Coevolving Innovations

… in Business Organizations and Information Technologies

How I stay informed: Reading social media with Facebook, Friendfeed, FeedDemon, Twitter

How is reading blogs different from reading e-mail and using search engines?

Most peers at my age — I’m a later era baby boomer, now called Generation Jones — are comfortable receiving e-mail and using search engines. This population hasn’t yet fully embraced social technologies such as blogs. This is changing slowly. Jeremiah Ohyang, in “How Baby Boomers Use Social Media“, describes that:

  • 71% of younger boomers (age 43 to 52) in 2008 were active with social technologies, as compared to 52% in 2007, and
  • 65% of older boomers (age 53 to 63) in 2008 were active with social technologies, as compared to 45% in 2007.

A further breakdown of the social technographic of boomers shows a bimodal (i.e. two-bump) distribution.

  • The largest bump of boomers (67% and 62%) is readers as “spectators” of blogs and forums — probably arriving at the web site via a bookmark or a search engine.
  • Of boomers reading blogs, fewer are “joiners” who maintain a profile on the web, or “collectors” who are receive updates as feeds.
  • Contributing content, boomers show a smaller bump as 35% and 34% as “critics” who leave comments on blogs and forums.
  • Less than half that number are “creators” who upload and publish primary content, which means bloggers under age 43 outnumber bloggers over age 43 in a ratio of 6-to-1.

What are boomers missing? They may not want to become authors (i.e. “creators” or “critics”). As “collectors”, however, they can become more productive readers. Moving into this segment requires (1) embracing the ethos of a blog reader, (2) adopting tools that streamline reading blogs, and (3) establishing a personal style for tracking content.

Boomers are comfortable with e-mail. E-mail is a person-centric way of receiving information. It’s easy to sort out the importance of content by the sender of the information. The widespread alternative on the Internet is content-centric search. Put some search terms into a browser, and locate information sources. It’s worth remembering, though, that the credibility, reliability and usefulness of web sources is better if you know and/or trust the author(s).

[Side note: I first encountered the idea of person-centric from a tweet by Luis Suarez, leading to an interview of Euan Semple by Joshua-Michele Ross, and then a 2007 interview of Euan Semple by David Weinberger. The person-centric approach is also evident in the Cattail project at IBM Research.]

Moving up to the level of a “collector” takes advantage of web feed technologies such as RSS or Atom. Web feeds enable a person-centric way of receiving information from web syndication, i.e. content made available through publishing on the Internet. A reader can subscribe to individuals from whom he or she wants to read more, and bypass the noise from unwanted search results and junk e-mail. Following the ideas of a trusted colleague is more productive than relying on an anonymous source found with a search engine.

The three behaviours of becoming a “collector” are described below.

(1) Blog readers socially engage with blog writers

Blogs are communications direct from a writer. Marshall McLuhan would probably describe blogs as a “hot medium” as compared to other “cooler” web content. In an April 2008 ACM CHI presentation and paper on “Exploring the Role of the Reader in the Activity of Blogging”, Eric Baumer, Mark Sueyoshi and Bill Tomlinson (all at U.C. Irvine) find that blog readers have characteristic common practices:

Habitual, like checking e-mail:
Blogs can be compared to other routine media use, e.g. watching television, reading the newspaper, listening to radio.
Not information overload:
Readers don’t feel the need to be constantly up to date with everything posted in the blogs they read.
Non-chronous — timing less relative than position:
Blogs are experienced in the temporal order in which they are written, but recency has more to do with is the number of posts than the time that has passed.
Identity:
Offline and online identities are overlapping, and both bloggers and readers feel an obligation to each other.
“Being a part”:
Regular reading can give a sense of community and a sense of connectedness.
Interactional approach:
Blogs are not a genre, but a medium for multi-directional communication.

Frequent blog readers can therefore perceive an author’s content like a serial form of e-mail newsletter. Since messages target an audience rather than an individual, the interaction style can be more relaxed. Expectations of required action or an impending deadline that can be enclosed in an e-mail will be absent.

(2) Social media tools make reading syndicated feeds easier

In the above social technographic, a “spectator” or “joiner” will likely access a blog by selecting a bookmark to a home page on a browser. Blogs conventionally show the most recent entries first, requiring the reader to then either read the content in reverse chronological order, or to locate where he or she last left off and step forward entry-by-entry. This pattern really slows down reading blogs.

I use four technologies to read feeds: (a) Facebook; (b) Friendfeed; (c) FeedDemon (with Newsgator); and (d) Twitter (via Twitter4Skype). Each has advantages and limitations.

