Iterations: The Spectre Of Inorganic Distribution

organic

Editor’s Note: Semil Shah is a contributor to TechCrunch. You can follow him on Twitter at @semil.

Distribution is a hell of a drug. In a product-obsessed town, it’s distribution that often proves most elusive, and when a person or platform can tap into it, they oftentimes move quickly to lock-in those advantages.

However, not all distribution is created equal. In today’s technology landscape, while thousands of startups pursue the dream of massive distribution, a few platforms and companies hold tremendous advantages in their own special, elite tier: Apple’s iOS, Google’s Android, Facebook, Twitter, and Amazon, to cite the big ones.

These platforms confer great benefits to their owners and the ecosystem, and all is rosy until they decide to distribute and play favorites with their own goods at the expense of others. In the startup world, those moves can be frowned upon. The most recent example of this is a narrow but vocal strain of backlash in the Valley against Vine mini-movies blowing up in their Twitter feeds. Vine is a quick short-form video mobile app acquired pre-launch by Twitter and, given their new owner’s platform strength, was quickly distributed to a large audience worldwide (if they had an iPhone).

I personally enjoy Vine and, recently, a small set of my non-tech friends who have seen and tried the app enjoy the product and find it slightly more fun than a picture, in most cases. The chorus of backlash in the Valley, I believe, has less to do with the product, and more to do with the fact that Vine did not naturally grow (like Instagram), but rather benefited from “inorganic distribution.”

There are other examples of “inorganic distribution” under slightly different conditions. As Snapchat gained steam late in 2012, Facebook launched their own similar app, Poke, seeking to use their massive distribution and concentration of eyeballs to douse water on the Snapchat flame. As any iOS developer painfully knows, getting noticed by users in the iOS App Store is getting more and more difficult, and it’s not easier when Apple restricts which of its own native apps remain as defaults, especially when considering interoperability between apps. Google is slowly incorporating more editorial data (and sometimes, Google owns this data) as it returns searches for authors or restaurants, for instance (see: Zagat). And, Amazon recently made its dive into publishing after years of selling books, backing Tim Ferris’ new cookbook, much to the chagrin of big publishers.

In a textbook or business school case study, a platform’s incentive to inorganically distribute their goods makes perfect sense. It is a seemingly rational move. Right or wrong, in the world of startups, many believe that distribution should be earned without the PEDs of platform advantages. Up until it was acquired, Instagram was the poster child for organic distribution, an independent startup leveraging all the major platforms for its benefit and rising to the top by itself. Then, once it became a private entity owned by Facebook, different strains of power-user backlash have emerged, perhaps the result of the fact that now, as a property, Instagram has unfettered access to the drug that is Facebook’s distribution channels and can therefor play by different rules.

While there are no hard and fast rules for platforms to follow, the most recent backlash around Vine has less to do with the product itself, and more to do with the fact it was given an outsized advantage under Twitter’s wings while many other startups trying to crack the mobile video nut on their own.

“Inorganic distribution” may seem unfair, but it’s also a reality, and everyone building new products and hoping for distribution on other platforms should probably think twice about what the big platform owners could do. They could acquire an app in your category to distribute. They could copy and rebuild an app in your category to distribute. Or, they could limit the data access for apps in your category, making the thought of distribution moot. While it may seem unfair, all is fair game when startups rely on platforms for growth. As a result, and as always, product-builders seeking distribution should plan accordingly.

Facebook Ramps Up News Discovery Battle Against Apps Like Flipboard With “Articles Related To”

Microphone and Facebook Logo

Rather than trust your friends and favorite Pages to post interesting stuff, Facebook is taking news discovery into its own hands with “Articles Related To…”. This special feed story shows you popular links that lead to content mentioning Pages you Like. It could be the next step in Facebook’s master plan to take on apps like Flipboard, Pulse, and Zite, keep you on site and make publishers pay.

Say you Like rapper Lil Wayne. You might see a feed story titled “Articles Related To Lil Wayne” followed by a preview blurb and link to an post about him on music site that’s getting shared a lot on Facebook but that none of your friends posted.

