May 15

The Rot of Pop-Intellectualism

I just read an academic paper for the first time in 6-7 years(?). It was a pretty refreshing experience. Which is something I never, ever thought I would say. It occurred to me how much post-degree learning has changed in the past 10 years. (I’ve been calling it pop-intellectualism.)

At the risk of sounding like a crotchety bastard, 10 years ago…
– Everyone wasn’t an expert on Medium.
– Life’s insights were not packaged into 15-minute TED talks.
– If you built on someone’s work, you referenced it.
– You were required to show evidence before making vast proclamations across spacetime.

As we rushed to package intelligence for consumption, it feels like the pursuit of knowledge has become hollow. This seems especially prevalent in the realm of psychology, economics, and behavioral studies spread across the disciplines.

My guess is that this started with the big publishing houses; after Malcolm Gladwell’s Tipping Point ripped through the charts, things have never been the same. Every book of this stripe knew it had to make their reader instantly intellectual. These books weren’t about opening up the larger questions of life for debate, they were about packaging ideas so people could ‘win at dinner’.

It followed soon into print media. Magazines were forced to re-factor to be more digestible, more glance-able. They had to compete with the web; long articles were so boring. I remember reading the Harvard Business Review in it’s original form. Every article was a death sentence to get through. Today, it’s hard to distinguish it from Fast Company.

And then even digital media fell. we can no longer read through three pages on the web, it’s not better to have a ‘listicle’. (Which is a word that I still can’t believe exists in the vernacular.)

To be fair, 10 years ago learning about life beyond academic resources sucked. This explains the current state of things; we got exactly what we asked for. Intellectualism is a packaged product.

It feels like we raced for an alternative, but on the way we lost something important. It pains me to say this, but the rigor of academia is important for our culture. Yes, research texts can be more accessible, but we lack anything of their rigor on the open web.

I feel like we’re reaching such a collective overload of broad information, I wonder if well-packaged, deep, cross-referenced research could be a thing soon. Stranger things have happened.

Jul 13

The Art of Savoring

I spent this weekend working with the Director’s Fellows at the MIT Media Lab. It’s an amazingly diverse group of people united by a passion for making things that make the world better. Each Fellow is working with the Lab on a different project that hopes to create impact in the world. Among the projects, there’s learning through fashion, new approaches to maker spaces, smashing together humor and technology, and a project that will help people atone for violent crimes. It’s an understatement to say that it’s an extremely inspiring group.

As we were working on the ideas and directions for the Fellow’s projects this weekend, one of the Fellows, Geetha Narayan, made a comment that stopped me cold.  Referring to the way we bounce madly around in our lives, she noted…

We are driven by a culture of immediacy.
How can we create experiences we can savor?

Consider for a moment how much our need for progress and satisfaction informs the way we live our lives and what we choose to create. We live in a world that despises waiting. But this also has us often with our body in the present and our mind somewhere else. Geetha’s comment strikes me as a massively important observation, both as a life principle and a design principle.

As a life principle, it’s advice for the world we’ve created for each other. (And I’m terrible about this.) We’re all creatures of endless options and immediate satisfaction. If we aren’t particularly interested with a certain pursuit, we’re immediately on to the next thing. But in this frenetic pursuit of happiness, I wonder if we’re leaving enough space to learn about ourselves? I love the challenge of savoring an experience. It’s not consuming more and more. It’s not about riding the roller coaster over and over. It’s about experiencing something, then reflecting and considering how it affected you. Like sipping good wine and pausing to consider how the chemistry of the drink has altered the feeling in your mouth.

As a design principle, it seems equally powerful. In this case, the idea of savoring becomes and invitation, not an obligation. Instead of always designing for progress and forward flow, you build moments for people to pause. (I’ve heard service designers refer to these moments as eddies, referring to the swirls that happen on the side of a riverbank.) Premium services know how to incorporate the idea of savoring. High-end markets will sample ingredients and share its story. Great hotels have a knock for suspending the idea of time upon arrival; bags disappear and attendants have you relax while they arrange your room. These moments encourage you to break your pace, breathe and consider where you are.

Today, it feels like a small victory to hold people’s attention long enough to create a meaningful moment. Geetha’s comment had me wondering how to savor more, and it’s an inspiration to create services that inspire the same. I don’t mean to rally against progress; building an interconnected world that moves faster each day is just a reality. But we’re responsible for the future we create. I’m  wondering if we don’t design a little more savoring into our lives, if we’ll flow effortlessly through more and more frictionless experiences, we’ll end up slipping memoryless through our lives. 

