The Fall of Vidoop

Vidoop logoWhen I left Flock in 2006, I blogged the occasion, having helped start the company by contributing a vision for what I thought the web needed: a social browser.

When I was laid off from Vidoop last month, I didn’t so much as tweet about it. The circumstances were different this time. But because the lack of information coming from the company is disappointing (if not frankly irresponsible) it seemed time that I wrote down my recollection of what went down.
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Michael Moore’s advice to Obama on General Motors

Roger & meMichael Moore is a polarizing figure with a mild-mannered way of suggesting some rather far-fetched, ultra-liberal ideas. I find myself often feeling swayed by his emphaticness but more often than not, unconvinced by the logic of his arguments.

That said, he does from time to time incite a good deal of discourse and discussion, and on the cusp of the bankruptcy of General Motors, he sent around his suggestions to Barack Obama on what should be done with the company, and so I thought I’d reproduce his nine points here, since I largely agree with them:

  1. Just as President Roosevelt did after the attack on Pearl Harbor, the President must tell the nation that we are at war and we must immediately convert our auto factories to factories that build mass transit vehicles and alternative energy devices. Within months in Flint in 1942, GM halted all car production and immediately used the assembly lines to build planes, tanks and machine guns. The conversion took no time at all. Everyone pitched in. The fascists were defeated.

    We are now in a different kind of war — a war that we have conducted against the ecosystem and has been conducted by our very own corporate leaders. This current war has two fronts. One is headquartered in Detroit. The products built in the factories of GM, Ford and Chrysler are some of the greatest weapons of mass destruction responsible for global warming and the melting of our polar icecaps. The things we call “cars” may have been fun to drive, but they are like a million daggers into the heart of Mother Nature. To continue to build them would only lead to the ruin of our species and much of the planet.

    The other front in this war is being waged by the oil companies against you and me. They are committed to fleecing us whenever they can, and they have been reckless stewards of the finite amount of oil that is located under the surface of the earth. They know they are sucking it bone dry. And like the lumber tycoons of the early 20th century who didn’t give a damn about future generations as they tore down every forest they could get their hands on, these oil barons are not telling the public what they know to be true — that there are only a few more decades of useable oil on this planet. And as the end days of oil approach us, get ready for some very desperate people willing to kill and be killed just to get their hands on a gallon can of gasoline.

    President Obama, now that he has taken control of GM, needs to convert the factories to new and needed uses immediately.

  2. Don’t put another $30 billion into the coffers of GM to build cars. Instead, use that money to keep the current workforce — and most of those who have been laid off — employed so that they can build the new modes of 21st century transportation. Let them start the conversion work now.
  3. Announce that we will have bullet trains criss-crossing this country in the next five years. Japan is celebrating the 45th anniversary of its first bullet train this year. Now they have dozens of them. Average speed: 165 mph. Average time a train is late: under 30 seconds. They have had these high speed trains for nearly five decades — and we don’t even have one! The fact that the technology already exists for us to go from New York to L.A. in 17 hours by train, and that we haven’t used it, is criminal. Let’s hire the unemployed to build the new high speed lines all over the country. Chicago to Detroit in less than two hours. Miami to DC in under 7 hours. Denver to Dallas in five and a half. This can be done and done now.
  4. Initiate a program to put light rail mass transit lines in all our large and medium-sized cities. Build those trains in the GM factories. And hire local people everywhere to install and run this system.
  5. For people in rural areas not served by the train lines, have the GM plants produce energy efficient clean buses.
  6. For the time being, have some factories build hybrid or all-electric cars (and batteries). It will take a few years for people to get used to the new ways to transport ourselves, so if we’re going to have automobiles, let’s have kinder, gentler ones. We can be building these next month (do not believe anyone who tells you it will take years to retool the factories — that simply isn’t true).
  7. Transform some of the empty GM factories to facilities that build windmills, solar panels and other means of alternate forms of energy. We need tens of millions of solar panels right now. And there is an eager and skilled workforce who can build them.
  8. Provide tax incentives for those who travel by hybrid car or bus or train. Also, credits for those who convert their home to alternative energy.
  9. To help pay for this, impose a two-dollar tax on every gallon of gasoline. This will get people to switch to more energy saving cars or to use the new rail lines and rail cars the former autoworkers have built for them.

