Category Archives: UGC

Social Networking sites are differiated through their base functions

In the previous post we explored how Social Networking sites normally have 4 different functions:

  1. Networking;
  2. Social;
  3. Identity; and
  4. Sharing

Now, by looking at four well know examples, I will illustrate how different emphasis on these functions differentiate Facebook, MySpace, LinkedIn and Second Life.

Second Life

Second Life is in fact a weak example of a Social Networking media property.

  • This is primarily because it lacks Networking functionality (You have no friend or contact lists, where you can create ties or nodes and track their movements or interactions);
  • It is however very big on Identity formation features (although this identity does not have to map to a real identity);
  • It can be very social and users can build real & warm relationships;
  • It also does have ‘sharing‘ functionality. (Just by being on Second Life you in fact become content! Everything you build is user generated content and therefore sharing.)

But because it tries to recreate reality and its users can not create ties or links (a buddy list) that allows them to associate, track or interact with contacts it’s a social networking site without the networking.

What are the user behavior of Second Life users like? They tend to spend hours on SL, they tend not to use their own identity, but a fictional one. They tend to meet strangers and befriend these stranger’s fictional identities. They can just be or play or build stuff in Second Life. But what they do there tends not to have much of a bearing on what they do outside of SL.

LinkedIn

LinkedIn can be described as a very functional Social Networking site that’s lite on social functionality because:

  • Is a Networking site in the business sense of the word, where people create ties to achieve a goal; (It has built its networking features strongly on so-called weak tie theory.)
  • Does not contain much Social functions (Users not enabled to show their personality and build deeper personal relationships);
  • Has basic and core Identity functions: A user’s real (but laundered to the extent that they can be sanitized of personality) identity is crucial;
  • Little by way of ‘Sharing’ functionality (Although they have recently added Question and Answer functionality, which generates fantastic content);

LinkIn’s user behavior is quite different form SL.

“We focus on a few but high value moments” Reid Hoffman, LinkIn’s founder.

And thats exactly what happens. Many users only visit it when they are job hunting – once every few years. The users real identities are crucial, but they are stripped of any depth. It’s a corporate identity, an online resume of your career status and achievements. There’s little evidence of socialising on LinkIn and little functionality that encourages it. ‘Sharing’ is limited to gaining access of contact’s contacts (weak ties) and asking professional Questions and getting Answers.

MySpace

MySpace combines the 4 functions more equally that Second Life or LinkIn.

  • It has very strong Social functionality that allows users to interact in a personal way;
  • But it has Networking functions as well, that allows users to create friends or contacts through ties;
  • User identity formation and expression, real or made up (and therefore often comprised of groups of people like bands), is extremely important, a user can completely customize a page to reflect who they are and associate with whom they want;
  • ‘Sharing’ things like songs, pictures, videos and blog entries is key;

MySpace’s users come back to the site often and spend a reasonable amount of time on it. It has become very popular with bands and artists as a promotional tool. Anybody can see who your ‘friends’ are, and some users have thousands of them – so weak tie theory applies.

“Andy Warhol said everybody is famous for 15 minutes. Social Networking changed that to everyone is famous for 15 people. If you have a million friends, your broadcasting. You’re an entertainer”Tom Anderson (MySpace)

Facebook

Like MySpace Facebook applies the 4 core functionalities associated with social networking more evenly. It has:

  • Very strong Networking functions, without ‘Friends’ you literally have nothing to read, see or interact with. Facebook is built on strong interpersonal ties;
  • It has allot of functionality that makes it very Social and allows personalities to to be on display. Poke!
  • User Identity functionality is paramount, made up identities are virtually useless (pun intended);
  • ‘Sharing’ is crucial (Users can share almost everything, their every Facebook move is UGC. UGC that is delivered to their ‘friends’ via a personalised feed);

Facebook’s user behavior is very interesting. Most users visit the site at least daily, but often for less than one minute. Besides the importance of real Identities and Facebooks strong and deep ties (versus MySpace’s weak ties), the main difference between Facebook and MySpace is in the clever exposure given to ‘sharing‘ via its Personal Newsfeed function.

“You can’t create communities, you can just find them” – Mark Zuckerberg (Facebook)

All this explains why Facebook has been so successful. As Jeff Jarviss said, it harnesses the wisdom of your crowd. But it’s not suitable for all Social Networking needs, because it militates against discovering new people and therefore new things. It’s also doubtful whether it would have bee so successful without it’s revolutionary Personal Newsfeed.

