Archive for September, 2011

Why you should care about online activity tracking

Posted by on Friday, 30 September, 2011
My friend, Augustine von Freiburg, recently put out a call over on G+ asking to “Convince me that I should care that [insert name of all-powerful social network here] is tracking me.” The conversation continued for a bit noting that the likely only real issue is that now advertisements can be targeted to you.
Since I am one of those people who has recently been sharing a good amount of information under the auspices of “Staying Vigilant” when it comes to knowing what’s going on with your information on social sites, I felt compelled to think more deeply as to what the issues at hand here really are. So I began collating some ideas as the conversation continued on (I’d noted I had thoughts on the matter, but wasn’t able to accurately or intelligently voice them at the time, but would come back to it later… now is obviously later). Over the course of the other comments, some good items were brought forward, items which should be acknowledged, but still left me feeling like the right answer was still eluding me.
There was a point made regarding police states and tracking. A very good point, and one which we shouldn’t ignore especially with the recent Carnegie Mellon application specific to connecting individual information with a picture via facial recognition. The source story from The Atlantic can be found here. Connecting offline lives and information with the online persona and information can indeed be a damaging prospect for many people. The same arguments regarding Google’s “Real Name” policy can be made here as well, since the veil of anonymity is even more readily lifted with technology like this. Visions of 1984’s Big Brother are quite cliché, but still accurate within this context.
But imagine you aren’t a revolutionary or progressive fighting against a totalitarian regime, does it really matter to you? Likely you can brush off police state fears as irrelevant to your own life of privilege as a middle class American; the likelihood is still an issue of the future, not the present. It is simply tough to identify with the fear and feelings of living in a police state where information tracking has actual, tangible consequences if you are living the right life. So how is online activity tracking a relevant concern to the “every day middle-class American”?
There are the obvious employment concerns of potentially exposing behaviours in which employers may deem unsuitable for their employees to be engaging. We have all, of course, seen examples of this in the media over the past few years, and know that employers make it a habit these days to use social sites as research tools when hiring both to weed out the bad as well as bubble up the good; a double-edged sword there to be sure, all depending on who you are and the relative conservatism of the employer. The issue here, of course, isn’t the tracking of your online activities per se, but rather the potential exposure of such activities.
When sites like Facebook begin changing how information is displayed, bringing some information to higher visibility than previous shown, the social code is broken. I’m not saying FB change their security (they didn’t), but rather when they shifted how the site functions all of a sudden users who had once felt safe under the blanket of ‘security through obscurity’, were left cold as their activities were now up in the fore-front, exposed to not just people who went looking for it, but to anyone who has logged in and noticed the ticker. Again, the issue here is the exposure of the information made possible by both direct user actions as well as tracking. The information has been there for a long time, but it was now exposed in a much more visible fashion.
This brings up the idea here that this isn’t even about ‘privacy’, as nothing on the internet is really “private”, but rather about owning my information and being able to mitigate the potential exposure (understanding that removing the risk entirely is not possible, even if you delete all your data and account and logout for good… the internet remembers everything). So, the problems begin when Terms Of Service change to allow companies to cast wider nets, and new settings are implemented in an opt-out rather than opt-in fashion. Had the ticker on Facebook been rolled out as an opt-in feature, I doubt anyone would have complained; it wouldn’t have had a great adoption rate either, but the ‘privacy’ concerns wouldn’t have been founded.
Is there a real, tangible concern with social sites just tracking your information as they please? Not from my perspective. The issues begin when they expose that information at their will and without the individual’s explicit confirmation. Yes, we’ve all agreed to the terms of service in order to play on these sites, and have likely not thought of all the potential consequences of clicking Agree. Without knowing the full text of the Facebook TOS agreement, I’ll set up a small example: say there is a line in there which binds the user in agreement to allow FB to share the user’s data with 3rd party entities. When you clicked ‘agree’, there were likely only one or two companies to which FB was actually providing data, and they were likely advertising or some other benign company. But now, FB has your agreement and now brings in another company, one like “BigBrotherMedical” or some such insurance provider, and now your data can be shared with them potentially impacting your eligibility for medical insurance since you buy your cigarettes and booze on-line, increasing risk factors for health problems, which are now tracked, thanks to a silly little cookie in your browser. I am sure you can build out a slew of your own ‘what-if’ scenarios here on your own….
It is these unforeseen changes to the service, and the default opt-in which is of concern. It removes the control of the individuals information and places that control in the hands of the social site, giving the user a sense of false security by providing some basic ‘privacy controls’ or options. This is one of the reasons why I am vocal about exposing the underlying workings of what Facebook has been doing recently. It behooves every user to be aware of what changes are happening and what consequences those changes could have down the line. I am not warning people to quit FB, logout and never come back, but rather to be aware of what they are agreeing to. A choice is not a choice if one is not informed properly… which is why I tag many of my posts highlighting these ‘issues’ as “Stay Vigilant”; simply said, every user needs to make their own choice about what they are comfortable sharing on a site, as well as making the choice as to how comfortable they are with having their activity tracked beyond the spectre of just targeted advertising purposes.
But all that fear is indeed just a healthy dose of paranoia and speculation. So let us talk about an even more dangerous issue surrounding the use of the information being tracked today. An issue which has actually been building for a few years now and one which has already had consequences. I’ve been referring to it as “social homogenization” in different contexts (surrounding how we tend to surround ourselves with like-minded individuals on social sites and tend to have less interactions with people of dissenting opinions with whom we are directly connected). This “social homogenization”, however, has been going on behind the scenes as well.
Google, Facebook, and many other of the smaller companies have been doing this for years now, under the guise of ‘personalization’; where content is filtered for you by algorithms and internet robots watching your every click. A great TED Talk (available on YouTube here go watch it now, I’ll wait….) was recently shared by another acquaintance on G+ regarding this exact behaviour and presented in such a way that it really shows the dangers inherent with personalization: filter bubbles.  These filter bubbles, controlled by algorithms with no ethical balance, begin working to insulate us from information it thinks we don’t want, based directly on our online activity tracking. The results of which begin insulating us by providing only information the algorithms think we do want. This is likely the most dangerous aspect in the present, as it has immediate and direct impacts on the information available to us right now.
In the TED talk linked above, you will see how a real world example used this personalization based on activity tracking to result in no mention of the Egyptian revolution on the first page of a Google query on “Egypt”, while it flooded the first page result set for another user. The differences in the two users being (from what I can glean from the video) location mainly. Even then, the speaker regale the audience at the beginning with the anecdotal evidence he personally encountered on Facebook; where he was seeing far less of his conservative friends’ posts, and much more of his liberal/progressive friends’ posts based on the algorithms which indicated he was clicking on the links shared by his liberal friends far more than those shared by his conservative friends.
At a base level, this scares me more than anything else about how tracking my online activities can be used in an ostensibly benign fashion couched as ‘personalization’, but have much more insidious effects in keeping relevant and important information from being surfaced in my news feeds of Google query results. As the speaker noted, these algorithms have no built-in ethics as the gatekeepers of knowledge, and because of that, there is no real editorial review and passing on of information because it NEEDS to be seen, only because it thinks I want to see it. A very, very dangerous behaviour if you ask me, and truly the reason why I will continue providing warnings and information about how social sites are tracking and using your personal data.

