There Are Practical Limitations on Real-Time

No one is a bigger fan of real-time than I am. I’ve been working on real-time communications for 10 years, and I intend to continue to work in that space for the foreseeable future. That being said, let me be clear about one thing: There are practical limitations on real-time.

FriendFeed launched their new UI today in beta (check it out here). I am a huge fan of FriendFeed – and have been for a while now. They are doing more to advance the real-time web and social aggregation than any other service. But…

The new user interface (UI) leaves me with a single takeaway. This beta clearly demonstrates the practical limitations of real-time. If we begin with the end in mind, and clearly say that real-time exists as an enabler of:

  1. Communication
  2. Information Discovery

we quickly see that at some point real-time becomes a barrier to both.

New FriendFeed User Interface
New FriendFeed User Interface

I follow roughly 400 people on FriendFeed – which isn’t a particularly big number – and with the new full real-time user interface both communication and information discovery become all but impossible.

People are going to tell you “you’ll get used to it” – I actually saw one user compare it to flying a plane – information overload at first, but once you do it a while it starts to become less overwhelming. That may be true, but communication and information discovery shouldn’t be like flying a plane; which is a decidedly life or death experience. It should be streamlined and optimized to take advantage of the limited attention of the user. As importantly it should allow the user to take control of the experience and allocate their attention as they see fit – dynamically – as their attention allows.

And this is exactly where the new FriendFeed user interface breaks down. It requires 100% of you attention, 100% of your mental cycles – and it is still almost impossible to actually accomplish your goal; communication or information discovery.

FriendFeed has the building blocks in place to better manage your limited attention, but they are tangential to the central user experience and lack critical features. Filters and lists can solve the problem of limited attention, but they must be at least as functional as the current user interface – including the ability to post and follow the information in real time.

This puts the user in control of how they allocate their scarce attention – too much to pay attention to, tighten up the filter – not enough action, broaden the filter and get more.

At justSignal we are solving these problems as a platform for other companies, brands, or organizations to leverage in their content. FriendFeed needs to keep their eye on the ball, because they are solving it (IMHO) for the individual consumer.

The “ball” is enabling communcation and information discovery… that should be getting 100% of our attention.

Why Twitter Search Does Not Mean Twitter is a Search Engine

canstock1336888.jpgArrington is back. And he dropped a nice post today over at TechCrunch indicating that he believes it is time to start thinking of Twitter as a Search Engine. In general terms I agree… but as always the devil is in the details.

There is one major hole in Arrington’s theory, but that hole is HUGE. The fact is, Twitter Search isn’t a search engine. It is a simple keyword search which returns results in chronological order. That is very useful in some ways, but it negates every example Arrington cites in his post.

People searching for news. Brands searching for feedback. That’s valuable stuff.

Twitter knows it, too. They’re going to build their business model on it. Forget small time payments from users for pro accounts and other features, all they have to do is keep growing the base and gather more and more of those emotional grunts. In aggregate it’s extremely valuable. And as Google has shown, search is vastly monetizable – somewhere around 40% of a ll online advertising revenue goes to ads on search listings today.

In reality FriendFeed’s search is much better positioned to execute a “search engine” strategy. Why? Because they have measures of relevance, authority, and rank via comments and likes. We know these things matter when people search – how? Because Google won the search engine battle – and by no small margin – and did so on the simple idea that the results have to be ranked by relevance (i.e., PageRank). Excite, Yahoo and a bevy of other search services completely missed the boat by failing to realize that in search the relevance of the returned information to the user’s question is everything. Without that there is no revenue from ads – because if the ads are not relevant they are worthless.

Can Twitter build a relevance engine into Twitter Search? Maybe, but execution is everything. And thus far Twitter’s execution has been lacking in almost every regard. More importantly, since every Tweet is indexed by Google and (potentially) pulled into FriendFeed – two companies who’s ability to consistently execute far exceeds Twitter’s – they will face immediate and stiff competition for those search dollars.

As importantly, for companies (and “brands” – for example, musicians, movie stars, etc) search isn’t nearly as interesting as being able to take the raw data and analyze it. For what? Whatever it is they want to know. I can not predict what Peter Himmelman will want to discover today (or next week) about what his fans say on Twitter – so why would I offer him a canned report that only tells him one or two things?

So, while search will matter to Twitter in terms of revenue generation (I’ve officially boycotted the term monetization – but that is a subject for another post) – I’m not as sure as Arrington is that it is the key to selling services to brands.

