Digg, Stumble and the madness of crowds

My friend and occasional sparring partner Scott Karp over at Publishing 2.0 has a good post today about the transitory nature of the Digg “flash crowd” phenomenon — the point being, as he puts it, that “not all traffic is created equal.” Scott points to a study at SiteLogic that looked at traffic flows to several sites, including Kim Krause Berg’s Cre8pc, before and after they had been “dugg.”

The conclusion, not surprisingly, confirms what many people have been saying since Digg emerged as a major force in driving traffic to websites, which is that the vast majority of those who arrive from a Digg link spend nanoseconds on your site — in some cases, just long enough to post abusive and misspelled comments — and then vanish. Not only do they not click anything (although John Chow disagrees), but they (likely) never return.

Kim Berg writes about the experience on her blog, but says she isn’t particularly concerned about the effect on her own site. She’s more concerned about all the abusive comments that were left on her post and also on the site she pointed to. As she puts it: “I am no fan of Digg. Never have been. This experience and the comments left here just add to my contempt for a place where people act like wild animals instead of human beings.”


There is no doubt that Digg and Reddit and similar sites drive massive amounts of traffic, as Search Engine Journal points out — and SEOmoz also notes the benefits of what it calls a “linkbait” strategy. But is that traffic actually worth something over the long term? It might be nice to brag about, but it’s not always something to build a business around. Ravi says Digg traffic is worth “diddly-squat.”

Tony “Call me Dr. Tony” Hung has also written about this, and others are commenting on Kim’s experience, including 10e20, Chip Griffin at Pardon the Disruption and Small Business SEM. And Webomatica has written about his experience with Digg and Megite and other sites.

On a related note, I’ve been noticing more and more articles about how much traffic StumbleUpon drives to a site, something I’ve noticed a few times with this blog. It doesn’t get written about as much, but it is clearly a major force, as this piece at SEOmoz illustrates. And there is also some evidence that a Stumble link has more longevity than the typical link from a social bookmarking site. StumbleUpon — which apparently has more users than delicious — used to be based in Calgary, but moved to the Valley after getting venture financing last year.

Note: The term “flash crowds” was coined by sci-fi author Larry Niven in a fantastic short story about the invention of a phonebooth-like transporter machine, which caused instantaneous crowds to appear any time there was a crime or natural disaster.

SpiralFrog caught in death spiral?

SpiralFrog — a startup that said it would launch a music-download service supported totally by advertising — seems to be on the verge of joining the Web 2.0 dead pool, according to this report from Cnet. There had already been reports a week or so ago (which started on a music message board) that the CEO had been ousted. Now it seems several senior executives and board members have also gotten the boot or otherwise headed for the elevator.

From the sounds of it, there was a large-scale management walkout. The story says that “three directors with strong music-industry ties resigned almost immediately after Kent’s departure,” and that in the days following that, “more directors walked out, as well at least six members of SpiralFrog’s senior executive team, including the chief marketing, strategy and operating officers.” Apparently the founder has stepped in and still plans to launch.


SpiralFrog got a lot of attention last fall because it was pitching a completely ad-supported service, and also because it had reportedly signed an agreement with Universal Music Group, one of the four globe-spanning record companies, and that was seen as giving the idea a tremendous amount of legitimacy. But the proposed launch date of December passed by without a peep from the company. The CEO then failed to appear at the MidemNet music conference on the weekend.

As Mike Arrington has written over at TechCrunch, and Steve Rubel writes here, the number of Web 2.0 companies (and I use that term loosely) that have either failed or are on life support continues to grow, including FilmLoop, Browster and others. But many of those were features rather than companies.

What I’d really like to know about SpiralFrog is what caused all those executives and officers to leave en masse (something that wasn’t a surprise to several people). Was it a lack of confidence in the company’s financial health? Meddling by the record companies? Personal issues? There’s obviously a lot more to this story. Cynthia Brumfield of IPDemocracy has some thoughts here.

Microsoft: Lessons in how to look stupid

Coming so soon after the Microsoft “here’s a free Ferrari laptop” campaign, the recent kerfuffle (or is it a brouhaha?) over the company’s attempt to doctor an unfavourable Wikipedia entry shows that someone at the giant software maker needs to get a clue when it comes to social media. All the well-meaning rationalizations aside, paying someone to change an entry is offside, period — and when you’re Microsoft, all it does is reinforce the impression that you’re the Evil Empire.

Tony Hung at Deep Jive Interests is no doubt right that this happens all the time, but that doesn’t make it right. And I know that from the sounds of it, this wasn’t an official Microsoft campaign to alter Wikipedia on the sly — according to this comment at Slashdot, a developer came up with the idea on his own and approached someone who he thought could add some balance.


Still, someone has got to get it through the thick heads in Redmond that the best of intentions aren’t going to help Microsoft when it comes to this kind of thing. It is inevitably going to be perceived as a big-footed behemoth, trampling all over whoever and whatever it needs to in order to get its message out. The programmer in question has said he was frustrated because his attempts to discuss the issue of balance weren’t getting anywhere.

So why not blog about it loudly and clearly and build support that way? Instead, he tried to take a shortcut — and that looks bad, no matter how you slice it. What if Microsoft approached someone and offered to pay them for writing a letter to a magazine or newspaper pushing for a positive spin on the company’s products (which it did during the anti-trust trial)? This looks just as bad.


Scott Karp of Publishing 2.0 thinks that Wikipedia is too powerful (and Rex Hammock seems to agree), and that the Microsoft employee was justified in doing what he did, because the process for changing things in Wikipedia is broken. Don Dodge thinks the whole thing has been blown out of proportion. And Mike Arrington is upset because Dare Obasanjo — apparently trying to make a point — edited the Wikipedia entry about TechCrunch to include allegations about Mike having conflicts of interest. Mike also has some further thoughts on the issue and has done some investigation into the whole “Wikipedia is broken” idea.

Second Life: virtually a real business

One of the sure signs that something is important is when opinion on it keeps ping-ponging back and forth, between those who say it’s irrelevant and those who say it’s the best thing since cheese in a spray can. And if there’s anything that draws that kind of polarized commentary, it’s Second Life. This week alone, we had a story about IBM’s embrace of the virtual world, and Darren Barefoot’s hilarious send-up, Getafirstlife.com. And now the BBC is planning its own Second Life for kids.

Meanwhile, Clay Shirky teamed up with Valleywag to pore over Second Life stats and conclude that the whole thing is overhyped, and there was a recent announcement that Second Life was going to open-source the software interface to the game. And virtual millionairess Anshe Chung claimed copyright infringement after being attacked by giant flying penises.


Is Second Life a joke? Yes, in a way. Not only is it weird to be flying around in a blocky universe (let alone the penises), but it’s a little goofy that people try to promote the business aspects of the virtual world while sporting avatar names like ePredator Potato — the name of IBM’s Second Life evangelist. And yet, there is clearly something there. No doubt many people thought the idea of uploading videos was a joke too, or using the Internet as a phone.

Ethan Kaplan is right, there are still issues with Second Life (Webomatic has had some too), including lag and other problems. And Valleywag’s informant is correct that the financial side is closer to a pyramid scheme than a real business. But those issues will be fixed — if not by Second Life, then by someone else.

I came across a post that made some good points on (where else) Second Life Insider. Everyone likes to talk about how Second Life is dumb because, well… it’s virtual, instead of real. So if you talk to someone on the phone, is that real? Of course it is. How about if you message them using MSN? So why isn’t chatting with them while flying around in a video game just as real?


There have been several reports — which Mike Arrington of TechCrunch summarizes here — that Google might be looking at turning Google Earth into some kind of virtual world a la Second Life.

Will Jobs let Mac OS run on Intel boxes?

An interesting development, tucked away in an article at Fortune magazine about the company behind the Parallels software program, which allows Mac users to run Windows in a virtual machine and switch back and forth (relatively) seamlessly. For all the hiccups and lag that some users have reported, it is still an amazing feat — and I would wager it is making MacIntel boxes more appealing for people who still need to use Windows. No rebooting, no emulation. Two OSes side by side.

Now, it seems that the company that makes Parallels is working on an upgrade to the software that will let Windows users theoretically run Mac OS X side-by-side with Windows on their cheapo Dell boxes, which Dell would be happy to do. Heresy! The only problem with that, as the article and others are more than happy to point out, is that Steve Jobs likes that idea about as much as Bill Gates likes the idea of open-sourcing Windows code.


According to Engadget, “VMware’s own upcoming virtualization software for the Mac has been hamstrung by the trouble VMware has gone through trying to get Apple’s blessing, and SWsoft’s Parallels has been “crippled” in particular ways to make it more difficult to get Mac OS onto a non-Apple machine.” But as the site points out, the pressure on Steve Jobs to set the Mac OS free is only likely to increase. It will likely happen thanks to hackers anyway, but will he eventually allow it? I for one hope that he does.

Obviously, as more than one person has pointed out during the whole “iPhone/closed system” debate of a week or so ago, part of the Mac OS experience comes from the fact that software and hardware are all one harmonious whole, working flawlessly together, etc., etc. But why not let people who can’t afford those gleaming white boxes get a taste of the Mac magic?

Can Google make e-books work?

There have been plenty of attempts over the years to get e-books to go mainstream. Half a dozen companies have tried to sell electronic-book devices, and failed miserably. Sony has a new eReader available, but if it’s anything like its predecessors it will prove to be too bulky, too expensive and just too geeky for anyone but a few nerds to use with any regularity.


But that’s a hardware issue. Books as software — software you can carry around with you — makes a huge amount of sense, whether you read them on your Palm or BlackBerry or an eReader. And according to a piece in the Sunday Times, our friend Google could give that phenomenon a big boost with the plans it is working on right now. The story says that:

The internet search giant is working on a system that would allow readers to download entire books to their computers in a format that they could read on screen or on mobile devices such as a Blackberry.

Jens Redmer, director of Google Book Search in Europe, said: “We are working on a platform that will let publishers give readers full access to a book online.”

The proposed service would be integrated with Google’s Book Search service, which allows surfers to see a sample of a book and find places to buy it (publishers involved include Penguin, HarperCollins and Simon & Schuster). I figure it should be as simple as a button that says “Click here to download this book,” but no doubt there are all kinds of DRM issues involved. Google’s Redmer said the project would likely become a reality “sooner rather than later”.

More on the topic from David Rothman at Tele-Read and the gang over at Slashdot — and Webomatica (who has worked for a couple of e-book providers) has some thoughts that are well worth reading as well.

Do we need a social press release?

Jeremiah Owyang, a web strategist with Podtech, has gotten a debate going on the idea of the “social media press release” or SMPR (you know when something becomes an acronym that all hope is lost), which is an idea that some PR types have been tossing around for awhile. I think the idea, which my PR friend Ed Lee has written about before is essentially to update the traditional press release with social-media links and content.

Edelman has tried to push this particular train forward by putting out something it calls Storycrafter, software that is supposed to help companies put together social-media releases. But not everyone is sold on the idea — and frankly, neither am I. Stowe Boyd makes some excellent points in his post here, about how the SMPR is still more about talking at people instead of engaging with them in some way, and to pimp out the press release with tags and Digg links doesn’t really solve that problem.


Jeremiah has some similar questions, saying: “Why are we formalizing the word of mouth network into these clean nice buckets? Isn’t the point of conversations to have them flow nice and easily? Is this a way for Marketers to infiltrate “Social Media” communities with a few clicks and graphics? Where’s the relationship building? Where’s the humanity?” Steve Rubel responds that the SMPR is a sort of intermediate step, to get clients to dip their toes into social media.

I know when Ed asked me what I thought of the SMPR that High Road put together for Weblo, I said I thought it was a good step, and I still think that. A baby step, perhaps, but still a step. Not everyone is going to jump feet-first (or head-first) into blogging. But I would also agree with Stowe and Jeremiah — and Brian Oberkich here and Jeremy Toeman and Dominic Jones — that it does not go nearly far enough. And it looks like my friend Tony Hung agrees with me.

More on the subject from Brian Solis, Scott Karp at Publishing 2.0 (complete with Breakfast Club reference) and from Chris Heuer at SocialMediaRelease.org, who says Stowe took things that were said at the Third Thursday get-together out of context and is deliberately trying to stir up controversy — which, knowing Stowe a little, I find hard to believe.


Shel Holtz, who was part of the Third Tuesday panel, has a long and thoughtful post, and Stowe has responded to Chris and others as well. In the end, I would agree with my friend Mark Evans that there is a place for press releases — social or not, as well as for blogs and pretty much every other kind of social media. A place for everything, and everything in its place. And Dominic Jones has a persuasive argument for why any kind of press release, social or not, isn’t anywhere near as good as a blog.

(cross-posted from my media blog — be sure to check out the comment from Amanda “Strumpette” Chapel)

Jonathan Schwartz, up close and personal

I have to say right off the top that I haven’t really acquired the taste for Robert Scoble’s video-blogging or podcasting (or whatever we’re calling it now) over at Podtech.net. I liked reading his blog from time to time — in some cases for the comments — but I just haven’t gotten into the video stuff for whatever reason. But I watched his recent interview with Sun Microsystems’ CEO Jonathan Schwartz and I thought it was pretty good.

In part, it was good because Schwartz seemed comfortable talking with Scoble, and that’s a huge part of a successful interview (unless you’re doing an ambush, of course). What makes that happen? Obviously it helps if interviewer and subject know each other, but it also helps to be the kind of person that puts others at ease, which Scoble (love him or hate him) genuinely seems to be. And that’s when you get the good stuff.


So after all the questions about Sun’s business, and the iPhone chat and some talk about other things, around 35 minutes in Scoble asks about Schwartz’s comment on his blog that a train accident in 1987 changed his life. And that’s when you start to see the human side of Jonathan Schwartz. Not that he wasn’t human before, but he was still pushing a corporate message. The stuff about almost dying was a lot more human than that, and therefore to me more interesting.

I also think it says a lot that Schwartz — a CEO, who could easily get someone to call Matt Mullenweg, or send him an email and get his problem with Sun’s Startup Essentials program sorted out — publicly admits that that company screwed up and offers to make it right. A PR gesture? Sure. But a great response nevertheless, and something that is likely to get a whole lot more attention than just fixing things behind the scenes.

Does Google need more fiber in its diet?

Rumours that Google has acquired large quantities of fiber (or fibre, as we Canadians call it) are not exactly new. I recall stories as far back as two years ago saying exactly the same thing. In fact, if you check the date on this particular story from CNet about Google buying up “dark” fiber, you’ll see that it was published two years — almost to the day — before this column by Robert X. Cringely, the pseudonymous tech columnist and blogger for PBS.

In the CNet story, the idea was put forward that Google was planning to set up its own telecommunications network, that maybe it would start a VoIP service based on Google Talk, and so on. There have been other stories too, including this one from ZDNet in 2005, which also mentioned the VoIP idea, and this one in 2006 — which proposed that Google was planning to use the bandwidth for something related to IPv6, or maybe VoIP, or maybe a grid computing network.

fibre optic.jpg

Om Malik wrote a piece in 2005 for Business 2.0 about how Google could build its own backbone, which he called Googlenet, and then use that to cut the costs it was paying to ISPs for peering arrangements to carry its data — and could also offer its own Internet access by blanketing various centers with free Wi-Fi. He and Cynthia Brumfield at IPDemocracy both mentioned that Google was taking bids for a nationwide optical network.

Cringely’s idea is that Google wants to effectively become the world’s largest ISP, and that as video and other applications suck up bandwidth, smaller ISPs who are losing money will effectively sign over their businesses to Google. I think it is more likely that Om is right — and so is this guy over at Slashdot — and Google is simply engaged in hedging. In other words, it is expecting peering costs to rise (especially so if net neutrality rules are not adopted), and so it is buying up as much bandwidth as it can to keep its costs low.

Be careful what you Facebook

Facebook is a great service — my 17-year-old daughter and all her friends use it (I have an account too), and so does my cousin who is at McGill University in Montreal, where she engages in the typical sort of debauchery expected of second-year college students, and then posts pictures of said debauchery on her site for all her friends to see. I warn her about that from time to time, because you never know where those pictures are going to wind up.


What got me thinking about that again was reading on Engtech’s blog about a couple of employees of Farm Boy in Ottawa who were fired as a result of some stories they posted on a Facebook group, one of which allegedly involved theft from the store. There are more details in the Sun story, but in any case, they were fired despite having what was reportedly a stellar record at the store.

They were also fired despite the fact that Facebook groups are private, and you have to be invited to get into one. Similarly, Facebook profiles and pictures are not viewable unless someone invites you. However, in what was probably a poor decision, they all used their real names — and, as Engtech points out, one of them was fairly distinctive. That made it pretty easy to track down who it was. This kind of thing has happened before and likely will again.


A story from the Globe about well-known weatherman Percy Saltzman, who passed away recently, shows that it’s not just teenaged bloggers that need to think about the impact of what they are writing — 91-year-old weathermen might want to think about it a bit too.