Investing: The Net Wisdom of Peers

November 19, 2007

by David Bogoslaw

Two years ago, Eric Wolff, 25, was handed the reins of a $5 million family trust after his family saw how badly it had been managed by a full-service brokerage firm. For the four months ended Oct. 31, the $1 million in accounts that he directly oversees has returned 13%, something he attributes to advice he received on Covestor.com, an online investing community, and top-notch research he’s found at other financial Web sites such as Valueinvestorsclub.com and Seekingalpha.com.

People saving for retirement are equally inspired to find the best investment advice. Increasingly, they’re less willing to trust brokers who they believe are motivated by greed and tend to put their own interests ahead of their clients, according to a 2004 study commissioned by the Securities Industry Assn.

Burned Retiree Tries His Hand

Bob Craft, 64, a retired pilot for Delta Air Lines, joined online investing community ValueForum.com in early 2004 after losing 82% of his defined pension when Delta filed for bankruptcy. At the time, his assets were invested in mutual funds. Nervous about his retirement savings, he split his portfolio three ways—between Fidelity Investments, Bank of America, and his own trading account—to compare the investment results.

Craft’s brokers told him that over the long run, he wouldn’t be able to beat their performance because they invested for a living. At the end of the first year, his account had increased 30%, while the money managed by the brokerage firms was up just under 8%. His returns far outpaced those of his brokers in the second year as well. “The highest return every year has been by me, so I just moved all my money to me,” he said, adding that he couldn’t afford his brokers’ low gains.

Craft now manages 100% of his portfolio, spending about six hours a day reading up on stocks he hears about from fellow members at ValueForum and placing orders through Fidelity’s ActiveTraderPro. Year-to-date, his portfolio is up 38.2%, he says, and he no longer worries about his retirement nest egg.

Communities’ Key Asset: Transparency

As more individual investors like Wolff and Craft take control of researching and buying stocks, options, exchange-traded funds, and mutual funds online, they’re joining a new generation of online investing communities to help them reach their goals. So instead of following recommendations from full-service brokers or advisers, for investment advice they’re turning to people who are putting their own money on the line. The online investing communities take the old forums and message boards to the next level by offering tools to verify the track records of and rank up-and-coming investing gurus.

Unlike the social networking platforms TradeKing.com and Zecco.com, these new investing sites don’t execute trades. What they’re selling is the ability to pull in and aggregate trading data from members’ existing brokerage accounts so they can track each person’s total portfolio.

Tracking capability is important because these communities aim to level the playing field, paving the way for a new type of investment adviser, one who’s more credible because you know what stocks he owns. Full-service brokerages and other incumbents are afraid of this, since nontransparency protects their profit margins, says Rikki Tahta, chief executive of New York-based Covestor.

What Investors Want

Before launching publicly in mid-September, CakeFinancial.com, a San Francisco-based online investing community, conducted several focus groups to see what online investors were really seeking. Steven Carpenter, Cake’s founder, said investors want to find peers with the same basic outlook or trading strategy, but better performance results. Cake also learned they want advocacy—the assurance that the customer’s best interests, not the adviser’s, come first—more than education.

Cake tracks stocks, ETFs, and mutual funds and plans to add options and fixed-income trades in the future. While all the trading activity that Cake imports can be measured, members don’t have to reveal their net worth, the amount they’re investing, or the number of shares they’re trading. Eliminating the sensitive information allows users to communicate freely with each other, says Carpenter.

Cake’s service is free, but once membership has grown to at least 10,000, Carpenter says he’ll create low-cost, customized asset-management services based on the aggregated performance metrics of Cake’s members. The idea is to take aggregated performance data and overlay it on a member’s portfolio to show what stocks he should sell and which ones he should hold on to. A premium service would show members the asset allocations of their top 10 model investors and notify them via e-mail whenever one of these people buys or sells a stock, or even adds a stock to his watch list.

Fund Management Insight

For Covestor, the imperatives are verification and evening out the playing field for retail investors. By giving them the same tools that a hedge fund manager has, such as the analytics that help them understand the risk they take vs. the returns they get, and how those compare with their peers, benchmarks, and professionals, Tahta hopes to “burst open the fund management world.”

Covestor is currently a free service, but plans to go to a compensation business model sometime in 2008, under which members would pay a fee to follow top performers’ portfolios, and Covestor would collect a small percentage of the fees charged by its top performers.

