Mixx: Growing, but is it enough?

So Mixx — a Digg-like social news app — has been bragging to anyone who will listen that its traffic has doubled to a million uniques a month in May, and it is getting lots of love from its mainstream-media partners, including USA Today, Los Angeles Times, the New York Times, Reuters and Slate. But is a million uniques good or bad? That depends on who you ask (or whom, if you’re going to get all grammatical on me). Marshall Kirkpatrick at Read/Write Web isn’t impressed, since that’s a lot less than the 26 million uniques that Digg gets every month. Erick Schonfeld at TechCrunch seems a little more impressed, and Nick O’Neill over at the Social Times blog says that it’s nothing to sneeze at.

Nick has a point when he says that 200-per-cent growth in a single month is pretty impressive, although it’s worth noting that such growth rates aren’t unheard of when a site is coming from a small base. My ability to bench-press 350 pounds increased by 200 per cent last month as well, but that’s because I was able to do three of them instead of just one. Marshall’s point seems to be that Mixx should be seeing even more growth given some of the top-tier names that are adding Mixx links to their news stories. As the Washington Post notes, many of those connections come from Mixx founder Chris McGill’s former ties to Yahoo and USA Today (McGill has responded to Marshall’s post).

Drew Curtis, the founder of Fark, makes an interesting point in the Washington Post story: he says he doesn’t think social-news services such as Digg and Mixx are a great fit with mainstream media sites. “Most people don’t bother with them because they’re either lazy or they just don’t care,” he says. A little harsh, but pretty close to the truth, I would argue. Mixx may have no trouble attracting social-news junkies — although I find it cluttered and don’t see much in the way of community there (something Tony Hung mentions as well) — but will many of those come from the links at CNN or USA Today? I’m not so sure.

Yahoo redefines “fail” — again

Some details of the back-and-forth between Microsoft and Yahoo have come to light as a result of the unsealing of documents in a shareholder lawsuit against the battered Internet giant, as Eric Savitz details at Tech Trader Daily. One of my favourite moments is where it emerges that Microsoft offered Yahoo a whopping $40 a share back in January of last year, but then CEO Terry Semel turned the deal down. Nice call, Terry — that’s right up there with taking a pass on buying Google in 2002. Of course, Terry still has most of his $71-million in options or whatever, so he’s probably doing OK. Other shareholders, not so much.

In a nutshell, the complaint argues that Yahoo co-founder and CEO Jerry Yang and the board of directors deliberately created blockades aimed at resisting Microsoft’s offer, rather than taking a deal that was clearly the best one available — and arguably fully valued as well. One of the big sources of criticism is the fact that Yahoo planned to sweeten its severance package system so as to create a giant poison pill, one that would have added billions in extra costs should Microsoft have been successful. Microsoft supremo Steve Ballmer cited similar fears as one of the main reasons he withdrew the takeover bid.

Garfield and the response to new media

I don’t want to get into a whole song-and-dance about copyright and the merits of the “fair use” principle (for that, you can see this post and related posts), but I thought it was interesting to read about the response by cartoonist Jim Davis — creator of the Garfield comic strip and the associated merchandising empire — to a site called Garfield Minus Garfield, where panels from the original strip are posted with the central character removed. According to the New York Times story about the site, Davis thinks it is fascinating:

“Davis, the cartoonist who created “Garfield,” calls himself an occasional reader of the site, which he calls “fascinating.” He says he is flattered rather than peeved by the imitation. “Some of them really work, and some of them work better,” Mr. Davis said.

In fact, the Times goes on to say that the cartoonist, who has been drawing Garfield for about 30 years, found that the site (which was created by Dan Walsh of Dublin) prompted him to take a different look at his body of work. In a Washington Post piece from a couple of months ago, Davis thanked Walsh for doing what he did. Obviously, he has become a gazillionaire from Garfield and can afford to be magnanimous, but it’s still a refreshing response in an age where artists like Prince are sending out C&D letters by the boat-load trying to lock down their content and prevent anyone from altering or using it.

Globe and Mail pay wall comes down

I don’t do this a lot, but I just thought I would point out for those who might be interested that the Globe and Mail — which happens to be my employer — has removed the pay wall that used to block access to a lot of the paper’s online content. All of the columnists are now free to all readers, as are the horoscope and the crossword puzzle (which, as most journalists know, are the features that most readers really want). As the announcement on the Globe’s home page describes it, this means that all of the paper’s columnists “can join the fray and add their talented voices to the freewheeling conversations of the Internet era.”

Why did the paper decide to drop the wall? Without going into too much detail, my understanding is that we did it for the same reason the New York Times did: while the Insider Edition (as we called it) made money for the paper, the number of subscribers who were opting to pay for that content wasn’t growing, or at least wasn’t growing quickly enough to make it a very attractive business. Eventually, I think, senior editors decided that we would be a lot better off opening the doors and allowing people to link to our pay-walled content.

I haven’t seen recent numbers, but within a few months of the NYT dropping its wall, traffic to the site appeared to have surged. Whether the Times has been able to monetize all of that new traffic — and thus make up for the lack of a pay wall — is something I don’t know. But at least now they have a chance to grow that instead of managing what had become a slow or no-growth business, and so do we (the Globe continues to have a subscription product online, now known as Globe Plus, which includes the finance site GlobeInvestorGold and an “e-Edition” of the paper; access to the archives will also still cost a fee).

It’s interesting to look at some of the more than 180 comments that have been posted on the story since it went up first thing this morning: while most are of the “thank God you finally saw the light” variety, there are some who are less than enthused. One commenter says:

“I’ve long since found online alternatives to the Globe’s old ‘insider’ features. You can’t shut us out for a few years and then expect us to come back just because it’s free. You’re not the only game in town, and you’re going to have to offer us something genuinely new and original to get us to come back on a regular basis.”

Some commenters wish that we would go even further.

Twitter and the importance of architecture

The Twitter guys have been getting a lot of flak over the past few months (and rightly so, in many cases) for the unreliability of their app. But I think they should get some props for opening up and talking about what’s going on over there. Granted, this newfound desire to engage in dialogue (or damage control) should have come a lot earlier, at least in my opinion, but at least they are doing it now. They’ve even managed to foil Mike Arrington’s attempt to start a late-weekend bitchmeme by asking some rather pointed questions of the company.

Although they kind of dance around the specifics a little in their responses, Jack Dorsey and Biz Stone of Twitter seem to more or less confirm many of Mike’s suspicions about their architecture — they admit, for example, that the company is restructuring the way that the system functions, and have brought in some big brains in order to do so:

“We are currently taking a new approach to the way Twitter functions technically with the help of a recently enhanced staff of amazing systems engineers formerly of Google, IBM, and other high-profile technology companies added to our core team.”

I’m not a database guy or a system analyst, but it seems pretty obvious that the structure Twitter has isn’t capable of keeping up with the company’s growth, and may not have been designed properly in the first place to support what has become a gigantic multi-user chat service. In one of the posts on the Twitter dev blog, the company effectively admitted as much. Is that former chief technologist Blaine Cook’s fault? Who knows. But it has to change, and quickly, or Twitter could wind up losing much of the momentum is has gained so far (Michael Krigsman has some good advice on how to proceed).

I was talking with a friend of mine (who is a systems and database expert) about Twitter on the weekend, and he made the point that while startups shouldn’t try to forecast all the ways in which people might use their service — a point that Daniel Burka of Digg made during his recent design presentation at meshU — they still need to pick the right architecture early, or they will be in for a world of pain. In other words, remaining flexible is a good way to approach user-interface design, but not necessarily a good way to approach the design of the actual system structure that makes your service work.