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November 24 2010

Publishing needs a social strategy

TOC 2011This post originally appeared on Joe Wikert's Publishing 2020 Blog ("Publishing in the Social World"). It’s republished with permission.

I spent most of last week at the Web 2.0 Summit in San Francisco. If you missed it, you'll find all of the video for it here.

I came away from it with two things in mind. First, Google is under attack from every angle. Sure, they've felt competitive pressures before, but whether it's from Facebook, Bing or some startup in a garage, I get the impression it's more intense now than ever before. No wonder they're giving all employees a 10 percent pay raise! Seriously, search is getting more social every day and tomorrow's recommendations from people you know via Facebook are infinitely more valuable than search results from yesterday's algorithm.

That brings me to my second key takeaway from Web 2.0: The importance of a social strategy for every industry, including publishing. I can already hear the skeptics saying, "reading is a time of solitude, not something that's done socially." That's mostly right, but it ignores at least two key areas where a social strategy can have a profound impact on the publishing industry: recommendations and remixes.

Amazon pretty much pioneered the online recommendation aspect of book publishing. Everyone wants 5-star reviews of their book, but I'm pretty sure we could also agree that a trusted friend's recommendation is even more powerful than a stranger's. Almost every ebook purchase I make these days is because a friend suggested it. There are just too many options (and too little time!) to risk buying a dud, even if it's only $9.99.

What's missing in the recommendation area though is a fast and easy way to share excerpts. If I come across a terrific sentence or paragraph I want to share from Drew Brees' ebook, "Coming Back Stronger" (a terrific read so far, btw), what are my options? The Kindle reader on my iPad doesn't offer a way for me to even tweet/email from within the app, let alone share an excerpt.

Even though I mentioned Google could face challenging times ahead I think they're on to a solution for this particular problem. Google Books lets you share links right into the book's content. For example, I love it when Brees says, "Anyone can see the adversity in a difficult situation, but it takes a stronger person to see the opportunity." I could tweet that sentence but it wouldn't leave much room for an attribution. I prefer to share a link, like this one, which takes you right to that page in the book (the quote starts at the bottom of the previous page and runs through the top of the one linked to).

Since Google Books already offers this service it seems likely the much-anticipated Google Editions will too. If it does, that's one reason I'll seriously consider switching from Amazon to Google for all my future ebook purchases. I want to be able to not only share excerpts but also give my friends more context though a service that lets them dive right into the book I'm talking about.

Even though Google lets publishers determine what percentage of a book visitors can view for free in their Books service, it's clear many publishers aren't participating. For example, I've queued up Bill Bryson's "At Home" to read soon but all you'll find about it on Google Books is this content-free catalog page.

The merging of publishing and digital tools will be addressed at the next Tools of Change for Publishing conference (Feb. 14-16, 2011). Save 15% on registration with the code TOC11RAD.

Any publishers who are skittish about sharing content previews today are likely to choke on the idea of content remix in the future. Remix isn't great for all types of content but it lends itself to formats like how-to, for example. The author may have one way of solving a problem but a reader might find an even better approach. Why not make that reader's solution available to other readers, even if it's just a small change to one of the steps originally provided by the author? Some readers will offer their approach for free and others might want some form of compensation; we need to come up with a model that supports both. And remember, nobody's trying to jam these remixes down anyone else's throat. I envision an ereader app that lets you hide all other reader comments and content. But for those of us who are curious to see what other readers, especially our own friends, have to say, I think this will be a nice new service.

The social publishing/content options suggested in this post are things that can't effectively be executed upon in the print world. Up to now, ebooks have mostly been nothing more than quick-and-dirty conversions of the print product. I look forward to a future where social options and other features more fully leverage the ebook medium.


October 28 2010

Getting closer to the Web 2.0 address book

Tim O'Reilly has often asked a good question: seeing as my phone and email know who I communicate with, my company directory knows who I work with, and Amazon knows who has written books for my company, why can't these various things somehow combine to automatically deal with friend requests coming from social networks?

This specific problem is just one example of a wider issue. Given that so much diverse and overlapping information about each of us is spread between many applications, why are seemingly simple things based on combinations of information -- like automatically reacting to known friend requests -- still not possible?

Tim summarizes this by asking "Where is the web 2.0 address book?"

The traditional reaction to Tim's need would be to begin work on the design of a new application to provide the suggested features. This might give rise to an online social address book incorporating his specific suggestions, along with anything else the application designers might dream up to provide additional functionality.

While such an application might be cool and work well in the short term, I believe that approach is doomed to failure. The main reason is that we can't anticipate the future. Baking decisions about what to support or not into applications is almost certain to leave us wanting and needing more. At that point we're beholden to application designers' willingness, priorities, and ability to further adapt.

