Who will control the all powerful?

I’d like you to imagine something for me.

Its a Thursday night and you’re up talking to your friends. You’ve had a great night and say goodnight to them, looking forward to chatting again in the morning.

The next morning, your world is thrown into turmoil. You wake up only to find that your contact with the outside world has been blocked. You’re not allowed to talk to any of your friends, and they can’t contact you. You have no idea why this has happened, and no-one will explain it. All you are told is that you might find out what has happened sometime in the next 30 days. You are cutoff from the outside world.

After three days of nothing you finally are told that you have been cutoff because you have made too many friends in too short a time, which is not allowed. You find out that you will be able to talk to your friends again, but only in a weeks time. You have no way to challenge this,  and no-one who can assist. You are helpless.

The above story happened in the last week to someone I know. Jono Haysom, a colleague of mine at Telstra and an avid user of Twitter (@jonoh is his Twitter id) went to bed on Thursday night last week after chatting with his friends on Twitter, and woke up on Friday morning to find that his account was suspended. He had no idea why and when he contacted Twitter they responded with an auto-response email saying  they would get back to him in 30 days. After much agitation, they eventually came back to him on Sunday and said he could re-apply to open up his account in 7 days time.

The reason they gave for suspending his account was that he had followed back too many people that had followed him in too short a time . That’s right, he followed people that were already following him! Apparently mass followings like this are a trait of spammers so he was blocked.  

Besides this being grossly unfair, the bigger issue here is that as services like Twitter become more and more prevalent, and more and more of our communications with friends moves online,  being cutoff from your social network for a lengthy period of time such as a week would be an extremely unsettling, frustrating and stressful situation for anyone, never mind a person who has done nothing wrong.  If you extend that to a business environment, exclusion like this could affect a persons livelihood in a huge way, especially if the period was not say a week but a month or longer.

The fact is, the above could happen to anyone at any time, and nothing can be done about it.  The administrators of services like Twitter have total control over who can and can’t use their service, and can kick someone off the service at anytime. There is no-one overseeing what they are doing, and no way to appeal against any of their decisions.

Ok, Jono was still able to use email and other services to talk to some of his friends with whom he had established relationships outside of Twitter, but one can easily imagine a time where all communication services are controlled by one group or organisation (look at Google Wave for an example of an integrated service which combines multiple communication mechanisms).

Imagine the power a  group like that would wield then.  Perhaps we should start thinking about that future and considering what checks and balances need to be put in place so that there is always a way to address an injustice such as what was inflicted on Jono.

Its scary when you think about it.

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Update: Well its been a week since @jonoh was suspended and he still hasnt heard anything more back from them. He has sent 7 emails,  many with the same response

“If you feel you’ve been suspended in error, please reply to this email with a short explanation if you haven’t already, and don’t forget to include your user name. We will do our best to get back to you within 30 days.”

This really is an indictment on Twitter and its error management processes . They had a loyal and high-volume user who I only ever saw promote the service, and they have totally disenfranchised him by cutting him off from the outside world.

Lets hope this doesnt start happening to more and more of us across social networking services as they try to crack down on the growing spam problem affecting their legitimate users.

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Twitter’s growth and why I dont post (much)

It has been a while since I last blogged. Instead most of my time has been spent on Twitter  interacting with those I follow, or who follow me.

In thinking about why this is the case, I have come up with two reasons, both of which are quite illuminating in perhaps explaining part of Twitter’s success over the last few months.

  1. Although Twitter can be used in many different ways, what most interests me, and keeps me coming back, is the conversational nature of tweeting. That is, using Twitter you can easily interact almost in real-time with a large group of people, as well as joining conversations others are involved in. This is diametrically opposed to blogging, which by its nature is much less conversational (yes, comments can be used but these are not a conversation to me).             
  2. Tweeting is easy, much easier than writing a blog post. In fact, of all the web 2.0 services, Twitter is probably the easiest to use.  All you need to do is put in up to 140 characters of text and submit, and away you go. This is much easier than writing a post for a blog or setting up a Facebook profile, to give two other examples of popular web 2.0 services.

