Results tagged “flickr”

Rebuilding the Web We Lost

December 18, 2012

We have the obligation to never speak of our concerns without suggesting our solutions. I've been truly gratified to watch the response to The Web We Lost over the last few days; It's become one of the most popular things I've ever written and has inspired great responses.

But the most important question we can ask is: How do we rebuild the positive aspects of the web we lost? There are a few starting points, building on conversations we've been having for years. Let's look at the responsibilities we must accept if we're going to return the web to the values that a generation of creators cared about.

  • Take responsibility and accept blame. The biggest reason the social web drifted from many of the core values of that early era was the insularity and arrogance of many of us who created the tools of the time. I was certainly guilty of this, and many of my peers were as well. We took it as a self-evident and obvious goal that people would even want to participate in this medium, instead of doing the hard work necessary to make it a welcoming and rewarding place for the rest of the world. We favored obscure internecine battles about technical minutia over the hard, humbling work of engaging a billion people in connecting online, and setting the stage for the billions to come. To surpass the current generation of dominant social networks and apps, which have unsurprisingly become arrogant and inflexible during their own era of success, we'll have to return to being as hungry and as humble as we were when the web was young. Because last time, we were both naive and self-absorbed enough that we deserved to fail.
  • Don't just meet the UX standards, raise the bar. Obviously, the single biggest reason that the new era of social apps and sites have succeeded where the early efforts did not is because of their massively superior user experience, from the front-end user interfaces to the back-end performance. The expected thing to do would be to hope that a new generation of user-respecting apps came along and matched the best that Facebook and Twitter and Pinterest to have to offer. But actually, due to the profound entrenchment that these platforms already have across culture, the new apps have to be an order of magnitude better in user experience. The good news is, as the rest of the web transitions from making pages to making streams, they'll all be revisiting the tools and technologies they use to connect, and that'll form a big opportunity for new players to participate.
  • Rethink funding fundamentals. As we've seen over and over, the giant social networks seem to inevitably piss off their user bases by changing product features and terms of service in ways that catalyze huge waves of user-generated discontent. But the fundamental reason these sites refused to accommodate so many user demands is because of economics. Those sites make their revenues on models dictated by the terms of funding from the firms that backed them. But as we've discussed before, it's possible to fund contemporary startups either without venture capital, or with a level of efficiency that allows mom and pop startups to reach web scale. To be clear, venture funding powered much of the first wave of social startups and were a big reason they were able to achieve many of their successes, so VC will be part of the ecosystem in the next wave as well. But the terms and dynamics can be profoundly different, supporting startups that are intentionally less efficient, perhaps even making use of the skills of blue collar coders to provide a lot of people will good, solid middle-class jobs instead of optimizing, as current companies do, for making a small number of people enormously wealthy.
  • Explore architectural changes. One of the fundamental reasons that the economics of doing a startup at web scale are different is because of the proliferation of cloud computing and very, very high-performance, reliable open-source components that provide advanced functionality which was prohibitively expensive a decade ago. Instead of backing up a truckload of Dell servers to a data center and then installing a few hundred thousand dollars worth of Oracle software, we can pick and choose a few components off the shelf to get started. More importantly, consumers will start to be able to use the cloud themselves, which removes the current constraint around having to build single, centralized services to provide a great consumer experience. Today, big social apps have to spend millions of dollars handling DMCA takedown requests and FBI investigations into illegal content and in general fighting the web's fundamental desire to be centralized. New apps don't need to obey those constraints.
  • Outflank by pursuing talent outside the obvious. The current wave of the social web doesn't just demonstrate its arrogance through its product decisions. The people involved in creating these platforms are hired from a narrow band of privileged graduates from a small number of top-tier schools, overwhelmingly male and focused narrowly on the traditional Silicon Valley geography. By constrast, the next wave of apps can harken back to many of the best of the early social startups, which often featured mixed-gender founding teams, attracted talent from geographically diverse regions (Flickr was born in Canada!) and were often created by people with liberal arts degrees or even no degree at all. Aside from being the responsible thing to do, having a diverse team generates a variety of unexpected product features and innovations that don't come from the groupthink of homogenous cultures.
  • Exploit their weakness: Insularity. Another way of looking at the exclusionary tendencies of typical Silicon Valley startups is by considering the extraordinary privilege of most tech tycoons as a weakness to be exploited. Whether it's Mark Zuckerberg's unique level of privilege limiting his ability to understand why a single, universal public identity might ruin people's lives, or the tendency to launch apps first to a small, clubby circle of insiders, new startups don't have to repeat these mistakes. And by broadening their appeal from the start, new apps and networks can outflank the big players, paying attention to audiences that hadn't been properly respected last time. That insularity even extends to the tech industry typically ignoring the world of policy and regulations and government until it's too late. While the big tech players have formed their own RIAA, the best case is that they'll focus on overall issues like spectrum policy and net neutrality, ignoring the coming reality of policy changes that will try to protect regular users.
  • Dont' trust the trade press. Another essential step for breaking out of the current tech industry's predictable patterns will be for entrepreneurs and creators to educate themselves about the true history of the tech industry and its products. Our business tends to follow a few simple, repeating cycles, like moving from centralization to decentralization and back, or from interoperable communications to silos and back. But as we've discussed, you can't trust the tech press to teach you about the tech industry, so you'll have to know your shit. Fortunately, a lot of us old-timers are still around, and still answer our emails sometimes, so it's possible to just ask. Imagine if Instagram had simply asked the folks who used to work at Flickr, "Did you ever change your terms of service? What freaked people out?" And even better, we can blog our own progress, because if you didn't blog it, it didn't happen. In that way, we form our own community of practice, our own new peer review process for what we learn about making the web work the right way.
  • Create public spaces. Right now, all of the places we can assemble on the web in any kind of numbers are privately owned. And privately-owned public spaces aren't real public spaces. They don't allow for the play and the chaos and the creativity and brilliance that only arise in spaces that don't exist purely to generate profit. And they're susceptible to being gradually gaslighted by the companies that own them.

