Monday, May 27, 2013

Social Media Hype Cycle

One of my ten Content Management Predictions for 2013 was that Facebook will hit rocky grounds in 2013 and that its growth will stall. Sure enough, just a couple of weeks ago, it has been widely reported that Facebook has recently lost the number of unique monthly visitors in the US. According to Nielsen, the number of unique visitors to Facebook’s website in the US has declined by 11 million - from 153 million to 142 million between March 2012 and March 2013. Another analyst firm, SocialBakers, appears to be confirming the trend by observing a similar decline in the UK. In addition, Gartner just published a report called How B2B Marketers Use Social Now which states that B2B marketers are abandoning their attempts to use Facebook as a way to connect with their audiences.

I’m actually not a Facebook doomsayer. In fact, I am an avid user. These kinds of data points may very well just be a blip. A certain slowdown was inevitable, though, which is why I wrote my prediction. Facebook has been rising very, very quickly and the expectations were just too highly inflated. Some degree of disillusionment was inevitable.

Well, all of that reminded me of the Gartner Hype Cycle - one of the business tools I like a lot and that is perhaps a bit underutilized today. The Hype Cycle, explained in detail in the book Mastering the Hype Cycle: How to Choose the Right Innovation at the Right Time by Jackie Fenn and Mark Raskin, describes the key phases through which a technology can go:

Gartner’s Hype Cycle model
Connecting the recent Facebook data and my assessment of Facebook’s current situation with the Hype Cycle, I have mapped Facebook and other social networks onto the model. The Hype Cycle, though, has not been developed to examine specific products but rather technologies. To accommodate for that, I had to make a little modification, using the same poetic terminology that Gartner introduced. Because products do actually fail and disappear, I had to add another branch onto the chart. Come to think about it, technologies do fail too...perhaps Gartner should add my addition to their Hype Cycle model?

My modified Hype Cycle model
Now, we can map the actual social media products onto this chart:

The Social Media Hype Cycle
Obviously, it takes some time for us to figure out what some of the social networks are good for. Sometimes, they fall victim to hype that anticipates more practical use cases or greater adoption than are realistic. An example of that is Facebook and its use for B2B marketing. That can sometimes lead to disappointment and loss of a particular audience or all of the audiences. On the other hand, after some experiments, we often do figure out the practical use and the social media tool becomes useful.

Here are some of my explanations on the state of the various social media in the context of the Hype Cycle:

Facebook has reached its peak of inflated expectations and that’s the reason behind some of the negative reports. Clearly, the service is hugely popular but it appears to have reached the limits of its usefulness. New innovations such as the Social Graph are mostly useful to advertisers rather than to the users and it is the danger of excessive advertising that is Facebook’s greatest threat. It is not clear today, what kinds of activities we will be using Facebook for in the future and there are many fashion trends on Facebook that keep coming and  going - remember poking, gifting of virtual gifts, the Farmville craze, or the daily workout updates? Those have all come and gone. Perhaps that is the primary purpose of Facebook - to try things out on a massive scale and see what works in a highly connected, social environment. But before we have figured that out, there will be a decent dose of disillusionment along the way.

Google+ has reached a critical mass of users but its audience is still limited. Chances are your family relatives are on Facebook and they are not on Google+. While you can have a very vibrant, special interest community on Google+, you can’t use Google+ alone because a good portion of your family, friends, coworkers, and acquaintances are not on it. At the same time, Google continues innovating with cool features such as the hangouts while they have the advertising bit figured out which is what most of Facebook’s innovation is being wasted on today.

LinkedIn is clearly ahead of everyone else in terms of reaching the plateau of productivity. This is a social network for business, with a clear purpose and an obvious use case - recruiting. While your grandma might not be on LinkedIn, everybody in your business world has a LinkedIn profile, even those who are not on Facebook, Google+ or Twitter.

Twitter has established itself as a productive tool in the business of quickly learning about what’s going on. We are no longer tweeting about what’s for dinner but rather about what we believe should matter to our followers. Whether it’s the recent political rally, the stock market swings, the latest corporate merger, or tonight’s sports scores, Twitter is really good for all of that.

MySpace has evolved to a surprisingly resilient social network for the music scene and music fans. While MySpace clearly lost to Facebook the big war of general purpose social media, it may become a very viable special purpose social site. We’ll see which way it eventually goes.

Quora has yet to find its purpose. The ability to ask questions and receive answers from a large community of similar minded people is powerful, but the practical use cases are limited. Market research would be the obvious suggestion but the heavy self-selection bias limits the usefulness of this social network.

Foursquare is experiencing some disillusionment. While a few passionate users continue checking in and telling the world where they are - and in some cases that alone is somewhat interesting (yes, Mr. Steve Wozniak) - the practical benefits of that are rather limited. Basically, the only use case so far has been to better target advertising which is not what most people want more of. Foursquare is rapidly hitting the trough of disillusionment.

Pinterest is quickly climbing up the slope towards the peak of inflated expectations. We haven’t quite figured out what is it good for but it is cool and addictive. A classic formula for a hype! Inevitably, the trough of disillusionment will follow.

