Friday, March 27, 2009

Is MySpace Dead?

As the popularity of online social-networks has exploded, so too has the number of competitors in the marketplace. Despite a growing awareness of the dangers inherent in having our personal information constantly shared with the public at-large, too many of us find ourselves in a situation where we have different accounts on multiple social-networking websites - even some that we never really use anymore.

Thus, in the name of cyber house-cleaning, I finally took the plunge and decided to delete some of my social-networking profiles. I had no problem deciding to give Friendster and its other seemingly pre-historic brethren the proverbial axe. However, I ultimately decided to delete my MySpace account as well.

MySpace, along with Facebook, is among the social media elite. Owned by Rupert Murdoch, MySpace currently earns $800 million in annual revenue (whereas Facebook, in comparison, brings in less than half of that amount, coming in at $300 million). Also, despite recently being surpassed by Facebook in terms of numbers of users, MySpace still reaches 58.5 million people each month (compared to 68.5 million for Facebook).

On the surface, these numbers would indicate that MySpace is actually thriving - both in terms of revenue as well as reach. So why is there a growing perception that MySpace's time has past? Is it fair to label it as "dead"?



The answer may, indeed, be yes. Not only does Facebook have all of the upward momentum versus MySpace, but next-generation Web 2.0 sites like Twitter are seeing exponential growth at their expense. In other words, despite a thriving market, MySpace's numbers are actually in decline. That's never a promising trend in business.

I envision MySpace executives frantically scurrying around their offices trying to figure out why this is the case. There was a large switch away from MySpace towards Facebook about two years ago, and at the time that was mostly attributed to poor website design and an abundance of spam. But MySpace has long since rectified those problems, and yet the shift continues unabated. Some experts believe that Facebook simply has reached a tipping point where it continues to grow based solely on inertia, but, based on the data, wouldn't MySpace have a similar amount of inertia themselves? That argument leaves too much unanswered. Others look at demographic trends and notice the gentrification of MySpace and Facebook (how users of different income and education levels are segregating themselves between the two services). But that seems a peripheral issue when considering the large mainstream shift that's been occurring.

Perhaps the answer can best be found by bringing the question back to an individual level. When deciding whether to keep or delete my MySpace account, I factored in 1) that I hadn't even logged on to the account in four months and 2) that most of my "friends" hadn't posted any new photos or other content during that entire time.

The strength of all of the social-networking websites lies in how much user-generated content people are sharing with each other. If nobody posts anything, there seems to be little point to using the service.

Thus, the moral of the story is that individuals hang out where their friends hang out. While early adopters might have preferred Facebook's less annoying design, the main reason for MySpace's decline today is that people are simply following their friends' migrations. Ironically, Web 2.0 sites' viral capacity to generate super-fast growth is the same force that accelerates their own demise.

At least for me, MySpace has already been dead and buried for quite some time. All I did by deleting my account was make it official.
  

Why Obama's Online Town Hall Meeting was a Wasted Opportunity...

The first "YouTube Presidency" gained a lot of traction yesterday as President Barack Obama held an online town hall meeting that was open to the public. If you were to believe the media coverage, you might think that this was a revolutionary event ushering in a new era for democracy. But is that really the case?

Hosted on Whitehouse.gov, individual citizens had been able to post questions for the two days leading up to the town hall meeting, and people could then vote for which questions they most wanted answered. The President and his staff generally did an admirable job of answering the top questions people had voted for, including a now notorious one on whether marijuana should be legalized "in order to save the economy".

Kudos to the president for honoring the agreed upon voting system - regardless of how silly it may have seemed at that moment :-)

To be sure, this was a stark improvement on past attempts to integrate Web 2.0 strategies into political broadcasts. I've previously covered how, for example, the CNN-YouTube Debate during the presidential primaries failed America by allowing a small handful of media elites to filter which questions should be asked. While most questions weren't exactly covering unexpected topics, at least this online town hall meeting avoided letting the media elites act as gatekeepers, and instead granted the public power over question selection.