As mentioned above, these two reasons may actually explain part of the astonishing growth of Twitter recently.

The first point illustrates the fact that humans are inherently social creatures who in most cases enjoy and in fact need to interact with other people. Thus, Twitter is fulfilling one of the basic needs of people everywhere.

The second point above shows that the “barriers to entry” to using Twitter for someone new (or relatively new) to social networking are extremely low, and the lowest of probably all web 2.0 services available.

Combining these two observations, it becomes apparent that Twitter is fulfilling a basic human need, and doing it in a way that is extremely easy when first used. Really, the perfect recipe for viral growth.

Customer “Transactions”

A fairly big component of the work I am doing at the moment is focussed on improving the way our customers experience Telstra, right from the time before they are even considering our products, through to their post-purchase interactions with the company.

One of the biggest challenges I face is to step outside my everyday role as a Telstra employee and view the company from the eyes of a customer. I am sure that this is not only a problem I face, but one that a lot of people have when trying to improve the way customers interact with a company. We seem to get so caught up in “the way we do things”, or the processes we follow internally, and forget that to a customer none of that really matters.

One way to overcome this problem is to view each interaction with a customer as a “transaction”. That is, when a customer deals with a company it is because they generally want to achieve a specific outcome. The role of the company in this “transaction” is to make it as easy as possible for the customer to achieve that outcome. The customer doesn’t generally care how the company does this internally, just that they get what they need from the interaction.

This model applies both in the typical notion of a transaction such as a purchase, as well as any other customer interaction, such as going online to search for product information, or calling a call-centre to report a fault. These can all be viewed as “transactions”.

This transaction-based view of the world is useful when trying to see things from a customers perspective. By always thinking “how would the customer want this transaction to occur?”, it is much easier to see where issues may arise and problems occur, rather than trying to shoehorn customers into already existing processes or methods that are internal to the company.

I should point out that the overall customer experience of a company is usually made up of many “transactions” with that company, and as such care must be taken to ensure the overall experience is an excellent one. However, breaking the experience down into its individual components can be a useful way to view things, as long as the customer’s end-to-end experience is a good one.

Is it introversion that drives the success of Twitter?

Earlier today I listened to a really interesting interview of Jane Mason by Cameron Reilly (listen to it here). They were discussing the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, a questionnaire designed to measure psychological preferences in people and categorise everyone into 16 different personality types.

The part of the conversation that I found most interesting was when they were discussing introversion, and the fact that introverted people are not always against interacting with other people, its just that they like to control those interactions (e.g. a number of famous actors are introverted).

This led me to thinking about Twitter and other microblogging services, and why they have been so successful. The conclusion I came to was that it is the early-adopting introverted “geeks” (I apologise for the term but its the best I could come up with)  like me who naturally flocked to Twitter as it allows us to interact with others, whilst still controlling those interactions.

Obviously, this conclusion relies on a number of assumptions:

  1. That the archetypal “geeks” are the early-adopters of many new technologies
  2. That “geeks” have a tendency to be introverts
  3. That Twitter allows people to control the interactions they have with others

I think I’m fairly safe with the first assumption, but the other two probably need a bit more thought.

In terms of geeks being introverts, whilst I haven’t been able to find any definitive resources to prove this fact, my general observations do reinforce the perception that this assumption is almost definitely correct.

In terms of Twitter and its use, if you think about it, Twitter is really the ultimate tool in controlling interactions with the outside world. A Twitter user has total control over who they follow, as well as what they tweet about, and which conversations they get involved in. They even have the ability to tune out totally from the tweetstream if they want to. As such, this is a great tool for introverts to control their communication with the outside world, whilst still making themselves heard.

Drawing together the three assumptions above, it is therefore clear that Twitter was a perfect tool for the early-adopter introverted crows to flock to. This allowed it to build up a critical mass of users, to the point where it is now beginning to go mainstream. It is also at the point where the extroverts, the people who thrive on interactions with others now also flock to Twitter as it is an outlet for them to communicate with a broad audience given its huge reach.

