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December 19 2012

Why isn’t social media more like real life?

I finally got around to looking at my personal network graph on Linkedin Labs the other day. It was a fun exercise and I got at least one interesting insight from it.

Take a look at these two well defined and distinct clusters in my graph. These are my connections with the startup I worked for (blue) and the company that acquired us in 2008 (orange). It is fascinating to me that all these years later the clusters remain so disconnected. There are shared connections within a common customer base, but very few direct connections across the clusters. I would love to see maps from some of my other colleagues who are still there to see if theirs show the same degree of separation. This was an acquisition that never really seemed to click and whether this is a picture of cause or effect, it maps to my experiences living in it.

That’s an aside though. What this graph really puts in stark relief is what every social network out there is learning about us. And this graph doesn’t really tell the whole story because it doesn’t represent edge weights and types, which they also know. Social networks know who we connect with, who we interact with, and the form and strength of those interactions.

But this post isn’t a privacy rant. I know they know this stuff and so do you. What this image got me thinking about again is why social networks aren’t using this information to create for us a social experience that is more like our real world, and frankly more in tune with our human-ness.

Social media properties plumb this data to know which ads to show us, and sometimes they use it to target messages to us more effectively. Remember those LinkedIn messages we got with the pictures of our friends? We all clicked on them. But they just don’t seem to be making that much effort to make use of what they know to innovate on our behalf, to improve our experience.

For example, Facebook knows all of this too and yet they continue to cling to the curious fiction that our social life is one giant flat maximally-connected equi-weighted graph. A single giant room where we all stand shoulder to shoulder wondering who all of these strangers are. A place that refuses to acknowledge the nuance and complexity of our real world relationships. And Twitter, for all it’s wonderfulness, does the same thing. And Google Plus? Why are you making me curate circles? You know what they are. At least take a guess at making them for me.

They call themselves social networks, but in terms of how they express themselves to us, their users, they seem to be using the word “network” the way broadcast television does. The experience is more analogous to a vast mesh of public access television networks than with the complexity and richness of real world social connections. You say something and it is presented to everyone, no matter which of those clusters they inhabit. So 10% care and the rest of them filter it.

In the natural world of human-to-human conversation, communication travels person to person, modified and attenuated along the way. Or, in some cases, amplified into a cluster-spanning meme. I think it would be fascinating to see social media properties experiment with recreating some of these more complex dynamics. What if I could “talk” to a well-defined cluster in my graph and see the strength of the signal attenuate rapidly as the distance from that core increased? Not to make it invisible, but perhaps make its volume more appropriate to the another cluster’s contextual center of gravity.

Or, in the inverse, knowing things about my graph Twitter could give me a really nice low-pass filter that gave preference to those in my stream that are “close” to me, or share a common edge type, but who might not be tweeting at high frequency.

There are lots of possibilities along these lines. And I know that a big part of what makes these services useful is their simplicity. Fine. But ultimately, I wonder is all of this network science going to benefit me in any direct way as a user of these services, or is the whole field of data science ultimately about reverse engineering me for sake of advertisers?

I wrote a post a while back about our paleolithic roots and the way we consume media. The “diet” part aside, what I’ve been thinking about a lot since is a digital design sense that caters to our neurological reality. Instead of designing for the convenience of the machines and demand that we adapt, design for who we actually are. Buggy. Tribal. Easily distracted. Full of bias. Curious. Whatever. I’m eager to see a more ambitious approach to design that infuses our digital worlds with more of the nuance and subtlety we find in the physical realm, all while preserving the reach that makes our digital world special.

