Quora as a blog subsidy


There's been a lot of buzz lately about Quora, the question and answer startup from ex-facebook employees Charlie Cheever and Adam D'Angelo. The site has done an amazing job of quickly building up a strong community of users including many experienced startup founders, investors, and respected members of the tech ecosystem. I read an interview with the founders where they explained that they didn't exactly see it as a question and answer site that they were building, but instead it was more of a blogging platform where you are writing to an audience who's already opted in to read about what you're writing.

When you come to a question page on Quora and it’s blank there are a bunch of people waiting for the answer. An expert will look at it and say “there’s an audience here and I know exactly what they want to hear. And I actually know about this stuff, or know enough to research and produce a really interesting piece of content, and it’s going to go to the perfectly targeted audience who opted in to hearing about this."

This struck a chord. If you're looking for an audience for your writing, previously you would post to your blog. A few people might be subscribed. If you share a link to your post across your social graph, maybe 100 people will read your post. If it gets picked up by an aggregator or social news site, then maybe a few thousand people will read it. And if all of the above happens and you really hit the SEO jackpot on a previously unfulfilled popular search query, then you may get thousands of readers from search over time. But of course that all begins with an original creative idea.

Now consider the case of writing on Quora. The site has a large audience, with many followers on particular topics such as "startups" or "venture capital." There are plenty of unanswered questions, and if you happen to have some valuable information to contribute in answer to someone's question, you are almost guaranteed that what you write will be of interest to at least that person. And as you're taught very early on in school, if you have a question you should ask it, since someone else probably has the same question. Chances are many people are interested in what you have to say. Your writing is immediately distributed to a list of topic followers, and if what you said is really insightful, it will get voted up and bubble to the top of the answer listing.

There are many reasons to write a blog – writing helps formulate your ideas, you create a personal voice within the greater community, and active discussion follows from intelligent posts. In Quora, all of these advantages are maintained, with the added benefit of a built in audience. So this prompts the question: is your time better spent writing a personal blog, or answering questions on Quora?

I suppose there are two main advantages to a personal blog: If you want to write about a topic where there is no existing question on Quora then you have a place to do so, and on you blog you can include personal branding around your writing. On a blog you can add pictures, video, and other media to your post. However it would be nice to subsidize your blog content with your own Quora answers as well. When the Quora API is available I'd like to write an importer which optionally autoposts Quora answers as blog articles with the question as the title of the post and the answer as the body. This would create a nice steady stream of blog content with the addition of distribution of your voice to the Quora audience. Two birds with one stone. 

Now to figure out how to reduce the SEO hit on duplicate content…

The internet never sleeps


When people ask me to describe my regular workday, I usually start off by mentioning that I spend from about 7:15-7:45am "catching up with the internet."

You see, it seems as if this post-web-2.0 internet consisting of realtime, social, and mobile is an organism that never stops moving. It's constantly spewing off news stories, tweets, startup launches, blog comment discussions, and genius viral campaigns. Not only is there a 24-hour news cycle, but there's a 24-hour discussion cycle amongst my friends, my colleagues, and people whom I aspire to one day become my colleagues. And there's something to learn from all of it.

So during my waking hours, even though I don't spend every minute working, I still try to spend as much time as possible absorbing. It's not that hard to stay current on the pulse of the internet because I'll either catch an update on twitter, hear someone in our workspace talking about the latest controversy, or get an email asking me what I think about the hot new datastore. But when I sleep, the internet keeps moving forward. The debates of the day ramble on late into the west coast hours, and intelligent people contribute valuable information to the general collective knowledge base. And it really burns me up inside to feel like I'm missing out.

Am I missing out? In the grand scheme of things probably not. If I don't hear about news that broke 6 hours ago while I was sleeping, then it probably wasn't important enough to be worth knowing anyway. But still, it's hard to tell what's worth spending time on and reading in the morning, and what's not worth the 10 minutes that could be better spent elsewhere.

There are a number of services out there which try and recommend worthwhile content to you based on your past habits, topics of interest which you've tagged, and the influence of other people like you in the system. The smart folks at Parse.ly are working on content recommendation system like this, as are the bright minds at Pinyadda, among countless other startups. If these services can truly recommend useful content, and more importantly do it in realtime, then it will be interesting to see how they turn out. I think it may be overly optimistic to expect that the realtime aspect will be effective, so instead I would like to recommend another approach: curated personal daily briefings.

When President Obama gets up in the morning, he doesn't even have to ask, "What's going on?" There's already a large team of people who's sole task it is is to provide him with a briefing on every area of governance that he's concerned with, and they're all waiting and ready to give him a report. I'd like an analogous team ready to give me a briefing on what's going on, as well as to tell me what is worthwhile to follow up on on my own. 

