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January 2010

The Commoditization of Twitter Followers

I have a love/hate relationship with Twitter. I see - and have increasingly experienced - many benefits to its use, especially with respect to its propensity to foster meaningful new connections with consequential strangers and acquaintances. However, I am becoming increasingly cynical about some of the practices that are evolving, particularly with respect to the inflated numbers - and diminished value - of followers on Twitter. I recently encountered one especially egregious example of follower aggrandizement, essentially amounting to a flagrant commoditization of followers.

Experience-economy In The Experience Economy: Work is Theatre & Every Business a Stage, Joseph Pine and James Gilmore present a model that encompasses two countervailing trends: customization - where increasing differentiation leads to higher value - and commoditization - where decreasing differentiation leads to lower value. I'll note in passing that the references to theatre and stage are eerily prescient of the explosive growth of social media in general and Twitter in particular, but will press on with the ways that customization and commoditization apply to Twitter. Twitter offers many mechanisms for customization - I can choose a username (e.g., @gumption), a skin or background for the homepage, a profile that can include a full name, web page and brief bio, a set of other users I'm following (which I like to refer to as my followees) and a set of lists to organize or categorize those users. The profile of anyone I'm following, in turn, lists me as a follower. The short (140-character) text messages (tweets) posted by the people I'm following are all collected in my tweetstream, and my tweets show up in the tweetstreams of all of my followers.

My followers become, in effect, my [potential] witnesses, and as I have written earlier, the public display of followers makes Twitter a witness projection program (for better and for worse). The number of followers one accumulates can give rise to a sense of micro-celebrity and some people who have achieved celebrity through other mechanisms - such as Ashton Kutcher, Oprah Winfrey and Ellen Degeneres - can achieve macro-celebrity, amassing millions of Twitter followers. The web service now lists 158 Twitter users - including both individuals and organizations - who have accumulated at least 1 million Twitter followers. I was surprised to discover that @JuliaAllison, who was featured in a July 2008 Wired story, Internet Famous: Julia Allison and the Secrets of Self-Promotion, was not among those listed; she has "only" 17,000 followers.

Some question the authenticity of [some] followers, especially among Twitter users with millions of followers. Anil Dash (@anildash) makes a pretty compelling argument that no one really has a million Twitter followers:

Twitter accounts that have over half a million followers listed actually represent (at most) a few hundred thousand people who've chosen to become organic followers of someone, along with millions who are passively along for the ride. Some of them are inactive users, some are spammers, some just ignore the noise of the accounts that don't interest them, like spam in an email inbox. But they can't count as "followers" in any meaningful sense.

So even if the people and organizations at the top of the Twitterati pyramid have "only" a few hundred thousand followers, they are clearly more successful in attracting tweetworthy attention than others. A June 2009 Guardian article reported that Evan Weaver, Twitter's lead engineer in its services team, claimed that the average Twitter user has 126 followers (or did at that time). A more recent report on New Data on Twitter's Users and Engagement by RJMetrics (@RJMetrics) estimates that 25% of of the 75 million Twitter accounts have no followers (and 40% have never posted a single tweet ... and 80% have posted fewer than 10 tweets) ... suggesting that there are a large number of "dead" accounts, or accounts used only for "listening", a mode of Twitter use that Kate Crawford (@KateCrawford) explores in more depth in Following You: Disciplines of Listening in Social Media [Journal of Media & Culture Studies, 23 (4), 525-535].

In a paper to be presented at CSCW 2010, Is it Really About Me? Message Content in Social Awareness Streams, Mor Naaman (@informor) and his colleagues analyzed the tweetstreams of 350 randomly selected users, and distinguish between Meformers - Twitter users who tend to share information about themselves, e.g., "tired and upset" - and Informers - users who share information on other people, places and things, typically including a URL - and report that Informers tend to have more friends [= followees] (Median=131) and followers (Median=112) than Meformers (Median=61, Median=42). I do not believe they included any celebrities in their dataset, but suspect some celebrities would represent outliers for the Meformer category.

One of the brainstorming strategies we used at Accenture Technology Labs for prognosticating technological innovations, applications and implications was to see what kinds of benefits very successful people and businesses were enjoying, and imagine how technology could be used to replicate or approximate some of those benefits for people and businesses that were not quite as successful [yet]. So I experienced a mixture of delight and cynicism when I discovered a new service that makes it easier than ever before to become famous for being famous ... or to accumulate Twitter followers by automatically following other Twitter users.

Followers_howitworks A few weeks ago, I received a series of email notifications about Twitter users who had started following me that each listed 10,000+ followers and 10,000+ followees. This seemed odd, as most of the people that I follow who have 10,000+ followers have far fewer followees (by at least one, and often several, orders of magnitude). Being curious about these stats, I perused the tweetstream of one of these new followers, and saw references to a new "reciprocal following" web service, which at the time redirected to (but now fronts ... more on that in a moment). The promotional video on the site claims "There Has Never been an Easier Way to Build a MASSIVE Following on Twitter" and promises "To Make You a BOATLOAD of Cash!". It invites you to join, and then invite your Twitter followers to join, or to sign up for the automated referral option through which will post periodic invitations to join the system in your tweetstream. Once you join, you automatically follow everyone else who has already joined, and  everyone else who has already joined will automatically be added to your list of Twitter followers. The video claims that "For ONLY $1!", "You Will Get Paid $10 Per Month for Every One [of your Twitter followers] That Joins", leading me to suspect that this may be a Ponzi scheme, and so my description of here should be taken as a cautionary critique of the service rather than an invitation or endorsement.

