Applications My Opinion social media

Social Media Killed Google Wave

On Wednesday Google announced they are pulling the plug on Google Wave. Yes, this will piss you off, but this needs to be said:

Social media killed Google Wave. Or at least social media was instrumental in its demise.

Why? Because the people who fell over each other and sold their grandmothers to get an invite to this much hyped communication invention were not the people it was intended for and they did not need it, want it or know how to use it. As a result it was left, like an unsolved Rubik’s Cube, by the wayside to die a slow death – not because it was faulty or lacked uses but because those of us who had it didn’t understand it, grew tired of it and simply forgot about it all together.

So how did this happen? Winding the clock back to last year and you’ll be sure to remember the insane frenzy that was the battle to get a Google Wave invite. Everyone and their grandmother (before she was sold) wanted in on this revolutionary “real-time communication platform” from Google. The video demos were awesome. Silicone Valley was all abuzz. The gadget blogs, geek blogs, dev blogs, social media blogs, tech blogs, mom blogs and cute-dog blogs were talking about it. The Twitter Fail-Whale got face time over it. Facebook became a trading ground for invites. It was truly crazy.

The description tells the story

But why? All the videos, the writeups and the demos showed the same thing: Google Wave was a real-time collaboration platform that allowed groups of people to work on the same project at the same time – in real time. Which is something that’s done. In organizations. And in companies. And that’s about it. Normal people, like me and the vaste majority of the social media herd, do not need nor use such collaboration platforms because we don’t work on projects where they are needed. And before you say “oh, but Google Wave was something new and different that I needed in my life” remember that there are already several services out there that do part of what Google Wave did that you rarely, if ever, use.

I remember sitting at my desk in those days and thinking “what the hell are people going to do on Google Wave anyway?” I kept seeing Facebook and Twitter updates like “I’m on Google Wave right now! Anyone want to chat?” and I thought “Why? You’re already on a different platform chatting about chatting somewhere else.”

Don’t get me wrong here. I was part of the frenzy and I got my invite and peddled invites to all that asked. I was just as bitten by the bug as everyone else. And I’m to blame for Wave’s demise as everyone else.

Don’t knock it ’till you’ve tried it – for real

When I finally got my invite it was for a reason. We were in the process of planning the first 12×12 Vancouver Photo Marathon and needed a way for the 6 members of our team to work together on a pile of disjointed odds and ends. My partner in crime Angela decided that Wave might be a good platform for this collaboration so she set up a wave for us to play around with. After watching some videos and reading some of the documentation she quickly became proficient and set up a really impressive wave with images, documents, videos, chat and map integration. The problem was noone else in the group had time to get familiarized with the app so Angela ended up working on it pretty much on her own while the rest of us just watched in awe.

What I saw was huge potential – if there was a huge project with a multi-tiered team in several locations involved. What I realized was that this thing was not made for me, my company, my coleagues or anyone I knew really. It was made for large corporations or groups with highly complex projects that require real-time data and content management.

And that was, and is, the crux of the problem: The people on Google Wave were not the people who would benefit, or even find useful the functionality of Google Wave. Thus it was discarded as a neat looking but useless Beta.

Too much, too soon and to the wrong people

In the wake of Wave’s demise a lot of people are saying it buckled because it didn’t have enough to offer, that it was too complicated and that it didn’t have an actual use. I disagree. Google Wave was something truly remarkable that introduced a whole new way of collaborating and creating content. The problem was the people who would actually use it were already using other more established platforms or were drowned out by the masses that were so eager to jump onto the newest and shiniest bandwaggon that they didn’t realize the band was playing atonal black metal jazz with clarinets. Sure, it has it’s followers, but those were not the ones hitching a ride.

Additionally I think Google Wave was a bit too forward thinking. In a nutshell Wave introduced a type of non-linear stream-of-counsciousness workflow that is hard for people to wrap their heads around unless they are already used to it. Although real-time collaboration might sound cool it takes time to get used to writing a document while watching someone else edit it. And it takes even more time getting used to having multiple conversations in multiple streams at the same time. Sure, social media is pushing us in that direction but we still have a long way to go. We are still too stuck in the linear task-oriented way of doing things to be able to incorporate this type of workspace into our lives and offices. It’s coming but it’s still a few years away. Google simply pushed the envelope a bit too far and it fell off the table.

