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.