Apr 13

Crowdsourcing the Manhunt

In 2003, Howard Reingold wrote a book called Smart Mobs. At the beginning of that book he wrote about an anti-war protest held in San Francisco in 2002. He noted that it was one of the first decentralized protests in human history. Instead of everyone meeting in one place to demonstrate, protesters passed on some simple instructions to anyone who was interested. The instructions were simple; shut down business, traffic, and cause peaceful mayhem to protest the war.

I was living in San Francisco at the time and to get to work I had to walk through South of Market, where most of the protests were scheduled. That day was total chaos. People chained themselves together on the freeway on-ramp, blocking all inbound traffic on the bay bridge. Another group staged a big press scene by vomiting on the Federal Building. Reingold pointed out that this was one of the moments that illustrated that we had reached a tipping point as a connected society, and it had changed our social actions in a major way. People had shared their goal for the protest over SMS and email, and the end result of the demonstration was far superior than anyone could have programmed individually. And so it has gone with most things crowd-sourced since that time, (so much so that this story doesn’t seem all that novel ten years later.)

Which brings me to the man hunt for the alleged Boston Marathon bomber that (thankfully) concluded tonight. If the San Francisco protest in 2002 was a watershed moment for how we organized and collaborated, I think this week has tons of signifigance both in how we collectively solve problems, and the impact of living with devices that are constantly capturing data (phones, tweets, geo-tags, sensors, etc, etc.) 

This week, we saw

  • Reddit and 4Chan turn into full-on detective agencies using open platforms and their own style of communication to identify possible suspects.
  • News reports that had a photos of the boat the boy was hiding in before they could gain access to the perimeter.
  • Analysis on the suspect’s Twitter account to figure out his daily patterns
  • Collaboratively created maps of anything and everything related to the series of events. 
  • A collective fundraising to help one of the amputees pay for health insurance. 
  • Police using data from the marathon to identify runners who would have been finishing at the time of the explosion in order to possibly connect with their families in the search for the suspects. 
  • Reddit order pizza for all the participating police departments.

Indeed, when we had very little to go on, we had the data created as a byproduct of the event and of the suspects lives….and that turned out to be quite a lot to work with.

The Boston Marathon bombing and ensuing manhunt will probably go down as one of the biggest news events of this decade. But I actually think the way the internet voluntarily assembled to solve problems together with all the residual data from the event is a much bigger moment. 

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 from customwater.com 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.

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. 



Oct 10

Prop 19 Politics

I’ve been hanging out in San Francisco the past few weeks and one topic that keeps coming up is Prop 19. It’s a measure on the California ballot this year that basically makes it legal for adults to grow/possess/smoke marijuana. I was having a drink with my friend Judy last night, and she made me realized a few things that sort of blew my mind.

I’ve always been a little live and let live around the pot issue; you like it fine, you don’t like it fine. I though it was novel that they might legalize the substance and tax it to help California climb out of the financial gutter. With that in mind, it didn’t seem like the worst thing in the world. It also seems like in some ways it could mellow out the drug war that we fund so ferociously on the border. Anyway, musings aside I started to think about what the business around the legalization would mean and it was sort of jaw dropping. The issue seems like a pretty crazy social iceberg.

Let’s play this through. Lets say Prop 19 passes (which by the way, looks like it won’t). If it were to pass, it would basically create an instant industry. I get that there are all sorts of illegal pot practices, but if it became legal large corporations like RJ Reynolds and Altria would immediately enter the space. They would set up shop with so much capital to operate you wouldn’t even remember it was supposed to be a local business growth initiative. If they can make a tobacco operation profitable, they would go bananas growing marijuana – much higher profit, much smaller operation. Much like factory food, they would systematize and standardize the product; it would eventually get cheaper and stronger, etc. And, if the measure held, they would lobby for national legalization. It would be pretty impossible to keep California from become the pot supplier to rest of the US. So even if it didn’t pass, people would buy it on the web.

As this all started to sink in, I realized that there’s just a massive irony to the story for me. This Proposition is sponsored by this progressive pro-pot activist in Oakland. (How he got thousands of pot-heads motivated to get enough signatures to force a state ballot proposition, I have no idea.) If that initiative passes, there’s a good chance he could create a market so appealing that bigger players would move in and put him right out of business. Most companies have a really hard time sizing new, untested markets. This markets been more or less sized through the war on drugs.

I don’t think I can think of any single event that has the potential to instantly create an industry. And to top it off, from a business perspective the measure seems like it would cause more problems for the people who hoped to benefit from it the most. We live in interesting times.

