Category Archives: participation

Calling your web site a ‘property’ deprives it of something bigger

BBC offered another history of London documentary the other night, a sort of people’s perspective on how the character of the city has changed over time, obviously inspired by Danny Boyle’s Opening Ceremony at the Olympics.

Some of the sequences were interesting to me particularly as a foreigner – the gentrification of Islington, the anarchist squatters in Camden, the urbanization of the Docklands, etc.  - a running theme of haves vs have-nots.

It’s one of a collection of things inspiring me recently including a book called ‘The Return of the Public‘ by Dan Hind, a sort of extension to the Dewey v Lippman debates, what’s going on with n0tice, such as Sarah Hartley’s adaptation for it called Protest Near You and the dispatch-o-rama hack, and, of course, the Olympics.

I’m becoming reinvigorated and more bullish on where collective action can take us.

At a more macro level these things remind me of the need to challenge the many human constructs and institutions that are reflections of the natural desire to claim things and own them.

Why is it so difficult to embrace a more ‘share and share alike’ attitude?  This is as true for children and their toys as it is for governments and their policies.

The bigger concern for me, of course, is the future of the Internet and how media and journalism thrive and evolve there.

Despite attempts by its founders to shape the Internet so it can’t be owned and controlled, there are many who have tried to change that both intentionally and unwittingly, occasionally with considerable success.

How does this happen?

We’re all complicit.  We buy a domain. We then own it and build a web site on it. That “property” then becomes a thing we use to make money.  We fight to get people there and sell them things when they arrive.  It’s the Internet-as-retailer or Internet-as-distributor view of the world.

That’s how business on the Internet works…or is it?

While many have made that model work for them, it’s my belief that the property model is never going to be as important or meaningful or possibly as lucrative as the platform or service model over time. More specifically, I’m talking about generative media networks.

Here are a few different ways of visualizing this shift in perspective (more):

Even if it works commercially, the property model is always going to be in conflict with the Internet-as-public-utility view of the world.

Much like Britain’s privately owned public spaces issue, many worry that the Internet-as-public-utility will be ruined or, worse, taken from us over time by commercial and government interests.

Playing a zero sum game like that turns everyone and everything into a threat.  Companies can be very effective at fighting and defending their interests even if the people within those companies mean well.

I’m an optimist in this regard.  There may be a pendulum that swings between “own” and “share”, and there are always going to be fights to secure public spaces.  But you can’t put the Internet genie back in the bottle.  And even if you could it would appear somewhere else in another form just as quickly…in some ways it already has.

The smart money, in my mind, is where many interests are joined up regardless of their individual goals, embracing the existence of each other in order to benefit from each other’s successes.

The answer is about cooperation, co-dependency, mutualisation, openness, etc.

We think about this a lot at the Guardian. I recently wrote about how it applies to the recent Twitter issues here. And this presentation by Chris Thorpe below from back in 2009 on how to apply it to the news business is wonderful:

Of course, Alan Rusbridger’s description of a mutualised newspaper in this video is still one of the strongest visions I’ve heard for a collaborative approach to media.

The possibility of collective action at such an incredible scale is what makes the Internet so great.  If we can focus on making collective activities more fruitful for everyone then our problems will become less about haves and have-nots and more about ensuring that everyone participates.

That won’t be an easy thing to tackle, but it would be a great problem to have.

Dispatchorama: a distributed approach to covering a distributed news event

We’ve had a sort of Hack Week at the Guardian, or “Discovery Week“. So, I took the opportunity to mess around with the n0tice API to test out some ideas about distributed reporting.

This is what it became (best if opened in a mobile web browser):

http://dispatchorama.com/



It’s a little web app that looks at your location and then helps you to quickly get to the scene of whatever nearby news events are happening right now.

The content is primarily coming from n0tice at the moment, but I’ve added some tweets with location data. I’ve looked at some geoRSS feeds, but I haven’t tackled that, yet. It should also include only things from the last 24 hours. Adding more feeds and tuning the timing will help it feel more ‘live’.

The concept here is another way of thinking about the impact of the binding effect of the digital and physical worlds. Being able to understand the signals coming out of networked media is increasingly important. By using the context that travels with bits of information to inform your physical reality you can be quicker to respond, more insightful about what’s going on and proactive in your participation, as a result.

I’m applying that idea to distributed news events here, things that might be happening in many places at once or a news event that is moving around.

