If there’s one thing that the search giant Google doesn’t seem to be able to get right it’s social networking. This isn’t for lack of trying however, in Google Latitude is one of the most popular location based social networking applications out there and Orkut, their first social network, is still going strong with over 100 million users. However Orkut is still a far cry from what Facebook has become and Buzz has come no where near touching Twitter as a platform, even with the advantage of being right up in every Gmail user’s face. Google isn’t one to take things like this lightly and rumors have been swirling around for a long time that they were prepping to launch a new product that would be a direct competitor for the social networking starlets.
Today they announced Google+.
In essence it’s yet another social network, but it seems to combine aspects from all the hot start up ideas of the past couple years (group messaging, video chat, social recommendations, filtered photos) with a UX experience that feels distinctly non-googlesque. Whilst the product isn’t available for people to use right now you can put your name and email address in here to get added into the product sometime in the future. The screenshots I’ve been able to get my hands on have definitely piqued my interest in the product, not least of which is because of some of the features.
The first concept that I like, and one that had been talked about extensively prior to the announcement, was the Circles feature. Basically it lets you create groups of people out of your greater social network for sharing things like pictures and status updates. It’s a different paradigm to that of groups within Facebook since they’re only visible to you. It’s a great way of getting around that whole limited profile thing you have to laboriously set up within Facebook to make sure that you don’t inadvertently share something to people you didn’t want to. Grouping people up by interests is great too since I’m sure that not everyone is interested in the same things that I am.
The media sharing aspect sounds interesting too with Google saying it will be heavily integrated with mobile. In essence every picture or movie you take can be automatically uploaded to Google+, although it remains hidden until you choose to share it. Their image editor apparently integrates Instagram like photo filters for those of us who think that makes them some kind of artist, which is great but I feel is only there because that whole filtered photo thing is so hot right now. Google+ also has what they call Hangouts, basically video chat rooms that up to 10 friends can join. Hopefully that product doesn’t necessarily require video to work as it would be great to get an upgrade to Google Talk.
However after looking at what Google+ has to offer I started thinking about what I’d be using it for. I’d love to start using it in place of Facebook but unfortunately my entire social network is already on there and apart from the technically curious among them I can’t see any of them bothering to make the transition across to Google+. This means for Google+ to be any use to me it will need to have some pretty heavy duty integration with Facebook (and probably Twitter) in order for me to use it for any length of time. Google has been mum on the details of how deep the integration with existing social networks will go so we’ll just have to wait and see how they tackle this issue.
Like any new Google product it’s always interesting to see what kinds of innovations they bring to the table. Whilst nothing revolutionary in itself Google+ does show that Google is taking the whole social idea very seriously now and is looking to capitalize on many current trends in order to draw people to its platform. Whether or not this will lead to Google+ becoming a successful social network to rival that of Facebook and Twitter remains to be seen but I’ve already put my hand up to be one of the first to try out their latest offering, and I know I’m not alone in that regard (since the page refused to load twice when I tried to sign up).
Betas are a tricky thing to get right. Realistically when you’re testing a beta product you’ve got a solid foundation of base functionality that you think is ready for prime time but you want to see how they’ll fair in the wild as there’s no way for you to catch all the bugs in the lab. Thus you’d want your product to get into the hands of as many users as you possibly could as that gives you the best chance to catch anything before you go prime time. Many companies now release beta versions of upcoming software for free to the general public in order to do this and for many of them it’s proven to work quite well. However more recently I’ve seen beta testing used as a way to promote a product rather than test it and the main way they do that is through artificial scarcity.
Rewind back to yonder days of 2004 and you’ll find me happily slogging away at my various exploits when a darkness forms on the horizon: World of Warcraft. After seeing many of the game play videos and demos before I was enamoured with the game long before it hit the retail shelves. You can then imagine my elation when I found out there was a competition for a treasured few closed beta invitations and not 10 minutes later had I entered. As it turns out I got in and promptly spent the next fortnight playing my way through the game and revelling in the new found exclusivity that it had granted me. Being a closed beta tester was something rather special and I spoke nothing of praise to all my friends about this upcoming game.
Come back to the present day and we can make parallels to the phenomenon that is #newtwitter. Starting out on the iPad as the official Twitter Client #newtwitter is an evolution in the service that Twitter is delivering, offering deeper integration with services that augment it and significantly jazzing up the interface. Initially it was only available to a select subset of the wider Twitter audience and strangely enough most of them appeared to be either influential Twitter users or those in the technology media. The reviews of the new Twitter client were nothing short of amazing and as the client has made its way around to more of the waiting public people have been more than eager to get their hands on it. Those carefully chosen beta testers at the start helped formed a positive image that’s helped keep any negativity at bay, even with their recent security problems.
