Tags: facebook

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Digital Marketing Strategies for the Busy “Web Master” by Sarah Parmenter

It’s time for the second talk at An Event Apart Seattle (Special Edition). Sarah is talking about Digital Marketing Strategies for the Busy “Web Master”. These are the notes I made during the talk…

Recently Sarah was asked for her job title recently and she found it really stressful. She wasn’t comfortable with “Art Director”. And, even though it would probably be accurate, “Social Media Expert” feels icky. A more fitting title would be “Social Media Designer” but that’s not a thing. Ironically the term “Web Master” probably fits us better than it did back in the ’90s.

We have a bit of a defeatist attitude towards social media at the moment. It feels like that space has been claimed and so there’s no point in even starting. But we’re still in the first 10,000 days in the web. There is no social media, Gary Vee says. It’s a slang term for a collection of apps and websites that now dominate attention in our society.

Sarah likes the term “consensual hallucination” (that I borrowed from William Gibson to describe how we did web design for years). It applies to social media.

Once upon a time we had to sell the benefits of just being online to our clients. Our businesses now need to get into the mindset of “How can I help you?” and “What can I do for you?” We’re moving away from being sales-y and getting down to being more honest. We’re no longer saying “Look at what I’ve got.”

The average time spent on social media per day is 1 hour and 48 minutes. The average time spent on the kind of sites we make is 15 seconds.

Quarterly design reviews are a good idea—strategically designing your social media campaigns, reviewing successes and failures.

The first thing to mention is vanity metrics. You might need to sit down and have “the talk” with your boss or client about this. It’s no different to having hit counters on our sites back in the ’90s. While we’re chasing these vanity metrics, we’re not asking what people really want.

Google brought a roadshow to Sarah’s hometown of Leigh-on-Sea a while back. There was a really irritating know-it-all chap in the audience who put his hand up when other people were asking about how to get followers on social media. “You need to post three times a day to all social media channels”, he said. “And you need to use the follow-unfollow method with a bot.” Sarah’s eyes were rolling at this point. Don’t beg for likes and follows—you’re skewing your metrics.

“What about this Snapchat thing?” people asked. Irritating guy said, “Don’t worry about—young people use it to send rude pictures to each other.” Sarah was face-palming at this point.

But this event was a good wake-up call for Sarah. We need to check our personal bias. She had to check her own personal bias against LinkedIn.

What we can do is look for emerging social networks. Find social networks that aren’t yet clogged. People still fixate on displayed numbers instead of the actual connection with people.

We all have a tendency to think of the more successful social networks as something that is coming. Like Snapchat. But if you’re in this space, there’s no time to waste. Sarah has been interviewing for social media people and it’s fascinating to see how misunderstood Snapchat is. One big misconception is that it’s only for youngsters. The numbers might be lower than Facebook, but there’s a lot of video on there. Snapchat’s weakness is “the olds”—the non-intuitive interface makes it cool with young people who have time to invest in learning it; the learning curve keeps the parents out. Because the moment that mums and grandmums appear on a social network, the younger folks get out. And actually, when it comes to putting ads on Snapchat, the interface is very good.

What can we do in 2018?

  • By 2019, video will account for 80% of all consumer internet traffic. If you’re not planning for this, you’re missing out.
  • Move to HTTPS.
  • Make your website mobile ready.

Let’s ban the pop-up. Overlays. Permission dialogs. They’re all terrible. Google has started to penalise websites “where content is not easily accessible.”

Pop-ups are a lazy fix for a complex engagement problem (similar to carousels). It’s a terrible user experience. Do we thing this is adding value? Is this the best way to get someone’s email address? They’re like the chuggers of the web.

Here’s an interesting issue: there are discount codes available on the web. We inform people of this through pop-ups. Then it when it comes to check-out, they know that a discount is possible and so they Google for discount codes. You might as well have a page on your own website to list your own discount codes instead of people going elsewhere for them.

There’s a long tail of conversions, particularly with more expensive products and services. Virgin Holidays has a great example. For an expensive holiday, they ask for just a small deposit up front.

Let’s talk about some specific social networks.

Facebook

Facebook Pixel should be on your website, says Sarah. It collects data about your customers. (Needless to say, I disagree with this suggestion. Stand up for your customers’ dignity.)

Facebook is a very cheap way to publish video. Organic Facebook engagement is highest on posts with videos. (I think I threw up in my mouth a little just typing the words “organic”, “Facebook”, and “engagement” all in a row.) Facebook Live videos have six times the engagement of regular videos.

Sarah just said the word synergy. Twice. Unironically.

Facebook changed its algorithm last year. You’re going to see less posts from business and more posts from people.