Overall, there are lots of ways that the current generation of social sites are vulnerable. There are users that the current tech industry considers undesirable, and technology choices that are considered taboo, and traditions around hiring and product strategy that force them to concede huge opportunities right out of the gate.

As is obvious from the responses I've gotten, many, many people care about a social web that honors certain human and creative values. As I've spent years thinking about the right way to write for this blog, and to build ThinkUp, and to sit on the board at Stack Exchange, and to advise clients at Activate, and to work on all the other stuff I do, I just keep running into the fact that there's a huge opportunity to make a great new generation of human-friendly apps with positive social values.

These new companies will be recognizable in that they'll impact culture and media and government and society, and that they'll invent great new technologies. They'll still make a bunch of money for the people who found them. But they'll look different, both in terms of the people who make them, and the people they serve. And they'll be more durable, not optimized based on current fashions in financing, but because they're built on the accurate belief that there are people who care deeply about the web they use, the works they create, the connections they make, and the humans on the other side of those connections.

The Web We Lost

December 13, 2012

Update: A few months after this piece was published, I was invited by Harvard's Berkman Center to speak about this topic in more detail. Though the final talk is an hour long, it offers much more insight into the topic, and I hope you'll give it a look.

The tech industry and its press have treated the rise of billion-scale social networks and ubiquitous smartphone apps as an unadulterated win for regular people, a triumph of usability and empowerment. They seldom talk about what we've lost along the way in this transition, and I find that younger folks may not even know how the web used to be.

So here's a few glimpses of a web that's mostly faded away:

  • Five years ago, most social photos were uploaded to Flickr, where they could be tagged by humans or even by apps and services, using machine tags. Images were easily discoverable on the public web using simple RSS feeds. And the photos people uploaded could easily be licensed under permissive licenses like those provided by Creative Commons, allowing remixing and reuse in all manner of creative ways by artists, businesses, and individuals.
  • A decade ago, Technorati let you search most of the social web in real-time (though the search tended to be awful slow in presenting results), with tags that worked as hashtags do on Twitter today. You could find the sites that had linked to your content with a simple search, and find out who was talking about a topic regardless of what tools or platforms they were using to publish their thoughts. At the time, this was so exciting that when Technorati failed to keep up with the growth of the blogosphere, people were so disappointed that even the usually-circumspect Jason Kottke flamed the site for letting him down. At the first blush of its early success, though, Technorati elicited effusive praise from the likes of John Gruber:
[Y]ou could, in theory, write software to examine the source code of a few hundred thousand weblogs, and create a database of the links between these weblogs. If your software was clever enough, it could refresh its information every few hours, adding new links to the database nearly in real time. This is, in fact, exactly what Dave Sifry has created with his amazing Technorati. At this writing, Technorati is watching over 375,000 weblogs, and has tracked over 38 million links. If you haven’t played with Technorati, you’re missing out.
  • Ten years ago, you could allow people to post links on your site, or to show a list of links which were driving inbound traffic to your site. Because Google hadn't yet broadly introduced AdWords and AdSense, links weren't about generating revenue, they were just a tool for expression or editorializing. The web was an interesting and different place before links got monetized, but by 2007 it was clear that Google had changed the web forever, and for the worse, by corrupting links.
  • In 2003, if you introduced a single-sign-in service that was run by a company, even if you documented the protocol and encouraged others to clone the service, you'd be described as introducing a tracking system worthy of the PATRIOT act. There was such distrust of consistent authentication services that even Microsoft had to give up on their attempts to create such a sign-in. Though their user experience was not as simple as today's ubiquitous ability to sign in with Facebook or Twitter, the TypeKey service introduced then had much more restrictive terms of service about sharing data. And almost every system which provided identity to users allowed for pseudonyms, respecting the need that people have to not always use their legal names.
  • In the early part of this century, if you made a service that let users create or share content, the expectation was that they could easily download a full-fidelity copy of their data, or import that data into other competitive services, with no restrictions. Vendors spent years working on interoperability around data exchange purely for the benefit of their users, despite theoretically lowering the barrier to entry for competitors.
  • In the early days of the social web, there was a broad expectation that regular people might own their own identities by having their own websites, instead of being dependent on a few big sites to host their online identity. In this vision, you would own your own domain name and have complete control over its contents, rather than having a handle tacked on to the end of a huge company's site. This was a sensible reaction to the realization that big sites rise and fall in popularity, but that regular people need an identity that persists longer than those sites do.
  • Five years ago, if you wanted to show content from one site or app on your own site or app, you could use a simple, documented format to do so, without requiring a business-development deal or contractual agreement between the sites. Thus, user experiences weren't subject to the vagaries of the political battles between different companies, but instead were consistently based on the extensible architecture of the web itself.
  • A dozen years ago, when people wanted to support publishing tools that epitomized all of these traits, they'd crowd-fund the costs of the servers and technology needed to support them, even though things cost a lot more in that era before cloud computing and cheap bandwidth. Their peers in the technology world, though ostensibly competitors, would even contribute to those efforts.

This isn't our web today. We've lost key features that we used to rely on, and worse, we've abandoned core values that used to be fundamental to the web world. To the credit of today's social networks, they've brought in hundreds of millions of new participants to these networks, and they've certainly made a small number of people rich.

But they haven't shown the web itself the respect and care it deserves, as a medium which has enabled them to succeed. And they've now narrowed the possibilites of the web for an entire generation of users who don't realize how much more innovative and meaningful their experience could be.

Back To The Future

When you see interesting data mash-ups today, they are often still using Flickr photos because Instagram's meager metadata sucks, and the app is only reluctantly on the web at all. We get excuses about why we can't search for old tweets or our own relevant Facebook content, though we got more comprehensive results from a Technorati search that was cobbled together on the feeble software platforms of its era. We get bullshit turf battles like Tumblr not being able to find your Twitter friends or Facebook not letting Instagram photos show up on Twitter because of giant companies pursuing their agendas instead of collaborating in a way that would serve users. And we get a generation of entrepreneurs encouraged to make more narrow-minded, web-hostile products like these because it continues to make a small number of wealthy people even more wealthy, instead of letting lots of people build innovative new opportunities for themselves on top of the web itself.

