Unraveling Obfuscation

ob fus cate – 1. to confuse, bewilder, or stupefy 2. to make obscure or unclear

Archive for July, 2008

Will FriendFeed be the next FriendFeed?

Posted by Todd McKinney on July 6, 2008

The reason I ask this question is that nobody can argue with the premise by saying “NO! They’re different!”. There’s a lot of discussion going on lately about “service x” is the “service y” killer, or I’ve got 95,000 followers on “service z” in just two days (63.23% of service x after 10 years), etc… Some of these questions seem interesting, some of them pointless, and still others are just a silly cry for attention.

The common denominator

image In nearly every case when some web service is being compared to another there is always someone, and often multiple someone’s, who jump into the discussion and expose the truth that the two things are in fact different. Often, this pronouncement seems to be made in a tone that implies the discussion should just end now because the answer has been found. No point in continuing. Quite similar to finding the rosetta stone with the number 42 prominently chiseled on it, we now know that the question was pointless because someone just figured out that Twitter != del.icio.us.

What’s really going on

There is a fairly useful idea that is often employed in analysis that is called “compare and contrast”. It is a way that humans can recognize patterns, extrapolate functionality, and synthesize ideas. Consider it to be the same thing as a thought experiment. In order to get value out of a question such as this, the items being compared need not be identical. In fact, if they were identical THAT would be a reason to quit talking about it. I mean really, WILL Google be the next Google? They have feature parity, and the exact same user base, and they even share a URL. Yes, I can say with reasonably high confidence that Google has a great shot at being the Google of tomorrow. Have either of us learned anything from that? I doubt it.

Consider something that has nothing to do with technology. Take apples and oranges. Lots of folks use this one to imply that you’re comparing something that can’t be compared. But what if? What if an orange had a skin like an apple, that didn’t taste disgusting, and was easy to bite through? It would be something else, neither orange nor apple, but it might be something I would want. That is the point of all these compare and contrast questions – it’s like “fusion” cuisine and it’s one of the easiest ways to come up with something new. Take two things that are not the same and combine the best of both. Do you like what you ended up with?

Here are some technology examples of the same kind of thing. When Steven compares Twitter to Windows, I learn something. It gives me a perspective that I can immediately grasp, and it’s an angle I hadn’t considered. When Alan Stern discusses a missed opportunity by del.icio.us, it immediately resonates with me. I remember the potential that service had. Thinking about how I use friendfeed today leads me down the path of “what could del.icio.us have done to get me there with their service?” Would it look different than friendfeed? Probably. Can I learn something by connecting the dots? You bet.

STOP IT – I know they’re different

In an appropriately subtle way, I would like to suggest a simple 12-step program for those that feel compelled to enlighten the world that an egg is really not a baseball. The first few steps go something like this:

1. Admit that you have a problem.

2. When the urge to point out that the letter “R” is not even remotely like the letter “V”, give other people a little credit. A blind cat could figure that out.

3. Take 10 deep breaths and step away from the keyboard.

…additional steps as appropriate to get to 11

12. Once you’re OK, come back and say something useful.


All right, you people can really say anything you want. Freedom of speech and of expression are valuable stuff. I just wanted you to know how it comes across when I see it.


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Under new management

Posted by Todd McKinney on July 3, 2008

I’ve probably been reading Seth Godin’s blog for too long. I’m starting to notice the marketing messages in common stuff that people usually ignore. Yesterday I drove by a convenience store that had a really large yellow banner with three big words that they really want the world to know. The sign read:



Now I’m sure that someone thought this would be a pretty compelling message, but when I read this I thought “what are they trying to say?”. My interpretation is this:

DELI – we’ll go broke if you just buy gas. Come inside and spend some money on high margin stuff. We’d hire a dancing bear if it would make you come in the store.

NEW MANAGEMENT – the people that used to run this place were completely incompetent. We’re a lot better, so forget anything that ever happened here that was a bad experience.

imageI don’t really have a problem with the “buy more stuff” pitch. That’s just market-driven capitalism and I wish them the best of luck selling sandwiches. The really odd thing to me is that if the primary feature that you want to promote about your business is that the people who used to be in charge have left, either the previous management created a horrific train wreck, or you don’t really have much to promote.

This message may be helpful in some extreme cases, but to me it almost seems like the nuclear option in promotion. Hunting around on Flickr, it does seem to be a fairly common message.


photo credit Robyn Gallagher

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Home is where you park your RV

Posted by Todd McKinney on July 3, 2008

The background

I haven’t been writing much except for code, documentation and email lately. One of the things that I’ve thoroughly enjoyed reading during this quasi-hiatus is Alexander van Elsa’s most excellent blog with the really long name: Alexander van Elsas’s Weblog on new media & technologies and their effect on social behavior (that’s how it shows up in Google Reader, anyhow). Alexander’s writing works for me for a number of reasons:

  • I’m a sucker for long-form blogging. This is kind of anti-schizophrenic-2.0 in concept, but I think most things worth talking about can’t be fully described in 140 characters. I’d rather spend twenty minutes thinking about something substantial than flitting to 30 web sites and speed-scanning 1,000 rss entries doing pattern matching looking for something good.
  • As a requirement for #1, the whole thing only works if you have something to say. Alexander brings a perspective and depth to his writing that I find engaging.
  • He comes highly recommended by at least one cranky blogger. As Steven appropriately pointed out in his respect post, finding someone you can learn from is something of a treasure.

