Ideas are cheap, yet innovation is still difficult, and many bad consumer products are launched or brought to market. Companies that are secretive about their in-progress products are at a significant disadvantage. It is difficult for companies to 1) choose which of the many, many ideas are worth building, and then 2) iterate intelligently on the chosen ideas until they become viable products. Companies that keep fewer secrets are faster because of the quantity, quality, and variety of feedback they get on their ideas. If companies have product leaders that can understand that feedback, then they can iterate quickly to arrive at a product consumers want.
While people who work at startups tend to be eager to tell anyone who will listen about their products, large companies often forbid their employees from talking outside of the company about the specifics of their work*. While those companies can afford to conduct lots of formal market research, build robust prototypes, and use A/B testing frameworks, those things do not provide quick feedback. People at small, unproven startups get to talk about what they are doing with all sorts of people all the time.
Imagine the following conversation between a software engineer at a startup and a new acquaintance at an apartment party, who may or may not be the target audience for the product, who may or may not have domain expertise, and who may or may not be sober:
Compare it to a similar conversation between a software engineer at a large, secretive company and that same party guest:
Even if the startup employee already knows that real-time mobile local social video sharing is actually a terrible idea, the former conversation is substantially more useful. Companies that are open about their ideas get this sort of feedback constantly, for free, as part of their employees’ daily lives. Some of the conversations might be at parties as above, some might be with friends or family or former co-workers, while others might happen during the casual networking at tech meetups.
There are many examples of companies that might have benefited by being more open about their “stealth” consumer products. Would Twitter have suffered if the public had known months ago that they were renaming the four main tabs to be “Home”, “Connect”, “Discover”, and “Me”, or might they have chosen different words? Would Google+ have been less successful so far if its employees had been able to discuss Circles at apartment parties, or might they have learned that people don’t really want to sort their friends?
Perhaps companies that keep secrets are wary of attention from the press, but this risk is minimized if a company is constantly floating out a variety of possibly-incompatible ideas. The tech press is able to make big stories out of big launches precisely because the companies themselves have hyped those launches up to be so big. Perhaps companies that keep secrets are afraid of imitation by competitors, but in reality those competitors are usually so entrenched in their own products and worldview that they are incapable of copying anything even if they wanted to.
It’s rare that any single comment could change a company’s direction, but in the aggregate these conversations help the company to iteratively refine its ideas at a pace faster than otherwise possible. External feedback is valuable because it’s free from internal politics and propaganda, and because it can be a source of fresh ideas from potential users. Secrets create press interest and secrets scare competitors, but secrets also slow you down and secrets do not engender good products.
I’ve been living my life in the cloud for nearly two years now, and loving it. I’m synchronizing state between my home computer, my work computer, and multiple iDevices using a setup I described in this post, but I wanted to elaborate here on what I’m doing with my in-progress text files.
Dropbox* is great for making transparent backups of whatever I’m working on, for syncing my Application Support folders, and also for giving me access to unfinished blog posts, shopping lists, email drafts, and other things while on the go. The Dropbox iOS app lets you view but not edit files, so I tried out PlainText by Hogs Bay Software. I’ve been using their Mac OS X app, WriteRoom, for years, and decided it was worth the $4.99 to get rid of the ads and upgrade to the WriteRoom iOS app.
My Dropbox folder looks like this:
I wanted mobile access to everything except the other, sync, and work-src directories. I didn’t want WriteRoom to have to do the extra work of syncing the tens-of-thousands of Application Support files, and I didn’t want them taking up space on my iPhone or iPad. I reached out to Hogs Bay to see if there was a way to perform a “Sync All Now” on only some directories, and Grey Burkart got back to me with some helpful suggestions.
Since the Dropbox API only gives iOS client applications access to a single directory path, he suggested I make a new directory for WriteRoom to sync with (you specify that directory when you set up the app for the first time). Mine is called ~/Dropbox/sync/WriteRoom/, and GoBoLinux users might call it the ~/Dropbox/Depot/, but you can use whatever you like. I then made symbolic links from the directories containing the text files I wanted to be able to edit to this new Depot directory. When I’m using the WriteRoom iOS app it can only see the directories I’ve told it about, while at my other computers I see the full tree. Note that some directories such as notepad docs are located elsewhere in Dropbox, but I can still make the appropriate symlinks. It’s a bit of a hack to set up, but works perfectly.
Thanks, Grey! And others should feel free to comment or contact me if you have any questions or tips.
*http://db.tt/wwbWOwB is a referral link! Use it when you sign up and we both get 250MB more free space :)
A week ago Google launched its much-anticipated social network, Google+. I think they executed remarkably well, given the size of the company (24,200 employees), the stakes involved (see the ever-hyperbolic TechCrunch), and their history with social (Buzz, Wave). It was important that they launch something good, and I think what they launched is good. New features include a cross-service toolbar, Hangouts, Huddles, and Sparks, but here I’m going to talk about Circles. If you’re not on Google+ yet, the below video gives a good sense of the feature and its interface, but you should sign up and try it for yourself.
