Friday, December 17, 2004

The three-axis auto-match and

I met my girlfriend, Andrea, through, and thus I view the capabilities of such matching services in a fairly positive light. However, onece one sets out on the quest of finding across distance that "perfect someone" via multilple search categories, one must commit to the notion that an ever-more-perfect search mechanism will yield ever-more-perfect results.

The previous post on Matt Jones' bookshelf and my forthcoming post on location-based blogging beg the question -- what are fast and easy ways to identify whether someone is likely your type? I would argue that you can analyze three axes and get very good results on the interesting-conversation front, and probably the I-want-to-date-you front as well:

1) Personal: Height/weight/gender/gender preference/availability. Just the basics.
2) Bookshelf: What do you have on yours?
3) Geo-log -- where have you been, and how much time have you spent there?

Voila. A whole new way of doing dating.

More on Amazon - "My Work Bookshelf"

My Work Bookshelf
Originally uploaded by blackbeltjones.

Someone with the screen-name 'blackbeltjones' has uploaded his work bookshelf onto Flickr and annotated the jpg with the actual titles of the books. Can I just say that a) Flickr rocks b) this is a cool idea and c) this is an obvious extension of the content of my previous post on this subject. Prabal, are you taking note?

Click through on this photo to the right, and the full coolness will be revealed.

Tuesday, December 14, 2004

Real search engines and great search engine humor (no, really!)

If you think that Google is the end-all and be-all, read John Battelle on IBM's WebFountain. Wow. That is how a search engine is supposed to work, but the reason you can't access it is that it costs too much per query to give to you for free, and you're too cheap to pay for it.

I can't remember where it was that someone pointed out to me that the true genius of Google wasn't that they created such a great search result, but that they created a pretty decent search result on a less-computational-cost-per-search than could be repaid by advertising. Per might remember, I need to ask him. (task placeholder)

I am going to cross-post on WebFountain over at Onohoku (link placeholder) because this is the scary shit that is destroying the middle class as we know it, in both corporate and governmental applications. Technology can make you free, and it can also make you a robot (which means 'slave labor' in the original Czech)...

The Battelle piece also led me to a truly wonderful self-parody hidden within the Google corporate site. I won't spoil it other than to say fly over there now and check it out!

Monday, December 13, 2004

More on Amazon and the extended conversation

On a day when Google announces that they're digitizing a number of major libraries, Prabal and I happened to be having a conversation about Amazon and where all this virtual/physical stuff is going.

Here are a couple of datapoints.

Firstly, Amazon has this handy "search inside the book" feature which allows full-text searching of books.

Secondly, Amazon now does this very handy "this book references... this book is referenced by..." relational search for references to and from the book.

Now. Most people's libraries are made up of books published in the last 20 years. The vast majority of these books have bar codes on them, which either contain or link directly to the ISBN number of the book in some database online somewhere. Here's a scenario:

January 1, 2005: Amazon places a special offer on its website. By clicking in a special box on their order form, for just $5.99, Amazon will include in your order a USB bar-code reader and a CD with special book-organizing software -- kind of like iTunes for your books. When you receive the software and plug in the reader, you can scan the bar code on every book you own; and for the ones that don't have bar codes, you can type in the ISBN or Library of Congress catalog number. That combination will allow your average book owner to get 90% of their library online at a rate of about five books a minute, or a few hours for a reasonable library of 1000 books. Press a button, and your entire library is uploaded to Amazon.

Some trust and fair-use issues would need to be resolved; Amazon might negotiate with the holders of the copyrights that anyone who physically scanned a bar code would get unrestricted search and access to the text of the books online. Perhaps this would be limited to books you'd bought through Amazon, and they would effectively get into the DRM business. Books that you'd typed in the LC or ISBN number would need to be managed a bit more closely; perhaps such books would drive a query from the site to look up and enter a quotation from a chapter in the book, or some such method of ensuring that the customer actually held a physical copy.

This would also lead to issues with people walking into bookstores and scanning books. However, this battle will be fought soon over cell phones with good cameras in them. Already in Japan, it is reported as a serious issue that kids will enter bookstores and snap photos of pages in magazines that are of particular interest to them.

What would the result of such an upload be? Suddenly, one could manage and search one's personal library online. Search from a text perspective, anyway. Soon I'm going to get around to writing about the "fruit theory" which causes me to believe that books on bookshelves -- even lots of them, such as my library of about 3000 books -- are a highly efficient mental model by which to keep track of information. What's a great example of this? Prabal takes pictures of his bookshelves. He has shelves and shelves of books in Ohio, whereas he is in California -- and he knows where on the shelf a certain book is (efficient mental model). With the picture, he can a) remind/search to a greater degree of precision and b) tell his wife Wendy using a coordinate system that he might not remember, but can now communicate, e.g. "it's a little to the left of the big red book on the 2nd shelf from the bottom," and FedEx does the rest.

