Category Archives: World Wide Web

WeFollow

WeFollow: A User Powered Twitter Directory
Image by shinyai via Flickr

While I’m on the topic of helpful websites, here’s another simple but useful one: Wefollow.

Its a user-edit Twitter directory, that Nathan pointed out to me a few days ago.

I picked up a few followers just by signing up.

I find it remarkable how many followers some of the top users of Twitter have accumulated. Yes, some of them are leveraging off of some form of celebrity status (real-world or online). Its quite amazing how large the reach of some dedicated tweeters is though. It takes a lot of hard work to scale up a following like that, regardless of where it is.

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SEO and the Art of the Happy Accident

A better subtitle for this blog could be: “Throw a bunch of spaghetti at the wall and see what sticks”

I keep an eye on the Google Analytics reports for this site. The past couple of months, there were an unusually large number of hits from people searching for info on Twitter. I just tried a couple of searches on Google.com and Google.ca this morning, and for “twitter purpose” (and a variety of other combinations), we’re showing up near the top of the first page. In the past, we’ve also had searches for people looking for info on Askme.com, DandyId and other specific topics that I’ve written about here.

I think the general principal, one that has relevance for SEO (search engine optimization), is that it’s just about impossible to determine in advance what the zeitgeist of the moment is going to be. As a result, place content on your site that covers a wide range of related topics, and there’s a good chance that something that you write will be relevant to somebody, somewhere, at some point in time.

This is otherwise known as the spaghetti principal – when you don’t know what precisely will work, try a bunch of different things, and record your results. This isn’t a new idea by any means. Bloggers, internet marketers and SEOs use this tactic all the time, in a variety of different ways.

What Does It Take To Build A Community?

We’re currently building a number of community based “social media” website. Obviously I’m interested generally in what makes a good online community, but this time there’s a practical aspect to this – I want my customer’s sites to succeed!

Let’s throw this open for comments.

What do you think are the critical factors involved? Is it specific functionality? Great moderators? The initial “link bait” content that gets people there in the first place? One or two really sociable users?

Website Update

I finally found the time to update the appearance of this site. I originally planned out what I wanted several months back, and then never got around to it somehow.

In case you are wondering, the template started out in life as the free Wordpress “inove” template, and then diverged.

As usual comments (and of course criticisms) are welcome.

How Not To Get Hacked

Image courtesy of "gutter" on Flickr. Creative Commons.
Image courtesy of "gutter" on Flickr. Creative Commons.

I just spent a chunk of this afternoon fixing up a friend’s website which was hacked. The hacker appears to have gained access through a decade old shopping cart (not in use, just sitting in a folder on the site), and then proceeded to insert obfuscated javascript code into every page on the site (several hundred pages, with the code slighly different on each page).

This is the fifth or sixth site I’ve had to clean up in the past year or so, and its always a painful job – I’m pretty good at spotting code that shouldn’t be in a page, but with a large website it can be hard to be certain that it has been completely fixed. And there’s no guarantee that the original loophole that was exploited has been removed. Even under the best of circumstances, cleaning up this sort of mess is a painstaking process.

The following is intended for web designers who aren’t coders – but who use scripts that they have located on the web. Some intro level programmers might benefit. Experienced web programmers should go directly to the following link and do some review: http://cwe.mitre.org/top25/

1. Be very careful about downloading “free” scripts off the web. Do yourself a favour and scan the code before using it. If it has been obfuscated, or it looks odd, you probably want to avoid using it. You don’t need to be a programmer to get a feel for nefarious code.

2. When putting together a website that has any kind of dynamic functionality – be it javascript, a php script on the back end, or something else – bear in mind Jeremy’s Addendum to Murphy’s Law: Whatever can be hacked, will be hacked. There are a lot of common loopholes that hackers exploit that could be easily avoided by looking at code with a cynical eye and trying to figure out how it can hurt you.

3. Periodically review old websites that you’ve done. Code that used to be fine may no longer be so safe. Also, as you learn from mistakes, you may notice all kinds of things that are dangerous in your code.

4. Its also really worthwhile to look at the Top 25 Dangerous Bugs list, linked above. A periodic review is in order. Speaking of which, I’m adding that to my to do list.

