Context more than content is why networks matter

A core anomaly of online engagement is that discussions that drive the most interesting conversations are invariably a collective answer to a common question.

Yet Q & A as a model works very poorly, if at all.

The idea that we gather around specific topics is actually less true than that we group ourselves first around people we know or want to know, communities that breed trust and the networks we inhabit. What we discuss is important, but less so than the people we discuss it with.

It’s a powerful distinction that engagement, at its core, is less topical than it is contextual.

Andrew Kennedy, CEO of Vintage141, linked me this piece from the New York Times comparing Jelly, the Biz Stone Q & A app, with Need, an under-the-radar competitor.

A perfect case-in-point of how context and content interplay.

I put the apps through their paces with four questions: need a contractor, help with a tech question, best mobile app for wine buying, and searching for a specific niche expert.

A simple test drive.

A few responses popped up, though nothing new and interesting. The respondents were mostly people I knew, and had answered similar questions when I posted on the open web.

I’m not denigrating the apps (although both are seriously impossible to find in the app store). They are inspired and very brand new with uncertain UXs. And besides their differences, neither has figured out what engagement means. Jelly is lighter, more ambitious, image focused, driving short gestures more often. Need felt more conversant, leaner, less arbitrary, with community managers weighing in to juice the search.

The gist of this though is less about the apps and which will win (if either does)–and more about the interplay of context and content.

These Q & A apps are, by design, parasitic to our personal networks.

They don’t build communities, they simply aggregate ours around their single function ask and receive. Their premise is that asking simple questions is a singular behavior and a driver cross new groups.

I’m not a believer.

If I loaded all of my networks with all of my good will and connections, and so did 100,000 others, these apps would certainly have some depth.

People would then friend me within the app, and the molecular magic of extended connections would become viral. This is the end game by design for these apps.

But why would I want to do this?

Does an encapsulated question add anything at all to simply tweeting or posting a need?

I don’t think so.

Life is all about questions and answers, sharing and bantering. The question may be the handshake, but the networks are the participants and the connections, by default, the gestures of approval. It’s not a separate need.

The experiment was interesting though.

We all live intra network and cross community. Across the big ones like Facebook and Twitter, Instagram and our blog communities. Niche groupings. Offline clubs. Work and play.

Groups and flash communities are always forming and reforming, brought together by occasion or need. They are time–not location– based, topical in intent, and contextual as they cut across our networks and recombine in all new groupings.

These apps are premised on the question being the nexus of connection.

I think the key piece that creates structural gravity is never the question or the content, it is each of us as the center of our own gaggle of networks. In this case, it’s the singer more than the song that sets the rhythm.

When we need something, or simply want to share online, it bounces around our interconnected world, down handshakes of connections and into other ecosystems and other’s networks.

A few years ago, this post would have ended with a statement that there was a growing trend to create more niche communities of interest and an organic interconnection of communities connected by something like Disqus.

This feels less right now.

Especially as our attentions gets focused smaller on our mobile screens and more individualistic on what we, as individuals, need at the moment to make our offline lives better.

We all know that the more individual freedom there is within a community, the stronger it becomes as a whole.

My sense is that the more there are tools that let me exercise the same freedom and control, cross network and cross community, in an instant, the broader those connections themselves will become and the more empowered each of us will be as the center of them.



Citibike…urban product design at its best

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I really love Citibike.

It’s transportation that works almost perfectly as designed. It makes my life better.

A solution built for what myself, and hundreds of thousands of others, needed without knowing. Without ever really asking, lobbying or fighting for. A gift from the transportation gods.

The numbers at a glance show instant market alignment.

Since launch on May 27th of this year, 6.6 million miles in 45-minute hops have been logged by 6,000 bikes at 330 locations by 285,000 users, mostly in downtown Manhattan.

As a New Yorker and obsessive urbanite, every time I jump on a bike, which is often, I’m enthused by how much it has improved my life.

As a marketer, who connects products and markets for a living, it’s the epitome of a product launched into an impossible environment with hardly any public hiccups. One that changed the human landscape of this immensely complex metropolis in demonstrably positive ways.

And potentially may ever be a profitable model within an astoundingly short time.

As a user

Transportation in New York is serious business and now has a rock star new kid on the block with Citibike.