Jun 13

Rebirth of the Newsletter

After a week of vacation (which was excellent), I needed to go through the normal re-entry of catching up on all the emails I had missed in my absence. In the middle of the missives, it dawned on me how many newsletters I read. (I think I counted twenty from the last week?!?) They aren’t sales or promotions; those get spam-hammered immediately. These newsletters were from friends (or services) that I actually look forward to, and the fact they arrive as emails was actually really helpful, (better than just another piece of content floating on the internet.) Now, I can read the letter when I have time, and I’ll only have to go to the web if I find something interesting (and since it’s from a friend, chances are it will be.)

The greater internet (for me) is sort of a nightmare at the moment. It’s hard to find much that’s worthwhile. That which is interesting is usually crowded out by behemoth paid-by-the word, advertising-driven sites. I used to use the internet to find refuge from reality television, until the internet also became reality television.  I just can’t do deep internet trawls anymore, but I very rely (and need) the web to serve up new inspirations and constantly help me reframe my world. (It’s actually why i’m so addicted to the information super highway.)

A good read is tough to find, (that which is valuable is rarely plentiful.) There’s a certain amount of hunt-and-gather that has always been the nature of the web. And as dorky as they are, RSS readers are excellent here (RIP Google Reader). Unfortunately, for me the stories I’d rather read are buried beneath sites counting down the top 10/20/50 best whatevers, with every entry serving up a new round of ads. (The latest in ad-driven internet crack.)

Good content usually doesn’t live off ads, and it’s usually hidden deep in the niche, (the more different from your normal routine, the harder it is to find.) That content has a point of view and stirs something inside you. It inspires, or provokes, or has you seeing things you would have never seen. You can usually spot “good content” because it has a shelf-life. It’s worth reading/discussing several days/weeks after it’s published.

WIth that obvious rant out-of-the-way, here’s few newsletters I’m loving lately in-case you’re so inclined….

  • Just Another Crowd by Sean Bonner – technology, anti-establishment, and antagonism from my favorite misanthrope.
  • The Ann Freeman Weekly – #realtalk about journalism, feminism, and spirit animals.
  • Tuesday Ten by Rosie Simon – The best of current culture, social media stunts, etc.
  • Percolate Daily Brew – Five of the top articles suggested daily based on my Twitter feed (and their algorithm for weighting/rating content is *excellent*.) Not sure they support consumer web accounts anymore (pivot), but it looks like I can invite people; email me if interested.
  • Quibb Daily – Quibb filters content to you based on your Twitter feed, (I wrote about them here previously.) It’s a great service, I just wish their audience had a little wider aperture (It’s mostly tech start-ups, VC blogs, 23-year-old know-it-all’s, etc….which I’m worn-thin on at the moment.) Still, I scan the newsletter daily and always find something I’m glad I saw.

I’m definitely on the hunt for inspired newsletters…if you have any favorites; email me, please. (I ended up closing the comments on this blog…the constant spam attacks were too much. (Death of the blog comment is another trend for another time.))

Apr 13

The Future: Near & Far

I was catching up with David Cranor today. He’s one of the smarty-pants people who helped bring the Form 1, and we had a great chat. David’s been hanging out in Shenzhen, marveling at the ecosystem that’s emerging there from all the high-tech manufacturers existing in such close proximity. We were sort of just chatting about China, Google Glass and whatever when he made this offhand comment that really struck me. He said

It’s really easy to predict the far-future, but it’s really hard to predict the near-future.

He’s dead on, and that thought caused a lot of things to line up for me. Technology has always accelerated our environment. But the changes in the past ~10 yrs have actually created a space between what is emerging (near-future) and what is true change (far-future). This is a powerful distinction for me because it (rightly) implies we have a few problems when we bring new ideas into the world. We have near-future problems, which mostly hinge on behavior and adoption. And we have far-future problems, which are more about scale, economics and competition. And as the saying implies; if you cant create a near-future, you have no shot at a far-future. 

The Near-Future
As David rightly stated, it’s really hard to figure out which ideas people will adopt in the short-term. We each live such a full existence, we’re regularly trading experiences. And we have endless ideas vying for our attention. At this point, you’re off better asking what someone would trade for your experience rather than understanding if you have a “good idea”…it’s all relative. I feel like this competition for  attention (and affection) is one of the reasons design has become such a powerful tool in such a short period of time. To survive the near-future, things have to be engaging, they have to be easy. These are the new table stakes. 