There are clearly many reasons why some type of filter is necessary in online political forums. As Evan Ratliff observed, "comments are typically the intellectual equivalent of truck-stop graffiti". The Obama team rightfully fears having "zero control over the potentially critical or embarrassing response videos that users would post".

However, this online town hall meeting was still a wasted opportunity. Despite the open format, it nevertheless remained, ultimately, a generic "Q & A" session, failing to include follow-up questions, and fell far short of being revelatory. Advocates who believe the internet can be a democratizing force are hoping that the president will go much further. As Dan Froomkin suggests, government officials would be wise to embrace "wiki culture" and create "public collaborative workspaces".

The core issue here is to what extent political forums ought to be interactive. Our system of Representative Democracy (as opposed to Direct Democracy) has served us well for over two centuries, but as new technologies make Direct Democracy more logistically possible, we, as a society, will need to decide to what extent they are worth pursuing.

In those terms, the president's online town hall meeting was a step in the right direction, but he still has a long way to go.
  

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

China Censors YouTube (again)...

It must be that time of the month. Like clockwork, it's time again for the seemingly obligatory post describing the Chinese government's latest attempt to censor YouTube.

The row this time is over a video, released by the exiled Tibetan government, depicting Chinese police officers brutally beating Tibetans after riots last year in Lhasa. Normally, China will censor individual videos, but this time it decided to apparently block the entire YouTube website.

As I've described before, the so-called "Great Firewall of China" works so well because it's extremely subtle. Rather than outright censoring websites, it simply makes specific pages take too long to load, so users wind up going to different destinations out of impatience. From my own analysis of the Great Firewall performed while in China, I can attest to the fact that most people never even know when a site is being censored. Contrary to American perceptions, Chinese users never receive some ominous warning that the police are coming to get them for visiting a banned site. They just grow impatient with the loading time, and move on with their lives.

This is a recurring story that always gets lots of coverage in the blogosphere, and while it's important for citizen journalists to act as watchdogs and report such happenings, the real story lies in whether Google (which owns YouTube) chooses to remove the controversial video in order to appease a Chinese government with whom it wants to conduct business, or, conversely, whether Google will leave the video in place, sticking to its stated principle to "Do No Evil".

Bloggers ought to follow-up on THAT story.
  

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

The Government Solicits Broadband Policy Proposals...

During the presidential campaign, Barack Obama called for America to lead the world in internet access with "true broadband in every community... [and] better use of the nation's wireless spectrum."

How exactly this would be achieved has been a great mystery. As is always the case with telecommunications policy, the devil is in the details, and therein resides the controversy. What should be the role of government? Should government provide broadband directly to citizens, offer incentives to private companies to develop the infrastructure and extend access to underserved areas, or avoid interference and leave it up to the private sector entirely?

Interestingly, the government itself has yet to determine its preferred answer, and is seeking advice from - you guessed it - the public. As Wired reports,

The FCC announced Thursday that at its next open meeting, April 8, it will discuss a notice of inquiry (.pdf) — essentially an open call for comment on what the government's role, if any, should be in making the country richly wired and unwired. From there the FCC will draw out a broadband road-map report — due to Congress in less than a year under the rules of the stimulus package.


So if you were advising the president on how to make the United States the global leader in broadband internet access, what would you say? What would be your vision for America's 21st-century digital infrastructure?

Here are a few of my humble suggestions...

  1. Everyone who wants broadband internet, and is willing to pay for it, should be able to get it.

    Some of us living in major metropolitan areas forget that millions of Americans still have no choice but to use 56k dial-up connections, not because they're cheapskates, but because the infrastructure doesn't yet exist in many rural areas. This is simply unacceptable. Just as the government ensured with the telephone network a hundred years ago, broadband infrastructure must extend to every remote corner of the country. The Feds should offer subsidies to private telecom companies to build it, and if they refuse, then the government ought to do it themselves, accepting bids for contracts.

