Posts Tagged ‘socialnetworking’

Choosing the “right” web service

Nowadays there are so many web services out there that do the same or similar things. How do you choose which is best for you?

I’m continually finding it more difficult than I would like to settle on one or another web service to use. I’ve recently been conflicted with competing services such as Jaiku vs Pownce vs Facebook Status vs Twitter or Beanstalk vs SpringLoops or Viddler vs Vimeo or Basecamp vs GoPlan vs ActiveCollab vs [insert-your-favorite-wiki-here]. It doesn’t seem like it should be that difficult.

I’m going to generalize quite a bit for the sake of this article that there are two types of web service focuses on the web.

  1. Social: sites where the quality/size/content of the network of users is a key factor for its users.
  2. Application: sites where the value is in the application, utility is primarily personal, and the network is either a side benefit of the service or the network is not a factor.

It’s easy to follow the crowd

On purely social websites it’s often fairly easy for a new user to choose which one to jump on based on which one has the most people in your network at that time. If the network relevant to me is there, I’ll go there.

The extent to which the network matters also depends a lot on what I’m going to use the site for. For example, there is value in both the networks of ma.gnolia and del.icio.us but which will best serve my core/long term bookmarking needs? The popularity factor may be useful in the short term but it’s important to figure out in the long term with which I will wish I had put time and effort. I do enjoy having my networks there to send people links using built in application functions but since not everybody is on one or the other I’ve found ways to deal.

Sometimes the crowd doesn’t help

On other social websites where the application is the primary focus or where the competing networks are fairly even across the board, there is no clear choice.

The biggest dead-end choice is when the site is mostly application-focused and the crowd doesn’t help. Sometimes the features are almost exactly the same, the implementations similar, the pricing structures irrelevant. In these cases I will choose based on reputation, but reputation isn’t always clear — and I’m speaking as someone who lives in the internet. Most users are not as experienced or familiar as many of us are on the web and will find it much more daunting than I do.

The trouble faced by new players

How does a new player in the web service arena stake its ground?

I’ve been specifically troubled by this question while strategizing Mavenry. If there is no obvious culturally accepted or reputation-obvious choice service providers just have to do their best and hope people give you a chance. That is, if all you provide is a very non-specific approach to the market and don’t stake your ground somewhere unique. I can’t help but think about Facebook here and how it started out providing a seemingly similar social networking service as everyone else but they went after a specific market to build a certain network. That worked then, but now with things like OpenSocial coming into fruition the choice of social network is increasingly hard — assuming your network has no significant footing in any of the available options.

Grounding on a specific market can be limiting, yes, but it will guarantee a social service at least some full segment of the market. And, it’ll help its users make more informed decisions.

On the other side, how does a consumer choose between such evenly matched players?

My recent exposure to this question has been while trying to find a good bug tracking/code browsing/subversion hosting/documentation hosting provider. I see many providers out there with what seem like such similar features and benefits that there is no overwhelmingly significant reason (at least from my perspective) to choose one or the other. In the end I’m afraid I’ll just choose whichever site is prettiest to look at (admit it, you do it too).

When new players succeed at specifying their target market and making it clear to the user that it is “right for them”, people like me will find it easier to choose — whether or not it’s the best choice for either party. For example, I found it easy to choose Facebook because they made it clear that it was “for college students”.

It’s not so cut and dry

Of course, these are all generalizations. In most cases there are many more reasons why I would choose between sites such as the site’s openness, growth trends, or how well the company’s goals align with my own. You could even argue that how the site just feels to me is more important than any of the other factors at hand. In the example I made earlier about ma.gnolia vs. del.icio.us I often come back to thinking that the only real meaningful difference to me is the visual design of the site — and that just doesn’t seem right.

Increasingly sites are providing more and more ways to get at your data and to easily take your data with you when you leave. Flickr comes to mind here because through their API you can get access to your entire collection of photos and can easily export your data at any time for your own use or to other competing services like Zooomr. I expect trends will continually force services to open up and embrace open standards like OpenID, OAuth, Microformats, and you could even argue OpenSocial. I expect that having everything be more open and evenly matched will not help end users at all but instead it will make it more and more difficult to weed through the drunken haze.