This is in complete contrast to the uproar that was felt when Facebook unveiled its new user interface at the end of last year. Unlike the previous two examples the new Facebook interface was turned on all at once for every single user that visited the site. Immediately following this millions of users cried out in protest, despising the new design and the amount of information that was being presented to them. Instead of the new Facebook being something cool to be in on it proved to be enough of an annoyance to a group of people to cause a stir about it, rather than sing its praises.
The difference lies in the idea of artificial scarcity. You see there really wasn’t anything stopping Blizzard or Twitter from releasing their new product onto the wider world all at once as Facebook did however it was advantageous to them for numerous reasons. For both it allowed them to get a good idea of how their product would work in the wild and catch any major issues before release. Additionally the exclusivity granted to those few souls who got the new product early put them on a pedestal, something to be envied by those who were doing without. Thus the product that was already desirable becomes even more so because not everyone can have it. Doing a gradual release of the product also ensures that that air of exclusivity remains long after it’s released to the larger world as can be seen with #newtwitter.
I say all this because honestly, it works. As soon as I heard about #newtwitter I wanted in on it (mostly because it would be great blog fodder) and the fact that I couldn’t do anything to get it just made me want it all the more. I’ve also got quite a few applications on my phone that I signed up for simply because of the mystery and exclusivity they had, although I admit the fascination didn’t last long for them. Still the idea of a scarce product seems to work well even in the digital age where such restrictions are wholly artificial. Just like when say someone posts a teaser screenshot on Facebook sans URL to an upcoming web application.
I’m sure most of you knew what I was up to anyway
There’s no question now that the hot thing for any company to do is to make some kind of software that has a social component to it, and why wouldn’t you. If your product is based around friends (and not really friends) interacting with each other then the marketing really does itself, so long as your product is somewhat useful or novel. It’s getting to the point where once a service has been around for a while they will inevitably either integrate with Facebook or build in their own social networking components, usually to keep driving the user numbers upwards. No company seems to be immune to this, even my fledgling little application allows you to login via Facebook, except for one: Microsoft. Despite the social revolution that seems to be rampaging on around them Microsoft has quietly kicked back letting others duke it out for social supremacy. For a company that’s renowned for throwing money around in order to gain market share in pretty much every IT related area their silence on the social scene is quite eerie, verging on the point of them knowing something the rest of us don’t.
For the most part their strategy seems to have been one of going along with the current trend of integrating their products with the current social giants. Their MSN Messenger product was just recently updated with a new beta that had Facebook integration. Already it’s garnered a healthy 4.6 million users or approximately 1% of Facebook’s user base. That might not sound like much but considering that it’s still in beta and the current incarnation of the Live product has well over 330 million users you can expect that a lot of people are going to be getting their Facebook fix from Microsoft. Additionally many Outlook users would be familiar with their new Social Connector which is in essence a social network for businesses and has been getting some traction due to its integration with Sharepoint and the Office suite of products.
Still there’s no Microsoft Social Network (MSN? Ha!) to be found, so what’s the deal?
Part of the answer would seem to lie in the past. Rewind back about 3 years and you’ll come across a flurry of articles speculating on a bidding war between Microsoft and Google for a piece of the next hottest thing: Facebook. Surprisingly enough Microsoft won out in the end managing to secure a small share of the company for a cool $240 million, or 1.6% stake. This was a continuation of the relationship that they had established previously when Microsoft secured an advertising deal with Facebook just one year earlier. Still it was an odd move for Microsoft as the investment was peanuts for them (They had over $23 billion in cash on hand, yes cash) and realistically even if the company went to IPO and they got a 10x exit from it you’re still only looking at $2.4 billion dollars for a company who turns that over in about 2 weeks, so it was more a foot in the door than anything else. Their recent integration activities with Facebook also shows that they’re more keen to work with them rather than try to push them out of the market.
Strangely enough it looks like Microsoft actually did try to compete with Facebook all those years ago. I’ll admit I didn’t know about this when I first starting writing this post, I came across it in my research, but it appears that in response to Facebook going open to all back in 2006 Microsoft retaliated by launching their own site Wallop:
Seattle-based Microsoft Corp.‘s (NASDAQ: MSFT) spin off Wallopsaid Tuesday it was starting service. It’s a site intended to compete head on with MySpace and Facebook. Wallop starts with $13 million in backing from Microsoft, Norwest Venture Partners, Bay Partners and Consor Capital.
Considering that I’ve never heard of this site it’s not surprising that it never managed to get off the ground. Checking out the wiki page on the service it appears that they left their lofty ambitions behind back in 2008 instead focusing on developing applications for social networks rather than trying to compete with them. This it would seem is the reason behind Microsoft’s curious lack of a real social network. They tried, they failed and then realised that there was more to be done with them than against them. This really is contrary to their normal kind of behaviour and I’m sure there’s an ulterior motive to this that I just can’t figure out.
