The Anatomy of Social Change in the Information Age

Technological advances radically alter dynamics of social change. The election of President Obama is a watershed moment that represents an evolution over a decade in the making. For the first time, social networks were mobilized on a scale that silenced critics of the technology’s limited utility to society or the “realness” of online social connections. Social networks redefine the whole concept of grass roots. Grass roots are no longer limited by time or location as long as there is a broad cause that can bring people together.


The biggest obstacle of utilizing web technology for social change is probably mobilization. Although this is changing, people are averse to making physical or monetary commitments to online activities. The bulk of web sites and services are designed to cater to niche markets that satisfy a specific need and most services are naturally supported by advertising that targets those markets. Social change requires a commitment on the part of participants, a dedication of resources whether it be time and/or money. It is something that can’t be done without passion.


With something like the presidential election, the whole nation’s destiny is at stake so naturally it is much more easier to build momentum and engage participants in the cause. There are definite goals (getting someone elected) and a solid deadline (election day) and numerous milestones (state primaries). In addition, the movement is happening on both the national and local level. People can get engaged with fund-raising or volunteering. Having said that, no other cause can bring so many of the elements needed to succeed at that level. What are the elements that make campaigns of social change successful online?


Ideals


The internet is still a place driven by ideals, at times utopian and unrealistic. For example, despite many users being averse to spending money online for services they are just as much turned off by ads that support so-called “free” sites. The opposite side of ideals is outrage. Perceived social wrongs drive a lot of traffic, whether it’s evidence of misconduct or someone flaunting ill-gotten gains. Controversy drives people to chip in with their 2 cents and throwing links around the internet. The Obama campaign was driven not only by the ideals encapsulated in the Obama team but the collective anger at the Bush administration of the country’s economy that virtually wiped away years of solid economic growth. Underdogs are also likely to gain more support on the internet than giants (just look at Apple and Microsoft).


Novelty


Novelty is a strong driver for building interest on the internet. Obama’s status as one of the first, strong black presidents no doubt contributed to a lot of initial interest in the man and what he stands for even before people became acquainted with Obama the politician. A lot of the high-traffic generating content on the web is both weird and good. Obama fulfills this brilliantly, on first look novel but the more you get to know him, you realize that he is also brilliant and more than the hype.


Rich Content


With information technology it’s hard to tie people down to any one place and force feed them information. You need a variety of content to entice people whether it’s status updates via twitter or video messages on YouTube or even memes created by passionate supporters, you need to constantly be at the forefront giving people bite-sized chunks of content they can chew on between bigger events.


Social Networking


Although there are limits to the number of people one person can interact with, utilizing public accounts and a variety of official channels on social networks is one of the best ways to make the most of this new technology. Causes give like-minded people an excuse to interact with each other in an engaging way. It also creates a powerful motivator for bringing people into the fold through the social network’s version of peer pressure. It’s amazing how many times Obama came up in a variety of ways on places like Facebook and Twitter.


But Can You Bottle It?


I suppose the single biggest question is with all the hints and case studies offered by Obama’s presidential campaign is whether you can bottle it? Packaging something like this into a coherent application would surely be a great startup idea and would also be a driver of social change (which is good for society) but could you?

GREE Headed for IPO

Yeah, this is old news.  Gree, one of Japan’s largest social networks (at least in the mobile arena, No. 2 or 3 depending on who you ask) is headed for an IPO.  The timing couldn’t be worse with the sub-prime global meltdown, especially considering all the paperwork and red tape involved and all the restrictions following the IPO, but there you have it.

 

GREE was actually the first social networking service in Japan but were surpassed by Mixi relatively quickly and haven’t regained momentum until recently (by bolstering their mobile offerings).  They currently have 7 million users (as of October 19, 2008) with gross revenues of around $29 million.  Another interesting note is that the founder Tanaka Yoshikazu still holds a 62.4% stake in the company.  I wonder what their market cap will be after the dust settles.  I think speculators are going to jump on this due to a lack of any clearly exciting IPOs with the meltdown and their astounding growth of recent years.