5. Verify ALL inputs to a script. If you think you have verified them, get somebody with a cynical bent to test it. If something is up on the web, it is guaranteed that somebody will try some oddball and highly unexpected inputs just to see if they use your script for their own purposes.

6. Remember at the end of the day that there’s absolutely no such thing as a hacker-proof piece of software or hardware. Make regular backups. Assume you’re going to need them.

I just want to finish with an anecdote.

I used to operate a small hosting company along with some of my other duties at my former company.

One day, one of our servers started broadcasting vast volumes of spam email, to the point that we had to shut down the outgoing email service.

I spent a few hours reading log files, trying to pinpoint what exactly was happening. I finally narrowed it down to a script that had been uploaded a few days prior on one of the client’s accounts.

The script was basically a feeble attempt to try and implement a CMS (content management system). Basically the way it worked was that any GET input to the main script was assumed to be the name of an html fragment file, and was included into the script with no verification whatsoever.

If this means nothing to you, you’ve probably seen websites that have URLs something along these lines: index.php?id=123. The “id=123” part can be parsed out by the script as an input. In this case the links looked like this: index.php?page=contact.html.

The script just assumed that contact.html was a piece of HTML code, and included it in.

It didn’t take long before half the hackers in the world were sending the script stuff like this: index.php?page=path_to_malware_or_spam_script. And our server was running those bits of malware as if they were located locally.

A Twittery Update

I’ve been getting a lot of responses from people about my previous posts on the topic of Twitter. Just wanted to post a quick update regarding the rumour that Google is considering buying Twitter – apparently the price discussed was in the ballpark area of $3 billion.

There’s a number of interesting synergies that come to mind (I’m not saying that a merger would or wouldn’t work – honestly, who can tell) and they’re not necessarily AdWords related.

The whole point of Twitter is that it reflects, in many ways, the zeitgeist. I’ve seen breaking news reported on the site more than an hour before it hit the big news sites like CNN. A company like Google could get all kinds of useful information out of scanning keywords on Twitter and cross-referencing them. They could then feed that information into their news site, or even into search listings, in order to make them reflect what is going on in the world. It would probably be hard to prevent that from being “game-able”, but it might be interesting…

Addressability – and why it matters to you

The following is going to be part of a mini downloadable booklet that I’m planning on releasing on this site – as soon as I can finish it. I have a few chapters written already, and a rough outline of the rest. Stay tuned here over the next few months for more sample chapters. Comments will be very useful for me as I revise this.

Addressability – and why it matters to you

Imagine you are living in the early 1700s. You’re living at Fort York, in Upper Canada (later to become Toronto, Ontario). You need (I know its a contrived example, but bear with me) to get somebody living in China to move a precious porcelain vase 6 inches to the right on the pedestal on which it is standing. In turn, they need to you take off that ridiculous beaver-skin hat, and hang it up by the door.

So how would you go about doing this?

I assume that – even in the pre-mass communication age, something akin to the concept of six degrees of separation must apply. The number is likely higher though.

So you pass the message along to your friend, who knows a ship’s captain who is travelling to China, who in turn knows a merchant in the port area of Hong Kong – you get the picture. Eventually, probably several years later, the message is handed to the person you had in mind, who moves the vase. Two or three years after that, you receive the message back about your hat.

The idea that I’m trying to convey, is that most of the objects in the world have a defined way in which you – no matter where you are – can reach out and touch them. This concept is called addressability, and it isn’t new.

A large part of the history of technology over the past few hundred years essentially boils down to finding better ways to send a “message” to somebody or something – to have ways in which there is a defined address for the information that you are sending.

Some examples:

1. When the Royal Mail started operating in the UK in the 1800s, people typically didn’t have well defined mailing addresses. Yes, you could probably get a letter to them based on their name, the city in which they lived, and possibly their neighbourhood. Beyond that, a courier potentially had some guesswork to do in order to hand a letter to its intended recipient. The assignment of street names and numbers, along with the invention of postal (or ZIP) codes, are all ways of attempting to formalize how to reach somebody.

2. The telegraph, and later the telephone, are both methods by which information (either a written note or a verbal conversation) can be delivered directly to a person. Hence telephone numbers, area codes, international dialing codes and the like.

3. The internet relies heavily on a concept called an IP Address, which assigns a unique number either to a computer, or to a part of the network in the close neighbourhood of the computer. This allows traffic – such as email – to get to its intended destination.

