Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Why not just talk to your friends?

Well, we have a few of the Luddites out in the comments on James' blog - there's Andy "whatever happened to talking to your friends" and Bubba "Facebook is inherently evil and a waste of time" (incidentally, Ned Ludd is from Anstey, the village in England where I went to High School, in case you were wondering - though according to Wikipedia there is no proof he actually existed, which I hadn't heard before). But I digress!While I fairly obviously disagree with most of their comments, there are elements of sentiment in there that I do agree with, and they raise some topics which are worth a discussion in terms of how we communicate with people, and how communication mechanisms have evolved. First I should say that obviously a primary aim of whereyougonnabe is to help you meet your friends more often in the real world - I certainly agree with the principle that you can spend far too much of your life sitting in front of a computer, and in front of Facebook in particular.

But electronic communications obviously have a strong role in being "social" and maintaining your relationships with friends - as someone with friends all round the world and most of my family 5000 miles away in the UK, email enables me to keep in touch with them much better than I could without it. That's not a substitute for meeting face to face of course, and that's part of the motivation for whereyougonnabe.

With the rise of social networking systems recently we have really seen an evolution from one to one communication to many to many communication among friends. It's interesting if you use Facebook (which I assume Andy and Bubba don't) to see how a sequence of short and often trivial status messages can give you a good feel for what distant (or local) friends are up to, and every so often prompt you to get in touch with them in response to something you see - much more than you do without that impetus, in my experience. Twitter is the same type of experience. As I've heard Mark Zuckerberg say (paraphrasing), the cost (or effort) of communicating with your friends is significantly lowered by systems like Facebook. Just by taking a few seconds to type in a short message, you can communicate with hundreds of friends wherever they are in the world. I certainly feel more connected with my distant friends who are on Facebook (in general) than those who are not. Now there's a lot of crap on Facebook too (I can do without vampire biting applications personally) and yes, a lot of people waste a lot of time on it, but you can say the same of the web in general, or television, or whatever. But that doesn't change the fact that it does represent a new paradigm in how you can communicate with your friends.

However, one of the challenges with this type of many-to-many communication is that if it becomes too successful, then ironically it can lose its effectiveness. Once you get hundreds of friends using Facebook or Twitter or something similar and they all start posting messages frequently, you reach a point where you just can't keep up with the volume of messages (unless you really don't have a life, in which case Bubba may have a point). So you need some way of filtering that stream of messages down to a manageable volume, trying to select the messages that are most interesting or relevant to you. Facebook claims to do some clever filtering in determining which stories to display in your Newsfeed, but they don't have too much information to go on, and it's not clear to me that they really pull out messages that are most interesting to me.

One of the things that we are doing with whereyougonnabe is to add extra information to certain messages you want to communicate to your friends - specifically location and time - which gives us a much greater ability to extract items of specific interest to you from this big message stream. We do this primarily by choosing messages where you will be close to your friend in space and time, to help you meet your friends in the real world more often than you would do otherwise (back to having a real life :). If that approach doesn't yield enough messages to display, we can display other messages using either random selection, other approaches like those Facebook uses, or by leveraging location again to pull out messages which seem like they may be more interesting - for example, if someone is far from home that is probably an unusual situation and may well be of more interest than one close to home (in general).

Changing direction a little, let's look at a couple of specific examples of how whereyougonnabe can help you meet your friends more often, in a way that really can't be achieved just by "talking to your friends" (or phoning them or emailing them). The first is meeting people in airports. When I worked at Intergraph and was traveling frequently (more or less every week), I would randomly run into someone I knew at Denver airport about once a month. When you consider the huge size of Denver airport, this leads me to conclude that there is a high probability that there are one or more people I know in Denver airport every time I'm there, I just don't know that they're there. Now hanging around in airports is pretty boring. Sure, I can read or work and that's fine, but if I had a chance to spend all those spare half hours between getting through security and boarding the plane by meeting up with friends who I wouldn't otherwise have seen, that would add a lot of value and enjoyment to my life. And whereyougonnabe can give me the information to let me do that. It's really not a practical proposition for me to call the hundreds of friends who are candidates for being in Denver airport before every trip to compare notes on schedules. And if I did an email blast to all of them before every trip I would rather quickly become unpopular, and if everyone started doing that then you're back to the information overload problem. With whereyougonnabe I can just take 30 seconds to enter details on my planned time at the airport and it won't bother anyone else with that information unless it's specifically relevant to them or they ask to see it. And once we have calendar integration working, which will be coming soon, then it's zero extra time on my side, since I have to enter the information into my calendar anyway.

I was also going to discuss the example of very local interactions - like the one I include in the intro video about going to the supermarket - but this post has got way too long already so I think I'll save that for another day. This example is an interesting one as several people who like the general concept of whereyougonnabe have said that they see themselves using it more for long distance trips than local activities. I can certainly understand that as an initial reaction but, having thought about it a lot, I feel there is a lot of potential in both scenarios. But I'll come back to that.

Anyway, I'd like to summarize a couple of things before signing off. I think there are (at least) two rather different ways to look at what whereyougonnabe does. The first is that it's an application specifically focused on helping you meet up with your friends. That's how I started out thinking about it, and still that's certainly a major focus and primary benefit of the system. However, you can also think of it as an evolution of many-to-many friend communication systems, like the Facebook messaging system or Twitter. You get many of the same benefits, of seeing what your friends are up to in a general stream of short messages, but with the added benefit that we can highlight (notify you about) items of specific interest, in particular in regard to opportunities to meet with friends. This becomes increasingly valuable as the system becomes more heavily used, and it becomes hard to keep up with the full unfiltered message stream. If you look at the system only from the first perspective, then as one person said to me, you only get a "reward" from the system when it identifies an opportunity for you to meet someone, which may not happen very often, especially when you are new to the system and don't have many friends on it. But if you look at it from the second perspective, you get "rewards" from the system just through finding out what your friends are up to, in the same way that you do from a Facebook or Twitter, and with the added bonus of being able to see things on a dynamic map which gives you a whole new dimension compared to a simple text stream.

And last but not least, while I disagree with my friends Andy, Bubba and Ned in one sense, and believe that there is significant value in social networking systems, I agree with them that you can spend too much time using such systems, and a key aim of whereyougonnabe is to enable us to spend more time with our friends in the real world.


Anonymous said...

Any plans on a version for LinkedIn?

Anonymous said...

Taking your writing style from Dimitri I think? Wow... loooong.

I say if you have to feel good about having 200 'friends' on Facebook, but haven't talked to any of them in person in many, many years... how good of friends are they?

Anonymous said...

More thinking... why wouldn't you use road networks when linking together friends in the same country? As the crow flies distance measurements are not what I'd expect from a geospatialist...

Peter Batty said...

@anonymous1: Yes, LinkedIn is next on the list of networking platforms that we plan to support. Facebook was the only one with an API when we started so it made sense to start there, but LinkedIn would make a great platform for business travelers.

@anonymous2: yep, a long post :). I don't really understand your second comment though ... I would agree that if you have 200 friends on Facebook but haven't talked to any of them for many, many years then they're probably not very good friends, but I don't know anyone in that position or really understand the point you're making here.

@anonymous3: not sure I see a compelling benefit in this, and it would certainly add significantly to the spatial analysis that needs to go on behind the scenes when you get to large numbers of users. But in general the idea is to give people an approximate idea of how far they are from their friends (many people may just enter approximate locations anyway). Providing the ability to get driving directions from the system is a potential future enhancement but not something we see as an especially high priority right now.