Slug: the-voice-in-the-stream Date: 2010-07-01 Title: The Voice in the Stream layout: post

Even though I’m a firm believer in the (distributed) social web, there’s something that bugs me about the current implementation of dashboards, news feeds, and activity streams we see now: it’s the voices, you see.

The author’s voice (also known as writer’s voice) is the style in which a story is presented, including, among other thing, the syntax, diction, person, and dialogue. WikiAnswers

Streams speak to us in the third person. “Your friend posted this, your friend liked that, your friend won this…”. It’s a fairly objective[1] reportage of events, delivered in the cool tone of a mellow NPR reporter. The stream washes over us, with some number (smaller or larger depending on your generation) being interesting enough to inspire us to further action.


Blogs - with exceptions - speak to us in the first person: “This just happened and I have to tell you about it”, “I’ve been thinking about this for a while, and you should know that…”:


Back in 2003, Dave Winer wrote:

That is the essential element of weblog writing, and almost all the other elements can be missing, and the rules can be violated, imho, as long as the voice of a person comes through, it’s a weblog.

That’s a bit out of context for this piece, but it contains the germ of what I was thinking about – that blogs give you the unfiltered voice of the writer, and we’ve lost some of that in the rush to streams.

Why is Twitter so compelling? Because it’s an unfiltered stream of voices (if you filter out the spam- and ad-bots of course). In many ways, Twitter is a blog aggregator, not a “social network”. Twitter doesn’t wrap our posts in the third person (imagine every post starting with “your friend tweeted: …”) because there’s only one kind of event - a tweet. And Twitter just gives us the tweets [2].

Conversely, I find that the Facebook newsfeed has less impact. There are so many diverse events flowing through Facebook that you need much more context to understand them: “your friend posted this on your other friends ‘wall’…”. I think the additional meta processing gets in the way. Often, the automated nature of the system even removes the user’s voice completely: “your friend, who plays the game Farmville, acheived a new goal in that game, called ‘Tractor!’”.

Can this compelling voice be recovered? Is it worth recovering? I think it can, and I think it is. I truly love the web of social activity we’ve teased from the chaos of the previous decade’s web, but there are subtle aspects at play that I don’t claim to fully understand yet.

The challenge is to more clearly delineate “events” from “content” – look at Flickr’s new photo page for a good example:


Flickr now inlines favorites in the comment stream for a photo; some users don’t like the new feature but I think they’ve put a lot of thought into the implementation. Notice that favorites (events) are greyed out and less visually important than the comments (content). This is a simple example but it helps keep the photo’s story (Flickr’s term), and the voices of the commenters, intact while providing new information (when a photo was favorited, as opposed to that it was favorited).

Another example, a comparison. Here’s Cliqset’s “shared item” presentation:


And here’s Twitter’s famous “retweet”:


Notice that Cliqset’s design puts the action in the third person (due in part to their focus on aggregating Activity Streams, which to date have typically been presented/delivered in the 3rd person). Twitter preserves the orginal user’s voice, then tacks on the meta information (who shared it and when) afterwards. There was some pushback when Twitter first rolled out this feature, but I’ve come to appreciate and like the way they designed it (and I miss it in Tweetie for Mac!).

As noted above, 99% of the “problem” (if it can be called a problem) is design - find the user’s voice and push it to the forefront. The rest is meta clutter.

[1] “Fairly” objective because the motivations of the service do occasionally intrude; Facebook doesn’t show us every action that everyone in our network performs on the site, it shows us the bits that their algorithm deems interesting or relevant. Possibly, also, those with a higher chance of getting us to click on ads, though obviously I don’t know that.

[2] This may change as Twitter’s new annotations make it possible to build apps that post structured non-microblog events to Twitter’s event queue. More on that in another post. Maybe. :-)