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Stop Backstabbing Our Colleagues: The Diggbar Debate

Last week Digg.com released a toolbar.  When you visit a site from Digg.com, the site will now have a Digg toolbar at the top and the URL shortened to a Digg url.  John Gruber from Daringfireball.net wrote a post about how this is 'bullshit'.  He claims that the frameset they use to add the toolbar is somehow inherently wrong. This touched a nerve and the blogosphere set to work vilifying Digg.  (Note: Daringfireball.net was only on the front page of Digg 2 times last year.  The fact that Gruber wrote code to disable the DiggBar from his blog is grandstanding.  It also doesn't appear that the DiggBar has a negative effect on anything)

In response, Ted Dziuba wrote a post about how this move from Digg is a sign of desperation to show growth numbers to their investors.

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o do.  It's their site, their users, and their traffic.  This is SUPPOSED TO BE A BUSINESS.  This isn't utopia, everything isn't supposed to be free of business objectives.  We need to stop stabbing our own in the back every time they they act like a business instead of a playground game.

If a company wants to use framesets to increase user engagement and it works, then we should support them. If it proved to be a worse experience for their users, that's a different story.  At this point unique vists are up 20% so it seems like the experience is improved.   The future of our industry depends on our ability to execute at this crucial juncture to turn a profit.  If we can't, then the venture funding will dry up and we'll have to figure out what to do with our 'Internet skills'.  The answer will probably be to work for a giant corporation who won't give a shit about a whining blog.

Stop undermining our colleagues when they make business decisions.  Stop 'taking a stand' against something that doesn't even effect you just to cause a stir and drive traffic.   Backstabbing our colleagues when they are executing is useless and detrimental to our industry.

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The Baroque Period in classical, the Modern Movement in Architecture, and the Web 2.0 Era in Interactive Theory

Charlie O'Donnell postulated that the greatest trick Web 2.0 ever pulled was convincing the world it ever existed.  He starts out with this quote:

Most of the services that inspired such categorization never consciously decided to be or aspired to be “Web 2.0 companies”. That's usually the way evolution happens–natural selection and environmental adoption spits up a set of traits that get adopted through natural selection and some anthropologist comes along later and throws a taxonomy on it–drawing lines across the gray areas almost making them seem intentional.

I have stated before that I believe Web 2.0 to be an Interactive Theory on how to build a web application.  We have spent the last few years experimenting with those gray areas and figuring out where those lines should be drawn.  I also believe the Web 2.0 Era existed.  It was when the world was convinced that there was such as thing as a Web 2.0 Business.

He goes on to say that it is unfair to categorize many companies across industries as Web 2.0 just because they subscribe to the same Interactive Theory or best practices.  That's the equivalent of saying its unfair to call two Baroque composers Baroque, or two Modern Architects , Modern, or two Impressionist Painters, Impressionist.  Web 2.0 was a defined period i

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n both Interactive Design and Business Theory, just as the previous examples were defined periods in their respective disciplines.

An architect creates a Modern building because that is what's in vogue at the time.  That's what people want, and that's what the customer will pay for.

Internet startups applied Web 2.0 theory to their projects for the same reason.  That's what a segment of end-users wanted, and more importantly, that's what the VCs were willing to shell out money for.  Startups very deliberately rode the 2.0 wave because a lot of 'visionaries' were saying that they were the next generation of BUSINSSES.  The 'visionaries' were so convinced of this they forewent business models.  The thinking went, 'Not having a plan worked for Google, so it must work for these startups too.'

Out of the investor’s belief that this was true, and out of the entrepreneurs desire to cash in that Google lottery ticket, the Web 2.0 Era was born.  The Era was the Interactive Theory + the belief that any website employing Web 2.0 theory must be a business.

The Web 2.0 Era is more or less over.  Applying an interactive theory does not equal revenue as so many seemed to believe.  Investors are already backing off investments unless the entrepreneur can provide a clear path to revenue.

The interactive theories that we learned in the Web 2.0 Era will live on long after the era is over, just as techniques from one era in architecture are used to build on the next.  What is over is Web 2.0 experiments, that very deliberately catered to the Web 2.0 Era investors, being thought of as businesses.

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Web 2.0 Was About Building Experiments, Not Businesses

It looks like we are coming to the end of another bubble, if it’s not already over. In March of 2006 I added the definition of Web 2.0 to Urban dictionary.

“Web 2.0 – Interactive media theory where an infrastructure focusing on content creation, management, and dissemination is built for the user to generate that content in a community framework.”

