Twitter: to follow or not to follow? That is the question.

Like many who use social networking software to engage in conversation, I’d characterise myself as a heavy Twitter-user.  And the more I use Twitter, the more followers I get; it’s the nature of viral communication.  I’m now followed by 1400 + people – small beans compared with some.  Now, I follow some who don’t follow me, but that’s my choice; they have something of value to offer me.  I’m not offended if I follow someone and they don’t follow back … though it’s interesting who in the big-name stakes actually do follow back and, even at times, respond to a message.

As far as those who follow me, perhaps they feel my posts are useful or interesting, maybe even valuable – I’d hope so – but as to what that is, and why many follow me, I’m never going to know. Why? I simply never hear from them again after the auto-email from Twitter arrives telling me that I have a new follower.  I check their details; no bio – no follow for a start. Self-proclaimed experts or sales pitches are immediate blocks or no-follows, but in deciding whether or not to follow a new follower,  there’s one rule that I am pretty much sticking to come what may.

I send out a regular welcome note to all new followers telling them how I use Twitter – this is only fair I think – asking them to send me a @ message to make contact. If I don’t get this, I don’t follow. Period. Few lately are responding, leading me to conclude that they’re not reading their messages, not serious, or not real.

As I generally end my welcome message ‘I’m at the Twitter party for conversation, not the crowd.’

Friendfeed: a ticket to ride – but where?

Well, the pussycat’s among the pigeons as of this morning with news that Facebook has acquired Friendfeed. The interwebs are aflutter. What will it mean? Has the jock got the good-girl (as Louis Gray wittily notes)? What will it mean for us dedicated Friendfeeders? Only time will tell. Let’s hope the feel of Friendfeed with its access to the Twitter stream doesn’t get swamped by the Facebook nutty stuff – oh, and ads! I for one will be delighted if it makes access to each other easier for my two communities. Right now they are in two separate places.

The longer you socialise online – and an awful lot of us do – the more familiar you become with the online ‘neighbourhoods’ you inhabit.  I visit a lot of these neighbourhoods or social networking sites and services.  I like to stay in touch and keep up to date with them all but, like most commuters, I don’t like the travelling I have to do to get from one neighbourhood to another.  Jumping from website to website to visit yours and your friends’ Flickr, Twitter, and YouTube sites, switching from Face Book to Vimeo to leave comments, or clicking through your Tumblr site, your blog (or blogs),  your Delicious account, checking what’s what in the latest feed subscriptions via Google Reader, or Digg, or Stumbling upon interesting sites – all gets pretty tiresome after awhile.  Have a look over there in the sidebar,  and you’ll see a Friend Feed widget with some of the stops on my own social network neighbourhood line.

After commuting between up to a dozen of these neighbourhoods it became pretty clear that I needed an application to serve as a hub or aggregator – something that would pull my various neighbourhoods together and get my friends, contacts, subscribers, followers – call them what you will – in a place where we could talk and share our ‘stuff’ in a real-time stream like Twitter’s,  but without the disconnectedness of the disembodied one-liner that is typical of a tweet.  Then along came Friend Feed, and it didn’t take much to get me signed up and experimenting.  However, and despite its potential, I found that I wasn’t really putting Friend Feed to work for me. I’d been over in the Twitter crowd more often than not, and suddenly, Friend Feed was just another stop on the line.

A quick segué about Twitter – although there’s probably not much more to say; it continues to grow at an astonishing rate – at least millions have signed up for the service, and millions are following millions more; there’s the viral part. If you’re on Twitter, then you’ll also know that the conversation (if not the activity) is very limited – to 140 characters in fact – but with links to image sites and embedded URLs that take you out and beyond the constantly streaming chatter – no bad thing some would say. The ebb and flow of Twitter conversation – and increasingly not two-way-or-more real conversation – was getting on my nerves. Too many followers who never contact, a lot of chatter which didn’t interest me, more hopping across to other sites. I began to notice that when I did visit, the conversations on Friend Feed and the embedded content were qualitatively and, because you are not character delimited, quantitatively different from Twitter’s. For me, this provided a better socialising experience. Here are a few reasons why.

I love Friend Feed’s customising tools – its ability to pull in the latest posts to (so far) 58 other social networking services.  There’s also a handy bookmartlet that can send a website link with image and a comment to your Friend Feed.  With image and a brief description, there need be no more disembodied hotlinks for friends to puzzle over.  You can also push out your Friend Feed posts, so if tweeting is your thing you can cross-post to Twitter from within Friend Feed.  If you haven’t customised your Friend Feed messages to post to Twitter by default, all it takes is a tick of the CC button beneath a Friend Feed posting pane.  I also like that it can determine which of your friends currently using other sites like Twitter or Facebook , GMail and Yahoo Mail are also signed up to Friend Feed. Click a button on the Friend Feed sign-up page to find out who they are. From there you can bulk ‘subscribe.’  They’ll get an email from Friend Feed, and can choose to follow back – or not. Of course, like any other social networking app, Friend Feed is only going to work if there are enough ‘others’ to get conversation flowing. And this is part of the problem; if your current friends/subscribers or followers aren’t using Friend Feed, then it isn’t going to work for you – remember the network part?  You can always find new ones – say friends of friends you already have on Friend Feed.  You’ll be able to see when someone (not your friend) has liked or commented on a message from someone else (already a friend of yours).  If you think they might be interesting or useful or fun to have as part of your network, you can click on their name, get some more info and subscribe to them – and so the networking ride continues.

I also like Friend Feed’s ability to organise my friends into lists so that, if I choose, I can follow their postings apart from the main or Home feed.  I’ve got lists based on topic feeds, timezones and general interests: theatre folk; social networkers; and one random list called ‘wits and philosophers’ – I’ll let you work out why.  I know my American friends have been working while I sleep, so one of the first lists I open over my morning coffee is theirs. When they’re asleep, the Australian lists come into their own.

Friend Feed also has a feature called Groups, which are a bit like rooms on other services. Groups can be organised around niche topics or subjects; Friend Feed lets you search for people or topics, so you could create a group based on a search. Join a pre-existing one – again do a search to find an area of interest – or create your own.  If you create a Group you can make it Public or Private, and invite people to join.  If it’s Public, anyone can see it, join, and post material.

As I mentioned at the outset, I’m a fan of Friend Feed’s ability to push out and pull in material from my other social network neighbourhoods. Now I get to choose what appears where, and who gets to see it  … so I don’t, for example, send all of my Friend Feed activity to Twitter, or bombard the Friend Feed Home with content perhaps better appreciated in one of my Groups.  Indeed, the flooding of the Friend Feed Home stream with what some consider unnecessary ‘junk’ (aka certain tweets) is a current bone of contention amongst some in the community.  However, it seems to me that the main issue is that not everyone, and even those signed up for Friend Feed (like me), has worked out how to use it to leverage its considerable potential. Friend Feed is a wee bit more complex than Twitter or Face Book.

In my next post I’ll talk about how a minor flame war on Friend Feed got me thinking about whether or not I was using the application to its best advantage, and how a subsequent experiment changed the way I now use my social networking apps.

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