Monday, December 25, 2006

Unsatisfied with that gift? Change the present!

My friend Robert Tolmach has been on fire with the launch of his startup, ImportantGifts, and its spanking-new site, Changing the Present.

Have you ever tried to quantify how much money is spent on gifts people don't really want or need? Robert has. Those bucks could be re-routed.

Since launch day, Robert's been running really clever campaigns to provoke interest, including this letter from Santa, reporting on how warm it is now at the North Pole. Check out the many different ways the site offers to spread the word.

I'm thrilled social entrepreneurship and conscious giving are in the air. Other friends have recently launched xigi (Kevin Jones, Sara Olsen, Mark Beam, Nicole Lazzaro, Tim Freundlich) with its xigiMaps, as well as (Ben Rattray). Join in!

Thursday, December 07, 2006

Our ever-so-plastic brains

Researchers are discovering -- finally -- that brains reconfigure themselves all the time.

ScienceDaily recently reported that scientists in Lausanne detected neural reconnections on an hour-by-hour basis. In an interesting twist, my favorite passage in the article draws a parallel between brain function and social networks:
"The circuitry of the brain is like a social network where neurons are like people, directly linked to only a few other people," explains [researcher] Markram. "This finding indicates that the brain is constantly switching alliances and linking with new circles of "friends" to better process information."

Which resonates immediately with danah boyd's nifty new paper on "friending" in First Monday. We are indeed wiring the global brain these days.

Neuroplasticity is the central topic of The Mind and the Brain, by UCLA OCD expert Jeffrey Schwartz and the immensely talented Wall Street Journal science reporter Sharon Begley,which I've just begun reading. More on that as I digest it.

We tend to think of the adult brain as pretty much finished. All the wiring is done, with extensive retraining needed after traumatic brain injuries, for example. You can't, after all, teach an old dog new tricks, right?

This all echoes my favorite line from the controversial film What the Bleep Do We Know?: "Neurons that fire together, wire together."

Engage in the same thought often enough, and it etches its own neat neural pathway. That's as true for "I'm worthless and incompetent" as it is for "I'm skilled and happy." Yow. Makes those crystal-gazing affirmations sound pretty interesting, doesn't it?

I suspect our socialization processes, fear-based culture and unchallenged assumptions (that old dog and them new tricks) all contribute to making our brains far less plastic than they otherwise would be. Change is fun!

Saturday, November 25, 2006

Office competency, then and now

Turn the clock back two or three decades -- three to be safe -- and consider what technologies the average office worker had to master. From today's perspective, 1976 was pretty simple. You had to wrangle:

Today? Yeesh! Here's a start:

Daunting, no?

That's before learning about blogging, wikis, Flickr,, tagging, podcasts, screencasts, YouTube, MySpace and Second Life, never mind peer production and folksonomies.

So I have a lot of empathy for people in business these days, who are expected to perform 120 percent of 1976's duties with 30 percent of the support staff. In the 90s, Neutron Jack led the way to skinnying out all those extraneous people and making sure nobody has enough time to really think anymore.

I expect the current wave of innovation will take another ten to 15 years to shake out. At that point, many things that are mystifying today (e.g., why are mailing lists and discussion forums separate pieces of software? why are we still typing in contact info from business cards?) will disappear. And with luck, we'll have figured out how to talk to one another well by then.

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

The seeming irrationality of openness

Commons thinker James Boyle of Duke Law wrote a great opinion piece published in the FT on August 7 titled "A closed mind about an open world." (Thanks for the link, Anthony and BoingBoing.)

Once we open that door, it's important to point out that the world isn't swinging wholesale to open stuff. The world is just rebalancing, because open stuff was hard to build collectively until the recent burst of connectivity, and until there were places to put open things so others could find them. Can't do that in the phone system or TV network.

