Category Archives: trends

Eternal transitions

Market transitions in digital media can be absolutely fascinating both as a bystander and as a participant.

I’ve been on both the frontfoot and the backfoot as part of media businesses trying to lead, fast-follow, steer away from or kill different technologies and services that come and go.

Transitioning seems to be part of being in this business, something you’re always doing, not the end game.

There are a few patterns I’ve observed, but i’m hoping some clever business model historian will do some research and really nail down how it works.

There are job training issues that people face. Remember all those Lotus Notes specialists? Organizational issues. How about when the tech teams finally let editors control the web site home page? Leadership issues. It wasn’t until about 2003 before media CEOs started talking openly aout the day when their Internet businesses would overtake their traditional businesses. Technology strategies. Investing in template-driven web sites was once a major decision. Etc.

The mobile wave we’re in right now shares all the same issues for people who are in the business of running web sites. Re-educate your developers or hire new ones? Should mobile be a separate business; should it be added to the queue for the tech team; should the editors or product managers manage it? Is mobile-first a subset of digital-first or does it mean something more profound than that? Responsive, native, both? What’s the mobile pureplay for what you already do?

Media organizations have become so diverse over the last several years that they can easily get caught thinking that you can do all of the above – a hedge-your-bets strategy by investing lightly in all aspects of the transition. While that strategy has drawbacks it is definitely better than the hide-and-hope or cut-til-you-profit strategy.

The most interesting part of this story is about the anomolies, those moments of clarity that signal to the rest of us what is happening.

For example, everyone who disregarded the Newton and then the PalmPilot for failing missed the point. These were anomolies in a world dominated by Microsoft and the PC. They understood computing was going to be in people’s pockets, and they were right to execute on that idea.

What they failed to get right was timing of the market transition, and timing is everything.

(Harry McCracken’s retrospective review of the Newton is a fun read.)

So, when is an anomoly worth noticing? And when is the right time to execute on the new model?

Google has been a great example of both in many ways. They cracked one of the key business models native to the Internet at just the right time…they weren’t first or even best, but they got it right when it mattered. Android is another example.

But social has been one challenge after another. They ignored the anomoly that was Twitter and Facebook (and Orkut!) and then executed poorly over and over again.

They don’t want to be behind the curve ever again and are deploying some market tests around the ubiquitous, wearable network – Google Glass.

But if they are leading on this vision of the new way, how do they know, and, importantly, how do other established businesses know that this is the moment the market shifts?

I’m not convinced we’ve achieved enough critical mass around the mobile transition to see the ubiquitous network as a serious place to operate.

The pureplay revenue models in the mobile space are incomplete. The levels of investment being made in mobile products and services are growing too fast. The biggest catalysts of commercial opportunity are not yet powerful enough to warrant total reinterpretations of legacy models.

The mobile market is at its high growth stage. That needs to play out before the next wave will get broader support.

The ubiquitous network is coming, but the fast train to success aka ‘mobile’ has arrived and left the station and everyone’s onboard.

Is Google Glass this era’s Newton? Too early? Dorky rather than geeky-cool? Feature-rich yet brilliant at nothing in particular? Too big?

They’ve done a brilliant job transitioning to the mobile era. And you have to give them props for trying to lead on the next big market shift.

Even if Google gets it wrong with Google Glass (See Wired’s commentary) they are becoming very good at being in transition. If that is the lesson they learned from their shortcomings in ‘social’ then they may have actually gained more by doing poorly then if they had succeeded.

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.

Creating leverage at the data layer

There’s a reason that the world fully embraced HTTP but not Gopher or Telnet or even FTP. That’s because the power of the Internet is best expressed through the concept of a network, lots of interlinked pieces that make up something bigger rather than tunnels and holes that end in a destination.

The World Wide Web captured people’s imaginations, and then everything changed.

I was reminded of this while reading a recent interview with Tim Berners-Lee (via TechCrunch). He talked a bit about the power of linking data:

“Web 2.0 is a stovepipe system. It’s a set of stovepipes where each site has got its data and it’s not sharing it. What people are sometimes calling a Web 3.0 vision where you’ve got lots of different data out there on the Web and you’ve got lots of different applications, but they’re independent. A given application can use different data. An application can run on a desktop or in my browser, it’s my agent. It can access all the data, which I can use and everything’s much more seamless and much more powerful because you get this integration. The same application has access to data from all over the place…

Data is different from documents. When you write a document, if you write a blog, you write a poem, it is the power of the spoken word. And even if the website adds a lot of decoration, the really important thing is the spoken words. And it is one brain to another through these words.”

