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.

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

Open Standards or Double Standards?

I usually leave simple linking to my Tumblr feed, but I think Dave Winer is making a massive point in this article.

You should read the article, but the basic thesis is that unless a platform is running a completely open, frictionless service it’s a bad idea to use them. Dave’s point is threefold (some of the point he makes elsewhere in his blog); a) what content you put on that service you don’t own, b) there is no guarantee of longevity of the service, c) you are working for free because you’re giving content to the service that’s allowing them to drive their business.

I take his point, but I also think services like Dropbox and Twitter provide a valuable service through shared communication spaces/protocols. You might argue that services like Tumblr would fall into a category that you might pass on if you really care about keeping your content (for better or worse). (There’s also a point where this techno-survivalism makes Dave look like he’s stockpiling bottled water on the eve of Y2K.)

As I think about this argument, there is a bigger irony for me. We are living in this explosion that is largely powered by open source software. Many of these open software standards and the communities that power them were in their infancy the last time we saw such a huge tech surge. As the tides receded in the early 2000’s, software like MySQL, standards like XML and concepts like SaaS were structures that helped this sector rebuild itself better and faster. Time will tell, but I don’t see as much fascination and engagement around open source technologies with many of the emerging tech companies today. There’s a lot around “cloud”, but there are far more service providers than open source.

Lots of companies today use open source software to build business with blinding speed, but I haven’t seen as much giving back to the movement as I have people taking. (GitHub & Stackoverflow are both excellent exceptions.) I hope I’m wrong, I probably am, but it’s something I think about.

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.)

Apr 12

Big Data vs. A Lot of Data

The term Big Data is getting thrown around a lot lately. As is the case with buzzwords, people have begun to use the term to describe a broad category of interest, (similar things happened to “innovation”, “social”, and “Web 2.0”.) If this wasn’t enough, add all the hype/marketing from hardware, software, and service firms driving the “importance of Big Data”, and finding any real clarity becomes impossible.

A lot of people seem to be using “big data” as a proxy for systems at scale and the data that comes with those systems. The general suggestion is that if you have a large system with lots of users, there must be patterns hidden in that data. And it follows that those hidden patterns must be worth something to somebody (right?)…so there’s gold in them there digital hills. (So many references to prospecting in the data world; mining, sharding, etc.)

I had the good fortune of hearing Cesar Hidalgo this week the Media Lab. He spends a lot of time thinking about networks and large data sets, and he had some great thoughts on the topic. In his talk, Hidalgo defined a nice framework to distinguish Big Data from a lot of data. He had three simple qualifying questions.

– Do you have size? – This is pretty relative to the problem you’re working on. But it’s usually in the hundreds of thousands/millions of records. You’ll need enough to provide some statistical significance across your population. But the greater the set of data the more edges you may be able to discover.

– Do you have resolution? – This brings some analysis to the data at hand. Just as all rock does not contain gold, all data does not contain (new) patterns. Low-fidelity data might be all customers transitions with order-level (total amount spent, etc). High-fidelity data would be all the customer transitions with item-level data, (the thing the customer purchased to make up the transaction.) Visa has the former and Amazon has the latter, and it’s no surprise Amazon knows you better. High-resolution data will illuminate new patterns, like Target’s recent misstep of identifying a pregnant teen before she could tell her father.

– Do you have scope? – This question starts to consider the reach of your data. Are you only gathering data against a very focused problem, or are you gathering data that will give you insight beyond your core business? Being able to understand patterns outside your immediate market will create new opportunities for understanding. As an example, Hidalgo spoke about telephone companies, who know your calling patterns, but also can also make determinations around mobility patterns because they know which cell towers you’ve used during your day.

So, though there’s a lot of noise around this space there’s a lot to be done here. And as the hardware, software, and services companies wind people up to capture more data, there will be more patterns to discover – this space is very self-fulfilling like that. Along those lines, this stat came up during the talk: 70% of all data captured about people it’s gathered by machines. So as we put more sensors in everything, we’ll push this ratio further.)

Getting beyond the hype, I’m excited to see what type of new patterns emerge from deeper analysis of data. There’s definitely space for data scientists to unearth new patterns that help designers create new experiences. But to be certain, the real opportunity isn’t in Big Data, it’s in gaining better resolution to the problems we’re trying to solve and the markets we’re trying to serve.

(If you’re into this sort of thing, here’s another talk by Cesar Hidalgo. It’s really nice, definitely worth your time.)

Jan 11

Designed to Disappear

I discovered a really smart phone app this weekend called Glympse. It’s a pretty simple app that helps users share their location. Using your phone you can send an SMS or email to anyone letting them track your location.

In the design of the app, the developers must have really thought hard about people’s hesitance to share their location because they designed a timeline into each notification. So, if we were meeting somewhere and I was running late, I could send you a link that would display my location on map and that link would only work for a configurable amount of time, (say 30 minutes). During that time, as I moved around you could see where I was on the map. After 30 minutes, the link goes dead.

