Thursday, July 31, 2008

In Defense of Passivity

I ran across this in a Wired article on new attempts to cash in on web video:

But Friedman's ambition is to merge television with videogames in a form of storytelling that engages audience members on multiple levels — and not just with the narrative but with each other. So while Anna dodges "sims" (simulated life-forms, with their telltale orange stigmata) and agents from the mysterioso outfit known as Gemini Division, fans will be able to log on to the show's Web site and get transmissions from Anna's partner in the police department. Users will be recruited as Gemini agents themselves, at which point they can talk with other agents — er, users — by webcam. "I think this is where entertainment is heading," he says. "It's where I want entertainment to head, because that's what I want to experience."
This is, of course, a familiar prediction. For years we've been hearing about the inevitable decline of television and movies as viewers reject passive experience. In the future, we're all going to interact with our entertainment and make up the stories ourselves!

Except that we won't. Recently I've been watching the first season of "Weeds" and the HBO John Adams miniseries, and I've been enjoying myself despite the complete lack of interactivity. Turns out, good writing and good acting make for an enjoyable passive experience. Conversely, when I read about a web series that expects me to sign into websites to learn more about what's going on with the show, I see that as work. Why are they making me go to the trouble, when they could just embed that information in a script and reveal it to me with the rest of the show?

Maybe I'm uniquely lazy and everyone else is excited and engaged by this form of entertainment, but I think interactivity poses a serious problem for content creators. They have an unenviable choice: either make the show truly interactive by hiding important information in various places online, with the full knowledge that a percentage of their viewers will never find that information and so will not get the full experience. Or, more likely, they will create the pretense of interactivity and throw a bunch of unnecessary detail online while saving all the crucial information for the broadcast, in which case they've "rewarded" their most dedicated fans with material from the cutting-room floor that was no doubt cut from the script for a very simple reason: it wasn't very good.

Then there's the interaction with other viewers of the show, which is where the article (finally) overlaps with the topic of this blog. Again, I find I don't much care. The fact that some other person watched the same episode as I did is not enough to get me to video conference with them. There are plenty of people who watch "24" and "Heroes" with whom I don't want to talk, let alone see what they might be tempted to show me via webcam. And those are some of the more normal shows I watch; I don't even want to think about what might go out over webcam from my fellow watchers of "Battlestar Galactica."

There's a point to be made here about community: a single shared interest is not enough. When you make a connection with another person, you expose a little bit of yourself. That's an exercise in trust, and most people will be unwilling to do that unless they feel they're in a scenario that supports the trust they're investing. And so: live video chat with people about whom you know nothing except that they watch the same show that you do? Not trustworthy. You're asking a lot of your viewers if that's a cornerstone of the community you're trying to build.

Let's hear it for passivity. Entertainment doesn't become more entertaining simply by becoming interactive. And if the community around the show is formed of people chatting with strangers via video, that's one community that smart viewers will probably avoid.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

News Flash: Crowds Are Not Always Wise

There's been some hand-wringing this morning over the much-touted "wisdom of crowds":

When the 'wisdom of crowds' turns on itself: IMDB edition
I'm not going to quibble with the basic premise of the piece. "The Godfather" is most likely a superior movie to "The Dark Knight," though each film will have their proponents and detractors. What irritates me is the claim that the wisdom of crowds somehow broke down here. I've been seeing this a lot lately, and most of these pronouncements seem to be coming from people who don't know what the phrase properly means.

"The wisdom of crowds" isn't just a modern buzz-phrase, it's also a book that's well worth reading.

The Wisdom of Crowds, by James Surowiecki
Go ahead and read it now. I'll wait.

Back already? Great. Now you've read the book and you know what the phrase properly means. You know that it doesn't imply that every time you get a large number of people together, they will inevitably and magically arrive at the correct solution to a problem. Crowds are not wise in that fashion, nor have they ever been so wise; if that were the case, then the best available candidate would be elected to office in every single election -- national, state, or local -- throughout this great country. In fact, crowds make mistakes quite often, which is why we have the term "mob" to refer to those moments when collective crowd judgment is at its worst.

