Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Auto-Biography, a Conceptual Business Piece on Social Networking, Part II

Combining with MySpace and, I am imagining a website that would be a social networking site disguised as a biography aide. Many older people are now interested in preserving their life stories for future generations. “Vanity” or print-on-demand publishing is practically sustained by these types of storytellers.

The site would take a cue from genealogy sites like the group run by The Generations Network, including and The Generations sites received 10.4 million unique users in March 2007. In about a year, 2.5 million people built out a family tree on detailed genealogical family trees. That 2.5 million people (of which my mom is one) were clearly willing to invest time and effort into building out their histories.

The site would be designed in two stages. The first would be a set of tools that would walk older users through their lives. We’d start basic, extracting information on where the user had lived. Second, we’d have some built-in genealogical tools, possibly linking to existing genealogical applications. For older folks, building out the family social network is probably the most important one of all.

From there, we’d start to extract an organized set of information about what our users had done. Users could select a chronological order to go in and then we’d walk them through their lives, extracting and organizing data all the way. School, work, military, sites of children’s birth, churches/synagogues, summer camps, vacations, prison-time, etc, etc.

Then, within each of those locations/activities, there would be another set of organized questions, mostly memory jogs about people they might have known there. Relationships would begin to be built out there and notes could be added about various bosses, relatives, friends, etc. Pictures could be uploaded and easily tagged. Contact information including the offline stuff would be included.

The deepest ring of auto biography creation would use tools like the ones available on Life of Mine or in any autobiography book to help people add color to their lives. Life of Mine has a database of events and popular culture stuff that can be added to the life story just by clicking on them. Even simple questions like, “What were you doing on your 16th birthday?” or “How did you spend the holidays in 1968?” can go a long way towards bringing memory back to life.

All of this data could be entered and viewed in a variety of ways outside the standard surveys and forms. There’s probably many ways that the organization could be presented, but here’s some ideas:

  • Timeline, not unlike facebook; collapsible through years; media and annotations could be added
  • UserText, users could simply type things in with simple tags (person, place, year);
  • Geographical, the interface would be a map, pictures could be geotagged
  • Visual, which would show the web of relationships, starting with family and extending to people known the longest, although there are infinite ways to sort this information

These applications would have real value for boomers and upwards, who’ve led full lives and have been highly mobile and worked many jobs. It’s a pretty 1.0 idea but it’s important to realize the value in those applications. For the consumer, it is a great organization and memory aid. For the company, they have far more information about the user than other sites. The barriers to exit would be very, very high.

At that point, users could choose to Connect. The point would not be to link to all their friends in two-way relationships. The social networking part of the site would revolve around helping people flesh out their own biographies more than their social networks. While users were browsing other biographies, they could easily add locations, events, cultural events that others had tagged. Users could create “Events” or “Times” which users would their own recollections to and from which they could draw for their own biographies (e.g. Lincoln High School Prom, 1987, the day MLK, Jr was shot, or Woodstock).

Obviously, with users entering so much detail and opinion, access to that information becomes a sticky issue. (On the other hand, it gives us a good opportunity to think about permissioning issues.)

Privacy/permissions settings would allow users enormous flexibility. Certain information would compose the “standard” profile. For information beyond that, there would be an in-depth permissioning process that would allow users to keep birds of a feather together if they wanted to. A user could allow only people from a certain time period and geography to see that time period, geography, or activity. So, for example, all the people I knew in Portland in 2005 could only see items related to that time period. My life since then and in other places would be opaque to them, but people I went to college could perhaps see that time period (or only just college).

I’m sure there are lots of holes and things I haven’t thought of. Tell me all about them in the comments. Am I selling older consumers desire to social network short? Maybe it’s just my mom who is happy having 7 facebook friends, as long as two of them are her two children.

Part III, due this week, will discuss monetization and how the best ads are already embedded in people's minds and memories. |

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Monday, September 24, 2007

Auto-Biography, a Conceptual Business Piece on Social Networking

So, this is a conceptual business piece called Auto-Biography: Social Networking for People Who’ve Really Lived. It could be the beginning of an open source business plan for building a social network for older consumers. Take it, mash it, money it, etc. Just remember to hire me while there are still options available.

By way of explanation and in the style of Craig Damrauer’s New Math: Equations for Living, I offer the following:

Conceptual business piece = (What’s The Big Idea? – Capital) + No further ado

As social networks push out beyond the 14-25 year old demographics, the way that relationships (contacts, friends, associates) are extracted will become of increasing importance. Structuring the input of relationships will become important. Most social networks provide little structure for discovering and entering data about one’s life story.

Notable exceptions are LinkedIn via company networks and job histories, Classmates via high schools, and Facebook via colleges and companies. Note first that these are three of the most widely used networks and second that many people have meaningful relationships that were formed outside of their work and school experiences.

