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Instrumenting People Into Location Services

By - December 08, 2011

So this week a well known VC made the trek to my writing retreat in Marin, and we hung out in a room that until this year was a large storage closet behind my garage. I rethought the space, soundproofed it, added a hodge-podge of AV gear and musical instruments, and named the place the “Ross Social Club”  – on Foursquare, anyway. I haven’t really told anyone that I gave the place a name, but it was sort of an experiment – would anyone ever check in there besides me?

Now I chose that name for various reasons I won’t get into here (another story, one I’ll be glad to tell you over a bourbon). But I like being able to name a space on Foursquare, and it’s become a habit for me to “check in” whenever I actually use the room. It’s like  leaving a digital breadcrumb for me, a record of my new relationship to music (I’m learning to play the drums). A lot of friends hang out there too, often playing their own instruments or riffing on the whiteboards I’ve hung about the place. But  I don’t make it a habit to mention the room’s Foursquare doppelganger. It seems a bit … forced. And as far as I know, many of them don’t use the service.

On the same day I created the RSC on Foursquare (and probably because he asked me what I was doing on my phone), one fellow did check in. With some whimsy, he added a tip: “Try the wings.” It’d make you laugh if you’ve ever been there, trust me. Since then, in the past nine months, countless folks have been through the place, but only one other person has checked in.

Anyway, yesterday this well-known VC came by, and we met in the RSC mainly because it was too loud in my home office (construction going on outside). And as he walked in and sat, he put his iPhone down on a nearby table, as did I. I thought about asking him to check in, but….then I forgot. We spoke for an hour or so, reviewing all manner of things in our industry, discussed our business, and on his way he went.

Then I thought to myself – hey, he should have checked into that space. Then there’d be a record of his visit, and that’d be cool. Kind of like a guestbook of sorts.

But…I don’t even know if the fellow uses Foursquare. And he of course had no idea that the Ross Social Club was “lit up” on the service. And I wasn’t sure mentioning it to him wasn’t, well, kind of dorky.

You see all those social instrumentation and nuance problems I’m having?

Anyway, here’s a thought on one way to add just one wrinkle of nuance to location services. While I’m sure at some point in our collective future the concept of a “place” being digitally “alive” and communicable will be commonplace, at the moment, it’s rare and noteworthy.

As a transition between the two, I’d love a feature on Foursquare (or any other location service, er…say Google, or Facebook, or Twitter…) that allows me to send someone who I’ve been with somewhere (like the VC) an invitation to check in post facto. It’d kind of be like saying “Hey, send your phone over to my house. I’ll check you into the Ross Social Club.” The idea is, he didn’t know he could check in (and I forgot to tell him about it), but I can vouch for his presence there. He should get credit on Foursquare for being there (and the great Database of Intentions would get another bit of data), but he’s back in San Francisco now, so there’s no way for him to check in. But if he “sent his phone over” to me, I could do it for him.

Of course he wouldn’t actually send his phone over, the service would verify me as trustworthy and let me check the VC in on his behalf. But it’d add a rare human element to the service, and I for one would see many uses for it. If nothing else, it’d drive more interaction between people around the platform, and isn’t that what we all want anyway?

Just a random thought. OK, on with work…

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Help Us Shape The Signal Conferences in 2012

By - November 22, 2011

I’ve spent the better part of a few days thinking through the theme(s) of FM’s Signal series of conferences for the upcoming year. I’ve got a ton of thoughts scrawled across my whiteboards, but then a thought woke me up in the middle of the night – why don’t I ask all of you what you think are the most important trends for digital marketing in 2012? (This crowdsourcing thing, it might just take off…).

So I signed up for PollDaddy and created my first ever Searchblog poll. You can pick three of the choices below, and/or add your own topic at the bottom. So help a brother out, and let me know what you think!


Facebook and Commenting Systems: Still Some Open Questions

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I’ve always been quite interested in commenting systems for the Independent Web, and when it came time to redesign this site, I chose to use Disqus, an independent company that is a leader in the space. Disqus has its detractors, but it has many more fans. The company has nearly 1 million sites using the services and is rolling out new features very quickly.

