Google Circles is high work and low return: Why Groups are the right way to organize people

Google Circles is what would happen if Twitter forced people to organize people into Twitter Lists the second they follow someone. 

Yet this underscores the fundamental problem with Circles. They're just mine and only I get to see them. In fact, they're even more closed off and private than Twitter Lists, which at the very least show up in your profile, and turn into a way to discover more people who are similar.

On Twitter, you can see how many lists people have been added to, thus turning it into both discovery and social signal. Since Twitter is like high school, social signaling is critical to being able to identify and follow influentials. This fits the social graph of Twitter perfectly, and incentivizes the exact kind of behavior Twitter for which it has always been used.

On Facebook, Groups are the preferred way for people to self-organize. When someone adds someone to the group, it is a shared alteration of the experience. I would argue this is the ideal form of online self-organizing behavior. With Twitter Lists, most of the benefit goes to the user who created it -- while with Circles ALL of the benefit goes to the person who created it. This is one-time work that cannot be reused. On the other hand, with Groups, users who are added to a group can organically add additional members. Once you're in a group, assumedly that group continues to get better over time. A group can arise organically around specific topics. 

Ultimately what this amounts to is a shared reality. In the same way Wikipedia becomes better after every single edit forever, Facebook Groups provides a shared reality that, given proper management by the admins, will always get better. And that will always beat Google Circles because it spreads the work of organization over many people instead of just one. 

In summary:
  • Twitter Lists provide social signal and discovery. High level of effort, but at least there's some modicum of gain to be had. 
  • Facebook Groups provide a semi-public shared space that automatically gets better. Low level of effort but high amount of social benefit. 
  • Google+ Circles force people to do a lot of work, but that work is pretty much only useful to themselves. High level of effort and low level of return. 
If you're Google, this seems like the wrong end of the spectrum to be at. High work, low return. That's the opposite of what we've come to know about successful social structures online. 

The achievement sound

Ever notice this sound when you unlock something on Xbox Live? Isn't it amazing how satisfying it feels? Play it back a few times. For gamers, this is like hitting the little button in the cage that dispenses crack.

Now that you have access to this Youtube video, you can hit that crack button as many times as you want.

If you're creating a service or game online, think about the sounds that you can associate with peak experiences. Human beings are emotional creatures... the more we are aware of how these emotions can be associated with sounds, sights or actions, the better we can design things that are pleasurable and addictive.

Why the new task UI in Taskrabbit has great behavioral design

Taskrabbit is a cool service that helps people list local tasks that they'd like to hire people to do. It's also a great example of behavioral design-- helping users not just complete the task but want to do it as well. 

Here's the new task UI:

1) Great copy is great communication

Copy is UI, UI is copy. The only way you can explain what's happening on the screen is by the text and elements on the screen. They work together. You must explain what's going on, and what's next. Yes, you know what's happening, but you're the creator of the UI. Users have no such context.

Remember that as a designer, you must design with intention in mind, but evaluate what you create with beginner's eyes. Often in YC office hours, PG will point out glaring holes in people's designs -- but it is because he has honed this skill of viewing a web page with the eyes of a novice, even if you've been talking about the idea with him for hours.

Clear your mind, read what you've got, and if it doesn't make sense, then explain. Rinse, repeat.

2) Great use of contrast to determine what's important and what's more information 

You'll notice the darkest pieces of information (highest contrast) are the headers for the specific inputs. "Title of your Task" for instance. It's big, it's dark, and it commands the most initial attention. This establishes a visual hierarchy. All things below that title pertain to that particular input. There's proper padding between inputs so that the grouping is further reinforced. 

Some products mistake extreme brevity for being simple. Wrong. You should strive to have enough text to properly guide the user to their task. A long block of text that is undifferentiated won't be read, of course -- so your main tool here is to make the important stuff bolder, larger, and command more attention. Then write additional text in a smaller, lower contrast font.

If they care, they'll read it. If they don't, they won't. And that's just OK. The important part is that people complete the task. 

3) Show a lot of examples

It's the worst when UI doesn't show an example at all. It's the rudest experience. Imagine a brusque waiter, or a bank clerk who can't be bothered to help you with what you're trying to do. That's what you're doing when you don't show more examples. 

Yes, that even means helping people with writing titles.Notice how Taskrabbit drops a greyed-out tip right there in the textbox.

DO THIS. There's nothing that will orient a user more as to what they should put than text right there inside the textbox they're about to fill out. Don't forget to clear it when the textbox gets focus, though.

4) Progressive Disclosure

See those little links at the bottom? They're optional. And they don't take more space than they need. If someone wants it, they'll click. If someone doesn't want it, they won't. 

This is virtually your only tool to create things that are both powerful and simple. Use it everywhere and you too will be both easy to use and powerful. 


