My Simple Minded World

A Framework for Understanding Motivations

Posted in business, The Interweb by Omar Ismail on April 16, 2009

Audience. Community. Social. Viral.

These are all buzzwords that have gained popularity over the past few years to try and capture the fuel that has propelled success stories like Facebook and YouTube. But what does this actually mean, and how can we recreate them?

Based upon the work of Amy Jo Kim (Building Communities on the Web), Richard Bartle (Players who suit MUDs) and Andrew Chen (Futuristic Play) I’ve developed an analytical framework for evaluating ideas and initiatives on how they impact a person’s attachment to your site.

Motivational Taxonomy


I split up motivations into two broad categories, “External” which I qualify as things that will affect a person’s real life in some way, and “On Site” which is limited to things on the site itself. While the focus of this article is on the “On Site” motivations that isn’t to say that “External” motivations aren’t important. In fact I would argue that a large part of Facebook and Twitter’s success come from how the services affect a person’s real life. However, these External things are pretty self-explanatory and don’t need to be covered in depth. In my research I found the OnSite factors to be a more difficult thing to quantify and that’s what I’m attempting to model.

Identity (I)


This refers to a person expressing themselves to the world around them.

Who am I?

What am I about?

What do I like?

What do I want to do?


As a benchmark to illustrate what I mean by Identity: Facebook. People’s profiles are an incredibly close approximation to who they are as a person as people use their real names, real pictures, real interests, real friends.

MySpace is another obvious example but in a different way as the profile pages are focused on manufactured identies and creative customization.


Relationships (R)


This motivation is defined by a person being socially engaged with another person or persons. Humans are social creatures and we want to have a sense of belonging.

We want to communicate with like-minded individuals, have shared experiences, and shared traditions.

A benchmark for relationship building is MySpace in the old days, and Twitter now. These services are about building a broader and broader breadth of relationships. Some services like niche social networks, or hardcore MMO games focus on increasing the depth of people’s relationships to one another.


Content (C)


This is the person’s affinity towards the actual content on the site. They may be passionate about a particular topic, enjoy the nature of the conversations, find the content funny/entertaining, etc. We all have interests and content that we like to consume, I like watching Street Fighter 4 videos instead of cooking movies.

A benchmark for content is Wikipedia. For any topic you might have an interest in, they have a wealth of high quality content to consume.

I would argue that for outsiders, chatrooms rank low on the content scale because the individual conversations present little value.


Weightings and Score

Every site/service can be graded on these three metrics and scored relative to whatever benchmarks you choose.

This isn’t the entire story though, as each individual has their own importance and weighting they apply to each metric.  And a person’s weightings will shift depending on the topic at hand.

These weightings combine with a site’s metric rankings to get a person’s individual site score.

SCORE = w1*I + w2*R + w3*C

The resulting SCORE determines how much attention a person will give a site. As long as the score falls above that threshold the more time/attention a person will give. Therefore stickiness is achieved when (I,R,C) increases the more time a person puts in.


Applying it to People

This is all well and good, but how do we apply this to people, and how do we know what people’s weightings are? Well this is where Bartle’s paper comes into play. From analyzing MUDs in the 90s he proposes that there are 4 distinct classes of users/members.

  • Achievers – get satisfaction from overcoming obstacles, gaining ranks, and improving their status
    • C >= I > R
    • Sees the service as a game (chess, checkers)
  • Socializers – want to talk and build relationships
    • R >> I > C
    • Sees the service as entertainment (bar, club, etc)
  • Explorers – want to see/experience everything the system offers and testing the boundaries
    • C >> I > R
    • Sees the service as a pasttime (gardening, reading)
  • Instigators – enjoy stirring up trouble
    • I >= C > R
    • sees the service as a sport (hunting, fishing)

So we can attract or at least make our sites more attractive to these personality types by creating features, policies and intiatives that appeal to them.

What makes things really nice and messy is that each of the people in the system has a substantial effect on one another. Bartle provides a nice interaction diagram (I call Instigators what he calls Killers).


So you can see that the more Killers/Instigators there are the fewer Socializers. More Achievers and Socializers brings more Instigators, and Explorers are in their own world.


Bringing it all Together

This analysis brings a few questions up

  1. What kind of population distribution makes the most sense for your site/service?
  2. What initiatives do you do to appeal to each personality type in the context of your site/service given you better understand their motivations?