I think we have taken that theory and successfully put it into practice.   In a few rare cases we even accomplished this with normal people, a feat that was all but impossible during the first bubble.  It’s a major step forward. The Angel Investors and Venture Capitalists that funded this research over the last few years deserve to be recognized.  They took a big gamble, and their efforts have helped to move an industry forward that will define our era.

The Early-Stage industry may need to tell their limited partners that they were making investments in businesses, but anyone in the Social-Media industry knows the truth.  We didn’t create businesses, we created experiments.

In October VCs sent letters to their portfolio companies telling them that now is the time to cut costs because raising money will be difficult.  The subtext to this is that now is the time to start generating revenue because the safety net is gone.  Shouldn’t they have invested in companies that were doing this from the start?  Maybe not.  Maybe the early stage industry is wise to invest in innovation,  but lets call a spade a spade.  The truth is that now is the time to generate a little revenue to subsidize the funding of innovation until the economy picks up.

It’s possible that the early-stage industry has had enough of funding innovation.  Maybe now really is the time to stop messing around with experiments and to create real businesses online.  We have spent 3 years thinking about innovative way

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s to engage people, and then figuring out how to monetize that later.  We can thank Google for the strategy.  It may be the best way to radically innovate.  It may even be a great strategy to make money when everyone else believes that a site with engaged users is valuable.  Whatever the motive, funding innovation is a noble pursuit and we really do owe them a debt of gratitude.  However, now may be the time to flip that strategy around; determine what people will pay for, and then figure out how to get people engaged.

Thinking this way will probably not result in radically innovative social media applications.  We will have businesses that aren’t as sexy, not as fun, and probably won’t classify as social applications.  They will be boring, revenue generating businesses.  It’s not play anymore, it’s the real thing, but the real thing makes money.

If we get serious, and start building businesses for revenue instead of for innovation and community, what happens to the Web 2.0 social applications?  Should we abandon them as a flight of fancy of an opulent time?

I think we just need a shift in perspective about what they are. A great social application is more like a movie than a business; it’s a piece of interactive entertainment.  A movie can be monetized, which makes it valuable to create, but nobody thinks of a single movie as a businesses.  The movie industry is run by people who make many movies and then monetize those assets.  In that sense the internet is already very much like the movie industry, only our studios are Google and VC Funds.

We should keep creating social applications because they expand our ability to express and open up new possibilities for information transfer.  Social applications that can generate money to justify the investment of the patrons of innovation are even better.  But let’s all stop pretending.  We are creatives innovating around a radically new medium.   It’s not some mystery why we haven’t turned these into businesses.  The truth is that they were never businesses to begin with.

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Delicious.com is for normal people

Everyone who uses the Internet uses bookmarks.  Anyone who uses the bookmaking features of a web browser has a massive list of unorganized sites.  Show any normal person Delicious.com and watch their eyes widen.  You don’t need to explain what it is, just start using it and they will ask you.  Explain it and they will want it.  They won’t believe that such a great service exists and nobody told them.

Delicious is for everyone.  Bookmarking is something that everyone already does, it’s easy to use, and it’s immediately useful.

The reason that Delicious didn’t make it to normal people is because Yahoo never packaged it in a way that a normal person could understand.  Go to Delicious.com and try to determine what’s going; it’s impossible.  You would never think that Delicious is a bookmarking service for YOU.  It looks like a site to find new interesting sites, an activity that is popular among geeks.

The entire product category is called Social Bookmaking.  There is nothing less social than bookmarking a site for YOUR future reference.  The concept doesn’t make sense to a normal person.  Delicious bookmarks are public by default, which at first would be weird for a normal person.  The trick is to lead with the value proposition of a personal, organized bookmaking system, available anywhere.  Describing it as a social bookmarking tool leads with the one piece of Delicious that they are least likely to be comfortable with.

I have said before that the formula for creating an application for normal people is to let a technology marinate for 2 years and then dumb it down 100%.  The bookmarking features of Delicious are pretty simple.  In fact, they are even simpler than Google’s Bookmaking service.  Now they need to dumb down how they present themselves and how to get started.  Stop confusing people

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with a site discovery application, stop pushing the social features, and focus on creating a site with a clear value proposition: A personal, organized, online bookmaking tool so bookmarks aren’t trapped in the browser.

Could someone else swoop in with a simpler product to capture the market?  Maybe, but I doubt it.  You still need the installed base of geeks who have vetted the service to tell their friends about it. Despite the fact that they have dropped the ball for years now, because of their userbase, Delicious is still in the best position to bring online bookmaking to the masses.

