Saturday, December 22, 2007

Twas the night before Festivus...

And all through the FriendFeed Global International World Headquarters, not a creature was coding, not even Bret..

But before that, we were all very busy...

And not just busy posing for pictures -- we're also creating new products! I'm thrilled to announce the release of our latest platform initiative, AirGrievance.

Friday, December 14, 2007

Brilliantly wrong

Being a little bit wrong is easy, but it's much more interesting to be completely wrong.

Google Blogoscoped had an entry yesterday about my statement that, whenever possible, everything should have undo.

The comments on that story had the usual mix of no-so-great usability suggestions (putting options and settings everywhere), and a few good ideas, but it also had one comment that was so remarkably wrong that it brightened my whole day:
While an Undo feature could be useful, isn't this just coddling people who should otherwise be paying closer attention to what they are doing? A mistake is a mistake, and people need to learn to live with the consequences of the mistakes they make.

This comment may have been a joke, but I really like this "tough love" approach to usability, because in just a few words it perfectly captures the exact opposite of what we should be doing.

To design great products, we must truly empathize with our users, and understand that if they are having problems using our products, is more likely our fault, not theirs. This isn't the same as the disdainful or patronizing attitudes too often expressed by engineers and other technical people. Our users aren't dumb, they just have better things to do than waste time understanding poorly designed software.

As for "undo", in general, the more we can lower the costs of making mistakes, the faster we can move. This applies to everything from interfaces (I type fast because I have a backspace key) to societies (people are more likely to start new companies in cultures that are accepting of failure).

Sunday, December 09, 2007

Is there more to life than money?

Whenever there is a discussion about joining a startup vs working at regular job, someone will defend the boring 9-5 job by saying, "there is more to life than money".

These people are, of course, right. There is plenty of evidence that happiness is only loosely correlated with wealth. People seem to derive a much greater sense of satisfaction from good relationships, and having a sense of purpose and meaning in their life. Money matters too, but not as much once the basic need for food and shelter are addressed, and those aren't big issues for most people deciding between joining a startup or a big company.

Furthermore, most people who do join startups will never experience a huge payday. Google distributed billions of dollars to thousands of employees, but that was truly exceptional. Even moderately successful startups that eventually sell for $50 million dollars or so will only make a couple of people rich.

If all you care about is money, I doubt that joining a startup is the right way to go. You'll probably make a lot more at a hedge fund, or by becoming a lawyer, or something like that.

Maybe it now seems like I'm defending the boring 9-5 job, but it's actually just the opposite. Those 8 hours/day are a huge chunk of of your waking life, and don't forget that you'll probably also spend a few hours preparing, commuting, and "unwinding". Even worse, bad or boring jobs can sap our energy, so that at the end of the day all we feel like doing is sitting in front of the tv.

That's no way to live, if you can help it. Why surrender such a huge chunk of your life just to get some money? For some people, that's the only option, but for those fortunate enough to be smart and educated, there's a better way.

Instead of throwing away your "working hours", why not make every minute count? Why not find work that you can actually enjoy, work that's fun and meaningful?

Of course that's easier said than done, but it's not impossible.

For reasons that will have to be left for another post, the structure and systems in big companies tend to make work meaningless and life unpleasant, at least for me. Of course smaller companies can be awful too, but they have a greater potential to be good.

If your job isn't working for you, if it isn't making you happy and energized, then why are you still there? I can't guarantee that you'll find something better, but perhaps you should at least try something new. Don't just give up on life.

I truly enjoy writing code. I love creating new products and features. I like getting feedback from users and finding ways to solve their problems. I like the game of business. I like helping people. Of course there is always some amount of unpleasant work that must be done, but that can be contained (my rule is that work should be no more than 10% awful).

That's why, even though I don't financially need to work, I choose to work (and end up staying up until 4am pushing new code). It's why we created FriendFeed, to have a great place to work, a place where we can build great products and have happy users. Of course I'd also like to earn a few billion dollars, and I plan to make all of our employees very wealthy, but that's more like a bonus. I don't believe that you can be happy and make great products and treat your users right if all you think about is money.

There's more to life than money.

My first Google pay-stub (including note from Heather). Money isn't everything, but this zero-dollar check did make me a little nervous.

Sunday, December 02, 2007

There's no such thing as a "social network"

Of course there are many things that people call "social networks", but that's more confusing than enlightening. The "social network" aspect of these products is just a mechanism, not the purpose, and their purposes are often more different than similar. It's like saying that something is a "Javascript". Many websites use Javascript, but hopefully the Javascript is only there in order to accomplish some other purpose. LinkedIn and Twitter, for example, both use Javascript and social networking mechanisms, but clearly they are very different products and have very different uses. Facebook likes to call itself a "social utility", but to me that's just as meaningless.

That said, there is something "social networky" that unites these otherwise-dissimilar "social networking" sites. The two features that seem to define the social network aspect of a product are:
  1. Some kind of page or profile for each user. The contents of this page vary wildly, but it always includes a name and often a picture.

  2. "Friend" links among the profile pages, which may or may not be bi-directional. These "friends" only sometimes correspond to real-life friends.
Those two features alone are very simple but also very useless. Real products need more functionality in order to somehow deliver value to their users. It is this other functionality that defines the real purpose of a product, not the "social network", which exists only to enable or enhance the core purpose.

