NMK Forum: Jyri Engeström
Our final keynote, Jyri Engeström, spoke on the topic of ‘The Social Mobile Web’ and offered key principles for building a web service that works.
Jyri Engeström is co-founder of jaiku.com, a mobile social software startup. He is also Founder and Vice-Chairman of Aula Network, a nonprofit to advance the vision of a creative society. He maintains a weblog at zengestrom.com.
An increasing number of the most popular sites are built on user-generated content. Jyri has been tracking the number of such sites in the Alexa top 100 over two years. During that time, he’s not only seen the rise of obvious contenders such as MySpace, YouTube and Facebook, but also the decline of the New York Times. Safely within the top fifty two years ago, the site is no longer one of the top 100 sites, according to that particular metric.
The Case for Social Objects
Jyri has been looking at social sites and searching for a way to work out the reasons why they succeed or fail. He followed the rise and fall of Firefly: the site notched up 2mn users at a time when social networks weren’t even spoken about. It was then bought by Microsoft and effectively closed down. Then came Six Degrees, which built a user base of 3mn, only to fail to raise capital for its next phase of growth and again close down. Friendster, a more recent predecessor to MySpace, is still in the top 100 on Alexa, but is gradually dropping down the chart.
These sites might be likened to butterflies [or perhaps mayflies]: they have a burst of popularity and colour, but fade away all too soon. Could MySpace and Facebook also be butterflies? Recently, it’s been looking as though the business contacts network Linked-In might be one, with users flocking to other services. Blogger Russell Beattie pointed out that there was a gaming aspect to the service. The game was to get the most contacts and thus accrue status. More recently, though, the site has adopted some social features to create a more useful usage model.
Engeström believes that the best social sites are built around social objects. Many people describe social networks as being a web of some sort, that’s created around people. However, more thought needs to be put into people’s motivations: why people connect together. Flickr turned photos into social objects. There are many, many ways to interact with others around those objects, but the photos themselves are the subject of the site, not the people. Similarly, del.icio.us has created a social network around the social object of bookmarks. On Amazon (in the main), the object is books. On MySpace it is - or was originally - music.
There are Five Key Principles to Building Social Sites
1. Define Your Object
Successful sites have objects that they are built around. Originally, flickr was a Flash website that was mainly used as a chat environment. It is only since they introduced photos as the key object of attention that they have achieved considerable success. Sites where the object isn’t very clear or are about too many different things may be doomed to failure.
2. Define Your Verbs
These are the things that people can do with these objects, and they must be very clearly marked on the site’s main page. If you go onto eBay, the words ‘buy’ and ’sell’ are very clearly prioritised in the site’s layout. On dogster, a social network for dog-owners, the main verb ‘upload a dog’ appears very prominently. ‘Add new event’ is the main verb on Upcoming. ‘Write a new post’ on Wordpress.
Internet sites might allow for the possibility of new verbs that don’t exist in the physical world. The Scandinavian property site igglo allows for ’silent selling’ - you can put a house up for sale without putting it onto the open market, simply to get an idea of its interest and value.
3. Make these Objects Shareable
Sharing is critical to social sites. In the main, this means that the objects (photos, books, posts, profiles, dogs, etc.) have to have a permalink. A link that will always take users to the object in question. This is a relatively new development. Sites used to have variable addresses that changed from day-to-day and made it almost impossible to link to something in a reliable manner. They might also take the form of thumbnails or widgets, that always link through to the actual item. At the edges, it might be the actual file that is shareable, as on P2P filesharing networks.
4. Turn Invitations into Gifts
When Paypal launched, in order to try to spread the word, every new account holder that signed up following another member’s invitation got $10 credited to their account. Skype headsets were sent out with a second headset and install CD included for free. Jyri used his to set up his mother’s computer with Skype. That made inviting her as a user a benevolent act: he was able to give her the gift of teaching her to make free phone calls.
5. Charge the Publishers not the Spectators
Access to social sites should not be charged. However, there are plenty of people who would be willing to pay to have their content published on such sites. These might be commercial organisations, but might also be users who want to do something such as publish a playlist. Habbo Japan originally launched as a subscription service costing Y300 a month. That was normal in that marketplace. However, it was a failure and the company soon switched to a model that is based around the trade of free furniture.
Can Anything Disrupt Blogs?
A disruptive service has to either be simpler or cheaper or free people from having to go to an incovenient place. Digital cameras, for example, took off because people no longer had to visit a developer and wait in order to get their photos. For a long time, Jyri was trying to think of a service he could provide that might be better than blogging, which is already pretty simple, cheap and convenient. Then he had a baby.
Having a baby cut down considerably on the time he could devote to blogging. Communicating with his network suddenly became enormously expensive. Moving to a micro-blogging format, like Jaiku, whereby he would have to deliver thoughts and messages in 140 characters or less, was indeed simpler. It lowered the commitment, the transaction cost, required to communicate with an audience online. 140 characters might sound enormously constrictive, and in the mass publishing sense it is. However, in the context of people that know you, that short message can have a much larger meaning. Following the birth of his son, Jyri broadcast the message, “Shipped a healthy angry young adult to roam the planet!” If you don’t know him, that’s fairly cryptic, but if you do, it speaks volumes.
Blogs are already pretty cheap. For most people, using a hosted service, it’s free. He didn’t originally think that Jaiku would compete on this plane. Then a teacher in Finland used the service for an educational project. A lot of the contributors to that project were in developing nations, where it’s uncommon to have a PC but relatively more likely that people would own a mobile phone. So because Jaiku doesn’t require a PC, it also fulfils the ‘cheaper’ criteria. Similarly, the ability to update Jaiku from a mobile phone is also more convenient: you don’t need to be in your study or at work or an internet cafe to be able to create or receive an update.
Jyri noted that what Starbucks had done to the culture of coffee was to change it from the scenario whereby people visited a cafe and sat down, to a grabbing a cup and moving on. They made coffee mobile. We’re entering an era of “The mass Starbuck-isation of almost everything” of social objects “to go”. We’re moving from ‘particles’ (videos, blog posts) to a ‘wave’ (continuous updates).