7 July 2009

Social Media - At last I get it

As I posted the other day, I have finally jumped on the twitter bandwagon as a result of playing with a HTC Magic. I never saw the point before but now I sort of get it.

I would describe twitter as being a cross between the worlds biggest forum and the worlds biggest instant messenger application. People are 'tweeting' all the time and following them can bring a greater feeling of connectivity. In my first day of using twitter I probably discovered more about what's going on in the tech world than in the whole previous week of normal surfing. I was getting news about things going on in my local area before it was broadcast on local radio. I also found out about the fire at a seattle (I think?) datacentre which took down geocaching.com and authorise.net.

The sheer number of twitterers and the ability to search their conversations is what provides the power, but it comes at a price. Twitter is now so popular that it is going the same way the internet did, being used by commercial enterprises small and large as a way to push products and services. Cue Plurk, already a year old and with some interesting features.

With twitter, you can update your facebook page. With Plurk you can update twitter (and so also facebook). The user interface of Plurk is a little different with its timeline display and there's a suspiciously bad keyboard response time which suggests either dodgy coding or key-logging going on in the background. Yet there are some advantages to using Plurk. For one thing, their widget displays on my blog even though I've got scripts turned off in slimbrowser. By comparison I have to turn scripting on to view my tweets. So straight away Plurks are more likely to be visible. Their widget also looks more presentable than twitters, featuring an avatar and some basic details. There is also the option to release private Plurks which are only viewable to your close friends.

So what does it all mean? I think I hinted at it on twitter yesterday. Twitter is great but its an unending stream of information which is now so popular that it needs to scale its features. You can already see topic trends from the twitter page but what it really needs now is good filtering. I want to know when someone talks about Android or windows 7 but I want to know in real-time. Yes I can do a search but if someone said something useful last week it will be obscured by 200 companies tweeting about their cut-down pricing of said products today. I've also discovered that certain websites are tweeting content that they published online 6 months ago. The twitter trends have shown that the max shelf-life of such info is probably a week at most.

No doubt someone will tell me about twitter add-ons that provide this sort of filtering. The addition of Twhirl is already half-way there but I want to sample the whole stream for my chosen topics, not just filter it to a subset of the people I'm already following.

Perhaps one of the most surprising insights into twitter is the ability to track trends using websites like http://twist.flaptor.com/trends?gram=work&span=168. The high appearance of the word 'work' in tweets might be just the incentive large organisations like the NHS need to reverse their policy on social networking sites. One of the comments I got back from my recent photography work for the local Sanity Fare event was that people working for the NHS couldn't see the pictures because the site was blocked. Comments to social media sites tend to occur because we are naturally multi-tasking in my oppinion. While it's true we all need to be professional in our work lives, there is no way any organisation can really block everything given the availability of the internet via mobile phones. I am reminded at this stage about the teacher who posted some quite negative comments about her enthusiasm levels and classes. Should she have been suspended for publishing her own oppinions because her employers did not like what they read?

It's the tired old justification of blocking such sites. "You work for us during these hours and that's all you can do during these hours". It's a very blinkered approach to the issue of work/life balance. I am fortunate indeed that my employer has no such policy. Without twitter I would not have learned about Moblin, augmented reality, yesterdays 'Reboot Britain' event, tiny urls and all sorts of technologies and informative news items. Howard Rheingolds closing presentation at Reboot Britain yesterday is proof enough for me that education IS going to change. The mixture of live video feed, live twitter and blog updates added something extra to all the presentations. It was the interactive element which didn't disrupt the presentation which kept me alert and hooked on what was happening. I've seen Chris Pirillo use something similar on his youtube reviews. The mixture of presentation and real-time comments works and creates a more engaging, more informative experience. Surely this is what education is all about.

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