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Twitter Buys Summify, Gives Everyone a Reason to Use It

Today, it was announced that Twitter has acquired an awesome little Pacific Northwest company called Summify. If you haven’t heard of Summify, they provide what I consider to be the best next-generation news delivery platform in the world right now.

Isn’t Twitter itself a news delivery platform though? Not really. Twitter is an information delivery platform, of which news is a small but extremely important subset. In other words, when you read a joke on Twitter, that’s not news. When you ask someone a question about a restaurant on Twitter, that’s not news. When you receive a response from an expertly crafted bot on Twitter, that’s not news. In short, the great majority of what Twitter traffics is non-news information.

It’s long been a complaint of Twitter users, however, that when they do want to use Twitter as a news source — perhaps even their only news source — it’s a less than ideal experience. People keep their excellent Twitter clients open all day hoping they’ll stay abreast on what’s going on in the world, but often they miss important events because the firehose of chatter drowns out critical links.

What Summify does is essentially stand in front of your firehose, collect the drops of water that are news-related, and then fill up a nice, tidy cup for you containing only (or mostly) news. You can tell Summify you want a tall, a grande, or a venti and the platform delivers the right sized cup to you at whatever interval you choose.

And oh by the way, Summify can analyze your Facebook account and your Google Reader account as well as your Twitter account if you’d like.

And oh by the way, your news summary is available via web, via RSS, via tablet, and via phone.

And oh by the way, Summify was created by a team of about under 10 people. Mircea, Cristian, and crew are extremely smart and very nice people, but still, what a great product from such a small team.

So why is this such a smart acquisition for Twitter? In my mind, there are two reasons.

First, although the Twitter design staff has gone to great pains to craft the interface and sign-up process such that people know how to use Twitter immediately, I feel like they’ve now solved that problem. Do a Twitter search for a trending hashtag and you’ll see all sorts of people of “various knowledge levels” getting around just fine.

I feel like the new problem to solve is not “how do I use Twitter” but “why should I use Twitter”. This problem doesn’t apply to everyone that is currently using it, obviously, but it applies to my mom, my fiance, and all of the other millions of the people in the world who just don’t see a value proposition yet. Basically the “I don’t have anything to say to strangers” crowd, the “I don’t care what celebrities are saying” crowd, and the “I already have Facebook” crowd.

With Summify folded into Twitter, there will now be one activity that almost everyone in the world can get obvious value from: a simple summary of what news stories you should know about every day, based on who influences you.

The second reason this is a great acquisition is that it helps hedge against a phenomenon that I think is coming over the next few years: information overload followed by consumption retreat. It’s only a matter of time before people look at all of the distractions they expose themselves to every day and realize it is keeping them from living productive lives. Twitter, Facebook, and RSS before them have hastened this effect, and while it’s still only a problem at the edges, it will get more pronounced each year.

Summify offers a simple antidote; one that Twitter can weave into their UI such that users can dial up or dial down their desired consumption level as they see fit. Right now there is actually a disincentive to follow people on Twitter, in many cases. Summify potentially eliminates that problem entirely by promising to send you better stories, not more stories for each new account you follow.

As a closing thought, I’ve had this idea in my head for the last few years of what a perfect news site looks like, and it’s quite simple: a white screen with a list of 5 or 10 links that changes once a day. That’s it. Here’s the tricky part though: the 5 or 10 links need to be THE 5 or 10 links that are most useful to me on any given day. In other words, let’s say there are 10,000 new stories every day. This site needs to be smart enough to pick the top 5 or 10 for me with almost 100% certainty. You will know it works when it’s creepy. I liken it to Barack Obama’s daily briefing he gets from his advisors. He doesn’t have time to scour news sites all day so his advisors tell him what he absolutely needs to see every morning and then, here’s the key part: he gets on with his life.

I want that.

I feel like Twitter — with Summify in tow — can eventually provide that.

Sign me up!

UPDATE: I forgot to mention that there is another great service worth trying called Percolate that is a slightly different take on curation than what Summify provides. Give it a shot.

SOPA and The New Gatekeepers

I’ll admit that on a scale of 1-10, my following of the SOPA/PIPA escapades is only about a 6. This may seem low for someone who runs a platform that hosts 50 million unique visitors a month; all of whom are able to post user-generated content which potentially violates SOPA/PIPA principles.

Having been acquired by msnbc.com, a company 50% owned by Microsoft (who opposes SOPA as drafted) and 50% owned by NBC (who is one of the most visible proponents of the bill) our little organization is powerless to do much about the situation and frankly to even express much of an opinion about it. Note: I have not been told to shut up about anything. I just feel like there are enough smart people working this out right now that the world doesn’t really need my opinion on it.

