Archive for August 2015

Don’t Be Offended If I No Longer Follow You

This is my open letter to people I follow on Twitter. Please don’t be offended if I unfollow you. It’s nothing personal, unless you are a spammer or troll in which case it’s definitely personal. Otherwise, it’s not really about you.

Most of the culling that I have done in the past few weeks has to do with information overload. I am being sprayed in the face with the Twitter firehose and can’t drink from it fast enough. That means that I don’t read most posts anymore. At best I glance through them and hope something catches my eye… which is almost never does. I follow a modest amount of people and companies on Twitter, fewer than I do on LinkedIn or Facebook. Even so, the volume of messages is overwhelming. Organizing tweeters into lists hasn’t helped. If I fail to check twitter for more than a few hours, I am hopelessly behind so I read nothing.

This is the core problem of Twitter – there’s just too much information for mere mortals to absorb. The volume of messages is so large that only lists and searches matter if you actually want to read what people post. And some people post like mad. One of my criteria for unfollowing has been excessive posts. After a while my brain begins to do a bit of its own filtering and I unintentionally ignore posts from people who appear to have their own firehouse going. Add to this corporate posts that I really have to read and posts from people who I find incredibly interesting and I’m swamped.

Oddly, Twitters success is its problem. All of these posts leave precious little brain-space for advertisements. Twitter needs to monetize tweets and there are only a few ways to do that. They can sell access to the firehose for analysis that marketers want. They are doing this through their Gnip acquisition. Selling ads, however, is tougher. It’s not only that people hate ads (it doesn’t seem to occur to many people that this pays for the service) but that ads get lost in the river of posts. The volume of posts renders all advertising subliminal. If it registers at all, it has to be in the subconscious.

A huge volume of tweets is, in of itself, just plain frustrating. It’s like an assembly line that never stops, promising to overwhelm us at all times, yet leaves us in fear of missing something vital. Ultimately, it becomes obvious that we can’t keep up so we give up. And that’s the worst possible scenario for Twitter. If fewer people are listening, then fewer people will be posting and the bottom will drop out of the Twitter game.

To fix this, Twitter needs to add some intelligence to their platform. Not the various clients like Hootsuite or Twitters own web and mobile applications but the platform itself. Twitter the platform needs features that can help separate the important from the not-so-important and downright trivial. Filters and lists are not enough. Tweets need to be intelligently ranked. That’s something that belongs in the backend not the client. Perhaps this is something that Twitter can get from their relationship with IBM – use IBM Watson to make a more intelligent Twitter. They need to do what email vendors are doing right now – help separate the messaging wheat from the chaff.

In the meantime, I have no choice but to remove some people and get the overall volume down. It doesn’t mean I don’t like you anymore, just that I can’t listen to you all the time.

Public API Driven Systems Are Cool But…

I’ve become a fan of cloud software that helps to build personal information systems. I liked Yahoo Pipes when it was alive even though it was hard to use. More recently I’ve been using IFTTT, which stands for If This Then That, and Numerous. IFTTT acts as a conduit for information from a cloud system to another one. Using a simple interface, an end-user builds a script, called a recipe by Numerous. The end-user selects a Trigger Channel, in other words a source, any variations on the channel called Triggers, an Action Channel, which is the sink or destination, and parameters that accompany that channel. This builds an IF-THIS-THAN-THAT statement which runs automatically. For example, it’s easy to build a script that detects a new entry in a blog and automatically tweets a link to it on Twitter.

Numerous, on the other hand, is designed to create personal dashboards but allowing numerical data to be pushed to a value called a Number. Some examples of this are the number of Facebook friends or Twitter followers someone has at the moment. It’s also possible to create a Number that acts as a container for information pushed to it. Using the Numerous API, it’s possible to write a script that does useful actions such as send the number of daily customer interactions from a CRM system to a custom Number. Combined with IFTTT, it’s possible to build some really useful dashboards without programming. For example, I have a set if IFTTT recipes that increments a Numerous Number that shows the number of monthly meetings I’ve had so far based on my Office365 calendar. At the beginning of the month, another IFTTT script resets this to zero.

It’s possible for an average knowledge worker to build these types of systems without any special knowledge or programming talent because of the rich set of public APIs so many mobile and cloud applications expose. IFTTT exploits these APIs in order to create their Channels, which are really collections of API calls after all, and Triggers. Numerous, on the other hand, exposes an easy-to-use API that allows anyone (such as IFTTT) to push information to a Number.

While API driven software makes it very easy to create complex systems from mobile and cloud apps, companies like IFTTT don’t control the public APIs they tap into. Changes to those public APIs can vastly change the behavior of these systems and even their ability to operate altogether. For example, a little while ago much of the LinkedIn Trigger Channel functionality began to disappear from IFTTT. Now, LinkedIn is only an Action Channel or destination. This means that IFTTT recipes can only post to LinkedIn whereas they used be able to pull information from LinkedIn. IFTTT is completely at the mercy of LinkedIn for interactions with their software. There used to be a number of pre-made recipes for pulling job listings from LinkedIn and stuffing them into an email or Evernote. Now, those have all disappeared.

This is not confined to LinkedIn by any means. Recently Google decided to shut off access to what had been an unofficial public API for autocomplete. Yes, it was unofficial but also widely used. By closing it off, the applications that used it suddenly broke. Without formal agreements in place, there was little the software developers who relied on it could do but complain.

So, while we all get excited about the new API economy and the prospect of easily assembling software from public APIs, remember the Achilles Heel is control. When someone else controls key features of an application, it can be broken at any time leaving a developer with no recourse other than to suck it up.