MySpace vs. Websites

It seems it is becoming trendier than ever for bands to assume MySpace as a proxy for the internet and just move all their self-branding, fan-reaching, media-distributing on there. This is something I have ranted against here and here. And now I’m going to rant a little more triggered by this article about a band called Knock Knock Ginger (never heard them) in which one of them says:

“If I hear of a band, MySpace is probably the first place I go. For instance, a girl from Italy recently ordered our album and she was like, ‘I really like Canadian bands, can you recommend me some?’ And I just ended up sending her 10 MySpace links. I mean, I don’t even go to websites anymore. It has almost become the new demo.

“I mean, I don’t even go to websites anymore?”

Is this really something bands (and others) want to be pushing?

As I’ve said before, I think it’s pretty obvious that unless you are trying to avoid notice, you need to have a MySpace presence. With the amount of web traffic going through there, it’s a must. For sure.

But you should also have presence in other spaces as well. And all of those spaces, in my view, should lead users back to YOUR OWN SPACE. The one YOU own. The one no one else can wrest from your control, redesign without your permission, change the rules for, etc etc etc.

So it was with considerable delight that I read this astute piece in The Atlantic Monthly adding fuel to my fire:

Already, the most popular users, like the legendarily pneumatic Tila Tequila—friend to more than 1.5 million MySpacers—are realizing that their future is in guiding people off MySpace to their own, more robust, fully customizable personal pages. Indeed, the third rail of social media may ultimately come down to that most old-media of issues: ownership. MySpace may sell the idea of itself as being without boundaries, but in fact the digital mayhem lives within a tightly controlled environment. MySpace does not let users network meaningfully with people outside its walls, and it does not let them import some functionality that promotes or drives revenue to other corporations; for example, those newly popular “widgets” that contain text or video feeds, or games. MySpace has legitimate security reasons for prohibiting the Flash-based widgets, but the effect is also to eliminate a way for corporate competitors to lure users out of the MySpace environment. And MySpace recently announced it will no longer allow users to post videos that contain copyrighted material—hello, YouTube—much as it was already filtering out some major-label music.

Most important, users like Tila Tequila do not profit directly from the traffic they generate for the site. Indeed, the value of MySpace and the other 2.0 sites is built on their ability to monetize—through ad sales and marketing, among other streams—the traffic generated by their users. The tacit trade-off is free Web hosting, tools, and distribution. This trade-off is not in itself unfair. But, as with IM, the value proposition does not remain constant. The walled-garden attributes of MySpace and Facebook, like those of the subscriber-era AOL, can quickly become liabilities. And as the value of social-media tools becomes inevitably unsexy and commoditized, it may be only a matter of time before the Tila Tequilas of the world, inspiration for millions of page views, decide they might as well go elsewhere.

All of these social media are wonderful tools for artists to display their wares, show off their connections with other bands, and build and maintain relationships with their audience, but every band ought to have a home base that is entirely within their own purview and offers more than fans can get on any other site.

Twitter gets the buzz

I am hearing lots of buzz lately about Twitter, the web site that lets you create an account where you can post really brief answers to the question “what are you doing?” using IM, your phone, or the web. Others can read your updates and comment on them. Liz Lawley has a very thoughtful post called “Why Twitter Matters” in which she argues that its brilliance is to:

merge a number of interesting trends in social software usage–personal blogging, lightweight presence indicators, and IM status messages–into a fascinating blend of ephemerality and permanence, public and private.

The big “P” word in technology these days is “participatory.” But I’m increasingly convinced that a more important “P” word is “presence.” In a world where we’re seldom able to spend significant amounts of time with the people we care about (due not only to geographic dispersion, but also the realities of daily work and school commitments), having a mobile, lightweight method for both keeping people updated on what you’re doing and staying aware of what others are doing is powerful.

The most high profile twitterer these days is probably Democratic presidential contender, John Edwards, who can be found twittering away here (one assumes it is not really he entering that text). This week he’s told us where he is or where he’s on his way to and said his campaign is committed to being carbon neutral.


There are some not-very-famous entertainers of various ilks on there as well, but it’s safe to say that so far it has not yet been discovered by the famous as a new MySpace through which to gain loyal followings or enhance the loyalty of those they’ve already won over.

I can see that Twitter is not for me for some of the reasons Lawley discusses as common criticisms (it’s so trivial! who needs another distraction! do I want people to know what I’m doing?), but I agree with her that it’s an intruiging development, and think it has more potential than blogging to mirror the kind of mundane and trivial everyday checking ins that we do with people we are closest to on a larger scale. For people who want other people to know what they are up to most of the time, this can really make that simple.

