Sunday, March 30, 2008

Topping Off Education

A recent blog by Clay Burrell speaks about Using Alltop to Teach Social Networking If you don't know what Alltop is, you aren't a blogger. Alltop is an aggregator of the top bloggers, divided by topic, so that you can ask yourself a question like "What should I be reading if I want to learn about life?" and then you just go to "", and there you have a list of blogs about life.

Guy Kawasaki has managed to jaw-droppingly outdo himself for marketing brilliance on this one. Without making any predictions on the viability of the business itself, the built-in marketing aspect is a work of art.

Obviously, if you are a well-known and respected entrepreneur, and you are starting a blog aggregator, every blogger is going to want to be on your list. Guy is generous about adding you if you ask nicely. I'm assuming there is an engine in the back which tracks how popular your blog is, so that your placement on the page could change over time, depending on how many people click through. Once you are listed, then of course, you have an interest in Alltop's success yourself, meaning you will want to mention it in your blog.

Along with his generosity in adding bloggers and his characteristic gentlemanliness in personally answering all of his e-mail, Guy's marketeer gears are well-greased. Coincidentally, just a few days after announcing Alltop publicly, his blog magnanimously offers useful tips on kissing up. Now, I don't want to sound cynical here, especially because I am taking his magnanimous advice, but you can read into it whatever you want.

But that's not what I wanted to talk about. I wanted to talk about Clay Burrel's blog, in which he talks about his failure to get his students excited enough to use RSS feeds, and his relative success in getting them to use Alltop. Mr. Burrel doesn't claim to be using Alltop to teach research; just to teach writing. However, it did get me thinking about where we get our information, and what information is considered reliable these days.

Increasingly, my reading list is made up of books, sites, and reports that I've heard about in blogs. Increasingly, I get my news from blogs rather than news sites. My RSS feeder has both, but I read the blogs a lot more. Blogs are more interesting, no more biased, and for the most part, better written and more insightful than most of the news. When I fill in forms asking "where did you hear about our product?" I don't know whether reading it on a blog is "word of mouth" or "from another Web site".

It's good to see this kind of innovation in teaching. On the other hand, how many of us, like myself, are getting lazy about fact-checking, and are relying increasingly on word of mouth for our news? I think we would all agree that there's a qualitative difference between a New York Times report and a blog about an event. On the other hand, increasingly, we don't care.

For work purposes, if you are in the high-tech industry, nothing but real-time blogs will do for industry intelligence. I know my kid uses Wikipedia as her main reference for school report, and so far the sky hasn't fallen. How long will it be before blogs become a legitimate reference too?

Reservations Notwithstanding

Using the Internet, it's now amazingly easy to invite people to events and track RSVPs. Sites like Ning and Facebook allow this as a feature; MeetUp and Evite are specifically set up with the purpose of creating real world events. I also belong to a number of sites, such as groopy that are designed for specific groups, in this case cyclists, to meet for sports workouts. I suspect there are similar non-jock sites, but I wouldn't know. And plenty of people just use plain old e-mail. Just today I read an e-invitation from someone saying "Please regard this as a personal invitation to..." Real personal, thanks.

As the invitations have become less personal, so have the responses. If you've been to a groopy ride, a Pulver breakfast, high-tech meetup, or FB-organized party, you will quickly see that the number of RSVPs and the number of attendees have a loose relationship. People RSVP and don't show, or show without RSVP, and the number of attendees is invariably 50-70% of the RSVP-ers. Not having asked for RSVPs for my wedding, I don't know how this compares to real life events.

Someone raised the question of whether the RSVP-to-attendee rate varies per site. That would be an intersting study, but my gut feeling is that the rate is determined by (a) the size and type of the event (b) your relationship to the invitee (c) cultural factors.

Two extreme examles are signing up for a dance party on FB, where you have never meet the inviter, and signing up for a 7 am cycle ride in the desert with people you've ridden with before. In the first case, you have pretty much no obligation to come. In the second case, you would send an SMS to notify if you can't drag yourself out of bed, so your friends don't wait up for you.

In all honesty, virtual invitations are ineffective. If you really want people to come to something, you need to call them, ask them face-to-face when you see them, or send something that looks actually personal. After you do that, you also need to send a reminder by SMS on the day of the event. It sounds ridiculous, but I have found that I get reminders for courses that I've signed up and paid money to attend.

At first I wondered about that; If I am paying that much money, you can bet I will show up. On the other hand, your dentist's office also calls to confirm the appointment. Apparently, people who really make a living at this know the honest truth: people forget or skip out even on the important and expensive appointments in their life. If you want them to join your networking event, political rally, or celebration, only the personal touch works.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Yoo Hoo! Where are You?

