The Mystery Of Flight 370 And Friends On The Internet I Will Never Meet

My mind continues to reflect back to those with loved ones on Malaysia Airlines Flight 370*.  Desperate, hopeful, hopeless, an inexplicable truth staring back at them. What can they do? Wait still more? Call?

I picture each of them picking up their phone, praying, miracle of miracles that their loved ones or colleagues are somehow safe, alive, and will return soon. The phone rings and rings – no answer, obviously. Or perhaps, they hear a carrier’s hollow, computerized message and then an empty silence, their turn to speak. What is there to say?

For a few, the horror and blessing of their loved one’s recorded voice, on infinite loop, tragically disconnected from all we are connected with – which, even in the 21st century, remains frightfully limited to the digital and the physical.

Would you leave a message? Where does it go?

Might an errant text arrive after the terrible truth becomes known? “Mom, Dad. We land in Beijing in just a few hours. See you soon! Much love.”

Despite the persistent limitations of our technologies and their callous lack of both awareness and emotion, I am nonetheless thankful for the many new forms of connectivity we have constructed for ourselves. For all their technical trappings and the radical new linkages between man and machine, I believe they are simultaneously enabling a more profoundly human world.

Never Too Far Away

Death remains blunt and obvious. For those of us old enough, however, born in an era of non-constant connectivity, we can still recall the powerlessness when our parents picked up stakes and moved us far away from all we knew. Dear friends we would never again see nor speak with. We might forget their names, forget what they looked like. We become ghosts to them, as they are ghosts to us.

No longer. Friendships now can easily survive great distances.

It gets even better.

There are friendships that are only now even possible, meaningful relationships with people we never actually meet and likely never will. This should be celebrated.

Yes, we now regularly interact with machines, artificial intelligences, databases, Siri and her cohorts, and it’s all amazing. But we are also interacting with more people than ever before as friends. I think this may have an even more lasting impact on humanity’s future.

I ‘speak’ regularly with people on Twitter, people I call friends, yet have never met them and know I almost certainly never will. I miss them when they are absent.

When they are offline for several days in a row I start to worry. Who can’t take time out to tweet they are busy and won’t be online for a week or so? Something must be wrong!

We share jokes, photos, advice. We listen. We recommend. We know each other’s likes and dislikes. We cheer when they get a new job or announce a new addition to their family.

Understand, this is not at all what I imagine a call on LiveLinks to be like. It’s no 90s phone sex thing, no going onto Yahoo chat and pretending to be someone you are not. We are real. These connections are our friends. We are like pen pals of old — only at infinite scalability and with far more robust communication modes at our disposal.

Is there a name for these types of friendships? Are they more or less special? It seems less, if I am forced to choose, though I admit to more than once being engaged in a discussion with good friends, friends mere feet away from me, then stopping to converse with one or more ‘friends’ on Twitter.

Of All The Souls I Have Encountered

We happily accept we have methods of maintaining contact with friends and family across any distance — via texting, FaceTime or Facebook, for example. Such methods are available to children as equally as to adults, fully accessible and without cost for most of us. That’s wonderful. What we rarely discuss, however, is these same tools have led to an entirely new reality: connecting with people on a deeply personal level, without ever meeting them in the flesh.

They are not ghosts, though we never see them. They clearly impact our lives, though we may not even know what they look like, what they sound like, their height, shape, skin color. I think this is profound.

I never want to reach out and discover a loved one no longer on the other end. But what we have today is, I believe, much better than before. Which probably makes it far more jarring when someone we know, in the flesh or not, becomes forever disconnected from us.

*At the time of writing, there were still no confirmed sightings of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370. 

Image courtesy of Bloomberg.  

Solving Twitter’s On-Boarding Problem

Whenever I speak with people on the subject of Twitter I always pick up interesting perspectives. It seems there several groups of people in respect to Twitter. There are those who are on it, have figured out how to use it, and love it. There are those who are on it, but don’t totally get it, but want to be on it anyway to make sure they don’t miss something. And those who just don’t get it and aren’t on the service. For Twitter addressing these later groups who are on it but not fully engaged or don’t get it is a key strategic initiative.

