Sweets by Dan Weingrod

I haven’t had a chance to read the “Information Diet” by Clay Johnson yet or listen to the webcast over at O'Reilly Community, but what I’ve been hearing about this book and its unique approach to dealing with the onslaught of information we all face sounded interesting. So when I did catch this brief interview with him I was struck by something I had missed in other reviews and discussions of the book.

Towards the end of the interview Johnson talks less about his core theme of our responsibility to control our own digital consumption, which he likens to the obesity and diabetes epidemic, and more about the fact that its the feeding the social media beast collectively dumbs us down. The problem, as he sees it, is that the more we consume and especially “like” or share sugary content, (Snooki, kittens, you name it), the more we feed the Facebook algorithm and create a self – fulfilling prophecy for an all sugar all the time diet.

What’s interesting about this line of reasoning is that more often it seems that the main criticism of social Web content has been the whole “the internet makes you dumber” version expressed by books such as “The Shallows” and others. The problem with this kind of criticism is that, while it always had some merit, it also comes with a whiff of cultural elitism that I find very hard to accept.

What’s different here is that Johnson’s problem is less with the content and more  with the fact that through the frictionless support of “liking” and re-tweeting we’re ending up simply feeding the algorithms that end up building up the fire hose of high fructose corn syrup content that confronts us every day. This sweet stuff dominates our what we see online and can become a barrier to consumption of the more nutritious stuff that we know is there.  The ease of liking, which frankly is about signaling that you’ve got a pulse than projecting value, has really become another way of injecting pink slime additive into the protein of what could be useful content. And brands, of course, do the same thing when they get into the practice of buying “likes”. Johnson’s point is that there has to be a way to stop, or at least temper, this insatiable self-defeating machine.

His suggestion seems to be to develop an approach to information akin to dieting. Make sure to understand what’s nutritious and avoid the high carb high sugar stuff. But another approach to this issue comes from Matthew Ingram at GigaOm in a post about alternatives to newspaper paywalls. In thinking about alternative options he talks about a reverse method suggested by Jeff Jarvis and by the Guardian’s open journalism model.  In this “velvet rope” model the idea is that more active contributors and commenters would get more of a benefit:

 So instead of just hitting a wall after a certain number of stories, readers who contributed comments or moderated the comments of others — or provided other forms of useful data or labor — might get a benefit that others wouldn’t, whether it’s access to certain content or an invitation to a real-world event they might be interested in.

The problem with frictionless sharing, which admittedly is not going away, is that it builds its content stream by encouraging minimal signaling. Perhaps by tweaking the algorithm a bit more heavily for comments, (which I’m sure Facebook already does already), or figuring out a mechanism to encourage and reward comments beyond simply “likes”, we might be able to purge a bit of the fast food content we have to wade through every day.  While its easy to imagine practicing a diet of conscientious content consumption, we all know that its all too tempting to fall off the wagon when the sweets tray if arrayed in front of us.


Image courtesy of david.nikonvscanon

Alone - Together by Dan Weingrod

Photo courtesy CarbonNYC

As someone who’s been working from home, alone, for the past six months I was interested to see this article on The Rise of the New Groupthink in Sunday's Times discussing how people working in solitude were more creative than those working in large open offices or teams.  I was hoping that it would add another silver lining to my not being in a traditional office space, but in some ways it left me confused.

Lately it feels like theories of creativity and work effectiveness are about as common as fad diets, and just as bewildering.  So much of what I’ve read, and experienced, on effective creative processes has been about random collisions, collaboration and getting people to interact. The idea of the lone genius has been pretty much tossed out by smart folks like Jonah Lehrer and Steven Johnson, and now here’s an article quoting some smart psychologist sand neuroscientist telling me that I would do a better job staying alone.  Somehow I’m beginning to wonder if this whole field hasn’t reached a point of oversaturation.

Where the article really makes more sense to me, and perhaps its real target, is when it criticizes the falsely energized “team-player” mentality created to fulfill a promise of inclusion which ends up shutting out its most creative members and producing little of value. Except for maybe a feeling of false togetherness.

In the final analysis its probably all about all things in moderation and striking a balance between individual time to think alone and the ability and willingness to interact. I did very much like the point the article made about brainstorms being the “worst possible ways to stimulate creativity”. It points out what we already all know about the lack of value of focus groups. What WAS interesting was the discussion about the effectiveness of  “electronic brainstorming” where asynchronous discussion and the lack of face-to-face group dynamics made for better group creativity. Maybe this is a signpost for all of us who work alone, but should look at making better use of our connected infrastructure to build on our lonely creative potential.

Bubble by Dan Weingrod

Photo Asgeirk About 12 years ago I sat in a big hotel meeting room in Hartford and listened to an investment banker tell the CEO of the online pharmacy I was working on that it was worth was many, many times more than its existing brick and mortar operations.  An older, lawyer-type turned to me with a what’s-this-world-coming-to look and said, “I can’t believe this, it makes absolutely no sense, it’s a total fantasy”. I chuckled and thought: “You just don’t get it, everything’s changing and you’ve either got to get on board or get left behind.”

Now that I’m a lot closer to his age I realize that we were both right. He was right because it was a fantasy. The online pharmacy still exists, but at nowhere near the valuation it was pegged at back then. I was right because everything did change in, and in ways that we couldn’t imagine at the time. But I was also wrong: no-one was really left behind, unless of course, it was those who made some bad investment decisions. In one way or another we all moved forward.

So when I hear all the bubble talk going on now I end up thinking more about the benefits that came out of the last bubble along with the benefits that might come of the coming one. Take one of my favorite flops of 1999, Boo.com. A high-end online fashion site, it featured a multi-lingual avatar named Miss Boo, who would function as your guide to the world of fashion. At the time I’d never seen anything as daring and audacious. I’d also never seen anything as slow and ponderous as it tried to serve up interactivity to 56k and slower modems. It soon became one of the many stock jokes around the office about sites that reached too far, exceeded their business models or just didn’t weren’t ready for where the world and culture was at. Or, consider the startup I worked with who had the idea of creating a portal that listed out-the-beaten-path resorts with details updated via user comments, ratings and a direct reservation service that if I recall worked via fax (fax? really?).

There’s a lot to hate about bubbles, the complete irrationality of the boom/bust cycle, the enormous financial benefits that go to a chosen worthy, and unworthy, few and the blood on the streets mentality of the marketplace. But bubbles can also be powerful incubators that surface and test ideas that may be ahead of their time. Ideas that in their own time may lack proper technological or cultural underpinning, but once technology and culture catch up, sometimes end up being the answer to questions that we hadn’t thought of yet.

This bubble will be no different. (And yes, it’s a bubble. Face it, if everyone is arguing about whether it’s a bubble of not, then it’s a bubble), (Update: Steve Blank has a great post on this question here). I don’t think it will end in as explosive a decompression as the last one, especially as the global economy is in much worse shape than in 2000. I do think that this bubble is less about a technology disconnect and more about a cultural disconnect than the last one. We’ve got the bandwidth and infrastructure to support much of the startup ideas. The bigger questions that have come up have been around the implications of these ideas around societal and cultural issues such as privacy. And then there’s the business model question. Already we see the cracks in Groupon’s business model, ponder the slowing Facebook’s adoption rate, and wonder how soon Zynga will run out of “’villes” that it can gamify.

What is true is that these companies and others crowding around the IPO feeding trough have pushed innovation that we’ll be working through in the years to come. While I hate the growing drumbeat of “hype finance” I just hope that when the bubble pops it does so as gently as possible, so that when I find myself using the same arguments I did 12 years ago I can at least pretend that I might be half right.