Put down the term sheet and step away slowly…

“Please God, give me one more bubble. I promise not to screw it up this time.”

Bumper sticker seen on Sand Hill Rd.

I’m telling you right now: don’t take the money. You don’t need it. In fact, I think taking venture capital for Web 2.0 businesses is immoral (I’m overstating for effect, here). That is money that should, by rights, be going into projects that are truly capital-intensive and can really change the world, like cars that run on water or a pill that curbs your desire to ask your doctor about the latest designer pharmaceutical. Please, let’s spend our time building cool but inexpensive things (or expensive, but really important things), and not frothing up the social networking investor frenzy until it collapses in another maelstrom of daytrader bankruptcy filings.

I was scoffing to a friend the other day about how web 2.0 had only made it a lot cheaper to build companies with no discernable business model, when I thought to myself: wait a minute… that’s really fantastic. Think of it: No “hockey stick” revenue graphs, no powerpoint sleaze, no VCs… ever. Work hard, have fun, maybe even get a little bit rich. Now that’s cool.

Try this on:
What’s new about Web 2.0? A new model for web-based micro-business, based in small geography-independent social groups. Social (network) proximity joins physical proximity as the foundation for the establishment of online “neighborhoods”.

…this is an interesting idea. I’ll think about it some more and get back to you. What do you think?

The Physics of Online Communities

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contacts mosaic
Flickr community mosaic,
originally uploaded by Bongocopter.

Gravity is a fundamental force in the universe. We’re not sure what it is, or how it works, but we can observe and measure it’s effects. The Law of Universal Gravitation can expressed as an equation: F=G*(m1m2/r2), where F is the gravitational force between two objects, G is the gravitational constant, m is the mass of the objects, and r is the distace between the two objects.

Likewise, I believe there must be ann equivalent principle, that expresses the force that binds together an online community (that I will call, for reasons that will become clear later, the Group Law of Universal Gravitation, or GLUG).

The GLUG says: F=G*(C(S-N)/P2)

  • F = The Gravitational force the community applies to you
  • C = The member’s level of contribution to the community (your “mass”)
  • S = The level of relevant activity in the community (Signal)
  • N = The level of irrelevant activity (Noise) � Signal and Noise taken together represent the “mass” of the community
  • P = The Priority you place on the Focus of the community in your life (the higher the number, the lower priority) � roughly equivalent to “distance”
  • G = The tendency of humans to bond together – the “gravitational constant”

I mean GLUG as a metaphor, obviously, as these values can’t truly be quantified, but I think it’s a pretty good illustration of the point I’ve made in some earlier posts. If your customer base is well represented in this community, or you’re trying to encourage a community that exists around your product, look at this equation and consider this: what of these values can you influence?

Not G, and it’s very hard to influence P; you can try to reduce, or at least not increase N, which, once it reaches a value higher than S, causes any community to explode in a shower of spam. You can obviously effect S, and this is usually where marketing efforts start (you need to think carefully first, so as not to increase N). Every community needs valuable content and contributions – think of this as the icebreaker activity at a party, or the “life of the party” type people you invite to encourage conversation.

Something that’s often overlooked, however, is your ability to increase C. Giving community members good tools to become more active participants (which is what an open bar at a networking event is intended to do � <grin/>) can have a significant impact. Slashdot’s “reputation” is an excellent example of a tool that encourages C, by giving people a reason to post. Flickr’s deceptively simple “post to Forum” button beside every one of your photos is an excellent example. Until I started to use it, I never would have thought myself a valuable contributor to any community related to photograpy (thanks again, Stewart).

Apparently I’ve distinguished myself

Well, this is a surprise. Vancouver Community College, where I volunteer my time on the Program Advisory Committee, has seen fit to present me with an Award of Distinction, for “outstanding contributions to my field of endeavor”. This is flattering in itself, but this is a new program for the 40th anniversary year of the college, and apparently I’m getting the first one. Although there will only be one per year from now on, this year they’re presenting one for each decade the college has been around. The other three people (alphabetically, of course):

* Ujjal Dosanjh, the Federal Minister of Health, and former Premier of British Columbia
* Paul Mulangu, who founded the Centre of Integration for African Immigrants (CIAI)
* Eliza Olsen, who founded the Burns Bog Conservation Society

Wow. Two prominent community activists and a federal cabinet minister. And lil’ ol’ me.


Speaking at Vancouver Enterprise Forum

I have been invited by Dick Hardt, the CEO and founder of Sxip Identity, and the driving force behind Identity 2.0, to speak at Vancouver Enterprise Forum on the 5th of October. I’ll be speaking about user-generated content, and will be sharing a stage with some very bright people from all around the Web 2.0 scene, like Paul Kedrosky of Ventures West, Roland Tanglao of Bryght, Andre Charland of eBusiness Applications, Geoff Hansen of Rocket Builders, and of course, Dick. It’s going to be a lot of fun – hope to see you there!