The etiquette of retweet requests (and how to improve your reach)

Posted by on Thursday, 29 September, 2011
  Following is the start of a conversation between me and my dear friend and published author, Mr. Anthony Cardno. I encourage you all to read through my comments to Anthony below and jump in the conversation with your own suggestions, insights, and experiences. This is, of course, a discussion, not the end all be all of twitter etiquette. In fact Anthony is even running the same post over on his blog here to garner other insights as well!

Getting right to it then… Anthony pondered on Twitter: “Wondering what I’m doing wrong that even when I ask for a RT, very few of them happen. Am I missing something RT-etiquette-wise?”

Not surprisingly, I have some very particular ideas about this specific behaviour (based on my experiences working in social business) and quickly replied with the following:

Jason to @talekyn Yes. Don’t ask. If your content is compelling, RTs will happen. Asking is seen as intrusive.

Anthony to @acdntlpoet Makes sense. And you know I very rarely ask. Which means apparently most of what I tweet is not compelling.

Jason to @talekyn kind of. Also depends on your audience, reach, etc… We can take this to a much more in-depth conversation 😉

Obviously, that’s nowhere near the end of the discussion. Simply said, there is no single answer to this question. People are making their living as consultants telling you how to do just this. Not one of them has the right answer in a an easy to distribute formula; because the answer isn’t really formulaic.

