Sunday, December 26, 2010

the true story of Christmas

A very interesting documentary on how the tradition of Christmas evolved over thousands of years into what it is now.

Even more interesting is that financial analysts say the retail industry has picked up this shopping season primarily because people are tired of being in an economic recession and have a deep need to celebrate something. Perhaps it is our annual coming full circle, more so this year, to the real origins of this winter-time festival.

Watch it on YouTube:

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

facebook and twitter analytics

I wonder why neither Facebook nor Twitter is sharing analytics data for a Facebook Page or Twitter Page - they have become destinations in themselves and brands would surely be willing to pay to see user behavior on these pages.

One reason to not share this data could be that brands would start asking for more freedom with page layout and content. A way around this would be define and provide new "social media metrics" centered around the structure of the Facebook or Twitter page rather than providing either basic clickstream data or standard web analytics metrics.

Some data I would like to see:

  1. Max/Average reach of my tweets - number of hops in my network the tweet percolates to.

  2. Content (tweets or facebook posts) that leads to people following me or liking my page.

  3. Content that gets re-tweeted, replied to, liked or re-shared the most.

  4. What %-age and section of my network interacts with me the most. Which of my immediate network connects me to the rest of them? How does this change over time?

  5. Interest churn period: average length of time people follow me for.

  6. Interest churn: ratio of number of new followers to number of lost followers in a given period.

  7. Conversion data for the new funnel where you are trying to convert: people outside your network to followers/fans to clicking on your links to "liking" your content to replying/commenting to re-tweeting/re-sharing.

  8. Distribution of number of people followed by those who follow you - the ideal would be a bell curve - users following too few people or too many people are either not going to be listening at all or listening to too much noise.
Next up might be allowing A/B testing on FB/TW pages and updates. But that seems a little distant at the moment. :)

Sunday, October 10, 2010

where you are

Some food for thought about ad targeting:

I'm vising, which is a local website about events/food/news in the Mission district in San Francisco, from Seattle. Groupon shows me a Seattle ad.

In this case, should the ad have been targeted based on where I'm coming from, or based on the page context, given the strong location signal present in the context?

Targeting systems do wrong in not considering geo-location as a signal derived from different sources of information present across behavior and context (and device GPS), but only using it as a simple IP-based filter.

Monday, August 30, 2010

for retargeting

It takes The New York Times one article to set the world abuzz (and a-twitter!) with how creepy re-targeting is and how it freaks people out and how advertising is evil.

The fire was started by a story on Ad Age about how one person saw the same pair of pants being advertised on every website they visited, leading to claims of being "stalked by advertising".

Interestingly enough, in both stories the only examples being mentioned are ads by Zappos. Which makes me to suspect someone helping Zappos with their advertising didn't get their Frequency Capping right. And that leads me right to my main point: what re-targeting has got going for itself:

1. Frequency Capping
Frequency Capping is a maximum limit to how many times a user may be shown a particular ad. Even when ads are not re-targeted, it is a well-known (and measured) fact that user interest - and hence the effectiveness of an ad - drops considerably if a user is shown the same ad over and over again. Typically, the same ad is not shown to a user more than 3 to 5 times in a 24-hour period. There is more ROI in showing another relevant ad to the user.

With re-targeting, frequency capping is in effect across websites. So users will see the same ad even fewer number of times - because the same frequency cap is in effect across multiple sites that the user is browsing to, rather than allowing a max of 3 ad views on every individual site. Similar to Frequency Capping is another concept called Recency where users are not shown the same ad in quick succession. For the same reasons.

So the Zappos ad that has everyone cringing should never have been so frequent or so pervasive had their advertising partners got their frequency caps right (but that's my guess).

2. Behavioral Targeting
Re-targeting is a kind of behavioral targeting, different from using the context of the webpage you are browsing to determine what you might be interested in. It enables advertisers to push content to me that is relevant to me. Wouldn't you rather see ads for the kind of clothing you were browsing yesterday than for weight loss pills or home loans that you don't want? Also, contrary to popular misconception, instead of generating ads for the same product you have been looking at, re-targeting typically works at a product-category level where you would see ads for a variety of athletic shoes after having viewed a pair of ASICS Gel Kayano. Which certainly adds to the informational quality of advertising.

