Social media, it's all about the democratization of communication and empowering new voices - right? A few years into the new media revolution, reality is looking a little more complicated than that theory would suggest.
The wild garden of services growing from the read/write soil of the new web struggles each time a new app is launched and looks more like a ghost town than a place to enjoy the network effect of the crowd. How can new services ramp up social connections quickly? Recommending "friendship" with active early adopters is one strategy being explored by a number of sites. The end result can be a lopsided environment where a handful of winners dominate the collective mindshare - again.
Last month the Harvard Business Review called into question the "long tail" itself, the core principle of the new web that sees greater total energy in the collection of niche interests than in the "big head" of popularity. When it comes to new social news networks, though, some already popular people may be receiving enough new attention that they are liable to get "big heads" themselves.
The red-hot activity aggregator FriendFeed is one of the latest suspects. FriendFeed lets you view and discuss the activities of your friends across all their various networks (YouTube, Last.fm, Twitter, Del.icio.us, etc.) whether you participate in those other networks or not. Built by two ex-Googlers, the service has stolen our hearts here at RWW and is where we spend a substantial portion of our days. (See Marshall, Sarah, Corvida, Frederic, Alex and the boss, Richard. Don't all friend us at once, though, see the aforementioned big head risk!)
Users are still figuring out how to use FriendFeed, but some of the most popular people there have been discussing how much faster the growth of their FF networks has been than it was on Twitter. We've seen that as well and attributed it primarily to two things: the friend recommendation feature (which is much improved by this script) and the friend-of-a-friend feature (also greatly improved by this script).
Allen Stern of Centernetworks has done some investigative reporting and found that new users are all being served up the same default "popular users" as recommended first friends. Though FriendFeed HQ has said in response to Allen's criticism that they intend to change their algorithm to incorporate more diversity - to date the default user set has changed very minimally.
Here's another of Allen's always charming videos, followed by a screenshot of today's default recommended friends for new FriendFeed users.
Why does this matter? Because we're not on that list. No, we kid. Because funneling audiences towards the same major players that dominate other sites (blogs, Techmeme, Digg, etc.) mitigates a lot of the potential for discovery of new information from diverse sources that could come from a platform like FriendFeed. The tech niche of social media is an elitist place, and occasionally anointing new people like Louis Gray as leaders isn't enough to change that. After playing that role for awhile, Gray (in addition to being a genuinely fantastic blogger) has become an outright mock-deity.
It's also questionable because most of these "most popular" members are making their living commercially through web traffic, and being named a FriendFeed default member has a direct impact on their incomes.
Why, on the other hand, is it not a big deal, too? Those top users also happen to be some of the most interesting and engaging people on the new web - they got to the top in large part because they add a lot of value to peoples' lives. That's not always the only reason they got there, but that's part of it. They were elected leaders, by the market, with all the complications that a statement like that includes.
The default settings are also not a big deal because FriendFeed still offers a lot of ways to discover new people, and because despite the defaults even the most popular FriendFeed users are only followed by a small percentage of the service's users.
Right: The most followed users on FriendFeed, from User21.com's FriendFeed Top 250 Most Followed Users
What's the ideal solution to this problem? Attention data. Let me bring my historical interests with me into your application and recommend a variety of people, not just the most popular, who are roughly interested in the same kinds of things I am. FriendFeed, unfortunately, doesn't appear to be incorporating user attention data at all. Who is? Our favorite example is personalized music magazine IdioMag, though it's better in theory than it is in execution.
Seesmic CEO and (by the way) FriendFeed default recommended friend Loic LeMeur uses his company's own technology in a particularly human moment to articulate well the thinking behind the very temporary experiment with default users and the subsequent non-launch of the feature.
LeMeur responds genuinely as a long-time industry leader, and a man on whom venture capital is raining like it was April in Oregon, but Stern appears to begrudge him still for not speaking out about his default status at FriendFeed! It's clearly not in his interest to do so, though. More LeMeur friends anywhere equals more exposure and thus users for Seesmic. As a participant in the social media space - that's his job, to win high profile spots like being a default friend in one of the hottest early adopter networks on the web. He's a pretty interesting guy to watch, too.
Do FriendFeed users lose out in diversity of perspectives? They may.
Digg is the grandpappy of all the social news sites, though it's never really succeeded in becoming the long-tail social network it's aimed to become. Hitting the front page of Digg is really the one and only goal there. We've written here about the decline in importance of tech stories on Digg but as the mainstreaming of the site continues, the company has also moved into the recommendation space.
We wrote about the Digg recommendation engine before it was publicly available but once it was live the consequences looked remarkably similar to the situations discussed above.
According to a very interesting analysis by JD Rucker, in the days after Digg recommendations went live, this is how the numbers shook out.
"31.4% of the Digg front page was made up of stories submitted by 10 users. To extend it further, 50.4% was submitted by 28 users. Assuming that there are 3000 users who submit in any given day, that's less than 1% who control over 50% of the content."
In this case, it wasn't an explicit set of default users promoted by the company. All of the companies discussed in this post based their recommendations on an "algorithm" but Digg's was presumably the most mysterious and complex of them all.
Did it matter? Apparently to date it hasn't. Recommendation squashed the long tail at Digg, more even than at the FriendFeed.
Digg has made some minimal moves towards supporting APML, a proposed standard for communicating user preference data from one site to another and solving the "who are you?" problem. That's the problem that default users solve, if a website doesn't know who to introduce you to then it's logical to introduce you to the most popular people at the party. In real life, you might appreciate that.
On the new web - things are supposed to be different. Web 2.0 is supposed to blow the broadcast model right out of the water, fostering niche communities where everyone has a valued voice. In many cases that has happened. If you like Monster Trucks, manga or Mediterranean marinades then you don't have to follow Robert Scoble to find those things. But when it comes to tech, the innovative new social applications launching every day are struggling to create a sense of community quickly, because their unique value-added features often depend on it. Pointing at the most popular people around is one way to try to do that. That strategy has its upsides, too.
What's your take on this situation? (Other than wanting a drink after reading such a long post about one particular strategic question faced by startup tech companies?) Do you find yourself living in the long tail on places like FriendFeed, Twitter, Seesmic and Digg - oblivious to the soap operas of A-listers and enthralled by the authenticity of thriving niche communities? If so, tell us where those communities are. We'll all click through, en masse, and enjoy them. Just tell us who to follow once we get there.
Rocker kid photo CC by Ian Ransley on Flickr