Creating the pull factor needed for a successful social network

TechCrunch just put out an article by Alex Rampell titled “the power of pull”. In the article Alex makes the case that really valuable web applications pull you unconsciously toward them. You don’t have to remember to check them, when you sit down in front of a browser and start typing, those are the URLs that come out.

What creates the pull is a problem that I’ve pondered over for a long time. When BuddyPress functionality was being added to UBC Blogs I knew that it would fail to pull students in, but am still not able to articulate exactly why. It may have had to do with the “silent launch”, but I think the biggest problem was the lack of some key features, those features that provide the pull. Now that Google+ has launched (and I’m really enjoying using it), I’m wondering if it will be able to make the dent that will pull all of the people that I want to interact with into it.

Here are the factors that Alex listed in his article.

Alex’s Factors:

In the article he lists 4 ways to create pull:

  • Plan around events: People will be going to events, so build something that makes them check in with you first before those events.
  • Do something that has an offline analogy: Before Google, people would use phonebooks.
  • Answer Recurring questions: Questions like “where am I going” (Google Maps) and how much did I spend (Mint) answer some of life’s recurring questions.
  • Build brand and familiarity: People shop at Amazon.com because not only do they know it’s big enough to be trusted, it offers a familiar interface.

While I agree mostly with his list, it got me thinking about the sites that pull me and what it is about those sites that create the pull. I came up with my own list.

Here is my list:

Make not visiting your site something that will cause social harm: 

I check my Gmail and Facebook often because people may have left me messages and if I don’t respond to them I will disappoint or anger them. I will respond to Doodle’s for the same reason. Humans love to be liked, so if by not going to the web service a person will be liked less, they will go to it.

Provide Curated entertainment:

I get pulled to YouTube and TED.com whenever I want to watch an interesting videos, I get pulled to GrooveShark when I want music that everyone in the room will and I get pulled to Flixter and Apple Trailers whenever I want to see what movies are coming out. Although making a service that relies purely on content only works for a lucky few, any successful service needs to have something interesting to show their visitors.

Provide more than one engaging activity:

This is a piece that I have taken from my game design research. All popular recurring networks need more than one pull. This not only provides multiple incentives for any given individual, but also ensures that it provides incentives for a wider segment of the population. Facebook is an obvious example, but so is an LMS like Blackboard. There are discussion boards, course content and grades to check. One’s own blog dashboard is another, there are posts to write, stats to check and comments to moderate. I understand the problems of features creep and the danger of adding “just one more pull”, but I think there definitely is threshold of the number of pulls that one needs and the application should cross that threshold.

Create something that easily fits into a daily workflow:

Facebook’s big statistic is that 50% of its users check in once a day. An essential social app has to have something new to come back to daily. If you can somehow embed a utility in your app (Google Calendar, Dropbox, Basecamp are all examples of this) then users have to come back into your application. One needs to find a way to be on a user’s mind after they have left your application.

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Sure, this list mixes up traditional applications with social networking applications, but I think that is a useful exercise. Just having profiles that others can view is not enough (witness Google Profiles before Google+), I truly believe that there have to be some other pulls. As to what those pulls should be… well that’s the hard part.

[note title=”Bonus Thought: Does Google+ have enough pulls?” align=”center” width=”716″] My hunch is yes. It certainly provides utility with the chat, hangout and photos features. If you add the sharing it had quite a few pulls. The notification icons on top of any Google product also make the daily workflow piece super simple. The sharing and sparks (with a bit of improvement) will lend that curated content. [/note]

Why I think Google Plus is revolutionary

I wrote the post below on July 2nd 2009. It sat in my Evernote for just under 2 years now, but with Google Plus, Google just did so much of what I was talking about that I guess I should share it now. The rough draft that I wrote is below. I’ve put in how Google plus fulfills the pieces below that.

