Mar 13

Breaking the Back of the Open Web

I was surprised and disappointed to see that Google announced it would sunset Google Reader by July of this year. I understand why; people aren’t using Reader like they used to, and the product is competitive with Google+. Still Google used RSS almost to its end, choking the life out of the protocol and tossing it aside. There a lesson here about how capitalism can run contrary to the online world we need to create. 

First, some history. So in the early part of the aughts/2000’s, we all saw the rise of RSS as more and more people started to blog. RSS gave us a light-weight means to quickly check a large number of sites to see if new content was available. It was quite successful and spawned a handful of RSS sites (Bloglines, etc) and desktop apps (NetNewsWire, etc). Through these feeder sites (and the elegance of RSS), we could have any web content we wanted pushed to us. We did our own curation, we did our own filtering, and we were able to truly get to the edges of the web – it was awesome. 

Soon Google joined the feeder fray launching Google Reader. As time passed, it became the dominant player in the game. Google created a compelling experience that seamlessly integrated with all their other apps. It had an open API so partners could build on top of the app; it was all very Googley. With this evolution, most websites couldn’t compete anymore, and desktop apps moved to integrate with Google Reader. Fast forwarding to today, Google Reader has a chokehold on most simple syndication feeds. Other content aggregators have resorted to some sort of smart filtering & curating.

Now, as Google sunsets Reader, most content aggregation will be done through curated feeds (G+ included). Until someone develops an alternative (they surely will), most people will be using filtered feed and these filtered feeds hide the new edges of the web. This pisses me off. I feel like we’re all slipping deeper into our own echo chambers. Google obliterated RSS, didn’t improve it, and left it for dead. It build Reader on the back of the open web, and now it’s discarding it to move to a more private, locked-down platform. 

This is not how we create a better online world for each other.

I’m sure that developers will breathe new life into simple syndication fast. (The underlying protocol isn’t complicated, and (ironically) open-source tools will help them build it.) Marco Arment already argued that this is the single best thing to happen to RSS. Digg also announced today that they would build a reader. So all is not lost. 

Still, this is a good lesson. RSS was an open protocol that could be resurrected after weathering the storms of creative destruction. Had RSS been patented by Google, we would have been left with a web worse off. It makes me think twice about sites that I use where I have no recourse or option to eject, (Facebook and Tumblr to name a few.) Funny thing is, I would have paid to use Google Reader, and I’ll probably pay to use some service as Reader goes away. 

If we only build a web that is meant to lock users in, serving ads to make money, we’re destroying the true potential of the web.

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.

Jul 12

Perils of the Echo Chamber

Lately, there’s been a lot of discussions about “echo chambers” in online media. The idea behind the phenomenon is we have so much content to navigate that we often end up consuming points that confirm what we believe and skipping content that might contradict our point of view. There is an irony in this abundance; the more content you have at your disposal, the less you’re exposed to a diversity of opinion.

The echo chamber is a product of our culture’s attempt to cope with content overload. We can now create content at such an overwhelming rate, we have the need for experiences that filter out the “noise” – search engines that displayed results only relevant to our needs or smart social platforms that distills the content we care about. After all, why would anyone want content they don’t care about?

The insidious thing about all this content filtering is that as we become more digitally connected, the act of filtering out this “noise” can make us more ideologically divided. On an individual level, we risk losing perspective and empathy for differing opinions. On a mass level, we begin to see a polarization of cultures who spend more time arguing/maneuvering around viewpoints rather than just generally pushing things forward, (see the current political climate.)

The recent KONY 2012 campaign seemed to be a really instructive moment around the echo chamber. Most people learned about Joseph Kony through an emotionally charged, extremely savvy video created by Invisible Children. The video was so popular, it saw tens of millions of views within a weeks of its release. The overwhelming attention of this video created a fever-pitch conversation that exposed other points of view. In this moment, we were all brought together to make sense of such a macabre and sensational story. As people began to reason through these different inputs, the echo chamber collapsed. There was a conversation of complicated, differing opinions and through it people formed their own opinions.

This is an moment we should be thankful for. This is a moment where we’re emotionally lead in one direction, only to realize that the story had been packaged for easy digestion and the reality isn’t so simple. In these moments illustrate how certain conveniences (filtering) can create new blind spots (echo chambers).

(part one of two posts…next up, designing against the echo chamber.)

Dec 10

Groupon Continued

Since my post on Groupon is one of the most read posts on this blog, I figured it was worth referencing a blog post from HBR last week. In his research, Utpal M. Dholakia found that almost half the businesses that attempted to use Groupon would not return because the service was attracting a type of customer they didn’t necessarily want. From his post:

In my study sample of 150 businesses that ran Groupon promotions between June 2009 and August 2010, 42% said they would not run a Groupon promotion again. Their main reasons were that a significant proportion of Groupon redeemers are extremely price sensitive, barely spending beyond a discounted product’s face value. Not surprisingly, repeat-purchase rates at full price were also low — just 13% — for these businesses.

