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You Don’t Count Friends

January 18 2011 // Rant + Social Media // 3 Comments

When was the last time you counted your friends ... in real life.

You Don't Count Friends

My guess is that you have never actually sat down and counted your friends. Maybe when you were 6 you counted your best friends on one hand but you didn't wake up every morning and recount. Yet online we're constantly reminded of and trained to tally our friends.

The Prisoner

We've become prisoners to social numbers. The numbers on Facebook and Twitter; on Feedburner and Quora. Not only are we held hostage by those numbers, we become them too. We're number 212 on someone's list, number 83 on another.

I am not a number! I am a free man!

I love numbers and could literally lose myself in an Excel spreadsheet for a day. But the numbers attached to friends and followers simply seem unnatural and don't map to any offline behavior.

People are generally not alerted when someone 'unfriends' them in real life. What does that even mean? It probably means you grew apart and just don't talk anymore. No biggie.

But online the drop in friend count is right there in your face. Suddenly you have to explain and account for it. WTF!

Lose The Social Numbers

Lose The Numbers

What it we lost the numbers. Maybe you still need some sort of tally? But could we come up with a word to describe a range of numbers? Something that would be more real?

  • A Handful
  • Several
  • Some
  • Many
  • A Lot
  • Tons

I know, I know, people will probably still want to get from Several to Some or from A Lot to Tons. But maybe it helps a little? Or maybe we just remove the numbers all together. Poof.

Is there an app for that? Like an ad blocker but for social media numbers? Contact me if you want to help build one.

Quora’s Not A Competition (But I’m Winning)

January 03 2011 // Life + Social Media // 2 Comments

It's a new year and like millions of others I've taken stock and made some resolutions.

The Dark Passenger

Perhaps it was in this state of mind that I caught myself turning Quora into a competition. It's not (or shouldn't be) and my initial motivations for answering were more altruistic than self-serving. But like some dark passenger (hat tip to Dexter), my competitive nature has emerged. Mind you, there's nothing wrong with being competitive.

I've been criticized for being too self-assured, cocky or condescending. "You seem to think your opinion is always right." I've heard that a number of times. My response is another question. Why would I give an opinion that I didn't believe in?

While true, I doubt that response helps my case. That's not to say that I'm never wrong or that I don't change my mind. I can be persuaded to see another point of view. I enjoy intelligent debate.

That brings me to Adam Lasnik, who started off the new year with two great blog posts. I wholeheartedly agree with his publish first, think later criticism. His musings on why and whether we should contribute to sites like Quora got me thinking.

Why are we contributing to Quora? It's a funny business in a way. Quora's business is our contributions. It's the same knock I have against article directories. They make a business on your content, leasing back a small fraction of their trust and authority in the form of backlinks. It's not a particularly healthy relationship.

Is Quora different?

I still see value in contributing to a community like Quora and Stack Overflow. I don't think a policy of isolation is the right course of action. Sharing your expertise is good business. But it makes me think about the motivations for contributing. On the face, you want to share your knowledge with someone. They have a question. You have an answer.

But it's not like someone asking you in person, or via email or any other number of mediums. They're not just asking you. Instead of getting one answer, they'll get a number of answers. That can often be good, but it's then up to the person or community to determine which of those answers is ... best. Dress it up as most useful or interesting - people assign judgment to your content.

Keeping Score

Should we be surprised when we get caught up in wanting to have that best answer? It reminded me of a lyric from Love's Not A Competition (But I'm Winning) by the Kaiser Chiefs.

I'm not sure what's truly altruistic anymore,
When every good thing that I do is listed and you're keeping score,

Whoa.

So I'm guarding against this ego based, game mentality. I don't want to want to be first to answer a question, nor do I want that dark passenger to push me to contribute more. I'd like to be far more collegiate in nature, because this isn't a zero sum game.

2011 Predictions

December 31 2010 // Analytics + Marketing + SEO + Social Media + Technology + Web Design // 3 Comments

Okay, I actually don't have any precognitive ability but I might as well have some fun while predicting events in 2011. Lets look into the crystal ball.

2011 Search Internet Technology Predictions

Facebook becomes a search engine

The Open Graph is just another type of index. Instead of crawling the web like Google, Facebook lets users do it for them. Facebook is creating a massive graph of data and at some point they'll go all Klingon on Google and uncloak with several bird of prey surrounding search. Game on.

