Thoughts on Building Community and Relationships

I’ve put together a couple of posts over on the Stage Two blog about the “community manager” role within an organization as well as on building relationships with influencers. Excerpts are here:

Who’s Best for Community Management?

First off, being a community manager is not for everyone. When I used to run the SlingCommunity, I used to tell people the right way to do it was to live with a combination of thick- and thin-skinnedness. I had to remain thinskinned enough where I took every piece of negative feedback openly and honestly. It’s never about user error or someone “not getting it”, it’s about doing it better and better until they do “get it,” regardless of how right I was (or wasn’t). That said, it’s also key to be thickskinned enough where not everything is taken personally, it’s important not to get mired down in negativity… (read on)

Not Everyone Can Build Relationships

I’ve read post after post from bloggers and entrepreneurs on how the best way to market your company is by being the uber-evangelist and making relationships with all the key influencers. It’s great in theory, and for the very lucky few who can pull it off, I say mazel tov. The unfortunate reality with this kind of advice is it just doesn’t apply to most entrepreneurs or CEOs, and is over-the-top idealistic… (read on)

I Have a Bad Case of Gadget Ennui

That’s “ennui”, not “envy”, and I’m writing about the fairly dull times we are living in. From an awesome new gadget perspective, that is.

The Age of Enlightened Gadgets spanned the first half of this decade, where a virtually continuous stream of new and fascinating toys were built by both large manufacturers and new upstarts. I’d probably look back at the launches for the original PalmPilot and TiVo as the Big Bang moments. The first generation digital cameras also helped kickstart the gadget world.

A couple of weeks ago I was chatting with Ryan Block, former Editor-in-Chief of Engadget and cofounder of gdgt.com, he was actually the one who first commented to me about the changing gadget world. I asked him why he felt 2001-05 was a more exciting time, he said “It’s the point in which non-geeky people started buying personal technology in droves. Cellphones, digital cameras, laptops — they became tools of mere mortals, not just tools of the trade.”

Today, however, I feel things are a little more… boring. Phones, cameras, MP3 players, etc – they are all fairly well-defined. The netbook category is probably the only really exciting new entrant we’ve seen in recent history. Sure there are oddballs along the way (Slingbox, LiveScribe, USB Humping Dog, etc), but for the most part our categories are almost too well-defined (which is a huge part of why I got involved in working with Bug Labs). I find it hard to get excited about a new, slightly better phone, or higher-resolution camera, flatter screen, etc.

I’ve had the opportunity to build and market consumer electronics products with about a dozen different companies, from the biggest to the smallest manufacturers. They all face the same set of challenges, including a very high failure ratio (for experimental products), a high barrier to entry (engineering, manufacturing, sourcing, support, etc), a rapidly changing technology landscape (wireless standards, codecs, etc), and a lack of sufficient expertise in dealing with all these matters. To clarify: there are tons of experts at these companies, but few of them deal with the sum of all these issues. The guy who was in charge of building AV receivers in the 80s is now dealing with on-screen complicated GUIs, and these are radically different skill sets.

My prediction is we’ll continue through another couple of years of playing the current game. Apple will remain the pioneer in enthralling us (like it or not) with their product evolutions. The majority of other players will continue to attempt to copy Apple, and continue to fall short (the quantity of poorly designed touchscreen phones is amazing to me – here’s a hint: stop trying to clone it, start trying to out-do it). We’ll continue to see the same categories of gadgets, each with minor evolutions occur (adding WiFi to an MP3 player or camera is not a revolutionary enhancement).

And then something interesting will happen. Breakthroughs in material science will create radically new opportunities. Pervasive Internet will change the way we think about storage. Location-based services might actually find a use. Modularity will gain mainstream use and appeal. I don’t know when. I don’t know exactly how. But it’s going to be a fun ride when it starts.

Is Online Gaming Creating Citizens or Monsters?

There’s an interesting article up on MSNBC right now regarding kids and online gaming.  Some highlights:

Game experiences “can be quite valuable from the standpoint of civic and political engagement.”

Video games can provide hands-on learning opportunities for kids that can be much more meaningful than reading a textbook. For instance, you can play a mayor in “SimCity,” and get a close-up look at what it takes to build and maintain a community.

Helping a newbie get his sea legs in a game simulates the real-world experience of volunteering. And playing games online can expose kids to people with worldviews that differ from their own — in positive and negative ways.

Many of the of the 1,102 teenagers polled said they’d encountered hostility, racism and sexism while playing online — stuff that can certainly happen offline too, says Kahne.  “Just as some playground experiences are enriching and some are unpleasant for young people, one can imagine that that would be true in the game world.”

I’ve played games “online” for two decades (I used to play Populous against people over dial-up back in the 80s).  I’ve played pretty much every category of game online, from real-time strategy (aka RTS, like StarCraft or Command and Conquer) to first-person shooter (aka FPS, like Doom, Quake, or my current fave Call of Duty 4) to casual games (like Hearts, Spades, Scrabulous). And while I can’t claim to be excellent at any of them, it’s certainly clear that I’ve wasted many many hours of my life so far.

