Results tagged “thinkup”

Let's Do More

May 13, 2014

I've been trying to do more things that are unfamiliar or slightly out of my comfort zone lately. Here's a quick roundup:

  • I got to participate in Rhizome's venerated Seven on Seven conference, where I teamed up with Kevin McCoy to create monegraph. It's a system that uses the block chain technology which underpins Bitcoin, but puts it to work in service of artists, so that they can verify that a digital work is an original, with a verifiable provenance. I describe the context of the work in A Bitcoin for Digital Art, my first piece for Medium's "The Message" collection, and we also showed it off with a demo at the most improbable of venues, TechCrunch's Disrupt conference. The response overall has been great, as you can tell from the monegraph tumblr.

A Bitcoin for Digital Art

  • The White House's working group on Big Data and Privacy released its report, which is surprisingly thoughtful and appropriately nuanced in its consideration of the issues. As danah so aptly summarized it, "[T]he conversation around the “big data” phenomenon tends to get quickly polarized - it’s good or it’s bad, plain and simple. But it’s never that simple." It's no surprise danah's take was so thoughtful; her Data & Society Research Institute was one of the most valuable contributors to the White House report. In my role on the board of the DSRI, I got to moderate a panel with Kate Crawford, Steven Hodas, Alondra Nelson, and Shamina Singh. The conversation was incredible, and so it's no surprise that our panel was cited in the full report from the White House. You can watch the panel here:

  • Over on The Awl, it's "How to Avoid Raising a Monster" which takes a look at my, uh, parenting style. This includes the question, "Can you ... provide some more examples of when you’ve been especially tempted to do things that wouldn’t be found in any guidebooks on how best to raise a child?"
  • On PolicyMic, a nice piece on 23 Ways Feminism Has Made the World Better for Men includes my least insightful comment ever: "Sex is fun!"
  • Coming up this fall: I'll be speaking at PopTech in October. If you know that conference, you know why I'm geeked out about the opportunity, especially given that John Maeda as host has chosen "rebellion" as the theme for the event.
  • Oh, and Prince finally retweeted one of my tweets, but elided my name and then removed the tweet entirely a brief while later, as he is prone to do. But still, fun for me!
  • And as always, the ThinkUp team has been rocking with a whole range of fun and ridiculous new insights in the app. If you haven't seen ThinkUp lately, you haven't seen it. You should probably sign up and give it a try.

Three Years Under Our Thumbs

November 15, 2013

We’ll spend three years of our lives with our thumbs on our phones. What will we have to show for it?

I keep bumping up against this statistic about how much time we spend online, and how much time we spend on our smartphones and tablets. Depending on the source you cite, it’s at least three years of our lives that we’ll spend scrolling up and down on little timelines.

For geeks like me and my friends, it’ll be more, of course. And new wearable devices only promise to raise that number further. That’s not even counting the time we spend on, you know, regular old-fashioned computers.

As I work on building ThinkUp, this number lingers in my mind, popping up nearly every time I am talking to a new person about our work. Can any of us who make apps be worthy of the investment of time and effort that we ask of our users?


Those of us who make technology have to take responsibility for the time that people choose to spend with our creations. We seldom have conversations about this kind of responsibility, but when we do they usually come back to a few words or ideas: What’s useful, what’s important, and what’s meaningful?

“Useful”

The truth is, I’m not sure I want to make an app that’s “useful” anymore. At least not on purpose. Useful has come to imply an almost robotic utilitarianism, focused on efficiency at the expense of soul. So much of our fixation on utility leads to soulless production tools where the only emotion they inspire is frustration. I’m happy to make something that’s incidentally useful, but art isn’t useful, and as Ev famously said to those who complained Twitter isn’t useful, ice cream isn’t useful either. And ice cream is great!

“Important”

Making something “important” is a scary idea, too. Packed into that word are a lot of judgments about what matters, and a lot of danger of being pretentious and overbearing. Right now a lot of technology promises to help you by trying to filter information down to what’s “important”. But that hasn’t seemed to be a problem that algorithms are very good at yet. Worse, we bring our own cultural and personal assumptions to any conversation about of what’s important, and while technology necessarily has values baked into it, tech culture overall isn’t very good at having productive conversations about these values yet.

“Meaningful”

So that leaves “meaningful”. I’m as wary of this word as I am of any other jargon, but this aspiration is closest to my heart. Because we can find meaning in anything. We can find meaning through any lens that technology provides us, whether that’s a telescope or a microscope or a mirror.

So I’ve decided that is what I want to do, use technology build a mirror to hold up to all our time online, to let us reflect on the years of our lives spent mediated by technology. The hope is that this is how we can each find what’s meaningful to us. If we can reveal to ourselves what we do and what we say and how we act, we’ll each make our own personal choices about what is the most meaningful path to pursue.

This question is how we build technology to help us find that meaning. I don’t know the answer, but I feel good about the question.

Three years

Three years sounds like a long time to spend on a mobile device, but three years is just the blink of an eye. My son is not yet three years old, but in the brief time I have known him, he has already become the most meaningful thing in my life. And he taught me my biggest lesson about technology.

Since my son was born, I’ve spent more time reading my Twitter timeline than I’ve spent reading to him. I am not proud of that fact, but there it is. My son has challenged me to find some worth in all that time spent.

How do we find enough meaning in the hours we while away flipping through a feed on our phones? Years from now, decades from now, will we be able to explain why this is how we spent our days? As the whole world picks up their phones, I actually think this may be one of the most important challenges I can work on.


