Computational Social Science

I have recently been intrigued about the evolving science of social network analysis (SNA) and the potential novel yet practical applications of it in growing businesses. So the timing of the 3rd Annual Stanford Conference on Computational Social Science, hosted by IRiSS could not have been better.

Fun day with very cool thoughts, from the keynote of the superstar in the field, Duncan “small worlds” Watts to very practical insights from Facebook and Google scientists to usage of SNA on unusual datasets such as the englightement-era snail mail metadata (who was the bridging node between Voltaire and Ben Franklin?) to the intricacies of linguistic change (“aroma” getting replaced by “smell”) in beer enthusiast forums.

Some assorted notes and further reading links are below.

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First Decade of #SkypeMafia

skypemafia - full plot - thumbnail

On August 29th Skype is celebrating its birthday. As it did as a small European-rooted startup, so it does as a product in the portfolio of Microsoft. This time it is a round one, too: first 10 years. Sending the best wishes to all the friends who have built and are building Skype over these years, I figured it would be a good time to give in to an idea that has been in the back of my mind for a while: what would it look like if someone somehow visualized the impact of the company Niklas, Janus & a bunch of Estonian engineers started in 2003 to the broader startup ecosystem?

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Week 36: Cascading Uncertainty, Sales Ethics, Biotech & Design

Stanford GSB Sloan Study Notes, Week 6 (36), Spring quarter

Somehow the notes from this week are lighter – and not for the lack of activities, but rather a different kind. Somehow felt pointless to try to capture heated in-class ethics discussions or hours spent on preparing group work presentations in bullet point form. Instead, I took some time to dump a new load of photos of school life to the Flickr feed, where I had dropped the ball some time back in February.

The biggest project effort went into a “consulting gig” for the Networking class. Given a network relations dataset from a 200 person law firm (across their work, non-work and friendship social relations), their demographic metadata (tenure, education, roles, age…) and some qualitative survey results, we had to build an action plan that would solve for some of their identified personell issues, such as high churn of women. A very interesting mix of social network visualisations and multiple regression approaches, with potential to take far more attention and time than due for “1 homework of 4”.

As an amusing side product we predicted a single associate to become partner next, which the professor confirmed to have actually happened in the last 2 years since the data was gathered. As a teaser, find person #2910 on this picture to see why that is (partners are red, associates blue):

4 - partners (red) hang with partners, analysts (blue) with analysts

On BBLs front, GSB had a group of StartX companies drop by. Without going into the detail of the pitches, the overall quality of the batch of this accelerator program seemed quite impressive ranked agains many I’ve seen. Which is well done, given the affiliation to a single university and their somewhat less-commercial structure (for example they take no equity stake in companies they incubate and even fund).

EDIT: the most regretted lecture that I unfortunately missed this week: Building computers from bacteriophage data, communication, logic within biological cells in EE380 Computer Systems Colloquium.

Covered in this issue:

  • A data scientist’s take on how social graph analysis fits into the uncertain world
  • Calculating the effect of ads and promotions on sales
  • Tough life of a district manager and ethics of sales people
  • Booting up a biotech business
  • Some design thinking references and videos from IDEO
  • Guest speakers from: Jive, NetApps, VMWare, Connectics, IDEO

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Week 35: Virality, Freemium, Bitcoin & Asteroids

Stanford GSB Sloan Study Notes, Week 5 (35), Spring quarter

Could be that my future co-alumni will look back at this week from the future as historic: the school came out to the public with news that there will be no more Sloan Program. The competition for the title of the Best Sloan Class Ever (est 1958) will finally be over – as us in the 2013 cohort will remain the Last Sloan Class Ever. The program itself will of course live stronger than ever, getting a fresh rebrand as Stanford MSx Program for Experienced Leaders.

Meanwhile, the academic life of T-7 week carried on, busy as usual. I realize the four keywords picked for the title sound a bit buzzwordy – but there was some solid content behind each. Read the notes below, and also check out the long-overdue video of my LOWKeynotes speech from the Winter Quarter if you happened to miss it.

Covered in this issue:

  • Calculating social influence in marketing and building funcional teams
  • Calculating effects of advertising spend on demand
  • Designing Call Centers and measuring process quality
  • Do freemium products need selling?
  • Exit dilemmas of Hotmail
  • Managing media crises and firing firends
  • Being realistic, but curious about Bitcoin
  • Founding stories of Twitter and Square
  • Mapping out all asteroids in space around us
  • Guests: Jack Dorsey of Twitter/Square, Sujay Jaswa of Dropbox, astronauts and folks from Clearwire, DFJ, Lightspeed Ventures

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Week 34: Al Gore, Startups Sales to Enterprises & Founders vs Early Employees

Stanford GSB Sloan Study Notes, Week 4 (34), Spring quarter

No bandwidth to say much more that you will find not one or two, but three beautiful graphs I drew this week with my two little hands below the fold. And that the sales game hinted towards last week concluded with a triple win by Sloan Fellows (who sold $4.1..$4.7M/each over a quota of $2.6M; among those your’s truly being #3).

