When people talk about startups, they mostly talk about the idea. Somebody thought of something new, started something up, and then … boom. They’re on the cover of Wired.
But the truth is, startups are really all about timing. Lots of people have lots of ideas every day. Ideas aren’t the hard part, timing is. Good timing won’t guarantee success, of course, but you can’t succeed without it.
And not just market timing. In my experience, it’s the personal timing that makes all the difference.
When I started Fray in 1996, it was not the first website about true stories. But the timing was right for me. I was young, underemployed, and had something to prove. I was ready to work for it, so it worked for me.
When Heather and I started JPG Magazine in 2004, the timing was right for the market (inexpensive DSLRs were new, people had high-res photos to share), but more importantly the timing was right for us. We were newly married and wanted to do a project together. Plus, we’d both established ourselves in the photoblogging community and wanted someplace to feature our talented friends.
But timing cuts both ways. When I started Pixish with a small team in 2008, the market wasn’t ready (crowdsourcing is still controversial today). But more importantly, I had just come out of a horrible startup experience, so I wasn’t up for another firestorm. And the team had other jobs they had to attend to, so when we got a pile of negative feedback, we just couldn’t deal. I still think we could have righted the ship, but none of us were in a place to make that happen. It was easier to just learn some lessons and move on.
So after all these experiences and more, I’ve become very attuned to the whispers of timing. That’s why I noticed, earlier this year, when three things happened at once.
Devin Hayes needed a job. Devin and I worked together back in the JPG days, and I remembered him as the rare coder who’s talented, fast, and mellow. One of my greatest regrets was not being able to work with him longer.
James Goode, who I’ve worked with on everything from MagCloud to Pixish to Fray, had some time available. James is my favorite designer because he’s talented as hell, but also flexible and friendly. In my experience, being able to talk about design is just as important as putting pixels on a screen.
I was ready. Four years after my last startup blew up, I was finally ready to try again, and hopefully not make the same mistakes again (I’m looking forward to all-new mistakes).
The three of us with open time and ready to work? Good timing.
Anyone who makes web stuff has a list. “Wouldn’t it be cool to have a website for XYZ?” I’ve been keeping a list like this since 1995. So I dusted it off and put each idea through its paces. What was the potential audience? What could we bring to each idea that felt like something new? And most importantly, which idea would excite all three of us?
I have a garden site in me, but the other guys aren’t into plants, and many established gardeners are still not online. Not time yet.
I really want to start a television community site. The time is soon – the industry is about to go through an enormous change. But soon is not now. Not time yet.
One idea kept coming to the top. It has a huge potential userbase, it’s built to take advantage of our hyper-connected realtime world, it’ll be a good arena to test out some of my community/game design theories, and best of all, it’s fun. After years of trying to reinvent things (blogging, publishing, search), maybe it’s time to just do something that’ll make people smile.
I brought the idea to the guys and they were in, each adding their own spin to it. Then, more good timing. I went out for drinks with a friend who offered us an unsolicited bit of angel investment. The investment allowed me to pay the guys (paychecks make it real, even when they’re far smaller than they should be). My friend Chris Bishop, who served as the Illustration Editor for Fray and is a crazy talented artist, joined us to define the illustration style of the site.
Cue the montage. Me working in San Francisco, James in Sydney, Devin from a nomadic road trip, and Chris in DC. We collaborated in email, Basecamp, and chatrooms. Building building building. For months.
Which brings us to now. We’ve honed the idea, drafted a huge list of features we want, and then scaled that way back to a minimum viable product. (It’s amazing how complicated simple ideas can get when you start actually building them.)
We’re now this close to opening up the site to a limited first round of testers. If you’d like to be one, you’ll need to have a real live pet in your house, you’ll need to be in possession of a computer, a camera, and a sense of humor, and you’ll need to go to the site and sign up. We’ll let you know when we’re ready.
The site is called Cute-Fight. And what’s Cute-Fight? That’ll be the subject of another post soon. I can’t wait to tell you all about it. Hopefully, the timing will be right for you.
Greetings from the Lake of Bays in Ontario, Canada, where I’m on a family vacation. I’m taking a moment out to write this and will post it when the (very intermittent) internet connection appears. Life is slower here on the lake, so forgive me if I ramble.
