Data flow and creating electricity

One of the difficult parts about constantly having about 35 tabs open in Firefox is that I can never remember how I got to a particular page; was it from a Google Reader shared item? From a Twitter post? From email? My regular RSS reader? It’s hard to say. Which explains why I have no idea how I came across this post from Mark Ury, an “experience architect” at Blast Radius. I’m glad I did, however, since Mark does a really nice job of looking at how focusing on data “ownership” in social networks kind of misses the point — the real value is in data flow.

This is a point that Fred Wilson of A VC and others have also made, and one Fred says was originally brought home to him by a comment Umair Haque of Bubblegeneration made. “I don’t think it’s the data that’s so valuable,” he said. “It’s the flow of the data through the service.” In his post, Mark Ury compares this to an electric-power generation system, which uses dams to take advantage of water flow in order to generate power. The water never stops, it’s only momentarily delayed — and while it’s being delayed, you can make use of it. As he puts it:

The real opportunity in flow constraint, though, is putting capacity to use and amplifying the effect. Data is like a river: you can dam it and generate electricity. That’s what Google did with search. They created a machine that, as we pass through it on our way to find something, harnesses our collective energy and turns our data flow into the most powerful asset of this generation.

As Mark notes, services that try to restrict the flow of data too much wind up either having issues with control or ownership debates, and in many cases the data — just like water — routes itself around the obstruction and finds a new path (i.e., a new service that isn’t as restrictive). That’s a balance that a site like Facebook is continually trying to strike: not strict enough to cause people to take their data flow elsewhere, but just restrictive enough to allow Facebook to make use of the data before letting it move on. Tim O’Reilly has described Web 2.0 as any application or service that tends to get better the more people use it.


If you’re like me and have a hard time remembering how you got to a certain page, Gabe “Techmeme” Rivera has posted a comment with a tip: right-click the page and check “page info” and you can see the referring page (unfortunately it doesn’t help me in this case because I’ve already closed the tab).

We live in public — some of the time

Fred Wilson of A VC made the same connection I did when he read the piece by Emily Gould — formerly of Gawker — in this morning’s New York Times magazine. It reminded me a lot of what Josh Harris did with the Pseudo network in the late 1990s, when he scattered video cameras around his loft apartment to track virtually everything (and I mean everything) that he and his girlfriend were doing, as part of an experiment into how much of our lives we can live in public. In many ways, it was the first Web-based reality TV show along the lines of Big Brother.

Emily Gould conducted a similar experiment — except she didn’t see it that way until later. While she was working at Gawker, writing snarky posts about the private lives of celebrities, she was also blogging about her own personal life at a site called Heartbreak Soup, including her ill-fated relationship with fellow Gawker writer Joshua David Stein. He has written his own account of what happened in Page Six magazine, which you can see excerpted in large quantities at This Recording. As I was reading both pieces, it also reminded me of the very public life of Julia Allison, who blogged about her on-again, off-again relationship with troubled geek millionaire Jakob Lodwick of Vimeo and

Julia broke up very publicly with Jakob, and Emily did the same with Josh; and in both cases, their public sharing of intimate emotions and situations was undoubtedly a big part of the reason. So why did they do it? It almost seems to be a pathological approach to a relationship — or at the very least, a kind of stress-testing approach, as though by subjecting that person to the full glare of the public floodlights, they could ensure that their significant other was good enough to hang onto. And then if it didn’t work out, they would have something to blame. Both also clearly got addicted to the attention of their readers and “fans.” Gould quotes Allison as saying that “Attention is my drug.” And she describes her own relationship with her readers this way:

“They were co-workers, sort of, giving me ideas for posts, rewriting my punch lines. They were creeps hitting on me at a bar. They were fans, sycophantically praising even my lamer efforts. They were enemies, articulating my worst fears about my limitations. They were the voices in my head. They could be ignored sometimes. Or, if I let them, they could become my whole world.”

Emily’s experience seems to be just the latest example of what Gawker calls “oversharing,” and also of what can happen when the lines between blogger/writer and quasi-celebrity get blurred. We had a panel at the mesh 2008 conference this week called Private vs. Public, with U of T philosopher Mark Kingwell, sociologist Nancy Baym from the University of Kansas and Ken Anderson from the Ontario privacy commission (moderated by the always wonderful Rachel Sklar from Huffington Post, who has her own take on the Gould saga), but it didn’t really touch on the deep-seated desire that seems to exist in people like Emily and Julia to compulsively share every detail of their lives. Is this just the latest version of a new, Internet-enabled disorder?


There’s another piece in the NYT mag that makes for an interesting counterpoint to Emily Gould’s article: it’s a column by the co-director of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, in which he describes research that shows human beings aren’t necessarily smarter than chimpanzees on an individual level, but they are smarter in groups — primarily because they are more social.

FriendFeed kill Twitter? Not going to happen

So Duncan Riley — formerly of TechCrunch — has a post up at his new site Inquisitr about how it’s time for FriendFeed to kill Twitter. I have nothing against Duncan, but every time I see a headline like that on a blog post I almost instinctively discount whatever appears in the post. Why? Because those kinds of “X is going to kill X” headlines are almost always Techmeme bait or Digg bait. It’s like those headlines in the business section of the newspaper that talk about the stock market “plummeting” or companies “hemorrhaging” red ink. Hyperbole sells.

