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Quitters, Speculators And Spectators

If you, like me, consume news and information mostly fed by the usual tech/digital sources, odds are that you would not have missed the outrage du jour — Google’s cumbersome attempts at streamlining the identities of their user base across their product lines. The right or wrong of it aside, I think we need something new to get worked up about every couple of weeks. Consequently, the highly-connected community goes through phases of quitting Facebook (because of privacy and UI/UX concerns), Twitter (because of how they treat the developer ecosystem) and Google (too big a list to be listed here).

At the end of each of these episodes, a bunch of geeks will go and attempt to build products/platforms that aim to provide a viable alternative. A handful actually will quit and a fraction of those will write blog posts about the whole experience, while most of the users stick on as the benefits from using these products outweigh their negatives. In a sense, quitting digital products is like weight-loss these days, only that the former is at best a niche hobby, while the latter is a multi-billion dollar industry.

Through all of this, the normal users (including my parents) seem to not care much. More of them are now exposed to the same products and engage with them without the worries that seem to affect us to no end. The number of people who seem to agree with Zuck’s assertions on privacy or Google’s assumptions on why enforcing real names and a singular identity is much bigger than what a vocal minority comprises. But, unfortunately, our proclivity towards pushing the ‘one right way’ to use a product or a platform, is something that blinds us to all of this.

That said, I deleted my personal Facebook account in 2011. I have a friendless, hidden account that work compels me to keep (same as a Google+ account I have) on the side to admin pages and I don’t miss it much. My concerns were really not related to privacy. I’d be very surprised if it is no longer impossible for the state to get its hands on any piece of information, should it want to. On that front, technology has always provided only reasonable safeguards and not an absolute one. Privacy is a social expectation and that technology can help in delivering. Most of us seem to not comprehend that minor, yet significant, distinction.

Anyhow, coming back to Facebook, I quit it because it was absolutely the best time sink I could ever find. I would waste hours mindlessly clicking through pictures and profiles and, even after trying hard, it was impossible for me to use it in a productive manner. The problem was with me and not with Facebook. It was as simple as that. Which, once again, brings us back to the same point, that technology and platforms are only amplifiers and enablers. They cannot provide motive by themselves. We, the people, provide that motive. So, instead of trying to fix technology, a lot of problems in the world can be solved if we try to fix our own (often) not-so-good motives.

Speculators

Speaking of motive, nobody seems to agree anymore on why bitcoin moves in any direction at all. It is, frankly, amusing to see the volley of “it is so dead” stories pop-up every time it drops in value and the corresponding “second gold” stories pop-up every time it goes up in value. For me Bitcoin is just a different form of derivative. In fact, it is exactly what a derivative would look like if it did not have its origins in the financial industry. But, that does not make it any less a derivative (which is mostly glorified legitimacy-clad-speculation).

In a world that is increasingly depending on speculation to work as they key driver of growth ($4 billion valuation for a 3-year-old company should be enough proof of that), bitcoins are a natural fit. The greatest attraction towards it is that there is no regulatory authority for bitcoins. But, as it is with any fringe phenomenon that goes mainstream, there are already workarounds being put into place. We have started to see legitimate speculators now move into the domain and it won’t be long (especially if it sustains its current levels of volatility) before cartels are formed around market movers. And we’ll be back to square one then.

Spectators

It has now been nearly four-months since I decided to quit Twitter for a week. The reason why I quit, I’ll save it for another post. It really has nothing to do with platform issues, tech or time-wasting. I do swing by regularly, read a bit of my timeline and go away. On most days it is painful an experience. The amount of snark and vitriol on display is amazing; so is the lack of consideration towards both individuals and organizations. It is almost like we are constantly on the lookout for a mistake or an error that we can put out on display as someone’s stupidity.

Once I accomplish what I need to, I will re-engage on Twitter, but this part of it troubles me a lot. Yes, it is wrong to say that everything is negative, there is a decent share of positive, which is what brings me back regularly to read up on the timeline, but I honestly believe that most of us are far better people than we allow ourselves to be seen as.


Go Through This Checklist If You Want To Build A New Twitter

There is a lot of ire about what Twitter is doing to its developer ecosystem and its users these days. An often-mentioned suggestion that comes out of it is to build another Twitter, this time one that will set right all the wrongs. Even before we get around to the question whether any product developed thus will eventually wind up facing the same problems as Twitter, we have to first figure out what exactly is Twitter before we attempt to outdo it.