  2. Pursue municipal wireless strategies.

    Physical broadband infrastructure is expensive to build, which is why some type of public-private partnership is necessary. However, wireless infrastructure is light-years cheaper, and also less problematic operationally since, legally, the public already owns the airwaves. The Feds should offer financial assistance to municipalities that build viable Wi-Fi alternatives to their wired counterparts. Also, free Wi-Fi should be implemented in all public places - such as parks, libraries, government buildings, and, of course, schools. This is already occurring in places like Bryant Park and the New York City Public Library, but so much can be done to speed the process up and make it a universal principle. Basically, government should seek to expand wireless internet access through every avenue possible.

  3. Adopt IPv6.

    This is more on the technical side, but the current IP address system is projected to reach its capacity by 2011; and that's a major potential problem. A solution already exists, known as IPv6, however, there has been a paradoxical problem in rolling it out - Nobody wants to adopt IPv6 until it becomes widely supported, and administrators don't want to support it until it becomes more widely adopted. The Feds can give everyone a swift kick in the rear-end and get the ball rolling simply by using their procurement power and requiring that any recipients of stimulus money adopt native IPv6 support. No 21st-century infrastructure will be complete without it, and this is a great excuse to take the initiative.

  4. Keep broadband affordable.

    There's no point in making sure every American has broadband access if no one can afford it. I'm not suggesting that's the case now, however there is an omnipresent danger of pricing ourselves out of the game if this principle gets taken for granted. To improve on our existing system, there needs to be greater market competition. While nationally things seem rosy, the fact is that most of us have only one or two broadband providers in the community where we live, thus giving us no alternative but to pay whatever prices they ask, and giving those providers little motivation to innovate or improve their quality of service. That has to change.

    To reach this goal of increased market competition, (as an anonymous commenter suggests) the government should disallow infrastructure companies from providing services on their own network, or failing that, they should be required to offer identical access at identical prices to what they provide to themselves. Having a single company own/control the infrastructure as well as the services on that infrastructure means that it's against their business interests to cooperate with and compete fairly with competing services, and that vertical integration needs to stop.

  5. Increase funding for science and engineering research.

    Admittedly, I may be biased due to the fact that I would likely be a recipient of such funding, but the fact remains that if America wants to be a global leader in digital technology, it has to actually invest in technology research. This is a common sense principle. We don't want to be forced into a situation 30 years from now where we have to lease technology from India and China just to be competitive. Grants involving newer technologies, such as deploying fiber-based and WiMax infrastructure projects, could fall under this umbrella as well.


Thus, any vision of a 21st-century America ought to include being at the forefront of technological development, vibrant market competition, and widespread broadband penetration. While the private sector will rightfully be the primary agent for deployment, there is nevertheless an awful lot that the government can, and should, do. And there's no time like the present.
  

Monday, March 23, 2009

How Not to Launch a Web Browser...

What? You weren't even aware that Microsoft just released its new browser upgrade, Internet Explorer 8? Well, you're not alone. People are largely oblivious to what used to be a major news event.

Internet Explorer 8, of course, has a range of new features such as "Accelerators" which are little more than a new name for shortcuts, "InPrivate" browsing which lets you turn enhanced privacy features on and off at will, and "Web Slices" which let you know when your favorite websites get updated.

None of these features are going to be deemed necessary (or even useful) by the typical internet user. Microsoft just has to have some features to tout in order to convince people to upgrade. The real truth is that Internet Explorer 8's main purpose is to act as supporting software for the company's larger cloud computing strategy. While this may prove to be a smart move looking a few years down the road, it does little to make life better for people who use the program right now.

The statistics back up this point. According to data provided by Net Applications and quoted in this article by the TG Daily, since launch day, the market share for IE8 has increased by less than 1.3%. Compare this to how Firefox 3 gained double that amount at 2.76% over its first four days of availability – "and we are talking about a browser that had less than 20% overall market share at the time of its release. Microsoft’s IE is still well above the 65% mark. You do the math on the performance discrepancy".