"Howcome you have so many friends?" asks my 9-year-old daughter, Maya.
"Like who?" I ask, "I don't have that many friends."
"I'll prove it," she declares, picking up my phone and scrolling down, "Adrienne, Alik, Allan, Alon, Alon, Alon, Alona, Amir... "

"Wait, read slower." We went down the list for a while and found it is composed of approximately 20% obsolete contacts, 10% semi-obsolete (I could imagine needing them some day), 50% business or community (school, synagogue, etc.), 8% friends I speak to occasionally, 2% friends I could call and tell my troubles to without a pretense for the call. Considering the number of contacts I have, that is a good number of friends, btw.

Speaking of troubles, the trouble is, my contacts are totally out of control. So are yours, I guarantee. How often do you look at your cell phone to find the number before calling from a land line? Look up someone's e-mail signature to find their number? Become frustrated when their sig doesn't include it? Google someone you actually know to find their e-mail? Cut-and-paste an e-mail address to/from Gmail to Outlook? From Facebook to Gmail? Download a LinkedIn vcard? Get email from someone you have known for years asking for your phone number?

More often than you care to admit? Me too. I remember the days when every, I mean, every, one of my contacts was found in my computer address book. Sheesh, I remember the days when every one of my contacts was in a dead-tree address book, but I didn't know that many people back then.

Or didn't I? How much of our perception of who we know has changed, as a result of technology, or just as a result of getting older?

Once upon a time, I went to an event, and I met people, and that was nice. Now, I go to an event, I meet people, and then I friend them online. Now I can get some information about them, since heaven knows I won't remember where I met them later on down the line. I can't wait until someone figures out that I want to tag them, too. If I had anonymous tags (or trusted any of those networks to keep them anonymous), I would use tags like "overpriced", "SOB", and "sponge-worthy" as well as tags like "attorney", "friend of Jane", and "met at VON".

That would be cool, but it wouldn't solve my fundamental problem, which is that my contacts are spread out over bunches of apps, formats, networks, and devices. Furthermore, most people have a preferred contact methodology. Some people like SMS, some e-mail, some IM, etc. A growing number of people rely on caller-ID and expect you to return a call even when they don't leave a message. My brain knows which of my contacts to find in which of my address lists, and the preferred contact preferences for each, but that information isn't stored anywhere other than my brain, which also stores the information on whose turn it is too call whom.

What we've got here is a huge mess. There are two organizations who address (groan) the problem, while the other organizations are busy trying to lock you in. The two organizations are Microsoft and Plaxo.

Despite whatever else it may have done oddly, Microsoft Outlook has always gotten this right. It is fairly easy to import contacts from almost any other device or format, whether it is a scanned business card, a list of comma-separated-values, or the address book from your telephone. The main limitation is that most synchronization programs on mobile devices seem to lose a bit of data each time you synchronize. So Outlook almost has it down perfect. Granted, everyone felt the need to accomodate Microsoft standards, but at least there are standards to adhere to. Furthermore, Outlook allows you to export into a wide range of formats that can be imported elsewhere.

Plaxo has taken this a step further, and allows you to align your addresses with other people's address books. That is, if you and I are in the Plaxo network, and you update your phone number, my Plaxo account will show that updated phone number. As far as I am concerned, that is the ultimate clincher feature. Plaxo Premium (which costs significantly less than Microsoft Outlook) synchronizes with a good chunk of the social networks and on-line services.

So what have I ended up doing? I export all of my different phone books into Outlook, then I export my Outlook into CSV, and then I import it into Plaxo. If I join as a premium member (free for the first few weeks), I can coordinate the duplicates I have in my address books, and I have lots.

Unfortunately, to use Plaxo, I now have to be online, which somewhat defeats the point of having telephony. If' I'm online, I might as well Skype you. Oh, wait. My Skype addresses. Dang.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Anarchy is Better

Most of the time we don't like to acknowledge the real reason why democracy and law work fairly well. Truthfully, the reason government and law are reasonable systems is because most people intrinsically understand and live by the rules. If we really needed to force people to follow the rules of common decency, and we were depending on government to take care of us, we would be up you know where without a paddle.

I spent a good part of my evening at a City Council meeting here in Hod Hasharon. I mean "good" in the sense that it was a large part of my evening. It certainly could not be considered good in any other sense of the word. As the title of this column implies, it was a notch or two worse than anarchy. It was chaos.

My town is blessed with a charismatic and well-intentioned mayor who has done nothing of note in the 4 years he's been in office. I mean, unless you consider throwing money at expensive and impotent consultants to be "of note", and most of us would agree that for a government official, that is not worth noting.

