Book Review: Super Freakonomics

Book Review: Super Freakonomics

Just as in Freakonomics, the underlying premise of Super Freakonomics is that people respond to incentives. In order to control behavior, we must understand and manipulate the related incentives, no matter how distant and unrelated they may seem. Also like the first in the series, this book is more of a series of disjointed stories than a cohesive progression of thought.

Introducing television did a huge service to Indian women. India has traditionally had a significant preference for male children over females. There are 35 million fewer females than males in the population, and most of the missing women were killed or malnourished to death. The problem was exacerbated by the introduction of ultrasounds. Before this phenomenon took place, 54% of women believed wife beating was justified under certain circumstances. But from 2001-06, millions of Indians got TV for the first time, and women who recently got TV are significantly less likely to tolerate wife beating, male child preference, and dependence on husbands. Enrollment for women in schools increased as well, because television effectively empowered women.

We blame automobiles for many of our problems in the world today—pollution, accidental deaths, and traffic problems. But the advent of cars actually solved other major problems of the time. Horses in New York City caused gridlock, and they constantly died in the streets before being abandoned by their owners. The municipality would wait for them to putrefy in the street before they were chopped into pieces and removed.  A New Yorker was twice as likely to die from a horse in 1990 than one is to die from a car today. 60 foot piles of manure would pollute more than exhaust does today, and streams of the stuff would seep into basements. It’s interesting that America found a savior in the auto at the time, and now searches for a savior to the auto before pollution causes irreparable damage to the environment.

Women have had it rougher than men throughout history. Women have had a shorter life expectancy. A million women have been killed for witchcraft. Women who went to Harvard earned less than half of the male counterparts. Women are more likely to leave the workforce to raise a family. Overweight women and those with bad teeth suffer wage discrimination more than men with the same problems. The solution is apparently to play high school sports. Women who play high school sports are more likely to go onto college and specialize in jobs that earn more money. Research has shown that women tend to work fewer hours and take more vacations than men, especially those with children. Men have a weakness for money, just as women have a weakness for children. Men perform better on exams incentivized with financial rewards, while women perform the same.

The gender income discrepancy led to an unintended consequence in the 1910s: the market for prostitution exploded. At one point, 1 out of 50 American women in their 20s were prostitutes. Top earning prostitutes brought in as much as $430,000 a year, and often the higher earners didn’t need to see as many clients as their lesser-paid counterparts. However, wages have fallen dramatically over the past 100 years, mainly because men can now find women interested in casual sex much more easily, a phenomenon fondly nicknamed “friends with benefits.” Today, only 5% of men lose their virginity to a prostitute, and 70% of men have sex before marriage, compared to 33% just 20 years ago. Most prostitutes experienced rough conditions. They typically earn $27 per hour, working 10 tricks in 13 hours per week. 83% of them are addicted to drugs. A typical prostitute experiences a dozen instances of violence, typically when the man can’t get erect. Women also have a much greater risk of arrest than men; only 1/1200 tricks result in a man’s arrest. Condoms are used less than 25% of the time, but less than 3% of men who hire female prostitutes have HIV. 35% of men who hire male prostitutes have HIV. When a prostitute gets locked up, a scarcity emerges, which enticed more to join the market. Police understood this and eventually left pimps and prostitutes alone in exchange for keeping it in private and away from kids. A Chicago street prostitute is more likely to have sex with a cop than to be arrested by one, and only 1/4500 tricks leads to prison time.

The economics of black market supply and demand are also true of drug trafficking. The US war on drugs is ineffective because it focuses on sellers rather than buyers. 90% of prison time is occupied by drug dealers. The government should go after those who demand the drugs instead; without demand, the supply will dry up on its own. This aligns with my belief that the proper use of taxes is usually a better remedy than outright bans on products and services.

There are a number of shorter stories sprinkled throughout the book, culminating in very simple conclusions. For example, a drunk person who decides to walk home is 5-8 times more likely to die in an accident than one who drives home, on a per-mile basis. 2001 was the “summer of the shark” because it invoked a massive amount of media coverage around shark attacks. However, only 68 people were attacked that year worldwide, and only 4 died.

Overall, I felt that the book was very disjointed, and the stories weaved in and out of one another. The authors dedicated a lot of time to prostitution, which they also did in Freakonomics. There are some interesting stories intertwined throughout, but it would have been more interesting if there were a greater number of lessons sprinkled throughout, rather than constantly referring back to basic laws of Keynesian economics which I learned back in Introductory Macroeconomics at UC Santa Cruz.

Book Review: Outliers: The Story of Success

Book Review: Outliers: The Story of Success

Outliers attempts to dispel the myth of American individualism as an explanation for what creates successful people. Instead, the author dives deep into the story behind exceptional performance in cultures, aptitude testing trends and individual achievements around the world and back in time. The author argues that the upbringing of individuals greatly impacts their likelihood to succeed, including community culture, parenting techniques, access to specialized resources, ancestry, and even birth dates.

The first example explains that the vast majority of hockey stars are born between January and June. This can be explained by the cutoff date of birthday enrollment requirements in a league, being December 31st. The oldest kids in the league are born in the earlier part of the year, and the youngest kids are born at the end of the year. This makes a big difference in maturity and skill levels at young ages, which compounds on other opportunities through the years, resulting in NHL stars being born in early months of each year.

Similarly, “older” students get treated like they have more ability in other fields as well. They’re 11.6% more likely to reach college than younger students, which is not surprising when you discover that younger students score as much as 20% lower on aptitude tests early on in their education. Higher achieving students get treated as if they’re gifted or special, which inspires them to strive for greater goals, presents them with greater educational opportunities, and becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Success becomes a cumulative advantage like compounding interest does for investments.

Opportunities alone don’t account for greatness. It’s argued that 10,000 hours of practice is required in order to become an expert in any field, which takes an average of 10 years of practice. The author looks at upbringings of great musicians, artists, and thinkers throughout the ages and finds that the majority had been fanatical about their field since early childhood, often forced on them by their parents. When you consider it a lucky break that some kids are required to practice something tirelessly from early on, you can see that these lucky breaks are the rule when it comes to success. All outliers are beneficiaries of exceptional opportunities.

The book includes many examples of exceptional opportunities. 14 of the 75 wealthiest people in history were born in American in the mid-19th century, within 9 years of one another. They were the right age at the time when the economy changed radically. Bill Gates and his cohort were born within a short time of one another as well, and all had practiced 10,000 hours in computer labs very early on in their lives thanks to special access granted to very few people.

“The Termites” are 1,400 genius students drawn from 250,000 elementary students given an intelligence test by Alfred Binet, the originator of the Stanford-Binet. They were followed throughout their lives to see whether they led more successful lives than their less-intelligent cohort. However, it was later found that a random sample with similar upbringings faired almost as well, demonstrating that intellect and success rates are not well correlated. However, the parents’ occupations, socioeconomic standing, and time and place of upbringing mattered greatly. It’s argued that IQs above 115 or so are good enough to compete with those at the top. Above a certain point, incremental advantages don’t matter. This explains why less-qualified Affirmative Action students end up fairing just as well after graduation as the higher-performing White counterparts.

There are many ways to measure and demonstrate intelligence. “Practical” and “social” intelligence are the most influential factors for people with a sufficient analytical intelligence, and the different types vary orthogonally. Social intelligence is often taught at a young age, through activities and observance of parents.

Poor parents often raise kids with methods which inhibit social adaptation. Poor parents practice accomplishment of natural growth—“let them develop on their own.” The kids have to invent their own games. They lack a community that prepares them to properly interact with the world. Their social lives and organized hobbies are restrained by distance, transportation, and will. And their parents tend to see their situation as a victim of circumstance, rather than a manipulator of their environments, and their kids learn to embody the same frame of mind. During the school year, students from different backgrounds tend to learn at the same pace. However, poor students lose knowledge over the summer, while rich students learn a lot. Reducing summer vacation time would help disadvantaged students fall less behind.