It used to be a big deal when a new browser was released. During the heyday of the browser wars with Netscape, Microsoft used to market their upgrades so successfully that everyone knew of an upcoming release before it happened, and it became an immediate must-have in cultural terms, just as iPhones are today. Now, few people are aware of new browser releases even after they've occurred.

I'm sure we'll all end up using IE8 eventually, just as the mainstream transition to Windows Vista is also seemingly inevitable given enough time. But that doesn't necessarily mean it's a good product, nor does it mean that it was well-marketed. The gurus at Microsoft ought to recognize that, if they want to achieve a successful launch, they'd be wise to design a product that actually surpasses the competition; not to mention the previous versions of their own product.
  

Thursday, March 19, 2009

What Are People Talking About Right Now?

In our daily travels around cyberspace, each of us, in our own way, tries to get a sense of what's happening right now - the big stories of the day; the hot topics.

If all you do is visit static pages then you're missing out on the Web's interactivity. In other words, the New York Times might provide you with important news headlines, but it doesn't give you a sense of what people are actually talking about.

There are two interesting tools for discovering the hottest topics of the moment, and they both involve searching through the thoughts that ordinary people are sharing.

First, go to the Twitter search engine main page. Not only can you search for keywords to see what people are saying about a given topic, but those little links underneath the search field are the "trending topics" of the moment (or, the most popular keywords currently being used). These trending topics are wonderful metrics. At this moment, "Natasha Richardson", "SXSW" (the South by Southwest Conference), and "March Madness" are the three most discussed phrases, which, living in the moment, seems pretty accurate of what people are talking about the most. Plus, to get a sense of historically popular trending topics, rather than only those which are popular at present, check out Twendly.

Second, wouldn't it be great to search through everyone's Facebook status messages? An application called Status Search on Facebook does just that. While some of you might be rolling your eyes at the thought that your friends' status messages might possibly be useful, consider how, for instance, during the presidential inauguration, there were over 600,000 messages that discussed the event, making it the most heavily active day in social media history. It's actually quite amazing how closely people's status mirrors what's happening in the world. I already know, using Status Search, that "American Idol" is consistently among the most posted phrases during the two hours each Tuesday night when it's broadcast.

It's really pretty fascinating. What's demonstrated is the real power of Internet Search as a means for tracking, not only the content of web pages, but also individual and collective behavior.

Google may soon need to update its algorithms to take such developments into account. Because the dialogue is often pretty telling.
  

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Judge Declares Mistrial by iPhone...

How do you force someone to NOT access specific information on the internet? It may seem like a theoretical scenario, but it's actually becoming a major problem in the judicial system.

As the New York Times reports, a big drug trial in Florida ended last week when the federal judge, William J. Zloch, declared a mistrial because several jury members had accessed information relevant to the case on the internet.

This is illustrative of a larger pattern. In this Web 2.0 age of Facebook, Twitter, Google, and iPhones, there is an emerging trend of jurors gathering and sending out information about cases that is "wreaking havoc on trials around the country, upending deliberations and infuriating judges".

Jurors are not supposed to seek information outside of the courtroom. They are required to reach a verdict based only on the facts that the judge has decided are admissible, and they are not supposed to see evidence that has been excluded as prejudicial. But now, using their cellphones, they can look up the name of a defendant on the Web, or examine an intersection using Google Maps, violating the legal system’s complex rules of evidence. They can also tell their friends what is happening in the jury room, though they are supposed to keep their opinions and deliberations secret.


Short of sequestering every jury in every case, isolating them in solitary confinement with no access to the outside world for weeks at a time, how does anyone suppose this can be prevented? It can't. To instruct jurors that they are not allowed to read an incoming text message, Facebook update, Twitter post, or Google alert about their case is an utter impossibility. The internet of today is as much about receiving information shared by others as it is about searching for it.

That said, the rules of evidence, developed over hundreds of years of jurisprudence, are designed to ensure that juries are untainted and that the facts that go before them have been subjected to scrutiny and challenge from both sides. This is still essential.

Over time, judges will simply be forced to loosen their definitions of what is acceptable behavior, and to instruct their juries accordingly. As always, adjustments must be made to a changing reality. Even in the courts.
  