SNSのグリーが東証マザーズに上場へ

「GREE」がマザーズ上場へ

The Obama Campaign Significance

Barack Obama ’s successful bid for president is probably just as significant as having our first (at least openly) multi-racial president (remember his mother is white and he only met his father once or twice). He changed the nature of campaigning for good and finally delivered on the promise of information technology driven movements. Just look at the Barack Obama web site and you not only get links to Obama information on the web but links into virtually all the popular social networks and services, each with an official Barack Obama account (including an updated CV on linkedin). On top of that the site also hosts its own little social network where you can connect with others and promote the campaign. If the Kennedy’s debate against Nixon for the Presidency on live national TV was the defining moment ushering the age of television in American politics this election was the defining moment for the role the internet and social networks are to play in elections of the future. If network television brought everything to the masses, in this election, the internet brought back grass roots to the masses.


An interesting twist in this election is not only how Obama successfully leveraged the internet for a distributed grass roots campaign but how Sarah Palin unwittingly leveraged the popularity of internet memes by offering endless material for parody and innuendo from those seeking to exploit her image.


Barack Obama’s time as a community organizer in Chicago and his standing as a virtual newcomer and outsider served him well. While Obama’s campaign proved to be a demonstration of the power of social networks in spreading the message and building momentum in disparate pockets of social connections, we will have to see how and if Obama is able to maintain a meaningful dialogue with those that put him in power through the technology he leveraged so well.

Kinda Re-addicted to Twitter

Usually, internet fads come and go but the ones that last usually come in waves.  Facebook had a big wave and then another when they released the platform.  The iPhone set off shock waves and will probably see another resurgence when they wifi App store goes live (if there are any interesting ideas left by the time jailbreaking runs its course—but that’s another article) and yet another when the iPhone finally goes 3G.

It’s amazing that an application as simple as twitter, just a small message box and a very rudimental friending feature can spread so much.  It’s so easy to ignore yet a lot of people keep coming back.  We’ve all seen tons of analysis how they’ve really done a stellar job with a truly open API (not many web services, especially social networks, support write methods) and an interface to every possible mobile device (except email).  What’s more if you’re missing something you can build it yourself and many do.

So, as a result of losing my MacBook to repair but luckily left with my iPod Touch and wifi along with the release of two good iPod Touch Twitter clients (Mobile Twitter—a not-so-sexy interface but more functionality like working links to individual messages and Twinkle—the sexier venture-funded client with lots of promise), I basically re-discovered Twitter.  It’s a great way to keep a pulse on the web while waving your hand to the world at large.

Maybe I’m just over-worked but I really enjoy the release of just firing off random status checks and thoughts that I know roughly 5 people in the world may care about.  At work I have Twhirl running in the background, which a real killer client (if Twinkle can bring all their features to the iPhone in time for the official wifi App store, they could probably dominate).

It really makes you think about the importance of creating a social application that you can jump in and out of casually to pick up where you left off rather than the walled garden approach of traditional social networks where you can easily get fatigued from both updating your information and staying in touch with others.

Twitter / twinkleking

OpenSocial’s More Like Open Sand Box

I don’t know how to express the mild disappointment of finding out that the OpenSocial API, despite its alluring name, is anything but.  Why couldn’t they name it the OpenWidget API or UniversalSocialWidget API or something less misleading.  OpenSocial sound so much like a common API interface for web services that third-party developers can take advantage of.  Instead you have a bunch of common API calls so developers can build portable widgets for all the participating social networks.  Of course, the catch is you have to do it all with javascript and html.

I guess the main benefit would be for smaller social websites getting accepted into OpenSocial and using that to gain a foothold from other participating apps, since then they’ll have internal access to data from other social apps.

OpenSocial – Google Code

Social Networks: To Spam or Not Spam

One of the things about social networks is that they’re completely useless without users. You can create the best solution out there but unless you attract users to your site, it just wont spread. You need the momentum. So how do social networks get the initial momentum? They encourage you to spam everyone you know by bulk importing some contacts from one of your address books.


As a rite of passage some of these social networks come clean and start implementing a stricter policy against adding too many friends.


A few days ago, Plaxo Founder Todd Masonis blogged that we will be taking steps to drastically reduce the number of update requests that our members send out.

