Who Has Time To Live A “Second Life” When the First One is a Handful? 1.8 Million People & Counting

December 7, 2006 by Lisa Oshima | Review, Social Media
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  • Are you looking for a thrill and hoping to strike it filthy stinking rich?
  • Are you a risk taker with disposable income and time on your hands?
  • Want to own a huge house in a great location?
  • Want to make friends on-line?

If you’ve answered “YES” to all of these questions, forget about buying lottery tickets or founding a start-up, why not invest in real estate…VIRTUAL REAL ESTATE?*.  Never before has property in California and New York been so affordable.  Since launching on September 26, Weblo.com has managed to flog the entire (virtual) state of California on its site for $53,000 USD.  New York State sold for $18,433 and the Canadian province of Ontario sold for $16,900. Weblo is a virtual world – the first one to virtually duplicate the real world of properties, cities, states, and Internet domains – on-line.  According to Weblo:

The virtual mayor of Washington D.C. sold his city for a 300 percent profit. The virtual Empire State Building, originally purchased for one dollar, recently sold for $250. Members flip virtual properties for profit just like in the real world.

Weblo is a one of several emerging web-based social networking sites that revolves around a “Metaverse”.  In his 1992 sci-fi novel Snow Crash, Neal Stephenson coined the term “Metaverse” to refer to the virtual reality-based Internet world, which might evolve in the future.

Snow Crash.

Weblo is unique because it is the first on-line virtual world/ “metaverse” that virtualizes “real cities in the real world.”  However, Weblo is by no means the first or biggest “virtual world” out there.  From what I can tell, that accolade goes to Second Life from Linden Lab of San Francisco.

Second Life launched three years ago and has quickly become one of the most interesting social experiments on-line. The virtual “World” of Second Life is currently “inhabited” by 1,855,135 members – Avatars, who are imagined and controlled by real people from all over the world.  Unlike Weblo, the “World” (metaverse) of Second Life does not mimic property and countries in the real world – the topography is wholly imagined and developed by its inhabitants.

There is a “Marketplace,” which uses its own currency (Linden Dollars) to buy and sell virtual products and real estate inside the Second Life metaverse.  Second Life’s “inhabitants” interact with each other within this metaverse – just as real people interact in the real world.  Members create “virtual” products (3-D digital representations of real-life products or imaginary inventions), which they buy and sell inside the metaverse.  Linden Lab sells (and rents) virtual real estate to its inhabitants, which those inhabitants can then buy and sell themselves.  Second Life is free to join, but members pay $9.95 US a month to own land, and they pay a Land Use Fee proportional to the amount of land they own.

The Second Life Marketplace is thriving, and Linden Lab and the avatars aren’t the only ones benefiting financially… The real people controlling the avatars are trading in Linden Dollars for real ones – lots of them. According to Linden Labs, the Second Life “Marketplace” generates “millions of US dollars in monthly transactions.” Linden Dollars are being exchanged for US Dollars on several on-line currency exchanges (including LindenX) in record numbers.  In the last 24 hours alone, the equivalent of over $655,000 US Dollars has been spent inside the metaverse of Second Life, and the LindenX traded nearly $107,000 US Dollars.

Last week, Ailin Graef, the real-life person behind Second Life Avatar, Anshe Chung, announced that over the last two years, she has amassed the equivalent of $1 million US dollars of assets within Second Life’s metaverse, largely by buying and selling real estate.  Graef and her husband, Guni Graef, live between China and Germany and own their own real-life business focused on the “metaverse” (on-line virtual worlds), which includes perpetuating Anshe Chung’s real estate assets within Second Life.

Graef isn’t the only one making substantial money through Second Life.  The Times Online reports that real-life software developer, Gareth Lancaster, 33, from Derbyshire, England, makes a second income of between $20,000 and $30,000 US Dollars a year by selling virtual roller skates and vending machines in Second Life.  Over the last two years, Lancaster, operating as his Second Life avatar, “Moopf Murray,” has sold 60,000 pairs of virtual skates (for $60 each) to other avatars in Second Life.

Second Life has managed to grow virally very quickly– initially by appealing to highly technical users and expanding its user base to non-technical people from there.  Users don’t need to be technical to participate in Second Life. Linden Labs offers users tools that make building an avatar and participating in Second Life possible for anyone who knows how to use a computer.  Second Life gives its users an opportunity to be creative/build things, work with technology, play a game (of sorts), make money, and more – all from their computer.