Now that you've read the book, you know that a crowd is "wise" only under specific conditions:
  1. First, it is a crowd of non-experts. Experts are too likely to think alike on a topic, and so collectively are unlikely to find the unexpected solution.

  2. Second, it is a crowd of people who are not in contact with each other. People in contact discuss things and arrive at common conclusions. In the process they cease to be a crowd and become more like a mob. Only a failure to communicate ensures that they will act independently, which is essential to the aggregate of their collective actions showing the wisdom of crowds.

  3. Third, it is a crowd of people who have something at stake. People voting on a trivial topic act erratically. They need to have some skin in the game: a prize they're hoping to win, or a valuable that they're afraid of losing, otherwise their actions are less likely to be meaningful.
So let's go back to the example at hand: people voting up "The Dark Knight" and voting down "The Godfather." Does anyone believe that these are the actions of a multitude of individuals acting alone? Far from it -- no doubt there are any number of internet demagogues rallying the troops and sending them off to the IMDB to stuff the ballot on one side or the other. Do they have enough at stake to ensure they are not acting at random? They do not. In short, this crowd cannot be wise because it is not a crowd, it is a mob.

Not that this is necessarily a bad thing. There's nothing like controversy to whip people up and get them online. Mobs that are actively engaged with your community site can be better than well-ordered crowds that only occasionally show up in your traffic logs. Unless, of course, your site is built around the expectation that collective action will produce valuable insight into a topic, in which case you should go back, re-read the book, and build a site that caters to the crowd rather than the mob.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Facebook Relying on the Money Fairies

Interesting interview with Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook's chief operating officer:

Facebook's Sandberg: Growth before monetization
Anyone who was working in the industry in 1998 or '99 should already be familiar with this sort of business plan:

"Our focus is on growth--we believe this is the moment people are joining social networks. Then it's monetization to support that growth."
In other words, do your thing, grow as fast as possible, and let the money take care of itself. Because that method worked so well for companies like

It's easy for me to sit here and point fingers. Monetizing web traffic has been a problem for as long as there's been web traffic, and finding a way to extract profit out of social interaction (without so tarnishing the experience that you drive your members away) is simply a tough nut to crack. To Facebook's credit, they seem to be focusing on advertising that promotes brand awareness, rather than direct product sales, and that's likely to be much less intrusive than most of the alternatives. Their goal should definitely be to avoid the hard-sell, "click here now!" approach that would quickly spoil the experience.

So, let's run down a few monetization possibilities for Facebook, and sites like it:
  1. The magazine model. Magazines and websites have a similar problem: they need to find a way to make money off of people who -- at the moment of engaging with their product -- are not interested in buying something. Magazines have long made a practice of putting glossy ads between their stories; no one spends much time on those ads, but advertisers still value the exposure and are willing to pay for it. Pro: a proven business model. Con: magazines also charge a subscription fee, and most people still think the web should be free.

  2. The drug dealer model (i.e. "the first taste is free"). Also known as the tiered service plan. Give away basic services, but charge for the premium plan. has been profitable for years with just this model. Pro: you don't need to convert everyone to a paying customer, just a sufficient percentage. Con: If a group of friends ends up with your pay wall dividing them, they're not going to enjoy the experience.

  3. The singles bar model. Invite people over to interact with each other, and sell something that, like booze, enhances the experience. Conceivably Facebook could develop a set of premium widgets that makes the Facebook experience more fun and rewarding. Pro: Similar to the tiered model, except you're not (necessarily) dividing your members into two camps. Con: one mojito tends to lead to another, but a customer is only going to buy your widget once.
Sites like Facebook and MySpace, of course, have a unique challenge: all their eggs are in the social networking basket, so they need to make that one activity profitable. For now, at least, the better business model might be to approach social networking as an adjunct to an already-profitable business model. If you already make a living selling cars or computers, and your primary goal is to increase customer satisfaction and brand loyalty, social networking is an excellent means of approaching that goal. If, however, social networking is the only product you have to offer, get thinking, because if there's one thing we learned in Y2K, it's that growth in and of itself is not a business plan.

