Josh Haas's Web Log

An Innovation Social Network

with 3 comments

I use LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter (and occasionally Fourquare although not very regularly) to communicate with and stay in touch with people. However, even between all three services, I still feel like I’m missing something. The original concept behind Facebook, back when it was TheFacebook, was that it was a “directory of people.” Meet a cute girl at a party? Look her up. Want to see who’s who in Kirkland House? Check it out. In college, this really was the perfect tool — my universe, for the most part, was my fellow students, and therefore Facebook, with its circle-of-trust delineated by .edu addresses, and in-network browseability, captured the notion of directory perfectly.

Now that I’m out of college, however, the need for a directory of people is even more important to me, but Facebook has the wrong feature set. My primary question in socializing right now is “Who is doing interesting, world-changing things?” I want to meet them, be their friends, exchange ideas, do my part to help out.

I don’t feel like any existing tool is useful for this, because they are all network-bound. Facebook spread rapidly because of the “friend” feature, but the reason it was useful was because of “browse” and “search”: because on campus, everyone trusted each other enough to share their profiles, the previously-opaque universe of who’s who suddenly became transparent. However, beyond the confines of campus, the level of trust isn’t there, and the sheer size requires much better tools for sorting relevant-from-irrelevant people.

The fact of the matter is, I am never going to have enough Twitter / LinkedIn / Facebook friends to put me one-degree-of-seperation away from all the interesting people out there. It’s nice to be able to map out and explore my network, but what is really interesting is who is not in my network. If I read my twitter feed, the message it sends is that the people busy changing the world are the ones who are building consumer-facing web applications, largely in New York City, because that’s who I know and follow. Moreover, because networks tend to be self-reinforcing, a lot of people on my twitter list probably think this is where all the action is. But I know that this is bullshit: there are many other clusters of innovation, some artistic, some entrepreneurial, some philosophic, some political, most of which I’m not plugged into at all.

This is the feature set I want in an application. Feel free to build it. If not, then maybe in a couple years when my current projects are wrapped up, I will, who knows.

  1. Complete transparency. The goal is people-discovery, not staying in touch. Let people know from day 1 that everything on here is public, and if you have something private you want to share, use a different medium.
  2. Organization by ambition. I’m interested in ambitious people, in general. Different people are ambitious about different things. The guy who thinks he’s going to revolutionize web comics and the guy who is sequencing the human genome both have daydreams, and I want to know about both of them, and to be able to sort and filter based on that. This is very different than the notion of “industry”. Industry might be a rough proxy, since people in biology are probably more likely to be dreaming of curing cancer while people doing international development are more likely to be dreaming of ending poverty, but some people in both industries are just dreaming of being rich, and others aren’t dreaming anything at all. I think ability to articulate what you’re ambitious about is a good filter for joining the site: if you can describe the change you want to see in the world, that’s strong evidence that you’re likely to be doing something interesting.
  3. Organization by geography. Although the internet is eroding barriers to distance-collaboration, “where” is still a hugely important criterion for trying to understand how innovation happens.
  4. Validation by network. The guy just getting started and the guy who’s transformed his industry both belong on this site, but we should be able to tell who is who. Different networks have different metrics for figuring out who the thought-leaders are, and all of those networks should be indexed. I.e., I want to see number of twitter followers, number of citations in peer-reviewed journals, stack overflow karma, and academy award nominations.
  5. Strong search and browse and heatmap capabilities based on all of the above. I want to be able to see at a glance that Silicon Valley is where the tech startup scene is and that there’s cool music stuff happening in Toronto. I want to know instantly if I visit Omaha, Nebraska, who the most influential people in the city are. If I meet someone interesting, I want to know who else thinks they are interesting, and who they are collaborating with, and what projects they have done in the past. Etc.
  6. Open invitations. The point of a directory is to facilitate person-to-person interaction. There should be cultural protocols for reaching out to people via this site. For instance, maybe there’s a feature that lets you publish a few office hours each week where you’re open to meeting anyone who’s interested in getting to know you. Or designated “welcomers” for people visiting from another city. Couch Surfing is a good example of a site that’s established a culture around meeting new people — it’s a little bit niche (since letting someone sleep over at your place can be pretty personal) but if the thing at stake was coffee instead of staying over, a lot more people would probably be open to participating.
  7. Open access to the data: this should belong to humanity, not to the owners of this site. If we’re going to ask innovative people to do work to maintain an entry in this directory, I think it’s the responsibility of the directory owners to share that data back with the innovators via APIs and non-restrictive intellectual property positioning.

Written by jphaas

June 20th, 2011 at 10:57 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

  • Snowball the Dog

    A lot of what you’re looking for was inherent in the Internet of the early-mid 90s. Privacy didn’t exist. Publishing stuff wasn’t trivial, so more often than not speakers had something interesting to say. Search engines could be really helpful at both localization and specialization because there search-engine-spam hadn’t been invented yet.
    But then the Internet became both democratized and commercialized, and everything changed. There are good and bad aspects of this change. The Internet became more useful for ordinary life, but one comes more and more across elements that seem foreign or even distasteful. Careful machine-learning or other algorithms might succeed in rolling back the clock a bit, but doing so is sort of like trying to roll back entropy.

    In today’s Internet it is inherently hard to tell the true thought leaders from the wannabees, charlatans, and hucksters. Indeed, there can be different points of view that are all legitimate. It will be difficult, and arguably undesirable, to put the cat back into the bag.  The point is that it is highly unlikely that you can get a large number of people to agree about what constitutes thought leadership for all things.  That happens in SciFi (e.g., Card’s Speaker for the Dead), but not real life.  The best you can do, perhaps, is to find clumps of like-minded individuals … and that seems to be what is happening across an inreasing range of topics.

    • Anonymous

      Yeah I think you’re right that it’s futile and possibly not even desirable
      to try to map out any kind of centralized guide to who is the real deal vs a
      wannabe or charlatan. But I do think there’s a lot that can be done in
      bringing transparency to local networks: if you take, say, bird watchers in
      California, someone in the community probably has a pretty good sense of who
      the thought leaders are, but to someone outside there’s no obvious entry
      point, and they wouldn’t even be able to assess whether there even really is
      a community there. This is just a guess, but I think if there were more
      transparency into who thinks who is worth listening to, we’d actually see
      more of a centralized set of leaders emerge, not from any kind of top-down
      algorithmic approach but from the bottom up as smaller, isolated groups get
      more connected to larger groups.

      • Snowball the Dog

        But if you select a few different areas of interest that you want classify, choose a cloud of keywords that identify those areas, and then search for connected clusters in the web graph around those keywords.  After the first three areas, you will probably figure out how to do this automatically for the next 200 areas, etc.