Facebook Rooms: Anonymity at exactly the wrong time

As it’s long been expected to, Facebook finally unveiled its entry into the anonymous app market today. Dubbed “Rooms,” the standalone app does everything it can to hearken back to the early days of the web and the chat rooms that were part of the experience that followed opening Trumpet Winsock logging on via dial-up modem.

Rooms are meant to basically be anonymous chat rooms that anyone can build around any topic, inviting others through the use of QR codes that are either recognized by the app or can be printed out and scanned with the app.

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There are some customization options available and Facebook is promising more tools are coming. But the focus is on anonymity. From the introductory blog post:

That’s why in Rooms you can be “Wonder Woman” – or whatever name makes you feel most comfortable and proud. You can even create different identities for different contexts. In my room for technology industry discussions I am “Josh” but in another about backpacking travel I am “jm90403” – a homage to my hometown zip code. Sometimes I want to go with my real name and sometimes I prefer a nickname. It depends.

Again, they want to go back to the old days of the internet, when lots of people went by usernames that often bore no relation at all to their real names. You could be Wampa74 if you wanted to and fit in with everyone else who had the same sort of pseudonym.

But while Facebook has come under fire for their insistence on using real names (criticism this new app does nothing to blunt, much less defuse) this is 2014. We’re in the middle of GamerGate, where anonymous bullies (calling them “trolls” doesn’t do it justice) are causing female journalists and others to leave their homes for fear of violence and recrimination. Robin Williams’ daughter abandoned Twitter and Instagram because of the anonymous bullying she was subjected to in the wake of her father’s death. And the existing anonymous apps are coming under fire from all sides for entirely predictable reasons.

So while Facebook is trying to get a piece of the anonymous app market, it’s doing so at exactly the wrong time from the perspective of public sentiment. More than ever it’s becoming apparent that anonymity, unless it’s for a legitimate purpose involving the safety of the person or people, is something that’s being abused in ways the trolls who would try to dominate and derail message boards back in the late 90s only dreamed of. People’s entire lives are online, so when they upset one of these bad actors there’s exponentially more damage that can be done, whether online or in the real world.

Taking another perspective, I’m sure there are brand managers around the country who are twiddling their fingers and white-boarding all their ideas for how to build Rooms around their brands’ industry thought leadership, use them as a rallying point for fans and so on. But considering how the app is anonymous, the idea of turning this into a long-term viable community is minimal. There are a dozen ways to misstep here, just like there are in any sort of community effort. It’s almost a certainty, though, that within a week there will be stories about a major company trying and reporting on initial results.

Whatever the case on all these fronts, Facebook finally made good on their promise to get into this market. Now we’ll just have to see both how it pans out on some of the points I’ve raised above and, quite frankly, whether the app survives the year. Facebook has not had great luck when it comes to stand-alone apps. While this takes a very different approach to anonymous conversations than other apps it remains to be seen whether that’s enough to get people to engage in behavior that, in today’s mobile-first world, is fairly unique.

Trailers not the most-shared movie marketing videos

800px-Movie_Trailer_Preview_ScreenI think I speak for everyone when I say I’m a little shocked that trailers aren’t the most frequently shared form of movie content. That comes from a study done by UK advertising firm Unruly Media.

So what is? Funny stuff and music videos.

The study showed the people who watched those other forms of video content (presumably after having it shared with them by a friend) were much more likely to wind up buying a ticket than if they just watched a trailer.

The lesson is remarkably simple and applies to just about all marketing: Don’t be boring. Material that defies expectations is going to not only cut through the clutter more often but also resonate more strongly and create more affinity.

That’s why you see more and more actual marketing and advertising trying to mimic the sort of videos that get passed around from person to person. They want their stuff to be shared and have found a way to do it.

Evernote’s office products are a brilliant form of content marketing

I’ll admit that, while I haven’t bought any of them yet, I love the look of Evernote’s line of deck accessories. The simple lines, the look of the wood…for someone who has a weird thing about desk and other organizational items to begin with (going to The Container Store, something Robin Phillips just wrote about, used to be akin to going to Borders for me) these are the epitome of being right up my alley.

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As I read this Wired story on the products this paragraph jumped out at me:

It’s about finding ways to keep people focused on their work rather than the clutter that’s around them. With the app, Evernote has begun to strip out features and streamline how you take notes. With the market, it’s about identifying those key products that will add to the experience of working at a desktop—things like the warmth and comfort wood provides—without adding to the disorder of our harried work lives.

When we in the industry talk about “content marketing” we’re usually talking about blog posts, native advertising or something like that. “Content” is what we write, film or design for use online. The kind of “online magazine” that brands are increasingly putting out. Or the kind of thing Tumblr is encouraging brands to get on board with. But that’s a massively narrow definition.

What Evernote has done here is a fantastic example of content marketing that extends the branding/brand experience offline not just in a funny way (think of Staple’s real-live Easy button) but in a way that’s contextual with the brand. As the above quote points out, these products are absolutely in line with Evernote’s overall goal of streamlining work and workflows.

