December 22, 2011

Social Networking With Strangers

There’s a well-known saying attributed to the poet and playwright William Butler Yeats: “There are no strangers here; Only friends you haven't yet met.”

As social networking has evolved to encompass a significant amount of people’s time on the Internet, divergent approaches to friending and following, sharing publicly and sharing selectively have emerged. Some networks have a solely synchronous relationship, where the bond can be broken unilaterally by either individual, but must be initiated by one and accepted by another, while others are asynchronous, meaning one can follow the content you make available publicly, even if you don’t explicitly pass approval.

The two best-known social networks that primarily rely on a synchronous relationship are Facebook and LinkedIn, preceded by sites like Friendster and MySpace. In September, Facebook introduced a “Subscribe” feature, which is asynchronous, but to be counted as “friend”, the connection must be mutual. LinkedIn connections are also mutual.

Other services, including, most notably, Twitter, but also FriendFeed and Google+, have used asynchronous relationships. For Twitter and FriendFeed, anybody who ran into your content, whether following you directly, or discovering it through search or friend recommendations, could respond to it via a Like, a Retweet, a Comment or Share. The same is true for public posts on Google+, while sharing to limited circles on Google+ reduces the visibility to those you have explicitly selected.

(Disclosure of course: I am on the Product Marketing team at Google+, and joined in August. Comments I make about the service and other social products are done with the best of intentions to be fully accurate.)

That people you don’t explicitly know or have a mutual relationship with can engage on your content can be a surprise, or even unnerving, to some users. While Twitter has seen user following numbers vault into the tens of thousands or even millions for some celebrities, not all have embraced the interest of being followed by the masses, who are often simply people interested in you or your content, not necessarily bad actors. Not blurring the lines of a “friend”, Twitter calls them “followers”, while FriendFeed calls these people “subscribers”, relating a connection between the individual and your content, not necessarily you.

Those used to an asynchronous model are used to connections with strangers, while others used to a synchronous model are often quite verbal about what is perceived as an onrush of random connections. As Google+ has been in the market for about six months, many users have been quite surprised at the high number of people who have them in circles, and I’ve seen some say they block those they don’t know. But as someone who has engaged in both models, the value comes from learning who sees your content, and what that means - especially on a network like Google+, where you can fine tune what content reaches which people.

Who Are These People Following Me? (via SocialStatistics)

For me, the overwhelming majority of people I interact with on social networks are people I met first through the web. I have made tremendous real-life friendships that started out as an online only relationship to start, through reading one another’s blogs, leaving comments, following people on Twitter and Google Reader, or any other myriad of places. Many of the colleagues I have now at Google are people who I knew years prior through FriendFeed, Twitter and their blogs, helping me continue the conversation when we finally met, rather than starting cold.

Not all online relationships turn into real life relationships later, of course, and not everything you share should reach everyone, particularly people you don’t know well.

On Twitter, if someone follows you, and your feed is public, your content is shared with them. The exception is when you may be doing @replies to a person they don’t follow as well. It makes sense to share on Twitter what you assume all your followers would see.

On Facebook, your publicly shared content is available to your friends and those who are subscribers to your public content. To share more selectively, choose one of the lists you have created. Strangers who follow you should not have access to this content, so you are at lower risk of oversharing if you use lists.

On Google+, your publicly shared content is available to all people who have you in circles, anyone who browses your profile or anyone who has a direct link to your content. To share your content without reaching strangers, you have multiple options, including sharing to any individual, any circle, to all your circles, or even extended circles, which reaches all those people you follow and those they follow. You can share as widely or as thinly as you like, and keep your content safe.

The goal is to share the right content with the right people. As people who you may not know add you, they are opting in to your public content, and nothing more. They don’t get any additional access to your contact information, photos or shares, and like Facebook and FriendFeed, you can moderate any comments in your stream, to remove spam or other unwanted feedback.

There’s no downside to new people asking to have access to your public shares, even if you don’t know them yet - and you just might be surprised about the relationships you build in the future. The requirement on your end, on any service, and trust me, I’ve tried just about all of them, is knowing what you are sharing and with whom. It’s our job, and those of other products on the web, to make this simple and easy.

You can connect with me on Google+ by going to Howdy, stranger.

