Friday, December 31, 2010

So That Happened

It's been a while. Sigh. Such the blogging clich̩ Р"it's been a while since my last post" Рas if there was some audience out there that was beginning to squirm in their seats during a too-long intermission. Except that it hasn't been a while. I "post" nearly every day, except that it is in the form of a share or a tweet and maybe the occasional photo. But not here. "Blogging is dead!" Right. And video killed the radio star.

I'd reserved this blog as space for the writing of a longer form. Deeper thoughts. But over the last year, two things happened that steered me away from writing here. The first has to do with my ulnar nerve. Through prolonged usage of mice and keyboards, and maybe sitting the wrong way, my ulnar nerve became inflamed, making it difficult to type at length. It is only the holidays and time spent away from a computer which allows me to type this out. Messages limited to 140 characters look more appealing when faced with tingly fingers. Some days are better than others.

The second thing to limit my writing here was that I was writing over there. At work. I had a few deep thoughts, but I shared them with my colleagues. See, I really like my job and where I work. Rather than just opine about something, or describe how it ought to be, I occasionally have the opportunity in my job to put in motion things that will make it so. More often than not the impact is incremental (but still important). But sometimes the impact is pretty big… like, 'make things better for over a billion people' big.

So why now?

Today is the last day of the first decade of the 21st century and I feel compelled to review and comment, if for no other reason than to read this again another decade hence. As I get older (I'm 35 now) the years flip by faster and faster. My theory is that, as the span of a year increasingly becomes a smaller fraction of one's lifespan, it is perceived to be shorter in relation. Or it could be that my memories of recent events are less front-and-center as I age, creating a kind of temporal tunnel vision. Since I like that theory less, I'll assume the former.

At any rate, writing some of it down is a surefire way to evaporate the sense of "boy, that decade went by fast." Chronicling the diversity and breadth of my experience reminds me that a lot has happened and a long time has passed. So, in the order in which they occur to me, here are some things I experienced during this first decade…

I got married. Twice, in fact – once at the beginning of the decade and once at the end. Obviously, I also suffered through a divorce, which happened towards the end of the decade. Maybe "suffered" is too strong a word – it was amicable as divorces go. My first wedding was on the stage of a big theater – nearly a century old – with hundreds in attendance. My second was in a public garden, with close family. So far, so good.

I watched my award-winning comedy club go bankrupt. I call my comedy club experience my "MBA the hard way." I learned a great deal about running a real business – everything except what it's like to be profitable. It died for several reasons, but the nail in the coffin was the burst of the tech bubble in Austin. With that went the discretionary income of a big chunk of our audience. The highs were the highest and the lows were the lowest in my life.

I left Austin, my hometown of ~30 years, and moved to California after getting hired by Google.

I bought, and later sold, a house. My first (and only, so far).

I lived through a really shitty day on September 11, 2001 while in NYC.

I held permanent residency for New Zealand for a short while. If you have the right skills, it is possible to get it without a job offer. They compete with Australia for immigrant labor. Ultimately I chose door #2: California. I'm tempted to try for it again.

I starred in a viral video that has been seen by millions of people. I won't link to it – you can dig into this blog to find the details. I'm pretty sure that was my 15 minutes, but maybe it doesn't count because no one knew it was me.

I visited Australia, Africa, and Europe for the first time.

I rescued a dog from the animal shelter.

I performed the on-site reconnaissance for the eventual site of a simulated Mars exploration hab, situated in the Martian analogue environment of the high desert of southern Utah.

I started the decade with a Nokia 6185 and ended it with a Nexus S.

I traveled in a submarine to over 1,000 feet below the waves.

I got rid of all my CDs.

I bought my first new car (a 2001 Nissa Xterra, which I later sold to a friend).

I made new friends and lost touch with some old ones.

I spoke at SXSW three times (I'm speaking again at the next one).

I learned how to make a good margarita. As usual, simplicity is the key. The ratio is 1:1:1 of lime simple syrup, Cointreau, and Herradura Silver. Put it in a shaker with ice and then strain into a chilled martini glass. Salt optional. I'm drinking one right now.

Was it worth it? Does my decade of deeds stack up? I think so. After all, it is just a handful of things. There is no resolution hidden here. Sure, I have hopes and dreams for the future. I think I could have done some things better and others I'd do all over again just the same. "Life is what happens to you while you're busy making other plans." I look forward to the next decade in my life.

Happy New Year to you, and Happy New Decade.

Monday, September 28, 2009

The Identity Bank – A Business Model for Social Networks

From an op-ed in the Washington Post

A visit from the pope may attract a large audience, but it's not a great place to make money. Likewise, social networks can successfully bring people together, but don't expect them to turn a profit.
The article is penned by Bo Peabody, the founder of Tripod.
Almost 15 years later and as one of the Web's largest social networks, Tripod generates the same advertising revenue in a year that Google does in an afternoon. The bottom line is that advertising does not work on social networks because social networks are not media businesses.
I don't think Bo means advertising doesn't work at all on social networks, but that it is a weak source of revenue upon which to sustain a business. Users of those services are looking to communicate and connect with other people, and are therefore less likely to be swayed by a product or service vying for their attention.

