I was always wondering what’s the essence of social networks. How to start a new social network service? What’s a successful social network service?
This summer is a singing season in China. Two series of singing competition shows were lively broadcasted during the summer by two TV stations. One is more for teenagers and more like American Idol. I did not watch. The other, named Do You Remember, is my favorite. This program invented this competition model to see how accurate a singer can remember the lyrics of popular or classical songs and sing them well. Moreover, they keep inventing new rules to compete. For example in the last week show, they let audience to use cellphone messages to vote to determine the winners. But you can only vote during the 180-second period when the singer you support was performing on stage. I can imagine the fans of those singers cannot even leave from the screen for a while to avoid missing the window. How long was the show? It lasted almost 4 hours.
TV as a media service is changing. Traditional movies or TV series based TV stations cannot compete with DVD or the Internet, where audience can watch any programs any time. This is especially true in China. So what are those top TV players doing in China? They are playing games, live social games like the above shows, with audience. Only in this way, they can draw audience attention for 4 hours continuously.
Internet media services face the same problem. Given a set of users, how to increase user’s time spent on the service. As a consequence, content-based media services are losing users to social networks. Then, how to create a successful social web site? I think one success factor is playing games with your users.
Yahoo recently launched English version Meme silently and ridiculously got a lot of Chinese users to flood in. Yahoo Meme played a very good game in this launch. First, it is an invite-only service. Notice, it is different from other yahoo bucket tests, where users are selectively invited by Yahoo. Instead, users have rights to invite others. This is an old game invented by Gmail. However, as the result, many Chinese users ask each other on twitter to attempt to get an invitation email to see this mysterious Meme. Second, after users log in, they can immediately notice a re-post button for each post. Yes, this is retweet, one of the most important features on twitter. It is always true that majority of social network users cannot generate novel content. Reposting at least allows them to participate in the game.
If a social network is a game, then what’s the essence of the game? There are many. One important one is creativity. Not game creator’s creativity, but user’s creativity. A good game should intrigue user’s interest to discover or even to invent! Twitter is a good example of social games. It took me almost half a year to understand twitter better and better. From the beginning, how to find interesting users to follow. To the end, how to get others to follow me. Twitter is also a good example of user invention. An article on MIT Technology Review “The Evolution of Retweeting” described how twitter users invented reply, hash, and RT. What twitter did in this game is just simply following the users. Remember the most important experience in trading market? Follow the trend, don’t predicate.
Let’s imagine what Yahoo would do if Yahoo acquired twitter in 2007, when twitter had not obtained critical user space. Assuming Yahoo realized this could be the most important social network service in the following years, they decided to boost it. First of all, integrate twitter with Yahoo homepage. If after that, the result is not impressive, then what to do? Integrate with search result? Good idea. Let’s select most valuable tweets and show them above search results as shortcuts to get more traffic. Hmm, the result is still not good enough. OK, Let’s use machine learning and NLP to understand user’s tweets and rewrite them as search queries to get search results to satisfy our users. The final solution may never get a chance to show the result since the product will be cut before that. So what’s wrong? Traffic acquisition is important. But that’s still an old-school solution for content-based media services. It is like using Yahoo existing services as a truck to pull a rocket. However, the rocket’s fuel is not ignited.