Twitter, AppNet, and Other Social Thingummies

I became a backer of AppNet as soon as I became aware of it. I love the twitter concept of micro-blogging, and use it a lot. And I’d rather pay some money to have it working rather than a shady ads/user-data selling/unknown revenue stream for the parent company. That’s the short reason for it, and it’s more a matter of principles than anything else.

That being said, when a new service comes to life, especially backed by developers, the first weeks/months are incredibly exciting. It feels like every discussion is interesting, every feature request gets implemented, and that you’re part of something that’s taking off the ground.

But some discussions led to some critical thinking on my part. One in particular that ended up with “… so app.net is like twitter but not free, right? And there’s far less people on it, right? So why bother?”

Let’s pretend for a minute that it’s as simple as that, and reduce the question to “why bother being on a Twitter-like service anyway?”

When I started using the service in 2007, there were mostly techies and geeks on it. At the time, I heard it described as “the virtual office”: some place where all the people in your field were sharing thoughts, ideas, rants… And it’s true that it is something akin to conversations you overhear from your desk and can join in if you feel like it.

But there’s still a lot of noise on twitter. I’m not saying that other people shouldn’t talk about their cats or rant about the neighbor playing his bagpipes too loudly. There are ways to filter out these things.

What got me thinking is “how is it social”? Like 90% of twitter users out there, my list of followers contains in a vast majority people I actually know. And my following list contains usually them plus a few people I don’t know, but of whom I respect the work or the thoughts they tweet. If someone I follow says something that’s worth sharing, I will re-tweet it to my list of followers (I might as well say “friends”). But since I have most of my friends’ contact information, what’s the difference between that and mass-mailing them? Ease of use, and that’s about it. Technically, it’s the same thing.

But for the twitter heavyweights, it’s not the case. Twitter isn’t about talking and sharing with your friends, but with actual followers. It’s a news service, with the added twist that anyone can comment (@reply…) on whatever it written. Most of the time, when you @reply a heavyweight, he/she won’t reply back to you. That’s normal: they have potentially 250k replies to their tweet, they choose to reply only to the most pertinent ones if they have time to read them all, or the ones by their actual friends.

Let’s set that aspect aside, because it is human nature and quite understandable, to boot. Quite frankly, I wouldn’t want to have 10k followers, it would give me a responsibility about what I say that would detract me from my actual pleasures in life. But it’s “social”, which means that somehow, it should allow me to participate in a conversation with people I actually don’t know about something that interests me, or to “meet” (always a complicated word in our world) new people I have a kinship of sorts with.

To understand the somewhat foggy point of this post, let me state that I’m a dinosaur. I met most of the people I actually considered (and in some case still consider) my friends on the internet at the turn of the last century. It was done through newsgroups and IRC. The entry point to these worlds is the topic. You joined a newsgroup or a channel based on what you assumed was talked about within. The actual people that were discussing things sometimes were famous, in their respective fields anyhow, but anyone could post things that would be read by everyone and replied to or ignored based on content. True, it left the door wide open for flame wars and spamming, but hey, there are downsides to everything, right?

Then at the beginning of my professional life, I met most of the people I now like and/or trust at conferences, big and small. Sometimes I worked with them. Sometimes we just happened to be at the same place at the same time, and struck a conversation. And sometimes we kept in touch. But the beauty of it has always been how easy it is to engage the first contact.

Back to Twitter/AppNet.

The biggest question to my mind is how you find someone you’d like to “follow”, and how easy that first contact actually is.

Today, there’s a handful of us on AppNet, so it’s rather easy. Everyone is ecstatic, pioneer and all that, so the entry barrier is not high to “just say hello”, or to actually interject in someone else’s conversation. After all, we’re all part of something grand, so there can’t be that many people you’ll end up regretting having a conversation with.

When the service hits its stride (or with twitter), it’s going to be much much harder.

So, how do I find someone interesting?

Today, with twitter, there are basically three ways to find someone. You either know the person (through their website, or talk, or personally), find their handle, and click follow. Same applies on AppNet. The second most popular is to see someone you follow talk with someone you don’t follow, and decide to follow the second person as well. And then there’s the somewhat shaky “I saw a clever thing said in the global feed, and I decided to follow this fella”. Given the number of messages per minute, let’s say the chance of finding a random interesting person like that is low.

So let’s pretend I want to find an iOS developer who speaks Russian and has interesting stuff to say. How would I go about it?

Searching for “russian developer” is out: it will give me all the people who have either russian or developer in their name or bio. And even if it were russian AND developer, it would still yield “incorrect” results. If I went the google way, it would be the same problem. I’d have to sift through thousands of hits. Kind of defeats the “let’s get to know some new person” vibe.

With a swiss guy on AppNet, I tried to think about that particular aspect more, and refined my inkling of an idea of tags. Tagging a person with intelligent keywords would be swell. It’d have to be multilingual, obviously, and have some kind of loose-link between keywords. Ideally, if I’m looking for the tag russian, it should come up with all its translations, but also all it’s implied relations. For instance, a guy who lives in Moscow but wasn’t tagged “russian” should come up.

So that’s one feature I’d like on AppNet. Next up!

Let’s pretend we have a way of finding a dozen match on a somewhat decent set of critera. Who’s “interesting”?

The twitter metric is threefold: the number of followers, the number of posts, and the number of people who think these posts are interesting (manually flagging them as “favorites”). Out of these three, if I’m looking for new people to interact with, only the third one is relevant. A person with 10k followers is less likely to have a chat with me out of the blue, but that shouldn’t prevent me from contacting them. And someone with 10k followers isn’t more social than anybody else, I think. They just happen to be famous, usually for reasons outside of Twitter. So that doesn’t help me decide. Someone who posts every 10 minutes might be someone who likes to chat or some kind of news junkie. It doesn’t factor in my decision either. The third one is more interesting and accurate, provided your level of trust in the general population is high. If you think that most people are real people who flag a post as a favorite because they genuinely liked it, you’re almost out of the woods.

So by default, having a first-glance measure of the number of “favorited” posts, or re-posted posts (which is the same thing, basically) seems like a good idea. Obviously, if the level of trust in the general population goes lower, it would be a good second-glance measurement to have the same statistics, but from people not too distant from you. Arbitrarily, I’d say 2 levels of follow would provide a good enough coverage, but I might be wrong. We could probably have something that lets me parametrize this, but “who in the people I follow and the people they follow says the things that are most shared” would be a good filter for me.

So that feature too makes a lot of sense, especially if the average quality of the people on the platform is good. Number two feature I’d like to see in that new social network project.

But the real question is “what do we expect of a Twitter competitor?”

Right now, the consensus is leaning towards “it has to do everything Twitter does, but with a clearer business model, and less shady business practices”. Which I think we all agree is the minimum requirement.

But I personally have higher expectations. I’d like to have my “virtual office”, and I’d like to randomly or willingly bump into interesting people I wish to have that casual and loose relationship with, be they famous or not. That’s what I’m investing in.

  

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