Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Twitter: Stream of Post-It Notes

I am sure most readers of this blog are on Twitter. For most of us, Social Network site like Twitter was introduced to us by friends who are already on, and we probably took Twitter as just another communication medium, just like IM, blogging or more aptly microblogging. But if you observe tweets and how users are tweeting, you will see subtle points that are not shared with earlier communication platforms.

One way to crystalize the essence is to explain what it is to grand mother, that is, capturing the core in plain simple English. Can you explain the essence of Twitter to your grandma?

One analogy that I liked was wall of Post-It notes. Search Engine Guide ran an article a couple of years back, and it's a good analogy.

Twitter is like whole bunch of Post-It notes on public bulletin board. Anyone can scribble on a Post-It note and stick it on to bulletin board; anyone walking by the bulletin board can skim through Post-It notes to glean information from them. It's a good analogy because it captures key ingredients of Twitter:

1. Post-Its on bulletin board are public
Just like Post-Its on bulletin board, tweets (name of Post-It notes on Twitter) are public by default. Anyone can post, and everyone can view everyone else's posts.

2. Post-It notes are short
Just as Post-It note is brief (to fit on Post-It), tweets have to be short (to fit on SMS). In fact tweets have hard limit of 140 characters originally introduced for interoperability with SMS.

3. Post-It notes are disjoint
Post-It notes are short messages on specific topic or task. Two Post-It notes placed different spots will likely talk about different things (context is derived from where Post-It note is found). Individual tweets are also disjoint from each other. But because it lacks physical context, Twitter makes up that gap by introducing special tags (address field or subject line)

This is great. But even though Post-It-on-bulletin-board analogy provides nice parallel, I think there are few important aspects of Twitter missing.

4. Tweets are made in timeline
All tweets are timestamped, and shown from most recent to oldest order. This means list of tweets looks like a scrolling news ticker where latest news appears on top. Showing timeline from latest to oldest (along with AJAX update) is important because this helps tweets become real-time medium and creates instant tweet feeds (continuously updating with real-time tweets).

5. Tweets can be filtered by keywords
Because there are thousands of tweets made per second, it's impossible to make sense of what each individual tweet is saying at all time. Twitter solves this problem by providing filtering capability (Twitter calls it search, but it's really filtering if you think about constant update of filtered tweets timeline). When tweets are filtered by keywords, by addressed to ('@' tag), or by topic ('#' tag), Twitter returns the timeline (list of tweets) that only contains the filtered keywords. Note that because timeline gets updated constantly, this creates illusion where virtual chatroom exists somewhere where all people are chatting, but it is not the case. It may be the case that people are not filtering by the same keywords, and no one else might be watching the timeline feed that you're seeing!

6. Tweets are real-time
This is arguably the most important point missing from Post-It analogy. This is partly because of 190 million users tweeting 65 million times a day, but also due to Twitter's design of real-time update via AJAX. The fact that most tweets are made from mobile device is also another key driver of tweets being real-time.

So what is Twitter? It's not IM, not email, and definitely not a group chat. It's real-time feed of public electronic notes. I guess we could call it as Post-Its in 21st century.

Monday, August 30, 2010

Social Network: Superior Evolutionary Traits from God?

Well, that's kind of what NPR story that just ran today, if you connect the dots.

According to NPR story, if people believe there exists supernatural being, whether it is God or ancestor, watching over you, people are less likely to engage in unsocial behavior. That is, people are more likely to suppress the urge to maximize their immediate gain and cooperate with perfect strangers, if they believe in some supernatural being present and watching. This, article contends, is true regardless what kind of deity or supernatural being that you believe in.

Now imagine yourself born into thousands years ago. No Bill of Rights, no basic human rights, no protection of states and nations. Worst of all no Internet and no Social Network. Unimaginable, yes, but bear with me for a minute. Only thing that you can rely on is your spear and your bare fists (or your legs if you can outrun your enemy). How the heck trust and cooperation based society could be formed at the beginning? What was it that allowed these ancient humans to all of sudden start cooperating?

This is an interesting question because it only takes a few act of violent (unsocial) behavior to cause breakdown of social trust (look at Afganistan's lawlessness or Mexican drug war). If we are greedy and make decisions to maximize our immediate gain, how could society have been formed? Wouldn't law and order quickly breakdown as people try to take advantage of each other?

One plausible explanation is natural selection preferring those people with belief system over those who acted in unsocial way. People who banded together to share resources and cooperate had higher chance of survival than those who couldn't cooperate with others. And social group of people were able to do this because of their belief that some being is watching over them.