And I’m not just shooting my mouth off – I’m betting I’m right by using justSignal to set the data free. justSignal will collect Tweets and make that data available to our customers. Not in a fancy report that tells you something I think is important, but in raw XML format – allowing you to analyze the data for what is important to your business. Again – the value is in the Signal – and you are in a better position to determine what Signal you are looking for today (and I know it will be a different Signal tomorrow).

Why is the Real-Time Web Community Shooting Itself in the Foot?

2008 was supposed to be the year we began to see real-time web take shape. And while Twitter and FriendFeed have begun to show us some bits of what a real-time web might look like mostly it has been a year of discontent.

While I hate year end/beginning “predictions” (what am I Nostradamus?) I’m predicting 2009 won’t be much better. Why? Well that is the interesting part.

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I’ll let you in on a secret (shhh, this is just between you and me). Real-time services on the “web” are nothing new. We have a pretty good idea how they work (and don’t work). We know what the challenges are – and to a large degree how to architect/engineer the solutions. The problem is we aren’t leveraging the work that has already been done.

More after the jump…

Continue reading “Why is the Real-Time Web Community Shooting Itself in the Foot?”

Defining your Brand – One Conversation at a Time

I’ve spent a large part of my professional life dealing with the realities of having conversations with customers. In every type and size of company imaginable. And there is one single reality that holds true:

Your brand is what your customers say it is… regardless of your best Marketing and PR efforts.

With the rise of Social Media this reality is even more true. Not because you ever really controlled you brand – but because word of mouth just got global, social and the biggest megaphone you could have ever imagined.

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It used to be a single pissed off customer might only impact 10 or 20 people over the course of 3 months. Now a single dissatisfied customer with a Twitter account or Blog can reach hundreds of people in a single day. And, as a rule, if you are doing (or not doing something) that makes customers mad, you do it to more than one per day.

So feel free to create all the marketing material and press releases you want lauding your superior product or service and you commitment to great customer service. In the old world that might have worked. But today it simply can not compete with the conversations your customers and prospects are having about you. You are what they say you are.

If you want to really impact your brand – and how it is perceived by your customers and prospects, get in the conversation.

Your PR and marketing staff will tell you to invest in Social Media Monitoring tools like Radian6 and Techrigy to gather Social Media data to analyze for your next marketing campaign. And I concede – monitoring what is said about you is a positive first step. The challenge with this strategy is that you are still trying to control the conversation.

What you need to do, what you should be doing is participating in the conversation.

Provide Solutions, Inform, Listen and Respond

The most important branding you do (and can do) is in the conversations you have with your customers and prospects.

Think I’m nuts? Great – Let’s look at two examples:

Motrin’s Blunder:

Motrin released an ill conceived ad. And it isn’t that they didn’t realize their mistake – it was that they weren’t engaged in the conversation. Because of that there were 4 days to allow the controversy to reach significant proportions.

Links:

http://mashable.com/2008/11/16/motrin-moms/

http://www.readwriteweb.com/archives/motrin_bows_to_social_media_pr.php

Exploring Social Media: The Motrin Moment Impact of Social Media

http://blogs.reuters.com/mediafile/2008/11/18/motrin-moms-and-the-perils-of-social-media-marketing/

Ford’s ScottMonty:

ScottMonty from Ford is actively engaged in Social Media. And because of that he is able to react in real (or near real-time) to negative and positive brand messages. This allows Ford the opportunity to actively engage in the conversation and refute false perceptions and reinforce positive messages.

Links:

http://friendfeed.com/e/a8d15997-12ec-eeee-921b-61c96ed66d27/Why-I-love-the-US-auto-industry/

http://friendfeed.com/e/e34bb7df-5a8c-4d1c-84cb-d16e0fa09099/I-am-watching-CNN-and-seeing-bad-employment/

http://friendfeed.com/e/b4753ec3-a123-6ef4-6671-cdd7ef10e4b5/Glohamar-Here-are-a-few-of-Ford-s-other-Twitter/

http://friendfeed.com/e/45cec2a1-17c8-3e26-3afc-4a9d3897c15a/ScottMonty-scottweisbrod-LisaHoffman-1-2-Bill/

The takeaway:

Analyzing the data and reacting is about how fast you can “clean up the mess”. It pre-supposes you can megaphone your brand message and shout down those who have a different point of view.

By participating in conversations about your brand you have the ability to prevent situations where the perception becomes the story. You have the ability to turn negative experiences into positive brand affinity moments that increase your customer loyalty and enhance your brand in the eyes of those watching. And in this new Social Media world we are all watching.