April 06 2012

Four short links: 6 April 2012

  1. FBI Uses Agile (Information Week) -- The FBI awarded the original contract for the case management system to Lockheed Martin in 2006, but an impatient Fulgham, who was hired in 2008 to get the project on track, decided to bring it in house in September 2010. Since then, the agency has been using agile development to push the frequently delayed project across the finish line. The FBI's agile team creates a software build every two weeks, and the pre-launch system is now running Build 33. The agency is working on Build 36, comprised mainly of features that weren't part of the original RFP. Fulgham says the software is essentially done.
  2. Lucky Meat (Matt Webb) -- the man is a mad genius. If you believe "mad" and "genius" are opposite ends of a single dimension, then I will let you choose where to place this post on that continuum. Then when you choose your tea (or coffee), the liquid is shot as if through the barrel of a gun BANG directly at your face. We use facial recognition computer chips or something for this. It blasts, and splashes, as hard and fierce as possible. And then the tea (or coffee) is runs down the inside slope of the "V" and is channeled in and falls eventually into a cup at the bottom apex where it finally drips in. Then you have your drink. (But you don't need it, because you're already awake.)
  3. Quietly Awesome -- how are your hiring processes biased towards extroverts? See also I don't hire unlucky people.
  4. How We Will Read (Clive Thompson) -- Clive is my hero. I feel like we see all these articles that say, “This is what the e-book is,” and my response is always, “We have no idea what the e-book is like!” All these design things have yet to be solved and even thought about, and we have history of being really really good at figuring this out. If you think about the origins of the codex — first we started reading on scrolls. Scrolls just pile up, though. You can’t really organize them. Codexes made it easier to line them up on a shelf. But it also meant there were pages. It didn’t occur to them for some time to have page numbers, because the whole idea was that you only read a small number of books and you were going to read them over and over and over again. Once there were so many books that you were going to read a book once and maybe never again, it actually became important to consult the book and be able to find something inside it. So page numbers and indices became important. We look at books and we’re like, “They’re so well designed,” but it took centuries for them to become well-designed. So you look at e-books, and yeah, they’re alright, but they’re clearly horrible compared to what they’re going to be. I find it amazing that I can get this much pleasure out of them already. AMEN!

March 07 2012

The dilemma of authentic learning: Do you destroy what you measure?

John Seely Brown tells us the half-life of any skill is about five years. This astounding metric is presented as part of the ongoing discussion of how education needs to change radically in order to prepare students for a world which is very different than the one their parents graduated into, and in which change is accelerating.

It's pretty straightforward to recognize that new job categories, such as data science, will require new skills. The first-order solution is to add data science as a college curriculum and work the prerequisites backward to kindergarten. But if JSB is right about the half-life of skills, even if this process were instantaneous, the learning path begun in kindergarten might be obsolete by middle school.

The second-order solution is to include meta-skills into the curriculum — ensuring young people learn how to learn, for instance, so that they can adapt as new skills are required with increasing frequency. This is essential, but raises the question of how to stay ahead of the skills curve — what are the next critical things to learn, how do you know, and how do you find them?

John Seely Brown and co-author Douglas Thomas propose in their book "A New Culture of Learning: Cultivating the Imagination for a World of Constant Change" a third-order solution, which is to inculcate the mindsets and dispositions that will lead us, as independent agents, to the things that matter. These include curiosity, questing, and connecting.

A similar theme emerged at the Design, Make, Play workshop at the New York Hall of Science in January. Focused on the question of how the maker movement can catalyze innovation in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education, participants included technologists, makers, learning science researchers, educators, and more, all wrestling with how to translate the authentic, integrated experiences that designing, making, and playing provide into something that can be measured, understood, and incorporated into education.

The primary outcomes of making, designing, and playing look much more like JSB's dispositions than the skills demonstrated on standardized tests of reading, writing, and arithmetic. At the same time, though, practical skills are developed — the kinds of projects exhibited at Maker Faire require the same skills as many high tech professions.

This highlights the most pernicious, devilish, intransigent challenge to bringing critical learning into school. Through the lens of standardized tests, higher order skills, meta-skills, and dispositions are literally invisible. Yet, these tests are the gold standard of educational efficacy for judging schools, educational innovations, and now even teachers themselves. School boards are held accountable by property owners for such test results due to their direct correlation to property values. Innovators, researchers, and even the philanthropic institutions that fund them are beholden to education investors for meaningful results that prove innovations work — with test scores as the default.

This conundrum is well understood by the very stakeholders who are trapped by it, and there are efforts at many levels to combat it — from incorporating critical thinking skills into the core standards being adopted by most states to alternative measures of effectiveness being adopted by grant makers. At the DMP workshop, participants struggled with the very real challenge of authentically articulating the benefits of design, make, and play at different levels and the measures that would make these benefits visible. It's a tricky balancing act to reduce something to metrics without losing its essence.

One fascinating approach was presented by Kevin Crowley about how to recognize the impact of science experiences such as those found in museum exhibits on young people. Crowley and his colleagues researched the forces and events that influenced scientists and science enthusiasts in their career/hobby choices. They identified the notion of experiences that caused "science learning activation," which they defined as a "composite of dispositions, skills, and knowledge that enables success in science learning experiences." The idea is that perhaps we can measure the degree to which a specific informal learning experience creates such activation and that this becomes one of the measures that shines a light on the outcomes of making.

