Models for defining a social network user experiences

As we’re making OpenSky more social I’ve been spending a lot of time looking at social networks and recently realized that social interactions on social networking sites can be reduced to verb-noun-verb definitions that:

  • Outline a share-object-consume chain
  • Have simple, well-defined verbs

Here are some examples of those definitions:

Twitter
Tweet links to click
Facebook
Share photos to comment on
LinkedIn
Post resumes to recruit
DeviantArt
Post art to fave
Meetup
Announce meetups to attend
Yelp
Review restaurants to visit

Facebook sort of breaks the definition with their shared focus on both loves and comments, but their feedback loop focuses on notifying sharers (and other commenters) of comments, so I think it’s the more central user experience.

The best share-object-consume chains are designed so the consumption gives the sharer direct positive feedback. In cases like Yelp where attending a restaurant doesn’t feed back to a reviewer, a scaffolding of alternative feedback becomes necessary. This is where Yelp beat Citysearch: their review tags and compliments are likely precursors to the reader visiting a restaurant. It’s a stretch to scaffold the feedback in this manner; Yelp nailed it with solid product design while Citysearch never seems to have recognized the problem.

Another goal for a successful network is making consumption easy, so positive feedback happens often, thereby encouraging additional subsequent shares. This is typically solved by going one step upstream from the consuming action to the indicator of intent: Meetup talks about members more than attendees (and Twitter focuses on followers more than clickers).

Abstracted in this way, social networks are marketplaces where sharers play the role of vendors and consumers are buyers. So social network design needs to solve many of the same user experience problems as marketplaces:

  • Is there a large population of interested consumers?
  • Is it easy for them to find good vendors (where “good” is a function of quality and relevance)?
  • Are consumables cheap to generate?
  • Is it easy to put consumables into the marketplace?
  • Is it easy to consume them?
  • Is it clear to what makes a consumable valuable?

All of this points to designing networks where there’s a clear way to share a specific object via a consistent, easy process, so that it can be consumed in a specific manner (and making sure that people want to consume that thing).

How to game KickStarter

KickStarter‘s cool but I feel like I see too many projects hit their funding numbers at the last minute of the pledge window. Call me a cynic, but after thinking about this on the train one morning, I devised this scheme for getting “free” money for your project.

  1. Start your project the old-fashioned way: gather up the cash you’ll need to cover it.
  2. Get your project listed on KickStarter. Set the tipping point to match the amount of cash you have on hand.
  3. During the KickStarter pledge period, play by their rules and try to raise as much money as you can.
  4. At the last hour of the pledge period, check your numbers. If the project’s funding level is between 10% and 100% of the tipping point, take your own cash and pledge the remainder to tip the project.
  5. You’ll take home whatever amount you’ve raised, even if it would’ve normally been below the tipping point.

The only case where this isn’t effective is if a project fails to raise at least 10% of the tipping point: KickStarter takes a 5% commission and Amazon payments amount to 3-5% of payments, so the first 10% of real pledges are needed to cover those commissions. But beyond that, any already-funded project is on a risk-free gravy train.

This means that if you’re going to embark on an artistic endeavor and have enough cash on hand to finance it, there’s no reason not to try to get it listed on KickStarter to offset some portion of the cost. If enough KickStarter projects shift to this model, the spirit of the site goes from a collection Cinderella barn-raising stories to cases of “I’m going to do this anyway, anyone feel like chipping in?”

…which makes me wonder if there’s a business case for facilitating the latter from the outset, rather than waiting for the inevitable (or fighting it).

The problems with tweets/micrcommunications

As tweets/txts/social feeds and other microcommunications take a larger share of the new media landscape, it’s hitting a utility wall. Some issues to solve:

How do you make big decisions from microdata?

Right now, everyone seems focused on real-time search with some component of qualitative measures on individual tweets.

How do you tie microdata to “macro” memory?

Tweets are great for reporting but not for analysis or growth – the best content producers tend to spend the most time composing their communications and linking it to historical information. Reading a book is almost always a better choice than spending time on Twitter. Unless this public stream of consciousness is a precursor of singularity it is severely flawed.

