Talk

While talking about the Social Media Press release yesterday I mused about the need for real-time communications to be included in the system.

Actually the call is for a much broader inclusion of person to person or person to group communication in Internet services – direct discussion between people using a site and between users and the posters of content. Talk.

One of the things all sites do is to attract people who share a common interest. From time immemorial this has formed the basis for personal discussion and connection. It is how we meet other people – through a shared activity.

The internet has introduced a new type of shared activity that mimics its predecessors –while removing the requirement for temporal or spatial connection. In doing so it has both enriched some aspects of our social lives while leaving others unsatisfied.

It is hard not to believe the rise of services like Twitter and newsfeeds on social networks from FaceBook to Linkedin, which send out a stream of deeply human but typically mundane activities, is not a reaction to an unmet desire to connect around the ordinary activities that consume most of our lives.

For myself I cannot stand in line at a store, or contemplate some types of purchase without engaging in discussion with those around me. And it’s not just me who relishes in chance encounters. On the radio this morning a store owner was recounting how his store grew out of his interest to share his knowledge with customers. One of the things he regretted with the Internet store that remains was his business was reduced to availability and price.

It doesn’t need to be like this – the ability to personally connect either with individual users or connect users with each other is both easy and cheap. More importantly it provides a means to develop the rich personal connection between people that real time voice allows.

One easy way to start is to consider adding conferencing as a regular activity related to your site.  Check out Iotum’s free conference service as an example of one service to speak to multiple site users simultaneously. Use it to educate, understand, or to explore a specific topics and tangents. It reintroduces the personal onto your site.

Want more continuous connection? Add click to call buttons – but if you’re a small organization consider integrating with find-me applications so you’re not tethered to a desk. This is a great way to add value – especially if the goods, service or cause the site is dedicated to are based on something unique where sharing insights and discussion enriches everyone.

In time I love to see infrastructure that would notify me that other users were on the same page I was – and if they were open to a spontaneous discussion. Of course in this scenario Web shopping can again become the shared activity around which people meet which it is for many in the physical world.

In the end adding voice to an Internet site re-introduces temporal connection to the relationships they build – making them more concrete and meaningful.

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International DemoCamp & the value of virtual connections

One of the tenents of social media is that it fills an unmet need – the desire of people to connect in communities and explore common interests.

It’s no surprise then that the BarCamp community – an international movement of tech enthusiasts who connect locally discuss to technology and trends – would want to use collaborative platforms to connect multiple BarCamps together into one big event.

That’s what’s happening this weekend Ottawa and Leeds UK BarCamps are going to connect for a couple of hours of demo and discussion.

It was great fun working with Jim Courtney of Skype Journal and Dominic Hodgson of Leeds UK putting this together. Jim was instrumental in introducing us to Convenos a conferencing platform that lets us share desktops and applications.  Jim also connected us with HighSpeed Conferencing, a professional conference service that supports Skype calls – meaning even if the demos require a lot of processor cycles the audio quality will still be great. Thanks Jim!

It will be exciting to see  this in practice – and to see how people connect during and after the event.

If it’s successful I hope that we see more of it locally – given the strong Camp communities in Montreal, Ottawa and Toronto and the huge advantages of connecting these communities into a single entity – from a talent, funding and company partnership perspective.

In fact Mars seems to have this idea already, web broadcasting their multi-month entrepreneurship program Entrepreneurship 101 throughout the province (has anyone from Ottawa signed up?) and linking it to a FaceBook page for connecting far flung students. 

We could take this further though. Toronto is on their sixteenth DemoCamp, Montreal on their fifth. These are great events because they make it easy to identify companies doing interesting things – that may augment your own work.

Extend this through Canada’s central corridor, and link more events, and gradually we’ll develop into a single tech community of international scale.

Update: Things didn’t work as planned, but that hasn’t detered us. We learned wired connections help, we really liked the Leeds audio and the HighSpeed conferencing – which made both the speaker and audience clear.  After some testing locally and in Leeds, where we hope to try it again.

A Beacon for Media IT

Yesterday FaceBook announced Beacon – an ad widget for eCommerce sites that asks the purchaser if they want the purchase in their FaceBook feed. One click and you’ve promoted the site and product while linking it to the reputation of the purchaser.

What’s slick about this is it removes the last shred of doubt that content is needed to deliver advertising. As Google has shown with search and FaceBook hopes work for Beacon – Context works just fine.

Of course that’s obvious – except to media companies that systematically under invest in IT and technology innovation. It’s not as if they have to develop the services themselves – they can do what most of them do for content – which is typically buy and distribute – not make.

Even the internal processes are similar – match audience interests with content/service, and program distribution to keep audience within the network if possible – or provide hooks so they return frequently.

What’s missing is the deep understanding of IT infrastructure and evolution – and a belief that investing in it can produce revenue every bit as good as investing in, and protecting content.

Until that happens media companies will remain protective about content and worried about declining ad revenue as it shifts to companies that understand a new model is here.

Is FaceBook a Gossip?

Yesterday Maggie Fox wrote about FaceBook’s walled garden approach to user data.

Today I fianlly catch up on Alice Taylors wonderful blog – Wonderland and find her linking to an animation on FaceBook’s privacy policy – What Happens in the Facebook …

Both Maggie and “What Happens …” raise interesting questions about who owns our information and what can they do with it.

In a sense social sites become one our friends – and few of us choose to hang around with gossips especially ones that systematically gather, parse and repackage what we think is both ours and semi-private.   

Creating Users

I’ve long thought that successful social software requires as much attention to designing for user motivation as it does to implementing those insights in algorithms and clean user interface.

I’m not the only one of course who has thought that. It’s an active area of study and commentary. From Jacques Bughin of McKinsey who studied contribution patterns for German video sites to Nick Yee who studied user motivations in MMORPG’s, users come to social sites with and for different objectives.

