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More Buzzing About Firefly
Jun 30, 1997 :: Michael Sippey

Sunday morning I picked up the New York Times, flipped to the Magazine section and sped through "The Buzz About Firefly," by Daniel Lyons.

Sunday afternoon I walked down my Oakland street to buy a bouquet of flowers for an impromptu dinner party. In line ahead of me was Douglas Rushkoff, author of the new cyberscene satire "Ecstasy Club: A Novel."

These two events are not unrelated.

Lyons' piece was extremely enjoyable -- not only for the full page photo of Max Metral, Firefly's 24-year old chief of technology, wearing a combination dunce cap/king's crown, but also for the way Lyons refused to talk down to his readers. The Times has made some colossal net journalism blunders lately, and it was refreshing to read a piece that took the technology -- and the people behind it -- seriously.

For drama's sake, Lyons opened and closed the piece with the one thing that keeps Metral up at night -- the constant "buy, bundle or bury" threat posed by Microsoft. Even though it's not news, it's still a bracing thing to read in a mainstream publication. Most major newsweeklies are content to run occasional profiles of Bill, or musings by Nathan, or "human interest" stories on Paul, "the other billionaire." Few talk about the chill Microsoft's dominance has put on the rest of the software industry.

Unfortunately, the more pedestrian -- and more pressing -- issues facing Firefly are dealt with as checklist items in the body of the piece. Are websites really willing to shell out $25,000 to $150,000 for their software? Are consumers really willing to be collaboratively filtered, day in and day out? Can Firefly build a sustainable revenue stream? It's these issues that Firefly needs to focus on, in order to avoid at least the "bury" threat from Redmond.

Firefly understands probably better than anyone on the net that information publishers supported by advertising are in two businesses at once. The first business is providing content that readers find compelling enough to come back to day after day, week after week, month after month. The second business is selling advertisers the opportunity to put their message in front of those readers. And that they do so based on the metadata of their subscribers -- age, income, education level, geographic location, extracurricular interests, etc.

From the perspective of the publisher or the advertiser, Firefly is a godsend. As Lyons points out in his piece, publishers can extract higher advertising rates for groups of readers that are aggregated and targeted based on their tastes in music, movies, books, food, websites, etc. Advertisers who want to reach a Gap poster child who listens to Tortoise, Sugar and John Adams, reads David Foster Wallace and Don DeLillo fanatically, and loved Grosse Pointe Blank can do so -- with pinpoint accuracy.

Good for them. What about the rest of us...you know, the users? Why haven't we flocked to Firefly in droves? Why aren't we checking Firefly's BigNote and Filmfinder every morning for freshly filtered lists of music and movies to check out?

Lyons article attributes Firefly's lack of meteoric success to fear: fear of lost privacy, fear of an out of control digital alter ego and fear of the lack of a "social contract" on the Internet.

But I don't think fear has anything to do with it. I think the real reason is buried somewhere in this quote from Firefly tech chief Metral. "All we're doing," said Metral, "is recreating the process by which people go about getting word-of-mouth recommendations from their friends, except that we're doing it in a community where there are hundreds of thousands, or even millions, of people."

All they're doing, in other words, is solving a problem that people don't have.

Take books, for example. Barnes and Noble is reportedly launching their Firefly-enabled book recommendation service today. The site will suggest books to you based your previously rated books, matched against the ratings of thousands of other book lovers. While books seem to be a nice application of Firefly technology, there's something that doesn't click for me. People that are "active readers" seek books out. They have a stack of books in the queue, sitting on the nightstand. And that queue has been recommended by a well cultivated network of friends and colleagues. Meanwhile, people that are "passive readers" read what's on the bestseller list. Or they read what their neighbor recommended. Or what's on the front table at the real world Barnes and Noble.

So, while it's "neat," no one really needs the Firefly functionality at Barnes and Noble. Except, of course, Barnes and Noble itself, to help deliver highly targeted marketing messages. It's another strain of the OEM problem I described last week; the perfect business model won't buy you much more than a cup of coffee (or a profile in the New York Times) unless you're focusing on the needs of the end user.

Having said that, I still feel that Firefly has an impressive set of technology -- even if, as Lyons reported, Microsoft thinks they could duplicate it "in a week." But instead of focusing on the "sexy" media products (books, movies, music, websites), they should train their sights on things that are a bit more mundane, but that might turn into actual revenue streams. For one, how about transforming the Firefly network into an engine of friction-free electronic commerce by combining personal agent technology with a classified ad system. Or why not let loose the collaborative filters on Wall Street, and turn the equity analysis industry on its head.

Currently, Firefly is selling their software to customers who derive only indirect benefit from the technology. Publishers and merchandisers get benefit only if their readers find the system useful enough to log onto regularly. Instead, Firefly needs to focus on a simpler model...one where their customer derives direct benefit from the technology.

Which brings me back to Douglas Rushkoff at the flower shop. While our paths have crossed only once before (at last fall's Cool Site of the Year awards he introduced the category in which theobvious was nominated), we probably have just enough in common -- an interest in technology and popular culture -- to trigger a similarity event in a Firefly database. But the influence he had on me at that particular moment was much more direct... He picked out such a wonderful bunch of flowers (blue and white irises, sunflowers, assorted greens), that when my turn came up I was simply able to turn to the salesperson and say "I'll have the same thing he had."

 

 

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