Alongside the subway, cabs, call-a-car solutions like Uber, and ZipCar. Not six months in, Citibike has earned a spot on the transportation line of apps on my iPhone. It’s part of my getting-around rooster of tools.

Why does Citibike really matter to me?

Here’s a common scenario.

I’m in TriBeca and need to go to Meat Packing District, wearing gym clothes or a suit, weather permitting. I hop on a bike (there are 5 racks within 10 minutes of my apt) and I’m there in 15 minutes and hop off.  To the East side? Same drill, 20-30 minutes for the ride. It takes about one-third as long as any other method with no fuss, no waiting for a train or sitting in traffic. It costs a whooping $.27 a day with a yearly pass.

In my downtown world,  anything south of Madison Park, from river to river, to dinner or to work, this is always a viable option to get from here to there..

Take a look at the humanity hopping on and off these bikes at any busy rack.

Every possible type of person, from tourist with tour book in hand in Swedish or Japanese, to bankers, to families, to people commuting to work,  to me.

It just works.

From late Spring when it started with 3.000 users on day one, through the Summer and now Fall, there are almost 300,000 users with some 90,000 annual passes. A home run.

Who knows what Winter and snow will do to the bikes and my excitement with them.

But for now, this is one giant step to making NYC—an impossibly busy, crowded and expensive city–just easier, approachable, more human, and of course, more environmentally sane.

 It ain’t perfect but do we really care?

When you are in a rush and the bike racks are full at the most convenient destination, it surely does suck.

When you were counting on a bike as transport and there are simply none there, this is bad. It happens, though way less than it did in the beginning.

There are nits as well. Bike adjustments that won’t tighten and gears that slip. And an app that while great at finding where the next location is, is useless at predetermining whether there are open slots to park or bikes to use.

This isn’t bike rental, it is transportation. And this is New York.

Every day subways during rush hour are too jammed to let you in. Or running late.  Or cancelled.

I’ve been biking in NY for years.

There were less bike lanes, and for what I use Citibike for today, I had to schlepp my bike out of storage and carry chains around to lock stuff up.  And worry generally about theft, safety and weather.

The value of Citibike as a community service is infinitely more important than all the annoyances and imperfections that come along with it.

There seems to be a real business here.

I believe Citibank put in $41M to get this started.

As of September 15th, Citibike had generated $10,067,819 in fees, excluding overtime charges. The goal of $36M per year over time in revenue seems like a slam dunk. I don’t have any insight into operating costs and details, but I’ll take these gross numbers as an indication that this is trending well.

So let me see:

New York is a town where getting a permit is a serious nightmare.  Getting stuff done is daunting for the most staunch and perspicacious, and the most wealthy and insulated alike.

Citibike had to change the very fabric of our streets. Build bike lanes, remove parking spots and meters, change the look and feel of old and affluent neighborhood streets. And add 6,000 people on two wheels, tooling around south of Madison Park during any given 45 minute period.

There was no real marketing or advertising that I noticed. No deaths that I know of, and rumored few accidents.

All this work and change so I could get to where I need to, easier and cheaper. Nice of them!

And as a tax payer, this seems to be net positive from the outset as taxes will be generated (I think) and paid into the city coffers.

Not too shabby.

Lessons that jump out from this.

This is a great analog for all of us who build products and companies, brands and customer service organizations.

It’s a case study in taking a real human problem and solving it by providing a service that does one thing really well. In using the web as an on ramp to add efficiency to activities on the street.

And proof that there are things that done simply and clearly can indeed change the world and how we live in it.

I took a ride this morning to the West Village to get some supplies. (A thirty minute round trip!)

Three core marketing lessons jumped out at me as I was riding along:

1. True user value makes the seemingly impossible an insignificant barrier

If my numbers are right that this was built for $41M, I’m in awe.

The software, the bike design, the permits, the approvals, the physical process of changing the streets. Then the infrastructure to make it work and keep it updated.

All that, so in 6 months, hundreds of thousands of  people like myself can blithely walk down the street, get somewhere with ease, with no instructions, no fuss or bother.

If you are touching on something that truly can matter to a sizable market, the end can really justify the severe pain of the means.

2. Consumer behavior is remarkably malleable

Marketers and business builders rightfully fear the idea of having to educate a new mass market. The idea of teaching consumers new behaviors is a costly and long nightmare. You always want to extend what consumers are doing, not add something potentially alien and disconnected. Possibly wrong.

