“local” is lowercase

Cover of  "All the President's Men"
This book is irrelevant

A friend is working to make his big newspaper more relevant online. This paper has lots of local outposts, and he wants to get them involved.

So how’s it working out?

“The trouble is Journalists,” he complains. “No matter what the plan is, they have a problem with it.”

That uppercase ‘J’ — ouch.

Yet I agree: Too often, uppercase Journalists with a gatekeeper role — as editors, implementers, or role models — block progress by the very companies that could be making a difference.

What’s an uppercase Journalist, exactly?

Well, you probably know a few. Whether from conviction or insecurity, they promote the romantic view of journalism: Their craft (and their employment, by extension) is crucial to a healthy democracy.

Such high-mindedness is fine when it’s backed by real feats of Journalism. I’ve known some stellar investigative reporters, and I admire them greatly. They’ve earned an uppercase ‘J’ and any attitude that goes with it.

But few journalists of any sort — and fewer still local ones — can point to any such feat during their careers. Local news is overwhelmingly a lowercase affair, both in its day-to-day tasks and in its overall effect.

That’s no criticism; life itself is mostly lowercase. But let’s keep our perspective. There is nothing sacred to be protected here.

And there’s much to be built, if we can just get over ourselves.

Alas, many uppercase Journalists are loath to do that. Instead they reflexively cite ethics or professionalism whenever they don’t want to do something.

Occasionally it’s something bad, like killing a story at the behest of an advertiser. OK, fine. But mostly it’s just something different, like tweeting from a local event — or something that was suggested by the wrong person, like an idea from a sales exec.

To justify their balkiness, uppercasers may also appeal to the gods, as in this inane argument against efforts by the Journal-Register Company to incorporate social media into its local reporting:

Now stop for a moment, and try to imagine Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein reporting Watergate and being asked to do any of this.

We’re talking, mind you, about covering a routine council meeting. I admire Woodward and Bernstein as much as the next guy, but I’ve covered council meetings and, to paraphrase John Cleese, Watergate don’t enter into it.

A more personal example of uppercase obstructionism:

A couple of years ago, I proposed a network of local blogs to a big paper here in the DC area. They took me seriously, which was nice, but we disagreed about what blogging should involve.

“Who would edit these bloggers?” asked an uppercase Editor, who’s since left the job.

“No one,” I said. “We pick decent people, give them a framework, and fix any problems as they arise.”

“Copy edit?”

“No one.”

“So they’d just … publish?”

This guy couldn’t fathom (or wouldn’t acknowledge) that his brand of Journalism, often called the first rough draft of history, might have its own first rough draft — a more ephemeral, immediate, and relevant draft, ultimately, than anything that’s been vetted by a half-dozen editors.

Put otherwise: Like it or not, online is a different medium. It has different standards, practices and expectations. It isn’t print journalism that’s published on the Web, any more than print journalism is history that’s published in a newspaper.

So why should print journalists be deciding what their companies do on the Web, as is usually the practice now? They shouldn’t, I’d say, unless they can quash their uppercase impulses.

Otherwise we’ll get the latter-day equivalent of newspapers published by historians.

Ultimately this editor and I disagreed about other things, too. He was probably right about some of them. Still, he was applying the wrong standards — and his paper’s online efforts, particularly in local, still suffer from his tenure.

When it comes to building local media online, uppercase Journalism simply isn’t the point. Speaking truth to power, identifying corruption, crafting great prose, earning awards: These are secondary matters at best. (Evidence suggests that they’re secondary for most local papers, too, but that’s another matter.)

Even civic journalism, I think, is an overly dignified term. Until we’ve gotten this medium off the ground, our goals should be modest to a fault. We can succeed by aiming to provide just two things:

  • Timely, relevant facts
  • Community discussion about those facts

These are lowercase goals. They can be facilitated by journalists — or even by Journalists — but also by other people. Uppercase aspirations just get in the way.

In some towns, the best local news site might be 100% journalist-free: It might come directly from a local government, for instance, or a homeowners’ association, or it might emerge organically on Facebook. It might not include any coverage of the town council whatsoever. It might just be about shopping.

None of this would be bad. Let a thousand flowers bloom. And don’t fret about the crusaders on whom democracy depends; they’ll find their place.

