Tag Archives: Facebook

The Site I don’t Promote

This article makes me a hypocrite. I’m telling you about a site of mine — promoting it, basically — and at the same time telling you that it’s a site I don’t talk about.

Hopefully this will make sense to you by the end of my story.

I have a lot of sites and apps. I think somewhere around 30 or so. Most I am very happy to pump, like my funny picture site, my site for talking about paychecks, or my site for my e-book series on practically applying Agile in your team. But this site is a special case.

A couple of years ago, I wrote about what many are now calling “technology addiction” The problem is that many web sites are using psychological, social, and gaming tricks to pull readers into more engagement than they would naturally give. Facebook is a great example — it uses your own friends to suck you into the site. But there are others. Instead of a place for textual information that links to other textual information, the web is becoming a few addictive sites doing anything they can to get you to stay and/or click on ads. That’s not where we wanted to go, and it occurred to me my problem can be restated like this:

There is a finite amount of text I want to consume from the web each day. Perhaps I scan 30-40 editorials. Instead of chasing down these editorials on various aggregation sites, then clicking through and using something like readability to remove the graphics, it’s in my best interests to have a computer assemble all of these in one place in plain text format. No ads, no graphics, no commenting, no nothing. Just the text, please. That way I can consume much faster. Over time, perhaps I can train the system to order this list. Also it would be nice if it all was client-side so I could continue to consume without an internet connection, say on an airplane. Using AI to reduce the article size to a paragraph or two would also be nice

And so newspaper23 was born.

Newspaper23 isn’t much to look at. It’s really kind of a dull app with all that plain text and all. That’s kind of the point. But I’ve been using it daily for over a year now, and each time I upgrade I make a little tweak to it. Right now it only provides opinions: sports, religion, politics, world, science and miscellaneous. And it doesn’t count voting (although the only graphic I allowed myself was a neat voting animation) or reduce the article size. But I could expand. Add voting. Do some Bayesian ranking. But I remain conflicted about the app.

Why? It should be pretty obvious to most startup readers. Alarm bells should be going off. Web content providers do not want to provide me with content like that. They do not want me using first-click, or readability, or any other kind of tool to get just the text of the article. They want to build a walled garden and have me come and play in it. Perhaps stay there and poke around. Play a game or two. Exactly the opposite goal that I have. I don’t blame them. After all, creating these sites requires a lot of work. And I have no desire to hurt anybody or upset the apple cart. To me, the only thing I’ve done is automate a bunch of clicking I was already doing.

Yet the problem remains: this is a useful app which many people will not like.

I remain very conflicted. On one hand this is not something I want to promote to a mass audience. On the other hand this is something that I have found very useful and I am sure many more people would as well. But they’ll never get the benefit unless I say something about it. It’s an app many will like and many will be uncomfortable with — and these could be the same people!

My current solution is to make this into a club for people who, like me, have attention-span problems on the net. I’m not sure if this is satisfactory. But it’s the only thing that makes sense right now.

I hate both to talk about this site and to not talk about this site. Hence it’s the site I don’t promote.

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Management by Statistics

Almost as soon as you start aggregating numbers, you start making cognitive mistakes. For instance, look at these two scenarios.

1. Women are roughly 50% of the population, yet they are only 10% of your workforce. Is some sort of management intervention necessary?

2. Your manufacturing plant has a robotic process which has been stable and measured for many years. Last week it deviated outside the 3 sigma range. Is some sort of management intervention necessary?

In the manufacturing example, we have a defined set of inputs, a stable, limited-variable process, and a defined way to measure output. Yes, something is going on. As managers, let’s take action based on the math.

In the first example, we are asked to reason by correlation and simile. Because something occurs at one rate in one place, we are asked whether or not a similar thing should occur somewhere else. No, the math does not say with certainty one way or another. Sure you might have strong moral feelings one way or another, and you should definitely act on them, but from a measurement standpoint there’s really just nothing there to show you one way or another. As managers, if we take action we must be clear that we are taking it based on something besides math. Perhaps intuition, or our best judgment of how a workforce should look statistically. (These are very good reasons to take action)

Yet we persist in treating both of these scenarios exactly the same way. Somebody presents us with numbers, and asks us to decide. After all, they’re both just statistics, right?