Conclusion

Facebook and MySpace share almost all their key features, and LinkedIn shares some with them, but the differing implementation of the 4 elements has yielded very different user behavior.

So when planning a Social Networking site ask yourself:

  • To what extent should the users form relationships or ties?;
  • Should they be weak or strong?
  • To what extent should the site allow socializing?; and
  • To what extent should users be able to express their identity; and
  • Should this identity be real?
  • What content do you want your users to generate?
  • And how do users find out of new UGC content that might interest them?

Notes:

Ties

One can not have Social Networking site without two-way ties built into the architecture. The ability to communicate and interact is not enough (See Second Life), although users can still build ad hoc relationships without this functionality.

Building ties into the architecture requires permissioning functionality. Even when one does have permissioning to create ties, how one implements the use of ties leads to wildly divergent outcomes. (See the huge difference between LinkedIn and MySpace.)

Weak ties

Interpersonal ties, generally, come in three varieties: strong, weak, or absent. Weak social ties, it is argued, are responsible for the majority of the embeddedness and structure of social networks in society as well as the transmission of information through these networks. Specifically, more novel information flows to individuals through weak rather than strong ties. Because our close friends tend to move in the same circles that we do, the information they receive overlaps considerably with what we already know. Acquaintances, by contrast, know people that we do not, and thus receive more novel information

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Social Networking on the Web

Are you building a so-called Social Networking site? Then you need to know what makes them tick, what user needs they address, and how you can play with these things to design your own site. But first lets start from the beginning. What is a social network?

According to the collective wisdom of Wikipedia –

A social network is a social structure made of nodes (which are generally individuals or organizations) that are tied by one or more specific types of relations.

But what does that mean in practice, what is a social network when found on the web?

What is referred to as Social Networking online is often conflated and confused with the concept of ‘sharing’. So many think sharing pictures, video or music (so-called user generated content) are examples of Social Networking.

But in truth social networking sites tend to have three other key elements or functions besides ‘sharing‘:

  • Identity formation functions;
  • Networking functions; and
  • Social functions.

Often the distinction between Networking, Social, Identity and Sharing functionality is not clear and there is some overlap between them. I will now explore these concepts in further detail with reference to real life examples and on the net.

Networking – Here networking is meant in the business sense of the word. In the real world this would be like when two executives meet and exchange business cards at an industry seminar. What is taking place is formal, relatively impersonal and goal orientated relationship creation.

Social – If something has a Social function it means there is a strong human and informal dimension to the interaction. Personalities are on display and personal relationships created. Social could thus include people doing things for fun: Like playing tennis for instance. But it does not necessarily mean it is not serious. A practical example: It’s where Bill Clinton and Tony Blair sits in a bar at the yearly Davos conference and talks about the conflict in Palestine over a pint of lager.

Identity means building meaning and displaying what and who you are. If I have a Mohawk hair cut, skinny jeans, a black leather jacket and Doc martin boots, it’s fair to assume that I’m a punk, and that I’d be likely to have certain views with respect to work, society, politics and music.

Sharing’ is of course in reality a misnomer. To many observers, users seemingly do things on the internet for free as if they want nothing in return. This is not accurate. In fact this gift giving is actually self publishing – for egotistical and status reasons. They do it because they want recognition. For the purposes of this post we will keep on calling it by its popular name: ‘sharing’.

But this is still abstract. By looking at familiar sites like Second Life, LinkedIn, MySpace and Facebook, all described as being social networking in nature and how they place different emphasis on these elements, it can help us to better understand their practical implications.

Virtual brands will soon be real

Second life, the best know online ‘world’ allows its users to design and build houses and almost anything else besides, including clothes and shoes. And because all users keep copyright of their creations in Second Life, and because its easy to copy items in a digital world, a brisk trade in digital items are taking place.

Apparently this also makes second life ‘manufacturing’ and retailing into a low margin high volume business. Unless of course one can establish a brand. Some established brands like Puma are already retailing trainers in Second Life.

But ZuluZulu reckons its only a matter of time that a brand which originates in Second Life goes ‘real’ and finds it’s was into a shop near you.

Facebook – the social operating system

Has it ever happend to you that someone has told you about something, and the next day another tells you about it, and then another.