Ping is quickly following SecondLife through the ravine of demise into the valley of oblivion.

So there you have it. This is my way to analyze the state of Facebook and the entire social media market using the Gartner Hype Cycle model and some creative license. You may not agree with all my assessments but we will surely see a lot of fast-paced change in this space!

Monday, May 20, 2013

Scalability Redefined

Scalability matters. Obviously. But scalability seems to mean many things to different people. Most commonly, scalability is equated to the number of users - people - accessing a particular system. That's a good start, but we we have to of course consider the degree of concurrency. There is a difference between a solution that 1,000 people use once or twice a week versus a solution that 1,000 people pound upon continuously.

In large deployments, there is also the question of how many systems are actually really being used. Early in my career, I spent several years working at Novell. It was the heyday before Windows NT and the company enjoyed a commanding market share. Large and small companies used Novell networks. But we knew, that an average (software) server always had only about 100-200 users working on it. Sure, there were some companies with 100,000 employees that used Novell NetWare. Those were big deals, big deployments, and examples of high scalability. Right? Well, not really.

Those large companies were in reality running hundreds of separate Novell server instances and each one of them would still get just a couple hundred users. I see a similar pattern with today's deployments of Microsoft SharePoint and, to some extent, also with Exchange. It is quite a different kind of scalability when 100,000 users all share a single instance of an OpenText repository - even if that repository runs physically across multiple hardware servers.

There are more dimensions to scalability than just the number of users, though. The number of operations or transactions comes to mind - from MIPS to the number of credit card purchases. How about the number of objects under management? Examples could be the number of documents, number of customers, number of transactions, number of contracts, number of relationships, number of suppliers, etc.

To be scalable, enterprise software must not be just capable of holding the number of objects in a database or repository. It also has to provide the ability to efficiently view and manipulate the data. If your web-based user interface shows the objects in blocks of 20 while you have millions of objects to sort through, your application might not be very scalable! By the way, having a single data container capable of holding millions of objects is another dimension of scalability.

There is yet another factor that needs to be added to the definition of scalability: the metadata. This is the data that describes your data. Without metadata, your data only contains what is explicitly stated in it. Sometimes, that may be useful by itself but in most cases, we want to add lots of enterprise related context. We want to add information about people and teams who work with the data. Information about the organizational structure and approval hierarchies. Information about projects to which the data belongs. The deadlines, the cost centers, the retention requirements, etc. The metadata can be often richer (= bigger) than the data itself. But it is absolutely critical in the enterprise and your application needs to scale to accommodate it.

There are many factors that define scalability and looking just at the number of users can be often insufficient or even misleading.

Thursday, May 9, 2013

The Social Groupthink

The groupthink is a well documented psychological phenomenon where a group of people, usually insulated from any counterbalancing point of view, ends up making gravely irrational decisions. During the phenomenon, the group is driven by the spirit of harmony, collaboration and the desire to reach consensus. The more the reasoning progresses, the more the group is mutually reinforcing its one-sided perspective while it completely discounts any alternate point of view. The results can be disastrous and many events in history have been attributed to the groupthink, including the US Navy negligence prior to the attack on Pearl Harbor or the US invasion of the Bay of Pigs.

The John F. Kennedy cabinet during the Cuban Missile Crises - another "groupthink" at work
In the world of social media, groupthink is very common. On social media, we tend to follow people who share views that are consistent with our own views. Hockey fans follow other hockey fans, single mothers follow single mothers, wine connoisseurs follow wine connoisseurs, and democrats follow democrats. This natural selection is the result of a rational behavior - we engage with people with whom we share common interests.

On top of that, social media like Facebook employ filtering algorithms to reduce the torrent of updates we get exposed to. These filters are based on explicit personal preferences (i.e. interests stated in our profiles) as well as on the results of our interactions. If you like a post about kittens the algorithm will reason that you like kittens and chances are you will be seeing more posts about kittens. Over time, you end up ‘liking’ various comments, pictures, and pages. Based on your liking, Facebook starts presenting you more of the stuff you like from the people who’ve shared liked news before. That happens at the cost of all other news in your newsfeed. As a result, you get exposed only to views from friends who you “like" more and more and you won’t get exposed to anything else. This is a fertile breeding ground for a groupthink with all its shortcomings.

Now, consider social software in the enterprise. Its promise was to stimulate employee effectiveness and foster innovation by bringing together diverse groups of employees who bring in different expertise and who share different points of view. Yet, if we end up with conversations where only the employees thinking the same way talk to each other, the results of social software will be greatly reduced.  

There are, of course, many other great uses for social software in the enterprise i.e. collective decision making, process collaboration, or customer service. Yet with the need to drive the corporate innovation agenda on top of the priority list for many CEOs, the promise to use social software for ideation is very compelling.

To make that happen, we must avoid the social groupthink. We have to be very careful about the filtering algorithms we employ and we have to devise strategies that encourage employees to engage with others beyond their existing teams and functions. Tribal interactions are good, but engaging across a variety of employees is what stimulates corporate innovation.