In many ways, this little experiment is a response to the amazing effort of the Guardian’s Paul Lewis and several other brave reporters covering last year’s UK riots.

There were 2 surprises in doing this:

  1. The twitter location-based tweets are really all over the place and not helpful. You really have to narrow your source list to known twitter accounts to get anything good, but that kind of defeats the purpose.
  2. I haven’t done a ton of research, yet, but there seems to be a real lack of useful geoRSS feeds out there. What happened? Did the failure of RSS readers kill the geoRSS movement? What a shame. That needs to change.

The app uses the n0tice API, JQuery Mobile, and Google’s location APIs and a few snippets picked off StackOverflow. It’s on GitHub here:
https://github.com/mattmcalister/dispatchorama/

Building community is hard

Jay Rosen has an interesting post on the failure of AssignmentZero, an effort to build a publicly funded crowdsourced news organization.

Among the many lessons, he keeps coming back to motivation and incentive.

“A well managed project correctly estimates what motivates people to join in, what the various rewards are for participants, and where the practical limits of their involvement lie.

…amateur production will never replace the system of paid correspondents. It only springs to life when people are motivated enough to self-assign and follow through.”

The idea wasn’t fundamentally broken, in my mind. Crowdsourced news is very powerful. As Derek Powazek said,

“At its best, crowdsourcing is about expanding the walls of the newsroom to the internet, giving an opportunity to people with real experience to share their expertise. This is a point that’s often lost on people who are just looking to make a quick buck on Web 2.0.”

More than anything else, I suspect that AssignmentZero failed because there weren’t any readers. Motivation wouldn’t have been a problem with a NYTimes-sized audience.

To date, I’ve never seen a better explanation of the motivations in collaborative online experiences than Yochai Benkler’s paper called Coase’s Penguin. One of my favorite excerpts from that is where he warns against paying for contributions from the community:

“An act of love drastically changes meaning when one person offers the other money at its end, and a dinner party guest who will take out a checkbook at the end of dinner instead of bringing flowers or a bottle of wine at the beginning will likely never be invited again.”

There are as many motivations as there are contributors in a shared media project. What holds them together is more art than science. Some of that art includes good timing and luck. But it also requires a unique kind of commitment and salesmanship from the leaders of the project.

I’ve begun to wonder if the tipping point happens when the confluence of the community size, the ROI to the contributors and the depth of the trust relationship with the company or the brand creates more value than the sum of the parts. Maybe the science of collaboration services can be found by quantifying the meaning of the relationships between those elements: size, cost, benefit and trust.

Or it could also be that the secret sauce inside the Craig Newmarks, Stewart Butterfields and Jimmy Waleses of the world is much more complicated and nuanced than anyone realizes.

The business of network effects

The Internet platform business has some unique challenges. It’s very tempting to adopt known models to make sense of it, like the PC business, for example, and think of the Internet platform like an operating system.

The similarities are hard to deny, and who wouldn’t want to control the operating system of the Internet?

In 2005, Jason Kottke proposed a vision for the “WebOS” where users could control their experience with tools that leveraged a combination of local storage and a local server, networked services and rich clients.

“Applications developed for this hypothetical platform have some powerful advantages. Because they run in a Web browser, these applications are cross platform, just like Web apps such as Gmail, Basecamp, and Salesforce.com. You don’t need to be on a specific machine with a specific OS…you just need a browser + local Web server to access your favorite data and apps.”

Prior to that post, Nick Carr offered a view on the role of the browser that surely resonated with the OS perspective for the Internet:

“Forget the traditional user interface. The looming battle in the information technology business is over control of the utility interface…Control over the utility interface will provide an IT vendor with the kind of power that Microsoft has long held through its control of the PC user interface.”

He also responded later to Kottke’s vision saying that the reliance on local web and storage services on a user’s PC may be unnecessary:

“Your personal desktop, residing entirely on a distant server, will be easily accessible from any device wherever you go. Personal computing will have broken free of the personal computer.”

But the client layer is merely a piece of the much larger puzzle, in my opinon.

Dare Obasanjo more recently broke down the different ideas of what “Cloud OS” might mean:

“I think it is a good idea for people to have a clear idea of what they are talking about when they throw around terms like “cloud OS” or “cloud platform” so we don’t end up with another useless term like SOA which means a different thing to each person who talks about it. Below are the three main ideas people often identify as a “Web OS”, “cloud OS” or “cloud platform” and examples of companies executing on that vision.”

