Dumb Things I Have Done Lately

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Crowdsourcing a Restaurant: Good Luck With That

Today's Post has a front-page item about a DC restaurant-to-be (Elements) that's crowdsourcing its theme and menu: "Online, a Community Gathers to Concoct A Neighborhood Eatery."

The theme the community has picked is, er, a "sustainable vegetarian/raw food restaurant," with a community-center vibe.

Now, the article mentions that the owner/funder has the final say over all business decisions, so presumably she's crunched the numbers and sees a market opportunity that backs up the community's sentiment. I don't know anything about consumer demand for raw foods or the restaurant business (other than it's a tough racket), so I'll leave that be -- other than to say that what might work for a co-op or other collective endeavor, might not work for a 3,500 square foot restaurant with $1 to 1.5 million in startup costs, and that has to have appeal outside of the core community participants.

However, I do note a few caveats on relying on a community for feedback and guidance. I believe it's a valuable practice -- but you have to go in with your eyes open:

1. The loudest, most engaged people do not necessarily represent your entire target audience. Paying attention to users is important. Paying attention to all users -- not just the loud ones -- is also important. You need to capture the wants and needs of people who don't participate in the community, too, which requires looking at metrics, testing, and other forms of research.

For example, in product development communities, your active contributors may be power users or edge cases clamoring for features that have little value to the rest of your core audience. Overserving them can pull resources away from items of greater benefit to the larger community.

Look at the political primary system, where candidates cater to primary participants (the most engaged, active, and extreme sections of the electorate) to build momentum, then move to the center for broader appeal in the general election.

2. Don't forget about Participation Inequality. This is basically a restatement of point #1 -- the loudest users will dominate the conversation. Even if they are "influencers" with disproportionate impact on other people, you're still only hearing a few voices.

The Elements community has about 400 people -- here's a graph of their top 20 community points holders (which I will use as a proxy for participation -- I left out the #1 "Living Green" user, since that's composed of 4 people):

Elements community points graph
Sorry, no means, medians, or standard deviation -- this is as statistics as I get.

Since I'm not a member, I can't see the boards; even if we assume that semi-active participants (normally the "9" in the 90:9:1 ratio) number higher in this particular community, that's still not a lot of people, so you need to take care that you're seeing the whole picture.

3. If "The squeaky wheel gets the grease," wheels will find reasons to squeak. Again, this goes to audience tunnel vision. People are not wheels -- they like it when you pay attention to them, they get used to it, and they find ways to maintain your attention. You need to continually reach out to new voices (while at the same time, you can't alienate your early adopters -- it's tricky.)

4. Community drama can impact the business. Inevitably, every community goes through crises. Sometimes it's board drama that goes overboard. For activist-types, it's often a case of the revolution eating its own -- factions develop. In some cases, it's the introduction of a poisonous personality or incompatible culture.

If the business is explicitly tied to the community, this can be a problem. If you intervene, you're seen as taking sides. And if the community splinters in a meaningful way, you've got a big problem.

I don't have a case study, but I do have an anecdote, courtesy of subscriber letter in a March 1989 copy of Dragon magazine (I unearthed it and liberated it from my parents' house a while back):

A Dungeons-and-Dragons-type gaming group in Kentucky, numbering about 200, had an influx of what we today would call "griefers." This eventually caused group members to drop out, then splinter into smaller factions that eventually both withered away. In the process, the local gaming store (which provided supplies and a venue) saw its clientele dry up and subsequently went out of business. The community, which formerly sustained the business, took the business down with it.

The article says, "Unlike so many Web discussion sites, there are no angry or insulting posts in the Elements community." To that, I would just add, "Yet." Community conflict is inevitable... but it can be managed.

Anyway, the proof is in the pudding. Going to the community for feedback is great, but it's only one part of the puzzle. Unless the 10% of active and semi-active contributors is going to eat at the restaurant all-day, every day, the proprietors need to make sure they're not just catering to the whim of a select group of people, especially if they need to make a broader audience play.

(I was just going to add this to my del.icio.us slushpile for later neglect, but I'm making a conscious effort to reduce my post-procrastination; that is, post more, bookmark less.)

