Social Networks and Microblogging

Microblogging (Laconica, Twitter, etc.) is still a hot topic. For instance, during the past few episodes of This Week in Tech, comments were made about the preponderance of Twitter as a discussion theme: microblogging is so prominent on that show that some people complain that there’s too much talk about Twitter. Given the centrality of Leo Laporte’s podcast in geek culture (among Anglos, at least), such comments are significant.

The context for the latest comments about TWiT coverage of Twitter had to do with Twitter’s financials: during this financial crisis, Twitter is given funding without even asking for it. While it may seem surprising at first, given the fact that Twitter hasn’t publicized a business plan and doesn’t appear to be profitable at this time, 

Along with social networking, microblogging is even discussed in mainstream media. For instance, Médialogues (a media critique on Swiss national radio) recently had a segment about both Facebook and Twitter. Just yesterday, Comedy Central’s The Daily Show with Jon Stewart made fun of compulsive twittering and mainstream media coverage of Twitter (original, Canadian access).

Clearly, microblogging is getting some mindshare.

What the future holds for microblogging is clearly uncertain. Anything can happen. My guess is that microblogging will remain important for a while (at least a few years) but that it will transform itself rather radically. Chances are that other platforms will have microblogging features (something Facebook can do with status updates and something Automattic has been trying to do with some WordPress themes). In these troubled times, Montreal startup Identi.ca received some funding to continue developing its open microblogging platform.  Jaiku, bought by Google last year, is going open source, which may be good news for microblogging in general. Twitter itself might maintain its “marketshare” or other players may take over. There’s already a large number of third-party tools and services making use of Twitter, from Mahalo Answers to Remember the Milk, Twistory to TweetDeck.

Together, these all point to the current importance of microblogging and the potential for further development in that sphere. None of this means that microblogging is “The Next Big Thing.” But it’s reasonable to expect that microblogging will continue to grow in use.

(Those who are trying to grok microblogging, Common Craft’s Twitter in Plain English video is among the best-known descriptions of Twitter and it seems like an efficient way to “get the idea.”)

One thing which is rarely mentioned about microblogging is the prominent social structure supporting it. Like “Social Networking Systems” (LinkedIn, Facebook, Ning, MySpace…), microblogging makes it possible for people to “connect” to one another (as contacts/acquaintances/friends). Like blogs, microblogging platforms make it possible to link to somebody else’s material and get notifications for some of these links (a bit like pings and trackbacks). Like blogrolls, microblogging systems allow for lists of “favourite authors.” Unlike Social Networking Systems but similar to blogrolls, microblogging allow for asymmetrical relations, unreciprocated links: if I like somebody’s microblogging updates, I can subscribe to those (by “following” that person) and publicly show my appreciation of that person’s work, regardless of whether or not this microblogger likes my own updates.

There’s something strangely powerful there because it taps the power of social networks while avoiding tricky issues of reciprocity, “confidentiality,” and “intimacy.”

From the end user’s perspective, microblogging contacts may be easier to establish than contacts through Facebook or Orkut. From a social science perspective, microblogging links seem to approximate some of the fluidity found in social networks, without adding much complexity in the description of the relationships. Subscribing to someone’s updates gives me the role of “follower” with regards to that person. Conversely, those I follow receive the role of “following” (“followee” would seem logical, given the common “-er”/”-ee” pattern). The following and follower roles are complementary but each is sufficient by itself as a useful social link.

Typically, a microblogging system like Twitter or Identi.ca qualifies two-way connections as “friendship” while one-way connections could be labelled as “fandom” (if Andrew follows Betty’s updates but Betty doesn’t follow Andrew’s, Andrew is perceived as one of Betty’s “fans”). Profiles on microblogging systems are relatively simple and public, allowing for low-involvement online “presence.” As long as updates are kept public, anybody can connect to anybody else without even needing an introduction. In fact, because microblogging systems send notifications to users when they get new followers (through email and/or SMS), subscribing to someone’s update is often akin to introducing yourself to that person. 

