Mario Sundar

LinkedIn's 2nd PR hire. These are my thoughts on products, public relations, and startups.

Hacking Time and To dos

To dos, like New Year’s resolutions, are a Herculean challenge that most of us have tried and failed. Nothing works. Paul Ford), former editor Harper’s Magazine, thinks we repeatedly waste time building to-do applications with no serious solution in sight:

One of the systems Victor talks about is in that speech is Doug Engelbart’s NLS system of 1968, which pioneered a ton of things—collaborative software, hypertext, the mouse—but deep, deep down was a to-do list manager. Since then the world of technology has never hurt for personal productivity tools.

Every year or two there seems to be a new hotness: it was Remember the Milk for a while, and OmniFocus, and TaskPaper, and Asana. Asana’s tagline is “Teamwork without email.” And of course there are tons of productivity technologies that don’t involve a computer, including the “Getting Things Done” system, which tore through the Internet like wildfire for a few years—Inbox Zero is its legacy.

That said, I believe we are at the cusp of upcoming technologies like speech recognition, the evolution of notifications, and a renewed focus on what I’d like to call “life management” (think wearables) that will finally put a dent in the way we manage our lives, to dos included. A couple of examples that have attacked this problem with some level of success have been “Mailbox” and “Google Now” to cite a couple of examples. Sure, these are early attempts at fixing email and to-dos, but I see this as a harbinger of the future.

The Challenge with To-dos

The biggest challenge with time management apps is the fluid requirements of To do apps. They have to scale from the micro (staying focused on the immediate task at hand) to the macro (that needs perspective with other apps like the calendar, ideally with notifications); the simple to the complex, the one-time to the repetitive (like habit tracker @liftapp); the important & urgent to the trivial; and so far we’ve just had blunt instruments with which we’ve been trying to hack away at this complexity called life.

All this complexity also has to be handled with little input from the user, or you risk losing them at the get-go should you try to gather much information from them. And the input medium has to be as simple as possible, not forcing the user to be typing away with difficulty on their smartphones. That’s where Google Now becomes more and more magical, as they delight their users by surfacing information users might have missed. This will be the future of To-dos. Read through Search Engine Land, Danny Sullivan’s post comparing predictive search to digital assistants:

However, there’s no question that Google Now has proven that there are some search needs that can be predicted. These are often especially tied to location. That’s why — in retrospect — it’s not surprising that predictive search has emerged as more a smartphone feature rather than a search engine feature. We got Google Now for our phones long before we got it for our desktops.

Indeed, predictive search may even develop into an essential smartphone feature. We may come to expect every phone to have it, just as we expect our phones to have cameras or notification areas. And just as people might not buy a phone deemed to have a bad camera, they might also pass over a phone with poor predictive search in favor of one offering better.

The other major challenge with to-dos is handing off some of their actions to apps like email and calendar. Like some to-dos, that are important or urgent, could very well be a unit on your calendar. Now how does one hand that off across apps?

[Update: Since the writing of the post, Khosla VenturesTimeful App launched on iOS this past week, and seems to do a terrific job thus far. More on that in an upcoming post]

Now if only there was a way to dumb down this process to its fundamental basics, where the user does none of the heavy lifting but experiences the benefits of (feedback loop) of such a system, we might have a start. Granted we do not have a single solution that is cross-application and cross-platform, yet.

Hacking To-dos with Siri

This past weekend, upon transitioning to Apple’s latest OS X Yosemite, I feel I may have a quick fix, at least for now that might ease my time management. [This post was written before the launch of Timeful, so expect a sequel shortly.] Two of the biggest improvements in Yosemite, besides the mobile iOS influenced look-and-feel are Notifications (at a swipe) and Reminders that (finally!) syncs across mobile and desktop.

And the secret sauce to make this time management hack work is Siri. In its most recent avatar, Siri is a pretty good note taker, transcriber, and so removes the biggest obstacle with Reminders, which is the act of opening an app to type in your to-do, now all you’ve to do is say it out loud and it’s integrated into a giant catch-all. Let’s call that folder: “Do.”

In addition, I’ve created a bunch of often repeated categories, which range from Groceries (which I turn to when I shop at Google Shopping Express or Instacart), to Chores, which I’d rather not turn to, but gotta. At the end of each day, I review the “Do” folder and either assign a time / date for completion, either / or a folder that I can turn to “Later.”

The missing piece to all To-dos is Timing. Notifications (across mobile and desktop) can really make this work, unlike all past attempts at To-do apps. The good news with the new Mac OS’s is that Notifications are integrated cross-platform and a cursory viewing is just a swipe away under the newly redesigned OS X on the right hand of the desktop.

Frankly, this is as good as Reminders are gonna get for now, but I bet there are ways to further do the thinking for us, as Google Now has shown.

The Future is Brighter

With my experience with Timeful these past 24 hours, it’s clear that time management can be hacked on mobile and desktop in a way we haven’t been able to do thus far. And with increasing tie-ins with the mobile OS and the world of notifications (check out Naveen‘s (Partner, Expa) essay on how “notifications are becoming the app itself”) and predictive search, we just might be able to crack this case.

Also, notifications will allow time management apps to interact with the user on a project to project basis in a way that task managers haven’t been able to in the past. The benefits of such one-click incremental interactions (task done or task moved forward) in future OS’s will bring about a sea change in the efficiency of to-do apps.

When we can interact with our data in short bursts via notifications, we make remarkable efficiency gains, especially on tasks that we perform again and again. Apps will become more about information and communications; we’re going to think of them as services instead of as windows onto our data. The things that can make best use of single click efficiency will soar. A whole new world is up there waiting for us at the top of the screen. We just need to pull it down.

Finally, one of the time management fads talked about in Paul Ford’s piece was David Allen and his until recently ubiquitous Getting Things Done (GTD) craze in the nerd community. Even comedian Drew Carey outsourced his time management to Allen to fix this problem and learned this:

[It] turns out that the Zeigarnik effect is not, as was assumed for decades, a reminder that continues unabated until the task gets done. The persistence of distracting thoughts is not an indication that the unconscious is working to finish the task. Nor is it the unconscious nagging the conscious mind to finish the task right away. Instead, the unconscious is asking the conscious mind to make a plan.