Taking a wild stab in the dark I’d say that they just don’t think they can take the shine off Facebook’s crown. Microsoft really isn’t the kind of company you expect to make products and services like that, they’re more of an underlying services platform that will deliver those products to you. Considering this is where their main revenue line is drawn from it’s not surprising but it’s still one of the first times where it looks like Microsoft has just thrown in the towel and capitulated to the competition. It will be interesting to see how this maneuver pays off as Google starts to ramp up their efforts in the social space with a rumoured Google Me service starting to make waves on the Internet. I still think Microsoft will hang back on that one too, but there’s every chance they’re waiting for the market to segment a bit before attempting to jump back in to the social networking scene.
The old saying goes that when you have a hammer all your problems look like nails. I first heard this saying quite late in my life, during a university lecture with one of my more inspired professors. He used it after describing one of his former classes who, enamoured with the latest and greatest chip from Motorola, sought to use it to solve every assignment they were given no matter how much shoehorning it took. The example is counter to all the proper engineering principles you should be taught in university as you should first gather requirements to solve your problem and then find a solution, never the other way around. This also implies a level of critical thinking when tackling any problem rather than rushing in head first in an attempt to solve the problem.
In my career however the opposite has proven to be true more often than it should be. Working on the supply side of the equation whenever a customer came to me with a problem I could do nothing but suggest our product as a solution, lest I gain the ire of my supervisors. Jumping the fence to the other side (where I’ve spent the vast majority of my career) many “skilled” system administrators have one technology they know well and will never stray from that path. Depending on how much sway they have with the decision makers you can end up in quite the mess when all your problems are only half solved by an inappropriate product. Just ask anyone who’s tried to implement SAP or maintain Lotus Notes.
The same can be said for social networking tools. The serivce of choice today is Facebook whether you like it or not as they have the most users and therefore has the highest potential usefulness out of any the applications out there. For many people then Facebook is the medium with with they will communicate with the outside world and those be damned who don’t check their feed regularly to keep up to date with them. In essence Facebook has become their hammer to all their online problems and whilst it does a good job at solving quite a few problems it’s not the be all and end all of social based tools.
As of right now I’d consider myself an active user of at least 4 (well 5 if you include this blog) different social tools that all serve very different purposes. The first is of course Facebook which I use primarily for things that concern my direct social circle. Sharing pictures, video and anything else with friends and family is so much easier when I can just tell them to look at my wall rather than trying to explain how to view them elsewhere (even the gallery on this blog was far too confusing for many of my family). The second is Twitter which I find perfect for putting out those short updates that used to constitute my Facebook status updates. The difference is that anything I put on Twitter I want to be public whereas Facebook status updates aren’t usuallyfor general viewing. Of course I have the two interlinked but that’s purely for convenience sake, since not all of my friends have a Twitter account, nor do the majority that do actually use it.
The last two are Foursquare and YouTube. Now neither of these tools have a good chunk of my social circle in them but they both still solve a particular problem, even if it isn’t that big of a deal. Foursquare was (and still is really) a curiosity, something I got into after hearing gobs about about it and wondering what the hell all the fuss is about. Realistically all I was doing with it was appeasing my inner hipster that craves to be in on something before it gets cool and my use of Foursquare reflects that. YouTube on the other hand is something that I’ve come to appreciate after diving into the community a little more and getting a feel for the whole thing operates. In the future I’ll be using it to chronicle my various adventures overseas and product demos for my up and coming products, something it appears to be aptly suited for.
Every one of these tools I’ve described has some overlap with each other but for the most part none of the overlap is their core focus. Facebook could quite easily replace YouTube as a platform for disseminating videos amongst the wider public but it just not as good as YouTube. I could use Twitter to distribute pictures to my friends (and I do from time to time) but without Facebook integration most of them would go completely unnoticed. Each of these tools has a very specific purpose in mind and that’s why I’ll continue to use most of them.
This idea that a specific tool designed to solve a certain problem is what drove me to create Geon in the first place. Being able to go to a location and find out what’s going on there whether by viewing the information available or asking someone in the area isn’t solved by any of the currently available tools. Sure there are similar products (and one that if you didn’t know any better would swear was in fact Geon built by someone else) but they all go about it in a way that I don’t believe actually addresses the issue. Thus I have resigned myself to build the hammer to hit this particular nail, and in that hopefully build something of worth for everyone else.
Does this mean I think everyone should be using a raft of different services to do everything? Hell no. For the most part tools that accomplish several things work quite well for those who don’t have the time nor want to use other more appropriate for the task at hand. Thankfully this usually means that they just use Facebook which has done a good job of levelling out the learning curve on new features. Still for those of us who have specific use cases in mind there are tools available that will accomplish our goals much more efficiently, rather than bashing our heads against our platform of choice to get it to work the way we want it.