Why Does All This Matter?

You’re probably already thinking something along the lines of “this is all very interesting, but how does it matter to me?”.

My best guess is that the process of making everything and everyone in the world addressable is going to accelerate in the near future, with some interesting effects. There will be a number of business opportunities that open up as a result, along with privacy and security issues (which can also be business opportunities for some people!).

There are two areas in which this is going to happen:

a) Firstly, addresses are going to become more “fine grained”. This means that instead of (for example) a computer having an IP Address, each part in the computer may have an IP Address. Your clothing may have IP Addresses (if you purchase something with a RFID tag, it may already have one!), your car will have an IP Address – not just that, but every part in your car may have its own IP Address.

b) Secondly, there will be an increasing effort to solidify and catalogue all of the massive amounts of information that result from everything having an address. This means finding ways to reach somebody or something without having to know too much information about.

The result of all of the above, is that there are dozens of categories of businesses that are going to become feasible in the next ten years. I’ll list a number of them below. Some of these businesses already exist to a certain extent, but they’re going to become actual specializations and business plans, rather than occasional services that are offered.

Opportunity Knocks!

The following categories of businesses are likely to become viable in the near future:

1. Help, I’m out of addresses!

Currently, most of the world operates on an internet addressing system called IPv4. You’ve probably seen IP Addresses in this format; they look something like 192.168.0.1. Four digits, ranging in size from zero up to 255, separated by a period. The big problem is that even with the relatively small number of objects (usually computers or computing equipment these days), we’re already running out of addresses in this format. This is why there is an effort underway to switch the entire world over to a new addressing system called IPv6, which has a truly gigantic number of potential addresses. This process is proving to be extremely difficult to complete, leading some industry specialists to conclude that the world is going to run out of existing addresses first; only after the inevitable emergency will everybody switch.

The business opportunity? Start a company that specializes in finding places where equipment isn’t IPv6 compatible, and consulting with companies on the appropriate way to make the switch. There are already networking specialists who do consulting in this area. Look for this to become an actual business by itself – at least until the whole world switches. Its an opportunity similar to the Y2K bug, where a little bit of FUD and some technical know-how lead to many people making big money.

2. Help, I need an address!

The process of assigning addresses to physical objects that aren’t computers or networking equipment, is already well under way. The biggest push has been by companies like Walmart to have all of the items that they sell tagged with an RFID tag, which allows them to track what they sell with great precision. RFID tags allow each item to have a unique ID number associated with it, which – combined with a database of the items – allows somebody with a scanner to discover information such as price or inventory levels about the item.

What RFID does not do – yet – is allow each of those items to be directly connected into the internet. The concept that your fridge or toaster will be network accessible has been promised by futurists for years, but hasn’t really progressed much outside of the lab. Yes, you can purchase a coffee machine with a network jack off the web right now, but most people don’t. Yet.

When you factor in the growing adoption of technologies like wireless internet, along with a gradual reduction in the amount of power required to actually run all the “fancy stuff” needed to connect, eventually not just appliances but also things like clothing, or auto parts are each going to be able to connect to the internet.

This raises a number of privacy and security issues, along with business opportunties such as creating the addressed items in the first place.

Some possible business models that result:

a) Manufacturing new kinds of RFID tags that can be incorporated into objects, which provide not just an ID number, but also an internet connection. A further business model: create the platform and standards by which all manufacturers of these tags operate. That means the underlying software, how the hardware interfaces with the part that it is embedded in, etc.
b) Inventing underlying technologies to reduce the size and power requirements of the above tags.
c) Creating ways for parts to let the manufacturer know when they are broken; this model already is underway with printers – many new printers will email the manufacturer and the servicing agent to let them know when the toner is getting low, or when there is something the matter.
d) Brokerages and middleman services for part c) – imagine a website that printer servicing people can be members of, which will automatically list all of the printers in their area that are low on toner, and then allow them to bid on the job.
e) Security and privacy services: locating and removing tags from sensitive equipment; “firewalls” for objects – for example a way to allow you to access anything in your house, but prevent anyone else from doing so. Its an interesting world we live in when we need Object Firewalls, not just network ones.
f) Quality control – during the manufacturing process, each and every part can be separately quality controlled, and a record attached; then, during assembly, an automatic record for the entire complex object (i.e. a car) can be created on the fly. There’s room for software and equipment manufacturers to build systems that assembly lines can use to do this.

