Friday, August 29, 2008

Have Your Cake and Eat It?

Via Webware, I heard about Cake, a company that seeks to crowdsource stock trading:

Cake CEO Steve Carpenter believes that of the approximately $100 billion that consumers pay for stock management services, "a lot is wasted." He's built a service that identifies the stock picks from the best performing members in his community, and lets other users take advantage of their investing skills. Importantly, Cake doesn't show you just which stocks have done well among its users. That's old information. Rather, Cake identifies the users that are doing well in their portfolios and highlights their transactions, as they happen, for other users. One of the byproducts of that is the Cake Take, a rating service "akin to Morningstar," Carpenter says. But it's more predictive, more timely, and a lot less expensive to run, since it's algorithmic and not based on the opinion of paid analysts.

While the idea of cutting out the brokers and just letting the wisdom of the crowd guide you in your stock purchases does have a lot of appeal, this scenario raises certain issues:
  • This is not a true application of the wisdom of the crowds, as defined in the book of the same name. As I've railed in this blog before, the wisdom of the crowds emerges only under certain conditions: it must involve a large number of people voting on a topic about which they are not highly educated/indoctrinated in a conventional way of looking at things, and they should have no contact with one another in doing so (to prevent them from exerting influence on one another -- the crowd can only be wise when it is composed of individuals, rather than members of a group). Cake's setup encourages you to follow a few highly-successful traders (rather than a whole crowd of them), and there is no reason to think those traders aren't watching each other and following the same leads.
  • The whole enterprise is based on one article of faith: that top traders know what they're doing. It seems to me equally likely -- more likely, actually -- that these guys on top just happen to be on a lucky streak, and there's no more "wisdom" to be gained than you'd get by going to Vegas and asking some random old lady for tips on how to play the slots. (The proof is in the pudding: track the "top traders" on Cake over time, a year or more. If the same guys stay on top, they know what they're doing. If they come and go, it's all just another form of gambling.)

In short, it's not a crowd, and it's not likely to be wise.

Too often on Wall Street, it's the suckers who show up late who supply the money that allows the guys who got in early to cash out before the whole thing collapses. I don't doubt that Cake is entirely sincere in its crowdsourcing efforts, but I suspect that their product is likely to appeal to suckers destined to arrive when the party is over.

Yahoo What?

This news story caught my eye this morning:

File this one under the "ouch" category. Yahoo is shutting down its social-networking experiment, Yahoo Mash, after only a year in business.


Mash didn't really offer anything new, other than the fact that instead of inviting friends you created profiles for them and then invited them to customize and change them. You could also add "modules," a sort of rudimentary version of social-network apps. It was designed as a quirky, cute step up from Yahoo 360, the social network that Yahoo had based off its millions of pre-existing user accounts; if Yahoo 360 was analogous to AOL profiles, Mash was more like Facebook.

To which my first reply was: "Yahoo had a service called 'Mash?'"

And my second reply was: "Yahoo has a service called 'Yahoo 360?'"

Understand, I'm a Yahoo user from way back. I remember when Yahoo was the cool new kid on the block, showing us all what to do with Internet indexes. In the years leading up to the first dot-com bubble I worked for a company ( whose business plan was to be the thinking man's Yahoo. I've had a Yahoo email account for years and years, and I've spent a good number of hours browing through threads in this or that Yahoo Group. I have a My Yahoo page, which is the default page for my browser at home. I know Yahoo, I spend time on Yahoo, and yet I had no idea that Mash and Yahoo 360 even existed.

There are a couple takeaways here.

First, the hallowed me-too play doesn't work any better for the big boys than it does for the rest of us; if all you can say about your service is "it's kind of like Facebook," then you should go back to the drawing board. If your service is like Facebook but isn't better than Facebook, you'll fail for the very simple reason that people who want something like Facebook have already found what they're looking for in Facebook.

Second, get the friggin' word out. Yahoo is a profitable business and has money to spend on things. Yahoo owns a banner advertising business. Yahoo has a tremendous presence online. And yet somehow I -- a person who spends his entire day online -- never heard about Mash or Yahoo 360, even though I hit the Yahoo servers two or three times a day. That doesn't speak well for their advertising efforts. Assuming that they had an advertising effort.