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

The Newspaper As Platform...

One of the classic movie lines ever comes from Ghostbusters, when Egon is asked what types of books he reads, and he deadpans, "Print is Dead".

Well, 25 years later, print is not dead, nor will it be anytime soon. However, the newspaper industry is suffering on an unprecedented scale. Over the past decade, newspapers have been hemorrhaging both paying subscribers and advertisers as people have turned increasingly towards the internet as their primary source of news.

It's no secret that the newspaper industry suffers from an outdated business model that has been deemed completely unsustainable in an era of free content, reduced barriers to market entry, and, as a result, a seemingly infinite array of competition.

The big questions... How will newspapers adapt their business models to digital realities? Which ones will be left standing when the dust settles? What altered forms will they finally take?

So here are the latest developments (and see if you can detect any trends). First, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer announced that, starting today, it will no longer print a hard-copy of their daily paper, instead shifting to an internet-only presence.

This comes on the heels of a recent prediction that fully 50% of newspapers will not exist in print within 10 years. (Apparently, Egon must now be a blogger.)

Meanwhile, the solution stream is filled with evidence of creative destruction. One proposed strategy calls for newspapers to shift to a micropayment strategy where customers would pay only a nickel or dime for each article they wanted to view (think iTunes and their success with 99 cents/song).

Another alternative plan, which shows the most promise, in my humble opinion, is being tested by the New York Times, which has released an open API offering 2.8 million articles from its archive. For you non-programmers out there, releasing this API means that any website developer essentially now has access to all of those articles, and can link to Times content dynamically from their own site as a way of supplementing their own material. In other words, rather than simply being a newspaper, the Times is trying to become a news "platform" on which the rest of the Web can build upon.

This "newspaper as platform" idea is so fascinating because it recognizes several fundamental business realities:

  1. Reporting is no longer a scarce commodity.

  2. One thing that big media still does have a particularly good share of, though, is information processing resources and archival content.

  3. Newspaper readers have actually never paid for the content (words and photos). What they have paid for is the paper that content is printed on, and its physical distribution. A newspaper might actually be better off if it would "give away the content without the paper. In theory, a reader who stops paying for the physical paper but continues to read the content online is doing the publisher a favor."


So where does that leave us?

In an industry with a currently unsustainable business model, newspapers will be better off by opening their content to the masses, letting them do with it as they please. Transforming from a static, protected product into a versatile and open news platform will ultimately prove beneficial to these companies because it will actually enhance their visibility and levels of readership, albeit in a different form, and by becoming a foundation that others build upon they will also immediately transform many of their current internet rivals into promotional partners.

Egon's famous maxim may have been prophetic, but that still doesn't necessarily have to spell the end for companies in the news business.
  

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

How to Use Twitter (A Beginner's Guide)...

The media has recently grabbed hold of Twitter and officially annointed it, "The Next Big Thing". But amidst all the hype, people are continuously failing to understand how to use it or what to do with it. What's all the fuss really about?

First of all, do NOT think of Twitter the same way as you think of Facebook. On Facebook, you create a social-network of "friends" who you know in the real world. On Twitter, you create a network of "followers", most of whom you don't know at all. They are merely people who find your updates interesting.

You may ask yourself why bother. The magic of Twitter lies in two things. First, the purpose of Twitter is to have real-time conversations with like-minded people in cyberspace. If you have, say, 200 followers who share your interests, then you can post a tweet that says, "Desperately in need of a good book recommendation. Any ideas?". I've done this myself. Within a few minutes I had a dozen recommendations from different people.

Second, Twitter is fabulous as a source for real-time news and information. For example, remember when that U.S. Airways plane crash-landed into the Hudson River last month? When I first heard about it, I didn't go to the New York Times website nor did I turn on CNN. Both of those have a varying time lag from the moment when something occurs until it is actually covered. Instead, I went directly to Twitter and already there were hundreds of people talking about it, a few eyewitness accounts, and helpful links for emergency hotlines, etc. Basically, because Twitter posts messages live, you can read and discuss things as they are actually happening.

