MySpace Revolt in the NYT

[Originally posted on my 360 blog]

As predicted, MySpace users are getting pissed off that the social network they originally chose for its openness is now denying them access to the best of breed services they desire.

There will never again be *one* destination that provides *everything* a user wants and needs. The only way to be ubiquitous is to be completely open and allow users to use your product (whether it be a homepage on which they can embed any service they choose, or a service they can embed in any homepage they choose) how they see fit. Openness is now a viable basis of competition, and you will be undercut by a more open competitor if you are too closed. 

MySpace thinks that they built YouTube, and maybe they did. But, where would MySpace be without all those users embedding and watching YouTube videos on MySpace long before there was a MySpace video player? A smaller piece of the pie can be worth more, if the pie itself is made bigger by allowing distributed innovation to create value for your consumers in ways that you can’t or wouldn’t.

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Trust is…

…when you respect someone’s opinion so much that it impacts your evaluation of the thing he recommends. Call it the Heisenberg uncertainty principle of taste. I think that any professional critic who has achieved a following starts to think about things more in terms of what their audience expects from them than in terms of their own personal taste. It’s because trust is binary — you either believe in someone or you don’t.

That said, trust is not necessarily global. As I told Melanie today, I trust her taste in music and (most importantly) people, but I’ll judge for myself when it comes to sushi (I’m a pretty big food snob, and most of the people I do trust in that area are chefs — so, Mel shouldn’t take it personally ). This is how we live our lives: there’s the musician friend you ask about the latest albums and the film geek you consult before going to the movies. And it seems to me that life gets a great deal less stressful when you find those domain experts you trust so much that their endorsement actually makes something seem *better* and you put your fate in their hands totally on the faith that they will continue to live up to that trust. When Ian tells me to buy a book, I just do it (and sometimes even read them). This is basically a type of personal delegation: “I’m hiring you to be the manager of this decision for me.” And just like in the workplace, you can get burned (“Dude, that movie totally sucked! What was he thinking?”). And then you take action after the fact (“fire” that person by not trusting them anymore).

In fact, this whole line of thinking was inspired by observing how Marco works. If he trusts you, he just wants you to go off and do stuff and come back when it’s done — no check-ins, just trust. I’ve watched this management style both spectacularly succeed and spectacularly fail (IMHO, no middle-ground isn’t such a bad thing). When it goes wrong, there’s generally a lot of yelling and late nights fixing things. But when it’s going well, it’s amazing to watch (or be a part of). The trust becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy — people proactively look to live up to it.

While trusting the wrong person on a big decision can be a devastating mistake, handling all the big decisions yourself means you are inherently limited in the number you can make. And when you find the right people, the time and energy you can save by trusting them will likely greatly outweigh the potential cost of a screw-up multiplied by the probability of one happening. Finding the right people to trust is the hard part (knowing when you have is actually the hardest part), and I can’t tell you how to do it (my dad calls it “ass-twitch”, don’t ask). But once you’ve found them, you want to remove all friction and empower them as much and as easily as possible (I should probably just give Ian my credit card and have him order me the books himself).

I would love to see a product that allows me to do this across all my online services. Yahoo! Music has this great (if completely buried) Influencers feature, which allows you to choose other users whose ratings get factored into your recommendations. But, there’s no way for me to see those recommendations (a la Netflix). So, all of that knowledge is only actionable in the (relatively limited — but, that’s another post) context of Yahoo! Music. Other services, like Netflix and Yelp and Yahoo! Local, allow you to add friends so you can easily see their ratings, but these features are broken in a couple ways.

First of all, they require you to recreate an instance of your social map on their proprietary system that’s only useful within that context (in the case of Y! Local, it’s Y! 360 — but who actually uses *that*?). So, I’m supposed to create and maintain as many lists of friends as services I use online?! openness rant here> But even if they did build off the very robust Facebook API, for example, what these services are doing today still wouldn’t work for me. I don’t want to just see the average overall rating and then my friends’ individual ratings. I want to be able to at least see an average of just my friends’ ratings. And if you are building off of a central address book/social map, then I will need the ability to customize the lists of friends whose opinions I care about for each of the respective services (I want Ian’s opinions on music and books but not movies).