So what ARE the purposes of these many "social networking" products? (in random order)
  1. Enable people to send messages to their friends. This functionality basically defines email, which can be considered one of the earliest "social networks", though most email systems lack browsable profiles. Annoyingly, many other social networking products reimplement this function, with mixed results.

  2. Enable people to send messages to non-friends. There are two aspects to this feature: discovery (finding the people) and control (preventing unwanted messages). Email is weak on both aspects, and for many people, this is one of the most useful features of products such as Facebook and LinkedIn (I can easily find and contact people that I don't know).

  3. "Live" address/phone book. Sites like Facebook have fields for phone, email, etc, and since everyone maintains their own page, the information is generally up-to-date (vs the bad-old-world of everyone having to broadcast "please update your address books" every time they move).

  4. Less private communication. Email and IM are often too private. Life would be much less interesting if all of our conversations took place one-on-one in closed rooms. Part of what makes parties, offices, and other social environments interesting is that we can observe other people interacting, overhear conversations, and often join-in. Features such as the "wall" create a kind of public or semi-public email, allowing our friends to overhear conversations. Twitter is often used as a public IM/chat.

  5. Passive communication about my life. I don't want to interrupt or spam my friends every time I have some little bit of news, take some new pictures, or get a random thought, but I have no problem blogging or Twittering those things, or uploading to photo sharing sites (which all have social features now). Similarly, I enjoy seeing this information from my friends (but I wouldn't want them calling me on the phone to tell me about their lunch every day).

  6. Passive sharing of non-personal content. I'll occasionally see an interesting or amusing web page and want to share it with friends. I used to put these things into my IM status, but now I add them to my FriendFeed. Email, Twitter, Facebook, and Digg/Reddit are also sometimes used for this purpose (though obviously Digg is less "friend" oriented).

  7. Self expression. This is most prominent on MySpace, where user profiles are highly customizable and can have embedded music (which starts playing as soon as I visit the page). This behavior is very similar to decorating your house or bedroom in "real life" -- there seems to be some human instinct to define our identity through decorations, fashion, music, art, etc. Self expression is an element of all products which have browsable profiles, but on most sites identity is expressed more in terms of content (favorite movies on Facebook, job history on LinkedIn, tweets on Twitter, etc).

  8. Background information. If I meet someone new (or am about to meet them), I sometimes checkout their Facebook or LinkedIn pages to learn more about their background, see if we have common friends, etc. Obviously this also ties in with self-expression and identity in more social settings -- people "friend" each other after meeting and their MySpace page (or whatever) becomes part of that "first" impression.

  9. Dating. One of the earliest and still most popular uses of sites like MySpace, Facebook, Orkut, etc. It's less "explicit" than on dating sites, but by putting themselves online, people can see and be seen, plus get background info, see who their common friends are, etc. The Facebook newsfeed even tells us when friends break-up (or start dating).

  10. Jobs. Job hunting and hiring are essentially the "professional" analog of dating and seem to work in somewhat similar ways.

  11. Finding old friends. By enabling friend-of-friend and school class browsing, it's much easier to locate old friends, and therefore people do more of it. This also lets people track down old friends without appearing crazy (they can "bump" into them on, or whatever -- no private detective needed).

  12. Keeping in touch with "unclose" friends (related to "passive communication about my life"). It's fun to know what's going on with people who we've known in the past, even if we aren't close friends. Profile browsing and newsfeeds make this easier. This can also make unclose friends into closer friends, as we may coincidentally be in the same city at the same time, be attending the same events, or just start chatting.

  13. "Micro-socializing" (I need a better term here). A lot of wall posts, poking, winking, commenting, Twittering, etc can go into the category. The comments on FriendFeed generally fall into this category as well -- someone shares a link or posts some photos, then they and their friends will end up chatting about it. This is somewhat analogous to the traditional "water-cooler" conversation.

  14. Word-of-mouth recommendations. Shared links, news, Yelp reviews, some Twitters, and the like provide us with information about what our friends are doing. Word-of-mouth can be very powerful since we typically trust our friends much more than random people. The new Facebook "Beacon" advertising system is trying to use this effect to sell things.

  15. General amusement for bored people. Clicking around on friends and friends-of-friends and even random people's pages can be kind of interesting. As sites provide more content (such as the links and videos on FriendFeed) or games (many popular Facebook apps are games) there will be even more of this.

  16. Publishing. This especially applies to blogs, twitter, flickr, and the like, but being able to subscribe to the content produced by our favorite authors and artists as well as friends and family is very powerful for both the producer and the consumer.

  17. Group sharing and socializing. This was traditionally done via mailing lists and that's the model behind Google/Yahoo Groups, but of course Facebook, Orkut and the like have have some basic group functionality too, and Ning seems to specialize in it by enabling each group to create their own social network.

This list is certainly not complete, but I'm way over my 30 minute limit... I look forward to seeing your suggested additions. I'll probably post an improved list at some point.

I also hope to explain how my company, FriendFeed, fits into all of this. It definitely has social aspects (the word "friend" is right in the name!), but it certainly isn't a social network in the style of MySpace or Facebook.