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The Database of Intentions Is Far Larger Than I Thought

By - March 05, 2010

Screen shot 2010-03-05 at 9.01.41 AM.pngWay back in November of 2003, when I was a much younger man and the world had yet to fall head over heels in love with Google, I wrote a post called The Database of Intentions. It was an attempt to explain a one-off reference in an earlier post – but not much earlier, as the “DBoI” post, as I call it, was just the sixty-third post of my then-early blogging career. (This is the 5,142nd, by comparison…)

I had, in fact, been ruminating on this concept for over a year, driven by an Holy Sh*t moment in late 2001 when Google introduced its first ever Zeitgeist round up of trending search terms. Scanning the lists of rising and declining terms, I realized that Google – not to mention every other search engine, ISP, and most likely every government – had in their grasp a datastream that, were they to just pay attention, could quite possibly be the most potent signal of human intentions in the history of the world.

Zeitgeist, it struck me, was proof that Google was indeed paying attention. I went on to write The Search, and Google went on to become, well, Google. My study of Google also led me to start Web 2, with Tim O’Reilly, and Federated Media, which I positioned as a media company that leveraged the impact of The Database of Intentions.

But over the past few years, as I’ve labored in the fields of digital media and marketing – mostly through my work at FM – I’ve come to revise my concept of what The Database of Intentions truly is. In my initial description, I limited the concept to web search and web search alone:

The Database of Intentions is simply this: The aggregate results of every search ever entered, every result list ever tendered, and every path taken as a result.

At the time, that certainly seemed like a big enough idea. No such artifact had ever existed, and its implications were massive. In my 2003 post, I continued:

This information represents, in aggregate form, a place holder for the intentions of humankind – a massive database of desires, needs, wants, and likes that can be discovered, supoenaed, archived, tracked, and exploited to all sorts of ends. Such a beast has never before existed in the history of culture, but is almost guaranteed to grow exponentially from this day forward. This artifact can tell us extraordinary things about who we are and what we want as a culture. And it has the potential to be abused in equally extraordinary fashion.

Search was a pristine signal, an eruption of oxygen in the anoxic ocean of the early web, and an entire ecosystem grew in its bloom. The first implication was already manifest: Google had launched AdWords and AdSense, Overture (later to become Yahoo Search Marketing) was thriving, and a burgeoning paid search ecosystem was in the early stages of becoming a multi-billion commercial expression of the Database of Intention’s power.

But as anyone who’s been reading this site already knows, web search as a pure signal has been attenuating of late – overwhelmed by the sheer magnitude of data on the web, for one, and secondly by our own increasingly complicated expectations.

Nature abhors a vacuum, and so does the Internet. In the past year I’ve come to the conclusion that “web search” was just the first of many fields in the Database of Intentions. For those of you who are not database geeks, and to further pad the metaphor, a field in a database is colloquially defined as a specific type of information in that database. Sets of fields are called records, and sets of records make up the database.

My mistake in 2003 was to assume that the entire Database of Intentions was created through our interactions with traditional web search. I no longer believe this to be true. In the past five or so years, we’ve seen “eruptions” of entirely new fields, each of which, I believe, represent equally powerful signals – oxygen flows around which massive ecosystems are already developing. In fact, the interplay of all of these signals (plus future ones) represents no less than the sum of our economic and cultural potential.

By now you’ve probably already guessed what these new signals might be. I’ve made a rudimentary chart, but to narrate:

(NB: i’ve updated the chart here with a field for commerce…)

Fields in the DBoI 3.2010.png

The first signal, of course, was The Query. A query was a declaration of a very particular intent: What I Want from the web. Sure, it has many permutations – navigation, commerce, informational, etc. etc., but in essence, the goal was to find something you wanted. Hence the name search, after all.  

The next signal to emerge is The Social Graph. With this signal we’ve declared not only Who We Are, we’ve also declared Who We Know. Both are powerful intent-driven declarations, and both have deep interplays with search. By manifesting who we are and who we know, we can find and be found by others.

The third signal emerged almost simultaneously with The Social Graph – The Status Update. This is a personal declaration of what we deem important, noteworthy, shareable: What’s on our minds, what’s happening, what’s worthy. Again, a powerful search signal, in particular in real time.

The latest signal is The Check-in – or Where I Am. This is a crowning declaration of intent, in a fashion, because it connects the physical to the virtual, securing the Database of Intentions to the terra firma of the Real World. As with the other three fields, the check-in – which I expect will soon become automatic via our mobile devices – is a vastly powerful signal of intent: “I am here. So what you got for me?”