The real choice faced by today’s uppercase Journalists, I believe, is whether they want to take part in a lowercase medium. Will they support their newspaper company if it wants to try a shopping site, for instance? Will they promote it, even as it finds its way? Or will they disdain and undermine it?

When Journalists insist on setting uppercase terms for their involvement, they only ensure their role as bit players.

I know how to spot a genuine review

So, another flurry of stories about fake reviews on Yelp, TripAdvisor, and elsewhere — this time prompted by a Cornell algorithm that supposedly can, with 90 percent accuracy, spot a bought-and-paid-for fake.

(The New York Times and NPR, among others, covered this.)

As I wrote several years ago, it’s getting ever harder for humans — including me — to identify fakery. It’s nice that an algorithm can improve the odds, at least for now, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves:

  • Even the best algorithm won’t finger a talented faker, and it also won’t identify a talented programmer who is posting fake reviews algorithmically. (I don’t know for a fact that the latter occurs. But since I can imagine a way to do it, I expect someone smarter than me is already making money at it. Story of my life.)
  • Publicity about fake-sniffing algorithms and their methodologies will increase the average “quality” of fake reviews, making them even harder to spot for humans and algorithms alike. We’ve seen this type of arms race before: Algorithms are like antibiotics; they invite the enemy to evolve.

There’s no foolproof way to spot a fake review. However, I do have a foolproof way to spot a genuine review:

Was it written by a friend? If so, it is genuine.

Evolve around that!

How Loladex worked, part 2: Making recommendations

OK, first some background.

People like to ask for recommendations on Facebook. This was becoming evident in 2008; by now it’s entrenched behavior. Mostly people ask via their status. Last month, for instance, my sister asked:

Need recommendations for semi-foodie restaurant in NYC that a chef would like.

She quickly got a bunch of referrals from her friends, including a recommendation for a nice place called Dell’Anima.

Such exchanges happen countless times each day on Facebook (and on Twitter, and elsewhere), and they usually work quite well. But from where I sit, they also leave unfulfilled opportunities.

  • First, an opportunity to enrich the current interaction. My sister’s friends made their recommendations via plain old typing, without tags or links, so Facebook didn’t “know” that Dell’Anima is a restaurant. As a result, it didn’t provide a phone number, a star rating, a Web site, reservations on OpenTable, or even just the relevant Facebook page for Dell’Anima. Nor did it provide social context: Some of my sister’s other friends might already have “liked” Dell’Anima elsewhere, which would help her decide.
  • Second, an opportunity to enrich future interactions. Unstructured recommendations just float off into the ether after they’re read. If another friend asks the same question tomorrow, the person who recommended Dell’Anima will have to type the same answer all over again. Instead, shouldn’t her recommendation be saved and then displayed to her friends in other contexts, without any work by her?

Facebook has economic reasons to address these needs, and it’s started to do so. It’s trying to add structure by suggesting tags as I type, for example; presumably its suggestions will get better once it can analyze the meaning of my words in real time.

And Facebook still owns everything I’ve done on the service, so maybe I’ll wake up tomorrow and it’ll have extracted, retrospectively, every restaurant recommendation I ever made. Then it could offer to “like” all those places for me.

I’d welcome that, if it worked properly.

Back in 2008, though, recommendations weren’t high on Facebook’s agenda. The plan was — my plan was — that users would share advice via a structured application, not via comments. A “Recommendations” app could ultimately become part of the standard Facebook suite, like Questions is now.

The approach wasn’t crazy then, and it still could be viable today. But it presents a challenge, since using an app will always be harder than typing “Dell’Anima FTW.”

So, back in 2008, here is how we tackled it.

Your friend wants advice: She needs to find a local place that serves good thin-crust pizza. Ideally you see her question in your own news feed, but maybe you get an e-mail or see a Facebook notification (screengrab at top of this post).

Whatever the prompt, we want you to click into the Loladex application. Assuming you’re already a Loladex user (which is a whole other topic), this is what you see next —

(I’m omitting the Facebook stuff that surrounds the app.)

Some good things about the page above: It shows your friend’s name and Facebook photo, which makes this a personal interaction; it recaps the question; it looks nice.

Not so good: It requires an immediate choice between two paths, and we don’t explain the options very well. If we stuck with this approach, better language might have been:

Recommend a business by name, with a button that says “Find“; or

See all matches for “pizza” near Leesburg, VA 20176

Also, it should include the additional info your friend provided: She’s looking for thin-crust pizza.

