Exposing the Fatal Flaw in Social Network Marketing

I read (via a link from Hutch Carpenter) with absolute glee today an article at the Harvard Business Review that points out what I and about 3 other voices have been screaming from the wilderness for years- customers don’t really want to “socialize” with companies:

Maybe customers are shifting toward self service because they don’t want a relationship with companies. While this secular trend could be explained away as just a change in consumers’ channel preferences, skeptics might argue that customers never wanted the kind of relationship that companies have always hoped for, and that self service now allows customers the “out” they’ve been looking for all along.

In fact, the trend has long been towards company avoidance, with two very different exceptions, which we’ll get to in a moment.

First, let’s look at how most people shop and consume today.

My Time is Not Your Money

Time is precious in this day and age.  I buy virtually all of my products, other than groceries, online.  Even at the grocery store, we are in the middle of a shift to self-checkout.  I thought that was an insane idea the first time I saw it.  Now I use it all the time.  It’s all about saving that precious commodity- time.

It takes a fraction of the time to buy a product online, and my goods get delivered to my doorstep.  Amazon Prime delivers by second-day mail.  I have found Apple and even Dell to be very fast shippers, with items often arriving even before the estimated date.  All of this gives me more time to do what I want to do, whether that’s make more money for me, or spend some extra time goofing off with my kids.

If you want to talk to me, in whatever capacity, that takes time.  Time that I probably don’t want to give you if the idea is to part me with my money.  The fact that I can read (or click, in the case of buying something online) faster than you can talk is why I get my news online and not on TV, and why I have never been into the video-blogging thing.  I want to consume information and goods at my pace, not yours.

Time being such a precious commodity, why in the world would people want to prolong the process they have to go through to get the goods they want?  In other words, people, even those who play Farmville, are smart enough to know that (a) some company who invades Facebook is there, ultimately, to make money off of them, and (b) time spent on some pseudo-conversation with a company representative (or likely a series of them) could be better spent looking for lost chickens (or whatever you do in Farmville).

The Tupperware Effect

I have never been to a tupperware party, OK?  But I know that the idea is to get a bunch of people you know together, have some sort of faux party and try to sell them something.  There are a million different versions of this “monetize your friends” angle.  The problem is that when you’re gathered in a circle talking about the newest Apple rumor and half the people are secretly trying to sell you a sandwich container, it’s only a matter of time until the conversation goes from iMacs to re-sealable sandwich holders.  In other words, the conversation quality is lower.  If you are only waiting for me to shut up so you can make your pitch, what’s the point?

image 
Art by Hugh

I’m clearly not the only one who feels this way.  Listen to Kathy Sierra talk about social networking at something called the Gov 2.0 Expo.

On TIVOs and DVRs

If I’m right- and I am- that all of this social network marketing is really just some new age, dressed-up advertising, then how long before the conscripted universe of potential customers rebels?  I have spent thousands of dollars on satellite TV, XM radio (though Mojo Nixon is in the process of single-handedly driving me away from it), TIVOs and the like, all in the name of ad-avoidance.  Hell, I just bought a season pass of the current Big Brother season, just to avoid having to fast-forward through the ads.  There are entire industries based on avoiding the very thing marketers want to subject us to.

It boggles my mind that so many people are betting so much on the infinite willingness of people to be marketed to.

Anyone Remember Email?

At the end of the day, most of this social networking business is just an email replacement that people use, generally on their own time, to communicate with friends and have fun.  Business, even if you try to disguise it, thrust into a goodtime is a buzz kill.  Period.  It’s spam 2.0.

If we react so negatively and passionately to spam in our email inbox, how can anyone expect us to allow spam in our social stream?

We won’t.  Because at the end of the day, people hate advertising.  They always have and they always will.

What About the Two Exceptions?

I’m glad you asked.  There are exactly two times when people will seek out contact with companies.  To get something cheaper and when something is broken.  These are very different situations, and only one of them is an opportunity for companies to improve their brand.

I don’t like coupons, and I hate rebates.  That whole business makes me feel like a lion standing in front of a burning hoop.  It would be more fun to bite the head off of the person expecting me to jump through it, but it would be easier (i.e., it would save me a few dollars) to jump.  No company has ever made me feel affection by offering me a coupon or a rebate.  Sure I may buy your product and fill in your stupid rebate form, but I’ll hate you for it.

The way to my heart is to forget marketing and just make a great product.