December 19, 2011

Time Shifting In a World of Realtime

Nearly three short years ago, the buzz word du jour in tech was “realtime”. Real time discovery. Real time search. Real time serendipity. The explosion of interest in social sharing tools like Twitter, Facebook and FriendFeed (remember this was early 2009) had people (myself included) saying that “Delayed news will no longer be acceptable for early adopters, who will gravitate to the quickest sources of news, wherever they may be.” In practice, while this has occasionally been true, I’ve found a completely divergent innovation to play as big a role in the way I (and others) consume news content and entertainment - that of time shifting, which has remained valuable at a time when most real-time search engines have pivoted or vanished.

Best exemplified by TiVo and other DVRs, preceded by the creaky VCR, the act of consuming media at a time much after its initial airing is so commonplace that live viewings are so uncommon that friends often tiptoe around current storylines for top shows. In some social circles, only the most breaking drama series get the “day it actually aired” treatment - like Breaking Bad, Dexter or Homeland, while everything else goes to TiVo, to be consumed later. (Obviously, I saw the season finales for Dexter and Homeland last night)

News, with some exceptions, can be similarly stored away for later viewing, be it through RSS readers or on your social network of choice. One must not be glued to the real time stream to make sure you don’t miss anything. Instead, the RSS reader traps your own hand-picked links, ready for viewing when you get the opportunity, not necessarily tied to their time of posting.

On the big screen, movies may bank on a massive opening weekend, but with consumers having so many options for entertainment sources, it’s common to see people mention they’ll “wait for Netflix”, which could be months or years away, content to save a few dollars while also getting the comfort of watching in their own home. And if you do find yourself suddenly interested in a show your friends have been seeing which has been out a few seasons, don’t fret, as you can, in almost all cases, catch up - tapping into many options, be they Netflix, Hulu, Xfinity, iTunes or Android Market.

This fall, I made it a personal mission to watch all of Mad Men, after hearing people go on and on about its quality. I powered through it with many late-night Netflix marathons. After finally ordering Showtime, I caught up on this season’s Dexter on Xfinity, and then did the same for Homeland. If my wife misses her favorite shows, she can do the same, tapping into the various video repositories on the web, including the big three networks, typically slower to adapt to the innovation of the web.

I watch my evening talk shows 3 to 5 in a row, from Jon Stewart to Conan, fast forwarding through commercials and skipping uninteresting guests - efficiently getting the best and skipping the rest. It’s almost the same approach I take to my RSS reader or activity on the social networks, skimming, reading, clicking and leaving no prisoners. Even if I’m not constantly connected, and I do a good job of getting close, I don’t feel this sense of missing something.

Realtime reactions to breaking news events, kicked off by an initial discovery, and then rattling around search engines and social media, can’t be duplicated by time shifted content, but for most buckets of content, be they text, audio or video, the drive to be first and in the mix of the story as it is interpreted and curated, is not essential. Advents in information and content sharing over the last few years have instead made “on demand” a reality, getting me what I want when I want it, not when someone else decides for me.

December 12, 2011

Winning Unconventionally

No two fingerprints, people, or businesses are exactly alike. While learning from the experiences of others can be illuminating and inspiring, your own challenges are unique, and following a path previously trod may not deliver you the same outcome. Often, taking an unconventional approach can deliver results far beyond those anyone anticipated, and your differentiation can start to be part of your story.

While Microsoft was building a dominating market share position for operating systems through licensing its software to OEMs, one of Steve Jobs' first moves upon returning to Apple was to discontinue licensing of the Mac OS to 'clones' including Motorola and Power Computing. The clones were not, in fact, helping the Mac increase market share, but were cannibalizing Apple, and going a different way was needed. Jobs similarly canceled the Newton handheld, and pushed the company to focus on a select few products, and do them extremely well.

More recently, on a backdrop of failed P2P networks from Kazaa to LimeWire and others, when music peddlers argued customers want to own their songs instead of stream them, Daniel Ek and the Spotify team created a subscription-based streaming service on the back of P2P technology, and are now valued at a billion dollars, while the company is still in its youth.

Square unconventionally found a solution for a universal adapter for wireless payments by determining the one similarity between all smartphones was an audio port. Instagram differentiated through elegant display and an array of filters that made casual photographers feel like artists. Path discarded the trend of wide sharing and focused on a more intimate network - discarding the status quo of the time.

On this backdrop, turning away from tech and toward sports, if you'll allow it, we come across one of the more intriguing storylines in recent football memory, as Denver Broncos quarterback Tim Tebow, believed to be a below-average professional passer with almost no experience, but a robust college resume, as well known for his spirituality as anything else, has rattled off six consecutive wins in remarkable fashion, sparking his team to the division lead after a moribund start.