I’m pretty excited about this little bit of functionality because I think we’ve entered into a new phase of how we deal with our connected life. We have so much data and so many connections, sometimes the data or the connection would be better if it wasn’t permanent.

What if the systems that carry more temporal data really started to reflect that data’s ephemerality? Twitter is decent example of a designed to decay system, tweets only hang around for a handful of weeks. What if restaurant reviews created a year ago carried less weight than the ones made last week? What if past-date promotional emails just disappeared from my inbox? I have loads of weak Facebook connections that I wouldn’t miss if they just expired? (No offense, but that let’s me focus on the people I have greater connection with).

Right now we live at the end of the digital firehouse, everything just lands in our lap and we have to decide what to do with it. Some of The most meaningful online interactions mirror their real world counterparts. For the moments that matter now but not later, we will begin to have to design for disappearance.

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.

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Aug 10

Going Open

The last few years has seen quite a few companies build idea generation platforms. Some have gone the semi-open route, retaining a network of participant who will contribute to mostly private challenges. Others have gone radically open, Victor & Spoils and 99 Designs post the actual client briefs calling for entrants to do the work, rewarding a few with the winning ideas. There are some brave experiments going on in this space; it’s a brave new world and no one really knows what’s going to happen here.

Today, IDEO threw it’s hat in ring today launching OpenIDEO. I’m biased, but I think they’ve designed a new evolution for this space. Many sites serve as a platform to capture ideas, but most haven’t truly involved ‘the crowd’ in the process past “hey give me your idea”. OpenIDEO creates Challenges that are designed to lead the community through the design process. Participants contribute inspiration, then generate concepts, and finally help select the best idea in the end. The idea is that everyone can participate as the process diverges and converges toward the final selected solution.

I’m really inspired by the site because it realizes a very important point: ideas aren’t scarce. Now it’s not about gathering tons of those ideas just to collect them, it’s about creating a framework where ideas can inspire each other. I think the smart cookies behind OpenIDEO have nailed this in the site design. The experience basically creates like the largest, most unorthodox design team in the world thinking, submitting, and churning on some really big problems. I have no idea how the site will play out and that’s exactly why I think the site is so important. It’s a big fat social experiment that’s daring, inspired and super smart.

Ok, don’t take my word for it, join in the fun here. There’s two hot challenges up at the moment; one hopes to help Jamie Oliver in his effort to help children improve their diet, the other is aimed at fostering educational tools for the developing world.

May 10

Androids, iPhones, and Informal Collusion.

I ran across this recent post on the constant evolution of the Android phone. The post talks a lot about how the Android platform is evolving so rapidly that phones become antiquated pretty quickly. That’s probably not great news for Android customers, but it’s even worse for Google/Android competitors people like Apple.

I started to ask myself this question: If you really wanted to beat Apple, who seems years a head of many phone providers, what would you do? I started to think about Apple’s main Achilles heal – planned obsolescence. Apple may do a lot of radical things, but there’s one thing you can set your watch to; they’ll refresh a product line about every 2-3 years. You can count on each new model to contain amazing new functionality, but that feature set is framed around one single release. (They’re beginning to break this pattern with phone OS updates, but those are rather rare.)

All this Android activity could hit Apple in their weak spot. By using an open platform Google has convinced many providers to constantly evolve a product platform. What this mean is that multiple companies are working to add more customers to the common platform, which will create more apps, and an overall better experience. This open platform is sort of working as an informal collusion amongst many of Apple’s competitors. The platform is their agreement on how the market will evolve. If you notice how rapidly this platform has begun to gain parity with the iPhone experience, you can also see how soon it could actually surpass it. Sure, the fact that the platform doesn’t have walled gardens creates some quality control problem on their apps, but it also allows for some pretty cool features, (mobile, ad hoc wifi networks.)

This made me realize that the products that a company creates can actually be a fleeting advantage. I had a strategy professor in school that used to talk about ‘economic time.’ His big thesis was that no competitive advantage could withstand the tests of time, and you could only create temporary inhibitors (patents will expire, technology will obsolesce, relationships will erode).

As Android (and other open platforms) gain ground, it sort of takes the wind out of planned obsoleteness for Apple. They’re going to have to start pushing more OS updates, they’re going to have to get better carrier partners. They created a solid game, but now a group of players is looking like they’re ready to play harder (which could be rocky for their customers). While working on the same platform will make it more difficult for any one player to surpass the others, that’s still bad news for Apple, who quickly becomes the odd man out.

Apple has a lot of other advantages that hurt the overall Android movement, but if you were Apple, how would you defend?

(Side note: I ran across this ridiculously extensive review of smart phone sales. If you’re interested, you can grab it here.)

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.

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