With microcommunication platforms amplifying all signals, spam is becoming increasingly problematic – how is this managed?

Right now, filters are generally based on peer networks, but peer networks are only 1 dimension of the social space (another, more valuable one being interest networks) – and peer networks on permeable (API-enabled) platforms are easily infiltrated (via bots).

Figuring out social media optimization

This was initially an email, but I figured it’d be useful to repost it on my blog, in case I left anyone out of my mailing list who might like to reply.

I’m sketching out a blog post on SMO (social media optimization) eclipsing SEO as a focus for online marketing.

If you have brains and some experience in “social media marketing,” whether it’s getting active on Twitter, pimping your site on social networks, starting Meetups, etc., would you mind leaving a comment with your responses to the following questions?

  1. Do you think SMO is all hype? Is SEO (or even traditional marketing) still more relevant?
  2. Can you name any other valuable SMO “placements,” such as Digg’s front page, FB feeds, etc.?
  3. Getting integrated into FB Connect so your platform’s activities are written into FB feeds seems like a must-do for any serious web app. If you were trying to define SMO best practices, what other practices would you recommend for grabbing a social media spotlight? Email bloggers? Reply to tweets that match keywords of interest?
  4. What tools (if any) do you use for SMO (e.g. TweetDeck, email campaign management, link marketplaces, web rings)?
  5. Anything else? Do you think SMO can be outsourced? Does SMO have to be the product of passion?

This stems from my realization that it’s probably more valuable to have a link to your site appear in 100 peoples’ activity feeds on Facebook than on a page of Google search results, particularly if you’re going for something more than simple traffic (trying to sell something, for instance). My own experience building dubandreggae.com’s membership reinforces this belief, though there’s an obvious bias, because DnR is a socnet rather than a brand, vendor, or media outlet. This has been reinforced though, with Justin’s recent launch of LAMP Security – he’s seen a jump in traffic thanks to posting security advisories to niche mailing lists and being reblogged within the space.

Thanks for any help and insight you have on this topic. I’m happy to compile and share the responses – in addition to synthesizing the information into a blog post – if you want to read them, and I’ll credit contributors in the post itself. I’d also be happy if you forwarded this to anyone else who is knowledgeable and might respond, especially social thought superheroes.

Peace out
c

Notes from NYTimes “Ambient awareness” article

A recent NYTimes Magazine article on microblogging provides a great definition of the value of Facebook statuses, tweets, and other online “status” communication tools:

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.

[…]

“It’s an aggregate phenomenon,” Marc Davis, a chief scientist at Yahoo and former professor of information science at the University of California at Berkeley, told me. “No message is the single-most-important message. It’s sort of like when you’re sitting with someone and you look over and they smile at you. You’re sitting here reading the paper, and you’re doing your side-by-side thing, and you just sort of let people know you’re aware of them.”

Why is this important?

Paul Graham is a big proponent of face-to-face communication as a critical component to cooperation, business success, and innovation. In his article on great cities, he observes that :

Maybe one day the most important community you belong to will be a virtual one, and it won’t matter where you live physically. But I wouldn’t bet on it. The physical world is very high bandwidth, and some of the ways cities send you messages are quite subtle.

He repeats a similar “high bandwidth” mantra in an article on why startup founders should all sit together in the same room: because there is a great deal of important subtle, ambient information that we pick up in person but wouldn’t ever make time to include in a media communication.

That’s exactly the kind of communication that is provided by Flickr. Again from the NYTimes article (excerpt edited):

“Ambient awareness” is 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.

“Instant” is synonym of “immediate”. The American Heritage Dictionary defines immediate in one sense as “Acting or occurring without the interposition of another agency or object; direct.” The word’s etymology is from the Middle English immediat, from Old French, from Late Latin immediātus : Latin in-, not; + Latin mediātus, past participle of mediāre, “to halve,” later, “be in the middle,” from Latin medius “middle.”

“Instant” bypasses many of the normal downsides associated with mediated communication. This only works if microcommunications are cheap to create (e.g. Ping.fm, Twitter, Zannel) and it’s possible for an audience to see the relationship between them (e.g. FriendFeed).

