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General


If you haven't seen Klout, take a look. Here's how it works: you give Klout access to Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn via APIs, Klout does some magic analytics on your social media streams and then gives you a score. The score is supposed to encapsulate how influential you are on a given topic. My Klout score is a modest 37.

Ok, great. I love this effort to cut through the cruft and identify who matters with respect to a given topic. I guess I'm just having trouble answering the question: matters for what? Recently, some media outlets (e.g. The Guardian) have made a big deal of Klout's claim that Justin Bieber is more influential than Barak Obama. (OMG!) Klout CEO Joe Hernandez responds on the Klout Blog. Joe says:

At Klout we measure influence across the social web. The point isn’t that Justin Bieber is more influential in the world than Obama, but that he is using social media more effectively to drive more actions from his network than anyone else right now… In the last 24 hours both Obama and Bieber have tweeted links to Youtube videos. The video shared by Bieber has generated nearly 10x the number of views the Obama video has.

Ok, here's my axe to grind, and here is why measuring influence with algorithms, without much context (except a vague topic area like "iPhone"), and without real social connections and interactions is a problem. Hernandez thinks Bieber is more influential because he gets teens to tweet more or watch YouTube videos more. But convincing a teen to Tweet is like convincing a pothead to eat Cheetos: EASY. Likewise, if I run into you in the parking lot of 7-11 and suggest that you go in, you wouldn't call me very influential, even though you'll have a Slurpie in your hand in 90 seconds. Noticing a statistical correlation between these things will get you a "Master of the Obvious" badge.

I don't make any claims about Klout's algorithms, or about the statistics of influence. But I do know that an influential person is someone who persuades you to do something you would not otherwise have done. So any serious discussion of my influence has to compare the likelihood of your doing something in the presence of my influence and in its absence.

It does not appear that Klout is doing this, which leaves me confused about what they are really measuring. (In fairness, maybe they are doing this, but this is not how they're pitching it…) I have a feeling the people they identify are more like the people at the top of information cascades. I guess that's a kind of influence – you get people all lined up in social network channels according to their interests, and then try to figure out where the cascades usually begin. This sort of thing is very important to marketers and brands, because it helps them know who to go to if they want to get something started. Likewise finding these people can be useful to you and me if we want to cut to the chase and hear it from the horse's mouth. But this is really not very much like offline influence.

The Wikimedia Foundation has produced a set of 4 short and beautiful videos that highlight the experiences and identities of everyday Wikipedians. Love it!





Fire! Brimstone! Hyperbole! An unpopular opinion! Apple is not really doomed. But they're in trouble. Yes, the iPad just came out, and the internet had a giant geistgasm. There's no denying, it's a sexy device.

Here's the problem – who wants it? Right now, Mac fanboys (and girls). Soon, a few others who will convert once it's on to v2 with some of the kinks ironed out, next OS version (multi-tasking!!), and the inevitable camera. Kids will love it. Ok, so that's kind of a crowd. Remember, people, this post is about hyperbole! God! You're all so dense!

So, Apple may expand its market a bit, and bring in a few converts who have a need that the iPad matches. But here's the problem. There are two reasons why Apple's introduction of the iPad is a big step backwards for the company:

