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May 14, 2015

Preaching to Our Choirs and Setting Up Blinders for All Else

Just about four years ago, Eli Pariser raised some very real flags about the "filter bubble", concerned that many of us on the Web were limiting our viewpoints by following those people and companies with whom we were most aligned. Our personal positions on politics, sports, and yes, even technology, have us in a constant state of affirmation seeking, and the desire to be part of a group of like-minded people, to reinforce our position and strengthen our decided upon beliefs, that we just might be right. And should somebody in our streams disagree with us, or launch into an off topic rant, we can easily unfollow them, and "clean up" the channel.

At the time, thanks to tools like my6sense, where I was an advisor, and later VP of marketing, I said the filter bubble was "not bad" as options were always there to see new voices. While my6sense may not have been a massive consumer success, it was amazingly smart tool that solved the problem for me. But in the ensuing time, it's become even more clear that people, through constant following and unfollowing on our many social networks, are growingly subscribed to homogenous streams, and the content creators, be they bloggers, Tweeters, photographers or anything else, are limiting the subjects they discuss, to continue feeding the faithful.

As someone who gained a following talking about tech, new tools and communities, I've staked my position on the Web as an early adopter, a cloud proponent, a measurement advocate, and engaged social media participant. I have a pretty good idea of what topics will resonate with my audiences on the various streams, and what won't. I know that my discussing items outside of my bubble are seen as noise to those who have chosen to follow me, and they vote with their engagement, or lack of it.

More than nine years ago, shockingly, I saw this coming, when I talked about a Web divided, where people who espoused a certain view would flock toward an extreme community and not be interested in the opposite view. But it goes beyond picking a side in a discussion. What's happened is that people set up blinders to avoid discussion of anything else - including the content creators themselves.

There's a lesser-used feature in TweetDeck, which enables you to view a Twitter stream through the eyes of another user, surfacing public tweets from accounts they follow. During the Baltimore riots, while a huge portion of Twitter's audience was living through the accounts through the news media, or sharing their experiences about race and police, the Silicon Valley tech bubble largely stayed silent, as if there were two different worlds that didn't connect. I could log in to TweetDeck and pick any prominent voice in tech and see that, in their streams, there was no talk of Baltimore. Or race. Or Ferguson. While people marched in the streets, and dodged rocks or tear gas, the digerati continued to talk about who was raising money, the quality of pitch decks, or complaints about housing prices in San Francisco.

My tweets about Baltimore arresting police offers or links to why the situation exploded in the first place went unnoticed - while the streams continued to debate the future of wearables or the latest entrant into Unicorn status as a billion dollar startup. It was more than an echo chamber. It was a wind tunnel. And my daily journey into Feedly seemed to be no different than any other time. The same articles were written by the same people, about the same things. The same headlines begging you to click were thrown out there, only to be reshared and retweeted in a rush for page views.

Oh. I see you're tweeting about something that's not tech.

Maybe we've grown fatigued of outrage. Maybe there have been enough dramas and disasters and disappointments that we just don't react publicly. But I think there's more to it. We have been taught, thanks to our constant focus on engagement and numbers, that we have to speak to a niche. VCs talk to VCs. Engineers talk to Engineers. Startups talk about being a startup. We're becoming afraid of expressing a position that may cause a debate. We're refusing to talk about things that are uncomfortable, and we're closing our eyes to people who don't always care about the things we do. And I think that's dangerous. It sets us up to further carve out our cliques and become closed minded.

I mildly apologize for the irregular posts here of late. But part of the reason, beyond being busy, or focused on other things, is I don't want to be more of the same. The world is a vibrant tapestry, not monochrome, and I don't want to be the thirty-second person to talk about the same things everyone else is. We should embrace a world focused on curiosity, not compliance.

March 09, 2015

FriendFeed's Closure Another Painful Loss from a Vibrant Era of Social Media

Amidst all the Apple watch hoopla today, FriendFeed's blog announced the long-ignored social networking pioneer was finally going to be taken out back behind Facebook's brilliant new campus and be put down for good. With the network's acquisition five years behind us in the rear view mirror, and user statistics consistently down, mothballing the once unique and vibrant community seemed only a matter of time, and the time has come.

The closure will be by no means without pain. For the many people who made the site their center for capturing their updates around the Web, from the simplest status and debates to photos, there have been no hints at data migration or export. The hilarious threads with friends around the world are going to disappear. The instantaneous celebrations we had when my children were born, and the despair we felt when friends passed away and were mourned will be deleted.