So I’ve got a thing for information that’s got some location meta data, that’s no secret. You’d then think that I’d be drooling over all these hot location based applications that are constantly popping up all over the place but for the most part I’m indifferent to them. That’s not to say I don’t know about them, I probably know more about them than what’s considered healthy, just that I can’t seem to find a use for them no matter how hard I try. I’ve been on Foursquare for quite a while now and whilst I have a few friends on it there’s not enough of them to make the service useful nor interesting, especially when most of them only check-in when they see me doing it.
I mulled this over recently with an old friend of mine who’s also been on the service for a while and he echoed my sentiments. Whilst Foursquare might be growing users in other locations its popularity here made it something of a non-event, even amongst those who were inclined to try something like that out. We both agreed that if more people were using something like Foursquare its utility would increase dramatically but couldn’t see it happening any time soon. The idea of Facebook doing something in this space had been around for a while but with no word from them on what they were doing (apart from outside speculation) I put it all down to rumour milling.
That was until just recently when Facebook released their Places application.
Now whilst the service isn’t available here in Australia yet there’s been enough coverage of it in the news to get a good idea about what it actually entails. For the most part it’s the barebones features of all the popular location applications, just good old fashioned check-ins. The only innovative part that Facebook deserves credit is for being able to check-in friends with you which, whilst sure to draw the ire of your more private friends, helps to reduce the real anti-social part of checking in. Apart from that you wouldn’t be far off the mark from calling this Foursquare without any of the game aspects, except for the fact that it’s more appealing than its predecessors.
The biggest hurdle to overcome with any new social application is one of a critical mass of users¹ and Facebook Places solves this by having all my friends as potential users of the application. I’ve had a tough time trying to convince other people to use yet another social app at the best of times but rarely have I heard about a new feature on Facebook before one of my social circle is using it. The check-in a friend feature also means that I can basically goad them into using it by tagging them when we’re doing something together and if they don’t appear in the check-in I know that they’d rather not participate. It’s quite an unobtrusive way of getting people into the check-in mindset.
I’m interested in seeing where they take the application from here. Facebook have shown that they want to be more active in the location space but don’t seem to be too interested in trying to dominate it. I say this because at their launch event they had all the big location players there with them to talk about the future of location now that Facebook was getting involved. Realistically it looks like Facebook is taking aim at being the platform for check-ins and letting others do the hard work of innovating around it. Mostly this is because they want to own the check-in data which will make them more valuable to their advertisers and investors. They’re also transferring the risk of developing check-in based applications to third parties and you can bet your bottom dollar that if any of them make a killer feature that Facebook has to have they’ll be knocking at their door, cheques in hand.
I might not see more of my friends venturing out into the fringe world of social applications but I’m sure I’ll have a few of them checking in as the feature makes its way down under. Facebook has demonstrated yet again that the big players aim to be the platform of the Internet and the small players are the ones that innovate around them. As the service expands I can see it becoming the defacto place for place information, fulfilling that vision of a grand central database someone had not so long ago.
¹You could also argue that something that has utility can also drive adoption as much as critical user mass does. I’d agree with that since the only reason I got into Twitter was to join this blog to Facebook and the social part came a long time later. A great example of an application that’s popular because of its utility first is Evernote although its recent popularity could easily be attributed social factors.
If there’s one trendthat I’ve noticed about any of the successful Internet businesses of the past decade or so is that they tend to be platforms on which others can build their business. Sure there are many highly successful companies that operate in a closed fashion but the trend towards a more open web is undeniable. Nearly every successful Internet based company allows some form of interoperability with the wider world allowing anyone to leverage the platform for their own purposes. Thus today for any fledgling start up the choice on whether or not to open up your service for others to use has already been made for you, but that doesn’t necessarily mean its a bad thing.
There are many great examples of companies as a platform dating back to the early days after the dot com bust. One of the examples that sticks in my mind is eBay which started out as a simple way for anyone to sell their unwanted goods online. Quickly though people realised that eBay was in essence a cheap online shop front, much cheaper than many of the alternatives available at the time. This quickly snowballed and many niche businesses found their home on eBay using the brand to get exposure and the platform to grow a business that wouldn’t have been possible before.
The examples flow thick and fast for nearly all of the current Internet giants. Facebook has shown that whilst its core of replicating your friendship online remains it’s now a gaming platform and promotion network. Twitter owes quite a lot of success to its wide open API which has generated hundreds of quality applications, drove adoption of the service and makes it the de facto target for any Internet mash-up (even Geon!). So why does being an open platform do so much for driving adoption of a service?