Think of re-targeting as being smarter about remembering some of the contextual information that was thus far being used only once to generate ads for you.

3. Nascent technology
Re-targeting and other kinds of behavioral targeting is pretty nascent and advertisers and advertising networks are experimenting to find out what works and what doesn't. Given the what is at stake - billions of advertising dollars as well as user experience - the only option is to find a win-win for both advertisers and users. Ads will only get more useful.

Regulation isn't required here; freedom to innovate is.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

gmail telephony

It is nice to be able to call a telephone from your browser, without any special application or having to register with a SIP service. This is what GMail/Google Chat now allows you to do. "Nice" adequately describes this feature.

The transformation from "nice" to "wow" would happen if I could call someone on their phones using their email address without knowing or caring about their phone numbers, if I could turn off receiving calls when I wasn't online, if I could conference in other people while on a call with someone by just dragging and dropping contacts in my browser....

Saturday, August 28, 2010

language and thought

I've always wondered what language I think in, having been bilingual from a very early age, but much as I tried to "observe" my thought, I never could figure that out. I suspect I don't think in a language as much as in abstract concepts I am familiar with.

But here is something that says even those concepts could be influenced by my mother tongue:

Can you see how english (and even hindi) refers to my native language as "mother tongue", thus imparting a greater, nurturing quality to a language, making the concept of language more than just a means of communication?

Sunday, August 15, 2010

innovation at nike

I'm reading about Nike's CEO Mark Parker and how he created the Nike Air line of shoes, saving the company and the brand:

I remember Nike Air shoes were really big (in terms of ads - not many could afford them) in India in the early 90s, and I remember longing for those Rs. 2000 worth shoes when the average Nike sneaker probably came for a fourth or a third of that. It is nice to understand, years later, what went into those shoes and what they meant for one of the largest innovators in the world.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

somethings about search

Web search has been a game changer in many ways. One of those ways is making users habituated to finding what they need, when they need it. Search has obviated the need to keep track of stuff on the internet anymore. What's more, users have come to expect search to work really, really well.

So when it doesn't, and people can't find what they thought was there, it becomes a matter of trust. That just the search part might be broken is not the first thing that they think: is the website just losing data?

If the internet were to be considered information organized as a tree, it would be two levels deep, with a search function as the root node.

Besides being a gateway to information, search is also the most natural way (as yet) users interact with computers - they type exactly what they are looking for. This is valuable information to gain insight about your users' intent.

If you are a website, are you letting users search? And, more importantly, search well?

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

lean back and consider

John Battelle hits the nail on the head when he says news coverage in the tech industry is an "endless cycle of post and spin" when what is really needed is "leaning back and considering".

News coverage - and I am broadening the scope from just the tech industry to all news - can be split into two: (1) Facts, and (2) Opinion & Analysis.

Facts need to be comprehensive, correct, terse, and instantaneous. And not repeated.

Opinion and analysis add value by providing insight not immediately obvious at the fact. Balanced arguments and structured thought take some time to produce and consumers are willing to wait for this.

I think news coverage will increasingly polarize into these two kinds.

140 characters are enough to bring you facts, and consumers don't mind these facts being pushed to you constantly, throughout the day. When it comes to detailed analysis, consumers are going to be more selective, and open to engaging more closely through comments and "likes" and "shares". Also, the former is more of a commodity, while the latter is where experts and niches can be found.

And this last point is most important - especially for marketing and monetizing strategies of news organizations, small and large. There definitely are opportunities.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

on privacy

This is the first in a series of posts about my thoughts on end-user privacy on the internet.

Did you know that websites you visit sell your browsing history information to companies that aggregate this information from many users and sell it to advertisers? BlueKai is one such company. Go here to see what information it has about your browsing behaviour. eXelate Media is another example of such "behavioural data providers". Most online advertising networks do this, but keep the data within their network, for use by their own partners/advertisers, instead of making it commercially available.

The NAI makes all member companies (most companies involved in online advertising are members) provide an opt-out mechanism to users. For example, Google's opt-out page is here: However, most users are not even aware of how much information is being tracked, much less how they can avoid being tracked.