If you want to know why Yahoo has been struggling of late, maybe this gives some indication. Build a service, don't tell anyone about it, and then kill it a year later when it fails to magically attract support through some sort of social osmosis. That's a lousy excuse for a business plan.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

What the Veoh Decision Means for YouTube and Others

Nice post this morning tracing out the implications of a recent California district court decision on a case in which internet video site Veoh was sued by a porn company for hosting material that infringed on that company's copyrights:
In a nutshell, Veoh received DMCA notices from IO Company, the purveyor of porn, and complied with them, but ended up in court anyway. IO Company was arguing that Veoh, by automatically transcoding user-uploaded videos into Flash video format, had taken over control of the content and thus enjoyed no safe-harbor provisions under the existing laws. The court disagreed.

Obviously this is a very promising sign for YouTube, which is still fighting it out with Viacom over what the latter claims to be a $1 billion copyright infringement. There are many appeals still to come, and with this much money on the table, sooner or later the Supreme Court will be asked to weigh in on the issue. But even beyond the arena of internet video, this was a case which could have had a tremendously chilling effect on all community-oriented sites. Among other things, IO Company was arguing that providers should:
  1. Individually inspect every piece of uploaded content and verify that it was not in violation of copyright, regardless of whether the holder of the copyright had contacted them with a complaint. Presumably the provider would be using some sort of magic copyright database by which to identify all such cases of infringement.
  2. Ban the IP of all infringers, even if that would have the side-effect of banning a bunch of innocent members as well.
Now, it's obvious that IO Company was just looking for some free money in this case. But the consequences of them winning on such an argument would have been tremendously negative. If every site was held liable for every action of its users, even if it made a good-faith effort to keep things on the up-and-up, then any business with a website that allows community interaction would operate within a precarious legal landscape.

So, it's not a total win, but it's a step in the direction of sanity, and that's a good thing.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Websites as Socially-Constructed Space

An interesting article today on "A List Apart," on how cartography can inform website information design:

The conception of web designer as information architect depends upon a vision of cyberspace not unlike the vision of physical space held by René Descartes (1596-1650). To him, and to most of Western civilization for hundreds of years, space was a void, a preexisting grid which remains empty until points are identified and paths plotted upon it. (Think of the digital plains depicted in the movie Tron.)

In the 1970s, however, Henri Lefebvre’s work The Production of Space turned this view on its head, arguing that space is produced through the enactment of social relations. Space, according to Lefebvre, is created by the flows and movements of relational networks—such as capital, power, and information—in, across, and through a given physical area. A building, in Lefebvre’s reading, is a map of the interactions of the people who inhabit it; an architect is not a builder in an otherwise empty wilderness, but an observer, chronicler, and shaper of the networks that exist around her—in short, a map maker. Websites informed by a Lefebvrian conception of cyberspace rather than a Cartesian one would provide truly user-centered design, by recognizing that it is the users themselves whose actions produce the website; the web designer merely facilitates that creation.
The author -- Aaron Rester -- uses this insight to draw a very practical conclusion for website design, both at initial launch and during the period of ongoing maintenance:
Instead of imposing an architecture upon users from above, we should use the flow of their interactions with the site and with each other to determine the form of this memory map.
It's a good point. If we take our audience seriously, we need to closely observe not just what information they are accessing and sharing, but the paths they are taking in doing so. That information should then feed back into the site's relaunch or redesign, in order to shorten paths and empower users by making their site actions quicker and more effective.

An example: a site I recently worked on has, as one of its primary missions, the goal of assisting visitors with problems they've encountered in using the company's product. The site includes both user forums and an FAQ section that contains how-to content. From the beginning we were aware of a possible split in our audience into two similar streams: those who come to our site to look for troubleshooting documents, and those who head to the forums to ask other people for help. Inspired by the article above, I now see possibilities for uniting those streams. Why not build the FAQ page so it's easy to get from there to highly-rated forum posts? Why not build out the forums so that FAQ content is linked persistently somewhere on the page? How about setting up the FAQ content along a wiki model, so that users can expand it and improve it?

Of course, these ideas are based on my presuppositions about the way visitors will travel through the site, and that's presumptuous of me. To fully embrace the cartography model, you would have to look at actual traffic and bring site analytics to bear. Once the site is launched and people are coming online with their questions, where do they go first? Once they come into contact with actionable information, what do they do with it and where do they go? Are there long paths that can become short, or short paths that miss important steps?

Then there's the brave new world: actually allowing users to recreate your site architecture. In a sense, wikis already allow this, in that visitors can create any link they want pretty much anywhere they want. And you also get a small measure of this feature in automated widgets that note the most popular links (and thereby make them more popular still). But what would a site look like, and how would it have to operate, if its information architecture were truly fluid?