JustSignal – Turn down the noise and just get the signal.

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On Friday, November 21st cosinity released JustSignal – a combined FriendFeed and Twitter application that allows you to turn down the noise and focus in on just those topics or users you find most interesting.

As much as I love Twitter and FriendFeed, they can become a giant distraction. Too much noise, not enough signal. JustSignal is the solution. It allows you to get your entire home feed from FriendFeed and near real-time “Track” from Twitter – all in one user interface. JustSignal’s filtering solution allows you to only receive the information you care most about – in real-time.

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While that alone is a powerful solution for the individual user… JustSignal delivers so much more.

JustSignal Brand Monitor tracks your brand across Twitter and FriendFeed – allowing you to monitor what is said about your brand – and react in real time. Our robust solution queues Tweets, FriendFeed Posts, Comments and Likes that refer to your brand. Anyone in your company can log in and respond to those Social Media brand messages as they happen.

JustSignal Brand Monitor also archives everything said about your company – allowing you to analyze the data and determine what the perception is and how it is trending.

This combination of real-time monitoring and response, and historical data analysis is transformative for your company. Stop sending out surveys and start listening to your customers, prospects and influencers.

You can contact me directly for more information.

Micro-Messaging – Data Interchange Standards and Track

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I’ve been hard at work over the past week. Having your own company which you are attempting to bootstrap in this economy and sponsoring an academic project with ASU Polytechnic and – in my spare time – working on the challenges of real-time information discovery and participation is exhausting. Never-mind the two children under 6.

I’ve listened to what everyone has had to say regarding the “fire-hose” – or as I tend to refer to it – the question of trackable scope. Karoli took the time to write a very persuasive and passionate post – which you can read here. While we still may not agree weather or not the “fire-hose” is required to make track – I think we understand each other’s point of view. We agree on what is important – if not in which order and why. That is enough for me.

Apparently I was mentioned on the Gillmor Gang on 11/11/2008 – I’ve included the podcast below:

PodCast courtesy of The Gillmor Gang

icon for podpress Standard Podcast [60:12m] Download (746)

The discussion turns to track for the last half or so of the hour. After sitting with my latte this morning and listening (to some parts more than once) I believe I have a clearer understanding of Steve Gillmor’s perspective on the issue.

I completely agree with Steve that establishing a base mechanism for data interchange between real-time/near real-time social media services is going to be critical to the ultimate value delivered. As I’ve discussed on identi.ca we need a real-time data “bus” which moves data in real time from publishers to subscribers. Much the same way an electrical bus moves electricity from generators to consumers. At some point that bus – when widely adopted – will become a standard.

I’ll be posting more about the bus early next week.

I believe – and I am quite certain history bears this out – that standards develop because they benefit the services that implement them. In most cases this is because the interchange of data in some structured way is required to unlock the full value of a particular service or solution. We’ve seen this evolution in the past – email is an excellent example. Prior to SMTP every major producer of email systems had a “standard” for routing email between users. SMTP became dominant because it became more valuable to have email that could be exchanged with anyone than to have email without that capability. As a matter of fact it became a deal breaker if you couldn’t send email to anyone.

A counter example can be found in the world of Instant Messaging. After nearly 10 years there is no dominant standard. Each network implements it’s own standard and perhaps bridges messages to other standards. AIM uses OSCAR, GTalk uses XMPP, MSN uses SIP/SIMPLE. You want them all – you need a clever developer who creates a client that can talk to all 3.

There are many reasons that these standards either emerge or fail to emerge. But I’m fairly certain that it has rarely been the case that the standard was implemented because a small, vocal community of users insisted on it. I am very certain that the majority of standards become dominant is because there is a business imperative which makes using a standard more valuable than not.

Call me cynical – but that is how the world works. The question isn’t should there be a widely implemented standard for real-time micro-messaging, the question is what is the win-win? What is the business imperative that will drive widespread adoption? Specifically – how does it benefit Twitter to publish everything to the real-time messaging bus?

My contention is – as I’ve said before:

When compelling and broadly adopted services exist, which demand real-time un-scoped access to multiple underlying services, the individual services will have no choice but to “open their kimono” or face massive user defection.

The key part of that statement is “broadly adopted services exist“. My opinion is that we have to focus on the value proposition. What are the problems being solved and why are the valuable to users?