And that plan needs to be made in concert with the big picture, without which the minute next steps mean nothing. Curious what David Allen thinks of the new wave of time management?

How do you track time in your life? Curious if any of your time hacks beat the version I outline above. Tweet me @mariosundar or just leave a comment below.

Filed under: HOW-TO Use Social Media, New Products, What's New in Social Media

Time has come to change how we read

Google Reader is dead. Long live reading.

If you are from the real world and happened upon posts from any-and-every tech blog, you wouldn’t be mistaken in assuming that today marks the demise of the written word, now that Google’s offed Google Reader.

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Image Source: Business Week

But as Joe Coscarelli of New York Magazine, notes, most people don’t know Google Reader from Google Currents, less so care about its disappearance:

As a blogger this might be blasphemy, but the online echo chamber when beloved products, however esoteric, change or shut down is out of control. Worse, it might convince us, through repetition, that these things matter. Regardless of what your social media circles might indicate, the universe will not mourn Reader because the amount of people whose job (or even hobby) it is to consume and process news is actually minuscule. Thankfully.

As a matter of fact, in their rush to tease out the minutiae, I fear we have missed the big picture. There is a fundamental disruption happening in how news is consumed.

Many apps (Digg, Aol, Feedly) are scrambling to jump on the RSS bandwagon by touting their next Google Reader but fact is we are already seeing attempts at more efficient ways to consume news.

And RSS is only part of that story.

What’s the New TiVo of News?

Matt Buchanan of The New Yorker, writes of the problem that ailed Google Reader:

But a feed reader still represents a fundamentally different vision of gathering information than the social model that has gripped the Web. It is largely a single-user enterprise—a digital monk diligently scanning feeds. And it is intensely focussed on the Web sites most important to the user, rather than the omnivorous grazing that characterizes scanning news on social media, as links are surfaced by the people the user follows.

Fact is most of the sites I recommend below have moved away from the RSS-only model while curating social content, in many cases with a lil help from an expert – a trait most successfully used by Gabe Rivera and his trinity of popular news aggregation insider sites Techmeme (Technology), Memeorandum (Politics), and Wesmirch (Celebrity).

As Matt says:

Everybody consumes the Web differently, so it’s hard to imagine a single reading service that works for every person. But it seems reasonable to think that one combining a person’s deep and abiding interests with the serendipity of social media could work for most.

But the future for news readers is brighter than ever and here’s not one, not two, but five different reasons why:

1. Flipboard

The one news app I cannot live without today would have to be – without doubt – my Flipboard.

Flipboard pulls together the disparate threads of news that course through our ubiquitous social media world and makes gorgeous sense of it. Everything from your LinkedIn to Facebook updates, YouTube to Instagram (even SoundCloud), and most importantly, your Twitter followings are displayed in an elegant magazine like format. It’s the kind of design one normally expects from Apple, and Flipboard’s attention-to-detail here is impressive (Follow their designer, @craigmod).

The important distinction to make here is that Flipboard is primarily a consumption device. Though it provides you options to tweet or update your status on any of your social accounts, the beauty of Flipboard is its visual clarity and the ability to on-board you with great news right away.

2. Feedly

For those hard-core Google Reader users who fret-and-fumed since the announcement-to-shutter was made, Feedly has been a god-send. Not only has Feedly invested the most in making this a smooth transition for users, they have also made the most gains among the same user base (up to 3 million users now). In addition, they now support lost RSS reader tools (like @reeder and @newsify) stay alive.

From a user perspective, what feedly has done is provide a quick replacement for Google Reader with a blazing fast cloud service, which you can find at Feedly Cloud. What’s most shocking to me in this whole scenario is why Google didn’t transition those influential Google Reader users to Google Currents – their Flipboard wannabe – the same way Flipboard did!

What Feedly does with its aggressive push into the Google Reader space remains to be seen, but I’d watch out for what they have up their sleeve next.

3. Newsify

All great news consumption apps start on mobile. Flipboard set the standard and, believe it or not, Newsify and Reeder are two similar apps with similar credentials.

RSS subscriptions, unlike the real-time ephemeral nature of social, add up pretty fast in an inbox and what you found is that you had to declare news bankruptcy pretty soon, deleting days worth of RSS content.

What you need is a pictorial, almost Pinterest-like, visualization that allows you to skim through hundreds of posts while picking out the ones that seem most interesting. If it’s 4.5 star app rating is any indication, Newsify seems to have nailed that experience for the iPhone and the iPad.

4. The Modern Op-ed: Quora and Medium

What Huffington Post successfully started, Quora and Medium have tried to emulate. The goal: to find and amplify excellent sources of authoritative analysis, with topics ranging from breaking news to expertise across varying categories.

While Quora is focused on news-via-experience, Medium seems to have perfected the art of the modern op-ed, democratized it while still maintaining its quality.

But what all these sites do is take the traditional news model and flip it on its head by finding commenters, whose comments are the starting point to creating worthwhile reading, and giving these individuals a platform to write and a community to pontificate.

5. Social News: Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn

Finally, the elephant in the room. Social.

Let’s not forget that all of the above innovation rests on social.

What would Flipboard do without Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, and LinkedIn feeds. Would their pages be as interesting or even exist?

Most of what I follow on Flipboard are Twitter lists I’ve created. Most of what most people follow on Flipboard are also built around links shared on social sites. With LinkedIn already showing how a successful social news product should be built around relevance and Facebook clearly showing its cards with what could potentially be a social news engine, we can see the direction that social news is gonna take in the coming years. And it’s gonna be a game changer.

So let me leave you with a question:

How do you get your news today? Is it on Yahoo News or Flipboard or Twitter? Do you read news primarily on your phone as you are boarding the train or on your desktop once you get to work or with a New York Times subscription while you drink coffee in the morning.

Leave me a comment.

Filed under: Curation, Facebook, Journalism, Medium, Quora, Social Media Tools, Tumblr, What's New in Social Media

Quora’s Big Problem

I haven’t been on Quora in a long time.

