On Facebook’s shaky future..or not

Thought-provoking post on why Facebook, like all networks, is doomed to fade (was their recent drop in US and Canadian traffic the first step?):

Networks have more than a utility based on connections; they also have a shelf life. Our fundamental insight is all those connections can grow or diminish in value at once — based on the context of the network vs. its competitors. Yes, networks rise in value and build gravity to draw masses to their center. But like a planet teeming with life that begins to pollute its own atmosphere, eventually all users long for a fresh start.

Nevertheless, Facebook seem to be continuing to try and innovate: they have a photo-sharing app in the works, and even I was floored by their COO Sheryl Sandberg recently!

Of sociology and Facebook

As someone who studied sociology, I like this NESTA interview of Richard Harper, Principal Researcher at Microsoft and a sociologist by training. He quotes the Canadian sociologist Erving Goffman who said that there are front stages and back stages even in the same room, so when Mark Zuckerberg says that Facebook is the front stage, or the main representation of the self to others, he is misrepresenting what Facebook is about as it is just one of many ways of representing yourself.

Interview with Richard Harper from NESTA UK on Vimeo.

Dooce on social networking

Can’t believe she started 10 years ago. I still remember her name as one of the first to actually get fired from her job because of this thing she did online (a.k.a blogging). Here’s Dooce on the what she thinks of Facebook etc. (not too coincidentally, this is exactly the way I use them too):

“People keep saying that Twitter and Facebook are going to replace blogging. But people use Facebook to keep in touch and people use blogs to tell stories. There are times on Twitter when I find someone and I want to find what else they write, I’m looking around to see if they have a Tumblr or a blog.”

5 Things I’m Thinking About Right Now

Dan Hon and Duncan Gough did it; here are the 5 things I’m thinking about right now (better late than never):

1. The evolution of crowdsourcing: I started a wiki to document the many examples of crowdsourcing when the phenomenon was at its peak over a year ago, but I think it’s time for crowdsourcing to evolve and become something bigger. The criticism of the latest Peperami ad, the creation of which was thrown open to the public on the Idea Bounty crowdsourcing site a while ago, is an indication that it has seen its heyday. Crowdsourcing per se isn’t bad – but it needs to make sense in context. I think initiatives like FrogMob by Frog Design and Open Ideo by IDEO are part of this evolution: sponsorship of ideas (vs. products) is a big part of getting things made, and Frog Design and IDEO are leading the movement by providing this platform. It isn’t about brands like Peperami or Walkers crowdsourcing ads or flavours for their own benefit anymore, it’s about a body of people trying to create something good for the larger public. Therein lies the difference. That’s where I think crowdsourcing is rightly headed.

2. Transmedia experiences will be a regular part of our overall entertainment experience: I have a few thoughts on this bubbling away in my head, on which more at a later date, but I think the days of TV watching as a solitary activity are over. Whether it is LOST or Alice in Wonderland, fans want more than just the uni-dimensional TV or film experience. They want to suggest a twist to the tale and actually see it play it out on screen so they can share it with their friends and family, they want to cut an episode into scenes and tag their friends on Facebook saying that they thought of them when a particular dialogue was exchanged on screen. (No, those possibilities don’t exist – yet!). We will begin to expect our entertainment to be where we want it to be, as opposed to us being where they want us to be – namely the traditional venues of the cinema theatre or our drawing room.

3. The battle for supremacy amongst location-based services: Once upon a time (3 months ago to be precise), it was between Foursquare and Gowalla, but this week onwards the giant of social networking entered the fray and boy is there going to be blood. Whose, it’s too early to say – reports say that Foursquare membership actually shot up as a result of Facebook Places, but with 500 million ‘citizens’ versus Foursquare’s 2.8 million, will it be just too easy for the big guy to trump the little guy, or does the little guy have a secret weapon they’ve been labouring away at in their New York headquarters? Only time will tell.

4. Whether Apple truly believe the iPad and iPhone 4 will keep them going for the next few years as Google plays catch-up.

5. When data roaming charges will be low enough to allow me to check in to places on Foursquare with a clear conscience, when I travel abroad.

So that’s that.

My Life is My Own

I just turned Google Buzz off.

When it launched, I was actually mildly excited, while still perfectly aware that there was no way this could be a Twitter or Facebook killer. Being a Facebook killer is probably what they were aiming for, because Twitter is one of the services it allows you to connect to.

One of the things that Google requires you to do to have Buzz fully functional is to fill out your Google profile (why only for Buzz, I’m not quite sure). It pulls in a few details automatically if you have profiles on any of their owned services like YouTube or Picasa (which I do), and allows you to enter the rest. The whole concept of Google profiles, while disconcerting to me, works for some people, because I’ve noticed more than one person in my Twitter network admitting that their Google profile is now their online CV, more or less. (Personally, I prefer flavors.me because it’s not so controlling – but that’s just me).