Reciprocating is the object of relatively intense social pressure. A microblogger whose follower:following ratio is far from 1:1 may be regarded as either a snob (follower:following much higher than 1:1) or as something of a microblogging failure (follower:following much lower than 1:1). As in any social context, perceived snobbery may be associated with sophistication but it also carries opprobrium. Perry Belcher  made a video about what he calls “Twitter Snobs” and some French bloggers have elaborated on that concept. (Some are now claiming their right to be Twitter Snobs.) Low follower:following ratios can result from breach of etiquette (for instance, ostentatious self-promotion carried beyond the accepted limit) or even non-human status (many microblogging accounts are associated to “bots” producing automated content).

The result of the pressure for reciprocation is that contacts are reciprocated regardless of personal relations.  Some users even set up ways to automatically follow everyone who follows them. Despite being tricky, these methods escape the personal connection issue. Contrary to Social Networking Systems (and despite the term “friend” used for reciprocated contacts), following someone on a microblogging service implies little in terms of friendship.

One reason I personally find this fascinating is that specifying personal connections has been an important part of the development of social networks online. For instance, long-defunct SixDegrees.com (one of the earliest Social Networking Systems to appear online) required of users that they specified the precise nature of their relationship to users with whom they were connected. Details escape me but I distinctly remember that acquaintances, colleagues, and friends were distinguished. If I remember correctly, only one such personal connection was allowed for any pair of users and this connection had to be confirmed before the two users were linked through the system. Facebook’s method to account for personal connections is somewhat more sophisticated despite the fact that all contacts are labelled as “friends” regardless of the nature of the connection. The uniform use of the term “friend” has been decried by many public commentators of Facebook (including in the United States where “friend” is often applied to any person with whom one is simply on friendly terms).

In this context, the flexibility with which microblogging contacts are made merits consideration: by allowing unidirectional contacts, microblogging platforms may have solved a tricky social network problem. And while the strength of the connection between two microbloggers is left unacknowledged, there are several methods to assess it (for instance through replies and republished updates).

Social contacts are the very basis of social media. In this case, microblogging represents a step towards both simplified and complexified social contacts.

Which leads me to the theme which prompted me to start this blogpost: event-based microblogging.

I posted the following blog entry (in French) about event-based microblogging, back in November.

Microblogue d’événement

I haven’t received any direct feedback on it and the topic seems to have little echoes in the social media sphere.

During the last PodMtl meeting on February 18, I tried to throw my event-based microblogging idea in the ring. This generated a rather lengthy between a friend and myself. (Because I don’t want to put words in this friend’s mouth, who happens to be relatively high-profile, I won’t mention this friend’s name.) This friend voiced several objections to my main idea and I got to think about this basic notion a bit further. At the risk of sounding exceedingly opinionated, I must say that my friend’s objections actually comforted me in the notion that my “event microblog” idea makes a lot of sense.

The basic idea is quite simple: microblogging instances tied to specific events. There are technical issues in terms of hosting and such but I’m mostly thinking about associating microblogs and events.

What I had in mind during the PodMtl discussion has to do with grouping features, which are often requested by Twitter users (including by Perry Belcher who called out Twitter Snobs). And while I do insist on events as a basis for those instances (like groups), some of the same logic applies to specific interests. However, given the time-sensitivity of microblogging, I still think that events are more significant in this context than interests, however defined.

In the PodMtl discussion, I frequently referred to BarCamp-like events (in part because my friend and interlocutor had participated in a number of such events). The same concept applies to any event, including one which is just unfolding (say, assassination of Guinea-Bissau’s president or bombings in Mumbai).

Microblogging users are expected to think about “hashtags,” those textual labels preceded with the ‘#’ symbol which are meant to categorize microblogging updates. But hashtags are problematic on several levels.

