twitter have a much more specialized user base (see “RSS reader market in disarray, continues to decline” and “18 million Twitter users by end of 2009;” I wish I had better numbers for RSS). Therefore if content is not exported into Facebook, many users who would presumably be happy to read it will miss it simply because they don’t use RSS or Twitter.

One complaint about exporting one’s Twitter updates into Facebook is that the formatting is so different. Fortunately @replies are now automatically filtered from Facebook so this is less of a problem than it used to be. Hashtags still get through which are less useful on Facebook than on Twitter where they can be searched, but their meaning can be deciphered. And hashtags are often used more as humorous commentary than as actual tags to be searched, and that meaning translates to either service.

The vast majority of my tweets that are automatically exported into Facebook are updates I would post separately there anyway, so exporting them is efficient, especially when I’m typing on a mobile device. The integration also prevents me from taking part in some Twitter memes, which is probably a good thing. The only significant downside is that people who use both services see updates twice. But are there many of these people? I use Twitter primarily and only check Facebook when I’m bored, and I assume that many of the people I’m friends with on each service also prefer one to the other. Empirically I know that people leave replies or click on links in each service, so I think the gains outweigh the costs here.

How about importing blog posts? To be honest, I’d rather not import my RSS feed into Facebook. I would much prefer that people subscribe via RSS to get notified of posts more reliably or read my site directly, generating ad revenue for me instead of Mark Zuckerberg. But as mentioned above, Facebook is huge, and many of its users aren’t using separate RSS readers. Nor is my site compelling enough that I expect them to make a point of visiting regularly. For these users blog posts are perfectly welcome as imported notes. And for users with RSS readers, these notes are fairly unobtrusive on Facebook. Since I’m more interested in being read than in maximizing ad revenue, I think the gains once again outweigh the costs.

(Incidentally, I’ve toyed with the idea of sending only a partial RSS feed to Facebook to encourage traffic to the site, but this would be inconsistent with my goal of not being annoying.)

Reasons not to link your blog into Twitter: Many bloggers link to every one of their posts on Twitter, either automatically or by hand. This lets users know that a blog has been updated without having to manually check the site. However this problem was solved more than a decade ago by RSS and RSS readers handle blogs far better than Twitter does. Twitter can present at best an excerpt of a little over 100 characters plus a link, so reading a post requires visiting a new page. This is less than ideal on a computer and potentially worthless on a mobile device.

It’s true that there may be some people who follow you on Twitter and don’t subscribe to your RSS feed. However this isn’t Facebook; Twitter is populated by more tech-savvy people who will use RSS if they want to. If they’re already subscribed to your blog, these automated Twitter links are needless duplication. If they aren’t subscribed, then there’s a good chance they just don’t find your blog that interesting. Either way you’re not doing them any favors by tweeting about every post.

I do link to individual posts occasionally, but only if I think they’re particularly worth highlighting. This can be an effective way to introduce followers to your blog and to drive traffic to specific posts. Hopefully some of these visitors will become regular readers. But if they don’t, one needn’t force the issue by trying to turn Twitter into an RSS aggregator. Let Twitter be its own thing.

In fairness, I’ll note that views on this topic are divided. According to Technorati’s 2009 State of the Blogosphere survey, 52% of responding bloggers who use Twitter syndicate their feeds to their accounts; Twitter has become a substitute for RSS readers for some users. Linking blog posts and Twitter is widely practiced and I may be hopelessly conservative in wishing it would stop. (As a producer of content I should like Twitter replacing RSS; please, click over to my site instead of viewing it in Google Reader! As a consumer of content I love full RSS feeds.)

Why not to link Foursquare with anything else: I enjoy Foursquare, but broadcasting one’s location on Foursquare is unlikely to be useful to anyone outside of one’s own city. Foursquare updates are essentially spam to friends on Facebook or Twitter who are in other locations.

Linking anything else to Twitter: There’s a growing tendency to transmit all of one’s online activity to Twitter. Before doing so, ask yourself if it would really create value for a significant number of your followers, or if it would be best left to friends on that specific service.

Disclaimer: This advice isn’t intended to be universal and you might have good reasons to adopt other practices. Maybe every one of your blog posts really is too insightful to miss, or perhaps you update your blog so rarely that every post is an event. Or maybe I’m totally failing at not being annoying online, in which case feel free to let me know in the comments.