Aug 10

(Not So) Gaga over Groupon

I’m having a tough time with this whole Groupon phenomenon. Every time someone mentions them as a great example of a new business, it makes me nuts. Now, I have respect for anyone who can launch and idea into a business, but I feel like the service is missing a bigger point. The idea of group buying isn’t new; consumers have been consolidating their buying power for better deals for a long time, but Groupon isn’t a function of consumer buying power. It’s an exercise in heavy-handed, value-driven marketing that put’s Groupon in the center of the universe, not the consumer. Harsh words I know, let me explain.

The way the service works is that businesses contact Groupon about a partnership and together they create a bargain that will run in over a period of time – could be a one day blitz, could be a longer-term cupon. (This deal includes Groupon earning around 50% of the coupon price for its service.) Since the business is deciding what to push and Groupon serves as the delivery channel, that’s not actually consumer buying power. It’s not driven by consumer demand, the Groupon community isn’t polling it’s users to figure out where they would like deal; Groupon makes the call. Groupon’s main customer is the business offering the bargain, the Groupon community is a means to an end. The service isn’t even a platform that allows consumers to connect with each other and organize for buying power – it’s a pop-up, loss-leader service that businesses can rent by the day to drive consumers through their doors.

So, say you’re a small business, Groupon sounds like a pretty great idea, right? All of a sudden you can help people learn about your services and it’s cheaper than buying expensive advertising, right? Well, maybe. Groupon reports that about 22% of the people attracted by their make return purchases. Growth can be good, but what about the customer experience?

Let’s say you just opened an ice cream store and the first time a new customer walks into your shop it’s jammed with people looking for a $1 ice cream cone (that usually costs $3). It’s hectic, everyone’s very transactional because they came for the deal, and it’s very hard to engage with the ice cream store because all of the electricity in the air. People are pushy, lines are long. The extra sales are great for the buiness, but you aren’t building any new relationships, you’re just ringing up (discounted) sales. It seems like if you want that atmosphere maybe you should open Crazy Eddie’s Bargain Basement, buy lots of sales advertising and run that game every day. (The WSJ ran a story yesterday with some small business owners with similar sentiments.)

I’m frustrated because I know the experience could be designed with the end customer in mind. Groupon could connect people, look for shared interests, and source a mix of deals tailored for their community. Groupon could encourage people to share reviews that would help the businesses they serve so they can improve (right now, all discussions are about ‘the deal’). Groupon could really would be help businesses grow on their own merits. I feel like Groupon could be about more than just blatant consumerism. I’m sure it will be a big business, I think it’s a big idea, I just wish it had a little higher purpose.

Nov 09

Gaming Inspiration

(warning: heavy nerding ahead)

I usually find lots of inspiration from video games. I’m not a big gamer, but I’m fascinated with the space. Usually it’s less about the graphics or the game content, and more about the interactions that have been designed into the game, but if you prefer to play games as Overwatch you need to receive your boost ASAP from boosting sites online. As games go, there seems to be a lot of really interesting things going on in massive-multiplayer games and web and phone-based games lately. Console games are sort of pushing each other deeper into this better graphics/extra gore niche. That’s mostly games for hardcore gamers. I’m more interested in what happens when there’s a wider cross-section of people just screwing around entertaining themselves.

I’ve seen a couple of interesting design/stratgey things lately, here’s my take on a few things I’ve seen. Hopefully you find some inspiration along the way.

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Oct 09

Third Moment of Truth?

I was in a client meeting today thinking about P&G’s fabled Moments of Truth. The ‘truths’ are marketing lingo for a few moments in the consumer experience where the consumer discovers a product and decided that product may be what they need, (first moment). Then, later, as the consumer uses the product they determine if the product actually delivers on the promises it has made to the consumer (second moment).

I’ve always liked the idea of these two moments working together, it’s kind of a nice reminder to not over-promise what you can offer. It’s also reinforces the importance of having continuity between your identity/packaging and your product. At one time or another, we’ve all been really excited to buy something only to be disappointed later with the results of what we’ve bought. In that case, the first moment was won, but the second was lost…you have to nail them both, I like this act of bringing things into harmony.

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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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Oct 09

Airline Hatred and Online Aggregators

Ok, so I hate airlines.

Actually, there’s a little more to it. In general, I’m OK with the flying experience. I know it could be better, but for the most part, it’s good hearted people doing the best they can in a very tough, complicated, interlocking service industry. (Full disclosure: my bother is a pilot.)

The hatred I have for airline comes from their management decisions. I hate them for their inhuman inflexibility. I hate them for their nickel and dime tactics. They remind me of banks, both lay out very narrow rules of engagement and give themselves the right to tax you if you deviate from the plan. They let the policies play bad cop and stand unaccounted for some pretty unfair treatment.

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