I’d like you to hold two slightly contradictory thoughts in your head at once for a few minutes. They are: 1. One of the best things you can do for a new community is seed it with good stuff. And: 2. One of the worst things you can do to your community is lie.
People make their first impressions quickly and hold them forever. This is no surprise and there’s all kinds of social science to back it up. What this means for a virtual community space is that the first “content” the user sees will form the user’s definition of the place forevermore. This first-viewed content will do more to drive future behavior than any interface decision, any set of rules. Starting off with excellent example content is the single biggest factor in predicting the quality of future contributions (at least, that you can control).
As the same time, my number one rule for community building is: Do Not Lie. The internet is very good at ferreting out liars. Community building is all about trust, and once you lose trust, it’s gone forever. Do not lie to your community. Ever.
So the question becomes: Is fabricating members to seed a community space lying? Can you lie to a community when there’s no community there yet? And how bad is that lie compare to the good of having example content?
I find that when I’ve been asked questions like these, the person is usually just seeking permission to lie. As in: It’s okay to lie in the beginning, right? To which I respond with a question of my own: Would you like to find out one of your relationships was based on a lie? Communities are sets of real relationships, and building a relationship on a foundation of lies is never a good technique.
So my opinion is, yes, you have to seed content, and no, you should not make up fictitious members to do it.
Instead, curate your early members. Invite people to join. Tell them exactly why they’re being invited, what you’re trying to build, and how important their participation is to you. Do not invite Robert Scoble – invite your mom, your non-tech friends, people you know have something to contribute. Go to where they congregate already and participate. If you’re not a member of this community, hire someone who is.
Then edit their contributions. Revise. Perfect. There is absolutely nothing wrong with working directly with your first members (no lying involved). My background is in journalism, so I’ve always been comfortable telling people what we need and editing their work when it comes in. If you’re not comfortable doing this, hire someone who is.
The benefit of involving real, not-made-up people as your first users, in addition to not having to lie, is also that they’ll give you real feedback. You’ll find out quickly where people are getting lost, or misunderstanding the tools.
The “ghost town” problem is a real concern – a site with many social tools that are all unused becomes a barrier to participation because no one wants to go first. That’s why you start with your friends, relatives, and anyone else you trust. They’ll go first because you asked nicely (and it’s nice to be invited).
The other way to avoid the ghost town problem is to start with an extremely limited set of community tools. Any good startup will have a long list of social tools they’ll want to enable eventually, but start with one. Just one. It’s okay if it makes the site look thin. Start with one and let people start to use it. Then add in others one by one. By starting with a shallow toolset, you’ll avoid the ghost town problem and help early users know what to do.
When Heather and I started JPG Magazine, we put all of this into practice. We participated in the photography community ourselves, so when we needed our first users, we asked our friends and photobloggers we looked up to. The first version of the site had no public tools – it all happened privately. Slowly, we made more and more public, until finally we had a thriving site with lots of community tools. The core thing we did right, I think, was really being participants in the community before starting the site at all, so its growth was seen as something we were all doing together, instead of some kind of interloper.
My nephew informs me that working while on vacation is “wrong” so I’m afraid I must go now. Hope this helped.
A few weeks ago on a sunny Saturday, Heather and were walking around the Albany Bulb. It’s a man-made blob of “land” created from nearly a century of dumping trash in the bay. The trash stopped in the ’80s, and now it sits in between San Francisco and Berkeley, some of the most expensive land in America.
It’s a strange place. Totally unnatural, since only water is supposed to be there, but now it’s set free and wild. Palm trees sprout from in between graffiti-covered concrete. Animals I’ve never seen in the city scurry past. It feels like you’re in the middle of nowhere, but the city is always just over your shoulder.
It’s removed enough that there’s a kind of anarchical community there. Not exactly homeless, since they’ve built small camps, but not exactly legal, either. (Can you even own land that’s not technically land? Not the point, I guess.)
We were just walking around, exploring the place. As we passed a fairly established encampment made of wood scraps and plastic tarps, we realized there was a someone emerging from it. He came out, a man in his 50s, with a deep tan and a wary expression.
