Twitter trending topics and the danger with real-time statistics

Everytime I see Twitter trending topics, it reminds of the scientific adage that when we observe something we change it. It is a recognized effect in physics (see Wikipedia for an explanation of Observer effects). By allowing us to observe trending topics in real time, Twitter gives us the opportunity to change them. Contrast that with post-hoc analysis like Google Zeigeist. It is way past the event, and as such, harder to influence.

This is not just Twitter, this is the danger (and opportunity) with real-time statistics. When we find out about something in real time, we don’t just observe, we also participate and change the phenomenon itself. Recall the type of information and misinformation that spread when Swine Flu was a trending topic on Twitter.

It goes beyond the observer effect: real time statistics also facilitate herding behavior even more than the internet typically does. The analogy is to crowd behavior more than anything else. As decades of research in psychology have shown and as James Suoweicki pointed out in his book “Wisdom of crowds”, you need certain conditions under for the behavior of crowds to be wise.

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This is an opportunity: one can design social systems where wisdom of crowds is more likely to prevail. I am hoping folks at Twitter and anyone else playing with real-time statistics will give Suroweicki a read and rethink the design of trending topics.

User Acquisition in the Era of App Platforms panel at TiEcon tomorrow

If you are going to TiEcon, then come by to our panel in the morning tomorrow. Dave McClure is moderating.

Panel description: From entrepreneurs working on new applications to established firms looking to gain scale, effective customer acquisition strategies remain of paramount importance and vital to success. The massive scale of application platforms today combined with the acceptance of modularized content/functionality have resulted in new options for those looking to crack the consumer adoption nut. What are the pros and cons of an apps only strategy? What are the best practices around a hybrid website/app approach? And, is there still such a thing as a website only strategy? Join us as we bring together an exciting panel to revisit the ins and outs of customer acquisition.

Panelists are David Hornik (August Capital), Net Jacobsson (Former Facebook), Jason Oberfest (MySpace), and yours truly.

I think Dave asked me to be on the panel because I represent the “Don’t just be on apps” perspective. While SlideShare has a multi-pronged strategy (we are on all major platforms where professionals are), but we have chosen to focus on the and build it upto to be a destination site. To some extent, its because of timing. We launched SlideShare before Facebook launched its platform, and MySpace was never suited to us. So we did not have a choice. If I launched an app now, then I would consider launching on Facebook and other relevant platforms.

However, I do think there is something to be said about embracing the biggest platform out there: the WEB. On the app platforms, often you are dependent on the vagaries of the platform. One day, Facebook might change the rules on you. Also, the advantage you get from platforms depends on when you launch on them. Early facebook apps had an unfair advantage which later apps did not.

What do you think? Platforms / web / both?

Sleeping through the launch of SlideShare mobile app

Last night we went out for St Patrick’s day and I completely forgot that our mobile app was being launched. I woke up this morning to check my feeds and realized that the app had been launched, was generating a bit of enthusiasm, and had been TechCrunched – all while I was sleeping!

This is the day every startup founder lives for – when smart, capable folks are taking the ownership for the app. I am lucky that we have such an awesome team! As you might have read the SlideShare mobile app was a skunkworks project – some of SlideShare team members decided to build a mobile app for Yahoo hackday. They started building it, rest of team pitched in as needed, and pretty soon it was ready to launch.

Thanks Kapil, Prasanna, Mani, Bhups, Cju, Ashwan, Arun and the entire team!

Running a scrappy startup – what would you like to hear about?

Next Sunday, I am giving a talk at Entrepreneur Trek at Stanford on a topic close to my heart: how to run a scrappy startup. It is something I know a lot about, having run SlideShare on a small budget. We took a modest round of funding in our second year, post funding, we remain a scrappy startup.

I will cover a whole gamut of startup issues from when to spend on marketing and bizdev, how to get started with sales, how to choose a lawyer and accountant, how to negotiate the best rates for every service you spend on. But most of all how to do this without compromisng the quality of the product and keeping up a fast pace of growth. At the end of the day, it would not matter how scrappy you are if your product is not great and if you are not growing fast. So the trick is knowing what to spend on (great developers, designers, good hardware) and what to skimp on (marketing, PR).

