Is Twitter Censoring the Revolution?

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(Originally posted on the Involver blog at

At this point pretty much everyone who works in Social Media has read at least a couple articles talking about the role played by Twitter and other social media sites in coordinating and publicizing protest movements around the world. Social media has been alternately credited and blamed for everything from the ouster of Mubarak in Egypt to the recent riots in London. Now personally I take these claims with a very large grain of salt, but there’s a lot of truth to them as well. Today, just about everyone with a message to spread is using social media and Involver has customers scattered all over the political spectrum.

One of the interesting things about social media is the neutrality of the mediums themselves. Now of course if you talk to just about any activist you’ll hear that “the media” is biased against them. Conservatives think that the media is too liberal and Progressives think it’s too conservative. But up until now it’s been generally assumed that social media is a relatively even playing field because anyone can broadcast on it and build an audience.

Barack Obama may have 10x as many followers as republican front-runner Mitt Romney (10,252,333 to 108,426 as of this writing) but Romney’s numbers are rising fast – he just hit 10k on 9/23/2011 and is looking to at least double it in the next 60 days. The thing is, you don’t need to be either Obama or Romney to build an audience using social media, you just have to say things that people find interesting and want to hear more about. And because social media content is created and promoted by users it’s not subject to the same accusations of reporter bias that traditional media is – there’s essentially no gatekeeper. So when I saw tweets last week claiming that Twitter was taking on a gatekeeper role and censoring hash tags related to the execution of Troy Davis, I figured it was worth investigating.

The accusation was that Twitter had admitted blocking the hash tags #TroyDavis and #TooMuchDoubt from trending because the tags were “offensive.” As you can imagine, that set off all sorts of warning bells. Digging deeper , however, I found hundreds of tweets repeating the claim of censorship but none with a link to a reputable source. Now that’s not proof that Twitter didn’t censor the tag, but it certainly doesn’t help prove that they did. It’s particularly sticky because while Twitter’s spokespeople are adamant that they don’t censor political news, they’re forthright in admitting that they do censor out “offensive” topics. But offensive to whom? And by what criteria?

Accusations that social media sites like twitter censor results are common, but are they accurate?

A quick Google search for “twitter censorship troy davis” reveals a dozen blogs taking various positions on the subject – some adamant that the #TroyDavis was actively censored and others equally adamant that no such censorship took place. None offered much in the way of evidence but that didn’t stop people from tweeting and repeating those stories and citing them as proof. This week I saw similar claims that Twitter was censoring #OccupyWallSt (the ongoing protest camp in NYC based on the model pioneered in Egypt during the Tehran Square protests against Mubarak). Thinking back, I can recall claims during the last election about Ron Paul being censored. A broader search revealed blog posts claiming that twitter had censored trending topics related to #wikileaks, the aid flotilla to Palestine several months back, and several other topics.

Now Involver provides a development platform that’s used by campaigns, companies, and brands with wildly diverging interests and ideologies. Our role isn’t to advance any particular agenda but to build some of the best social media tools in the marketplace and empower our clients to effectively achieve their goals, whatever those may be. In the aggregate, all of those different ideas and ideologies enrich everyone because they contribute to the marketplace – both the literal marketplace and the marketplace of ideas. So if the companies that provide the core platforms upon which our industry is built take it upon themselves to actively distort that marketplace of ideas it has an obvious impact on our clients. The thing is, after hours of digging I was unable to find proof that any censorship had occurred. Which was both reassuring as someone working in the industry and disappointing because I wanted a juicy story for this blog. Unfortunately for me, facts got in the way.

Part of the issue is that claims of censorship are very difficult to verify or disprove and many people don’t let facts get in their way. In the Guardian story linked above, the #flotilla topic disappearing from the trends list was put down to a faulty algorithm and a bit of coincidence. Apparently, there had been another trending topic about a different #flotilla the week before and twitter automatically downgrades recurring tags. Twitter strongly denied it was practicing censorship, and the Guardian writers judged that their explanation made sense. The Wikileaks post shows a lot of aggregate data comparing third party tools with Twitter’s own reporting and that looked like the strongest potential documentation of censorship, except that trending isn’t just based on how many times a hash tag is retweeted but also by how many people and the rate of change. That ‘Rate of Change’ factor is critical especially for grassroots political causes since their activity tends to build slowly over time. Because the frequency graphs for tags like #occupywallst and #troydavis look like gently rolling hills with long starts and trailoffs instead of sharp changes, they are much less likely to trend – even though their total numbers may end up being much higher then the currently trending topics. That’s by design because it allows Twitter to prevent Justin Bieber and other celebrities from staying at the top of the trending list 24/7.

Now you can argue that the end effect of the algorithm is inherently unfair to grassroots movements, but you can’t argue from that that twitter is actively censoring those movements. It’s a subtle distinction but a crucial one. In real terms, the extreme difficulty of getting a topic to trend based on organic spreading of the topic without media assistance is an (ironic) side effect of our media-obsessed culture. All of which is hopefully useful information for any of you who are working on campaigns that leverage Twitter! For their part, Twitter routinely denies all charges of censorship and, at least until #Wikileaks runs an expose on Twitter’s secret plans for world domination, I’m inclined to take them at their word.

