Sunday, March 09, 2003

South by Southwest 2003 VIII

Brad Fitzpatrick, Scott Heiferman, and James Hong: Trends in How the Internet Connects People

Fitzpatrick founded LiveJournal. Heiferman co-founded Meetup. Hong co-founded Hot or Not. Here is a rough transcript of the panel discussion:

Heiferman: The guy who organized the panel, Hugh, emailed me and asked if I wanted to be on a panel. I said sure, and he said, "What do you think should be about?" And in half a second, I said "How the Internet connects people." I thought that we would enter into a lengthy process to work out the topic, but then I later saw it in print: How the Internet involves people. We don't really know what this panel is going to be, but we'll start by sharing the properties we're involved in.

Meetup is a platfrom that organizes real-world gatherings about anything anywhere. It's about eight months old. It's very user powered. A user creates a topic, say Buffy Fans. The system allows people anywhere in the world to meet locally about Buffy. Meetups can happen in 500 cities in 34 countries. Nearly 200,000 people have signed up for Meetups.

Supporters of Howard Dean took to us like flies on something. Dean supporters organized Meetups in something like 80 cities. In my hometown, New York, 400 people got together, and even Dean showed up. Now the Dean campaign is paying Meetup to help support their organizing efforts. They're using Meetup to grassroots organize. Meetups are on a cycle, a monthly cycle. Dean happens to be the first Wednesday of every month.

It's not just about New York, Boston, and San Francisco, it's about St. Louis, Charlotte, and Fort Dodge, Iowa. That's Meetup 101 basics.

Fitzpatrick: Basically LiveJournal is like a blogging tool or something. The interesting thing about LiveJournal is who your friends are and who you want to read. People can leave comments on things. That's the addictive nature of it. That's my experience with social networks.

Heiferman: If you're a good hype person, you can sign up as Brad's hype person.

Fitzpatrick: I'm not business minded at all. That will probably be my demise. But I don't really care about that.

Hong: I run a Web site called Hot or Not. I started it with my roommate as a joke about two and a half years ago. I had this theory about the two-way Web, which is people communicating through the Web in more than a one-way publishing model. My roommate and I built this site. We had the idea on a Monday. We launched it the following week. And then we were in Salon, every newspaper in Europe, and then People magazine.

This person, she's pretty hot. I'll give her a 9. She's got a rating of 8.3, and she last checked her score 10 hours ago. It's not a communication tool to foster communication, really. It's a communication of "Here I am." And then it's a communication of "You're hot" -- or not. We took that a step further and added Meet Me at Hot or Not. You can add a profile and add a Do You Want to Meet Me? If I click Yes on someone, you can only write the people who click Yes to you if you click Yes to them. We call it a double match list. And one person has to be a paid member for them to talk to each other. It's like being in a bar. Clicking Yes is like smiling at a girl.

We don't really call it a dating site because most people don't use it for dating. They use it for finding friends. The Meet Me is like a superset.

Heiferman: We all agree that the heart of the Internet is about connecting people. It's not just about the computers being connected. Whether it's buyers finding sellers on Ebay or job hunters finding job listings on job sites, blogging isn't just about people publishing, it's about connecting people and the links. There's a difference in writing something and writing something for all the world to see so connections can happen.

What are the trends that we're seeing?

Fitzpatrick: In the last couple yers, it's become more accepted. When I started LiveJournal, my mom said That's stupid, who's going to want to write about themselves online? Now she says that she's wrong because it's so mainstream.

Hong: How many people in the room have met someone online that they've met offline later. Pretty much everyone. Society is changing. Society doesn't really change by new technology. Sometimes everyone adopts it really quickly, but sometimes it's something the younger generation grew up with. It was always there. When they grow up, the things that were once novel become mainstream. It was always there for them.

It's very clear for me. I'm 29 years old. I run a Web site where the average user is maybe 20. The attitude of using the Web to meet people is very different for the younger crowd than even for me.

Heiferman: I don't think it's generational or age based. This is a critical mass medium. The nature of the network effect is that meeting people online is OK because there's a critical mass of people out there. Our little experience with Meetup is that it's all organic growth to 200,000 users. It's growing really fast right now. If you're some Buffy fan in London, if there are 20 people signed up, you're willing to go. A crowd attracts a crowd. You hit that exponential curve of acceptability and usability.

Fitzpatrick: There's a bunch of LiveJournal clone sites using our code base. People went there for awhile, but they found that the community was so small. Those people came back to LiveJournal because we have more people. Friends attract friends.

Hong: There are also more people interested in publishing about themselves online. But because we're a dating site, maybe we attract younger people because they're looking for love. Also, younger people are more apt to put a photo of themselves online. That form of content is accessible to people. The opportunity to get involved with each other is a connection.

Heiferman: The idea of the Internet connecting people goes beyond the dating thing. The whole idea behind the anti-war and anti-globalization activism is totally organized through technology. That's a whole new thing in the last few years. Howard Rheingold wrote a book called "Smart Mobs." A mob gets smarter because it's organized through technology.

I showed up at this Howard Dean Meetup and there were 400 people in a New York bar. It was fully acknowledged that no one would be there if the idea hadn't spread through the viral nature of the Web. The fact that we're thinking about the 2004 campaign in March 2003 and organizing so quickly shows that this stuff is really changing the face of politics. It wasn't just young people showing up at these Meetups. Democracy happens through people connecting regardless of whether it's face to face. Seeing this Dean thing was like All Your Base Goes Real.