At the very least, the story type could become Facebook’s personalized version of Twitter’s Trending Topics. About a year ago Facebook was frequently showing a “Trending Articles” block in the news feed. However, those links could be about anything and were mostly sensational stories auto-shared by your friends via Open Graph news reader apps. Articles Related To instead relies on the wisdom of the Facebook crowd, and notes the total number of times the article’s been posted.

It could also lay the groundwork for a “Sponsored Articles Related To” ad unit.

But the real reason this new way to find links is so fascinating is because it could foreshadow a dedicated news-only feed on Facebook. Devoid of random status updates and pics of your friends’ children, it could use the habits of Facebook’s 1 billion users and everything it knows about you to deliver a super-relevant personalized newspaper. That could be a real challenger to news-discovery services from Flipboard all the way to Twitter.

Facebook already has dedicated Pages and Music feeds. A news-only feed also appeared to be part of the secret, radically redesigned visual news feed mobile app that we know Facebook is building.

The one problem is that while Facebook wants to help you discover content, it doesn’t like pushing traffic off-site. That’s what links do…normally. But lately some apps like RockMelt have built special fast-loading, pop-up reader views that recreate off-site content within their apps so people never leave. By striking revenue share deals with news publishers, Facebook could show ads on reader views of their content and earn a fee for delivering eyeballs while keeping you firmly planted in its walled garden.

[Image Credit: The Get Smart Blog]

Facebook Graph Search Makes Privacy Seem Selfish

Contribute To Graph Search

The subtle impact of Facebook Graph Search is that when you share openly, you share for the benefit of mankind. And when you don’t, or share to just a few people, you’re robbing the world of your knowledge, recommendations, and content. The question for each of us now is whether we prioritize our contribution or our privacy.

Facebook’s mission has long been “making the world more open and connected”, but until now, Facebook’s service has been better at connecting us to our friends.

The news feed and Timeline deliver what we post to people who already know us. Sharing was about self-expression — offering up a digital representation of who we are. What we shared could end up helping people, but we got a narcissistic boost from all those Likes and gained social capital in the process. Sharing wasn’t entirely altruistic.

Graph Search creates a potential audience for our content who we’ll never meet. Your Like of a gentle dentist or a tranquil park, your photo of a historic landmark or must-see event could influence decisions of people for the better. But you won’t know that. Your aid falls outside your network to those who stumbled across your donation via Graph Search.

This redefines our relationship with the Facebook share box. There’s suddenly a reason to share even if you can’t immediately foresee how or to who it will be valuable.

Those warm, fuzzy Likes and the chance to make people think you’re an expert might make you share things you thought your friends care about. However, the fear of getting zero Likes and annoying your friends may have discouraged you from sharing things that could assist someone eventually. A broadcast to the news feed was simply the wrong medium for your local dentist recommendation.

But if there was a way to take a quiet action that would be indexed by Graph Search, you might be much more willing to donate your advice and experience to Facebook. The problem is this doesn’t really exist. The closest approximation would be to publicly share something and then hide it from your Timeline. But that won’t actually hide Page Likes from the news feed, and people may not care if their addition to the graph can be pulled by friends who visit their Timeline. They just don’t want it pestering their friends from the home page. Facebook needs to build this quiet contribution.

Why? Stow the cynicism for a moment, and remember there are souls out who really love to help others. While there are badges and elite status, altruism is the foundation of thriving communities like Yelp and Wikipedia. Not coincidentally, Facebook Graph Search challenges Yelp because it too can attract and offer up recommendations. If Facebook makes it easy to lend a hand, people will. It graph could flourish, the world might find it truly valuable, and Facebook could turn it into a business that supports further innovation.

There is also a potential dark side to Graph Search — a chilling effect on sharing. When Facebook launched the news feed in late 2006, 750,000 of its 12 million users joined a group protesting the feature. They claimed that while all the stories in the news feed were only shown to people their authors allowed, it violated their “privacy through obscurity”. The effort required to find something on Facebook before news feed was protection enough. Despite concerns, people eventually grew to cherish the information stream.

Facebook went through another round of grumbling when it launched Timeline. Suddenly old posts could be dug up much more easily. But again, there was a degree of protection from employers, family, and romantic interests thanks to the friction of browsing through years of content in search of something of offensive.