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Tuesday, February 05, 2008

Cognitive Lock-In, in Living Color: The AOL FDO Message Boards

In my feedreader today was an item from Joe Manna in the AIM Social Media Blog (the group blog I spearheaded before I got canned) that AOL is finally retiring its legacy FDO message board interface.

The FDO front-end is the old ("Classic") view of the message boards seen only from inside the proprietary AOL client. It was superseded by the Web board front-end a couple of years ago, though you could still backdoor your way into the FDO view.

And many people did just that -- partially because the Web front-end had some problems, but also because they were simply used to things as they were. And why wouldn't they be? Outside of a back-end transition near the beginning of the millennium, the FDO message board interface was substantially the same as it had been, going back to the early days of the AOL service. It wasn't fancy, but it worked (mostly), it was pretty fast, and most important, people were used to it.

We've Always Done It This Way: Cognitive Lock-In

So, this is a particularly dramatic example of cognitive lock-in (an issue I'd written about in the AIM Social Media Blog last year: THIS SUCKS! Or, Cognitive Lock-In: The Familiar Is Better (Even When It's Not) .

Cognitive lock-in is a fancy term for "You can't teach an old dog new tricks," usually combined with a flavor of "If it ain't broke, don't fix it." It means that once people learn one way of doing things, they usually prefer it to a newer way, even if the newer way is "better" (by any objective standard -- like it takes 3 steps to do something instead of 5).

Which means that, even if the new product is a lot better, it would still have a couple of strikes against it, simply because people -- especially the stereotypically non-tech savvy AOL users -- were so invested in the old version.

It doesn't help, if, as in this case, the newer Web front-end is not a lot better. It had a lot of problems, dropped a few features, and still lacked many, many features any Web board user-at-large would take for granted (I remember a new internal employee who could not believe that people couldn't edit or delete their own posts.)

Psychology Strikes Again: Emotional Lock-In

So, when change like this happens, people complain. Often and loudly.

You can't expect people to understand the business and technology rationale for doing stuff like this (even if it's valid, which isn't always the case). And sometimes, you just outgrow the product, or the product outgrows you. In cases like these, I often wondered why people didn't just vote with their feet: If things were so bad, why didn't they just... leave?

If you weren't one of those paying customers who needed the dialup, there wouldn't seemingly be a lot to hold you -- there are lots and lots of robust interest communities out on the Web that match or surpass the communities that had developed on AOL, and they've definitely got more features.

This is where psychology comes into play -- especially for long-time community users, there's a sense of ownership and entitlement. For the folks who got to be the old guard, who were the big dogs and got to feel like they owned the joint: If you go to a new community, you're starting over from scratch -- a newbie all over again. If you've already paid your dues, why should you have to do that again? It's a powerful disincentive to leave, so you stay and complain, even beyond the point where it makes any rational sense to an outside observer (there's community in complaint and commiseration, too).

We saw another prominent example of this in the recent Digg algorithm change top user revolt. If you're an outsider, it looks silly and self-important there, too.

So What Can You Do?

You can't not update your products -- that way lies stagnation and the death spiral. The lesson to companies, then, is make sure that when you're making changes that could hit the walls of cognitive and emotional lock-in:
  • Don't do it unless you can make demonstrable, positive improvements with clear benefits you can show regular users (Note: Telling people about the cost-savings you'll realize because you're not trying to support dead or multiple platforms is not a user benefit)
  • Don't just add new features -- Make sure that you don't lose any of the old ones
  • Find user advocates to help evangelize and message the changes
  • Communicate the changes early, incorporate meaningful user feedback, and tell people what you do as you do it.
  • Prepare to take your lumps, because there will always be those folks who hate any kind of change... and in that group, you'll find the folks who won't leave unless they absolutely have to.
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Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Fark You, You Farking Farks. (Fark)

Maybe I can scoop the danah boyds of the world and do a monograph on the culture, community, and conventions of the popular (and pageview-driving) Fark.com and its premium counterpart, TotalFark.com.

For now, though, here's a slightly amusing (unless you're familiar with the community, in which case it's slightly less non-amusing) screenshot of the TotalFark main page, which displays all links submitted by Fark users (only a very small fraction of those links are selected for display on the Fark main page):

Glitch in the TotalFark matrix.

