Conferencing part 1 - ETech | March 27, 2009

As you’re no doubts aware I’m an unabashed conference junky, so it will come as no surprise to you that I’ve spent the last couple of weeks in the States attending three such events.

First up was ETech, the emerging technology conference from O’Reily. Moved from it’s spiritual home in San Diego, this year it was help in the Chino wearing capitol of Silicon Valley, San Jose. The event was much smaller than last year and the tone was somewhat downbeat. However I don’t think this was necessarily down to the economy as a lot of people were speculating. ETech is an amazing place to showcase new technologies and is where start-ups like Flickr made their debut. However if there are no new breakthroughs on the horizon, the events obviously lacks its reason d’etra. I think that was the case this year.

As with the previous year, there was a lot of green technology being discussed, which led one attendee to suggest that it be renamed GreenTech. There was also a lot of ubicomp stuff like the lovingly realised siftables which made a big splash at TED. I definitely have to get hold of when they launch. O’Reily bought along their Maker Shed and I was tempted to buy a whole stack of tech to take back to Clearleft with me. Home assemble robot kits and botalicals arduino kits that will Twitter when your plants need watering. Sadly the weak pound put a stop to that.

One of my favourite talks was a session from Nick Bilton of the New York Times innovation labs. Nick showed some really interesting examples of the thinking going on behind the scenes at the NYTimes, including a lovely demo of a digital newspaper format that completely changed layout, image style and content density depending on the size of the device being used.

However the stand-out talk for me had to be a session on the info you can learn from monitoring GPS data, which turns out to be a lot. By mapping users GPS date onto census and commercial activity data, Sense Networks were able to deduce exactly what type of person a particular subject was and the percentage chance where they would be at any given time. By using a sort of Geo Page Rank algorithm they could look at the kind of place you had arrived from, the kind of place you had let to and by that deduce the kind of place you were at. They would then use cluster analysis to match you with similar types of people, thus defining you as a member of a particular type of tribe.

Sadly the current use was rather pedestrian, taking GPS data from marketing companies to deduce the type of people going to different types of bars to enable more accurate targeting. However the business opportunities were huge, and I could easily see the creation of some kind of Geo Google. On a very prosaic level you could create an amazing, geo-aware dating app that would let you know if you were in the same location as other people like you, and then facilitate you hooking up. A mundane use, but one that could prove popular and make a mint.

Apart from those two sessions I thought the rest of the presentations were rather weak, like an edition of Wired magazine in a month where nothing much had happened. My feeling that ETech was in a holding pattern this year, waiting on the next big thing to emerge. When it does, ETech will no doubt be at the front of the queue. However I’m not sure Ill be rushing back next year as it’s all somewhat out of my domain. One for the Friends of O’Reily I think.

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Why Friends Reunited Failed | March 2, 2009

I was recently interviewed by the Independent on Sunday to get a design perspective on why Friends Reunited ultimately failed. However rather than the design of the site, I think the design of the system was ultimately to blame.

Friends Reunited was one of the first “Social Networks” in the UK, long before the term had even been coined. Like all good web applications it made something that was difficult to do in the real world, incredibly easy. You could now re-connect with people from your past and spark up new friendships. It also tapped into two basic human traits; curiosity and gloating. Whether this was through design or by pure accident, the desire to see what had become of your childhood sweetheart or your school bully proved impossible to resist.

Like all social sites, Friends Reunited relied on the network affect, so when membership reached its tipping point the whole site went viral. However a lot of viruses burn through their fuel so quickly they die almost as fast as they grow, stifled by their own success. So with Friends Reunited once you’d registered, seen what your old friends were doing, connected with the ones you’d wanted to and had a laugh at the (hopefully) tragic lives of your childhood tormentors, there was very little reason to stick around.

The design of the site was delightfully amateurish, which was no surprise considering the background of the creators. However it had a low-fi aesthetic that made it feel genuine; something it shares with it’s later contemporaries like MySpace. The truth is, while a better design would almost certainly helped its fortunes, people are willing to ignore bad design and usability if the perceived value is great. With Friends Reunited there were no credible alternatives or competition so people were happy to make do.

I think one big problem was the business model itself. With so many users, Friends Reunited wanted to capitalise on this by charging a membership fee. Now this was during a time when Internet business models were still being tested, so it’s impressive that they managed to charge for the service at all. However charging for a service changes the whole dynamic of a site and causes people to game the system in order to get the maximum return on their investment. So it becomes less of a community and more of a commercial relationship. Like a lot of commercial relationships, once the value runs out, people will stop paying and leave.

Modern social networks do a much better job at keeping their members engaged than Friends Reunited. So Facebook quickly expanded from a way of getting to know people on campus into a way of connecting with old friend and managing new ones. In fact you can now use Facebook in numerous ways, be that chatting with friends, playing games, managing your social life, flirting or micro blogging. Facebook has managed to create a whole ecosystem and become an essential part of peoples social lives. What’s more, rather than charging for this privilege, they give it away for free and make their money from additional services.

Conversely LinkedIn started life as a generic social networking site but quickly specialised in the field of professional reputation management and recruitment. This model has much more longevity than simply “getting in touch with friends from school” and allows LinkedIn to charge for professional services that help their users solve a real world problem.

Product design and business model speculations aside, I think there is also a big element of timeliness and zeitgeist. Friends Reunited managed to capture the attention of millions of people and was very successful in it’s day. However human attention is fleeting and you can only maintain this until the next cool meme comes along. Because of this I’m unsure if any of the big social networks have much longevity and if we’ll be having the same conversation in 10 years time. Is social networking here to stay or is it just a blip on the evolutionary path of the Internet?

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