Banking On Social Media

11 03 2010

Mother Teresa may have been a charitable person, but she never would have made it in the high-stakes dotcom world. You can only give stuff away for so long before people go broke. You can only spend OPM (Other People’s Money) for a short while before the bank account hits red ink. And you can only pretend to offer something socially redeeming for a day or two (in internet time) before you are tossed in the trash can of dumb ideas.

Which is why Twitter is still trying desperately to figure out how to stay afloat in the wake of Facebook’s phenomenal success. With 75 million Twitterers and 400 million Facebookers, the tide is definitely in favor of the latter.

Never mind that FB has become an advertising engine the likes of which only Google has tapped into. The three ad slots in the right pane are often extremely well-targeted, matching either keywords used by Facebookers in their status updates, or information culled from their profile.

And Twitter has yet to sell an ad or anything for that matter. It is surviving on venture capital funds and the $25 million package deal it inked with Google and Microsoft’s Bing for rights to provide real-time search.

Yet both sites continue to attract eyeballs, while at the same time providing very different services.

Take, for example, the recent earthquake in Chile. While there were certainly some folks posting updates to FB, the vast majority of relevant information (and pictures) came through Twitter. It is the perfect vehicle for real-time updating. It is Twitter’s public timeline that sets it apart from FB; Twitter’s Trending Topics (both globally and locally) capture the zeitgeist of the moment; Facebook just captures pictures of your dog. FB by design is a private network; the only folks who will see your posts are those who are your friends (unless you allow outsiders to come looking for you). But there is no public we-are-the-world timeline in FB.

I have now used both services extensively. There is very little overlap in my friends and followers lists between the two. Sometimes I want everyone to read what I am thinking (I have my Twitter account set up to mirror to Facebook, but not vice-versa); in other instances, I will post only to FB.

And FB is admittedly a far more visual experience, well-suited for storing and displaying photos. Twitter images are stored on third-party sites like TwitPic and Yfrog, thereby taking away much of the initial impact.

Both sites are fair game for criticism, FB has become a social gaming site, and I for one am sick of hearing about farms and mafias. Twitter, on the other hand, has so much mindless babbling that I find myself hyper-scrolling through tweets looking for the one or two that might actually be interesting.

While FB has deftly monetized its operation, the clock is clicking on Twitter. I love the utter spontaneity of it and the fact that it truly is the pulse of the world. I am thankful it is not littered with silly, mindless games. but while Mother Teresa earned her spot in heaven by giving herself away, I don’t think that Twitter can survive much longer in this role. Once they blow through the Google/Microsoft revenues, along with their VC funding, they will be on their own. After four years of tweeting, they still don’t have much to show for it.

And if they don’t start selling something soon, that big fat Fail Whale is going to be looking them in the eye.

Dr “What’s Happening?” Gerlich


10 03 2010

Even though it wasn’t first on the social media landscape ( and Friendster beat it to the punch), MySpace quickly arose to ascendancy. Whereas Facebook started out for the college crowd, MySpace was the Volkswagen of social networks.

And you were not cool if you did not have an account there.

My, what a few years can do to one’s luster. Launched in 2004 and then promptly sold to NewsCorp in 2005 for an eye-bulging $580 million, MySpace was synonymous with the genre. And while it was busy providing an online playground for its millions of users, it also carved out a lucrative niche with musicians. Music players created just for the MySpace platform allowed artists to push their music on listening ears in the hopes of selling more albums and concert tickets.

But after Facebook started allowing anyone with a pulse to have an account, MySpace was pushed to the back seat. Sure, it is still the third-most visited site in social media, but its star has lost its twinkle. Worse yet, it has now gained the stigma of being utilized primarily by younger users and those of lower economic status (in fact, this trend was noted three years ago).

Ouch. K-Mart. Rent-to-Own. Money Orders and Check Cashing.

But I’m not sure that is such a bad thing. Humans quite naturally segregate themselves into their own tribes, sometimes without even thinking about it. Just look at the people in your church or place of worship, your social club, your bowling league. Those folks probably look a lot like you.

MySpace has recognized the realities it faces and is now trying to actively court a youthful audience in the under-35 set, along with musicians. I’m just not sure MySpace is digging down deeply enough. Yes, they have done a superb job with music. Just try to do that on Facebook. But under 35? How about under 15? Maybe. And no even with my kids.