ZuluZulu was told about Facebook last week. And again. And then I got an invitation to join.

So I joined Facebook last week. Now I have a MySpace, Flickr, Digg, YouTube, Muti, Blik account, but never have I found signing up and finding friends so easy. As you use it, its simplistic power wonders and charms. It’s the social networking site of social networking sites. A meta web 2.0 site.

And then today on the Tube I read Jeff Jarvis’ always excellent Media Guardian column. It was about, you guessed it – Facebook.

What is Facebook’s secret sauce? I think it starts with identity. On the otherwise anonymous and pseudonymous internet, this is a place where real identity matters: I use my name and I associate with people whom I actually know. Soon after I started, I got invitations from strangers and asked my blog readers about the etiquette of responding. I was told that, in school, one accepts all invitations, because you are all in the same institution and it’s rather like an arms race; school is, after all, a popularity contest. But we newcomer adults already seem to be developing a rule (borrowed from the similar business site LinkedIn) that we should befriend only those we know; it is an endorsement. So we are the masters of of our identities and our communities, which establishes trust. I think internet users have been yearning for such control.

What struck me is that one of the peculiar successes is how Facebook somehow gets you to send messages to friends that are in your email address book that you normally never message. Why? Perhaps because it’s a more social, easier, friendlier environment than an email interface.

Facebook has two other incredible features which Jarvis explains:

Next, Facebook introduced what it calls a newsfeed, filled with simple updates about what your friends have done on the service: one posted a photo, another a video, two more befriended the same person, four others started using a feature.

…it is not news as we know it, but it has news value: if four friends I respect start using a program, that’s good enough reason for me to look at it. As one blogger said, this isn’t the wisdom of crowds but the wisdom of my crowd. It is like the talk around the cracker barrel in a frontier general store: the protonews of my small society.

But Facebook is also becoming a programming platform.

That is, it enables anyone to create applications on top of the service. Already there are scores of aps hooking up users’ information with other services such as calendars, maps, chat, music, news, shopping, and much more. Every media, entertainment and web company needs to figure out how Facebook can help their communities. It is not just about widgetising content – the latest web 2.0 fad – but about people doing things together.

Zuckerberg’s ambition for Facebook -which he has so far refused to sell, even though it is said he has been offered more than $1bn – is nothing less than for it to become the social operating system of the web, the Google of people.

MySpace eat your heart out.

Do you Digg Blik?

ZuluZulu discovered Blik today. Blik (Afrikaans: view, stare, look) is a web 2.0 Afrikaans link recommendation site ala Digg. Already there is an English language South African recommendation engine called Muti.

Digg, which started off as a tech news recommendation engine, is so popular that it soon overtook that other massive tech news site Slashdot. Slashdot used to be so huge that the phrase “you have been Slashdotted” became synonymous with the surge in traffic when Slashdot put a link to your website and cause your servers to keel over.

But where Slashot had editors recommending stories and deciding their prominence, Digg took this one step further, allowing its users to submit them and deciding how popular they should be.

Sites like Digg are bad news for traditional professional media and traditional marketeers. It allows the lone blogger, filmmaker, web producer to compete with mighty media behemoths like the BBC and Naspers. It allows an interesting web service to be found, without throwing marketing money at it.

If the Digg community thinks your point of view is better, or you know something before the Guardian does, your story can experience a traffic surge.

Did you know you can “Digg” Mhambi’s stories by clicking on the link at the bottom of each story? And that increases the prominence of my story on Digg. See, six of you Digged my story on how many $100 laptops Oprah could buy South Africa.

Back to Blik. Is it a good thing to have an Afrikaans recommendation engine? Well it certainly does not suffer like Muti does in competing with Digg (who has long since moved out of being just about tech news). There are allot of South African stories on Digg.

But this brings to the fore a perennial problem Afrikaans faces. By using Afrikaans, Afrikaners can have a very unique, local, and intimate exchange of views and maintain their identity free from cultural imperialism. But its also self referential, self contained and incestuous. Often really interesting, sophisticated, open debates happen, like this Blik to a story on a farmer who’s micro credit system has helped his labourers invest happen, but nobody outside the Afrikaans community would know about it.

Will the Venice Project save TV?