This was taken about 11:40am ET -- there was apparently a glitch where the "Urban Legend" source icon was showing for just about every submitted link, whereas the icon should be specific to the Web site it's linking to, as with the CNBC icon. (If a site doesn't have an approved icon, a user-populated text link shows instead.)

According to my Fark profile, I'm up to 14 greenlit links (which is nothing -- the supersubmitters in the Top Submitters list have thousands of approved links, so I would guess I'm in the transitional area of the subby long tail).

Two of those greenlights were submitted late last night, when I was conducting a non-rigorous, non-scientific mini-experiment of sorts, using headlines that conformed to different Fark conventions (e.g. soliciting commenter participation ["voting enabled"], deliberate flamebait, good news/bad news construction, zombie reference, etc.).

Of the two that were approved, neither made it to the main page, going instead to the lower-trafficked Geek and Sports category pages. So if you're a Farker who wants to inflate your approved links count (this is important to some people), submit links to the category pages and you'll have a better chance.

Anyway, I do want to talk more about the Fark and TotalFark communities in the future -- it's very interesting how the communities have adapted and developed conventions around some of the inherent limitations of the platform.

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Thursday, October 25, 2007

I Don't Consider Myself a Web Content Maven

Went to the Web Content Mavens Meetup last night at Whitlow's. I got there late, since it took an hour to get from Reston to Arlington -- 66 was a big hassle (shocker), though the main presentation hadn't been going on that long.

The speaker was Lisa Welchman, and the topic was Web Operations Management strategies. She had a very simple handout, with four points: Strategy, Operations, Governance, and Community. Even I, a simple end-user, could follow it pretty well. And as a typical end-user, I'm usually on the "why can't we just do this now?" side of things, but it was still pretty engaging -- especially the bit about needing content policies in place. (I did think her answer to the problem of managing user-generated content didn't really cover it -- simply not giving user content an "official" stamp of authority may cover you from a common-carrier perspective, but there are just certain things you need to act on, not the least of which if you want to have a viable and useful community.)

Did a little networking -- right now I'm still x-ing out my old business cards and writing my contact info on the back, which is pretty cheesy. I'll need to get some simple ones put together soon.

Afterwards, hung out in the bar with a few folks. It was some good conversation.

Tonight (now, as a matter of fact) is the NextDC Happy Hour; I'll see what the traffic's like and head in. However, I do have to be up early tomorrow morning and over at College Park (yay, morning rush on the Beltway) for the Future of News Industry Jobs conference, so I dunno. Too soon to tell.

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Tuesday, June 19, 2007

An Epic Bait-and-Switch: Filtering Software and the Communications Decency Act

I started this entry last month, when there was that whole fuss about gun raffles and NYC Mayor Bloomberg's anti-straw purchase stings.

It was originally a supposition about how the gun lobby typically says that 'we don't need new laws, we just need to enforce the ones we have' -- then, when there's a bit of enforcement, like Bloomberg's pursuit of straw purchases during out-of-state gun sales, they flip out.

I never posted it, since I came to the conclusion that I didn't have enough information on which to post an informed opinion. Shocking, I know.

However, it got me thinking about the whole topic of famous bait-and-switches. And one in particular, the likes of which we haven't seen since the debate around the 1996 Communications Decency Act.

The CDA: Remember That Bit of Drama?

For those youngsters (or oldsters who've forgotten), the CDA attempted to regulate indecency and obscenity on the Internet -- for the sake of the children, of course.

There was a lot of talk about chilling affects. And slogans: "Take Back the Net" started with the CDA, not the DMCA, kids.

There were also snazzy blue ribbon icons. It was a big to-do at the time.

The legal arguments centered on how obscenity was already covered under current law; how "indecent" and "patently offensive" were undefined and unconstitutionally vague; and that the CDA, in the name of protecting children from indecent content, had the effect of restricting free speech for adults.

However, a big part of the argument hinged around the fact that there were better and less-infringing ways to shield kids from offensive content on the Internet. Especially the PICS content rating system, used in conjunction with... filtering software.

Yes, there was a time when filtering software was seen as a tool for the good guys.

