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Who am I?

You can look at my home page for more information, but the short answer is that I'm a dilettante who likes thinking about a variety of subjects. I like to think of myself as a systems-level thinker, more concerned with the big picture than with the details. Current interests include politics, community formation, and social interface design. Plus books, of course.

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Thu, 24 Mar 2005

Virtual cues
There was one particularly interesting topic at the dinner party which I'll record here so that I hopefully pick up on it later. We were discussing the role of technology-mediated communication such as cell phones and email in our lives. One woman was trying to make the case that we should give up on it, that it was only making our lives shallower and more wasteful, that it wasn't "real" communication. She made the good point that we would never conduct an interview over email, because there's so many cues that you pick up when you're talking to somebody in person. Given how much of my social life I conduct via technology, though, I had to disagree that it was a complete waste of time.

My contention, which I need to develop further at some point, is that we've had centuries to develop our ability to read physical cues. And we can still easily get fooled, because people like con artists take advantage of our trust. I think that we are starting to develop the understanding of cues necessary to make similar distinctions in the virtual world. In the real world, we're well trained to thin-slice and ignore most of the information coming in. I think a few of us in my generation have, and many more in the next generation will have, the ability to effectively parse information online at a preconscious level and ignore big swathes of it to find what we're looking for. I used the example of me versus my mother as far as chain letters and other net dreck - my mom will sometimes forward me stuff that I immediately dismiss as outdated or a scam or something, just because I've been on the net longer and have more experience with understanding what a legitimate email looks like. Or my ability to effectively use google and other online tools to find things in a few seconds that other people can not find in an hour.

We'll also develop better tools for managing our virtual attention - right now, you pretty much have to look at everything in your inbox, but as spam filters get better, we'll find ways to reduce the cognitive load of dealing with computer communications. I think. It's yet another interesting area of exploration for products that would be really useful, even though I don't really have a good picture of what they would look like.

We also discussed how the use of such technologies changes our communication. The difference between writing letters to keep in touch versus an email list, for instance. The letter is good for deep one-on-one communication. The email list is good for shallow group awareness. Is one of these "better" than the other? It depends on your values. I think both have their place. I'm definitely in much better touch with my college group of friends because of various email lists than I ever would have been if I had to write individual letters to all of them. At the same time, I have my core group of close friends who I see regularly, even though some of them live on the other coast.

As somebody pointed out, to some extent, the email lists promoting shallow community awareness are a virtual replacement for the small town community we once had, where everybody was peripherally aware of everybody else's business, thanks to a few gossip-mongers at the general store. Instead of being tied to a physical location, though, these communities are now online, a topic which I started to address in this old post, where I point out that until recently, "the idea of being able to form a community with people who were not geographically co-located with you was laughable."

I guess the point is that communication technology is not good or bad in and of itself. It's how we use it. Certain technologies encourage certain ways of interacting, thank you McLuhan, but we still choose which technologies we use. If I want shallower group interactions, I use an email list. If I want a one-on-one conversation, I use instant messaging or a letter or a phone call or a personal visit. Having more options at our disposal is a good thing in my opinion, so long as we master how to use them effectively. Otherwise we disappear into information overload. And that's where developing better virtual cues to guide us through these virtual communication spaces is a high priority. Hah! Managed to complete the circle and bring us back to where we started!

posted at: 11:22 by Eric Nehrlich | path: /rants/socialsoftware | permanent link to this entry | Comment on livejournal

Thu, 17 Feb 2005

Jamie Zawinski on groupware
Jamie Zawinski posted a rant about groupware yesterday, pointed to by both Clay Shirky at Many-to-Many and Joel on Software. Zawinski is famous for being one of the first employees of Netscape, and then resigning notoriously. His rant about groupware is worth reading, but I'll excerpt the lines that particularly caught my attention here.

So I said, narrow the focus. Your "use case" should be, there's a 22 year old college student living in the dorms. How will this software get him laid? ... instead of trying to build some all-singing all-dancing "collaboration server" where you're going to throw in all kinds of ridiculous line items like bulletin boards and task tracking and other shit, let's suppose you narrow your focus to just calendars.

