Tuesday, February 20, 2007

How many social networking sites can we truly use?

A point Jon Udell made the the MIT Forum has rattled in my head for the past few weeks. He talked about "Social Media Fatigue" to which an audience member responded that he believes people have a tolerance for memberships in about 5 social networking sites.

Since each one requires a username and password, I can understand that. I mean, how many different sites can a person really join and become an active participant in?

So now what? The technology is interesting and the benefits pretty awesome, but a community is only as good as its members. Enter Yahoo (and Google). Your Flickr ID is now a Yahoo ID. Your Blogger ID is now your Gmail address. In other words, by using just two IDs you get a lot of access. You have access to Yahoo Groups, Google Groups, Blogger, Yahoo 360, Flickr, YouTube and who knows what else that comes down the pike. So, what's next? Well, why not start selling access to the community? In a sense, create a federated identity process. Yes, these groups will still need to gather their own data and information, but once someone is logged into Yahoo or Gmail they should also be logged into your site.

Of course, there is also OpenID, something that Simon Wilson has been writing and speaking about.

Yes, I know browsers store a lot of this information so no, I don't need to log into the New York Times, Boston Globe and Tabblo (client) each time I visit, but what is something happens to my browser? What if I'm using another browser at a friend's house? or maybe I'm accessing from some other site? How many IDs should I be expected to remember?

And yes, I know life will be better once we all have digital signatures on smart card chips that we can access through our local computers, but the day we have those never seems to come, so we can't plan on having those in the short-term. For now, it seems, just about everyone has either a Yahoo ID or Gmail address, so we may as well accept it, use it and just be happy.

Then we can join more than 5 social networking groups. Well, in theory anyway. Even if I am a member, how active can I truly be? Can I take part on a regular basis? How much participation is enough to be a member of the community? I don't think I've bought something on eBay in quite a while, but I have been running regular searches and may have bid on a few things. How much participation is enough?

Thursday, February 08, 2007

Can you package lightening?

I spent Wednesday sitting in the Colonnade Hotel at the MIT Enterprise Forum hearing about the “Brave New Web.” I heard a lot of interesting things and a lot that just didn’t make sense.

I’m not going to try and wrap the whole thing up here, just go through a few of my thoughts. Other people do that better than I. More a stream of consciousness.

One blogger I read noted that they didn’t get much more out of the forum than they would from reading a day’s worth of blog posts. Maybe, but I met a lot of nice people as well who are doing some interesting things.

Overall I came away with the impression that people are trying to package lightening.

In a morning discussion about venture capital in Boston (as opposed to San Francisco) someone suggested that Boston needed more home run hits, the major billion dollar IPOs and deals that would act as halos for the rest of the city. But that suggests deals such as Google’s purchase of YouTube are the norm rather than flukes.

A number of people focused on the fact that good content would rise to the top, pointing to such Web phenomena as willitblend.com and various popular YouTube videos.

All these things are nice, but you can hardly stake a marketing strategy on hitting the right blend of comedy and allure. That’s kind of like trying to predict the next big tabloid story. You just can’t do it.

All that said, it’s obvious that the key to a lot of marketing in this “brave new world” lies in passion. It’s not something you can fake but something you have to feel. It’s also what truly comes across in a blog or podcast. It’s also not something that everyone can convey. I met plenty of people who were well spoken, good looking and educated, yet never came across very well on TV. I also met their doppelganger.

The same thing exists online. You have people who can use these tools properly and those who can’t. The trick for entrepreneurs is finding someone to help them lean how to use these tools to translate passion into a marketing advantage.

I also came away wanting to see what’s coming next. A number of companies see social networking as an end into and of itself. But Jon Udell did talk about the idea of the inevitable “social networking fatigue” that has come up recently. The more interesting companies will not just rely on social networking itself to hook up friends with other friends so they can party, but will enable business and commerce.

At least, that’s my take.

Thursday, February 01, 2007

Local politics meets social media

This following is an oped I wrote for the Newton TAB. You can find it there, if you like.

Blogs are changing city politics

During the 2004 presidential elections, the foundation of modern politics changed. Until then, candidates spoke to the electorate through major media players and the people acted mostly as consumers, taking in what they’d learned through newspaper, radio and TV, and then casting ballots. A few individuals were lucky enough to ask the candidates questions, but for the most part, reporters asked the questions, the public heard the answers.

But then bloggers came onto the scene. Individuals armed with nothing more than a computer, Internet access, a free site and some ideas found they could reach millions of readers. Even better, their readers could answer back, asking questions and helping drive the discussions. The people took control of the political process.

Candidates had no choice but to take note and take part in the conversation. Two years later, the bloggers played key roles in helping Ned Lamont win the Democratic nod in Connecticut and in helping Deval Patrick ride the grassroots wave to Beacon Hill.

But here in Newton, politics kept its traditional bent with a couple of major news sources acting as the primary way to reach the people.

That is, until the fight over Newton North.

The Yes supporters in last week’s ballot question election ran a traditional campaign with its political machine in full force. The list of big-name endorsers took up an entire page of a slick mailing sent to residents around the city. The printing, mailing, lawn signs and automated calls were all paid for with donations running close to $50,000.

On the other side were a group of residents fighting with just a few donated dollars, some lawn signs, postcards and their own convictions.

Yet they managed 41 percent of the final vote. How?

Like the national stage, Newton-based blogs are reshaping the local landscape. Until about a year ago, most of the local blogs were written by individuals about their daily lives. You could read about what happened in my house, or about local restaurants, or about any of a number of other local families and residents. Mostly these were fun diversions and ruminations on life.

But then Kristine Munroe and I launched TheGardencity.net. Around the same time, the TAB launched its own blog and Sean Roche used his little corner of cyberspace to focus on the issues surrounding Newton’s Streets and Sidewalks. Paul Levy opened up the process behind the Newton Blue Ribbon Commission by blogging about meetings and asking for local input.

During the site plan debate, these blogs became important resources for people looking for information. Even more, they became a place where people looking to ask questions could have them answered. Members of the Board of Aldermen, including Amy Sangiolo, Ken Parker and Leslie Burg, took part, as did other people with stakes in the outcome. People asked questions, they argued, they engaged in a political discourse and, most importantly, they learned. Levy used his blog to give citizens a look at a draft of the Blue Ribbon Commission report well before the election, something that would not have been possible before.

The people of Newton discovered that they do, in fact, have a voice. They can drive the news coverage and ask questions. What’s more, they can do so in a way that fits into their busy lives. As a parent of three children, I know I don’t often have time to attend the various city meetings, but through the blogging world, I now have access to elected officials. I can ask them questions and get answers. Even better, others can join in the conversation and we can all learn together.

Would the No side have won on Jan. 23 with a little more money? Would the Yes side have won 80 percent of the vote if they’d been involved online? There is no way to know for sure, but I’m certain many based their decisions thanks to the information they learned while taking part.

This past week, Gov. Deval Patrick started his own podcast as a way to speak directly to the voters, bypassing the traditional go-between of the state’s media. He’s also talked of starting a blog where people can comment on various issues. When government converses directly with the people it can only get better.

During the Newton North debate, a few key voices remained silent: those of Newton North Now and of the mayor’s office. I understand that both of those groups actively decided not to participate in the blogs, and it’s a shame. Jeremy Solomon, the mayor’s director of policy and communications, tells me that city employees cannot participate in blogs and other social media by rule. It’s unfortunate, because that means the people cannot easily converse with those who make the decisions.

It’s an isolated fantastical attitude that will have a tough time surviving the new local reality.