When ValueForum launched in late 2003, it offered a flat fee for lifetime membership to the first 200 people to sign up for the service, and within six weeks it had sold out. Through those early adopters telling friends, the community has grown to 1,400 members—most of them age 55 and older and retired with an average portfolio of $1 million, says co-founder and Chief Operating Officer Adam Menzel. Members pay an annual fee of $220 to use the site.

ValueForum doesn’t import and track members’ investment accounts, but it gives members the chance to gauge each other’s performance in other ways, such as quarterly contests where each person chooses three stocks they think will rise during that three-month period.

Growth in Self-Directed Portfolios

Another reason that investors are looking for new ways to exchange financial advice is that broker-advisers are showing less interest in handling portfolios valued under $1 million. That leaves 15 million U.S. households with assets between $100,000 and $1 million looking elsewhere for investing advice. These households’ assets total $4.5 trillion, or 35% of U.S. retail assets, most of which is being serviced by the mutual fund industry, according to a study by Forrester Research published in March, 2006.

Institutional investors are also getting involved in online investing communities. Marketocracy.com, a San Mateo (Calif.)-based investment company that launched in July, 2000, uses a social network to generate the research that informs its funds’ investment decisions.

Marketocracy’s founders, Ken Kam and Mark Taguchi, opted for an alternative to Wall Street research based on what they learned while co-managing a top-rated technology fund at Firsthand Capital Management in the late 1990s. Kam, who had previously worked in the medical devices industry and was running the fund’s health-care/medical portion, found that the best ideas about a company and its business prospects came from people working in that particular industry, not from Wall Street analysts and brokers.

“It’s a process of asking the right questions of the right people,” says Kam. “People on Wall Street aren’t the right people because they rarely have the experience to ask the right questions.”

Kam and Taguchi believe it takes at least five years of tracking a person’s trading decisions to be able to discern their skill level. But after a year and a half, they felt confident enough in the collective wisdom of a select group to pick the top 100 out of about 40,000 members to serve as model portfolio managers for the mutual fund they set up. Six years later, the Marketocracy Masters 100 Fund has roughly $45 million under management and, since inception, has returned 92.42%, compared with a 53.37% return by the Standard & Poor’s 500-stock index, including dividends, over the same period.

Wisdom of Crowds vs. the Individual

One bone of contention among the next-generation investing communities is whether the financial rewards of following a single individual match those of tapping into the collective wisdom of the crowd. Cake believes in taking what seem to be the best practices among groups of like-minded investors and showing members how they compare to others who are doing better than they are, both as individuals and in the aggregate, says Carpenter. It’s not a herd mentality that Cake enables members to tap into, but the collective wisdom of the few who resemble them and consistently outperform the markets over time, Carpenter says.

To identify such model investors, Cake has a feature that gathers up to 10 years of back data from the trading accounts members have opened at 11 of the top brokerage firms. Data extending over that long a time span are more convincing than the three months’ worth of back data that most other sites import, Carpenter says.

For Covestor’s Tahta, it’s the idiosyncratic thinking of individuals with insights into particular sectors that’s paramount. He cites one member, a doctor in Wisconsin, who has a unique understanding of relative strengths and weaknesses among medical equipment makers. Given all the factors that inform investment decisions, such as goals and risk tolerance, he believes it’s a waste to limit this information to a single investor’s account when it could help others with the same basic approach.

Marketocracy believes it’s beneficial to be able to access the group’s aggregate wisdom and that of individuals at different times for different reasons. Their model portfolio managers, a rotating group of the top 100 performers, tend to know the right questions to ask, based on their trading experience in certain sectors. But they often turn out not to be the people with the right answers, says Kam.

“Through our forums, increasingly what we’re finding is that you want to let everybody post [comments], because the person who has the answer might have a poor portfolio overall but may have the key piece of information that will make a great investor have conviction in the stock idea,” he says.

High-Quality Discussion

It’s likely that even without the functional bells and whistles, online communities would attract investors based solely on the quality of the discussions—a welcome refuge from the junk many say is clogging the message boards on financial portals at Yahoo.com and AOL.com. ValueForum even allows members to vote to dispatch off-topic posts to a separate discussion board called the “Coffee Shop” so that the main discussion threads stay focused on investing matters.

