Drive Less Challenge

When I was a kid, I loved cycling over the hill to buy milk at the supermarket and bring it back in a basket. When I read Jane Jacobs as a in college it articulated what I had felt as a kid about the value of neighborhoods scaled for people, where you can stroll and chat with your neighbors, with “third places” where people recognize each other. So I sought out that experience. When I lived in Boston, I loved living walking distance from the supermarket, coffeeshops, hardware store and gym.

In recent years, as information about global warming and limits to the oil supply have become mainstream, the ability to organize everyday life for less driving has become not just a preference, but a necessity to bring energy use to levels that can be sustained. When I moved to California, I deliberately sought somewhere to live that was close to daily errands and train, where I didn’t need to car commute to work. Then, I challenged myself. What would it take to drive less? Slowly, I built up a repertoire of skills. I got bike baskets and can use a bike for most errands. I learned how to take a bicycle onto the caltrain, for practical access to many places in San Francisco and the Peninsula. I got better gear for biking in the rain (but still choose to drive when it’s pouring out).

I joined the Menlo Park Green Ribbon Citizens’ Committee to think globally and act locally. In California, driving is the biggest source of greenhouse gas emissions. So the biggest opportunity for transformation is to drive less. Now, there are some things that just aren’t practical to do without a car. Getting from Menlo Park to the East Bay. Buying furniture or appliances. But there are plenty of trips that are practical and good without a car. It just takes a little bit of learning and incentive to get over the hump and do it.

So I’m putting together the Drive Less Challenge This is a an opportunity to use some neighborhood positive social pressure to help people get over the inertia of daily life and take a few practical actions to do less driving alone. The challenge starts on Earth Day, April 22 and runs for a week. We’re working with local businesses, schools, and neighborhood groups to get the word out. The scale is Menlo Park this year, to make it easy to manage with an all-volunteer team. (If you’re not in Menlo Park you can still participate; your prizes will be recognition and the knowledge that you’re taking a step toward sustainability). There plenty of systemic changes that would make it easier to drive less, but most people have “low hanging fruit” opportunities to make small tweaks in daily life that would add up to meaningful change, now and already. It’s time to challenge ourselves and challenge our neighbors.

I’m coordinating the project with awesome team of Menlo Park volunteers, with minimal budget, weekends and evening time. I’m still doing some final tweaks on the “gameplay” and we’re busy getting the word out. If you’re interested and have questions and suggestions, drop a note in the comments or hail me as alevin on Twitter.

How asymmetry scales

Bokardo predicts that Facebook will go asymmetric. He calls out two key reasons why: asymmetric networks are a a good fit for anyone with micro-fame, not just organizations, brands and bands. Asymmetric networks help people manage their attention – you don’t need to pay attention to every update from everyone following you.

There are a couple of other key reasons why asymmetric networks scale better. In Twitter there are a number of ways where asymmetry in a public network provides good returns to scale, as noted in yesterday’s post on premature predictions of peak Twitter
* Retweets get you information that was first posted by someone outside your network
* Searches let you find information outside your network
* Visible replies, like the lovely feature in TweetDeck that shows when someone mentions you even if you’re not following them, allow you to hail and engage people in conversation, and have others start conversations with you, even if you’re not following.

These features mean that the more people who join the network, the more interesting information will be amplified through it, and the more potentially interesting people you may discover. The level of context is fairly high – you can see what someone else has been Twittering, and see if they are interesting and relevant to you. And the level of obligation is low (you can follow someone without giving them the burden of accepting or rejecting you).

In Facebook, I can see when someone that I don’t know has commented on the update of someone I do know, but then I need to friend a stranger in order to learn more about them. Facebook’s mostly-symmetrical, mostly closed network makes it hard to learn new things and meet new people outside your existing network.

So, the reasons for asymmetry aren’t just about supporting fame, but enabling discovery with low social expense.

Peak Twitter?

There are several arguments going around predicting Peak Twitter. The discussion raises a number of interesting issues questions about social media and scale.

In Twitter is peaking, Steve Rubel describes the risks to Twitter as social trendiness and increasing messiness.