I know the conventional tendency is to dismiss our online lives as trivial, to say that social media and social networking are made up entirely of distractions. But I think we wouldn’t be there if there weren’t substance there, or at least the possibility of finding some substance. And I’m going to enjoy trying to find it.

To that end, I’m working with my friend Gina to build a company, a community and a culture focused on that goal, knowing full well that it’s equal parts ambitious and absurd. So far, a few thousand other people have been willing to bet on the possibility that we might all find something meaningful together. I hope you’ll join us.

ThinkUp and What the Web Can Be

October 15, 2013

I spend so much time writing, and thinking, about technology and tech companies. And so much of it's critical. I point the finger at how the apps and sites we build aren't meaningful, how the systems and institutions that support them aren't inclusive, that the process and the economics which make technology available to the world are broken, or at least problematic.

But talking about it alone isn't going to fix it.

So for a few years, quietly, with my friend Gina Trapani, I've been working on trying to imagine what it would look like if it were done right. What about a simple app that just made you feel happier and smarter and maybe even pleasantly surprised when you looked at it? No FOMO, no turning friendships into a competition, and maybe even a little bit of soul?

And if I close my eyes, and picture the company that would make something like that, I can see it clearly in my head. Instead of a focus on just making something to sell to Facebook or Google, a focus on making something that a whole community could be proud of. Instead of trying to tack on a focus on ethics or responsibility after the fact, it could be baked in from the beginning. There's no reason that we couldn't build a company that just tells the plain truth, instead of trying to manage the truth. I can see a company I’d be proud to have my son, or Gina’s daughter, visit in 15 or 20 years and feel proud that this is the family business.

It's a little bit terrifying. Every day I wonder, "Did I alienate too many people with those tweets, and is it going to screw up my chance of getting this new thing off the ground?" But every day I also see people saying "Even if I disagree with you, you stand for something, and I at least begrudgingly respect that." My guess is that having some healthy amount of fear is a good sign that we're taking on a project ambitious enough to inspire some fear.

It's Not Lost

We used to have Internet companies we loved. This isn't rose-tinted nostalgia about The Good Old Days; The apps were uglier, and harder to use, and less popular back then. But we rooted for the companies that made them, because we knew that the people who made Flickr, or Blogger, or Movable Type, or Upcoming, or Manila, or Delicious, or countless other early social apps really loved the web. We loved the web because it changed our lives, permanently and for the better. That is, in fact, what I was really grieving for almost a year ago when I wrote The Web We Lost.

But I was wrong. That web isn't lost. It's just dormant. All things move in cycles, and technology and the Internet are no exception. A magazine ad saying "Find us on Facebook" today is no more dire, no more permanent, than one saying "here's our AOL keyword" was in 1997. In the darkest days of the dotcom bust, when people thought we were crazy to embrace these technologies, the Internet changed my life. It brought me my friends, my career, my wife. We were open to those things because we believed in what people were making, how they were making it, and why they were motivated to do so. If the Internet could have those values then, then it can certainly support these positive values now.

So today, my friend Gina and I are announcing our campaign to finish creating ThinkUp, backed by thousands of users, developers, designers, and community members who've been helping us iterate on this product for years. I'm asking anybody who's found what I do here, what I've stood for over more than a decade of writing online, who wants to support these kinds of values and this kind of opportunity, to back us.

We want to make an app that delights you and rewards you and makes you feel good for connecting in a meaningful way with your friends or family or even strangers. We want an app that makes you want to call your mom, or to chip in on a project with your neighbor, or to offer a kind word to a stranger who just happens to share some of the same interests that you do.

And we want to prove that a company can do well by leading with its values. We're happy to try to speak up for inclusion, or thoughtfulness, or kindness in the tech industry. But the economic systems and technological systems that support some of the worst parts of tech are not going to change because we tweet at somebody and scold them for being a jerk.

Technology will change when our greatest, most meaningful successes and the most innovative, creative products come from communities that demonstrate positive values every day. That's what we're going to fight for with ThinkUp. We're not going to compromise. We know that software has values, and that the values in software shape culture itself. And we're not shying away from that — we're running headlong into it, crazy as that might be. But we can only do it if others are crazy enough to believe in it, too.

So, will you join us?

How to Redesign Your App Without Pissing Everybody Off

January 9, 2013

Inspired by Anil

The era of User Generated Discontent began about a decade ago, when a critical mass of people started using social apps on the web often enough that they felt a bit proprietary over the user interface and design of those services. Inevitably, that led to mass revolts and widespread complaints any time a company changed even the most minor parts of its user experience.

From Facebook's introduction of News Feed and Timeline to Twitter's launch of New Twitter and New New Twitter to countless angry responses to any given logo change, the spirit of "Why Wasn't I Consulted?" runs deep on the Internet, and perhaps in no realm is it expressed more passionately than in user interface design. How come we keep screwing it up? Is it possible to change a UI without inciting a riot?

It would appear so. We just have to follow some principles based on learning from the last 10,000 times that a mob of users got upset.

