Advertising irrelevance

Lots of laughs this week over the advertisements for hemorrhoid remedies on my site. I don’t know what that says about my posts.

One person asked what that said about my audience. The poor click-throughs suggest people who actually visit this web site must have comfortable chairs.

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MySpace reinvented email

Somebody recently referred to MySpace as “Outlook for teenagers”. Wow, what an interesting way to visualize the paradigm shift.

I had trouble grasping why it was that kids were referring to their MySpace experience using phrases that imply addiction, but this expression broke down that mental block for me. We can all relate to moments when you’re pounding the “Check Mail” button in your email app.

Of course, you can’t reduce MySpace to such a simple generalization without missing some other key trends that serve it well.

There’s something fascinating about watching people react to what you post online. I do the same thing after I post something in my blog that I hope people read. I start checking technorati and watching my referrer logs more closely. People who add Wikipedia entries closely monitor the evolution of those pages as others contribute to it. People who post questions on Answers keep checking their question to see who has responded.

I would bet that people are often more interested in who responds than what the reponse is.

Feedback is validation, and there’s no age group that cares more about validation than teenagers. It can be a paralyzing experience for the less confident, but the Internet creates a nice layer of distance and control that provides a more comfortable home and even a canvas for anyone who can express himself or herself.

Mike Butcher drew an interesting picture of the portal landscape in his Netimperitive column, “Goodbye and good luck”. He asked how Google, Yahoo! and Microsoft were going to address the need for people to control their online identities:

“In this new world where there is no true ‘one-stop-shop’ for everything; where people subscribe to feeds from a myriad of places; where sites themselves are turning into mashups of other sites and none of us goes to one place any more (OK, so we never did, but this is now a fundamental and unbreakable trend); what do portals DO?…

The fight will now become one of identity as portals which used to control your ID because you were literally ‘walled in’ now try to win you over with identity tools locked into their ecosystem.”

MySpace caught the big guys asleep at the wheel, though they run the same risk of controlling identity against people’s wills.

Another reason MySpace works is because no other service before it was enabling teenagers to build a fully customizable identity and to use that identity to interact with other teenagers. There are lots of platforms for socializing online, but none prior to MySpace gave kids the ability to build an evolving reflection of themselves. Avatars are neat, but there’s so much more to expressing teenage drama than altering your shirt.

As Jeremy Zawodny noted, the theoretical WebOS concept already exists. It’s on MySpace where you can install apps from other online services in the form of badges, buttons and visual doodads that spice up your site:

I recently came across something that completely changed the way I think about the idea of a Web OS. Over on the Flickr Ideas forum, I came across a posting titled Flickr is NOT MySpace compatible… please make a javascript free “Badge”.

Take a minute and think about the language that Daniel used there. It the exact same sort of complaint you might have heard 5 or 10 years ago about a desktop application. ‘Is CoolNewGame compatible with my Mac?'”

I thought the blogging craze would have enabled this world for teenagers, and from what I know about LiveJournal, this is exactly what was happening. But a handful of common user interface elements and an email platform pulled all the right pieces together to create the MySpace explosion in a way that blogging just wasn’t serving.

The opportunity to disintermediate MySpace certainly exists if someone can figure out how to couple the independence of a domain owned and controlled by a user along with the communication platform that unifies the way people can give feedback and validation to eachother that’s integrated into the experience.

Comments and trackbacks aren’t enough, obviously. And too much control will confuse the masses.

It’s a fine balance that MySpace nailed, but it’s also a precarious position. I imagine we’ll see MySpace cementing their market share by locking down their brand value before competitors figure out how to lure away their users with better offerings. They obviously need to initiate that effort with some better PR.

The problem with being popular

Several people have complained about the quality of the content that comes out of a site like Digg, a site that captures popular consensus to reflect back to its participants what matters at any given moment.

I actually agree with these people but for entirely different reasons than most of them. There are few things in this world more important than giving people platforms for speaking their mind and being heard, and there’s something valuable to take away from every individual. But ranking voices based on popularity ultimately creates the opposite of empowerment.

Competition is a fantastic incentive to evolve. I’d argue most of the critical commentary of citizen journalism is positioning by the people who have more to lose from the success of commons-based journalism than they care to admit. The argument is largely protectionist fear of a populist attack on mainstream media. They aren’t competitive, and they know it.