What can we learn

Like I said, the problem with Google Wave was never the app itself but the people who (didn’t) use it. This begs the question “Why were these non-users involved in it to begin with?” The answer is social media hype, pure and simple. Everyone was talking about it. It was touted as the hottest thing since an overheating MacBook Pro. Everyone just had to have an invite. People actually paid money for invites. But noone (myself included) ever took a step back and asked themselves “Am I actually going to use this thing? Is it even for me?” It’s pretty clear that Google had asked, and answered these questions and that both answers were “No!” Which is why the Beta was closed. Unfortunately the closing of the Beta seemed to have the unintended effect that people thought it was cool to get an invite, that they were part of something new and revolutionary, so rather than the Beta staying closed within the groups that were actually going to use the device it started spreading out to nerds like myself who just wanted their share of the fun.

Regardless of how it actually happened the result was an almost vertically accellerating growth in users followed almost immediately by a vertical drop in actual use. Not because the app was crap but because the people enrolled in the Beta testing were not actually Beta testing or doing anything else with it.

The conclusion? Hype is just hype. It is not a measure by which you should make decisions on whether or not to participate or buy something. And closed Betas are usually closed for a reason: To get actual results from actual users. And maybe most surprisingly: Social Media has the power to destroy great things simply by overloading them with massive interest followed by complete abandonment.

Rest in peace Google Wave. We hope to see you again in another time.

social media twitter

Twitter force-follow exploit makes us all friendless

Last night our dear friends at Gizmodo released a simple exploit that allowed you to force Twitter users to follow you, an exploit already nicknamed “twape” (a combination of the words “twitter” and “rape”… classy). The exploit was ridiculously simple: Just write the word “accept” in front of a username (so for example “accept mor10”) and that user would automatically follow you. So what happens? Everyone and their mother starts force following famous people.

Sticking my head out the window I can hear the entire North American continent shouting “Hey look everybody: Oprah / Ashton / Barack / Jesus is following me on Twitter! I’m special!”

And the result? Right now your Twitter profile reads “Following: 0 Followers: 0”

Not to be a total grump here, but serisously people, what did you think would happen? Operah would become your instant friend? Ashton would start retweeting your tips on cat hair removal? More than anything this exploit shows how willing we are to just jump at anything that pops up on the internet without thinking about the consequences.

Let’s just hope this exploit doesn’t mean we’re friendless forever. Twitter is saying they are going to restore status quo once they’ve sorted out all the bogus follows. So relax, you’ll be able to show everyone how many friends you have soon enough.

My Opinion social media

Mastering Social Media Part 1: Treat Your Blog Like a TV Show

What if I were to tell you that successful blogs have some striking similarities to successful TV shows? That the whole realm of blogging actually looks so much like the world of broadcasting it is surprising institutions that currently have broadcasting programs don’t just merge the two together. It may sound a little odd if you’re not used to working in a production environment, but having split my last 8 years evenly between TV production and online development the similarities are so blatantly obvious that they’ve pretty much passed me by unnoticed.

I know what you’re probably thinking (especially if you read this blog every now and again or know me personally): Ok, here we go again. Morten has some crazy idea and won’t let it go until he’s laid it out in every excruciating minute detail. And you’d be right. So why should you care? Because if my assertions are true (and they are of course) bloggers have a lot to learn from the trials and tribulations of their camera lugging brethren. And, to be honest, broadcasters could learn a thing or two from bloggers as well.

Just so it’s clear from the get go. To me the term “social media” encompasses a wide variety of technologies and can be further sorted into at least two sub-categories: Social Publishing (blogs, YouTube etc) and Social Networking (Twitter, Facebook and the likes). There is quite a bit of a gray zone between the two and there are also social media environments that fall out of these definitions entirely but that’s for another time.