As I noted above in my initial reply, the key to seeing your content re-shared is to put forward compelling contents. Oh, but if only the answer were so easy! While I can tell you at a high level what will get your content shared out, it all falls apart in the details and subtleties and actual implementation/ practical application; because not all content is created equal.

But let me step back for a moment and address etiquette before moving on into some best practices: Asking via Twitter for others to retweet you is seen as bad manners, neediness, and laziness. More to the point, it is a bit more indicative of immaturity in the space, or evidence of the size of your network (add totally inappropriate size queen joke at will). By immaturity in the space, I mean that coming from an individual I will see these requests in the same light as I see forwarded emails asking me to “keep the chain going”, or Facebook status updates asking to “post this to your status if you agree / just for one hour”, etc. From a corporate account, it just comes off as poor marketing strategy.

Exposing the size of your network isn’t really a big deal in and of itself (I can see your numbers in any space I play). Rather, asking for RTs presents the impression of a smaller and/or less engaged network, minimal confidence in your message, and generally short selling yourself. Now, I am not saying that asking for a RT is going to leave people with the impression that you are just a speck in the world, but I AM saying that it is one small action which builds how people perceive you when combined with other small actions and methods of presenting yourself.

Yes, I am talking from a more marketing centric approach, with a few assumptions in terms of how you use social media to connect with your audience and spread your message. The assumption is that you are a different type of user, one who is building a personal brand and using social avenues to build up your name and digital eminence. Obviously, if you are just using social media to stay in contact with friends and family, then the concern over perception won’t really apply. But, perception is big for driving and motivating others to share your content.

Rather than continuing to focus on the negatives of asking for RTs, let’s rather focus on what you CAN do to get people to share your content. There’s a great presentation here (http://nytmarketing.whsites.net/mediakit/pos/ ) on the psychology of sharing. From this presentation we can see that one of the biggest factors is determining how the information we are sharing will be useful to the recipient. Take this the next step and you can translate this into your own content by providing that clarity to the person you’re sharing with, so they can in turn re-share easily.

Let me take an example:

@talekyn: Two medical causes are important to me: Cancer and Juvenile Diabetes. Read my diabetes interview with 9yo Frank John:anthonycardno.com/?p=276

Good content here, and likely worthy of a retweet, but I have two problems:

  1. It is passive… ok, so these are important to you. They are indeed important issues, but I am not compelled to RT immediately because there isn’t a real message here.
  2. I have to click and read to determine if I want to RT. That is going to take some time, and I may lose the originating tweet before I am done with the interview.

Presuming the interview is compelling enough for me to want to RT it, I now need to go back to find the tweet to pass it on (or, one better, tweet/retweet from within the blog post itself). Most people won’t go back to twitter to retweet unless the content is REALLY moving. A well composed tweet that will compel a stranger to read your content will also be compelling enough to garner retweets without specifically asking for them. Compelling content which resonates with others to the point where they want to share with their own network is what you’re looking for here; adding social sharing buttons in your blog will also help enable users to easily share out your content to the spaces and networks where they play.

Let me see if I can “re-swizzle” (yep, I said it) your tweet above to something which I may be compelled to click into and retweet:

@talekyn: How Frank John, a 9yo living with Juvenile Diabetes and fund raising for JDRF, is putting me to shame: anthonycardno.com/?p=276

Forgive the forced self-deprecation, but I think this will work in your favour here: I switched it up a bit, made the reader curious as to what a 9 year old is doing better than you. Because if they can do it better than you, they can do it better than me too, so now I am intrigued and want to read more. It is a more active voice, but not demanding; compelling me to look further. Plus, the tweet provides me with the key points before reading more into the blog: this 9 year old is doing good work for diabetes awareness/cure. I am both compelled to read AND pass it on now, because there is a story here beyond the normal “please send money” charity call. It is interesting, much like your earlier tweet:

@talekyn #LifeWouldBeBetter if my 9 year old cousin didn’t have Juvenile Diabetes. Meet him on my site: anthonycardno.com/?p=276

The tweet above also has that hook, but unfortunately Tweeting this out at 11:30pmEDT on a Friday night means very few people in your particular audience will be seeing it, and you need visibility in order to glean retweets. So, now that you have the compelling content, let’s look at targeting the right audience…

