Do Social Media Destroy Human Relationships?

This was the question debated at a recent AEI event, pitting DC economics professor and food blogger Tyler Cowen against British philosopher Roger Scruton.

Part of Scruton’s argument involved drawing a parallel with pornography: just as, in his view, pornography tends to become a substitute for real romantic love, interacting with “friends” on social media becomes a substitute for real, meaningful, effort-ful offline relationships.

The debate ended with Cowen telling Scruton, essentially: “You’re so very wrong, but I’m glad you’re here to voice your mistaken opinions.” In other words, we shouldn’t accept any social trend without questioning it, but in this case there’s no need to fret.

To me, it all comes down to choice: social media aren’t inherently bad for us; they become bad by virtue of how we use them (to stalk, spy, and hide, or to connect, learn, and share).

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Microsoft Acquires Skype

Microsoft has bought Skype for $8.5 billion.

Right now, we can’t tell if Microsoft overpaid, says Robin Wauters at TechCrunch; Skype is a “valuable asset to own” even though it lost $7 million last year.

Read a roundup of other perspectives over at GigaOM, and watch the press conference at 11 a.m. EDT.

And in case you were worried: “Microsoft will continue to invest in and support Skype clients on non-Microsoft platforms.”

Liveblogging SocialMedia.org’s BlogWell DC

Yesterday, I made my way out to USA TODAY’s headquarters in McLean, Virginia, to liveblog BlogWell DC, an event about how big brands use social media. I covered presentations by USA TODAY, Discovery Communications, Delta Air Lines, and the IRS.

I was pretty impressed with the quality of the presentations and the variety of social media strategies discussed. Among the highlights:

  • What America Wants, a 4-day Twitter campaign to win a full-page ad for your favorite charity (USA TODAY)
  • Streaming live tweets onscreen during a primetime show (Discovery)
  • An April Fool’s joint press release with the Bronx Zoo cobra (or, at least, its Twitter account holder) for a Snake on the Town documentary (Discovery)
  • Tweeting at a user who was wondering what TV show to watch (Discovery) (this was one of the most interesting — the idea of searching for relevant tweets then encouraging a user to buy/use/consume your product)
  • Quick customer service on Twitter (Delta)

Some of the common themes:

  • LISTEN TO YOUR CUSTOMERS
  • Make it easy to engage and participate
  • The worry that users will share personal information (phone numbers, SSNs) on sites like Facebook
  • Be human (send direct messages, respond to tweets, etc.)

Overall, the event just opened my eyes to all the innovative and targeted ways to use social media to engage customers. Well done!

BeCouply: The Love App

I recently wrote a post for Social Matchbox on BeCouply, a new web/mobile app for couples to take and share photos, find new date ideas, and connect with other couples. I explain the story of how they came up with the idea and chose a core set of features, and where they plan to go in the future.

BeCouply raises a couple (no pun intended) of interesting questions. First, can you be successful aggregating a bunch of features that occur elsewhere? Things like posting photos, finding date ideas, and sharing a calendar can be done on social networking sites, through Google search, and in Gmail. (Connecting with other couples is harder, though surely not impossible.) My guess is yes, since couples do spend a lot of time together so the increase in convenience is particularly beneficial.

Second, contrary to popular opinion, is it possible to successfully mix business with pleasure? Becky Cruze cofounded BeCouply with her boyfriend Pius Uzamere, and she emphasized how much she’s learned about him and how they’ve grown as a couple. It seems that, in startups in general, employees are generally closer friends than those at larger companies. Perhaps it’s the extra time spent together, or the shared commitment to a risky idea.

Third, will this app save our Facebook news feeds from photos of couples making out? We can only hope.

Living Social #dollarlunchday

Living Social is offering $1 deals in DC today, for up to $25 worth of lunch fare. As a DC-based startup, they’ve attracted huge interest–as evidenced by their slow website and mobile app (I still haven’t received the text message with my voucher for sushi!).

With users complaining on Twitter, Living Social has responded by soliciting direct messages from the voucherless and advising them to give their last name to merchants.

Will this be a PR failure, or are $1 lunches worth the hassle?

Technology and Fear

With another copy of Good to Great checked out from the library, I’m back to my reading.  The chapter on technology accelerators contains some particularly interesting insights:

When used right, technology becomes an accelerator of momentum, not a creator of it. The good-to-great companies never began their transitions with pioneering technology, for the simple reason that you cannot make good use of technology until you know which technologies are relevant [for your company’s defining concept].

In other words, deciding what you do best and are passionate about, and how to measure your success (in other words, your purpose and goals)–and letting that guide all your decisions–is more important than jumping on the latest-new-technology bandwagon.

Another fine point, which fits with some of my thinking lately:

Those who built good-to-great companies weren’t motivated by fear…[they] are motivated by a deep creative urge and an inner compulsion for sheer unadulterated excellence for its own sake.

