Social Website Dysphoria

RPXIt has been a terribly busy three weeks for me, with little time free for posting… between a round of Second Life® Evangelisation and attending to some clients who are physically away from my home city, I’ve been on the road (well, mostly on the train really…) across my tiny country, but still managed to do close to 5,000 km or so. Incredibly tiring!! And, of course, I couldn’t help but wondering: how many of those trips were really necessary and couldn’t have been done much more comfortably via Second Life? 🙂

As a matter of fact, most could have been avoided… but I would have missed the fun of hearing what other people have been saying about the “state of the art” of the Internet. And strangely enough, it felt like 1999 again.

Brave New World

On one of the sessions I was in, I was a bit tired of repeatedly listening to the same things over and over again (more on that later), so I decided to be provocative to wake up the audience. I don’t think I was very successful, but let me explain a little bit about what I had in mind.

These days, if you read around the media, it has been promoting “social websites” almost non-stop since, well, 2003 or so. In fact, the so-called “Web 2.0” is seen as the child of the dot-com bubble: the little that survived the catastrophic failure of some so many bright ideas that never caught on. On the post-bubble days, social websites are in, and they’re the only thing worth exploring. That and mobile phone applications, of course.

If you pick a random conference, it’s certain that someone will be either talking about their favourite social website and how they’re making a lot of money out of it (namely, by getting paid doing conferences about it — something which, of course, they will not tell!) or, well, how cool it is to develop applications for Android. If you paid attention in 2006 or so, they would be talking about hi5 or Friendster. In 2007, very likely they’d be talking about MySpace. Since 2008, of course, they’ll be talking about Twitter or Facebook. Or even both. Or, well, on how cool their newest application (or plugin, or mashup) integrates with either.

They will be eager to show you anecdotal evidence about how fantastic the reach of those tools are — about a 100 million for either Twitter or Facebook (although Twitter is growing faster), or 150 million for MySpace (although nobody ever goes there) — and how easy and cheap it is to push your message through those social networks: great for advertising. A speaker I recently heard was even bolder and claimed that he was able to change society by pushing his ideas to the many elected representatives, who, bored with endlesss hours in Parliament, spend their time chatting with friends on Twitter — and sometimes reply to complete strangers.

I’m not going to endlessly rant about the “cool factor” of all those social tools. You can just Google a bit for them, and you’ll see thousands, hundreds of thousands, tens of millions of blog posts and newspaper articles writing about the massive change of our society as people spend, well, all their time on social websites. Consumers exchange information about products; politicians keep in touch with “concerned citizens”; businesses look for new employees or new markets to explore. Every day someone has a new idea on how to use one social networking tool to push their idea/product ahead, and reaching “millions”. Take your pick. There are millions of examples.

It’s a Brave New World out there, and if you haven’t yet signed up to any of those Web 2.0 sites, you’re square. Or, well, worth of compassion and pity for being “left out”.

In the last 5 years, I believe that I have subscribed to about 250 different social websites, and I continue to subscribe to them, as new ones pop up every day. Obviously, it’s completely and absolutely impossible to keep track of all. In fact, after Twitter dropped their GTalk gateway, honestly, I don’t keep in touch with any, which will, undoubtedly, raise a few eyebrows from my vast audience of millions of readers — uh, I meant, handful readers. Yes, I cheat, using to post updates with around 20 or so microblogging sites (and I’m including Facebook on that…), but I do not log in to each of those separately to see if I got any answers. Which is a pity, really. I wish I had time for that. (The Twitter-to-GTalk gateway had the huge advantage of doing that very easily without any need to add Yet Another Application to my poor overcrowded desktop) Sorry to disappoint you all!

/me watches as her karma on Plurk drops and her status as part of the Twitter Grader Second Life Elite disappears after all those followers just remove me from their lists and disappear, shaking their heads

I’m not going to say that there is no worth on all those social thingies. I love Twitter because I see it as a “RSS reader with human intelligence”. I don’t use any RSS readers at all (surprise, surprise!) for a very simple reason: I can’t deal with a thousand emails a day, much less a thousand articles to read every day from those millions of so very interesting blogs. On the other hand, by following my friends on Twitter, and knowing that they share my interests, I’m quite sure they will be posting awesome articles about what they like. So you can view my list of friends as a very complex cloud computing grid with infinite amounts of raw pattern-matching power, searching every day through millions of articles, and spewing out a handful that I really will like to read. So that’s how I keep myself informed 🙂

Granted, you could use Facebook for that as well. Or Plurk. Or Or, well, the Yet-Unnamed-Microblogging-Tool-Of-Next-Week. The principle would be the same. It’s just a question of what design and interface you’d like best to use 🙂

And there is some use for LinkedIn, too. People ask often for my CV (resumee for you Americans), and although I have a more formal document somewhere lying around my MacBook, sometimes it’s easier just to point them to my account on LinkedIn. And since computers tend to break and require reformatting — yes, even Macs will break apart and melt down after a decade or two — and I’m never sure if the backups will work, I’m happy to post my pictures somewhere on Flickr and a few videos on YouTube. At least, if my Macs break down, I won’t lose everything.

