From the category archives:

Social media

Mid-set in the Indie Chill/Acoustic room at Turntable.fm

Like many others around the web I’m captivated by Turntable.fm, the new online music sharing service. I’ve just been exploring for the past 24 hours, but here are some random observations on the user experience:

  • It blends some of the key digital trends of today, social+gamification+music, and it’s a powerful combination. The Facebook integration is a great touch.
  • It’s a reminder of how ‘social’ music is. Music is inherently something we want to share and discover, and the chat box offers the opportunity to talk with others and make new connections. This validates Mark Zuckerburg’s predictions that music, movies and TV going are primed to go social.
  • The game mechanics really help to drive interaction. You’re encouraged to participate, share and provide good music, which makes the service for others even better.
  • It’s sharing in real-time. Live interaction is turning out to be yet another killer app of digital media – I’m currently organising a digital breakfast for the APA on this very theme. Turntable.fm makes legacy platforms for social media sharing seem, well, slow.
  • The tools and features aren’t obvious at first. I spent my first hour asking other users how things work. But once you get it, it’s easy to remember and that’s vital for usability. The controls are memorable because the service creates a good match between the system and the real world – which is one of Nielsen’s 10 usability heuristics. The video below provides a good overview of how Turntable.fm works for newbies.

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Nq1NgohicaI[/youtube]

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Instapaper 3.0 has a wide range of support from iPhone and iPad apps.

Since I last outlined my information workflow back in January 2010 things hadn’t changed much during the past 12 months.

But with the launch of Instapaper 3.0 I’ve finally been moved to ditch Read it Later and adopt Instapaper as my main tool for saving articles to read at a more convenient time.

Why? These reasons:

This also coincides with my recent switch from Delicious to Pinboard as my cloud bookmarking service of choice.

This was partly because of the news that Delicious might be closed down or sold, itself a result of woeful underinvestment by current owners Yahoo.

But once I discovered Pinboard as an alternative (thanks to @chrisphin) I found the slicker integration with other content sharing services and social platforms made it a no-brainer.

For example, you can set Pinboard to automatically bookmark links that you tweet, articles that you share on Google Reader, and posts you save on Read it Later and Instapaper, among others. This kind of integration between sharing and discovery services is a beautiful thing and makes organising the world’s information sooo much easier.

So two lessons learned:

  • A ‘social layer’ always makes things better
  • Opening up your platform and integrating with other apps and services around the web is a great strategy

I would love to hear about your information workflows online, with these services or any others, so please feel free to leave thoughts or observations in the comments.

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Traditional digital publishing wisdom has it that content frequency and volume are the keys to success online. A recently leaked content strategy document from AOL is based on this strategy, which is principally aimed at capitalising on search engine traffic by flooding Google’s index with keyword-rich content.

But a study by Yuri Lifshit for Yahoo Labs (see video below) shows that the opposite is true if you want to engage an audience. By analysing Facebook ‘likes’ on stories across 45 top content sites, Yuri has shown that it is the top stories that attract the majority of user activity.

According to this data the Guardian, NPR and Yahoo News can get half of their total engagement (as measured by Facebook likes) by publishing just one story per day. Data across all the publishers shows that one big story can capture 70-80% of your audience reactions in various ways. That’s a remarkable statistic.

This would suggest that successful social media optimization is about producing fewer stories, but spending longer on those stories to ensure that they are genuinely engaging.

According to the study, the majority of articles that create the highest engagement are opinion-based pieces.

This is in contrast with search engine optimization which is about producing as much content as possible in ever shorter time frames.

Are these two strategies mutually exclusive, or is there a way of combining the best of both approaches?

Read more analysis here from Nieman Journalism Lab’s lessons of the Like Log.

See the video below for an overview of the study.

The Like Log Study from Yury Lifshits on Vimeo.

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We’ve seen this coming for some time. The traditional search algorithms, based on keywords and hyperlinks, are finally feeling the strain. Users are complaining of more ‘junk’ content in their search results, and more and more of us are getting the feeling that, whisper it, search sucks.

Why?

Because the search system pioneered by Google to sort the good stuff from the bad is open to abuse and manipulation. Black hat SEOs are getting better at keeping pace with Google’s algorithm changes, leading to defensive moves like Google’s recent attack on content farms.

The search landscape is looking more and more like a game of whack-a-mole, as Jeff Jarvis puts it: Google furiously adapts its algorithm to catch out the bad guys, the bad guys adopt new ways to counter them, and so it goes on.

Social is the new search

Search was the easiest and best way to organise the world’s information during the entire decade of the noughties. But there’s fast approaching a new paradigm, and many believe that the time has come for social to become the new search.

Facebook is the clear challenger here, largely because it has huge scale (600 million users and counting) plus, crucially, it’s built on users’ real identity.

Users of Facebook interact on the web with their real names, provide the platform with their real interests, and form real social connections with other users. This means that in all online interactions they are heavily incentivised to be genuine, honest, civil and useful to their friends and peers.