Product support is a different story.  When something breaks, I want to get it fixed, quickly (because, again, time is precious) and permanently.  There have been many instances in which a blog post here or a post on Twitter has resulted in a email from a support person offering assistance.  That makes me feel warm and fuzzy.  Your third request that I “Like” your Facebook page, not so much.

Companies should send their support department to the social networks, not the
ir marketing department.

The Bottom Line

People hate ads.  People want to buy things their way, on their terms and without a lot of hoopla.  Nothing is going to change this.  If companies want to improve their brand via the social networks, they have to stop trying to turn the internet into a giant tupperware party, and focus on giving customers what they really want- a great product with great support.

An Epidemic of Me-too-ism?

Back in the day, after I developed the original ACCBoards.Com (which later became a part of and was merged into what is now the Scout network of sports sites), saw my traffic shoot through the roof, partnered up with a TV network and a major cable company, and started getting some serious checks in the mail, I decided that I was an expert in all things communal.  And that I should expand my empire accordingly.

I started with SECForums.Com, an SEC sports site.  It never took off, and I don’t own that domain any longer.  Then I developed AVBoards.Com, for audio-video enthusiasts.  It started off strong, based almost solely on traffic diverted from ACCBoards.Com, then died almost as quickly.  I let that domain lapse last month.

Others followed, and while a few of them survived, none of them were a fraction as successful as ACCBoards.Com.  Why?  Because I didn’t have the passion, the industry connections or- most importantly- the timing that I had with ACCBoards.Com.

I was neither good nor lucky, and to be successful on the web, you have to be both.

Pretty quickly my little web empire became diluted, scattered and lost in a sea of existing, entrenched alternatives.  I stopped doing one thing well and started doing a lot of things poorly.

There was a lesson there, and it’s one I learned, albeit at some significant opportunity costs.

hatesharingIn light of all that, I was a little dismayed this week when I read that Facebook was launching a full-fledged email client, and it was soul-crushing to learn that Google is going to add Twitter-like social network features to Gmail.

A little dismayed over the Facebook thing, because I am a light user of Facebook, so nothing that happens over there is going to materially affect my life.

Completely bummed out by the Google thing, because I use Gmail every day, and whatever happens there definitely affects my life.

Here’s the thing. . .

image Facebook, you can’t invent Gmail because Gmail already exists.  Do what you do.  Let Gmail do what it does.

Google, you can’t invent Twitter because Twitter already exists.  Not to mention that there are a thousand better ways your development time and money could be spent.  Like improving the spotty integration of Google Apps, so they actually look and feel like a suite of apps, and not a bunch of unrelated products crammed ineffectively together.

Either make Google Apps a robust, business-ready tool, or make it an awesome toy.  Don’t create some crappy combination of both.

Google and Facebook, more than their peers, have a good track record of staying on course, even if that course isn’t readily apparent to the rest of us.  I’d like to believe there is a brilliant master plan in play here.

But I don’t.  I think it’s just a case of mass me-too-ism.

The Face(book) is Familiar

I’ve spent lots of blog space and podcast time pooping all over Facebook.  Saying how it is for kids, that it’s AOL 2.0, that it’s the internet kiddie pool.  I was right, and I was wrong.  Mostly wrong.

brawndoFacebook is all of those things, of course, but perhaps in an evolutionary- and not a pejorative- way.  More than anything else, Facebook is like Brawndo: it’s got what people crave.  Over time I have mostly capitulated to Facebook, simply because it’s the only path to a lot of people I want to interact with.  I create almost all of my content out here on the big, scary web, but I push a lot of it into Facebook.  And I visit Facebook several times a week to see what all the non-nerds are talking about.  Granted, there’s a lot of talking over each other, but there’s a little interaction.  Which is more than you can say for Twitter.

With all that, I started to wonder just what makes Facebook so popular.

It’s partly the ready-made platform to connect with other people.  It’s partly momentum.  It’s partly that MySpace sucks so completely.

But mostly I think it’s the names.  You know, those things beside the users’ photographs.  One thing Facebook got totally right is the absence of anonymity.  Anonymity is like cars- it brings out the inner asshole in people.  It has killed before, and given the chance would do so again.