There was a moment of awkwardness. Were we invading his space? Was he going to yell at us? Maybe he was wondering if we were going to give him shit for being there? We all looked at each other with apprehension. And then:
“Peace,” he said.
“Peace,” we said back.
And that was it. Such a simple moment. Such a simple word. There was no need for fighting. Fighting was for the rest of the world. This was someplace else.
Here’s the short version: Every community-based site in the history of the web has essentially been a stab at creating a social network. Most of them fail as businesses, with the rare exception of small, lucky communities that become self-sufficient but not exactly prosperous. What if that’s just the way it is?
Here’s the longer version. Let’s start with some seemingly unrelated bullet points. I was dreaming when I wrote this, so forgive me if it goes astray.
Before the web, I worked for alternative weekly newspapers. There was conventional wisdom even then that the business of running a weekly paper sucked. But we weren’t in it for the money, we were in it because it was important to the community the weekly served. We made enough from advertising to print the paper and deliver it to the readers. It was very rarely profitable. In the alt newsweekly world of the early 90s, breaking even was considered the success case. We did it anyway.
This week it was announced that Digg, once valued in billions, had been sold for 500k. An inglorious end to a once beloved social media darling. Digg was attempting to scratch a particular community itch. It tried to make sharing newsy links social, and you could follow friends, which is the basic element of any social network. It worked, for a time, but it was never profitable.
Last month Facebook, certainly the biggest player in the “let’s monetize a social network” game went public and their stock price took an immediate flop and has been bouncing around like a fish out of water ever since. The question on everyone’s mind: How will they make money from all those free members? Without souring the milk, of course.
Twitter and Tumblr, both incredibly successful at cultivating their communities, both yet to prove how exactly they’re going to survive as businesses.
Last week it was announced that the WELL, an online community that predates the web, was to be sold by its present owner, Salon (a business relationship thats’s always been a head-scratcher to me). The community is currently rallying to buy itself.
When I wrote a book about community sites 11 years ago, I included many examples of sites doing it right. Almost all of them have died since. One that hasn’t: MetaFilter, a small community company supporting a small staff that makes money through advertising and membership costs.
Can you see a pattern here?
The flow, as I see it, works like this.
We want to be a social network. The more people in it, the more “value” it has, so we need everyone to join. Because we want everyone to join, we cannot put up a pay barrier, so we have to make money another way. Let’s say advertising. (Note: Most never make it this far.)
Our advertisers want as much data about, and contact with, our users as possible. We want to only allow limited engagement. Either advertiser interest wanes (Flickr), or we coast on our investment (Twitter, Tumblr), or we give in and let the advertisers run the show (pretty much everyone else).
Members become angry at us because we’re selling them out. The exodus begins. There’s always somewhere else to go (see Friendster, MySpace). Go back to step 1.
See it? The bigger you go, the harder the road. Meanwhile, small, focused, and yes, exclusionary community sites flourish. Matt Haughey made several key decisions in the formation of MetaFilter, but the most important one was to limit growth. Hell, for years you couldn’t get an account if you wanted one. After that, they started costing money. When it costs money at the door, that means you don’t have to sell out your members to advertisers. It also means the community stays small, which – surprise! – also leads to healthier communities.
What if we all realized that social networks are a societal good (at least as good as a local alt weekly) but not necessarily good businesses? We’re all desperately hoping that Twitter or Facebook or Tumblr will figure out the secret ingredient that turns a large-scale community of free members into a cash machine. What if we’re all just waiting for the impossible? Like a business that turns water into gold? We’ve got lots of water, we just need to figure out the gold part….
What if we eventually realize that, like the alt weeklies, these are things we do because they should be done, because it’s fun, to make our little community a better place … not because they’re going to be great businesses.
Because so far, when you look at the numbers, that’s just what they are: not great businesses.
The one truly great business born of the web is Google, and not their self-driving cars and the other nonsense that accounts for zero percent of their income. It’s putting small, self-serve ads beside their search results. You and I create those search results with our behavior online, but not directly on Google. And that line between where I’m using my voice (you’re soaking in it) and where it’s being monetized (*cough*) is enough of a separation that it doesn’t bother me. The problem happens when the content creation happens in the same place as the ad deployment. So, of course, that’s exactly what Google’s trying with Google+, to less than stellar results.