The CDA's indecency provisions were struck down (June, 1997 -- 10 years last week or so), and the CDA's greatest legacy to the modern Internet will probably be the Safe Harbor provisions given in section 230.

As for the filtering software? It's kind of like something out of Le Carre's Circus -- its usefulness as a lever against the CDA spent, it was thrown to the wolves. Shortly afterwards, someone flipped a bit, and people started saying:

"By the way, we're against filtering software, too."

Only now they called it "censorware." And they never looked back.

Hell, if you look at the Censorware Project's about page: "The Censorware Project was formed by a group of writers and internet activists in late 1997."

I'm not saying it was a conspiracy. But it was a pretty masterful piece of timing.

(As an aside, I can only hope that Bennett "Peacefire" Haselton winces a little every time he thinks about their old slogan, "It's not a crime to be smarter than your parents." I mean, there's provocative, then there's sounding like an arrogant prick. Geez.)

Anyway, I guess the CDA takes up a disproportionate section of my mind, if only because it occurred during my formative Internet years.

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Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Tactical Ninjas, Islamic Terrorists, Zombies and Mall Shootings

I read a bunch of Web forums that focus on tactics, self-defense, military strategy, disaster preparedness/wilderness survival and other various manly he-man pursuits. It's part of my training to become a well-rounded ninja and to better face the impending zombie apocalypse.

Even in the more enlightened of these sites, the politics tend towards staunch, rock-ribbed (though it's probably more like dunlapped) Republicanism. Though the presence of socially-progressive Libertarians, gun-toting liberals and the token Democrat/European is usually tolerated.

However, on some of the other, harder-core tactical forums, if you don't conform to a certain political mentality, you're a lieberal, freedom-hating terrorist sympathizer, and your opinions, and even your membership, are not welcome.

Defining characteristics of these inhabitants include:
  • Thinking that Ann Coulter and Rush Limbaugh really do make a lot of sense
  • Using terms like homicide bomber, comlib (commie liberal) and Islamofascist in a sincere, non-ironic fashion
  • Having a definition of liberal that comes from a Jack Chick or John Birch Society tract
  • Abilty to read NewsMax and Free Republic without laughing, crying or vomiting
Fetishizing Fear and Gear

It's a world that's incredibly fearful, but it's a kind of fear that thrives under the guise of preparedness.

I'm all for maintaining awareness of your surroundings at all times, knowing how to defend yourself, and being prepared. And I also know that the world is a dangerous place.

However, some of these guys (and they're invariably guys) fetishize this fear by imagining themselves in scenarios that belong in a tactical Penthouse Forum ("I never thought it would happen to me..."), where a father-raping, baby-killing, meth-abusing, home-invading ex-con is hiding in every shadow.

If you don't believe me, you haven't read any discussions about the tactical use of public bathrooms. The extreme practitioners are kind of like me in high school -- avoid at all costs. My teen self parts company, though, when they say if it's an emergency, go with a buddy, use the end stall, and if you have to take a dump, take one leg completely out of your pants so your feet aren't shackled together by your pants. I'm not kidding.

There's also a fetishization of tactical gear, where the pantheon of saints includes Kydex, Cordura nylon, paracord, anodized aluminum, and stainless steel (in your choice of flat black, desert tan, or olive drab). They say they don't do it, since it's about the man and mindset, not the materiel ... but they do it anyway.

And I'm not even getting into the guns...

Like 9/11-Truthers, Only Better-Armed

Now, getting into political discussions with these people is useless. It's like trying to discuss politics with my Dad (sorry, Dad). They see the world not just as black and white (which would be manageable) but as part of an apocalyptic conflict between good and evil that's driven by the fervent belief that their own wacked-out religion is superior to everyone else's (but most especially Islam.)

In this world, moderates, and even advocates of realpolitik, are, at best, useful idiots.

Their hypocrisy is rampant, they consume information only from trusted resources, and they refuse to accept information that runs contrary to their worldview.

So they're like 9/11-truthers, only better-armed.

Holding a special place in their hearts is Islam (and not just radical Islam), which seems to have taken over where Communism left off. Just do a search-and-replace on Communism and Islam, right down to the the "fighting them over there so we're not fighting them over here" rhetoric, the sentiment that the politicians/media are losing the war, and the omnipresent threat of the domino effect.