Remember, UI is a conversation that you have with your users, hundreds if not thousands of times a day. But if you can make that conversation go well... it'll be a few million times a day soon enough. 

Again, props to Sarah Harrison, @sourjayne, Taskrabbit Director of UX. I am impressed. Two thumbs up, way up.

Like this article? PS, you can follow me on twitter here.

Facebook newsfeed rollups: Attention hoarding behavior

Noticed this on my minifeed recently: 

94 items from Twitter? This may well be an unintentional consequence of rolling up message updates per Facebook Application. Lord knows there are a lot of apps out there like Farmville that produce an incredible amount of noise. The natural way to limit the impact of other apps on the overall Facebook experience is to collapse these.

But at the same time, it is quite a profound way to greatly limit the effectiveness of other apps on the platform. 

Facebook is well within its rights to do this. It certainly isn't new, too. It is advantageous behavior. Facebook activity is regarded as premium and gets more attention. As Twitter consolidates power and cuts out third parties from the attention stream by telling people not to create twitter clients anymore, it makes total sense that Facebook incentivize use of its own authoring tools. 

Anytime attention is pooled together, there's value. Like water in a desert, creators of apps of all kinds will seek that attention anywhere it can get it. Whether it is after a Google Search or on a habitual reload of a StumbleUpon page, cmd-tab to Twitter App or dopamine-seeking Facebook visit.

It is a profound metaphor. As app creators, we seek this attention, and to pool it, to divert it, and to control it... Attention, like water, as life-giver. Attention, like water, as enabler. Attention allows us to create our cities and charge rent on the whole thing. 

It so happens that some of the nicest cities to spend time in are created out of the public good (Craigslist and Wikipedia), while others are twisted up corporatocracies (examples left as an exercise for the reader). 

Panoramas are the next level in photographic representation

I can't believe I'd never seen this before. My housemate Alok showed this to me yesterday. is probably one of the world's foremost websites for super high quality panorama photos. 

For instance, the only high quality known panorama of what it's like at the Summit of Mount Everest:

Definitely click through to see the full panorama, it is breathtaking. Apparently this was taken with 3 exposures stitched together. Over a hundred people have died trying to climb this mountain just to see this sight.  


A few other amazing ones -- ever seen a sunrise on a snowy beach in Denmark? This one is especially remarkable because you can't observe the observer. 

Or how about a panorama of what Neil Armstrong saw on the surface of the moon? Along with nice audio of exactly what went over the radios during that famed Apollo 11 flight.

Whether it is the zen nature of an observerless observer or the sheer visual splendor of places you may never go... I for one am a fan of panoramas. If deepening our appreciation for life and art can be brought by a dedication to truer representations of experience, then panoramas are just one of many artistic mediums to achieve that. 

Sagan Series: "Are we to venture out into space?"

So beautiful. The Sagan Series is a tribute project by Reid Gower

We were hunters and foragers. The frontier was everywhere. We were bounded only by the earth, and the ocean, and the sky. The open road still softly calls. Our little terraqueous globe as the madhouse of those hundred thousand millions of worlds. We, who cannot even put our own planetary home in order, riven with rivalries and hatreds; are we to venture out into space?

By the time we are ready to settle even the nearest other planetary systems, we will have changed. The simple passage of so many generations will have changed us; necessity will have changed us. We are... an adaptable species. It will not be we who reach Alpha Centauri and the other nearby stars. It will be a species very like us, but with more of our strengths, and fewer of our weaknesses; more confident, farseeing, capable and prudent. 

For all our failings, despite our limitations and fallibilities, we humans are capable of greatness. What new wonders undreamt of in our time, will we have wrought in another generation, and another? How far will our nomadic species have wandered, by the end of the next century, and the next millennium? 

Our remote descendants, safely arrayed on many worlds through the solar system, and beyond, will be unified, by their common heritage, by their regard for their home planet, and by the knowledge that, whatever other life may be, the only humans in all the universe, come from Earth. They will gaze up and strain to find the blue dot in their skies. They will marvel at how vulnerable the repository of all our potential once was, how perilous our infancy, how humble our beginnings, how many rivers we had to cross, before we found our way.

Transcript by Eddie Choo

View all the videos at

It brings a tear to my eye.

Harvesting our amygdalas? Or trying to make the world a better place?

Jim Stogdill at O'Reilly Radar writes about Facebook and how they're actually farming our amygdala for information about our preferences and future actions.

Your mind is advanced enough to experience a self, a self that you think has intrinsic value. But that's just a construction in your head. Your actual extrinsic value, I'm sorry to say, is just the sum of your known behaviors and the predictive model they make possible. The stuff you think of as "your data" and the web thinks of as "our data about you — read the ToS," is the grist for that mill. And Facebook's shiny front room is just a place for you to behave promiscuously and observably. While you're farming, well, fake carrots or something, they are farming your amygdala.