Back in the old days of Web 1.0, I believed that only a large company like Yahoo! or Google could pull this off because of all the integration points (at the end of the day, all this is really is a management console on top of your address book and integration with the relevant services). But now, I think this has a better chance of being built as an open standalone web service. I’m waiting…

Flickr Machine Tags Rule, Y! Local & Yelp Don’t

I *heart* Flickr machine tags. The integration with Upcoming (e.g. Flickr & Upcoming) is a model of Web 2.0 bliss. Yes, I’m a nerd (this post definitely goes beyond the more flattering “geek”). But, watching my identity (and thus content) seamlessly span the best-of-breed services of my choosing makes my heart melt — seriously, I’m that big of a loser. And the most beautiful thing about it is that this integration has absolutely *nothing* to do with the fact that these two products happen to both fall under the same purple corporate umbrella. The Flickr machine tags API is totally open and can work with any site that applies for an application key. (I must add that 360 tried to do a lot of this type of stuff with the ill-fated Feeds, but the implementation was just too proprietary and confusing to really catch on.)

If Web 1.0 was a land-grab of getting users to store stuff with your service (and holding on to it as tightly as possible), Web 2.0 is about creating added value with stuff that’s not locked-in to and may not even be stored with your service. Yahoo! Photos used to gladly allow you to upload high-res images, but only paying subscribers could get them back at their original resolution — this is mercifully no longer the case. Flickr never tried to use your investment in their service as a coercive force (either to get you to stay forever or to pay to leave). Instead, they focused their energies on features that created value on top of your initial investment of uploading and possibly annotating your photos. To succeed in a market with no real switching costs (e.g. the consumer internet), when users invest in your product, you must use that investment to make it better for them to stay not to make it harder for them to leave.

As big a mental shift as this is from the business models of only a couple of years ago, I feel like this type of philosophy is pretty much conventional wisdom at this point (at least in my circles). That’s why I was so shocked to see that neither Yahoo! Local nor Yelp are using Flickr machine tags to link photos to establishments in their databases. Instead, both ask you to upload your photos directly with the sole purpose of correlating with that establishment. Puke!!! I already have my chosen best-of-breed photo sharing service. Why are you *forcing* me to duplicate that effort and use your crappy single-purpose tool as well?!

I took the above photo at the Great Western Steak and Hoagie Company in LA this weekend. I thought it was a pretty cool photo, so I uploaded it to Flickr from my phone. Tonight, I was going through this weekend’s photos adding tags etc. And instead of placing this photo on the Flickr map (which is an awesome, but unscalably time-consuming feature), I wanted to link it to local reviews of the place where I took it (and maybe even write my own review). I was disappointed, but not wholly surprised to find Yahoo! Local doesn’t yet have Flickr integration (disappointed because they’re in the same Business Unit, not surprised because the overlap between audiences is probably relatively low). But when I pinged my friend who works at Yelp to see if they had Flickr integration hidden somewhere on their site (a feature that would have totally gotten me to switch from Yahoo! Local, which only integrates with my less useful 360 identity, to Yelp), I was sorely disappointed.

Not only was she unaware of the machine tags feature on Flickr (admittedly, relatively new), but even after an explanation insisted that Yelp was more interested in having me upload my photos to them than making it easier to integrate with the service where I (and I’m sure a substantial portion of their user-base) *already* upload our photos. I guess my disappointment stemmed from the fact that I had been tricked into thinking that Yelp was a Web 2.0 version of Yahoo! Local, but then it dawned on me — it’s really Web 2-faux. Yes, it’s got the sexy, young, geek-chic brand identity that we’ve come to associate with the second coming of the consumer Internet. But when you actually take a look past the surface, there’s nothing more than an old-school reviews site with some excellent (and “cunningly cost-effective“) hipster marketing. I would hire Stoppelman and co. to take my stodgy old product and give it youth appeal without substantive changes anytime, because that seems to be exactly what they’ve done with Yelp.

Once I came up with this little hypothesis, I scoured the Yelp site for any evidence of true openness. Any developer APIs? Nope. Content syndication? Yes, a couple of RSS feeds — but, that’s more Web 1.5. Any identity portability in or out (MySpace badges and the like)? Not that I can find. Yelp employees (cuz “Yelpers” are the users), come one you can do better. Facebook has some awesome APIs, and I’m sure you guys share a huge overlap in target demographics. Why not hook up to that and import all my relationships without me having to recreate my entire social map from scratch in your system? Or create badges so I can display my Yelp activity on other sites? Or hook up to Flickr machine tags so I only have to upload my photos *once* — oh, we covered that already.