Online investing communities have also begun to extend their reach beyond the virtual into the physical world. Take InvestFest, an annual conference organized for and by ValueForum members. Now in its third year, the conference offers presentations not only by members who specialize in certain investing topics, but also by industry professionals such as investment newsletter editors and occasionally a company chief financial officer. Cake is also envisioning local investor cocktail parties around the country in the future.

Many people tout the Internet, and message boards in particular, as tools that are democratizing the flow of information. But for Kam and Taguchi, research by social network is more about meritocracy than democracy. It’s about weighting people’s voices by their track records and giving commensurate attention to the most talented. Says Kam: “Other social networking sites looking to make a play in investing are interesting and share the same goals as us, but it’s going to be years before they have anything substantial to prove to investors that they can add value.”

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Social Networking with the Elite

November 19, 2007

by Douglas MacMillan and Paula Lehman

Are you on the digital A-list? It’s no longer enough to get invited to exclusive conferences or be asked to join professional organizations—many movers and shakers are taking their hobnobbing online, where a new crop of social networks aim to keep out the riff-raff by demanding credentials at the virtual door. As MySpace, LinkedIn, and Facebook have expanded to people of all ages, classes, and affiliations, there’s a backlash against the open culture of social networking. Walls are going up. The scene is more velvet-roped club, not open-mic night. These three gated sites are among those with tough membership requirements and, presumably, more elite social networking.

REUTERS SPACE

In October, British news giant Reuters launched a private online networking community for hedge fund managers, traders, and analysts. Dubbed Reuters Space (space.reuters.com), the industry-specific site leverages its own pool of proprietary data on thousands of companies to verify the employment status of applicants, be they futures traders or chief investment officers. Members each have a feeds page, where they collect news from Reuters and other sources tailored to their financial specialty. Each one also has a profile page—a personal blog where they post notes to colleagues and close industry contacts and set privacy controls to determine who has access to their contact information. The site has potential for companywide rollouts: For example, London-based Schroders Investment Management, a global asset management firm, is planning to adopt the platform to give more of a sense of community to its employees in 24 offices around the world.

INMOBILE.ORG

Launched in April, 2006, INmobile.org is a network of more than 900 executives who work in or close to the wireless industry. To qualify, you have to be at least a director at a large company, a vice-president at a midsize company, or in the C-suite of a startup. So far, members include executives from carriers such as Verizon Wireless, content providers such as Walt Disney, and handset makers such as Nokia. Arthur Goikhman and Stephen Dacek, co-founders of New York mobile-games startup Cellufun, joined in February. They were able to make connections with Yahoo! on the site and struck a deal with the search giant to place ads with Cellufun’s games. “I’m glad it’s not a free-for-all,” says Dacek. “It really does make it a lot easier to network.”

DIAMOND LOUNGE

This invitation-only social and business network, making its debut this month, relies on a selection committee elected by all members on the site. The committee has already chosen 100 members out of more than 7,000 applications that came in before Diamond Lounge (diamondlounge.com) went live. Members, who pay a monthly $60 fee, can hail from any industry and have two identities: a social profile in “the Lounge” and a business profile in “the Boardroom.” For the social profile, members set limits on who can view them based on such characteristics as age, physical build, and gender; for the boardroom they provide their income, industry, and job title. They can exchange gifts, much like Facebook, where members buy icons of cakes and teddy bears, for example—but Diamond Lounge gifts include real Gucci bags or tickets to business events.

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How Facebook Can Save Face

November 16, 2007

 

By Josh Quittner

It looks inevitable that Facebook will move away from its proprietary platform to the open platform of OpenSocial. Indeed, sources tell me that representatives from Facebook and Google (GOOG) met for the first time late yesterday afternoon. And already, Facebook investor and board member Jim Breyer is indicating that the social network would be willing to join the Everybody-but-Facebook Alliance.

Meanwhile, a favorite parlor game yesterday afternoon among pundits here in Techland was playing “What Should Facebook Do?” — though most of the people I spoke to were unwilling to go on the record. Virtually everyone’s answers however, boiled down to three options:

1. Do nothing. Facebook has a surprising amount of power in this relationship. It has 50 million members and continues to grow. As long as that’s the case, developers will continue to craft apps in FBML, its proprietary platform language.