Bike share is albeit not a new concept. I used Veleb in Paris 6 years ago and bike shares everywhere from Vienna to London. But this is New York!

People said it just wouldn’t work. That there would be consumer blood on the street every day from trucks wiping out tourists. That this is just not how we do things here.

They were wrong. The behavior was either there and very latent. Or the market had some weird vestigial drive to jump on a bike and that Citibike simply created a platform to exercise that need.

I don’t know.

I do know that bike share for New Yorkers is as much a part of life moving forward as well…those really recent digital signs on the subway platforms! How did we ever get from here to there without them.

Was this project a risk?

A huge one and Bloomberg’s legacy depended on it.  I think that his legacy will now be built on this as one of his (and the city’s) biggest wins.

We all create things that don’t work, more often than not.  This one did…and really well.

 3. A truly great product has marketing built in

Citibike’s marketing is built into the product itself. The ease of use and the clarity of why it is here and what it is best at.

They made tough decisions like where to deploy and I’m certain, made lots of enemies in the process. And important, little things, like that real people answer the phones when you call with a concern.

Citibike does one thing really well. It let’s you get from here to there without fuss. This is a really big deal. That is the positioning, the promise and what is delivered. Thousand of people signed up walking by and hopping on for a ride the day it started.

Not everything is perfect with this service. But it never made me crazy like a lost file on my laptop, a Zip Car with no way to get back to the garage, or going out of cell range on an important call.

Very few things of grand scale get done good enough the first time around.

Most products have to work amazingly hard to find an audience and most never do. The winners evolve and iterate to find their right pace and market connection. And in almost every case, what and how we think will work, invariably doesn’t.

Not this one.

Well done Citibike!

We all win as New Yorkers and tourists.  And the New Yorkers who ride their own bikes win with more paths and a more friendly bike culture.

As marketers, we get a living example of how things do at times, in spite of everything, just come together and feel like they belong from the very beginning.


Do share your own experiences with Citibike or bike shares wherever you use them.

Numbers for this post were taken from this Newsday article.

Collective memory and the social web

The singular dna of the web is connections.

Call it community if you wish. Consider it a flash occurrence or an ongoing event. Define it as a gesture or a comment, a wall utterance or a full-blown blog community.

The one thing that the web does so powerfully is to engage others while we experience life ourselves. And to create a dynamic collective memory of a shared experience.

As powerful as this is, it is also quite new.

The comment string of my post on 9/11 was full of outbursts of ‘where I was’ and ‘do you remember’. It was clear that as recently as a decade ago, before the social web existed, we experienced this attack without broad community support, and it left many of us isolated in our thoughts and memories.

If this happened in the last five years, our memories would have been shared, our feelings commemorated in countless posts and photos. The sense of understanding greater, more widespread because of the community around it with the web as our platform.

Every day now, with Facebook, Twitter and blog communities, experience around most every public event, from the horrors of mass shootings to the media shares around Breaking Bad have their platform and a shared memorial to the event.

This is the status quo for all of us today.  We live in the dailies of our own life movies. This is nothing but positive, nothing if not a giant evolutionary step forward.

I’ve always believed the web’s greatest value was in the connections that it enables and the new memories it creates. I first started thinking about this around my mom’s birthday a few years ago. I wrote a post back then about how her generation had missed the great upside of connecting and making new friendships as age, mobility and ennui closed the door on the future for them

Memory is the encapsulation of conjoined events in time.

Individually they affirm our past actions to ourselves but they also isolate and freeze time rather than making it a step to something more.

Collectively, memories meld people together, build a base of shared reality to create ties for the future.

Community is, in many ways, that entity that keeps layering on intersections of instances in time, engendering trust and understanding and building steam for future connections as the group broadens and deepens.

I believe this will be a large part of the web’s legacy.

Collective memory as an idea is also a powerful filter for those of us building products or communications platforms, communities or networks.

What we realize about the social web especially, is that once we stop flagellating around like adolescents and start thinking about shared events or ideas as connectors, questions like why our customers or friends should care or share come into focus. We stop counting KPIs and start thinking about the why of connecting with people.

Once we internalize that community happens on the street witnessing an event, online around a discussion, or in a connection around a homeless pet for adoption, we are understanding that inclusiveness, even around the most divisive topics builds bonds, community and social memory.