On this theme of balance, my favorite paragraph in Boyle's article runs thus:
It is not that openness is always right. Rather, it is that we need a balance between open and closed, owned and free, and we are systematically likely to get the balance wrong. Partly this is because we still do not understand the kind of property that exists on networks. Most of our experience is with tangible property; fields that can be overgrazed if outsiders cannot be excluded. For that kind of property, control makes more sense. We still do not intuitively grasp the kind of property that cannot be exhausted by overuse (think of a piece of software) and that can become more valuable to us the more it is used by others (think of a communications standard). There the threats are different, but so are the opportunities for productive sharing. Our intuitions, policies and business models misidentify both. Like astronauts brought up in gravity, our reflexes are poorly suited for free fall.
Our reflexes are poorly suited, indeed. It takes considerable effort, plus the occasional gut-twinging aha!, to retrain those reflexes. And the changes open new risks. Those are some of the reasons why this transition will be slow.

It feels like we're a third of the way through a 20- or 30-year process of rebalancing. Along the way, the people and organizations that are threatened with pitch fits and fight back. But this tide is inexorable, and the sooner the players figure out where the new resting point of the fulcrum will be, the sooner they can settle into a new business as usual. It'll be awkward from today's perspective, but oddly more humane and reasonable overall. At least that's my hope.

(Boyle is also the author of The Second Enclosure Movement and the Construction of the Public Domain, available in PDF here, as well as Shamans, Software and Spleens. Gotta meet him!)

Monday, August 14, 2006

Colbert's Wikiality spoof wiki

In that last post, I completely forgot to note that Colbert seems to have installed Mediawiki and cranked up a really funny wiki at the domain

Check out the warning on the assassin page, the history of Fidel Castro, Ann Coulter as a recipe and the Al Franken Communist Seal of Approval on the Hollywood page.

Are you a Factonista or a Colbinista?

At last, an entry for Wikiality

Shortly after Colbert's report on "wikiality," I checked Wikipedia to see if they had a page for it yet. After all, they had truthiness. No entry yet, but they did mention wikiality as the Word segment in a summary table of Colbert episodes, which was groovy.

I checked again today, and sure enough. Type "wikiality" into Wikpedia's search bar and it doesn't quite go to a page dedicated to wikiality, but does resolve to this page on Wikipedia in popular culture. Wikiality is a subsection there, alongside many other interesting tidbits.

The page for The Colbert Report has changed, too. The big, useful table summarizing elements from each episode went elsewhere. In its place, sort of, is a page on The Colbert Report recurring elements.

Interesting. And very fun.

Saturday, August 12, 2006

A snippet of Scott McCloud presenting

Scott is a Jedi Master of visual communications. Author of the cult classic Understanding Comics, he has a way of making comprehensible deep insights about how we make and share meaning.

I just watched him cruise through a bunch of great ideas in his quest for the durable mutation that helps comics thrive on the Net. As he was talking, I recorded a minute-plus segment in video and put it on YouTube. Click here to see it:

Check out his family's upcoming 50-State Tour!

Friday, July 21, 2006

Will YouTube eat the Tube? (Monday's Yi-Tan call)

We're up to episode 94 of our weekly Yi-Tan tech community calls, and this coming Monday's promises to be extra fun: we'll be mulling the effects of YouTube, which now draws 100 million visits and 60,000 uploads a day.

Read the call description (with some fun links) here, and ping me if you'd like the call-in info. (I'd like to keep it from Web crawlers.)

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

My life's story? Ask Gordon Cook

Gordon Cook has long been a thoughtful, connected and prolific writer on the telecom scene. His Cook Report on the Internet (not to be confused with the Cook Political Report) chronicles the inside games of telecom as well as its offers, politics and market forces.

A few weeks back, Gordon took the time to interview me at length, then write up the results for his newsletter. With the luxury of some time to talk and an interviewer who didn't have an agenda but was instead interested in hearing what was going on in my head (beside the voices that control me), the resulting interview nicely reflects how I got where I am and what I care about. Thanks, Gordon.

Now he's put that interview on his new consulting site. (My story's in the sidebar, with a link to the full text below the intro.) Or you can follow this direct link.

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Chilavert! or, What was Zidane thinking?