Facebook, on the other hand, has experienced profound growth in the 35-54 segment. And these are the folks who own homes and have growing incomes. No wonder Facebook has no problem soliciting advertising bids for its CPC (cost-per-click_ and CPM (cost-per-thousand-impressions) programs.

In the current here today, gone tomorrow world of hot and not, MySpace has seen hotter times. Unless it can reinvent itself, it will remain in the rear view mirror of Facebook as it speeds down the highway. But there is nothing wrong in claiming one or more niches as its own. Who cares if the primary users are young and/or from economically disadvantaged groups? Defend the music niche, and expand into the latter. MySpace needs to wake up and smell the coffee before someone else pours it in their cup.

Dr “OutaSpace” Gerlich

App of My Eye

9 03 2010

The long-awaited day is almost here. This Friday 12th March Apple’s much-ballyhooed iPad goes on pre-sale. While that won’t exactly put one in your hands just yet (you’ll have to wait until 3rd April, the day they become available in Apple Stores), it does signify the beginning of the next revolution in mobility and computing.

And that is the general use of the app.

With 140,000 apps already available for the iPhone and iPod, the iPad is set to be the first computer to leverage these tiny gadgets. And I bet it won’t be long before we see them jump platforms to TV.

The iPad is part iPod, part e-reader, and part Mac(net)Book. It will play your music, shoot your emails. But it will also use the apps you have already loaded to your phone.

Naturally, the folks at Amazon are nervous. They just revived their pre-Christmas TV ad campaign to deflect some of the attention the iPad is bound to get the next few weeks. And nervous they should be, because their black-and-white screen is a far cry from that of the iPad, as well as Barnes & Noble’s color screen Nook.

But it is the ability of the iPad to use apps that tell me we are in the middle of another paradigm shift. Last year web-enabled TVs hit the market; these will be tethered via ethernet cable to your router as if they were a computer. And Yahoo is already sporting a small selection of apps for TV. Although there is still some reluctance among developers to create TV apps, this is the future. Take a look right now. Make a note of it. And call me in a couple of years when it lands in your living room.

Because it is inevitable.

The iPad is thus another one of those bridge devices I love to talk about, a span that takes us to a better place. And while I seriously doubt that tablet devices like iPad will go away anytime soon, its lasting legacy will be in helping usher forth the era of apps and show us just how indispensable they really are in all aspects of our internet life. One-click access to specialized functions saves time and effort for users, and endears them to a forward-thinking provider.

And that to me is the right app-titude to have.

Dr “(i) of the Beholder” Gerlich

A New Kind of Smarts

8 03 2010

The other night my 9-year-old daughter awakened me at 2:00am and shoved my iPhone in my face. “Dad, punch in your code. I want to see what the temperature is going to be today.”

Pretty much still asleep, I entered my security code. Just as quickly as that phone was put before me, it was whisked away. “Thanks, Dad!” I heard as I closed my eyes. A couple of minutes later I roused from my slumber, and quickly realized something monumental had just happened. No, it wasn’t that my little girl was awake in the middle of the night (this happens all the time). I had just witnessed evidence writ large that a paradigm shift is happening, a technological tremor whose magnitude of which Richter would have been astounded. Off the scale, even.

Whereas today’s college students and high schoolers are very web-savvy because they happened to grow up in the last decade, today’s children have leapfrogged all that and landed on the lily pad of phone apps. Of course, my daughter went straight to The Weather Channel app on my phone, and retrieved the forecast for the day. Hey, even little kids need to plan their wardrobe, you know. “Sheesh, Dad…web sites are so lame.”

And to think I once designed web sites on the side. Along with sledgehammering large stones.

I am firmly convinced we are raising a new generation of techno-stars who will see the world through a very different lens than we. And I am not afraid of this idea. A few years ago, Steven Johnson wrote Everything Bad Is Good For You, a somewhat sarcastically titled defense of all the things Luddites and fearmongers love to bewail. If anything, Johnson should write a sequel, and it should be titled I Told You So. The Pew Internet & American Life Project reports that the internet is not making us dumb; in fact, it is making our brains different. Now I will confess that rewiring old brains present challenges, but what if you are starting with the clean slate of youth?

Evolution never had it so easy.