  • They require preliminary agreement among multiple microbloggers, a tricky proposition in any social media. “Let’s use #Bissau09. Everybody agrees with that?” It can get ugly and, even if it doesn’t, the process is awkward (especially for new users).
  • Even if agreement has been reached, there might be discrepancies in the way hashtags are typed. “Was it #TwestivalMtl or #TwestivalMontreal, I forgot.”
  • In terms of language economy, it’s unsurprising that the same hashtag would be used for different things. Is “#pcmtl” about Podcamp Montreal, about personal computers in Montreal, about PCM Transcoding Library…?
  • Hashtags are frequently misunderstood by many microbloggers. Just this week, a tweep of mine (a “peep” on Twitter) asked about them after having been on Twitter for months.
  • While there are multiple ways to track hashtags (including through SMS, in some regions), there is no way to further specify the tracked updates (for instance, by user).
  • The distinction between a hashtag and a keyword is too subtle to be really useful. Twitter Search, for instance, lumps the two together.
  • Hashtags take time to type. Even if microbloggers aren’t necessarily typing frantically, the time taken to type all those hashtags seems counterproductive and may even distract microbloggers.
  • Repetitively typing the same string is a very specific kind of task which seems to go against the microblogging ethos, if not the cognitive processes associated with microblogging.
  • The number of character in a hashtag decreases the amount of text in every update. When all you have is 140 characters at a time, the thirteen characters in “#TwestivalMtl” constitute almost 10% of your update.
  • If the same hashtag is used by a large number of people, the visual effect can be that this hashtag is actually dominating the microblogging stream. Since there currently isn’t a way to ignore updates containing a certain hashtag, this effect may even discourage people from using a microblogging service.

There are multiple solutions to these issues, of course. Some of them are surely discussed among developers of microblogging systems. And my notion of event-specific microblogs isn’t geared toward solving these issues. But I do think separate instances make more sense than hashtags, especially in terms of specific events.

My friend’s objections to my event microblogging idea had something to do with visibility. It seems that this friend wants all updates to be visible, regardless of the context. While I don’t disagree with this, I would claim that it would still be useful to “opt out” of certain discussions when people we follow are involved. If I know that Sean is participating in a PHP conference and that most of his updates will be about PHP for a period of time, I would enjoy the possibility to hide PHP-related updates for a specific period of time. The reason I talk about this specific case is simple: a friend of mine has manifested some frustration about the large number of updates made by participants in Podcamp Montreal (myself included). Partly in reaction to this, he stopped following me on Twitter and only resumed following me after Podcamp Montreal had ended. In this case, my friend could have hidden Podcamp Montreal updates and still have received other updates from the same microbloggers.

To a certain extent, event-specific instances are a bit similar to “rooms” in MMORPG and other forms of real-time many-to-many text-based communication such as the nostalgia-inducing Internet Relay Chat. Despite Dave Winer’s strong claim to the contrary (and attempt at defining microblogging away from IRC), a microblogging instance could, in fact, act as a de facto chatroom. When such a structure is needed. Taking advantage of the work done in microblogging over the past year (which seems to have advanced more rapidly than work on chatrooms has, during the past fifteen years). Instead of setting up an IRC channel, a Web-based chatroom, or even a session on MSN Messenger, users could use their microblogging platform of choice and either decide to follow all updates related to a given event or simply not “opt-out” of following those updates (depending on their preferences). Updates related to multiple events are visible simultaneously (which isn’t really the case with IRC or chatrooms) and there could be ways to make event-specific updates more prominent. In fact, there would be easy ways to keep real-time statistics of those updates and get a bird’s eye view of those conversations.

And there’s a point about event-specific microblogging which is likely to both displease “alpha geeks” and convince corporate users: updates about some events could be “protected” in the sense that they would not appear in the public stream in realtime. The simplest case for this could be a company-wide meeting during which backchannel is allowed and even expected “within the walls” of the event. The “nothing should leave this room” attitude seems contradictory to social media in general, but many cases can be made for “confidential microblogging.” Microblogged conversations can easily be archived and these archives could be made public at a later date. Event-specific microblogging allows for some control of the “permeability” of the boundaries surrounding the event. ”But why would people use microblogging instead of simply talking to another?,” you ask. Several quick answers: participants aren’t in the same room, vocal communication is mostly single-channel, large groups of people are unlikely to communicate efficiently through oral means only, several things are more efficiently done through writing, written updates are easier to track and archive…

There are many other things I’d like to say about event-based microblogging but this post is already long. There’s one thing I want to explain, which connects back to the social network dimension of microblogging.