For manifold reasons, people are always? or at least for a very long time, going to want real physical books. This combined system would be a beautiful way to combine the benefits of the virtual and physical, and Amazon would be dumb or nuts (and they are neither) not to pursue it.

And then... Steve Wozniak is doing virtual/physical integration via his "Wheels of Zeus" startup -- which is aimed at the "where's my stuff" personal RFID market. For a deluxe package of $59.95, Amazon could mail out a combined RFID/bar code scanner and a big sticker sheet of WoZ tags... and not only you, but your entire family , could suddenly find and access all those great books on your shelves.

The combination of web-based management, personal possessions which come from a limited dataset, and scanning/tagging technologies is going to be flat-out amazing. Imagine managing your wine collection this way. Your tools. Your shoes. Anything (unlike CDs) where the virtual must remain no matter how far digitization goes.

This is gonna be cool.

And the best thing is, besides this great conversation, we had a billion-dollar idea tonight! Now we just need a billion-dollar implementation... ;-)

Friday, December 03, 2004

The Extended Conversation

I stole this citation from John Battelle's Searchblog. But it's cool enough that I want to write about it myself.

"Rageboy" has discovered, and briefly discussed, that Amazon is now providing hypertextual citation in both directions -- showing both the books that are cited in Book A, and all the books that cite Book A. This means that you can now not only find out all about Book A, you can quickly ascertain where Book A sits in the entire pantheon of scholarship in its topical field. The similarity of this to Google's PageRank algorithm will not be lost on any of the search cognoscenti, and the potential of that alone is enormous -- in addition to reading review, finding out "people who bought also bought," and looking at best-seller lists, I can now choose my books on the basis of how often they are cited, or how broadly they cite -- powerful applications of the "hubs and authorities" model which underlies PageRank. When this is suitably combined with a nice visualization and discovery tool like TouchGraph, we might really be on to something. Three cheers for social networks of data!!

Thursday, November 04, 2004

Final Results: Givers for Kerry, Takers for Bush

A few weeks ago, I posted a comparison between the Presidential polls and the Tax Foundation's tax tables on state-by-state net federal tax receipts (taxes collected vs. federal spending). Now that the people have spoken, I have updated this table to reflect the final results. It's still a very strong correlation:

Givers for Kerry, Takers for Bush.

No wonder we have an enormous deficit...

tax to vote final 2004
Originally uploaded by onohoku.

Tuesday, October 19, 2004

Types of Social Gatherings

Brainstorming with Andy about different types of social gatherings and their purposes.
This is neither complete nor fully sorted. (DRAFT)

Sports --> Teams get together to compete, fans get together to be entertained and vicariously compete.
House party --> people get together to socially network, which is fun.
Conference --> Information exchange and social networking
Bazaar --> Buying and selling; commerce.
"Activities" --> pleasurable activity -- like dinner (tasty) skiing (fun) hiking (fun and exercise)
"Activities" (b) --> Practice - increase skill for performance or competition
Performance (e.g. symphony) --> expertise/skill (of players) pleasure (of audience)
Cause --> result (fundraiser, politics, etc.)
Collaboration --> work/task
Education --> information exchange only (vs. +social NW of conference)
Interfaces (Waltzbot/DDR; karate-bot; musical instruments that are net-enabled and data-capture-laden)

Types of outputs of work/collaboration:
--> document
--> object a car, a chair, a house)
--> idea (this brainstorm... if we didn't write it down - docs are frozen ideas)
--> other action (e.g. Karl Rove gets you to vote Republican; his action begets your action)
--> performance? How does practicing for a play fit in? What is created there?

Thursday, October 14, 2004

Divded States: Givers for Kerry, takers for Bush?

Timothy Noah wrote an interesting piece on Slate today, which defends Massachusetts against the implicit attacks which George W. Bush levelled against it last night. The core of Noah's argument is that the much-maligned liberal hotbed of "Taxachussets" pays a heck of a lot more into federal coffers than it takes out -- in other words, it is a net giver to the country as a whole.

He links to Tax Foundation table of federal expenditures and receipts state-by-state.
I found this table absolutely fascinating.

I dropped this data into Excel, re-ordered the states by their FY2002 rank, and created a new column which represents the current (as of today) state poll standings for Kerry vs. Bush, taken from Using Excel's handy conditional formatting, I colored this column blue if Kerry is +4 or greater, red if Bush is +4 or greater, and grey if the state is from -3 to +3.
The results are quite interesting, to say the least.
I am happy to send this original Excel document to anyone who wants it, but I have attached, for easy viewing purposes, a .jpg of the table. The main impact is visual, and the message it conveys is simple:

States which are net givers to the federal pie predominantly vote for Kerry, while states that are net takers from the federal pie predominantly vote for Bush.

This Bush hegemony of the dependent includes a large number of Western and Great Plains states where the "culture of self-sufficiency" and derision of poor urban welfare freeloaders are wildly predominant points of view.

