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
  • The UI is gratuitous and meaningless. It’s a cluttered collection of profile pictures, each sized to indicate the owner’s “influence.”  It 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.

Why Mobile Apps Aren’t Going Away

Ever since I became involved with the Internet in ’94, there has been debate around the browser’s suitability as a universal client. The argument that the browser could replace the desktop app ecosystem with a single interface was compelling. From a service provider or developer’s perspective, the benefit was obvious: write-once for multiple platforms. Indeed, Oracle even tried to hedge its own bets by releasing it own browser.

It’s taken well over a decade, but broadband penetration, the emergence of cloud services and the adoption of standards have finally helped the browser realize much this promise. Today’s web apps are more sophisticated than many older desktop clients. And HTML 5 will take it even further.

So now that the mobile Internet and Apple’s smartphone hegemony are beginning to heat up, we’re beginning to hear… brace yourself-  disdain for apps and heady aspirations for the mobile browser as a universal client.

Developing mobile apps for Apple, RIM, Android and PalmOS is an expensive proposition. And it’s particularly onerous if your target audience is divided equally across any 3 platforms. But regardless of distribution (closed app store, app market, direct download)  on mobile devices, or how painful the model is, mobile apps are here to stay. Why? Because just as it has been on the PC, consumers drive the prevalent model through adoption and engagement.

What is an app to a consumer? Simply put, on a mobile, it’s a bookmark to an experience. An app is an icon, followed by an interaction. On a handset with a limited form factor and inherent network latency (yes, even 4G), an “app” is the simplest way to get to specific information and functionality. Consumers don’t care how these apps are built. They don’t have an opinion about Apple’s selection process, the splintering of Android or the nuances of Java. Consumers just want the selection and the experience.

There are countless studies suggesting that the mobile web will win. Inevitably, as mobile browsing becomes easier, it will see large gains. But the desktop browsing metaphor won’t fully satisfy mobile users. If history is any indication, the mobile web will eventually win. And when it does, it will have evolved to resemble an iteration of the very app ecosystem it displaces.

Privacy: Enough Already

Now that the privacy fiasco has made the cover of Time Magazine, the road has been paved for Facebook to answer the outcry in pursuit of makeup sex with its members. One of the most fascinating aspects of this episode is how people in different professions responded on the issue of online privacy.

Mark Cuban and Scoble make the point that privacy shouldn’t matter. Facebook is a publishing platform. Cuban and Scoble are public personalities. Their relative prominence makes every utterance an act of publishing. Most consumers are not public figures; they treat communication with friends as just that: communication with friends. One of the points Cuban makes is that consumers obviously don’t share their interests through Facebook to their friends, because, presumably, their friends already know their interests. Therefore, they are really sharing their interests to attract new friends. In theory this seems plausible, but in reality many people use Facebook to get to know their existing friends and family better. These people don’t want their love of Spandex and Air Supply made public. Even if consumers don’t know enough about it to be concerned, privacy does matter. But is it realistic?

Albert Maruggi makes the point that consumers shouldn’t trust their privacy to any corporation that is subject to investor pressure. I agree.

The crux of the issue is that Facebook (and any online business) makes money by acquiring, monetizing and retaining users. To acquire them and monetize them it needs to encourage public sharing (and search discoverability) through default settings and deliberately complex UI design in the opt-out. To retain them it needs to maintain a minimum level of trust with most of its members such that the attrition rate is acceptably low. The net result of this model when it comes to the current imbroglio  is simple: A vocal and very small minority may succeed in garnering media attention, but their impact won’t come close to offsetting the gains Facebook realizes by modifying its privacy options. Facebook’s intentions and mandate are clear. Even if it capitulates on a few issues, it will be a carefully rationalized response designed to mollify critics while maintaining a trajectory to a forecast.

Consumer privacy is not in the best interests of Facebook or its investors, and most consumers don’t care about privacy, even if it is in their long-term interests. Danah Boyd’s solution looks like a compelling option.

Facebook 2010. Mistah Kurtz, he ain’t so dead.

Jeff Jarvis penned an interesting piece on how Facebook should handle the current fiasco. Among his more poignant recommendations is that Facebook ought to recognize how much their defaults matter.”

While this seems like great advice on its face, the thing that is so troubling about this whole episode is that Facebook, at its scale,  knows the value of op-out more than any company in the world. Facebook understands that most people won’t bother to opt-out, and those that try to opt-out will be confused by the process and implications. Facebook is deliberately trying to increase the value of profiles, drive traffic, and increase the reach of its ad network.

The simple notion of having them delete your email address after you’ve already deleted your profile couldn’t have been made more complex.

Facebook, in response to the maelstrom, has suggested that: You’re pointing out things we need to fix.” The problem with this defense is that it’s disingenuous. No small amount of thought that went into to disaggregating features and regrouping them into a morass of default opt-out options. In fact, since the new privacy features accomplish exactly what Facebook wanted, the fix to which they’re referring is not the design or outcome, but rather palliative: more carefully masking their intentions to avoid a quell.

Facebook has become a complex and invasive list business masquerading as a trusted platform for personal interaction. The mass market deserves better.

Facebook and Privacy

Facebook's recent rollout of "personalization" has privacy advocates up in arms. While many of the complaints are directed at Facebook's wholesale change in privacy settings and the fact that they have made it impractical for consumers to control their personal data, and a vocal few are going ad-hominem on Zuckerberg, I'm struck by the asymmetry of passion on both sides of the issue. A passionate handful disagree so violently with the new policies that they are modifying their profiles or deleting them all together. And those who are less concerned suggest that Facebook isn't to blame, and  common sense should prevail.

Facebook is trying to change the role it plays  on the Internet and in the lives of its members. Becoming the default public profile service online and personalizing the Internet aren't bad ideas. Many companies are trying to build businesses on these ideas. But Facebook's implementation of these ideas is tacitly forcing, through implicit opt-in,  several hundred million people into a new set of services about which they know nothing.

This isn't uncommon in other aspects of life. Insurance, ISPs and credit card companies routinely change policies and the terms of engagement with the most passive notification to consumers. Lists are sold and resold.

But this is Facebook. A place where people "friend" each other and where people routinely discuss leaving the office early for a beer or their frustrations in the workplace. A place where people post pictures of their families and discuss medical issues. Why do people share this content? Because, it's human nature. Facebook is a social network designed to encourage sharing.

Facebook's stance is that the age of privacy is over. I disagree. People do share more. But people deserve to understand and control how what they share published, particularly in the context of a network that purports to be closed. Unless there is a change of course, these policy changes, when applied across a user base of five hundred million,  will have effects in the lives of many people.

Several hundred million people just got poked.

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.