Anonymity, with a helping hand from Google, killed newsgroups.  Those of us who have been on the internet long enough to remember when news readers were for reading Usenet posts, as opposed to RSS feeds, miss the days of the old-school newsgroup.  It was all kinds of good, until anonymous assholes and spammers killed it.  I haven’t read a Usenet newsgroup in years, and don’t even have a news(group) reader on my computer.

image Then came the message boards.  For a decade or so, message boards proudly carried the banner of online interactivity.  The combination of better technology and community moderation generally kept the spam under control.  But a large population of anonymous users first diluted the perceived content value of message board sites to the point that advertisers stopped buying ads, and ultimately destroyed the entire message board culture, via bad information, bad behavior and general mayhem.  All of which could be doled out at will without fear of reprisal because of anonymity.  Sissies grow giant stones behind the safety of a windshield or a message board handle.  It’s gotten so bad that I don’t even frequent the message board sites I founded.  Rather, I create Google alerts or FriendFeed pages for topics I’m interested in.  It’s not as fun as the old message board days, but it’s better than watching a revolving group of anonymous jerks litter my screen with nonsense.

Meanwhile, over at Facebook, people are sharing information under their real names.  Sure, you can create a fake identity and set up a Facebook account, but users who are prudent with their Friends lists can easily avoid most screen clutter.  You generally know who you are talking to.  With a name comes accountability, and there is a direct correlation between accountability and behavior.  All of which creates a better experience for the users.  Which draws more users and, in turn, more advertisers.  Ultimately you have digital high tide that raises all ships.

Which is why I ended up  with the rest of the world on Facebook.  Even if I still find it vaguely embarrassing.

Facebook Revisited

As anyone who reads Newsome.Org, listens to our podcast, knows me in the real world or receives my ESP transmissions knows, I do not drink the Facebook cool aid.  I’ve consistently found it to be restrictive, chaotic and generally uninteresting.

I also readily admit that I am apparently in the minority where Facebook is concerned.  Millions of people and many of my (lower case) friends seem to live on Facebook, and they wouldn’t do that unless they were getting something out of it.  I was talking to my buddy Taters at work today.  He was telling me how much his (lower case) friends like Facebook.  Taters is a young guy, so he and his crowd were a part of the target demographic before Facebook let all the geezers in.  He’s not a Facebook user, but admits that at some point he’ll probably capitulate and join.  Interestingly, he had never heard of Twitter.

knfbpage Anyway, we were talking about Facebook, and I told him how non-intuitive I find the Facebook layout and navigation routines.  He said while they may be confusing to old farts like me, they are second nature to the millions of kids who grew up in Facebook and made it the focal point of their online (at least) lives.  To prove my point, I logged into Facebook for the first time in many months and started showing him all the things I don’t like about it.

Then something interesting happened.

I looked at my piled up list of (upper case) Friend requests.  And right there at the top of the list were several of my old friends from my hometown and two of my best friends from college.  Hmmm.  Any of these folks could have (and may have) found me here via a Google search.  But Facebook made it easy to reach out, and they did.  So after dinner, I went back to my Facebook page, accepted some of the (upper case) Friend requests, updated my profile, imported my blog feed, Flickr photos and YouTube stuff, and actually traded messages with a few old friends.  I saw some photos of my college roommate and his son.  I even found a photo of my second grade class in a (upper and lower case) friend’s photo page.  All of the sudden, I started to sense a lurking usefulness.

So I decided to take a look at the layout of the Facebook pages.

The Left Side

On the left hand side, you get a profile photo (I updated mine to my nifty new Newsome.Org logo, to match the walking billboard t-shirts I make my kids wear), a little blurb (I wrote “I still don’t get Facebook, but I’m trying…sort of”), pictures of your (upper case) Friends (Mike Miller has a funny picture) and whatever applications you elect to put there (I must have added some previously).

The third party Blip.fm app doesn’t work (surprise), so I need to remove it.  I don’t remember what the FunSpace and SuperWall do, but they don’t appear to be all that fun or super.  There’s something called Likeness over there.  Mine has pictures of Ayelet Noff and Angelina Jolie, which certainly pretty-up my page, but I’m not sure what Likeness does.  I decided to click on it and it presented me with a little quiz.  After every question, it prompted me to invite/spam my (upper case) Friends to take the quiz.  Lame.  I never saw any results, but the fact that I wasted 3 minutes of my life on that quiz shows up at the top of my Facebook page.  I bet all my (upper case) Friends will be really excited to learn that.