Facebook advertising does work, but if it doesn’t work for you, the problem is probably down to your creative. (We’re using the word “creative” as a noun rather than an adjective, apparently.)

Google

With Ad Words, measure success by conversions rather than impressions. You might get thousands of eyeballs looking at a form, but only a handful filling it out. You need to know that second number to understand how much you’re really paying per customer.

trends.google.com is useful for finding keywords that aren’t yet saturated.

Google My Business is under-used, especially if you have a bricks’n’mortar store. It can make a massive difference to small businesses. It’s worth keeping it up to date and keeping it updated.

Instagram

700 million active users (double Twitter, and three times WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger). A lot of people are complaining about the changed algorithm. Social networks change their algorithms to deal with the “problems of success.” Instagram needs to help people with the discoverability of posts, says Sarah (again, I strongly disagree—it disempowers the user; I find Instagram’s we-know-best algorithm to be insultingly patronising).

Hashtags are the plumbing of the social media ecosystem. They’re not there for users to read. They’re for discoverability. Eleven hashtags are optimal.

Instagram Stories are a funny one. People are trying to use them to get around the algorithm, posting screenshots of photos to a story.

Archiving is a handy feature of Instagram. For time-sensitive content (like being closed during a snowstorm), it’s very useful to be able to archive those posts after the fact.

Planoly is a great website for managing your Instagram campaign. You can visually plan your feed. Only recently did Instagram start allowing scheduled posts (as long as they’re square, for some reason).

Influencer marketing is a thing. People trust peer recommendations more than advertising. You can buy micro-influencers quite cheaply.

(Side note: I think I’ve seen this episode of Black Mirror.)

How much do influencers cost? Not as much as you think. The average sponsored post rate is $180.

Case study

We need to have a “Design once. Use Everywhere.” mindset. Others we’ll go crazy. Away is doing this well. They sell a suitcase with built-in USB chargers.

The brands dominating social media are those with the most agile teams with exceptional storytelling skills. Away are very brave with their marketing. They’ve identified what their market has in common—travel—and they’re aiming at the level above that. They’re playing the long game, bringing the value back to the user. It’s all about “How can I help you?” rather than “Look at what I’ve gone.” Away’s creative is compelling, quirky, and fun. They work with influencers who are known to create beautiful imagery. Those influencers were given free suitcases. The cost of giving away those bags was much less than a traditional marketing campaign.

Their product is not front and centre in their campaigns. Travel is front and centre. They also collaborate with other brands. Their Google Ads are very striking. That also translates to physical advertising, like ads on airport security trays.

On Facebook, and on all of the social networks, everything is very polished and art-directed. They’re building a story. The content is about travel, but the through-line is about their suitcases.

When things go bad…

To finish, a semi-amusing story. Cath Kidston did a collaboration with Disney’s Peter Pan. Sarah had a hunch that it might go wrong. On paper, the social campaigns seemed fine. A slow build-up to the Peter Pan product launch. Lots of lovely teasers. They were seeding Instagram with beautiful imagery the day before launch. There was a real excitement building. Then the coveted email campaign with the coveted password.

On the site, people put in their password and then they had to wait. It was a deliberately gated experience. Twenty minutes of waiting. Then you finally get to the store …and there’s no “add to cart” button. Yup, they had left out the most important bit of the interface.

Sarah looked at what people were saying on Twitter. Lots of people assumed the problem was with their computer (after all, the web team wouldn’t be so silly as to leave off the “add to cart” button, right?). People blamed themselves. Cath Kidston scrambled to fix the problem …and threw people back into the 20 minute queue. Finally, the button appeared. So Sarah looked at a few bits ad pieces, and when she hit “add to cart” …she was thrown back to the 20 minute queue.

Sarah reached out to try to talk to someone on the web team. No one wanted to talk about it. If you ever find someone who was on that team, put them in touch.

Anyway, to wrap up…

Ensure the networks you are pursuing make sense for your brand.

Find your story for social media longevity.

See also:

Posting to my site

I was idly thinking about the different ways I can post to adactio.com. I decided to count the ways.

Admin interface

This is the classic CMS approach. In my case the CMS is a crufty hand-rolled affair using PHP and MySQL that I wrote years ago. I log in to an admin interface and fill in a form, putting the text of my posts into a textarea. In truth, I usually write in a desktop text editor first, and then paste that into the textarea. That’s what I’m doing now—copying and pasting Markdown from the Typed app.

Directly from my site

If I’m logged in, I get a stripped down posting interface in the notes section of my site.

