Archive for the ‘Social Networking’ Category

What this Cartoon can Teach the FriendFeed Team.

April 7, 2009

argylesweater10

I’ve been involved in the cartoon world more or less since 1995.  As I’ve stated before, I think lessons learned there can often translate into the tech world.

This gag is from a comic feature called Argyle Sweater, which was recently picked up for syndication by Universal Press.  Not to dismiss the creator Scott Hilburn and his work, but the comic panel is an obvious derivative of Gary Larson’s The Far Side.  (Btw, the gag shown here clearly needs editing…this was created before the UPS contract.)

Here’s the thing about comic strips and panels: you must be first at captivating the public with a winning concept or you’ll always be an also-ran, a “poor man’s Bugs Bunny,” a “no-hoper”– EVEN IF YOUR PRODUCT IS BETTER!

Another good example of this is Scott Adam’s Dilbert.  After Dilbert became a blockbuster in 1996, many a comic feature about cubicle-dwelling tech guys made it to the ponder piles of syndicates and newspapers, but none of them was ever picked up, even the one or two that were better than Dilbert has become.

The only reason Argyle Sweater in now able to be syndicated at all is because it’s been over 14 years since The Far Side ended, so there is a new generation of readers.  And even at that, Argyle can never hope to come close to the success of its predecessor.

The point here is obvious.  FriendFeed isn’t going to come close to Twitter’s success, even though it’s a better product.  Lot’s of people have been saying that Michael Arrington is arrogant (what else is new?! J ) for writing FriendFeed is in Danger of Becoming the Coolest App No One Uses, but Arrington is right. 

Robert Scoble good-naturedly jabbed Arrington for saying that “no one is using FriendFeed,” but that misses the point that no matter how many people use FriendFeed at this point, the window is closed.  It’s too late.  FF and Twitter could have competed head to head if this new UI had been released a year ago, but Twitter has sense become a blockbuster.  It’s Dilbert.  It’s The Far Side. 

Twitter is the product that has won the public’s imagination.  It’s too late for FriendFeed.

And for all those who say “But FriendFeed isn’t a competitor!  FriendFeed is different!”  Yeah right.  Just the way Argyle Sweater is different.  Just the way all those cloned Calvin and Hobbes strips submitted to my online cartoon syndicate were different.  “But it’s a bear, not a tiger!” 

SIGH  I have known cartoonists who have wasted YEARS arguing that their comic is different.

Use FriendFeed and enjoy it!   I do.  And read Argyle Sweater if you like it.  (I don’t, sorry.)  But let’s not delude ourselves.  The only way FriendFeed has a shot is to do something spectacularly bold and different, such as using the technology to become something else entirely.  My advice to the FriendFeed team (yeah, right…as if they’d listen, but what the hey): Take your skills and start over with a new product in a daring way.  That could work, and there are still original ideas to develop, just like there are original cartoon concepts.  It’s just harder now. 

This new UI, as good as it is, isn’t going to cut it.  And I hate to see talented people waste their time.  Start fresh.  Go back to the drawing board.  Take your tremendous skills and try again.  Don’t be yet another frustrated creator stubbornly stuck on a no-win concept.

Follow People? Follow Topics? Why not Both at the Same Time?

February 26, 2009

There’s been growing controversy lately about following people on Twitter – debate on why, who, when, how many, etcLouis Gray suggests that it’s topics, not people, that we really want to follow.   I think it’s both.  

How do we know people in the real world?  It’s by the roles that we play: Mom, churchgoer, PTA member, etc.; but it’s also by the interests we have:  blacksmithing, motorcycles, photography, and so on.

What social networks need to do, IMO, is break people down by their “hats” like Marine Mom, Movie Lover, Social Media Watcher, CEO, and so on.  Then instead of following a whole person, you can pick and choose which of their hats you want to follow and then designate which hat you are wearing as you do so.

1) Take Robert Scoble as an example.  Robert and I don’t agree on politics and we’ve clashed because of it.  I’d like to follow Robert’s “tech evangelist” hat, but I don’t want to follow his political hat.  Robert could slice himself down into the different persons he is:  Father, Silicon Valley Resident, Videographer, Photographer, whatever, and then I could pick and choose which Roberts I want to follow.  This takes out all the noise and offensive stuff I don’t want.

2) So instead of tagging every post to make it searchable, the writer simply has to state which hat she’s writing under. 

3) The system could easily keep track of the urls that people are exchanging and aggregate the pieces talked about most often by hat so that popular stuff is never missed.  There could also be a digg-like ranking.  This “group push method” decreases the need to follow so many individual people.