Saving Face

Yesterday I talked about how all dashboards should be feeds, using the example of our work with ThinkUp. I sort of glossed over it by saying "we threw out the old UI when we built version 2.0", but the reality is we totally redesigned an app that had been designed by a community, and nobody got upset. So it's possible to do this! But how? By obeying a few principles:

  • Communicate in advance with the community about what your goals are. You've got reasons for making a change in your app or site, but they should be grounded in meaningful goals that meet user needs. "We want to increase engagement" is not a goal, or at least not one that you should try to get a community to care about. But "we want to make sure new users aren't overwhelmed with options" is something people can actually respond to intelligently. If the community can understand your rationale, then they can help you achieve it, or at least begrudgingly concede that it's one of your priorities. And the time to do this is before you actually put the new version out. If you're concerned about revealing secrets to competitors or to the market, then just speak in broad terms without revealing exactly how you're going to change the app to meet those needs.
  • Enforce communications discipline amongst your team members when communicating the change. Everyone who knows a change is coming should get together and discuss how they'll talk about the redesign, and should work together to come up with consistent ways to describe both the goals and what's up for discussion in terms of future adjustments. Be hyper-responsive and very present as soon as the change is announced or released, to respond to complaints or questions wherever they happen. And if someone on your own team is worried about a design change, or disagrees with its implementation, you can bet that many of your users will feel the same way.
  • Describe the audiences you're trying to serve by making changes. One of the most common tensions with a community is when you make a change to address one part of your audience, making the other people you serve feel left out. If you optimize your mobile UI, desktop users get mad, or if you shift an element on the page so that international languages get a better experience, your primary language users might be frustrated. And no matter who you're serving, some people will say "Why did you fix that instead of fixing this other thing I care about more?" So articulating who a change is meant to serve helps to focus the conversation about a change in a useful way. We did this in a very literal way, simply writing a blog post called Who is ThinkUp for? to start to define our target audiences.
  • Give people structured ways to provide feedback and comments. Okay, so your users are asking "Why wasn't I consulted?" about this new change — now what? There should be clear, consistent ways for them to get heard, whether that's through social media or email or a comment form or any other mechanism. So many companies, especially big companies, screw up on this part by hoping that refusing to provide a forum for user complaints or feedback will somehow stop a backlash from coming.
  • Define a process and timeline for iterating based on feedback. Many of the issues that your community complains about or brings to your attention are going to be legitimate! They'll be raised in the spirit of a productive conversation, and you have an obligation to respond to those points with plans that are as concrete as possible in addressing them. So, be ready before you announce your changes with a team that will estimate the effort involved, and roll out those updates as efficiently as possible.
  • Set a measured, rational tone with your community. This is something you need to be doing well in advance, but if you set the expectation that changes will be responded to and both your team and your users are going to communicate about them respectfully and calmly, people will follow the prevailing culture of the conversation. On ThinkUp, we've had a mailing list for almost four years where there's never been a flame war. That's almost unheard-of in open source, and in addition to making things less stressful when we make a change, it helps us attract good, diverse talent to our community.
  • Accept that some people will never be happy. This is the sort of zen aspect of community management with changes, the one you have to confront by reciting the serenity prayer. Some people are determined to be unhappy, usually for reasons having to do with their personal lives or other challenges, and they simply want to use your app as the platform through which they demonstrate it. As long as you can contain their tantrums and direct them away from those giving productive feedback, they're not that hard to deal with.
  • It helps if people don't care that much about your app. This is more of a worst-practice than a best-practice, but we began to explain our reasoning behind a radical change in our user experience by talking about what sucked in older versions of ThinkUp. As painful or humbling as that exercise may have been, the criticisms that were leveled resonated as being accurate with our community, and gave us permission to pursue a more aggressive redesign. So one takeaway if your community gets upset is that you should thank them, because it indicates passion about what you're doing.

Humility Above All

This is far from a comprehensive list, but these are some of the basics that you'll have to accommodate if you want to not make your users mad. If you have a super-small community, you might be able to skip some of these steps. But overall it let us go from an app that looked like this:

thinkup-dashboard-old.png

To one that looks like this:

thinkup-dashboard-new.png

Without anybody getting upset. It's not inevitable that every change on the web has to involve drama; By carefully anticipating people's responses and thoughtfully engaging with your community, you can actually come out of even a dramatic UI redesign with people happier than they were before.

Related Reading

Many of these ideas of community management are far from new; Lots of people liked a similar piece that I wrote a few years ago called If your website's full of assholes, it's your fault.

If you're a developer or designer, you might want to follow along and make sure we put these principles into action by joining ThinkUp on GitHub.

All Dashboards Should be Feeds

January 8, 2013

Last week, we announced the new beta release of ThinkUp (if you're a geek or developer, try it out!) and one of the reasons I was most excited to talk about the new release is because it has a whole new user experience which exemplifies a belief about analytics that I've become pretty adamant about.

Every time an app provides a dashboard full of charts and graphs, it should be replaced with a news feed offering a stream of insights instead.

There are lots and lots of apps that provide a dashboard of analytics these days. From Google Analytics to Chartbeat to Facebook's Insights tool, there are all kinds of dashboard displays that we end up staring at while trying to manage a presence online. And they all share a consistent problem: It's hard to tell what the hell is going on.

chartbeat-charts

Beautiful but Empty

When I talk about "dashboards" here, I don't mean ones that are already a news feed or stream of posts, like Tumblr, but the old-fashioned kind where you see a bunch of meters and dials and line charts that are supposed to communicate the current status of whatever you're tracking. You can see Chartbeat's beautiful set of graphs and charts above, and Facebook's got a fancy one for insights on their platform; It looks like this:

Facebook InsightsCharts

And you know what? I have no idea whether my numbers on those services are good or not. I don't know what I'm supposed to do about them. In fact, though I love Chartbeat, the information that I get from them that means the most is their push notifications on my phone which tell me when my site is over its maximum monthly number of visitors. That is meaningful.