I really enjoyed the World Cup games, which ended for me with two memorable bits.

The first is the exclamation "Chilavert!," shouted by one of the game announcers on Univision, which I was watching instead of ESPN's milquetoast coverage.

I'd never heard of Chilavert, but it turns out he was a goalie in Paraguay, famous for being especially good at shooting penalty kicks. The games are over, but I still hear a joyously shouted "Chilaveeer!" echoing in my head.

The other memorable bit was the now-iconic head-butt that Zidane launched in the final game (FIFA is trying to remove it from online video sites, so it's a moving target, but a search like this should turn it up).

What got in his brain? In the last ten minutes of overtime of the biggest game in the soccer world, the last game of his normal professional career, a billion-plus people watching, he goes and does something so blatant that it still amazes us in replays.

He's been playing forever, earning a reputation as a classy, solid player -- one of the best of his generation. Surely he didn't expect to be off camera. He knows that the other guy's job is to goad, cajole and insult if he thinks it'll get him off balance somehow. That can't be unusual to him. And yet he blows his reputation in the last minutes of his last match. Sad, and weird.

Fortunately, the Net has been riffing wonderfully on the headbutt.

Monday, June 19, 2006

My Outside-In talk at Masters Forum

I had a wonderful time last week in Minneapolis, first presenting at Masters Forum, then taking part in Cecily Sommers' PUSH conference (about which more later).

Between the two events, I got to do fun things like ride a trials bike for the first time (thanks, Griff!) and watch a dozen short films made in 48 hours (thanks, Sheila and Eric!).

My Masters Forum talk was based on the "Outside-In" talk I debuted a year earlier at PUSH, which Ethan kindly blogged. With a year to ponder the topic and push harder on my thoughts, plus three hours to present, I got to go much further.

I don't have the audio available at this point, but you can download a self-playing PowerPoint file of my talk here.

You'll miss the first part, because I started by spending 20 minutes showing everyone my Brain (see it yourself here). It was a nice way to introduce myself.

Masters Forum has been around for over 20 years, and has hosted a bunch of names you'd recognize, most before they had published the works that made them famous.

Monday, May 22, 2006

Email = the cockroach

Antonio's recent post describing his startup Tabblo's premature outing on Valleywag reminded me that email is a survivor:
...if you look at the numbers, by far the biggest photo-sharing service out there is still email. For the most part, people find that what is out there does not add enough value to merit being used instead of just attaching a bunch of pictures to an email and hitting send (and this despite all of the associated mailserver hell).
Email still wins most tech battles.

The millions of dollars corporations have spent on knowledge management systems, specialized collaboration tools, file-sharing systems, groupware solutions, workflow applications and other once-hot tech categories have all too often been wasted. People balk at using separate KM applications. They end up attaching PowerPoints to emails and whipping them around the corporate network. (Then they end up helplessly searching said network for the latest version or a specific slide. So it goes.)

The problem is congenital: Our overreliance on email is a birth defect of the "personal computing" revolution, which somehow completely failed to integrate the social aspects of Doug Engelbart's famous 1968 demo (see my earlier post on this). Although they successfully implemented Doug's overlapping windows and scrolling mice, both Jobs and Gates were completely blind to networking and the social side of computing that Doug demonstrated. Both had to learn those lessons slowly and painfully.

This congenital condition means that group functionality is typically grafted on to the dominant personal productivity tools, awkwardly, rather than being built in. So we end up having to buy and install "groupware" capabilities, or even use tools and interfaces that are completely separate from our everyday tools in order to "harvest knowledge." A few tools try to infer knowledge from our everyday work products, but few of them seem to achieve great value.

It's been 22 years since the Mac's debut in 1984. Why isn't platform-independent screen sharing just baked into all machines yet? Why are wikis, which allow collaborative editing, such an anomaly? And so late? I'll come back to this issue in future posts.

There is one promising trend that could kill off email. Millennials, interestingly enough, see email only as a way to communicate with their parents and teachers. They communicate with one another through IM, cellphones, online games and sites such as MySpace and Facebook. Voicemail? Naaah!

