Social isn’t over, it just grew up

A couple of months ago it was reported that Facebook users were undertaking less “original sharing” – that is: personal updates as opposed to third party content. Facebook sees this as a big problem because it changes the very nature of the service.

Roll forward to the beginning of May and Mike Elgan authored a piece at Computerworld entitled “I’m calling it: social networking is over” in which he said:

And just like that, social networking is no more. The sites formerly known as social networks are pivoting to something else.

I said in a tweet at the time:

According to The Verge, Facebook is testing a new way of posting to help counter this which appears on the New Feed only and does not remain on your timeline. This new post type is intended to increase personal sharing and the article argues that it works more like a tweet, being more short-lived, as it falls off the bottom of the News Feed quickly.

Tweets, however, remain on your personal timeline so, in that regard, News Feed only posts are better although they can still be found by search. Still, I doubt that this will increase personal sharing to any great degree, if at all.

Public to private

There is no doubt that we have seen a shift from public networks to more ephemeral services and messaging based platforms such as SnapChat and WhatsApp.

With over 1.6 billion users, 1 billion of whom are active on a monthly basis, you can hardly argue that Facebook is “over” but the company recognised early that the nature of social sharing was changing – this is not a new thing. The $19 billion acquisition of WhatsApp may have seemed crazy at the time but has shown itself to be a most prescient move.

Combined with Facebook’s own Messenger platform, WhatsApp has accelerated the move away from public updates which is obviously a worry for Facebook – hence the new post type. The network has always been predicated upon existing relationships but if these relationships are being taken private then the whole house of cards starts to look very shaky.

If personal updates are removed from the core product (by its users) Facebook is left with a more Twitteresque reliance on news and current events, but it it not set up to be this kind of network.

Scale and scope

Elgan contradicts himself: on the one hand, as mentioned above, he states “social networks are pivoting to something else” but also says that, with the exception of Facebook, none of the others were ever really social networks to begin with.

During the social explosion that was Web 2.0 social functionality was stapled on to everything in the hope of capitalising on the apparent “user created content” gold rush, but when a dominant player (Facebook) appears to have won it is not surprising to see them refocus on their core purpose.

The social explosion was just as much a psychological phenomenon as a functional one. Social was a novelty, largely unseen by the real world. The arrival of mass broadcast media was a novelty and the default position became “share everything” – each tiny nuance and facet no matter how banal or potentially embarrassing. As social grew more mainstream, however, the realisation kicked in that the consequences of your online actions were just as real, especially when tied to your identity.

The days of reckless abandon are over.

Elgan is right: there is a behavioural shift, just not in the way he describes. People have not stopped being social, it’s just that their engagement is shrinking in scope from global broadcasts to targeted conversations with specific groups.

The actual scale of social is bigger than ever.

What is social?

Elgan distinguishes between social networking and social media as personal content versus professional content but I would challenge his definitions. He asserts people haven’t realised that social networking is in decline as they equate the two.

Not so.

I would, instead, revert to the more straightforward definitions below:

  • social networking – the physical act
  • social media – the places we do it

We don’t need to make it any more complicated than that.

In the beginning, how much personal sharing was considered pointless or trite? How many saw social networking as rubbish because it was filled with rubbish? You can’t have your cake and Instagram it.

What if we make it even simpler by looking at the definition of social; a quick search returns:

  1. relating to society or its organisation
  2. needing companionship and, therefore, best suited to living in communities

We have an even more coherent, and perhaps relevant, definition from Miriam Webster:

relating to or involving activities in which people spend time talking to each other or doing enjoyable things with each other.

We actually have two separate definitions of social in play simultaneously, and Elgan is really just lamenting the move from one to another. The act of being social has not gone away, it has just moved, shifted.

With the emphasis moving from personal updates to news, social networks such as Facebook and Twitter (yes, I’m still calling Twitter a social network here) are now fulfilling a role that better reflects that first definition of social: relating to society.

Social networking has matured, platforms and behaviours have changed, but it is still as alive as ever. It is positively thriving.

It just grew up!

Social isn’t over, it just grew up

Energising Twitter lists

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Twitter lists are under-utilised, buried under multiple layers of menu, and some people don't even know they exist. It's hardly surprising as Twitter doesn't seem to like them, reducing their visibility and apparent importance over the years.

Twitter's other client, Tweetdeck, provides good list support but has itself been all but forgotten having not been updated to support new features such as Moments.

I recently contributed to a discussion in which someone suggested they would find it useful having tweets from lists appear in their main stream.

Now, lists are designed to separate our experience into more manageable, more specific chunks enabling us to follow events or interests without needing to explicitly follow those users added to the lists.

Part of the benefit of lists is that our stream is not constantly overtaken by the tweets of those we may only want to see at certain times, but I can see some merit in being able to inject list tweets into our streams during these times enabling us to watch both.

How about a hybrid experience based on the operation of Moments?

Followed lists

Currently, we can follow a Live Moment for its duration and tweets from that Moment are inserted alongside those from the people whose tweets we have chosen to see.