So the theory goes, having a belief system, cooperating with others and behaving socially responsible may be all naturally selected traits that we learned over thousands of years of evolution.

Does this mean that Social Network is embodyment of self-actualized group of human beings?

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Location, Location, and ... Location

So I heard from real estate agent about top 3 things to consider when buying a property. These days I find location when I read about Social Network. What's going on? What has Social Network got to do with location?

It seems there are good reasons for Social Network sites to be interested in location info. From Facebook's perspective, the reason is clear. They can use location info to serve more targetted ads, fast growing revenue that will compete directly with Google's internet ad dominance. Not only that, Facebook can push custom coupons if you are near newly opened neighborhood restaurant using iPhone's push technology. Advertising in 21 centry. It won't get much better than that.

I'm sure updated Facebook mobile users seeing new icon in the middle of screen called Places. It allows Facebook users to make status update with their location info included. I-am-at-cafe message on Facebook using your mobile's GPS location, basically. Hmm... let's see, why would anyone announce their daily routine all the friends on your Facebook? So that burglar can know when to safely target the house?

It turns out that there are already about 3 million people doing exactly these with sites like Foursquare and Gowalla. You might ask why, and I wonder about that too. What prompts 3 million users to announce to the world where they are? Good question, but I would leave that question to be answered by Sociologist Ph.D. candidate (Here is Facebook's attempt to answering that question).

What's going to be interesting is whether these 3 million users will stay with Foursqure and Gowalla or move to Facebook. My bet is good majority of 3 million Foursqure and Gowalla users are also using Facebook, part of 150 million mobile Facebook users. Would they continue to use Foursquare and Gowalla when Facebook Places are already connected to 500 million Facebook users?

Good luck to Foursquare and Gowalla. It will be a tough fight.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Facebook Revolution

Man is by nature a social animal... Anyone who either cannot lead the common life or is so self-sufficient as not to need to, and therefore does not partake of society, is either a beast or a god.

- Aristotle

With half billion users and counting, Facebook has emerged as de facto Social Network platform in last 6 years. What has fueled its explosive growth? What made Facebook growth curve shot up the roof? Is it because of man being social animal by nature, or is it just another overhyped bubble that will pop in next few years?

Just like any other spectacular Silicon Valley success story, no one can deny that the element of luck, being at right place at the right time. But there are number of things that Facebook did well and improved (to Facebook's credit), and I think that partially, at the least, accounts for Facebook's glorious ascent to its dominance.

What would be these reasons? Here's my list of top 5 reasons why:

1. Fully embracing microblogging

We all know it as status update. Those short couple-of-setence blogging, microblogging, were wholly embraced by Facebook as status update. Writing a quick note of what you are doing and sharing the headline of your activity are easy for newbies and experts alike. Microblogging was so spot-on that there were many copycats; among them, Twitter that we all know and love. Perhaps public has been primed by 24-hour news media and constant headline news feed in 1990's and early 2000's. Hyper-distracted netizens were ready for short burst of punchlines.

2. News feed from friends

What made status update really powerful is broadcasting those headlines, what's known as news feed in Facebook. By enabling anyone to publish quick news bites and consume them in easy-to-view page, Facebook successfully transformed all users to broadcast (share) information, and to tune into the custom channel. And all these in UI easy enough even for average Joes. Brilliant idea.

3. Network effect

Then there was network effect. The whole is greater than sum of parts, and people begane inviting friends, connecting with friends, and share information with friends. In fact, Facebook started as school yearbook online concept just like classmates.com. This network effect of school ties were able to get Facebook to gather first batch of early adopters. What set Facebook apart from classmates.com (which was founded in mid 90's; that is prehistoric age in the Valley!) were first two reasons.

4. Mobile Facebook app

After garnering critical mass, Facebook went through transformational growth in last 18 month. Thanks to exploding smart phones with Facebook apps, people were microblogging and sharing the data on the road. Network effect amplified!

5. Multimedia posting

What also set Facebook apart was clean and easy way to share photos and videos. Picture says thousand words. Especially when you are dealing with emotional contents from people whom you know.

And I'll say it again. After all these right moves made by Facebook, they were there at the right time. A couple of decades of email, decade plus with IM, billion plus Internet-enabled devices, people were ready to connect and start microblogging. Great timing.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Social Network vendors to watch

Now that we've defined what we mean by Social Network, who are vendors in the space? According to FaceTime (not to be confused with Apple's video chat iPhone app), there are over 900 Social Network sites available today (http://research.facetime.com/appsguide.php).