As the gathered experts brainstormed to articulate the genuine outcomes of making for students and how to capture those, it became clear that this is a task that is both crucial and emergent. If authentic learning is to become available to all students regardless of means or zip code, the iterative and ongoing process of articulating the educational values of a world of rapidly changing expectations must become a priority for experts and lay folk alike. What are your thoughts? How do we capture and share the soul of making without turning it into something that can be tested using the No. 2 pencil?


December 14 2011

You can't get away with a bad mobile experience anymore

In the past, we accepted certain limitations in mobile content and speed because it was the actual, real web on a mobile device! But as Strangeloop president Joshua Bixby (@joshuabixby) notes in the following interview, that mode of thinking is on its way out. Now, most customers expect a full and fast web experience whether they're on a desktop, tablet or phone. The companies that offer that are poised to succeed. And for those that don't, ridicule will be the least of their concerns.

Should companies be thinking "mobile first" now?

Joshua BixbyJoshua Bixby: We talk about "the web" and "the mobile web" as if the two are different, but they aren't. I'm the first to admit that I'm as guilty of doing this as the next person. Using these terms is helpful for discussing differences in how people browse via different devices, but at the end of the day, it's all one web. Users want the same breadth and depth of content, no matter what device they're using. They want a consistent, reliable user experience. They don't want to interact with your site one way at their desks, then learn a whole new way when they're tablet-surfing on the couch, and then learn a third way when they're roaming around with their phones. Site owners who can deliver an experience that feels the same, regardless of the platform, are the ones who are going to own the web of the not-too-distant future.

Will all phones be smartphones at some point? Or will non-smartphones remain an important segment for years to come?

Joshua Bixby: It really depends on which market you look at. Last summer, comScore published a survey that showed that, despite the rapid rate of smartphone adoption, 155 million American mobile phone users still don't have smartphones. That's obviously a pretty significant number. But if you take a global view, things flip around and we see that, especially in developing countries, new mobile users are jumping right on the smartphone wagon. This allows users to bypass both dumb phones and the desktop web. It's a whole different way of interacting with the Internet.

I think an even better question might be: How great a disruptor will tablets be to the mobile market? Site owners have been caught with their mobile pants down, so to speak, in their inability to recognize the importance of this market. Forrester did a survey of retailers and found that, on average, about 20% of holiday mobile traffic came via tablets, with some retailers reporting that more than half their mobile traffic came via tablets. But most "mobile-optimized" sites look terrible on tablets. In 2012, site owners are going to be scrambling to catch up with this paradigm shift.

Should mobile app development be prioritized over mobile site development?

Joshua Bixby: Mobile apps will continue to have a role for repeat, loyal users of an online store or service, but it's incredibly narrow-sighted of companies to focus on app development over site development. People are always going to want to access the full public Internet. It's circa-1995, AOL-style thinking to assume otherwise.

I've seen scenario after scenario where apps present a huge usability problem because they don't anticipate the various ways that the web and apps intersect. Media sites are some of the worst culprits. Here's a common scenario: You're checking your Twitter feed and click on a link, but instead of taking you to the article, you're funneled to an intermediary "download our app" page. Often, this is a demand, not a request. There's no way to bypass this app block. And then say you do download the app — after it's installed, you don't even get served the article you originally wanted to see. You just get served the home page of the site, so you have to go back to Twitter and find the original link again.

This is just one scenario, but there are plenty more, and they all highlight the fact that many site owners don't recognize the complexity of mobile user paths through the web.

What are the most important mobile key performance indicators (KPIs)? How do these differ from the KPIs of traditional websites?

Joshua Bixby: This really depends on the type of site. Obviously, for ecommerce sites, you're always going to care about revenue and conversion, but these aren't necessarily as important for mobile as for desktop traffic. For all you know, your mobile user is standing in your bricks-and-mortar store doing some price-checking or reading product reviews. They're going to convert in your store. For these users, what you care about is engagement, not conversions, which is where KPIs like bounce rate and page views come in.

Site owners should look closely at bounce rate, page views, and time on page for their mobile traffic. These numbers should be commensurate with their desktop traffic. If they're way off — say you're averaging 2.3 page views per mobile visitor and 5.9 page views per desktop visitor — that could be an indicator that the mobile site is doing something to drive users away. In that case, you should analyze how fast your pages are loading or how usable they are.

Does a one-second delay on the mobile side have more significant repercussions than a one-second delay on the desktop side?