Given that my thoughts on social software are similar, and my first thoughts about a tool I'd design are similar in scope to the calendar that he suggests, I figured I'd link to his rant as support for my theories.

posted at: 01:52 by Eric Nehrlich | path: /rants/socialsoftware | permanent link to this entry | Comment on livejournal

Tue, 15 Feb 2005

Presence in IM
danah boyd just put up a post about different styles of using IM (instant messaging), contrasting those who use it in an always-on way versus those who turn it on only to talk. It's an interesting reflection on the social cues that people lose when moving to an online world, and how it takes time to train newcomers to the new cues necessary.

One thought I had is that adding more contextual information might help to quicken the learning process. My friend Jofish just published a paper titled Communicating Intimacy One Bit at a Time, where he and his collaborators gave partners in a long distance relationship a piece of software that would light up a software LED on one partner's screen when the other partner clicked a button. The LED's brightness would slowly decay with time, indicating presence.

Perhaps a similar scheme could be implemented for IM, with different colors representing active communication versus presence, with a quick fade from active to passive. Idle time serves a similar purpose, but is perhaps ignored or unseen. Perhaps it's just a matter of making idle time visible and contextual through color to help alert relative IM newbies to social appropriateness. Or perhaps a more active scheme is necessary, with the user indicating their openness for conversation by clicking a button. As one of the post commenters pointed out, there's a wealth of contextual cues we use in real life, from eye contact to body position, to indicate that we want to talk. And such cues are limited verging on non-existent for current instantiations of online communication. I suspect that the people that get this right (and, no, AIM's graphical smilies are not the solution) will sweep the online world (shades of The Black Sun in Snow Crash, where Juanita's virtual facial expression work allowed patrons to "condense fact from the vapor of nuance").

P.S. I commented on the post itself, but figured I'd post here as well because I haven't gotten around to installing MovableType or some other blogging software that supports Trackbacks. Maybe I should just break down and pay somebody to host such software for me.

P.P.S. I actually wrote about five posts last night (Sunday night), but I'll post them one a day this week, which works out well, because it's a concert week so I won't have time to write anything before Saturday anyway. Let me know which method of dispersal you prefer, the single drip mode or the burst mode.

posted at: 02:13 by Eric Nehrlich | path: /rants/socialsoftware | permanent link to this entry | Comment on livejournal

Mon, 14 Feb 2005

What makes a game successful
Just a quick comment on this New York Times article about World of Warcraft.

"It's the difference between an immersive experience and a mechanical diversion," Mr. Metzen said. "You might spend hundreds of hours playing a game like this, and why would you keep coming back? Is it just for the next magic helmet? Is it just to kill the next dragon?

"It has to be the story. We want you to care about these places and things so that, in addition to the adrenaline and the rewards of addictive gameplay, you have an emotional investment in the world. And that's what makes a great game."

This is wrong, wrong, wrong. Absolutely wrong. I'm astonished that a representative of a game company as successful as Blizzard could even say something like this. The thing that keeps people coming back to a game like that is the other people. Period. The only killer app in the history of computer technology is human communication. I was an early player of MUDs, way back when. The games themselves were utterly primitive, text based adventures with simple combat rules. But they were addictive and enthralling because I was interacting with people all over the country. I wasn't a sixteen year old twerp; I was Kamikaze the mighty thief. I earned respect based on my actions in the game, not on who I was in real life.

And, from everything I've heard about the current generation of MMORPGs (massively multiplayer online role playing games), social interaction is still the main attraction. Friends use it for hanging out together. Others use the game as a way of establishing an in-game reputation that they could never achieve in real life. It's not about the story that the game creators write. It's about the story that the players are creating together, the community that they are building. And any game creator that doesn't understand that will get frustrated by why the players aren't doing their uber cool puzzle area. Things never change; wizards on the MUD I used to play on would complain endlessly about the stupid players who wouldn't explore their areas. They didn't get it. It's about delivering to your players what they want. And they want opportunities to create their own story, not play yours.

posted at: 01:28 by Eric Nehrlich | path: /rants/socialsoftware | permanent link to this entry | Comment on livejournal

Thu, 03 Feb 2005

The Internet as a Global Brain
This is a pretty minor observation, but while reading Gonzo Marketing on BART this morning, my brain cross-pollinated some of Christopher Locke's ideas on micromarkets with the ideas of Global Brain, and realized that the World Wide Web maps very well to Howard Bloom's conception of a Global Brain.