I didn't think to grab a screenshot of the tweetstream of the member at the time (early January), and but I'll include a screenshot of another member's tweetstream below. The automated messages now include references to Cause Marketing and Non Profits ... perhaps this is an "enhancement" added after the Haitian earthquake, or perhaps enables individual customization of automated messages for each member, as I don't recall these sorts of appeals when I first checked it out. It's interesting to note that there are no explicit references to URLs containing ""; presumably, these are concealed behind the URLs used: member tweetstream

As I mentioned above, now appears to redirect to The video on this site features the creator, Kimball Roundy, shown below, promoting the service as a way to get "REAL, Targeted Twitter Followers who are actually interested in what you have to say", and issuing the ironic warning to spammers to not even try to sign up for the service:

Kimball Roundy promoting

From what I can gather from the web site, the new "enhancement" that has been added in the past few weeks is a 12-second video members can upload to their homepage, telling visitors why they should follow them ... as though perusing their tweetstream would not be sufficient evidence for making well-informed judgments regarding followability ... and reminding me of a quote by a Jazz musician I once heard: "If you have to say you're cool, you ain't." Also, instead of asking for and promising to dole out money, the new system talks about credits and is "100% free" ... although there are "pro" and "elite" membership levels that may require some kind of larger investment. As with my description of, my description of should be taken as a cautionary critique of the service rather than an invitation or endorsement.

I found a tweetstream for a member, and am including a screenshot below. It's interesting how the automated messages employ some minor variations on the directed invitations they post: member tweetstream

Based on the stats shown for some of these recent followers, the number of auto-followers on appears to have surpassed 10,000 ... the threshold mentioned a few months ago in a New York Times article on Tweeting for Dollars:

Twitter users who sign up to send ads to their network of friends and followers will get paid based on various individual metrics, like a person’s reach on Twitter, the ratio of friends to followers, length of time on Twitter and, of course, the number of followers. An active Twitter user with 10,000 followers could make $25 to $35 per commercial tweet, Mr. Murphy [founder and chief executive of Izea, the marketing company behind a pay-per-post service that enables companies to pay bloggers for every post about their product or service] said.

A more recent - and more lighthearted - review by Viralogy (@Viralogy) of some of the pay-for-tweet services in Tweet For a Living: What You Can Buy by Tweeting offers some examples of what top celebrity tweeters might be able to rake in if they wanted to convert their massive following on Twitter into boatloads of cash.

The automation of reciprocal followership on may be an extreme case, and yet it is consistent with what appears to be a common presumption or expectation of reciprocity on the part of some Twitter users - if I follow you, you should follow me. Another Twitter user who recently started following me has adopted a manual approach to explicitly requesting reciprocity from his recent followees in his tweetstream:

How About Returning the Follow?

As another example of a less directed explicit solicitation of followers, I recently saw the following message retweeted by one of my followees who is a follower of @TheEllenShow:

The Ellen Show iPod Giveaway on Twitter and Facebook

Of course, these explicit appeals to extrinsic motivations for public displays of attention to social media streams are not restricted to Twitter. I've also encountered enticements - on Twitter - for people to post comments on blogs:

Using Twitter to offer extrinsic incentives for posting blog comments

There are many, somewhat more subtle, methods that people use for promoting themselves and increasing or rewarding their followers on Twitter. For example, I recently saw a tweet referencing a Fast Company article listing Nine Scientifically Proven Ways to Get Retweeted on Twitter, drawn from a report by viral marketing scientist Dan Zarrella (@danzarella). [Update: Dan just posted a new, relevant blog entry: Data Shows that Self-Reference Does Not Get Followers.] In a recent peer-reviewed scientific paper on Tweet, Tweet, Retweet: Conversational Aspects of Retweeting on Twitter, social media researcher danah boyd (@zephoria) and her colleagues identified a number of potential motivations behind retweeting (i.e., re-posting Twitter updates originally posted by others), including the ego retweet:

Ego retweets are when people retweet messages that refer to them. Some see this as “narcissistic” or “self-serving,” while others see it as a way of giving credit to and appreciating the person talking about them.

Although I am not an altruism skeptic, I do think that both interpretations of ego retweets reflect a failure to follow Don Miguel Ruiz' second agreement, don't take anything personally. Even when the person publicly thanking someone for a retweet is consciously motivated by a genuine feeling of appreciation, I believe it still represents an unconscious presumption that the retweeter is re-posting the message for reasons relating to the original (or most recent) poster rather than the content of the message itself ... ergo, ego: in either case, it's all about me.

Aside from the philosophical, psychological or social implications of the these ego retweeting practices, on a practical basis, they don't scale. If I publicly thank you for retweeting a reference to me, and my tweet of thanks includes a reference to you, should you then publicly thank me ... and so on? In an effort to inject a little levity into this lengthy discussion, I've created a semi-fictitious scenario to dramatize (or humorize) this:

Recursive Retweeting

In the interest of full disclosure, I tried a variation on ego retweeting once, posting a message thanking Melissa Allison (@CoffeeCity), a Seattle Times reporter who had written a blog post referencing one of my blog posts:

RT @CoffeeCity Seattle-area blogger peers deeply into recent book, chatter about coffeehouses and community #thanks

However, I felt so uncomfortable and self-conscious about what I immediately afterward judged to be a self-serving and indirectly self-referential post, that I have not tried it again. That said, I do thank people for blog comments when I respond to their comments on my blog, and occasionally send emails or more private, direct messages via Twitter to thank them (especially if there has been a significant delay in my response). And I enjoy receiving emails and direct messages from people who have read my blogs or comments. But these all seem qualitatively different from publicly thanking people for a retweet, in part, perhaps, because someone has taken the time to add something to the conversation.

Another popular method for increasing followers is the #FollowFriday (#ff) phenomenon, a sort of pass-along followship (somewhat akin to pass-along readership in print media), whereby a Twitter user will recommend other Twitter users that his/her followers should also follow. While I suspect that genuine appreciation for others is often a conscious motivation for this practice - "hey, these other tweeters are interesting, you should follow them too!" - it also strikes me as somewhat presumptuous. Why should I follow someone just because someone I follow recommends them (outside of any other context besides it being #ff)? If I follow you, and you follow someone else you think is interesting, you'll probably retweet some of the interesting messages that person tweets ... and if a critical mass of those tweets seem interesting to me, too, then I will follow that person (without any #ff prompting) in a more natural or organic way.

