Wednesday, October 29, 2008

The Web Travels in Deep Ruts

Recently I came across an older NY Times article on what is called "cumulative advantage":
Is Justin Timberlake a Product of Cumulative Advantage?
Cumulative advantage is the process by which people, when choosing something -- music to listen to, a product to buy, a movie to watch, a book to read -- are strongly influenced by the choices that other people have already made in the same space. In a nutshell, it is the process by which the rich get richer and the popular get even more so.
"...when people tend to like what other people like, differences in popularity are subject to what is called “cumulative advantage,” or the “rich get richer” effect. This means that if one object happens to be slightly more popular than another at just the right point, it will tend to become more popular still. As a result, even tiny, random fluctuations can blow up, generating potentially enormous long-run differences among even indistinguishable competitors — a phenomenon that is similar in some ways to the famous “butterfly effect” from chaos theory. Thus, if history were to be somehow rerun many times, seemingly identical universes with the same set of competitors and the same overall market tastes would quickly generate different winners: Madonna would have been popular in this world, but in some other version of history, she would be a nobody, and someone we have never heard of would be in her place."
This idea has all sorts of applications. First off, it makes market predictions nearly impossible. You can't predict which product will conquer all others because the intrinsic elements of that product -- its price, its quality, etc. -- are only partially responsible for its eventual success or failure. Take the iPod, for instance. It wasn't the first MP3 player. It arguably wasn't even the best when it first hit the market. But it was good enough for lots of people, and once it seemed like everyone had an iPod, Apple had the sort of thing that marketing money can't buy: the implicit endorsement of an entire population. When you're shopping for an MP3 player, what are you going to buy -- the Sandisk player that seems all right but which you don't know much about, or the iPod that lots of other people have bought before you (and it must be good, otherwise people wouldn't be buying it)? Odds are you'll make the choice that everyone else is making, thereby adding your weight to the iPod's cumulative advantage.

Clearly this is a serious problem for anyone trying to enter an established market, since you have to overcome the cumulative advantage of the rivals who are already there. That's obvious. But I think there's an interesting take on this question for website design: namely that cumulative advantage can also influence your traffic. I'm not just referring to Google's PageRank, though that's certainly a factor; Google weights more heavily sites that are referred to from other sites, so search will give a clear (cumulative) advantage to a site that's already out there, gathering links. But I think it may go deeper than this.

Consider a community-oriented site. Let's say it has articles, news posts, maybe a blog, maybe a forum, maybe even a wiki. Some of that content reflects traffic, some of it doesn't. Forums clearly display where the most posts are; they also often display elsewhere on the site what the most recent posts are. Blogs display traffic by way of comments. Wikis display traffic by the weight and detail of articles. All of these send a message to a site's visitors: this is where other people have gone. So, when you're on the site for the first time and wondering what to click on, where are you likely to go? To the (perhaps excellent) article or news post that (for all you know) has never been read before, or to the parts of the site that you can tell are attracting lots of attention? I think I already know.

It would be great to test this. I'm envisioning an A/B test in which some element of site content -- let's say news -- is published both with and without traffic figures (maybe a little feature below the news title that says, "Article read X times"). I'm willing to bet that showing readers where the traffic before them has gone will strongly influence them to head in that same direction themselves. Of course, this would mean a slow and lingering death for any content branded with the "Article read 0 times" mark of shame. You win some, and you lose some.

Bottom line takeaway: popularity and quality are rarely the same thing, and most likely that functions on the micro level as well as the macro. So don't take it too hard if your best stuff is getting next to no traffic; it may be that something else just happened to gain a cumulative advantage.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Newspaper 2.0

Via Techdirt, I came across a nice story of a Belgian newspaper that opened the door to the community of its readers. The writing and editorial staff were meeting to plan their coverage of the banking crisis, and one staff member live-blogged the meeting -- in effect inviting the newspaper website's readers into the room. The result was a lively back-and-forth, in which readers suggested story angles and submitted leads, while the newspaper staff posted updates as news broke.

It's an inspiring story. No doubt you've seen the many, many stories about how newspapers are unsure of what to do with the Internet, let alone social networks; too often those stories break down along the lines of newspaper writers complaining that Google is somehow stealing their content, or that the federal government should subsidize print newspapers in order to preserve the social function that they serve. Rarely, as here, do you see a story of a newspaper actively engaging with the community formed by its readers. There's a paternalistic tone to many of these stories, whereby the newspaper reporters are the keepers of knowledge and we, on the reader side, are mere passive recipients. But a newspaper's readership comprises a broad swath of society, and many of those readers have deep insights or unique perspectives that would enrich the coverage that a newspaper can provide. First, though, the newspaper staff has to be willing to listen.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Online Community: Still a Sausage Factory?