The Far-Future
The far-future is a different set of problems. It’s about scaling an idea and learning at a much bigger scale. If you’ve exist in the space, you can use your scale to bend the will of the world (for a short time, anyway…think airlines and mobile phone companies.) Sometimes we miss the near-future for the far-future because certain ideas just seem inevitable (like robots, as @Faris pointed out on Twitter.) For things to bridge to the far-future, you have to build some sort of on-ramp through the near-future. Amazon is a great example of this, Netflix may me one. 

These are not new problems, but I’m interested that the pace of our lives may be separating what once seemed like one problem into two distinct spaces. Either way, it’s a helpful framework to understand which problem you’re solving; interest/adoption or scale/competition.

Apr 13

The Evolution of Social Filtering

So this morning, I started playing around with Quibb (w/some help from Andrew Weissman – thnx Andrew.) I’ve not spent lots of time with the service, but very quickly it had me thinking about how we filter content online, and how we’ve evolve to this point. I think Quibb might be on to a big idea, but they have a little bit to go before it’s realized (and I write this with patience and respect). It’s hard to have a vision, build a team, write software, and scale the whole circus to a real-deal offering. But I saw a few things today that inspired me, so I’ll try to point them out. (And apologies, heavy nerding ahead.)

Evolution of Social News
So, we’ve been collectively taking stabs at curating content on the web for around 15-16 years now, according to this Wikipedia article (which isn’t a bad recount). I would basically break everything down into a few phases…

  • Static-Curation – The early days when the editors of a site would decide which articles are featured over the whole body of content.
  • Crowd-Curation – This is the era of Digg.com & Reddit where we rely on the crowd writ large. We start to up-vote/down-vote, content placement becomes dynamic.
  • Social-Curation – At this point we lose faith in the larger crowd for meaningful curation, and we start to hook our wagons to the social graph (courtesy of the Facebook API.) 
  • Portal-Curation – Realizing the social graph doesn’t really provide much excitement, we lean on portals like Tumblr and Pintrest to show us the darker corners of the web. It’s an evolution because we start following content-specific curators, but it’s best for bite-sized content (mostly images, and quotes.) 
  • Participatory-Curation – I think we’re edging into this. Built on a graph of curators and a mechanism for conversation, we start to filter news we’ll be interested with a place to for discussion (probably in the portal over the site). So it feels like Digg/Reddit, but the underlying curation focuses the conversation (and cuts down on the content gaming that killed Digg). We’ll take responsibility for fashioning the curatorial lens that filters all this. (We used to filter by domains, now we filter by people…Twitter taught us this.) 
Exhausted by Social
So, as I pointed out in a recent post, I’m pretty convinced that the initial emotions that drove the growth of the social web are different than the emotions that have sustained it. In the beginning, we found friends we hadn’t heard from in years. And, much like our first experiences on the web, these were very human moments. There was a sense of this great big world that we were connecting to (again.) As social scaled, things changed. Because our search results, our news feeds, our preferences drove everything, we ended up with too much of the same thing.
It’s new/old saw that Facebook is a where you follow your actual friends, and Twitter is the where you follow the people you hope to be friends with. This becomes really important when you deal with curation. Beyond daily news, we read the content from people we aspire to be. So it’s only right that Twitter (or some similar graph) is a better curator. But Twitter as a service is the river Nile – too huge to digest, too fast to keep up.
Participatory Curation
So, we’re at this interesting point where we haven’t (collectively) figured out a way to get great content without it being a big stream of the obvious. If you devour news online right now, there is no killer app; we all have a series of hacks. (Which is partially why so many people are upset about Google Reader dying; it was platform to hack together your own graph of curators.) We’re looking for something that gets us to interesting, surprising content, and probably something beyond the bigger news portals. In many ways the mechanism that killed the front page of physical newspapers is killing the standard news portals of the web. In a phrase; if news is important it will find me.
To get there, I think we need each other. I don’t think we’ll find interesting news through algorithms, I think we’ll have to help each other find the zeitgeist using our human sensibilities. We have a sixth-sense for online culture, and we know the moment a meme is over-played. We also know know that magic moment when the random becomes brilliant. So I think the two mechanics that point us toward the next phase are (simply) curation and voting. Not a flooring statement, but follow me.
Quibb and where (I hope) it’s heading.
So Quibb provoked all this reflection out of a very simple mechanism. (If you use Path, you’ll recognize it.) As it lists articles, it indicates who in your graph has seen the article, and that looks like this:
So, here you see an listing where someone has posted an article of interest, and below the article you’ll see who’s read the article, (in and outside my graph.) Much like a true network diagram, I only need to know one person in that group for it to appear in my feed; that person is my gateway to this content.
This is beginning to hint at what I’m referring to as participatory curation. Quibb shows content from people I care about, but (today) it’s only tracking their clickstream. I think if Quibb evolved this curation to ask people to flag/recommend content, it gets pretty powerful. Then I’m getting the equivalent of LongReads from my aspirational crowd. I care about these people, and they are telling me the content they care about. From this you’ll create a very compelling content stream. In that moment, we’ve individually mined the corners of the web and collectively shared the best pieces with each other. And what binds us in this new moment will be the same emotion that has bound us before technology, our shared interests. 
Good luck Quibb.

