Wallop started as the secretive MyWallop back in late 2003 after Google bought Pyra labs and Friendster was launched earlier that year. It was initially announced as a blogging service. Meanwhile a whole lot of activity transpired in the social networking space, including Microsoft's own launch of MSN Spaces, as Wallop remained under wraps. Wallop finally launched as a social networking service in invite-only beta September 2006.
Technology Over User Experience
Microsoft lost its way, Mr. Berkowitz says, because it became too enamored with software wizardry, like its new three-dimensional map service, and failed to make a search engine people liked to use.
"A lot of decisions were driven by technology; they were not driven by the consumer," he said. "It isn't always the best technology that wins. It is the best experience."
The cultural passions -- and tactical weaknesses -- Berkowitz attributes to Microsoft's online services unit could easily be applied to Wallop, Microsoft's social networking spin-off. Though Wallop is an entity with independent management and outside funding, it seems to have inherited the parental worldview of technology-uber-alles.
In social networking, as in search, technology must be subservient to the mission of delivering a positive user experience. Google has arguably the most advanced search infrastructure but most people submitting queries through the simple search page are not aware of the grid beneath even as revealing tech articles trickle out. Users just know it works and they return.
Friendster had the user experience down pat until it tried to scale when the much celebrated open source platform failed to deliver pages without interminable waits. According to Markus Frind,
Friendster on the other hand did a search of friends of friends. This increased the over all computing power needed to keep the site operational expotentially and killed them off. Myspace on the other hand stripped out everything that would require ranged searches and it became really easy for them to win.
So if you want to make a business that scales really well, try and make one that avoids searching and ranged searches.
I would add that the connector feature on Friendster that shows the chain of friends connecting any two people for every profile view must also have been a computational drag. (I remember being wowed by a six or seven degree chain connecting me to a Russian woman living in Beijing.)
After users started suffering waits of countless seconds for page requests that may or may not come back correctly, they stopped returning, especially when a more compelling, creative, and functional MySpace arrived on the scene.
MySpace wasn't perfect -- page requests failed frequently under heavy loads, but they always failed gracefully. You would hit refresh until the page got served, which took less than a second or two. The social experience was compelling enough for users to tolerate these little glitches. Tom and crew found continually tweaked the recipe that members consumed in pageviews numbering the billions or trillions. Technology worked just well enough, and, aside from the hiccups, transparent.
In Wallop, the technology is in your face but the user experience is AWOL. With its corporate uncle Live Spaces making a bland synthesis of most this iteration's basic ideas, Wallop has to push the envelop to differentiate itself. Wallop's vision is to make Flash widgets - and an economy of mods - the foundation of the next generation of social networking.
The problem is that the current generation of social networking works quite well and Wallop's love of technology seems oblivious to the what users -- and developers -- want and expect. Its -- and Microsoft's longstanding -- early PR firm Edelman was and now Porter Novelli is pushing out press releases touting Frog Design's involvement in the design of the UI, the sophisticated algorithms that prioritize one's friend network and volume of mod transactions. Meanwhile usage of the service is really nil as far as I can see and users complain in comments that "this seems kinda complicated" or "It's sorta fun but I don't see me using this much. It's pretty tho." and respected Flash developers like Matt Voerman are complaining "What the hell do I have to do to get a f#@&%n Modder account" If your dog food tastes good, you don't have to explain, spin or glorify it to the dog. The dog just eats it. And trying to explain to the dog's owner has nothing to do with the dog.
After I wrote this piece, I found a post by Stuart Hogue on the Frog Design blog that asserts Wallop is an intended private social network aiming to build authentic community. So some of the flaws I point out might be by design. If so, they are misguided. Why would an exclusive social network emphasize technology as highly as it does? Is this an exclusive social network for Flash developers? 13 year olds are more likely to find Flash widgets cool and tolerable than 33 year olds. I remember being kicked off Orkut a few times for mildly violating it unwritten strict community building rules. Look at how well Orkut has done in America. It flourished in another country were people have really huge natural social networks, through the extended family structures of that culture -- I'm not a sociologist. Members of any social service still expect usability.
Let's go through some of the faults with Wallop
Sense of Life and Widgets
What makes a social networking profile different from any typical pre-Friendster profile is the sense of social life it conveys. Profiles are connected, you can click on friends on an HTML profile and immediately bring up their profiles. Profiles have stats, comments and blogs that give you a sense of social interaction. MySpace - and Facebook to an even greater degree - maximize the info density on a page. A good social networking profile is info rich at a glance like a dashboard or baseball card.
A Wallop profile maximizes aesthetics over social information. It's a beautiful arrangement of default widgets that are largely opaque to conveying activity. Here's my analogy: instead of having marbles spilled on the table, Wallop puts the marbles into a circle of little Tupperware or Rubbermaid containers that only give a small clue as to what is inside. You have to open up each to find out. I'm looking at a random MySpace profile that has 50 comments out of 507 displayed and 8 friends of 2430 on the main page. Each of other profiles on the page has a colorful name and colorful picture. Members unhappy with the default 8 friends routinely modify their profiles to show more friends. You really get a sense of the person's or band's social life.
Wallop, on the other hand, shows only 4 friends in my little friend widget, 2 conversations in my conversation box, and is capable of at most one or two short sentences or discriptions in the blog and music widgets. The little radar scope in the upper corner depicts my friends as little grey dots that you have rollover to see their name and pics. You have to click or rollover anything to get information out. Rather a dashboard or baseball card, Wallop presents a Zen rock garden of widgets. You get primarily a sense of pretty technology rather than my social life.
