Is the concept of blogging scalable?

[ I originally published this post on the Headshift blog in 2009. ]

This blog post was originally published by me on the Headshift blog in 2009.

It seems that there are only two topics people talk about these days . One is the economic turmoil and the other is the microblogging service Twitter. While there is unanimous consent that we are facing one of the worst economic situations after WWII, there is a heated debate going on about the usefulness of Twitter. Some simply love it while others can’t make sense of it viewing it as time-wasting and geeks’ new toy.

Despite the sarcasm of its numerous critics Twitter showed an impressive growth rate of 900% in the last year, and that’s only the usage of twitter.com. Double that traffic comes through the APIs, thus 3rd party applications. Some even suggested that Twitter could go mainstream soon, without actually defining what numbers needed to be reached to justify that statement.

Fact is, microblogging is not simply a super cool form of communication (a la SMS speak of teenagers but for 18+ (average Tweeter is 31!)). It fills a real need for almost realtime communication. If you want to know what people are paying attention to at the moment, you use the Twitter search instead of Google. Next time a plane touches down on the Hudson River make sure you are watching your Twitter stream instead of waiting for images to appear on CNN. So, microblogging will not go away. Twitter could potentially disappear, but at the moment that seems rather unlikely, especially since Pownce (talent) was recently aquired by Six Apart and Google couldn’t figure out how to make Jaiku work and in the end giving the code base to the community.

Let’s assume for a minute that Twitter will continue to grow at a phenomenal rate. You can only speculate on the number of current users, since the founders do not disclose the exact number. Jeremiah Owyang suggested something between 4 – 6 million users, up from 0.5 million in January 08. This would mean at the end of the year we could potentially see a whopping 45 million users on Twitter. (I will hold it like Winston Churchill and advise you that you shouldn’t trust any statistic that you didn’t forge yourself. So, please don’t quote me on this number!)

What I am trying to understand is if microblogging as it stands at the moment is actually scalable, not in terms of technology but behavior and usage. The biggest question mark I have is around the @ messages. Twitter was called superior to Email because you would only receive updates from people you choose to follow. Well, yes and no. This is certainly true for your overall friends update stream and Direct Messages. However, if you haven’t activated the setting ‘show me only @ messages from people I follow’, anyone can send you an @ message. There are people on Twitter that have thousands of followers and I assume they receive hundreds of @ messages. I have no clue how they cope with it, but I believe only few of us would put up with such flurry of messages. And how long will it take until someone creates a bot that listens to specific keywords and sends out @ messages to the people that used those keywords? Imagine you send out three tweets and receive nine spam @ messages. That may not seem severe but I think you get the idea. So, is the @ message functionality doomed once Twitter grows even more popular?

Furthermore, Twitter applications will need to become much smarter to be still practical once it does hit mainstream. For example, I am thinking of the dozens of RTs, which go unfiltered at the moment. Threaded replies (yes, I do have the Greasemonkey script installed, but I am mostly using Tweetdeck) would make life much easier, especially if someone responds to a tweet a day later and you have forgotten about the original tweet. If you have a conversation with two people it would be great to simply reply to the thread and it goes automatically to both recipients. Or would that open the door to spamming and we would see a CC functionality in disguise?

Abuse could become a significant issue for Twitter. We have seen that already happening, when Twitter accounts of high-profile people were hacked and sent out spam messages. Jeremiah Owyang fell vicitm to another spam spoof a couple of days ago, in which supposingly a bot created various Twitter accounts just changing one letter of his account and following thousands of people. Twitter is already plagued with spam followers, which is nothing serious but simply annoying. In the future another nuisance could be that spam twitter accounts are created en masse sending out messages to each other using specific keywords or hashtags. The more there are the more likely it is that the Twitter Search will be polluted with those messages.

Openness can be a blessing and a curse at the same time. I am very curious to see how our behavior and usage will evolve with the growing popularity of microblogging and how technology will cater for those sorts of changes. Maybe I am just overly concerned and microblogging does scale. That’s for you to decide. I would be very interested in hearing your thoughts.

Oh, and I am @christoph by the way.

Edutainment and competition makes the world go round

I originally published this post on the Headshift blog in 2009. ]

The New York Times published an article today on how utilities turn their customers green. For years and years the Sacramento Municipal Utility District had tried to push people to using less energy by offering for example rebates for energy-saving appliances. However, all tactics seemed to be in vain until they applied a very simple but effective principle – peer pressure.

Last April, [the Sacramento Municipal Utility District] began sending out statements to 35,000 randomly selected customers, rating them on their energy use compared with that of neighbors in 100 homes of similar size that used the same heating fuel. The customers were also compared with the 20 neighbors who were especially efficient in saving energy.

After about six months an assessment showed that people that had received personalized statements reduced their energy use by 2% more than the ones that had received a standard statement. Encouraged by these results the approach is now piloted in ten other major metropolitan areas.

The results of this initiative seem to validate a study conducted by Dr. Robert Cialdini, a social psychologist at Arizona State University.

