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How Microblogging & Twitter will divide and destroy our country

Until I published this blog post I didn't actually believe that twitter was going to destroy our country, unfortunately now I do.

If that last sentence doesn't make sense, let me explain by way of anecdote: I remember having a conversation with a former schoolmate a few years ago at a reunion that went something like this...

Me: Are you still into Dave Matthews as much as you used to be?
Him: Dave Matthews, Naw, I never liked them all that much.
Me: What - that's all you talked about senior year - you literally wouldn't shut up about them.
Him: I think you have me confused with someone else.

Now, assuming my increasingly disappointing memory hadn't failed me - I'm pretty sure he was the obnoxious, over the top DMB fan I remember. Of course a decade plus later, I can't be 100% sure it was him - it really might have been someone else.

If only we hadn't gone to high-school in the bad old days before everyone tweeted, facebook'd (or now buzz'd I guess) their every daily minutia and fleeting opinion, I could have nailed that kid to his over-the-top-pyschofan opinions. What would he have done then? We'll since the "deny it" option had flown the coop he would have been left with two choices:

a. Stay consistent with his opinion from years ago in high-school
b. Cop to his former obsession but admit he has moved on.

... unfortunately we as human beings have a hard time being inconsistent. We find it repulsive.

The obvious choice would be b - he clearly doesn't feel the same way about the band as he used to - but unfortunately we as human beings have a hard time being inconsistent. We find it repulsive. Hobgoblins notwithstanding, our hatred of inconsistency in our actions and beliefs is explained by a well known theory called Cognitive Dissonance. I've seen a friend stick to provably false "facts" they've written about on Facebook simply because they don't want to be seen as inconsistent.

"The person whose beliefs, words and deeds don't match is seen as confused, two-faced, even mentally ill. On the other side, a high degree of consistency is normally associated with personal and intellectual strength." (p.53, Influence, Cialdini, 2001)

If you can recall back to the 2004 election, one of the prime strikes against senator Kerry (ok, besides his wooden demeanor) was that he was a flip-flopper. This fact was contrasted with GW "stay-the-course" Bush. While in the abstract we might prefer our politicians to be able to take new evidence into consideration and change their minds, in reality we prefer them not to change their minds to often (Remember Doonesbury's reader-chosen characterization of Bill Clinton?) 

The actual trigger for our sometimes foolish consistency is pretty simple:

If I can get you to make a commitment (that is, to take a stand, to go on the record), I will have set the stage for your automatic and ill-considered consistency with that earlier commitment. (p.59, Influence, Cialdini, 2001)

What is microblogging but an easily-posted, bite-sized, on-the-record commitment? For many of us it's no longer enough to have opinions - we now need to scream them to the entire world. This effectively carves those originally transient opinions into stone and makes us less likely to consider evidence contrary to our stated positions on policy, politics, or whatever.

Since micro-blogging is so accessible - people now post just about anything from just about anywhere - it creates a particularly dangerous combination: a medium that encourages us to make a public commitment based on something we often have only experienced shallowly & fleetingly.  It's less important to a politician that your 100 followers know you "Stand with [Candidate]", than the fact that you made the commitment to post that in first place (and are now more susceptible to requests for money and help.)

By taking public positions too early (sometimes years early - e.g. "OMG [Politician Name Here] is the greatest [s]he'll be prez in 2012!!!!!" ) we deny ourselves the chance to take in more evidence before settling on a final position for possibly important decisions,  reducing what should be lively well-reasoned debates into dogmatic fear-mongering flinging of FUD to maintain our committed positions against any opposition.

To get back to the divide and destroy our country thing - clearly I wouldn't title a public blog post that way unless I wholly believed the thesis, so now I'm going to have to spend the rest of 2010 railing on the evils of microblogging. Oh well, should be fun. 

Think before your tweet because you will end up thinking what you tweet.