Insights like exceeding my usual level of visitors, or achieving some threshold I'd never crossed before, or doing some task particularly efficiently would be meaningful markers that I could respond to intelligently.

Worse, trying to make sense of a gauge on a dashboard essentially requires me to keep three bits of data in my mind:

  • What metric or measure a particular meter is reporting
  • The last time I looked at that meter
  • What the value of the meter was the last time I looked at it

That's a lot! For more esoteric points, it's downright impossible, so I'm left squinting at a little chart, trying to deduce its meaning. Or, on the other extreme, I get something like the line chart that shows my number of Twitter followers. That line only ever goes up and to the right. Sometimes it goes up more than others, but even that's generally impossible to discern.

A Better Meter

We had precisely these issues with ThinkUp in version 1. Lots of little line graphs and pie charts that either rarely changed, or that changed regularly but with no explanation of the meaning of those changes or recommendations of what to do as a result.

And just getting to that stage was hard! The community put a ton of effort into collecting useful data, and presenting it appropriately. But all of that hard work still left an average user of the app squinting at some inscrutable charts, ultimately unsatisfied.

So we killed the whole dashboard. And replaced it with a simple stream. Here's a live example of the White House's social data, from a very early development version of ThinkUp 2.0. Now, not all of the data here are presented in a very compelling way yet, and of course we're still working to shed our old implementation of basic charts and graphs to move into a stream that does much more to coach you about what you should be doing online.

Take the idea of your follower count. ThinkUp used to offer a pretty standard inscrutable little line chart showing your number of followers going up over time. But now, there's a stream with a couple of items in it that look like this (these aren't the final UI, just a work in progress):

White House Upcoming Milestone

That offers a bit more analysis, showing a forward-looking extrapolation of when the @whitehouse account will reach a certain number of followers. If someone sees that as a useful goal, they now have much more info than they would have had from a chart showing their past history of growth.

Then we can break down that data even further and tease out the meaning by determining which of these followers are notable for being popular or discerning enough that they should be called out or paid attention to. That looks like this:

White House Interesting Users

And this isn't to say that traditional charts or graphs don't have a place in communicating information in this stream. But what we've done is put them behind disclosure buttons (again these are just a first prototype of the UI for such a thing) and made it possible to reveal the details behind an item, whether that's a detailed chart or just a full list of people to pay attention to.

whitehouse-upcoming-milestone-expanded.png

Similarly, you can see an expanded version of the "interesting new followers" insight in the ThinkUp demo for the White House as well.

Even with just a rough version of our new stream built out, I immediately realized that this was a fundamentally better way to quickly consume this analytics data and be able to make decisions or act on it. There were also many other benefits to radically simplifying the user interface — I only see data now when it changes in a significant way, so I don't have to go digging around a bunch of different screens trying to deduce if something has changed and whether the change is meaningful.

This has really quickly ruined me for every other stats app that I use. Chartbeat is awesome for being real-time, but it'd be so much more compelling if it were a real-time stream or Twitter-style feed of information about how my site and my content's doing, with the ability to drill down into individual insights about my site. Google Analytics has always been totally inscrutable to me, but if it just bubbled up particularly meaningful tidbits about my site or its stats I can imagine being able to actually make educated decisions about what I do here. As it stands, I haven't had any reason to go into Google Analytics in ages.

So, a big but sincere request to everybody who's making analytics or stats apps, either standalone or as part of a larger app: Please throw away the dashboard. I know they demo well and look great in investor pitch decks or screencast videos. But they don't actually help me make decisions, or get better at what I'm doing. And that's the only reason I'm measuring something in the first place.

Related Reading

If you liked this (or hated it), you should also read Stop Publishing Web Pages, about the move from static web pages to streams that are part of app-style experiences. It's in the same vein.

Expert Labs Ends and ThinkUp Begins

March 26, 2012

Back in 2009, I founded Expert Labs based on the idea that technology could help all of us better engage with our government and encourage policy makers to listen to us.

@whitehouse infographic The idea was, frankly, a bit nebulous and hard to explain, but the ambition and optimism of the mission has attracted some of the greatest talents I've ever worked with. Gina Trapani joined a few months later, followed a few months later by Andy Baio and finally Clay Johnson. Along the way, we've made some extraordinary progress. From our initial effort supporting the White House's Grand Challenges initiative to publishing deep insights into the Twitter Town Hall at the White House to making detailed recommendations about the future of Open Government and creating a complete overview in infographic form of the White House's use of Twitter in 2011, we've been constantly publishing what we've learned about how government can use social media better to listen to regular citizens.

We're also into making some serious technology. Our flagship platform ThinkUp has been growing by leaps and bounds (more on that below), but it's just as importantly working to power tools like the Federal Social Media Index. The FSMI is the first tool to give a live dashboard of how federal agencies are engaging with citizens on social media, and was probably the first tool to collect all of the different agencies' social media accounts in one place.

But Expert Labs was always conceived as an experiment, a focused project backed by the MacArthur Foundation for two years working to get the public to engage with policymaking. When we started in 2009, early in the current administration's tenure, the idea that ordinary people would gather together on social networks in order to have their voices heard by lawmakers seemed ridiculous. Just over two years later, it's not just reality, it's a proven form of engagement which has had profound effects.

