Decline and fall?

Twitter has been taking a bit of a pasting in the technology media world recently. Could this mean it is facing a bleak future, and could become the new MySpace, or Friendster? Or even – the horror! – FriendsReunited?

The biggest furore came when they recently changed the terms of use for their API or application programming interface – the data feed that various other services can use to manipulate Twitter content.

Effectively Twitter are limiting access to the API for many of the apps that people have come to know and love. For example, many of the ‘client’ applications people use to access Twitter, which are independent of Twitter itself, are going to find life more difficult in the future.

On top of annoying the developer community, Twitter has irritated its own user base too, with the over hasty censoring of accounts; and the growth of advertising on the platform.

This latter point is the important one. Twitter has grown into a vast social network, but hasn’t actually made much money over the last five years. What it needs to do is to turn it’s userbase into cash – and the best way of doing that, they think, is ads. Hence the clampdown on third party client apps – which may interfere with the way the ads appear to users.

Finally, a few folk are feeling increasingly nervous about the fact that content they create, such as tweets, isn’t owned by them. It’s all held in a database by Twitter, and they can choose to do with it what they will.

To a certain extent, people should probably just stop whining. After all, Twitter never claimed to be anything other than a for profit corporate company – this day was going to come sooner or later. But given the way Twitter has developed, their recent behaviour does stick in the craw somewhat.

  • Who came up with the idea for @ replies? Not Twitter – it was the users and third party developers.
  • Who came up with the idea for hashtags? Not Twitter – it was the users and third party developers.
  • Who came up with the bird motif? Not Twitter – it was a third party developer.
  • Who puts all the content into Twitter? Not Twitter – it’s the users.

The list can go on. Again, all those people who invested time, content and ideas into Twitter have little to complain about, really. Twitter never claimed to be open source. They’re free to take people’s suggestions and incorporate them as they please. That’s part of the deal with using a ‘free’ service.

However, people have started to hit back. app.net is a new Twitter clone with a slight difference: you have to pay $50 to use it. This means no ads, an open API and no corporations interfering with the way the service runs.

It also provides an option to download all your data, which kind of answers the content control issue.

I’ve started using it and my profile is just here: https://alpha.app.net/davebriggs. It’s slow, as you can imagine any new network is – let alone one that you have to pay to join. I’m not convinced it will succeed as anything other than an online ghetto for people who have fallen out of love with Twitter.

Also, remember Diaspora? Thought not. They tried to do a similar thing, but to Facebook. Didn’t work – nobody cared enough.

Others like Dave Winer (the somewhat cantankerous tech legend who invented RSS amongst other things) are promoting a much more open way of publishing, where people control their own servers running their own software, and through protocols and standards, they talk to one another. In other words, decentralising the whole social networking concept.

An example of this emerged recently, called tent.io.

This makes sense for people with the chops to run software like this, and perhaps to serious, professional content creators. But for people chatting about what’s happening on Xfactor? Probably not.

What does this mean for digital engagers in government and beyond?

Not a lot. Keep calm and carry on, as the increasingly irritating posters, tea towels, coasters and rolls of toilet paper keep telling us. Twitter isn’t going away. Many of these debates are fairly arcane and only of interest to the tiny percentage of the population that actually care.

Twitter remains an easy to access, free to use channel for people to quickly share their thoughts about what is happening to them at that moment, and it has enormous reach too.

For those that do worry about owning your content, keeping records and backing up, you can always make use of tools like ifttt to keep a copy of everything you publish.

Twitter will be with us for a long while yet.

How open are council meetings?

DCLG have today announced that residents, bloggers, tweeters, community activists and hyperlocal sites should have the same access and facilities to council meetings as traditional newspaper journalists. This is important because it means Government recognises the valuable contribute the wider community makes to accountability in local government.

It’s a very timely announcement. For a while now I’ve been interested in the openness of council meetings. Namely, whether citizens, media or councillors are permitted to live tweet/blog, record audio of or film public meetings.

I have secured permission to film the meetings of my local council meetings in Lichfield and heard stories of others being forced to leave or even arrested for attempting to do the same.

These are just a few examples of the current state of play so an effort to document which councils allow their meetings to be opened up I created Open Council Meetings, a simple project to track which councils allow tweeting, recording and filming of meetings.

My hope is that the project can help bring together localgov enthusiasts, hyperlocal bloggers and active citizens to monitor the situation and put pressure on councils to open up.

 

Writing an effective tweet

Writing a tweet is easy – after all, what can you get wrong when you only have 140 characters to play with?

Quite a lot, it turns out.

Recently Ben and I did some training at a local authority up in the North-East, and part of it was a quick workshop on writing for the web and for social media. We spent a fair bit of time looking at Twitter as a medium.

