The Riddle of Twitter

Tweet!It’s a blog! No, it’s a microblog! No, wait, it’s a cocktail party! No, it’s something for you to be witty or interesting on so you gain followers! Wait, no, it’s the light infantry! But not for conferences! And not for mundane crap!

What I find baffling is that people seem to be hell bent on defining what Twitter is (or, for that mater, is not). Unlike most other social media (Facebook, Myspace, Friendster, Livejournal, Blogger, etc), Twitter comes with the shortest instruction manual and it is phrased in the form of a question: “What are you doing?” The deviously simple interface is a portal into an ongoing real time conversation of your own choosing as you opt in to follow people based on your own taste and criteria. (And, likewise, opt out or unfollow someone when they fall outside of your interest.)

For me, the conversation about Twitter closely resembles the tale of the blind men and the elephant. People are so determined to pin down what Twitter is and is not that they are missing the overall point: that Twitter is everything that people describe it to be. Want to share what you had for breakfast? Go for it. Want to keep tabs on a couple of friends? You got it. Professional networking? It’s there, just do it. Build up an online presence cult of personality? Tweet away, oh future internet trend despot. It is the Web 2.0 Mirror of Erised, a magical looking glass upon which a person can gaze at what they wish to see and input their say in their Twitter feed. How can it possibly be any simpler? While it might not be for everyone, with the proper external tools and some internet elbow grease, it can satisfy the most picky user’s expectations.

For myself, I find that Twitter is the right balance of personal and professional. I can share my joys, woes, observations, and thoughts to a select (reasonably interested) crowd. More importantly for me, it has become a valuable source of professional articles that offer tips and insights that I am certain I would not have found otherwise. My network of library professionals has expanded beyond my library system and granted me access to (what I can only think to call) a people database. These carefully cultivated contacts now exist on the local, national, and international level and put a spectrum of knowledge and expertise a mere tweet away. For me, that kind of raw information potential is captivating and powerful; and it makes me extraordinarily grateful to be in such a supportive profession. That is how Twitter has met and exceeded my expectations and why I continue to happily tweet today.

Personally, I have a very unscientific and suitably unsupported theory about the low retention rates. I base this solely on my unwritten observations of Twitter, people in general, and related postings. I would be willing to bet dollars to donuts that the so called “retention problems” lay with the end user because they come to the service with unreasonable expectations. Whether it is the idea that a Twitter account will somehow magically grant them access to celebrities or consistently give them a specific type of information they are looking for or be the social happening place that it is at any given moment (your mileage with followers may vary), they are let down when the reality doesn’t match the hype. Sure, it looked good on Oprah, but beyond Oprah’s sparse tweets (51 in total, none towards any non-celebrity of her 1.6 million followers), what is there for these new members to do? They have been dropped off at the proverbial Promised Land without a guide or an incentive to stay. Even if they did not ride the mighty coattails of Oprah to the service, they could find the “noise” of uninteresting updates from those they follow to be a deal breaker for the service. Whether it is for personal contacts or professional information, the sheer volume of information that passes through their page feels insurmountable. They flail, they flounder, and then they flee. And it is when Twitter fails to meet a person’s presumed expectations of the service that they toss it aside like a stuffed animal that has fallen out of favor with an angry child.

[Darker consideration: My much (worse) theory is that people approach it like television; specifically, I mean that they look to the service to conform to their whims without any effort on their part. They fall into the trap of being too lazy and treat the service as something that should acquiesce to their preferences right out of the proverbial box. Rather than engage the service, they curse it for not being what they want from the moment they log in. The passiveness of other social media (like the gentle cascade of a Facebook feed page) is a complete juxtaposition to the active nature of Twitter.]