The real problem with popularity-driven models is not the existence of reporting that hasn’t been vetted or the increasingly fuzzy lines between perspective and truth. The real problem with popularity-driven models is that they reduce both the breadth and depth of the sources, topics and viewpoints being expressed across a community.

Popularity-driven models water down the value in those hard-to-find nuggets. They normalize coverage and create new power structures that interesting things have to fight through.

Slashdot requires that a participant build a level of karma high enough to breakthrough the controlling moderator hierarchy. Digg removes many of the layers that close Slashdot from wider participation, but it also creates its own power structure as the core voters develop an unwritten etiquette for reducing the noise.

Our current advertising models reinforce the popularity-driven systems and reward the sites that can win the most traffic over those that may actually provide more meaning. The more popular your articles are, the more ad inventory you create. The more inventory you create, the more revenue you can capture.

Rather than broadcast what a few people think matters, the Internet should be used to help people help other people discover and find what matters. Personalized recommendation engines and social networks have fantastic potential because they are learning how to surface relevance in ways that have real meaning without the filter of the popularity overlords or gameable search algorhythms.

And advertisers should begin rewarding sites that capture the right customers at the right time with higher rates. They should value media based on the how well the vehicle initiates movement of the right kind of customer at the right point down the marketing funnel rather than by the volume of touch points.

Good Night and Good Luck,” the recent film about Edward R. Murrow’s battle with Senator McCarthy challenged the television industry to rethink the value of the medium to society. Murrow’s speech in the beginning of the film is a harsh criticism of broadcast-style media:

“We have a built in allergy to unpleasant or disturbing information. Our mass media reflect this. But unless we get up off our fat surplusses and recognize that television in the main is being used to distract, delude, amuse and insulate us, then television and those who finance it, those who look at it, and those who work at it may see a totally different picture too late.”

He then goes on to fault popular opinion for allowing McCarthy to frighten everyone with his tactics:

“[Senator McCarthy] didn’t create this situation of fear. He merely exploited it and rather successfully. Casius was right. ‘The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars but in ourselves.'”

Finally, Murrow has to confront the station management and their desire to maintain strong sponsor relationships. His boss apologetically demotes Murrow:

“‘$64,000 Quesion’ brings in over $80,000 in sponsors and it costs one third of what you do. I’ve got Tuesday night programming that’s number one. People want to enjoiy themselves. They don’t want a civics lesson….I never censored a single program. I never said ‘no’ to you. Never.”

Murrow replies:

“I would argue that never saying ‘no’ is not the same as not censoring.”

I’m not saying popularity isn’t important. What other people think matters profoundly. It’s the root of being a social creature. And anyone who creates would be lying to you if they claimed they weren’t hopeful that what they create becomes popular.

The method for finding and consuming what’s popular, however, shouldn’t be controlled by dynamics that value what’s entertaining at the expense of what matters.

The SF Chronicle uses blogs and ancient history to improve their print product

The San Francisco Chronicle has been doing some really innovative things recently. They’ve begun printing blog entries from their web site in the daily print edition. It’s good reading that rounds out the wire stories nicely. Every print publisher should be doing this.

They’ve also been printing the front page of the paper as it was 100 years ago in memory of the damage done by the Great Quake. Though many references are meaningless, you can imagine life in 1906, which, in some cases, doesn’t sound all that different to the world today. Here’s a particularly gruesome tidbit from 100 years ago:

COLORADO SPRINGS, April 24. – Passing through this city to-day on a Denver and Rio Grande train, bound for Chicago, where her parents reside, was a San Francisco fugitive who said her name was Miss Logan. She wore a bandage on her left hand and said that while she lay unconcious upon the floor of the lobby of the St. Francisco Hotel in San Frncisco after the earthquake last Wednesday morning the third finger of her left hand was cut off and she was robbed of rings that she wore there.

Copyright challenges when users are creating your content

The ongoing joke about the Internet is that the new successful business models, technology advances and creative breakthroughs always come from two market sectors: games and porn.  The most important breakthrough I’ve seen in a long time cuts across all axes.  Second Life is an online environment where everything is created by the participants in what seems to be a world with never ending scope. (BusinessWeek’s cover story this week is all about this new market.) 