Notes posting interface

Bookmarklet

This is how I post links. When I’m at a URL I want to bookmark, I hit the “Bookmark it” bookmarklet in my browser’s bookmarks bar. That pops open a version of the admin interface tailored specifically for links. I really, really like bookmarklets. The one big downside is that they don’t work on mobile.

Text message

This is something I knocked together at Indie Web Camp Brighton 2015 using the Twilio API. It’s handy for posting notes if I’m travelling somewhere and data is at a premium. But I don’t use it that often.

Instagram

Thanks to Aaron’s OwnYourGram service—and the fact that my site has a micropub endpoint—I can post images from Instagram to my site. This used to happen instantaneously but Instagram changed their API rules for the worse. Between that and their shitty “algorithmic” timeline, I find myself using the service less and less. At this point I’m only on their for the doggos.

Swarm

Like OwnYourGram, Aaron’s OwnYourSwarm allows me to post check-ins and photos from the Swarm app to my site. Again, micropub makes it all possible.

OwnYourGram and OwnYourSwarm are very similar and could probably be abstracted into a generic service for posting from third-party apps to micropub endpoints. I’d quite like to post my check-ins on Untappd to my site.

Other people’s admin interfaces

Thanks to rel="me" and IndieAuth, I can log into other people’s posting interfaces using my own website as the log-in, and post to my micropub endpoint, like this. Quill is a good example of this. I don’t use it that much, but I really should—the editor interface is quite Medium-like in its design.

Anyway, those are the different ways I can update my website that I can think of right now.

Syndication

In terms of output, I’ve got a few different ways of syndicating what I post here:

Just so you know, if you comment on one of my posts on Facebook, I probably won’t see it. But if you reply to a copy of one of posts on Twitter or Instagram, it will show up over here on adactio.com thanks to the magic of Brid.gy and webmention.

Metadata markup

When something on your website is shared on Twitter or Facebook, you probably want a nice preview to appear with it, right?

For Twitter, you can use Twitter cards—a collection of meta elements you place in the head of your document.

For Facebook, you can use the grandiosely-titled Open Graph protocol—a collection of meta elements you place in the head of your document.

What’s that you say? They sound awfully similar? Why, no! I mean, just look at the difference. Here’s how you’d mark up a blog post for Twitter:

<meta name="twitter:url" content="https://adactio.com/journal/9881">
<meta name="twitter:title" content="Metadata markup">
<meta name="twitter:description" content="So many standards to choose from.">
<meta name="twitter:image" content="https://adactio.com/icon.png">

Whereas here’s how you’d mark up the same blog post for Facebook:

<meta property="og:url" content="https://adactio.com/journal/9881">
<meta property="og:title" content="Metadata markup">
<meta property="og:description" content="So many standards to choose from.">
<meta property="og:image" content="https://adactio.com/icon.png">

See? Completely different.

Okay, I’ll attempt to dial down my sarcasm, but I find this wastage annoying. It adds unnecessary complexity, which in turn, I suspect, puts a lot of people off even trying to implement this stuff. In short: 927.

We’ve seen this kind of waste before. I remember when Netscape and Microsoft were battling it out in the browser wars: Internet Explorer added a proprietary acronym element, while Netscape added the abbr element. They both basically did the same thing. For years, Internet Explorer refused to implement the abbr element out of sheer spite.

A more recent example of the negative effects of competing standards was on display at this year’s Edge conference in London. In a session on front-end data, Nolan Lawson decried the fact that developers weren’t making more use of the client-side storage options available in browsers today. After all, there are so many to choose from: LocalStorage, WebSQL, IndexedDB…

(Hint: if developers aren’t showing much enthusiasm for the latest and greatest API which is sooooo much better than the previous APIs they were also encouraged to use at the time, perhaps their reticence is understandable.)

Anyway, back to metacrap.

Matt has written a guide to what you need to do in order to get a preview of your posts to appear in Slack. Fortunately the answer is not yet another collection of meta elements to place in the head of your document. Instead, Slack piggybacks on the existing combatants: oEmbed, Twitter Cards, and Open Graph.

So to placate both Twitter and Facebook (with Slack thrown in for good measure), your metadata markup is supposed to look something like this:

<meta name="twitter:card" content="summary">
<meta name="twitter:site" content="@adactio">
<meta name="twitter:url" content="https://adactio.com/journal/9881">
<meta name="twitter:title" content="Metadata markup">
<meta name="twitter:description" content="So many standards to choose from.">
<meta name="twitter:image" content="https://adactio.com/icon.png">
<meta property="og:url" content="https://adactio.com/journal/9881">
<meta property="og:title" content="Metadata markup">
<meta property="og:description" content="So many standards to choose from.">
<meta property="og:image" content="https://adactio.com/icon.png">

There are two things on display here: redundancy, and also, redundancy.

