The Case for &

I use Twitter daily and almost exclusively for my social network needs. I get most of my ‘breaking news’ from Twitter, and keep in touch with friends and colleagues there. I prefer Twitter compared to other social platforms like Facebook or Google+ because a) it’s an easy format to skim through in bite-size chunks and b) there’s not as much insistence from Twitter that I use my real name, provide a ton of personal information about myself. This collapse of the public and the personal spheres of a person’s life is the biggest danger from social networking right now in my opinion, but that’s a topic for a different rant.

The main issue that I have with Twitter in terms of missing functionality is that there is no means to speak to a group privately.

There’s multiple ways to publicly (or semi-publicly) address one or a number of users, but privately you can only talk to one user at a time. But semi-public is not private. There’s a lot of people that use Twitter for, say, arranging meet-ups between friends that are all on Twitter, but there’s no way to do so in private without being driven to other venues for those communications, such as text messaging and (ugh) Facebook.

And this is a problem. I’ve always felt a little strange about the semi-public nature of @-messages when talking with people I know in real life, because if I’m @-messaging with Friend A and Friend B about meeting up later, then Friend C also sees everything I’m posting in the conversation. Not to mention I’ve also given Stranger D a heads-up because he follows Friend A and Friend B. This is not a hypothetical event — I’ve had more than one such conversation interrupted by some random guy that nobody in the conversation has ever met chiming in with his recommendation for a bar to meet at. It would be nice to not have to rely on good social etiquette (online or otherwise) from anonymous people when talking with friends.

The other big shortcoming I run into is engaging in group conversations where you have 3 or 4 or 5 Twitter handles in there — they tend to steamroll as more friends comment — and it cuts down the allotted 140 characters by half or more.

My solution to the above problems would be a private group messaging feature that I’m calling &. Read it as ‘and’, such as &geekpondering. I’m going to discuss a little bit more about the benefits of this feature, some implementation ideas that I have, and I’ll finish off with some of the drawbacks that come to mind.

Users talking privately to multiple people either on an ad-hoc basis or part of a named group and still have most of their 140 characters would expand Twitter’s functionality, and in a very good way. It’s not just for setting up a night on the town. I think the killer use-case on the user side is marketing. Consider, say, a well-known rock band has a private group that they could add their fans to. They could use this group to pre-announce tour dates, post members-only links to unreleased songs, recruit for a street team, host a live Q&A with the band, etc, etc. Only some of this outreach is possible using a private Twitter account, and to my knowledge very few private Twitter accounts are used for this purpose mainly due to the headaches of managing a lot of users.

Since there’s always great ideas that don’t make financial sense for a company to implement, the question needs to be asked- What’s in it for Twitter? And the answer is: more participation and more metadata. I believe group messaging would encourage people to be more active on Twitter, and not just consume- currently Twitter is like a firehose, and it’s up to users to decide how to narrow the firehose to an acceptable signal to noise ratio. Group messaging would allow users to join in on topics that they are interested in.

Twitter tracks all sorts of information now to pass on to their advertisers, like how many people have clicked on a travel section link from New York Times in the last 90 days? How many users in the city of Austin follow Lady Gaga’s Twitter account? etc. Group private messages would provide much more focus on what people read — i.e., which groups they belong to and what information they are most passionate about, i.e., which groups they actively participate in. More participation and more metadata means more profit down the line.

Implementation details:

  • Twitter could make it as simple as having a button to start a private conversation, and a user can either add users to that conversation or it can use the existing users from a public thread. This could be implemented to simply enable group direct messaging, another often called-for feature. But I think the real magic would happen if there were named groups that users could create and maintain for ongoing conversations. Twitter could even create built-in ones that they moderate, like &twitter-politics or &twitter-baseball.
  • Everyone could start off with their twitter handle as a group name — i.e., I’d automagically own the &geekpondering group. Users would have the option of adding all users that currently follow that handle as members of the group or manually adding users to their group, and also set whether they have read-only access or read-write access. If Twitter really wanted to get snazzy, they could allow multiple administrators per group.
  • Members of the group that have write access could simply post to that group by starting a tweet with &geekpondering, and every member of the group would receive that message. Since it’s private, members of the group cannot retweet a group message just as they can’t retweet a DM, and blocked users who are a member of a group along with someone blocking them wouldn’t see any messages from the blocker within that group.
  • The Twitter app and 3rd-Party apps can add neato functionality for ‘starting a new chat’, ‘new group from existing participants’, easy group management support, etc.

