Google Docs vs. Microsoft Office: there we go again

ReadWriteWeb wrote an article yesterday about why Google Docs is a threat for Microsoft Office. Someone called Karim posted a long rebuttal which is its own post now. Makes for some interesting reading. The discussion in the comments breaks into the typical anti MS or anti Google camp.

In my own experience, Google docs is useful for different reasons than MS Office. Yesterday, I created a Google spreadsheet to track a weekly column on Slide Design that we are planning for the SlideShare blog. I want to share the information with the rest of my team, the spreadsheet is not heavy (it has very little data), I don’t need any fancy formatting. Google Docs was perfect for that.

The day before I spent almost the entire day in Excel crunching SlideShare numbers, creating charts. There is no way I could use Google Docs for that. Its a lot of data, lot of charts and a lot of manipulation of data. Any type of network latency will be annoying. Also, I use many advanced Excel features that I am sure Google Docs does not support.

Google Docs is useful, but I don’t see it taking over MS Office anytime soon.

Open letter to Matt & Toni: Three ways for WordPress to become more of a social network

WordPress.com is growing at fast pace. Its not quite at the Facebook, MySpace level, but at the rate it is growing, it could clearly get there. It has some of the elements of a social network, but these elements tend to be implicit rather than explicit. I think WordPress could grow even faster and replace some of what people get out of sites like Facebook if it became a little more of a social network. The question is how it could do this without changing the current character of the community too much.

Others have also noticed that wordpress has some of the attributes of a social network. Chris Messina thinks of it as a distributed social network. I am building on that theme. Like Chris, I like the openness of WordPress. It fits the nature of the web. I like the fact that its person-centric. And I have also observed that for a object-based network like SlideShare, the main place for embedding our widgets is not Facebook, or MySpace or Orkut – its WordPress. So you could say that I am selfish in my desire to see WordPress grow!

WordPress does have the basic ingredients for social network. Spaces for individuals (their blogs) within a larger social system (WordPress.com) and ways for people to connect with each other (by linking, commenting, blogrolls). What WordPress does not have is the social glue to pull the disparate community together and give it more of a community feel. Here are three ways that WordPress can get more social glue.

Wordpress icons1) Make it easy to navigate via users: Right now you can navigate from user to post to user, or from comment to user. It would be easy for WordPress to change this and make it possible to go from user to user in a much more fluid manner. A specific example: on the front page of wordpress.com, they show the user icons next to blog posts in the News Department area. The user icons should point to the About page for that user. As a rule, user icons should always point to the About page for that user.

2) Standardize the “About” page: To the best of my understanding, there is no standardized profile page on WordPress. But every social network needs a profile page which has information about the user and includes a browsable list of contacts. The About page can service this purpose – it needs to the central place for information about a user and their contacts.

3) Create a standard list of contacts: Social networks need a way for each person to have browsable list of contacts. I don’t think that WordPress needs to have a “Add as contact” button like most social networks. There are many implicit ways for people to make social connections on WordPress (blogrolls, commenting, linking). Any or all of these could form the basis of an inferred list of contacts (this idea will need to be fleshed out).

There are other things that WordPress could do to create more of a community feel. For example, create WordPress groups. People express identity and form affiliations by creating / joining groups. Groups could be based on topical interest. Location based groups also might work well – letting bloggers from a certain location easily find each other.

I think the challenge for WordPress would be to do this without losing the current feel. But with a few subtle design and technical changes, wordpress could do this … the basic ingredients for a social network are already in place. And I think Matt and Toni are upto the challenge.

Ratio of creators to viewers for SlideShare

I was just running some stats for SlideShare and realized that the ratio of creators (people who upload slideshows) to viewers (who visit SlideShare.net) is just south of 1%. This fits in well with what Bradley Horowitz’s Content Production Pyramid described, with some caveats.

First Bradley also talks about the synthesizers. I have yet to calculate those numbers for SlideShare. However, SlideShare is an active bookmarking community (we have 2.7 tags per slideshow), so those numbers are likely to be meaningful. But a lot of the synthesis is also happening on the web. As people link to and embed slideshows, they add metadata about those slides. Some of the metadata is captured on SlideShare (e.g., we links back to all the embds). But a lot of it cannot be captured easily.

Secondly, the number of viewers is probably an underestimation in an era of widgets. Slideshows are embedded all over the web. Each embed leads to more views which our system does not directly capture.

Google Analytics and problems with AJAX, Flash sites

I spent part of my weekend trying to understand Google Analytics (GA) – mostly why GA shows such low engagement metrics for SlideShare. Every other measure tells us engagement is much higher. Finally I figured out the reason: we use a lot of AJAX and flash, and our media files are served from Amazon S3. So you can view a slideshow for half hour on Slideshare, you can comment, favorite and do many other activities. And none of them would get recorded on Google Analytics which is only recording page to page movement, and only for actions that happen on SlideShare.net (all the slide activity on Amazon S3 is not being captured!).

We started using GA recently and just did an out of box install. To give it credit, GA is very convenient, and rapidly becoming a standard for site statistics. But its out of the box install does not account for the way many modern websites work.

– Distributed Infrastructure: File serving from Amazon S3 is common
– Flash based for media files
– Lots of AJAX for on the page interaction

After spending time on the problem (including reading this book), we have figured out workarounds for most of the the issues. And while GA is flexible enough to accommodate us, it does not make it easy. Out of the box, it seems set up for old school HTML pages where you move from page to page, rather than mini-actions within page. Also, many of the options seem to be for ecommerce sites (tracking steps through an ecommerce funnel etc.) rather than for social (Web 2.0 to use a cliched term!) sites.