2. Surrender, totally and at once. Converting Facebook’s platform to open HTML isn’t difficult from a programming standpoint or particularly time-consuming. Besides, developers will love it. Many have privately griped that Facebook’s platform is too gnarly and they look forward to simple HTML and Javascript. And no one I’ve spoken to can find any real problem with this shift from Facebook’s perspective — indeed, the move
should benefit Facebook since its members will be able to stay put, where FB can serve ads at them, while doing more outside the walls of FB.

3. Some combination of 1 & 2.

One person who was willing to go on the record was John Lilly, COO of the Mozilla Corporation, whom I had dinner with last night. Who better to talk about the virtues
of openness? Lilly, in fact, made me think that Option 3 was the smartest way to go. If he were running Facebook, he said, “I would not let Google take the ‘open’ mantle from the world.” He said that if Facebook decides that it needs to move from FBML to HTML — “and I’m not saying I’d necessarily do that if I were Facebook.” But if he did, “I’d cause Google some problems first.”

How? “If I were Facebook, I wouldn’t let Google say, ‘We are the Web.’ I’d call b.s. on them,” Lilly said. OpenSocial isn’t open! It’s a Google-run alliance; Google is calling the shots and is in charge of running the thing. But that’s kind of bogus since theoretically, it
could cause OpenSocial to move in ways that benefited it. True open standards initiatives tend to be run by open boards.

Of course, the down side to working with open-standards boards is they tend to move very slowly. Google is known for having little patience for that sort of thing.

One person I spoke to, who asked to remain anonymous because he is close to the current action, said challenging Google on whether OpenSocial was truly open was a red herring: “It’s a false challenge,” this person argued. “Even if Google has significant control over the API, the way it’s inevitably going to get controlled in reality is by the interoperable implementations that that people actually use. Interoperability itself will be the glue that keeps it from becoming proprietary. This is a dynamic that has worked very well for Internet standards over the years including HTML, HTTP, and TCP/IP itself, despite some very large and dominant vendors who would have preferred to take control of things like those. ” He also referenced this Anil Dash piece, which provides all the ammo you need to support the inevitability of Option 2.

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Citizen Media: The High School Years

November 16, 2007

By Kevin Smokler

It wasn’t long ago that “citizen media” meant a gang of political bloggers fact checking Dan Rather–and maybe a chubby kid doing a wild dance with a light saber. But my stars, how they’ve grown. Citizen media is about the aggregating, licensing and management of content created by everyday people for advertisers, marketers and product developers as well as the brokering of citizen media makers for live events. It’s about the shift from a diffuse cacophony of voices to a viable business opportunity. A look around the Internet’s homerooms confirms that citizen media has plunged into adolescence with business plans, VC money, and Hollywood waiting to cash in when they become of earning age. Of course, we’ve seen this pep rally before and know that today’s valedictorian can be tomorrow’s yearbook memory. But before the zits and angst set in, we present how citizen media really is like high school.

Student council

The BMOCs angling to be the Viacom and Disney of citizen media

Pod Show: Adam Curry’s podcast network could be Citizen Media’s first conglomerate, but it risks getting passed by medium-of-the-moment videoblogging and whatever comes after it.

Podtech: Pod Tech is looking to be the digital lifestyle’s media of record with a network of corporate-branded podcasts, event coverage, and interviews with tech honchos. Most notably, it grabbed blogebrity Robert Scoble away from Microsoft (NASDAQ:MSFT). Its focus on b2b content could be more stable than consumer-focused media, but double check that after the next recession.

Weblogs Inc: AOL bought the blog publisher in 2005 and tapped founder Jason Calacanis to “save Netscape.” Netscape’s conversion this spring to a social bookmarking site has angered Kevin Rose, founder of Digg, the genre’s heavyweight.

Gawker.com: The first publishing conglomerate of the Citizen Media has slimmed down to 10 blogs and stayed proudly independent. Still making mirco-celebrities of its editors and hauling in big name advertisers but is text-based blogging the future or so 2003?

9 Rules: Older and scrappier than Gawker or Weblogs Inc, 9 rules doesn’t broker ads for its network of blogs but acts as a curator and promoter of independent content. Non-commerical and proud of it.

A/V Club

The video kids that want to create your home for uploading, hosting, and sharing video.

YouTube: The Library of Congress of citizen video clips and a ton of professional ones illegally uploaded too. If you haven’t heard of them, we can’t help you.

Dailymotion: Think Friendster with videos as the currency. This may be a prime example of late-to-the-party-piggybacking or just the mashup the space currently lacks.