Second Life is one of the greatest success stories in social media to date. With a growing subscription base of over 1.5 million users (nearly 700,000 of which have logged in within the last 60 days) and a thriving economy that is worth real world money, Second Life is attracting lots of attention – from marketers, press, and prospective users.  It is a virtuous circle that looks set to continue.  Second Life is much like a more elaborate version of top selling video game Sim City (which has sold millions of copies over the years), except that it is much more interactive and entirely built by its inhabitants and evolves in relevancy to the real world over time.

Marketers are seeing this potential.  This phenomenon is well documented.  Earlier this year, in the Harvard Business Review, Senior Editor, Paul Hemp wrote about the benefit of marketing real products to Avatars.  Hemp believes that metaverses like Second Life are fertile marketing ground because, “marketers [in Second Life] have the opportunity to interact with engaged minds.”  Plenty of real life companies agree.  In June 206, American Apparel was the first store to open up a store inside Second Life.  In September 2006, Starwood Hotels opened up a preview version of their forthcoming real-life hotels in Second Life. was the first real life company to open a hotel in Second Life.  Reuters has assigned a reporter to Second Life whose avatar reports on the goings on inside the metaverse of Second Life.  The list of companies that are involved in Second Life is impressive and growing.

Despite all of the press, plenty of members of the public haven’t heard of Second Life.  Of those people who have heard of Second Life, plenty of them don’t “get it” or understand why it is a compelling marketing tool.  Case in point, when I told some of my friends, family, and former colleagues who read this blog that I’d be writing about the successes and future potential of Second Life, I was met with blank stares and looks of confusion.  For those who don’t understand it, Second Life can seem more than a little bit bizarre, and it’s easy to see why.  As 35-year-old Second Life member, Mitch Joel writes in his blog:

As I get more involved in Second Life, I am starting to realize how psychotic I must sound when I talk about it in real life (or First Life).

Trying to explain the benefits getting a “Second Life” to people who already have a full “First Life”, will be one of Linden Lab’s greatest challenges.  In an interview published yesterday,  journalist Stephen Hutcheon asked Ailin Graef something a lot of people are wondering:

Why [do] otherwise intelligent people would spend real money on virtual assets, none of which could ever be seen as necessities and all of which can only ever be used inside the Second Life community?”

Graef’s response was priceless:

This question is closely related to another question: Why do otherwise intelligent people spend real money on so many things in the real world that are not necessities? I mean, what do we really need to survive and to stay healthy? How much of our spending, even in real life, is driven by the desire for individualisation, self-expression, entertainment or communication?

I’ll be the first to admit that I haven’t spent time Second Life or purchased virtual real estate (there or anywhere else). It’s not that I’m opposed to trying it.  At the risk of sounding geeky, I find the possibilities of Second Life fascinating.  The trouble is that I have my hands full with a very busy “First Life” of my own – a large percentage of which is already spent on-line emailing, blogging, researching, and social networking.  At this point in my life, it’s tough enough to make time for a First Life being myself – never mind paying for a “second life” acting as a fictitional avatar.

*Note on the first paragraph– I’m not being serious.  If you’re looking for an investment strategy, talk to a licensed investment advisor (I’m not one).

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Introducing Stickis: Interact with Anyone, Anytime, Anywhere on the Internet

December 6, 2006 by Lisa Oshima | Review, Social Media
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Last week, San Francisco-based start-up Activeweave launched an exciting new product called Stickis.  At first glance, Stickis looks like any other web overlay and annotation tool (i.e. Google Notebook, Trailfire, Fleck, Diigo, etc.), but dig a little deeper and you’ll see that Stickis does more.  If it reaches critical mass, Stickis could revolutionize the way that people interact with the web and each other.  Unlike popular social networking sites like MySpace, Friendster, Facebook, LinkedIn, Cyworld, etc., which require users to interact with each other within the confines of a specific website, Stickis allows users to interact with people in their network anytime and anywhere on the web.

For those of you who aren’t familiar with web overlay, traditional annotation tools have been around for a while.  These tools are browser plug-ins that let you stick virtual Post-It-esque “notes” on websites.  One of the first and most notorious of these web overlay services was the now defunct Third Voice,” which many likened to “web graffiti”.  One of the problems with Third Voice was that it lacked privacy features, which critics argued, exposed everyone with Third Voice’s plug-in to potentially lewd and libelous commentary. In 2001, reporting on the backlash to this criticism, Wired reported:

Third Voice couldn’t generate enough advertising revenue to raise consumers’ awareness of its free service, and it couldn’t generate enough consumer awareness to raise the advertising revenue it needed to stay in business.