My point with this thought experiment is this: What if we designed a social network to be small, self-supporting, and independent from the outset? How would it look, work, and feel? I bet it would come out looking nothing like the ones we’ve got now, the ones still trying to turn water into gold.
But I’m not going to get into the subjective nature of truth, what’s appropriate in theater, or Mr. Daisey’s seemingly pathological need to nail himself to a cross. I just wanted to share this one observation.
Like anyone who’s been lied to, I’ve made an effort to become more aware of when the person talking to me may be a liar. This can get complicated. You can get caught up in lots of micro-expressions, language patterns, and telling gestures. But in my experience, there’s one sure-fire way to know when you’re dealing with a liar: they tell you.
In context, he’s saying this to his interpreter, in an effort to convince her to help him pose as a businessman (an effort that, we now know, was also largely fabricated because his translator needed no convincing and planned to do this from the outset).
When I heard him say that in the original story, I was driving down Divisadero in my car, and I blurted out: “Then how can I trust anything you say?”
Here was a man telling an extraordinary story and admitting that he was a liar. If he lied to those businessmen, how could we really know he wasn’t lying to us?
There’s a reason that journalists are trained not to do this, and it’s not just highfalutin professional ethics. It’s far more practical: If you lie to get the story, it throws the entire story into doubt. Tell the audience you’re a liar and they stop believing you. Or, at least, they should.
If you traffic in true stories, you can’t lie to your audience, period. I don’t care if it’s in a book or on a stage or over the radio. When you tell a personal story, you absolutely know if the words coming out of your mouth are true or not.
Mike Daisey knew he was lying to us. I’ll never believe another word he says.
There’s an old Firesign Theater sketch called “Temporarily Humboldt County.” Some Native Americans are sitting around enjoying nature when the Spanish conquistadors show up with a priest. The conquistadors claim the land for Spain and Father Corona adds, “Oh! By the way, Domini Domini Domini, you’re all Catholics now.”
I was reminded of this sketch on Tuesday when Flickr decided I was a Christian.
Since Tuesday, if you visit any Flickr member’s photos with a modern browser, you’ll see three little snowflakes beside the Flickr logo. Click them and you’ll be treated to a cascade of snowflakes over the page and all its photos, as well as a row of blinking Christmas lights at the top of the page. For an added treat, you can roll over the lights with your mouse and they’ll pop, complete with sound effects. Click the little “[x]” beside the logo and it all goes away … at least until the next page load when the three little snowflakes show up again.
Flickr is the community website that’s closest to my heart. The site’s founders are friends of mine and my wife worked there for five years. But more important than that, it’s a community that I love. I’ve uploaded gigabytes of photos there. My photostream has become a virtual home for me. Our virtual homes are just as important to us as our brick and mortar ones, if not more. I’ve lived in my real house for a few years, but I’ve lived on Flickr since 2004.
So it’s distressing when someone puts Christmas lights on my virtual home. I’m not a Christian. I don’t care how secular the holiday is nowadays. I know about the holiday’s Pagan roots. None of that matters. The fact is, Christmas lights on a home are a signifier that the occupant is a Christian, the same way a mezuzah is a signifier of a Jewish occupant. These symbols have power, which is why we use them.
It’s not just that Flickr is smearing Christmas “cheer” all over itself. As a non-Christian in a Christian country, I’m grudgingly used to that. (Though it would be nice if clicking that “[x]” set a cookie that prevented it from loading on the next pageview.) It’s that my Flickr stream is my personal identity in the Flickr community. That’s my face there at the top. Flickr has added a Christian signifier to my virtual home and I have no way to remove it. In the eyes of the rest of the community, Flickr has turned me into a Christian.
Flickr has done other Christmassy things in the past. For a while, you could add a string to a URL to make it snow on the page. Other years, if you put a note on a photo with a special phrase (“ho ho ho hat”), a Santa hat would appear. But these were all secret easter eggs. (Easter! We can’t even talk about this without more Christian holidays coming up.) And in the case of the notes, I could easily remove them and control who has the power to leave notes on my photos. But this year’s festivities are unavoidable. Don’t like people seeing Christmas lights on your virtual home? Too bad.