When Graph Search rolls out publicly, we may see the same sense of violation, but magnified by the ease of search. Before you might have shared something widely or publicly that might damage your reputation — a drunk photo, a controversial article, a joke in poor taste — but you’d assume its audience would typically be people who got your updates in the news feed.

Graph Search’s efficiency penetrates the armor of friction to discovery. A recruiter doesn’t have to comb years of Timeline. They can search for photos you’ve taken in Cancun. They can search for “people named Josh Constine interested in Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas”. And soon Facebook plans to index posts, meaning all your status updates and links can be dredged up.

Some people have nothing to hide. But for others whose identities aren’t necessarily aligned with their bosses or the parents, Graph Search could be a nightmare. Others still just don’t care about helping out. They’re not going to got to the trouble of Liking their favorite dentist in case it might assist a friend or a stranger. And finally there’s people who just feel uncomfortable sharing so openly.

There’s nothing wrong with being any of these. If you don’t want to contribute, that’s fine, and it’s your choice. But now that Graph Search exists, it’s a choice you have to make.

Flipboard Goes Big, Launches Support For 10-Inch Android Tablets

flipboard

Flipboard has just launched its social magazine app to support Android tablets, including the Nexus 10, Samsung’s Galaxy Note 10.1 and Galaxy Tab line.

Flipboard is an app that aggregates your RSS info, social networks, etc. to create a beautiful, flippable magazine. In fact, the app won Best Touch Interface at the 2011 Crunchies. But making sure that interface creates the same experience across all platforms has proven tough, as Flipboard didn’t migrate over to Android at all until June of this year.

Since then, the app’s been available across the entire iOS ecosystem and Android smartphones, and the Kindle Fire and Nook tablets. But today marks a complete expansion into Android.

This is as big as Flipboard’s ever had to go in terms of optimization. But according to the release, Flipboard worked directly with Samsung to optimize page layouts for the wider screen of some Android devices. Users of these larger Android tablets will see larger story excerpts.

It’s unclear whether or not Flipboard will head to Windows Phone next. That seems the logical next step in terms of platform expansion, though there’s no indication that the company has any such plans. Then again, anything can happen. Flipboard may even throw a curve ball and hit BB10 when it finally launches.

TumblPad: Tumblr Finally Releases Its Native iPad App, Sporting Enhanced Navigation & Markdown Support

Screen shot 2012-12-19 at 7.10.40 PM

Now that Tumblr’s blackouts are behind it, the company is back to focusing on its product, particularly its mobile one. A growing channel that, by the way, recently helped propel the blogging platform over 20 billion monthly page views. While Tumblr updated its iOS app with the most recent in November to improve user experience, speed and engagement on the iPhone by making the app “native” — i.e. integrating it more deeply into the iOS experience — the company still has yet to customize its app for the iPad.

Days after adding support for Android tablets, that finally changed tonight, as the company updated its iOS app, adding compatibility for both the iPad and iPad Mini.

For those who’ve already been Tumbl-ing on the iPhone, the new support for iPad will be familiar. First and foremost, because the app has “native” support for the iPad, it means that you no longer have to deal with the slow load times of your local browser. So, because of that, the user experience is more frictionless, more responsive and just feels more, well, native.

Like Tumblr for the iPhone, the new app includes familiar features like one-touch re-blogging, pinch and zoom to enlarge photos (and larger photos in general), multi-blog management, offline support, and so on.

However, the upgrade also brings some new iPad-specific additions as well, like its new navigational sidebar that remains in-view as you peruse through the Tumblr universe. A new Path-esque pie menu pops out of the sidebar, allowing for enhanced posting options, as well as landscape and markdown support.

Tumblr developer Bryan Irace tells the Verge that it only took the company “a few weeks” to develop its iPad app, but the main reason it’s been so long in coming is that Tumblr spent the summer working on its recent iPhone upgrade. Once it had optimized the user experience for smartphones, it was free to turn its attention to the iPad.

After a few minutes playing around with the new app, it’s easy to see that the Tumblr is well suited for the tablet. The blogging platform has always championed simple design, focusing the attention on the visual experience provided by its millions of content creators. That’s part of the reason why it has become one of the go-to channels for posting video, images and GIFs, really for any content that requires more than 140 characters, more space, or that doesn’t immediately need to be blasted to your entire social graph.

