Give ’em some Flackster

I’m glad to say that my good friend and fellow blogger, Michael O’Connor Clarke, has finally been sucked into the Corante vortex with his new PR/marketing blog, Flackster.

I can say from experience that Michael knows his onions like no other flack I’ve ever met. He even knows a bit about PR and marketing too. Without doubt, Flackster is one for the aggregator – I can say with confidence that if you like my style here at Strange Attractor, you’ll love Michael’s writing.

So welcome aboard, Michael. Good to have another mad Brit around the place.

YASN without a point (and two with)

In 1980 a small toy invented by Erno Rubik, a Hungarian obsessed with 3D geometry, became a smash hit. The almost impossible to solve Rubik’s Cube was everywhere – in the shops, on TV, in the record books, but mainly in bits on frustrated children’s floors.

I, like millions of other kids, had a Rubik’s Cube and I, like millions of other kids, never managed to actually solve the problem. Instead I resorted to either taking the thing apart or trying unsuccessfully to peel off the coloured plastic stuck to the cube’s faces so as to rearrange the colour without rearranging the cube.

By 1981, demand for original Rubik’s Cubes outstripped supply. By the end of 1982 over 100 million cubes had been sold. By 1983 the fad was over and the Rubik’s Cube was no longer in production.

One of the problems with the Rubik’s Cube was that although there was huge initial curiosity as to what this thing was, once you got your hands on one and realised that it was harder to solve than it looked, you just lost interest. There was no point to the cube. Even my brother, who could solve it fairly quickly, got bored with demonstrating his prowess after a while. It became very ‘so what?’.

Twenty years later, and now we have social networking, and we’re going through the process all over again. A new social network springs up, people join up, play with the features for a bit, get bored and then can’t even be bothered to leave. In fact, so passé have social networking sites become that the accepted acronym for them is not something like SNS (for ‘social networking site’) but YASN (‘yet another social network’).

Yet, the rise of the YASN seems unstoppable. Despite the fact that the business end is covered by sites like LinkedIn, the pet angle by Dogster, Catster and Hamsterster, and geek tracking by Orkut, YASNs continue to proliferate like weeds.

The latest YASN that I’ve received an invitation for is aSmallWorld (UPDATE: I no longer have a login for aSmallWorld so please do not email and ask me for an introduction):

aSmallWorld is an invitation-only online community which is not open to the public. It is designed for those who already have strong connections with one another and want to create new ones. It allows you to interact more effectively with like minded individuals who share similar friends, interests, and schedule. We list the most popular restaurants, hotels, and night clubs in over 60 major cities, summer and winter resorts and we keep track of major events, parties, exhibitions, film and music festivals and sporting events such as motor racing, tennis, sailing, golf, and others. Our goal is to become the leading global social networking community.

aSmallWorld is attempting to create an exclusive community, but exclusively what is not obvious. Rich? Successful? Stupid?

Once inside aSmallWorld, it becomes clear that it has little to offer – classified ads, forums, job search, city guides – that actually differentiates it from any of the other YASNs. If I want a job, there’s LinkedIn. If I want a city guide there’s Time Out. Classifieds? Loot or eBay.

Thus I look at aSmallWorld and I see the next step down from a YASN – a YAPSN, Yet Another Pointless Social Network. The people I am linked to in aSmallWorld are the same people I talk to on AIM or IRC, the same people I’m linked to in LinkedIn or Orkut. Thus for me, personally, aSmallWorld has no added value – there’s just no point hanging out there.

UPDATE: I no longer have a login for aSmallWorld so please do not email and ask me for an introduction.

(Not that I hang out much in Orkut or LinkedIn either, to be honest. Once the initial flush of enthusiasm waned, there really was very little to keep me going back to either, but at least there is enough use from them to keep them in my bookmarks list.)

Now, in stark comparison to aSmallWorld are two sites: Last.FM, sister site to Audioscrobbler, and Flickr. I consider both of these sites to be social networking sites, even though it would be possible to characterise Last.FM as a music site and Flickr as a photography site. But both sites have at their heart not the music or the photos but social networking and the sharing of personal information. Without their social networks, both sites would be pointless.

