The Terror of Facebook and the Endless Social Network

They died.

I have seen these words on my screen countless times. I fear them, in many ways, as they seem to hit closer to home all of the time.

Fear of death isn’t irrational – I know that when someone I love dies, it will be painful. It is natural, but that doesn’t make it easy to bear.

What is irrational is believing that death is related to proximity (except in horseshoes and hand grenades). However irrational it is, when something “hits close to home”, it can have a chilling effect, and if you’re anything like me, it can cause anxiety.

Irrational or not, when those words pop up on my screen, I immediately think about the proximity of death to those that I love.

Bad news makes the headlines.

And when I say headlines, I mean not only the ones on your TV, but also the ones in your browser (read: the top post on Facebook, or Hacker News). People attach themselves to bad news, for many reasons; sometimes it is because, quite simply, it is genuinely bad for that person. Like when someone they are close to is going through something horrible. Whatever the reason, this attachment naturally causes bad news to rise to the top. Thank you brilliant algorithms: bad news (amongst cats, surveys, and Candy Crush) is effectively micro-viral.

Bad things happen to everyone.

You know, everyone goes through tough times. And that shouldn’t be downplayed. When we see these headlines in our news feed, they are certainly not usually disingenuous. But unfortunately, while bad things happen to everyone, on average, many more good things happen. These things unfortunately don’t make the headlines as often, though. Normal, happy life isn’t viral.

A Time for Mourning

We’ve reduced mourning to comments on a feed.

It used to be the obituary section that housed this information. We would intentionally participate in a process of mourning with loved ones. We would either seek out the information, or the affected would contact us in some more direct way to inform us of the bad news.

Now, it’s broadcast.

And we participate in some perverse form of mourning. Next to our messages of consolation sit mountains of distraction, clicks away from invites, messages, and notifications that encourage us to make quick, efficient work of what once took intentionality. And why?

Because our massive volume of “relationships” make us believe we need digital methods to manage our infinitely growing network of friends.

A simple equation.

If you have a thousand friends on Facebook, how often do you think something bad happens to them? Once a year? If that’s the case, then on average, you will have more than two negative things on your feed every day.

And because bad news is viral, you’re fairly likely to see bad news every day on Facebook, if you visit Facebook every day.

Depending on the definition of “bad things”, this number could be wildly more (or perhaps significantly less), but it’s far more than if you were to sample, say, 150 people.

And that number happens to be a proposed number of people we can cognitively maintain meaningful relationships with. It’s called Dunbar’s number.

Meaningful Relationships

Your past is nothing to necessarily throw away. Don’t get me wrong, I love the people in my past.

However, I am responsible primarily for my present and my future. When my past stands in the way of my present and my future, it’s time to cut something.

My most meaningful relationships are the ones I intend to cultivate in my present and my future. Expending energy to cultivate relationships that were primarily from my past (as in, I don’t talk to the person even on a yearly basis) should always take second seat to the relationships I’m cultivating now.

And here’s the kicker: if I’m reading the sad news about my long lost high school friend, I’m adopting anxiety at the expense of celebrating the good news from my most meaningful relationships.

A Culture of Permanence: Learning to Say Goodbye

We live in a culture where everything is preservable (except snapchats). And why not? It’s supported by zeroes and ones, so anything is possible.

The problem is, our human brains are not computers; we can’t expand our cognitive ability to retain meaningful relationships. And as we’ve said before, putting energy into our least meaningful relationships takes energy away from our most meaningful relationships. And quite often, this energy is spent consoling and listening to patently bad news.

So the answer? Say goodbye. Cut yourself off from your past. Do so with very specific intentionality, understanding that you will love and live better with the people you care about most. Don’t spread yourself thin and risk living in a constant state of depression and distant relationship; instead, live and breathe deeply with those you are closest with.

Steal these Startup Ideas: Collection One

I want you to steal these ideas.

Seriously. Make these things a reality.

There have been a LOT of people who have said this in recent years: ideas are relatively of no value. Until someone actually executes and makes them valuable, ideas are about as value-less as dreams.

Okay, sure – the genesis of creativity is an idea. But that doesn’t mean the idea is the thing of value.

For the sake of brevity, I’m going to go ahead and post some ideas here that I have discussed recently, and I will continue to post more ideas in the future. The hope is that someone will take these ideas and execute; I certainly can’t do all of them.

So, my only request is that if you are inspired by these ideas (even if you don’t execute them directly), contact me and let me know. You can find me easily. Google “Jonathan Cutrell”.

Without further ado:

Coffee subscription drive-thru service

Credit actually is due to @taylorleejones for most of this one.