Have you heard about the Venice Project? The project by the Skype and Kazaa founders Janus Friis and Niklas Zennstrom that some claim is set bring telly into the internet age? So what’s it all about?

Here are some snippets form the Venice project blog:

For those who’ve not quite caught on to what Venice is all about – in essence the various journalists got the story almost exactly right: we’re fixing TV; removing artificial limits such as the number of channels that your cable or the airwaves can carry and then bringing it into the internet age; adding community features, interactivity, etc.

But we’re also bringing something back from that old TV – of having a shared experience with your friends, something you can talk about, rally around and enjoy with others.

And it is that latter part – embodied in the community tools and APIs – which we expect will play a prominent role in this early beta. Since we’re based on some widely distributed Open Source software we do expect people to quickly be able to leverage it and tune it to their own wild ideas, hobbies and interests.

And suprise surprise, like Kazaa and Skype, its P2P.

We are in the process of launching a secure P2P streaming technology that allows content owners to bring TV-quality video and ease of use to a TV-sized audience mixed with all the wonders of the Internet. All content on The Venice platform is provided by content owners directly, and it’s all protected with the highest standard of encryption and we are working within the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) framework to ensure that it complies with appropriate content protection and ownership regulations.

Besides making a product that we trust users will love, we think that quality content and the respect of copyright is central to making The Venice Project successful. We cannot mix the best of the Internet with the qualities of TV without the content industry’s help and support, which is why the service has been developed with this thought at the heart of our business.

So the bet is that if people can access all the professionally produced content they want, over their broadband connection, when they want, and recommend this content to friends – well have a wildly successful new way of watching TV programming. Some commentators like Anthoney Lilley even predict that it would knock the impact of YouTube into a cocked hat.

I have some doubts.

Who pays for the bandwidth?

Distribution of high quality video files via the Net on mass is relatively expensive. Especially compared to normal broadcasting TV signals. P2P solves that for the Skype boys as a user can download a program (or get a stream) from many other users who carry and split the cost of the bandwidth. What will these users’ ISPs make of this? Especially as these ISP’s are trying their hand at video on demand as well.

Will TV companies be comfortable putting their content into the same pot?

To negotiate the licenses to all the content that will sit on the same platform will be a nightmare and one of the biggest challenges the project will face. TV stations are strong brands. How will these brands prosper in this environment? How will the brands fit into the navigation and programming guides, if at all? The tech part is comparitively easy to getting the TV companies to agree to this.

Pro vs amateur

Since the inception of the net we have had ‘professional’ websites. The Yahoo’s, Lycos’s, AOL’s, Amazons of this world. They are huge, and last time I checked the top 10 sites attracted alost 80% of internet users in the UK. Not unlike print and TV where the big players’ reach are significant.

But if you look at frequency and time spent on a website, these numbers drops precipetously. Although most users visit the big ‘pro’ sites regularly, these sites make up only a small fraction of the sites they visit. The bulk of our life online is spent on niche and often amateur sites.

Look at Flickr. There are a number of very important established photographers using it. Often they get tenfold more views than that of the average user. But as a percentage of the overall usage of Flickr, they are in a small minority.

Yes, ripped TV shows are poppular on YouTube. But if they are all removed tomorrow would we see a crash in traffic numbers. My bet is that you won’t. Another example: How many blogs have ripped and how many orginal and often poor content? What point am I trying to make? Venice will ignore ‘amateur’ content at thier peril.

And the lack of amateur authors create impacts on other things. The Venice Project aims to create a community around TV. Unfortunately a community of collectors and fans are just not as sexy, rich or alive as a community of creators.

The Venice Project P2P video on demand community would seem rather bare if it featured no amateur content.

The big challenge in the future of filmmaking and TV – funding

Lilley points out that: “The big problem for broadcasters won’t be distribution but rather how to fund new content.” The Venice Project does attempt to address this. But this is also the main concern of the amateur filmmaker in his bedroom (which is what Google is trying to address).

Sky surfs the second web wave

Three smart moves by Sky and its clear that you don’t need to be a New Media company to be successful online. You just need to understand media. Yahoo!, take note.

First Sky bought MySpace and then it decided to dicth satelite for broadband via lines, thus enabeling interactivity and not just one to many broadcasting services. Then this deal was done by Sky with Google:

BSkyB has announced a partnership with Google to provide its broadband customers with branded search, email and other services including a YouTube-style video sharing website.

