Ross Mayfield is CEO of SocialText. James Currier is founder and president of Tickle Inc., as well as consumer SVP for Monster. Dan Gillmor works as a technology columnist for the San Jose Mercury News. Reid Hoffman serves as CEO of LinkedIn. Michael Sikillian works as a senior product marketing manager in the Lycos Network search and Web publishing division. And Jim Spohrer serves as director of Almaden Services Research at the IBM Almaden Research Center. During their panel discussion at BlogOn, they attempted to define social media but ended up taking a wide-ranging look at the opportunities and challenges for product developers and users. What follows is a partial transcript of their discussion:
Ross Mayfield: Reid, you’ve built up a tremendous level of membership. Great. What are we going to do with it? What’s on top of the network?
Reid Hoffman: LinkedIn is a tool for every professional wherever they are in their career. We’ve been following up on all of the different uses people have. We’ve tracked down deals. The current president of Netscape hired people through LinkedIn. It’s already in motion. There will probably be more things like posting job listings to the network.
Mayfield: James, you’re in the social networking business, too, and you had the great experience of cashing out on it. You have an interesting model. Tickle may be bottom up to a degree. And then you have more of a top-down model similar to Match.com. How do you marry these two models?
James Currier: When you look at a matchmaking application and you look at the social networking application, it’s basically the same process. You’re filling out a profile and looking to connect to people. The mechanisms by which you do that can be different. It can be viral, or it can be more directed, as in matchmaking. We see that as a longer-term trend. We’re taking the unstructured data of the Web, and we’re finding ways to better connect people. If the same data set can be used for jobs, romance, finding a baby sitter, or getting a ride to Tahoe, that can be very powerful. Monster.com already profiles and connects people. They focus on the employer side. What they wanted from Tickle was the consumer expertise. That connection and conversation is what the media is all about.
Mayfield: Michael, you’ve just done a bunch of research on blogging. What have you learned?
Michael Sikillian: We do semi-annual member surveys to find out what’s next. When we introduced the blog product, we were looking for something that was very simple. 70% of the members had digital cameras. What came out of nowhere was the camphone penetration. People are making content with camcorders and digital cameras and want to share it. That combined with higher bandwidth makes it much easier to share and move their content online.
Mayfield: Dan, you’ve been spending a lot of time in Asia. Things there must be a little different.
Dan Gillmor: It’s different in several ways. Asia is several places. I’ll talk first about Japan. Until recently, people were online mostly through phone messaging. Camera phones first took off in Japan and Korea. It’s old news there. They’re up to 3-megapixel camera phones. In Korea, there’s high bandwidth penetration. And there’s an online newspaper that’s written 80-90% by its readers. It has tremendous influence. In fact, it helped elect their current president. What I like about the differences is that we’re seeing experiments all around the world. Eventually, we’ll sort it out to get to the best of breed.
Mayfield: That might mean that the best of breed in social networking is built by Brazilians.
Gillmor: The thing for me with social networking is that I’m not sure whether what people like Reid do is a feature or a product.
Mayfield: Jim, at IBM, haven’t you patented all of these things already? Seriously, what have you learned in your research, perhaps in regards to mobile devices, which are more people-centric.
Jim Spohrer: At IBM, we see a lot of value that can be created inside organizations with these kinds of tools. Businesses can be more efficient in tapping into their internal IQ. I’m on calls every day with people all over the world, and it appears that there’s a lot of value that could be captured instantly. There’s a thing called Coase’s Law that touches on transaction costs inside a firm versus transaction costs outside the firm. The point is to have the internal transaction costs as low as possible. This first hit home with me at a recent meeting. We went out to dinner, we’re sitting around a table, and there were 15 people other than myself. There was a sense of discomfort I hadnt felt for awhile, and I realized that I wished I was on a teleconference with these people. I couldn’t use my tools to learn more about them and their work, their goals, their achievements. I felt I was in the Stone Age. I’d have to be very slow to get information and rely on conversation.
Gillmor: Does anyone else find that a little scary?