Morning Musings

A few things I came across in my morning browse:

First, there's the news that Adobe is refining its web and mobile strategy. I remember the days when Photoshop was like that cheerleader in high school: enticing, even intoxicating, but ultimately out of my reach. I loved the power and the features, but I never needed them enough to pay upwards of $600. Now, though, with Photoshop Express, I feel like I can finally hang out with the cool kids. Adobe has been a reluctant convert to the idea of web services, but they are finally (painfully?) making the move, and they're making some good decisions. "Automatically sync photos from desktop to Web to phone and back again"? Amen, brother -- that's added value, and along the way they're likely to enjoy the community love that comes when editing your photos, uploading them, and sharing them with friends are all part of the same, seamless process.

Contrast that with Microsoft, which is still shuffling its feet by the side of the pool, worrying that the web services water will prove too cold. Office Live never made a lick of sense as a branding concept unless it was an online version of the Office suite of products, and it's still not there. Touted as a "feature" is the ability to upload Office documents and then download them for use within the Office products you already own. Cool ... except that it's not any more cool than any other online storage option (including the decidedly un-sexy but more convenient alternative of simply mailing your documents to yourself as an email attachment). Of course we all know that Microsoft is terrified that the web will cannibalize its software sales, but when Adobe by comparison looks like a forward-thinking, innovative company, you've got a problem.

Second, the social networking wars are in full force; Facebook announced that it passed the 100 million user mark on the same day that news came out that MySpace might work with Amazon (or Apple, or Rhapsody) on its revamped online music service. Music is really MySpace's killer app; Facebook has the worldwide numbers, while MySpace's growth is mostly flat, but in terms of sheer US users, MySpace is still king and the main reason is music. Bands have pages on MySpace, and streaming music is already distributed throughout the site. Facebook simply has nothing to compare in that space, and if MySpace can get music retailing right, it could provide a very healthy revenue stream for a very long time.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Measuring Site Success

Came across this on CNET:

It's a really quick, five-minute video on how to measure your site's success and use site metrics to improve your offering and your relationship with visitors. I'm constantly surprised at how many teams focused on developing consumer-oriented sites make no particular effort to measure their site's success. They develop content, iterate on the home page design, and obsess about user interface and information architecture decisions, but never follow up to see how well these things are performing over time. Considering how cheap site analytics has become in this day of Google Analytics and other free offerings, there's simply no excuse for that.

If you already think you're pretty good at your job but would like to be better, take five minutes out of your day to watch the video and get the gist of site analytics and how to fold that into a long-term plan for your site. Those five minutes could well be the most beneficial part of your day.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

The Dead Zone of Slick

Came across an interesting post this morning, which I think contains an important insight for content creators:

The Dead Zone of Slick

"There was a terrific duo playing live music at the farmer's market the other day. They were well-rehearsed, enthusiastic and really good. Being a patron of the arts, I bought a CD.

I hated it.

I've thought a lot about what turned me off, and I think it's the curve above.

Faced with the excitement of making a CD and all the knobs and dials, they overproduced the record. They went from being two real guys playing authentic music, live and for free, and became a multi-tracked quartet in search of a professional sound. And they ended up in the dead zone. Not enough gloss to be slick, too much to be real."
When I read this, a light went on over my head, because it's something I see every day on my job. On the one hand, you have raw, unfiltered comments in forums and attached to blog posts. They're often rude, uninsightful, and repetitive -- but they're undeniably real. On the other end of the spectrum, you have excellent, painstakingly-crafted, professional content. It can be very good. But it's death if you shoot for the latter and come up short, because then you're in the dead zone.

Recently I experienced this first-hand. For one of our sites, we came up with a new content idea: we'd get members of the community to write for us. They were the sort of people who post compulsively to forums anyway, so the thinking was that we could harness some of that energy and polish it up so that it was better and more professional.

It tanked. No one really wanted to read it. These writers were the sort of people who attract a following in forums; people look for their posts and seek their approval. But once we took their thoughts and ran an edit pass, we inadvertently took their material out of the "real" and pushed it in the direction of the "slick." Problem was, we intentionally did not rework their prose extensively. We wanted it to remain "real," but in the process we produced something that was only half-real. And nobody liked it that way.

