Snapchat’s Twitter lesson

One of the things that initially drew me to Twitter years ago was celebrities. Actors, authors, musicians, and tech investors were all directly posting and sharing their thoughts to this medium, in a seemingly unfiltered fashion. This was pretty exciting; you couldn’t friend a celebrity on Facebook, but you could follow them on Twitter and get a peek into their thoughts.

Posting to Twitter is another matter. Hashtags and at-replies are part of the vernacular, but it’s not obvious when and how to use them. Conversations among people are hard to follow and join. Most importantly, it’s hard to find your social graph there. Sure, you can add people via your address book, but an address book is not a complete network, given how easy it is to make casual acquaintances online.

I post to Twitter, but I don’t get a lot of return from it, such as replies, likes, and retweets. And, a lot of people I know are either on Twitter purely for consumption, or don’t bother with the service at all. For me, this turns Twitter into a source of breaking news and celebrity chatter, and not a place to have a conversation with my social graph. This is an engagement problem for Twitter; there’s only so much one-to-many broadcasts from celebrities one can consume before wanting to move on to a real, engaging conversation.

Snapchat Stories vs Instagram Stories

When I first started using Snapchat, I had that same feeling as I did with Twitter. Here were people like Macklemore, Mark Suster, and Bob Saget posting videos, and I could watch them, unfiltered. How cool! But, posting to Snapchat had echoes of Twitter’s troubles: it’s tough to figure out how to post to Snapchat, conversations between people are difficult, and social return is low. Most people I know are not on the service. My posts get seen by 4 or 5 people, at most.

Recently, Instagram unabashedly copied Snapchat stories. I was surprised to see about a dozen friends had already posted to Instagram Stories. I tried it out, and found it simpler to use than Snapchat. And, in 18 hours, my first Instagram story had 10 times as many views as my most popular Snapchat story.

At this point, I’m questioning whether I’ll continue to post to Snapchat. Why post there when all of my friends and family are on Instagram (or, by extension, Facebook)? And here’s where Facebook’s advantage shines through: Facebook has the most complete social graph and is able to bootstrap any new feature or service they build or buy with it. The network effect is strong, and draws people in.

Snapchat’s Twitter lesson

Snapchat’s Twitter lesson is this: one-to-many broadcasts from famous people with millions of followers is great, and will get you far. But, at some point, you’re going to want everyone to post and consume to have a vibrant, growing social service. And to do that, you need to make it easy for users to find those they know and to post very easily. Right now, Snapchat is not that place.

For Snapchat to scale, it will need to heed Twitter’s hard lessons, invent new ways to differentiate, or suffer a usage plateau. There’s only so many videos of Bob Saget telling puns one can stomach.

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Want to predict the future? Think 100x.

My first computer was a Tandy 1400FD. It had an 8MHz processor (which you could slow down to 4.77MHz for those games that were synchronized to the processor). It had two floppy drives, 768KB of RAM, and no hard drive. It had a CGA monitor. The first modem I purchased for it was 1200 baud.

My smartphone is an iPhone 6. It has a 1.4GHz processor, 64GB of storage, and 1GB of RAM. It has a high-quality, multi-color screen. It has a host of other technologies like WiFi, Bluetooth, NFC, LTE, and sensors galore. It can download and upload data at speeds measured in tens of megabits.

When you compare these two computers, you see that their processor speed, storage, memory, and bandwidth are all at least 100 times (100x) different. And, my smartphone can also do about 100x the things my Tandy could do.

At the time I was using my Tandy, I don’t think I ever envisioned something like an iPhone 6 (though I did envision having a Tricorder). However, I could have predicted parts of the experience of using an iPhone 6 if I had asked myself, “What happens if all of these things in my computer became 100x faster, smaller, cheaper, or better?”

If you want to predict the future of technology, imagine what will happen if something in today’s technology gets faster, smaller, cheaper, or better, by a lot. For example:

  • What if everyone had bandwidth measured in the terabits, anywhere they went?
  • What if computers were as small as a grain of salt?
  • What if everyone had exabytes of storage, both locally and in the cloud?
  • What if you could put dozens of touch screens around your house, car, and workplace, for the same cost as one inexpensive tablet today?
  • What if every light, appliance, wall, floor, and piece of furniture in your home had an Internet-connected computer within it?
  • What if your devices understood not only your speech as well as a person, but could anticipate your thoughts by analyzing your brain waves?

Of course, not all of these things will happen at the same rate, if ever. And speed, size, cost, and quality are not the only factors that drive new technology. Yet, imagining 100x improvements are a good thought exercise if you are trying to look ahead beyond two or three years.

Get ahead of the FUD

Screw-ups are inevitable. Sometimes, our screw-ups are behind closed doors, with a small number of people. But sometimes they’re done in public, in front of customers. When public screw-ups happen, it’s important to correct the mistake quickly and publicly. Any delay will hurt you and your product through the fear, uncertainty, and doubt (FUD) created through negative word-of-mouth, news articles, and social media.