Too popular. Social networks seem to have a property in common with nightclubs, bars, and restaurants – they are popular for a while. Then the throng moves on. The digerati were on Orkut for a few minutes, before moving on to Facebook and Twitter. Popularity depends on community – Facebook and MySpace are bigger in the US, Bebo is big in Europe, Orkut is big in Latin America.

Rubel hypothesizes that the trend pattern is similar other pop culture trends, where hipsters create a trend, and then flee when the mainstream arrive. Rubel writes, “Just six months ago, the list of the top 100 users on Twitter read like a who’s who of geeks. That’s what made it a draw, for many, initially. Now, however, the list looks like People or US Magazine. Twitter is losing its geek creds as celebs flock to the service.” The difference is, a social network is a great many places, not one; the network is inhabited by millions of overlapping subcultures. Honestly, I haven’t heard of many of the pop culture celebrities who have recently joined Twitter, and the ones I’ve heard of, I don’t follow. I do follow some of my personal heroes, but they aren’t pop culture icons.

The argument that people magazine starlets and nba players will crowd out niche communities is the same mass media vision that there would be a handful of pop-culture centered websites that would crowd out the rest of the web. There are 270 million people on Facebook, which is a great many more than say, the 15 million people who visit Disney every year, and their subculture-centric Facebook experiences are different than the mass-produced Disney experiences.

Too big. The second argument is scale and disorganization. “Since replies are not threaded, celebs and corporations do not feel they have to respond to every Tweet.” This is a real challenge. Rubel rightly recognizes that tools are evolving to address the challenge. What’s missing is that personal needs are very different from organizational needs.

For personal use, the fact that Twitter is a flow is part of the charm. A twitter feed doesn’t carry the same perceived social obligation to keep up and respond as email or instant message. You can dip into the stream, step out, and come back later. For personal use, people need some better tools to manage their attention. Tweetdeck, which Rubel calls out as a good example, adds groups, search, and embryonic filtering into the basic experience.

The needs of non-celebrity individuals are different from the needs of corporations, politicians, and famous poeple. If your constituency has thousands to millions of people, you need very different tools to monitor the conversation than if you are following fifty or 100 people. If you’re an individual, and you miss an update from a friend or an interesting news link, no big deal. If you are striving to use Twitter for constituent listening and feedback, you want to notice complaints, suggestions, and kudos. You probably want to have multiple people listening to the account, listening for different products or topics, and working on responses.

Dunbar limit. In ReadWriteWeb, Bernard Lunn makes the opposite point, that size doesn’t matter. “In a social network, the value for existing users of a new user joining the network plateaus once users have most of their own contacts in that network.” For mostly closed, symmetrical networks such as Facebook and Linked In, this is true. For mostly open, asymmetrical networks such as Twitter, this is mostly false, which Lunn mentions briefly. I suspect that people will cap their participation at some augmented Dunbar limit of the number of people they can follow with social attention and time. But in Twitter, retweets, searches, and visible replies mean that the more people who join the network, the more interesting information will be amplified through it, and the more potentially interesting people you may discover. When you have your existing contacts on the networks, it is easy and to make new contacts if you wish. The level of context is fairly high – you can see what someone else has been Twittering, and see if they are interesting and relevant to you. And the level of obligation is low (you can follow someone without giving them the burden of accepting or rejecting you).

Exploitation. In the ReadWriteWeb post, Lunn makes the insightful point that social networks can fail when their hosts start to violate the implied social contract with their communities in the interest of making money from their investments. “If these businesses get too eager to monetize to justify those valuations, they may create the reverse network effect.” When they move to monetize, hosts may move toward intrusive advertising, marketing, privacy violations, or other steps that benefit the site’s commercial interest and go against the interests of the users. I see the potential risks even more broadly than Lunn does. Intellectual property terms of service, and increased control over content and customization can violate the perceived community social contract as much as intrusive ads and marketing can. There is some inertia to switching, but in the absence of monopoly, annoyed communities do pick up and go with some regularity.

Parasitism. In Mourning the loss of Twitter, Ross Mayfield predicts that Twitter will fall prey to the spam and other antisocial behavior that crippled Usenet and Email. Hopefully the Twitter ecosystem will evolve to meet the threats, and blacklist and social filtering tools will keep the parasites from killing the host.