I used to be there every single day, so much that many Quora users’ feed was filled just with stuff I curated. But that was months ago.

Slowly but surely as Liz Gannes from AllThingsD suggests in an interview with co-founder Adam D’Angelo, “it can be easy to forget to visit Quora, with its random jumble of writings on topics that are interesting but not crucial.

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So as a friend of Quora’s (I even hosted a Quora meetup at my digs last week) and an obsessive about how startups communicate in today’s social media world, I carefully read through the article to figure out if it had clues to where Quora may be headed but was disappointed. Here’s the where and the why:

Paint a picture

I’d love to do a Kara Swisher style deconstruction of the answers but frankly it’d get repetitive here, so let’s just cut to the chase and address the big questions and what they lacked.

Where’s Quora now and where are they headed?

Adam: We’ve become more data-driven. When you’re small, you have to do everything on intuition, but now we’re at the scale where we have a lot of users, so we can run experiments. We have a data team that’s pretty big, actually.

What do you use the data for — is it personalization?

Adam: No, it’s more about to make decisions about what to build. We’re looking at whether something’s going to be a good investment of resources. When you’re small, you can say, “I use the product myself, and I’m annoyed by these things, so let’s change this.” Now we can say, “Twenty percent of our users have encountered this issue that makes them less engaged or more engaged,” so we can test it. That’s really important, because then you don’t have to centralize the decision making. So it doesn’t all go through me.

I think one of the challenges with operational details is that it detracts from the bigger picture and introduces more questions with room for confusion. Wonder how it’s done?

Mark Zuckerberg and the folks over at Facebook, have figured out a way to code every announcement (even ones as mediocre as their recent Facebook Home announcement) in broad strokes compliant to a grand vision:

Mark: At one level, [Home] is just the next mobile version of Facebook. At a deeper level, I think this can start to be a change in the relationship that we have with how we use computing devices. For more than thirty years, computers have mostly just been about tasks, and they had to be–they were too expensive and clunky and hard to use, so you wouldn’t really want to use them for anything else. But the modern computing device has a very different place in our lives. It’s not just for productivity and business, although it’s great for that too. It’s for making us more connected, more social, more aware.

Home, by putting people first, and then apps–by just flipping the order–is one of many small but meaningful changes in our relationship with technology over time.

It’s always about people first. And, Zuckerberg has truly come a long way and learned well.

Words matter. And, ideas matter even more. This is an area where Quora absolutely needs to spend some time articulating their vision, and they gotta do it now.

Now show it works

How big is Quora? What are the most important metrics to you — volume of content, how many people use it?

Adam: We look at people who use it. We don’t share the particular numbers, but it’s pretty big, and it’s growing.

Nah. Not good enough. From a communications perspective, this is the worst answer one can probably give but some startups do it and think they can get away with it. Guess what? No one’s buying it.

You’ve got to come up with metrics that are understandable to the public and it needs to be framed the right way. When I joined LinkedIn, we were close to 5 or 6 million members on the site  and from my first day there, our vision was always clearly framed around the world that we operated within (5 million professionals on LinkedIn vs. 25 million folks on Facebook). Likewise, with Quora, there’s a plethora of factors they can make a great case with to show growth in relevant areas, the most obvious being the number of questions answered each day the world over by knowledge workers in specific topics and categories. Instead, it falls flat when you say: “we’re pretty big and growing.”

Always, show, don’t tell.

Let me give you another example, this time, more relevant to Quora’s size. Take Flipboard for example, which has done a good job of framing their metrics around Flips. How many articles are being flipped, read and therefore shared in their magazines. I’ve created three magazines on Flipboard and psychologically it’s a great feeling when I have 100s of thousands of flips even when my readers number in the thousands. Either way, it’s good for the user and the reader to know where things started, and how it’s doing right now relevant to that start.

Even when Apple was floundering, Steve Jobs always painted a clear picture of the future. This needs to be done; without which everyone’s lost. Moving on…

The elephant in the room: Purpose

You’ve introduced a bunch of new content types in addition to Q&A. What’s working?

Adam: So we have answers, blogs and now we have reviews. The area we define as what Quora’s good at is long-form text that’s useful over time, and where you care about who wrote the text. Not that you need to be friends with them, just that they’re someone trustworthy.

Their introduction of boards was the first time I stepped outside the fan circle and re-evaluated my enthusiasm for the product. And since then I’ve noticed a deterioration in the quality of the Quora feed. Things never been the same since.

But this question leads to clarity in the mission which also should answer why I should use Quora. But instead it led me to thinking of the reason why I’ve dropped out of Quora oddly similar to the reason Liz gave in the early paragraphs: “it can be easy to forget to visit Quora, with its random jumble of writings on topics that are interesting but not crucial.

Every product mission should have a purpose in the lives of their users that makes the product irreplaceable. Take LinkedIn, whose mission to transform the lives of all global professionals led to – jobs. Helping users find a better job, a dream job.

It may not be what LinkedIn talks about all the time, but as a user, it’s this promise that keeps bringing you back for more. It’s this tacit understanding that leads you to update your profile, build your connections and maybe share articles you hope your future boss will “like.” But it all starts and ends with that purpose for a user: what’s in it for me?

Once that reason exists in the users mind, is articulated and is based on reality – it creates a compelling reason to return over and over again. A compelling reason to contribute. Frankly, I think Quora’s unique strengths may lie not just in gathering, sharing and building that knowledge graph (since there are so many others building that graph) but rather in the application of said knowledge towards intelligence and skills that will give it a purpose it so sorely lacks.

But, what do you think is Quora’s purpose? 

Thoughts? Leave a comment.

Filed under: Public Relations, Quora

BREAKING: Can we put Journalism back together again?

This is an attempt at deciphering the happenings of the past week in Boston and the way we follow news today. What are some of the learnings from the past days and what must we avoid. And most importantly, how has social media, Twitter in particular, forever changed the way we consume real-time news.