BusinessWeek covers virtual worldsThe joke always has the same conflicts, copyright infringement and under-age usage among the biggest problems.  Second Life has a really interesting way of handling the ongoing copyright problem which seems completely unmanageable given how much freedom participants have to contribute whatever they want to the world.

As people are creating things like clothing and posters and songs in this virtual world, they occasionally use copyrighted material.  Linden promises to remove what they can, but the control of the environment is clearly in the hands of the users who therefore are responsible for adhering to the law.  Copyright owners must chase down infringing uses and request that Linden remove them, which they are ready and willing to do.  But the participants are at risk for legal action, not the game operator.

YouTube has the same policy.  It makes a lot of sense.  And, perhaps most importantly, it’s scaleable.  Systems that are dependent on approval throughput can only scale to the size of the approval pipe.  That pipe gets really expensive really quickly even on a small scale.

The key to Second Life’s success in managing copyrighted material is distributing responsibility according to the rules of ownership, including the ownership of a person’s actions.  Very smart.

Social search and molecular biology parallels

Steve Burbeck’s meaty “Multicellular Computing” paper has a lot of lessons that can be derived for any personal perspective.  It made me think that we’re just scratching the surface of the many ways information discovery can be made more efficient if we optimize human-contributed data on the Web.

He describes the parallels between cell behaviors and information technology to show the benefits of growing specialized interconnected systems rather than independent all-powerful systems.  He starts by describing layers of abstraction:

“The details of a hurricane or a tornado are fundamentally not explainable by invoking the physics of individual air and water molecules.  Nor can a computer be understood by pondering the behavior of electrons.”

On several occasions I’ve been asked to explain tags.  And it seems to me that the answer people want is not about tags and tagging but rather the impact of their existence.  The details of a tag or the process of creating a tag are completely boring.  But the impact of tags and tagging have a much more profound future.

I’ve mentioned before John Battelle’s historical view of the search user interface which I really like.  He compares it to command line DOS which was followed by the visually rich Mac OS.  The OS GUI created a powerful layer of abstraction on top of the hardware which then created an explosion of activity in personal computing.  

So the question is, what new layer of abstraction will alter the way we think about information flow and create a similar explosion of activity on the Internet?

Search is a great call-response UI.  It works really well when you know what you want to find.  It’s like the way a man hunts for socks in a shopping mall:

  1. find shops that have socks
  2. identify cheapest, most useful and closest.  order by priority.
  3. find socks, select necessary quantity
  4. pay
  5. reward self with snack on way to car
        

But it’s not as good for making more qualitative decisions.  What if I want socks that last a long time?  What if I want knee-highs?

If you think of each type of human data contributed to the information pool on the Internet as elements and molecules (clicks, views, saved things, sent things, tags, comments, ratings, individual blog posts, wikipedia entries, etc.), then you can imagine bodies made up of those pieces with unique purposes, behaviors, functions and roles.  

Getting back to Burbeck’s paper, the flaw in the PC OS is that it tries to be all things to all people.  Like the single-celled organism, it has to be totally self-sufficient to operate.  

The Internet has altered our view of the computer as an all-powerful tool through breakthroughs like standard web services (HTTP) and common messaging protocols and formats (TCP/IP and RSS).  It looks more like a multicellular organism.

“Multicellular organisms thrive because their cells specialize and collaborate in far more complex and information-rich ways than can a single cell organism.  Metazoans have cells and organs that are specialized for sensing environment, communicating and storing information and acting upon the environment. Yet, at least for a given individual organism and for its species, complexity is not an end in itself, it is merely the means of improving fitness to survive.”

To relate this to search, a much more efficient body of intelligence and information discovery is one that can both find the right information at the right time but also optimize the method for locating the right information through different means.

I’m active enough online to know the brands that have user-contributed data that will quickly get me to what I want.  I know Wikipedia is great for finding commons-based research on just about any topic.  I know del.icio.us is great for finding things people like me have seen in their quests.  Rojo and Megite do a great job of keeping my finger on the pulse of new things people are saying that matter to me.

But there’s an abstraction layer out there somewhere in the future that will make it easier for me to jump from data pool to data pool more fluidly to find what I need…and to interact with it.

Great stuff in this paper that you can apply to whatever you're doing in this industry.  I highly recommend reading what you can of it.