Category Social Media

Hi there. I'm a Partner at Undercurrent, where I lead a team focused on helping ambitious organizations operate in ways that are beneficial to all their users.

Fans, CPM, and Academic Rigor

A while back, I got pretty interested in something called “Player Efficiency Rating” (PER). Being a fan of the NBA – and in particular the Lakers – I’m interested in the recent shift across some clubs to a more stats-based approach. It turns out that the teams that use “advanced statistics” to make personnel decisions and to inform their players before each game do significantly better than those that do not. “Advanced Statistics” are things like PER that use an algorithm to bring together multiple individual metrics into a single number. There are plenty of criticisms to this approach, many of which focus on the way the algorithm is built.

Just a couple of weeks ago, I looked at teams that have stats people integrated into the decision process. (Boston, Cleveland, Dallas, Denver, Houston, Oklahoma City, Portland and I may have included Orlando — I’m not certain what they do exactly.) It was seven or eight teams. They had won 60% of their games, and that’s counting Houston, which has only won half their games because they’re missing Yao Ming and Tracy McGrady wasn’t playing.

The teams that don’t have quants won 40-some percent. And it was pretty linear … the more or less they had someone integrated into their decision making, the more or less they were at the extremes of winning and losing. [Emphasis mine]
TrueHoop – The State of Basketball Analysis

I’ll reiterate the main point for emphasis: NBA teams that use a stats-based approach win 60% of their games, while those that don’t win 40%.

But I guess *my* point is not that stats-based approaches are always the way to go, but rather that if you’re going to take a stats-based approach, it’s important to really think hard about how (and why) you’re using data.

Which leads me to a quick dissection of the state of nerdery in basketball today:

That, friends, is the formula for PER. It takes all the valuable individual metrics for a player (which have been recorded since around 1950) and rolls them up into one number that represents the total contribution of a single player per minute of each game. There are plenty of other ways to judge players using advanced metrics, including Adjusted +/- (how the team does when a player is on the floor versus off), Rebound Rate (just what it sounds like) and Wins Added (also what it sounds like).

And while I won’t bore you with an explanation of every portion of the algorithm, you can see that it takes into account good things (points scored and how they’re scored, blocks, steals, rebounds, assists) and bad things (turnovers, shots missed, fouls), and includes the team’s pace-of-play in comparison to the overall league. Each of the “contributions” is weighted to essentially create an index where the “average” player in the NBA has a PER of 15.

When you anecdotally compare players’ performances to their PER numbers, things start to make sense:

Only 14 times has a player posted a season efficiency rating over 30.0. All of them are between 30.23 and 31.84. Michael Jordan leads with four 30+ seasons, with Shaquille O’Neal and Wilt Chamberlain having accomplished three each, and LeBron James, David Robinson, Dwyane Wade and Tracy McGrady having accomplished one each. The 2008-2009 season was unique in that it was the only season in which more than one player (LeBron James and Dwyane Wade, with Chris Paul just missing the cut with a PER of 29.96) posted efficiency ratings of over 30.0.
Wikipedia – PER

I bring this up now because there’s a lot of talk lately of the value of a “fan” on Facebook (or rather, the value of a “liker”), and the analysis seems pretty shallow. Compare PER (judging the value of an NBA player per minute of play) to the formula proposed by Vitrue and Edelman for the value of a “fan”/”liker”:

Don’t get me wrong: there is absolutely value in a fan relationship that can be measured by looking at the free impressions that relationship creates. And while it’s nice to have a low-level algorithm to determine that component of a fan’s “value”, I think we can do a whole heck of a lot better.

To me, judging fan value by how many free impressions they can create seems like judging an NBA player only by their free-throw shooting ability. Or even by how fast they can run end-to-end on a court. Or in a pretty good case by their PER. In all cases, there’s a much bigger picture to take into account.