Google buys Foursquare

Unless you've been under a rock for the last 6 months it's clear that Google wants to own local. They're dedicating a ton of resources to Places and decided that getting citations from others was nice but generating your own reviews would be better. With location based services just catching on with the mainstream, Google will overpay for Foursquare and bring check-ins to the masses.

UX becomes more experiential

Technology (CSS3, Compass, HTML5, jQuery, Flash, AJAX and various noSQL databases to name a few) transforms how users experience the web. Sites that allow users to seamlessly understand applications through interactions will be enormously successful.

Google introduces more SEO tools

Google Webmaster Tools continues to launch tools that will help people understand their search engine optimization efforts. Just like they did with Analytics, Google will work hard in 2011 to commoditize SEO tools.

Identity becomes important

As the traditional link graph becomes increasingly obsolete, Google seeks to leverage social mentions and links. But to do so (in any major way) without opening a whole new front of spam, they'll work on defining reputation. This will inevitably lead them to identity and the possible acquisition of Rapleaf.

Internet congestion increases

Internet congestion will increase as more and more data is pushed through the pipe. Apps and browser add-ons that attempt to determine the current congestion will become popular and the Internati will embrace this as their version of Greening the web. (Look for a Robert Scoble PSA soon.)

Micropayments battle paywalls

As the appetite for news and digital content continues to swell, a start-up will pitch publications on a micropayment solution (pay per pageview perhaps) as an alternative to subscription paywalls. The start-up may be new or may be one with a large installed user base that hasn't solved revenue. Or maybe someone like Tynt? I'm crossing my fingers that it's whoever winds up with Delicious.

Gaming jumps the shark

This is probably more of a hope than a real prediction. I'd love to see people dedicate more time to something (anything!) other than the 'push-button-receive-pellet' games. I'm hopeful that people do finally burn out, that the part of the cortex that responds to this type of gratification finally becomes inured to this activity.

Curation is king

The old saw is content is king. But in 2011 curation will be king. Whether it's something like Fever, my6sense or Blekko, the idea of transforming noise into signal (via algorithm and/or human editing) will be in high demand, as will different ways to present that signal such as Flipboard and Paper.li.

Retargeting wins

What people do will outweigh what people say as retargeting is both more effective for advertisers and more relevant for consumers. Privacy advocates will howl and ally themselves with the government. This action will backfire as the idea of government oversight is more distasteful than that of corporations.

Github becomes self aware

Seriously, have you looked at what is going on at Github? There's a lot of amazing work being done. So much so that Github will assemble itself Voltron style and become a benevolently self-aware organism that will be our digital sentry protecting us from Skynet.

Quora Button

December 27 2010 // Social Media + Web Design // 8 Comments

I like Quora, so much so that I wanted to add it as another contact option on this blog. But I couldn't find a Quora button that matched my current buttons. So, I took a crack at making one myself.

Quora Button

Quora Button

Feel free to use it or make a better one. (Just let me know when you do.) In the interim, you should follow me on Quora and explore the growing knowledge community.

Social Entropy

December 21 2010 // Social Media // 1 Comment

It's been frustrating to see social networking take on the properties of game mechanics instead of organic social behavior. That's why The Real Life Social Network, a presentation and research by Paul Adams, was such a breath of fresh air.

If you haven't reviewed it already, you should. It's one of the smartest and most thoughtful investigations into how to translate offline social relationships online.

Dunbar's Number

Dunbar's Number

One of the concepts Adams touches on is Dunbar's Number.

Dunbar's number is a theoretical cognitive limit to the number of people with whom one can maintain stable social relationships.

While there are upper and lower limits, the number generally sits at 150. I've argued the importance of Dunbar's Number a few times and believe that it is still relevant online. Perhaps technology could increase the number slightly, but not by much in my opinion.

All Relationships Are Not Equal

Best Friends

This seemingly mundane statement hasn't really been reflected in most social networks. People put different values on relationships. Is someone a friend or an acquaintance? Are they a colleague or a mentor? Who's your BFF?

In fact, relationships could have a different value based on the context. My best bicycling pal might not be the friend I talk to about my personal life. A close friend might not be the person I ping for a discussion about SEO.

This concept is translated into strong ties (real friends) and weak ties (acquaintances and contacts). Most social networks treat tie strength equally. Lists provide some way to divide your social graph and divvy strong from weak, but it's still a rather blunt tool.

