More take-aways from Chris Hughes

Yesterday, I did sort of an entrepreneur-focused piece on Chris Hughes' visit to Syracuse. I went into the office (I work for syracuse.com, so the "we" and "our" refers to what we do there) and wound up re-writing from more of a company perspective, and I think everything's still relevant, so I wanted to share it here. Some of it is repeated, some of it is new, all of it is reworded in a different voice. I think these messages are relevant to many businesses, even bricks-and-mortar shops getting into social media for the first time.

Chris Hughes, one of Facebook's 3 4 founders and one of the brains behind my.BarackObama.com, spoke in Syracuse last night, and he had some good take-away messages.

A little background on Chris and Facebook

Facebook was founded in 2004 by three Harvard sophomores. They wanted a way to share essentially what they were doing with their friends in a more passive way – they didn’t want to have to pick up the phone or email people or find them in the dining hall to see what they were doing that night or that weekend. So they wrote some code and they were able to set their statuses and in three weeks, 6,000 people on campus had started accounts.

They opened up the platform to a few more schools, and found lots of interest, so they opened it more and more and now they have 325 million active users. Active users.

They were college sophomores in 2004, so at 19, that makes them in their early teens when the dot-coms when bust – they didn’t experience it the way other entrepreneurs and investors who are venturing into online did, so they look at the business model a lot differently than someone even five or ten years older than they are.

A side note: "Unfriend" is the word of the year. Chris said he and his friends have primarily used the term "defriend." Also "unfriend" appears in literature during the 17th century, but seems to have faded from vernacular use around 1659.

Focus on your product

One of the most important things a business can do is focus on its product. What do you do? What are you good at? Why do people come to you? Once you have that figured out, you need to make sure that for everything that comes in front of you, ask, "How does this affect my product?"

Our product is current, local, relevant information – news, entertainment, sports, classifieds, etc. – so Chris's suggestion would be, for every partnership opportunity, for every chance to build a new page, figure out how it enhances our core product. If the answer is, "it probably doesn't," don't do it.

Build a little bit at a time

A lot of companies spend a lot of time – and money – building something huge. They bring in advisers and investors even before anybody knows what they do, and then when they launch, they hope people come. If they don't, the companies then turn around and spend a lot more time and money. On marketing.

Try it the other way. Build something small. If nobody comes or if it's not as good as you thought it was, you've lost a few weeks and a little money, and you can scrap it. If it catches on, great. Then build the next little piece, and eventually it will grow into something big and great. It may be entirely different from what you initially planned, but your customers will have bought in at every level along the way.

We're not starting companies here, but we do roll out a lot of projects, some big, some small, and sometimes, we build too much at once. This is a good lesson.

What's next online: Participatory Web, transparency, crowdsourcing and filters

We're entering a new era of participation, that's for sure, and Web users are only going to get more participatory. Before Facebook and Twitter, there were other ways to participate – blogging platforms, Flickr, Geocities – and that's going to continue. Heck, our forums have been around since the stone age in Internet terms.

We're going to see that grow, and tools like Facebook Connect and OpenID are going to help. Any schmo with a domain will be able to implement a couple of lines of code and have people post stuff in a community format and have the fact that they're posting to schmowithadomain.com appear on their Facebook pages.

And while we're going to get more participatory, things aren't going to get chaotic.

***

"Transparency is good," Chris said, but you have to be careful with what you're transparent about and who you're transparent to. That shouldn't be news to any of you, but it's not just about people being transparent, it's about companies being transparent. Let people know what's going on – to some extent, of course. Don't give away your secrets, but don't hide in a dark corner away from the world.

He also cited an example from his work on the Obama campaign. Some people were using the platform created for support to oppose the candidate on some issues, but rather than shut them down, Obama addressed them, saying he disagreed, and the campaign let them keep using the platform. They let the people know they were hearing the dissent, but didn’t just turn it off. [There might be a lesson there for our comments.]

***

Crowds tend to be right, eventually. Facebook is available in over 70 languages, and has never hired a professional translator. They asked users to have at it, and users who knew both English and the other language voted for the best ones, and eventually those wound up "winning."

Chris didn't mention this, but earlier this year someone did a study and found that Encyclopedia Britannica Online and Wikipedia have roughly the same error rate. He also didn't mention James Surowiecki's book The Wisdom of Crowds – essentially, if you get 50 people together and have them all guess the weight of a particular cow, some are going to be way high, some are going to be way low, but if you average all the guesses, 19 times out of 20 you wind up within a couple of pounds.

