With Wikipedia becoming more Google-like in its influence over information on the Web and still sometimes suffering from its opacity, maybe it's time for a different approach. That's what Larry Sanger wants to do. An early editor of Wikipedia, before having a falling out with Jimmy Wales, he now wants to start a competing online user-contributed compendium called Citizendium. It looks pretty much the same as Wikipedia (because it's based on the same wiki software), but to improve the accuracy and accountability of the articles Sanger wants to employ two novel ideas: authors must use their real names and all articles must be approved by an "expert" editor.
Sounds good to me. I can't wait to see it. Citizendium is still a pilot trying to raise funding. So far, there are only six approved articles, compared to Wikipedia's 1.6 million (in English alone). And they seem to be rewrites of Wikipedia articles, like this one on wheat, which is definitely zippier than Wikipedia's original one. Compare the two.
Social networks are a dime a dozen these days, but last week a new one launched called Geni that is actually quite different than anything else out there. Geni is part of the growing PayPal mafia (companies created by PayPal alum, like YouTube, LinkedIn, Slide, and Yelp). It was started by former PayPal COO-turned-Hollywood producer (Thank You For Smoking) David O. Sacks, with a seed round from PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel. I caught up with Sacks on the phone earlier this week to learn more about his new venture. He thinks of Geni as more of a family network site than a MySpace-style social network. As he puts it:
You have social networks and professional networks. The glaring ommisison is there is no family network. People will want important networks for all different parts of their lives and they will want to keep these networks separate.
Geni is a private family network where only the people you invite can see your profile, or the profiles of your other family members. But what makes it unique (and addictive) is that it is first and foremost a simple Webtop application that helps you and your family collaboratively build your family tree. The first thing you see when you go to the site is a box inviting you to put in your name and e-mail address. Then arrows pop up allowing you to add other boxes for your parents, spouse, children, siblings, etc. Every time you add someone's e-mail address to their little box, they get an invitation to join your private family network on Geni and help you build out the tree. One of Geni's long-term aspirations is to build a family tree of the whole world. Says Sacks:
There are a lot of other sites out there trying to do family networking, but they see the family tree as one more feature. I see it as fundamental—the thing you use to acquire your family network.
It's only once you start a tree that you even realize you've jpoined yet another social network. Click on anyone's box on the tree, and it takes you to a detailed profile page that let's you fill in everything from your contact and biographical information (including birth order, schooling, occupation, religion and political views) to your favorite books, movies, TV shows, sports, and the like. At some point, when Sacks decides to turn on the advertising, all of this demographic and profile information could become a targeting bonanza. (He promises never to sell that information, but using it for his own advertising purposes in an aggregate, opt-in fashion is fair game).
Since geneology is already one of the most popular activities on the Web, it's easy to see how Geni could take off fast. Already, in little more than a week and with no marketing, Sacks says it's attracted tens of thousands of users, who have created hundreds of thousands of profiles. The site's servers have been overwhelmed. "What is interesting about a family network as opposed to a social network," he notes, "is that people create each other’s profiles." How much more viral can you get?
Yahoo (YHOO) announced a decent quarter yesterday, beating consensus earnings-per-share by $0.06 and revenues for the full year were up 22 percent to $6.4 billion. (Net income for the year came in at $751 million). But when you are up against a gorilla like Google (GOOG)—which next week will probably report more profits for the fourth quarter than Yahoo did for the entire year, not to mention about a billion dollars more in full-year revenues—it's hard not to look like a perpetual Avis.
Still, Yahoo is moving up the official roll out of its new Panama advertising system to February 5, and Yahoo CEO Terry Semel noted some bright spots around his social media strategy. For instance, Yahoo Answers (where people answer each other's questions) alone attracts 75 million unique visitors a month. And Flickr, del.icio.us, and Yahoo Video are attracting another 25 million a month. As he put it on the conference call:
Together, Yahoo! Answers. Flickr, del.icio.us, and Yahoo! Video have surpassed 100 million monthly users, continuing our position as a leading force in social media. Interestingly enough within this group, 50% of our users are under the age of 35. To put that into perspective, it puts us ahead of properties such as MySpace and Facebook in this attractive demographic.