Mayfield: Blogging inside a business can be really boring. People are just writing about projects. But something happens that starts to encourage social connections. The majority of employees don’t manage business process, they manage business practice. Theyre managing exceptions. What tools do they have available to them? Basically, email. We need to put people back into the equation to share what they’ve learned.
Question: Whats the business model?
Mayfield: I have a cash flow-positive business. I license software to businesses to improve their processes internally.
Question: I work with a lot of brand marketers at companies like P&G, and they’re scared of stuff like blogging. Is it just a feature set? If brands get into this, do they need us for customer acquisition?
Currier: For the same reason that Ford doesn’t have a television channel, they’re not going to focus on brand relationships. They’ll find the 100,000 people who are hardcore about Ford, but most people don’ t wake up and think about Ford. They think about themselves. The second thing they think about is themselves. And then they think about the people they know. The closest traditional analog to this is fliers posted in coffee shops. The second closest is classifieds.
Gillmor: I don’t think it’s whether Ford has fans. It’s whether they have constituents. And they have more than 100,000 of them. They’re customers, suppliers, employees. A large constituency Ford has — and they know this — is the environmentalists. There’s a whole array of constituents that can be addressed using these technologies, and a lot of companies could do a lot better.
Hoffman: Any large company, if they’re not searching the blogs for what people are saying about their products and organizations, are fools. If you don’t have some kind of blogging strategy — much less response — you need to think about that.
Mayfield: Blogging so far has been about “me,” as in “monetize elsewhere.” I don’t think there’s a fair valuation of the influence that people have. Adwords aren’t going to measure the pass through that people really have.
Spohrer: One of the opportunities is to turn win-lose or lose-win relationships into win-win relationships. We look at the scientific underpinnings of value exchange. At Ford, one can imagine this technology creating some sort of collaboration in which those who are concerned about the environment can actually develop new models and evaluate the company’s plans. There are entire armies of consumers who are willing to work with them.
Gillmor: I didn’t want to imply that dealing with constituents is a one-way marketing thing. It’s got to be a conversation.
Mayfield: You’ve got to allow people to build on what you build.
Halley Suitt: Jim at IBM brings up something that’s important: how ubiquitous this social media is becoming. I think our hardware is horrible. How can we get our hardware to get up to speed with our media?
Spohrer: Well, it’s going to get better, of course. I can just tell you about stuff we’re seeing in the lab. The environment has to get smarter. Cell phones are going to keep getting better. You won’t even have to open up your laptop; you could make a presentation through your phone. The cell phone, to me, is the more interesting platform to me. With cell phones, cameras, and GPS, that allows us to get into augmented reality — walking around with your cell phone in China and Japan, you can see a sign, take a picture, and get a translation. It’s getting better, but not as fast as we would like. This is a very inefficient meeting. Look at the archaic forum. I couldn’t get online with the wireless. And the most social media is [the program]. There’s a lot of information about people in here. I just wish I knew more about you in the audience.
Question: What are the some of the problems that this panel can help large-scale organizations solve?
Mayfield: We helped a group get down from 100 emails to 0. We’ve helped cut project timelines to three months. I can structure something really simple by myself. The general manager of a group of 50 doesn’t need to decree anything top down.
Spohrer: The future is already here, it’s not just well-distributed.
Question: The answer you just gave is how people in the group benefited from the technology. You can benefit a group without benefiting the overall corporate structure. The boundaries of the groups of people you connect may or not be within the traditional organization.
Spohrer: One of the most interesting things is these LAN parties that 13-year-olds are having. I dropped a kid off at a birthday party, and he had to take his computer. They were jacked in with 50,000 people around the world, stimulating an entire economy. That’s pretty amazing.
Mayfield: What will be different a year from now?
Currier: The fact that social media has been here for 10 years and no one’s called it out is interesting. It’s really going to challenge traditional media for the consumer. A year from now they’re going to realize that.
Spohrer: As the scientist in the group, we’re getting our microscopes into the social systems.
Gillmor: Web services are developing sufficiently that there will be open APIs for people who want to balance the otherwise closed spaces.
Sikillian: The mass market will also start moving in this direction. It’s just about sharing their lives.
Hoffman: Brand value and trust will evolve completely. Individuals will become brands.