social media, Web 2.0

Is Social Media changing our relationship with Death?

“This morning I’ve started the most amazing journey”. These are the opening words of a Facebook status update of a friend of mine, announcing her own death. The status goes on to explain about her terminal illness (many of her friends, like me, were unaware of it), explain why she kept it private, and say good-bye, all in first person. How peculiar yet powerful is it?

Surely my friend was not someone belonging to the “Internet generation”, being in her seventies. Still, she was a moderately active Facebook user. Especially as someone living far away from many of her friends, she used Facebook as a way to keep in touch. And when she understood that her illness was terminal, she decided to arrange for what was going to happen on her profile. Hence my question: is social media changing our relationship with death?

There are many examples of how death is represented on social media and how social media becomes the first point of arrival for mourners (and the curious). Especially with famous people, their Facebook profiles become sources of photographs for the press. Their final status updates are used to show how sudden their departure was. On Twitter there is a flow of messages from mourners using hashtags as #RIP. Steve Jobs’ death became a trending topic on Twitter, as Amy WInehouse’s. But all of this is just the digital transposition of an non-digital process.

Announcing one own’s death is a new kind of behaviour, a novel need emerging as a consequence of the perceived importance of social media in our everyday lives. As we have become less worried of posting photos of our children and to display our location to a level of accuracy that would have scared us ten years ago, so we have started experiencing death in unexpected ways. We can still see the profiles of dead friends as they were still part of our daily lives. As an eternal memorial to their lives, they stay with us, presumably forever – or until Mr Facebook decides to delete them, sometimes upon request of friends and relatives. But differently from Twitter, where a profile of someone who dies just disappears from their followers’ timeline, Facebook profiles stay there and occasionally make a comeback in the most painful way: “today is your dead friend’s birthday – write happy birthday on their wall!”.

In a new model of human relationships, friends end up writing that well wishing message. The birthday of a dead friend becomes the occasion to revive them. Hundreds of messages from common friends will spread on all the common connections’ timelines. New behaviours, shaping a new attitude towards death. It’s collective mourning. Death has become social. Can you think of an equivalent of this in a non-digital context? Have you ever been at a cemetery, making a mass-visit to a dead loved one? I don’t think so, and that’s where social media is changing our relationship with death. It makes people remember once more and at the same time it provides ways to celebrate a person in their social circle.

Given that death becomes so relevant to our daily digital lives, it’s not surprising that people start making arrangements for their digital after-life. Expressing the need to make your death manifest on your Facebook profile is acknowledging that your digital self is an important part of your life. Some people might behave differently; some might decide to close their profiles, or ask relatives to delete them. As in a non-digital context, for some life will go on, for some will not. But there’s no denying that social media is affecting our perception of and reaction to death in the same public, open way that it has changed other previously private aspects of our lives.


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Web 2.0

HootMonitor: a Twitter app with a strategy

Ollie Parsley is a developer from Dorset I’ve been following with much interest since his first appearance at the London Twitter Devnest last May (you might remember I blogged about it) as his work is often pointing mind-boggling problems in a developer’s everyday life (read about his Cease&Desist experience, for example).

HootMonitor is his latest Twitter application, even if I would say it’s reductive to call it a “Twitter application”. As it’s been introduced during last Devnest, HootMonitor is simply speaking a website monitoring tool using Twitter as a communication device. I.e.:

  • you get an account on HootMonitor linked to your Twitter account
  • add a web site you want to be monitored
  • HootMonitor will periodically monitor the web site for you
  • the service will send you a Twitter direct message/e-mail/sms if the web site goes down
  • you will also get aggregate status reports (uptime and downtime, average response time, etc…).

As there has been much interest lately over the use of Twitter as a corporate tool, and never ending discussion over the possibility of a business model that allows Twitter to monetize its success, it looks like Ollie has touched again some issues and addressed the whole process of bringing this service to user in a way that resembles the classical case study from literature. I believe that HootMonitor is going to be an interesting and possibly successful experiment for the following reasons:

  • Mashup use of Web 2.0 technologies: HootMonitor is not the first try of creating an application out of Twitter and there have been many mashups that received extensive press coverage. Nonetheless, HootMonitor is the very first application, as I’m going to explain, to deliver a service over Twitter that carries together: intrinsic usefulness, a business model, and a good “marketing” strategy.
  • Useful service: HootMonitor adds value to user experience solving a real problem without disrupting the users’ life. There is plenty of monitoring tools out there, but not many of them generate reports in a way that integrates seamlessly into their lives and jobs.
  • Freemium model: this is the most interesting aspect of HootMonitor. It can be used for free, but it has premium functionalities that you can get by paying a (reasonably priced) subscription. As far as I’m aware of, this is the first application with such a business model to have emerged over Twitter API. There is plenty of possibilities of trying the service for free. You can experience all the usefulness of it without paying a single penny. The functionalities you pay for, though, are worth the price (for example: personalised statistics or mobile text messages). Many other successful Twitter applications do not have a business model at all and it’s hard to imagine how they will ever lead to generate profit (unless they’re used as an advertisement tool for other products/services).
  • Marketing strategy: Ollie has been developing HootMonitor for some months, letting the users of his other apps and his Twitter followers know about this idea. The steps here were developing some kind of “corporate” HootMonitor blog, a Twitter account to engage with potential users, a small company under whose name work (HootWare). Moreover, HootMonitor was launched exactly the night after its presentation at the Devnest. I believe this was a smart marketing move that made the service getting the highest level of advertisement possible.

Naturally, I can’t forecast whether or not HootMonitor will be a successful venture but I’m optimistic about it and of course I wish Ollie to get there. And as I’m finding it very useful for my websites, and I’m aware of many other people trying it, given its strategy and model it’s likely we’ll be hearing more about it in the short (and maybe longer) time.

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Web 2.0

Twitter and the future of RSS

I read some interesting thought on the Mashable blog about the relationship between RSS and microblogging. If you think about the two technologies, there are for sure some evident similarities, i.e. they both deliver a stream of short items with high semantical concentration(*).

In RSS you usually get also a bigger amount of text, but to stay simple, we don’t lose generality if we see RSS as just a list of links about some topic.

Microblogging is in fact more general: it allows personal communication and link sharing. The content of a message must necessarily be compressed in 140 characters. That’s why I think that every message can be seen as a set of keywords – of course leaving out common words, articles, prepositions, and the like.
What you can do with these keywords, of course for twits containing urls, is to use them as tags for the url. Hence, you can basically build – over Twitter (**) – a RSS feed for whatever topic you like; moreover you can build a folksonomy of tags for it. Not bad, what do you think?

The question here is what’s the future of RSS with the increasing diffusion of Twitter, Twitter-like sites, and services built over Twitter (yet again, give a look to @footytweets, or @bakertweet, and you will see the potential here).

Many newspapers already use Twitter as a means for broadcasting updates and news alerts (the two important examples here: @bbcnews and @cnn). Thousands of users are already using these twits as a replacement for their RSS aggregators. The success of Twitter as a news alert broadcaster relies on its higher versatility with respect to its RSS counterpart: you can use keywords, hash tags, comments, together with urls. You may object that all of these features are more or less already present in RSS. Nonetheless, their usage is not immediate as in Twitter, and there is no single point of aggregation as Twitter offers.

Naturally, there’s always a dark side :-) Finding relevant content in Twitter is not an easy task. There’s plenty of services claiming to be able to recommend users to whom you could be interested (see Mr. Tweet for the most popular example and an interesting application of a recommender system). However, a killer application here is still to appear and no single recommender is able to get you the real number of interesting twits you would like to get (also partially due to serious limitation in the search APIs that Twitter makes available).

This is what I would call filtering good content; we also need to mention that how to filter out bad content from twits is an issue that hasn’t been solved. It’s very easy to manage bad users: spammers get usually identified and blocked quickly, due to the intrinsically tightly coupled interest that twitterers have on the content of what they read (in other words, as soon as they realize it’s a spammer, they report it to Twitter). But what about filtering out content that is simply not interesting? One user you follow may write something irrelevant to the reasons for which you usually read his or her twits, and you may like to read only those in which you are interested. This is still an open issue.

Addressing the bad points is not an easy task. Nonetheless, I must say that I already see microblogging as a good replacement for RSS. Many users are starting to use Twitter this way. And I’m realizing, as I write this post, that I’m slowly doing the same, removing RSS feeds I don’t read anymore because I follow their update on Twitter.

(*) this is a definition I coined for a research proposal I still like a lot :-)
(**) ok, I’m using the terms Twitter and microblog interchangeably, but if you think about the expression Google it you’ll realize that the winner takes it all – including the right of naming the appropriate service.

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