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The photo acquired via a LetsRun forum that gave us a closer look at Suspect #2 (with white hat in left corner)

This was our generation’s OJ Simpson – Broncos chase. This time, instead of 21 helicopters hovering over the infamous slow-speed chase, we had hundreds of thousands of us refreshing our Twitter feed in real-time as the Chechen brothers evaded, assassinated, and ran over their way into infamy. This time, we contributed and participated our way into the history of media.

Journalism isn’t dead. We’re just reinventing it.

Let’s refresh our memory on a few of the biggest on-air and online human errors the media bungled:

1. CNN who rushed to call that an arrest had been made when none had and other too eager networks like Fox who repeated the nonsense.

Well no one pokes fun at CNN better than Jon Stewart, so here goes. This should give you a sense for the continued hits that CNN has been taking as a sub-standard bearer of mediocre news these days.

2. NY Post: No one expects much from this tabloid, the second Murdoch outlet that screwed up the Boston coverage by pointing fingers at bag men who weren’t Suspect 1 nor Suspect 2.

3. Reddit: Aah… where would we be if social media weren’t a part of these screw-ups.

Yes, there may have been some smugness from social media folks when they thought some of the internet sleuthing pin-pointed the suspects but as was the case, they were way off-base and have apologized profusely since. And I regret being a part of the RT mafia that was a lil too eager to beat our chests a lil too early; a culpability we now share with mainstream media. But for every Reddit fiasco, there’s a LetsRun success and that’s why the “wisdom of crowdsworks and is here to stay:

In places where reporters could not tread because of police restrictions, local residents filled in some of the audio and video gaps. From their front stoops and through their windows, they posted videos of an early-morning shootout and photographs of a vehicle said to be involved in a police chase. The material was quickly scooped up by local television stations and Twitter users. On NBC’s “Today” show, Savannah Guthrie was able to interview two Watertown residents sheltering at home, thanks to a Skype video connection. The residents showed images of bullet holes in their walls, presumably from the shootout.

Farhad Manjoo of Slate Magazine goes as far as hyperventilating:

Next, pull out your phone, delete your Twitter app, shut off your email, and perhaps cancel your service plan. Unplug your PC.

Finally, load up your favorite newspaper’s home page. Spend about 10 minutes reading a couple of in-depth news stories about the events of the day. And that’s it: You’ve now caught up with all your friends who spent the past day and a half going out of their minds following cable and Twitter. In fact, you’re now better informed than they are, because during your self-imposed exile from the news, you didn’t stumble into the many cul-de-sacs and dark alleys of misinformation that consumed their lives. You’re less frazzled, better rested, and your rain gutters are clear.

Breaking news is broken.

Molly Wood of CBS suggests:

It’s not. We have more information, but it’s a morass of truths, half-truths, and what we used to call libel. It’s fast, but it’s bad. And bad information is a cancer that just keeps growing. I’d argue the opposite of Ingram: that the hyper-intense pressure of real-time reporting from Twitter, crowdsourcing from Reddit, and constant mockery from an online community that is empirically skewed toward negativity and criticism is actually hurting journalism. It’s making all the news worse.

I beg to differ. Bad journalists make specious judgments with or without social media.

  • Social media had nothing to do with John King’s judgment to call that an arrest had been made.
  • Social media had nothing to do with the New York Post broadcasting two innocent young men’s photographs from the rooftops.
  • Yes, Redditors, did get their facts wrong, messed up, fessed up and now have offered to help find the poor young man who’s been missing and was falsely accused by them as a potential suspect but it’s the last in a string of bad judgments made this past week.

It’s easy to blame social media for all the ills ailing journalism, but fact remains good journalism will always be about an objective interpretation of verifiable facts. And it’s the responsibility of the world’s largest media institutions to uphold these standards. Not CNN their way into infamy.

None could have said it better than Alan Gregg, former director of Medical Sciences for the Rockefeller Foundation in this excellent post on the Art of Observation:

“Most of the knowledge and much of the genius of the research worker lie behind his selection of what is worth observing. It is a crucial choice, often determining the success or failure of months of work, often differentiating the brilliant discoverer from the … plodder.”

The Boston incident is not an isolated incident. Increasingly we find news outlets choosing to be held captive to the ever quickening news cycle. It was true during the Kennedy assassination, it worsened during the OJ trial, and it’s running a mile a second in today’s social media world.

  • It is the journalist’s job to be the discoverer, not the plodder.
  • It is the journalist’s job to urge caution and call out the plodder.
  • It is not the journalist’s job to be the plodder.

Thoughts echoed by one of the few journalists who proved his value in this melee of real-time nonsense:

But I’d like to go one step further and point out that social media can be a huge asset to journalists in doing their job better. And that job is keeping the rest of the country (that’s on edge) posted on the latest in an unnerving string of attacks. And, if Twitter is the best medium to get that information out, then journalists have to figure out the best way to use it. And some did.

And as the @Boston_Police (now with over 330K followers on Twitter) found out this past week:

“Nothing has really changed,” Bar-Tur, a social media and law-enforcement consultant says, “just the medium has changed.” That might be enough for a new model manhunt to emerge.

And, that exactly should be the takeaway for journalists today.

The medium has changed. Journalism will evolve with social media.

(To be continued…)

Filed under: Crisis Communications, HOW-TO Use Social Media, Journalism

Is Facebook’s Graph Search a Giant Killer?

Will Facebook’s “Graph Search” be a threat to Google, LinkedIn, Yelp, or Foursquare asks a question on Quora?

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No, No, No and Definitely Not. Yet.

The key is expertise.

Beneath the obvious user delight, Facebook is betting a lot on Graph Search’s core ability to connect people with what they’re looking for accurately and immediately. And obviously as the middle man, they stand to gain. Fair enough.

But will Facebook’s imminent functionality be a threat to well established vertical searches like Google, Yelp, LinkedIn and Foursquare?

All of the four kinds of search you can do today: Photos, People, Places and Interests, bear commercial implication. But the most immediate remain People and Places, which as bloggers speculate may pose a threat to Yelp, Foursquare, Google (Places) and LinkedIn (People). So, let’s take simple examples and compare Facebook Search with the other four searches.

Facebook vs. Yelp

I started with a simple search for “bars,” something I presume will be a common search on any local product. Here’s what I got with Facebook. For starters, along with actual bars it also pulled up law and bar associations or offices which was a bit odd.

