December 8, 2007

Non-Ranting Pondering on Facebook's Beacon and Facebook with a little Syrian flavor

Poor Facebook. Everyone's piling on it this week in light of the report that their Beacon application will broadcast your online purchasing habits to your network of online friends and wilt that big wall of privacy that everyone seems to expect to own in front of their virtual party complexes. Even Syria is casting blame on Facebook for allowing Israeli intelligence to infiltrate their online social networks.

By the way, I'm being partially sarcastic. Also, for the record, I'm not a Facebook hater.

This whole Beacon incident will blow over, but it is another strike against Facebook that will make people think twice about hyping it as the future of social networking or identity on the Internet. You can get away with blunders like this when you're a garage shop operation still experimenting with novel and potentially risky ideas looking for a tech breakthrough, but when you've been rechristened as the Internet's $15 billion dollar gorilla before you've grown up, you may unpleasantly discover that half of your leash has suddenly been yanked away.

Breakthroughs are made by people and organizations that are allowed to experiment and exercise their creativity without boundaries. Facebook is not yet a breakthrough and their premature fame may ultimately stunt the real potential of the company.

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December 2, 2007

Yelping Off Topic: A Sign of Social Cohesion or a Flaw in the Business Model?

As the popularity of Yelp grows in the San Francisco Bay Area, I'm meeting a growing number of people who have a bit of bile for the popular reviews site that has become a social network as well. To a certain degree, it's to be expected that as your popularity grows, so will your notoriety, but the way you earn your notoriety can be more surprising than the fact that it exists.

I would have thought the big issue people had with Yelp would be whether the reviews were useful or not. That is certainly one of the issues, but it's not the one that's surprising to me. Some people seem to have an emotional love or hate relationship with Yelp. If these people were all business owners, then it would be understandable. If people slam your business then, "Yelp sucks." If you're getting Yelp love, then "you love Yelp!"

However, it's more complicated than that. Many of the people who are having an emotional reaction to Yelp are active online users. For one reason or another, they judge the site as either fun or obnoxious based on what its users are saying.

Now, Yelp is surely not the first site where people publish biased or ridiculously exaggerated reviews. Go surf some products on Amazon.com and you'll easily see some even more offensive reviews, especially if you dare browse books on social commentary or political issues, yet I don't see anyone holding the presence of those reviews against Amazon.com as a company. Plenty of websites are mostly blather, but peple don't seem to develop a reaction to that site's name.

I think part of the problem that Yelp faces is that it has succeeded just as much by being a social network as it has succeeded as a reviews site. This dual success is a blessing and a curse. The CEO of the defunct Judy's Book reviews site was reported to have admitted that one of the reasons why Yelp beat them was because Yelp was able to make its users feel more important. Leveraging social networking and other viral technologies as part of their growth strategy has worked terrifically for Yelp in the San Francisco Bay Area, but the social networking aspect may also be debasing the value of its reviews or the image of the company.

Yelp encourages you to be the first to review something, review often, and be entertaining when you review. This sometimes leads to shallow, exaggerated, or potentially fabricated reviews. Whether online or in RL, there are storytellers amongst us who won't let the truth get in the way of being entertaining. It's nothing new.

People naturally like to share who they are and tell their personal stories when they start to find affinity with a group of other people online. If the incidence of people interjecting irrelevant slice of my life details in Yelp reviews is any indication, there are a lot of people who have begun to feel a social connection to Yelp or a group of Yelpers. I'm also noticing that people are reviewing businesses based on their first impressions of a business. In a drive to have something to say to their audience, community, or whoever they feel they are communicating with, they go into stores, look around, and write a review based on the short experience they had there. This is not necessarily wrong, but they're just not reviews. They're posts.

These behaviors are the Yelp version of the age old problem of the off-topic post that sidetracks a discussion thread away from the intended purpose of the thread's starter. As people in an online community become more and more familiar with each other, the likelihood of them bringing up tangents and following tangents increase. For a traditional online community, this is a good sign even if it is a minor problem sometimes, but for any site like Yelp that's using social networking as a strategy to grow, it can be a viral strategy that causes unintended secondary infections.

The embellishments, personal stories and non-review reviews are good for the online community, but as a whole they don't make the reviews more worthwhile. A more strict editorial policy could help repair the damage, but would such policies end up alienating the very users responsible for them becoming the latest in the string of Silicon Valley dot-com darlings? A lot of reviews would surely get shot down. Some of the ones that would get deleted may even be good stimulants for more rational reviews as a community reaction. Would editorial control stiffle creativity and kill what makes the site so entertaining for a lot of people?

Reviews sites featuring community published opinions and locally based anything (outside of Craigslist) have had a troublesome history as sustainable businesses. Yelp is both and it looked like a game changer to me until I noticed recently that their most valuable assets were also liabilities.They still may end up being a game changer, but there are some problems with their formula that need to be fixed first. Going the way they're going now, I don't doubt that Yelp could become a profitable entity, I just don't see them as game changers.

By the way, earlier I said "perceived in-crowd" because it's ludicrous to lump all the dedicated Yelpers into a single social group. It's unfair, but it's a real problem nonetheless. Rightfully so or not, to a growing minority of people, "Yelper" is a social demographic that they have negative stereotypes about.

Social Networking is not the next Email

Last week on NPR's Marketplace radio program, a guest commentator gave a one minute opinion that Social Networking is going to grow and grow and be the next big technology. I believe he said it'll be the next "email." The specifics of what was said and who it was aren't important. As all the people who missed the fuss over MySpace have now become engrossed in their new Facebook lives, there is a growing sentiment that Social Networking will eventually be significant part of everyone's life.

By the way, your refrigerator will also be smart enough to realize that the RFID milk container in your refrigerator is running low and will either put another gallon on order for you or tell your PDA to remind you to pick some up without you clumsily trying to fat finger it in. So, what else is new? We've heard this before.

No, I'm not pooh poohing the importance and relevance of social networking technologies to the modern world as we know it. It definitely will grow. It certainly will have a significant impact on life as we know it--some of it will be good. Some of it won't. I draw the line on saying that it will be the next big thing--a killer app on the level of email.

By the way, the first time I heard that social networks were the next killer app was in 2003. Each year, it was a different champion that was supposed to lead us to the promised land. Each year, we've moved forward, but I'm not holding my breath for a promised land anytime soon for one reason. I'm not waiting for the right technology. I'm waiting for fatigue.

I've enjoyed online communities since 1986. I still enjoy them, but it's not the thrill it once was. It's gotten old hat. My enthusiasm for these many to many networking technologies have waned and risen again through the years, oftentimes coinciding with a new group of people I liked to "hang with" online, but it's no accident that I don't have a MySpace page and I'm not swept up by Facebook mania (BTW, please stop Super Poking me people. I get too many email notifications as it is).

We will not know the true extent of how pervasive social networking (as we know it) will be in the future until the majority of people out there say the same thing I say to myself whenever I see the latest thing: "I've seen this before somewhere. This one is better looking and has a lot more features, but it reminds me of something I used 10 years ago."

Enthusiasm drives the social networking craze of today. Another word that begins with the same letter will be just as important in driving the social networking industry of tomorrow. The word is "endurance" as in the endurance of the social network user to continue to keep in touch with everyone online when it is no longer the thing he or she is looking forward to every day. Anyone can get to feel small fame in a social network, but there comes a day when you tire of never getting any fan mail or you start to see answering fan mail as a responsibility rather than a thrill.

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