Because it already lends itself so well to images, video and multimedia content, Tumblr looks great on the iPad, as images appear in high-resolution without being limited by the smaller screen size. It’s a pleasure to tap around your high-res dashboard and, overall, offers a far more responsive experience than viewing Tumblr on your iPad’s browser. Plus, there’s less friction around creating new content, which is a plus.

Maybe even a holiday miracle.

Check out Tumblr for the iPad here.

Hands On With Facebook Nearby, A New Local Biz Discovery Feature That Challenges Yelp And Foursquare

Facebook Nearby

250 million Facebook users tag posts with location each month and today that data goes to work for you in a major revamp of Facebook’s Nearby feature for its iOS and Android apps. Built by Josh Williams and the Gowalla team Facebook acquired last year, Nearby helps you discover nightlife, shopping, restaurants and more based on the Likes, checkins, and recommendations of your friends and other users.

I got to spend the weekend trying out the feature that will roll out first to 1% of users later today and all users soon. Here I’ll review Facebook’s impressive first attempt at local business discovery, discuss its potential to earn money while delighting users, and explain why it spells trouble for apps like Yelp and Foursquare.

How Facebook Nearby Works

Starting today when you open the Nearby tab from the Facebook for iOS or Android navigation menu, you won’t just see a list of Places to check in like before. Instead you’ll see a relevancy-sorted list of local businesses and landmarks that Facebook think you’ll be interested in. Similar to how it ranks stories in the news feed, Nearby looks at a ton of signals to determine what to show you first, including friends who’ve Liked a business, checked in, left a short text recommendation, or given the Place a star rating.

Along with an omni-list of locations, you can search for specific spots or browse by categories, including Coffee, Hotels, Outdoors, and Nightlife. There’s also detailed sub-categories so you can browse for Mexican restaurants, brunch, or sports bars, or Shopping retailers such as clothing, electronics, groceries, or books.

Results are shown on a split screen map and list, and the give you plenty of context so you know what you’re looking at. Each listing shows a business’ name, category, profile pic, address, distance,  star rating, and the names of friends who Like it. Move or resize the map and you can see the top results for any area.

Tap into one and you’ll see Facebook’s brand new mobile design for Places Pages that offers quick access to business hours; buttons to Like, call, or check-in somewhere, view recommendations from other users, and a slick way to leave your own hot tips on the best dishes or nights to drop by. If you want to visit, a directions button opens your device’s default maps app. You can also toggle over to see the Place’s Timeline of recent updates.

Is It Helpful?

Yes. Nearby is a truly mobile-first interface designed for browsing over typing. I’ve been very impressed by how well the relevancy-ranking algorithm works. I’m big into nightlife and so are my friends, so it was great to see Nearby pulling out local spots I’m into like concert halls and outdoor bars.

By combining rankings and recommendations with data Likes and checkins by friends, I not only know a place is high-quality, but that’s it’s my style — something Yelp can really do. I had no idea there was a creole restaurant down the street from my apartment, but with four-stars and Like from a good buddy, Nearby found me something I’m excited to try.

In your own city, Facebook’s plentiful data provides accurate suggestions of what to check out, but it could also be a big help when you’re travelling. You could follow the tracks of the few friends you know who live where you’re visiting, or trust the ratings and recommendations of strangers. Facebook began letting people leave recommendations on the web in mid-2011 and through the mobile website in January. Now those are turning up in Nearby to help you figure out what to order or what to do at a place once you’ve decided to go there.

There’s certainly some kinks to fix. Spots in the “Outdoor” category sometimes are actually indoor venues. If you search for “Mexican” it will bring up the option to browse the Mexican restaurants category, but Facebook doesn’t know to do the same if you search for “taco”. It just gives you restaurants with “taco” in the name.

Will It Move the Needle For Facebook?

For now there’s no ads in Nearby, but there sure is plenty to ways Facebook could add them. Most obviously, Facebook could let business pay for sponsored placement in results. “Your business would show up fourth, for a fee it will show up first”. On mobile where people don’t have time to do a ton of comparing, those ads could drive serious foot traffic and sales for businesses and become an important revenue stream for Facebook. Similar adds could show up if you search for a business too.