3. Help, I can’t find something! (Or I can and I don’t want to!)

If all of the quadrillions of objects in the world have a unique address, and a way to reach them via the internet, we’re going to have to find new ways to sort through that data. There are a great many business opportunities that arise from this, including:

a) A new kind of catalogue – grouping items (your car, your shirt, your cell phone) based on who owns them, who is allowed to use them, who can see that they exist. This would be a golden opportunity for an existing search engine company to get a leg up on their competition. I suspect that there’s only room for one viable business in this sector. If you were to login and authenticate yourself, you would be able to see all of the items that you have permission to access from a single control panel – you can turn on your oven and send an SMS to your wife that dinner is cooking at the same time.
b)  Some items should be publically accessible – for instance things like traffic cameras etc. Cataloguing such items – along with more detailed security functions such as who can view, who can modify settings – will also be a big part of item a).
c) I can forsee a business opportunity where a consultant helps people find things – either a specific item, or a category of item – based on such catalogues. This is like an Object Librarian job,  combined with that of a Private Detective. Instead of sorting and cataloging books, they would do the same thing with objects.
d) Single point of access. Currently, I can be reached via about half a dozen email addresses, three or four phone numbers, two Instant Messaging addresses, and about fifty to one hundred social networking website profiles. If somebody can figure out a single way that I can be reached – anywhere in the world – through a single device, it would greatly simplify my life. We’re already seeing some convergence in this area. My cell phone also can access email, in addition to being an SMS device. What I’m getting at though would be a device (probably combined with a proliferation of standards and platforms) where all messages – voice, text, video – are transparently routed to me, no matter where in the world I am. We’re getting there, but there are still opportunities for software developers and hardware manufacturers.
e) Reputation management – to some extent, this already exists as a service that some Search Engine Optimization specialists offer to customers. The specific case in mind is one where negative information about a person or company has found its way onto search engine results, or internet archives. It doesn’t necessarily have to be negative: for instance some States in the US have been digitizing property records without removing sensitive information such as Social Insurance Numbers. The process of removing information from the internet once it exists is extremely tricky; not only are there many places that can cross-reference information, but there are also many places that tend to cache information long after it is gone from the original sources. The process of removing information actually usually involves creating vast amounts of counter-information or meaningless nonsense that makes it difficult to actually obtain useful results from a search. Expect this to become a viable business model in coming years.

Conclusions

In the article above, I listed about a dozen possible business models that somebody could make money from based on the notion that more and more objects in the world are going to be directly linked to the internet. Yes, there are all kinds of security and privacy issues, in addition to which there are probably entire industries that are going to vanish as a result of this happening. There are also a great many opportunities for new industries to arise though.

How to Compete With Free

The Wall Street Journal issued an interesting article today on a topic that I’ve been pontificating about (here and on Yahoo Answers) for a while now: how are businesses going to switch from mindlessly burning up investors money to actually making money?

Last week I wrote about the 4 categories of business model that exist online. I’d like to take a quick look at a few of the successful (and not yet successful) examples (some from the WSJ’s article and its comments), and see if I can come up with a few specific ways in which websites can compete with “free”.

The issue at hand is fairly simple to describe: in each niche market online, there are many, many competitors. Most of them are giving away their services entirely for free. Some of them charge for specific premium services, but users are often willing to shop around to find some set of useful (to them) services that don’t cost them anything at all. This tends to result in a race to the bottom, where the only way (and it is indeed a dubious way) to make money for a website is through advertising.

Let’s look at a few of the most successful online businesses and see if we can learn anything from them:

Google

Google’s success is based on being able to deliver the largest number of ads, to the largest number of placements, at (in general) the lowest price. This business model depends entirely on having extremely high traffic, a highly viral method for spreading their system around, and excellent system for placing the right ad on the right website (it ain’t perfect, but it is good enough), and constantly doing interesting (but usually non-profitable) things to attract even more attention. At this point in time, it would be virtually impossible for anybody to launch a competing bid for that ad space – in order to do so, they would need to be able to charge advertisers less, while paying website owners more, which would likely make their margins uncompetitive. Google’s model – essentially a middleman model – has a large “moat” to use Warren Buffett’s terminology. Yes, they’re going to take a hit with cost per click going down a bit, but they have enough critical mass to ride out the storm and fend off competitors at the same time.