When you begin a virtual community, you’re building for yourself. You can safely assume that most of the community is a lot like you. But as it grows, the community becomes more diverse. If you’re extremely lucky, some of your members will invest themselves so much, they’ll come to view the site as a kind of home. This, by the way, is the success case. It’s what you want to happen.
Flickr is now a truly global community. A huge set of their members don’t celebrate Christmas. Heck, it’s summer in half the world right now, so I’m not sure what they’ll make of the snowflakes. Flickr should know this better than anyone.
The decision to put Christmas lights on all of their members’ virtual homes shows a profound lack of understanding for who their users are and what those symbols mean. It’s the kind of decision you make when you assume the rest of the world is just like you, or you’re so enamored with a technology you forget to think through the social ramifications of its implementation. Making your members feel unwelcome in their own homes is the first step in the decline of a community.
The lights and snowflakes will go away after Christmas, but I’ll still be incredibly disappointed in one of my all-time favorite sites.
What Flickr Should Have Done
It’s undeniable that the snowflakes and Christmas lights thing is a cute technology demo. So what should they have done with it? Here are my top five suggestions.
Don’t. Not all your members celebrate Christmas.
If you must, limit it to pages with multiple voices, like the Flickr blog, search results, tags, and the homepage. That way you’re not accidentally converting individual members.
Really, don’t. People see their pages as their homes. Would you put Christmas lights on someone else’s house?
If you must, make it an easter egg. Trigger it with a search, like Google’s “do a barrel roll” or other hidden behavior. Let people discover it and pass it along on Twitter and Facebook. It’ll be seen as cool and special by those that find it, and it won’t annoy the others.
In 1986, when R.E.M. released Life’s Rich Pageant, I was 13 and not nearly cool enough to know about R.E.M. But by the time I was 18, I’d met a girl with far better taste, who turned me on to a number of things, including R.E.M. She gave me a tape with Life’s Rich Pageant on Side A and Murmur on Side B. (Kids, ask your parents if you don’t know what a cassette tape is.) It’d be going too far to say it changed my life, but fair to say it give me a soundtrack to some of the best, and worst, moments of my life for the next two decades.
Life’s Rich Pageant contains a humble song, “Swan Swan H,” that stands out not just from the rest of the album, but from the whole of R.E.M.’s catalog (though it’d fit in quite nicely with today’s Decemberists). It begins with a simple old folky 12-string guitar, and Michael Stipe’s haunted words.
Swan, swan, hummingbird
Hurrah, we’re all free now
What noisy cats are we
Girl and dog he bore his cross
The lyrics go from there on a long chain of poetry that, to this day, I can only understand on an emotional level. Some sources say that the song is “about the Civil War” but that’s as much insight as I’ve ever found.
I listened to the song so often, it just became part of my subconscious. I learned how to play it and would often serenade myself with it on lonely nights in between cigarettes. I owned a 12-string acoustic for a time in college, so I could play it right. I had to sell that guitar later when money was tight. I still miss it.
Skip ahead to now and the song is still with me. It plays when my wife calls, the only custom ringtone on my iPhone, because it was the song that reminded me most of Heather. (Or did I marry Heather because she reminded me of the song? Either way, they’re both gentle, beautiful, and deep.)
I don’t believe that songs have to be perfectly understood to be enjoyed. The lyrics wander, with layers of references no one could fully understand unless they’re Michael Stipe. But of all the song’s mysteries, the one I’ve thought about most is the first three words. What the hell does “Swan Swan Hummingbird” mean? Now, after 20 years of it rattling around in my head, I think I finally know.
Swan, swan, hummingbird
Hurrah, we are all free now
A long, low time ago, people talk to me
I’ve been trying to wake up earlier lately, using my iPhone as an alarm clock. I was getting tired of being woken up by the buzzing, so I shut vibration off and then realized I could set a ringtone to play instead. Of course, I picked “Swan Swan H.”
