Social Media Week 2012: Love, Personalization and the Death of Serendipity


Ah, love. Each February 14 we celebrate all things love in remembrance of St. Valentine, a priest who (literally) lost his head over the emotion.  And so, by the powers of the Roman god Cupid; the Greek god Eros; and the consumer goods god Hallmark, we enjoy love found, curse love lost and are hopeful for love to come.

The logo for Love@AOL

Love@AOL - one of the first online dating sites

For me, it also brings back memories of my first “real” job in social media, as a Community Manager at AOL for one of its largest channels, Love@AOL. Launched as a Valentine;s Day special feature in 1996, it did so well that it became a permanent channel, with (at the time) the largest collection of online dating profiles featuring the newest innovation of the day — photos! Simply put, people — even online —  expressed a need to connect, to be social.

Fast forward to yesterday in New York City at the Third Annual Social Media Week New York. In his keynote speech titled ‘Top 2012 Trends in Social,  JWT CEO David Eastman pointed out that four key operators own almost all of the information about you  online. He called them “GAFA” (pronounced “gaffa”), they are: Read more of this post

Everything AOL Is New Again, Again

American layout roulette wheel.

Image via Wikipedia

I can’t help it. Maybe it’s because I spent 10 years working at AOL during it’s rise and fall. Maybe it’s just that things happen in cycles. Regardless, when I saw this headline today it made me think of something I’d written about previously:

StumbleUpon passes Facebook in US referral traffic

So what does this have to do with AOL? First, some background for those of you who have never been an AOLer. Navigation within the walled garden of AOL content was aided by the use of shortcuts known as Keywords. Want to jump directly from the Welcome Screen to content regarding vacations? Enter keyword: Travel.  Want to go from there to see how your favorite team did last night, use Keyword: Sports. With both major and sub-categories there were literally hundreds (if not thousands) of keywords on AOL.

So what does this have to do with StumbleUpon passing Facebook as the number one referer on the ‘Net? Well, at AOL we were privy to the list of most popular keywords (as determined by user clicks), and invariably every month positioned near the top was Keyword: Random.

Enter “random” in the keyword box and a roulette wheel would appear. Click it to spin and when it stopped you’d be taken to a random page somewhere on AOL. Some pages were great, some not so great. But people loved the, well, randomness of the result, something I refer to today as serendipitous discovery“– where you (literally) stumble upon content you previously had no knowledge of.

It worked back then for AOL, and to StumbleUpon’s benefit it still works today.

♫… No need to remember when
‘Cause everything old is new again …♫

First Ever White House Tweetup? More Like an Old AOL Auditorium Event

Jack Dorsey and President Obama courtesy BET.comCommander in Tweet? Not quite. Don’t take me wrong, I’m in favor of anything that promotes social media and incorporates it into the mainstream. But, in an attempt to capitalize on the “now”, the White House stumbled in both the promotion and execution of the “first ever White House Tweetup”, and inadvertently paid homage to yet another online feature made prominent by old AOL.

By definition and popular acceptance, a Tweetup is a F2F (face to face) meeting of people who interact primarily online. Hosted by Twitter co-founder Jack Dorsey, this was admittedly not a Tweetup, but more of a Twitter Press Conference. Dorsey stated:

“Neither the President or I know the questions that will be asked today.  That decision is driven entirely by the Twitter users.”

Well, I guess that depends on your definition of “driven.” True, any Twitter user could submit questions via the service by appending the hashtag #AskObama to their tweet. And sure, neither Dorsey nor Obama knew precisely to what the questions would pertain. However, the submissions were previewed, reviewed. culled, vetted and ultimately selected by at least two levels of editors: First, a “team of seasoned Twitter users” helped pick the questions that would be considered. Next, Twitter assembled “eight curators” to further subjectively winnow the field to those they considered appropriate.

And so the questions, while submitted by Twitter users, were carefully selected to reflect a limited number of acceptable topics. More than once, Dorsey mentioned that the questions were coming in “real time”. Hmm, did they not get enough participation beforehand to fill the approximately 20 or so questions and comments fielded in the 1 hour eight minute event? And what luck that three of the questions were submitted by a White House journalist, Speaker of the House Boehner and the President himself, making at least 15% of the questions not submitted by John Q. Tweeter.