Last.FM provides a way for users to easily share their music, giving others the opportunity not only to see which songs you have recently been listening to but also to actually listen to the music that you listen to. You can also find other users with a similar taste, discuss your favourite music, and buy music to add to your collection. All playlist updating is done using the free Audioscrobbler plug-in which allows your chosen music software to report what it plays directly to both Audioscrobbler and Last.FM.

As Joi points out, the social aspect of Last.FM is key – as you listen to someone else’s playlist, they can introduce you to new music and subtly shape your own listening habits:

I found editorgrrl in my neighborhood. She and I have extremely similar taste, but she seems to have a bunch of stuff that I don’t have in my profile so I listen to her personal radio a lot. I notice my profile becoming more and more similar to hers as her playlist starts to influence my playlist. I just noticed that this feels a bit like online music profile stalking…

I also realized that if you had a crush on someone, you could listen to their music all day long. You would show up in their neighborhood. You would get to know their music. Or… you would keep hitting “ban” and you would realize that you should NOT have a crush on them. 😉

Joi has hit the nail on the head as regards the one thing that differentiates Last.FM from all the other YAPSNs – using Last.FM gives you the feeling of closeness with other users. Music is such an intensely emotional experience, and in sharing music you’re sharing those emotions too. For people to whom music is important, knowing what bands someone likes is an essential part of the getting-to-know-you (or stalking) process. In terms of added value, Last.FM hits the spot perfectly.

Another site that is worth a lot more than the paper it’s not printed on is Flickr, the photo sharing site. Like Last.FM, Flickr allows users to share something emotional and personal – their photographs. Although I signed up for Flickr months ago, it’s only recently that I’ve started using it to upload photos and I am a complete convert. Not only is the uploading, metatagging and labelling process very simple, but it’s really easy for people to other people to leave notes and to make you a contact, friend or family.

Flickr gives you a glimpse – literally – into your friends’ and acquaintances’ lives, something which again brings you closer. Rather than being just people on the end of a keyboard, Flickr rounds out your online friendships by providing a strong visual aspect to your interactions. You get to see their world through their eyes.

As it happens, this neatly complements the auditory enhancements to the relationship provided by Last.FM.

If I had to put money on it, I’d say that aSmallWorld won’t last, but both Flickr and Last.FM will. The reason I say this is because they provide clear, definite benefits to social networking – it’s not just networking for networking’s sake. If I had a criticism, it would be that Flickr and Last.FM’s social tools could be improved, particularly in the location of friends and FOAFs.

However, both sites are still essentially in their infancy, and succeeding releases provide improved usability and feature sets. Whilst I’ve only recently started uploading to Flickr, I have been looking at other people’s photos for a while, and thus have watched the site evolve since February when I first signed up. Recently, they have implemented some nice workflow navigation at the bottom of each page, which Matt Jones discusses on his blog, BlackBeltJones.

Having spoken to Joi, who’s been advising Last.FM, and their CTO, RJ, I can say that they too are busy developing the site – I’d say it’s certainly one to keep your eye on. But even as it stands, Last.FM is already a slice of fried gold.

Microfame, blogs and churn rates

Back in August (see how behind I’ve been with my blog reading?!) Danny O’Brien chewed on a question that is very close to being a question that’s very close to my heart. Danny’s questions is ‘How famous do you want to be?‘.

The fame question appeared in 1997. We were futzing around doing an NTK Live in Soho, and Stew Lee turned up to watch. He was very impressed with all the cabling and the recording equipment and the laptops we were using, and asked how many people were listening to the show online. Standing next to the streaming server, I could answer him instantly: maybe twenty or so (there were probably about seventy people watching the show at the venue). He looked very disappointed, and probably a bit defensively, I found myself asking him The First Question. How many people do you need to be famous for?

