WebInno10 – 1/30/07

Back in July I attended WebInno7. After the event I went and wrote about it and was kind of a dick. I questioned how the companies that presented were going to make money, succeed, grow, etc.

Well, in the past six months, I guess I’ve gotten a little smarter and a lot more comfortable with the way the Web works today. (In my defense, I’d be working at a company where staying current wasn’t always that critical.) Last night’s WebInno was great. There were some cool companies presenting and some interesting side dishes as well.

The three main dish companies – the ones that were given five minutes to present on stage – were MyPunchbowl.com, Goombah and GuildCafe.

GuildCafe kicked things off. They described themselves as “online gaming meets LinkedIn” and explained that the service is a way to find and create communities of online gamers. Their growth as been strong and has mostly come through social networks. The model didn’t seem especially clear but they are succeeding in building a large and growing community. As an occasional gamer myself it was interesting to hear how people are trying to build businesses and communities around games.

The second company to present was MyPunchbowl.com. I’d gone to their site before the event (as I did for all of the companies there) and thought, “gee, online party planning, where have I seen that before,” before I clicked away. After their presentation I was impressed. What they have seems easier to use than eVite and has more, better and more flexible features. I also liked the ways they have integrated with party retailers and services like Flickr. I’m planning a party for mid-April and am going to be using MyPunchbowl to put it together. One thing I’d like to see them do is allow multiple people to work together on planning a single event.

Goombah was the only one that I signed up for before the event. Billing itself as a “music discovery service” Goombah analyzes the play history of your iTunes library and matches it against those of other members to help you find new artists and tracks. I know there are similar services out there but Goombah seems good to me and I’ve found some tracks through their free music recommendations that I’ve liked. They also link to Amazon, iTunes and Napster to allow you to purchase tracks that you find and like.

I didn’t get a chance to speak with all of the side dish companies – they were arrayed around the edge of the room – but I did manage to talk with two that I thought were interesting. The first was TrustPlus. These guys are working to make reputation portable – so that feedback made about you on eBay can follow you to Craig’s List, Backpage and beyond. When I first saw their site, I thought that they were doing something around identity portability and persistence – which is very interesting to me – but that isn’t the case. Which isn’t to say that what they are doing isn’t cool and important.

I didn’t much care for the fact that the system requires a TrustPlus email to work or that people can choose to make comments made about them private; but the ability for peoples reputations to follow them around the Web is very appealing. Seeing what they are doing also made me think more about what I am doing in association with SNCR. I’ve been thinking about identity, transparency and persistence; but now realize that reputation needs to be added to that mix.

The way I’m thinking about it is that identity is what you say about yourself, transparency is how open and forthright you are with your identity, reputation is what others say about you and persistence is the stability (or consistency) of your identity and reputation regardless of the context. I’ll have to continue to give this more thought.

After I spoke with the guys from TrueConnect, I bumped into Greg Boesel from SwapTree. When they presented back in July I was pretty down on the whole idea. As I said up front, I’ve gotten smarter or something over the past six months. Greg and I had a good conversation on issues of reputation in online transactions. He has some good ideas about ways to improve giving and getting reputation that made sense to me. As far as he’s concerned, as long as the seller receives their payment, they ought to give the buyer positive feedback – and the seller shouldn’t be able to see the buyer’s feedback until AFTER they have posted theirs. He believes – and I agree – that this would result in a real decline in sellers ratings but probably an eventual improvement in seller performance.

The other company that I saw that I wished I’d had more time with was SpotStory. They are focused on helping people find and share interesting locations. As someone who likes history, geocaching and Flickr, this sounds like a great idea. It’s hard to imagine that it’s going to become the basis for a gang-buster business but it’s easy to imagine becoming a part of what they are doing.

The last people I spoke with were from Zync. Yesterday morning I went through all of Zync’s questions (more than 300) – imagining that there was going to be some sort of cool surprise waiting for me at the end – that wasn’t the case. As it turns out, this is a sort of an experiment and a means to collect information for their yet-to-be-launched social search service. What they are ultimately planning sounds cool; I just wish I’d known before hand what I was doing . . .

Anyway, that’s WebInno10 in a nutshell. It was a good night and a promising crop of companies and conversations. It was nice to walk out feeling less cynical than I had six months ago.

[tags] WebInno, MyPunchbowl.com, GuildCafe, Goombah, TrustPlus, SpotStory, SwapTree, SNCR, Zync, online gaming, reputation, party planning, location, music, sharing[/tags]

Zync – seems interesting; but the point is?

Today I was poking around and came across zync, which is “developing innovative software solutions targeting the ‘social search’ space.” I tried it out and had fun doing it. The site consists of what felt like hundreds of questions – mostly graphical and with a simple slider bar – asking me to rate various events, venues, activities and issues.

After posing several questions, the site made educated guesses about me – my gender, that I had traveled outside of the US, that I had ever attended a political event, etc. In the beginning the system reported a high degree of confidence in its guesses and most of them were right. (By the end, the confidence was lower, as were the number of correct predictions.)

When I started I thought it would be a fun 15-minute process. In the end, it took me at least an hour (probably more but I was keeping real close track of the time). The most frustrating thing about Zync was that at the end, it simply said, “Thanks! You’ve currently answered all of the questions we have to ask. Check back soon!”

That’s it. That’s it?

There was no explanation, no hint at what one might find if they came again, no nothing.

Having worked with eHarmony and Chemistry.com, I’ve had a fair amount of exposure to online profiling systems and there were things about this one that could definitely use some improvement.

Meaningful feedback on progress – there are questions in nine categories and if you click around you can find out what percentage of each you have completed; but not for the entire process.