Posted Monday, Feb 22 2010 09:05 AM by Pascal Rettig | Business, Marketing

Stake a virtual claim

Having been in the Web Development business for the past 10 or so years, I've managed to accumulate a fair share of website ideas as well as domain names to go along with those domains. While some of the ideas are now obsolete, I believe a lot of them still have some value and we're only now finally able to start working on some of them.

If you've ever had an idea for a Website, you're probably aware that one of the hardest things to do is come up with a name for the site. People make fun of all the "Web 2.0" names - Redit, Flickr, Tumblr, Digg - but there's a chance that the reason for those names is that Readit, Flicker, Tumbler and Dig weren't available. People weren't necessarily trying to be cool and edgy - they just wanted a nice short name and couldn't secure a real English word that had a useful meaning.

Finding an available .com domain with a name that at least makes some sense is very hard but once you find that magical name it feels like you conquered half the problem even if it takes years to actually get the talent and/or money together to get the project going.

So imagine your surprise when you check a anywhere between a few month to a year later and there's a hyphenated version of your-sweet-name.com and someone banging at your door asking you to hand over yoursweetname.com because it they've actually built something with the name while you've been doing with other things.

Why does this happen? Why would someone pick the same made up word or combination of words as you had already registered when they can see that you've had your domain since 2006?

I'd say the answer lies in that crappy network solutions or GoDaddy.com landing page that newly purchased domains default to. I've come to the conclusion that at this point, everyone sees themselves as an Internet entrepreneur, everyone can go online and buy themselves a domain for $10.00 a year, and everyone does - but most of the time the name just sits there. This means that of the 50 or so names you come up with, 48 of them probably look like someone just bought the domain and isn't doing anything with it. It's just sitting there in it's generic landing page state. At some point people run out of names and just go with variations on something that's already taken - cool-site.com is available even if coolsite.com isn't. We did this as well a couple times figuring that if the project took off, we'd buy the unhyphenated domain from some squatter once we'd made our first million.

The best way to combat this is to not leave the default landing page up but to stake a virtual claim with some sort of content on the site. Put a coming soon graphic that looks nice up (not a "Website Under Construction" road sign) on you most important projects-in-waiting and people will most likely see that and move on to the next made up word on their list. Then you just need to fulfill your end of the bargain and actually build the site.

Posted Friday, Oct 02 2009 09:04 AM by Pascal | Marketing

How far does a name get you?

Pretty far, but only far enough to get people's feet through the door. A new sandwich shop opened up around the corner from us called "Nick Varano's Famous Deli." Now there are a dozens of places to grab lunch in Boston's North End - most of which we haven't even tried yet after 3 years living here, but I ended up trying a sandwich at Nick Varano's yesterday, why? Because of his name.

Nick is a star of one of the most overplayed and thus slightly obnoxious local commercials that come on during or after Red Sox games. You know - the ones where the production values suddenly take a nose dive and some guy is screaming at you about his car business. Nick's commercial goes a little something like this:

Hi, I'm Nick Varano, the owner of Strega, which some people say is the best Italian Food in the City [Cut to a bunch of pictures of food which don't make me hungry and probably don't do the place justice]

That commercial has never actually made me want to go Strega, but after hearing this guy's name 50 times over the last couple months, I will say I was intrigued enough when I saw a shiny new eating establishment with his name on it to stop in for a $10 sandwich. And while this isn't meant to be a food review, I do have to say, that was a friggin' good sandwich.

Bottom line - if it weren't for the name Nick Varano, I probably would never have made it in the door. But the actual sandwich is what will most likely keep me coming back. If the sandwich was a overpriced piece of sawdust, no amount of advertising would have gotten me to go again.

I think a lot of industries forget this - the value of advertising dollars can be multiplied exponentially if what you are advertising is worth coming back to. If instead you spend millions of dollars advertising something like a bank that's about to fail (case in point WaMu's obnoxious Whoohoo! commercials) you're just throwing money down the drain.

