Oy vey

oy-vay Living in the bleeding heart of the Eurozone crisis (il Bel Paese, aka Italy) as events spin out of control, fear reigns supreme and the crumbling of the old model accelerates, I can hear my grandmother’s voice sighing “Oy vey (אױ װײ)“, oh the pain…

The interlinked webs of huge banking and multinational corporate interests that express themselves through the financial markets have surfaced to protect what is theirs and are showing that they are more powerful than sovereign states.

I hope to post something more thoughtful about all this in a few days, but until then I thought I would post this little sculpture that sums up some of the emotions that we’re all feeling right about now.

What about you?

Some thoughts on Color with a capital C

colorballmanFirst, I wanted to set this up with a couple of assertions, that location is a signal, as John Battelle defined it, and that this signal will be extremely useful when wrapped around social objects, in the way that Jyri Engestrom intended the term way back in 2005, and it’s every bit as true today.

This is a slightly more structured way of just saying that location becomes meaningful in context.

I think we can all agree that Color flopped its launch. It chose proximity-oriented photos as the social object upon which to base the serendipitous creation of affinity groups. The hope was that this activity would be so engaging that people would be motivated to invite more people to use the app, they’d use it very frequently in many locations and Color would thus have access to a hyperlocalized two-way channel into the lives of their users.

The idea is that they would then use this so-called anonymous data to create user profiles and a rich database from which to launch advertising, local promotions and news-oriented feeds. I say so-called because they neglected to understand just how identifiable photographs of faces are! (Yes, I’m looking at you Facebook.)

Another surprising oversight given the data-driven nature of the founders is that “for the average person, knowing their approximate home and work locations — to a block level — identifies them uniquely.”

Isn’t it amazing how fast anonymity breaks down?

As if this wasn’t enough, Color’s original user interface was unintuitive in the extreme and absolutely required that you use the the application with at least one other person. So, it flopped big time.

Now that Color has quietly withdrawn from the scene, it’s back to the drawing board to roll out a different application that will feed their hungry proximity algorithms champing at the hyperlocal bit, not to mention their investors looking for gorgeous pivot. How will they deal with privacy and can they find the secret sauce to make me want to share my location with nearby strangers?

My prediction is that they will not. Their approach is all wrong; it’s backwards. You cannot define yourself “much more of a research company and a data mining company than a photo sharing site,” as Bill Nguyen did and expect to have the wild imagination and fire in your belly to create an amazingly compelling social application that lots of people will love. He has some interesting ideas about the social stickiness of proximity, but it’s all wrapped around how much data he’s going to collect and sell to advertisers.

My next post will explore another proximity application…

Update: Well this seems to support my guess… “Confirmed: Co-founder Peter Pham Leaves Color” and “Troubled Startup Color Loses Cofounder Peter Pham“. Trojan horses are not lovable.

Pull me up, Scotty

mister big

This post concerns pulling. But no shoving, please.

Despite evidence to the contrary, I’m thinking about tiramisù. I just got to Barcelona for MWC 2011. It’s not that I am craving dessert, you see I’ve got pull on the brain. (Tiramisù literally means pull me up, but it can be translated colloquially as cheer me up.)

Pull. In moments of transition, we struggle to come up with models to explain what is happening, and inevitably we are stuck using the concepts and terminologies of the past to describe the future. And to synthesize in order to simplify and get to the heart of it.

And so it is with this pull thing, four letters that will help us to figure out how to turn our world upside down, and it’s about time.

But isn’t there somebody somewhere doing a bunch of pushing (of information into the system) so that pulling things in is worth the effort? And won’t other verbs also be useful here? Attracting, repelling, bouncing, reflecting, tilting, reaching, passing, catching and chasing are among others that come to mind. Some of this pulling, and maybe one day most of it, may be done lazily, and by this I mean it will be the exhaust of other activities re-examined, newly interpreted and then repackaged for a particular purpose or context. A simple example of how this done today would be how credit card companies track your usage patterns and when your exhaust smells funny, out pops a block of your account.

