In Conversation with Igor Schwarzmann and Jay Owens

Patrick Tanguay, editor-at-large of The Alpine Review, sat down with the pair to talk about managing relationships on social media, the benefits of drunk tweeting, and the increasing intimacy of social communication.

Igor Schwarzmann runs Third Wave, a small consultancy in Berlin that focuses on digital strategy and organizational design. Jay Owens is based in London and works for FACE, an intelligence research agency that brings companies closer to their customers through social media and qualitative research.

PT: We've all used social software to meet friends and further our careers. At this point it's still somewhat organic, but as you're working with clients at a more corporate level, I'm wondering what happens to those relationships. For example, with the new site Peeple, you can rate anyone you've met and they don't have a say. That seems like a super-automated, non-human version of social media. Where do you think it's going and what are the pitfalls?

JO: I'll start by saying that Peeple is terribly new and that its putative founders also seem pretty new to Twitter. They don't come with the reputation-marker of a long-established Twitter profile with, say, 3,000 friends. So it's interesting they're trying to found a reputation app. The chances of it actually ever coming to fruition, I would hope, are probably quite low. We will see.

IS: I think I saw a tweet yesterday saying that the site was down.

PT: I wouldn't be surprised if somebody was just pranking us in a very elaborate way.

JO: Exactly. What's the line between art project, prank, and actual startup?

IS: Yeah, it gets blurry. I remember the first time a client added me on Facebook and I kept thinking, "But aren't we just supposed to be friends on LinkedIn? Facebook is for the other people that I have in my life." Where do you draw that line? What kind of relationships do you have with these people and how do you manage it on a platform that has nearly 1.4 billion active users? It's impossible to have an expectation of what it is and how it functions.

Similar to our real-life relationships, we're constantly figuring out how to behave online and what we're actually representing on these platforms. I don't think there will ever be a point where it's like, "Yes, we're done now," especially with the bigger platforms. Smaller apps and social networks can be very specific in their purpose, but not Twitter or Facebook. They're all over the place.

JO: It seems as though the way people manage these relationships is by putting them in different social networks. LinkedIn is for business relationships, random recruiters, and quite a lot of people you've never met and probably have no intention of meeting. Twitter is a place where people in our field can talk about drones, apps like Peeple, or whatever things we get excited about. Facebook, for me, is a place that's almost entirely for offline relationships. I even refuse to add colleagues and I would never put a client in there, just because I need a place that I can talk about things that I wouldn't want shared elsewhere.

Facebook is now getting Twitter-like capabilities. We're seeing that particularly within the London and New York arts scene, and I see it most acutely in publishing, where you've got a lot of people with a good one thousand Facebook followers who are either putting articles on Facebook or are writing quite long posts sharing what they think about particular things. What they're doing is a kind of thought leadership or industry chat. It's not about connecting with the friends you used to go to school with. This real-world feel can lend a greater sense of intimacy that allows you to forge new relationships online. Very savvy artists are using Facebook deliberately, and that form of intimacy helps with their self-branding.

IS: It helps them seem even more like a friend to the person who is following them.

JO: Jesse Darling is one of these interesting people working in that space. Whether something is on Facebook or on Twitter, the style is always terribly deliberate. Most of my clients aren't on Twitter or aren't active so I'll find myself doing what I call late night Twitter, which happens after 11 p.m., and you might be a little bit drunk and probably quite a bit opinionated and you start oversharing. It's great fun because everyone else in Britain is in a similar liminal state and late night Twitter is when friendships are built and reputations ruined.

IS: Don't drink and Tweet.

JO: I do though, it's the best. You can feel reasonably free to do that because you know you've only got two or three clients that might be following you at that point and you know them well enough, you hope, that you can potentially do that. Instagram imports your Twitter graph and the kind of people you'll like and then suddenly you'll see your client in a bikini on holiday or their child's first birthday. And you're like, "Am I supposed to like this or not?"

IS: Yeah, and it works the other way round as well. You have a client who's running an organization that protects animal rights, meanwhile you're in Britain posting a pic of a full English breakfast. You start thinking, do I post pictures of food anymore? That client is still following me on Instagram, but coincidentally I started using Snapchat. Whenever I take photos of food it's mostly on Snapchat now. For me, Snapchat is a super small place where only people who really, really like me and know me would want to be friends, because otherwise it's just oversharing.

PT: I'm using Instagram like that, but my account is closed because a high percentage of my pictures are of my son. On Instagram, when someone joins from Facebook, it says, “Oh your Facebook friend who you've met once is on Instagram and wants to follow you.” So, if you don't want to follow them then you don’t have to say why you're not accepting that person.