Delicious is Yahoo’s biggest failure.  I don’t know how a company full of smart people could have overlooked their most valuable acquisition.  Then again, that’s the story of Yahoo.  Acquiring companies and then failing to leverage them.

The semantic web is the holy grail in the search engine wars.  How do you beat Google? Have thousands of people describe web pages instead of scanning keywords, put those sites into categories, and point to which is the most popular.   Yahoo has this with Delicious and it should be their top priority to integrate that rich data set into search engine results.  Their second priority should be to broaden the demographic of the userbase so more pages in different subject areas are tagged.  I find myself using Delicious as a search engine quite often.  The interface is too confusing for your average person, but the results are excellent.

I’m not saying that integration would be easy, and they did make an attempt at the beginning of the year.   I’m sure there are many reasons why this is much more difficult than it seems, and a challenge that the Delicious product team has likely rammed their head into the wall to figure out.  Despite this, it is the single most valuable asset that Yahoo holds that Google does not.  If I were them, I would be focusing on that instead of a merger with AOL.

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The First President of a Generation

For the 5 days leading up to the election I campaigned for Barack Obama in the battleground state of Ohio.  I knocked on doors, talked to voters, made phone calls, and entered data for 16-hours a day.  It was exhausting and the hardest I have worked on something unrelated to the Internet.

I was not alone. Thousands of people, the majority under the age of 30, had dropped their life’s pursuit to do the same.  Many had been at it for the 5 months, postponing medical school, jobs, and lives to elect their candidate for president.  They were relentless, attacking a campaign with an energy that only the youthful can sustain.

The result of those efforts played out at a bar in Cincinnati where hundreds of members of that campaign gathered to watch Barack Obama elected to the presidency of the United States.  The young crowd embraced each other and screamed with excitement, not only because a great man was elected president, but because he was elected on their backs.  He was elected because they had cared enough to effect change, and they were victorious.

Obama is the first president of my generation.  Technically he is a part of Generation X, but he listens to Hip-Hop, he uses the Internet, and he was unequivocally elected by the brute force of the mobilized youth.  Not only is he our first leader; he represents the first time we have collectively don

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e anything.  We have been complacent with our politics and mediocre with our music. This was our coming out party.  We heard Obama’s call, “ENOUGH” and we answered forcefully.

As I watched Obama’s acceptance speech, I felt unexpectedly overjoyed that the nightmare of the last 8 years was over. I no longer had to feel ashamed of the leadership of my country, and that the process of restoring our place in the world could finally begin.  I felt like we had just overthrown an oppressive regime, an out of touch generation, and our own characteristic apathy.  I even felt a little gratitude towards Bush for showing us how horrific things could be when we choose to do nothing, for motivating us to strive for better.

We are not excited or motivated by much.  Past generations may call us jaded.  It’s difficult to look at the result of the energy of the sixties and feel like there is any use in getting worked up.  We are measured, even keeled, and skeptical.  We are bread on advertising and our ability to filter out bullshit is razor sharp.  Compared to the sixties, we are not a breeding ground for the arts, for passion, or for creativity. Despite this, we may just have the perfect temperament to run the world.  I’m thankful that we have decided to step up to that challenge, and despite our past apathy, that we have the opportunity to do better.

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Twitter Isn't for Normal People

For the Internet community, Twitter has become the standard tool to share information about our near instantaneous industry.  It is the newest app that we have taken on to beta test its potential to cross-over into the mainstream.

I can comfortably ask anyone at a tech event what their Twitter name is without having to worry if they have an account. I often use this as a yardstick for adoption. When you can make a similar assumption with normal people, like you can with E-mail, Aim, and Facebook, you have a smash hit.

This is why getting normal people to adopt Twitter will be difficult:

1. “Following” is what creepy stalkers do. Normal people don't follow, they have friends.

2. The concept of  online social capital is meaningless to them.  They don't care about their online presence because nobody in their industry or social-circle cares.  Their only concern is that embarrassing pictures don't show up when they are Googled.  A massive shift in perspective needs to occur before regular people start to adopt tools that can help them cultivate that online identity as opposed to hiding it.  We have an incentive to raise our online social capital, which is someth

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ing the mass-market doesn't understand or care about.

3.  Normal people don't want you to know “what they're doing”.  Talk to any attractive girl and she'll tell you about one or two guys that can't take a hint. They don't want that person to be able to follow them and they don't want to tell that person what they're doing.