Middle class and wealthy parents practice “concerted cultivation” by fostering and assessing talents and skills. The parents take interest in the kids’ free time, and give them busy schedules. The kids learn how to engage in teamwork, how to speak up when needed, a sense of entitlement, how to ask for information and attention, how to act on their own to gain advantages, how to interact with authority, how to dress and groom, how to present their best face to the world, and they’re infused with the notion that they were being groomed to transform the world. No one ever makes it alone. People need a combination of the following to obtain a job: familial connections, ability, and personality.

The author goes on to make the following points, which I will summarize. Cultural legacies are powerful forces; temperament and personality traits can run in the family for generations, even after economic, social, and demographic conditions change. Different cultures handle uncertainty, ambiguity, and individualism differently; countries with a lower Power Distance Index tend to breed more entrepreneurs and risk-takers. Differences in number systems make Asians better at math than Europeans. Differences in agricultural systems and types of crops give Asians a greater work ethic than Europeans. People are better at math when they try longer and harder to solve problems.

The book doesn’t spend much time arguing what is right or wrong. Instead it makes the case that the world would produce many more success stories if more people were given opportunities like a January birth for hockey or unlimited access to programming at a young age like Bill Gates. Success is a formula, the outcome of which can be predicted by observing a person’s communal surroundings, instilled work ethic, the expectations and opportunities given by his parents, and the time he commits to developing a skill that will be valuable upon mastery.

Google Voice Feature Requests

Google Voice Feature Requests

If you’re not using Google Voice yet, I recommend looking into it. It can be seamlessly integrated with any Android phone, and while not as easy, it can be useful on an iPhone too. Having an iPhone 4 myself, I use Google Voice for 95% of my calls and texts. This post is about the improvements that I would love for Google to make, which I think would dramatically improve the user experience.

1. The option for conversation view all the way back in time with a given person. Currently, I can only see brief conversations with each person. The iPhone enables me to see our back and forth communication on one page all the way back, hundreds of texts into the past, a very cool feature.

2. Sync with profile photos from Facebook and accept high res profile photos for my contacts. I call and text people with the same name as my Facebook friends because they’re the same people. Sync their emails from Gmail, phone numbers from GV, and pictures from Facebook. Also the pictures GV stores are tiny and don’t use the iPhone’s caller photo quality potential.

3. Improve “Find duplicates.” I have “Marcus” and “Marcus #” both containing the same 2 phone numbers. I have no idea why it’s not finding this duplicate. I know I have others like this but I don’t know how many.

4. Who are these people in my “Most Contacted” list? Haha I haven’t contacted some of these people in over 2 years, yet some of the people I text every day don’t appear here.

5. Improve contact search. When I type “8620” it’s not finding Marcus with phone number “5554298620”. Of course this number is an example but you get the idea. When I type 8620 into “Send a text message” box it does find him, so this must be an easy fix.

6. Marcus uses Google Voice and I have his GV number saved with his contact info. He has a picture assigned to his Google account but when I click on his contact info link it shows no picture. Pull his picture, link to his blog, twitter handle, and any other info he publishes there from his Google account.

7. Put my outgoing text at the top of the inbox when I send it like my iPhone does.

8. Let me record outgoing phone calls. You can require both parties on the line to press a key on the phone to confirm intentions.

9. Let me create a Call ID so when I call a land line paying for the service it’ll show my name. Businesses would obviously pay for that feature.

10. Incoming Call ID. When someone calls me from a business (or anyone with Call ID set up on that line), Google should know who it is and show its Call ID in my inbox, along with links to its website, Yelp page & Google local business listing.

11. Enable MMS. When I send a picture from my iPhone through Google voice it never reaches its recipient.

12. For a fee, let businesses record all incoming calls. Before connecting the caller with the GV user, announce, “All calls to this phone number are recorded, to proceed, press one or say yes.”

13. Give me the option to connect via VoIP when connected to WiFi.

14. Let me use “in-network” minutes when calling another AT&T mobile subscriber.

15. Let me accept faxes to my GV number.

16. Enable a bunch of features CallFire has. Charge extra for them if necessary.

17. Bug test the GV iPhone app. It erases draft messages when I toggle between sand by and on, and has many other major bugs.

Greasemonkey Scripts for Dating Sites

Greasemonkey Scripts for Dating Sites

My primary complaint with all dating sites is that they make profile thumbnails too small on the Search & Match pages. This is in the sites’ best interest because it encourages users to click through to view more profiles. This gives users the sense of more activity when they look at their Visitors page, it creates more advertisement impressions, and it increases the likelihood of users messaging each other. But it’s not in the users’ best interest to click around aimlessly.

Fortunately I’ve discovered some sweet scripts from the source of my killer Facebook hacks that help correct this problem in big ways.

First you’ll need to install Greasemonkey if you use Firefox or Greasemetal if you use Chrome. If you’re using another browser I highly recommend you switch (FF ftw imo btw lol omg). Next you just install the following scripts and refresh the dating site to activate them. I’m not going to mention scripts that remove ads from specific sites because I use Adblock Plus for that.

We’ll start with my favorite dating site, OkCupid. OKC Big Pictures allows you to view the full sized original photo uploaded by a user, without the OkCupid watermark. Once installed, go to the photos tab of any user (except yourself) and click on a photo that looks like it might have a large original version. There appears to be a maximum resolution of 1500 x 1500, which is 4.3 times bigger than Facebook’s max. If you liked that trick, you’ll love this: okcupid (terrible name, I know) displays the full resolution image when you hover the mouse over any picture on the site! This is a lot more fun if you have very high bandwidth like I do (20 Mbit down at home, 80 Mbit at work). These images also appear to be stored on slower servers than the rest of OkC’s images, but it’s a very worthwhile tradeoff in my opinion. I don’t use IM on OkCupid, but if you do, try out Better OkCupid IM Windows. And finally, if you’re getting a low response rate when messaging women, plug in SuperResponse and boost it to an 80% response rate guaranteed!

OnlineWingman is a toolbar and dashboard that tracks your browsing history and response rates to help you improve your effectiveness. It doesn’t work right away, but it could be interesting to see its charts after using it for a week or two. It supports PlentyofFish and Match.com. I’m pretty disappointed that nothing else useful exists for Match and POF, the top 2 dating sites.

All you eHarmony subscribers probably wonder like I do why the hell eHarmony hates pictures so much. They show you first names as your matches, but no pictures. Am I really supposed to remember 50+ people I’ve never met by their first names? The Ultimate eHarmony Matches Table fixes this shortcoming and makes a huge improvement on the My Matches page; you’ll come to realize that eHarmony is unusable without it.

OKCupid’s MyBestFace Would Be Awesome … If It Worked

OKCupid’s MyBestFace Would Be Awesome … If It Worked

OKCupid recently unveiled MyBestFace, a feature that helps its members determine their most attractive profile pictures. You have to earn the report by voting on other members’ photos, and others do the same for yours. Each photo you post requires you to vote on 20 pairs of photos. You have to choose which person you’d rather go on a date with (and skip is not an option). According to OKCupid, this is how it works: “A group of real humans compared your photos with others’, and each time your photo was selected – or not – the information we gleaned was a complex function of how well the opposing photo did in its own report. In other words, we weren’t simply counting votes. We considered all the other votes, too, and converged rapidly on your best face.” Sounds a lot like Mark Zuckerberg’s Facemash to me.



As I voted I realized I was unfairly discriminating against certain users that were not my type. I wished I could specify demographics (at least age range) of people I voted on and people who voted on me. For example, an older woman may choose to go on a date with an older man when pitted against me, just because he’s older, which in turn reduces my score unfairly.

I was very surprised by the results of my report after running my favorite 8 pictures through it, so I decided to process more of them, and more again. Still surprised I decided to run them through a second time to determine the consistency of the results. After all, to trust the results of which photo is better than another, a photo should score higher than another in both round 1 and round 2.

