Thoughts on informational velocity and the near-future of twitter. With references to @Oreo and @NNTaleb

On Optionalities[i] and Perpetual Betas[ii]:

Twitter and ‘Bursts of inconsequential information[iii] 

            Twitter is fascinating for many reasons. When you think about it, its founders – Jack Dorsey, Evan Williams and Biz Stone – have one true perpetual beta. It started with traditional blogs through blogger, which they sold to Google. Then they moved to podcasting with Odeo. Then you had twitter. Shortly after, they added integrated photo sharing. They acquired Posterous last year, and rolled out Vine early this year.

Long-form, audio, short-form, pictures, long-form, short-video. These are fundamentally all experiments with form and style in communication. Where Facebook is the summation of yours, your friends’ and families’ thoughts and experiences, twitter is more like Google – a vast open mindscape that forces the communicator to likewise condense both the profound and the banal into 140 characters.

Twitter’s business model, however, can’t mimic either – at least, not in its current design avatar. Facebook is where you go to see what your friends are up to. Google is where you go when you need to find something specific, or general information about something. What is the behavior that twitter elicits? One might argue that twitter is where you go to have a conversation. A river you dip in and out of from time to time. We know a river is ever-changing, but twitter has not only speed but also informational velocity. Without any form of algorithm to slow down the feed, there is no flavor of the month, week, or even day. The informational velocity on twitter can change by the hour or minute.

Now I would argue that what advertisers – the business-model of choice in social – pay for is fundamentally predictability. If you look at the ad metrics of old you will see that the reason ‘soap operas’ exist is because TV dramas with a high probability of housewives watching them became the preeminent contact point for FMCG firms selling soap. So how does that work in a system that thrives on randomness and chaos? Well, maybe we can take pointers from two unlikely sources – Nassim Nicholas Taleb – Professor of Risk Engineering at NYU, and, umm, Oreo.

Taleb’s life’s work has centered on the principle of philo-stochasticity – or, that which gains from chaos – which he today calls ‘the antifragile’[iv]. How can twitter gain from chaos? Well, in my opinion, creating a deeper ‘search’ function within the network (currently tweets disappear from search after a certain point) may allow for twitter to better position its promoted tweets to maximize clickthroughs – they already do this with trending topics – but this is not quite it.

What I believe they can add is what we’ve learned from Oreo’s hijacking of the superbowl blackout[v] on twitter: create a two-speed advertising network – one that allows advertisers to promote tweets/promos around topics, and one that gives advertisers data for changes in informational velocity that can help them make more responsive campaigns harnessing relevance in current events. Trending #tags do this somewhat for users, but it needs to be better visualized, and flagged earlier to be of use to marketers. That may well be where a successful future of twitter lies. Volatile. Adaptive. Philo-stochastic.



Endnotes and References

 

[i]The value of additional optional investment opportunities available only after having made an initial investment.’ http://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/optionality  

[ii] The open source dictum, “release early and release often” in fact has morphed into an even more radical position, “the perpetual beta,” in which the product is developed in the open, with new features slipstreamed in on a monthly, weekly, or even daily basis. http://oreilly.com/web2/archive/what-is-web-20.html?page=4

[iii]Twitter creator Jack Dorsey illuminates the site’s founding document’ http://latimesblogs.latimes.com/technology/2009/02/twitter-creator.html

 

[iv] ‘Taleb on Antifragility’ [youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=k4MhC5tcEv0?wmode=transparent]

 

Thoughts on Facebook’s Graph Search, and the (near) future of Social

I have had a few weeks to play with Facebook’s Graph Search since it was introduced as a Limited Beta earlier this year. It doesn’t (yet) do a lot of what I expected of it, but it has been interesting and, in some ways, ‘surprisingly’ useful.

Why use the word surprising? Because of the relational nature of how it works. At present, it works at the object level of people and pages. What does that mean? – You can use it to discover links between people, or between people and their photographs, places, restaurants, games, music, movies – but you can do it only at the ‘page’ level.

Having ‘liked’ a page adds it to the pool of data – but specific posts, or “likes” on the broader web through Facebook’s Social Plugins don’t yet reflect within search parameters. Graph Search presently shows us some new ways of connecting people – through status or interests – that didn’t exist earlier.

But let’s face it. What we’re really waiting for is the next phase – search access across the entire Graph. Why is that interesting? Let’s look at it from three different perspectives:

A)   Users: For active users, Timelines serve as a fantastic repository of data that we have discovered or shared during our time on the network. For the pool of idea sharers on Facebook, enabling search at this object level would truly make search interesting – it certainly beats 30 scrolls to get to that report you posted a month ago.