Blip.tv: If YouTube is the public access cable of the Internet, then Blip is taking a TV-network approach. It focuses on serialized programming, distributing videos from such folks as CNN, Conde Nast and William Shatner’s SciFi DVD Club (!) to iTunes, Dabble and other content aggregation spots. Producers can include opt-in advertising and license their videos through creative commons.

Vimeo.com: A subsidiary of New York-based Connected Ventures (who also has a little-known project called College Humor), Vimeo claims nearly 70,000 registered users but is, at the moment, yet another site for sharing video clips. The madness created around a Google-You Tube acquisition may make short work of their anonymity.

Grouper: Sony’s August acquisition of this YouTube lookalike may foretell what will happen to the online video space once the big boys crash the party.

(Class of 2007) FireAnt.tv: Will bring the “network TV” model to video, catapulting it to success like those who followed this model for audio (Podshow) and blogging (Gawker Media).

Campus radio

These audiophiles want to make creating podcasts as easy as Web surfing.

Hipcast: Its simple interface lets bloggers create audio and video posts in seconds. Formally audioblog.com, Hipcast predates Odeo and was created by citizen journalism pioneer Eric Rice.

Libsyn: An open-source podcast creation and hosting site. It offers four tiers of paid memberships, podcast length, and audio quality.

Class of 2007 Odeo.com: Has all the tools and talent to bring podcasting further into the mainstream, giving us no shortage of “Will Clear Channel (NYSE:CCU) buy Odeo?” rumors next year.

Newspapers

Their blogging tools began the citizen media revolution. How will they evolve?

WordPress: The latecomer to blogging software is now the platform of choice among the blogerati and a San Francisco-based, five-person company headed by former Web 1.0 veteran (onetime Outpost CEO) Toni Schneider.

Six Apart: The husband-and-wife-founded company behind popular blogging tools Movable Type, Typepad and Vox, it acquired Web-based news aggregator Rojo this fall and mobile blogging client Splash data in the spring. Valley buzz predicts more grabs for this “little giant” of citizen media, long rumored a target themselves.

Blogger.com: Has the the Model T of citizen media gotten too comfortable at the Googleplex while social and mobile devices alter the meaning of the verb it helped invent? Or will potential new sibling You Tube rev it up again?

Playground

Where the media you create becomes the center of socializing

Dabble: Aggregates video from YouTube, blip.tv and other hosting services and lets members tag and organize their clip collections into playlists. It could become the flickr of video, but are we ready for another media locker to keep tidy?

Imeem.com: Social networker Imeem has many of the same moves as its competitors (blogs, photos, media swapability) but is looking towards music sharing and hosting communities around large media properties to set it apart. For example, it’s recently partnered with Virgin Records and Warner Independent Pictures.

(Class of 2007) Yelp.com: The people-powered Citysearch is grabbing more metros by the day. Its Myspace take on cities could make local expertise the new digital currency.

Clubs

City guides, dating and whole worlds created entirely by users. They just hand ’em the tools.

Second Life: Only two years old, this user-created universe has a GDP of $64 million and the real-world recognition that its forerunner Everquest never had. Marketers are suitably obsessed: The latest X-Men movie had a Second Life premiere and Adidas and American Apparel sell their virtual wares here. Maybe-presidential candidate Mark Warner has also been making the rounds.

People Aggregator: This pet project of Macromedia co-founder Marc Canter, People Aggregator’s looking to be the giant bucket for your digital life. It includes a downloadable component for creating your own social network or stitching together others. The big question: Is this a great leap forward for an already crowded space or a ho-hum lateral slide?

Vox: The newest entry into Six Apart’s portfolio of blogging tools, Vox gives personal publishing easy photo and video integration and a social network of private “neighborhoods.” Still in invite only beta, Vox may be the all-in-one digital life People Aggregator is after or an even smaller slice of the blogging pie.

Consumating: Ostensibly began as a dating site for the geekily inclined but it’s evolved into the too-old-for-MySpace social network of choice for nearly 20,000 users. CNET (NASDAQ:CNET) Networks acquired it last year.

Future Entrepreneurs

If there’s gold in citizen media’s hills, these guys are selling both the map and the shovels.

(Class of 2007) Federated Media: CEO John Battelle’s standing in the blogosphere helped him build a boutique ad network on tech, parenting, business and automotive sites in just over a year. The Internet’s the limit.