A couple other observations jump out:

1) Just 16 states (about 1/3) are net givers, while 32 (about 2/3) are net takers. Two (FL, OR) are even at 1.00. This means that, grossly speaking, the givers have large economies, while the takers have small economies. Since the leading 16 are dramatically more liberal than the trailing 32, we can also conclude that as one's economy grows and one's state becomes more prosperous, it also becomes more liberal.

2) This is most aptly demonstrated by the case of Colorado, which has leaped 17 places on the list between 1992 and 2002, from significant net taker (1.06) to significant net giver (.79). In the same 10 years, the modern economy of Colorado has exploded; its population has vastly increased; and the state has become significantly more liberal, to the point where it remains very much in play for the Presidental election, despite its as-of-today +6 for Bush poll standing.

I could go off in any number of directions with this data set, but I'll leave that to the members of the list. If I have the time, I intend to drop in some state GNP data, and also electoral-vote data and possibly population data, so we can see the typical profile of liberal vs. conservative states.

Two points that I will add are:

a) I am just now finishing Neal Stephenson's 3-volume, 3000 page novel on the Baroque era, when both the Scientific Revolution and the commercial revolution transformed first England, and then the world. Stephenson has done a superb job of laying out that the competing factions of Whigs & Tories in England fought, quite explicitly, over whether the wealth of England would be based on commerce (the Whigs) or on land (the Tories, allies of the aristocracy). Fortunately for all of us, the Whigs won - I'm much happier as I am that I would have been as a gentleman's man-servant, I suspect. This recent exposure to these ideas, when added to the visual impact of this attached data, causes me to wonder if similar arguments can be made -- on the basis of this hard data -- about the different political parties of the United States.

b) I am going to go way out on a limb, and say that not only will Kerry win the election, but that he will win the election by capturing swing states Colorado, Ohio, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Nevada, Florida, and New Jersey. A glance at the list will demonstrate why I chose these.

Tuesday, August 03, 2004

Watch the election unfold... poll by poll

The sort of information aggregation that Electoral Vote is doing is really quite impressive. With a little bit of elbow grease and a good web implementation, they are presenting a very interesting and valuable piece of present knowlege out of a flurry of confusing numbers and statistics. This sort of interest-driven site is a classic example of user-created content, and in the same way that the PTA makes your kid's school run better, these people are subtly but definitely improving the workings of our world. Well done.

Wednesday, May 05, 2004

Social Network Theory applied to Political Books

I continue to find social networks of information more interesting and informative than social networks of people. Perhaps this is because the richness of data available for mining on the Web of social information is so much greater. In five years, I can imagine that the existence of long data exhausts from, Friendster, political donation lists, Yahoo groups, etc., will create equally viable information sources for human social networks.

In the meantime, what we have to play with are social networks of information. Google, of course, is the exemplar of this field, with its PageRank algorithm based heavily on "what other sites think" of a given website. Amazon's 'people who bought X, also bought Y' is another fertile field; and we have a fascinating new analysis of political bestsellers from Valdis Krebs.

Here is the network map of the top 100 political books on Amazon, arranged according to their degree of relatedness. It demonstrates what Krebs rightly calls 'echo chambers' of thought on both the left and the right, with "debate replaced by hate" at the extreme margins, where partisans of both the left and right consistenly buy a tightly grouped set of books that most strongly reinforce each other.

This is a demonstration of the increasing segmentation of America, where sophisticated marketing, geographic mobility, and the twin philosophies of voter and consumer choice have enabled seemingly similar American citizens to exist in completely separate realities.

As an aside, I highly, highly recommend Charlie Wilson's War, which is one of the few books in this diagram read by both left and right. It's a superb story about rea-world people, and real-world politics, accomplishing literally unbelievable feats during the the closing years of the Cold War.

Wednesday, March 03, 2004

Changing the Laptop Game

A new generation of laptops is out, with very similar specs. IBM's new T-series, the Sony Vaio Z1 series, and Dell's Inspiron 600m all offer seemingly simple upgrades over previous generations of notebooks:

Sub 5 pounds (4.5 - 5.0 across the three)
Fast processors (1.5-2Ghz Centrinos)
Integrated wireless
Fantastic battery life (~ 4 hours)
Integrated CD-RW/DVD drives
Superb screens -- all three offer 14.1 inch SXGA+ 1400x1050 screens. Just to be clear -- this is almost twice as many pixels (1,470,000) as a high-res 1024x768 screen (786,000)

So what, you say? That's what I thought. I've been using my trusty March 2000-era Vaio F-480 for four years now, and I loved it. It was only its increasing mechanical creakiness from about 400,000 miles of use that finally made me buy a new laptop -- and I had no real expectations of a life-changing experience, because I'm not an early adopter tech-head.

WoW!! Was I surprised?!!