In a more recent update (thank god Danny doesn’t blog daily, otherwise I’d be way too far behind), Danny says:

The fame piece got a big reaction, and has been looking increasingly fascinating topic for me. Like Life Hacks, I’ve got this strong sense that this is rich new topic that may be too big for me to explore on my own. I’m doing my best.

I’m not surprised it got a big reaction. There are a lot of people kicking about who would like to be either famous or, in the very least, middling-to-famous. As one of those people, (and yes, I know you’re not supposed to admit it in public, but I have always made a crap fan, and would rather have them than be one), I am obviously very interested in Danny’s conclusions, as and when he draws them.

However, once Danny has answered his question, my question will remain. Once we can say ‘X is how many people you need to be famous for’, we will still need to answer ‘But how do I know how many people I am famous for?’.

In the blogosphere one could argue that such metrics are easily gathered by server stats, but that’s really not true. These days I get most of my referrals to Chocolate and Vodka from Google, so the chances are that most people who swing past there are on their way somewhere else. In particular the guys (and I assume that they *are* guys) looking for ‘hot messy chocolate fuck’ (yes, they’re being more selective in their search terms now) are not actually going to CnV because they know who I am, but because they think they’re gonna get to see some pr0n.

How terribly disappointing for them.

But my point is, visitor numbers can only give you a hint as to for how many people you are famous. It’s sort of a null hypothesis thing – if you have no visitors then you are likely not to be famous, but having lots of visitors doesn’t necessarily mean that they are visiting because they know who you are. It might just mean that Google throws up your blog for lots of different search terms.

So what are the markers of the 1500+ fans microfame?

YASN popularity? Ok, so the size of your Orkut friends pool is not going to give you any true indication of your microfame status because mostly people aren’t friends with their fans. Besides, some unscrupulous people have engaged in Orksluttery, befriending anyone who asked them, at least until the novelty wore off and the ‘no donut for you naughty server’ 404 messages ceased to be amusing and started to crawl up one’s nose like an earwig with a taste for mucous.

Having your own IRC channel? Ooh, laughable. Doesn’t take much to set one up, doesn’t mean you’re famous. Just that you have an ego the size of, er, well, mine.

Your own wiki? Cf. above.

Technorati rank? You might say that the people in Technorati Top 100 are pretty much guaranteed to be famous to some extent, but it doesn’t help the rest of us. One’s blog ranking might be interpreted to indicate relative fame, because one could argue that people are linking to you purposefully, but it doesn’t give you any absolute data about number of fans, just number of people linking to you.

PageRank doesn’t help – it says nothing about relative levels of fame, just how well you do in Google’s PageRank algorithm.

Although the above only refers to the blogosphere, the same issues are prevalent in other areas of our lives too.

Here’s an anecdote. I used to be really active amongst Welsh learners, trying very hard to improve the resources available online and to encourage people to not just take up the language but to persevere with their studies. When I went to the Eisteddfod (a big Welsh language festival), people would sometimes come up to me, knowing who I was because of what I’d done with Clwb Malu Cachu. Now, I may well have been microfamous then, but I really had no way of telling.

In a sense, it was not knowing where I stood, not knowing whether my efforts were being appreciated by anyone at all, that resulted in a feeling of isolation from the rest of the learning community. That feeling of isolation was exacerbated by geography and by the fact that I was a learner-turned-teacher who wasn’t completely fluent and couldn’t take part in monolingual Welsh discussions. Thus I was isolated by physical location and by language – rather ironic for one concerned with teaching languages online.

Ultimately, that feeling of isolation, and the failure to find out what my position within the Welsh community was, lead to my almost complete withdrawal from it.

I am starting, by this point in this post, to write myself into some understanding of why I am interested – concerned, even – in knowing what my level of microfame is, and why it’s important in terms of blogging. Status within the community always has been important to us human beings, and it doesn’t matter whether that community is online or offline, we want to know where we stand.