The Deck: An advertising network of bloggers with A-list standing in the Web and design communities. Run by Chicago-based agency Coudal Partners.

Blogads: An early advertising network for bloggers and other citizen mediamakers to build an ad-based business model to support their content, it became the preeminent player, repping citizen celebs like Daily Kos, Perez Hilton, and GoFugYourself. But recent gains by Federated Media and The Deck indicate that its hold on the social media advertising space is hardly firm.

Fruitcast: Aiming to be the Google AdSense of sound by making it easy to insert small ads in podcasts. Will need to develop critical mass or savvy partnerships soon. Company blog hasn’t been updated since May.

Feedostyle: Turn rss feeds into syndicated content! Post that content on your blog! Premium members get content ad-free!

Feedburner.com If it can reassert that the RSS feed is the backbone of both podcasting and video blogging, it could set itself up as a prime acquisition target. But thus far, the geeks have done a terrible job of explaining what a feed is and what it’s good for.

Radiotail: Utilizing more of an agency-model than competitor Fruitcast, Radiotail sells podcast advertising for both independent broadcasters and manages campaigns for media companies. Nikon (OTC:NINOY) and Microsoft have bought time.

Guidance counselor’s office

Taking media to the next level by putting a price tag on it

Blogburst: Syndicates blog content to major media outlets, including the San Francisco Chronicle, Gannett newspapers, and Parade Magazine. Its parent company Pluck also sells a number of tools for building communities around user-generated content, from user blogs to community photo galleries.

(Class of 2007) SocialRoots.com: If it can get the right partners and management lined up, plan on seeing them invent the monetization of citizen media content the way Ebay (NASDAQ:EBAY) did for the junk in your attic.

Hall monitors

Who’s worth paying attention to and who’s still a kid with a light saber? Ask them.

Tailrank: “Finding the best content from blogs so you don’t have to” is the motto of San Francisco-based Tailrank. It ranks the top 150,000 blogs according to its own algorithm, and then publishes a scrolling ticker-tape of influential technology, political and general news memes. Users can also create their own news filters.

Rapleaf.com: No one has been able to communicate to the old media what are the most influential blogs, which is what Technorati should be doing. Rapleaf could grab this ground right out from under Dave Sifry and co.

The Attendance Board

Technorati.com: If you’re not on technorati, you don’t exist.

Student who makes the morning announcements

Conversations Network: The non-profit wing of for-profit GigaVox Media, the Conversations Network has been called “The NPR of Podcasting.” Plans are in the works for GigaVox to distribute nearly 60 monthly programs of recorded lectures and presentations on business, technology and social entrepreneurship by the end of 2006.

Work crew repairing and cleaning up around school grounds

Wikimapia: Combines Google Earth and Wikipedia. Pick any spot on the planet and give it a tag. This is either mindless fun–if used for good–or the beginning of 1984 if used for evil.

Reader Riff
“Napster just doesn’t have it anymore. No matter what they try, they aren’t going to be the ‘rebel’ company that they were–and that’s what attracted people to it. Anybody can do what they are doing; why would anybody want to do it through them?” –Gary Bourgeault

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The OpenSocial Business Model: Will the biggest social containers win?

November 2, 2007

By David Berlind

I asked two questions during the Q&A session in today’s announcement between Google and MySpace that MySpace would be embracing Google’s recently announced OpenSocial framework of APIs, with executives from both companies. The first question (which I’m really still waiting for an answer on) had to do with how two or more social networking sites will handle the thorny challenge of reconciling dissimilar identity management systems (when the integration involves the exchange of personal profile data). You can see in that post what some possible answers are, but what’s not clear is how, in the demonstration given, unique MySpace IDs are mapped to unique Flixster IDs (the demo involved the incorporation of Flixster social movie reviewing service directly onto MySpace profiles).

Another question I asked had to do with business models in an OpenSocial world. I probably didn’t phrase it during the press conference as well as I should have. But going back to the example of how OpenSocial results in the embedding of Flixster functionality into larger “social containers” like MySpace; It occurs to me that, to the extent the exporter of functionality (Flixster in the demo example) relies on advertising as a business model, the idea that a lot of people might begin to experience an exporter’s content through a container (where the container gets to serve the advertising instead of the exporter) could result in a cannibalization of the exporter’s traffic (and therefore, its ad revenues). Meanwhile, the container (MySpace in this case) benefits, doesn’t it? After all, using the demo as the example, MySpace gets to serve advertising around Flixster’s content. Today, lots of sites (eg: FaceBook) go out of their way to prevent other sites from using HTML’s frames to frame their content and serve their own ads against that content (FaceBook for example purposely “busts” HTML frames).