Om was talking today about social networks as a feature of all products. He brings up a good point of the inevitable commoditization of the technologies that spawned Friendster, MySpace, and Facebook. But, I think there’s a more important point to be made than the trend towards the elimination of the standalone social network — and that’s the demand for social network neutrality. I may use a lot of different services online (and will only continue to use more), but there is only one me. The companies that offer me cool services to express myself while allowing me to connect these various dots of my online identity into the meta-picture of my choosing will have the competitive edge on the post-2.0 Web.

Community “Products”

Rant Alert!

I just finished the first of my three planned white papers last night, and decided to let it percolate a bit before moving on to the next two. It is currently a six-page screed on microeconomic theory in the digital age, and I will likely post some portions of it here soon. In the meantime, I thought I would catch up on some blogosphere surfing and MyWeb bookmarking (come on Yahoo! marketing, where’s the verb for that? MyWebbing? Gong!). And after reading through a couple of posts linked to from Kareem’s highly-underrated blog, something just snapped.

I work at Yahoo!. We are the leading community on the internet both in size and breadth of tools. And, we have some brilliant people who really get community (shouts out to: Ian, Michael, Russell, Randy, Stewart, Caterina, Danah, and Cameron, among others). But we also have some people who seriously don’t get it. They see community as a means to an end, not the end in itself. They are jealous of MySpace and Facebook and whatever the next big fad will be, because of their rapid audience growth.

Audience is what matters to these people because audience is what you sell in conventional advertising [oh, wtf…I’ll succumb to the 1.0/2.0 cliché – I guess it’s only a cliché because it works], let’s call it advertising 1.0. As Google has taught the world, advertising 2.0 is about selling intent. In the pre-digital age, audience put through a number of filters (like content association, demographic information, etc) was used as a proxy for intent. Advertisers weren’t really happy with this approximation, because they knew it was an inefficient means of buying what they really wanted – access to consumers with a certain intent. But, that was the best that conventional media could do, so advertisers settled. As John Wanamaker said approximately a hundred years ago, “Half the money I spend on advertising is wasted; the trouble is, I don’t know which half.” I won’t go further into advertising 2.0 other than to say that it is coming faster and faster. What makes advertising 2.0 relevant to this particular rant is the fact that it favors monetization of communities, not just audiences.

Getting back to the people who don’t get the “it” of communities; the way you can tell these people is that they talk about “user-generated content” way too much – they treat it as some kind of panacea that will fix the problems inherent with trying to port conventional media business models to the internet. The worst of these offenders use the term so much that they have taken to saving time by abbreviating it…from this day forth, I vow to walk out of any meeting in which someone actually uses the term “UGC” in anything but an ironic context. (Ok, I probably won’t really do that if there are executives present…but, that person will be put on my moron list).

Derek Powazek puts it much more eloquently than I ever could:

User: One who uses. Like, you know, a junkie.
Generated: Like a generator, engine. Like, you know, a robot.
Content: Something that fills a box. Like, you know, packing peanuts.

So what’s user-generated content? Junkies robotically filling boxes with packing peanuts. Lovely.

Calling the beautiful, amazing, brilliant things people create online “user-generated content” is like sliding up to your lady, putting your arm around her and whispering, “Hey baby, let’s have intercourse.”

Amen brother! Derek goes on to suggest the term “Authentic Media,” which I like a lot and hope gets memeified. Authentic media definitely jibes a lot more with all the web and media 2.0 theory around which people are beginning to coalesce.

Anyway, back to the rant at hand. The reason I ironically titled the post “Community ‘Products'” (yes, my over use of quotation marks is often meant to denote irony), is that I don’t believe big companies can succeed at community products. Big companies, like Yahoo!, Google, Microsoft, and even AOL, contribute most to the community value chain by building community platforms, on which the community builds its own products. Isn’t that the real underlying goal of online communities, to incite scalable self-sustaining user-behavior? If you define the product as what the end-user actually consumes, the value of any community product to a given individual user tends to be proportional to its focus on his interests. On social networking sites, like Friendster, Yahoo! 360, MySpace, Facebook, etc, what the end user consumes is a combination of content produced by the host, the community, and himself. The more that product management rests in the hands of that user, the more focused the product will be on that user’s

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