Facebook

Why I could, sort of, Like Graph Search by Dan Weingrod

I’ve become a very reluctant user of Facebook over the past couple of years. I log in once a week at best, ignore the weekly updates and never sign in to anything with Facebook. At this point I’m down to three, pretty lame, use cases for Facebook:

  • Spying on my, adult, children (pathetic)
  • Following political news and posting views to a broader network than on twitter (this kind of ended with the election)
  • Using it as a version of Patch.com to find out what’s going on locally because I don’t follow local friends on twitter, (like when we lost power in the freak Halloween storm over a year ago).

So when Graph Search launched I pretty much tried to ignore the Apple-like, shrouded in secrecy, intro event. But as I began to think and read more about Graph Search I realized that there’s potentially more to like, than there is to dislike.

For starters there’s the fact that Graph Search could be, as Danny Sullivan pointed out, a fundamentally different kind of search. It’s not the Google type search we may have been looking for or maybe expected and that’s kind of exciting. Sullivan calls it “multidimensional search” and John Battelle thinks of it as “Facebook is no longer flat”. The dimensional metaphors make a lot of sense. When you consider the possibilities of Graph Search you can see that it has the potential to add additional, and potentially very interesting, layers to the Facebook experience. And unlike recent Facebook copycat clones, (I’m looking at you Poke), there’s some serious thinking and innovation going on in terms of deployment of natural language search and linking volumes of structured and unstructured data on a massive scale.

But beyond the potential dimensionality of the Facebook experience there’s also the fact that Graph Search feels like a serious attempt to build a serious model for sematic search. We’ve been talking about sematic search for quite a while, and while there have some halting attempts, this feels like the first time someone is really trying to approach this in a committed fashion. So thinking about Graph Search as some sort of awesome Big Data project it actually begins to feel interesting. Perhaps by  drawing connections and inferences from all of these data points we can learn how people connect and maybe make all the Facebook experience a bit more interesting? Maybe Graph Search could be an alternative to what has become quickly a very tiresome stream.

Of course the real question is, could that even happen? As Steve Cheney pointed out: “much of the structured data that makes up Graph Search is…:totally irrelevant and dirty.” With all the years and dollars spent on buying “Likes”, a great deal of the semantic data in the Facebook ecosystem is pretty much polluted. It’s as if Google had launched organic search AFTER having deployed paid search, and then used paid search data as a basis for ranking.

All of this brings up the issue of the use cases for Graph Search. We’ve seen few great examples of “Stupid Graph Search” tricks like: Mothers of Jews who like Bacon on this Tumblr. And We’ll keep seeing tricks like these for a while to come reminding us of the pitfalls of semantic search within the Facebook environment. Between paid Likes and the “innovation” of frictionless sharing there is going to be a need to focus more effectively on privacy and the inadvertent settings that have become as part of the Facebook experience. And this can’t simply be the role of Facebook users, Facebook itself and the Graph Search team may have to play a bigger role in deciding how deep trolls and how relevant it makes the connections. The idea of creating “obscurity” on Facebook, as discussed in this recent article, may also be a role that that Graph Search will need to take on, on behalf of the users. (And maybe the impetus to do that would be to start thinking of them as customers instead of, how I just wrote, users). By deciding how much and what type of data to relate or interweave Facebook itself can help create a meaningful obscurity. This is a very tough problem, but it’s the responsibility Facebook has accepted by creating Graph Search and in a way, it would be pretty exciting to see them solve it.

All of which leads to the question of the use case for Graph Search. When I first heard about Google it was “there’s this search engine that gets it right and does it really, really fast”. Right now I haven’t heard a similar statement or problem/ solution set for Graph Search. Yes, there’s a LinkedIn killer use case and a Yelp killer use case, but I’m not so sure that these will really impact these established products with loyal followers. Instead it’s in the weird connections and attributes brought together by Stupid Tricks that there’s an opportunity to create value.

It may be that Facebook will have to take the lead in surfacing interesting Graph Search data and new use cases in order to gain better adoption. Obviously there’s a great use case for advertisers, but Graph Search it comes with an Achilles heel. Advertisers are already enjoying similar benefits of Graph Search through existing Facebook advertising programs. The problem for advertisers is that unless Facebook users can find their own organic and relevant use cases for Graph Search they will likely opt out of it. And as users opt-out it will set up a feedback loop of diminishing returns for advertisers.

