GQ have posted an article by Devin Friedman called The Viral Me, looking at social networking through the lens of Y Combinator. It’s worth reading the whole thing, but here are some excerpts that caught my eye, for one reason or another.
Almost all the consumer products (hereafter: thingies) being built at YC are straight-up social-media products or have features meant to take advantage of what is known as the social layer of the Internet.
This — Silicon Valley in general and YC more specifically — might be the last place in America where people are this optimistic. The last place in America where people aren’t longing for a vague past when we were the shit.
My reflexive response [to] privacy fear[s] would be to pull all data whatsoever from the public sphere—erase my Facebook account, stop with the Twitter. People like Rahul have the opposite solution: Flood the social layer with information you want out there about yourself.
“You need to rapidly respond to people, and you need to know a lot about them,” Rahul says. “I have a thousand and something followers on Twitter. And I’ve interacted with pretty much all of them at one point or another. Personally. I need to scale that to tens of thousands, to hundreds of thousands. It’s a brand. It’s powerful!”
“You’re selling a product, so that makes sense,” I say. “But don’t those tools make people who don’t have products begin to see themselves as the product?”
“That’s a good point. I believe that more people are going to work for themselves, and more people are going to do what they’re passionate about. If you love Disney characters, fuck it, go and monetize Disney characters. If you love Apple laptops, go and become an authority on that and gain a following. This wasn’t possible ten years ago. What we’re talking about is monetizing passion. Monetizing authority.”
“But why is that good? Am I actually going to enjoy myself more?”
“You’ll be a bigger person. More people can appreciate who you are more often.”
“Don’t you think the need to be a quote- unquote bigger person leads to unhappiness and anxiety?”
“I think it’s more likely to lead to happiness than material possessions, than the pursuit of more wealth.”
“But isn’t it precisely the same as the pursuit of more wealth? It’s just replacing money with followers.”
“Yes it is. But don’t reduce it to a number.”
One of the founders of a YC company called 1000Memories.com (it’s FB for dead people, only more interesting) says he heard FB can already tell when you’re about to break up with someone: certain communication patterns emerge.
“There was a study done,” Brian says. “They gave people video cameras. Everyone over the age of 25 would turn it outward, and everyone under the age of 25 would turn it inward. This is the first platform that captured this behavior of turning the camera inward. It created a platform for communication around that one behavior. Look at the iPhone 4. It has two cameras—they added one specifically to face inward.”
Friction is what you don’t want. Friction is what keeps people from signing up for your site or downloading your app. Because it’s too expensive, because it’s too embarrassing, because it’s too difficult, because it’s difficult at all. … In a perfect world, there’d be friction if someone didn’t sign up for your thingy. Again, FB has it right: It’s frictive to not have an FB account; just ask anyone who has to explain six times a day why he doesn’t have one.
“In the best products, you put minimal amounts in,” Brian says, “and you get a lot back out. Like Twitter. You follow ten people. You maybe tweet once in a while. And you get all this news content and information. You don’t have to do very much, and you get a lot back. Facebook? The same thing. You connect to your friends and, boom, you’re flooded with all this stuff.”
Here’s how Rahul explains [gamification]: “The biggest trend in Web applications right now is adding game design. With the theory of game design, you want a curve like this: increasingly large payoffs at random but increasingly spaced intervals. So the first payoff is very small, and the next payoff is a little bigger, and the next one… To begin with, you get a payoff one out of five actions, then it’s one out of twenty, then it’s one out of fifty—but those intervals have to be random. That is the key to human addiction.”
Quora actually does make you feel optimistic. It’s a thingy that is meant to harness the collective knowledge of all the smart people who use the Internet and get them to answer human questions and provide nuanced human answers. Because, he says—and the man is correct on this point—the quality of information on the Internet sucks right now. (Anyone who tells you how much better the Internet made things should think about that.) Basically, he says, if you want information, you end up on Wikipedia. Quora is used by basically everyone in Silicon Valley now. All the famous people are on there, sharing high-quality information and shoring up their own online identities—their personal identities—and in the process helping the world be less dumb.
This isn’t just the place where they invent this shit; it’s the single place where the life that’s advertised is lived. Where the adoption rate, if the product is right, approaches 100 percent. Where the world has been mapped out by the inquisitive people with GPS-equipped smartphones and Foursquare, and difficult technical questions are answered by friendly experts you don’t know. (It’s hardly a coincidence that the one area of Quora that’s already fleshed out is the part about how to build thingies.)