Digital Media, Internet, Social Networks

This Explains Everything


Stephen Wolfram unleashed a motherlode of data in a post yesterday: Data Science of the Facebook World. If you’re in the social media business don’t just read it, study it; there are some incredible insights here and helpful visualizations of the data.

I particularly like the chart above: it explains almost everything. Why photo-sharing apps and networks are so very viral. Why Facebook had to buy Instagram. Why Twitter and Pinterest (and interest-graph services) may be better long-term businesses than Facebook. Why many social networks explode then wither. Why companies that build graphs more slowly, methodically (i.e., LinkedIn) may in fact be more durable long-term.

Our online graphs and networks are most dense when we’re in our late teens and early twenties. Apps and services that tap into these particularly rich, dense networks can explode. They can also die off quickly as people get older, tastes change, or better alternatives come on the scene.

If I were a VC investing in these areas, I’d commit this chart to memory.

Apple, Digital Media, Internet

Where A Photo Is Worth 10 Words

Content was never king. Contact was always king.Douglas Rushkoff (h/t @aweissman)

This line from Rushkoff has been my mantra the past few months. It’s a simple but sublime observation about the Internet, and it came to mind again today while reading about Instagram.

In case you missed it: some people are hopping mad about Instagram because it “debases photography.”

Where these critics go wrong is they think that Instagram is about photography and photo-sharing.

I’ve been on Instagram for a while, from when it launched, but it wasn’t until I saw how my 13-year-old daughter and her friends use it that I truly understood it. For them, it’s a replacement for Facebook. They share photos, but those are just points of entry, a way to a conversation. They are status updates, expressed visually.

They tart up their photos and comments using an array of 3rd party apps like Versagram, PicFrame, Emoji. It’s a ping to let your friends know you exist, and what your doing; and you hope for a “like” (a ping back) to let you know you’re not alone on the network.

Of course, this is what we’ve all been doing with Instagram. We’ve just been under the illusion we were sharing photos. Seeing the behavior of these 13-year-olds made that clear to me.

We’re not using Instagram to make art. Or to hone our craft as photographers. It ain’t Flickr.

We’re just trying to connect with our friends, to start a conversation. Instagram is really a communications platform disguised as a photo app.

This is true for almost all successful social media services. Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr — they work because they help us to communicate. What we think of as acts of self-expression are really just opening lines.

Which brings me to video, and to “social video apps.” The real way to gauge these apps, to judge them, is to ask whether they help you craft a great opening line; a way to start a conversation.

The photos you uploaded to Facebook from your birthday, the picture of the sunset with a high contrast filter you made with Instagram, that song you soundtracked, the precious cat-cuddling-with-warthog video from  YouTube you tweeted — they all might be great opening lines.

But sharing that blurry, grainy, shaky video you took with your phone where you can’t really make out what’s happening? Well, the jury is out on that. And so we have the founder of Socialcam admitting (after the sale of his app to Autodesk) “that the comparison to Instagram was a fallacy from the beginning.” The two apps launched today (Ptch and Vyclone) are exciting because it’s possible to imagine a way to craft a video using your phone that might be compelling.

But here’s the other thing — it helps if it’s easy and fast to craft that opening line. Instagram works because we can take and make a fun cool photo in a few seconds. Same with sharing a link to an article, or a song, or a video. Making a video takes so much more time and effort.

To beat this metaphor into submission, it’s hard to craft an opening line with a video you’ve taken. It’s much easier to do with a video you’ve found and loved.  Most of us are good at judging if a video is funny, interesting, beautiful, worth sharing. Few of us are good at making a video worth sharing.

Why did YouTube succeed on the web?  Because they gave us a place where we could always find something great that we could share; and they allowed us to take those videos and talk about them wherever we liked; our blogs, our Myspace pages, and more recently on Facebook and Twitter.

In this new world, where we spend more of our time on mobile and tablet devices and where apps reign supreme, we need something different. My hunch is that the social video apps that succeed will be the ones that give us those great opening lines; that make it easy for us to find videos that are cool, amusing, incredible with just a few taps or swipes.

But Instagram shows us, if nothing else, those apps will need to do one more thing; provide us a place to talk with our friends about the videos we find.