Take into account this bit from a fascinating article in the Times Magazine from last year, about analyzing the performance of players like Shane Battier, the “No Stats All-Star”:

There are other things Morey has noticed too, but declines to discuss as there is right now in pro basketball real value to new information, and the Rockets feel they have some. What he will say, however, is that the big challenge on any basketball court is to measure the right things. The five players on any basketball team are far more than the sum of their parts; the Rockets devote a lot of energy to untangling subtle interactions among the team’s elements. To get at this they need something that basketball hasn’t historically supplied: meaningful statistics. For most of its history basketball has measured not so much what is important as what is easy to measure — points, rebounds, assists, steals, blocked shots — and these measurements have warped perceptions of the game. (“Someone created the box score,” Morey says, “and he should be shot.”) How many points a player scores, for example, is no true indication of how much he has helped his team. Another example: if you want to know a player’s value as a rebounder, you need to know not whether he got a rebound but the likelihood of the team getting the rebound when a missed shot enters that player’s zone. [Emphasis mine]
Times Magazine – The No-Stats All-Star

I’m not arguing that the creators of the “Fan Value” metric should be shot, but none of us should feel good with an impressions-based valuation of fan relationships. Instead, I’d argue that each business needs to figure out (as basketball nerds already have):

  • What constitutes a “win”
  • Who/what contributes to those wins
  • How those contributions are made
  • and Who else competes for those contributions

Only then can you figure out the value of a fan.

Or not. Thanks to Mike and Alex for looking at this pre-post.

Gaming FourSquare with Bill Brasky

This is a guest post from a friend. They’ve requested to remain anonymous. If you like hacking and location-based services, this is some good fun:

Bill Brasky is a sonofabitch! For the unititiated, Bill Brasky was a short-lived character who appeared on Saturday Night Live in the mid to late ’90s. Bill, himself, rarely appeared, but his associates would swill scotch and recount all of Bill’s legendary–if not bizarre and often mean-spirited–accomplishments which, like any good folk hero, grew with each retelling.

Fifteen years on and Bill Brasky has signed up for FourSquare and his behaviour is no different; he’s still a dick and he’s looking to usurp your mayorship, but he also wants to be your friend. Bill Brasky is, obviously, not a real person, but in this case, Bill’s not even portrayed by a real person, he’s an automated script.

As a web developer, I’m regularly checking out different social networks and other novel online tools, and FourSquare has recently drawn my attention.

Immediately I realized that the location-based service was ripe for manipulation and, barring a major change in how either GPS or the Internet works, it will likely always be that way. The fundamental problem of check-in authenticity is a classic problem of “Never Trust The Client”. For the non-technical, ”The Client” is whatever is sending check-in requests to the FourSquare API. Many people use iPhones or other, similar, devices. With the software running on these, FourSquare gets a venue ID and, optionally, GPS coordinates. This is all well and good when you know you can trust the client. The standard iPhone application takes real location data from the device’s GPS and sends it along, but anyone with a web browser can access the FourSquare API and fake the requests. Essentially, FourSquare has to trust the user that they’re where they say they are and this leaves a major opening.

The folks I know who are regular users of the service seem to really like it, and mayoral statuses, especially for hot venues, are highly coveted. Knowing this, the service was practically begging for some tinkering. Enter: Bill Brasky.

I began work on some Perl scripts to play with the FourSquare API and setup an account (Bill Brasky) to test with. I gave Bill a list of locations I wanted him to check into and set him loose. Bill hits up each venue with a random time delay to, at least superficially, appear as though he’s an actual person touring the town. At the time of writing, Bill’s siezed mayorships at 11 different venues, in some cases displacing real patrons.

Right now, apart from the random timing of check-ins, Bill doesn’t do much, but I’ve got plans for him. In the future, Bill will begin friending those he steals mayoral status from. He’s going to start using actual venue lat/lon, with a touch of random positional noise added, in his check-ins to appear as though he’s actually “there” as a preemptive strike against FourSquare “locking down”. He’s going to start getting routes from Google Maps so his checkin times aren’t just random, but plausible, given the actual driving distance/time between venues. He’s going to start seeking out popular venues on his own and making moves to become the mayor. Basically, Bill’s going to start acting, or at least appearing, more human; albeit a semi-malicious one.

