Microsoft marketing: welcome to the social, sort of.

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Update, only a very few hours later: wait until you’ve read the rest of the post before you click through here, but it just gets worse and worse.

As Microsoft marketing oopsies go this barely even registers, but it hits a number of interesting points on its path to cringiness so it’s worth a little attention. Yesterday I happened across the “What People Are Saying About Windows 7” page, located at http://www.microsoft.com/windows/social/, which looks something like this:

Go ahead, visit the page. Then reload the page. Then reload it again. Notice anything? Yes, that ostensibly real time flow of what people are saying starts with the same tweet each time, and as of the time of this writing that tweet was five seven hours old. If you want to head over to the Twitter search page and confirm that people have said things about Windows 7 since then, feel free…we both know what you’re going to find, don’t we?

Now I know, some of you may be inclined to say “oh, come on, it’s marketing for fuck’s sake, don’t you have anything better to complain about?” But here’s the thing: it’s half-assed, lazy, me-too marketing, and that’s totally worth complaining about, especially in a case like Microsoft’s, where this sort of marketing appears to be an institutionalized habit.

Starting with the smallest point first, the presentation is pointlessly godawful. While the UX conventions for presenting tweets aren’t set in stone, pretty much everybody else in the world presents a vertical scrolling list, newest at the top, with tweets shown in their entirety. It’s relatively simple, and it makes sense.

Showing partial tweets marching across and then down the screen at a pretty zippy default speed makes them extremely difficult to read. It also makes me absolutely certain that during one of the many, many meetings dedicated to designing this page someone stated that having actual real time Tweets “really wasn’t necessary,” because the point of the page is to “dynamically illustrate how much buzz there is around Windows 7.”

Next, in order for this to work, there’s some poor soul at Microsoft sitting there with the task of periodically going through and either approving or [shudder] manually entering information about the tweets that are approved for display on the site. Awesome, right? We’re all about finding jobs for people these days.

But why? Why is all this happening? As with the search engines, Microsoft is under no obligation to display all the tweets that reference “Windows 7” or “Win 7,” so filtering is no big deal. A five minute buffer with a filter on blatant obscenity would probably clear out about 90% of the anti-Windows 7 tweets and be entirely defensible. If you then added tools for the aforementioned poor soul at Microsoft to ban specific Twitter users, words and phrases, and URLs, then the spam and snarky anti-MS screenshot potential of the site drops to nearly zero…while making it a lot closer to “what people are saying about Windows 7” and easier to manage to boot.

It’s mind boggling. Microsoft has decided to go with a “we’re the operating system of the real people” [i.e. not those effete Apple snobs] and “you can have it your way” [i.e. you can buy cheap crap hardware in any configuration you like if you want to] spin on their recent marketing, but there are few companies that put bigger asterisks and more legal disclaimers next to the words “social” and “open.”

At least Apple is up front about it. Apple knows exactly how you should view and use their products, and if you have differing ideas on that it’s very nice and you can file them right here in this circular file, thank you very much, and just leave your check there on the table on your way out.

To the company’s credit, I guess, Microsoft recognizes that there’s good opposing territory just waiting to be claimed on the marketing front, but they’re so astonishingly terrified of what actual people might say, so convinced that every product release is a delicate flower that will wilt under the slightest adversity, that time after time they wade through so many filters, approvals, disclaimers, and “representative user profiles” that they end up with stick figure caricatures mouthing platitudes.

Always and Everywhere

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One: On Monday morning, Fred Wilson posted a little joke. Louis Gray had noted that a new addition to the Twitter staff appeared as a member of the “twitter team” list on Twitter before any announcement of the hire came out of the company, and Wilson added:  “Hmm. No need to send out that obligatory email now. Just check the Twitter company lists to find out who is changing jobs.”

Fred Wilson quote

Two: I think that his comment was mostly some early morning humor, but like many good jokes it was poking at something serious. For a little more perspective, let’s add in a quote from Andy Weissman’s tight post (also Monday) on online distribution: “I don’t think information (content) wants to be free. I think it just wants to be distributed friction-free.”

