January 25, 2009

Watch for the Telephone Game in Your Short Attention Span World

One of the recurring themes on this blog has been how to handle a seeming overflow of information. We've discussed creating a social media consumption workflow. I addressed a new concept I called continuous parallel attention. I said how you handle the information overload Is up to you and later said there is no social media overload and cautioned bloggers to relax, because nobody is keeping score. But we still see problems crop up when a story gets passed from person to person and details get lost. It's the modern equivalent of the popular "Telephone" game we all played as kids, where the last phrase was never close to how it started.

Take a look at an example from this weekend, after Erick Schonfeld of TechCrunch wrote a piece saying FriendFeed had seen site growth that reached almost 1 million visitors in December of 2008.

Seems straight forward enough. The data came from Comscore, which shows a higher growth rate for FriendFeed than do other services, including Quantcast and Compete.com. Compete reports 700,000 visitors or so to FriendFeed in December, by the way.

But then, Robert Scoble, a good friend, good blogger, and fellow FriendFeed user relayed the story a little differently, saying that the report said FriendFeed had surpassed a million user accounts.

Using that as the baseline, Robert stated the 26,000 or so subscribers to his feed represented one of every 39 users. (See the FriendFeed thread here) But that only exacerbated the flub. Having used the site myself for quite some time, I'd be shocked if there were more than a million registered accounts, and FFHolic estimates the number to be closer to 200,000 total accounts, one fifth of a million. This of course makes Robert's penetration even higher, as that means one of every eight users follows him, but that's not the major issue.

If you're FriendFeed, and you know your actual user count, you can't exactly issue a correction saying that you "only" have a quarter million users. And if they did announce such data, which they don't, it might seem to be a letdown now that the higher, incorrect number has been released.

The service is now becoming a destination site as users share links on Twitter, their blogs, Facebook and elsewhere, so it's no surprise that the unique visitor count is higher than the number of users. After all, if I visit from home and on my wife's laptop and the office, doesn't that count as three unique visitors?

This is but one example, and I know practically all of us have made the mistake of reading stories too quickly, or coming to conclusions and extrapolations based on only partial data. For example, Stowe Boyd wrote a great piece tonight saying I was "Wrong About Twitter Funding", but he had only seen one of the two posts, which had taken point/counterpoint positions. That's not a victim of the telephone game, but he is a busy guy, like the rest of us, and no doubt overlooked one of the items.

When we're reacting to other items, or relaying them, we should be careful that we're not making new stories based on data that's not true. We're all going fast, and maybe reading a ton of RSS feeds, seeing thousands of Twitter updates, and rushing in an effort to post quickly. But there's something to be said for watching for the telephone game.