Anyway, I was very uncomfortable with the fact that they automatically pulled some of my details in and by default made it public, but since I’m tech-savvy enough to know how to disable those options, I did, as soon as I was able to. Of course in a couple of days Google themselves changed their privacy policy on Buzz and more or less admitted they made a mistake – I’m glad they understood that they started off on the wrong foot there.

Bud Caddell has written a good post about why Buzz doesn’t work for him, and what he says pretty much holds for me too, so I’m not going to repeat it. What I do want to talk about is the increasing sense of discomfort that is pervading my peace of mind as I go about my daily business on the web. Nothing’s changed that much in terms of how I use it – sure, I probably use social networking sites a bit more, but then so does everyone. I guess what I am coming to terms with is that the privileged club I like to think I was part of – the Early Adopters – has now given way to the Late Majority and the Laggard groups, who are completely invading my web spaces and rendering them less enjoyable to me.

Katy Lindemann wrote another nice post a while ago about how she has different rules for accepting people into her spaces on different networks (which I completely agree with). It came up again yesterday when I met her and she told me about how complete strangers were asking to be added as her friend on Foursquare, which as we all know means you allow your connections an uber-increased level of access to your life, because it relays location-specific data.

(As an aside, PleaseRobMe is an extreme case of this. Its creators are making a point, albeit in an uncomfortable manner – don’t check in at your home address and don’t be too forthcoming with your information online. That applies to something like Facebook also – I know plenty of people who have their home addresses on their profiles there).

Getting back to what I was talking about, the Late Majority and Laggards invading my spaces – am I being stupid here to think that I have the right to control my spaces however I want? When a classmate from school that I can’t even remember asks to add me on Facebook, or someone I do not know at all asks to follow me on Buzz, why do I feel more and more like I am losing control? That pressing the ‘ignore’ button is getting to be tiresome, and in itself an invasion of my peace of mind? Clearly it has to do with these sites becoming more popular. Is there any way to circumnavigate that problem? Making something as closed as A Small World is completely out of the question for sites that define themselves as social.

But then I think of  Twitter. These issues crop up much less there. What has Twitter done that is so remarkably right, that no one else can get?

I remember (again) reading a quote recently by Evan Williams or Biz Stone (I can’t remember where it was), that mentioned how no one still knows what Twitter actually is. I think that’s a large part of why it’s so successful. It also isn’t as threatening from a privacy point of view – it doesn’t ask much of you, relationships are allowed to grow as people want them to, there is no pressure to say ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to someone, and it doesn’t spew apps into your face (if that happens, you can simply unfollow the offender).

I know it isn’t easy, and we’re going to have to navigate an increasingly complex web, both figuratively and literally. I just wanted to have my say.

Facebook privacy and all that

In a remarkable coincidence today, I read this post, an interview with an anonymous Facebook employee (the post’s authenticity is being highly debated on the web), which contains this excerpt:

How do you think we know who your best friends are? But that’s public knowledge; we’ve explicitly stated that we record that. If you look in your type-ahead search, and you press “A,” or just one letter, a list of your best friends shows up. It’s no longer organized alphabetically, but by the person you interact with most, your “best friends,” or at least those whom we have concluded you are best friends with.

And then on Facebook, I was messing around with my settings and I noticed this when I clicked the ‘edit options’ link:

So it’s true. I just think that’s quite an amazing thing – I almost didn’t believe it. And for the record, no, I’m not paranoid about privacy issues for the simple reason that I don’t have hundreds of photos on Facebook, though I am very much for privacy as a right.

Mobile in India – Jumping Ahead to the Future

This is a re-post from BBH Labs, where I co-wrote this post with Chandrashekhar L from BBH India and Ben Malbon from BBH Labs.

Image credit: Dipanker Dutta (cc) via Flickr

Brands in India are still struggling with advertising on the internet, even as mobile services steadily explore new territory.

Both mobile and the internet comprise what is popularly known as ‘digital’, yet unlike in Western markets such as the UK or the US, the former is much more powerful and prevalent than the latter. The reason for this is primarily the drop in the cost of mobile usage over recent years, versus the increasing cost of broadband usage. As this blogger says:

“What the Indian telcos should do is adopt a model that was instrumental in driving mobile usage in India. Drop the price points so that even the average person (living on Rs. 100 per day), would find Internet usage compelling, useful, and not frustrating. If they were to adopt a mass usage policy and not price their broadband products based on margins, I believe that in 5 years, India could have at least 100 million broadband users (via DSL, cable modem, Mobile 3G, wiMax, etc.).”