For the group who is on it but not fully engaged, Twitter must advance what is called the on-boarding process. That is moving someone from signup to engagement as quickly as possible. In a short amount of time if people sign up and find no value they may likely not return or engage with the service. Twitter, in essence, has an on boarding process today that is loaded with friction.

Twitter is like Facebook in some ways and not like it in others. It is like Facebook in that the more people you connect with the more interesting and dynamic your stream becomes. But Twitter is unlike Facebook, in that you can’t have too many friends. Facebook becomes less interesting the larger your social network where Twitter becomes more interesting the larger your network.

I’ve been on Twitter since 2008 and the first few years I didn’t get it. I Didn’t use the service much and didn’t invest much time in it. But over time as I followed more sources I trusted, the more engaged I became. Once I learned that the key to Twitter engagement was to follow as many smart people, or trusted sources, or sources of interest possible, the more engaged I became. I found around that once I started following around 500 sources of interest things got interesting. The challenge for Twitter is that this process takes time. I had to manually follow each source. I discovered most the sources from people I followed re-tweeting smart things from other people who I then decided to follow. So it seems to me, the best way for Twitter to get more engaged customers quickly is to speed up the way in which they can follow large sums of people of interest. Here is what I propose.

Twitter should curate a large number of sources related to topics. For example, they could create a tech news category, finance category, or a cooking category, or a cars category, or a celebrity category, etc. Then curate that list with a large number of sources. This way when I sign up, I choose the categories I am interested in and I am instantly following large groups of people curated to make that category interesting. This way, within a few minutes, I could easily have a list of several hundred people or more that I follow. Which would instantly make my stream more interesting.

This process would at least get the ball rolling and then allow consumers to discover new sources of interest from there. Discovery is a key part of the stickiness of any solution and should not get lost in the on-boarding process. This solution allows the customer to sign up and start following large groups of people without having to follow each by hand. Some people just need help getting a head start and this would do the trick.

Given the broadcast medium Twitter has become and how mainstream media and entertainment are using it there will continue to be interest for new customers. The trick is to make on-boarding as easy as possible and I think this might do the trick.

Martha Stewart vs Mark Zuckerberg. Seniors vs Silicon Valley.

Help! My iPad’s fallen and it can’t get up!

Much mirth ensued across both Twitter and tech blogs last week when the very entrepreneurial — and very senior — Martha Stewart broke her iPad. Perhaps she only has herself to blame considering the series of naive tweets she unleashed upon her followers, including:

No, Martha. There is no magic button — yet — that alerts Apple that your iPad is broken. Nor does Apple — yet — offer a service where they come to your home and repair or replace your device, not even for the very wealthy. Except, that is not the real story here. Rather, it is this:

Is Silicon Valley really so blind to the computing revolution taking place right in front of their eyes?

I suspect the answer is yes.

The evolution of computing is very clear on this: it starts with a few than spreads to the many, with each new computing revolution touching exponentially more lives: mainframes to minis to PCs to, now, smartphones and tablets. The market for these latest personal computing devices is literally in the billions of users. These billions of users include potentially a billion senior citizens.

Silicon Valley, however, appears utterly blind, even disrespectful to this market; to its size, its wealth and to the fact that it is growing faster than any other demographic, at least in the developed world. Mocking older people’s inability to “google” or to “turn on the Internet” or effectively service their iPad limits us to the incredible opportunities just around the corner.

The Valley’s notorious cult of youth is the most obvious telltale sign.

Consider Mark Zuckerberg, CEO and founder of Facebook, who said a few years ago: “I want to stress the importance of being young and technical. Young people are just smarter. Why are most chess masters under 30?”