Question: I've attended a couple of different people who only know each other online meet face to face. If you get the critical mass, it can continue. But if it ever fails, it's viewed forever more as it's not going to work. If you go on a bad online date, you might not try online dating again. How do you see the impact of negative stuff?

Fitzpatrick: For the first Meetup for LiveJournal in Portland, so many people signed up that the Meetup system broke everyone up into multiple venues.

Heiferman: Sorry.

Fitzpatrick: It was supposed to be really popular, but because some venues didn't work, it took awhile to become popular again.

Hong: For dating, almost everyone in the world has gone on a bad date before. I don't think that has anything to do with online dating.

Question: You all have popular Web sites and applications. There seem to be a lot of synergies. What's on your radar in terms of how you integrate your services and features? The LiveJournal groups are the biggest groups on Meetup.

Heiferman: Let's look at War in Iraq in Toronto. If you google that, the first listing is No War in Iraq Meetups. Brad and I did something interesting. I don't know why we're slow [online]. Let's do something easier that we know exists. Like Buffy. Brad built in something where people who list Buffy as an interest, there's a link to Buffy Meetups. And in the Buffy Meetup area, we link to Buffy fans on LiveJournal.

Hong: Brad and I talked about that a long time ago, something about hosting photos.

Fitzpatrick: It's basically done.

Hong: I just did a Google search for "hot girl" and Salinger, because I like Salinger, and the first link is people in Hot or Not who like Salinger. The back end of Hot or Not is entirely done using a Web services architecture. We have everything done in Soap, so if we want to do an integration with someone, it's very easy to do. We have a Web service that's "Show me a picture of someone who likes Salinger," and that very easily pops up.

Question: How did each of you address the first mover problem?

Fitzpatrick: With LiveJournal, I just used it myself. When Scott told me about Meetup, I said, um, good luck. Meetup depends on a lot of people using it. LiveJournal's not really the same way. Blogger doesn't have a friends list. But LiveJournal grew a lot because of people's friends lists.

Heiferman: We knew we were getting ourselves into a hairy situation. We needed serious numbers before people in Spokane or Tallahassee who are breast cancer survivors or Harry Potter fans can meet up. We've never spent a dime on advertising. But in our first three weeks, there were three key events: Bloggers took to us, LiveJournal users took to us, and Slashdot took to us.

Slashdotters were into the idea of having the Slashdot Effect in the real world. They loved the idea of all showing up at a bar and having the Slashdot Effect in real life. The groups that you think would be least interested in it are actually more interested in being "meaty."

Hong: I've been to some Meetups where there are 30 people, and I've been to some where there are three. At Hot or Not, very few people need to submit to service new people. Someone might only look at 30-40 pictures. All I really need are 30-40 new pictures a day.

With regard to Hot or Not getting a lot of press, that's what we did to defend ourselves. There are a lot of Hot or Not copy cats. We don't mind. We spent the first two or three months getting press so everyone who writes about these sites knows that Hot or Not came first. You won't see an article about rating systems without seeing a mention of Hot or Not.

Question: What happened when those 400 people showed up at the bar? And what do you think Google's purchase of Blogger means for what the three of you do?

Fitzpatrick: I can't really speak for Blogger, but Evan said that Google bought them because they thought was cool.

Heiferman: I think it means that Google becomes more real time and personal. When Google is smarter about space and time, and your blog is better cataloged than Google, rather that just catalog the Chihuahua sites, Google will be able to make the Web more alive and timely.

Hong: A lot of people have been talking about the Google/Blogger thing. Larry Page once said that they really sucked at getting timely content into the system. At the very least, this deal gives them access by more of a push basic than a pull basis. They don't need to crawl.

Fitzpatrick: I don't think they have a problem crawling. I write something, and it's in there the next day.

Hong: That's because you're popular. If I started a blog today and wrote something, it might be a month before they crawl me. Google has an impact on people meeting because people can more easily make connections by finding people online.

Heiferman: What happened with the 400 people? We had the NYPD wondering why there were 400 people there -- and why there was a line outside.

Question: Was it a political thing? Was it a meeting thing?

Heiferman: If you get people in a room who are passionate about a cause or a candidate, the Meetup isn't just a social event. It's mobilization. These people who support this candidate, they're going to figure out what they need to do locally. All you need to do is get them into a room.

Hong: That's all the Internet is: One big room. All Meetup or LiveJournal or Hot or Not is are corners of that room. Another reason Google bought Blogger has nothing to do with search results. They are trying to improve their ad words capability to determine what ad words to put on a page.

If you go to Google Groups, their interface to Usenet, do a search for Windows administration. They have these sponsored links. You can look at a post, but they have ads at the top. They're not just ads, they're specific to the content of the page. They look at the content of the message. They're talking about Citrix in this post, so here's an ad for Citrix. Basically Google is turning into Overture. They're very into this ad word thing. They're an ad site.

Heiferman: I'm going to highjack this for 30 seconds to show you guys something. Some friends and I do a site called Fotolog. It's small, maybe a couple thousand people who post photos. There's a fotologger Brooklyn and one in France who met and they just announced that they're having a baby. Talk about connecting people.

Fitzpatrick: I'm always getting wedding invitations.

Hong: Three days after we launched Meet Me, we had a woman fly from Iowa to LA. They'd talked on the phone for a few days, and then they were in Las Vegas getting married. I don't know if they're still married.

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