I did make a conscious choice to *not* use Facebook’s Commenting system. And while I could have justified the decision on pure features (I think Disqus still wins there), it’s more based on my belief in the Independent Web. I prefer to not have this valuable portion of my own domain controlled by a major identity platform with which I have some basic philosophical differences. (In short, I do not agree with the company’s stance on identity, among a few other things).

However, I was curious if others felt the same way. Apparently, the answer is no, if the numbers are any indication. Last night I asked this question on Quora: How many websites use facebook commenting? I’m curious if the service is growing, slowing, or flat?  I also emailed people I know at Facebook, and tweeted it. By this morning, Facebook gave me the answer (oddly, it did not show up on Google search, but that may because the two companies are retarded when it comes to sharing access to each other’s platforms. That’s a whole ‘nother story).

In short, Disqus was at around 750,000 sites as of May of this year. Four months later, in August, Facebook reported that it was at 400,000 sites. That’s darn good given the service is not yet one year old.

Now my question is this: What is the makeup of sites that use Facebook Comments versus Disqus, WordPress, or others like LiveFyre? I’d wager the sites using Facebook tend to be larger publishers, as well as very small publishers who are mainly hobbyists. I’d be very interested in the answer to that question. Any takers?

Whisperings of the Future Surround Us

By - November 17, 2011

Yesterday I met with Christopher Ahlberg, the PhD co-founder of Recorded Future, a company I noted in these pages back in mid-2010. Ahlberg is one of those rare birds you just know is making stuff that matters – a scientist, an entrepreneur, a tinkerer, and an enthusiast all wrapped into one.

He ran me through Recorded Future’s technology and business model, and I found it impressive. In fact, I’m hoping I can employ it somehow into my book research. And that conditional tense of “hoping” is the main problem I have with Ahlberg’s creation – it’s a rather complicated system to use. Then again, what of worth isn’t, I suppose?

Recorded Future is, at its core,  a semantic search engine that consumes tens of thousands of structured information feeds as its “crawl.” It then parses this corpus for several core assets: Entities, Events, and Time (or Dates). Recorded Future’s algorithms are particularly adept at identifying and isolating these items, then correlating them at scale. If that sounds simple, it ain’t.

The service then employs a relatively complicated query structure that allows you to project the road ahead for your question. For example, you might choose “Amazon” as your entity, and then set your timeframe for events involving Amazon over the past two months and into the next two months. Recorded Future will analyze its sources (SEC filings, blogs, news sites, etc) and create a timeline-like “map” of things that have happened and are predicted to happen with regard to Amazon over the next eight weeks. You can further refine a search by adding other entities or events (“earnings” or “CEO”, for example).

How does it work? Well, turns out the Internet is rife with whisperings of the future, you just need to learn how to listen. That’s Recordable Future’s specialty. As you might imagine, Wall Street quants and government spooks just love this stuff. I’d imagine journalists would as well, but most of us are too strapped to afford the company’s services. Embedded below is a new feature of the site, a weekly overview of a news-related entity.

Recorded Future’s engine is not limited to the sources it currently consumes. Not only is Ahlberg adding more every month, his customers can add their own corpuses. Imagine throwing Wikileaks into Recorded Future, for example.

Perhaps the coolest aspect of the service is a visualization of how entities relate to each other over time. Ahlberg showed me a search for mobile patents, then toggled into a relationship graph. Guess what entity broke into the center of the graph, connected to nearly everything else? Yup – Motorola.

Did I mention that Google is an investor in Recorded Future?

As I said, I hope to start using the service soon, and perhaps posting my findings here.

Kevin Kelly’s “What Technology Wants”

By - November 09, 2011

It took me a while, but I’ve finally finished Kevin Kelly’sWhat Technology Wants,” first published last year and now out in paperback. Befitting a tome that took five or so years to write, Kevin’s book is not the kind of work that is easily digested – at least for me.

