I recently delivered the 2014 Mark Gordon Lecture at the University of Pennsylvania LGBT Center. Here’s the abstract:

Grindr, a gay-targeted mobile social networking service with more than 7 million users in 192 countries, has become a technological mainstay of contemporary gay life. But, from prudish rules governing profile photos to hookups that turn into armed robberies, gay communities around the world are still negotiating the impact of Grindr’s explosive popularity. What are the consequences of services like Grindr — for self-expression, privacy, and user safety? What are the rules that govern networked spaces like Grindr, and where did they originate? I discuss these questions with a particular eye towards what users can do to shape services like Grindr into the social platforms they want to use.

Posted 5/29/14 by Yoel Roth. Comments. 0 notes. Permalink.

Where foursquare is going (based entirely on publicly-available information and my own speculation)

I’m a huge fan of foursquare. As someone with a notoriously bad memory, it’s helpful to have a running record of where I’ve been, making it easy to answer questions like, “Where was that falafel place I went to in Tel Aviv that one time three years ago?” I enjoy the game of battling it out for the Mayorship of my favorite café with the other regulars. And, increasingly, I think foursquare has the most robust database of venue information of any app or website out there — including Yelp and Google.

Today, foursquare rolled out a new app called Swarm. It’s a lovely front-end for the social features of the foursquare service, but it’s left me (and a lot of other users) a little uneasy about where our beloved service is going.

What Swarm does

Here’s what foursquare had to say about the change:

Swarm is for people who want the fastest and easiest way to connect with their friends. Foursquare is for explorers who want to know about the best spots, and to share what they’ve found with others.

Okay. foursquare disaggregated the social elements of its service from location data those elements leveraged. Swarm has a bunch of mostly cosmetic changes to the social layer — including a reworking of Mayorship that I think makes it totally boring — that, in typically cheeky foursquare PR fashion, are described as “fun.” The most compelling additions are the automatic neighborhood check-in, which uses aGPS data to keep tabs on approximately where you are, without needing you to check in, and a more robust search tool for your old check-ins.

A story about how I use foursquare

Almost nothing in the Swarm app (other than the improved search) is particularly interesting to me. That said, almost nothing in foursquare’s social layer was interesting to me, either. While I care sort of peripherally about what my friends are up to, I don’t feel an especially strong need to use this information to meet up with them. I’m doing stuff; my friends are doing stuff; and if we wanted to see each other, we would make plans to do so. Knowing that we’re near each other — which, in a city, is the case like 99 percent of the time anyway — doesn’t affect that process. But I love foursquare anyway. Here’s why:

The last time I visited San Francisco, I decided to blindly follow foursquare’s recommendations for every meal. If it told me to go to a place and eat a sandwich for lunch, that’s exactly what I did. And, in all honesty, I’ve never eaten so well so consistently, anywhere, ever. foursquare has tons of information about me: my check-ins, my likes, my dislikes, tips I’ve left, tips I’ve shared with other people, a lengthy to-do list of places I want to go, and so on. The brilliance of the foursquare recommendation system is that it’s able to synthesize this data into actions that, in my experience, are without fail useful and enjoyable. I almost never use Yelp anymore, because foursquare’s Explore features and user tips are just better.

Another story about why I think foursquare is changing

The most common reaction I’ve seen to the foursquare/Swarm unbundling goes something like, “They’re solving a problem that didn’t actually exist.” Which, for the 50,000,000 users foursquare says they currently have, may in fact be the case. But there’s a significant set of people for whom the foursquare social layer kind of is an issue:

My parents are on exactly zero social networking sites. (Except for Google+, but, whatever.) This isn’t because they’re luddites; they just have no interest in sharing their goings-on with other people on the internet. But they do want restaurant recommendations. Currently, getting access to foursquare’s recommendations requires enrolling in the service’s social layer — which is both unwanted and potentially overwhelming. Disaggregating venue data from social features eliminates that barrier to entry. And, for lots of people, I think that’s a good thing.

