March 2010
Mon Tue Wed Thu Fri Sat Sun
« Feb   Apr »

Month March 2010

Hi there. I'm a Partner at Undercurrent, where I lead a team focused on helping ambitious organizations operate in ways that are beneficial to all their users.

Universal Monetary Naming Hypothesis

We were talking today about Ma$e, that other mononymous superstar. Remember him? He was awesome.

We were also talking about the relative stupidity of all the theories and hypotheses spreading around teh internets lately.

The result is the above.

Have a good week.

What do you care about?

This is just a model.

And it breaks (maybe) if the product and the marketing are one in the same.

And it certainly isn’t meant to say that marketing people/marketing departments shouldn’t care about marketing. But if you look at a company as a whole, and all they really care about is marketing… I don’t think that’s such a good thing.

My Writing Process

An outline for something I’m writing for someone else.

An outline of something I’m writing for me.

I mentioned to a friend the other day that I had already erased around 500 words, without having even written a single one. A lot goes on upstairs, but when it’s time to put pixels to paper (?), nothing beats an outline. And for me, whiteboards are the best.

Bonus round! My outline for Planningness:

That’s how I write presentations. Mildly crazy, but a single page always works for me.

Redesigning Foursquare’s User Pages

Click the image to enlarge!

Redesigning things is fun. I’m no designer, but I thought it might be nice to try my hand at redesigning the Foursquare user page, particularly with regard to how one friend views another friend on the site. Based on some things that I know are possible from a programming standpoint, I’ve also suggested some feature additions to the site.

For a look at how it normally looks, go here, to my page.

Thanks to Marisa, Johanna, Mike, Alex and Ana for talking to me about this and helping me vet potential additions to the design.

1. Get a map!

I think a map would be a real nifty addition to a product that is about location. Don’t you? Clicking on the angle quote (sorry type nerds!) would collapse the stats. I could see adding points to that bar, and comparisons to the rest of the users: “Top 20%!”. I’ve created four views for the map:

  • Mayorships – obvious
  • Frequented – places I go a lot, but am not the mayor
  • Shared – places that the viewer and I have both been to at some point
  • Tweets – my tweets that have geolocation added to them (hidden if a user doesn’t use Twitter or doesn’t geotag their tweets)

2. Similarity!

I feel like Foursquare should be able to tell me how similar I am to others on the site, based on our check-in habits. I love how Last.FM does this. To take this further, a cheeky message could be applied to different levels of similarity: 100% alignment could be “Long-lost twin.” (H/T Mr. Arauz.)

3. Feeds!

Why couldn’t Foursquare pull in my Flickr feeds like Dopplr does? And based on checkin time (and geotagged photos!), it should be able to at least guess where I took those photos. And why not just show my recent tweets, instead of a link to my twitter profile?

4. Likes, Tips, Suggestions!

If I’m looking at a friend’s profile page, I should be able to see what they’re most into at a glance. I probably already know—based on pings, etc.—but a quick digest of their venue preferences might be pretty cool. And it would be completely rad if Foursquare could let my friends in on a place that I’ve never been before, and suggest that they take me to that spot. Not only is this great for dates, but it’d be awesome for helping me make decisions on where to go. And hey, couldn’t somebody sponsor that spot? I think they could.

Do you like this? Should I change it? What would you change?

Let me know in the comments.

Microsoft Courier Interface: Awesome

It hurts somehow to admit, but I love the Courier interface.

It feels important to me to somehow attempt to mimic a journal for something that will be used as one. Certainly, this could be duplicated on an iPad using an app, but I think the idea of two screens and a functioning spine is a major differentiator.

We’ll see. Via Engadget.

Old People, Lifecasting, and the Future of The Internet

Writing a review of Zazie’s breakfast. 4 stars!

Imagine a system that immediately captures every bit of information about a trip, and stores it permanently in an accessible, portable format—and on top of that, has been designed to fit your routine, not the other way around.

My parents created that system in the early ’80s, and they did it with pen and paper: since the beginning of their collective travel experiences, my parents have been keeping a log of all their travels in a series of large-ish, ruled books.

The big travel book.