We don't claim that Expert Labs caused that success, but we are extremely proud to have played a part in promoting these ideas, in building tools that have helped people understand what's possible, and in engaging an incredibly dedicated and passionate community of technologists, developers, policy makers, public servants and ordinary citizens who are united in the belief that the technologies we use to power the web can also make for a better society.

So, Expert Labs is ending, as we noted on our team blog last week. But the work we've been doing is going to continue in a new format.

(Re-)Introducing ThinkUp

Perhaps more than anything else we've done at Expert Labs, we've been thrilled by the success of our ThinkUp platform. In some ways, it's a simple tool: An open source app that runs on a web server and collects all of your activity and data from your social networks.

But what ThinkUp represents is a lot of important concepts: Owning your actions and words on the web. Encouraging more positive and fruitful conversations on social networks. Gaining insights into ourselves and our friends based on what we say and share. And the possibility of discovering important information or different perspectives if we can return the web back to its natural state of not being beholden to any one company or proprietary network.

We think these goals, and the values that inform them, are important. So Gina Trapani (the creator of ThinkUp) and I, and our open source community of hundreds of people who participate in the project, are going forward with ThinkUp as its own new business. We'll share some parts of the mission of Expert Labs, but express them through a company that's purely focused on making a product, and an experience, that ordinary people on the web can make use of.

We'll talk more about the details of this in the future as things get more defined, but right now there's one specific thing I'd personally ask you to do to help us make this possible:

  1. Visit our ThinkUp proposal for the Knight News Challenge.
  2. Like (heart) or Reblog the post on Tumblr.
  3. Spread the word about our News Challenge entry to encourage your friends to Like it as well.

If we're able to get ThinkUp's submission among the top 5 entries for the News Challenge, it will improve our odds of being considered for a grant from Knight. If you've never given the app a try and you're a geek go Check out ThinkUp and I think you'll see why we're so excited about its potential for the future. Once you've done that, go read Gina Trapani's post about ThinkUp's future, and join us on Github to be part of our future.

Thank You

Finally, I want to extend my sincere thanks to all who have made Expert Labs possible:

  • First, our team: Gina Trapani, Andy Baio and Clay Johnson are those rare people who combine boundless passion, tremendous talent and deep conscience to make the world better through their work. I'm glad that I"ll continue working with them all.
  • Our incredible Expert Labs advisors: Susan Crawford, Caterina Fake, and Hilary Mason proved indispensable with deeply insightful recommendations at key points in our evolution, and I'm quite thankful for their wisdom.
  • Valerie Chang at the MacArthur Foundation has been a tireless supporter of Expert Labs, not just through their obvious sustaining funding for our project, but in the obvious thought and care she put into making sure we've been effective.
  • Beth Noveck is the one person without whom Expert Labs may never have existed. Her example, both in her pioneering work around Wiki Government, as well as in her direct inspiration for the project which evolved into Expert Labs, has been indispensable.
  • And finally, my most sincere thanks goes to all of our colleagues at the American Association for the Advancement of Science, particularly Dr. Alan Leshner. Dr. Leshner has been tirelessly supportive and endlessly curious about the mission and goals of Expert Labs, giving us extraordinary resources and support even though we have to have been among the more unusual and unprecedented projects in all of AAAS. As a mentor, leader and visionary for new realms of scientific exploration and experimentation, he's been one of the most remarkable people I've had the chance to work with, and all of us at Expert Labs are extremely thankful.

Okay, enough of the awards show thank-yous. We've got work to do! Go Like that Tumblr post and we'll talk more about ThinkUp soon.

The History, and Future, of Web Protest

January 18, 2012

This week, many of the web's most popular sites shuttered their doors in protest of SOPA and PIPA, the pair of bills that had been winding their way through congress with the stated intent of fighting piracy and the unfortunate side effect of fundamentally threatening the web. After this concerted outburst of activism from the web community (which even extended to a first-of-its-kind offline protest by the New York Tech Meetup community), the sponsors of the bills have withdrawn their support, many undecided or former supporters of the bills changed their positions and in all, people who love the web are claiming a victory. Hooray! And it's still not too late to express your displeasure to your elected officials if you'd like to make sure they know how you feel.

But. There are a number of unanswered questions about this victory, and some important questions about what it means going forward, not just for web freedom, but for the technology community as a driver of public policy and legislation. We should start, as always with a brief look back.

Blogs Were Born To Do This

The entire modern social web was born from the blogging movement, and social activism has been part of the blogging medium since its birth. But ironically, the most common form of protest for our young medium has been self-censorship.

  • One of the inarguable pioneers of blogging, Dave Winer, started his first blog as the news page of the 24 Hours of Democracy campaign. What was that about? Well, it should sound familiar — the leading voices and sites of the social web spent 24 hours protesting onerous potential legislation that they thought would significantly curtail free speech on the web. SOPA? Nope! It was the Communications Decency Act (CDA) which unified the nascent personal web sixteen years ago, and the protests that accompanied the 24 Hours of Democracy included the Blue Ribbon Campaign and the Black World Wide Web shutdown, which climaxed in an estimated 7% of all active U.S. websites changing their background colors to black in protest.
  • Just a few years later, my late, lamented friend Brad Graham, who coined the word "blogosphere", also created one of the first blog-specific protests when he launched the Day Without Weblogs in 1999 in observance of World AIDS Day. Patterned after the Day Without Art, and named "Day Without Weblogs" because the word "blog" was not yet in common usage, this moving demonstration was an annual tradition for many years (eventually evolving into a more information-oriented project called "Link and Think") and carried on the social web's deep tradition of drawing attention by shutting itself down and forcing users to confront a black page. Sadly, it seems much of the early record of Day Without Weblogs has been lost since Brad's untimely passing.