My new machine -- a Vaio Z1VAP -- is phenomenal. The keyboard is better than any I've used, even better than the wonderful one on the F-480. My one (small) beef is that the absence of separate home, end, pgup, and pgdn keys makes fast editing difficult -- these are critical keys for sentence, line, and paragraph selection, and pressing ctrl+fn+down arrow is a hack. But this gripe is utterly washed away by the entirely new usage patterns I'm seeing after just two days. The battery actually, uh, works. I can go places with no adaptor -- the thing is light enough to carry and forget about. The screen is incredible. Not only is the resolution surreally sharp, it's brighter and whiter than any display I've ever seen. I assume that the other two machines are using similar quality LCDs, and the difference from 1024x768 is incredible. You truly can no longer see individual pixels in most situations.

This thing is going to change my working life. I spend hours a day in PowerPoint, and I can now see so much more in nearly every view. I spend hours day in email, and I have screen real estate like I never imagined. I am now actually considering buying a Tablet PC, because for the first time in years (since, oh, 1995, when I got my first laptop) I have actually had my user experience significantly changed by new hardware, and I am now open to the idea that additional value might actually exist in a different and innovative hardware configuration.

Go buy one. You can get "low end" versions of all these machines for about $1300, and anyone who's doing anything remotely productive on their PC will get real benefits right away.

Tuesday, February 17, 2004

Reed Hundt on Big Broadband

Reed Hundt, formerly head of the FCC, wrote a recent thing piece on the "inevitability of big broadband". As you might imagine, his speech lays out that it's far from inevitable -- unless the government does something Real Soon Now.

His argument seems to be for the creation of a single, highly regulated, universal high-speed fiber network across the USA, which would be able to pay for itself by charging regulated fees for voice ($40) internet ($25) etc. He views the parallel creation of multiple competing 'mini-broadband' networks by telcos and cable as a bad thing, and the attempt to support the old copper phone system and old universal access scheme as a bad thing.

Smells like Ma Broadband to me.

The piece is surprisingly short on "why to do it" beyond vague hand-waving about how the network will realize untold benefits. Has anyone actually figured out what to do with broadband networks?

One interesting tidbit is Hundt's summary list of all the old "vs." arguments of the past decade:

Since the beginning of convergence, dated from about 1992 (plus or minus a year), the battle to be the primary medium of at least the next decade - the one we are in now - has raged among various antipodal rivals: content vs. conduit, local vs. long distance, wireless vs. wire, data vs. voice also sort of known as packet vs. circuit, communications vs. computing, network vs. edge, and copper vs. HFC (also known as telco vs. cable). Other, possibly lesser dialectics include satellite vs. terrestrial and broadcast vs. cable. Convergence describes then a clash of networks, businesses, and even cultures.

Monday, February 16, 2004

Microsoft -- winner of the coming convergence collision and the next media empire?

William Safire, whose conservatism is on best behavior when he's focusing on the important issue of media consolidation, has just predicted that Microsoft will become one of the three biggest media companies in the world, acquiring ABC/Disney, NBC, or possibly even both.

Remember, Microsoft is sitting on a $49 billion cash reserve the last time that anyone checked.

Bob Cringely, who is entertaining even when he's not prescient, has an entertaining and possibly prescient claim that Microsoft is laser-focused on owning the next generation of converged computing/entertainment/communications through control of underlying protocols such as Windows Media Player 9. What Bob is probably missing here is that Bill Gates is as likely to fight the next war (media) as the last war (standards). Why worry about owning the standards when you can just own the media (or a large chunk of the media) itself?

Over in the communications side of the converging global future, AT&T Wireless is being sold to either Vodafone or Cingular; and win or lose, one of these two will almost certainly merge or acquire T-Mobil in the U.S. within the next 18-24 months. This will shake the U.S. cellular market (long overdue, pundits say) down to perhaps 3 1/2 companies by 2006 -- uber-dogs Verizon/Sprint (on compatible CDMA) and Vodafone/AT&T/T-Mobil or Cingular/AT&T/T-Mobil; and trailing lap-dog Nextel, plus one other component that somehow loses out of the great mating dance.

All of this is about the same thing -- convergence of communications, computing, and media/entertainment. The stakes are simply all the money in the world. Enjoy the show!

Tuesday, February 10, 2004

Barney Pell Responds on the Value of SNS

My unidentified uber-LinkedIn friend in the previous post is Barney Pell. I sent him a link to the piece, and he's responded thoughtfully and at length. I'll attempt to address some of his points in a forthcoming piece, but on others, he's probably got me pinned. Three cheers for network-mediated pruning of ideas!

Barney writes:

Initial vs intended use: it's definitely a good point.

To paraphrase: Initial use is just playing around, people won't pay for
it, and we have no evidence that people will pay for the intended use or
that the intended use will really deliver value for the users at all.


1. There is still value in giving something away for free until the
network effect kicks in and starts driving the intended value. That's
just basic business strategy in networked information goods. Of course
it is risky (napster) but there have been significant successes.

- paypal was free, and paid users to spread it virally, who did so
without much in the way of real transactions for quite a while (I'll bet
the # of paypal users was huge compared to the # of ebay buyers for
quite a while). Then it wound up becoming a money-generating machine.