I see this as yet another mechanism for indirectly increasing one's followers. I imagine there are a great deal of reciprocal #FollowFriday recommendations: if I include you in my #ff list this week, you are more likely to include me in your #ff next week, and we both gain more followers. And if you publicly thank me for the #ff this week - "thanks for the follow!" - and I publicly thank you for the #ff next week, well, then we both benefit from yet another dimension of co-promotional activity. For the record, I have never posted a #ff tweet.

So why am I taking these automated and semi-automated reciprocal following systems, and extrinsic vs. intrinsic motivations for following, so personally ... or, at least, so seriously? This could all be simply a manifestation of academics' aversion to shameless self-promotion (well chronicled recently in the Chronicle of Higher Education). Or it could be a symptom of my ongoing struggle against praise addiction. In any case, it is nearly always the case that any time I am irritated by something, it reflects something in myself that I am hiding, repressing or denying, and so my scree above is as much an effort to sort through the motivations behind my own actions as anyone else's.

One of the features I like about Twitter is that, unlike most other online social networking services (e.g., Facebook, LinkedIn and MySpace), no reciprocity is required - I can follow someone without them having to agree to being my "friend" or "contact" (people with protected tweets have to agree to let me follow them, but do not have to reciprocate by following me back). danah boyd recently offered some thoughts on Twitter vs. Facebook status updates on her blog, in which she differentiates the social graph directionality and conversational mechanisms between the two services (Twitter: directed; Facebook: undirected) and notes that:

What makes Twitter work differently than Facebook has to do with the ways in which people can navigate status and power, follow people who don't follow them, at-reply strangers and begin conversations that are fundamentally about two individuals owning their outreach as part of who they are. It's not about entering another's more private sphere (e.g., their Facebook profile). It's about speaking in public with a targeted audience explicitly stated.

I believe the very idea of having followers, linked to a single online identity (Twitter username), which has an increasingly pervasive reach, will foster a stronger sense of online responsibility and accountability. I don't know of any studies that show this, but I suspect that the online disinhibition effect, especially the dissociative anonymity factor, diminishes with the strength of one's association with a particular online identity. One of the reasons that people create multiple personas online is to experiment with and/or provide an expression for specific aspects of themselves they'd rather not have associated with themselves in general. We will still have flame wars, of course, but I think that as the number of a user's followers grows, I'd like to think that this will encourage him/her to be more impeccable with his/her words (Don Miguel Ruiz' first agreement).

So if I think that having followers is a good thing, what's my problem? The "systems" - human or mechanized - described above lead to a commodization - and consequent devaluation - of following and followers. On the one hand, it doesn't matter that much to me personally: I don't have many followers, and I'm not actively seeking more followers ... and after this blog post, I would not be surprised if some followers unfollow me. While I do feel happy whenever someone follows me - not unlike the validation I feel when someone posts a blog comment - it's helpful to keep this in perspective, i.e., if people are following me, it's about the messages and not the messenger ... a hollow bones approach to Twitter.

On the other hand, the commoditization of followers leads to yet another online arms race, where instead of - or in addition to - competing for Google Juice, users are competing for followers, where search engine optimization is replaced - or augmented - by social media optimization. And just as there is a growing disparity of wealth in the financial economy - the so-called Matthew effect wherein the rich get richer - a September 2009 RapLeaf study reported follower statistics for the most popular Twitter users, which shows a similarly increasing disparity of wealth in the attention economy, wherein the popular get more popular:

[For those interested in learning more about the most popular tweeters, and their influence, Alex Leavitt (@alexleavitt) and his colleagues at the Web Ecology Project recently released a report on The Influentials: New Approaches to Analyzing Influence on Twitter, in which they analyzed 134,654 tweets, 15,866,629 followers, and 899,773 followees, based on 2,143 tweets generated by 12 popular Twitter users over a 10-day period.]

And why does this matter? Well, two things I've read recently - both of which were tweeted by my followees - help me understand the source of my unrest. One is a recent Wired article by Clive Thompson (@pomeranian99), who had earlier captured the essence of my love/hate relationship in his June 2007 article on How Twitter Creates a Social Sixth Sense. In the current issue, Clive writes in Praise of Online Obscurity, describing how - and why -the growth of followership actually inhibits genuine connections and conversations in Twitter (the features I love the most about the service):

When it comes to your social network, bigger is better. Or so we’re told. The more followers and friends you have, the more awesome and important you are. That’s why you see so much oohing and aahing over people with a million Twitter followers. But lately I’ve been thinking about the downside of having a huge online audience. When you go from having a few hundred Twitter followers to ten thousand, something unexpected happens: Social networking starts to break down.
Why? Because socializing doesn’t scale. Once a group reaches a certain size, each participant starts to feel anonymous again, and the person they’re following — who once seemed proximal, like a friend — now seems larger than life and remote. “They feel they can’t possibly be the person who’s going to make the useful contribution,” [recipe tweeter Maureen] Evans says. So the conversation stops. Evans isn’t alone. I’ve heard this story again and again from those who’ve risen into the lower ranks of microfame. At a few hundred or a few thousand followers, they’re having fun — but any bigger and it falls apart. Social media stops being social. It’s no longer a bantering process of thinking and living out loud. It becomes old-fashioned broadcasting.
When it comes to microfame, the worst place to be is in the middle of the pack. If someone’s got 1.5 million followers on Twitter, they’re one of the rare and straightforwardly famous folks online. Like a digital Oprah, they enjoy a massive audience that might even generate revenue. There’s no pretense of intimacy with their audience, so there’s no conversation to spoil. Meanwhile, if you have a hundred followers, you’re clearly just chatting with pals. It’s the middle ground — when someone amasses, say, tens of thousands of followers — where the social contract of social media becomes murky.