Just at a cultural level, it's fascinating to me that our medium finds that the most powerful thing we can do is deny the rest of the world our voices and creations, and that this almost invariably takes the form of a black screen confronting unsuspecting, perhaps uneducated, and certainly confused non-geeky users.

How It Works

Does this form of protest work? It's hard to say — most of the CDA protests from 1996 took place after the law had already been signed. But we have some feedback on the more contemporary protests:

When Rupert Murdoch dog whistles "terror" about a topic, he's saying he wants some people illegally detained and tortured. So that's a good sign we had some impact.

This is a particularly stunning turn for a few reasons. First, as Bijan Sabet noted, congress members had considered SOPA and PIPA a done deal. Not "likely to pass", but "such a sure thing that I should sponsor it, even though I haven't read it and don't really understand it, so I can have my name on successful legislation".

This is especially remarkable because the tech industry sucks at 1. understanding how legislation happens 2. how legislation can impact their businesses and 3. actually responding to these issues before it's too late. John Battelle discusses this in depth, explaining "[T]he fight isn’t over. In fact, it’s only starting. And the folks who basically wrote SOPA/PIPA are pissed, and they plan on using the same tactics they always have when they don’t get what they want: They’re throwing around their money." Marco Arment continues, correctly, by stating that SOPA will keep coming back, over and over, in some form until it passes. Does that doom us to recurring bouts of black page syndrome? Maybe not.

The Infrastructure

One of the most unheralded successes of this week's SOPA and PIPA victories was the role that pioneering open government and government transparency efforts had in enabling the protests to take off. Just a few weeks ago, few online had heard of either bill, almost no one could understand their potential impact, and even fewer had read the actual bills.

But thanks to efforts like OpenCongress, which routinely creates valuable resources like this look at the money behind SOPA through its support from the Sunlight Foundation and the Participatory Politics Foundation, the web was able to see who was helping pay for the law. Giving that information a place to live on the web was a fundamental step that enabled powerful demonstrations like the GoDaddy protests in which thousands of users moved their business from the company in protest of its support of SOPA. (I have some misgivings about the tactics and effectiveness of that particular protest, but overall as a first example of the organization and focus of those who would object to SOPA, it was inarguably powerful.)

Similarly, the Center for Responsive Politics powered detailed look at lobbying dollars which drove the bills, which organizations like MapLight could use to create a clear picture of how SOPA and PIPA were purchased.

Of course, I've got a dog in this fight; Expert Labs was founded specifically to conduct experiments about getting people on social networks to organize in ways that would allow them to impact policy makers. And we had some amazing successes in unexpected ways — Clay Johnson on our team educated hundreds of thousands of people on how techies can effectively engage with the policy-making processin his piece "Dear Internet: It's No Longer OK to Not Know How Congress Works". And despite her well-earned misgivings about having a disproportionately large social network, Gina Trapani demonstrated the best potential of that network with a result that is best illustrated in a single tweet:

That's the CTO of the United States, Aneesh Chopra, directly thanking Gina for her honest, forceful feedback about SOPA and linking to an official White House response to a petition asking for a veto of SOPA. Despite the well-intentioned skepticism of folks like Felix Salmon in response to my admittedly optimistic visions of "#OccupyWhiteHouse", the idea that this sort of direct online feedback could have a meaningful impact was validated by none other than the Director of the White House's Office of Public Engagement:

Still, amidst the web-nerd triumphalism, it's worth noting: This isn't how I thought it would work. While I've always believed in the potential of the open government and transparency movements, I predicated our work at Expert Labs on the idea that the type of large-scale, effective, (relatively) well-organized demonstrations we've seen against SOPA and PIPA online were unlikely to happen. I was, perhaps, too willing to assume that change would only happen through more traditional channels. While we've made an amazing tech platform in ThinkUp, I was trying to push it to conform to the lobbyists-and-big-dollars world of D.C. today, and this week's victory gives me hope that I was wonderfully, delightfully, completely wrong about that decision.

So Now What?

What we've gotten so far, with our SOPA and PIPA demonstrations, is a first, rough beta test of the power to impact policy online. What we don't have is the way to use this power effectively. We are missing a few key things:

  1. The ability to organize for issues that aren't life-or-death for big tech players
  2. The ability to clearly and quickly form communities of interest around particular issues that are complicated
  3. The desire and willingness to stand up for issues that aren't simply about the self-interest or self-preservation of technology experts

This final point is my biggest concern and greatest wish for our industry. We now know we have the power bend the law to our will, and to make legislators respect our values, if we can just coordinate our efforts and focus our attentions. But there are many issues which have to do with the soul of our nation that may not galvanize a redditor who's only concerned with legislation that might interfere with watching movies online.

Google Waterboarding

We have discovered that our biggest companies, our most popular sites, or most passionate communities on the web are willing to stand up and have a powerful impact on the laws that govern our country. But we're on the fence. Google's spending somewhere around $10 million dollars on old-fashioned lobbying this year. Maybe that's useful — as Clay said, we need to know how the old system works before we can reform it.

But maybe we should be darkening our sites for deeper, more profound issues. We have the ability to affect marriage equality and reproductive freedom and immigration reform and many other issues where those of us who love technology tend to have similar values regardless of which of the traditional political parties we list on our voter registrations.