So when us old farts die off, then maybe the next generation will drive a stake through the heart of email. Maybe.

This is a funny issue for me. I love IM. When I first wrote about it for Release 1.0 in January of 1997, I was piqued; by June, I was convinced this was the future of the phone interface (which hasn't happened quite yet) and much more.

But when I hear about kids' IM-centric world, my first response is, "how on earth do they track what they promised to do, or where they said they would meet?" (My second response: "wouldn't life be wonderful without all those messages haunting me?") It turns out many kids look things up in the IM log files, which serve the same purpose as your email archive or chock-full folders.

I wonder: is the log file now an important feature when kids pick IM clients? Probably not. More likely it's just which IM their buddies use.

The other thing I wonder is how kids handle the constant interruptions.

More broadly, I wonder if this IM/cellphone behavior represents a long-term shift toward real-time communications, or instead a reaction to today's rather primitive tools, which will cause our eventual tools to settle somewhere between IM and email, whatever that might look like. After all, in an always-connected world, who needs store-and-forward? It was a kludge to work around cranky, slow networks back in the day.

This may take some time.

Not many "serious" (read: older) software developers are Gen Y yet, so I don't see experiments in the serious software world. And the major IM platforms are mostly private, a bit too much like mobile phone software platforms, so they're not inclined to experiment this way. And they're not quite open enough (Jabber protocols notwithstanding) for Gen Y-ers to mod directly, aside from making spiffy skins, which has to get boring after a while.

Email is the acid test. If some new way of collaborating is to take over, it will do so at the expense of email. And not a moment too soon.

Saturday, May 20, 2006

How'd they manage to make Flickr harder to use?

The Flickr user interface has been overhauled, and I have to say that it's a net negative for me.

The irritating changes are small, but they add up. The first small one is that the "add so-and-so as a contact" link has wandered off to the right. It used to be much more central and obvious. I can get used to that, I guess.

It gets much worse. When I scroll through someone's social network, I can no longer easily tell who is already my friend and who isn't. They used to be distinguished by easy-to-scan bold/not bold usernames.

In the old interface as I moused over a contact, it would pop up a lightweight dialog that said "so-and-so is your friend; change?", and if you clicked once in the dialog, it went to the add screen and asked if they were friend or family. Minimal clicks.

So instead of knowing at a glance, for the entire page, who is already my contact and who isn't, now I have to mouse over each picture, pause while the pull-down arrow appears to the right of the picture -- still with no information! -- click on the arrow, and only then the pull-down menu appears. Because it is plain text, I still have to make sense of the textual menu. No color cues to tell me quickly that this person is already a contact, or whatever. Sheesh!

While doing this, if you mouse over the picture and mistakenly click on the picture instead of that pick-list arrow that appears to its right, you're off the current page and on to that contact's photos. Annoying.

That same pick-list arrow now drives the menu choices on your Flickr home page. It's meant to simplify the interface, I'm sure, but

How'd they go from slick to lame in one "upgrade"?

I didn't notice any new features from the redesign. The changes I've just described make things harder to use, and they're not balanced by anything that's a pleasant surprise.

Here's someone with more technical beefs about the revamp.

Sunday, April 23, 2006

Guess I won't be using LinkedIn to meet Barry Diller

You never quite know what will come from a longish interview, so it was a fun surprise that the quote Andreas Kluth used in his great survey of participative media (requires sub.) in The Economist this week was my saying "What an ignoramus!" -- about major media mogul Barry Diller.

I don't think Diller's a slouch. His IAC/InterActiveCorp has been busy buying up companies that power transactions on the Net, from TicketMaster and HSN to and LendingTree. They just did a terrific makeover of, formerly the perennial also-ran Ask Jeeves (though I do miss the Jeeves reference). is still in the running, but Evite... I always thought of it as a feature posing as a company, and if you've tried the invite feature built right into Google's new calendar, you'll see what integration does for invites (and events, and more).