IS: Instagram does a well enough job of not making it awkward when you don't accept someone. That person doesn't get a notification that you didn't add them as your friend. It's okay to not add somebody, at least for now, on Instagram.

JO: You want to expand user bases but if you start creating awful social politics then that's not a UX decision that pays off in the long run, is it? I think who we choose to connect with under what circumstances ultimately comes back to privilege and the kind of choices we're able to make within our careers. In objective terms, being white and middle class, I'm fairly high up in terms of privilege that I can choose to do things like late night Twitter. I've got enough of a professional reputation and I work for a company that values having a point of view.

The fact that I demonstrate a point of view is something that makes me more professionally relevant rather than less. Working for a small company and having been there for some time, I hope at least that I know where these boundaries are. I'm given some leeway to have opinions, swear and slag off on Twitter, and also do stuff that isn't the most bland, by-the-book professionalism. But it's hopefully also smart. You're given the freedom to get away with it but at the same time it can also be co-opted by the companies you work for as part of the brand values they want to be associated with.

IS: It doesn't really apply to everyone but certain clients hire people like us for exactly that reason. You could easily hire a big digital strategy company to do the stuff that we do, but certain clients want to know that they're hiring somebody who is actually out there. It's not necessarily about the tech that you brought or the most convincing infographic that you presented in your work. It's the fact that you're out there and you're experimenting with it that they're buying into it.

PT: A few years ago, when I was working at a big web development shop, we were shipped to New York to meet the clients, who were bankers, and we asked, "How should we dress?" They said, "Oh no, you dress the same because you're the programmers. You're not supposed to be wearing a suit. If you show up with a suit then you're not credible enough." Going back to what you were saying about privilege, we have the privilege of being able to say, “If that potential client doesn't like what I'm saying, it's not a client I want anyway.”

IS: Yeah, that's one of the reasons to stay small, because when you're small you have the luxury of being a bit more choosy. That's the case as long as you're doing financially well enough. For us, that was definitely a choice that we made. It does come at a price in the sense that it creates different problems; you don't get hired for some of the bigger projects because these companies don't like the idea of hiring a two-man shop for a big project. That's despite the fact that it's strategically not that difficult for us to do those jobs. Nobody got fired for hiring IBM, but many people got fired for hiring a small shop from Berlin.

PT: Is there a need for explaining which network you're using or do you just use it whatever way you want?

JO: I'm all in favor of people doing massively different things with the same network and communications infrastructure. One of the most interesting things about working in social media research is that you get to see all these weird, different areas of Twitter. My little corner of Twitter is full of gobby media journalists that write think pieces about where Twitter is going as a business. We live in our little corner of Twitter where it's all about ideas and talking shop. They're like, “Ooh Twitter, the share price isn't looking very good. Where is its direction in the future?”

And then there's lots of people on Twitter who use it as a real world social network amongst friends, and those messages are almost impenetrable to outsiders because they're so without context. The tweets are about things they're doing in their life, but you can't even really determine much of a topic if you're looking at it, because they're aimed at people who already know them.

You get some teenagers who are using Twitter as a slightly more intimate Facebook, which is the complete inverse of how I might be using it. Or you get lots of lovely non-human users of Twitter, who are the best. It's really lovely to be sharing an ecosystem with spambots, with corporations who are all structurally equal actors. There are definitely a couple of bots on Twitter that I have relationships with.

IS: For the longest time, people who wanted to have a private account so they could be more open in their thinking had a closed account on Twitter for close friends or people they drink with or something like that. I don't really think that you need a feature anymore where you're saying, “This is my private account.” Everyone can basically make up their mind on how to apply that to the platform. By creating these smaller, inside groups, you can post content that only a specific group of people will see on your Facebook account, for instance. I think there are tons of conversations happening in closed groups on Facebook that most people will never see. People are figuring it out with the technology that they have.

PT: Do you think we're going towards a future where people are split into smaller networks or are we just all using multiple networks at the same time?

JO: I wouldn't say smaller networks necessarily. What's the install base for WhatsApp? About a billion, isn't it? WhatsApp is big and—this is where I start to feel old—I never really got into WhatsApp. I'm busy messaging people through Facebook messenger, Twitter DM, Slack, and text messages. I don't need a fifth messenger app. But WhatsApp is huge. Snapchat's install base is also healthy. What do you reckon?

IS: Yeah, it’s in the hundreds of millions of users already.