Facebook could also start pushing hyper-local ads into the standard news feed. If Facebook detects you’re within a half mile of a business it thinks is relevant to you, it could show you an add linking to that place’s Nearby mobile Page.

Should Yelp, Foursquare, And Other Local Discovery Startups Be Worried?

Yes. Simply put, people are already spending so much time on Facebook that they might be happy to stay in it find local businesses rather than open another app. Local discovery services only work if you have plenty of data. Foursquare still only has around 30 million users. Facebook’s location services have 250 million users a month. It might not have the long-tail of reviews or advanced spam protection of Yelp, but it knows where your real friends go.

In the end, people want recommendations they can trust, and those don’t come from strangers. They come from people you know who share your tastes– your friends. Nearby lets you discover the world through their eyes.

Morgan Stanley Fined $5M Over Facebook Research By Massachusetts

8018111847_1b2aaf9f03_z

According to CNBC, Morgan Stanley has been fined $5M over its Facebook research practices. This is the second huge fine for Morgan Stanley, the first being over “noncompetitive trades” in June.

Facebook’s stock jumped out of the gates and dipped dramatically, and Morgan Stanley filed a report based on its research afterwards, including why it was priced at $38:

Our base case scenario assumes that Facebook’s revenue growth moderates as it takes a measured approach to increasing mobile ad load while engagement increasingly shifts to mobile devices. Facebook enters an investment cycle characterized by compressed adjusted operating margins in C2012/13E. Facebook grows total revenue at a +28% CAGR from C2013-16E, while advertising revenue (+31%) grows substantially faster than payments revenue (+17%) due to casual games being played increasingly through mobile devices. We forecast C2013E adjusted EBITDA margin of 60% in this scenario.

The state of Massachusetts also fined Citigroup $2M for its involvement in the Facebook IPO.

There has been discussion about Facebook’s eventual $5B IPO for some time, and after the fact, people have been saying that something wasn’t quite on the up and up.

This is developing.

[Photo credit: Flickr]

Twitter And Nielsen Announce Partnership To Create New Twitter-Based TV Rating

twitter tv

Nielsen and Twitter just announced a deal for something called the Nielsen Twitter TV Rating, which they’re hoping to turn into the standard metric for measuring the conversation that a TV show spurs on Twitter.

The companies say they’re planning to make the rating available commercially in the fall of 2013. The new Twitter ratings are supposed to complement Nielsen’s existing TV ratings, and will be built on top of the SocialGuide platform offered by NM Incite. (NM Incite is a joint venture between Nielsen and McKinsey, and it announced the acquisition of SocialGuide last month.)

In a post on the Twitter blog, the company’s head of media Chloe Sladden said Twitter’s TV partners have been asking for “one common benchmark from which to measure the engagement of their programming.” And according to the press release, the new rating will measure “the total audience for social TV activity – both those participating in the conversation and those who were exposed to the activity – providing the precise size of the audience and effect of social TV to TV programming.”

It doesn’t seem like either company is releasing too many details about the new rating and what it will be measuring yet. Here at TechCrunch, Gregory Ferenstein has written skeptically about the numbers that social media platforms use to tout the impact they can have (he was talking specifically about politics, but was also making a broader point).

This is an area that startups have explored as well (Bluefin Labs comes to mind), so it will be interesting to see how they respond now that Twitter is partnering to expand its own measurement options.

In the release, Steve Hasker, president of global media products and advertiser solutions at Nielsen, points to the opportunity that the Nielsen Twitter TV Rating could have on measuring ad campaigns that include both traditional TV advertising and Twitter:

The Nielsen Twitter TV Rating is a significant step forward for the industry, particularly as programmers develop increasingly captivating live TV and new second-screen experiences, and advertisers create integrated ad campaigns that combine paid and earned media. As a media measurement leader we recognize that Twitter is the preeminent source of real-time television engagement data

Earlier this year, Twitter and Nielsen also partnered to use Twitter surveys to measure the impact of brand advertising campaigns.