Feb 13

Luck & the Network

(Note: This is a piece is part of a larger exploration I’m working on around serendipity. You can find all the articles here.)

It would be impossible to explore serendipity and not spend a lot of time thinking about networks. Even subjectively, we equate people’s connectedness to be an indicator of their good fortune. As you might guess, this is only part of the story. I’m learning that there are some surprising elements of how networks actually foster better conditions for serendipity, here’s a few.

Strong and Weak Ties
So, as is pretty well documented, networks are made up of strong and weak ties. To understand how these ties play with serendipity, it’s good to think about what sort of data flows they facilitate. Strong ties are the deeper relationships that exist in your life. It’s likely that you have similar values as your strong ties, and that they might connect you to new opportunities. As Reid Hastings recently blogged, “if you’re looking for opportunity, you’re really looking for people.”

When we’re searching for serendipity (which is different than opportunity), it turns out strong ties might not be as helpful as weak ties. Because of the redundancy, they become a bad place to look for new stimulus. For serendipity, the weak ties are much more valuable as they’re likely to contain a less considered point of view, or a divergent thought.

As a side note: Through this lens on networks, the design process and the view on serendipity are almost identical. If you want new ideas and inspiration, go to a place you would never expect; you’re looking for extreme examples of style. If you stay with familiar sources of inspiration, it’s going to be very hard to move past previous thought.

For fun, LinkedIn has a great app that visualizes your network based on the connections you’ve created in their service. It’s pretty interesting to see the major grouping and the proportions in your connections.

The Myth of the Maven
One of the more interesting stories I came across in my research was this story of a Yahoo researcher disproving Malcolm Gladwell’s maven concept set forth in his famous Tipping Point text. In 2008, Duncan Watts published a paper that proved that it wasn’t actually a small, powerful group of influencers in that encouraged massive change. The masses basically adopted something when they collectively wanted it.

While this is unfortunate for Gladwell, it leads us to this reminder that networks themselves have a preference, and they collectively filter and promote. In the infancy of the net, it was predicted that one day we would have a great collective discourse that would drive change. Sadly, this never happened, the networks propensity to act as a hive mind leaves us more polarized than curious. So given the limits of our own networks it becomes important to work across many desperate networks.

When we think about how networks filter for content, we’ll do better spending time where there’s a large amount of anonymity and the community acts as a meritocracy. With these principles, you’re dialing down the social influencers and dialing up the influencers based on their ideas. Dribbble, Pinterest, and Svpply are sort of designed to function this way; they allow people to navigate content based on weak ties and function largely on merit (rather than influence.) So these are digital examples that encourage serendipity. While Eric Schmitt is known for referring to Google as a “serendipity engine“, I can’t agree – there’s been so much work to refine and hone that search algorithm, you won’t walk away with anything except exactly what you were looking for.

Growth through Steroids
As we think about how technology is changing how we experience serendipity, one of the first places my mind goes is this explosive growth in our networks. It’s distorting the way we think about the people we know. Casual connections become recorded into permanence as technology helps us track everything.