While I have done all the rewiring (not to mention disk reformating and the occasional defrag), I will be honest and say that I never for one moment in my youth pictured a time in which I could do so many things wirelessly and with the mobility with which we have today. The cogs still clank and grind on occasion when I have to ponder yet another revolution. But for my 9-year-old, getting the weather off a phone app is as second nature as it once was for me to read about it in the morning paper. Heck, when The Weather Channel hit cable TV in 1981, I was floored. Who would have thought that the weather could justify a 24-hour dedicated station?

The only thing standing in the way of my daughter is her old man who won’t reveal his security code. I just hope I dressed appropriately today. Maybe I should have asked her.

Dr “Cloudy With A Chance of Curmudgeons” Gerlich

Stash In The Pan

7 03 2010

When wristwatch calculators came out 25 years ago to the delight of geeks and nerds everywhere, I for one found it a temptation easy to resist. “Why would anyone want to work on something so small?”

My inner geek surfaced, though, and like over 40 million other lemmings who have jumped off the cliff, I find myself wanting to cram ever more into that iPhone. After all, it is now my brain. Mr computer. My lifeline. And I need it to do more.

Which is why I shouted Hallelujah when I read about the AirStash, the multifangled USB/wifi/SD card reading media server.

Actually, the word “bridge” comes to mind, because this handy little device (which costs only One Benjamin) bridges all the very real gaps between my desktop computers, cameras and iPhone. Expandable to infinity (you keep supplying the 32GB cards), just about anything can be shared between devices. AirStash is its own wireless access point, a portable wifi hotspot that works regardless of whether there’s a coffee shop nearby. And if cloud computing scares the bejabbers out of you, well, just take this private cloud with you in your pocket.

I can already think of lots of applications for this in my life. All too many times I have found myself needing to send a Word doc or spreadsheet, and all I have is my phone. With AirStash I could easily make that transaction possible via email on the phone. And what about all the times I am using a real camera and want to post a snap to Facebook or Twitter, but can’t? Thus far I have found myself compromising shots by just using the onboard cam in my phone, and then posting online. But if I could load higher-quality shots and be able to make the magic happen while out on the road, I would be a lot happier. Those grainy iPhone shots will quickly be a thing of my past.

While I am somewhat ga-ga over Air Stash, I am quick to realize that it is not only a bridge between current devices, but also a bridge between old and forthcoming technologies. I predict that in a couple of years we won’t need an AirStash because our digital cameras will all have wifi capabilities (to send straight to your phone, and then online). Our desktops will all be able to wireless communicate with our phones. And our phones will have far greater memory than the 32GB the latest iPhone contains.

But for now, I am standing in line to get the AirStash. Infinitely cooler than that wristwatch calculator of lore, if AirStash only had a strap, I would wear it on my wrist. I bet Dick Tracy would have worn one. Because smaller really is better.

Dr “Proud To Be A Geek” Gerlich

Red All Over

6 03 2010

One of the greatest ironies of the internet era is the success of Redbox DVD rentals, the quaint little throwback to an earlier day. A day with vending machines. A day with limited selection. A simpler day in which, if you couldn’t find it, you didn’t need it.

The truth of the matter is, Redbox is a runaway success, and is without doubt one of the foremost beneficiaries of the current recession. DVD rentals for $1 are an easy sale when money is tight and jobs insecure. And Redbox is so successful that the movie industry is fighting back.

Heck, all those cheap rentals are keeping people from actually buying the DVD for their home libraries.

Now I am one to talk about home libraries. I am King of the Hoarders when it comes to books, movies and music. Yeah, I shook the music habit two years ago and went digital, but I still buy the others as if there would be no more cinematic or literary tomorrows. Besides, it often takes me months to get around to watching something I purchase (sometime even years). And it has taken me three weeks to get half-way through Season 1 of Big Bang Theory. If I were to rent, it might cost me a fortune in late fees.

But apparently there are enough people being diverted from their collecting ways that Hollywood has had to put its collective foot down. For example, Redbox and Netflix both recently inked distribution deals with Warner Bros. effectively keeping both from renting new releases until 28 days have passed since street date. Since 90% of a movie’s sales occur during that first four weeks, the industry thinks if it can keep the rental shops at bay for a while, there’s still hope to sell the higher-margin personal copies.

