There’s been growing controversy lately about following people on Twitter – debate on why, who, when, how many, etc. Louis Gray suggests that it’s topics, not people, that we really want to follow. I think it’s both.
How do we know people in the real world? It’s by the roles that we play: Mom, churchgoer, PTA member, etc.; but it’s also by the interests we have: blacksmithing, motorcycles, photography, and so on.
What social networks need to do, IMO, is break people down by their “hats” like Marine Mom, Movie Lover, Social Media Watcher, CEO, and so on. Then instead of following a whole person, you can pick and choose which of their hats you want to follow and then designate which hat you are wearing as you do so.
1) Take Robert Scoble as an example. Robert and I don’t agree on politics and we’ve clashed because of it. I’d like to follow Robert’s “tech evangelist” hat, but I don’t want to follow his political hat. Robert could slice himself down into the different persons he is: Father, Silicon Valley Resident, Videographer, Photographer, whatever, and then I could pick and choose which Roberts I want to follow. This takes out all the noise and offensive stuff I don’t want.
2) So instead of tagging every post to make it searchable, the writer simply has to state which hat she’s writing under.
3) The system could easily keep track of the urls that people are exchanging and aggregate the pieces talked about most often by hat so that popular stuff is never missed. There could also be a digg-like ranking. This “group push method” decreases the need to follow so many individual people.
4) Since I would tell the system which hat I’m wearing as I follow somebody’s else’s hat, that person will know what it is I am expecting or wanting from him. For example, right now Robert is just Scobleizer. He doesn’t know why different people are following him. But if people signed up for his feed under their hats, he could get a much better sense of who his readers are. Maybe some are CEOs, some are IT guys, some are geek-curious… The first tenet of writing is to know who your audience is. A breakdown of hats by percentage is a heck of a lot more meaningful than the current blind lists of strange faces we now get.
5) With Twitter (or whatever social network it is) getting thin sliced into varied hats, it would be very easy to find people you want to talk to. For example, I’m a dog lover. I could read the dog lover feed which would blast every dog lover’s post, but from that I could select individuals I wish to follow, in order to get it down to a manageable size, customized just for me. The way I would design this is to have a +1 and -1 ranking, so that when I see something I like, I give it a +1 and when I see something I don’t like, I give it a -1. The system itself would keep track of who I like best and I would automatically start following those people I respond well to, with the others falling off. Of course, I could also choose outright to follow certain people and block others. (Wouldn’t it be interesting if everybody’s Twitter or FriendFeed posts were blind and you started sorting people by +1’s and -1’s according to what they write? Do you think you’d end up following the same people you are following now?)
6) At some point, hats could be subcategorized so that I could still be “dog lover” but also “boxer owner” as a subcategory. And hats could be cross-checked. So if I choose to have a “Hillsboro, OR resident” hat, too, another boxer owner in the area could easily find me and we could make a play date at the dog park.
7) With this system, there is no pressure to follow particular people. I myself think it would be better if people could choose to make it blind or not. Personally, I don’t think it’s anybody’s business who I follow and who is following me.
8 ) Of course, all this thin slicing sets the table for very targeted ads (even local ads!!) so a strong monetization plan is readymade. Of course, as I’ve written about many times on this blog, I think that advertising should be turned over to users, so that you pick and choose which ads to promote (if any), and you get compensated. This way, you don’t have to keep a blog to make money from all your interaction.
9) Besides hats, social networks should be divided by space, too – Intimate, Private, Social, Public – but that’s another story.
I don’t think Twitter is a fad, but I do believe all this following-orgy is. That’s why I designed my own ideal social network a different way. But with this horrible economy, I won’t get funding, and I’d still like to see this implemented. So maybe somebody else will go for it. If Twitter did, I’d start using it. As it is now, it’s worthless to me. More pain than gain.
At the risk of being a broken record, let me say once again that all of these problems (and more!) could be avoided if technology wasn’t the only thing that VCs and CEOs cared about when designing sites and applications. It’s SOCIAL media, after all. Bring in the social scientists and others who understand vital issues besides coding, and the Web will be a much better, more efficient and more peaceful place. Not to mention a whole lot healthier financially, too.