Well, that’s a start. Please, please, please don’t save GM so that a smaller version of it will simply do nothing more than build Chevys or Cadillacs. This is not a long-term solution. Don’t throw bad money into a company whose tailpipe is malfunctioning, causing a strange odor to fill the car.

Stowe Boyd launches

hashStowe Boyd launched this morning and announced that I will be the first member of his advisory board.

Stowe and I have batted around a number of ideas for making posts on Twitter contain more information than what is superficially presented, and this new effort should create a space in which ideas, research, proposals and experiments can be made and discussed.

Ultimately, my hope is that will reach beyond Twitter and provide a forum for thinking through how we encapsulate data in channels that don’t natively support metadata by using conventions that express as much meaning as much as they encode.

Twitter with Channel tagsSince I originally proposed hashtags in August of 2007, I’ve thought a lot about what these conventions mean, and how wide adoption of something can radically elevate the field of competition.

There is a similar opportunity here, where, if the discourse is developed properly, such conventions can actually enable a greater range of expression over narrow channels, allowing for wider participation in and understanding of conversations.

Take, for instance, Stowe’s “GeoSlash” (as christened by Ross Mayfield) proposal. Whether his syntax is the right one (or even necessary!) isn’t something that can be argued rationally. It’s only something that can be investigated through experimentation and observation. To this point, there has been no central convening context in which such a proposal could be brought up, debated, discussed, considered, tinkered with, improved, championed and evaluated.

As a result, countless proposals have been made for baking moremeta” into Twitter’s data stream, but few have really taken off (compared with the relative success of hashtags and @replies).

While I’m sympathetic to arguments (and pleas!) against adding additional structure or formatting to tweets, I think that the bigger opportunity here extends beyond Twitter (which is primarily a public broadcast channel) to other applications, regardless of whether they use Twitter as the message routing infrastructure or not. Indeed, given my recent (and very positive) experience where @AlaskaAir checked me in to my flight over Twitter, you can imagine an opportunity developing where, say, forward-thinking airlines actually collaborate to develop a syntax for expressing checkin requests via some sort of direct SMS-based channel.

The situation of multiple competing-yet-overlapping SMS syntaxes lead me, somewhat mockingly, to start documenting what I called “picoformats“. If I’ve learned anything from the microformats process, it’s that anyone can invent a schema or a format, but getting adoption is the hard part (and also the most valuable). So, in order to promote adoption, you should always try to model behavior that already exists in the wild, and then work to make the intensions of the behavior more clear, repeatable and memorable.

Most microsyntax efforts fail to follow this process, and as a result, fail in the wild. Efforts that employ the scientific method tend to see more success: hashtags modeled the convention started by IRC channels and Jaiku (Joshua Schachter also used the hash to denote tags in the early days of Delicious); the $ticker convention (from StockTwits) follows how many financial trade publications denote stock symbols. And so on.

So when it comes to proposing new behaviors that don’t yet exist in the wild, I think that the project will be an excellent place to convene and host conversations and experiments, many of which will admittedly fail. But at minimum, there will be a record of what’s been tried, what the thinking and goals were, and where, hopefully, some modest successes have been achieved.

I’m looking forward to contributing to this effort and helping to stand up the community infrastructure with Stowe. While I’m not eager to see the Twitter stream polluted with characters intended only for computers, I think that there is still much explored ground in what can be accomplished through modest modifications of the way that we communicate over these kinds of narrow, unidimensional channels.

The open, social web

I was in Europe for the past week and half, ending up in Leuven, Belgium to speak at the conference. The topic of my talk was “The Open, Social Web.” (PDF)

At first I struggled to develop a compelling or sensible narrative for the talk — as there is so much to it that I could probably give a dozen or more 45 minutes talks on the subject. With some long-distance encouragement from Brynn, I eventually arrived at the topic I wanted to cover that lead to a conclusion that has largely been implicit in my work so far.

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Comixology and the future of connected commerce

Custom Burger ReceiptIt dawned on me recently that, not only are we in a period of great change and transformation, but that those of us who have been working on the web to make it a more social and humane place have only barely begun the process of taking the “personality-ization” (not “personalization”) and connectedness that we take for granted on the web into the offline world.