I must confess however, that this idea isn’t original. I have to give credit to Jim Bumgardner of who began similarly gaming FourSquare some time ago. Though this isn’t a new idea, I’m trying to push this further on the social side by establishing relationships, in particular with those people that Bill’s “bested”. I’m curious to see how folks respond to Bill’s constantly encroaching on “their bar”, especially as more people adopt the serivce. Beyond the social component, there’s the question of the obvious marketing potential of a service like FourSquare which we’re already seeing from some businesses which are offering freebies or discounts to those who regularly check-in or have mayoral status, and how an eligitimate player like Bill might start affecting that.

More than anything, this is just a fun exercise for me, and a curiosity to those who track the world of social media. It’ll be interesting to see how Bill fares over time, how other user’s respond, and what FourSquare might try to do to make the game harder for Bill to play. The social world is costantly evolving and reinventing itself and as we work towards total integration the stakes (and dollar signs) become bigger and bigger. What happens when the likes of Bill Brasky starts affecting the bottom-line as tools like FourSquare are used to promote and market businesses? I guess we’ll all just have to wait and see.

For the technical among you, I’ve started work on a (very simple) FourSquare module for Perl, which I’m hoping to get into CPAN in the near future, but I’m making the code available for now via this blog. – The Perl module for interfacing with FourSquare View Code | Download Code – A sample script using the module. View Code | Download Code

The code is ugly, I know. It uses some gross techniques (e.g. regex for XML “parsing”), but it will be cleaned up as I work on it.

Editor’s Note: I would love to hear what any Foursquare people have to say about this, and the rest of you readers. Definitely interesting.

On Digital Nation-States

It strikes me that, more and more, our digital lives are mirroring our real lives in ever more peculiar ways. From reflecting our everyday behaviors to forming new ones, the circles between “digital” and “real” are less a thoroughly overlapping Venn diagram and more a shared area. Which I hope for all of you is as fascinating as it is for me.

The nice thing is that it’s allowing more traditional fields of study to be assimilated into and affected by the things that happen online.

For me, one of the most interesting new overlaps is the one between international relations and digital social networks. I’ve been thinking about this for a couple years now, and I’ve been searching for a list of the major empires & superpowers through history. I finally found a list, and today whipped up the graphic at the top of the post. It’s by no means comprehensive, but it does serve to illustrate a point: the world tends to have a few major powers, and those powers tend to dominate for a while before they are surpassed by an up-and-coming state with greater resources and greater geographic focus.

Which seems pretty similar to how digital networks tend to come and go.

Which leads me to my conclusion:

Digital social networks are the new nation-states. Yeah, I said it. They share more with real nation-states than is immediately apparent. They have laws: the laws of each social network-state are those imposed by its creators or built by its population from terms and conditions, to user experience, to what things one user can see and that another cannot. Take, for example, the litany of Facebook T&C changes over the years, some of which caused uprisings among its population. Their developers’ decisions govern our experiences both with the site and with the rest of the people within the system. And while Facebook and Myspace and others are not sovereign in the way all true nation states are, it is conceivable that someday, there will be digital nationality to go along with or be codefined by “real” nationality.

There are value exchanges among people and people and between people and companies within this digital nation-state, laws can be broken and there are shared identities among the constituents of the state that can be defined against those of other, competing states. To wit, a significant body of work suggests that there are real differences between Myspace people and Facebook people. That these distinctions tend to fall along lines of economic class is no matter; it nevertheless suggests that despite the rise of Facebook, some people see their identities as being more correctly in line with one digital nation or the other.

