Category: Social

Elgg, Buddypress, Drupal: Different Flavours for Different Reasons

One question that I repeatedly get to hear from users and clients trying to set up private social networks is the ‘which’ part of it. This post is meant to act as a very lightweight guide for that process. We will consider only Elgg, Buddypress and Drupal for this. There are numerous other options available like Dolphin, Ning and Jomsocial, but Ning falls out of the list due to it being a hosted solution and I have little experience with Ning and Dolphin in their current iterations.
The crucial question in selecting one of the many options is whether you know what you actually want? The effectiveness of the solution used can vary wildly depending on how clear you are about what you really want. Some of the solutions are pretty close to plug-and-play. Install them, fill in some data and you are good to go. The others are barebones frameworks, they need a lot of work to be made into a product. Clients also often make the grave error of underestimating the management overheads of running a full fledged social network. Between the technology, product and administration tasks it can easily wind up taking up a lot of your time (and often money too).
Social network frameworks also require much higher specification infrastructure to support it. While you can keep a blog going on a $3-per month shared hosting solution, most of these social networking products will start to become unusable on shared hosting as your user base and concurrent usage starts to climb. In such a scenario, it may be the best idea to go with a Ning or the commercial offering of Elgg, so that you are shielded from the technology parts of the puzzle.
A quick checklist of things that will make your choices easier would run like this:
1. How many users are you looking to support
2. Will it be only free users or paid users or a mix of paid and free?
3. How comfortable are you with managing technology (both coding and infrastructure)
4. Minimum budget
5. Time that you are willing to spend on it
6. What degree of support are you willing to provide users?
Most of the private social networks can be split into three kinds:
1. Solely for communication: You want only the ability for members to sign up and communicate with each other in common threads.
2. Full featured: You want a clone of the features of the bigger networks.
3. Full featured and heavily customized: You want a clone of the bigger networks and also a lot of custom features added on.
In the case of (1), you can easily make do with a Google Groups set up or something similar to that. Anything else is really an overhead that you get little value from. For (2), go with one of the commercial offerings and you will get the best of both worlds. (3) is where most of my work has been and in and thus the longer elaboration on the point.
In using a customized solution you are making a substantial commitment to a platform from which switching won’t be easy or cheap. Each platform has its own strengths and weaknesses, but one thing that is common among all of them is that after a point in the growth curve you have to constantly reevaluate problems you had fixed earlier. A simple example is of a feature that lists all users in a single page. This may work flawlessly when you have hundreds of users, but it will get your site to a crawl when you move into the thousands.
The three solutions under the scanner here – Elgg, Buddypress and Drupal – all take different approaches to producing an outcome largely owing to their respective lineages.
Elgg is a social framework that has a few modules in its out-of-the-box form which enables it to work as a bare-bones product.
Buddypress is based on WordPress and it is now a full fledged plugin on the WordPress platform which is a content publishing engine.
Drupal is a content management framework which has nothing social in it out-of-the-box. It takes a lot of work to get it to be a social networking site. You can read the guide to it here.
The three solutions can be further evaluated under the following heads:
Ease of use (users): Buddypress is the easiest of the three to use since the base framework it uses is WordPress. Elgg comes in second, while Drupal is the hardest to figure out.
Ease of use (site administrators): Buddypress is the easiest again due to the WordPress lineage. Drupal comes second becomes of its superior update notifications and built-in tools to atomically manage users and permissions. Elgg finishes third because of its really clunky administration interface.
Development: Elgg comes in first here because of its origin as a social networking engine. It also has code that is targeted only at PHP5, which means that it carries little bloat from the PHP4 days. It also has the best API of the lot and a well executed views system. Buddypress comes in second because of the simplicity of the WordPress API, but it can quickly become a major limitation if your requirements start of exceed what is provided out-of-the-box by it. Drupal suffers because most of the heavy lifting for the ‘socialization’ of the platform depends on various modules. Customizing these can often be quite complicated.
Platform Maturity: At the core Elgg is the youngest of the three, but it comes up on top again. It is a very well designed and executed platform at its core and its entities system is built to scale well if you can throw the right amount of hardware at it. Drupal comes in second because of the solid core it has been built on top of. Buddypress comes in third because of the core WordPress engine, which is still only a publishing engine and not really a framework.
Flexibility: Drupal comes right on top here because of the dazzling array of modules that it can leverage. There is a module for almost everything you can think of in Drupal. While it is a different matter that it can be a nightmare to integrate them all in a logical manner, the fact is that Drupal does give you the option to pull it off. Elgg comes in second with its well-designed API that allows you to extend it quite well and without too much trouble. Buddypress will be last here because it is tough to get it to do anything that is not there at the core.
It is most tempting to tally these scores and proclaim a winner based on my experiences, but I won’t do that since every social network has requirements that are unique to itself. This is meant more as a guide to help you along the way of making better informed decisions regarding your platform choices.

