Category Archives: social network

When mobile phones become networked sensors

The Coming World of Mobile Sensors does a great job illustrating how mobile phones will impact our future. We’ll soon think of mobile phones not only as communication devices but also as sensors. This talk on Sensor Networks at the Lift conference first changed the way I think of mobile phones back in February 2007.

Imagine mobile phones as sensors constantly recording your geo-location, speed, altitude, temperature, nodes in proximity etc. Let’s ignore privacy concerns for a second. The data could be anonymized for example.

Data for personal use only

Even if the data is not shared with other devices some interesting applications are possible, e.g.

  • Personal diary of locations – searchable
  • Tracking of commute time – recommendations for best commute time
  • Weather history – searchable
  • Live blog geo-tagged photos as you take them

Data shared with nearby nodes

Now let’s allow the mobile devices to communicate with nodes in their proximity:

  • Personal diary is now also aware of who you were with at any given moment
  • People you keep running into but haven’t met can be introduced automatically

A German startup called aka-aki built a social network on top these two ideas. Your Bluetooth enabled phone tracks other phones in proximity. It basically keeps a trail of who you cross throughout the day. Another way to meet interesting people. Love it!

Data shared between all nodes – centrally aggregated

The real power of mobile sensors emerges when they’re networked together and the nodes have access to all the data (e.g. aggregated centrally). This totally changes the applications that are possible:

  • Real time traffic for your commute (I’ve written about this before)
  • Real-time weather in all locations as well as weather forecasts
  • Heat maps of sensor density indicating events

What other applications can you dream up?

When the ‘social context’ becomes ubiquitous

I start seeing more articles that emphasize the social¬† ‘features’ over the social ‘network’ (also see my post Increasing relevance by adding social networking features). This video on FriendConnect shows some examples and makes the difference more obvious.

I love Nova Spivack’s comparison to cars and how the choice of a Social Network will come down to personal preference (ultimately determined by brand). For this to happen the Social Networks will have to open up and support a common base feature set. This is already happening today but will accelerate. I’m convinced that soon most of our online activity will be aware of our friends and that ‘social context’ will lead to a more relevant user experience:

  • Amazon book and NetFlix movie suggestions based on what your friends like
  • Craiglist and ebay items from friends of friends
  • Search results ranking enhanced by sites friends clicked on
  • Yelp reviews and ratings from friends rather than 200 strangers
  • News that your friends have read

Things to think about:

  • ‘Friend’ is probably to strong a term. What are better terms? How will this evolve over time?
  • ‘Soocial context’ brings trust. Trust brings economic opportunities.
  • How can the 2nd and 3rd degree be used especially on commercial sites (LinkedIn is already using this)?
  • When will large retail sites grasp the concept and what kind of opportunities will arise?

And the big question is:  How can the Social Networks be open (interop) and closed (privacy) at the same time?

Facebook in Spanish/German/French – now what?

Facebook has launched various community-based translations of their site. I’m currently seeing French, German and Spanish next to English (US) in a drop-down menu. The Spanish version launch received a lot of blog coverage but I almost missed the German and French launch. They’re also working on a traditional Chinese version (and more).

Community-based translation

The idea of community-based translations is not new but Facebook is trying to optimize the result with two twists:

  • A Translation Application allows for easy and contextual translation instead of an external strings file
  • A rating system bubbles up the “best” translations through community-based voting

I haven’t had the time to look at the quality in detail yet but started using Facebook in German today. I will switch to French in a few days.

I’ve tried to add the Translation Application a while ago without success. I just managed to add it now though.

Promoting the new language versions

One of the key questions when launching a new interface language is how to migrate users to it. Typically the user is given a choice via a preference. Facebook went one step further and force-redirected IPs from Spanish speaking countries to the Spanish version. I expected some backlash from users as changing the user experience without their consent is typically a recipe for trouble. I haven’t seen anything so far though.

One thing that doesn’t seem to work quite right: I tried setting my language to German in the logged out state. After logging in the interface language switches back to English. I have to change it again in my account settings.

Impact on local competition

I do expect to see higher Facebook adoption in non-English speaking countries as the interface language is an important factor in the user experience. Network effects, i.e. if your friends are already part of it, are more important than interface language for social network adoption though.

The Spanish launch is targeting the Latin America market where Hi5 is strong. Germany has a Facebook clone called StudiVZ that will now get stiffer competition. Asia has very strong local competitors and entering those markets will be very tricky.

And who will translate the Facebook applications?

Applications are trickier to translate as they’re built by third parties. This leads to a weird mix of languages on profile pages. The larger application companies could collaborate with Facebook and expose their strings for translation too. Smaller applications are probably out of luck for the foreseeable future.

Increasing relevance by adding social networking features

Not every company that’s adding social networking features to its product is trying to become a social network. In fact there is an important difference that doesn’t seem to be well understood.

The goal of enhancing a product with social features is to increase engagement and relevance of the experience. The core feature set is still front and center. Let’s illustrate with an example, say a news site:

Features that enhance the core experience:

  • Seeing what your connections are reading
  • Commenting on articles within your connections
  • Sharing articles with connections

Features that distract from the core experience:

  • 3rd party vitality (e.g. Flickr photo updates, Yelp reviews, …)
  • Profile page
  • Managing connections

And that’s exactly where having a portable social graph becomes key. We will have one main social network where we’re managing connections, checking friends vitality, uploading pictures etc. This will be whatever comes after Facebook. All other products use that social graph to enhance the product experience.

A gaming site that knows your connections/social graph can show you how you score compared to your friends and let you challenge them instead of playing strangers. All this without you having to re-enter all you connections.

The ROI of being part of a social network

I’m already tired of hearing about social network fatigue. The problem is not the ever increasing number of social networks though. As long as the ROI is right users will continue to join new ones as well as keep using the existing ones.

The cost of being part of a social network consists of:

  • Fixed cost: Signing up for an account + creating inital profile
  • Recurring cost: Connecting to friends + updating the profile

The value provided by the social network varies from network to network:

  • Keeping in touch with friends – Facebook
  • Job offers, Sales leads, Professional Networking – LinkedIn
  • Recognition, status, new friends – Yelp

These are the key drivers for joining a social network together with peer pressure and the fear of missing out. But the ROI is the determining factor for long term adoption.

What stands out is that the return isn’t always immediate. In LinkedIn’s case the return isn’t even certain. It’s more an expectation (or hope) to benefit later – potentially months or years later. In my case I haven’t gotten a job out of LinkedIn and I’m still actively using it. For Facebook, the ROI (friends vitality) is more immediate. Once you connect you can immediately see their latest updates, pictures etc.

Before you launch another social network determine its ROI. This includes determining the cost to a user of being part of the network as well as defining what the generated value is.

Bebo to be acquired by AOL

AOL just announced plans to acquire Bebo for $850 million (all cash). Congratulations to Michael and the other guys at Bebo!

I was always very impressed with their ability to execute at an amazing pace. Their Engineering team was churning out feature after feature including compatibility with F8 while the business side was focused on making money through innovative advertisement products.

Good luck as part of AOL. I hope they’re not going to slow you down!