Most of the current ire with Twitter are the recent changes to the usage of the API and changes to how tweets and timelines can be displayed in third-party clients, but Twitter itself is a lot beyond just an API and a bunch of clients. To compete effectively with it does not mean that it will be good enough to create an awesome API which the developers will love. Twitter is a lot more than that.

Messaging Network: At its heart, Twitter is a massive messaging framework. It does nothing more than pick up a message, check with a set of rules who all gets to see it and dumps it with the bunch of people who are authorized to view that message. Clients can look up a user’s dump and render it. By the latest count, the platform handles 340 million tweets a day, which is replicated into numerous timelines (mentioned as dumps earlier). It is not trivial to engineer even just this part of Twitter.

API: Every client (including the official web frontend) displays data consumed from the API endpoints provided by Twitter. Almost all of the user-facing applications that are built atop Twitter leverage this API as web clients, standalone apps and mobile apps. Thankfully, Twitter seems to have so far stayed clear of having a restrictive license on the API specification itself. So replicating the API to allow existing clients to reuse their code should not be a problem. There is, though, no certainty that Twitter won’t change its mind regarding this, irrespective of the very problematic question whether APIs can be copyrighted or not.

Social Graph: Twitter, like any other large-sized network, is as much about the finesse of the product as it is about the number of people using it. For most users the restrictions of the API and the changes to it are inconsequential. For every developer adversely affected by the changes, there are probably a million users who could not care less about it. Without the users, no Twitter replacement will work, no matter how good/open/flexible it may be. If the reason why you are building a new Twitter is to address the griefs of the developers than the consumers it just will not work. Developers augment the network, but they are not the network by themselves.

Brand Partnerships: One of the reason why Twitter has done well is also the partnerships the company has built over time. The first iteration of this was seen in the ‘verified’ badge. We often underestimate the importance of that little badge in quickly it has been adopted, often by people who have struggled to even maintain a basic website. Historically, there is no parallel to the variety of users/brands who have come forward to claim their digital presence as it has happened on Twitter. Same is the case with non-verified official handles. We have never seen before a situation where television channels have voluntarily carried the branding of a communication platform that does not belong to them (by their usual standards, they would build a Twitter of their own and promote it. Example: NDTV Social which now augments than to aggregate). Twitter is gradually building and solidifying these partnerships to things that extend beyond the ‘verified’ badge with initiatives like cards. Over time, due to the authenticity (of the brand’s presence) and the reach (of Twitter) it will be really tough for a competitor to sell itself.

Mobile: This one is simple. Twitter has partnerships with 175 carriers around the world. This provides them with various degrees of advantages including discounted rates for access over SMS compared to other numbers. In an environment where voice revenue is falling or stagnating around the world non-voice and data revenue is a main focus area for telcos across the world. Anyone looking to take on Twitter will have to take this into account. Another aspect to keep in mind on mobile is the money spent on support SMS messages – it is not cheap.

Funding: As an indirect fallout of the Facebook IPO debacle, the valuation bubble in pre-IPO companies are now taking a bit of a beating. When hypergrowth itself does not perk up a company’s potential valuation it will limit the  ability of companies to raise money and stay true to the core ideals.

Revenue: For ads to work on services like Twitter you need scale. For scale you need to have massive number of users using the service regularly. At $5 per month per user, you won’t get anywhere with user acquisition. How do you eventually scale this business?

Conclusion: If you can address at least some of the above points you could probably wind up successfully building a new Twitter. The odds are that nobody is going to be able to do that.

 


Review Of Prismatic

Wavii and Prismatic are two of the latest warriors in the perilous battlefield of automated social content discovery and recommendations and over the past few weeks I have grown quite fond of using Prismatic. The domain of automated content discovery has seen much money and effort invested into it with companies like Evri/Twine, SocialMedian, Summify either shutting down or being acquired into larger products to be integrated as smaller features or as talent acquisitions. So it is surprising to see even more resources being plonked into a domain that has repeatedly proven to be either plumbing with no real scope as a consumer-facing business.

One reason why this is happening is because nobody has successfully cracked this space, exposing the underlying technology in the form of a useful, simple service than as something which is inherently nerdy in nature. Recommendation engines that work on unstructured text requires a mixture of content crawling, classification and content clustering to make it work right. Each of those three aspects are hard to crack by themselves, requiring a lot more than just your average web development chops. Together, they are an unattainable holy trinity. There is a good reason why so many companies and smart people have failed at it. That is also one of the best reason to have a go at it again.