The two View From The Top events this week were different but great – my notes won’t do them justice. As there is some lag in getting videos out you should just subscribe to the playlist and stay tuned.

Covered in this issue:

  • Visualizing social networks and Empirical demand modelling
  • Toyota’s unique manufacturing process
  • Startups selling products into huge companies
  • Compensation tuning for founders versus early employees
  • Tough conversations before, during and after letting an employee go
  • Guests: Al Gore, Co-CEOs (incl the original “Ari Gold from Entourage”) from William Morris Endeavor, Nuru International, KKR Capstone, Accel, EIR for New York, StudyBlue

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Product Manage Your Blog

Andrew Chen is an entrepreneur and a blogger. He is one of the top minds in the industry for understanding and analyzing viral loops. After we met in that context in early 2010, I’ve been keeping an eye on his blog and reading some of his insightful essays from the archives.

Over the last few years since the raise of Twitter, blogging circles have been struggling. Significantly reduced friction of quick updates and link sharing have been taking many writers’ attention, time and dedication away from their previously regular blogs.

What I’ve found is that the perceived value of and expectations to a blog post have gone up. You can think of it as a hierarchy of “weight” when broadly & publicly communicating out, something in the lines of:

Re-tweet -> Tweet -> Facebook post (with comment action) -> Blog post -> A-list media

(Two side remarks here: 1) There branded list of particular communication services changes over time of course. For example Quora is currently entering this hierarchy aggressively, and far more right than Twitter/Facebook. 2) A-list media is on the end here not for its reach for broader audiences — you can actually do much better with blogging by reaching the right ones — but for their remaining editorial authority and the share of control you as an author have to hand over to them when submitting your work, i.e ou can’t change and improve later what’s “on paper”.)

Many people broadcasting online spend majority of their allocated time on the left of this scale now. You can (re)tweet 10 messages a minute and there is a lot of slack for the quality and integrity of what gets through. It is a cloud of ideas for the receivers to pick (and re-share) what they find valuable. The little time still remaining for the right side of the scale makes you pick meatier and meatier topics and weigh much more carefully what is worth the proper writing time. Have you noticed how the blog posts that matter move away from pure subjective opinion, improve in structure, display much more carefully gathered evidence, first hand experiences analyzed, research committed?

The heavy traffic on the left slowly fades to oblivion (hey, Memolane! :)) while the content you publish on the right remains more and more with you, to represent and define you. The conscious or subconscious pressure to take proper time and be great if you take time at all could be one of the reasons we see less blogging that we used to.

Texts define people. And the ones that remain on the first page of the Google results on your name search — ever more so.

Coming back to Andrew, he recently did two things that christallized my line of thought above and triggered me to write this post here:

  1. He surveyed his dedicated readers and found that a 2/3 landslide asked him to focus on high-quality long essays on a monthly interval given options for shorter and more frequent posts.
  2. He now published a full content roadmap for his 2011 blogging plans, focusing on the life challenges of early stage startups and clearly defining his goals and milestones for covering this area.

Especially I think the latter is a great idea – treat your personal content production as a product and manage it as such: define your audiences, pick the channels to market, consider the resources available, build a backlog of topics you will cover and keep that stack-ranked as life changes, iterate and see what works and what not.

Even doing it for yourself will help you structure your thoughts and manage time, which will lead to better content for your readers. By taking the next step and publishing these detailed plans, Andrew has of course achieved additional benefits: it is much easier for users to decide if they want to subscribe, and there is a high likelihood of early feedback to help him finetune his roadmap to match actual “market needs” and interest.

So all he has to do now is write, write, write for his alert audience. No pressure, Andrew.

PS: I’ve written two slightly related attempts to touch this topic in 2009: Revamp

With a week of downtime to ponder about things, I also thought about this site and its role in my portfolio of things to maintain.

It has been a year since I posted here and not for the lack of things to say or share but for the much-discussed oncoming of byte-size social media. I’ve been posting on Twitter almost daily (and it was fun to rediscover I wrote about that becoming a trend for me in April 2009 here) and as anyone, hit an occasional Facebook Like button or write a comment to a friend’s feed.