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Now try the same with Yelp and you see how right away, they try to segment that query into the different types of bars you’re potentially searching for.

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Once you get a set of results, Yelp then allows you (and this is the most useful feature on yelp currently) to convenience sort by “rating,” “proximity,” “price,” “open now,” or even better by neighborhoods.

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I’ve gotta tell you; if you go out often, this filter is magical. But again, the filter is by utilitarian ratings by foodies and not by friends around you. More on that in just a second.

But before we leave Yelp, the third most useful feature on Yelp is their surfacing key elements of the review. So you’re at a restaurant and you’re wondering what’s the best thing on the menu. In days past, you’d have had to ask the person serving you but now you can rely on “the wisdom of an expert crowd” what’s the best food here and it works. Like magic.

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Facebook vs. Foursquare

Back to the topic of friends which is Facebook’s biggest competitive advantage. If you do wanna take into account which restaurants your friends are frequenting (ignoring the fact that expertise is the key), then try Foursquare.

The first thing you’ll notice yet again is the structured data (categories like Bar, Sports Bar, Salon) right up front (similar to Yelp) that Foursquare now provides you; though not as in depth as Yelp, can still be a tad useful.

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Digging deeper through the results, you’re gonna find them sorted by Foursquare’s own proprietary “Zagat number” that they conjure based on multiple data points.

Foursquare comes up with its score by looking at tips left by users, likes, dislikes, popularity, check-ins and it also weights signals more heavily for local experts.

They also show you a self-selecting group of folks who you know. Chances are most of these folks are more prone to bar hop than your other friends. But still Yelp really nails it with their community that they have nurtured for many many years who continue to write meaningful reviews that makes a world of difference when it comes to local search.

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Facebook vs. Google Local

While on the topic of a Zagat number, Google recently bought restaurant ratings site Zagat which now powers their Google Local ratings.  Zagat which originally started off compiling restaurant ratings of the Zagat’s friends, does something very similar to Yelp and the model here is yet again – expertise.

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Facebook vs. LinkedIn

Shifting gears to people search, Facebook’s people search is three years after LinkedIn launched its faceted people search. I know because I helped launch it at TechCrunch Disrupt where product manager Esteban Kozak demoed it right before CEO Jeff Weiner went on stage. (Disclosure: I no longer work at LinkedIn and don’t own any stock either) My mind was blown when I first saw what we could do with faceted search on LinkedIn both from a user experience perspective and I’m sure recruiters have found even more value from it.

Take a look at this demo video we shot in 2009 that shows you the plethora of signals a site like LinkedIn uses to hone in on the right professionals in a search. Easier said than done, and much like with Yelp, these signals have been gathered over many many years and such a search isn’t something you can turn on willy-nilly.

In all four instances the quality of Facebook’s search is insipid today compared to the robust community based expertise that the four sites have either built or bought .

The key is expertise. 

Now granted there are many things Facebook could do to build or buy their way into each of these verticals but the key point is that strength in local search across People and Places is not “friend” related, but rather “expertise” dependent and it takes years to build that. And frankly, I’d go with the critical reviews from experts in these fields and that’s an area that Yelp, Foursquare, Google and LinkedIn have Facebook beat.

Filed under: Facebook, Google+, Linkedin, LinkedIn Features, Local Search, Location, Mark Zuckerberg, , , , , ,

The magic left the building with Jobs

I remember the moment Steve Jobs scrolled through his music and uttered those magical words – “scrolls like butter” – while illustrating the beauty of the original iPhone.

stevejobs1

It’s moments like this that you lived for, as a technology obsessed professional in Silicon Valley. And with Jobs we got to watch the Michael Jordan of technology, courtside, at his best. iPods, iPhones, iPads, the hits kept coming and Jobs made them look great.

So, it’s a pet peeve of mine these days when companies try to rip off Steve Jobs’ launch style. Not Apple’s style because the new PR machinery at Apple leaves a lot to be desired. But what Jobs created, no one else can put together, because it was and will always be classic Jobs.

Jobs in the above video is the same age as Zuckerberg is today. Incomparable!

Why “Public Relations” sucks?

Kevin Roose writes of the Applefication of Facebook PR in light of today’s Facebook press conference.

I’m sitting in the Facebook headquarters, in Menlo Park, in a room filled with the symphonic clicking of keys produced by hundreds of tech bloggers, all writing the same stories and updating the same live-blogs on identical Apple laptops.

Go on…

Zuckerberg has long departed — he was disappeared from a teeming pile of reporters and cameras and out a back door like a sitting president — so now it’s just us and the PR Borg. Oh, the PR Borg. Facebook’s communications staffers are paired up with reporters at demo stations, showing off Graph on a series of computers. The spares are milling around the room. There must be 50 of them — a phalanx of fresh-faced professionals with smiles on their faces and carefully scripted responses to our questions in their hip pockets.

These are today’s news factories. These are things I’d hoped would change with social media but frankly the hand that runs the machine continues to operate with an old playbook. And that sucks…

But wasn’t social media meant to change these things… Hold that thought.

Because no company can ever be Apple with Jobs 

I never went to an Apple event in the Steve Jobs era, but I gather that the pitch is nearly identical: the charismatic founder, the well-paced presentation, the subtle way that certain media outlets are subtly given preference. (This time, major news outlets — this one not included — were given off-the-record briefings about Social Graph.) It’s all drawn from a playbook that was developed a decade ago and has been used to transform a smallish computer company into the largest corporation in the world.

Not so fast. This playbook copied by every large company from Amazon to Facebook forgets three key elements for this communication to work: killer product, charismatic founder, real user values.

The magic with Steve Jobs was his effortless communication. A passionate user himself whose demos communicated his wonder around Apple products that truly changed the way we interact with technology.

Yes, Apple had their PR machinery but the difference was Jobs.

  • The difference was in backing up those missives by publicly sparring, evangelizing and winning over developers or journalists when they called him on it.
  • The difference was a holistic approach at communicating openly to users by treating them as adults.

