Saturday, May 22, 2010

What is a status update?

With all the press about Facebook lately, including my own posts, I thought it would be interesting to explore just what a status update is and how it became so popular. The popularity of the status update is what allowed Twitter to become as big as it is, being a service that does nothing but status updates. This is also one of the most popular uses of Facebook.

The definition of a status update means something different to everyone, but the idea is the same: A short, text-based entry telling your friends something you deem worthwhile. Some people use it to share inspirational quotes, some use it to describe their daily actions, and some use it to share links and pictures.

Brief History
So where did status updates start? Why did they become so popular? The underlying technology was developed in the 60s, but it gained mass market appeal in the mid to late 90s with the away message. We all remember the days of AIM and maintaining our buddy lists. The away message was a quick way to let your friends know whether you were available for chat, but people very quickly started using it to post status updates. Either what they were doing, what their plans were, how they were feeling, or funny/inspirational quotes.

Away messages have become such an integral part of instant messaging that the thought of not having it is incredibly foreign. The away message was a sickeningly easy way to quickly broadcast a short message to all your friends at once. It was much faster than email or texting, and people loved it. People love it so much, in fact, that even nearly 15 years after AIM launched the feature, it's still a beloved and widely used part of instant messaging.

So when Facebook introduced their status update feature, people embraced it immediately and used it as a natural evolution of the away message, except that now your past updates were preserved and people could even comment on them. The status update was such a popular feature that it allowed Twitter to launch a service that does nothing but status updates and become remarkably popular.

When Google launched Buzz earlier this year, they took the natural step of merging away messages into status updates by allowing users to have their Google Talk away messages automatically post to Buzz as status updates.

What is it?
Everyone treats the status update differently, so how do we define it? The term "away message" calls to mind an answering machine of sorts; a way to give your friends a small snippet of information that they can use to decide whether or not to begin a chat conversation with you. The term "status update" seems to describe just that: an update on your personal status. But it has evolved to pretty much defy definition.

An inspirational quote, for example, isn't really an update on your status (unless you chose a quote that slyly describes your status, which many do), and yet it is a perfectly acceptable status update for many. Likewise, saying something as simple as "reading" can't really be described as a status update, but it does describe what you're currently doing, and is also acceptable for many.

Some people use status updates to share noteworthy stories from their life. "I just got a speeding ticket," or "a guy at work threw a chair through a window" or "I'm engaged!" are all examples of status updates that are likely to elicit a large response from friends, whereas more frequent and laid back updates such as "I'm tired" are considerably less likely to be commented upon.

And finally, some use status updates as a sharing medium. They post pictures, links, etc. to alert their friends to noteworthy content online. I've personally known many people who believe that a status update without a link is fairly worthless and worth skipping.

So what is a status update? Is there such a thing as the ideal status update? Personally, I think the answer is yes and no. Let me explain.

My opinion
I think that the notion of the "perfect status update" depends on who's sending the update and who their audience is. A large business (Starbucks, Disney, Ford) should ideally use their status updates to interact with customers and share worthwhile news. Starbucks is very good at this, using their Twitter and Facebook updates to communicate one-on-one with customers, as well as sharing discounts, store events, etc. Disney is not very good at it, using their status updates as a glorified blog-stream without any personal interaction or unique news.

An individual person, on the other hand, should use their status updates to share things about their lives. That's why we follow our friends on Twitter and friend them on Facebook: we are interested in their lives. For me personally, this means sending noteworthy updates about daily life, sharing links that I find interesting, and interacting with friends by replying.

My opinion is that the severely short status updates aren't very valuable and I have actually unfollowed friends on Twitter whose updates consist entirely of "reading" or "headed home" or "I'm tired." The funny/inspirational quote updates are a bit trickier. There's certainly nothing wrong with sharing anecdotal updates once in a while, but there are people who post nothing but quotes, bible verses, etc. I personally feel like a blog would be a much more appropriate place to share favorite quotes or verses, but that they don't really qualify as status updates.

Personally, I also find people who post primarily negative or anti-something updates to be not worth following, as well as people who post new status updates multiple times per hour.

Your opinion
Honestly, this is probably why Twitter has gained the popularity that it has. Status updates can and probably should mean different things to different people. Maybe the people who share nothing but quotes have an audience who enjoys quotes. And maybe the people who post single word updates have an audience who is interested in their every word.

Your opinion and the opinion of your friends/followers is what matters and the numbers will match accordingly. Celebrities are a great example. Most don't post very worthwhile status updates, and yet they have millions of followers and friends. They clearly have an audience who is interested in that type of update.

I think this is a very interesting discussion. Some people have strong mental definitions of status updates and this is a good conversation to have with friends. What is your opinion? Do you have a type of status update that you always send? Do you have types you dislike reading?