Instagram, Please let us pay! [My Digiday Article]

I'm published on Digiday today discussing Instagram's latest woes, and how consumers will increasingly demand the option to pay for things again in exchange for more rights over our privacy and content.  This is a topic I've written often about here and in social media.  We're just now starting to see the ramifications of the "free" ad-supported economy.  Twitter's API follies, Facebook and Instagram's privacy issues, and the endless folding of well-liked companies that can't make money-- this is all just the beginning.  We as consumers need to start re-considering what we really want for free, and what we want to pay for.

The article also links to SS+K's work for President Obama's 2012 re-election campaign.  You can read about how we tapped Instagram and other social channels to spread the For All message and drive the critical youth vote. 


The Magic of Google Now and Thinking Different

"To me the great irony is that Apple’s slogan was `Think Different,’ but today if you think different you’re looking at Android.” - Guy Kawasaki, former Apple Chief Evangelist

As anyone close to me knows, in 2009 I made a complete jump over to Apple products.  I traded in my home PC for a 13" Macbook Pro, my work ThinkPad laptop for a (now) 15" Retina Macbook, my Microsoft Zune and Google Android HTC G1 for an iPhone.  In every instance I was happier, inspired even by the differences.  My laptops were reliable for the first time ever - they didn't suffer from memory lag, battery drain, or buggy trackpads.  The G1, which was the first Android phone on the market, had been ground-breaking compared to my feature phone before it, but the iPhone put it to pasture with its sheer speed and app quality.  I became, like most people in the Apple camp, transfixed with Apple being the height of quality and innovation.

But in the last year, things have begun to change.  I spent a few months with a Windows Mobile phone enjoying the fresh take on a mobile OS, and in the last few months I've fallen in love with my favorite new gadget, the Google Nexus 7.  The Nexus, and more specifically the new version of Android, is a revelation.  Where all six of the previous Android devices I used before fell short, the Nexus shines.  Navigating the device is smooth and intuitive, with true cross-app integration and action-oriented notifications illustrating the faults of Apple's silo'd approach.   Widgets on the lock screen and "desktop" make carrying around the tablet more useful at a glance than the iPad.  Small touches like built-in "swype" typing make the tablet typing faster.

The biggest eye-opener of all is Google Now.  At a basic level, Google Now is Google's take on Siri, but in practice it makes Siri look like a child.  Google Now taps all of Google's intelligence and all of a user's personal information to actively help you throughout the day.  Pull it up in the morning and Google Now will tell you your favorite team's sports score from last night, today's expected weather, have directions to your next appointment and how long it will take.  Open it after a flight and Google Now will tell you how long it will take you to get to your hotel, some restaurants and sites nearby you'd want to try.  The information is actively pushed to you based on what you signal to Google you need, from recent searches, email receipts, location history and more.  It's smart, surprising and useful-- in short, magical.  It shows you what's possible by tapping geo-awareness, personal information and crowdsourced intelligence at scale.  It makes you forget about all of the privacy and personal information concerns, and maybe even wish you had more to give. 

Recently I was speaking with some team members who are incredibly experienced and often "in the know".  They had not heard of Google Now, were not familiar with it's capabilities.  They carry Macbook Airs, iPads and iPhones, and presumed, as most of us do, that the best of what's possible is happening on one of those devices.  But my re-awakening to the world outside Apple emphasizes why it's so critical to step outside your comfort zone and use different products once in a while.  Why you should stop by a Windows 8 Store to explore the new Surface and HTC 8x.  Why you need to try a Nexus 7 before you commit to buying the iPad mini.  If you don't, you won't realize the possibilities that are out there, the break-throughs that are happening, the innovation that is being displayed outside of Apple's garden.  You won't realize that iOS is starting to feel really stale, sitting back passively and waiting for you to ask it a question or jump into a single app experience, while Google Now actively pushes you everything you need and more.  You won't "think different", the way Apple challenged us to.