Plus, throw in the Crusades and a dash of "GLASS PARKING LOT."

I'm no apologist for radical Islam. It can't be ignored that most of the world's active terrorist groups are associated with radical Islam, and no other terrorist ideology has embraced suicide bombing as readily (save for the Tamil Tigers, I guess -- remember folks, just because you're brown, doesn't mean you're Muslim).

"No greater love" is one thing, but as I said to Chuckie a while back, when your religion is being used as a justification for suicide attacks, maybe it's time for a hard reboot for your belief system.

Why is this? The denizens of these boards will say that Islam is inherently prone to this (they would probably just say "evil") and consider the part to be the whole.

These supertroopers forget that Christianity basically had a 1,300-year head start, a schism, a Reformation, a whole bunch of religious wars, and its own history of expansionism and ethnic cleansing, before we finally had a couple of hundred or so years of secularism that's helped to moderate things to the point where religious wackos look like wackos.

Chuck Norris and the WOLVERINES!!!

Anyway, many of these board denizens are insane, but the forums do provide some useful information for gearheads and mall ninjas. I stay out of anything resembling a political discussion, though when they see something like the Salt Lake City mall shooting (which was stopped by an armed, off-duty cop), they have a collective orgasm, since their online existence is validated.

Plus, some see that the mall shooter was originally from Bosnia, and they get all twitchy, looking to blame Islam and jump on the front lines of the impending Muslim invasion, to better set up their Invasion U.S.A. fantasies (which are moderately less implausible, though infinitely less amusing, than their zombie outbreak scenarios).

I've even seen a few folks try to characterize the 2002 Beltway Sniper Shootings as domestic Islamic terrorism ("OMG, his last name was Muhammed!"), when if you actually know anything about the case, it's kind of obvious that it was domestic crazy terrorism (viz. his utopian vision for Crazy Black Boystown in Canada).

(These are the same folks who go nutso if you point out that if you use that same criteria, then Tim McVeigh and Eric Rudolph are Christian terrorists. Also, suggest that maybe some Iraqis see themselves as the WOLVERINES!! side of Red Dawn and their heads might explode.)

Anyway, I will continue reading the useful sites and keeping my mouth shut (as I said, it's pointless to argue, and I prefer to not get banned because I like having my saved preferences), since it's a window into the mindset of a completely different reality and you can usually find good information on knives, flashlights and deals on ammunition.

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Sunday, January 14, 2007

Playboy has a blog. Oddly enough, it's pretty much SFW.

BoingBoing had an item yesterday dusting off the old "Playboy playmates on the moon" prank. (Remember, if you don't know about it, it's new to you!)

The interesting thing is, the item was a "Link to Playboy.com blog entry."

Since when does Playboy have a blog? (August 2006, apparently.)

I checked out the site, and it's mostly, even remarkably, Safe For Work. They link off to boob-y YouTube videos and such, but it looks like they're making a deliberate attempt to keep it clean, as evidenced by stuff like this in the source code:
It looks like they're using the blojsom platform (v. 2.3, so they're a little behind).

Either they're viciously moderating comments, or they're just not getting any.

Media and publishing companies probably have a little more reason to blog than other types of companies (especially if they're pushing out monthlies), so it's not really a "look who has a blog now" story any more.

I just would have thought that Playboy would have had a more prominent place in the blogosphere, even if they're downplaying the boobies and going for a more standard "editorial plus behind the scenes" blog.

I guess it's a double-whammy: anything on playboy.com is probably still hard to defend when it comes to workplace filters ("I read Playboy for the blog articles"?), and if there aren't any nude pics, why visit?

I do note, though, that the SuicideGirls editorial blogs seem to be doing okay (I check out Wil Wheaton's entries from time to time), so maybe Playboy just isn't doing it "right."

A superficial look at both sites shows that SuicideGirls has community as a core offering (since they're not focused around a print magazine, they need to have a robust Web site, and the community aspects -- boards, social profiles, etc. -- go a long way in providing that) whereas Playboy does not (which explains why their site is primarily a big ad for their premium Web content.)

So it pretty much looks like the standard story of the big, entrenched company trying to move over to a new business model, but not getting the social media bits quite right. Only with more tits.

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