All at once, my sense tell me that things coming to a head, and, as Om Malik pointed out, we are at the end of an era. It’s anyone’s guess how the next chapter of the social web will read, but a few experiences lately got me thinking.

A connected Apple experience

I first saw a glimmer of this when in Boston, shopping at the Apple store for a USB charger. Upon checkout, I was asked whether I wanted a print copy of my receipt or to have it emailed to me. Reluctant to explain the “+apple” in my email address, I hesitated for a moment but submitted: “by email.”

The Apple employee looked at his screen, read back my email address and said, “Is that correct?”

“Yeah…” I stammered, somewhat surprised. “It is.”

Of course all they did was correlate my credit card number to the email address I’d previously had my receipts sent to. When I was shopping in San Francisco. Here I was in Boston!

Apple had recorded my email, associated it with my credit card (perhaps more than one), and then shared it with all their stores, providing me with a specific kind of convenience that few other stores — at least that I know of — have attempted. (Aside: And don’t give me any buts about privacy and correlations and any of that bullshit. Privacy has a certain kind of value and importance, but I’ve heard so little vision out of privacy zealots that it’s time think about the other side of the coin.)

Now, that small example of convenience may not seem significant on the surface, but it does suggest that new connections — between the world of brick and mortar identity and the realm of digital identity — are emerging, creating new opportunities for creative commerce.

Comixology and Isotope

James Sime by Bryan Lee O'MalleyMy favorite comic book store is located in Hayes Valley in San Francisco. It’s run by James Sime — someone who belongs in comics, much moreso than he belongs selling them. His shop is called Isotope and every month or so, as time allows, I stop in to pick up my “subscriptions” — known in the comic book universe as my “pull list”.

The pull list is a simple concept, essentially a list of comic books that I want to set aside on an individual or ongoing basis — that I’ll come and pick up later. Since new books arrive every Wednesday, it’s not terribly efficient for me to drop in just to pick up one or two issues, so the pull list is the best way to make sure I don’t miss an issue while stretching the time between visits.

The pull list is also a kind of personal relationship: I trust James to not only grab the titles that I’ve explicitly asked for, but to also suggest new books that I might not otherwise learn about. He also has to set aside inventory that might otherwise be made available to his walk-in patrons — even though I might ultimately decide, “Y’know, I think I’ll pass on this one”, so in that way, he’s trusting me to be a reliable patron.

Some time ago, James told me about a dashboard widget that he had discovered that let him see what comics were coming out soon. I checked it out — but then forgot about it — preferring the high touch relationship I had of visiting the store and browsing the shelves.

On a recent visit, James told me that he’d actually been in touch with the makers of the widget and that they were collaborating on “something big.” Having personally introduced James to both Twitter and Foursquare, I was intrigued… I mean, James has long had a blog, has presented at a BarCamp — as comic book retailers go, he’s about as 2.0 as you can get. And since he knows what a big web dork I am, his excitement told me that he was indeed on to something.

“They have an iPhone app,” he began, “called Comixology. It’s like the dashboard widget, but get this: I’ve been working with them on a pilot to hook up my store to their website.”

“Ok,” I said.

“So go to their website and create an account. Then search for my store. You’ll see a button that says ‘connect’. Hit that. From then on, whenever you add something to your digital pull list on the Comixology service, I’ll see it and add a copy to your stack.”

Retail Connection

“Wow,” I thought, “this changes everything.”

Connected commerce, activity streams and the point

It isn’t that my Apple experience or the Comixology service is the answer to question “what is the future of retail?”, but they outline the contours of the nexus between the social web and the real world.

Given what I’ve been working on in a round-about way on the DiSo Project, it is so patently clear to me that where Apple connects a credit card number to an email address, I see an OpenID associated with a payment gateway and a transaction dropbox that happens to be hosted by Google (that is, my email); where James and Comixology see a contextualized relationship management and inventory tool, I see an iPhone application that lets me buy physical goods, connect to a real life merchant of my choosing (based on his high-touch service), and then communicate my tastes and purchases to my friends and fourth-party services through activity streams.