Now the eagle-eyed amongst you will have spotted a crucial difference between the Twitter metacrap and the Facebook metacrap. The Twitter metacrap uses the name attribute on the meta element, whereas the Facebook metacrap uses the property attribute. Technically, there is no property attribute in HTML—it’s an RDFa thing. But the fact that they’re using two different attributes means that we can squish the meta elements together like this:

<meta name="twitter:card" content="summary">
<meta name="twitter:site" content="@adactio">
<meta name="twitter:url" property="og:url" content="https://adactio.com/journal/9881">
<meta name="twitter:title" property="og:title" content="Metadata markup">
<meta name="twitter:description" property="og:description" content="So many standards to choose from.">
<meta name="twitter:image" property="og:image" content="https://adactio.com/icon.png">

There. I saved you at least a little bit of typing.

The metacrap situation is even more ridiculous for “add to homescreen”/”pin to start”/whatever else browser makers can’t agree on…

Microsoft:

<meta name="msapplication-starturl" content="https://adactio.com" />
<meta name="msapplication-window" content="width=800;height=600">
<meta name="msapplication-tooltip" content="Kill me now...">

Apple:

<link rel="apple-touch-icon" href="https://adactio.com/icon.png">

(Repeat four or five times with different variations of icon sizes, and be sure to create icons with new sizes after every. single. Apple. keynote.)

Fortunately Google, Opera, and Mozilla appear to be converging on using an external manifest file:

<link rel="manifest" href="https://adactio.com/manifest.json">

Perhaps our long national nightmare of balkanised metacrap is finally coming to an end, and clearer heads will prevail.

Instantiation

When I give talks or workshops, I sometimes get a bit ranty. One of the richest seams of rantiness comes from me complaining about how we web designers and developers are responsible for making the web a hostile place. “Stop getting the web wrong!” I might shout, like an old man yelling at a cloud. I point to services like Instapaper and Readability and describe their existence as a damning indictment of our work.

Don’t get me wrong—I really like Instapaper, Readability, RSS readers, or any other tools that allow people to read what they want when they want it. But think about their fundamental selling point: get to the content you want without having to wade through the cruft. That cruft was put there by us.

So-called modern web design and development is damage that people have to route around.

(Ooh, I can feel myself coming over all ranty and angry again! Calm down, Jeremy, calm down!)

And. Breathe.

Now there’s a new tool to the add to the list: Facebook Instant. Again, I think it’s actually pretty great that this service exists. But once again, it should make us ashamed of the work we’re collectively producing.

In this case, the service is—somewhat ironically—explicitly touting the performance benefits of not going to a website to read an article. Quite right.

PPK points to tools as the source of the problem and Marco Arment agrees:

The entire culture dominant among web developers today is bizarrely framework-heavy, with seemingly no thought given to minimizing dependencies and page weight.

But I think it’s a bit more subtle than that. As John Gruber says:

Business development deals have created problems that no web developer can solve. There’s no way to make a web page with a full-screen content-obscuring ad anything other than a shitty experience.

Now you might be saying to yourself “Well, I’ve never made a bloated web page!” or “I’ve never slapped loads of intrusive crap over the content!” I’d certainly like to think that I can look at my track record and hold my head up reasonably high. But that doesn’t matter. If the overall perception is that going to a URL to read an article is a pain in the ass, it hurts all of us.

Take this article from M.G. Siegler:

Not only is the web not fast enough for apps, it’s not fast enough for text either. …on mobile, the web browser just isn’t cutting it. … Native apps provide a better user experience on mobile than a web browser.

On the face of it, this is kind of a bizarre claim. After all, there’s nothing inherent in web browsers that makes them slow at rendering text—quite the opposite! And native apps still use HTTP (and often HTML) to fetch content; the network doesn’t suddenly get magically faster just because the piece of software requesting a resource doesn’t happen to be a web browser.

But this conflation of slow websites and slow web browsers is perfectly understandable. If it looks like a slow duck, and it quacks like a slow duck, then why not conclude that ducks are slow? Even if we know that there’s nothing inherently slow about making web pages:

My hope is that Facebook Instant will shake things up a bit. M.G. Siegler again:

At the very least, Facebook has put everyone else on notice. Your content better load fast or you’re screwed. Publication websites have become an absolutely bloated mess. They range from beautiful (The Verge) to atrocious (Bloomberg) to unusable (Forbes). The common denominator: they’re all way too slow.

There needs to be a cultural change in how we approach building for the web. Yes, some of the tools we choose are part of the problem, but the bigger problem is that performance still isn’t being recognised as the most important factor in how people feel about websites (and by extension, the web). This isn’t just a developer issue. It’s a design issue. It’s a UX issue. It’s a business issue. Performance is everybody’s collective responsibility.