***

Filtering of information is one of the things we're starting to see, and that's going to get deeper. Your friends and the people you're interested in professionally are filtering information for you – you're going to increasingly get your news from social networks. This is going to increase the relevancy of information you get, but it's going to decrease the diversity of the information you get.

The mainstream media model is going to change, but it's still going to act as a truth filter. If you want to find out if Kanye West is indeed dead (the Internet definitely killed him a few weeks ago), you're going to check in with The New York Times, or some other trusted news outlet.

Some commentary on filtering

I think this last bit on filtering is important for us. We are a truth and information filter, and if we also put on some personality, we're going to become not only that truth filter, but also a friendly, relevant filter for people as well. Our staffs – whether we're out in the community evangelizing the product or not – are the face and personality of the company, and if we all bring a little something to what people see, they're going to like us.

Lessons from a young entrepreneur. Or whatever he is.

You might not recognize Chris Hughes' name (of course, you might). Even if not, you've heard of his work. In 2004, he was a sophomore at Harvard when, with a couple of three classmates, he launched a campus-wide social network called, um, Facebook.

Yes, that Facebook. The one I don't even have to link to, because you know where to find it.

He graduated in 2006, and in early 2007 took a leave to help launch my.BarackObama.com.

That makes him kind of a rock star in the new media world.

He spoke at Onondaga Community College Tuesday night as part of the Famous Entrepreneurs Series, bringing some insights into entrepreneurship, businesses in general and the future of the Internet.

Entrepreneurship

None of the Facebook founders thought of themselves as entrepreneurs. Which shouldn't be surprising, since they were 19-year-old college students. Hughes said they were young, curious, and wanted to do something important.

Entrepreneurs, he said, want to make an impact. It doesn't matter whether that's for a big profit, a little profit, or a non-profit. It's a way of thinking.

Facebook succeeded, Hughes said, because of trust and privacy. It's a useful product, and they were able to build it out by crowdsourcing. [I'll handle crowdsourcing in another post in the near future, but let's just say that Facebook is in over 70 languages and a professional translator has never been on the payroll.]

» Read Jill's take

Successful Businesses

So, apart from the crowdsourcing, what makes a successful business?

Focus on the product What do you do? What is your focus? If you have an idea for a new feature, how does it affect your core product? If you react to some customers and not others, how does that affect your product.

When on the Obama campaign, Hughes said a group of people – and people were the product for the grassroots campaign – used the campaign tools to put down some of the then-candidates' policies. The campaign decided to let it ride, to let people know they were being heard, they weren't going to be shut down, and that Obama just didn't agree with them.

We know how that campaign turned out.

Don't worry about the formalities There are rules to building a business, and then there are "rules." The "rules," Hughes said, say start with a board of directors, get investors on board, and build something big and wonderful and hope people show up. If they don't, start marketing the hell out of it.

On the other side of the coin, if you start small and see if your idea works, you haven't lost a whole lot if it flops. Build a little, let it succeed; build a little more, let it succeed. Build it out, then get your board of advisers and investors together, before you get too big for your britches (my phrase, not his).

Analyze everything Break everything down to its smallest bits and analyze the heck out of it. Get numbers, find out who, what, where – measure whatever you can and use it to your advantage.

Hire smartly Make sure the person you bring on board is passionate about the business and the product as you are, and that they're a good match for your team.

Think long term Hughes said Facebook has turned down eight- and nine-figure offers for the company, and they haven't sold because they felt they've only scratched the surface of what they're doing or where they're going.

What else? Persistence and luck also play a big role.

What's Next Online

Going forward, what's the Internet going to be like? Hughes said we're entering a new era of participation – but not one of chaos.

» People will be their friends' filters, which means that (a) the content will be more relevant, but (b) the content will be less diverse. This doesn't mean that the truth filters will be missing – Hughes doesn't see the New York Times shutting down, but he sees it changing.

» "Transparency," Hughes said, "is good." But – and you should already know this if you're on Facebook or Twitter or any other sharing service – you need to be smart about what you're transparent about and who you're transparent to.

Lots to think about here. Would love to hear your thoughts if you went last night. You can also see what other people have to say by checking out the #fescny hashtag.