But that’s not to say it’s not worthy. It most certainly is. I worked with Kevin for five wonderful years as a co-founding editor of Wired, and throughout that tumultuous period (1992-1997) Kevin never ceased to surprise me – both with stories of his extraordinary life (after converting to Christianity whilst wandering in the Middle East, for example, he bicycled across the US under the self imposed belief that he would die at the end of his trip), as well as with his boundless curiosity. I was very young when we worked together, to say he had a profound impact on how I understood the practice of writing is an understatement. Together we edited every single word in more than fifty issues of Wired, after all.

With those caveats declared, then, let me get to the book at hand. Some non-fiction books present themselves as lectures or arguments. And still others are very clearly the manifestation of the author’s own unscratchable itch. What Technology Wants is both of these, and more. In the introduction, Kevin pretty much sums it up: “What was (technology’s) essence? If I didn’t understand the basic nature of technology, then as each new piece of it came along, I would have no frame of reference to decide how weakly or strongly to embrace it.”

Kevin’s core question is all of ours: We understand technology seems to have a life of its own, to be rather out of our control. We both love and fear it, and we’re not quite sure whether to embrace it. Is it good, bad, or indifferent?

Kevin’s answer is clear: Technology is not only in the balance good, it’s also far, far bigger than us. He argues that technology is a natural product of evolution – an extension of us – but he also argues that we are an extension of larger forces than ourselves. If that sounds like it borders on the religious, well, it does. Kevin is a religious man, but he’s careful to not let that get in the way of the book’s thesis – too much.

As I read, I sometimes found myself wondering if Kevin wasn’t attempting an elaborate and roundabout proof of God’s existence, and it left me wondering what his unvarnished views were on the subject. What Technology Wants doesn’t quite go there, but it comes close, and I found that lack of directness oddly frustrating. (Reviewers at the Times and the Journal found other frustrations, but I’ll let you peruse those on your own).

What the book does state directly is the existence of what Kevin calls the “technium,” which is a complex of all technology past, present, and future – a living system and process that flows from our own creation, but is not of our own making. If your head’s starting to hurt, you’d not be alone. The technium is a tough concept to internalize, because it challenges the notion that somehow mankind is preeminent. Humans are simply an outgrowth of the technium, a necessary technology that furthers a much grander design. I think many of us sense this could be true, but Kevin insists it is – and then asserts that we needn’t worry, because in the end, technology wants what we want: more freedom, more diversity, more beauty, and more choice.

Where What Technology Wants fails is as a narrative – there isn’t a clear thread pushing the reader forward. It’s utterly packed with interesting stories and anecdotes – a provoking study of the Unabomber, a thoughtful journey into the heart of Amish philosophy, a primer on how life began – but I tend to like books that have a through line.

If there is one, it’s that in the end, we’re all going to be better for the rise of the technium. I want to believe in what Kevin proclaims, because I share his optimistic views. But I’m still unclear on the link to God, and it’s probably that link that I’d most like to explore the next time Kevin and I speak. I’ll be meeting with him soon, and look forward to the conversation, which I’ll report here. In the meantime, I believe that What Technology Wants is an essential read for anyone who wishes to claim both cultural and technological literacy. Highly recommended.

For more on Kevin’s book, including reviews and ongoing thoughts, I also recommend the book’s portion of his site, found here.

Other books I’ve reviewed recently:

Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other by Sherry Turkle (my review)

The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood by James Gleick (my review)

In The Plex: How Google Thinks, Works, and Shapes Our Lives by Steven Levy (my review)

The Future of the Internet–And How to Stop It by Jonathan Zittrain (my review)

The Next 100 Years: A Forecast for the 21st Century by George Friedman (my review)

Physics of the Future: How Science Will Shape Human Destiny and Our Daily Lives by the Year 2100 by Michio Kaku (my review)

You Are The Platform

By - November 08, 2011

A funny thing happens to me after each Web 2 Summit – I tend to curl up for a week or two and shut down my idea receptors. It takes a ton of output to curate the show, and then running it for three straight days is rather like running an intellectual and social marathon. You’re “on” the whole time, scrambling backstage, pretending to have it together onstage, greeting amazing minds, cheering them on, delivering what I hope will be thought provoking interlocution, and, of course, remembering to thank everyone for giving so generously of their time and treasure.