Make it or break it – it’s all about who you know … but mostly chance

I like to say television is one of the most volatile and unsecure professions you could choose, maybe only beaten by radio which is pure insanity. That’s because your job in TV is almost 100% dependent on audience approval and popularity. In other words, it doesn’t really matter if you work with the best people in the business on the best show ever written, produced and broadcast: If the unwashed masses don’t absolutely love the show you are likely out of a job tomorrow. And this is especially true for the producers. If your show doesn’t get stellar ratings you get, at most, a couple of weeks or maybe a month if you’re lucky to save it by changing things up. And if that doesn’t work you’re out the door and your time slot is replaced with the latest and greatest in voyeuristic social pornography, often mislabelled as “Reality TV”.

Sound familiar? Well it should, because blogs are pretty much exactly the same: You can have the best content ever written on the coolest blog ever created, but if the people out there on the internet don’t love it they won’t read it, you won’t get repeat visitors and your stats will devolve into a daily reminder of exactly how many friends and family members you have and how supportive they are. And although no one will call security and have you escorted out of the building with your potted plant and 7 fingered promotional foam hand from Bruce Almighty, your double digit visitor numbers will do nothing to improve your financial status and you will eventually end up caving and getting a “real” job to keep the lights on.

So what is it that separates the successes from the failures? Or rather, what is it that launches some blogs from relative obscurity to 10.000 visitors a day and rising fame in seemingly no time? Exposure, friends and a fair bit of luck.

The first two, exposure and friends, often go hand in hand. To get anywhere in the media world, whether on TV or on the web, you need people to actually find your content. To make that happen you need people to talk about your content, and that usually starts with friends. Actually, “friends” might not be the right word here. I’m not referring to your beer league buddies or shoe shopping clique. By “friends” I mean people with power who for one reason or another take a liking to what you’ve made and tell their friends with power and all their loyal followers to check your content out. Sure, there’s always an off chance that your network of 100 or so friends and family will somehow generate the critical mass that lifts your blog out of the internet soup, but to get where you want to go within a reasonable amount of time you need to reach a bit higher and enlist the help of people with connections. To put it bluntly: While your mom may be able to get her entire kayaking club to visit your blog once a week, a single Tweet from a local paper, a semi celebrity or an established blogger with a solid fan base will make your stats look like an electrocardiogram.

But that’s just part of it. Even with friends in the right places pushing their loyal minions right into your lap there is no guarantee they’ll actually stay there. And this has less to do with quality of content than you’d think. The ‘stick’ factor is usually a matter of luck; of being (or in this case writing) in the right place at the right time. That’s because once on your site the viewers need to be in a receptive mood for your particular content. In other words if they’re not open to the kind of material you are presenting, it doesn’t matter if it’s Pulitzer prize material; they won’t care and they’ll likely never come back. So while your excellent article on the conflict in Burma may never get more than 200 views a random post on an internet myth about an artist starving a dog to death may cause a furore and lead to an interview with BBC Radio.

Predicting the unpredictable

It must seem like TV producers have it easier: There is a finite number of networks and only so many hours in the day so if their show is on TV people are far more likely to stumble on it than they are to ever land on your blog. The reality is quite different. For every show that makes it to air there are hundreds standing in line to take their place with thousands in various stages of pre-production or pilot versions just waiting for the right time to shine. And unlike a blog which can usually survive for weeks, months, even years without any major visitor numbers, a TV shows have a tendency of getting shut down at the first sign of weakness. Just ask Jay Leno and Conan O’Brien.

With this in mind TV producers try to predict where things are going to go before they go there to get to the top. Often they’ll sit on fully developed shows for years waiting for the right time to come, and occasionally shows that were originally produced years ago but never aired are revamped when times change to fit the content. Unfortunately, though not surprisingly, this strategy can also be a disaster. Not only does it result in cascade effects where rivalling networks launch almost identical shows at the same time (case in point Trauma, Mercy and Nurse Jackie – all new nurse / ER themed shows that launched fall of 2009) but it produces duplicate shows hitching a ride on other popular shows and lots of shows that are either ahead or behind on the times and miss their mark all together. Looking into the future and predicting what people want to watch 6 months from now is not easy.

