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Archive for the ‘social media’ Category

Kill the “unread” count

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Actually, the title for the post should have been “Why Twitter Works for Me,” but it does have some valid things to say about why it trumps email and RSS readers for me.

1) It has no unread count: Almost every application that has hit us since the advent of email has made a point to remind us constantly how far behind are we lagging on information accumulation, processing and categorization. Everything these days tends to tell you that you suck if you are 1) not overwhelmed by information overload and 2) not trying out the zany fancy ways to kill the overload.

2) Simple is the new complicated: There have been numerous attempts made till date to find a complicated explanation for why Twitter works, while the fact is that it works because it is quite simple. All information is presented in flat structure, in a hassle-free manner that saves you from having to tag/organise, categorize information. In Twitter there are no labels, folders or color coding. You can dive in and swim out of conversations at will and also pick your ideal rate/degree of involvement.

In a weird way, Twitter is exactly what you want it to be. It can be a social network, a meme tracker, time-lapse instant messaging or even email lite, which is why everyone has a hard time trying to define it. It means different things to different people.

3) 140 or bust!: Since there is a soft limit of 140 characters per message, Twitter, by virtue of its form, forces users to condense the matter into concise little capsules. This automatically means that value per message per follower or message is considerably higher than what you get from subscribing to an RSS feed. The form itself ensures filtering of the content, rather than having to rely on social categorization or machine categorization.

4) Single window system: The best thing about Twitter is that it does not enforce the use of any particular software or website to participate in the conversations, or just listen in. You can do all the activities specified in (2) using any of the numerous ways that are available to interact with the framework.

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Written by shyam

March 10, 2008 at 12:32 pm

Posted in social media

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Social networks are bound to fail in the long run

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While they seem to be the toast of the online world, it is only a matter of time before the social networking websites start losing their sheen and the crazy valuations they command these days.

The lifecycle of social networking activities on individual websites can be mapped under the following heads:

Insertion: Social networks are very much like nightclubs and if you have ever been a regular clubber, you would know that not all nightclubs are created equally.

The newer and fancier clubs are where most of the cool crowd will always head for, while the less exciting ones go away pretty much unnoticed or end up serving niches that never scales up either in terms of traction or in terms of revenue.

More often than not the case for being at a new club is to be one of the first ones to get in, granting those who manage it a feeling of exclusivity. And at least in the early days insertion is much more important than the stages that follow after it.

You can see the same behavior in the case of social networks. Both Orkut and Facebook have benefited enormously from the same exclusivity as a result of their restricted entry policies in the early days.

Replication: Once an individual joins a social network, he/she wanders about replicating connections they already have in real life. There are exceptions to this behaviour, especially in the dating, younger demographic. Quite a bit of the initial spurt of activity on social networks is just this – replication of your existing social graph.

Discovery: While almost every online social network is similar to the others, they also have their own little unique ways of doing things. For instance, you “scrap” on Orkut, “poke” and “banter” on Facebook. Everyone has their own little unique way of doing things and these days, with the introduction of various platforms, there are also truckloads of applications, alongside new users to discover on the social networking sites.

The determinants

Degree of participation: Each of the above three points have degree of participation numbers attached to it. Growth on social networks slows down primarily when the number of people being inserted (new registrations, invites) decline. Secondarily, growth also slows down when the replication is mostly done with as everyone you know is already on the network by then.

To counter this, social networks may try and induce more participation from users by rewarding more participation (like a more frequently updated social stream). This can end up being a counter-productive approach, with high risk of alienating the less-frequent users.

Degree of fulfillment: All three factors can also be measured in terms of fulfillment a user gets from them. When you join, (the insertion stage) has a high degree of fulfillment attached to it, which declines over time when it is not that cool anymore, it is not that new anymore.

Replication also has high fulfillment in the initial days, getting more people on to the same platform etc. But it comes at a price. After a while, everyone you know is on the same network.

Moreover, everyone being there also deprives you of privacy. With time, you need increasing degrees of effort to maintain your profile. It is not uncommon to see users withdrawing more and more from doing things which is reflected in the public activity streams.

Gradually, everything moves to the inbox and private messages, which is a need that is already excellently served by email.