In the Valley, youthful smarts trumps all, apparently, and all flows from that.

Now the head of a publicly traded company, Zuckerberg no doubt still believes his youthful words. As the New York Times noted, the median age of workers at Facebook is a mere 28. This is not uncommon.

The seven companies with the youngest workers, ranked from youngest to highest in median age, were Epic Games (26); Facebook (28); Zynga (28); Google (29); and AOL, Blizzard Entertainment, InfoSys, and (all 30). According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, only shoe stores and restaurants have workers with a median age less than 30.

Ask yourself: if a tech company had a median age of, say, 60, would you believe it could effectively build devices and services optimized for twenty-somethings? Yet all of Silicon Valley is absolutely convinced of the reverse.

That Zuckerberg and other leaders in Silicon Valley clearly favor young over old is obvious in so many ways. This shows up not just in the age of their workers. Their ongoing lobbying efforts with FWD.US, for example, are  part of a multi-pronged effort to bring talented — young — workers into the US. Perhaps this is wise, possibly even necessary. But shouldn’t such efforts come after they have thoroughly proven their willingness and their ability to hire and train older workers?

Unfair? I don’t think so. The stated mission of FWD.US is “to promote policies to keep the United States and its citizens competitive in a global economy—including comprehensive immigration reform and education reform.”

Given the median age at the many tech companies supporting FWD.US, I confess I find it difficult to accept that their leaders care all that much about keeping the citizenry competitive. Forty year olds can’t learn to work for Facebook?

Which brings me back to my larger point: can today’s youth-obsessed tech companies effectively build products and services optimized for people of advanced age? Is Silicon Valley about to cede this giant market to others?

The demographic that will experience the biggest growth over the next decade — by a vast margin —  is seniors. In the US, there are already over 40 million seniors — age 65 or older. Many of today’s seniors, including my parents, are only just now using their first-ever computing device. Almost certainly they can benefit from new form factors, new modes of input, new ways of thinking about UI.

Regrettably, the Valley appears convinced that its devices, such as iPads, and its platforms, including Twitter and Facebook, are magically optimized for all, just as they believe twenty-five-year-olds make for the very best workers. Such a blind spot will no doubt create opportunities for others, elsewhere.

Consider the latest offering via the very creative Jeff Bezos, CEO of Amazon. The company’s new Kindle Fire HDX now includes “Mayday” — a one-click service that instantly connects the user to live person-to-person video chat. According to Bezos, this will “revolutionize tech support.” This may not be a hollow boast:

With a single tap, an Amazon expert will appear on your Fire HDX and can co-pilot you through any feature by drawing on your screen, walking you through how to do something yourself, or doing it for you—whatever works best.

Did anyone in Silicon Valley even contemplate such a thing?

Isn’t this the land of bold ideas and audacious, daring new creations?

I am not calling on Silicon Valley tech companies to build devices and services explicitly for senior citizens. I am asking for far less than that. I am urging the region, filled with some of the world’s best and brightest, to understand that by expanding their worldview — and ridding themselves of their bias of working with and alongside old people — they might understand and then capture a market possibly far larger than any they are in now. All while helping to empower millions as never before.

The Twitter Kerfluffle: You Gets No Bread With One Meatball

twitter logoThe world of Twitter has been a-twitter for the last few days over changes the microblogging service is making in the third-party access to Twitter APIs. In general, the rules restrict or outright block the access of many third parties. Reaction ranged from apocalyptic (Buzzfeed’s Matt Buchanan: “Twitter is in effect holding a pillow over Twitter apps as you know them, smothering the ecosystem over time.”) to the relatively sanguine (Tweetbot’s Paul Haddad: “Don’t panic.”)

Others have said more than enough about the merits, or lack of them, of the Twitter changes. I want to talk about their inevitability. I am an active Twitter user and find it hard to imagine how I got by without this relatively young service. But those of us who love and depend on Twitter have to realize that since we have never given it a penny, it doesn’t owe us anything. The same is true in spades for developers who have built their own apps and services on APIs that Twitter has provided without charge–and without any guarantees about their future availability.