Why this might end up being a problem

A huge part of why foursquare’s data is so useful is because its users made it useful. Make no mistake: without motivated and engaged users editing venue information and submitting tips, foursquare’s location data would be as broken as Facebook’s.

My concern is that all the great data foursquare has built up will go stale without continued engagement by their users. foursquare’s tips and ratings have always been quick-and-dirty: leave a two-sentence note about a tasty dish and answer a question about the noise level, and over time, you build up a useful store of data about a venue. These tips and ratings are seamlessly integrated into the social flow of foursquare. Adding another step to the process — whether it’s opening a different app or clicking an extra link — makes me less likely to expend the effort to share my opinion. Parsing out the social reduces everyday users’ impetus to contribute to, rather than passively benefit from, the foursquare venue database.

The real danger is that, with less input from casual users, foursquare will suffer from the same glut of pretentious, whiny, and ultimately unhelpful reviews as Yelp. We don’t need a foursquare Elite. I can only hope that moving the social bits of the service into a separate app won’t kill the real gems that, thus far, have emerged mostly as a side effect.

Posted 5/15/14 by Yoel Roth. Comments. 0 notes.

Meta-meta-commentary on Google/Nest

What I see as the key piece of the increasingly shrill public response to the Google acquisition of Nest:

"People invited Nest into their houses. Not Google."

As I suspected, there’s something about the status of the Nest thermostat as a piece of distinctively domestic technology that’s freaking people out. The rhetoric of the complaint is instructive: Nest was “invited” into the home.

This obscures the point that Nest is and has always been a piece of technology pretty much like any other. And I still can’t help but feel that most of this outrage is contrived — or at least, blown totally out of proportion because the Nest is a gizmo that people almost universally liked and Google is an easy target.

But, language aside, the privacy complaints still feel mostly meaningless. If you use a smartphone, or Gmail, or Google Search, or have cookies enabled on your computer, you’re already granting Google access to so much information about your daily habits that the temperature of your house seems like an afterthought. Other than people who object to the entire Google personal-information-harvesting ecosystem (which is a reasonable position, albeit not one I share), I’m not convinced that there’s a whole lot of significant information about the average Nest user’s home life that Google would gain from access to Nest’s data.

What’s more interesting, as John Gruber (and others) points out, is: people are reacting so strongly to a mostly innocuous acquisition because they’re afraid of Google to the point of irrationality. And that ceases to be a technical or privacy-related issue; it’s a public relations one, which is much harder to solve.

Posted 1/18/14 by Yoel Roth. Comments. 0 notes.

Nest, privacy, and the Google reflex

Something about Google’s acquisition of Nest yesterday triggered the internet’s collective privacy gag reflex.

Why are we so upset? What’s the problem with Google making a networked thermostat? My hunch is that we’re especially sensitive to privacy issues around smart thermostats because they’re in our living rooms, constantly gathering data about the supposedly sacrosanct private space of the home. But let’s map out the debate as it’s unfolded so far:

Most of the negative reactions to the $3.2 billion acquisition that I’ve seen — and it’s worth mentioning that I haven’t encountered a single favorable response from anyone, anywhere — fall into two categories:

  1. User experience: Google buys cool stuff and tends to ruin it.
  2. Privacy: There’s something intrinsically bad for privacy about Google getting thermostat data.

The user experience argument is probably the most compelling. No one, myself included, wants a layer of Google+ social cruft layered on top of a stellar product like Nest. I don’t see this happening, mostly because I don’t think product managers at Google are preternaturally stupid. No one can make a compelling case for a social thermostat. The more likely scenario is that Nest will be integrated via API into Google Now in a way that will benefit Android users and be basically irrelevant for everyone else.

The privacy issue is a little more complicated, and the waters are muddied even further by our seeming “Google reflex”:

— Google did a new thing! Privacy is dooooooooomed!

— Why?

— Because, um, Google.

— But, why?

— Cookies, probably.

I’m not arguing that Google is always right, or that privacy is inherently worthless. But there’s nothing to be gained, analytically or socially, by assuming that anything Google does necessarily makes the world a worse place to live in.