I ran 44 pictures through MyBestFace twice and analyzed the numbers on a spreadsheet (update 6/22/2010 more accurate Excel version). Combining numbers from both rounds, I found that the standard deviation from one photo to another is lower than the average discrepancy between round 1 and round 2. If this is always true, that means you cannot tell which photo is better than another after only one round of comparison. Keep in mind that you have to vote on 20 photos per round per photo submitted, so submitting 44 photos twice required voting on 1,760 pairs of photos, which of course took a lot of time.

My average picture rating of both rounds was 67.36. The average difference between my picture score and 67.36 is 4.3, and the standard deviation over both rounds is 5.38. The average difference between the same photo in round 1 vs. round 2 is 5.46, which is the system’s margin of error.

Since the margin of error is greater than the standard deviation between my good and bad photos, I consider the results very inaccurate in round 1. One could argue that if I compared 2 photos in round 1 and the difference between them was greater than 5 (MyBestFace rounds to whole numbers), the higher scoring picture is indeed more attractive than the lower scoring picture. However, in the worst case scenario I had one picture jump 13 points from round 1 to round 2! And only 13.6% of my photos earned the same score in round 1 and round 2.

It would take rating another 1,760 pairs of photos to determine the reduction in the system’s margin of error after doubling the number of experiments, but I assume it would still be greater than the standard deviation from photo to photo. If that is the case, then even after 4 rounds of experimentation the system still fails to prove which photo is more desirable than another.

MyBestFace is fun to try, and it would be a very useful tool if its results were accurate, but after running this experiment I think I’m better off just asking a few friends which of my pictures are most attractive.

ChatVille: Chatroulette meets Facebook

ChatVille: Chatroulette meets Facebook

Today when I opened my favorite instant messaging client, Digsby greeted me with an announcement: “We’re excited to announce the launch of ChatVille, a brand new Facebook game we created for discovering cool new people! ChatVille let’s [sic] you video chat with random Facebook users in a safe environment while earning compliments, unlocking badges, and leveling up in a race to become ChatVille Champion! http://bit.ly/ChatVille_Release PS: First one to unlock the Digsby Badge gets a free iPad!”

Naturally I tried it and quickly discovered a lot of bugs. Most of the time I click Next I get an error message: “Everyone is engaged in conversation. Chat with one of your Facebook Friends or click Next to try again.” That’s not fun! The only 10 people I’ve been able to connect to so far were all men. That’s also no fun, but not unexpected. I couldn’t figure out exactly how to improve my score and couldn’t find a guide anywhere.

Soon Adobe Flash Player began to crash my web browsers. All 3 of them. This problem persisted after uninstalling and reinstalling Flash Player and rebooting my PC. Now I can’t play the game at all because Flash Player crashes the browser immediately when the game loads, while Chatroulette still works just fine.

If this game worked, it could be the solution to the booming industry’s pervert infestation. Inappropriate conduct can get Facebook users banned from ChatVille quickly and permanently. But could this be enough of a difference from Chatroulette to achieve a lower male-to-female ratio than CR’s 9-to-1?

Try it yourself: http://apps.facebook.com/chatville/

Book review: What Would Google Do?

Book review: What Would Google Do?

In What Would Google Do?, Jeff Jarvis conveys his lessons learned from the greatest technology success stories of the past decade. He draws on best practices from Etsy, Craigslist, Amazon, and of course Google. I took notes of interesting, new concepts as I read but sadly didn’t end up with much. It may be great for corporate old-schoolers, who Jarvis seems to be talking to, but if you’ve been following blogs and news in this space this book will feel a little slow and obvious.

I managed to solidify a few key points that I’ll take with me as I engender my next big tech company in the next year. First, the best position is to create a platform on which others can build. I can expect to earn little or no profit for a while under this model, but hooking developers on my platform is a very powerful strategy. I need to extract the minimum value from the network of developers and related web services to take the network to its maximum potential size and value. This enables my developers and partners to charge more, which increases their dependency on my platform or network. Another positive side-effect is that competitors don’t want to jump into a space where the efficient leader’s margins are low.

Today’s web 2.0 method for growth is to forgo paying for marketing and instead create something so great that users distribute it. Later revenue can be found and extracted, but we’ve seen the revenue-maximizing strategy fail on AOL and Yahoo while Google stole their users to frame the world’s most powerful advertising machine.

These are the most powerful pieces of advice I discovered in WWGD:

How can you act as a platform?

What can others build on top of it?

How can you add value?

How little value can you extract?

How big can the network atop your platform grow?

How can the platform get better learning from users?

How can you create open standards so even competitors will use and contribute to the network, and you get a share of the value?

I’ll certainly be applying some of these principals to my next ambitious venture. As far as the rest of the book, I recommend reading a summary instead, unless you’re brand new to the Web 2.0 business world.

Book review: Freakonomics – A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything

Book review: Freakonomics – A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything

In my time studying Business Management Economics at UC Santa Cruz, I came to appreciate Economics as the underlying force driving many other Social Sciences, including Politics, Sociology, Community Studies, Anthropology, and History. In Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything, authors Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner assume this same premise to explore the hidden economic forces that connect seemingly unrelated phenomena in American society and history.

They do not argue that economics causes societal issues; rather they use economic models and experiments to explore complex issues, including racism, crime trends, abortion effects, medical malpractice, student and teacher cheating, and effects of parenting. They explore correlation and causality between distant patterns in society to convey an underlying human nature at work. In doing so they manage to prove that conventional wisdom is often wrong.

To me, the most interesting section of the book is what a bagel salesman’s data reveals about employee honesty in varying-sized companies and at different position ranks. Its findings “lie at the intersection of morality and economics,” and demonstrate consistent trends in theft, allowing the interpreter to actually predict theft within a company, given a few basic descriptions.

A bagel man named Feldman leaves bagels and cream cheese in office lounges and kitchens along with a wooden box and a sign requesting $1 per bagel on the honor system. By keeping perfect records (he’s formerly a financial analyst), he inadvertently invents a system to monitor rates of white collar crime.

At his own estranged office he receives a 95% payment rate because his colleagues knew him. But eventually he built his clientele up to 140 companies consuming 8400 bagels a week and the payment rate varied with distinct patters.

With enough data he learned to consider an “honest company” one that paid for 90% or more of its bagels consumed. 80-90% payment rate is annoying but tolerable, and if paid less than 80% Feldman posted a hectoring note. Even though as many as 20% of his clients steal bagels from him, his money box only got stolen 1/7,000 times.

The interesting part of his data is learning the factors shaping trends in honesty. Smaller offices tend to be more honest; a 50-employee company pays 3-5% more than a company with more than 300 employees, which can also be described as a reduction in theft as high as 60%. Unseasonably good weather reduces theft while cold weather has the opposite effect. The bad holidays include Christmas, Thanksgiving, Valentines Day and tax week, which each invoke up to a 15% increase in theft. Holidays that reduce the theft rate include Independence Day, Columbus Day and Labor Day.

Other interesting trends include the positive correlation between honesty and employees who like their boss and work. I was surprised to find an increase in theft as you move up the corporate ladder. Feldman speculates that executives cheated because of a sense of entitlement, or that perhaps cheating is what earned their place as an exec in the first place.

The conclusion of this excerpt, however, is quite positive and inspirational: The vast majority of Feldman’s customers do not steal even though no one is watching.

Freakonomics was a very fun and easy read, and not just because of my background in Econ. It’s entertaining all the way through and there are some very interesting insights into history and the nature of certain professions that you’d never know other than by reading this book. I recommend it.

Switching to Disqus and Facebook Social Plugins

Switching to Disqus and Facebook Social Plugins

I recently gave my blog’s social interaction mechanisms a complete overhaul – again. I watched Facebook’s F8 conference live on Facebook and was immediately inspired to add the new Like Button on my blog. See Zuckerburg’s presentation if you missed it.