It's a cool idea. Yes, our preferences are being recorded and mined. But I don't dig the sentiment that absolutely and necessarily a bad thing. How about saving us time, money, and effort? Isn't that the point of technology anyway?

At the risk of sounding like some sort of technological libertarian... well, yes, there is a certain invisible hand here that guides our actions and aligns our incentives. Clearly as human beings, we DO STUFF. And if the tools (whether Gmail, Facebook, Twitter, or some other communication facility) help us do that stuff faster, better, and for cheaper, then by all means.

We are still adjusting to the advent of new communication technology. Every major advance will result in a backlash. While new communication technology can be used to surveil and control people, I hardly think this is the aim of Facebook or any other innovator here.

The smarter systems get, the better we live. That's the point of technology. Lets not tilt at imaginary windmills. Especially if those windmills are out to get us.

Robert Thurman says we can find enlightenment through the interconnectedness brought to us by computers

Photo by Edward Burtynsky

Professor Robert Thurman gave an amazing TED lecture years ago that I recently rewatched. The topic: We can be Buddhas. We can find enlightenment. But one piece of it caught my eye. This quote:

"...all the interconnectedness of all the computers and everything, it's the forging of a mass awareness, of where everybody can really know everything that's going on everywhere in the planet."

Who is to say the time we spend in front of a computer does not promote deeper, real relationships? We are more connected with people than ever. And future generations will be even more so. I get that there's a general sentiment that spending more time on Facebook or Twitter isn't valuable "real people time." This sentiment is wrong.

I can take a small step into other people's minds and experiences when I dip into my activity streams. I found out minutes ago that an old friend of mine may become vegan because of an indie movie he saw. That's a tiny slice but it lets me step out of my own world. Ideas, experiences, slices of life, sent around the world and shared instantaneously for anyone who happens to be listening. And listen they do -- in the dozens, the hundreds, the thousands, the millions. 

Chris Sacca often gets asked how to get more followers for themselves, complaining of having only a couple hundred. He has millions. In the past, he's replied: Have you ever had to give a speech to a wedding reception? Say of 100 people, even. Most people would be scared to death. But that's what you can do for no cost at all to you. You can speak to a hundred people at any time at your every whim. That's powerful. 

Robert Thurman goes on though. There are consequences to this transparency. This new and possibly limitless interconnectedness. 

And therefore it will become intolerable -- what compassion is, is where it will become intolerable for us, totally intolerable that we sit here in comfort and in pleasure and enjoying the life of the mind or whatever it is, and there are people who are absolutely riddled with disease and they cannot have a bite of food and they have no place, or they're being brutalized by some terrible person and so forth. It just becomes intolerable. With all of us knowing everything, we're kind of forced by technology to become Buddhas or something, to become enlightened.


  Because our egocentric perception -- from the Buddha's point of view, misperception -- is that all we are is what is inside our skin. And it's inside and outside, self and other, and other is all very different. And everyone here is unfortunately carrying that habitual perception, a little bit, right? You know, someone sitting next to you in a seat -- that's OK because you're in a theater, but if you were sitting on a park bench and someone came up and sat that close to you, you'd freak out. What do they want from me? Like, who's that? And so you wouldn't sit that close to another person because of your notion that it's you versus the universe -- that's all Buddha discovered. Because that cosmic basic idea that it is us all alone, each of us, and everyone else is different, then that puts us in an impossible situation, doesn't it? Who is it who's going to get enough attention from the world? Who's going to get enough out of the world? Who's not going to be overrun by an infinite number of other beings -- if you're different from all the other beings?

  So where compassion comes is where you surprisingly discover you lose yourself in some way: through art, through meditation, through understanding, through knowledge actually, knowing that you have no such boundary, knowing your interconnectedness with other beings. You can experience yourself as the other beings when you see through the delusion of being separated from them. When you do that, you're forced to feel what they feel. 

  But apparently, this is a strange paradox of life. When you're no longer locked in yourself, and as the wisdom, or the intelligence, or the scientific knowledge of the nature of the world, that enables you to let your mind spread out, and empathize, and enhance the basic human ability of empathizing, and realizing that you are the other being, somehow by that opening, you can see the deeper nature of life, and you can, you get away from this terrible iron circle of I, me, me, mine, like the Beatles used to sing.

Mirror neurons strike again. Empathy. We must step out of ourselves, our ego, our own tiny worlds. Through that, we find enlightenment. 

It is an amazing time to be alive, to be able to participate in some small part of this... this next evolutionary step in human society. Of enlightened, interconnected experience.