Wasn’t that the utopian goal of social media? To help companies talk one-on-one with their users. Instead here we are, still mass producing press releases around giant product announcements, trying to reach the lowest common denominator at the lowest possible price. In some cases, at the ridiculously low price of $100.00!

Welcome to the future of social media communication.

[Disclosure: I own public stock in Facebook, I do not own stock in Apple. This blog holds my my personal thoughts on all things marketing and communications since 2006.]

Filed under: Best-of, Facebook, Public Relations, Social PR, , , ,

Quora’s Vision, Competition

Quora’s Adam D’Angelo penned an interesting year-end post where he articulates Quora’s mission better than they’ve ever done before. As a huge fan of the site and a disappointee with some of their recent work (Quora boards anyone?) I’m glad to see Quora returning to its roots.

Quora’s mission is to share and grow the world’s knowledge.

LIBRARY-OF-ALEXANDRIA

Much of Adam’s thoughts reminded me of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s The American Scholar, which predicts the beauty of Quora and it’s goals many years ago.

I read with joy some of the auspicious signs of the coming days, as they glimmer already through poetry and art, through philosophy and science, through church and state.

Instead of the sublime and beautiful; the near, the low, the common, was explored and poetized.

Give me insight into to-day, and you may have the antique and future worlds. What would we really know the meaning of? The meal in the firkin; the milk in the pan; the ballad in the street; the news of the boat; the glance of the eye; the form and the gait of the body; let me see every trifle bristling with the polarity that ranges it instantly on an eternal law; and the shop, the plough, and the leger, referred to the like cause by which light undulates and poets sing; — and the world lies no longer a dull miscellany and lumber-room, but has form and order; there is no trifle; there is no puzzle; but one design unites and animates the farthest pinnacle and the lowest trench.

That to me, was and is, Quora’s highest ambition: to educate, organize and share the world’s knowledge  from the sublime to the mundane (which is very different from Google’s “organize the world’s information.”) And, it was refreshing to read echoes of that in Adam’s recent post:

We hope to become an internet-scale Library of Alexandria, a place where hundreds of millions of people go to learn about anything and share everything they know.

Or as Emerson said from the users point-of-view:

The scholar is that man who must take up into himself all the ability of the time, all the contributions of the past, all the hopes of the future. He must be an university of knowledges.

Matthew Ingram over at GigaOm suggests this pits Quora with Wikipedia, while Owen Thomas is more like Google v. Quora. Frankly, it’s neither of them.

The battle lines are drawn. Its knowledge platforms that Quora will find itself facing off.

1. Knowledge Platforms: The Old Guard

WordPress, Typepad, etc.

Frankly, any site or service that dabbles in knowledge dissemination is competition to Quora, the only difference here being Quora could be both the platform (like WordPress) and the connector (like Google). I’d have counted Answers sites in this mix but they’re either too niche (Stack Overflow) or dead (Yahoo! Answers and LinkedIn Answers).

So, blogs. There are close to 150 million blogs in the world with Google doing a pretty decent job of corralling that information, sometimes connecting the highest bidder with the rest of us with questions. But that’s not the market Quora is going after. It’s knowledge; a higher quality of information. And where do people share the knowledge they have – mostly on blogs and niche social networks. Think about this: the biggest drawback of most blogs is the ability to build an audience (the more influential, the better) but Quora is great at helping you find that audience and helps you connect with those who seek that knowledge (like Quora credits?)

But before they get there they need to scale their knowledge platform; hence, I’d guess, the push away from Q&A to everything that constitutes knowledge.

2. Knowledge Platforms: The New Wave

Svbtle, Medium & Branch.

Increasingly I’m seeing sites that aim to one-up the WordPresses of the world with “a curated collection of great people who have things to say, “a new way to talk to each other,” or “the sharing of ideas and experiences.”

Oddly enough, two of the above come from the House of Obvious Corp. (the brainchild of Twitter co-founders, Ev and Biz), both of whom “would rather build the next Wikipedia, than Zynga.” Guess who’s building the next Wikipedia – Quora.

While Branch forces us to take a second look at commenting systems, cryptic Medium seems to be aimed at publishers and media companies or something like that. Either way, all of the above are aimed at scaling the quality of knowledge that’s distributed on the internet. And by doing so they aim to become the Google at connecting knowledge with those who seek it.

You may notice I didn’t mention Tumblr because I feel they’ve carved out a unique niche for themselves far from either “quality” or “knowledge” by becoming a social entertainment platform with a specific audience (teenagers and time-wasters?), much like Buzzfeed and Huffington Post both of whom feed off of Tumblr.

3. Social Platforms: News and Blog Niche

LinkedIn Blogs, Facebook News

Much like Tumblr and Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn too have a distinct purpose that immunizes them against Quora. But increasingly, both of these social networking giants, especially LinkedIn seem to making subtle inroads into knowledge sharing. Heck, LinkedIn even recently launched a curated blogging platform. As LinkedIn CEO, Jeff Weiner, says in his recent post “It’s Not Just Who You Know, It’s What They Know.”

I’m also personally looking forward to posting on a number of subjects I’ve grown passionate about during the course of my career: how to scale a company; the most valuable management lessons I’ve learned; thoughts about the future of work; how to close the skills gap; and many others.

Topics that you can find answers to on Quora along with the more mundane questions that professionals across various spectrum have asked questions on, but LinkedIn’s scale makes this an interesting one to follow.

Granted, this is but a hobby for LinkedIn; their very own “Apple TV” but as I see it, 2013 is shaping up to be the year of knowledge networks.

Filed under: Branch, Knowledge Networks, Linkedin, Medium, Quora, , , , , , , , ,

Pinterest: Attack of the Tumblr Clones

Pinterest has been in the news lately. Pinterest, who?

I bet most people reading this blog are wondering what is Pinterest? TechCrunch just quoted their CEO about Pinterest joining the ranks of Twitter and Facebook as self-expression engines?! Not sure whether Twitter or Facebook are self-expression engines today, but Pinterest is one of many Tumblr clones that’s been killing it, lately.

Episode I: Tumblr’s raison d’etre?