We'll fix these things; I don't worry about that. The technology industry, like all industries, follows cycles, and the pendulum is swinging back to the broad, empowering philosophies that underpinned the early social web. But we're going to face a big challenge with re-educating a billion people about what the web means, akin to the years we spent as everyone moved off of AOL a decade ago, teaching them that there was so much more to the experience of the Internet than what they know.

This isn't some standard polemic about "those stupid walled-garden networks are bad!" I know that Facebook and Twitter and Pinterest and LinkedIn and the rest are great sites, and they give their users a lot of value. They're amazing achievements, from a pure software perspective. But they're based on a few assumptions that aren't necessarily correct. The primary fallacy that underpins many of their mistakes is that user flexibility and control necessarily lead to a user experience complexity that hurts growth. And the second, more grave fallacy, is the thinking that exerting extreme control over users is the best way to maximize the profitability and sustainability of their networks.

The first step to disabusing them of this notion is for the people creating the next generation of social applications to learn a little bit of history, to know your shit, whether that's about Twitter's business model or Google's social features or anything else. We have to know what's been tried and failed, what good ideas were simply ahead of their time, and what opportunities have been lost in the current generation of dominant social networks.

So what did I miss? What else have we lost on the social web?

A follow-up: How we rebuild the web we lost.


August 1, 2007

"Inspired by Anil", Originally uploaded by heather.

I'm very proud to have had my ill-tempered coinage of "User Generated Discontent" inspire Heather Champ's new t-shirt. From my keyboard to, uh, your chest, powered by disgruntled users.

This one's for Yosemite Sam

June 8, 2007

This one's sublime: "What's your favorite kitchen sound?"

This one's the truth, finally. The most eloquent dismissal of User Generated Discontent (or in this case, nominal competitor-generated discontent) yet written:

It does, however, drive me nuts that you guys clearly take the influence and then blast us every chance you get...[T]he slamming, hyping up the dreams ... none of that is necessary. It's destructive. And what you don't seem to get is that it doesn't even help you at all...

One of my personal missions in life is to help people express themselves creatively because I think that the expression of human creativity is one of the things that gives purpose to the universe. In one sense, I think that's what we're here for. And that mission applies to you two as well.

You hear that, kids? Intellectual dishonesty doesn't pay! I couldn't have articulated it better myself, even when I tried to.

This one's just for me -- Prince: Perfumer, Macy's Shopper, and Verizon Subscriber. This may be the very first time Pitchfork's ever made something I had even a vague interest in reading.

This one's a shame: Brittney Gilbert leaves "Nashville is Talking". The pioneer of bringing traditional local media into the brave new world of social media has had enough of the bullshit. Brittney Gilbert found herself the victim of stupidity for highlighting someone else's stupidity on a TV stations' blog. While some of the User Generated Malcontents might see this as a victory, I've learned from experience that's better to take care of one's own sanity than to try to prove that you're tough enough to withstand an angry mob.

This one is still the one-and-only manual that can explain exactly how to get a number one single.

And then this is fair warning that next week is all about mangoes, minus some diversions into Best of LOL.

Sustainability Is A Feature

April 6, 2007

A little while ago, my friend Michael Sippey, whom I had the pleasure of interviewing the other day, sent me a link to the new Google Voice Local Search.

Now, this new services seems like a good product, and I know I'm supposed to say "Wow, cool! Nice work, Google!" But because I work with Michael, we are often each other's toughest critics -- we want the stuff we do to not suck, and try to structure as much of our work as possible in a way that prevents the sucking. So my initial response wasn't positive. My gut feeling was "Why the hell aren't they charging for this? That sucks!"

Here's the thing -- I don't care about whether Google makes money on 411 services or not. They're going to do billions of dollars worth of AdWords sales regardless, and even if this new service becomes a huge hit, the revenues would just be a drop in the bucket. Certainly not enough to affect the overall direction of the company.

But having paying customers (or the equivalent -- something to indicate users were invested) would help focus the product team. This is Google, which means you've got enormous resources behind you if you're launching a product, both financially and intellectually. If your product "may not be available at all times and may not work for all users" (as it says on the product's homepage), then either fix it or get yelled at by angry users. Either one is a good option. Don't hide behind a "well, shucks, we said it was beta, and it's free..." excuse. Being accountable to your users makes your product better.

