December 19, 2008

How to Use Comments To Attract Visitors…And Make Money

Posted in Community, Software tagged , at 11:22 pm by mj

Obligatory disclaimer: I’m hardly a “typical case,” and I don’t have the resources to conduct usability studies, experiments, or surveys for these kinds of things (wouldn’t that be an interesting job).

Sometime in 2005, Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner–authors of Freakonomics–started an excellent Freakonomics blog. It was more interesting than the book, honestly, and far less self-aggrandizing than the first edition.

By late 2007, it was bought by the New York Times, and soon after, they switched to partial feeds (after breaking their feeds entirely for a time, as I recall). I, of course, summarily removed it from my feed reader. Who has time for partial feeds, especially if you spend most of your time reading on the train, plane, or automobile (OK, rarely do I read blogs in an automobile, but trains and planes have easily constituted 75% of my blog reading time for the last several years)? And how can 30 characters or 30 words or whatever arbitrary cutoff point provide you enough information to decide whether you want to star it to read later?

This evening, I just happened to follow a link to a Freakonomics blog article (it was this story on standardized test answers followed from God plays dice, a math-oriented blog) and spent about 90 minutes on the site. It really does have interesting content. Most of that time was perusing some of the interesting comments, and that’s also what drove me to click through additional stories–hoping to find more interesting comments.

Here’s an example: A Career Option for Bernie Madoff?. I would never, ever guess that this would be worth reading, especially if it meant first starring the item in my reader, and then finding it and clicking it, and waiting for it to load and then render. Never. I doubt it was even intended to be interesting; it was more of a throw-away story submitted for the amusement of regular readers.

But I’ve found the discussion interesting, mostly because the (convicted felon) former CFO of Crazy Eddie was commenting.

Robert Scoble recently lamented a related shortcoming with blog presentation. Scoble wants a service that highlights individual commenters’ “social capital” so you know who’s talking out of their ass (such as me), and whose opinions really matter or might even hint at things to come.

The projects discussed in his comments all seem to be headed in the same direction: some kind of Javascript pop-up or other icon that tells you something about a comment author as you’re reading the comments (I’m convinced that in the future, we will only hear our friends and idols and important decision-makers; history really is cyclic). But what if you’re deciding whether to read the comments at all?

Slashdot is another example. I’ve been “reading” (skimming, really) slashdot for 10 years, since its first year of operation. I have never bothered creating an account. Aside from a handful of anonymous comments over the years, I’ve never really cared to participate in that community or discussions. It’s rarely my first source for news (unless I’ve been under a metaphorical rock for a few weeks); the summaries are usually wrong; and my opthamologist has attributed 28.3% of my retinal decay to the site design.

Yet I keep coming back–often weeks after a story was submitted–because of the interesting comments. But even if you go to the front page–sans feed reader–it’s a crap-shoot. Even with the community moderation system, you simply don’t know if there are great comments embedded within a story. So I sometimes click hoping for a definitive comment, and sort by score (highest first). That often yields good results, at least in a statistical sense: the more comments on a story, the more of them will be truly excellent (maybe because authors are trying to increase their karma by commenting on high-traffic stories?).

So here’s what I think can make us all happy, and make partial feeds useful too: find some way to incorporate the interesting-ness of comments on a story into the feed.

It’s not going to be enough to say “ten of your friends have commented on this story”–although that would be exciting, and doable with existing feed readers.

It’s not even going to be enough to say “two CEOs and three software engineers of companies whose stocks you own have commented.” That would be awesome, too.

It’ll have to combine “people who are interesting” with “comments that are interesting, regardless of the author.”

And dammit, if it wouldn’t revolutionize the way I, at least, read blogs.

If I had that, I’d have all the information I need to once again start skimming partial feeds. It’s even better than ratings on the story level, since it tells you so much more about how it’s engaging its audience.

Is there a market opportunity in there somewhere?

September 10, 2006

Facebook: Publicity to Die Invade Privacy For

Posted in Business, Community, Fun at 8:09 pm by mj

(Full disclosure: I work for Webshots, which is a sort of competitor to Facebook.)

When the “Facebook Fiasco” started, I felt a little uneasy. Everybody I knew, and most in the blogosphere, were saying what an embarrassment this was for Facebook.

Hot on the heels of the AOL stir-up, I could feel management at every community and social networking site gritting its collective teeth, preparing morning memos decreeing that all new features have to be vetted through legal.