Primarily it appears to be due to the amount of free development that one can receive by making their services available to developers. Twitter for the longest time didn’t have an official mobile application, arguably the killer app for something that’s based around short frequent updates. Still that didn’t mean there were a lack of clients available for it like Echofon, Tweetdeck and Brizzly. Opening up their API meant that they could focus more on improving the service and developing new ideas rather than having to spend additional resources bringing their platform to where it was needed. This forms a positive feedback loop that enables the underlying platform to improve whilst ensuring that it still remains relevant to its users.
Of course this all relies on the idea that your service provides something of value to your users. For a lot of companies the services that they provide start out closed off in order to ensure that it functions as expected. Early on development time is at a premium and the additional resources required to ensure the platform is stable can outweigh the potential benefits of doing so. However once a critical mass of users is crossed it makes sense to open it up in order to drive adoption. A great example of this is Gowalla who only recently released a full API after being available for about 2 years.
For someone like myself who is seeking Internet fame and stardom the idea of being a platform underpins many of the decisions I make when developing a service. You see whilst I may think I know what people might want there are so many things that I just don’t think of when I’m elbow deep in my code. In fact about half of the features in the current version of Geon have come just from talking the idea over with my friends and people who’ve been in the business for some time. Keeping my service open means that should an enterprising user find something lacking they’re able to build it hopefully bringing more users to my service and giving them a little Internet e-cred.
Does this mean that every service that isn’t a platform is doomed to failure? Absolutely not. There are many things where an open API simply isn’t required like if the company themselves provides products that cater to their user’s needs succintly. Still the writing is on the wall for those who build things on the Internet and the more open your application is the more likely it will be picked up by the wider world. Google VP Andy Rubin said it best with the words “Open usually wins” and the recent decade of the Internet seems to agree with him.
Regular readers of this blog will know I’m no fan of our Senator Conroy and his proposed Internet filter, even though I have him to thank for the original creation of this blog and it’s subsequent success. Apart from delay after delay there’s been little to no movement from Conroy on the policy despite it being increasingly unpopular. Initially I was able to write him off as just a figurehead for the Rudd government’s slight bent towards a nanny state for Australia but as time has gone by Conroy has dissolved what small amount of hope I held out that that was true. Conroy believes in the policy wholly and damn those who would oppose him.
Most recently the biggest talking about the Internet filter was that it was going to be delayed until after the election, hoping to skirt some backlash over the unpopular policy. Not only did that ignore the fact that tech crowd saw this move for what it was (and would likely vote accordingly) soon after the announcement they back peddled with almost breakneck speed. Then, in a move that didn’t surprise anyone, they went ahead and delayed it anyway:
Communications Minister Stephen Conroy says he plans to introduce legislation for the Federal Government’s internet filter in the second half of the year.
Senator Conroy had intended to introduce the legislation in the first half of 2010.
The Government announced the filter two years ago as part of its cyber safety program to protect children from pornography and offensive material. Last year it ran tests on the system.
But the plan has been criticised by internet users who claim it will slow download speeds and lead to unwarranted censorship.
Right so you prematurely announced that you would delay introducing the legislation (in a vain effort to save votes) and back flipped on that position (to try and save face that you were delaying the policy) and then went ahead and delayed the policy (in an effort to save votes?!?!?!?). Not only has Conroy shown dedication to incredibly unpopular policy he’s beginning to show complete disrespect for the exact people he’s meant to be representing. The tech crowd had little love for Conroy before and any support for the man has now vanished in a public display of incompetence. Whilst there are many bigger issues that will cost the Rudd government votes they really can’t afford to lose yet another block of voters, and Conroy isn’t doing them any favours.
Still all of that could be easily written off as political games save for the fact that Conroy has launched multiple vitriolic attacks on several Internet giants. Now granted the ones who wield the most power in the Internet world are the ones who carry the most responsibility and none are as big as Google. Still the culture and policies implemented by Google are really some of the best on the Internet when it comes to user privacy and security. This didn’t stop Conroy from launching several attacks at them, with the latest ratcheting up the crazy to whole new levels:
Instead, Conroy launched tirades on search giant Google and social networking site Facebook over privacy issues raised with both corporations over the past week. The Senator called Google’s collection of Wi-Fi data the “single greatest privacy breach in history“, and attacked the social networking site over a failure to keep user’s data private.
That classy one liner I’ve bolded for effect is probably one of the best bits of hyperbolic rhetoric that I’ve seen Conroy spew forth. The Wi-Fi data that Google collected was initially only meant to be the SSIDs (the wireless network name) which they could then use to augment their geo-location software, ala Skyhook. Unfortunately they also captured some payload data as well during the course of their collection and got slammed by the German government because of it. Realistically though the data was fairly useless to them as they couldn’t have been in range of the access points for any meaningful amount of time, so the data they would have couldn’t have been more than a few MB at most. Additionally if you had set up security on your wireless access then the data they have is completely and utterly unusable as it would appear encrypted to anyone who captured it. Saying that this was a breach of privacy is a best misleading and at worst completely ignorant of the actual facts.