Taken together (and honestly, there’s really no other way to think about it, to my mind), these signals form a Database of Intentions that is magnitudes of order larger, more complex, and more powerful than my original concept back in 2003. And while the current players in each category are clear, what’s also clear is that the battle is on to control each of these critical signals. Google, if you include its Local services, already plays in all of them, and I expect Microsoft will as well. Facebook may never play in “The Query,” nor will Twitter, but expect both to play in The Check-in, and soon. The newcomers? Well, most of us expect them to be acquired. Then again, that’s what we thought of Google in 2000, and Facebook in 2005. Why should Foursquare in 2010 be any different?

All of this begs a new definition of Search. I’ve often said that Search should not be defined by web search, but rather, by what a search is in the abstract. To my mind, each tweet or status update is a search query of sorts, as is each check-in and even each connection in the social graph. A more catholic definition of search would allow for a reconciliation of all these fields in the Database of Intentions. Regardless, it’s ever more obvious that while “traditional search” is reaching a plateau of sorts, at least in regards to how we understand its potential, when you add the new signals of social, status update, and check-in, we’re still in the very early stages of a distinctly punctuated phase of the Internet’s evolution.

I’m on the lookout for new Signals. I’m quite certain we’re not nearly finished creating them.


NB: As a creator and publisher of media, one very strong conclusion can be drawn from all of this. If you’re not viewing your job to be a curator, clarifier, interpreter, and amplifier of the Database of Intentions, you’re soon going to be out of business. The Database of Intentions is the fuel that drives media platforms, and as I’ve argued elsewhere, every business is now a media business.

NBB: My thanks to the folks at Adobe and Omniture for the forcing mechanism of my keynote earlier this week, where I first organized the thinking above.

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Google Rolling Out Social Search: But Does It Leverage Facebook?

By - January 27, 2010

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Forget the iPad, today Google is taking another step toward its stated goal of “making search more social.” There’s a lot of goodness in here, in terms of features and approach, but it’s just silly to pretend you can do any of this without directly addressing the 400 million-person elephant in the room called Facebook. Put simply: I can’t figure out if this new service uses my Facebook social graph. And to my mind, that’s a problem.

From the blog post announcing the public beta of social search (first announced at Web 2 late last year):

We think there’s tremendous potential for social information to improve search, and we’re just beginning to scratch the surface. We’re leaving a “beta” label on social results because we know there’s a lot more we can do. If you want to get the most out of Social Search right away, get started by creating a Google profile, where you can add links to your other public online social services.

Indeed – a lot more, like make it really easy to use your Facebook social graph, the way tons of other sites and apps do. Why not just use Facebook Connect? Hang on a tick, the video giving us an overview of the service says once you create that Google Profile, you can add connections via Blogger, Twitter, and “any other online networks you might be a part of” (45 seconds in). Might that include Facebook?

OK dear readers, I’m going to do it. I’m gonna make a Google Profile, just to find out…. Well, I’m still a bit perplexed. You can add any URL as a “Link” in your profile, so I added my Facebook pages. However, once I got through the initial form (which was not simple – I had to fill out all the info I already did with Facebook and LinkedIn, and my own name is not available as a profile URL, not /johnbattelle, not jbattelle. Darn! I picked /johnlinwoodbattelle, so now you all know my middle name…) Er, anyway, there *was* a prompt to “Share It On Facebook” after all that…

Aha! Maybe this will get my Facebook social graph goodness into Google Social Search?

Not that I could tell. Just a simply “share on Facebook” implementation, declaring my profile to my FB pals. But no deep integration. As far as I can tell, my Facebook social graph will not inform my social searchin’ on Google. As I understand it from reading previous coverage of the product, Google social search *will* leverage FriendFeed, recently purchased by Facebook. But as far as I can tell, it does not leverage Facebook proper.

And that, to my mind, is just silly. Silly in the main, because as a consumer, clear, direct, and transparent integration with Facebook would be a huge *win* for my understanding of Google’s social searching. Wouldn’t it? Or am I missing something? (Besides the competitive issues, of course…)

I’ve pinged Google and other sources to find out if I’m just deeply in the dark….