Monday, July 21, 2008

"Where Do They Find the Time?"

Embedded above is video of a talk by Clay Shirky. He offers some really fascinating insights. He points out (about halfway through the video) that the sum total of all the work that's gone into Wikipedia to date amounts to about 100 million hours. Americans, meanwhile, annually spend 200 billion hours per year watching TV. Shirky calls this a "cognitive surplus" and predicts a coming transformation of society, as people take more and more of the cognitive surplus they've devoted to passive activities and start engaging actively in social media.

If right now you're mentally tabulating the number of times you've heard someone proclaim the demise of television in the new, utopian internet age, you can stop. Shirky doesn't go quite that far. He does expect people to watch less television over time, and he sees that as a good thing. But he also points out that people like to do three things with their free time: consume, create, and share. The problem with traditional media is they only enable the first of these. Increasingly, media served up as a passive, canned experience will become marginalized. Businesses that try to control both the message and the experience will lose viewers. And what emerges out of the surplus will involve so many people and so many person-hours that the outcome is too complex to be predicted.

Seventeen minutes long, well worth your time.

Evite Redesigns Itself, Remains Mostly Uncompelling

I have nothing against Evite. I've used the service. It's useful in a way. And now that the service has been redesigned to make it less cluttered, expose more information (such as event location in the notification email, rather than hidden on the eVite site), and otherwise more friendly, I should feel excited about it.

I don't.

I've tooled through the new site trying to pin that feeling down, and I think I have it: the site only flows in one direction. Evite is built around an age-old premise: you're throwing a party and need to send out invitations. For that purpose, it works well enough. You can put together an invitation with a minimum of fuss, you can invite your friends by way of email addresses or a saved list of contacts, and your invitees have options for commenting on the event and inviting other attendees themselves.

So where's the problem? Evite, both old and new, isn't collaborative. It assumes that you already know the details of the event you're planning. But, in my experience, I often have just a general sense that I'd like to get together with friends or family; the details emerge over time. I don't know when the party will be until I know when my friends are free. I don't know what the party will entail until I know what they want to do. In short, the actual invitation is the final step in a process of communication, negotiation, and collaboration. The invitation is easy; it's everything that leads up to the invitation that's hard, yet paradoxically that's the part of the process that Evite doesn't touch.

For a few years now we've been hearing about calendar tools that help people with conflicting schedules pick a meeting time. I'm surprised that Evite didn't think to build collaborative scheduling into their redesign. And lately we've been hearing a lot about OpenSocial and other services that allow you to sign into multiple social services with a single ID; how much more convenient and powerful would Evite be if you could effortlessly plug it into your existing Facebook or MySpace network? I don't want to pull my friends into an Evite contacts list; I want them to be there, automatically, as soon as I sign in.

Ultimately I'm disappointed because Evite missed an opportunity to make itself indispensable. An Evite invitation has always been a marginally useful service, nice in its way but never all that much better than plain ol' email. They might have escaped that scenario with an upgrade that turned their service into a powerful networking tool, but that didn't happen.

Maybe next time?

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Online Community Vs. Local Community

There's something peculiar about online communities: they often have nothing to do with offline communities. There is frequently no effort on the part of online community builders to give their members the means of connecting offline. This is both odd and expected. It's odd because basically everyone is online these days, so why wouldn't you bring existing friendships with you when you join an online community? And it's expected because of the history of online community: back in the MUD days, they were (more or less) explicitly conceived as a refuge from the "real world": they were designed to be communities that would treat their members better than the rude, superficial, and cruel world that they inhabited during their offline hours.