- and the dating sites ( are money machines.
They all started out free until they built their network. It doesn't
take a huge imagination to see that the social networking sites
(friendster, tribe, orkut, etc) can compete in the dating game once they
hit sufficient scale.

- for that matter, napster might well have made money had it not been
for the lawsuits. I disagree that they failed to monetize completely.
It is quite possible that their time ran out before they managed to
monetize, in which case the lawsuits were a material cause of this
failure (not a red herring as you suggest).

2. That these SNS sites are growing so fast leads one to ask whether
there might in fact be true value even in the initial use (besides
entertainment from building a network). One such value is that of
"organizing and tracking" your friends. People change emails frequently
nowadays (esp personal ones, given spam problems and links to ISPs). If
we all sign up on a SNS, then so long as we update our contact info with
the SNS (which is a condition of use), then we'll be able to continue
to find each other independent of these address changes.

Related to this theme, I have found a recurring pattern on linkedin of
people wanting connections to people they already know but have lost
touch with. And I have been reunited with acquaintances. There really
is power in network connections. It's just like when you meet an old
friend and ask what happened to so and so, and hope that one of you is
still in touch or otherwise tracking the lost acquaintance.

3. If it isn't for the initial value (that of network building and
tracking), we need to ask what these users are expecting to get
eventually. The best time to build a network is when you don't need it.
You only change jobs or need to raise money once in a while, but when
that happens, you really need your network already built. So these
efforts can be viewed as a form of network insurance for future use.

The insurance analogy is actually quite interesting. The ratio of
insurance claimers to insurance payers is probably less than 1%, which
you found so damning with respect to linkedin... Yet people go right on
paying, and it certainly isn't done for mere entertainment value.
Initial costs with the expectation of ultimate benefits are actually
quite standard in traditional markets as well as online services...

And all that was generated at 2AM after a long day's work at NASA. Barney, you really have to start blogging!

Thursday, February 05, 2004

Does Clay Shirky's Howard Dean piece fundamentally question the value of social software?

My previous post discusses Clay Shirky's fantastic analysis of Howard Dean's Internet presence. I've been thinking about the larger implications of this analysis, and I'm beginning to wonder if Clay has actually suggested that many of today's "hot" SNS services are a tempest in a teapot, and that we're wildly over-reacting to them in just the way we did to Howard Dean's seemingly impressive early momentum.

The neatest trick of Clay's analysis is to flip our perceptions of several key Internet-related Dean events on their head:

Shirky quote: "We were right to be excited about this MeetUp, but wrong about the reason, because MeetUp was founded to lower the coordination costs of real world gatherings... Prior to MeetUp, getting 300 people to turn out would have meant a huge and latent population of Dean supporters, but because MeetUp makes it easier to gather the faithful, it confused us into thinking that we were seeing an increase in Dean support, rather than a decrease in the hassle of organizing groups."

Ethan's derived lesson: Old-world metrics (300 people at a political gathering) are not applicable to new-world-driven phenomena.

Shirky analysis: "Dean's campaign was never actually successful. It did many of the things successful campaigns do, of course -- got press and raised money and excited people and even got potential voters to aver to campaign workers and pollsters that they would vote for him when the time came. When the time came, however, they didn't. The campaign never succeeded at making Howard Dean the first choice of any group of voters he faced..."

Ethan's derived lesson: It is clear that key metrics (in this case, votes) are crucial in the old world or the new; but old relationships between different metrics (in this case, people at a political gathering --> translates to votes at the poll in some predictable ratio) are not applicable to new-world driven phenomena.

Now how does this apply to social software?

Well, I can't count the number of times I've heard that XYZ product is "the most successful product launch in history." This is always followed by a comparison of number of units of XYZ sold in some unit of time (months, years) as compared to past wild successess like the television, the telephone, the fax machine, the VCR, etc. For instance, here is a Y2K press release saying that the DVD is the most successful CE launch ever. A bit less impressively, RCA claimed similar historic status for the VideoDisc in 1981.

This old-world metric -- units sold in a given timespan -- is reasonably applicable when we consider one electronic device vs. another. While the number of underlying represented changes is large -- better retail distribution, better media publicity for a new product, more central role of media and electronics in consumer life -- we're still in apples:apples territory when we compare the DVD player, VCR, TV, and radio.

Not so SNS. This is for three distinct reasons:

1) Any free product cannot be compared to a product which is purchased.
2) Any ephemeral product (meaning, can be accessed through other than physical means) cannot be compared to a physical product.
3) Any product in which the initial use is different from the intended use cannot be compared to a single-value-proposition product.

Let's break these down.

First point: No consumer product organization in the world -- Proctor and Gamble, for instance -- would dream of conflating demand for a free, bundled, or drastically-price-reduced offering with the eventual market demand for that same product. And yet, the hype and excitement of new-to-the-world products or services, and investments on the back of those products or services, is often based on exactly such incomparable situations. Napster started out free, and stayed free -- and Napster and its investors (notably Hummer Winblad) never saw a dime for the costs they bore. The lawsuits were a sideshow -- Napster's failure to monetize was fatal.