The real question is: What’s Google’s endgame in buying Nest?

In crying foul over privacy, most people are assuming that Google wants to own Nest because there’s some useful data a thermostat could contribute to the AdSense empire. But, in reality, Nest doesn’t know very much about you, the consumer, that an interested advertiser couldn’t figure out in a different way. For example, Nest learns when you’re at home in order to more efficiently heat and cool your house; cue alarm bells for “Google knows when you’re sleeping; Google knows when you’re awake.” But Google could already figure that out from my Gmail usage patterns, or when I’m idle on Google Talk, or when I tend to search for things. The only novel data Google gets from Nest is about heating and cooling. An even more farfetched use of this data might involve extrapolating things about the construction of a home from its heating and cooling curves. But in either case, the absolute worst-case scenario is that Google can target ads to you for a more efficient air conditioner or a contractor to install more insulation. This doesn’t seem like an especially big deal to me.

(And, of course, this all assumes that Nest’s privacy policy changes to even allow Google access to their data — something that hasn’t happened yet.)

The more plausible reason for the Nest acquisition is Google’s long-standing interest in energy — from cooling technologies to hydroelectric power. Google has lots of reasons to be interested in a startup that makes HVAC more efficient; they’re called datacenters. Again, this seems pretty benign.

The longer-run question, and the one that got lost in the knee-jerk privacy hysteria around the Nest acquisition is: Do we want Google to become an infrastructure company? It’s been moving in that direction with services like Google Fiber, and Nest lays the groundwork for a bigger expansion into the energy industry.

For my part, I’m not especially worried. There’s no reason to believe that a hypothetical Google Energy utility would be any more or less evil than the existing players in the field. If anything, we might see some concrete progress towards a smarter electric grid. Of course, there’s room for debate about the merits of a smart grid, too; but the essential merits of those debates are undermined by misdirecting our anxieties onto the nebulous categories of “Google” and “privacy.”

Posted 1/14/14 by Yoel Roth. Comments. 2 notes.

Remembering the conservatism of Steve Jobs

A year ago today, Steve Jobs died.

I remember the sudden outpouring of grief. I remember the Post-It note tributes on the glass of the Walnut Street Apple Store in Philadelphia — snowballing from one to ten to a multitude. I remember seeing Walter Isaacson’s book in the hands of, seemingly, everyone. I remember the consternation of a million tech bloggers simultaneously lamenting the demise of Apple as we knew it. I remember talking to my therapist about whether, as a former Apple employee and a passionate Apple consumer, it was strange that I wasn’t crying, or really feeling much of anything at all (though I’ll admit to tearing up when I read Brian Lam’s "Steve Jobs was a kind man: My regrets about burning him" in The Atlantic).

In the following year, I bought an iPhone 4S, then a new iPad, then a MacBook Pro with Retina Display, then an iPhone 5. I spent just shy of $5000 on Apple products, even as, with each release, I read the collective yawn of technology journalists fed up with what they perceived as incremental improvements. I saw AAPL cross the 700 mark for the first time.

Today’s tribute video on the Apple homepage highlighted products: the iMac (“The whole thing is translucent!”), the iPod (“…and it goes right in my pocket”), and the iPhone (“Are you getting it?”). But, in Tim Cook’s letter, the message was a little different. Apple’s DNA, as Steve liked to describe it, is a question of corporate culture: “No company has ever inspired such creativity or set such high standards for itself.”

We’ve been hearing the technology + liberal arts line a lot from Apple lately. But, actually, I think that standards are the issue at the core of the company. It’s why the MobileMe and Maps fiascos are so deeply embarrassing. It’s why I’m infuriated by Phil Schiller’s asinine response to “Scuffgate”: that scratches on the bezels of black iPhone 5s out of the box are “normal.” It’s why, in my four years as a Mac Genius, I routinely ignored AppleCare’s guidelines about stuck and dead pixels in LCD panels. A millimeter scuff mark or one bad pixel out of 1,296,000 in a display is mathematically insignificant; but, on a human scale, it’s annoying as hell. It’s a violation of the standards Apple’s customers have come to expect — and, more importantly, the standards Apple enforces for itself. Those standards are what Steve Jobs embedded in Apple’s culture: from his over-engineering of the Macintosh assembly line to the savage design process Walter Isaacson chronicles so well in his biography.