I’ve just taken a look at the Sxip press release on this. Dick called me a Luminary… it’s usually the other way around. LOL.

Marketing and user-generated content

Most marketing people I meet are frightened and confused by the explosion of user-generated content. It turns their whole world inside out and they don’t know how to make heads or tails of it. They feel like they’ve walked into a room full of strangers all involved in deep conversation and they don’t know how to butt in.

Maybe I’m standing too close to the wireless hub, but it seems increasingly straightforward to me: The most effective marketing is a compelling story. These stories become part of my own narrative; not a story told to me, but part of the story that I tell about myself. The stories we tell each other about ourselves is the glue that holds a community together. I think that this is where traditional marketing types begin having some difficulty. It’s a difficult leap to make, to agree that they won’t *own* these stories, that they belong to the people, but I believe this is fundamental. If you (the company) let it be my story, you lose some control, but in exchange you get to be a part of something far more fundamental to my identity as a person.

For example: Why is “adopt a child” so much more powerful than “send some money”? Because it becomes a story I can tell. The picture on the fridge is of a person that I know about – I can tell my friends what she’s like, what clothes I bought her, how she loved the teddy bear the best, how the glasses helped her to read for the first time. It becomes part of the narrative of my life.

So, the moral of the story? Don’t butt in. You can’t control this conversation – it’s not yours to control. Buy them a drink so they don’t need to break the flow of their conversation. Give them a place to talk, give them something to talk about; make it compelling and you will be at the heart of it more surely than if you crash the table and break the spell.

still life with corn dog

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still life with corn dog
still life with corn dog,
originally uploaded by Bongocopter.

Thanks, Gizmodo, for using this photo as the caption for an article on memory-stick hosted email applications. My daughter’s art has now been seen by thousands of gearheads around the world. I love the web.

Turning your company inside out

TechPubs is not a very influential department in most companies. You’re considered a cost centre, massaging content and concepts that originate elsewhere in the company (like engineering), and then pushing it out into the world. As a result, most departments justifiably consider themselves underfunded and understaffed, and find themselves fighting for budgets and respect.

But the times are a-changin’. Multi-channel publishing initiatives like syndication networks and collaborative product development are accelerating demand for high-quality content. Blogging, Wikis, and other social-software phenomena are transforming the nature of marketing on the web. In the Web 2.0 world, people don’t buy products, they join communities. Often, those communities know more about how your company’s products actually work than the engineers who designed them. This presents a tremendous opportunity to the forward-looking techpubs department to turn their traditional role inside-out, and become a conduit for customer participation in the process of designing and documenting products.

Many will, understandably, fear this change. Letting your customers participate directly in the development of product documentation will require new processes, new ways of working, new relationships. But in that change is an opportunity to become more meaningfully engaged in the process of creating excellent products.

OpenDocument – why do we need this again?

Look – I’m as big a standards geek as you’re likely to meet, and I have a world of respect for Tim Bray, but I simply do not understand why I should care very much about ODF, let alone why it should “turn the world inside out“. As far as I can see, this is simply encoding as XML the same broken model we’ve had in MS Office for many years now. Content and presentation mashed together in a jumble, and ten years from now, if I want to get my content out, I’ll need to know quite a bit about how openoffice works (encodes fields, handles page breaks, styles text runs).

Contrary to Tim’s comments to News.com, the web was a tremendous explosion, not because HTML was an open standard (it really wasn’t at the time). Leaving aside the fact that we had access to a world wide network for the first time, a) there were browsers on nearly every computer, b) HTML was simple enough that it could be coded by hand in notepad, and c) because you could teach yourself how to write it by using “view source” on any page you thought was cool. ODF: strike one, two and three by my count. Decouple the content from the presentation entirely, and then I’ll be impressed.

To me, DITA is the more singificant development. Now we can take a sophisticated XML content framework, and specialize it with company/industry/domain semantics without needing to futz around with DTDs or Schema. True single source, multi-channel publishing. Now that could turn everything inside out, not refighting the office suite wars of the 80’s.

Web 2.0 – is it really made of people?

One of the most interesting things about the web 2.0 conference was all the talk about communities. About how this new wave of innovation is really about empowering and connecting people. Lots of companies displayed their new plumage for us, displaying all kinds of great new social environments for the expression of social proximity. How are all of these companies going to make money, you ask? They are going to plaster billboards on their plazas and squares, and sell advertising through Google. Somewhere, somebody is going to solve the problem of connecting web communities with community-based business, though, I’m sure of it. That will be cool.