There comes a time in the life of any startup when it has to think about its sustainability of itself as a business, and Twitter is reaching that point. Managing the tradition from unmonetized success to sustainable business is one of the toughest challenges for any startup that has grown as a free service and many fail. MySpace never pulled it off, and the jury is still out on Facebook.

Twitter has chosen that advertising is its primary route to monetization. Given that, it is going to have very little tolerance for third-party apps that fail to display Twitter’s ads. It also will become increasingly reluctant to letting third parties help themselves to information on Twitter users, hence the blocking of “find my friend” features on Instagram, Tumblr, and other services.

Perhaps Twitter had an alternative course available, but it would have required charging for what has been a free service for more than five years. A startup called is trying to build an ad-free, more open Twitter-like service by charging $50 a year. I wish them well, but I suspect they’ll have a very tough time achieving critical mass.

For better or worse, the internet has created a culture where we are used to getting valuable services without paying to them, at least in cash. But sooner or later, the piper must be paid. That’s when we learn that the service belongs to its investors and managers, not to us.




How Twitter is Evolving

Credit @Jack
As an analyst I am not entirely focused on social media as a primary area of my market focus. But because I study consumer markets holistically it is something I observe with a watchful eye. I was fortunate enough to be able to have candid conversations with many of Twitters earliest investors which has helped me shape my opinion on the platform thus far. And from my view, it has been fascinating to watch Twitter evolve and get to the point today where it is basically embedded into society.

Narcissistic Roots
I have always rejected the notion that the roots of Twitter appealed to people’s inherent narcissism. In fact, I was on a panel many years ago with author Andrew Keen and we heavily debated this topic. Many of Andrew’s books like The Cult of the Amateur are very strict critiques of the negative effects of things like blogging, the internet, and other key technologies on societies. Andrew makes many good points that are food for thought but I largely disagree with the premise that Twitter at its roots is only for those who love the spotlight.

When Twitter was first starting out I was adamant in my analysis of the service that it presented a valuable platform for those who are in the public eye. Folks like celebrities, athletes, political leaders, the media, etc., and that I questioned what an everyday mass market consumer would get from “tweeting.” My thought initially was that the value to the mass market the value would be in consuming tweets rather than actually “tweeting.”

I point out the value of consuming tweets in my column Why I love Twitter. My main point being one of the many ways I use Twitter is as a information filter of many of the key industry sources I follow for work. Twitter’s value as a real-time filter for real-time information is a key value proposition.

Although, now that we have seen Twitter begin its ascent into the mass market, it is becoming clear that Twitter is evolving into a conversation in a fascinating way.

Next Generation Communication
I am convinced that Twitter is no longer a platform to broadcast and has evolved into a platform to communicate. Of course broadcasting can be communicating but it is generally one way. Twitter has now become a two way dialogue with those broadcasting and others interacting.

It is interesting to see how the aforementioned public figures I spoke of are using and embracing Twitter to interact with the masses. Many folks we speak with who joined Twitter simply to follow celebrities, athletes, or media personalities, found that the bulk of their Tweeting was less about saying what is on their mind and more about interacting with those they follow. Perhaps even more interestingly the large majority of those we spoke with received a tweet back or re-tweet of a public figure they follow.

I am somewhat embarrassed to admit that I follow Justin Bieber on Twitter. I do it because I am intrigued with how he uses Twitter (a story you can choose to believe or not.) But I am genuinely surprised at how active @JustinBieber is on Twitter and how often he interacts with his fans. Not only is he encouraging his brand loyalty amongst his fans but he has a instant communication channel with them for anything he chooses–personal or professional.

This is one example of many that shows how Twitter has evolved from broadcasting platform to a true two way communication platform. I believe Twitter will may play a key role in further changing communications as we know it.

