Thursday, February 26, 2009

Three protests later, Facebook finally gets the community involved

Over the past three years, Facebook has weathered three user protests. Today they decided to do something new by having their users play a role in determining new policies.

Here's a recap of those protests:

In September 2006 Facebook launched News Feed (probably everyone's favorite feature today and arguably what made Facebook addictive). The problem was that Facebook launched News Feed without getting their community involved and without clearly announcing a way to opt out.

Then in November 2007, Facebook launched Beacon. Beacon sent messages to users’ friends about what they were buying on certain websites. The problem was that users could not easily opt out. Users protested and Facebook changed the feature by requiring permission with every purchase.

Then last week Facebook's user policy came under fire for claiming to own all user assets (photos, content, etc.) forever, even after a user deleted their account. They have since reversed that due to user protest.

Finally, today Facebook invited all users to participate in future policy changes.

It's a lesson to all of us who are involved in building and hosting social media and communities. We must get our community members involved, early and often.

Bravo to Facebook for finally get their community of users involved. My only questions is, what took them so long?

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

In response to facebook: how to build an extraordinary community

I'm annoyed with facebook today, for obvious reasons. I started writing this blog entry a few times but kept coming back to a paper I wrote in grad school in 2003. Honestly.

It's my best response. facebook take note, this is how we should be building communities.

The Extraordinary Community

The intent for my final project was to gain an understanding of how community is experienced by users in virtual spaces, as well as to propose alternatives for their development. In exploring this topic, I first examined how community experience occurs in both physical and virtual spaces. I then looked for alternatives that would enable virtual spaces to realize deeper possibilities. This process was quite useful, in that it provided a framework in which to process these concepts, as well as a jumping off point for new ideas.

The first concept I explored was that of trace, in relation to the writings of Elizabeth Grosz. Pondering how individual and group trace occurs in both physical and virtual space, I discovered that trace in the virtual world is more dependent on emotion and thought than trace in the physical world. These virtual traces are entities of their own, not reliant on a specific physical space.

This led to the study of sense in relation to the writings of Brian Massumi. I proposed that way-finding and relationship-making in virtual communities was based more on a sixth sense or a shared interest than on a common physical presence. Unlike geographically based communities, virtual communities are Interest Locations, or spaces of thought commonality. Enabled and facilitated by virtual networks, Interest Locations occur at the points where thoughts and minds meet (Massumi, p.186).

Finally, I examined the concept of the everyday in virtual communities in relation to the writings of Dell Upton. I concluded that while the structure for the habitus, or the “nexus of spaces and times that repeatedly trigger bodily habits and cultural memories” is supported in virtual communities, there is a lack of support for “the art of inventing” (Upton, p.719-720). Therefore, most virtual communities support a very limited form of the extraordinary. What I mean by this is that virtual communities are extremely good at helping participants to share thoughts and discussion and even to organize action, however, their lack of participant ownership and design limit creativity and the potential for change.

This last point is the crux of my final recommendation for alternative virtual community development. Before getting into this concept further, it is important to examine a number of virtual communities in an attempt to identify where the art of inventing is possible and where it is limited.

There appears to be three types of functions, or invention potential, generally allowed in online communities. These are the functions of responding, connecting, and organizing.

The function of responding exists in sites such as Google, Slashdot and Epinions. In these sites, a user’s main contribution is their response, usually in the form of a recommendation or vote. An example of this function can be experienced in the search engine Google. This engine uses a technology called PageRank, which relies on the “democratic nature of the web by using its vast link structure as an indicator of an individual page's value” ( Votes are calculated not only by a link from page A to page B but also by a system that analyzes a linking page’s importance. In this way, participants, whether intending to or not, play a role in the site’s content design.

Similarly, on sites such as Slashdot, much of the content is generated by users, allowing the virtual community to partially design site content. Still, published content is chosen by Slashdot staff. Other sites, such as Epinions, eBay and Amazon, allow users to vote on products, services or other users, providing participants with the ability to respond to a number of situations.

Another function that is commonly possible is that of connecting. Virtual communities enabling connection with others who share common interests include Friendster, Craig’s List and Classmates. Users may be allowed to have their own page within the virtual community, enabling a level of ownership where presence can be established and from which a connection can be made. In addition, users can connect with the physical world. An example can be seen on Craig’s List, where users may connect with jobs or apartments in their geographic communities.

Finally, the function of organizing is enabled on sites such as Evite and MeetUp, as well as FlashMob websites, where users can organize events and invite others to either attend or to even participate in the process of organization. This has been a strong characteristic of the Internet, and one that has arguably changed the ways in which community organization may occur.

