November 16, 2010

Quora:What lessons of Social Web do you wish had been better integrated into Yahoo?

On Quora, an anonymous user asked me the following question:

In hindsight, what lessons have you learned from the Social Web that you wish you had been more successful at integrating into Yahoo before you were let go?

I considered this question at length when composing this reply – this is probably the most thought-provoking question I’ve been asked to publicly address in months.

If you read any of my blog posts (or my recent book), you already  know that I’ve got a lot of opinions about how the Social Web works: I rant often about identity, reputation, karma, community management, social application design, and business models.

I did these same things during my time for and at Yahoo!

We invented/improved user-status sharing (what later became known as Facebook Newsfeeds) when we created Yahoo! 360° [Despite Facebook’s recently granted patent, we have prior art in the form of an earlier patent application and the evidence of an earlier public implementation.]

But 360 was prematurely abandoned in favor of a doomed-from-the-start experiment called Yahoo!Mash. It failed out of the gate because the idea was driven not by research, but personality. But we had hope in the form of the Yahoo! Open Strategy, which promised a new profile full of social media features, deeply integrated with other social sites from the very beginning. After a year of development – Surprise! – Yahoo! flubbed that implementation as well. In four attempts (Profiles, 360, Mash, YOS) they’d only had one marginal success (360), which they sabotaged several times by telling users over and over that the service was being shut down and replaced with inferior functionality. Game over for profiles.

We created a reputation platform and deployed successful reputation models in various places on Yahoo! to decrease operational costs and to identify the best content for search results and to be featured on property home pages [See: The Building Web Reputation Systems Wiki and search for Yahoo to read more.]

The process of integrating with the reputation platform required product management support, but almost immediately after my departure the platform was shipped off to Bangalore to be sunsetted. Ironically, since then the folks at Yahoo! are thinking about building a new reputation platform – since reputation is obviously important, and everyone from the original team has either left, been laid off, or moved on to other teams. Again, this will be the fourth implementation of a reputation platform…

Are you sensing a pattern yet?

Then there’s identity. The tripartite identity model I’ve blogged about was developed while at Yahoo an attempt to explain why it is brain-dead to ask users to reveal their IM name, their email address, and half their login credentials to spammers in order to leave a review of a hotel.

Again we built a massively scalable identity service platform to allow users to be seen as their nickname, age, and location instead of their YID. And again, Yahoo! failed to deploy properly. Despite a cross-company VP-level mandate, each individual business unit silo dragged their heels in doing the (non-trivial, but important and relatively easy) work of integrating the platform. Those BUs knew the truth of Yahoo! – if you delay long enough, any platform change will lose its support when the driving folks leave or are reassigned. So – most properties on Yahoo! are still displaying YIDs and getting up to 90% fewer user contributions as a result.

That’s what I learned: Yahoo! can’t innovate in Social Media. It has a long history in this, from Yahoo! Groups, which during my tenure had three separate web 2.0 re-designs, with each tossed on the floor in favor of cheap and easy (and useless) integrations (like with Yahoo! Answers) to Flickr, Upcoming, and Delicious. I’m sad to say, Yahoo! seems incapable of reprogramming its DNA, despite regular infusions of new blood. Each attempt ends in either an immune-response (Flickr has its own offices, and a fairly well known disdain for Sunnyvale) or assimilation and decreasing relevance (HotJobs, Personals, Groups, etc.).

So, in the end, I find I can’t answer the question. I was one of many people who tried to drive home the lessons of the social web for the entire time I was there. YOS (of which I helped spec in fall 2007) was the last attempt to reshape the company to be social through and through. But, it was a lost cause – the very structure of the environment is personality driven. When those personalities leave, their projects immediately get transferred to Bangalore for end-of-life support, just as much of YOS has been…

I don’t know what Yahoo! is anymore, but I know it isn’t inventing the future of social anything.

[As I sat through this years F8 developers conference, and listen to Mark Z describe 95% of the YOS design, almost 3 years later,  I knew I'd have to write this missive one day. So thanks for the prodding , Anonymous @ Quora]

Randy Farmer
Social Media Consultant, MSB Associates
Former Community Strategy Analyst for Yahoo!

[Please direct comments to Quora]

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