This is the power we were promised the web would give us. Let's use it.

ThinkUp 1.0 and Software With Purpose

November 15, 2011

Today, ThinkUp is out of beta and available for free. If you have a presence on Twitter, Facebook or Google+ and know how to run a PHP/MySQL app on a web server (or on EC2), you should install it and get it started now. ThinkUp will collect all of your activity across these networks and give you great analytics, search and archiving for them.

I'm incredibly excited about the launch of this app, of course. Gina Trapani has been shepherding ThinkUp's evolution through 25 releases, three names and five dozen contributors over the past two years, ably assisted by a phenomenal community that I'm proud to be part of. ThinkUp is also the flagship platform for our efforts at Expert Labs, enabling some incredibly powerful new ways of connecting citizens and their government, which we'll be talking about soon.

But today, ThinkUp's launch matters to me because of what it represents: The web we were promised we would have. The web that I fell in love with, and that has given me so much. A web that we can hack, and tweak, and own.

Where We Stand Today

  1. Picture everything you've ever written on Twitter
  2. Now add in every photo or status update you've ever posted on Facebook
  3. Add to that every message you've ever sent on Google+
  4. And then include every response you've ever gotten from anyone to any of those messages

Now understand: The companies behind these networks can, and someday will, destroy all of those moments. Delete them from the record. Forever. With no advance notice. I want you to understand, and really truly believe that. Read the terms of service yourself if you don't think they can do that.

Sand Castles

Why would I ascribe such awful behavior to the nice people who run these social networks? Because history shows us that it happens. Over and over and over. The clips uploaded to Google Videos, the sites published to Geocities, the entire relationships that began and ended on Friendster: They're all gone. Some kind-hearted folks are trying to archive those things for the record, and that's wonderful. But what about the record for your life, a private version that's not for sharing with the world, but that preserves the information or ideas or moments that you care about?

I'm not saying this destruction is always deliberate or malicious. I'm friends with a lot of nice folks at the companies that run our big social networks. I think they mean well, and when they can, they do the right thing. And most people wouldn't be that upset if their online presence were destroyed.

Beyond the Numbers

But whether everyone cares about the risks of today's social networks isn't the point: Vast and important parts of our culture are bring destroyed in the digital domain. ThinkUp can't help everybody, yet. But it should help anyone with more than 1000 connections on their network, or anybody who cares about what they're creating online.

Right now the only way we have to show that we care about our networks is to quantify them, and assign metrics that aren't as meaningful as the conversations they're meant to represent.

Of course ThinkUp has great analytics — but it does not, and will never display some arbitrary score to your profile. We want you to better understand who you're talking to on your networks, and to better share what you discover by letting you publish a pretty, embeddable version of your Twitter or Facebook conversations.

And while those features are unique and valuable, simply being able to look back and search for the things my friends and I have shared on our networks is the driving force for enabling all of the amazing things that are built, or will be built, on top of ThinkUp.

In ThinkUp, I can find the message where I announced my son's birth. On Twitter or Facebook, I can't.

I'm Old-Fashioned

ThinkUp Timeline thumbnail

Caring about these issues on the web isn't, frankly, very fashionable in the tech world right now. Building apps that are open source, decentralized, and require the pain in the ass of installing a PHP app on your own web server is certainly not in vogue. But, being built by a non-profit and a community of volunteers, we have the luxury of creating something valuable even if it's not what's currently in favor amongst the Techmeme set. Plus, we've got great hackers adding all kinds of cool features every day.

This isn't just some nostalgia trip for me, though. I take a long view of the tech industry and of the web as a medium. I know we swing from centralized to decentralized and back again. If everyone's headed to one giant centralized network, then somebody oughtta be looking the other way, too.

But we're not making some shiny, loud app that's designed to get TechCrunch coverage. What Gina started two years ago, what Expert Labs has been proud to support, what an incredibly enthusiastic (and, importantly, extremely diverse) community has been moved by is that ThinkUp is software with a purpose. It is technology with a set of values.

ThinkUp's values are simple:

  • Meaningful conversations are important
  • People's self-expression is valuable and worth preserving
  • Technology meets its highest use when in service of people's desires instead of big institutions
  • Well-built networks can empower people in a way that counters social imbalances
  • Good tools can impact culture in a positive way

Get Going

I know there's still some of us out there that believe in these ideas. If you do, block out some time during your lunch hour or this weekend, and install the app. Don't have time? Run it on your EC2 account; It'll only take about 5 minutes — as easy as when you first set up WordPress. You'll find some bugs and some rough spots, and we'll be eager to see both your bug reports and your code over at Github.

  • If you'd like to see a ton of screenshots in an app walkthrough, Gina Trapani's post has you covered.
  • For the official announcement of ThinkUp 1.0, hit the Expert Labs blog where there are complete details and a changelog.
  • And do take a look at ReadWriteWeb's review, one of the best of the early looks at the app, which opens by calling ThinkUp "the social media management tool that matters most".

Pen Nerds and Finding Better Tools

March 16, 2011

While I've always liked doing a lot of my notes and writing with pen and ink, I've never been particularly well-versed in the latest innovations and trends in the handwriting world. But! I know this is exactly the sort of endeavor that attracts nerds, and that my network of friends and acquaintances would be well-versed in what the best options are.

