20 November 2013

Google's attempt to integrate YouTube and Google+ might hurt both services.

One thing that innovative companies try to do is push customers into the future that they envision.  Apple is a good example -- they're famous for writing off technologies as obsolete long before other companies (and, indeed, most customers) have done so, be it floppy disk drives or, more recently, optical drives.  While I tend to think of businesses in general as needing to serve their customers, in technology the roles sometimes seem reversed.  That is, it is the users who often seem to be along for the ride while the businesses are the ones in the driver's seat pursuing their own goals.  The ride can be a bumpy one, as Google is finding out as it tries to more tightly integrate its video sharing site YouTube and its social network Google+.

It's not hard to understand why Google wants every YouTube user to become a Google+ user.  It wants its social network to be competitive with Facebook.  In the long run, it would like Google+ accounts to BE Google accounts...that's the dream right there.  Just imagine it: every single user with a Google account on Google+, socializing, commenting, and posting all matter of digital content under one ID.  That's a potential problem for Facebook to be sure.  However, Google may be making a mistake in acting with its own interests at heart rather than those of its users.  While users virtually always resist change to some extent, technology companies are allowed to be innovative because they promise a somehow better future; the ride may be bumpy, but it leads to somewhere glorious in the end.  I don't think that Google has effectively made the case that its users will be better served by integrating their YouTube and Google+ accounts.  Indeed, I think that's really the core of the reason why there's been such a backlash against the move.  As it turns out, associating YouTube videos and comments with people's real names is not really a future YouTubers as a community seem to desire...many chose to use pseudonyms to begin with, after all, and I'd hazard a guess that relatively few people use YouTube primarily to follow people they know or to socialize in any meaningful sense.  Just what, then, does tying Google+ accounts with YouTube actually offer as a benefit to the users, particularly the ones who do not currently use Google+? The "how" in change always inspires a degree of confusion and annoyance, but the "why" in change is what really shapes user behavior and attitudes.  The widespread perception is that Google is seeking to integrate YouTube and Google+ purely for its own ends, and it's hard to dispute that.   

As I see it, the backlash could end up hurting Google in two ways.  The first is obvious: YouTube could suffer.  There are actually quite a few YouTube alternatives out there: Veoh, Vimeo, and DailyMotion come to mind immediately.  The problem with all those sites is that they don't have enough video creators to attract bigger audiences...and they don't have a big enough audience to attract more video creators.  Technologically, the pieces are already in place, though I'd say a couple of the sites I've checked out recently still have a few things to learn a few things about usability (sidebar video ads that play, with sound, WHILE people are trying to watching a video on your site is not a good thing at all).  If video creators and video watchers start defecting, YouTube's audience will slowly dwindle.  The second way the backlash could hurt Google is by devaluing the Google+ brand.  The early adopters of Google+ joined the site because it was new and cool.  They liked features such as Circles and Hangouts.  They liked being part of an online community that skewed towards their interests.  They liked being away from, frankly, the unwashed masses that populate Facebook.  Now people are joining Google+ because they feel like they have to do so, because they want to continue to use a hitherto unrelated site, because they just want nag messages to go away...how do you think those people perceive Google+ now?  Imagine if Facebook had started rolling out Facebook Login before Facebook was popular and it lead to people signing up to Facebook just so they could use some other site.  Would those users be inspired to use Facebook as a social network when it was something they had to join or would they just use it as a login at most?  Google will undoubtedly succeed in upping the Google+ user account, but whether they'll end up with a social network anyone will WANT to use is another issue altogether.

Inertia is perhaps the strongest force in Google's favor.  It's not easy for users to transition away from YouTube because it's such a dominant force in the user-created video space.  Even a less than ideal outcome such as people simply commenting less and uploading fewer videos might not be such a bad thing if total views are not affected to a notable degree.  Joe Blow, Google+ hater and privacy fanatic, may choose to cease commenting on YouTube and no longer post videos of his pet squirrel, but if he and others like him continue to view other people's videos on YouTube it probably won't make much of a difference.  Popular content creators are quite likely to keep using YouTube much as they have in the past because they have the most to lose by abandoning the platform and starting fresh somewhere new.                    

20 May 2013

Can Yahoo find a place for Tumblr?

The big tech news of the day is that Yahoo's board has approved a $1.1 billion cash deal to acquire the blogging platform Tumblr  This deal, should it go through as is expected, represents an interesting about-face for Yahoo.  After all, this is a company that has shuttered a number of services focused on publishing user-generated content in recent years, including a blogging platform (360).  Thus, it’s no surprise that the rumors of this acquisition have been greeted with a good deal of skepticism.  In many ways, Tumblr does not on the surface appear to be a very good fit given Yahoo’s corporate culture.  Tumblr is a freewheeling platform where web comics, animated GIFs, adult content, teenage angst, and political activism have all found a home.  One could argue, based especially on its diversity of content (and the animated GIFs), that Tumblr is the GeoCities of the 2010s, but Tumblr is an even freer environment than GeoCities was, especially given that Tumblr bloggers can monetize their content.  Traditionally, Yahoo has frowned on adult content and barred users from making money using their platforms.  Yahoo also skews old while Tumblr skews very young.  That’s a reason FOR the acquisition from Yahoo’s perspective, but it doesn’t mean that there isn’t going to be a severe culture clash coming down a line.      

If there’s any reason to be hopeful that this acquisition just might work out, it’s Yahoo Voices.  That, too, is a service that specializes in user-generated content and was the result of an acquisition (Associated Content).  Essentially, it’s an article and video site powered by contributions from users.  For years, I would just about never run into Yahoo links on search engines apart from news stories on occasion.  Thanks to Yahoo Voices, those virtual encounters happen much more often now.  The actual material posted on the site varies widely in quality, as is to be expected.  From where I sit, though, it seems like a fairly successful site for Yahoo (though I have no clue as to whether or not it is a financial success).  The Voices comparison is even more appropriate when one considers it is an earning platform for writers and video creators.  I have a hard time imagining the Yahoo of 5 or 10 years ago running such a site.  Perhaps Yahoo really is changing.   

Arguably, Yahoo’s best chance at pulling off a successful Tumblr acquisition would be to let the site run more or less independently.  The fewer the changes, the smoother the transition will be for users.  Let some unconnected Tumblr users a year from now still not realize there was an acquisition because the site from their perspective works just as it always did – that’s the hallmark of a successful acquisition!  On the other hand, Yahoo does want to profit from acquiring Tumblr in some way.  The platform could no doubt be better monetized, but this will have to be done with subtlety to avoid angering the user base.  Tumblr as a company was extremely reluctant to monetize precisely because it realized its users might revolt at a wide deployment of ads or a sudden focus on paid services.  If nothing else, Yahoo hopes to be linked with Tumblr in the public mind – the corporate overlord also wants to be perceived as cool, hip, and young or at least as cooler, hipper, and younger than it was before the purchase.  It wants to be a company which is believed to have a vision and a mission, a business which makes moves with purpose and must be taken seriously.  In short, Yahoo wants to be relevant again – a true giant on the Web.  I wouldn’t necessarily bet against them.