Andy Weissman quote

Three: the final piece of perspective…a month or so ago I had a day where I was hit by a tidal wave of information: shortly after a couple of meetings, I was notified that people who had come up in the conversations (or people from the companies discussed) had started following me on Twitter and/or Tumblr. I saw via last.fm and Tumblr that a friend had started listening to an album I had passed along a week or so before. Another friend twittered enthusiastically from a restaurant I had recommended a couple of days earlier.

Now in most—probably all—of these cases I’m sure that the people involved realized that these breadcrumbs would come my way, but none of it was provided as explicit feedback. The nature of the ecosystem [infosystem, technosystem, whatever] that many of us are now exploring is such that an increasing number of our actions become input, with the outputs not yet clearly defined.

Go: consider that the benefits and pleasures of putting real information about ourselves online are becoming increasingly compelling, that many of the new sharing services work hard to be focused, simple, and easy to use, and that mobile devices are making “always and everywhere” access to these services closer to a reality.

Online privacy is becoming as much an issue of information flow as it is an issue of traditional information security, and (more significant, I suspect) the bright line between online and offline is starting to blur. We’re starting to see interesting benefits from integrating the online world into the real time living of our daily lives, but it’s very new territory.

We’ve seen this sort of integrated life appear as art and experiment, but the day-to-day reality of it is going to be something very different. It’s not about the omnipresent archival documentation that caught our imagination early on, but about making new kinds of interactions possible. And as with the simple act of adding someone to a Twitter list creating ripples, the implications of what we’re doing are not yet entirely clear. Make no mistake, this change is happening, so far better to try to understand it than to pretend we can stop it. Be apprehensive, yes, and be thoughtful, but be excited.

Thoughts on a Sewage-Filled Spam Hose

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Earlier today Josh Stylman pointed out an interesting post by Mark Pilatowski entitled Search and Social: Will the Twitter Firehose Become a Sewage-Filled Spam Hose? While the short answer to that question is “what do you mean will become a sewage-filled spam hose?” I’d like to dig a little deeper than that.

It’s well worth clicking through above and reading the entire post, but I’ll give you the first paragraph here:

As most of you probably know Bing and Google announced that they have finalized agreements with Twitter to begin incorporating Tweets into their search engine results. Everyone seems to be overjoyed and excited about this. Search engines are excited because they get access to the Twitter firehose and they can begin providing real time results in the SERPs. Twitter is happy because they are finally getting paid. Searchers are happy because they can now get real time results for queries that deserve it, like breaking news. Everyone seems to be overjoyed about the possibilities and I myself am very interested to see how this all plays out. I do have one concern and that is how are Bing and Google going to deal with the issue of spam when it comes to real time search via Twitter results?

Two issues jump out at me from that first paragraph: the phrase “real time results for the queries that deserve it, like breaking news,” and the question “how are Bing and Google going to deal with the issue of spam when it comes to real time searh via Twitter results?” The two are very much intertwined, to the point where I think they’re aspects of a single question: how can you use Twitter’s data to enhance a search of the web?

Taking on the real time results view of things first, I question whether displaying tweets at the top of a search is where the interesting stuff necessarily has to happen at first. Yes, that’s real time and kind of cool, but does it enhance my experience when searching the web? Not sure about that. More recent isn’t necessarily better. As Pilatowski points out, breaking news is the poster child here, but outside of the oft-cited earthquakes example, how often does Twitter bring you the substance of breaking news and how often does it bring notification of breaking news and a link?

A lot of links, not a lot of meaty, 140 character eyewitness reports, right?

