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Multitasking in Tel Aviv

by Brian Blum on July 14, 2010

in Entrepreneurs,Social Media

From right to left: me, Benjy Lovitt, Lior Manor and his iPad

From right to left: me, Benjy Lovitt, Lior Manor and his iPad

A recent episode of the NPR program Science Friday featured an interview with Clifford Nass, the author of the forthcoming book “The Man Who Lied to His Laptop,” about whether human beings are truly able to multitask. His conclusion: not really.

Nass says that we have the illusion of multitasking, but in reality, we are switching from one task to another so quickly it seems like we’re doing more than one thing at once. The problem is that, every time we switch, there is a micro-millisecond delay and that teeny tiny pause causes us to be less productive even when we feel we’re sailing high.

I had a chance to experience the woes of obsessive multitasking first hand earlier this week when I attended the 140 Characters conference in Tel Aviv. The event, produced all over the world – including Israel – by social media and VoIP guru Jeff Pulver, is dedicated to exploring the “real time web” (a fancy way of referring to web and mobile services that let you follow a stream of never ending status updates as they happen).

As I sat in the lecture hall at Tel Aviv’s Afeka College listening to the lectures (which, in true short attention span spirit, were allotted on average no more than 10-15 minutes each), I had my laptop with me open to TweetDeck, a Twitter desktop client where I could follow along as much of the room was “live tweeting” what was happening on stage; Gmail – which I checked incessantly while simultaneously chatting with people both in and outside of the room itself; Facebook – of course (just for fun); an Excel spreadsheet of all the attendees sent by Pulver – so I could scope out who to approach during the networking breaks; a live video stream of the conference itself (with a slight time delay); and Evernote – a application I used to take notes on my laptop which were then automatically synched to my home computer, iPhone and (when I get one) iPad.

And if the lectures ever got boring, I’d brought with me a copy of an article I was working on that needed an edit.

By the time the conference was over, I actually breathed a sigh of relief as I finally caught a break in the long drive back to Jerusalem.

Not so for Michael Matias, a 14-year-old who took the stage for his 10 minutes of fame to tell us about “growing up in real-time.” My multitasking experience is his daily reality. He adds to the mix doing homework while simultaneously watching TV on his laptop (42-inch flat screens are so 2006) and playing online chess and poker. He says he spends at least 5 hours a day online, not including class when he often uses the school computers. When he needs to study, it’s as likely to be via video conference than an in-person cram session.

Matias is a relative pauper when it comes to Facebook friends – he only has 300 and says he only accepts someone he’s met in person. Although he does spend time with people in the so-called “real world,” he told the audience that in some ways he actually prefers his online world. “It brings me closer to them. I can hang out with more than one person at the same time.” No, he doesn’t think he spends too much time online and, when asked which of his real-time tools he’d give up if necessary, he quipped that he couldn’t. “It would be like choosing between my mom and my dad.”

The rest of the conference was interesting (if less shocking). Israeli comedian Lior Manor did “Twitter magic” – he asked the audience to tweet a number between one and 140 (get it, the 140 character maximum Twitter imposes), then he picked a number from his real-time Twitter stream and did a card trick in person – no different than what magicians have been doing for years except that he used an iPad to display the input.

Yossi Taguri talked about his latest startup Fiidme which lets you “share your satisfaction” about food. “If you’re in a restaurant,” he explained, “you can ask your friends what’s good on the menu and they’ll tweet you their recommendations.” With a grin, he added that they also “thought it would help us get free lunches.” His business partner Lior commented that being in a restaurant “without wireless is very frustrating.” (Whatever happened to the romantic candlelit dinner?)

There was also a session on using Twitter to do good in the world: an Israeli company called JustCoz lets you “donate” your Twitter status to organizations to raise awareness about their causes. In just under a month online, 100 organizations have signed up for the free service, gathering 1,200 supporters which provide re-tweeting access to more than a million people.

Now that’s a great idea from the real time web…if we can actually take a moment away from our incessant multitasking to participate.

Oh, and about that article I was writing? I guess I succeeded because you’re reading it now.

This article was originally posted at Israelity last week immediately following the 140 conference.

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When I spoke with Amit Elisha of OutBrain a few weeks ago, we discussed the company’s software release strategy.

OutBrain operates under what’s considered the new Gospel of product development: get a basic version out there with a minimum number of features and maybe even a few known bugs, make it free, then let your users flood you with feedback so you can iterate and build your next version better.

Continue this process until you climb out of alpha into beta and eventually to a fully functional product (which, to follow Google’s prolonged beta label example, could take many years).

