The Dark Matter of Status Updates

One of the best sources for insights about product development comes from observing how your users avoid using your product. It is often a huge shock to a product manager when they sit next to a loyal user or paying customer and watch them do something totally bizarre in order to work around a perceived shortcoming you never knew about in the first place.

Some examples:

  • Since Twitter doesn’t easily let you prioritize tweets for reading later, a friend clicks on all tweets that seem interesting, then clicks their “Read Later” link on Instapaper, then feeds the Instapaper RSS feed into their Flipbook account.
  • In my last job the services team insisted on being able to upload video files directly to our CDN using FTP even though there was a web UI for secure uploads. Turns out that using the UI you couldn’t share video files between creative executions, so it created lots of extra work.
  • My kid isn’t allowed to play Angry Birds on my iPhone. Why? Because I don’t want him to unlock levels I haven’t unlocked, and there’s no way to switch users.

Well, I think we are in the middle of a massive, widespread workaround regarding social networks and status updates. Let me explain.

I am a Foursquare user, a Yelp contributor, and overall active social being on the web. And every one of those services offers me a helpful “post to Twitter” option that I politely uncheck. While I’m at it, I also decline to post to Facebook. These two services are the widest and most social of my online networks, yet I don’t want to spam my friends with anything but the most interesting updates. Essentially, I’m working around the inelegance of these social services by censoring myself.*

There is a disconnect between the competing ideas that Facebook and Twitter are a) Social, like a great big party where you want to make sure not to be too boring, and b) Informational, where your affiliation with different parties filter the noise of the world into a signal of interest and relevance to your life. While both services started our purely social, they are quickly moving to the informational, and still have a world of work to do to get there.

So what would I really like to share with my “friends” and store in my stream?

  • Every song I listen to
  • Every place I eat, drink, shop
  • Every TV show I watch
  • Everything I read that is even vaguely interesting
  • etc etc

And my friends shouldn’t mind, since the services they use to follow me should only show them the parts they find interesting. But until we get there (and we’re not close) we’re stuck with two alternatives: 

  1. Use specialized social networks for each type of activity (Ping for music, Foursquare for going out, etc) so we don’t clutter up our “primary” stream
  2. Continue self-censorship, causing sub-optimal usage of the tools and untold millions of missed connections.

* – For those of you who follow me, the natural reaction to this post is “oh my God, he would actually post more if he could?” Yes. Yes I would if I could.