He's going to need more than that to catch up to Google. But at least it's a start. One big question I still have is: How does Yahoo plan to marry its Panama ad system with its social media properties? That is, if you look at all the information Yahoo users are freely offering about themselves (what photos, Websites, videos, restaurants and travel destinations they like, as well as what questions they have or are able to answer), can Panama serve up more effective ads that takes that information into account? (I don't belive it does so now).
And can it do so without turning off users by crossing into creepy Big Brother territory?
If we've learned anything over the past decade of digital media, it is that music wants to be free. Even the record industry may be coming around to this realization, as at least one label is reportedly considering returning to the popular (and easily-copyable) MP3 format. Copy-protected DRM formats, such as iTunes' AAC or Microsoft's WMA, are something only a lawyer could love because they inevitably place restrictions on the fair use of that music. Consumers don't like to be limited with what they can do with their music, especially if they paid for it.
But does this mean that the record companies are simply capitulating to rampant music piracy? No, but it does mean that we will see more experiments with how to make money from MP3s, including perhaps free ad-supported music streaming services.
Hey, if you can have ad-supported phone calls, why not music? Actually, it's not such a new idea. We used to cal it "radio."
SmugMug, the photo management site for pros and serious photographers, is building a nice subscription business for itself. That's right, it actually charges for its service ($40 to $150/year). According to TechCrunch:
100,000 paying customers have uploaded over 100 million photos. The company has 19 employees, is profitable, and has never taken outside funding. Revenues are in the $10 million per year range.
That's enough to put a smile on SmugMug CEO Don MacAskill's face.
Dow Jones VentureOne today came out with its figures for the total amount of venture capital raised in the U.S. last year, $25.75 billion. That amount is the highest since 2001, when it was $35 billion. In 2000 it was a staggering $85 billion, so we are nowhere near the levels of the previous bubble. The chart above shows the amount of VC money raised by quarter, with the peaks representing annual amounts between 2000 and 2006, based on Dow Jones VentureOne data. It shows a decent, steady rise, but nothing too alarming.
Of course, what it does not show is what the numbers would be if so many startups today were not forgoing VC money to bootstrap themselves through their first few years. Would most of today's Web 2.0 startups, for instance, even exist if they had to depend on VC largesse instead of cheap hardware and Web software?
And, even if ony a fraction remained, how much more money would VCs be investing than they are today? (Not to say that VCs haven't invested in Web 2.0 companies, but the $500 million or so they spent last year was a drop in the bucket for the industry).
If you want to know how to fix your super dry, frizzy hair, you can find out by putting a question up on Yahoo Answers. But if you have a business question, and you want an answer from someone you trust, try putting up a question on LinkedIn Answers. It's a new feature on the business social networking site LinkedIn. You can ask people specifically in your LinkedIn network (whom, presumably, you respect enough to have added them to your professional network), and when you click the LinkedIn Answers tab you can see questions from anyone in your extended network.
For instance, venture capitalist Guy Kawasaki (who is one connection away from me and thus is considered to be part of my extended network) asked, "What should I write my next book about?" That was three days ago, and he already has 83 answers ("How to make a career out of being a pundit. :-)"—Jason Calacanis; " Why corporate blogs don’t work"—Reid Hoffman).
I asked, "What are the hottest new Web 2.0 companies out there that should be on my radar?" And I started getting answers right away, some of them pretty decent: Yelp.com, Geni, Threadless, Wikia, Dappit, Viddler, Twango, Moola, Loopt, iLike, and Virb.
And that's just from eight answers in the first three hours after I posted my question.
Add this one to the list of Bubble 2.0 business plans: Blingo, a search engine purchased by Publisher's Clearing House last summer for $9 million, is trying to attract traffic by giving away prizes. Every time you search, you have a chance to win. And if you get a friend to sign up and they win something, you get the same prize. A nice viral marketing trick.
But there is no innovation here. Blingo is powered by Google search results with sweepstakes prizes on top like movie tickets, cash, plasma TVs, even cars. The startup claims in a press release e-mailed to me that it just gave away two $20,000 prizes to two friends from New York and New Jersey, Nicole Scarlett and Natalie Gukasyan (one got the other to sign up, so she won too).
Giving away money and prizes is certainly boosting Blingo's traffic (see chart). And that allows it to show more search ads, which it hopes will offset the cost of acquiring all of that traffic. But here's a question: Are the type of people looking for freebies the best ones for advertisers to be pitching their wares to?