I moderated a panel on social software last week and got to talk to a bunch of interesting people, both on the panel and in the audience. I just want to get down a bunch of the stuff we spoke about, so here’s a random sampling of the ideas:
- We started out saying that social software represents a fundamental shift in the way people communicate, and that most folks over 25 just don’t understand the ways that the next generation of users are putting together their set of tools. I don’t think that people over 25 “can’t get it”, but I can agree that most aren’t in sync with the way that those under 25 think about organizing their lives online. This is an important point though, and we’re gonna come back to it
- There was also some discussion about the role of social software in the overall industry. Facebook for example is a media site in the mind of Kevin Efrusy, who was involved in funding their investment. “Media site” in this context means a service that makes money primarily off of advertisements or referral partnerships. This obviously isn’t always the case however. Craig CallÃ© from COMMON.net sells social software to enterprises, and obviously there no ad revenue there. There was some discussion of premium services, would people pay for social networking features ever? Or would the public sites always be forced to pursue advertising as a primary source of revenue? Pursuing a revue model based entirely in advertising can be very dangerous. Most investors won’t fund an idea with that kind of model. If something happens to spook users and scare them off your site can tank pretty quick.
- There was also plenty of talk about APIs, and the unbundling of data and service that’s becoming more and more popular. Everyone was pretty happy about an increased number of APIs available from all kinds of services. Not everyone was convinced that the mashups really are all that interesting, but I think there was pretty much universal applause of the proliferation of APIs. Everyone was pretty supportive of grassroots formats as well, stuff like microformats.
- There was also universal disapproval for carriers and the US cellular market in general. Everyone thought there was huge potential, but the environment just isn’t right yet to be able to deliver applications to users without getting crippled somewhere along the line. And even if you end up getting your application out you end up losing most of your revenue to the carriers (or someone else in the delivery chain). Anu from PartySync was following the model of keeping the mobile end of their service unmonetized and making money off their affiliated sites.
I’m a mobile booster definitely, so I always pay attention when people say that there’s potential in mobile but the environment isn’t setup to deliver on it yet. We’ve been hearing it for years, and it’s always sad to hear. Cause it’s true, the mobile environment sucks right now. But one persons roadblock is another persons opportunity. So of course I always try to think of the ways to deliver applications without getting fucked over. You could just grit your teeth and pay the horrendous fees to carriers and take your tiny paycheck hoping that your service gets big enough that you can make a living off of it. However the problem there is that it just contributes to the funding that the carrier has for later on when they decide they want to fight you for those profits.
For a long time I’ve been hoping that WiFi would provide the forcing function that would finally get the carriers to treat their networks like the data networks that they are. I’m still waiting for that however, and although I know something will force the carriers to accept reality I’m not sure we can count on WiFi to do it. By the way, some carriers are planning already for what happens in 3 years, when they assume that voice and data will merge and they no longer get to base payment on their split price model for traffic. I wonder why they haven’t come to terms with data services. Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about how to make data transmission as a whole viral. It seems to be one of the few ways to get around the restrictions to what you can do to your service – figure out how to give so much control to your users that restrictions on your service no longer matter. So what are some of the ways to do that:
- When you send a message to a user, especially one with a link or some actionable item, they should be able to forward that along to whoever they want and assume that the message with remain actionable.
- As much as possible allow for changing modes of interaction. If you allow SMS interaction, and email, and website, and IM, and whatever else – the user should be able to switch back and forth between those modes easily. The “send to phone” stuff from Yahoo is a great example. It’s a continuation sent into another platform. Horribly geeky, but your users don’t have to know that. They just see it as relatively seamless switching, which is good. It would be great to see the inverse too. After you’ve sent to phone you could say something like “mark this spot” from your handset, and return to the location when desktop browsing.
- Expose APIs, for everything. The most definite way to make sure that all the value that can be delivered is getting delivered is to make sure that all the content is available to anyone who would want to deliver it. That’s why I think mashups are a good thing, they’re an example of incremental increases in value by a third party. Not necessarily innovative in and of themselves, the model is inline with what we want to see. Make sure that your terms of service allow people to do interesting things without fear of retribution. If someone ships a web tablet that hooks up to WiFi in order to get around the carriers, I want them to be able to bake my service right into their ROM. Damn right I do. They’re welcome to take just about anything they want too, as long as they’re driving more incremental montizable revenue to me than they’re consuming in resources to process their requests.
- Look to the under 25 year old crowd to find out how their form their adhoc collectives. Not that folks over 25 won’t be into it also, but the under 25 crowd tends to use their mobile in a different way and they have some good patterns to replicate. Allow them to share something that’s personal on your site and you might find the kind of grassroots uptake that allows your application or service to spread without carrier support. But first you have to figure out what it is that they really want to do. Not what they say when you ask them, that’s something different. Complement and support their desired mode of interaction and you won’t be able to keep from spreading.