As always, you can subscribe to this blog’s RSS feed here or follow me on Twitter here.

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Tweeting from the air

I hesitate to post yet another article defending Twitter from its detractors, but David Carr’s piece is very good and this anecdote is too amazing not to share:

The act of publishing on Twitter is so friction-free — a few keystrokes and hit send — that you can forget that others are out there listening. I was on a Virgin America cross-country flight, and used its wireless connection to tweet about the fact that the guy next to me seemed to be the leader of a cult involving Axe body spray. A half-hour later, a steward approached me and said he wondered if I would be more comfortable with a seat in the bulkhead. (He turned out to be a great guy, but I was doing a story involving another part of the company, so I had to decline the offer. @VirginAmerica, its corporate Twitter account, sent me a message afterward saying perhaps it should develop a screening process for Axe. It was creepy and comforting all at once.)

Think about that: In 30 minutes someone working for Virgin saw his Tweet, figured out which fight he was on, and got a message to an employee on the plane to locate him and offer him a new seat. Perhaps they wouldn’t have gone to the trouble for someone who’s profile doesn’t mention being a writer for the New York Times, but still, it’s like we’re living in the future!

The truest sentence in his article is this one:

There is always something more interesting on Twitter than whatever you happen to be working on.

[Via Maureen Ogle.]

Previously:
Selfish benefits of tweeting
Follow me on Twitter here

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Twitter lists and fake following

Twitter is rolling out the option to make lists of people you follow. So far most of the lists I’ve seen have been about categorizing people: booze, irl, libertariat, coffee, and rock-solid-peckerwoods (yes!) are a few I find myself in. This is useful and, since most lists are public, a potentially great way to find new people worth following.

So far I’m just using the feature to deal with the massive flow of tweets, creating a separate list of the people I care most about following. I can check this short list when I’ve been offline for a while without being inundated by posts, dipping into the main Twitter stream whenever I have more time. This is basically the feature I hoped for back in April:

A simpler approach would be to offer people binary levels of contacts on Twitter: One A-List they never want to miss and a larger stream they follow only as time allows. It’s not a perfect solution, but it’s an easy solution. It could be implemented completely within a browser if Twitter decided to make this happen. Yet as far as I know, this option doesn’t exist anywhere.

And now we have it. Thanks, Twitter!

Using lists like this reduces the costs of following new people since one no longer has to worry that they’ll distract attention from more relevant content. But there’s a downside to this: It basically enables the “fake following” feature of FriendFeed. When users have to compete for attention, the decision to follow someone signals some level of commitment and engagement (unless one is the type of user who follows everyone indiscriminately). Now there’s no way to tell if someone is really following you or just politely fake following you, which I think might reduce some of the live conversation aspects of Twitter that make it such a cool platform.

Twitter has become too big to not have a feature like this. In the past few months I’ve been reluctant to follow new people simply because I don’t want to miss updates from my close friends in the flood of tweets from acquaintances. So yes, it’s probably worth paying the costs of having lists, but I’m going to miss the transparent simplicity of the old system.

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Selfish benefits of tweeting

Tyler Cowen suggests that there are few private gains from producing content on Twitter:

In my portrait Twitter consists mainly of social benefits yet it offers few private gains for many generators of the content. So why do so many people do it? Maybe it tricks our instincts for sociability or connection.

Sociability is certainly a major benefit and I wouldn’t consider it a “trick.” Sure many tweets are about trivial things, but so are many real world conversations. I like Clive Thompson’s description of this as “social proprioception.”

However the social aspects of Twitter have seemed to decline in importance over the past year with a greater emphasis on pointing to content elsewhere; I now find nearly as many useful links in my Twitter feed as I do in my RSS reader. So why actively tweet instead of passively taking it all in? I get a few selfish benefits from publishing on the site:

Driving traffic — I no longer count on a blog post to get traffic on its own. My number of subscribers on Google Reader has languished around 160 for months while in a little over a year I’ve picked up more than 550 followers on Twitter. Today if I want a post to get attention I link to it on Twitter and Facebook. (This begs the question of whether blogging itself offers benefits, which I talk about here.)

Attracting customers — I work in a bar. I make money by getting people into that bar. Twitter lets me tell people about new drinks, promote events, and just generally draw attention to the place. It also raises the profile of the bar outside of Portland, making it more likely that out of town visitors will stop in.