In the Monty Hall problem, making a choice actually changes the odds, something that is totally counter-intuitive to most people. The history of statistics is full of stories like this. When the Monty Hall Problem was first asked in Parade magazine, over 10,000 people — of which over 1,000 were PhDs — wrote in to the magazine insisting that the mathematically correct answer was in fact incorrect.

People do very badly with statistics. This has not gotten any better over time. And it impacts a hell of a lot more than just math problems in Sunday magazines.

I spent four hours with the Monty Hall problem the first time I saw it. I finally realized you should always switch, but I was still uncomfortable with the answer. Others seem to find the answer quite easily. Likewise, there are mistakes people make with statistics that I seem fairly good at pointing out, while others struggle. I have a high aptitude for math, so my inclination is to believe that different types of problems engage different emotional centers of the brain in different people. Not sure. It would be interesting to see a psychological study of some of these problems framed in various ways for different audiences. I probably shouldn’t hold my breath, though. About 20% of psychology studies that have been examined by mathematicians show serious errors in, you guessed it, statistics.


One of the reasons why I led this piece with a political-type example is that this type of reasoning is common there and we’re all familiar with hearing political-type statistics. Lots of folks play fast and loose with statistics to make political points. If I told you the United States has lost most of its manufacturing jobs, is that a problem? What if I told you the United States manufactures the most in the world, but manages to do so with the fewest number of people? (Much like how the U.S. produces the most agricultural goods, but uses very few people to do so) Would you still think that is a problem? You could argue this either way, of course, but the point is that the same observable reality can be presented in various ways, thereby slanting the story. As the guy said, there are truly lies, damned lies, and statistics.

Yet we are stuck with them. In business, any time we have to make decisions inside a large organization, we are going to be presented with statistics. 91% of people who visit our website come back. Is that a great number? Sure! Is there anything we can do with that? Not really — watch it as we continue to change things. That’s about it. The number itself gives you zero information about causation, which is really what matters when you’re running a business. It just shows a great aggregate metric. Most businesses would assume that the combination of things they are doing creates the metric, but the reality is that it’s the things the business does, plus the unique situation of all the users. There’s a lot in that number that we don’t know. In fact, the hard number “91″ actually gives us a sense of security that is not warranted at all (without being given more information, of course)

Facebook made money because their team was able to generalize huge pieces of the way most users’ brains worked and combine them in such a way to make a sticky app. Aside from the delays caused by switching costs, if any piece of this generalized model proves fragile another model will replace it. People say that Facebook is a great app because the site’s stickiness is good, but that’s wrong. It’s the other way around: the site’s stickiness is good because it’s a great app. “Stickiness” is an aggregate number, it represents the result of the quality of the app. It’s a result. It’s not a cause. The statistic shows you some kind of vague, generalized, mashed-up result. It never gives you causes.

So when people start throwing statistics around, be very careful about what kinds of assumptions and leaps of faith you are being required to make. Statistics are terrible at providing insight, although they might be terrific in terms of feedback. “Sales is up 10%” is good feedback that things in general are better than before, but it tells you absolutely nothing about what has changed in the world to cause the increase. And of course, that’s the most important information to know!

Website designers have had this problem for years. You put up a site, instrument it up, wait a while and promote it for a while, and then what? Tons of statistics, that’s what. Anybody that has used Google Analytics or one of the other packages has seen the pages and pages of reports, graphs, and statistics those packages can generate. Page A has more people spending time on it than Page B, but Page B has greater click-through. Is that a good thing for page A? Or page B?

Some website owners are lucky — they have landing pages and the only thing they care about is getting people to click-though (down the “sales funnel”) to an order. In this case, they’ll make two entry pages, page A and page B, and compare how each performs. Each page is instrumented, and they carefully look at how changes in the funnel change the behavior of visitors. This is called A/B testing.

