Endless Conversation: The Unfolding Saga of Blogs, Twitter, Friendfeed, and Social Sites

It wasn’t long ago that to be a credible participant in social media one only had to have a decent blog and keep it updated fairly regularly.  The rise of social media was an astonishing and novel enough development that most people still don’t blog today, despite the enormous influence that blogging and other forms of social media continue to have.  One reason is that blogging takes time and takes some skill, both in writing and using blogging tools effectively. Another is the rise of online social networking sites like MySpaceFacebook, and Hi5, which add a personal dimension to online interaction that many find more rewarding and relevant for them.

But just like blogs made two-way conversations on the Web relatively cheap, easy, and quick for the masses compared to previous methods (such as personal Web sites), conversational models on the Web have continued to evolve.  Recently, microblogging and social aggregation platforms like Twitter and Friendfeed have emerged to offer alternative models that are compelling for a number of significant reasons.  For one, contributing to them doesn’t take much time.  To achieve this, they either have radical limits on the amount of content that can be posted at a time (140 characters for Twitter), or they do the posting work for you and automatically centralize your social activity on other sites into a single feed, as in the case of Friendfeed.  They also tend to work very well on mobile devices — an incredibly fast growing channel for experiencing anything on the Web these days — as well scale conversation well, are extremely easy to use (even easier in general than blogs), and allow you to keep track of a large numbers of contacts socially.

And vitally, both Twitter and Friendfeed are open platforms, not just mere tools.  A key factor in their success is that they offer open APIs to allow others to add the features and capabilities that are missing for various specialty needs that would otherwise clutter the product for many users.  This creates a far richer overall feature set than any single product could offer on its own, while at the same time leveraging the innovation of the user community.  Blogs have been able to do something similar with badges, widgets, and plug-ins for some time but haven’t seen the same directed results as we’ll see below.

The sheer volume of 3rd party add-on activity for these platforms is impressive. Best-of-breed applications like Twhirl for Twitter (and now Friendfeed) and AlertThingy for Friendfeed extend these new social media experiences onto the desktop and provide real-time monitoring of your “Twitterverse” or friend’s feeds.  To get a full sense of the depth and scope of the innovation of the Twitter community, which is certainly still a niche compared to the blogosphere, though an increasingly impressive one, you have only to look at some of its more compelling 3rd party applications:

Common Twitter Applications 

  • Summize – A power search engine for scanning Twitter conversations for information
  • Twitter Charts – Detailed analytics of your Twitter activities along many different metrics
  • TwitterFeed – Link your blog activity to Twitter
  • TwitterGram – Post MP3s into your Twitter conversations
  • TweetBurner – Combined with twurl.org, this application shows click through analytics on your Twitter links as well as overall Twitterverse stats
  • TweetWheel – Analysis your Twitter account’s social graph to understand the connections between your followers
  • TwittEarth – A 3d animated globe that shows activity in the Twitter public timeline in near real-time
  • Twitt(url)y – A link aggregator that reports on link activity within the Twitterverse, a sort of Techmeme for Twitter
  • TwitSay – Use your phone to post to Twitter via a voice message
  • TwitterSnooze – Turn off a chatty user temporarily and bring them back automatically later
  • Twistori – An interesting dashboard that displays the expression of key memes from the Twitter public timeline, creating a sort of global collective intelligence
  • Twubble – Many new Twitter users have trouble finding users to follower, this tool helps finds new contacts you might care about

This only a small list of the most popular Twitter applications and they don’t even include the product offerings that are stand-alone in their own right, but work much better in conjunction with Twitter and Friendfeed, such as Brightkite and Natuba.

Understanding How Conversations Are Changing

The challenge today is that while the size of individual contributions to online conversations is getting smaller, the frequency of conversations are increasing on these new social media platforms. Making this point, Sarah Perez over at Read/Write Web wrote this morning that there are too many choices, and too much content. Users of the latest social media tools are far more likely to post several times a day, more likely dozens of times, each one forming a new conversational beachhead.  This can be overwhelming, but it can also be enormously stimulating and rewarding, as a form of collaboration, cross-pollination, brainstorming, serendipity, news gathering, and countless other activities provide one with a continuous connection to the broader world.

