The morbidity of the Facebook Timeline

Not much happened in my life between being born and 2007.

When Facebook rolled out its “Timeline” to replace their Profile pages, it seemed like a neat gadget.  It seemed like an odd move to get rid of the activity stream that had been on Profiles before, but it was kind of neat to see an overview of the person’s life, along with the large picture they could choose to show at the top.  The Timeline is more visually interesting and distinct than the Profile, but over time something about it bothered me, and I didn’t really get get my mind around it until now:

The Facebook Timeline is morbid.

Where are we used to seeing the “timeline” paradigm?  History books.  Timelines are used for tracking progressions of significant events chronologically, events that usually have an explicit beginning and an explicit ending.

When I look at my Facebook Timeline, I feel it is a weird mesh of the profound and the trivial.  It lists a string of mostly insignificant events, things I’ve liked, comments I’ve posted, photos I’ve uploaded, songs I’ve listened to, and other nuggettes of daily life.  Alongside these minutiae, at one end is my start (birth), and at the other end…my end.  That’s pretty heavy for a social network profile page.

The timeline therefore becomes an online tombstone in progress.  Someday, nothing I do will show up on it anymore, and my friends and family will come to my Facebook Timeline to see what happened in my life, and they’ll see that I liked this viral cat video, or listened to Lady Gaga on Spotify.  Maybe a few significant events will be sprinkled in between, but how much of what we do every day on Facebook is really significant or worth remembering for more than a few hours?

It is this unintentional memorializing of the trivialities of life that I object to, and why I wish Facebook would bring back the old Profiles.  I liked them when they felt fluffy, when they were fleeting, and changed constantly based on my whims, and captured the essence of now rather than documenting my existence for future generations to peruse and be amused by.

If I wanted to create a memorial to myself, a summary of my life, a memoir, I would do so on my own.  There are probably sites dedicated to this.  But why force this morbid paradigm onto my daily communications with friends and family, without giving me a choice in the matter?

Most design decisions Facebook are very much about living in the moment.  The News Feed, the Ticker, Chat, Messaging, Open Graph, Places – all have been built to spread information about NOW, about what I’m doing, where I’m doing it, and whom I’m doing it with, so to slap a layer on top of this that turns my Profile into a living document of my life is intensely off-pitch.

As it stands, the morbidity of the Timeline has largely turned me off from using Facebook.  Hopefully Facebook will realize the error of their ways and rebuild Timelines to be more temporal and less monumental.  Time will tell…

 

The Kindle is dead, long live the Kindle

I’ve been complaining (whining) about the Kindle for some time now.  My main argument was that with the impending emergence of netbooks and tablets (which weren’t out yet when I started this thread), a dedicated “e-reader” was pointless and destined to fall by the wayside.  It was clearly a stepping stone to devices that offered an e-reader as just another piece of software on a device that was capable of far more.

Amazon has now released the Kindle Fire, a color tablet that is based on the Android OS rather than their proprietary Kindle OS, just as I told them to.  The world doesn’t need another OS, and Amazon doesn’t need to waste money designing one, so they’re much better off leveraging Google’s OS and adding the Kindle software on top of it.

While Amazon is still offering Kindle dedicated e-readers, it seems clear that the Fire will be Amazon’s focus going forward, and the dedicated e-reader platform will probably be de-emphasized and fall by the wayside as tablets get cheaper and the price difference between tablets and dedicated e-readers approaches zero.

So to Amazon, I say well done: you’re focusing on what you’re good at and providing a reasonably full-featured tablet at a very competitive price.  Will it put pressure on the iPad?  Probably not a lot because it will be the category leader for the foreseeable future, but clearly the race to the bottom for tablet prices has started, just as it did for PCs a few years ago.

Google+: Better than Buzz and Wave, but no Facebook Killer

So I finally got in to test out Google+, and I have to say it’s definitely an interesting product.  I can’t dismiss it the way I did with Google Wave.  Here are some of my first impressions:

Circles

Adding friends to your Circles starts out fun but quickly becomes a daunting task.  G+ appears to use my Gmail account history to suggest people that I might want to add to my Circles, which is convenient, but regular Gmail users like myself may end up with an overwhelming number of recommendations.