Reminding people that I exist — That’s weird to say, but it’s important. When people are deciding whom to invite to events, send samples to, or hire for a gig, being active on Twitter helps ensure they’re keeping me in mind.

Crowd-sourcing — Tyler says he hasn’t learned how to ask for advice on Twitter very well, but it’s easy: Don’t ask stupid (i.e. easily Googleable) questions and don’t ask too many of them. I’ve used it to source good restaurants, my bike bag, cooking and mixology tips, and other things. Of course to get advice you need followers, which means it’s a return on being active.

Meeting new people — Twitter has been a surprisingly good medium for getting to know people that I might have met otherwise but probably wouldn’t have. And after months of following them on Twitter I know them far better than I would from exchanging a few emails. This is a great benefit when we finally meet in person.

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Twitter tools, pt. 2: Enemy of the good

When I first got into Twitter I entertained the idea of limiting myself to following just 100 people. This seemed like a feasible idea at the time, but now that I’m following 196 people I realize how ridiculous it was. I have no desire to cut the number of people I follow in half, but I’ve also reached the point where the volume of Twitter activity is getting a little unmanageable. Unfortunately I haven’t found any tools to make this better.

Take the problem of Twitter/Facebook interaction. Twitter posts and Facebook status updates serve similar purposes but aren’t exactly the same; responses to Tweets take the form of another Tweet rather than a comment, so the output can be overwhelming for Facebook users if the two accounts are integrated so that all Tweets become Facebook updates. The perfect solution to this problem is to designate which Tweets get sent to Facebook. Selective Twitter Status is an app that only passes on Tweets that include a “#fb” hashtag. That solves the problem for Facebook, but takes up precious characters in Twitter and pollutes the service with a meaningless tag.

A better solution would be to filter out any @replies. As a general rule on Twitter, any post starting with @somebody is directed primarily to that person and not particularly useful for Facebook users. Filtering @replies is an imperfect solution; some @replies are valued on Facebook and some non-@replies are worthless. However, this simple filter would take care of most of the problem and would require no effort from users. I’m amazed that, to my knowledge, an app that does this doesn’t exist. It’s a case of the perfect being the enemy of the good.

The same is true for handling the volume of Tweets from one’s contacts. I spent a couple hours this afternoon playing with Tweetdeck and Seesmic, two desktop apps using the Twitter API. They both allow users to separate their Twitter feeds into groups. For example, I could have an A-List for people whose updates I want to be sure not to miss and separate lists for cocktail, coffee, politics, and Portland people. I can see how this would be useful. The downside is that running these apps requires leaving my web browser for the Adobe Air environment, a tool from a company not exactly known for its trim computing resource demands. And worse than that, the apps haven’t worked all that well for me: Tweetdeck fails to include all of my contacts and the user interface for Seesmic is extremely unintuitive.

A simpler approach would be to offer people binary levels of contacts on Twitter: One A-List they never want to miss and a larger stream they follow only as time allows. It’s not a perfect solution, but it’s an easy solution. It could be implemented completely within a browser if Twitter decided to make this happen. Yet as far as I know, this option doesn’t exist anywhere.

Programs like Tweetdeck and Seesmic are still young and might eventually take Twitter to the next level. I hope they do. Until then I’d really like to see some simpler, imperfect solutions to the problems Twitter’s rapid growth has caused. Since those don’t seem to exist, I’m stuck missing updates from people I’d like to follow and spamming Facebook friends with incomprehensible Twitter updates. I don’t seem to be alone in this.

Update: Barzelay notes that the Facebook Twitter appears to now filter out @-replies, a welcome and recent development.

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Twitter tools

As in tools for using Twitter, not tools on Twitter (though there are plenty of those!). I may review a few this week. The first one’s easy, useful, and unlike some of the other ones, actually works.

The site is Backtweets. Search for a URL and Backtweets shows you who has linked to it on Twitter, including links that use URL shorterners. It’s a great tool for tracking commentary about your blog.

I’m currently testing out a few Twitter apps that are a lot more complicated and running into some problems. If I get them working I may post about them tomorrow.