JO: Yeah, Instagram has about 350 million, so it's a bit bigger than Twitter in terms of regular users. The speed of WhatsApp's growth is hockey-stick-type graph stuff really. I think, we're going to see new platforms emerge that will shoot up in popularity and find particular uses and audiences. For example, if you're a teenager, as I understand, in most cases your most relevant and cared about platforms are probably WhatsApp and Snapchat. But you're still using Facebook. All of the stories about the death of Facebook are premature. For people over the age of twenty-five or thirty Facebook is the first site they visit. If you're fifteen, Facebook might not be like that, but it's still where you're contacting people. The idea of emailing somebody is very foreign to a teenager and Facebook messenger is where you would find and message that person.

Meanwhile, take one of the Chinese social media apps like WeChat and you'll see how these apps are becoming the whole internet. The amount of services that you can achieve through a messenger app is enormous, from ordering a taxi to probably paying your taxes. Actual government administration stuff is happening through there, as well as information, entertainment, and talking to your friends. I think the West is completely at the beginning of what we might see messenger apps becoming.

PT: Yeah, Facebook is trying to do that. They're transforming messenger into a weird ecosystem where you can buy clothes and send money to other people. They're definitely going the way of WeChat which is already serving 500 million people or so. It's getting easier to get a lot of users because you have about a billion Apple devices and how many other Android devices out there, that all have one thing that everybody wants: the address data. Once you install the app you allow it to access your address book and from there's it's just so easy to get all those users. It doesn't mean that they will remain there but it's an easier start. We've gotten to the point where apps are being used by hundreds of millions of people and an app with 25 million active users is overlooked. How did 25 million active users no longer seem important?

JO: I like what you say about mobile installs and how quickly audiences are growing. If you look back at Ello, which was last year's Facebook alternative, or Diaspora, which came out in 2012, internet intellectuals got really excited. These sites seemed to be dealing with a lot of the privacy concerns that people had about Facebook. But I think the only person left on Ello is Bruce Sterling or something like that. Quite a lot of people joined up but it just turned into incredibly earnest men talking about infrastructure. I just kept thinking, “Good god, there is more fun to be had than that stuff!” The user base was just so narrow, that even within my Twitter circle, it didn't get the critical mass it needed to be interesting enough.

PT: They weren't inventing something new. Ello is different from Twitter but it's so similar that it was basically for people tired of being part of the VC-funded Twitter. There were also a lot of people who created accounts, but since no one was active there was no incentive.

JO: If it was a mobile app that let you know you had six new messages then you would have a chance of getting people back in. It's about getting that critical mass of users who can generate enough content to give people a reason to come back. They got outcompeted by much more socially savvy apps.

PT: Supposedly they have a pretty lively artist community happening on Ello.

IS: In six months Ello will be bought by Kickstarter or something like that to maintain a back channel for its projects.

PT: So basically, the lesson of the day is you need to be mobile and have the ability to grow quickly.

IS: Yeah, I'm pretty much convinced that it makes it easier. It doesn't make it sustainable, but at least you can get onto a device and have somebody say, "Yes, sure, I will give you my address data." It's different from the old days where it was actually work. You had to have promoters standing outside handing out flyers in the hope that someone would sign up.

JO: This point about work is an interesting one and I think the thing most people didn't foresee about social media was the way it's tending towards smaller, shorter, and more real-time kinds of moments. You get these more serious discussions on Ello, but mostly the appetite isn't for more serious discussions. It's emotional intimacy that people want. The way that people communicate on Snapchat is weighted with emotional sharing, even if the intellectual or verbal content of it may not be deeply profound.

A while ago, bloggers and writers on LiveJournal were writing 500 or 1,000 words. And then we saw a shift to Facebook where people were writing 50 words, then Twitter where you're writing 140 characters. Dating services have had a similar kind of compression with sites like Tinder where it's just, “Left, right, left, right. Hey how is your weekend? Shall we hook up?” to Shapchat, where it's just snapping a picture of what you're doing. On Instagram, you put some effort into the pictures you take; you filter it and curate it. Then there's the Snapchat image where the rawness and roughness of the image is part of what constitutes the immediacy and intimacy of that communication.

Mobile facilitates the ability to communicate in smaller but more frequent bursts because it's the device that has the closest average distance to your body. With shoes you take them off and leave them in the hallway. Your phone is in your hand or in your pocket. It's so close to us. If we start to think about what's next, it's stuff that's even closer, smaller, and shorter. It's bloody emojis, isn't it? Or gifs. It's just that burst of, “I'm feeling this thing,” and off it goes.

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