Digg, Stumble and the madness of crowds

My friend and occasional sparring partner Scott Karp over at Publishing 2.0 has a good post today about the transitory nature of the Digg “flash crowd” phenomenon — the point being, as he puts it, that “not all traffic is created equal.” Scott points to a study at SiteLogic that looked at traffic flows to several sites, including Kim Krause Berg’s Cre8pc, before and after they had been “dugg.”

The conclusion, not surprisingly, confirms what many people have been saying since Digg emerged as a major force in driving traffic to websites, which is that the vast majority of those who arrive from a Digg link spend nanoseconds on your site — in some cases, just long enough to post abusive and misspelled comments — and then vanish. Not only do they not click anything (although John Chow disagrees), but they (likely) never return.

Kim Berg writes about the experience on her blog, but says she isn’t particularly concerned about the effect on her own site. She’s more concerned about all the abusive comments that were left on her post and also on the site she pointed to. As she puts it: “I am no fan of Digg. Never have been. This experience and the comments left here just add to my contempt for a place where people act like wild animals instead of human beings.”

flash-crowd.jpg

There is no doubt that Digg and Reddit and similar sites drive massive amounts of traffic, as Search Engine Journal points out — and SEOmoz also notes the benefits of what it calls a “linkbait” strategy. But is that traffic actually worth something over the long term? It might be nice to brag about, but it’s not always something to build a business around. Ravi says Digg traffic is worth “diddly-squat.”

Tony “Call me Dr. Tony” Hung has also written about this, and others are commenting on Kim’s experience, including 10e20, Chip Griffin at Pardon the Disruption and Small Business SEM. And Webomatica has written about his experience with Digg and Megite and other sites.

On a related note, I’ve been noticing more and more articles about how much traffic StumbleUpon drives to a site, something I’ve noticed a few times with this blog. It doesn’t get written about as much, but it is clearly a major force, as this piece at SEOmoz illustrates. And there is also some evidence that a Stumble link has more longevity than the typical link from a social bookmarking site. StumbleUpon — which apparently has more users than delicious — used to be based in Calgary, but moved to the Valley after getting venture financing last year.

Note: The term “flash crowds” was coined by sci-fi author Larry Niven in a fantastic short story about the invention of a phonebooth-like transporter machine, which caused instantaneous crowds to appear any time there was a crime or natural disaster.

SpiralFrog caught in death spiral?

SpiralFrog — a startup that said it would launch a music-download service supported totally by advertising — seems to be on the verge of joining the Web 2.0 dead pool, according to this report from Cnet. There had already been reports a week or so ago (which started on a music message board) that the CEO had been ousted. Now it seems several senior executives and board members have also gotten the boot or otherwise headed for the elevator.

From the sounds of it, there was a large-scale management walkout. The story says that “three directors with strong music-industry ties resigned almost immediately after Kent’s departure,” and that in the days following that, “more directors walked out, as well at least six members of SpiralFrog’s senior executive team, including the chief marketing, strategy and operating officers.” Apparently the founder has stepped in and still plans to launch.

spiralfrog.jpg

SpiralFrog got a lot of attention last fall because it was pitching a completely ad-supported service, and also because it had reportedly signed an agreement with Universal Music Group, one of the four globe-spanning record companies, and that was seen as giving the idea a tremendous amount of legitimacy. But the proposed launch date of December passed by without a peep from the company. The CEO then failed to appear at the MidemNet music conference on the weekend.

As Mike Arrington has written over at TechCrunch, and Steve Rubel writes here, the number of Web 2.0 companies (and I use that term loosely) that have either failed or are on life support continues to grow, including FilmLoop, Browster and others. But many of those were features rather than companies.

What I’d really like to know about SpiralFrog is what caused all those executives and officers to leave en masse (something that wasn’t a surprise to several people). Was it a lack of confidence in the company’s financial health? Meddling by the record companies? Personal issues? There’s obviously a lot more to this story. Cynthia Brumfield of IPDemocracy has some thoughts here.

Microsoft: Lessons in how to look stupid

Coming so soon after the Microsoft “here’s a free Ferrari laptop” campaign, the recent kerfuffle (or is it a brouhaha?) over the company’s attempt to doctor an unfavourable Wikipedia entry shows that someone at the giant software maker needs to get a clue when it comes to social media. All the well-meaning rationalizations aside, paying someone to change an entry is offside, period — and when you’re Microsoft, all it does is reinforce the impression that you’re the Evil Empire.

