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.

Update:

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.

Ning: the social-networking engine

For something that was created by legendary Netscape founder Marc Andreessen — the Blake Ross of his day, for you Firefox fans — the social-media “engine” called Ning has kind of been flying under the radar for awhile. As Mike Arrington notes at TechCrunch, the initial release of the service was somewhat underwhelming, and so I think a lot of people sort of forgot about it. But it has steadily improved, and just rolled out some more enhancements.

ning.jpgI have some first-hand experience with Ning, because I decided awhile back to use it as a tool for helping to plan a journalism school reunion that I’m involved with. It’s been quite awhile since I was at Ryerson in Toronto (don’t ask how long or I’m liable to punch you), and many of my former classmates have scattered to the winds. After a couple of members of the group sent out some emails trying to get a reunion under way, it became obvious that having a single place to co-ordinate things would make a lot of sense. One or two people mentioned MySpace, but it seemed too — well, MySpacey. Then I thought of Ning.com.

The reason Ning came to mind was that a Toronto group — helmed by Mark Dowds — created a site related to a new “open office” concept called Indoor Playground. It seemed relatively simple to add members, send out updates, upload photos and had a nice, clean look to it, so I decided to try it out. In just a few minutes I had the site set up (there is even more customization available with the new features), and apart from a few glitches in getting people signed up — it’s invitation only — it was a no-brainer.

Further reading:

Om has some thoughts about the new Ning, and Scoble has an interview with Marc Andreessen and CEO Gina Bianchini up at Podtech — and Ms. Bianchini has a post on the Ning blog with some of the insights that she has gained from starting the company (I particularly like the “Underhype your service” one). Frantic Industries has a good overview of the service too. Steve O’Hear at ZDNet has some thoughts too, and Don Dodge wonders whether it’s any better than Live Spaces or Yahoo Groups.

Seven ways to help Digg get better

Before too much time goes by, I wanted to take note of something that Muhammad Saleem wrote over on his blog The Mu Life about 7 ways to improve Digg. Muhammad, who is not only a top digger but also a top Netscape submitter and anchor, has clearly thought a lot about some of the flaws with the Digg model — including things such as the “Bury Brigade” and the problems with comments — and I think some of his suggestions make a lot of sense.

One of the most important recommendations, I think, is the first: Listen to the community. And I would add to that: “respond to the community.” If there’s one thing that Digg has not been terribly good at — during all the criticism about the changes to its algorithm to stop the “gaming” of the site, and the various other problems it has experienced — it’s responding to and interacting with the community.

At times, it seems like Kevin Rose and the gang want to have a community-run news site, but without having to actually deal with the community, or like they think that if they tinker with enough things behind the scenes it will become a smooth-running machine and no input from them will be required. I would argue they are wrong on both counts. A community isn’t a machine but a garden, and it takes work to cultivate and keep the weeds from taking over.

Muhammad has a bunch of other good suggestions, including retiring the Bury Brigade — which Steve O’Hear of ZDNet has been on the receiving end of — and being more explicit about the moderating and filtering of content that occurs behind the scenes at Digg. I encourage you to go and read the rest.

Is it a “real blog”? Wrong question

Zoli Erdos has touched off the latest round in the omnipresent “what is a blog” wars, with a recent post looking at Google’s official “blog” and noting that it isn’t really a blog because it doesn’t allow readers to comment. Mike Arrington at TechCrunch — who to his credit has not only kept comments open but has participated in them, despite some flame wars with him as the target — posted on the topic as well as opening a poll on the whole issue of comments.

At last count, about 40 per cent of the 2,200 people who have responded think that the ability to comment isn’t a requirement, but enhances a blog’s content “dramatically,” and about 34 per cent say that commenting isn’t a requirement. The remainder think that a blog without comments isn’t a real blog — a case that I tried to make with this post back in February. After much debate, I modified that position to effectively agree with the largest group in Mike’s poll.

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I know everyone likes to say that it’s about “the conversation” and so on, which is getting a touch overused as a metaphor (but is still essentially true, I think). The bottom line for me is simply that the comments on a post are often at least as interesting as the post itself, and in some cases much more so. In that sense, the post is like a magnet that attracts different viewpoints — some of which are bound to be moronic “you’re an idiot” kind of comments, but some of which are occasionally going to add huge value.

For example, I found the back-and-forth between Blake Ross and his critics on the Google issue (see my recent post) of even more value than the original post. Yes, I know that other bloggers are free to respond on their own blogs, but that’s hard to follow unless you work at it — having comments on a post is like a mini-aggregator of differing opinion. And if you are lucky, the signal-to-noise ratio makes it worth your while. In fact, that’s a good sign of a valuable blog.

So is a blog really a blog without comments? Sure it is, if only because the term “blog” is so viscous and malleable that it can mean just about anything. But I don’t think of BoingBoing or Google’s blog or other prominent examples as being “blogs” in my definition. Are they valuable? Sure. Interesting? Often. But – at least as far as I’m concerned — still missing something.

Is Digg getting better, or worse?

If you like things like podcasts, video and a widescreen look to a website, then Digg has just launched a site redesign that will be a nice ChristmaHanuKwanakah present for you, as described by both Om Malik (at NewTeeVee) and Mike Arrington at TechCrunch. But will all of these new additions help to broaden Digg’s appeal, or will they just further dilute that appeal?

If you’ve been following the blogosphere, there has been a fair bit of controversy about Digg — not about it broadening its reach into general news and other areas (in fact, there’s been surprisingly little comment about that) but about it being rigged, about submitters taking money under the table (which I wrote about here), and so on. Jason Clarke has argued that Digg is useless.

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It’s obvious that some of this is getting to other people too. Over at TechCrunch, one person says they hardly go to Digg any more because the comments are cluttered with morons, and that “As Digg gains more and more momentum to be mainstream we will see that it no longer becomes a barometer of cool but just another established website beaten by fragmented niche sites.”

There are definitely both risks and rewards to the way Digg is going. On the one hand, video is becoming more popular — and Digg’s crowd-voting system can no doubt bring its value (positive and negative) to that as well. But at the same time, adding podcasts and video streams and other features takes away from the streamlined focus on Web links that made Digg so popular (StumbleUpon, which got its start in Calgary, has also launched a video service).

As Digg-style voting tools get worked into other sites, it’s also possible that people might desert Digg for other, more focused sites in particular areas (the way Digg used to be for technology). Meanwhile, Pete Cashmore over at Mashable says the changes are “ridiculously overhyped as usual.” And Neil Patel at Search Engine Land notes that Digg has also made some changes that will affect submitters in subtle ways.