Coffee is one thing almost everyone I know has in common. So much so that many of us have a coffee budget that we write off on our taxes. Subscriptions simplify our lives to a great extent. The idea is simple: create a subscription service that takes advantage of passive Bluetooth at a drive-thru and provides a reliably great cup of coffee any time I want it (24 hours). Heck, you could create learning algorithms to do auto-ordering and preparations schedules. I just want my same coffee, and I want it to be good. And I’d love data on my coffee drinking habits (because I’m a part-time data nerd).

Make sure the coffee is awesome. On the flip side, make it cheap, too. You’re clearly going to trade personal data (think iBeacons) for coffee. Luckily, coffee IS cheap, especially in bulk, so don’t worry about the margins. They’d be silly good, especially if you leverage that aforementioned data well. If people come by who don’t have a subscription, just charge them a flat fee for a cup. Then at the very least, you likely have a viable drive-thru service.

On-Demand Task Service (Crowd-sourced)

TaskRabbit is awesome. But it doesn’t take advantage of the ultimate scalability model that Craigslist, Ebay, AirBnB, Kickstarter, etc have captured over the years: the crowd is more powerful than the individual. So build a thing that connects people (people means ANYONE) who need something done now and are willing to pay for it with the people (anyone) who are willing to do that thing.

How does it make money? Be the payment service, too. You should easily be able to complete a task and both parties press a button to get paid. Every time someone gets paid, you do too. Make the un-scalable part provide monetary value: vetting. Allow people to pay to become “verified.”

Scaled Micro-Investment for the Financially Clueless Laymen

I know almost nothing about investment.

There, I said it.

Perhaps this is because I’ve never received investment money myself, so I’ve never been pressured to learn.

But I do want to invest. Not a lot – just a bit of my money that would otherwise go into savings. And I don’t want to go and meet with a broker, nor do I want to learn everything about stock trading. And honestly, I want to invest in very early stage companies, not huge national corporations.

I bet there are more people like me. Probably a LOT more people like me. And the truth is, we have MONEY that we want to INVEST in awesome things.

Not donate – invest.

Not pre-order a product – invest.

(In a dream world, I would also receive tiny bits of equity for these tiny investments.)

Build an iPhone app that lets me throw a thousand dollars at a private startup doing something awesome, and pays me just a little bit when they succeed. I understand everything I need to understand to make a bet. Let me make a bet. (And you take some of that money, by the way.) Make it like Monopoly instead of business school.

Personal Privacy Intelligence, Automated

Want to know who is looking at your stuff, where they are, and what they want? If you don’t already, you probably will. Alexis Ohanian (yes, I mention him a lot right now) relates people invading our data to someone opening our mailbox and reading our mail. Yes, I absolutely want to know exactly where the packets of information are traveling, and who opens them. If you create a startup that tells me with some level of confidence where my data is and what is being read, when, by whom, I would pay a body part.

This has significant business implications too; think Google Analytics on steroids, plus a private investigator in the form of intelligent algorithms and tracking techniques. The privacy war is coming, and there’s a lot of money in war. If someone is spying on me, I also want to spy on them. This has a lot of physical-world cost in the long run, but whoever owns this will probably own it for a long time. They can also be sure that they will receive a lot of resistance and shutdown requests, so it’s probably wise to do this in a country where the government is… small.

A REAL, widely accepted solution to this:

But seriously, how is this not completely done yet? I know the XBox One is heading this direction, but how close is it? I’ll answer your question with a question: when will my Dad buy an XBox One? Now, provide a simple, beautiful solution to the problem of discrete boxes doing discrete things that can benefit from all of the automation and remote-ness (read: not remote control) of the cloud. Give me a way to schedule EVERYTHING.

Give me a way to throw away Comcast’s horrible channel surfing interface. I still want the things cable provides me, like reliable sports – but please, for the love of God, make things look better than TiVo circa 1999. FIFTEEN YEARS, guys. And if you think your one Raspberry Pi with XBMC is enough, then you probably don’t watch sports. And you’re probably not willing to keep paying for cable and Netflix, but I am. Someone make a Nest for my home entertainment system, and I’ll buy. Now, do a deal with cable companies and/or Netflix to be the single solution for any home, and you win the long term game.