There has been much press about Twitter’s retention numbers and active accounts. I find the numbers being waved around to be rather uncompelling because they simply do not go far enough in their analysis. It does not account for lurkers (people who sign up for accounts simply to be able to read a list of who they follow), those who use it for marketing & research (read: data mining) purposes, and the spammers who constantly on the move within the service creating accounts (nevermind what counts as an ‘active’ account or the fact that you can be active on an account without followers). Find me in a year or two and then I’ll take a look at the charts again. Perhaps it is our ever increasingly small technology cycles, but I don’t believe that all businesses on the internet need to follow the explosive growth of Google, Amazon, or Facebook to prove long term success. More people are coming online, more people are embracing social media to maintain their relationships for different aspects of their lives, and the world is becoming more socially connected. Even if it’s only 10% of the people generating 90% of the content, that’s still a fair number of people generating a massive amounts of information. On Twitter, that is roughly 450,000 people based on the estimated 4.5 million accounts; it would be equivalent to the population of Luxembourg. (Or, for a much larger number to think about, 10% of active Facebook users would be approximately 20 million people worldwide. For comparison, that is just a little shy of the population of Australia).

And it’s only going to get bigger. You can bet the cocktail party on that.

This post can also been seen on LISNews.org.

Dead Wildebeests and the Self Conscious Crocodile: Pres4Lib 2009

The Library is a learning place!On Friday, I went to the Pres4Lib conference organized by the bloggers of Library Garden. It was a conference for presenters and trainers and focused on ways to improve presentation skills and use of media aids. I generally don’t do a lot of presentations in a month, but I do run programs and classes so any sort of help for talking in front of people is a boon to me.

After a good night’s sleep and a glance at my notes, there is a theme that emerges for me: presentations are the product of a human and media symbiotic relationship. While it is true that a person can present without any outside aids (slides, handouts, and the like), the norm for presentations has shifted to a multimedia experience. At a minimum, there should be a visual aid to go along with the speaker’s dialogue. This is the axis point that the relationship of person and technology revolves around, for one can dramatically impact (even overshadow) the other. This isn’t something new to presenters, but it is more of a cautionary tale as presentation tools gain new features.  In addition, each factor is radically different: the human is subjective, the media is objective.

In the Birds of a Feather groups that I attended, there was a lot of talk about the personal aspects of presenting. It felt more like an informal presentation support group in which people swapped stories and traded tips about what works for them. The psychological value of these sessions was innumerable as reminded me that (1) I’m not the only one who gets butterflies, “ums” and “ahs”, and is trying to be comfortable in front of an audience and (2) that presentation style is unique to the person. As for the first, the conference has given me a network of fellow presenters that I can reach out to for advice, encouragement, and commiseration. A little confidence that can come from peer encouragement can go a long way. It also gave me additional ways to think of the audience that my presentation anxiety had not allowed me to previously consider: that the audience does not want the presenter to fail, that they want to get something out of it (even if it means not being uncomfortable during the whole duration of their disinterest in what you have to say), and that they should be treated as passengers in your presentation. To this last aspect, the mere mental image of being a driver giving a tour of a town to his passengers is an oddly soothing thought for me. It erases the notion of adversarial intent and puts me on the same side as those who are hearing me speak: a journey of sight and sound, if you will. 

As for the second point, it is about becoming comfortable with your own personality as a presentation style. A soft spoken introverted nature can be as powerful as a boisterous energetic extrovert when the speaker appears (for lack of a better term) natural. It is the “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” of presentation skills: working with your personality strengths while minimizing your “weaknesses”. While not all personality types are equally suited for engaging an audience, it is through using your unique combination of traits that can make the presentation memorable. The comfort of being in your own skin combined with the appearance of confidence in rhetoric are distinguishing features that an audience can latch onto and appreciate. I don’t want to break down into clichés such as “You are a beautiful little snowflake”, but for each speaker, the presentation style is personal. Find your comfort zone, be confident in the expression of your concepts and ideas, and let that move your audience to follow you.

The role of media in a presentation is devilishly simple: it is to drive home the talking points of the speaker. And the Devil, as they say, is in the details. There are a number of potential aids in the speaker’s toolbox these days: slides, movies, audio, pictures, whiteboards, and handouts are but a few items to be used. But which ones truly work to support the point you want to make?

Steven Bell’s lightning talk about using video in presentations was my major eye opening experience for the conference. The incorporation of video into a presentation opens up fresh and bold avenues of supporting the presenter’s dialogue. It’s more than just something to keep the audience awake, it is an attention-grabber-and-never-let-go-er. With interview style videos, you can create co-presenters who repeat or reinforce your talking points. It’s the ultimate in "But don’t take my word for it!” type of persuasive speech. The weight and credibility that people lend to a third party is a powerful tool that should be utilized more often when telling a narrative. In addition, it is more exciting than a graph, figure, or other non-moving visual demonstration. Don’t let a chart say it if you can have a real person proclaim it. The ability to use video to show people what you are talking about is an incredible tool in this increasingly visual society.