We’ve blown way past Dunbar’s number of 150 (at least in our online friend metrics.) And thanks to Facebook, the six-degrees of separation is down to 4.74. Beyond the connections, these networks have become social spectacle in their own right as we track each other’s relationships and careers. And as tacit concepts like networks become more explicit, taking on different roles in our lives, we begin to use them for different purposes and distort some of the underlying principles. (See: Klout.com)

Final Thoughts
There’s a consistent “inversion theme” running through most of this research. The things I perceive to be the most important aren’t usually as impactful as what initially appear to be edge pieces. While the network is an important deciding factor of what you experience, what is convenient doesn’t really seem to yield what you hope (the network has an inbred opinion.)

To combat all this, you have to have the natural curiosity to find new inspiration that fuels this recombination that births serendipity. Also, to actively work with serendipity and force new collision means that you always have to work with the meta level; how/why you’re solving the problem you’re working on is as important as the actual problem you solve…

Feb 13

Exploring vs. Committing

(Note: This is a piece is part of a larger exploration I’m working on around serendipity. You can find all the articles here.)

Most of us are pretty familiar with the trade-off that exists between exploring new ideas and committing to a defined direction. We might feel anxiety when it’s time to stop entertaining new ideas and start deciding on a concept to build. There might be this nagging feeling that maybe we hadn’t gotten a great idea so we weren’t going to have a great concept.

The tension between exploring and committing is a big part of understanding serendipity. I had assumed that exploration would have been the favored state. You know, remain really flexible, digest tons of ideas, mixing and mashing them all together until you experience this glowing moment where the heavens open up wit this unbelievable idea. (Yah….ok.)

This whole explore forever mode actually turns out to be the worst path to serendipity, luck happens better through commitment. At the heart of serendipity is this act of recombination; you’re remixing ideas and experiences in your head and in your conversations with others. Through this process you’ll begin to see new patterns and insight. So, as it goes, if every idea you consider is flashy, new and unconnected, it will be hard to see something different in the whole. There is value to stewing in things a little bit. 

Commit and Create
Beyond recombining ideas, it turns out that committing to an idea has a powerful force on your environment. Instead of evaluating everyone else’s ideas, you become a beacon for your own. Lane Becker and Thor Muller lay it out perfectly in their book Get Lucky*:

Commitment, an essential skill of planned serendipity, involves organizing ourselves around an overriding purpose. Commitment means having a point of view that’s so strong and expressed so powerfully that it actually transforms the environment around us. In turn, our commitment stirs up latent desires and intentions in those who work with us, inspiring in them the conviction they need to act on those intentions in situations where they otherwise might not have. When we are fully committed we serendipitously run into things already on our path and recognize opportunities uniquely suited to us, even as others miss these opportunities completely.

This sort of blew my mind. It’s completely obvious, yet the nuance is important. In the past, I’ve written about the power of committing to an idea. But I had argued for commitment in order to psych yourself up for a gnarly challenge, or work through a problem by sketching your ideas. I hadn’t considered how much committing might help shape your environment, which is such a powerful idea. It’s human nature for people want to help others, and this type of commitment plays right into our best intentions. Herein lies the power of co-working spaces, meet-ups, communities of all sorts. Life has the chance to become a self-fulfilling prophecy of the best kind.

The Perils of the Pivot
So along with just understanding how serendipity might occur, I’m trying to think about how our rapidly changing environment might change the way we experience serendipity. You can probably see where this is going. If we can build and test ideas faster than ever could this rob us of the opportunity that a longer-term commitment affords us?

The tech start-up world is littered with these stories of companies who pivoted to brilliant ideas, and we don’t often here the stories of the unsuccessful pivot (mostly because the company didn’t live to tell the tale.) Choosing to explore an idea or commit to a direction is an important question to return to often. It’s also important to not overlook how much a bold commitment might create more opportunities than endless exploration.   

*Muller, Thor; Becker, Lane (2012-03-09). Get Lucky: How to Put Planned Serendipity to Work for You and Your Business 

Feb 13

Dissecting Serendipity

(For the next few posts I’m going be sorting through some thoughts on Serendipity. I proposed a panel around the topic because it seemed like a good way to force myself to dig deeper into the idea. You can find all the articles here.)

Where to begin?
Serendipity is a difficult idea to wrestle with. On the surface, it’s a fortuitous turn of events that leads to an unexpected outcome. The mechanics that create this turn of events are much more nuanced and complicated that you might expect. The existence of serendipity is indisputable, yet it’s occurrence is unpredictable. So much of our behaviors and culture are built on the idea of serendipity, it’s probably worth digging a little deeper. (There is that idea of blind luck, like buying a winning lottery ticket, but that’s not what we’re after here.)

