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The Internet has made the world a global village. One where it matters no more where you live to be connected with people.  It takes less time to share your thoughts with people that are with you digitally than those that you may run into physically. Location based personalization aside, everyone around the world can read the same news, get the same results when they search on a topic, see the same updates on Facebook and so on.  What exactly is this doing to our diversity?

Eli Parser discusses Filter Bubbles in his TED Talk and discusses how the Internet may be killing our diversity in opinions. The more a page gets viewed, the higher its rank gets; the higher its rank, the earlier it appears in search results; the earlier it appears, the more it gets viewed – this certainly can be a diversity killer.  This is more of an issue with social opinions and content – nobody wants to be that guy (gal) that stands out with a controversial opinion.  I do wonder about just how much Quora’s algorithms are able to extract and get visibility to the under-viewed and yet good content.  The reality is that the more upvotes an answer gets, it is likely to continue getting more upvotes in future.  Facebook and G+ are no exceptions. Our friends’ likes on a picture make us want to stop and look at it – and more often than not, we may end up liking it too.

Let’s look at the physical world here.  This phenomenon was certainly always present, but it was localized.  The Internet has taken a local phenomenon and made it global.  Is this a problem?  In more dimensions that we can imagine, this is generally a good thing.  It has reconnected us with lost friends and has made the world a smaller place.  But the culprit here seems to be the increasing consumption of content online.  We used to have several sources of content in the past – newspapers, magazines, television, etc. Increasingly, it is all converging to be online.  Our ranking algorithm was previously via word-of-mouth recommendations.  A friend asked us to check something out – in the process, we found something else and asked someone to check that out.  There was scope for interesting discovery.  We talked about opinions in smaller circles – there was room for potentially having varied opinions and not being the loner.

Now we are online and our opinions are too. When we say something, it is visible to a large audience, all at once (unless you have extraordinary patience to compartmentalize your audience).

Are we slowly killing the power of having different points of view?  If we are, that would also kill creativity and it will become a threat to innovation. Before that happens, our algorithms need to start having a measure of interesting and good that is independent of likes/views/votes so that we can take the road less traveled sometimes.

Twitter brings curation and quick summaries together.  In an information overloaded world, that is powerful.  But until they can prove they understand user experience, it is hard for me to take them seriously.  

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Twitter’s IPO has been big news.  After all the speculation on their valuation and the criticism of not having that critical woman board member, a 63% spike on their opening price was not a bad show!  26% of teenagers think Twitter is an important social network.  Evidence suggests that people are more likely to follow influencers on Twitter than on blogs or any other places.  Snapchat, the ephemeral photo exchange app, is valued at least at $3B.  The average age of Facebook users is going up and the younger generation is migrating to the cooler places – Twitter, Vine, Snapchat, etc.

Twitter has taken short communications to the mainstream in a massive way.  SMS was always fairly popular – but, Twitter took it to new levels of popularity by providing equivalent functionality, only richer in content!  Other apps such as Whatsapp and Snapchat have followed suit in a similar vision of short messages, but branching in the type and mode of content exchanged – and in Snapchat’s case – limiting the time to live for a piece of content.

While there are a number of possible explanations for the wildly growing popularity of this style of messaging, one that I think is a major contributor is human attention span.  Variety is interesting.  Holding our attention span for long on one topic is hard.  Topics get boring.  Just as the tide was turning from theres-a-lot-of-information-to-catch-up-on to struggling-to-keep-up-with-the-information-pace-and-volume, these short messaging innovations caught up with us.  The illusion of being able to catch up with information quickly is attractive.  Being able to quickly produce content also helps – a single picture or a few words can get it out there.

Curation combined with short messages surely allow us to see a preview of information, leaving it for us to decide whether we want to consume more.  Of course, this is simply hiding information behind yet another level of indirection – a typical computer science solution to problems.  The real content is buried in links that are increasingly shared as these short messages.  These links often lead us to more old style “blogs” (I’m guilty as charged!).

Bringing curation and quick summaries together is clearly the strength of the Twitter class of platforms.

Yet, taking Twitter seriously is tough for me.  Why so?  Fundamentally because they are yet to prove they understand user experience. Reading the Twitter stream on the Twitter app on the phone is painful.  There is nothing that screams “come spend time on me” on this interface!  If you want to see a worse design of a new generation app, you can take a look at Quora, but, we’ll stay on Twitter for now.

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The highlighted stuff provides zero semantically useful information. The user name gets a bold typeface, but then, the picture already tells me who the user is!  The rest of the text is all uniform, resulting in a massive stream of text on the screen!

This is why it is hard for me to take Twitter seriously.  The real brilliance in next generation content sharing is going to be two-fold – semantic information extraction and presentation.  At one glance, I should be able to extract the most meaningful summary of the content I’m trying to consume.  Once this happens, the need for platform level indirection (i.e., Twitter leading to TechCrunch) decreases – rather, the summary can come directly from the content provider.  Although, as innovation goes, it is unlikely that it will come from the content provider and hence, some platform that summarizes and presents (note that it doesn’t have to be the same one doing both) will likely evolve.

Could that be Twitter in the future? It will certainly be great shareholder value if Twitter can figure that out!  But until then, I will continue reading my tweets on Flipboard, ignoring the full page Twitter app ad that now regularly appears in my Flipboard stream.  After all, flipping over it only takes a second!

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Do I belong to a minority in that I often find myself in situations where I cannot quite watch a video, but am looking to catch up on something?  With content increasingly migrating to video online, this is proving to be a hindrance to me.  There are many situations – I’m on public transport or trying to put my kids to bed – when I have the time to catch up on something, but cannot quite watch a video.  Are we always expected to have access to headphones and be ready to consume video/audio?

Surely, interactive content can be more engaging.  But, if you are anything like me, you have no special “catching up” or “recreational” time.  This is time that comes out of multi tasking – when I’m doing something else as my primary task and decide to catch up on news or other content as a secondary activity.  If I couldn’t do that, I’d never catch up.  But, this also means that more often than not, I’m looking for written content.  Something I can switch tasks with more easily.  Something that is unobtrusive to my environments, whatever I may be doing.

I must also admit that I find some videos excruciatingly slow in terms of “getting to the point”.  Print allows me to scan and find the most relevant things at my own pace, which I cannot do with video – I am stuck to the pace of the speaker or the content progression, which I usually find slows me down.

There are obviously exceptions to this, where a video on a topic may in fact be the quickest way to consume the content.  Of course, the preference of video vs print is also likely to vary across individuals and I’m sure there are many people who prefer consuming video.

But, my rule of thumb is this – if you need to take more than 30 seconds of my time, give me the text version and let me do it at my pace.

I wonder if automatic transcription of video/audio into text is the next thing that must happen at scale to handle this.  Know the user’s situation and render content in the right medium!