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Archive for August, 2006

Podcasts Juxtaposed: Slouching Toward the Era of Quality of Life
Thursday, August 17th, 2006

Over the last year, I’ve been slouching toward working podcasts into workouts and commutes. Albeit sporadically, perhaps only 10 podcasts in the year. This last week, I listened to two excellent Podcasts during runs. Rather than separating them, connecting them seems a poetic resolution. The first, by the highly-attuned how-we-live observer Linda Stone, records her Etech talk in March, a continuation of her Supernova 2005 talk. Linda portrays the shift of how we focus our attention across 20 year eras:

… at the same time as we celebrate these powerful technologies [we have], we feel increasingly powerless in our lives. Which is why, just as we made a shift from productivity—all about me—self-expression in 1965-1985 to connect, connect, connect and the network as the center of gravity from 1985-2005, we are on the edge of the next shift. And a new set of opportunities.

Linda contrasts multitasking and continuous partial attention (an ungainly term, perhaps scanning would do) as the two prevailing modes of attention control of the last two eras. She also paints committed full focus attention as the mode for the next era. This last mode strikes me as what flow and being here have always been about, and so not so much a new mode, but perhaps a return to the old before the fragmentation and distribution of the modern age. In any case, most of us engage in all three modes at different times, though our ages and stages, roles and types, phases and eras do affect the exact mixture.

She sets up her close with a 1996 Dee Hock quote that beautifully infuses the hierarchy of Data, Information, Knowledge, Understanding, and Wisdom (see bottom of transcript). Linda sees this next era as being about the opportunity of moving from knowledge to understanding and wisdom, and our attention on improving the quality of life. The following statement from her Supernova talk bridges well to the second podcast.

We long for a quality of life that comes in meaningful connections to friends, colleagues, family that we experience with full-focus attention on relationships

Anil Dash’s MeshForum talk in May, available as an ITConversations podcast (Lazy Request: a transcript of this podcast) focuses on Blogging as a social experience true to the above quote and as distinct from Blogging as publishing for the people. The two forms of blogging are reflected in the data and analysis of the LiveJournal and TypePad communities.

  • Maybe 10 percent of the people talking about a topic have the goal of talking to the whole world and of being a definitive resource in the topic area.

  • Typepad started out with a ratio of 40 readers to 1 writer 3 years ago. Now, it’s closer to 1000 to 1.

  • LiveJournal, formed in 1999, now with 10M users across 150 countries, several thousand more users than TypePad. It’s not just the diaries of teenage girls. Yes, mostly female, but mostly in the 18-24 range. The ratio of writers to readers has sustained at roughly 6 or 8 to 1, the highest common number roughly at 15 to 1 ratio.

  • Anil commented people don’t organically have more than about 150 connections (Dunbar number). As he says, people can connect for lots of reason, business, political, so on, but nobody has 1000 friends.

The qualitative account highlights a number of other ways that the LiveJournal experience is not exactly as often cast. Though it has been enormously influential with its feature, it’s flying below the radar of both media and publishing-like bloggers, means it’s been left alone, un-messed-up to reflect a broader social reality. It’s been a haven for people to communicate privately with friends and families, and groups of people with common interests, where privacy allows creating a common context for communication.

Anil talks great sense about the contrast between what people actually write about, and say a thou-model of what is proper public writing. He points out that LiveJournal and MySpace often get denigrated, but these environments reflect what people care about. Gossip, for example, not about celebrities but the interpersonal news and real stories of friends. Anil commented that over 100k people check their LiveJournal page 4, 6, or more times a day reflecting their deep need for connecting.

One amusing comparision Anil makes is of LiveJournal to the public letters of the American Founding Fathers (hmm, this feels familiar). Apparantly, these Founders wrote much about politics, weather, and gossip, with the same spirit and understanding as blogging, as a record of my life in a public space. Point made, but it might not be such a good idea to push this analogy too far, since surely Founding Fathers would be much more concerned about their place in history i.e. their broad audiences in the future.