The second source of illumination was a recent blog post by digital communications phenomenologist / social media anthropologist Tac Anderson (@tacanderson) on 3 Reasons Why Social Media is Killing Search showed some trends regarding the patterns of use of Internet search engines and social media services (like Twitter):

The post includes several interesting observations about trends in social recommendation, better curating and a lack of search innovation. In a rather long comment I posted in response, I noted that:

I hope that in the quest for innovation, search does not become overly influenced by social media usage. danah boyd posted an insightful piece a while back about valuing inefficiency and unreliability, in which she emphasized the value conferred by effort. It seems to me that many Twitter users tweet (or retweet) a link to a long article or story without reading it (completely), or tweet a link to a short summary of a longer essay ... possibly drawn in by a catchy headline and/or an engaging first paragraph (and no, I won't say anything more about headlines, given another thread in these comments :).

My concern is that Twitter and other social media services are promoting a "snack culture", and without search algorithms that are not [as heavily] influenced by the memes of the moment, our ability to find original sources - or insights and experiences that may not be currently trendy - may suffer.

A recent Google blog post claimed that search is getting more social, [further] blurring the distinction between search and social media. Perhaps the commoditization of followers will simply accelerate a movement toward yet another paradigm of discovering people, places and things of potential interest. Meanwhile, following the processing practices for another abundant commodity, I hope that the growing plethora of tools for measuring Twitter influence will be able to separate the wheat from the chaff.

[Update: I've written more on the further commoditization of Twitter followers, highlighting yet another lowlight in the race to the bottom of devaluing followers in Twitter.]

Conversations and Conversationalists in Social Media

Josh Bernoff recently wrote that Forrester Research has added "Conversationalists" to its Social Technographics typology of social media users, which had previously included the occasionally overlapping categories of creators, critics, collectors, joiners, spectators and inactives. He and his colleagues define conversationalists as people who post status updates on Twitter or other social networking sites at least weekly, and estimate that 33% of U.S. online adults fall into this category.


Josh and his colleagues offer a rationale for why this type of social media user is sufficiently distinct from other other patterns of use to merit the addition of the first new rung in the "ladder" in 2.5 years:

Conversationalists reflects two changes. First, it includes not just Twitter members, but also people who update social network status to converse (since this activity in Facebook is actually more prevalent than tweeting). And second, we include only people who update at least weekly, since anything less than this isn't much of a conversation.

I agree that users who post regular status updates represent an important new category to include on the ladder. I'm curious, though, as to why Forrester estimates that the number of U.S. online adults who update their status on Facebook or Twitter is 33%, while a recent Pew Internet report (October 2009) on "Twitter and Status Updating" estimates that "some 19% of internet users now say they use Twitter or another service to share updates about themselves, or to see updates about others". That is, among all U.S. adults who use the Internet, Forrester estimates that 33% post updates weekly, while Pew estimates that 19% have posted or viewed updates ever ... suggesting [to me] that fewer than 19% - in the Pew sample - have actually posted updates, and fewer still post updates at least weekly.

I found myself wondering about whether the significant discrepancies in these estimates are due to definitions, methodologies, sample period or something else? According to the image caption below the ladder, the Forrester sample was collected in Q4 2009, but I cannot find any further details (without paying $499) on the Forrester page Introducing the New Social Technographics study. An article about the study in the Wall Street Journal reports that 10,000 people were included in the survey ... but doesn't say anything about the methodology (e.g., how they were selected or how the posting behavior was ascertained). The page describing the methodology used for the Pew status update study states that "the results in this report are based on data from telephone interviews conducted by Princeton Survey Research International between August 18 to September 14, 2009, among a sample of 2,253 adults, 18 and older." If the Pew study is based on self-reporting while the Forrester study is based on monitoring actual online use, that may help explain some of the discrepancy.

I'd speculated about a discrepancy between Forrester and Pew estimates a few years ago with respect to participation in the blogosphere (reading, writing and commenting). Specifically, both research organizations were looking at the proportion of Gen Y'ers (ages 18-26) who read blogs. Interestingly (to me), in that case, the Pew estimate (41%) was significantly higher than the Forrester estimate (24%). So I don't mean to imply that either organization is inflating (or deflating) their numbers, but I am interested to learn what factors might explain these discrepancies. I posted a comment on Josh's blog post seeking clarification, but there has been no response (yet) and he has responded in comment below and on in a comment on his blog: the discrepancy may be due to the framing of questions on the respective surveys (more below).

FWIW, aside from the numbers, I think that Forrester's category of posting status updates is a more informative than Pew's category of posting or viewing status updates (in Forrester terms, I imagine that people who view but do not post updates would be labeled "spectators"). I also believe that narrowing the scope to those who post weekly is far more useful than to include anyone who has ever posted a status update - I've visited a number of Facebook or Twitter homepages that have only one status update, and I wouldn't consider those users "conversationalists".

And speaking of "converstionalist", while I think it's important to include a category of people who regularly post status updates, I wonder if "status updaters" - or "updaters" - would be more accurate (Molly, who also posted a comment on Josh's blog, also suggested "updaters"). To me, "conversationalists" refers to the people who use @username directed messages on Twitter, and/or post comments on Facebook status updates (or other FB content) and/or use wall-to-wall messages, to converse with other users. While I suspect that the majority of Facebook users converse regularly with other Facebook users - Facebook's own statistics report that 10% of Facebook users post status updates daily and the average user posts 25 comments on FB content per month - I'm not sure what proportion of these conversations take place via status updates. That said, if 10% of FB users post status updates daily, I would not be at all surprised if, say, 33% of FB users post updates at least weekly. 