Most website owners, however, are not so lucky. They are content creators, and their goal is to provide engaging and sticky content. There are lots of ways to measure that — we don’t have easy things like funnels to help us out. There is no one universal metric that makes sense. Maybe a ten million people visit regularly, but only once a year. That’s a great site, but those statistics tell you absolutely nothing about why or how to make it better.

Whether you have a funnel or not, statistics get in the way much more than they help. The critical skill of a good businessperson is selectively looking at certain statistics and making guesses about the market that they then quickly test. Bad business people make no guesses, or they make all the wrong guesses, or the guesses they make take too long to prove out. Out of all the startup skills I’ve studied, this one — effectively inferring intent from reams of numbers — is probably the most difficult. That’s why they tell founders to directly and physically interact with customers as much as possible. It’s as hard as hell to get anything out of a statistical report.

But still, I wonder if A/B testing might be useful in a lot more places than just sales pages, from regular content sites to industrial statistical process control to politics and economics. It’s a tool, once again, that we technologists have had to mature out of necessity. It should find wider use and acceptance. Because we ask ourselves this same question over and over again in business and life without realizing it. Can we identify which one thing, if changed, has the impact we want — what is a cause of change? If we’re serious about diagnostics in the rest of our world, we probably should be doing a lot more A/B testing in all kinds of places.

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Yes, I know about multi-variate testing. This article is meant just as an introduction to some of the general startup issues around statistics

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It’s All Content

I reached a conclusion several months ago that I’ve been a bit timid to explore, but this morning seems as good as any.

Basically, the internet has made everything into a commodity.

Hackers love this argument when it’s used for something that’s not dear to their hearts, like the future of record companies. Why should record labels charge so much, they ask. It’s just all bits floating around on the net, and bits got to be free.

Some hackers will take this to the logical next step, and demand that most programs should be free as well. How can you in good conscience charge for something that, while it might have a high prototyping cost, has no production cost at all? It’s all just bits. Bits got to be free.

But very few of them actually reach the logical conclusion: everything is just bits. Diagnosis for a medical condition? Just a bunch of bits representing an expert system with your personal data applied. Legal assistance? Same thing. Directions to assemble a nuclear reactor? Just bits. And bits got to be free.

Here’s an exercise for you: pick something, anything (as long as it’s some sort of service or intangible product). I can show you how it all boils down to a bunch of bits. Yes, initial costs might be quite high, but follow-on costs will drop quickly to zero.

With 3-D/Christmas Tree machines beginning to take off, this is going to spread to tangible products as well. I can easily foresee a future in which most all physical goods are just so many bits, all out there on the web wanting to be free. A song is the same as a legal document is the same as a car. They’re all bits.

As a startup junkie, this has profound implications. It means that no matter what the complexity of the code you are generating, it’s all either completely worthless when your’e done or trending towards zero at a high speed. Last year’s complicated tax preparation system that cost 80 bucks is this year’s free web app.

Well then, what actually has value? Easy one: audience participation. When you create something that has high audience participation, the involvement of the audience is the thing of value, not the complexity or value of the solution the code provides. This is why sites which emphasize the audience creating and amusing each other, say Facebook or Twitter, have so much more long-term value than sites that solve a simple problem and then disappear from the user’s mind.

In fact, let’s just be blatant about it: it’s the engagement, stupid. Everything else is content. The goal: create content that leads to engagement.

This sounds so simple as to be trite. Many of you are saying, “Sure! But if I knew how to engage users, I would already be done with my startup!”

So let me explain a bit more.

The programming you do for your startup is just a form of content, and like any other form of content, it’s value will trend towards zero over time. The minute you finish the code is when it has the most value. From there on out it’s decreasing. Of course, the idea is that your userbase increases, thereby making your startup soar. But it’s the user involvement, creating and consuming content, not the solution, that provide the value.

The best kind of content is the content — the type that has the maximum engagement potential — is content that users create for themselves. Ideally, your program will do something that will facilitate the users creating their own content which will also trend towards zero. But it will be their content, not yours, so it’s value starts much higher and there is a bigger chance of them sharing their content with others, thereby giving you the network effect which means you’ll grow like wildfire.

