Monday, September 29, 2008

Japanese Too Shy for Social Networks

There's an interesting article this week on Technology Review, which talks about how shyness is proving an obstacle in Japan to the adaption of western-style social networks:
Shyness in Japan's online social scene challenges international networking sites
The problem, in a nutshell, is that Japanese society values privacy and a certain social reticence, and Japanese web surfers are bringing these qualities online with them. Rather than embracing online communities as a chance to show off in a way that would seem unnatural or even antisocial offline, they are careful not to expose themselves too much online, and generally prefer invite-only communities that allow them to limit contact to people they already know.

This is an excellent example of something I've seen a lot lately: people taking their offline personas with them when they go online. It used to be that online communities were thought of as something akin to a massive costume party: "On the Internet," the comic read, "no one knows that you're a dog." But online interaction is too pervasive these days for this disjunction to endure. In an age when email and instant messaging has almost taken over for the telephone as a preferred form of social interaction (it certainly has for my mother), it now seems perfectly reasonable that you'll be the same person online as you are offline -- and your friends in both spheres will be the same. Online community, in short, is an extension of offline community.

There are exceptions, of course. Online dating sites, for instance, are full of guys pretending to be someone else. But I believe we're in the first stage of Internet routinization, by which online interaction will eventually become so mundane that we'll eventually stop caring about the distinction between online and offline.

On the Internet, in other words, everyone will know you're a dog, because you won't think to hide it from them.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

To Moderate Or Not To Moderate?

Via TechCrunch comes word of the NotCot network, which wants to combine user-generated content with editorial control:

The NotCot Network: A Study in Structured User Generated Content

Their model is simple enough: get users to upload content, but funnel that content through editors and moderators who look it over, assess the quality (and legality), and "ensure the quality of the content." This is roughly equivalent to what we were doing on my previous gig, where we paid moderators to keep an eye on user actions. So it's from the basis of no little experience that I can say that I know what will happen here.

First, this model is not going to scale easily. The NotCot network will fail unless they have a very active community, with lots of people uploading stuff. Moderating a forum post is pretty easy; moderating a video submission is more time-consuming, particularly if the moderator is responsible for checking for copyright violations. NotCot is going to need to keep a lot of people on staff to handle the content, and those people will need to be paid for their time.

Second, they're going to run into serious challenges with international traffic. First, because foreign-language submissions pose a new set of problems (is that song in the background under copyright? If so, who owns it and how do you check the rights?). But beyond that, there's a time challenge: if your moderators work in North America on weekdays during normal business hours, what happens when someone posts a video from Europe just when everyone in the States is headed home? One thing I learned for certain: users hate it when they upload content and have to wait to see it posted. If it's a predictable wait of several hours, they get really upset. NotCot will probably need to hire second-shift workers, and might even need to find someone to police foreign-language markets (see above about not scaling easily).

Third, it's a lot easier to say that you will "ensure the quality of the content," but when you're actually out there in the trenches, what counts for quality? The only objective standard of "quality" is popularity among users, but that standard can't be applied to the pre-approval of content. Ultimately all you'll end up doing is ensuring that the content isn't illegal, obscene, or pornographic. The "quality" bar will be tossed out the window almost immediately, just by the demands of the job.

The biggest risk here for NotCot? That their editorial review will prove too intrusive. You're already asking a lot of your users when you tell them to capture video, edit it, and upload it to your servers. Asking them to also sit through a submission process that benefits them in no way is a dangerous second step. If that second step isn't almost perfectly painless, what's to stop them from going to YouTube and uploading the video over there instead?

My first job on the Internet was with Our business plan, back in those days, was to improve on Yahoo: we'd also provide an Internet guide, but ours would be composed exclusively of editor-vetted, quality sites. In the end, our visitors didn't really care. Yahoo made billions by including everybody; we ensured quality and went out of business, because the quality we provided wasn't of sufficient value. NotCot will need to find a way to do what we did better.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Social Networking Bigger Than Porn?

