ARCHIVE: October, 2007

Making private identity public

Chris Anderson, editor in chief at Wired, has published a list of 329 email addresses that have been used to send him PR SPAM in the last month. He says he’s fed up:

“I’ve had it. I get more than 300 emails a day and my problem isn’t spam, it’s PR people. Lazy flacks send press releases to the Editor in Chief of Wired because they can’t be bothered to find out who on my staff, if anyone, might actually be interested in what they’re pitching.”

Being someone who gets a small amount of PR SPAM (~10 a day), I certainly sympathize with Anderson’s move here. It’s tiresome to spend valuable time weeding through emails that at first seem addressed to you, until you realize they’re simply sent to a huge list of bloggers. They’re not personal messages. They’re generic. Some PR folks even lie and say “I’ve been reading your blog and I love everything you write, your child is beautiful, and may your family receive honor forever…etc…etc”. But after that it quickly becomes clear that they never refer to my blog specifically and they never tell me anything related to the topics I write about. It’s not informing. It’s insulting.

Here’s an example of one I got the other day. It’s not nearly as bad as some, but just as useless. It starts out…

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Great Community Design Talk by Christina Wodtke

Update: Christina has a follow-up to this piece in which she suggests that Facebook is a lot like the next Google.

On Tuesday I had the good fortune to attend an excellent presentation on community design by Christina Wodtke at the DocTrain East Conference in Lowell, MA. Unfortunately, it was the only session I attended (lots of sessions looked good, like Steve Mulder’s talk on Personas), as I got sick Tuesday night and wasn’t able to return.

Here’s the embedded slide deck from Slideshare, but I would recommend downloading the Powerpoint slides as some of the text isn’t legible in the Flash conversion.

Christina’s talk was excellent, and I took a lot of notes. Here are the highlights that really stood out to me. (although, I must say that there was a lot more than I’ve written here)

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Is Harriet Klausner for real?

Is it possible to read 7 books in a day…every day?

That’s apparently what Harriet Klausner is doing. The famed #1 book reviewer on Amazon.com (who does claim to be a speed-reader) posts, on average, 7 book reviews a day. So not only does Harriet have time for reading all these books, she can also whip off reviews of them pretty quickly, too.

Color me skeptical, and I’m not the only one. Read this page of comments to see how curious observers are challenging Harriet’s numbers, while others are coming to her aid.

Their antipathy might actually be useful, given that Klausner is apparently trying to game the system so she keeps her position. In a world where building social tools like this is becoming more common every day, Klausner is diluting the value of her reviews just for personal gain. While nobody is going to get too upset over less-than-helpful reviews, the larger, longer effect is that if she’s merely writing them to keep her spot, she’s not writing them for the right reason. Amazon’s social design should incentivize her to write valuable reviews, not allow her to write them without value.

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Humility and Arrogance

Clay Shirky, who has made a name for himself by turning conventional wisdom on its head, has a provocative piece in this week’s A Brief Message:

“Arrogance without humility is a recipe for high-concept irrelevance; humility without arrogance guarantees unending mediocrity. Figuring out how to be arrogant and humble at once, figuring out when to watch users and when to ignore them for this particular problem, for these users, today, is the problem of the designer.”

Can a designer be arrogant and still have humility?

This question is particularly interesting for me. In 5 Principles to Design By, I advocated for humility, suggesting that the designer must get over themselves if they are to create a really great design. But now that I think about it, with Clay’s insistence, it might be possible to be arrogant at the same time. If Design is your muse, and you stop at nothing to create a great design, it might be considered arrogant. But are you putting your own values above others, or are you deferring to the Muse?

On that note, every time I watch an interview with the iPod’s designer, Jonathan Ive, I’m struck by his humility. Soft spoken, curious, and quietly confident. Yet we all know that the iPod would never have happened without Steve Jobs, considered by many to be extremely arrogant. Could that be it? Could arrogance and humility be the two sides of the design coin, embodied to near perfection by the Apple duo?

A Brief Message is a nicely done mini-blog site, consisting of 200 word posts and illustrations from designers and thinkers on interesting topics. A bite-sized portion for a YouTube world.

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Be Careful what you put in a Template

Seth Godin says that people are going to hate his post How to create a good enough website. I don’t hate it, but I do have a word of caution for what Seth is advocating.

Seth says:

“I’m going to go out on a limb and beg you not to create an original design. There are more than a billion pages on the web. Surely there’s one that you can start with? If your organization can’t find a website that you all agree can serve as a model, you need to stop right now and find a new job.