Why I Bought Tweetbot, and the Rising Cost of Apps

I just happily purchased the new Tweetbot for Mac client for $20, which is probably way more than anyone ever imagined spending on such a specific thing as a Twitter client.  But it was completely worth it to me for a few of reasons:
  • Tweetbot's developers Tapbots do incredible work for the iPhone, iPad and iOS, and I want them to keep doing it.  So I need to help them make enough money to stay in business
  • Tweetbot is not only the best desktop and mobile Twitter client available, it's probably the last great Twitter client that will ever be built because of Twitter's new horrendous API rules
  • I want to help push app paid app economy, which is suffering at the hands of downward price app store price pressure and unreasonable expectations, as proven by the Sparrow dilema
The reality is, as we move in the direction of $0.99 everything, or worse yet propagate the expectation that everything can be gotten for free, we force apps to be gimmicky, ad-laden, or catered to the lowest common denominator in the pursuit of hundreds of millions of users.  As app developer David Barnard puts it:
Computer users used to spend hundreds of dollars for great software and pay again every couple years for upgrades. But over the past couple decades people have grown accustomed to getting more and more value from software while paying less and less for it. The web has played a huge part in that, but the trend was accelerated by the App Store and Apple’s management of it.
Extremely high quality apps that appeal to a niche crowd have a harder and harder time surviving.  That will be the case until we return to being willing to reward high quality applications with adequate payment.  Unless we're happy in a world where Google and other behemoths acquire everything interesting under the sun and decide each fate as it ladders up to their larger objectives.

So I'm following up my purchase of Tweetbot by purchasing Clear, another innovative app that I want to see pursue it's goal.  And I hope others follow suit, because I'd like these products to have a chance at sticking around, and not just until Google buys them and shuts them down.


NYC Taps Twitter to Power Through Sandy's Aftermath

In the wake of the craziness that was Hurricane Sandy, I'm really impressed with how Mayor Bloomberg has used Twitter to keep New Yorkers as up to date as possible on what's going with the city.

I've been following real-time updates all week via @NYCMayorsOffice, @MikeBloomberg, @MTAInsider and @NYCGov accounts.

Then this morning I noticed promoted tweets (which Twitter is providing for free to emergency services accounts) appearing in my Twitter stream highlighting the most recent city update tweets from the @NYCMayorsOffice.

And just now we were all invited to watch a live stream of Mayor Bloomberg's upcoming press conference via an embedded inline YouTube feed (see the screenshot above or the embedded tweet below).

Thanks Mayor Bloomberg, and your whole staff, for doing what you can to keep us informed!


POV on Twitter's API Announcement

Below is a draft of a POV on Twitter's API changes that I wrote as part of my work for SS+K.  It's being published here post-dated as reference.

The big news in the tech industry this week was Twitter's long-expected announcement of changes to their API (the tools 3rd party applications use to plug-in to Twitter).  Twitter announced that the company would no longer support carte-blanch use of their API by 3rd parties.  Instead,Twitter is enforcing everything from design guidelines to build principles.  Their stated purpose is to focus any regular Twitter user engagement (think: the usual things consumers do on Twitter, e.g., read, reply, retweet messages) all happening on official Twitter 1st party applications.  Their demand (disguised as a request) is that 3rd parties focus on building applications that provide an inherently different functionality, especially enterprise-oriented capabilities, such as measurement and media integration.  

While Twitter is clearly within their rights to place rules on 3rd parties who want to integrate with their product, the move is being seen as incredibly controversial because Twitter's success as a platform was largely a result of the types of 3rd party developed innovations that Twitteris planning on forcing out or shutting down.  In fact, Twitter Search, Twitter for iPhone, Twitter for Android, Twitter eMail summaries and Twitterfor Chrome are all functionalities built by 3rd party companies and purchased by Twitter.  In many cases, theses applications were built to give users experience that they wanted or needed, but Twitter didn't have the bandwidth to provide.  In many ways, 3rd parties carried Twitterthrough the dark period where Twitter was often broken and unreliable.  By restricting 3rd parties, Twitter is not only turning its back on the community that helped build it, but also potentially stifling the type of future innovation that could take the platform to new heights.

Twitter's argument for these decisions is mainly two-fold:

  1. Consumers need to have a consistent experience and reliable expectations when engaging with tweets.  The company believesTwitter content needs to be uniformly designed and packaged with all of its functionality so users everywhere recognize the content asTwitter and know exactly how they can interact with it (i.e., always be able to reply or retweet).
  2. Twitter needs to be capable of earning enough revenue to support itself, and the way to do that is to make sure users are spending their regular tweeting and reading time on a standard Twitter platform that Twitter itself can monetize, through their standard promoted tweets, trends and search products.
Ultimately these changes complete Twitter's transition from communication company to media company.  Like Google with its move towards universal search and rich media snippets, Twitter is bringing more content inline into its feed through their new "Twitter Cards" format, trying to maximize the time-spent and eyeballs on its own domain.  It may not be the vision Twitter's original power users and developer community envisioned for the company, but it's clearly the direction it feels is necessary for its optimal future.  The outcome will be a more refined and uniform experience that helps Twitter grow its mainstream audience, but loses some of its advocates and puts it more directly in competition with news and entertainment media companies than ever before.