Web communities are a special kind of beast. They're always producing their own content, often in ways that the site managers never really intended. And there's always a temptation to reach out to that content and touch it up, elevate it a bit into something that you think everyone will enjoy so much more. But the odds are that, in the process, you'll only make it less appealing.

Keep it real, or keep it professional. Don't try for both.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Lehman's Has Got Your Back

Reported on TechCrunch this morning, Lehman Brothers is forecasting a rosy future for web advertising: $20 billion in growth by 2012. Here's the graph, which is best viewed to the tune of "We're In the Money":

Of course, there's a bit of a catch -- Lehman's expects the hottest advertising category to be online video -- but even with that proviso, it's a welcome forecast for online content in general. I remember ten years ago, when we were all building content-rich sites in the confident expectation that ad revenues would grow quickly enough to justify what we were spending to do so. That didn't happen, of course, and a lot of us ended up on unemployment when the long-overdue market correction finally arrived. But advertising remains the great hope of web content, and growth along the lines of Lehman's forecast would go a long way towards justifying certain business plans.

My greatest fear is that, as the market expands, any advertising windfall will be so unequally distributed as to leave most Internet properties out in the cold. If online ad spend gushes into YouTube's, Hulio's, and Facebook's coffers, while the rest of us are left doing what we can with Google AdSense, then the overall market picture isn't going to be much better than it already is. And, somewhat pessimistically, I have to assume that will be the case, at least initially. Ultimately, of course, a rising tide lifts all boats; the question is whether that will happen quickly enough for your business and mine.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

When the Blog Becomes the Community

News this morning that Movable Type has released updates to its free and Pro products. The pro version has an interesting feature: it enables "social blogging."

I've seen this principle in action already: it's been up and running for a while now on SB Nation, which hosts one of my favorite baseball blogs, Lookout Landing. The feature, in essence, is this: readers of a blog can (within certain limitations) blog themselves within the environment of the larger blog. Got that? It's easier to understand when you see it than when you read about it. In a nutshell, I can go to Lookout Landing and read the main blog there, which occupies central space, but as a registered user I can also create a "Fanpost" which is, in essence, a mini-blog within the blog. Others can read and post comments to my Fanpost, or they can create their own posts with comment threads attached. Social blogging takes the one-writer-many-readers model of most blog platforms and modifies it into one-primary-writer-many-readers-who-occasionally-write.

It's a very useful feature, and it has the potential to greatly expand the vitality of the community around a blog. I know from personal experience that, if I visit Lookout Landing and there is no new post in the main content well, I'll often browse through the Fanposts to see what's cooking over there. Frequently the author of Lookout Landing comments on Fanposts; sometimes he even creates Fanposts if the material isn't enough to merit an entire blog post. From a traditional baseball blog, Lookout Landing has evolved into an active community, and to a large extent because of that one feature.

Of course, if you're already struggling with the task of moderating the comments to your blog, the last thing you want is to worry about moderating the comments to all the posts your users might make (let alone the posts themselves). However, it's a feature that probably adds enough value to make it worthwhile. Social blogging makes a blog that much more interactive, which should make it a lot more sticky.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Create a Sense of Audience

Very interesting two-part article out on the Internets today. It starts here and is completed here.

The gist: the author (Gregor Hochmuth) argues that Twitter is still standing today -- despite its many well-publicized outages of late -- because it gives its users a strong sense of audience. (Hochmuth capitalizes "Audience" in a fairly pretentious manner that I will not emulate.) Audience, he points out, is more than just a friends list. To get the full Twitter effect, you need to have a clear sense of who you're writing for (rather than the blogging experience, in which content is thrown out into the ether in the hopes that someone will read it). To solidify that experience, the service needs to confirm that the people you're writing for are present, and that they're reading what you wrote. That functionality adds a sort of intimacy to what otherwise would be an impersonal, alienated experience. You send tweets to specific recipients, and you know from their @replies that they heard you. It is, in short, a conversation.

There's more good stuff there (for instance, why you should provide your members with more than one way to give feedback to their friends), but for me this was the core message. And it's an important one, easy to forget. I can say from personal experience that one of the biggest challenges in blogging is getting past the sense that I don't know who's reading what I write. I can go into Google Analytics and get raw numbers, and every now and then I get a note from someone I know who read a post, but for the most part I'm writing up articles and tossing them into the void. It can be a little disconcerting, as if I'm performing on stage at a venue where the lights have been turned so far down that I can't see who (if anyone) is watching.