Also, why does “Relationship Status” assume such an important place in your “Information” box.  I’ll tell you why, because for most of its life, Facebook was the playground for college kids on the prowl.  Facebook needs a grownup makeover.

Basically, other than the pictures of my (upper case) Friends, nothing on the left side of the page interests me.

The Middle

At the top of my page, there are tabs for:

Wall: this seems to be the stream of content I imported plus whatever else I do within the Facebook walls.  The latter will be a short list.

Info: Here’s all my contact info, and school information.  I like the way you can click on your school and year to find other Facebook users.  Jeff Pulver is listed at the bottom of this page as “Other Public Figure.”  OK.

Photos: I only have my nifty profile picture, but as noted above I saw some interesting photos on my (upper case) Friends’ pages.  My photos will continue to reside on Flickr, however, and will only make it to Facebook if the importation feature works.  Why can’t you automatically import your public Flickr photos to your Facebook Photos tab?  I think I know why, and it has to do with keeping the walls intact.

Boxes: I have no earthly idea what this is.  One little box says I am a “Rockstar Vampire.”  That’s cool; I’d hate to be just a regular vampire.

The bottom line is that all of this may be the coolest stuff on the planet, but you sure can’t tell from an initial look or two.  I find the Wall and Photos to be a little bit useful, but all that other stuff is noise.

Next, I waded into the “Home” page, where I can see information created by my (upper case) Friends.  This seems interesting, though I imagine if you have a lot of (upper case) Friends, you could miss a lot of stuff from your (lower case) friends.  One problem with Twitter is that you only see the information that’s posted shortly before you visit.  I sense this stream of content would have a similar drawback.  Still, Taters’ better half posted some hilarious photos that I can use to blackmail Taters, and I have already made contact with some old (lower case) friends.

But I keep wondering why I wouldn’t just subscribe to the RSS feeds of people I’m interested in, and read their content at my leisure?  I can think of only one reason: they don’t have RSS feeds.  Facebook is a nice, controlled environment where I can catch up with people who don’t have blogs and RSS feeds.  But you have to wade through a lot of quicksand to get to the gold.

The Right Side

On the right side of my page, there’s a list of Applications, Pokes (that’s an interesting word) and “People You May Know.”  It asks if I want to add Jason Calacanis and Jeff Jarvis as (upper case) Friends.  Sure, I could add them, but the chances of them adding me back (which, in a good move by the developers, is required before users can access each others’ content) is somewhere between statistically impossible and absolute zero.  Still, we are all long-time bloggers with some common interests, so maybe the algorithm works, even if it’s unintentionally funny.

Again, though, there’s nothing on that side of the page that grabs me.

Conclusions

My conclusions are that Facebook is a good tool to reconnect with old friends who don’t publish their content outside the Facebook walls.  Sort of like a kinder, gentler Classmates.Com (no link love for that toll booth).  I’d much rather subscribe to someone’s blog or Yahoo Pipes feed (here’s mine), but lots of people don’t have those feeds.  There’s some good content and connections to be found on Facebook, though it is wrapped in an extremely inefficient package and may get lost amid the static.  I’ll probably check my Facebook page periodically, but it will never be my preferred place to create or to access content.

It just happens to have a monopoly on access to some people I care about.  So I guess whether I like it or not doesn’t really matter.

Not Digital Luddites, Busy Grownups

nosocialmediaDwight Silverman asks why some people have elected not to use social media, having received some decidedly anti-social media comments on his blog.  Before I answer that question, let me point out something Dwight said that bears repeating.  Many social media haters already use some form of social media: message boards, comments on blogs, etc.  I’ll go one step further.  What about group email?  Text messages?  What about Amazon?  The best thing about Amazon is the user reviews.  There is a difference, however, between social media as a way to manage your existing network, and social media as your network.

Take Amazon, for example, Amazon helps you evaluate a purchase, make that purchase and have that purchase delivered.  That’s a time saving benefit you can’t get anywhere else.  Email also serves a distinct purpose that helps you efficiently manage your network.  So does texting.  While these things help you navigate through your real-world network, they are less concerned with helping you create a network.  If you’re interested in communicating with strangers, denoting some of them as cyber-friends, and nurturing the most promising of those ephemeral relationships into something tangible, there are real friends to be made through some of the social media applications.  Friends and the resulting transitive connections make a network.  There’s value in that, and in no way am I denigrating those who do this.  But at that point, the social media applications, either singly or in the aggregate, have become your network.  To the profit of the developers, but that’s another story.