Wanderli.st, the ITP thesis project I presented last May, grew out of similar ideas about social contexts. It was an application that would let us socialize within online contexts that are like our offline contexts, and a tool for managing and synchronizing relationships across social websites. I’m no longer working on it for a variety of reasons, but the most important of them is this: Regardless of the interfaces and features of Lists on Facebook or Circles on Google+, I don’t think people actually want to sort their contacts.
Since we are so good at deciding what is appropriate to say to a given group, it seems backwards for our applications to make us define those groups before we even know what we’re going to say. In real life, the thing we want to share and the group with whom we want to share can influence each other, so our software should work the same way. There are several issues with manual sorting of contacts:
I know at least several hundred people, and it’s a lot of work to go through them one at a time and categorize them into Circles.
When I begin that task, I can’t anticipate which Circles I will need, and which will be useful for sharing. Will I want one for each place I’ve lived, school I’ve attended, job I’ve had, and topic I’m interested in? If I start with too few, I’ll have to go through my list of contacts again when I remember the Circle(s) I forgot, which is daunting. If I start with too many, the whole process will take much longer, since I have to decide for each of those hundreds of people if they belong in each of a dozen or more Circles.
Relationships are not always symmetric, and I don’t want to publicize how I group my contacts. As a result, Google+ Circles are private, and each user must undertake this task for him/herself.
Relationships change, and it’s even even more work to continually maintain my Circles so that they mirror my current real world relationships.
It doesn’t matter how slick your UI is. No one wants to manually group their friends into groups.
Even Mark Zuckerberg said today that that many users don’t manually build their social graphs:
A lot of our users just accept a lot of friend requests and don’t do any of the work of wiring up their network themselves.
Facebook offers a comparable but relatively unused feature, Lists, that lets users organize their friends, but Circles has a superior user interface that makes the categorization work much more enjoyable. Former Facebook employee Yishan Wong, however, makes a slightly different critique Google+ and Circles:
Besides such features being unwieldy to operate, one’s “friend circles” tend to be fluid around the edges and highly context-dependent, and real humans rely often on the judgment of the listener to realize when something that is said publicly is any of their business, or if they should exercise discretion in knowing whether to get involved or just “butt out.”
Our offline relationships are very complex. Should we try and replicate the attributes and structure of those relationships online, or will online communication need to be different?
If we do try and replicate the attributes of our relationships, will people take the time and effort to build and curate relationships online, or will they fall back to offline interactions to deal with the nuances?
I now think the answer to first question is “No” and the answer to the second question is “Neither.” Offline relationships are too complex to be modeled online, but I also don’t think those models are important to online social interaction. It’s worth noting how simple my social interactions feel offline – I can see all of the people within ear shot, so I know who can hear me and who might overhear, and this allows me to adjust the things I say accordingly. Furthermore, creating these contexts is straightforward – if I want to talk about something with a specific group of people, I’ll organize a time when we can all talk face-to-face. Offline I only need to keep track of my relationships with individuals, and I can adjust my group behavior based on the individuals present.
With email, my online conversations can work in a similar way. If I have something to say, I’ll think of precisely the people I want to say it to, and compose/address my message accordingly. Each person who receives it can decide if they feel comfortable responding to the initial group, or to some other group. Furthermore, email threads do not span the entirety of a group’s communication, so it’s easy to add or remove someone for a different conversation about a different topic, just as we can do in face-to-face conversations. With email, the group does not persist longer than the conversation. Facebook’s recently revised Messages and Groups features address some of these issues of social context, but those groups are still uncomfortably permanent, and the single-threaded conversation history feels unnatural.
Email, notably, has no explicit representation of a relationship at all. Anyone can email anyone else, yet we’ve reached a functional equilibrium through a combination of social conventions, email address secrecy, and filters. Despite this lack of explicit data, email has rich implicit data about our relationships, and in 2009 Google launched a new feature in Gmail Labs with little fanfare: “Suggest more recipients”. Wired.com wrote about Google+ shortly after launch, and hinted to the future of this data:
It’s conceivable that Google might indeed provide plenty of nonbinding suggestions for who you might want it your Circles. “We’ve got this whole system already in place that hasn’t been used that much where we keep track of every time you e-mail someone or chat to them or things like that,” says Smarr. “Then we compute affinity scores. So we’re able to do suggestions not only about who you should add to a circle, or even what circles you could create out of whole cloth.”
Rather than use this data to make static Circles that will inevitably become irrelevant for future conversation, Google should let the list of individuals in each previous conversation serve as a suggestion for future conversations. If Gmail is able to make guesses about who should be included in a conversation based on who else has already been included, it could also leverage the content that I intend to share to make dynamic suggestions. It can help me remember who I might want to carbon-copy on a message before I send it, and it can do this without overburdening me with the overgeneralized Circles of my past (1). Once the spatial boundaries of that conversation have been defined, the discussion can continue until no one else has anything left to say or until a subgroup wants to split off and have a side conversation, much like a social interaction in real life. The fundamental design of email has shown more promise than the categorization-based alternatives (2).
