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minimob

One of the lines I like to use when discussing how media is changing these days is, “The internet is punishing inefficiency.” I’ve forgotten who I lifted that line from, but I now add the following chaser: “The economic downturn is accelerating that process.” There is no doubt that the ways in which people are consuming information are changing rapidly. Newspapers are reeling, the recording industry has succumbed to the inevitable, and TV providers are getting nervous. Likewise, the industries that rely on gaming consumer attention, namely Advertising and PR, are scrambling to understand what their jobs are anymore. Part of the problem they face is that they are chasing a moving target, and no one is sure where it is headed. 

I tweeted a few weeks ago, that I thought the challenge of deriving value form Twitter was largely a problem of managing the ‘Signal to Noise Ratio’. There’s a lot of useful content out there, but if it isn’t parsed from the firehose for you, it’s of little value. This of course is why we have a media in the first place. The role of writers and broadcasters has always been to parse the wide world of ideas and bring us the nuggets that we value for their news or entertainment value.

In the beginning, ideas were spread sideways. That is to say we communicated almost entirely by word-of-mouth, and memes reproduced via a cascade of parallel paths. The trouble with this method was that it was slow and prone to errror.

Next, technology made a top down model practical. As it became economically feasible for small groups to communicate with large groups using things like print and broadcasts. This was the birth of ‘media’ and it dealt with the speed and error problems and was tremendously useful. The problem with this model, however was that the masses were all largely subjected to the same set of information, regardless of individual need. This system also made public attention vulnerable to manipulation, a loophole that the marketing industries exploited for centuries. 

Then another technological advancement made it practical for anyone to communicate with everyone. This made it much easier customize sets of data and package them for small audiences. The problem became that firehose I mentioned a bit ago. Suddenly we were back to the beginning of this cycle again. At first there was a sideways model online whereby users relied on tools like email to move the stuff around. Then a top down model arose as publishers and broadcasters attempted to apply their skillset to the web.

Then, for the first time, the web started to try something new. Taking advantage of the technology, models for parsing information were attempted that allowed the masses to self-regulate the firehose. For the first time we tried allowing our peers to do the parsing, leaning on our collective wisdom, services like Digg and Reddit emerged to help tailor content to individual need. The shortcomings of these so-called ‘democratized content forums’ was that they created a disadvantage for individual’s whose content needs stray far from the average. 

About two years ago I speculated about what the next model would be. At the time I became enamored with the idea that so-called ‘prediction markets‘ might just be that next model (see also ‘Infotopia‘ for a good discussion of this). It turns out (current economic crises notwithstanding) that stock market mechanisms are extremely efficient tools for extracting wisdom from groups. This fascination of mine resulted in an experiment called ThotMarket.com which was my attempt to apply the model to news and information. I now beleive I miss-read the trends. The actual next model is that which is being popularized by Twitter.

The innovation that this micro-blogging model provides is that content is parsed by the collective wisdom of the group, much like the voting forums, but it is a group of my choosing. As a Twitter user, I manage my own mini-mob, and that mini-mob manages my content for me. 

Now, managing the mob is not an easy thing to do. At the moment the tools available to accomplish this on Twitter are crude and cumbersome. But, these will improve as Twitter improves itself, or someone comes along to build a better micro-blogging platorm. Much of the attention of Twitter appliction developers so far has been focussed on creating new tools to parse out content directly from Twitter. There are an ever-growing library of live-streaming, filtering, and searching interfaces for Twitter. These are welcome and valuable additions to the service, but I think they miss the mark a bit in terms of taking full advantage of this new form of media. By foccussing on the content of the tweets themselves, most do not directly factor in the parsing ability of individual people. I’m waiting for more sophisticated tools that will allow me to find new tweeple, based on expertise, interests and quality. I want these tools to also help me prune the herd of tweeps that aren’t holding their own. In essence, I want tools that will help me make my mob better than your mob. 

There are some tools like this now. Mr Tweet comes to mind, as does Kevin Rose’s new pet WeFollow. These are good starts but leave a lot to be desired. For example, WeFollow is very comprehensive, but relies solely on the number of followers a Twitter user has to rank the list in each category. I think that this metric is a terrible measure of the quality of users for two reasons. Firstly, it’s too easy to game the system and run up that number without regard for merit. Secondly, it confuses quality with popularity skewing attention toward the center. That’s the same problem that Digg has, as I’ve already described. What is needed, is a more useful metric to measure, compare and match users up with each other. What does that look like? Well, I have at least one idea and will be posting much more about that in the future. 

So where does this all leave marketers? In many respects they are having the rug pulled out from beneath their feet. The top-down loopholes are becoming less and less effective. In many ways, they are being treated like the uninvited intruder in the new media party, trying to butt into the conversation and unable to do anything but annoy the consumer partygoers. Is all hope lost? Hardly. I think that with creative thinking, a firm understanding about what is actually happening, and a healthy respect for what consumers actually want, that industry will improve right along with the media. Speaking as a consumer, I don’t mind if marketers participate in the conversation I’m crafting for myself online as long as their actions provide value to me. If they don’t my mob will take care of it.

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One Trackback/Pingback

  1. By Your Twitter strategy is crap! « ThotBlog on 24 Apr 2009 at 10:24 am

    […] actually read your tweets, your task is a bit more complex. You need to embrace your role as an editor of information for the mob and improve the product you put out. As a twitterer your job is to produce value for the tittering […]

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