Craigslist

Craigslist is also a high traffic-dependant model. Basically it is a twist on the “freemium” business model – almost everything is free, except for a few types of ads in specific markets. As far as I can tell, they were the first ones to cotton onto the idea of giving away virtually everything, making yourself completely indispensible, and then charging for a few specific features that are very worthwhile for a small set of people to pay for. There are a great many competing websites – some who actually have quite a bit of traffic – that are giving away for free the specific set of things that Craigslist charges people for. However, they have sufficient traffic to make it worthwhile for advertisers to pay for things that need to attract attention. Basically their model boils down to being sufficiently indispensible that people will pay.

Meetup.com

A former employee of mine first alerted me to this website. When they started out, they offered a completely free service for people to organize groups to “meetup”. Their traffic grew exponentially until several years after launching, they switched to a fee-based model. Users of the site get in free. Owners of groups pay a monthly fee. When they switched, they lost about 80% of their groups. The ones that remained provided enough revenue to keep things profitable. Their methodology: lock-in. One people have a successful group with a large member-base, moving it somewhere else – even though feasible – is a pain in the neck. The amount that they charge isn’t high enough to drive away their customer base, although I have my doubts as to whether they’ll be able to grow much further. Basically they’re now a cash cow.

Salesforce.com

Salesforce.com gets away with charging a fee for an essentially simple system (there are lots of CRM packages around, some of them free) by providing a high-end feature set, in addition to a lower startup cost. Its easy to get going with Salesforce – you pay per seat, so the initial cost isn’t all that high, it is more convenient than installing and maintaining a system on your own, and then you are locked into a system as you grow to have more seats (which is where they really make their money). With a paid userbase that is apparently around 50,000 customers, they’ve probably grown to as large as their market will bear. Their key strategy: provide lots of features that aren’t available in the free/cheaper competitors; make the initial costs so low that they are painless; tie users in so that it is hard to leave; gradually ramp up the fees. This is essentially a “utility” model. Anyone hoping to compete with them is going to have to provide more features at a lower cost (and hence lower margins).

Wikipedia

Wikipedia has a much lower operating cost than a traditional encyclopedia: their content is basically free, they have things set up to run on a surprisingly small number of servers,  the crowd-sourcing model of producing quality (mostly) lends itself to a large amount of useful and accurate content, and people are willing to donate to keep something so useful alive. Like many of the other examples above, this is a business model that relies on being the highest trafficked website in its niche – and it is viral in the sense that the more content it has, the more useful it becomes. By keeping costs down, and basically guilt-tripping a subset of users into donating money, they can make a profit and keep things free. I’m not quite certain how Brittanica hopes to compete with them – yes, Wiki often has high-publicity editing faux-paux, but for the most part they are good enough. I’m not sure that providing a higher quality service (but charging for it) will be sufficient reason for people to switch to a different service.

I think that by now we can see a few specific trends:

  • Be the first one in your niche
  • Have the largest amount of traffic
  • Provide a service that is good enough
  • Make it difficult to switch
  • Make it expensive to start a competing business
  • Be willing to start charging and lose some traffic as a result
  • Charge only for those things that you need to charge for; keep most things free
  • Keep costs down

This isn’t all that different from any “brick and mortar” business model, is it?

Let’s take a look at a current favourite (of mine and many other people!): Twitter. What possible ways can they achieve their revenue goals, given that a) it isn’t necessary to login to their site in order to use it, and b) they provide a very small number of features, all of which are simple and easy to duplicate.

Their options (as I see it) are as follows:

  1. Make it harder to access Twitter from elsewhere. Start charging to use the API. Lock it down with additional security features.
  2. Place advertising on their site. This would rely on a larger percentage of users being forced to actually login to Twitter, as opposed to using tools like ping.fm.
  3. Create additional features that are currently being served up by other websites in their “ecosystem” – all of the cool profile rating, desktop tool, website plugin, karma-inducing stuff. Yes, I know, they would irk a lot of people.
  4. Sell products or services: branded versions of Twitter that are specifically for a particular company (i.e. for sales reps and customer service people, or for staff to tap into other staff’s knowledge). Services specifically for brands trying to tap into Twitter’s user base.
  5. Create their own desktop tool, with advertising spaces on it.
  6. Buy other websites with related features and tie them in.
  7. Find some other product or service (My husband/wife/parents went on a Twitter vacation and all he got me was this lousy t-shirt) that they can sell. Hey check it out: the Twitter eBay account! I don’t know if that would work.