Filed under: Internet, Social

Giving Back

This year I have supported three Open Source initiatives that I have probably used the most. Elgg, NeoOffice and Wikipedia have contributed greatly to my ability to earn a living, learn a lot more than what I would have otherwise ever known and build and express a lot of ideas and concepts. These are not major contributions and they have been made in a personal capacity, but I do intend to push it up a notch every year and once the company steadies itself I will institute a proper program that will identify more initiatives and contribute a lot more.

A lot of what we are able to do on the web these days is possible due to the work of a handful of people who have often worked for nothing in return. If some of the software that enables us were to be billed at the level that most shrink wrapped software is billed, the internet as we know it would not exist today. You can argue about the validity and feasibility of that model, but you can't argue that all of us have benefitted greatly from it. Even though most of the stalwarts who have put together these things have not demanded money as a must-have in return for what they have created, it is a good gesture to make any contribution that you can make.

If it is possible for you, do try to find one of those that you like and contribute in whatever capacity you can.

Filed under: Business, Misc, Social, Start-ups

Personal Context: The Next Frontier

One of the downsides of so many people publishing so much of content (Blogs, Twitter, Microblogs, Flickr etc) is that keeping your head above all the noise has become an impossible task. The situation is so bad that often times the only recourse available is to shut off most of these channels. And this is a problem that will only get worse as the number of people who can produce content online is only going to keep growing.

Most of our current filtering mechanisms like aggregators and ranking systems work by applying the preferences of the many to the individual. This does allow for a dynamic data set compared to the static ones if you were to use the individual's sources as the data set being operated up on. But it also results in the dilution of context, leading to massive generalization and approximation.

The main reason why personal context is a non-starter in most cases is cost. It is simply way too expensive to index and group content on a per-user basis. One way to work around this is to offload the processing and storage to the end user, like what Mailbrowser has done. I have been an advocate of a hybrid model based on this for a while, but, unfortunately, I don't have the technical chops or the required infrastructure to build it.

This method also goes very much against the “cloud” school of thought. So you can't expect any of the existing big players to make much inroads into using this approach. But I do believe that we are reaching the limits of what a generalized context can provide. If you sit out the noise for a week, you will realize that there is little that you have missed and that the ROI on processing information churned out by existing filters is near zero.

Filed under: Internet, Social

Privacy Is Dead? Not For Facebook's Executive Team

Facebook has been trying very hard to communicate to all of the internet that the new defaults are something that will benefit all of us and the internet as a whole. The founder CEO, Mark Zuckerberg does not spare any opportunity to remind us that he wants to make the world a more open place.

For a company that wants its users to open up and share everything, you'd assume that Facebook's senior executives would practice what they preach. But reality is far from that assumption.

In fact, the most laughable aspect in all of this is that Elliot Schrage, Facebook's VP Global Communications, Marketing and Public Policy, who spent a lot of time recently explaining why it is good to share to disgruntled users, has the most locked down profiles on the Facebook executive team.

Even Zuckerberg's profile itself shares very little about himself.

Below is a list of the Facebook exec list from their website, with the details about their access levels and what they share. It is rather self explanatory and it does not paint a really good picture of the company. Interestingly, for an 'open' company, you can't browse Facebook's network if you don't have a Facebook email ID.