Many of them are fledgling sites in niche area. But there are several that worth watching for one reason or another.

Let me create short watchlist:

Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, MySpace, Google Buzz, Cliqset, Vimeo, Wordpress, Tumblr, FriendFeed, Foursquare, Gowalla

In addition to these, there are enterprise intranet Social Network collaboration vendors:

Box.net, Sharepoint, Quad, Jive, Socialtext, Socialcast

Also there are a couple of interesting open standards and implementation available:

ostatus.org, Liferay, geoloqi.com, status.net, SugarCRM

I think we should drill into these in a bit to get the sense of Social Network landscape today, and to spot trends.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

What is Social Network anyway?

Before we jump into ever-expanding universe of Social Network, I think we should apply our college 101-course pedagogy here, and define what we are about to talk about. What the heck is Social Network anyway?

Sending a few keystrokes to Google yields following definitions today from various sources (http://www.google.com/search?hl=en&safe=active&rls=com.microsoft%3Aen-us%3AIE-SearchBox&q=define%3ASocial+network&btnG=Search):

(It’s interesting that ‘Social Network’ yet-to-be-released movie is already getting blog hits, BTW).

I think all of these definitions capture some essence of Social Network. Studying these definitions, I can make following observations about key ingredients in making something into Social Network.

1. Social Network is about individual

This may sound obvious, but it means profound shift from earlier paradigm (More on that later). Social Network’s key ingredient is individual participants (also refered to as nodes, actors, etc.). Although individuals can congregate for a common purpose, such as fan page of a rock band, members behave as collection of individuals. Each individual voices his/her unfiltered opinions, joins/leaves group autonomously (of course friends opinion will influence; more on that later), and consumes uniquely processed information, such as custom friends feed, customized ad serving.

Social Network enables individuals to represent themselves. Technology of Social Network has been around, but lowered technological hurdle for millions of people to start creating their identify on Social Network sites. This phenomenon has also been fueled by explosive growth of personal computing and mobile devices. The fact that now half billion people acting as content creator and at the same time consumer of these is the profound shift from earlier paradigm where there were clear boundary between information producer and consumer.

2. Social Network is about connecting individuals with relationships

If we just had individuals, then it would not be Social Network. The fact that these half billion individuals interconnected with half billion individuals is another key ingrediant. What’s key here is not just these interconnectivity. It is relationship that individuals bring on to Social Network from their real-life experience.

This is an important point to belabor a little. Interconnectivity is not any topological connection such as the way computers are connected to routers and switches. These interconnectivities are neither hierarchical nor orgchart-like. It is based on relationship. It’s based on relationship that you have with classmate from high school, your activity buddy, neighbors you hang out with, and people with similar interest. By nature it’s social and inherently personal.

There lies the power of Social Network. Although these networks are formed online, it’s extension of relationships that you have off the Internet, and therefore much more personal. The fact that these connectivities are created individually and volunteerly makes these connectivity more meaningful. People are connecting as individual first, not as so-and-so job title in organizational context.

3. Social Network is about sharing information

Final ingrediant to make Social Network is information sharing. Information is not sent or received, but shared. It’s important to zero-in on this difference. When you are on social network site, you are not just sending information to the recipient. You are sharing the info for other individuals connected to you to see, and potentially whole half billion people to see.

Email and IM have been around for years to allow people to communicate in one-on-one basis or in predefined group. With Social Network, information dissemination is more fluid. When you update your status on Facebook, you are sharing information with everyone (or whom you allow) to see. And the list of whom you allow can change at any moment. Effectively every individual is acting as information source and creating contents for friends to consume.

Therefore, I would define Social Network as following:

Social Network is a medium that allows individuals to freely connect with other individuals using extended real-life relationships to share information.

So there you have it. Now let’s talk about lay of Social Network land today.

What does the future hold for Social Network?

There are whole lot of buzz around Social Network these days. If you watch TV, visited popular website, or keep in touch with your friends with mobile device (I assume most of you do all three), then you cannot escape the hype of social networking.

What does this mean to Internet as we know it today? Passing-by fad or fundamental paradigm shift? How is social networking changing our way of communicating with peers? How should we react as users? What should company do to prepare for these new phenomena?

Let’s talk about how social network is changing our lives, and look hard into our crystal ball to predict what’s coming up on the future. And how we all can benefit from Social Network.

Let’s start.