To mirror this behaviour what if we could follow a list for a set period – perhaps an hour by default or for a user definable time – during which tweets from that list would be inserted into our main stream?

Tweets from Moments, that aren't from people we follow, are identified by way of a blue lightning bolt. Similarly, those tweets displayed by virtue of the list could be discerned in a similar way: when inserted into your stream, and not from someone you follow, tweets could have something like a blue list icon.

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Unlikely

Any enhancements to lists would only occur if Twitter decided to, once again, make them a primary feature – unlikely based on current evidence.

Of course, this could change based on user behaviour, but we enter a catch-22 situation. List usage might increase with better visibility and enhancements but those changes would only be considered after an upwards trend in usage.

It's more likely that lists would be scrapped altogether.

Energising Twitter lists

Same thing, different platform

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Not entirely sure what to expect, I listened to the first episode of the Hardbound podcast (with Nathan Bashaw and Will Hoekenga) and was really struck by the notion that, despite the technological advances we have seen and new form factors available, we are still largely repackaging the same old types of content to make it fit a different sized screen.

We may have to think about layouts and font sizing in order to maximise the benefits of any given platform – responsive CSS is the tool du jour here – or work on how quickly things load by reducing their complexity – the AMP Project is a case in point – but this is just tinkering round the edges and not revolutionising the content.

Hardbound interests me because it is a new platform specifically designed to redefine how we tell stories on mobile devices and has amazing educational potential. In fact, all the stories published so far are educational in nature rather than what we would think of as literary ones.

The link between storytelling and education, of course, goes back millennia. Culture, history and legend were all passed orally from generation to generation by way of stories long before writing was ever invented and I don't think it's an exaggeration to say that such platforms are a modern extension of this tradition.

But, as I've said before, all writing is storytelling, it's just a different kind of story, and stories require a certain flow, direction.

The visual web

There has been a genuine fear that visual consumption is taking over the web with engagement heading towards the lowest common denominator.

With the likes of Instagram, SnapChat, YouTube, Periscope, and now the suggestion that within just five years Facebook could be all video the tide has been turning and some believe it may never come back in.

Yet, when faced with the written word, we cling to the same old formats that could just as well be column inches in a newspaper.

Why don't we do something different with blogs and articles? Why do we persist in creating stories in the exact same way regardless of delivery mechanism?

It's almost as though, when it comes to text, we are afraid to give up the old paradigm.

Maybe it's because it just works

We are used to linear progression, stories wouldn't work without it. Beginning, middle and end – just as our English teachers used to drum in to us every day.

Text in its traditional form works because we are telling a story, we are taking the reader from A to B, maybe stopping off to see some sights on the journey, but still leading them to a destination so that they might reach the same conclusions or better understand our point of view.

We could play around with more visual representations and, as Hardbound demonstrates, could still achieve a coherent narrative. So why don't we?

One reason has to be information density: more words often equals more information, more scope to tell our tale or make our point; just like the difference between a song and a rap.

But you get people like Seth Godin who can say so much with so few words or song writers who are able to convey such meaning and emotion in a few short verses. True brevity is a rare talent – the rest of us are stuck in loquacity.

I think there are two other factors at play: speed and talent.

It is obviously far quicker to just write something than to also illustrate and animate it. The news is obviously new and current, time sensitive, so any benefits gained by clever presentation are normally outweighed by the delay in publishing.

There is also the consideration that alternative means of presentation will be multi-disciplinary affairs requiring writers, illustrators, animators, and perhaps even coders.

Large news organisations will have the resources to try something different and we see them tread new paths on occasion, but this is the exception rather than the rule due to sheer pressures and timescales involved.

For casual bloggers it is all but impossible.

Generations

Perhaps long form text is just what we're used to, it has been our mainstay and some habits are hard to break. However, this could be a generational thing with older generations the last gatekeepers of traditional long form text – the picture may change over time.

We are in the midst of a communications revolution where emoji and gifs are used to convey more information and emotion than a few words ever could over our size constrained, mobile-centric delivery systems.

Yes, even with our large screen devices.

Update: changed “solo bloggers” to “casual bloggers” to better illustrate the skill sets at play.

Same thing, different platform

Media Shifting

I know why I haven't written by hand over the years: I hate the process of transcribing from paper to screen.

Many writers talk of how they will unload their thoughts at the start of the day, clear out the mental detritus so that the mind is free from distraction when they come to write.

But this is like my actual creative process.

I don't write in notes or bullet points, I don't create in abstractions. I write – and think – in full sentences, paragraphs.

If I have a thought or an idea it simply has to come out, it has to make the transition from mind to medium before the moment is lost and the idea decays.

The phrasing of the ideas, the emotion behind them, is of the moment, tied to my mental state at that exact point in time. No matter what the subject, no matter how well conceived, if it is not captured in that specific moment then it might as well have never existed.

So, writing down these sentences and paragraphs while they are fresh in the mind should be a good thing, right?

It should, but once they are written they are done, loosed upon the world – they are free and I no longer control them.