In all of the above cases, they would certainly lose a percentage of their users. I think that is why they’ve been holding off for as long as possible – once they are “big enough” they can set things in stone. They’ll lose some people, and the rest will stay, but it will be hard for them to grow afterwards. I’m also not sure whether or not they would be successful or not with this approach – users could potentially just gravitate to other similar sites. The point is that they do have options, even if they are going to be hard ones.

There are plenty of lessons to be learned from a recession like we’re currently in. I tend to view these times as performing a tough but useful purpose – like controlled fires in a managed forest. Nobody really likes having to deal with reduced source of income (never mind venture capital), but this is an excellent opportunity for businesses to fine-tune their business models so that they can be more profitable once the recession is over. If website owners can move away from “everything is free and I make money from ads” to “I have some set of products and services that I sell, and I also make some money on the side from ads”, the online economy is going to be stronger going forward.

How Schools Could Use Social Media

This is #12 on Chris Brogan’s 100 Blog Topics list, and is part of the 100 Topics Challenge.

There's an opportunity to incorporate social media into the classroom. Will school boards take it?
There's an opportunity to incorporate social media into the classroom. Will school boards take it?

If I had a dollar for every kid that tries to get me to answer their homework questions on Yahoo! Answers, I might have a better than average chance of paying all my bills this month.

Yes, we happen to live in an age where things are changing pretty fast. It still puzzles me that the most common reaction by schools and universities to the social media phenomenon is to try and ban it from the classroom. Hence the proliferation of websites that try to catch cheaters.

If I was running the show, I would try a different tactic: co-opt social media. Make it part of the game. There’s a great learning opportunity here, and it is being missed – at least in North America. In Europe, there’s a heavy push to incorporate e-learning into the classroom (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Computer_aided_instruction for some interesting related topics).

Here is how I react when somebody tries to get me to do their homework for them: hey kid, there is an awesome learning opportunity here. I’m not going to solve the problem for you, but I will try to teach you a few interesting things. Maybe I’ll rephrase the question for you so you can understand it better. Maybe I’ll point you in the right direction so that you can discover places online where you can learn more about the problem at hand. Maybe I’ll give you a few pointers on ways to approach a solution. Sounds more like a tutorial? Self assisted learning opportunity?

One critical factor is that one really needs something like a walled garden – at least initially, and at least for younger students. If you toss them onto Yahoo Answers and tell them “good luck kid”, they’re going to come back with some interesting (and probably odd) notions about how the world works. For one thing, many of the so-called experts on sites like these, ain’t. Even on the late, great Askme.com, there were more than a fair share of kooks. Many of the e-learning projects underway (i.e. the Second Life-based project in the UK) are building things around such walled gardens.

If schools – or maybe school districts – had a site that only kids and teachers could login to, it could be a powerful tool. You need a critical number of users before something like this becomes useful. I don’t think one school is sufficient. On the other hand, if the whole world is involved, it may become too unwieldy (and expensive to maintain – let alone the factor of who owns and manages it).

Let other kids get involved in teaching their peers. After all, teaching something is often the best way to learn it.

Let adult teachers supervise and guide the process. I envision a system that categorizes data by topic, and allows the teacher to put a filter on it – right now you can learning anything you want about math. Here’s todays quick lesson and some questions to answer. Here are the resources to learn more. Need help? Here’s what everyone else in the class is working on? Here’s who else in the school district can help you? Here’s what last year’s class did.

Put in scoring mechanisms so that students can get competitive if they want. Help your fellow student, two points. Get rated for the best question by teach and peers? Bonus points! It would be critical to balance a competitive system so that it doesn’t leave some students behind, possibly through an opt-out system. Or just let kids see their own score and rank, without access to anyone else’s.

Build in the day’s lessons in a way that the students can explore the topic in their own way and at their own pace, but with guides and video tutorials to help them if they get stuck. I know that this kind of learning methodology doesn’t work for everyone. There has to be a way to incorporate self directed learning into a pedagogical system though.