It may be understandable why developers set out to build communities that are self-contained destinations, but increasingly this is an unsustainable position. TechCrunch weighs in on the latest example of this: Facebook and MySpace creating iPhone versions of their software that do not include location awareness:

Facebook, MySpace Ignore Location On iPhone At Their Peril
This article hit especially close to home for me. As it happens, I've been working on a project where we hoped to connect an online community to the offline world by building an event planner into the site. And I'm sure MySpace and Facebook developers had similar ideas of their own. The problem is that you soon run into the lawyers: if your community website facilitates an event that takes place offline where a sexual predator manages to connect with an underage member of your community, your company might end up in court. Now, of course the odds are excellent that you will win that case, because legislation grants safe harbor for internet providers from the actions of their users. But most companies -- and in particular most company lawyers -- would much rather avoid that situation in the first place, and they'll happily put obstacles in the path of community members who want to meet their online friends offline.

The fact that this behavior is understandable does not make it a good business decision. When I was just out of college, it was OK to think of online and offline as two distinct worlds. I did meet up with online friends in real life, but that tended not to go so well and I didn't do it often. That attitude is increasingly meaningless today, especially among teenagers and young adults. They don't go online just to meet new people, they go online to meet with the same people they already hang out with offline, and your community is just one more communications mechanism for them. If you only allow them to communicate along certain approved lines, they will find somewhere else to hang out. And, judging by the frenzy that has accompanied the release of location-aware iPhone applications, one thing that people today definitely want to do is use the internet to connect in real life with their friends.

In short, online community needs to foster offline community, and vice versa. That capability needs to be in there, even if a few lawyers lose sleep over it. No doubt you will not be able to ignore their concerns entirely, though, so prepare for that battle. Put in safeguards that warn your members about the risks of releasing personal information. Include an informational page advising them how to stay safe online (you can't make them read it, but having it there is a show of good faith). Don't try to block your members from disclosing personal information via your site, but make very sure that you don't disclose that information yourself. And, just to be safe, get someone high in your company to buy into your community plan before you run it past the lawyers. If (when) they object, you'll need friends in high places.

If you can get the plan off the ground, the idea is a very powerful one. Online friendships should absolutely foster and enhance offline friendships; that's what a strong, vibrant community should do. A company that's afraid of the community that it builds should not be in the web community business.

Give Your Content a Face

I'm a bit of a peculiarity. I follow baseball in general and the Seattle Mariners in particular, but I'd say I'm no more than a casual fan of the game. Still, I am an avid reader of two Mariners blogs: U.S.S. Mariner and Lookout Landing. This morning it occurred to me why I'm more interested in the blogs than I am in the team on which the blogs report: the blogs are more personal to me than the team is.

Off the top of my head, I can name the blog writers. Jeff writes for Lookout Landing, Dave and Derek write for U.S.S. Mariner. I know a little bit about them, but I've never met them. I'd say there's a good chance that I never will meet them, though I could if I tried. But the fact that I know their names is a critical part of their appeal. I've been reading Jeff's posts for two or three years now, and I identify that material with the person generating it. I come to Lookout Landing, in short, to check in on Jeff and see what he's been thinking.

Too many websites lack this personal face. They publish site content without bylines or under a general heading like "Editor". This is a mistake. Web 2.0 is about connecting with people, and content is no exception. Even if you don't send off email or an IM message, reading something that a person has written feels like a connection with that person -- but only if there's a person to connect to. The content needs a name, or else it will feel impersonal. Content that lacks personality is likely to lack appeal. A site that lacks appeal is unlikely to build community.

So remember, give your content a face. Attach bylines to every piece of content, so people can identify with this writer or that. Allow them to feel like they know you or your writers, if only a little bit. Like a grain of sand in an oyster shell, that might be the seed around which a pearl forms.