Memory

Memory Is Not Infinite

Adams also references memory in his presentation. Memory is not infinite. I think that's an astute observation and dovetails into the conversation about information overload.

I'm fascinated by the idea that weak tie information could crowd out the strong. Could having too many weak ties mixed in with the strong prevent us from having real social relationships? Could the quest for more connections actually marginalize the ones that matter?

Are we overwhelming our memory with a tidal wave of social information?

Groups

Your social graph is made up of groups. Similar to the idea that relationships have different values, your relationships fall into groups. They may be about where or how you met that person. These are my high school friends. These are my friends from San Diego. These are the people I worked with at such-and-such job.

Often these groups also reveal interests. You may have a group of friends surrounding a topic. I have some book friends. But my book friends might not be Philadelphia Eagles fans too. (Paul does a much better job of detailing this in his presentation.)

I had an opportunity to chat with Armen Berjikly at Experience Project earlier this year. What I found amazing was how they allowed users to express all facets of their personality. You could join any number of groups without them defining your entire experience on the site.

People are not just one thing.

Social Evolution

Social Evolution

If people are not just one thing, they're also never the same. People evolve as they gain more life experience.

So, what happens to our groups?

How many of your high school friends do you really keep up with and does that dwindle as you get farther away from that time in your life? Your interests might change. Maybe you moved from Malibu to Omaha, so you're not into surfing anymore. Will you keep up with all of your surfing buddies? Your childhood best friend may not be a close friend today.

I've worked in Fund Raising and Advertising. But I haven't kept up with most of the people in those industries. I have less in less in common with them over time. Or take a book group. You might enjoy that for a while, but over time it likely disintegrates. The funny thing is, that doesn't mean I don't like books or even book groups. I may wind up joining another book group.

It's what I refer to as social entropy.

Social Entropy

Just A Friend

The process of social entropy is OK! It's natural. Relationships change (Biz Markie's unrequited love likely faded.) In fact, it might be necessary so you can grow and forge new relationships. It's a type of creative destruction. I'm not the same person I was in high school, why would I maintain all of those relationships 20 years later?

If I did try to maintain all of those relationships, I'd quickly exceed Dunbar's Number. In addition, my social graph would increasingly have more weak ties than strong.

How does this translate online? This year I also lucky enough to chat with Lyle Fong of Lithium Technologies. Among many other things, he noted the need for groups to splinter or evolve.

If you're ever been in an online group you've probably experienced this problem. The group probably starts off wonderfully. The signal to noise ratio is excellent. But because of that more and more people join. But ultimately that reduces the signal to noise ratio. Often a core set of members will flee the group to ... start a new one. Or another set of members will flee to start a group with a slightly different topic.

Conversely, limiting group membership can also lead to social entropy. A defined group may begin with a flurry of interactions from many members. But then a few begin to dominate the conversation. Others simply fade into the background as they're pulled in different directions or lose interest. Suddenly, it's a very small group which doesn't provide enough stimulus even for those dominating the conversation.

Right after Paul published his research I reached out to him. Though swamped with requests, he was kind enough to get back to me, confirming social entropy and how groups change. At that time it was thought Paul would lead Google's new social effort. Yesterday he revealed he's moving to Facebook.

Social 3.0

Building interfaces which allow for social entropy seems incredibly valuable.

So far, the focus has been on establishing relationships, but what about the natural process of breaking them? There has been some comical editorial about services which would help you 'break up' with friends. There can be a lot of emotional freight when you decide to unfriend someone. Feelings hide behind those friend numbers. Should those numbers even be exposed in the first place?

Or maybe there should there be a TTL on relationships? Sure, I wanted to check in on that freshman college roommate but do I then want to know about his daily life from then on?

The 50 friend limit imposed by Path is an interesting concept, forcing people to choose only those with whom you have a strong tie.

In real life people evolve and grow apart. I believe the social network that allows people (and their relationships) to evolve will be most successful.

Facebook Friend of a Friend

November 21 2010 // Social Media // 7 Comments

I'm not the biggest fan of Facebook for personal use. Instead, I hang out at FriendFeed. The main reason is because FriendFeed revolves around content instead of people. The secret sauce is the Friend of a Friend (FoaF) feature. FoaF lets me see content that my friends commented on or liked. So instead of my world view being limited to just my friends, I let my friends bring interesting content to me from other people.