We ran an exercise where everyone had a story for which they had to write a tweet to promote it. We went through the process a couple of times, with people rewriting their tweets to improve them, save characters, and that sort of thing.

Here’s some of the learning that emerged:

  1. Make sure it begins with an impactful, information carrying word or two. Tweets may be short, but they still need to grab the attention. Tweets beginning with ‘News’ or ‘Announcement’ are wasting space – we know it;s an announcement, else it wouldn’t be on Twitter!
  2. Use  a URL shortener to save characters – but customise it to make it human readable too, as this adds meaning and can save characters elsewhere
  3. Leave some space for old school retweeters and those who like to add a short comment to a retweet
  4. Formatting on Twitter is limited. Make use of capital letters to add emphasis – but sparingly
  5. Draft tweets and work on them – don’t publish your first go. Instead, go through it a couple of times trimming characters and improving the language
  6. Time your tweets – those posted in the morning tend to get more active attention than later in the day. Also don’t post on the hour – lots of automated systems are set up to do that and you might get drowned out
  7. Don’t be afraid of repeating a tweet so people can pick it up at another time or day – but don’t do it too often
  8. You need to work hard to appear authoritative in a social space so people feel they can trust the information you are providing. Ensure you include concrete facts to reinforce this
  9. A key thing for people getting information from social networks is the idea they are getting something special – use language that enforces the uniqueness of the content they are seeing
  10. Whatever you do, don’t automate this process! There’s nothing worse than those press releases pumped out onto Twitter, with half the tweet filled with “PRESS RELEASE” and then half the title missing on the end… just taking five minutes to think about what you are writing can make a real difference!

If a workshop on best use of social media in your organisation would be helpful – just get in touch! We’d be happy to chat about your requirements and design something that meets your needs.

Who retweeted you?

I didn’t know you could do this. Maybe you don’t either, so I’ll share it.

How do you find out which of your tweets have been retweeted, and by who? Turns out, by looking on the Twitter website!

First, go to twitter.com and log in. Then click the little ‘Retweets’ tab just under the updates box. Should look a little like this:

Retweet tab

Click on ‘Your Tweets, retweeted’, as per the arrow.

You’ll see a list of all your tweets that others have retweeted. Cool!

If you then hover over one, and click, a detail pane should pop up, giving info on exactly who retweeted you. Click the image below to make it bigger, if you need to.

Retweet details

So now you know.

#testittuesday – public service use of twitter par excellence

I had a great day yesterday (Wednesday) at the FirePro seminar on social media use in Fire and Rescue Services.

I have a load of notes to type up and share here, but one thing really jumped out at me during the day – the #testittuesday campaign.

Basically, it’s a simple public safety campaign to get people to test their smoke alarms every week, on a Tuesday. The hashtag is used, and folk are encouraged to retweet it to get more coverage.

It was started by Elle from Norfolk Fire and Rescue Service, who gave an entertaining and informative presentation to the group about how it all came about. Unsurprisingly, there wasn’t a vast amount of planning – it just seemed like a good idea and Elle just got on with it.

Here’s why I think this is a great campaign, and an almost perfect use of Twitter as a public service campaign:

  • It’s completely within the existing culture of Twitter – all about the hashtag and the social nature of the message – it’s all about people passing it on
  • It’s simple – just a quick reminder to people to perform one straightforward action
  • Very low barriers to entry – no need to sign up for anything you aren’t already a member of. If you’re on twitter you see the message, and with one click you forward it on to your friends
  • It’s uncontroversial – nobody is going to take umbrage at being reminded to do something that’s easy to forget, and yet potentially life saving
  • It’s not about the fire service’s own twitter account – this isn’t some bid to get more followers. It’s about getting the message out to as many people as possible
  • It takes advantage of the trust people have in their networks. If a fire service asks me on twitter to check my fire alarm, I might do it – but I’m more likely to if some of my friends do so

I think there’s lots to learn here for all public services wanting to make the most of social media channels. Always consider the medium you are using, and what sort of behaviour works well. Don’t ask too much of people, keep it simple and straightforward. Above all, don’t make it about you or your organisation, but about the message you want to get out.

Almost live transparency from Greater Manchester Police

GMP

A really interesting experiment is happening in Manchester today, thanks to the local police force.

Greater Manchester Police are, according to their website,

publishing details of every incident that it deals with on Twitter to allow the public to see what officers at one of the largest UK forces face on a daily basis.

This video explains more:

You can follow all the action on the GMP website, where they are aggregating together the outputs from three different Twitter streams, or just get the latest from @gmpolice.