Publishing bloggers, even as they drop some formality, would tend to preserve a professional stance and focus on their subject matter, whereas social bloggers would be focused on experience sharing and thus more concerned about privacy and personal control. Some set of long-term bloggers that have sustained quality and versatility (Anil being a prime example) develop extremely nuanced blogging practices that travel the continuum between content and sociality, between sharing experience and sensemaking, linking and thinking, and so on. Anil has a nice explanation of why many such bloggers burn out on blogging, sign off, and eventually return. It’s partly about this missing safe space. Perhaps the better analogy to the Founding Fathers is this class of bloggers.

Anil’s contrast between publishing and social styles of blogging bridges nicely to Linda’s coming era. Though surely there is some me, me, me in the LiveJournal/MySpace/YouTube stories, perhaps as Anil substantiates, these social spaces really are about shifting from scanning for opportunities and connecting through the network to discerning opportunities and a focus on quality of life.

Miscellaneous:

  • Perhaps my sporadic Podcast listening is cured. A big contributor, at least in theory, was a reluctance to fall into the iPod well and an ekeing it out with a high-friction Rio Nitrus and Windows clients. It’s working enough now, so we’ll see if it’s really about the high-friction life.

  • The [MeshForum][http://www.meshforum.org] tagline of connecting networks connects nicely to another element of Linda’s shift from me and the rest of the world network to a more manageable life in a network of interconnected communities.

  • Anil’s formal talk part is only 15 minutes of the 35 minute podcast. Wow, Kudos, especially since the rest is well-storied responses to interesting questions. A number of these are worth connecting or commenting on separately, … we’ll see if I get there.

  • I think I’m safe in using first names, but I do wonder whether even as informal and social as this medium is supposed to be whether it reads wrong to some. If so, i offer reciprocity: use my first name. If you want retribution instead, go ahead and misspel or mis’ay my first name, I’m happy to let people buy the vowels.

Thoughts on Search Panel at AlwaysOn Stanford Summit
Friday, August 11th, 2006

At the AlwaysOn 2006 Stanford Summit in July, Bambi Francisco of Marketwatch moderated an excellent Panel focused on what the Search Guys were learning from the data they have on our search behaviors. The panelists were Usama Fayyad, Chief Data Officer, Yahoo; Jim Lanzone, CEO, Ask.com; Peter Norvig, Search and Quality Director, Google; and Michael Yavonditte, CEO, Quigo

Blog posting, by Dan Farber, Renee Blodgett, and Francisco herself, cover the panel well, here mainly I’m adding my reactions. Noticeably missing was Microsoft, but thrown into the mix, is Quigo as an Ad player. The panel was mostly devoid of company posturing, though plenty of data-supported commentary, mostly true to respective corporate positions.

Relevance and Advertising. Let’s start here, since really, no matter how much beyond search talk gets dished out, standard consumer search, i.e. QIRO (query in, results out), with its marvelous money printer, advertising, is not fading soon. The pressure will remain on market size, market share, and monetization of share. This means an ongoing obsession with extending the range of queries that “relevance” on top 10 result pages serves well. And on increasing the relevance of the ads to get greater return on marketshare. All panelists, mostly indirectly, reflected an alignment to this business reality.

With Quigo buying millions of keywords, Yavonditte emphasized Search works quite well now. Lanzone pointed out that Ask shed the fancier “natural language” approach with 10 words that wasn’t really doing better than two words queries on Google, and that they are now there with a search engine that produces world class relevance with two word queries. Fayyad pointed out, even amidst “change the game” and “search is not enough” comments, that they had to be careful not to mess up search, and I think he was alluding to more than whether it works for finding things or not. Sure, search works well. For what it works well for. Though all the panelists showed nuance, not utterly blinded by economic interests, their organizations are subject to such realities.