My parents’ day on February 7, 2009 started in Arcata, at 8:42 AM. The wood show at the town hall in Fort Bragg was excellent. They drove around with the top down. Apparently they spoke to me…I was riding my bike along the lake in Chicago. Awesome data, right?

In the lower right-hand corner, you can see that Heaven’s Dog, on Mission & 7th in SF (YELP), was really, really good.

This is a recap of a couple days spent on the train. Click the picture to view larger.

This was Saturday, January 3. We went to the de Young museum; note the attachments on the left-hand side. We also “bookmarked” that we needed to look up 880 El Camino Del Mar, which had what we called a “Fuck You View”. If you like, I can elaborate on that in the comments.

The active book lives in the back seat of my parents’ traveling car, and the others are part of their permanent collection. At this point, there are four books, covering 30 years of travel, with entries capturing time, date, location, weather, car mileage, expenditures, activities and reviews. Further, there are attachments in the book from places along the way. Sometimes they’re taped in, other times they’re stickers from various places, and yet others just sit in the book, held by the tension of the pages. The three of us have shared entry duty as long as I can recall.

But this familiar thing became more interesting after I looked at it from a digital point of view, hoping to identify some core human behaviors that translate into the digital ones that some of us have adopted so readily.

In a way, my parents’ analog system makes Dopplr look like a royal pain in the ass, and a restrictive one at that. Certainly, the book system is far from perfect. It’s completely private: it doesn’t account for their nascent desire to share their travels with the world. But when it comes to logging and cataloging their trips, it’s pretty damn good. It’s simple, fast, and never fails due to lack of 3G service. As I stared at the books a little longer, everything started to look like well-formatted XML, with fields that would be easily parsable into useful data. [And in fact, my dad is going a little Feltron on the data right now, bringing the trips into Excel Workbooks so he can start to analyze the trends associated with our collective travels. Including, I hope, gas mileage. Their Volkswagen Cabrio (an adorable car) is a horrific gas-guzzler.]

This is where most of our trips started: Arcata, California.

While I can’t pretend that the my parents’ trip catalog is a definitive case study, I do know that it’s interesting/helpful: watching my parents’ behavior (after breakfast, the expenditure, location, and review went straight into the book) helped me solidify three positions from which I view “digital.”

1. While technologies are constantly changing, humans are the constant. Put more succinctly, none of this is new. While the technologies are new, and certainly the public-ness/immediacy of it all is something people are just starting to come to terms with, I’ve always been of the mind that the root, human drivers that power today’s interesting digital behaviors have been around for a long, long time.

I think my long-term internet friend and now-coworker (by the way, I forgot to write about that, ZOMG thanks Undercurrent for hiring my best internet friend) Johanna summed it up best:

“Motivations and behaviors across digital channels are examined and pontificated on as if they are completely new sets of behaviors that we have never seen before. In some ways, they are new, since new platforms are popping up every day that serve different purposes for different types of information and relationships between people. But the fundamentals of social behavior online shouldn’t be that surprising to us, because they are rooted in a long heritage (as in, centuries old) of group behaviors.”
Johanna Beyenbach, Cellar Door: “Social Behavior is not new”, February 17, 2010.

2. You can’t make people want to do something new, but you can make them do something that’s very similar to something else they’re already doing. It’s hard to get people to adopt a new behavior—say, logging their training on DailyMile—if they’ve never used a training log in their life. But for someone like me, who’s used training logs since I was very young (and even wrote my own little Access program to act as roll-my-own digital training log in 10th grade), DailyMile’s tracking functionality makes perfect sense, and I use it religiously after every workout. For my parents, who have been tracking every parameter of every trip they’ve ever been on, Flickr and WordPress made perfect sense and were rapidly adopted by both of them.

Put both of these things together (as I’m sure you have) and you understand why digital is so fucking interesting. People are openly sharing/spreading the minutae of their behaviors and interests, and—holy shit—you can use that information to tailor experiences to things you know they’ll like. You can look at the psychology of the collective in a new, legitimate way, rather than working backward from individuals and models for behavior.

I said three positions, right? I’ll get to the third shortly.