Data is what matters. It’s a point of interest in a larger context. It’s a vector and a launchpad to other paths. It’s the vehicle for leverage for a business on the Internet.

What’s the business strategy at the data layer?

I have mixed views on where the value is on social networks and the apps therein, but they are all showing where the opportunity is for services that have actually useful data. Social networks are a good user interface for distributed data, much like web browsers became a good interface for distributed documents.

But it’s not the data consumption experience that drives value, in my mind.

Value on the Internet is being created in the way data is shared and linked to more data. That value comes as a result of the simplicity and ease of access, in the completeness and timeliness, and by the readability of that data.

It’s not about posting data to a domain and figuring out how to get people there to consume it. It’s about being the best data source or the best data aggregator no matter how people make use of it in the end.

Where’s the money?

Like most Internet service models, there’s always the practice of giving away the good stuff for free and then upselling paid services or piggybacking revenue-generating services on the distribution of the free stuff. Chris Anderson’s Wired article on the future of business presents the case well:

“The most common of the economies built around free is the three-party system. Here a third party pays to participate in a market created by a free exchange between the first two parties…what the Web represents is the extension of the media business model to industries of all sorts. This is not simply the notion that advertising will pay for everything. There are dozens of ways that media companies make money around free content, from selling information about consumers to brand licensing, “value-added” subscriptions, and direct ecommerce. Now an entire ecosystem of Web companies is growing up around the same set of models.”

Yet these markets and technologies are still in very early stages. There’s lots of room for someone to create an open advertising marketplace for information, a marketplace where access to data can be obtained in exchange for ad inventory, for example.

Data providers and aggregators have a huge opportunity in this world if they can become authoritative or essential for some type of useful information. With that leverage they could have the social networks, behavioral data services and ad networks all competing to piggyback on their data out across the Internet to all the sites using or contributing to that data.

Regardless of the specific revenue method, the businesses that become a dependency in the Web of data of the future will also find untethered growth opportunities. The cost of that type of business is one of scale, a much more interesting place to be than one that must fight for attention.

I’ve never really liked the “walled garden” metaphor and its negative implications. I much prefer to think in terms of designing for growth.

Frank Lloyd Wright designed buildings that were engaged with the environments in which they lived. Similarly, the best services on the World Wide Web are those that contribute to the whole rather than compete with it, ones that leverage the strengths in the network rather than operate in isolation. Their existence makes the Web better as a whole.

Photo: happy via

The useful convergence of data

I have only one prediction for 2008. I think we’re finally about to see the useful combination of the 4 W’s – Who, What, Where, and When.

Marc Davis has done some interesting research in this area at Yahoo!, and Bradley Horowitz articulated how he sees the future of this space unfolding in a BBC article in June ’07:

“We do a great job as a culture of “when”. Using GMT I can say this particular moment in time and we have a great consensus about what that means…We also do a very good job of “where” – with GPS we have latitude and longitude and can specify a precise location on the planet…The remaining two Ws – we are not doing a great job of.”

I’d argue that the social networks are now really honing in on “who”, and despite having few open standards for “what” data (other than UPC) there is no shortage of “what” data amongst all the “what” providers. Every product vendor has their own version of a product identifier or serial number (such as Amazon’s ASIN, for example).

We’ve seen a lot of online services solving problems in these areas either by isolating specific pieces of data or combining the data in specific ways. But nobody has yet integrated all 4 in a meaningful way.


Jeff Jarvis’ insightful post on social airlines starts to show how these concepts might form in all kinds of markets. When you’re traveling it makes a lot of sense to tap into “who” data to create compelling experiences that will benefit everyone:

  • At the simplest level, we could connect while in the air to set up shared cab rides once we land, saving passengers a fortune.
  • We can ask our fellow passengers who live in or frequently visit a destination for their recommendations for restaurants, things to do, ways to get around.
  • We can play games.
  • What if you chose to fly on one airline vs. another because you knew and liked the people better? What if the airline’s brand became its passengers?
  • Imagine if on this onboard social network, you could find people you want to meet – people in the same business going to the same conference, people of similar interests, future husbands and wives – and you can rendezvous in the lounge.
  • The airline can set up an auction marketplace for at least some of the seats: What’s it worth for you to fly to Berlin next Wednesday?

Carrying the theme to retail markets, you can imagine that you will walk into H&M and discover that one of your first-degree contacts recently bought the same shirt you were about to purchase. You buy a different one instead. Or people who usually buy the same hair conditioner as you at the Walgreen’s you’re in now are switching to a different hair conditioner this month. Though this wouldn’t help someone like me who has no hair to condition.

