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.

The excellent buzz in the MySpace office

Last night I visited my brother Mitch who works at MySpace in the London office in soho. I was quickly reminded how removed I am from pop culture as people rattled off band names and industry gossip that was completely meaningless to me.

The youthful energy and excitement swirling through the office felt very much like most of my time at The Industry Standard. I recall the sense that we were doing something that mattered and the occasional vertigo you get when a company grows that fast. It’s a strange mix of confidence and fear that motivates you to push harder and harder.

The joke running through the office yesterday was the Kelly Likes Shoes video which blasted out of one cube and then another and then another followed by guffaws and imitations. Erik Gibb forwarded that link to me weeks ago, so for just a moment I felt like I had just a sliver of an edge of dot com cool over them.

But moments later I was informed that Britney divorced Kevin followed by the news that the Democrats took Congress and that Rumsfeld was booted…all news to me at that moment…and I realized that the advanced form of pop culture ADD built into their DNA moved too fast for me, and my self-perceived coolness evaporated as quickly as it arrived.

The strategic role of high quality editorial

Quality editorial is not a growth position for a media company. It may be a competitive advantage. And it will surely be a brand differentiator. But it won’t by nature expand audience or increase revenues. It’s not necessarily even a loyalty control.

Of the many great things the Internet has done for media, it has failed to value trustworthiness enough. Instead, it values speed, plasticity, and access. Information is rewarded when it is first to appear, maleable and distributable in numerous ways, and available through multiple channels — links, feeds, indeces — and through other people.

How is a niche publisher to compete? First, catalyze relationships with and amongst people. Second, leverage the value chain as it is to your advantage. Paying more per word for content that is slow, static and hard to get to is a recipe for failure online.

This is the strategic play that makes the MySpace acquisition seem even smarter than I think Fox was aware of at the time. YouTube has adopted a few of the social aspects that make MySpace successful, but I wonder if it will be able to catalyze those relationships into something more meaningful than a one-upsmanship JackAss competition.

What publishers do understand well is the role a media brand can play in facilitating meaningful activity in a community. The nature of the relationships with and amongst the community members have clearly changed. And high quality editorial is a piece of that relationship, one that reinforces trust and understanding, particularly in niche publishing where it’s harder to find good information.

The easy mistake to make is believing that because you have good information people will come. They might, and they’ll just as quickly leave if you don’t give them a reason to create a relationship with you or other members of your community.

MySpace reinvented email

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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