  1. Apple has always been good at opening genres. They pick a niche – mobile music, smart phones, slates, and they knock v1.0 out of the park. That's what the Cupertino brand of perfectionism and attention to detail in user experience and hardware will get you. In the case of the iPad, they didn't just crack the door on a new genre, they kicked it wide open. And many, many, many others will come pouring through. Soon there will be lots of cheaper, faster, more feature-rich competitors that will run a wider variety of software. So some people will buy an iPad, but others will wait for the HP Slate, or whatever comes next. This was true for the iPhone too, but it took a *really* long time for anyone to rival the iPhone experience. But now we have Android, and soon we will have Windows 7 Phone. Whatever you think of those two OSs, take away the app. store (which is Apple's ace-in-the-hole), make this about devices and OS, and iPhone is not so clearly better. It won't take nearly as long for all the slates to make their way to market. Just a few months from now we'll see them hitting stores, and in a year we'll see what Apple has really gained.
  2. But here's the bigger issue. The ideological issue. Just like Kim Jong Il, Apple has a viciously tight ecosystem, built on secrecy, that has draconian and seemingly arbitrary policies that they enforce through code. Also like Kim Jong Il, they'll tell you it's all for your benefit, comrade user. It makes for a better experience, it allows Apple to make the perfect society… err, phone and keep it that way, free of the imperialist influences of free markets and free culture. That's all good and well, except… well, except that the biggest opportunity for the iPad to open a new market for Apple is in the education space, but those are the very people who will hate the North Korean strategy. Apple is locking out competitors and enforcing arbitrary limitations on free speech, and this is probably just the beginning. It's the Apple way, or the highway. Well, educators, educational activists, parents won't stand for that. Why would they? Oh, they could just join the enterprise developer program or what have you and circumvent Apple's process. But that will limit educational innovations to private, circumscribed groups. And why get involved with a company that might endanger your ability to teach what you want when you can get a cheaper, faster device that has none of those restrictions? Apple shot itself in the foot. It had a chance to release a groundbreaking device and capture a new market. But that chance is slipping away, further and further each time they do some crazy shit. Apple, you make me so crazy. If you'd only open your fist I would take your hand!!

Update: Wow! This post has generated some angry response (see below). A few responses:

    1. Note that the entire post is tongue-in-cheek hyperbole, which I admit and joke about in the very first sentences. Some people seem to have taken it very, very seriously!
    2. Yes, I compared Apple's policies to Kim Jong Il and Apple to North Korea (see #1). That's name calling. But while I said extreme things about Apple, many of these commenters are saying them about me. Guys, you don't know me. Control yourselves! I'm just a blogger than no one reads! Strange what the internet does sometimes. Grr! You criticize Apple! Me criticize YOU!
    3. Many folks seem to have missed the entire point of my post, which is: (1) the iPad will face serious competitors with equal or better hardware and OS much more quickly than they did with the iPhone, and (2) Apple had a chance to open a huge new market with the iPad, but is shooting itself in the foot with its draconian policies.
    4. Cool out, people. Writing these serious, angry diatribes makes you look a little silly, detracts from the good arguments you write.
  • I'll be at CSCW in Savannah in a couple of weeks to present a paper I wrote with Coye entitled: Readers are Not Free-Riders: Reading as a Form of Participation on Wikipedia
    Anyway, in preparation for the "Madness" session, and because I had some creative juices to spill, I spent some hours working on this:


    (Click for a larger image.)

    John Tierney reviews Jaron Lanier's brand new bookYou Are Not a Gadget: A Manifesto – in yesterday's New York Times. I ordered it today. I have to admit I'm pretty wary of any new book with the word "Manifesto" in the title. Seems awfully cocky to me. Reading Tierney's review, I suspect Lanier's book will be provocative, but I suspect I'll disagree with most of it. Why would Lanier want to throw in with folks like Andrew Keen and Jonathan Zittrain, seemingly trying to make a buck or a headline by pointing out the horrible things that the internet will lead us to? Let's fight the technological determinist tendency to argue that the internet is a great beast that has us in its grips and is marching us back to its lair.

    I'm going to reserve judgment until I read the thing, although I admit it's hard. People do not seem very tolerant of this tumultuous (but exciting!) period in which we're trying to figure out the whole always-on, massive collaboration, cloud computing, social norm changing thing that's going on. I for one am content to give it time.

    The deluge of data and analysis on Twitter is continuing to roll. By the time the 10,000 conference and peer-reviewed papers get published in the next 6-8 months, they'll all have been scooped by the folks who are doing public analysis for other audiences.

    First, there's a paper by Mor Naaman, Jeffrey Boase, Chih-Hui Lai called "Is it Really About Me? Message Content in Social
    Awareness Streams" (PDF). Among a variety of interesting and nuanced findings, the authors show evidence that about 80% of Twitter users are "meformers" – people whose Tweets are mostly about themselves. Only 20% were in the "informer" category – people who share information about other topics.