I’d better stop now before I start getting all ranty again.

I’ll leave you with some other writings on this topic…

Tim Kadlec talks about choosing performance:

It’s not because of any sort of technical limitations. No, if a website is slow it’s because performance was not prioritized. It’s because when push came to shove, time and resources were spent on other features of a site and not on making sure that site loads quickly.

Jim Ray points out that “we learned the wrong lesson from the rise of mobile and the app ecosystem”:

We’ve spent far too long trying to compete with native experiences by making our websites look and behave like apps. This includes not just thousands of lines of JavaScript to mimic native app swipes and scrolling but even the lower overhead aesthetics of fixed position headers and persistent navigation.

(*cough*Flipboard*cough*)

Finally, Baldur Bjarnason has written a terrific piece:

The web doesn’t suck. Your websites suck.

All of your websites suck.

You destroy basic usability by hijacking the scrollbar. You take native functionality (scrolling, selection, links, loading) that is fast and efficient and you rewrite it with ‘cutting edge’ javascript toolkits and frameworks so that it is slow and buggy and broken. You balloon your websites with megabytes of cruft. You ignore best practices. You take something that works and is complementary to your business and turn it into a liability.

The lousy performance of your websites becomes a defensive moat around Facebook.

Go read the whole thing—it’s terrific:

This is a long-standing debate. Except it’s only long-standing among web developers. Columnists, managers, pundits, and journalists seem to have no interest in understanding the technical foundation of their livelihoods. Instead they are content with assuming that Facebook can somehow magically render HTML over HTTP faster than anybody else and there is nothing anybody can do to make their crap scroll-jacking websites faster. They buy into the myth that the web is incapable of delivering on its core capabilities: delivering hypertext and images quickly to a diverse and connected readership.

Tracking

Ajax was a really big deal six, seven, eight years ago. My second book was all about Ajax. I spoke about Ajax at conferences and gave workshops all about using Ajax and progressive enhancement.

During those workshops, I would often point out that Ajax had the potential to be abused terribly. Until the advent of Ajax, it was very clear to a user when data was being submitted to a server: you’d have to click a link or submit a form. As soon as you introduce asynchronous communication, it’s possible for the server to get information from the client even without a full-page refresh.

Imagine, for example, that you’re typing a message into a textarea. You might begin by typing, “Why, you stuck up, half-witted, scruffy-looking nerf…” before calming down and thinking better of it. Before Ajax, there was no way that what you had typed could ever reach the server. But now, it’s entirely possible to send data via Ajax with every key press.

It was just a thought experiment. I wasn’t actually that worried that anyone would ever do something quite so creepy.

Then I came across this article by Jennifer Golbeck in Slate all about Facebook tracking what’s entered—but then erased—within its status update form:

Unfortunately, the code that powers Facebook still knows what you typed—even if you decide not to publish it. It turns out that the things you explicitly choose not to share aren’t entirely private.

Initially I thought there must have been some mistake. I erronously called out Jen Golbeck when I found the PDF of a paper called The Post that Wasn’t: Exploring Self-Censorship on Facebook. The methodology behind the sample group used for that paper was much more old-fashioned than using Ajax:

First, participants took part in a weeklong diary study during which they used SMS messaging to report all instances of unshared content on Facebook (i.e., content intentionally self-censored). Participants also filled out nightly surveys to further describe unshared content and any shared content they decided to post on Facebook. Next, qualified participants took part in in-lab interviews.

But the Slate article was referencing a different paper that does indeed use Ajax to track instances of deleted text:

This research was conducted at Facebook by Facebook researchers. We collected self-censorship data from a random sample of approximately 5 million English-speaking Facebook users who lived in the U.S. or U.K. over the course of 17 days (July 6-22, 2012).

So what I initially thought was a case of alarmism—conflating something as simple as simple as a client-side character count with actual server-side monitoring—turned out to be a pretty accurate reading of the situation. I originally intended to write a scoffing post about Slate’s linkbaiting alarmism (and call it “The shocking truth behind the latest Facebook revelation”), but it turns out that my scoffing was misplaced.

That said, the article has been updated to reflect that the Ajax requests are only sending information about deleted characters—not the actual content. Still, as we learned very clearly from the NSA revelations, there’s not much practical difference between logging data and logging metadata.

The nerds among us may start firing up our developer tools to keep track of unexpected Ajax requests to the server. But what about everyone else?

This isn’t the first time that the power of JavaScript has been abused. Every browser now ships with an option to block pop-up windows. That’s because the ability to spawn new windows was so horribly misused. Maybe we’re going to see similar preference options to avoid firing Ajax requests on keypress.