I still came to a conclusion that a blog has a place for me in my conversations with all of you. And then realized that I’m basically rephrasing what Clive Thompson recently said so well in Wired: Tweets and Texts Nurture In-Depth Analysis. It is so weird to think that just a few years ago you had to self-host of blogging engine to share a crappy mobile-quality photo (example: a typical post from Oct 2005) – there are so many new and better tools for that. But still, at times you feel like writing more than 140 characters to convey an idea, and do it in a space you actually control.

So, I took a few hours to revamp the software setup runs on to meet the changed needs. This is what’s changed:

  • Moved from MovableType to WordPress. Long overdue, but really needed the thinking above to be worth the conversion effort. Also considered Tumblr, Edicy & Squarespace, but as I already have a Dreamhost account anyway and WP has been quite painless for our kids’ blog, made this one easy.
  • Refreshed the visual skin that had been eye-hurtingly stuck somewhere in the nineties.
  • Moved comment threads to Disqus. Just the thought of logging into an admin interface to see another 10,000 spam comments slipping through MT’s broken filters was discouraging to writing anything. And as I don’t see in any value in anonymous comments, Disqus let’s you log in with your existing Facebook and Twitter credentials.
  • Drew my more frequent Twitter activity more visibility into this site.
  • Provided some standard tools to share content from here to social sites – Twitter, Delicious & Facebook.

So, in a way, as everything else on the interwebs, this blog has been downgraded from being a central portal about what Sten thinks to one of the several repositories of content I produce as I go – focussing on being simpler, and playing better together with all the other pieces in the puzzle. I am still happy if you choose to subscribe, as at the end of the day – does any content even exist if it is not read?

Old content wise, most of the archives seem intact, just the permalinks have changed – I expect Google to reindex them in no time and thus didn’t bother to rework. One known casualty of conversion were tags – if anyone has any past experience with that MT->WP, please let me know?

End of the technical interlude and hope for a more regular programming – I’ve been overoptimistic about the time needed for that before. Thanks for coming back – there were over 5000 unique readers here even over the quiet 2010.

A Day in Twitter User’s Life

I’ve found myself using Twitter more and more recently. In large part it comes on the expense of blogging here – the mental entry barrier is so much different from taking proper time out of a busy day to write a polished blog entry versus shooting away compressed 140 character thought-bits from my mobile in the middle of a meeting or in transit when travelling.

I’ve experimented quite a bit with what I tweet about. At some point I jotted down a few blogging principles (in Estonian here) and Twitter was initially a channel for the leftovers that didn’t fit in, e.g. short messages about me, my location, my random inner thoughts – rather than something specifically designed for the reader. As my followers count has grown (getting very close to the number of RSS subscribers on this blog – interesting tipping point soon; now ranking in the top 2 of #Estonian users – hi, Cyrus), I’ve knowingly pulled back from more egocentric and personal stuff and craft my short messages for a broader, more anonymous audience. To a notable extent I’m also taking feedback from those near and dear to me about which content they feel could be uncomfortable or too revealing.

Either way, Twitter is a concept-stretching medium and part of the beauty of it is that though we more or less know what is the “old” stuff that it is changing we can have no clue yet to what, in which direction. Even better, it is still up to us as the users to define it – both when consuming microcontent (whom we follow, how we filter, what we re-share) and when creating it (just linking or creating new? talking about yourself or the readers? social realism or philosophical abstractionism?).

Anyway, what sparked this post was actually a funny incident today. Apple App Store opened up for Estonian users today. As we launched the Skype client for iPhone this week and it has skyrocketed to a million downloads in less than 48 hours, we are all of course very closely following this space right now. So, when I learned about Apple’s Estonian expansion this morning, I of course tweeted it (at 10:58) as something my followers could care about. At 11:46 Eesti Päevaleht, one of the largest Estonian dailies, ran a news story, quoting my tweet as the original source. They had a comment from EMT (the local iPhone-exclusive mobile operator), who apologized that they still haven’t heard about it from Apple and don’t know what to say.

From one side I even feel a bit sorry for my friends at EMT for stealing the thunder from their official press if and when they were planning to run it. On the other hand – it is a great example of casual, yet targeted real-time content bending the borders between “mainstream” and social media.

A bunch of good Skype mashups

Congrats, Dick & Christoph at PamConsult on winning the Skype Mashup Competition 2007! Even though I have not sent a fax in like 10 (ok, maybe it is just 5) years I am sure that PamFax has conservative old school business users flocking as we speak.

There was a whole bunch of good entries, really happy as it was the first competion we held. I’ve actually used a few of them before, like Twitter4Skype and Anothr. However, my humble request did not show up yet – so there is still a chance for you to develop it for the next round. Or before.