Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Compassionate Care

First off I want to thank everyone that read, linked to, blogged about, referenced, etc. my first post. Extremely gratifying and encouraging, and definitely left me feeling that blogging is going to be something I enjoy. Your comments and feedback are much appreciated, even as I need to learn how (and at what level) I'm going to be able to react and respond directly.

At the risk of losing my freshly-minted audience, I want to blog today about something that is neither technology nor business-related.

Krista (my girlfriend of nearly 5 years) serves as the Volunteer Coordinator at the Charlotte Maxwell Complementary Clinic. This clinic offers complementary alternative medicine treatments to low-income women with cancer. Their services seek to provide relief from the "terrible side-effects of cancer and its treatments". Today the San Francisco Chronicle featured the clinic in a very touching article.

Ways that you can help:
  • Ask your organization to become a corporate sponsor, and have them contact Linda.
  • Direct any practitioners (massage therapists, herbalists, acupuncturists, etc.) who might be interested in volunteering to the Clinic
  • Make a donation yourself
  • If you know someone who is a low-income woman with cancer, please share information about the Clinic and its services with her.
I've often said that I aspire toward balance in my life, but to observe that balance one would need to integrate over large chunks of time and experience... Krista and I are in very different lines of work, and again here the word "complementary" comes to mind. I feel privileged to have a partner whose work is so directly and obviously connected to alleviating suffering in the world. Krista has taught me so much about the politics of cancer, poverty, and how to truly and deeply care for people. I'm inspired by her example daily.

Thursday, February 16, 2006

Creators, Synthesizers, and Consumers

As Yahoo! has been gobbling up many social media sites over the past year (Flickr, upcoming, del.icio.us) I often get asked about how (or whether) we believe these communities will scale.

The question led me to draw the following pyramid on a nearby whiteboard:
Content Production Pyramid

The levels in the pyramid represent phases of value creation.  As an example take Yahoo! Groups.

  • 1% of the user population might start a group (or a thread within a group)

  • 10% of the user population might participate actively, and actually author content whether starting a thread or responding to a thread-in-progress

  • 100% of the user population benefits from the activities of the above groups (lurkers)

There are a couple of interesting points worth noting.  The first is that we don't need to convert 100% of the audience into "active" participants to have a thriving product that benefits tens of millions of users.  In fact, there are many reasons why you wouldn't want to do this.  The hurdles that users cross as they transition from lurkers to synthesizers to creators are also filters that can eliminate noise from signal.  Another point is that the levels of the pyramid are containing  - the creators are also consumers.

While not quite a "natural law" this order-of-magnitude relationship is found across many sites that solicit user contribution.  Even for Wikipedia (the gold standard of the genre) half of all edits are made by just 2.5% of all users.  And note that in this context user means "logged in user", not accounting for the millions of lurkers directed to Wikipedia via search engine traffic for instance.

Mostly this is just an observation, and a simple statement:  social software sites don't require 100% active participation to generate great value.

That being said, I'm a huge believer in removing obstacles and barriers to entry that preclude participation.  One of the reasons I think Flickr is so compelling is that both the production and consumption is so damn easy.  I can (and do) snap photos and upload them in about 15s on my Treo 650.  And I can, literally in a moment, digest what my friends did this weekend on my Flickr "Photos from Your Contacts" page.  Contrast this with the production/consumption ratio of something like video or audio or even text.  There is something instantly gratifying about photos because the investment required for both production/consumption is so small and the return is so great. 

One direction we (i.e. both Yahoo and the industry) are moving is implicit creation. A great example is Yahoo! Music's LaunchCast service, an internet radio station.  I am selfishly motivated to rate artists, songs and music as they stream by...  the more I do this, the better the service gets at predicting what I might like.  What's interesting is that the self-same radio station can be published as a public artifact. The act of consumption was itself an act of creation, no additional effort expended...   I am what I play - I am the DJ (with props to Bowie.)  Very cool. 

I spoke a lot more about this in the Wired article.  In the new paradigm of "programming" where there are a million things on at any instant, we're going to need some new and different models of directing our attention.  In the transition from atoms-to-bits, scarcity-to-plenty, etc. instead of some cigar-puffing fat-cat at a studio or label "stoking the star-maker machinery behind the popular songs" we're going to have the ability to create dynamic affinity based "channels".  Instead of NBC, ABC, CBS, HBO, etc. which control scarce distribution across a throttled pipe... we're going to have WMFAWC, WMNAWC, TNYJLC and a whole lot more.  (The what my friends are watching channel, The what my neighbors are watching channel, The New York Jewish Lesbian Channel, etc.)  I expect we'll also have QTC (the Quentin Tarantino channel) but this won't be media he made (necessarily) but rather media he recommends or has watched / is watching.  Everyone becomes a programmer without even trying, and that programming can be socialized, shared, distributed, etc.

Another example of implicit creation is Flickr interestingness.  The obvious (and broken) way to determine the most interesting pictures on Flickr would have been to ask users to cast votes on the matter.  This would have been an explicit means of determining what's interesting.  It also would have required explicit investment from users, the "rating" of pictures.  Knowing the Flickr community, this would have led to a lot of discussion about how/why/whether pictures should be rated, the meaning of ratings, etc.  It also would have led to a lot of "gaming" and unnatural activity as people tried to boost the ratings of their pictures. 

Instead, interestingness relies on the natural activity on and traversal through the Flickr site.  It's implementation is subtle, and Stewart has hinted that a photos interestingness score depends on putting a number of factors in a blender:  the number of views, the number of times a photo has been favorited (and by whom), the number of comments on a photo, etc.  I would guess that Flickr activity the day after interestingness launched didn't change much from the day before, i.e. the cryptic nature of the algorithm ("interestingness" is the perfect, albeit arcane term) didn't lead to a lot of deliberate gaming. But dammit, it works great.

Without anyone explicitly voting, and without disrupting the natural activity on the site, Flickr surfaces fantastic content in a way that constantly delights and astounds.  In this case lurkers are gently and transparently nudged toward remixers, adding value to others' content.

A shout out to all the people who make me think

As I get into my first blog post, I want to state for the record I am, at best, a remixer.

I happen to be surrounded by talented people (many of whom are known to the blogosphere, most of whom are not), and I learn something new every day. I often can't remember (let alone credit) where a lot of the great ideas I repurpose came from.  So apologies in advance, and thanks in advance, to all the sung (see the about page for more on my heroes) and unsung contributors that have influenced my thinking and whose creativity I will unabashedly exploit on this blog.

I haven't invested much (any) energy into the look, feel, functionality of this blog.  Makes me feel kinda lame.  But everyone who knows this medium is telling me to get on the horse and ride, and worry about such stuff later (if at all.)  So...

On with it!