Now every retailer has branded products they want to sell you. But the choice to use them is often based on price and not brand affinity. No one feels increased loyalty to Office Max and so, because of that, buys their notebooks over another brands’. They buy them because their $.50 cheaper. The same goes for the free branded chotchkies you get at trade shows or elsewhere. Yes, they’re a form of content marketing, but there’s usually a tenuous connection at best between the item and the brand. That brain-shaped stress ball, for instance, has nothing to do with enterprise video distribution services. It’s just meant to sit there on your desk and remind you that they’re an option if you need one.

Content (while not a great word, it’s the best one available at the moment) is content, wherever you find it. And in this case Evernote has embraced part of its brand identity – functional simplicity – and extended it to a line of products that bring the company’s message into the real world. Sure, they’re most likely to appeal to Evernote users because those users have seen them in the Marketplace. But they also provide an opportunity for those enthusiast users to talk about the company/product in a new and exciting way, making it a tide that will raise all ships. Since that’s the core goal of all content marketing – use owned channels to bring a message to the audience – this absolutely fits that definition.

Twitter takes next step toward curated, algorithmic Timelines

Twitter_512x512Twitter yesterday published this post about their continued “experimentation” with people’s Timelines. Specifically they are looking to keep finding ways to bring in tweets that you “might miss out on” but which may be interesting to you. And here’s how, according to the post, they’re going to make that determination:

  • Activity on accounts you already follow
  • Popularity of the Tweets
  • How people are interacting with those Tweets

But then it ends with this thought:

“As the timeline evolves, we will continue to show you Tweets you care about when they matter most.”

I completely understand what Twitter is trying to do. They want to make the experience, specifically the on-domain experience, more engaging for new and non-power users by bringing up material they feel is relevant. So they’re using those signals (and whatever else) to judge what people are mostly likely to find interesting and, as they say, fill holes in the Timeline with those posts.

But the problem is that the final statement quoted above doesn’t jive with the idea of an algorithmic feed. By definition an algorithmic feed shows the posts *other people* care about, making the assumption that by association you will as well. If other people find it interesting you will too, so we’re showing it to you is the logic.

Let’s start with a simple premise: Social networks, when you first set up a profile, are an opt-in mechanism. If I want to get updates from X (where X can be either an individual, a brand or a fictional character) then I will take the positive action of clicking the Follow/Like/Subscribe button. These are the updates I want to see because, for whatever reason, they’re important or interesting to me.

Then one of two things happen: Either users keep following more and more accounts until their feed gets overwhelmed or they decide that, nope, that’s good and stop at just a select few. (Note that I’m excluding those who completely give up, either deleting their account or abandoning it and becoming “Inactive” accounts.)

Those in the second group may not feel any need to see more posts. They’re good where they are and anything additional is likely to be confusing and unwelcome. For those who fall into first group, tools already exist to help them determine a good signal-to-noise ratio, most notably Lists. But Lists are something that’s not a great user experience either on-domain or through Twitter’s native mobile/desktop apps. The best option there is Tweetdeck or an outside tool like Hootsuite. There are options though.

Plenty of us like the stream, even if we also use tools that allow us to curate based on our interests. The key, though, is that those tools are in our control. If I want to remove someone from a List I can. I don’t need – nor do I want – Twitter determining who it feels I should see as important. Just because something is popular among the people I follow doesn’t mean I need to see it. NYU’s Jay Rosen has dubbed it the “Ice Bucket Feed” since it’s more likely to show posts that have been engaged with by others, as the Ice Bucket Challenge was on Facebook, but engagement doesn’t automatically translate into importance.

To be clear, I’m not against Twitter trying to increase engagement and subsequent usage. But, as I’ve stated before, it needs to at the very least have an opt-out option that’s permanent until I say otherwise. One of the constant frustrations is every day going to Facebook and LinkedIn and changing them to “most recent” as opposed to the feed that shows what it thinks I’d be most interested in. I don’t want to outsource what I see to these networks.

On LinkedIn: Ello and Brand Identity

This was originally publishing on Linkedin here

elloBy now we’ve all heard of Ello, the upstart social network that some are hailing as the “anti Facebook” and some are dismissing out of hand for a variety of reasons, many of them legitimate.

While I remain skeptical about the role Ello can play in changing the social network landscape there was one point that was familiar to almost every new social network launch I can remember: There was no built in mechanism for discerning legitimate brand profiles from ones being created by random fans or other squatters.

That point has come into sharp relief (for me at least) when I read that The Atlantic is wondering just who it is that’s running an Ello account using their name. And I’m sure there are other instances of brands who have suddenly found they have an Ello profile without ever having set one up. (Update since I started writing this: They found out)

Just once I would like to see a social network launch with an official process in place for brand names to be registered, accompanied by one that allowed for fraudulent profiles to be easily disputed. Instead this is a problem that seems to crop up every time and take everyone by surprise. It would be nice to see one that stopped people from registering whatever they want.

