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Slide's Levchin on self-expression 2.0, and engagement tricks

We’ve come a long way from scribbled x’s and o’s and characters that form little smiley faces. We’re even eons beyond e-cards from Blue Mountain, and yellow-faced emoticons. The current lingua franca of self-expression and communication is poking, nudging and winking. Slide is adding to this vocabulary with kicking, slapping, proposing, and throwing sheep - aka Superpoking. As Max Levchin, CEO and founder of Slide, said to me in this second-part interview, SuperPoke apps are “literary emoticons,” and basically the Hallmark Cards of this century. (Click here for the 1st part of our interview: How Slide plans to make a profit.

Slide is a social entertainment media company that’s attracted some 170 million unique visitors, sharing bits and pieces of themselves in a photo slide, or images with personalized graffiti. Think virtual scrapbooks gone haywire! But it's the SuperPoke (among other aimless apps) that's become one of Slide’s biggest viral applications, probably because of the simplicity of the action and mindset required. It doesn't take much thinking to fling a sheep when you're bored. 

On the San Francisco-based Slide platform, thousands of SuperPokes can often be measured in thousands-per-second. According to Max, more than 10,000 pokes were sent per second on Valentine's Day. And, McDonald’s wanted to run a campaign, called "Flip a burger with... " to connect people who may have flipped burgers together in their youth.

It’s a dizzying set of mind-boggling activities on the face of it. But the fact that people actively contact one another through such mindless sentiments shouldn’t surprise anyone. People – subconsciously or not - are constantly promoting themselves, or at the least, actively trying to be acknowledged. When I asked Max why people do what they do on Slide he said simply because they want to be noticed. “I’m really cool. In fact, I’m so cool, you should notice me and here’s my story,” he said, describing the motivation of his users. “That’s what we enable. At a very basic level, that’s what we help them do.”

Indeed, people want to be enabled to express themselves. And, it’s not that difficult these days to do so when you don’t have to handle the intricacies of editing tools and technology, such as a 35 mm camera (to the dismay of Eastman Kodak and Fuji Film).

In a recent Sanford Bernstein report, analyst Craig Moffett writes that the next major movie studio will be UGC – user-generated content.” He pointed to a recent eMarketer report that predicts “over the next 5 years, up to half of all Internet users will be posting their own movies, photographs, etc.”

Of course, quantity is one thing, quality is another. When you count up the plethora of post-its and scraps of mementos in your desk drawers, and add up the many digital images lost and forgotten in the gazillion digital cameras or phones you have, etc. – the inventory of personal production goes through the roof. Anyone can make a movie by fusing all these together. On social networks, the act of producing or creating is even more robust because of the simple nature of the creativity or contribution required.

As one person said to me the forms of expression online, particularly in social networks, are akin to modern-day bumper stickers, or personalized license plates. Indeed, as Max points out, the reason that 10% of Slide users create most of the content for the other 90% to view is that the content on Slide is easy to create. It’s a lot harder to create or add value to a Wikipedia article, he said. While 10% doesn't seem high, about 1% of the visitors to Wikipedia create two-thirds of the content. 

Why they stick around

Even more fascinating than how people express themselves is how that expression drives an audience. The phenomenon with applications made for social networks is their viral nature. Products couldn’t be viral unless they compelled and engaged people to take action and participate. To me that was the most interesting question I had for Max, after all, Slide - for all intents and purposes - was a lot like Film Loop back in 2005. They both had the same goal. One survived and one didn't. (Watch my interview with Max on lessons he's learned and why he thinks Slide won over Film Loop.) 

How do you keep people constantly engaged, given their fickle nature, and demands on their time?

As Max sees it, the lifespan of a social network is about 2.5 years. First Friendster ushered in this notion of a “social network,” giving way to MySpace and then Facebook. To this end, as far as he can tell, the stickiness of an application or network has more to do with the enablement of collaboration than it does with creation, paritucarly creation of a mere profile.

When friends or people contribute, they essentially create a new kind of shared experience, with much more meaning than the original piece of content on its own. That content is then enhanced to the point that the original creator and contributors cannot walk away with the same product. To this end, social networks consisting of profiles that live in isolation are of no value.  “The value of images dissipate quickly,” said Max.

Indeed, recently I moved to a new home, and realized that the boxes of sentimental “stuff” I used to collect is now mostly digital. For the past three years or so, my life has been pretty much documented online. And, there’s so much of it that I don’t really know, and more often than not, don’t care if I ever find it again. It can be stuck on a social network, or on a computer forever. Why - because I can create new memories.

But memories created with other contributions may be tougher to walk away from.

Content shelf-life aside, the bigger challenge for Max is convincing Madison Avenue that regardless of the shelf life of such content, the "activity" or engagement is worth being in front of. To this end, demonstrating that people will engage for several hours on mindless activities is as relevant as them tuning into a show. The trick is capturing that engagement and defining what is relevant engagement. According to Max, his team follows about 200 interactions, including how many people sign on as a "fan" for a widget.

It's a lot of data to capture, and certainly far more sophisticated than just counting up an audience of passive viewers. It's a lot of actions to capture, but maybe worth it.

No longer will x's and o's and smiley faces sent be just be a personal matter. Max is looking to monetize your feelings.

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