And I can imagine fans really getting off on reading their celeb’s twitter… especially fandom of the sort that’s all about crushes and oohing and aahing at their every move. It could be a way for celebrities to make their own Gawker Stalkers. Kevin Bacon could write “Just had lunch at DOJO with a writer type” and someone could comment “You were wearing a nice fitting olive tee and your skin looked great! You pretended not to notice the glances as everyone pretended not to care. The guy you were lunching with was a regular looking guy, definitely not as fabulous as you.”


Starting A Social Networking Site, Part 2

Yesterday I posted the first half of an interview with Vinorati co-founder Lisa Roskam in which she discussed how what was first envisioned as a way to work the phenomenon of tagging systems to the benefit of people who keep wine journals quickly expanded to encompass social relationships amongst tasters. Today, we talk about the site’s relation to industry, the challenges of running a bilingual site, and more.

How do you think the site positions ordinary wine users vis-á-vis the professional critics on the one hand and the industry on the other?

For me, the strength of Vinorati will lie in numbers – of reviews for each wine, of reviews by each user. One wine review by one member might not mean very much, but put in the context of other reviews by other members and/or other reviews of other wines by the same members we are able to get a much more complete picture of said wine.

For obvious reasons the wine industry cannot be a source of critical information for wines. Glowing winery tasting notes can have limited utility in the decision-making process of wine buyers.

On the other hand wine critic tasting notes can be excellent source of information for wine consumers. Wine critics taste a lot of different wines and spend significant time educating themselves – they are experts. They can detect (and hopefully articulate) subtle nuances of aroma, flavour and texture that most of us would not be able to pick up. The downside of this heightened sensitivity and depth of background is that wine experts’ palates really do not respresent those of most consumers. Also experts are often drawn to novelty or a wine that stands out from the crowd, which is natural when you’re tasting hundreds of wine a day or thousands of wines a month(!). The average consumer looking for information on a wine does not fit this profile. Despite these shortcomings, consumers may find a critic whose tastes coincide with their own and follow this critic’s advice. When you find this match it becomes a valuable resource! Just to make it more of a challenge though, many of the expert tasting notes published are non-attributed or written by a rotating panel of tasters thereby making it is impossible for a consumer to find the series of evaluations that would align most closely with their own.

The difficulties of following one individual wine “critic” and finding someone with tastes that correspond your own is addressed by community tasting notes sites such as Vinorati. Average wine drinkers with varying backgrounds enter their tasting notes and average wine drinkers also search for information for wines. In one place users can see an aggregate view of a wine (via a tag cloud) plus specific detailed individual tasting notes, which are in turn linked to a members’ tasting journal where one can get an idea of the member’s tasting history and preferences. Instead of choosing among a dozen published professional wine critics you can suddenly choose to follow the tasting notes of hundreds (or thousands) of actual wine drinkers all in one place.

Have the professional critics or the wine industry taken any notice of the site?

At this point it is the wine blogosphere that seems to be paying the most attention to Vinorati and other community tasting notes sites. That is, wine professionals who also have a foot in the high tech world have found us . For the moment we are the only community tasting notes site available in French, so we may have received slightly more attention in the French wine web world.

We are in trial partnership relationships with a couple of creative online wine retailers who contacted us from the U.S. and France. We have also heard how our site is useful and interesting from a small number of producers (with whom we cannot pursue professional relationships because of problems of conflicts of interest). Other than bloggers, I am not aware of no mention by or attention from professional wine critics.

The site is set up to be bilingual, and I was interested to see your blog post on there about the different meanings that the same tag can have in the two languages. What challenges have you faced in making the site work in both French and English?

We are aiming to make Vinorati a truly international site. Trying to make the site available in both French and English definitely makes implementing each feature of our project more challenging. It’s not the issue of translating text, but more deciding how much to separate or integrate the two parts. This occurs at many areas of the site – e.g. most active members, groups, wine pages. We make a decision on a case by case basis so for some parts of the site the two sides are more integrated and for others they are more separated. In all cases we do try to show where there is information available in the other language, and make it easy to switch back and forth.

Groups are fairly integrated between the two languages. If you do a search on the main Groups page the results will show up in both English and French.

On the other hand, the wine reviews/tags in the different languages are more separated. Initially we talked about showing tags in both languages in the tag cloud,or even trying to automate translating tags (as mentioned in our blog). Often tasting terms are similar in the two languages ( e.g. tannins vs tanins, round vs rond, astringent) and some French terms have been adopted by English-speakers (e.g. brioche, pain grillé, sous-bois) which would mean that we could double the possibility of having information for each wine. Unfortunately the down-side seemed significant for our French members – their voices could be lost. The tag clouds for many wines would end up being dominated by English terms.