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//Stuff I wrote in 2009:

Coming up with the perfect Communication system:

These are all the avenues I use to communicate with others:

  • In person
  • Phone
  • Windows Live Messenger
  • Windows Live Messenger (video)
  • Gtalk
  • Skype
  • Email
  • Twitter
  • Blog
  • Facebook Chat
  • Facebook messages
  • Facebook Wall
  • SMS (text messages)

How can we classify these though?

Length:
-Short form: SMS, Twitter, Facebook Wall
Medium form: Email, chat, blog, blog comments
-Long form: Email, Chat applications, Phone, Blog

Fidelity:
-Face-to-face: In Person, Video Chat
-Voice: Phone, Skype
-Text: Email, Blog, Chat, Twitter, Facebook Wall

Urgency
-Urgent: SMS, Phone, Chat applications
-Important, but not urgent: Email, Facebook Messages, direct twitter rmessages, in person
-Neither urgent, nor important: blog, twitter, facebook wall.

Audience
-myself: delicious, notes, google tasks, word documents, reminders
-small audience: SMS, Email, Chat, Twitter direct message, phone in person,
-medium audience: Facebook wall, Twitter
-large audience: Blog

Temporal
-Synchronous
-Replies within short time frames
-Whenever
These are my rules for which apps to use, rules that I kind of instinctively obey because they are the most convenient. They are rules that I break all the time. They probably have differences and similarities to your rules. Why is that? Each of the services that we use has different social connotations to us. I might believe a Facebook message is for important things, but you might think it is just for fluff and never check it.

How to fix it?

Here is my proposal for the workflow of my dream communication device:

  1. Choose who you want to communicate with, person, group, all your friends, open internet (Which is what Facebook’s privacy changes have just done)
  2. Choose the urgency (this should probably be more granular than what I just set up).
  3. Choose the fidelity that you require (text, voice or video).
  4. Choose how synchronous you want it to be.
  5. Specify how long you want the message to be (for text this step could be automatic, just letting you know when you start to cross boundaries).
  6. From the receiving side, you specify how you want messages to come to you from certain people.

Now, the critical part of this system is that the receiver gets to define how they are notified about your intent to communicate. These can be rules based on your location, your status, the time, what your calendar says, who is trying to contact you. even who you are with. So for instance, all urgent messages from your close contacts are pushed to your phone which beeps or vibrates. If it is not urgent, it is sent to your desktop, where a popup can appear every hour detailing how many new non-urgent messages are waiting (this stops the smartphone syndrome of constantly checking email, facebook etc jsut to see if something important has come up).

//End of stuff I wrote in 2009.

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Some random images from my phone… no uploading required!
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Now for how Google Plus implements so much of this:

Choosing who:

Circles is 95% of the way there. Between Circles, individual people, people with the link, public, they’ve really made that part super easy.


 Choose the urgency:

Not implemented by Google Plus… here’s hoping they do.

Choose how synchronous you want it to be.

The difference between the chat and the sharing pieces.
 Choose the fidelity that you require (text, voice or video)

All in Google Plus.

Fidelity choices on Google PlusFidelity Choices on Google Plus

Specify how long you want the message to be:

Google Plus just does it automatically. I’m not sure if this one is relevant anymore.
From the receiving side, you specify how you want messages to come to you from certain people:

Google has at least made a start on it

Settings for recieving posts on Google Plus

The big thing is that Google Plus does this all in one space. No message box, chat box and email inbox, no separate places to rebuild your community again and again, just all in one application.

I think that’s kind of awesome.

Helping students learn how to learn

nick confused

I am currently working for UBC Student Development / UBC Library as the Student Development Coordinator for the Chapman Learning Commons. My role includes managing the space, the students who work in the space and the learning services that are run out of the space.

What makes this position fascinating for me is the problem that it poses, namely:  how do I manage/create/frame services in a way that actually leads to them helping students be better at school?