Plaxo’s Personal Card: An Apology

Or maybe not.



This is a nice screenshot from LinkedIn. I have a very bare profile on there that I mainly use to check out what my friends and acquaintances are up to. Obviously, I can’t be bothered to go around searching for people so I bulk import people from my address books. If you use gmail they have this helpful feature of automatically adding people you correspond with or at least have exchanged an email with.


The problem is people you exchange email with is a very loose definition of acquaintance as it includes everyone from close family to customer support. I realize that I should be taking the care to verify and carefully think who I should be asking to make connections. The problem is:


  1. LinkedIn makes it unusually easy to spam people in your virtual rolodex
  2. People have very different thresholds as to what they consider social network spam (some people are just more easy going while others hate it)
  3. When you start making connections, you naturally have to reach out to a lot of people
Of course, the easy solution is to simply throttle the person making these spammy requests rather than think of better ways to protect people who don’t want random requests while making it easy for new users to make connections.
It’s a volatile tango for social networks. They want to maximize growth without alienating users or making a bad name for spamming people. I don’t think it has to be this way. They could simply throttle requests automatically over the course of an extended period, check to see if the connection being requested includes mutual contacts, or differentiate between random requests within the site and people actually initiating contacts from email addresses.
A lot of social networks that break through eventually implement a hypocritical, “enjoy our service, but not too much” policy. I wish there was a better way.

Police and Privacy on Social Networks

The issue of privacy on social networks like MySpace or Facebook are nothing new. We’ve all heard of stories where potential recruits lost their chances of landing a job because they had too much revealing information on one of the networks. Others have been fired from their social network addiction. Campus administrators snoop and sniff out students for illicit activities and infractions. Police use it as one of the tools to monitor groups and investigate the background of youth suspects.

What troubles me is that while we have very clear rules governing what police can do as part of an undercover investigation. However when it comes to “online” investigations anything is game. Of course it’s careless and stupid of suspects to put incriminating evidence on their profiles but sometimes the stuff suspects write such as gangsta posturing and what not is used as evidence against them as well.

There is no warrant needed or any rules governing how evidence gathered from online networks is used in a court of law. Even without Homeland Security or FBI liberally wiretapping our phones, our privacy is only a couple clicks away from being the subject of scrutiny by law enforcement.

There’s also the issue of people taking on different personas in the course of their internet adventures. The pressure to be funny or witty or just controversial to peers is probably greater for youth.

There are no easy answers to this and just needs to be served. However, we need to ensure that our privacy and rights are protected from law enforcement agents using social networks solely for the purpose of gathering information and evidence.

Iminlikewithyou

I caved into curiosity and happened on an invite to i’m in like with you. I was curious about it despite the unfortunate name or more because the unfortunate name. It begs the question, “what makes it so different?” and “how do they keep the buzz?”. Usually I try to avoid Flash-heavy sites like movie pages. They bog down the browser and try to force you into an ugly custom interface. I think that’s why Google Maps appeals to geeks more than Yahoo Maps because Google goes brute force trying to make things work cross browser with AJAX which is enough to earn geek respect. But I digress…

I really can’t say anything new or witty about IILY. Like other’s have said, it is like Ebay for flirting. You basically have to woo and win the right to flirt with the obsession of your choice with points. You can make flirting games where you pose a question or offer a prize.

They’ve got a bunch of camera toys to capture you on video with a sprinkling of visual effects like glitters and flames to make it interesting. Think Photobooth on the mac.

Chatting with a friend, I think the general consensus is that it probably doesn’t have enough broad appeal outside the geek set. Of course, trying to woo women from behind a glass cage will eventually lure geek men into it like a honey trap but still, IILY needs to find a sweet spot for the general user if they plan on keeping it “by invite only” as they say.

Having said that, IILY is a shock to the system on so many levels because it brings you an immediate jolt of “fun” from the first moments you log in. It’s a flirting game with probably one of the best Flash interfaces out there very tastefully done. They are onto something good but still a long way to go. Like any dating or flirting site, you need something to keep people coming back.

Like any other such site the odds favor attractive young women. How do you make it less onerous for the women who get bombarded by digital advances from all the creepy crawlies while not setting the bar too high for the creepy crawlies themselves? It’s a difficult question but IILY does have one thing going for it in this department: fresh meat.