What is missing, really, is a sense of time passing. Facebook and MySpace were designed to capture a right-now social network. But older folks have had and lost friends. People have died. Cities have been moved to and from. They didn’t have children and then they did. And that entire fourth-dimension is missing.

All current social networking attempts to do two things: 1) present an autobiographical sketch via profile, pictures, etc and 2) highlight the “friendships” between these abbreviated people. Almost all social networks have emphasized the second part of the mission, very narrowly defined. The price of that choice is authorial control over one’s narrative. I can’t say that Ed is my friend without him agreeing: two-way connections require that both parties agree. This is difficult when one of the parties is, for example, dead. I can’t even define my relationships beyond simple friendship or non-friendship, “Top friends” excepted.

My guess is that older consumers want more of part 1—autobiography—and less of part 2—showing connections. A conceptual framework for building out the social networks of older people is necessary to make the social internet work for them. We need tools that will allow them to access the crusty memories of yore first, and then allow them to reestablish contact.

A big part of the reason behind sticking to very basic user network extraction tools is that information input requires work on the part of the user. The goal of the process—the profile—is of very little value. It is little more than a glorified name tag with some outlinks to people you know and some “lifestyle” markers. If these are our online representations, they are very reduced and not quite adequate for making a snapshot of a real life.

What if the very building of the profile created value for the user? What if the building out of the profile was practically a single-user application that helped our older consumer organize the information and relationships of their increasingly complex and geographically disparate lives? Then, the time cost of inputting more data into a 2.0 application would decrease.

Stay tuned for Parts II and III this week.

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Saturday, September 22, 2007

When in Rome... The Spring Break Sex Hypothesis

During my self-imposed blog exile, Geoff Manaugh of BLDGBLOG interviewed Mary Beard, Professor of Classics at Cambridge. She had an excellent take on the consumer psychology behind tourism:

We tend to think that tourists are dupes being flogged crap which they don’t realize is crap. Actually, I suspect that most people, like you and I, do realize that it’s crap. The point is to buy crap, because that’s part of what the deal is – that’s the transaction which you’re doing.

I suppose it’s all part of what I’m thinking in general: people are much smarter about their engagement with these places than we often give them credit for. They/we have quite a highly developed sense of what the touristic game is all about. I might be an expert when it comes to the Parthenon, but I go to hundreds of places where I know nothing at all – but I still know what the contract is, between the tourist and the monument.

I heard Steven Pinker on Science Friday last week talking about the linguistic/organizational categories we have for verbs in our brains that help us order the crazy amount of raw information that we encounter. Here, Beard is describing a similar phenomenon. In a world full of dislocated people, artifacts, products, plants, animals, and buildings, we need guidelines for how to interpret the demands placed on us by situations that would have been incomprehensible a few short decades ago.

So, we have a category for the human encounter with the ancient monument within the tourist context, and that distinction allows us to behave and consume in ways that would otherwise not be acceptable. In this case, it tends to loosen our wallets for things that we wouldn’t buy at Cost Plus World Market. Other specialized social situations allow all sorts of novel behaviors. Let’s call this idea the Spring Break Sex hypothesis.

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Thursday, September 20, 2007

A Consumer Wind Turbine in the City

Here’s an article I wrote for GigaOm’s cleantech site, Earth2Tech. It features this residential wind turbine that is mere blocks from my house. Also, it is a block from Sf’s version of Rucker Park. There are mad pickup soccer games during which only Spanish is spoken. Then a block away, you have this wind turbine. Sf is quite a city.

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Monday, September 17, 2007

Ikea and the Middle Road

Since every move anywhere now requires a trip to Ikea, my team braved the Emeryville store on Sunday. Hanging above the gaggles of children, we found the following sign:

Take a careful look at which size is highlighted as the best value: it’s the Regular size, not the Large. In all my years, I’ve never seen an American company NOT promote the largest size as the best deal. Super-sizing encapsulates the normal approach our businesses have taken to sales. Buying more means getting a better deal. Take movie popcorn. For a small bag of popcorn, you pay $4. But for a bucket of popcorn—with 4x the amount of food—the price is only, say, $5.25.

Ikea is bringing a new sensibility to the states: moderation, not volume, as the new best value.

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Tuesday, September 11, 2007

A One Week Break to Move

Sorry caballeros, I'm going to have to take a one week break to move down to the Bay. In the meantime, you can check out my writing over at Wired Magazine's science blog.