Even if we restrict our consideration of conversations to status updates, the nature of these conversations are different in Twitter and Facebook. In Facebook, only explicitly designated friends can view or comment on status updates (or, at least, that was the case when the Forrester and Pew studies were done ... before Facebook's most recent privacy setting changes). In Twitter, status updates are out there for all the world to see, and anyone can direct a message to anyone else (though the intended recipient of such a message may not read or respond to it). While Twitter allows users the option of "protected tweets", in which case only a user's followers can view their status updates, I have encountered very few Twitter users who opt for this restriction. In any case, generally speaking, conversations on Facebook have typically taken place within a restricted network, whereas Twitter conversations have typically taken place out in the open, and so there are some significant differences in the nature of the conversations - and conversationalists - on each social media platform ... even though the differences between each platform seem to be declining over time. In a more thorough analysis of these differences, danah boyd has shared some thoughts on Twitter vs. Facebook status updates.

I've been doing some research into the ways that online Twitter conversations influence and are influenced by presence and interactions in the physical world. While there is definitely a dark side to the use of digital backchannels in shared physical spaces, there are plenty of positive examples of people using Twitter to converse and connect with friends and consequential strangers in real life (my favorite collection of examples: Twittertales, an ebook containing short stories compiled by "Conversation Agent" Valeria Maltoni).

Others have also been researching conversations on Twitter, using the more restricted definition of conversations (@username directed messages on Twitter). A number of recent studies suggest that

  • conversational tweets - and tweeters - are still in the minority
  • the definition of a conversation is still very much an open issue
  • a methodology for sampling and counting conversations and conversationalists is still an open issue

Java, et al., [2007] found 12.5% of tweets and 21% of tweeters in their general dataset of 1.3 million tweets and 76,177 tweeters were involved in a conversation; Huberman, et al. [2009] found that 25.4% of all tweets were directed, and Honeycutt & Herring [2009] found that 30% of their 1,472 tweets were directed, of which 31% - or 9% of all tweets – received a public reply within 30 minutes. boyd, et al. [2010] found that 36% of a random selection of 720,000 tweets included a reference to a user (“@user”), and 86% of these began with such a reference and thus 31% were inferred to be a directed message. Shamma, et al. [2009] found 17.8% directed messages in their dataset of 3,238 tweets about a recent U.S. presidential debate – also collected by searching for hashtags – of which 10.23% were reciprocated (i.e., were involved in a conversation).

There are clearly conversations - and conversationalists - in social media, and I'm glad a growing number of people and organizations are looking at [some of] the practices of using social media to engage in conversations. I hope we will converge on definitions and methods for measuring conversations as we gain more experience in analyzing - and using - social media in these ways. I know there is a workshop on Microblogging coming up at the CHI 2010 conference this April, co-organized by Julia H Grace (@jewelia), Dejin Zhao (@djzhao) and danah boyd (@zephoria), so perhaps we'll see some progress on this convergence in the near future.

Motivations, Conversations and Book-Centered Sociality

I attended talks by three authors last week - Daniel Pink, David Allen and Bryant Simon - all presenting their work in different formats, styles and contexts. Daniel Pink had a conversation with Warren Etheredge at a Biznik event on Tuesday night at Hotel 1000 Seattle about a range of topics, including Dan's latest book, Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us. David Allen, who was in town promoting the release of the paperback version of his latest book, Making It All Work, was interviewed by Buzz Bruggeman at a dinner and discussion event at a cafe in Seattle on Wednesday night. Bryant Simon gave a lecture-style talk about his book, Everything But the Coffee: Learning About America from Starbucks, at Elliott Bay Book Company on Thursday night. Each of the authors offered valuable insights, but the format and style of each event affected my experiences, in positive and negative ways. Given my recent post on place-centered sociality, it strikes me that each of the events offered variation on a theme that I might call book-centered sociality.

Drive-DanielPink Lara Feltin, co-founder and CEO of Biznik, introduced Dan Pink and Warren Etheredge, briefly describing the three main themes of "Drive" - autonomy, mastery and purpose (AMP) - and noting the importance of this kind of social networking event for the independent business owners who make up Biznik: "we're all in this alone, but we're all in this together". Indeed, considerable conversation flowed throughout the event - between Dan and Warren, as well as with members of the audience - which was all the more appropriate given Dan's definition of a book as "a basket of ideas" that spread "conversation by conversation". Sometimes, though, the conversation seemed to veer into areas that didn't seem terribly relevant, or resonant (with me), as when Warren asked Dan whether being a speechwriter for Al Gore was sometimes like being a choreographer for Stephen Hawking (ouch!) and at one point Dan noted that the event seemed like the "poor man's Jerry Springer show".

I've long been intrigued by intrinsic vs. extrinsic motivations, and found many of Dan's examples to be interesting. Among the tidbits shared during the conversations were:

  • A study of incentives for parental pickup promptness at an Israeli day-care center showed that introducing fines to increase incentives for prompt pickups led to the unintended consequence of more parents arriving late, and this increased lateness did not diminish again once the fines were removed ["A Fine is a Price", by Uri Gneezy and Aldo Rustichini, The Journal of Legal Studies, Vol. 29 (January 2000)]. One possible explanation is that market incentives (fines) are less effective than non-market incentives (guilt). Another possible explanation is that the fines ($3) were too low - at least in comparison to the monthly day-care costs ($380) - to offer any real incentives.
  • A study at a Gothenburg blood center provided another example of how the introduction of monetary payments reducing the intrinsic motivation to behave altruistically or perform one’s civic duty ["Crowding Out in Blood Donation: Was Titmuss Right?", by Carl Mellström and Magnus Johannesson, Journal of the European Economic Association, June 2008, Vol. 6, No. 4, Pages 845-863]. Three conditions were setup for offering compensation for donating blood: no compensation, a $7 payment, and a choice to either accept $7 or donate it to charity. There were significant gender differences in the response rates: 52% of women and 29% of men offered no compensation donated blood; 30% of women and 37% of men offered $7 chose to donate blood; 53% of women and 33% of men offered the choice of $7 paid to them or charity (the Swedish Children's Cancer Foundation) donated blood, with 77% of women and 69% of men who donated blood choosing the option to donate the $7 to charity.