Not a site to rip-off, but an inspiration. Fonts and colors and layout. The line spacing. The interactions. Why not? Your car isn’t unique, and your house might not be either. If you’ve got a site that sells 42 kinds of wrapping paper, why not start by finding a successful site that sells… I don’t know, shoes or yo-yo’s… something that both appeals to your target audience and has been tested and tweaked and works. No, don’t pick a competitor. That will get you busted. Pick a reasonably small but successful site in a totally different line of work. Say to your designer: “That’s our starting point. Don’t change any important design element without asking me first. Now, pull in our products, our logo and our company color scheme and let’s take a look at it.”

There are two elements at play here. One is the look and feel of a web site, the font choice, colors, and *general* layout scheme. Bringing these together into code and applying them consistently across a site is often called applying a “design template”. After building dozens and dozens of these, I’m very familiar with the standard practice: place the logo in the top left, horizontal nav across the top, sub menu on the right, etc.

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Interfaces need editors

Jason Fried on editing interfaces. He says:

“What matters is the editing. Software needs an editor like a writer needs an editor or a museum needs a curator. Someone with a critical eye and the ability to say “No, that doesn’t belong” or “There’s a better way to say this.” Physical constraints create natural limits for books and museums. Books have pages and museums have wall space. Software, on the other hand, is virtual, boundless.”

I completely agree with Jason on this. You need someone pushing back as much as you need someone pushing forward. You need, not necessarily a critical eye, but a concerned eye that isn’t colored with the effort of creation. A creator is almost never equipped to be objective about their creation. (nor should they be)

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Weak Ties and Diversity in Social Networks

Anne Truitt Zelenka has a nice post: Weak Ties for Social Problem Solving in Enterprise 2.0, touching on a subject being discussed more and more these days: weak ties. She suggests that one of the next challenges for social software is distributed problem solving: how to leverage your social network when you have a tough problem to solve.

One of pieces Anne references is Andrew McAfee’s The Ties that Find, a nice overview of the idea of weak ties, which originated with the fascinating work of Mark Granovetter, who wrote the original work The Strength of Weak Ties(PDF) in 1973. Weak ties are relationships we have with people outside our own social networks. We don’t utilize them often, but we utilize them in certain situations to help us with things our social networks can’t. Most importantly, weak ties gives us a perspective outside of the normal groups of which we are a part, whose perspectives tend to become homogenized over time as we learn and become familiar with the people we spend the most time with.

What struck me about Anne and Andrew’s pieces was the implicit idea of the value of diversity. Neither mentioned this explicitly, but for those familiar with James Surowiecki’s work The Wisdom of Crowds, diversity is crucial to wisdom, and thus problem solving. Weak ties helps explain how we continually introduce diversity within our social groups, by periodically leveraging those relationships with people outside our close-knit social networks.

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What Barnes & Noble could have said

Company CEO Marie Toulantis on Barnes & Noble’s new web site redesign: (via RWW)

“We wanted our site to have more motion, more content and more interactivity, and to have more of a sense of community”

Granted this is only a single sentence, but it happened to be the one they’re getting press with. And what a quote it is! It highlights the struggle that so many web sites out there have: to communicate why their site is better at doing what people actually need from it.

Barnes and Noble

So, what people end up asking themselves is: “does motion, content, and/or interactivity get me better books? Does it let me shop easier? Faster? Cheaper? Can I find more books on the topics I’m interested in?”

The answer is No…

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Ballmer on Facebook: Bunch of Features

Microsoft’s Steve Ballmer: (via)

““There can’t be any more deep technology in Facebook than what dozens of people could write in a couple of years. That’s for sure,”

Robert Scoble, in Steve Ballmer still doesn’t understand social networking:

“When I worked at Microsoft I heard this over and over and over again from various engineers and program managers who STILL haven’t competed effectively with WordPress, Flickr, Skype, YouTube, or any of the other things over the years I’ve heard this “we can build that in a few weeks” kind of arrogant attitude attached to.”

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Finding the primary pivot

Over time, the primary pivot of social software has shifted away from the topic thread and toward the person.

Chowhound.com is one of the most successful sites for foodies on the Web. When you visit the home page, you’re given a list of topics that any food lover, at first glance, would be happy to read. Here’s what was on the home page when I looked at it today.

Chowhound boards

As you can see, the primary mode of navigation on Chowhound, the primary pivot, is the discussion thread. The elements of the interface are all organized around the idea that the topic of discussion is the most important thing. Therefore, the features tend to be those that support it: comments, threaded comments, most active threads, topics.

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