Over the weekend I came across an eye-catching headline: 
The article refers to recent research of Internet search activity that shows social networking eclipsing porn as the #1 thing people are looking for. It used to be that porn accounted for 20% of all activity online, but now this study suggests that it has fallen to 10%, and instead people are now searching for ways to connect with other people.

That lends itself to some heart-warming conclusions about people gravitating towards true friendship and away from empty connections, but there are likely a few things going on here. First, as the article points out, the decline in porn activity is deceptive: a drop from 20% a decade ago to 10% today may actually represent an increase in real numbers, given the overall growth of Internet usage in that period. Porn is well-known as an early adopter phenomenon; if you like porn, and you find out about a new, efficient delivery device, there's a good chance you'll buy a computer and a modem and check it out. For that reason, porn hounds were probably disproportionately represented on the early Internet.

Second, the author's  conclusion that young people today are too busy socializing to consume porn is probably a false dichotomy. Young people today grew up interacting with their friends via electronic media; ten years ago my niece was already busy after school using instant messaging to chat with her real-world friends. Now, as they enter their  twenties, they're carrying the same expectations onto the web. It's not that they're coming online and looking for something to do, then choosing between porn or social networking. Rather they're coming online with a predetermined idea of what to do, and social networking just happens to be that activity. 

Still, it's nice to see something taking precedence over porn in the online sphere. That's been the dirty little secret of the online marketplace for more than a decade now. It's high time that porn take its rightful place along the Internet's margins.

You Are What You Drink - Which Makes Me Schizophrenic

By way of Techcrunch, I discovered a new social networking site this morning:

The basic premise of Cocktailmatch is that you are what you drink, and that you like to associate with people who drink the same thing. Wine drinkers, in short,  would rather not hang out with whiskey drinkers, and guys who do tequila shots are most definitely not interested in those who like pina coladas (and getting caught in the rain). 

Then there's me: I drink wine at home, sometimes order beer with spicy food in a restaurant, and enjoy mojitos on special occasions. My friends and associates include wine snobs, beer dudes, and mixed-drink swillers. Apparently I'm the exception to Cocktailmatch's rule.

Or maybe it's simply self-selecting: perhaps the desired demographic for Cocktailmatch consists of those people who identify strongly with one, and only one, type of alcohol. In which case, those people finally have a website devoted exclusively to them. For the rest of us, Cocktailmatch seems like nothing more than an odd twist on the social networking scene.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

The Age of the Weak Link

A while ago a fascinating article by Clive Thompson ran in the New York Times, on the phenomenon of Twitter:
I'm So Totally, Digitally Close To You
In it, Thompson confronts the problem facing Twitter and many other Internet startups: at first blush, their services seem stupid. Blogging within a 140-character limit? That seems like nothing more than a recipe for trivia, a process of mind-numbing navel-gazing that would certainly be an exercise in tedium.

I remember my reaction when I first heard of Twitter: it seemed completely pointless. It reminded me of a German art film I once saw, mostly by mistake. The main character got on a bus, and during a stopover we in the audience were treated to a long, long scene in which the bus driver peeled his hard-boiled egg. "I bought a ticket so I could watch this?" I asked myself at the time. That's how Twitter seemed to me: a universe of people sending out status updates as they slowly peeled their eggs. Why should I care?