This might sound impossible to do unless you are making a social app, but actually it’s quite easy, at least in theory. Making a financial app? Allow your users to create an analysis of where they want to be in 3 years — then let them send themselves reminders about it each month. When your users are creating their own content, it has much more initial value. In fact, once you understand this, you can recognize that any kind of service is just an assisted form of letting users create their own content.

You should look at the programming part of your startup as just being a form of content creation, just like a marketing brochure or a sales email. This means that programming, at least in the startup sense, is very much an art, not an engineering science. It’s should be easy for you to do, and the focus should be on visual expressiveness and the emotional impact on the user — nothing else. If your startup has any chance of success, it should sell the user on the idea of their creating their own content for reuse using your app.

There was a famous scene in the movie “The Social Network” where college kids were rating pictures of other kids with an up-down vote. To the kids, what they were doing was simply something they were naturally bred to do: rank potential mates. Pretty brainless, but lots of fun. But to the guy writing the app, what the kids were doing were creating a personalized ranking system of attractiveness, a system that they wanted to share with others. From the kids’ standpoint, the content was in the pictures, but in fact the content was in their ranking. They were so enamored with the content they were consuming, they had no thought of the content they were creating. It’s a beautiful thing.

In the academic world, we look at the subjective value of the solution. In the consulting world, we look at the relationship to the client. In the manufacturing world, we look at how the features address market segmentation.

In the startup world, we look at none of that. Or rather, we look at all of that, but the only reason that it is important is in how we use it to create new content that people want to create, share, and consume. I think many of us pull down these old paradigms from places we were before and try to make them work in startups, and it’s not the same thing at all.

It’s all content.

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Why Does Facebook Hate This Woman?

Girl with gray shirt

The notorious

gray-shirted girl

Out of 20 randomly-selected ads, she

was getting 70% of the clicks. He even

replaced the title with Japanese, and she still

took over 60% of clicks from English speakers!

Here’s a test. If you click on the picture, you go

to Amazon to look at grey shirts.

Can you resist? :)

I was reading an article on HackerNews how totally awesome Facebook Ads were yesterday. I thought this was strange, because I had always heard that Facebook Ads were a waste of time.

So I spent a few hours researching, ending up watching a couple rather long videos by Affiliate Marketers on how to make it big on Facebook. I heard a lot of stuff — not really sure how much I learned — but the most interesting thing was that images are important, and particularly there was this one image the guy had been testing that outperformed all others. He referred to her as the “famous grey shirt girl” For whatever reason, both men and women liked clicking on her image more than others he had tested. (I leave the speculation on this matter to the reader)

I love writing, and I have a bunch of little informative sites my wife and I have created, so I figured what the hell, let’s take old grey shirt out for a spin. I loaded up five bucks for my FB ad spend, then created an ad for my NeuropathyInFeet.us site.

A few hours later, I got a rejection. It seems like this girl does not meet the standards for images at Facebook.

Who knew? Seems like a nice-enough girl to me.

I guess I could thrash around finding another buxom girl in a grey shirt, but something else the guy said really rang true to me: Facebook does not want you to succeed.

Facebook wants you to buy expensive ads to promote — your Facebook pages. That way, they own you when you make the ad, they own the traffic, and they own wherever the customer is going. Sure, they’ll put up with you having a very poor ad campaign sending folks off-site: as long as you are not too successful. If you get too successful, they will find ways to shut you down.

In fact, the guy was saying that a careful reading of the terms for ads on Facebook basically elminates any sort of useful ad campaign. Point in fact: Facebook prevents you from having an ad that takes the user to any place where they might provide personal information.

If you’ve been living in a cave, providing personal information, like “Hey, that looks neat! Send me a newsletter!” — forming a relationship with the customer — is the entire purpose of paying for ads.

How can Facebook do this? Why would anybody want to place ads there? Because they selectively enforce the rules. So if you’re Chick-Fil-A and want to give away free chicken sandwiches in return for the user signing up to a mailing list, they don’t care. If you’re Joe Blow who’s selling time shares, they probably don’t care. And if you’re some scammer guy making millions, they care. So they sack you for failure to follow the TOS.