And then there’s the troublesome problem of separating those who want to be your friend from those who want your money.  It’s much harder to evaluate the motives of online friendship, where the barrier for entry is low, the anonymity is high and just about everyone is out to make a buck.

There are billions of us out here who don’t want to create our networks online.  We simply want help in managing our existing, real-world networks.  I’d rather have dinner with someone than read his Facebook page or hear what he ate via Twitter.  And, to be honest, I think there is a collective feeling out here that a lot of these applications are toys, to be left for kids.  I share a little of that.  No matter how hard I try, I continue to think of Facebook as a place for young people.  When I’m there, I feel like I’m playing with a GI Joe or something.  MySpace is the Geocities for this generation: ugly, free web sites, with ads.  Twitter is semi-interesting, but the majority of the traffic is people talking over each other or thinly disguised spam.  There’s little there that can’t be handled via email.

Additionally, I think human nature prefers order over chaos.  And content bits spread all over the various social networks is chaotic.  Which is why I think aggregating sites like FriendFeed may get legs faster than the 112th Facebook clone.

In the end, I agree with Dwight.  People who don’t use social media are not digital Luddites.  Many of them are just busy grownups.

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What Happens in Facebook Doesn’t Stay in Facebook

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I’ve mentioned more than once that young people who play behind the Facebook walls should proceed (and post) with caution, since things said in the faux-safety of that place of a thousand friends can come back to haunt you.  Here’s an object lesson on that topic.

Meet Lucas Caparelli, until recently a running back for my alma mater, Wake Forest.  Lucas is described by college sports site Scout as having break away speed and vision. “Gritty player that just loves to compete. Athleticism and competitive drive could carry him far at the next level.”  The Deacons were thrilled to sign Lucas, who was also recruited by Maryland, Pitt, Virginia and Virginia Tech, among others.

Lucas arrived at Wake Forest at the beginning of the golden era of WFU football under the guidance of wonder-coach Jim Grobe.  The Demon Deacons won the Atlantic Coast Conference and played in the Orange Bowl last year and won nine games including the Meineke Car Care Bowl this year.  Things are good for WFU football (they are not so good for WFU basketball, but that’s a topic for another day).

Lucas has, or had, a Facebook page.  At some point, he apparently wrote on his Facebook page, that he was going to “blow up the campus.”  He also wrote, according to published reports, a post in Facebook’s trademark third person saying “for those left standing he will have an Uzi locked and loaded in his bag.”  After another student saw the Facebook posting and, quite correctly, notified authorities, Lucas got a visit from the police.  While the police did not find any weapons in his bags or dorm room, Lucas has been dismissed from the football team and suspended, at least for now, from the university.

Here’s a lengthy discussion about the matter, including some current WFU students, at ACCBoards.Com.  Here’s a related post on the Old Gold & Blog, a Wake Forest sports blog.

One of the local television stations spoke with Caparelli (here’s a video with portions of that conversation).  He admitted he did a stupid thing.  He apologized, and said he “never thought it was going to snowball into this.”  But that’s the thing.  In this post 9-11, post Virginia Tech world, no right-thinking school, employer or friend (the real or Facebook kind) can afford to take chances.  Threatening things written must be taken at face value, regardless of the intent or state of mind of the writer.  There are no do-overs anymore.  Thanks to technology, easy capital and cheap storage, things that may be intended as one-off rants, jokes or juvenile nonsense are captured, archived, indexed and, often, distributed.

College kids behaving stupidly is nothing new.  When I was at Wake Forest, a guy drunkenly told me he was going to kill me because a few of us intercepted his pizza delivery, paid for it and ate it (that was our “on demand” hack of the Domino’s delivery system).  I didn’t really think he was going to kill me, but his words when spoken sounded as serious as they were slurred.  Imagine how they would have looked in writing.  During that same period, we used to joke that phones should have breathalyzers on them so we couldn’t come home after too many beers, call our girlfriends (or prospective girlfriends) and mumble out what we heard as suave and the girls heard as stupid.  Thank goodness the internet didn’t exist back then.

By all accounts, it doesn’t look like Caparelli planned to commit any actual acts of violence.  It may very well have been a stupid joke, a poorly thought-out response to some dissatisfaction with school, or just misguided late night ramblings.  But regardless of his true intent, this event will likely affect him for the rest of his life, to one degree or another.  Hopefully, he’ll learn from it.  If Jim Grobe recruited him, chances are he’s a good kid.  But his life just got harder than it would have otherwise been.

