Unlinking your feeds and the impermanence of Twitter

About a week I stumbled on this interesting manifesto by Tim Maly on why we should unlink our feeds. I recommend you read the full article, but the heart of the matter is that you’re making a terrible mess of things by sending your feeds from one social network to all the others. You do a disservice to people who are following you on one network (by making them see everything else on all your other networks) and you spoil the mood and general atmosphere that you’re dumping into.

While I agree with the theory in general, I can’t bring myself to go the whole nine yards and completely disconnect everything. A related article by Alexis Madrigal argues that the unlinking doesn’t work with Twitter. Twitter has no memory and Twitter is most useful when you have other meatier services (like a blog, website or even just Facebook) that give people a better idea of who you are. The author argues that Twitter’s relative impermanence means that it’s worth piping your Twitter stream into something more permanent. For my part however, I see things the other: I want Twitter to be my catch-all because it is impermanent.

The New Old Deal

Here’s the deal: I accept that cross-linking feeds leads to some amount of pollution and that’s not something I should be subjecting my friends too. My friends on Last.fm don’t care about how many billions of floating point calculations I’m running at the moment and the readers of this blog probably don’t care about my thoughts on modern instrumental music. But as Madrigal puts it, Twitter is different. I feel uncomfortable calling Twitter a social network. To me it’s  more like a broadcast service. You send out little snippets and anyone connected can read it. Of course you could have a private feed and carefully control your followers, but I feel like that’s just a holdover from email (where spam is a clear and present danger). Also, Twitter is not email. It takes far less overhead to skip something that you don’t care about and personally at least, I don’t feel the same pressing urgency for my Twitter inbox as I do for my email.

When someone follows me on my Twitter account, I want people to understand that they’re getting the whole deal. They are getting my 140-character updates (which make up the bulk of my stream) but they are also getting my regular tech-related articles as well my discoveries online. Tim Maly notes that time is precious and accounts are cheap and it seems that he was talking primarily about other peoples time. While that is true, my time is also precious and so is my mental overhead. As an example, I take myself.

Account Overload?

I could, right now, split my Twitter stream into at least three separate accounts: one for updates only, one for my blog and tumblelog and one for my Last.fm feed. Thanks to Twitterfeed, I can set things up automatically to post to whichever account I want. That’s all fine and dandy and I’m really tempted to do it. But what happens when I have a thought about music that isn’t engendered by Last.fm? Does it go into statuses, music or both? Do I really want to tell my close friends that they now have to follow me on three different accounts to get everything (not to mention the overhead of @-reply conversations that could easily start crossing accounts)? Should I have a fourth account that pulls everything in for those who want it? I’ll be the first to admit that my example is somewhat contrived and probably a worst case scenario, but it deserves some thought. I would rather have Twitter collect everything with a disclaimer that people might be getting more than they bargained for.

As for pulling out of Twitter to somewhere else, I’ll agree that’s just a bad idea. Twitter has grown it’s own syntax with @replies and hashtags and the like which really make no sense elsewhere. The only place that you should even consider piping Twitter to is your Facebook status. As a friend of mine said when he dabbled in Twitter briefly: “It was like setting my Facebook status, except that’s all I could do”. Point taken. Even then, it’s a good idea to sanitize your stream to remove all the Twitter-speak. I use the Tweeter application which gives you some good filtering abilities.

In conclusion

  • Cross-linking your social networks is a bad idea.
  • Except for Twitter. It makes a certain amount of sense to pipe your feeds to Twitter.
  • Exporting Twitter to elsewhere is also a bad idea, because of Twitter-speak, except maybe for your Facebook status, if properly sanitized.

As an addendum, if you do decide to use Twitter as your catch-all, I suggest you standardize on a solution. Many services give you the option of piping to Twitter from within the service yourself. That may be fine if you have one or two services and want your posts to appear immediately, but the overhead grows as the number of services grow (and each service has the options in a different place). I recommend using RSS as your glue and piping things through Twitterfeed. There will be a short delay, but I don’t think that will much of an issue for most people.

Getting social networks under control

Social networks. We all use them (to some extent) and there are a lot of them. I appreciate the services they provide and enjoy using them, but it can be hard to not spend too much time and energy micromanaging. For people who use just one social utility there isn’t much of a problem: everything that they do goes into that one environment. However, chances are you use more than one. It’s perfectly fine to keep them completely separated from each other and I’m sure that works for a lot of users. But I personally would like to provide a coherent image of myself across the sites that I do use. As I found out over the weekend, that’s not as simple as it sounds.

The Facebook Factor

Before I talk about how I actually went about trying my social networks, there are a  few things about the networks themselves that need to be said. First off, Facebook is the unstoppable juggernaut when it comes to social networks. I didn’t really think about this until I started out on my quest, but Facebook does (in a limited way) a lot of things which the other social networks individually focus on. Like most other people, you can use Facebook to keep in touch with friends and make new ones. You can post photos to Facebook albums. I haven’t heard any word on limits except being limited to 60 photos per album. There’s also the status line where you can broadcast what you’re doing to everyone who wants to listen. Conversely the newsfeed lets you keep track of everyone else. You can write notes and use them as a lightweight blog. Interesting links and videos you find around the web can also go on Facebook. And everything you do has a chance to become the basis of a longwinded, interactive discussion between your friends.

