Mario Sundar

LinkedIn's 2nd PR hire; I led their social media efforts from 2007 past their IPO. These are my thoughts on tomorrow's social products, today.

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

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 will always remain Spock. Never Kirk.

The past few days have witnessed a barrage of non-stop Google Plus nonsense, with marketers vying with one another to carve out their territory on Google+ with the fond hope that it’ll be the next Twitter. In the meanwhile, I’ve not had one meaningful conversation on the platform with nearly 721 followers and I don’t know of any who have.

So, what gives?

Google+ 0 Friends

To get sticky with it: You always start with the community.

Let me share with you a tale of two other social sites that have increasingly become my daily go-to sites: Quora and Tumblr. Those who follow me have probably seen my tweets from either of these sites and the reason is, when I’m there I feel like home. In much the same way as I do on Facebook, which has my real friends and family.

Facebook started with the college community, built that flawlessly across the country, and then finally expanded outside of that circle that they had so masterfully cornered. This was probably what helped them break the monopoly of MySpace, whose ignominious ending we all witnessed this past week.

A tale of two useful social sites: Quora and Tumblr

Likewise, the kinship with my peers on Quora and Tumblr took months to form. On Quora we share a common interest in learning and several common topics that the site is carefully curating over time (like a good librarian who can direct you towards a book that you should read). Tumblr, likewise has a group of artful types who share quotes, pictures and videos (yet again, on topics I dig).

And, on both sites I find good search functionality that lets me pull in updates on these topics I love. Note: I wish both would automatically pull in my Facebook interests since they’re providing a high-quality stream of content on those topics that even Facebook cannot generate. Take that Google+ Sparks.

Now, I probably wouldn’t have published this if I’d not seen this morning’s top post on Techmeme from Paul Allen on Google+ that proclaims:

 Google+ is Growing Like Crazy. Report Coming Monday. Probably More than 4.5 Million Users Already

To which I say: So what? Actually, hang on, Business Insider says it better:

In fact, two days after Buzz went live, Google posted a blog entry bragging that “tens of millions” of people had checked it out, and created more than 9 million posts and comments.

At some point, interest died.

So far Google+ is filled with Googlers, reporters, and tech enthusiasts. They’re posting a lot, enjoying the Hangouts feature, and driving traffic to tech news sites.

But it’s still way too early to know whether Google+ will get any traction with mainstream users — the 750 million people who are on Facebook today.

Personally, despite having hundreds of followers on Google+ nothing of interest has happened on the site in my purview. Yes, I see my good old blogger friends asking questions they used to ask on Twitter, I’ve seen some cool hangouts with random people that Ben and others started, and the curiosity factor over which “interesting stranger” (as BI called it) is on G+ today. 

Summary

Google just doesn’t seem to get social. While the screenshot above (Googlers with 0 Friends) may be a great metaphor, as I’ve argued from the beginning, the Friendfeed cult model (that G+ mimics) just doesn’t work at building sustainable social communities, since it confuses the personal and public spheres. Granted it may scale faster as you’re gonna see soon (millions of users real fast), but will it stick?

Here’s a blog post from George Siemens that suggests why the friend forming algorithm of G+ is messed up:

While power laws (Pareto’s Principle) may exist in many areas of our lives – banking, TV watching habits, book purchases – they are surprisingly absent at a personal level. Yes, I likely respond to a small cluster of blogs and tweets that I encounter. But my personal networks – family and friends – don’t seem to have the power law structure of my public identity. For example, I move fairly fluidly between my personal networks. Facebook gets this. I’ve had very few “way out there” friend suggestions on Facebook.

G+, on the other hand, has been busy trying to make kings of a few: Robert Scoble, Mike Arrington, Loic Le Muer, Mark Zuckerberg, and so on. (Techcrunch addresses this issue as well.) I have precisely zero interest in those people. Nothing in my email history indicates that I would like to connect with them. Google’s algorithm is whacked on how it recommends friends: it is recommending them based on power laws (who is most popular) not on my personal interests. This is a fundamental and significant misunderstanding of social networks. Network properties are different at a personal and social level than they are in public spaces.

Welcome to the Friendfeed conundrum that conflates public and personal spaces. Even, the Pavlovian model of notifications is broken (and frankly useless) in this world, since now the red notification isn’t bringing in the reward that a Facebook notification does and is diminishing its effectiveness.

It’ll be interesting to see how Google+ evolves over time (cos they’ve really invested a ton of resources and are betting their future on it), but in its current avatar I don’t see how it can draw people away from Facebook.

Come back tomorrow for my post on Zuckerberg’s presentation style. This one’s a doozy. Bookmark my blog or subscribe to it.

Related posts you may find useful to form your own opinion:

  1. Follow the Quora topic on Google+
  2. Yishan Wong’s Quora answers (most of the recent ones are on Google+ and social)
  3. Ross Mayfield building on my original post re: different social networking models
  4. George Siemens post on Google+’s fundamental misunderstanding of networks
  5. Rocky Agrawal’s Solving the Scoble problem in Social Networks on TechCrunch (I’d say this is more of a G+ problem)

Sorry, Google+. For similar thoughts, follow me on Twitter.

Filed under: Google+, Quora, Tumblr

Is Facebook a walled tumblelog?

