August 23, 2013

The Myth of Social

I wrote a post the other day about the Myth of Discovery, and at the end I mentioned I have similar feelings about social. While I’ve held them for a while, I realized Andy is the only person whose ear I’ve bent about it. It would probably be a more shocking view a couple years back when I first made the realization, but I’m posting it now in case it still merits discussion. And because Hunter asked nicely ;)

In the last decade or so, no word has been thrown around tech circles than “social.” As we’re now seeing a burst of “Uber for ______” startups (some of which could be more legit, since they’re applying economic pressures to inefficient markets), so too have we seen hundreds of companies try to ride Facebook’s coattails and “make _______ social.”

Simply making something social is not a valid foundation for a startup business.

Much like discovery, social is a feature. It’s actually more of a layer, which should be built into most every consumer product these days (in some fashion, at least; because hey, we’re connected, so why not?). It may even bring you a whole bunch of new users, but it’s not sustainable in and of itself as a value proposition.

The motto for startups that I keep repeating is “add value or die.” Social does not add value, it multiplies the value you add. Add real value, then multiply it using social.

Now, this may seem obvious to some of you, but we’re still categorizing apps as “social.” The App Store has a “Social Networking” category, and Google Play has a “Social” category. 

Tell me: have you ever gone looking for an app because it’s “social”? Have you said, “Hmm, I want to be social today. Is there an app for that?” My guess is no.

Ok, so let’s look at the top list of what these stores categorize as social and see what they really mean:

  • Facebook: Identity. They can (and probably soon will) sell ads anywhere you’re connected, which is probably almost any app on your phone. Why? Because they offer identity as a service. Their own apps just happen to be the biggest client of that service.
  • Tumblr: Creative expression & inspiration. As they say: “Follow the world’s creators.” They haven’t *really* proven how much that’s worth yet, but it’s clearly worth enough to get Yahoo!’s attention.
  • Twitter: World’s biggest comment platform and/or personal news feed. You can comment on anything, and Twitter targets ads based on that. Check out their TV ad system. Just reading news? Ok, then get ads like you would on any other news network.
  • Skype: Telephony. No longer requiring physical land-lines to make connections, Skype makes money when people call each other all over the world. And it’s cheaper for you.
  • Pinterest: Collections. First and foremost, it’s a personal utility. They wouldn’t exist if it weren’t. Social becomes a multiplying factor on engagement, but it’s not the core.
  • Foursquare: Connections to your physical surroundings. These guys realized (arguably a little too late, but I still have hope) that their early focus on social (making it a social game with leaderboards and such) was actually damaging their core business proposition. 
  • Kickstarter: Really? I love Kickstarter too much to even comment here.
  • LinkedIn: Recruiting tool. If it was social, they’d focus on having you network with other folks through LinkedIn. Instead, they plead with you *not* to connect with folks if you don’t know them. They make their money by making it exceptionally difficult to find anyone in your extended networks unless you pay up.

And on and on. I would’ve expected more messaging apps in there, which, like Skype, are really about communication (something that people have been monetizing for centuries).

Point is, social is not your business. It may help, perhaps significantly, perhaps to a point where your business couldn’t exist (or thrive) without it. But it is not a business in and of itself.

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Worth noting: The myth of social is particularly dangerous in media businesses. See Turntable.fm (“making listening social”) for a high profile example of a business that applied social really well to get growth, but never added real value to back it up, and thus collapsed. There were plenty more that never got as far as they did.


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August 20, 2013

The Myth of Discovery

Discovery as a scalable, tech-driven service is a wonderful dream. It’s one I’ve had several times over the years. But in the end it’s just that: a dream.

Everyone wants to believe they can build a better way to make sense of the ridiculous amount of content online, and a lot of people have built some really cool ways.

But there’s something different about how discovery happens online, and it’s tied to the core infrastructure of the Internet: links. Links make it easy to direct people to content from anywhere; meaning, infinite contexts can be places around a link.

Because of the freedom links offer, we’re always capable of better discovery experiences outside of a static app context — we can find contexts that resonate with us better, be it a real-world conversation, a blog, Twitter, or really anything else. I’m more likely to trust a song a good friend sent me than if that very same song were recommended to me by an app.

It’s also difficult for apps that are predicated on helping you discover content to deliver that small shock of surprise that ripples through our brain when we find something new we like — if we’re expecting to find something new, that shock isn’t there, and we’re less likely to be irrationally giddy with excitement for the newness.

This is not to say that apps can’t effectively drive discovery, it just can’t be their core value. A lot of apps and sites that appear to be successful and predicated on discovery are actually about community — a group of folks who enjoy similar content and/or similar ways of accessing content. The Hype Machine is a huge community of music fans, who have proven they love dubstep remixes of indie pop songs by constantly voting them up. Reddit is a community that surfaces much of the viral content online, but the product is just about connecting people in conversation.

That connection it’s what successful discovery ultimately looks like as a feature set. Rdio and Spotify connect you to what your friends are listening to, and even give some more context (like whether they’re playing an album or playlist), but ultimately allow you to take that last step to “discovery,” allowing for that little shock in your brain. And discovery isn’t their core value; access is. Successful “discovery” is really a set of features that help drive engagement.