Deleting cookies is often stated as a way to maintain privacy. However, there are these crumbs called Locally Shared Objects, provided by Flash, and supported by any Flash-enabled browser, that allow a website to store any data in your browser. They are very similar to cookies in that only the website that creates a particular LSO can access that LSO. However, they cannot be deleted from your browser. Adobe provides a Global Settings Manager on its website to manage the Flash component in your browser. Go there and see which websites have stored LSOs on your computer. Very often, LSOs are used to replicate cookie information, and deleted cookies can be restored from these LSOs. So even if you delete cookies, websites can identify you again. In fact, they can even tell if you deleted cookies.

Facebook's Instant Personalization is not the first to enable tracking of your browsing behaviour across websites and allowing websites to use that data. But they are doing it in the most transparent manner, sparking off the debate that is essential to figuring out the right+acceptable way to go about this, and taking all the flak for doing so.

The existence and protection of privacy has implications of systemic proportions on the ethos of the internet, and should not be taken lightly by only economic or political consideration. More on this in another post.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

on Meg Whitman's gubernatorial ideas

Meg Whitman spoke at the Commonwealth Club a few weeks ago, speaking about her ideas for California were she to be elected Governor.

She spoke about about the required operational efficiency in governance, providing various examples of how money could be saved. She spoke about her experiences with the government while running eBay in the Silicon Valley and how the government needs to be more business-friendly: about how technology jobs are being lost to other states and what California can do to win them back.

All in all, she seemed ready to govern Silicon Valley, but perhaps not yet California.

Which is not to say her ideas were not substantial or consequential. When it comes operations, states would do well to hire business people. And from this particular speech, I think Ms. Whitman might turn out to be a great COO for California.

You can find the talk here in the Commonwealth Club archives.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

games outside of games

With so much being said about Game Mechanics and how it can drive people's behaviour, I wonder if there is a breaking point to it.

One article on CNN talks about toothbrushes telling some website on the internet how often you brush and rewarding you on that basis. I already see too many people fretting about credit card reward points and micro-optimizing their rewards to the cent. If such fake rewards take over our daily lives, one of two things will happen: we will become immune to the concept of rewards and competition; or we will become so engrossed with competing in every single activity that fun and utility both will become meaningless, giving way to a perpetual vanity.

p.s.: Apparently, FourSquare usage (which is a classic use-case of game mechanics) goes from curiosity to addiction to apathy. If true, it might be an indicator.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

touch and gestures

While the use of touch and gestures cannot be over-rated when it comes to human interactions, the recent gadget-makers seem to have some fundamentals wrong.

Touch is an "input" mechanism, as it were, for people, not machines! Putting your finger to cold glass and pretending it is touching a button drawn on the glass is not good user experience. It may be state-of-the-art technology, but the state-of-the-art needs to catch up with convenience quickly. If you've ever tried taking a picture with the camera on the iPhone, you'll know what I mean.

Swiping your hand or finger across a screen does sound like sci-fi made real, but it does not beat the convenience of pressing (or "touching") a button to turn a page. Sure, swiping seems to be a natural gesture, but representative gestures that require less movement, less concentration or allow for parallel activity (like eating, holding a phone to one's ear, etc.) add significant value. It is easier to press the eject button for a CD tray than to tug on it as a signal. In the same way, it is easier to zoom with a lever than to "pinch" the screen. Can you imagine how difficult it would be to drive a car if you had to turn your head to turn the car?

Humans have been using instruments even before the Stone Age. That means millions of years of conditioning to get comfortable with temporary extensions to our appendages - from knives to wrenches to racquets and even toothbrushes! It is much easier to draw with a stylus than a finger, whether on paper or an electronic screen, and many people prefer using a mouse with their laptops to the touchpad that comes with it. The next generational devices seem to ignore, even deride, the use of additional instruments, and that will be a handicap for users.

When it come to user experience, convenience is a much longer lasting advantage than novelty.

I am not being a Luddite - it is not the technology I criticize, but its experience: the application and messaging.

Thursday, February 4, 2010


Some months ago I got interested in mining some Twitter data and played with their API and started following @TwitterAPI. Not much came out of it, except that I would get a few updates a week regularly about their API. Which seems to have progressed quite a bit while their website is still much the same. I decided to take a closer look.