That's why I've never understood the cell phone industry - and also why I hate the cell phone industry - they spend billions on advertising, and yet they are content to have a churn rate of 33% industrywide (2008 article)
If any of those dollars were sunk into creating a better user experience, whether from a customer service or just a service experience (let users know when they are over their minutes for example, or when there monthly bill is over double the usual, or get a call center in the US) I'm sure they could bring those numbers down substantially.

So, bottom line - advertising is enough to get people to try your service, but there better be something worthwhile otherwise people are going to shrug their shoulder's, say 'Ehh..' and move on.

Advertising is enough to get people to try your service, but there better be something worthwhile otherwise people are going to shrug their shoulder's, say 'Ehh..' and move on.The poster child for how to do it right is the site StackOverflow.com . Both Joel Spolsky and Jeff Atwood turned their name recognition into one of the newest greatest resources on the web (Die experts exchange! Die!). After building up a huge readership over years of blogging, Joel and Jeff combined forces to create a hugely popular programmer q&a (and spawned multiple other sites ).

StackOverflow was able to become a almost overnight success only because it had a user base right from the get-go. Would you bother to post or respond to questions of you were the only person there? It's creators name recognition is what got people there in the first place, but it was easy-to-use user interface that got people to register and kept people coming back.

Could you have written it in a weekend? Probably not, but let's say for the sake of argument that you could - does it matter? Do you have an audience of a couple million that you can direct to your new project so that your site's content will actually have any value? Nope.

As developers a lot of time we discount the marketing and seem to think "it we build it they will come" - but the truth of the matter is that you need to be able to both bring in an audience and keep that audience to be successful. Keeping a non-existent audience isn't enough - there are hundreds of millions of websites and hundreds of thousands of pieces of software out there - so it takes some work to get yourself noticed. On the flip side, spending your entire budget on marketing and then dropping a cow patty of a product onto the marketplace isn't taking you that far either - you need to do both. Now, I do still have indigestion from yesterday's heart-attack-on-a-plate Cubano, but now that I've tasted the goods - Nick Varano or no Nick Varano - chances are I'll be back.




Posted Wednesday, Aug 19 2009 05:08 AM by Pascal | Marketing

There is no SEO

I think it may be time for a new acronym for the idea of optimizing your site for Search Engines. The current term "SEO" has a problem because while it's clear to everyone what the goal is (a higher rank in search engine results), it's vague about how to achieve that goal. As a result SEO has been broken into two different categories:

"White Hat SEO" - Generally meaning anything done to modify a website to make it more readable and searchable by Search Engines.

"Black Hat SEO" - Pretty much anything and everything else done to improve search result positioning. 

The colored hat term is drawn from the security/hacker community, where "White hat hackers" are people who disassemble and attack systems with the goal if improving them, while "Black hat hackers" are people who attack systems to steal information (both of which should be separated from the general term "hacker" - which are just people who do cool stuff with technology). While the transgressions of a "Black Hat SEO" specialist won't usually run afoul of any state or federal laws, they will usually end up running afoul of the terms of use of any particular search engine, which might be just as bad in pratical terms. Or they may just end up doing nothing and calling you names (As this guy found out). 

Why should you avoid Black Hat SEO? Well, the goal of any search engine is to provide results that are userful to their users. If you somehow manage to convince a search engine that your site is useful for a set of search terms when it actually isn't, your are essentially taking advantage of flaws in a search engine's algorithm. As search engines continually refine their algorithms to get rid of sites like yours, at some point your site will fall back down the results list. If you did the hacks yourself, not a big deal, but if you paid $5000 to a SEO Company to get you a #1 Ranking for motivational office wall-art and are now on page 10, you are SOL. Even worse, Search engines maintain blacklists of sites that try to game the system and so you may not even show up on page 10. 