Joshua Bixby: I'm in the process of researching this very question. I recently did some fairly exhaustive analysis of mobile KPIs for a couple of Strangeloop's customers, which involved looking at more than 500,000 unique visits and analyzing how page load time affected metrics like conversion, abandonment rate, cart size, and page views. I presented my findings at Velocity Europe and Velocity Berlin. When I got back home, I asked myself, "Why didn't I compare these numbers against some kind of desktop baseline?" So I'm doing that now. I'll be happy to share my findings when I'm done.

Have you found that users of one type of mobile OS or device are more accepting of delays than others?

Joshua Bixby: This is a really neat area of research, and one that we've only begun to explore. In the mobile research I just mentioned, we did a little experiment where we used network quality as a proxy for performance. The reason for doing this was to try to get a sense of what major changes in page load — say the difference between pages that load in six seconds versus pages that load in 20-plus seconds — do to metrics. We found a few interesting things.

To start, when it comes to bounce rate, we found that iPad users have about the same bounce rate as Android and iPhone users — about 22-24% — when pages are served slowly to all three groups (iPad, iPhone and Android). But speeding pages up had a much greater impact on the iPad group than it did on the other two groups: The iPad users' bounce rates dropped to around 5%, compared to 8% for iPhone users and 11% for Android users.

What this means is anyone's guess, but I'd conjecture that the iPad experience is probably more conducive to extended browsing, so iPad users are more likely to stick around once they're confident that they'll get a reasonable user experience. Or maybe it's because iPad users are more likely to be sitting at home on their couch, while smartphone users are more likely to be out and about.

What are the most common mobile optimization mistakes? How should they be addressed?

Joshua Bixby: The most common mistake I see is when site owners aggressively optimize their sites for very specific platforms. There's a blog that I'm kind of addicted to called WTF Mobile Web, that is filled with examples of this from companies that should probably know better. For example, if you go to Canon's site on your iPad, you're served a fixed-width site that takes up about two-fifths of the screen. If I'm using a tablet, I've got a big shiny screen. I want to see pictures and rich content.

Canon's website on an iPad
Something seems to be missing ... fails to take full advantage of the iPad's screen size.

Speaking of stripped-down sites, there's such a thing as being too stripped down. The overly minimalist look of so many "mobile-optimized" pages was an understandable reaction to the wave of complaints about pages being too busy on mobile devices. But the bare-bones menu concept is not a solution. People expect more from websites in the aesthetic sense, and they want more than a plain column of buttons.

Here's one last complaint: "Mobile-optimized" sites that contain a "See full site" link, but then after you click on it, it's impossible to return to the mobile version. This has happened to me a couple of times, and it's kind of maddening. When you're used to the relative ease and fluidity of the web, these rabbit holes are hard to accept.

What's your take on the Kindle Fire and the Silk browser?

Joshua Bixby: The Kindle Fire and the Silk browser are really fascinating developments because they represent the truly out-of-the-box thinking that's going to usher in the next phase of aggressive performance optimization. That said, I don't think they're going to radically change the landscape in and of themselves.

We all got excited when Amazon described Silk's so-called "split browser" design — the fact that Silk can offload complex browser tasks to Amazon's cloud, resulting in dramatically faster load times. The logical next questions became: Will there be any imitators among the other browser vendors? Does the split-browser concept represent a new direction for browsers? The short answer to both questions is "no," at least for 2012.

For starters, there are privacy concerns surrounding the fact that this kind of split architecture has the potential to capture private user data. And while Silk offers a performance boost for some tablet content, even its own product manager, Brett Taylor, says of tablet browsing, "It's not meant to process and crunch a lot of heavy data."

Basic optimization techniques — such as those embedded in Silk — that transform code on a per-page basis to render pages faster in the browser, can actually slow down, or even break, pages. Web pages are becoming even more complex, data-intensive, and dynamic. For now, advanced content optimization — which takes a big-picture approach to accelerating an entire site — is still the only reliable way to radically optimize sites without causing harm.

Since we're in the midst of the holiday shopping season, what role do you see mobile playing this year?

Joshua Bixby: The 2011 holiday shopping season has proven that the mobile web is no longer a curiosity: 15.2% of online traffic came from mobile devices on Thanksgiving Day, more than double the previous year. Not only were these mobile shoppers spending money, they spent more on average — particularly shoppers using iPads — than desktop shoppers. This will be a wake-up call to retailers. Rather than keeping mobile on the sideline, companies will grow their mobile teams to match the size and scope of their regular development teams.

Joshua Bixby discussed mobile speed and KPIs at Velocity Europe. His full presentation is available in the following video.