Discovery also has a high degree of initial fulfillment with users finding their way around the new websites, exploring new applications, features and people. Eventually, users get bored of using the applications and they have already added most of the people they have wanted to discover and add, resulting in falling rates of fulfillment as time progresses.

The Eventual Failure

As demonstrated above, there is little use case for sustained high levels of usage on online social networks. Over time, it is hard to battle inactivity and increasing levels of boredom for existing users.

To offset this churn, and also to prop up their stellar growth numbers, it is imperative that these websites keep adding a steady or an increasing number of new users all the time. But that number is a finite figure, determined by the number of people who use the internet and not all of them are going to sign up with social networks.

Unlike a Digg, Gmail or a news website, the value addition accrued from sustained usage of social networks is comparitively low and the need that it addresses is fairly artificial.

Another major issue of privacy and it is an issue without having to bring something like Beacon into the equation. If you do not fine-grain access control on your social stream, it is hard to figure out who all are getting to see what all parts of your life.

And if you do fine-grain access controls on social streams, it is either too much of work or it ends up being a better deal to use specialized services for it (email for communication, Flickr/Smugmug/Picasa for photo sharing, WordPress.com for blogging and so on).

Lastly, advertising inventory on social networks has till date been a major failure. Google tripped on the expectations it had from the Myspace.com inventory, advertising on Facebook or any other social network has not taken off much and the click through rates have been pretty poor on them. Unlike search or news, users don’t get on social networks to find ancillary information related to their activities. You don’t have to try too hard to imagine why there is not much context to one person poking another. It is, well, just a poke at the end of the day.

Eventually, even nightclubs need to reposition and redefine themselves every couple of years to stay in the game. Unfortunately, that is not an option that online social networks get to have and that is what will kill them

Written by shyam

March 10, 2008 at 10:07 am

Decentralized Social Data Framework: A Modest Proposal

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Twitter being down is no longer funny, nor is it even news anymore and the same is the case with Twitter-angst, where loyal users fret and fume about how often it is down. One of the interesting suggestions that have come out as a result of this is to create a decentralized version of Twitter – much on the lines of IRC – to bring about much better uptimes for the beleaguered child of Obvious Inc.

I would take the idea a lot further and argue that all social communication products should gradually turn into aggregation points. What I am proposing is a new social data framework, let us call it HyperID (since it would borrow and use heavily ideas and concepts from OpenID), from which social media websites would subscribe, push and pull data from.

Essentially, this would involve the publication of the user’s social graph as the universal starting point for services and websites to subscribe to, rather than the current approach where everyone is struggling to aggregate disparate social graphs as the end point of all activities. Ergo, we are addressing the wrong problem at the wrong place.

The current crop of problems will only be addressed when we stop pulling data into aggregators and start pushing data into service and messaging buses. Additionally, since this data is replicated across all subscriber nodes, it should also provide us with much better redundancy.

Problem Domain 

Identity: Joe User on Twitter may not always be the same as Joe User on Facebook. This is a known problem that makes discovery of content, context and connections tricky and often downright inaccurate. Google’s Social Graph API is a brave attempt at addressing this issue using XFN and FOAF, but it won’t find much success because it is initiated at the wrong end and also because it is an educated guess at the best and you don’t make those with your personal data or connections.
 
Disparate services: Joe User may only want to blog and not use photo sharing on the same platform, unlike Jane User who uses an entire gamut of services. In an even worse scenario, if Jane User wants to use blogs on a particular service provider (say, Windows Live Spaces) and photo sharing on another (Flickr, for instance), she will have to build and nurture different trust systems, contacts and reputation levels.

Data retention: Yes, service providers are now warming up to the possibility of allowing users to pull out user data from them, but it is often provided without metadata or data that is accrued over time (comments, tags, categories etc). Switching providers often leaves you with having to do the same work all over again.

Security: Social information aggregators now collect and save information by asking you for passwords and usernames on other services. This is not a sane way to work (extremely high risk of phishing) and is downright illegal at times when it involves HTML scraping and unauthorized access.

Proposed solution

Hyperid Layout

Identity, identity, identity: Start using OpenID as the base of HyperID. Users will be uniquely addressable by means of URLs. Joe User can always be associated with his URL (http://www.joeuser.com/id/), independent of the services he has subscribed to. Connections made by Joe User will also resolve to other OpenIDs. In one swipe you no longer have to scrape or crawl or guess to figure out your connections.
 