Hod Hasharon is also blessed with 14 additional council members, none of whom seem to be able to work together for any significant amount of time. The ones who were elected on the same ticket are barely on speaking terms, and they almost never come up with anything they agree on, except for opposing the mayor. Most of the elected officials are there hoping to get some personal benefit in the form of a job for a family member, desirable zoning for family property, or a cash flow to a dubious non-profit organization. You'd think with such a group of people who can be easily paid off, the mayor would have no trouble forming a coalition, but even that is beyond his grasp.

Basically, going to a city council meeting is not terribly different from dinner with your in-laws. A bunch of people sit around a crowded table, complain about who is spending too much money on what, interrupt one another, try to show how smart they are, and when none of that succeeds, stand up and yell at one another. After about 4 hours of this, they and go home having achieved little more than getting on one another's nerves. The other significant difference between this and a holiday dinner with your in-laws is that the newspapers write about it.

People tell me that anarchy isn't better, but the more virtual I become, the harder it is to convince me of that. The Internet is a pretty good reflection of how anarchy would look. Yes, there are perverts, people who rob Second Life banks, and destroy one another's data. But by and large, most people behave fine, most of the time, and those who don't are labeled as such and avoided. And because of the transparency of everything on the Internet, it is easier than in real life to find out about someone's credibility.

I thought about this in the context of buying electronics the other day. A friend tried to prove to me that when I make a large purchase of an electronic item, I need to go and touch it and talk to the guy in the store, etc. After some thought, I realized that the opposite was true.

When I go to the bricks-and-mortar store to buy, for example, a refrigerator, I am fairly sure the guy there is trying to sell me the thing that will give him the highest cut, not the thing that will give me the highest satisfaction. I have a limited selection per store, a limited number of stores I can physically get to, and nobody to ask about that product or seller once I get there.

If I go online, the process is the opposite. First I go to a site that gives me ratings of a bunch of items in my category. I can compare a virtually unlimited number of options, and read what real people have to say about them. I can then look at the retailers offering the item, and the reliability and terms of the retailer. I can't do any of that in real life.

All of this works online because, fundamentally, anarchy is a decent system. The vast majority of people give their true opinions of things, probably because they feel anonymous. The vast majority of people want to warn you about the scammers, and the scammers are labeled and downrated. You even have tools to screen out the people you don't want to see. (Imagine if I could do that in the city council meeting. Just the thought brings my blood pressure down several notches.)

In short, anarchy is a better system than government. If you still doubt me, you simply haven't spent enough time in city council meetings.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Fake Flirts

I was chatting with a friend I had met on a social network, and at some point, we realized we did not know who had initiated the friendship.

In fact, this happens quite a lot these days. Someone uploads their contact list to their social networking account, and voila. Since we have set our e-mail program to remember everyone we ever send mail to, most of us have a fair number of contacts who, for the life of us, we cannot remember. Perhaps we answered their question on a professional mailing list. Perhaps they recommended a plumber to us. Perhaps we did business with them a decade ago. Maybe we met them on a bicycle ride.

Personally, I have a lot of business contacts I can't recall, because I worked as a consultant for almost a decade, and have been a prominent contributer on a wide number of listservs, as well as a moderator for a few. Because I was a consultant, I made sure to upload most of the business cards I got, and use LinkedIn to connect to anyone I ever did work for or who did work for me. (If you are a marketing consultant and don't have many contacts on LinkedIn, you don't look like much of a marketeer.)

Also, as a marketing person, and just as a friendly type of person, I tend to "friend first, ditch later" rather than "ask first, friend later". I've ditched very few friends. As long as someone isn't sending me some new app twice a day, being lewd, or trying to sell me stuff, they are my friend. You are my friend if you are reading this, as far as I am concerned. I never complain about having too many friends.

But it did occur to me, as my newfound friend and I were both denying First Friending rights, that for some apps, false friending could be a feature rather than a bug. For example, a dating application could set up an algorithm that would take into account age and geography, and set you up with a match arbitrarily.

Obviously, if they did this too often or too blatently, it wouldn't work. But if 10% of the matches you got were faked by the system, you might never find out and it might increase your satisfaction with the app. At first, as a marketer, I thought: what a great idea! Forget the ethics of it, you can always justify giving people more friends as morally good. You can get people to use your system more by making them artificially popular!

In fact, none of us really know how Facebook apps work at the backend, and we are astonishingly nonchalant about adding them. The apps have access to our personal data, and we usually have no idea who the creator is. (I have one developed by my brother-in-law, but that's an exception.)

And for all we know, they are sending us fake flirts, fake greetings, etc., from our real or virtual friends. Did you really challenge my knowledge of '80s sitcoms? Because most of my aquaintances are aware that neither my current home nor my childhood home had a television set.

In short, we don't really know what any of the applications are doing. We don't really know if the notifications are real or fake. Marketers may think they are very clever by creating defaults that make it seem our friends are constantly sending us something, inviting us, or challenging us. Frankly, it's only clever for about a month. After that, it's just noise.