First I deactivated the outdated plugins, Facebook Connect, I Like This, and Sociable. I tried a number of new comment systems and plugins using Facebook’s new Open Graph Protocol, which intertwines Facebook connections with almost any content on the web and easily enables sharing the content with your friends through Facebook’s news feed. This doesn’t displace the need for Facebook Connect, but Connect didn’t improve my comment system’s interface like I hoped. There’s more interesting info about the Open Graph concept at opengraphprotocol.org.

I was surprised by how difficult it was to find blogs referring me to the best Open Graph plugins, so I had to experiment on my own. My first attempt was Sprout Venture’s Facebook Social Widgets. I installed and activated the plugins, moved the modules into my sidebar and nothing displayed so I scrapped it for Facebook Social Plugins. This plugin works like a charm. It is missing one feature that I haven’t found a replacement for yet: the ability to like my blog itself. But without any post-install work, the Like button appears below all content on my blog and shows you which of your Facebook friends liked the content. It works perfectly and I recommend it to anyone with a WordPress blog.

Next I experimented with a couple of new comment systems before deciding on Disqus. It was surprisingly easy to install and customize: Register an account at Disqus, use WordPress’s dashboard’s plugin search to find “Disqus Comment System,” install and link it with your Disqus account in its settings page. On second thought, that may not be very easy for beginners, but it provides a much better result for a lot less technical knowledge than the alternatives. I’ve set up Discuss to enable my visitors to comment using their Facebook or Twitter credentials and quickly share on the mother sites. In addition to taking out the Facebook Connect and @Anywhere integration, Disqus replaced WordPress’s ugly comment system with a much more attractive one. Hey, if my favorite blog Mashable really likes it and uses it, it’s good enough for me!

Clearstone Venture Partners – Intro to Online Communities

Clearstone Venture Partners – Intro to Online Communities

Today we met one of my favorite speakers to date, William Quigley, Managing Partner of Clearstone Venture Partners.  Quigley concentrates on its Internet and communications related investments, and gave our class a priceless education about how VC’s work, the stages involved in building a startup, how to select an industry to invest in, and how to pitch our companies to a VC.

Clearstone borrows ¾ of a billion dollars from large corporate investors to invest, and Clearstone gets to keep 25% of the profits. Quigley’s investment strategy is to invest in cold sectors because even if you have a great company, competition is what erodes profit margins; you want to be in the hot space two years before it’s hot.

He recommends using a VC because it’s really hard to go public or get acquired if there was no VC on board throughout a company’s growth to clean it up. The companies Clearstone incubates have always done much better than the people who just ask for money. A startup should always think about who would be a natural acquirer of this business; and think of others besides the usual suspects, Google, Microsoft and Yahoo. Companies tend to get acquired if they specialize greatly in one thing, especially if the firm does a lot of R&D, which big firms buy from startups with increasing frequency. Play in large markets because they’re very forgiving, and don’t depend on advertising revenue.

There is no shortage of money for good ideas, and you’ll need $10-100 million to build a successful company. No idea is too big to fun. For example, a WiMax business plan earned an entrepreneur $900 million of VC funding before a company was even formed! The downside to taking money from a VC is that they take control of your company. That’s not the end of the world though because the founder retains 50% ownership, no matter how much the VC puts in. That means an entrepreneur should shoot for as big an investment as possible. The pace at which you can raise capital will decide whether you’re the best in the biz or a lagger because there are always 10 other people right by you with the same idea.

The most valuable knowledge imparted on us is what a VC is looking for in a proposal, something all entrepreneurs want to know. First get their attention with a teaser PowerPoint presentation, and it’s a bonus if you already have a product or some customers. If you’re seeking less than a million dollars, go to an Angel instead of a VC. Guess market sizes and predictions when you have to because it’s a great problem when there’s no info about a market because no one’s capturing its future value yet. The CEO likes taking a modest salary so he can lead the team and say everyone’s bootstrapping together. Raise a lot of money but spend it as if you’ll never see another dime. Project revenues of years 1, 2 and 3. It takes about a month for the VC money to come through, but that’s a lot better than Angel investment time frames, where you’ll have to badger the investor for the check constantly. If one VC doesn’t like the idea, try pitching it to others. One of Quigley’s companies recently went public after getting rejected by 140 VC’s early on.

Quigley wants to believe in an entrepreneur’s vision about how the market will look in 3 years. I was surprised to hear that 75% of presenting to a VC is its entertainment value. My classmate Blake and I joked later that we ought to take up some acting classes before we approach a VC, but we will probably actually do it. The futurist must use 2-3 interesting trends or ideas about market evolution, convince the VC in his ability to recruit great talent, be informed and excited, be a great spokesman for the business, be capable of dealing with setback, and be willing to fight above his weight class. When you advertise yourself as a deep thinking in the space it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Disciplined hard work will get you there: Spend months thinking about an idea, and package it in a way that’s easy to understand; have a really novel take on a new business model; capture the economics of your business in a chart or two. VC’s only want to play with ideas in which the visionary is right and everyone else is wrong.

The most startling fact of the day is that only 1 out of 1,000 pitches actually get funding, but there are many sources of money out there and if you have a great vision, stick it out and make it happen.

Lessons from Founders at Work: Stories of Startups’ Early Days

Lessons from Founders at Work: Stories of Startups’ Early Days

Jessica Livingston’s Founders at Work: Stories of Startups’ Early Days is a first-hand account of the creation of 32 of the world’s most influential tech companies. Each chapter is an interview with a different company’s founder, averaging 14 pages a piece. This gives the reader a lot of freedom to read one story at a time whenever he or she needs a little inspiration – and boy is it inspirational! Much of the time I thought, “That could totally be me!” so I took frequent pauses to blast out ideas into my Website Concepts log. The stories are often laugh-out-loud funny, and will make you wonder how the world could have possibly doubted today’s most useful technologies.

It’s interesting how much the founders have in common. For example they almost all started on a project completely different from what they ended up succeeding with. Many of them were forced to make major life sacrifices to dedicate themselves to a concept with no funding or revenue. Almost every story includes a paragraph about the time the founder had stayed awake for 4 days straight, working tirelessly on the product before launch. And rarely were their ideas embraced with open arms; instead investors, coworkers, friends, and competitors balked at them. As computing pioneer Howard Aiken once said, “Don’t worry about people stealing your ideas. If your ideas are any good, you’ll have to ram them down people’s throats.”

All of the founders convey great lessons learned in entrepreneurship. I will focus on a few of my favorite stories and some of the most valuable advice I picked up from their great achievements. However, I highly recommend reading it for yourself, as I consider this book highly inspirational. I will definitely flip back to one of these stories when I need a little encouragement in my own startup in the future.

Like many of the founders, PayPal’s Max Levchin is clearly a brilliant programmer and engineer, which makes it a little hard for me to relate at times. But he’s also a great entrepreneur, with valuable insight into startup success recipes. PayPal had changed its business plan six times before getting it right, which is fine because a good entrepreneur is not tied to any one specific plan. He also welcomes the challenge of being a novice in a field of experts because rather than conforming to the norm, you’re inspired to invent something. For example, Citibank competed with PayPal but, adhering to the banking norm, held tight restrictions over which users and transactions it would service in order to prevent fraud. PayPal let everyone use the system because “new users learning about a new system really don’t want to be restricted.” Instead PayPal became “a security company pretending to be a financial services company.” It judges the risk of a transaction to help it decide whether to block it or take it on. He attributes its tremendous growth rate to the world’s most powerful viral driver: money waiting for you when you sign up. Some sellers refused to accept PayPal but a buyer could still send them money through it. The seller receives an email informing him that money awaits him and naturally he registers an account. Finally, Levchin attributes his success to having a great cofounder, warning that it’s very hard to start a company completely alone.

