Notes from brown bag lunch at Betaworks

Lately it feels like a full-blown startup revival is taking place in NYC and betaworks is very much at the center of it.  So I was grateful to be included in a lunch discussion group they held at their offices yesterday.

Some things I left the discussion thinking about:

– In a discussion of the “real time” web (you can’t go to betaworks and not discuss the real-time web!) Anil Dash made the distinction between the value of real time as in the information being recent and the value of real time as in having a shared experience. The distinction strikes me as critical.  Speaking strictly from personal experience, most of the value I get from real time services like Twitter & Facebook falls in the latter category.  Reading my friends’ tweets helps me keep connected with them, the same way bumping into them on the street and exchanging small talk does.  The content isn’t as important as they connection shared and presence felt.

I think Anil’s distinction also explains why Twitter search is sometimes a strange experience.  Besides the (presumably fixable) problems of spam and relevancy ranking, you see a lot of tweets that are fragments of friends bantering.  There’s no context.  The major exception is when a news event happens, since then the related tweets are generally reactions to that event, so the event plus a single tweet provides the full context.

Caterina Fake discussed a few principles for designing successful user generated sites.

Among them:  make sure the minimum unit of work required of user contributions is very small (ideally, something that takes just a few seconds).  You can change something on Wikipedia in seconds, but writing a Google Knol page can take hours.   At Hunch, we think of one of our main product design innovations was to take something inherently large and complex (decision trees) and reduce the minimum unit of work to something small (submitting a result or question).

Another principle we discussed was what we at Hunch call the read-write ratio.  For every page created in Wikipedia (a “write”), there are thousands of millions of instances of people reading that page (“reads”).  The same holds true for YouTube (writes=uploads), Yahoo Answers (writes=questions & answers).  One goal in designing user generated systems is to get a high read-write ratio (for example, by avoiding duplicate writes).

Anyways, it seemed people enjoyed the discussion, since, as Anil pointed out, they weren’t doing much fiddling with their iPhones.