finding value in “the golden age of graph innovation”

I’ve been playing around with Etsy’s taste test. Before you click on that link, I should warn you that it could potentially cost you a lot of money if you have poor shopping impulse control. What this nifty thing does is get you (in a few well-designed clicks, choosing preferred items) to a selection of objects it thinks you will really like. And it works: out of the vast inventory of things for sale on Etsy, it knew right away to serve up birds, quirky illustrations and octopus-related items.

screen grab from visualcomplexity.com/vc/

I like the idea of a taste graph much more than I like the idea of a social graph. Ok, let me amend that: I like the idea of Etsy graphing my taste far better than I like Facebook’s ham-handed attempts to own my social graph. Etsy isn’t saying it has the final word on what I like, it’s saying hey, if you like these things, you will probably like these things also. This is pretty convenient for me and for Etsy, because otherwise I’d probably never find these things.

Etsy isn’t overreaching — it isn’t saying it knows just what movie I should see or what book I should read next (perhaps Hunch could help me figure that out, or LibraryThing, or check-in taste profiler GetGlue). Chris Dixon, one of the founders of Hunch, thinks the next few years may be the golden age of graph innovation. I hope he’s right.

I am not looking for one graph to rule them all. I’m looking for tools/services that will make it easier for me to discover things I’d like, and things that will make is easy for me to share discoveries with other people without feeling like I’m pimping a service or spamming my friends. I want to plug in all sorts of info — my twitter stream, the bookmarks I save with pinboard — as well as answer questions, or set some parameters, and be happily surprised by how eerily accurate the suggestions served up are.

If a service seems useful enough, I’d pay for help managing/sharing my graphs and the graphs of others. That is one of the things I use twitter for, albeit in a clunky sort of way. I think there is much room to innovate in this space, if people can get past the build-an-audience-get-lots-of-eyeballs-for-advertising model. That model is broken. It’s not that well done. (Facebook frequently serves up completely irrelevant ads, such as one for a dating service for folks older than I am, despite knowing my age and that I am married.) It’s boring. It’s not adding any value.

I am increasingly mindful of the notion that if you aren’t paying for the product, you are the product. I don’t want to be a product, though I may want help in finding great products, or telling people I know about great products. Folks who can make the distinction and build a service that puts me in charge of my information and the information about my connections — I want to see what they let me do and build with my graphs, what they make possible or just easy that was impossible or impossibly difficult before.

How long has the sky been falling?

I came across Rebecca Solnit’s essay Finding Time today, probably via twitter. I don’t remember who linked to it, and now it has been in a open browser tab too long for me to reconstruct the path. It starts off great:

THE FOUR HORSEMEN OF MY APOCALYPSE are called Efficiency, Convenience, Profitability, and Security, and in their names, crimes against poetry, pleasure, sociability, and the very largeness of the world are daily, hourly, constantly carried out. These marauding horsemen are deployed by technophiles, advertisers, and profiteers to assault the nameless pleasures and meanings that knit together our lives and expand our horizons.

It’s from three years ago. In web time, this makes it it old. It was written before Facebook got really big, before just about anyone outside of SXSW attendees knew what twitter was. Before the new normal or great reset or whatever we’re calling the present time now.

So, the sky has been falling for awhile.

… I talk to a book editor who’s trying to articulate what goes missing when you go to Amazon.com for books: the absence of the opportunities for browsing, for finding what you don’t know you’re looking for or can’t describe in a key-word search. A digital storefront can lead you to your goal if you know exactly how to spell it, but it shows you next to nothing on the way; it prevents your world from getting significantly or surprisingly larger. The virtual version rips out the heart of the thing, shrink-wraps it, sticks a barcode on, and throws the rest away. This horseman is called Efficiency. He is followed by the horseman called Profitability. Along with Convenience, they trample underfoot the subtle encounters that suffuse a life with meaning.

Thing is, the web doesn’t have to work this way. Even Amazon.com doesn’t work this way: you look up a book, and you find links to other books people who have bought that book also bought, you find reviews some of which have pointers to yet more books, you see lists with even more books you weren’t looking for that this book is somehow in someone’s mind connected to. The web is a serendipity engine.

Amazon.com doesn’t prevent my world from getting significantly or surprisingly larger, any more than a trip to McNally Jackson (my latest bookstore crush) guarantees it. It’s about my mindset, about my being open to new experiences and ideas. It’s about willingness to open my eyes and look around me — online, inside, or outside.

Virtual versions don’t have to rip out the heart of the thing. I’ll confess, the shrink-wrapped barcoded lifeless version makes me think more of big box stores and their crappy fluorescent lighting than tapping away on my beloved machine in my living room does, even if I wind up getting something wonderful delivered to my door in a cardboard box as a result.

So while I want to agree with Solnit that we have a need to find time, to slow down and let ourselves think, I don’t blame technology for the times I fail do so.

… the same problem applies to most of the technological changes we embrace and many of the material and spatial ones. The gains are simple and we know the adjectives: convenient, efficient, safe, fast, predictable, productive. All good things for a machine, but lost in the list is the language to argue that we are not machines and our lives include all sorts of subtleties — epiphanies, alliances, associations, meanings, purposes, pleasures — that engineers cannot design, factories cannot build, computers cannot measure, and marketers will not sell. What we cannot describe vanishes into the ether, and so what begins as a problem of language ends as one of the broadest tragedies of our lives.

The best things in life… aren’t easy to describe. They aren’t packaged and sold to us, we aren’t urged to use credit to acquire them right now, whether or not we can actually afford them. I agree with Solnit on this point; I’d even agree we live a world that has devoted amazing amounts of energy to giving us for the words for things we don’t need while making it difficult (but not impossible) to find the language to talk about the things we do need.

But it isn’t technology that makes this hard to do. We can choose what’s easy and fast even if it isn’t what’s best or even good enough, and sometimes we do. We can choose to act out of greed or fear, and sometimes we do. Sometimes we don’t, and maybe we don’t talk about the struggle often enough. We don’t invest the time in finding the words, in sharing the words, in hearing how they sound.

But we could.