Web overlay/annotation tools have come a long way since the missteps of Third Voice.  Since then, the web has seen significant technological advances – especially in the areas of privacy management, web search/organizing content, and social networking.   Stickis incorporates several advanced features in these areas into a product that not only free but highly functional, innovative, and easy to use.

One thing that makes Stickis different than its competitors is the way that the service is structured.  Stickis is organized around “channels,” which are groups of Stickis notes published by a particular user.  Anyone can set up a channel – a private individual, a blogger, an organization, a website, or a company.  (Yelp and OpenTable San Francisco are two of the first companies  to have Stickis channels.)  Users can subscribe to new channels or unsubscribe from their existing channels at any time. Similarly, “channel” owners control the privacy of their content and are able to ensure which of their Stickis notes are shared with which of their subscribers.

Here’s how Stickis works today:

  • Register at Stickis.com.
    • Pick a nickname/ username
    • Enter your email address
    • Select the channels you’d like to subscribe to
    • If you’d like to publish a channel, pick a name (mine is Socialmedia.vox.com)
    • Set-up your privacy settings
      • You choose whether you want to make your Stickis channel public or private.  If you decide to make your channel public, you have control over which of your subscribers can see specific posts.  You can organize your subscribers into groups- limiting which of your Stickis are seen by which of your subscribers.  This is done by creating what Stickis calls “antisocial tags” http://www.stickis.com/settings/tags/
  • Upon signing up, a small plug-in is downloaded to your computer and installed when you re-start your browser.  This plug-in does NOT contain spy ware and can be turned on or off anytime with the touch of a button, which appears in your browser’s toolbar.
  • When Stickis is “on”, anytime you go to new web page, a small, unobtrusive icon appears in the bottom right hand corner of your browser window.  This button displays the number of Stickis notes that your subscribed “channels” have written about that web page.

    • Unlike other annotation programs, Stickis notes are easily ignored if you don’t want to see them.
    • If you want to open the Stickis notes on a page, simply click on the button in the lower right side of your browser, and a “tray” containing a summary of each Stickis note appears (listed in reverse chronological order).

    • To get a closer look at a specific Stickis note, click on its summary in the “tray” and voila- the entire Stickis note appears as an overlay over the page you’re on.
    • If you want to add to a Stickis note or reply to someone else’s Stickis note, just press the compose button on the “tray” or in your browser’s toolbar, and start writing.


      • You can drag or drop URLs, Pictures, Icons, etc. into your Stickis notes.You can add ‘tags’ to each of your Stickis notes, facilitating easy searching. Similarly, you can add ‘antisocial tags’ to specific posts to ensure that only certain people see those posts.
      • You can also customize the look and feel of your Stickis notes so that they reflect your personal style.
  • You can set up alerts that notify you when:
    • Your favorite channel posts a new Stickis note.
    • Someone writes a Stickis note on a topic that interests you (e.g. notification when specific ‘tags’ are used).
  • To see step-by-step instructions of how to work with Stickis, click here.

It’s easy to imagine the different ways Stickis could be marketed…

  • Individuals: Share your most / least favorite sites with your friends, family, the public, etc.
  • Fans: Talk with fellow fans about all of the latest on-line gossip.  Meet friends who are going to up-coming shows.
  • Bloggers: Enhance your reader’s experience by cross-referencing websites that you’ve commented on.
  • Blog readers: See what your favorite bloggers are saying about the sites you’ve visited.
  • Marketers/ PR people (for products, bands, actors, etc.): Stickis is a great way to engage with the users who want to hear from you.  Create your own channel and share exclusive information with your prospective and existing customers.  Host contests, on-line scavenger hunts, and more.
  • Teachers: Create different channels for each of the classes that you teach.  Share relevant websites / on-line content with your students and encourage them to engage in discussions with each other about what they see on-line.
  • Politicians: Reach out to your constituents and tell them what you think about what’s happening on-line.  Engage your staff in a confidential discussion about how to address leaks, negative comments/ allegations that appear on the web.

Stickis has the potential to become a leading social networking tool.  To succeed in this capacity, it must continue to evolve.  Activeweave’s CEO, Marc Meyer, agrees:

Today we’re very much emphasizing the annotation features and the ability to discover stuff. In the near future, we’ll be improving  people’s ability to connect more closely to their communities.

To read another review on Stickis, check out TechCrunch.