Formalize a social (meta)data vocabulary: Existing syndication formats like RSS and ATOM, are usually used to publish text content. There are extensions of these formats like Media RSS from Yahoo!, but none of them address the social data domain. 

Of the existing candidates, the Atom Publishing Protocol seems to be the most amenable to an extension like this to cover the most common of social data requirements. Additional and site-specific extensions can be added on by means of custom namespaces that define them.

You host your own social graph: With a common vocabulary, pushing, pulling and subscribing to data across different providers and subscribers should become effortless. This would also mean that you can, if you want to, host your own social graph (http://www.janeuser.com/social) or leave it up to service providers who will do it for you. I know that SixApart already does this in part with the Action Streams plugin, but it is still a pull than a push service.

Moreover, we could extend the autodiscovery protocol for RSS and use it to point to the location of the social graph, which is a considerably better and easier solution than the one proposed Social Graph.

Extend and embrace existing tech: Extend and leverage existing technologies like OpenID and Atom to authenticate and advertise available services to users depending on their access levels.

What this could mean

For companies: They have to change the way they look at usage, data and their own business models. Throwing away locked-in logins would be a scary thing to do, but you get better quality and better-profiled usage.

In the short run you are looking at existing companies changing themselves into data buses. In the longer run, it should be business as normal.

Redundancy: Since your data is replicated across different subscribers, you can push updates across to different services and assign fallbacks (primary subscriber: twitter, secondary: pownce and so on).

Subscriber applications can cache advertised fallback options and try known options if the primary ones are unavailable. 

For users: They will need to sign up with a HyperID provider or host one on their own if they are savvy enough to do that. On the surface, though, it should all be business as usual, since a well-executed API and vocabulary should do the heavy lifting behind the scenes.
 
The Opportunity

For someone like WordPress.com, diversifying into the HyperID space would be a natural extension. They could even call it Socialpress. The hypothetical service would have a dashboard like interface to control your settings, subscriptions and trusted users and an API endpoint specific to each user.

Risks

Complexity: Since data is replicated and pushed out across to different subscribers, controls will be granular by default and across different providers this could prove to be very cumbersome.

Security: Even though attacks against OpenId has not been a matter of concern, extending it would bring with it the risk of opening up new fronts in what is essentially a simple identity verification mechanism.

Synchronization: Since there is data replication involved (bi-directional like any decent framework should do), there is the possibility that lag should be there. Improperly implemented HyperID compliant websites could in theory retain data should be deleted across all subscribed nodes.

Traction: Without widespread support from the major players the initiative just won’t go anywhere. This is even more troublesome because it involves bi-directional syncing and all the parties involved are expected to play nice. If they don’t, it just won’t work. We could probably get into certification, compliance and all that jazz, but that would make it insanely complicated.

Exceptions: We are assuming here that users would want to aggregate all of their things under a single identity. I am well aware of the fact that there are valid use cases where users may want to not do that. HyperID does not prevent from doing. In fact, you could use different hyperIDs, or even specify which services you don’t want to be published at all.

Feedback

The comment space awaits you!
 
p.s: Apologies for the crappy graphic to go with the post. I am an absolute newbie on Omnigraffle and it shows! 

Written by shyam

February 4, 2008 at 1:46 pm

Burning Brijjes?

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It has been a while since we went over the entire social networking fracas vis-a-vis Brijj, which is Infoedge’s social networking product. At that point in time the contention was that it will pick up traction either organically or through Naukri, but the available metrics (I know that Techtribe.com is a bad one to compare it with, but there is really no other player out there) says something else altogether.

brijj_vs_techtribe_alexa.png

On a related note, a search for “Infoedge” on Brijj returns me about 43 results, while the same query on Linkedin with the filter for current employees set to on gives me 66 users. I guess that says a story by itself.

Now, I am not trying to jump all over Brijj when it is not doing all that great, but at the same time we have to start questioning the logic of pushing out “me-too” products out into the Indian market, after looking at what has worked in the west.

I can understand that at some point you need to do all of this to show some action on the investor front, but, eventually, the question remains: is it worthwhile to launch a product just for those reasons?

p.s: I am using the Alexa grab since WordPress.com does not allow me to embed Javascript within posts.