Then there is the aspect of the RSS readers — another domain that has seen many a brave product, person and purse eventually call it quits, with not a single big product from five-years-ago being alive in 2013. You can, justifiably, argue Google Reader is still alive in somewhat a whittled down form, but even in its heyday the product could not grow into the mainstream. RSS is inherently plumbing for the connected web. It is not meant to be consumed by humans. Yet, the entire workflow around using RSS was built around human intervention. There is a good reason why it never took off.

Why I like Prismatic a lot is because it excels at executing the holy trinity really well. The on-boarding is ridiculously simple – you hook up your Twitter account (in my case, since I am not on Facebook) and it figures out a list of things you like based on your profile. It presents you with a list of links to read right when you log in. There is no “hey, check in 10-hours later when we’d have crawled content for you” in their case. For a non-technical audience this is crucial. Even more crucial is the fact that you need to curate anything at all, it figures out what you like by tracking what you clicked/opened.

Comparatively, Wavii is a more nerdy experience. The on-boarding is nowhere close to being as polished as Prismatic and even after a while on the service it leaves me quite confused. Consumer-facing applications cannot afford to appear convoluted and complicated, especially in the iOS era. Wavii is much more an alpha/beta a product than Prismatic, but that is understandable as Prismatic is better capitalized and has been around for quite a while with some top-notch talent trying to solve the hard problems associated with getting their product right.

In my opinion Prismatic is the next step from Google Reader. Underneath the shiny bits Prismatic polls RSS feeds, crawls updated pages, classifies the information, generates content summaries, titles and images and presents the story to you as a simple news/content item. But, as a regular user, you are not exposed to any of those shenanigans. Instead, all you get is an endless stream of news/information with an exceptionally high degree of relevance with zero active input from you.

If I had money to invest, I would certainly invest a fair chunk with Prismatic. I am still not sold on the idea that niche products like these can stand on their own two legs and scale into the hyper growth phase. But I am pretty certain that should the team choose to sell in the future, the exit would be fairly large for everyone involved and deservedly so too.

Disclosure: I have no connections with either product directly (other than a two bug reports) or through my clients.


Publishing, Distribution And Consumption In A Brave New World

One of my greatest disappointments with the past ten years in the digital sphere has been the absence of the creation of something that is immense. The eighties saw the growth and evolution of computing in the personal sphere, the nineties saw the evolution of the internet. But, over a decade into the new millenium, we have nothing to show more than refined versions of what has already been put into place. What I did not realize was that we may just be in the midst of experiencing something that is immense, but that something may not be a particular technology or a product. That something is only what a bunch of technologies or products enable us to do with information.

The past 15-years has been a frantic, often unpredictable, ride for the publishing business. What, even 20-years-ago, was the domain of the few has exploded into a creature so different that everyone who reads or write anything these days are still struggling to grasp the enormity and the meaning of the changes that are affecting it. The existing rules regarding who, why and what gets published is being shred to bits and new rules are being made up every day. All parts of the trade — writing, editing, distribution and consumption — are so drastically different from two-decades ago. This is disruption on a scale seldom experienced before.

Death of many gatekeepers

Content is now created on so many platforms – blogs, tweets, personal websites, photo sharing sites; content is now distributed over so many channels – email, social networking sites, content aggregators; content is now consumed over so many channels – browsers, desktop applications, mobile applications, email. What used to be a strictly linear process (create -> distribute -> consume) is now something that is best described as being similar to Brownian motion. What used to be predictable in most cases is vastly unpredictable now. In this brave new world almost everyone is a participant and nobody is a real gatekeeper anymore.

In a pre-internet world there existed clear definitions regarding producers/writers, distributors and consumers of content. Content could be only a handful of things; books, articles in newspapers and magazines. Only a handful of people were either allowed or enabled to create this content and there were clear rules regarding membership into this select club. This content was consumed over clearly defined channels like books, news publications and magazines. If you could not access any of these channels, what you wrote had little value as nobody could consume it. Consumers of content had no other available option, but to be reliant on the established channels.

The scenario now is so very different. Almost anyone is now a creator of content. And by anyone I mean anyone. For a long time now, I have held that there is no social media. There are only creators, distributors and consumers of media/content. Comments, tweets, mashups, curated lists – all these are as much content as any form of reporting or long form writing. Of course, all comments, tweets and mashups are not the same quality as all reporting out there, but it is also true that all reporting is not really all that great. Yes, it is jarring to see slang, SMS-language and badly written text in things I read, but that does not make it any less useful or informative compared to established publications.

