Tuesday, August 30, 2005

The Dark Side of Web 2.0

There have been a number of great posts recently about the promise of "Web 2.0", as well as ideas on how to capitalize on this new wave of innovation. I'm as big a fan of these changes as anyone, and I think RSS, AJAX, and other enabling technologies will make the web much more useful over the next few years. However, as with any change, it's not all roses - there are real trade-offs that need to be made, and the companies out there aren't always making the right decisions.

In no particular order, the top 5 issues I see right now with "Web 2.0" are:
  1. Loss of context
    A lot of bloggers have commented on this, how they prefer people to read their posts in the framework of their site, as it puts it into proper context. I have to confess, I read about 30 VC/technology related blogs per day, and a lot of them blend together. I use BlogLines to read my feeds, so they all look the same from a format perspective, and there's no brand impression made by the look and feel of the websites. Often times I will know that I read a great post, but when I look for it later in the day, I have to search among 5-10 different blogs to find it.

    One blog that does it right is TechCrunch. Even within the framework of a feedreader, each of their posts carries a similar, unique format. I realize it's easier for them to do this because each of their profiles covers the same types of information, but I think the same lessons can be applied to more general posts as well.

  2. Interdependencies, and multiple failure points
    Fred Wilson recently discussed his move from Bloglet to FeedBlitz. For those readers who now get his blog via email, the services involved are - TypePad (which I believe is Fred's blogging host), FeedBurner (which is used to add stats, etc), and then FeedBlitz which takes the feed and emails it out. This is definitely a model case of the interaction that web services allow, but it also creates multiple points of failure. In addition to being tougher to debug problems, it also makes no one completely accountable. For uses like a blog, that's not a big deal, but as the importance of these new mashups grow, customer's will start to demand accountability. There may be a whole market that grows up around managing the interactions and putting a customer service wrapper around all these services, much like RedHat does with Linux.

  3. Speed
    Thanks to a comment on my last post, I was able to find the way to export my Bloglines subscription and try out the Pluck web interface. How was it? I have no idea. After importing all of my feeds (which I have to admit was pretty painless), I tried to start reading some feeds to get a feel for basic navigation, before I went looking for advanced features. Unfortunately, the site is S-L-O-W. It took me 5-10 seconds to pull up a feed, something that usually takes <3 in BlogLines. I'll admit the Pluck interface looks better, but I was back using BlogLines in 10 min. The lesson? Find out what your users do most, and make it FAST. Only then should you worry about the bells and whistles. Pluck could have some absolutely amazing feed management and reading tools, but I'll never find out. Others have abandoned Technorati recently for the same reason.

  4. Data ownership
    Okay, so back to my old pet peeve - who's data is it? When my apps were all desktop based, it was easy - it was my data, and I could get it if I wanted. When it's all stored on a server, you better make it easy for me to get it out. However, after my last post on this subject, I've had several interesting conversations, and I realize it's not that black and white.

    What makes data "mine" - is it because I created it? Or is it because it is about me? Social networking sites are a great example. If I have contact information for a bunch of my friends on a site, the data could be mine, my friends' or the site's. It's in my account, but the data is about my friends. Should they have to give permission before I can take it out of the shared system? When Amazon gives me recommendations, they are in my account, but I didn't create that data - should I be allowed to take it with me? I think this is one area that will have to be handled through trial and error, as services find out what boundaries the market is willing to accept.

  5. Less interaction
    This seems like a contradiction, with new services popping every day that allow more interaction. However, here I'm speaking specifically about RSS, and the current state of feedreaders. Before my discovery of RSS and feeds, I bookmarked blogs that I found interesting, and pulled them up in a set of firefox tabs every day. I read the posts, which usually were directly followed by the comments, and the form to add my own. I would say that I usually posted 1 comment a day back then, and I read comments on most posts.

    Ever since switching to a feedreader however, I pretty much just read what's in front of me. That one extra click to actually go the page and scroll down to the comments has drastically reduced the number of comments that I read or write. As a result, I'm once again moving to the producer/consumer relationship with most of my feeds, rather than the conversational relationship I enjoyed earlier. Tom Evslin has made some autolinks at the bottom of each of his posts, which have made it slightly easier , but few people will go through what he did to get them into place.

In conclusion, I don't intend this to be a list of reasons why companies mentioned above will fail, but rather a set of opportunities for the right firms to address to create new businesses or competitive advantages.

Tuesday, August 23, 2005

Not all data is created equal

It's been a long time since I've fallen in love with a new web service as quickly as Pandora. I saw a blurb about the site on TechCrunch, and managed to grab one of Michael Arrington's first invites. Although I'm not a music junkie, it seemed intriguing - providing customized music streams based on computer analysis of songs you liked. To be honest, I thought that I'd be more interested in how they classified the songs than in what music they showed me.

Boy was I wrong! I quickly set up a station based on Madonna (my single favorite artist), and started listening. At first, it pulled a range of songs, and I'd say I really enjoyed about 30-40% of them. Still not bad, but nothing I couldn't find from the right radio station. However, after giving feedback on about 15 songs that I especially liked or disliked, that hit rate quickly increased to 70-80%! But more importantly, it wasn't just songs I already knew I liked - I found at least 3 or 4 artists I had never heard of, and that I really enjoyed. (For those who want to snicker about how out of the music scene I am, or about my musical tastes, the artists were "Katy Rose", "Alice Deejay", "Saint Etienne", and "Le Tigre".)

About the same time, I was thinking about trying out a new RSS reader site - Pluck. I went ahead and registered, but when the time came to enter my RSS feeds, I thought about manually re-entering the 60 or so feeds I have in Bloglines, and I completely gave up on the idea. I searched for a few minutes, but I didn't find any way that I could export a list of feeds that I have configured in Bloglines, and that really upset me. After all, it was MY data, I put that list together, why shouldn't I be able to export it out, and take it to another RSS reader?