Written by shyam

December 26, 2007 at 7:55 pm

OpenSocial = OS of the web?

with 2 comments

Plenty of commentary abound on the OpenSocial (OS) initiative, here are my two bits on it.

What it will do:

  • Cost of application development and deployment will be southbound once most applications start developing their OS version. Since it can also be deployed as a Google Gadget, OS applications will have multiple delivery methods, including ones that cost hardly anything to deploy and distribute.
  • It changes the rules of the game for applications. Now you can associate a single person with many identities across different networks. This is a core tenet of Brad Fitzpatrick’s Social Graph concept. OS becomes the force multiplier for applications and user data associated with it. This would be the first time that locally contained data and their containers will get to interact with each other over a defined specification at such a vast scale on the internet.
  • The end result is that application makers are now going to be a new breed of business that won’t even need an online presence outside of the application containers (the networks) to make a living. OS will send already insane valuations of application development firms into the hyper-crazy region. Try imagining what this could do to a company like Flock.
  • It will force Facebook’s hand to accept a specification that it did not create and join in the group hug. In the long run, the cost savings that an OS application will have over a Facebook-only application would be considerable, leaving most application developers with no choice other than to develop OS versions of their apps. With Myspace already on board, OS already has a vast number of users on it.

Concluding thoughts:

  • No, this is not the end of the world for Facebook. Not even close to it. What it does is to (eventually?) force Facebook cede a bit of control on how its closed ecosystem lets others interact with it. And this move is not aimed just at Facebook, though Facebook’s success has surely played a major role in how OS came to be.
  • It will force Facebook to clean up its act and improve weak links in its framework (example: groups) since it would now be possible to mix and match various features from disparate containers.
  • The longer term impact of OS will only be clear with the passage of time. It is halfway between an act of desperation and an audacious move by Google and its friends, though I’d be surprised if even they are sure about how this will pan out half a decade from now.
  • Does it not look funny that shortened version of Opensocial is “OS”? Is there a longer term plan with regard to this to make it the OS of the web?

Written by shyam

November 2, 2007 at 12:56 pm

Three (good) Indian blogs that you probably don’t read

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Time to post something different for a change than the regular longwinding ones.

Shashikant’s tiny world: He posts across a wide variety of topics covering technology, the economy and other aspects of current affairs. He has something that is desperately lacking in most of the Indian blogosphere: a perspective that is not a wannabe version of the popular western ones. If only he would change the circa 2001 blogger template to something more contemporary, but I can hardly complain since I read the full feed in an RSS reader. And, no, I am not linking to him because he’s linked to me.

Gopal Vijayaraghavan: Gopal works for Yahoo! and is one the leads for the PHP APC cache. That does not mean he posts only about profiling PHP code and race conditions in it. He also writes about movies (from a very non-critic and normal viewer point of view) and a lot of other non-tech related things. The only minus point is that he does not allow comments on his blog.

Cleartrip blog/Hrush: I know this is a corporate blog, probably disqualifying it from being considered as a normal blog. But most of the content on the blog is penned by Hrush Bhatt, Founder & Director, Product and Strategy for the company. Other than the fact the blog is one of the best and the most open blogs among Indian corporates, he also gets additional brownie points from me for quoting two bloggers in the web data sphere that I follow closely: Danny Ayers and Joe Gregorio. Minus point: Not updated frequently enough.

While on the topic of blogging, I was wondering recently if the only major difference that blogging has brought to the platform is that being biased is no longer uncool? These days, I tend to switch off from any discussion that aims to figure out the biases of mainstream media. The fact of the matter is that everything and every human being is biased and we are conditioned by our biases.

The only difference is that it used to be cool to claim that you were unbiased as a media entity. When you report from the field, you are supposed to stick to the facts and not colour it with your biases. I think this is quite badly misplaced. While, as a blogger, it is cool for you to be biased. In fact, you are encouraged to come clean on your biases than cover it with a veil faux neutrality. Other than that, if you take out the scale and economics of the matter, there is hardly any differentiation: Both sides have bad reporting, band language and myopia to the obvious.

Interesting and hypothetical over-the-top question of the day: Can you imagine a newspaper filled with op-ed writers?