This has serious implications for the old guard. Gatekeepers, in any ecosystem, wield tremendous power. This power is accrued from predictability, reach and resources. Publications are valued because they publish to a predictable schedule, with a quality that is predictable, with topics that are predictable. Publications are valued based on the number of people they can reach. Publications are also valued based on their ability to cover topics; some cover a large number of topics at a shallow level; some cover fewer topics at a far deeper level. The new world of content and publishing has attacked each and every source of power of the gatekeepers.

Implications on the present

The first implication of this is on pricing. Ability-driven scarcity has been one of the key factors in enabling publications to charge what they used to charge. Since the information they publish is no longer scare, that rug has been firmly pulled out from underneath their feet. Almost every new old-school style publication that has attempted to charge a premium in recent years has tried to based it on opinion or exclusivity than attempting to do it over information. The businesses based on pushing information like in the old ages will survive as long as digital reach continues to exhibit the current constrained growth and the lack of understanding and translating key businesses metrics in digital remain. But it is an inescapable fact that such businesses are living on borrowed time.

In 2004, I remember telling my boss at that time that we need to pro-actively plan for a world where we can’t control the form factor or context in which information published by us will appear. In 2012, I consume most of the content I read and view now from my Twitter timeline, Hacker News and Google News. There are very few instances where I consume content from homepages of publications. I had previously tackled this topic in 2010 and the risk to brands and publications on this front continue to only grow with time. Brands and publications that ignore this threat will pay a big price in the coming years.

Crystal Ball

It would be the greatest lie if I were to tell you that I know exactly how this is going develop and what the future of publishing will look like. Currently, content anywhere is one of the bleakest businesses to be in at scale, while it is one of the easiest to bootstrap and hit Ramen profitability, should you choose to put your mind to it. Nearly non-existent entry barriers (domain registration & basic web hosting) and a preponderance of Ramen profitability creates an illusion of stellar prospects for the domain, but the actual outlook at scale is really dire. It is rare to find successful large-scale digital/non-digital publications that are in the black. The risks in being involved in the domain with any sort of significant investment on either side of the table is significantly high.

For existing publishers, the way forward is to measure everything and understand the numbers and your core audience very well. Monetization strategies will continue to be unpredictable for many years to come. That you are pulling good revenue is now not a guarantee of the same in anything other than the immediate term. Audience funnels and goals need to be set and tracked as a core operational metric. The industry still has an excessive reliance on gross numbers that does not differentiate in value between customer A and customer B. If you can’t make that differentiation, it is only natural that you can’t monetize better.

For investors, at least in India, publishing is a no-go territory for any fund that probably has a size in excess of $100 million. There is no scale in the business at this point which will allow for returns that justify the investment. Even established players have been demonstrating flat or slow growth in revenue (no point talking profitability) over the past three-years. Even that growth is impacted by increasing operating costs that have not slowed down in the same years. Valuation, based on potential, can be easily ignored here. Exits are rare and at a level that makes no sense for anyone other than the founders and some form of relief for early stage investors. There are way too many shackles that make any attempted disruption too costly.

For the consumers, publishing is a lovely place to be at right now. Both quality and quantity has grown in content that is available for consumption. The growth is quantity has also led to the emergence of aggregators and curators. They used to play an important role in the early web as consequence of nearly non-existent means of searching the web with its limited content at that time (problems of discovery and scarcity of content), now they play an important role because of the excess of content that is available for consumption. Things will only get better for them. These are the true winners in this game.


Influencers, Initiatives And Their Impact In Digital India

This is a post that has been in the making for a while. Having failed at trying to frame it properly all this while I figured it was better to just write it the way it came out. Before I start off I should make it clear that I am not an entirely unbiased party in all of this. I have my skin in the game in the social* industry segment primarily through Shack Companis who have been a client of mine for about a year now. They are involved in various aspects of the industry built around the digital social system and the subject I am about to cover are equally applicable to them too.

As a sort of an insider (due to my aforementioned work) and as an outsider (thanks to sometimes being considered an influencer due to my 1600 followers as of August 13, 2012) I am fairly unenthused by how brands and agencies are using the social platforms to promote themselves through various events. The concept of using special initiatives as entry points to having a substantial presence in earned media is nothing new. The practice itself is almost as old as Twitter’s breakthrough into the internet’s public consciousness; but with time agencies have figured out how to game this system and give an exaggerated view of the impact and effectiveness of the initiatives.

