Monthly Archives: March 2008

let the community set you free!

i’ve been following the social web since before it became fashionable to do so. the one thing that i’ve found most appalling+ over the past 3 years is that almost none of the socially driven or community-based web 2.0 ventures have really understood the importance of the community and how to leverage it to their advantage (apart from purely participatory purposes). while the example works for pretty much any product or service with an actively participating community, let’s use the example that most of you are going to be familiar with–that of digg.

every single active member of the site is in a way an employee of the site that is working for free (in monetary terms). these members work for free because they get paid in the form of an experience. the users can submit, share, vote on, and comment on stories they find interesting, as well as connect and converse with like-minded users on the site. however, the users aren’t always happy with the number of options they are given or how they can use these features and are always looking to improve their experience on the site, which they can only do by improving the site itself.

when these users see a problem or a glitch, they report it, and sometimes even present possible solutions. they react similarly when they see a feature being abused or think that a feature hasn’t been implemented properly. furthermore, when the community sees that the platform is lagging and needs to be updated (as in the case when they demanded that digg add a specific section on the sites to handle images, improve search, and so on) they voice their concerns. their concerns, however, often fall on deaf ears. sometimes this is because the people behind the platform are busy with other things, but i honestly believe that most often this is simply because most web 2.0 companies don’t have enough faith in their communities and believe that they know better which direction they should to take the platform in.

contrary to what you would expect from these socially driven and community-oriented services that are built on the very principles of collaboration, these companies still function in a very hierarchical and inflexible manner. web 2.0 companies are in a very unique position. their very nature should keep them on the cutting edge of innovation and keep them flexible enough to adapt to change speedily and efficiently. what completely confounds me is that instead of taking advantage of their position, these companies work function like the bloated and inefficient corporations of 1970’s america.

as surowiecki so clearly explains in his book, the wisdom of crowds,

…attempting to run an entire company by command and control is a futile task. it’s too costly in terms of time; it requires far too much information–information that top executives would not be bothering with; and it saps the initiatives of workers and managers. when coordination takes place inside a company without being dictated by top-down leadership, it has the potential to make the company as a whole lighter and more flexible. but that can’t happen when power is concentrated at the top of a company…

how such a structure would come about in a traditional company is completely understandable though not justifiable. why it still happens in web-based enterprises today is completely baffling. the community is here to serve you, pay attention and delegate.

this post is a part of my journey through james surowiecki’s the wisdom of crowds.

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the baiting hordes of social news sites: how will you react?

if you’ve contributed to any of the major social news sites, you are probably aware of the fact that the commenters on these sites are not the most articulate or the most civil members of the social web. in fact, in many cases, on sites like digg, the commenters are juvenile and downright abusive. for most people, this is a deal breaker because of which they refuse to participate in social news, or seek out the social news audience as potential readership. in fact, many big companies are actually afraid of being picked up by a social news site because of this potential backlash and the potential for brand suicide at the hands of the rioters.

it’s fitting then, to use the example of the baiting crowd as laid out in the wisdom of crowds, to analyze this subset of the social news audience. surowiecki explains, borrowing from a study conducted by leon mann, that baiting crowds are formed mostly at nighttime, when it is both easier to go unidentified and but also for each individual to imagine himself as a part of a bigger group. the crowd on digg, for example, acts similarly. the most abusive users are those who have very little invested in the community, are virtually anonymous, and are usually opining as a part of a larger thread rather than a single contrarian voice.

their willingness to riot depends on what other people in the crowd are doing. specifically, it depends on how many other people in the crowd are rioting. as more people riot, more people decide that they are willing to riot, too.

there are, of course, some people who will never act in this way. people who are invested in the community, those who actually take the time to read the comment and want to make a substantive contribution to the discussion, or are simply not radical by their very nature.

what is interesting as a content producer, is to look at the reaction of a social news audience, and then compare it to the reaction of your regular readership. the main difference, apart from the very nature of loyal readership, is that commenting on blogs is less anonymous. you can require people to enter certain pieces of information before they comment (although this information can be faked), and you can always record people by ip addresses and ban them from commenting if they abuse the system. the extra steps they have to take to leave a comment, and the ease with which you can eject them from the threads if they misbehave make a lot of people think twice before they mouth off.

even more interestingly, the kind of comments you get depend on the culture you create as a content producer. i have been published on a vast number of different sites but the nicest and most productive comments and criticism i received were quite unsurprisingly from the problogger audience. similarly, the crowd on stumbleupon tends to be much lest hostile than the crowd on reddit, which tends to be much less hostile than the crowd on digg. as surowiecki concludes,

…if there are enough people in the crowd who will not riot under any conditions–that is, whose actions are independent of the crowd’s behavior as a whole–then a riot will be far less likely, because the more people who do not riot, the more people there will be who don’t want to riot.

apart from creating a culture of constructive input and criticism–which is easy on your own site but not easy on a social news site–you as a content creator can set the tone for the rest of the conversation by commenting yourself or you as community members can prevent unnecessarily hostile babble from taking over the discussion threads simply by voicing your sane opinion before the fools take over. (more on influencing discussion) ultimately, the main problem many of these sites face is that the rioters tend to scare the more sane people away and therefore can run wild with their opinion. the best way to fight it is to be a part of the community and actively start your own discussion threads or talk back to the rioters. if enough sane people step out and voice their opinion, they can change the tone of the entire community.

this post is a part of my journey through james surowiecki’s the wisdom of crowds.