My advise – if you are going to use Google Analytics, spend some time upfront to understand how to customize both the analytics code and your own site. Don’t begin collecting data before you do that, or you will get a very biased picture of your site. Also, to do it right, you will end up integrating with GA much more deeply than simply placing some javascript in your pages.

Running a data-driven social software site

SlideShare began with an idea. We built it on instinct, launched it. People liked it, it grew. Our active users wrote to us, blogged, sent us feedback about what they liked or did not like. We took that into account as we planned features.

Its great to listen to active users, but it can bias you towards the superuser. As our userbase is growing, we need to take into account the different user segments, the people who don’t blog and write to us.

There is only way to keep in mind all the user types, to end the endless debates within the company about what we need to do next. And that is to be driven by data. Period.

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Is My Questions the most spammy Facebook app?

To me, without doubt it is the “My Questions” app. So many times I have been tricked into checking out questions that friends have asked, only to find that they never asked the question and are confused why it was asked on their behalf. This just happened to me. I logged into Facebook and found that a friend had answered my question. Nice, except that I never asked a question.

While Facebook is becoming more and more a part of my daily life, I am really wary of spammy apps like My Questions.

What is the app that you find most spammy on Facebook?

Talk at Yahoo research tomorrow: The perils of popularity

I am giving a talk tomorrow at Yahoo Research Labs titled “The perils of popularity“. There has been a lot of excitement about how web-based social systems harness the wisdom of crowds. I want to challenge that notion. I also want to challenge some of Chris Anderson’s assertions about the long tail. Anderson contends that with the democratization of the tools of production and distribution and ability to reach niches with tools like Netflix and Google, the era of hits and manufactured pop is over. I think that the mechanism for creating hits is shifting from studios to the large scale social systems like YouTube and the rules for how content rises to the top. Instead of manufactured pop like N Sync, we have hits from teams like lonelygirl who best understand how to use that medium.

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Following a mashup to its roots: Shift Happens

In following the RSS feed about the SlideShare contest winners, I realized that the winning slideshow is a mashup and started following it to its roots. The winner jbrenman clearly acknowledged that his contest entry is a stylistic rendition of Karl Fisch’s original presentation, so I had always known that. But as is the case with many mashups, I had not spent time tracking the creation to the original. As I started following links, I learnt that Karl Fisch is a teacher who created the original Shift happens powerpoint. Generously, he shared both the original powerpoint file and the mp3 that goes alongwith. In his blog, he also talks about how he came to create the presentation to get the faculty thinking about this new world that their students are entering. (Shift happens is about the paradigm shift in America’s changing role in the world). He also discusses the statistics that he cites in the presentation (acknowledging that his presentation itself is a mashup of ideas and statistics from many sources).

This is fascinating. I could go on stepping back in tracing these ideas. So who is the original creator? Is there an original creator? Is the question even relevant?

Thanks to Karl for sharing. Your presentation rocks (here is a link to his original ppt file). Thanks jbrenman for your stylistic interpretation. Its brilliant (embedded below).

This adds to my belief that powerpoint is the ultimate mashup medium. If you think about it, most presentations are mashups – a collection of facts, opinions and pictures put together under the creative lens of an individual.

Upcoming talk on Office 2.0 and the social life of office documents

On May 8th, I have been invited to give a talk at San Francisco State University by Prof. Sameer Verma. Its a class on Multimedia Business Application Development. For a while I have been wanting to talk about Office 2.0, but never seem to have the time to write the talk itself. On a whim, I decided to write the abstract and send it on. Now, I have no more excuses and have to get the talk ready by May 8th! So, I will be spending the weekend writing and working on the slides. Below is the abstract. References and suggestions about this topic are welcome. And of course, I will post the slides after the talk!


Office 2.0 and the social life of office documents

Traditionally, we have thought of office documents as files that get created, edited and saved to our hard drives. On collaborative projects there might be emailing back and forth. But documents mostly spend their lives on our personal hard drives, within an idiosyncratic mess of folders and subfolders. In this talk Rashmi will examine what Web 2.0 means for office documents with a focus on presentation files. She will discuss how office documents are being liberated from the confines of the hard drive. They can be born in the browser, letting multiple people work on the same document at the same time. Once created, they are no longer confined to our hard drives, but accessible to anyone with a web connection. Documents get linked, tagged and shared on the web. Large scale sharing and social networking around these documents makes the documents useful to more people, and means we can find them when we need them. The social life of documents just got a lot more interesting!

Social mechanisms of the Digg user revolt

People who know me know that I am fascinated by Digg as an example of a flawed but very effective social system. That effectiveness of Digg was evident yesterday as the users revolted against the censoring of some stories on HD-DVD by Digg. Enough has been said about the censoring by Digg, the response by users, so let me focus on the social mechanics of the situation. Digg has always been particularly effective in funneling a lot of user energy into a few stories that drive a lot of traffic and energy. There are a number of ways Digg achieves that.

a) There is only one metric that matters on Digg – the number of Diggs. Contrast that with the many metrics on a site like YouTube or SlideShare (number of views, comments, favorites, embeds, downloads). The primary self-expression on Digg however, is the number of Diggs. That’s what users focus on and that’s what the system responds to.

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