This morning the NY Times reports on a study released by the University of Southern California's Center for the Digital Future, in which men and women were polled about their feelings about online connections vs. real-world connections. According to the poll's findings, 60.3% of men value their online connections as highly as their offline connections, as opposed to just 47% of women. Men are also three times as likely to say that commitment to their online connections forces them to cut back on time spent with offline associates -- 21.5% of men vs. 7.3% of women.

Here's a link to the original press release (PDF format).

At first blush, this falls into the category of studies that are like cotton candy: they taste good at first, but ultimately are unsatisfying. How many men and women were polled? What was the age range, and how affluent were they? The numbers don't mean much if you can't place them in context.

A bigger problem with the study, though, is that it's being presented as an emerging trend:
"Visiting online communities and social networking sites is still an evolving experience for most Internet users, but we're already seeing gender differences of this type in online use," said Jeffrey I. Cole, director of the Center for the Digital Future. "These experiences will be major factors in social communication as relationships over the Internet increase."

Center researchers also report emerging gender differences in web surfing frequency and online reading habits. Findings from the Center's 2008 Digital Future Project reveal that men are more likely than women to surf the web "at least daily" (53.5 to 40.5 percent).
To which I can only say, where have these guys been? I can remember a day when online communities were for all intents and purposes 100% male. A gaming clan I used to belong to had a single woman among its 50-odd members, and that fact made us notorious among rival clans. It used to be that, if you met someone online who claimed to be a woman, acted like a woman, and uploaded pictures of herself showing that she was a woman, you were still pretty sure that "she" was actually a dude.

Interpretation always depends on your choice of baseline. If you posit -- as the authors of this study apparently did -- some mythical starting point in which men and women were perfectly equal in their likelihood to form online connections, then 60% to 47% looks like a worrying trend: we're throwing a party but no one's on the dance floor and the women are already starting to leave. If, however, your baseline is the actual history of online communities in this country, these numbers start to look a little different. 60% to 47% still looks like an emerging trend, but the trend line is moving in the opposite direction: far more women today are actively socializing online than in the past.

So, yes -- online communities are still numerically dominated by men. But, if this study has anything to teach us, it's that women are starting to show up in real numbers. Let's get this party started.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Wondering How Twitter Will Make Money? You're Stupid!

This morning's moment of inanity comes courtesy of, in which they interview one of the venture capitalists investing in Twitter.
Twitter to Get Down to Business in 2009, Investors Say
To all of us who wonder how a micro-blogging service is ever going to make money, one of those investors has a singularly nuanced message: "Shut up, stupid face!"
“It’s like the stupidest question in the world: How’s Twitter going to make money?," said Union Square Ventures’ Fred Wilson, another investor. "It’s like 'How was Google going to make money?'"
And he's right, because of course there's no difference at all between Google and Twitter. One is a search engine that attracts people who are deliberately looking for something -- and often they're looking for something to buy -- while the other is a communication service that has no obvious merchandising or advertising tie-in. Ummm, wait a minute...

If you want to take a moment to make sure that Union Square Ventures' Fred Wilson isn't managing any of your money, go ahead -- I'll wait.

Back? OK. Wilson's confidence, it turns out, isn't based on anything that Twitter is doing. Instead he's looking at what other companies are doing -- or trying to do -- with Twitter.
Wilson said there are plenty of possibilities for building a business on Twitter, not only for themselves but for third party developers, like Twitterific, which are already supporting advertising in their apps. The recently acquired search engine, Summize, might be a good place to start.

“There’s a lot of commercial activity happening today on Twitter, and what Twitter’s going to do is figure out how to harness that commercial activity and make it better and stronger,” said Wilson.
Got that? If you're wondering about Twitter's future, stop. They're thinking about it. Brilliance is sure to ensue.

Of course this is little more than whistling in the wind, which is understandable in the middle of a recession (which until a few days ago looked like it might turn into a depression). Wilson's only notable for being unusually bad at disguising his wind-whistling. And while Twitter's intellectual elite may, in fact, figure out the perfect business plan for a service that depends entirely on being unobtrusive and ultimately not all that engaging, you and I are perfectly justified in wondering how they're going to do it. The fact that Google -- a company founded by different people, in a different market segment, at a different time, and with a different purpose -- managed to find a way to make money does not exactly fill me with confidence for Twitter's future.

Hell, they'll do well if they can just find a way to keep their servers from crashing.