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.

Earth to facebook: people hate cable companies

Facebook’s VP of Product Marketing recently had several unbelievable things to say. Among them: “about 33 percent of Facebook application makers reported profits of up to $500,000 a month” — which is ludicrous — and:

“We view ourselves as a technology company at our core. We’re the cable company creating the pipes, and what they carry is social information and engagement information about people”

Two things about this irritate the hell of out of me. (The cable thing, not the $500k a month. That is just silly.)

First, the company carrying information to my laptop is an ISP — until free speedy wifi blankets the world, that is the level of information carrier I’m going to care about. If I’m going to think about pipes beyond that, I’m probably going to think in terms of protocols like RSS and HTTP. Not facebook. Second, social and engagement information about me and my friends is not some cable channel. They’ve got the metaphor wrong on so many levels it boggles my mind. Cable channels = passive consumption, for one thing. I may choose to broadcast social information (and I do, daily, on twitter and del.icio.us and flickr) but I don’t need Facebook for that.

Yeah, I’m a Facebook user but I’m starting to wonder why. I think it would be pretty damn easy to leave and not look back. Scrabulous is great, but I don’t have to play it there. I don’t need cable.

Share it forward

My last post talked about paying for stuff (What have you ponied up for web 2.0?). Now I’m thinking about non-monetary contributions. You know, the good stuff. Sharing. Creating. Usable exhaust.

Is web 2.0 a gift economy?

Floating around on the web (in most cases free for non-commercial use according to Creative Commons licenses) I’m sharing: bookmarks, book reviews, blog posts, photographs. I’m responding to questions on twitter, fulfilling cubeville procrastination and de-stress needs via scrabulous on facebook, participating in discussion threads, leaving comments on other people’s blogs and photographs.

Notice what I haven’t called these things: content. If web 2.0 is a gift economy, the gifts simply aren’t content. See Joshua Green and Henry Jenkins The Moral Economy of Web 2.0 for more about “a rift between the ‘gift economy’ of fan culture and the commodity logic of ‘user-generated content.'”

The power of because

Despite the endless hype, web 2.0 isn’t all about money. Money might be driving the VC investments, it might (more likely, might not) be the primary motivation of startup founders, but it sure isn’t what’s driving most of the people participating. It’s about passion.

It happens without feedback, but you can get “paid” in attention when you write something and share it or take a photograph and post it to flickr. Some folks get enough attention that they choose serve up ads along with their thoughts, and they make some money that way. Others go for for the because effect over with. As in, your make money because of your blog, not with it. Because of is, ultimately, more powerful.

What are we doing?

You know the stuff you did when you were little, when you knew you could draw, before you ever worried about what do for a living (for a paycheck?) and learned that very few get paid to make art, to be creative, to tell stories? The web is now the big box of crayons, the shiny new typewriter, the paint set you always wanted. It’s lego pieces and missing instruction sheets and the gears you sketched, bored, in study hall.

It’s all these things, and it combines the ability to find other folks like you or not like you, but interested in what you are interested in. Sure, money makes things easier (when doesn’t it?) but cost doesn’t have to be an insurmountable barrier to participation anymore. Fear is that barrier. Forgetting how to share is that barrier.

See what I can make, do, think… Here’s what I’m asking, puzzling over. Here’s a story. Another chapter. A new version. It’s all out there, here, uploaded, connected. What are you doing?