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Will email be dead in 5 years? September 17, 2007

Posted by jeremyliew in communication, Consumer internet, email, facebook, myspace, social networks, start-up, startups, VC, Venture Capital, virtual worlds.
14 comments

I used to work with John McKinley at AOL where he was CTO and, later, President of Digital Services. I have enormous respect for him. In a recent blog post, he says that email in its current form is under attack and doesn’t have long to live:

We are in the midst of an important moment of truth – email as we know it is under attack, and the major firms are not moving fast enough to prevent it from becoming more of a niche form of communications in the next 5 years. The email experience of today is being threatened on multiple fronts by a variety of new forms of communication:

  • Twitter/short-form blogging
  • Asynchronous messaging in social networks (e.g., the Facebook Wall)
  • IM experiences now supporting queuing of messages to offline buddies
  • Away message/Status message utilization in instant messaging
  • SMS adoption (late to come to the US, but now pervasive)
  • Wikis and other new collaboration platforms
  • Comments (MySpace comments, Blog comments, et al)
  • Casual communication forms (the nudge, the wink)
  • New sharing experiences (Flickr, et al)
  • Email aggregators (e.g., I use Gmail to aggregate all of my AOL, Yahoo, and POP3 accounts. These other companies still bear all the cost of hosting my email accounts, but now get none of the pageviews.)
  • Email and IM integration into social networks (the new entrant risk).
  • People have more compelling, more contextual, more effective, and more convenient options to share and interact than ever before, and incumbent forms of communications will be the losers here.

    John hits on a very interesting broader point. Every few years a new form of communication arises and for some people this becomes their primary form of communication. Over time, earlier forms of communication lose overall share. This has happened to letter writing, telegraphs, talking on the phone, Usenet newsgroups, chat rooms, and message boards in the past. Email has displaced many of these prior forms of communication over the last 15 years, and is now under threat itself.

    I don’t think all of the communication forms John lists above are equally threatening to email. Some are just features, and others have communication as a secondary aspect to another purpose. But it is clear that SMS, IM and social network messaging have supplanted email use among teens. Kids and teens are also some of the earliest and most enthusiastic adopters of casual immersive worlds.

    As John points out:

    The risk is as follows: the major internet incumbents rely tremendously on having a robust base of consumer email account relationships to feed their ad/search businesses. Having that email inbox relationship can yield 2x the monthly page views, when compared with non-email-account consumers.

    The reason is simple – users are more likely to use their primary form of online communication as their homepage. This is why the social networks threaten portals. Being a homepage is an incredibly powerful position because as the first page a user sees, you have an ability to influence what other pages a user sees.

    The portals have long used webmail as the “milk at the back of the store” – a low margin product that keeps users coming back. But to get to the milk you have to walk past the high margin impulse purchase products in a supermarket – the candy and the cookies and the chips. Similarly, to get to your email you have to get past the editorial programming on the portals homepage. A few extra impulse clicks to which shows won at the Emmys or to read about the 700 foreclosure homes being auctioned in one city, and the portal generates some advertising revenue.

    This presents a real opportunity for startups. In the past, innovators that have driven mass adoption of new forms of communication have been bought by big portals well before they needed to show a revenue model, with ICQ and Hotmail being the two best examples. I’d be interested to hear what readers think are today’s most promising candidates for new forms of communication.

    Social design for social media companies August 15, 2007

    Posted by jeremyliew in communication, Consumer internet, Internet, social media, social networks, user generated content, web 2.0.
    2 comments

    At the end of June, Motorola published the results of an ethnographic study that they did on the sharing (communication) practices of family and friends. They collected in depth data for 2-3 weeks on 5 different social groups. The powerpoint is well worth reading as a reinforcement of the principles of social product design. The key findings will apply to anyone building social media and communications products:

    Motorola Findings

    As one of the study’s authors says on the Motorola blog:

    When we talk about the “user experience” the main emphasis is often on an individual’s experience with a particular technology. Even with a purported social technology, for example a social networking site, we still tend to create for the individual’s interaction with the site (how does someone find their friend, how do they access this site easily from a mobile device).

    However, designing for sociability means thinking about how people experience each other through the technological medium, not just thinking about how they experience the technology. The emphasis is on the human-to-human relationship, not the human-to-technology relationship. This is a crucial difference in design focus. It means designing for an experience between people.

    Read the whole thing , but one example that really struck home to me was about “focusing on the (meta) message” rather than “focusing on the mechanics of communication”. If you understand the meta message being sent as part of communications, you can really improve your users experience. Motorola gives two “meta messages” that are common “I know you” and “I care about you”. Facebook‘s birthday notifications on their homepage is a great example of a product feature that supports both of these meta messages. It helps users know when to write on a friend’s wall (or Superwall!) to send both these messages, both to the recipient, and as a performance for other friends of the recipient.

    For those interested in more about social design, I also find Josh Porter’s blog Bokardo quite helpful.

    What’s in a name? That which we call a wiki by any other name would smell as sweet July 30, 2007

    Posted by jeremyliew in communication, Consumer internet, Internet, Search, social networks, web 2.0, wiki.
    4 comments

    (with apologies to William Shakespeare)

    Recently Ben Elowitz, CEO of Wetpaint, wondered why the term “wiki” was not better understood. Wetpaint (a wiki company), prompted by wiki being listed as one of the top 10 most hated internet words, commissioned a survey to ask online users about their awareness of wikis, as compared to blogs, social networks, forums and search engines.