The deal is being touted as Google’s first global partnership to provide such a range of services and the agreement will also lead to the US search engine giant making its first move into TV advertising.

Initially Google will provide the “click through” search bar and display advertising on Sky’s broadband portal – sharing ad revenues with the satellite broadcaster.

But wait, there’s more!

The two companies are also exploring “future forms of web, TV and mobile advertising”. Under the deal with Sky, Google will look at the possibility of using the information about viewing habits that can be obtained through the satellite broadcaster’s set-top boxes to produce more targeted TV advertising.

Google is already experimenting with newspaper, magazine and radio advertising in the US, using its technology to sell and target adverts.

As part of the deal, Sky Broadband customers will be able to edit, upload and share their video clips on the new user-generated video portal, and can also post and download clips from their mobile.

New communications tools available to Sky Broadband subscribers will include a customised version of Google Mail, Google’s web-based email service for the UK, and instant messaging. Subscribers will be offered addresses at the sky.com domain and the service could be extended to Google’s internet telephony service.

Google’s search tool and targeted search advertising will be introduced across Sky’s network of websites, with revenue shared between the two firms. Financial details were not revealed. Sky is aiming to tap into the UK’s booming online advertising market through the deal.

Compare these bold moves with Yahoo’s dithering over user generated content and Channel 4 and BT’s hamfisted moves into Web TV through their 4oD and BT Vision services.

As Anthoney Lilley points out in today’s Media Guardian (registration required), the biggest problems of prospective broadcasters is how they fund production and not distrinution.

First, video on demand was already here anyway – in the form of the Sky+ box and DVD collection and, for some, Home Choice, NTL or via peer to peer on the net. But I doubt the fanfare amounts to much for another reason. Broadcasters need more than new distribution platforms to define their place in the emerging media ecology. Basically, most VOD services are shops. That’s it. Their biggest effect is to turn media and telecoms companies into retailers. The big problem for broadcasters won’t be distribution but rather how to fund new content.

He continues:

Of course, finding new distribution platforms will be part of solving that challenge but it won’t do the whole job. Likewise, BT Vision might help to lock some people into BT broadband products. The big money for BT is in access and services across a wide front, not in broadcasting.

As for 4oD, it’s early days, but the shop shelves seem a bit empty. I know how hard rights deals are to put in place, but if you download the application – which is a smooth process – and then have a look at what you can, or more accurately can’t, watch from last week’s schedule, you’ll see what I mean.

More tellingly, the 4oD service is conspicuous for its lack of social networking features. C4 claims to be an “editor of choice” for its audiences in that they trust its brand to help them choose what to watch. This is definitely correct in some circumstances.

But not all the time – and it isn’t mutually exclusive with recognising that the “audience” is now an active part of services such as iTunes Music Store and Amazon. Can I send a preview of a show to a friend? No. Can I review it? Don’t think so. Is 4oD aware of my viewing habits and those of people like me and does it prioritise content or recommend stuff as a result? No.

You get what C4 thinks you might be interested in – which has a strong relationship to what they have on the shelves. 4oD is rooted in the mindset of a TV channel.

Locked up in his statement about funding production being the main challenge is this. In this WebTV value chain it is important to be a content and rights owner. Distrubution is taken care of by Google, MySpace and thousands of blogs.

To be able to fund their productions, broadcasters will need advertising or subscription revenues and if they are web savvy, they can get their users/ viewers to make content for them on the cheap.

It’s interesting then that the young Murdoch – sounding a bit like a member of the digirati – spelt out where BT and Channel 4 have been getting it wrong. According to Murdoch: “The weird thing about the media market is that people have thought about it in two halves; online and TV. The truth is, in a connected market, everything is connected.”

Sky knows that they have to open up and give their users an opportunity to watch what they want, and they know that the advertising has to be personalised and targetted like on the internet.

Antony Lilley again:

This is the nub of the problem with 4oD and, for different reasons, BT Vision. Both services have their roots as extensions or protections of existing business models.

Companies which fail to take this kind of thing into account usually lose out to rivals who approach “their” business from a new direction.

And Lilley gives an interesting snippet of news and a big prediction:

With this in mind, look out for The Venice Project from the people behind Skype – it’s aiming to combine social networking and legitimate TV content and I think it might knock the impact of YouTube into a cocked hat.