Second point: We all talk about 'stickiness' and 'switching costs' but we forget that it's as easy to become unstuck as to stick, and as easy to switch away as to switch in. Ephemeral one-click-to-join products may attract many, many members or users quite quickly -- Friendster, LinkedIn, etc. being great examples -- but with joining costs near zero, can we really compare this to the consumer awareness and commitment indicated by, for instance, going out and purchasing a DVD player? Hardly. We in the pro-blogging, pro-SNS, pro-software-network-collective world are fond of arguing that there is inherent value in this easy-to-start-up nature -- which is a true statement. But we can't measure new-world services, with new-world joining costs, in old-world ways. This is the Dean mistake which Clay has so rightly pointed out. Clay's piece cautions us that while we can celebrate the ease of one-click joining and the reduction in transactional costs it represents, we must at the same time discount the perceived value of every one-click-casually-joining member. If we don't, we are guilty of having our conceptual cake and eating its hype, too -- and that is the road to red-faced failure in the unforgiving marketplace.

Third point, and to my mind this is the most worrisome: The initial use of SNS is nothing like the intended or expected eventual use, and the claimed value proposition. Every argument I have seen for SNS, and every funded business model with which I am familiar, suggests that people will use the improved informational flow of SNS to do things, and the desire of people to continue to use SNS to do things will be monetizable by the SNS owner. Contrast this with how we use SNS today? We 'use' (if the word 'use' is appropriate, which is highly debatable) SNS to play connect-the-dots with our friends and acquaintances. If you doubt me, empirically measure the amount of time you spend in connect-the-dots vs. the amount of time you spend searching, leveraging, and deriving value from your dot-connected network. As an associated analysis, think about how easily these services enable 'connect the dots' (which is in fact their barrier to entry, rather than their use case) and how easily they enable use of one's existing network. In nearly every case, I would argue that while it is fairly easy to join and connect-the-dots, few if any of the major services have figured out a compelling user experience for actually deriving value from their service. Initial joining-related activities are easy, and in fact a fun diversion -- which, while worth celebrating (turning one's barrier to entry into an engaging game is a Good Thing) strongly suggests that measuring the number of members in a SNS is completely meaningless; a far more 'vote' like metric is the number of people using the network for actual business of some sort.

These numbers are incredibly, embarassingly, surprisingly small.

I recently got a self-puffing email from LinkedIn. One of my very few contacts on LinkedIn happens to be one of the most-linked people on the entire service, so I have a disproportionately large 'network' for my level of participation. That email said, in part:

"Have you noticed how your network has grown? Since you last logged in [note that this was about one week prior to my receipt of this email], 33,300+ professionals have joined your network, and you now have access to 62,800+ contacts who are linked to you through your 7 existing connections... And every day, over 300 LinkedIn professionals request a referral from someone they know..."

That's a fascinating ratio. 33,000 new people in my network (which represents a large percentage of the LinkedIn network, due to my uber-connected acquaintance) as compared to 300 who daily request referrals. That 300, of course, are unlikely to be 100% successful, which means that actual connections made through those referrals will be an even smaller number.

That's an actual LinkedIn use rate of just 1%, and a presumed success rate of even less than 1% -- which is hardly a testament to the power and value of SNS. Most important is the demonstrable fact that on any given day, 99.5% or more of LinkedIn members are not using the service for its intended purpose, even if they are active as beavers building their social networks. I would bet you any amount of money you care to name that on any given day, and despite our constant carping at their limitations, 90+% of the users of Microsoft Office are using those applications for their core intended purpose, and deriving real value from that use.

This core use vs. initial use distinction also applies to other web-based services, and once again SNS comes out looking the poorer. Ephemeral access or not, could tell when it had a customer. That customer a) gave Amazon money on a given purchase in preference to all other retailers that the customer could have used (see first point); and b) in that initial use, used Amazon for its ultimate and intended purpose -- e-commerce -- in completing that transaction. From that single transaction, usage, and addition of a customer, Amazon knew that one person had understood and benefitted from its core value proposition. In the SNS world, Tribe, Spoke, LinkedIn, and their brethren have no similar assurance.

Clay’s outstanding analysis of Dean and the Internet points us toward this final, most worrisome point. Dean’s Internet supporters did a superb, net-enabled job of finding each other, communicating with each other, creating buzz, and even raising money — but they failed at achieving their core goal and metric, which was to get votes for Dean. If other social Internet phenomenona such as SNS are similarly inept at their intended purpose — be it finding dates, selling stuff, or whatever — they will similarly implode, because all the metrics we’re using to measure their success, such as new users and rate of uptake, are as irrelevant as were the Deaniacs and their ultimately ephemeral movement.
Clay Shirky on Howard Dean and the Internet

I am a regular and avid reader of Corante's Many 2 Many group blog; some of the best in the business, including Clay Shirky, Ross Mayfield, and Dave Weinberger are regular contributors.

