Openness, evil and reusability

I’ve stopped blogging over the last several weeks as I uprooted my family and moved to London to start my new job. But there have been some interesting things worth tracking recently I thought I might mention.

(Interestingly, Twitter usurped any blogging impulses I’ve had during the transition, but it’s time to get back into the long form dialog a little again now that we’re settling in here.)

First, I’m really pleased to see Yahoo!’s open strategy taking shape with things like SearchMonkey, Glue, and the forward-looking presentations done at Web 2.0 Expo. In my opinion, they are still underestimating the power of what Yahoo! could be doing by opening outwardly more, but the momentum is definitely in the right direction regardless of the distracting M&A discussions.

Second, I love where Umair Haque is going with his ‘Good vs Evil’ strategic thinking stuff. He’s getting into why the costs of evil are starting to outweigh the benefits in a globally networked and highly elastic economic landscape.

“As Starbucks and Wal-Mart are discovering, orthodox strategy was built for an industrial world – an equilibrium world of oligopolies, soulless “product”, and zombified “consumers”. But that’s not today’s world.”

Even better than his post, perhaps, is the comment stream which includes this insight from Mike Bonifer who compares today’s competitive landscape to the art of improvisation:

“What many do-gooders fail to acknowledge is that it is not enough to do good. One must also confront, then work artfully at marginalizing, out-witting, out-designing and out-performing the forces of evil that are afoot in the world. Forces like greed, hate, terror, racism, misunderstanding, obfuscation and fear. Heroism is only as strong as the calumny it overcomes.”

Third, I loved hearing the meaty thinking going on in the heads of Lucas Gonze and Jon Udell talking on IT Conversations. It’s as if they are both articulating Clay Shirky’s cognitive surplus view of the world through a music lens:

“Imagine that we lived in a world where all photography was the kind you see in magazines. In this world all photos are taken by professionals and all the people who got their pictures taken are models at the peak of their career. If you had your picture taken normally, you’d think you were hideously ugly. That is the musical world we grew up in, and it’s bogus. Things don’t have to be that way.”

Jon naturally moved the conversation to the problem of discoverability that has been increasingly difficult to deal with as more and more data builds out across the network. He notes some of the challenges as a consumer of interesting things and as someone who has something interesting to offer. He thinks the answer is a bit higher level than traditional syndication:

“There’s a way of publishing that allows something to flow on the network retaining its full fidelity and usability in other contexts.”

Lastly, the open data services space is getting really really interesting now as context and relevance find their way into the mix. For example, the Dash GPS formally rolled out their open service. And then a Guardian colleague pointed me to the AMEE service (“Avoiding Mass Extinctions Engine”) which finds itself being used on Dopplr and the the current Radiohead tour web site (click on ‘Carbon Calculator’).

There are tons of interesting developments unfolding, and I’m seeing all this stuff through fresh eyes again…one of the great benefits of changing jobs. I’ll do my best to keep the blogging energy up and to provide some analysis. Though I’m sure my perspective will shift a bit…to what, I really don’t know, yet.

The Internet’s secret sauce: surfacing coincidence

What is it that makes my favorite online services so compelling? I’m talking about the whole family of services that includes Dopplr, Wesabe, Twitter, Flickr, and among others.

I find it interesting that people don’t generally refer to any of these as “web sites”. They are “services”.

I was fortunate enough to spend some time with Dopplr’s Matt Biddulph and Matt Jones last week while in London where they described the architecture of what they’ve built in terms of connected data keys. The job of Dopplr, Mr. Jones said, was to “surface coincidence”.

I think that term slipped out accidentally, but I love it. What does it mean to “surface coincidence”?

It starts by enabling people to manufacture the circumstances by which coincidence becomes at least meaningful if not actually useful. Or, as Jon Udell put it years ago now when comparing Internet data signals to cellular biology:

“It looks like serendipity, and in a way it is, but it’s manufactured serendipity.”

All these services allow me to manage fragments of my life without requiring burdensome tasks. They all let me take my data wherever I want. They all enhance my data by connecting it to more data. They all make my data relevant in the context of a larger community.

When my life fragments are managed by an intelligent service, then that service can make observations about my data on my behalf.

Dopplr can show me when a distant friend will be near and vice versa. Twitter can show me what my friends are doing right now. Wesabe can show me what others have learned about saving money at the places where I spend my money. Among many other things Flickr can show me how to look differently at the things I see when I take photos. And can show me things that my friends are reading every day.

There are many many behaviors both implicit and explicit that could be managed using this formula or what is starting to look like a successful formula, anyhow. Someone could capture, manage and enhance the things that I find funny, the things I hate, the things at home I’m trying to get rid of, the things I accomplished at work today, the political issues I support, etc.

But just collecting, managing and enhancing my life fragments isn’t enough. And I think what Matt Jones said is a really important part of how you make data come to life.

You can make information accessible and even fun. You can make the vast pool feel manageable and usable. You can make people feel connected.

And when you can create meaning in people’s lives, you create deep loyalty. That loyalty can be the foundation of larger businesses powered by advertising or subscriptions or affiliate networks or whatever.

The result of surfacing coincidence is a meaningful action. And those actions are where business value is created.

Wikipedia defines coincidence as follows:

“Coincidence is the noteworthy alignment of two or more events or circumstances without obvious causal connection.”

This is, of course, similar and related to the definition of serendipity:

“Serendipity is the effect by which one accidentally discovers something fortunate, especially while looking for something else entirely.”

You might say that this is a criteria against which any new online service should be measured. Though it’s probably so core to getting things right that every other consideration in building a new online service needs to support it.

It’s probably THE criteria.