One of the most interesting developments during the evening was a debate that arose between Dan and one of the people in the audience regarding Kohlberg's Stages of Moral Development, and specifically about the gender differences in responses to the "Heinz Dilemma":

Heinz Steals the Drug

In Europe, a woman was near death from a special kind of cancer. There was one drug that the doctors thought might save her. It was a form of radium that a druggist in the same town had recently discovered. The drug was expensive to make, but the druggist was charging ten times what the drug cost him to make. He paid $200 for the radium and charged $2,000 for a small dose of the drug. The sick woman's husband, Heinz, went to everyone he knew to borrow the money, but he could only get together about $1,000 which is half of what it cost. He told the druggist that his wife was dying and asked him to sell it cheaper or let him pay later. But the druggist said: "No, I discovered the drug and I'm going to make money from it." So Heinz got desperate and broke into the man's store to steal the drug-for his wife. Should the husband have done that?

I'm not sure which study - or studies - were being referenced, but suspect one of them was "Gender Differences in Moral Development", by Geri R. Donenberg and Lois W. Hoffman [Behavioral Science, Vol. 18, No. 11-12, pp. 707-717, June 1988], in which girls were inclined to prioritize care over justice (i.e., more likely to support the husband's decision to break the law in order to procure the treatment to care for his wife) and boys were evenly split, though the priority of justice over care increased in both sexes with age.

One of the most interesting aspects of the debate was entirely tangential to the topic of discussion: shortly after the issue of which studies they were referencing arose, someone shouted out "Who has an iPhone?" Despite having enjoyed the use of some of the most advanced mobile devices produced by different technology companies for many years, the iPhone really is a game changer: with the Internet always in my pocket (or in my hand), there are no more rhetorical question ... and the shout-out at the event suggests I'm not alone in this assessment.

I enjoyed some of the conversations at this book talk, and all of the conversations before and after (Biznik has some of the most sociable, approachable and outgoing members of any networking group I've ever encountered). My interest was sufficiently piqued to put the book on my "to-read" stack (the book was included as part of the price of admission, along with some fabulous appetizers and wine ... reminding me of earlier posts I'd written about wine-centered sociality and people, food and other objects of sociality). Ultimately, though, I don't feel I came away with a good sense for what the book is about - beyond Lara's introduction, where she briefly noted the three themes of automony, mastery and purpose. In the online discussion about the event, I expressed this sentiment, but I appear to be in the minority. I suppose this is not so surprising, given that the main focus of Biznik is to provide business networking opportunities, and the conversational format was more aligned with other types of Biznik events than, say, other book talks I've been to where a longer, lecture-style presentation has enabled me to write a blog post about the book based [solely] on the author's presentation (e.g., as I did for Daniel Gilbert's book [talk] on Stumbling on Happiness). However, it's worth nothing that several people who expressed preference for this conversational format had already read the book, and/or had seen Dan Pink's TED talk (which I include below). [Update: Alan Alabastro has posted some great photos from the event.]

GTD I encountered a variation on the conversational format the following evening, at a dinner and networking event organized by Buzz Bruggeman, to which he'd invited David Allen, the time management guru who created a system for - and wrote the book about - Getting Things Done. I bought and read the book - and experimented with system, several years ago - but I consider myself a lapsed GTDer ... or at least I did prior to Wednesday evening. Buzz composed a set of 10 questions for David, and while there was some dialogue, it was more of a question and answer format than the conversational format I saw the previous night. This somewhat more structured Q&A portion was followed by a more informal session where others who attended the networking dinner were invited to ask questions. Perhaps it was because, in this case, I'd already read the book - or one of the books - but I felt I got more out of this instance of book-centered sociality than I did out of the preceding night's conversation(s).

Making-it-all-work Even though I got a lot out of David's talk, I'm not going to write much about it ... in part because this post is already getting pretty long, but mostly because the biggest thing I got out of his talk was a renewed motivation to give Getting Things Done another go ... in the hope of Making It All Work (which involves doing, not just writing [about doing]). I envision this as a manifestation of another dimension of book-centered sociality, aligned with the notion of book as knowledge object, a topic that I wrote about in my place-centered sociality post:

Knorr Cetina [author of "Sociality with Objects: Social Relations in Postsocial Knowledge Societies"] also speaks of unfolding. Later in her article, she looks specifically at knowledge objects, and how they are increasingly produced by specialists and experts rather than through a broader form of participatory interpretation. She argues that experts' relationships with knowledge objects can be best characterized by the notion of lack and a corresponding structure of wanting [emphasis hers] because these objects "seem to have the capacity to unfold indefinitely": new results that add to objects of knowledge have the side effect of opening up new questions. This perpetual unfolding gives rise to "a libidinal dimension or dimension of knowledge activities" - an "arousal" and "deep emotional investment" - by the person studying the knowledge object.

However my book-centered sociality with GTD may unfold, I will share a few tidbits from David's talk. He said that his two motivations for creating the GTD system were personal growth and laziness: by spending as little time as possible on the things he has to get done, he can free up more time for the more creative things he wants to do. He claims that once you read (and embrace) GTD, you never have another thought twice, you never have to rethink anything. As a chronic thinker - and rethinker - I find this prospect appealing, and yet last time I tried to use GTD, I encountered a great deal of resistance, and felt it didn't fit my style well. I asked David whether he believed in different personality types and/or the theory of multiple intelligences, and if so whether he believed GTD is useful to people regardless of their personality or learning types. He replied that he did, and some of his most creative clients in Hollywood are finding that adopting the structure of GTD is freeing them to be even more creative.