    Surprisingly, TechCrunch has lately been the source of seemingly high quality data about Twitter. In addition to Geoff Cook's great guest post on Why Teens Don't Tweet, back in October Robert Moore posted a huge amount of data and longitudinal analysis.



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    And, just today, TechCrunch has news from Comscore that Twitter's growth has basically flattened out for both international and US users, this despite a recent push of new features and new languages. In September I predicted the demise of Twitter, and this seems to be the first stage. 2009 was definitely their year – arguably no technology was more popular, more widely talked about than Twitter was this year. 2010 will be the year of soul searching for Twitter, where the new-ness wears off, new features don't gain the expected traction, and the company continues to look for a reliable business model. If Twitter has a big future, it's going to be as a messaging platform that underlies more interesting services.

    As most people who read the iSchool's mailing lists know, I got pretty excited about the DARPA Network Challenge. If you haven't heard, it's a competition in the spirit of the DARPA Grand Challenge. The idea is that on a particular day in December, for a few hours only, DARPA will fly 10 large red weather balloons in 10 different locations, somewhere near a road, somewhere in the US. The challenge is to find them all. Sounds easy, right?

    I like what DARPA is thinking here. We know that internet-based tools have helped people coordinate massive jobs on the fly. The best recent examples of collective efforts enabled by the internet were the searches for Jim Gray's lost sailboat and Steve Fosset's downed plane. Unfortunately, neither search turned up anything. Both of those examples were a carpet bombing approach. We all had one job: search satellite photos for clues. This challenge is a little different, but much more like the kind of thing we might want to mobilize for nationally in response to crisis. Those balloons could be anywhere. They'd be hard to spot. And depending on how hard DARPA wants to make this thing, a good portion of them are likely to be stationed in rural America. Since they announced the challenge a few weeks back, DARPA has updated the rules to say that if no one finds all 10 they'll give out the prize to the first team to find at least 5. This tells me it's going to be hard. Awesome!

    Dumb Ideas

    The web is full of commentary on this, and I'm repeating a lot of it. Here's a quick review of very dumb ideas, ranked in order to dumbness.

    1. Send people out looking. Some people think the answer to this is to get a big group of people to drive out looking for these balloons. It seems rational on the face of it, like DARPA planned a big game of hide and seek. But this is very dumb. No group will be large enough to cover the necessary ground in time. Ryan's back of the envelope calculation:

      To aid with calculations, according to the CIA World Factbook there are 2,615,870 miles of paved roads in the U.S. If we assume that DARPA only considers 80% of those roads eligible for this challenge, and an average speed of 45MPH, it would take 46,500 hours to travel those roads, which is just under 2000 (person-)days. So how many people do you need in order to scout out all this terrain?

    2. Offer a cash bounty and watch the tips roll in. Many teams think this will be won by offering to split the winnings amongst people who submit the locations of balloons. Nuh uh. First of all, we have a repeat of problem one above: how are people going to find these things, by driving around looking? Second, who is going to go driving around on the basis of a cut of the $40,000 prize? The problem with that is most people would view it like a lottery: you'll give me $3,000 for submitting the balloon location if I find it, but the chances that our team will win are so small anyway. Offer cash prizes and a very small group of committed people might be motivated to go driving around, but you won't get very far with that.
    3. Look at satellite photos. Again, this sounds smart on the face of it, but it's not. This blog post on the subject puts it nicely:

      The very best resolution you’ll realistically get is 1.6 ft, meaning an 8ft red balloon will take up about 19 pixels. That’s not bad, but that’s only under ideal conditions, so if you’re trying to automate the process of finding those 19 pixels with computer vision, you’re going to get a lot of false positives (see below).

      To that add the issues of weather (clouds make balloons hard to see from above) and cost (it would be way more than $40k). You might imagine a collective effort like the Jim Gray search, but good luck getting enough people to care about this.