Evan Williams founded Pyra Labs, which created Blogger.com. Initially it was a web-based project management tool for intranets, which he likens to today’s Basecamp. One of the products called Stuff enabled quick, disorganized sharing within the company. While the Pyra team considered it very useful to them, they thought it was too simple and trivial to be the product in and of itself. While there were other blogs on the internet, they weren’t taken seriously for a long time. At one point after releasing Blogger.com to the public, Pyra ran out of money and everyone except Williams quit or got laid off. This prompted the Server Fund Drive, in which Blogger’s website requested donations to keep the website live. Surprisingly $17,000 came in and saved the company. During 2001 Williams considered quitting many times but remained “hallucinogenically optimistic,” his most valuable advice. Don’t let people talk you out of your gut feelings or force you to compromise on your ideas. “If everyone agrees, it’s probably because you’re not doing anything original.” He also warns an entrepreneur to roll with the punches, because if things don’t go according to plan, you never know whether it’s good or bad until later, if ever. Deals that didn’t work out were a bummer at the time but turned out to be very lucky. Williams concludes that it’s amazing how far you can go with a simple idea.

Tim Brady was the 3rd employee at Yahoo, after the two cofounders. He left Harvard Business School in his last semester to join Yahoo, not knowing whether they would graduate him. Originally Jerry and Dave used Yahoo to keep track of the technical papers they used in doing their PhD theses. All major EE graduate programs found out about it and send them emails asking them to add papers to the list. Suddenly they went from doing their graduate work to adding websites to their list for 8 hours a day for 8 months, and traffic grew exponentially, so they called Brady asking for help. They were offered money by the LA Times, AOL & Microsoft early on but decided to do it themselves because they had so much confidence in what they were doing. Concerning competition, Brady reflects, “Although we thought it was crazy, AOL’s walled garden was bigger than the Internet for a handful of months there, which made our strategy impossible. That was definitely a threat” Employees experienced 16- to 18-hour work days but the group of people was great so the hours were never dreaded. An embarrassing reflection was when the Yahoo team met the Hotmail founders for lunch and rejected the idea, unable to see how it could get big. Brady argues that doing business with friends was a good idea in his case, in spite of the common contradictory words of caution.

Paul Buchheit was the 23rd employee at Google. He started companies within Google and enjoyed the benefits and minimal risk as opposed to starting them by himself. For example, he was able to learn from successful techniques in other divisions, brainstorm with very smart people around him, access expensive infrastructure for free, and receive a warm welcoming to his “crazy ideas.” He brags that he built the first version of Gmail in a single day and, by the way, also built AdSense in less than a day. One reflection involves Buchheit pulling a malfunctioning hard drive from a PC and transplanting the electronics from another drive to salvage the data. Like many other founders interviewed, he stayed up for 3 days straight prior to launch, furiously assembling and testing; and he considered normal working hours noon until 3:00 am. It’s interesting that he doesn’t know whether he would have earned any less money if he had not created Gmail and AdSense, but I get the impression he’s earned enough not to be concerned. Buchheit recalls that he left Intel for a little startup not knowing whether it would succeed because he considered it a learning experience, admitting, “Honestly, I was pretty sure AltaVista was going to destroy Google.”

How to Enable Facebook Connect on a WordPress Blog

How to Enable Facebook Connect on a WordPress Blog

Do you ever find yourself excited to respond to a news or blog post, but dread the registration process? I often begin the process and then leave the site when I discover how much info it wants from me, or when I remember that I’ll have to verify my email address and log in after I fill out 10 forms of ID.

Facebook Connect solves this problem. With it I can log in to more than 80,000 websites simply using my Facebook login credentials. It’s safe, fast and very easy to use, and apparently I’m not the only one who thinks so. More than 60 million Facebook users engage with Facebook Connect on external websites every month. According to Facebook’s Developers Wiki, you can expect a 30-200% increase in user registrations after enabling Facebook Connect, and see a 15-100% increase in reviews and other user generated content. The web developer can set up Facebook Connect to prompt a user to cross-post his comment on Facebook after posting to the site, encouraging viral activity. Business Insider speculates that for each story published in Facebook, a site can expect an average of 3 clicks back to the site. The website also gains access to more user demographics, and it can provide a personalized experience by pulling users’ profile pictures and other data to the front end.

Knowing its many benefits, I had to set up Facebook Connect on my own blog. The setup is a little advanced but I figured I’d write a guide to help my fellow APOC students set it up on their blog. The procedure varies depending on your platform but my guide will assume that you’re hosting a WordPress 2.9.2 install through GoDaddy.

First, make sure your server is configured to run PHP5 rather than PHP4.

  • If you can access your server files via FTP, open “.htaccess” under the root directory with Notepad. If you see “AddHandler application/x-httpd-php5 .php” and nothing referring to php4, skip to the next paragraph. Otherwise follow next bullet point.
  • Log in to GoDaddy Hosting Control Center, and see “PHP Version” under Account Summary. If it already reads PHP 5.x, skip to the next paragraph. If it says PHP 4.x, click on Content, then Add-On Languages. Next to PHP Version, select PHP 5.x, click Continue, and confirm the warning. Click update. Then navigate to Settings > File Extension. If the change to 5.x has been completed, you’ll see at the bottom of the available extensions list, “Extension -> .php | Runs Under -> PHP 5.x” If it’s not there, stop here and come back in an hour or so, and when it is there, you’re ready to proceed. Thanks to ardamis for some of this info.

Log in to your blog’s Admin Dashboard. Click Plugins in the left navigation panel, and click Add New near the top. Search for “WP-FacebookConnect,” and make sure you install the one by Adam Hupp (who works for Facebook and quickly responds to emails, to my pleasant surprise). Install and Activate plugin.

Register a new Facebook application here: http://www.facebook.com/developers/createapp.php?version=new. In your blog’s Admin Dashboard, navigate to Settings > Facebook Connect, and copy your Facebook application’s API Key and Secret into the proper fields and Update Options.

To test whether everything works, log out of your blog, attempt to comment on a post, connect with Facebook Connect and post a comment on your own story. Allow Facebook to publish the comment “story” to your Facebook wall, and then check your Facebook wall to make sure the comment published everywhere it’s supposed to.  Configure more Application settings here: http://www.facebook.com/developers/apps.php.

Charles Porch from Ning – Intro to Online Communities

Charles Porch from Ning – Intro to Online Communities

Ning Strategic Relationships Manager, Charles Porch, spoke to the class today (2/8/2010). I’d never heard of Ning before so I was surprised to discover this social networking platform with 42 million users. It’s a web service that allows anyone to build a social networking with sections for videos, photos, chat, music, groups, events, forums, and blogs. Members of the network can do just about anything they can do on Facebook but they’re within the confines of your own social network. In 6 Ways to Use Ning for Business, Mashable describes how business owners can use Ning to quickly and easily collect feedback, facilitate discussions, present content & media, inspire customers like Martha Stewart, participate in existing communities like Travel Blog Exchange, and engage your evangelists.

Charles describes Ning as a place where users can meet people with similar interests who you don’t already know. It contains searchable web pages that will last and create a community around them. He offered some general advice on website development and what to avoid: slow loading pages, abuse of Flash, and clutter. Instead, tell people why they’re there and have a hook. 50 Cent for example has one of the most popular Ning networks because his is about hip-hop news rather than just a fan page.

Roger Jackson gave us some website design tips, advising us to design for the lowest common denominator, generally an 80 year-old grandma. Liz Burr graduated from APOC in ’06 and now works for herself as a new media consultant. She spends her time advising which platform to use for a website concept. Eddie North-Hagar graduated from APOC in ’09 and co-founded Citilista, which networks separate aspects of a local community into a neighborhood hub, enabling conversation between residents.

Heath Row from Google – Intro to Online Communities

Heath Row from Google – Intro to Online Communities

Today (2/1/2010) we met Micki Krimmel, founder of NeighborGoods.net. I created a profile at the website and was immediately impressed by the professional design, Google Maps API integration and the overall utility of the site. Right now I’m trying to pick up a free bean bag chair I found listed near my home. Micki acts as the Community Manager (CM) at NeighborGoods and offered some advice for the class. She has done consulting for many companies and the most common pitfall she discovered is that the CM doesn’t hold enough power in the firm. The CM is very important and needs to advocate for the users and have the authority to make big changes when necessary. They should always use their real names, which I noticed Micki does on her own site. Her model is to serve the community rather than just moderate them; she even goes so far as to call the users on the phone to ask how to improve. I would be shocked if a CM called me to discuss one of my posts – but flattered and empowered at the same time.