To get a handle on how people are using these next generation social media platforms, I ran an online survey this week which I pushed out across my Twitter followers, Friendfeed contacts, and a random sampling of my personal contacts via e-mail (the latter without much regard if they used these tools.) The results largely reflect many of the points above, but there were some interesting write-in results as well.

Here’s how the Twitter survey results broke down:

Results Of This Week’s Twitter/Friend Usage Survey

  1. Do use Twitter or Friendfeed on a regular basis? (Multiple Answers Allowed): 96.1% Twitter, 25.2% Friendfeed, 3.9% Neither
  2. What things do you like about Twitter, Friendfeed, or your write-in choice from question #1: (Multiple answers allowed):
    • My friends and/or colleagues use it. 65%
    • A good selection of 3rd party apps are available. 26.2%
    • I’ve built up a set of followers which I’ve come to know and with which I socialize. 42.7%
    • It’s easy to use. 71.8%
    • It works well with my mobile devices when I’m on the go. 43.7%
    • Contributing doesn’t require much time. 69.9%
    • Easy to socially interact with a large number of people. 59.2%
    • I can publicize my activities from other Web sites. 37.9%
    • Useful way to acquire news and information. 71.8%
    • It’s better than e-mail for quick communication with contacts. 35.9%
    • Actually, I don’t think Twitter or Friendfeed are that great. 4.9%
  3. What do you like LEAST about Twitter, Friendfeed, or your write-in answer for #1: (Write-In. Representative Samples.)
    •  “Twitter lacks a feature to filter or an easy way to group.”
    • “Twitter is yet another thing to keep up with, I much prefer the all-inclusive nature of Facebook.”
    • “downtime”
    • “I get a lot of noise, that is, useless information from people I’m following.”
    • “Poor support for conversations. no threads, don’t see other half if not following all involved.”
    • “I’ve found it’s hard to get some of my friends to adopt it.”
  4. Do now, or are you planning to, use Twitter or Friendfeed for business purposes?
    • Yes. 66%
    • No. 12%
    • Considering it. 22%

One of the biggest surprises of this survey (there were 103 respondents total) was the amount of those who are thinking about using Twitter for business purposes.  Whether that’s just expanding their personal brand or actually leveraging it for business collaboration, marketing, and other uses is hard to tell and will be the subject of a further survey.

Interestingly, in terms of being used as Enterprise 2.0 platforms by businesses, both Twitter and Friendfeed fly in the face of the underlying pull-based models that make social media more effective that traditional collaboration tools and it’ll be interesting to see how well they will function in the workplace, something that seems a way off for most organizations right now.  And it may be that in the end that social networking for business platforms like Google’s new Friend Connect may be the best answer. One thing is for sure, we’ll find out soon as the living laboratory of the Web validates the best approaches.

Most other responses were within expected norms though it was interesting to see that, at least explicitly, users don’t value 3rd party apps that much.  They are also using these social media tools as a replacement for traditional e-mail. But it was ease-of-use and the gathering of news and information which were listed as the aspects that respondents appreciated the most in these emerging platforms.  Which highlights that crowdsourcing of news via Twitter in particular continues to be a fascinating topic as a Paul Bradshaw wrote recently as he explored the news tweets coming out of China about the recent earthquake disaster. 

All of this highlight that the unintended uses and emergent outcomes that we continue to see with with these platforms is demonstrating that they have the power to achieve compelling results of a wide variety, from news and learning to staying in touch and achieving business goals.  But the biggest challenge will continue to be the challenge of scaling our attention and time, something that’s always in finite quantity. The product creator that can successfully aggregate conversation without losing the social value will be the winner as these endless conversations spin around us, informing, educating and enriching us.

You can track me on Twitter at http://twitter.com/dhinchcliffe and on Friendfeed at http://friendfeed.com/dhinchcliffe.

Where do you see conversation online headed?  Will it be microplatforms like Twitter or SNS like Google Friend Connect? Or something else entirely? Note: Use wiki markup below to embed links. 

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