Monday, February 27, 2006

Feed reader creators: There is so much left to do

I have a confession to make. Here I am smack in the middle of Web 2.0, a founder of a site that pumps out more RSS than you can shake a stick at, and I don't like feed readers. In fact, until about two weeks ago, I had never really used one, save a single desultory experiment back in 2005.


Yes, I have been quite embarassed about this affliction. I must admit, I have hidden it from my peers.

"Hi, I'm Ethan, and I type in URLs by hand."

I felt so bad that I finally caved in a few weeks ago and submitted to Bloglines. At least I could get an OPML file out of it, I thought... since Dave Winer assures me that will be useful soon, and Kevin Burton swears it will help me find all sorts of cool stuff on the web. I heard rumors at the last TechCrunch BBQ that it even attracts girls, but I've already found one of them.

But I couldn't stand it. Sure, it's all my reading in one place, and the atom feeds look sort of like their source blogs, but it's all kind of... attenuated. Like sucking Coca-Cola through a long straw, so the fizz is gone. All the formatting is replaced with grey-on-white arial. The fascinating sidebar tidbits and blogrolls and, yes, ads all disappear. And the urgent boldface of posts as yet unread, marching down the left sidebar like dutiful ants...

I thought I was alone.

And then... I found another! There in the endless grey arial sat a wizened little scrap of text, from AVC, blog home of none other than Fred Wilson, who, if he isn't the patron saint of Web 2.0, is, at a minimum, merry Mercury in its Pantheon. And what sayeth Fred?

"I Prefer Browsing To Reading Feeds"


Me too, Fred! In fact, this may be the most important post you've ever written. It's supportive of an inclusive and exploratory, rather than exclusive and reductionist, view of the web. While it calls out feed readers explicitly, it also criticizes by implication all the other exclusionary, reductivist drivers in this fascinating new media landscape -- our tendency to read the same old blogs; our algorithmic focus on the same old hubs and authorities; our analytical adherence to the same old scales and dimensions, and most particularly, our (and MY) fear that somehow, by being human, I was wrong.

A quote from Stephen Pinker's book (yes, an actual paper book!) The Blank Slate:
"The belief that human tastes are reversible cultural preferences has led social planners to write off people's enjoyment of ornament, natural light, and human scale, and forced millions of people to live in drab cement boxes."
I love blogs. I love the conversation, and the chase, and the delight of discovery. I love the humanity of user-created content, and I don't want to aggregate and attenuate that away in some misguided attempt at rational efficiency.

Is BuzzMachine the same without seeing that giant press picture at the top of the site before reading it every day? It reminds you, the reader, of the massive machine that is MSM. Like the three tones of NBC News at dinnertime; like Pavlov's dog; I salivate before dining daily with Jeff Jarvis.

Give me that ornament, and human scale, that connection with the writer and their carefully tweaked site, and at the same time make my life easier - and you'll have a dedicated customer. But until then...

...this new/old human-based web needs to remember us humans.

Feed reader creators: There is so much left to do.

Great new maps from

Ask announced that they're going to fight for search, and launched some cool new maps functionality. Much of what you see here is a quality re-implementation of Google Maps, but there are some cool new features - for instance, Tyler pointed out that after you enter a route, you can click a "play" button and Ask will walk you through the steps onscreen.

Yawn, you say. Google did most of the useful bits a year ago, and Yahoo more or less matched this last fall.


What I find fascinating is that the leading edge of search is all happening at startups, and that the offerings of the big boys are increasingly undifferentiated.

Why isn't Google building Plazes on top of Maps? Why isn't Google building Zillow on top of Maps? Heck, why isn't Google building Zvents on top of Maps?

It's a very interesting time to be a search startup. It feels like the calm before the storm -- with an absolute explosion of functionality coming very soon.

Sunday, February 12, 2006

Classifieds are Transactional, Groups are Relational

Mike recently wrote a second review of the forthcoming Microsoft Expo (aka Fremont) on TechCrunch.

He said, "Expo is centered on the idea that people will trust others within a group, and so is allowing classifieds networks within groups."

I left a comment on the article, which I'll expand upon here.

The original concept of Tribe Networks was that classified advertising would work better within the trust circles of existing groups, or "Tribes". This focus - which wasn't something they publicly discussed - is why their investors included the Washington Post and Knight Ridder. While Tribe is still going, it's fair to say that this concept didn't work for them. Maybe Microsoft can do better, but I am not convinced.

There are two simple reasons why.

First, classifieds are inherently transactional, and long term relationships of trust simply aren't necessary. Each of us has a sphere of activities, interests, friends, and so forth -- and when a buyer and a seller get together to transact a piece of merchandise, none of that is relevant. I have both bought and sold cars via classified ads, and what mattered to me wasn't that the other guy was nice, or trustworthy, or that we had anything larger in common; what mattered was that his cash or his car was as represented, and I came to the exchange with one, and walked away with the other.

There are very rare exceptions to this dictum - just yesterday, my friend Niranjan regaled me with the story of his purchasing an absolutely mint 1964 Volvo P1800 as driven by "The Saint." He still visits the previous (and original) owners of the car once a year to show it to them, and they sold it to him at a below-market price on the basis of his winning personality and love for the car. But exceptions like these prove the rule. Ask yourself - how many goods have I purchased or sold through classified ads; how much did I really care to know about those sellers/buyers, and how much would I be willing to change the mechanics of the transaction - e.g. paying higher or taking a lower price, waiting longer for an item to turn up within my limited network, etc., just to take advantage of that fuzzy feel-good surround?

The second problem with this concept is that people are wildly inconsistent. The certified CPA is cheating on his wife. The marriage counselor that they are seeing is an asshole in business dealings. The ultra-reliable mechanic who fixes their car with fantastic attention to detail can't keep his personal finances in order. Within different contexts, people's behavior can be so different as to be contradictory, and therefore, all the social things you think you know about someone from a groups-like exercise such as this, may disinform as much as they inform.

I'll be very curious to watch this develop, but I don't see any magical secret sauce yet.