What's worse is the uncritical evaluations of new technologies. I don't care if an individual product or feature seems cool if it's just going to go away in a few months when the company folds. See The starting line is not the finish line:

I am, frankly, tired of reading reviews of new technology that omit the commitment of the team, that don't mention how the success of the product almost feels like life-or-death to the people making it, or ones that ignore the people who make the damn thing happen.

If we aspire to making meaningful technology (and if you don't, then please, just quit now), then it's irresponsible to let users become connected to, and perhaps even emotionally invested in, a tool that isn't going to be around for the long haul. If nothing else, it's a waste of someone's precious time to use a small company's tool that's evaporates because a big company found it trivial to clone, or because a big company decided it was too hard to charge what a product was worth. I don't believe AdWords will subsidize Voice Local Search indefinitely any more than I believed Windows 95 would subsidize MSN Sidewalk indefinitely, even though that was a fantastic online local guide product as well.

And connecting people via VOIP or sending them an SMS, two of the key features of the new service, cost money. At Google volumes, they cost a lot of money. I want to have a service I can rely on -- which again means I need to invest in it. I understand that the idea here is for this product team to use a beta test as a starting point to make the service more reliable, but the sad reality is that a line has been crossed where there's no sense of urgency or expectation that those actual launch days ever arrive.

Google's made the leap here before, by starting to charge for Google Apps. Even people who use the service for free were reassured by the fact there was a paid version. So there is still the opportunity to be brave enough again to assert that a product is worth paying for, even paying a premium for. Millions of iPod users are willing to listen to the argument.

This, I think, is the crux of the problem that David Galbraith highlighted on his site. David's is one of my few must-read blogs; I don't always share his tone of righteous indignation, but I love that a person who's often so reserved in person can be so passionate online. David mentions that new efforts by Google or Yahoo (see Google My Maps vs. Plazes, or Yahoo Alpha vs. Rollyo) can kneecap some Web 2.0 startups en passant, and posits that this is the death knell for Web 2.0. Leaving aside whether that's oversimplifying the efforts of those startups, it's an attractive argument just for the sheer audacity of his phrasing.

But that sort of reckoning is not the death of Web 2.0, that's it's promise. It's very possible to build a successful business and thrive while competing with Google and Yahoo, even in an established market. (Oh hey, that's my day job.) What's not possible is to make a business without adding significant value to the platforms provided by existing companies. This is, roughly, exactly what distinguishes current successful business models from Web 1.0.

Or, put more succinctly, I like paying for Flickr Pro. Like us at Six Apart, the Flickr team was lucky enough to start working on their company, and on Game Neverending, back before there really was AdSense to run on your site, and when virtually the only small startup charging money for a consumer web service was Oddpost. I'd argue those sorts of innovations are as important as all the Ajax work that either of those companies ever did, even though I admire and respect both teams tremendously.

This refrain never goes away, but it bears repeating. Those of us who love technology and believe in its potential owe it to our communities, our audiences, and our customers to make our efforts sustainable and accountable. I'm not an unabashed, uncritical capitalist, but I do recognize that one of the most positive effects that a classic charge-a-fair-market-value-for-your-goods business model offers is the opportunity to create an accountable and sustainable relationship with a customer.

I pay for a lot of products because it gives me the potential opportunity (though I almost never use it) to yell at someone when it breaks. I pay for a lot of other services because I want to make sure they don't go away, or they're not forced to make ugly choices about privacy or ethics in order to keep the lights on. And I am glad to use services or sites that are ad-supported when it's made explicit that the advertising is supporting a useful good or service.

If you believe in what you're doing, in technology or anything else in your life, make a commitment that it's here to stay. Do what it takes to prove it. Do what it takes to sustain it. And if it's the kind of service that you think is okay to just give up on, or that you don't want to bother to figure out a way to keep running, then why are you doing it in the first place?

Clay Feats

February 9, 2007

Bring me the head of Clay Shirky! A couple Clay Shirky links for you today, one of which I just linked to, one of which I should have linked to last week, and all worth reading.