Events can be simplistically conceived as social contexts which bring people together. (Yes, duh!) Participants in a given event constitute a “community of experience” regardless of the personal connections between them. They may be strangers, ennemies, relatives, acquaintances, friends, etc. But they all share something. “Participation,” in this case, can be relatively passive and the difference between key participants (say, volunteers and lecturers in a conference) and attendees is relatively moot, at a certain level of analysis. The key, here, is the set of connections between people at the event.

These connections are a very powerful component of social networks. We typically meet people through “events,” albeit informal ones. Some events are explicitly meant to connect people who have something in common. In some circles, “networking” refers to something like this. The temporal dimension of social connections is an important one. By analogy to philosophy of language, the “first meeting” (and the set of “first impressions”) constitute the “baptism” of the personal (or social) connection. In social media especially, the nature of social connections tends to be monovalent enough that this “baptism event” gains special significance.

The online construction of social networks relies on a finite number of dimensions, including personal characteristics described in a profile, indirect connections (FOAF), shared interests, textual content, geographical location, and participation in certain activities. Depending on a variety of personal factors, people may be quite inclusive or rather exclusive, based on those dimensions. “I follow back everyone who lives in Austin” or “Only people I have met in person can belong to my inner circle.” The sophistication with which online personal connections are negotiated, along such dimensions, is a thing of beauty. In view of this sophistication, tools used in social media seem relatively crude and underdeveloped.

Going back to the (un)conference concept, the usefulness of having access to a list of all participants in a given event seems quite obvious. In an open event like BarCamp, it could greatly facilitate the event’s logistics. In a closed event with paid access, it could be linked to registration (despite geek resistance, closed events serve a purpose; one could even imagine events where attendance is free but the microblogging backchannel incurs a cost). In some events, everybody would be visible to everybody else. In others, there could be a sort of ACL for diverse types of participants. In some cases, people could be allowed to “lurk” without being seen while in others radically transparency could be enforced. For public events with all participants visible, lists of participants could be archived and used for several purposes (such as assessing which sessions in a conference are more popular or “tracking” event regulars).

One reason I keep thinking about event-specific microblogging is that I occasionally use microblogging like others use business cards. In a geek crowd, I may ask for someone’s Twitter username in order to establish a connection with that person. Typically, I will start following that person on Twitter and find opportunities to communicate with that person later on. Given the possibility for one-way relationships, it establishes a social connection without requiring personal involvement. In fact, that person may easily ignore me without the danger of a face threat.

If there were event-specific instances from microblogging platforms, we could manage connections and profiles in a more sophisticated way. For instance, someone could use a barebones profile for contacts made during an impersonal event and a full-fledged profile for contacts made during a more “intimate” event. After noticing a friend using an event-specific business card with an event-specific email address, I got to think that this event microblogging idea might serve as a way to fill a social need.

 

More than most of my other blogposts, I expect comments on this one. Objections are obviously welcomed, especially if they’re made thoughtfully (like my PodMtl friend made them). Suggestions would be especially useful. Or even questions about diverse points that I haven’t addressed (several of which I can already think about).

So…

 

What do you think of this idea of event-based microblogging? Would you use a microblogging instance linked to an event, say at an unconference? Can you think of fun features an event-based microblogging instance could have? If you think about similar ideas you’ve seen proposed online, care to share some links?

 

Thanks in advance!

4 thoughts on “Social Networks and Microblogging”

  1. Wow… Hell of a post. A lot of good ideas about the event microblogging.
    In terms unfolding news events I am personally curious how tags will be used and groups will form between microblogging communities and services. Will we have to search multiple services? Will their be a real time search across platforms? I think there is some social importance and value to more open standards as other services like identi.ca gain traction, especially when thinking of smaller, local and temporary connections.