But actually, we probably should have skipped that landing page entirely and combined it with the next page, which looked like this —

In the listings on the left, anything you’ve previously liked is at the top, since that’s what you’re likely to recommend. (Note: At the time you couldn’t “like” regular businesses on Facebook itself.)

Our aim here was to mimic real-life advice, where people bundle several suggestions and add commentary: “ABC is awesome, but doesn’t do thin-crust. XYZ is a hike, but has excellent thin-crust.”

Hopefully the model is clear: Click the arrow to add each business to your recommendation. After adding a business the page looks like this (just the relevant part shown) —

Anything you write on the right-hand side is between you and your friend. You can delete a business from your recommendation by clicking the “X.”

On the left-hand side, you can add public comments about each place you’ve recommended. Note the 140-character limit on public comments: I’m a believer in such limits, but 140 was just trendiness. 200 would have been better.

I believe that recommending a place also automatically “liked” it, and that you could undo the “like” without undoing the recommendation.

And that’s basically it. Add a note, click to send.

A side question: Should the interaction be private, as shown here, or visible to all friends so they can chime in? In 2011 the instinct is to make it all a quasi-public discussion, but in 2008 we worried about scenarios: Pizza restaurants are fine, but what if you were recommending a doctor and wanted to add a note about your own experience?

In the next post: How users asked for recommendations on Loladex.

How Loladex worked, part 1: Introduction

I made peace long ago with the ephemeral nature of online products. Unlike some folks, I don’t routinely keep archives of what my various Web sites used to look like — though I do sometimes visit the Wayback Machine to refresh an imperfect memory.

Loladex was different, however, and I did take some screenshots before it shut down. I had a few reasons:

  • For better or worse it was my site, more than anything else I’ve worked on.
  • I knew the Internet Archive wouldn’t work because (among other things) Loladex required a logged-in state on Facebook plus dynamic searches of licensed data.
  • I wanted a record of the UI solutions we created, so that I could improve on them in future products.

This post is first in a series that’ll discuss & illustrate the features of Loladex that I think are still relevant today. In all cases the UI is a work-in-progress, frozen now in time. We learned many lessons, but I’m certain we ended far from an optimal solution — if such a solution even existed.

Before I start that, however, here’s some catch-up on Loladex.

Loladex launched in spring 2008. It was a Facebook application, meaning it was accessed via Facebook.com by users who had signed in. With the exception of games and Facebook-run applications, this approach is mostly passé now.

Loladex allowed you to find local businesses — restaurants, plumbers, psychiatrists — that had been recommended by your friends. If none of your friends had already recommended, say, a plumber, you could ask them to do so.

A true online equivalent to word-of-mouth recommendations: It’s not an original idea, but in 2008 no one had made it work yet.

And indeed, that’s still the case in 2011.

In the next post: How users made recommendations on Loladex.

Pausing our Facebook app

A friend of Loladex called this hibernation, since it occurs in a wintertime both actual and metaphoric, but really I hope the right image is a chrysalis.

Either way, here’s the fact: Loladex is suspending operation of its Facebook application for several months while we work on a new approach.

If you’re a Loladex user, I apologize for the inconvenience. As things progress, we’ll keep you informed in two ways:

• Via this blog
• Via a direct message when we re-emerge

If you have comments or questions, please post them below. I’ll respond to everyone.

What is hyperlocal, anyway?

So Rob Curley has left the Washington Post, where he was a high-profile architect of the Post’s vision for “hyperlocal” — a buzzy label for Web products that promise to keep you in touch with your local community.

Curley’s main creation at the Post was LoudounExtra.com, a Web site devoted to Loudoun County, VA, which happens to be Loladex’s home base.  Still in the wings is a similar site for our neighboring county of Fairfax.

Local guru Peter Krasilovsky did a good Curley summation here and a follow-up interview here; I won’t rehash the details.  Instead, I’ll just say that I hope the Post takes this opportunity to retool its approach to hyperlocal.

Why?  After all, doesn’t my hometown newspaper deserve praise for even facing the challenge of hyperlocal?  Among its peers, the Post has been by far the most serious about rethinking its local coverage, right?

Yes, true enough.  But by now it’s clear that Curley’s vision wasn’t terribly fruitful.  The Loudoun site is looking somewhat neglected, for one thing, and I hear that usage isn’t great.  The key problem, however, remains one of conception.

