Today I did something that I have been planning to do for a long time. For the last few months/years my Facebook news feed has become subject to a deluge of information that I didn’t really care to see, including, but not limited to, updates like: “Joan just earned the ‘Cream of the Crop’ white ribbon in FarmVille! Joan got a big ol’ reward for being such a great farmer and wants to share their success with you!” Wow, fascinating. Joan is somehow related to me, though I’m not sure that we have ever met. I really couldn’t care less about what FarmVille, nor more generally what Joan has been up to lately. It is (dare I say) spam like this that has brought my Facebook usage down about 80% since its peek in College. In that time, I’ve moved closer and closer to a newer web service, Twitter, where I (at this point) only follow my close friends and people I find interesting. Though there are some significant differences between the two services, one of the main reasons why I have shifted my attention to Twitter is the fact that my social circle (again, at this point) remains more meaningful and more relevant to my offline relationships. So Today I took one step towards reclaiming the value of Facebook. I spent 10 minutes creating a list that I call “Close Friends,” which includes only those people who I actually care to keep up with. I have almost 500 friends on Facebook, and Close Friends includes only 100 of them. Close Friends has become my default news feed on Facebook and my Facebook friends have no idea if they are included or not in this list (Joan unfortunately did not make the cut). One might even argue that within my existing social circle this represents a type of asymmetric follow. In other words, those friends that are on my exclusive list are not required to include me in their own exclusive list. Ok ok, Facebook friend lists have been around since the end of 2007, but social graph segmentation is an issue that many social web services continue to struggle with, and it is a critical component for the future of the social web and the delicate balance struck therein between private and public. I have always complained about consuming too much data, but the other side of the coin may deserve even greater urgency. There may be certain shared items (status updates, location updates, funny videos) that I would rather not share with potential employers, family members, or coworkers, but that I am more than happy to share with close friends from Wesleyan. Any vision for a distributed social web should include the ability to segment access (or consumption) across different social web services. Imagine a Facebook privacy control panel for the entire web (without the Facebook logo of course) where the user controls who or what groups have access to which content. In a socialized web where online identity is secure, reliable, and standardized, and where interoperability allows for the integration of “lists” across social platforms, content could be tagged with keywords to denote who or what groups can see what and for how long. That content can then be syndicated throughout the web with access granted to only those users that fall within that web-wide list. For the more hands-off users a general privacy control panel might allow them to set access based on the type of item shared (video, photo, text, etc.). The additional benefit would be, of course, the ability to segment and prioritize by identity the massive amount of content we consume (ala Close Friends lists). We all hope that one day a layer of identity will emerge beneath the web, allowing users to interact with services as people, not screen names. As people we will expect those web services to be able to speak to each other, forming an online experience that in its totality is far greater than the sum of its parts (and far more lucrative). With that in mind, one of the central components to this experience will be a reliable system of segmentation for the secure and convenient delivery of and access to content.
Monthly Archives: August 2009
“Free is not a pricing strategy, a marketing strategy, or the inevitable consequence of a market with low variable costs. It’s a symptom of a much more fundamental economic shift.”
Brad has some shed light on the dark corners of Chris Anderson’s “economic” argument and has at the same time proposed a new way to think about the exchange of value in networked content delivery. Here is the problem that we encounter when trying to apply conventional economic models to modern web services: The price of a good is understood to rely on the supply of that good (production inputs of capital + labor) as well as the demand for that good (consumer utility). The question we have to ask however, is what happens when utility is driven by the number of consumers who engage in the service? Through their engagement, consumers end up increasing their own utility, thereby driving further user adoption (a shift outward in the utility curve). This in turn increases utility and continues the feedback loop.
When a user engages in a useful social web service, she derives a value from that service that is necessarily greater than her individual contribution. While the consumption of the greater-than-the-sum-of-its-parts final good is partially paid for by her contribution, the remainder is paid for in the form of user attention. Traditionally, user attention is then monetized by web services through a third party: advertisers. In some cases, user attention is sold back to the user at a premium (i.e. ad-free web experience).
Social web services supply users with a reliable infrastructure and a set of algorithms for the maintenance of a network. The infrastructure product could be a considered a direct good, as it results directly from capital and labor inputs paid for by a firm. The network phenomenon itself however, while sustained by the direct good, produces an indirect good that requires for its existence a healthy level of user engagement. This indirect good is the collective intelligence, and it results from a combination of a reliable infrastructure (including useful algorithms) and labor inputs given freely by the consumer. In other words, social web services supply two goods that differ in form, production, price, and demand dynamics.
I am having a difficult time wrapping my head around what might be considered a reasonable model for marginal cost for social web services. On the one hand you could argue that if infrastructure was the only good produced by social web services, then indeed marginal cost would seem to move inexorably towards 0. On the other hand, if you recognize that there is something else at play here, some other product being created by a network effect beyond the direct control of the social web service, then perhaps our traditional understandings of marginal cost fail to provide clarity. Perhaps one might look towards the more intangible costs of a healthy level of user engagement: brand trust, robust reputation systems, signaling potential, social context. These elements are more difficult to quantify, but should certainly be considered “inputs” into the production of a sustainable collective intelligence.
I highly recommend reading Brad’s article. Freeconomics desperately needs a more useful (and economically grounded) framework for debate or, as Brad says, “we are not just talking past each other, we are talking about the wrong things.”
Day 2 – Beijing
Yesterday was Great Wall day. We awoke at 6:30am, and headed downstairs to find a taxi to take us to the Simatai section of the great wall. After a short negotiation we got the driver to a reasonable price and began our journey. Using my faithful iPhone translation app, I was able to ask our driver what his name was: Mister Lee.
Mister Lee was more artist than driver, and as we jammed out to Kenny G for the entire journey (the best of album, twice over), we feared on multiple occasions that that car ride would be our last. Passing three trucks at once is no big deal, especially when you compare it to passing three trucks at once while going around a left turn on a two lane street. There was one moment during Kenny G’s cover of Celine Dion’s “My Heart Will Go On” that we were sure Mister Lee had run out of luck, but with a graceful flick of the wheel we avoided the oncoming jersey barrier and slipped in front of the truck to our right. Mister Lee got us to the wall alive (he pointed and exclaimed “wall” as it appeared over the horizon), and we began our ascent.
The Simatai section of the Wall is more difficult to get to than the popular Badaling section, but it has a much smaller tourist crowd. It is also more ‘authentic’ than the Badaling section, which is mostly reconstructed and, we are told, more Disney World-y. We ran into a group of Australians who we traveled with throughout the day (one of them had done it before). The 5 mile hike was challenging, but utterly astounding. The day at the Great Wall was alone worth the plane ticket. I took about 350 pictures and will be sure to upload them as soon as I get home.
After the 4-5 hour hike we joined our Australian friends for lunch and stuffed our faces. Mister Lee was waiting for us in the parking lot and was a little peeved that we had taken so long. He more than made up for that time on the way home, while treating us to another round of Kenny G.
When we returned to Beijing we spent a few hours recovering from the hike, then headed out to the famous Beijing Night Market, right outside our hotel. Cooper made a point to seek out some Fried Scorpion, and enjoyed it thoroughly. I had a teeny leg, which was more than enough to quench my appetite for Scorpion. Continuing our walk in the market, we were surprised to hear one of the workers yell “PENIS!” in our direction. Yes, that’s right, there was penis for sale. Sheep’s penis.
Cooper said he’d try it if I paid (around $7), and I gladly obliged. The penis took a few minutes to fry, and it came out looking delicious. Cooper dove right in, and the video I took of the experience will speak louder than anything I could write.
I’ll say two things: Cooper eating penis has given us way more than enough jokes to last us the rest of the trip, and the guy whose job it is to yell “PENIS!” has the best job in the world. Post-penis we both tried Bird’s Nest, and Cooper rounded out the experience with some shark meat. We avoided the dog.
