Quest

This morning Alessandro came to me with a very interesting question, which he got from a client: if a company has a strong presence on Facebook, does it still need a “regular” web presence?

I have written about this before, but this extended airport permanence gave me some time to think more in depth about why the answer is “Yes”, which I readily admit was my instinctive response.

The reason is related to the ongoing struggle Google seems to be experiencing in getting G+ off the ground (despite crossing the 25mil users mark faster than any other social network) and has to do with the way people look for stuff, where “stuff” can be a software driver, or a humorous video, or interesting news or anything in between.

Nobody can deal with exabytes of information being added to he Internet every picosecond, so the obvious quest is one for relevance – not ANY driver, but the right one for connecting my printer to my Mac. Not ANY funny video, but one that will make me laugh. Not ANY news, but the ones covering topics I have an interest in.

We all want less, but more relevant “stuff”; it’s always been like that. The media resolved the conundrum by getting intellingent, well-prepared humans to perform the task of curating content, i.e. sifting through countless sources and hand-pick those bits worthy to appear on a digest a reader would find interesting enough to pay money for. They did that in the context of a business model where the distribution mechanism required heavy equipment and high capital investment, favoring the emergence of a product that could appeal to an audience as wide as possible.

But this was the effect of the business model, not an inherent necessity of the curation process: in fact the lowering cost of content distribution, e.g. through digital television (not to mention IPTV) gave birth to a plethora of niche channels and people can now enjoy 24 hours a day of fishing or cooking, if they so desire.

The Internet aped that early mechanism: in the 90’s (not centuries ago) if you wanted to find good content you went to a Portal, remember those? They had journalists who curated content, much in the same way traditional journalists did, but they were not doing a very good job, and before they could realize this and improve, Google came along and wiped the table clean.

Google proved that the content found by their machine was better: the drivers were the exact ones we were looking for, funnier videos ranked ahead of less funny ones and the more interesting news came before the less intesting ones. Portals died.

But sophisticated as Google is, its ranking algorithms was still pretty raw, and the subtler nuances of relevance always escaped it: why do I laugh at Craig Ferguson, but not at Conan O’Brien?

Even I don’t know that, but it’s a fact, and once I find someone else who laughs at Craig but not at Conan, I’m damn well going to follow his recommendations on a video being funny. Multiply this a thousand times, then a million, then a hundred millions and you have a hundred million Mechanical Turks each adding his own two cents to the Internet, rating everything from restaurants to books to holiday resorts, advising each other with CTOs (Check This Out), the ubiquitous currency of word of mouth: platforms have risen and fallen in the attempt to harness CTOs until Facebook came along and wiped the table clean.

On Facebook, each person becomes his/her own content stream: some are a torrent, some a trickle, but we can build our own bouquet of streams by following People we know (or should know).

The Facebook way of bringing content to us therefore completely diverges from the Things logic followed by Google (which explains why FB does not care if their search is piss-poor) and adopts instead a People logic: good People broadcast good content.

Which is right? My very good friend Ramin Assadollahi would say it actually gets worse: according to him, there are at least another couple of dimensions for organising information, the Time dimension and the Place dimension, making the challenge even more interesting, but that is another post.

The fact that Google and Facebook are both so successful demonstrates that both logics are valid and therefore companies must design their online presence to cater to the needs of both classes of users.

So we have explained why it’s not “either/or” but “and”, but what about Google+? Can it succeed?

I think it can, if it will offer a better way to win the Quest for Relevance, for example by combining People and Things or maybe crossing it with Time or Places.

Or perhaps Ramin will.

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