StackOverflow and Community

“Hey, have you heard?  StackExchange is the new faq/forum.  It’s the cat’s pajamas, with SEO friendly urls, lots of web 2.0 features (including a realtime wysiwyg editor) and social goodness baked in.” — Dan, trying on his hipster hat

If you’re a programmer, and you use the google to look for answers to your programming questions, you’ve probably seen stackoverflow.com pop up in the search results.  This site, started as a collaboration between Joel Spolsky and Jeff Atwood last year, is a better way to do question and answer sites, aka FAQs.  It opens the FAQ asking and answering process to anyone with a browser, has anti spam features, some community aspects (voting, editing answers, reputation, commenting, user accounts), and great urls.  And, incidentally, a great support staff–I emailed them a question about my account and they responded is less than 24 hours.

They’ve done a good job of generalizing the platform, and now you can create your very own.  There are a wide variety of stack sites: real estate, your pressing Yoda needs, small business, space exploration.  Here’s a list.  I love the fact they are charging for this software–$129/month for a 1M pageviews is not very much for software that lets you build your community and lets your community share knowledge.

And that’s the key.  Like most other social software, what you get out of a stack site is highly correlated to what you put into it.  If, like the folks at Redmonk, you create a stack site about a topic on which you have expertise and publicize it where you know interested people will hear about it and spend time answering questions on it, I imagine you have a good chance to build a community around it. And once you get to a certain threshold, it will take on a life of its own.  But you need to provide that activation energy–it’s an organizational commitment.
If, on the other hand, you create a stack site and don’t have a community which can get excited about it, or don’t do a good job reaching out to them, you end up with an abandoned stack site (worse than an abandoned blog, imho).  I’m hoping that Teaching Ninja won’t be in this state for long, but right now there’s only 3 questions and no answers there.

The proliferation of social software infrastructure sites (I’m looking at you, ning) has made it easier than ever to create the foundations for communities online.  But, you need to have people for community software to have any value!  Because it is so easy, getting others involved is not a case of ‘if you build it they will come’ (if it ever was).  There are too many competing sites for other’s time.  Software can make it easier and easier to build the infrastructure around community, but it’s the invisible structures (bonds between you and your users, and between them) that will actually create ongoing value.

If you’re looking for an outward facing FAQ site and willing to invest the time in it, a stack site seems to be one of the best software platforms for building that right now.  (I have some qualms about who owns the data, but it seems like they are planning export functionality.)  Just don’t believe the hype: “The Stack Exchange technology is so compelling, sites can take off right away.”  No software can make a social site ‘take off right away’.

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Boco: Colorado’s SXSW?

I spent yesterday at boco.me, a one day, one track conference in Boulder Colorado. The focus was on three different areas: food, tech, and music.  Apparently, South by Southwest (SXSW) has a similar multidimensional focus.

I was looking forward to meeting people from different spheres with different interests, and it certainly delivered that. Most attendees I talked to were tech people, however. Many thanks to Andrew Hyde and company for organizing this. I hope it’s the first of many.

Before signing up and actually before the conference, I did not have a very good idea of how much I was getting.  It was actually quite affordable: $99. For this modest price, attendees received:

  • entry to a concert: value $15
  • $30 worth of dinner at one of Boulder’s many fine restaurants
  • happy hour with beer and wine and apps
  • three sessions with about six speakers per session
  • three breakout sessions
  • a free T-shirt
  • a thank you note from Andrew(!)

Boco was, to put it mildly, a hell of a deal.

The conference had, as first year conferences tend to, a few flaws. The things I would change were:

  • allow users to ask questions of the speakers
  • have the breakout sessions be a bit more organized–they felt very ad hoc.

What follows are my notes from yesterday.  Here’s what the Daily Camera had to say.

First up was Rachel Weidinger (her slides are here). She mentioned the “big here and long now” and talked about tools that make our here bigger–“handheld awesome detectors”.  The tool that excited me the most was the Good Guide. This site offers what I’ve been looking for for a long time, which is detailed information on products, so that price and marketing are not the sole guides when you purchase something off the cuff. This guide has an API so that third-party developers can access their data. Oh, and Rachel is also looking for someone to build snake detecting goggles.

Next, Mark Menagh spoke on the differences between eating organic and eating locally.  I paraphrase, but he said that folks who eat organics are pessimists who want rules to prevent bad things from happening to their food and locavores are optimists.  He also emphasized that this November, Boulder voters are going to be asked to extend the Open Space sales tax ( till 2034! [pdf]) and that while we do that, voters should let the county commissioners know how they feel about GMO crops on open space land.