It would be depressingly reductionist to conclude that any technology that can be abused will be abused. But as long as there are web developers out there who are willing to spawn pop-up windows or force persistent cookies or use Ajax to track deleted content, the depressingly reductionist conclusion looks like self-fulfilling prophecy.

Battle for the planet of the APIs

Back in 2006, I gave a talk at dConstruct called The Joy Of API. It basically involved me geeking out for 45 minutes about how much fun you could have with APIs. This was the era of the mashup—taking data from different sources and scrunching them together to make something new and interesting. It was a good time to be a geek.

Anil Dash did an excellent job of describing that time period in his post The Web We Lost. It’s well worth a read—and his talk at The Berkman Istitute is well worth a listen. He described what the situation was like with APIs:

Five years ago, if you wanted to show content from one site or app on your own site or app, you could use a simple, documented format to do so, without requiring a business-development deal or contractual agreement between the sites. Thus, user experiences weren’t subject to the vagaries of the political battles between different companies, but instead were consistently based on the extensible architecture of the web itself.

Times have changed. These days, instead of seeing themselves as part of a wider web, online services see themselves as standalone entities.

So what happened?

Facebook happened.

I don’t mean that Facebook is the root of all evil. If anything, Facebook—a service that started out being based on exclusivity—has become more open over time. That’s the cause of many of its scandals; the mismatch in mental models that Facebook users have built up about how their data will be used versus Facebook’s plans to make that data more available.

No, I’m talking about Facebook as a role model; the template upon which new startups shape themselves.

In the web’s early days, AOL offered an alternative. “You don’t need that wild, chaotic lawless web”, it proclaimed. “We’ve got everything you need right here within our walled garden.”

Of course it didn’t work out for AOL. That proposition just didn’t scale, just like Yahoo’s initial model of maintaining a directory of websites just didn’t scale. The web grew so fast (and was so damn interesting) that no single company could possibly hope to compete with it. So companies stopped trying to compete with it. Instead they, quite rightly, saw themselves as being part of the web. That meant that they didn’t try to do everything. Instead, you built a service that did one thing really well—sharing photos, managing links, blogging—and if you needed to provide your users with some extra functionality, you used the best service available for that, usually through someone else’s API …just as you provided your API to them.

Then Facebook began to grow and grow. I remember the first time someone was showing me Facebook—it was Tantek of all people—I remember asking “But what is it for?” After all, Flickr was for photos, Delicious was for links, Dopplr was for travel. Facebook was for …everything …and nothing.

I just didn’t get it. It seemed crazy that a social network could grow so big just by offering …well, a big social network.

But it did grow. And grow. And grow. And suddenly the AOL business model didn’t seem so crazy anymore. It seemed ahead of its time.

Once Facebook had proven that it was possible to be the one-stop-shop for your user’s every need, that became the model to emulate. Startups stopped seeing themselves as just one part of a bigger web. Now they wanted to be the only service that their users would ever need …just like Facebook.

Seen from that perspective, the open flow of information via APIs—allowing data to flow porously between services—no longer seemed like such a good idea.

Not only have APIs been shut down—see, for example, Google’s shutdown of their Social Graph API—but even the simplest forms of representing structured data have been slashed and burned.

Twitter and Flickr used to markup their user profile pages with microformats. Your profile page would be marked up with hCard and if you had a link back to your own site, it include a rel=”me” attribute. Not any more.

Then there’s RSS.

During the Q&A of that 2006 dConstruct talk, somebody asked me about where they should start with providing an API; what’s the baseline? I pointed out that if they were already providing RSS feeds, they already had a kind of simple, read-only API.

Because there’s a standardised format—a list of items, each with a timestamp, a title, a description (maybe), and a link—once you can parse one RSS feed, you can parse them all. It’s kind of remarkable how many mashups can be created simply by using RSS. I remember at the first London Hackday, one of my favourite mashups simply took an RSS feed of the weather forecast for London and combined it with the RSS feed of upcoming ISS flypasts. The result: a Twitter bot that only tweeted when the International Space Station was overhead and the sky was clear. Brilliant!

Back then, anywhere you found a web page that listed a series of items, you’d expect to find a corresponding RSS feed: blog posts, uploaded photos, status updates, anything really.

That has changed.

Twitter used to provide an RSS feed that corresponded to my HTML timeline. Then they changed the URL of the RSS feed to make it part of the API (and therefore subject to the terms of use of the API). Then they removed RSS feeds entirely.