Update: Google has provided me an answer to my initial question:

“If someone links to his Facebook account from his Google profile, Social Search may surface that user’s public profile page. These are the same public profile pages already available on a search of and other search engines today. While we’re interested to continue expanding the comprehensiveness of Social Search, we do not currently use your Facebook connections as part of Google Social Search.”

What I’d like to know then is this: Why not?

Predictions 2009: How Did I Do?

By - December 29, 2009

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2009 Predictions

2008 Predictions

2008 How I Did

2007 Predictions

2007 How I Did
2006 Predictions
2006 How I Did
2005 Predictions
2005 How I Did
2004 Predictions
2004 How I Did

First of all, it’s either silly or sublime that when you type (or maybe, given Google now personalizes all results, when *I* type) “predictions 2009” into Google my predictions from a year ago are ranked first.  

Of course, when you say “predictions for 2009” it’s second.   

But I’ve already ranted about how the personalization of search is screwing up our collective cultural conscience (search was our social glue, but it’s dissolving). Is anyone out there agreeing with me? Anyone?

Anyway. Welcome to my review of how I did in my predictions for 2009. It’s been a fun year, because I made some seriously big predictions a year ago, so tracking them is a bit easier than in the past.

So let’s get to it.

1. Macro Economy. I predicted: We’ll see an end to the recession, taken literally, by Q4 09. In other words, the economy will begin to grow again by the end of the year, but it won’t feel like we’re out of the woods till next year at the earliest.

I think I got that one right. Not very hard to predict, in hindsight, but remember, this was Jan. 09, and things really, really, really sucked eggs at that moment.

2. The online media space. I predicted: ….will be hit hard by the economic downturn in the first half, but by year’s end, will have chalked up moderate gains over last year in terms of gross spend. I think it’s possible that Q1 09 will be lower than Q1 08, marking the first time that has happened since 01, if I recall correctly.

Right again. Spending in fact declined year over year in the online space overall. But it has rebounded in the second half.

3. Google. OK, here’s one of the biggies. I predicted: Google will see search share decline significantly for the first time ever.

Now, I know many of you will say that I whiffed this one, because Google’s search share is higher now than it was a year ago. But before you toss me in the dustbin, remember this: Google did lose share in the middle of the year, though it gained it back. And to my mind, any lose of share is significant. So … call this one a wash. It didn’t last, but it did happen, for a while. Now, watch for my predictions in 2010. Because a lot of deals are up for grabs, and Microsoft does NOT like to lose. AOL, Ask…there’s about ten points right there that are a jump ball.

#3 goes on to declare: The media business is more than a demand fulfillment business, and Google must learn to create demand if it’s going to diversify. That means playing the brand game – a game that has long been owned by what we call “traditional media companies.” Google has become a significant brand advertiser in 2009, in fact, it’s a client of FM’s in the brand space. And if an ad on the home page isn’t about creating demand for a new product, I dunno what is. I go on to prognosticate: Google has a unique opportunity to become a new kind of branded media company. It will fail to do so, mainly for cultural reasons. I think the jury is still out on this. Google is trying to be so many things to so many people, it’s hard to say where it’s going to land. OS provider? Check. Browser vendor? Check. iPhone competitor? Check. Office suite player? Check. But brand that means anything but search? No check. Yet.

4. In this one I predicted: Google stock will soar in by Q3-4 of 2009, mainly because demand will pick up, and when demand picks up, it’s like rain on a field of newly sown wheat.

Well, here’s the chart:

Screen shot 2009-12-29 at 6.11.48 PM.png

I think this one is a big “check.”

5. Big one. I predicted: Tied to #3 above, Microsoft will gain at least five points of search share in 2009, perhaps as much as 10. This is a rather radical prediction, I know, but hear me out. I think Redmond is tired of losing in this game, and after trying nearly every trick in the book, Microsoft will start to spend real money to grow share (IE, buying distribution), while at the same time listening to the advice of thoughtful folks who want to help the company improve the product.

Well, it depends on how you do the math, but given the Yahoo deal, I think this one came true. Microsoft did indeed buy share, by doing the deal with Yahoo.


6. I next predicted: Yahoo and AOL will merge.

Oops. I whiffed here. It was a stretch. There’s always next year. I could have predicted that AOL would spin out, but that was so damn obvious I decided against it…

7. This one was predicated on #6, so another whiff: in the second half of the year, Microsoft will buy its search monetization from the combined company.

Microsoft in fact is doing search monetization FOR Yahoo. It could have gone the other way, but it didn’t. Sometimes the river card doesn’t turn your way.