This morning, as the alarm was beginning, the song entered my mind as I was still somewhere in between sleep and reality. And in that synesthesia, for the first time, I saw the words as literal shapes: a swan, a swan, and a hummingbird. And you know what those shapes look like? Musical notes. Maybe even the first three notes of the vocal melody.
I jumped out of bed and drew this on the whiteboard in the hallway, my eyes still adjusting to the light.
Could this be it? An insight to what those words mean, finally, after 20 years of wondering? Could I be right? Only Michael Stipe would know for sure. (Confidential to MS: Email me. I’m “fraying” at the gmail dotcom.)
I take a lesson from this experience. Some mental puzzles have long timeframes. So long that, sometimes, when I’m feeling down, it can seem like nothing’s making any progress. But that’s not true. I’m working things out as fast as I can. Sometimes that’s just not very fast. Some things have to simmer. Some questions can’t be answered without a few more years under your belt. That’s just the way it works. So be patient. The goal isn’t to figure everything out right now. The goal is just to survive long enough to have a chance a finding an answer or two.
A pistol hot cup of rhyme,
The whiskey is water, the water is wine
In her prime, Spoo was a lap-warmer, fearless explorer, lover of boxes, occasional houseplant destroyer, hunter of moths, neighborhood cat brawler, and playmate to our dog, Chieka. I got her a couple years after I moved to San Francisco, and she’s been with me through every major life change – from apartment to house, girlfriends to wife, and more startups than I can count. She was always there.
Over the last year, she drew inward and became confused, sometimes not even recognizing Heather or me. She stopped going outside and her world got smaller and smaller. Vet visits and tests confirmed that there was no treatment to be had – she was just old. We lived with the early morning yowling and occasional litterbox miss. We tried different food, little kitty houses, and even cat Prosak. But when she pissed in the hallway twice in one day, and sat in it crying in sadness and confusion, we knew we couldn’t continue this way.
She was put to sleep today at 9am. She was purring in my arms at the end. As Heather and I held hands, crying and petting her, saying goodbye, she let out one final, tiny, rebellious fart.
She did not go quietly. I’m going to miss her like hell.
The other day I was talking to my uncle. He’s my dad’s age, a boomer. I was struggling to explain the importance of Steve Jobs’ death to my generation (“Generation X”, more or less) when this popped out of my mouth:
“He was our generation’s John Lennon.”
Ever since I said it, it’s been rattling around my brain. Could it be so?
It’s true that both men were visionaries who changed the world. And both men were taken before their time. Plus, they had similar taste in eyewear. But their differences also say something about their respective generations.
John Lennon started as a teen heartthrob and evolved into a political leader, but he was always an artist. And the way you interact with a famous artist is fundamentally unequal and passive. I don’t mean to diminish this experience in any way. I had a mind-blowing experience listening to Beatles records on my dad’s turntable wearing giant headphones when I was a kid. I poured over the dust jackets looking for clues, lost in the world they created. But it was a world where I was fundamentally a visitor.
Steve Jobs, in his life’s work at Apple, was also an artist. But his art was creating tools for other people to use. You’re not an audience when you use a Mac, you’re a creator. It’s an active experience. An iPhone connects you to the people you love, and to the world in general. Even the iPad, erroneously derided as a “consumer” device, is still a tool you use to make and do things. You’re in charge.
John Lennon’s gift was opening our minds with music. But Steve Jobs’ was about connecting our minds to technology and each other. He spearheaded the creation and mainstream adoption of tools that, just a few years ago, would have been considered science fiction. Both men were leaders. And, of course, both men did not achieve these things alone. But they both became emblems of their epochs.
This is something a lot of the eulogies (and the haters) have missed. It’s not (just) that Steve Jobs was a great artist, it’s that he gave us the tools to become great artists. Maybe the way you become a superstar in the modern world is more like Jobs and less like Lennon. You can’t expect to stand in the spotlight by yourself anymore. The way you change the world is to create environments where other people succeed. It’s less Zappa and more Zuckerberg. Less Fellini and more Flickr. Instead of standing in the spotlight, build a stage. Personally, I like it this way.