To be honest, this form of misrepresentation is only a small chunk of the larger problem of determining key metrics for anything digital. Even as the domain slowly creeps up on its 20th birthday, the tooling to measure various aspects of the digital business is still notoriously absent, be it on the product side or, more crucially, the investors’ side. We have seen the industry progress from the ‘eyeballs’ of bubble 1.0 to the ‘likes’ of the current times, both driving often misinformed decisions at the product, process and business levels of any digital operation.

Anyhow, going back to the special events bit, I was fortunate to be invited to one such event. Now, I need to make it clear that I don’t consider myself as in influencer. Yes, I have about 1.5K followers on Twitter, but most of that is thanks to being one of the early adopter crowd (started in mid-2007) and organically getting to that figure. If you have been around for that long on Twitter and have been an active user, you’d also probably have a similar or greater number of followers. I am not on Facebook or on Google+ and I love Twitter for the small, but carefully curated, list of people I follow there (and dislike it with a vengeance for odd periods when I see lynch mobs form).

Thus, the invite did not make me feel the full weight of my influencer status, rather, it made me feel quite grateful that as a near-nobody I was getting an opportunity to do something that I’d otherwise probably be unable to do. The invite was to drive a few laps in a newly-launched car at the Buddh International Circuit and being a fanatic motorsports fan I jumped at the opportunity. The event was well-organized and it came with no conditions that I generate any given number of tweets about it. The organizers were even kind enough to accommodate a dear friend of mine to be a part of the event. So, what exactly went wrong?

What I did not like was that at the registration counter for the event we were asked to register our Twitter/Facebook accounts at a kiosk and during the registration the application posted tweets/updates on our accounts without informing/asking us about it. This is where the mechanics of the exercise comes into play. If you have 50 people registered for an event and if you get all of them to tweet with the same content or hashtag, you can easily amplify it through a network of ten others re-tweeting it, thus easily creating a trend out of it for smaller demographies like India. And the sad fact was that the event was so good that if it was not for that forced tweet, at least I would have tweeted a lot more about it.

Since that time I have declined similar invitations. I did attend another event at BIC, but that was thanks to an invite to a relative of mine to a members-only event for owners of a particular make/model of automobile. For me, there is an inherent conflict involved in this – both as a consultant working in the space and as someone who likes other things outside work like travel and music. It is a conflict that I have seen before in my years in the media – of paid junkets for journalists – and I would really dislike to see the same thing happen in digital social ecosystem.

That said, it would be wrong to paint the entire practice as wrong with a broad brush. I do enjoy some of the content that is posted by the participants in events. But I am never sure if the participants would post as much or the make the same posts if they were not, in a manner of speaking, sponsored by a company. This is the key conflict where the ‘earned’ in all of this slowly crosses over into ‘paid’ even if that payment is indirect. What makes it worse is that brands are often sold the impact of an event on the volume than quality/sentiment. Even when sentiment is measured, it is often inaccurate as even the more accurate sentiment measuring tools don’t get it right enough for our market.

I do not, though, have any solutions to offer for this conundrum. For both brands and users it is crucial to understand that reputations are hard to earn and easy to squander. For me at least, Twitter is like a little social club of around 100-people I like to know and converse with. I have little desire to use it to excessively promote myself or my work. I love the ability to be able to speak my mind on it without having to think twice about professional conflicts and I intend to keep it that way.


Quick Note On IPL Live Streaming Revenues

Going by YouTube’s own numbers (as of 9:30 AM, May 12, 2011), the channel seems to have recieved about 5.7 million views so far this month, which is also the month of the IPL. Going with a CPM of Rs. 200 for the pre-rolls, that would have generated about Rs. 11 lakh in revenue so far. The channel has four banner spots when the live match is on. Even if you go with the really unrealistic assumption of Rs. 200 CPM for each of those slots the total revenue would add up to less than Rs. 60 lakh so far. Even if we were to blindly double the numbers (2x everything), the revenue is not going be more than Rs. 2 crore. I’m being extremely cavalier with the numbers here and erring massively on the side of overestimation.