  • In Defense of Ready, Fire Aim, a piece Clay wrote for the Harvard Business Review's list of breakthrough ideas for 2007. I really am a sucker for the Annual Ideas Lists that more and more publications are putting out, but a few of the items in this list seem particularly valuable. I linked to Clay's essay in yesterday's post about Yahoo Pipes, referring to his concept of open source being based on a principal of embracing failure:

In open systems, by contrast, the cost of failure is reduced, partly because less coordination is required among the various players and partly because each player is willing to accept some of the risks of failure directly. This means that worrying about whether a new idea will succeed is unnecessary; you simply try it out. The institutional barrier between thought and action—the need to convince someone that your idea is worth giving a whirl—doesn’t exist. The low cost of trying means that participants can fail like crazy as they continue to build on their successes.

In systems where anyone can try anything, the good has to be filtered from the bad after the fact. The cost of trying to prevent bloggers from saying stupid or silly things, for example, would be high, whereas the cost of allowing anyone to publish anything is low.

  • A Clay Classic: A Group Is Its Own Worst Enemy. I was actually at the Etech conference where Clay delivered this speech; Stewart and Ben had just debuted Flickr a short while earlier, and the application was (at that point) a weird Flash community application that could do some image stuff in addition to working as an IM gateway. Clay was talking about group behaviors as exhibited on LiveJournal and The WELL and MetaFilter, with his points being especially relevant after the recent Yahoo logins hubbub on Flickr.

This pattern has happened over and over and over again. Someone built the system, they assumed certain user behaviors. The users came on and exhibited different behaviors. And the people running the system discovered to their horror that the technological and social issues could not in fact be decoupled.

This passage is especially resonant after the launch of Pipes:

We've gotten weblogs and wikis, and I think, even more importantly, we're getting platform stuff. We're getting RSS. We're getting shared Flash objects. We're getting ways to quickly build on top of some infrastructure we can take for granted, that lets us try new things very rapidly.

I was talking to Stewart Butterfield about the chat application they're trying here. [Speaking of Flickr.] I said "Hey, how's that going?" He said: "Well, we only had the idea for it two weeks ago. So this is the launch." When you can go from "Hey, I've got an idea" to "Let's launch this in front of a few hundred serious geeks and see how it works," that suggests that there's a platform there that is letting people do some really interesting things really quickly. It's not that you couldn't have built a similar application a couple of years ago, but the cost would have been much higher. And when you lower costs, interesting new kinds of things happen.

  • A response to Henry Jenkins about Second Life. Clay has been taking a much-needed hard look at Second Life for some time, but I really am just linking to this because, as a student of social communication technology, Clay is uniquely qualified to create howlingly funny and yet still somehow polite and refined jabs at his debate partners. It's like the world's most dignified flame war. Witness:

You compare Second Life with the Renaissance and the Age of Reason. This is approximately insane, and your disclaimer that Second Life may not reach this rarefied plateau doesn’t do much to make it less insane. Using the Renaissance as a reference point links the two in the reader’s mind, even in the face of subsequent denial.

* Code for cross-fading 3 LEDs, red, green and blue, or one tri-color LED, using PWM
* The program cross-fades slowly from red to green, green to blue, and blue to red
* The debugging code assumes Arduino 0004, as it uses the new Serial.begin()-style functions
* Clay Shirky <> 

// Output
int redPin   = 9;   // Red LED,   connected to digital pin 9
int greenPin = 10;  // Green LED, connected to digital pin 10
int bluePin  = 11;  // Blue LED,  connected to digital pin 11

// Program variables
int redVal   = 255; // Variables to store the values to send to the pins
int greenVal = 1;   // Initial values are Red full, Green and Blue off
int blueVal  = 1;

int i = 0;     // Loop counter    
int wait = 50; // 50ms (.05 second) delay; shorten for faster fades
int DEBUG = 0; // DEBUG counter; if set to 1, will write values back via serial

(Thanks to Cory Doctorow for the image.)

I am okay with my Yahoo sign-in.

January 31, 2007

I've seen a lot of weird, very belated, hand-wringing about Flickr requiring early adopter users to sign in with their Yahoo accounts. This is prompted, I understand, by those users having gotten an email letting them know about the required change.