This is the business model that many social networks have pursued and, as Bo points out, have failed. Bo offers a solution.
Instead of expecting profits that won't materialize, the entrepreneurial community should instead operate social networks as not-for-profit organizations. Wikipedia has grown phenomenally with a not-for-profit business model, and while Wikipedia has its problems, its fate is in the collective hands of its users rather than in the hands of media companies or the stock market. Facebook and Twitter should enjoy the same comfort.
He suggests that social networks should become the property of the commons – that the users own their data. I think this is a laudable goal. And yet, I do believe there is a valuable business model available to social networks: identity verification.

This is a very important service, and it is currently done in a number of ways, with varying degrees of accuracy and trust. At the high end are government-issued forms of verification like passports and state driver's licenses. At the low end are usernames and passwords. In between are mobile phones and credit cards.

Now everyone knows you're a dog

Social networks represent a new platform upon which to build a robust, accurate, and trusted system of identity verification. They are already beginning to fulfill this role – Friend Connect and Facebook Connect get us started on the ground floor with outsourcing Web sign-ins. These services allow us to build a network of trust that can carry identity verification across the Web.

For example, Twitter has, on occasion, been the source of impersonation of various people, particularly celebrities. Twitter offers to verify your account, but only if you are famous.
We're starting with well-known accounts that have had problems with impersonation or identity confusion. (For example, well-known artists, athletes, actors, public officials, and public agencies). We may verify more accounts in the future, but because of the cost and time required, we're only testing this feature with a small set of folks for the time being. As the test progresses we may be able to expand this test to more accounts over the next several months.
But did you know that you can verify your Twitter account already, even if you aren't famous? You can do it with the help of a Google profile. Google profiles allow you to verify email domains. But you can also verify your real name on your Google profile using Knol's ID verification system. Once you have a verified name, you can add your Twitter account to your Google profile links. This will generate a prompt asking if you want to tweet about your profile.

The tweet contains a link back to your Google profile. This bi-directional set of links – one account linking back to the other – allows the name and domain verifications to pass through to your Twitter account. This isn't reflected in the UI, but if Twitter tapped into the Social Graph API, they could display the verification badge. You are who you say you are, even without having to be a celebrity.

Now, is that process user-friendly? Not in the slightest. But these are features that were put together quickly, from a number of parts that weren't designed to fit together as a system. Eventually they will fit together. When built on open systems, these features can grow in capability and ease of use.

Take it to the bank

There is real value in providing accurate and trustworthy identity verification. It is essential to the functioning of society. In a decade, we may have identity banks vying to provide you with identity services. Just as you trust a monetary bank to hold on to your savings, you'll trust an identity bank to maintain the personal and private details that uniquely identify you. The identity bank will provide a secure service for identity transactions and the electronic sharing of personal data.

And just like the financial institutions which provide credit cards and collect fees from merchants for processing transactions, identity banks will collect fees from the businesses and services that require your identity to, in turn, provide services to you. Perhaps even the government will outsource identity management and when you are stopped at immigration they can scan the barcode off your mobile, generated by a verified and trusted 3rd party identity bank.

The business opportunity of providing identity services will not be missed. This is the monetization path for social networks. They are nascent identity banks. It is only a matter of time before the various pieces come together and the opportunity is realized.

If this sounds scary – if you are concerned about a private institution being responsible for your identity – think about the world we live in today. So much of our private information and credit history is tied up in corporations that have a near-monopoly and little responsibility to the consumer. We should proactively work towards a world where the consumer is in control of her own information and has a choice about identity verification providers. Let's avoid the same mistakes that have been made with financial institutions, telecom companies, and health insurance.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Bigger is Better

A couple of weeks ago, we made the search box on the Google homepage bigger. Most people who bothered to comment on it seemed to be grumpy. This is understandable – users tend to prefer familiarity, particularly when the interface is something they use every day to accomplish a task. But people are also more likely to speak up when they have a complaint. Overall, people actually like the bigger search box.

I find the speculation across the Web of why we might have done this fascinating. The real answer is exactly what Marissa said in the blog post:
Although this is a very simple idea and an even simpler change, we're excited about it — because it symbolizes our focus on search and because it makes our clean, minimalist homepage even easier and more fun to use.
Search is a conversation between you and the search engine. The search box is your primary means of communicating with the search engine. Making the search box bigger gives more attention to this important interface element, and better conveys a sense that Google is listening. A bigger search box is a bigger click target and the increased font size makes it easier to read. And I'll tell you a secret…

I wanted it to be even bigger.

Not too much bigger. The size of the box is determined by the size of the font inside of it, and the font in my original design was a little bigger. But I had not taken the query suggestions into account at first. The suggestions tend to look better if they are aligned with the search query. But the suggestions would have been too big at my original font size, so we scaled it back a bit. Even simple solutions have trade-offs.