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Written by shyam

August 29, 2007 at 9:26 am

Posted in Blogs, India, social media

Online Networking: Opportunities and challenges

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Why is everyone in the online space running crazed rolling out one social networking product after another these days?

Has technology suddenly found out the real altruistic reason for its existence — to bring all of humanity under a single digital umbrella that will allow everyone to easily communicate and identify with each other? Cheap potshots and the silly sarcasm apart, the reason why everyone is falling over each other is quite simple: the industry has gotten a whiff of its ultimate elixir in online networking: the end of the perpetual quest for ‘sticky’ content and users.

So, how exactly does online networking differ from other regular content properties? Let us take a look at a couple of the distinguishing factors:

Discovery: Unlike regular online content, online networking helps you find much more than a piece of text to read or pictures to ogle at. It helps you find new people with similar interests, new things to do with people who share the similar interests and also find new communities that will help you enrich yourself alongside people who share similar likes and themes. The Facebook News Feed is one of the best examples of this, even though it had a very controversial debut on its network. Till then, in other popular networks, you had to manually go and track each community joined by a contact and any other action performed by him/her. It is now next to impossible to evade the river of context that flows all around you because of the News Feed.

Context: The above-mentioned discovery element is encapsulated by containers of context that help you find them. You can find them through music you may like, through photos you like clicking and other numerous common themes. Even in the PhD paradise called Google, there are limits to context that is determined by the algorithm. For instance, even Google News can classify the data only into a handful of categories and most personalized and suggested content on the internet (like Findory) are still not up to scratch when it comes to discovering related content at the individual’s level. Even with an extremely good element of artificial intelligence in your system, you still can’t beat the quality of linked and contextual linkages that is generated with actual intent by human beings.

In an online networking scenario, every single connection is led by context. I am connected to (or I identify with) another person on my network in a variety of ways: geography, interest, work place or something else. That kind of sanitized, structured and relational data beats the pants off what any algorithm can do. Instead of being led by the algorithm and its vagaries, the connections can now be refined by it. If data in massive networks like Facebook can be mined, you can predict, with good enough probability, things that I or you would be interested in and the people you or I are likely to hook up with. None of this is possible on a regular news website or on a discussion forum, where you just consume the data and go home. There is hardly any way to connect or engage another person who has a lot of similarities with you. Hell, you can’t even know if there is another person with similar traits who has read the article at the same time or any other time.

Sticky != icky: To build any good and successful online property, you need a healthy mix of repeat visits and new visitors. Organic growth in traffic and usage is the lifeline of any online property and a steady percentage of it in your total traffic is always a sign of a property in good health. If this recipe is seasoned with more than 50% of return visits and a good page view per user number, the chances are that you would have by now on your hands a very successful website that has oodles of sticky content. What this essentially enables you to do is to grow on both counts: in terms of existing usage and in terms of new usage, with and new users steadily being converted to regular users.

The trouble is that this is a hard one to pull off with generic content sites, which tend to have a high number of regular visits, a low percentage of new visitors (the one hit wonders and the even-driven flash mobs) and low-ish page view per user number. Every time you check your Facebook inbox or your Orkut scrapbook what it does is to add another page view to the website’s page views and chances are that most online networking users are more likely to refresh their profile and message pages a lot more, compared to their actual email inboxes or a news website. And this lust for the page view love fest is from which the many new online networking love children are born.

The opportunity for new players

Uniquely addressable users: Unique users are like legendary golden geese in the online trade. And well-established networking communities are like mosquito larvae infested catchments of standing water filled with these users: they buzz with feverish activity and multiply in every possible manner and more rapidly than what you could ever imagine. Moreover, to make your profile work in such scenarios, you need to provide information that is every advertiser’s endless wet dream. You are voluntarily providing the kind of information to help profile yourself that collected otherwise would result in the companies doing that being dragged to court.

For example, if you check my profile you can see that I am currently part of the India network, that my location is uniquely identified as New Delhi, that I am single and you can also figure out my tastes in music, books, movies and political views. This is all structured and uniquely addressable data, broken down to the most granular of levels. If you don’t believe me, take a look at what Fox Interactive Media (FIM) has been up to recently. In an interview with Silicon Alley Insider, Mike Barrett, Chief Revenue Office of FIM, says they have figured out improved delivery methodologies for targeting based on such data and are looking to price these ads at a 20-30% premium, compared to regular banner ads. That is the kind of number any business person with half a business brain would find hard to say ‘no’ to.