There are many – and some can be solved today (and as Karoli knows – some that can’t) – without the fire-hose. If I did not believe that to be true I wouldn’t be attempting to solve them. Will they be imperfect? Yes – but the goal isn’t perfection on day one – it is making a situation incrementally better by solving the important problems facing the user.

FriendFeed offers an interesting case – since they base their business model on being an aggregator. And, at least in theory, aggregation is one way to establish a real-time messaging bus and standard. It, however, requires not a network of peers but a single massive aggregator serving as the gateway/hub for access to information.

What I know – with complete certainty – is that the marketplace has ways of working these types of issues out. There will be a winner (or winners). They may or may not be the best technical solution. The real-time micro-messaging bus will be created to support the solutions that gain traction in the market. The solutions will not constrain themselves to 140 characters or any other standard which impedes the ability to solve important problems.

In short – until we hash out the types of services and how they deliver value AND the business imperative which drives a broadly implemented standard… there will be no standard (beyond paper standards).

So I’m going back to work creating value and solving important problems using the power of real-time (or near real-time) information discovery and participation… you in?

The myth of “everything” – Responses to my view of Track

My post yesterday – specifically regarding the Great Track Debate – received several responses on Twitter, identi.ca and friendfeed. Many of these – really all of them were positive – but the debate is far from settled.

I learned something very important from one discussion in particular – that there is a myth that permeates the conversation. The myth of “everything”.

This myth is the adherence to two ideas:

  1. That somehow the “fire-hose” (as discussed here) represents the complete information about any given topic – that somehow the “fire-hose” is everything.
    1. At the root of it, this is the idea that everything is attainable.
  2. That – in order to monetize track – having everything is essential. For example, if you are trying to manage your brand you need every reference to it in real-time.
    1. At the root of it, this is the idea that everything is required and valuable.

The reason I refer to these two ideas collectively as the “myth of everything” is because when they are clearly stated and examined they are immediately recognizable as inconsistent with reality.

So let’s take the two ideas one at a time and examine how tenuous their attachment to reality is.

First, that the “fire-hose” represents everything about any given topic. The fire-hose is the sum total of what is said on a given service. In order for that to be everything that service would need to be participated in by everyone. That is a hard enough hurdle to overcome, but there is more – not only would it need to be everyone, it would need to be the only method by which they communicate their thoughts, ideas and feelings.

Even if you were able to combine the fire-hose of every service available – every social networking site, every blog, every micro-blog, every IM service, every news site – you would still be far short of everything.

So the idea that track only becomes valuable when it can capture “everything” is a myth. Everything is unattainable.

Second, that having everything is essential. Let’s suppose we were to allow that somehow everything was achievable. Even if it were would it be required? Would it provide value commensurate with the effort required to collect it?

Let’s evaluate this in terms of brand management. The assumption which underlies this is that it is required to respond in real time to every post which is misleading, false, or damaging. This assumption is flawed – the reality is that it is required to respond to a statistically relevant sample of those posts. You aren’t trying to refute every post – you are trying to move (or keep from moving) the average (or perhaps mean) opinion.

If any company were forced to staff enough positions to actively monitor and respond to every post made about them – they would immediately cease to be profitable. It isn’t scalable, and more importantly it isn’t required.

This holds true equally for politics.

So the idea that track delivers value because having access to everything is required and the primary driver of value is a myth. Everything is neither required nor valuable in real terms.

What the track community should be focused on – again IMHO – is not the fire-hose and the attendant myth of everything, but creating systems which can attain enough trackable scope to provide a statistically relevant sample of the posts in the social media universe.

I understand that, emotionally, it feels good to tap into some perceived “everything” and refute any and all posts that you think are misleading, false, biased, or offensive. But this isn’t about what feels good – at the end of the day it will be about what is effective. And to be effective everything is neither required nor valuable.

These two conclusions – that everything is unattainable and that – even if attained – is neither required nor valuable should allow us to dispense with the “myth of everything” and return to the point of track:

  1. Real-Time Information Discovery
  2. Real-Time Participation

The evolution of FFStream and the Great Track Debate

ff-filtered-twitter.pngAs those of you who follow me on twitter or friendfeed know FFStream – which I began discussing in this post – has evolved into FF-Filtered. The changes are not dramatic, but they are significant.

FF-Filtered is now focused on providing “your friendfeed – filtered” – and as that implies what it does is filter your friendfeed (home feed to be specific) by a list of keywords. If these keywords match the post title, comment, or user you receive the update in real time – in the browser or via IM, including GTalk, Jabber, AIM and Yahoo.