Instagram could have been a photo app, and outsourced the conversation to our existing social networks. They won in the photo space because they figured out that we all really wanted to connect and talk, and they gave us a fun and new way to do that.


Digital Media

Connected by the Web

“Content was never king. Contact was always king.” Douglas Rushkoff (h/t @aweissman)

One of the dominant memes in Silicon Valley today is that the “web is dead, apps rule.” And yet today we just announced we’re bringing Showyou to the web.

What’s going on? Are we clueless or something? Did we not get the memo?

As makers of a popular and award-winning app for the iPad and iPhone, we’re as bullish as anyone on apps — for the phone and the tablet. We believe, and have for some time, that it’s possible to offer more compelling, engaging and useful experiences with purpose-built apps. In fact, we bet our company on that belief, and pivoted away from and then sold a solid web business (if you really want to proof we put our money where our mouth is).

But lost in the hyperbole of the “web is dead” claims (hyperbole lathered on to make the debate more enticing) is this — that there is a new and yet critical role for the web in our increasingly app-centric world. As app-makers, we view the web not as a parallel platform to be colonized, but as an essential layer of connective tissue; a way to bring people together (our users, their friends) in this increasingly heterogeneous world where we use different apps, devices, platforms and indeed operating systems throughout the day.

We love to claim credit for a brilliant insight here, but this notion of the web isn’t really new. An argument can be made that Twitter was the first to take this approach.

That service started, indeed was envisioned, as a way to create and exchange short messages from the phone that you could then share with other users, with the web as glue. Apps for Twitter were a part of the landscape practically from the start, and the use of the web as a bridging medium is central to Twitter to this day, despite the fact that so many of use create and consume via Twitter apps.

Instagram — the app that so many people cite to support their claims of a new pure-play appified world — used the web as connective tissue right from the start, too. You could share a photo via Twitter, and if your friend didn’t have the Instagram app they could still see the photo on the web. Indeed, I first found out about Instagram when I saw a tweet with a link to a photo from my pal Om. I went and got the app straight-away.

Ask yourself this: would Instagram have grown, and indeed thrived, if it had been limited only to in-app sharing? The web played an important role as bridge for Instagram, connecting people who had the app with their friends who didn’t have it, or couldn’t get it.

So our launch of Showyou on the web isn’t about bringing Showyou to the web; it’s about letting people who use our app on the iPad and iPhone connect with their friends. We hope that many of their friends will download the Showyou app, of course. But some of them won’t be able to, or won’t want to. Happily, we can use the web as a critical bridge when that happens.

I’m an optimist, and my hope is that the web will become a more interesting, better place in this new world of apps. Something got lost these past 10 years, as the web became a mere extension of search, infiltrated and infested by spammers and search engine optimizers, and colonized by Google. Maybe in this app-centric world the web will be allowed to do what it does best: connect us in new and interesting ways.

*More related reading on the theme if you’re interested:

Digital Media, Television

A Guide for Thinking about New TV

When the Internet was first getting popular, and popularized, as a media platform we talked about how it would provide people with new ways to consume or get existing things – that is, newspapers, magazines, music, radio, television, movies. It was hard for us then to imagine how the Internet would, in fact, give us new ways to make and to consume new things – blogs, wikis, Facebook, Twitter, casual and social games, photos on Flickr, and so on. It was hard for us to envision the real revolution that would take place.

And so it is now with so much of the analysis of the revolution that is about to happen with video, and the television (a subject of a post last week). Much – no, most – of that discussion focused on how these new devices and platforms (Apple TV, Google TV, the iPad and the Kindle) will give us access to the existing world of programming we understand and know. Once again, most people may be missing the bigger revolution that is about to occur.

For me, that revolution is about bringing the world of internet video to the television (or the devices that eventually replace the television). That is, the new programming. The forty-eight hours of video uploaded this minute to YouTube. The thousands of sites that offer new types and kinds of programming — stuff we watch and enjoy every day from TED, College Humor, The Onion, and Pitchfork, not to mention Vimeo and and even new types of programming from traditional print giants like the New York Times or Time or the Guardian. And all the new programming that is to come, and that we can’t even envision yet.