He defines them as follows:

  1. WIMP Desktop Environment Implemented as a Rich Internet Application (The YouOS Strategy)
  2. Platform for Building Web-based Applications (The Amazon Strategy)
  3. Web-based Applications and APIs for Integrating with Them (The Google Strategy)

The OS metaphor has lots of powerful implications for business models, as we’ve seen on the PC. The operating system in a PC controls all the connections from the application user experience through the filesystem down through the computer hardware itself out to the interaction with peripheral services. Being the omniscient hub makes the operating system a very effective taxman for every service in the stack. And from there, the revenue streams become very easy to enable and enforce.

But the OS metaphor implies a command-and-control dynamic that doesn’t really work in a global network controlled only by protocols.

Internet software and media businesses don’t have an equivilent choke point. There’s no single processor or function or service that controls the Internet experience. There’s no one technology or one company that owns distribution.

There are lots of stacks that do have choke points on the Internet. And there are choke points that have tremendous value and leverage. Some are built purely and intentionally on top of a distribution point such as the iPod on iTunes, for example.

But no single distribution center touches all the points in any stack. The Internet business is fundamentally made of data vectors, not operational stacks.

Jeremy Zawodny shed light on this concept for me using building construction analogies.

He noted that my building contractor doesn’t exclusively buy Makita or DeWalt or Ryobi tools, though some tools make more sense in bundles. He buys the tool that is best for the job and what he needs.

My contractor doesn’t employ plumbers, roofers and electricians himself. Rather he maintains a network of favorite providers who will serve different needs on different jobs.

He provides value to me as an experienced distribution and aggregation point, but I am not exclusively tied to using him for everything I want to do with my house, either.

Similarly, the Internet market is a network of services. The trick to understanding what the business model looks like is figuring out how to open and connect services in ways that add value to the business.

In a precient viewpoint from 2002 about the Internet platform business, Tim O’Reilly explained why a company that has a large and valuable data store should open it up to the wider network:

“If they don’t ride the horse in the direction it’s going, it will run away from them. The companies that “grasp the nettle firmly” (as my English mother likes to say) will reap the benefits of greater control over their future than those who simply wait for events to overtake them.

There are a number of ways for a company to get benefits out of providing data to remote programmers:

Revenue. The brute force approach imposes costs both on the company whose data is being spidered and on the company doing the spidering. A simple API that makes the operation faster and more efficient is worth money. What’s more, it opens up whole new markets. Amazon-powered library catalogs anyone?

Branding. A company that provides data to remote programmers can request branding as a condition of the service.

Platform lock in. As Microsoft has demonstrated time and time again, a platform strategy beats an application strategy every time. Once you become part of the platform that other applications rely on, you are a key part of the computing infrastructure, and very difficult to dislodge. The companies that knowingly take their data assets and make them indispensable to developers will cement their role as a key part of the computing infrastructure.

Goodwill. Especially in the fast-moving high-tech industry, the “coolness” factor can make a huge difference both in attracting customers and in attracting the best staff.”

That doesn’t clearly translate into traditional business models necessarily, but if you look at key business breakthroughs in the past, the picture today becomes more clear.

  1. The first breakthrough business model was based around page views. The domain created an Apple-like controlled container. Exposure to eyeballs was sold by the thousands per domain. All the software and content was owned and operated by the domain owner, except the user’s browser. All you needed was to get and keep eyeballs on your domain.
  2. The second breakthrough business model emerged out of innovations in distribution. By building a powerful distribution center and direct connections with the user experience, advertising could be sold both where people began their online experiences and at the various independent domain stacks where they landed. Inventory beget spending beget redistribution beget inventory…it started to look a lot like network effects as it matured.
  3. The third breakthrough business model seems to be a riff on its predecessors and looks less and less like an operating system. The next breakthrough is network effects.

Network EffectsNetwork effects happen when the value of the entire network increases with each node added to the network. The telephone is the classic example, where every telephone becomes more valuable with each new phone in the network.

This is in contrast to TVs which don’t care or even notice if more TVs plug in.

Recommendation engines are the ultimate network effect lubricator. The more people shop at Amazon, the better their recommendation engine gets…which, in turn, helps people buy more stuff at Amazon.

