Interesting perspectives from Web 2.0 Expo

Today’s Web 2.0 Expo in San Francisco provided some really good brain food.

Clay Shirky’s keynote was excellent. He talked about architecting a new world for the “cognitive surplus” that’s emerging as people pull themselves out of the historical sitcom hangover and invest their energy online. Matt Jones and Tom Coates shared some neat ideas on design for personal infomatics. And Twitter’s Alex Payne and Michael Migurski of Stamen Design presented learnings from the perspective of an API provider.

One little nugget I really liked was a minor point Migurski made when talking through the Oakland Crimespotting service. He noted that there are several standard formats commonly provided by most web services including HTML, JSON, serliazed PHP, RSS and XML.

But we often forget about simple Excel spreadsheets.

He showed how the Oakland Crimespotting site offers downloadable Excel spreadsheets detailing recent activity from particular police beats, for example.

One of the keys to opening up government data is making the case to the people who are best equipped to provide raw data that it needs to be posted directly to the Internet. Telling them they need to output JSON for data visualizations and mashups will do as much good as a slap in the face. Showing them a regularly updating Excel spreadsheet that is findable on a web page that they can email to their colleagues, friends and families is going to get them thinking differently and perhaps encourage their participation directly.

The crime data issue is going to be a big deal in the not too distant future, I’m sure. And as Mr. Coates and Mr. Jones noted in their talks on personal data design, it’s the details that really matter in this space. You can think about products and features all day, but the specifics that define how data is shared, how it becomes relevant and how it is presented will make or break the intent of any offering.

Designing Your API, Web 2.0 Expo 2008:

How to launch an online platform (part II)

The MySpace guys won the latest launch party battle. About 200 people met at the new MySpace house last night in San Francisco to see what the company was going to do to compete with Facebook on the developer front.

MySpace FlipThey had a fully catered event including an open bar with some good whiskey. The schwag bag included the Flip digital video camera (wow!). There were a small handful of very basic demos on the floor from the usual suspects (Slide, iLike, Flixster, etc.). And the presentation was short and sweet so we could get back to socializing.

Nicely executed.

The party wasn’t without flaw, mind you.

First, the date. Why throw a launch party on the same day as the biggest political event in our time, Super Tuesday? The headlines were on everything but the MySpace launch. The right people knew what was going on, but the impact was severely muted. I was somewhat eager to leave to find out what was happening out there in the real world.

Second, the presentation. You have to appreciate them keeping it super short. Once the drinks start flowing, it gets very hard to keep people quiet for more than a few minutes. But I think most everyone there was actually very interested in hearing something meaty or a future vision or something. Bullets on a powerpoint rarely impress.

Neither of those things really mattered, in the end. The party served its purpose.

It also occurred to me afterward that it would have been a shame if the co-founders and executive team weren’t there. But they were very much in this and made themselves accessible to chat. This isn’t a sideshow move for MySpace. It matters to them.

Contrast this with the standard formula followed by the Bebo guys, and you can see why MySpace does so well in social networking. They embody it as a company.

Now, whether or not they can raise the bar on app quality or improve on distribution for apps is yet to be seen. By giving developers a month to get their submissions in for the end-user roll out they are resetting the playing field. That’s great. But I’m not sure whether the MySpace user experience will encourage the sharing of apps as fluidly as the FaceBook UE. I don’t use it enough to know, to be honest.

As far as the platform itself goes, I’m curious about the impact the REST API will have. I’ve wondered how the social networks would make themselves more relevant in the context of the world outside the domain.

Will the REST API be used more by services that want to expose more data within MySpace or by services that want to leverage the MySpace data in their own environments outside I suspect the latter will matter more over time but that won’t mean anything until people adopt the apps.

Overall, good show. This should help bring back some of the MySpace cool that was lost the last year or so.

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.

The magic of Hack Day

Even after seeing Hack Day work internally a bunch of times and now twice in the open format with external developers I’m still amazed every time. There’s something magical about the event.

Yes, ok, obviously, if you attract a bunch of creative people, give them the right kind of stage to express themselves and an audience of peers to listen to them then you are going to be surprised one way or another. And if you add some rules that make it feel like a game, then the competitive spirit will naturally motivate people to reach further.

It seems obvious now, but it amazes me all the same. I’ve never really experienced anything quite like it in the workplace.

In many ways, the experience both as a host and as a participant at the event feels similar to the intensity and even panic you get working at a startup that suddenly feels like it’s turning the corner. Everyone is operating at full speed. You know you’re on to something hot. But you have no idea what will happen next…and you’re pretty sure that you will fail if you stop running at full speed.

It’s also a little bit like the mid point in the sport season when you’re on a team that might actually win the championship this year. You know you can do something great, but you have to focus and make it happen. Intuition takes control of every decision. There’s no time for analysis.