Facebook’s purpose as a social network is to essentially surround all the other social networking utilities. Posting a video on YouTube or saved an interesting link on Delicious? Put a link to it on Facebook. Wrote a blog post? Post a link to it or have it be automatically mirrored in your notes (learned this trick from a new friend of mine). Want to share photos of your hike with everyone who went with you? Put in a Facebook album, tag your friends and they’ll be automatically notified. No need to decide whether to use Flickr, Picasa, Zooomr or worry about how you’r going to let others know that their photos are up. If you need a place to discuss something, you can start a Facebook group and invite your friends rather than having to set up a mailing list or forum. Though Facebook does all these things decently well, it doesn’t do them quite as well as the other sites that are out there for specifically those purposes. And Facebook is definitely an ‘inside-out’ community: to use it well you need to have a network of friends first. On the other hand, if your goal is to reach out and find new people to connect with, you’re better off using another social site.

Facebook was my first problem. I tend to think of Facebook as a place for connecting with people I already know fairly well. It’s a good way to keep my friends updated on what I’m doing, especially if they aren’t using Twitter or Delicious or following my blog regularly. I really want Facebook to be part of my social network, but since it won’t be directly help me connect with new people, I want to use it passively as much as possible. To be fair, I suppose Facebook could probably be used for ‘reaching-out’ purposes, but I personally don’t want to do that since in my opinion there are better tools for that. Luckily for me, Facebook seems to understand it’s role as an aggregator of sorts: it makes it simple to integrate your blogs as notes and post your Delicious links and shared Google Reader feeds to the newsfeed. So even though most of online activities take place elsewhere, almost all of it is seamlessly mirrored on Facebook for all my friends to see and discuss.

A Network of Networks

The second part of the problem involves the many services that I use. The services that I use most frequently are Twitter, Delicious, this blog, Last.fm and Facebook (not necessarily in that order). I do have a Picasa account, but I mainly use that for sharing pictures with my parents and close family and so it’s not really part of my social net. For a while I really wanted to integrate all this together. The Ping.fm service let me do just that. I could post something to Ping.fm and it would be sent to Twitter and Facebook and any links would be saved to Delicious. Using Twitterfeed I could have blog updates routed to Ping.fm as well. This setup was worked pretty well and there was nothing wrong with the implementation itself. However, I found some flaws in working this way that involved the very concept of trying to pull everything together.

All the services I’ve named above are all very different. That’s probably part of the reason why Facebook only offers generic clones of them (for now at least). Twitter is good at communicating small snippets of information while my blog is for far more detailed writings (my posts are routinely over a thousand words). Using Delicious with Ping.fm allows me to quickly save anything from the web, but I also don’t fully utilize their tagging functionality which helps greatly when trying to find something later. By using Ping.fm to quickly post to everything, I was losing out on the focused functionality that each of them offered.

I found myself faced with a classic dilemma: I wanted people who ‘followed’ me to able to see everything that I did socially, but I also wanted to be able to use the individual social services to their full potential. I found the answer (to some extent) in the form of Friendfeed. It’s an aggregator for all your social content, not entirely unlike the role that Facebook fills. Friendfeed gathers all your activity from as many as 58 service and provides a single unified feed that people can follow and interact with. My Friendfeed collects information from all the services I listed above as well as Google Reader’s shared feeds. In an ideal world, everyone would see my Friendfeed and interact mainly via comments on that (or on the original sources).

However, it’s not an ideal world. In particular, most people I know (and who know me) don’t actually use Friendfeed (unfortunately). To get around the fact that not everyone is going to see the collected feed that I present, the most reasonable solution is to maintain a careful amount of redundancy. I say careful because if I were to simply link everything to everything, not only would people be seeing the same thing many times over, I could also potentially set up infinite loops with messages being propagated from service to service and back ad infinitum. My first step in this careful redundancy setup is to keep Facebook separate. I use its own native integration features to pull information from the other services, but nothing pulls from Facebook. I generate very little original content on Facebook and so it’s mainly just for collection and discussion.

The second step is to take into account the distinctions between the services and use them accordingly. For example, Twitter is used for status updates so it gets used the most. Delicious is used for saving stuff from the web. Previously I had everything that I saved in Delicious appear on Twitter as well (via Ping.fm), but I’ve come to realize that I save a fair of stuff for my research work which I don’t think everyone wants to know. By separating the services, I can only post things which I think people will find interesting to Twitter. I can also use Twitter to elicit responses and feedback from followers while I use Delicious more for classification. I’m also considering moving to Diigo, but that’s a subject for another post. My blog also gets mirrored to Twitter via Twitterfeed because I think that’s an important part of what I want people to know about. Of course, if you are following me on Friendfeed, you will see all my bookmarks and some duplicates. That’s something I’m still working to solve, I’m not comfortable with having my followers see the same things multiple times.

