The Influence Project: An Exercise in Bad Design

Fast Company recently launched their Influence Project, an ambitious endeavor that aspires to answer the question: “Who are the most influential people online now?” It’s a pedestrian enough concept- measuring participants’ influence by the propagation of their personal URL. The catch: It’s easily the most poorly designed design and implementation of this concept to date. A few points:

  • The site takes a full 1:20 to load, if it loads at all. The balk rate will be phenomenal. Moreover, if someone clicks on a participant’s unique URL and decides not to wait for the Flash monstrosity to load, the click is lost (I tested this a few times). This effectively weeds out anyone with a job or a life, which makes one wonder if the project will ultimately reveal the most influential single unemployed people online (in attracting this audience, The Influence Project may actually cause a brief drop in traffic to icanhascheezburger.com).
  • The UI is gratuitous and meaningless. It’s a cluttered collection of profile pictures, each sized to indicate the owner’s “influence.” ┬áIt leaves one begging for TouchGraph.

The most striking thing about this project is that the extraordinary friction in user experience will yield an outcome that the most influential people online won’t pay attention to. Hopefully the results will be summarized in a format that is more accessible than the project itself.

Representation and Startups

Charlie Crystle recently wrote an interesting post about honest self-representation among entrepreneurs. Assessing roles and contributions in early-stage startups can be tough. Ideas tend to morph quickly, there can be a lot of input from different communities, and The Cult of the Inventor tends to dictate history.

Because startups go through several phases before achieving exit or maturity, key contributors who join along the way often have little appreciation for what came before them and little appetite for what has to be done after they leave. And there’s no shortage of ego in the mix.

The term founder can mean a lot of things to a lot of people. Founders usually:

  • Create and shape an idea
  • Create a company
  • Fund or get funding for the company
  • Bring in resources to help execute on the plan

There are myriad books and articles on founders and founding but here’s some dumb advice to anyone who has worked at an early-stage startup and hopes to leverage that experience into another opportunity:

  • If you joined a startup as an employee with a paycheck and others worked long and hard, often without compensation, to create what you’ve joined, give credit where credit is due. You may think that you’re creating all the value going forward, but don’t underestimate the value of what you’ve been given to work with.
  • Don’t inflate your role; don’t diminish the role of anyone else. It may seem tempting to claim sole ownership of something you worked on; it may be equally tempting to marginalize the achievements or involvement of someone else. This is usually transparent, and while it won’t help you, if discovered, it will hurt you.
  • If you were an early employee, but didn’t found, co-found, help conceive of, incubate, encourage, or inspire the creation of the company, don’t say you did. There is plenty of glory and compensation for being an early employee, architect, product maven or leader. And, while being a founder per se probably won’t open any doors, saying you were one when you were not will definitely shut doors.
  • Be careful about characterizing your involvement in fundraising, and be
    prepared to support any claims you’ve made with references. The people who raised the money are the people the VCs/investors believe were instrumental in their investment.

A final note, which should go without saying, but sadly, can’t: When it comes to characterizing your background and that of others, don’t be a jerk. Even if you think you came into a broken situation and turned things around, or if think you created something that someone else subsequently came in and destroyed, simply focus on your achievements in the context of the team and own your mistakes. Avoid assessing blame or implying fault- it will only raise questions and engender ill will and it won’t help you.

A Different Word for Everything

Today’s NYT story on P.R. in Silicon Valley caused a bit of a stir in the blogosphere, most notably with TechCrunch and Scoble. Both make good points, and while PR has changed with social media, it remains as predictably stratified as any other business based on relationships, access, and attention. Not much news there.

The kerfuffle surrounding this, however, isn’t really about P.R. It’s about segmentation. When discussing the rollout strategy for Wordnik, one of his portfolio companies, Roger McNamee is quoted as characterizing TechCunch et al. as cynical. Perhaps it was a poor choice of words (are you really going to coach Roger on diction?), but in the context of Wordnik, it is an interesting choice of words.