I wish there had been something like that when I was growing up. Yes, there were computers in the classroom (I got lucky with my schooling). Yes, we learned how to program in Basic and Logo. I also grew up reading Ender’s Game, and there were definite precursors to e-learning social media in there. The concepts involved here aren’t new, and the technology involved isn’t particularly challenging any more. There are even some fairly big companies building pieces of the puzzle – hence Blackbaud and their myriad competitors (e-learning overall is at least a $50 billion USD per year industry). All something like this needs is a vision, some corporate sponsors, and a lot of courage from school boards.

What is the Purpose of Twitter?

Twitter: Love it or Hate it?
Twitter: Love it or Hate it?

A friend of mine and I have had a running argument on this blog and on Facebook for a while now, regarding whether Twitter and other microblog sites are actually useful. His words were something along the lines of “high noise to signal ratio”.

I started with all the usual rehashed arguments again, before realizing that he possibly has a strong case that bears investigation.

Bear with me for a second.

I still think Twitter is incredibly useful – what I am realizing is that it has specific utility for specific people.

If you look at websites like Facebook and MySpace, their audience is on the order of magnitude of one hundred million people. Sites like Yahoo might even have a billion regular users. I’m not talking power users – that’s probably only a fraction of the overall total – what I am saying though it that those sites have a broad, overarching purpose to the general public. Give it enough time and everyone on the planet will have a Facebook account.

If you compare this to Twitter – with supposedly 10 million users (yes, I know, it is new and growing fast) – you see one, possibly two orders of magnitude difference in user base.

I have a number of theories why that is, but basically it indicates that the concept of microblogging is taking a very strong hold within a very specific segment of the market.

It also – based on my friend’s reaction – has a long way to go before it gains wide market acceptance.

The utility of a site like LinkedIn is immediately obvious to most people. You post up your resume, and then you do the same kind of networking activity that you might otherwise do at a BNI meeting.

Same goes for Facebook – you probably don’t have enough time to spend with friends, but you still want to see what is going on in their world.

When a newbie first logs into Twitter, chances are that what they see is a neverending stream of disjointed partial conversations, the vast majority of which are utterly incomprehensible to somebody not part of the original conversation. Its like having your head thrust into a gigantic undertow inducing stream of inside jokes and non sequiturs.

So why the disparity between my position that the website is so useful, and his that it is a not particularly funny, running gag-line? Is it just a matter of Twitter having a steep learning curve?

I’m not so sure.

What I suspect is that there is something deeper, and possibly more interesting going on. The usefulness of Twitter is actually highly, specifically targeted at a few core audiences. I don’t have a complete list, but they probably include:

  • Marketers – whether offline (ad people, cool hunters etc) or online (SEO types), Twitter is THE place to catch the most current memes in circulation. If you want to know what the world is thinking right now, this is how you find out. I frequently am alerted to breaking news via Twitter seconds, minutes, even hours before anyone else gets it.
  • Small business owners – a large chunk of the conversations that I personally engage in with other Twitter users basically amount to an exchange of experience or news or technical information that used to be the domain of card exchanges. Yes, you can get a better feel for the big picture of what somebody is about on LinkedIn. For pure immediacy though, this is the closest you’re going to get to actually pressing the flesh with a bunch of similarly-minded individuals. SMS doesn’t cut it – how would you find people like that in the first place. Its easy on Twitter, particularly if you use some of the other websites in its ecosystem.
  • Not-for-profits and social activists – I have more than a little suspicion that heavy Twitter usage played a part in the phenomenon that carried Mr Obama to the White House. The ability for information to quickly disseminate from a broadcaster to a large number of followers – through a process similar to broken telephone – without losing the sense that it is a personal conversation, is unrivalled elsewhere. You can’t get that with television. Yahoo news? Never. A room full of people can only fit a few hundred or maybe thousand people, and you can’t ever talk to all of them. With Twitter, by the time a strong message has been “retweeted” to all ten million users, they’re all actively taking part in that conversation. And those ten million users are influential. For politics or chariities, or anyone trying to change the world, Twitter matters.
  • Bored people. Yes, my friend has a point. There are a large number of people tweeting inanities for every person who has something useful and interesting to say. But if it makes them happy, what the heck is wrong with that?

Got some other ideas about what is happening here? Please let me know!