As I said, interesting stuff, and a great use of the scale that social media tools like Twitter offer in terms of quickly publishing a lot of information. Imagine doing something like this through traditional web publishing tools!

It’s also a great example of a public service using transparency proactively and positively. It doesn’t always have to be bad news.

Google goes for Twitter

Google Buzz is the search engine giant’s latest attempt to get social to work within its suite of applications. Strangely, while we use Google’s stuff for all sorts of things, from searching to email to RSS aggregation to document editing, we don’t tend to use their services much for sharing. Instead, we go to Twitter, or maybe Facebook.

Perhaps all that will now change.

Here’s a video explaining Buzz and how it will work:

It may seem crazy to attempt to take Twitter on in its own territory, but Google have a couple of real strengths which mean they end up winning the status update battle.

For a start, Google have been quietly building up a range of services based on your Google account. You may have started this account to access Gmail, or maybe Google Reader.

But did you know you also have a public profile on Google, which you can fill up with all sorts of information about you and the sites and services you use? Here’s mine.

Or how about the way Google has a really cool service that manages all of your contacts?

What about the social circle search, which lets you look for content created by your friends, or friends of friends?

In some ways it’s kinda scary the way Google collects all this information, and the way it puts it all together like this. But it’s also a reason why Buzz might succeed where all other Twitter-killers have failed.

What’s one of the things that puts people off Twitter the first time they use it? The fact that you don’t know anyone, and have nobody to talk to. But the way Buzz will tap into your existing networks, you might not have that problem on Google’s service. The user base already exists, and it is already massive.

There is also masses of potential for organisations using Google Apps, where having Buzz as part of the mix will bring masses of value, and possibly kill off Yammer in the process.

There’s another reason why Buzz might well beat Twitter, and that is the money thing. Google has a business model, and a very successful one. It isn’t hard seeing how Buzz can slot into that model, and make a contribution. At some point, though, Twitter is going to have to start earning money. How it does that, and whether it manages to do so without annoying the hell out of its users – for whom revenue generation will necessitate a change – will determine whether Twitter survives.

Another thing that is in Buzz’s favour is that it sits inside Gmail. In your inbox. Despite the massive growth in social networking over the last few years, email is still the internet’s killer app, and most people spend a hell of a lot of time looking at their inboxes.

As an example of this, I use Google Talk a lot as an instant messaging service, but I use it entirely from within Gmail. I usually can’t be faffed loading up a separate client for IM, but if someone’s name pops up in Gmail saying they’re online, I’ll often grab them for a quick chat.

Having a status update, Twitter-like facility sat there too means that I’m going to use it, to the point where I might stop visiting other locations to do similar stuff. Bye, bye Twitter, maybe.

Of course lots of similar stuff was said about Wave, and while that wasn’t exactly a dud, it did strike me as a solution looking for a problem. A great bit of technology that felt a bit like a square peg. Buzz, though, isn’t looking to revolutionise the way we use the web, just to make an existing activity easier, and nearer – and that might be enough to make it work.

Having written all this, I of course don’t have access to Buzz yet. If you are one of the lucky ones, do please tell us all about it in the comments.

Update: Not sure how I missed it, but there is an API for Buzz, allowing for developers to hook it up to all sorts of other services, whether “Atom, AtomPub, Activity Streams, PubSubHubbub, OAuth, MediaRSS, Salmon, the Social Graph API, PortableContacts, WebFinger, and much, much more” according to the Google Social Web blog.

Elsewhere:

Moronic reporting of non issues

Take a look at this story, excitingly titled on the BBC News site “Council Twitter users face rebuke“.

Councillors in Cornwall could face being reported to the authority’s standards committee for using social networking sites.

The trouble is, no they’re not.

Later in the article:

It follows claims that a number of councillors used Twitter during a meeting and mocked other members.

If a councillor is found to breach the code of conduct for inappropriate comments, they could be suspended.

So this is about councillors saying naughty things, and not about them using Twitter, or whatever.

Another example of the easy fixation on technology as being the story, when it isn’t. The story is behaviour: people and the relationships they have with others.

We really don’t need anymore Twitter scare stories, it isn’t productive and it helps nobody.

Tweetwally

tweetwally is a terrifically simple site that lets you create your own pages that track what is being said on Twitter.

It’s a great way of sharing tweets on a topic with people who perhaps aren’t hardcore Twitter users.

I have set one up that tracks any tweets that have localgov in them. If anybody in local government wanted to demonstrate the use of Twitter in having conversations about local gov, they just need to load up the page, without having to mess about with searches, or lists, or whatever. It’s at http://localgov.tweetwally.com/.

Great work by Clockwork to produce a nice little site.

Hat tip to Matt Jukes for pointing it out.