In terms of networks, Twitter is a river – you don’t necessarily expect to go back and get data – but it still offers a ‘Favorite’ button – which is a lot like bookmarking content you liked. Facebook on the other hand, is the sea. A more permanent repository of your mindspace, as close to a ‘quantified’ virtual self as you can get. You could even make the argument that services like Second Life never quite took off, because their roles were subsumed by something more organic and less alien to behavioral adoption – Facebook.

Parsing Facebook’s Timelines real-time would potentially collapse their servers today, which is probably why they aren’t yet there. But as their Graph Search algorithm evolves, and server processing horsepower catches up, this will be an incredibly important tool for users to manage their own data / interact better with data their friends post to the network.

B)    Monetization: One might argue that Facebook’s big monetization challenge is harnessing intent. I argued in a short essay a couple of years ago that Google didn’t really need Google+ to take off as a network as long as people populated their “+1” database. When users search on Google, they are, by virtue of keying in their search query, expressing intent – and since Google’s monetization comes by being relevant in search, all they really need is a +1, which is almost as good as a proper “post” in terms of indicating endorsement by the user. Posts help in creating stronger endorsements – so posts with more +1s might be considered to be more relevant, or ‘cleaner’.

Google’s ‘graph’ is called the ‘Knowledge Graph’ – because its job is to give you data you want. Facebook’s graph today is called the ‘Open Graph’ – but what it really needs to develop over the next year, is an ‘Intent Graph’. Intent. That is what you need to figure out when monetizing through advertising. Google has intent because you’ve told it what you want. Facebook needs to uncover intent, understand latent needs, trigger conspicuous forms of consumption (forms of social buying outside of the sort of discounting practices we’ve seen on the web so far, more like events, concerts, even utilities – but more on this in “C”)

Broadening Graph Search to smaller objects will very likely take a lot more processing horsepower as I mentioned earlier, but it is at that granular level where Facebook will be able to move from serving up ads that you might be interested in, to projecting what you want. Again, this is not meant to be intrusive or glorify ‘conspicuous consumption’, but rather to help certain forms of real-life behavior translate more organically to the social web.

What is it that we buy? Advertisers buy ad time because of metrics that offer them a certain “predictability” linking ad spend to purchases. Consumers use products or services because they offer them a “predictable” outcome through consumption. That is the purpose of the notion of the ‘intent graph’ – to make behavior and consumption predictable, and therefore scalable and sustainable. Which leads me to C.

C)   The Invisible Continent: We’ve seen the stories about Facebook being larger than most countries in the World in terms of active users. What’s next? Well consider three ‘macro’ factors we’re looking at around the world today:

a.      There are pages and pages of literature now on subjects like this, and a broader cultural movement that may or may not be related to the demographic shift towards Gen’s X, Y and Z that trust conglomerates less and demand more individual growth and fulfillment.

b.     We’ve seen the rise of artisanal endeavors, micro-manufacturing, and re-localization of businesses; alongside the rise of technologies like 3D printers that further facilitate / accelerate this change. And

c.      We’re seeing a broader breakdown of the old economy. Governments are struggling to resuscitate growth because of many reasons. Confidence and liquidity are two sides of the same coin, and there isn’t as much confidence as there used to be, even with low interest rates in many economies alongside tax breaks to entrepreneurial endeavors. And finally, mega corporations are struggling at two levels – growth, and finding the right people. And while there are calls to ‘fix education’ to produce more skilled labor to work for corporations, what’s more likely to happen is further contraction for major corporations and the rise of smaller businesses.

There are four firms positioned to help birth this new World today. The two that are most ready are amazon and eBay. Their respective ‘Marketplace Seller’ models are a viable backbone for this kind of behavior. And then there’s Google and Facebook. What Facebook has that the other three don’t, is a ‘social’ environment with an Apple-esque ‘Walled Garden’ in terms of design and function. They can facilitate while still controlling aspects of design, alongside limiting potential downsides like oversharing / commerce featuring explicitly on your newsfeed – something people are unlikely to want. Facebook could do for brick-and-mortar startups – what Apple did for app developers – create an economic ecosystem overnight. Sure, this point is further out than the more immediate natures of A) and B), but this is perhaps something to watch out for.

This in itself would have a whole new set of questions raised. Payment gateways, fulfillment, jurisdictions in the immediate, and broader potential questions of taxes, levies, unified currencies in the future.

Point C is, of course, a Facebook-centered look at the future of social, but one which is entirely plausible over the next decade. Whether it is Facebook or another firm that does it, it seems for now that the winds of culture are blowing this way.

 

Google’s Plus Paradox

I was in the middle of the Rajasthani desert last week, and something occurred to me about Google’s product strategy, which I figured would be good to note down. 

Now, this is a completely intuitive reading, so bear with me.

Now, for the average user, the core proposition of Google is its search algorithm. 