Now, I was a very early Flickr user, and as soon as they got acquired by Yahoo and we were all told we'd have to migrate, I did so. I am pretty sure that at least 99% of early Flickr users already have a Yahoo login somewhere. So clearly, an unwillingness to have a Yahoo account is probably not the cause of any recalcitrance.

I have seen one well-articulated objection: There are few user benefits that result from the migration. But, now that Flickr Mobile works with Yahoo logins, there aren't any features lost when making the transition. One could argue the message about the transition could have been written differently, but that's surely splitting hairs, isn't it?

It's been more than a year since this change was announced, with a firm timetable set and well-communicated. It's a tiny (though admittedly vocal and valuable) minority of users who are affected. And this is not, to quote some of the inaccurate adjectives being thrown around "sudden" or a "surprise". Any information that users are afraid of Yahoo having is clearly already available to the company, since the servers are all hosted in the same place and connected together -- this is just a formality. Frankly, I watch online communities a lot and am only rarely baffled by the vagaries of mob justice. But this one has me stumped.

One other note, I have generally positive feelings about all the various photo sharing sites out there -- the ability to build community online through shared experiences is a powerful thing. But I can not and will not ever concede that using these sorts of opportunities to promote a competing business is cool. And I take some consolation in the fact that, as upset as people get, almost all of the threats to take one's ball photos and go home end up being mostly empty threats, designed to express some weird emotional desire that I really wish I could understand.

Sexy: Links. Unsexy: Schadenfreude

August 23, 2006

  • What's it look like after people have rooted for your failure but you make it work anyway? It looks like a WSJ profile of marca. I remember being in high school and my Morrissey-listening friends would tell me they would hate it if I became successful.
  • The other kids aren't listening to Justin Timberlake, they're listening to Kelly Clarkson! So says the wildly erratic Google Music Trends, which relies on the apparently completely unreliable "Now Playing" status of Google Talk to determine song popularity.
  • Want to talk to Google Talk users without using Google's system at all? For free? Using open source software? Hmm, that sounds interesting... Act now and we'll throw in a free Jabber server.
  • If you're not sick of me yet, pick up this month's Wired. The story's not online yet, but I talk a bit about spam blogs (as mentioned by Steve Rubel) but come off sounding a little half-witted at points. That's okay.

Would You Like Some Links?

July 20, 2006

I enjoy links myself, so I thought you might want some too. Here, then:

  • Graphs as art: Werner Vogels picks up the site graph meme with some nice visualizations of Amazon and A9.
  • Knowing enough to be dangerous: Bad advice about Windows tweaking, debunked by Dr. Jason, who's never happier than when he's correcting misinformation.
  • The response to the Mumbai bombings has been rather hushed. Both the attacks and the lack of discussion have been on my mind, Sepia Mutiny covers the topic well.
  • And then, finally, Concerning the platinum bitch. I've been meaning to write a post about Khia for about two years; Stephen beat me to it and now I don't have to.

Massaging the Data

July 19, 2006

Speaking of memes from a year ago, last year I created a site called (That's "Is Having A Massage", not "I Shaving...") The domain is a (gentle) poke at Flickr, which uses the message "Flickr is having a massage." as its error/downtime message when the service is taken offline for repairs or maintenance.

The founders and several of the members of the Flickr team are friends of mine, so it wasn't intended by any means to be a dig at the site. (Except maybe for being so lighthearted and cheerful while so many Flickr addicts are panickedly hitting "refresh".)

At any rate, the massage site had a nice little run for a few months. It acted as a goofy inline link for people to use when making a point in a blog post, or as a little toy for people who like to kill downtime at work by typing in different URLs and seeing what happens. You know, something like yo.momma.

How it works

For those who've never tried it, the behavior is simple. You type in into your browser, and it displays a custom Massage Message, coloring the text of the part of the address Flickr-style, converting any dots in the URL to spaces, and removing a penultimate "e" character if the last letter of the site name is an "r". Not rocket science, but it amused me for the hour or so it took to build.

On a lark, I decided to log the massages after the first hour or so that the site was running. I didn't keep track of timestamps or the IP addresses of people who accessed the site or anything else that might start people fussing about privacy, etc. If I'd have planned ahead, I probably would have thought more about that.