Early thoughts on Google Wave

I had a friend a little while ago tell me she thought I was a good candidate to test out Google Wave, the new collaboration tool Google is developing. There were a limited number of invitations sent out, and since I do a fair bit of collaboration, enjoy testing new tools, and could decide whether it was a good tool to use in the office, I accepted.

I had no idea what I was holding. My invitation came with eight other invitations. I held onto my invitation for four or five days before I had a chance to sit down with it, and the second I mentioned on Twitter that I was going to take it for a test drive later that day.

Bad idea. All of a sudden, people I had never heard of were asking me for invites. Like 30 of them. At 7:00 on a Sunday morning.

I soon discovered essentially what this cartoon says (via Jill). There's nobody there unless you invite them.

I ticked off my invites – my boss, obviously; two guys I expect to collaborate with at some point anyway – and then...well, there were lots of people who wanted them, and not that many. I managed to give them away in as fair a way as I could think of. And without accepting an offer to hack any databases. Since I had a few of those.

So, now I've got connections on Wave. What does it do?

It essentially allows three things on one screen: document sharing, synchronous conversation, and asynchronous conversation, and it does it all in one browser window.

I'm not as wowed by this as I could be. The open conversation (or "wave") gets very long very quickly. It's only searchable via browser search, although thankfully you can thread the conversations. You can search your waves to see which ones have some term in them, but not the one you have open.

This isn't an immediate problem, but get a few people in there for a few days, and then have one take a couple of days off – catching up is almost impossible.

I'm also not impressed with the way embedding documents and some widgets work, but to be fair, I haven't put forth much effort to make that part work for me.

At this point, I'd be content to stick with an IM or IRC chat for the synchronous communication, email for asynchronous communication, and Google Docs for the document sharing. The good news for Google is it already has all three, with the Google Docs, GMail and GChat. And if there's ever good archiving for GChat (both text and video), they have everything you need.

From a usability standpoint, Wave is pretty good, though Google needs to swap the "Done" and "Delete" buttons; people are used to the button at the lower right of the form being the action button. I've also heard that Wave needs a better mobile app, but (a) I haven't tried it out and (b) my guess is they'll make sure people are happy with the desktop app before they refine a mobile app.

If you're using Wave successfully and want to show me, I'm open to it. joshuanshear@googlewave.com (and then leave me a comment or send me a reply on Twitter to make sure I get it).

I Joined Twitter – Now What?

I put this together for work; but you're all welcome to it. If your work environment is more strictly professional, e-mail me and I'll send you the file so you can edit some of the, umm, looser language out.

I Joined Twitter - Now What?http://static.slidesharecdn.com/swf/ssplayer2.swf?doc=joined-twitter-090330132541-phpapp01&stripped_title=i-joined-twitter-now-what

View more presentations from JoshShear.

Saturday with Dobbs: Social media edition

Mike Dobbs is the first person I can count as a professional mentor.

When Wayne convinced me to join him at The Westerner (which could really use its own Web site), Dobbs was the faculty adviser for the student paper.

After my first op/ed appeared (which, clearly, had not been through his screening), Dobbs walked into the office and told me it would be OK if I used the word "butt" instead of "ass" next time.

I'm still a foul-mouthed little chucklehead, as the saying goes, but that's neither here nor there.

After my first semester on the paper (a spring term), Dobbs was dismissed from the college for using too many semicolons in a press release (that's my story and I'm sticking to it), and by October I was interning for Dobbs at Reminder Publications, where he would later become managing editor and I an editor.

Eventually I moved up to Syracuse, and discovered that he comes up here once a year for Cinefest, which I must have known, because I worked between six and 12 feet away from him for three years.

Since Cinefest happens in Liverpool, he had gotten in the habit of going to Ichiban, until I brought him to Dinosaur for the first time. And now the second, third, and, Saturday, fourth times.

Dobbs handed me his new book (that's two years in a row, by the way, there's been a new book to hand me), and we hit the Dino, talking about the state of the media in the Pioneer Valley and here in Central New York.

Because the Saturday schedule wasn't a ton to his liking, we had a bunch of time, so we went over to Edward Thomas and discussed social media opportunities.

We talked Twitter and Facebook, and came up with some ideas to maybe make Pioneer Valley Central easier to run.