To plow an even field through this topic, it’s probably best to begin at the beginning (sorry). I’ll spare you the etymology and the story about the Princes of Serendip, though I might be the first (almost every piece I’ve read has yet to resist it.)

The Definition
On the analytic side of things, serendipity is a collision in your mind that requires three main ingredients; pre-existing knowledge, behaviors that encourage you to see new patterns, and, most importantly, stimulus that reframes what you’ve known to see something new. An over-simplified equation it might look like this (my apologies to the field of graphic design).


There is an ocean of nuance in each of the pieces of this equation, but these seem to be the main tenants. I’ll dig into the nuance later, but this diagram helps me organize a lot of the axioms around serendipity. First, it builds off what you know. (Which means experiencing serendipity is completely personal; no one organizes all his or her knowledge in the same way.) Second, certain behaviors better prepare you to recognize or invite serendipity. Finally, it’s triggered by an unanticipated experience; so we can’t predict when it will happen, we can only prepare in hopes that it might happen.

At the heart of serendipity is idea of recombination; taking what we thought we know and adding additional inspiration to reframe what we know. In this moment, we might find new insight from past thoughts or a new avenue of exploration. Ironically, because this reframing seems to play on some singular mind chemistry, serendipity isn’t a group experience. But, without the collective to inspire new thoughts, serendipity would be almost impossible.

Beyond the Definition
After we dissect the idea of serendipity into its working parts, it’s really interesting to think about the more spiritual side of the idea. It’s one of those ideas that exists through the magic of who we are as humans and how we learn about our world. To prepare for serendipity invites some of our best human qualities. We need to be insatiably curious, optimistic, diligent, and weather a bit of blind faith – these are the lenses that encourage us to find new perspectives.

Through this research, I’ve found that the process people use to prepare for serendipity is very similar to a design process. Great designers steep their minds in a problem and, through their creative process, tease out something beyond what they knew. They prompt themselves with different stimuli, they share their directions which shapes their environment. They don’t know the end when they begin. Both of these processes invite us to learn and experiment with the intention of arriving at a new idea.

Roger Martin has written about the idea of an opposable mind. He describes an ability in successful leaders to hold conflicting ideas in tension, refusing to let a single idea prevail. (Not surprisingly, artists and designers also work in tensions.) Preparing for serendipity really requires us to navigate tensions in a similar way. To invite Serendipity, we’re asked to…

  • Commit to a direction yet remain spontaneous to new opportunities.
  • Lose ourselves in the problem while retaining some mental distance from the work. 
  • Become an expert in our field while finding patterns outside our industry. 

So this is what I’m working through; I’d love to hear *any* thoughts and reactions. There is no shortage of research and books in this area. I’ll try to note/publish everything I’ve encountered and reference the thinking where I’ve found it. Beyond understanding how to prepare for serendipity, I’m especially interested in its parallels to the design process. I’m also curious in how the way we approach serendipity might be changing in our very connected world (this later interest is the subject of the panel I mentioned at the beginning.)

Jul 12

Designing for the Echo Chamber

Ok, this is the piece I wanted to write when I started my last post. The idea of the echo chamber isn’t new, but I wanted to work through a few things to figure out how to start tackling it.

So the biggest challenge in designing against the echo chamber seems to be that this phenomena is singular and personal. I could read an article that is duplicative and reinforces my own views, but it might be completely expansive for my very best of friends.

Countering this type of phenomena probably isn’t done completely programatically. We could filter to get you closer to things you might like, but filtering for content you probably won’t like but might respect enough to consider another point of view is close to impossible. To counter the echo chamber, we each need to find a personal balance in the content we consume. We can’t force people to take a balanced view on things, but you could show them that they haven’t seen enough to consider themselves balanced. So, I’ve been wondering what sort of monitoring tools could be use to help us find a better balance.

Some Inspiration
MediaRDI – At The Center for Civic Media (in the MIT Media Lab), Matt Stampeck and Ethan Zuckerman recently constructed a provocation around a balanced media diet. The idea is that there is a meta-story that puts the content we read into a larger context. Only when we have some sort of content can we understand for ourselves how balanced we are.