Let's review the elements that Bloom suggests are elements of a "collective learning machine":

  1. Conformity enforcers - Google provides this functionality for the Web by making the power law explicit, where "them that has, gets"; in other words, the preeminence of popular websites is reinforced because popular websites are the top results on Google, making people more likely to visit them.
  2. Diversity generators - The Web provides this by making it so easy to start a website of one's own. Everybody can start a blog with Blogger or LiveJournal. If your ideas are interesting, people will start reading, and you can be launched up the power law curve. Look at the extraordinary rise of bloggers like Kos.
  3. Inner-judges - I think this is the flipside of starting a website. If one does not attract a sufficient audience to keep one's interest, one gives up. There are a lot of dead websites and blogs out there. What the necessary level is to sustain interest depends on the person, but if we are not getting the feedback that we desire, we give up (no, this is not a plea for readership :) ).
  4. Resource shifters - There are all sorts of tools for resource shifting on the Web, where attention is the scarce resource. From, to bloggers posting links, to passing emails around, we all tell our friends about web pages that we find interesting. The more people we tell, the more attention a web page receives, until it has risen to the top of the Google ranks, and is the new conformity.
  5. Intergroup tournaments - This is the only element of Bloom's model that doesn't fit very well. Alas.

Anyway, I thought it was interesting that tools like Google and blogging correspond so well to Bloom's model. I'm not sure it means anything, but I thought I'd share the observation.

posted at: 02:18 by Eric Nehrlich | path: /rants/socialsoftware | permanent link to this entry | Comment on livejournal

Sun, 30 Jan 2005

Attention management system
In light of my interest in social software, I'm finally opening up a new category in my blog for it, to separate it out from the people rants.

Of course, this first post isn't actually about social software, except for possibly a bit at the very end. Part of what I'm struggling with right now is that I see this convergence of technology and sociology and even management starting to occur, and I have some intuitions as to where it's heading, but it's all so inchoate that I can't quite nail it down well enough to describe it. I spent a few hours talking with my friend Brad a couple nights ago trying to explain my intuitions, and all it did was make it obvious that I couldn't define even a single specific example of what I wanted to do, and how I wanted to contribute. I think I want to be in that space, but I can't figure out if I should be a tool-builder, a philosopher, a researcher, a writer or an evangelist. I'm probably in the space of being a philosopher-evangelist right now, I guess.

Brad also asked a good question: Where are today's collaborative tools lacking? It's a hard question, because I thought I knew the answer, but when I tried to explain, it turned out to be more elusive than I thought. The best answer I have right now is that today's tools, like pretty much all of software today, makes the user adjust to it, rather than adjusting to the user. Humans are infinitely more adaptable than technology, and so we live with all sorts of inconveniences because it's easier to adapt than it is to fix the problem (there's also an element of conservation of cognitive effort involved).

What would it mean for a piece of software to adapt to its user? It would mean that:

  1. It would be aware of its environment, able to adapt to the ever-changing context that we live in.
  2. It would remember past interactions with the user, and respond appropriately.

Unfortunately, both of these aspects are really hard, and easy to screw up. Let's take the case of Microsoft Word. Its attempt to solve the first condition was the Paper Clip, which would say things like "It looks like you're typing a letter. Would you like me to bring up the letter template?" It was annoying rather than helpful, and everybody I know turned it off as soon as they could. One of Microsoft's attempts to solve the second condition was the contextual menus, where it only displayed the menu options that you used recently. This turned out to be a user interface faux pas, because humans are incredibly good at taking advantage of physical location as a mnemonic, so by switching the menus around dynamically, the software was actually increasing the cognitive effort necessary to use the menus because the user had to read the menu entries each time to find out where things were.

So it's hard. But I'm going to take a stab at a case study to see if I can come up with something better for a really simple application: the to-do list.

Why the to-do list? Part of what I've been doing over the past few months is observing how I use technology. I figure I'm one of the more techno-savvy people around, and therefore technology issues that bug me now will probably become issues that affect the wider population in about two to three years. So I've been examining is how I use tools like email and my Sidekick in my daily life.

One of the interesting things I've observed is that I use those tools in particular as a way of managing my attention queue. When I think of something interesting, or something that I need to do later when I get home, I whip out the Sidekick, send an email to myself, forget about it and go back to what I was doing. Then, later, when I get home, I'll read my email, and be reminded at a time when I can actually do something.

