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 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 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.

How to launch an online platform

I attended the Bebo developer platform announcement this morning in San Francisco. The announcement seemed to go down very well based on immediate response, though only time will tell if the expected impact is achieved.

Bebo schwag
It’s clear that a formula for launching this kind of stuff exists, and I think Bebo did a great job of giving it their own flavor. The overall format Bebo used was standard:

  • Invite people to a nice place and give them some free stuff
  • Give a presentation including a video showing customer testimonials
  • Let the founder or product owner or thought leader present the product
  • Parade the partners on stage
  • Provide demos for people to peruse after the presentation
  • Keep it short

But the nuances in the formula are what make an online platform launch successful.

  1. Create an invite-only experience: This is true with restaurants, art galleries, clubs and just about any socially-driven service. Make a select few feel important by treating them differently, and they will then be your advocate. Bebo invited press and partners to a small-ish rooom to give their presentation at the Metreon. Those people then felt responsible for spreading the news.
  2. Make it newsworthy: I wouldn’t say that the Bebo platform was a secret, by any means, but the features that make it worth talking about were kept secret until the event. In particular, the crowd seemed very pleased to hear that Bebo decided to emulate Facebook’s success by making their platform fully compatible with Facebook’s.
  3. Follow standards: Developers are not generally interested in proprietary environments unless there is a substantial gain to be made by leveraging that environment. Platforms on the Internet should default to known and proven standards, and when they do deviate, there should be compelling reason to do so. Bebo indicated that there might be features in the future that are Bebo-specific such as micropayments, and I suspect the developer community would be happy to customize their apps for Bebo when those features are ready.
  4. Prime the pump with partners: An ecosystem is not an ecosystem if it doesn’t have partners. So, don’t launch a service for partners with no partners already committed. But more than that, partners are proofpoints that the wider market wants to validate that what you offer is in fact real. Give them the stage. Make them successful, so others want to follow suit. I wasn’t all that impressed with the NBC Universal app showcased at the Bebo event, but the Gaia Online and Flixster apps were solid. And the 20 or so partners demoing in the back of the room after the presentations were great evangelists for the platform. They were proud to be there and happy to sing Bebo’s praises.
  5. Be real: I’m always a sucker for a self-deprecating joker, but Bebo founder Michael Birch backed up the laughs with substance. He admitted that they intend to follow Facebook and do whatever they do which is a totally viable strategy in this space, at this point in time. Of course, he gave himself a great defense should they get pounded by the press, but his approach was very refreshing in a market that’s increasingly crowded full with ambition and arrogance.

Again, the response by developers and then the subsequent uptake by users will be the real indicators of success. But Bebo gave themselves as good a start as any by getting the launch off on the right foot.

Making government more useful through data

A very interesting working group formed recently to drive better transparency in government through data. The Open Government Data organization has a simple aim:

“The group is offering a set of fundamental principles for open government data. By embracing the eight principles, governments of the world can become more effective, transparent, and relevant to our lives.”

They proposed that data will be considered open if it complies with the following qualifications:

1. Complete
2. Primary
3. Timely
4. Accessible
5. Machine processable
6. Non-discriminatory
7. Non-proprietary
8. License-free

This is a promising approach to driving high impact changes in the way government serves its people. Giving everyone greater access to relevant information that they already own is a noble pursuit.

I’ve explored this a little myself in some investigations of access to crime data [1, 2].

It’s no surprise that Adrian Holovaty of the Chicago Crime mashup fame (and now Every Block) is one of the founding members. Of course, there’s no better advocate for the free flow of information than Lawrence Lessig. And Tim O’Reilly will be a strong foundational force here. I’d love to see Jon Udell join, too, as his work has inspired a lot of people (myself included) to think differently about exposing and sharing data like this.

Good luck, guys!