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What have you and your husband found most rewarding about the site since its launch?

-Email from members saying that recording their notes in this way has improved their tasting experience.
-The many positive blog posts about Vinorati.
-The first reviews entered by total strangers… very exciting!Honestly… the positive feedback from members has been most rewarding. Frederic and I are often very critical of the site… we see all the lumps and bumps. Someone on the outside has a different, impartial and probably less harsh perspective. It’s very gratifying to hear from people who actually use the site and are impressed (!).

What advice do you have for others who are interested in creating a new social networking site?

Early activity is very important. Try to inform as many people as possible about the site and get them curious before you launch publicly.

Develop a site based on an activity you are actually passionate about, where you are already part of a community. There are an overwhelming number of useful and interesting websites out there, visitors are very perceptive and quickly get an idea of the motivation behind the site. They reach a conclusion based on both the appearance and seriousness of the content. They are very perceptive.

Be omnipresent and responsive. If you are not excited and interested in using your site, why would anyone else be?

Building a Social Network

Last month, I wrote about Vinorati, a new social network site built around wine tasting. One of their founders, Lisa Roskam, popped up in the comments to affirm my spin that Vinorati is basically a bastion of wine fandom or, as she put it, “the world’s largest wine party.” Lisa and I continued our conversation off-site, and I’m happy to present it here over the next two days.

Vinorati was founded by Lisa and Frédéric Roskam, a married couple who live in France. Lisa is an English-speaking “Canadienne” with an advanced degree in Viticulture & Enology who works in the wine industry. Frédéric is an electronics engineer who comes from a family of French vintners.

Lisa and Fred Roskam

In today’s installment, Lisa talks about how the site has evolved from its genesis as a wine tasting journal that could incorporate the wisdom of tag-based music categorization (think into an unexpectedly social environment. Tomorrow I’ll post her thoughts on the challenges of running a bilingual site and the intersection between Vinorati and the professional wine critics and wine industry.

Can you give me a brief background on — what motivated you to start it, how long it’s been up, how many active users?

The basic idea for Vinorati came from two very different sources: 1) My frustration with my anarchic tasting notes and resulting search for a good electronic tasting journal, and 2) Frederic’s work (at Sony Research Labs) using tags to describe/categorize music. Hence an online tasting journal using tags. We were very excited about the interesting data-mining that we would be able to do within the sets of wines, wineries, appellations, varietals, etc.

We launched Vinorati on December 17th 2006, after starting work on the idea in May/June 2006. We currently have 321 registered users, 894 reviews and 7008 tags.

What are the main activities people are doing on

#1 Searching for a specific wine.
#2 Checking out other members’ profiles and tasting notes.
#3 Browsing wines geographically.
#4 Recording their own tasting notes.

Do you have a sense of who your users are? Age? Professions? Locations?

Not specifically, but they tend to be at the intersection of wine lover / tech geek. We haven’t yet filtered down to the main-stream wine fan but are rather still at the level of wine lovers who regularly read a variety of wine blogs plus reddit/tech-crunch.

Our users are geographically dispersed but mostly American, French and Canadian. I know we have a quite a few bloggers because they put a link to their blog in their profile, and I know we have a number of wine professionals because of information from my friends, colleagues and indirect acquaintances. Beyond that, our members are just wine lovers with widely varying amounts of knowledge and experience.

One of my immediate reactions to the site was that wine appreciation seemed to lend itself to social networking in a way that a lot of other activities don’t. What is your take on what motivates your users to use the site?

This is a big question. Wine tasting/consumption is definitely a social activity. Here in France we often have large convivial dinners with friends and family, where everyone is taking pleasure in tasting wines, sharing their opinion and listening to others… that’s exactly the sort of atmosphere that we would like to replicate at Vinorati – convivial, welcoming, open and lively.

From a more pragmatic perspective wine tastings are not just social because of the convivial aspect, but also because wine consumers very often want guidance and reassurance in their choices. The selection of products is too overwhelming to directly sample all of the options. Even when people do have a direct experience of a wine they are nonetheless interested in others’ impressions. Unlike with other products, such as music or movies, inexperienced wine consumers put more confidence in others’ sensations or opinions than in their own. They want need advice and direction. In my experience, even sophisticated wine consumers and professionals are curious about others’ impressions of a wine. Vinorati is meant to be a place where wine lovers/fans can find these kind of reflections from wine drinkers of varying backgrounds.

