Hauling bits around

I’ve probably known Bob Frankston for far too long. Actually I don’t think that’s possible; along with Dan Bricklin, he has been a fantastic foil, sounding board and mentor over the years. My trips to Boston would not be the same without my meetings with the two of them.


This particular post, however, is heavily influenced by discussions I’ve had with Bob, who is the only man I know completely capable of interrupting himself, and doing so with panache and flair.

Of late I’ve been having some interesting experiences with Twitter, particularly in the context of being able to acquire things remotely and getting them sent to me.

First off, some weeks ago, I was trying to source a hard-to-get CD. I have this strange fondness for Canadian folk/rock, the consequence of growing up at a time (early 1970s) and a place (Calcutta) when Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, Gordon Lightfoot, Leonard Cohen and The Band were part of every respectable music listener’s staple diet.

With that sort of upbringing, when I read about a new star on the horizon, Taylor Mitchell, I planned to listen to her. After hearing a couple of songs on her MySpace site, I tried to buy her album, but it was not available online anywhere. Then I found out, only a few days later, that she’d died, in very tragic circumstances.[Please do consider contributing to her memorial fund, which you can do here.]


Now I was even more determined to acquire her CD and listen to it, my own way of paying homage to her undoubted talent. But I was in Windsor, UK and the only shops that sold it were in College St in Toronto. So I tweeted it. Were any of my Twitter friends in Toronto that day? Were they prepared to do me a big favour and sacrifice time and effort to get me the CD?

Yes. Unbelievable, but it happened. Someone I only knew via Twitter, a New York resident, was in Toronto that day, saw my tweet, went to the shop, bought the last copy. And managed to get it to someone else who worked 100 yards from me in London.

More recently, some weeks ago, I was thinking and praying about my godson Noah. I was going to see him just before Christmas, and I wanted to get him something special. I’d already spoken to his mother, and I knew that he was in a creative Lego mood. But which kit? And what could I do to make it memorable and different?

The answer came serendipitously. I was scheduled to have dinner with Cory Doctorow and his wife Alice, and I was idly catching up on his Boing Boing writings while waiting for them at Saf last week. [Excellent company, excellent restaurant]. And then I saw this:


So I read the story. And I knew I’d found the perfect present. But could I get it anywhere online? Nope. Only available bricks and mortar in Japan.

I tried for a few days, and then yesterday I tweeted my need. Anyone in Japan right now and likely to get back to the UK before 17th December and willing to acquire the Muji-LEGO mashup? Answer came there one. And wonderfully, magically, the present is now winging its way to me.

These are just instances. What really matters is the emerging business models. how people are innovating in this space. Over the last fortnight or so I’ve learnt about a couple of examples:

Lug-it, a cloud-based physical haulage system: “a P2P package delivery system on top of your extended social network”


SendSocial, which promises to let you “send anything, anywhere, without an address”.

logoWhich brings me all the way back to Bob Frankston and the reason for this post. Bob’s always drilled into my head the concept that the addresses and numbers we use should never be considered routing; instead, I should consider such things to be nothing more than hints, clues as to the best way to get something to someone. Reading about SendSocial reminded me about his dicta, with their focus on getting things from person to person without an address.

Similarly, seeing what the people at lug-it were doing also filled me with glee. There was something so tellingly small-world-experiment about it, something intrinsically valuable about social networks and their P2P characteristics.

So now I have cause to think. About what this means for social networks. About what this means for digital communications.

And I have cause to celebrate. About the beauty and simplicity of the ideas that are blossoming in this space. Lug-it, SendSocial, I hope you succeed.

Thinking about Twitter and addas

I’ve been on a couple of transatlantic flights since Thursday, and to the West Coast at that; so I had a lot of time to think. And one of the things I spent some time thinking about was Twitter.

As I’ve grown older, I’ve picked up my fair share of idiosyncrasies. The most recent one is a doozy. Whenever I think about something, I preface it with a question. How would I explain it to my 10-year old daughter?

So when it came to the question What is Twitter, I decided I would try and explain it with a photograph. Or two.

I think Ayan Khasnabis has captured what Twitter is really about. Friends together. Having a chat. Some speaking, some listening. Easy, companionable, familiar. Open and relaxed. Meandering from subject to subject. Accessible to all.

Everything else is secondary.

Finding the sea of green: More on Twitter is My Submarine

In the town where I was born,
Lived a man who sailed to sea,
And he told us of his life,
In the land of submarines,

So we sailed on to the sun,
Till we found the sea of green,
And we lived beneath the waves,
In our yellow submarine,

We all live in a yellow submarine,
yellow submarine, yellow submarine,
We all live in a yellow submarine,
yellow submarine, yellow submarine.

And our friends are all aboard,
Many more of them live next door,
And the band begins to play.

Yellow Submarine (Lennon/McCartney) The Beatles, 1966

Yesterday I spent some time talking about how I viewed Twitter now, having used it for a while. Today I thought I’d follow up with a brief explanation on how Twitter is my Submarine changes the way I treat Twitter.