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David Pogue says I have no life

New York Times tech columnist David Pogue is, surprisingly, new to Twitter. He’s written a column about it that provides a good description of what it’s like to use the potentially bewildering service. It’s worth a look if you’re considering signing up. I liked this bit about how bottom-up spontaneous order turned a very basic application into a wonderful network:

In fact, [founder Evan] Williams said that a huge chunk of Twitter lore, etiquette and even terminology has sprouted up from Twitter users without any input from the company. For example, the people came up with the term “tweets” (what everyone calls the messages). The crowd began referring to fellow Twitterers by name like this: @pogue. Soon, that notation became a standard shorthand that the Twitter software now recognizes. The masses also came up with conventions like “RT,” meaning re-tweet — you’re passing along what someone else said on Twitter.

Pogue also says that I have no life:

Nobody has the time to read all the tweets from more than about 30 people — at least, nobody with a life.

Hey, I follow 149 people and I at least skim all of their updates. On the other hand, I’m terribly underemployed right now and stayed up till 4 am last night reading comic books, so maybe he has a point.

But seriously, scanning through Twitter doesn’t take that long and it’s a key part of my morning routine, which usually goes something like: Check email, brew coffee, scan Twitter, go through my RSS feeds, open news websites, and finally sort my Firefox tabs. Twitter is an effective way to get rapidly up to speed on what my friends are doing and what’s going on in the world.

An interesting side effect of being on the West Coast is how my feed changes throughout the day. It starts out very political with lots of updates from DC friends, who still make up the bulk of my contacts. By early evening here they’re closing down for the night or posting drunken tweets. By late night the politics are gone and it’s just my non-political food and drink friends from Europe and the West Coast posting updates. By morning it’s back to heavy politics from the East Coast crew who’ve been up for hours ahead of me.

I would add one more rule to what Pogue suggests: If you have a blog, don’t link every post in your Twitter feed. An occasional highlight is fine, but anyone tech-savvy enough to be on Twitter has probably mastered RSS. They’ll follow your blog if they want to.

By the way, I am @jacobgrier on Twitter if you’d like to follow for faster, briefer content like what you see on this blog, along with random personal updates.

[Hat tip to Maureen Ogle, who needs to stop writing about Twitter and just join it already! Even if only as an experiment.]

Previously:
Organizational tweeting
Faking it

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Priorities

Selected tweets from my friends in the last 24 hours:

Discussions of Obama being “Good for a beer” and regular White house cocktail parties makes me happy on many, many levels.

ZOMG. Obama says he’d “go for a beer with Hannity”. Obama’s like 500000% better a person than I could ever be.

Has a man crush on Obama

These soon after the administration cited state secrets to block the Binyam Mohamed case. Obama’s a swell guy and all, but he’s not a better person than you. He wouldn’t go for a beer with Hannity because he’s so wonderful. He’d do it because that kind of glad-handing chumminess is what makes a person appeal to more than 50% of American voters. You, my friends, couldn’t put up with two years of that campaign bullshit. You wouldn’t try to cover up the previous administration’s complicity in rendition cases either. That’s why I like you. Snap out of it.

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Tear down these Facebook walls

Via Elizabeth Nolan Brown, a rant about importing Twitter updates to Facebook from early last year:

If there’s one thing that reeeeaaaalllly annoys me on Facebook, it’s when my contacts update their status updates using Twitter.

Aaaaarrgghhhh!

Seriously, dude, maybe you should start using Facebook status updates in the way in which Mr Zukerburg intended? I follow you on Twitter and we’re friends on Facebook so we’ve obviously got a good relationship going on. But, dude, you’re inundating me with your updates and I’m reading them multiple times.

Like Elizabeth, I’m one of the annoying people who do this. But also like her, the relevant comparison isn’t me updating the two services separately, it’s not updating Facebook at all. In the 3+ years I was using Facebook without Twitter I never once wrote a status update. This was in part because I underestimated how many people pay attention to them. I didn’t, so I assumed no one else did either. But once I started importing Tweets, people I hadn’t talked to in years started commenting on them. I took this as confirmation that it’s worth doing this, despite the fact that it sends along confusing updates like “@XXX Congrats! Has Ryan let you touch the machine yet?”