Percolate – Percolate is a really great recommendation service created by Noah Brier. The service uses your Twitter followers to suggest which content it thinks you will enjoy. It’s a very smart service, instead of just looking for the most linked content and serving it back to you, it has some analysis to understand what your network means to you. They’ve moved the marker on recommendation, (because the I’ve probably already seen the most linked content anyway). So by striving to put the network in context, the content created by your network gains more context. (If you haven’t, check out the service…the daily recommendation email is really amazing….and I never say that about computer generated email, trust me.)

Organizing Framework
Ok, so let’s put this echo chamber in some sort of context. It seems to generally occur when you’re reading too much of the same content from the same sources/network. Changing either of those aspects could help you along, finding content through new sources or possibly seeing content from a new network. (Pardon the 2X2, but I think it works.)


To understand where your content is coming from, we could start with your social network. Through your Facebook/Twitter stream we could know if content has been passed around your network. We could also even start to see a similarity among sources of content and the networks that consumer them. Media has become so fractionated, this may lend to this type of analysis; the fractions will probably cluster.

To understand the type of content people consume, you would probably operate through a browser plug-in. It would probably feel a little like the StumbleUpon plug-in, which (I think) keeps track of where you’ve been so it won’t send you to a similar destination. A little big brother-ish, but you could design it to be pretty transparent and not so creepy.

So, if we know the dynamics of your network and we know the content you consume, we can probably start to push into new content areas. We wouldn’t be able to know exactly the content, but we could know if it’s new for you (out of network) and if it’s resonating (high view count in other networks.)

If we wanted to ouch things further, through some pretty serious network analysis, you could start to understand content areas that are highly contested (ex. Arab Spring) because of the diversity of network sources that tackle 

So, if you could pull this off, you might interact with the user in a couple of ways…

Personal balance indicator
Some sort of indicator that there is some sort of polarizing content outside of their network. They’re reading one thing, but people outside of their network are reading very different sources. (This gets toward the Kony problem from the first post.) I played with a lot of clever icons, but for this purpose I just stuck with the smiley face; seems universal enough. If you’re viewing something where you’re balanced, either because you’ve read enough, or there is isn’t content outside your network, you get a smiley. If you’re reading a more polarized topic, you’ll get a frown and some suggestions of other content that (together with what you’ve read) will help you begin to balance your “media diet”.



Topic map
Imagine a user seeing that they haven’t seen a balanced set of content. They could also click through the “frown” to see a more holistic organization of content. 

Article map

There’s probably a more elegant way to get to here, this was just a thought experiment. It doesn’t seem like there’s much money in balancing content on the web, but it seems important for who we will become based on the content we consume.

It’s interesting that you almost have to build a representation of the universe to draw directions to get elsewhere. This is the part that feels a little wrong to me, understanding the ever-growing whole seems impossible & un-weblike. 

If you have other ideas, please add them in comments. 

Thanks for reading.

Jun 12

Education Through Deception

I happened upon this video via Russell Davies. You should watch it.

This video is important because we are all sitting on a massive shift toward online education, (I’m convinced of it.) The number of potential students in the world vastly out number the available teachers and the cost of education is skyrocketing. If you consider the number of mature adults who need to be retrained for new jobs the audience becomes even bigger. (sorry I don’t have statistics.)

There are institutions grappling with new cost models to deliver education given the continual cost of services. These institutions have two options, a) perform a self-surgery that reduces costs to a sustainable level or b) educate through cheaper, mass channels. This will be a Hobson’s choice; the latter is the only option.

The video linked above hints towards a big(ger) problem in online education; what got us here will not get us there. As we transition to an online learning channel, the methods that served us in an interpersonal method aren’t as effective in a distance method.

In the video, the moderator basically lays out two different education scenarios; one is a confirmation of what is known (similar to how we might have been taught in class room), the other a scenario constructed to deceive the viewer (to lull them into a learning moment.) After the learner is tricked into realizing there is more to be learned, they are open to learning. The multi-sensory environment of the classroom may have helped us learn this in the past, but in the future we’ll have to relay on new methods (this is just one).

As we transition to new mediums, we’ll deal with behaviors that struggle with the new context (hence the deception). Then as we move beyond moments interpersonal moments, we need to design for new learning moments. (and we should lean on metrics). 

We live in amazing times, and our new online mediums will not only help us educate masses, it will help us understand who leads better under what conditions. But the biggest thing to remember is that online learning will be nothing like the learning we’ve all received to this point. And (if we can get over ourselves) we’ll be all the better for it.