So, I will be running around MWC looking for the stuff that is most interesting to me right now — technology and applications that allow mobile devices to be more aware of what’s physically near with simple, lazy, ways to hook into the internet of things. Mix that with a pull model of information flow and I’m suddenly paying attention.

I’m reading a couple of books with the word pull in their titles, The Power of Pull: How Small Moves, Smartly Made, Can Set Big Things in Motion and Pull: The Power of the Semantic Web to Transform Your Business. By now it’s pretty clear that the mass adoption of the internets is creating a huge shift in power from the firms that produce and market their goods and services to the people that use them, that’s us AKA The People formerly known as the Audience.

A neutral mask

A Neutral Mask

A Neutral Mask in Pongo, by me.

The future is wearing a neutral mask.

If I were to characterize the world right now, the operative word would be liminal — not quite here anymore and not quite there just yet. We exist in a threshold hurtling through space, in a future in the past tense world in which the present never seems to catch up to itself.

Sometime between 1948 and 1956 Jacques Lecoq, the influential French acting instructor created the neutral mask in collaboration with the Italian sculptor Amleto Sartori. By putting on the neutral mask, an actor could enter into liminality (from the Latin word līmen, meaning “a threshold”), a transitional state of in-betweenness in which identity is ambiguous and meaning must be gleaned from context and movement.

I bring this up because as I was sitting in a conference room last week, listening to a panel of experienced, well-informed and well-spoken people trying to explain the social media to a business audience, I was doodling in 3-dimensions with a hunk of white plasticine modeling clay. My best stuff comes out when I stop thinking and let my fingers take over. I realized that I had made a sort of neutral mask, shown above.

Well, of course it would be… The panel discussed issues, alternately hailed as panaceas or condemned as mirages, such as the contradiction between the desire for online popularity and that for privacy, the ethical issues raised when public-facing brands use Facebook or Twitter profiles and the growing power of the people formerly known as the audience. But from the exchanges during the Q&A, it became clear that different people were experiencing these concepts each in their own way.

Check it out, check it in.

Once upon a time, the verb to check-in was something that you did at a hotel or an airport, and only at a hotel or an airport. Not any more. Popularized by foursquare, the check-in is becoming a standard gesture, one that will be baked in to many social applications, to indicate your physical presence at a specific location. And, OY, the once innocent verb, like, is now poised to take over the civilized the world!

So maybe grammar is a helpful framework to think about the future of this device-mediated social future of ours. We will follow, like, dislike, share, bookmark, invite, post, buy, listen to, broadcast, check-in, read, create, delete, favorite, join, leave, gift, friend, play, connect, tag, save and tummel around issues, articles, lists, photos, videos, music, people, groups, applications, events, discounts, games and more. And we will do some of these things online and publicly, and others privately with physical tools or else in an endless variety of combinations.

Jyri Engeström has been talking about building services around social objects and the verbs we use to animate them for quite some time. I’ve recently started to follow the work of the activitystrea.ms group, another instance of the object/verb approach for describing and standardizing the evolution of online behavior as observed in the wild.

Yet despite all the observing and describing, many ambiguities remain. Remember, on the Internet nobody knows if you’re wearing a mask.

That will bring us back to Do-Re-Mi.

Is the pace of change going to remain so frenetic as to create a state of permanent liminality? Will we always be betwixt and between?

@everybody: stop drinking the Kool-aid

Fail Whale Pale Ale label

Twitter has become a valuable asset to me and a part of my everyday reading and writing. So, I’m a fan. But.

By now you’ve probably read the fawning Time magazine article by Steven Johnson, “How Twitter Will Change the Way We Live“. Now I don’t want to be contrarian just for the hell of it, but enough is enough.

OK, sure the media outlets love the Hollywood story that is Twitter. Of course Twitter’s high profile investors have a vested interest in evangelizing the phenomenon. And who could expect less from the Twitter-addict community? Even I have tasted the holy Kool-aid!