From books to databases.
It’s funny now to look back at some of the work my dad does when searching down our ancestors; he’s big-time into genealogy and spends a lot of time in libraries, tracking down censuses, working his way through wills, public records, and other pieces of unstructured data to piece together the lives of those that came before us. My descendants will be able to look back through my parents’ travel books and will get a pretty good picture of their lives together—from Cadillac, Michigan, through Texas, Oklahoma, Ohio, and Northern California and travel points between—including their penchant for thrift, good food, national parks, and leisurely routes.

This is James Monroe Watts’ last will and testament. These are the kinds of documents my dad has to hunt down to understand how my grandparents lived.

If you’re looking to find out what I’m interested in, and what I’m up to, it’s pretty easy; I’m contributing almost everything about what I do with my life to some queryable database. You can see where I go, when I go there, and who I went with, but there’s a lot more to it than that.

In the morning, I go to the coffee shop. I’ve been there 15 times before, and when I post that “I’m there” to Foursquare and Twitter, I’m reminded of this fact. The act of posting that location results in the creation of a set of database entries, not just on Foursquare’s servers, but also on Twitter’s. And on Twitter, that act captures not just that I was there at that moment in time, in a particular location, but also that I had 1,485 followers and that the colors on my profile were a particular set of hex values. Additionally, consider the transactional data that comes out of my coffee-shop visit, including what I purchased, how much I spent, and how much I decided to tip. Further, while I’m at the coffee shop, I’m reading a book on my Kindle, and Amazon knows what I bookmark, what I read and how quickly I read it. They know if I tend to purchase some books and not read them all the way through, and they know if I spend a lot of time on some pages of certain books. Further, there are photos that I took of my latte, which happen to be geotagged and contain megabytes of data that could be examined, including color and composition.

Brought together, all this data (much of it structured, meaning it’s parsable by computers…unlike photos, for example) would provide a pretty accurate picture of my life at a given moment. And that’s where we go from “nothing is new here” to “holy shit the world is changing.” And if you can’t see that it is, you need to wake up or retire.

As we’ve all seen, when you apply the rapidly changing set of digital technologies to a group of people—who ostensibly are just living out their lives—is that there is an ever-accumulating cloud of data exhaust that is a result of everyday behavior. And all of that exhaust translates into context surrounding my life, my identity, who I am (when you include all the “private” records) and who I fashion myself to be (those things that I choose to publicize). Which brings me to my third position:

3. As our lives move away from unstructured, unsearchable data, scrawled in books and archived in Tupperware containers, and move toward flowing, connected, open datasets, the ways we choose to live our lives will continue to change, and the impact of our choices will have a greater impact on the lives of others.

Consider Wal-Mart and their Retail Link software, recently covered in a special section of The Economist: it analyzes over one million transactons every hour, and gives suppliers real-time access to their products’ sales statistics, including the other products in each of their customers’ shopping carts.

It’s not too crazy to imagine a system that would take transactional data and combine it with relevant statistics regarding public social profiles to create an amazingly sophisticated CRM system. Or to imagine a system that allows governments to make better decisions based on real behavioral data, rather than on the stated desires of those who decide to vote. In the inverse, it’s easy to imagine a system that examines all of my purchases and gives me an environmental/cultural impact score, or a system that looks at my complete digital life (from transactions to relationships to email to photos) and recommends books, travel ideas, products, and even lifestyle changes that would help me live out an optimal life.

From data exhaust to identity.
That last bit, for me, is the most important to consider. If the collected data on human behavior can help me live a better (if different) life than the one I led before, my ability to construct an identity that makes me happy changes a bit. My access to desirable life patterns—those life stories that we can appropriate or toss aside, such as the narratives around “being a man” or “having a career” or “being an artist”  that provide context to my life—broadens significantly, and becomes infinitely more detailed.

Consider this thoughtful review of the thinking on identity done by John Stuart Mill (1806 – 1873) and Charles Taylor (1931 – ), proposed by Kwame Anthony Appiah:

The reasonable middle view is that constructing an identity is a good thing (if self-authorship is a good thing) but the identity must make some kind of sense. And for it to make sense, it must be an identity constructed in response to facts outside oneself, things that are beyond one’s own choices. [...]