What happens when Tim comes up with another idea, or when you or I do? While an application might be designed to be open -- for example, by providing an API or a plugin system -- at the end of the day it's just another application sitting in front of its collection of data. This problem is particularly severe in our specific case: Tim would ideally like the incorporation not just of his phone's data and his email, but specific information from the O'Reilly org chart and from Amazon. That level of specificity -- or personalization, if you prefer -- is well beyond the interests of anyone writing a general phone book application.

For these reasons, among others, I believe the traditional "let's build a cool new app" reaction to Tim's dilemma is the wrong approach.

The other answer

An alternate answer begins with a sharp departure from this thinking. I suggest that the Web 2.0 address book need not take the familiar shape of an application. Instead, like a physical address book, it might be mainly about the data. That is, centered in a common data store through which a variety of loosely coupled applications interact with users and with one another.

In such a world, a friend request to Tim would be added to a shared online data store. There it would be noticed by an application running on a mobile phone, a periodic script that scans Tim's inbox, or an internal O'Reilly script with access to the company's staff list. Any application recognizing the requesting user's details could add information to the request object to indicate recognition. The initiating application could detect this and act on it.

Several aspects of this idealized scenario are worth close consideration:

  1. Such a system would require an underlying storage -- a "data fabric" as Tim has called it -- that was shared not just for reading, but also for writing. The shared writable data fabric would be open to future applications. They could contribute or consume information as they saw fit, without requiring the permission of existing applications, possibly without knowing or caring about each other's existence. Future applications would interact seamlessly with existing ones by simply following established data conventions.
  2. While any application should able to join the fun and contribute, a permissions system would be needed to protect existing information and to selectively share it among authorized applications. For example, Tim might authorize an application on his phone to add information about numbers he has dialed or email addresses he has been in contact
    with. He could authorize another application -- in our case an automatic friend request resolver -- to read that information and to create more information on his behalf to indicate existing friendships.
  3. This data-centric answer to the "Where is the web 2.0 address book?" question points to a wide class of future applications which cooperate and interact not through synchronous pre-ordained API calls, but via asynchronous data protocols which follow open-ended conventions. This is in strong contrast to applications which hold information in databases with relatively inflexible structure behind APIs that strictly delimit possible interactions. Applications using a shared writable data storage can adopt conventions and data protocols by which they cooperate to achieve joint actions. Applications that operate in this way leave the door open for new conventions, for additional unanticipated data, and for future applications that adopt the existing conventions, or introduce new ones.

At Fluidinfo we're building a shared online "cloud" data system, called FluidDB, with the characteristics outlined above. FluidDB aims to usher in a new class of applications, as described above, in which data can be thought of as being social. The data allows diverse applications to interoperate and communicate asynchronously using shared conventions. [Disclosure: Tim O'Reilly is an investor in FluidInfo.]

In FluidDB, all objects may have information added to them by anyone or any application at any time -- with no questions asked. Whereas a more traditional approach locks down entire database objects, FluidDB has a simple and flexible permissions system that operates at the level of the tags that comprise objects. Objects are always writable, including by future applications and by idiosyncratic applications that know, for example, how to access the O'Reilly staff list.

To put things in a more general light, Tim's "How ridiculous is this?" complaint (see image, below) is symptomatic of a wider problem. It highlights the awkwardness of a computational world in which applications keep their data behind UIs and APIs that are designed for specific purposes. These prevent augmentation, sharing and search, and they ultimately prove inflexible. It is ridiculous that even simple operations combining information in obvious ways are still beyond our reach.

How ridiculous is this slide
Slide from Tim O'Reilly's "What is Web 2.0?" presentation at Web 2.0 Expo Berlin 2007.

Relief does not lie in the direction of more applications holding more data behind more APIs. It lies instead in allowing related data to coexist in the same place. Both Google and Wikipedia have demonstrated, in very different ways, the massive value that accrues from co-locating related data. There's a real need for a Wikipedia for data. Writable and with an object for everything, like a wiki, but also with permissions, typed data, and a query language to make it more suitable for applications. Such a store can hold the data, the metadata, support search across these, and provide a locus for applications to communicate.

The Web 2.0 address book then becomes a ball of data, not an application. Something we access as we please, using a collection of tools that individually suit us, and without any application having the final word on what's possible.


March 05 2010

Yammer: Will Viral Work in the Enterprise?

I work for a very large company and at some point or another someone started a Yammer account based on our email domain. Starting on whatever day that was, Yammer commenced its viral expansion and its spread has really been quite impressive and rapid. Last time I looked we were approaching 3000 users.

The usage demonstrates all the free-scaling behaviors you'd expect though, so not everyone is yammering away. Still both the growth and the impact have been impressive. We are developing a nice network of the kind of weak connections that tend to "small world" a big enterprise like ours. It's always difficult to quantify the benefits of "soft" collaboration but I'm really happy with what I see and I've personally enjoyed the interactions and my expanded network.