Name Designation Sharing Level/Friending access Login Limited Access Level On Google? Notes
Mark Zuckerberg Founder & Chief Executive Officer Mark only shares some of his profile information with everyone. Yes Restricted Yes Can't access friends list
Christopher Cox VP of Product Chris only shares some of his profile information with everyone. If you know Chris, send him a message or add him as a friend. Yes Restricted Yes Can't access friends list
David Ebersman Chief Financial Officer David only shares some of his profile information with everyone. If you know David, send him a message or add him as a friend. Yes Restricted Yes
David Fischer VP of Advertising and Global Operations David only shares some of his profile information with everyone. If you know David, add him as a friend. Yes Locked down No Can't access friends list
Lori Goler VP of Human Resources and Recruiting Lori only shares some of her profile information with everyone. If you know Lori, send her a message or add her as a friend. Yes Restricted Yes Almost certainly not the right person
Jonathan Heiliger VP of Technical Operations Jonathan only shares some of his profile information with everyone. If you know Jonathan, send him a message or add him as a friend. Yes Locked Down Yes Can't access friends list
Mike Murphy VP of Global Sales Mike only shares some of his profile information with everyone. If you know Mike, send him a message or add him as a friend. Yes Restricted Yes Can't access friends list
Dan Rose VP of Partnerships and Platform Marketing Yes Open for FB Yes The most open Facebook exec. Have common friends. Could be a factor.
Sheryl Sandberg
Chief Operating Officer Sheryl only shares some of her profile information with everyone. If you know Sheryl, send her a message or add her as a friend. Yes Mostly open Yes
Chamath Palihapitiya VP of Growth, Mobile and International Chamath only shares some of his profile information with everyone. If you know Chamath, send him a message or add him as a friend. Yes Mostly open Yes
Elliot Schrage VP of Global Communications, Marketing and Public Policy Elliot only shares some of his profile information with everyone. If you know Elliot, send him a message or add him as a friend. Yes Locked Down No Most locked-down FB exec
Ted Ullyot VP and General Counsel Ted only shares some of his profile information with everyone. If you know Ted, add him as a friend. Yes Restricted No Can't access friends list
Mike Schroepfer VP of Engineering Mike only shares some of his profile information with everyone. Yes Restricted Yes

Yes, it is also a demonstration of the fact that people can keep things private if they want on Facebook. but if the future of the world is in sharing everything and the notion of privacy is dead, then why is it that there is only about one or two of the senior management team who have reasonably open profiles on Facebook?

This has always been the problem with the changes the company has brought about in the recent years – that they are quite often dishonest and misrepresent facts. As a company Facebook has every right to behave the way they want to. For a user it is a privilege to be on the platform and use it and not a right.

But, that does not mean that it is okay to do what they are doing now.

Filed under: Social

The Audacity Of Poke

These are interesting times, made even more interesting by the unveiling of Facebook's new Open Graph Protocol. To say that this has not been in the works would be an omission of a grievous nature. It has been coming for a while, even if the pundits have been screaming something else from the rooftops: that Facebook – because of their closed nature – is threat to Google. There has never been greater misunderstanding of how both Facebook and Google work than to claim something like that.

That said, what I want to talk about is something else, but, before we can get to that, it is important to understand why Facebook is doing this. Much like any profit-oriented company (like Google, Microsoft and many others), Facebook wants to exist in a world where demand for its product will keep increasing by any suitable measure of growth spread over time. A purely social networking product cannot accomplish this. You have seen this with Friendster, Myspace and Orkut. Being closed, walled off and limited reduces your value in the world, because you then present the users with only limited use cases. To accomplish growth (in roughly the same terms as Google), you need to be a generalist company and not a company that focuses on the specific niche of personal connections.

Remaining a walled garden diminishes the potential of the product called Facebook. What diminishes it even more is for Facebook to remain a product that is only a facilitator of connections or virtual farming. Sure, it is a nice thing to be able to reconnect with long-lost classmates, relatives and whatnot, but those are not things you will do on a daily basis once the fad dies down. To be where Facebook wants to be at, they want to be relevant to you on a near-constant basis. The range possibilities in adding that kind of value within the previous Facebook ecosystem is rather limited. Yes, there is a lot of poring over photographs of newly overweight former friends and flames, but that has intent backing it which is of little value. In other words, it is brilliant as a time sink, but it sucks as something that is backed by little actionable/convertible/monetizable intent.