The issue, in short: Curley elected to build the Post’s hyperlocal strategy around … a countywide site?

Fact is, LoudounExtra.com is no more local than the twice-weekly printed section that the Post was already devoting to Loudoun.  Calling the Web site “hyperlocal” makes sense only for someone looking down from 30,000 feet. 

OK, so the Web site has some extra headcount and is updated several times daily.  It can cover more stuff than the print version.  It also supplements its coverage by pointing at other news sources.

And it has built a few specialized databases: Restaurants, churches, schools.

But none of this is new or especially Web-oriented.  If the Post had given its print staff a bundle of money and permission to publish the Loudoun section daily, I suspect we’d be looking at much the same thing.

Curley tells Peter K. that the new Fairfax site will be more granular — since Fairfax has a population of 1 million, four times as big as Loudoun’s, I’d hope so — and will be accessible via town-specific URLs that presumably will produce different-looking home pages.

I guess we’ll see, but I doubt it’ll feel truly local.  If it were really a town-specific approach, why would they call it Fairfax Extra?

So what is hyperlocal, if not the Curley vision?

Here’s my own definition: It’s the things we wonder about as we walk (or drive) the streets of our community.  Today, for instance, I was thinking —

•  What’s with that used-book store?  The sign in its window seems to say its business is failing.

•  What’s the asking price for that house?  What does it look like inside?  Why are they selling, anyway? 

•  Have any of my friends been to that new restaurant?  Could I take the kids?

You were thinking completely different things, I’m sure.  And that’s the point: Hyperlocal should be relevant to you.  It should be about your day-to-day concerns in your local community.  Those definitions are personal, so hyperlocal must be personal, too.  And LoudounExtra.com just ain’t.

Even though I live in Loudoun County, for instance, I don’t care about a house fire in Sterling.  Even though I live in Leesburg, I don’t care that the Raiders made it to the state softball tournament.  Stories like these fall outside my personal radius of interest — geo interest, or subject interest, or both.

A plain old local site might not understand this.  It might be the same for everyone, like a newspaper.  But a hyperlocal site should understand personal radii.  If I must wade through irrelevant content when I enter, it’s not hyperlocal enough.

What’s more, house fires and softball tourneys are the same old newspaper fare.  Even the Post’s designated local bloggers mostly do newspaper-style reporting, albeit with an occasional “I” or “me” thrown in.

If it wants to become more relevant locally, the Post must move toward a model that’s more social … more conversational … more authentic … less mediated.  It must give us what newspapers usually don’t: The voices of our neighbors and friends.

To do this, a site must leverage its community.  It must facilitate conversations.

No one knows the exact right mix of editorial and community, of course.  And there are other ingredients that add complexity, such as data and feeds and photos.  It’s not easy.

Still, I can recognize the wrong mix.  I recall being taken aback last year when Curley was quoted in a New York Times story about the launch of LoudounExtra.com:

“Most hyperlocal sites are 100 percent community publishing sites,” Mr. Curley said. “This is 1 percent community publishing.”

OK, so 100 percent community isn’t right.  No argument there.  But 1 percent is far, far worse.

Now if only Curley had said LoudounExtra.com is “38 percent community publishing,” I might have called him a genius.

There are plenty of hyperlocal models out there besides the Post.  In fairness, none has nailed this formula.  Many national efforts work by aggregating other news outlets and blogs, sometimes with a paid human thrown in for flavor: Outside.in and Topix and Marchex’s new just-killed [see comments] MyZip Network come to mind.  None of them work quite right.

A site that’s far closer to capturing the hyperlocal spirit, I think, is Brownstoner in Brooklyn, NY.  It’s mostly a blog, and it’s run by Jonathan Butler, a former colleague from my magazine days.

Brownstoner isn’t exactly hyperlocal, because it covers all of Brooklyn.  But the site works because it speaks to an audience that shares a state of mind — urban homesteaders, I guess you’d call them — and somehow makes the huge borough seem like a single neighborhood.

It’s missing some local staples (sports, for instance), but with its mix of bloggers and attitude, plus its clever focus on real estate, it artfully captures the essence of living in, say, Cobble Hill.

This inspires tremendous engagement among its users: Brownstoner’s very frequent blog posts often draw many dozens of comments within hours.  By contrast, today’s top two most-commented stories on LoudounExtra.com (which admittedly covers far less territory) had 6 comments between them.