Worse yet, Redbox is now prohibited from selling older movies that have been in rental circulation for a while. Rather than being able to pawn them off for a modest price, they must now be “recycled.” Which is a clever euphemism for shredded.

It is this kind of industry strong-arm tactic that leaves a bad taste in my mouth. Throttling progress is a mortal sin, even if “progress” is a red vending machine with a limited selection. And let us not forget the insanely successful Netflix rent-by-mail model, as well as streaming video downloads. This might even be enough to make a renter out of me, if only to direct my small voice in the general direction of Hollywood. Look, we already have to wait several months for the DVD release following its theatrical run; what’s another 4 weeks going to hurt to be able to rent it or watch it on demand?

If I can eliminate one more thing from my tangible acquisitions, it’ll clear all the more space for other things I hold dear. I just have to get accustomed to not actually seeing it on my shelf. Because habits are hard to break. Because, in spite of my evo-marketing ways and means, I can’t deny that I am from that simpler time. Because the film of my life has little holes for sprocket wheels, and is stored in a tin canister.

I just need to figure out how to take that first step.

Dr “Is There An App For That?” Gerlich

Yelp At the Moon

5 03 2010

The Citizen Journalist era has made everyone with a keyboard and a few coherent sentences a critic of diners, drive-ins and dives. And sometimes with reckless aplomb, mind you. It’s a transparent world in which we live, and you never know when someone is going to write the latest scathing review of your establishment.

But what if the web site to which you posted all of your reviews is really just a front for an advertising company? That’s what some critics are saying about Yelp, the catch-all site for what’s hot and what’s not.

In fact, it has gotten so heated that now Yelp has been sued.

The charges are many, but all focus on Yelp’s advertising-driven revenue model. If you are negatively reviewed by Yelpers and fail to buy a banner ad from Yelp, the charges go, all those negative reviews will float to the top. And if you do buy an ad, then the good reviews will rise. Oh yeah…and critics say Yelp is also in the extortion business. As soon as your enterprise is rated by someone, they hit you up for an ad. Kind of like the internet mafia.

If this is all true, then it sounds like the perfect scam.

Let me put this in a perspective students and professors might appreciate: What if RateMyProfessor used a similar tactic? You know…pressure the profs into buying ads to make those nasty student reviews go away. Under the gun for tenure? Better by an arresting interstitial. Going up for Full Prof? A colorful clickable banner ad might not be a bad idea.

Here’s the problem: Public rant-and-rave sites must always be taken with a grain of salt anyway. Give someone the mic, and you never know what they will say (especially someone who is hacked off). And holding the mic an expert does not make. But cloud the sky with hints and allegations of advertising improprieties, and suddenly site users are left wondering if they can believe anything at all.

So what started out as a public service can become a steaming cauldron of reviewers, businesses and site owners yelling and screaming at one another.

Chicago White Sox fans still hang their heads in shame over the 1919 incident when the team conspired to fix the World Series. It cast a dark shadow over not just the team but the entire sport for many years. I just hope that Yelp is not the Black Sox team of the 21C. Because that’s a blog this citizen journalist does not want to write.

Dr “Say It Ain’t So, Joe” Gerlich

Jean Genie

4 03 2010

Nothing beats a great pair of jeans.

Denim wears with you. It gives. It takes. It rolls with the punches. But maybe not the paunches. And the more you wash it, the better it feels.

Which explains why many folks are willing to pay for a pair that have had the daylights beaten out of them in industrial washing machines. You know…so they look like this isn’t your first rodeo in ’em.

About the worst thing that can happen, though, is when those favorite jeans get a big rip or other signs of wear that render them useless unless you’re attending a Ramones tribute concert.

Enter Denim Therapy, the New York-based urgent care clinic for your sick jeans. Send them your tired Diesels, your poor worn-out Levis, your huddled piles of ripped True Religions. For these people can heal your pants and have you stylin’ again.

And this ain’t no patch, either. Denim Therapy craftspeople carefully weave your garment back together. Heck, they can even expand your beloved denim if you’re expecting a baby…and then rein ’em back in after junior is born.

But beyond the basic miracle-working, I just happen to think this is the perfect web business. Who would have ever thought a seamstress (query: what is the male equivalent?) could put a fairly simple mending business online?