Jason Cohen

Jason Cohen

An interesting article by Jason Cohen, the founder of Smart Bear Software, on the On Startups blog challenges this methodology. Releasing too early and relying on the power of the crowd, he suggests, can potentially harm your reputation and potentially kill your product.

He uses the iPod as an example. Apple designed its game changing music device far away from the public eye. If it had been part of a release-and-iterate cycle, he says, could Apple possibly have gotten away with building a battery-powered device where you can’t change the battery! Or one without an FM radio (which was already included in many early iPod competitors – it’s finally been added to the new iPod Nano years later).

“Disruptive products by definition cannot be built by consensus,” he writes. “’’Design by committee’ is a sure-fire way to get mediocre design.”

Cohen presents additional points to back up his hypothesis.

  • Startups often invoke the 80/20 rule that says you can implement just 20% of your features because that’s what 80% of your users want anyway. But Cohen says that doesn’t apply the way you think it does. The truth is that 80% of your customers use a different 20% from each other. So you need to push out more features, not less, to satisfy a larger cross-section.
  • Twitter is often trotted out as a classic example of “get it out fast,” but it’s a bad one. While the service quickly gained a large and rabid following, it has been suffering from backend scalability problems ever since. Twitter has sufficient capital and some super-smart engineers who can work around the clock to fix what ails it, but your two-person startup may not be so lucky if you release before you’re ready.
  • Customers don’t actually know what they want. “They’re much better at describing what’s difficult in their life, what frustrates them, or what takes up a lot of their time,” Cohen writes. But did anyone ever say “gee, I wish that I could send a video ringtone to my friends” (this is an idea that only a couple of smart entrepreneurs could think up).

Over the last 20 years, I’ve built or been a part of a team building a number of products. When I was working at CD-ROM developer Mindscape, I got into a huge fight with my boss over when to release a product that I had been toiling over for the better part of a year. The company had sales orders from its distributors, but I knew the product was still buggy and wasn’t ready.

Even worse, this was in the pre-Internet days; once the CD was shipped, it would take a new budget allocation to fix it, which I knew would be hard to obtain. When I was essentially given a choice – ship the product or pack your bags – I opted for prudence.

More recently, though, I fell victim to my own emotional involvement with a product that would have done better to release early and iterate. I got so caught up in getting it right, I didn’t realize that the business model was wrong, something that would have become apparent if users had a chance to kick the tires.

Two other examples from opposite poles:

1) Craigslist – if ever there was a bottom up, build it fast and they will come approach to web development, Craigslist would be the poster child. Of course, Craigslist got stuck after the first round of iteration – the site hasn’t been functionally updated for years, but it works and no one’s complaining.

2) The Apple Newton – this is not so much an example of slapped together product development, but it nevertheless demonstrates how a bad start can sink a product. The world’s first PDA came out in the early 1990s. It was a revolutionary product but “the handwriting recognition sucked and there weren’t a lot of apps,” Cohen explains. The public’s response: “it doesn’t do a lot and what it does do doesn’t work well.” By the time Apple addressed its myriad problems, it was too late.

Ultimately, there’s no clear-cut approach. I tend to lean towards the “you’ve got only one chance to make a first impression” direction but, as a number of comments on Cohen’s blog post argued, not every company is Apple.

“They have the money and market control needed to focus on building a complete product at the expense of time to market,” writes Paul May. “Few startups have this luxury.”

What do you think? Which direction is more likely to lead to success…or kill a company? I’d love to hear from you in the comments to this post.

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Television_remote_controlInteractive video has been one of my passions since I worked as a “multimedia producer” in the early 1990s creating CD-ROM titles in edutainment and healthcare. In 1994, I led a team that produced “How Multimedia Computers Work,” an immersive interactive environment that plunged viewers into a virtual 3D computer. We followed that up with “How Your Body Works.” Both were co-published in a book-CD package by Ziff-Davis Press.

In recent years, interactive video has been used very effectively for advertising and marketing. Carnival Cruise Lines employed it to help bring a cruise ship alive for would-be (and high-paying) passengers. Mars created an entire mini-commercial called “Get the Girl…An Interactive Love Story (Sort Of)” for its Twix brand where the viewer gets to choose what happens next. Even The New York Times got into the act with an interactive David Pogue sharing insights on consumer electronics.

But the Holy Grail for we interactive pioneers was always marrying it with broadcast television. It was the late 1980s, though, and technology never kept up with our creativity. Now, though, with the advent of social media, that day may have arrived. But with what consequences?