Nodes, connections, and context

For a user, the Internet is just a dynamic application. All of the websites and apps and everything else add up to the same abstract features that are present in any desktop app:

  1. Store/read data
  2. Query for data
  3. Write/edit data

That’s a useful conceptual framework for planning a successful startup in today’s internet.

The 3 pieces of the Internet experience

The dynamicism derives from the constellation of websites that any specific person uses, but the person is still just entering URLs, reading text, clicking buttons, and entering data. Websites provide roughly 3 experience types:

  1. Nodes
  2. Connections
  3. Context

(This is probably familiar lingo for social networking geeks.)

To map those 3 experiences to a high-level software architecture:

  1. Nodes are data in the database, the raw “thought stuff”
  2. Connections are relational tables and queries, the data organization and logic
  3. Context is the application layer, the tool that says “we’ll use these nodes and connections to buy airplane tickets, so we’ll need to read and write in the following ways”

A rough history of the Internet seems to show that important startups are progressing from Nodes to Connections, which leads me to think that the future interesting startups will either make better attempts at owning the whole architecture or will find sophisticated approaches to the Context experience.

  1. Early websites focused on content (Nodes), with hyperlinks solving the Connections problem.
  2. Portal sites (Yahoo!, DMOZ) try to organize the content, thereby “owning” the Nodes by creating a map of all of the data. They’re not scalable. Search wins by providing access to any Node the user desires. Web rings are an interesting sidenote in the Node race, as they allow site owners to associate their data with each other and collaboratively increase exposure of their Nodes.
  3. Web 2.0 is about Connections. Social networks evolved nodes from encyclopedic data to social data, and now there is a lot more data in toto that it becomes far more valuable when interconnected. Standards are a critical sidenote in facilitating Connections. XML was interesting but not standardized enough. RSS, oauth, hcard, and microformats create a flurry of experimentation, first as mashups (connected nodes), then widgets (encapsulated, decontextualized nodes), then apps (widgets that connect nodes within standardized contexts, whether Facebook or Open Social). Social networking is all about connecting a user’s data (nodes) with related nodes – LinkedIn, Friend Feeds, Twitter, etc.

So what about Context? Facebook began as a narrow Context play (college students), created a popular standard for Nodes (profiles) and Connections (friend feeds and app APIs). Nowadays, they nearly own Connections the way Google owns nodes. It’s interesting to me to see FriendFeed try to compete there and own Connections by aggregating them (a Connection portal? Is this what Imeem is?).

Facebook is also abstracting their Context so they can own that, too, and become the de facto context for all Nodes and Connections.

I think startups succeed really well when they create an abstracted tool within one of these three experience types:

  1. Google (Access to nodes)
  2. Yahoo (Node filtering)
  3. YouTube, Flickr, Photobucket (Node hosting)
  4. MySpace, Facebook (Nodes and Connections – Myspace is more the former, Facebook is more the latter)
  5. Twitter and AIM (Connections to people Nodes)

Being an app container means Facebook is basically saying “we control the primary Nodes (people), and the Connection standard. We’ll allow you to plug your secondary Nodes (favorite albums) into our Connections and also create secondary Connections (other people who like El Ten Eleven) atop our standards.” Doing so allows Facebook to create a popular Context for the user experience (interacting with other people, which is very popular right now). Facebook is trying to abstract the context by reaching beyond college students but I think they’re hitting a conceptual wall – Facebook’s core context is still messaging and keeping tabs on people.

I think there are a couple ways to succeed in this framework, at this time:

  1. Build a better connection solution. I think the nodes problem is mostly solved, so now it’s interesting to try to connect those nodes. I think FriendFeed has the biggest potential here because it can theoretically play with any node (due to the popularity of RSS) whereas Facebook is trying to own Nodes and Connections, putting them in conflict with other Node hosts.
  2. Solve context problems. I think Meetup could improve vastly if they allowed:
    1. Registration via OpenId and oauth.
    2. Full integration with Flickr, YouTube, WetPaint, vBulletin, etc.
    3. Integration (rather than competition) with other event services: Evite, Eventful, Upcoming, etc.