I think Yammer has done so well because it's a really good product with well thought out features that make Twitter seem kinda retro. It has a nice slick interface, threaded conversations, and no pesky 140 char limit (which is countered by a "return key = submit" that inhibits multi-paragraph posts). They are also working to create the kinds of features that enterprises need to feel comfy: an api that includes directory integration, an Outlook module and etc.

However, despite all that, I'm bummed to say I don't think they are going to make it.

The question of data privacy and ownership comes up over and over in our Yammer discussions. The last time it came up the thread ran for nearly 100 responses. Even though the typical post is something like "Who is using Grails?" or "Is the X application slow for everyone today or just for me?" data privacy is simply one of the biggest concerns going for a lot of companies these days. The mere suggestion that our data isn't under our control is a big deal.

This point was demonstrated to me in a personal and compelling way during my first week on Yammer. I mentioned a client meeting so that I could share a few tidbits with colleagues. Hours later I was surprised and dismayed when a Google search revealed that my comments had been re-posted to the friendfeed of someone I didn't even know. Someone on our network had written a quick and dirty app to follow his Yammer RSS feed and re-post everything to friendfeed. Then for good measure he followed everyone in our network. When I "politely suggested" he take it down he equally politely explained to me that I just didn't get Web 2.0.

Despite that kind of hiccup, I don't think data privacy is the death knell. After all, no one has told us to stop using it yet. The real problem is that Yammer thinks viral works the same way in the enterprise that it works on the web. It doesn't.

Yammer, by being free and viral, is demonstrating in that soft benefit kind of way to lots of enterprises like ours that networks of weak connections and "ambient collaboration" are useful. Usage is creating a pool of users and even executives that "get it." But they are playing their cards too early and are probably going end up as little more than a contribution to someone else's cost of sales.

Recently a thread started with "does anyone know how to remove people from Yammer that left the company?" Well, it turns out that's an admin function and only available to paying customers.

While we have grown rapidly and virally, the "admin issue" is coming to a head with only about 1% of the company holding an account and probably more like .1% actively posting. There is no way this is going to be a level of usage that an enterprise like ours sees as lock-in. And it won't for anyone else's either.

If the average company has an attrition rate of 10% it means that EVERY company that adopts Yammer virally is going to start to have this conversation well before adoption has locked them in. Every company will face the problem of removing ex-employees by the time they reach relatively low penetration rates. If it's a 25 person shop it may be easier to just pay the $3/employee per month than worry about it, but for any reasonably sized enterprise this is going to force an off-budget-cycle decision that involves real dollars before adoption has locked them in.

The other problem with viral adoption as a strategy is this: I may love using Yammer, but I'm not Yammer's customer, our IT department is. And they already have SharePoint. What Yammer doesn't understand, and what Microsoft has known for years, is that IT makes these decisions, not the users.

While Yammer is going viral with users out at the edge, Microsoft perfected its S1P1 virus to attack the very core of the IT enterprise. So, when it comes to enterprise microblogging, The Microsoft Office SharePoint Server (MOSS) and its various add ons may be mediocrity in code form, but it's already there. And being there counts.

December 23 2009

Four short links: 23 December 2009

  1. Blippy -- Automatically share your favorite purchases from iTunes, Amazon, Zappos, Visa, MasterCard, and more. See what your friends are buying. Interesting premise, and interesting possibilities for buyers to influence each other.
  2. Thousands of lost Durham health records spark probe -- not remarkable in itself but rather indicative that the lost USB key is the new vector for data loss, whereas five years ago it was the "lost laptop". Each data loss incident like this represents a failure to follow simple protocols to encrypt data placed on moveable media. (via scilib on Twitter)
  3. The Meaning of Open (Google Blog) -- a Google exec writes up what he thinks Open should mean for Google. The open source argument is fairly conventional, but it heats up at the open data section. For a rebuttal, see Daring Fireball.
  4. On Blogging Tools -- Joshua Schachter wonders whether blogging tools can be rebuilt as small pieces loosely joined. I wonder if there is a way to define loose interfaces between these systems so that they could both work together but also not set APIs in concrete solid enough to stop innovation. Because the various pieces of the systems currently are all tightly bound together, it is very hard for the parts to move forward separately. For example, I've wanted to be able to specifically reply to comments in place in a visually differentiated way as the publisher, rather than just as another commenter. But this feature hasn't emerged, and if I hacked it into one platform via plugins, I'd be stuck with it forever.

July 03 2009

Faith and Social Justice

Cornel West, Serene Jones and Gary Dorrien

November 09 2008

December 22 2007

November 27 2007

October 20 2007

TERRA 346: Bioneers 2007 PART ONE

Green has gone global. But for the past 18 years, one of the major epicenters of the movement has been the national Bioneers conference in San Rafael, California. Now that green is moving rapidly into the mainstream, their is a new buzz in the air in San Rafael this year. There are also some new challenges: like how to preserve the moral compass of the movement and how to keep on the cutting edge . . . join us for a 'live' glimpse into Day One (more coverage to follow).

March 21 2007

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