I have 500 recommendations (presumably this is a maximum), and I just don’t want to take the time to sort them all into Circles. Maybe I’ll whittle away at it over time…I stopped after 40 friends because it’s just too tedious.  This is why the Friend Lists never took off over at Facebook, but I don’t think it’s a good sign that Google hasn’t really improved upon the concept aside from slapping a nifty UI on it.

It’s not immediately clear that people whom you add to your Circles will receive an email notification.  I added several people whom I’m not close to, but I just wanted to follow their updates (like Twitter), and they may be rather confused when they see that I’ve added them on G+.  Google needs to work a little on this process to make it more clear what’s going on, and what the consequences of your actions are.

The Stream

In “The Stream” (like Facebook’s Feed), you can see updates from anyone whom you’ve added to your Circles, without them having to approve you as a friend (although they are notified, and can Hide or Block you after the fact.)  This makes G+ work a little like Twitter, actually – you can have a 1-way relationship, more of a “follow” than a “friend,” but you still need to know someone’s email address in order to “follow” them, so don’t expect many celebs to be joining up or ditching Twitter for this.

Using 1-way relationships is a very interesting product decision, and it’ll be interesting to see how it plays out.  It’s possible that people may develop a Twitter-like usage pattern, where they follow a lot of people that they don’t know, particularly in business circles.  For instance, if you can get the email addresses of people in your industry, you can just start following their G+ updates, but of course you’ll only see content those people make public unless they add you to one of their Circles and publish to that Circle.

If you add someone to your Circle who isn’t using G+, they’ll get your updates via email, which is either an awful idea or a fantastic one: if you don’t have G+, you’ll get your inbox spammed by your friends who do, so that could motivate more people to join, or it could just annoy them.  Maybe both. It’s a little risky, but if people surrender and sign up for G+, it’ll be a big win for Goog.

Update: I received this via IM from a friend today:

why is google+ spamming me when they know I’m not a member and I can’t join? load of crock

One side effect I noticed: I’m hesitant to share things with my Circles, because I don’t want my friends who aren’t on G+ to get emails for every little thing I share.  It’s okay on Facebook because people are already there, and if they happen to see my update, that’s cool, but most things I post to Facebook, I do NOT want to send to my friends via email, or I would have done that in the first place.  Once all my friends are on G+, it’s not an issue, but that’s a long ways off.  Until then, I may have to “unfriend” my contacts who are not on G+ just to avoid spamming them, or I’ll have to post things as “Public” without posting to a Circle.

The Toolbar

Once you’re on Google+, you’ll see a toolbar on any of the common Google sites you go to – Gmail, search, Docs, Picasa, etc.  There’s a “Share” button at the right of the bar, so you can easily add things to your Stream from any of those sites.  A smart move, and it should kick start sharing.

G+ has some neat features, but I’m not sure how Google is trying to position it.  It appears to be a direct Facebook competitor, as I really can’t imagine myself using both for very long.  It’s just too much sharing, too much work to maintain friends lists, too much seeing what my friends are up to, and too much “hanging out.”

I really wanted to see Google tie their tools together as a part of G+.  All of Goog’s consumer tools still exist as independent entities, when most should be tied into one interface.  Picasa is tied in (to some extent), but Gmail and Calendar are totally separate still, which is unfortunate.  If Google could reposition G+ as the only site you need to go to for your daily communication needs, they’d have a leg up on Facebook which is struggling mightily to integrate email functionality. Hopefully they’ll move this way soon.

Hangouts

Hangouts are audio/video chat rooms. I suppose Google wanted to be clever by giving them a hip, in-your-face name, but it’s often rather confusing.  How’s this for clear product messaging: “Hangouts: Have fun with all your circles using your live webcam.”  Oy.  I started “hanging out” by myself, and it posted to my stream that “Joel Downs is hanging out.”  When I finished the experiment, it told my friends “Joel Downs hung out.”  I’m sure my friends were fascinated.  It’s even better than the inane Facebook Places updates like “Joel Downs is at Starbucks.”

Sparks

Sparks are interests.  You type in things you’re interested in, and Google recommends content for you.  I assume it’ll put recent recommendations in my stream, but I haven’t seen that yet.  It could be a nice way to keep on top of topics you’re interested in if it works well, akin to Google News Alerts or Yahoo’s Alerts.  We’ll see.  Why does Goog call them “Sparks”?  I have no idea.  They definitely built in a bit of a learning curve.