Heath Row is a Research Manager at Google. His general insight into online communities is that they police themselves if the users have a strong connection to one another, like within a circle of friends on Facebook. A community is fragile when the core group of users don’t know each other. He also emphasizes the significance of consistent community managers. People get upset or stop participating when the CM changes, and this fact contributed to Squidoo’s growth struggles.

Alex Asselin just graduated from APOC last year. She’s now a CM at NBC and manages EchoParkOnline. She advised us on keeping community moderators happy. She says they often work 60+ hours a week for free, just for recognition or the love of the community. The owner ought to provide cool stuff to unpaid admins who have assisted the most, so they feel like part of the management rather than a competitor with other members. I can certainly relate, as I got promoted to an OP in a few hubs on the Direct Connect network and found myself representing the hubs and helping members considerably more than before I achieved the elevated status.

Erika Shen moved from managing a CBS.com community to product development at Disney.com. She works to resolve struggles unique to Disney, including cleaning up the users’ “dirty chatter,” empowering moderators to advocate for the users to management, and balancing the demands of company execs with the reality of the self-engendered community.

Today’s speakers agreed that CMs should always admit their affiliation with the company, and gently nudge conversations to the direction you want them to go, working with them along the way. In order to scale, a website should empower users to answer one another in order to minimize employee time spent answering questions. In order to survive in the new media world, old school companies need to let relax their outbound communication model and allow themselves to learn from users to better serve them.

Josh Spector from Comedy.com – Intro to Online Communities

Josh Spector from Comedy.com – Intro to Online Communities

Josh Spector is Senior VP of Content and Marketing for Comedy.com. His start-up, whipitoutcomedy.com, was getting so much action that development executives began using his blog as a talent search site. Eventually Comedy.com bought the site and took Josh with it.

I asked how a start-up could afford such a premium one-word domain name, and I was surprised to hear that it may be more of a detriment to the site than a boon. Josh informed us that domain names should include the terms your target audience are searching for. “Funny videos” is searched for 75 times more than “comedy” so Josh’s advice about domain names is to think about the way people say things, be specific and niche, and don’t count on domains to save your site.

Curtis Jewell is President & CEO for MyCypher Inc. He just graduated from APOC in 2008 and created a global social media site dedicated to the Hip Hop community. The website is very clean and well set up, and I love the promo video on the front page. Curtis’s tip for start-ups is to stay niche (also Karen’s mantra) but think big, and to follow your passion and nurture the passion in others.

Ben Gigli is an APOC ’07 grad. He gets 300-500k viewers a month on his start-up 5secondfilms.com. His advice for start-ups is to go where the community already exists and figure out what they’re going to like. Connect with people where the dialogue already exists, and engage bloggers and social networks while abiding by their unspoken community rules. You can tap into games the natural community likes to play so they’ll start playing with you when you inspire them. According to Karen Ben is a genius with side projects and his web stats and advice certainly back up her claim.

Sean Stevens graduated with Ben in ’07. He’s a pro web developer and has created multiple niche websites, including wheresmytaco.com, hotgirlsandexplosions.com, and a local music website in North Carolina. He argues that it’s better to have a smaller community site than a giant site. His main position right now is with JDate, though I’m not fully clear on his role at that site.

Other notes I found interesting this class included: Don’t build your business on a platform you can’t ultimately control. Use simple customizable message board software. Karen thinks building a site just to flip it is a bad idea that’s probably going to fail, and the best way to get bought out is to build something that doesn’t need to get sold. Take advantage of an opportunity in which big companies are wasting money. We also briefly discussed namechk.com and getsatisfaction.com.

CouchSurfing.org Host Experience

CouchSurfing.org Host Experience

CouchSurfing is an international non-profit organization that has been connecting travelers with locals since 2004. Since then over a million people have met through the site, to share hospitality and cultural understanding.

The benefits of using the site are obvious for the “surfers,” or travelers. They get to stay for free while they travel and save a bundle of money they would have spent on hotels, probably more than $100 a night. They also get to experience much more of the local environment than your average tourist because the hosts show them the best attractions and nightlife. And the hosts usually have local friends who also help immerse the traveler in “the real Hollywood,” or whatever city they’re in.

The hosts’ benefits are a little harder to explain, so I’ll start with the obvious downsides. Most people would not want to be a host because it could put your home and personal safety at risk; after all, hosts usually let surfers into their home who they’ve never met in person. It is an inconvenience having a guest sleep over because you have to worry about door locking schedules, kitchen and common area messes, and quiet hours. The traveler has to use your shower and sometimes even eat your food. On top of all this the surfer doesn’t pay you a dime for your troubles.

Hosting, however, has been a rewarding experience for me. I love to host my local friends after a night of clubbing in Hollywood because I live within walking distance of the clubs, and I think I make a great host. I can’t explain why, but I feel great when I help my friends have a great night, make sure they’re fed and hydrated, and give them a safe and free place to crash. I don’t expect anything in return and don’t really receive anything in return.

Hosting travelers gives me a similar feeling. I know I’m helping the travelers maximize enjoyment and minimize expense, allowing them to travel longer and experience more than they would without my help. I also get to experience some culture they bring with them, view the same old Hollywood from the awe-struck eyes of the traveler, and, in my most recent experience, receive a fancy bottle of Scotch straight from the distillery.

Even to myself I find it difficult to explain my motivation for jeopardizing my property and safety on behalf of a stranger, but I find company in a quote by Adam Smith’s book, The Theory of Moral Sentiments: “How selfish soever man may be supposed, there are evidently some principles in his nature, which interest him in the fortune of others, and render their happiness necessary to him, though he derives nothing from it, except the pleasure of seeing it.”

From January 22nd through the 24th, I had the pleasure of hosting Kim de Jong of Amsterdam. She has been a host before and had great reviews so I figured I could trust her in my home. She was traveling alone which made me feel a little more in control of the situation and less afraid for my property and safety. And just like on any review website, CS members don’t want to wreck their track record of positive reviews by doing something shady, so after a few email exchanges I figured I could trust her.

Kim flew from Europe to LAX and cabbed it to my apartment. Even after being up for more than 35 hours straight she had the energy to go clubbing with my friends and me on Friday night. We hit up My House and H.Wood with 4 of my friends, skipping lines and getting in free, saving us a combined $240 between the two clubs. She did return the favor by buying a couple rounds of drinks which are as much as $18 a piece.

Kim spent Saturday exploring Hollywood Blvd by herself, an easy walk from my apartment. Then Saturday night I introduced her to nine of my friends and we had a great time skipping the line and buying a table at Mi-6. None of us had been there before and we were all very impressed and had a great time.

Kim headed out Monday morning for San Diego and is still traveling in California today, almost a month later. We exchanged positive reviews on CS, which makes us both likely to get more activity on the site in the future. I learned as much as I could about life in Amsterdam and the differences in government and culture. Kim works as a Financial Analyst for a well known tech manufacturer, which, for some reason, allows her to travel a lot. In fact she has 24 countries listed in the Locations Traveled section on her CS profile.

I thoroughly enjoyed my experience and look forward to hosting travelers again in the near future. I also hope my positive reviews will earn me some credibility for the time I decide to travel and take advantage of CS host hospitality. I recommend making an account and exploring the site; and if you have it in you, I recommend hosting a traveler yourself.

http://www.couchsurfing.org/register.html

Deciding Whether and How to Participate in Online Communities

Deciding Whether and How to Participate in Online Communities

Research is the key ingredient in social media marketing. When deciding if and how to invest in social media marketing my company must first investigate where our consumers are conversing and participating. Out of thousands of thriving social platforms on the web, my job is to determine which ones my consumers are most engaged in and influenced by. This can be done effectively by searching for and reading posts, particularly by “influencers,” across multiple channels. For one, I can set up syndication on Google Reader to gather all recent blog and social news posts that mention my industry, brand or competitors, and then follow the discussion and gauge its influence. Similarly I can search Twitter and Facebook updates and follow their outbound links. It’s also important to study our competitors’ social media focus and speculate on their effectiveness.