Appified Personal Article Insurance

I came up with this idea recently when the apartments around mine started having pipes burst, destroying a good bit of their stuff. Let me ask you this: did you update your homeowners or renter’s insurance right after the holiday influx of new Christmas toys? No? Why not? Certainly not because you don’t want to pay to protect your stuff. It’s about the inconvenience of the call to the insurance agent. If only there was a way to take a picture of your stuff and find it in a database, and update your policy to cover your stuff…

I, and many others, would LOVE to add 10 cents instantly to my renter’s insurance whenever I get something new that I’d like to protect. Oh, and by the way – think about the ENORMOUS potential of having the data of peoples’ belongings indexed. Give them deals in a trade for their stuff, and ad revenues would be stupid good.

Oh, you have a collection of president bobbleheads? Looks like your missing George W. Throw that in your cart, and we’ll auto insure it for less than 2c a month.

Seriously, why isn’t this a thing already? (I didn’t say all of my ideas were ethically good… they just would make money. For the record, I’d totally use this, but I bet a lot of people hate the thought of it.)

Job Hunting Meets Matchmaking

LinkedIn sucks at this, let’s be honest. Sure, it has a pretty decent connection-map for your professional relationships, but have you ever tried to hire on LinkedIn? It’s terrible. And really, there doesn’t seem to be a GREAT solution to the recruiting problem. Maybe that’s short-sighted, but the existing solutions are either old school (phone calls and vague recruiting emails) or are so chock full of horrible fits and spam and people who don’t maintain their portfolios.

Take a cue from high-end dating websites. People who want to get hired will probably pay to put their profile on a curated site dedicated purely to hire matchmaking. If you’re hiring, wouldn’t you love to use a serious matchmaking site for your search to find someone who fits your culture, needs, and budget? Give space to both the hirable people and the hiring people to do the seeking. Develop matchmaking algorithms for personality and job placement. Be vigorous to keep recruiters out, or at least very accountable to not be spammy. Focus on happiness/genuineness and job quality first, money second, and skills third. To jumpstart this effort, make it happen in a niche. Be the ultimate job placement software as a service in the restaurant management market of the southeastern United States.

This is one of hopefully many installments. If you want to take any one of these ideas, like I said, just let me know and then go full-steam ahead. I would want you to succeed, because I would use every one of these things if it was done right.

Discuss on HN

The Anatomy of Surprise and Delight

A chance to surprise and delight someone by doing something a little exceptional goes a long way because it provides a smack of awesome humanity upside the head. – Alexis Ohanian [1]

Bill Murray has a reputation. Sure, to many he is an actor with a strong and highly memorable personality in each of his movies. But Bill Murray’s fame goes deeper.

If you have had the chance to experience what I’m talking about here, I’m certain you would agree: Bill Murray is a delightful person.

We know the norm for the famous population amongst us is to show up almost exclusively with “their kind”, highly guarded from much personal interaction with their fans.

Bill Murray has quite an opposite approach to this mindset. On occasion, Murray shows up in an unexpected place and acts in unexpected ways. These stories have become somewhat mythical, enough that people have adopted a practice of telling these stories, even if they never even happened.

What’s the big deal? Who cares that Bill Murray did something ordinary?

Well, the answer is quite simply that for Bill Murray, that ordinary thing was out of the ordinary. And not in the crazy Kanye-interruption kind of out of the ordinary, but rather in the “I’m going to give you a car for no good reason” kind. Bill Murray becomes what other actors won’t: a real life human being, doing real life things. What a delightful surprise indeed.

Ordinary Actions Aren’t Always Ordinary

A friend of mine once sent an email to Steve Jobs. If you have read anything about Jobs, you’ll know that he, on occasion, would send short (as in single-sentence) replies to random emails that hit his inbox.

What’s the big deal? Why does anyone care?

Because it’s out of the ordinary. It’s almost like winning the lottery in some sense – out of the seeming millions of emails that hit Steve’s inbox, he picked yours to respond to.

That email – a normal, ordinary thing – now hangs framed next to my friend’s desk to remind him every day what customer service looks like.

Steve knew his customer’s context. He knew his fans, and he knew what gets good press. He knew that the experience of seeing “Sent from my iPhone” tagged on an email from him would mean the world to someone, and yet it only took a few seconds for him. He knew that keeping the emails short actually added to the experience, to the lore: “and then he responded with a simple yes” sounds much more like the cold, in-the-elevator-firing Steve than “and then he responded.”

It’s not about fame.

Of course, fame gives you a much larger platform. Like a newborn baby learning how to walk, if you’re famous, people fawn over every little thing you do. So, when a famous person does something out of the ordinary, it is elevated. But it doesn’t require fame to surprise and delight people.

What it requires is context and personal connection.

In the early years of Reddit, Alexis Ohanian surprised and delighted authors whose posts hit #1 on Reddit with a digital golden alien email sent personally from him. Reddit hadn’t hit superfamous status, and yet this quirky, personal email elevated Ohanian in these authors’ minds.