What I do want to talk about, however, is a truth about the new world of legislation that this SOPA/PIPA fracas has made extraordinarily clear:

If you want to pass any sort of bill that affects the internet, you better vet it with the people who control the internet.

By “control the internet”, I of course don’t mean the people manning the tubes. I mean the people who run the most important destinations on the internet and the people who back those people. This includes the heads of for-profit destinations like Twitter and Facebook, the caretakers of non-profit destinations like Wikipedia, the investors who back all of the great online companies of tomorrow, and the government officials who are sympathetic to their cause.

From this anything-but-exhaustive list, we have Dick Costolo, Mark Zuckerberg, Jimmy Wales, Paul Graham (and cohorts), and none other than Barry O. himself. None of these people support SOPA as it has been drafted. Not only do they oppose it, but many have gone out of their way to publicly denounce it. Jimmy Wales has gone so far as to shut down the world’s most important collection of knowledge for a day to demonstrate what shutdowns actually look like.

It seems incredible to me that these gatekeepers of the modern internet were seemingly not even polled as to what they thought of this bill before it was floated. It would be like the EPA trying to sneak through a law that automobiles get 100mpg by year’s end without even talking to the car companies first. In some ways it’s even worse than that.

The truth is that the most powerful and influential people today look very different from the most powerful and influential people of the last century. The 20th century was all about industrialization. The game was to take a natural resource (like oil or cotton) process it until something useful (like gasoline or clothing) and then sell it for as much of a profit as you could. Since many congressmen came from industrial professions before they took office, or at the very least could easily wrap their heads around fairly straightforward concepts like oil drilling or cotton ginning, they had little difficulty a) maintaining relationships with important people in industrial fields, and b) drafting laws which made sense for consumers and producers at the time.

This new world, however, in which probably less than 10% of our elected officials can even tell us what a DNS server is, is a disconnected one. How are congressmen supposed to write bills that are palatable to the public if they don’t understand the ramifications of how the bills are to be technologically enforced? If you listen to the various SOPA debates like this one on PBS with Ben Huh and Rick Cotton, you don’t hear the anti-SOPA people disagreeing with the spirit of the bill. You hear them disagreeing with the letter of it; and to Rick Cotton’s credit, he even asks Ben if Ben would support the bill if it were written differently.

The people at media companies who helped write this bill are lawyers. It is usually a lawyer’s job to write up documents that are most favorable to their client. It is then, however, the other side’s job to modify that language into something equitable. “The other side” in this case is our elected representatives. What seems to have failed in this case was not that the initial draft was written as it was written, but that Congress did a terrible job of analyzing it, shopping it to important technologists, and then presenting something that actually made sense. As a result, this bill will fail, and that’s about the worst outcome private sector SOPA supporters could ever imagine. So in a sense, Congress failed both SOPA supporters and SOPA opponents. Amazing but true.

We either need a world where our elected officials know more about how technology works or a world where they at least consult a more heterogenous group of gatekeepers before proposing laws that affect technology, IP, and free speech.

It seems like it will be at least another generation until we get the former, so it is imperative that we immediately get the latter.

Note: I am speaking on behalf of myself here and not on behalf of any of the organizations who employ me (who I love equally :) ).

You Aren’t Who You Hang Out With

Every new app you try these days wants to know who your friends are. It’s easy to understand why. On the marketing side, it’s to encourage users to evangelize the app amongst their friends. On the user experience side, however, it’s to help users consume more relevant content.

Here’s are a few examples:

  • Upon signing up for Rdio and connecting your Facebook account, you are shown music your friends are listening to.
  • Upon installing Oink and connecting your Twitter account, you are shown food and other items your friends have sampled.
  • Upon checking your Facebook news feed, you are shown status updates from friends reacting to movies they’ve just seen.

While this sort of content tailoring provides value, I often find myself uninterested in it. The reason is that although in many cases my friends are similar to me, my taste in things like music, movies, and food do not map to my friends’. The taste correlation between friends may be greater than between two random strangers, but it’s still not very high in most cases.

There’s a better way to expose people to new experiences and I think we’ll start to see more of it in the future. It may already have a name, but I’ll call it “phantom friending”.

To illustrate phantom friending, imagine you want to watch a movie tonight and you need a recommendation. Now imagine you have these two options:

  1. Calling your best friend, asking them what good movies they’ve seen recently, and picking one of them.
  2. Consulting a list of preferred, recent movies put together by someone across the country who you don’t know but who has in the past indicated that they hate a lot of the same movies you hate and love a lot of the same movies you love.

I hold that in almost every case, the second option will provide a better result. Even if you were able to poll 5, 10, or 20 friends, a well-picked phantom friend would produce a better result. That is because the phantom friend doesn’t represent someone you like to socialize with — as your real friends do — but rather someone who watches movies the same way you do. They have your same tolerance for violence, same appreciation for special effects, and same patience for heavy dialogue. In other words, they may be unlike you in every other way, but their brain consumes movies the same way yours does.