A close second was John DeMasney’s talk about Picasa presentation slides. While PowerPoint is a standard to most speakers, the flexibility of Picasa in image generation was exciting to me. Static pictures can be used to suggest themes and ideas to get the audience thinking about something before you even say a work about it. With Creative Common images, there is a massive multitude of copyright safe images that can be used in slides. Let the pictures be the accompanying visual to your words. It’s so simple yet so powerful for a speaker; for me, it was a reminder that even the most simple of visual materials can create the desired audience reaction and engagement. 

(Note: Each of the Lightning Talks was excellent. I could talk about all of them but I wanted to pick the ones that got me all aflutter. Check out the video archive on the Pres4Lib wiki to see all of them. I highly recommend it.)

The lesson here is to marry the presentation media with your style in a way that compliments each aspect the most. In mentioning marriage, the rule of thumb attributed to bridal parties might actually explain it best: the bridesmaids (your accompanying media) should look good, but not as good as the bride (you). The right kind and amount of visual and auditory aids should intertwine and support your talking points. Every additional material should move the audience closer to the goal of your talk, whether it is to inform, train, or otherwise. It should also compliment the presenter’s style and manner which is (as stated above) uniquely their own. It is the symbiotic relationship between person and media that makes the presentation a memorable full sensory experience.

I am very thankful to the Pres4Lib organizers for putting this together. And I am certainly looking forward to another shot at Battledecks next year. I plan on improving upon my previous effort.

As to the title of the this post, I offer you the following convoluted anecdote:

I have been reading the book “Rock, Paper, Scissors: Game Theory in Everyday Life” by Len Fisher. In one of the chapters, he talks about a game theory scenario called The Volunteer’s Dilemma. This situation entails a group that is facing a problem in which an action needs to be taken but the person who volunteers to take the action opens themselves up to a greater risk of a negative effect. However, if no one takes the action, the entire group suffers. In the book, Len describes a herd of wildebeest crossing the plains of Africa. To reach new grazing lands to sustain the herd, they have to cross rivers. These rivers are the domain of very hungry and territorial crocodiles. If the herd doesn’t cross the river, they will surely die of starvation from the lack of adequate food. So, the first arrivals stand on the edge of the river until the pressure behind them builds to a point where a wildebeest “volunteers” (pushed or of own volition) to start crossing the river. This brave beast risks being the crocodile’s first meal, but the rest of herd can now cross at a (relatively) reduced risk.

I told that background story so I could tell you this story as it relates to Pres4Lib.

So, in the first Bird of a Feather session in the morning, the topic of discussion was called Getting Started. We’ve talked about “hooks” (grabbing the audience’s attention), about introducing any elephants in the room as an icebreaker, and had turned the topic to transitions (moving between different talking points and formats). Amy Kearns had asked about what to do when you ask a question of the audience and no one answers. Someone said that you just leave the question out there till the audience actually answers when I rather “brightly” said to the group.

“Oh! That sounds just like The Volunteer’s Dilemma!”

After explaining what this was, I related the presentation situation to the dilemma. The audience is the herd of wildebeest, the crocodiles represent the feeling of being self conscience, and the river is the question posed by the presenter. While it is true that the presenter can get the audience off the hook by answering the question, they have all lost a chance to open up a dialogue with the presenter. A fear of being wrong or awkward or other possible negative outcomes in answering in front of a group is “the self conscious crocodile”, the thing preventing people from freely answering the question. No one wants to get eaten by that dinosaur throwback and so they stand at the proverbial river bank shifting in place. Even so, with a taciturn audience, you could even mention this scenario as a secondary icebreaker and a means to further elicit an answer.

So, there is no need to think of your audience naked. Unless, of course, the thought of a room full of naked wildebeests is somewhat soothing.

Advocacy. Tasty tasty social media based library advocacy.

Advocacy through social media has just gotten a bit cooler.

There is a newly formed Facebook group for a Library Themed Ben & Jerry’s Flavor. But what do libraries and Ben & Jerry’s have to do with each other?