But when Twittermania flavors serious journalism, we need to be more critical.

For starters the article asserts that Facebook’s audience “is still several times as large as Twitter’s”. In fact Facebook’s audience and user base are most likely 20 times larger than Twitter’s, the churn of new users on Facebook is considerably lower than Twitter’s and Facebook is still growing much faster in absolute numbers.  “Several times as large” is just misleading. This is neither pedantic nor picayune.

And why is it that Johnson makes no mention of the Nielsen study about user retention?

Currently, more than 60 percent of U.S. Twitter users fail to return the following month, or in other words, Twitter’s audience retention rate, or the percentage of a given month’s users who come back the following month, is currently about 40 percent… Compare it to the two heavily-touted behemoths of social networking when they were just starting out. Doing so below, we found that even when Facebook and MySpace were emerging networks like Twitter is now, their retention rates were twice as high. When they went through their explosive growth phases, that retention only went up, and both sit at nearly 70 percent today.

The Nielsen study is not perfect and raises more questions than it answers, but it surely merits examination in any discussion of the Twitter phenomenon.

Another recent study (published too late to be included in the Time article), “New Twitter Research: Men Follow Men and Nobody Tweets” by Bill Heil and Mikolaj Piskorski, adds fuel to the fire.

Twitter’s usage patterns are also very different from a typical on-line social network. A typical Twitter user contributes very rarely. Among Twitter users, the median number of lifetime tweets per user is one. This translates into over half of Twitter users tweeting less than once every 74 days.

twitter research 2.jpg

At the same time there is a small contingent of users who are very active. Specifically, the top 10% of prolific Twitter users accounted for over 90% of tweets. On a typical online social network, the top 10% of users account for 30% of all production… This implies that Twitter’s resembles more of a one-way, one-to-many publishing service more than a two-way, peer-to-peer communication network.

Again, a lot more research needs to be done, but as one of those Twitter members in the active 10%, I do get the sensation that we are projecting the value that we get from Twitter onto the greater Twitterverse, without a shred of evidence to support this thesis.

It is paradoxical that the openness that Twitter, the company, says it embraces, from its API’s to its user-generated feature set, is so lacking when it comes to sharing their proprietary statistics, the politics of their suggested follow list or their plans with respect to providing access to their firehose and archives. Twitter is a privately held company and does not owe this to anyone, but then it should stop sending its executives around saying that they want Twitter to be like a public utility. They can’t have it both ways, but it won’t be for lack of trying.

The article correctly points out that Twitter’s deceivingly simple forumla — “the follower structure, link-sharing, real-time searching” — will become part of the fabric of our communication web regardless of how the Twitter the company fares.

They didn’t really invent any of the individual elements that make the service compelling, but they did stumble upon the recipe for mixing them together to create a tasty soufflé. Note that this word means “to blow up” or “puff up” and, of course, once taken out of the oven a soufflé tends to fall rather quickly.

Is this an apt analogy? Discuss.

Everybody’s gone surfin’

I thought I’d take a shot at riffing on Google Wave, “a new tool for communication and collaboration on the web”, according to its creators. But before we get into the details, just to get into the mood, check out this BBC video — a gorgeous slow motion view of a surfer on the perfect wave. Wow:

Or see the high definition (HD) version here. It’s worth it.

That was also my first reaction to Google Wave, well, “wow” in lower case. It’s an evolutionary step that rhymes with so many parallel developments all around the net that it already seems inevitable just a week after its presentation.

I am most interested in watching just how open source the Wave platform will actually be. And just how open the API’s and protocols will be. I think we have good reason to be optimistic that they will remain true to the spirit of openness because it is also in their interest to do so.