As a side note, one of the elements in play here is the scarcity of attention. We can really only focus on one thing at a time. It could even be said that we're moving towards an attention economy, with supply and demand to be satisfied. So finding ways to manage how our attention is directed is a pretty vital skill, and will become more so as we spend our attention in an ever-increasing number of ways.

I am beginning to think of my attention as a searchable queue, currently managed mostly by email. For instance, when I think of something that I want to write about on this blog, I send myself an email from wherever I am with the word "blog" in the subject line, and a couple line description of the subject. Then, when I've cleared some time to actually write, I search my email inbox for "blog", select among the various ideas depending on my mood, and off I go.

I also use email to keep track of events I'm planning to go to, or web pages I've been meaning to read, or tasks I'm supposed to do. But it's a very crude tool, obviously. I regularly have to go through my ever-growing inbox, trying to remember what I wanted to do. Things fall through the cracks. Obviously, it would be better if I had a tool that would handle this for me explicitly: a technologically-enhanced to-do list.

Some elements of this tool that I think are important:

I think I'm capping it at that because if it's too much of a pain to enter tasks, then I won't use it.

What would the output be? Well, let's examine my current system. In my attempts to just get started, I've been making to-do lists on little scraps of paper with a mix of easy stuff (get a haircut) and long-term stuff (install linux on one of my old boxes). Then when I'm sitting around on a weekend, and decide to get off my lazy butt and do something, I pick up the scrap of paper, glance through it, find something that's of the right scale for what I want to handle, and start on it. The downside is that sometimes I glance at the list, and there's so much to do on it that I get intimidated and don't even get started.

So the interface I think would be interesting would be very simple. The software knows what day it is (in particular, weekend day or not would help distinguish whether it should select tasks that are long or short). It knows where it's being accessed (weekday day I'm probably at work, otherwise I'm probably at home if I'm accessing the software). When I have that nag to do something, I pick it up, hit the equivalent of Google's "I'm feeling lucky" button, and it will give me something to do. A single task, hopefully one appropriate to the situation. I can choose to accept the task, decline without stating a reason, or choose a reason (too long/too short, wrong place).

An interesting corollary of this system is that it will start to sort out my attention queue on its own. Tasks that get rejected every time they're brought up are sent further and further down in priority until they barely pop up at all. If I have a partial completion status, things that are partially completed would be moved towards the top of the stack because I clearly thought it was important enough to start. Things like that.

That would be the main interface paradigm. Then, of course, there would be the various tag-based restrictions, where I say I want a task of a specific type ("I want to write a blog entry"). I would also have the option of getting lists out if desired (e.g. "What errands do I need to run?" or "Show me all of the tasks labelled as quick"). There would also probably need to be a management mode, where I could edit the database of tasks directly, but that's only because I'm a geek.

Anyway. It's a thought. It isn't really social software, though. Why am I putting it in that category, then? Because it describes the approach that I'm interested in taking towards social software:

  1. Figure out a deficiency in what I currently use, in particular by observing what I currently do and the hoops I jump through unconsciously to manage my life and my social interactions.
  2. Figure out what the task is that I'm trying to accomplish that is impeded by that deficiency.
  3. See if I can think of ways to use context and memory and social interface design to deal with the deficiency.

As I mentioned in that first social software post, I think the approach to take is to design simple tools and see what gets used. And since I don't have a willing population to experiment on to determine what they find useful, I guess I'll use myself.

And even simple tools like this can become interesting very quickly if we include the possibility of interaction, of making it truly social software. Imagine a couple that both used this tool with a common database, preferably accessed through a cell phone. There could be joint tasks, or specific tasks. One could be at the store, and get the "shopping" tag list. Then, when the other stopped by the store later on their way home, they would do the same and find out that those items had already been bought.

Or extend it to groups. Imagine a bug tracking system based around this idea for a software group. Or a political organization trying to get out the vote before election day; having experienced the chaos, such a tool would definitely be helpful, if it didn't suck.

All sorts of possibilities. But I'll stop here, because it's a nice day, and Christy just called and invited me to go join her and UBoat for a hike on Mount Diablo.

posted at: 13:38 by Eric Nehrlich | path: /rants/socialsoftware | permanent link to this entry | Comment on livejournal

Links to old posts
I'm starting a new category in this blog on social software, but I wanted to provide links to several old posts that probably would have been filed here if I'd had this category.

posted at: 13:27 by Eric Nehrlich | path: /rants/socialsoftware | permanent link to this entry | Comment on livejournal