In these economic conditions, the role of the library is becoming more important in the lives of its patrons. Diminished incomes have stopped people from buying books, newspapers, magazines, music and movies as well as dropping services like home internet. They are turning to the library for the media and materials that they would have normally bought for themselves in the past. With employers moving their hiring applications to their websites and most job searches move online, the ability for people to be able to access the internet increases in importance. In reaction to this, libraries have added job hunting, resume writing, and interview materials, classes, and programs. On top of this, we are helping people everyday navigate this new age of information. But we are still struggling to maintain services in the face of stagnant or slashed state, county, and municipal budgets.

Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream has a long history for corporate advocacy for different causes. From their mission statement, they seek to conduct business in a socially responsible and environmentally sensible way. Over the years, they’ve created flavors to raise awareness for poverty, global warming, water preservation, family farmers, disadvantaged children, and world peace. Their activism extends to their employees who volunteer their time for community projects. Plus, they make some pretty tasty ice cream.

Sounds like a perfect match!

Join the group, spread the word, and let’s make the library an even cooler place to be!

Cross posted at LISNews.org

The Failure of E-Reader Devices, Ctd.

Since my initial post on the subject two and half weeks ago, I have read over the replies that have accumulated across a couple of sites. I’ve appreciated the time that commenters have put into their replies to the post. In reflecting upon the discussions put forth, I can see that major flaw of my post was lumping e-readers and e-book stores together. In separating the two, it creates a pair of much more navigable and manageable issues for the library.

As various replies have correctly pointed out, e-books are already being lent out through libraries by vendors such as Overdrive and Netlibrary. Personally, I’d like to see some of the major e-book dealers (such as Sony and Mobipocket) consider creating lending arrangements with libraries. The additional titles and competition that they would bring would be good for libraries, patrons, and the market. As it stands now, the vendor provided software enables you to read these books on your computer, PDA, or is compatible with a handful of selected e-reader devices. For me, the current issues that dance around e-books are the various levels of permissions that are granted by the publisher and the author when it comes to the transmission of their work. It can be aggravating to show a patron a couple of different e-book choices and then have to go into nitty gritty details as to why one book could be put on a PDA while another cannot. In fact, I’ve had patrons turn down borrowing an e-book since it would not transmit to their iTouch or PDA because they wanted to take the book with them rather than be only allowed to read the book on their personal computer. I would strongly urge e-book lending companies to encourage publishers and authors to allow their materials to be viewed on any device; otherwise, it’s completely useless to the library as a lending material if no one is interested in meeting the requirements.

When it comes to e-readers, it is my fear that we will end up with something that resembles the video game console market. With the Wii, Xbox, and the Playstation, these are a handful of proprietary systems that dominate the market. Wherein the past, a game manufacturer could develop a game that worked on multiple platforms, the current trend is for companies to sign exclusive deals for their product lines. In carrying this over to the e-reader world, it would be the equivalent of James Patterson or Janet Evanovich signing a deal to exclusively publish their e-books through Amazon. The other companies would be snubbed as would any libraries not lending a Kindle (not that you could lend it as it is, but let’s pretend) as would any patrons of those e-reader lending establishments. The expense and hassle of these proprietary devices plus their propriety book formats would create a decision for a library as to whether to collect a single e-reader format or multiple types. Given the nature of budgets this year, my inclination would be the former strategy would be adopted. Overall, under this scenario, libraries and patrons would lose out in terms of access to materials.

It is my fervent hope and desire that the focus of e-reader manufacturers change from proprietary to universal platforms in which a device could read any e-book. But, alas, I think we are a few business and technology cycles away from any sort of movement towards that lofty ideal.

I am still quite serious about getting companies to allow libraries to lend their devices. So, in the hopes of turning words into actions, earlier last week I started to contact the various e-reader device makers about creating a terms of service or other arrangement that would allow libraries to lend their devices. My basic question each appeared like this:

“I have a question that I’d like someone to help me with: why is [name of company] not creating a special Terms of Service for libraries so that we can lend out [their device] with content and not risk a licensing breach?”

Depending on the web form or email, I would copy an excerpt of my post and include a link to the original post. Here’s the rundown of replies thus far:

- Sony was a complete (unsurprising) run around.