While much of the outcome of the new API rules remains to be seen, expect a few implications for brands as we head into 2013:

  • Custom brand products that pull in and display tweets, including Facebook tab applications or website plug-ins, will need to be updated to fit the new display guidelines.  This reduces the ability to customize the look and feel, but will likely increase user engagement.
  • Since Twitter Cards (inline content previews) will start to be featured abundantly across the Twitter ecosystem, brands will want to include links to supported 3rd party content in their tweets to maximize engagement potential.
  • Since the future of existing 3rd party reading clients is up in the air, companies like Flipboard will likely start to iterate in directions away from Twitter content.  Brands need to consider where they invest in media and partnership dollars if they are investing in any of these environments.
We will be watching the Twitter ecosystem + platform developments carefully, and provide further guidance on the implications, directions and opportunities as they become clear.  Please let us know if you have any questions.


Rediscovering the Joy of Social Media With Path

Sometimes you don't realize you ever had a problem until you have the solution.  For a while now, without thinking about it much, most of my social networking has practically been the same experience as building a resume.  Every post on Facebook, Twitter or Flickr was curated knowing that, besides my friends, hundreds of co-workers, clients, perspective employers and more would potentially be viewing.  When Klout launched, it was the ultimate manifestation of the symptom I didn't know I had: living in public had driven me to focus too much on the necessity of perception.

Then a few months ago, enter Path. A social network that defies everything that defines every other social network.  Want people to see your content?  Too bad, it's only on your phone so there's no place for most people to view it.  Want to post a link you think will make you look smart?  Too bad, you can only share original content.  Want hundreds of friends + followers?  Too bad, you can only have 150 (which is based on Dunbar's law of the number of real relationships you can mentally manage).

What you can do? Share the song you're listening to at that exact moment on your iPod, or the location of where you're standing, or the thought you just had, or the moment you're about to go to bed.  Stuff that only a few people care about.  Stuff that you have to create with your phone, the most intimate application you have, by yourself.  Stuff that no one will see.  And did I mention Path was created by one of the first Facebook employees, after he helped build what is now the most public platform on the planet?

But Path, a mobile only social network defined as much by its limitations as its capability, is an absolute pleasure to use.  It's the  antidote to the sickness of public sharing.  It's designed with precise care to enforce an intimate experience between you and the people you care about.  It strips away the fear of something not being smart enough for the pleasure of knowing that you shared a moment with the people that matter.  It provides a freedom from the public I'd forgotten I wanted, and as such has become the social network I want to use more than any other every single day.

In exchange for the ability to make you famous, Path focuses on making you happy (in fact, their internal motto is something like "design happiness").  When you share something on Path you see the faces of every friend who looks at it, giving you instant viseral feedback.  It's easy for people to smile, frown, heart or gasp at your content.  Everything is plotted on a timeline of your day, giving you a journalistic feeling.  If you connect Nike+ to Path and share your work-outs, when someone smiles at your run on Path, you hear cheers in your headphones like your friends are there with you.

With Path, I no longer worry about credibility because there's no way to earn it.  Instead, I focus on sharing personal moments, and the reward is a closer relationship with the people I'm connected to.  It feels a lot like what social networking was probably originally meant to be.  And it's really enjoyable again, in a way much of my experience with Twitter and Facebook isn't.  Thanks Dave Morin, for learning to build great things at Facebook and then turning around and building exactly the opposite but better.


SS+K's Foursquare-powered Birthday

Today is the (the SS+K's 19th birthday (where I work), and coincidentally it's also Foursquare Day. Some background first: my co-workers and I happen to be somewhat obsessed with Foursquare. We have 18 different micro-locations in our office, and people are constantly battling for mayorship- so much so, that last year we created our own Mayorshup, a Risk-board of sorts for SS+K'ers to battle each other for supreme SS+K office mayor.