Quickest update (as of 6/29/007): Wow, this discussion just keeps going on and on… Earlier today, Steve Rubel thinks that Facebook is a walled garden and here’s a snippet:

That leads us to social networks and, in particular, Facebook. (I should preface this by adding that Edelman represents MySpace.)

Despite the age of openness we live in, Facebook is becoming the world’s largest, and perhaps most successful, walled garden that exists today.

Most social networks (which I am characterizing here broadly to also include sites like Flickr, Vox, del.icio.us and digg) let you determine what you share with the general public through Google vs. what you only share with your circle of friends. This level of flexibility is a win-win for everyone. If you don’t want to share anything you don’t have to. On the flip side, if you’re a voyeur, go for it.

For all of the excitement around Facebook and its application platform, it’s essentially a giant walled garden. You can embed virtually anything you want inside Facebook. Just like open APIs, Facebook’s developer program lets anyone create value in the ecosystem.

And, Jason Kottke concurs:

I’ve no doubt that Facebook is excited about their new platform (their userbase is big enough that companies feel like they have to develop for it) and it’s a savvy move on their part, but I’m not so sure everyone else should be happy about it. What happens when Flickr and LinkedIn and Google and Microsoft and MySpace and YouTube and MetaFilter and Vimeo and Last.fm launch their platforms that you need to develop apps for in some proprietary language that’s different for each platform?

Quicker update (as of 6/25/007): Kent Newsome debates Facebook: the New Internet or gilded cage?:

Open API or not, there’s still a wall around Facebook. It’s hard to get data out of there and into the wild. As AOL found out, what people look at initially as a safe place to hang out can begin to look like a cage over time. I continue to believe that the blogosphere is the only network that matters, and that over time most people will elect to take control of their content and manage it via a wall-free platform. Anything that gets between a content provider and its users is by definition bad for the content provider. And there’s no need for a central registry of contact information- we have Google. Just do a search.

Quick Update: Feld Thoughts has stirred a mini-storm with his Facebook problem. His recent post summarizes what that problem with the new f8 platform is:

None of these Facebook apps developers are deriving any real benefits (if you are a Facebook apps developer and ARE deriving a tangible benefit, other than customer acquisition within the Facebook infrastructure, please weigh in.) In addition, Facebook has shifted all of the infrastructure costs to these apps developers, creating the “I have 250,000 users, now what?” problem.

On another note, I responded to Eric Schonfeld (Business 2.0) to his related post on Facebook:

Actually, I wrote a post on how I leverage Facebook for activities surrounding my social interests like movies or music and most f8 apps facilitate that.

However, LinkedIn focuses on helping me navigate my professional network and advance that part of my life; my career.

Having the two separate helps me better manage my already chaotic life!

Check out the TechMeme discussion or continue reading my original post below.

Ever since I spoke to Matt Cohler at the Web 2.0 Expo, I’ve been wanting to try Facebook and given the recent spurt in activity I’ve had a chance to try it out and notice that many of my friends are on it as well. Facebook is an interesting way to keep track of the various social activities that you’re passionate about and facilitates sharing that with your social network.

As an example, here are the activities in my life that Facebook allows me to keep track of and the f8 apps that facilitate it:

* Movies (f8 apps: Flixster and Netflix movies)

* Music (f8 apps: Last.fm’s official app – love it)

* Photos (f8 apps: MyFlickr and ZuPort: Flickr)

* Politics (f8 apps: The Compass, Elections 08, Obama)

* So, Movies + Music + Photos + Politics + any f8 app you can throw into the mix = Mini-feed (yes, that controversial mini-feed)

An evolved walled tumblelog?

Think of the mini-feed as the evolution of twitter. So, in twitter you were hooked onto the various minutiae of your social network’s lives, on Facebook you do something similar, but a little bit more organized and richer. Well, let me back up here. Think of Facebook as an evolved tumblelog. So, what’s a tumblelog you may ask.

Jason Kottke, one of my favorite non-marketing bloggers, defined tumblelogs in 2005:

A tumblelog is a quick and dirty stream of consciousness, a bit like a remaindered links style linklog but with more than just links. They remind me of an older style of blogging, back when people did sites by hand, before Movable Type made post titles all but mandatory, blog entries turned into short magazine articles, and posts belonged to a conversation distributed throughout the entire blogosphere

…really just a way to quickly publish the “stuff” that you run across every day on the web. (Source: Wikipedia)

And, that’s exactly what Facebook is. Just better than the tumblelog definition above and far more effective, except that it’s a walled tumblelog. So when bloggers like Kent Newsome wonder why Facebook is better than blogging:

What is so much better about Facebook (and MySpace and other similar platforms) than an ordinary blog on a popular platform- say WordPress?

The answer, as Dare Obasanjo surmises, lies in Facebook’s richer solution a.k.a the tumblelog, but the dilemma is that it’s a walled tumblelog. So, there are really two answers: if your blog is a personal, social interaction tool that you use to communicate to a closed circle of friends then you’re better off with Facebook. It’s apparently WAY better than MySpace. On the other hand, if you’d prefer a public (maybe career focused) blog that helps define your online brand then Facebook cannot replace that. However, Facebook allows you to import your blog and share it with your social network through a feature called “Notes”. Nice!

(Disclosure: I work for LinkedIn, the professional networking site)

Filed under: Facebook, Tumblr

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