Therefore, could the OpenSocial network lead to a world where the biggest and mightiest “social containers” win? As you can hear in the full audio podcast we have of the press conference, Google CEO Eric Schmidt answered that question as follows;

It depends on your view of how network effects happen and whether you think a single dominant player comes out in any of these spaces. The history of the Web says that that’s not the scenario that will happen. The history of the Web says that there is enormous diversity in what people are interested in and that people who are willing to take a bet on an open platform whether its a developer or leading site like MySpace get the benefit of a larger pie. It does not end up as a zero sum game. Your question can be rephrased in exactly the same question we asked 20 years ago and 10 years ago and history says that the Internet wins and that the principles of openness; that people can extend things; that in fact they end up winning because the pie gets so much larger in all scenarios.

Given the way FaceBook has come on so strong in the last few months, it would be hard to argue with the idea that no single dominant player will ever emerge so long as the platform is open. But what about a small handful of dominant players like Google, FaceBook, and MySpace. Yes, OpenSocial is also about unlocking whatever profile data you have in your MySpace vault and making it portable to other social networks.

But how often will people really switch after they’ve invested so much time in building their online personas in a MySpace, a FaceBook, or both? Maybe they’ll do it, but my sense is that they won’t do it often or lightly in which case only a few will get to rise to the top. Put another way, Flixster may indeed be a container as much as it is an exporter of data to other containers. But in which direction will most of the data flow? To or from Flixster? My sense is that people will lean in the direction of uber-containers like MySpace and FaceBook (FaceBook has not announced support for OpenSocial) to be their primary containers and specialty function sites like Flixster to serve up data into their containers.

I’m not saying that sites who primarily end up in the role of serving data to larger containers can’t win. But, if you ask me, the existence and adoption of OpenSocial will force many advertising-driven sites back to square one where they’ll have to think hard about how they’ll sustain themselves while also participating. One thing is for sure. Much the same way a day doesn’t go by when some company doesn’t carve out a niche in the FaceBook universe for itself (knowing full well that FaceBook is where the sunshine is right now), support of OpenSocial will be a checklist item for any site that’s in a position to serve data into the larger container sites. Those sites may not realize it right now. But when Google turns on its container (and you know it’s gotta have one coming or it wouldn’t be doing this), a lot of people will have their moment of clarity.

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Widget Master

November 2, 2007

By Victoria Murphy Barret

RockYou is Silicon Valley’s latest Web sensation. It exists solely thanks to the recent rise in social networking sites. RockYou creates frivolous, mini Web applications that exist on social networking sites such as MySpace and Facebook. RockYou’s popular Superwall, for instance, lets Facebook folks put graffiti–words, photos, videos–on their “walls,” which are public sites where members post messages. Another, called Zombies, encourages people to “bite” friends. Virtually, of course. No joke.

Since RockYou’s founding two years ago, 90 million social networkers have downloaded its applications. For this, RockYou is making more than $100,000 a month in revenues showing ads alongside its mini-applications for brands like AT&T and Sony, as well as by plugging other developers’ mini-apps (for a fee). The pitch to advertisers: We are where the kids hang out. Yet RockYou doesn’t know much else about its customers. Facebook doesn’t share data about members’ ages, locations, education or anything else it might know.

Jia Shen, the 27-year-old co-founder of RockYou, sat down with Forbes.com recently to talk about how to make money selling snack-size software and what Google’s new open platform means for Facebook and MySpace.

Forbes.com: How did RockYou begin?

Jia Shen: We started two years ago noticing that everyone on MySpace was trying to “bling out” their pages. But there was no easy way to do it. We decided to put together a slide show tool. It took one week to build. I worked while I was on vacation in Japan. In one month, we had 100,000 people using it. Then in three months there were one million.

Impressive growth. But were you making any money?

None. You can’t advertise on MySpace. Facebook changed that. So now we’re like any other Web site: We make money on page views. Sony Pictures wanted to promote the film Resident Evil and used our Zombies application for a sweepstakes event.