Twitter is a fascinating experiment since the social scale dynamics of an asymmetrical, open network aren’t known. I suspect that the ecosystem will evolve social and topic filtering tools that will help it scale; time will tell. The platform strategy is helping already – third parties are building tools to search, manage, and respond to the twitter stream. And I hope that the Twitter management retains a good sense of environmental judgement and finds ways to make money that don’t feel exploitive to the community.

Database journalism – a different definition of “news” and “reader”

Politifact is an innovative journalism project built by Matt Waite, as a project of the St. Petersburg Times, inspired by Adrian Holovaty’s 2006 manifesto on “database journalism”. Waite and Holovaty both focus on the “shape” of the information presented by database journalism – stories that have a consistent set of data elements that can be gathered, presented, sliced, and re-used. This structure is foreign to traditional journalism which thinks of its form as the story, with title, date, byline, lede, body.

The Politifact site started by fact-checking politicians’ statements during the 2008 political campaign. Each statement is rated as on a one to five scale, from “True, Mostly True, Half True, Barely True, or False. Today, the most compelling piece on the site is the “Obamameter” tracking the performance of the president against over 500 campaign promises. Examples include: No. 513: Reverse restrictions on stem cell research – Promise Kept, No. 464: Reduce energy consumption in federal buildings – In the Works, and No. 446: Enact windfall profits tax for oil companies – Stalled.

The shape of the data is part of the picture. It’s certainly the biggest day-to-day difference if you’re composing news or tools for news. But I don’t think it’s the lede. What’s different here is a a different conception of what’s “new” and what a “reader” does.

What’s new Traditional journalism is based on a “man bites dog” algorithm. What’s newsworthy is the dramatic reversal of expectations. Slow, gradual changes are not newsworthy. Large static patterns are not newsworthy. I suspect that this is part genre and part technology. The technology limitation is space; there isn’t room to publish many stats in a newsprint paper, and minimal affordances for navigation.

The emphasis on concise and dramatic “news” leaves our society vulnerable to “frogboiling”, the urban legend in which the frog in gradually heated water gets accustomed to the change, doesn’t jump out, and boils to death. The decline of the North Atlantic cod fishery or the Sacramento-San Joaquin delta are not newsworthy until the cod and the salmon are gone. Wage stagnation isn’t newsworthy until the middle class is gone. Tens of thousands dead on US highways each year isn’t newsworthy, though a traffic jam caused by a fatal accident is news. Many eyes hunting through financial data may find dramatic scandals, to be sure. With database journalism, perilous or hopeful trends and conditions can become worthy of storytelling and comment.

What a reader does The rise of the internet has made reader participation a much greater part of news than the limited “letter to the editor” section. Dan Gillmor, former editor of the “ur-blog” Good Morning Silicon Valley liked to say “my readers are smarter than me” because of the high-quality corrections and tips he’d get from his readers. Database journalism takes the trend a few steps further. Where a traditional news reader consumes the news, a database user interacts with it, looking for information and patterns. The “news” itself may be found by readers doing queries and analysis of the database, such as the database of Prop 8 contributions published by the San Francisco Chronicle.

So database journalism isn’t just about having some fields that are different from “title” and “body”. It’s about different conceptions of time, space, and participation.

Facebook as a Twitter Wannabee

The new Facebook UI has become a stream of Twitter-like updates. The pattern builds on the addictive conversational nature of Twitter, but cripples some of the key ways that Facebook was different than Twitter. What made Facebook better than the earlier generations of YASNs is that it not only let you declare your friends but do things with your friends – share applications with them, share events, create groups, organize. The new Facebook hides the affordances for apps, events, groups.

By hiding the affordances for application functionality, are they making a really big bet on Facebook connect? Are they hoping that 3rd party services with independent web presense will integrate into the stream by delegating their member database to Facebook? This could be. The weakness of this strategy is that 3rd party services have no loyalty to Facebook and would just as well use some other technology. People just want to do things with their friends, with the least barrier to getting started.