4.  Getting people a regular person to use Twitter literally requires force.  If it wasn't for the web-community forcing their non-tech friends to use it, I don't think it would be growing as fast as it is.  In fact, Nate Westheimer and Justine Ezarik forced me to use it at SXSW because I thought it was pointless.  Honestly, I agreed because I thought Justine was cute and was shocked that an Internet app had attracted what appeared to be a normal girl to use it. (I didn't know she was a video blogger at the time).   This type of evnagilism is a testimate to the service and community that Twitter built, but it's only a sustainable strategy for growth if it can cross-over to regular people, and not just from geek to geek.

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Building Web Apps For Normal People

If your reading this blog, chances are you don't fall under my classification of normal. You’re an Internet person, a geek, part of the web2.0 crowd; a SMALL group of tech savvy early adopters that act as the guinea pigs for the newest stuff on the Internet.  I am tired of hearing about new things being built by Internet people for Internet people.  Its ultimately necessary, but successfully building something for normal people is infinitely more interesting

Most web apps are built for the tech crowd because it's easy, relatively speaking.  There is a better chance that they will try it, and if they like it, there is a built in promotional infrastructure as they all rush to tell each other. If you’re part of this crowd, you probably have a sense of what they'll like, what would be useful, what features the application needs, and how it should look. You have friends in this community so you can figure out how best to harness that social network. Your friends will use your web app and tell everyone else that they should too.

That’s not to say that creating an app for this market is easy, it’s not.  However, if you are going to create a web app, this is the easiest market to create it for.

The hardest market to create something for is normal people. They don't want it and they won't try it. They'll wait for a geekier friend to tell them that it's absolutely essential, and then they’ll wait some more until everyone they know looks at them with shock when they say they don’t use it.  If it's not dead simple and immediately apparent why it will be a major benefit to them, they'll never touch it again. Pe

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The normal market is the one that matters.  If your app can’t crossover, it is unlikely that it has the power to scale into a successful business.

So how do we reach normal people? This seems to be the formula:

Take a product that is massively popular with geeks, let it marinate for a year or two, and dumb it down 100%.  Then you might have something that normal people will use.

If its social in nature, you better understand how normal people are social.  If you’re a geek this may be a shortcoming.  Normal people aren't open, they don't want everything about them public, and they want exclusivity within their network. Their social dynamic is fundamentally different.

A social app for normal people needs to mirror a real life social network and the interactions need to mirror real life interactions.

Who does it:

AIM is the ultimate app for normal people. The user has friends and they talk to them in real time.  It’s the perfect real-life mirror, which is why it is one of the most popular web apps ever adopted by normal people.

Facebook is the obvious example.  It mirrored the real life social network of colleges, and then slowly grew up with it's crowd of early adopters. In Facebook you have friends, and friends have access to more information about you, just like in real life. One of the most popular features is the wall, which is analogous to the whiteboards that all college students have on their door.

After Gamil, I quickly run out of other examples because normal people don’t use all of the stuff we have built over the last few years.  Comment if you can think of examples of web applications that normal people use.

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In Defense of Another Internet Blog

This is a blog about the Internet, the very last thing that the Internet needs.  The effect that it will have on the net, compared to a scenario in which I don't write it at all, is basically zero.  This seems like an excellent reason not to do it.  Maybe I should end things there: Post, Blog, Match.  A single post; you have to admire the simplicity.

While this blog may not have a measurable impact on the Internet, it will have considerable effect on me.  By posting,  I will become a better member of the Internet community.  It will force me to th

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e subjects that face this industry.  I  will have a forum  to present my analysis publicly so its logic can be debated.  It will hold me accountable for my thoughts in a way that highlight their value both in the present and in hindsight.  To determine if someone is truly an Internet expert, read their posts from a year ago.  What they have to say in hindsight is a good indication of how important it is to listen to them now.  If you find yourself reading this in a year, let me save you the trouble; ignore everything I have to say.

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What this blog is about

At the turn of the century, the United States went through an industrial revolution. Innovations in machinery, steam power, and mills transformed the landscape of the American economy. A few men rose to prominence as the leaders of this revolution, showing the world how to conduct business in a new age. J.P. Morgan (banking), Andrew Carnegie (steel, railroads), and John D. Rockefeller (oil), were among these men and they became known as the Robber Barons. While these men are cre

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dited with leading the way into the industrial revolution, they are often criticized for their ruthless practices.

Today, we are in the midst of a digital revolution. Technology has altered the landscape of business as significantly as machinery did over 100 years ago. We are in the very earliest stages of this revolution. How we proceed will shape its future and will reflect how this time period is remembered historically. The goal of this blog is to chronicle our progress.

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