Other Stuff

I won’t cover the Photos or Profile today…neither section seems particularly robust or different.

Summary

Google has a good product here, but so far I think it’s too little too late.  Google+ just isn’t well differentiated from Facebook, and it certainly isn’t any easier to use, in fact, the terminology alone may relegate its usage to a younger audience that digs the hipness and wants to spend the time to figure out how to use it.  It’s much more interesting and robust than Google Buzz was (not a high bar), but it’s hard to picture many people either 1) switching away from Facebook or 2) using both G+ and Facebook regularly.  My guess is that G+ will attract the same demographic as Gmail, but will have a hard time going beyond that.  Google will have to do some serious work to woo Facebook users, and they need to do it fast.

Degree3 is in Beta!

I apologize for the silence lately, but I’ve been cranking pretty hard on my new project, Degree3 Q&A.  It’s a social Q&A system that sites can quickly and easily integrate into their site, helping visitors find answers more easily than using comments or forums.  I’ll be talking more about it later, but for now, if you’re interested in trying it out, drop me a line or apply for our Private Beta at Degree3.com.  In the meantime, try it out on this page, just to the right of this post, and let me know what you think!

Why I won’t buy Gateway ever again

So yeah, many of you probably read my headline and thought “duh.”  I never had a very favorable impression of the Gateway brand either, but I was in a bind.  In January I was starting work on a new project, and I needed to replace a 5 year-old Dell desktop I had been using at home.   I’m not sure how I lived with one PC for 5 years, but just as I was getting ready to start my new project, boom, the Dell bit the dust.  It needed Windows to be reinstalled badly, and since I wanted a new PC anyways, I figured I might as well do it now.

Normally when I buy a PC, I do my research, find a rig online that fits my specs, and then order it, typically online, so I can get a decent price.  But, I needed the PC today, like now.  So I headed on over to my local Fry’s to see what they had.

Fry’s had a few Dells, HPs, you name it, but the only one that had the specs I wanted for a reasonable price was a Gateway.   So I went home that afternoon with my first Gateway.  It has a stylish case, cool little covers over the drive bays, and it looks pretty neat sitting there in my desk.

So I got it home, reinstalled Windows clean, got my basic programs installed, and I was good to go.  Pretty smooth so far.

Then I plugged a LaCie 1TB external USB hard drive and tried moving some files from it onto the Gateway.  The process started, but then crashed mid-copy.  I’m thinking, “Okay, it happens, let’s try again.”  I go to find the files on the external hard drive, but now I can’t access them at all.  The drive has disappeared.  I unplug the USB cable, plug it in again, and wait.  And wait.  After about 5 minutes, the drive shows up, but I can’t click into it.

I open Windows Disk Manager.  It hangs.  After a few minutes it comes up and says the drive isn’t formatted.  I try to format it, but that fails, too.  No other PC can read it either.  After email exchanges with LaCie, trying a dozen disk recovery programs, I give up.  The LaCie has clearly gone to the big PC in the sky.

So what does this have to do with Gateway, you ask?  I’m getting there.

I wrote the whole situation off as a rare, out-of-the-blue hard drive failure, and went on with my life.  A few weeks later, I needed to move some big files around again, so I scrounged up an old 200GB Western Digital USB external hard drive to help out.  I plugged it in to my old Dell to get the files, and then I pugged it in to the Gateway.   Big mistake.

The Gateway proceeded to destroy this hard drive the same way it destroyed the first one.  It shows up as unformatted in the Disk Manager, and I can’t even reformat it.  It’s toast.

The Gateway had then bricked two external hard drives, so I called Gateway tech support.  Their email support said I needed to call their pay-support phone number.  I’m thinking that they escalated me, but the support should still be free, right?  Wrong.  The conversation went something like this:

Me: “My Gateway has corrupted two USB hard drives.  Is there something you can do to fix it?”

Dude: “Sure thing, let me just get your credit card information, and we’ll get started.  Support is $99.”

Me: “I have a two month-old computer that has destroyed two of my hard drives, and you want me to pay for support?”

Dude: “I think I know what the problem is, let me just get your credit card info, and we’ll get started.”