When you think about it, Google (its consumer-facing side) works best in a client-server / 1-1 relationship with its consumers.

You ASK Google to find you something.

You ASK GMail to save and store your email.

You ASK Google Maps how to get from point-A to point-B.

You ASK Google Translate what “I love you” translates to in Spanish.

Even looking at products like Android/Chrome OS, Chrome or YouTube – they are all primarily consumption/use-focused.

At a corporate level, Google is fundamentally still a search company. Their vision, one should keep in mind, is “to organize the World’s information and make it universally accessible and useful“. Their revenues are also derived by-and-large from their core search product.

Google’s purpose, its relationship with us, is to keep our data organized, to answer our queries, to help us do stuff. And Google does this better than anyone.

Which brings us to Google and social, and its two initiatives – Google+, and +1.

Now, with Google+ none of the features I have seen, certainly, seem particularly intuitively “social”.

I would argue that they are designed rather for computers to keep things organized than people. We know that (a) the algorithm does a good job in understanding what kinds of data-sets are privileged in what kinds of contexts (perhaps too much?), and (b) that Google has a strong belief and foundation in machine-learning/statistical-learning.

Having used Google+ for a bit, I found that stuff like Circles, for example, was not particularly intuitive. (I have three lists on FB, and data shared is pre-set, and almost never customized. If I need to communicate with a smaller group, there’s groups or old-fashioned email for that — people like to segregate behaviors across networks when it comes to dealing with various groups, not aggregate them onto a singular network.)

But Circles, with the numbers using Google+ for the first time (regardless of the fall-off) gives Google new “connections” / “groupings” to work with in understanding what data is valued in what context.

And how does Google+ tie into Google’s “business” side of things? — i.e. Search Revenue? It doesn’t quite, especially if, as a few Google executives have said, it’s not directly competing with Facebook at present.

What then, is the utility of + to Google? I believe it’s two things.

1. Google+ gives them new relationships between data-sets to parse and understand (via Circles), and 

2. And this is the big one – +1.

I don’t post much to Google+ any more, it’s extra effort for nothing — I have an established behavior on Facebook, Twitter, Foursquare, Flickr, Instagram; and Google+ doesn’t unearth or prescribe any new need/behavior/desire to connect.

But I’m more than willing to add a +1 to articles I like (which I may not necessarily RT, because it’s worth the read, but not important enough to share — same with Like.) 

And this of course ties into machine-learning. +1 gives Google a more qualitative feedback on what data-sets (sites/pages/stories/products/etc) work, and what don’t.

And it ties into how Google has transitioned, over the last decade, from showing you top results based on what everyone was searching for, to showing you top results based on what your friends are searching for.

Which, when you think about it, is the social recommendations (that you might otherwise post to facebook asking) but in the client-server model, with Google still your gateway to whatever you might be searching for.

Google+ may well be a broader reorganization of Google, the backbone linking its various products to its core product – search. Not so much a social network. And maybe that’s a good thing.

Well that’s my 2c on the subject. Comments, feedback, inputs, suggestions much appreciated. You can drop me a line at aditya dot anupkumar at gmail dot com, too.

 

[awesomeness] is new world tech

Came across this piece on the web. Apple vs. Google’s been providing some soap opera fodder for tech journos in the past few months. Some of it’s real, some of it’s not. There was Eric Schmidt being asked to step down from the Apple board, there was Google putting out Nexus One to compete with iPhone, possibly with some patent infringement.

 

 

The reason this is really interesting, though is that it is in many ways #2 of Apple versus Microsoft. Only this time it’s different. The World’s moved on from then and the internet will ensure that systems will have to talk to each other, one way or another. I think the big thing this year will actually be the iPad and HTML5. One will define/redefine mobile computing proper like a Smartphone can’t yet do; while in the other lies the foundation of the new internet.

I don’t think Google will win this round simply because as a company it isn’t designed to do some things. The reason Wave hasn’t worked too well, is that it’s way before its time and the tech hasn’t developed to enable true collaboration – you can probably do more, and better on adobe or microsoft’s online products. The reason Buzz didn’t work was that it’s stupid, and tries to create another self-contained ecosystem, even as the industry – vis-a-vis Facebook+Twitter are understanding that you need to be more open. Buzz tries too little. The reason Open Social didn’t work was that it tried to do too much (and Buzz and Wave are probably components of that old model – one more bit of proof that it doesn’t work)

Similarly, the smartphone market will likely play out to script, between Apple and Blackberry, not Apple and any other player, simply because they are two distinctive ideologies which try to manage the experience from end-to-end. NexusOne and the other Android phones are hodgepodges – the old-world-engineering ideology of “oh isn’t it cool we can do this?” without asking the question “does the consumer give a damn?”.

More on this over the next few weeks.