I’d be interested to see how IILY unfolds. From the bidding wars I’ve seen and participated in, it might even have a good revenue source from the get go if they can figure out a good way to exchange points for cash.

A Review of Inside Facebook

I’ve read a good chunk of Inside Facebook thanks to Mashable’s free promotion. It’s a great insider’s look into one of the fastest growing social networks by a former senior engineer. The book is fascinating because it captures the author’s experience at the best moment, immediately after the party comes to an end. It’s written by an insider who’s been an outsider from the day he joined as a 30-something engineer that was clueless about the true power of the product he was working on under a boss roughly two thirds his age. To be perfectly blunt, the writing style of the book is a bit amateurish and the author tries to cram too many half-digested lessons in entrepreneurship into the narrative. But perhaps, that’s part of the charm and genuineness of the book, an ordinary engineer at the right place at the right time swept up into one of the most amazing periods in a company’s history. It’s probably the most revealing and best look we’ll ever get of what it was like to be at Facebook in the early days and a story that none of the more key members of the team would not be able to tell because they lack the detached perspective.

To be fair, despite the heavily promotional nature of the site, you can tell that the author still cares deeply about the company he was with. Almost like a jilted lover who wishes well from the bottom of their hearts.

I found a lot of interesting bits in this book and it was a fascinating read. Here are some of the things I walked away with.

The Facebook Founder is fearless

Mark Zuckerberg developed Facebook like no other can. Young, brilliant, and not dumbed down into submission by a college education, Mark put Facebook onto a good start by taking a no holds barred approach from Facebook’s inception. In the early stages he scraped Harvard student data and spammed friends (I use the word spam loosely). He was even brought before Harvard’s administration for these breeches but unlike most, Mark never looked back.

Fast and Loose Coding

The site had over 2.5 million members at the time, and well over a billion pageviews per month. Yet there was no source control and code changes were all made as root.

That pretty much sums up how fearless they were coding the application. Of course, they did later migrate to source control (programs to keep track of changes you make to an application’s source code) but they were also adventurous in moving to PHP5 when it was released. Facebook mainly hired on youth and brilliance rather than experience and qualifications. Facebook also gave them enough space to run free with their ideas and see their code make a dramatic impact on the community.

That’s not to say their code sucked. In fact, it was most likely the opposite. What they lacked in standard source management practices was adequately compensated for by the technical excellence of their engineers.

Conclusion

I think it all comes down to the fact that Facebook was built for the very audience they cater to and by fearless and brilliant engineers who weren’t bogged down by “real world experience” to guide them in what they could or couldn’t do. They went against all textbook notions of how to develop and market a traditional tech startup while staying true to the spirit of truly successful startups before them like Microsoft and Google.

Would I buy this book? I probably would if I didn’t have this promo but a smaller excerpt. The juicy bits were a priceless read and this will be the only book you will get it from for some time to come.

Facebook is really doing some exciting things as evidenced by their personal feeds (which made pageviews sky rocket) and opening their API like no other platform instead of dancing a murky tango with third-party developers like MySpace. Yet at the end of the day it will always be people and only about people on the inside and outside. Facebook certainly has potential to be the social backbone that other social apps launch off of. I can only hope that Facebook continues to attract genuine talent that genuinely care like the author of this book.

Free Access to Inside Facebook

Is MyBlogLog Only Doing Mutual Contacts Now?

Today I added a couple friends to MLB only to discover that suddenly the count dropped quite a bit. Checking on the people that showed up in my contacts it looks like only mutual contacts show up in your friends section and that they’re making a major change in their policy.

Unfortunately, there’s no official word at this point and I don’t think the changes have propagated just yet. You probably need to add a couple friends to trigger the change.

I was wondering when something like this would happen. If Eric’s profile is any indication, MLB has well over 62,821 users and their policies on what they consider spam and how define contacts will make a big difference to their future.

Currently, they’ve got quite a few users for a very young and still developing site (I would even call it alpha). I can’t wait till they add some real community functionality for my blogs instead of just a list of people who joined.

baronVC – MyBlogLog