And because of the fact there is so much of this new programming, we need new ways to discover it and to watch it. At Showyou, we think this coming world looks like this:

Most of the recent talk has been about the new ways to find traditional programming (the upper left quadrant). But we think the real excitement lays in that upper right quadrant —  new ways to find new programming. That’s where the revolution will happen.

Digital Media, Web/Tech

The Genius of Twitter

It was fun to watch so many people rush to talk about Facebook this past week… on Twitter.

There was a delicious irony in that, of course, but it also provoked an underlying and important question: why do we take to Twitter to talk about Facebook and Google+ and everything else? Why not use those platforms for that discussion?

Twitter’s appeal is hard to pin down, and most often we resort to these answers: that it’s real-time, simple, asymmetrical (with following/follower relationships), or that it’s perfectly tailored to mobile usage.

I think there is an even more fundamental explanation, one that lies at the very core of the service  — Twitter is egalitarian (hat tip to my pal Om for providing that perfect word in discussing this point this morning). We stand on equal footing on Twitter; each tweet looks the same, is of similar length, occupies the same number of pixels. The literal design and UI of Twitter creates the appearance of  talking to each other and with one another as equals.

Compare that to Facebook and Google+, which compel us to use nested comments to have a discussion. If Om posts something on Facebook or Google+, I can comment on his post — but my thoughts are portrayed to the world as subordinate to Om’s. The layout echoes the more hierarchical relationship between a publisher and its readers ; my comment is not presented as an equal to Om’s original post, it’s presented as an homage.*

So we all take to Twitter to talk about Facebook because it’s the one place where we feel like our voice is equal to everyone else’s.

Twitter has been counted out by a lot of folks in the past month or so (with the launch of Google+ and the updates for Facebook). Many have complained that Twitter has failed to innovate. I don’t know how or why it has remained so fundamentally unchanged these past five years, but I like to think that obstinate insistence on keeping the service pure, simple — indeed, egalitarian — is the genius of Twitter.

* The nested comment format is, however, perfect for a response to a friend. Indeed, an homage is exactly what we intend in that instance.

Digital Media, Startups

“Life is an intelligent thing”

I read a lot, usually fiction. But (unusually for me) I’ve lately been reading a lot of the current, popular books about the technology world. In the Plex, by Steven Levy about Google. The Facebook Effect by David Kirkpatrick.

And now “Inside Steve’s Brain.”

This passage – about Jobs’ doubts about returning to Apple in 1996 – has stayed with me the past few days:

He sometimes wondered if he was doing the right thing… He knew that returning to Apple would put pressure on Pixar, his family and his reputation. ‘I wouldn’t be honest if some days I didn’t question whether I made the right decision in getting involved. But I believe that life is an intelligent thing — that things aren’t random.’

Apple, Digital Media, Internet, Television, Video

A New Way to Watch

Today our startup launched a new app for the iPad, iPhone and iPod Touch — Showyou. I’ve worked in digital media for almost 20 years now — shocking, that — and of the many products I’ve worked on, I can say without hesitation this is the one I’m the most excited to have helped create.

I love our new Showyou app most of all because it’s a joy to use. But I’m also excited about Showyou because it and other similar apps that are sure to follow have the potential to change how we watch TV — and what we watch.

We spend more time watching television than consuming any other form of media. Kids 8-18 years old watch television nearly 4 and a half hours a day — far more than they spend with any other kind of media.

And yet television has remained the most shackled platform, with the least range of choice.  With books, music, magazines and more recently the internet we’ve become accustomed to an abundance of choice. The television, on the other hand, has been locked down for most of the last 50 years, limited (for most people) to a set of channels chosen and delivered by their cable companies, and with programming on those channels determined by a small, select group. Maybe 1000 people, total, determine what most of us watch — or can watch. They’ve offered up some great stuff, to be sure — The Wire, Mad Men, The Daily Show and Colbert Report. But we’ve also gotten a lot of this.  And this. And this.

Despite the growing power of the Internet and social media, television has continued to reign supreme from 8-11PM in most homes. But cracks are starting to show. Data just released this week from the makers of the ReadItLater app shows that the heaviest usage of the iPad during the prime time hours. And we know that streaming from Netflix now accounts for a huge percentage of bandwidth consumed in the evenings.