In a few years when he applies for a job, this unfortunate event will almost certainly come up, particularly if his prospective employer does a background check.  And if somehow it doesn’t, he’ll have to choose between disclosing it and risking the reaction or living in fear of Google.

The obvious moral of this story is to write every post as if everyone you ever know will see it.

Because the chances are pretty good that they will.

Why Grown-ups Don’t Care About Social Networking

social networkingIf some alien traveler landed at an intersection in any decent-sized town in America, wandered into any of the four Starbucks there, borrowed the barista’s laptop to tap into the internet and read the first six blogs he came across, he would instantly conclude that social networking is more important to Americans than work, family, religion, sports and all three Elvises combined.

But like the blind fellow who happens to grab the elephant’s tail, he wouldn’t have the whole picture.

Steve Rubel says the portals – AOL (does it even exist anymore), Yahoo, Google and Windows Live (OK, that one’s a stretch) – will win the social networking wars.  I’m not sure what that means, other than they will give away more stuff for free to more non-paying customers, but I digress.  Steve says, correctly, that every site on the net is adding social networking features.  That’s because 99% of the internet is one giant, reactive momentum play, but I digress again.  Clearly, every site in the world is trying to become Facebook Jr., which from a design and usability perspective is like every NFL team trying to become the Dolphins.  But since the entirety of Web 2.0 is ad-based, all that matters is where the herd is grazing at any given moment.  Steve’s point is that we jump frog-like from one social networking site to the next, but rely on the trusty old portals to manage our online experience.  I tend to agree with that, for a couple of reasons.  One, my personal experience.  I use My Yahoo to get my news, weather and sports and my personal portal to manage my web surfing and research.  Two, logic (a concept rarely featured in the Web 2.0 mania).  Everyone who fires up a web browser has to start somewhere, including the billions who have never heard of Bebo.

I think there is an implied assumption in Steve’s post that people want more data, information and interaction, when I believe most working adults want less.  But between whatever social application is plastered all over Mashable and the old, boring, Web 1.0-associated portals, the portals will always have the superior numbers.  Some say that the teens of today will bring the Facebooks of tomorrow to main street and corporate America.  I don’t think so.  When those teens get kicked out of the nest, get a job or two and a family of their own to worry about, keeping up with what some online “friends” they’ve never met had for dinner is going to lose its place in the sphere of concern.  A lot of younger guys I know used to have MySpace and Facebook pages.  Few use them anymore.  My theory, which I can’t footnote with empirical data, is that they used the social networking sites primarily as a means to meet and advertise themselves to girls.  Once they got jobs, wives and joined the rat race, they no longer had a need for the new-personals service those sites provided.

Now comes Stowe Boyd, who’s selling something, although what it is isn’t exactly clear (“As we catapult headlong into a social revolution…”).  Stowe says that Steve is wrong.  He says because the newspapers and magazines didn’t own Web 1.0, it’s wrong to think the dusty old portal sites will own Web 2+.  Maybe, but old media didn’t own Web 1.0 because they threw it in the dumpster, thinking it was of little value.  Now that all of those ad dollars that used to support so many more magazines and newspapers have migrated to the web, you can be sure old media will follow them like cavemen followed wooley mammoths- and likely with the same result.  If there was any doubt of that before yesterday, the crumbling of the Wall dispelled it.

Sure, the distribution of information changes reasonably fast.  Sure, a lot of the social networking slag tossed up by web sites will be poorly thought out and terribly executed.  But the herd that Stowe is tracking is the loud but smallish herd of technophiles and prospectors.  The ever increasing number of substantially similar social networking sites and the chaotic bloat at the hands of unnecessary features will drive the larger herd – those billions of users who don’t care what song you’re listening to – back to places they know.  Places where the idea is to manage your information, not merely to open your online experience to the unfiltered, irrelevant and often adolescent mosh pit.  Adults, both today’s and tomorrow’s, want less data.  Not more.  The assumption that people want more is the biggest fallacy of the Web 2.0 mania.