Me: “If you know what the problem is, can’t you just tell me?”

Dude: “I’ll need to get your credit card information first.  I think it’s a setting.”

(This is where I realize he has no idea what he’s talking about, and is trying to bluff me into paying.)

Me: “There’s a setting on my PC that will make it destroy USB hard drives?”

Dude: “It’s probably something you did.”

Me: “It’s brand new.  All I did was install software.  Installing software can make a computer destroy USB hard drives?”

Dude: “If I could just get your credit card information…”

Me: “Could I talk to your supervisor?”

Dude: “I can help you with this.”

Me: “I’d like to talk to a supervisor.”

Dude: “I don’t really have one. He’s not here, and even if he was, I can handle this.  If I could just get your credit card info…”

Me: “No thanks.”

So that didn’t go so well.  I went back to the email support, and their stance was this:

Please be informed that we handle only factory default hardware issues.  As the issue is not with the computer this issue is out of our scope of support.

I informed them that USB ports are default hardware, but apparently their stance is that once you plug anything into those ports, they aren’t responsible.  I wonder if they would have the same stance if the monitors I plugged in didn’t work?  If I were to put suitcases in my Miata (suspend disbelief for a minute here), I expect the Miata to carry them without destroying them even though they are not the “default hardware” of the car, and I would certainly hold Mazda responsible if it did.

Gateway was having none of my “logic” and held their line.

So, I’m not buying Gateway ever again.  It’s actually not because of the hardware, although I do think it’s rather odd for a PC to even be able to kill external hard drive to the point where they’re completely unrecoverable.  I’m not buying Gateway again because of their support.  They clearly are not a customer-focused company.  They are selling PCs, and are not interested in keeping people happy and making sure they are enchanted (as Guy Kawasaki would say) with their products.

I recently read The Ultimate Question by Fred Reichheld (which I highly recommend), and it makes the distinction between “good profits” and “bad profits.”  Good profits are when you make money by delighting your customers, as Dell has often done for me, and bad profits are when you make money from people who are ambivalent to your brand or worse are detractors.  Gateway had a chance to convert me from an ambivalent customer to a promoter through their excellent service, but they went the opposite way so here I am detracting.  And this is why Dell won the PC war and Gateway lost.

Facebook isn’t AOLifying the Internet, but Apple is

Gizmodo put out a post last week that gathered quite a bit of attention called Facebook is AOLifying the Internet–and That Sucks.  In it, the author concludes that Facebook’s never-ending quest to add features that keep people glued to their site means they are an aggregation of sub-par services that decrease the quality of our online lives.

It wants to be Netflix, it wants to be your Xbox, it wants to be Foursquare, it wants to be Gmail—Facebook wants to be the internet. Will you let it?

His argument is actually very much akin to the argument against “big box” department stores like Walmart and Target.  Supposedly the big stores are “evil” and we should be supporting local businesses because they have more heart and are better at specific things than the big box stores that don’t specialize.

However, the author misses the fact that Facebook, unlike AOL, is always looking for ways to go beyond its walls with Like buttons, comment widgets, and the rest of their social plugins.  It wants to enable your social interactions on Facebook.com and off of it.  They know they won’t control your Internet experience, but if they can make it richer, they can still provide value and give you a reason to keep coming back.  How many of us are thankful for Facebook Connect that keeps us from having to create new accounts on every site we go to?

AOL held its customers in a prison of AOL content and community, but Facebook knows that it can’t compete with third-party content, so they don’t even try.  They help their users find the third-party content that their friends are sharing, and that’s actually a pretty “open” thing to do.

A more viable comparison to AOL is actually Apple.  Even since the release of the iPod, Stevie Jobs has been working hard to lock people in to the iEcosystem.  If you have an iPod, you need iTunes and the iTunes Store.  You can’t just throw MP3s onto your iPod, you need iTunes.  If you want to buy MP3s online and put them on your iPod, it’s much easier through iTunes Store than through Amazon.  Ripping a CD you just bought?  Better do it with iTunes to make sure it works right.  When the iPhone rolled around with its App Store, our dependence on iTunes deepened even further.  Have an iPad?  All the same restrictions apply.