At the same time there’s a real danger in burning out because you don’t adapt. Remember Pink Is The New Blog? That site was on everyone’s lips several years ago but was quickly outscooped and outcontroversied by other blogs like Gawker, PerezHilton and TMZ. The dethroning of PISTNB had little to do with their content and more to do with their lack of evolution: The world simply changed quicker than expected and they didn’t keep pace. Sure, they’re still there but you don’t see them all over CNN and they don’t have their own TV show. The distance from the top of the world to irrelevance is measured in microns where the internet and television are concerned.

Getting to the top the hard way

Yes, I know. I paint a bleak picture. It’s what I do best. So what’s the solution? What can you as a blogger learn from my TV friends who I’ve so kindly portrayed like moguls one inch away from the homeless shelter? Like seasoned and successful TV producers the key to rising and sustained success in the blogging world is to invest in something that oozes quality and authority and at the same time be ready to adapt at any time, even if it means abandoning what you’re doing and coming up with something totally different on the fly. To quote one of my favourite movies Ghost in the Shell “overspecialize, and you breathe in weakness.” But don’t take that as an invitation to publish inconsequential drivel: Even if you’re dead on in your predictions of what’s popular people will quickly abandon you if your content is crap.

Getting and sustaining success means you need to produce good quality content that people like and want more of. It’s a difficult and illusive combination that may require years of honing before it reaches perfection. But it’s doable. It just requires a lot of ideas, willingness to fail, an ability to leave things behind and move on and most importantly time.

Let me leave you with this: On average a social publishing endeavour will take a year or more to achieve any type of success unless it’s already attached to a well known brand. And even then it’ll take another 6 months to establish the trust of the reader that will elevate it from mildly successful to a force to be reconed with. It’s an investment in time and energy that may or may not pay off in the long run, but only if you stick with it and learn to adapt.

My Opinion social media

Social Media: Revolution or the End of Objective Reason?

Just because you don’t agree doesn’t mean it must be wrong.

The above video, called Social Media Revolution is spreading like wildfire through social media circles and is being used by social media advocates as futher proof that social media is be all and end all of news, marketing and the internet in general. And there is truth, at least statistically, in the message the video brings: Social media technologies, be it blogs, forums, social networks like Facebook or micro-blogging systems like Twitter are changing the way we find, ingest and understand information and the world. It’s not exactly ground breaking news to people who spend their living and working days tethered to the world wide web but it provides a sobering picture of a new and emerging reality in which people turn away from established news and media outlets as their primary source for information and understanding of current events.

I find this profoundly disturbing.

When we were kids my parents spent a lot of time teaching my brothers and I that critical thinking should always lie at the core of any decision. They hammered home the sentiment that just because you don’t agree with something doesn’t mean it’s wrong. And it’s stuck with me through the years. I guess that’s why I’m so alarmed by what I’m seeing in the societal discourse in general and social media in particular. Anyone looking in from the outside will agree that the so-called open discussion and flow of information that permiates through the internet these days has little to do with critical thinking and more to do with opinionated rethoric, deliberate disinformation and outright lies. And this is the new and glourious foundation we are supposed to build our future society on? If so, it’s not one I want to be a part of!

Trading news for opinion

Earlier this year someone told me “In a couple of years mainstream media will be dead and people will get all their news from social media”. I have to say I agree, at least in part. No matter what happens I’m hard pressed to agree that all mainstream media outlets will buckle and disappear any time in the forseable future. But we are already seeing a shift in societal behavior away from established media outlets and toward social media as the chosen go-to news source. What people fail to realize (or choose to ignore) is that this shift means a shift from objective accountable news reports toward subjective and often heavily biassed opinion pieces. The trouble is that unless people are aware whether their source presents agenda-driven subjective opioions or fair and balanced reporting, the former can easily be mistaken for the latter. And when that happens, truth, reality and objective reason goes out the window.

Just because you say it does(n’t) make it so

The current health care debate in the USA is a perfect example of just how dangerous this trend has become: As of right now the majority of information floating around social media networks and blogs regarding the health care reform is what journalists and rethoric experts alike would describe as conjecture, hyperbole, spin and good old fashioned rubbish. In fact you’d be hard pressed to find any truly balanced and unbiassed reporting on the topic even in the mainstream media. But this is because just like everyone else, the media organizations have jumed on the social media bandwaggon without really taking the time to look at what that means for objective reporting. And because in the USA there is no fairness doctrine so the news outlets are free to present biassed and unbalanced reporting as fact without danger of reprisals.