There were a lot of what-ifs discussed, but let's just say I've learned that if I were ever in a position where it were necessary, I could survive on doing some social media consulting. That's a great feeling, especially coming from someone like Dobbs.

The cost of anonymity on the Web

"That's what the Internet's for, slandering others anonymously!"
      — Jason Lee as Banky Edwards in
Jay & Silent Bob Strike Back

Last night I said, "The abuse of anonymity makes me sad," and also that I would find some time this week to write about it.

So here goes.

I used to be purely against anonymity on the Web. Then my friend Sassy Pants started blogging anonymously (save for a few of us who know her identity), and I started to understand somewhat.

And then Sassy Pants led me to the fictionalized recreational sex blog Girl With a One-Track Mind, written by "Abby Lee." It's a really well-written, informative, and thoroughly enjoyable blog, and eventually "Abby" (a pseudonym, hence the quotes) was handed a book deal. So, she wrote a book.

Just days after the book hit the stands, she was outed in horrid fashion by a British paper as a mainstream film worker named Zoe Margolis.

I was horrified by The Guardian's treatment of her: They sent flowers to "Abby Lee" via her book agent, then had a photographer follow the delivery to her door.

She had to call her mom and warn her.

Can you even imagine the conversation? "Hi, Mom. Just a warning. When you get the paper tomorrow, you're going to find out that I have a lot of sex and that I write rather luridly about it. That's all. Love ya. Say hi to Dad."

Sunday was the 20th anniversary of the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland. That terrorist attack – a bomb on a timer in a suitcase aboard an international flight – killed all 259 people on board the plane, plus 11 people on the ground.

It also was a wake-up call to the international community regarding airline security.

When I first visited Syracuse University on Nov. 1, 2002, I learned that 35 of the people on that plane were exchange students from the university on their way home for the holidays.

Sean Kirst spoke to some of the survivors, and here is where my ire is drawn: read the comments on the story. You'll see they end with the phrase, "Comments are now closed for this entry."

The phrase follows a note from Mark Libbon at The Post-Standard:

A number of inappropriate comments have been removed, as suggested by the previous comment.

I happen to have the privilege of working for syracuse.com, and so this morning, I took occasion to read some of the comments that were removed from the site.

Sadly, I have to say, they deserved removal. They were everything from hateful to useless to irresponsible. And that's the problem with offering people anonymity: there's no accountability for what they say.

Let's be honest. We all have stuff we'd love to say, but let's face it, some things we keep to ourselves, because they have consequences we're not willing to incur. These consequences might be anything from being branded an idiot or a racist, to being fired for representing your company in an unprofessional manner.

But let's face it: unless you're the late Mark Felt – the best-known anonymous source ever – you probably need a really good reason for anonymity on the Web. And you shouldn't abuse it by saying anything you'd be embarrassed to say if you put your name behind it.

Policing the vote: Twitter edition

You may have heard, but the U.S. is electing a president (and 435 U.S. representatives, and 30-odd senators, along with countless statewide and local officials) Tuesday, Nov. 4.

That's tomorrow, if you live stateside.

Not every state is fully compliant with the Help America Vote Act (HAVA) – New York falls into the "not compliant" category – and we're expecting at least some trouble, though hopefully it won't be as widespread as some people think it could be.

If you're in New York, by the way, you're probably using one of those lever machines. If you're not familiar with how they work, watch the video above.

Twitter, via the hashtags standard (more info), has set up some ways to for citizens to police the election.

If you run into minor issues (long lines, people holding signs too close to a polling place entrance), use a #votereport hashtag. Also add a #ZIPcode hashtag to be entered as a location. Check out the votereport aggregator here, including a map of where reports are coming in from.

If you have major troubles – people blocking entrances, not being allowed to vote, not being allowed to fill out a provisional ballot, that sort of thing – get Election Protection involved. You can call them at (866) OUR-VOTE (687-8683). On Twitter, use a #EPxx hashtag, where xx is your two-letter state abbreviation. Throw in a #ZIPcode for good measure. And let #votereport know, too.

What it comes down to is, the more information that's out there, the better. The more people know you plan to exercise your right to vote, the better.

EP has a New York voting FAQ here (Massachusetts - more).

I've also set up some hashtags for local folks. If you're writing about the election in Central New York, use a #votecny hashtag to get into the mix on syracuse.com's Twitter page.

The bottom line is, we're having an election tomorrow. This stuff's important, people.