So, I asked my Twitter followers for pen recommendations that would best meet my predilections. Here are their responses:

Some early trends jump out — 10 recommend a Pilot pen of some sort, and 8 mention Uni-Ball. The zebra, signo, and pentel all have vocal advocates. And what's clear to me is that I'll just have to buy a few different ones and try them out, but at least my friends have helped narrow down the selection. Because obviously, the thing that's keeping me from updating this blog more often is that I don't have the right pen.

The other improvement to my recording tools that I've been looking for is shown by the contents of this post itself; The latest versions of ThinkUp have progressed enormously, and doing fun stuff like embedding a list of replies (in this case, sorted by friends first, and then by number of followers) is really easy to do with just a click.

I know the old trope is that the answer to productivity is never a new tool, but sometimes there are tools that let us do things that would be a total pain in the ass otherwise. It's nice to have friends to help solve that problem.

If You Didn't Blog It, It Didn't Happen

January 4, 2011

Clive Thompson's newest Wired piece argues that the flow of short-form messages as we see on Twitter and Facebook is encouraging longer meditations in other media. I've been thinking about this phenomenon for a while in terms of the impact that it has on me and other bloggers, with the simple premise that I'd like to be writing the content that everyone links to in those media, instead of merely passing around links to other people's work.

I alluded to that concept in the lengthy conversation I had with Clive for the piece, and he captured one of the key points I was trying to make:

“I save the little stuff for Twitter and blog only when I have something big to say,” as blogger Anil Dash put it. It turns out readers prefer this: One survey found that the most popular blog posts today are the longest ones, 1,600 words on average.

Now, while I'd like to self-servingly pretend that everything I say here is "big" in the sense of being important, really what I meant is that some ideas are just bigger than 140 characters. In fact, most good ideas are. More importantly, our ideas often need to gain traction and meaning over time. Blog posts often age into something more substantial than they are at their conception, through the weight of time and perspective and response.

And blogs afford that sort of maturation of an idea uniquely well amongst online media, due to their use of the permalink (permanent link), which gives each idea a place to live and thrive. While Facebook and Twitter nominally provide permalinks as well, the truth is that individual ideas in those flow-based media don't have enough substance for a meaningful conversation to accrete around them.

Felix Salmon touches on this point well in his recent post about the evanescence of Twitter debates. In the particular case he cites, Twitter is the medium that hosted important disclosures that could be material to a case that a current Supreme Court justice has said could impact a future ruling on free speech.

This means that, in an upcoming court case with the highest possible stakes for self-expression in our country, we may be relying on content that will soon be unretrievable by design. (That linked page shows that Twitter will only let you retrieve your last 3200 tweets.) If Kevin Poulsen decides to write 3000 more tweets between now and the time this theoretical case hits the Supreme Court, then we're relying on the (admittedly likely) chance that Twitter, Inc. makes an exception to its policy in order to provide this evidence.

If You See Something, Say Something

But usually, the stakes aren't as high as the future of free speech in America. Sometimes, we just have ideas we're pondering. Maybe we aren't sure of the full implications of something we've noticed, but we want to help catalyze a conversation. It's that sort of brainstorming that led David Galbraith to invent the most popular form of autobiography every created. I get to experience small versions of it myself, as when I noticed a small trend in people's observations about Google lately, which seems to have helped to promote the idea that maybe there has been an inflection point in the evolution of Google's ability to search the contemporary web.

Here's the important thing: The only reason I was able to synthesize those few perspectives is because they were blogged. Certainly, Twitter helped bring those ideas to my attention, and Facebook or any other stream-based service could have played that role as well. But because these points were raised by people I don't always read immediately, the persistence and permanence of their words, as uniquely provided by blogging, is what made it possible for a pattern to emerge.

Capturing those ephemeral moments of observation in a permanent and persistent form is essential for the ideas to mature into something larger. I'd hoped, when I first recommended that everyone consider Twitter a few years ago, that Twitter would emphasize those traits about tweets sent on the service, but until and unless their current design choices change, there's an enormous amount of cultural data that gets lost every day, simply by having been shared through a platform with those constraints.

The Perils of a Low Stress Environment

Now, Twitter and other stream-based flows of information provide an important role in the ecosystem. Perhaps the most important psychological innovation of Twitter is that it assumes you won't see every message that comes along. There's no count of unread items, and very little social cost to telling a friend that you missed their tweet. That convenience and social accommodation is incredibly valuable and an important contribution to the web.

However, by creating a lossy environment where individual tweets are disposable, there's also an environment where few will build the infrastructure to support broader, more meaningful conversations that could be catalyzed by a tweet. In many ways, this means the best tweets for advancing an idea are those that contain links to more permanent media.

Keeping Time

So, if most tweets are too ephemeral to reach their full potential as ideas, what do we do about it? Well, obviously, one big step would be to simply make sure to blog any idea that's worth preserving. It's perfectly fine to tweet about trivialities — I do it all the time! But if you're tweeting about your work, your passion, or something meaningful to you, you owe it to your ideas to actually preserve them somewhere more persistent.

And, of course, I should make a pitch that this is part of the reason I am so enamored of the work the ThinkUp community is doing. A free, thriving, powerful, relatively accessible app that archives Twitter and Facebook updates with a mind towards incorporating them into more persistent and meaningful media is an essential part of the ecosystem. This is especially true as political, social and artistic leaders start to rely on these ephemeral media, without realizing the cultural costs to those choices.

Given enough time, and without substantial changes to the way the big social networks work, if you didn't blog it, it didn't happen. In fact, I first wrote about this idea a bit on Twitter a few years ago. See if you can find it.

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