The View from the Bottom

ML215056__DSC6005When I read online, I listen to the sound that the words make in my head. I try to detect the rhythms and energies of the writer as a way of gaining insight into their way of thinking. I look for freshness or a unique point of view. Even a turn of phrase can delight me. That is one of the great, and not so great aspects of microblogging — brevity can be a challenge for some but strangely liberating for others.

So as I have been digging around the various reactions to Plurk and Twitter, I was delighted to read this banner:

You could be getting your advertising commentary from a more experienced, higher-paid, and prettier ad exec. But the downbeat and bass line are in our hands– the adstar wannabes climbing the corporate ladder. As yet uncorrupted, somewhat uncouth, and utterly unrestrained, this is the view from the bottom, laid down by a first-year copywriter. Admit it. You’re jealous I just might be prettier. According to advertising tradition, that makes me a more viable source of information.

In the intensifying battle for our 140 character communications, the view from the bottom may be the clearest of all.

Why Twitter Hasn’t Cracked the Teen Market

I started this post back in February 2008 and left it for a while. I was never quite able to finish it — and it didn’t seem overly important. But in light of the recent problems with Twitter and the emergence of the shiny new Plurk, I thought I would resurrect this post and look again at the future, potential and challenges for services such as Twitter, Plurk, Jaiku and Pownce.

Nature and the MachineI remember how Twitter sped into my consciousness. It was like a freight train with a big Web 2.0 emblazoned on the locomotive. Hanging out the windows of the carriages were the smiling avatars of my marketing and social media friends. All were smiling and waving, beckoning me to climb aboard. It seemed like a no-brainer … and, in fact, it was. There was very little thought process involved — I climbed aboard because all my friends were already there.

As I explored Twitter, I started seeing my friends discussions. I realised that there were conversations going on that I wanted to be part of, that I at least wanted to LISTEN to. So I would begin to “follow” others. That meant that Twitter would notify them of my intention to eavesdrop or contribute to their discussions, and in effect this served as a virtual introduction. My pre-existing connection to others had opened the door for me.

This made me rethink my approach to Facebook and to LinkedIn. As you can probably see, up the top of my website is a badge that links to my LinkedIn profile. If you click it and want to add me to your network I don’t generally decline (in fact, I don’t think that I have ever). I am a little more selective about Facebook where I do feel that I need to know a little about you before “friending” you. But why? What was this all about … and how did it relate to Twitter?

Gradually I realised that the folks on Twitter were a whole lot less guarded about their discussions than they may be about their profiles on Facebook. And the same applied to me. That meant that it was completely acceptable to “follow” a stranger on Twitter — and in the process it opened up my personal social graph to a flood of chaos and random encounters. It felt a little dangerous … but at the heart of it was the clear understanding of my role as a creator of content. Twitter was providing the space and as a dutiful “one percenter”, I was filling it with the best content that I could muster in 140 characters. So were my one percenter colleagues. We had an unspoken contract with Twitter — and it was symbiotic — we soon needed each other, desperately.

Digging around in Twitter, however, it was clear that the user base was mature — or should I say “adult”. This seemed counter-intuitive to me, because I expected Twitter to be a walk up natural service for teens — and Andy Beal seemed to think the same in this interesting post. But for my money, the reason that teens have not been attracted to Twitter is fundamental. Surprisingly it is not about the COMMUNITY … it’s about the INTENTION.

Twitter has been able to build a community around its technology. It started with a tech friendly audience at SXSW and grew from there. It was successful at positioning itself as an APPLICATION. That meant that we were overtly aware of Twitter as a piece of enabling technology — we knew and understood that this would entail ups, downs, failures and disappointments. We were viewing Twitter as a technology — we were co-creating the Twitter community. As David Cushman says, “It is built for communities of purpose to form in a networked conversation-driven way, not for an audience to consume what they are creating”.

But such a position is anathema to a teenage audience. For them, the very act of connecting is, in itself, a creation of value. The resulting relationships and the experience that they engender is of intrinsic importance to a generation world-wise and weary of “markets”, “brands” and the emptiness of promises. There is little surprise then, that Twitter holds no appeal.

Plurk, however, is different from its core. The Plurk team view their mission as a service. They want to go “Beyond FUBU” — beyond the for us, by us mantra that permeates many start-ups. Now, whether this is true or not, it certainly appeals to Generation Y. And it seems to be something that is also tweaking the ears of an expectant Twitter community. After the recent outage furore and poor communication all round, perhaps the adults in the Twitter community are waking up to a new level of expectation and maturity — technology as service. And this may be the very reason that Plurk (or its successor) wins out long term. It is not about the technology or even the utility. It’s about the service and the experience — something the kids got long ago.

Measuring Community Velocity

When you are involved in a community you can really get a sense of its health. You know when it is active and you know when it is in decline. Think about the social networks that you use, think through the amount of time that you spend using the site/application. Multiply that out by the number of friends or colleagues that you engage with using it … and then think about the number of circular, “viral” type elements that feed, sustain and grow the membership. How many are you involved with, and how active?

Now, it is easy to sense a velocity of engagement, but what is the evidence for this “sense” — after all, one of the challenges of social media is measurement. Where and how do we start?

Well, it seems that Rachel Happe has given this a great deal of thought and come up with a metric that, on the surface, looks pretty good. Here is what Rachel suggests as input and outcome:

The inputs:

  • Total members for a given month
  • Total active members for a month
  • Total posts (this can be a blog post, a wiki post, a discussion item, a link) for a month
  • Total addressable market (how many members would you have if everyone was in the community – this will be a rough estimate)

The Community Velocity Metric:

  • ((% of active members * # posts/per member/period) + total members ) / TAM

Now, Rachel freely admits that the total addressable market may be very large (in the case of a brand community), but a good guess will yield a CVM of around 0.01 for new communities and 0.03-0.04 for the more mature community.

But think about this in action. What would happen if we applied this to Twitter or some of its new competitors like Plurk or even older stalwarts like Pownce. I whether the CVM can help us predict a community (or an application) with a growth trajectory — or one experiencing the first pangs of disaster. Perhaps we may know sooner rather than later!