It’s not too early to see that the incumbents will face their own version of the innovator’s dilemma. Microsoft has the best incentive for disrupting the current model, because they have other ways to make money. Yavonditte pointed out that Microsoft was doing an interesting thing in sharing some of their data with their advertisers. Google must find another rocket ship that goes straight to the moon or other places without ordinary gravity, while evolving quickly to prolong and parlay the golden days of their current weightless franchise. Yahoo, with its stash of login accounts, range of Internet services, and opportunity around social media, is in-between.

Richer Interaction. These current interests aside, all panelists talked of better interactions for the user, albeit cautiously not just for financial reasons. Lanzone made the point that lots of things that sound like good ideas don’t necessarily help the user. People don’t like messing with a bunch of dials and buttons up front. They like to get going and then refine things as they go. The simple white search box allows them to do that.

In general, nobody seems to be using user profile data to improve relevance for a given user. Both Norvig and Lanzone explicitly said a user’s search history isn’t used for this purpose and isn’t likely to be useful. However, Ask and the others are all down the path of providing more than “ten blue links.” Enrichening the dialogue loop, not so much on the query in, but exactly on what comes out. Norvig used the common metaphor of the dialogue with a librarian.

Vertical Search Lanzone commented that nobody wants to remember 26 sites to go to search for different things, while Norvig pointed out that custom interfaces do make sense, as in Finance, and in Travel. These apparantly for and against points are really both for points. For effective user experiences. A single point of entry is about minimizing user load on getting started. While the right interface provides the scaffolding for the user in getting something done, a good kind of rigidity.

Supporting effective information seeking depends on both the content and user side of the dialogue. Content in certain domains is quite, say, slanted, to the point that it can even look like a separate language, e.g. say medicalese. Fayyad talked about the value of knowing the context you are in when searching, using the example of searching for Jaguar on an automobile site. Norvig certainly would emphasize that with enough data you can start to pull structure out that just wasn’t feasible to do so before. True enough, but as Fayyad points out in a separate interview, an ounce of knowledge is worth a ton of data.

Same goes for competent user experience design. It’s not clear that Google or the others have all the advantage because of content or query streams. In specialized searches, solid information architecture and functionality design around structured search and faceted navigation can be created by newcomers. The biggest advantage the incumbents have is being the starting points of Internet experience. The first box doesn’t mean one box is sufficient, but it does mean control over other boxes.

Portals and Social Media. Yahoo has broader and deeper Internet login services than any of the others. Knowing what people do in many aspects of their Internet life has got to be worth more than having ever more data on just queries. In the old days, using data to improve products would be great, because people paid directly for products. In the new days, you have to figure out how to connect data to money through advertising. Fayyad pointed out ownership of a greater share of time allows for more effective repetition of advertising. But, surely, we can get beyond not just search, but beyond advertising as the only model too.

Though people are willing to pay for experiences or experience goods offline, direct pay models on the Internet are still far behind the advertising model. Music hasn’t quite yet blazed a success yet, but I think it will. Meanwhile with video, as Norvig, Lanzone, Fayyad all pointed out, it’s very early days. Mostly just emailing around of links to outrageous videos of the day. Here too an obsession with advertising with Yavonditte pointing out that these early days pose challenges to advertising. Sure and such challenges will get sorted out, since some portion of video media will make sense under this model.

In sorting out how to support our broader digital experiences, Yahoo has the relative advantage, though my understanding is that they are viewed as uncool amongst teens and young adults. Shocking perhaps for a company that is not much over a decade old, until you read this as not a changing of old minds, but a generational shift to new minds. Though this talk of young and cool may seem to stick us to advertising models, perhaps not, consider games.

Given that time and attention are the bounded resource, it seems likely that people will be ever more willing to pay directly for digital products or Internet-based experiences. We all pay for computing and communication infrastructure now. We can see the beginnings of consumer pays in Internet games, music, subscriptions, hosted service extensions and so on. Ultimately, direct pay is necessary to create the broader range of products and services that work well across the niches and slices of life.