This problem is massively difficult, as at a university level, being better at school requires students to break over 12 years of bad habits and replace them with good habits. As anybody who has tried to pick up good habits knows (especially in the time-constrained university environment), changing habits is very, very hard work that takes time to show results. Anything that one creates to help students do this has to be really, really good (if it is possible at all).

So, for this summer, in order to actually achieve this goal I’ve settled on 4 different principles that will hopefully lead to success.

  1. Hire good students. This piece is critical. Having awesome students work on these projects helps keep things in perspective, makes customer development easier and brings a fresh sense of energy and ideas into the field. This piece’s current status is definitely “mission accomplished”.
  2. 1-on-1 peer mentorship is currently the only really feasible solution to this problem. Having a well-trained peer guide you and keep you accountable is a hundred times better than any online resource or workshop that I could create.
  3. Solve the pain. Students experience a lot of pain and the whole point of this is to help reduce that. Wording like “learning services” means absolutely nothing to most students, we need to frame things in a way that shows them how we will help them get rid of their pain.
  4. Be lean and agile. Concepts like “Do More Faster”, “release early, release often” and all the other techniques that I have learnt around successful software development and entrepreneurship apply in this context too. We are here to actually fix the problem, not just follow through on the requirements document.
That’s the plan, 2 months in I hope it’s working. One of the pieces that we’ve made some big strides on is the Learning Commons website. If you’d like to see some of the principles in action compare the current site to my student’s current prototype (principle #1 can be seen in the quality of the work). We still have lots of work left to do on it, but the idea should be clear. If you do take a look, please drop some feedback, they are iterating fast so any feedback helps!
Current Learning Commons site
Current Learning Commons site
New Learning Commons Site
New Learning Commons Site

(if you’re looking for a place to put the feedback, just comment below)

Learning through a narrative

Future of education

I just finished reading “The Future of Education – re-imagining our schools from the ground up” by Kieran Egan. It describes the idea of “Imaginative Education” (IE) and gives an example of a timeline in which this superior form of education could be the norm by 2050. I’m unsure of my opinion about most of IE and will spend a lot more time looking into it before I draw firm conclusion.

The one thing that really struck me about IE was the concentration on narratives. In the book students are given an arbitrary topic when they start school (for example “leaves” or “wind”) and work on a portfolio around that subject for their entire school school career). They are then guided by portfolio mentors to apply everything they learn to this topic. So for instance, when learning about metaphors, they are asked to find metaphors in literature involving leaves. When learning about area, they can find the best way to estimate the area of different kinds of leaves. This way of teaching serves the duel purpose of not only making students an expert in their topic, but also
gives them something tangible to relate their learning in all areas to. It forces them to develop a habit of applying the things they learn.

Now, I haven’t figured out how I feel about the idea of an “arbitrary” topic (I think students should at least have some influence in the choice of their topics). However, at a university level students like myself should have the power to choose their own topic and follow it through. I chose my topic of improving education (both in method and in distribution) a long time ago but can see many points in my education where I have failed to relate my learning back to that. For instance), why was I bored stiff in my databases class when I could have been finding ways to relate it to my passion? Boring as SQL may be, it can be seen as a powerful upgrade to parts of human language due to its exceptional clarity. The questions I should have been asking myself could have been as follows:

Should everyone learn how database queries work simply in order for them to understand the pure logic that it creates?

Is this type of logic necessary?

Does that kind of thinking make innovation more or less likely to happen?

So many questions could be formed from something as boring as SQL queries. I know that the ones above are very surface level, but that is precisely because I was not thinking deeply about this while they were being taught databases in depth. I have this feeling that I would have been able to draw many deep and meaningful connections.

From now on I intend to try my damnedest to relate everything I learn in school to my central topic and in order to test how powerful this way of thinking can be.

Dropping out is sometimes the right thing to do.

In my last post I wrote about CCK09, the online course on connectivism and connected learning that I was taking part in. Since then I have dropped out of that course to focus on something very different to connected learning… myself.