Xbox One

I was on the Xbox team when the Xbox One was announced. When you read the press release, there’s a lot to like: new games, new controller, new Kinect. Looking beyond the PR, customers quickly learned the initial product was always-online, restricted support for used games, required a purchase of a Kinect, and cost $100 more than Sony’s PlayStation 4. Customers were surprised at the changes, and took to the Internet to complain, including members of the military.

Articles were written immediately after the announcement adding to the FUD of what the console did and did not support.

The result is that instead of collecting the accolades, and maybe even getting an early leg up on Sony’s PlayStation 4, Microsoft is already on the back foot. It’s come out early, and laid down core “features” of its console that are wildly unpopular with people who you may call vocal forum goers, but who are also the preorder customers, the early adopters and product evangelists.

About a month later, Xbox backtracked. But the damage was done; PlayStation 4 has gone on to beat Xbox in sales.

Revolv and Nest

I was an early adopter of Revolv, a home automation hub. It cost $300 but promised lifetime service and support for dozens of different home automation devices. It worked well, and the company was regularly releasing updates to its software. Then, in October 2014, Nest acquired Revolv and ceased sales of the hub and updates to its software, but support for the hub’s service was continued. However, in February 2016, Revolv announced they were disabling support for the hub’s service, rendering the device useless. Emails to the company were responded to with robotic sympathy and no recourse.

This went largely unnoticed given the small user base of Revolv, until articles appeared referencing first-hand accounts of the situation and shining light on the larger question of products tied to services, and what happens if a company decides to stop those services.

All of those devices have software and hardware that are inextricably linked. When does an expired warranty become a right to disable core device functionality?

Imagine if you bought a Dell computer and Dell then informed you that when your warranty ends your computer will power down.

Imagine if Apple put out a new policy that not only won’t they replace the device for defects, but they will actually be bricking your phone 12 months after purchase.

Is the era of IoT bringing an end to the concept of ownership? Are we just buying intentionally temporary hardware? It feels like it. I own a Commodore 64 that still works.

After two months, Nest backtracked, and offered full refunds to its customers. But the damage to Nest’s reputation, at least for me, was done. Before this, I had pondered buying a Nest thermostat or camera. Now, I am unwilling to buy anything from Nest, out of concern for what their policies are around product support and sunsetting.

Beat the FUD

It took a month for Xbox to change its position on Xbox One. It took two months for Next to change its position on Revolv. This is an eternity, given media like Facebook, Twitter, and Medium and the speed at which they transmit information. In the absence of information during those one or two months, Xbox and Nest customers were given lots of FUD to think about.

If you make a product decision that your customers react negatively to, take steps quickly to fix the decision. Else, FUD may set you in a position that’s hard to overcome.

Don’t be busybored

More than once in my career, I’ve been busybored. This is when you are both very busy and very bored at the same time. It’s not a good feeling, working hard but not being engaged in your work. How is this state possible?

Busyness is a measure of how many things you have to do, and when you have to do them. Being busy means having a lot of high-priority items due around the same time. Often this manifests as switching often between tasks, dealing with interruptions to address pressing issues, and being worried about finishing everything on time.

Being busy is not inherently bad. Busy can be exciting. Launching a new product can be busy. Preparing to speak at a conference can be busy. Completing a merger or acquisition can be busy.

So when is being busy also boring? It’s when the things you are doing are very familiar and are not challenging you. The fifth time you’ve solved the same problem, negotiated the same contract, or written the same kind of document is less interesting than the first. The tenth time can be tiresome.

Being busybored can impact productivity. If you’re used to delivering great work, but aren’t being challenged, you’ll notice productivity fall as the intrinsic rewards for pursuing and engaging in work fall.

Are you feeling busybored? If so, it’s probably hard to fathom making time to reflect on this feeling when there are problems and meetings and phone calls and deadlines, but it’s really important that you do make time. Even 15 minutes at the bookends of the day to think about how to fix busyboredom will pay dividends.

Here are some ideas on how to get out of this state:

  1. Do less. Sometimes, the solution to being busybored is to spend less time on the things that are familiar, and more on the things that are novel and challenging. Make a list of what you’re working on that’s keeping you busy. Flag the things that you find less engaging. Then, triage the less-engaging items. Can some things wait? Can you delegate some of them?
  2. Coach someone else. Delegate a task to someone who wants the experience, and coach them through it. Teaching is different than doing. As a teacher, you’ll look at the work from a different perspective.
  3. Talk to your manager. Don’t keep the feeling bottled up. There may be a really interesting project sitting in the wings that your manager knows of. If you let him know you’re feeling busybored, he may help pull things off of your plate to make room for the new, more interesting work.
  4. Think bigger. Look for ways to make the work you’re doing bigger than what you’ve done before. Is your work solving a symptom? Solve the root cause this time. Did your boss ask for the same thing again? Figure out how to deliver something extra that she didn’t ask for.
  5. Find something new. Sometimes, being busybored is a sign that you’ve outgrown your role. If there are no new challenges in sight, it may be time to find something new. This is not a quick fix and has lasting implications, so I wouldn’t suggest it unless you’ve exhausted all other avenues.

Most importantly, don’t wait for this feeling to pass, or expect someone else to make it go away. Use the opportunity to find your next challenge that will re-engage you in your work.