This would be a great plan if the rest of us had any idea what to expect. It’s like the grey-shirted-girl, to me she’s the picture of a happy person, glad to be rid of her neuropathy in feet. But to Facebook, I’m sure, she is the harbinger of evil, a flag that shows that somebody else watched that video or attended a conference where this image was shown. Therefore she must be shut down.

This would be fine, I guess, if it weren’t for the fact that images still sell ads, and obviously somebody else out there has found out grey-shirted-girl #2 and is using her image. What then? Make it so you can’t use that image either? Will there be some magic list of stock images that are okay or not — all based on how effective they are?

I realize this rant may sound a bit paranoid, and that’s not my intention. If this was the only case, I could concede the point that it’s nutty. But whether it’s this, or Twitter closing off it’s client, or Kindle killing Lendle, or Apple selectively tossing out some apps but keeping others, these are all of the same cloth. Walled garden providers do not want you to succeed — they just want you to participate enough to keep traffic coming and participating in their garden. If you do too well, you’ll start drawing traffic away, and then you must die.

Obviously there are some good reasons to control exactly what goes into your walled garden. I understand that some folks — probably some of the same folks I was watching on the videos last night — use faults in the system to exploit other people. And the walled garden providers supposedly provide a buffer from those folks. But the more I think about it the more I wonder who the real problem is. After all, I cruise around the open net all day long and manage to get by just fine. I’m not sure Apple or Twitter is really helping me that much by having that much control. And writing up some kind of draconian covers-all-the-bases TOS and then selectively enforcing it? That’s a crock-of-bullshit. It makes folks — at least folks interested in tweaking out their campaigns to squeeze every bit of value from them — not want to participate at all.

And of course that’s the entire point. Facebook loves the know-nothing schmucks, the big corps spending lots of money and perhaps not having a high level of skill, but they really don’t want the trained amateur who might be able to get a serious return on their investment (and, more to the core of the matter, draw folks away from their site)

Reading the rest of the HN thread, I can see that other HN’ers have had lots of problems with Facebook ads, and from listening to that guy last night I can see why. They are trying their hardest to prevent the little guy from maximizing his ad spend.

More and more, I become alarmed at the dangers that walled gardens pose for small startups, entrepreneurs and micropreneurs. They all beat on their chest and tell the users how much they are protecting them, but that’s the way of any monopolist. We’ve traded one Microsoft for a dozen little Microsofts.

It’s making it so that you can have a legitimate business, say selling crockpots, and end up having to play silly games, jump through a bunch of dumb hoops, suck up to the right people, hope you can violate the TOS without anybody noticing, and then hope your visible enough to the right people but not to the wrong people — just so you can sell your crockpots. You have to fight the very people who are supposed to be helping you connect to your customers. That sucks.

Why does Facebook hate this woman?

UPDATE: I posted a link to this blog on my Facebook fan page, which, wait for it, let me include a picture of this woman! So she’s okay as a link on a fanpage basically advertising for my blog about technology, management, and humor, but somehow she’s anathema in a conversation with people about neuropathy? Bah.

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Surrendering to the Devil

About 20 years ago, I decided to sell my soul to the devil.

Or rather, I made a decision as a consultant to specialize in Microsoft tools.

To some, it’s the same difference — I decided that instead of trying to be a generalist, instead of trying to do everything for everybody, that I was going to cast my lot with Microsoft. After all, Microsoft was a good company and they looked like they owned the future. They weren’t going anywhere any time soon. People were going to buy computers, they were going to try to program them, and they would need help. If I wanted to help them, living in the world of Microsoft seemed like a good place to start.

It was a long, fun ride, ending in the past few months when I decided to move my desktop to Ubuntu. I’ve been happily coding away in linux since then, and only get back on a Windows machine to do certain things, like Photoshop.

I hated having to specialize, and I hated having to choose sides — after all, there were lots of other good technologies out there and there were some exciting things being done in them. But I had to make a choice — many times life is not about the right thing or the wrong thing, it’s just trying to do the best thing with what you’ve got. Better the devil everybody’s got than the devil nobody hangs out with.