From my initial submission:

Thank you for contacting Sony Technical Support.

We appreciate the time you have taken to write us. Your email has been assigned Case ID XXXXXX. An email support agent should reply to your letter within the next 24 hours. Occasionally some inquiries will require additional time.

Thank you for your patience as we strive to provide you with the best service and support possible.

The Sony Online Support Team

Within an hour, I got a reply:

[AndyW],

Thank you for contacting Sony Support.

While we have been working hard to make the Digital Reader the best product on the market today, there is always room for improvement. We look forward to getting this type of customer response on our designs and will do our best to incorporate as many as possible in the future. To submit such requests we have established a dedicated email address. Please send all such comments to: feedback@ebookstore.sony.com

Thanks in advance for your feedback.

Thank you for understanding.

The Sony Email Response Team
C6LD
Paul

So I sent off my initial query to the email address and got back a rather irrelevant reply.

Thank you for your feedback! We read every submission to help us define the future direction of the store.
If your request is for a new title or author to be added, we are working to add new content regularly so please check back often. Also, if you have not already done so, be sure to sign up for our weekly newsletter that highlights new releases and additions and well as promotions and special offers.

To sign-up for our newsletter:
1.      Launch the eBook Library Software.
2.      Click on “My account” at the top and Sign in.
3.      Choose “Update Newsletter Settings” in the “Newsletters and Notifications” section.
4.      Check the newsletters you want to subscribe to.
5.      Click “Submit”.
Thank you again for taking the time to share your comments with us!
Regards,
The eBook Store from Sony

Hello, customer service fail! I’m not really sure where to go from there, since their customer service website is mired with communication pitfalls. I’d love to be able to try to get someone from corporate who could actually give me a real person reply, but I guess I’m relegated to crossing my fingers and hoping they read this post.

- Foxit, the creators of the eSlick reader, had this response:

Dear [AndyW],
Thanks for your email.
I think it is a good suggestion you have sent.
But we have no plan to do this Marketing mode at present.
For now, we are working on reseller program. Our reseller can place order and Foxit will give some discount for them according to the quantity.
Thanks!
2009-06-02
Best Regards,
Nancy
Foxit Software Company
www.foxitsoftware.com

And since I’m not going to be ordering, I guess I don’t have to worry about that reseller discount.

- Amazon wrote back something that made my eternal optimist stir, but it still leads to me to believe that I got the official brush-off already.

Hello,

Thanks for writing about make libraries able to use Kindles and lend them out with out being in breech of the terms of service. I will pass this information on to our Business teams from review.

Strong customer feedback like yours helps us continue to improve the service we provide, and we’re glad you took time to write to us.

Thanks for your interest in Amazon Kindle.

Please let us know if this e-mail resolved your question:

If yes, click [here]:
If not, click [here]:

Please note: this e-mail was sent from an address that cannot accept incoming e-mail.

To contact us about an unrelated issue, please visit the Help section of our web site.

Best regards,

Jonathan R
Amazon.com
We’re Building Earth’s Most Customer-Centric Company

The last line drew a wry grin to my face as a sudden dose of irony. I can only really hope that it is not simply a product of the marketing department. I’ve decided to see if I can get an actual phone call from a customer service individual by choosing the “no” option. Here’s hoping.

- I have an outstanding inquiry with Cool-ER which I should follow-up upon in the next week or so. I’m also still tracking down a place to submit an inquiry for the iLiad reader since their website appears to be uniquely obtuse for customer inquires.

I would encourage those who read this and want their libraries to have the ability to lend devices to do their own contacting of the companies involved in the e-reader business. While my persistence might get me eventually to a real live person (the new pinnacle of the customer service experience in the 21st century), it is only through combined action that libraries will see movement in their favor. E-reader use might not be the reality of today, but as the technology generations improve these devices, I feel that it will be in the future of the library. This is the time to work towards better and more open e-book formats compatible with our lending practices as well as devices for people to read them on. We are positioned to share and shape this future and we should not let it get past us. For our future collections, there is too much at stake to watch the businesses that will influence the patron borrowing interests of tomorrow proceed without us as an advisor and partner. We owe it to the future of the library to act now.

Cross posted at LISnews.org