Technology and taboos redefined – part two

A friend recently lamented on Facebook that she was unable to reach a client on any of the three available contacts she had for him. “Ah, modern communication!”, she quipped.

It set me thinking. About two conflicting phenomena in my life. First, that I have 5 separate email accounts on my iDevices. I separate different threads of my life into those accounts. I also have active Whatsapp, Skype and Viber accounts for other uses. Second, that I disabled voice mail on my phones about 2-3 years ago. I do not encourage anyone to leave me voice mails, preferring text based messages from emails to Whatsapp to iMessage.

Then there are friends in big-cheese type jobs. They seem to use their work emails for everything. But they never take a phone call, preferring instead to use their secretaries and their voice mails as gatekeepers to manage access to themselves.

Thoroughly curious, I scrolled to see some of the status messages of my contacts on Whatsapp and Viber. I noticed that the Viber status message of a friend, who absolutely detests phone calls, reads “only if you must”.

This isn’t a new problem though. As a relatively early adopter of everything from Amazon reviews (first review written in 1999) to LinkedIn (in 2004) to Quora (just about 4 years ago at the time of writing), I have often found struggled with this overload. And about related issues.

About 7-8 years ago, a friend and I were discussing the etiquette for Google Chat. What happens when the green light on their names indicates they are “available” but they don’t respond when you ping them? Are there opening niceties we must engage in, or should we keep it short and sweet? How do we sign off? Soon after we had that conversation, I got quite tired being pinged, no matter what colour the “light”. I have solved the problem by going invisible on nearly all networks and channels I use. With a few closer friends, I have evolved a sort of linguistic shorthand which lets them assess whether I am seeking a real-time conversation or just sharing something they needn’t read or respond to right away.

So what is going on here? Why do we sign up to all these channels of access, and then put up these roadblocks?

Is there real access, or is it just an illusion?

Or are we just trying to cope with communication overload, while balancing it with our FOMO?

As I ‘fessed up, I have often struggled with this overload. But I was often saved, so to speak by the slowness of network effects materialising on social networks and communities. In other words, few people I knew in real life were on these networks so early.

But there comes a moment when a network — or a platform or tool — jumps the shark. A new normal must then emerge. I recall writing in 2000 about how some Goldman Sachs traders were using (bootleg) chat windows to be real time with their clients. I happened to mention it casually in a conference to a gentleman sitting next to me. He turned out to be their head of security in London. Talk about being in the right place at the right time! A year or so later, authorised IM/ chat clients became mainstream. That is when the proverbial hits the fan.

Meanwhile we find ways to cope — we duck, go cold turkey, find other (emerging?) networks, or switch off our online lives temporarily or permanently.

There is a period of hyper-communication, there is a period of quiet. There is information overload, then there is information diet. Sometimes we go indiscriminately all-you-can-consume, sometimes we curate and retreat into filter bubbles of our own or of algorithmic making.

The wheel will turn again. We will find new problems we cannot manage. Until we can.


Four For Friday (17)

This week’s eclectic, interesting reads:

At the cusp of technology and regulation, Matthew C Nisbet argues why scientists must join food activists in examining regulation. This in the context of GE crops.

The designer of all things i – Sir Jonathan iVe, oops, Ive – on his quest for simplicity, and why simplicity isn’t simple.

This is the week when the inventor of the remote control, Eugene Polley, died. Have you ever thought of remote control as subversive technology? If not, do read the link.

Finally in the week of Facebook’s IPO, read Doc Searls’s post questioning much including the advertising-will-make-us-free (excuse the pun!) model being funded all over the planet. If you have never heard of him, I’d suggest you get a clue and read The Cluetrain Manifesto. He is one of those who wrote the book. Literally and figuratively.

Only the monetising survive…

Watching financial news these days makes me feel I am in a Poseidon-like adventure film. Markets crash and burn, long-established institutions go out of business, gloom and doom is served with every newscast, and TV pundits advise people to take money out of stocks if they are going to need it in the next 5 years.

However if you are on Twitter and following any ‘weblebrities’, you would think you are on a different planet. Most are upbeat and optimistic. Until the last few days, when the mood has turned distinctly for the sombre. The carnage on Wall Street is now firmly on the High Street, the Main Street, Mayfair and Sandhill Road.