It goes without saying that Groupon could definitely design to solve this problem, but it’s going to take a different perspective that they have now.

Dec 10

Grinding out Happpiness

I’ve been wondering what it is about social games that bug me – you know those massively addicting games like Farmville, Maffia Wars, and WeRule. There’s something really fascinating about how these interactions have captured the attention of social circles way beyond the web. It seems like everybody knows somebody whose mom is playing Farmville on Facebook. There’s something simultaneously brilliant and insidious going on in these games, and I think there’s a way to tweak the game design to unlock the good and bury the bad.

Most of the social games we’re seeing today are largely about ‘grind and reward’; you have to farm to get a currency (grind) and then you can trade currency for that little special something to show off to your friends (reward). The props are different, but the mechanics are largely the same. The games are really approachable because anyone with enough patience and tenacity can grind out goods, and the experience is satisfying because in some small way, you’re earned for that reward. In a society of complex tasks and relationships its satisfying the same way cleaning your house might be, or working in your yard. From a distance its mockable, but the experience is real. There are millions of people grinding on virtual farms and frontiers even as you read this. The rewards are satisfying too; people pay real money to buy virtual currency to skip grinding out their rewards.

In certain circles, people have a problem with these sorts of games. You see when you have a grinding mechanic in a game and your repeat the same action over and over, it starts to feel like a little bit of an addictive mechanism. Players are sure to go back to their farms everyday to play and earn goods (and the games are designed to promote that). Just like mindlessly dropping tokens in a slot machine, players head back to their farms just after the cyber veggies have ripened to retrieve them and sell them. Zynga is the darling of the startup world because they’ve figured out how to do something no one else has; they’ve got an algorithm that makes people predictable.

Lately, I’ve been wondering if there’s a way to redesign some of these game mechanics. I’ve been wondering if there’s a way to navigate the tension of making the game exciting enough for people to play often, but make it rewarding and diverse enough and get rid of the grinding. I think if the game designers flipped the scarcity model in the game they could unlock something completely new, I’ll explain.

Continue reading →

Oct 10

Probability, Possibility, Monopoly, & McDonald’s

This morning I caught this tweet in my Twitter stream:

@LenKendall – I’ve got Park Place for McDonald’s monopoly. If you have boardwalk I want to be your friend 🙂

This made me think about how times have changed. When McDonald’s Monopoly was originally designed, the world wasn’t connected. So the possibility of you finding the elusive Boardwalk piece to complete your set and win millions was extremely slim. Today, in the connected world, I wonder if you would have a better chance? (Think Lazlo Hollyfeld.)

Ionically, from McDonald’s perspective the probability of you winning today was the same as it was 10 years ago. McD’s releases 3 Boardwalk pieces into the world and those pieces divided by the total number of play pieces released is your probability. The underlying assumption is that the only pieces you can play are the pieces you earn through buying fries/drinks/burgers. It doesn’t work that way anymore, (and hasn’t for some time). In 2007 people were selling pieces on eBay. The contest just launch and nothing’s changed..

The best inspiration/example to explain the difference between yesterday and today is the DARPA balloon challenge this past December. DARPA wanted to know how fast a networked group of people could solve a large-scale, time critical task. To learn, they offered $40k in a challenge that involved releasing 10 8-foot balloons in secret locations across the US. It took a team from MIT less than nine hours because they created a pyramid scheme around the challenge. Before the challenge they issued the following message:

“We’re giving $2,000 per balloon to the first person to send us the correct coordinates, but that’s not all — we’re also giving $1,000 to the person who invited them. Then we’re giving $500 whoever invited the inviter, and $250 to whoever invited them, and so on…”

So imagine if a networked entity (like 4Chan) decided to unleash the same wrath on McDonald’s that they did on Time’s Time’s Person of the Year. There are already Facebook and MySpace groups with the same intention. There was a Andriod app in the UK for the last contest.

Let’s say only 5% of McDonald’s customers are capable of pulling of this sort of collusion, should McDonald’s design the game differently? (It would cost the same either way.) Should the game be built for the connected world? Individually, those consumers aren’t that significant, but collectively they could screw the game to the wall.

I’m sure McDonald’s has all sorts of rules to prevent this sort of collaborating, but maybe they shouldn’t? The whole contest is about marketing and buzz. maybe they should invite people collude. The cost to McDOnald’s would be the same, but the engagement from their consumers would be radically different. They would reframe their brand in an entirely different context, you would have stories celebrating how people were collaborating to win. The game would be about collaborating to win, not gobbling more McDonald’s. It feels like the publicity alone would reach new audiences and meet our culture where it already is.

Aug 10

Crowd-Sourced Pay Raise

Today I spotted this link in @faris’s Twitter feed. It’s a homegrown report comparing the current salaries of account planners in large advertising agencies. Now salary comparison reports are nothing new, and I have zero interest in what account planners are paid, but the way this report seems to have come into existence is pretty incredible.

