Digging into Satisfaction

Quite a while back I reade a book called Satisfaction: the science of finding true fulfillment. The book is about the scientific escapades of its author, Gregory Berns, as he seeks the answer to a number of questions about happiness. The book varies from extremely technical descriptions of Berns’ research in neuroeconomics to extremely accessible stories and anecdotes that most people can related to. It’s a highly enjoyable read, and I recommend it to anyone who likes reading pop science.

I give a lot of love to authors that use footnotes. When someone can write a completely accessible book but still maintain depth by referencing all of the relevant literature in endnotes, they are a master communicator. Satisfaction has a number of interesting footnotes that I have intended to follow up on; as a service to myself I’m going to place them here as well.

Zen and the diffusion of links

Yesterday I had a moment I can only classify as Zen. Amidst the flurry of hundreds of RSS chunks, emails and IMs spreading between thousands of people, some signal seemed to appear out of the noise. Unfortunately, I am not omnicient, and cannot put the puzzle together completely. Perhaps someone can enlighten me.

1. Sometime in the AM, I follow a link from Nelson’s Linkblog to a story on a blog called Collision Detection about the limitations of multitasking. I find it interesting, so I post it to del.icio.us.

2. I follow a link from Jason to a nerd comic about sandwiches. I laugh, and this makes me a nerd. I do not want people to know this, so I refrain from posting to del.icio.us.

3. Kathryn sends me back to Collision Detection, this time for a story about Matmos sampling an Enigma machine for an upcoming song. This is too much of a coincidence, two links to Collision Detection in one day, so I do some research. Of course it turns out that this is the weblog of Clive Thompson, author for Wired, New York Times Magazine, et al. I add him to my RSS reader, of course.

4. Later in the evening, Clive posts about a funny t-shirt produced by Randall Monroe, the author of the aformentioned nerd comic. Ok, something is definitely amiss here.

Nelson → Clive, Kottke → Randall, Katheryn → Clive, Clive → Randall. This is too much for coincidence. Will someone please tell me what is going on?

Facebook opens registration

facebook logoFacebook has recently been making big changes, such as offering APIs and experimenting with privacy. Some of these changes have been met with positive feedback, and others with hostility, but it is obvious from these recent experiments that they are testing new waters. Probably the biggest change they have proposed though is opening registration to anyone interested in joining (Techcrunch coverage here). Facebook’s message to users makes is sound as though they providing a needed service, but I think their intentions are clear: they want to beat MySpace, and they aren’t going to wait for long.

As with any massively engaged social system it’s extremely hard to predict how the entire community will collectively react to a decision like open registration. In order to think about how this change might affect adoption and usage, let me first introduce a two unique qualities of their current system.

Fresh networks: College students have a unique need for networking software. When a freshman arrives at school, they have few friends, and an overwhelming number of people to interact with. Somehow every year, hundreds of thousands of freshmen figure things out and new networks arise. Facebook provides a service to these newcomers, allowing them to search and locate people with similar tastes in a much more efficient manner.

Natural privacy: The first security model employed by Facebook was extremely restrictive, allowing only those individuals at a given school to see others within the same domain. However, this boundry sits at a natural location: schools are communities with extremely strong ingroup affiliation, and growing or shrinking this boundary does not make the group any more cohesive. Schools have formal systems for dealing with problems that might arise from students, taking the load off of Facebook.

Both of these properties are changing with open registration. First, people signing up from outside a college will not be in the position of looking for an entirely new network of friends. This means growth will be much slower, and will not reach the saturation rates that Facebook sees among college users. Instead of having nearly 100% of college students, they will be selecting for users who have certain demographic profiles.

Second, privacy will no longer be as simple as being in the same email domain as your friends. The site has a host of new privacy features, such as specifying the level of visibility of your profile to each friend. The complexity introduced by this lack of natural boundaries will make it harder for the system to match users’ real lives. Those students that used the system because it was easy might rethink their decision.

Third, the boundaries that created strong ingroup affiliation will no longer be relevant. Even though privacy boundaries will still exist, because users will have more friends from the outside, the distinction between “my college” and the outside world will not be as relevant. Not considered a college tool by users, it might very well stop being used as such.

To restate, it’s hard to predict how massive social systems will change with the introduction of new members, but opening registration to the masses will certainly introduce some sort of catalyst into the system. They were smart to wait until this year’s incoming class had adopted the tool, but we may very well see a different reaction from new students next year.

YouTube adds backlinks

Last week YouTube released a new player along with a few other features across the site (for some reason they have yet to blog about these changes). Personally I liked the look and feel of their old player more, but that is beside the point: the new interface exposes the most popular off-site links to the given video (a.k.a. backlinks), allowing users to discover who is really driving viewership. From my brief interaction, it appears the video must be embedded on the source page, and not simply a text link. Here’s the backlinks for their most popular video of all time (Evolution of Dance):

YouTube backlinks
YouTube backlinks

What you find inside this little hidden window is usually not startling: MySpace profiles, i-am-bored.com, and so on. But in some cases the backlinks are more interesting. Take for instance the popular Treadmills video by Ok Go is apparently the most downloaded music video of all time. In YouTube’s backlinks we find the largest driver of traffic to be a weblog named fugufish, with over 200k links. Who is this mysterious blogger? Were they the first people to identify the video, or simply a maven that brought it to a larger audience? For a researcher of diffusion (such as myself), these links are fascinating, and start allowing us to understand how giant internet memes tend to spread.