Apple knows they can’t truly lock down their platform, but if you have an iDevice, life is MUCH easier for you if you use it the way Stevie wants you to use it, that is, with the other iSoftware and iDevices that were designed for it.  If you want to play a file that’s in the wrong format or want to use a different music player on your computer or want to organize your media files yourself, suddenly you have to search for workarounds and hacks.  If you have an iPod/iPhone/iPad, it just works better if you use iTunes, and actually even if you use a Mac.  The Apple ecosystem is (almost) complete.  You can look even further at how Apple restricts the apps they allow in their App Store, but perhaps that’s a topic for another day.

You can fully complete your assimilation with the iEcosystem by subscribing to MobileMe, but so far this is where Apple has fallen down.  The services MobileMe offers are all available elsewhere on the Internet, for less money, so only the true Apple believers are on the platform.  I think Apple knows their offering isn’t strong enough here, but watch out: New reports like this one lead me to believe they are renovating MobileMe to become a tighter piece of the iEcosystem.  Once that’s up and running, I wouldn’t be surprised to see a smooth experience with Apple devices require an iPod/Phone/Pad, iTunes, a Mac, AND a MobileMe account.  Starting to sound more AOLesque?

So while it’s not a perfect analogy, Apple wants to control your mobile, computing & media consumption experiences just as AOL wanted to control your online experience.  Apple’s platforms may not be completely closed, but they are certainly much easier to live with if you work within the iEcosystem.

None of this is to say that Apple’s products don’t deserve the success that they’ve seen.  They are excellent, forward-looking products, and for people who live within the iEcosystem, they perform admirably.  For those of us who have needs that go beyond the iEcosystem, life becomes difficult quickly.

And this is where I believe Apple’s strategy diverges from Facebook’s.  Facebook knows you’re going to consume content anywhere you find it, and they want to enable that and find ways to make it a richer experience for you.  Apple wants you to find content (media) in the places they recommend, and they want you to consume it using their devices.  Facebook wants to enable your online life, while Apple wants to BE your computing life.  This is by far the more AOLish strategy.

Android: Classic Disruptor

There’s a great article at the Equity Kicker about how Android is a Classic Disruptive Play vs. iPhone, in reference to the Innovator’s Dilemma.  I’d argue that Android will disrupt the iPad as well, and before long both the iPhone and the iPad will get pushed to the side as Macs were by Windows and PCs oh so many years ago.

Mind you, I’m not saying they are bad products, but if people can get something almost as good for significantly less money, they’ll generally take it, even if it doesn’t carry the brand status and mystique that a glossier Apple product does. In particular, I think Apple’s insular ecosystem that relies on iTunes and forces users to buy overpriced, proprietary accessories will hurt them in the long run as phones and tablets find more and more uses in our everyday lives.

As smartphones and tablets become commoditized, Apple’s pricing will become increasingly out of whack, and cheaper competitors are sure to steal a large chunk of their marketshare.

Dell Streak: Lame. Dell Inspiron Duo: Cool.

I’m not sure what the price point will be on the Inspiron Duo when it comes out next week, but this may be the iPad for the rest of us who aren’t so keen on the whole iTunes ecosystem:

Video on YouTube

Social Games all the rage? Not so much

There’s a great article over at Search Engine Watch about how “Social Networks don’t Automatically Make Games Social.”  Despite all the recent hype over social gaming, most of the games we see on Facebook are really single-player games that have loose social ties, like high score lists among your friends.  Most of the “social” features are really just pyramid schemes (I’m looking at you, Farmville), like giving away in-game bonuses for inviting friends, but the game mechanics don’t involve real social interactions, and there usually isn’t even a chat room.

True social gaming on Facebook is still pretty rare, and with the complexity of building truly social games, we’ll probably have to wait a while still before they come to the fore.

Ben Elowitz on the rise of SMO: Social Media Optimization

PaidContent features an article from our friend Ben Elowitz proclaiming the death of SEO in favor of Social Media Optimization, or SMO, and it’s worth a read (his blog is here.)  As I discussed in my blog post on the rise of social search, I think he’s dead on in this prediction.  We’ve seen Google’s search add more and more social features, offering tweets and other social media content for some searches, and as we predicted Bing is now integrating Facebook Likes into its search, so clearly marketers will have to start optimizing those channels to get the best placement in social search tools.