    In this way, Meetup would defer the first 2 experience layers to point solutions and instead provide a contextual container for using them, like an app that could pull from many databases and mash up functionality from other apps. In that way, Meetup would become the best context for social gatherings, in the same way that Friend Feed is a connection(al?) container for all kinds of media and message Nodes.

I think #2 is the most compelling case today. People are solving context in specific ways, but I don’t think it’s paradoxical to try to create an abstracted solution for specific contexts (as opposed to a very broad context, a la Facebook).

How to fail, in this model

Trying to solve a problem at one experience level without dealing with the tier(s) below.

I think this is most commonly seen with niche social networks. What’s the point of creating a SN for stickball players if they have to create a whole new account? You won’t get enough nodes to make the connections valuable, so the context won’t exist. It’s like creating a ticketing system that can only book Delta flights out of Des Moine. Yes, it’s useful to business travelers in Des Moine that have a ton of Delta Sky Miles, but that’s probably not going to lead to your billion dollar IPO/buyout.

I think this also happens when web sites try to “own” all 3 experience levels within a walled garden – it expects Context to be so compelling that users will ignore the weakness of the lower 2 levels on 2 levels: they aren’t as sophisticated as specialist point solutions and the user is restricted to a subset of all of the Nodes and Connections that might be relevant to the Context.

Buhnilla

So a lot of this is an argument for the business value of integrating feeds, widgets, and external APIs into a startup (and providing all of these tools for other sites, so they’ll resell your features and data). I have a blue-sky concept of a permeable SN framework called Buhnilla. The goal would be to put as little data or application logic in Buhnilla as possible, just push it all out to point solutions (e.g. users can’t upload photos but they can display galleries of their Flickr photos, filtered by tags; users can’t create profiles but they can use oauth to log in and show their Plaxo and LinkeIn data). If Buhnilla were a Facebook and Open Social container it would be even more powerful, because it would then basically become a merchant for Nodes and Connections. Open source Buhnilla and people could shape it to any Context they desired.

Why SEO matters for user-generated content

Lately I’ve been surprised to hear people say something to the effect of “when it comes to social networking and UGC, SEO doesn’t matter” in a number of different conversations. Nothing could be farther from the truth. In fact, SEO is more important to a successful social networking and user-generated content than for editorial content.

UGC, including media uploads, blogs, profiles, comments, message boards, and the like, is nearly free content. Unlike editorially-generated content, which requires writers, editors and sundry other creative professionals and associated payrolls, UGC is as simple as making a space and inviting people to join the conversation. Once the technical framework is in place and people have joined it, they’ll begin contributing their own content, whether it’s MySpace profiles, Amazon book reviews, or Yuku message boards.

I write “nearly free” because the community voluntarily creates this content – the only incremental costs come from supporting the infrastructure, which becomes cheaper every day, and policing the community, a cost that can be spread to the community itself in the form of volunteer editors and “digg down” or “flag as inappropriate” links. In addition to being nearly free, UGC is also generally low quality and has relatively limited appeal. However, a business that can cheaply monetize a large body of UGC has a nice asset on their hands. Cheap monetization means the niche audience that appreciates a particular piece of UGC can find it without any editorial effort – the best way to achieve this is SEO.

The often-unstated assumption of “no SEO for UGC” is that the user-generated content isn’t valuable. It’s ugly, mostly pointless, not shaped for general consumption. But 1 million ugly MySpace pages don’t lie – people want to create and consume UGC. 20 million people might want to read Hilary Clinton’s professionally ghost-written book while only 2 people want to read this blog (thanks for being here!), but if I can find a way to make those 2 page views pay more than they cost, it’s a small, good business decision to write a barely-popular blog post. If you can aggregate a lot of those small, good business decisions it really starts to make sense. UGC is valuable beyond echoing editorial content – it’s often the only way to build a library of truly niche content. If you’ve ever used Google to troubleshoot an obscure problem with an electronic device, you probably found your answer on a message board, written not by the device manufacturer but by a fellow consumer. If you’ve ever read wikipedia you’ve gloried in ugly, mostly pointless, barely factual information.