Many of these trends also apply to desktop software as well. For an end user with simple needs where is the benefit in choosing something like Pages over Microsoft Word when I know Word will always work with the people I deal with on a daily basis. Yes Pages is faster, nicer to use, and has more features, and will work with Word documents just fine, but still.

This is not a problem that will ever be completely solved unless the man starts to decide for us against our will, but I continue to find it oh so intriguing none the less.

OpenWidget

Google released a couple days ago, along with an impressive set of initial partners, a set of APIs for building social web applications which they have decided to call OpenSocial. That name, OpenSocial, sounds intriging, doesn’t it? It’s a little off putting because what this new platform provides is not a means to open up our social graphs or help openly integrate the multitude of social networking websites out there. What it does is provide an standardized way for people write what are basically widgets, similar to what the Facebook application platform provides, and to easily embed those widgets in any number of social applications with little to no customization on a per-site basis.

It’s just a widget platform

OpenSocial is a very one-way system. It helps widget developers build applications off of each individual network’s data, but not to share the data between networks.

Because of the lack of generalized openness of the platform, the usefulness that these open applications provide is extremely limited and so what comes out of this is a way to embed random widgets. The widgets are non-specialized (at least by initial design) to the social networking websites they are used on and so what people build will be random in nature and will likely provide very little usefulness other than to amuse the users.

It’s too bad that this move wasn’t to open up the social graphs and help integrate the disjointed networks in all of these websites. That’s okay, though. This is still a great effort and a move in the right direction. As Tantek wrote, this is just one component of social network portability and does help social application developers a great deal.

The market is stronger now

As Fred Stutzman pointed out, having these widgets everywhere helps struggling/competing networks stay even with their competition. Now that everyone can provide a way to get these open widgets on their social applications they can say “Hey! Don’t leave! We have those too!”. While this seems helpless and slightly laughable it strengthens the competetive landscape.

As I listed in my recap of the Lessig lecture yesterday, the best way to keep a healthy corporate ecosystem is to encourage competition. The more competition is out there, the more trust will instill in the users of these applications. It will be easier for people to embrace competing networks without feeling like they all need to use “the one with the applications”. The hierarchy of social networking applications will likely flatten because of this. As Seth Godin pointed out, the choice now between social networks is, soon to be, hundreds of open sites (OpenSocial implementers) or one closed one (Facebook).

It seems like such a call for help

While more people having these applications helps the landscape, the inclusion of these widgets seem so forced. It’s sad to see promising services like Plaxo seemingly randomly embrace this without any reason other than that they can. When everyone has these applications they don’t add anything new or unique to any one network.

Time will tell which applications get listed on which networks and whether different implementations of the OpenSocial API will encourage different types of applications to be used. I’m looking forward to seeing how this plays out.

Facebook is a “bits feeder”

There have been several occasions recently where I’ve contributed to conversations about Facebook and its place on the web. The general starting point for these discussions begin with the question of whether it is turning into that “one place” that everyone will end up calling their social networking home on the web — the pivot location of all online communication and networking. While I cannot foresee the market stake it will hold even a year into the future, I’m starting to feel like I understand where Facebook stands and why it is fundamentally different than it’s commonly compared neighbor MySpace.

Facebook

Many continue to reference Facebook as the “new MySpace” but that is not a fair statement to make. Facebook seems to be approaching things in a completely different way. It is trying to become a hub of all things social. Not a hub like a Google where all of your data lives and is displayed only on Google, but rather a hub as in a place to collect little bits of information from all your other online presences and to pull them into one starting place for you on the web. It’s a place your friends can come to connect and identify relationships with you and then come back as frequently or infrequently as they want to get updates on little “bits” about what you’ve been up to lately. Facebook makes it easy to browse networks based on friendships, interests, personal information, and now through any number of methods using their applications platform.

MySpace

MySpace, on the other hand, seems to be in its core designed to provide an easy way for young people to push information about themselves with very little structure resulting in a massive influx of bulletins, blog posts, profile comments, and randomly placed content on profile pages. The generally younger audience makes sense when viewing the site in this way because it lends to younger peoples desire to be heard loudly among friends and peers. It is more of a communication platform rather than a networking application.

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