Despite the very high level of ongoing content creation, Clay's recent piece on Howard Dean and the Internet stands head and shoulders above the rest. It is an absolutely brilliant piece, and contains key insight after key insight. Below are a few teaser excerpts; rest assured that despite the pithy bromidic nature of my quotations, Clay supports each of these in full and fascinating fashion:

"The press has a way of running fast epidemics, where an idea virus runs its course quickly, leaving everyone inoculated in its wake."

"The first time Dean appeared on our radar was when 300 people showed up for a Howard Dean MeetUp in New York City in early 2003...We were right to be excited about this MeetUp, but wrong about the reason, because MeetUp was founded to lower the coordination costs of real world gatherings... The size of the MeetUp in NYC was as much a testament to MeetUp as to Dean... it created a false sense of broad enthusiasm. Prior to MeetUp, getting 300 people to turn out would have meant a huge and latent population of Dean supporters, but because MeetUp makes it easier to gather the faithful, it confused us into thinking that we were seeing an increase in Dean support, rather than a decrease in the hassle of organizing groups."

"Margaret Mead once said “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed people can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” Generations of zealots have tacked these words up on various walls, never noticing that the two systems that run the modern world – markets and democracies — are working right precisely when they defeat these attempted hijackings by small groups."

"Money does not in fact buy votes, as candidates like Michael Huffington and Ron Lauder have shown — you can be very rich and still very lose. In Dean’s case, though, the effect was compounded by two other effects from above. By moving campaign donations online, they made it much easier to donate, so much easier in fact that raising millions from individuals was never the sign of strength we thought it was. (Support isn’t votes.) Like MeetUp, a lot of what the campaign achieved was by lowering the threshold to contributing, which helped create a false sense of strength."

"Since the 1970’s, anyone who has looked at the cultural effects of the internet has picked the same key element: the victory of affinity over geography. The like-minded can now gather from all corners, and bask in the warmth of knowing you are not alone... Voting, though, is the victory of geography over affinity. Deaniacs in NYC could donate money and time, blogging like mad or tramping through the cold to talk to a handful of potential voters, but they couldn’t actually vote anywhere but NYC. Iowa was left up to the Iowans."

Absolutely brilliant stuff. There are more real insights in this single piece than a week of the New York Times' editorial page. I cannot recommend it highly enough.
Spybot Search & Destroy: Remove your spyware

I think that one of the most important uses of blogs is social filtering of information. So when I find a product that I really, really, like, I am going to write about it and link to it, so that you can find it here; and I can participate in the collective web of recommendation and trust that allows us to have some confidence in unknown-to-us vendors and products in the great mishmash that is the Internet today. With some reports of spyware posing as spyware removal tools, this sort of real-person filtering for what works is crucial.

Spybot Search & Destroy is the best spyware removal tool. It's fast, efficient, is updated regularly, and simply works. It combines an easy interface and complete user control, which is harder than you might imagine. Best of all, it's free. Get Spybot Search & Destroy here.

If you don't trust me (heh, heh) PC World says Spybot S&D is great, and PC Magazine says Spybot S&D is wonderful.

This message brought to you by me.

Monday, January 26, 2004

Visualizing Social Networks -- PieSpy

This is a newly released tool for visualizing social networks over IRC chat. What I find most useful about this site is the detailed discussion of both SNS representation and visualization algorithms, at a high enough level to be comprehensible to the non-programmer. If you want to know how the many visual tools such as Touchgraph work, check this out.

Thursday, January 22, 2004

Touchgraph and Amazon

Alex Shapiro over at Touchgraph (proof that Open Source can be truly innovative!) has added an Amazon browser to the way-cool Google browser. For all you teenage girls out there, there's a LiveJournal browser as well. The Amazon implementation is based on 'customers who bought also bought' and the discussion includes a link to a good IEEE article on recommendation algorithms, including collaborative filtering, cluster algorithms, and search-based methods. The article serves as a handy collaborative filtering primer.

Wednesday, January 21, 2004

Social Networks, Information Economics, and Search

SNS has become a big enough field with sufficient internal dialogue that it's easy to forget that the promise of the whole shebang can be reduced to a single sentence:

Reducing informational exchange costs, particularly transactional search costs, through leveraging existing information exchange pathways such as personal relationships.

That's it.

We're reminded of that singular purpose by a new SNS-driven search engine, Eurekaster. Danny Sullivan over at Search Engine Watch has a good article on this new twist on a major field.

And yes, Eurekaster, you should offer your service as a layer built on top of the Google API. That API is a fantastic tool for developers and experimenters; the fact that it acts as an innovation magnet for Google, by which the company can observe --> copy or observe --> acquire promising new technologies is just the price of the piper.