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What Do Social Media and Paperclips Have in Common? A Lot More Than You Think…

December 5, 2006 by Lisa Oshima | Social Media
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The most genius and useful solutions are often born from simple ideas. Take, for example, basic office tools – paperclips, Scotch tape/ Sellotape, Whiteout/ Tip-Ex, Post-it notes, etc.  It’s hard to imagine life without them. Why am I talking about office supplies in a blog about social media?  The two have more in common than you might think…

Just as the invention of simple office tools revolutionized personal administration, simple, yet innovative, on-line social media tools are (and will continue) transforming the way people live and work… MySpace, LinkedIn, YouTube, Dodgeball, etc. are all good examples of sites that are changing the way people interact.  Plenty of other social media and web 2.0 services that you haven’t heard of yet, will do the same, when they reach critical mass.

This is an exciting time.  The world is abuzz with the potential of social media and people everywhere are generating ideas about how it can be leveraged in new ways.  Something similar happened when the Post-it Note was launched 26 years ago.  The original Post-it (a little yellow piece of paper with a sticky edge) spawned thousands of other useful products – large Post-its, colored Post-its, lined Post-its, “sign-me” plastic sticky flags, sticky book flags, removable tape, etc. – the list goes on and on.  An entire industry was born from one, simple idea.

When is the last time you thought about, White-Out/ Tipex?  I’m the first to admit that I use it regularly but don’t think about it until I need it and find that it’s run (or dried) out. Once a product reaches ubiquity, users begin to take it for granted. Don’t believe me? Replace the Whiteout example with TV or Internet connectivity.   How many times do you really think about how much TV you watch until the cable or satellite signal goes down?  How often do you think about your Internet Service Provider until your ISP experiences a blackout?

If you want a real eye-opener about how many ever-day necessities you take for granted, flip through a copy of:

Inventing the 20th Century: 100 Inventions That Shaped the World: 100 Inventions That Shaped the Wor
Stephen Van Dulken

Think about how many of the inventions of the last century you use regularly.  Then, ask yourself, “How many of those well used inventions do I regularly marvel over? How many of these inventions truly fascinate me?”  My guess is – not many.  The fact is that most people don’t bother to think about things that have already been invented.  Instead, they incorporate the use of those inventions into their daily lives and keep using them until something better comes along.

Social Media is that “something better,” and it’s coming along quickly. It is changing everything: the way we learn, the way we work, the way we socialize, the way marketers push products, the way the world communicates.  By many accounts on-line social media and social networking are the “next big thing” – “the wave of the future.”  Right now, there is still a lot on-line rubbish to sift through, and the web – including social media- is, like the early days of the Post-it note and the original dot com boom, still spawning more ideas than the market can sustain.

The dot-com bubble is well and truly back with web 2.0 and social media.  In San Francisco and Silicon Valley, in particular, start-ups are cropping up all over the place.  Corporations and VC see the potential and are, once again, spending big money to acquire the IP and people that they feel have the most potential.  Similarly, start-up beauty pageants are in full swing, and promo parties abound – the likes of which haven’t been seen since the last bubble… To check out the latest and greatest industry parties (and the resulting juicy gossip), check out bub.blicio.us.

Getting back to my original analogy, in my opinion, the social media ideas with the most potential are a lot like the paperclip, Scotch Tape, Whiteout and Post-it Notes.  They’re simple concepts with elegant, user-friendly designs – the kind of “wow” ideas you wish you’d though of yourself.

TEASER: Tomorrow, I’ll be reviewing one such web 2.0 and social media tool… An incredibly simple concept that I feel has the potential to revolutionize social media and the way the world interacts with and on the web. Stay tuned… I think you’ll like it.

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Latest Bad News from Yahoo & Gossip about a Big Meeting on Tuesday

December 4, 2006 by Lisa Oshima | Social Media
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I’ve talked quite a bit about Yahoo‘s social media plans in recent blogs.  There’s a great posting on Paidcontent.org today, which I recommend reading if you’re interested in this topic.  Among other things, the posting discusses the disintegration of Yahoo’s deal with CurrentTV and the recent departure of David Katz, VP within Yahoo Media Group, and former head of Yahoo Studios and Yahoo Sports.  Additionally, the post says:

we have heard from sources that a major exec meeting across the board (VP level and above) is slated at Yahoo, this Tuesday, and we may hear some major news….no sure what the agenda is, but restructuring the executive portfolios might be one part of it, there’s speculation internally.

For a good rehash of some of the conversations floating in the blogosphere about Yahoo’s social media strategy following the “Peanut Butter Manifesto,” check out Mario Sundar’s blog from November 20th.).

UPDATE Dec 6, 206: Following Tuesday’s meeting at Yahoo, Dan Rosensweig is out, and CFO Susan Decker is now head of the Advertiser and Publisher Group (including Sales). This is one of three new business units announced in the restructuring, which Yahoo hopes to be completed by March. To read more, click here.