The probability of FriendFeed “killing” Twitter is roughly zero. And not just because FriendFeed doesn’t have the scale yet to mount an assault. The two services are also a lot more complimentary than they are competitive, as more than one person commenting on this topic (many of them on FriendFeed) has mentioned. FriendFeed is an aggregator, and Twitter is not. Could FriendFeed add messaging? Sure it could. But it still wouldn’t kill Twitter. Lots of people thought that Twitter would help to kill Facebook (or vice versa), and Facebook was supposed to kill MySpace, and MySpace was allegedly going to kill blogs. And so on.

Obviously, some services thrive and others don’t — Friendster being a good example (although even it has come back from the dead to some extent). But that’s rarely because some other service “kills” them. It’s usually because they fail to keep up with what their customers want, or fail to adapt to some new technology, or run out of money. Twitter’s biggest problem isn’t FriendFeed, it’s keeping the service running properly so that people don’t get irritated enough by all the downtime and stop using it. And even that is a pretty high hurdle: for all the bitching about Twitter being down, it still seems to be pretty popular. And FriendFeed has its own issues to worry about, some would argue.


For bonus points (or maybe the booby prize), check out another of Steve Gillmor’s classic, incomprehensible rants on the topic over at TechCrunch.

Twitter: A community or a utility?

I’ve been kind of out of the loop thanks to the mesh 2008 conference, so I’ve missed the furore over Ariel Waldman and her attempts to get Twitter to ban a user that she says has been harassing her. According to her account of the situation on her blog, she tried repeatedly to get Twitter to enforce its own terms of service, which state that users “must not abuse, harass, threaten, impersonate or intimidate other Twitter users.” She emailed back and forth with Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey, but he said that the company couldn’t do anything because they were afraid of a lawsuit, and that they were going to review their terms of service, which Jack said were “open to interpretation.”

To complicate matters somewhat, Waldman — who describes herself as a “social media insights consultant” and blogs about art, sex, entertainment and technology at the blog Shake Well Before Use — also happens to be the community manager at Pownce, which could be seen as a direct competitor for Twitter. But she says in an update to her blog that the harassing behaviour and the complaints to Twitter came before she got her current job at Pownce. And in a bizarre twist, a commenter who claims to be Waldman’s mother says that the individual harassing her has been doing so for several years and is mentally unstable.

Waldman eventually started a thread at the customer-service site GetSatisfaction, and Twitter co-founder Biz Stone responded in a comment. Among other things, he said that the account in question had been removed voluntarily by the user in March, and that in any case the activity didn’t breach the terms of service. But the most interesting thing he said was that as far as Twitter was concerned (as pointed out GetSatisfaction thread), the service is “a communication utility, not a mediator of content.” In other words, Twitter wants to be treated the same as a “common carrier” such as a telephone company, which isn’t liable for the content it carries.

This is an understandable point of view to take from a legal standpoint, especially given U.S. laws such as the Communications Decency Act. But does it jibe with the way people treat Twitter? Many people seem to see it as a community. And other online services such as Flickr (as Waldman notes) remove content or ban users behaviour. Why not Twitter? Waldman may be over-reacting to the messages that were posted about her — there’s no way of knowing. And there is an argument to be made that she should just take her lumps and move on; block the user and ignore it. But at the same time, Twitter does seem to be weaseling out of its own terms of service, and that hardly seems kosher.


As Shelley notes in a comment, Ev Williams of Twitter has responded in a comment on Jeffrey Zeldman’s blog, in which he says that Ariel submitted a total of 13 messages and only one contained her name — making it highly unlikely that anyone would have been able to figure out that the other messages were about her (if they were about her at all). He also denies that the company has any fears about a lawsuit. In any case, he says Twitter doesn’t “have a rule against insulting people or hurting their feelings,” and that “We had to make a judgement call here, as one does in all such cases. This didn’t meet the bar for being banned, in our opinion.” If those facts are correct, I would have to agree.

The “Twitter ain’t all that” backlash

In the wake of blog posts and news articles about the use of Twitter during the earthquake in China (including one by me), there has been a fairly predictable backlash response — about how Twitter is just one of many tools that people can use to stay updated on news events, that it gets more attention because the “digerati” are enamored with it, and that the praise for Twitter is largely overdone. You can see aspects of these arguments in comments from Eric Rice on my post (as well as here), and in a recent post by Kaiser Kuo of Ogilvy’s Digital Watch.

All of these criticisms have some validity to them. Plenty of people have stayed informed about the Virginia Tech shootings or the tsunamis in Indonesia or similar events by using cellphone text messages, Facebook posts, Wikipedia entries and even the good old radio. I don’t think anyone is saying — as Kaiser puts it at the end of his post — that this episode saw Twitter “drive a nail in the coffin of traditional media.” If anyone is saying that, then they are stupid or being inflammatory. The point is not that anything is driving a nail into something else; it’s that new tools are emerging that can be used to some benefit.

No one is suggesting that Twitter replace the emergency broadcast system, or that Twitterers should be thought of in the same breath as “first responders” such as search & rescue personnel, which is what Eric seems concerned about. That’s ridiculous. But why shouldn’t we talk about how Twitter can be used to get information out about disasters? Kaiser Kuo himself spends much of his post talking about how Twitter “proved very useful as a means of quickly disseminating information gleaned from the mainstream media on the scene,” and how the broadcast nature of the service “made it better than simple IM.”

That’s the point, not whether Twitter is better than something else, or replacing something else, or the best thing ever.