David also spoke about his embrace of social media, especially Twitter, where @GTDguy now has over 1.4 million followers, describing the service as "a global cocktail party". One of the most tweetworthy insights he shared was "A lot of people want to have it right before they express it, but you won't know if it's right until you start to express it" ... I don't know if he's tweeted this, but I have, as it provides a succinct summary of one of my primary motivations for embracing social media.

[And speaking of tweets and getting things done, I can't help but mention an anti-GTD tweet I recently retweeted by TalkingPointsMemo, about a reaction to the election of Republican Scott Brown in Massachusetts this week:

Dem Senate staffer: Now they're relieved bc 'they have a ready excuse for not getting anything done' ]

Here's a video of David Allen giving a talk on Getting Things Done at Google about two years ago:

Everything But the Coffee: Learning About America from Starbucks, by Bryant Simon On Thursday night, I attended a more traditional book talk by Bryant Simon, a history professor at Temple University who wrote a book about Starbucks - Everything But the Coffee: Learning About America from Starbucks - that I'd already read ... and used as the launching point for a [long] blog post about coffee, conversation, community and culture at Starbucks (Bryant recently launched a new web site for the book, Everything But The Coffee).  Ironically, in some ways, my blog post had focused on only a subset of the themes that Bryant writes about in his book, whereas his book talk at Elliott Bay Book Company provided a broader overview of these themes (vs. the Dan Pink talk / conversation earlier in the week, which focused on a subset of themes in his book, whereas I was looking for the broader overview ... in order to write about it on my blog).

In a special case of book-centered sociality, I had an opportunity to meet with Bryant the morning of his book talk, along with my friend Jason Simon (@CoffeeShopChat), who writes the Caffeinated Conversations blog. We originally planned to meet at Roy Street Coffee, one of the new mercantile / street-level coffee shops recently opened by Starbucks in Seattle, but he was there the previous evening to meet with / be interviewed by Starbucks Melody (who also showed up later to his book talk). So we decided to a meet at one of my favorite independent coffeeshops, Tougo Coffee, in the Central District, which has one of the strongest senses of community of any coffee shop I've been to in the Seattle area.

To help compensate for the narrower focus in my earlier post about Bryant's book, I will share some of the broader themes that he highlighted in his talk. Bryant's initial motivation was to write a book about place, exploring the differences between Starbucks stores in cities, suburbs and other types of places, as well as differences across different cities, states and countries. But after several years of compiling interviews, observations and analysis from the 425 stores in 9 countries he'd visited, he felt that he really didn't have much to say about these differences ... but he did have a great deal to say about what we wanted in our lives, what we were lacking, and how Starbucks fulfills - or doesn't fulfill - those wants and needs.

He decided to re-organize the book based on where these desires have come from, and how or why they weren't being met - or perhaps shouldn't be met - by Starbucks (and/or other large corporations ... including the Corporation for Public Broadcasting):

  • Our desire for authenticity
  • Our desire for safety and predictability
  • Our desire for real community and connection
  • Our desire for easy discovery
  • Our desire for political correctness, social justice, environmental justice

If I were to summarize these tensions, it would be our increasing preference for homogeneity over heterogeneity: our inclination to stick with the people, places and things we know, and our disinclination to explore new frontiers, e.g., strike up a conversation with a stranger, visit a new place, listen to new music ... and our unwillingness to invest much time or energy in moving outside of our comfort zones.

It's not clear to me how much Bryant sees Starbucks as a cause vs. an effect of these trends. In many cases, it seems that Starbucks is simply giving us what we want. At one point, Bryant read a passage from his book about the legendary cleanliness of Starbucks bathrooms, which included a quote by a New York mayor who once said that the city didn't need to provide more public bathrooms because there were so many Starbucks around. Bryant noted the significant disparity in the relative number of Starbucks in Manhattan vs. the Bronx (i.e., only some parts of New York, and the socio-economic classes in New York, were being served by the growth of Starbucks), but I think that the larger issue is a failure of public officials and public policy, rather than the fault of a private corporation.

Someone in the audience said that she'd been involved with Starbucks since the 70s, and she believes this is the best book ever written about the company. I've only read one other book about Starbucks, Pour Your Heart Into It: How Starbucks Built a Company One Cup at a Time; while Bryant expresses rather cynical views on that book (and its author), I was inspired by Howard Schultz' promotion of passion, partnership and perseverance. Although it may seem somewhat incongruous, I also really like Bryant's book, and while I do not share his cynicism about Starbucks (or Schultz), I think he raises a number of really important issues, about Starbucks and about America ... and about culture, community and commerce.

In fact, I hope Bryant's book will help instigate conversation and debate about the broader issues I see as lying at the heart of his book: how do we motivate more of the pioneering / exploratory / frontier spirit that was once such a core part of the American ideal, how do we provide the kind of community support - which involves a mixture of encouragement and dissent - for that spirit, and how do we integrate market and non-market incentives in ways that promote social and economic wealth?  His book offers an opportunity for greater awareness, reflection and discussion about what's really important to us ... and that's the kind of sociality I look for in a good book ... and a good book talk.

Just to round things out on the video dimension, here's a YouTube video of Bryant Simon at the 2007 Taste3 conference:

Place-centered Sociality

Foursquare-gowallaJyri Engestrom first introduced me to the concept of object-centered sociality almost 5 years ago, through a blog post in which he argued that social networks consist of people who are connected by a shared object. Jyri suggests that the problem with some social networking services (such as LinkedIn [at that time]) is that they focus primarily on people and links, ignoring the objects of affinity that those linked people share, such as photos, URLs and events. The recent buzz about location-based social networking services such as Foursquare and GoWalla combined with recent reflections on my own work on using place as a catalyst for sociality has prompted me to read about, contemplate and extend the notion of object-centered sociality to include places in the pantheon of socialized objects, and to elaborate on what I might call place-centered sociality.