This provides some insight into a fact that has always bothered me a little: that forums are so popular. I mean, sure -- I've spent my time on Usenet and in other discussion forums. I am aware of the initial appeal. But as someone who spends his day developing editorial content for websites, it's always a little off-putting when I fire up Omniture and find out that various forum threads are far more popular than my carefully-crafted content. But in the context of this article, it makes sense that forums would be so addictive. You post to a forum, and other people post responses. Immediately you get feedback that other people are out there, and they're reading your stuff. If you're lucky, they like your stuff and tell you how much they like it. That's a potent experience.

My takeaway from this: don't merely provide users with a blog or some other means of throwing themselves out there. Give other people a way to (immediately) respond, and give the original user tools to measure how much of a response (s)he's getting (and from whom). Build out an environment in which members are not merely acting, they're acting to an audience whose dimensions they fully understand. That's the killer app.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

My Own Private Community

There's a tendency in this blog for my writing to be impersonal. Sure, I often draw on my experience in publishing websites, but (for professional and ethical reasons) I avoid explicit detail, and the fact that many of my posts are inspired by stuff I read or see on other peoples' sites ensures that, for the most part, I write as if pointing my finger at stuff out there. Thus, while online community is something I think about every day, I write about it as if I were an observer, mostly uninvolved.

My situation has changed.

Currently I find myself on the job market. One of my primary resources in the job search is my online network of friends and professional associates. I'm reaching out to them through email and social networking websites to ask for referrals, inquire about leads, and otherwise get the word out that I'm available and could use a hand in locating my next big life challenge. In short, online community has become very important for me personally as well as professionally, and I'm already feeling the effects of this new type of social connection.

The job search is still ongoing, so this story does not yet have a conclusion, but I can say that online community has changed the way I approach the task before me. I've been out of work before; it's not an uncommon situation when you work in Seattle and have a fondness for startups and telework arrangements. In the past, I've consulted online job sources, but the actual search was largely a solitary endeavor. I'd find ads, revise my resume to match the opening, and draft a cover letter that I'd submit by email. Nothing in that process touched on other people. There was no community. That might be why I tended to feel rather lonely during those points in my life.

This time it's different. When I learned that I was losing my current job, my first positive act was to draft email to two or three especially well-connected friends and associates. After that, I went to LinkedIn, and I've been spending a lot of time there since. I make a point of filling out my professional network, and every time I get a new connection I browse through their connections to see if there is someone else I should connect with. Already I've managed to set up an informational interview with a business that I respect, because I noticed that someone I know knows someone who works there, and I was able to use my existing connection to get an introduction to someone new. This is something that I never would have managed before. I'm not a good networker, and I tend to lose touch with people I haven't seen in a while. But now, Gmail contacts, LinkedIn, and my new Facebook page have vastly extended the list of people with whom I'm in contact. I'm still not a good networker, but with these tools I'm a lot better than I used to be.

This post is part one of a two-part series. When I have my next job in hand, I'll come back and take stock of the full impact that online community had on my search and post here with the results and conclusions. One thing I already know, though, is that my life has changed because of these new tools, and I'm excited at the further changes I'll see as online community matures.

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Your Community Site Fails!

This morning I have a snapshot of one of the more elusive moments in community site building: the point at which that site fails to snag a potential member. It's just my personal experience, of course, but I think there are lessons to be learned.

I was reading the blogs this morning and came across notice of MyGameMug, which positions itself as something of a dating service for gamers. They don't actually try to set you up with a date; instead they use the dating site model to come up with a profile of you by which they can match you with other gamers for online or local multiplayer matches. It's a pretty good idea, actually; unless you already have friends who are into the same games you enjoy, it's very difficult to find an agreeable person to play with online, given that most multiplayer arenas are filled with trash-talking, homophobic, racist kids and frat boys. If there were a legitimate service out there that would allow me to find nice people to game with, that would have some appeal for me.

So I go to the site and create a profile. The test takes about ten minutes, and spits out a judgment: I'm a casual gamer. Yeah, sort of -- at least in terms of the frequency of my gaming at home. It's not totally accurate, but it's close enough that I'm not going to feel insulted. With the questionaire complete, and now properly signed into the site, I'm asked to add a list of games I own so that the service can then match me with similar people who own the same games and gaming hardware. I click on the link.


The page was not found. Whoops. I hit Back to try again, only now I'm asked to sign in again. Which I do, and then I go to my profile, but I can't figure out where I can add the games I own. I even find one page that tells me that I've added no games to my profile, but nowhere on that page is there a link or any other indication telling me how to add the games.