Ironically it is this very tendency of the mainstream media in the US to be biassed that started the Social Media Revolution for real: People were fed up with being served what was more often than not biassed reporting and decided that they would be better proponents of the truth than the media outlets were. And this, combined with the relative anonymity of the internet, meant that anyone and everyone could become a reporter, an opinion maker, a true participant in the social discourse without fear of reprisals. The problem with this theory is two fold: Unlike journalists, bloggers and other social media contributors have no vested interest in staying on the straight and narrow so to speak. Whereas a journalist who publishes an opinion as fact or distorts the truth to the point where it borders on a lie runs the risk of losing her job, a blogger that does the same runs little to no risk. At the same time because of the very nature of social media – an information exchange where everyone participates on an equal footing – there is nothing that prevents social, political or corporate entities from presenting their own distorted versions of reality as truth to the masses as fact, often under false alisases or through independent agents, thus changing the public discourse on false premises.

I follow a lot of random people on Twitter and I keep seeing postings saying things like “Socialized health care kills people” and “The Canadian health care system is a failure”. These postings often link to blog posts where in the extreme socialized health care is compared to Nazi death camps and Stalinistic gulags. Any reasonable person should agree that these statements are little more than paranoid outbursts or outrageous lies. After all, there are no death camps for the elderly in Canada or Norway. In fact most countries with socialized helath care have a higher life expectancy than the USA. But looking at the apparent number of “concerned citizens” putting their worries in hypertext one can start to wonder if there isn’t some truth behind the claims. The problem is that unlike a normal debate, on the web you don’t know who is actually talking, and you don’t know if the 1000 latest comments actually came from one person or organization rather than 1000 independent minds. But this lack of transparency is invisible and in the end people are likely to listen to what they percieve as a vocal majority. It all boils down to a simple fact: In public forums, the person that shouts the loudest usually gets her message across. And since social media by definition is completely unregulated it is easy for organized groups, political parties and corporations to flood the social media airwaves with biassed and inaccurate information drowning out the objective reality in the process.

Social Media: Tunnelvision for the Masses?

An uncomfortable and embarrassing trait of human nature is that no matter how much we claim to be fair and balanced, we hate being wrong. So much so in fact that given the oportunity we will chose to ignore any information provided to us that doesn’t fit with our current belief system. The role of mass media in society has always been to present unbiassed facts and report the objective truth about news and events. And because mass media was the only real source of information, we would get the good with the bad so to speak. And whether we liked it or now we’d be presented with facts and figures that did not match our own understanding of the world and we’d be forced to at least reflect on our own stance and realize we are not always right.

With the introduction of wide spread social media all of this changed. All of a sudden you could chose to ignore what the mainstream media said turning instead to people who were of the same mindset as yourself to give you only news and opinion that you agreed with and nothing else. With that a shift from news as it happens to news you agree with occurred. A subtle shift with serious and dangerous ramafications. When people are given the ability to filter news and opinion to hear only what they want to hear, they lose the ability to think critically. Which is bad enough. But it gets worse:

When people start trusting filtered opinion over objective reality, they become easy targets for manipulators and lose the ability to form their own understanding of the world. This is why the freedom of the press is such an important part of our society, why cross-media ownership is frowned upon and downright banned in many countries and why journalistic ethics commisions exist. But none of this applies to social media and as a result people, organizations and corporations with hidden agendas, evil intentions and broken moral compasses are able to present their distorted world view as fact with noone except other social media contributors standing against them. And as we’ve seen with the health care debate, the global warming debate and many others, in the end it’s the people with the most money that usually win simply because they have the means to keep the pressure up and quash the opposition.

That is why, whenever I hear people talk of social media as a revolution that will save the world and make it a better place, my critical mind cringes. It’s not what the social media evangelists want to hear, but like my parents said: Just because you don’t agree doesn’t mean it must be wrong.

For further reading on the topic of dissent and social media check out Raul Pacheco’s post on the same topic entitled On the value of dissenting opinions.