So when people ask me what I thought of the show, or what the key themes were, I usually have something of a blind spot. I can remember everything up to the start of the event – all the preparation, preproduction interviews, the endless research, etc. But once we kickoff (in this case, with an interview with Sean Parker), it goes kind of black. My next memory is usually the final cocktail party on day three. I know my Dad and my wife are usually there, and I know I have a fine bourbon in my hand. And I’m happy. And I want to sleep.

Which I’ve done a lot of these past two weeks. But this last show was too rich to not review a bit, in particular for themes that should inform our collective decisions as we move our industry forward. In this post and I hope in others this Fall, I hope to outline some of those themes.

The first one that really jumps out at me is one I’ll title “You Are The Platform.” That phrase was used by Mitchell Baker, Chair of the Mozilla Foundation in her talk at Web 2, and echoed by Jeremie Miller, founder of Singly and the Locker Project. But before we get to those two, I want to start with Chris Poole, founder of 4Chan and Canv.as, where he outlines a problem with how we currently think about who we are online.

Poole argues that identity is prismatic, and that both Facebook and Google force a “fast food” approach to identity – one size fits all. “They shouldn’t set the bar” for what identity is, Poole argues, “we should.” (Each of the videos below are just five or ten minutes).

How do we do this? Baker argues we have to take control of our data, away from a “20th century factory model,” where the platform for our data is highly centralized (IE on Google, or Facebook, Amazon, or Twitter). She asks us to think differently about managing our data:

In short, Baker suggests that we should each be the platform for our own data, determining how it’s used and in what context, depending on the kind of data (health, social, family, interests, etc).

Sounds great, but how do you operationalize such a concept? It sounds like a lot of work. That’s where Jeremie Miller comes in. His company, Singly, and associated Locker Project is an audacious attempt to “put the person at the center of the data.”

Singly and the Locker Project are in the early days, and the chances they won’t work are probably high. But the approach they augur, I believe, must ultimately become reality. This concept of “you are the platform” is really, really important, not just technologically, but socially, politically, and culturally. Watch this space.

Video as Grammar: The Supercut

By - November 07, 2011

As early as 2003, which was the first year I began writing this site, I wrote about the idea of “video as grammar.” By this I meant (and mean) that I foresaw a day when our culture communicated with itself using video much as we currently use text.

In order for this to happen, a number of things had to fall in place. First, we needed tools that allow for quick and easy “video processing” – we need the Microsoft Word for video.

Second, we need access to a large “vocabulary” of video that we could annotate, cite, cut, paste, and repurpose.

Third, we needed what might be called cultural resonance – a reason for folks to want to communicate using video.  We have a remix culture, but it’s still pretty much the domain of obsessives and professionals. For now.

And fourth, we needed a legal framework that didn’t sue everyone into oblivion for simply expressing themselves.

It’s clear we’ve passed the first two hurdles – there are tons of great video editing suites, and YouTube et al pretty much took care of the second issue.

In the past week or so, Andy Baio and Kevin Kelly have pointed out what might just be the glimmerings of how we are going to address the third: The Supercut. From Andy’s post announcing his new site, supercut.org:

For the last few years, I’ve tracked a particular flavor of remix culture that I called “supercuts” — fast-paced video montages that assemble dozens or hundreds of short clips on a common theme.

Many supercuts isolate a word or phrase from a film or TV series — think every “dude” in The Big Lebowski or every profanity from The Sopranos — while others point out tired cliches, like those ridiculous zoom-and-enhance scenes from crime shows.

Since 2008, I’ve added every supercut I could find to a sprawling blog post. With nearly 150 of these videos, and more being added weekly, it’s turned from a blog post into a minor obsession.

Thank God for Andy Baio’s obsessions, is all I can say. The Supercut is an extremely powerful form of speech, and I can imagine it evolving into our cultural vocabulary in any number of ways. One to watch.

Only Connect: Facebook, From The Eyes of an Old Newbie

By - October 27, 2011

I recently joined Facebook. Have you heard of it?