Why is that? Well, the more that Wave’s protocols and syntax are open, the faster it will grow with a developer community going out there and building tools, containers and services with wild abandon. Do you think that Google might be positioned rather well to provide search within the Wave universe? Messages, media, documents, location and social graphs all crawlable. This looks to be an, um, a challenge for our privacy protection. Can we get some of you smart developers thinking about that now? Thanks, and please revert soonest!

Compare this scenario to today’s realtime darling Twitter. (Sarcasm? yeah just a little bit, but I am a Twitter member and have gotten a huge amount of value from it.) The Twitterverse consists of a central platform, a basic hosted service on the platform and an extremely active ecosystem of third party clients and applications that make it just barely usable.

In what other environment is there great competition among free client applications? Email comes first to mind and let’s not forget instant messaging. In both cases there is huge value obtained from the fact that the protocol is standard and open. It was not always so in instant messaging land, and still not universally the case, but today I can use Pidgin, Meebo, Digsby, Adium or Trillian to talk to my Jabber, MSN, ICQ, Yahoo, iChat and AOL friends on one roster. So that seems to be where Twitter is headed — to be a protocol, and the biggest platform on the block adhering to that protocol.

I am hoping that Wave will be the catalyst to bring about the birth of a thousand new Twitters, truly open protocol and evolving realtime micro-messaging services, accessible through third party clients. XMPP has worked this way for years and it’s not for nothing that underneath Wave you find the XMPP protocol.

The Ingénue

I was thinking about my own naïveté in all matters computer-related just after I bought my first computer (a MacII, OS 2.0, circa 1987). I distinctly remember my profound disappointment when my shiny new computer did not live up to the myth that I had created for it! I was raised on the Jetsons and, dammit, computers were supposed to be powerful and simple to use.

Mary Pickford, perpetual ingénue

I bought my first copy of Microsoft Word (I think it was v.3). I fired up the program and soon learned that in order to do a simple mail merge (to send out identical, but personalized letters, to my mailing list) required me to read a brick of a guide book and spend many hours in frustrating trial and terror.

Similarly, I recall my first impression of hyperlinks, hypertext and hypermedia. It was such an utterly cool and liberating idea — that the organization of information need not be linear or strictly hierarchal, but could be determined by the clickstream of the operator. The idea of siloed content was anethema to this concept and was unimaginable to me at the birth of the Web.

AOL, Prodigy and Compuserve came along and changed my mind about that in a hurry.

Fastforward to 2009. Unless something comes along to derail the future, it seems pretty clear that the internets will develop into an environment with more open protocols designed to let you and me use whatever platform, device or application to play with our stuff. Our digital assets will be accessible via multiple pathways driven by our own intents and commands.

The point is that we are just now building the architecture worthy of a newbie’s dreams, fulfilling the original promise of hypermedia as conceived by Ted Nelson.

In order to get there, we need to be a lot more radical in making things that are easy to understand; they need to respond to who we are as creatures. Nelson said, “a user interface should be so simple that a beginner in an emergency can understand it within ten seconds.”

Open Stack service layer

Open Stack service layer

Looking at the state of the Open Stack (and here), and this is not to diminish the hard work being done by a lot of talented and well-meaning people, we seem light years away from this goal. The mashup tools allowing us to cross-post, to participate in and aggregate conversations, to deeply manage our social graphs and online identities are very primitive, and unusable by most people who have access to the Internet.

I am trying to recapture that blessed state in which computer-mediated actions seem magical and, most of all, useful and fun. It’s strange that the more supposedly advanced I become, the more easily wowed I am by new features that are not really all that cool to anyone outside of the high tech crowd. We spend way too much time talking among ourselves.


The holy grail of human-computer interface design must be the DWIW function. I communicate with the machine and the machine just Does What I Want.

Do what I want!

Do what I want!

I was thinking about this after having played around with Wolfram Alpha. Actually what sparked this post was having seen so many tweets about it mistaking it for a search engine. The tagline of Wolfram Alpha is “computational knowledge engine”, not something like “find what you are looking for” or “let me find that for you?”