We talk community. We lionize context as the pinnacle of design. We equate platforms to places and the ease of creating friendship to the new norm that the web somehow makes possible.

All are true.

Facebook works because it gives collective voice to being part of an event or an emotion, a decision or a memory. If it is about anything, it is about collective affirmation.

When I look at closed groups on the web, they are striving towards the same, dragging connections and re-forming them to collectively discuss or commemorate.

In many ways, network effects is just that, at an atomic level. Connecting, experiencing and memorializing. Repeat infinitely and you have not only a key cultural and behavioral truth behind network effect but of virality itself.

Tech pundits say that Twitter, Facebook and Linked In have sucked the social oxygen for innovation out of the web.  I’m thinking just the opposite. These platforms are the railroads before the roads, the express trains before there was a need for the local stop.

Our social memory on the web is just hardly a generation old. The things that billions of people do daily barely had names five years ago. We are at the most nascent stage of social evolution.

Today, for the most part, local and neighborhood are web empty. Extended intersecting communities that leapfrog off the big nets are just being defined. And marketplaces building on the transactionless nature of the big social nets are just starting to pop up everywhere.

Technology has been the core driver of change and innovation for the last two decades. No longer.

My sense is that evolving behaviors, shifting cultures, new ways of consuming, decentralized communities and flash events are the catalyst and the direction for what’s coming next.

Flash community as the new normal

For a long time, community online was really an aspiration for a communal place to hang out.  Virtual worlds were just that. You went there, avatar firmly on your head, milled around and bumped into others.

Social nets like Facebook were built on that premise as well.

You go there and run into friends. You get call backs to engage through email and text. You are encouraged to post then nudged to reengage when Liked or commented on. Facebook is all about its place as the center of the web, even the world.

This idea of a centralized online world, url-specific, will end up in a museum alongside dioramas of Pleistocene era cave dwellers and the Dodo bird. Evolutionary end points are happening right in front of us.

The change may take some time, but it will happen.

The premise that place online matters at all is just not grounded in reality. Offline, no question, but the metaphor of the online world mirroring offline is a legacy myth that is fraying at the edges.

The social web is not about platforms, not about places you go, not even at a core level about groups. It’s about you and me experiencing it in real time.

Community happens on the web because each of us is given the biggest chair in the room, the microphone for the planet to listen to our views. Because of the predominance of each of us as individuals.

Social animals that we are, we have the natural drive to couple into groups, but it all starts with each of us singularly first. We as individuals, not the group, are the atomic element of community.

I’ve been mulling about this for a while and I keep coming back t0 two core premises:

-That community lives exactly wherever we are at the moment, cross platform and network.

-That time not place is the matrix for connection. That all communities are in a way, flash occurrences in time.

Community exists because each of us is a superset of all of our connections across all of our networks. We rise to the top of them as they self organize themselves under us.

Attempts to aggregate them will simply not work. (See You can’t airlift community). Attempts to force people to join a common intergroup to participate fall flat. (My blog discussion around 9/11 was happening at the same time on four different networks with me as the only point of common reference.)

The social nets don’t provide any real context. We populate them with friends and colleagues, different mixes in different places. Some are heavier in tech, some in wine, some in something else. But any of them could be the best source of information for just about any topic. Serendipity happens regardless of how well we choose our connections, not because of it.

The belief that the antidote to the signal/noise conundrum on the web is curation is temporary at best. The true answer to found value and the most natural direction for discovery is community. Flash community that is formed cross network, around each of us, at any time wherever we are.

I’ve been kicking around the idea of Flash Communities for a long time.  Three years ago I wrote a post about the idea of communities cropping up around media driven events. Events today are simply wherever we are, with our interactions an event in its own right, pulling our networks along with us.

Today, when I put out a post that catches the market’s attention, it surfaces on Twitter, crosses to Facebook, back to my blog, populates my inbox with messages. I’ll be asked at my next in person meeting perhaps. The pundits will call this successful content marketing. They are wrong.

This is community, pure and simple, grounded in an event, based in time.

Why does Kickstarter work when there is no community? It works because a project touches someone who shares it, creating flash communities and connections from one side of the web to another, to your dinner table and to discussions with friends at the wine bar.