At first I had taken issue with Hunter Walk’s post on video discovery apps not being a venture scale business, but now I whole-heartedly agree. Does that mean I’m leaving the video game? Hell no. But I’m shifting focus to driving value through functionality, and rethinking discovery features as a means to get out of the user’s way of using the product successfully, rather than getting in the way. I would encourage anyone working on a “discovery” product to do the same.

PS - I believe a similar story to be true of “Social,” but that’s a post for another day ;)


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August 5, 2013

Sunday Project: Saying Yes to Saying Hi

Starting a conversation with a stranger can be intimidating. Layer on a “prom” setting and I, for one, start running the other way.

Last month, I went to Yes by Yes Yes down in Palm Springs. A free-form gathering of creatives (an “unconference”), YxYY’s one official event was a prom. As others clamored to “say yes” to a variety of things (from making friendship bracelets to debating the anti-singularity), I decided to say yes to saying hi.

I grabbed a ream of paper from the front desk and carried it around with me for a day, writing down every good question I could think of that could help initiate good conversation. In the end, I had over 130 of them.

I set out two bowls at prom: one filled with the questions, one as a repository for the answers. Participants were to take a conversation starter, use it to begin a conversation with someone, and document the response they got.

I’ve taken fifty of the questions and answers (so far — happy to add more if the conversation continues) and laid them out here: http://pepperlandlabs.com/yxyy/

Most folks were pretty good about it, and many of the responses were phenomenal. A few folks were, well, not as into it. I’ve decided to include both this project, because the bad answers are even better conversation starters for the next set of conversation (this time using Twitter).

If you see a question you’d like to respond to, use the tweet button on the page — that way folks who see your tweet will be linked directly back to the question. I’m hopeful #YxYYhi will begin another form of conversation, and help more people get to know each other by answering silly questions. :)


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June 27, 2013

Announcing the Couch Network

I first got interested in video through my friend Will, who, along with three friends, runs a music blog and video production agency called Yours Truly. They shoot absolutely gorgeous music performance videos.

For a couple years, I brainstormed with Will about ways to get more eyeballs on their videos. It’s tough out there for videographers today. The web offers numerous (free, or close thereto) distribution channels, but none have eyeballs guaranteed. And heck, how could they with 100 hours of video uploaded to YouTube every hour? That’s a lot of content to sift through.

But I’ve been considering the problem ever since: how can people and technology come together to help tease out the good content from the bad and put it in front of people who are most likely to care?

Today I’m proud to announce the first itty-bitty baby step in a series of experiments towards that end: three curated video “channels,” each focused on a different type of video content.

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Griio (named for the storytellers and historians of West African cultures) is a collection of the most interesting portraits, personal stories, and documentaries from around the world.

Website | Twitter | Facebook 

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Hearscene is dedicated to finding and surfacing the best music videos we can find. While MTV may be irrelevant today as a tastemaker, music videos are far from dead — they’re a more integral part of music than ever before, and the diversity far exceeds even Spike Jonze's portfolio (each with a mere fraction of his budgets). 

Website | Twitter | Facebook

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Yeahmazing is right in the thick of internet culture. It’s full of emoticon-inducing videos that make you laugh, cringe, or stare at the screen with your mouth agape. Whatever the topic, the videos provide a great, quick escape from your daily routine.

Website | Twitter | Facebook

Each of the channels will start by posting 1-3 videos per day. The content will be posted to blogs built on Tumblr, so you have a plethora of subscription options: visit the sites daily, subscribe via Tumblr, subscribe via email (daily digest for each blog), follow on Twitter, or Like on Facebook.

The hope is to offer just enough content to ensure you have the time to watch, allow you to consume it from the platform where you’re most comfortable, and ensure quality is high enough that you’ll want to keep coming back. If you don’t feel like we do a good enough job of either of those things, please, by all means, let me know — this is ultimately an experiment to learn what people want from web-distributed video today.

Oh and that adorable bunny video you just saw on Facebook? Yeah, send that my way, too. We’ll watch anything, and publish the best.


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June 19, 2013

Why Apple isn’t marketing the Apple TV

AirPlay is one of the most disruptive technologies ever to come out of Apple. It completely reverses the power dynamic of the entertainment center — traditionally the TV & stereo have been in charge, with limited inputs and a barely usable controller (when was the last time you picked up a friend’s remote and knew immediately how to use it?); now the TV and stereo are merely display and output, with the mobile device providing a limitless array of content and control. 

But the truth is Apple wants to know they can own the majority of the distribution channels for the content that gets played via AirPlay before *really* turning it on. They know the iPod wasn’t anything remarkable before iTunes (and being top dog now makes it tougher to push an incomplete solution).

And everyone else has to somehow develop a common standard, adopted on every competitor to Apple’s devices? That won’t happen overnight. DLNA is a partial solution, but needs modernization and even wider spread adoption. DIAL is a joke. A viable AirPlay alternative needs to happen at the chip *and* OS level, and Google only has half of that today.

For now, I’d bet on a stronger push of Apple TV / AirPlay as soon as Apple gets better content deals than Netflix / Amazon / Hulu (not likely), or (more likely) finds a huge video game hit (or three) that depends upon AirPlay for a revolutionary experience that other developers can learn from.


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