Ask yourself how many mid and senior management people in corporate America are actively using Facebook or MySpace as their primary online management tool.  For one thing, those sites are blocked at many companies.  For another, there are better alternatives.  More does not always translate to better.  Sure, there are corporate Facebook users.  But compared to the millions of corporate users who click over to Yahoo every morning to read their news or get stock quotes, the number would surely seem miniscule.  Remove the tech industry, the marketing industry, the recruiters and those with skin in the game from the list, and it becomes even shorter.  LinkedIn has some corporate mindshare, but anyone who’s paying attention can tell that, for better or worse, LinkedIn is very different from MySpace.  I suspect it is also much less sticky, which is why its greater utility plays second fiddle to Facebook’s greater page views.  The fact that LinkedIn can’t decide if it wants to be a roadmap or a destination at least gives it the chance to make the correct decision.

Another factor?  Portals make it easy to aggregate your data and your communications.  No need to install a widget to get the weather if it’s already there on your My Yahoo page.

I think Stowe is spot-on about one thing:

The network — the Web — belongs to us, the indigenous people of the Web: the Edglings.

That’s undoubtedly true.  And while there are other issues for the Edglings – such as the conscription of their creation by others for a profit – there is a segment of the population that will never return to AOL.  Just like there is a segment of the population that thinks using Linux is more efficient than using Windows.  But those folks will always be in the minority numbers wise.  And many of them will capitulate to the inevitability of Windows as they get older and busier.  Much like many of them will capitulate to a portal when they want to stem the flow of information they suddenly discover they don’t really need.

That poor alien sitting in Starbucks, reading those blogs and wondering why all those people sitting around talking on their iPhones aren’t at work may conclude that Facebook is the future.  But it’s not.  It’s just the present.  For a loud but mobile herd.

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Corporations, Technology and the New Fantasy Football

social networking

Stowe Boyd has a thoughtful response to my statements about the role of Facebook in corporate environments.

There’s no doubt that corporations are often distrustful of new communication technology.  Partly, I think that’s because they don’t or can’t (depending on who you believe) trust their employees.  There’s the slacker problem (“I’ll work on my project after I surf the net a little while longer and play a game or two of Sudoko”) and the stupid problem (“Wow, some person I’ve never heard of sent me an eCard.  I’m going to open it.”)  I tend to believe that the first one cannot be solved by denial of technology, since someone who wants to goof off excessively will always find a way to do so.  But I also believe the latter is a significant problem for companies.  One guy I used to work with infected our network because he got what appeared to a subpoena from the FBI, but was actually a virus from some asshole (in my business, a subpoena from the FBI is about as likely as a link from Guy Kawasaki).

But whatever the cause, companies do resist new technology.  Other than email, which started a little slow, but has been universally embraced at this point, most new communication applications find no home inside of big business.  IM never made any meaningful inroads into the corporate setting.   The internet is seen merely as a cheaper way to publish marketing materials.  There are a lot of potential efficiencies lurking beneath the surface of the denied technology.  But reasons practical, logistical and philosophical obscure them.

I also agree that individuals will always first adopt applications for their own purposes and then try to drag them into the office environment.  But, as a computer geek and a member of so-called management, I have always had admin privileges on my office computers.  It’s not so easy for the average office dweller to bring his or her applications, no matter how useful, to the office desk or desktop.  Today I watched a guy I work with try to install Adobe’s Flash Player and get denied.  Flash for crying out loud.

So I generally agree with Stowe so far…

But things get a little more murky for me when he talks about the struggle for personal awareness in the office context:

Important to the corporation is the degree to which our striving for personal awareness and self-discover overlaps with business goals. It is only the most narrow-mind and short-sighted of management that actively ignores the primary motivations of human apsiration. Anything like enlightened management will actively support personal development to the degree that it does nothing destructive, and it should, within limits, be willing to bear the apparent costs incurred. This is why companies allow employees to make personal phone calls, why they underwrite education and training, and invest to create pleasant environments. These costs are real, but accepted.

I agree with the part about personal development, and personal phone calls.  But I don’t necessarily think every employee ought to be allowed to devise a free-form, customized plan for self awareness and personal development.  Just because the guy working on a contract for a client believes his route to self awareness requires an hour or so on Facebook every day doesn’t make it so.  My kids do the Montessori thing every day, but the people at my office do not.