With SEO in place, every piece of UGC becomes as valuable as possible. A single piece of editorial content might generate a lot of page views, but it’s often cheaper to “create” many UGC pages and if each one gets 100 page views you have some great traffic numbers. The only way this long tail content strategy works is if the 100 people in the world who care about your photo of a rare bird that landed in your backyard can find that photo. And that depends critically on SEO.

Editorial hierarchies don’t work when it comes to UGC (and some people would argue that they don’t work for editorial content either). There’s no point hiring a bunch of editors to review all of the photos on Flickr and categorize and rate them – it would take forever, cost too much, and most of the photos are crap anyway. “Should this one go into the ‘blurry drunk party’ category or ‘dysfunctional family gathering’?” While the photos can be organized according to tag-based taxonomies, favorites, and the like, the cheapest option to make meaningful sense of all those photos is search. More specifically, Google search. Just let the user tell Google what she wants and they’ll find it in the pile, with no special effort, engineering know-how, or server load on the site that’s hosting the photo.

UGC SEO is a slightly different game than editorial SEO. With editorial content, you’re typically trying to get to the top of one very big heap (“We want to be the number one search result for ‘motorcycle’!”), but with UGC you’re getting to the top of many very small heaps, which is a lot easier and generates traffic that is generally far more relevant to your site (“We’re the number one search result for any combination of ‘motorcycle’ and a city name!”).

Searchability is a fundamental concept of long-tail economics – it depends on a perfect consumer who can access every part of the tail with equal ease. Without Google, the blockbusters continue to survive on marketing and reputation, but the quirky UGC stuff needs placement on the search results page before it can become valuable on it’s own.

Free Cat Le-Huy

Update: Cat has been freed.

Last fall I spent a few days in London setting up a project with Endemol, a reality TV production company. I was surprised to meet some very cool people over there, including Cat Le-Huy, Endemol’s head of technology. Cat is a classic computer genius – a little snarky, wants to chat about Ruby on Rails’ inherent scalability issues, loves good scotch, and is covered in tattoos. On my last night in town he invited me to a fetish model party, but I had to decline so I could get some work done. Yeah, I know, even Shannon thinks I should’ve gone.

Today I learned that Cat has been imprisoned in Dubai in what appears to be a clear violation of his human rights. He was originally arrested on suspicion of drug possession but when it was discovered that he was only carrying some over-the-counter jet lag medication he was strip searched, forced to sign an untranslated arabic-language document, and faced with charges that some specs of dirt in his luggage were actually hashish. Currently he is being held indefinitely without any charges filed against him, pending an analysis of his OTC drugs. If the possession charges stick, he’s facing a 4-year prison sentence.

Personally, I think the authorities just didn’t like a dude with tats and a big chain giving them attitude.

Please take a moment to learn more about Cat’s situation and help him out, whether you believe in good ole human rights or reality TV websites or just want to see him solve the Rails scaling issue. More information is here:
http://thetruthaboutdubai.com/

You can also read the original story from his partner here:
http://users.livejournal.com/_yungfuktoi_/306878.html
And his friend in Dubai:
http://pixthulu.livejournal.com/23108.html

If you use Digg, please digg his story here.
If you use Del.icio.us, please tag his story as well.

Please consider signing the petition to free him here:
http://thetruthaboutdubai.com/?page_id=3

Please repost, forward, and generally spread this message so we can bring Cat home. If you’re friends with the Sheikh, put in a good word for Cat and see if he’ll swing a pardon – I don’t think Cat plans any return trips to Dubai and I’d really like to get invited to another fetish ball.

Hulu will go to audiences

A nice little summary of the forthcoming Hulu launch appeared on a PC World blog today. Simply offering editorial content isn’t necessarily enough to outdo YouTube, but I was very interested in this passage:

Content owners seem to have adopted a strategy of making their stuff available wherever the eyeballs are online (Hulu also begins streaming its video at AOL, Comcast, MSN, MySpace, and Yahoo today). That’s a huge change from the studios’ very defensive posture of just 18 months ago.

Open Portals baby. This is part of the whole RSS/Widgets/content-not-URLs evolution that is sweeping the Internet. I expect to see many more similar implementations in the future.