And now, with Apple TV and  Airplay, your iPad or iPhone or iPod Touch just turned into a new remote control for your TV. New apps like Showyou have the potential to change where we get programming for our televisions, and indeed what we watch.  Now available: tens of millions of hours of programming from the internet, chosen by our friends, or people we follow on social networks like Twitter or Vodpod who have tastes or interests similar to ours. Other platforms from other companies  — Android, Windows, and more — will surely give us more options and more choice still over time.

History shows us what happens when these kinds of disruptions occur. In 1985, when cable TV was still in its infancy, the viewers watched broadcast networks 45% of the time. By 2009, that had dropped to 25%, and basic cable has risen 10-fold, from  a 3.5% share to a 36% share.

Even though online video has had explosive growth the past five years, it accounts for just a small fraction of the time we spending watching television or video. Just like cable in 1984. There is a now an opportunity for entrepreneurs to change all that.

And so a pitched battle is going to be waged for how we get programming for our televisions — and that will be a good thing for consumers.

Apple, Digital Media, Startups

The Lost Magnificent Ambersons Footage: An Allegory

“It isn’t the consumers’ job to know what they want.”    — Steve Jobs, when asked if consumer research was done for the iPad (NYTimes)

The tale of The Magnificent Ambersons is well known among hard core movie fans. It was the first movie directed by Orson Welles after his ground-breaking Citizen Kane, and Welles and others thought it was an even better picture than Kane. But Welles went off to Brazil to make another movie just as Magnificent Ambersons was going into final edits, and left the film in the hands of the studio (RKO) and his associates. Who proceeded to test a version of the film in front of a group of teenagers in Pomona, California who had come to see a wartime musical, The Fleet’s In.

Predictably, the kids savaged the film, and in Welles’ absence RKO and some of Welles’ colleagues proceeded to butcher the picture, cutting it down from a run time of 132 minutes to 88 minutes.  No copies of the original version of The Magnificent Ambersons are known to have survived. (Imagine for a second 44 minutes being hacked from Citizen Kane, Casablanca, Lawrence of Arabia, or Schindler’s List). This whole saga is recounted in more depth, and wonderfully, here.

The tragedy of the Magnificent Ambersons illustrates perfectly what happens when you’re making something that is designed to engage one’s emotions and you leave the really important decisions to a focus group, or A/B testing, or some similar data-driven process.  For when you’re trying to make something that produces joy, or that is “fun,” or that is playful, some art and some craft and a point a view is required. Things that are built to engage one’s emotions — movies, music, art, even devices like the iPad — can’t be systematically produced, or manufactured, or tested.

I’ve felt this strongly as we’ve made Showyou (a new app we launch in about 12 hours) the past few months. We wanted to make something that was, first and foremost, fun to use. That made you smile with delight. That was beautiful to look at.  We had (and continue to have) a point of view about how we ought to do that. We tested it with about 50 people over the past month, got wonderful feedback from them, and iterated intensively to make the app more usable as a result.

But some feedback — while rational, defensible, perfectly justifiable — we ignored. Intentionally. Because acting on it would have involved taking out or substantially altering the very elements that, in our view, make Showyou fun to use.

It may be that tomorrow we’ll be proven wrong. And indeed, there’s definitely the risk of leaving too much in — or failing to recognize when you’ve just got a bad idea to start with (Ishtar?!).

But as I’ve gotten older, and worked on more products, I’ve come very much to the view that you have to have a point of view. And be willing to stick to it. You might be wrong. Or you might make something great. With Showyou, we are excited about what we’ve built, and eager to make it better still.

For in our world, unlike the movies, you’re never done and you always keep working towards perfection.

Digital Media, Google, Video

In Case You Didn’t Know It, Video is Huge

This chart (and related stories) released by Comscore got a lot of attention last week.

Facebook is now the #1 site in the United States as measured in “time spent” with 41 billion usage minutes per month. Google is now in second place, with 39.8B minutes, and Yahoo in third place (37.7B minutes).

It got me wondering: how do YouTube and other video sites stack up in terms of time spent?