After reading the MSNBC article I couldn’t help but wonder how much video game playing the researchers had done.  First, comparing any aspect of SimCity to running real cities is like comparing playing Call of Duty 4 to, say, war. I’d say the most practical skills I’ve gained from video games include my abilities to use a bucket of water to catch rapidly dropped bombs, I’m pretty damn awesome at shooting down evil catpeople in spaceships, and I’ve always been more cautious around @’s, D’s and L’s than I am near o’s and g’s (bonus points to anyone who can name all three games).

Also, the comments about helping newbies are very domain-specific.  There are some games where this is true, but I’d say the majority of n00bs (as they are actually called) pretty much have to fend for themselves or have a real-life friend come over.  Playing Call of Duty 4, for example, has near-constant mockery of anyone making basically any mistake, or even using certain weapons.  Playing RTS games, on the other hand, you are more likely to get some constructive help/tips, but this generally comes long after being demolished in the first 10 minutes of the game.  I am not a World-of-Warcraft player, but I’d assume that’s an easier place to make friends.

I think it’s also pretty clear that the researchers haven’t spent much time on Xbox Live, which is the den of monsters as far as terrible online behavior is concerned.  I’ve never heard such a quantity of hate-filled kids (and sometimes adults, but mostly kids) in a room, and it’s clearly language they’d never use off-line.  There’s something very wrong about the amazing level of anonymity the Xbox Live experience presents, as I sincerely doubt we have a generation of evil-minded children running around the country.  But I do ponder the particular home scenarios for these kids, and wonder about their unsupervised and more importantly, uneducated time online.

A few years from now my wife and I will have to decide about what we’ll be comfortable with in our home regarding Internet use, which will specifically include gaming.  I think it’ll be important for us to teach responsibility and general codes of conduct.  I’ve never felt the ability nor desire to become a racist arrogant sexist moron while playing video games online.  But maybe that’s because when I was a 14-year-old gamer, I didn’t have 35-year-olds to beat up on all day and all night.

Review: TuneUp Finds Missing Music Meta Data

In brief: TuneUp (500 song cleanups for free, $12/yr subscription, $20 lifetime license) makes it easy to find missing metadata for songs and missing album art.

I bet your music collection is a lot like mine used to be: a hodgepodge of mp3s, m4as, and other types of audio files that you’ve acquired over the years and ripped using various shareware products of dubious quality, resulting in hundreds or thousands of tracks that are misspelled, missing album names, and are generally a mess:

A small snippet of my pre-TuneUp Library

Sad Snippets of my pre-TuneUp music collection are coupled with…

Album covers small

… an even sadder dearth of album covers.

Sorting your library in iTunes yields a list of songs named “Track 01 – Insert Song Name Here” or “Kanye West Christmas Album 02: Jingle #(@*#ing Bells.” You’re missing album art, your genres are a mess. And, since doing a file-by-file fix would take hour upon frustrating hour, there’s no prospect of things getting better any time soon.

But don’t lose hope, because TuneUp (Windows only, Mac version coming this fall) is here to help. Launched earlier this year by the TuneUp Media, TuneUp offers a dead-simple way to scan audio files and correct missing or corrupt meta data, including album cover art. Its back-end is powered by Gracenote’s music fingerprinting service, which boasts a database of 80 million different tracks and 6 million albums.

Cleaning up your wayward tunes is easy – drag incomplete tracks to TuneUp’s interface, and the program returns results in a few seconds. Click to approve the suggested changes to update the file information, or reject suggestions or undo changes if you see a mistake.

In addition to scrubbing features, TuneUp offers a “Now Playing” companion that suggests YouTube videos, merchandise, and concert schedules for the song that you’re scrubbing or playing.

So what’s good?

  • It works: I threw nearly 400 songs at TuneUp, and it found the correct track name, album, artist and genere for all but 2 – a godawful techno remix of Boys of Summer (like you don’t love DJ Sammy), and an instrumental version of the New York Mets theme song (my favorite ringtone). That’s 99.5%, for you stats geeks. TuneUp claims a standard 85% – 90% success rate, with most misses coming from remixes, unreleased live concert tracks, and the most obscure of obscure songs.
  • It’s easy: Drag, drop, click. Done.
  • If you don’t have a ton of music to fix, it’s free: TuneUp offers a free trial version that will clean up to 500 tracks.
  • “Added value” is actually added value: The “Now Playing” section offers a fairly comprehensive list of videos, concert schedules, related music, and more. The merchandise and ticket auction sections feel like you’re having a bunch of referral links pushed at you, but they’re easily ignored.

What’s not as good?