We also advertise other applications and take a cut. Yahoo! created an application that lets you post music videos on your Facebook profile page. Yahoo! had 8,000 downloads after one month, which is pretty slow. We started promoting the application in banners above our own applications. In a single day on our network of applications, Yahoo! got 120,000 downloads.

What is your initial reaction to Google’s new open platform for social networks?

We’ve been helping Google for a while on this. In theory, it should be very cool. We tested it out with an application called Emote (This is a collection of happy, sad, flirty smiley faces). Before all these networks required different code, and it took us three days to re-write the same application for Facebook to get it to work on Orkut. With the new standards, it took us just 30 minutes to make the same application work on Plaxo. The real test comes two months from now. How many companies will really give us real estate on their Web sites?

Will Google’s open platform give a boost to less popular social networks like Orkut, Friendster and the Hi5?

Sure, if it yields them more applications, it gives people more reasons to flock to their sites. Web traffic isn’t yet a zero-sum game

Is this bad news for Facebook? Will developers spend less time on Facebook apps?

People are making real money on Facebook. So there’s risk in going elsewhere. Am I really going to spend time going after Orkut’s Brazilian audience? I’m more likely to focus on the U.S. market. Facebook is still growing nicely.

Do you worry that the social networking sites, particularly Facebook, will start launching their own applications and compete with outside developers?

It is always a worry, but something that we’ve lived with since day one. MySpace eventually built a competing slideshow, but we already had big penetration, with a diverse set of widgets. Facebook does do little feature creeps here and there. But everything they’ve done so far has been non-competitive.

What will Microsoft get from its deal with Facebook? (Microsoft announced in October a $240 million investment for a 1.6% stake in Facebook, and is serving ads on the site.)

This isn’t traditional brand advertising. But my belief is that Microsoft didn’t want only access to the ad network. Microsoft wanted to make sure no one else got Facebook. (Google was reportedly bidding.)

What were you doing before RockYou?

I came to Silicon Valley in 2000 after majoring in computer science and electrical engineering at Johns Hopkins. The first start-up I landed at failed in three months, so did the second. I thought I was the kiss of death.

But I have a short attention span, so it was fine by me. This company is changing so much I may as well be working at a different place every three months.

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Facebook Could Challenge Google And Become The Remote Control For The Web

November 2, 2007

by Stephen Wellman

On Aug 16, the blog Facebook Insider reported that TripAdvisor acquired Where I’ve Been, the top travel-related application on Facebook. While TripAdvisor later denied the rumor, the ensuing story exposed something: The exploding number of applications on Facebook. Thanks to its Facebook API program, Facebook is fast becoming the front page for much of the Web.

In July, I argued that Facebook posed a challenge to professional networking site LinkedIn. While I stand by that assessment, I think that in that post I didn’t go far enough. Given just how fast Facebook’s API program is growing, Facebook may present an even more interesting challenge to the Web. Facebook could shape up as a rival toGoogle, Yahoo, and even search itself.

By integrating more applications into its platform, Facebook is trying to transform itself from being just a social networking platform to becoming a full-interactive control panel or remote control for the Web. Unlike earlier attempts to do this — think of the portal model of Web 1.0 — Facebook has designed its API system so that users can access all the Web sites they want without ever leaving Facebook, or opening new Web pages. I suspect that Facebook will expand this functionality so that eventually the entire Web can be accessed through these widgets.

In short, Facebook wants to become the locus of control for much of the user’s Web activity, letting the user seamlessly share travel information, pull in news updates from blogs like TechCrunch, or send questions to the user’s social network with apps like MyQuestions.

If you will allow me to extend the remote control metaphor, Facebook users no longer have to go “out there” in the rest of the Web to get new sites, they can pull them through Facebook, either with invites from the app providers or, more effectively, through their social network itself. The cumulative impact of this could be huge. Just as the remote control gave birth to the couch potato (the ultimate passive TV viewer), so too could Facebook change the game for Web use.

If users no longer need to search to find new cool Web applications, they won’t need to use Google, Yahoo, or MSN as much. Instead, they can rely on Facebook for finding new applications. Now, I don’t think this would mean the end of search, but it could reduce its importance pretty significantly. If that happens, Google loses power and Facebook gains it.

What do you think? Do Facebook and its exploding universe of applications pose a real threat to Google and search in general?

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