Photojojo created a simple interface enhancement that gives users a small bit of shock: pulling a lever unleashes the arm of a cartoon monster on the page. Kickstarter’s footer lets you cut the bottom off, revealing the message “Eureka! You’ve found
our little secret.”, and inviting the discoverer to subscribe to their mailing list.

What does surprise and delight look like?

It really seems simple: do something outside of the expected behavior that will make someone smile. Take the routine out of what your users experience, and instead give them something dynamic and unpredictable. Provide a random, good (and perhaps even undeserved) customer service experience. Give things away on occasion for no reason, and chalk it up to PR investment. Make individual customers feel special just for being around.

Whatever you do, don’t fake it.

If you fake it, people will know. Don’t send out mass emails that attempt to make people feel individually noticed. Instead, let them know it is a mass email; this communicates that you respect their right to filter emails based on personal importance. Don’t provide something for free with stipulations. Don’t go halfway with these things; if you are going to surprise and delight your customers, you actually have to care primarily about surprising and delighting them, and secondarily about the effect that will have on your business. This isn’t business 101, where profits are the only thing that counts; this is about human intuition. If all you care about is money, you can wrap that in as many compliments as you want – I will eventually feel the weight of your fakeness. Cultivate real care for your customers, their problems, and their joys.

[1]Alexis Ohanian. Without Their Permission: How the 21st Century Will Be Made, Not Managed (Kindle Locations 1174-1175). Grand Central Publishing.

Discussion on Hacker News

Nonchalant Arrogance, Intellect, and Caring About Your Work

I recently encountered a demeanor that I couldn’t quite place. I anonymously overheard a conversation and, unfortunately, let it get under my skin enough to tell you about it.

I (somewhat ashamedly) tried to find some kind of a meme that described the person who portrayed this demeanor, which forced me to put it into words: nonchalant arrogance.

The “yeah, it’s a big deal, but I know you’re going to think it is, so instead of aligning with you, I’m going to downplay my accomplishment so you think it’s the tip of my intellectual iceberg” attitude.

The “if you like that, there’s more where that came from, but I’m under an NDA” guy.

The “eh, their third album is okay, but the early stuff you don’t have access to is the best” attitude.

I’m not sure why this attitude is still somehow effective in shifting perception, but it is. Perhaps it has something to do with a perceived sense of humility from the general audience, or maybe it portrays some kind of rare, cultured superiority and curation of “good ideas” that should be followed, like a good Instagram-er. Like the guy who turns his nose up at certain kinds of wine if they are paired with the wrong kinds of food, but gets a column in the paper as an expert sommelier.

I hate it, and I don’t want to be it, but at the same time I do want to communicate a sense of intellectual superiority. (For those of you who don’t want to be perceived as smart, throw the first stone.) I want others to value my opinion at a level of excellence.

The difference is, I don’t want it to be because I have some exclusive access to information that they don’t have; rather, that I have done the hard work to uncover that information, and that access is granted only to those who sweat for it.

So I have this struggle, as many others might, that I don’t have enough knowledge to properly and fully convey an idea. Certainly I feel confident in my vocabulary and in my writing style, and I truly don’t experience writer’s block very often. What I do experience is a sense of fear that once I write something out, or build something to release, that it’s going to be subpar. It’s going to be like the band’s 3rd album, or a badly paired wine.

I refuse to adopt nonchalant arrogance. If I am proud of something I’ve done, I’m not going to put on a charade of humility in hopes of you noticing – I’m going to tell you how excited I am, and show you my project. Who knows if you will like it. From my point of view, honesty and transparency are just as valuable as humility. I’m not above my own work. I’m certainly not above my own writing, or the subjects I write about. Nor am I above building for the web, or the people for which I build. I love what I do, and I’m really quite excited to tell you about it, especially if you have an open ear.

I vow never to post with a contrived ironic space between myself the creator, and my creation. I want my fingerprints all over my creations.

The chase for the external perception of intellect can be a dangerous path. That chase leads us to stop being excited when we learn something new. Do you remember when you first made a successful jQuery transition, or when you first learned how to remove something from a picture in Photoshop? The love for the work often dies when you chase a sense of intellect in hopes of an elevated position in the field. You can easily lose respect for the joys and simple highs of your craft. You begin to see the seemingly trivial nature of what once kept you up late at night, reading and hacking and intoxicated with hope of building something of personal value to show the world.