In his April 2005 post, Jyri noted that "place" was a promising object around which future social networking applications could be designed, but that prospect was [then] constrained by issues of cost, reliability and usability. While I'm sure he would agree that recent developments have elevated place into the realm of sharable objects about which to socialize, I want to distinguish between the notion of sociality about objects and the concept of sociality with the objects themselves. Jyri focuses primarily on the former, but I think both aspects are relevant to place-centered sociality, and help explain the appeal of some recent social networking applications that make places prominent.

TheoryCultureSocietyKarin Knorr Cetina, who is cited by Jyri as a source of inspiration, wrote a seminal journal article on "Sociality with Objects: Social Relations in Postsocial Knowledge Societies", [Theory, Culture & Society, 1997, Vol. 14(4):1-30]. She argues for a strong thesis of "objectualization" in which "objects displace human beings as relationship partners and embedding environments" and "increasingly mediate human relationships". Much of what I've read about and experienced with the application or interpretation of object-centered sociality in the context of online social networking focuses on this latter idea of using objects - photos, videos, tweets - to mediate relationships among people (sociality about objects), but little attention is given to the former idea, wherein the objects themselves act as relationship partners (sociality with objects). We comment on, vote on, favorite, link to or otherwise reference online photos, videos, web pages, etc., but we do not [typically] form a relationship with these objects (at least not at the level in which they would be considered substitutes for human relationship partners).

Knorr Cetina invokes other sociological theories (e.g., The Homeless Mind: Modernization and Consciousness, by Berger, et al., and The Culture of Narcissism: American Life in an Age of Diminishing Expectations, by Christopher Lasch) in which "economic and technological civilization" produces a "disencumbered and disembedded self" that gives rise to a "culture of narcissism". The "overly grandiose conception of the self" results in "fear of emotional dependence" and an "exploitative approach to personal relations" that triggers a "hunger for emotional experiences with which to fill the inner void". This reference to hunger and inner void reminded me of another sociological study I recently encountered that explored how places can satisfy this hunger and fill these voids.

GreatGoodPlace_Oldenburg_coverIn "A Cup of Coffee With a Dash of Love: An Investigation of Commercial Social Support and Third-Place Attachment", [Journal of Service Research, 2007, Vol. 10(1):43-59], Mark Rosenbaum and his colleagues investigated why some customers form attachments to third places - described by sociologist Ray Oldenburg as "homes away from home" where "unrelated people relate", such as cafes, coffee shops, bookstores, bars and hair salon. Rosenbaum cites personal (vs. societal) sources of voids opening up in people's lives: bereavement, divorce, separation, illness, retirement, and empty nest (children leaving home). Third places often serve to fill the resulting gaps in local social support networks. While people in third places often play a prominent role in filling these voids - performing the role of consequential strangers and acquaintances - the physical (or metaphysical) aspects of the places themselves can be an important factor in third place attachment and other types of relationships that people form with places, e.g., place identity, existential insideness, geopiety and topophilia.

In The Prelude to her book The Dance, spiritual teacher and author Oriah Mountain Dreamer weaves together both of these aspects of place-centered sociality - people and places - in an inspiring and elegant way:

What if becoming who and what we truly are happens not through striving and trying but by recognizing and receiving the people and places and practises that offer us the warmth of encouragement we need to unfold?

Knorr Cetina also speaks of unfolding. Later in her article, she looks specifically at knowledge objects, and how they are increasingly produced by specialists and experts rather than through a broader form of participatory interpretation. She argues that experts' relationships with knowledge objects can be best characterized by a the notion of lack and a corresponding structure of wanting [emphasis hers] because these objects "seem to have the capacity to unfold indefinitely": new results that add to objects of knowledge have the side effect of opening up new questions. This perpetual unfolding gives rise to "a libidinal dimension or dimension of knowledge activities" - an "arousal" and "deep emotional investment" - by the person studying the knowledge object. As an example, she describes the way that biologist Barbara McClintock, who won the Nobel Prize for her discovery of genetic transposition, would totally immerse herself in her study of plant chromosomes, identifying with the chromosomes and imagining how they might see the world - evoking an image (for me) of object-centered empathy more than sociality.

Teachings-of-Don-Juan-coverAlthough I'm not sure whether many people would enter this kind of flow state in thinking about and relating to places, I'm reminded of Carlos Casteneda's book, The Teachings of Don Juan, in which Yaqui sorcerer don Juan instructs Castenada to find his "spot":

While you remain rooted to your "good spot" nothing can cause you bodily harm, because you have the assurance that at that particular spot you are at your very best. You have the power to shove off anything that might be harmful to you. If, however, I had told you where it was, you would never have had the confidence needed to claim it as true knowledge. Thus, knowledge is indeed power.

Po Bronson, in his book, What Should I Do With My Life?, also emphasizes the value of finding one's spot (though with a somewhat more metaphoric notion of "spot"):

I'd like to suggest an alternate "success" story - one where, with each next, the protagonist is closer to finding that spot where he's no longer held back by his heart, and he explodes with talent, and his character blossoms, and the gift he has to offer the world is apparent.

DSC00630 My friend Robb Kloss offers many examples of place-centered sociality on his Musings from Aotearoa blog, regularly recounting inspiring instances of flow states he has experienced in various places throughout the Ruahine mountain range in northern New Zealand. Although some of Robb's experiences involve the sharing of his affection for the Ruahines with other people - both the people who accompany him on his expeditions or that he meets in the mountains and those who read and comment on his blog posts afterward - there are numerous examples throughout his writing - and photography - of his immersion in the mountains themselves.

While the experiences of Kloss and Casteneda may be extreme in some ways, I believe most of us have encountered some form of the power of place(s), and participated in a form of place-centered sociality in which our relationship with the places (as objects) themselves, rather than - or in addition to - the people in places, is the nexus of connection. While sociality about other kinds of objects have created or enhanced many relationships in social networking services, I'm excited about even greater prospects for some new technologies and applications to enhance the power of - and connection with - places, as well as the possibilities for connecting to other people through places.