Similarly, you can imagine that marketing messages could actually become useful in addition to being relevant. If CostCo would tell me which of the products I often buy are on sale as I’m shopping, or which of the products I’m likely to need given what they know about how much I buy of what and when, then my loyalty there is going to shoot through the roof. They may even be able to identify that I’m likely buying milk elsewhere and give me a one-time coupon for CostCo milk.

Bradley sees it playing out on the phone, too:

“On my phone I see prices for a can of soup in my neighbourhood. It resolves not only that particular can of soup but knows who I am, where I am and where I live and helps me make an intelligent decision about whether or not it is a fair price.

It has to be transparent and it has to be easy because I am not going to invest a lot of effort or time to save 13 cents.”

It may be unrealistic to expect that this trend will explode in 2008, but I expect it to at least appear in a number of places and inspire future implementations as a result. What I’m sure we will see in 2008 is dramatic growth in the behind-the-scenes work that will make this happen, such as the development and customization of CRM-like systems.

Lots of companies have danced around these ideas for years, but I think the ideas and the technologies are finally ready to create something real, something very powerful.

Photo: SophieMuc

The Internet’s secret sauce: surfacing coincidence

What is it that makes my favorite online services so compelling? I’m talking about the whole family of services that includes Dopplr, Wesabe, Twitter, Flickr, and del.icio.us among others.

I find it interesting that people don’t generally refer to any of these as “web sites”. They are “services”.

I was fortunate enough to spend some time with Dopplr’s Matt Biddulph and Matt Jones last week while in London where they described the architecture of what they’ve built in terms of connected data keys. The job of Dopplr, Mr. Jones said, was to “surface coincidence”.

I think that term slipped out accidentally, but I love it. What does it mean to “surface coincidence”?

It starts by enabling people to manufacture the circumstances by which coincidence becomes at least meaningful if not actually useful. Or, as Jon Udell put it years ago now when comparing Internet data signals to cellular biology:

“It looks like serendipity, and in a way it is, but it’s manufactured serendipity.”

All these services allow me to manage fragments of my life without requiring burdensome tasks. They all let me take my data wherever I want. They all enhance my data by connecting it to more data. They all make my data relevant in the context of a larger community.

When my life fragments are managed by an intelligent service, then that service can make observations about my data on my behalf.

Dopplr can show me when a distant friend will be near and vice versa. Twitter can show me what my friends are doing right now. Wesabe can show me what others have learned about saving money at the places where I spend my money. Among many other things Flickr can show me how to look differently at the things I see when I take photos. And del.icio.us can show me things that my friends are reading every day.

There are many many behaviors both implicit and explicit that could be managed using this formula or what is starting to look like a successful formula, anyhow. Someone could capture, manage and enhance the things that I find funny, the things I hate, the things at home I’m trying to get rid of, the things I accomplished at work today, the political issues I support, etc.

But just collecting, managing and enhancing my life fragments isn’t enough. And I think what Matt Jones said is a really important part of how you make data come to life.

You can make information accessible and even fun. You can make the vast pool feel manageable and usable. You can make people feel connected.

And when you can create meaning in people’s lives, you create deep loyalty. That loyalty can be the foundation of larger businesses powered by advertising or subscriptions or affiliate networks or whatever.

The result of surfacing coincidence is a meaningful action. And those actions are where business value is created.

Wikipedia defines coincidence as follows:

“Coincidence is the noteworthy alignment of two or more events or circumstances without obvious causal connection.”

This is, of course, similar and related to the definition of serendipity:

“Serendipity is the effect by which one accidentally discovers something fortunate, especially while looking for something else entirely.”

You might say that this is a criteria against which any new online service should be measured. Though it’s probably so core to getting things right that every other consideration in building a new online service needs to support it.

It’s probably THE criteria.

The problem with being popular (part 2)

One of the more interesting sciences, in my mind, is how information relevance is both determined, surfaced and then evolved.

In Fred Wilson’s recent Cautionary Techmeme Tale he argues that making news popular takes away its social context and therefore becomes meaningless. He found Techmeme more useful when its sources more closely resembled his network of friends:

“For years, I’ve been using curators to filter my web experience…Techmeme has been the killer social media curator for my world of tech blogs. Lore has it that it was created using Scoble’s OPML file. It doesn’t matter to me if that’s true or not, I love that story. Because my OPML file was unusable until I found Techmeme and after that I stopped reading feeds and started reading curated feeds.”