Why:

Ironically, the catalyst for this change of heart was my blog post on CCK09.Jeff Fong left a comment on that post pointing me to Scott Young’s post on studying. Reading that post (and subsequent posts) sparked something in my mind. It was the created a connection between several recent things that I had learned and not connected before. I decided to do something that was new and exciting for myself, figuring that the concepts and connections in CCK will still be there in a year.   Continue reading “Dropping out is sometimes the right thing to do.”

Current Wordle

Clint Lalonde recently wrote about using Wordle as a reflective tool in order to decide whether the blog posts that he wrote for class were on topic. I like that idea a lot.  It also reminded me of thoughts that opened09 had circling in my head. Over time, a writer’s skill and focus changes, that is a given. But how to monitor this? I think Wordle provides a visual representation that is simple and powerful. I will try and take wordle snapshots of this blog every few months and compare them, mostly out of interest, but also as a way of reflecting on my own constantly changing passions and motivations.

So here it is, 17 August 2009, the Wordle for all my content is:

my Wordle
my Wordle

Gmail Pro Tip: List all unread mail.

I don’t know about you, but I am terrible at organizing my email. I didn’t realize that “archiving” was something that somebody should do with email until I had thousands of unarchived emails and decided to come up with a different way of doing things. This is what I do:

I treat unread email as to do items. When I check my email I respond to the things I have time to respond to and the rest I mark as unread so that I can respond to them later. This is a very hassle free system. Except, there is one big problem. Gmail does not have a default “show all unread mail” button. This means that it is hard for me to compare my unread mail (to do items) and prioritize this means that some big tasks end up being buried under pages and pages of emails. Of course, with Gmail’s new addons this is very easy to do. Here is how:

  1. Go to “settings” then “labs” on the top right menu bar.
  2. Scroll down and enable the quick links addon.

    enable the add links in settings
    enable the add links in settings
  3. in the search box type in the following: in:inbox in:unread. Click search mail

    search box
    search box
  4. In the quick links box (middle left of your screen) click “add quick link”.

    add quick link
    add quick link

And there we have it, now your Gmail is set up to list all of your unread mail without the interference of stuff that you have already dealt with.

Seth Godin: Create a movement

If you are one of the people who watches the TED talks often (and if you are not, it is in your best interest to become one) then you have already seen the video below.

http://video.ted.com/assets/player/swf/EmbedPlayer.swf

I was introduced to the phenomenon that is Seth Godin by my friends Rob Winson and Matt Corker. Seth Godin is one of the most revered marketing gurus of our time.

In this TED talk he talks about the importance of creating movements or “tribes”. He says that every now and then “someone stands up and says: this one is important”. This is a cause that I am passionate about and I want to organize people around me to help get something done. He ends with “go out and create a movement”.

:en:Seth Godin
Image via Wikipedia

My movement is simple. Let us help to fix education. Education is broken. There has to be a better way to teach human beings to contribute to society than what we are currently doing. Studying textbooks and tests are an incredibly inefficient way of learning. Humans have evolved to rely on education. We have stopped adapting physically and are using education to drive our adaptation. In order to continue to evolve and create the best society that we can, our education system has to evolve. The fact that things are being done the same way that they were done 100 years ago is crazy. Education has to be fixed.

Now of course I don’t know what the solution is. I don’t know how to fix education, nobody. I have some ideas, but they are not guaranteed to work. What is needed is for students, educators, parents and anybody else involved in education to experiment openly and to document their successes and failures. For people to realize that things are not working and for them to work to improve them. With critical mass, we can change things.

So, wanna join my tribe?

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New content

So I finally got around to adding the stuff that I had planned to include on this site months ago (even though I probably have less time to do it now than ever)! The sections that previously said unknown now include a sparkly new resume and a mathematically challenging contact form. About time.

TiddlyRésumé
Creative Commons License photo credit: psd