A modest proposal for social media: Cross the streams!

Cross the streams!

I’ve given this a lot of thought, and the problem with social media isn’t all of the noise. Sure, there are a lot of things that you could care less about passing through your Facebook wall and Twitter timeline – but one person’s noise is another’s signal, right? I actually enjoy picking up bonuses in the Facebook games I’m playing, but many of my friends wish they would all be banished from existence.

The sad thing is that Facebook nearly had the answer, but they missed the boat. And Twitter, from what I can see, hasn’t even found the right paddle.

The answer is something I’m dubbing “streams.” And, as our friends the Ghostbusters proved, crossing them isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

The idea is simple: Classify different types of content and let users turn them on and off at will. Really, that’s it. But let’s delve a little deeper into why this isn’t just possible, it’s plausible.

For awhile, Facebook actually allowed app specific filtering of your news feed until their most recent overhaul, which – for some inexplicable reason – completely did away with it. Instead of expanding news filters, they banned app-specific notifications which bothered nobody since they could easily be surpressed.

Filtering was only half the answer to Facebook’s problems but a definite step in the right direction – and removing it moves them away from where they need to be. Rather than just allow me to filter and quickly scan all of my friends’ Farmville posts all in one place, they should have offered the option to block all Farmville posts (or posts from any other app) from their feeds. Maybe block is too harsh. Let’s suggest a “toggle” since you could, theoretically, turn it back on whenever you wanted, view it as an entirely separate feed or create an aggregate stream with all of the posts from your games of interest.

Now you’re getting it, right? Social media, just like my iPhone, works best when I can customize it the way that I want it. Make me play in your sandbox your way, and I might go find another sandbox.

Twitter has partly solved the problem with hashtags, but do these really work all that well? You can create search queries against hashtags, and some Twitter readers like TweetDeck allow you to filter on keywords in your selected feeds but – again – these are half measures. Hashtags, I’d argue, are really just a hack, a poor man’s search meta data (hacktags is more like it!).

First, hashtags are prone to user error: One typo or a bad guess at what the prevailing hashtag is for an event or product you’re tweeting about and you’re already out of the game. And hashtags eat into your already constrained 140-character limit. Bah, there has to be a better way!

Here’s what I think needs to happen for all social media that wants to stay relevant: Streams that segment your timelines or news feeds based on different themes and let you decide how (or even if) you want to consume them.

For example, I’m not playing foursquare, and I find the endless barrage of notifications whenever someone I follow visits a Burger King bathroom to be intrusive and a waste of time when I’m poring through a backlog of 150 tweets from the past hour or so. But these alerts are generated via an application (API), right? How hard would it be to use a hidden API code that’s passed with the tweet to define a stream and pass that to the Twitter client outside of the 140 characters being transmitted?

I know these exist to some extent today. I can see that someone posted using Twittelator even though it doesn’t say Twittelator anywhere in the tweet itself. Or, look at this, from a recent foursquare tweet:

Twitter post tagged from foursquare

That information has got to be passed along with the tweet via the existing API, am I right? So, Twitter devs, let’s use those as a starting point to define streams that can be quickly toggled on and off to make your timeline more manageable.

There are two additional areas that have become barriers to pure Twitter enjoyment, at least for me: contests and live tweeting “events.” But I see a stream-based solution there too. Build these in as switches that the tweeter can activate when posting. For instance, the person launching a contest could set the flag as a contest originator, and any replies or retweets to him get a secondary response flag. That way you could always see the original post to enter if you like, but you could ignore the stream or – if you’re a contest devotee or just curious once you’ve caught up on your core Twitter stream – peruse the contest stream separately.

When you’re going to live tweet something, you could have a secondary Twitter account set aside just for this purpose. But that’s a lot of trouble, so most people don’t bother. Instead, they post something that says, “If you don’t care about (FILL IN THE BLANK), unfollow me for the night.” Well, maybe I do care about – let’s say the Lost finale – but I’m watching it two hours behind you. I want to enjoy your observations on my own schedule. So rather than leave you behind, possibly forever if I forget to refollow you in the morning, let me separate your stream from my regular timeline for a few hours until I’m no longer concerned about spoilers. Perhaps the tweeter could create a custom code (like a hashtag, but hidden outside of the tweet and tied to just their account). I could just click “Joe’s Lost stream” on my client and toggle it off for now and then go back and view it later.

The same stream filtering and mix/match capabilities could and should be applied to keywords, hashtags, lists, whatever you want – but API codes would be the most reliable and “go to” choice whenever they are available.

Think of the power of this approach: You could consume your social media your way, all of the time, crossing to different streams as time permits and only after you’ve quickly caught up on the stuff that matters most to you. Or you could mix them together anyway you like, on the fly.

What’s the worst thing that could happen, total protonic reversal? It didn’t phase the Ghostbusters in the end – they were hailed as heros.

Don’t get too excited about streams: This is just one observer’s idea on how to “fix” what’s wrong with social media today. But I believe it’s a modest one that builds on features like Facebook filters and Twitter API codes that have already been created and could be put to better use.

So, social media makers, why not give it a try? Are you a “god”? Please say yes, and go fix this.

1 Comment 

  1. marianne says:

    Brilliant observations Dave and and prescient considering the explosive and continued growth in these applications. Research tells us that most participants are not really that but merely spectators. So, the ability to timebox my exposure to certain feeds with segmentation is a winner.

    Another advantage would be the additional behavioral information gained from observing when and what users stream away from their center of attention.

    Excellent post and I’ve sent it out to my various streams.

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