Of course this study leads to detailed recommendations designed to increase contributions – such as recognizing contributors with differential privileges to reputation systems based on contribution ranking. Contribution is only part of the puzzle though. One of the trends that seem to be emerging is the power of weak ties and their role in building social networks and contribution behavior.

The first inkling I had of the role of weak ties was Danah Boyd’s misunderstood essay “Viewing America..”. While the essay looked a class differences in FaceBook and MySpace usage, the underlying driver for the difference is friending patterns. As the work of Dr Will Reader – nicely summarized here and here – suggests many of these friendships may be based on acquaintanceship (weak tie) rather than close friendship.

The importance of these weak ties in building social sites becomes clear when you examine a diagram from the McKinsey study. It shows 2% of Flickr’s and 6% of YouTube’s users being responsible for 90+% of their content.

from-mckinsey-quarterly-how-companies-article.jpg

Both seem low – and fly in the face of Forrester Study that predicted successful sites have a 13% contribution rate. What’s going on?

While I think the McKinsey numbers are partly the result of artifacts from the definition of ‘contributing content’ and ‘user’ the underlying truth is that the type content plays a role in the motivation contributors have. Both sites host content that is far easier to consume than to contribute. I would suggest that part of the reason to contribute is that this disparity enhances the number of weak ties that connect with the content. In other words part of the motivation to contribute is these sites to access users who do not contribute.

Some might call this audience – but it’s not so simple because these users contribute to the sites success if the site designers provide (as Flicker and YouTube do) ways for non-contributors to show their approval by rating, voting, commenting and linking/embedding – all of which help establish weak ties between the creator and the consumer.

Jeremy Liew in writing about Nick Yee’s study lists 3 factors that motivate both contributors and users:

providing mechanisms to recognize achievement
create an ambience of social engagement
facilitate engagement around entertaining or humorous material and situations

Taken together these studies suggest that the relationship between content contributors, site visitors and content is a complex interplay in which the content is only part of the motivation for a site visit – for both contributors and consumers.

Rights & Privacy on Social Networks

Thanks to Maggie Fox for pointing to John McCrea’s (of Plaxo) Bill of Rights for Users of the Social Web

“Ownership of their own personal information, including:

– their own profile data
– the list of people they are connected to
– the activity stream of content they create;
– whether and how such  information is shared with others
– freedom to grant persistent access to trusted external sites.

It’s a good start – especially after receiving invitation spam to join Quechup (not linked to)– a social networking site that apparently doesn’t think users have rights. Shortly after receiving their invite – I received a very apologetic email for the friend who had “invited” me. He  hadn’t knowingly approved the mass invite and was aghast that his reputation was being used to promote a site that spammed his friends. But for his fast response I too might be in the same boat.

Ross Mayfield has an interesting post on Social Networking and Privacy that explores this issue. He notes that given enough members companies like Quechup end up being able to characterize your relationships even if you never join – because they can map you through people who know you.

Of course this is more insidious than FaceBook’s opening your profile to search engines. They’d likely argue that you can opt out of having your profile exposed – but if privacy and your rights were what mattered shouldn’t you have to opt in to exposure?

All this gets back to Maggie’s post on Shiv Singh research on Social Networks.  Once networks reach 5M members their growth rapidly accelerates – which provides all manner of incentive to grow quickly. Of course it likely applies only when the growth to 5M occurs from providing recurring value to users – and respecting their rights.

Much of these problems would disappear if social applications were separated from the social graph they need to run. Users them could choose among providers – who presumably would compete on a range of functionality – including how they protected your privacy.

Social Application Optimization

Alec Saunders points to a great post by Jeneane Sessum on Social Application Optimization – likening it to Cluetrain Manifesto with its suggestion that marketing is conversation.

Jeneane suggests there’s a need for a strategy and programs to have those conversations in social spaces creating an integrated presence across social sites or as she calls it Social Application Optimization. As she says it’s:

“the opportunity for companies to engage in social spaces — to find new ways to interact with their customers, partners, and the watching world — without making a pain of themselves”

She provides more details about what she’s thinking about when she answers some questions in the comments section:

“Gonzo Marketing really. Businesses can underwrite and sponsor participants, can step outside of their “business” in order to do that. Business becomes enabler of people doing cool things, not pusher. … And there will be others too–the ones who do it wrong, which will give all the more props to the ones who do it right.”

Of course it’s a welcome idea – and increasingly practiced. It’s the last part that critical – because as Cluetrain proposes it’s about authentic conversations and those can be difficult to do if you’re too focused on immediate return or your side of the conversation (same as in any social interaction).

This type of optimization is not without other difficulties. While social sites have recently opened up a bit (API’s announced for FaceBook, LinkedIn and rumored for MySpace) – they will probably always define who and how you can access people’s networks (as though user’s personal connections were THEIR network). It’s this mediation of relationship that can confound the discussion – making it important when choosing sites to know your audience is there –and to match the type of interaction to the sites meme.

More difficult is to recognize that users of social sites are mobile – sometimes using a variety of sites each for a distinct purpose, or moving form site to site (more on this in an upcoming post).  Keeping an authentic brand conversation across sites is difficult as the more one matches one sites meme making adoption and conversation easier the more a different style for other sites may look contrived – especially if there is any drift from the brands core ‘personality’.

Further complicating this is the fact that users do not carry a single identity with them from site to site. This limits your ability to ‘understand’ users interests and networks while making conversations (services) more basic than they could be if users could carry their behavior from site to site – making personalization richer while allowing continuity of discussions in different environments.

Regardless of the difficulties engaging users of social sites is going to increasingly be part of many companies marketing mix.