Today we saw the Temple of Heaven and the Summer Palace. Both very cool sights, both a bit too crowded for our taste. Still, some really beautiful sites. Tonight we are having Peking Duck at a famous little hole-in-the-wall and are very exciting. I’ll have a full report tomorrow, though I’m sure unless Cooper gets some more dick in him he won’t be satisfied.
Day 0 – Beijing:
I arrived at Beijing Airport around 2pm Beijing time, 13.5 hours after taking off in Newark around 12:30pm EST. I watched a rousing 5 movies on the flight, with 0 hours of shut-eye. After meeting up with Cooper outside immigration we left the airport for our hotel in central Beijing. Our first exchange with a Chinese person was in the taxi where we tried our best to communicate the name of the hotel, but with little success. Only after speaking to his English speaking friend? colleague? on the phone were we finally able to locate the hotel, with a promise from the “friend” that if it was not the right hotel, we could try another one. Luckily, we found it on the first try and because I didn’t know how to communicate our victory I thought it only appropriate to use the universal language of applause.
In the remaining hours of daylight (and with whatever energy I could muster after not sleeping for 24 hours), we were able to check out Tiananmen square, and the entrance to the Forbidden City with Chairman Mao’s watchful gaze looming over us. Starving, we wandered into a restaurant that appeared clean and comfortable. Though the waitress appeared to be speaking rapid chinese, forming complicated sentences to our befuddlement, it’s probably the case that she was slowing articulating “HELLO, WHAT DO YOU WANT?”. We did our best to point to items on the menu (something we’ve become very accustomed to), and said thank you as much as possible. Cooper’s food arrived first and he began eating. It wasn’t until the second dish arrived about 5 minutes later that we realized he had been eating my dish all along. At least the waitresses were laughing. Meal #1: success.
Day 1: Having passed out at 8:30pm the night before, I awoke easily around 6am ready to go. We walked back to Tiananmen square and I got a sweet Chairman Mao wrist watch. At each second he salutes. I bargained down from 150 Yuan to 50 Yuan (approx $7) – I just hope it continues to work long enough to show people at home. At opening time, we walked right under Mao and into the Forbidden City. The City covers 700,000 square meters and is comprised of over 900 rooms. The Forbidden City is a bit of a misnomer since at peak hours it makes Times Square look like Main Street Hyannis. We made the right call going early, and we even had some more obscure corners of the City to ourselves for a few moments. It was a truly magnificent site, and apart from the throngs of tourists we thoroughly enjoyed ourselves exploring blindly.
After about 4 hours of exploring we took a cab to an area around the lakes to the north of the Forbidden City (Hou Hai) for some lunch. While waiting for lunch we ran into twin sisters from Minnesota who joined us for the meal. They had been in China for four weeks and one of them spoke decent Chinese. We hung out for a bit post-lunch and we were lucky enough to get some great recommendations from them. I also learned how to say I have no penis: Mei Yo Gigi.
Leaving the restaurant I accidentally dropped the Chairman Mao watch on the ground. When I exclaimed “Oh no Chairman Mao!” a Chinese worker next to me laughed and mimicked “Oh no Chairman Mao! ha ha ha.” My first Chinese friend – then he asked me to buy something.
After parting ways we headed to Jing Shan Park, which overlooks the Forbidden City. For some reason the park was full of singing groups. Group sizes ranged from 4 people to 40 people. The voices of the larger groups echoed throughout the entire park, which made for a surreal climb to the top. As we reached the main Pagoda, we were struck again with the magnificence of the Forbidden City, only this time from a different angle. I’m eager to get these pictures up on Flickr, and will do so as soon as I get back to the States. That’s all for now folks. Hou Hai and the Night Market for dinner tonight, then an early morning tomorrow as we cab it out to the Simatai section of the Great Wall (of China) for a full day of hiking.