On the other hand, is fantasy football.  When the guys in my office conceived of the league a few years ago, I thought it would be good for camaraderie and team-building (not just the fantasy teams).  I could visit the online league page from the start, because my computer was not filtered (the geek/management thing again), but none of the other guys could- because of the “fantasy” word (so much for the validity of the filtering algorithm).  I called the IT guys and got it fixed, arguing correctly that a few minutes a day managing rosters and making trades would pay dividends via better morale, etc.  Maybe for some Facebook is the new fantasy football.  Like most things, it comes down to degree.

A little is OK, but how do you enforce a little?

It’s easy to enforce none.

In sum, I see Stowe’s point.  The problems, and perhaps the solutions, are found in the details of corporate policy and trust and in employee responsibility.

Facebook: the New Internet or a Gilded Cage?

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Mark Evans has an interesting read on 5 Things that Could Kill Facebook.  I can narrow my list down to three, but first let’s examine his list.

1) The evolution of its business model.

Mark says Facebook has a clean and accessible look and feel.  I’ve read others say the same thing.  I think it has a clean look, but I don’t find it particularly accessible.  In fact, I think it has a very non-intuitive interface.  I’m pretty computer and online literate and I can’t figure out how to do anything on Facebook without a lot of trial and error.  And if I have these problems, how do you think the public at large will fare?  Contrary to our occasional assumptions, everyone under 30 is not an uber-geek.

I agree with Mark, however, that the more ads and features they cram into Facebook, the more chaotic and MySpace-like it will become.  And anyone who reads this blog knows I have no love for any of those butt-ugly MySpace pages.  Like the rest of the internet, Facebook is, or will become, ad-dependant- which means that there will be ads and lots of them.  There are those who believe the online ad dollar is consistent and infinite.  I believe it is cyclical and limited.  Granted, if the shake out comes and Facebook is the last network standing, good for it.  But there’s a lot of ground to cover between now and then.

2) In-box Contamination.

Mark says over time there will be so many people clamoring to be your friend that the network will become unmanageable.  Perhaps, but there are a lot of people who do pretty well keeping their network of friends small out here in the big old blogosphere, and I suspect those who want to have a small network will be able to have one.  The risk, I suppose, is that your friend list starts looking (again) more MySpace-like and friend becomes just a marketing word for link.

3) Application Noise.

Brad Feld wondered the other day what’s in it for the application developers who are creating all these great applications.  My hunch is that it’s all about the buzz at the moment.  Developers are in a gold rush for users and, once they stake their claim, they’ll let someone else figure out how to monetize it.  As the competition heats up, however, the clamor from applications looking for a spot on your Facebook page could become distracting.

4) The IPO.

I’ve written plenty about the problems money or the prospect of money cause online and off.  Once Facebook make a break for the IPO, priorities will change.  The goal of getting traffic will become secondary to the goal of making money from that traffic.  And as far as I know there’s only one primary revenue source (see item 1 above).  Facebook has the same problem the rest of the social networks have.  It has nothing to sell but eyeballs and traffic.  Both of which are connected to other people.

5) Facebook Fatigue.

For me personally, this is the most compelling of Mark’s 5 things.  I’m bored to tears with Second Life, and almost as bored with Twitter.  Facebook has broader traction that either of those applications, but I wonder what the average lifespan of an active Facebook page is?  I also wonder about the mean lifespan of Facebook pages of groups of users who sign up around the same time.  If your pals aren’t there, there’s nothing social about the network.

Now for my 3 things that could kill Facebook.

A) Its heritage as a place for school kids.  Even now, when you create and manage a Facebook account, there are a lot of remnants of its genesis as a largely college hangout.  How you know someone.  The “personal ads” vibe of the sign-up process.  The navigation in general.  In sum, it just doesn’t seem very businesslike.  It’s not as bad as MySpace, but it still seems more like my kids’ rooms than my office.

B) The blogosphere/Google combination. Open API or not, there’s still a wall around Facebook.  It’s hard to get data out of there and into the wild.  As AOL found out, what people look at initially as a safe place to hang out can begin to look like a cage over time.  I continue to believe that the blogosphere is the only network that matters, and that over time most people will elect to take control of their content and manage it via a wall-free platform.  Anything that gets between a content provider and its users is by definition bad for the content provider.  And there’s no need for a central registry of contact information- we have Google.  Just do a search.

C) LinkedIn.  Granted, LinkedIn is a little behind in the race for the social networking crown, but with news that it plans to open its API, and the more business-like atmosphere to be found there, I can envision LinkedIn becoming the preferred network for grownups.

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