Contrary to what the pundits have been proclaiming for a long time now (that they will make Google and others bow in front of them because of their walled gardens), Facebook needs its walls to drop to increase usage and relevance. I have been saying it for a while that a closed Facebook has limited potential, what you are seeing now is the opening up of those walls to address a far larger possibility/potential. Facebook, having tired of knowing 'you' within the walled gardens now wants to know 'you' outside of it. It is an audacious move, as mentioned in the title, for a few reasons, but we will tackle that later. Before that, we need to see how we got to where we are today.

If you look at it, there has been roughly three stages in the evolution of the internet:

  1. Few Deciding For The Many: In the first phase, very few could publish on the internet. In the pre-search engine era, both content producers and curators were few in number. The old school media publications and a few portals held all the power. Lack of choice meant that you had really nowhere to go, other than where the few influentials thought you should go to.
  2. Many Deciding On Their Own: In the next phase, the era of the search engines and the aggregators, both content production and curation became far cheaper and widespread. Aided by the search engines, discovery became easier too as a result. This led to an openness of information and an odd democracy of information online, leading to disenfranchisement of the former power players like media houses and portals.
  3. Many Deciding Through The Few: What we are stepping into is now phase three, where, as a reflection of the plight of humanity, too much choice is not actually treasured by most. People feel lost when given control of their own choices, paths and destinations in life. They'd rather have it chosen for them. Thus exists the need to be driven by what our peers, friends and groups that we can easily identify with, than the urge to experience the freedom of choices as it is possible now. This is what Facebook is counting on and I am afraid they will succeed in it – though, to what extent they will succeed remains to be seen.

But, what I really wanted to talk about is something else. It is about the battle to collect, classify and identify information spread all over the internet. This is a battle that was won a while ago, with the undisputed victor being Google. Short of a closely-held (read patented) new computing paradigm that will enable a new player to crawl, index and classify the wealth of information out there at a much quicker pace, there is not much of an opportunity out there in search that won't be stillborn as a result of crashing headlong into the Google juggernaut. As Microsoft has experienced time and again, throwing more money at the search problem won't win this battle. It requires time to crawl, index and rank, and usage from the users, both being factors where Google has a massive headstart – one which with passage of time only increases it for the company

There is, though, one area where you can attack Google on this front and that is to counter Google's machine-driven apparatus with human input. After all, even the best of algorithms can't match a human being interpreting the tone and tenor of a sentence, a conversation or a query. You have seen instances of this before with various products like Delicious (classifying and categorizing links), Mahalo (human curated results for top search queries), Twitter lists (human-powered categorization of people), Wikipedia (human powered distillation and linkage to a vast array of information) and many others. But all these have suffered with either low scale of adoption or low degree of contributions. For things to work at web-scale, you need to enable people to contribute with much lesser complexity. It needs to work behind the scenes, without requiring users to understand crawling, classifying, ranking or indexing of content, silently adding value with each bit of interaction.

I'll make it even simpler. This is how search works in the present day: A computer (or many computers), goes through all the possible web pages on the internet by picking up links on all those pages. This information is then separated from all the noise that is present in it and indexed to extract the relevant information from it. At the topmost level, when a human being enters a search query, a bit of programming code parses the query, matches it to its best ability with the best result in the index and shows it to the user. Google is the master of being able do do all three stages at the most cost-effective and best manner possible at the moment. The advantage Google has is derived from three things: First, they can extract the relevant information from pages better than anyone else and secondly they can parse your query better than anyone else because of their years of experience gained from looking and matching at trillions of queries and third, the vast amount of data Google silently collect about the user from within its ecosystem (through its consumer-facing products) and outside it through products like Adwords and Analytics.

The one place where a new entrant can make a dent is to actually address this problem in such a manner that it takes the wind out of Google's sails – which is to identify and classify information at a fraction of the trouble that Google goes to get it. When you have content publishers pushing out self-identifying data (using the Open Graph Protocol), you no longer need to spend millions of dollars crawling HTML dealing with the resulting tag soup and employing multitudes of PhDs trying to extract signal from all that noise. If, in a 128 kb text, four lines will explain in a structured manner what the rest of the document is all about, it will enable others to compete with Google in the information game, because it can nullify Google's significant advantage of being able to make sense of pages stuffed with unstructured data, IF enough publishers use the Open Graph protocol in the first place.