While these questions are still difficult to answer and require creativity/innovation they’re at least a lot more grounded and workable than generic statements than the usual “let’s make the service better”.

The untapped potential of search

Posted in The Interweb by Omar Ismail on May 6, 2008

The shopping world is run with faceted taxonomies. You know, the standard drill of choosing narrower and narrower categories, and then adding filters on things such as price, manufacturers and features. All of this navigation is powered and made possible through highly structured data with explicit relationships stored in a database or equivalent.

The data is structured, with hard links and concepts, that are also inflexible. If I want to create new attributes to filter by I have to modify the database, create new entries and establish the relationships. In reality what ends up happening is that taxonomy designers spend a lot of time at the beginning of development figuring out what is the best Hierarchical structure because they know it won’t get changed a lot in the future.

Now, what if you could accomplish the same drill-down and filtering use cases without storing hard database relationships?

It turns out that you can. With a BUT.

Main point: Text indexing is a superset of structured taxonomies.

Let me say that again…


Remember that a service like Google indexes everything. You can search every page against any character sequence. Well, if you place your taxonomy information on the page in a text format then it gets indexed just like everything else.

Taxonomy information.. indexed? Isn’t that the same as hard database relationships? EXACTLY! Without the database! Or rather, Google’s index IS the database.

Here’s the huge boost from this: If the search index is an isomorphism of your explicit taxonomy, then it’s also an isomorphism of unknown taxonomies that you haven’t even thought of.

As long as you put as much information as possible on the page then Google will index it, and voila every kind of taxonomy you can think of is created and buried inside the search index. What this means is that you can go back and create taxonomies without any loss of information!

In the structured approach if I wanted to be able to filter on HDTVs that have a 120Hz mode, I have to create a new facet called “Refresh Rate” and then go back and add the 120Hz attribute to all those televisions that apply.

In the unstructured approach I just write down in the text somewhere that the television supports 120Hz, alongside the contrast ratio, and all the other specifications that may or may not be important. Now, I can just search for those features and I’ll have the filter applied automatically. Beautiful!

Now for the problems.

A raw text search of “120Hz” doesn’t differentiate between Does have 120Hz, and doesn’t have 120Hz. Also there’s no way to apply your own sorting, and GOOG doesn’t handle ranges well. And this is why there is untapped potential. Google just announced that they’re creating an supplemental index for Custom Search, so why not add some extra extensions?

As the webmaster of ProductWiki I know the structure of the page better than a bot ever will. If I can provide search hints to say “THIS PART OF THE PAGE IS MORE IMPORTANT” that would be nice.

Also, these search companies need to handle date, and numeric ranges a lot better. I should be able to do $1000..$2000 and it’ll return me everything that has $1103.23 to $1,500. Same with dates, let me put in a variety of formats (isn’t even that important) and the parser understands what to look for.

Now I can do this kind of expansion of terms myself, but damnit this is their core competency.

In conclusion: I finally realize the power of unstructured search. It really does become the Database of Everything and that’s really friggin cool. Now with that power comes great responsibility, so search companies let’s step things up a notch and get some more advanced query handling happening.

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Ads on Video

Posted in The Interweb by Omar Ismail on September 26, 2007

TechCrunch takes a look at MSN’s new video site, and their new policy on showing advertisements. For fear of being cliche, video on the web is still an infant frontier and monetizing the hundreds of millions of eyeballs is the 64 billion dollar question.There are many options available, each one with their own advantages and disadvantages. Pre-rolls, post-rolls, overlays, banners, etc.

It bothers me that overlays are starting to get attention because I absolutely HATE them. I hate anything that obstructs my view of the action that’s happening on screen. Personally, even though they get a lot of flack, I think pre-rolls have the best potential. Why? Because they’re inline with my experience. Look to my previous write-up about PPP and things being out or in context of the experience. The reason why pre-rolls ads have gotten such a hard time is because they’ve been executed upon so poorly. If I’m just watching a 30 second clip it doesn’t make sense to show me a 30 second commercial in front.

Instead commercials should be short, very short, engaging, and tailored to what I’m interested in. 5-10 second ads are bearable. Heck, just use the time before a video loads to display an ad, instead of waiting for the damn ad to show up in the first place! Don’t show me some animated circle, show me a deal on some new 360 games, or news about a new service launching.