This frustration was reflected in rule #5 on Charlie O'Donnell's 10 Steps to a Hugely Successful Web 2.0 Company - "Don't hold users against their will". As I was stewing about this cardinal Web 2.0 sin and rating more songs on Pandora, I realized that I have a double standard about my data. I don't expect Pandora to export my ratings that I give on their service. In fact, there's a lot of data out there that I generate, but I don't mind that I can't export. My buying history on Amazon for example, or even the recommendations that I give to books and movies I've seen before. When I gave up on Netflix, I had probably rated over 500 movies, but I never felt upset that they didn't let me export that.

My connections on LinkedIn and my newsfeeds on Bloglines, however, fall into a category that I do expect access to - even if I want to take it to a competitor. LinkedIn finally started allowing vCard exports recently, so I guess I'll lay off of them, but this duality made me start wondering - where is the line? Under what circumstances is it a given that you HAVE to give access to your user's data, and when is okay to keep it proprietary?

My conclusion was that it depends on whether the data was a one-party contribution, or the result of a "conversation". On bloglines, I found the feeds myself, and added them to my list. Since it was my own contribution, I want to be able to take it with me. However, with Netflix and now Pandora, they presented me with items that I responded to with a rating. Since this data was the result of interaction between the service and me, I don't feel bad about leaving it behind when I leave.

I'd love to hear others' thoughts on this - do you segregate your expectations for data accessibility depending on how it was created?

P.S. In case anyone else wants to try out Pandora, email me at llamaatinamedotcom. The service itself is great, and after emailing them with a new feature suggestion, I got an email back within hours saying that they were already working on it!

Friday, August 12, 2005

Reader's Logic

When dealing with busy readers, always put your biggest points up front. When writing an executive summary for a business plan, the concept and how it makes money should be the first two lines, and certainly no later than the first paragraph. As they say in journalism, "Don't bury the lede!" It's important because busy readers will only listen to your justification IF they find the assertion itself interesting. They won't wait around to see if your idea was worth the wait.

The idea of pitching your idea first, and then providing the supporting information is called reader's logic. Conversely, writing through a thought process, and leading the reader to a conclusion, is called writer's logic. Reader's logic is most often found in good business writing and journalism, while writer's logic is prevalent in engineering and the sciences. You can see that the areas where reader's logic is more widely used are those that cover a wider array of topics - as such it's important to let the reader know what the main idea is up front - and let them decide whether to invest the time to read further.

However, this isn't a magic bullet, and it does come at a cost. Reader's logic doesn't allow you to draw the reader in as much, or engage them as deeply. For that reason, most of my posts on this blog use writer's logic. This style also makes it much harder to present ideas that the reader will view skeptically - since the ideas are up front, you have no time to "ease" the reader over to your point of view.

So, whether your reader is a busy VC that gets dozens of business plans every week, or a harried TA trying to grade 50 papers during finals week, make sure to get your most important points across using reader's logic.

This post is a rewrite of an older one, designed to illustrate the differences between these two styles of writing.

Update: As usual, Seth Godin says it better than I ever could.

Tuesday, August 09, 2005

Writer's Logic

Another week of finals has come and gone at Stern, and with it, a pile of papers to grade in negotiations. As I worked through this pile last week and over the weekend, I finally understood the daunting challenge that faces most VC's. I was grading 50 papers that were all on the same topic, and I knew what information I was looking for. Nevertheless, after the first couple of papers, it became difficult to read the papers, and finding the concepts I was looking for became harder and harder.

Compare this with a VC that gets dozens of business plans every week. Unlike my papers, each one of these is on a different topic, although presumably still within the VC's area of expertise. How much harder must it be to read through all of these plans (actually just the executive summaries), and come away with some sense of what is worth pursuing. No wonder most VC's send cold-call plans to the inbox in the corner!

This realization helped me finally internalize the difference between writer's logic and reader's logic. This was a concept that I first encountered in my business communication class. An engineer by training, I had always had it drilled in to me that you never put forth an unsupported assertion in your writing. Good papers were those that allowed the reader to follow the writer's path, and eventually, after all the evidence had been presented, would draw a conclusion. This had always been, and to a large extent, still is, my primary writing style.

To a large extent, I write in this style on this blog. I believe that writer's logic engages the reader more at a deeper level, and is more in synch with the idea of a blog being a conversation rather than a sales pitch or a news source. However, this style is a luxury that one can only afford if the reader has the time and energy to devote to the reading.

In cases where the reader doesn't have those resources, a more direct approach, or reader's logic, is required. This method, which presents the biggest idea up front, is used extensively in journalism. In fact, one of the best known admonitions to new writers is "Don't bury the lede!" This style allows the reader to get the main gist immediately, and only continue on to the supporting logic if they are interested. Its a lot like seeing pictures of a beach before deciding whether or not to drive there - is the destination worth the journey.

When trying to reach busy readers - executives, customers, or investors - this approach works best (provided of course, that you have a destination worth visiting). It can't make someone interested in a bad idea, but it makes sure that you have a shot of being listened to, before you are consigned to the trash heap.

In practical terms, what does this mean? Too many of the executive summaries I've seen on business plans start out with a comprehensive industry overview, and descriptions of all the trends currently leading to their idea. All of this is important information, but if your idea and the problem it fixes comes halfway down the first page (or worse, on the second page) because of it, you've greatly reduced your chances of reaching your audience. So make sure you lead off with your biggest idea, and let the reader decide if he wants to visit.

For those of you who made it to the end of this post - yes, I realize that even this post is written in writer's logic - thus the heading. I'm going to try and write substantively the same post tomorrow in reader's logic, just to show the difference.