If you are running a startup or thinking of one, what topics would you like to hear about? What startup issues do you always have questions about?

Book review: Gang Leader for a day

Just finished reading Gang Leader for a day by Sudhir Venkatesh. I had first read about this book in Freakonomics where Levitt & Dubner talk about the economics of a drug gang and how a low level worker in a gang barely makes minimum wages. It had piqued my interest even at that time, so I picked it up next time I was heading for a long flight. Its the best sociology book I have read for a long time (maybe ever), that makes a group, a lifestyle come alive. Its not fiction, but its absorbing enough to rival great fiction.

It is written by a graduate student at University of Chicago, Sudhir Venkatesh. He is doing a survey on poverty in the projects (the infamous Robert Taylor Homes in South-side Chicago) in 1989. Some gang members from the Black Kings think he is from a rival gang and hold him overnight. He becomes friendly with the gang leader JT and spends the next six years hanging around with the gang, learning how they operate, how the economics work, what lives in the projects is life, how the gang thinks of itself not as a “gang” but a “community group”, how well-meaning governmental plans never end up helping the poorest, how the police is often working in hand with the gangs.

Venkatesh articulates some of my own dissatisfaction with academic life. When I was at Brown University and at UC Berkeleu, it felt too isolated, too ivory tower. When I discovered the web, and how you could build for it and constantly iterate, it seemed a far more exciting prospect than sitting in a lab doing made up experiments on people. He writes about this again and again, how to isolation of researcher from the very people they are studying bothers him.

Please add a comment if you have read this book. Would love to know what others thought.

Women speaker Wednesdays on SlideShare

Ever so often the topic comes up of women speaker at conferences. All of us notice the small number of women (especially speakers) at tech conferences. I hear such discussions, but so far have been a silent observer. This time, I felt like I had to do something.

And its not just at tech conferences, I was just at a venture conference in New York, and the proportion of women (even women attendees) was even smaller than at tech conferences.

We feature presentations on the SlideShare homepage everyday. It drives a fair bit of traffic and conversation. From now on, every Wednesday, we will make it a special point of featuring women speakers. So if you are a woman who speaks at conferences (or want to speak at conferences), please upload your presentations to SlideShare and tag them “womanspeaker“. We will look here when we feature presentations on Wednesday.

Also, please complete your profile so we can see who you are. Tagging your presentation does not guarantee you will be on SlideShare homepage, we will look at everything with the tag and make an editorial judgment. But this tag will help identify women speakers for everyone (especially conference organizers) and I am personally (and publicly) committed to highlighting it in every way I can.

Please pass this on to your friends and colleagues. Ask them to tag themselves “womanspeaker”.

Slumdog Millionaire: Brilliant yet flawed

Finally watched Slumdog Millionaire. Really enjoyed it – it was an energetic, well directed journey. The child actors especially played their roles brilliantly and made you love them.

The flawed aspect was the over dramatization of slum life. Jamal as a child encountered pretty much every bad thing you hear about slums (riots, child beggar exploitation, prostitution, slum lords). You could see how the movie was catering to Western audiences, to every stereotype about India – you could see the calculation that for an Indian movie to do well in the west, it has to tell a certain story. (Its not a coincidence that the after Salaam Bombay (which is also about life in slums), this is the next movie about India to break out into the world stage.)

It did break out of that mold somewhat after the middle when the focus was on Jamaal’s life as a young man, with life as a chaiwala in the call center. I think the first half of the movie could have been been much less dramatic and still managed to get across the range of life experiences picked up by this child from the slums.

But in spite of the pandering, the movie had a certain joi de vivre. Every moment of the movie was enjoyable. The music (by AR Rahman) was brilliant. India has been in love with his music for many years now, but this is his entry to the world stage. Overall, a lovely movie, less pandering next time please.