So, my thought for the day:

Take a curated blog approach, where selected amateurs and semi-pros post frequently (like Brownstoner).  Combine it with the news stream of a social network and utilities such as (ahem) Loladex.  Add smart feeds for real estate listings and crime and government and other media and other blogs.

Give users the tools to participate in every conversation, and make it clear that their participation is central to the site. 

Allow users to specify what they care about.  Enable them to enjoy their personalized mix via the Web site, or their RSS reader, or their e-mail, or their phone.

Finally, deliver this all with a minimum of filigree — just a stream of highly relevant items in the manner of Facebook’s News Feed.

That would be hyperlocal, I think.  The pulse of your community.

I wish the Post would do something like this, because I’d use it.  Meanwhile, I haven’t used LoudounExtra.com for months.  And I suspect I’m not alone.

Who wrote that review?

Via Andrew Shotland, I recently saw this post.  I know I’ll be called naive, but I was surprised at its blatancy.

This guy Stephen Espinosa (whom I don’t know) helps local businesses promote themselves online.  His advice is to get your “clients” to post reviews on popular sites — the quote marks are his, and he adds a smiley face in case we don’t get it:

I won’t spell it out fully, since he doesn’t, but this seems like an opportune moment to talk about fake reviews.

You need spend only a few minutes on most rate-and-review sites to understand that they contain fake reviews.  There are fake positive reviews posted by the business owners, and fake negative reviews posted by their competitors.  Many are amateurish and easy to identify if you’re looking for them, though I suspect that some casual users don’t realize they’re fake.

I’ve never put much store in reviews by strangers.  Still, I always thought that out-and-out fakes were a fairly limited and unorganized phenomenon.  Now that I see they might be promoted more systematically, I’ve lost confidence that I can even spot a fake.

Furthermore, I expect that such fakery will spread and become more sophisticated.  As local search reaches critical mass, it’ll be hard to trust anything.

I used to believe, for instance, that a Yelp reviewer with 10+ reviews and some kudos from friends was almost certainly a real person.  That’s probably still a safe assumption — but will it be next year?

If I’m a certain type of SEO consultant, right now I’m probably setting up a network of hundreds of fake Yelpers.  They’ll all have real-looking pictures, real-sounding profiles, and lots of reviews (some even genuine).  They’ll send each other kudos, enhancing each others’ credibility. 

And they’ll exist solely so I can be paid to deploy them for the benefit of my clients.

If done properly, this sort of fakery will be very hard to detect.  Probably the only way I’d get caught would be to advertise the service — or to include quote marks and smiley faces when I blogged about it.

And this is just the truly fake reviews.  There’s still reviews from friends of the business owner, and “real” reviews that have been solicited directly by business owners, some of whom will give discounts in exchange for posting on … well, on a certain site.

In such a world, reviews by strangers become devalued and personal trust is at a premium.

Not so long ago I heard that we need to see, on average, 20 reviews from strangers before we’ll believe the prevalent opinion that’s being expressed.

What will that number be in the future?  50?  100?

Wouldn’t it be simpler and better to get your advice from people you know and trust? 

Via, say, Loladex?

Getting people to use Loladex (Part 2)

My previous post was about why you’d want to use Loladex.  This post is about the nitty-gritty of getting people to do so.

Fair warning: If you don’t care about the inner workings of Facebook, this may not fascinate you.

OK, so we have this Loladex product.  Among other things, it allows you to ask your friends for advice on local businesses.  You might need help finding a good electrician, for instance.

Because Loladex delivers advice from your friends, it works best when it’s hooked into a social network.  And among the social networks, we like Facebook best: It’s unmatched in its combination of audience size, integration tools, and viral channels.

So we launched Loladex on Facebook.

And two months later we still like Facebook.  But …

But even on Facebook, our users can’t be fully social.  And therefore they can’t get the full benefit of Loladex.  It’s harder than I’d like, for example, to ask my friends if they know … well, a good electrician.

This isn’t just a problem for us.  It’s Facebook’s problem, too, because real-life applications like Loladex are what Facebook needs in order to build long-term relevance.

So far our biggest issues have been:

  1. Facebook’s lack of clarity about how its own systems work; and
  2. The poisoned atmosphere that’s been created by many Facebook applications.

