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.

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”.

Why the LinkedIn platform is important

Last week LinkedIn launched their platform with several apps including SlideShare. Several bloggers wrote about the business oriented nature of the apps, and that you cannot throw sheep ! But there are reasons the platform is important going beyond the lack of sheep.

1) Its the first business oriented social network that is embracing a platform approach. This is the first time that business users have access to other types of apps that are relevant to them.

2) Its the biggest platform built on Open Social. Its an important endorsement for OpenSocial. I predict that we will see more platforms using it in the next few months.

3) It incorporates the lessons learned from other platforms including Facebook. The most noticeable thing about the LInkedIn platform is that they have worked hard to remain true to the core goal of LinkedIn (utility for professionals), and not let the apps take over the user experience of LinkedIn.

This is both reflected in the choice of business oriented apps (wordpress, movabletype, slideshare, huddle, google apps). And in the way that apps work on the site.

We experienced this again and again in the months of working together with LinkedIn for the SlideShare app. LinkedIn understands the rhythm and cadence of the LinkedIn site. They worked hard with the apps to make sure they added functionality, but did not fundamentally change that user experience.

I strongly agree with this approach. Looking back on the timeline for the Facebook platform, its clear that for a period of time, Facebook lost control of their end user experience. The apps were in your face (several were extremely spammy). When you have thousands of apps doing this, then pretty soon the social space itself changes. This is why Facebook had to do something as drastic as putting all the apps in a separate Boxes tab cutting traffic to the apps in half.

Social networks have a delicate balance, there is a rhythm to the social activity. There are channels for communication between users, and different channels are used in different ways, with different frequency. You cannot suddenly change this. Instead you have to understand what the rhythm of communication is, what users value about the experience on the site and make sure that does not completely change, even while apps are added to the site.

It will be interesting to see how the platform evolves in the months ahead. But I think LinkedIn gets this and am very bullish about the platform.

Stepping down as BayCHI program chair

For more than five years now, I have been co-Program Chair for BayCHI hosting a variety of speakers from Peter Norvig, Bill Scott, Tara Hunt, Tim Brown, Jakob Neilsen, Jared Spool and Jesse James Garrett. When I started I was a researcher at UC Berkeley. In between, I ran a consulting company that morphed into a product company (MindCanvas) that planted the seeds of SlideShare.

I have really enjoyed this tenure. So why am I leaving? Because SlideShare is growing and I don’t have time anymore. Running a startup takes everything you have and more. I am also focused on startup issues rather than HCI issues. Finally, six years is a long time to do anything and its time to give someone else a chance.

We are looking for a replacement for me who will be co-program chair along with Paul Sas (he is a great co-chair to work with!). I have also loved working with Stacie Hibino, Steve Williams, Nancy Frishberg and everyone else at BayCHI. Get in touch if you have past experience at organizing such events and want to get involved.

This was a long time in the coming. Several times I wanted to tell my BayCHI colleagues, but was not able to actually say I was leaving. This is one of several threads that I am closing now that SlideShare takes 120% of my time.

December 9th is my last program. I am still putting it together. Come by if you are in the area…

Upcoming’s disastrous switch from personal-social to general-social

Till a few months ago, Upcoming was one of the sites I visited daily. I went there to find what my friends are upto. I watched events even when I could not attend them (it was often an expression of my wish to be there more than anything else). Then one day Upcoming redesigned. They cleaned up their visual look and feel – no drastic changes, just minor changes. Nothing earth shattering.

For me the best part of Upcoming was being able to see what events my friends are going to. With their redesign, Upcoming decided to hide that behind two clicks. Now when you go to the site, I see whats popular in San Francisco, but I have to click to see what my friends are upto. Even on an events page, I can no longer easily see if any of my friends are going there. Instead I am shown the groups and tags. But I have to click to see who is attending.

Thats all it took to kill Upcoming for me. In my informal survey, many of my friends have stopped going there for the same reason.

I wonder what inspired this redesign. What was the goal here? To push the popular more than the personal? Had the team seen the stats? Had they talked to their users? Did they know how many people used it to keep track of friends events?

Such fundamental redesigns are often a bad idea. And the move from a personal-social is especially dangerous. If you are used to a service being all about you and your friends, then the general-popular feels like a real intrusion.

“Thirst” wins SlideShare’s World’s Best Presentation Contest

We declared the results of the second World’s Best Presentation Contest. Jeff Brenman (who also won the contest last year with Shift happens), walked away with this year’s top prize with Thirst. Other two winning presentations are Footnotes, a whimsical travelogoue told through shots of Melanie’s feet. And third prize is Zimbabwe in Crisis. We also have six category winners

Here is Jeff Brenman’s Thirst for your viewing pleasure.

Why did Google acquire Omnisio?

For those who live under a rock (read don’t read Techcrunch/Techmeme), Google just acquired Omnisio – a company that lets you synchronize YouTube videos with SlideShare slideshows. At first I was wondering if they are planning to use Omnisio to mashup Google Presently with YouTube. But I think I just found the answer in the YouTube blog.

Omnisio, a small California-based startup that’s focused on making online video more useful and collaborative. The Omnisio team has tremendous technical expertise when it comes to advanced video tools and having this kind of talent at YouTube should help us further explore ways to enhance your YouTube experience.

Its a talent and some technology acquisition. Its about video annotations and comments. Makes complete sense.

Video is a continuous stream. Omnisio lets you annotate and tag particular points in this continuous stream. Imagine coming to a video and rather than start it from beginning, go to particular points that have been tagged or commented. Imagine a layer of social metadata that lives on top of video (a la notes on Flickr pictures).

Our slidecasting technology does essentially the same thing – but for audio rather than video. Slidecasting allows you to link particular points in the audio stream and thus annotate them.

I ran into Ryan, one of the Omnisio founders, at the last Startup2Startup dinner and he mentioned there was interesting news upcoming. All the best to Ryan and other members of the Omnisio team!