4) Since I would tell the system which hat I’m wearing as I follow somebody’s else’s hat, that person will know what it is I am expecting or wanting from him.  For example, right now Robert is just Scobleizer.    He doesn’t know why different people are following him.  But if people signed up for his feed under their hats, he could get a much better sense of who his readers are.  Maybe some are CEOs, some are IT guys, some are geek-curious…  The first tenet of writing is to know who your audience is.  A breakdown of hats by percentage is a heck of a lot more meaningful than the current blind lists of strange faces we now get.

5) With Twitter (or whatever social network it is) getting thin sliced into varied hats, it would be very easy to find people you want to talk to.  For example, I’m a dog lover.  I could read the dog lover feed which would blast every dog lover’s post, but from that I could select individuals I wish to follow, in order to get it down to a manageable size, customized just for me.  The way I would design this is to have a +1 and -1 ranking, so that when I see something I like, I give it a +1 and when I see something I don’t like, I give it a -1.  The system itself would keep track of who I like best and I would automatically start following those people I respond well to, with the others falling off.  Of course, I could also choose outright to follow certain people and block others.  (Wouldn’t it be interesting if everybody’s Twitter or FriendFeed posts were blind and you started sorting people by +1’s and -1’s according to what they write?  Do you think you’d end up following the same people you are following now?)

6) At some point, hats could be subcategorized so that I could still be “dog lover” but also “boxer owner” as a subcategory.  And hats could be cross-checked.  So if I choose to have a “Hillsboro, OR resident” hat,  too, another boxer owner in the area could easily find me and we could make a play date at the dog park.

7) With this system, there is no pressure to follow particular people.  I myself think it would be better if people could choose to make it blind or not.  Personally, I don’t think it’s anybody’s business who I follow and who is following me.

8 ) Of course, all this thin slicing sets the table for very targeted ads (even local ads!!) so a strong monetization plan is readymade.  Of course, as I’ve written about many times on this blog, I think that advertising should be turned over to users, so that you pick and choose which ads to promote (if any), and you get compensated.   This way, you don’t have to keep a blog to make money from all your interaction.

9) Besides hats, social networks should be divided by space, too – Intimate, Private, Social, Public – but that’s another story.

I don’t think Twitter is a fad, but I do believe all this following-orgy is.  That’s why I designed my own ideal social network a different way.  But with this horrible economy, I won’t get funding, and I’d still like to see this implemented.  So maybe somebody else will go for it.  If Twitter did, I’d start using it.  As it is now, it’s worthless to me.  More pain than gain.

At the risk of being a broken record, let me say once again that all of these problems (and more!) could be avoided if technology wasn’t the only thing that VCs and CEOs cared about when designing sites and applications.  It’s SOCIAL media, after all.  Bring in the social scientists and others who understand vital issues besides coding, and the Web will be a much better, more efficient and more peaceful place.  Not to mention a whole lot healthier financially, too.

2009’s Big Startup Opportunity: The End of Yertle-the-Turtle Social Networking

December 15, 2008

yertle-jpg1Remember Dr. Seuss’s book Yertle the Turtle?  It was one of my favorite stories when I was young.  I still have a copy. 

“On the far-away Island of Sala-ma-Sond, Yertle the Turtle was king of the pond.”  From the perch of his rock, he ruled all that he could see: “But I don’t see enough.  That’s the trouble with me.”  So one day he decided to build a tall throne out of his fellow turtles so that he could see more.  

And it worked.  “I’m Yertle the Turtle!  Oh, marvelous me!  For I am the ruler of all that I see!”

Never satisfied with his growing empire, King Yertle kept demanding more and more turtles so he could get higher and higher.  “Turtles!  More turtles!  He bellowed and brayed.”  And one after another, they came.  “They obeyed.”

Until finally the small turtle on the bottom named Mack had enough.  “Your Majesty, please…I don’t like to complain, But down here below, we are feeling great pain.  I know, up on top you are seeing great sights, But down at the bottom we, too, should have rights.” 

“You hush up your mouth!” howled the mighty King Yertle.  “You’ve no right to talk to the world’s highest turtle.”

Then, Yertle the Turtle King started to give the command for more turtles, but this time: “That plain little turtle below in the stack, That plain little turtle whose name was just Mack, Decided he’d taken enough.  And he had.  And that plain little lad got a little bit mad.  And that plain little Mack did a plain little thing.  He burped!  And his burp shook the throne of the king!”

Then “Yertle, the King of all Sala-ma-Sond, Fell off his high throne and fell Plunk! in the pond!” J

Ha!  I still love this story.  Maybe that’s why I can’t help thinking of it whenever I read somebody once again crowing about how many friends they have on Twitter or MySpace or Facebook or FriendFeed.   “I have almost 2,000 friends!”…”I have over 13,000 friends!”  It’s as if they are building thrones for themselves out of fellow human beings.