So, what then? I suggest 5 key changes:

  1. That we start thinking of digital social networks as a potential working model for the society of the future.
  2. That instead of moving from one major network to another, we work to better a chosen digital nation state for the good of all its inhabitants.
  3. That Facebook and others work to elect a governing party of super-users that can help shape its future.
  4. That we recognize that each digital nation state should be unique, and that each has a value that may be unrelated to its size; we recognize the validity of the United States and that of the Principality of Liechtenstein.
  5. That access to these digital states be regarded as a right, rather than a privilege.

I’ll keep pushing this if you will.

Annoyance ~ Frequency


It’s a directly proportional relationship. Let’s all not talk about the same things at once, shall we?

Ask Focus on Energy

I wanted to take a moment this morning to go back through the last project I worked on at my last place, which happened to go live on my last day in Chicago. Not only did it go up on time (Jim Vogel is the world’s best project guy), but it’s probably the piece of work that makes me smile the most in looking back. It was one of those strategy + design + development projects that just went perfectly, with everyone feeling good. Wisconsin Focus on Energy is a non-profit energy initiative that helps people figure out all manner of efficiency & comfort-related issues, and they wanted to do something on the internets that let people ask them questions.

On hearing this, we were pretty psyched; while question-asking is a pretty fertile ground, it’s been worked-over a bit. There are plenty of great sites where you can ask a question and get a pretty good answer. Heck, there are even tools out there that serve to eliminate any bit of digital conversation that might arise (Let Me Google That For You being my favorite example). But we felt there was some space for a more personal type of digital interaction, where people could ask Focus’ experts a question and get a personal, public reply. Thus:

I had it in my head that this site had to be simpler, better looking, and more personal than every other Q + A site out there, and with some key features in mind, I whiteboarded something that didn’t change much through to implementation, apart from getting a lot better looking. That’s the benefit of the user-experience/strategy person being in with the design/development folk.

ask focus wireframe sketch

And here’s the final version of that page:

final question + answer page

I was lost on what to do with the homepage, design-wise, other than it had to have a bunch of questions (to make it look “full” when people got there), needed to have a high degree of visual cool without using any Flash, but also needed to be simple.

homepage by ashley potter

Thankfully, Ashley killed it.

answer suggestion

Happily, the system suggests answers for you when you submit something.

And you can get all the content on Facebook, Vimeo, and subscribe in a reader of your choice.


focus vimeo

focus reader

And they’re sharing their best tips on Twitter as a second kind of helpful content.

focus twitter

I’m pretty stoked about this, not just because the is cool, but also that they’re updating content frequently, and they’re moving toward making the web a genuinely conversational service medium rather than a messaging channel. And while I don’t know the metrics on this initiative, I’d be willing to guess it’s growing over time, rather than dropping to nothing when the promotional radio/print/outdoor stops.

Nice work, everyone.

The Social Web and B2B Marketing

So… the following is a draft for a little page-or-so thing I’m writing in re: a position on the social web and its implications for B2B marketing. Warning! There are a few buzzwordy things in the below, and the voice is a lot more professional than I usually prefer. But from what I understand, you’re supposed to write for your audience. It is influenced, as usual, by all of my online friends. Thanks for helping me be smart.

Status Quo: Outbound Communication
B2B marketing typically consists of a combination of one-to-many broadcasting–via trade advertising, PR placements, etc.–followed by a sales process that may or may not be enabled by the marketing department.

This perspective has been translated to the web, where one-to-many broadcasting persists as the norm. Companies attempt to amass followers, fans and opt-ins to create meaningful audience sizes for marketing impact.

With the socialization of media, the traditional outlook toward interactive marketing loses its impact.

New Paradigm: Inclusive B2B Communications
A new era of Inclusive Communications is here. Conspicuous by its absence in the previous sentence is the word “Marketing”: while web users are generally accepting of brands interacting with them online, they are not willing to be obviously “marketed to” in social spaces. Two guidelines should be considered for any brand hoping to effectively navigate the social web:

Align with existing activities of your core audience. Today, almost any company’s most profitable customers are likely working online; they are getting things done, networking, and completing tasks that are core to their job function via the internet. We recommend that B2B brands consistently offer to help their customers do those core activities better. This will result in the development of an extraordinarily valued asset in the networked economy: vocal, connected “fans” of an organization.