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Got questions? Yedda.com’s got FREE answers.

December 4, 2006 by Lisa Oshima | Review, Social Media
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There are plenty of sites out there offering expert advice and answering your questions.  One of the most interesting of these sites is the Yedda beta.  Yedda connects “people looking for knowledge with people who have the knowledge.” The site varies from other question/answer sites (like About.com and Yahoo! Answers) sites in several ways:

  • It is personalized…You plug in the topics/ tags that are of interest to you, and Yedda generates questions and answers from its community of users
  • The program is smart… It links you to related questions/answers in other categories that are related to your areas of interest. It is self evolving.  Yedda adapts itself to the people using it. New topics and associations between topics are dynamically generated by the wider community.
  • It is free!
  • If you ask a question, you (and others) can rate all of the answers, so that the most relevant and thorough answers rise to the top of the pile
  • It is exceptionally easy to use

Yedda is an Israeli-based start-up, and its no surprise that a significant number of the users are from Israel. However, there appears to be a growing international user base as well.  The number of questions/answers in my areas of interest were limited (around 60 questions in total in the area of social media, social networking, web 2.0, mobile 2.0, etc.), but they were articulate and relevant questions/ answers.  For example:

  • “What is the best smartphone on the market?” (Viewed 103 times, 3 Answers)
  • “What does web 2.0 mean to you?” (Viewed 143 times, 1 answer)
  • “How do you see the future of Web 2.0?” (Viewed 217 times, 3 answers)

This site has a lot of potential, and I’d like to see the user base grow to a critical mass.  Check it out and let me know what you think by posting a comment.

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Social Networking and The Birth of S-Commerce: A Marketer’s Dream Come True

December 1, 2006 by Lisa Oshima | Monetization, Social Media
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An interesting new report from Hitwise says that one in twenty web visits is now to the top social media websites.  In a recently published report entitled, “S-Commerce: Beyond MySpace and YouTube.  A new approach for brands to participate in social networking,” Boston based on-line market research firm, Compete Inc., says:

  • More than two–thirds of on-line consumers visited a social networking site in June 2006;
  • Social networks have grown 109% since January 2004 and are on pace to eclipse web titans Google and Yahoo
  • On-line socialites spend a remarkable amount of time on social networking sites. Site usage, measured by pages viewed per member, has increased 414% since January 2004, nearly four–times faster than member growth.
  • The average on-line socialite is 37 years old, just five years younger than the average adult Internet user.
  • Annual discretionary income for on-line socialites is nearly $8,000, 20% higher than consumers who have not used a social networking site, and they spend nearly 25% of their disposable income on on-line purchases (versus 17% for non–socialites).
  • Social networkers are early adopters; more than 40% of online socialites are the first among their colleagues to purchase new products or services, double the rate of non–socialites. They are also influential within their peer set; 37% of online socialites are regularly consulted by colleagues for their opinions on a topic, whereas only 15% of non–socialites claim this influence.

These findings are enough to get even the most skeptical and conventional marketers salivating.   The opportunity for marketers to engage not only with early adoptors but those with high disposible income and the ability to influence others is too great to miss.

For any of you that have read Malcom Gladwell’s book:

Compete’s profile of the average social networker is awefully similar to what Gladwell describes as a “Maven”.  For those of you who haven’t read the book, “Maven” is the term Gladwell uses to describe members of the public who create the “Tipping Point” for great ideas and inspire trends to take route amongst the public.  Marketers strive to appeal to mavens because they are the catlysts to the success of products and ideas. They are well connected and talk about what they know, what they love, and what they detest, and their friends, family, and colleagues consider mavens “experts” and usually request and take their advice. In his book, Gladwell says that if you can reach out and appeal to the mavens of the world, your product has a much higher chance to succeed.

Compete’s study argues a similar point. I has coins the phrase “s-commerce” (short for “social commerce”) to describe the way that marketers use social networking sites to to their advantage.  According to Compete, s-commerce presents marketers with an opportunity to:

  • Research consumers, while they research you and your rivals
  • Create a channel connect consumers and your brand
  • Engage consumers in a conversation: listen, learn, and leverage.

The study claims that the most successful players in s-commerce are utilizing one or more of the following strategies:

  • “Branded Microsites
  • Customer Forums
  • Customer Ratings & Reviews”

This Compete study highlights the importance of going beyond on-line advertising on social networking sites and engaging with your consituents/potential customers.