It isn't hard to get data from Twitter. Kudos to them for that. Here's an interesting representation of the data I got about the different Twitter clients being used. The numbers are the percentage of times that client was used in a sample of public tweets taken over 6 days. Hover over the circles to see the data, or click on a row in the table on the left to see the corresponding circle in the chart.

(Feedreader users, you may have to click through to check out this graphic. All: I apologize for making you run a Java applet but this tool from IBM was perfect and I couldn't find anything in Javascript or Flash that had all this functionality)

48% of tweets are from the web. Which means the website. About half of that are from regular clients. From the looks of it, I guess about 8% are from the mobile. And the rest are from other web applications trying to get users to popularize their own content like tweeting about a video from YouTube or your scores from an online game, connecting your Tumblr (or blog/rss feed) to your Twitter account so updates get tweeted automatically, tweeting your Facebook or LinkedIn status automatically either through these sites or through an aggregator service like, etc.

So clearly, using Twitter for a viral effect is a popular use case - somewhat like the Facebook News Feed or FriendFeed. If you look closely at the various clients there, there are so many web apps are trying to get hooked into the users' Twitter accounts. And an API for that purpose makes a lot of sense.

Twitter lends itself naturally to mobile use, and I suspect Twitter has a higher proportion of its usage on the mobile than most other web apps. But the big question mark here is the Twitter website. So many people are still using the website. Why isn't Twitter doing something about that? Most Twitter clients offer much richer functionality than their site.

Firstly, by making the site a proper destination, Twitter will have a lot more data about user behaviour. Right now it is probably highly fragmented across the various clients. Secondly, being a destination is very useful when you want to experiment with features and see how users respond to them. As a semi-functional website, or a fully functional platform, they are removing themselves from the users, forgetting that a lot of the Twitter protocol (@ replies and RT's, for example) was invented by users. Thirdly, Twitter has given up control of content to clients. Which are not doing even a half-decent job. Sure, they have gotten better at spam filtering, but with millions of tweets a day, and hundreds of thousands of conversations, they can filter a lot more than just spam. Filter and collaboratively filter. And best way to bring this data to users is they were a destination. Lastly, there is a huge monetization opportunity in being the destination. And I don't mean ads. I am referring to Twitter as an incredible proven ability to enable conversations between businesses and their customers, regardless of whether the business is a 1-man show or a faceless corporation. Conversations are very underrated - in marketing, product design, in product support and this is where Twitter's real potential lies - in enabling multiple paradigm shifts, rather than being one.

Please go reclaim your website, Twitter.

Saturday, January 30, 2010


I was listening to a debate on whether America is responsible for Mexico's drug wars and at the end of the debate, each speaker was called to summarize his or her position. Having grown with debating a prominent activity at school, I was surprised to see people like CNN show hosts and Congressmen fail to summarize. There was one anecdote in support of the main argument, one gentleman went so far as to even concede some of his points to another and the others just used their summarizing time to extend their arguments, not to wrap up.

This was a couple of days ago.

Today, interestingly, I read about someone else lamenting good conclusions - in the State of the Union, and other presidential speeches. James Fallows objects to Obama (and other presidents) using "God bless you all; God bless the United States of America" to end their speeches. It started with Ronald Reagan and all presidents since have used to say "this speech is over". Before Reagan, they would end their speeches with a more natural conclusion.

Read Fallows' take about this on his blog. He also has the recent State of the Union address with his annotations, which are quite interesting.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

on prescience

Someone pointed me to a TED talk on the changes brought about by the internet and social media. In his bio, the speaker is highlighted as a "prescient voice on the Internet's effects". I wouldn't call the talk prescient; it was peppered with anecdotes from the internet revolution already well underway, and some extrapolation from those.

The trouble with trying to be "prescient" is that it lasts only until the event you predicted does not happen, the probability of which is extremely, extremely high. If you are only studying and/or talking about technological forces today, you are already behind the curve.

I was recently at a PARC Forum called Technology-Mediated Social Participation where academics were lamenting the fact that theory is trying to catch up with practice.

One interesting point from Shirky's talk is how the "former audience" now becomes "producers" and "participants". Interesting because it is not only true of media as he says, but, in my opinon, for business and social processes as well. Twitter is a great example of this. Users were using the @username style to refer to one another and the "retweet" format long before Twitter formalized and inducted these into their technology.