It is interesting to think about this paradigm when trying to think about what the “next” big web application might be. I’m tipping it will be one that allows the introverts to even further control their interactions with others, although I’m not sure what that will be.

Update (4/12/08): Danu Poyner has an interesting post on his blog which talks about the fact that Twitter is great for the Intuitive (N) type people highlighted in Myers-Briggs. He also refers to a great survey of Twitter done by the MBTI blog which shows that the most common (self-reported) MBTI type on Twitter is INFP, with both Is and Ns being over-represented in Twitter as a whole.

Keeping a Perspective on Life

Over the last couple of days I’ve heard two pieces of news which have really made me think about the important things in life.

First of all, I found out late on Friday that a (younger) colleague of mine in a previous job – a guy I didnt know that well but who was full of life and I thought quite highly of – has been undergoing chemotherapy for about a month (Scott, hope it works well and you come out fighting fit).

Secondly, today I read the news headlines that Barack Obama’s grandmother, the lady who raised him when he was young, passed away on the eve of what will most probably be his election as US President, the greatest achievement of his life.

These two pieces of news have bought to the top of my mind a few things that I have believed in for a quite a while, namely:

  1. Dont sweat the small stuff – Its not worth worrying about minor things in life. Doing this will only make you uptight, and will mean that you won’t be able to enjoy the more important things that surround you.
  2. Success at work shouldnt be at the price of family – Whilst everyone likes to achieve success at work (including me) , when it comes down to it this is really only so that I can provide my family with as much as possible, and enjoy my time with them. This also means that I will never let work take over my life to such an extent that my family life is severely impacted.
  3. Life is short – To me this doesnt need a lot more explanation, as it encapsulates the above two points. Basically, something could happen to anyone at any time that could severely impact on their quality of life. Given this, its not really worth getting too worked up over things, or too focussed on work as it cant do any good.

I am going to make sure that in my life I never forget these principles in whatever I do.

I’d like to talk about it, but I can’t

In writing this blog, I find more and more that I have a conflict which I need to deal with when deciding what topics to focus on. This conflict relates to the fact that my job at Telstra gives me many inspirations for great posts, either about the issues we face, or about the way the company is managed and run.

My conflict is that, even though this blog is my own personal blog, if I do post articles about these topics, I feel that many readers will associate my comments with Telstra, and interpret what I say as illustrating the internal workings of the company. I feel that in the majority cases this would not be acceptable as I would be revealing information that should be kept confidential, or providing a view of the internal machinations of the organisation which should not be revealed.

Is this view of mine that “what happens internally at work, stays internal” misguided, or am I right to feel that way that I do?

Social networks are real time..TV stations need to catchup

Social networks, and especially micro-blogging services like Twitter are incredible sources for the real-time release of news and sports results. As a result, as their use grows and expands, television networks are going to face huge challenges to their archaic programming practices.

These television networks are used to being the “only” source of coverage for their customers to keep up with happenings around the world, be they the latest scores or updates on breaking news items. Because of this, most networks, especially in a place like Australia which is far removed in terms of timezone and geography from most locations globally, often show sporting events on delayed telecast, or hold back breaking news items until regular news bulletins or broadcasts.

These days, that is really playing with fire. At any time, it is very easy to use a service like Twitter Search to find someone tweeting sports scores, or commenting on news items. For example, Channel 7 during the Olympics delayed the broadcast of many of the events, including Matthew Mitcham winning gold in the 10m platform diving. As a result, a number of people tweeted the result of the event before Channel 7 showed it (see here for an example). This meant actually watching became a total let-down and definitely encouraged me to switch channels before it was finished.

If the stations aren’t careful this will start happening more and more, and will be just another death blow to the “dinosaur” networks who are under extreme pressure from a variety of sources (including online) already.

Update (1/9/08): About 10 minutes after posting this it was bought to my attention that someone was live Twittering the coup in Thailand (see here). Yet another great example of the real-time news breaking caapbilities of social networks whic television networks (and for that matter newspapers as well) just can’t replicate.