It turns out, though, that pretty much everyone has that reaction, until they've been using the service for a time and something starts to dawn on them: micro-blogging provides a special form of intimacy.
"... as the days went by, something changed. Haley discovered that he was beginning to sense the rhythms of his friends’ lives in a way he never had before. When one friend got sick with a virulent fever, he could tell by her Twitter updates when she was getting worse and the instant she finally turned the corner. He could see when friends were heading into hellish days at work or when they’d scored a big success. Even the daily catalog of sandwiches became oddly mesmerizing, a sort of metronomic click that he grew accustomed to seeing pop up in the middle of each day. This is the paradox of ambient awareness. Each little update — each individual bit of social information — is insignificant on its own, even supremely mundane. But taken together, over time, the little snippets coalesce into a surprisingly sophisticated portrait of your friends’ and family members’ lives, like thousands of dots making a pointillist painting."
Turns out there's a term for this sort of thing: it's called "ambient awareness." Look around you, in whatever room you're in right now. If you're in the office, maybe you can hear someone down the hall, talking on the phone. If you're at home, maybe your dog is scratching itself, or you can hear cars out on the street. Those are all part of your environment; you don't pay attention to them, but you'd feel their lack if they weren't there. If you're in the same room as someone, your ambient awareness includes little facts about their current situation: what they're doing, how they're feeling (which you pick up from their body posture or facial expression), and so on. If you're in a relationship, you probably remember times when the two of you were together but not actually interacting:
"Social scientists ... call it “ambient awareness.” It is, they say, very much like being physically near someone and picking up on his mood through the little things he does — body language, sighs, stray comments — out of the corner of your eye."
In short, the Internet has developed a new means of maintaining social connections. No matter how far away you are from your friends and loved ones, you can -- through social media -- maintain a form of connection that used to require physical proximity. This is not, however, to say that Web 2.0 allows us to maintain an infinite number of close friendships. Rather, these media function best as extensions of the offline world:
"Many maintained that their circle of true intimates, their very close friends and family, had not become bigger. Constant online contact had made those ties immeasurably richer, but it hadn’t actually increased the number of them; deep relationships are still predicated on face time, and there are only so many hours in the day for that."
This backs up something I've suspected for a long time: that online social networks function best, not when they try to create a social world that exists entirely in virtual space, but as an extension and backup of face-to-face connections that existed prior to the creation of the online service. When you find something cool online, who do you forward it to? Your friends, and when they adopt the same service a social connection is expanded, not created. Any company that seeks, for liability reasons, to limit offline connections between online friends is clearly swimming upstream.

There is a place, though, for old-school virtual relationships: they fall under the heading of "weak ties," and they can be very useful:
"But where their sociality had truly exploded was in their 'weak ties' -- loose acquaintances, people they knew less well. It might be someone they met at a conference, or someone from high school who recently “friended” them on Facebook, or somebody from last year’s holiday party. In their pre-Internet lives, these sorts of acquaintances would have quickly faded from their attention. But when one of these far-flung people suddenly posts a personal note to your feed, it is essentially a reminder that they exist. ... Sociologists have long found that “weak ties” greatly expand your ability to solve problems. For example, if you’re looking for a job and ask your friends, they won’t be much help; they’re too similar to you, and thus probably won’t have any leads that you don’t already have yourself. Remote acquaintances will be much more useful, because they’re farther afield, yet still socially intimate enough to want to help you out."
Which is, of course, why services like LinkedIn are successful: they are founded on the very notion of weak ties, and try to make those ties professionally useful.

There are many lessons to be learned here. I would suggest that anyone who builds websites for a living should copy the article locally and re-read it from time to time. Just a few thoughts that occur to me now:

First, this scenario poses a tremendous barrier to entry for new social networking sites. If the value of a service like Twitter is not apparent until after you've been using it for a while, it's going to be very difficult to convince new users to come by and give it a shot. Sounds like Twitter benefited greatly from word-of-mouth marketing from a few influential early-adopters, but it also sounds like the service could easily have disappeared without a trace. There was no inevitability to Twitter's success, and it will be extremely difficult for anyone to follow in their footsteps.