Even simply looking at how many broadcast outfits are using Twitter around the Olympics demonstrates my point. Many networks covering the Olympics are not only encouraging Twitter interaction but also tracking and sharing key statistics around how its being used. Many athletes as well are using Twitter (some not too intelligently) to engage with their fan base.

Twitter truly had humble beginnings. And Gripe as some may about how it has evolved, it has added to the evolving use of technology in the ways we has humans communicate and interact. And I believe we are still only scratching the surface of its possibilities.

Why I Love Twitter

I don’t expect everyone to love twitter. In fact I anticipate that many have mixed feelings about the service. Twitter is one of those things that I believe works great for some people but not everyone. And in a world of consumer choice that is perfectly fine. I would not expect a piece of technology, service, product, etc., to become universal.

I, however, particularly love the service. It works for me within the context of my career as well as how I prefer to consume information. I don’t think my appreciation of the service hit me until it went down for nearly two hours this past week. Twitter has become my source for real time information about a range of different things. I follow sports writers of my favorite teams for real time updates about games. I follow certain news outlets for updates on the news in real time. I follow a range of technology industry colleagues and journalists for real time updates on the technology landscape.

This point of real time information became clear when Twitter went down. Since Twitter is where I get all my real time information, my first instinct when I couldn’t access Twitter was to try and go to my Twitter feed to see if it was down. I eventually had to actually go visit a technology blog in order to confirm if Twitter was down. Twitter is my source for information to as close to real time as I can imagine.

Before I was a heavy Twitter user, which only happened in the last year, I used to frequent the home pages of all the big tech blogs several times a day at a minimum. This process for me was how I tried to stay up to date with the most recent pulse of the tech industry and other related news. But most technology blogs and news websites contain way more information than I am interested in and I found that I wasted quite a bit of time trying to find information that was useful to me. This is where Twitter comes in.

Twitter has become for me my curated information filter between me and the world wide web. I have carefully selected who I follow and built specific lists in order to make sure I am only presented with information from sources I trust or find the most beneficial. Twitter is acting as my aggregator for the information I have chosen is the most important for me. When I end up going to a website it is always the individual article promoted by a source I trust from Twitter. I rarely go to news sites home pages any more and I am quite pleased by this. In fact I have learned most of the major breaking news from the past six month’s via Twitter.

Of course I still use the web for a range of different things but when it comes to news, especially related to tech, Twitter is the door between me and their websites. I am sure this is true for a wide variety of folks and perhaps even readers of this article. Maybe you were referred to from a tweet or a retweet of a trusted source. Perhaps you came from another source of curated content. Either way it is more likely you got to our site and this article from another means than the homepage.

When Twitter is used this way it can be quite a useful tool for saving time. I don’t find myself needing to frequent blogs or news sites home pages in order to get caught up with what is happening in my industry. As long as I have checked Twitter in the past few hours I am completely caught up. Checking Twitter takes a matter of minutes to catch up where going to four or more blogs or news sites could take upwards of ten minutes to accomplish the same thing.

I am not sure what this means long term for the news media websites if Twitter is one of many useful aggregators to come. On this point we came across an internal research report that had caught wind of groups of Twitter users only using the service to consume useful media not to actually tweet anything. I don’t have enough data to proclaim that a trend yet but in light of my point it is an interesting development.

All of this brings up an interesting question to Twitter’s long term business model. After the outage I become convinced that I would pay a fee to use Twitter due to the value it brings to me in my daily work flow. Maybe I would pay just to keep it ad free but if it was a matter of not having it or paying to have it, I would choose to pay for it every time.

Maybe Twitter will add more value to their service for people like me and charge for premium features. Maybe they won’t and will keep the whole service free but allow ads, however, I hope this is not the route they choose.

Whatever the case of a business model, Twitter has become embedded into my work flow. I find Twitter as a valuable resource for curated information. Twitter may not be for everyone but it definitely is for me.