Wordnik is a big idea, but it’s not without nuance. It’s a real-time dictionary and concordance and if it’s successful, it will have some interesting and potentially sweeping implications- from how we acknowledge, learn, teach and use language, to the currency of language itself. It’s a social experiment, enabled by technology, but driven by an erudite notion- a notion that a lot of people, including the readers of the blogs referenced, may not find that compelling (and may find trivial, hence the suggestion of cynicism).

Segmentation and targeting pose a dilemma for both sides- we all tire of promotional spam and yet being overtly excluded from outreach sends a pronounced message of omission. Would that this commotion were so simple.

Saying you DON’T care about a handful of influential blogs that can have an impact on your business, and saying it on the front page of the business section of the New York Times, can yield only one outcome- coverage by the disparaged. There’s a word for that.

Kindle Up

I’ve had the Amazon Kindle for just over two weeks. Having followed E Ink for a few years and having played with the Sony Reader, I was a skeptic. Not so much now. A few observations:

  • It is smaller and less odd looking than it appears in photos. This is attributable to the angles used to acheive the form factor.
  • The display, as anticipated, is great, even in direct sunlight.
  • The design and usability are quite good; there is some unpredictable latency.
  • While “always on” it lacks simple sharing functionality, presumably because of DRM.
  • Whispernet makes it a standalone device- I’ve not had a need to tether it to my laptop.
  • The overall portability makes it great for business travel.

The business model has been beaten tirelessly (and often not well), so I won’t address it other than to suggest that anyone who still uses Gilette as a proxy for a consumables business model should pick up a head cleaner for his/her VCR next time he/she is at the local radio store.

Critics who pan the device for lacking a color display are missing the point. The baseline here is ink and paper and a bound publication or newspaper.

Outside of typography, print publishing has arguably seen no consumer-facing innovation or product management for the last five centuries (graphic designers will likely disagree). This, coupled with the fact that most coporeal publications are buried in artifacts of production and efficiency (or lack thereof), means that the reading experience has never been about the reader. The Kindle is meaningful attempt to change that.

Will authors, publisher, and rights holders follow suit quickly enough (or at all) to make the Kindle a success in the mass market? I won’t speculate. For the moment, the Kindle has a spot on my nightstand.

Human Banners- Oh Wait, They’re Called Sandwich Boards?

HB recently wrote a pretty compelling summary of the relative size of Google, both in terms of market cap and share of the ad market. Eye opening, to say the least: Welcome To The Googleconomy.

Those who have been viewing the gPhone-Android-OHA developments of late as a Symbian rehash or a non-event should look at Google’s position in the overall advertising market. It’s amazing to me that when a company that makes its money in advertising (and not just any company) leads the launch of a new mobile platform, so much of the discussion remains around software platform and applications.

Much ado about…

Over the past few days the discussion around who "invented" video overlay ads has reached a new level of, well, intensity Videoegg greeted YouTube’s announcement with a gutsy positioning "welcoming YouTube" to the format, which provoked a response from Jeremy and the discussion devolved into this (you can see my comments here).

While Videoegg’s response to YouTube may have seemed a bit silly, it helped create a debate (admittedly with the help of someone looking to start a debate) in which Videoegg is mentioned in the same breath as YouTube and Brightcove.

The interesting thing here is not the debate over the overlay ad, but, given that there are an infinite number of potential formats for ad units in digital video, why anyone would focus on the format itself. The challenge for Internet video is to make new saleable ad units, and that requires participation from major stakeholders- consumers, agencies, and advertisers. The divide between the what is technically possible with Internet video and what is being bought by advertisers is vast- and the energy around something as seemingly simple as an overlay ad only highlights this gap.

Quote of the Day

From the Washington Post:

“Drinking and driving is never a good idea – least of all when the vehicle involved is a multi-billion dollar Space Shuttle or a high performance jet aircraft,” said Rep. Bart Gordon (D-Tenn.), chairman of the Science and Technology committee.

You can read the story here.