The second most common thing that I get asked about Twitter is how to get started. As The Nerfherder Gal so delicately put it, "I can't for the life of me figure out how to use Twitter!".

Here are the steps for newbies to take. After creating your account, I'm willing to become your first follower, so just go to http://twitter.com/rdomanski and click on "Follow" underneath my picture. Now, whenever I post a new tweet, it will show up on your home page - which is kind of like your News Feed on Facebook. And once I follow you back, your tweets will likewise appear in my feed.

Still with me? Ok, what you really want to do in order to make Twitter useful is create a whole network of people that you find interesting. On the right-column of your home page, click on the link for "Everyone". Find a few people who are writing about your favorite topics or just writing in an entertaining way, click their profile picture, and "follow" them. Many Twitter users will automatically start following you back, thus creating for you not only a source of information you find interesting, but also an audience to whom who can broadcast your own messages.

Once you've created a rich network of followers, you'll be amazed at how much useful information is out there, as well as the dialogues taking place around it. Remember, the real power of Twitter is in the conversations. The more you comment, re-tweet, and reply to other people's messages, the more you'll get from the experience.

Finally, when you want to play a little, you should check out the Twitter search engine which displays the hot "trending topics" of the moment (what people are talking about the most), Twitturly, which displays the most popular hyperlinks that people are sending around, and, when you really want to geek out, download either Twhirl or Tweetdeck as a desktop client. Also, definitely link your cell phone to your Twitter account so that you can remotely post tweets simply by sending a text message.

If even 80-year-old U.S. Congressmen can figure this out, then you really don't have any good excuse :-)
  

Monday, March 09, 2009

The Evolution of the Internet from a Phish Fan's Perspective...

This weekend saw the triumphant return of Phish playing to sold-out audiences in Hampton, Virginia, amidst what were (trust me on this) ridiculously impossible-to-get tickets.

Without sounding too much like an old graying Deadhead who's partaken in too many parking lot balloons over the years, I nevertheless couldn't help but feel nostalgic, not only about the shows themselves, but about how the remote experience has changed so drastically over the years.

I spent the past three nights, to varying extents, glued in front of my computer screen, following setlist updates and chatting with other fans on Twitter, viewing people's Flickr photos, and watching a live streaming video of the concert itself. Within about two hours of the show's conclusion each night, I also downloaded a crisp, soundboard-quality recording of the concert in MP3 format. Legally.

Man, how times have changed. Before these halcyon days of Web 2.0 and widespread broadband adoption, people like me had to get tickets through a mail-order system that required you to physically walk into a post office, buy a money order, and send it through snail mail. I remember looking at setlists through the hard-copy newsletter that the band periodically sent out, and listening to their concert recordings after a painstakingly slow process of chatting up a taper in a USENET group and then mailing blank cassettes and pre-paid postage to him, finally being able to listen to a concert recording weeks after it had occurred. And that's if you were lucky.

It all used to be so much more effort. The remote Phish experience is now light years ahead of where it was just 15 years ago. Thanks to the internet, it's now almost completely instantaneous and as effortless as a few passive mouse-clicks. Instant gratification has won the day.

Some of my buddies actually perceive this as a negative evolution. They wax nostalgic about the lack of personalization and humanity in the current process.

But it's easy to idealize the way things used to be, and forget how much of a pain in the rear-end certain processes were when you actually had to go through them. We tend to gloss over the negatives in retrospect. Personally, despite being shut out of tickets for all three Hampton shows and every single concert of this summer tour (!), I'm still grateful for Twitter setlist feeds, live streaming video, and legal high-quality downloads. The internet has undoubtedly enhanced the experience. It may be less personalized, but it's also more accessible.

Such is the tortured soul of today's aging Phish fan.
  

Friday, March 06, 2009

The Rise of Recession Blogs...