Network effects are built around unique and useful nodes with transparent and highly accessible connection points. Social networks are a good example because they use a person’s profile as a node and a person’s email address as a connection point.

Network effects can be built around other things like keyword-tagged URLs (del.icio.us), shared photos (flickr), songs played (last.fm), news items about locations (outside.in).

The contribution of each data point wherever that may happen makes the aggregate pool more valuable. And as long as there are obvious and open ways for those data points to talk to each other and other systems, then network effects are enabled.

Launching successful network effect businesses is no easy task. The value a participant can extract from the network must be higher than the cost of adding a node in the network. The network’s purpose and its output must be indespensible to the node creators.

Massively distributed network effects require some unique characteristics to form. Value not only has to build with each new node, but the value of each node needs to increase as it gets leveraged in other ways in the network.

For example, my email address has become an enabler around the Internet. Every site that requires a login is going to capture my email address. And as I build a relationship with those sites, my email address becomes increasingly important to me. Not only is having an email address adding value to the entire network of email addresses, but the value of my email address increases for me with each service that is able to leverage my investment in my email address.

Then the core services built around my email address start to increase in value, too.

For example, when I turned on my iPhone and discovered that my Yahoo! Address Book was automatically cooked right in without any manual importing, I suddenly realized that my Yahoo! Address Book has been a constant in my life ever since I got my first Yahoo! email address back in the ’90′s. I haven’t kept it current, but it has followed me from job to job in a way that Outlook has never been able to do.

My Yahoo! Address Book is becoming more and more valuable to me. And my iPhone is more compelling because of my investment in my email address and my address book.

Now, if the network was an operating system, there would be taxes to pay. Apple would have to pay a tax for accessing my address book, and I would have to pay a tax to keep my address book at Yahoo!. Nobody wins in that scenario.

User data needs to be open and accessible in meaningful ways, and revenue needs to be built as a result of the effects of having open data rather than as a margin-based cost-control business.

But Dare Obasanjo insightfully exposes the flaw in reducing openness around identity to individual control alone:

“One of the bitter truths about “Web 2.0″ is that your data isn’t all that interesting, our data on the other hand is very interesting…A lot of “Web 2.0″ websites provide value to their users via wisdom of the crowds appproaches such as tagging or recommendations which are simply not possible with a single user’s data set or with a small set of users.”

Clearly, one of the most successful revenue-driving opportunities in the networked economy is advertising. It makes sense that it would be since so many of the most powerful network effects are built on people’s profiles and their relationships with other people. No wonder advertisers can’t spend enough money online to reach their targets.

It will be interesting to see how some of the clever startups leveraging network effects such as Wesabe think about advertising.

Wesabe have built network effects around people’s spending behavior. As you track your finances and pull in your personal banking data, Wesabe makes loose connections between your transactions and other people who have made similar transactions. Each new person and each new transaction creates more value in the aggregate pool. You then discover other people who have advice about spending in ways that are highly relevant to you.

I’ve been a fan of Netflix for a long time now, but when Wesabe showed me that lots of Netflix customers were switching to Blockbuster, I had to investigate and before long decided to switch, too. Wesabe knew to advise me based on my purchasing behavior which is a much stronger indicator of my interests than my reading behavior.

Advertisers should be drooling at the prospects of reaching people on Wesabe. No doubt Netflix should encourage their loyal subscribers to use Wesabe, too.

The many explicit clues about my interests I leave around the Internet — my listening behavior at last.fm, my information needs I express in del.icio.us, my address book relationships, my purchasing behavior in Wesabe — are all incredibly fruitful data points that advertisers want access to.

And with managed distribution, a powerful ad platform could form around these explicit behaviors that can be loosely connected everywhere I go.

Netflix could automatically find me while I’m reading a movie review on a friend’s blog or even at The New York Times and offer me a discount to re-subscribe. I’m sure they would love to pay lots of money for an ad that was so precisely targeted.

That blogger and The New York Times would be happy share revenue back to the ad platform provider who enabled such precise targeting that resulted in higher payouts overall.

And I might actually come back to Netflix if I saw that ad. Who knows, I might even start paying more attention to ads if they started to find me rather than interrupt me.

This is why the Internet looks less and less like an operating system to me. Network effects look different to me in the way people participate in them and extract value from them, the way data and technologies connect to them, and the way markets and revenue streams build off of them.