So a few weeks ago we had an idea for celebrating SS+K's 19th Birthday and Foursquare Day at once- we'd create the first ever Foursquare-powered birthday card. When someone checks in to any of our office Foursquare locations, they "sign" our card by adding their Foursquare profile picture to our emblem, and adding their username to our card. The card is of course viewable online on our site, and also is being displayed on a giant lcd screen in our cafe.

We've also opened an SS+K Foursquare Labs page to host the many Foursquare hacks + projects we've launched in the last year. This whole thing has been a pet project of mine, so I'm really excited for it to be live. Thanks to everyone (@alvvvvvin @brainpuppy @FirefallPro + more).


12 Lessons on User Experience + Transmedia Storytelling from SXSW 2012

I had the opportunity to attend SXSWi this year, a mega-conference in Austin which is essentially the mecca for internet geeks. The event packs in over 1,000 panels + talks, hundreds of networking sessions + demonstrations and just as many parties in 5 quick days. It’s completely impossible to do everything you want to do, so you basically have to pick what you want to focus on and allow serendipity to drive the rest. I split my time between fun “brain candy” inspiration type things and educational sessions on two primary topics: User Experience and Transmedia Storytelling. Here are a dozen lessons I learned from entrepreneurs like Path’s Dave Morin and media mavens like New York Times’ David Carr on the topics:

...on user experience and product success 

  1.  Effective user experience should be designed to convey values + emotions to the user during the experience itself, not just at the outcome. That means thinking about everything from colors, to menus, to page animation and more. 
  2. Think about how device types provide different experiences. Path was built as a mobile phone app only to enforce personal content creation and intimacy. Path is more emotional because you can’t do a lot of things you can do on Facebook, etc. 
  3. Either it’s good or it isn’t. Be honest with yourself or you’ll end up never achieving great. Demanding “great” before shipping was the different between Path 1.0 failure and Path 2.0 success. 
  4. We are in an attention economy. To succeed you need to find new ways to stimulate and provide value continuously, in the face of a generation that is more incapable of paying attention than ever before. 
  5. Information design is critical in modern storytelling. The New York Times architects stories so readers with five seconds, thirty seconds or two minutes each have a complete experience, while maintaining the choice to dive deeper. 
  6. Popular new media apps Intapaper + Flipboard have fantastically enjoyable reading experiences but no business model for content creation. New York Times and other stalwarts have a business model that ruins user experience. Who will crack the middle ground? 

...on social’s role in transmedia storytelling

  1. Your social ecosystem isn’t separate from your other platforms, it’s part of one cohesive story that your brand is telling. Understand how your social hubs can be access points to that larger story. 
  2. Social enables your audience to expand your potential farther than you can on your own. ESPN Top 10 is now more diverse because fans help identify great sports moments in smaller markets and less popular sports. 
  3. Marketing opportunities are more engaging when all touch-points are planned as one. MTV develops 360° programs by planning broadcast, web mobile and social for partners all at once, as illustrated by this year’s Verizon + VMA’s sponsorship. 
  4. Know your purpose across your ecosystem. ESPN knows it can’t always be the one to broadcast every sporting event, but it can be the one to host and drive the conversation for them all. Other brands become curators to help illustrate their point of view. 
  5. Don’t lose sight of meaningful actions in the face of social KPI’s. Causes was fantastic at building audiences empowering “armchair activism”, but it hasn’t yet figured out how to move participants up the ladder. 
  6. The goal of a mashup is to enable people to see something that already exists in a different way. Similarly, understanding creative ways to tell stories beyond just straightforward narrative will make your content more compelling. 

The truth is most of what you take away from SXSWi can’t be captured in a number of bullet points.  Spending the majority of a week focused entirely on trying out new mobile products (I had four different ambient awareness iPhone apps running simultaneously on my phone), meeting new people and feeding thought-provoking concepts into your head is something we should all do at least once a year, if not more. That alone is a lesson in itself.

* This blog post was written as part of my research for a larger project at SS+K.  That completed project will be published on Slideshare soon.


Implications of the Facebook Timeline for Brands Launch

Last week I was lucky to get to attend the Facebook fMC Conference, Facebook's first major event dedicated to their marketing + advertising platform (my photos here). In a single day, Facebook announced a slew of major changes that will completely re-write how brands behave on the platform. Much has been written already about the many functional differences that brands need to prepare for by March 31st, so I focused on analyzing the high level implications of Facebook's new direction for brands. This was issued by SS+K to our clients; if you don't mind a long read, let browse through and let me know what you think.