So if you’re a search engine, just having access to that Twitter firehose—even if you never display a single tweet in your result set—does get you some hugely useful real time information to work with in a format you’re used to dealing with. Your real time data set from Twitter is pointing out significant links (many of which may not recently/yet have been crawled) and effectively associating them with a few keywords. So when that “earthquake” or “kanye west” search term is submitted, you know that topic just became hot on Twitter a few minutes ago, and you’ve got a frequency count on a bunch of URLs that can either supplement or help rank the URLs you would have returned pre-Twitter. Real time relevance, right there.

The spam question then rears its head. You’ve all likely taken a look at the tweets associated with Twitter’s trending topics, and know full well that spammers will latch on to anything that’s happening in an effort to sell more discount herbal web cam work-at-home cigarette franchises. So won’t the spammers just use Twitter to hit the “real time” part of search results?

I don’t think so.

See, if you’re Twitter the company, you have to walk rather softly around spammers. While spammers are certainly an irritation on Twitter the service, they’re a relatively mild one, and if an anti-spam measure taken by Twitter the company (say, something around following/follower ratio) should affect any legitimate users, uproar will inevitably follow. Twitter the company is also Twitter the service, and so if the company modifies what tweets a users sees—at all—they’re changing an element of the service itself. And then people will opine (perhaps accurately) that they’re “breaking” the service.

So Twitter the company seems to tread pretty lightly in a lot of areas, spam included. I suspect that there have been at least a few relatively simple projects tossed around internally that could make a huge impact on Twitter spam, before being shelved because of the impact (real or perceived) on non-spammy users of the service.

If you’re Bing or Google, on the other hand, Twitter is just a data stream. The search engine have absolutely no need to be “fair” to Twitter’s users, give those users the benefit of some sort of doubt, or think about how a given anti-spam measure might affect Twitter the service; the search engine’s decisions on how to slice and filter the data do not affect Twitter the service in any way.

The search engines can decide that only Twitter users with a following:follower ratio of X:Y or better will be included in their analysis and display pool, to exclude forever after any user who tweets a link to a domain that the search engine considers “bad,” or take any other approach they like to filtering the data. Who’s going to complain? On what grounds?

I think that Pilatowski nailed the key issues in his post, but my gut says that he has taken on too much of Twitter’s perspective on these issues, and not enough of the […um, still largely hypothetical…] “real time search” perspective. Particularly if the Twitter firehose is being used primarily as a behind the scenes data source as described above, the search engines have far more latitude to attack problems in Twitter’s data that does Twitter itself.

Failing: A Very Difficult Piece for Contemplation

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Tom Johnson’s Failing: A Very Difficult Piece for Solo String Bass is a fascinating composition. It’s music and text that explore the idea of failure, and well worth the nine minutes you’ll invest in listening.

The piece popped into my head because of a conversation I had a couple of days ago. We were talking about the positive trend of people publically discussing failure. A few years ago it was surprisingly hard to find anyone going public with their thinking on the failure of a company, project, or feature, but it’s increasingly common to see some public thinking happening post-failure; it was noted, however, that these writeups tend to have a rather confessional character, and appear only after the lights have been turned out and the doors locked.

People tend to blog (or otherwise make public) the “hey, awesome stuff coming down the pike” stuff, and are increasingly willing to open up the “here’s how it all went off the rails” stuff after the fact, but there’s still a pretty big taboo against making public the little, inevitable, failures that happen along the way to either success or failure on the large scale. I can understand why that taboo exists, of course, but it’s still an interesting phenomenon.*

This idea stuck in my head because I’m currently in the process of failing to some degree, so it seems worthwhile to practice what I preach and get a little analysis out there.

It’s been an eventful four and a half months months for me, but the the component that’s most relevant here is that I’ve gone from a gleeful “I’m not working!” to a nonspecific “okay, I should really be working…on, ah, something…so now what?”

A part of this is pretty specific to me and my situation. Over the past few months it’s been very easy for me to fall into a line of thinking like this: my dad helped found an academic discipline, wrote and edited more than a dozen books, and made a real impact on the lives and careers of dozens, if not hundreds, of his students. On my side of the scale, I’ve figured out some ways to get people to click on emails more often. And made some Internet stuff that a few people kind of like. Hm. What was it I wanted to do, again? And why, exactly?