Facebook’s beta approach to Graph Search gives some hope that this might happen. Especially if they can be patient, build up data and let the use cases occur before setting it loose on the advertising world. There’s some other large questions, such as how relevant Graph Search will be within Facebook’s walled garden. But as an experiment that could build our understanding of how people connect, while hopefully fostering “obscurity”, I could learn to like Graph Search.

This Is Not A Chair by Dan Weingrod

Maybe it was their billionth active monthly user, maybe it was just by chance, but Facebook launched its first television ad last week called: “The Things that Connect Us”, but by now we probably all know it as Chairs.

There’s a lot of familiar in the ad. It features imagery in the typical powerpoint style that’s been favored for a while in creative presentations. Big, simple, direct images with one stark large word or phrase superimposed. DOORBELLS - Discuss. It makes you wonder if the initial creative always was a powerpoint presentation.

When the images move they are shot more or less in that typical“montage” style we’re so overly used to these days. Lots of cuts between seemingly random imagery of people doing mundane sometimes happy, sometimes sad things all backed with slightly morose and ponderous music and a serious young woman’s voice telling us what we’re looking at.

The question of course is why? Why is Facebook advertising on television, why now and, why we should care? It’s always odd when a hugely popular digital service advertises on television for the first time. For Google it was tantamount to hell freezing over. So was it a celebration of that billionth user? Maybe it was about the fact that more and more, both from my own private focus group of 19 – 27 year olds, and from other Facebook users I hear variations on Casey Neistad’s theme that Facebook is:

“just this constant flow of internet diarrhea posted by people I only sort of know”

So perhaps all of this is pointed at Facebook’s declining user growth in the USA, because of late, Facebook’s only growth has come from outside the US.

In this light, the ad feels like an attempt to redefine Facebook and maybe bring back all the charm and reasons you joined in the first place, but it tries to do it within a larger, mystical, “adult” context. But the opening of chairs, bridges and waterfalls with its vision of simplicity fraught with deep mystery soon gives way to some more troubling ideas: A “Great Nation”. Huh? Is this a tacit reminder of the Arab Spring, reminding us that Facebook can change nations? Or is it a call to spur more allegiance to this nation or tribe that we, like it or not, have created using Facebook? What’s worse comes next: “The Universe, it is vast, and dark” (and suddenly very pretentious). The big idea here seems to be that without this great Facebook nation we have to face our lives alone and unconnected in cold dark space where no-one can hear us scream. When I saw this all I realized that Woody Allen had expressed this much better years ago:

The real problem with the ad is that trying to define Facebook is like trying to define a directory, a phone book, because at its heart that’s what Facebook is all about. A service that helps you connect with friends, but as content and inspiration for storytelling it’s really very limited. Yes, it does what it does much better than anyone else, it has the critical mass of users, but really it’s a phonebook and reading the phonebook is not very exciting, unless maybe it's this guy. If you are trying to define a great service, why not use the service to define it and let the viewers imagination fill in the big descriptive visuals like Google’s “Hell Freezes Over” did so well.

Ultimately the missing words in this ad are probably “grown up” or “investors”. The purpose here is not to define Facebook, but to let its confused, downcast investors know that Facebook is willing grow up and do some “traditional” marketing that they understand in order to support their brand. Its also about misdirection, by defining Facebook as a great nation protecting us from the cold dark universe, we might spend less time thinking or considering all the new ad platforms and targeting techniques being hatched around our chairs, doorbells and bridges. When I first saw the ad I thought of Magritte’s “this is not a pipe” painting. It was only when I looked it up that I discovered that the paintings actual title is: “The Treachery of Images”. Somehow it seems very appropriate.

Is Facebook Making Us Neurotic? by Dan Weingrod

I really enjoyed reading Stephen Marche’s article “Is Facebook Making us Lonely?”. Part of the reason was that, for me, it was a great an example of a wonderfully generous approach to the well trod topic of “Is the Internet making us _______”. Like similar articles it cites multiple medical studies, behavioral experts and neuroscientists, but unlike others Marche doesn’t come down firmly on one direction or the other. Instead he reaches a conclusion that is far more open and generous to all sides of this question. One of the most interesting parts of the article was a sort of chicken and egg discussion of loneliness and its causes. Does Facebook, or any other social platform for that matter, make people lonely? Or does it simply enhance the loneliness that people already bring to the platform? In this context was this intriguing quote:

“One of the most noteworthy findings,” they wrote, “was the tendency for neurotic and lonely individuals to spend greater amounts of time on Facebook per day than non-lonely individuals.” And they found that neurotics are more likely to prefer to use the wall, while extroverts tend to use chat features in addition to the wall.”