Conroy doesn’t stop there either, hoping to drum up support by lambasting yet another Internet giant with his choice brand of ignorant vitriol:
The Communications Minister, Stephen Conroy, has attacked the social networking site Facebook and its former college student founder for what he says is its ”complete disregard” for privacy.
Senator Conroy is under fire from many in the internet industry for his proposed mandatory net filter. He has previously attacked Google, a key critic of the filtering plan, but last night in a Senate estimates hearing turned his attention to Facebook.
”Facebook has also shown a complete disregard for users’ privacy lately,” Senator Conroy said in response to a question from a government senator.
I’ll relent for a second and say that Facebook has had some trouble recently when it has come to user’s privacy. However the fact remains that they can’t reveal any information about you that you don’t give them in the first place and putting information online that you don’t expect anyone else to see is akin to leaving your belongings on the sidewalk and expecting them not to get taken. Facebook may have had their troubles trying to find their feet when it comes to user privacy but their response has been rapid albeit somewhat confused. They’ve heard the criticisms and are responding to them, hardly what I would call a “complete disregard” for user privacy.
Conroy has shown time and time again that he has little respect for the industry he’s meant to represent as the minister for Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy. His constant, vitriolic attacks on those who’ve been in the industry for a long time (much longer than he’s been a minister for such things) shows a flawed belief that his vision for Australia’s digital future is the right one. I and the vast majority of the technical crowd have opposed the Conroy and his Internet filter from the start and in the coming election I’d bet my bottom dollar that you’ll see a noticeable swing against him for his repeated blows against us. It would seem that the only way to kill the Internet filter is to remove him from office and it is my fervent hope that the good people of Victoria will do Australia a service and vote accordingly this year.
I’d like to think of myself as knowing a bit about the geo space and how it can be used as a basis for new applications or how it can augment existing ones. I’ve been elbow deep in developing such an application for over 6 months now and I’ve spent the last couple months checking out every service that could possibly be considered a competitor to me (there’s not many, if you’re wondering). Because of this I’ve started to notice a couple trends with up and coming web applications and it seems that the social networking world is going ballistic for any service that incorporates the idea of “check ins” at any location around the world. After spending some time with these applications (even ones that are still in private beta) I can’t seem to get a hold of why they’re so popular. Then again I didn’t get Facebook for a long time either.
The basic idea that powers almost all of these applications is that you use your phone to determine your location. Based on that the application will then present you with a list of places which you can “check-in” to. If your friends on the application they’ll get a notification that you’ve checked in there, presumably to get them to comment on it or to help you arrange with getting people together. It’s a decent trade off between privacy and letting people know your location as you control when and where the application checks in and most of them allow you to share the updates with only your friends (or no one at all). The hook for most of the services seems to be the addition of some kind of game element to it, with many of them adding in achievements and points. For someone like me it falls into the “potentially useful” category, although my experience with them has led me to think that saying “potentially” was probably being kind.
The services themselves seem to be doing quite well, with Foursquare and Gowalla both managing to wrangle deals with companies to reward users of their applications. In fact it seems that check-in based services are the latest darling child for venture capitalists, which funding flowing thick and fast for any and all services that implement this idea. For the most part I’d attribute most of their success with their ability to hook into Facebook through Connect, as building a user base from scratch for a social networking based site is nigh impossible lest you tangle yourself up with Zuckerberg’s love child. It also helps improves user trust in the application, although that benefit is on shaky ground as of late.
Still though the value they provide seems to be rather limited. After hearing that a couple of my tech inclined friends had ventured onto Foursquare (and I got bored of reading about them every day on my RSS reader) I decided to download their iPhone app and give it ago. The integration between other social networking services was quite good and it instantly picked up a couple people I didn’t know where using Foursquare. Playing around with it I began checking in to various places, accumulating points and my first badge. Still I didn’t feel like I really got anything out of using the application, apart from some virtual points which don’t appear to be worth anything to anyone (although the same could be said of Xbox GamerScore and PSN Levels). This hasn’t stopped Foursquare from reaching over 1 million users in just over a year which is quite impressive when compared to the current giants (Twitter took twice as long to reach a similar milestone).
It’s no secret that I’ve shied away from calling Geon a social networking application, despite the obvious social implications it has. Primarily this is because I don’t want to be lumped in as yet another social app but more and more I find myself needing to incorporate such features into the application, as that’s what people are coming to expect. There’s also the point that many of the ideas make a lot of sense when translated properly into my application. Two recent suggestions were a kind of rework of the Twitter trending topics and the other being the ability to follow people and locations. The first wouldn’t exactly be considered a social networking feature but the latter is pretty much the bread and butter of many social networking services. Still I don’t think people will be looking for check-ins in up and coming social apps, even after Facebook introduces their Foursquare killing service.