First interesting discovery: based on the chart below from Comscore, “video” (meaning, YouTube) accounts for 37.5B out of Google’s 39.8B minutes of usage (math is: 144M unique viewers X 261 minutes usage per viewer). That means almost 95% of the time people spend on Google is spent on YouTube. 95%! Unbelievable.

But it makes sense. The chart above shows Google’s percentage share of minutes spent increasing steadily and rapidly from Q3 2006 onwards — right when they bought YouTube.

Given Google’s mission to capture more display revenues (partcicularly branded video display revenues) the value YouTube has provided is incredible. It was a steal — a steal — at $1.6B.

Wrap your head around that for a moment.

Total time watching video online according to Comscore is 154 billion minutes per month (177M people X 870 minutes per viewer), or 2.6 billion hours per month. Or the equivalent of 4 Facebook’s worth of usage.

While Facebook scores reasonably high in terms of total viewers for video on its site (43M), total minutes spent watching videos pales in comparison to YouTube and Hulu; roughly 866M minutes of usage, compared to 37.5B on YouTube and 3.3B minutes on Hulu and 2.7B on Vevo. (As an aside, I’m curious whether the Facebook measurement includes minutes spent watching embedded videos on Facebook, or just Facebook-hosted videos).

The fact that YouTube accounts for such a massive and overwhelming percentage of time spent on Google services is the thing that boggles my mind. Have I somehow gotten my math wrong?

UPDATE: One additional observation: unlike Google, minutes spent watching videos is just a small fraction of the time people spend on Yahoo! While Yahoo! is #2 in terms of reach, it’s a laggard in terms of minutes spent; just 755M minutes of usage per month, or 2% of the overall time people spend with Yahoo! services. Clearly an area where they’ll need to make progress if they are to compete for brand dollars in video advertising.

Digital Media

People, the New Distribution Platform: Part 1 of 3

One of the more interesting pieces of informational art to grace the web recently was this depiction of Gawker’s traffic growth driven by social networks:

via Allthingsd

There are a number of remarkable things about this graph: the heterogeneous array of social media sites, all driving relatively large amounts of traffic to Gawker; that Stumble Upon as a source of traffic is nearly as big as Facebook and growing; and that Facebook has become a much, much more important source since its introduction of a web-wide “Like” button last year.

But what the graph shows, above all, is that we’ve clearly reached the point where social media — or put in plain English, people sharing links and media and information with other people — matters.

People, it turns out, are the new distribution platform.

For most people who work on or write about the Internet and digital media, this is very old news. The evolution of social media platforms, from Delicious to Digg to  Twitter and Facebook, has been the focus of much commentary the past three to four years (including on this blog). But many people — including, I know for a fact, many media company executives — believe to this day that “social media” and “Web 2.0″ are just empty buzzwords without much relevance or real-world import to their bottom lines. The Gawker chart, emphatically, gives the lie to all that.

If you are an owner or maker of media, whether a blogger or broadcaster, you’re in the business of getting your content distributed. And in the coming years (perhaps decades) that will require you to enlist people to be your distributors — to share your content with their friends, or with people who have similar tastes and interests.

And so you’re faced with interesting new strategic questions. Do you rely on Twitter and Facebook to provide that distribution for you, on their terms and under their control? Or, do you invest building out social media distribution platforms over which you have more control?

Some media companies tried to address this question in 2006 & 2007, in the wake of the Myspace boom, by buying or building their own social networks. But almost all of these efforts conflated controlling a “social network” with “social media distribution.” They attempted to replicate Myspace and Facebook, offering their own proprietary “friending” platforms, instead of thinking more broadly about how to build different, more specialized social graphs around their content.

Newer companies like Quora and StackOverflow might suggest a better approach. Each are building very specialized social graphs around specific topics or categories (“content verticals” in the industry parlance). They utilize existing relationships and connections on Facebook and Twitter but then enhance them, building new connections between people based on interests, tastes, expertise. We are doing something very similar at Vodpod, by building a specialized graph around discovery of video online.

Over the next few years, I expect an explosion in services and companies looking to offer specialized social graphs. Media makers and owners need to decide if they want to own these capabilities, or outsource them.

In the next  two posts, I’ll address:

Part II: Why “Winner Take All” Doesn’t Apply to Social Graphs

Part III: The Facebook Effect: Why are people scared by FB, and should they be?