    I personally would really love more IRC like functionality which is what groups will be able to provide in some ways I think.

    I noticed that twitter search does differentiate between hashtags and keywords but does occasionally group them as a “#keyword or keyword” search if they are trending. Perhaps thats what you meant.

    Anyway.. nice to bump into this very blog of yours for the first time. Cheers … @jmunn :)

    1. Nice to meet you, James! ;)
      Good point about unfolding events. I was thinking about Ushahidi as I was writing this. There’s a clear connection between the global importance of cellphones and the future of microblogging.
      The idea, for me, would be to let microblogging platforms interoperate (whether or not they are based on shared standards, as long as APIs are compatible). Search capabilities should definitely work cross-platform. Instance-specific searches could also be made, as a way to specify scope. But, definitely, searches should be done across instances and platforms.
      One model I had in mind was Twitter’s own system to track tweets during the last presidential elections in the US. An election is an event and the model seemed to work. I would personally like to get a bird’s eye view of the activity, along with the fire-hydrant stream of tweets about the event. In fact, I could see a dynamic tag cloud or something similar.

      As you probably guessed, Identi.ca gaining traction was part of the story I wish to tell. Not because Evan is part of the YulMob or because I have friends who work on Identi.ca. But because I wish that more open systems like Laconica, Ning, OpenSocial and Jaiku to fill in the space left by closed systems like Facebook and Twitter.

      I agree that groups would make microblogging more IRC-like. What I’m trying to emphasize is the way groups are constructed. I love mailing-lists (including Google Groups and Yahoo! Groups). But there’s something to be said about the flexibility of “entering a room.”
      I might be wrong but, in my mind, most people who talk about microblogging groups seem to think about “closed sets” instead of about fluid connections. I’m not saying that one is better than the other and I do want microblogging group features. But event microblogging has other consequences.
      One thing I’ll have to think more about is differences between a Usenet-type newsgroup, a chatroom, a forum, a mailing-list, a group in a social network system, and event microblogs. Differences are significant but they’re a bit difficult to describe.

      As for hashtags and keywords, this is exactly what I meant. They’re differentiated, in some way, but the differentiation is more of a pain than a desirable feature, IMHO.

      Thanks a lot for your comment!
      Food for thought.

  2. I really think you did a good job of summarising the social use of twitter and how people find ways around it’s limitations.

    But we need to move back and take a good look at micro-blogging (MB) as a protocol and not a social network.

    The best way to look at MB as a protocol, it’s to compare it with email.

    At the base of email, there’s a protocol called SMTP. It allows us to send an electronic message via the Internet. Any email server/provider needs to support SMTP to send and receive email from other email providers. You can also add POP or IMAP support for added functionality. But, everyone is allowed to use it’s own choice of software to access email. So when I filter, tag or classify emails in my personal space, I don’t ask for someone else to do those actions and simplify my own inbox management, I do it on my own. I’ll also choose to use Gmail instead of Hotmail because it offers IMAP.

    The popularity behind Twitter is based on the format (space limitation, news feed aggregation) and functionalities like @replies to speak to or talk about someone. Twitter web interface will recognize @ as a reply and let me choose betwen seeing @myusername replies from people I follow or anybody that uses it. Since Twitter doesn’t recognize the # as an hashtag, I have to use an app like Twhirl that will recognize the # symbol and redirect me to Twitter search. But this choice is made on basis of software and not protocol.

    By creating a new instance of Laconica every time you have a new event, would be the equivalent of creating a new email address every time you join an organization, you end up with a dozen addresses to manage.