The phantom friend concept works better for some subjects than others. It would seem to work well for movies, food, and music. It may work less well for TV shows, because a big part of TV shows is discussing them week after week with our friends. The same goes for clothing. We often wear similar clothing as our friends in order to fit in better.

For the many situations where phantom friends are better influencers on us, I’d love to see more apps and services geared towards this type of discovery. One example I’ve always wanted is a “Movie Critic Dating Game”. I rarely read movie reviews because I haven’t identified a movie critic who is a lot like me. Here’s how it would work:

  1. I am presented with a list of 20 movies.
  2. I rate each movie with a thumbs up, thumbs sideways, or thumbs down.
  3. The app finds me the national movie critic who has rated the 20 films most similarly to how I have rated them.
  4. I then begin reading the critic’s reviews each week and choose new movies to watch accordingly.

Interestingly, the above scenario works almost as well if the system can find someone with the exact opposite tastes as me. If I can find the person who I disagree with the most, I can just always do the opposite of what they suggest (the “Costanza strategy”). Furthermore, even if you extended the questionnaire to 200 movies, there is someone in the world (although perhaps not a professional movie critic) who answered all 200 the same way you did.

Undoubtedly I am not the first to think of this concept, but given that it doesn’t seem computationally ferocious to do, I’m surprised we haven’t seen more of it. Hunch seemed like it was after a similar result, but it always seemed too impersonal to me. I don’t want a computer telling me what people similar to me like. I want a computer matching me up with someone and then letting me know what else they like. There is a difference there.

I can imagine a world in which I have a movie sensei, a restaurant sensei, a music sensei, and a bunch of other senseis. I may eventually know them by name or I may not, but it would be a fun set of relationships to have.

Never Be Another

When someone dies, the phrase “there will never be another” gets used quite frequently. It’s one of those phrases that is both always true and yet almost always not true. It’s true that, yes, no other person will ever be exactly like any other person, but it’s usually false in the compliment it’s actually trying to pay.

In almost every case, when a public figure dies, there are plenty of his or her contemporaries ready to fill the void. A great guitarist died? Well we at least have hundreds of other world class guitarists to listen to. A basketball star died? Luckily we have plenty of those too.

The truth of the matter is that even best of the best in most fields, at any given time, is only a little better than the rest.

Counterexamples to this seem to happen only a handful of times per century. The number of times we lose someone whose impact was so dramatic and whose substitute seems so unfathomable is vanishingly small.

We lost that person yesterday in Steve Jobs, and we are only beginning to feel the impact of his absence.

What gets lost in all of these Steve Jobs tributes you read online is just how dark things were for personal technology only ten years ago. People forget that until the iPhone came out, “The Apple Way” was still largely on the sidelines. Windows PCs were unavoidable. Cell phones were unapproachable. There were even a few years around the turn of the century when many websites didn’t even work on Macs because developers only coded to PC Internet Explorer “standards” (airiest of air quotes there, of course).

It was just dark as hell out there; especially for those of us who wanted so badly for the story to end differently. The lesson that idealism and attention to detail could lose out to “good enough and a little cheaper” was not something we wanted to learn.

The long, but impeccably planned, turnaround that Steve Jobs has led over the last 14 years is impressive for thousands of reasons. None is more astounding to me than this one though: he was quite literally the one person on the face of the earth capable of pulling it off.

One. Out of 6,800,000,000 people.

He wasn’t just the best choice. He was the only choice. And that’s why we’ll miss him so much.

When people die after suffering from prolonged illness or pain, my thoughts are almost always positive. Death is not something I fear, and when it’s ultimately the relief method for someone’s pain and suffering, I feel happy for their newfound peace. I felt this way when Kurt Cobain died, for instance.

With Steve Jobs, however, I don’t get the feeling death was any sort of relief at all. Yes he was obviously at peace with the concept, as he expressed beautifully in his Stanford commencement speech, but SJ put the pedal to the metal until his final breath.

What would you do if you knew you had a short time to live? Most of us would quit our jobs. Many of us would travel. Some of us would relax and keep our stress levels down. What did Steve do? He hit the gas. He released the iPhone, unveiled the iPad, and led Apple to its current and still unfathomable status as the most valuable company in the world.

Just as incredibly, he was able to lift his body out of Apple without also removing his soul; on a day when many once feared AAPL stock would dive precipitously, it’s comfortably unchanged from the day before.

He had his flaws and he may not be the greatest person to ever live, but no one has ever left this world more on top than Steve Jobs has just left it.

Thanks for everything.