While the Web may have moved on, those of us most loyal to the service remember its pioneering excellence, with near-instant aggregation and publishing, near-perfect uptime, still completely unmatched advanced search capabilities, the introduction of the now universal Like button, topical "Rooms" much like the Groups or Communities of today's networks, and ability to act as a hub for your lifestream, sending the right updates to the right places immediately.

Facebook's 2009 announcement of acquiring FriendFeed clearly spelled good news for the small and elite team working at the company, but pretty much spelled bad news for those who preferred it to what have clearly been the eventual winners in Facebook and Twitter. Some elements of FriendFeed made their way into Facebook, but there really hasn't been anything like it since. (Google Buzz came close, but that's a different story)

A Discussion Last Month on FriendFeed Still Got Tons of Discussion

The Social Web's picture in 2008 and 2009 was dramatically different than it is today. Twitter was as known for its uptime issues as for its core functionality. Facebook was obviously on a fast ramp to going public, Google Reader was the starting point for reading the Web's updates via RSS, and we were all looking for smart aggregation sites to discuss the Web's happenings with friends.

Flash forward, and Google Reader (RIP) and FriendFeed are in the bin, aggregation is no longer a thing, and the hottest discussions are around good looking filter apps or private networks with disappearing content. It makes one feel a little gutted to have invested in networks that felt a little bit smarter and were designed for smart consumption and discussion, rather than a flight toward the lowest common denominator.

Any ranting on my part to rescue my photos and posts and content from FriendFeed is a guaranteed moot point, and will fall on deaf ears, no doubt. While Google led the way with the Data Liberation project, and even Facebook and Twitter have archives you can download and take with you, FriendFeed has never made that step, and I'd be stunned if they would surprise us now. And while we're saying goodbye to conversations that used to spawn hundreds of comments and likes in the matter of minutes, it's almost as if we should feel lucky we squeezed out a few more years of engagement after the acquisition, when so many other products disappear immediately after getting bought.

Sigh.

If you were part of the active community that made FriendFeed special in those wide-eyed years, you experienced something I've never seen with any community since (with occasional flashes on Google+ and Twitter being exceptions). If you missed it, then you missed out on seeing one of the most talented teams ever assembled working on something that was both fun and smart. And that story's final chapter is coming without us ever getting the happy ending we were hoping for. I'm not mad, just wistful at what might have been.

Long live FriendFeed.

February 23, 2015

YouTube Kids: Smart, Mobile First, and Child Sized.


In December, I wrote about viewing technology through the eyes of a child. As much as I think of myself as an early adopter and 'with it' net citizen, I'm equally amused and amazed at the activities my own kids rapidly learn and partake in when it comes to technology and the Web, how things and concepts once considered the future are commonplace. And their eyes, unvarnished by the way things have always been, highlight shortcomings in our software and websites that historically have been designed for fully literate adults on the desktop.

I've been particularly excited to watch (and trial) YouTube Kids as it has been developed, and have been eager to see it launch today, the collective effort of sharp colleagues like +Shimrit Ben-Yair+Pavni Diwanji+Jonathan Terleski and many more. As they wrote in today's blog post, the new YouTube Kids is "the first Google product built from the ground up with little ones in mind." As a dad of three kids six and under, two of whom who read fairly well and a third just trying to keep up, it's exciting to see them become the focal point for an entirely new interface.

The YouTube Kids Music channel.

My children, from a young age, have been surrounded by touch-enabled tablets. They expect my laptop (and in the case of my Chromebook Pixel, accurately) to be touch-enabled. They use voice search constantly to find what they're looking for, and they essentially expect the world's content to be immediately available. But they tire quickly when apps and sites don't do what they want. That can result in complaints to me, or even a thrown tablet or two from a tantrum.

Without sounding too much like PR-speak, from my own experience, I've seen the YouTube Kids app to reduce any surprises from me in terms of what my kids are watching, they more easily navigate the app, find channels and shows they want, and generally are pleased to have something made just for them.

Browsing shows on YouTube Kids

If you haven't yet tried it out (download on Google Play or iTunes), the app features curated channels, a music area, a learning section, exploration, and the always handy search button. So the colors are bright, the buttons are bigger, and there's no noise in the way.

Browsing the PBS KIDS channel on YouTube Kids

The true measure of whether an app for kids is working is whether the kids ask for it by name, or keep using it instead of getting bored and trying something else. My four year old boy is quick to use the app on my Nexus 9 or Nexus 6, and the twin six year olds are quickly getting used to the new app after lots of their own experience on the standard YouTube app we've all used.