My thought? No publicity is bad publicity.

As if a company who gets 100K+ of its members to protest a new change by using its own services is really going to experience any lasting repercussions.

It now appears that I was right:

This is an excellent example of a company listening to its users and quickly pushing intelligent changes, in a transparent manner, to deal with a problem. Facebook is growing up, in a good way.

Also see their Alexa traffic spike.

Now that’s how to launch a new feature.

Now, Facebook didn’t do this intentionally. And many of these users certainly would have fled–eventually. There are some serious points in here, but it’s all quite funny, too.

Just consider their pitch to their advertisers: Last month, we committed a bit of a faux pas with a small little feature, and over one hundred and fifty thousand people came together on our site in a single day! Thousands of newspapers and blogs linked to us. Imagine if your campaign were running that day…

Backlashes–especially when “unprecedented”–are a better proof of your reach and the vitality of your business than anything else. For better or worse.

Interestingly, Sam Ruby has a different take on what was most disconcerting about Facebook’s feature: information overload.

August 5, 2006

Shel Israel interviews Martin Green on Communities

Posted in Community, Web2.0 at 12:20 am by mj

Shel Israel recently interviewed CNET’s Martin Green. (Disclaimer: Martin is my boss three-levels removed.)

Some of what he says about Webshots is tipping his hand at the Webshots redesign, currently in beta, and all of it is stuff he’s been saying internally for a long time.

From the interview:

People in a community are there to share. Blog services don’t provide an audience – the blogger does. If I post on my blog about a restaurant I went to, you, my friend Mike, my wife and a few other people will read it – that’s it.
[...]
Communities provide a stage and audience as well as the production equipment. Most blog tools only provide the equipment. And a community gives you the ability to be an performer or be part of the audience at different times within a social framework that has some familiarity from day to day.

Martin is a smart, charismatic guy whose acquisition strategy seems to be to find small (employee-wise) companies that he’s passionate about, make the founders wealthy, and scale them up to size at their own natural pace. He’s part of the reason I still work for Webshots–he Gets It(sm), maybe more than I do, and certainly for a lot longer.

I’ve seen a number of his internal presentations and had some good conversations with him, so I was happy when he started blogging. I hope he’ll start sharing some of his cute metaphors and spiffy illustrations.

On the subject of communities, it will be interesting to see how Microformats and cross-site identity bridgers like PeopleAggregator mix this up in the coming years. These and other innovations will essentially provide the same set of services of a good community site–even walled gardens will find them essential for, if nothing else, search engine referrals–but will be more prone to errors and spam, and the information accessible via APIs will likely be broad, but shallow.

Why is that important? Because basic social networking features are becoming a commodity. A 14 year-old high school freshman can, with the aid of his dad’s credit card, create a core “Web 2.0″ site, complete with rich profiles, tagging, comments, APIs, and Flash (or AJAX–your choice). The real meat is in the scale–dealing with the publishing and conversing and browsing histories of tens or, soon, hundreds of millions of users. What’s even better: analysing all of that information to provide a personalized, relevant experience for every one of your members, and requiring as little work as possible from them. To do that, you need to plow the depths of those histories, and not just skim the surface looking for stale, decaying remains.

All the major players–and CNET is no different, if a bit smaller and less ambitious–are aggregating these smaller, specific, authentic communities via acquisition. Can community-like aggregators and vertical search engines based around microformats compete with those incentives? If there’s enough money in it, maybe.

February 1, 2006

Who wants to be “#1″, anyway?

Posted in Community, Search, Software at 9:01 pm by mj

Jeremy on why Yahoo says it isn’t trying to be #1. Excellent follow-up from an admittedly interested party.

When the story originally broke, my response was to shrug it off. Yahoo’s acquisitions and newer experiments demonstrate that it’s headed in a different direction than Google, a direction in which Search-As-A-Textbook is less important than search as a platform, or, to put it another way, search as an anchor for community.

Google, on the other hand, appears to be stranded on its own island shouting “We’re #1″ and hanging AdSense banners on all the palm trees. A profitable business, to be sure, and one which nobody thought possible five years ago. But just because something wasn’t possible five years ago, doesn’t mean it’s wise to linger on it for an extended period.

Anyway, as long as Google gets to define the rules of the game and the meaning of success, nobody’s going to beat them. So what is a success-minded company to do? Stop following Google.