In a 2004 experiment he and a colleague left different messages on doorknobs in a middle-class neighborhood north of San Diego. One type urged the residents to conserve energy to save the earth for future generations; another emphasized financial savings. “But the only kind of message to have any significant effect, Dr. Cialdini said, was one that said neighbors had already taken steps to curb their energy use. (ibid.)

The article mentions similar initiatives, for example at the Central College in Pella, Iowa, and in Massachusetts where towns are competing in a reality series, called “Energy Smackdown,” which is shown on a local cable station.

Most of these initiatives are locally. Using the power of the social web though, competitions can span the entire world and increase its impact considerably. Headshift has been involved in two green projects which are using peer pressure and competition as engagement models. Do the Green Thing is a fun and engaging way for people to tackle climate change. It’s based on the premise that simple actions done on scale can have a big impact. If you do a green action it is automatically communicated to your peers and wider network enticing them to do the same. The results speak for themselves. Within 18 months people were able to save as much as 5.86m kgs CO2.

The other initiative has been set up by NESTA and is called ‘The BIG Green Challenge‘.

NESTA put out a £1 million prize fund to come up with the best ideas to tackle climate change. Out of the 350 projects that entered, they are now down to the final ten. These ten communities have one year to implement their idea and prove its practicality and effectiveness to reduce carbon emission. By the way, our colleague, Robin Hamman, is currently traveling the country up and down to visit the finalists and bring them up to speed with social media, so that they can reach their audience. You should subscribe to the blog to get the latest info.

It will be interesting to see where the competition leads us to. It has already spread awareness and unlocked the innovative potential of the people involved. Whatever is saved in terms of carbon footprint will simply add to the success of the project.

So, what can enterprises learn from these insights? A lot, I believe. Let’s take a look inside the enterprise first. We quickly remember the study of Dr. Robert Cialdini, in which he left three different messages at doorknobs to see if they had an effect on the energy usage of recipients:

  1. Save energy to save the world
  2. Save energy to save money
  3. Save energy because your neighbors are doing it already

Only the third note seemed to have a significant impact on the behavior of the people. These three notes could be translated in a business context as follows:

  1. Contribute and share information to make our organization better
  2. Contribute and share information to gain some sort of financial reward
  3. Contribute and share information because your peers are doing it already

Experience shows that notes one and two very rarely work. They reflect a very top-down approach. People are under a lot of pressure and therefore need to leave their altruistic spirit at home. They are concerned about getting their own work done and do not have time to think of others. And who could blame them? Financial incentives have been discussed widely. The general tenor on this is that the approach is flawed, as it can easily be abused and the initial effect wears off after some time.

This leaves us with the the third note. Competition is unlikely to instigate the cheerful sharing of information. It’s more about reputation, thus intrinsic motivation. The more transparency there is across the organization to easily identify topic experts, the higher the motivation to become more visible. This in return means the person needs to engage with others and contribute through his work. It won’t be enough to brag about oneself. Reputation is based on one’s action and other people’s judgment. Will transparency be enough to kick start communication, collaboration and connections between employees? Surely not! Tools that increase transparency will need to be easy to use, embedded into peoples’ work and make them more productive. You may want to think about whether your email client, your IT and Internal Comms driven intranet, proprietory DMS and CMS caters for that.

Now let’s take a look outside the enterprise. With the advent of social tools customers have become increasingly deaf to brands’ marketing messages and blind to their shiny advertisement. Customers want to be engaged. They want to feel part of the producer / consumer equation. The traditional model did not reflect that. Some brands have acknowledged this shift and are actively listening to and engaging with customers. By now there are a lot of brands that have set up a blog, Twitter account or Facebook fan page / group. But really, how many brand or product based FB groups / fan pages are out there and enjoy a large number of followers? Most of them are inactive or dead. That’s because there is nothing to engage them with (but also because of the shortcomings of FB). Competition, entertainment and education can be strong drivers for engagement if applied adequately.

Recently I found out about a NYC based start-up called StyleHop, which is a social fashion recommendation site. (Disclaimer: I don’t have any equity in that company and never spoken to the founders). That’s what they are saying about their concept:

‘Stylehopping takes shape via several fashion-orientated games that are an engaging way of checking out the latest styles while voicing your opinions. You’ll accumulate points and rewards for playing along the way, such as gift certificates to popular stores and websites.’

Playing games is such a fundamental part of our childhood (and beyond) that it is an easy way to engage people. Most games come with some sort of competition, which keeps people coming back. They can reveal things about ourselves that we didn’t know of, would rather like to hide or were not able to express. In the case of StyleHop retailers can show and sell their products. They receive genuine feedback and can identify upcoming trends, because it is based on data collected with the games. The girls on the other hand can see what is out there, receive better recommendations, can compete with their direct friends or even their network (e.g. university) or other networks.

StyleHop is just an example. The principles at work here can be applied to other retailers, products, target audiences. The implementation though is the tricky part of it.

We are all human beings. We love to be entertained, play games, compete with others. We have done that for thousands of years. The Internet is not going to change it. Instead we need to figure out how we can make use of it for a good cause or to thrive our business.