So does that mean that I’d be happy with just a handful of social websites? Very likely not; after all, anyone might read the above paragraph and say: “oh, well, you can do all the above on a single site: Facebook”. Or MySpace. Or Friendster. Or Multiply. Or Netlog. Or… or… or… any of thousand different services. And, guess what, they would be right!

So the point here is… you cannot avoid to join any of those social websites. Even the most anti-social-website person I know — my roomie Moon Adamant — joined Twitter a while ago. And I’m sure she has a Picasa account somewhere. With so many different services floaing over there, it’s impossible that you don’t find at least one which, well, suits a very specific need you have. And once you register for one… you’ll soon start linking it to another… and discuss about it on a forum somewhere… and probably find a tool that will help you out with something… which requires a registration for, say, Facebook…. and since you’ve had to register for it, you might as well flesh out your profile… and then it starts spamming all your friends, who all of a sudden will find that you’re on that service… and, well, the snowball starts to roll. It’s unavoidable. You cannot avoid having a virtual identity on the social Web — sooner or later, it will catch up with you and beg your attention, no matter how anti-social-website you are. And it’s pointless to resist: you will be assimilated.

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  • I knew you were coming to SL in the end 🙂

    A few points:
    * idea comes first, business model comes later in the world of tech. Google did not get venture capital based on the proposal for AdSense; it got it for Pagerank.
    * After the idea/tech come the users; YT and FB got their valuation based on their userbase and growth trends. It was the userbase that Google bought, combined with a treasure trove of data on users viewing videos. If you add Adsense and Google’s video advertising to the mix, the possibilities are huge. Why hasn’t anything happened yet? I think for the same reason as..
    * Facebook and profitability. I recently saw some stats – if FB would only add banners to all their pages, their ad revenue would be close to $1B per year. They do not do it because that kind of advertising is both intrusive and stupid. What they want to do is use users’ profiles and data for very smart and very targeted advertising. They didn’t manage to do it yet, but they have enough capital that they do not have to bug users with banners.

    And finally, the marvel of the Second Life business model. While profitable for the company, it is in fact (in my opinion) very limited and targets a very niche demographics. EVE Online, the game equivalent of a sandbox VW, has only 250k paying subscribers while WOW has millions – and because of the same reason, it’s niche.

    We’ll see if M will manage to make SL more universally attractive – but, if he manages that, there is a big chance he will alienate the current user base and the base of LL’s profitability.. A rock and a hard place indeed 🙂

    – IYan Writer

  • Hi IYan 🙂 Yes, indeed, I agree that it’s the usual business model: idea first, money next, lots of users next, and (probably!) a business plan last. Yuck. No wonder so much tech ventures utterly fail 😉 It’s all upside down, and this is not my humble opinion, but a rather considerate one 🙂

    Then again, I guess I’m just biased towards what I’ve learned. Venture capital to test ideas — specially in a market that is completely new, thanks to an awesome idea that didn’t exist before — is a great way to innovate. But… business is business. If your model relies on “free access by users”, it’s doomed in the long term — unless you’re willing to create a foundation or similar non-profit to raise funding constantly for a technology that will make the world a better place. Things like the Wikipedia, Apache or Mozilla foundations are good examples, but there are thousands of similar ones.

    Usually my argument is: if the model of growing on top of a free user base in expectation that money will come in somehow is a good one, why aren’t Microsoft or Apple doing that? Profitability — and a business model based on profitability — never hurt Microsoft or Apple 🙂

    By contrast, a model based on a huge “free user base” is naturally interesting to report on the media. The media loves numbers, specially if they are “hundreds of millions”. It shows people like the technology. Well, people love everything that’s free, and that’s undeniable! But it doesn’t mean that you can survive as a company on a free product.
    I’m fine in accepting that sometimes you have to cleverly “invent” a business model a posteriori — you make a good point with Google, BTW — but the trouble is, that model has to make sense. Google’s model was to get their revenue stream on an unrelated issue. Imagine that they’d started to charge for accessing their search engine — nobody would have used it, people would just continue to use Microsoft’s or Yahoo’s instead (who had revenue streams from other services allowing them to provide that service for free).