One of the powerful lessons of Buddhism is the idea of letting go of the things we want to control. It’s incredibly difficult to throw an event where the outcome is so completely unknown. I can’t tell you how much time and energy we spend trying to remove all the rules and controls and precedents that come with being at a high profile company like Yahoo! in order to run Hack Day the right way.

Asking people to understand the event without experiencing it is a tall order. There’s always a “this will never work” look on their faces while you tell them that we invite a bunch of people over to build stuff. And then comes the panic while the actual hacking phase of the event silences the socializing aspect from earlier in the day. It can be uncomfortable hosting a party for a bunch of people who aren’t talking to each other.

This long quiet period carries on into the night, essentially a hum of keyboards banging away and murmers amongst team members, where you start to wonder if any of the hacks will be any good or if there will be enough to present or if anybody even cares. Part of you also knows the magic is happening right now…brains are crackling and the creative fire is blazing amongst these people who are intently focused on their computer screens.

The demos are a good indicator of the success of the event, but reading the follow up posts out in the blogosphere brings it home for us as hosts. Like the bride and groom after a wedding, we’re never totally sure how well the event went until people tell us. Here are some of my favorite quotes about Hack Day London:

Josh Clark: Lightning! Blimps! Submarines! And, um, Machine Tags!
The event was thoroughly engaging and altogether humbling. The amount of know-how, creativity and sheer geekery in the room was overwhelming. It’s just plain exciting to be part of a profession and community whose frontiers are expanding so fast.

Neil Ford
All in all, it was a fantastic, if tiring, two days. The total number of hacks presented at the end was 73, all of which were of a superb standard. I think it was impossible to leave the event uninspired.

Ryan Morrison: Land of the Living
I loved the event, I had one of the best times of my life and it’s re-inspired my love of getting down and dirty with code.

It’s incredibly gratifying to know that people enjoy the event as much as we enjoy putting it on. It isn’t an easy event to run, and knowing that people get something real out of it makes it all worth it.

If you were there at Alexandra Palace at Hack Day, we would love to hear what you’d like to see next time. We’re always looking to improve it. We’re watching the blogosphere, so post away, or feel free to comment.

Photo: Andy Piper


A few of us went to the Startup Camp unconference yesterday in San Francisco representing YDN’s development tools and services.

What a hoot.

Some of the startup ideas were really interesting, a few were promising but clearly still cooking, and some were just plain silly. For example, the second-place winner for the best startup (“people’s choice” of course) was, a bathroom locator for mobile phones. It basically fell into all 3 categories — clever, unfinished and a bit mad.

I was glad to see the entrepreneurial spirit so alive and well. Like any dotcom event these days, you certainly get a fair share of chest-thumping and occasionally insane marketers trying to make some noise around vaporware. But I also saw people putting themselves out there, taking the big risk in hopes of at least being able to control their own destiny if not becoming wildly successful. It was a great place for people worried about the same issues to meet each other and share war stories.

The event organizers, Mass Events Labs, were clearly having a good time, too. I spoke briefly with Dan Farber who is ZDNet’s EIC about David Berlind’s role at both companies and how he has done such a good job balancing interests. They have posted a disclosure at ZDNet explaining how things work:

“As a matter of CNET Networks and Mass Events Labs policies, when David covers an organization that is also a sponsor of a Mass Events Labs-produced event, a disclosure will be included with the coverage.”

This is tricky stuff, but David is able to manage it because he maintains such high integrity standards.

For example, we were talking about ZDNet’s site traffic sources, and he mentioned that he holds a hard line against staff Digging their own articles. I thought this was a curious point, as I have Dugg my own blog posts that I thought Diggers would like. Why can’t you Digg yourself? David is clear about the journalist’s role in marketing himself or herself, and he’s right. It’s a similar argument around the ethics of paying journalists a share of the traffic their stories generate…it’s the wrong incentive. They need to get the story right, and everything else is a distraction and perhaps even a conflict of interest.

I was also interested to see what types of VCs were present and how they fit into the scene. Jeff Clavier gave a talk about the basics of getting funding. And First Round Capital meandered around sniffing out opportunities. In both cases, they became very much part of the scene, a presence in the network that makes today’s startups successful rather than an obnoxious members-only club.

As for sponsors or “co-hosts“, Kent Brewster posted a really funny flickr photo set that said a lot about what’s going on here. We were positioned next to the Salesforce guys who seemed to be doing a great job of signing up developers. Sun’s presence as the event sponsor was completely appropriate. Unfortunately, I missed Jonathan Schwartz’s keynote, but I heard it was well done.

I’m really curious to see how this event evolves. It’s a great formula. And the attendees obviously enjoyed it. There’s a lot of potential here no doubt.