First, lack of clarity about Facebook’s internal workings.

For sure, this is partly our own fault.  We’re still climbing the Facebook learning curve.  Sometimes we just don’t know where to look for information.

Also, Facebook is a young company, moving quickly and constantly changing its own rules.  It’s just about to launch a big redesign, for example, and we don’t really know how it’ll affect us.  We accept that.

But Facebook makes things worse by being deliberately mysterious about some of its key features.  A classic example is the News Feed that appears on everyone’s Facebook home page.

If you’re a Facebook user, you’re familiar with the News Feed: It shows you what your friends have been doing and saying on Facebook, and sometimes on other sites too.  In an ideal world, Loladex could use it as a reliable communication channel.

The thing is, your News Feed shows only a small slice of your friends’ activity.  Facebook decides which items will (and won’t) be displayed.  It does so the same way Google assembles its search-results pages — via an algorithm that it changes often and will describe only vaguely.

There’s a reason for this, of course.  Like the Google search-results page, the News Feed is valuable real estate.  Publish an exact formula and it’ll be abused by spammers and others.

Still, the secrecy means we must work within an uncertain system.  We follow Facebook’s guidelines, but often it doesn’t help.  So we dive into the many long, geeky Facebook discussions that have flowered across the Web.  Some tips are helpful, others are either outdated or wrong.

Sorting through all this vague and unreliable information is a time drain for Loladex.  Experimenting with different methods, even more so.  But both are necessary, unfortunately.

To complicate mattters, it’s tough to know when we’ve solved a problem.  Unlike Google, where everyone sees the same search-results page (more or less), everyone’s News Feed is different.  Even when something seems to work, it may not be working for everyone.

OK, now for our second big issue: The bad faith of many Facebook applications.

Simply put, Facebook’s utility is being crippled by all the dumb, spammy and downright abusive applications it enables.  See below for a typical example of how such applications spread: 

These black hats make it difficult for Loladex to build a white-hat application, for at least two big reasons:

  1. Rather than making communication easier among its users, Facebook has been making it harder.  It has tried to devise formulas that’ll penalize only “bad” applications, but everyone gets snagged to some degree.
  2. Because of the ongoing torrent of crap, some Facebook users have stopped clicking any buttons that might send a message to their friends.  Many also ignore every single invitation they get.  Or if they add an app, they disable the very communication features that’ll make it work properly. 

The net effect is a big damper on Facebook’s potential, and a tougher task for Loladex.

I remain a fan of Facebook, but I’m not sure it understands the depth of its problem here.  I’m reminded of when AOL was reviled for assaulting its users with pop-up ads.  Eventually management shut them down, but it took too long and there were too many half-measures along the way.  AOL was definitely hurt; arguably, it never recovered.

So what’s to be done?  How do we overcome these issues so that Loladex users can get the most from Facebook?

In the short run, we’re working on our own solutions.  I’ll blog about them as we roll them out in the coming weeks.

In the medium run, though, I believe Facebook must make some changes.

Specifically, Facebook must start discriminating between applications — and not just via its algorithms, a tactic that ultimately punishes its users.  Besides policing bad apps, Facebook should be using human beings to identify and favor applications that can be useful in people’s regular lives, because their growth is in the company’s strategic interest.

Exactly how to favor such apps is up to Facebook.  I would suggest easier access to the News Feed and a more prominent “request” mechanism, achieved via clear procedures that don’t need to be secret because they’re open only to approved applications.

Whatever the method, it’d be refreshing to see Facebook focus once again on making communication easier — not on shutting it down.

In this vein, there have been rumblings lately, apparently false, that the company might add a “preferred developer” or “preferred application” program.  I would welcome such a program, and I’d happily pay to participate.

If I were Facebook, I’d make it work something like this:

•  Applications must fall into categories that are judged to be strategic to Facebook.  The list of categories could start small & be expanded.

•  Applications must have existed for X weeks, and during that period must have met minimum standards for non-spamminess.

•  Applications must follow all of Facebook’s rules and recommended practices.  (Facebook should be documenting more of these rules and practices.)

•  As a token of their seriousness, developers pay an upfront fee to participate.  In return, Facebook gives them an equivalent advertising credit.

•  Developers include a prominent, standardized way for users to complain to Facebook, which hires user advocates to field these complaints.  The process should be human: If developers don’t work in good faith to fix problems, the advocates may yank their privileges.