The Indian online Godots: Yes, we revisit the pet target audience of every new product launch these days, the part of the billion who are not yet online, who probably won’t even know what online is at this stage of the game. We are constantly waiting for them to come and make us all rich. If you ignore such niggles that tend to rudely invade our digital fantasies, there is a fair bit of merit in the argument/expectation. We are diverse in ways you can’t even start to imagine. You can address the whole of India in terms of a nation, regions, language, caste, religion: the list is endless. Ergo, the opportunities to slice and dice the market are also endless. That is, once it manifests. So a lot of this is a punt on the future. Who knows whether it will pay off or not.

The social operating system: When Facebook launched F8, their platform to let third party applications interact with their users, it changed the rules of the game in such a way that every other online networking website is now falling over each other to release a similar product. Other than the nice positive for Facebook of shoveling off the burden of building a stream of new features to gullible souls who now do it for them for free, it has also now established a virtual operating system within the Facebook context that is now a decent launch pad for new sites and products. Once networks like Facebook become the start page/OS of the future it is going to be a hard ask to launch a new product without spending insane amounts of money (example: the bigadda.com creatives).

The Risks for the new players

Targeted advertising on such profiled networks are still not up to scratch and the technology is still being developed. Current delivery technology is based on either IP geo-location or tracking cookies, neither of which are right now in a condition to exploit an extremely finely defined profile like a 27-year-old girl who likes Harry Potter, lives in India, with a soft spot for Archie comics. The point is made more elaborately in the Mike Barrett interview and is surely a cause for concern, but I am also sure it is something that will be fixed over time. But till it gets fixed, advertisements on these networks tend to end up being seen as irritants and not a patch on the contextual advertisements that Google has spoilt everyone with.

Low Yield: On a related point, while online networking websites account for huge page views, the CPMs, click throughs and conversions are abysmal on the inventory. When you have pages and pages of content resembling lolcat lingo on some of the more popular networks, it is not surprising that even Google’s engines put up their hands and admit defeat. I can’t remember or find the story, but someone (from Google?) had once commented that a lot of impressions on Myspace was junk and did not amount to much. So it is kind of obvious that traditional methods of advertising are not going to work too well in this segment and the way Facebook is going about it, by inserting them in the News Feed, is bound to help them accumulate bad karma at a rapid rate from the users. In short, the page views are there, but a fair percentage of it is not really worth much.

Switching costs/exit barriers: The value of any network is directly proportional to the connections you have on it. Existing users have a lot invested in terms of their connections, ratings, groups etc in the older networks. Half the grunt work in switching to a new network is to find the old contacts once again. The problem is addressed to a minor extent by the email account-based importers, but that in itself creates more problems because it requires a one-to-one mapping between your profile email address and the profile email addresses of your friends. It is a problem that can only be solved by true interoperability and that is a pipe dream of the most unrealistic kind.

Identity: Bill Gates on Myspace need not necessarily be the same Bill Gates on Orkut. For that matter, neither the Myspace Bill Gates nor the Orkut Bill Gates are likely to be the famous Bill Gates from Microsoft. At some point, our core digital identities will be consolidated into a single space, much like how Openid works, but none of the networks support Openid as of now and as a result, since identities are not portable, it will eventually create yet another high exit barrier for the users.

On a final note, there would arise the obvious question as to why do crazy deals like Google gulping up Myspace’s inventory and Microsoft signing a deal with Facebook on similar lines happen? A lot of that has to do with volumes and the rest of it with presence and Google did goof up terribly with not buying out Myspace when they could have earlier for a tiny sum compared to what they are paying FIM now. Even with the junk page views, the volumes these networks pump in terms of sheer page views are enormous and if you are in the advertising space you’d want a bite of that, even if that bite feels a bit empty once it hits the stomach.

This is a space where everyone — content creators, sales people, advertisers, content distributors — can feel where the action is going to be. But how it will unravel is something that will be only revealed with time.

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Written by shyam

August 13, 2007 at 7:27 pm