Why does the web, for all its oceanic storms of movement and over abundance of content, feel calm and easy to navigate today?  The dynamics we’ve created on various networks have created a social gravity of sorts, around each of us that cuts through proprietary protocols, cuts through all of these groups, and coalesces in instances around needs and ideas.

How does this relate to how we build products and companies? How we act on the web?

Not so simple.

We will continue to create apps and websites for specific associations or context-rich connections around common bounds. That is how people think and how human magnetism drives groupings and attractions, conscious or not.

But the connecting loops need to be cross platform, cross the web, cross our online and offline lives. With community in mind as the purest filter for context and each person as the moving center of their own self sorting world of interconnections.

It’s not all that clear how to do this.

For myself, I start with a focus on inclusion as the organic dna of communities. I avoid exclusion as a poise, as closed structures invariably fall flat and inevitably stifle growth. The web seems to embrace openness and rankles at discriminating behaviors in both action and design.

I focus on how ideas interlock with value and drive their own communities of interest based on singular events. I don’t think  about places but about time and attention as currency, and the dynamic that drives connections. And how connections bring others, to one topic, at one time, in a communal exchange.

This is community food for thought.

I admit, its easy to see that change is happening. It is way harder and more interesting figuring out where this plays out for how we use, build and capitalize on this changing community nature of the web. This is my first shot at it.

September 11th…stopping to remember

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All day yesterday working on my schedule, whenever I noticed the date, my concentration ground to a halt.

I kept thinking back to that Tuesday, 12 years ago, being stranded in San Francisco on business with the country’s air space shut down. Sitting in bars, watching the news with strangers and having the reality of what happened burned into memory by the incessant replaying of the events on network news.

Talking on the cell to friends in New York, every one of them, shell-shocked. Many of them seeing the plane hit the second tower. Watching the buildings crumble and a very different world appear as the dust settled.

I came back on the first flight out, the Saturday night redeye, circling into JFK over the smoking debris.  I remember walking to the intersection of West Broadway and Canal, staring at the barricades on the South side of Canal Street. The surrealistic image of a Schwarzenegger movie billboard that was coming out with him fighting terrorists somewhere. In smug contrast with the real grim reality on the streets.

I’m not going to recap. We all have our memories and have dealt with them. Many moved out of town. Many took years to come to grips. Everyone moved on.

This was a pre iPhone camera world. A pre Facebook and Twitter reality where real-time sharing and connections were absent. Rather than post, you walked around seeing scores of make shift memorials with flowers and pictures of people. Telephone numbers scrawled on papers to call if you saw or heard of someone.

In retrospect, it feels like a black and white photograph of a different time. Frozen yet wrapped in very real memories. My memories as I was there.

People need memorials of horrible events to place them. I light a candle for the passing of my father and grandfather and it helps ground my thoughts. The fiasco of  building the new Freedom Tower and the passage of time has squandered the memory of this event somewhat. Even today, more than a decade later, the memorial is not really complete, surrounded by a fence and a construction site.

The reality of 9/11 was that we felt attacked where we lived. As you went further from the physical event, even uptown, it became less real, less yours and less somehow immediate.

In the years following, when I worked in LA, I tried mostly in vain at my companies to make the day mean something. Invariably it always fizzled. It meant as little to many on the west coast as to many people I work with today in their 20′s. They aren’t insensitive, but, to them, it’s a historical event, not an experience that shaped any part of who they are. That distance is the difference.

I’m not a romantic about this. And I didn’t lose any friends or family. And while sensitive and a downtowner, I don’t gush over this often or have loose emotional ends.

But it’s important, because if I don’t make it so, it will indeed go away. If the only reminder is of the skyline view in pre-9/11 movies or photos with the towers in them, this is indeed a waste.

When I posted something about this on Facebook yesterday, a friend responded that the  9/11 light sculpture that they erect every year is her favorite.

The light sculpture is indeed amazing but it’s more art than memorial to most unless we personalize it.

The connection between the fact that crazies who truly hated us navigated hijacked planes using Broadway as their map to the towers, is somehow below the surface. The family from New Jersey who I met in Union Square that brought their then young children into town to experience the community side of this nightmare, is absent somehow in those beams of light till I talk about them.

This post is my nudge to myself to spend a few moments thinking about it. Connecting the dots so that they stay real.

I’m all about moving on. I’m a hardass generally. For this particular memory, making my own little memorial of it on my blog seems like the right thing to do.