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a return to normalcy: reddit hits the nail on the head

before i realized what had happened, i was actually confused and pleasantly surprised that something had changed at reddit. then i came across the official reddit blog post explaining the change.

one of the most annoying things about social news sites is that because the content tends to be skewed heavily towards the preferences of the early adopters and the core users, it can be very difficult for newcomers who don’t subscribe to the same preferences to enjoy the sites. as a result, many of the newcomers end up leaving the site. in an effort to curb this problem, reddit has updated their algorithm to normalize the ‘hotness’ of the stories promoted to the front page of the site.

what this means is that you will start seeing more content on your front page from smaller reddits. we did this to give the smaller reddits that you are subscribed to a fair chance of getting displayed. if a particular link is very hot within its own reddit, it will now be very hot on your front page as well.

the situation before we made this change was that the more popular reddits (e.g. reddit.com and politics) would wash out all the other content.

i’ve witnessed the problem many times. one of the things that prevented me from getting passionately involved in reddit was the fact that 95% of all content seemed to be very political. in the new system, people who enjoy that content can keep reddit the same by only subscribing to the politics reddit whereas the people looking for more diversity can change their subreddit subscriptions to reflect that.

we’ve been experimenting with a similar idea at propeller for a while. we had the same problem, where a majority of our content would be politics-only and the other channels weren’t getting the attention they deserved, so i understand reddit’s problem and love the solution that they have come up with. this type of customization along with a robust recommendation engine are two of the most important elements that social news sites need to work on if they want to break out of the niche and gain mass appeal.

touche reddit.

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i told you so: now everyone is loving yahoo! buzz

you may remember, in a blogosphere full of people berating yahoo! buzz, i was perhaps the only one who gave the site a chance and wrote a contrarian review. well the results are in and here’s what the content producers are saying:

  • salon got so excited about a february 28 link from the yahoo home page to this story that they issued a press release – they had 1 million unique visitors that day, the most ever to the 12 year old site.
  • us magazine was linked from yahoo on february 27, and had the second highest traffic day ever. 32% of visits that day came from the yahoo home page.
  • huffington post reported 800,000 unique visitors from a yahoo-linked story.
  • smoking gun, portfolio.com, dallas morning news and imaginova all reported significant traffic increases after links from the yahoo home page.

it’s not just traffic, as techcrunch mentions, the yahoo visitors love to comment too.

despite the fact that yesterday was a saturday (slowest traffic day of the week) and that it was up only 1/4 of the day, we had our highest traffic day ever and over 1,000 comments were left on the post.

so what are you waiting for? it’s no longer a leap of faith, it’s the right thing to do.

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the foreseeable impact of facebook-based instant messaging

a couple of days ago i was pondering the value of connections versus conversations because it’s clear that while there are many social networking sites out there that allow you to network – or connect – with people, most of them don’t help the average user leverage these connections into conversations on the sites. that is not to say that the conversations aren’t taking place, they are just taking place off the platforms or via person to person messages. with the imminent launch of a facebook instant messaging application, all of this is about to change.

i want to emphasize that facebook isn’t the first social network to do this, bebo has had this functionality for about 6-7 months though it is somewhat tied to microsoft’s windows live messenger. basically, any user can click on an ‘im me’ button in your profile and the social network opens an im window in your browser for you to initiate the chat. im curios to see how facebook plans on implementing this, via a profile-based application or in a pop-up browser window because facebook has the potential to set the tone for how the functionality is implemented across the board.

there is a very good reason why facebook might want to tie it to the site and not let the feature loose. the more restrictive it is, the more time people have to be logged in and using the site, and the higher (skewed) facebook’s attention metrics are. with the web moving from a visitors and page views metric to a time spent per visitor metric for measuring popularity, a decision to keep the instant messaging service localized would give facebook a major boost. this would be even more important to facebook because the application might make people want to drastically decrease their usage of other features like poking, sending facebook messages, writing on each other’s walls and so forth. at the same time i do see how having it only on the site may become a major annoyance for many people, including myself.

regardless, in my opinion, instant messaging will be one of the most useful features to come to facebook in a long time. not only will it allow friends to chat with each other but i can see a huge potential for group chats and conferences. ideally, i would like this feature to be implemented so that when someone clicks the icon form your profile, the chat is opened in a window for whatever desktop application you use for chatting with people on a regular basis. not only would that ensure that all your contacts are stored in one location (though that problem can be avoided by importing/exporting contact lists) but would also allow for convenient conversation logging (which i find incredibly useful for recalling details and finding links people share with me over im).

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