As my last post details,  I view Twitterland as my personal ocean, and Twitter itself as my personal submarine and periscope. Once I understood this, it wasn’t long before I understood a few things:

1. In Twitterland, I am in control of the pollution that enters my personal ocean. I choose the tributaries that make the rivers of information that go into my own ocean. I can turn the tributaries on and off. That made me think of what I would consider polluting habits. Twitterland has many Polluting Habits.

My first change of behaviour, therefore, was to start looking at everything I did in Twitter from the viewpoint of pollution of personal oceans, I wanted to identify the polluting habits.

2. The first one is Industrial Pollution, where my personal ocean gets filled up with other people’s automated tweets, the expulsion of particulate contaminants into my personal water. You know something? I like automated tweets, the way they take human latency out of the process, the way they tend to come error free and context rich. But you know something else? I want to choose whose automated tweets I get; more importantly, I want to choose which particular themes the automated tweets are about. Today I get one person saying “I am here.” “Now I am here.” “Now I have moved and I am here”. A second person is signalling “I’m live, come talk to me” as if they’re some seedy chat line. A third is into “I’m playing this piece of music now”. And this one. And this one. The issue is not the content as much as the frequency of publishing. One day I will have the tools to say “Please turn off tweeter A’s music tweets, tweeter B’s food tweets, tweeter C’s location signalling; they’re all very nice people, they’re my friends, but the reason they’re my friends is that we aren’t alike in all our tastes!”. But until that day arrives, I need to let my friends know that a little tweet sensitivity will go a long way towards helping keep many of our personal oceans clean.

My second change of behaviour was to choose to avoid all automated tweets; instead, I signalled my movement to a higher-tweet-frequency place such as blip.fm or last.fm, and then tweeted the odd sample or two, not the whole session.

3. The next source of pollution was the introduction of Waste Products into my personal ocean. This was where people I followed kept up high levels of shameless self-plugging and personal advertising, making my ocean uncecessarily bigger. I said Hey (Hey) You (You) Get off of My Ocean.

My response was to unfollow the people, in the hope that anything useful they said would be retweeted by someone else. Waste Producers tend to have large numbers of followers, so it’s not difficult to find someone who will filter their waste for you.

4. The final source of pollution was people who Shone Light into My Darkroom. Shining lights is a Good Thing. Except in darkrooms, especially when you’re a photographer. I found that Twitter was not just a place I went to in order to find things out, it was also a place I went to in the hope that there were things I would *not* find out. I expected people who understood about “spoiling” and how to avoid it.

My response was to be very careful about spoilers, to make sure I was considerate to others when tweeting.

And you know something? That about sums it up. Twitter is a collaborative space, where many personal oceans overlap. We have to learn to be considerate to each other in that collaborative space.

There’s another big subject I want to write about, the role of Twitter in Knowledge Management, but that’s not for today. I’m done for today. Views and comments welcome as usual.

[Incidentally, I have not been able to find the person who took the wonderful photograph above, I found it on the web without any accreditation for me to use and thank….help please].

Thinking about Twitter: a submarine in the ocean of the Web

I like Twitter, particularly because of its publish-subscribe nature. A few weeks ago, I described Twitter as:

a newspaper. a bulletin board. a club. an “adda”. a telephone network.

Twitter is all these things. It brings me the news. It is a place where people publish notices. It’s a place where I meet my friends, and where we talk to each other. It is many things to many people. But. And it is a humdinger of a but. It’s a lot more than that.

To me, Twitter is fast becoming my personal submarine and periscope to the ocean of the World Wide Web, the personal areas I want to go to defined by my relationships to people and ideas. It doesn’t mean that I don’t use the rest of the web:  Twitter is an adjunct to the web, a very important adjunct, but an adjunct nevertheless. The way I use Twitter teaches me something, something about the way things may be going. Let me explain what I mean.

  1. Twitter is my feed aggregator. One of the ways I interact with the web is through RSS, and over the years I’ve tried to find better and better ways to filter the firehose. Inspecting blogrolls. Shared OPMLs. You name it. I’ve used a number of different aggregators, now I use Twitter as a pseudo-aggregator.
  2. Twitter is my attention enhancer. One of the ways I interact with the web is through collaborative filtering and voting, some way of getting the right stories to the surface, stories from people I don’t know, stories about people I don’t know. Again, over the years, I’ve tried to find better and better ways to let other people filter the firehose for me, using tools ranging from StumbleUpon to Digg and a whole lot in between. Now I use Twitter to surface the stories that matter, particularly with the growth of retweeting.
  3. Twitter is my bookmarking service. One of the ways I interact with the web is through the use of bookmarking services, some way of identifying stories I want to get back to later. The use of tags has helped in this regard, particularly when combined with search engines. The ability to save bookmarks at browser level has also helped, but caused its own problems for a while, when the bookmarks used to be locked into the specific machine. Now those problems have been solved with bookmarking services, but I find I’ve tended more and more to discover the stories via Twitter. So now I “favourite” the tweet instead.
  4. Twitter is my emergent searchable web and engine. One of the ways I interact with the web is through the use of search engines, particularly Google. So to some extent I am reliant on how sites and pages are tagged, spidered, indexed. But now something else is happening. Instead of metatags embedded in sites, I have tweets. 140 characters of description written by someone, 140 characters of freeform searchable text available via Twitter Search (I still think of it as Summize, I’m old that way). So when I look for something, one of the places I go to first is Twitter Search.