Monday, January 19, 2004

Interest cost and real value

While I am talking about property, I'll throw out another thought. It's conventional wisdom that home-buyers are most sensitive to their monthly payment, and declines in interest rates drive up selling prices in a near-perfect inverse relationship, as lower interest cost is swapped for higher sticker price, leaving the buyer with the same total cost. Call me contrarian, but I think that buying a house at times of historically low interest rates is madness. Why? Because you're fully leveraged. Let's assume that there is a nominal value to a house, and an actual value. The nominal value is the sticker price -- say, $400K for that two-bedroom apartment in Berkeley. Since the vast majority of buyers are on 15- or 30-year mortgages or their functional equivalent, a significant interest cost drives the actual value of the place -- the contracted financial commitment which the buyer undertakes in order to acquire title -- up to something like $700K. In times of low interest rates, this $700K (which is based, conventional wisdom tells us, on the buyer's ability to make 30 years x 12 months x a given monthly payment) might be made up of a nominal/sticker cost of $550K, and an implied interest cost of only $150K. In times of *high* interest rates, that $700K number might be made up of a nominal cost of only $320K, and the same overall total due to a vastly increased interest cost of $380K.

If I buy at a time of high interest rates and low sticker costs, it seems to me that I have nothing but capital gains upside from interest rates, which historically have varied cyclically (and which are due for a massive rise, if our trade deficits and the plummeting value of the dollar are any indication -- but that's another story as well). In addition to my capital gains upside (the nominal--> real value of my place going from $320K to $550K) I have the potential to refinance, getting a low low interest rate on a new mortgage to go with my low nominal cost, giving me a genuine total-cost bargain.

But what if I bought in times of low rates? The nominal value of my property can only fall on a cyclical basis, even if overall rising prices mask this somewhat; and if I've taken a variable-rate mortgage, my interest cost can only go up. In the best case, if I am forced to sell my house for any reason during a high-interest period, I'll lose out on its declined nominal value and avoid (through a fixed rate mortgage) any increase in interest costs. In the worst case, I am faced with a rising monthly payment on an asset whose value is declining precipitously, in an economy which is tanking because interest rates kill business investment. Ouch.

Have I mentioned that I'm feeling very secure being in cash?
Why are Bay Area housing prices still stable or rising?

The New York Times has an article today, the damn-with-faint-praise title of which is Job Losses Slow in Silicon Valley. Seems that we only lost 5% of local jobs in the past year, which is relative cause for celebration after the bloodbath of 2000 - 2003. What is staggering to me is the raw numbers. Peak employment in 2Q 2001 was 1.38 million; now it's 1.18 million, after a loss of 202,000 jobs. Average pay (meaning, I presume, wages; not income, which would have been further inflated by capital gains) was $81.7K in Y2K; it's now $62.4K. A little algegra shows that there was about $112 billion of annual salary in SV in 2000-2001; now there's about $74 billion.

For those scoring at home, that's a decline of more than a third -- 34% -- in local salary from 2000 -- 2003.

Since we are talking wage-earners here, it's not the $2 million options pads in Portola Valley that should be affected, but rather the $500K shoeboxes in Palo Alto and Mountain View. Instead, fueled by historically low interest rates, prices for homes have remained surprisingly robust during the past three years of nuclear winter -- an employment freeze that, if fear-mongering about job outsourcing overseas is true, may never actually end.

Six or nine months ago, you still regularly saw news articles about the 'housing bubble' in America, which laid out a case that people had pulled their money from the stock market and put it into real estate, taking advantage of low rates and upset at the declines in their portfolios. You don't see those articles any more, and yet prices continue to be surprisingly robust. What's going on here?

And yes, I am a frustrated wannabe-homeowner. But boy, does being in cash feel nice! Don't even get me started on the dollar and the 'which currency to be liquid in' question...

Sunday, January 18, 2004

Parties, Food, and Anti-Food

I just threw a dinner party last weekend, and in the post-mortem with my girlfriend, happened upon an interesting concept. The 'dinner party' as formally constructed probably originated around 1900; when the bourgeousie acquired dining tables and formal dining rooms and all the tat necessary to impress the neighbors. The key point of differentiation here is that a 'dinner party' is not for a special occasion like a wedding, funeral, holiday, etc; includes more than just family; and is thrown by people not of the nobility or aristocracy.

Food was then expensive, and manners were formal, so throwing a mini-feast for no particular reason was an impressive thing to do.

Today, dinner parties are all-but-dead; the closest analogue being a BBQ in the back yard during summer. I would suppose that this has a lot to do with cooking skills being on the decline, but I think that in fact the key difference is that food is now cheap, so having a party centered around a meal (when half the people there are likely on a diet) makes very little sense. In fact, most parties I attend these days center around activities -- volleyball in the park and a burrito afterwards; a hike or run in the hills and burgers afterwards; etc. It's as if anti-food has replaced food as the centerpiece of our socializing.

This needs a bit more thought, but it's a dichotomy worth recording in its present inchoate form.

Thursday, January 15, 2004

Visual Representation of Social Networks
Great overview of the visual representation of social networks over the past 30 years. Note to self: Read this in detail!