Mario Sundar

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

The Secret about Secrets

Dreams are a window to the human soul. So are secrets.


There really is no place to be truly honest on the web today. There’s no place to scream like no one’s watching. Sadly, this is especially true on issues that matter to you, on issues that make you, or issues that break you.

Yesterday’s news that Facebook is dabbling in the creation of an “anonymous” app has Om Malik seeing red. Facebook has owned the market for your identity on the web and now seems to also gravitate towards the opposite end of the spectrum, ostensibly to alter perception on their approach to privacy?

Facebook’s DNA is about mapping people, their relationships and booming their online identity. In fact, online identity is their most killer feature. It is what we all use to log into various websites to leave comments, or sign-in to new apps and services. It is how many Pinterest. Facebook identity is Facebook. So that is why it is hard for me to take any attempts at anonymity seriously!

Is this a PR move? Let’s give Facebook the benefit of doubt in that all of their successes (as driven by advertising) is also driven by an acute sense of how social works. That and given the lengthy product roadmaps that dictate the creation of products, I think anonymity on the web is something Facebook is giving a lot of consideration and this just might be their initial foray into that space. There might be more than meets the eye and I bet there’s a simple answer to all these hyperactive rumors. Here’s where my heads at in this space.

1. Contextual anonymity is empowering, transformational

Relationships matter. Always have, always will. Just ask Facebook and LinkedIn.

But as psychologists will tell you even within the concentric circles of our life (partner, family, work, neighbors, industry, etc.) we employ varying degrees of straight talk (think “fake it till you make it” resumes) for varying reasons. What if we added anonymity to these different concentric circles?

Google + tried creating these circles (minus the anonymity) to provide different slices of news feeds for different communities within your network.

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Facebook did the same when it allowed you to share different content to different slices of your life.

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And Branch tried the same mix of generating conversations within communities (experts, journalists, etc.)

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Given that Facebook acqui-hired the team at Branch and Josh Miller from Branch currently leads Project Anonymous, it’s not a stretch to imagine the much rumored product being an extension of the DNA that powered Facebook Groups and Branch.

And since Facebook owns the social graph, it’ll be very easy for them to anonymize conversations within groups already created. For example: I’ve a group for my closest friends (10 people), people I worked with while at LinkedIn (30 people), etc. There are so many ways to slice and dice sub-communities within your Facebook graph and just toggle pseudo / anonymity into the mix.

But what’s the benefit of anonymity, you ask…

2. Corporate Dens: When Communities *talk *

Enter Secret.

I became a recent convert to Secret after stumbling upon the concept of “contextual anonymity;” see a Secret experiment called “Dens” which allows for honest feedback within the filter of anonymity in your workplace. Dens seems like a powerful device to enable people at companies to speak up, be playful, and share their daily thoughts that others can follow within the community / company. Even the 360 degree feedback finds in confidentiality, its Achilles Heel:

People who have never gone through the 360 process before are usually initially worried about how the data will be used and if it will remain confidential. You need to ensure you assure them up-front that it is a confidential process and won’t come back to haunt them at performance review time.

The benefits for safe, anonymous comments in similar settings should be pretty obvious to Facebook. Granted there’s room for slander but I’m sure product driven updates will mitigate just that.

3. When Honesty Matters

Take Quora, a content network that allows anonymity for a slew of reasons. Here are a few reasons why this works:

Besides the reason you included, sharing life experience, other reasons include, but are not limited to:

• political/religious views where those views might be persecuted by a strong majority: Falun Dafa, pro-democracy in Hong Kong, Muslims in India, Christians in Iraq, etc…
• Experiences with drugs, and mental illness, or any other taboo subject
• Simply wanting to hide your content from being explicitly pushed out to people who follow you
• Asking questions that you are not able to fully, or clearly enunciate, which feel like they might appear trolly, but aren’t

As I’ve become more active on Secret, I find many heartwarming snippets of humanity show up. And this is just the tip of the iceberg since the network hasn’t hit critical mass yet. But the opportunity to leverage anonymity for its goodness vs. the acts we’re used to seeing on the web, is an untapped market.

Goodness.

Kindness.

Controversy.

And more

Can we scale this kind of a network is all that’s left to be seen. And if Facebook is going to bring a billion people into the world of anonymity, it could tip the scales.

Time will tell.

Filed under: Branch, Facebook, New Products, Secret

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, , , , , , , , ,

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