Recognize the principle of Equal Online Influence: all web users are equal. While financial resources may differ, and established brand names carry their equity to the online space, three smart people in a garage are still able to create more compelling online experiences than large corporations. [Youtube vs. Bud TV] With this understanding, the imperative to help, share and enable becomes ever more important.

To-Do List
Commit to helping people reach the goals they’ve set for their day, week, month, career.
In addition to understanding that brands play on the same level as individuals, B2B brands must also recognize that their customers are human and have aspirations. Perhaps the most effective way to design a social web experience is to help people achieve the unachievable. [Comcast, Service]

Collaborate with with your customers. No, really.
Smaller, less established companies can quickly achieve significant online success by devoting a portion of their employees’ most valued resource–time–to social efforts. For a larger corporation, social efforts may require structure changes of commensurate scale. Our recommendation for larger B2B operations is to offer to

  1. Help your existing customers work with you more smoothly or
  2. Help your best customers do something that was previously undoable or just plain difficult

Enable the existing business activities of your core audience.
Identify crucial business activities that may currently be a pain point for your best customers, and develop tools that help eliminate or mitigate that pain. These tools may not directly align with a company’s business model, but they will supplement the core business by improving the customer experience and developing advocates.

Aren’t you ashamed to pontificate like that?

Expert versus academic.

Site Preview: Riding Resource

Riding Resources - Home/Search Filters
A while back, a couple of friends in Atlanta called to ask if my buddies and I could help them with a site they were launching called Riding Resource. Word has it, it’s hard as hell to find a quality place to ride horses today despite the omnipotence of Google. After a load of hard work, including manual searches and cataloging of horse barns across the country and the development of a Rails application to search 12,000 barns, they needed a logo, a site design, and some good ways to promote the site. We were happy to help with all three, and I’m pretty excited by the initial things I’ve seen.

Riding Resources - Search Results
Obviously, the design is awesome, the due diligence has been done (it’ll be a useful site, not just a usable one), and the application works. But how to promote it? And for free, you say?

You: “Uh, that’s an easy one. Social media!”
Me: “Thanks for reading.”

Initially, my homies from the South were a little hesitant to use Twitter, Flickr, Vimeo and Facebook, and for good reason. They didn’t want to seem spammy, didn’t want to seem like a lot of the “promoters” out there.

Me: “Thank you.”

Riding Resources - Facebook
So we worked through a way to involve people in the process of making Riding Resource better (offering beta test invites to anyone who follows on Twitter or fans on Facebook, while asking for submissions to the database that might have been missed), and integrating Flickr and Vimeo into search results and onto the homepage of the site. I’ve always been really impressed by sites (like Incase) that allow customers to directly affect the content on the homepage. To me, it shows some serious balls and commitment to being “real” in today’s web.

Riding Resources - Twitter
I’m pretty happy with the results so far, especially given that nothing has been launched, and people are following on pure speculation (at this point, the beta invite list will be around 272 people). I’ve been tossing Twitter tips their way as necessary, but really, it’s all about just committing to it and playing around. This isn’t about a short-term launch strategy using many media channels and big bucks to launch a huge site; it’s about sustained communication to a small group of people that actually care about what Riding Resource has to say. And I think if you look through their Twitter, you’ll see that they’re really participating, answering @replies and truly engaging with anyone out there who talks about horses on a semi-regular basis.

Some examples:

Why RR did it?

Longer exchange
There’s more on my Flickr.

Anyhow, become a follower on Twitter and maybe fan them on Facebook if you want to see it when it comes out. I’m excited. If you like horses, you should be too. This seems to be answering a real need online. Yay.