In the functions of responding, connecting and organizing, virtual communities provide a space of habitus, however, due to the structure of these communities, the potential of invention is limited. These virtual communities require a user to go to a specific virtual location that is owned by and designed by a specific entity, thereby innately limiting agency. These spaces, even with their limitations, are still quite important and useful. However, it is vital to question how virtual communities can create extraordinary experiences that support agency and change, beyond the level commonly available. The answer lies in examining practices that allow for the art of inventing and then pondering how these practices can be applied to virtual communities and everyday life.

Two examples that appear to enable the art of inventing at a deeper level can be seen in the development of Linux and as well in distributed computing practices.
Linux is an operating system developed in 1991 by Linus Torvalds, who at the time was a student and hacker in Helsinki. The code of the program is available and free to all. Anyone can change it, and in fact, the program’s success is due to the fact that programmers from around the world have continued to develop the code. While programmers are allowed to develop their own, propriety version of Linux, historically, they have shared code with each other. In this way, everyone owns the code. It is not reliant on its founder, the way most virtual communities are on theirs. If Torvalds stops working on Linux, development will continue (Linux International). This lack of ownership and the ability for every participant to change the rules aligns with the Hacker's Code of Ethics, which believes in access, freedom and decentralization of information, as well as the ability to “create art and beauty on a computer” (Levy, p, 458).

Another example where the extraordinary can be experienced in virtual space is in distributed computing, which allows users to process data on their personal computer as part of a larger project. SETI, or the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence, is the largest of these projects and allows anyone with a computer and an Internet connection to participate (SETI@home). Participants not only share a common interest in extraterrestrial life, but they also share in the creation of knowledge. As of June 1, 2002, users working separately yet together, had completed more than 1 million CPU years of computation (SETI@home).

In the distributed computing project Folding@home, where participants used their computers to simulate part of the complex folding process of a protein molecule, findings were confirmed in the laboratory and the results were published in a scientific journal (Stanford News Service).

“The implications of this ‘public computing’ paradigm are social as well as scientific” (Anderson). Dr. David Anderson, who is working on a new platform for the SETI project, writes the following:

“Not only does it provide a basis for global communities centered around common interests and goals, but it gives the public more direct control over the directions of science progress … because computer owners can contribute to whatever project they choose, the control over resource allocation for science will be shifted away from government funding agencies (with the myriad factors that control their policies) and towards the public. This has its risks: the public may be easier to deceive than a peer-review panel. But it offers a very direct and democratic mechanism for deciding research policy.”

Here, we are no longer simply speaking of participation, but of agency and change. These peer-to-peer networks are owned and designed by everyone. They do not require participants to visit a structured website owned by an outside entity, but rather provide a true space for invention. In these cases, the virtual community visits the participant and the creation happens in multiple spaces at multiple times.

Participants, specifically in the case of Linux development, define their participation. In addition to responding, connecting and organizing, community computing practices create, and they often create collective good (Rheingold, p. 71).

In allowing every participant to own and design the virtual community, these spaces enable the art of invention.

In conclusion, I propose that the alternative development of virtual communities enable participant ownership and design, as well as decentralization. There must be a way to combine the methods of Linux development and distributed computing with structured virtual communities. As more mobile devices are Internet enabled, the potential to integrate these abilities in the everyday appear to be possible. What will it look like when distributed computing is applied to affordable housing challenges; or when the trade of goods enabled through virtual networks reduce the amount of garbage discarded; or when car pooling is empowered via trusted, mobile networks? When communities, whether defined by interest or geography, are empowered to truly work together to make decisions, take actions, and solve common problems, then the truly extraordinary may occur.

Anderson, Sr. David P. Public Computing: Reconnecting People to Science. Presented at the Conference on Shared Knowledge and the Web, Residencia de Estudiantes, Madrid, Spain, Nov. 17-19 2003. Available at:
Grosz, Elizabeth. (2002). Architecture from the Outside: Essays on Virtual and Real Space. Cambridge, Mass: The MIT Press.
Levy, Steven. (1984). Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution. Garden City, NY: Anchor Press/Doubleday.
Linux International website, available at
Massumi, Brian. (2002). Parables of the Virtual: Movement, Affect, Sensation. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.
Rheingold, Howard. (2003). Smart Mobs: The Next Social Revolution. Cambridge, Mass.: Perseus Publishing.
Upton, Dell. (2002). Architecture in Everyday Life. New Literary Horizons: (2002) 33:707-723.
SETI@home website, available at
Stanford News Services, available at:

Friday, February 13, 2009

Break boundaries and the new ad agency model

It's an interesting time in the ad agency world. It will be in the next two to three years, I predict, that agencies will either figure out how to transform themselves to meet the new digital needs of their clients and position themselves for growth, or become specialists in mass media and risk becoming marginalized.