But when it comes to media and talent, I put Diller's "there is not that much talent in the world" comment alongside other executive hubris, like AT&T's Ed Whitacre threatening to charge sites for using his pipes. (I can't get over the irony of SBC resuscitating and adopting the AT&T brand. Ouch!)

The thing we tend to forget is that until this Internet thingie came along, an average person could not leave stuff out in the world for many others to find and use. Impossible. Through all of human history.

This remarkable, short period since the very end of the last century is the first time ever that we've been able to share essays, comments, songs, film clips and code with one another. Worldwide. All the time. With very few constraints. It's remarkable and brilliant, a turning point in human history.

Even better, the tools for producing all this stuff now cost a couple thousand dollars, not several hundred thousand. And when you buy a commodity connection to the Net, global distribution comes free.

So of course there will be excesses. People will post junky, goofy things. They will experiment. They will do the most senseless things with the new medium. They will also get obsessive about it, sinking hours and hours into it. No wonder: they can now connect to everyone. It's overwhelming and exciting. And messy.

As they learn the tools, experiment with the forms and invent new ones, we will see the latent talent that exists everywhere.

Perhaps more interesting, their talent won't be constrained by the artificial busines pressures that so constrain "media" today, like the very concept of mass markets.

At a conference about the future of newspapers a half-dozen years ago, I remember a guy from an African-American periodical describe his market as a "niche." If the black American population is a niche, we've got real problems.

I realize this will sound too utopian and "everything will be free"-ish, so let me add that I'm actively involved in creating novel ways for talented people to be rewarded.

It happens that much new media can be produced at low cost, merely for the attention it attracts or the needs it fills. Over time, though, we'll find ways for new media to support promising talent outside the pretty dysfunctional music industry, for example, or the painting scene. The solutions are likely to be authentic and low-cost, with fractal markets built through long-term relationships. But all these things will take a couple decades to materialize.

Till then, I'm betting on an abundance of talent.

Oh, there's also a nice podcast interview accompanying the Economist piece.

Monday, April 03, 2006

Four (friends') terrific conferences

Looks like interesting-conference season is under way.

The first one is under way right now: David Isenberg's Freedom to Connect, in Silver Spring, Maryland. I met David years ago when he invited me to speak at AT&T Research, where he worked when he wrote the milestone essay, The Rise of the Stupid Network.

You can listen to the full conference live, today and tomorrow, by following the links on the conference's home page. There's also a nice real-time chat, which we're watching on a big screen at the front of the room as each speaker talks. Here's the conference schedule.

The next is Shannon Clark's MeshForum, May 7-8 in San Francisco. This is his second-annual collection of interesting people and ideas around networks of all types, including social networks, communication networks, political networks and network visualization. Here's the schedule.

Then comes Andrew Rasiej's Personal Democracy Forum, May 15 in New York City. It seems that every passing year PDF reflects a revamped environment. The tools and infrastructure haven't changed much -- blogs and the Net are roughly what they were three years ago -- but the general awareness and power dynamics seem to change quickly.

Finally, Cecily Sommers' engaging PUSH conference will take place in Minneapolis (at the Walker Art Center, as usual), June 11-13. Every year, I meet fabulous people and hear talks I don't hear elsewhere at Cecily's do. Plus, Cecily shows up in a dress made entirely of newspapers and she invites choruses and street performers in. Very cool. The schedule is here.

So jump in! Many fun people to meet, conversations to have. Schtuff to learn.

Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Go, Goobuntu!

Good Morning Silicon Valley's terrific John Paczkowski reports that Google seems indeed to be working on a desktop OS, "Goobuntu," based on the Ubunto Linux distribution. John points to an interesting screenshot, too.

Despite the fact that Apple's kinda nifty OS keeps evolving interesting features and because of the imminent appearance of Windows Vista, whose principal virtues appear to be better security from viruses and Trojans (as long as you pay up for OneCare) and deep DRM, which is only a virtue for big sellers of Content,
Operating systems no longer matter.