Operating systems are about command-and-control distribution points, whereas network effects are about joining vectors to create leverage.

I know little about the mathematical nuances of chaos theory, but it offers some relevant philosophical approaches to understanding what network effects are about. Wikipedia addresses how chaos theory affects organizational development:

“Most of the focus on chaos theory is primarily rooted in the underlying patterns found in an otherwise chaotic enviornment, more specifically, concepts such as self-organization, bifurcation and self-similarity…

Self-organization, as opposed to natural or social selection, is a dynamic change within the organization where system changes are made by recalculating, re-inventing and modifying its structure in order to adapt, survive, grow and develop. Self-organization is the result of re-invention and creative adaptation due to the introduction of, or being in a constant state of, perturbed equilibrium.”

Yes, my PC is often in a state of ‘perturbed equilibrium’ but not because it wants to be.

Why Outside.in may have the local solution

The recent blog frenzy over hyperlocal media inspired me to have a look at Outside.in again.


It’s not just the high profile backers and the intense competitive set that make Outside.in worth a second look. There’s something very compelling in the way they are connecting data that seems like it matters.

My initial thought when it launched was that this idea had been done before too many times already. Topix.net appeared to be a dominant player in the local news space, not to mention similar but different kinds of local efforts at startups like Yelp and amongst all the big dotcoms.

And even from their strong position, Topix’s location-based news media aggregaton model was kind of, I don’t know, uninteresting. I’m not impressed with local media coverage these days, in general, so why would an aggregator of mediocre coverage be any more interesting than what I discover through my RSS reader?

But I think Outside.in starts to give some insight into how local media could be done right…how it could be more interesting and, more importantly, useful.

The light triggered for me when I read Jon Udell’s post on “the data finds the data”. He explains how data can be a vector through which otherwise unrelated people meet eachother, a theme that continues to resonate for me.

Media brands have traditionally been good at connecting the masses to eachother and to marketers. But the expectation of how directly people feel connected to other individuals by the media they share has changed.

Whereas the brand once provided a vector for connections, data has become the vehicle for people to meet people now. Zip code, for example, enables people to find people. So does marital status, date and time, school, music taste, work history. There are tons of data points that enable direct human-to-human discovery and interaction in ways that media brands could only accomplish in abstract ways in the past.

URLs can enable connections, too. Jon goes on to explain:

“On June 17 I bookmarked this item from Mike Caulfield… On June 19 I noticed that Jim Groom had responded to Mike’s post. Ten days later I noticed that Mike had become Jim’s new favorite blogger.

I don’t know whether Jim subscribes to my bookmark feed or not, but if he does, that would be the likely vector for this nice bit of manufactured serendipity. I’d been wanting to introduce Mike at KSC to Jim (and his innovative team) at UMW. It would be delightful to have accomplished that introduction by simply publishing a bookmark.”

Now, Outside.in allows me to post URLs much like one would do in Newsvine or Digg any number of other collaborative citizen media services. But Outside.in leverages the zip code data point as the topical vector rather than a set of predetermined one-size-fits-all categories. It then allows miscellaneous tagging to be the subservient navigational pivot.

Suddenly, I feel like I can have a real impact on the site if I submit something. If there’s anything near a critical mass of people in the 94107 zip code on Outside.in then it’s likely my neighbors will be influenced by my posts.

Fred Wilson of Union Square Ventures explains:

“They’ve built a platform that placebloggers can submit their content to. Their platform “tags” that content with a geocode — an address, zip code, or city — and that renders a new page for every location that has tagged content. If you visit outside.in/10010, you’ll find out what’s going on in the neigborhood around Union Square Ventures. If you visit outside.in/back_bay, you’ll see what’s going on in Boston’s Back Bay neighborhood.”

Again, the local online media model isn’t new. In fact, it’s old. CitySearch in the US and UpMyStreet in the UK proved years ago that a market does in fact exist in local media somehwere somehow, but the market always feels fragile and susceptible to ghost town syndrome.

Umair Haque explains why local is so hard:

“Why doesn’t Craigslist choose small towns? Because there isn’t enough liquidity in the market. Let me put that another way. In cities, there are enough buyers and sellers to make markets work – whether of used stuff, new stuff, events, etc, etc.

In smaller towns, there just isn’t enough supply or demand.”

