Assume there’s value

June 19, 2009 | 1 comment

Tony Stubblebine has written a great post about the lessons he’s learned from Twitter, which was created at Odeo while he was working there. This advice stands out for me:

Have you ever looked at a piece of social software and thought, or worse, blogged, that it was worthless? Here’s a trick for evaluating social software in a way that isn’t going to make you look stupid six months down the road: assume it’s valuable if people are using it. Then try to figure out what value they’re getting.

I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve heard people be dismissive about Twitter, or Facebook, or another well-loved web tool because they didn’t understand it. I’ve even been guilty of it myself – but it’s not productive. Much better to figure out why people love it and learn from what you discover.

Learning on the social web

June 18, 2009 | Leave a comment

ScienceBlog reports that on Saturday, Carl Whithaus will announce the preliminary results from a California Department of Education study into increasing academic achievement using computers in 4th grade classrooms (emphasis mine):

During the first year of the two-year study, student achievement increased 27.5 percent, according to Whithaus, who is principal investigator of a study to evaluate the project’s effectiveness.

Computer use – and particularly, online community engagement – increases engagement with formal learning, which is great news for the e-learning software market. But I’m particularly interested in the effect of networks on informal learning – specifically, learning from our activities on the web.

Learning happens when two sets of experiences and assumptions are exposed with each other – in other words, when we communicate. The web is the most globally efficient communications method the world has ever seen, and as a result, I believe, may rapidly transform our world culture for the better.

Last month, I met with J. Nathan Matias from the World University Project, a project that aims to evolve higher education by shedding light on how people learn and teach around the world. His intent is to highlight experiences that people in the west have largely not been exposed to, and in so doing advance mutual understanding between our academic systems. It’s a brilliant idea, which takes advantage of the potential of a universally accessible global communications network.

Recently, the Iranian election swamped Twitter, to the point where they rescheduled maintenance in order to minimize the effect on dissidents in the country. Suddenly, because Iranian dissidents were online and conversing with people from the west, Iran seemed less like a scary, far-off country filled with terrorists and more like – gasp – a country filled with actual human beings. Clay Shirky had this to say:

I’ve been thinking a lot about the Chicago demonstrations of 1968 where they chanted “the whole world is watching.” Really, that wasn’t true then. But this time it’s true … and people throughout the world are not only listening but responding. They’re engaging with individual participants, they’re passing on their messages to their friends, and they’re even providing detailed instructions to enable web proxies allowing Internet access that the authorities can’t immediately censor. That kind of participation is really extraordinary.

On a smaller scale, we’re now interacting with people from other walks of life, with markedly different sets of skills and interests, on a daily basis. The opportunity available to us is not just to get our message out on an unprecedented scale – but to get other peoples’ messages in, and in the process make ourselves more educated and informed than we’ve ever been. On a personal level, it can help us with our fourth grade homework; on a societal level, it’s a revolution.

Twitter: lessons on getting your web app out there

May 1, 2009 | 2 comments

Twitter is the darling of the tech scene, much as Facebook was a couple of years ago and Flickr and MySpace before that. Many would probably argue that it’s had more attention than it deserves: all it does is let you post, share and read 140-character messages. Despite this, there’s been more talk about why it succeeds than why it doesn’t, as well as finding flaws in its play to become mainstream: despite being featured on Oprah, from month to month only 40% of users come back to the site. (I’m one of them.)

I’m surprised to see how few people have mentioned what I think is Twitter’s real killer feature: it integrates with your real life in a way that no other web app comes close to matching. Sure, people post to Twitter from their desktop PC, but they also post from the park, on the plane, and even from space. With the increasing popularity of truly Internet-capable mobile devices, it’s no surprise that everyone’s copying the Twitter model, from big players like Facebook and LinkedIn down to newcomers like Yammer.

The genius of web applications really lies in the ability to access them from any connected device. As the Internet moves away from the desktop and becomes a ubiquitous part of life, web applications need to adapt to be able to cope with the varied changes in context that we deal with every day. Life is complicated; to cope, web applications need to get simpler.

Let’s take a quick look at how Twitter does this:

  • Tiny barrier to entry, with recognizable touchstones. Twitter is designed around an existing method of communication that people are already familiar with. SMS messages, sent back and forth on cellphones, are 160 characters long; Twitter messages are 140 characters long to fit comfortably inside this limit, along with 20 characters of contextual information. (Like, for example, the username of the person whose message you’ve just received on your phone.) You don’t need to learn any new techniques to learn how to use Twitter, although @replies and #hashtags are there for more advanced users. The short updates also encourage people to post more often, as it takes them a matter of seconds.
  • People are the feature. The Twitter team understand that their biggest feature is the userbase themselves. People use Twitter for all sorts of things, and although newcomers are often a bit bemused or even repulsed by the lack of functionality, it’s exactly this that allows people to harness it for whatever makes sense to them. As I’m fond of saying, the Internet is people: Twitter simply acts as a low-friction conduit to allow them to talk to each other.
  • An open, welcoming business ecosystem. The API – a way for third parties to build new interfaces for the service, for example for cellphones or iPods – is almost as simple to use as the site itself. As a result, it’s been said that around 80% of Twitter’s traffic is through API-based third-party clients. I use Tweetie on the iPhone and TweetDeck on my PC; I paid for the former, while the latter is free. Neither pays any royalty to Twitter; companies are free to build business on the back of the service. In return, Twitter gets interfaces that cater to use cases they didn’t think of.

There is always going to be a place for all-encompassing desktop applications. I have no need or desire to use Photoshop on my phone, for example – but mobile devices are a perfect platform for everything from simple searching, low-barrier accounting like Quicken Online, and the kind of distributed data-gathering we’re building at OutMap.

This doesn’t mean that copying Twitter is a smart business model at all. Instead, it’s worth looking at the factors that made them successful and then analysing which core features will work for you.

Andrew Orlowski vs Paul Carr and Twestival

February 17, 2009 | Leave a comment

A group of unpaid volunteers used social media to create a global event that has already – before anything like the final total has been counted – raised a six figure amount to provide clean water to some of the world’s poorest people. Your response to that was sneering and deliberately skewed to prove your point.

Can you guess what my column’s going to be about this week? Paul Carr rips Andrew Orlowski a deserved new one. Orlowski is an awful journalist, who seems to be prone to temper tantrums; here’s his version.

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