8. OK, my big Apple prediction: Apple will see a significant reversal of recent fortunes. Well, it sure didn’t happen in sales or the stock, but I think it’s happening with Apple’s arrogant attitude toward its app store and network choices. I’d say this one was a push, not wrong, but not entirely right….yet.

9. I predicted: Major brands will continue to struggle with the best way to interact with “social media.” They will take budget reserved for media spending (IE buying banners and building out branding campaigns) and start to become publishers in their own right. This was kind of a gimme, in that my company (FM) is doing this for scores of brands, and 2009 was certainly a banner year (no pun intended) for brands as publishers. Open Forum, Starbucks, Microsoft Exectweets, Intel’s Lifescoop, P&G’s Petside, Asus WePC, and on and on….I’m sure I’m missing a bunch of examples. But I am quite certain this is a major trend and one that is only gaining steam.

10. An agency/publisher prediction: Agencies will increasingly see their role as that of publishers. Publishers will increasingly see their role as that of agencies. ….. It takes both agents to get good media made. A very subjective prediction which again, I think is truly happening. Of course, I can only state that as anecdotal fact. But if you’re in the agency or publishing business, I’d love your thoughts in the comments….

11. OK, the Twitter prediction. Now remember, on Jan 1 2009 it was not a slam dunk to say this: Twitter will continue its meteoric rise. This is a very hard prediction to make, because so much depends on the company’s ability to execute two crucial – and exceedingly difficult – new features: The integration of search into the service, and the monetization of that integration.

Now, Twitter did have its year of years, growing extraordinarily, but traditional measure of growth flattened and petered out by the second half of the year. Why? Well, third party clients, for the most part, and a failure of the company to convert its media darling status into long term usage. But Twitter has rolled out a cavalcade of new features in the past few months, most aimed at fixing the initial use case problem I’ve pointed out time and time again.

In this prediction I also said: By the middle of 2009, the integration of Twitter’s community and content will become commonplace in well-executed marketing on third party sites. Again, I think this one has occurred, many times over.

12. This is one of my favorites, the Facebook prediction: Facebook will do something entirely shocking and unpredictable. I am not certain what, but it won’t have a “status quo” year. It might be a merger with a traditional media company, a major alliance with Google, hiring a head scratcher as CEO, or something else at that level of “WTF!?” As I think about it, it might be as simple as making Facebook Connect truly open, and changing its policies to make it drop dead easy to get data out of the service.


However, I also predicted: Facebook will “friend” Twitter and the two companies will become strong partners. Well, you can now updated Twitter from Facebook, so that’s a start. But they’re not pals yet, so this one is not exactly a hit.

13. My mobile prediction: Lucky #13 is reserved for my eternal mobile prediction: 2009 will see the year mobility becomes presumptive in every aspect of the web. I’m not even going to try to defend this one. I think 2009 was the year mobile eclipsed the PC web in terms of what matters to our industry. If you disagree, I’ll see ya in the comments.

14. OK. My last one, well, I whiffed on it – mostly. It was my book prediction. I said: “Lastly, I promise, I will have sold my book and will be hard at work on it. And yes, still running FM too. I think I have a way to do both.” Well, I didn’t sell the new book to anyone, mainly because once I do, I have to write it. And I can’t do that till I feel like FM is really, really in great hands. And guess what…it is. I am still running it as CEO, but now I have a wonderful President/COO, Deanna Brown. And she is a true partner and pro, and I am feeling very, very good about 2010. So give me half a point there…

So, adding it all up, I’d say I did a 10.5 out of 14. What do you think? Did I do alright? And do you agree with my interpretations?

Happy Holidays and New Year to all of you. I can’t wait for the next year. I really think it’s going to be a big one for all of us.

Twitter is .. Developing

By - December 09, 2009

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Twitter is rolling a ton of features and announcements this week, coinciding both with Le Web in Paris and its own ongoing development as a platform. A roundup:

– Twitter is opening up its “firehose” of tweets to all comers “in early 2010”. This is a very big deal. Before, developers had limited access to the Twitterverse. This means the ecosystem has tons more oxygen to work with.

New sign up approach. This fixes a problem where it was hard for developers to sign up and in folks from third party sites (you had to send folks back to Twitter before). This will aid in Twitter sign ups from third party developers. A big deal.