This reminded me of a recent Pew Internet study entitled: “Why Facebook users get more than they give”. In the study, Pew found that “the average Facebook user gets more from their friends on Facebook than they give to their friends.”  For me this was a pretty impressive stat, and one that should serve as a barometer for the health and success of any social platform. But the study also pointed out that the reason for this healthy, positive return rests with:

“a segment of “power users,” who specialize in different Facebook activities and contribute much more than the typical user does.”

So if that’s the case, its a simple exercise in logic to say that IF neurotics spend more time on Facebook (especially contributing to the wall) THEN the power users that drive the positive value distribution, (and are responsible for Facebook’s growth), are neurotics

IN OTHER WORDS Facebook succeeds its populated by a lot of neurotics.

Really?

Paul Adams has this marvelous statement at the beginning of his recent fMC 2012 talk, (its at about 4:30 in), discussing how humans have historically adapted to new communication technologies:

“People applied the ways they worked with existing media to the new media”

In the same way I think we are now all too busily applying our own values of society and behavior to platforms and ways of connecting that we simply don’t fully understand.  Into we inject into that equation our own values of loneliness and what it means. What I found generous about Marche’s article is that he’s open to the option that the idea of loneliness has changed over time and that Facebook and other social media are less enablers and more participants. Lonely people in real life are likely to be lonely on Facebook, and extroverts in real life will remain extroverts on Facebook. And neurotics? Marche doesn’t address this in great detail with the exception of a discussion around our changing perceptions of narcissism, or as he calls it “the flip side of loneliness”.

A lot of this reminds me of debates I recall 10 or 15 years ago about getting more computers into classrooms. The reasoning for parents was, aside from more techno gloss, that computers would help their kids would learn more and more effectively. As time passed it seemed that the only thing computers did was help kids create PowerPoint presentations with lots of cheesy transitions. In other words, we learned that computers were a tool and that actual learning still had to be done the hard way. It’s only in the past few years, with initiatives such as Khan Academy or the exciting new programs being developed to teach coding to kids, that we are finally finding a the right place for computers in the education process.

This change took a time and an understanding grown out of experience and failure that new tools, platforms or technologies cannot instantly redefine who we are or create new norms. They are waiting for us to get there. As Marche puts it:

“Nostalgia for the good old days of disconnection would not just be pointless, it would be hypocritical and ungrateful.”

Networks by Dan Weingrod

Network Thinking about the reaction to Google’s Search Plus Your World (SPYW?), (how about Search+), has got me thinking about networks. Reading Danny Sullivan’s interview with Eric Schmidt the night of the Search+ launch it became pretty clear that what Search+ is about is establishing Google+’s position as a bona fide social media network. No more questions about how many are really using Google+, if you look at the torrent of reactions to Search+ its clear that no-one is going to say that Google+ is irrelevant. It’s now really one of the Big Three social networks.

But when I think about “Big Three” I can’t help but thinking about another Big Three, the Big Three television networks, and how in their pre-cable heyday they captured the bulk of the TV audience and the ad revenues that went with it. What Google is doing with Search+ is trying to ensure its position as one of the parallel Big Three social networks along with the advertising revenues that are already following.

But there’s a problem with this analogy that has to do with abundance. The old Big Three got you to watch their content, and ads, because of scarcity.  They had exclusive content and if you wanted to watch it you also had to endure the ads.  Social networks operate in a world of abundance of bth content and access. The scarcity they have to deal with is the time we can devote to each or any of them. Each of the Big Three, Facebook, twitter and Google+, (sorry LinkedIn but, well…), require an investment of time and effort in order to maintain “viewership”.  They each make efforts to build loyalty and mass following, but compelling exclusivity or scarcity? There’s not much to speak of, I mean, is Timeline a reason to spend MORE  time on Facebook?

