Friday, February 26, 2010

Verbing Meetup: Network Effects, Information Cascades and Surface Credibility

I recently stopped in at an event at the HMS Bounty. It was hosted by a little Facebook group called HiddenLA. (little? ha ha) What is remarkable about this group is it started with a blog of about 30 friends wishing to celebrate what Los Angeles had to offer. Now in less than a year has 140,000 fans via Facebook! Really it was a brainchild of a marketing executive in between gigs. But after meeting with W.Lynn Garrett and listening to her passion, I realized this is a great example of Network effects, Information Cascades, Surface Credibility and Social Coordination Problems. And it relates to recent decisions by MeetUp to make changes to their interface and features that to some seemed insane but in light of this event at a dingy dive bar in Korea Town makes more sense than ever. I am going to discuss several theories here, so here is the simplest recap of them: Network Effects / Network Externalities / Small World Networks The idea is simple people are connected, value from the connection expands with the number of people connected. I tell two people a story, they tell two people each and the geometric expansion of message distribution spreads. (Granovetter) Information Cascades People follow what is popular. If something gets popular even by initial sheer random choice by any number of factors that popularity is compounded by others seeing the popularity and following suit increase the popularity of the initial random choice (Duncan Watts / Mathew Salganick Princeton) Surface Credibility As we developed (cognitively via evolution) we developed an ability to make snap judgments about everything. Though, we can override those decisions through rational thinking, we operate on those judgments continually. Credibility or Trust is a component that enables our social brains to cooperate briefly in an "Open Savanna" based on just a assemblage of a few visual/auditory/olfactory bits of data. Web sites have the clues too, recently updated blogs or posts, ownership etc. ( BJ Fogg Stanford) Common Knowledge / Social Coordination / Theory of the Mind The idea is social coordination requires knowledge of shared knowledge.. Easy example, as children we lack that skill. At 3-4 we move a stool and begin climbing to reach the cookie jar. Our mother sees us and we see mom staring back. But we have no idea at 3-4 what her frown means and no idea what she is thinking. By 7-8 the cookie jar is higher, but this time if she looks at us the same way. We know that she knows what we are thinking.. We want cookie.. Social Coordination works the same, Sally: You going to the Political Rally? Bob:Yes, if your going..Sally: If your going I am going..(Micheal Chwe UCLA) Meetup recent changes to their in interface. Though I know its a work in progress and I doubt the engineers have studied Information Cascades or Surface Credibility tests. They are on to the right thing. And here is why... Getting rid of the friends feature. Many MeetUp Organizers thought this was a death blow to their existence. At first I thought not sure it that was wise. But after last night with HiddenLA I realized it was critical. MeetUp is not Facebook. And Facebook has a robust API that MeetUp has yet to fully harness. That said, MeetUp friends was a closed network. And when you want Network Effects to take hold, closed networks don't work. Not at all... What that means is as the MeetUp CTO mentioned in the future they may implement Facebook. They have already done so with baby steps by allowing signing in of MeetUp events on Facebook. Well, every social network platform is a moving target. But Meetup has qualities even Facebook can't touch. So focusing on MeetUp strengths and not its weak closed friendship service was a wise move. Especially if they hook into Facebook. Remember, HiddenLA started with 30 people and now have 140,000 fans via Facebook.. No MeetUp Group on earth can grow that fast. It added 60,000 fans in two weeks! So we see that network of Friends moves fast... How and why that fast? Is it just a Big Network? Yes and no. I worked the room of 50-60 people who showed up for the HiddenLA event. All came through Facebook, all found out about it via Facebook. Despite the fact HiddenLA has a great blog.. But more about that later. Facebook provides streams, of as some call them "LifeStreams" lists of data updates from video, events, foursquare, twitter, and beyond. So if one person signs up to be a fan, that person's network gets the update. Its shared. If ten people sign up and each has different set of 100 friends. Imagine the diffusion after those 10,000 friends sign up? Quite a few mentioned that they saw their friend join via the Facebook stream and joined too. The majority of blogs don't have a single follower. HiddenLA started rather quickly with 30 or so friends. Those 30 were friends who happen to be Jazz musicians. A distinct and close knit group, but also people who get out and meet and perform. So in terms of a Information Cascade, when Lynn took the Blog Idea to Facebook she had already 300 members. Larger than say my favorite mistake for a fan page LampsPlus a national retail outlet. This initial popularity gave HiddenLA a foothold most groups never get. A real, though at first small, dedicated fans of nostalgic LA. MeetUp has its own cascades, it lists the "Most Members" or Best Match. While Best Match can be tweaked by adding topics that are popular and listing the zip code to more dense areas of meetup members. Most members groups require some help not only from Information Cascades but also surface credibility. What helped HiddenLA was the Blog. This was a well crafted informative blog about Los Angeles. The design was professional and the content well crafted. Web Credibility is something that has been studied over and over. Although HiddenLA does not hit every point outlined by the researchers and academics the one they do hit they do very well. They list their members, update with recent posts and have a well organized layout with some depth of information. This gives a sense of authority. Authority that MeetUp lacks in some respects. MeetUp does not provide much in terms of content. Video is small and at the bottom. About pages are not indexed and linked to the front with excerpts, so some surface credibility could be improved. Meetup does have clear identity to who is running the group and why. Where as HiddenLA does not. It is unclear who is running the show. But the recent moves to create a stream of events adds to each groups credibility. It shows that this MeetUp is a live active group with things going on under the surface, by bringing it to the surface. Now I have a group of 2,000+ members. I regularly get between 50-150 people showing up. Lynn Garrett has 140,000 members and got around 50 people to show up. That is in part I believe to her credibility gap, as constrained by Facebook features and Wordpress feature sets. Her events are not persuasive enough. Though thankfully she does not get 8-10% show up. I don't think HMS Bounty could handle 12,000 people. But here lies the problem... MeetUp needs to focus on surface credibility while opening up its network. Lynn now has to deal with spammers on her site. She has a full time job. And its only going to get more complex. MeetUp is providing tools (slowly) to help event organizers organize. But it is precisely by adding those streams to Meetup that enable the sharing of Social Coordination. MeetUp members can see who is going, what activities they are doing. This enhances common knowledge. Her Blog lacks that. And the HiddenLA is now full of spam comments about other events and locales offering events.. This hurts the credibility of the group. And is certainly a justification of why MeetUp holds such tight reins in on group feature sets. And yet they are wisely opening up to letting a MeetUp be a Verb, as in creating and sharing the common knowledge of "You Going?" "Yea,If your going" "Okay I'm Going!". But its the transition, community organizers will need to handle the chasm between Facebook and MeetUp to deal with the issues of Information Cascades, Surface Credibility, and Network Effects. Links: Facebook: WebCredibility: Granovetter Mathew Salganik Michael Chwe Duncan Watts