A while back I’d asked whether Facebook is a walled tumblelog, and since then Tumblr has taken off in a big way. I mean, BIG way. Tumblr has established itself as the de facto social creativity platform on the planet. They’re the intersection of social and the creative arts (much like Apple’s at the intersection of tech and liberal arts) and Tumblr has excelled at scaling their site (with its GIF-heavy traffic) while maintaining their niche street cred.

Yes, I've to quote Jobs in every post I write. Pic Source: Gdgt

Episode II: The Attack of the Tumblr Clones

Enter 4 new sites that are carving out a name for themselves by emulating the tumblr model: focus on creativity (fashion, style, photography, etc.), make it super-easy way to create content, reblog, and like, and most importantly — create a vibrant community that loves said niche creative content. Each of them are doing it in their own way, and some of them have hit critical mass: Pinterest (Shopping), Instagram (Photography), Fancy & Everlane (Shopping).

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Episode III: The Commercialization of the Tumblr model

For now, I’m gonna focus on the two that are closest to Tumblr’s model of “self-expression” but aim to monetize your creativity by focusing on stuff that you can buy. How do they do that? By making it easy for you to “want”, “pin”,  or “fancy” stuff that you can buy. I didn’t say that; they did.

“The best way for a startup to get a dataset like that is to create some sort of self-expression platform, a way to express what you’re into …,” says Lavingia, who also designed the Turntable.fm iPhone app. “You can’t directly ask users, ‘Hey we’d love all of your data! List the songs you like and the albums you’ve bought and the places you’ve visited and the food you’ve eaten.’ But you need these answers to ultimately make money.”

It’s one of the reasons, I don’t “like” stuff on Facebook, since I think it’s like a holiday party turned pyramid scheme garage sale. How long would you stay at that party? Also, Pinterest shouldn’t be talking about “getting a dataset” at this point. I think Lavingia has a knack for designing socially desirable sites (Turntable, Pinterest) and they are obviously focused on exploding the virality of Pinterest, but talk of monetizing my wants at this early stage creeps me out.

I spend a lot more time on Tumblr and Quora these days than on Facebook, primarily cos there is a vibrant, authentic community that I enjoy hanging out with; not because I feel like I’m being sold to. The minute I feel that my actions subject to relentless ads, I’d spend less time there. But, maybe the masses are different and could care less. I think the key is how the ad’s done, cos we all know, ads (besides death and taxes) is a constant in life.

Tumblr too, has wisely avoided this conundrum thus far but I find it interesting that sites like Pinterest will come out and embrace the fact that they want to monetize your expression. I think, Alexia, nailed the conclusion.

And we become so obsessed that we fail to fully realize that our self-expression is subsequently being catalogued, repackaged, and sold to the highest bidder — if a company has reached that stage in its growth. For a chance at reaching the top of that pyramid, hell maybe it’s worth it.

Frankly, I don’t think it’s worth it. Sometimes you just wanna go, where everybody knows your name. That is all.

Filed under: Pinterest, Tumblr, , , ,

Why Google Circles is a Giant Fail

Google+ (Google’s new social offering) seeks to differentiate itself from Facebook with three key features: Google Circles (their tentpole feature, seemingly a retelling of Facebook privacy lists), Google Sparks (seriously useless) and Google Hangouts (which was my first positive reaction to the features Google+ launched with.

Let’s focus on Google Circles for a second, since I read a couple of posts today: one, by Kevin Cheng – product guy at Twitter, who shares my thoughts on why friend lists don’t work and another from Fred Wilson on the potential evolution of social suggestions by Google, and therein lies the rub…

So, let’s start with my Google Circles thoughts (originally published on Quora)

“A friend list by any other name…”

Call it Google+ Circles, but it’s still just a far easier-to-setup-and-use friend list. Facebook allows you to create different friend lists today and even prompts you to bucket your friends when you connect — but how many users use that.

Unfortunately, this ain’t a sustainable solution.

Here’s why: my friend lists are constantly evolving and are extremely nuanced and (no way) am I gonna continually update these lists over time. For e.g. I’ve created a list for Colleagues. Guess what? Colleagues move and so do you (from job to job), and once somebody leaves that Circle — that privacy list is useless — cos you’re now gonna share something that they shouldn’t be seeing. So, you’ve a broken list…

Yes, Google Circles may be good spin but it’s futile. Kevin echoes similar thoughts:

Thus, maintaining digital groups has two problems. First, you don’t know when to move someone from one group to another because transitions happen gradually. Second, it’s simply a lot of effort to maintain. How often would you update the entire list? And if it’s not updated, how useful are the groupings, really?

He then takes it one step further by wondering out loud if it’d be possible to automate these groups? Here’s Fred Wilson elaborating on this topic:

This is an oppportunity to use machines. And Google is doing this with Google+. The recommendations on who to add to what circles are amazing. So why make me do the drag and drop thing other than it is fun and cool to do that on a computer?

If Google+ knows who my music friends are then just suggest “music friends” when I hit the share button and send it on. Do I care if it goes to a few people who aren’t actually my music friends? No I do not. Do I care if a few of my music friends don’t get it? Yes, but then I can add them explicitly. I trust Google to do a fine job of this for me. They’ve proven themselves worthy of the job so many times in my relationship with them over the years. I trust that they can build algorithms like this as well or better than any other company out there.

Google doesn’t get social, yet.

I beg to differ. In my personal experience, I haven’t seen Google’s expertise at crafting good social recommendations, yet. And, here’s my take. As I’ve said from the get-go, Google+ seems less like an innovative shift or evolution in the social networking construct and I’m still not convinced that they get social or community.

As I’ve argued earlier, sites like Facebook, LinkedIn, Quora, Tumblr get social and are building their communities from the scratch. Google seems to be applying a sliver of social across all their existing products and I posit that they hope to create an identity ecosystem that ties it all together. Here’s an interesting theory from Vincent Wong that positions Google (and Google+, right) against Microsoft and less as a social play against Facebook.