I believe Yertle-the-Turtle-type social networking, and the social networks themselves that rely on it, will start falling from grace in 2009.  Here’s why:

1) Time and usage are naturally maturing social networking and this kind of “I have more friends than you!” status climbing smacks too much like “My dad is bigger than your dad!”  People (and networks themselves) who cling to old standards of prestige are going to look increasingly pathetic.

2) Most of these connections are totally meaningless, often brought about because somebody befriended you and you felt compelled to do the same in return (or it was done automatically for you), without so much as even looking at his or her profile. 

Face it, if you are but one of thousands of “friends” what’s the likelihood that this person will ever respond to you?  Now that the economy is in decline and people’s stress level is correspondingly rising, real friendships with consistent interaction will increase in value.  Fake friendships will be discarded as noisy distractions that only waste time and feed irritability.  Our increased sensitivity to betrayal and intolerance for things we can’t count on will demand that we shed false friendships and house-of-cards networks. “Scaling back” will happen psychologically as it happens economically.

The good news is that a growing appreciation for true connection will have the benefit of increasing our social fabric’s thread count.  Today’s Web mesh is largely held together by widely separated Yertle Kings who gather eyeballs but don’t generate much genuine discussion, and thereby little bottom-up connection.  Tomorrow’s social fabric will have a much tighter weave, and hence be softer, more satisfying and stronger.  Luxury brought forth from hardship.  Ahhhhh.

 3) The number of Macks who are brave enough to burp will begin exploding soon because of the increasingly bad economy that will make them ever more cognizant of (and desperate for) this truth: authentic and lasting social networks are simultaneously economic networks serving the material good of all members – as it’s been for 200,000 years.

Lane Hartwell was the first “Mack” that caught my attention.  It was exactly a year ago this week that we had the blow up regarding the Richter Scales video about the tech bubble.  (Awww, the good ol’ days!! J )  It’s a fabulous video, and we need to foster more mashups like this, not fewer.  But all creators in the value chain must be paid.

Why should Michael Arrington, who is making millions of dollars from TechCrunch, be able to run such a video for free?  Newspapers and magazines pay creators for content.  As blogging moves closer to “real” media, bloggers will inevitably start having to pay their fair share, too.  The technology is now available to make it all workable as a win-win for all concerned.  (See my video on Saving Digital Artists if you want to learn my own approach.)

So far, social networks have been designed to enrich nobody but the owners, too often, off the backs of others.  For example, how much of the $1.65 billion that YouTube fetched was shared with the creators of all those videos that made the site successful?  Answer: Not one dime. 

4)  Belching Macks won’t be limited to artists.  Network members themselves, who are feeling the collapsing economy’s weight on their own backs, are going to increasingly become resentful of business models that drown pages they create in ads that earn other people money but nothing for themselves.  King Yertle can link to your brilliant web post, just as he can feed his own readers with your comments and reactions, but unless you’re a Yertle yourself who is big enough to have your own revenue model in place, you’ll get nothing out of it except maybe a few comments in return. 

In social networking, monetization models, if they exist at all, are not distributive.  How much ad revenue does billionaire Mark Zuckerberg share with the users of Facebook who create all that advertising inventory in the first place?  Answer: $0.00.  Resentment already exists and will build in 2009.

Please don’t misunderstand me.  There’s nothing inherently wrong with having thousands, even tens of thousands of followers.  More power to you!  But don’t call them “friends” and don’t gather people like baseball cards just to feed your ego.  Being at the top of your social network shouldn’t demand treating it as a throne.  You should be mindful to serve your network as much as it serves you, and you should be provided the tools to do so.

The bottom line is, 2009 is going to prove that social networking is far from being a won space.  If you want to build a different kind of social network, don’t be intimidated by naysayers who think it’s too late.  No, the window won’t be open forever, but it is still open now. 

Remember, kingmakers like FriendFeed and even that “oh, marvelous” Facebook – which acts as oblivious to the risks of their own fevered climb as Yertle was to his – are all vulnerable to falling Plunk! in the mud.  Design something better.  I am.  You can, too.   Nobody is the Google of Social Networking.  Not yet. (See my post on “The Next Calvin and Hobbes vs. the Next Google: 5 Tips” )

Sharp VCs will listen to us and take advantage of the new opportunities that this recession brings, mindful that nobody is chained to any existing social network.  As Dr. Seuss says:

And the turtles, of course…all the turtles are free

As turtles and, maybe, all creatures should be.