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Thursday, September 6, 2007

The Best Sentence

"It was more of a "what’s your favorite color" kind of dialogue, and at one point I turned to my colleague and said, "ok, so ... what should I do here?!" She goes, "Um, ask them if they like pancakes...Tell them to wave if they like pancakes..." and suddenly all these little avatars are waving at me and talking about their favorite foods, springing off in a whole new direction."
from a Ypulse interview with Danica McKeller, who you know as Winnie Cooper from the Wonder Years, but who is also a summa graduate in math from my imagined alma mater UCLA. She's talking about her experience inside the teen virtual world, Habbo Hotel.

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Historically Black College Football

From the world of niche videogames, comes this press release about the November 23rd PC release, Black College Football Experience, from Nerjyzed (En-er-gized! Get it?) Entertainment (via Kotaku):

"Nerjyzed Entertainment, Inc., a privately held, African American owned digital entertainment company, announced today the launch of its new sports videogame, Black College Football Experience... 'Nerjyzed Entertainment was founded by a veteran team whose mission is to create positive interactive products for the urban market,' said Jacqueline Beauchamp, chief executive officer."

Normally we’d be pretty skeptical of this sort of project, marketed as it is at the “urban” audience (what does urban mean anyhow?). But, this is coming from inside the community: the founders “share the distinction of having graduated” from HBCUs and they clearly love them. Nerjyzed Entertainment’s other project is a documentary on the history of the Historically Black Colleges and Universities. With that kind of consciousness, we wouldn’t expect them to fall prey to lame culture marketing like My Black is Beautiful or the former Good Friends cereal.

In fact, CEO Jacqueline Beauchamp addresses just that point on the Nerjyzed website:

"So far, attempts have been made to "target" and "appeal to" the African American market, but these have fallen quite short of being fair and accurate and have relied more on unfortunate stereotypes. Here at Nerjyzed, we aren't looking to "target" or "appeal to", but instead we are simply creating a world -- a world that not one specific, but several varied cultures can enjoy and take part in."

The other key feature appears to be the interactive halftime shows, where players will live out their drum major fantasies. Promotions will include touring 12 Historically Black Colleges and Universities.

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Wednesday, September 5, 2007

The Best Sentence

"A fondness for microwave buttered popcorn may have led a 53-year-old Colorado man to develop a serious lung condition that until now has been found only in people working in popcorn plants."
Via an excellent NYT article on the issue.

Can we reflect on the state of a society wherein there are diseases peculiar to our popcorn manufacturing plants? This is, literally, a niche illness, caused by inhaling the chemical (diacetyl) that we call "butter flavoring."
Heated diacetyl becomes a vapor and, when inhaled over a long period of time, seems to lead the small airways in the lungs to become swollen and scarred. Sufferers can breathe in deeply, but they have difficulty exhaling. The severe form of the disease is called bronchiolitis obliterans or “popcorn workers’ lung,” which can be fatal.

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The explanation for going dark...

My new home base, in Sf's Mission District. It's beautiful. And there is a sweet Abuelita downstairs and the incredible Mexican restaurant Pastores just down the street.

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Monday, September 3, 2007

A Community of the Advertised To: Helio

Via Jossip, we hear that, “Of Vogue’s 840 pages, 727 are ads, or: 13 percent is editorial.” But of course what you’re paying for is ad selection. And let’s be honest, in a lot of these magazines, the ads are at least as “editorial” in the sense of expressing an opinion or point of view.

A great example is Helio’s amazing pull-out ad booklet, The Mobile User’s Guide To: THE NEW SOCIAL ETIQUETTE. You can grab the pdf or find it in Wired’s September issue.

It’s not an ad in the traditional sense. There is almost no information about Helio’s products. Instead, they are pitching a way of seeing the world. The booklet is a pocket worldview for a particular age and class. The key is the last page, the “About the Authors”:

“Helio is a group of like-minded individuals dedicated to connecting people better than ever before.”

This ad is about creating (the illusion of) community (i.e. Like-minded individuals connecting). To join this community, you get the jokes and have the experiences. Probably the best page is The Pie Don’t Lie:

This ad assumes that you or the like-minded individuals you know A) work in an office B) have crushes on “hot coworkers” with whom you go to happy hour C) have one-night stands D) have experienced or imagined experiencing the loss of one’s drawers in this process E) Use MySpace extensively F) Have a stockbroker G) Who is sort of an ahole and hard to get a hold of H) Have good English grammar I)Have healthy enough disrespect for authority to appreciate intentionally bad grammar …

Remember, this is advertising a freaking phone and this is the set of assumed experiences explicitly referenced. This ad certainly defines a young, cool niche. But do people really care that their phone company (sorry, “mobile services provider”) recognizes their hipness?

The booklet is just one piece of the campaign. Their 2.ish HelioSocial allows users to post their own “rules” for dating, college and the office, which are rated on a DIS-DIG scale. Personally, we liked College Rule #39, “Read the rules before posting a new rule!!! I get it. Headset on all day=tool. But is it necessary to post it 20 times?!?!?! Jesusinapinktutudoingthepolkachrist!!”

