Competition from Parallel Paths
If you were asked to enumerate the competition to Google Reader when it first launched, you would probably list products like Bloglines and NewsGator… in short, other feed readers. I don’t think anyone would have pictured Twitter as being competitive to Google Reader originally, and even today the two products are very different from each other.
Yet, Twitter has completely ended my Google Reader usage. Twitter is faster, more respectful of my time, easier to scan, and doesn’t keep a guilt-inducing “unread” count. And, many people have said the same thing.
But, the real point of this post is the larger trend of how competition works in web services. In a specific product niche (such as feed readers) a product is either a leader or a follower. There is some jockeying for position between leaders and followers (such as Google Reader overtaking Bloglines), but that’s all a distraction from the truly disruptive competition which will likely come in from the bottom-up, looking like a toy.
Got It Wrong #1: Privacy
I’m going to start a new series of posts on this blog. All my favorite VCs in the industry are generally pretty humble and intellectually honest. In that spirit I’m going to recall a few occasions over the past few years working in VC, where I was quite wrong (and, hopefully, what I learned since then).
Today’s “Got It Wrong” post is on privacy. When I first joined Union Square Ventures I was adament about protecting user privacy. I was a user of tools like AdBlock Plus (to protect both privacy and attention), and I cleared my cookies with reasonable regularity. I was picky about the companies with whom I trusted to handle my data. I ran system-wide searches for my own credit card info, lest it be stored in an autofill field.
All of those behaviors are subject to the eye of the beholder… to some they’re good hygiene and to others they’re over the top.
But, where I “Got It Wrong” regarding privacy was assuming that other users felt similarly to me. I didn’t think users were as proactive as I was about privacy hygiene, but I did think they had similar instincts. Watching companies like Mint bloom with a mainstream audience was informative. You have to enter your username and password for your credit card just to get started, talk about a high barrier to entry, and yet lots of people did so readily.
Also the growth of companies like Loopt (and later foursquare) and even Twitter was really interesting. Unlike with Facebook, in those services, egocasting was the default mode of usage and default to public. An older version of me would have been reticent to embrace Twitter when it first came out, but after a few months of diving into 5 new web services a day in deal-sourcing, I was already starting to evolve my stance on privacy and thus was quick to dive in.
I won’t go so far to say that users don’t care about privacy at all. The success of companies like Lifelock are evidence of the fact that users are concerned about the security of their personal information. But, it’s remarkable what data people will willingly hand over when asked nicely, and it seems to me that privacy concerns are rarely the friction to adoption I expect they would be.
Activity/Follower Ratio in Social Services
I noticed a simple trend in social services that is obvious in retrospect, but often not well articulated.
In Twitter, I have 2089 total lifetime Tweets and 2367 Followers. In Tumblr I have 268 total posts and 262 Followers. In both cases, this is essentially a 1:1 ratio of activity:followers.
Now, this is just a correlation, and does not necessarily imply causation in either direction. But, there is definitely a relationship between organic interaction with a service and the followers you acquire in the service.
The key to this relationship is that the activity has to be genuine and organic. For example if I just start spamming my Twitter account with the monotonous details of every sandwich I eat, I’ll quickly dilute my activity/followers ratio.
What’s your activity:follow ratio for various services?
Lazy Web Services
I’m a avid user of the lazy web. When I can’t be bothered to do multiple Google searches or read through forums and blog posts to find an answer I use one of three services:
1. My blog. If I think the question I have is a common question that many people have, which is not well indexed to date, then this is a perfect candidate for a lazy web blog post. One of the big downsides of doing lazy web requests via my blog though, is that there’s usually a substantial time delay to get a good answer. By contrast, #2 and #3 below are both realtime solution that will almost always get you a good answer within 2-3 minutes.
2. Twitter. If I know that my social network of followers is likely to have an answer I need, or if I’m on-the-go and what location-specific knowledge, Twitter is a great channel for the lazy web. Lazy web twitter updates are so popular that there’s a site that aggregates lazy web requests sent out via Twitter.
3. Aardvark. I’ve only been using this last one a little bit, but it’s interesting. It’s an IM-based service that routes a lazy web question to a stranger with domain expertise in the topic of your question. So, if you ask, “where’s the best BBQ joint in NYC” that question will get routed to someone who is an expert in BBQ or NYC.
It’s interesting to think about Aardvark and Twitter in the context of each other. When asking a lazy web question, would you rather broadcast it to your network of followers and let serendipity take control of how the question is answers, or would you rather have your question routed directly to one predefined domain expert on your subject?
I think different types of questions work best on Aardvark vs Twitter, but I personally find asking questions to be a social experience (as many people often have the same question as me), so I use Twitter more frequently for my lazy web requests, so that, in theory, anyone can benefit from the results.
That said, I find Aardvark to be very friendly and personal. I like that they encourage people to say “thanks” to each other. They’re fostering a nice community.