What's option B? First, make sure your site isn't just a 1-off get rich quick scheme. If it is, see option A. That's your best bet, milk it for as long as you can then go take advantage of people in another god-aweful pyramid scheme.  If your website is actually has a worthwhile niche that you think should be at the top of search results, you need to sit down and figure out with your web developer the best way optimize your site's content in a way that actually provides value to it's viewers. As such I propose that term SEO has been misused and bastardized that it is no longer really a good term to describe the many subtle varients of the business. Here are my favorite replacements for the White/Black Hat SEO's:

"SEA" - Search Engine Accomodation - Accomodating search engine spiders by making it as easy as possible to succesfully find and index the content of you site.

"SEM" - Seach Engine Maniuplation - Taking advantage of flaws in a search engines to try to gain a temporary boost in ranking.

The next time you're talking to someone trying to sell you a SEO package, ask them what their strategy is to give your site a boost. 

Posted Saturday, Nov 29 2008 06:11 AM by Administrative User | Marketing

Design DRM

There's been a significant hub-bub in the past few months regarding the DRM in a number of recent or upcoming PC games, specifically Electronic Art's Spore and Mass Effect, that resulted in a loosening of restrictions (See Slashdot Post), as well as some anger over Microsoft's decision to potentially lock some users out of legally purchased music after the Licensing server is retired (See Engadget summary). "DRM" for the small percentage of people who haven't had their lives made less enjoyable by it, stands for Digital Rights Management, and is nicely defined by the people at Defective by Design (an anti-DRM effort promoted by the Free Software Foundation ) as:

 Big Media describe DRM as Digital Rights Management. However, since its purpose is to restrict you the user, it is more accurate to describe DRM as Digital Restrictions Management. DRM Technology can restricts users’ access to movies, music, literature and software, indeed all forms of digital data. Unfree software implementing DRM technology is simply a prison in which users can be put to deprive them of the rights that the law would otherwise allow them.

One of the largest criticism of DRM is that because it only affects legal users of software and media, it places an undo burden on those who are actually legally using your product. If my mother, for some bizarre reason buys a media player that isn't an Ipod, then all her music purchased via Itunes becomes worthless unless she jumps through a bunch of "gray area" hoops. Someone who downloaded all the same music from a p2p site illegally faces no such problems. Same goes for software registration of Shareware, many times it's more difficult to register software than it is to download a cracked copy. Does this mean that it's ok to do so? No. But if you are creator of any type of Intellectual Property (IP)- be it media or software - it's important to be aware of other people's failures.

In the case of digital content creators, such as ourselves, we have options as how to you present your work, whether it be your portfolio, concepts or client work-in-progress. Some agencies choose to only present their work during face-to-face meetings on concept boards, and hoard developed software behind a multi-page NDA's. These agencies are guilty of causing the same issues that the developers of the aforementioned DRM schemes are: they are significantly impacting their paying customers to gain a slight protection of their IP. As a constrast, we generally present concepts online or via Email, where if a someone really wanted to they could rip us off and refuse to pay for our work. We present a demo of Webiva CMS to anyone who's interested - even though there a number of propriatery features that don't exist in other CMS's on the market. Does operating this way have the the possabiltiy of  coming back to harm our bottom line? Theoretically, of course it does. But in our experience with actual clients, giving them the greatest opportunity to take in our work and allow and open flow of ideas and reactions will bring about the highest quality end product the quickest.  

The bottom line is that even with whatever restrictions your put in place, much like a determined software pirate, if someone trully wants to use rip off your IP they will find a way to get at it. There's not that much you can do except document the issues, send a C&D and put it to the courts. Putting additional restrictions on the 99%* of your clients who have no intention of ripping you off will limit your ability to over-deliver and grow your business. 

* This advice, of course, only really applies to businesses like what we're doing at Cykod - Shareware software developers and PC game programmers are probably seeing greater than 50% of their user base using their product without paying for it (Now anyone who thinks those represent 100% lost sales probably works for the RIAA accounting department, but there is very real, significant lost revenue in software piracy), so by all means - protect your software in whatever way you can, hopefully minimizing the impact to the legal users. 

Posted Wednesday, Jul 02 2008 09:28 AM by Pascal | Development, Marketing