All of that was a really long-winded lead in to the thing I’ve spent some time pondering the past couple of days. In the first post in his current series, Alexander goes on a bit of a thought experiment regarding the human factor. The first point is that openness will inevitably triumph over the walled garden, but we will still need some place on the web to call “home”. We’re left kind of wondering about what that will be. I want to find out.

Home is…


Everyone knows that home is where the heart is. There may be some real truth to that, but it’s not real helpful in painting a picture of the way we will navigate the social web of the future. I did a search on the term “home is”, and got some interesting results.

  #1: Wikipedia – A home is a place of residence or refuge. Didn’t even need to visit. The google summary was enough.

  #2: seti@home – That’s kind of ominous.

then, a bit further down, I come across the title for this post: http://homeiswhereweparkourhouse.com/. Similar to the snail picture that I found on flickr, these folks take “home” with them when they travel around. This approach seems to have some advantages, and I think it may have some parallels in the way we view “home” online.

To get a little more specific about what I think about when we’re talking about our online home, here are a few different things that combine together and help define our “place of residence or refuge”:

  • a launching point
  • a statement of who we are
  • a place to have friends visit

Launching Point

This is part of what we consider to be home. It’s the place we leave to go navigate around the world, it’s familiar and comfortable and we know how to find things from here. Google kind of works in this role, but it feels kind of generic. That may be a bit of the idea behind iGoogle, where you can move the furniture around a bit. The thing is, though, there’s not just one place like this. Today’s social web leads to a navigational style that’s a lot like staying in every house in the subdivision while you’ve got a room at the Hilton and the Motel-6 (reference to MySpace, obviously) and have construction started on four different houses in different cities and you’ve moved in to your friend’s cool new boat to see what that would be like. Twenty open browser tabs and a couple of Adobe AIR apps later, when you’re browsing around trying to decipher the difference between a “digg this” badge and “shovel this” and “drop kick this” and “trip on this” and on, and on – you just have to think there’s a more sane way to navigate and share stuff. Has to be.

We seem to be building control panels like FriendFeed to solve the problem, but it’s funny how quickly the idea becomes like one of those Russian doll things. This joke pretty much sums up how difficult it seems to be to own that one essential service that is home for finding stuff. All that navigational home base variety abounds, and we haven’t even talked about “normal” aggregators. Google Reader, FeedDemon, RSS Bandit, etc… These things are also important pieces of the navigational puzzle. There is still a lot to be done here, as the current tools are fulfilling about 5% (swag – margin of error ~90%) of their true potential. One really important function that has been envisioned but I don’t think I’ve seen implemented, is that this tool needs to prioritize the things that I find important. Must be because it’s a hard problem.

Statement – This is ME

Another thing that defines home for us web dwellers is some kind of structure that people can drive by and use to make judgements about us. What neighborhood we live in, whether we mow the lawn often enough, what kind of cars are out front – you know the drill. This is probably less nebulous than the home base concept above, but there are still a lot of options. Am I mostly defined by what shows up in Google, or my blog, or stuff I say on FriendFeed, or Twitter, or comments that are splattered across the web with my name on them (including even the ones I authored), or…

Well, it’s not perfect, but it does seem a little less confusing and a lot harder to change. It does seem to be a bit telling that there is a growth industry in image consulting/personal marketing/seo just to help people present the “this is me” picture in the best possible way. I can’t imagine what my kids are going to have to go through to get a job.

Gathering Place

This is an essential function of a real-world home. More and more, it seems to be a function of our virtual home(s) as well. I was intrigued by the reasons that Hutch gave for switching his home page. The reasons all seem to boil down to “the content is better (and it’s not slow)”. As we shift from the free-for-all world of forum posts and blog comments to an environment where we only hear the people we find interesting, it starts to feel a lot more like my living room and a lot less like a trip to the mall. Interestingly, in the process we get a lot closer to a launching point that knows what I want to see. Rather than doing some wickedly difficult statistical modeling of my reading habits, filtering the source to people I find interesting is a pretty good start. A big difference between blog aggregation (which is also “interesting person” filtered by definition) and FF/Twitter activity streams is the amount of effort that has to go into interacting. This is the secret sauce that makes both of these services so compelling. It’s not about gathering data from rss feeds in one place. That’s a simple problem and easily solved. Friction-free interaction is the big draw. As much as I’m a proponent of spending 20 minutes reading a blog post, or an hour writing one, I don’t really always have the time. The time and effort bar is just so much lower for Twitter and FriendFeed that it’s not a fair comparison. Ultimately, if this is about having conversations, then these “short form” venues seem a lot more like a conversation to me.

Mobile Phone, Mobile home

While pondering this stuff during my commute for a couple of days, I came to the conclusion that we’re really heading towards a future that gives us the ability to communicate with people in really intelligent ways. We should be able to get feedback from people directly without the hard interrupt of a phone call. It will be a system that travels with us, and knows who we are in some significant sense. Going down this path led me to the inevitable “but what would make this mainstream” questions. It’s easy for people who are always glued to a laptop, but what about all the normal people who seem to be everywhere and don’t really spend much time on the web? It’s just so blindingly obvious that I wish I didn’t spend so much time thinking about it. Normal people already have this. It’s SMS. It’s a multi-billion dollar industry. It isn’t the pittance of data transfer that’s important. It’s that for most people their cell phone is “home” and it’s their social network, and it fulfills all the stuff I just spent so much effort typing about. This definitely falls into the category of I knew that, but I don’t think I realized how important it was until I really spent some time thinking through it.


photo credit SantaRosa OLD SKOOL

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