Moving to Micro Four-Thirds

Micro four-thirds cameras aren’t exactly new, but in the three years since their release, they’ve grown incredibly popular. A couple of months ago, I passed the confidence threshold myself and ditched all of my Nikon camera gear in favor of “M43″.

The M43 system, to me, is the prosumer system for the next decade. It essentially eliminates the need for two other genres of camera: the standard APS-C DSLR system (e.g. Nikon D90, Canon 60D) and the compact point-and-shoot. By eliminating the camera’s mirror, micro four-thirds offers near the quality of the former and near the tininess of the latter. If you’re buying a camera today, the three smart choices, in my opinion are:

  • A full-frame camera. If you want the very best photos and size/cost is not an issue, a full-frame camera like the Canon 5D (or 1D) will give you the greatest resolution, the best low-light performance, and the most granular control. The cost of entry for a full-frame camera is at least $2500, however, and the ongoing cost is a gigantic piece of lead around your neck.
  • A micro four-thirds camera. If you want a camera capable of taking professional quality shots that is small and light enough to take on vacations and day trips without noticing the extra weight and bulk, this is your best choice. Fitted with a pancake lens, these cameras are just small enough to fit in your pants pockets, if you wear loose pants, and often times, you don’t even notice you’re carrying one.
  • A smartphone camera. Smartphone cameras today are in many ways better than point-and-shoots of only a few years ago. There are many occasions when you just can’t carry more hardware on you, and in times like these, your phone is more than capable of getting you what you need.

With the above three options all widely available now, the need for the point-and-shoot and the APS-C stopgaps just isn’t there anymore. With a point-and-shoot, you get bad low-light performance and no lens flexibility, and with an APS-C system, you get unnecessary bulk.

If you’re looking to move to micro four-thirds, here are some considerations to keep in mind:

Bodies

Whereas Nikon and Canon rule the full sized camera world, the giants are nowhere to be found in M43. The M43 system demands that camera bodies and lenses are interchangeable, even across brands, and Nikon and Canon aren’t used to working this way. In fact, Nikon has just announced a new camera that will compete with M43 cameras, but disappointingly, it will only work with Nikon lenses.

When you are stressing out about what body and what lenses to buy (e.g. Olympus, Panasonic Lumix) just remember that every body works with every lens. You can buy an Olympus body and a Lumix lens if you want. There is no “lock-in” and that’s a key advantage. Right now, Olympus and Panasonic are the only players in the market, but this could expand in the future.

To get my feet wet in M43, I forewent all of the new models and bought a Panasonic Lumix DMC-GF1 on eBay. I got the body, a Lumix 20mm f/1.7 pancake lens, and a Lumix 45-200mm zoom lens for $781 on eBay; all in mint condition. The GF1 appears to be a instant classic in the M43 world, with a lot of people claiming it’s still the most fun-to-shoot M43 camera in the world.

If I was buying a new camera today, it would be the Olympus E-PL3 or E-P3. Both have better low-light performance than the GF1 and both have on-body image stabilization (Panasonic puts their stabilization technology in their lenses instead).

Lenses

As is the case in the SLR and DSLR worlds, prime lenses will always provide sharper images than zoom lenses. You’re going to want at least one prime in your bag, and I whole-heartedly recommend the aforementioned Panasonic Lumix 20mm f/1.7 pancake lens. It’s only about an inch deep and weighs 3.5 ounces. The key to this lens isn’t just its compactness but it’s maximum aperture. Although it still can’t touch my beloved (and now departed) Nikon 50mm f/1.4 in low light conditions, it will allow you to shoot bright photos in dim conditions without using the flash.

As far as zoom lenses go, there are a lot of them to choose from, but I went with a Lumix 45-200mm in order to match my previous Nikon 18-200mm VR as closely as possible. In my testing, I would say this lens produces almost the same quality images as the Nikon and it weighs a few ounces shy of a pound. The Nikon is about 50% heavier.

I can’t stress enough how much lighter a M43 camera and lens feels when compared to its DSLR counterparts. When people obsess about the weights of different cell phone models, it strikes me as hollow because they are all trivially light, but when you’re talking about M43 vs. DSLR, you’re talking about pounds of weight off of your neck.

Viewfinders

Some of the bigger M43 cameras have built-in electronic viewfinders, but the ultra-compact cameras all require you to snap one on if you want one. I haven’t needed one yet, but it’s nice to know they are available if you need them.

Interfaces

As with all cameras, try to pick a model that has the right balance of physical knobs and electronic controls for your taste. The GF1 is skewed more towards physical knobs, which I love, but some may prefer things like touch-screens and soft buttons. If you can’t physically try out a camera’s interface before you buy it, try reading what others think instead. I was originally going to buy a Panasonic Lumix GF3 until I read enough reports from people complaining about how hard it is to hold.

New or used?