Of course, transformation is not an easy task. It was Marshall McLuhan who suggested that when a new medium arises, it takes on the attributes of existing media until it can, essentially, find itself. For example, back in the mid 1990's, we would create brochures online, almost copying the print medium. It was not until Web 2.0 that the Web really began to find its true, unique form.

From an agency model, we are experiencing the same thing.

We insist on "big ideas" and the sacred copywriter-art designer partnership. But what if these old ways of working don't support new forms of media development? Developing for TV and for the Web are very different things. Does it make sense to use the same working model? Or do we need a new model, or at the very least one that is flexible?

I think we are at what systems theory founder Kenneth Boulding calls a "break boundary," which is the point at which the system suddenly changes into another or passes some point of no return in its dynamic processes," as quoted by Marshall McLuhan in Understanding Media (p. 38).

McLuhan says that a common break comes from the "cross-fertilization with another system." We are seeing this cross-fertilization happening today as a generation of native web professionals become more senior in their careers are crossing over into traditional ad agency environments. We are what systems theory might refer to as noise in the system, which is what creates change.

It's not about throwing out everything and starting from scratch but rather evaluating what really works. A big idea might be great for one project but not another. A copywriter-art director team who owns ideation might work fine for some workstreams but a more collaborative approach might work better for others. Big shoots in LA? Sure, as needed, but it should not be a requirement. Maybe a more web-savvy approach will produce better results for a lot less money.

All of these core assumptions must be questioned. There will be agencies who are brave enough to do this and others who are not. But this process of discernment coupled with the ability to make real change will define the future landscape of the advertising industry.

(On a side note, to me, it's an exciting time. In 1994, I had the opportunity to join a traditional newsroom as a clerk or join that same organization as an online community reporter. The online position paid a lot less and was a lot more risky, but I fell madly in love with the Internet and its ability to connect people in ways that mass media had failed. And so I took the online position and never looked back. I still carry that same passion with me today.)

Source: McLuhan, Marshall, Understanding Media, Cambridge: The MIT Press, 2002.

Friday, February 6, 2009

Money moving to social media, but ad agencies not ready

Social media will see a rise in spending, much to the credit of Barack Obama, according to a recent KPMG study.

In fact "75 percent of executives predict that advertisers will move more than a quarter of media time and spending away from traditional channels in the next five years, while social networks and mobile marketing are expected to see a surge in activity," as published in

What's interesting is that it was Barack Obama's use of social media which finally convinced corporate America that, yes, indeed, social media does work (thanks Prez Obama!).

But here's the kicker, as quoted from, "While the marketing and branding power of social networking is expected to be increasingly harnessed in the future, 61 percent of executives indicate that fewer than 30 percent of ad agencies have a plan in place to leverage the medium for their clients."

Wow. Fewer than 30 percent have a plan in place to leverage social media for their clients.

In addition to being stunned by the industry's slow response to an apparently strong marketing channel, I wonder how many agencies who say they are ready for social media truly get it.

What does being ready for social media mean to your agency? It is about rich media banners? Flashy microsites? Full scale web dev with social media integrated into the user experience? The web is, after all, social. It's deep and broad. It's cybernetic. It requires an understanding of the user as well. There's a feedback loop now which is much more complex than broadcasting a message to the masses.

So, tell me, are you ready?

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

The shopping experience evolves

Zappos, who's been a leader in user experience design in my book, just released a new way to shop. Actually, it's not new exactly, it's just a digital version of the way many of us already shop, which is by looking for items similar to ones we like.

In the real world that can be challenging. It requires actual work, even for those of use who love shopping. But online, data makes it much easy to shop like this.

Here's what works:

1. It's visual
You start by choosing a shoe you like and are presented with a page of similar shoes. All you see is the picture of the shoe and its price. if you roll over the shoe you get additional information, such as the designer, with an option to get even more details.

2. It's game like
Search is a game, and sites that embrace that make the experience much more fun. The Zappos site is not a game (although it could be), but it feels as though there's a win at the end. It's fun to go down one path and then start again, or see where you can get to with your choices. In fact it's like "Choose Your Own Adventure" but for shoes!

3. It works with the berry picking lot of us
There are many ways we seek information, in fact, library sciences has a name for it, "Information Seeking Behaviors." In the online realm, many of us are what is termed "berry pickers," which means that we find information as if we are picking berries, with one piece of information leading to the next.

So kudos to Zappos for making their user experience better, and for making shoe shopping even more fun!