Who knew? Powerline adapters push 50Mbps+ connectivity through your wall outlets these days.

This is one of the least talked-about things in tech... Probably because for most people, internet connectivity isn't a problem. 802.11n is pretty amazing. But it sucks for larger houses or those with a lot of walls. Like where I moved recently.

Luckily after some research, I think we found our solution. Powerline adapters! Whereas 802.11n will get severely limited by walls and distance, powerline stuff seems to hold pretty steady even at long distances.

Someone even did full benchmarks on it.

Technology marches on steadily, and I am heartened. Ten years ago this tech was pretty worthless. Now it looks like a real viable option.

If you own the infrastructure you get to charge rent: What Apple's 30% charge teaches us about the attention economy

Most businesses on the Internet are just like business everywhere else. You make something people want, then sell it. Stalwarts from Amazon and eBay to the hottest startups of today like AirBnb, Etsy and ModCloth all can be classified as fundamental marketplaces bringing people and goods/services together. Content sites are just classic media -- they make money on ads. Apps have driven the computing landscape forever -- you pay for software that does things you need. All of these endeavors convert the raw resource of attention into dollars. That's the simplest and most direct way to profits on the Internet. To turn water into wine, if you will.

Google, Facebook, Apple, and other fundamental pieces of the attention infrastructure are different. They make money with a fundamentally different mechanism, and mint profits dramatically. Why? They get to charge every other business on the Internet. 

  • Google practically owns TWO pillars of these: organic search (SEO) and paid search (SEM) -- every online business pays attention to these two channels.
  • Facebook and Twitter essentially control the Social Media attention infrastructure. Further, Facebook has one of the most sophisticated targeting technologies for ads ever created. Some retailers can make 2x-4x returns on their ad spend. That's real.
  • Apple has created its own form of infrastructure through their app stores. They've essentially created new attention marketplaces for both content and applications. With today's news, they are cashing in. 
  • Yahoo was once the darling of attention infrastructure in its hey day. Because the Internet was so new and uncharted, Yahoo was modeled after the OLD RL infrastructure -- Madison avenue and big media. 

What happens when you own infrastructure? You get to charge rent on all the other businesses. Since the Internet is entirely attention-based, you can't really make money on the Internet if you don't spend some money to get that attention. That's why virtually every savvy Internet retailer has segmented their marketing departments into the infrastructure triad of SEM, SEO, and Social Media. In Apple's case: Apps can't sell without a marketplace. 

In the 1800's, the advent of the railroad changed American society fundamentally. You could ship things long distances for the first time. What that allowed railroad companies to do is not that different from what attention infrastructure players can do today. They can charge whatever they want. And railroad industry barons did -- arbitrarily charging farmers more than their industrialist friends from big oil. Farmers had to band together in movements like the Grange movement to fight for their rights. The difference today is that technology moves so fast that the government can't possibly regulate it. 

Thankfully, since innovation can happen fast, alternatives have and will continue to appear. Imagine how much of a bind app developers would be in if Android didn't exist yet. Now seems like a good time to be betting long on the open and free nature of the Android App Store. User experience problems can be solved with money. Last I heard, Google had some. 

What can startup entrepreneurs learn from this framework? 

Attention infrastructure companies are structurally very different from fundamental businesses. They: 

  • Require significant capital infusion and management of fundraising to avoid dilution -- look at how closely the creators of all of these infrastructure players especially recently (Facebook, Google, Twitter) have had to manage their fundraising
  • Are much riskier but provide much bigger reward: Many try and fail, but winners take all -- it's much hard to actually become infrastructure. For every big player, there are inumerable failures. The juice is worth the squeeze, though. 
  • Created by technologists -- this is where hackers shine. The attention economy happens at the cutting edge of where technology meets society. Turns out people who are good with blades are the right people to build these things. 

Fundamental businesses, on the other hand:

  • Earn money immediately -- can start with little capital! ModCloth started as a side project of two brilliant CMU students just selling vintage dresses, a redux of the eBay for pez dispensers story a decade earlier. 
  • Less risk up front  -- because you make money right away. It's easier to know you have something people want if you can test it on a hourly/daily/weekly basis, especially if you're a marketplace.
  • Can still go huge -- can use the virtuous cycles of the attention infrastructure to grow, sometimes exponentially. Every time you put a dollar into Google at positive ROI, you get more dollars back. So if you keep feeding dollars into the machine, you'll end up with some big numbers. That's one hell of a money machine.

This turns out to be a valuable framework for identifying viable Internet startup ideas. Are you building something that could become infrastructure? Or are you building a fundamental value-generating business that uses the infrastructure? Both are amazing business models, but have radically different risk profiles. But as Apple has reminded us today -- it's good to be king.