Archive for October 2010

Request for Comments

Posted on Saturday 23rd October 2010 at 00:00
Take a look at my Twitter timeline (or your own) on pretty much any day of the week, and you'll see a lot of tweets from people you don't know. In the case of my own timeline, this can account for 50% of the tweets I read, although I guess on average it's more like one in three. Nope, before you jump to conclusions, I'm not about to start another rant about my timeline being clogged up or how my entire life is getting sucked into it. That was my last post.

And yes, I am blogging about Twitter again. I'm sorry about that. I know for those of you who aren't interested in technology, two posts in a row about social media is probably about as much as you can take, but I've had this one brewing inside my head for some time now, and it needs to get written down.

I've called this post "Request for Comments" after the now forgotten system that was used in the early days of the internet, whenever anyone wished to propose a new protocol, standard or feature. I've done so because that is what I will be doing here, once I've given you a little background.

I am talking today about retweeting, or the act of sending out a message that you have read in your timeline, either to echo the sentiment, or to share it with followers of yours who may not be following the original author. Unlike Follow Fridays, which I find a trifle annoying, I actually love retweets, and I'll tell you why in a minute.

The Background

As with Follow Friday, and indeed virtually every other successful quirk of Twitter, the idea originally came from users themselves, as a way of sharing tweets that they particularly liked.

In the old days you retweeted someone by highlighting and copying their tweet into the tweet box and prefixing it with the letters RT and then the username of the original writer, so as to make it clear where the tweet was coming from. So far so simple.

The problem with this little set up was that if the tweeter had written a particularly long tweet, there often wouldn't be the space within the allotted 140 characters to recreate the message and the prefix, meaning that users who favoured using their full 140 characters, such as myself, virtually never got retweeted.

Well, the nice people at Twitter started to take a look at this, and eventually launched an official system for retweeting, commonly known as New Style retweeting. And this is where things got a bit controversial.

The New Style retweet had a lot of advantages over the old. For starters, there was no more copying and pasting, just the click of a button (something many Twitter apps had been doing for a while). Also, the old character limit problem had been removed, as Twitter now stored the retweet information elsewhere, meaning that the full 140 characters were available for the original tweet - with the tweeter showing up in your timeline as though you followed them - and a small message informing you who had done the retweeting. It was neat and tidy, easy to read and easy to see where tweets had originated from.

Great we said, now we can keep track of popular tweets and make sure even the longest tweets get forwarded on across the Twittersphere!

There was, however, a small problem.

In the time that Old Style retweeting had been growing in popularity, a new trend had appeared. Wherever there were remaining free characters at the end of a tweet, the person retweeting would often tack on their own comment, allowing them to either reply to the original tweeter at the same time as sharing the message, or throw in a helpful comment for their own followers.

New Style retweeting doesn't allow this. Quite why I'm not sure. My guess is that the clever people at Twitter began working on their clever system for New Style retweets before they realised that people were adding comments.

So, when the feature launched, some people refused to use it.

As a result, Twitter's dream of a single, consistent system for sharing tweets has shattered into a two tier mess, comprised of those who are in the Old Style camp, and those who are in the New. And all our timelines look messier than ever before!

Which camp am I in?

Well, to be honest, one foot in each really. I like New Style retweets. I like the fact that if someone you follow retweets someone else that you follow, that you only see the tweet once. Even more useful if lots of people retweet it. I like that you can retweet a message that is 140 characters long without having to cut it down, and that it is possible to see all of the people who have retweeted a particular message, to see how popular it is. I especially like that they are easy to read, without having to process usernames and RTs all over the place.

But losing comments is a bad thing. The busier Twitter gets, the harder it becomes to keep track of everything. Seeing comments on tweets is an excellent way of remembering what a particular user is referring to. It is good that you can forward and reply at the same time. It is good that you can edit the tweet, if you are only replying to one part of the message.

And this problem needs to be resolved, because, in my opinion at least, it is limiting the greatest power that Twitter has - to allow people to hear messages from outside their own circle and contact new people. Many of the best people I follow, especially the comic ones, came into my sphere of conciousness through other people's retweets, not because I went looking for them. Many of the people who follow me probably did the same.

So why can't we look at this again?

My Proposal

I'd like to propose a new system of threaded retweets. We keep the New Style retweet, with its tracking and simplicity, but we allow people who wish to comment, their own 140 characters in which to write a reply, and then tack it to the original tweet, so that it shows up attached to it, for followers to see.

This would give us all the best of both worlds. No more messy Old Style retweeting, with characters wasted on usernames and no one knowing which part of the message to read. No more New Style forwarding, without the ability to enhance a tweet with one's own thoughts.

I know threading isn't the simplicity that the founders of Twitter aimed for when they designed the system. They deliberately tried to make it as basic as possible, and they succeeded, for a time at least. But Twitter is too big and too noisy for that level of simplicity now.

Tweets are already being threaded with the in reply to... option. How much more complex would it be to thread retweets as well? I want to see the original retweeted tweet, and underneath it, all the tweets written in reply by those of my followers responsible for the retweeting. Much like I look forward to seeing this post with all your comments written underneath it in the very near future. So, without further a do...

I respectfully request your comments.

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Why Follow Friday?