The third and final piece of the puzzle involves Twitter. Though I use it mainly to send out updates to my followers, it also becomes a medium for discussion with people retweeting and replying to what I’ve said. Unfortunately the native Twitter interface isn’t the best for managing a multi-way communication stream and I’ve found that I can miss out on a lot if I don’t pay careful attention. Luckily there are a number of Twitter clients out there that do a good job of managing your Twitter traffic for you. The one I currently use is TweetDeck which provides a nice multi-panel layout for seeing general tweets, replies, mentions of your name and direct messages side by side.

In conclusion, the problem of managing your social networks is still a tricky one to solve and requires some careful thought to get right. Even then, it’s still not a perfect solution by any means (especially if your friends aren’t on the same networks). As time progresses, it’ll be interesting to see how social networks evolve. Facebook in particular is looking to place itself as the center of the social web. Personally I’m not a big fan of having Facebook be the center of everything, but it could have it’s benefits. But for the time being, Facebook does have serious competitors each with their own strengths and there are some things (like this blog) that I would prefer to happen outside any single social network.

Opera Unite won’t really change the web

Today Opera announced the release of their new ‘Unite’ product. The basic concept behind Unite is something that has been around ever since the beginning of the internet: users aren’t just consumers, but producers as well. Unite will turn your browser into a mini server allowing you to connect to other people and share things directly from your computer. It sounds like a good idea, but the implementation is not something that I find very comfortable with.

The idea

Don’t get me wrong, I think the idea is a great one. Being able to share your own material without having to depend on a third party and risk them stealing your stuff (or just locking it up) is a great boon. It would be wonderful if we all just had our own private servers, keyed to our personal identities in some uniquely identifiable way and exert total control over what we put online. However, the truth is that the implementation details of doing something like are very complicated,

For example, if we all started directly publishing our own content, we’d all need massive bandwidth connections and have to pay for them. We’d need to install hardware and software and keep it all up-to-date. We’d need to deal with all the potential security issues related to allowing other people to access our computers. It would also be difficult to maintain any sense of uniformity across the web. Sure, we could agree to some common protocol, but that protocol would have to be set in stone because it’s going to be very hard to get millions of people around the world to all update to a new protocol. The idea is a very good and powerful one, but it’s useless without proper implementation.

The implementation

That being said, I think Opera has done a lot to alleviate some of these problems. In particular, Unite is easy enough for just about anyone to use. They’ve taken a large part of the maintenance headaches out of the equation, at least for the software component. They also seem to have found a way around the issue of keeping everyone on the same page and playing by the same rules: producers use Opera’s custom system, but consumers can use a plain web browser. But while this strategy means that it’s easy for users to start becoming producers, it also means that people will be locked into using Opera’s product and account system. It’s this part of the bargain that I find somewhat uncomfortable with.

Unite requires an Opera account

Unite requires an Opera account

It seems to me that Opera may have solved one problem by replacing it with another one. It’s now easy for anyone to distribute their content from their own computers, as long as they buy into Opera’s system. I don’t use buy in the monetary sense of the term, but in the ‘free as in freedom’ sense. Opera claims that unite will allow “sharing data and services without the need for any third-party Web sites/applications to be involved at all”. Problem is, Opera is the third party. Sure my content is still physically on my own computer, but Opera is the gatekeeper. I feel that’s even less of a deal than uploading my data to Facebook or YouTube. Not only do I now have to pay for all the bandwidth and space I use, I also have to play on Opera’s terms. I don’t see much of a bargain in that. Perhaps I would if I was really more concerned about people ‘stealing my content’, but I honestly think that you shouldn’t put stuff on the Internet if you don’t want people to share it and spread it around.

Unite isn’t for me, is it for you?

Opera Unite is really quite an interesting piece of technology. It’s one of those ideas that no one really thinks of, but once you hear about it either seems ridiculous or very obvious. It’s a great idea to let users directly share their own content, but I’m confused as to who Opera is targeting here. Let’s start with the fact that Opera’s market share is really quite tiny. Using Unite means that people have to go and download yet another browser. Secondly, how many people will really want to pay for the bandwidth prices that they need to in order to really share their own media? Third, even if you do start using it, you’ll need to have your computer on all the time and connected, something that’s not an option for people on the move with laptops or netbooks. Finally, the market of people who will actually use this seems rather small to me. If you’re really interested in becoming an internet content producer, you’re going to want your domain name, be always on and outsource the technical details to people with more reliable services. If you’re the average internet user who just wants to share your photos with your friends, chances are you’re already on Facebook or MySpace and it works good enough. And if you’re savvy enough to be worried about people stealing your content, you know your way around the web and probably have your own server in the basement already.

I feel that Unite is one of those things that unfortunately just missed the proper timing window. Had Opera released this before social networks and YouTube made media sharing easy, they might have had a fighting chance to make something out of it. But with Facebook and the likes deeply entrenched and sharing tools like Google Wave promising a more open model for those who care, Opera seems to be outmatched and outgunned.

Feel free to use the comments to disagree with me.