Sounds like it's pretty far fetched, eh? Maybe not. Consider that I'd be satisfied with one person very similar to myself, a good friend and fellow NYC startup hacker-founder perhaps, who happens to be paying attention to the internet during the 12 hours that I'm not, giving me a 10 minute briefing first thing in the morning. I'd be happy to return the favor for him during the time he wasn't paying attention. We'd read similar news, be interested in similar topics, and follow similar sources on twitter. Now, with just two people playing this role there'd definitely be gaps when we'd both miss something, but what if there were 4 people and we only had to report once every other day? What if there were 10 people? 60 people? Each person would be responsible for creating a curated update of the past 12 hours once a month to contribute to the group. Seems reasonable to assume there may be 60 like minded people in the same ecosystem looking to benefit from these updates.

Now what if there was no need to organize a group like this at all, and instead there was a service that you could pay for these on-demand updates. Maybe I wouldn't subscribe individually to pay out of pocket (I probably would actually), but it would certainly be beneficial for a startup to pay for this for each of their employees. The productivity gains would be tremendous by eliminating the need for every individual to filter through all the content on their own. A service could deliver updates to subscribers via podcast, via email, via personal phone call, and it could be customized to each person based on their interests and sources of preference.

I haven't taken much more time than it took to write this to think through everything, so with more thought it could obviously be tuned. But it seems like a curated wire news service for niche groups based on their ecosystem and preferences would at least be useful, if not profitable.

Viral, Open, and Consumable – Twitter Annotations and the Social API


Twitter’s big announcement this week about annotated tweets and the new metadata that developers will be able to attach to tweets is a welcome one. This means that tweets about music will now be able to contain information about the artist and song name, tweets about finance will now be able to contain semantic information about the stock symbol and price, and tweets about sports will now be able to contain the teams and score, just to name a few examples.

While this will no doubt enhance the information and usefulness of any single tweet, it is also a two way street. There are no declared standards around how to use and interpret this new metadata, and therefore companies and developers can very quickly go down a confusing hole of creating protocols which conflict with those created by other companies and developers. It has been suggested that Twitter itself act as a somewhat benevolent dictator and help standardize certain popular usecases (defining the metadata format for stock based tweets for example), however Twitter has said that it will take a step back and instead look to see what emerges from the community around this role. And I think this is a good thing.

Metadata in tweets is only useful when there are two parties or more who agree to use it in one way. One party can attach this data to any tweet that their applications produce, and another party or product can consume these tweets and use the information in a meaningful way. Sticking with the stock example, someone could build a desktop stock ticker application which scrolled stock prices using current tweets about the stock within a hover effect. This only works if the company building the ticker app knows the standard metadata format that the applications producing the stock related tweets will use. Twitter won’t specify this format, so I believe there is room for the early movers in the space to create the standards themselves, and thereby create a social API in the process.

What is a social API in this context? It’s an API embedded semantically within the context of a social message. In this case, a tweet is a social entity which moves through the internet passed from friend to friend. But when its underlying data conforms to the API specification as well, it is also creating a platform upon which other services can be built. 

It is at once viral, open, and consumable.

What are the advantages to creating a social API in this manner? You are establishing a new content consumption mechanism with your service as the platform. If useful, it is already spreadable purely by existing in the twittersphere. You’ve done all of this without coding your own internal API, access points, error handling, or monitoring.

What are the disadvantages? There are a couple. First off, you’re pretty constrained by a lightweight API. I don’t believe we know the limits yet on the size or structure of the data you can include within an annotation, but it likely won’t be enormous. Second, by outsourcing your API to twitter’s universe you are making yourself replaceable. Anyone else could annotate their tweets with the same standard you defined, and they would be equally as consumable as yours. In this case, your content would have to be unique enough and important enough to remain relevant.  

Exposing a social API via annotated tweets surely won’t be for every service, but I’m interested to see those that step up early and pioneer new ways of consuming content that haven’t yet existed.


For more unnecessary insight, you should follow me on twitter.

Sharing the iPad

Love the iPad. Here’s my biggest feature request for version 2:

I’d like to be able to share it. 

OS X has separate accounts, so that different members of a family or office can log in, sync their email, sync their iTunes, photos, and content. They can save their documents in different spaces, and they can arrange their desktop and their applications to their liking. The iPhone lacked this ability, as there was only one user space. This was completely acceptable however, because people generally carry their own phone, and don’t necessarily care about sharing a phone with their spouse or children.