Using people as filters. Information discovery at its best.

Facebook Friend of a Friend

The other day I visited Facebook and lo and behold I saw something different ... yet familiar.

Facebook Friend of a Friend

I haven't liked Dexter. He's not my friend. But I'm seeing Dexter's status because Oguz and Louis (who are my friends) liked it. The beauty of this is that I enjoy Dexter (though I'm way behind and am only on season 3.) Sure enough my friends (my filters) brought me the 'right' content.

Facebook FoaF

Here's another instance. I'm not connected to Jason Falls. Sure I know who he is but we're not buds. Yet, I'm seeing his status update because Susan and Louis commented on it. Once again, it's content that is interesting to me. I've been talking about follow and friend abuse for a long time so it's great to see others pruning their connections.

And while I've used two status examples, I've seen FoaF on photos and links as well.

Facebook FoaF on a Link

I'd have to have my head in the sand not to know who Loic is, but I'm not friends with him. I see his link because Oguz commented on it.

The FriendFeedification of Facebook

Facebook's implementation of FoaF as well as duplicate detection and aggregation all make me like Facebook a lot more. Suddenly, I can use Facebook like I use FriendFeed. In fact, it may actually work better since there are (sadly) so many more people on Facebook.

I'll likely be spending more time on Facebook. That's something few people - myself included - thought they'd ever hear me say. The only (big) thing remaining is lists so I can create different views of the content my friends and their friends bring me.

Oddly, I'm more confident this will happen given the continuing FriendFeedification of Facebook.

How To Get 100 Likes From 2 People

November 08 2010 // Analytics + Social Media // 9 Comments

The other day I wrote about the potential for inflated Like numbers. In particular, I was interested in how comments were factored into the Like total.  It was pretty clear that Likes and comments were not mutually exclusive. But were comments a count of unique contributors or simply a total count of comments.

The Like Experiment

So, I ran a small experiment using an old satirical blog post: LOLCats and Religion: A Dissertation.

This post originally had two shares but no Likes or comments. So I went ahead and Liked it and asked my colleague Jeremy Post to have a comment dialog on the item. In all, we generated 10 comments.

Facebook Comments

One of my concerns was that comments might not always relate to the item and interestingly enough we actually did switch topics during the dialog from LOLCats to Dune. Go figure. (Note to self - fix image being attributed to blog posts.)

The Like Results

So what was the result? How many Likes did this old post rack up due to this comment stream? Sure enough, every comment is counted as a Like.

Facebook Like Numbers

A quick check using my Facebook Like Number Bookmarklet reveals how the number is calculated.

Facebook Like Count

So, did 13 others like this? No, it's just two people having a conversation on a shared item. And that's how you could get ...

100 Likes from 2 People on 1 Item

Facebook Like Number Bookmarklets

November 05 2010 // Analytics + SEO + Social Media // 2 Comments

Want to know the Facebook Like statistics for the page you're on? No problem.

Facebook Like Number Bookmarklets

Using the old REST API you can find out the Facebook Like statistics for any page. For easy access, simply drag these two links to your bookmark bar.

FB Stats: Current Page

FB Stats: Home Page

The Current Page bookmarklet will provide Like statistics for the page you're on. So, if you were on the ReadWriteWeb article about Facebook Places Deals you can click on this bookmarklet and be provided with the Like statistics for that page.

Facebook Like Bookmarklet

The Home Page bookmarklet will provide Like statistics for the home page for the site you're on. Please note that this is not showing the aggregate Like statistics for the entire site, but just that of the home page.

Like Number Use Cases

Why are these bookmarklets useful apart from abject curiosity?

First off, you can determine the true number of Likes. Second, they provide competitive intelligence and potential insight into Facebook's search algorithm (aka Facebook SEO). Do pages with a higher distribution of comments get a higher weight? I'm not sure.

This is one way to begin understanding the ways in which pages enter the Open Graph and how they are treated based on Like activity.

Facebook Like Numbers Are Inflated

November 05 2010 // Social Media + Technology // 15 Comments

As you surf the web today you'll inevitably run into Facebook's Like button.

number of likes

There are a number of implementations but they all tell you how many Likes that item (or object in Open Graph speak) has received.

When a Like is not a Like

But did 938 people really Like this rather interesting Slate article about Netflix? No.

actual like count

Only 130 actually liked this article. The rest of that 938 is composed of shares and comments.