Who are your followers? Are they cast amongst disparate time zones, or predominantly in one? What ages? Nine-to-fivers or in school? By example, I am at my computer from 8amEDT until 8pmEDT M-F, because of that, I am more likely to retweet something posted in that time frame than I am other times since my usage of twitter is heaviest during work. Weekends and other times when I am outside the house, I’m far more likely to miss content because I tend to turn off most social channels when not at work. Conversely, my fictitious high school aged neighbor may be more likely to see and subsequently retweet late on school nights when s/he is finally back home from school, extracurricular activities, and is “wasting time” on the internet.  Not to mention that demographic has a much different usage style of social channels as direct, near-real-time communication and may not be as inclined to retweet blog content outside of some of the more viral types of content.

Having a sense of your follower’s schedules / behaviours / demographics will help guide you towards those ‘sweet spot’ times to post for the greatest impact and visibility. If you use bit.ly or some other URL shortener, or use google analytics on your site (WordPress makes this stuff very easy), you can track some basic metrics and see when your audience is most active and more likely to marketing out your links. Also, keep promoting your content (with appropriate pauses in between duplication) until you see a drop off in click-throughs. Duplicating content isn’t a bad thing on Twitter as most people don’t see everything unless the spend time going back in their timelines up to the last time they logged in. Unless your users are all like me with a stake in the social business game, they are most likely missing a ton of stuff posted when they aren’t watching. Heck, I even miss stuff, and I am watching like a hawk and make a point to go back in all my timelines to ensure I don’t miss things!

Here ends the first round answer as to why you aren’t seeing a good amount of retweets, even when (or because) you request them. With your following of 490 users on Twitter, I’d predict you’d garner maybe around 10 retweets for some good content if you market it more than once. Until you are a celebrity and people hang on your every word, I’d not expect more than that…. unless of course you happen to stumble on that next bit of viral content and it spins out of your control… but we can only hope for that 😉

.

Yes, this was a rather lengthy post, and not intended as the end all be all to explaining social behaviours. I am sure many of my own readers have their own ideas and experiences to share, which I fully encourage! Please feel free to comment here, on Anthony’s blog where he is running the same post, or in any of the other channels which you may have found this post shared out… the key to being social on the internet is, of course, engaging in good discussion! So whether you agree or disagree, please let me know 🙂

image credit: Attribution Some rights reserved by Ford Buchanan      

The social stewardship of sharing

Posted by on Thursday, 22 September, 2011

I’ve noticed a great and very intentional practice boiling up over on G+ when it comes to re-sharing, and I have adopted the same principle of behaviour in an effort to help encourage others to adopt it as well: “A good social steward acknowledges the person from whom they shared”. This is a great practice in part because, by default, G+ only notes the *originating poster’s* name, not from whom you shared.

But why is this important? Three reasons:

  • The first, and most simple is that it provides direct feedback to the person who reshared that you find the content engaging enough to share it to your circles as well.
  • Secondarily, this also allow extended networks to have visibility to other people around G+ whom you may find interesting. (I’ve personally found a number of very cool people to circle and follow using this method, as they are already up a rung of trust as an extended connection, plus they MUST be cool if they are sharing content which I also find useful and interesting!)
  • The third, and more global reason, however, is the sense of social stewardship. In this ever increasing global community where we’re all more connected, we’ve also become more striated, more detached, and more insular in our networks. A simple “hat tip” to the person you reshared from builds a deeper bond across the social web.

Call it a form of social currency, if you will: where a link noting “Thanks to +Joe for the share/re-share” acts as payment for being able to reshare it yourself… which of course makes an unacknowledged reshare a bit like taking a cookie from the break room but not leaving your fifty cents in the honour jar; not quite stealing, but not exactly in the spirit of things either.

I’ve seen both behaviours in the extreme on G+, as well as Twitter and Facebook (admittedly Twitter can be rough to retain the amount of info in just 140 characters). You don’t have to go overboard and thank the entire chain of people who reshared before it got to you, but it IS good for to at least acknowledge the person you shared from, and if possible the original poster too. Who knows, leading by example may just pay off in a larger, more connected social network able to help you succeed beyond your wildest dreams… or maybe good karma is enough to make it worth your while.