I wrote in my earlier post about Jeff Pulver’s “140 Characters Conference” which paraded a veritable cavalcade of social media luminaries on stage to talk about all things Twitter and Facebook. One of the panels at the event was on “social TV.”

Veteran Israeli media consultant Dror Gill described how TV and Twitter are already mashing up. A growing community of users are tweeting while they watch the tube, he explained, sending their comments, theories and criticisms into the social ether for others who are following the same program at the same time to reply to or re-tweet.

Gill called this phenomena 2-screen interactive TV (there are cable operators that have already integrated similar social media tricks into a single screen).

The experience, Gill explained, in some ways recreates a bit of what was for me an integral part of my childhood: sitting together as a family, laughing at dead parrots and silly walks, or cringing at another one of Mary Tyler Moore’s insecure faux-pas’s.

These days, it’s rare for members of a family to even find time to eat dinner as a cohesive unit. Twittering together, apparently, is the next best thing…even if your fellow schmoozers are on opposite coasts (or even different continents).

Conference host Pulver related his own social TV experience. A big fan of the NBC show Heroes, one evening, Pulver found himself away from the TV trolling the aisles for canned corn or some other delicacy in his local supermarket.

Distraught over missing his favorite guilty pleasure, he pulled out his cell phone and was able to follow the show by scrolling through the real-time tweets that neatly summarized the main plot turns.

How Pulver got his shopping done I don’t know…I also have to wonder why the one time founder of VoIP giant Vonage didn’t just TiVo the show, or at least watch it later on Hulu. But that wouldn’t have made for such an illustrative story.

Despite the fact that a number of the participants at the conference praised social media for making the post-modern world a little less lonely, the entire experience seems to me to be exactly the opposite. Where once we gathered in a shared space, we now sit alone opposite our 42-inch plasma screens tapping away to strangers thousands of miles away.

But for advertisers, this real time web can perhaps be seen as a hopeful trend. Broadcast television has been inching inexorably towards time shifting. The number of viewers watching a show at the hour it’s actually aired has been steadily declining in an online world where you can instantly stream that same program on any number of sites or – heaven forbid – download it for free.

The social media interactive experience, by contrast, requires participants to watch live. Tape delay ruins the whole thing. Moreover, not only can’t live viewers fast forward through the commercials, TV Twitterers may be less likely to jump up at a commercial at all. With all the real time excitement, a social media conversation may actually evolve about the ad itself. That puts the onus on the advertiser to make sure that what they’ve created can withstand the withering comments of a live Twitterverse.

The game for advertisers, as a result, gets even more complicated than it already is in a globally connected world. Companies must make sure they have assigned a staff person to monitor Twitter and other social media channels whenever their ads play in primetime. Because, when the masses won’t put down their keyboards even during the once sacred passive TV experience, the necessity to remain vigilant, to jump to attention and enact damage control if the need arises, becomes an integral part of the job.

It’s been said before by techno-luminaries far more prolific than me, but social media can no longer be seen as a “nice to have.” This makes it at once both terrifying and a terrific opportunity. But it’s one that must not be ignored.

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Jeff Pulver

Jeff Pulver in Tel Aviv

Jeff Pulver is a galavanting kind of guy. The one time founder of voice-over-IP telephony company Vonage, Pulver has in recent years traveled the globe hosting hi-tech networking “breakfasts” that attract hundreds of attendees

On Sunday, Pulver was back in town with a combined breakfast and conference focused on “the state of now.”

Dubbed the “140 Characters Conference” (that’s the number of characters you’re allowed to type into the Twitter “What’s happening?” box), some 250 social media “characters” gathered at Tel Aviv’s Afeka College of Engineering to listen attentively to a whopping four dozen presenters who spoke either in panel discussions or alone in 10 minute increments  (a large clock counted down the minutes and, other than a few misbehavers, the time was scrupulously observed).

Among the presenters were Alon Nir, the entrepreneur behind “TweetYourPrayers” which allows petitioners to tweet notes that Nir physically places in the cracks of the Western Wall. Nir started the project as a hobby. By the summer, he had thousands of notes and had to enlist an army of volunteers (recruited via Twitter of course) to roll the print outs and cart them to Jerusalem. Find him on Twitter at @thekotel.

A highlight for Israeli music fans was the appearance on stage of rockers Yoni Bloch and Ivri Lider who talked about how they use Twitter to get closer to their fans. Bloch, a self-confessed nerd, initially found fame by posting his songs to an Israeli MySpace-clone and was flabbergasted when, several years ago – long before the advent of Twitter – he sold out a live show just by announcing it online.