What you're looking at above is XML output from a links.getStats call from Facebook's old REST API. The data definitions for the link_stat table detail what share, like, comment and total represent.

Link_Stat Data Definitions

The Like number shown to users is actually the total_count - "the total number of times the URL has been shared, liked, or commented on."

I'm not particularly perturbed by lumping share and like together - those two actions are similar. In both cases I'm explicitly choosing to interact and promote that item. And I suspect that they're doing this for some amount of backwards compatibility.

But comments seems like a stretch to me. I'm choosing to interact with a combination of item and person. My comment might have little to do with the item and more to do with the person sharing it. In this instance I could have commented on the movie viewing habits of the person sharing the item. Does that mean I 'Like' that item?

Like Number Inflation

At a minimum, I think this is a manipulation of perception. The numbers are part of a Like marketing campaign. Large Like numbers throughout the Internet make it seem like the functionality is being used frequently. Yet, here we see that the specific Like feature isn't as popular as we might have suspected.

I'm still a fan (pun intended) of the Like button and the Open Graph, but showing this inflated number (even if it can be rationalized) seems disingenuous. What do you think?

Facebook Questions Forces The Question

August 03 2010 // SEO + Social Media // Comment

Facebook Questions

Facebook recently launched their new Q&A product, aptly named Facebook Questions.

The Q&A space is white hot right now, in large part because of the SEO potential of the content. Q&A, if done correctly, creates highly focused long tail content that gets gobbled up by search engines. Look no further than Demand Media's eHow as an example.

But is that what Facebook has in mind for Questions?

Facebook Questions Not Crawlable

Search Engine Land reported that Facebook Questions could not be crawled by search engines, and that Facebook has no plans to change that policy. The news was surprising, resurfacing the notion of the walled garden and sending mixed signals on Facebook's strategy.

Facebook Search Powers Questions

In the first few days after launch Facebook search would force users into Questions whenever a search started with the five Ws or one H. Facebook search results would shift to Questions after you entered one of those interrogative words and then hit the space bar. This search feature is no longer active. (Sadly, I did not capture this behavior.)

Perhaps it was a simple test or Facebook pushed enough traffic through the product to receive the necessary amount of feedback. Either way, it showed the power of Facebook search (both in flexibility and volume) and pointed to a reason for not allowing search engines to crawl and index Questions. Does Facebook need traffic from outside the walled garden?

Questions and the Open Graph

Where things get confusing is why Facebook is pursuing Questions and the Open Graph in parallel. There are plenty of other Q&A sites out there. Many of them are using the Open Graph protocol.

Questions from other sites could easily show up in Facebook search results. So, why build a whole new product if you could just suck in content from everyone else? Conversely, if you were going to spend the resources to build that product and create all that content, wouldn't you expose it to search engines so you could attract more users to Facebook? (Yes, that's still possible.)

Of course, Facebook might want just one more product that will keep people on Facebook. And the longer users are on the site, the more often they're clicking on ads and performing searches.

Articles are Second Class Open Graph Objects

Questions would be classified as an 'article' type in the Open Graph. Yet, articles seem like second class citizens in the Open Graph. Reports indicate that an object is not created for a page with og:type=article. This also means you can't administrate likes on article content. In other words, you can't publish to people who have liked an 'article' on your site or blog.

So, maybe Facebook is trying to create its own content instead of indexing what's already out there? Again, this seems contrary to the Open Graph concept. Yet, if you believe status updates are a form of content publishing, then perhaps Facebook believes they can be the ultimate content creator.

Facebook Questions SEO

Of course, sites are getting around the article prohibition. Answers.com is now populating the Open Graph with their content using the 'website' type.

Answers Using Website Open Graph Type

While Facebook frowns on this, it's the way smart search marketers are going to work the system.

Creator or Aggregator

The Open Graph would indicate that Facebook wants to be an aggregator, to suck more and more of the Internet into the walled garden, allowing their users to find Internet content on Facebook's terms - through the news feed and through Facebook search.

Questions would indicate that Facebook wants to be a creator, generating content as a way of keeping, attracting and engaging users. Though making them invisible to search engines takes attracting users out of the equation.

Which does Facebook want to be? Who knows, maybe both. But my money is on aggregator given the purchase of FriendFeed, promotion of Bret Taylor to CTO, advancements in type ahead search and roll out of the Open Graph.