Imagine: after a month of so assembling a good sized pull list on, I visit Isotope and James presents my selections, suggesting a few new books I might be interested in. I agree to give them a try, he updates my pull list on his Mac through the Comixology site, immediately updating on my iPhone. I review the list — everything looks good — and tap the “checkout” button in the app. Pre-loaded funds are immediately withdrawn from my Apple iTunes account; James receives an instant payment confirmation and I can take my comics to go without having ever reached for my wallet. Walking out the door with my nose in my phone, I uncheck a few comics from my transaction history and send the rest to my activity broker — which in turn pushes updates out to Facebook, FriendFeed, and to anyone else who is subscribed to my comic book purchases (yeah, like two people) — and in turn, they take my social recommendations, applying James’, and add some of my picks to their respective pull lists.

The whole thing takes about three minutes, with room for salutations.

This is buyer-mediated commerce (contrary to vendor-mediated), or what I might call “connected commerce.” This is one potential future for platforms like Facebook Connect to get real, and where I think identity, social, commercial and location technology will begin to hit their stride.

Google Profiles, namespace lock-in & social search

I’d originally intended to respond to Joshua Schacter’s post about URL shorteners and how they’re merely the tip of the data iceberg, but since I missed that debate, Google has fortuitously plied me with an even better example by releasing custom profile URLs today.

My point is to reiterate one of Tim O’Reilly’s ever-prescient admonishments about Web 2.0: lock-in can be achieved through owning a namespace. In full:

5. Chief among the future sources of lock in and competitive advantage will be data, whether through increasing returns from user-generated data (eBay, Amazon reviews, audioscrobbler info in, email/IM/phone traffic data as soon as someone who owns a lot of that data figures out that’s how to use it to enable social networking apps, GPS and other location data), through owning a namespace (Gracenote/CDDB, Network Solutions), or through proprietary file formats (Microsoft Office, iTunes). (“Data is the Intel Inside”)

(I’ll note that the process of getting advantage from data isn’t necessary a case of companies being “evil.” It’s a natural outcome of network effects applied to user contribution. Being first or best, you will attract the most users, and if your application truly harnesses network effects to get better the more people use it, you will eventually build barriers to entry based purely on the difficulty of building another such database from the ground up when there’s already so much value somewhere else. (This is why no one has yet succeeded in displacing eBay. Once someone is at critical mass, it’s really hard to get people to try something else, even if the software is better.) The question of “don’t be evil” will come up when it’s clear that someone who has amassed this kind of market position has to decide what to do with it, and whether or not they stay open at that point.)

Consider two things:

Owning the “people” namespace will determine whether people see the web through Google’s technicolor glasses or Facebook’s more nuanced and monochrome blue hues.

Curiously, it has been (correctly) argued that Google “doesn’t get social”, a criticism that I generally support. And yet, with their move to more convenient profile URLs that point to profiles that aggregate content from across the web (beating Facebook to the punch), a bigger (albeit incomplete) picture begins to emerge.

When I blogged that my name is not a URL, I wasn’t so much arguing against vanity or custom profile URLs but instead making the point that such things really should go away over time, from a usability perspective.

Let me put it this way: at one point, if you weren’t in the Yellow Pages, you basically didn’t exist. Now imagine there being several competitors to the Yellow Pages — the Red, Green and Blue Pages — each maintaining overlapping but incomplete listings of people. You’re going to want to use the one that has the most complete, exhaustive and easy-to-use list of names, right? And, I bet beyond that, if one of them was able to make the people that you know and actually care about more accessible to you, you’d pick that one over all the others. And this is where owning — and getting people to “live in” — a namespace begins to reveal its significance.

Google Profile Search

So, it’s telling thing to look at Google and Facebook’s respective approaches to their people search engines and indexes. Indeed, having a readily accessible index of living persons — structured by their connections to one another — will become a necessary precondition to getting social search right (see Aardvark for a related approach, which connects to the Facebook and IM portions of your social graph to facilitate question answering).

As social search and living through your social graph becomes “the norm” (i.e. with increasing reliance on social filtering), Google and Facebook’s ability to create compelling experiences on top of data about you and who you know will come to define and differentiate them.