Now, this is where the story gets interesting. So far, nothing has prevented anyone from doing what Facebook has done with the Open Graph Protocol. But, as I have mentioned, all of this has to do with the business case it represents. Till Google started getting enough scale in terms of referral traffic for content publishers, nobody gave two hoots about search engine optimization or how discoverable their content was. Facebook with its hundreds of millions of users is taking a leaf out of Google's own playbook. They are bringing massive scale into the playing field and asking content publishers to adhere to this new specification for the benefit of getting a lot of traffic from the Facebook ecosystem. The publishers, who also have their respective business cases to follow, will fall over each other to adhere to it and thus we will start on the third phase of the internet.

What will complete the picture is for Facebook to publish a framework for push notification of new content. The good news for them is that there are various formats already available to do that, including Google's own PubSubHubbub or even RSS Cloud. This will save Facebook the pain of polling for updates to all known pages and will get pages to push updates into them. At web scale, putting the push feature and the Open Graph protocol will enable Facebook to easily index content at a fraction of the cost that Google incurs in doing the same at the moment. This is also one of the reasons why Facebook has no opt out for the Social Plugins. While the technology behind it is the time-tested IFRAME tag, what it gives Facebook (once again via its users) is the ability to have a list of active web pages pushed to it than to go crawling seeking them out.

If you have been reading closely enough, you will see that there is a catch in all of this. Which is that Facebook is not really about search. It is not about relevance of search. Wait, it is not even about the open web. That is something Zuck and co is looking to change on Facebook, leading to the recent push to make 'open' the new 'closed'. As I said before, if they are left to their original intent – of making and sustaining connections – Facebook will have limited utility/value in the longer term. What they have is replaceable (not that easily, but it is not that impossible either if you remember either Friendster or Myspace). What you are seeing is Facebook's play for your identity and relevance – which is a switch from being the connector. This switch can't happen if it is presented as a choice to the users, which is why the changes are being pushed down your throat. This why you are being told that privacy does not exist on the internet and that you are better off keeping things more open than closed.

The tragedy in all of ti is that they want you to innately accept that the internet that matters to you is ONLY that part of it discovered through your friends and connections. It will fail if Facebook can't consider any member on Facebook as a connection of yours, which can only happen if everyone is forced to share a vast part of information about themselves by default. The content/pages thus discovered will retain the trail you took to reach those destinations once you abdicate discovery to Facebook. The internet will always be more than Facebook, but for those on Facebook, the company's plan is to make internet only what can be discovered through Facebook. I already know a lot of friends and acquaintances for whom a vast majority of their internet experience is limited to what they do the whole day on Facebook. It is a sad move towards a deeper descent into the plight of the modern age — of knowing less and being ignorant being something to be celebrated and cherished.

There is a larger story in all of this regarding the arbiters of information. Google has been that for a long while now. They have been far from perfect and it is a place where we need more competition than less of it. In the world that we live in, those who control the narrative wield powers that is tremendous. The audacity of poke is just another chapter in that story. Google has been not entirely free of wrongdoing in how it has handled this power, but it has handled it much better than most others I could think of. With the world becoming more and more interconnected, the powers held by the people who man the gateways to information will only increase. I am not too optimistic about where all this will eventually wind up, but for now I have decided to use Facebook only in safe browsing mode on all my browsers.

Filed under: Social

Seed Some Open Source Love

There are numerous ways to support many of the open source products that we all use directly or indirectly every day. From the venerable Apache server to products like VLC, our generation of technology consumers have benefitted a lot from the hard work of others.

While it is not possible for us to contribute to these projects in a direct manner like contributing patches or helping with the documentation, we can still help open source projects in a different manner: by seeding the files on bittorrent.

Not every project needs this, especially the established and existing ones like Apache, but for a smaller project, bandwidth can often be a major stumbling block. This is where you can chip in.

Check if some of the projects you use have a download made available on bittorrent and seed it for as long as you can.

For most of us on broadband connections, with FUP limits in excess of 50 GB, one or two GB donated to seeding a project release is not even a blip on the radar. And considering the 'other' bits you accumulate downloading files over bittorrent and watching YouTube, these are good bytes that would look good on your karmic balance sheet.