So links to content and other forms of recommendation on Facebook are much more likely to be trusted by other Facebook users. Social filtering has a real opportunity to be the new way we find content that we trust. Like is the new link.

Compared to the impersonal hyperlink-driven search engines, the social linking system is built on a framework that makes it much more difficult to spam.

Not only that but it looks like the economics of social advertising could challenge Google too. Recent feedback suggests that Facebook ads are doing a better job of getting brands in front of their target market than Google ads.

Of course this change is still in its early stages. Google has seen this coming for some time and has been busy ramping up the social elements of its search algorithm. And we’ve yet to see the Google Me social initiative that the search giant is rumoured to be working on.

But changes in the digital landscape have a habit of happening faster than we can predict. 2011 could well be the year we look back on as the radical turning point in how we discover and find information.

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The past couple of months I  (like many others) have found two new social media services to play with: Quora, a social question-and-answer platform, and Instagram, a social photo-sharing application. It’s early days for both, but I’m already seeing some interesting lessons being learned from these two new entrants to the social space.

Okay, it’s unfair to pit Quora against Instagram, they’re two totally different services. But they are both social platforms, and they do both compete for our attention in a time when attention is becoming increasingly scarce.

So my view so far: Instagram is working, Quora isn’t. Here’s why.

It’s all about simplicity

In a recent blog post, Om Malik offers three things that a hit consumer internet service needs to be a success:

  • Have a clear purpose
  • Be simple to use
  • Be fun to use

I agree, but if we really want to boil it down, success relies on just one of those things: simplicity.

With the abundance of information reaching unprecedented levels, any social offering will need to be increasingly simple. That means simplicity across the whole spectrum, from the proposition to the user interface; easy to understand, easy to learn, easy to use, easy to share and easy to fit into your life.

As a user experience designer I’ve adopted ‘simplicity’ as something of a mantra. Giles Colborne, Managing Director of cxparnters, has written an excellent book on interaction design called Simple and Usable, which provides many great examples of ‘compelling simplicity’.  (As an aside I’m looking forward to Giles bringing these thoughts to bear in his presentation on Publishing on the iPad at the next Digital Breakfast that I’ve been organising with the APA).

So it’s on the principle of simplicity that I judge new services like Quora and Instagram.

Simplifying the user experience

Let’s start with Quora. It’s s a straightforward proposition – ask questions and provide answers to people in your social graph. But the experience itself is more complicated. I find myself wondering: who should I be following? How can I be sure that the answers are valid? How can I filter out the noise? And how can I get real value from this service with minimum effort?

There are voting mechanisms and other pieces in place to ensure that Quora answers some of these issues, but for me it’s still not entirely ‘flowing’ and simplicity is compromised. And it’s not just me – even early advocate Robert Scoble is having his doubts.

Instagram on the other hand is a joyfully simple experience. Once you’ve loaded the app on your iPhone the rest becomes second nature. Take pictures, ‘treat’ them with easy to use filters, then share them with others. Ratings and comments are a bonus and they don’t add complexity.

Of course the photo sharing proposition is not a new one – we’ve been able to share pictures on Flickr, Facebook, Twitter and many other social platforms for a long time now.

But there’s something about the distillation of the photo sharing experience on Instagram that makes it so compelling. It’s a classic case of ‘less is more’. The noise I’ve experienced on other social platforms here becomes not only bearable but inspirational. The more great pictures I see the more I’m inspired to create my own.

And that’s the point – Instagram is an inherently creative experience, arguably the best social creativity tool yet created.

What’s remarkable is that Instagram has been hugely successful despite shortfalls in other areas, such as its poor website and iPhone-only application (see ReadWriteWeb’s post 7 reasons why Instagram should not have hit 1 million users in 10 weeks). Or maybe that’s part of its strength – the creators have focused entirely on creating a compellingly simple user experience, and the rest is just gravy.

There are other lessons in the Instagram success too, principally around agile methodology and small team development – see Robert Scoble’s excellent post on Why Google can’t build Instagram.

Of course none of this guarantees it long term success. Many other factors come into play for that to be assured. But right now it provides a stark example of how, when designing for the user experience, simplicity wins.

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Flipboard screen shot

Flipboard offers a content-focused view of social media

Everyone’s talking about Flipboard, the magazine/social media hybrid for the iPad. It looks like this really could point the way forward for consumption of social media, and also be the iPad’s first real killer application.

For me the real story is that it flips (sorry) the social media thing on its head, from a view that’s focused on the people in your network into a view that prioritises the content that those people produce or link to.

That’s a big deal.

Why? Because that’s what social media is all about. Most of the time we’re interested in what the people we connect to have to say, and the content around the web that they recommend.

In other words, the use case for social media is not ‘I wonder what my friends are doing today’ but ‘I wonder what my social graph has got for me to look at’. In this scenario content comes first, not the content creator.

This might seem counter-intuitive in the  social media environment, which is driven by connections. But think about it – your Facebook and Twitter accounts are actually forms of information and entertainment (I need to credit my friend Matt Woods for that insight).

