Solving The Scoble Problem In Social Networks

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Editor’s note: Guest writer Rocky Agrawal  blogs at reDesign and Tweets @rakeshlobster.

I finally blocked Robert Scoble in Google+. I have absolutely nothing against Scoble. I quite admire him, actually. He’s a great asset to the startup scene and he works damn hard. I’ve met him a few times and I’m sure we’ll meet again. But he was just getting to be way too much.

My Google+ feed was dominated by him. I tried to take a half-step and just remove Scoble from my circles. But then he became Google’s perpetual #1 suggestion for a new friend.

I’ve seen the Scoble effect elsewhere. When Scoble joined Quora a while back, his entry caused a sudden shift in Quora behavior. His legions of followers followed him onto Quora and upvoted his answers to the detriment of others. (Often, it seemed, without even reading the answer.) Quora regulars retaliated by downvoting his answers, even when they were good answers.

This is an ongoing problem with new social networks. Silicon Valley celebrities dominate the conversation. A close friend is on the Google+ top 100 list; I can’t comment on one of his posts without keeping my notification indicator lit for days at a time as his large following continually responds to the post.

While this may create a great experience for popular people in Silicon Valley and even for readers in Silicon Valley, it’s not the way to build a mass-market social network.

Although I like a lot of the content I currently see on Google+, it has limited appeal. It also has a dangerous priming effect as new entrants either look at the conversations and mimic them or decide that this isn’t their scene. It’s like peeking into a party and realizing that the people who are inside are nothing like you.

I’ve seen this happen time and time again with hyped properties like digg, delicious, FriendFeed, Wave, buzz and now Google+.

I wasn’t on Facebook in its very, very early days. But I would be willing to bet the conversation was not primarily about tech companies and the lives of tech executives. It was more likely about hot people on campus, Cambridge bars and restaurants, terrible professors, crappy weather, the success of the crew team and who hooked up with whom.

One of my early experiences with what drives social behavior online was when I was working at AOL. A portion of our team had gone to Dublin to meet with our dev team. One night we were out and my boss chugged a Guinness. I took a video of that and posted it to the failed AOL UnCut video site. I IMed the link to a friend. Within an hour, pretty much every one on our team around the world had seen it.

That type of content is a shit-ton more interesting to most people (me included) than discussions on whether Google+ should resurface a post every time someone comments or whether clicking a +1 button on a Web site has an effect on Google+.

Paradoxically, the extent to which the constraints of Twitter stifle conversation helped its growth. Because real conversation is hard using Twitter (vs. just tweeting out your own story) there isn’t the expectation that people will engage with you in it. Because tweets disappear as the firehose continues to gush, it’s easier to ignore them. I know—I’ve done it.

This appeals to a lot of the people that have popularized Twitter: A-list celebrities, media outlets, politicians and megabrands. Their primary purpose on Twitter is to relate their version of events. It isn’t about conversing with their audience. CNN doesn’t really want to talk to you. They want to talk at you. This isn’t entirely about lack of desire, it’s also a matter of time. Ashton Kutcher can’t possibly respond to every @aplusk from his 7 million+ followers.

You only need to look at recent changes in Quora to see this dynamic in action. Three key elements of Quora were the ability to comment on answers, to ask questions directly of people and to message them through Quora. I’ve built a number of great friendships through Quora’s behind-the-scenes interactions.

But Quora recently gave users the power to block all of these features. This is essential to attracting celebrities to the platform. Larry Summers and JJ Abrams blocked these features. Former D.C. schools chancellor and education reform activist Michelle Rhee recently joined Quora. I would love to engage with her on education reform (a topic I’m passionate about), but she blocked these features as well.  Kutcher is one Quora celebrity who has left his account open to user interaction. (I’m not a celebrity, so feel free to ask me a question.)

The current Google+ interface would be less appealing to celebrities, because the interface is designed to invite conversation and engagement.

For Web celebrities, this kind of conversation and engagement is great. Joshua Schachter recently tweeted that he got “30 responses on twitter w/ 14000 followers, 42 on plus w/ 1500 followers.” That doesn’t surprise me at all—it’s a natural result of Google’s user interface decisions. Google+ continually resurfaces threads that get comments; Tweets keep sinking as time goes on.

How Google responds to the Scoble challenge will be interesting. Robert, I’m sorry I had to block you. But when you get back from Florida, I’d love to buy you a drink.