December 05 2011

The end of social

Listened to listMuch as I'm tempted to talk about Facebook privacy, I'm going to resist. Plenty has been written about Facebook and privacy, Facebook and "forced" sharing, Facebook and sharing by default, Facebook this and Facebook that. And I'm sure much more will be written about it.

Tim O'Reilly has been supportive of Facebook. The company has frequently been clumsy, but it's also been willing to push the limits of privacy in ways that might be potentially creative and in ways that might potentially create more value for us than we give up.

But none of the many reactions to Facebook get to the core of the problem, which isn't privacy at all. The real problem becomes visible when you look at it from the other direction. What effect does massive sharing have on the recipients? Let me ask the question in another way. Maybe I care if you see all the music I listen to; maybe I don't. Maybe I'm embarrassed if you find out that I mostly listen to dignified classical music but occasionally go slumming with Beyonce; maybe I'm not. But turn that around: while I might be interested in what you listen to, I have hundreds of Facebook friends; do I really care to be informed about what everyone is listening to? Do I really care to keep up with everything that they're reading? A little bit of information (cool, I didn't know that Bert Bates is a Dead Head) is interesting, but a deluge is The Big Snore.

The other day, I read a perceptive article, "In Defense of Friction," arguing that "automated trust systems undermine trust by incentivizing cooperation because of the fear of punishment rather than actual trust." That's a profound point. If we rely on computational systems for a trust framework, we actually lose our instincts and capacity for personal trust; even more, we cease to care about it. And there's a big difference between trusting someone and relying on a system that says they're trustworthy.

Taking this a couple of steps further, the article points out that, to many people, Facebook's "frictionless" sharing doesn't enhance sharing; it makes sharing meaningless. Let's go back to music: It is meaningful if I tell you that I really like the avant-garde music by Olivier Messiaen. It's also meaningful to confess that I sometimes relax by listening to Pink Floyd. But if this kind of communication is replaced by a constant pipeline of what's queued up in Spotify, it all becomes meaningless. There's no "sharing" at all. Frictionless sharing isn't better sharing; it's the absence of sharing. There's something about the friction, the need to work, the one-on-one contact, that makes the sharing real, not just some cyber phenomenon. If you want to tell me what you listen to, I care. But if it's just a feed in some social application that's constantly updated without your volition, why do I care? It's just another form of spam, particularly if I'm also receiving thousands of updates every day from hundreds of other friends.

So, what we're seeing isn't the expansion of our social network; it's the shrinking of what and who we care about. My Facebook feed is full of what friends are listening to, what friends are reading, etc. And frankly, I don't give a damn. I would care if they told me personally; I'd even care if they used a medium as semi-personal as Twitter. The effort required to tweet tells me that someone thought it was important. And I do care about that. I will care much less if Spotify and Rdio integrate with Twitter. I already don't care about the blizzard of automated tweets from FourSquare.

Automated sharing is giving Facebook a treasure-trove of data, regardless of whether anyone cares. And Facebook will certainly find ways to monetize that data. But the bigger question is whether, by making sharing the default, we are looking at the end of social networks altogether. If a song is shared on Facebook and nobody listens to it, does it make a sound?


March 22 2010

User-Centered Innovation Is Not Sustainable - The Conversation - Harvard Business Review

On the limitations of user-centered design. "Only leaders and designers who are driven by a vision and who explicitly search a priori for those sustainable behaviors can tune out the unsustainable needs of 99% of users and focus on the few exceptions." It's important to notice what this article does not say: that user insights are not precious and necessary. They are. But here, they are necessary within the context of a vision, and in this example there is focus on users who are needles of sustainability in the haystacks of consumption. by flamingsole
Reposted fromux ux

February 21 2010



Fifty Dangerous Things is really about providing an antidote to the overprotective parenting style that seems to becoming the norm in our society. Readers of GeekDad will probably be familiar with the concept of “helicopter parenting” (hovering too much over your kids) and sites like Free-Range Kids, that promote less-overprotective parenting. Fifty Dangerous Things fits right in with that mindset, and I found it to be a fun and useful tool for helping me expand my children’s experiences.

After spending some time working on the activities with my son, I got a chance to ask some questions of Gever Tulley about writing Fifty Dangerous Things (You Should Let Your Children Do). Here’s the interview.

— read more in: "Gever Tulley Talks About Fifty Dangerous Things (You Should Let Your Children Do)" by By Ken Denmead in Wired - Geekdad, Raising Geek Generation 2.0
Reposted byKinderabteilung Kinderabteilung
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