    The best way to move forward with micro-blogging, it’s to take a look at what Identica is doing. Identica now supports and recognizes 3 symbols in dents: @ for replies, # for tags and ! for group messages. They should simply been seen as a filtering mechanism, where all people that subscribe to a group wants messages about that !group symbol. So for an event, you could use the !group to send a dent(tweet) to all the people that subscribed to the group. Unfortunately, for now, we still need to manually enter a # or ! when we post. We could imagine in a near future, the ability to automatically add # or ! to my dents(tweets) without loosing character space but that would go against the space limitation coolness of micro-blogging. Another interesting option, could be to block a specific !group and ignore messages from them, avoiding unwanted messages. (Ex: when a user I follow mentions !Olympics2010 I want it to be filtered out.)

    For now, we need to wait and see where Twitter development will go, what will Google do with Jaiku and hope that the Open micro-blogging standard proposed by Identica/Laconica be adopted by more micro-blogging services and avoid this stupid balkanisation of services.

    I just spent way to much time answering… ;^)

    1. Interesting point about protocols and we could go into XMPP. But those technical dimensions are discussed frequently enough that I wanted to focus on the social dimensions. One reason MB works so well is that it taps some of the power of social networks.
      What you say about Identi.ca’s grouptagging seems to me to be as problematic as hashtags, although Identi.ca supports these notations more directly that Tw supports hashtags. Tags are geek-friendly, for several reasons, but they don’t “scale” in terms of mainstream users. For instance, they don’t allow for group management. And, seriously, the way people type, they’re very cumbersome.

      The reason I brought your attention to this post is that you participated in that PodMtl discussion. And you help me understand something which I haven’t made clear.

      By creating a new instance of Laconica every time you have a new event, would be the equivalent of creating a new email address every time you join an organization, you end up with a dozen addresses to manage.

      Actually, no. What I have in mind revolves around having the same profile for multiple instances. You can elect to maintain different profiles (say, one for professional life and one for open social media). But it’s easy to keep a single profile across instances and platforms.
      I haven’t been clear about how independent the “instances” need to be. I’m not necessarily talking about setting up different servers (though distributed microblogging is an interesting topic). I’m mostly talking about different microblogging “modes.”
      The chatroom analogy is fairly good, in this case. The same user can visit any number of chatrooms during a chat session. Depending on the interface, these chatrooms may be presented at the same time or all separately (after thinking about it, I remembered that IRC allowed for multiple channels). But, during a chat, liveblogging, texting, or livemicroblogging session, you mostly focus on one broad context. Cognitively, there’s something important about the compartmentalization into semi-separate “modes.” As I’m taking notes during a conference or as I’m asking questions about an event unfolding, I may have diverse interests on the side but I still focus on the event. There’s a common timeline. This is precisely not the time in which I want to suffix all my dents/tweets/updates with tags.
      Filtering out tagged updates is important. If Sean wants to avoid the Podcamp Montreal flood or if I want to use a microblogging platform without hearing about Demo, explicitly ignoring tags could work really well as long as MB users consistently tag all of their updates, something which currently isn’t done.

      Again, it’s not that I dislike groups. But I think event MB responds to another need.

      Another thing I wanted to make clear (and which could be part of a follow-up post): there’s no need to limit ourselves to “one-off” events. Many events are recurring. Grouping all updates related to several occurrences of the same event could, in fact, have fascinating effects. Talk about establishing a timeline!

      And something upon which I wanted to expand in the original post but elected to merely mention is the issue of event organization. Few things are easier to do than “creating an event” on Fb. With a given social media platform, it’d be possible to add MB to the event creation. That way, participants in the event would be connected to one another and they would have a premade interface for realtime interaction. In a way, it’s an expansion over Tweetups.
      While they both have the tech to do it, neither Tw nor Fb have any advantage in this field.

      As you mention “balkanization” I see that I must clarify something else… All of my thoughts on MB rely on the notion that all MB platforms/instances are interoperable. What I have in mind is more seamless than Laconica or Ning instances. I know there are some technical challenges involved, but those are left to developers. IANAC. I focus on social issues, including the social dimension of social media.

      Anyhoo…

      Thanks again for a stimulating comment and for your support during my PodMtl conversation on the topic.

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