  • Clear the schedule: While TuneUp identified tracks quickly (2ish seconds apiece in my run), writing the metadata and album art was not. My 400 songs took nearly 15 minutes to find, 40 minutes to write.
  • It’s not that I don’t love you, it’s just that sometimes I need some me time: Like a needy, whiney, insecure significant other, TuneUp won’t let you start iTunes without TuneUp tagging along. There is no feature in the preferences to disable this, and a forum posting on the topic doesn’t contain any reassurance that it will be coming anytime soon. Without uninstalling the program, I couldn’t find any obvious way to prevent TuneUp from loading.

As for my results? Take a look:

Fixed covers

If you’ve got an eyesore of a music library that seems to taunt you every time you try and find a mislabeled track, you would be well-served by shelling out an Andrew Jackson to give TuneUp a try. It does what it says it will do, and does it well. As long as you’ve got a couple of hours to kill and don’t mind an application that loads every time you run iTunes, you will be rewarded with a music library that is so pristine that it looks like you actually paid for every single one of your tracks.

Update: The San Francisco Chronicle also provides a write-up of TuneUp, and contains a brief discussion of the Picard Project, which offers a free alternative to TuneUp. I haven’t tried Picard.

Editor (JT)’s Note: While I have both a personal and professional relationship with the TuneUp team, I did no edits whatsoever to this review, nor provide any direction or insight into the content, tone, etc.  My only involvement was to provide an introduction between Dan Rubin (article author) and the individual providing reviewer support at TuneUp.

FriendFeed's Real Opportunity: Reassembling the Internet

I’m a fan of FriendFeed, the Internet service aggregator self-described as:

FriendFeed enables you to keep up-to-date on the web pages, photos, videos and music that your friends and family are sharing. It offers a unique way to discover and discuss information among friends.

For an example of it in action, you can see my profile here.  Basically the site pulls from a variety of sources, such as Digg, YouTube, Flickr, my blog, etc, and presents all the content in one view.  As you can see to the right of this screen, I use a widget to show my latest content from FriendFeed here on the blog.

While FriendFeed (FF) is a neat way to follow someone, it gets much more interesting when you use it as a new type of discussion forum.  If you click here, you’ll see everything I’ve commented on.  Again, from a “watcher’s” perspective, it’s still only moderately interesting (at best), and if you don’t see the point right now, I totally understand.  Personally, I like the ability to rapidly share content and interact with others in fun (or serious) debate and discussion.  I still believe it’s a niche play right now, but I think they have an interesting opportunity to get much much bigger.

At present, if you comment on one of my blog posts, that comment is stuck, it’s isolated to my blog (though it is retrievable over RSS, for those who really want it).  I could use a service such as Disqus or CoComment, which allow my comments to get aggregated with other blogs’ comments, but I don’t really see how that benefits either me, my reader, or those who leave comments here.  That said, those services are also integrated back into FF, which means a Disqus user’s comment on a blog post ALSO appears as a new content entry in FF.  This is only the beginning of the mess, which compounds as users can comment on a Disqus comment INSIDE FF, but that comment doesn’t make it OUTSIDE back to Disqus.

If I’ve lost you, don’t be alarmed – this doesn’t impact more than a few thousand people (at best) so far.  But when you look across many of the social networking sites (like Facebook, etc) and content sharing sites (like YouTube, Flickr, etc), the common abilities are to comment, favorite, and re-share content you find.  FriendFeed does a great job pulling in all that content, but I think the ability to push the content OUT is where the real opportunity to succeed exists.

I believe the Internet today is highly fragmented and disassembled.  I have my LinkedIN contacts and my Facebook friends, and some overlap.  I have my photos on Flickr, my lengthy videos on YouTube, and my short videos on 12seconds.tv.  I have people who read my Tweets and follow me on FriendFeed, but don’t subscribe to my blog.  In every single site I just mentioned, users can comment and share content, but what they cannot do is have their experience contributed back to the source material universally.  In other words, if someone comments on my blog here, my FriendFeed followers do not see it, and my blog readers here are unaware of FriendFeed users’ comments.

My belief is there is a big opportunity to fix this problem of content fragmentation.  FriendFeed (or virtually anyone else, but they’ve built a good chunk of it already) can take their platform, and create an API that allows for bidirectional content delivery.  At present, they are great at pulling in content, just don’t share it out well (and RSS isn’t good enough), and as we all know, anyone can take reservations, you gotta hold the reservation!  If FriendFeed could build the de facto content aggregation and distribution platform that integrated across all content sharing and social networking services, it would become an instant acquisition target.

Sooner or later the “Internet’s middleman” must emerge.  As people continue to sign up for more new services, our content and experiences become harder to share and find.  The silos of content and, more importantly, content discussion, are frustrating and annoying to all but the earliest of tech adopters and “a-listers” (who seem quite willing to put up with anything just to try new stuff).  For the majority of people out there, a certain degree of “registration fatigue” is setting in, and whether it’s FriendFeed or Facebook, or someone else entirely, there’s a big opportunity sitting out there, waiting for someone to jump in.