•  Approved applications are clearly identified as “safe” by Facebook to its users.

The exact mechanics don’t matter, however.  The main thing is, this requires human intervention.  Facebook can’t rely on statistics alone to recognize and promote the applications that will turn it into a fully functioning community.

Which categories and applications should be promoted?  Again, that’s up to Facebook.  I don’t know what they’re aiming for, but I’m pretty sure they can’t be thrilled with the current mix, or the resulting assessments of their platform.

In any rational process, I’m confident that applications such as Loladex will be part of the solution.  As such, they should get more help than, say, Vibrating Hamster — which may be a part of the solution itself, I suppose, but for an entirely different problem.

Getting people to use Loladex (Part 1)

Why would anyone start using Loladex?  We get asked this question a lot.

I’ve posted before about the chicken-and-egg issue, albeit in general terms.  Probably I should update those thoughts: Since we started focusing on social networks, we’ve learned a bunch.

But for now, let me address Loladex’s specific challenge: How do we motivate people to rate local businesses via a Facebook application?  Why would anyone do such a thing?

Well, for many reasons, of course.  One day I’ll list them all.  But I’d like to highlight one reason in particular, partly because I think it’s powerful and partly because it illustrates a big difference between Loladex and two of its biggest competitors — Yelp and Angie’s List.

Here it is: Loladex believes people will rate local businesses to help their friends.

By friends, I mostly mean actual, real-world friends.  People you might have dinner with.  For most folks, that’s a subset of “Facebook friends.”

Let’s get specific.  Why would anyone use Loladex to rate, let’s say, a plumber?  Or a pediatric gastroenterologist?  Certainly it’s not something you do on a whim.  Loladex won’t be running ads that say “Rate pediatric gastroenterologists!” — and if we did, we wouldn’t expect many clicks.

But suppose you were asked directly by a friend whose kid needed a medical specialist?  If you knew of a good gastroenterologist, would you take a minute to make the recommendation?  If you were seeking such a specialist, would you value this sort of recommendation?

We think so.  Such recommendations are an everyday part of friendship, and numerous surveys tag them as a more powerful force than the Yellow Pages, a $14 billion industry.

With Loladex, we want to provide a channel for these person-to-person recommendations.

Contrast this to Yelp.  I always say I like Yelp — and I do — but Yelp isn’t about helping your real-world friends.  By and large, the people who rate businesses on Yelp do it for reasons of (a) self-expression; and (b) social standing in an online community that may overlap with their real-world friends, but doesn’t have to.

These mostly twentysomething Yelpers provide a service for us all, God love them.  But it’s almost never a person-to-person transaction.  Also, the motivation to rate something on Yelp fades quickly outside its core realm of restaurants & other social venues.

Or consider Angie’s List.  I’m not a fan of Angie’s List, simply because it’s a subscription service.  If it were free, I’d love it.  They’ve built something that’s clearly valuable to their users — and they’ve focused their brand admirably, defining it around home services.

Again, though, Angie’s List isn’t about helping your real-world friends.  It’s mostly a community of cooperating strangers who share ratings because they understand the value of the site’s virtuous circle.  There’s an implicit quid pro quo.

Both Yelp and Angie’s List have powerful models.  Loladex aims to tap many of the same motivations; we’d be silly not to.  But mainly we’re about recommendations from your friends.  We’re trying to bring this everyday personal interaction into your online world.

OK, so much for the theory.  How’s the “help a friend” strategy working for us, specifically on Facebook?

To be honest, it’s a learning experience.

More in Part 2. 

The hardest part of being an entrepreneur?

People have been asking me this question lately.  My honest answer is: Being bone-tired but not yielding to sleep.

Not like I’ve never been tired before: We have four kids, after all.  But this is a new level, a new test of my will.

Every evening, for instance, I put my youngest daughter to bed.  We sit on the floor of her room and I read her stories.  She’s a toddler, so these are picture books: Maisy, Kipper, etc.

Most days, this is the first time I feel a sense of relaxation.  And that’s all it takes.  My guard is down, and I fall asleep sitting there.  My daughter wanders off, and I don’t snap back to life until she starts bugging one of her siblings.

Then comes the hard part: Realizing that the night is young.  After family time, and time with my wife, looms another shift at work.

I guess that’s what Red Bull is for.  Except I don’t drink it.