Also, Facebook has FriendFeed-like discussion around assets, which is nice. The threaded comment UI is intuitive. It’s very helpful when you’re actually talking about an asset like a bookmark. But it lacks the transparency, discovery, and immediacy of Twitter conversations. With Twitter conversation, you can see someone replying to someone else, and find interesting new people. With Twitter conversation plus search, you can see someone asking a question and then follow the answers.

Also, Twitter conversation is present-focused in a good way. Facebook conversations are anchored to the original remark that happened to start the conversation. So if someone said something interesting 4 hours ago, you have to scroll back to find it. Which you probably won’t. With Twitter, if the conversation is ongoing, you’ll still hear it.

In summary: the Twitter mode for Facebook does give it some of the addictive quality of Twitter but in imitating Twitter, Facebook has sacrificed too much of what makes Facebook valuable. And in attempting to imitate Twitter, Facebook has missed some of the social dynamics that make Twitter good.

Really social bookmarking

I’d love to see a “really social bookmarking”. Delicious has lots of bookmarks, and shows which bookmarks are popular, but it’s hard to figure out who people are because most people use pseudonyms. Magnolia (RIP) had much more social presence but was small. Twitter is timely and social but amnesic. Friendfeed has people and multiple services, but you can’t navigate it by content type (links) and topic (tags).

I’d love to see bookmarks through a multi-service friend of a friend network, browsable by topic, prioritized by number of links. That would be a great way to find classic information and good curators.

Spec work isn’t crowdsourcing

The term “crowdsourcing” is being borrowed by services that solicit design work “on spec”. Design services like CrowdSpring and 99 designs solicit designers for “contests” where everyone does the work for the client, but only one will get paid.

The familiar use of “crowdsourcing” is for services where people contribute freely to something of mutual benefit – wikipedia, a support FAQ, an open source project, tips for a an investigative story. In some uses of crowdsourcing, there is a commercial provider that aggregates the benefit of free labor – technology companies gain when their customers add FAQ entries, and a newspaper or commercial blog benefits when readers submit tips for a published story. But in all of these uses, everyone who contributes benefits too.

With spec work contests, many people do contract design work for no charge and only one of them gets paid. Spec work has long been common during recessions. More buyers are looking to save money, and more contractors are underemployed and willing to put in time doing work that they may not get paid for. These services take this pattern to the extreme by soliciting dozens or hundreds of free contributions. It’s unpaid labor plus a lottery ticket.

Call it unethical, call it lottery labor, but don’t call it crowdsourcing. And if this practice does become called crowdsourcing, we need another sort of term for freely contributed work that benefits everyone doing the contributing.

Aardvark vs. Twitter – the role of social in social search

ReadWriteWeb writes about Aardvark, a new IM-based Q&A service which raises the question about how valuable the social network is to search.

Frederic Lardinois at RWW says “Aardvark is a neat new service that lives in your IM client and which routes any question you might have to an Aardvark user who has the right expertise to answer your query. In return, Aardvark will also send you a few questions every day that fit your profile. You then decide to either answer the question or refer it to another friend. Of course, you can also always pass if you don’t know the answer.”

This is a very different sort of experience than Twitter, where you send out a question to people following you, and good Q&A may be forwarded through their networks.

Personally, I greatly prefer the Twitter model. IM is interruptive, Twitter is not. You can ignore the stream entirely, and pick up only the questions you want. With Twitter, the Q&A is interspersed with other sorts of information and conversation. A barrage of constant questions might feel more like an inquisitive pre-schooler.

With Aardvark, the questions come to you via IM, which is interruptive. I can’t imagine using that and having randome questions to answer in the middle of the day — maybe this would be fun for students and retirees. I frequently use IM and IRC, but maybe younger people who live with an open set of 8 IM chats woudn’t mind getting search questions by IM throughout the day, too.

Aardvark’s social feature feels anti-social to me. You can forward a question to a friend via IM. This is cool, since you may know exactly the right person who can answer the question. But it means that your friend also feels a social obligation to answer and feels social guilt for not answering. This is the reason I prefer Twitter questions to Linked In questions, multiplied by 1000. LinkedIn questions feel awkward because someone you know is asking you personally to respond. Twitter questions do not feel awkward because there is no obligation – if you answer you get good karma, and if not, you haven’t had to choose to ignore someone.