I know, I know, that sounds crazy, given that I’m “an Internet guy.”  If you search for me on Google, say “John Battelle Facebook,” you see that I am already there, and that I have nearly 5000 “friends.” (The interplay between Google search and Facebook is worthy of an entire treatise, I’ll leave that for later). You’ll see I also have a fan page, which has about 5400 “fans” – I think that’s the terminology, though now I think Facebook has turned those fans to “Likes.”

But as many of you know from reading my past posts on the subject, I’ve been essentially “Facebook bankrupt” for years. The service has never been of much value to me, in the main because I made an early and fatal decision to accept any and all folks who asked to be my friend. (For details on that, see this post: I Blew It On Facebook.)

So this week, as both research for my next book and because I’ve been meaning to do it for more than two years, I re-joined Facebook under a slightly different name. I created a new account from scratch, and I promised myself I’d really curate this one so that it’d be meaningful to me personally.

It’s not turning out to be easy.

I’m sure this process will yield more posts, so consider this the first chapter. What I’ve experienced so far, however, only strengthens my belief that Facebook hasn’t even crawled out of the sea when it comes to understanding the nuances of how people communicate with each other. Sure, it’s an extraordinary service and platform, etc. etc. And I know and respect a ton of people who work there. But it’s a testament to how utterly thirsty we are to connect that Facebook, in five short years, has captured the attention of nearly everyone in the online world.

Because, let’s face it. The initial experience with Facebook is pretty bad, from a social point of view.

Here’s why I feel that way.

First is what I’ll call The Guilt of Not Connecting. When you sign up for the first time, Facebook bludgeons you relentlessly to connect to others. It’s beyond irritating – a newcomer to the system (like me) gets constant reminders to find friends before you even get a page going. And once you do, it continues, like an irritating beep in the background – all over your page. “People you may know” stare out at you on the right side of my page, forlorn, as if to ask “How could you NOT want to be my friend?!” Large ads at the top of my page, replete with beckoning profile pics, ask “Are They Your Friends Too?”

And you know what? These are certainly people I know. But being forced to chose if you care enough about them to add them as friends is an intrusion at this early point. I’m just figuring this thing out, Facebook. There’s gotta be more to it than just adding friends, right? Right?!

The second thing I’ve noticed that feels broken is The Forced Rudeness. When I set up my page, I did add a few friends – mostly family members. I added my wife, my kids (the ones who are on the service), and my Dad, who recently joined. Come to think of it, I think I started this whole process because my Dad joined and tried to “friend” my old account, the bankrupt one. I knew if I accepted his request, his voice would be lost in the cacophony that was my old identity.

I also searched for a few folks who came to mind – really close and true pals of mine. All in all, I think I sent out about ten “friend requests” under my new name (which is pretty much the same as my old name, I just added my middle initial). I’m pleased to report that everyone accepted my request pretty much on day one, which I kind of expected (I would have grounded my daughter if she refused, after all). But as soon as the first few folks added me as a friend, the Facebook friend machine went into overdrive, and all of a sudden, I began to get new friend requests. From people I know. But…not that well.

And here’s where Facebook utterly falls down. Because while I do know these people, and I even like them, I may not want to connect with them right now. I have my reasons as to why, and I’d sure like to explain myself to these folks.

But Facebook doesn’t really enable me to do this. In the email notification, I can’t even say no. It’s either “Confirm” or “See All Requests”, which forces me back to Facebook to manage my next steps. Since I don’t want to connect, I pick the second choice. On the site, I am given the choice of either accepting, or pushing a button that says “not now” or somesuch. I have *no idea* what that rejected friend on the other end of this transaction is told once I hit “not now.” And that’s a big problem – is the person notified that I’ve said no? How? If not, I’d like to know that – and ideally, before I see them in real life. These kind of nuanced signals are pretty much table stakes in a “real” relationship. But on Facebook, you get black or white. And that’s just not good enough.