Widget homepages in my mind are not really that popular yet, but anybody exposed to them already through MSN Spaces, Google Personalized Homepage, NetVibes or PageFlakes, etc expect them to be informative at a glance, movable and customizable. Wallop's default widgets are none of those things, so Wallop fails the convergence of the social networking and widget movements really badly. It must succeed in catalyzing social activity before any other ambition.
Disregard for Idioms and Usage Patterns
As I've tried to demonstrate above, people have an implicit understanding and expectation, either by nature or acclimation, as to how certain types of sites should work. I give more examples here of how Wallop ignores these understandings.
Wallops profiles should have a testimonials or comments widget. Whatever the technology, giving props, cred, or strokes is a basic transaction in the psychology of social networking. Everybody expects this on a social networking site. Where is it?
What the profile does have is a conversation widget that aggregates my conversations from everywhere on the site. The aggregator is pretty confusing at first because there are few or no archetypal references for it. It reminds me of the Twitter public timeline except here there's many timelines, each shared by the subset of people in the convo. Wallop just needs to get enough people to actually use the service to make those conversation streams come to life instead of seeming like a bench in the park on which miscreants accumulate grafitti tags. There's so few people actually using the service that Wallop should have the same conversation stream for everyone on the system whether they participate in it or not.
How do I browse for people in my 'hood? Dating is a huge driver of social networking activity. Friendster's initial growth spurt was largely due to the busy joy of finding new people. Markus Frind attributes the rise of social networking sites to the depression in the fortunes of online dating services. The former is a superset of the latter. (Frind's plentyoffish dating site is in fact a stripped down social networking site. It's ugly but highly social activity dense in its own way.) You invite existing friends to Wallop, you find new ones by browsing your network. Normally would also be able to find new friends by browsing by criteria such as location, age and gender. On Wallop, you can only search for people you already know, ie by name, email and username. That search limitation is a huge dampener on site activity.
How do I know what mods I should download? Anybody accustomed to browsing for WinAmp skins, Wordpress themes, Amazon books, expect to see popularity and ratings. Those filtering and ranking features aren't evident in the mod store.
The "radar scope" of the friend network is unique to Wallop. A user can move his friends around as they see fit and group them into arbitrary categories. That's pretty neat. However, the site seems to be designed for 800x600 screens, a bit narrow for a techie early adopter crowd, so the friend network seems really spread out on the page. Personally, I think the upper corner centered concentric circles should be page centered concentric rounded ovals. Think shooting target rather than Hayden Planetarium.
Mods to the Rescue?
Befitting something from Microsoft, Wallop seems big on platform. And while I wish Wallop would set a good example by getting the user experience right out of the box, maybe we have to rely on the creativity of mod developers to correct Wallop's flaws. Most of the mods I've seen seem to deal with aesthetics. Wallpaper is popular. One that I've installed pulls neat pics from some unknown source on Flickr to use as my wallpaper. That would be cool if Wallop were a widget homepage, but again, I'm not crazy about them; I'm here to social network.
One store mod that does nothing useful but ironically shows the possibilities is a Wallop Board widget that is moveable and resizable. It has a vector graphic of a shingle swinging from a post with a changing picture on it. If developers could exploit the Wallop API to develop killer social apps on widgets like these, then the cool Flash technology could be more than ornamental and be harnessed to create a rich social user experience.
Unfortunately, access to the sacred API seems limited to the 3l33t Chinese Flash developers. Respected Flash developers are getting a foul taste of the opaque and non-deterministic sign-up process. Wallop needs to buy a clue from LindenLabs and open up the development to all comers. The SecondLife and MySpace ecosystems are open Darwinian regimes. Why must developers on Wallop be screened? It's one thing to screen widgets for proper behavior before release, but another to abuse developers when they try to sign up and have a preconception of where your best ideas will come from. One developer told me privately,
So far as their developer relations goes - IMHO they have a lot of work to do. I kind of get the impression they're not quite finished with the development of Wallop and there are a few (major) changes they still have to bed down before they really start ramping up their developer pimping program. Unfortunately, that kind of attitude leaves a bitter taste in the mouths of developers like us.
Will people pay for mods? Most of the 17,000 mod transactions cited in the recent press release must be for free mods or ones that debit from the initial wallop credit balance of $5. People will not buy mods as avidly as they pay for items in CyWorld, SecondLife or WoW. All three are representational realities where people can project status games and the latter is a competitive game where players invest countless hours to win. The aesthetic drive for an abstract widget collection has got to be comparatively weaker. Where is the human or competitive element? MySpace profiles are hideously customizable in too many ways. Anybody can make their own codes, hire a designer to do a custom makeover, or cut and paste from countless sources. Buying mods from a catalog to decorate your own page is like throwing a party where everyone is dressed from the same store or rack of clothes. Perhaps if Wallop offered a huge easily searchable catalog of compelling and limited run items ala H&M or TopShop (or CyWorld?), people might take to it. The more social the Wallop becomes, the more compelling it is to differentiate one's profile.
Of course Wallop is in beta, so it automatically earns a bit of slack. However, I see the hand of consultants and white glove corporate treatment in the service. It's not close enough to the people. Unless Wallop's owners learn to understand the user experience and shape the technology to deliver it, Wallop will remain pretty site to which no one has reason to return.
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Post InfoThis entry was posted on Thursday, December 14th, 2006 and is filed under social networking.
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