    BTW, Google alleged once that they bought YT just to “buy themselves into the copyright wars about video”: in the sense that they were going to make a point (namely, that nobody will dare to sue Google for acting like a non-moderating “carrier” of video streaming — precisely the opposite stance of LL, who just love to interfere with residents’ content, thus making themselves liable for what their users are doing within SL). If that’s true or not, I have no idea. I guess that at the time, two major sharing sites — Flickr and YouTube — were available for grabs, and Yahoo already bought the first, so Google just had two alternatives: compete with Google Video (and Picasa) or simply drop the race for the social sharing tools (Blogger, for instance, was a bad choice; imagine what would have happened if they had bought Auttomatic with WordPress…). Whatever the real reason was, YouTube was not profitable, and very likely will never be — they’re still based on Google AdSense to get some revenue and on some people who pay to create longer-than-10-minute videos. I know that at some point Google might have thought they could, for example, just allow high-quality videos for their paid customers, a way to differentiate user accounts and encourage upgrading. Sadly for Google, their competitors — like or vimeo — already had high quality videos. So did MySpace. YouTube had no choice but to offer the same, for free. No, I don’t believe that YouTube will ever be a profitable Google company. The best that Google can hope for is that they cut more and more costs as their vast server park grows and grows and the running cost per server drops further…

    As for Second Life… it does have the right business model, and Linden Lab is profitable. However, like so many things in life that are unfair, that model, as you said, only works for a small niche market, and I’m not sure that even with the announced “SL Lite Viewer” for late 2009 this will change dramatically. SL is too strange, too different. Even Philip clearly states that SL is not a social networking thingy, although it has all characteristics of one. It’s something… entirely different. The more I become familiar with SL, the more I believe that it’s a technology still too radical for the world-at-large.

    We will need to see the Web 2.0 dot-com bubble to collapse first in order to see SL to start really growing. And that will take at least another 5 years, as more and more social networking websites pop up with inexpensive platforms, all over the place, fiercely competing among themselves for a slice of the “market”. I put the quotation marks because for me a “market” of free users is not a market at all…

  • Facebook will be here in five years, it just won’t be trendy anymore.

    I’m not convinced Second Life will be here in five years its present form, I’m not convinced Linden Lab actually want it. Second Life technology will be here but the worlds will be managed by companies other than Linden Lab. That’s not to say I think Linden Lab will be gone, they’ll be beavering away making improvements to their technology and hosting a lot of these disparate worlds.

    However predicting the future in technology is always dangerous, do you remember PowWow? There was nothing wrong with that, it was rather popular and then ICQ became the tool of choice for my friend list, that’s still going which surprises me as I don’t see people leaving their ICQ contact details around anymore.

    Five years is however a long time in technology and yet some technologies cling on well beyond their sell by dates, VHS and Floppy disk drives spring to mind.

    I setup a friendfeed account to try and keep track of various sites but I prefer to login to the sites themselves….well that’s not quite true as I’ve got messages in my inbox asking me why I don’t update my Livejournal or facebook but I digress. Friendfeed is of course an early attempt at your ultimate tool suggestion.

    Amazon is a very interesting example because they were sneered at, had a rocky time and came out the other side smelling of roses. They’ve done very well and haven’t rested on their laurels, their marketplace is doing ok and they expanded way beyond books.

  • How true, how true! I’m not convinced either that Second Life “as it is now” will be around in five years, but — starting in late 2010 — it will be a complex mesh of several interconnected grids, with several different specialised viewers to connect to each grid…

  • Great article Gwyn. I also do the trick instead of logging log on twitter facebook etc. directly.
    I think the Second Life wave will restart when it will be, as you say, a complex mesh of several interconnected grids, with the option to host your own grid, and the option of packing taking the content and taking it eslewhere. Important technical advances are also in order — multiple media stream on a parcel (this will instantly turn SL into a good videoconferencing tool) and a real integrated and interactive web browser.
    A 3D interface is just better than a 2D interafce when it comes to visually organizing information, and sooner or later this will be evident.

    On a related topic:

    I have written a review of yet another videoconferencing and telework system:

    Testing EVO (Enabling Virtual Organizations)

    At the end I make a comparision with VR worlds: “Yet it is difficult
    to sell things called “virtual worlds” to corporate users, and I am
    beginning to thing that the distinctive feature of VR worlds, humanoid
    avatars, is actually seen as a weakness by many users (too many
    unwanted associations with toon sex in Second Life etc.). Perhaps it
    would be easier to sell 3D collaborative environments where users are
    represented by less personal icons, like cubes with pictures and
    webcam feeds.”

    What do you guys think? Shouldn’t Second Life have a standard optional
    simple cubic or spherical avatar like the floating sphere in Qwaq
    Forums, with a picture of the user and the option to replace it with a
    webcam feed once external media are implemented in full? I _know_ that
    some clients in the business and educational sectors would prefer this
    option. Where can I get such a unSL avatar? I think I am going
    shopping for one.

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