If they commit to building essentially micro media brands based exclusively on location I suspect Outside.in will run itself into the ground spending money to establish critical mass in every neighborhood around the world.

Now that they have a nice micro media approach that seems to work they may need to start thinking about macro media. In order to reach the deep dark corners of the physical grid, they should connect people in larger contexts, too. Here’s an example of what I mean…

I’m remodeling the Potrero Hill shack we call a house right now. It’s all I talk about outside of work, actually. And I need to understand things like how to design a kitchen, ways to work through building permits, and who can supply materials and services locally for this job.

There must be kitchen design experts around the world I can learn from. Equally, I’m sure there is a guy around the corner from me who can give me some tips on local services. Will Architectural Digest or Home & Garden connect me to these different people? No. Will The San Francisco Chronicle connect us? No.

Craigslist won’t even connect us, because that site is so much about the transaction.

I need help both from people who can connect on my interest vector in addition to the more local geographic vector. Without fluid connections on both vectors, I’m no better off than I was with my handy RSS reader and my favorite search engine.

Looking at how they’ve decided to structure their data, it seems Outside.in could pull this off and connect my global affinities with my local activities pretty easily.

This post is way too long already (sorry), but it’s worth pointing out some of the other interesting things they’re doing if you care to read on.

Outside.in is also building automatic semantic links with the contributors’ own blogs. By including my zip code in a blog post, Outside.in automatically drinks up that post and adds it into the pool. They even re-tag my post with the correct geodata and offer GeoRSS feeds back out to the world.

Here are the instructions:

“Any piece of content that is tagged with a zip code will be assigned to the corresponding area within outside.in’s system. You can include the zip code as either a tag or a category, depending on your blogging platform.”

I love this.

30Boxes does something similar where I can tell it to collect my Upcoming data, and it automatically imports events as I tag them in Upcoming.

They are also recognizing local contributors and shining light on them with prominant links. I can see who the key bloggers are in my area and perhaps even get a sense of which ones matter, not just who posts the most. I’m guessing they will apply the “people who like this contributor also like this contributor” type of logic to personalize the experience for visitors at some point.

Now what gets me really excited is to think about the ad model that could happen in this environment of machine-driven semantic relationships.

If they can identify relevant blog posts from local contributors, then I’m sure they could identify local coupons from good sources of coupon feeds.

Let’s say I’m the national Ace Hardware marketing guy, and I publish a feed of coupons. I might be able to empower all my local Ace franchises and affiliates to publish their own coupons for their own areas and get highly relevant distribution on Outside.in. Or I could also run a national coupon feed with zip code tags cooked into each item.

To Umair’s point, that kind of marketing will only pay off in major metros where the markets are stronger.

To help address the inventory problem, Outside.in could then offer to sell ad inventory on their contributors’ web sites. As an Outside.in contributor, I would happily run Center Hardware coupons, my local Ace affiliate, on my blog posts that talk about my remodelling project if someone gave them to me in some automated way.

If they do something like this then they will be able to serve both the major metros and the smaller hot spots that you can never predict will grow. Plus, the incentives for the individuals in the smaller communities start feeding the wider ecosystem that lives on the Outside.in platform.

Outside.in would be pushing leverage out to the edge both in terms of participation as they already do and in terms of revenue generation, a fantastic combination of forces that few media companies have figured out, yet.

I realize there are lots of ‘what ifs’ in this assessment. The company has a lot of work to do before they breakthrough, and none of it is easy. The good news for them is that they have something pretty solid that works today despite a crowded market.

Regardless, knowing Fred Wilson, Esther Dyson, John Seely Brown and Steven Berlin Johnson are behind it, among others, no doubt they are going to be one to watch.

Membership has its privileges

Mark Glaser asks his readers this week to submit the answer to the following question:

“What would motivate you to contribute to a citizen media site?”

I can’t imagine that anyone is going to be able to answer that question in an interesting way. It’s the wrong question. It’s kind of like asking why do people sing at church? Or why do people meet their friends at the pub?


Photo: -bartimaeus-

If the church asks you to sing, you sing. If your friends tell you to meet at the pub, you go to the pub. The community and purpose of doing things together is already implied, so you do whatever everyone else in that community does if you want to be a part of it.

Jon Udell starts to dig into the critical mass hurdles for social networks in a recent post where he quotes Gary McGraw saying:

“People keep asking me to join the LinkedIn network, but I’m already part of a network. It’s called the Internet.”

