Tag Archives: Facebook

Quora

I finally heard about Quora enough times (I suppose I reached my contagion threshold) to make a profile for it a week or so ago, and I ended up exploring it in depth today.

Quora is basically a site that lets you ask questions and answer other people’s questions. Facebook also just recently released a feature called Questions that seems sort of similar. While Quora hasn’t put limits on what kinds of questions you can ask, the bulk seem to be about technology and startups, probably because of the types of early adopters who are using the site.

Quora is interesting to me because it’s basically enabling people to share knowledge. In a way, it’s like Wikipedia, but with a seemingly smaller barrier to entry. While Wikipedia has some harsh rules on how to edit an article, Quora is centered around questions and answers on various topics. You can literally sign up and answer questions within a few minutes.

As with any great piece of social software, Quora seems to work because it makes the right things visible, which gives incentives for people to keep contributing. Personally, I see it as a way to build up my online reputation as an expert on a number of subjects. It’s interesting because the incentives to use the site are baked into the site itself. It’s easy to see who has answered many questions, who has a lot of followers, who has been “endorsed” by others, etc. With this system, pretty much everyone wins. The question askers have their questions answered, the answerers get the glory of answering a question well, and even users who do neither can still benefit from reading good answers to good questions.

Another neat aspect of the site is that there are many users who could be considered “internet celebrities” or important in some other right. There are many founders of companies and other execs who go to the trouble of answering questions about the companies they founded. This is cool because users are all sort of on the same level (or at least have the potential to be). Think of the opportunities if you were one of the first 1000 people on Twitter and could have great conversations with the other early adopters.

From playing around with it a bit today, I’m very impressed and excited about Quora. By comparison, I just goofed off on Facebook Questions and unlocked the Rickroll Easter Egg (ask “How is babby formed?”). Quora still has a few things it could do better (like make it easier to find really great answers to really great questions, perhaps older ones) but even now it seems like a great tool. With the right attention to detail and community, I feel like it could be the next Wikipedia in terms of social computing success stories.

Oh, and here’s an example of a really good answer to a question: Why is Facebook creating a Q&A product to compete against Quora?

Openbook Reveals Less Than Facebook’s Own Search

A while ago, I found “Openbook,” a frontend to Facebook’s own search APIs that expose status updates from people who have them set to be public. The site’s purpose is basically to point out how much potentially embarrassing information is available, and how easy it is to find.

I thought this was a really clever idea. Then I realized that Openbook actually shows less than what Facebook does. I went over to Openbook and clicked on the query for “getting divorced.” Then I ran the same search inside of Facebook. Openbook has the same results, but Facebook also includes replies and “likes” to the status messages. In some cases it even shows comments from users who do not make their own status messages public (but replied to a public one). I suppose that’s another thing that should be added to the list of “Things Facebook shares about you that’s not readily apparent.”

Here’s the Openbook search I did:

And here’s the Facebook one:

Way to one-up Openbook, Facebook!

On Customer Service and Giant Companies

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For a long time, I’ve been a pretty cost-centered consumer. By that, I mean that I mostly cared about how much things cost. This makes sense if you’re poor or really care about getting a good deal. Recently at SXSW, I considered the concept of customer service as explained by Tony Hsieh, the Zappos guy. Random thought: crap, I still need to finish my epic SXSW post!

Tony argued that by focusing on customer service and, a step above that, customer happiness, you could grow your business based on word of mouth and repeat business. This makes sense for a retailer. It’s pretty wonderful how successful Zappos has become just by treating the customer like a king.

Lately I’ve been working on projects that rely on software written by other companies. This concept is not new. I’ve been very frustrated by interacting with systems that don’t work well. Thinking back to the Zappos talk, I wonder if the customer service (and happiness) concept couldn’t be translated to giant software companies.

Web apps are cool because they are relatively easy to build and the users are the most important part of them. They create much of the data and interactions between each other. Web apps have the potential to be highly scalable. What often ends up happening is that a small number of engineers work on an app that millions of people use. This is the case at places like Facebook and Google. Facebook’s job site currently states that it has less than 200 engineers and just a few days ago announced it had reached 200 million users. That’s a ratio of about 1 million users per engineer. I’m sure Google has similar insane ratios.

What do these ratios mean for “customer service?” Basically that it doesn’t exist. And this leads to great frustration when I have an issue with the software. For example, I needed to rename a Facebook Page for work because there was a typo in the name. I filled out the contact form. Never got a reply. I did check the FAQ and yes, it stated that page names are not changeable. But why the hell not? It’s just a record in a database. The problem isn’t really that the name isn’t changeable; it’s that I get the feeling that no one is listening to me.

I also had an issue with Google Apps and their gadget within Sites not working in IE. This is a pretty obscure error but upon inspection of the Google forums (which are actually kind of useful), it appears others have the same issue. But even though multiple users have complained, the Google spokespeople are happy to claim it’s an edge case and dismiss it by giving out urls to help articles that don’t resolve the issue. Again, it seems like they don’t care.