Second, I love the paradox of Twitter's creation: if you don't know how good it is until after you've been using it for a while, then logically no one who was in on the initial development of the service new what they were building. They might have believed firmly that they knew what they were doing, but they didn't know anything until after it was up and running and they were able to experience it along with everyone else. In short, Twitter's founders got very, very lucky. No doubt we're all in for a series of articles profiling these "visionaries," and there's also a good chance that one or more of them will, with great fanfare, move on to a new startup that will be like Twitter, only better. And I can predict it now: those startups will vanish from the face of the earth, because Twitter's founders didn't know what they were doing when they built Twitter, and they won't know what they're doing the next time out. Lightning doesn't strike twice in the same spot.

I don't mean to pick on Twitter. I think this is true of any community-oriented site or service: you don't know what you have until people start to use it. Inevitably they will use it in ways you didn't expect or intend. In a nutshell, the v1 of any community site is likely to miss the mark. So the only thing you can do is plan from Day One for v2: build into your schedule and budget the expectation that you'll need to tear everything down and start over, three to six months after launch.

This is, of course, a huge challenge. It's hard enough to get one site off the ground, let alone build with the assumption that you'll get it wrong and will need to correct it later. But, naturally, "get it wrong" is not the right phrase to use if you truly embrace the idea that the community will define how your site is to be used. Better to think of it in terms of a provisional launch: first you launch the platform, then you figure out what the service should look like through iterative testing and measurement. Which is, of course, how products like the iPod were designed: first Apple launches them, then they release updates that refine the specs and feature set in response to customer demand. If it's good enough for Steve Jobs, shouldn't it be good enough for you?

Friday, September 5, 2008

I Don't Get It

I like to think of myself as a pretty web-savvy guy. I'm out there, surfing the Internets, shooting the tubes; I understand what the whole Web 2.0 thing is about. Except that sometimes I feel like I don't.

On Webware recently was a (fairly positive) profile of a new service called Timelope. Timelope allows you to publish your browser history and browse the history of other users. That's what it does. That's all it does, and I don't get it.

Put simply, I don't grasp the appeal of cracking open a single browser history and seeing what it contains. It's a little creepy, frankly; it's like you chose a random person on the street and followed them wherever they went -- to the post office, to the drugstore, and then to the coffee shop where you watched them sip a tall iced latte.

The essence of Web 2.0 is sharing, but not everything is worth being shared. Right this moment I've got a collection of little scraps of paper in my left rear pocket. I could scan those pieces of paper and put them online, where others could view them or possibly scan random pieces of paper themselves. But what's the point? It's garbage that's mostly meaningless even to me. That's Timelope: a collection of data points that are so personal as to be trivial.

It took me a while to figure this out, but now I have it: Timelope pretends to Web 2.0-savvy sharing, but it's actually the complete opposite of that. Digg represents web sharing: the cumulative weight of individual opinion pushes the most compelling stories to the top. YouTube represent web sharing: I can search by topic and judge pretty quickly by the star rating which videos are worth loading. These services take one of the weakesses of the web -- its overwhelming number of voices and sources -- and turn that into a strength. Timelope, by contrast, is personal, and by being person it remains trivial.

Of course, maybe Timelope will go off to become the next big thing, and I'll be the dumbass waving his bony fist in the air and complaining about kids today. Most likely, though, this will go down as just one more bad idea in the days before the second Internet bubble.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

That's What I Thought

A post today on TechCrunch points out that, while online ad spending overall continues to grow at a very healthy 20% rate, more and more of that is going into search advertising, rather than banner ads and other ways to reach customers.

That's not much of a surprise. In a recession, companies are being careful with their money, and search has the great advantage of being an arena in which you know every visitor is actively looking for something (and often they're looking for something to buy). There's no reason not to expect search to dominate online ad spends for a long, long time (and that sound you hear is Google's shareholders rolling back and forth on big piles of money).

The optimists among us will suggest that the real issue here is the growing online ad market, and suggest that an improving economy will bring more dollars to display ads and others. Then the tide may rise high enough to lift all the boats. Until then, sites that hope to turn a profit based on display advertising will probably need to hold out for the long term.