Posted on Saturday 9th October 2010 at 00:00
I'm probably something of a rarity amongst seasoned Twitter users. Some would call me old fashioned, or behind the times. Others would laugh and claim that I have too much time on my hands, or suggest that I've somehow missed the point of the whole service. I imagine many have wondered how my girlfriend puts up with me or what is missing from my life, but I don't care. Nope, in fact I'm practically proud to admit it: I read my time line. Not just some of it. Not just the ones that pop up whilst I'm in front of the computer or whilst I'm trying to figure out what to do, but all of them. Every. Last. One.

Back when I joined Twitter in July 2007, very few people had heard of the service that was to dominate our online lives from about 2009 onwards. These were the days when "Facebook" still drew puzzled expressions from all but the most forward facing, and as for that obscure little site named after the sound a bird makes, and which seemed to be expecting you to reveal the most personal, least interesting aspects on your day at least once every 24 hours - early users used to receive a text reminding them to tweet if they left it that long - the whole thing was madness and never likely to take off.

I heard of Twitter, and with it the whole concept of microblogging, from the many interneters of the day with whom I was in contact through macroblogging. Or blogging, as it was called back then. In those long gone early days, you were doing well if you could find 20 users with a common interest who you might like to follow. At the time, even the earliest celebrity adopters such as Stephen Fry hadn't arrived, and it really was just a select band of techy individuals. My timeline was so quiet, that I could afford to have each and every tweet by those I followed sent to me by text message, without it being even slightly intrusive.

But, things were sure to change, and indeed they did. Twitter was such an incredibly odd concept to try to explain to anyone that those who used the service felt duty bound to convince anyone they met to try it out, if only so that they themselves could receive some sort of social acceptance for their unfathomable habit. And yes, I was as bad as any of them. I used to debate it for hours at uni in my marketing seminars. Only myself and my incredibly forward thinking tutor seemed to have any idea of the potential of the service, although even we had no idea how big it would become, and continue to grow.

When I first started to see the tell-tale twin Fs of what was soon to become Follow Friday, I was delighted by the idea. Here, at last, was a way for users to recommend to each other people who they enjoy following! It was early 2009 by this point, and Twitter had finally reached critical mass. So many users were on there that even companies had started to get in on the act, by making their first brave attempts at what you might now call Social Media Marketing.

At the time, the trend was towards personal Follow Fridays. You would @ a user with suggestions of one or two people who you thought they might personally follow, and would include the now infamous hash tag in order to bring the message to the attention of any other users who might be looking to follow new people. No. Actually, I don't think it was even for that. I think it may have just been a shorthand way of explaining why you were sending them such a message out of the blue.

This was all fine and good as long as it continued, but after a time, people started to make Follow Friday suggestions to their entire following, regardless of whether they'd be interested or not. Not only that, but because it was now public, those users who were recommended felt bound by good manors to instantly return the favour. Twitter apps were in full bloom by this point, and there were very few which didn't highlight messages in which you were mentioned, regardless of who sent them, meaning that it was now easier than ever to tell if someone had recommended you or not.

And this changed the dynamic completely! Whereas originally, Follow Friday had been for the benefit of the person receiving a recommendation, it suddenly became a way of scoring points with the person who was being recommended, a completely different thing altogether. For the first time, people started taking note of their follower counts and sending encouraging messages into the ether to try and boost it, egged on by celebrities who'd made headlines with their seven figure follower counts.

As if to compound the problem, users started to retweet messages recommending them, as if to prove to those who already did that it was somehow worth it. Rather than recommending one or two people as they had done before, most users were now sending messages containing hundreds of names, virtually everyone on their follow list, every single Friday. All of these messages would then be retweeted again, in addition to each user recommending everyone who'd recommended them.

And so we arrive at the present, and what a present it is for those of us who wish to read everything. Once a week, my (already overcrowded) timeline is buffeted with tweet after tweet containing nothing but lists of user names. Hundreds of them. Some people I know, most I've never heard of. Names racing across the screen, all competing with each other to gain the most virtual acceptance, or love, or whatever they think it is they are getting.

And you know what the worst thing about it is? I don't follow any of them. Not one. I genuinely don't think I've ever started following a single person because they were recommended in a Follow Friday. Not once. I'm not suggesting that they aren't worth following, I'm sure many of them are. Perhaps they all are, who knows? But I'm not interested in following hundreds of random people, because I am genuinely interested in taking an interest in those that I do follow, and I do that by reading their tweets

Which, after all, is what Twitter is for, isn't it? It was designed as a virtual conversation. A way for like minded people to share a little of their lives and hear a little about other people. But what we have now isn't a conversation, it's a shouting match. It's millions of people stood in the same room bawling their lungs out in the hope that other people will stop and listen to them.

And in such a room, following people has become as pointless and as futile as "liking" things on Facebook, or joining groups was prior to that. Or sewing badges onto your school rucksack to show how individual you were.

Are we really all so small and pathetic that we need to be defined by how many people add us to a list that none of them read?

Here's an idea. How about we ditch Follow Friday, and everything that goes with it? How about we stop following people to try and score points with them, and only if we want to read what they have to say? How about we stop seeking approval like a bunch of insecure teenagers and start acting like the mature, intelligent and interesting adults that we all thought ourselves to be when we first joined Twitter.

Oh, and next time I want to get some ideas for new followers, I'll either ask you in person, or better still, just look at your follow list and see if anyone sounds interesting, like I was doing perfectly well before Follow Friday came along.

And no, I doubt most of the people who "Follow" me will actually bother clicking to Twitter link to get to this post.

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