Some have lauded Ello for being so unrestrictive, saying that freedom is welcome in an age when Facebook is under fire not only for its apparent advertising-driven development policy but also its insistence on real names and identities, something they say restricts the internet and free speech. All valid points.

But the reality is we’re not living in that “wild west” era of the social web any longer. We’re operating in a world where brands want to be part of the social network experience. We can debate the role they should or shouldn’t play, but the reality is where there’s an audience there will be companies looking to reach them, especially when it’s on a hip new network where they can not only be seen as incredibly hip to what’s new and shiny but maybe get a little press for doing so while they’re at it.

The next big social network looking to make a splash would be well-advised to have the question of how to deal with brand accounts, either real or impostors, before launch so situations like this don’t keep cropping up.

On Medium: Rebooting a Love of Reading

This post was originally published on Medium here

When I was a kid I loved to read. I would check out book after book from the Elmhurst (IL) Public Library in stacks of five at a time and go through them like my life depended on it. That continued through my early junior high years, when I would discover authors like Tom Clancy, Douglas Adams and others whose writing would fill my imagination.

Then, like some people fall away from church as they get older, I fell away from reading novels. Occasionally I’d pick up something but I was Very Busy and didn’t have time to just read.

But then two things coincided to rekindle that love of books: I got my drivers license and got my first job. So, in the summer of 1991 I was able to get myself to the Borders close to home and buy Bram Stoker’s Dracula and Norman Mclean’s A River Runs Through It, the source novels for two movies coming out soon and which I was looking forward to seeing. From there on out, with access to seemingly *any* book I wanted and the means to buy them I splurged on everything I could all the way through college. Novels, histories, biographies. I read as much as I could.

Once again, though, life got Very Busy. I got married, had kids, began my career and all that. And, aside from something random that would cross my path, I didn’t read for pleasure for a very long time. I rationalized it saying I did so much reading of RSS feeds and other things on the web that I just didn’t have the time or inclination. That there wasn’t a chance for me to pay that much attention to a book for any length of time. And I was likely doing my disinclination to read no favors by focusing on “business” books that whose primary impact was not knowledge but an overpowering desire to take a nap.

Which brings me to about two months ago and something very unexpected that has rekindled my love of sitting down with a good book.

My brother-in-law brought over a bunch of stuff he was asking us to store for a little while. Included in all that were a few boxes of his books, most of which were sci-fi/fantasy Lord of the Rings knock-offs from the late 70s and early 80s. But in there amongst all the wizards were a bunch of early Tom Clancy books. So, deciding it would be a fun trip down Memory Lane I cracked open The Hunt For Red October, which I hadn’t read in probably 25 years.

After gulping that down I turned to Elmore Leonard’s Rum Punch, something I’d never read, though I had of course seen Jackie Brown, Quentin Tarantino’s film adaptation of the book. And I kept going through the Clancy and Leonard books that were in the boxes. And I’ve started checking out books from the local library on the Kindle that has been largely collecting dust for the last year and a half. I’m halfway through Ready Player One and am enjoying every minute of it, with a long list of books to work through after this one’s done.

Is this something massively important? No, not in the grand scheme of things. Is there a valuable lesson to be learned? No, not really? But it’s a personal story that I hope encourages people who may think they’re too busy or have better things to do to put down what they’re doing and enjoy a good book.

Twitter needs not just active users but ad revenue

Twitter_512x512John McDuling at Quartz says Twitter is closer to fixing the problem of what to do with its passive audience – i.e. those who see tweets but never log in and create themselves – but I don’t think he actually says what that solution might be.

The “problem” is that people are engaging with Twitter or seeing updates from Twitter in ways that don’t translate into them becoming active users. Or, for that matter, that they aren’t even registering to become users int the first place. So they may see a tweet embedded on another page or something but that doesn’t prompt them to actually get onto Twitter and get involved themselves.

McDuling offers one suggestion for making things a bit more welcoming for people with the idea of providing a curated Timeline around a single event/theme like the World Cup. That makes a lot of sense and Twitter has played around with ideas like that both on their own and with the ability to create Custom Timelines, though that’s something that’s only available on the power-user tool Tweetdeck. But it makes sense to continue this notion and offer someone like the NFL the ability to add a custom experience for, say, Bears fans at NFL.com/TwitterBears or something like that. Bring in curated tweets, offer custom video and so on. Make it a destination.

But I think McDuling overlooks something big: Ads. While user acquisition is certainly an important thing they should be focusing on I think Twitter also needs to look at ways to monetize the logged-out user experience. I’m not more a fan of advertising than anyone else, meaning I tolerate it as a necessary tool that’s in place so that I can enjoy “free” entertainment and other content. But now that Twitter is a public company I don’t think they can continue to hold Wall Street’s interest by just focusing on how to get more people to sign up. There will always be X percentage of people who are never going to sign up, so the company needs to figure out how to still make money on those individuals.

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