– Twitter is embracing its own developer community by underwriting a developer conference, Chirp, which has been key to nearly every major tech platform in the history of the Valley.

The company is clearly gearing up for a big 2010 in terms of features, and had decided that developers and the developer ecosystem is key to its growth. I agree completely.

Google Embraces Twitter, Some More. In a Non Facebook Kinda Way.

By - December 02, 2009

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From the Google Social Web Blog (I have to admit it’s hard for me to see those four words together without busting out a silly grin):

Today, we’re bringing Twitter and Friend Connect even closer together. Now you can join one of over nine million Google Friend Connect sites using your Twitter login. Once signed in, your Twitter profile will be automatically linked and you can tweet your new site membership, share discussions from the comments gadget, and invite your friends via Twitter.

So what to make of this?
The snarky approach might be to rewrite the news this way:
Today, we’re bringing Not Facebook and Friend Connect even closer together. Now you can join one of over nine million Google Friend Connect sites using your Not Facebook Connect login. Once signed in, your Not Facebook profile will be automatically linked and you can Not Update Your Facebook Status with your new site membership, share discussions from the comments gadget, and invite your friends via Not Facebook Connect.

But that would be very snarky. And usually my snarkiness is so damn buried in inference and linked nuance that no one gets it. I’m not trying to infer that Twitter integration isn’t important, it is. But honestly, if Google really wants to get social, why doesn’t it do what Yahoo’s already done, and admit Facebook pretty much owns the social graph? After all, Facebook has already admitted Google owns search. And it’s using Google to leverage its own platform, in many ways. Google might do the same…
It’s interesting that the ouroborosphere seems relatively unmoved by this news – it didn’t make Techmeme, like nearly everything else that Twitter or Google does. Coverage so far has been pretty straightforward.
But I do think this move marks another play in the ongoing chess match between Google and Facebook. What I’d like to know is whether anyone is really using Google Friend Connect in ways that matter? Or is it on its way to becoming for social what Yahoo is to search?


By - November 19, 2009

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From Biz’ post on Twitter’s shift:

Twitter helps you share and discover what’s happening now among all the things, people, and events you care about. “What are you doing?” isn’t the right question anymore—starting today, we’ve shortened it by two characters. Twitter now asks, “What’s happening?”

Well, regardless of spin, this is a major shift, to my mind. Semantics matter, *a lot*, when your entire business is, well, semantics. Language is how we encode that which is essential to who we are. And there is a world of difference between “What are YOU doing” (emphasis mine) and “What’s happening”.

For starters, it’s a rather subtle leapfrog of Facebook, which has recently mimicked Twitter with its status updates. Facebook is stuck (but there are upsides to this stuck-ness) in a personal framework. Twitter, by moving past the YOU, is declaring Facebook’s imitation moot.

Will that stick? We’ll see. But I love to see the evolution of the space. It’s such good narrative…

I Love It When…

By - November 18, 2009

You imagine something out loud in a book, and then it starts to happen….

I am sure many of you have heard of RedLaser, but I hadn’t until today. I love it!

Here’s the text from my blog post, written in 2004 (pre iPhone, so I used a Treo…) which I rewrote into the book:

What to do? Not to worry, you’ve got Google Mobile Shop installed on your phone. You whip out your Treo 950, the one with the infrared UPC reader installed, and you wand it over that bottle of 2001 Clos Du Val now lovingly cradled in your arms. In less than a second a set of options is presented on the phone’s screen ….

Here’s the video on the app:

Thanks For Flying With Us. Please Give Us All Your Money.

By - November 15, 2009

Screen shot 2009-11-15 at 9.55.18 PM.pngToday I had quite an experience with United Airlines. It has very little to do with much of anything I usually write about here, save one key element: I have posited that to succeed in what I’ve been calling the Conversation Economy, companies must learn to have conversations with their customers at scale. (And to do so, they will need to leverage open platforms like Twitter, Facebook, etc. and, of course, change the way they instrument their business. But more on that later).

Well, here’s a tale of one company failing miserably at doing just that, even while, in the end, due to my own insistence (and most likely, the rising level of anger in my voice), it kind of, sort of, managed to not totally fail.

But first, the backstory.