In a Q&A published on Marketingshift yesterday, Jason Zajac, formerly of Palm, and now General Manager, Social Media at Yahoo highlights the same thing.  He talks about how Yahoo and its partners are successfully using social media competitions and advertising to engage with enthusiasts to generate enthusiasm for products.  It’s well worth a read.

People don’t like feeling like they’re being sold to. The beauty of social networking from a marketers perspective is that it offers the opportunity to “sell” to “mavens” by engaging, rather than annoying them with ads.  The most successful exploitation of social media to the marketers’ advantage will be the subtle opportunities to integrate with potential customers without making those prospective customers feel unfairly incroached upon.

As an aside: Yhoo just launched its new service, Mixd, which looks like it could be a winner – especially for Gen-Y-ers.   It allows users to mass text message their friends – organizing last-minute meet-ups, sharing pictures and videos from their mobile, and sharing memories of particular events on specific websites for those events. With the initial success of advertising on Flickr, it will be interesting to see whether Mixd becomes an avenue for Yahoo to generate revenue on more viral marketing – espcially for venues, events, etc.

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YouTube and Revver Clips on Verizon’s V Cast – Big Whoop.

November 30, 2006 by Lisa Oshima | Mobile, Monetization, Social Media
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On Tuesday, Verizon announced that it will be adding YouTube content to its V Cast line-up, as part of its V Cast Video Service. Yesterday (Nov 29), it announced that it in early December some (not all) Revver content will also be available on the same service.  Users will need to spend $15 a month to access these video services.

$15 seems expensive for the current V Cast video lineup – even with some Revver and You Tube clips.  Keep in mind, Verizon won’t be offering unlimited access to Revver and YouTube clips – just a select number of pre-selected clips.  If I were a Verizon customer, to spend 15 bucks a month, I’d expect to be accessing a whole lot of YouTube, Revver, and a TON of free cached TV shows and movies “on demand” and live streaming TV.  I’d also want to upload and download video from my phone to both services.  In the case of Revver- I’d want to be able to upload my videos from my mobile phone and cash-in on opportunities to make money in the process, which is part of Revver’s business model.  In addition to offering only partial YouTube and Revver content, there is no live TV with V Cast – only video clips and a limited number of shows.  Plus, V Cast only works on some of Verizon’s phones.

Paying $15 a month when you can use your phone as a modem on another mobile network, connecting it to my PC and accessing the entire internet of social media sites wirelessly for FREE sounds like a better bet.

Alternatively, MobiTV, which is available on Cingular in the US for $9.99/ month (also available via Sprint branded as Sprint TV in the US and on Orange in the UK), streams live (well, short delays) TV to your phone. Okay, so you can’t see videos from Revver or YouTube through MobiTV, but you can see the very latest news, weather, etc. Similarly, if you’re on other networks, there’s no shortage of cheap live TV options…. Vodafone offers a great TV service called Vodafone Live.  And another ISV called ROK offers 21 channels of mobile TV and SD cards with movie and TV content pre-loaded on them.

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Mobile Operators / OEMs & Social Networking: Release the Hounds!

November 28, 2006 by Lisa Oshima | Mobile, Social Media
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Companies are currently using social media and social networking sites as a platform for evangelizing their own products and/or improving their image.  Even more interesting, is the way that companies (particularly mobile operators and OEMs) are thinking about how social media/social networking can:

  • Make their products/services more attractive and usable to customers
  • Increase customer numbers/ service subscriptions
  • Connect customers to each other – driving data usage (which may be attractive to European Mobile Operators, most of whom do not offer “all you can eat” data plans, like many US-based Mobile Operators)
  • and more.

I’ve been independently investigating social media (specifically social networking) for a while now because I believe it will revolutionize computing and human interaction.  In particular, I believe that social networking has the potential to transform the current mobile telecommunications landscape.

I have a passion for mobile, and have worked extensively with mobile OEMs (Nokia, Inc. and Palm, Inc.), mobile operators, and independent software vendors (ISVs).  While none of my jobs in telecommunications have involved investigating social media, my experience working in mobile has given me an understanding of OEMs’ and operators’ priorities.  In my experience, operators are most concerned with driving revenue by increasing:

  1. New subscriptions and renewed subscriptions
  2. Sales of “sticky” paid-for services that provide recurring revenue and drive consumers reliance on the network, without overburdoning the mobile network.

