Twitter’s new “Activities” feature and the social feedback loop
For some time now, I’ve been thinking about a concept I’m calling the social feedback loop. To my mind, blogging of any kind — whether it’s the oldest type of longform writing we associate with the dawn of self-publishing on the web through to the very newest microblogging and media-sharing of Twitter and Tumblr — has suffered from a key problem. It too often feels like you’re doing it in a vacuum.
There’s a reason that many bloggers are obsessed with hit stats and many blogging platforms support comment systems that do not require user registration: blogging is a hugely rewarding experience when you have an audience that is engaged with your content but a painfully lonely and empty one when you don’t. So it’s logical to want to make it as easy as possible for your readers to express their agreement (or disagreement!) with what you have to say.
Some platforms have embraced this and taken it to its logical conclusion: the single-click feedback. The earliest example I can think of is Tumblr’s “heart” button, which appears on each and every post you see on Tumblr. One click from the reader and the post author gets a little notification that the post was “hearted”.
The most prominent example, however, is Facebook’s “Like” button, which is exactly the same thing: one single click from the reader to communicate back to the writer that “I liked this”. Google aped this design with the +1 button on Google+. It’s telling that both the Like and +1 buttons apply not just to individual posts — say, a Facebook status update — but also to comments left on those posts. Clearly, these are designed to be pervasive features.
This is what I am referring to in the headline: the idea that people will be more likely to put the effort in to write things for a website (be it a traditional blog or a social network) if they feel they have an engaged audience. The audience will be more likely to demonstrate their engagement if that process is as simple as possible. The lowest friction way to do that is with a single click on a prominent button.
Twitter was slow to catch on. For a long time, it had half the story; it included the ability to “favourite” tweets with one click of the star icon. But the other half was missing because there was no notification back to the writer of the tweet that you had done this. In the absence of any obvious thing the feature is for, many users simply ignored it, or found other uses such as employing it as a way to bookmark tweets. For example, some of my friends star tweets with links in that they cannot read whilst mobile for later re-visiting.
Nevertheless, the demand was clearly there for a social feedback loop for Twitter, as evidenced by the popularity of “fave collection services” like favrd (now defunct) and later favstar. These sites crawl the Twitter streams of users, collating and recording all the stars they handed out and building daily leaderboards of the most popular tweets. They let you see which of your tweets people have liked and they let you measure how you’re doing against your peers. The mild gamification angle of the leaderboards prompts a little friendly competition to be the wittiest or share the most interesting links.
Without the implicit prodding from my own favrd and favstar pages, I would never have become such a keen user of Twitter — and without the community that grew up around Favstar, I would never have found the woman I’m going to marry tomorrow either!
Back to the subject at hand. With the new rollout of activity streams, Twitter is finally making a move into this area itself. A new tab on twitter.com, simply listed as “@username”, shows people faving and retweeting your tweets, alongside notifications of new followers and @replies sent to you — the four ways in which people engage with your content on Twitter, all collated into a single view.
(Screenshot taken from TechCrunch because I don’t yet have access to this new feature on my own Twitter account.)
The bottom line
There’s a scene in one of Neal Stephenson’s Baroque Cycle books (I forget which one) which talks about how there’s a sort of shantytown built on one of London’s bridges. People live in tiny huts that long ago ran out of room to be built on the bridge itself; instead, they are slung out over the river Thames and held on by improvised rigging, lashed to their neighbours with dozens of ropes. Often, the ropes break, and huts and their residents simply disappear into the churning water below.
I often think that the structure of the social Internet is like that. The bonds that hold us together are sometimes gossamer thin and easily broken; we’ve all seen flame wars, people flounce from forums, Usenet spats. If we want to build useful and long-lasting relationships via the Internet we need to tend to these links and seek to build more of them whenever we can. Tight social feedback loops are one mechanism that can make online social discourse feel more alive. I’m glad to see Twitter embrace the concept more wholeheartedly.
Joe Schmitt left a reply on Facebook with a few notes on this post. He reminded me that Favotter was the first collate-Twitter-favourites site, pre-dating Favrd and Favstar, and that it might be older than Tumblr (neither of us can find solid confirmation of which came first — does anyone know?) Favotter certainly deserves credit for that. Also related are how Digg and Delicious count likes on existing posts and use this to rank their content — and older than them both is Slashdot’s karma system. These are all further examples of these same fundamental principles at work.
Joe also pointed out another benefit to these one-click-feedback systems I hadn’t highlighted above: they obviate the need for vacuous “me-too” or “LOL” style responses. This means that when people do send you an @reply on Twitter or leave a comment on a tumblog, it’s more likely to be a substantive one.
Guillermo Esteves sent me some feedback via Twitter after doing some excellent detective work. He points out that Tumblr added hearting on 16th Jan 2009 and Facebook’s Like button appeared on 9th Feb 2009, so there’s much less of a gap there than I claimed above — this is entirely down to my own faulty memory, so apologies.
He also points out two more examples that I wasn’t aware of because I’ve never used either service. Friendfeed had a “like” feature before either Twitter or Tumblr. And Pownce also allowed users to rate posts on a five-star system back as far as 2007, which is a slightly more elaborate example. Perhaps too elaborate — I could imagine the analysis paralysis causing there to be less feedback given overall.
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