I also had a problem with Google Forms being extremely volatile and absolutely not working correctly. I was literally wondering if anyone had run any kind of QA on the software before releasing it. Simply put, the software was not ready for deployment. Who could I voice my opinion to? No one, because Google is a faceless giant who doesn’t care what I think.

And they shouldn’t care, because this user frustration is not hurting their bottom lines. For every frustrated user there are a thousand who aren’t frustrated. Those users will probably just go away and avoid putting more strain on Google’s massive infrastructure. Good riddance, right?

I can’t imagine there is a good solution to the problem of too many users and not enough support. Forums help, but they can’t completely solve everyone’s problems, especially when the problems exist in bugs in the software. I wish companies would pay more attention to their “customers” when they had real issues with their products. But these companies are just way too massive to give personalized help.

I imagine that some day there will be a massive backlash against this style of software design. Internet scale companies have a way of alienating users and making them feel as though their opinions really don’t matter. They take a “we know best” approach and make blanket decisions that will be good for 99% of the user base. When users protest a redesign of Facebook in aggregate, they might wield more power, but how influential are they, really?

I guess open-source software might be able to fill niches where these giant companies fail. Case in point: WordPress, which I’m using to write this blog post (but who knows where my blog will reside in the future?) is thousands of times better than Google’s Blogger. My theory is that after Google bought Blogger, they moved it to their servers and promptly stopped caring about features, usability and general quality. In my opinion, Blogger is an anachronism. It sucks hard. WordPress, on the other hand, has been constantly improving thanks to contributions from volunteers. This is also probably the reason that WordPress kicked MovableType’s ass.

So open-source software is quicker to improve and react to user needs. But how do you open-source social software that relies on network-effects like Facebook? I guess a decentralized model would work. Maybe a social network based on a protocol instead of a website. Does that sound a bit like twitter? Maybe, but probably not enough. For now, we’re still stuck accepting that we’re lowly users, unable to affect the status quo of applications owned by giant companies who don’t care what we think. Unless, of course, we are employed by those companies and really want to make a difference…

Twitter? I Hardly Know Her!

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Sometimes it’s fun to go look at what I wrote, say, two years ago and compare it to how I feel now. Case in point: Twitter. Almost two years ago, I wrote that:

Now, I actually use the Facebook updates now and then, but it seems like people who use Twitter do this to the max. Like they update multiple times a day. Are these people so self-centered that they think everyone needs to know what they’re doing?

In Twitter, the ability to update is the entire application itself. To me, Twitter is simply a subset of what Facebook already provides. Why would you ever need both?

This historical post is both illuminating and funny for a number of reasons. Apparently in the past I hardly updated my Facebook status at all. These days I probably do so at least once a day, and usually multiple times a day. I guess that’s just an indicator of how social norms have changed in regards to sharing personal information online: what was thought of as “oversharing” in the past is basically normal now. It’s also funny that I recognized that Twitter was a subset of Facebook. Recently I’ve come to believe that being a subset is actually a feature.

I think Twitter hit critical mass for me somewhere in the last few months. So really, my previous opinions of it being pointless weren’t necessarily incorrect. It just didn’t hold any value for me. Now that the value of Twitter (in my own usage) is improving due to network effects, I use it more often.

I think the appeal of Twitter comes down to this: There is a much better signal-to-noise ratio at this point using Twitter versus Facebook. On Facebook I get updates about everything that everyone I have ever known (and befriended) has ever done! I don’t care about pictures of drunk cheerleaders who I was friends with in undergrad. But Facebook feeds them to me. I really should remove them at some point, but oh well, such is social networking.

For now, Twitter has a much more relevant set of messages. I’ve also noticed that people are much more likely to respond to me via Twitter, versus commenting on a Facebook status. Probably due to the noise/signal thing again. It’s easy for me to simply “unfollow” someone who is not providing me with relevant or funny information. Sadly, the relevance factor of Twitter is probably a temporary quality. Facebook used to have a low S/N ratio until everyone joined it. Twitter may face the same problem if it can grow like Facebook did (lol at scaling).

It’s interesting to look at all of this in the context of history. I used ujournal before I used Xanga before I used livejournal before I used MySpace (ick) before I used Facebook before I used Twitter before I used (fill in the blank)…

Managing Rejection (And Success!)

Over the past few years, I’ve found myself in a number of situations where I’ve been rejected. I read an article via BoingBoing on why some people see failure as crippling, while others see it as a motivator. Pretty interesting stuff. I have the book on hold at the library. I guess I fall into the latter category as I haven’t really let my numerous failures drag me down.

When I was fresh out of college (for the first time), I got an amazing opportunity to interview at Google. If you were a CS major in 2006, Google was pretty much the holy grail. In my mind, it definitely was (well, maybe second to Facebook, but they never got back to me). Like many of my adventures, I wrote about this in a blog post.

Long story short, I was rejected. I think at that point I was a bit cocky and thought Google was a sure thing. You should never have a sense of entitlement; that leads down a pretty depressing path. Getting rejected was a good wake-up call that I needed to improve myself if I wanted to end up with my dream job. At the time I thought I had missed an amazing opportunity. This may have been true; I’ll never know what my life would be like if I had started working at Google. Looking back, though, I think the rejection was really a blessing.

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