The real question is not about getting people to do things. There are too many things to do and too many people to socialize with in a day already.

The question is about forming meaningful communities and the kinds of things that will help a community flourish. Meaning comes in millions of different shapes and sizes, but there are lots of precedents in terms of ideologies, aesthetics, and methods.

News, for example, is inherently about being first to report on an event. Successful community-based news sites enable people who care enough about a topic to either be the first to report on it or be clued in before less speedy outlets pick up on something. It feeds into a competitive and sometimes gossipy human nature. Just ask your best reporters why they became reporters. Digg appeals to the reporter in all of us.

I used to attend a charity event called Rebuilding Together where groups of people would assemble and fix up houses and schools around the city of San Francisco. There was a core team who selected applications for fix-it team deployments. Then there was a leader who would drive the work to be done by each team at each site. On the chosen date, people would jump on a project and invite their friends to join. It was impressive to see what a focused group could accomplish in a day, fixing plumbing, painting, cleaning, rebuilding fences, etc.

Why did people do it?

There was a purpose. We were helping people truly in need. The commitment was lightweight. It was 1 day a year. It was well organized. I didn’t have to debate with people about how things should be done. The result was impactful, a total overhaul of a building. It was fun. I had a laugh with my friends and met new people.

Often when people start asking how you get to critical mass, they’re losing the plot. Sure, it would be great to worry about scaling a site rather than fighting for a Digg. But if you and your community are doing something unique and valuable, then size really shouldn’t matter. And in many cases, it makes sense to make the community exclusive and smaller rather than bigger and diluted, anyhow.

The question then becomes, “Are you offering a service that a lot of people find unique and valuable?”

I think a lot of publishers fail to understand the size of a potential market, what’s unique about an offering, and the value of that offering to the people who do actually care about it.

Then there’s also the issue of recognizing what you can actually deliver. You have to play to your strengths.

Yahoo! Answers is a good example of that. The idea of getting immediate answers to any question you can think of from real humans is outrageously ambitious. There are lots of ways to get answers to questions out there. But Yahoo! played to its strengths to get it off the ground, then it just took off. It’s easy. It’s fun. It works. And, therefore, it’s meaningful. And now there’s nothing like it out there anywhere.

Of course, not everybody can point a firehose of traffic at a domain, but there are plenty of cases where Yahoo! failed to create a community by pointing a firehose of traffic at it.

So, what makes a meaningful community that has a definitive purpose? Yeah, well, that’s an answer you can get from Cameron Marlow, danah boyd, and a lot of people a lot smarter than me.

Though perhaps this is all just echo blogging and the real question gets to something people already understand. Maybe the question is simply: “How do you make membership in your community desirable?”

Wikipedia defines “privilege” as follows:

A privilege—etymologically “private law” or law relating to a specific individual—is an honour, or permissive activity granted by another person or a government. A privilege is not a right and in some cases can be revoked.

I think the answer is in there somewhere for everyone who is struggling to get their community to do stuff.


Photo:Manne

A community site without a community

Taking a little time at home last week gave me a chance to play around with one of my experiments that was nearly at its end. FlipBait is a simple Pligg/MediaWiki site that pokes fun at the dotcom golddiggers out there.


It’s mostly a sandbox for me both technically and journalistically. But it’s not really helping to inform or build community the way I hoped.

First, after a month I still have no participants. There have been several passersby, but a group publishing site needs to have a core team looking after its well being.

Second, it’s just too much work in its current form for me to keep posting to it.

I sort of expected this to happen, but I’m a big fan of experimentation. So, I thought I might analyze the issues for a few blog posts and close it down…

…but then Pligg 9 was released.

The new version of this Digg-like CMS added a key feature that may alter the dynamics of the site completely: Feed Importing.

I give it a few RSS feeds. It then imports the headlines from those feeds automatically.

Now, I have a bunch of feeds all pouring headlines into FlipBait throughout the day. I’m aggregating the usual suspects like TechCrunch and GigaOM and VentureBeat, but I also found a few sources from various searches that effectively round out the breadth of the coverage

I can find new dotcom golddiggers without fail every day.

This is very cool. Though you can see back in the Pligg forum archives that there was some debate about whether this feature would destroy the whole dynamic of voting-based publishing. That may be true, but it’s just too useful not to have.

