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.

What the Yahoo-Microsoft deal might mean for startups

There has been a lot written about what a Yahoo-Microsoft deal might mean for startups. Most of it is focuses on how it takes out two out of the three players who compete for buying startups. Yahoo and Microsoft will be preoccupied for a little while, to say the least. I just saw a contrary viewpoint from Marc Andressen and find myself in agreement with him. Marc points out that the triumverate (Google, Yahoo & Microsoft) are not the only ones who do the acquiring. He lists Amazon, AOL, CBS, Cisco, Viacom and several other acquirers. So its not as if the startup M&A market is suddenly drying up. Second and more importantly, he points out that building a startup to get acquired is foolishness anyway. And to want to get acquired by particular companies is even more foolish. I often meet entrepreneurs and realize that they are hoping to flip their startups in a year or two, and turn a neat profit. In fact, when I heard Paul Graham speak at FOWA, that seemed to be his message as well. The picture he painted was of two twenty-year olds who build something, move to Silicon Valley, live on Ramen noodles and flip the startup in 2-3 years. If that is your model, then you will mourn the preoccupation of the two potential acquirers (especially if you were targeting them for the flip). But if are focused on really building a great product and a great company, then this does not change anything.

For SlideShare, we made a decision early on that we want to change the way that people share presentations, and build a great company. This news did not change anything for us.

Are you going to be at the Girk Geek dinner?

The first Bay Area girl geek dinner is shaping up to be awesome. Angie Chang the organizer has done an awesome job in pulling it together, and I hope its the beginning of many such events.

I love the fact that the event is open to women and their male guests. Men need to be invited by a woman :->. Angie tells me that the event is now closed (was full several times over, they had to move to a larger venue).

I will be speaking on a panel along with Katherine Barr, Leah Culver, Irene Au, and Sumaya Kazi.

If you are going to be at the dinner, then do come by and say Hi. And drop a line in the comments here.

Goodbye Basecamp, hello Fogbugz

I have written before about my growing frustrations with Basecamp. We had been looking at alternatives and finally made a shift about 15 days ago. The reasons for moving off Basecamp are threefold:
1) Terrible search and findability. Its hard to find anything that goes into Basecamp. One of the purposes of collaboration is knowledge generation and recording and Basecamp does a terrible job of that. They did a search redesign recently and I was hopeful. But it did not improve core search.

2) Crappy integration with email. It is not possible to reply to reply to a Basecamp thread from email. You have to go to the website to reply. This really hinders collaboration.

3) Writeboards are no replacement for wikis. I seriously gave writeboards a chance. But once again, there are no ways to organize them. Information that goes into them feels like its lost forever.

What did we shift to: a mix of Fogbugz and SlideShare private groups.
We are using Fogbugz for bugs, features, all project related (structured) communication. The nice thing about Fogbugz is that you can make a case out of anything, a bug, a feature idea, a customer support request. Once its a case in Fogbugz, it can be assigned and tracked. When I spot a bug, I add it to Fogbugz. When I think of a change in the design, I create a new case in Fogbugz. Fogbugz is not perfect, but its much better than managing the project using Basecamp and Trac (our previous bug tracking system). And I especially like how easy Fogbugz makes it to filter and find information. The whole concept of shared filters is great.

For other informal communication, we have started using SlideShare private groups. We launched private groups just about a week ago and want to “eat our own dogfood”. Its working quite well for internal communication and sharing of documents. Its especially nice because we are uncovering lots of bugs and quickly make minor changes that we need. One of the first needs we have uncovered is search inside a group! Expect that soon.

One of the things I like about using a SlideShare group is that we designed it to support lightweight communication – it encourages short, almost twitter like posts. Also, it interweaves conversation with objects (or slideshows). Most of the time with mailing groups, there is a conversation thread and you can attach a file to that. But the file and conversation are not interwoven. SlideShare allows me to weave the object in with the conversation. Since we use PowerPoint for conceptual design at an early stage this works very well.

So here is a list of systems we are using internally and with customers
Customer Email: Fogbugz (earlier Gmail)
Bugs: Fogbugz (earlier Trac)
Wikis: Fogbuz (earlier Basecamp writeboards)
Features and designs: Fogbugz (earlier Basecamp)
General file sharing and project communication: SlideShare private group (earlier Basecamp)

Online editing will take a decade, but its time for sharing office docs

With all the hype around Google docs, it’s good to finally see some stats about their market penetration. TechCrunch today reported results of a survey conducted by NPD: A 73% of Americans have never heard of web-based Office suite (e.g., Google Docs), 94% have never tried one, and only 0.5% have actually switched to one. The survey results don’t surprise me. In fact, I would have guessed that even fewer people would have tried / heard of a web-based Office suite.

In a year of running SlideShare, we have realized how particular people are about the end look & feel of their Office documents (especially their presentations). If SlideShare does not render an image or a font, or messes up some graphics/charts, then our users tell us about it!. We get complaints about the particular shade of purple, and the title that does not look quite right. Makes sense, people work hard on their documents and they want the finished product to have a certain look and feel. I have tried several online Office authoring apps and while they are great when I need to collaborate during the creation process, the latency is annoying when you are working on the document yourself, and the application feels hopelessly limited when you are in the final (production phases). I have used Google Docs & Zoho for word and spreadsheet documents with some success, but was not able to make much headway with Google Presently because the look and feel are much more important for presentations (and no, I don’t see Presently as competition – reasons are described below).

This has been our hypotheses to begin with – that the tools and mindset are not quite there for large-scale shift to online authoring of Office documents. But there is no such barrier to sharing of documents online. SlideShare was the first office document sharing site on the web. We started with the premise that people want a quick and easy path to sharing their presentation documents. And so far, it seems like people do want to do that (look at SlideShare stats below).

Continue reading

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.

Continue reading

“4 hour workweek” is for those who don’t love what they do

At the recommendation of a friend, I picked up the copy of “4-hour workweek” that had been languishing on my bookshelf. While its an interesting read, I think I disagree with one of its central messages. Tim Ferriss mentions this again and again – what he does for fun and profit are two different things. I try to live my life so that there is lot of overlap between what I do for fun and profit. I did science because I enjoyed it, I did user experience design because product design is fun. And I run SlideShare, because there is nowhere else I would rather be at this moment.

That being said, I am more convinced by Ferriss’s second message – don’t micromanage, and free yourself of the details. You can have a lot more time in the day if you do that. As SlideShare grows, this is something I need to do better. Its simply impossible for me to be involved in every detail and I need to hand over more responsibilities.

Continue reading

BayCHI panel on Advertising User Experience on Tuesday, October 9th

This Tuesday’s BayCHI program should be very interesting. We will focus on different types of online advertising including post rolls, overlays, and content as advertising. The focus will be on what types of advertising users find intrusive, what they are are willing to put up with and engage with, and what new types of advertising we are likely to see.

Panelists include Jeremy Liew from Lightspeed Venture Partners who focuses frequently on advertising on his blog. Ted Rheingold from Dogster will talk about his experiences managing advertising on community sites, Heath Row from Double Click will focus on content as advertising, while Joe Hurd will share Video Egg’s experiences with video advertising.

Go here for more information, and optionally RSVP here. BayCHI programs are free and open to the public, so come by!