    4. Data Mining. Armies of computer scientists read about this problem and started to design their Twitter crawlers to look for the inevitable flood of 'OMG WTF Red Balloon?' messages. This is the least dumb of the dumb ideas because they will actually find some balloons this way. It's a tiny fraction of people who know about this DARPA challenge, but there are plenty of people who might be curious about a giant red balloon in their neighborhood. But let's not get too carried away. This is still dumb. Reason: there are only like 12 people in the US who use Twitter. Ok, I'm exaggerating (a lot) for effect. But the point is, it's a small fraction of Americans who use Twitter and, more importantly, they mostly live in about 3 cities. Check out this beautiful NY Times visualization of Twitter usage during the Superbowl in Feb. Now try to estimate the fraction of the country in which there were no Tweets at all… Roops.

    How to Win

    So, as much as I like to critique other people's ideas, I'd like to offer my own opinion on how to win this challenge.

    1. Forget cash. Splitting up the prize money will do no good. If you're going to motivate people to help with the challenge, it's going to be based on non-monetary, social psychological incentives. In other words, they're going to help because they're interested, because they think it's fun. So…
    2. Focus on the hard to find balloons. I'm guessing somewhere between 3-6 of the balloons will be stationed in social media dense areas, so a lot of people will find them in the first few hours, and they'll be a lot of easy to spot chatter about it on Twitter and Facebook. So figure on someone else finding those, and worry about the balloons in that vast swath called middle America.
    3. Harness the people who are out anyway. We can develop as many sophisticated motivational schemes as we want. We can donate the money to charity or get a major celebrity to mobilize people. We can design games with prizes and achievements and badges. Yay! The problem is that it's still a lot to ask of people to go driving around. So, why not get the people who are out driving anyway? Partner with trucker organizations. Get road trippers and cops. These are people who are driving anyway, so all the incentives have to do is get them to report in. Reporting and verification will still be an issue. So is communication. Truckers use CB radio, so design a an automated CB messaging interface. Road trippers are bored out of their minds, so make the balloons part of a big game of I SPY. Design an iPhone app. and give away instant music downloads – road trippers need new music! I'm not saying that's easy. Just easier.

    Prediction

    My prediction is simple: no one will find all 10 balloons. The winning team will find 5-6 at most. Most people will drastically underestimate the magnitude of this challenge. If DARPA wants to make this hard (and I think they do), they can make it VERY hard. The problem is that the only people who could reasonably plan this in time are the teams of technologists who think they can solve this through data mining alone. But they can't. Strategies with a real chance of winning would take too long to develop. DARPA will re-issue the challenge and up the ante.

    Update: A few new ideas and predictions here. I'm so excited! Tomorrow's the day!

    I've written in the past about how expectations of privacy and free web-based services are on a collision course. This morning, NPR has a story about another importance consequence of free. Google Voice (which is free) is blocking thousands of calls to other free conference-call services, which are usually based in rural areas in places like Iowa. Part of why those conference call companies can be free is because they take advantage of a Federal law that allows rural phone companies to charge higher rates in order to spur competition. Those higher rates are paid by your phone service provider, not directly by you. But Google Voice doesn't want to pay higher rates, so it's started blocking calls to those services.

    Free service, meet free service. FIGHT! Google's issue is that, to remain free, it's got to be cheap. Very cheap. They can't be paying higher fees! The math just doesn't work out. But this situation illustrates another issue with our expectations of free: if free services have to be cheap, does that mean we can expect lower quality service? Does that make free services a race to mediocrity? Google Voice certainly seems to be heading that way. What's frustrating is that many people won't care… until a service they use gets cut in cost savings.

    What's even more troubling is that Google is arguing that it's not a phone company, so it can play by its own rules. Federal laws prohibit phone companies from blocking numbers, precisely because universal access is a communicative public good (using Fulk et. al's terminology). But Google just provides a piece of software that piggy-backs on the web. Well, excuse me, but that is bullsh*t, and regulators will soon show Google Voice that. When they do, will it be the end of Google Voice?