Whilst I was at BlogTalk 2 earlier this year, Stefan Glänzer presented a paper called Does Blogging Suck? Some of the reasons he gave for blogging sucking were:

– no readers
– no comments
– no trackbacks
– no attention

Blogs have a notoriously high churn rate, with people bailing out when they suffer from the above symptoms. According to Glänzer only 18% of new blogs survive their first month. Before giving up, many bloggers write epitaphs:

– Is anybody reading?
– test test test
– I think I need a break … I will be back …

These are all essentially pleas for feedback and for confirmation that one is not writing in isolation. The blogger is trying to find out what their status is in the community, and when they fail, they abandon the blog on the assumption (correct or otherwise) that they in fact are not a part of any community. In essence, they are attempting to climb onto the ladder which may at some point lead them to a pre-fame status, and thence onwards and upwards to microfame and beyond.

If we can understand how people feel about factors such as microfame, maybe we can better understand what drives people to both start and abandon blogging. Maybe then we can understand how to protect business blogging against the sort of churn rate that personal blogging suffers.

Tracing the Evolution of Social Software

Christopher Allen writes an interesting essay on the history of social software.

The term ‘social software’, which is now used to define software that supports group interaction, has only become relatively popular within the last two or more years. However, the core ideas of social software itself enjoy a much longer history, running back to Vannevar Bush’s ideas about ‘memex’ in 1945, and traveling through terms such as Augmentation, Groupware, and CSCW in the 1960s, 70s, 80s, and 90s.

By examining the many terms used to describe today’s ‘social software’ we can also explore the origins of social software itself, and see how there exists a very real life cycle concerning the use of technical terminology.

As you might expect of a blog entry, his post is fleshed out even further by a huge raft of comments and trackbacks which are also well worth exploring.

Swish new look

The guys here at Corante have furnished me with a very swish new look, which I hope you like as much as I do. There might be a few hiccups whilst we get everything working properly, so please do bear with us through the changeover.

State of the Corporate Blogosphere

Technorati’s Dave Sifry takes a brief look at the state of the corporate blogosphere, which he defines as ‘people who blog in an official or semi-official capacity at a company, or are so affiliated with the company where they work that even though they are not officially spokespeople for the company, they are clearly affiliated’.

That’s a pretty broad definition of ‘corporate’ but one I’ll accept for now if only because to narrow down the definition might result in a single figure blog count. As it is, Technorati only identifies around 5000 blogs, which is only 0.1 of a percent of the blogs that the site tracks.

Although Sifry explains his criteria for judging what is or isn’t a corporate blog, he doesn’t say how he identified which blogs are corporate and which are not. It must be tricky for a spider to differentiate between a corporate blog and any other sort of blog, so I’d be interested to know how he performed the count.

Unsurprisingly, the main companies using blogs externally are tech companies like Microsoft, Sun Microsystems and Macromedia. Sifry also groups together ‘media sites’ and ‘blogging companies’ which, between them, account for a sizeable slice of the pie.

Again, I’d love to see more detail on this. How many of these blogs are official? How many unofficial? How do the media sites and blogging companies slices break down? How many official blogs are marketing a specific product or service? How many are simply about improving presence?

As it is, Sifry’s report barely scratches the surface in terms of providing meaningful information about the use of blogs in business. The obvious point to make is that it only discusses external blogs. All the dark blogs – the internal blogs that are hidden away on intranets – remain uncounted and unmeasured, yet these blogs are the ones that are the most important for most blog-using companies. They are the ones that are currently providing the value.

Despite this, Sifry’s conclusion is right – blogs are slowly being accepted as being a useful business tool, and we are very much at the beginning of this process. We do, however, need to find better information than this in order to be able to convert new clients to the Way of the Blog.

Not dead yet

Been a bit blog free of late. Haven’t been reading anything unless someone stands behind me with a large pointy weapon saying ‘Read my blog or else’, which probably explains the lack of posts. If a blogger isn’t blogging it’s because s/he isn’t reading.

It’s not blogger burn-out, more of a blogging damp squib – I keep having thoughts about blogging which I then fail to articulate in any sort of satisfactory way. Guess this is a sign that I need to brave the several tens of thousands of posts that lurk unread in Blogines and start trying to get a few synapses to fire.