Or: A Personal Reflection on the Past, Present, and Future of Names on the Internet
I got my first email address in 1991. I was a freshman at UC Santa Cruz and a friend took me to a basement office where you had to fill out a paper form to get your ucsc.edu email account. In the box labeled “User-name” I started to write “Derek.” My friend stopped me. “Nobody uses their real name.” He said it like he was talking to a child.
So that’s how I became email@example.com. (Yes, I used to listen to a lot of Pink Floyd. I was in college!) I was “Floyd” on every email system I used for the next decade. Outside of some early flirtations with identity deception, I never pretended I wasn’t Derek in those places. Having “floyd” as my username was just, as Grandpa Simpson says, the style at the time.
When I launched fray.com in 1996, hacker culture was still going strong and the masses were not yet online. Back then, it was normal to have a pseudonym or “handle” that you went by. Most communication online was hidden behind handles, which it reinforced the idea that the internet was not “real” in the same way real life was. People treated everything online like a game. It was “cyberspace,” not reality.
Fray was about true stories from real life, so it made sense to use real names. I required that our authors use their real names. (We made only one or two exceptions when it was necessary.) It changed what they wrote. They stopped pretending to be something they weren’t. They became real.
(We were so naive back then, we even showed our actual email addresses on comment pages. Email addresses right there on the page for all to crawl! Those were innocent times.)
At some point I started to use “Fraying” for most of my accounts, mostly because I listened to less Pink Floyd and “Fray” was usually taken. I still use “Fraying” for most usernames, but nobody really calls me that. Every time I consider using “Derek” or “Powazek” for account names, I still see that look on my friend’s face 20 years ago.
The idea that the internet is a place that’s separate from reality has faded. People generally have online identities that map to who they really are. Outside of a few legitimate edge cases and the occasional sci-fi fantasy, who we are online is simply who we are.
Facebook has done more to influence this than any other site, and I’m glad for it. When someone in the mainstream media quotes a tweet from “SexxxyDude3030” it only reinforces the idea that people online are idiots you only talk to when you’re covering the latest dumb trend story.
Recently Google launched a Facebook competitor called Google+ (a name I hate writing so much, I’m going to just call it “Plus”). And they made two interesting decisions on names.
First, there are no usernames, no handles. Who you are is simply who you are. I think that’s a bold move, and I’m interested to see how it plays out. Facebook also started this way, but later had to introduce usernames to allow people to create unique URLs (like mine, facebook.com/fraying). Without unique usernames, Google Plus has had to use nonsensical strings of characters (like mine, plus.google.com/100817955763300677682). Clearly the named URLs are better, but it also introduces a land-grab mentality, and when you start a service that plans to host millions of people, having all the good names taken is a real concern.
Second, Google is asking people to use their real names. The official policy is to “use the name your friends, family or co-workers usually call you” which is entirely reasonable. Unfortunately, the policy has been enforced in a manner that could charitably be called “error-prone.” When people have to start reverse engineering the rules, you know things have gone sideways.
In any new community system, it’s up to the founders to set the rules they think are best. It’s then up to us to decide whether to participate or not. And while I believe both of these decisions (no usernames, only real names) were made with good intentions and an honest desire to create a better community experience, the combination results in a few sticky wickets:
The member’s real name has to hold the entirety of their identity. So if someone only knows me as “fraying” I may be difficult to find, and I may not feel that my profile really represents me.
The real name you enter into your Plus profile isn’t just used for Plus – it’s used for all of Google’s services. Change your name to “Bob” in your Plus profile, and then send a mail from Gmail, and it will go out from Bob. This is very confusing for people who are used to maintaining different names in different places, and it places additional pressure on Plus.
If, for whatever reason, I am someone that cannot use my real name online, it means I cannot use Plus at all. If I do, I might accidentally reveal my name when I didn’t mean to. And if I use a fake name, I could get my account yanked.
It’s worth acknowledging that Google’s got a uniquely hard job here. Usually a community startup has a period of slow growth where they can work out their tools and policies. People forget that both Twitter and Facebook had years of obscurity to grow organically before they became household names. Anything Google does is immediately front page news. It’s impossible to get a community system right on your first try. People are just too unpredictable in groups.
Fortunately, I think there are some easy solutions for Google.