So why is this like old AOL? Read more of this post

Everything AOL Is New Again

Image representing AOL as depicted in CrunchBase

Image via CrunchBase

♫… When trumpets… were mellow
And every gal only had one fellow
No need to remember when
‘Cause everything old is new again …♫

I have a soft spot in my heart for AOL. Shortly after getting my first PC in 1994, I joined all of the Internet portals of the day on a trial basis: Prodigy; CompuServe; Genie; Imagination but ended each subscription at the end of the free period except for one: AOL, because of what I later came to know as Community. I quickly got hooked on building relationships with like-minded people without regard to geographic or societal boundaries. In other words, social networking.

In fact, I loved it so much I became a beta tester for AOL 1.5 (when it had 500K members) onward, then a volunteer, then a contractor and finally in 1997, a paid  employee. During the next 10 years I rode the crest of AOL’s rise to the largest portal in the world (with 35 million paid members) as well as its accelerated denouement.

Blame management; blame the ill-conceived and worse executed merger with “old media” Time-Warner; blame whomever or whatever you wish for AOL’s fall from grace. But the fact is, AOL was a trailblazer in many ways. So, it’s both satisfying and frustrating to see current digital companies (including the “new” AOL) turning back to its concepts and features.

♫… Get out your white suit, your tap shoes and tails
Let’s go backwards when forward fails …♫

Back then, AOL based programming on a TV network model comprised of major content categories called channels, with user engagement provided by supporting community teams. About 20 or so major channels, provided both content and community. And so, it was good to see TechCrunch (itself an AOL “channel”) report today, “AOL Consolidates 53 Brands Down To 20 “Power Brands” in an effort to consolidate both content and advertising inventory. See the resemblance?

But it wouldn’t be a trend if only New AOL were doing this. The NY Times reported on Monday about a growing trend in many large organizations, “Companies Are Erecting In-House Social Networks“. Organizations are employing private networks, or intranets, utilizing social networking to improve communications and increase associate engagement. Great idea! Of course, AOL  provided parallel AOL private networks for a fee to companies and organizations way back in 1997 – fourteen years ago.

Yes, AOL fell behind on many fronts, especially the migration to broadband access and the open Internet as well as products such as blogs and user-generated video. And, ultimately, it has no one to blame for its current situation other than itself.

 But its important to give AOL credit where due.

♫… Don’t throw the pa-ast away
You might need it some rainy day
Dreams can come true again
When everything old is new again …♫

(Lyrics: ‘Everything old Is New Again”  – Peter Allen)

To Stop the Bleeding AOL Applies a Patch

+ + =

When I was at AOL, we had two areas that appealed to our members literally where they lived: Digital City (later CityGuide and now City’s Best) for local content features; and AOL Local which provided local based community forums. These areas really resonated with our members because as vast as AOL was in its hey-day, these relevant offerings touched them on a personal level.

Flash forward to the present, and those halcyon days are long gone. AOL is now a smaller player on the online scene with niche properties replacing the walled-garden portal. And, it is making a big splash in the formerly safe-haven for local media — hyper-local news — with Patch.

Patch sites have sprung up all over the U.S. and their success is taking its toll on local news orgs. It just launched its 500th site in Hopkins, Minnesota and despite Patch editor-in-chief Brian Farnham’s contention that, “We aren’t there to compete, but to just add another voice to serve the community,” Patch is causing local news media to make changes.

After the launch of Sonoma (Calif.) Patch, the local Sonoma Index-Tribune was forced to drop its three-month-old content paywall in order to compete.

Will Patch be AOL’s salvation? Combined with it’s niche sites (TMZ, Popeater, LemonDrop, et. al.) I think it just might. What do you think?

Break Up to Make Up: An AOLove Story

Thompson-Reuters news service reports that AOL is once again seeking a merger with Yahoo!, and is ready to break itself up in the process. If true, this is long overdue, here’s why:

AOL is adrift as evidenced by its revenue, based largely on a dwindling dial-up subscriber base. Yahoo’s revenue is uneven, but compare the two side by side and you’ll see that AOL needs Yahoo or it is destined for extinction. And Yahoo needs something like AOL if it wants to ramp up and continue to challenge the almighty Google.

The recipe: Sell off the dial-up subscribers to Earthlink; integrate AOL web properties and AOL Advertising ( formerly Platform A) into Yahoo!

It’s an idea whose Time (Warner) has come.

E-mail: The new, old “killer app”?

AOL's Project Phoenix

So much activity around new email programs (Facebook Titan mail; AOL Phoenix mail)’ Looks like the ‘killer app’ of Web 1.0 is back.

Zuckerberg announces titan

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