That cradle of innovation, Silicon Valley, is worried about how the global credit crunch will affect them. Although some VCs are still investing, the IPO window seems to have firmly shut as exits no longer make sense and indeed there is no liquidity in the markets to fund them. Small businesses, over at this side of the pond, are facing sudden and sharp hikes in their overdraft interest rates, which will make life hard for many.

So would any start-ups and small businesses survive?

It is difficult to answer that in an unequivocal ‘yes’, but some will. They will be the ones who have a sustainable monetisation model, i.e. a business model that is about making real, hard cash.

Survival may be easier for a small niche business, focused on, say, tailoring services, than it may be for a Web 2.0 firm with lots of VC money but no clear monetisation model. The demand for the former’s services may remain steady or even grow, because she can diversify quickly into updating or repairing services. Fashionistas, including those on a budget, swear by a good seamstress! Others may find use for extending the life of the contents of their wardrobe. The latter however need a serious look at their business.

Many Web 2.0 start-ups are focused on building communities of users, to which advertising can be served. Ergo, advertising is the business model. But when times are hard, advertising spends are cut. People also change how they spend, making advertising possibly less effective a tool than consumer promotions. Is advertising a sustainable business model? The opinion is divided. Some feel the model is doomed to fail; others think that if people cannot afford expensive entertainment, they may well get online and shop.

As a participant-observer, Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr etc all intrigue me. Mainly because I can’t see how they are making money at all. LinkedIn is an exception but it is not a consumer business, although it is a networking and community driven business. and other blogging enablers are also different.

LinkedIn has several revenue streams. It has a tiered, priced membership model for individuals, and it has a corporate offering. Paid services are available to corporate recruiters, and sometimes entire relevant sections of LinkedIn’s Answers service are sponsored by well-chosen companies. There is also a store for buying LinkedIn-branded kit and why not? The last one is a trick that all the consumer-centric businesses mentioned below are missing!, the free hosted blogging service, makes money from advanced personalisation features such as URL mapping, CSS customisation, and additional space. I am certain their hosting relationships make them some money too.

What about the rest?

I can see advertisements on Facebook, which are never for anything I may be remotely interested in. There are also those ‘limited edition’, $1 a pop, virtual presents such as a Martini or a slice of cake, which I am sure someone buys for their friends. Tumblr is giving me, and many others, free server space for posting our musings in a semi-interactive, walled-garden sort of way. Now it has clone-like competitors such as Posterous and Publr.

Does anybody have an idea how Twitter may monetise? I can’t see one but then may be, I am just not ‘wrapping my head around’ well enough.

Fred Wilson, one of the investors in Twitter, was recently asked how these companies may make money. This is what he said:

“The No. 1 question I get about Twitter is, how do you monetize it? I think Twitter is no different from other user-generated content, like Flickr, YouTube,, Blogger, WordPress, TypePad. Millions of people are creating content, and tens of millions are consuming that content on the Web. Those businesses are good businesses. And they make money in different ways.

People who can’t wrap their heads around trying to monetize these businesses aren’t trying that hard. It would be naive to assume that the management teams of Twitter or FriendFeed or Disqus don’t have four or five strategies for monetization in their business plans that they are evaluating. Just because people aren’t currently executing a business model doesn’t mean they don’t have two or three they are ready to turn on at the right moment.”

I think that right moment may be now. Or never. It depends on whether a business wishes to survive.

Related reading:

Fred Wilson on What To Look For Next

Pages 15 to 23 of Snowball, by Alice Schroeder (Warren Buffett’s speech to Silicon Valley VCs at Sun Valley ’99)

We didn't start the bubble…

Over at Ruhi’s blog, on her enthusiastic post about Tumblr, my conversation with Ruhi started with and centred on finding out that elusive detail: what is the business model?

After much toing and froing, it emerges that “nothing much” is the answer.

On a related note, a friend of mine sent me a link which may explain the business model not just of Tumblr but also of many others of its ilk. You can watch it here.

PS: I have had new respect for Billy Joel’s and Elton John’s musical talents, since I began taking piano lessons some years ago. So, sorry, Billy!

I didn’t write the spoof song, it was already online, and I think it’s very fine.
I didn’t write the spoof song, but I blogged about it, because I don’t doubt it.