Comedians Charley Warady and Benji Lovitt talked about how they use social media to try out punch lines for their jokes (“can you be funny in 140 characters?” asked one audience member).

On a more serious note, David Saranga discussed how the Israeli consulate in New York took to Twitter to counter negative reports coming out of Gaza during January’s Operation Cast Lead. He also pointed out one of the more effective campaigns to reposition Israel in the mind of the world: the 2007 infamous “Girls of the IDF” bikini photo spread in Maxim magazine.

The strangest use of Twitter discussed? Simultaneous tweeting while watching TV. While I find it hard to understand how one can actually enjoy a program while tapping away on a Blackberry or iPhone keyboard, veteran media consultant Dror Gill suggested that interactive media can actually restore some of the social cohesion that’s been lost in the modern world where families rarely sit down together to watch the contemporary equivalent of All in the Family.

Twittering away, he said, is akin to kibbutzing together in the family room…even if your fellow schmoozers are thousands of miles away.

To back up that point of global interconnectedness, host Pulver announced at the day’s conclusion that 6,464 people from around the world had tuned in to watch the conference live via the Internet and that for much of the day, this intimate little get together, tucked away in an off the beaten track corner of Tel Aviv, had been ranked in Twitter’s Top 10 “trending topics.”

See for yourself. Search for #140conf on Twitter.

This article originally appeared on the Israelity blog.

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Move over Twitter, Here Comes Flutter

by Brian Blum on August 4, 2009

in Social Media

There have been some very funny social media parodies that have swept the web. CollegeHumor’s Web Site Story and the BBC’s What if Facebook Were Real?

The latest to come across my desk is this take on a new nano-blogging service with a maximum of 26 character updates: Flutter. Enjoy!

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Have you ever wanted to place a note in the Western Wall but couldn’t afford the ticket to Jerusalem? Now you can tweet it.

It’s traditional to place short notes in the cracks of the Western Wall stones asking for health, livelihood and other personal requests. Now, a new Israeli Web site launched two weeks allows petitioners to submit their prayers or wishes via Twitter. The notes are then printed out and regularly taken to Jerusalem’s Old City.

Twitter is ideal for such a service: the 140-character limitation forces the religiously-minded to keep their requests short. It also allows site founder, Alon Nir of Tel Aviv, to consolidate a number of messages onto a single sheet of paper.

Nir doesn’t see the project more as cultural than religious. “I thought of it after understanding Twitter’s power and wondered what I could do with it,” he said. “So I linked the Western Wall to the millions using Twitter.”

One drawback: since the service uses Twitter, the notes are all public. Didn’t we all learning that telling someone what you wish for means it won’t come true?

The site is at http://www.tweetyourprayers.info/. You can follow the service at http://twitter.com/TheKotel (Kotel is the Hebrew for Western Wall). The site already has 546 followers.

For more articles on newspapers and classified advertising, visit the industry experts: AIMGroup.com.

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An article in The New York Times about Twitter got us thinking. The piece by Claire Cain Miller discusses how small businesses are increasingly using Twitter as their main form of advertising. It cites a man in San Francisco who opened a pushcart selling crème brulee. 5,400 people are now following him to find out where his roaming restaurant will be on any given day and what’s the flavor of the month.

In another example, a sushi restaurant that tweets about what fish is the freshest that day, is receiving up to five new customers a night.

We’ve always thought of Twitter as a kind of bi-polar entity, attracting individuals who insist on informing everyone when their plane is delayed and big brands like Moonfruit who give away computers to generate buzz.

But if the mom and pops are finding Twitter their best form of advertising, how can publishers who want to attract those hyper-local customers utilize the medium?

Here’s an idea: offer to link a small business’s tweets into your larger classified sales channel. For example, could a Twittering business cross post automatically to their own followers as well as a newspaper’s followers? That of course would require some infrastructure to generate tweets from listings, but we’re seeing that already with many of the large job boards jumping on the Twitter bandwagon.

Or could offering to broadcast classifieds via a publisher’s larger Twitter stream be a possible upsell opportunity for a newspaper? Even if it’s free, it might be a way to lure back customers who have left their local outlet to join a large Internet classifieds pure play.

There are undoubtedly many models to consider here. The critical point to consider is that if the mom and pop’s are migrating to Twitter, you need to be there too.

For more articles on newspapers and classified advertising, visit the industry experts: AIMGroup.com.

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