This move also continues to solidify YouTube’s place in the ever-evolving media ecology of the web. It solidifies the video site as a platform integrated with other media providers. You can think of this feature as a sort of traffic-share with those sites that drive the most viewership; just as AdSense shares Google’s ad revenue with publishers who use the ads, YouTube will now reward bloggers with traffic for using YouTube as their video platform. YouTube was a pioneer in the platform approach to building an audience, and they continue to innovate.

MIT 9/11 Hack

The fifth anniversary of September 11, 2001 was much more respectful than I expected. It seemed that most people remembered the day with a somber reverence that was personal to their experience. One memorial that struck a chord in me took place at MIT:

MIT Hack
MIT 9/11 Hack: fire truck on the Great Dome (photo François Proulx)

In a manner only possible on MIT’s campus, and probably only relevant to the greater MIT community, someone stuck a firetruck atop the Great Dome. I received a few emails on mailing lists today about a hack, but it wasn’t until I checked my flickr stream that I realized what was going on. To be honest, I didn’t even get it for a few moments. It’s a beautiful piece of work.

Myspace graffiti

While walking through the streets of Florence, we stumbled upon a perplexing piece of graffiti:

I’m sure people have written about MySpace and tagging, but this is absurd. How did AndyG, a 25 year old hip hop artist from Orange County (or a fan) decide to promote his music on an ancient building in Florence?

If this graffiti artist had read the plaques before tagging, s/he could have actually put this advertisement on the birthplace and childhood home of Michaelangelo, which was right across the alley.

Weird Al – White and Nerdy

weird al - white and nerdyWeird Al has a way of coming out of nowhere and grabbing the attention of a generation of nerds, well, just about once per generation of nerds. For me it was Michael Jackson (video), for some it was Nirvana (video), and maybe even The Kinks for a few. There is something beatuiful about the nerdification of pop culture. Of course there were a few misses in there as well.

This was mostly before the internet, of course. A song from his upcoming release Straight Outta Lynwood titled “White and Nerdy” has been leaked and is currently doing its rounds on the Web:

Original: Chamillionaire – Ridin’ Dirty (video)

Nerdification: Weird Al – White and Nerdy (audio)

The copy on putfile currently has over 1250 diggs, and for good reason: the lyrics are f’ing hilarious.

My MySpace page is all totally pimped out
Got people beggin’ for my top eight spaces
Yo, I know pi to a thousand places
Ain’t got no grills but I still wear braces

One question I’ve always had is what the original artists think of these parodies. Well, the artist responsible for “Ridin’ (video),” Chamillionaire, has put the Weird Al version up on his Myspace profile. I guess he likes it. Weird Al also notes that the video is finished, which is less surprising than the fact that he has an active Myspace blog.
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Wikipedia to overtake porn

It’s a well-known fact that pornography drives the development of technology. Whether you’re talking about the Internet, VHS, or papyrus, porn pushed the envelope and paid the way for the development of the underlying media. Well, I hate to admit it, but it appears that pr0n is moving on:

As this Google trend clearly shows, the user-generated encyclopedia Wikipedia is about to overtake porn. What does this mean? SERIOUS INFORMATION IS DISPLACING PORNOGRAPHY! Do we really think that people looking for articles on the history of corn farming are going to pay for advancements to the information superhighway? I hate to be a naysayer, but I think we’re headed towards the inevitable end of the internet.

Time to start studying video phones.

Privacy and transparency

Recently Facebook has introduced a few feature which has raised a lot of attention among users and bloggers. This piece of the system, called the News Feed shows you activity of your contacts within Facebook. If your friend posts to their blog, uploads a photo, attends an event or changes almost anything in their profile, these show up in your news feed. Many of the users have voiced complaints, saying that this is an infringement of their privacy, namely exposing their activities in a way that makes it easy for people to track their behavior.

Why would Facebook implement such a feature? My guess is that they hope this new level of transparency will cause people to be more active. For instance, if I see that my friend is attending an event, I might choose to join them and attend as well. This type of event log is not new; Upcoming has had a similar feature for many months now. In both cases these logs detail events happening around the system that could be observed otherwise, but in a form that is much more easily consumed. Why do Facebook users care? The system has now made peoples actions too transparent, in a way that would limit their ability to express themselves without fear of their privacy being breached. In fact, the result of this new feature may have the opposite effect than they anticipated: users might start censoring their actions in order to avoid being noticed.

As another example, take the political campain contribution website Fundrace.org. Thanks to campaign financing laws, all contributions of over $200 to a political campaign or party must be made public. These data are collected by the Federal Election Commission (FEC) and made available in electronic form for download. Eyebeam researchers took the files provided by the FEC, indexed them, and made a search engine available to the web. Now anyone could easily find contributers by their last name or address.

One result of this simple transformation was that campaign contributers thought their privacy had been breached. Even though their contributions are required to be public, that does not mean that they are required to be indexed so that people can be easily found. In this case Eyebeam made the FEC data more transparent, and as a result, those who contributed felt betrayed.

In developing social software, there is an inherent tradeoff between transparency and privacy; finding the correct balance is a demanding task, and one that needs to be carefully user-tested. While the overall benefit to a system might be positive, some features will cause some users to be angry, while others will result in serious privacy infringements. While the benefits to tranparency can be huge, users must feel safe and protected at all times, and the transition from comfort to discomfort can happen in a matter of seconds.

Online communities just a few years ago were mainly opaque about user activities, most probably in protection of EULAs and privacy advocacy. Nearly every Web 2.0 company alerts you when people have affected your account, such as somone adding you as a contact in Flickr or Myspace. It’s only now that we’re pushing up against this line of transparency, and I would expect in the next few years a set of best practices will evolve as to what features are admissable and which are not.