In an era when leading signal-callers are posting 300 and even 400 yards passing per game, Tebow has famously won games where he has thrown for less than 100. He won one game without a single completion in the first half, and has become as feared an offensive weapon for his running game - posting 118 yards in a game on November 6th, and amassing more than 500 yards rushing over nine games. What Tebow has managed to do, despite all the critics and low expectations, is largely avoid mistakes (see only 2 interceptions against 198 completion attempts) and keep his team in the game, acting as a riddle for opposing defenses.

Those who've been talking about the Tebow phenomenon across the country in recent months (and I've had this post in my to-do pile for several weeks) note that the Broncos' turn-around has not been solely due to one man's effort. The team's defense has been outstanding, letting four of the last five team wins come despite 17 or fewer points, including a 13-10 victory yesterday over the Bears. In fact, yesterday's game saw the team kicker smash two field goals of fifty yards or more, including a 59 yarder at the end of regulation, and the 51 yarder that won the game in overtime. Regardless, the team is winning unconventially, changing the rules to match the talent set provided. To ask Tebow to throw for 300 plus yards, and look downfield on the majority of plays doesn't seem to be where he's best suited and the team's record of win after win shows the differentiated approach is working. Even the most casual football and sports fans has to be intrigued by the seeming magic that is happening in Denver.

Back the world of Silicon Valley and entrepreneurs, there are few sure things, except for the knowledge that your challenges and opportunities are in a combination previously unseen. For every superstar like Aaron Rodgers or Tom Brady, Steve Jobs or Bill Gates, there are players like Tim Tebow, who can leverage their talents and drive the most possible out of their own abilities, if empowered and given the opportunity. There's plenty to read on best practices of doing a startup or architecting a successful social network or going viral, but sometimes it takes a different path - an unconventional approach - to the problem, to achieve something incredible.

December 04, 2011

Remember, Remember, the Month of November

Hey! Did you guys miss me?

As I wrote up about six weeks ago in my post Hey! Didn't You Use to be a Tech Blogger?, I've relaxed my typical always-on routine for the blog, spending much more time with Google+ (obviously), and keeping the occasional downtime I do have focused on something other than blogging. I still hear plenty of interesting tech news from startups and more established players, which in previous years I'd have stopped everything to write up, but given my more visible role at Google, and other priorities, for the most part I'm letting the rest of the tech world pick those up. But that doesn't mean I've got nothing to share.

In November, probably the most incredible story to tell is the one about how my car, which you may remember I bought from Robert Scoble back in 2009, and had just added personalized plates to last month, got completely wrecked, in my own driveway. While I told the full story on Google+ on November 7th, when it happened, the reality of it is still pretty nuts, and I've retold it several times.

I was watching the kids around 7:30 Monday night, getting ready to put them to bed, when I heard a shockingly loud boom from what I thought was the intersection near my house. I ran out the front door and found the accident was actually in my driveway. A massive boulder that had lined our walkway had been struck by a Toyota Tacoma, which popped it out of its cement foundation and launched it 15 or so feet into the air, where it came into full contact with my car, smashing the back left door, permanently bending the frame, and breaking in half. The Tacoma left skidmarks in my driveway, gashed the trunk and came to a rest against a tree bordering our property with the neighbors'. Amazingly, nobody was hurt, even though the driver's air bags had deployed.

Long story short, the police came by and handled him, while I dealt with insurance the next few days and weeks. Insurance did well, and actually paid me more to replace the car than I had paid to buy it. So I had the tow truck get my car, and I got a newer model of the same car with a new car, and won't end up paying much for the swap. Nobody was hurt, and I got a new car out of it, so I won't complain too much. That said, you have to see the pictures. It's crazy.

My Car, Mashed Up By a Big Rock, via a Vehicle Interloper

While I've spent a lot of time during the day in Mountain View, I get the great pleasure of coming home to increasingly amusing and amazing kids. Braden, the youngest of our three, has far surpassed the grub stage and is now walking up a storm, so we have no crawlers. While I could be wistful about passing one milestone, he is a delightful kid and I was more than happy to share a video I took of him walking last month. If kids are your thing, it's worth the minute to see.

In my time of keeping silent on the blog, I've opened up a Google Doc that has a list of ideas for posts that I'll get to quickly. There's been no push from corporate for me to be quieter here, and I've made that choice myself, but you'll see some interesting things pop up soon. Just wanted to share with you some of the lowlights and highlights from the last month. Braden waves at you.