The connection here is that those bandwagon-jumpers are most often the same people who are afraid of being left behind as others adopt new technology.  But I think this point applies more broadly to a general orientation toward life: it’s best to focus and be motivated by the positive values, not by fear of the negative.

Is Google +1 Really Positive?

Yesterday Google announced the +1 button, widely compared to Facebook’s “like” button.  By clicking on a +1 icon by a search result, you can let your friends and the world (or no one, if you set your privacy settings accordingly) know that you recommend it.  Right now, your friends include your Google contacts, but they may expand to encompass Twitter connections as well.

Interesting.  Very, very interesting.  Critics have been quick to point out the flaws: you need a Google Profile (what is that?), Google has limited knowledge of your friends (Facebook ain’t sharin’!), and by the time you know you like a page, you probably won’t want to go back to your search results and +1 it (new verb) (Google hopes to change this by putting +1 buttons on websites).

But consider the following:

In short, +1 becomes the new PageRank. OK, that’s kind of catchy, but more accurately, +1 recommendations can become an important new signal for Google to use as part of its overall ranking algorithm, during a time when it desperately needs new signals.

And this I’m afraid of. Honestly, I don’t want the opinions of the masses (or the scheming of those trying to cheat the system, which will inevitably occur) affecting my Google search results.  I know some elements of Google’s algorithm are already “democratic” in that sense, like the importance of linking.  But people’s behavior seems a more reliable indicator of quality than their randomly chosen +1’s. Am I wrong?

The Future of Education?

In a recent TED video, Salman Khan talks about his Khan Academy, which evolved from a few YouTube videos into a whole library of videos plus resources for teachers to track student progress. The idea is that teachers can assign video lectures for homework and save classroom time for more individualized guidance.

The amount of data available is truly impressive. The program tracks how well students are doing on a host of concepts (e.g., fractions or decimals), and teachers can even see how long it took a student to answer online test questions and which ones he got right.

A lot of the comments on TED.com question whether Khan Academy is truly a reinvention of education, since it uses a common technology (video) and common practices (like focusing on one-on-one tutoring and remediation). What strikes me as interesting is that the teacher role, though changed, is not eliminated. But visions of futuristic education usually involve students learning from online video, and not going to school. Is that realistic?

Khan’s talk suggests that it might be. In addition to teachers helping struggling students, his program can facilitate interactions between students. Students could connect with peers who have mastered a subject and even view their “reputation” (which I assume means comments or ratings from other struggling students who have learned from them). An education system that went fully online would require such peers—young or old—to provide help to those who have trouble learning from video content alone.

Would this be a good thing? I once spoke with someone who was starting a college, and asked her about online education. She replied that in-person interaction is vital for students because it allows them to witness the teacher interacting with others, demonstrating virtues of character in action. It gives them a role model. This relates to a broader view of education as growth as a person, not simply growth in knowledge. Fully online education may mean that parents have a greater responsibility for this aspect of their children’s development.

Ignite DC

I went to Ignite DC 6 this Thursday.  Ignite is an event where speakers give 5-minute talks, accompanied by 20 Power Point slides that advance every 15 seconds.  The topics were eclectic: a few about social media and startups in DC, some inspiring personal stories, and random talks on stress and hip hop.

My favorite was a talk called “Beauty Can Save Your Life” by Nina Tovish.  She spoke about stopping during the day to observe the beautiful things around us, and sharing that beauty with others.  By doing so, she said, we begin to see the world and its textures and colors differently, and we develop a desire to create beauty ourselves (she became a silk scarf designer).  Her slides were mostly photos, of ornate benches and serene landscaping and pebbles. Her talk fit well with many of the things I’ve been reading lately about mindfulness and curiosity.

The format of Ignite is interesting, albeit a bit gimmicky.  Five-minute talks are so short that you barely mind when you’re not interested in a topic, because the next speaker will be on before you know it.  Without question and answer periods between talks, though, I found myself unable to properly digest the information.  I wonder why the founders of Ignite chose this structure.

Is Google Going from Good to Great?

I just finished the chapter in Good to Great about the Hedgehog Concept: how great companies focus on a single concept that they can be the best in the world at and are passionate about. But today it seems like some companies, including Google, are trying to branch out into many different areas.  Does that mean they cannot become “great” companies, a la Jim Collins?

The hedgehog concept can be fairly abstract.  Abbott Laboratories became the best at “cost-effective health care,” although this included a variety of products, from diagnostics to hospital supplies.  I know that Google’s mission is to “organize the world‘s information and make it universally accessible and useful,” but what do cars have to do with that?  Is this an instance of making the world’s information useful?  That seems like a stretch.  And what about Gmail, for that matter?