And that's pretty much where the experience ends, because without the matchmaking service, this site has nothing to offer me. MyGameMug had a few minutes of my time in which to convince me that I should bookmark the site and make it a part of my Internet universe. Sloppy design caused me to waste those few minutes running into a brick wall, and now -- already -- I have a poor opinion of the service. I'm very unlikely to come back to give the site a second chance.

Lesson learned: it's got to be dead easy to sign up for a community site, and the benefits of membership need to be front and center and obvious to everyone. If MyGameMug had put their site through user testing, they would have exposed this little problem in no time. But they didn't, and I'd be willing to bet a big bag of venture capital that I'm not the only potential member they're losing today. Remember that old dandruff shampoo commercial that warned, "You only have one chance to make a first impression?" That's never been so true as it is today, for those of us who make our living online. When you launch, everything needs to be right, because if it's not your first visitors will also be the first to leave and not come back.

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Kevin Bacon: Vindicated Once Again

There's a new report in this morning that a Microsoft study of IM patterns shows that the old "six degrees of separation" idea is pretty much valid:
A study conduced by researchers at Microsoft Corp. used instant messaging data to confirm the theory that it takes just under seven steps to link every one in the world. The researchers reached their conclusion based on the addresses of 30 billion instant messages sent among 180 million people worldwide during a single month in 2006. They found that, on average, any two people are linked by fewer than seven acquaintances.
The six-degrees idea had come under some criticism lately, but this new data point would seem to validate it pretty effectively.

What strikes me here is that the original concept was based on snail-mail communications: a researcher handed off a document to a random assortment of people and asked them to forward it to someone they knew personally, and so on, with the eventual goal of the letter making its way to one person unknown to the original recipient. (For quite a bit more detail on this study, see The Tipping Point.) The Microsoft study, however, was based on instant messaging, which means that, not only is the six-degrees rule basically valid, but that its valid for both print and electronic forms of communication.

Why is that interesting? Because electronic communication is supposed to make us all so much better-connected. Through my LinkedIn account I can browse not only my own friends and associates, but all of their friends and associates as well. I've got contact information stored in my Gmail and Yahoo! Mail accounts for people who I haven't thought of in years. With all of those electronic tools at my disposal that put me into contact with so many people, I apparently am still separated from Kevin Bacon, Barack Obama, Wilson Mandella, and Britney Spears by those same irreducible six degrees.

Just goes to show you: online community is largely an extension of offline community, rather than something separate and distinct. The same rules apply to both spheres.

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Can Twitter Ever Make Money?

There's an article this morning in Wired sounding a familiar theme: Twitter has decided that money is a problem for another day:

Twitter's Business Model? Well, Ummmm...
The article doesn't grab your attention from the outset. Yes, we know that Twitter will probably try to put ads on the service. Yes, we know that this risks pissing off users and driving them away. If you follow the Internet scene at all, you probably could have written that section of the article yourself.

Towards the close there are a few mildly interesting revenue possibilities. The first is to take a page from Google's book and ad contextual ads to a Twitter search function. No doubt the success of such a feature would depend on the volume of Twitter search, not to mention the likelihood that anyone would (to use the example from the article) go to Twitter (of all places) to search on "iPhone." Call me skeptical, but do iPhone customers not have better places to search for product information?

The second possibility is getting corporations to pay for access to their customers via Twitter. One problem here: first, you're asking companies to pay for something that everyone else gets for free. That might be a tough sell. I suspect, though, that the bigger difficulty is that corporate paid access would spoil the experience. I read blogs for baseball news. I know of a couple baseball blogs on local newspaper sites, written by trained reporters; I don't read them. I prefer amateur blogs because they are amateur: they provide unfiltered communication between fans of the game. Making it professional diminishes its appeal. The same could be true of Twitter: it's only cool to follow someone at Dell or General Motors if the tweets seem unofficial and off-the-cuff. Turn Twitter into a mechanism for traditional customer service, or -- worse -- corporate press releases, and it won't seem cool anymore.

The elephant in the room, of course, is the possibility that Twitter never will make money, because one of the things people like about it is that it's free and non-monetized. Whenever Twitter gets around to introducing ads into the mix, no doubt there will be several competing services that remain ad-free. If it turns out that money is antithetical to the spirit that drives web services like Twitter, the money game will be impossible to win.