I need to determine how to engage my consumers where they already converse. Bryan Wiener’s Playbook suggests that consumers will no longer tolerate being advertised at. Instead we must join the conversation where it already exists. He also demonstrates a big opportunity in harnessing consumer-generated media, where he says 20% of consumers’ time is spent and less than 3% of marketing budgets are spent. There seems to be a huge market opportunity there so I should seek out the influencers who generate media related to my industry and open a dialog with them about creating content for my company, mentioning my company in a subsequent video or app, and possibly consulting for or joining my company as an analyst or advertiser.

If my brand or industry is heavily conversation-worthy and a proper outlet does not already exist, I can consider creating the space for a new community within our own domain. I can install a forum for my core group of customers to publish valuable content for free. I can start a blog with useful information and resources my customers are after. Or I can provide a creative space for socializing and collaboration.

While Wiener argues that the greatest struggle in developing a successful online community is selecting the platform and method of engagement, Owyang suggests that growing the community is the real challenge. In his experience successful growth occurs when the members take leadership, then ownership, and eventually become caretakers. To do this the “host” of the community must involve the early members and treat them as special guests. The host should individually contact creators and influencers leading the charge at other social spaces and empower or reward them with special membership and public recognition. The community should be encouraged to share stories, problems or successes while I’m out recruiting new members with other marketing tools like email newsletters, newsfeeds, podcasts and blogs.

Ultimately, according to Mashable’s Brian Solis, the community will need to inspire transformation, improvement and adaptation from the inside out. Early on I can envision how my company might accomplish such outward influence and wireframe my site and social profiles to enable it. With the US social media audience reaching 122 million, I think the question is not whether to participate in online communities, but where and how to engage with our current and future customers.

Microsoft Releases Silverlight Beta Client for Facebook

Microsoft Releases Silverlight Beta Client for Facebook

In early 2009 a very large portion of my day was consumed by checking Facebook for wall posts, private messages, event invites, friend requests, and photo tags. I had a huge group of friends and frequently hosted parties with 100 people or more so I felt obligated to stay on top of it.

I went out searching for a desktop application to run Facebook so I didn’t have to constantly navigate my browser to the home page. I figured I’d probably save more than an hour a day if I could just be alerted when something happened instead.

The best I could find was the Facebook Toolbar. At the time it was very buggy and only gave me info that I didn’t care about, like how many group invitations and app recommendations I had. On top of that it only updated its numbers about once every 10 minutes, and that delay alone was a deal-breaker.

Soon Fishbowl was released, running on Microsoft’s Silverlight platform. I was thrilled at the thought that I no longer needed my browser to use Facebook and even more excited about an attractive new interface. I imagined the desktop app becoming a huge hit until I used it a bit and realized how much it was lacking. It used a ton of RAM, had very quirky window navigation and controls, and lacked much of what I needed from Facebook, like the ability to view and create events. It was fun to impress my friends with a Facebook toy they’d never seen but aside from that I abandoned it immedately.

Then in April Facebook developed its own desktop application called Facebook For Adobe Air (note that it requires Adobe Air to be installed first). I liked that this app was much less resource intensive than fishbowl and could sit beside my browser window as a tall slender bar on the side of my screen. At some point I changed my monitor resolution temporarily, which moved the Air window out of view. When I restored my resolution I could not get FB for Air to appear again. It was still running but there was no way to get it into view, even after uninstalling and reinstalling it and Adobe Air itself. So much for that.

Then just a week ago Microsoft released a beta development of the new Microsoft Silverlight 4 Beta Client for Facebook (note it requires that Silverlight 4 Beta be installed first). The first thing you’ll notice is a brand new, dark and sexy interface. It doesn’t look like Facebook at all, and that’s exciting. It’s simple, fast and fun to explore. It finally lists upcoming events, though viewing the event still requires a browser window to be opened. When you’re reading a conversation in the inbox you can see the person’s lifestream in the right hand pane. It allows you to quickly scroll way back into wall post histories; actually I’m very impressed by this. It seems to be aggregating stories much faster than Facebook itself does in a browser. And it has a cool photo album explorer.

But it still lacks support for my mouse’s back button and keyboard shortcuts, its scrolling lags like it always has in IE, it doesn’t support apps, and its photo viewer doesn’t wow me as much as Cooliris. On top of that it’s using as much as 320 MB of RAM in Windows Vista.

While I do appreciate that MS is presenting the same old FB pictures and stories in a unique new way to bring some excitement back into the experience, I don’t think I’ll be using this desktop client for much other than novelty when showing it off to friends.

Fortunately the new Facebook App for the iPhone finally, as of a couple weeks ago, pushes notifications so I now know exactly when Facebook needs me.

Google Docs vs. Traditional Organization 1/20/2010

Google Docs vs. Traditional Organization 1/20/2010

Google Docs is my favorite and most used web app. I have 68 documents under just one of my Google accounts. I use them to keep track of debts between my housemate and me, my internet login credentials at 32 different sites, everything needed to maintain my 42 domains and hosting accounts, prospective band members to try out, entrepreneurship ideas, a couple of to-do lists, comparison shopping for furniture and other interesting stuff on Craigslist and eBay, potential job leads, real estate clients’ tenant ledgers, earnings and payments collected as an independent contractor for tax filing and invoicing, and a lot of other things.

In the past I collected lists such as these in far less efficient ways. I organized credits and debts between housemates on paper, whose data I could not reorganize and which I frequently could not locate when needed. I kept my internet credentials stored in an Excel file on my home PC so I was powerless and anonymous on the internet when I was away from home. And I had to save receipts and keep paper trails when invoicing clients, tracking tax deductions and receiving business payments.

Spreadsheet and document organization is enough of a reason to abandon my old methods but another revolutionary advancement is my ability to collaborate. My housemate can add debts to the same Debt Log when I owe him money and we can both view and edit the document simultaneously, which allows us to see exactly what’s owed without worrying about any revisions we haven’t seen yet. My bandmates add prospects to the list when they find a new musician and we can all see our progress in real time, which motivates us all to put in work ourselves. And my real estate clients can update themselves on when and how much their tenants have paid, which saves me a lot of phone calls and headaches.

Google Docs is an all-in-one solution to my paperwork organization struggles and many other issues I never would have known existed before I used it. Because it updates on the fly I never have to worry about losing my work in a power outage or computer crash. Because of its live collaboration feature and flexible permissions settings I know that my intended collaborators and I always have secure access to perfectly current data. Because of its Microsoft Office similarity and compatibility the apps are completely intuitive and make it easy to migrate data across platforms. Because the processing power and data storage is remote I don’t have to worry about my system specs and stability. And like all well designed websites I get a consistent usability experience in spite of varying hardware, operating systems and browsers.

I do many things to organize my life now that I would have never considered doing before Google Apps made it possible. I consider it an invaluable resource and I always try to help my friends, colleagues and clients learn to make Google Apps work for them like I have.

Greasemonkey Scripts for Facebook

Greasemonkey Scripts for Facebook

I’ve always been a fan of efficient website navigation that balances the greatest usability with the fewest clicks and least scrolling. If you spend as much time on Facebook as I do, you should appreciate these efficiency enhancing tweaks I discovered a few months back.

These tweaks are scripts which only work in Firefox, and only after you’ve installed the Greasemonkey add-on. After you’ve installed Greasemonkey and restarted Firefox, browse through scripts at userscripts.org.