On the Salter Cane site, I want to display our band’s latest tweets. I used to be able to do that by just grabbing the corresponding RSS feed. Now I’d have to use the API, which is a lot more complex, involving all sorts of authentication gubbins. Even then, according to the terms of use, I wouldn’t be able to display my tweets the way I want to. Yes, how I want to display my own data on my own site is now dictated by Twitter.

Thanks to Jo Brodie I found an alternative service called Twitter RSS that gives me the RSS feed I need, ‘though it’s probably only a matter of time before that gets shuts down by Twitter.

Jo’s feelings about Twitter’s anti-RSS policy mirror my own:

I feel a pang of disappointment at the fact that it was really quite easy to use if you knew little about coding, and now it might be a bit harder to do what you easily did before.

That’s the thing. It’s not like RSS is a great format—it isn’t. But it’s just good enough and just versatile enough to enable non-programmers to make something cool. In that respect, it’s kind of like HTML.

The official line from Twitter is that RSS is “infrequently used today.” That’s the same justification that Google has given for shutting down Google Reader. It reminds of the joke about the shopkeeper responding to a request for something with “Oh, we don’t stock that—there’s no call for it. It’s funny though, you’re the fifth person to ask today.”

RSS is used a lot …but much of the usage is invisible:

RSS is plumbing. It’s used all over the place but you don’t notice it.

That’s from Brent Simmons, who penned a love letter to RSS:

If you subscribe to any podcasts, you use RSS. Flipboard and Twitter are RSS readers, even if it’s not obvious and they do other things besides.

He points out the many strengths of RSS, including its decentralisation:

It’s anti-monopolist. By design it creates a level playing field.

How foolish of us, therefore, that we ended up using Google Reader exclusively to power all our RSS consumption. We took something that was inherently decentralised and we locked it up into one provider. And now that provider is going to screw us over.

I hope we won’t make that mistake again. Because, believe me, RSS is far from dead just because Google and Twitter are threatened by it.

In a post called The True Web, Robin Sloan reiterates the strength of RSS:

It will dip and diminish, but will RSS ever go away? Nah. One of RSS’s weaknesses in its early days—its chaotic decentralized weirdness—has become, in its dotage, a surprising strength. RSS doesn’t route through a single leviathan’s servers. It lacks a kill switch.

I can understand why that power could be seen as a threat if what you are trying to do is force your users to consume their own data only the way that you see fit (and all in the name of “user experience”, I’m sure).

Returning to Anil’s description of the web we lost:

We get a generation of entrepreneurs encouraged to make more narrow-minded, web-hostile products like these because it continues to make a small number of wealthy people even more wealthy, instead of letting lots of people build innovative new opportunities for themselves on top of the web itself.

I think that the presence or absence of an RSS feed (whether I actually use it or not) is a good litmus test for how a service treats my data.

It might be that RSS is the canary in the coal mine for my data on the web.

If those services don’t trust me enough to give me an RSS feed, why should I trust them with my data?

Facebooked up

I was a latecomer to Facebook. I remember hearing everybody talk about it but I could never quite figure out what it was for. Flirting was the half-joking answer I heard at least once. It’s true enough that, over any given time period, for any social networking site that allows the uploading of avatar pictures, the probability of it turning into a dating site approaches one.

No really, I asked, what’s it for? There didn’t seem to be any social objects to build a network around. In that respect, it reminded me of LinkedIn, another site I never really “got” (but one that at least seemed to be in no danger of turning into a dating site).

But just because I didn’t “get” Facebook doesn’t mean there isn’t something to be “got.” After all, I really like Twitter but I find it really hard to explain to someone who hasn’t tried it yet. So I signed up to Facebook and, in some ways, it’s similar to Twitter: the phatic communication through the timeline has a real sense of ambient intimacy.

Still, I couldn’t quite throw myself wholly into publishing inside a walled garden. So I installed apps that allowed me to publish to Facebook from outside. Instead of putting my pictures on Facebook, I put them on Flickr and push that to my timeline; instead of updating my status, I update Twitter; instead of creating events, I use Upcoming.

Over time I built up my Facebook network, adding friends and acquaintances. Even though I had heard all the hype, I was still surprised by just how many people were on Facebook. I made contact with people I hadn’t heard from in years—people who had no other online presence. That’s when I finally figured out what Facebook is for: it is Friends Reunited done right.

That was a good enough reason to keep my account bubbling along. But the feeling of being corralled inside a walled garden still felt creepy.

Then the Beacon debacle blew up. It was a step too far even for those crazy kids:

The complaints may seem paradoxical, given that the so-called Facebook generation is known for its willingness to divulge personal details on the Internet. But even some high school and college-age users of the site, who freely write about their love lives and drunken escapades, are protesting.