    At the top level, the awareness levels were as follows:

    Awareness Survey

    Since these were online users (not the general population) this could be construed as discouraging; many don’t seem familiar with the basic technologies behind the modern web. However, I think that the data is misleading – while many people may not know about the technology, they do know specific examples of these technologies. As always, people focus on how their problems are being solved, not on what technologies are being used to solve those problems.

    Take search as an example. Although only 76% of internet users were familiar with the term “search engine”, Google was recently announced to have the most powerful brand in the world. It beat household names like Coca Cola, Marlboro and Toyota. Its hard to imagine that there are ANY internet users who don’t use a search engine an a regular basis, whether they know the term of not.

    Similarly, although only 28% of the surveyed audience were aware of the term “social networking site”, according to Comscore 64% of US internet users visited a social network in June 2007, with 39% visiting MySpace alone. Awareness does not appear to be a barrier to usage.

    The same is also true of wikis. Although only 16% of internet users were aware of the term wiki, Comscore says that 26% of US internet users visited Wikipedia in June. If people are using Wikipedia, it doesn’t matter if it sits in the “encyclopedia” category or the “wiki” category in their minds

    In the most successful consumer technologies, the technology becomes transparent to the user. Apple has sold over 100m iPods but I’m sure that many iPod users will not be familiar with terms like MP3, AAC or DRM. Users of cordless drills may not be familiar with the term Lithium Ion, even though that is hoe their drill became cordless.

    For consumer facing internet startups the lesson is to view the world through your users’ eyes. Talk about the problems you’re solving, not about the technologies you use to solve those problems. That means more about “music” and less about “ACC”, more about “writing” and less about “blogs”, more about “collaboration” and less about “wikis”. After all, as Juliet tells Romeo:

    That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet

    Facebook apps are providing new stages for “performance” by users July 17, 2007

    Posted by jeremyliew in communication, Consumer internet, facebook, Internet, performance, self espression, social media, social networks, user generated content, web 2.0, widgets.
    10 comments

    Its now widely agreed that the two most common behaviors on social networks are self expression and communication.

    Most of the online revolutions have been driven by new forms of communication. This started with Usenet and BBSs back before there was an internet, moved through the chat rooms of early AOL, the mainstreaming of email and the instant messaging revolution with AIM and ICQ. Communication has always been a large portion of overall time spent online because it drives both frequency of visit (people check for communications often) and depth of visit (reading and responding to your messages takes time).

    Social networking is no exception, and that is what has driven the extraordinary pagesviews for the top social networks. In the case of social networks, the primary communications channels are private messages and public comments. You can see how these relate to other older forms of online communication below:

    communications-matrix.png

    Social network private messages look a lot like webmail. Public comments on social networks are newer and more interesting. Indeed, Danah Boyd includes public comments as one of the three defining features of social networks (along with Profiles and Friends lists). Unlike message boards, public comments “belong” to a single person and are addressed directly at them. But as Danah has also pointed out (I wish I was half as smart as her!), there is also a performance component to public comments on social networks.

    This is best understood with an example. Suppose it’s your birthday, and I know it. If I send you an email wishing you “Happy Birthday” then you’re happy that I remembered. This communication is part of the social lubricant on which relationships are built.

    But supposed that I post “Happy Birthday” to your Facebook Wall instead. Then not only do you know that I remembered, but ALL OF YOUR FRIENDS know that I remembered as well. They may find out from the feed, or by visiting your page, but they will know that I’m a good enough friend of yours that I know when is your birthday. That is the performance element of the communication.

    Indeed, Danah says that your Friends list is your best guess at the audience for whom you are performing:

    The collection of ‘Friends’ is not simply a list of close ties (or what we would normally call ‘friends’). Instead, this feature allows participants to articulate their imagined audience – or who they see as being a part of their world within the site. While SNSes have millions of users, most participants only care about a handful of them. Who they care about is typically represented by the list of Friends. If an individual imagines her profile to be primarily of concern to a handful of close friends, she is quite likely to have very few ‘Friends’ and, if the technology allows it, she’ll keep her profile private. If she wants to be speaking to her broader peers, her Friends list is likely to have hundreds or thousands of Friends who are roughly the same age, have the same style, listen to the same music, and are otherwise quite similar to her. She is also quite likely to keep her profile publically [sic] visible to anyone so that she can find others in her peer group (boyd 2006).

    Historically, the Wall (Facebook)/Friend’s Comments (Myspace, Bebo and others) has been the only place on a profile where another user can put something on your page. The rest of the profile has been completely under the author’s control.

    However, some of the Facebook apps have changed this paradigm. A number of the most popular apps allow another user to put something on your profile, including #2 Graffiti, #7 X me, #8 Superpoke, #9 Free Gifts, #15 Superwall, #16 Foodfight and lots more. [Note: X me and Superwall are both owned by Rockyou, a Lightspeed company].

    In my own experience, performance is an aspect to the use of these apps as well. I feel a certain pressure to choose something “clever” to X someone (e.g. “defenestrate”, “disdain” or “milk”), and if I’m leaving graffiti on a friends page, I try to make it good. The popularity of these apps suggests that social network users are craving more stages for their performances.

    I’d be interested to hear what readers think.

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