It’s true though that although I might not get it that doesn’t matter when so many others do. For as long as I develop Geon I’ll be keeping an eye on these services to see how they evolve as their user base grows, mostly to see if there’s anything I should be doing that I’m not already. It’s going to be interesting to see how this all changes when Facebook finally unveils its location based service to the world and you never know, I might have the penny drop moment that so many people seem to be having about check-ins.
Until then however my Foursquare app will be little more than an interesting talking point to bring up amongst friends.
If there’s one defining feature about Web 2.0 is that the focus shifted from one way information delivery to user centered interactions. Primarily I’d attribute this to the resulting fallout from the dot-com crash that fostered an environment for innovators to rise from the ashes of the former Internet giants. Such companies didn’t have the built in following that the companies that preceded them did so their best bet for success was to focus on drawing users into their various services. Once it became the in thing to be big on the Internet we saw the explosion of user centric services we see today and the current starlets of the Web 2.0 stage are of course the social networks.
Owing their success to people’s inate desire to belong and a non-obvious competetion element (read: the friend/follower/whatever counts) the social networks started out as just that, a place for you to keep in touch with real world friends. However as their popularity grew they inevitably attracted the attention of big business who, after many years no longer had the bitter after-taste of the dot-com crash in their mouths, saw a large and as of yet untapped market. From there it wasn’t very long before the user centric service became yet another essential part of every marketing campaign known to man, save for the few who see the social web as a passing fad.
For the most part though this actually increases the allure of social networks for most people. The fact that there’s even a tenuous connection between you and the celebrity du jour or your favourite company, whether it be following them on Twitter or becoming a fan of them on Facebook, gives the Web 2.0 generation that same sense of belonging that they craved when they first joined their social networks. This also works well for the other side of the equation too (the celebrities, Internet starlets et al) as there is little disconnection between themselves and their fans, meaning that they are much more able to command the attention of their audience. When your audience numbers aren’t big enough for you to command your own research and marketing teams social networks become your lifeline to staying in touch with your audience and hopefully keeping them on as fans.
However after using the top tier of social networks for a couple years I’ve started to notice an interesting yet puzzling trend. For the most part people will usually settle on their network of choice which is largely centered around what their highest percieved value of said network is. For the wide majority the pervasiveness of Facebook amongst a wide demographic makes it the best for connecting with friends. Others crave the constant stream of consciousness that is Twitter whilst some may just prefer to see videos from a select bunch of people, thus gravitating towards Youtube. For those on the other side of the equation, those looking to exploit the ability to capture an audience, it seems that you can’t be as choosy with your social networks. You’ve basically got to be on all of them.
Readers of this blog may or may not know the many different ways I promote it, but I know how many of you come through my different channels. Taking a gander of my Google Analytics reveals that about 11% of you have this site bookmarked (or type the address in manually every time, you sadists!), 9% come from Facebook and a mere 2.5% come from links on Twitter. The vast majority of people who get here come through searches, just under 50%. But as many marketer’s will tell you ignoring the long tail can be quite foolish and that is the exact reason why I’m publishing myself through all of those mediums (hey come on I never made it much of a secret that I thought this blog would be my shot at Internet fame and fortune :P).
For many of the current generation of Internet starlets they are in the exact same position. The place that I see this being most prevelent is on Youtube with every single big channel littered with links to follow them on Twitter and fan them on Facebook. They know that if they deliberately abstain from being available through these mediums they’re losing a potential audience. Never mind that the content that they delivered is what made them popular in the first place the fact that someone doesn’t participate in a certain social medium says more than “I can’t be bothered” to the social networking crowd. They would seem to take it as you don’t really care about them, almost tantamount to ignoring them in public.
Partially this is what spurred my current conquest of aggregating a whole lot of information from across the Internet. Whilst I’m under no delusions that I will be the next big thing on the Internet I’m finding more and more that the delivery of information doesn’t seem to matter as much as the people and places that it is coming from. Whilst I’m still aghast to calling my current project a social network (although I will admit I’m about to cave on that point) the high value information streams come from said networks. Thank the Web 2.0 gods for the mantra of being open and accessible or I probably wouldn’t be working on the application at all.
I guess what I’m really getting at here is that the segmentation of social networks would on the surface appear to be capturing different markets when in reality it’s just the same market duplicated several times over. Hats off to them for doing it though as traditional industry couldn’t of fathomed capturing the same market 3 times over but it feels like there’s so much duplication of effort for little benefit.