I am a United flyer, in the main. I’m not saying I’m a proud, loyal, or passionate United flyer, but a United flyer I am. I like their “PS” service between NY and SF, and I fly that route a lot – to the point of knowing the flight attendants and picking exactly which seats I settle into each trip. I tend to fly United where ever else I go (and anyone who follows me on Twitter knows I go to a lot of places). I’ve been an Executive Premier there for a long, long time (though I think it dropped at some point during the bad years of 2001-02) – which means I fly a ton with United. At some point or other this year, in fact, a gate agent at United let me know that I’m a million mile flyer – however, most of their agents on the phone have no idea what I’m talking about when I recite this nugget back to them.

Anyway, this is a long way of saying, I know the airline really, really well. And when I fly, even with my family, I tend to fly with United, even though I’ve had my share of travel and customer service disasters (and you all know, regardless of what airline you fly, what I mean by that).

But does the airline know me? No. Not at all. And today was a remarkable example of that in action.

So today my wife and I decide that we’re going to fly to Arizona for Thanksgiving – all five of us. Her family is there, and we’ve decided to join them. Since this is not a work trip, I use Expedia to check flights between the Bay area and Tucson – I’ve been there many times in the past, and I know direct flights are very hard to come by. Turns out, there is a direct flight, and it’s on United, and – double luck! – it’s just at the times (departure and return) that I want to fly. Economy seats are priced, roundtrip, on Expedia at about $440 each. Pricey, but it’s not like I have a lot of choice. It’s a week away, and there are no other direct flights. And yeah, it’s true, I’m willing to pay the extra hundred bucks to not have to connect through Vegas, LA, or Phoenix when traveling with three kids. Anyway.

Experience told me that the kind of reservation I wanted to make would require human interaction – five seats, three kids, possible upgrades, etc. – so armed with the flight numbers and times, I called United directly.

Now, it’s Sunday afternoon around 1 pm. After running a gauntlet of voice recognition driven commands, and finally asking, five times in a row, for an “Agent! Agent! AGENT! …. yes….AGENT!” I get…an agent.

Now United, like many large companies who must handle a large volume of customer service, has a preponderance of customer service agents based in India. They are almost universally pleasant, professional, and courteous, but, I have found, they are also not very good at coloring outside the lines. So when I call in the middle of a Sunday afternoon, with three kids in the background, asking whether there’s a good business fare for my wife and I, and whether we might get an upgrade from economy, and oh by the way is there any chance the flight leaving at 7 pm is relatively empty, and if so, might we get seats in economy near the front, etc. – well, it’s been my experience that nine times out of ten, the call will devolve to the point where neither I nor the still-professional but clearly flummoxed customer service agent are having any fun. At all.

Which is exactly what happened. However, this call took a turn for the worse not based on a lack of communication, but on the real time usury of United’s pricing system. Herewith an edited transcript of my conversation with the agent:

ME: So how much would it be if my wife and I flew in Business, and my kids flew in Economy?

AGENT: There is no Business class on this plane.

ME: OK, so that means there are two classes of service?


ME: OK, great, so let me ask it another way…how much would it be if my wife flew in the more expensive class, and my kids flew in economy? I just want to know in case it’s a good deal. Otherwise, maybe I’ll try to get upgraded….

AGENT: So you want two First Class tickets?

ME: Erhm…well, no, I want to know how much a First Class ticket would cost?

AGENT: OK hold on….(45 second delay)…OK, that would be $1633.20.



ME: But it’s a 90 minute flight!


ME: (Recalling the Expedia fares of around $440). And how much are the economy seats?

AGENT: For three?

ME: Erhm….well, I just want to know how much an Economy class fare is.

AGENT: Let me check. (90 seconds go by…..) OK. Economy class fare for three would come out to $447 for each, round trip.

ME: (Relieved) That’s great. Let’s just do five Economy fares then. No way am I going to pay nearly four times the Economy rate to sit in First!

AGENT: Erhm….(30 second delay)….well sir, just a minute.

ME: Is there a problem?

AGENT: Well, no. Can I put you on hold?

ME: (Fearing the Interminable Purgatory Of Hold) NO! Please don’t put me on hold. What’s the problem?

AGENT: Well, it’s just that the system is now giving me a new price for each Economy fare roundtrip.

ME: (Fearing the system). Why?

AGENT: Well, before, I asked for just three seats. Now you want five.

ME: ….and?…

AGENT: And well, there are only six left on that flight.

ME: So….what is the system saying to you now?

AGENT: Sir, the price is now $2011.

ME: Holy sh*t.

AGENT: Sir….

ME: Really?

AGENT: Yes, so can I put you on hold and see what is going on?