Now, why is this important? Simple reason is that the rights holders need to monetize at the rate of about Rs. 65 crore per year to even break even on what they paid for the rights. There is also streaming of the clips on Indiatimes itself, which should bring in additional revenue and other aspects like mobile should chip in chunks on their own, but I don’t see it all adding up to Rs. 65 crore this year. Granted, the numbers maybe way off from what is actually the case (the slots could also be spot than CPM, making the estimates entirely invalid) and the consortium that got the rights were rushed into selling it at the last moment and they could do a better job next year, but the bottom line is that monetizing this right is going to be tough. Really tough, in fact.


Abuse Of Discourse And Communication

In the 1990s, as an adolescent, in the small town that I grew up in, there was not much to hold my attention or answer a million questions I had about everything. When I was not making barely serious enough attempts to stay out of trouble, I would be reading anything and everything I could lay my hands on at the local British Council Library. There were not many shelves in the library that did not receive my attention, even on topics that I could understand little of. And my first memorable interaction with a computer was with the terminal attached to their cataloguing system.

It was around the same time that I first started hearing about the internet and a fancy bit of technology that enabled users to browse virtual worlds. Clubbing those with my favourite distraction I came up with a naive vision of the future where I could go 'vitually' to any library I wanted in the world and read all that I could. Few years later, I was introduced to dial-up internet, Netscape Navigator became a familiar bit of software, VRML failed to live up to its promise, the virtual libraries never manifested, but I found another universe of learning online.

I owe a lot of what I have and what I know to a lot of people. Most of them faceless and represented by walls of text posted online. I do believe that we significantly underestimate the impact the internet has had on humanity in allowing people the freedom to express themselves. Publishing your thoughts to an audience is a concept that is innate to us digital natives. It may even become the most-used form of communication for the generations that are to come, but we should ignore, at our own peril, how we got here.

Looking back in history, the same act of publishing was not available to everyone. Even before the advent of printing, the written word and knowledge was the domain of a select few and knowledge was hoarded and kept away from the masses. Even after Gutenberg's game changing contribution in the form of the printing press, being able to express freely was not an option available to most for centuries to come.

In essence, what we take for granted today is something over which many have been persecuted and killed.

It is easy to overlook all of this when you post a blog, tweet about something or post a comment on one of million websites on the internet. We tend to forget that what we enjoy today is a privilege that most of humanity did not enjoy for many hundreds of years. It is a privilege that a vast percentage of humanity won't enjoy for many decades to come still.

In saying what we normally say and write online, we often forget that essential, yet hard-to-find, quality of humility. We don't have to write tomes expressing something deep, technical and complicated to make it worthwhile. We just have to remember in the bits and bytes we contribute, we are in real-time leaving behind a legacy that will be looked up by generations to come.

The internet of today has swelled not only in terms of the consumers, but also in terms of the producers of content. Unfortunately, this has also resulted in an increased degree of intolerance and a disposition towards outshouting each other. To be online today is to be put through a wave of half-truths, misrepresentations and spite to a great extent. In opening up the tools to publish one's self to a much wider audience, we have allowed the immediacy and reach to mesmerize us than the be influenced most by the value of what we have to say.

I find it very saddening that such a powerful tool is now used in ways that spread so much misinformation and spite. I guess a little more of consideration, a little less of aggression and a whole lot more of helpfulness can't be too much ask?


A Social Reboot

When I got off Twitter (I do log in there every now and then) and disabled my Facebook account, it was not meant to be a permanent thing. I had a massive backlog to run through when December 2010 came around and cutting off these two were one of the many steps I had taken to ensure that I don't lose focus. It is now close to two months since I have posted anything on Twitter and almost a month since I disabled my Facebook account. Surprisingly, I don't miss either all that much.

Before I go any further, I should clarify that some of my observations regarding usage of these platforms are very specific to me. It may or may not apply to you (chances being more of the latter). I have also been off instant messengers (with the exception of Skype for work) since 2008, making me very old school. Email and phone have been the best ways to reach me for a while now.

Usage

Twitter: My typical use of Twitter has been a 60:40 split between sourcing information/links and conversations. I don't follow a lot of people and have always tried to keep the number under 100 since anytime it has gone above 90 the noise just completely overwhelms the signal for me. I also don't have the bandwidth to handle any volume greater than that. But I do reply to pretty much every tweet that addresses me (well, save some of the endlessly repetitive #ff tweets).

Facebook: I am most certainly the 20 in the 80:20 creation:consumption ratio on Facebook. I rarely post anything there, but browse a lot, 'like' the odd artifact or two and keep up on what friends are telling others what they are up to these days. Facebook used to be the third persistent tab on my browser (the first two being Gmail and Google Reader), though I could rarely understand why. Guess it was more of a habit – command+3, command-r.

