Freewheeling about social media

This post is about Twitter, and yet it’s not. I’m trying to deal with a bigger issue.

First, do take a look at these two posts: Phillie Casablanca’s Ten Commandments and Paul Downey’s Twit or Twerp? Both are excellent; I have the privilege of working with both these guys, and I’m delighted that we have people who really try and understand what’s happening with social media.

While the discussions in the post are primarily about Twitter, I think the issues they discuss extend further. It’s worth looking at three aspects of any such discussions:

1. Prescription. Phil talks about his discomfort with the word “commandment”, and how he looked at using “etiquette requests”, but felt that it didn’t have the requisite ring or zing. We need to be careful in positioning any of these statements as guidelines rather than diktats. There are many people using Twitter who wouldn’t necessarily have the faintest idea what IRC was, and wouldn’t know a microformat if it hit them in the face; this doesn’t make them bad or stupid. In fact one of the biggest attractions of contemporary social media is the lowering of historical barriers, and we have to make sure that we, collectively, concentrate on providing advice and assistance and best practice rather than prescription or diktat. We need to be heading towards a place where we can say “If you want to get the best value out of Twitter, and if you want to make it easy for others to obtain value from Twitter, then you should consider doing the following things, and not doing the following things”.  That’s how I read the two posts, and I will strive to become more of a twit and less of a twerp.

2. Polarisation. For whatever reason, the industry I have found myself in just loves polarised debate. Everything, just about everything, is 0 or 1, black or white. Big-endians versus Little-endians. What’s happening right now is that our walls are coming down. “Vendor” power is shifting to the customer. “IT Department” power is shifting to the customer. “Standards Body” power is shifting to the customer. While we need new standards, we need to be sure that we don’t pave the cowpaths, create new sets of polarised standards “on behalf of the customer”; we need to be comfortable with letting the customer decide. Sometimes it’s going to feel like helping a child grow up and discover things for himself; as “parents” we cannot do the learning for them. [Reminds me of my favourite JSB quote: How long does it take for a five year old to become a six year old? One year]. For people like me, it’s about getting out of the way. For some of you, it may be about recognising the continuing existence of “grey”.

3. Personalisation. For many of the people playing with these tools for the first time, there are no rules. They will find ways of using the tools that the creators of the tools haven’t considered; they will find ways of making the tools their own. Whatever we advise, whatever good practices we suggest, whatever standards we come up with, we need to keep one perspective in mind. The newbie isn’t wrong. Just different. We need to encourage the newbies rather than reinvent the ivory towers and holy-of-holies of the past.

Lack of prescription. Avoidance of polarisation. Support for personalisation. These Ps are key, whatever else happens.

Along with passion. And patience. Lots of both.

We’re on the verge of a new golden age, centred around community and participation, as the underlying technology stabilises and becomes invisible. Let’s make sure we get there.

12 thoughts on “Freewheeling about social media”

  1. Occasionally newbies may come up with new and better ideas through naivety and curiosity and simply playing in the shallows without constraints.

  2. Love the 3P’s JP!

    shani lee is of course right. I think it’s wrong to judge or constrain conversations, and I strive to have patience explaining arguments or discussions I’ve sat through many times with newbies just because it’s a well know rat-hole precisely because a fresh look from an outside is bound to unlock the discussion. Also if it’s a repeated discussion, than chances are it’s an interesting problem.

    But I digress.

    The only thing I wanted to get across in my post was twerps should at least be aware of the existence of twits like me. Anyway, it’s going to be interesting to watch how twitter evolves, and if it becomes twirper, well, so bit it!

  3. For some of you, it may be about recognising the continuing existence of “grey”.

    “There are two kinds of people in this world: people who believe there are two kinds of people and people who don’t believe there are two kinds of people.” – Douglas Rushkoff

  4. I’ve been playing with Twitter a while. I’m still learning about microformats and twitiquette. [Mostly by following references in other folk’s posts!]

    The biggest issue I have is follower/followee; I consider I’m learning lots, but teaching little.

    Maybe that’s no bad thing, but it doesn’t seem a fair exchange to me.

  5. Steve,

    Does it have to be directly reciprocal? Followers make their own decisions about what they consider valuable. Maybe it’s about receiving from some and passing on to others over time.

  6. I very much agree about the potential for a golden age. And I think it’ll be uber rosey thanks to the match between two complex adaptive systems – the web and the economy (I explore this a little here: )
    But of course it all depends on how positive or negative your view of people. A connected world has given me a more positive view of humanity than an unconnected one. I think the very act of connection reveals the positivity to you. So it’s likely everyone who joins the conversation will think positively about the future.
    I guess it’s down to us to reach out to as many as possible!

  7. Fascinated by your point 2 about polarisation. I think the main reason we tend to polarise in this industry is because we have to make choices about the technologies we invest time in. Linux vs Windows. REST vs SOAP. Twitter vs IRC (maybe!). And so we take polar views partly to justify the time spent not just to others, but also to ourselves.

    And because we know others do the same, we know that we often have to exaggerate to make our points! Anything even vaguely neutral gets shot down in flames or, worse, ignored.

    So, the Ten Commandments, started out as a bit of fun and now seems to have snowballed…and funnily enough I’ve broken several of the commandments myself. Then again, what Christian hasn’t lied or blasphemed at some point? Which is a roundabout way of making the distinction between hard and fast rules and ‘etiquette requests’. The fascinating thing about Twitter is that people can be unfollowed so easily without causing offence, but this shouldn’t be seen as an excuse to be unsociable. I still think we all stand to benefit if we exhibit thoughtful, considerate behaviour.

  8. Actually, the polarisation you mention (and Phil picks up on) goes way beyond the technology industry and must originate in some basic wiring in the human brain. All the way back to yin-yang and beyond. There’s probably some brilliant zen reference I could make here about the false duality imposed on the world by man’s faulty perception… but my own perceptions are too faulty to recall it exactly.

  9. I think the personalisation aspect is very important and should be implemented in a very subtle way from a technological point of view – I don’t think it is easy to say “right, let’s build this platform so it can be extended in whatever ways the people using it need it to be”, nor is it easy to put these tools into the people’s hands. However, that is exactly the challenge we have to face now.

Let me know what you think

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