    This past week I took a short trip to Yosemite to climb Half Dome. Along with my wife, brother, sister-in-law, and father, we started in the Yosemite Valley, and hauled ourselves and our packs up some very steep slopes, backpacking for several nights and enjoying the peace of the high Sierra.

    Half Dome
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    If you've been up Half Dome, you know all about this. If you haven't, let me try to explain how ridiculous it is. You begin in Yosemite Valley at about 4000 feet, and begin the climb straight up past two waterfalls, Vernal and Nevada. We chose the Mist Trail (not so misty this time of year), which consists of a series of steep granite steps and switchbacks. About 2000 vertical feet and almost 3 miles later, you're at the top of the falls. Now hike another 2 miles (and 1000 vertical feet) to the base of sub-dome, where the hard work begins. A vertical-seeming face with switchback steps cut into it. Get to the top, and your reward is pictured to your left: a final, slick face of 50+ degree rock face with two thick metal cables running up it. Metal poles and slats are placed every so often. Grab a pair of gloves and haul yourself up. Stupid, right? Not as stupid as trying to get down, shimmying from slat to slat because your boots have almost no traction at all.

    Well, we survived. Certainly there was spectacular scenery, but the most memorable part of the trip for me was being on the cables. It's like nothing I've ever done. On the side of this slick rock, hanging precariously off of a metal cable along with fifty or so other people. But somehow the only drama is a fallen water bottle or two.

    In my research I frequently use the notion of social value orientation (SVO). The idea is that people have certain general dispositions towards the distribution of rewards from themselves and others. You've got the self-interested folks who worry about themselves. You've got the competitive folks who try to maximize the difference between themselves and others. And you've got the pro-social folks who worry about others.

    Well, being the typical geek that I am, I was hanging off of the side of Half Dome and thinking about how my experience speaks to SVO. Getting up and down those cables safely requires that everyone works together. Some people are just worried about their own adventure, bitching about slower climbers and failing to make room for others when they need to. Some people just want to beat everyone – like the intrepid souls who decided to climb outside the wire and blow right past everyone. But most people are considerate and encouraging (pro-social), they help others, they're patient, and concerned for each others' safety. It's the only reason more people don't die out there.

    I think it says a lot about human beings – or at least the people who go to Half Dome – that we can end up hanging on a wire, in a life and death situation (albeit a minor one), and that everyone looks out for each other. My experience mirrors what a lot of the participants in my interview research have been saying about Wikipedia. Why does Wikipedia exist? Why do people put in the time and effort? They believe it's because people are generally good and giving. Because they want to share, and they want to help. I think there are many other motivations that drive people, but I love that people believe in the good as a primary reason. Having been up and down Half Dome recently, it seems like a perfectly reasonable assumption.

    team_fortress_2_group_photo
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    I'm a gamer. I play video games. But unlike many gamers, I play only one game. So, I guess I should say 'I play video game.' I've dabbled around in others, but mostly it's just the one. I play Team Fortress 2 (TF2, for short), created by Valve. I bought this game a few years ago, and I've been hooked ever since. But, you know, I'm not addicted. I could quit any time.

    I continue to be amazed at how it keeps my attention over time. In fairness, I was enabled in this time-sucking pursuit by an unlikely conspirator: my academic adviser, Coye Cheshire (also a closet gamer). As it happens, being directed towards this particular game was fortunate given my areas of research. For someone who studies online collaboration, social psychological incentives, and computer-mediated communication, TF2 is like a giant sandbox with one of those amazing lever-operated wooden backhoes. Engaging deeply with TF2 has convinced me of these things, which I hope also to convince you of:

    1. Valve is brilliant. Team Fortress 2 is brilliant.
    2. With respect to incentives and community management, Team Fortress 2 is the most socially advanced game of its type.
    3. TF2 should be a model for designing and implementing effective incentives for online participation.

    Over the next few weeks I'm going to post on a variety of topics and, I hope, 100% convince you of these statements.

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