Maybe it’s the engineer in me seeing redundancy when its not needed that has lead to this feeling of wasted effort but every time I see those familiar icons on the side of a blog or whatever page to link up via various social networks I always twinge a little inside. We live in an age where information is so accessible yet we seem intent on erecting walled gardens everywhere that serve no purpose but to make dissemination of that information harder than it needs to be. Maybe I’m wrong and the simple act of providing an aggregate interface to all these services will change people’s view of such networks, but if that’s the case I’m one genius kid in a garage away from being over taken as the aggregator to use on the Internet.
The explosion in social networking sites and technologies over the past few years has been nothing short of staggering. When I first joined Facebook sometime back in 2007 I only did so because of the social pressure to do so, not because I had any interest in the technology itself. Fast forward a year or two and you would be hard pressed to find anyone of my generation who isn’t on at least one social networking site with many of them on several. Today social networking and media are the biggest draw cards of the Internet with them only being surpassed by the long time giants like Google and Yahoo.
As with the dot com crash before it the kind of sensationalism that surrounds the social Internet has led to a veritable army of competing services all looking for a slice of the extremely profitable pie. For the most part they all have their niche, such as Tumblr and DeviantArt, and a dedicated following that will ensure that they’re around for a long time. Other sites are popular due to a critical mass of users within a region, such as Friendster and hi5. Any social networking site that doesn’t fit into these two categories generally comes and goes without too much fanfare leaving their creditors in the lurch and a set of users looking for another service. Due to the fact that social networking is still a new phenomenon we have yet to see a giant fall, but that doesn’t mean some aren’t about to.
Take MySpace for instance. Ever since it was dethroned as the number 1 social networking site by Facebook it’s been on a long downward path to becoming irrelevant. The past year have seen it drop from its lofty heights of the top 10 most visited sites on the net to its current position of 16. Whilst I doubt that it will fade from existence completely, thanks mostly to the niche it cornered with band/music sites, you can bet that this drop in traffic is hurting their bottom line. Still the current owner, media giant Rupert Murdoch, has no plans to sell off his interest in the flailing site so that begs the question: what’s he got up his sleeve?
About 6 months ago I was having a healthy debate with some of my friends about the life and death of social networking sites. A few held the belief that these sites were going to be very short lived and we’d soon see them fall off the face of the earth. I didn’t share their view but became interested in what would happen as a social networking site started to circle the bowl. In the end I came to the conclusion that when advertising revenue began to wane they’d turn to the thing that once made them great: their users. So whilst you might not have the eyes to attract the advertisers you once did you do have a giant database on millions upon millions of people, with all sorts of delicious data mineable data held within. I made the point that upon the company realising the site was going down they’d start selling off data whilst it was still relevant in a desperate hope to keep themselves afloat.
You can then imagine what I thought when I saw this little tidbit of news:
MySpace has taken a bold step and allowed a large quantity of bulk user data to be put up for sale on startup data marketplace InfoChimps. Data offered includes user playlists, mood updates, mobile updates, photos, vents, reviews, blog posts, names and zipcodes. Friend lists are not included. Remember, Facebook and Twitter may be the name of the game these days in tech circles, but MySpace still sees 1 billion user status updates posted every month. Those updates will now be available for bulk analysis.
This user data is intended for crunching by everyone from academic researchers to music industry information scientists. Will people buy the data and make interesting use of it? Will MySpace users be ok with that? Is this something Facebook and Twitter ought to do? The MySpace announcement raises a number of interesting questions.
The 22 sets of data being made available are cheap. Prices range from $10 for raw dumps from the MySpace API to $300 for everything broken out by latitude and longitude. Subsequently derived data sets can be put on sale by InfoChimps users as well, with a revenue split.
It’s always nice when you make predictions that are eventually vindicated
Save for the companies that will build their revenue streams off doing exactly this your traditional free, ad supported social networking site will one day turn around and start selling your data when times get tough. To be honest I’m surprised that they didn’t do it sooner as in June last year they slashed their workforce by about 30%, another sign of their imminent downfall. So whilst this maneuver won’t draw anymore users to MySpace it will probably keep them afloat for a little longer, maybe in the hopes of revitalizing or re-branding it.
Does this mean that other sites will quickly follow suit? Unlikely, whilst its tempting to start peddling out your data to anyone who wants it you open yourself up to a whole lot of issues with privacy that might not be immediately apparent. Whilst I appreciate that most users will probably be unaware of MySpace doing this if, for example, Facebook did this you can guarantee that there would be a noticeable backlash amongst the more privacy savvy crowd. It probably wouldn’t hurt them in the long run, but it really wouldn’t do them any favours as well.
MySpace is well on its way to be the first casualty of the social web and its demise will provide interesting insight into how these giant social sites unravel as they venture downwards. It will still be a long time before we can stick a fork in MySpace but the slow downward trend it is facing will show us what to look for in the other Internet giants should they begin to falter.