If you aren’t sure you’ll love the jump to M43, buying used is a good option. A little searching and patience on eBay might get you a nice model to get your feet wet while you wait for the next great innovation. For me, the innovation I’m waiting for is better high ISO performance. While my setup is good in low light, it still can’t match a Nikon D80 (or better) with that 50mm Nikon f/1.4 on it. My feeling is that within a year or so, that won’t be true anymore, and since I’m only $300 or so into this GF1 body, I won’t feel bad replacing it when the time is right.

If you’re going to buy new, as I mentioned earlier, I would probably go with the Olympus E-PL3 or E-P3.

“Reality is Interesting to Us”

The fine folks at Frank just released a short, 7 minute documentary about the guys who designed and built my house: Kevin Eckert, Andrew Van Leeuwen, and the rest of Build LLC. It’s a really well done piece and captures what I liked best about working with Build: they design for how you will actually live; not how some architecture magazine thinks you should live (pop it full-screen so you can concentrate):

Favorite quote:

“We spend so much time in fantasy and ways that people aren’t actually living but how they picture that they would like to be living… and so, reality is interesting to us. What is physically and naturally occurring is better than any fictional, fantasy based thing that could be occurring.”

Incidentally, I find myself picturing Kevin and Andrew doing this video in white tank tops and plaid golf shorts and coming away with another impression entirely. Dressing the part is key. Well played, fellas.

Mind Your MeTweets

You know how when someone compliments you, the first thing you do is e-mail everyone you know to tell them about the compliment?

No, you probably don’t, because you have the good sense not to do something like that.

Why then do so many people feel no shame in rampantly retweeting compliments they receive on Twitter? Some examples, with names changed to protect the guilty:

“RT @joesmith I just heard the most wonderful speech from @lisafrench. That girl is a genius.” (retweeted by @lisafrench)

“RT @fred24 Just saw @jasongotham’s redesign. So good. So jealous!” (retweeted by @jasongotham)

“RT @cakester Scrummify’s sign-up process is a thing of beauty.” (retweeted by @scrummify or an employee of Scrummify)

Let’s count the number of things wrong with this practice:

  1. In real life, it’s considered impolite to brag. Unless you are authoring an anonymous satirical account on Twitter, this is your real life.
  2. If your intent is to spread a compliment your product received, you’re spreading it to people who are already believers, or at the very least, already aware of your product. You want other people to spread it. Oh wait, they already are.
  3. You’re filling your followers’ Twitter feeds not with your own thoughts, but with other people’s thoughts… thoughts about you. The practice of retweeting insults about you on Twitter can also be controversial, but that’s a different beast altogether; one that aims to dismantle trollery by elevating it ironically.

I know many people view Twitter as a medium that can be used by anyone in any manner they see fit — without regard to how other people use it or how other people think it should be used — but I’m not really talking about Twitter here. I’m talking about basic manners. Your mom taught you them when you were young. They haven’t changed that much.

Try not to forget them.

The Most Important Company of This Year’s SXSW Is: SXSW

Every year, the technology and business press wait anxiously to see who the breakout star of SXSW is going to be. The conference is often credited with helping companies like Twitter and Foursquare cross the chasm, and everyone wants to know what the next trend to chase is going to be.

In powering my way through the ridiculous pile of panels for SXSW 2011, however, I’ve come to the conclusion that the state of the industry is now best represented by the state of the conference itself: unfiltered, unabashed information overload.

Before I continue, a few disclaimers:

  1. Yes, I know the non-conference activities have always been the best part of SXSW… shouldn’t the conference organizers be a bit embarrassed by this though?
  2. Yes, I know I’m free to vote with my feet and not go. I exercise this freedom from time to time.
  3. Yes, I know a lot of the people putting on the conference and speaking at the conference are great people and do a great job.
  4. Yes, I know people have been complaining about this stuff for years already.

That said…

This isn’t even a conference anymore. It is clearly a commercial endeavor first, a networking event second, and a conference where you learn stuff third. In my view, the best conferences go in the exact opposite order. The making money part should be a natural consequence of fulfilling the first and subsequently the second.

When I started going to SXSW in 2005, there were maybe 8 or so presentations and panels going on during each time slot. I prefer single track conferences like Webstock and An Event Apart, but at least with 8, you usually only have 1 or 2 you really want to attend so the conflict rate is low. Fast forward to this year and there are 45 THINGS GOING ON during many slots. That is not an exaggeration. 45 panels. Here are the problems this causes:

  1. The whopping 1006 panels makes trying to plan your schedule an absolute, fucking nightmare. It’s painful. I’m not a very fast reader so I take longer than most, but each day is taking me over an hour to get through. I already want to just return my ticket, if that were possible.
  2. With 45 panels per time slot, you’re going to have somewhere in the neighborhood of 1 to 15 panels in each timeslot that you would have liked to attend but can’t. This creates an annoying feeling in you that you are missing more good stuff than you are actually seeing. It’s a terrible incarnation of The Paradox of Choice.
  3. Because there are now an astounding 1822 speakers at this conference, the chances of them sucking royally are even higher than they were before. I remember thinking to myself in 2005 that about 25% of the speakers were great, 25% were good, and most of the rest were just so-so. With each passing year, those numbers have shifted steadily downward. It’s now more like 10% great, 20% good, 50% so-so, and 20% having absolutely no business speaking publicly at an event people pay good money for.
  4. As if the daytime effects weren’t bad enough, the overpopulating of Austin is now reaching into the evening activities as well. I skipped most of the conference itself last year but even getting a beer at a bar grew tedious during the peak of the conference. This may not seem like a big deal, but meeting up with our friends and colleagues at night is the primary reason why a lot of us still make this trip.
  5. Hundreds of these presenters are getting stuck at places like the AT&T Conference Center or the Sheraton which are a mile away from the Convention Center. Audiences are fickle, and when given the chance to either walk a mile to your speech or walk a few steps to the 44 other speeches going on, chances are your session is going to be empty. I’m curious to see how this goes, and I feel terrible for any really good speakers who have been placed so inconsiderately.

So… what’s my point. My point is that during these past few years SXSW Interactive has taken on some of the worst elements of the industry it is suppose to serve.

It’s too many people saying too much about too little.

116 panels about social media? 19 panels about Facebook? Panels that are clearly only there because of the company that sponsored them? A panel about how to do a panel?

Who on earth would think this is a good thing? There’s only one group I can think of: the people profiting from the conference. It’s like selling out Woodstock and then hiring 500 more filler bands so you can sell 100,000 more tickets. Great for the conference organizers, probably great for the city, but not so great for the people who just want to see a good show.

What SXSW has become is in many ways what our industry has become: a giant facilitator of information overload. The next great company to arise from it will be the company that offers an antidote; a way to enrich our lives by letting us unplug. I don’t want to know what everyone is thinking. I don’t want to know where everyone is checking in. I just want to know the bare minimum of what it takes to remain happy, and then maybe a little extra if I have time. Whatever company creates a filter that enables this will become one of the most valuable companies in the world.

Alright, I’m done ranting now, so I’ll close with a few conference tips:

  1. Never speak at a conference in order to get a free ticket somewhere. I feel like this is common at SXSW. If you wouldn’t present without the free ticket, don’t present at all. You’re just adding to the noise.
  2. If you’re at a conference with interesting people, make the most of your opportunity to meet everyone you want to meet. Often you’ll get more out of a one hour Jager session with someone than you will out of the entire conference.
  3. If you’re presenting, strive to be one of the most entertaining presenters at the conference. The best combination in a speaker is smart and entertaining, but if you take the entertaining part away, you might as well be dumb too, because people aren’t going to enjoy listening to you. One of the best conferences I’ve ever spoken at or attended was Webstock 2010 in New Zealand, and there was one guy there, Rives, who just blew everyone away. Here’s his presentation. If that doesn’t make you want to try harder, I don’t know what will.

Thanks for listening. Bonus points if you can identify the photo at the top of this post!

Pine Brothers Cough Drops are back!

Some of the most fulfilling posts to write are the ones dedicated to micro niche topics that no one else is talking about. Through the magic of the Google, your silly little post about obsolete technology X or discontinued product Y can gather visitors over the course of several years, and if you’re lucky enough, you can grow little micro-communities inside of each post. It’s amazing. A few posts Mike Industries posts that created such flash communities are:

  • Too Much Cream of Wheat? — A ridiculous little two minute post I wrote after being surprised at how many Cream of Wheat varieties were sold. Five years and 251 comments later, people are still telling Cream of Wheat stories from their childhood and sharing recipes.
  • Wither the Halogen Torchiere — A post I wrote lamenting the death of everyone’s favorite college dorm lamp. These lamps put off incredibly warm, indirect light but were eventually taken off the market because idiots who threw clothing and other materials on top of them burned their houses down. This one has 315 comments ranging from suggestions on where to purchase replacement parts to ideas on how to make your own lamps (seems like a bad idea).
  • How to Snatch an Expiring Domain — I’m not sure if this is the most popular post I’ve ever written or if the MySpace one is, but this story of how I bought newsvine.com is up to 862 comments now. Unfortunately, I’ve had to delete hundreds more because let’s just say the “community” that cares about expiring domains is usually made of SEO monkeys and likes to use my post as a way to get link juice back to their own cesspools. I actually created a special rule in WordPress specifically for this post that doesn’t allow link juice.
  • Desperately Seeking Pine Bros — Finally, this is the one I’m most proud of. If you grew up in the 1980s, you probably remember a “softish” cough drop by the name of Pine Bros. that came in Honey and Cherry. It was more candy than medication but damn was it good. Some time in the 90s, the company shut down and without any warning, Pine Bros. disappeared from the face of the earth. I wrote a post about it and thousands of Pine Bros. fans have visited to express their support for the product.

