HOME  → POSTS  → 2007

Staying Relevant

Tech Industry1362 words7 minutes to read

I’ve been thinking lately about how to stay relevant in our booming and ever-changing web industry. I’ve been watching successful relative newcomers like MySpace, Digg, YouTube, del.icio.us, Last.fm, Flickr, Newsvine and Twitter to get a sense of what they are/aren’t doing. I’m trying to understand what they have (to attribute their success to), and do not have (to attribute their lack of blockbuster success to), and what are all of these companies doing that are better or worse than the behemoths like Apple, Google, Yahoo, AOL, and others?

MySpace definitely hit the jackpot in terms of users. With over 20 million users, MySpace has to be doing something right. Many movie and music websites are foregoing standard www.com websites in favor of myspace.com/whatever websites. This says a lot about the kind of draw that MySpace has! What MySpace sacrifices in terms of solid usability, reasonable uptime, good design, a web services API, and respect from the web standards crowd, they make up for with their network of people — especially for those under 35 or so.

I have a MySpace account because my best friend said “Hey, you should get a MySpace account.” That was enough to get me to sign up, but not enough to get me to stay. Why did I stay? Because I can find nearly everybody I’ve ever known in my life on MySpace. MySpace has allowed me to get back in touch with old friends from high school and otherwise that I haven’t talked to in years. People aren’t there to share interests… they’re there to share themselves with people they know. THAT’S the major differentiator! People gathering around interests with other strangers is one thing, people keeping up with their past and present friends is on another level.

Social bookmarking services like del.icio.us have been successful for two reasons. The first is that they solve the problem of keeping track of bookmarks across browsers and computers. Simple enough. The second is that del.icio.us makes it really, really easy to add bookmarks to their service. They’ve lowered the barriers to the point where it’s as easy to add a bookmark to del.icio.us as it is to add it to your browser. Lowering and/or eliminating barriers while solving a common frustration makes for a great service.

Other services are doing a good job too (I recently switched from del.icio.us to Ma.gnolia for my social bookmarks) because I think they’re technically better, and it looks better as well. There are some really cool social features built in that make it a better choice. The only complaint I have with Ma.gnolia is that sometimes it feels like the design gets in the way. You don’t get that with del.icio.us.

Services like Digg and Newsvine are really cool for a number of reasons. First of all, my time and attention are very important to me. I don’t want to have to read through all of the worthless posts just to try to find the gold nuggets of information scattered around. Social news sites like Digg and Newsvine are pre-filtered for me. They’ve already gone through a (fairly) rigorous screening process, and I only see topics (on the homepage) that the rest of the community thinks are worthwhile. Where I think Digg and Newsvine diverge is that technologists are a very passionate people, and Digg was built around technologists. Newsvine tends to be more general news, and you simply have less passionate users there.

(I’m not saying that people who are into politics and world news aren’t passionate, I’m just saying that technologists seem to be more passionate about their preferred topic, which is why Digg is the front runner and Newsvine is still coming along.)

YouTube is far and away the front runner on the social video front. I can’t quite put my finger on why they took off as quickly as they did, other than they got a ton of buzz in two networks: MySpace and the Blogophere. YouTube videos are really easy to get into MySpace profiles and blog posts, in a video format that loads very quickly, and they used industry standard technologies (Flash) rather than creating yet another format that people need to download a plugin for.

On that last point, they did the same thing that del.icio.us did… they lowered the barriers to the point where they simply didn’t exist by going with Flash Video. As a consumer, the only thing I have to do to get a YouTube video on my homepage or MySpace profile is to copy and paste a single line of code that I don’t even need to understand.

Music related services like Last.fm, MOG, and MyStrands are doing something smart: They’ve all got plugins for the popular desktop music players (iTunes, Winamp, Windows Media Player, etc.). All I have to do is listen to my music in iTunes while I’m working or MySpacing, and that data gets uploaded to the aforementioned services. Those services take that data and calculate things like favorite artists, tags, music recommendations, and other music-related things. I think it’s really cool that I can be introduced to new music simply by listening to some of my favorite tracks while I’m working.

Again, they’ve taken all of the work out of getting people to use it, making it more attractive than services where I have to invest more time and attention that I’m already in short supply of. Flickr isn’t the largest or most popular photo sharing service, but it’s certainly the best. Flickr is focused around sharing your photos, and — again — they’ve removed the barriers from sharing/viewing photos that many other less successful services still have in place.

My friends Ben and Jen share photos of their son with their Snapfish account. Can I view those pictures easily? No. First, I have to give Snapfish my email address (no-no #1), and then I have to let them bombard me with with notices telling me to purchase prints for so many cents a print (no-no #2). If they had Flickr, they could simply send me a URL for the photoset via email, and I could look at the pictures. Simple. Easy. No problem. I haven’t seen pictures of their kid in over a year because I don’t trust Snapfish or Hewlett-Packard (the parent company).

Photobucket is (I believe) the largest photo sharing service on the internet at the moment. Why? The only reason Photobucket is #1 is because they did the best job riding the MySpace wave. The service isn’t all that great, I can’t do cool things with my photos because they have no API, and their first wave customer support is worthless. Photobucket is not a compelling service, and I don’t think they’ll be around for more than a couple more years. User-oriented services like Flickr will be around much, much longer.

Lastly is the Twitter phenomina. People either love are addicted to Twitter, or they hate Twitter. My friend Matt used Twitter for a day or two, and couldn’t stand it. I believe he said something along the lines of “I’d rather have someone mash fistfuls of sand into my eyeballs with a hammer than to use the Twitter UI again.” Me, on the other hand? I post a new status every few hours, and it’s an interesting way to see what other bloggers do/say/think when they’re not trying to compose a piece of writing for the whole world to read.

I don’t know whether to call Twitter “successful” or not — I think the jury’s still out on this one — but they’ve definitely got an active community growing, and that’s a valuable thing to have. So, the take-away points from these ramblings are:

  • The network of users you have is very valuable. More is better.

  • Networks of friends are more valuable than networks of strangers.

  • Lower the barrier to entry to the point where the barrier simply doesn’t exist.

  • People’s time and attention are very valuable. Do the work so they don’t have to.

  • Have passionate users. If you can’t find them, make them.

  • Being someone’s addiction is okay too, and sometimes can even be better than someone’s source of productivity.

Ryan Parman

is an engineering manager with over 20 years of experience across software development, site reliability engineering, and security. He is the creator of SimplePie and AWS SDK for PHP, patented multifactor-authentication-as-a-service at WePay, defined much of the CI/CD and SRE disciplines at McGraw-Hill Education, and came up with the idea of “serverless, event-driven, responsive functions in the cloud” while at Amazon Web Services in 2010. Ryan's aptly-named blog, , is where he writes about ideas longer than . Ambivert. Curious. Not a coffee drinker.