Where this applies to the general case is that it’s a mindset that exists in many forms, and it insidiously chips away at one’s ability to just do things. It turns out that the thing I built has already been done pretty well by someone else? Ah, I guess I won’t bother releasing it. That service’s API is set up in a way that means my idea would have to be a pretty iffy hack? Okay, I’ll put it on the metaphorical shelf for a while, not a big deal. With data plugged in, this service idea wouldn’t actually work the way I’d thought? Oh well, whatever, never mind.

The more entrepreneurial among you may well point out this is natural, and that the real issue is working through it. Execution matters more than ideas, it’s not always obvious up front which undertakings will be meaningful, nor is it clear where a given path will end up. Iterate. Pivot. So on.

But the formulation of this that’s helping me get through this is a little bit different. You see, I’ve never thought that I was particularly invested in being right. There is a geek archetype that knows the objectively right answer on everything—how to indent code, market a product, make coffee, whatever—and must also use that knowledge to correct those sad individuals who are in error. That approach to life bugs the shit out of me, so I’ve tried to focus on being right when I can and being wrong in interesting ways when I can’t.

The interesting realization for me is that I’ve been overlooking that model for a good while. I’ve been focused on trying to figure out the objectively right thing to do now, and that’s paralyzing. I now have to do something with this realization, of course, but it’s a start. I may not be right with what I do going forward, but I’m less worried about that than I was yesterday.

Thanks for listening. Go listen to the Tom Johnson piece now, if you haven’t.

* Though note that silence speaks volumes anyway, so a lot of individuals, startups, and smaller companies actually broadcast the fact, if not the details, of some sort of failure these days, when they suddenly go silent.

Site and Service

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[Addition to the original post, pre-publish: by hanging on to this post for a couple of days I’m publishing after Albert Wenger’s post and thus missed the opportunity to say “see? I thought of this, too, so I’m astonishingly perceptive.” Well, 50% of something-or-other is showing up, so I can’t really complain.

But this does underscore one interesting point: in the comments on Fred Wilson’s Golden Triangle post, he notes that “you’ve gotta have a thesis that is well articulated and well understood among the partnership.” Wenger’s post proposes that a huge amount is queued up to happen in web services; Wilson’s post (in my opinion, discussed below) is a functional rough cut of the areas in which web services are really developing.

It would appear that at USV the thesis is well articulated and understood among the partnership. Neat.]

The Post

While it may be a tautological statement, let’s begin by noting that a recent post by Fred Wilson sparked a fair amount of discussion in webtech circles. He proposed that the three current big megatrends in the web/tech sector are mobile, social, and real-time,” calling it the “golden triangle.”

The discussion in the comments is well worth reading, but [as you might expect] I’m going to go in a slightly different direction. What’s most interesting to me about this proposal is that much of what falls under this (admittedly large) umbrella is what fascinates me personally: it’s about services, not sites.

Now, to get this out of the way: I am not saying that this is an either/or proposition for the companies involved, nor that the “live/now/real-time” web will crush the “dead web,” see the dead web driven before it, and hear the associated lamentations. I’m saying that the area that Fred calls the golden triangle is:

  • An area where things that were wildly impractical just a few years ago are starting to happen.
  • An area that is going to have a significant effect on how we think about the web in coming years.
  • An area that is fascinating.

This is all particularly significant to me at the moment because I went to see Kurt Vile with Birds of Maya last week, and Six Organs of Admittance with Om a few days ago…and I told Songkick that I was going to those shows. Because Songkick knew I was going, they were capturing the relevant snippets that I offered up on Twitter.

This is important, because while Songkick is already an excellent way to find out about upcoming shows and see what shows my friends are going to, that isn’t going to be enough. They need to be a service that’s intertwined with live music, not a site about live music. I could write reviews of those shows on the site (I won’t, but I could), but capturing my immediate reactions to those shows without my having to do any extra work is a compelling offer, and a step towards the service mindset. They’ve already got social in the mix, and they’re clearly working out how mobile and real-time can neatly fit in.