Which, I believe, is exactly Jeremy’s point. And he should know.

Update (9:09p): I was a little harsh on Google. Part of the reason I think they’re stuck as far as search innovation goes is because they’re so far behind Yahoo (and even Microsoft) in the community space. That’s why they’ve been pushing like crazy on Toolbar, Reader, Mail, and so on. As the BusinessWeek article by Marissa Ann Mayer (warning: ads may overlap text in Firefox) shows, Google does fundamentally understand how to harness creativity and foster innovation. They’re just against a wall in the search arena at this point.

As always, just my opinion.

December 10, 2005

Webshots and Flickr: A (Possibly) More Thorough Analysis

Posted in Community, Software at 2:52 pm by mj

I am way late on this, but here we go. I’ll try not to say anything that can get me in trouble at work, but since I’m so late, who’s going to read this? (For those few reading who don’t know me, I’ve been an engineer at Webshots for over 3 years. I’m hardly unbiased, but I’m not blind, either. Not yet, anyway. End of full disclosure.)

On November 25, Eirik Solheim posted a graph of the Alexa numbers comparing Flickr and Webshots. The same day, Thomas Hawk amplified the message with a bit more analysis. Before we go into any analysis, let’s look at the graph in question.

Webshots vs Flickr Alexa numbers

This graph shows two things: first, that, since December 2004, Flickr has gone from virtually no reach, to approximately 0.4%, as measured by Alexa; and second, in the same time period with the same measurements, Webshots has gone from 0.8-1.0% to just under 0.4%. The conclusion? That Flickr’s “Web2.0-ness” has cut Webshots’ reach in half.

But that’s not the whole story. It’s part of the story, certainly, but there are at least three other factors at work.
Read the rest of this entry »

October 28, 2005

Tools for communities, communities as media, and communities as means not ends

Posted in Community, Media at 11:04 pm by mj

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about communities / social networks as a means rather than an end, and what kinds of tools different communities will find useful. Of course, part of my job is to think about these things every day, but one tends to get bogged down in the mundane details of immense scalability and office politics, and needs a jerk back to see the bigger picture occasionally.

Like a lot of people (I’m betting), I was intrigued by the Mark Zuckerberg interview blogged by Jeff Clavier. Mark is the founder and CEO of the Facebook. During the interview, Mark asserted–correctly, I think–that one of the (primary?) reasons the “first generation” of social networking sites failed is that they didn’t provide a set of quality utilities. The network was the end, not the means. As Greg of Geeking with Greg writes:

Social networking sites like Orkut or Friendster have no purpose. Sure, it’s fun. You go there and, in a flurry of activity, set up your profile and list all your friends. It’s always good for a little ego pump.

But, then what is there to do with your social network? There’s no purpose, no reason to come back, nothing to do.

Think about this from an implementor’s standpoint. You spend your months (or years) creating a community with an awesome search and people finder. You have top-notch content, and maybe a great editorial team. Your members contribute their own outstanding material. So people find each other and are entertained by each other. And then…….? Hmm.

Then this morning on the Webshots blog (yes, Webshots has a blog now! I’d say “it’s not much yet,” but they already have more comments than I will in the next year), a member suggested a follow-up to our Hurricane Katrina/Rita/Wilma collection that features the devastated areas in better times. What an awesome suggestion.

Although the collection started with Katrina as a way of funneling donations to the Red Cross, Humane Society, and so on, it has become much more than that, and it only includes a handful of the public photos that can be easily found.

One can imagine follow-ups that track these areas during their rebuilding efforts, and promoting before-during-after photos a couple of years hence. The possibilities wouldn’t end even there.

But as good as Webshots’ editorial team is, and as much weight their collections carry, I can’t help but think that what members really want are tools to produce their own collections, and a means of promoting them (and maybe connecting them to external organizations).

It’s certainly more scalable, but, like television, it could create information overload, and with it, the risk that people will think there’s not much of anything good out there. Hence, the need for even better tools: tools not just to share and find–what we might call “first generation” social networking tools–but to promote, augment, incentivize, and (again with my silly ideas) connect with other communities outside of the walled garden.

What this spells to me is not just community, but also media: a platform for and a marketplace of mini-media outlets.

So how do you make that leap, make it meaningfully, and transition your existing communities to a better world without scaring them off?

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