Unlike with a real email request from a real person (not the service), or a phone call, or a face to face conversation,  there’s no simple way to respond to the friend request with a short note like “Hi (name) – Thanks for reaching out to connect with me. I’m restarting a new Facebook account, and for now, I’m limiting it to family and a very small group of really close pals. As I figure out how to navigate the service, I’ll be sure to add you. For now, I want to make sure I don’t overshare!”

Now, my messaging would change depending on the recipient. That one above might be for a business colleague who found me through my close friendship with someone who also happens to be in my industry. But I’d modify my message for the mother of my son’s high school pal. This is a person I see at school functions from time to time but who, to be utterly honest, isn’t someone with whom I’d otherwise spend much time (or share personal experiences with via an online platform). I’d wager she feels the same way about me (but I don’t know! It’d be nice if Facebook allowed her to explain why she’s friending me, but … it doesn’t!) We like each other, we’re cordial when we see each other, but why is Facebook forcing me to be rude to her by telling her “not now” (if, in fact, she’s even told – which I don’t know!).

This is going to make for a pretty awkward soccer party next month, I can tell you that.

Because, really, that’s what it feels like should I decide not to accept her request. It’s rude. So I am going to go out on a limb here, and say that Facebook seems to be counting on this fact to drive connections. And you know what? That’s a house of cards. It insures a lack of truly honest social instrumentation when it comes to building your “social graph,” and down the line, I’m going to predict that will come back to haunt Facebook, if it hasn’t already.

Now, I know many of you are snickering at this post, because most of these issues have been raised and settled, so to speak, over the past few years. Heck, I’ve even made similar points on this site from time to time. But through the fresh eyes of my recent experience, I sense something far deeper is at work. Most folks only take one run at crafting their digital identity on Facebook. I’d reckon most of us don’t want to spend hours going back to rejigger our “graph” once it’s created. That’d be way too much work.

But that graph is based on a extremely rudimentary set of social rules that break down over time, and will fail to reflect our true selves as we extend our identity online. And as Facebook moves to leverage that identity through the Open Graph to nearly every action we take online, I can’t help but think the brittleness of this system will be exposed. It then becomes a race – between Facebook’s ability to reverse engineer more nuanced social interaction back into its platform (and it is, I can see attempts in the interface already), and some new startup (or, OK, maybe Google) that allows us to do the same with far less work.

Of course, Facebook has what amounts to a “moat” around social platforms due to its network effects – as Sean Parker pointed out in our conversation at Web 2 last week. It’s really hard to leave, because you want to bring your “real friends” with you, and asking them to step over to a new service is too much of an imposition. If they leave, they will want to bring their friends, and now you have a real shampoo problem on your hands.

But I predict that we’re racing headlong into a cultural moment when we realize we need more control and nuance in our lives when it comes to what Facebook currently represents for us (if you think this isn’t related to #occupywallstreet, it is, in a really interesting way. That post is coming). Facebook works really well for folks who are just beginning to define who they are in the world, like my kids, or college kids just learning what it means to be out on their own. But those kids ultimately grow up, and become deeply refined social creatures. The question is, can Facebook?

I’m not sure. The DNA and core driving principles of the company have been set. The entire system seems driven by the maxim “only connect.” I wonder how our culture will interpret the first word of that phrase, and whether Facebook, as it’s set up today, has the capacity to redefine it.

There’s so much more to say, but I’m pushing two thousand words. Best to press “publish,” and hear from you.

The Web 2 Summit Playlist

By - October 23, 2011

Tons of folks have asked me for the “official” playlist this year. Each year I choose music to sample while folks are coming on or off stage, or as the audience comes in or out of the main room. This year I was hit with a wave of nostalgia – for reasons that I’ll explain later – and I made a list that spanned nearly all eight years I’ve been programming the event.

I have to say, I’m really, really proud of how the event came off, of all the folks who made it happen (including our speakers, staff, advisory board, and my partners at TechWeb and O’Reilly).

The playlist is 109 songs, and I’m way too lazy (or tired) to figure out how to put them into an actual live app. So here’s a picture of them. If any of you have suggestions for how I might create a playlist, I’m all ears. I’ve been looking for a good app for that for some time, and I keep not finding the right one….