Songkick still needs a great and accessible site for a variety of reasons, but I suspect that before too long it will be the service that’s creating much of the site. Twitter, Foursquare, Disqus (which hasn’t gotten enough credit for how radical it really is, incidentally)…think about all the examples that have popped up in the past few years in that Golden Triangle; the objective isn’t to create a site that draws users for long sessions, but rather to create a low friction service that’s collecting interesting little snippets all over the place and all the time.

We all started thinking about “web services” a number of years ago, as a machine-to-machine proposition. In a weird reversal of the RSS adoption situation, I think that we’re starting to see that “web services” may be even more interesting and useful when they’re aimed more directly at users.

Magic, Technology, Synthesis

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“We need to not be building the Marauder’s Map and instead be building the Weasley Clock”

Kevin Marks (as reported by Dennis Crowley)

To get it out of the way up front, let me just say this: I’ll stipulate to deserving a certain amount of mockery for thinking for so long about a Harry Potter reference, if you’ll all stipulate to bite me, it’s actually a good metaphor, okay? It’s a really interesting metaphor.

If you need context for this you could check the relevant Wikipedia page, but I’ll strip it down a bit for you:

  • The Marauder’s Map is a magical map of the Hogwarts school that shows where all the school’s inhabitants are, in real time.
  • The Weasley Clock is a magical “clock” that has one hand for each member of the Weasley family, with locations or statuses where the hours would normally appear: Home, School, Work, Travelling, Lost, Hospital, Prison, and Mortal Peril. At any given point in time, then, the hand for each family member points to the appropriate status.

And what does that suggest for the world outside the pages of somewhat overrated children’s literature?

Well, think about it: you’ve got one artifact that shows you a constantly changing, basically unfiltered stream of what’s happening right now, and another that reduces a similar complex set of real-time data into a simple form that is immediately accessible and useful in a specific context. The clock offers a reduction—an obvious, almost ridiculous oversimplification—of what is offered by the map, but that reduction is what makes the clock useful. The clock tells you basically, not exactly, what’s going on.

[Editorial Note: I love that it’s one of the founders of Foursquare that pointed to this quote, since that confirms my suspicion that the Foursquare guys are well aware that “where are you right now? is only a part of what we need going forward, and they’re already scheming schemes to build on top of that now.]

I’ve already written about aggregation and accretion, so today we’ll roll the two together into synthesis. There are, and will continue to be, cases where we want direct access to the full detail of real-time information, but there are many more where we want that data synthesized into an accessible (and yes, very oversimplified) view of what’s most important to us right now. We need to not be building the Marauder’s Map, and instead be building the Weasley Clock.

The really difficult part of this undertaking is that it takes us beyond the first four Ws generally addressed by the emerging now web—who, what, where, and when—and starts pushing us into number five: why?

The Marauder’s Map solves the easier problem; reporting on exactly where a lot of people are right now is no mean feat, by any measure, but consider the implications of that “mortal peril” spot on the Weasley Clock.

That’s an important status update, but it’s probably not an explicit update. Unless one of the Weasley kids is thoughtful enough to Twitter “oh, shit, I’m in some serious mortal peril he…” then setting that status presupposes reducing all of the other data points we’ve got—both aggregated across sources and accreted over time—to figure out why we should synthesize a “mortal peril” status now, out of the various non-mortal peril snippets that we’ve got.

I don’t mean to minimize the significance of (nor the difficulty of building) the services that are making it worthwhile to provide this real-time data, but I think that things get really interesting when we start figuring out the “why” behind that data and doing something with it.

Also: this really isn’t totally abstract musings. The thought process here has started helping me figure out where RSScloud and PubSubHubbub can mix in, so I feel like I’m making some progress towards things that do stuff. Go, me.