Value

Twitter: To say I have been completely off Twitter would not be true. Other than regular lurking sessions, there is an experimental site that I run (now very broken), which picks up the links from my Twitter timeline, crawls the links, excludes some that I don't like (Techcrunch, Foursquare) and throws a RSS feed at me that I follow in Google Reader. The value I have gotten from Twitter as an interest-driven content source has been excellent. It augments my Google Reader subscriptions well. Only if I could de-duplicate, cluster and classify all these sources into a single feed..

How much do I miss Twitter? On a scale of 1-5, I think a 3 is an ideal representation of this. It could have been higher, but over time I started having fewer conversations that were more than just chatter and I was getting more into broadcast-only mode. Yes, I could prune and change my follow list to address it, but I don't have the inclination to do that. And Twitter does not help matters much by having a horribly broken discovery mechanism. The 'similar people' feature is a joke.

Facebook: If one word could sum up my usage of Facebook it would be 'timesink'. Facebook is almost entirely personal contacts for me, so there is little professional value for me from it. The third tab has been my favourite source of distractions and as a product Facebook excels at that. My real value from Facebook has been birthdays. I am awful at remembering these things and in the previous layout of Facebook it was easy to see them. The day they changed it, one of my major reasons to use Facebook also disappeared.

How much do I miss Facebook? On a scale of 1-5, it is probably zero. The first few days I had to fight the habit of opening the third tab and key in 'f' and wait for auto-complete to do the rest of the magic. After a week or so, I did not even remember the reasons as to why I was there in the first place. I do like having more time on my hands to read things I like (books, for instance) and not hang out on the computer blindly clicking away at links.

This, by no means, is not representative of most people I know. It is actually representative of the problems I have. I have a personality that is very prone to addictions like those. A normal addiction grants you something valuable – a rush, a fix etc – but for me most addictions just grant a pattern or a habit to break the monotony. It is what I call the anticipation rush – the rush that when the data loads on your system, you feel you'll find something exciting there. This dies as soon as the page load is over.

What Next?

I do spend a fair bit of time on Quora and Hacker News. I jump in on the odd thread where I feel I have something useful to contribute. They are not beyond the flaws mentioned about Facebook and Twitter earlier in the post, but they work much slower and there is an inbuilt incentive to not contribute in both places unless you have something of use/value to say. I have to admit, I quite like that.

At this stage, I don't see myself activating my Facebook account again. I simply don't see what do I stand to gain from it. Twitter – I may get back on it, but I want to try something else before I do that. Over time, I have been increasingly wary of not owning the content and conversations that I contribute. I don't want to own all of it, but I don't like this current situation where I don't own most of it. Also, I want to see if I can patch together some of these on this blog and my personal domain. Yes, I won't ever probably go viral (not like I ever have), but I kind of like that better.

A smaller audience, better quality conversations and ownership of the context/content – sounds like a workable plan to me.


Elgg, Buddypress, Drupal: Different Flavours for Different Reasons

One question that I repeatedly get to hear from users and clients trying to set up private social networks is the ‘which’ part of it. This post is meant to act as a very lightweight guide for that process. We will consider only Elgg, Buddypress and Drupal for this. There are numerous other options available like Dolphin, Ning and Jomsocial, but Ning falls out of the list due to it being a hosted solution and I have little experience with Ning and Dolphin in their current iterations.

The crucial question in selecting one of the many options is whether you know what you actually want? The effectiveness of the solution used can vary wildly depending on how clear you are about what you really want. Some of the solutions are pretty close to plug-and-play. Install them, fill in some data and you are good to go. The others are barebones frameworks, they need a lot of work to be made into a product. Clients also often make the grave error of underestimating the management overheads of running a full fledged social network. Between the technology, product and administration tasks it can easily wind up taking up a lot of your time (and often money too).

Social network frameworks also require much higher specification infrastructure to support it. While you can keep a blog going on a $3-per month shared hosting solution, most of these social networking products will start to become unusable on shared hosting as your user base and concurrent usage starts to climb. In such a scenario, it may be the best idea to go with a Ning or the commercial offering of Elgg, so that you are shielded from the technology parts of the puzzle.