I suppose the point of this story comes down to credibility. Tweeting that you’re being censored because you don’t have the audience that you want does not help one’s brand or cause, in fact all it does is damage your credibility. It’s one thing to say CNN should be covering something that it isn’t, there are all sorts of plausible cases that can be made and argued about an opinion-based judgement like that. It’s another thing entirely to claim that a social media site is manipulating the playing field when you don’t have the hard evidence required to back up such a claim of fact. Incautious tweets are much more likely to damage your personal brand then they are to damage Twitter’s credibility. Worse yet, it makes it increasingly likely that genuine instances of censorship will be ignored as just another user crying wolf. That said, if you have evidence and can make a convincing case please do us all a favor and come forward.

What are your experiences? Have you seen topics pulled that you expected to continue to trend? Do you have raw data that can help prove or disprove these claims? We’d love to hear about it!

SEO & Social Media Part II: When Elephants Battle

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(Originally posted on the Involver blog:

Last week we discussed the increasing role of social media in Search Engine Optimization. These trends are part of a larger seismic shift that is occurring in the SEO world as both Bing and Google increasingly factor social media weighting into search results. We ended with the observation that the death match between Facebook and Google to determine who will claim the gatekeeper role on the Social Web will be one of the defining struggles of this phase of the internet’s development. And, as they say, when elephants battle it is the grass that suffers.

That leaves us with only one option: don’t be the grass. The market is moving; you can’t afford to stay rooted in one spot and risk seeing your business destroyed. You need to be agile and hedge your bets. It’s no longer about whether to embrace a search-based strategy or a social strategy to make your business visible. From here out you need both and you need the two strategies to support each other.

This merger of Search and Social has become much more explicit in the last year. Bing’s Facebook-assisted Social Search marks the single biggest challenge to Google’s dominance in the search engine giant’s history and one that Google is still struggling to counter. The +1 button on its own lacks the market segmentation that is an inherent part of Bing/Facebook’s social search; so the ability to not only consider what is popular but what is popular among a particular user’s friends was a core functionality that Google had to add as quickly as possible, hence the creation of Google+.

And that neatly shows us the direction we can expect SEO to take moving forward. SEO is no longer just Search Engine Optimization; it now includes Social Media Optimization as a core component. If your content isn’t accessible on the major social networks and people aren’t sharing it, liking it, +1ing it, and generally interacting with it in a positive way your rankings are going to suffer as a result. Social is no longer just a “cool new thing”, it’s an essential core component of your business or brand’s online presence. This is true even for companies that have put no time or effort into social media at all because users can and will share anything and everything.

The question isn’t whether your brand will be represented on the various Social Media networks, it’s how your brand will be represented and whether you’ll take an active role in shaping that representation or leave it up to chance.

Assuming you’re not willing to leave the future of your brand up to chance, it’s essential that your social media pages have tools built into them that pull content from your main website into the social graph where users can interact with it. Market segmentation is absolutely critical here – your social pages need to be able to seamlessly show the correct content to the correct demographics and encourage engagement in a way that feels natural to those demographics. Moreover, it needs to do it using tools that correctly track the ‘Likes’ you receive for your effort back to your main website so you can gain the full benefit of those likes for your customers using social-enhanced searching. That’s why our feature blocks in SML tie the ‘Likes’ you receive on content imported from your site back to your site – ensuring you get the maximum possible benefit from those social interactions.

Our drive to maximize the ROI (Return on Investment) for your social media campaigns is also why we’ve built the industry’s best custom analytics tools to allow you to track whatever you need to track according to whatever criteria makes the most sense to you. Making these tools available at the code level gives you the control you need to make sure they’re deployed in a way that makes sense for your business, your customers, and your corporate strategy.

SEO isn’t something that begins after site launch, in 2011 it’s a holistic process that should begin with your very first design drafts and impact every aspect of your site’s design, functionality, and user experience. It includes code-level site optimization and loading speed considerations, it includes Social, and it includes Involver.

SEO & Social Media Part I: The Silk Road

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(Originally posted on the Involver Blog:

A lot of people think of SEO (Search Engine Optimization) as something that you add on to a site, maybe with a paid service that re-writes your meta tags and headers for you.  In this approach you build your site, you add content to it, and then the last step is you hire someone to come in and help you optimize your site once it’s been built.  This is a model that’s appealing for a number of reasons – not least of which is it allows SEO companies to sell their optimization services at ridiculous prices.  It also happens to be fatally and fundamentally flawed.

SEO isn’t something you add onto a site after it’s built like frosting on a cake, in order to effectively drive traffic to your site and drive engagement once that traffic arrives it needs to be built into every aspect of the site.  Far from just looking at header tags, modern search engines rank every aspect of your site – from the keyword density of your written copy to the structure of your html and page load times.  But that’s just the beginning – off-site factors like who’s linking to your site, what keywords they use when they post those links, and the context in which those links are posted have tremendous impact on your SERP (Search Engine Page Rank).  One of the newest of these off-site criterion – and one with an increasingly heavy weight – is Social Ranking.  And that’s what I’d like to talk about today.