The only "prescient" voice is a collective one of the "participatory audience" - some of them are already doing what the rest will be doing in the near future.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

giving to Haiti

I just heard a great program on NPR's Talk Of The Nation about giving to Haiti, with the founder of the American Institute of Philanthropy.

Both traditional and social media are abuzz with various ways to contribute, and reflect heightened emotions of people wanting to help.

Here are some takeaways from the discussion.

Money is the only useful thing right now. It helps buy all the emergency items required to get by while the clean up happens. Any kind of goods will cost a lot in shipping, are not useful right now, might clog up supply/chain for the emergency requirements. Besides, you don't want to send goods even later, but have things sourced locally to support the local economy.

A lot of callers expressed interest in volunteering, but if you are not trained in handling such emergencies, it is better to stay away. They only need experts at the moment.

Most of the help that Haiti needs is not in the next few days, but in the next few months, or even years. Emergency response teams are helping the Haitians clean up. But once that is done, the task of re-building is more challenging and a longer one. The rest of the world must step in then, instead of forgetting it once public shock and recency are no longer factors.

Sending money through cell phones and such is easy and lots of people are doing it. I myself did it yesterday, and asked my Facebook friends to, as well. But know that what you are doing is really pledging money. It is not clear whether your phone company will pass along the money to the charity until you have paid your bill. And then it will take a while for the charity to send this collected money to the intended destination. It is better to send money directly to charity organizations working in Haiti.

Most charity organizations keep a percentage of the money you donate to cover their own costs. Find out the details about the organization you are donating through. It could be as low as 55% or as high as 97%. Also, make sure the organization is using your money for what you intended, and not for other purposes (even if other charitable purposes).

On the show they mentioned as a good resource for charities helping Haiti.

If you know how to send money directly to Haiti, or can endorse a particular charity for Haiti, please leave a comment.

You can also donate to Mercy Corps from your account:

Update: Find that NPR show here: Reliable Ways To Donate Money To Haiti Effort.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

nuclear energy

Nuclear energy used to be the next endless energy source.

Tens of years later, that dream failed to materialize and the world has moved on to trying to tap into a host of different kinds of sources - solar, wind, tidal, bio-matter, etc. - and make it economically viable on a large scale.

Nuclear energy is still our next endless energy source.

The reasons for failure in the past decades have political roots. The "developed" nations were involved in the Cold War that centered around stockpiles of nuclear weapons. As such, using nuclear energy for peaceful purposes was relegated to being a front for nuclear arms and there was a huge political impetus to tie together weapons and nuclear energy generation. Power generators were made to use Uranium so they could create Plutonium as a by-product which is needed for nuclear bombs. The problem with using Uranium is that it is not well-suited for energy generation: it needs to be enriched (create fissile U-235 from naturally occuring U-238) in an expensive process, the nuclear reactors are dangerous and need many precision controls, and toxic waste is left over. And before you knew it, nuclear energy became the untouchable: dangerous and with evil intentions.

With some natural progression of history, this is where we find ourselves: the "nuclear" nations have enough nuclear weapons stockpiled, almost everyone has realized that nuclear deterrent is not the way forward, there is an impending energy crisis and a global warming crisis and we desperately need a solution to both.

Thorium tells a different story. This nuclear energy fuel that was discovered decades ago, but shelved because it did not generate Plutonium for weapons. It has already been proven to be a much safer and easier way to generate nuclear power, without any toxic waste and expensive enrichment processes. Scientists are now trying to create efficient and long-lasting reactors that use Thorium for large scale energy generation.

If this succeeds, it will be an interesting turn of events.

There will be some economic upheaval as the economy moves from being fossil fuel-based to being nuclear energy-based: transportation, as vehicle technology, range, capacities change, even energy storage and transportation. The politics are going to be interesting too, as different countries will be able to produce nuclear fuel.

Timelines for large scale nuclear power generation seem to be 20-40 years in the future, which is far too long. Oil is expected to peak in 10 years' time. I can't imagine ocean tides, for example, solving our civilization's energy needs in the coming decades. Governments need to give more impetus to safe and clean nuclear energy.

Further reading: