Updated: Like, Facebook is so over, dude


Facebook is taking issue with the BBC’s report of a user decline. A Facebook spokesperson sent me this statement: “The number of users for Facebook continues to climb in the UK. Our internal monthly active user numbers rose between December and January in the UK and are now at more than 8.3 million. Facebook tracks active monthly users, rather than registered user or unique visitors. Active users reflect those who have used the site in the past 30 days.”

Erick Schonfeld at TechCrunch has a similar type of post about Facebook U.S., although I think it might just show the same kind of seasonal fluctuation that others have mentioned in the posts I’ve linked to below. In fact, if you look at Erick’s graph there is a very similar falloff at about the same time last year.

Original post:

What are we to make of the reports that Facebook’s user base declined in Britain in January, as the BBC has breathlessly reported? Well, obviously it means that the social-networking site is over, and we should move on to the next big thing. Or does it? While Facebook’s growth is inevitably going to slow, and some of those who jumped on the bandwagon may fall off over time for various reasons, I think it’s a bit much to ring the bell of doom based on one downtick. In the BBC story, one media analyst says:

“Social networking is as much about who isn’t on the site as who is – when Tory MPs and major corporations start profiles on Facebook, its brand is devalued, driving its core user base into the arms of newer and more credible alternatives.”

I would have liked a list of those “newer and more credible alternatives,” because as far as I can tell my oldest daughter (18) and her friends continue to use Facebook just as much, if not more — and so does my middle daughter and her group of friends, who are 14. As the BBC story notes (towards the end), Facebook’s user base in Britain is more than 700 per cent larger than it was a year ago. And as WinExtra and The Last Podcast note, seasonal dips are not uncommon.

I will admit that I’ve been using Facebook less of late, in part because — as I’ve discussed here before — I’ve been using Twitter more, and that’s where I keep in touch with people and exchange links and so forth. But I still use Facebook to track what’s going on with my non-Twitter friends, and in fact I seem to be using Facebook messages even more, since my teenaged daughter uses that instead of email.

Google News comments: More examples

Tony Hung of Deep Jive Interests has a post up about Google News and its commenting feature, in which the service reaches out to individuals who are involved in news stories and allows them to post comments — or in some cases, apparently, takes their blog posts and publishes them as comments. The case Tony refers to is one in which Mick O’Leary of Information Today wrote about Citizendium, the Wikipedia competitor that Larry Sanger (a co-founder of Wikipedia) started last year.

O’Leary wrote a piece about Citizendium and how it is failing to keep up with Wikipedia, and is in fact “almost useless” for a number of reasons, mostly because there isn’t enough material in the entries he checked. Sanger’s comment on the Google News entry is essentially a shortened and edited version of the blog post Sanger wrote in response to the original story, in which he took the writer to task for not calling him.

Like Tony, I think that Google’s comment feature is a fascinating one, and I wish that it was used more often (there are some recent examples here). As Tony suggests, it’s a feature that can come in very handy for “new media orphans” — although I would argue that Sanger isn’t really an example of an orphan, since he was more than capable of responding on his blog. At the same time, however, while the Information Today piece would show up in Google News, Sanger’s blog response wouldn’t.

Toronto’s GigPark launches in open beta

Everyone knows that the best recommendation for just about anything — mechanic, dentist, nanny, etc. — is the one that comes from a friend, or a friend of a friend. In some cases that recommendation might come in person, but more and more that kind of word-of-mouth is being spread via email, blog posts or Facebook messages (not to mention the social network’s ill-fated Beacon “social advertising” project).

A Toronto-based startup called GigPark.com wants to help make it easier to get those kinds of tips, by setting up what amounts to a recommendation network. The site, which has been in invite-only beta for the past several months, just opened up for public use today. The company was founded by Noah Godfrey and Pema Hegan, who got to know each other while working at Dose, the now-defunct entertainment and lifestyle tabloid (full disclosure: I know Pema and Noah, and consider them to be friends).

The principle behind GigPark — which also has a Facebook application — is a simple one. You can post recommendations on the site, if you have a masseuse or a real-estate agent or a mechanic that you think your friends might be interested in using, and you can also ask your friends and the other people in your network to recommend someone for a particular job. Recent requests for recommendations included someone looking for a financial planner and someone looking for a piano teacher.

In many other recommendation networks, such as TripAdvisor or Epinions.com, it’s difficult (if not impossible) to know whether the person who is gushing about a particular product or service is genuine or not. One of the attractive things about GigPark is that those recommendations come only from people you know or have added as friends, making them — at least theoretically — more reliable. And unlike Facebook’s Beacon, GigPark only has recommendations you have made deliberately, which makes it feel a lot less spam-like.

No, I don’t want to add more Zombies

Facebook continues to tighten up some of the rules that govern how applications on the social network’s platform operate, giving users more control over what they allow and when, and making it easier for them to block “bad” applications and prevent the social-networking spam that has been piling up on Facebook over the past six months or so. Like Dare Obasanjo, I’m wondering why it took so long.

The worst thing about all the Zombie requests and movie quiz invites and all of that spam is that it comes from your friends. Occasionally I even find myself swearing under my breath at them (no, not you, Aunt Mabel) because they are so persistent — and then I realize that it’s not really their fault, and that the way many applications are set up, you are all but forced to invite people.

This is some of what Facebook is changing. Apps can’t force you to invite people before you get access to the results of your quiz or whatever the game is; it’s easier to block applications from sending any more invites; you can opt out of any emails sent by applications you’ve already added — and most important, the way an app behaves is based in part on your feedback. If you block or delete notifications from an app, it will find its ability to send those alerts curtailed.

This is something that had to happen — even if, as Allen Stern notes in a comment on TechCrunch, it means that the earliest apps such as SuperPoke and FunWall got a giant leg up over subsequent applications. There’s no question that people have been crying out for these kinds of changes: one group called “Pointless Applications Are Ruining Facebook” has close to half a million members.

CNN fires producer for being smart

If you follow the media business at all, you might have heard of Chez Pazienza — a CNN producer who was fired recently for having a blog. This isn’t that uncommon, sadly. In fact, it even has its own term: getting fired for your blog is called getting Dooced, after a blog of the same name got Heather Armstrong fired way back in 2002. So what happened to Chez is hardly unique. But for some reason it seems even more pathetic for something like this to happen to someone in the media — since blogs are just another medium, one you might hope outlets like CNN would be experimenting with. Or at least should be.

Heather Armstrong got fired for writing satirical blog posts about a place she worked. Why did Chez Pazienzia get fired? That’s not really clear. If you read his lengthy update about the situation — which I encourage you to do — he says it was made pretty obvious that while his blog technically broke the rules (which require that all outside writing be pre-approved by the network), the real reason he was fired was what he was writing about, i.e. the content of some of his blog posts.

It’s still not clear what was wrong with that content, however, other than the fact that he spoke his mind about various aspects of pop culture, the media, and occasionally political issues as well. I suspect it was when his posts started showing up at The Huffington Post (where some of mine also appear from time to time) that certain eyebrows started to be raised at CNN. But even that was never explicitly mentioned when he was given his walking papers. He was just shown the door.

As a blogger who also has a day job with a large media entity, I’m somewhat, er… sensitive to these issues, shall we say. I try to keep the things I write about on this blog focused on my beat, which is technology and new media, and when I stray from that I keep in mind that to some extent I represent the Globe and Mail and that they sign my pay cheques. That said, I think what CNN did to Chez Pazienza was pretty stupid. From reading his blog posts, he seems like a passionate guy, and a pretty smart guy as well. Isn’t that the kind of staffer they want?

Maybe he wrote some things that crossed the line into partisan ideology, things that CNN thought might make people question his ability to be fair or balanced as a producer. Or maybe he wrote some posts that the network thought made it look bad, by criticizing the popular media coverage of some issue. Either way, why not just go to him and ask him to tone it down a little? As far as I can tell, there’s no indication that anyone did that. And now, CNN just looks like a bully, and a stupid one at that.

Ankle-deep in the Newspond

I’m going to agree with Mike Arrington’s take on this one: Newspond, the new Digg-style news aggregator that just launched, is pretty much all eye-candy at the moment. Paul Glazowski at Mashable seems to think that’s enough — in fact, his review borders on gushing — but I would have to disagree. While it’s true that the site is nice-looking and well-designed, I don’t think that’s enough to give it a lock on success (whatever that means), and as my friend Tony Hung says at Deep Jive Interests, cool design can even be a detriment for a news aggregator.

I found Newspond pretty slick, but I think a lot of the Ajaxy on-hover effects and layout actually make it harder to skim or pull information out of when compared with Techmeme or Digg. And there’s no question that, as Mike notes, the site’s pumped-up rhetoric is pretty over the top. The most advanced news site on the planet? Right. It’s nice to set your goals high, but less talk and more delivering would be nice. I certainly don’t think Techmeme has anything to fear. But then, as Mark Evans points out, news aggregator fans are a tough crowd to please.

Scribd: Cool feature or actual business?

I know it’s kind of quaint to wonder about business models with Web 2.0 companies, and a number of people (including Fred Wilson) have argued that startups shouldn’t worry about monetization until they get some scale, but I have to say that I felt that old twinge of concern when I first saw Scribd, which just re-launched with a new format and features, including its own Flash-based document viewer. I think the service is great, but the business angle kind of makes me wonder.

There’s no question that Scribd is pretty cool — especially when you consider that it was created by a couple of twentysomethings through the Y Combinator startup program run by programmer and VC Paul Graham. There’s a video of co-founder Trip Adler here, in which he looks like the next-door neighbour’s kid, the one you get to look after the cats and maybe mow the lawn while you’re away.

Trip and his team are clearly smart as well, since they ditched Adobe’s Flashpaper, which they were using initially, in favour of their own Flash viewer called iPaper — which appears to be faster, has a smaller footprint and has a bunch of custom features. It’s pretty cool to be able to view what looks like a PDF document with images and everything, in an embedded Flash widget. And it’s easy to implement on your site so that links to Word documents or PDFs are autoconverted.

All that said though, I just can’t see how Scribd makes money, even though the service does include the ability to put ads on document pages. I don’t see that being a huge revenue generator (although I could be wrong). I suppose there could be tiers of access to documents or sharing features, but I have no idea what those might be, or whether people would actually pay for them. Maybe Scribd could get bought by Google — I think Google Docs could use a few of those cool features.

Requiescat in pace, Val Ross 1950-2008

It’s never easy when a friend passes away suddenly, but it’s even harder when that friend is as vibrant and full of life as Val Ross was. A writer and editor at the Globe and Mail, and before that at Macleans magazine and many other places, Val died on Sunday, just a few months after being diagnosed with a malignant brain tumour. She was 57.

Although I only worked with Val directly for the past six months or so, in the Review section of the Globe, I spent several months before that working closely with her and several other Globe staffers as part of a “reimagination” project within the newspaper, and got to know her fairly well. She was funny and smart, and never hesitated to call a spade a spade — but did it in such a pleasant way that no one ever minded.

Having worked as a magazine editor as well as deputy comment editor for the Globe, the last year or so of Val’s life was spent writing about one of her passions: Canada’s cultural institutions, including the Royal Ontario Museum — where she took great delight in tormenting former Globe editor-in-chief William Thorsell. She was also writing a book about Robertson Davies. There’s more about her life here.

I was sitting about six feet away from Val in the Globe newsroom in October, when she suddenly cried out in pain and said that her left arm had seized up, as though she was having a sudden muscle spasm. Someone suggested she should go to the hospital, so she called herself a cab and was gone — and that’s the last time I saw her. She was a wonderful writer, and even more important, she was a wonderful person.

Further reading:

Others writing about Val’s passing include author (and former Globe writer) Trevor Cole, as well as D.B. Scott.

Truth vs. traffic: An age-old battle

I know there’s probably been enough sturm und drang about Fred Wilson’s post on journabloggers and Mike Arrington’s response, in which he calls Fred “hypocritical, wrong and conflicted,” but there’s an undercurrent behind the furore that I’ve been thinking about a fair bit. Tony Hung puts his finger on it in this post, and Andy Beard mentions it in his as well. It’s the old “truth vs. traffic” dilemma, and while bloggers like to think that it was invented by the Web, it’s probably as old as journalism itself.

To recap: Tony says that Mike is using a blog/nerd fight to his advantage for traffic reasons, and that when TechCrunch or any other blog is controversial, they win (i.e., they get linked high on Techmeme and they get more traffic as a result). Mike also says in a comment on his own post that:

“we’ve found that the “hits” – the blog posts that generate a lot of discussion – are the ones that drive all stats, including, indirectly, monetization. The problem is knowing what’s a hit and what isn’t before it actually happens.”

and in a comment on Fred’s post:

“here’s a secret – a lot of what we write about generates the traffic. And every day I sneak in a bunch of posts about startups that get the benefit of that traffic.”

Mike also told me last year — when I interviewed him as part of a mesh conference keynote — that he always wants to be first, because if he’s not first then “it’s a lot more work.” Does that mean he is willing to jump into print with something quickly even if he hasn’t pinned it down 100 per cent? He admitted that it does (although he also made the point that trust must be gained over time, and can be easily lost).

But in making that admission, and talking about traffic as a motivator, all Mike is really doing is admitting to the same impulse that newspaper editors have been driven by for the past 100 years or so. In fact, the early days of newspapers — when there were hundreds of scandal sheets and political bully-pulpit rags pushing their respective biases — resembled nothing so much as the current state of the blogosphere.

That tradition continues today with tabloids like the New York Post and the Daily Mail in the UK, and with blogs like TMZ and PerezHilton.com. Got a hot rumour? Print it first, ask questions later. Even reputable newspapers can fall prey to that impulse: I remember a story that hit the front pages of dozens of British papers (as well as my own paper) about a guy who made custom wooden gibbets for hanging prisoners, and claimed to have sold them to various African despots.

It was a great story — except that it turned out to be complete fiction. Did we or the other papers check it out before printing it? Sure. But maybe we didn’t check quite as hard as we might have, because it was such a great story. Don’t get me wrong; I’m not comparing Mike Arrington to a tabloid or a scandal sheet or anything of the sort. I’m just saying that the quest for traffic, and the tension between that and “the truth,” is not a new one invented by the blogosphere. It goes on all around us.

Being smart isn’t always enough

Paul Buchheit has a great post up at his blog about startups and some of the criteria that can help to ensure success, and one point he makes is that many of the things you might think would help — things like, say, being really smart, or knowing a lot about technology or programming — may not actually help, and in many cases can make it harder. Paul is the guy who developed what would eventually become Gmail while at Google, and is now running a feed-tracking service called FriendFeed.com.

As he notes in his post, Paul’s central point is similar to one of Marc Andreessen’s posts about entrepreneurs, in which the Netscape co-founder and Ning founder says that smart teams don’t matter as much as what the market wants. As Paul describes it:

“You can take the smartest, most experienced, most connected, most brilliant people in the world and have them build the most stunningly designed and technically advanced product in the world, but if people don’t want it, then you will fail. This is roughly what happened with the Segway, for example.”

This seems fairly simple when you say it, but I expect it’s harder for many teams to haul on board than they like to admit. If you’re a super-smart programmer and your team is the envy of startups everywhere, or your company or service is based on an incredibly cool and cutting-edge implementation of something, you would probably like to think that would help you succeed. But it may not.

Paul has a couple of great examples of the opposite ends of this spectrum. The Segway, for instance, came from the brain of inventor and entrepreneur Dean Kamen, who is ridiculously smart, and was backed by some of the most influential people in Silicon Valley — and yet, it was a complete flop because, well… people just didn’t want it.

YouTube and MySpace, by contrast, succeeded in spite of some obvious flaws, because people wanted them. Craigslist is probably not a bad example either — a flawed design, and yet it hit the sweet spot in the market with perfect precision, whether through sheer luck or brilliant planning. The market wants what it wants.

Note to Marc Andreessen: Better watch out, Marc — Paul seems to be going after the “long, thoughtful post on entrepreneurs” market 🙂