My last post [Social Networking: How Communities Were Built] talked about the major social networks in the Indian space, where I looked at the major online services that create & maintain connections. The other aspect of generating conversations is having something to talk about.
Online content creation began with a few individuals putting out text & images that could be consumed by other users of the internet. In the recent years, though, we’ve seen content creation get closer & closer to the space that we call social networking. A content creator is not an artist working in isolation but the initiator & propagator of conversations. The social networks are but channels to drive conversations, which need content. Thus it was inevitable that social connectors and content holders should find themselves merging in a borderless space.
‘Content creation’ is a misnomer since, increasingly, we are all becoming both producers & consumers of content. One person feeds into the network a piece of information or an insight or a personal account (a phenomenon now called ‘seeding’ if done with the intent to propagate). Others read it and share it on their networks (the phenomenon now called ‘going viral’). Along the way, comments are added and other bits of content spring up in response to the first piece. These could take several forms – blog posts, tweets, comments, status updates, pictures and videos, to name a few. The conversation now spans multiple users, data points, media and web locations. Every user in this process has now become both a consumer and a creator of content.
Blogging is generally understood to be the harbinger of online content creation with the full democracy that the internet allows. Before blogging, bulletin boards and email groups occupied that space. Emailers were largely, a form of one-to-many communication. Recipients did have the option of mailing back but partly because of the system’s clunkiness, (multiple threads, no way to keep them organized) and partly because the onlineverse wasn’t ready yet, this form remained primarily one-way. Bulletin boards had their day and still exist among interest-specific groups. But again, they don’t make it easy to keep a conversation on track and firmly moderated, as this requires dedicated effort from an individual or group.
Blogging pushed the balance in favor of the recipients, making it possible for them to comment immediately and thus engage with the creator and with each other. It also allowed them to link to their own webpages or blogs, thus making the blogosphere into an ecosystem of its own, within the social space.
Let’s take a look at some of the players in this space.
A Little Birdie
Twitter, the second pillar of social media apart from Facebook, was promoted as a microblogging service. Thus, Twitter’s roots lie in content creation, rather than social networking. Blogging put publishing into the hands of anybody with a keyboard and an internet connection. But it didn’t deliver on all that promised freedom. People found it cumbersome to keep generating new content periodically. The then-available interfaces required considerable on-computer time, which wasn’t the prerogative of every Indian user. Much of online time in India was from workplaces. Company policies and IT security measures clamped down on most social networks and blogging sites, stemming the flow considerably.
Twitter managed to stay afloat in this market, while others sank because it tackled both these issues perfectly. At 140 characters a tweet, no user felt the pressure to impress, to beautify or even to punctuate. Mobile phone technology had been around for over a decade and Indians were now used to communicating in SMS-sized messages. A tweet was just long enough to say something but not so long that it had to sound good or even say anything spectacular. Twitter‘s positioning as a status update device, served in building its mass appeal. Everybody who was a netizen had posted a status update at some point in their life, on a social network or a chat application or a website. People were already used to sharing bit-sized information about their moods, their current activities, their locations, the food they were eating, their favorite songs or movies. Any of these could translate into a status update and therefore, a tweet.
Twitter was also available on a variety of interfaces, apart from the Twitter website itself. Cheat sites allowed users access by bypassing company firewalls. Desktop browsers allowed them to have it open on their screens through their entire workday and mobile applications made it possible for them to be active in the network, 24×7.
While Facebook had made a splash on the basis of its privacy settings, Twitter rode the wave on its openness. Anybody could read a tweeter’s content. Twitter does have its own privacy feature in the form of ‘Protected tweets’ but it is not one of its more used features. Verified accounts added credibility to Twitter’s openness. A celebrity could spawn hundreds of websites, all of which may have been run by fan groups and PR professionals. But a verified Twitter account was assumed to be run by the person himself/herself. It brought a new degree of respectability to the all-too-human trait of voyeurism. Suddenly, you could discover what your favorite actress ate this morning, which movie your star cricketer was watching and get traffic tips from someone you saw on TV last night, who might be sitting in the car next to yours.
Twitter’s popularity rode in on (and was driven forward by) its easy integration into other services. You could update your status message on your social network with Twitter. In time, you could also comment on a blog post using your Twitter account. Now you could share your location, your music preferences, the food you were eating, the event that you’d just bought tickets for, each in a tweet.
Twitter probably has the most to contribute to that phenomenon called ‘oversharing’. In the frantic effort to initiate & engage in conversations, tweets have delved deeper and deeper into our daily lives for things to say. By its nature, users are ‘in’ as long as they keep talking. In a phone conversation, each side bears the onus of saying something to keep the conversation alive. However, on Twitter, you need to keep tweeting as often as possible to stay in your followers’ minds & to gather more followers. Private conversations with people who don’t follow you become difficult, even impossible if the settings dictate. Thus, in order to really use Twitter, there’s pressure to follow and be followed by as many of its users as seem relevant to you.
Like Facebook, Twitter has also permeated into our online lives so deeply that it seems too cumbersome to move to another. Besides, we stay where our network is and with most users being loyal to this microblogging service, it doesn’t look like the blue birdie is going to be saying goodbye to us anytime soon.
One of the stalwarts of the early blogging era, MySpace failed to catch the Indian audience like it did their USA counterparts. Myspace can be considered a cross between a social networking site and a blog. Its ease of homepage design and uploads made it a good choice for users with content-rich profiles. However it lost out in the networking race first to Facebook and then to Twitter. MySpace does see some use, especially among the artist community in India. Musicians find it an easy place to showcase their music, allow downloads or enable jukebox-style listening and comments. But even that niche is being eroded by theme-centric groups which offer the same features in a much more focused environment.
A number of other content services exist in this space today. Pure blogging services like BlogSpot, WordPress and even Flickr & YouTube have established their communities. But they’ve retained their focus on the upload and showcase of content. For community engagement, they’ve relied on easy links to channel drivers like Facebook & Twitter, in the form of widgets, alerts and Pages. They’ve even entered other aspects of the digital space with Android apps, mobile browsing and moblogging (blogging from the mobile phone).
Replies are content too
The commenter, as not just a recipient but an equal contributor to content, has also come into focus. Gravatars give the commenter a personality of his own. Within the system, WordPress allows users to track their comments on other blogs. Commenting systems like Disqus allow users to login via other services like Facebook & Twitter. Twitter is the only one that comfortably straddles both worlds, when it morphs into a delivery channel letting you tweet your ticket booking, your location and your RSVP to events.
Ask a question, start a conversation
Quora, the question-and-answer based service made a splash on the scene when it was first launched. By following Google’s by-invitation policy, Quora managed to draw a lot of interest from the early adopters of social technology. A few months later, though, the site isn’t top of the mind any more. As Gautam Ghosh, Platform Evangelist at BraveNewTalent, says,
“You know it’s there but you hardly visit. The others have frequent notifications to prompt visits. Quora doesn’t give you any such triggers.”
Virality is focus of the majority of social media activity today. This can only be achieved by being on the right channels as well as ensuring viralable content that grows through its course on the channel. Thus, social networking is broadening and falling into two distinct functions – Content creation & showcase on one side and Content viralling & conversation archival on the other. The two have to work seamlessly and even overlap in some cases, a fact that the more successful players have recognized.