Google’s Implicit Graph

But, I digress. Speaking of social recommendations: what does Google know today? Who do you email, from whom do you receive spam, whose emails do you ignore and what do you search for. A huge win for them in the past. But, an email graph plus search doesn’t a social graph make. That’s why I’ve wondered what sense it made to integrate Google+ Like buttons onto search.  Granted, Google+ is their first sorta serious attempt at social (Buzz, Wave, RIP), but frankly I haven’t had one pure social interaction with friends or family on Google+ yet. I’ve over 3000 followers (reminds me of Friendfeed and Twitter) but it’s definitely not the social graph we’re seeing here. It’s random comments from marketers, bloggers and Googlers seeking focus groups on Hangouts. I kid you not.

You know who could create the implicit social graph: Facebook can.

From day one, they’ve created a truly social universe for three quarters of a billion people and they probably possess a slew of real social gestures (whose walls do you visit, whose photos do you tag, whose tags of your photo do you untag, whose photos do you comment in, what group messages are you being sent today, whose parties are you invited to, which of those parties do you actually go to, I could go on… and then there’s the mobile side of it, places, etc.)

Now, I’m sure my experience may not be your Google+ experience (if yours is different please leave a comment or @mariosundar me). But, to summarize, I believe Facebook has a real good shot at creating the implicit groupings that Fred and Kevin talk about and I look forward to that.

And, btw, you know who can suggest music friends. Wait till Spotify and Facebook unleash their plans for world domination and then musical social recommendations won’t be too far fetched.

Disagree? Sure. Leave a comment or let’s chat on Twitter.

p.s. All said and done, I wouldn’t write off Google. They are definitely in this for the long haul, are taking a ton of feedback from users and who knows what their next play will be. Rest assured, you’ll hear about it here.

Filed under: Google+, , , , ,

Apple iTunes, meet your nemesis. Spotify.

Spotify is to Apple iTunes music as Google is to Newspapers. Oh, yae! Game on.

Let me explain… 

Today, Spotify — the much talked about music service from Europe — finally surprised everyone by actually launching in the US and I had a chance to give it a spin. Spotify reminds me of Rdio (a similar music service I really liked) and is the second coming of Napster from bad boy entrepreneur, Sean Parker. But this time it’s legit (yes, music labels are on-board this time), and boy, what a ride this is gonna be.

There’s a new Kid on the block, iTunes. Spotify.

For starters, let’s talk about Apple Ping.

In the history of my Apple usage, there are two services that I’ve been completely disappointed with and they are: MobileMe (cloud service) and Ping (iTunes Social) or “the Suck” as I call it.

I’m not gonna rehash my dislike of Ping, but as a product it sucked and for a company as awesome as Apple (especially in the music space), it was a huge letdown for users that Jobs and team just didn’t get social.

Enter Spotify.

How it works.

Now Rdio had done this before but Spotify is better in some subtle ways so I’m gonna focus this review on Spotify alone. Frankly, these guys have nailed the freemium model: There’s just enough for everybody in every pricing tier. I’m a free user and I don’t see myself upgrading anytime soon (unless if they start limiting the hours of music I can listen to, like they did in Europe). Here’s a breakdown of what each group of users get.

Even the pricing is great. I easily see myself moving to the $5 / month tier very soon if I find myself listening to a lot more music on Spotify. Chances that I’ll get there are high because of the desktop app that indexes my home music and the more I use Spotify to discover new music, the more it becomes my default music listening app. More on this in just a second. But, this desktop app is sheer genius and is the biggest difference with Rdio (which is completely web based and follows a similar pricing model).

And, if I get to the $5 mark, chances are I’d be curating a lot more playlists and then bam! I’ll want to move up to the $10 / month tier when I’d like to sync my playlists with my iPhone / iPod. The reason it works is that most people have a gazillion songs but then you usually end up listening to your favorites over and over again. While not all of us are gonna curate a bunch of playlists, I’m sure you’ll figure out a way to create one that plays top-of-mind music for you or find ones curated by your friends that you can subscribe to.

It just works.

For new users, the ramp-up is seamless, quick and the streaming of music is instant. Yes, this is a peer-to-peer service and the technology behind the streaming is peerless. Your user interface is broken down into three parts (See pic above):

A. Search and find new music, get recommendations from friends (Inbox)

B. Index and search your own music

C. Curate playlists (that you can share with your friends and take with you on your mobile music player)

It’s got cool friends.

Now, this is where it gets really cool. Imagine Facebook meets Spotify. Now that Facebook has changed the landscape of social gaming, they will obviously look into the next frontier that lets them scale to a billion users. What’s more social than entertainment. And, if you thought music was important to you, think of the Bieber crowd (just check the top 10 songs on iTunes — its driven entirely by that audience) that’s growing up with the instant gratification mindset — this will be the tool that lets them get any music when they want, where they want it and most importantly that their friends deem cool.

Music could be Facebook’s next Photos app. And, Facebook’s 750 million users gives Spotify a way to grow their audience globally, rapidly. No wonder Zuckerberg deflected Jobs’ reality distortion field when Jobs met him around the time Ping launched on using Facebook Connect within iTunes.

It replaces iTunes.

As I mentioned earlier, the genius with Spotify is that it becomes the default way I interact with my music (since it indexes my music, it becomes the user interface with which I search and stumble upon new music). What happens next? I will start using iTunes less. It took me seconds to start using Spotify as my default music player. Seamless.

Much like Google became the way you found news rather than going to the New York Times website. Spotify will become the place you find music vs. going to iTunes. Kinda like what iTunes did to the music store.

This is a generational shift much like social is today. iTunes will be around for a long while, but the next generation that gets Facebook will find Spotify (through them), and will not know what iTunes was and Apple won’t know what hit them.

Should Apple worry?

Hellz yae. Obviously, Apple’s investing in building our cloud services (Steve Jobs showed off his new data centers at the last keynote he did) but this is more than just storing your music on the cloud and taking it with you (don’t get me started on that — you still can’t sync your music via Wifi on iTunes — Spotify allows for that as well).

This is about how you find your music. In no other industry does social recommendations matter more than in music. Apple’s music future (much like Google’s today) will one day depend on social and they better prepare for that day, now.

If you liked this post, you’ll like me on Twitter too

Filed under: Best-of, Spotify, , , , ,

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