Then, Justin Perkins, from Olomomo Nut Company discussed some of the similarities he had noticed between building a band fanbase, as he did in the 1990s, and building one for a local food company, as he is doing now.  I can tell you from experience that his nut products are quite good.  He talked about engaging users in the product so that they feel it’s part of their story. Takeaway quote: entrepreneurs “have to be consistent and persistent as hell”.

Cindy O’Keeffe spoke about her experience fighting the GMO beets on Boulder County Open Space land.  I had heard about this issue before (Mark also discussed it), but she gave a good overview of the issues, and she had a compelling story about her personal journey from detached global environmentalist to local leader opposing the GMO planting.

Rick Levine, an author of the Cluetrain Manifesto (read it if you haven’t!) and now chocolatier, gave an overview of the Cluetrain ideas, and then talked about his new venture into high end chocolates, including some of the physics of chocolate.  Seth Ellis, his company, have shiny candy bar wrappers that he claimed were home compostable.  When talking about the Cluetrain and his experiences in technology, he offered up the observation that while he had been really interested in technology, his really great moments were talking to people.

The Autumn Film, a two person Boulder band, talked a bit about their experiences in music creation at this time.  Takeaway: music used to be “work hard, get lucky, hit it big”, but the industry changes have now just made it “work hard, hit it big, work harder”.  You can check out some of their music for free (well, you have to give them some of your personal information). Then, one member of the band performed.

I enjoyed the first breakout in which five of us gathered outside and discussed a wide variety of topics.  It was great to have a framework for getting to know the other conference participants.

Amber Case led off the second session by talking about cyborg anthropology–basically the idea that humans extend themselves via their tools, and that the malleability of current tools (think iphone) far exceeds the malleability of previous tools (think hammer).  Several of the other attendees found her ideas fascinating, but I wasn’t as astonished.  I guess I have thought about this topic, though certainly not with the rigor that Amber has.  (reading Snow Crash is no thesis.)  She did have some neat pointers to other work going on in this field: human-blender ‘communication’ and hug storage. Humorously, her email sig reads “Sent from my external proesthetic device“

Rich Grote and Dave Angulo then talked about what makes an online influencer–relevance, audience, access and one other thing I forgot to write down.  They are working on a company, which I was unable to find a link to, to leverage online influencers for marketing purposes.  It reminded me a bit of what Lijit presented on in June at the BDNT.  They also talked a bit about Dunbar’s number, which is the “theoretical cognitive limit to the number of people with whom one can maintain stable social relationships”.

Scott Andreas discussed his experiences building social software for non profits.  The takeaway for me was that when you have a cohesive group and you provide them social software, it can enrich the community.  The most important thing is that the community (and their norms) exists and is enforced outside of the software.  He also talked about Sunlight Labs, an open data source about the US government. Also, Andrew Hyde mentioned at this time the idea of floating your revenue through Kiva.  I certainly am not earning a lot of interest on my business savings right now, and using the funds to do microloans could be a great social good.  I would be a bit concerned about loan losses, though (98% loan repayment is a bit worrisome).

Sean Porter of Gigbot gave a breakdown of the live music industry ecosystem.  There’s a lot of middlemen between the fan and the band when it comes to concerts–ticketing agencies, promoters, management.  He started down the path of explaining how much of the ticket price you and I pay each of these folks get, but didn’t go all the way; if he had, I think his presentation would have been much stronger.

Ingrid Alongi talked about how she learned about work life balance, and techniques for maintaining it.  Good ideas in there–having a status meeting with coworkers while on a bike ride was probably my favorite, though.  Incidentally, she was laid off on Monday and had found a new job by the time she talked on Friday

Grant Blakeman and Reid Phillips (the latter being a member of The Autumn Film) talked about the new music business models.  Takeaway quote: “things always change”.  Sounds like Abe Lincoln. They are building tools that allow musicians to use some new media to market and connect with their fans. I enjoyed their insistence on musicians retaining control of their work, and using new technology to facilitate that.  It reminded me of this great article by Joel Spolsky where he talks about how your business should never outsource core business functions.  Fan interaction seems a pretty core part of the band business, so I doubt it should be outsourced.

Ari Newman of Filtrbox talked about the realtime web: how we’ve reached a technology tipping point and that Twitter and its open API pushed the real time web into the forefront, but that it is larger than the Twitterstream.  Ari also mentioned how the real time web actually isn’t all that real time–even if the technology delivers news to your computer in half a second, if it is not in front of you, it doesn’t matter.  Maybe he should collaborate with Amber on some goggles that would push realtime news to you all the time 🙂 .  He had real neat slide effects, too.  I chatted with him a bit and it was great to hear stories of his old sysadmin days–Linux on a Mac 8500!

