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A better design for Twitter retweets

Birds on a wire

This week, many people have been given beta access to Twitter’s new Retweet feature. Unfortunately, rather than seizing the opportunity to pave the cowpaths by building a feature that reflects the way users are currently retweeting each other, Twitter have launched something which behaves quite differently.

You have to change your retweet behavior to use the new feature. This has angered many users, myself included, so I’d like to explain how I think the new feature should have been designed. To start with I’ll look at where retweeting came from, I’ll then explain some of the problems with the way it works currently, how Twitter are trying to address these problems with the new feature, and finally how I think the problems could be better addressed.

Why do we need a retweet feature anyway?

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Somewhere around 1999, I first saw a URL in a movie trailer. That confirmed for me that web technology had reached the mainstream. Clay Shirky points out that really interesting social capital applications emerge not when new technology is created, but when that technology is so mainstream as to be boring. He cites U.S. “citizen voter” applications designed to document suspicious voting practices, but is quick to emphasize that these were inspired by their low-tech predecessors in Africa.Twitter names in the credits of a Russell Howard show

Recently, I noticed something equally mainstream about a new class of technology: its appearance in movie and TV credits. As this screencap shows, the credits for @bbcgoodnews (which, I’m pretty sure, features @notrusshoward) include Twitter usernames.

Which got me thinking:
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Status update anxiety

anxious

I’ve realized I’m the least interesting person I know. My social networks tell me so.

Right now, one of my online contacts is cooking; one’s hiking in Nepal; one’s mixing music; one’s boarding a flight to Europe; one explained an idea I had better than I ever could; and one just launched some software I wish I’d built. At least, that’s what their status updates remind me.

Call it Status Update Anxiety.

Happiness is relative, as Alain de Botton so eloquently tells us. We compare ourselves to our peers, and use this as the basis for our self-esteem. In a TED presentation he gave, he makes the point that few people envy the Queen of England — after all, she’s not that like you and I, with her funny accent and strange family rituals — but we all envy the latest tech wunderkind, the classmate who flipped a house, the brother who made some smart investments.

These objects of our disaffection are just like us. Every time Sergey Brin gets up on stage in jeans and a T-shirt, he reminds us that we could have been him if we’d only thought of Pagerank. This is, of course, a gross misstatement — but the mainstream media can’t convey the underlying complexity of achievent. Many inventions seem simple in retrospect, and the one-page writeup in Wired Magazine can’t do justice to the years of hard work. As Sheryl Crow said, it takes a long time to become an overnight success.

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Many rooms

In my office, I know what everyone else is doing, without them telling me. I’m not spying on them; it’s a side effect of our shared hard drive. Whenever my co-workers create or update a file, I get notified. What’s more, I can then click the message and view the file, which is already saved on my laptop.

We use Dropbox, a clever product that effortlessly synchronizes and backs up our files. We’ve discovered it does a lot more than this though; it gives us an ambient awareness of each other’s work, and it makes us more effective because we no longer have to think about versions, file locations or lost data.

Ambient awareness

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Design Patterns for Social Experience

Christian Crumlish and Erin Malone explain Social Experience Design PatternsAt IDEA2009, Christian Crumlish and Erin Malone, authors of the forthcoming book “Designing Social Interfaces”, gave an overview of some key steps and design patterns that can be used when creating social software or sites.

Christian started by reiterating that social experience design is about the interaction between people rather than the interface between the human and the computer – and that while you can fairly well control one person’s experience with a system, you cannot predict or control how people will choose to interact with each other.

As such, when you design a social experience, all you can really do is provide a framework. You can set the basic rules and capabilities, but the participants will finish the design for you.

Five steps of social experience design

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Bare Naked (Open Source) Design

Leisa Reichelt talks about D7UX at IDEA2009
Today Leisa Reichelt gave a presentation to IDEA2009 on her experiences running the Drupal 7 user experience project. She shared insights she had learned about how to design in an open way with a highly distributed team, such as using video missives such as the “We Need You” video to communicate with developers.

One of the biggest challenges she said she faced was that the project was designed by developers with other developers in mind, even though there were two key groups of users that were alienated by the product. They could not engage with strategy statements or goal descriptions.
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The Impact of Social Models

Luke Wroblewski explains the impact of social models at IDEA2009Today saw the IDEA2009 Social Experience Design Conference kick off in Toronto. Luke Wroblewski, Director of “Product Ideation & Design” at Yahoo, gave the first session, where he presented the results of a number of different pieces of research which showed that the way social interactions and relationships are modeled can have a large effect on the way that people behave online. He also uncovered some interesting facts along the way about which types of social model generate the most active users, and what factors influence user behaviour.

He divided social sites into five types of social model:
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"Denial of Service Attack" by kryptyk on Flickr (CC)Today, social networking was attacked. The two biggest networks, Twitter and Facebook, have been subjected to denial of service attacks, causing difficulty for millions of people around the world. Other sites including FriendFeed, LiveJournal, Posterous and su.pr have also experienced outages or slow response times. Social networking services have failed before, but never all at once.

While the precise causes have yet to be established, it’s clear is that today’s events have had a measurable effect on people across the globe, and the loss of multiple social networks at the same time has highlighted some serious issues and limitations

Disconnect, reconnect

One of the first things that happened is that people flooded to other mediums such as e-mail or instant messaging to discuss what was happening. Read more »

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I’ve read a few books this summer that look at non-traditional economies. Chris Anderson‘s Free deals with “the future of a radical price”; Tara Hunt‘s The Whuffie Factor looks at the currency of reputation; and Clay Shirky‘s Here Comes Everybody talks about the power of self-organizing systems.

Chris and Tara’s books, at their core, deal with a single concept: that a connected society has three distinct economies — money, reputation, and attention — and that businesses depend on their ability to move value between the economies. And Clay’s book shows us that these economies can emerge by themselves without formal organization.

None of these economies are new. It’s just that in an online world, we have more ways of tracking them and understanding their exchange rates. Many of today’s most interesting companies are focused on exchanging value between the three economies, giving rise to many new business opportunities and forcing us to think with a “triple bottom line” mentality.

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Is Apple the new Sony?

Walkman and iPod

Apple’s increasingly restricting what consumers can do with their devices. Now those policies put the company in a battle for openness against the likes of Google.

It’s a competitive dilemma that comes from being in both the platform and the content business. And it’s one Apple should have handled better, because it’s the same mistake another company made that let Apple dominate the portable music market: Sony.

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