If your close friends really need to communicate with you there are better ways – phone calls and face-to-face being the most obvious. With social media we get a chance to hear what people are thinking, feeling, liking and hating. And that’s content.

The reason that social media is so effective is that some of that content is personally relevant in ways that mass media can’t be, such as your work colleague’s new baby pictures, or news of a friend’s holiday. Plus the media content that’s shared comes with personal endorsement and recommendations from people you trust, ie your network and social graph.

Flipboard takes your uniform stream of Twitter tweets and Facebook updates and applies traditional media hierarchies, prioritising stories that have high engagement and making it easier to see the important stories.

This is particularly useful in Twitter, where shortlink URLs to content  make it unclear where you’re likely to end up. Twitter has for so long been useful and innovative that we’ve got used to overlooking some of its most obvious user experience problems. Flipboard fixes many of them in one fell swoop.

There are still problems with Flipboard – the algorithms need to improve and display problems create niggles – but it’s clear that this is a game-changer.

And this is just the start. Soon we’ll look back on the way we consumed social media and wonder how we coped pre-Flipboard.

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‘Society is held together by communication and information.’ So said Samuel Johnson back in the 18th Century.

Here in the 21st Century Johnson’s words are even more apt. New online social media tools like Twitter, Facebook and Friendfeed are merging information and communication through simple and easy-to-use interfaces.

Communication: Through Twitter and Facebook you can converse with other users quickly and easily through walls, news feeds, @replies and direct messages. Users have embraced the ‘less is more’ ethos and found that brevity aids communication. Recent research suggests that tools like Twitter and Facebook are now more popular than email as a means of communication.

Information: Social media provides users with instantaneous information about what’s going on in the world, indeed quicker than through any other medium. No wonder many people who previously used news websites, RSS feed readers and other content aggregators to track information online are now often using just Twitter instead. This has been given even more traction through the emerging power of real-time search.

But how are we to cope with the massive increase in information and communication?  Back in May 2008 ReadWriteWeb complained of too many choices and too much content – a year later and the situation’s worse than ever.

The past few months have seen Twitter’s traffic take-off but already we’re seeing complaints of Twitter fatigue.

We are experiencing the white heat of change in communication and information, and it’s not just technology but society itself that is changing. Just as Samuel Johnson would have predicted back in the 1770s.

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Some reactions to the new version of Facebook, March 2009.

Some reactions to the new version of Facebook, March 2009.

Things aren’t looking good for Facebook right now. The new changes have had some pretty fierce negative reactions. Take a look at the comments on the Facebook blog for a sampling of the current mood amongst Facebook users.

Of course negative comments to change are often far from being representative. Whenever a social platform makes significant changes it always kicks off a wave of negative reaction, and then usually settles down into calm acceptance. This was certainly the case with the last Facebook update in 2008.

However, this time it’s different. As many commentators have noticed, these changes are pretty obviously a response to Twitter’s recent phenomenal growth. This is the first time we’ve seen Facebook on the defensive, the first time that Facebook has been reactive rather than proactive. And that’s not a good sign.

Facebook still has a huge edge over Twitter – some estimates suggest over 120 million users worldwide. No-one knows Twitter’s global audience yet, but with 7 million in the US it’s likely to be less than 10 million globally.

Nevertheless Twitter is growing fast, and the balance of power has a habit of changing rapidly in the social networking space. As Steve Rubel has pointed out, historically only a few community sites have had any staying power.

Whether this is the beginning of the end for Facebook is too early to say, but we can be sure that the social networking space is going to look very different at the end of 2009 to how it did at the start.

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We’re not yet a quarter of the way into 2009 but already it’s clear that, if 2008 was Facebook‘s year, 2009 is Twitter‘s.

In January 2009 Twitter saw a 10-fold traffic increase in the UK over the previous year, and this was before Jonathan Ross announced it on his Friday night show and Phillip Schofield talked about it on GMTV.

In the US the social media phenomenon has just hit the mainstream, as Jon Stewart’s piece on the Daily Show demonstrates (see video below) and the same is happening here in the UK.

Given that Twitter users are also Facebook users, could this be the start of a move away from Facebook?

Facebook still has a vast lead in terms of unique users and continues to grow rapidly. But look back to over a year ago and the same was being said of MySpace, the previous leader.

It’s clear that, despite high engagement, loyalty is fragile in the social networking space.

Nevertheless, I don’t think Twitter will disrupt Facebook’s position, as they both fulfil different social functions.

Facebook is about personal identity, a place where friends can share photographs and videos and keep in touch with each other’s lives.

Twitter is more of a micro-blogging tool and virtual water cooler.

Not that Facebook isn’t responding dramatically. Despite last year’s failed takeover of Twitter, Facebook is continuing to pursue aggressive growth, and the new real-time format that it’s launching right now has more than a whiff of Twitter-style functionality about it.

Finally it’s worth noting that the continual adoption of new social tools can’t go on indefinitely. I currently manage a range of online social tools for various aspects of my life, and while they all have their uses it’s getting close to the limit for me. It’s getting to the point where I’d have to ditch one to adopt another.

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