Ah, the hazards of user created content. It turns out that a group like-minded individuals all have the same, like, minds.

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Sunday, September 2, 2007

The 4 Modes of Shopping

Via Effect Measure at Science Blogs, we spotted this Nielsen Shopper Modality Study on supermarket shopping habits. Basically, the researchers schematized the way people shopped into four modes, each of which are associated with a certain group of products. A summary table:

Shopping Mode

Products Associated

Brand Entrenchment*


Coffee, hot cereal, cheese, margarine, bottled water, mayo, nuts, popcorn, sodas, cold cuts



Cookies, salad dressings, chewing gum, salty snacks, breakfast bars, frozen desserts, candy, frozen dinners



Ready-to-drink teas, smoothies, sports drinks, energy drinks, chocolate


Bargain Hunting

Tuna, canned tomatoes, canned fruit, pasta sauce


*A ConsumersConspicuous judgment based solely on this study

Of course, Nielsen is a company that thrives on advertising and our patented Hidden Agenda Sensor went off when we read this:

The Nielsen Shopper Modality Study also revealed that some categories are often over-promoted, since manufacturers continually offer in-store deals and promotions even though some product categories are not bargain-driven.

"Consumers choosing sports drinks aren't looking for a bargain. In-store deals for these products go largely unnoticed. Marketers would be better off redirecting their wasted promo dollars to investing in advertising and new product introductions," said Khandelwal.

That is to say, don’t pass money on to retailers/consumers, spend it on advertising that Nielsen can make money measuring. Still, it’s a worthwhile lens to have at your disposal when looking at the mass supermarket experience.

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Mexicans love the grilling

Over at Mi blog es tu blog, we find the following excellent consumer datapoint about Hispanic meat-over-fire consumer habits:
U.S. Hispanics own more charcoal grills than non-Hispanics: 76% compared to 50%.
We can thank the grillmakers, Weber, for commissioning the Hispanic GrillWatch Survey, whence this stat came. Maybe that's why you can buy such a sweet Raiders grill cover.

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Saturday, September 1, 2007

My Black is Beautiful, but My Hat is Funny

Continuing with the marketing to the brown peoples of America meme we’ve had going on the past few days, we can’t overlook Proctor & Gamble’s My Black is Beautiful campaign. But we’re a bit suspicious of big corporations doing apparently good stuff. Especially when they feature rhyming lines in the web commercial like, "Whether natural from the inside or skillfully applied, my black is beautiful." Doesn’t P&G normally promote the American Platonic Ideal of the straight blonde haired woman? So how is this new campaign going to change what they normally do? The probing BlackWomb blog had some good commentary:

In addition to an online ad campaign, will Procter and Gamble use more Black women (of all shades) in their television and print advertisements? Will Black women be used to advertise products to the general public or just products targeted to Black people? Will P&G pull its support from networks that promote negative images and stereotypes of Black women? Will P&G put its money into national public exposure for "My Black is Beautiful" in a way that drastically changes the way media operates?

Maybe the last question is a bit too much to ask of a single ad campaign by a single corporation, but the rest are valid queries. And we think that the "action grants" P&G is offering are probably a pretty good indication of how serious they are:

Procter & Gamble has issued $50,000 in My Black is Beautiful action grants this year to community-based organizations dedicated to the health, education and empowerment of African-American girls. Action grant recipients include the W.E.B. Dubois Society, GirlSpirit-Women Song Inc., and Urban Academy.

Well, this is a company with $8,700,000,000 in income on $68,222,000,000 in revenue, so that's 0.00057% of income and 0.00007% of revenue that P&G has generously dedicated to the "health, education, and empowerment of African-American girls." Those are the types of numbers Wall Street likes to see.

(As for the picture, you're looking at actress Victoria Rowell (left) and Procter & Gamble's Associate Director of Multicultural Marketing, Najoh Tita-Reid.)

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It's football season: let the hyperbole begin!

Football, and UCLA sports in general, are my touchstone for irrational consumerdom. Caring about ultimately meaningless things is basically the condition of our times. Still, big fan, I can admit that sometimes love of the game gets to weird levels. In Fox Sports Network's broadcast of the my beloved UCLA Bruins' game against Stanford, Jim Harbaugh, the Cardinal’s new coach actually said this:

"I will approach this endeavor with an enthusiasm unseen by mankind."

Only a football coach can say something like that with a straight face. He went on to detail that he doesn’t take vacations, doesn't "get sick," and observes "no major holidays."

And in honor of tough football guys, here are the Chicago Bears doing the early hiphop classic, the Super Bowl Shuffle:

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