Yet when you consider that a comfy pair of jeans often fit like a glove and their owners have separation anxieties, it’s the perfect weave of technology and convenience. Jeans are the fabric of our American existence. To repurpose, recycle and reuse makes your born again denim the envy of the green police.

And to get a beloved pair of old jeans back in circulation is a real kick in the pants.

Dr “Straight Leg” Gerlich

It’s Not In The Mail

3 03 2010

It’s always fun to romanticize the past. Those halcyon days of yesteryear emote warm fuzzies and send us off into nostalgic orbit. And that orbit invariably is a much slower one than the current warp speed in which we find ourselves. It is one with people sitting on the front porch waiting for something to happen, all dressed up with nowhere to go.

So why is everyone all upset that the US Post Office might cut back to just 5 delivery days each week?

It’s probably because the mailman holds an esteemed place in our hearts. He or she is the picture of American loyalty, trodding confidently through snowdrifts, sloshing through downpours, lugging heavy leather bags of love notes, post cards, magazines and assorted greetings.

And bills. Junk mail. Credit card offers. Catalogs. Jury duty notices.

Yes, thank you very much. Don’t know what I would have done without you there.

Let’s be honest. We could probably get by with three delivery days each week and not even notice the gaps in between. So much of what I get in the mail these days just goes into a box and sits, waiting for me to stage a mass shredding campaign. Aside from my magazines, I don’t even bother looking at the mail. Except maybe during Christmas card season.

You see, I weaned myself from daily delivery 21 years ago when we moved to the country. The nearest mailbox cluster is a mile away; since I’m not one to risk mail theft from unguarded receptacles, a PO Box in town was the best choice. And so the mail is retrieved every 2-3 days (most of which winds up in that big box).

Guess what? I don’t miss daily delivery a bit. With paperless electronic billpay, who needs to check their mail for bills? And with magazines rushing to go electronic (check out this prototype issue of Wired Magazine!), pretty soon I won’t really need to go to the PO but one month a year. December.

Face it. Email changed everything 15 years ago. Now everything else is catching up with the electronic communication. The mailman is going to be about as lonely as that mythical Maytag repairman, with nothing to do and nowhere to do it.

So go ahead and eliminate Saturday delivery. While you’re at it, chop Thursday and Tuesday, too. Jack up the price of a stamp, since I hardly ever need one anyway.

Because practically everything I send or receive either is or could be done electronically.

And I can do this all without having to go to the mailbox or the Post Office. That alone generates a warm fuzzy for me.

Dr “Pushing The Envelope” Gerlich


2 03 2010

I have always been fascinated with newspapers. Ever since I was a young lad, I have read at least one every day.

I blame my grandfather.

After all, it was he who got me started looking at the weather report and the sports section each day, and then when I was a little older, the news. My Father was also a hopeless paper addict, subscribing to the Chicago Tribune as far back as I can remember. We always had papers laying on the kitchen table.

Which means I am a Son of a Son of a Newsboy.

But as I have blogged poetic in recent weeks, the newspaper is a dying breed. Nationwide, newspapers are falling like so many leaves in autumn. But now it is not just because of folks grabbing their news on web sites. No, web sites are now old hat. The in place to get your news is on your phone. silly. In fact, some 26% of USAmericans now get their news on that handy little device.

The younger you are, the more likely you are to do this…with 43% of those under the age of 50 squinting at their phone.

And do you want to know what the top attraction is on these phones? It’s the weather, with 72% of those with web-enabled phones perusing the latest prognostications from the weatherguessers. Given the nastiness of this winter, I wouldn’t be surprised if this number is a little inflated, because most of the country has had their hands full digging out of snow storms. I know that I found myself checking my app compulsively there for a few weeks.

My colleagues and are close to launching an enormous study of social media and smart phone usage. Our goal is to take the pulse of America right now with regard to technology and web apps, because there is so much change afoot. The implications are huge. We have a hunch that Americans are progressing so rapidly that newspapers will not only die out in the coming years, but the dissemination of that content will leapfrog beyond “traditional” web sites and appear more and more on phones.

And perhaps only phones.

Yes, the owls in the Pacific Northwest will all whistle a hallelujah and flap feathery high fives from their lofty treetop villas. It’s enough change to spin your head around. Who knew?

I just wish my grandfather could have been around to see it all happen.

Dr “Fond Memories of the Other Nicholas” Gerlich