They could use the same privacy widget for real name that they use for almost every other piece of data on your profile. The widget allows you to set who sees what, and it’s the best of breed I’ve seen in any social network. (That they didn’t use it for real name shows how important they think that information is.) There’s a chance this could happen. The widget is already on the real name field, it’s just stuck on the global setting. At launch, Google Plus also had the gender field stuck on global, and they changed it after getting a lot of negative feedback. Maybe they could use it here, for the last name at least.
They should allow the Plus profile to be independent of your greater Google account identity, at least for now. In a conversation with Tim O’Reilly today, Bradley Horowitz, VP Product for Google Plus, repeated that Plus is in “limited field trial” and asked for patience, which is absolutely fair. But if the service is limited, then the information I enter there should also be limited. Take the pressure off Plus by letting their profiles be separate from the rest of my established Google identities.
For the love of all that is good and holy, hire a community manager and empower them to speak frankly to the community and to the company about what’s going on. Community management is a specialized skill, different from product management and engineering. Your members are freaked out, and when they’re freaked out, they can believe any craziness they read. It needs to be someone’s job to say, in a soft pleasing tone of voice, “No, Google is not breaking into your house to scan your passport.” The communication with the larger community has been atrocious, which is unforgivable when you’re building a communication platform.
I’m sure there are people at Google who have thought of all these things already. It’s always easier to sit outside a giant community system and say “this is how it should be” without knowing the specifics. Community management is the process of making decisions with good intentions and then cleaning up after the explosion. Google has smart people who have thought deeply about this, and they’ve shown a willingness (albeit a quiet one) to make changes. I hope they continue to.
I think we’re witnessing a fascinating shift in online culture. The era of hacker handles is over. We’ve grown out of it the same way I grew out of Pink Floyd. (Even though I still listen to Animals occasionally. It’s the sheep.) The internet is not a second life anymore, it’s your first one. You don’t slip into a pseudonym when you use the phone, why should you be someone else online? Hacker handles were training wheels, and they’re off the bike now whether you like it or not.
This doesn’t mean that there will be no anonymous or pseudonymous conversation on the internet. There will always be a need for anonymous speech, just as there’ll always be a need to pay in cash. It’s just not up to giant multinational corporations to provide that for us, nor should we trust them to do so.
There’s no denying that this has huge implications for how we live our lives, the data trails we leave, and the privacy systems we’ll need in the future. But that future is coming no matter what rules Google decides to implement for Plus. I’d like to see us spend more of our collective energy building that future, and less beating up on Google for their mistakes.
It’s important to remember that, as big and powerful as Google is, the internet is bigger and more powerful. It’s still a big web out there, and every community that feels unwelcome in Plus is a potential audience for someone else’s startup. Don’t like the rules of their playground? Go build your own. The web still gives everyone the opportunity to build something great, using whatever name they want, whenever they want. No one is stopping you.
If you have an hour to kill, watch the video conversation between Tim O’Reilly and Bradley Horowitz about Google Plus I mentioned earlier. There are some great ideas in it, especially in the latter half.
Jillian C. York from the EFF makes a convincing case for pseudonyms which I mostly agree with. Pseudonymous speech is important and there’s lots of it on the internet. Whether Google and Facebook implement it is up to them.
A thought I wasn’t able to work in above: The de facto standard for most current online community systems is that there’s a first name field and a last name field and members can put whatever they want in them, and they only get reviewed if someone complains. It seems to me that this can and should be done better. At least Google is trying something here. Even if it fails, it’s still an interesting experiment and I appreciate that.
Because someone’s sure to ask: Comments are currently disabled on powazek.com. Here’s why. I encourage you to post your thoughts on your own site. Don’t have one? Get one. That’s kind of the point.
UPDATE: A fellow alum tweeted me to point out that UCSC no longer allows students to choose their own email usernames. Now they’re just assigned one that’s their first initial, middle initial, and last name. Another nail in the hacker handle coffin.
Derek Powazek has been designing and building community systems online since 1995. He is the author of Design for Community: The Art of Connecting Real People in Virtual Places. The views expressed here do not reflect his company, Fertile Medium, or its clients. Just his. And he’s not entire sure about them, either.