Street teams fail to take full advantage of social tools

A couple of years ago I remember coming across the Traffic street teams site and thinking that if I had more time, it’d be a cool thing to do. In short, Traffic puts together teams of people who are fans of bands willing to help promote that band in return for ‘swag’ – gig tickets, merchandise and other desirable stuff. It’s a cheap, easy and appears to be effective.

As it happened, I didn’t have time and the swag on offer was not sufficiently valuable to me that I wanted to spend hours doing the tasks required to earn it. That’s no great surprise – street teams are set up appeal to students and rabid fans, not businesswomen with a new internet start-up to look after.

A few days ago, I was feeding my rabid obsession with Shaun of the Dead when I came across Shaun Squad, a street team site for fans to promote the film in America, where is has just got a limited theatrical release.

Having a look round Shaun Squad, I was somewhat surprised that a site as new as this hasn’t taken any notice of the lessons learnt by social networking sites, which is a shame because it means that the site is nowhere near as effective as it could be.

Compare and contrast
Before I start pointing out what Shaun Squad could have been, I think it’s worth looking at how it works, and how it differs from Traffic.

On Shaun Squad, you have to register before you get full access to the site. You can then do certain tasks which earn you ‘pints’ that you can swap for goodies. The various tasks include inviting a friend to the site, IMing your friends, posting a link on a relevant messageboard or website, creating banners and icons, and various offline tasks such as taking photos of yourself in front of a theatre showing Shaun of the Dead. The site also collects feedback on ads, trailers and other official promotional activity.

If you earn enough pints, you can swap them for goodies such as a signed copy of the script, signed posters, t-shirts and the soundtrack CD. Pretty good incentives, but when a signed script costs you 18,000 pints and the tasks start at 50 pints for the online stuff, going up to 700 pints for an opening weekend photo, that’s a lot of effort to go to.

(Actually, if these prizes were available for UK residents I might be tempted into it by the thought of getting hold of a script, signed or not, but it’s only for Americans, sadly.)

On Traffic, teams are expected to do work offline – they are supplied with “materials (which could include stickers, leaflets, posters, CDs, promotional items, vouchers, tickets, competition prizes, etc.)”, and then have to complete simple tasks and submit an online report form prior to a deadline.

Traffic describe their perks thusly:

In addition to the satisfaction that you will get from promoting your favourite bands, you will receive all kinds of perks depending on what the bands, record companies/other clients provide us with on your behalf. You will receive things like pre-release copies of new records, free merchandise, gig tickets and promo items for completing your assigned tasks. There will, on occasion, be competitions and opportunities to meet the bands. There are also potential rewards and job possibilities for the most committed team members.

The key difference is that Traffic deals with ongoing promotions – a band will have single releases, album releases, tours, festival appearances, in-shop appearances and all sort of other stuff going on almost year round. Traffic creates teams of individuals to work a given band or project, and once a team is full it accepts no further members. They have time to build a team, and for that team to create a presence for the band.

Shaun Squad deals with one event – the release of a film in the States. And it’s a limited release at that, showing in only 607 theatres. They don’t have time to waste, they need a quick hit now. Shaun Squad doesn’t create teams, instead encouraging individuals to compete for prizes.

With Traffic, the social side of their activities is limited online to forums. Considering the slow burn nature of their activities, I guess this is just about adequate. More social interaction would create stronger teams, but without actually being able to take part in a team it’s hard to see precisely how well it works as is.

Shaun Squad uses forums and chat to promote social interactivity amongst members, but you must be registered before you can do that, or access most of the rest of the site. Whilst I can see why forum/chat moderators prefer users to register, it is beyond me why you would hide the majority of a promotional site behind registration.

Getting more bang for your buck
The whole point of Shaun Squad is to promote Shaun of the Dead. It has no other purpose. Once Shaun of the Dead is no longer showing in cinemas in the States, it has no function. Shaun Squad has a limited lifespan so they really want to be getting as much bang for their buck as possible, and they’re not: Currently the site has only 5300 members, a number I find to be surprisingly small.