The Q&A opportunity in general is huge. People want questions answered and enjoy answering them. Yahoo Answers is huge. As of late 2008, Answers had nearly 150 million monthly visitors worldwide and 1.3 billion monthly page views. Yahoo Answers has a much more encyclopedia-like model, where you can search and browse for answers to questions. Aardvark is IM — does this mean that answers won’t be discoverable by others?

This real-life experiment — the Aardvark vs. Twitter models — will reveal something about the psychology of social search. Personally I’d greatly prefer Twitter, but perhaps Aardvark will find a demographic and psychographic that prefers its model.

Update: Rob Spiro of Aardvark says on Twitter that they are “definitely planning an aardvark-twitter integration, using Twitter as another communication channel.” “TwitVark” would be a great configuration, since it would combine the conversational atmosphere and optional social norm of Twitter with the social search filtering of Aardvark.

The Facebook rebellion: digital democracy is inevitable

Micah Sifry is trying to get his head around the implications of the Facebook experiment in digital democracy. I think it’s inevitable.

In the 3d world, a landlord doesn’t have the right to appropriate a tenant’s furniture. In the online world, if tenants demand rights and organize, they will eventually get them. As I wrote in the post linked above in response to this Shirky post, an online social network resident is like a medieval serf who is bound to his land and has painfully few rights. A combination of changed economic conditions (greater mobility) and changed political beliefs (government by consent of the governed), could transform the relationship between members and hosts, just as it did between rulers and ruled in the modern era.

Online tribes are mobile. We don’t love migrating, but we do it occasionally, because the environment is better — could be usability, functionality, or terms and conditions. The digirati tribe moved from Friendster to Orkut to Facebook. My civic project mailing lists have moved from Yahoo to Google groups in the last few years. The member revolt on Facebook could be part of an overall change in expectation about the relationship between digital landowners and digital tenants.

p.s. I saw Micah’s tweet but haven’t read his article on TechPresident yet because the site’s down as on Monday night and Tuesday morning. Will read when the site is back up.

Twitter is for conversation (especially in the workplace)

Julia Angwin writes a Wall Street Journal piece about how to Twitter. The article has good tips for beginners – find interesting people to follow, tweet yourself, share links – but gets one big thing wrong. Angwin writes that twitter is about self-promotion not conversation. Well, it depends.

Even though Twitter cofounder Biz Stone told Julia Angwin that “Twitter is fundamentally a broadcast system”, it’s not really up to Twitter. Early phone companies that thought the telephone would be used for business – for ordering catering and opera tickets. People use tools the way they want, and some people use Twitter for conversation. On the public web, tools like Tweetdeck, which integrate reply search into the user interface, and BackTweet make it easier to discover and participate in conversation.

My personal experience is that people in a variety of of my communities (Boston friends, Austin friends, Bay Area geeks, local netroots, etc) hang out on Twitter. We have intermittent conversations about topics little and big. One of my favorite things about Twitter is sharing everyday trivia with friends who aren’t nearby. It’s part of my social life with people I know in 3d.

So, how to have conversations on Twitter? Follow people you find interesting – people who’s work you like online, people you know from work or life. Don’t just follow big celebrities who won’t be listening to you. Follow people who are interesting and not so famous, who will have attention for conversations. Listen to what they say, and reply when they say something interesting. People can see your replies and answer you back. Voila, a conversation.

Inside organizations, the “social messaging” aspect of the Twitter format is even more pronounced. Mike Gotta maintains that microblogging isn’t a good term for the use of Twitter-like tools in organizations, where it is primarily about conversation. At Socialtext, we’re seeing that Social Signals is being used for questions and answers, link sharing, and work-related status. The format lends itself well to non-interruptive work-related conversation. The privacy of social messaging at work contributes to the conversational nature – people share more in protected spaces.

Broadcast is one use of Twitter, and there are plenty of celebrities and mass media figures who broadcast their thoughts and don’t follow anybody. There are also plenty of people using Twitter conversation as part of their personal and business social fabric – and the mode is about to become more common as Twitter finds its way in the workplace.