ME: Yes, please do. Please.

For the next five or so minutes, I am put on hold, which for no additional fee includes a very peppy rendition of Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, a tune I never, ever thought I’d dislike. But over the years, United has put that faith to the test.

About a minute in, I start to twitch. I’m not one to hold well, and my wife is now hovering over my computer, asking what is going on. So I fire up Twitter and post this plea:

Screen shot 2009-11-15 at 9.58.31 PM.png

Of course, nothing happens immediately (and as of this post, still nothing…8 hours later). So back in the moment, I have a revelation – I think I have a special phone number for Super Premium United Customers, one that I got at about the same time I was told about the Million Mile thingy.

I look it up in my contacts and yes, there it is. So I call it on my cel, even as I’m on hold with United.

Same voice recognition tree. Same result – I’m screaming “AGENT” about 30 seconds or so in.

And after some reconciliation between me and the computer, an agent does indeed come on. A very nice Indian gentleman who asks how he might help me.

ME: Er, hello. Forgive me if my voice sound strained but so far I’ve had a rather rough time of it with United’s pricing system. I have a complicated fare I’m hoping you might help me with. (Secretly, I’m hoping I can find a backdoor into United pricing heaven, of course…)

AGENT: How can I help you?

ME: Well, I’d like it if you can price for me five economy seats on (this) flight on (that date)?

AGENT: Certainly.

ME: (A bit sheepishly) Uhm, and…can I ask you something?

AGENT: Certainly sir.

ME: Is this the super special line?


ME: Well, it’s just that I called a number that I thought was for premium customers, but the voice mail tree was the same and you didn’t seem to know who I was….

AGENT: I am a reservation agent.

ME: Oh yes, I know. I was just wondering if you…

AGENT: How can I help you?

ME: OK. Well, tell you what. Can I give you my mileage number? Would that help?

AGENT: Certainly sir.

ME: (Gives number).

AGENT: Thank you. Now, how can I help you.

ME: Well, again, I’d like it if you can price for me five economy seats on (this) flight on (that date)? It’s just that I tried this already, and I got a really, really high price on the seats, higher even than the price for First Class, and the agent told me it was because there were only six seats left, and I wanted more than three, and…anyway, I don’t think it’s fair to pay that much for seats that were quoted to me at $447 during the same phone call, is it?

AGENT: I don’t know, sir.

ME: But really, I mean, well, it’s usury, isn’t it? It’s not fair?! When I asked for just three seats, I got a quote of $447 each!

AGENT: Sir, it’s just how the system works.

ME: But … (resisting the urge to scream “DON’T YOU KNOW I’M A GOOD CUSTOMER WHO SHOULDN’T BE TREATED THIS WAY?!!”)

At this point, the other agent came back on my other line. I told the agent on my cel phone that I’d call back and returned to my original call.


ME: Yes, I’m here.

AGENT: Sir, I’ve checked the system, and that’s the price.

ME: So you are telling me the “system” is now saying that instead of paying two times $1633 for First and three times $447 for Economy, if I want to pay for only Economy seats, I have to pay five times $2011?

AGENT: I am afraid so sir.

ME: That’s more than $10,000 to fly my family 90 minutes!

AGENT: (silence)

ME: OK. Look, I understand this is not your fault. Can I speak to a supervisor?

AGENT: Certainly. Can I put you on hold?

Look, it’s late, and I have a long day tomorrow, so I won’t bother you with the resultant blow by blow. Suffice to say, after about another thirty minutes on the phone, I managed to get five economy class seats on the flight, at an average of about $550 each. It took a lot of wheedling, patience, arguing, anger and resolution, not to mention delivery of information I had already delivered more than once. The fellow, who was a supervisor, even tossed out the $25 per ticket “ticketing fee” that he was supposed to tack on (not that I knew about that till he told me he was waiving it, sensing he’d lose me entirely if he forced another $125 in fees on me. He was right, and I do appreciate the gesture).

So in the end, we’re on the damn flight.

I got off and I told my wife, in so many words, that we’re going to see f*cking Grandpa for f*cking Thanksgiving in f*cking Tucson after all.

So thanks United, for making it that much more special! As you might imagine, I can’t wait for Virgin, Southwest, or Jet Blue to start direct service between SF and Tucson. Because when they do, I won’t think twice about switching.

Until then, however, you’ve got my business. But if I were in your shoes, I’d be very, very nervous about the future of yours.