Searching for Minecraft on YouTube Kids

Lucky for us parents who do our best to stay on top of their digital explorations without trying to be overbearing, YouTube Kids makes searching less of a risk. My kids won't go from a G rated topic to an R rated one in a few clicks. Searching for Minecraft (which happens in my house) turns up solid results. And I can even set up the app to run for a certain amount of time before closing, to be used for incentives, or a late evening treat before bed.

Setting YouTube for Kids' timer for 30 minutes

At the risk of my once more vibrant blog to be turned into a daddy blog, the quick summary is that this app is a welcome addition to our tablets and phones. Netflix's Kids only channel is smart. YouTube Kids is smart. The next generation is growing up with smart devices everywhere. What they do with them is largely prodded by what we make possible. Thanks YouTube!

Disclosures: I work for Google, and YouTube is a Google subsidiary.

January 12, 2015

Adult Problems Stink. I Blame Drew's Cancer. #BlameDrewsCancer


I quickly glossed over it during my first post of the year, when I said "Adult problems can be a real pain," but I'd be skirting around some big issues if I didn't go deeper on some very real drama that in years past would see me aggressively pounding the drum to draw attention to their pain, hoping to rally others to their cause. But as I get older, and, as a result, my friends do too, struggles with health, family, work or finance are hardly isolated - making it somewhat selfish to choose one cause against another. And that sucks.

Nearly five years ago, +Drew Olanoff, one of the best friends my family has ever had, was diagnosed with Hodgkin's Lymphoma. He, along with +Mike Demers and others, launched the #BlameDrewsCancer phenomenon, blaming all the world's ills on his cancer. A year after, we were delighted to learn Drew had been declared cancer free. We'd always expected a full recovery, and it was a relief to hear the doctors say so.

My best buddy Drew with my kids in late 2008 and 2009.

But, as most of you who follow my social streams know, Drew's cancer is back. And while I'm hopefully optimistic again (as is he), I'd be lying if I didn't say we're both worried. Cancer is no joke. This time around, Drew is older, and a bit more fatigued. He needs to use his energy to fight the cancer (again) and doesn't need the weight on his back of every cancer story that doesn't have a happy ending.

Before Christmas, I took my two boys up to San Francisco to see Drew in the hospital, where he was getting ready for a round of chemotherapy. The trip was done quietly, as Drew, at the time, hadn't told the world his cancer was back. But my kids gave Drew their handmade cards, exchanged hugs, and we did what we could to let Drew know how important he is to our family, and that we're on the same team.

Matthew and Braden in SF after seeing Drew in December.

But Drew's not the only one with a challenge and raising the rally flag for him does something of a disservice to other friends who are fighting their own demons, cancer included. +Adam Singer and I visited +Justin Levy at Citrix before the end of the year, seeing how he's progressing after being diagnosed with a brain tumor and two broken shoulders, fractured in a dramatic seizure. Search marketing and analytics blogger +AJ Kohn is also undergoing chemotherapy treatment, and +Sid Burgess has had his own round with cancer. 

Summary: Cancer sucks and it isn't just picking on one guy and I hate it.

And cancer's not the only demon working to make friends' lives unhappy. My colleague +Julia Ferraioli has been sacked with an array of issues over the last year plus that have turned her life upside down. My colleague Ken Norton lost his son to childhood heart disease, and in June, when I read Eric Meyer's story about losing his daughter, I was nearly in tears, dumbly staring at my Nexus 7 and going through her Flickr archive to better know the life that was cut short too soon.

Comparatively, my life is pretty darn good. Family is healthy. So far, the bills are getting paid (even though it's not easy), and most of our struggles are simply getting the kids to be obedient, or dealing with car and tech issues. But I'm thinking about it. Don't get me wrong. I am worried about Drew this time, and he is scared too. He should be.

But every time I see a friend, be it Drew or Sid or Julia or Justin, ask the world for help, I see the world answer strongly with a Yes. And that's what's so impressive about our hyperconnected planet now. I feel I really know these friends who I don't see every day. I can feel their pains and champion their successes, root for their wins and console them on losses. When Drew put the weight of the world on his back in 2009, he didn't take enough time to take care of himself. As his friend (and a friend to many of you), I can say if you are struggling, you should know you're not the only one. Ask others to help distribute the pain. We can't make it go away, but you can know we care and we will help you fight.

If you want to help Drew, consider signing up as a bone marrow donor with BeTheMatch or Blame Drew's Cancer for your own issues. And if your heart was broken by the loss of Riley Norton, as mine was, you can donate to Camp Taylor, as we did with our FitBit100k challenge. Good luck to all of us in 2015.