Let’s do some maths. According to IMDb, Shaun of the Dead took $3,330,781 in its first weekend. At an average cost of $9.50 per ticket, that works out to be around 350,000 people. Even if every single member of Shaun Squad went to the movies once, that would only be an extra $50,000 (and this is not taking into account the fact that many of the members of Shaun Squad are in fact in the UK).

So, if its remit is to promote Shaun of the Dead and get more bums on seats, then Shaun Squad isn’t really doing so well. The question has to be why?

Social Shaun
I know that the company behind Shaun Squad, FanPimp, has heard of at least one social tool, because they have a news blog which includes posts by Edgar Wright, the director. Sadly, they are totally underusing this tool – it lacks standard blog furniture, is hard to navigate and is hidden behind registration. What does this mean? I means you can’t start a meme with it.

The Shaun Squad site of itself is not a meme, and never could be a meme, because it is inherently unlinkable. An open, public official Shaun of the Dead blog could, however, produce a meme which could spread through the film blogosphere rapidly – precisely the behaviour that’s required for the promotion of a cult film.

Posts by Wright, Pegg or Frost would create enough interest in the fans that they would post about it, and these posts would reach pre-fans (people who aren’t yet fans, but might turn into one given the chance). And it’s the pre-fans you want to get because these are the people who are going to go to the cinema and cough up their 9 bucks and thence (hopefully) turn into fans who will continue the word-of-mouth promotion of the film.

Ultimately, you can’t force a meme – they just happen. But you can create conditions suitable for meme growth: by posting strong material you can increase the chances that meme-spawning will occur. Hide your blog and you ensure memelessness.

Human traffic
Far worse than stifling memes, hiding the blog very effectively prevents healthy traffic. Look at Zach Braff’s Garden State blog and you start to get a feel for how popular film blogs can be. Zach has left comments open on his blog and he gets anywhere from 1500 to 3000 on each post. Compare this to the 40 to 50 comments per entry on the Shaun Squad blog.

Now, some more maths, although maths that is admittedly based on a terrible assumption. Think of it more as a thought experiment than actual maths.

I get around 40,000 unique visitors a month on Chocolate and Vodka. I get around 80 comments a month, so for every comment I get 500 visitors. By that reckoning, Zach Braf must be getting around 1.5 million visitors to each post. OK, my logic may well be faulty here, but either which way you cut it, this blog’s popular and it’s doing its job – it’s promoting Garden State.

Hiding the Shaun Squad blog is possibly the stupidest thing that FanPimp could have done. It achieves absolutely nothing. If anything it is shutting the stable door after the horse has bolted – you need to be a committed fan in order to be bothered enough to register for the access to the site which will then allow you to read the blog.

The site should, however, be trying to convert pre-fans into fans and to do that you need to do two things: 1) reach your pre-fans and 2) persuade your pre-fans to go see the film. A blog can potentially do both of these things, something that FanPimp seem not to have realised.

In an ideal world
Any site that relies on word of mouth and networking to raise its profile needs to be thinking much harder about which social tools they can use, and how best to use them. Unfortunately, most aren’t. Whilst the fans are doing a pretty good job of promoting Shaun of the Dead themselves, it would be so much more effective if there had been a central hub which pulled all of that effort together.

If you couldn’t code a dedicated Shaun of the Dead Aggregator to pull in blog posts and spew them out again as a single RSS feed, then an official PubSub feed and/or TopicExchange channel would allow fans to find content more easily. A wiki would allow fans to collate trivia, a task currently performed by my very unofficial OpenZombie. And an open, official blog would be the perfect way for fans to find these resources.

But instead, and as usual, Shaun Squad tries to own the conversation, as well as the means of conversation. In pinning it all down, they kill it and the whole thing fails to achieve its potential.

I’ve no doubt that Shaun of the Dead will become a cult classic – it’s got the depth, the style, the laughs to succeed with or without Shaun Squad. But it would have been so nice to see it utilising social software to facilitate proper online support too.