Mobile OEMs seem most concerned with driving revenue by:

  1. Keeping mobile operators happy and increasing sales and carrier subsidies (Note: Mobile operators subsidize mobile phones in an attempt to lure their customers into signing new service contracts.  Operators choose how much they want to subsidise each phone in their catalog, based on a number of factors.  If two phones have similar features but one has a lower price point, the phone with the lower price point is likely to attract more attention from consumers, so OEMs are eager to get the highest possible operator subsidies for their own brand of phones, in an effort to squeeze the competition on price.)
  2. Increasing brand recognition of devices by offering “sticky” features/services that appeal to consumers as well as mobile operators
  3. Selling software, accessories, and services.

A growing number of players in the mobile space are betting that social networking will satisfy the above objectives, generating revenue and increasing ways that consumers use their mobile phones.  Vodafone and others mobile companies are just starting to talk about their plans to push mobile social networking.  According to a recent Business Week article, Vodafone is in “talks with a number of social-networking sites, and expects deals to be completed during the first quarter of 2007.” Vodafone CEO, Arun Sarin did not say what sort of social networking services Vodafone will offer, but he’s got high hopes for their ability to generate revenue.  The article reports:

Sarin says social networking, mobile advertising, mobile video, and other advanced applications are on the rise. “We expect these services to generate 10% of our revenue within three or four years,” he says. Vodafone generated $29.4 billion in revenue and $6.6 billion in profit during the first half of the year, beating analyst forecasts.

A recent report by Telephia, a leading independent researcher of mobile trends, reports that while most of the mobile social networking applications/sites don’t have a large enough user-base to track, consumers want to access social networking services on their phone.  According to Telephia’s report, almost 1.4 million mobile customers logged onto MySpace using the wireless Web in September 2006 (Note: I couldn’t find this report on Telephia’s site, but several reliable sources mentioned it – Mercury News, Government Technology.). I assume this means that users logged in to MySpace.com using their mobile browsers – as opposed to using the MySpace Mobile software application, which is distributed exclusively by Helio, a relatively small (and new) OEM.  Cingular and BellSouth both offer a service which sends customers a text message when they get posts on their MySpace pages, but the Mobile MySpace application/service is only available on Helio, which demonstrates carriers’ interest in paid-for services associated with social networking.
MySpace access is not the only example of the mobile industry’s interest in social networking.  Location-based (LBS) social networking services are growing.  Helio, who is big on services, now offers a social networking service called Buddy Beacon, which, using GPS, allows a customer to let up to 25 of his/her “buddies” track his/her whereabouts by using another Helio mobile… Seems a bit of a scary proposition to me, but I’m sure it’s got appeal in the teen and college market.  ISVs like Google and Boost Mobile offer other location-based social networking services. Google’s Dodgeball, now available in 22 US cities in the US, allows you to:

  • Let your friends know where you are
  • Discover friends of friends within a 10 block radius
  • Meet potential love matches and be notified when they’re nearby
  • Find venue locations and broadcast them to friends

Boost Mobile offers Loopt, which allows you to put yourself on maps accessible to friends via their mobile phone, allowing them to see where you are and what you’re up to and vice versa.

Besides LBS, there’s potential for mobile video social networking.  Another of Telephia reports says that: “three percent of U.S. mobile subscribers, representing nearly eight million consumers, use their cell phones to take personal videos. This adoption rate for mobile video capture doubles to six percent among mobile subscribers who recently purchased a new handset, revealing a rapid upward trend.” Clearly, this has implications for the mobility of all of those video sites I’ve discussed in previous blogs. 

The aforementioned Business Week article on Vodafone’s entry into social networking points out that some analysts are sceptical of social networking’s potential to generate revenue:

Cell phones are still primarily used for personal or one-to-one communication,” writes David Schatsky, president of researcher JupiterKagan, in a report. “Services relying on unique features of the cell phone offer better, though modest, revenue prospects.”

Wireless phone companies have been reluctant to open their networks to third parties. In the past, they have offered proprietary, high-margin services such as text messaging. The Internet offers cheaper, open platforms such as instant messaging and social networking. As the cell phone becomes equipped with increasingly powerful Internet browsers and faster Internet connections, the migration of open Internet standards to the wireless world is all but inevitable (see BusinessWeek.com, 11/3/06, “Cingular: Giving Away the Music Store”).

With companies like Google, proposing that web-based mobile applications like Dodgeball and mobile Gmail should be free to users (using an ad-based model), it may be tough for mobile operators to generate revenue on competitive “charged-for” services.  That said, if a mobile operator, ISV, or OEM is able to offer a new and unique enough social networking service, which enough users adopt:

  • It will be possible to make that applicaiton free, given ad-based revenue, and/or
  • Users will be willing to pay for it, to avoid ad exposure (which is sure to increase on mobile phones in time).