As Charles Taylor notes, ‘I can define my identity only against the background of things that matter. But to bracket out history, nature, society, the demands of solidarity, everything but what I find in myself, would be to eliminate all candidates for what matters.’ Let me propose a thought experiment that might dissuade those who speak of self-choice as the ultimate value. Suppose it were possible, through some sort of instantaneous genetic engineering,  to change any aspect of your nature, so that you could have any combination of capacities that has ever been within the range of human possibility: you could have Michael Jordan’s fade-away shot, Mozart’s musicality, Groucho Marx’s comic gifts, Proust’s delicate way with language. Suppose you could put these together with any desires you wanted—homo- or hetro-, a taste for Wagner or Eminem. (You might saunter into the metamorphosis chamber whistling the overture to Die Meistersinger and strut out murmuring ‘Will the Real Slim Shady Please Stand Up?’) Suppose, further, that there were no careers or professions in this world because all material needs and services were met by intelligent machines. Far from being a utopia, so it seems to me, this would be a kind of hell. There would be no reason to choose any of these options, because there would be no achievement in putting together a life.
Kwame Anthony Appiah, The Ethics of Identity

It seems to me we’re marching ever closer to this scenario: imagine the scenarios I envisioned above (smarter governments, identities informed by the whole of human decision-making, marketing departments that know everything about how I’ve fashioned my life) and consider the following quote, pulled from a recent set of interviews by Henry Jenkins:

JENKINS: You found that adults and teens had different understandings of the identity play which occurs online. Where do these differences come from?

GOODPLAY: In the dialogues, we asked what the participants saw as acceptable, and what they viewed as the risks and benefits of experimenting with and exploring one’s identity online. Both adults and teens cited the ability to test out an “ideal self” as one of the primary benefits of online identity play. The two groups also identified common risks associated with identity play, such as not being true to yourself or becoming disconnected from your offline self. However, as you note, we did observe differences between adults and teens in their attitudes toward online identity play. In addition to testing out an ideal self, teens mentioned the opportunity to recreate themselves online. Adults, on the other hand, were more likely to celebrate the ability to accentuate existing aspects of their personality.
Henry Jenkins, Confessions of an Aca-Fan: “Meeting of Minds: Cross-Generational Conversations About Digital Ethics (Part One)”, February 26, 2010.

People are already using digital tools to fashion an identity that may be idealized or shifted from “reality”, just in the way a tilt-shift lens modifies a camera’s view of the world (as shown above). They’re using the reactions of their social graph to judge what features of their lives get to stay and which ones have to go. The internet is becoming the “metamorphosis chamber” from Appiah’s thought experiment; unlike Appiah, however, I don’t consider the future state of identity creation much of a dystopia, if only because much of the data that is created is done so without intent. Further, it’ll be a long time before all our physical/material needs are met by perfectly efficient machines; constraints on our ability to create identity will always exist.

But a world where data are used to make decisions within a deeper field of context feels like a better one to me, and it feels like a world with less advertising and more desirable information delivered efficiently to the people who desire it most.

And that’s not so bad. Please let me know if any of that made sense.


New YouTube!

Whoa! New YouTube.

I like. Less features, better features.

Data Overload – Economist

The Economist this week is very choice. If you have the means, I suggest you pick it up. There’s a whole special report on data, why they’re interesting, and how much we’re creating. (I remade these two charts to make them prettier for the internets. Feel free to steal/share.)


  • “Wal-Mart processes 1M transactions every hour, feeding databases estimated at more than 2.5 petabytes”
  • “Oracle, IBM, Microsoft and SAP between them have spent more than $15 billion on buying software firms specializing on data management and analytics.” (And to think I had to ARGUE with people about the value of this whole digital thing.)
  • Bing’s Farecast service analyzes 225 million flight and price records to give you better deals.
  • CERN’s Large Hadron Collider generates 40 terabytes every second (when it’s on).
  • “By 2013 the amount of traffic flowing over the internet annually will reach 667 exabytes, according to Cisco.”

Data are cool. More on this later.