Speaking of Isaacson: I resisted reading his book for about six months after Steve’s death. But, when I finally picked it up, I found it to be a remarkably artful weaving of the story of Steve Jobs (as an asshole; as a visionary; as a father and husband; as a perfectionist) with the story of Apple writ large. Apple’s products were a vehicle for Isaacson to tell the story of Steve, in a slightly megalomaniacal way that, I suspect, Jobs would approve of.

Absent from Isaacson’s thousand-page tome was a treatment of one of the earliest statements of Apple’s DNA: the Human Interface Guidelines first written by Bruce Tognazzini (employee #66) in 1978. The HIG are, at their core, an articulation of what makes Apple products feel Apple-like. Some of this has to do with the mechanical things that emerge from hours of user experience studies: things like the size of touch targets that are easy for people to interact with (44x44 pixels). But a bigger part is philosophical. The HIG for Mac and iOS today read like the source texts that Apple product keynotes are cribbed from: “People use computers to create and experience the content they care about.” “The display encourages people to forget about the device and to focus on their content or task.” These are the same lines we’ve been hearing in the iPad, Mac, and iPhone announcements for the past few years, with slightly different language. And this is developer documentation, not ad copy.

The Human Interface Guidelines represent the belief that Apple has figured out how to make, as Tim Cook put it in his letter today, “products that our customers love.” It’s why Apple goes to such lengths to tell developers how to make better applications. It’s why Apple puts out a 48-page document detailing the minimum amount of blank space that should be used around its logo in print. (It should be “equal to the height of the Apple logo, measured from dimple to dimple.”)

This isn’t just about Steve Jobs’s neurotic attention to detail; it’s about believing that Apple has found the answer to the product design problem. And this is a deeply conservative position. I don’t mean “conservative” in the gay-hating, small-government, Michele Bachmann sense — but in the older, Aristotelian meaning of the word. There is an objectively, universally right way to do things. And Apple’s products are about the pursuit and attainment of this kind of perfection, as applied to computing.

We’ve been misled, in a way, by years of rehashing the “1984” and “Think Different” ads. Certainly, there’s something fun and revolutionary about Apple’s self-presentation. But nothing — nothing — about the Macintosh represented a round peg in a square hole. Using a Macintosh is supposed to feel like putting on a well-worn pair of jeans: effortless, comfortable, familiar. “New” isn’t a part of the equation, except insofar as new products sometimes represent iteratively better solutions to the problems of design.

This might be why we’ve been so bored by Apple’s product releases lately. There’s nothing dramatically different about the iPhone 5, as compared to the iPhone 4S — it’s just better. And that better-ness isn’t the accidental result of throwing shit at a wall and seeing what sticks: it’s the product of careful engineering refinements. Is this boring for tech journalists? Sure. But the result is a lineup of products that are each, without question, best-in-class. That’s a concept that’s hard to sell to consumers in the abstract, but anyone who holds an iPhone 5 in their hands gets it intuitively. This phone is the best, full stop.

More than anything else, the relentless pursuit of human-scale perfection through engineering is the legacy of Steve Jobs at Apple. It’s something that, as best I can see, Tim Cook has managed to maintain. The iPhone 5 is exactly what I wanted it to be, and I have no doubt that, if Steve Jobs had been on stage on September 12, I’d still be holding the same device in my hands. We’ve entered an age of boring devices. But nowhere is the new normal of consumer electronics embodied more perfectly than at Apple. That’s the life work of Steve Jobs. He’ll be missed, but the paradigm of design he helped create ensures he won’t be forgotten.

Posted 10/05/12 by Yoel Roth. Comments. 5 notes.