The iPad on the other hand seems like a device that is meant to be shared. It’s to be used around the house not only as an entertainment center, but also as a newspaper, an e-book reader, and a social media hub. However right now it’s restricted to only one user space. If I sync my email with iPad mail, then my wife can’t sync hers. If I sync it with my iTunes and kindle account, then we can only access my content and not hers. If I sync it with my twitter and facebook, then it’s useless to her in interacting with social media. Sure some of these programs support multiple accounts, but then you get into complexities around usability and privacy.

I’ve heard a lot of talk about people clamoring for background processes, or a built in camera, or flash support in future versions, but I’d just like to put multi-user support on the radar as well. A family of 4 shouldn’t need 4 iPads just so that everybody can check their email.

Making thank you notes modern


Right now thank you notes are necessarily old fashioned. They show that you care. If someone can take time out of their schedule to attend your event, and spend their own money to give you a gift, then it’s important and necessary to show them that you appreciate it. 

The way that we show this gratitude is to write out a handwritten note of about a paragraph in length, stuff this note into an envelope, address it to the recipient, slap a stamp on it, and send it through the mail. This could easily be accomplished in far less time, for far less money, and for far less impact on the environment through a digital medium (like email). However, this just wouldn’t carry the same sentimentality, or indicate as much gratitude quite yet. Society isn’t ready to accept that someone really appreciated the gift and time that were given if the note isn’t handwritten.
I’d like to think that this transition is inevitable at some point however. Many people have always fought the digital migration of things like newspapers, books, invitations, and it’s only a matter of time before the thank you notes migrate as well. Maybe there’s something we can do to speed up the migration. Here’s an idea.
Create a service that makes a digital thank you note more meaningful, sentimental, and valuable than a paper thank you note could ever be. Instead of handwriting a paragraph long note,record a 30 second video personally thanking the person for their individual gift. Maybe attach a photo of yourself using or enjoying the gift. Most people wouldn’t be savvy enough to sit down at their computer to record, edit, compile and attach a video/photo/note, but I think a streamlined online service could be very valuable at automating all of this.
Imagine you have a grid where you enter each person’s name, email, and a brief note. When you’re ready, you press go, and the site steps you through recording your 30 second thank you video using your web cam. After you’re happy you submit your notes, and the service files off a beautiful pingg style email to the recipients complete with your note and a link to your personal video. It’d be interesting to see whether the general public would appreciate this more or less than a handwritten thank you, but I know personally I’d be a lot more entertained by a nice short video than I would by receiving another piece of mail.

TopCoder style crowdsourcing for startups

Back when I was in high school in 2001, one of my computer science classmates introduced me to TopCoder, and there was something about it that I instantly loved. I was very competitive back then both in sports, and in the classroom, and the ability to compete in 45 minute algorithm programming contests felt like the perfect competition for someone who was experiencing a new found love for computer science. The way that a competition worked was that TopCoder would present everybody with three programming problems (easy, medium, and hard), and everyone would work for 45 minutes to submit solutions. If your solution was correct, you’d get points based upon how quickly you submitted, and your ranking would move up or down accordingly compared to other people on the site.

As someone who was young, and very new to computer science, the best I ever did back then was average. I’d occasionally be in the running for a cash prize of some sort, and I’d also occasionally deal with looks of shock and disbelief when I’d tell my buddies that I was staying home on a Friday night to participate in a “programming competition.” It was well worth it though, as nothing taught me more about algorithms and programming during those early years than working through TopCoder problem statements. As I moved on to college, and begun moving away from TopCoder’s compiled languages more towards agile practices and scripting languages, I stopped competing in the competitions frequently. Though I always had an interest in what the company was up to.

Fast forward to 2010. The company not only has algorithm programming competitions, but there are also design competitions, software development competitions, and categories for testing suites and marathon matches. They’ve turned themselves into a crowdsourcing platform where sponsors can submit components that they’d like designed, built, tested, and they attach bounties to each task. Competitors submit their best efforts, and the companies pay the winners the prize in exchange for using the components.

I haven’t used the new platform enough to how well this ends up working out for programmers, designers, and the sponsors, but it appears that in the world of big-co, big-money, long-dev-cycle, and compiled languages, Topcoder may be an easy and efficient way for a project manager to outsource a small project that they don’t have the time or ability to deal with on their fixed in-house team.  

It’s a shame that this model doesn’t quite carry over to the agile development world. When team members have to wear many hats, and you don’t have the luxury of a multi-month plan/design/architect/build/test cycle, it’s difficult to crowdsource your components. Sites like 99designs, elance, and odesk can help fill empty needs, albeit at a pretty high cost of uncertainty about what you’re going to get for your money. I’d love to see a startup build a TopCoder style crowdsourcing service targeted towards agile startups with a rating system that startups can trust, and a high quality community of available freelance hackers.

Am I asking for a lot? Maybe. But wouldn’t it be useful?