I am currently seeding the 3.0.2 release of NeoOffice and have a ratio of 5.24 at the moment. With smaller projects this is likely to be the case as not too many people download a release on bittorrent, Besides, you can also cap the upload at 10 or 20 KBps and control the maximum volume of data you will wind up transferring over time. If you know of any other smaller projects that could do with the bandwidth, do let me know. I will only be glad to help in seeding the files.

I hope you will find an OSS project that could do with such help and chip in. It does make a difference.

Filed under: Social

Lessons Learned From A Two-Week Social Media Blackout

When I decided to go on a hiatus from the social networks (read Twitter and Facebook, two of the products that I use most), it had more to do with trying to get a handle on things in both professional and personal life than anything else. Over time, my use of these sites had become more of a crutch to support increasingly bad management of time and effort. Nothing spectacular happened because of the blackout. The world did not become a better place, nor did any of my problems vanish magically, but I did get to focus a lot more on matters that needed dedicated and sustained attention.

For me, the first rule about doing such a blackout was to not tell anyone about it. I was not totally offline and was easily available over email. I had forsaken instant messaging services a long time ago and I rarely use them (Skype, mostly) other than for work-related short stints. It was well over a week before the first messages of 'all ok?' started coming through and even those maxed out in the single digits (including the DMs on Twitter that I did not get to see till today). If this were a popularity contest, I would certainly have lost it hands down, but taking it account my largely asocial self, we are working on a flawed foundation there.

It was not easy going at all. Day one was hard. I am a compulsive 'command + tab' and 'command + n' user. A bad habit and muscle memory are like two peas in a pod – perfectly made for each other. Two or three days into it, things became much easier. I was working with more focus and it was getting more OK to not know immediately what was going on anywhere within seconds of anything happening. More importantly, it was OK to not have a smart ass comment or a snarky response to something or the other. Week two was not something that was part of the original plan, but it so happened that I was heading out of town to the Himalayas for some R&R and it worked out perfectly fine to extend the hiatus for seven more days.

Having popped up back about 11-hours ago on Twitter and Facebook I don't think I missed much. Some observations:

1. Yes, there is a certain delay in knowing what is happening out there, but that actually works out much better for me, with significantly reduced noise levels and better reporting.

2. There are a lot of easily offended, highly opinionated people out there. A lot of times the realtime world feels like a nerve that is ready to burst.

3. Real life (the one without Foursquare, Latitude, GPS etc) is not a fallback. In our part of the world, it is still the primary option.

4. Unless they do eventually get into the payment/shopping space, Facebook will be so passe in 5-years.

5. 12157 tweets and 1115 followers down the road, I still could not explain Twitter to a digital non-native in either 140 characters or even using 140 sentences.

6. I have grown to love email even more.

7. The importance of 'social' in your life is vastly overrated when it does not involve meeting people face-to-face.

8. Both Twitter & Facebook have scaling issues (not speaking about technology). After a point, both become more about distribution than interaction.

9. There is something absolutely lovely about enjoying an icy cold breeze going up the Himalayas and not wondering how to fit the feeling in 140 characters.

10. We are, sadly, slaves of the refresh button.

Of course, none of these need not necessarily apply to anyone else. But it is an interesting experiment. I would suggest that you give it a shot and see how it works out. Obviously, don't tweet about it while you are at it.

Filed under: Social

Twitter Guidelines For Media Professionals And Organizations

It is not uncommon in the world of blogs and micro-blogging to bash media professionals for their lack of involvement in those spheres or the way they choose to get involved in them. I have been lucky enough in my professional life to see both sides of the divide (as a blogger, Twitter-user and as someone who worked for close to a decade in digital media) and I believe that sometimes the problem really is that there is no simple, easy-to-understand explanation of how things work out there. So, this is an attempt at that.

Even though, the following has been written mostly about Twitter, it can also apply for blogs and other publishing platforms that allow media professionals to post content that is often published without going through the usual formal editorial checks and balances. The following are a couple of guidelines that should, hopefully, help media tackle Twitter in a better manner.

It is not a Unicast medium

In any form of traditional media — print, television, internet — the flow of information is overwhelmingly unidirectional. The journalists and the organizations they work for are the content producers, while the audience are the consumers. It is never an even playing field. In the sense that the producers/publishers are on a higher platform than the audience. Blogs and Twitter differ on that front by getting everyone on the same platform and tooling.