They don't. The desktop metaphor is ancient and tired. The personal productivity tools and environment we all take for granted are ill suited for group work. Web services are looking better and better (though their integration still leaves much to be desired). Connectivity just keeps getting better (though the telcos seem determined to keep us second-rate in order to defend their business models).

There's a great opening now for a legacy-free, Net-savvy, open open open OS that takes advantage of all the MIPS on your average machine to do things quickly for users, rather than ping central servers to check if what you have on your hard drive is "authorized."

The Linux laptop initiatives haven't figured this one out. Archy, Croquet and other initiatives are interesting and may suit some people, but I'd sure like to find something that suits me better than Windoze XP. This year, I may get to experiment with just that. Very exciting.

Oh, it'd be nice if Goobuntu ran on open cellphones, too.

Sunday, January 29, 2006

Email helps link the global brain

In a thoughtful editorial in today's New York Times, Verlyn Klinkenborg describes his addiction to email. Rather than ranting about the email flood, as email volumes these days would justify, he compares it to the postal service and examines how it's all affected his life. I especially like this paragraph:
I think of e-mail as a continuing psychology experiment that studies the effect on humans of abrupt, frequently repeated stimuli often pleasurable, sometimes not, but always with the positive charge that comes from seeing new mail in the inbox. So far, the experiment has revealed, in me, the synaptic responses of a squirrel. It is a truism of our time that we now have shorter attention spans than ever before. I don't think that is true. What we have now are electronic media that can pulse at the actual rate of human thought. We have the distinct discomfort of seeing our neural pace reflected in the electronic world around us.
I often find myself checking for mail when I shouldn't be, because it feels like looking for gifts. Every now and then, little gems drop in there and I get an endorphin rush. I wonder what paths are being reinforced or built in my brain.

In the spirit of lifehacking, it would be useful to have an email client that would honor "office hours" automatically. Finer-grained controls would put only personal messages in front of me during certain periods, or only messages from certain people (related to the A-list task at hand!).

I do know that I'm in better touch over email than ever before with other media. It's overwhelming often, but deeply connecting.

Monday, January 23, 2006

Open content economic conference at MIT

Mary Hodder is blogging live from the TV-centric Economics of Open Content conference at MIT.

Great list of speakers, from Von Hippel (lead users) and Benkler (Coase's Penguin, Sharing Nicely) to Surowiecki (wise crowds) and Anne Margulies of MIT's OpenCourseWare initiative.

Well worth watching.

Saturday, December 31, 2005

My Brain in the Times - a nice start to '06

Jim Fallows, usually an author and writer for the Atlantic Monthly, has long had a column in the New York Times called "Techno Files."

It looks like his job at the Atlantic is getting bigger, so today is his last Techno Files piece. After writing about a Mac collaborative writing tool called NoteShare (here, but not yet unveiled), he mentioned a few things he wishes he'd gotten to in the Times column. One of them is my online Brain. Here's the paragraph:, a site created by the consultant Jerry Michalski, which shows the possibilities that lurk in a program called the Brain. Mr. Michalski has used this program to store everything he has noticed or thought about over the last decade. The results are more intriguing than practical, but intriguing they are. (link)
Not quite sure how the shortcut URL I sent him became the name of my online Brain -- quite possibly an editor's hand in there -- but there it is, a really nice start to 2006 nonetheless.

Tuesday, December 27, 2005

Taking some unexpected points of view

Or, as Sean Savage puts it in his clever post, "context is everything."

Savage's assignment for a UC Berkeley course is to "propose a typology of the functions, origin and duration, size and density of social networks, based upon your own experience."

What's fun is that he plays out "your own experience" from three different and unusual points of view. To wit:
Sean's great synthesis pulls together Dawkins' ideas of the selfish gene, various great works on corporate power and technology run amok, and many more. It also reminds me of how fragile we are, yet how resilient. And how these powerful new forces are reshaping our worlds.

Other perspectives I'd love to see include:
Novel species empathy. A key skill.

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