Now, this might be the most interesting part…

I’m also importing stories from del.icio.us using a new tag: “flipbait“. That means that if you tag an article with “flipbait”, Pligg will automatically import that article and make it available to the FlipBait community. That’s how I’m entering my own favorite posts for the site as opposed to using the ‘submit’ function directly at flipbait.com.

You don’t ever have to visit the domain, actually, because you can pull articles to read from the RSS feed and submit articles to the site just by tagging as you already do.

Hmmm…what does that mean? Interesting question. Can a meaningful community form around a word that represents an idea?

A human-powered relevance engine for Internet startup news

Here’s a fun experiment in crowdsourcing. I’ve been getting overwhelmed by all the startup news coming out of the many sources tracking the interesting ideas and new companies hunting for Internet gold. Many of these companies are really smart. Many are just, well, gold diggers.


And with so many ways to track new and interesting companies, I’ve lost the ability to identify the difference between companies that are actually attacking a problem that matters and companies that are combining buzzwords in hopes of getting funding or getting acquired or both.

There must be a way to harness the collective insight of people who are close to these companies or the ideas they embody to shed light on what’s what. Maybe there’s a way to do that using Pligg.

While shaking my head in a moment of disappointment and a little bit of jealousy at all the new dotcom millionaires/billionaires, the word “flipbait” crossed my mind. I looked to see if the domain was available, and sure enough it was. So, I grabbed the domain, installed Pligg and there it is.

It should be obvious, but the idea is to let people post news of new Internet startups and let the community decide if something is important or not. If I’m not the only one thinking about this, then I can imagine it becoming a really useful resource for gaining insight into the barage of headlines filling up my feed reader each day.

And if it doesn’t work, I’ll share whatever insight I can glean into why the concept fails. There will hopefully at least be some lessons in this experiment for publishers looking to leverage crowdsourcing in their media mix.

What makes a good leader of a participatory community

I’m very interested in what leadership lessons we can learn from the people who drive the successful peer production models on the Internet. What is it about Craig Newmark, Jimmy Wales, Rob Malda, Stewart Butterfield and the other pioneers of participatory media that make the brands that they’ve created so powerful?


Photo: heather

Yochai Benkler breaks down the incentives for participation in peer production models in a very sensible and fascinating paper called Coases’ Penguin and discusses the economics of collaboration in his PopTech talk now available on ITConversations. But there’s a missing thread in his analysis that I think is crucially important.

The creators of the platforms on which peer production unfolds must have some common characteristics that enable these reputation models to reflect back on the people who invest in the platform instead of the company, brand or leader of that vehicle.

No doubt the participants are what make the products sing. But there’s something in common about the way these shepherds have approached their products and their customers that create an environment of trust, utility, gratification, expression, community, etc.

I don’t think any of them one day woke up and said I want to build a massive community of people posting content. Rather they probably stumbled onto ideas that started in one direction and ended up a little different than what they intended. I wonder what it is about the way they approach problems and lead teams that made them capable of identifying where the sweet spot would be for their idea.

I suspect that all of them share a handful of key qualities that make them unusual leaders including things like…

  • Total dedication, focus and passion for the service the community is providing to itself
  • A laissez faire attitude toward conflict but quick to identify resolutions
  • Motivated by a desire to do something important, not by money. They want to be part of something bigger than themselves.
  • A very creative mind that thrives on solving problems though not necessarily skilled in traditional artistic disciplines
  • Collaborative leadership styles, the extreme opposite of authoritarian, mandate-driven leadership

I don’t think they are attention seekers. I don’t think they are self righteous. They probably were mischief makers as kids and grew up to be anti-authoritarian. I’m guessing they were heavy video game users at one point if not still and love to compete.

I’m sure all of them also understand the decentralized and collaborative mentality, not as a translation from another model but rather baked into the way they think about what they are building.

I don’t know any of these guys personally, so this is perhaps wasteful conjecture. But I’m very curious about how the mainstream media business is going to approach the idea of participatory and social media given the cultural chasm and even conflicting styles of the leaders in the two categories. So far, it seems, people like Rupert Murdoch (and Terry Semel) have been smart enough to let these companies run and let these leaders lead.

It won’t be long before mainstream media companies start rolling out their own concepts for participatory media models, and I suspect those ideas will often fall flat…and it won’t be because the idea is bad but rather a lack of the key qualities required to shepherd a community.