Meaningful feedback on process – after I’d completed many questions I noticed that by hovering over portions of the page I got information on what percentage of people had answered in various ways. Know about this from the beginning would have made it more interesting.

Speed – the site presented one question at a time and the load times for each question ranged from instant to a time-out error. Putting multiple questions on each page and improving performance would help out a lot.

Results – I would have been interested to see how the system had profiled me. eHarmony and Chemistry provide reports on who they think you are. People like to see this kind of info; and given the number of questions Zync asks, they have to have some interesting profile categories that they could share.

Purpose – the biggest problem I have is that I’m still not sure of the point of the whole thing. Am I going to get customized content on events here in Boston? Are my responses (and the fact that I willingly sat through all of the questions) going to be analyzed as part a behavioral experiment? A little information would go a long way.

[tags]zync, social search, profiles, eHarmony, chemistry.com[/tags]

I feel like I missed Vista or something

Well the big day has come and gone and I can’t say that I even noticed.  Vista is here and I don’t especially care.  Maybe if there had been sky-writing over Boston I would have noticed.  As it is, all I’ve managed to glean is that experts are warning not to buy Vista for security and that something stunt was staged in New York.  Gone are the days when an operating system upgrade – even an apparently major one – matters that much to people.  (If they ever did at all.)

[tags]vista, boring[/tags]

eBay and Dirty Bidding

As someone who fell victim to shill bidding on eBay, I was happy to see this issue getting the attention that it deserves. This past Sunday’s Times of London ran a story that detailed how sellers fix prices.

In my case, eBay recognized that shill bidding had occurred; but they essentially did nothing about it. I wasn’t able to recoup any of my loss (more than $300 I am embarrassed to admit); and nor was the seller punished in any meaningful way (he was back selling only a few weeks after I’d been told that he would be sanctioned).

People talk about the great community tools that exist on eBay and about the buyer and seller rating systems; but the fact of the matter is that these tools are easily jobbed and don’t really tell you anything about the person with whom you are dealing.

I recently was looking for a digital SLR and decided to bypass eBay all together opting for Craig’s List instead. The buyer and I met and he had also gone off eBay. Too much fraud and too many buyers trying to play games. He said, and I agree, that he wanted to sell to local people that he could meet with in person.

It all comes back to the issues of identity and transparency. When those things don’t exist – or can be easily manipulated – communities aren’t going to succeed. eBay managed to create a community; but over time they have allowed it to by hijacked by unscrupulous buyers and sellers.

Until eBay finds a way to clean up this mess (and why should they since inflated prices only means more revenue for them), more and more people are going to find alternative ways to buy and sell online; and that’s probably a good thing.

[tags]eBay, shill bigging, fraud, Craig’s List, identity, transparency[/tags]

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Identity, Transparency and Persistence and the New Influencer

Much has been written and said about the emergence of a new class of influencer. These people may use traditional communication channels to share their ideas and opinions; but more often than not – and increasingly so – these people are using new social and community-based media.

I’ve had the opportunity to talk with a few people about how identity and transparency relates to the new influencer and to potential research being planned by the SNCR. Some of the questions that I think need to be considered and answered include:

  • How do we make sure that everyone has access to new communication tools?
  • How do we gage the presence of an agenda in what we read online?
  • How do we preserve the value of anonymity without giving people and organizations free reign to obfuscate, attack or misrepresent?
  • How can we judge or merits of arguments if we know nothing about who is behind the claims?

I’ll be working on developing my answers to these questions, coming up with related questions and talking about the issues and ideas behind the questions and the answers with as many people as I can.

These are nascent ideas and I’d appreciate any thoughts, feedback or suggested reading that anyone has to offer.

[tags]Social media, identity, transparency, persistence, influence, SNCR[/tags]

Wikipedia – NOT on the right track

Wikipedia needs to broaden its definition of “community” if it wants to offer a valid reflection of the diversity and depth of content, ideas and opinions. According to an Associated Press story that appeared on CNN.com today, Microsoft has landed on the wrong side of the community fence as far as Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales is concerned.

The powers-that-be within Wikipedia have decided that “public-relations firms, campaign workers and anyone else perceived as having a conflict of interest” are somehow not members of the “community.” I’m a PR person and so I suppose my opinion – in the minds of Wales and his cohorts – doesn’t much matter; but as far as I am concerned, this is censorship pure and simple. To call it anything else is just silly.

Wikipedia asks for no background from contributors – not even an email address – so there is no way to say the person posting or editing an article knows what they are talking about or whether or not they have an agenda of their own. Inaccuracies, pseudo-science, agendas, vendettas, etc. – apparently these are all acceptable parts of the “community” – as long as they are not from one of the prohibited groups.

There is something ironic about the fact that today’s featured article is on the United States Bill of Rights and mentions freedom of speech – a right not extended to certain classes by Wikipedia. Most of us who live in a fairly free and open society like to think that the proper answer to bad speech is more speech – perhaps when Wikipedia decides to truly be free and open we’ll see if that logic holds true.

[tags]Wikipedia, Freedom of speech, Community, censorship[/tags]

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The perils of eating the dogfood

It’s been a while that I’ve been working in PR and I’ve had the chance to work with all kinds of companies over the past 15 or 16 years.  Most of the people I’ve met over that time have been pretty smart

Now and then though, I meet people that – while I’m sure they are smart – are missing some critical element that makes me question how they got to be where they are.  The most common manifestation of this is the inability to see the disconnect between desired perception and reality.

This is something I am coping with right now – and while I can’t go into details – it is really frustrating to watch smart people steer themselves in bad directions.  Objectivity is so under appreciated sometimes.