I’m getting the same feeling again with Facebook. The devil never goes away.

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My Master Plan to Destroy the Internet as we know it

What’s the minimum amount of interface that you need to do the most work?

I’m not talking web interface. I’m talking interface period. Picture a black box. What kinds of buttons, lights, or displays would you need to do, say, 80% of the work you do online?

I think the answer is very surprising: not very much. In fact, I’d argue with a few buttons that double as lights, and a mostly-plain display, you can do much of whatever you do right now. No keyboard, no web browser, no flash, no iPad.

Another way to phrase this question: What are the limits of a universal Minimum Viable Product?

It’s a magic box. A box where you push a simple button to get a category of information you are interested in, not a specific set of information from a specific site. Interested in technology news? Push the technology news button. Up pops a list of technology news gather from, well, anywhere/ Where it comes from doesn’t matter. Strangest 500-pound gorilla in the room ever — we go to this branded sites and participate in sign-ups, voting, games, and other “sticky” and “engagement” activities not because we particularly like them, but because they use human psychology against us in an attempt to own an entire category of material.

Want to chat with your friends? Push a button and say something. It goes to your friends (or “followers” as Twitter calls them). Send a person a message? Click on their name and speak the message. Want to review your financial status? Push a button to see your net worth. Another one to track recent activity.

Want to know why most people use Google? It’s not because of the quality. Most people use Google because after thousands of searches, they’ve trained themselves to think of “search” and the Google logo. I know — I’ve been using Duck, Duck, Go for the last 2 weeks and it has been painful. It’s a better search engine, yet in my mind the Google branding that I’ve subjected myself to over the years still draws me back to Google.

This is stupid. It doesn’t matter where all this information comes from. You want to send a message to a friend, do you care if she updated her personal email on LinkedIn? Does it matter? You just want to send her a message. We live in a wonderful age of computers. Why are we getting so wrapped up in channels, walled-gardens, brands, and all sorts of implementation details that have nothing to do with what’s important in our lives?

Such a device is known as a “magic box”. My current working title is “magic brick”, since the goal is to make the thing as plain, unattractive, and simple as possible. You can see an early prototype reading tech news from several different sites in the video below if you like. I’m building it in F# on a .NET stack, but the idea is to run it on mono on a stand-alone device

Of course this kind of detachment from the inner workings of the web not only brings freedom, it also threatens millions of established business models. Why build a freemium service if nobody comes to see your engagement material, nobody “plays” your site enough to become a paying member? How can you sell advertising if nobody ever reads the ads?

I love saying this next phrase because it has such a mad scientist feel to it (picture Dr. Evil with his pinky in his mouth) This will destroy the internet as we know it!

I have no idea where this project would lead, but I know the underlying technology is sound, I have a working prototype, and I know exactly how it’s all going to come together. If you’d like to be a henchman or a minion, we’re now taking applications. We’re also looking for places to build our secret lair. A death ray would be awesome, but perhaps that’s a bit much for now.

Technology has become an amusement park you have to drive to and pay to get in, even if “paying” only means putting up with ads and branding, and not like the human-empowering super-tool it was supposed to be. Let’s fix that.

UPDATE: Nice darker look at the situation from my reading today

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Facebook Morals

Ever since I wrote the article comparing technology to heroin, I’ve been been thinking about mind and body-altering things and how morals, standards, and mores build up around them to contain the damage and maximize the benefits to society. As we get more and more integrated with technology, I’m waiting for some new standards to emerge about what is acceptable or not — I think this is a vital next step to maintain some kind of vigor in the species.

Since nobody else is doing anything else along these lines that I can see, I thought I’d create a few standards or morals for myself. A “standard” is just a better way of doing things: standards change over time. A “moral” is something that I personally do not do because I find it harms myself or others. You create standards and you discover morals. I apply the simple rule of discovering morals by asking “If I made this moral a universal law, would more people be helped than harmed by it?”

So let’s get with it.

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