Anyway, the amount of analysis and actual understanding of user behavior that I can do is limited. What becomes clear is that some popular sites really encourage people to click on links, and others that seem equally popular are mostly frequented by people who are less active clickers. Note, I also special-cased one or two websites where the site owners took down their websites entirely and redirected all of their traffic to Those sites were bounced to and the requests weren't logged, due to volume. Those are removed from the data set.

The Data

Thanks to Ben, I was able to crunch the numbers a bit about what things people were massaging. The Top 10:

  1. kottke: 6843
  2. flickr: 6412
  3. jasmeet: 5187
  4. yanni: 3422
  5. upcoming: 3012
  6. my wallet: 2065
  7. aelki: 1831
  8. mathowie: 1495
  9. brice: 888
  10. arvind: 854

If you're looking for raw data, I've got the log file here: massages.txt (750k plain text file). We've also got the raw data of counts, as an Excel file. massages.xls (839k Excel spreadsheet). All of this data is from approximately one month ago; There's a live data feed, but I'll link to that later.

Massages Data

The bottom line

So, what conclusions can we draw? Jason Kottke is a very popular blogger. And the audience that responds to this kind of web wankery has a fairly high percentage of people who like to try at least some primitive-level hacking. There were a surprising (to me, at least) number of people trying to escape characters or add commands to the script that runs the page, along with a healthy number of people who just wanted to mess up the HTML on the page. There are also a surprising number of people who want to redirect all their traffic to another site for at least a temporary period of time.

Not surprising? Lots of people like to talk about body parts belonging either to themselves, their friends, or various people's mothers.

Some items that might be of interest:

  • Flickr has far fewer massages these days; To understand why, please see Cal Henderson's Building Scalable Web Sites. Cal's on the Flickr team, and reveals a lot of his secrets here.
  • Rafe Colburn says "Log it, don't count it". He's completely correct.
  • The massage site didn't originally have ads on it. I put them on now since I believe you should start paying rent after you graduate.
  • I got through this whole post without mentioning power laws or the Long Tail! Aw, crap.

The Interesting Economy

October 25, 2005

Like many great social software applications, Flickr began its life as something else. Flickr was built on a platform for a game called Game Neverending, which had a lot of great features including an in-game economy based on exchanging various totems that had different relative values. There was really only a barter economy, which left the "innate" value of any individual item to be pretty opaque.

Today, Flickr has interestingness, which is a measure of some combination of how many times a picture has been viewed, how many comments it has, how many times it's been tagged or marked as a favorite, and some other special sauce. I suppose revealing the exact mix would encourage even more people to game the system, but the fact that it's not disclosed has led to a number of attempts to reverse-engineer the system. I doubt any of them are/will be successful (Flickr can update/evolve fast enough to change the algorithm if they figure it out) but that's probably going to be an ongoing dialogue.

When I think of things getting gamed, I think of Clay Shirky saying "social software is stuff that gets spammed". So maybe economies are things that get gamed.

What I'm wondering is, how is Flickr's interestingness different than the economy in Game Neverending? Than Second Life? (Or in Evercrack or Neverwinter or any of the other gaming platforms.) Is interestingness its own reward? Why don't I get to level up or power up when I create something interesting?

More to the point, the in-game economies of these games translate pretty cleanly into real-world cash, with eBay amplifying the efficiency of the currency conversion. And interestingness in other online media (like blogs) is rewarded by cash in a pretty straightforward way; I can sign up for TypePad, check a box to enable text ads, and pay for my account or point the proceeds to my PayPal account when I start getting lots of visitors.

But interestingness in Flickr doesn't pay. At least not yet. Non-pro users are seeing ads around my photos, but Yahoo's not sharing the wealth with me, even though I've created a draw. Flickr's plenty open, they're doing the right thing by any measure of the web as we saw it a year ago, or two years ago. Today, though, openness around value exchange is as important as openness around data exchange.

So does that mean the right answer for cashing in on my interesting work is to ask for a penny from Yahoo? Or does it mean I should just make an automated script that grabs my interesting photos and posts them to my TypePad blog so that I can put ads on them?