Saturday, March 8, 2008

Slightly antisocial

This post is to some degree a response to Robert Cringley's blog this week, in which he says that most of the social networks won't survive for lack of a business model. My two main reactions to that are (1) Duh, and (2) Social networking is a means, not an end.

Firstly, "Duh". In any industry, there are typically 2-3 winners, a few niche players and dozens of losers. When a new industry is born, you get a lot of players, and eventually the best, luckiest, or most aggressive win. It's that way with almost any type of software, service, or product. There's, and there's ... um... There's Amazon and there's ... um... There's ebay and there's... um... So pointing out that very few social networks will survive is stating the obvious. Now, tell me which one will turn out the winner and you are making a risky prediction.

Secondly, what people don't seem to get about social networks is that social networks, primarily, are a means to an end. Participation in pure social networks like Facebook is declining, because they just aren't all that entertaining. Once you've established yourself on a social network, you check in only occasionally. For example, you might use LinkedIn when you are looking for a job, an employee, or a referral. You might use Plaxo to look up someone's current phone number. And then log out. Facebook and Twitter addicts are a special breed, but they are also quite virtually mobile, so it's hard to count on them.

However, where social networks get exciting are where they are a means to an end. So, if you are listening to pandora, , and you start to form a network of friends, you can start to find out what your friends are listening to. In Second Life, or any multi-player online game, you form social networks. You can imagine how this could be useful in a variety of different contexts, where the basic business model is to sell something.

You'll notice that this blog doesn't have Adsense on it. Although I know that reduces my search engine placement (I've written about this in a past blog.), it reflects my basic philosophy that the advertising model is fundamentally hokey.

It simply seems untenable that people want to be bombarded with advertising. The whole scheme on Facebook these days is that you become a "fan" of something, and then something will advertise to you. I joined a fan club of one or two bands and I get their e-mails, which I regularly delete without reading. For a while I had an iLike on Facebook and I could find out where some of my select favorite bands were playing. But the novelty of that wore thin rapidly.

As a long-time subscriber, I have 250 artists on my hard drive, and that doesn't include any of the physical CDs I own (though I haven't bought any since the word DRM entered my vocabulary). So if I took an app like, which detects all the legally purchased on my system (all of my music is), and started to feed me the concert schedule of all 250 artists (minus the deceased), well, no thanks. Come to think of it, no matter how much I love my tooth floss better than any other tooth floss I've tried, I don't want any promotional material from the manufacturer.

In short, I don't believe in the fan-club, advertising model in the long run. There's definitely some money to be made there, but not enough to sustain the social networks on an advertising-only model.

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Let Me Know

Not only are we now suffering from information overload, we are starting to suffer from "same information" overload.

Most of us are accustomed to being reminded of certain things, usually dates and tasks. Thus, when we are invited to an event, register on the web, get more email confirming our registration, an additional reminder to register, a reminder the day before and maybe even an SMS, we consider that to be just fine. If we are Israeli, despite our registration and the multitude of reminders, there's still only a 60% chance we'll show up.

However, even invitations are starting to get out of hand. Part of this has to do with our multiple contact locations. If I am part of your Facebook group, for example, and you send the notifications by Facebook-mail, which notifies me at my Gmail account, I'm now getting all those reminders twice. If you are someone whose blog I follow, and you mention the event a couple of times in your blog and in your online broadcast (not naming any names here), then you have managed to reach the level of per-event reminding typically associated with getting my kids to put on their pajamas.

The problem is it's becoming almost unavoidable. If I post this blog just here, well, maybe you are subscribed on your RSS feed. Chances are you aren't, so I have to let you know. I put it on my status message or twitter it, I post a link to Facebook. Maybe I even add this whole blog as a note to Facebook. Maybe I send out e-mail notification. I didn't mean to bombard you, but all of a sudden you know my every move. Twice. At least.

It gets worse. It's not just unavoidable, it's automated. My social networks send you a weekly update telling you I've been blogging again. If you are my Plaxo contact (and if you aren't, please add me), your Pulse not only notifies you, it duplicates most of this blog and allows you to comment in Pulse.

The good news is that I probably have more ways to reach difference audiences than I ever did before. The bad news is that the audiences can't be that different. I probably have 60-80% overlap on the main three social networks I use.

Another unfortunate side effect is that I have this blog or a link to it posted in 3 different places, with comments in 2 of the 3 places. As you can see, the place where I have no comments is at the actual blog itself. This is unfortunate because it means that my comments are happening in a closed network (Facebook or Plaxo) and that there is some level of interaction being missed.

Well, in theory anyway. I don't actually have *that* big a fan club. Just a bunch of little ones.