(a) Facebook is easy to use, containing content within a walled garden

Facebook initially required affiliation with a university or college. It’s now open to anyone with an e-mail address. It’s easy to find bloggers like me, and some of my social network. The user interface is so well-designed that novices don’t appreciate that they’re really following web feeds. Facebook applications enable “creators” to automatically import content written outside of Facebook, and “critics” have easy ways to post comments and responses.

Facebook is not without disadvantages for the reader, though.

  • Imported content (e.g. blog entries, bookmarks) is only as good as the application that accesses it, possibly hampering readability from its original form.
  • Low-intensity “creators” may contribute less-than-compelling content (i.e. noise) that requires a lot of filtering.
  • Graduating from a “joiner/collector” to a “critic” grants ownership of contributed content to Facebook, under its Terms of Service.

The technologically-challenged and most private individuals may be satisfied by Facebook. It’s good for lurkers who want to remain as “joiners” or “collectors”.

(b) Friendfeed has high signal-to-noise, for a sophisticated community

Friendfeed logoI’ve recently become a fan of Friendfeed, and maintain a consolidated web identity over there. Friendfeed isn’t a walled garden, as Facebook is, and enables “creators” and “critics” to integrate all of their web activities into a unified stream.

From the reader’s perspective, Friendfeed has a higher signal-to-noise ratio than Facebook. The digerati hang out on Friendfeed, so if you’re a sophisticated reader, you’ll appreciate a deeper level of discourse. Friendfeed’s content is all on the open web, so graduating to a “critic” instantly means that your likes and comments are accessible to everyone.

I’ve found Friendfeed to be too much a good thing, i.e. the amount of content that it aggregates overwhelms my patience in a browser. There’s an easy solution, though: Friendfeed not only imports web feeds, it exports web feeds. Thus, I use Friendfeed in conjunction with an offline feed reader client, FeedDemon.

(c) FeedDemon speeds up reading in a fat client, with a Newsgator synchronization

FeedDemon is a Windows-based offline feed reader, now available without fee from Newsgator. There are clients available for other platforms, e.g. Mac, mobile phone. In addition, FeedDemon synchronizes with NewsGator Online, so it’s possible (i) to read content via a browser, and (ii) maintain your list of read and unread items even in the event of a crash on your PC. I had previously chosen and analyzed other feed readers, and moved over to FeedDemon last year as the tool that best suits my needs.

I have used FeedDemon to subscribe to blogs directly from the source. Since “creators” tend to use a wide variety of web services — social bookmarks (e.g. Delicious, Digg, Diigo), status (Twitter, Facebook), photos (Flickr, Picasa), etc. — Friendfeed serves as a way of aggregating the other web activity by an individual. I now have three feeds for each of the people I follow most:

  • the direct feed from the blog;
  • the Friendfeed “Comments and Likes”, which filters on responses and pointers to other web activity; and
  • the Friendfeed “Feed”, which comprises all of the web activity syndicated by that person.

This redundancy may seem obtuse, but within an offline reader such as FeedDemon, it’s easy for me to quickly read through feed items with the delete key, until I find something interesting.

Some people don’t like the idea of yet another fat client on their computer, and would therefore prefer to use a browser with a web-based feed reader such as Newsgator Online or Google Reader.

(d) Twitter streams up-to-the minute thinking, with a potential for distraction

Twitter was designed as a micro-blogging platform, whereby 140-character messages — primarily of “what are you doing?” — could be readily transmitted from mobile phones, as well as web browsers. It’s evolved to be used more broadly than just communicating statuses, potentially even displacing e-mail messages. I’m a regular but less frequent Twitterer, enabling interested parties to track my location, since I travel so frequently.

Twitter is great for following “creators” with the greatest intimacy. Since I use Skype chat as my preferred instant messaging platform, the Twitter4Skype service pops up Twitter messages as they arrive.

Individuals whom I don’t want to follow so closely (or I find too distracting) are often in Friendfeed, where I can subscribe to tweets to read asynchronously.

3. A reader can accumulate content, or discard old headlines

In comparing my style of e-mail and reading web feeds compared with colleagues, I’ve identified two styles:

  • (i) the executive style for action: process the in-basket as soon as possible, dealing with each message immediately to minimize handling, resulting in an empty folder; and
  • (ii) the reflective style for thinking: handle urgent messages immediately, maintaining a backlog of items to think about, working down the queue as time permits from both ends, i.e. from most recent and least recent towards the middle.

Since I’m a researcher, I find that I’m in the latter category, and maintain a long list of e-mail messages and web feeds that get handled at different paces. I know of colleagues who are happy to “delete old news”, as older messages lose relevance and/or are handled by others. The above web tools can support either style, so it’s up to each individual use them in the way they find most natural.

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