There are also many things Twitter is not, and these are also important to note.

Ads: I enjoy the fact that it is ad-free; the way I look at it, if it becomes ad-full then someone else will build something that is ad-free. Because one of the reasons I like Twitter is its ad-free-ness. It’s important to me. And I would probably stop using it overnight if that changed.

E-commerce: Twitter is not where I go to in order to buy and sell things. I have the whole of the web for that. Twitter is a personalised place, a private place, a segment of the web where I am in conversation with my friends. No place for multi-level-marketing, no place for people to Makoff with my money (assuming, of course, that the past tense of Makoff is Madoff).

Stories: the Web is the library where my stories are located, stories cast in video and audio and text. Twitter is the catalogue for my personal interests, defined in two ways: my personal profiles and preferences, along with the ambient influences of my friends and associates. I was particularly taken with the description of Twitter in Clay Spinuzzi’s blog recently, where he spoke about Twitter as a means of assessing ambient status. I had the opportunity of meeting Clay in Austin over the summer (we take our summer vacation every year in Austin, I love that city); he is a very clever man with some real insights into the way human networks work.

Twitter is not a replacement for the web, nor will it ever be. Its publish-subscribe nature helps us have capillary conversations, (aso written about here and here) and this is very important. The tweet, the @friend message and the DM replicate human conversation more realistically than many prior forms of communication, that and the pub-sub nature gives its capillarity. The ability to compress context via snurls and bit.lys and tinyurls is not intrinsically part of Twitter, but I see it more used in Twitter than anywhere else. The asymmetric follow helps us improve our capacity to sense ambient status, which also helps us in many ways.

When you come down to it, a social network offers you six things.

  • A directory of people, a subset of which you know.
  • Some way of grouping or classifying those people in overlapping subsets of group or network or interest or whatever.
  • A way of communicating with those people, two-way, multi-way, broadcast.
  • A way of scheduling events where you meet those people.
  • A way of sharing status across a whole slew of things.
  • A way of keeping track of changes to all those things.

Early telephones came with directories, gave you opportunities to group and classify, let you communicate. Event scheduling and ambient status sharing were absent, as was the ability to share information about change.

The ability to connect directories with scheduling became available in early office productivity environments like PROFS or CEO, and reached critical mass with Microsoft Office, Outlook and Exchange.

Ambient status sharing became possible when “chat” and IM became popular, and Bloomberg, ostensibly accidentally, saw the value of connecting communities with chat facilities.

We had to wait till Facebook came along before someone saw the value of alerting the community to changes in each of these areas: joining or leaving the directory; forming or re-forming relationships and groupings; adding or subtracting ways of communicating; signalling attendance or non-attendance at events and meetings; sharing status. So the News Feed came along.

Twitter is a news feed, but with a difference. With many differences. Which is why I think of it as a submarine with a periscope.

And I think one of the most important things about Twitter is its size. There are 140 good reasons to like Twitter. Which makes it a submarine, fast, fleet, agile.

Of followers and followees and friends

Take a look at this study in the latest First Monday, on Twitter Under the Microscope. What it does is associate each Twitter user with three types of people: “followers” (people who “follow” the person), “followees” (people followed by the person, the declared friends) and “friends” (people who have received at least two @ messages from the person, the “hidden” friends).

Huberman et al come to a finding that’s not surprising: the driver of usage is a sparse and hidden network of connections underlying the “declared” set of friends and followers.

This by itself is not surprising: as the authors point out, every community, every social network, evinces a similar pattern. We send e-mail regularly to a very small portion of our address book; we call a very small portion of our mobile contacts; we reach out to a very small portion of our Facebook “friends”. This sort of behaviour is true even in other communities; for example, there are a number of opensource projects that behave similarly.

So why should Twitter be any different?

Let’s take a look at this diagram:

This would suggest that as the number of friends increases, there is apparently no loss in reciprocity. Yet, when you look at this diagram, there is a suggestion that the number of friends is constrained in Dunbar-like manner:

I’ve tended to believe that if anything, social software would help raise the Dunbar number. The studies above suggest this is not the case. But I’m still holding on to my hunch.

Why? Because I think we live in an age where there something wonderful happening, something that just has to affect the Dunbar number, something that is accentuated by social software.

Most people would agree that the development of language as a means of communication affected the Dunbar number, raised the Dunbar number.

Most people would agree that the evolution of language from oral to written cultures had a significant and positive effect on the number.

It is not difficult to make a case that there was further improvement when writing turned to printing (with an intermediate growth phase as scripts becames codices).

It is reasonable to suggest that when we got the world’s biggest copy machine (as Kevin Kelly called the internet) we would see another shift.

I think there is one more shift of significance. The ability to search and retrieve communications cheaply and quickly. Something that has just started happening.