We're all getting killed these days, and it's only human nature to want to vent. Our 401ks are decimated, and if we haven't yet been laid-off then we're at least nervous about facing that Day of Reckoning somewhere on the horizon. Heck, even the Wall Street Journal published a piece yesterday saying that there is a 20% chance we're falling into a Great Depression.

In these times of plunging stock markets, job anxiety, and bill-paying paranoia, a new phenomenon is taking shape that may come to define the current economic crisis for future historians... the rise of "Recession Blogs".

Adam Cohen of the New York Times has put together a fascinating list of blogs that offer a range of opinions, firsthand accounts, and advice related to the recession. Here are a few of the best:

The iconic images from the Great Depression may have been black-and-white photographs of migrant workers and film reels depicting bread lines. But it's looking more likely that it'll be angry bloggers who define this economic crisis. For better, or for worse.
  

Wednesday, March 04, 2009

Obama Picks Net Neutrality Backer as FCC Chief...

During the presidential election campaign, Barack Obama gained a lot of support from the high-tech community because of the perception that he was both aware of, and also committed to, internet issues.

While Silicon Valley and netizens in general have been anxiously awaiting the new president's initiatives, they may finally have it. Yesterday, Obama nominated Julius Genachowski as the new chairman of the FCC.

Here's why you should care. The FCC Chairman is the chief regulator of telecommunications policy in the country. This means that this individual has tremendous power over what type of information we receive, as well as how we receive it. This applies to everything from the telephone network, to television broadcasts, to - you guessed it - the internet.

The most prominent issue on the agenda is Net Neutrality. It's considered the "First Amendment of the Internet" because, as it stands now, net neutrality means that all content on the internet is treated equally. The big telecom companies have been lobbying to create "toll lanes" on the Web whereby they could charge extra for audio and video content, or really anything that they determined could fetch a higher price.

During this president's term, a decision will be made on whether net neutrality will remain in place or if it will be overturned and a "tiered internet" will be established. It is the FCC Chairman who will largely make that decision.

So, it is certainly newsworthy that Julius Genachowski is an avowed backer of net neutrality, and his nomination bodes well for things to come. He was a top Obama technology advisor during the campaign and aided in crafting a technology platform that supported net neutrality rules. In the private sector, he acted as general counsel at IAC/InterActiveCorp, which is a member of a coalition that supports more net neutrality regulations and which also includes Amazon, eBay, and Google.

This is one of those news items that generally gets ignored by 99% of the public. But it's also the type that has significant repercussions for decades to come.
  

Tuesday, March 03, 2009

How to Measure Online Influence...

I tend to think of this blog as my humble contribution to the noise in cyberspace. While writing, the audience I envision tends to be either my students or close friends and family members who were kind enough to subscribe. I know that I'm not even close to some superstar blogger with millions of readers. But, once in a while, this conception of my audience gets completely rattled. Last year, I was quoted in an article alongside Tim Berners-Lee (the man who invented the World Wide Web, for pete's sake!). And recently, I was introduced to a writer from the New York Times who, upon hearing my name, knew me immediately. He said he's been a subscriber to my blog for months!

All of which got me thinking. Maybe I actually do wield some power and influence in cyberspace.

How could I find out?

The standard ways that online influence gets measured are through the number of page hits one receives and the number of subscribers they maintain. The Nerfherder is not overly impressive on either of those fronts. This blog receives an average of about 500 page hits per day, and has approximately 80 subscribers. I'm awfully proud that my little hobby achieves these benchmarks, but it's hardly on par with the millions upon millions that the most popular blogs receive.

I try not to take it too personally :-)

Measuring online influence is not an easy thing these days because, with the tremendous growth in popularity of online social-networks, really, how much do page hits and subscriber numbers tell you? A retail store might have a gigantic mailing list of people who signed up for their catalog, but that doesn't mean they're necessarily selling a ton of merchandise.

Micah Baldwin of Mashable recently tackled this problem. He argues that online influence can be broken down into three components - brand, expertise, and trust.

People who are truly influential become conduits for human based filtering and content discovery within their communities, as members of the community look to the person of influence to connect them to people and content they should trust, and fuel positive community growth.