But that’s not the only reason I don’t update manually. The other is that I’d like to see Facebook fail. Not in the sense of giving way to the next site in the line of Friendster, MySpace (pronounced muh-space), and Orkut, but to get past walled off services entirely. Facebook has become a one-stop shop for all kinds of things that it’s not actually very good at. Its status updates aren’t as good as Twitter. Its messages aren’t as good as email. Its photos, with the possible exception of tagging people, aren’t as good as Flickr. Its notes aren’t as good as blogs and RSS readers. Its zombies aren’t as good as real undead people battering down your door to eat your brains.

When these applications are set free from Facebook’s privacy settings and proprietary data they take on a whole new level of usefulness. Searching strangers’ photos on Flickr helped me decide which of two Vegas hotels to stay in at a wedding a couple of years ago. More recently, searching for “PDX” on Twitter gave me far more reliable information about conditions at Portland’s snowed in airport than the airport’s own webpage did. Those sites have social aspects but they’re additional, not limiting.

Michael Agger wrote in Slate last week about the ongoing battle between Google and Facebook. The internet could be a lot more social than it is, telling us in an integrated way what our friends are doing or what they think about different products and restaurants:

The reason we don’t do these things now is that the “barriers to social are too high.” It’s still too annoying to fill out all of those registration forms, and there’s no universal way to manage your online identity and networks of friends. Google and its partners want to collapse the barriers to social and give each and every one of us an entourage.

There’s just one hiccup in this plan: Facebook, the place where many of us already have our entourage. The pre-eminent social network announced that it has 150 million active users worldwide…

This is where Google and David Glazer come back in, and why 2009 might see some serious social warfare between Google and Facebook. Last May, the latter announced a service called Facebook Connect, a set of tools that made it easier for Web developers to let people log in to sites with their Facebook ID and share things on their Facebook news feed. (A good place to try this out is the video site Vimeo.) Three days later, Google announced Friend Connect, a set of tools that made it easier for Web developers to do the same sorts of things, except outside the realm of Facebook. A site such as Qloud lets you join and comment with a Gmail or Yahoo account. So far, so good. But Facebook blocked Friend Connect from accessing its data, and now we have two rival social networks.

Obviously I’m rooting for portability here. I don’t want Facebook to fail entirely, but I’d like to see it focus on its core competency of deep networking and let better services take over the other elements. If I never get another message in my Facebook inbox that would be fine with me. (For that matter, I’d like to see Twitter become more open too, but figuring out a business plan seems like a more pressing concern for that company. An option to block chosen updates from Facebook would also be a nice gesture.)

All of which is a really long-winded way of saying I’m sorry if I annoy you on Facebook, but it’s for the good of the internet.

Previously:
Organizational tweeting
Faking it

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Organizational tweeting

Craig Newmark points to Gene Weingarten’s predictable “I’m old and don’t understand the point of this Twitter thing all the kids are doing” column from earlier this month in The Washington Post. Weingarten complains that’s it’s hard to write anything profound in 140 characters or less, which of course misses the point. We’ve talked here before about how Twitter helps create a social sixth sense; I feel far more in touch with the friends I left behind in DC than I would without it. In just the past few weeks I’ve used the service to find a good barbecue joint in Kansas City (thanks, Tim!), locate sources for a paper I’m writing, express things I’d like to say but not write a full blog entry about, join my DC friends at a “virtual bar” as we watched the conventions and debate together, and possibly line up a regular writing gig.

Weingarten does bring up one thing that bugs me too, though:

My problem with Twitter is that it has become so big and so popular that some newspapers, including this one, are stuffing their latest headlines into Twitter alerts. Even the presidential candidates are kowtowing to it, sending out 140-character campaign news updates. (Some of these sound as though they were composed by the authors of product-assembly manuals from Taiwan. Here’s an actual McCain alert: “Hillary turned McCain bloggers shut down by blogger? . . . Doesn’t add up.”)

Lots of organizations are jumping onto the Twitter bandwagon, but I don’t think they really get the medium. I’m bombarded with Twitter accounts from think tanks and magazines whose updates just duplicate information that I’d rather get from RSS feeds, email subscriptions, or by visiting their websites.

The Cato Institute writes one of the better feeds. It includes some information I might not otherwise catch, like scholars’ upcoming media appearances and interesting news stories. Most of it, however, I’d rather get (and probably already do) via more traditional routes. Because the links are shortened to TinyURLs, I don’t know if I’m clicking on an op/ed, a paper, a podcast, a blog post, or a news site. And most of these items, though interesting, are just clutter when they show up on my mobile phone rather than on my computer. So as much as I like Cato, I don’t follow the feed. (All of this goes double for you bloggers who link every single one of your posts to your Twitter feed. An occasional highlight is fine, but let’s have some perspective here: If I’m on Twitter, I’ve probably mastered RSS.)