My favorite Facebook scripts include:

Facebook Fixer
http://userscripts.org/scripts/show/8861
Description: Enhancements for Facebook: bigger profile pictures and photos, easier viewing of albums, links to download videos, showing people’s age and sign, Google calendar integration, keyboard shortcuts & more. Compatible with new Facebook and fully customizable!
IMO: This is a very powerful script. It requires a little customization but it’s totally worth it. After install, scroll to the top of any Facebook page, open Settings > Facebook Fixer. Read through the settings and experiment.

inYOf4ceBook
http://userscripts.org/scripts/show/8712
Description: Larger versions of thumbnails and profile pictures on mouseover on facebook.com.
IMO: Huge time saver. I no longer have to click through to new pages to see the full-resolution version of pictures. This duplicates a feature in Facebook Fixer but I prefer the way this works so I disabled the feature in Fixer.

Facebook Friends Checker
http://userscripts.org/scripts/show/40027
Description: Regularly checks your Facebook friends to check whether anyone has removed you from their friends. When the script detects that someone you used to be friends with is no longer one of your friends, a message will appear informing you about who it was and giving a link to their profile page.
IMO: This works perfectly. When someone is no longer my friend it could be that they deactivated their account or that they removed me from friends. I know which is the case when I click their profile link. If I see their profile with the option to Add to Friends, I know I’ve been removed from friends. If their profile link just reloads my home page I know their account is currently inactive meaning they probably intentionally deactivated their account. It’s kind of sad how often I get removed as a friend, but at least now I know who not to invite to my birthday party.

Remove “Now Friends” Messages from Facebook Feeds
http://userscripts.org/scripts/show/61160
Description: Remove “Now Friends” Messages from Facebook Feeds.
IMO: I don’t care who my friends become friends with. I have 723 friends and they make a lot of new friends. This doesn’t need to clutter up my Feed. Check out the “See also” section of this page for links to other feed hiders you might like, including Remove “Attending,” “Attended,” “Became Fan,” “Joined Group,” and “Now Friends” Messages from Facebook Feeds.

Facebook Show Age
http://userscripts.org/scripts/show/59910
Description: Adds age next to birth date.
IMO: Perfect integration and works great. Age is far more important than birthday and it’s nice not having to calculate age in my head any more.

FBOnlineNow
http://userscripts.org/scripts/show/59795
*ONLY works after you’ve installed this app: http://apps.facebook.com/invisible/
Description: Turn off Facebook Chat and use FBOnlineNow to see who’s online (active or idle friends).
IMO: I was a little confused at first but now i love it. After you install this you’ll see 2 chat pull-up menues next to each other. the original chat menu is between the new one and notifications; it’s confusing because there’s no icon on it any more.

Facebook URL Cleaner
http://userscripts.org/scripts/show/29910
Description: Cleans Facebook URLs that don’t actually take you to a new page.
IMO: It works great. Now rather than http://facebook.com/profile.php?id=569919637#/profile.php?id=725831319, you’ll see http://facebook.com/profile.php?id=725831319

By the way my other favorite Facebook add-ons are Image Zoom and Download Statusbar. Cooliris is cool too but I usually have it disabled. And the most revolutionary, game-changing add-on ever made must be Addblock Plus. ABP deserves its own blog post though so look forward to that in the future.

If you try any of these, please comment and share your experience. Do you love these tweaks as much as I do?

55% Drop in Facebook’s College-Enrolled Registrations in Past 12 Months

55% Drop in Facebook’s College-Enrolled Registrations in Past 12 Months

An article on ReadWriteWeb discusses Facebook’s changing demographics, conveyed in the image below. The article focuses on the changing demographics, as the 55+ user base is exploding while the 18-24 range is growing least quickly. It questions how this change will affect Facebook’s market opportunities and whether its college-aged users – once the exclusive user base – is migrating somewhere new.

I think the site has already seen its explosion into the 18-24 base and is now enjoying a similar explosion in the 55+ area. If it had started out as a 55+ exclusive user base we’d witness the same trend in reverse, with 55+ growing slowly and 13-24 blossoming. This is because there is a finite number of people in each age range and the growth cannot continue to multiply at the same rate forever.

It would be interesting to see another study exploring the seeming exodus of college students. The site is growing in college-enrolled users at half the rate it did last year. Graduation should not be a factor because just as many incoming students can be expected to replace the grads. Are the students removing their college affiliation from their page? Or are college students deactivating their accounts on a massive scale?

I have a GreaseMonkey script installed which tracks my Facebook friends and alerts me when one is no longer my friend. Sometimes this means they deleted me as a friend and sometimes it means they’ve deactivated their account. They each seem to be happening at a rate of about 12 friends per month, out of 723 total friends. This trend implies that 20% of my friends are deactivating their accounts each year, though my GreaseMonkey script does not tell me how many of them reactivate their accounts. That is a surprisingly high number, but it doesn’t do much to explain the overall 55% drop in college-enrolled users.

Jeff Cole, Director of the Center for the Digital Future at USC

Jeff Cole, Director of the Center for the Digital Future at USC

Our first class (1/11/2010) kicked off with a fantastic speaker, Jeff Cole, Director of the Center for the Digital Future at USC Annenberg.

He communicated a lot of info in a relatively short period of time about the evolution of mainstream media and what to expect in the near- and mid-term future.

Topics included:

  • Traditional media falling apart due to its delayed schedule and lack of options
  • Music business changing greatly, from year’s most popular albums selling 30 million copies down to just 3 million today
  • Dying platforms requiring advertising changes
  • The effect internet penetration and bandwidth access have on TV and print media viewing
  • Evolution of popular social networks in the 2000’s
  • Impending consolidation of print media
  • Possible future of radio and education
  • Significance of branding, addressability and privacy in modern advertisement
  • The power of mass word-of-mouth through Twitter and other social networks

Interesting facts and questions included:

  • Consumers now demand updates every 30-60 seconds
  • Is a bundle of 12 tracks still the best way to market music?
  • Walter Annenberg sold TV Guide to Rupert Murdock in 1990 for $3 billion (and we in the class directly benefit)
  • In 1975 90% of viewing was on 3 TV channels
  • Now 90% of viewing is on 15 websites
  • Teens today are more interested in news than ever before
  • Indian internet penetration is only 9% so newspapers are still booming
  • When penetration reaches 30% newspaper sales will plummet
  • PVR (e.g. Tivo) is used by 30% of Americans; how can you still engage PVR users in advertisements?
  • Not much difference between internet use by dial-up users and people with no internet, but a huge difference between dial-up and broadband
  • Teens don’t want to be on the same social network as their parents
  • Biggest group of social network users are aged 60-70 (though I highly doubt this stat)
  • In 2008 55% of young people said their online communities are as important as ones IRL (in real life)
  • In the near future students will learn intro level college subjects from the best professors in the world via digital courses
  • If the digital advertising model fails we’ll have to pay for digital content in the future

We heard about clicker.com to find TV shows on the web and Telepresence for life-size video conferencing. We also heard from APOC grads about twiistup.com and kasamamedia.com.

Welcome to my tech blog, Jesse.LA!

Welcome to my tech blog, Jesse.LA!

Hello and welcome to my blog. I’m Jesse Wilson and I’m enrolled in the University of Southern California’s Annenberg Program on Online Communities seeking a Master’s in Communication Management.

I just registered jesse.la to be my new tech blog and use for my class, CMGT 534 – Introduction to Online Communities.

Dot-LA domains were originally intended as the top level domain (TLD) for Laos, but its official registry site now claims, “Los Angeles is the world’s first city to be awarded its own unique internet address: .LA”

The advantage to a Dot-LA name is that they’re still widely available and hyperlocal. If you want to register a dot-LA domain, I recommend using 000domains.com with coupon code “confirm10″ to get the price down to $31.49 a year, excluding hosting.

Then I installed Google Apps which allows me to use a Gmail webmail interface and many other Google services under my own jesse.la identity. And now I’m using Blogger to administer the site’s content, though I might later install my own CMS such as WordPress, PHPNuke, Joomla or Drupal, all of which I’ve experimented with in the past.

Thanks for your visit and I look forward to educating my readers on CMGT 534 and the world of online communities and tech news.