Irrespective of the medium used, like the morning detritus they have been removed from my mind, transferred to an outboard memory with no reliable means of retrieval.

I am unable to "media shift" my ideas.

Media Shifting

Hip Hop and the white kid

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Cast your mind back to the summer of 1978, if you're old enough to remember it. I was young, naive and living in a bubble. My favourite music was the Wombles second album "Remember You're a Womble" released in 1974 and I used to play the tape over and over driving my parents mad.

About a year later something happened: Rapper's Delight by the Sugarhill Gang dropped and my world changed forever.

Living where I did on the Isle of Wight was sheltered, detached from the mainland in a typical tourist driven seaside environment that might as well have been completely closed between October and Easter.

There were two black kids at school, one of whom was the son of a very straight-laced, white teacher and white in all but skin colour. I was born in south east London which was more cosmopolitan but we moved away when I was 6 so hadn't really become aware of myself or my surroundings yet.

But in 1979 it was as though my bubble had burst and I was suddenly exposed to the big wide world. People talk about the moment a light turns on in their minds and this was just such a moment; I instantly knew who I was.

I was the kid who would live for this music.

Isolated

It was strange growing up with no one else who shared that passion; my best friend had originally been into electro but that soon passed. Not being able to listen to London radio stations with the likes of Tim Westwood, I was reliant on the late, great John Peel and the Streetsounds Electro series to keep me supplied with new music during the early to mid-eighties.

I was introduced to a couple of kids who had moved from West London and were into rap so there was an instant camaraderie: I had finally found some kindred spirits, and they had found the one person in this backwards place who knew what they were talking about. I taught myself to DJ, rap and beat box, as well as getting into graffiti and dancing, though I could never break properly.

But I was still isolated.

It wasn't so much of an issue at first but, as time went on and hip hop became more mainstream things changed.

Power

By the late eighties, rapping shifted away from the braggadocio rhymes of the "old school" and started getting more political, more militant. Hip Hop had power and artists realised they could use this for more than just music.

An undercurrent of dissatisfaction was gaining momentum but one of the first albums to really illustrate this for me was "Ghetto Music: The Blueprint of Hip Hop" by Boogie Down Productions. Consider the track "Why is that" where KRS One asks:

"Why isn't young black kids taught black? They're only taught how to read, write, and act."

In the second verse he goes on to explain how the characters in the bible must have been black because of their location and ancestry.

In fact, this post was inspired by accidentally seeing a WhatsApp conversation over someone's shoulder on the train in which he was explaining that of course the characters in the bible were black, they were from Africa and the Middle East but you couldn't be surprised that they were portrayed as white by Europeans.

As Eddie Izzard quipped, John, Simon Peter and the others "out from Oxford on a fishing trip." The bible was westernised for popular consumption and conversion.

On the other foot

Public Enemy had gotten more political with their second album: the brilliant "It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold us Back." By their third release in 1990, however, pro-black felt like it was becoming more anti-white.

The same year – with their album "To the East, Blackwards" – X Clan were so far off the other end of the spectrum that it was outright offensive. Musically, it was a great record but impossible to listen to and enjoy as a white person; not to belittle the experiences of black people over the centuries but you suddenly knew how it felt to be racially abused – even as the majority. Perhaps some of it was justified considering the course of history but it went way too far and genuinely invested white kids like myself instantly became alienated.

Consider the lyrics of Eminem's song "Yellow Brick Road" released in 2004:

"Now with this being the new trend we don't fit in. Crackers is out with Cactus albums, blackness is in."

"Cactus albums" here referring to the music of white rappers 3rd Bass who were ironically very pro-black in their lyrics.

The first time I listened to Yellow Brick Road I was blown away as I could relate perfectly to the different phases of the musical journey that Eminem described.

Over the next couple of years the number of blacks who would confront me saying "what are you wearing that for?" or "you can't listen to that, you're not black" increased enormously – it was never something I had faced before and was incredibly unsettling.

The shoe was on the other foot.

It was this period and this attitude that pushed me away from Hip Hop for a number of years and left me having to rediscover who I was. I had identified so closely with Hip Hop culture that a big part of me felt like it was being ripped away, I felt empty.

Exclusionism

One thing that always stuck with me through this whole experience was the sense of division, not just from the experience of black people as described by the music but also the subsequent exclusionism.

From the outside, as the white guy, the bad guy, it felt like barricades had been erected and a siege mentality overtook much of what I used to love. What originally began as a call for equality seemed to morph into a call for control: to oppress the oppressors.

Some reading this may be thinking

"the poor entitled white guy getting upset, a wannabe who wouldn't know racism if it came up and smacked him in the face.

Maybe they're right, but I'd argue that this is more than just someone appropriating another culture and feeling put out when it's taken back.

I felt fortunate to have been exposed to all of this growing up, to have learnt truths that my bubble would have shielded me from, so I was frustrated the message seemed to be only to empower the black youth. Instead of just teaching black kids to be black surely all kids should be taught black history.

Why aren't they?

We've come a long way but maybe "the establishment" is still too institutionally racist.

Hip Hop and the white kid