Something great happened in the Pine Bros. thread several months ago: a woman chimed in to say that her family had bought the rights to the Pine Bros. name and was hard at work recreating the formula in order to bring them back to market. It seemed too good to be true, but I’m happy to say that as of right now, this great product is once again available! They plan on releasing four flavors for distribution nationwide, but for now, you can just get the Honey flavor at the Vermont Country Store. I ordered three tins. They were predictably gone in less than three days and now I’m ordering more.

Since I had purchased a box of 50-year old Pine Bros. cough drops on eBay a few years ago, I have tested the new drops against the old. The bad news is that they seem to taste just a tad more mild than the originals, but the good news is that it’s very, very close.

If you miss Pine Bros. cough drops as much as I did, quit reading this and get on over to Vermont Country Store already. They’ve already sold out at least once.

5 Ways to Improve the new Twitter App

It is with great interest that I watch the evolution of Twitter, from a quirky niche service of questionable worth four years ago to a mainstream phenomenon that has disrupted everything from tiny blogs to big media. It’s really coming into its own, and with every new feature or product release, I find myself nodding in agreement at the improvements. The new Twitter for Mac app, however, remains an odd duck for me, even a month after its debut. Its release seemed rushed and incomplete, probably in order to debut alongside the new Mac App Store. A big clue to that is that there is no Windows version yet. If I had to guess, I would say the Twitter team decided they needed new desktop clients, they knew they could probably get something out on one platform in time to get a high position in the App Store, and so they did, releasing an impressive but ultimately incomplete product, figuring they would improve it later, as well as release a Windows version.

That strategy is understandable to me, and I certainly don’t think they’ve made the product worse than the last revision, but there are several features I’d like to see added which would make the native Twitter app better than its competitors, which it currently isn’t.

Let me also say that I’ve always watched everything Doug Bowman designs or directs with great interest and admiration. Doug is probably the second best interactive designer in the world, behind only me, so I always study his work very closely. He has no real weaknesses that I know of, and he has a great team working at Twitter. Doug’s great with interfaces, great with typography, great at expressing his thoughts, great at maintaining a product-centric view with everything he creates, and just a great guy in general. In short, Twitter could not have hired a better person to lead the Photoshop department.

That said, here are my suggestions for the Twitter team (feel free to pay me in Twitter stock, @dickc and @ev):

1. Inline retweet, fave, and follow notifications

This is easily Echofon’s best feature, and I can’t believe they are still the only ones offering it. Essentially, when someone faves a tweet of yours or starts following you, Echofon inserts a small notification for you inside your tweet stream. It’s a powerful piece of positive feedback that has increased my enjoyment of Twitter at least 10x. I’m not one of those “I tweet for me, not for you” people. Everything I tweet, however intelligent, is aimed at people, and when people like a tweet enough to fave it, that’s great feedback. It’s one thing to tweet something you think is good, but another thing to get 20 faves within a minute telling you your suspicion was correct. I call this a fave parade. Echofon doesn’t do this with retweets yet, but they should. And so should Twitter. This should be the first feature addition they work on.

2. Visible, persistent tweeting area

The lack of a text field in which to tweet is, according to Doug, a deliberate decision. Doug told me the rationale behind this is that the focus of the app is on “consumption over production” and since people spend so much more time reading than writing on Twitter, the element should remain hidden until needed. I respectfully disagree with this rationale. Optimizing for consumption is not necessarily helped by de-optimizing the production process. Here is the production process on Twitter vs. Echofon:

With keystrokes (power users):

Twitter:

  1. Control-Tab to app (2 keystrokes)
  2. Control-N (2 keystrokes)

Total: 4 keystrokes

Echofon:

  1. Control-Tab to app (2 keystrokes)

Total: 2 keystrokes

With mouse (most users):

Twitter:

  1. Click on app
  2. Click on lower left icon
  3. Move mouse to “New Tweet”
  4. Click on “New Tweet”

Total: Three clicks and a mouse move

Echofon:

  1. Click on tweet field.

Total: One click

Twitter loses handily in both situations.

It is possible that Twitter is actually trying to get people to tweet less. Doug seemed to hint as much in our conversation about this. If this is a goal of Twitter — which I think is fine — I’d rather see it done via more creative means than obfuscating the interface though.