Baldwin suggests the following metrics for ascertaining someone's true influence in cyberspace...

  1. Incoming Traffic - Pageviews, Incoming traffic from search engines, rss subscribers

  2. Incoming Links - Primarily manual links such as blogrolls, in-post deep links

  3. Reader Engagement - Internal searches, time on site

  4. Recommendations - Retweets, share stats

  5. Connections - Number of mutual connections, number of mutual connections on multiple sites

  6. Track Record - Age of domain, number of blog posts, length of engagement

  7. Engagement - How often and long a person has engaged with a service online


This is a terrific list because it takes into account both the quality and the quantity aspects of someone's cyberspatial reach. Personally, if I were to just add my own two cents here, the most significant measures of a blog's influence that a visiting reader can immediately determine are 1) the number of comments left on each post, and 2) the number of external websites that link to that site.

And with these metrics in mind, The Nerfherder really doesn't do all that bad. People shouldn't get too caught up in the quantitative data - after all, just because someone has 10,000 Twitter followers and 1,200 Facebook friends doesn't mean that they're necessarily more influential; they could get lost in the noise as easy as the rest of us. The quality of your interaction with readers, friends, and followers is, in many ways, even more important.

So let the big blogs have their millions of anonymous zombies. I'll take a smaller, but more loyal and interactive, community of individuals anytime.
  

Monday, March 02, 2009

Lessons from a Facebook Group Failure...

Following a recent conversation that got us both fired up, my friend Kevin Rice and I decided to run a highly scientific experiment. We both believed that, with all the billions of dollars being spent on economic stimulus, some of that money would be more wisely spent by helping to eliminate student loans for graduate students.

In order to test our hypothesis that such an idea would warrant lots of public support, we created a new Facebook group...




This experiment would be simple. After creating the Facebook group, we invited approximately 200 people to join. All of these invitees were direct "friends" of ours on Facebook. No other marketing for the group would be attempted in order for the experiment to clearly test the viral capacity of online social-networks.

What were the results? Within the first day, the group had 12 members. After a week, it had 29 members. And finally, a week-and-a-half after the group was created, it hit 37 members... which appears to be the final total since it has stabilized there, unchanged, through this, now, the third week.

On the surface, 37 members is hardly the rallying response that we had hoped for. As Kevin observed in an IM conversation, "What a giant bust".

However, 37 members out of 200 original invitees translates into an 18% response rate. That's a number that telemarketers, mail-order catalogs, and spammers only dream of.

Furthermore, it's notable to observe that of the 37 members, 28 of them were direct Facebook "friends" of mine, and therefore received their initial invite for the group directly from me. Only 9 people joined the group through an extra degree of separation. And of these 9 members, 6 of them were referred by the same individual. (Thanks, Nathan :-)

So what can we conclude from these results?

First of all, the failure of our Facebook group, for which we had such high hopes, might have been disappointing in terms of the actual numbers of supporters, but the 18% response rate demonstrates that it wasn't necessarily a failure at all. Online social-networking is indeed more effective than traditional marketing strategies.

Our "failure", then, was not due to the dynamics of Facebook groups. It was caused by our decision to only invite 200 people.

Second, the ability for these groups to go viral is still largely dependent on the actual content of the message being presented. In retrospect, perhaps we could have widened our audience by proposing that the government eradicate student loans for all college students (rather than only those in graduate school). Or, as Kevin observed, perhaps we needed a more "attention-grabbing headline".

Lastly, having a large online social-network is still not a real substitute for an effective marketing campaign. While the first point still holds true - that online social-networking is more effective than cold-calling or advertising to strangers - the fact remains that you still need to have an intelligent marketing strategy geared towards those people within your social-network. In other words, simply inviting your "friends" to join your group may not be enough. You'd be better off promoting your group additionally through wall posts, status messages, blog posts, Twitter updates, etc.

Social-networking is not a substitute for marketing; rather, it is an effective venue for it. Such is the lesson from one Facebook group's failure.