298 people do follow the feed, so their strategy is certainly working. Even so, I’d like see a better use of the medium. How about more spontaneous, timely tweets alerting me to events or TV and radio appearances? Cato has some witty people in the building; how about 140 word commentaries from them? Snarky remarks from Jerry Taylor or Jim Harper I would tune in for.

The company I’ve seen use Twitter best is Bell’s Beer. I visited their cafe in Kalamazoo, MI last month and updated my feed to say that I was there. Bell’s was following me before I finished dinner. They search for anyone mentioning their beer and add them as a friend, then update their own feed with the latest news about their beers, events, an inside look at what the staff is up to, and answers to questions from their fans. As a result they’ve brought in more than 400 followers in just over two months. (It helps that their beer is awesome too).

A newspaper column isn’t a blog post isn’t a Twitter update. As more organizations are tempted by this new medium, I hope they’ll put in the effort to make their updates truly worthwhile.

Update 9/28/08: Twitter fun fact: “In Dell’s case, the company says it’s made ‘well over’ $500,000 in sales from sending special offers from its Dell Outlet store to its Twitter group, which it began in June 2007. The group has almost 1,500 ‘followers’ who receive its messages on a regular basis.”

Previously:
Faking it
These kids and their Facebook

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Faking it

From Kottke:

This is a little bit genius. One of the new features of FriendFeed (a Twitter-like thingie) is “fake following”. That means you can friend someone but you don’t see their updates. That way, it appears that you’re paying attention to them when you’re really not. Just like everyone does all the time in real life to maintain their sanity. Rex calls it “most important feature in the history of social networks” and I’m inclined to agree. It’s one of the few new social features I’ve seen that makes being online buddies with someone manageable and doesn’t just make being social a game or competition.

I was actually just wishing for a feature like this for Twitter. Twitter works now because it’s popular but not that popular. The list of people I follow is manageable, has room to grow, and is populated mostly by people I’m genuinely interested in getting updates from. But what happens if the service achieves Facebook levels of popularity? Then I’m stuck with either rejecting people or letting the signal get lost in the noise. Fake following is a way out.

But is it a good way out? I’m not so sure. For one thing, as Merlin Mann says, “the whole idea’s pathetic on a number of levels.” For another, the very existence of the option imposes costs on all users, whether they use it or not. If a friend realizes you missed one of his updates on Twitter, for now he knows it’s an honest mistake. If fake following becomes an option, your friends will have to wonder if perhaps you’re using it on them. The option breeds distrust.

A feature like this should come with a way to signal honesty. Let users declare on their profiles that they haven’t enabled the option. Or if they have, let the world know that they may be fake followers. One group of people you can trust, another that’s a little more dubious.

Twitter is perhaps even more susceptible than Facebook to “boyd’s law” as stated by Cory Doctorow: “Adding more users to a social network increases the probability that it will put you in an awkward social circumstance.” Facebook is great for deep networking, for keeping track of who I know where and what they’re generally doing with their lives; I don’t care how big my friend list gets. Twitter’s more like a live conversation, creating a social sixth sense of what my friends and other interesting people are thinking and doing. I’ll have to be selective about who I follow to keep it valuable.

I’m with Mann on this one: if you’re going to be a publisher of updates, have a thick skin. Don’t be offended by friends who don’t follow you and be ruthlessly selective about who you follow. Don’t waste your time on updates you don’t care about.

And if you hurt someone’s feelings, it’s not the end of the world. You can still be Facebook friends, after all.

[Via Tyler Cowen.]

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Retwittering

According to Twitter I was “packing for NYC this weekend” for nearly a year. Now that I have an iPhone and the wonderfully easy to use Twitterific installed, I’ll be using it more often. On Twitter too? I’m username jacobgrier.

I’ve also added this blog to Facebook using the Blog Networks application, accessible here. I’m not sure how useful this will prove to be, but there’s a drink on me for the first person to take it above zero fans.

Update: The drink goes to Tom, who lucky for me is too far away to collect. Thanks man, we’ll have a brew in Bama someday!

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