The mobile industry in India is witnessing rapid changes, with voice and messaging charges dropping drastically. Tata Docomo started the concept of “pay per second” not too long ago, which was replicated within a fortnight by all other major players like Vodafone, Reliance and Airtel. Less than a week ago, Reliance (the largest CDMA player) introduced the option of choosing between 1 paise per sms (a measly 0.02 cents) or 1 rupee for unlimited SMS per day (2 cents per day).

The interesting paradox is that while basic call and text charges have dropped to unbelievably low prices, GPRS costs have yet to come down. Therefore, the trend suggests that the evolved value-added services (VAS) will definitely grow at a much lower pace, as those costs aren’t coming down as steeply: accessing services on the phone still costs a lot in India, even though phone tariffs are amongst the lowest in the world.

As more and more people in the country jump on the mobile phone bandwagon, from small villages to large metros, innovation is growing apace. Consider, for example, the new business deal between DirecPay, a bank-neutral payment aggregator service from Times of Money (part of the Times Group, India’s largest media conglomerate) and PayMate, a wireless transactions company. The deal will provide an extended mobile payment facility to merchants who sign up, and with the current rate of penetration of the mobile device in the country at 35% (the number of GSM users alone is at 335.5 million currently), it is likely to bring even more consumers into the considered set of e-commerce users, as Avijit Nanda, the President of Times of Money says.

Image credit: Ken Banks (cc) & Kiwanja.net via Flickr

Mobile phones in India are also extremely powerful social and commercial tools. Nokia handsets are the instruments of choice of the majority of the population in the country (the company owns about 65% of the market share).
Where educational iPhone apps are less than 1000 in number (737 in November 2008) and certainly not as popular as gaming and entertainment apps in the Western world, in South Asia, Nokia has understood the market and is investing in Mera Nokia, a tool that provides farmers with useful crop-related information, Nokia Life, which offers agriculture, education and entertainment service apps specifically targeted at the market in smaller urban and rural areas, Nokia Tej, a mobile order management system, and Nokia Point and Find, a context-aware service that recognizes objects through barcodes and GPS. (Nokia has embarked on the last two as part of the Progress Project, in partnership with Lonely Planet). Airtel (another popular Indian mobile operator) and Thomson Reuters also offer services similar to Mera Nokia.

If the market offers a completely different set of challenges, the only way to counter them is to understand how to leverage the instrument that is clearly succeeding. We imagine something along the lines of the Blyk model would work well here: where advertisers subsidize the cost of mobile usage via targeted advertisements. It may even be possible to build a two-tiered offering like Spotify has for it’s Premium and regular (free) offerings. What Hugo Barra, a Product Manager at Google says is particularly resonant in this respect:

“People will not want to pay for services that they can get for free, and the services will be free because there is a massive opportunity for advertisers to come onto the mobile platform. This is still untapped. Thanks to the proliferation of location information, specific advertising, and I mean non-intrusive advertising can easily come onto the mobile.”

Another opportunity that can be tapped into is the growth of social networks in the country. India is now only behind the US in Twitter usage, and it is 5th in the world in Facebook usage. An interesting model would be to explore a hybrid that combines the extensive usage of mobiles and social networking.

The big players are already realizing the opportunities for promoting social networking services. For instance, Aircel Telecom launched the biggest advertising burst in the telecom category (before Tata Docomo) by showcasing Facebook on mobile while Airtel has launched a campaign of 4 TVCs promoting the use of Twitter. Here is some of the creative from those two campaigns:

According to a 2009 Trendspotting report, online ad spend is only 3% of the total ad spend in India, compared to 8-20% in developed markets. But advertisers are evolving in their use of the online medium by going beyond banner and keyword advertising to creating campaigns that leverage social networks and connectivity, while the use of the mobile phone for advertising is still very rudimentary (mostly used for text-based promotional offers). The increasing use of the internet and especially social networks on the mobile would automatically mean that the online advertising approach gets extended to the small mobile screen as well: 63 million Indians already access internet on mobile as compared to 45 million on the PC (Source: IRS and TRAI estimates).

What’s fascinating – and perhaps instructive – for those involved with making sense of all this in Western markets such as Europe and North America, is how telcos and marketers in India seem to simply be jumping over some of the phases and issues the typical North American marketer might face. Despite the fact that in many ways the technologies at their disposal are less sophisticated than in Western markets, they seem further ahead in terms of mobile utility, mobile commerce & micro-payments, and in many cases more adventurous as far as advertiser-funded mobile platforms are concerned.

We have much to learn.

Ikea’s Facebook Takeover

This Facebook marketing stunt by Ikea reminded me of this. Pretty smart, getting people to talk about Ikea to their network and letting people win stuff, which then spreads, based on the insight that people tend to trust reviews by their friends and family more than any advertising – which ultimately is a win for Ikea. I wonder what’s next. The #moonfruit stunt has already happened on Twitter, so that’s done. Hmmm…

[via Mashable]