If you want an excellent explanation—verifiable through experiment—of just how nefarious Beacon is, be sure to read the CA Security Advisor Research Blog.

In a nutshell, a whole raft of websites that are in bed with Facebook are transmitting data back to the mothership about your browsing and shopping habits—even if you opt out of having that information published to your timeline. Y’know, we poke and prod at Google’s “do no evil” policy but at least they take some kind of moral stance.

Now everyone’s giving Facebook a hard time—and rightly so—but it’s worth remembering that it takes two to tango. Or, in this case, it takes more than thirty to tango. They all knew what they were doing when they signed up for Beacon so save some of that ire for them. If you don’t like the idea of shopping under surveillance, consider boycotting those websites—otherwise you might find your Christmas shopping surprises spoiled.

For me, the Beacon ickiness has added to my overall discomfort with Facebook. Maybe I should just shut down my account. Ah, but that’s not so easy, as Brian can attest. And what about those long-lost contacts, the ones that I can only communicate with through Facebook right now?

Here’s what I think I might do… I may trim down my friends list on Facebook. If I know you through another site—Flickr, Twitter, Last.fm, Pownce—then we’ve already got that connection. That would leave my “friends reunited” subset. Perhaps I should stay on Facebook to keep my connections to them. But then I will also take on the task of encouraging them to step outside the walled garden. Like a virtual evangelist, I will write on their walls asking if they’ve let blogging into their life… or at the very least, Twitter.

Social networking

Here’s a list of websites on which I have an account and which involve some form of social networking. I’m listing them in order of how often I visit. I’m also listing how many contacts/buddies/friends/connections/people I have on each site.

My Social Networks
WebsiteVisitsConnections
FlickrDaily154
TwitterDaily205
Del.icio.usDaily4
UpcomingFrequently95
Last.fmFrequently66
DopplrFrequently96
JaikuWeekly34
AnobiiWeekly2
CorkdInfrequently27
PownceInfrequently22
RevishInfrequenty9
FicletsInfrequently4
NewsvineInfrequently4
FacebookInfrequently59
Ma.gnoliaRarely7
Linked inRarely90
OdeoRarely10
XingNever2
DiggNever0

This is just a snapshot of activity so some of the data may be slightly skewed. Pownce, for instance, is quite a new site so my visits may increase or decrease dramatically over time. Also, though I’ve listed Del.icio.us as a daily visit, it’s really just the bookmarklet or Adactio Elsewhere that I use every day—I hardly ever visit the site itself.

Other sites that I visit on a daily basis don’t have a social networking component: blogs, news sites, Technorati, The Session (hmmm… must do something about that).

In general, the more often I use a service, the more likely I am to have many connections there. But there are some glaring exceptions. I have hardly any connections on Del.icio.us because the social networking aspect is fairly tangential to the site’s main purpose.

More interestingly, there are some exceptions that run in the other direction. I have lots of connections on Linked in and Facebook but I don’t use them much at all. In the case of Linked in, that’s because I don’t really have any incentive. I’m sure it would be a different story if I were looking for a job.

As for Facebook, I really don’t like the way it tries to be a one-stop shop for everything. It feels like a walled garden to me. I much prefer services that choose to do one thing but do it really well:

Mind you, there’s now some crossover in the events space when the events are musical in nature. The next Salter Cane concert is on Last.fm but it links off to the Upcoming event … which then loops back to Last.fm.

I haven’t settled on a book reading site yet. It’s a toss-up between Anobbii and Revish. It could go either way. One of the deciding factors will be how many of friends use each service. That’s the reason why I use Twitter more than Jaiku. Jaiku is superior in almost every way but more of my friends use Twitter. Inertia keeps me on Twitter. It’s probably just inertia that keeps me Del.icio.us rather than Ma.gnolia.

The sum total of all my connections on all these services comes to 890. But of course most of these are the same people showing up on different sites. I reckon the total amount of individual people doesn’t exceed 250. Of that, there’s probably a core of 50 people who I have connected to on at least 5 services. It’s for these people that I would really, really like to have portable social networks.

Each one of the services I’ve listed should follow these three steps. In order of difficulty:

  1. Provide a publicly addressable list of my connections. Nearly all the sites listed already do this.
  2. Mark up the list of connections with hCard and, where appropriate, XFN. Twitter, Flickr, Ma.gnolia, Pownce, Cork’d and Upcoming already do this.
  3. Provide a form with a field to paste the URL of another service where I have suitably marked-up connections. Parse and attempt to import connections found there.

That last step is the tricky one. Dopplr is the first site to attempt this. That’s the way to do it. Other social networking sites, take note.

It’s time that social networking sites really made an effort to allow not just the free flow of data, but also the free flow of relationships.