We want some of the things we say on the Internet to be public and accessible to anyone who is interested (3). For everything else, explicit persistent groupings of the people I know are tedious to maintain and unnatural to use. Each discussion is different, so we need discussion tools that support robust privacy control on a per-message basis.
There are many ways to improve this recipient suggestion interface, and profile photo thumbnails would be a good place to start. It could also suggest some Circle-like groups, such as my family, and even let me upload my own photo to make those groups easier to identify. It should not, however, present me with a list of all of my groups, because then that is something to manage – I only need to see the groups when I am addressing a message.
It is important not to let our thinking get bogged down by the current limitations of our inbox interfaces. What if, when you searched for a person in Gmail, you got a grid of attached photos in addition to a list of conversations? What if Gmail was as “real time” as Gchat or Facebook? What if Gmail didn’t make you feel like you needed to read every message? What if Gmail searches were, dare I say it, fast? Some of these changes would break how we currently use our inboxes, so perhaps a separate tool that was modeled after email would be better, but that’s a detail. Other changes, such as streamlined Rapportive-style contact information for the people in a conversation, are already beginning to be built-in.
I have some ideas on this, but that’s a separate blog post. See Pinterest and Subjot in the interim :)
For those of you that haven’t looked at the Internet in the past week or so, there’s a 13-year-old named Rebecca Black who made a music video called “Friday.” It hockey-sticked to over 40 million views on YouTube and has earned her an awful lot of criticism, as well as an awful lot of money.
If a piece has high production values – whether it’s a video shot with proper lighting or a website designed with an effective grid and color scheme – people will pay attention. They may mock you for a mismatch between the quality of your content and the quality of your production – would anyone care about “Friday” if it had been shot and edited with an iPhone 4? – but they will pay attention. In our information-overloaded, failed-filter future, attention is the most valuable commodity, and hacking the attention economy with a polished piece of content is a useful and lucrative thing to be able to do.
As some animals mature, they outgrow and shed off their skin, their exoskeleton, or some other part of their body. A replacement awaits beneath that might be larger, of a substantially different form, or simply fresh and undamaged. This process, called molting, is undergone by a wide variety of animals. This dragonfly, photographed by Böhringer Friedrich, provides an especially striking example:
We humans also molt as we mature, but it is our social identity, rather than a specific body part, that we outgrow. As we transition from childhood into our teenage years and through adulthood our preferences around the foods we like, the clothes we wear, the skills we practice, and the company we keep can all change dramatically. These changes are often relatively abrupt, like the physiological changes of many other species. Afterward we still enjoy reminiscing about what we used to do and we appreciate how our present self grew out of our past preferences, both privately and with others who knew us then. I fondly recall the Lego castles and spaceships that filled my childhood, and while I now build with other things and only really talk about those memories with my family, Lego still contributed significantly to my present identity.
The creators of social web services have yet to take human molting behaviors into account when designing their digital spaces. As a result, the changes I am able to make to my online profiles are either destructive or cumulative. On Facebook I can untag myself from old photos but then have no ability to go back and reminisce either alone or with the others who were there then. Alternatively, I can let the photos accumulate over the years, but then my entire social history is accessible to new acquaintances, and it makes me uncomfortable to have so much information available so soon in new relationships.
Facebook and other services do offer some tools for managing this problem. I can organize my friends into “Lists” and make different pieces of content available to different groups of friends, but I do not know of many people actually doing this in practice. It would be mentally exhausting to consider each of hundreds of people I know on Facebook and sort them into categories based on the time and place of our friendship.
People have, in contrast, shown a high degree of tolerance for friend request emails on new web services − I’ve both sent and received hundreds of such requests on many post-Facebook services such as Twitter, Foursquare and Quora. These new services offer a fresh start, a blank slate, a new skin, which I can use to define my present self for the people I currently care about. The old memories remain intact each time I undergo this digital molting process – I can always log back in to past accounts and find the people and content that were important to me at the time – but this personal collection of outgrown identities need not be central to my present self.
This does not necessarily mean that social web services are doomed to be left behind as repeated generations of users outgrow their old selves, and I can imagine features that would allow users to molt as they progressed through different stages of life. Facebook, for example, could have explicitly mirrored my real-life graduation from college on the site. They could have encapsulated all of my old data in an interface that was separate from my current profile and easily accessible to me and my friends from college, but not to all of the people I would meet in the future. They could have given me a new profile to fill out slowly over time, and perhaps it could focus more on my profession and less on my education. And they could have let me decide which of my old friends I wanted to re-add as friends for the next stage of life, and done it in such a way that there would be no social pressure to re-add all of the friends from my freshman dorm with whom I hadn’t talked in two years, since our college friendships would still be intact. I, as a user, would have gladly spent a few hours at my computer flipping through old memories and sketching the outlines for a new self, and I could see this feature as a coming-of-age ritual that people approach eagerly with pride.
People, and especially those who have not yet reached adulthood, will continue to molt their social identities as they grow and mature. Until services offer features that support digital molting, people will continue to shift their focus away from the web services they used to love.