3. Better content suggestions

Building on the previous suggestion, if Twitter really wants more people to think of it as an information consumption service rather than a microblogging service, how about making it easier for (especially new) people to tune their streams? The “who to follow” feature is really well done, and I like it, but what about a Clippy-like presence in my tweet stream using a bit of artificial intelligence to suggest more people to follow? You could easily unfollow Clippy if you found him annoying, but for new users, an initial message like “Hey Mike, have you seen the new @live_from_egypt account? Live reporting from a news crew in Cairo. Follow it for updates.”

This AI-bot idea needs some further thinking, but the main point is, improve the consumption experience by improving the consumption experience… not by degrading the production experience.

4. Syncing

Echofon syncs your unread counts between multiple desktop clients and the phone client. Twitter does not. In fact, the Twitter iPhone client doesn’t even sync properly with itself sometimes. I get direct messages showing up as unread for days in a row sometimes, even after laboriously going through and “re-reading” them all. With more and more people using Twitter from multiple locations, syncing will become more and more of a necessity.

5. A configurable links-only view

This is a huge one. I actually wanted to build a company around this, but it seems like something Twitter or someone else should do. Here’s the concept: shield me from all information except links that have been tweeted/faved/retweeted by X or more of the people I follow. This builds on a concept I am using in my life more and more these days: I don’t want to hear about anything unless and until at least 2 people I know think it’s important. There’s just too much out there.

With a client that allows me to filter for links that have been tweeted at least twice, I might follow 1000 people instead of 100… or I might finally make use of lists. Imagine using this filter on a “list of tech CEOs”. I couldn’t care less what 2000 tech CEOs have to say, but I would like to know if at least 10 of them referenced the same link one day. It’s a very powerful concept, and one that encourages people to add more inputs instead of removing them.

General design notes

As with everything Doug designs or directs, the Twitter client is a beautiful work of art. From an esthetic standpoint, it’s really pretty to look at. I wish it had bigger edges to grab onto, followed the HIG more closely, and a few other minor things, but overall, I’m happy enough with the way it looks. I just don’t love the way it works. Hopefully if the excellent design team at Twitter agrees with some of the points above, we’ll see a more useful client released with the next revision. For now, however, I’m sticking with the client that makes up for its looks with its great personality: Echofon.

Shared
Humanity's deep future:

A group of researchers at the Future of Humanity Institute talk about where our race may be going and how artificial intelligence could save or kill us all.

Steve Jobs speaks about the future at the International Design Conference in 1983:

31 years later, it’s safe to say this is one of the most prescient speeches about technology ever delivered. Jobs covers wireless networking, tablets, Google StreetView, Siri, and the App Store (among other things) many years before their proliferation. A fantastic listen.

How to travel around the world for a year:

Great advice for when you finally find the time.

LiveSurface:

A fantastic app for prototyping your design work onto real world objects like billboards, book covers, and coffee cups. This seems like just as great of a tool for people learning design as it does for experts.

50 problems in 50 days:

One man’s attempt to solve 50 problems in 50 days using only great design. Some good startup ideas in here…

How to Do Philosophy:

If you’ve ever suspected that most classical philosophy is a colossal waste of time, Paul Graham tells you why you’re probably right.

TIME: Why Medical Bills Are Killing Us:

Stephen Brill follows the money to uncover the pinnacle of corruption that is the U.S. Health Care system. A must-read article if there ever was one.

DIY Dot Org:

A beautifully designed site full of fun and challenging DIY projects. I could spend months on here.

The Steve Jobs Video Archive:

A collection of over 250 Steve Jobs videos in biographical order

Self-portraits from an artist under the influence of 48 different psychoactive drug combos.

Water Wigs are pretty amazing.

David Pogue proposes to his girlfriend by creating a fake movie trailer about them and then getting a theater to play it before a real movie. Beautiful and totally awesome.

Jonah Peretti's letter to BuzzFeed’s employees:

If you’re wondering what a excellent blueprint for a modern media company looks like, look no further than Buzzfeed CEO Jonah Peretti’s latest email to his employees. In it, Peretti explains a lot of his company’s virtues, the most important being a relentless focus on always providing what’s best for the user. Vox Media (operators of The Verge) is the only other company I can think of which approaches this level of reform and execution.

The Covers Project:

I love this so much: a cross-referenceable database of cover songs, searchable by song or artist. Slowed down, acoustic covers — no matter the song — are so enjoyable to me that I wish it was a requirement to play one at every show. If you like them as much as I do, make sure to check out M. Ward’s Let’s Dance or Sun Kil Moon’s entire album of Modest Mouse covers.

“More and more people in this country no longer make or do anything tangible; if your job wasn’t performed by a cat or a boa constrictor in a Richard Scarry book I’m not sure I believe it’s necessary. I can’t help but wonder whether all this histrionic exhaustion isn’t a way of covering up the fact that most of what we do doesn’t matter.”
- Tim Kreider’s denunciation of the cult of busyness is excellent. (via jimray)