For the sake of completeness, I’ll cover some of the possible down-sides:

  • & would become a reserved term like @, but it’s would only activate a private group message when used at the beginning of a tweet, so if people accidentally put a space or add the group name later in the tweet, the tweet would be public. And typing the wrong group name would send that message to the wrong group of people.
  • Once a large number of groups get going, it’ll be tough to remember which groups you belong to, who belongs to that group, what is on topic, what permissions (read/write/admin) you are assigned. This can be solved somewhat with autocompletion that already happens on most clients.
  • Being social on the internet means friction between people, and groups would add an additional layer to that. There’d be administrator turf wars even if there aren’t multiple admins for a group. Even now there’s people in charge of company Twitter accounts that go rogue. Users would get their feelings hurt by not being included in a group, or getting kicked out of one. Additionally, different users have different ideas of what ‘should’ be public and not.
  • On the user side, managing a large number of users might get a little unwieldy. Twitter would have to create strict limitations on how many invites to groups you can submit, because an owner of a popular group is going to get swarms of invite requests from spambots. Twitter or 3rd party clients could include the functionality to mass-add users that have requested admittance, and then admins can manually boot out unruly users when needed.
  • Looking at it from Twitter’s point of view, groups might not be used much by the casual user that Twitter is trying to attract. They’ve also hinted that they are moving  away from punctuation-based tweets. From a technical perspective, groups add a number of complicating factors to Twitter’s setup. It took a very long time and an immense amount of code and hardware for Twitter to stabilize their existing platform, and that’s without having to handle varying group membership and access control lists.

I think this sort of feature would add an extra, missing dimension to Twitter, because it would partition the firehose of tweets that come at people, which in turn would increase engagement and therefore profitability.  Decide for yourself whether you think this would be a good idea, and hit me up on Twitter.

The Shaming of Brendan Eich

There’s a lot of navel gazing going on regarding Brendan Eich’s stepping down at Mozilla due to the anti-bigotry campaign mounted against him, and whether its acceptable to use such tactics. Sam Smith at Scholars and Rouges has a good piece on this, but I wanted to make some specific comments on Conor Friedersdorf’s Atlantic piece where he says such campaigns create a chilling effect. Proposition 8 was legislation founded in hatred, and I think it’s perfectly reasonable to confront hatred and attempt to eliminate it via peaceful means, full stop. Friedersdorf makes the point that when Prop 8 was passed, a large portion of Americans, including Barack Obama, opposed gay marriage. But that doesn’t matter. Was Strom Thurmond a racist when he left the Democratic Party in 1948 because of Truman’s integration of the US military and other civil rights moves? Would it be wrong to continue to suspect his ability to protect the interests of minorities in his later years in office? How about if he had been hired CEO of a company?

Friedersdorf comments that given Eich’s public comments after being hired as CEO: “no one had any reason to worry that Eich, a longtime executive at the company, would do anything that would negatively affect gay Mozilla employees.

Why? Because he said so? Eich was on the board of Mozilla, and was the CTO of Mozilla, but up until he was hired as CEO he didn’t have direct operational control over “anything that would negatively affect gay Mozilla employees.” Note: I don’t know the circumstances of Eich’s departure from the Mozilla Foundation, but if he was forced to resign from the Foundation as well, that IMO is wrong)

Continuing on, Friedersdorf makes a claim that I think is incomplete: “Calls for his ouster were premised on the notion that all support for Proposition 8 was hateful, and that a CEO should be judged not just by his or her conduct in the professional realm, but also by political causes he or she supports as a private citizen.

and then: “Would American society be better off if stakeholders in various corporations began to investigate leadership’s political activities on abortion and to lobby for the termination of anyone who took what they regard to be the immoral, damaging position?

Yes and no. If a company has a mission statement pushing openness and using technology and their business for good as Mozilla does, it’s certainly troubling that they hire a (IMO) bigot to be CEO. That doesn’t mean ALL leadership need to be investigated. Additionally, while there was some outrage when his Prop 8 donation came out, there wasn’t a big push for Eich to step down from the Mozilla Foundation. But yes, I think people with operational control of corporations, especially hiring and firing, need to be held to account for the things they say and do, including who they donate money to. Freedom of speech doesn’t mean you have immunity in the marketplace of ideas for what you say and do. If Eich had donated to the Hobby Lobby legal defense fund, I would be just as concerned about his behavior regarding women’s health.

Friedersdorf makes the argument that since Mozilla is a California corporation, Eich could do no wrong even if he is a bigot: “Proposition 8 was overturned. Gay marriage is legal in California. Having a CEO who opposed gay marriage now would in no way diminish equal marriage rights for gays.

Except, y’know, not all Mozilla employees live and work in California. Not all of them work in the United States. Not all gay rights issues have to do with marriage. Did you know there’s still 29 US States where you can be fired for being gay?

