What Mumbai traffic and Twitter have in common

The thing that strikes you most about the traffic in Mumbai apart from the sheer quantity and chaos of it all, is the endless noise of car and scooter horns tooting incessantly.

When you first hear these you mistake them for the sounds of frustration. But you soon notice the signs on the back of the lorries asking other road users to toot and realise that something else is going on.
In fact all this noise gives the drivers another dimension to track the traffic in – a kind of 360 degree view.
It strikes me that Twitter is providing the same kind of functionality online. Twitter gives us a continuous sense of where our friends, family and colleagues are and what they are doing – and this is something which is genuinely different and might account at least in part for some of its popularity. Whatever comes after Twitter, something will have to perform this task in the future.

The thought behind Amazon’s reviews

A great article from The Silicon Valley Insider uncovers the secrets of Amazon’s approach to customer reviews. How do you make sure the most useful reviews bubble to top? And how do you make it easy to see the negative and neutral reviews, as well as the good ones? These are the questions Amazon wrestled with an the post shows how elegantly Amazon came up with a solution. Worth a read.

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A new kind of attention

How do you use Twitter (if you do)? It strikes me that a new approach to attention is required that perhaps we are not automatically hard-wired to adapt to.

In the analogue world we would have an in-tray which would fill up with mail and which we would empty. An empty in-tray implied we were on top of things. It was a good thing.

Fast-forward to the electronic world and now we have email. Same thing applies – though now it is harder. The empty (or at least read) inbox is a "good thing" and you are on top of things if you achieve this.

Now we have Twitter. Popular clients like Thwirl have a "mark as read" feature which implies we should be viewing Twitter in the same way. But when you get up to 100, or 200 or even 300 people you are following it isn’t really realistic that you can read everything – assuming you have something else to do in your life.

So perhaps the analogy is more of a river – you dip in when you can, maybe surfing back a couple of hours to see what’s going on now, but you don’t stress if you are not "up to date". RSS has been like this for some time – if you follow a reasonable number of media sources you will regularly have over 1,000 unread items.

It seems to me that there is a real power in Twitter’s kind of background, lightweight information model, but I’m not sure we are necessarily particularly evolutionarily suited to it. Maybe we will have to learn some new skills, as I’m completely sure the future will be more, not less, like this.

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More thoughts on the future of news

Just read the transcript of Stephen Johnson’s talk on the future of news media which he gave at SXSW in Austin, Texas a couple of days ago. In the talk he gives an optimistic assessment of the prospects of news reporting in the future with two possible exceptions: war reporting and international coverage.

Johnson uses the past as a guide to future developments and points out how difficult it was to get information about Apple in 1989 compared to today when there are literally hundreds of sources of up to date information to choose from – ranging from conventional magazines to blogs of all sizes and specialisations. This is true of the whole technology information space.

And what started in the technology information space, and spread quickly to politics, he says will spread to all sectors in time. And in local reporting, where there is currently a lot of angst in both the US and the UK, the situation will also be better in the future, he argues, than in the past. He is co-founder of a hyper-local site called outside.in which aims to aggregate neighbourhood-level information, an example of the kind of development he predicts will become commonplace.

The reason for the current depression, he argues, there should have been a decade-long transition from paper to online business models.

Instead, the financial meltdown – and some related over-leveraging by the newspaper companies themselves – has taken what should have been a decade-long process and crammed it down into a year or two.

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