A quick checklist of things that will make your choices easier would run like this:

1. How many users are you looking to support
2. Will it be only free users or paid users or a mix of paid and free?
3. How comfortable are you with managing technology (both coding and infrastructure)
4. Minimum budget
5. Time that you are willing to spend on it
6. What degree of support are you willing to provide users?

Most of the private social networks can be split into three kinds:

1. Solely for communication: You want only the ability for members to sign up and communicate with each other in common threads.
2. Full featured: You want a clone of the features of the bigger networks.
3. Full featured and heavily customized: You want a clone of the bigger networks and also a lot of custom features added on.

In the case of (1), you can easily make do with a Google Groups set up or something similar to that. Anything else is really an overhead that you get little value from. For (2), go with one of the commercial offerings and you will get the best of both worlds. (3) is where most of my work has been and in and thus the longer elaboration on the point.

In using a customized solution you are making a substantial commitment to a platform from which switching won’t be easy or cheap. Each platform has its own strengths and weaknesses, but one thing that is common among all of them is that after a point in the growth curve you have to constantly reevaluate problems you had fixed earlier. A simple example is of a feature that lists all users in a single page. This may work flawlessly when you have hundreds of users, but it will get your site to a crawl when you move into the thousands.

The three solutions under the scanner here – Elgg, Buddypress and Drupal – all take different approaches to producing an outcome largely owing to their respective lineages.

Elgg is a social framework that has a few modules in its out-of-the-box form which enables it to work as a bare-bones product.

Buddypress is based on WordPress and it is now a full fledged plugin on the WordPress platform which is a content publishing engine.

Drupal is a content management framework which has nothing social in it out-of-the-box. It takes a lot of work to get it to be a social networking site. You can read the guide to it here.

The three solutions can be further evaluated under the following heads:

Ease of use (users): Buddypress is the easiest of the three to use since the base framework it uses is WordPress. Elgg comes in second, while Drupal is the hardest to figure out.

Ease of use (site administrators): Buddypress is the easiest again due to the WordPress lineage. Drupal comes second becomes of its superior update notifications and built-in tools to atomically manage users and permissions. Elgg finishes third because of its really clunky administration interface.

Development: Elgg comes in first here because of its origin as a social networking engine. It also has code that is targeted only at PHP5, which means that it carries little bloat from the PHP4 days. It also has the best API of the lot and a well executed views system. Buddypress comes in second because of the simplicity of the WordPress API, but it can quickly become a major limitation if your requirements start of exceed what is provided out-of-the-box by it. Drupal suffers because most of the heavy lifting for the ‘socialization’ of the platform depends on various modules. Customizing these can often be quite complicated.

Platform Maturity: At the core Elgg is the youngest of the three, but it comes up on top again. It is a very well designed and executed platform at its core and its entities system is built to scale well if you can throw the right amount of hardware at it. Drupal comes in second because of the solid core it has been built on top of. Buddypress comes in third because of the core WordPress engine, which is still only a publishing engine and not really a framework.

Flexibility: Drupal comes right on top here because of the dazzling array of modules that it can leverage. There is a module for almost everything you can think of in Drupal. While it is a different matter that it can be a nightmare to integrate them all in a logical manner, the fact is that Drupal does give you the option to pull it off. Elgg comes in second with its well-designed API that allows you to extend it quite well and without too much trouble. Buddypress will be last here because it is tough to get it to do anything that is not there at the core.

It is most tempting to tally these scores and proclaim a winner based on my experiences, but I won’t do that since every social network has requirements that are unique to itself. This is meant more as a guide to help you along the way of making better informed decisions regarding your platform choices.


Giving Back

This year I have supported three Open Source initiatives that I have probably used the most. Elgg, NeoOffice and Wikipedia have contributed greatly to my ability to earn a living, learn a lot more than what I would have otherwise ever known and build and express a lot of ideas and concepts. These are not major contributions and they have been made in a personal capacity, but I do intend to push it up a notch every year and once the company steadies itself I will institute a proper program that will identify more initiatives and contribute a lot more.

A lot of what we are able to do on the web these days is possible due to the work of a handful of people who have often worked for nothing in return. If some of the software that enables us were to be billed at the level that most shrink wrapped software is billed, the internet as we know it would not exist today. You can argue about the validity and feasibility of that model, but you can't argue that all of us have benefitted greatly from it. Even though most of the stalwarts who have put together these things have not demanded money as a must-have in return for what they have created, it is a good gesture to make any contribution that you can make.

If it is possible for you, do try to find one of those that you like and contribute in whatever capacity you can.


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