As Alexis Ohanian says in his book Without Their Permission and in the video below, I want everyone who comes into contact with me to know that I “give lots of damns.” That as a creator, I don’t want to separate myself from the work that I do for the sake of perception. I want the things I create to be so closely tied to me as a person that I fight for them like they’re a living, breathing extension of myself.

I’m Using Buffer to Segment My Working Day, and it’s Awesome

I have a lot of different responsibilities on a day-to-day basis. I’m guessing you probably do too.

Family and home responsibilities, like loving my wife, paying bills, and taking my dog on walks.

Personal responsibilities like sleeping enough, exercising, chasing my own goals, and making time for intentional sanity.

Work responsibilities – now there’s a big (and awesome) list. In particular, let me highlight two types of work I do, at work.

  • Reactive work – work that requires me to respond to external resources, like emails, phone calls, meetings, etcetera
  • Creative work – work that requires me to build something out of nothing (or out of a predetermined specification)

As a company, Whiteboard employees recently read 99U’s Managing Your Day to Day, an excellent book about building an effective creative routine. We’ve all adopted a good number of practices proscribed in the book to start out the year, and let me tell you, it has been fantastic. A few simple thoughts on these practices, as they will inform what this article is really about.

Don’t check email, social media, or content sources until 2PM or later.

Note that this is making space for the creative work, where nothing is needed. Quite a few successful creative folks agree that it’s best to do this kind of work in the morning, so we’re trying it. The basic concept is to avoid getting into response mode, as we tend to allow problems and tensions to linger, but instead to start our day out with a clean brain after sleep, which will theoretically encourage what Cal Newport calls deep work.

Maintain a stopping point.

At some point during the day, your routine needs to shift away from working and onto the other parts of your life, like hiking or relaxing or basket weaving. This allows for you to not only fulfill your family and personal responsibilities and/or projects, but also forces you to do only the most important things for projects while you are working on a day to day basis.

Learn this: The rest of the world is not on your schedule.

With these two thoughts in mind, we must also realize that the rest of the world isn’t on our schedule. So, emails will come in at night. (Ignore them until 2PM the next day.) People around the world will continue to live their schedules, and in fact even in the United States, people on one coast will have a different schedule than I will.

So, in a very narrow sense, people are asynchronous from one another.

Before you continue, if you think social media is useless, then you can stop here and hopefully still gain something from the article. No one else needs to hear why you’re quitting Twitter and Facebook and throwing your phone away and selling your car and moving out to the back woods to get away from the noise in the world. (You already told us… on Twitter and Facebook.)

If you take social media to be important to your job (it is for mine) or for your personal aspirations (again, it is for mine), then you should understand that schedule is everything.

Why does schedule matter?

First of all, professional engagement on social media isn’t about people wanting a glimpse into your life. (Unless, of course, they are particularly interested in your personal affairs. Generally not the case for me, other than my mother.) Instead, it is about what your followers can gain from you.

What we have to understand is that our followers don’t gain anything from us if they don’t see relevant content, but content isn’t enough on it’s own; it must also be timed well.

Open your Twitter timeline, and leave it for 20 minutes. I can almost guarantee, unless you follow a small number of people, that tweets from 20 minutes ago have effectively been buried in those 20 minutes.

So imagine that your next opportunity could come from a Twitter follower who is 4 hours separated from you, time-zone wise. How can you engage with this person in a meaningful way?

As far as social media goes, the answer is to post whenever they are looking.

This has absolutely nothing to do with my segmented work schedule; no one cares that I’m not posting to social media until after 2 PM except my family and my coworkers.

So how do I maintain my sane, segmented daily schedule while also increasing my chances of meaningful engagement on Twitter?

A good answer: Buffer (or a similar tool).

Buffer is a tool that allows you to setup a regular tweeting schedule. You fill up your queue however you see fit, and let Buffer auto-tweet for you. And here’s the kicker:

All of your content discovery and sharing can be done in a single block of your day.

Let me rephrase:

You can now engage with social media asynchronously instead of treating it like a chat room.

Let me re-rephrase:

You can now have a constant presence on Twitter without inundating your followers and sucking your time away from other (more) important things.

If you aren’t getting how this can be insanely valuable if done properly, then you probably need to try it for a while to learn.

A challenge.

Use a tool like Buffer to write your posts and share content for a limited, concentrated block in a day. Experience the peace of limiting social media distraction throughout your day, and the benefit of increasing intentionality and regularity of your online presence as a result of smarter computing.

(Disclaimer: I’m in no way affiliated with Buffer, nor do I receive any benefit for touting their service, but it is in my opinion the prettiest and generally the most popular tool for this particular use case. If I’m missing the mark here, please let me know.)