It isn’t track – as I’ve been repeatedly and vehemently told by the “community” over the last 5 days – more on that later.

Additionally – for the mobility set – we’ve added like, comment, post and filter updates via a mobile web page. If you click on the link in the IM from a mobile platform you get the following mobile web page:

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I’ve got a few more tricks up my sleeve – so look for more changes this week including a name change.

Now for the second half of the post… I’m going to talk about Track again… so sharpen your knives (or tongues) and get ready to revel in your abject disdain for my refusal to “go along” or shut up.

Let me say one thing first – if you want to attack my positions and opinions go for it. If you are here to attack my motives or me personally – GO AWAY NOW.

The last 5 days has been very illuminating for me – both in terms of the fervor of the “track community” and in terms of their point of view – which at times verges on dogma.

Let me attempt to “play back” what I’ve heard and then explain – as clearly as possible given my limited skills – my point of view.

Track – by the definition of the “track community” as led today by Steve Gillmor of Gillmor Gang/News Gang Live, is defined by the “fire-hose”. This fire-hose is the complete unabridged stream of posts occurring on any social media site. In the case of Twitter, this is the entire public timeline published in real time.

This is an important distinction – because it states that “track” can not be achieved without the “fire-hose”. More on this latter.

The second component of “track” is the ability to keyword filter the real time stream and deliver the filtered content in real (or near real) time.

The third component of “track” is the ability to insert posts into the public timeline from the same user interface you are viewing the stream in.

Those four things collectively comprise the “holy grail” of track.

I’m sure you will all let me know exactly how wrong I am… but I think those four capture the broad brushstrokes. Ok?

Before I attempt to explain my point of view – let me clarify one point. Regardless of my agreement or disagreement with the track community on any given point, there is one thing we vehemently agree on:

There is massive value in the ability to discover and participate in the social media stream in real (or near) real time. Our objective where that is concerned is the same.

When I consider track – I consider it in terms of the problems it attempts to solve. To me, track is an attempt to solve 2 very important problems:

  1. Real-Time Information Discovery
  2. Real-Time Participation

Any solution which solves those two problems would – by my definition – fall within the scope of a “track” service.

Now let me explain why (take a deep breath… you can throw something at me later). Where I differ with the “track community” on this issue is on the scope of the track-able data not what happens after the “track service” receives it. As importantly I fundamentally agree that the wider the scope of the data being tracked the more effective the track solution will be.

But, consider this – not every user wants to track the entire social media universe. To the contrary – most IMHO simply want to track their friends, family, co-workers, brand, market makers, influencers, power users, etc.

For those users a limited scope is a good thing. Beyond consideration of the scope of the data being tracked this service solves the exact same problems.

  1. Real-Time Information Discovery
  2. Real-Time Participation

So apply the duck test. It walks like a duck… it quacks like a duck… why isn’t it a duck?

It is my opinion – and you can feel free to take issue with it – that the track communities’ obsession with the “fire-hose” has actually retarded the growth of alternative track services. The obsession with scope has prevented the creation of useful (if limited by their limited trackable data) solutions under the banner of track – and that is a shame.

Every developer that seeks to solve the two problems should be embraced, encouraged and supported.

The real battle here is one of leverage. And the way to get the social media services to both open up their data and participate in the creation of a standard for doing so is to create a win-win. I believe track services that are useful and solve real problems (e.g., real-time brand monitoring) can and will provide the leverage that causes the change the community has been seeking.

If Twitter wants to pretend they ARE the social media universe – let them. It is abundantly clear from the success of friendfeed that no single service is or will be the social media universe – any service that ignores this will fail.

When compelling and broadly adopted services exist, which demand real-time un-scoped access to multiple underlying services, the individual services will have no choice but to “open their kimono” or face massive user defection.

So stop complaining about the lack of a “fire-hose” and figure out what those services are, who needs them the most, and how to drive that value to as many users as fast as possible. If you do that – you’ll get what you want… not today, not even tomorrow… but relatively soon.

I had intended to discuss standards, what I believe the high level components of an open track environment might look like, and why friendfeed is in the best position to lead standard development… but this has already gotten too long. I’ll set those subjects aside for another day.

If you’ve disagreed with everything else I’ve said – please remember – I share your goal. I’m not saying the outcome you seek isn’t valuable – I am just proposing a different course of action. I hope I’ve done so respectfully and without denigrating anyone or their point of view.