Tony Hung at Deep Jive Interests is no doubt right that this happens all the time, but that doesn’t make it right. And I know that from the sounds of it, this wasn’t an official Microsoft campaign to alter Wikipedia on the sly — according to this comment at Slashdot, a developer came up with the idea on his own and approached someone who he thought could add some balance.

astroturf.jpg

Still, someone has got to get it through the thick heads in Redmond that the best of intentions aren’t going to help Microsoft when it comes to this kind of thing. It is inevitably going to be perceived as a big-footed behemoth, trampling all over whoever and whatever it needs to in order to get its message out. The programmer in question has said he was frustrated because his attempts to discuss the issue of balance weren’t getting anywhere.

So why not blog about it loudly and clearly and build support that way? Instead, he tried to take a shortcut — and that looks bad, no matter how you slice it. What if Microsoft approached someone and offered to pay them for writing a letter to a magazine or newspaper pushing for a positive spin on the company’s products (which it did during the anti-trust trial)? This looks just as bad.

Update:

Scott Karp of Publishing 2.0 thinks that Wikipedia is too powerful (and Rex Hammock seems to agree), and that the Microsoft employee was justified in doing what he did, because the process for changing things in Wikipedia is broken. Don Dodge thinks the whole thing has been blown out of proportion. And Mike Arrington is upset because Dare Obasanjo — apparently trying to make a point — edited the Wikipedia entry about TechCrunch to include allegations about Mike having conflicts of interest. Mike also has some further thoughts on the issue and has done some investigation into the whole “Wikipedia is broken” idea.

Second Life: virtually a real business

One of the sure signs that something is important is when opinion on it keeps ping-ponging back and forth, between those who say it’s irrelevant and those who say it’s the best thing since cheese in a spray can. And if there’s anything that draws that kind of polarized commentary, it’s Second Life. This week alone, we had a story about IBM’s embrace of the virtual world, and Darren Barefoot’s hilarious send-up, Getafirstlife.com. And now the BBC is planning its own Second Life for kids.

Meanwhile, Clay Shirky teamed up with Valleywag to pore over Second Life stats and conclude that the whole thing is overhyped, and there was a recent announcement that Second Life was going to open-source the software interface to the game. And virtual millionairess Anshe Chung claimed copyright infringement after being attacked by giant flying penises.

Harvard.jpg

Is Second Life a joke? Yes, in a way. Not only is it weird to be flying around in a blocky universe (let alone the penises), but it’s a little goofy that people try to promote the business aspects of the virtual world while sporting avatar names like ePredator Potato — the name of IBM’s Second Life evangelist. And yet, there is clearly something there. No doubt many people thought the idea of uploading videos was a joke too, or using the Internet as a phone.

Ethan Kaplan is right, there are still issues with Second Life (Webomatic has had some too), including lag and other problems. And Valleywag’s informant is correct that the financial side is closer to a pyramid scheme than a real business. But those issues will be fixed — if not by Second Life, then by someone else.

I came across a post that made some good points on (where else) Second Life Insider. Everyone likes to talk about how Second Life is dumb because, well… it’s virtual, instead of real. So if you talk to someone on the phone, is that real? Of course it is. How about if you message them using MSN? So why isn’t chatting with them while flying around in a video game just as real?

Update:

There have been several reports — which Mike Arrington of TechCrunch summarizes here — that Google might be looking at turning Google Earth into some kind of virtual world a la Second Life.

Will Jobs let Mac OS run on Intel boxes?

An interesting development, tucked away in an article at Fortune magazine about the company behind the Parallels software program, which allows Mac users to run Windows in a virtual machine and switch back and forth (relatively) seamlessly. For all the hiccups and lag that some users have reported, it is still an amazing feat — and I would wager it is making MacIntel boxes more appealing for people who still need to use Windows. No rebooting, no emulation. Two OSes side by side.

Now, it seems that the company that makes Parallels is working on an upgrade to the software that will let Windows users theoretically run Mac OS X side-by-side with Windows on their cheapo Dell boxes, which Dell would be happy to do. Heresy! The only problem with that, as the article and others are more than happy to point out, is that Steve Jobs likes that idea about as much as Bill Gates likes the idea of open-sourcing Windows code.

parallels2.jpg

According to Engadget, “VMware’s own upcoming virtualization software for the Mac has been hamstrung by the trouble VMware has gone through trying to get Apple’s blessing, and SWsoft’s Parallels has been “crippled” in particular ways to make it more difficult to get Mac OS onto a non-Apple machine.” But as the site points out, the pressure on Steve Jobs to set the Mac OS free is only likely to increase. It will likely happen thanks to hackers anyway, but will he eventually allow it? I for one hope that he does.

Obviously, as more than one person has pointed out during the whole “iPhone/closed system” debate of a week or so ago, part of the Mac OS experience comes from the fact that software and hardware are all one harmonious whole, working flawlessly together, etc., etc. But why not let people who can’t afford those gleaming white boxes get a taste of the Mac magic?