The second breakout session was over lunch.  Was really interesting to talk with Ryan and Angie of Location 3, a Denver interactive agency, as well as Andrew Hyde, Ef, Rahoul(sp?) and Dan Kohler; wide ranging discussion and not too focused.

The third set of sessions was more informal.  Half of the speakers did not follow their topics on the program…

First, Emily Olson, from Foodzie, discussed how she had turned her passion (food) into a job (Foodzie, among others).  Her main points: pay attention to what you do in your free time–that’s an indication of your passion; find a mentor; be willing to work for free, especially at first; don’t try to find the one true vocation.

Dan Kohler, of Renegade Kitchen, discussed how to not have your blog/website suck.  He had 3 people up on stage read 3 different posts, and critiqued them.  Takeaway–“put your voice into” your blog.  I have a pretty vanilla voice on this blog, but part of that is due to professional concerns; however, Dan made the point that really, if you do drive some people off with the tone of your blog, the people you have left will be fiercer fans.

There was a panel on where the local music scene was heading, moderated by Sharon Glassman, a local bluegrass musician, and featuring Jason Bradley and Ira Leibtag.  I stepped out during this panel, but I do remember Jason Bradly discussing how “lots of people live in a box” in reference to his bringing an accordion to a bluegrass jam (and the reaction of the other players).

Brad Feld discussed the startup visa movement.  The idea is anyone who wants to move to the United States and start a company would get a 2 year visa; it would be automatically renewable for achieving certain goals (raising more funding, employing a certain number of people).  The founder would have to show proof of funding.  More information here.  I like anything that gets more smart folks to move to the USA.

Elana Amsterdam spoke on her experience turning a blog she wrote into a recipe book, and stated that her experience showed how you could really build a full fledged business out of a blog, using your passion and the blog as a platform to publish.  She also recommended “Write the Perfect Book Proposal” by Jeff Herman.  Updated 10/4: I asked a friend in the book publishing business about this book and she said: “Yikes. Any book that says “it’s easier to get published than you think” makes me want to hurt myself. Proposals aren’t about capturing a publisher’s attention. They’re about showing your expertise, your marketability, and just plain having an idea that fits within what a company actually publishes.”  For what that’s worth…  I think that she’s absolutely correct, for certain kinds of blogs.  I know that Eric Sink did the same thing with “Eric Sink on the Business of Software”, a fine book that has a collection of blog posts at its core.

Finally, Lilly Allison, a personal chef, spoke about eating seasonally and consciously.  She is using the web to extend her reach (and her brand!) as a personal chef–if you sign up, she’ll send you meal weekly plans with in season menus.  I signed up and will let you know how it goes—I do have lots of food from my CSA (here’s a list of Colorado CSAs).

There was a third breakout session, but I had to run some errands, so I missed it.

Then, it was happy hour time.  Off to the Boulder Digital Works, above Brasserie 1010.  It’s a beautiful space in downtown Boulder, and I talked with some of the incoming students who are doing the first 60 week advertising certificate.  In addition I had conversations on a variety of topics from the success of boco to how to scale a custom chocolate business to whether presenting at BDNT helped business (answer, indirectly, yes) to what to do with consulting requests that interfere with your core business (with the Occipital folks)

At the end of happy hour, we gathered into groups of four.  I had dinner with with Scott Andreas, Dan Kohler, and Jen Myronuk; a fine meal at Centro and then to a concert at the Boulder Theater: Paper Bird.

All in all, a fantastic conference.  It was eclectic and not as focused as other conferences I’ve been to, but for that reason alone has value.  I get bored if I only educate myself in one dimension.  Thanks again to the boco team, and here’s hoping that next year is as good, if not better.


“Blending Social Media with Traditional Marketing” Presentation

I have some interest in social media–I obviously blog, but I also have a twitter account as well as some other ‘social media’ interaction.  It’s also the reason I attend the Boulder New Media Breakfast.  One of the ways I keep up to date on topics of interest is using Google Alerts (it’s not just for Craigslist).  I also use FiltrBox, mostly because I have some friends who work there.

The FiltrBox folks are having a 1 hour webinar tomorrow titled “Blending Social Media with Traditional Marketing” which looks to be pretty interesting.  From the description, they’ll discuss:

how social media marketing and traditional marketing integrate, how your company can leverage social media, along with best practices, how to listen, monitor, engage and interact, with highlights of specific case studies.

Not sure how much marketing material you might get from signing up, but you can always use a throwaway email address.



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