But people don’t read taglines very carefully and when they do they don’t think about them too seriously. They use past experience to parse the service and charge ahead accordingly.

In trying to keep it simple, and to develop a more natural language approach to the input field, the designers of the interface present a single text entry field followed by the plus sign [=] to communicate put your input here, click to see what we can compute from that.

The problem is that most people associate a plain input field with a submit button as = Google, not a computational knowledge engine. If you scan complaining tweets you will notice that the authors hit the [=] with a DWIW intention, expecting a search result, not computational knowledge.

We are living in the pre-dawn of a new age of human-computer interaction. Eventually we will get to the point at which a single input field (with textual, audio or even electro-neurological input) will  be semantically, behaviorally and contextually (time, place, device) aware — getting us that much closer to a true DWIW command. This will require a lot of groundwork, but seeing as though folks like Wolfram, Tim Berners-Lee and an army of others are on the case, I expect to see really cool developments becoming more commonplace over the next 5-20 years :-)

Familiar strangers

I came across this slide deck today and thought I’d post it here and make a few comments. David Reed is the Reed of Reed’s Law, a person with genuine visionary status.
He sketches how the technologically-mediated public social fabric might look in the future. In slide 2 he postulates that in order to be well-connected we will need to feel safe, establish trust with “familiar strangers” and to share and collaborate with people in the same location. I am particularly interested in the term “familar strangers,” a seeming oxymoron.
I was first reminded of a quote by Diane Arbus, “Nothing is ever the same as they said it was. It’s what I’ve never seen before that I recognize.” But then I learned that it’s a term is commonly used in studying social networks and is generally defined as “an individual who is recognized from regular activities, but with whom one does not interact.”
In the future, however, I think the definition can be extended. The recognition can take place via machine-readable data. It all comes down to context, what elements we pour into the concept of context and how we weigh these elements in relation to each other. But it will never be really useful or trustworthy until our digital lives are tagged with open metadata and semantic protocols.
Since the people we don’t know will always be more numerous than those we do, we can gain much more from social search and discovery tools that tap into the knowledge of familiar strangers, applying rules learned from examining our declared identity and our relationships with people we do know and applying them to people that we don’t know.

Always on!

Many of you will remember the early days of the web when The Next Big Thing was “always on” — fast, cheap bandwidth that would liberate us from the curse of dialup and would naturally enable new business models to emerge. We normally thought about this in terms of Internet connectivity, separate from mobile telephony. Since those days we have seen the blurring of the lines between voice and data due to the emergence of VoIP, 3G mobile, smartphones and (still too expensive) flat rate data pricing.

I just came across this article in the NYT, A Pocket-Size Leveler in an Outsize Land, by Anand Giridharadas. And it really hammered home the reality of where we are heading as a planet as far as digital connectivity is concerned.

But the technology has seeped down the social strata, into slums and small towns and villages, becoming that rare Indian possession to traverse the walls of caste and region and class; a majority of subscribers are now outside the major cities and wealthiest states. And while the average bill, of less than $5 per month, represents 7 percent of the average Indian’s income, enough Indians apparently consider the sacrifice worth it: if present trends continue, in five years every Indian will have a cellphone… There are 65 times more cellphone connections than broadband Internet links, and the gap is widening.

A huge percentage of the world’s population is coming online not through PC-based Internet, but through their cell phones. There are 3 billion active mobile device users in the world, 92% of them outside of the US market. (Stats are from Tomi Ahonen.)

What does the social web look like, how does it feel, when your first and only window into that world is a handheld mobile device? Like the Indian parable of the blind men and the elephant, your perception is determined by where you touch the animal.

A mobile device is by its very nature always on. Since there is little doubt that even the cheapest cell phones will be able to send and receive pictures and videos, listen to and share music and navigate the so-called mobile web in the not too distant future (as many already do), it is fascinating to think about what kind of new social networking businesses will be built to scale to, um, billions of members.