 From my own personal experience I know that videos are incredibly popular and can spread very quickly. So even if people can’t monetize well right now everybody’s going to be trying their hardest to figure it out. In the meantime I’m going to enjoy this Golden-Age of minimal advertising on sites like Stage6 before someone DOES figure it out, and we’re stuck with ads, just like AdSense did to the text web.

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PayPerPost and Making Money Online

Posted in The Interweb by Omar Ismail on September 23, 2007

TechCrunch has another post about PPP and its evils. I don’t want to talk about this specific incident since it’s pretty silly all around, but like Arrington says, PPP always brings up discussion and this is a good time to share my thoughts on it. While some people disagree with PPP’s methods, there IS something to be said about rethinking the way that bloggers make money. Look at the current situation… you have:

1. Bloggers who write and want to make money

2. Companies that want to get their products and services known

It’s only natural that these two forces come together. Bloggers want to make a living. Companies want to promote. Nothing groundbreaking here. Traditionally the way these two entities have come together is in the form of advertising. On the web this includes AdSense, or other ad networks, or using banner ads through an ad agency like b5Media or Federated Media.

However, those kinds of advertising schemes are pretty broken. When you have technology such as AdBlocker existing, it shows that advertisements annoy a contingent of readers enough to take action, and maybe annoys more than that but are too lazy to do anything about it, or they bite the bullet and deal with the ads because they know the blogger has to eat.

But why does it have to be that way? It obviously doesn’t. For every blog out there, there is a corresponding business model that is a better fit than just throwing up some banner ads. Ads are very EASY to do, just go with an existed system, or even sell the ads yourself, it’s all very straight forward. But most of the time they’re not the BEST thing to do.

Look at ProductWiki, or any Price Comparison service. These are great business models because the money making is built directly into the service. People don’t consider the “ads” as being an out-of-context message, but an integrated part of the experience.  By using a model that is harmonious with your users expectations you end up making more money, and getting a better experience.

PayPerPost is another kind of way for bloggers to make money. The idea isn’t that bad in theory, it’s the execution that leaves you wanting. Personally, I looked at PPP to see if it’d make sense to have some bloggers write about the site and check it out. Looking at the blogs they recommended, most of them were crap. Garbage. Useless.

And it makes sense! A lot of bloggers that work with PPP make some decent money with it, so they use the service: a lot. The end result though is that most of these blogs have horrible quality where it’s just one payed post after another. That doesn’t benefit anyone, unless you’re just interested in straight link development. But if you were, you could get much better return on your investment through other means.

That being said, I’m not against having companies pay bloggers for their attention to review and examine their products and services. Bloggers don’t have infinite time to review everything. Looking at the web industry, you have your A-list, B-list and so on. These are busy guys that don’t have time to write about the 10 new startups that launch every single freaking day. What does that mean for the startups? You gotta pay to get noticed.

It’s already happening even if it isn’t explicit! Startups get funded, they hire PR firms, marketing agencies. They hold parties. They attend conferences. They spend A LOT of money to get themselves noticed by the people that matter. They spend A LOT of money in the hopes that they will be written about, and refered to by the people that matter.

You could say that bloggers just write about things they think are WORTH writing about. Well obviously. However, there’s a lot that they’re NOT writing about that is WORTH writing about but they don’t have TIME to. That’s where the paid model comes in. Let’s take out the middle-man. Using this medium why go the “old media” route of the payola to get bloggers to write about us. Just pay them directly. But you’re not paying for their writing. You’re paying for their attention so that they MAY write about you.

Naturally this creates a supply (blogger attention) and a demand (companies) and the result should and will be a bidding system to see which companies get covered first.

Let me take the side of a blogger for a second. I’m a busy person. I’m doing a lot of things with the site, I’m enjoying life outside of the Internet (try to), doesn’t leave much time to blog. However, if somebody comes to me and says “Yo, here’s $XXX so you can take time out of your busy schedule to check us out” I’d be down with that. And if I’m really busy they’d be like “Yo, we know you’re REALLY busy, so we’ll give you $XXX*2 for your time!” I’d be down with that too.

If these companies approaching me have a strong overlap with my audience, then it makes sense for EVERYONE.

Since it makes so much sense, then why are we left with such crappy options such as ineffective advertising or garbage PayPerPost? There’s a big opportunity here for someone to make a lot of money. But it’s definitely a balancing act because you can very quickly get into PPP territory of crappiness.

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