According to the foreword in the report, the author ( Heather LeFevre ) found herself in a pretty normal predicament; she felt she was underpaid, but couldn’t prove it. So instead of sitting on her hands, she put together an anonymous survey and sent it out to her network inquiring about their skill level and pay scale. She promised to share out the results and she’s been conducting this experiment for a few years. So, with a cheap web survey and a decent address book, she completely turned an age old process on it’s head.

This is pretty inspiring for me for a few reasons. First, instead of wringing her hands that she didn’t have the information to figure out her problem, she just went after the data. Instead of reinventing the wheel, she used simple tools she had at her disposal- an anonymous survey and an email. The data we don’t have often seems to be the first roadblock to progress; we don’t start because we’re not sure. This is such a great example of how to keep it simple and get it going.

Second, she solved for her problem, not all the world’s problems. If she would have stepped back and thought to herself “this is a big idea, how can create a salary report for the entire industry” she probably would have failed. Even limiting to the industry, she probably wouldn’t have gotten enough responses to complete the first report. By keeping the effort small, she could actually engage her audience. There are salary comparison websites all over the web (Glassdoor.com, Salary.com). These sites promise to share salary data, but they never seem to get enough scale to be useful. The idea behind the concept is so big people don’t know where they fit in the process. I love how she used technology to amplify her effort and didn’t make building the tool the object of her project. Maybe if you’re fully aware of the apica systems bottleneck testing in business, you can quickly identify the problems that hinder performance.

There’s a big idea here for me. It’s the same thing that drove the success of Facebook (and social media in general). How can you use technology to amplify the network, connect people and then get the hell out of the way. The Internet isn’t much different than a good house party- if you can set the stage for people to interact, the party will usually take care of itself.

Oct 09

Investing with the Crowd

An interesting article in the NY Times yesterday detailed a tech start-up called KaChing. The site basically allows people to create mock portfolios and try their hand at investing in the market. The big news in the NYT article is that KaChing now allows you to be able to create actual investment portfolios that mimic user portfolios on KaChing.

The site seems to have built some pretty interesting ideas around investor transparency – you can see current holdings and trades, investors are rated on returns over time, etc. The metrics aren’t so different from what’s offered by mutual funds (at least on a quarterly basis), but there’s something very powerful about the service being framed around an actual person. It also allows KaChing to position themselves as an interesting alternative against this big, evil, opaque $10T mutual fund industry.

Continue reading →

Aug 09

The Twitter plot thickens

This thing is just getting more and more interesting.

Reason 1: The denial-of-service attack that brought Twitter down, could have awoken a sleeping giant – the fact that Twitter is a single point of failure. If that service goes down, the fun stops…and the internet hates it when the fun stops. This Wired article covers some of the particulars, but this sounds similar to something I wrote a few months ago. Mark my words, this event will ultimately spawn the services that displace twitter. Competitors won’t compete directly with Twitter, they’ll just begin to wrap/mask it.

Reason 2: Tweens aren’t Tweeting. I had seen from some of our internal research that Twitter just wasn’t resonating with younger users, but now these reports corroborate that fact. For me this is interesting because (if this service becomes more than a fad) it will be the first service that a younger generation didn’t bring to an older generation. It’s another incident of technology moving in a bidirectional pattern, (which means our society is reaching some comfort/satuation point with technology, it’s no longer an emergent/youth thing). Clay Shirkey had another great example of bi-directional technology movement in his excellent TED talk (the first story, the one about elections.)

As an aside, here’s a great story of how the Twitter was born. Oddly enough, there was a team in pace to build a different piece of software that ultimately became less and less promising. They had to come up with a different idea mid-stream.

My colleague, Diego Rodriguez commented that Twitter works a little like MMPORGs like World of Warcraft. From a distance, it just looks wierd and socially strange. But if you get into it and try to understand all the underlying principles and interactions, it’s infinitely fascinating. (I’m paraphrasing what he said, but I think he’s dead on.)

Apr 09

Bigger than Twitter?

(Warning, heavy nerding ahead….)

So, I’ve been struggling with this Twitter thing for a while. It’s the first piece of technology to gain lots of users that just didn’t feel right to me. I get all the interactions, I get the viral part, I just couldn’t see anything substantive. It’s massively popular, but besides that I can’ see where it’s going (and, like Twitter, I decided to just ignore the “what’s the business model question”).

This post from Grant McCraken has been hanging out in my browser for a few weeks. He has a fascinating point comparing Twitter and the social conventions of puns. I’ll spare you from quoting the whole post (please read it), but this sentence has had me churning since I read it.

Maybe we groan at “twitter” because it represents a cultural confusion, a semantic overload, an immensity of messages too much for our frail cognitive capacity.

Continue reading →