I don’t think the campaign against Eich was irrational or illiberal. People have every right to their opinion, and I’m sure there’s plenty of CEOs who are a little squicked out by the idea of gay marriage but nevertheless don’t fire openly gay employees or put policies in place that discriminate against them. Eich, however, donated a thousand dollars to the Prop 8 campaign, and to this day apparently hasn’t changed his mind regarding gay marriage. I don’t think this is a matter of a litmus test or getting an apology. This shouldn’t be something to get the torches and pitchforks out for. It’s a matter of trust. A CEO or anyone else with control over hiring practices shouldn’t be a bigot. I don’t think that’s a controversial position to take. I think it’s actually a happy day when a company is required to change it’s employment practices even for those at the top, making it clear that bigotry isn’t welcome.

Social Media

A few small notes that will probably turn into a long and rambling blog post anyway (…and probably future posts):

Item the First:

I used to blog a lot back in the day, and that was mainly because I felt the world needed to know what was on my mind. Nowadays, Twitter is my narcissist release valve, so I use this blog mainly for travel writing and/or Big Thoughts. Hence, I use Twitter nearly every day, and my itch to write blog entries gets scratched by that. Sorry.

Apparently, though, my writing on Twitter doesn’t ‘count’ in the real world- I had the esteemed Wall Street Journal/All Things D columnist tell me that my comments (here and here) made in February of this year about Facebook being financially overvalued aren’t considered on the same level as very similar comments made by Henry Blodget..um…this week because mine wasn’t an analytical essay.

So, apparently because a) I don’t have a well-known blog and b) because I can make a point in 280 characters or less and it takes Blodget several paragraphs, I don’t get anointed with the Oils of Tech Prophecy. Anyway, I guess that’s pissed me off enough to try to write more here, at the very least because one of the bad things about Twitter is it’s a real bitch to scroll back 7 months to try to find a tweet that I’m pretty sure I posted. So…more to come.

Item the Second:

I’ve thought a lot about social media recently, and Twitter specifically. There’s a lot of controversy around things like buying followers on Twitter to appear more popular. The Romney campaign apparently purchased a promoted hashtag recently, and (unfortunately for him, but to my amusement) was used against him. I remember when I first started using Twitter and seeing a bunch of links to webpages about ’15 Ways to Gain Popularity on Twitter’.

My one rule for gaining popularity on Twitter is: Be Interesting.

To unpack that a little, I’ll say that you should:

  • Talk about topics you know. If you are really into collectable model airplanes, there’s people that want to hear what you have to say.
  • Try to get something out of Twitter. I use it for advice and answers on everything from whether Tokyo is still growing although Japan’s population is shrinking (it is) to complaining about my cable service (didn’t help). I found out about the 3/11 Tohoku earthquake under 10 seconds from when it started because I was watching my Twitter feed at that moment. Follow accounts you are interested in, and try to engage in a conversation with them. Follow various news organizations. Follow individual journalists. Follow Justin Bieber (if you must). Follow people who have similar interests. That leads me to..
  • Meet people from Twitter. Either meet them through a “Tweetup” or meet people socially or professionally and if they are cool and are on Twitter (redundant, in my opinion), exchange handle info.
  • Moderate your posting. I’d suggest posting several times a day if possible to maintain interest, but don’t go overboard on posting, especially in regards to social media plugins like FourSquare. These plugins are there to advertise for themselves, not inform or entertain your followers. I frankly don’t care that you checked in at the Safeway at 19th and Taraval to pick up a loaf of bread. Sorry.
  • Don’t be a jerk. Although you only have 140 characters, still try to be polite. Reword what you are saying into a question or an opinion instead of calling someone out on what they said. Remember that text doesn’t have non-verbal factors such as tone of voice or facial expressions behind it, so people can’t tell if you are making a joke or being an ass. I tend to ramble when I write and when I talk, and Twitter among other things has helped me strip away everything else from my writing other than the point I’m trying to make, and the tone I’m trying to make it with. It’s been exceedingly helpful.

This doesn’t fall specifically under ‘Be Interesting’, but I consider Twitter to be a meritocracy. Or it should be. You get followers because the person following you wants to hear what you have to say for whatever reason. I don’t follow people simply because they follow me- my philosophy of Twitter doesn’t work that way. If the Venn Diagram of “what a person is saying” and “what I find amusing or informative” cross in any significant way, and I look through their history and it seems like I’d want to hear what they have to say in the future, then I’ll likely follow that person. If not, I won’t. End of story.

Item the Second and a Half:

Twitter is kind of hard to read if you don’t know the syntax (hashtags, retweets, yadda), but if you want to see my daily postings, you can go here.

This is burying the lede a bit, but I’ve created a Tumblr as well, but it’s only for signs. I take a lot of pictures of signs/posters/billboards, etc. I don’t know why, it’s just what I do. I think it’s one way I can easily compare cultures, find humor, etc. So my tumblr is here. Let me know there if you have anything to submit.