To date, Google’s profile search has been rather unloved and passed over, but with the new, more convenient profile URLs and the location of profile search at, I suspect that Google is finally getting serious about social.

Compare Facebook and Google’s search results for my buddy, Dave Morin:

Facebook logged out:

Search Names: dave morin | Facebook

Facebook logged in:

Facebook | Search: dave morin

Google results (there’s no difference between logged in and logged out views):

Dave Morin - Google Profile Search

Notice the difference? See how much better Facebook’s search is because it knows which “Dave Morin” is my friend?

Now, consider the profile result when you click through:

Dave’s Facebook profile (logged out):

Dave Morin - San Francisco, CA | Facebook

(Facebook’s logged in profile view is as you’d expect — a typical Facebook profile with stream and wall.)

Now, here’s the clincher. Take a look at Google’s profile for Dave:

Dave Morin - Google Profile

Google is able to provide a much richer and simpler profile, that’s much more accessible (without requiring any kind of sign in) because they’ve radically simplified their privacy model on this page (show what you want, and nothing more). Indeed, Google’s made it easier for people to be open — at least with static information — than Facebook!

So much for Facebook’s claim to openness! 😉

Of course, default Google profiles are pretty sparse, but this is just the beginning. (Bonus: both Facebook and Google public profiles support the microformat!)

And the point is: where will you build your online identity? Under whose namespace do you want to exist? (Personally, I choose my own.)

Clearly the battle for the future of the social web is heating up in subtle but significant ways, and Google’s move today shouldn’t be thought of anything less than the opening salvo in moving the battle back to its turf: search.

Portable Profiles & Preferences on the Citizen-Centric Web

Loyalty Cards by Joe LoongLet me state the problem plainly: in order to provide better service, it helps to know more about your customer, so that you can more effectively anticipate and meet her needs.

But, pray tell, how do you learn about or solicit such information over the course of your first interaction? Moreover, how do you go about learning as much as you can, as quickly as you can, without making the request itself burdensome and off-putting?

Well, as obvious as it seems, the answer is to let her tell you.

The less obvious thing is how.

And that’s where user-centric (or citizen-centric) technologies offer the most promise.

It’s like this:

  • If you let someone use an account or ID that they already use regularly elsewhere, you will save them the hassle of having to create yet another account that works solely with your service;
  • following on that, an account that is reusable is more valuable, and its value can be further increased by attaching certain types of profile attributes to it that are commonly requested;
  • the more common it becomes to reuse an account, the more people will expect this convenience during new sign up experiences, ideally to the point of knowing how to ask for support for their preferred sign-in mechanism from the services that they use;
  • presuming that service providers’ desire for profile information and preferences will not decrease, it will become an added byproduct of user-centric authentication to be able to import such data from identity providers as it is available;
  • as customers realize the convenience of portable profile and preference data, savvy identity providers will make it easier to store and express a wider array of this data, and will subsequently work with relying parties to develop interoperable sign up flows and on ramps (see Google and Plaxo).

For this to work, the individual must be motivated to manage her profile information and preferences, which shouldn’t be hard as her data becomes increasingly reusable (sort once, reuse everywhere). Additionally, organizing, maintaining, and accruing this information becomes less onerous when it’s all in one place (or conveniently accessible through one central customer-picked source), as opposed to sharded across many accounts and unaffiliated services.

You can get similar functionality with form-filling software like 1Password except in the model I’m describing, the data travels with you — beyond the browser and off the desktop — to wherever you need it — because it is stored in the cloud.

As it becomes easier to store and share this information, I think more people will do this as a happenstance of using more social software — and will become acclimated to providing their friends and service providers with varying degrees of access to increasing amounts of personally describing data.

Companies that jump on this and make it easier for people to manage their profile and preference data will benefit — having access to more accurate, timely, and better-maintained information, leading to more personalized user experiences and accelerating the path to satisfaction.

Companies that do get this right will benefit from what is emerging as a new social contract. As a citizen of the web, if you let me manage my relationship with you, and make it easy for me to do so, giving me the choice of how and where I store my profile and preference data, I’ll be more likely, more willing, and more able to share it with you, in an ongoing fashion, increasingly as you use it to improve my experiences with you.