This feeds into a larger argument about why pop culture and the art of being or becoming popular can be a bad thing. Not long ago I was inspired by the movie “Good Night and Good Luck” to dive into this idea myself:

“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.”

This is exactly why personalization, recommendations and social media technologies really matter. They can solve this problem of creating conformist media consumption practices by creating relevance through networks of people rather than through networks of commercial institutions.

I haven’t used My Yahoo! as much as I’d like, but there is a simple function in it that I love which could ultimately create amazing benefits for people who want a human filter for the Internet. It’s called “Top Picks”.

“The Top Picks module automatically highlights stories from your page, based on the articles you have recently read on My Yahoo! The more stories you click on, the more you will see this module reflect your interests.”

Actually, the technology beneath it is not so ‘simple’ but the application of it here makes so much sense that it feels like it’s simple when you watch it work. It works by using implicit behaviors. I don’t have to tell it what I like. It learns.

If it could also show me what my social network is tapped into right now, then the experience would feel nearly complete.

Media researchers will note here that people need pop culture to feel connected to a greater whole. I believe that’s true, too. Television is an amazingly powerful community builder.

But I would gladly trade a powerful singular social voice tied together by networks of distribution ownership for a less unified but still loosely connected network of pop culture tied together by my personal activities and my social connections.

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.

Getting back to basics

There was something really depressing about Web 2.0 Expo that I can’t quite put my finger on. Though when I woke up Monday morning after a weekend of working on my house it started to become more clear.

On Friday I prepared the work plan, rented a truck, and bought some new gear (loving the laser-guided cicular saw). On Saturday four of my friends came around to my house. We removed one wall and put up a new wall. On Sunday I hauled the junk to the dump, bought a bunch of sheetrock and more 2×4′s for next weekend’s job.

(By the way, great tip here, instead of hiring a garbage removal company for $700-1000, rent a 15 footer and just load all your trash directly into the truck bed. Drive it right into the dump yourself and push it out. The dumping cost for me was $75 plus the truck rental fee…which of course was super handy for getting the lumber, tools and sheetrock, too.)

Anyhow, now I have a 2 bedroom house where we once technically just had 1 bedroom. I also have a sore back and aching hands. Shredded skin on my fingers. A bruised elbow. Tired legs. I couldn’t be happier.

Struggling to get my body out of bed Monday morning, I realized I hadn’t thought about or even used the Internet for 3 days. I saved ideas by writing them down in a notebook with a pencil. I used the yellow pages to find things I needed. I contacted people using the telephone.

I wasn’t worrying about the scalability of the construction (only the joists over my workspace), optimizing the collaborative labor (except that they got coffee, food and beer), or marketing my property. I was simply building. With my hands (and a few borrowed ones).

I’ve argued over and over about how the Internet can change just about everything. And though I’m sure there are ways it could have helped me this weekend, there was something deeply satisfying about getting back to basics for a few days, particularly after losing the plot a bit last week.

Somehow the tone of the dialog in the Internet market has shifted away from the fundamentals, things like expanding the network or the concept of the network itself, building the tools and systems and data streams that help people accomplish things, creating the opportunities for new breakthroughs to emerge.


It’s a natural progression for a mature market to start optimizing for revenue gains as the platforms define themselves. I guess I’m just paranoid that the smell of instant fortune is wafting in the noses of sharks and leeches while the revenue models that they plan to exploit are emptier than they know. The spending arms race will surely follow where budgets won’t matter, hiring will get out of hand, and marketing messages will get silly.

But if the market crashes again or worse, violence or viruses erupt in our cities or the planet heats up, I’ll have my hammer ready for building things that people care about. That’s all I need. My trusty hammer. And my thermos. All I need is my thermos and my hammer, and maybe my chair…

The StumbleUpon effect is real


The StumpleUpon acquisition rumor is interesting if not a bit weird, but it doesn’t surprise me that they are being taken seriously. They weren’t really on my radar until I recently looked at the traffic reports for my wife’s blog, HelpThing.

She got a massive spike sourced from StumbleUpon referrals which, of course, is relative given her small audience, yet. But it wasn’t an isolated incident, and now you can see here that StumbleUpon is actually a very healthy source of traffic in addition to MyBlogLog and del.icio.us. This chart is the referral sources for the past week in which she got a smaller spike on a somewhat older post.

There is something strangely addictive about it, and there is so much room to build interesting discoverability now that they are crossing the critical mass chasm.

I don’t know too many people who use it (well, I haven’t asked many, to be honest), but the ones who do always give you a sheepish grin when you ask them about it. It’s hard not to like after using it a few times, and it does feel like they might be on to something potentially pretty big here.