The only real scarcity that social networks command is the scarcity of their members. But that isn’t enough to command loyalty. I go to Facebook primarily to catch up with local and ex-work acquaintances and to spy on my, (adult), kids, but there is little else compelling to make me want to stay there exclusively. I go to twitter because its where I fine like-minded professionals, (that’s a whole other problem), and I go to Google+ because, well…it has these cool hangouts, I can write more than 140 characters and I have just enough time to do that.

But unlike the old Big Three, the new Big Three are trying to achieve what feels like an all or nothing kind of world. They wall their gardens because they fear that if they don’t have all the users all the time they will lose command of the airwaves internet. The funny thing is that in the days of the old Big Three, total network domination wasn’t as much of an issue. The networks competed, but the assumption was that viewers would move between shows and that no-one could have an absolute lock on all eyeballs.  Sure, some shows dominated and lineups were created to try and get you to spend an evening without making the huge effort of clicking a remote, but that was about as far as it went and generally with poor results.

Search+ carried to the extreme is Google’s effort to achieve dominance by using its search position. That’s one reason for the big outcry. But the problem is that, just like the old Big Three, there’s no reason for any social network to be “dominant” because, frankly, have nothing really unique or scarce to offer except for their members. On the other hand if you look at Search+ as a dare by Google to force the other networks to open up and share in, albeit Google’s, level playing field maybe there’s a chance this will force the Big Three to become like their elders and get better at creating deeper value through scarcity.

Facebook, Photos, Tornadoes by Dan Weingrod

A few years ago I was sitting discussing Facebook with the CFO of a major restaurant chain. To test his belief that Facebook couldn’t possibly be relevant to anyone other than teens he asked a passing assistant manager if he was on Facebook. The manager, without missing a beat replied, “Sure, we do our schedules on Facebook”.

I thought about this when I read an article about “Pictures and Documents found after the April 27, 2011 Tornadoes” a Facebook page that was created last week to unite people with images and documents lost during last week’s tornadoes in the South.  What struck me again was almost a final and unavoidable conclusion of Facebook’s power as a ubiquitous and easily adaptable platform for expression. Think about it, a woman walks out into her yard and discovers photographs and personal debris left by the passing storm. A few years ago all a good Samaritan might be able to do would be to sent the photos to a local newspaper or a sheriff’s office in the affected town. And the results would probably have been as effective as sending a letter to Santa Claus. Instead she created the Facebook page, photographed the images she found and uploaded them with the hope that they would somehow reach their owners. Soon people were arriving at the page and claiming photos and soon after uploading found photos of their own. The result is a page with over 83,000 followers, over 1,600 photos and ongoing uploads seemingly every 3 or 4 minutes. There are even posts on the page from photographers who will help restore images and others who will volunteer to take new family photos.

It’s easy enough to simply attribute this success to “Cognitive Surplus”, but its really much more than that. It’s a statement of the arrival of a platform that has become simultaneously malleable and ubiquitous enough that its users have begun to invent and bend it to new purposes. Photography is often at the core of this. Facebook is now the largest repository of photographs online, with over 200 million uploaded daily. But its the Facebook workflow and use case for imagery, employing  posting and tagging within albums that has made it instinctively a place people would go to find images, especially those that connect with individuals.  You wouldn't necessarily go to flickr to find a family birthday album. At the same time the meteoric rise of mobile photography, (the iPhone 4 has overtaken regular “cameras” even on Flickr), makes it simple to upload and share just about anything, even if it’s a picture of a picture that you found in your front yard and you think someone might be missing. So when you consider it, it’s hard to imagine that faced with a similar situation, you would NOT to use Facebook. It’s simply the easiest, most accessible and logical choice.

Of course this isn’t the first or most famous use of Facebook for grass-roots mass communication. The Spring Revolution in Egypt is a much more profound example of how Facebook is reshaping the world on a larger scale through imagery and the simplicity of its platform. The difference here is that in the developing world with its harsh censorship policies the need for and result of open discussion can become much more vital and enabling (and with much larger consequences). Conversely in our developed world of abundant open communication these types of mass events seem rarer because its not often that we can find the wedge where a broad platform can fill a need that media, government or marketing hasn’t already filled. Google has done admirable work in this area with their Person Finder tool used following the Japan tsunami, and the Haiti Earthquake. The big difference here is that the Pictures page is a homegrown solution. No developers were called in, no programming was necessary and no requirements were gathered. Instead it’s a continuing example of ubiquitous and easy to use platforms and technologies are maturing and inspiring people to possibilities where none existed before.