#Kevs30th Birthday Social Media Style

In true geek fashion I established #Kevs30th for social media fun, and captured the whole thing on Storify


Saying Goodbye To Things You Love

One of the challenges of being a web early adopter is the likelihood that a lot of services you fall in love with will ultimately disappear.  New start-ups are launching exciting digital products for us to fawn over every day, and many of us web obsessed rush to try them as soon as possible.  The ones we like we invest a ton of time in, way before there's any chance of knowing if anyone else will be interested enough to join along and help propel the start-up to become a viable company.

On a good day we become obsessed with the start-up, preach about it to everyone we know, and then take some credit for it's success as it builds towards greatness.  But often times the start-ups we love don't make it.  Not enough people end up seeing the value in the product and the product shuts down, or the company's ambitions of their own success get usurped by a high priced suitor that strips it down for parts.  Either way the outcome is the same: the product we love disappears from us.

This last week I've had to say goodbye to a number of products I've really enjoyed over the last few years, all for different reasons.  News aggregator Summify was acquired and neutered  by Twitter.  Online photo editor Picnik was shuttered by its owner Google.  And Plancast CEO Mark Hendrickson announced he will be giving up on the pursuit of his two year old social event sharing product after it failed to gain enough traction on the web.

While saying goodbye to Summify and Picnik is tough, both are in a popular space and have strong competitors that will serve as worthy replacements.  Plancast, however, is by far and away the best social event sharing site I've ever come across.  It's attractive, incredibly easy to use, and has powerful integration built in to other event platforms like Meetup, EventBrite and Facebook that helps make event sharing effortless.  Whereas the old stalwart event planning site Upcoming.com was painful to populate, Plancast is a pleasure to use and explore.  It's one of the products I can't really understand why enough people found compelling enough to use, and one that I'll really miss when it's gone.

The good news about being a web early adopter, though, is that for every start-up heartbreak there's a new start-up to take it's place.  I wake up every day now excited to play with Path, I'm testing out Buffer to power my social publishing, and I've just signed up for News.Me to replace the hole that Summify will be leaving in my day.  And I can't wait to preach to you about all of them.


Excited About Quarterly Co, a Subscription Service for Wonderful Things

One of the new web services I'm super excited about heading into the new year is Quarterly Co, a "subscription service for wonderful things".  Basically you subscribe to a person of your choice, and that person sends you an actual package in the mail every quarter with an interesting object(s) of their choice.

Of course these aren't random people with nothing to lose; the curators that Quarterly has brought on board are all tastemakers of some sort that make finding interesting things the basis of their reputation.  People like Josh Rubin from Coolhunting, Tina Roth Eisenberg from Swissmiss Studio, or the famous Maria Popova of Brainpickings.  I've chosen Alexis Madrigal, tech writer at The Atlantic.

So every 3 months you can expect to get something interesting in the mail that reflects their taste, perspective and interest.  It's a brief moment in time to turn away from the rapid information stream on Twitter (partially populated by these same people) and enjoy a tangible thing hand selected by someone you admire.  It remains to be seen whether any of us feels the object we receive is worth the $25 per quarter, but I imagine the surprise gift and the ensuing conversation will leave me very content.

Let me know if you've subscribed to anyone in the comments below, and stay tuned in March for an update on what I get in the mail.


Welcome CharitySub, "Simple Collective Giving"

At midnight last night a few of my friends launched CharitySub, a website to power simple collective giving.  Their focus is on ease, impact and understanding.  You "subscribe" by committing to donate $5 each month to charity (or an extra $1 if you're willing to be a benefactor of the site- which I highly encourage).  Then each month they choose a cause and send simple but rich information in the form of key facts and documentary videos 3 different charities you could support that are working for that cause.  You can digest as much or as little information as you want, and then simply select which of the three charities will get your $5 dollars that month.

It's as simple as that.  As the community of charitable donors grows, so will the site.  You can expect to see visualizations of your contributions to causes, how many people you recruit to the community, how your money is being used to help the charities and more.  CharitySub's mix of story telling, gamification and goodwill should be a powerful motivator for people to sign up as part of their 2012 New Year's resolutions.

CharitySub's first cause is childhood obesity, an issue I know is important to many people I know. Your first $5 could go towards one of 3 great charities that are helping to end this cause. I'm really proud of Alexis, Amy, Brian & Jim for launching a great resource, and I look forward to being a part of it.