Microsoft completely missed the rise of social networks, but amazingly so did AOL, who had AIM as a great starting point.
I wrote about possibly building something cool on top of AIM based on the Buddygopher experiment, way back in 2006, and I was contacted by people reporting to Jim Bankoff, a VP at AOL. We set up a project to build what would have been a very cool app: project name Nerdvana. My partner, Greg Narain, and I were pushing at content curation through a stream-based, open follower architecture leveraging the 400M+ AIM accounts then in use.
Alas, Jim Bankoff, now CEO of SB Nation, left AOL after Randy Falco joined AOL. The project petered out without serious sponsorship, the budget pulled away to other AIM related projects. We never even got to build the prototype.
But Microsoft and Yahoo also failed to try to make the transition from disconnected buddylists to a unified social network. Likewise my client Jabber, who opted to not build a social network solution on top of its distributed protocol, and is now a part of Cisco.
You can say that these ideas were too early, but these are companies that had all the motivation in the world to experiment ahead of the wavefront.
Perhaps this failure to attempt to design speculatively is another proof of Ven Rao’s Manufactured Normalcy Field: the sense that the present will last a good while into the future, instead of the continuous creative destruction mindset, where the present is being relentlessly consumed by the future, which is only a few weeks, days, or minutes from now. But the bigger the company, the more likely they are to act as if the present is eternal, and the future is retreating as fast as they amble forward.
That’s why Microsoft has fallen so far, to the point where Apple’s revenues from the iPhone alone are more than Microsoft’s entire top line. That’s why AOL has fallen like a meteorite, vaporizing on a death trajectory toward the center of the Earth. That’s why Yahoo has lost its mojo. They stopped speculating, and tried to treat the future as the back porch of the present.
I guess it’s not unexpected, since rumors have been flying around about more cuts at AOL:
AOL Slashes Staff at AIM Unit; Wider Cuts Expected - Nick Bilton via NYTimes.com
The AOL Instant Messenger group took the deepest cut so far. A former AOL employee said the group was “eviscerated and now only consists of support staff.” This person, who asked not to be named because they were not allowed to speak publicly about the company, added that “nearly all of the West Coast tech team has been killed.”
In a statement given to The New York Times, AOL confirmed last week’s layoffs. A company spokeswoman declined to say how many employees had been cut.
“We are making some strategic but very difficult changes to better align our resources with key areas of growth for us as a company,” the statement said. “We remain committed to our presence in Silicon Valley and driving innovation in consumer products and mobile.”
Jason Shellen, vice president of the AOL messenger products who was based in the company’s West Coast offices and who once ran Thing Labs, is among those leaving. Mr. Shellen declined to comment, but AOL confirmed his departure.
I think AOL blew a great chance.
Starting in late 2006, Greg Narain and I worked on a project with AOL, called Nerdvana, where we envisioned using the buddylist model of AIM as the basis for a brand new way to share media. The images above were taken from a design we produced in early 2007. Relatively quickly after that date we were bogged down in endless committees all fighting for their funding, following the arrival of Randy Falco, and the departure of smart people like Jim Bankoff, now the CEO of SB Nation, who hired us in the first place.
Bankoff and other at AOL had their curiousity piqued by a piece I wrote in April 2005, called Nerdvana, that sketched out a new synthesis of instant messaging, social networking, and social media sharing. And it included an open follower analog, which was implemented in Twitter in 2006.
A year later, I was approached by an AIM manager, Alan Keister, and we launched an effort to prototype the Nerdvana concept. However, once Bankoff was gone, the project slowly ground to a halt, and was shut down because our design was ‘too complicated’ for the folks still there to grasp. Or maybe we were trying to do too much.
Still, a shame: because AIM had hundreds of millions of users at the time, sending billions of messages every day. Nerdvana might have been a breakout for AOL, instead of dying the death of a thousand cuts.
And with AOL’s CFO, Artie Minson, now running M.A.M.A — mobile, AIM, Mail, and About.me — I have to presume they are positioning themselves to sell it off, or spin it out.
The truth is that the numbers for AOL’s Patch efforts look bad, based on the southern California numbers leaked to Business Insider. It’s especially bad when you contrast them with traffic generated by Huffington Post, with is topical, not local.
The reality is people don’t want ‘reportage’ on a local level: they may want better search, and the ability to complain about potholes, but they aren’t super excited about the PTA board meeting, or even the local high school sports. Yawn.
People are signing up in the millions for experiences online like Facebook, Twitter and Tumblr, where traditional news has been reduced to a stream of social objects, and these find their way to us in social streams. Patch is the effort to build thousands of destination sites in a world where people are spending less time on sites, and more time inside social apps.
The saddest thing of all is that Greg Narain and I sketched out a project for AOL years ago called Nerdvana, which would have been a breakthrough in that area, building on the very considerable headstart that AOL had with AIM.
That’s what people still want, though. So AOL could divert a few million of that Patch money to a startup taking a hard look at what’s going on in Twitter and Tumblr, and do something interesting, instead of building a massive and unsustainable flop.
I am going to start referring to the release of the Facebook platform model as the Facebook Discontinuity, since it seems like the history of social networking apps will be dated before and after.
Among other things, the FB Discontinuity has forced the vendors of various doggy offerings to accelerate their implicit or explicit plans to kill or drastically revamp sluggard apps.
For example, I recently learned about the Google/Carnegie Mellon SocialStream project [pointer: Search Engine Watch], which sounds like the fusion of meta-network notions with the flow and traffic model (as found in Twitter, Facebook, Jaiku, and others).
An Introduction to the Project
Socialstream is the result of a Google-sponsored capstone project in the Master’s program at Carnegie Mellon University’s Human-Computer Interaction Institute. This project was guided by three goals that built upon each other:
Initial Task: Rethink and reinvent online social networking
Refined Focus: Discover the user needs related to social networking and explore how a unified social network service can enhance their experience.
Prototype Goal: Create a system for users to seamlessly share, view, and respond to many types of social content across multiple networks.
Directed to help improve the online community orkut, the project’s scope was not to simply redesign the interface. Our team considered how online social networking could bring greater value to users, especially for ages above twenty. After initial brainstorming and research, we chose to focus on the effects of a new model for online social networking: a unified social network that, as a service, provides social data to many other applications. Our user research examined needs related to online as well as offline social networking and considered how they related to a unified social network service model. Through this user research we identified a set of archetypes that represent common behavior patterns that existed across multiple study participants and also formulated a summarized list of their high level needs.
Also, the rumor about Yahoo’s Mosh seems to be spreading (mostly courtesy of TechCrunch), which I am trying to clarify with my contacts in Yahoo. This is likely to be the Discontinuity-inspired end of Yahoo 360, which has had a disappointing pageview downturn, as interesting in MySpace and Facebook has risen.
Anyway, more to follow on both fronts as I weasel my way into getting more insight into the technology and business plans behind both Socialstream and Mosh.
Dan Farber’s scoop about LinkedIn’s plans to adapt to the new world that Facebook is making is almost anticlimatic:
[from � LinkedIn to open up to developers | Between the Lines | ZDNet.com by Dan Farber]
I talked to LinkedIn founder and Chairman Reid Hoffman on Friday at the Supernova 2007 conference about Facebook’s rapid growth and potential incursion into his territory. He told me that over next 9 months LinkedIn would deliver APIs for developers, ostensibly to make it more of platform like Facebook, and create a way for users who spend more time socially in Facebook to get LlinkedIn notifications.
One half of that message is just sensible: if you have a huge social network, why not allow others to build on top of it? The second half almost suggests conceding leadership to Facebook, as if Facebook is the really social social network, while Linkedin is some more functional thing that just so happens to work based on social relationships. Which is really what I have always thought was wrong with LinkedIn: it’s a bunch of business processes that are partially automated that rely on a large database of people’s relationships. It is, however, not the sort of place where you make or foster relationships. So, in a way, Reid is conceding nothing, since what Facebook is doing is intensely social, not just leveraging a big dataset of contacts.
In a similar fashion, Plaxo’s Ben Golub and I spoke the other day, and the ‘contact unmanagement’ company has released a beta of Plaxo 3.0: a real category shift, in many ways. Along with a long roster of synchronization options (like Google Calendar, Mac OS X Address Book and Calendar, Outlook, and especially, LinkedIn, which represents a whole new angle: syncing social networks (to be expanded in another post)), Golub and company have added a ‘Pulse’ feature that plants the product over in the camp of flow apps, like Twitter, Jaiku, and Facebook.
Pulse pulls new media traffic from your Plaxo contacts: photos from Flickr, blog updates, address modifications, and so on. I have already requested some kind of desktop tool (like Twitterific) for Pulse.
I find the Plaxo sync stuff sort of awkward, but that’s because I have my calendars and contacts spread out in a very unique way. I use Google Calendar as my actual calendar, and only sync to the Mac OS X iCal so I can sync to my phone. And I have addresses all over, primarily because I can’t sync between my Mac Address app and Google. If Plaxo fixes that I would be happy, but the Google address sync is still planned for the future.
I see Plaxo breaking into two twinned parts: synchronization of various sorts of coordinative data caught up in calendars, address books and to-do lists (yawn… useful, but so twentieth century), and a new (less boring) collection of services that are traffic-and-flow based.
Pulse is another run at the Nerdvana meme I have been pursuing for a long, long time. The basic notion of Nerdvana is that we want to have updates of all sorts from our contacts collated into a buddylist representation, which is where Golub tells be Plaxo is headed. I could see Brian Solis’ online presence, most recent status message, last five blog posts, and recent Flickr pictures, but linked to the buddylist icon for Brian.
[I can’t tell you how many IM companies I have have suggested this too, over the years, by the way. But again, we have to look to the upstarts to do the breakthroughs, I guess.]
If Plaxo heads this way, my recommendation will be to break Pulse out as a separate application, one that relies on data managed within the Plaxo platform, but sylistically and operationally separate. It has nothing to do with sync of data, and everything to do with media traffic flowing through personal relationships.
Both Plaxo and LinkedIn seem to be making serious business model adjustments, based on the new world.
Wow. The hype and antihype is really swirling around the direction that AOL is taking with the project formerly know as AIMSpace, and which now looks likely to be called Head On, as I wrote about yesterday. The “MySpace Killer” meme culminated in a Business 2.0 blurb:
Indeed, word on the street has been that Time Warner’s (Research) AOL would use its AIM instant messenger as a platform to jump on the social networking bandwagon. The B2Day blog reported in March that the project was codenamed “AIMSpace” and was expected to launch in mid-April. AOL exec Tina Sharkey argued that AIM was already the “largest social network in the world.” The rumors got a bit louder this morning as AOL program manager Armughan Javaid confirmed existence of AOL’s MySpace killer, claiming the service “will be open for non-members, and it will be kick-ass!”
Ted Leonsis jumps in:
Working on a product that “kills” another, popular product is just so…1999.
Here’s a better way of looking at it. The AIM Buddy List (which was introduced 10 years ago) was the orignial social network, and it has 43 million AIM and Buddy List users. We’re working on adding functionality to AIM that will really open it up — allowing developers, partners, and users to take part. It’s going to be fun. Rather than thinking of it as a killer of anything, let alone MySpace, it will allow our millions of users to express themselves in new and interesting ways and become a catalyst for new communities to grow and flourish. We’ll have more to say about it soon.
Jason Calacanis chimes in with the nobody is killing anybody spin. Doesn’t anyone remember 1-2-3 killing Multiplan, or Word killing Wordstar? OS/2? Things do get killed off, people. Let’s not get too “sweetness and light” over this.
And Mike at TechDirt argues that AOL is two years too late, and that MySpace can’t be toppled.
The reality is that for most adults, MySpace is a social phenomenon that has not made a direct impact on us. It has been primarily limited to young adults and teens. There is still the opportunity for a social network for the rest of us, and it could well be based on the AIM buddylist. 43 million users is a good start.
I totally believe that the buddylist is the center of the “universe 2.0”, this new world we are in: denizens of a newly enhanced online experience. AOL has a chance to make a run at the untapped market for a significantly improved social networking experience. The LinkedIn generation of so-called professional social networking 1.0 apps are so lame that they are ripe for obliteration by a new approach, and as I have been trumpeting for years, the instant messaging buddylist should be the heart of such an approach. There is an opportunity to kill off some or all of those apps, if not MySpace and Facebook, and AOL has a good story brewing, even if they are reluctant to actually show us anything yet. Or at least me.
I had lunch with some AOL guys yesterday, who said more or less the same thing as Ted. Stay tuned, its going to be cool, we can’t tell you when it’s coming out, but soon, real soon, like in May, maybe. They had me diverted by pointing me to the Triton beta — not the current Triton release, mind you — which I will fiddle with over the weekend on my son’s PC since it’s Windows only. Apparently it incorporates a lot of the Nerdvana IM client features I have been wishing for. For example, your buddies’ presence indicates more than just on/off status. It can indicate new blog posts, they tell me.
Well, I am ready for something new, but if it all turns out to be Windows only, I am going to howl like a stuck pig.
I am constantly fiddling around with RSS readers and various strategies for “RSS readering” — William James remarked that you coin a new word at your own peril, so verbing “RSS reader” may be dangerous for me, but I do so with a plan.
I want to be an RSS reader: by which I mean to say that I would certainly rather (in theory) receive alerts about posts and — perhaps even the posts themselves — within some some window of time of their being posted. However, I haven’t generally liked the various RSS readers I have tried. And I have tried gazillions.
I tried NewsGator integrated with Outlook when I was still (hiss) living on a Windows laptop. Yes, in principle I keep my email client open all day, and, yes, in some way getting email is similar to RSS-transmitted posts. But the email metaphor, of folders and messages doesn’t quite jibe with my experience of browser mediated blog reading. So, ultimately, I dropped it.
The same is true of standalone RSS reader tools, like NetNewsWire and Fire. I tried them for a time, and then dropped out. These annoy me for similar reasons: I don’t like the Pez dispenser feel, where all posts are like another, and you assume the role of a pigeon in a Skinner box, hitting the button to make the pellets roll out.
I have been lusting for something, a new solution, that actually parallels my most rewarding reading experiences. The way this generally works is like so:
But what I seldom do is just sit there reading a stream of posts, based on their chronology, or other intrinsic factors. No, I am on a hunt, skipping from place to place, and these tools constrain me more than they free me.
What I would rather have is what I imagined Flock might be (and well might be, in later incarnations): a browser-based solution, perhaps a suite of plugins, that augment the browser-based “readering” experience. One part of that might be a buddylist-ish sort of minimal RSS tool that would simply remind me that people I like have posted something somewhere. I have a strong bias that this should be implemented along the lines of what the geniuses at 2entwine implemented in Gush, about which I have written a lot in the past, including various posts this year about the Nerdvana client. I have stopped using Gush because I find the Mac version painfully slow, but I loved having a multi-headed instant messaging client that included an RSS reader. I had tried to persude them to strip down the RSS reader to be just an alerting tool, and to conflate the IM buddylist and the RSS alerts into a single list, rather than two separate worlds, but, alas, the Brothers Carr never did get around to those tweaks.
So, when I recently was alerted to RSS reader doings at Yahoo, my mind filled in all the gaps, and I dreamed that dream again. However, while the new Yahoo Mail Beta does in fact include a now conventional RSS reader integrated with it — and it appears to work as it should, given the email metaphor — it won’t actually fit in with the model of readering I am chasing after. However, Yahoo is rolling out feed alerts, as part of Yahoo Alerts (although I didn’t see it running, yet), which may implement part of what I’d like, since these alerts can be sent through IM. But Yahoo and the other major IM players don’t want to provide IM capabilities as Firefox plugins: they want us to use their proprietary clients.
The rest of the browser modules might include these:
There’s more modules that could be conceived, but I think I have waved my hands enough to get across what is profoundly off about RSS readers: they don’t work the way I read. I need support for active reading, or “readering” as I dubbed it, which is a very social activity, not a solitary one. I am no pigeon in no cage.
It could be argued that my needs or wants are wildly atypical — I am a blogger, I have more time on my hands than others, blah blah blah. I maintain that because I am a blogger, and heavily invested in it, I am willing to do manually what others don’t have time or patience to do, even though in the final analysis it leads to a much richer experience of the web.
Now all I need is for inventive souls out there to start building the bits and pieces of my dream world. It shouldn’t be hard for someone to build an RSS alert plugin for Firefox, should it? Maybe someone already has done that. But I suspect that the other pieces of the puzzle have yet to be built. I can dream, can’t I?
[originally posted on Get Real]
I have used literally thousands of communications tools over the past 20 years, and although there has been an increase in commmunication speed and media, we have yet to see the “nerdvana” of tools that I have dreamed about for so long.
I have long championed other media as inherently being better than email, such as instant messaging, so, as you can imagine, the tool I am dreaming out incorporates the basic metaphor of IM: the buddy list. But it goes beyond IM, as I will show you.
How can I so baldly state that other media are better than email, in such an absolute way? Simple. Email is designed as a lowest-common denominator communications system, where everyone is treated equally. All emails, more or less, are the same (leaving aside issues of rich text v HTML and so on, which is not the thrust of my argument), which is stupid. The reality is that my relationships with people — whether I know them or not, how well I know them, and how involved we are at any given time in regular communication — is foremost in my mind when involved in communications, and as a result, the various artifacts of communication should be treated differently based on the context for their existence.
Basically, email is pretty good at communicating with people when you don’t know them well, or people you don’t know at all. All you need is their email address and your emails will be treated pretty much like anybody else’s. But as a result, email doesn’t really do very much to help with the highest valued communication: communicating with the known. That’s where the paradigm of buddies, and the gated communities of instant messaging networks excel.
But even technologies that I think are more useful in remaining in close contact with your circles of friends and colleagues don’t necessarily work together very well, if at all. So I am forced to read and write emails in one tool (yes, I do email, despite my dislike for the medium), IMs in another (actually, two IM clients), and read blogs in yeat another. Coordinating appointments and to-dos that involve others is managed in yet another app. And an address book app is used as the repository of some of the information about people (like email address, IM handles, and phone numbers), while their blogs RSS feeds are stored elsewhere.
So, I decided to mockup an example of what a good unified client might offer someone like me, so I could sit in one tool all day long, choosing the appropriate communication, collaboration, or coordination channel based on the context.
The Nerdvana Client
Just for laughs, I have dubbed the mocked up client “Nerdvana” after the Dilbert strip where Dilbert proclaims, after he’s cleaned up his PC’s desktop, compacted his drive, and deleted unnecessary files, that he has reached “Nerdvana”.
Basically, Nerdvana takes the IM concept of a buddy list and extends it to include all sorts of media. I have chosen to partition my world into three groups, Inner Circle (folks I interact with daily), Outer Circle (folks I interact with regularly), and The World (everyone else). This is largely for simplicity: there could be dozens of groups. And, oh, by the way, contacts can appear in multiple groups, and groups can include subgroups with no limits on level of nesting.
In the first image, I expanded only the Inner Circle — note I did not include any icons to represent expand/contract because I am a lazy designer. I have a small number of contacts in this group, although in the real world my Inner Circle category is more like a dozen folks. Each contact has four numbers associated with them, which represent ‘of interest’ blog entries, emails, IMs, and appointments, respectively. By ‘of interest’ I mean whatever the preferences are currently set to: for example, I may have configured things to display unread blog entries, unread email, open IMs, and future appointments, to suggest only one reasonable group of settings.
Also note — since this is all in the world of conjecture, so I can get whatever I want — that the Nerdvana tool is extensible, so is possible to add on as many services as you’d like. For example, the IM service could expand to be Jabber, AIM, and Yahoo. Or completely different services could be included, like podcasts, to-do lists, geolocation, and web conferences. Presence is indicated by the green/yellow/red lights on the contacts.
In the second graphic I have expanded Greg Narain’s content, and see various categories of communications going on.
In the third graphic, I have fully expanded Greg’s content, showing the blog entry’s title, the subject line of the emails, the title of the IM session, and the subject of the upcoming appointment. This is displayed two different ways, based on two different sets of preferences or different commands used to expand the content: with and without category headers.
Clicking on any of these fields could lead to extremely variable behavior, based on what sort of client you think Nerdvana should be.
Obviously, my preference is the former: for Nerdvana to act as a primary organizing interface for existing communication tools, taking the buddy list concept as the core principle for all communication strategy, and supporting cross tool integration.
For example, your IM solution might not support the concept of an appointed time to start an IM session, but with Nerdvana you can do so:
The same technique can used to link writing an email with an appointment, or queueing up future blog entries.
Alternatively, you could imagine a structure where important communication events — such as long IM sessions, or time spent reading blog entries — could automatically be journaled on your calendar, as a means of tracking time, or simply being able to use the calendar as a way to search back for communication activities and content on a timeline basis.
I have always maintained that if you are going to dream, dream big. So I have big hopes for Nerdvana. Maybe someone out there is trying to do something along these lines — at least in part — and if so, I want to hear about it. There is lots of innovation going on in the various specialized communication areas: better RSS readers, IM clients, and innumerable social networking apps. But I haven’t seen much going on in bringing it all together, based on something like the buddy list metaphor.
I could also start in on how Nerdvana could play in an open social networking system — where the aggregation of communication channels, like blogs, IM, email, with specialized services like Flickr, Last.fm, Plazes, and so on, for photos , music, and location — could not only lead to multifaceted digital identities, but a coherent way of bringing together the disparate threads of identity into a manageable tool framework. This starts to look something like Mark Pincus has been looking into in his PeopleWeb thoughts. But I will leave that for the next installment of the Nerdvana series.