Since our launch members could have “friends” to make it easier to keep track of other members, then in early February we introduced a tasting group feature to Vinorati. Finally, we recently added forums to these tasting groups. The social part of Vinorati is becoming more and more important as we move forward.

Do you have a sense of whether people are mostly using it as a means of keeping track of their own tasting records or of engaging one another?

People are mostly using the site to keep track of others! As I mentioned above, I expected people to predominantly use their own tasting journal and occasionally check out other people’s impressions, but our users are very interested in what other members have to say about the wines in our database.

Do you see any uses of the site emerging that you didn’t expect when you created it?

Hmmm… this gets back to the previous two questions…when we were first making plans for the site we didn’t anticipate emphasizing the social aspect of wine tasting so much, Initially the ubiquity of internet access seemed to be the most important advantage of an online tasting journal. We neglected to think of the advantages that users could have in interacting with other wine lovers and sharing their opinions. Fortunately about half-way through development we started talking about these ideas, wine tasting clubs and how cool it might be for members to interact to share their notes about wines, etc.

We are now hoping that real-life and virtual tasting groups will be able to use the Vinorati groups and forums to share ideas and get an image of their aggregate opinions of wines that they taste via the group tasting journal and their corresponding tag clouds.

To Promote or to Control?

This is a fascinating exchange on a forum between a musician and users that nicely displays some delicate tensions at play in promoting one’s self in spaces outside your own domain.

Here’s the scenario: A musician has created an independent label page for himself and uploaded some of his music there. He’s then used’s built in recommendation feature to send personal recommendations to users far and wide (a common strategy in some other spaces, but seemingly less common on The response is not all positive — users who’ve received this recommendation have gone to the label page and left comments in the shoutbox that diss the tunes. The musician complains to the forums, presumably seeking staff intervention. He writes:

I want to be able to delete posts by little babies that can’t handle a recommendation so when they post non-constructive criticism I can delete the posts. Like when a whiney user like M—– or J—–666 leaves a post that is nothing but negative and counterproductive I can delete it and keep my page positive and open.

A few posts later, he elaborates his case by defining the label page as something that a (mere?) “listener” can “mess with”:

Why is Last.FM allowing a listener to keep messing with a Last.FM Independent Label holder? This may be an eyeopener for the other Last.FM Independent Label artists out there.

But his definition of (what he sees as) his own label’s space as a promotional space that he should be able to “keep positive and open” (open = controlled) gets no traction. A (non-staff) moderator defines a label page’s comments section as a collective space:

No one person “owns” a artist/album/track shoutbox, thus there’s no trash icon. Mods cannot remove shouts from there either.

Then a few users get in there and investigate the situation for themselves. They challenge the musician and construct as a space that is about the listeners vs “what the music labels, media and so on tell us we should like”:

It looks to me from that album thread that people who like the recommendation have stated so, as have people who hated it.

If Last Fm moved into censorship and negative comments about bands, songs etc. being deleted that would ruin the whole point of Last FM for me – this site should be about music fans, their tastes, views and interests rather than what the music labels, media and so on tell us we should like.

So it seems the solution to this problem is to tailor the recommendations to people who might enjoy the music, rather than sending it to lots of people who have no interest in that style of music.

Another reader argues that this sort of self-promotion on the site should be expected to generate blow-back:

…you really need to lighten up. If you’re going to send out recommendations for your music to random people then you are going to get a few who say they don’t like it. If you don’t want that then be more selective about who you recommend to.Looking through the various threads/shoutboxes I’ve seen you really don’t come across very well.

If someone just decided to listen to your music and didn’t like it, so posted on the shoutbox that they didn’t think it was any good then maybe you’d have a point, but you did ask these people to listen to it.

I don’t think I’d like it, but your attitude has ensured that I haven’t even tried it.

As of this writing, the final post in the thread is a perfect summation of the tensions at play in here between the site’s architecture, the industry’s promotional and image-control concerns (as well as egos), the empowerment of fans that the internet provides through spaces like which users have claimed as spaces in which they can define things for one another:

I don’t give a shit about recommendations; I never look at them.

That said [...] don’t be so sensitive. After reading this thread I was prompted to listen to your tracks. I like them. I even downloaded a few.

No matter what type of musician you are, no matter what genre of music you make, 99.999% of people ain’t gonna care for it.

If you put yourself out there, you gotta be prepared for people who diss you.

Say “NO” to censorship. POWER TO THE PEOPLE!

No matter what you’re selling (or giving away), the flip side of being able to promote one’s self to so many people via the internet is that more people are going to tell the world that they dislike you. It’s important to be savvy in understanding the norms of different online environments and watch what works and what doesn’t before diving in one’s self.