Either way- there is a future for mobile social networking, but this future may not be led by mobile carriers.  The “walled garden approach” that carriers have embraced for so long, flies in the face of the usefullness of social networking and will be challenged by the likes of Google and other web-based social networking mobile ISVs.  I don’t think that users will accept being inhibited by who they can interact with based upon what mobile network or phone they’re on.

Regardless of what happens, I am exicted to see how the mobile social networking market unfolds- especially:

  • Who will lead the mobile social networking game?  Will it be ISVs, OEMs, mobile operators, or a combination of all three?
  • Will users want to access social networking services on their mobile phones via stand-alone applications, or will web-based stub apps prove more popular? (This may impact the way that social networking information is delivered to customers via mobile – think about the differences between the use-cases with free web-based email vs. paid-for push email.)
  • What is the revenue model?  Will it be ad-supported or subscription based?
  • How will the convergence of mobile phones, land-line phones, cable/satellite, DSL/Cable internet influence who wins the social networking game?

Stay tuned to hear my thoughts on these questions in future blogs.  And, if you’re interested in mobile blogging, check out SixApart’s new Vox Mobile application.

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Sifting Through the Garbage: Social Media Search Tools

November 22, 2006 by Lisa Oshima | Social Media
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With the volume of information available on social media sites increasing rapidly, the need for effective search tools is greater than ever before.  Users need ways to sift through the “garbage” on the Internet to find information that is relevant to their search – both on topic and in the desired format.

Search engines are evolving, making the process of finding information easier and ensuring that results are more useful.  The upsurge in information generated through sites specializing in social media is making the need for search engine evolution even more important.

Here are a few sites that are making the search for information on social media sites easier:

  • Wink.com: Claims to be the first “social search engine” that “allows people to search across multiple social networks and find other people with similar interests.”  The site searches across social networking sites including: MySpace, Bebo and LinkedIn, and it claims to contain “over 100 million profiles”.  Search across social networks for interests, locations, screen names, names, etc.  Wink looks for information that other people have ranked as useful/relevant.  Users can  re-rank search results, bookmark sites they want to remember, and block results that aren’t relevant.  Users can also create “Collections” of the  most relevant sites on a particular topic and assign privacy settings to those “collections,” making collections available to the public, to designated groups of people, or keeping them private.  Collections labeled as “public” then turn up in the search results.
  • Eurekster’s Swicki: Eurekster explains what a swicki is far better than I ever could, “Swicki is a natural extension of personal publishing on the web. Just as you can create a webpage, blog, or podcast, now you can publish a community powered search engine, tailored to produce only the targeted search results that you and your community want!  A swicki shows a buzz cloud of what is hot in your community and makes it easy to find the best content, news and info on the web.”
  • Google Blog Search, Technorati, Blogpulse, and IceRocket are great resources for searching for information contained within blogs.
  • ClipBlast, Blinkx, and Google Video are all great sites for searching video.  Internet TV Search Engine is a Swicki that does what it says on the tin.

If you’re interested in Search Engine Optimization and Social Media Optimization, check out the following article (and the links within it): SMO: The Next Phase Of SEO.

If you have a favorite search engine for social media, that you’d like to recomend, send a comment!

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Jangl.com – A First Line of Defense for those who Give Strangers their Digits

November 21, 2006 by Lisa Oshima | Review, Social Media
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Attention teenagers and overzealous social networkers with an predilection for giving strangers your phone number (despite your mother’s and my best advice):

If you’ve ever met someone who you’d like to start talking to on the phone but don’t want to give him/her your real number, in the unlikely event that s/he turns out to be mental, check out Jangl.  Jangl is a privacy insurance policy for people like you.  It gives users a way of getting in touch with others over the phone without swapping numbers.  Here’s how it works:

A) Go to Jangl.com
B) Make up a “Jangl ID” (like a screen name) and register it (along with your phone number) on Jangl.com.
C) The next time you meet someone you want to talk with over the phone but don’t know well enough to give your number, give him/her your Jangl ID.
D) When S/he registers on Jangl.com, you both get a proxy phone number on which to contact each other.  That proxy number re-directs calls from either of you to the other.
E) Neither party’s real digits are ever revealed, and either of you can turn off the number at any time.

I’ve not yet tried it, but then again, I don’t go giving my phone number out to people I don’t know (at least enough to guess that they’re not crazy).  That said, I can see how this “service” would be useful if you’re less discriminating about who gets your digits – especially in the US where people get charged for incoming mobile phone calls.

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