For years, SEO was arguably the single most important factor in determining how visible your site was on the internet, and how much traffic – and thus advertising revenue or direct sales – your site was capable of delivering. Businesses lived and died according to their SERP scores.  In that world Google was the undisputed king and webmasters everywhere paid their respects or suffered the consequences.   In the last few years, however, that world has been fundamentally and irrevocably altered by the rise of the Stream.

While older social networks like Myspace and Friendster allowed people to manually link to content, Facebook, Twitter,  (and now Google+) have made content sharing a core part of the user experience; and resharing of content is easy, fast, and ubiquitous.  The upshot of this is that users interested in reviews of the newest movie or new jeans that are popular in their social circle often don’t need to Google the information, there’s a very good chance that they can just pull it from the stream of things their friends are talking about. In fact its presence in their friends streams and the context in which it appears is a big part of what makes it cool or uncool.  And if a user does Google something it will quite likely end up in the stream for their other friends to see.  This is one of the core reasons why Google and Facebook – two companies that at first glance appear to be serving entirely different market segments and who one might not expect to view each other as competition – are locked in a life and death struggle.  See my previous blog: “The Battle Between Facebook & Google+ ~ What Will It Take to Win?

At root it’s a struggle over which service or services will direct the flow of traffic on the internet – who will be the gatekeeper.  In another era of human history cities situated along major trade routes gained incredible wealth by their control of those routes and today the same rules apply.  The only difference is that today’s Silk Road is the internet. For our purposes it doesn’t much matter which ends up winning that key gatekeeper role.  At this point, all we need to know is that Search and Social are simultaneously battling each other and merging and so we need to be represented on both sides of that fight.

To be continued next week…

Facebook vs Google: What Will It Take To Win?

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(Originally posted on the Involver blog:

In past blog posts I’ve written about the challenges of figuring out when it’s right to cross the chasm and make the leap into unknown territory. Knowing when the right time is, can of course be a challenge. Jump too early to a new platform and you risk sinking precious resources into something that may never be adopted on a large scale. Wait too long and you miss the chance to reap the rewards that early adopters can earn by leading the pack. The astonishing number of indie musicians who still use MySpace profiles as their main website is proof of the danger of tying yourself too tightly to a single platform. Sure, it was hard for bands to leave a place where they had thousands of Friends for a place where no one Liked them yet, especially since Facebook doesn’t even offer a native music player! But times change and we have to change with them. Today Myspace is a ghost town and the musicians who failed to make the leap have watched their audiences evaporate. The only constant in our industry is change, as proven by the recent rollout of Google+. I’d like to talk a little bit about the impacts of this latest change and how I see the coming fight shaping up.

I believe the key factors in how the fight between Facebook and Microsoft on one side and Google on the other will play out are:

1. Audience Adoption
2. Audience Retention
3. Successful Monetization

Technical issues such as scaling and platform stability have obvious impacts on all three of these factors, and so does the mobile experience. Facebook has proven it’s ability to succeed in all three of these areas and is working very hard to close the technical advantages that Google currently holds. Facebook is a dynamic company with very intelligent people and they know full well this fight will not end in a truce. It would be foolish to count them out at this point.

At the same time, in the weeks since Google+ opened it’s virtual doors it’s become the fastest growing social network in history. Because it fully integrates with Google’s other products it has a significant advantage in terms of client retention as well. Add to that a mobile experience that is in every way superior to the one offered by Facebook’s mobile app and you have a powerful formula for success.

This leaves monetization – both direct advertising to consumers and the ability for advertisers to build their brand pages as the wildcard. After all, at the end of the day social networks are really about one thing – advertising and selling products and services to their members. Finding ways to do this which don’t turn off your audience are a constant challenge. I believe the ongoing fight over advertising dollars between search and social is the main reason Google decided to enter the social media arena. If they can beat Facebook at their own game, Google will have unprecedented power. If Facebook wins out their partnership with Microsoft’s Bing to supply social-assisted search, this will not do any favors for Google’s core search business. Both companies are literally fighting for their lives and we can expect them to fight hard.

As a developer, I’m paying particular attention to the branded pages environments on both platforms. Even with the arbitrary restrictions on custom content on mobile, Facebook’s iframe architecture results in an exciting platform that reaches hundreds of millions of people. Google+ is still in the early experimentation phase on this front and it remains to be seen how they’ll implement this functionality. We know it’s coming but no one knows what the final picture will be. If we’re lucky the mobile experience for branded pages will be as natural and easy an experience as the rest of the platform.

What we do know is that no matter which network wins, social marketers require tools that can be deployed quickly and easily and work just about anywhere. Whether it’s a major change within Facebook or a major change in social media like Google+, the key is to stay flexible and be prepared to shift tactics in a hurry. The market is changing – be prepared to change with it.