The immediate ramification of this is that the journalists have to cede control of the distribution. Being who you are will certainly make the visibility criterion an easier deal for famous media professionals, but if you use it only to preach from the pulpit, the audience will move away from you in a flash. Platforms like Twitter and content aggregators, first up, strips content producers of the protection that branding traditionally grants them. For professionals who have always lived behind that, it can be a disconcerting/disorienting feeling to be out there on their own. Welcome to the new world.

Engage, Engage, Engage

The first step top stop being an unicaster is to get a decent Twitter client, so that you can engage the audience better. Twitter clients are to tweeting what Microsoft Outlook/Outlook Express is to email. Twitter's web site makes it quite hard to interact with the audience, especially for a new user. Using a Twitter client helps you work around that problem (here is a list of such applications. If you are behind a corporate firewall or if you are restricted by a lack of privileges on your system, use the ones that are marked 'website').

The difference for media, between a unicast Twitter account (@prabhuchawla: 2390 followers) and an account that is genuinely interactive (@virsanghvi: 26,161 followers) can be substantial. You will be surprised at the amount you can learn just by interacting to people.

For the more adventurous, consider this as the difference between singing in front of a thirty thousand-strong crowd from the safe confines of the stage and stage diving into them. The latter is grimy, more dangerous by many degrees, unscripted and uncontrolled, but the rush is also like nothing else. After all, a passionate audience is something that every content producer loves to have with them.

But do keep in mind that being active on Twitter can eat up a lot of time. An example of this is DNA India's Twitter account. When they started on Twitter DNA was manned by a real human being who used to post snippets of news with no links on Twitter. While it is not clear when the switch happened, of late, the only entries in the account now are automated posts from the site's RSS feed. Since measurement of the RoI on activities like tweeting is still a work in progress, the sweet spot for engagement will also differ from organization to organization.

There will be blood

And there will be plenty of it. Being on the same platform with millions of users also gives you a real-time feel of the reactions. The feedback — being instantaneous, unscripted, unedited, unmoderated — can be overwhelming in both the positive and the negative, which is a far cry from the normal sanitized version of the same within the traditional media confines. You will experience name-calling, a lot of angst, rank abuse and many other negatives.

Be clear about disengaging with the bad as much as you are clear about engaging with the good. The easily-offended minority with a very loud voice has always been the bane of the internet. You will find the same lot here too. Engage them at your own peril. But don't let the noisy few stop you from engaging the quieter majority.

Have clear guidelines

This one applies more for organizations than individuals. Since tweets essentially are messages in the public domain it is a good idea to have a clear policy about what can be said and what cannot be said. Organizations need to clearly spell out which accounts are representative of the company and which are the ones that belongs to individuals.

It does not augur well with a desire for completely free-flowing conversation to have such restrictions in place, but the odd lawsuit or two regarding something that was said on Twitter will increasingly become more common in the coming days. It is much better to be safe than sorry on that front.

Verification & Classification

Twitter accounts from media fall into three kinds: individuals, automated feeds and content-specific (examples in the links). Specifying what kind of account it is also sets the expectations right for the audience. It would be a good idea for organizations to list in a single location the names of the employees who use Twitter and also the other automated and content-specific feeds. This gives a degree of legitimacy for the accounts and also allows the individuals to clearly specify the degree of association they want to have with the brand/employer in their usage of Twitter.

There is also the option of going for a verified account with Twitter. According to the Twitter, the feature is still in limited testing, but it will be a good idea to give it a shot. If that does not work, you can always use listings on your own site to work around it for the time being.

Track key metrics

It is important for organizations to track the ROI from activities like being on Twitter. A basic list of parameters to track would include follower count, replies, ReTweets, and click-throughs on automated feeds. This will go a long way in determining the degree of engagement that is right for the results you desire. Doing it yourself can be a chore as it is often quite tough to get consolidated referrer information from click-throughs that originate from Twitter clients. In that case, you can always outsource it to an agency or specialized sites that do this for you, for a small fee.

To be very honest, I am not sure whether two-years down the line Twitter would be the big thing that it is right now. But the moot point is that regardless of what happens with Twitter, muti-point, limited-branding distribution is going to be a significant part of distributing content in days to come. For media, it is important to adapt to such new features and use the same principles to approach them.

Filed under: Internet, Media, Social