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Letting the Crowd Help Solve the Crime

April 17th, 2013

In the aftermath of the horrible Boston Marathon bombing, my mind was wandering — thinking of ways that I might be able to help. In fact, I think a lot of people feel this way after such intense public tragedies. Then, when the police began asking people to submit the photos and videos they may have taken of the area around the bombing that day, I had a thought:

Why isn’t there an app that can help the crowd submit their photos and recreate the events leading up to a crime?

All digital photos are time-stamped, and many — especially those taken with smartphones — are also stamped with the geo-location where they were taken. After a crime takes place, these photos could be quickly submitted from many people’s phones, fed into a central database, and be automatically sorted and re-presented to the investigators on a sort-of visual timeline. It would make both the contribution of and the analysis of these invaluable crime-scene documents much easier. People could easily see where holes existed in surveillance and flip through their photos for relevant images. Any public event could be recreated this way.

boston marathon bomb app

 

Recent news reports are indicating that some surveillance footage and possibly some crowd-contributed photos are already leading authorities towards certain suspects in this case. I can only imagine how much more quickly we might have responded if the whole process was simplified.

In fact, if any of you out there are ace Android or iOS developers and want to help me build this thing, please let me know.

 

 

Design, Digital, Ideas , ,

The Symbolic Progression of Marriage Equality

March 26th, 2013

While the Supreme Court debates today and tomorrow on two cases related to gay marriage, more and more people on Facebook and other social networks are adopting a pink and red symbol of equality to show their support for marriage equality and civil rights protection. These symbolic badges all display the ‘=’ symbol, but as more of them started showing up in my Facebook feed, I was drawn to the small differences between these simple statements of support.

Slight differences abound in this simple flag.

Many the images seemed to be copied and recopied from other postings as the notion of symbolic support went viral across social networks, resulting in exaggerated pixillation as the images got re-optimized by various compression algorithms. However, some of these symbols seemed to be custom-made, with alternate sizing, framing, and weight of the symbol. The reds used varied from #ca0000 to #cb0101 and #cb1c01 — pretty close — and the the pinks hovered around #e88d8c, #e88c8d, #e98d8e, #eb8d8d, and #e28d8a, though some of these color variations surely came from compression distortion.

Perhaps it’s largely an academic exercise, but it is interesting to study the ways images and symbols get distorted and altered as they are adopted and interpreted by the masses. It reminds me a bit of Sebastien Schmieg’s recursive image search projects, where he feeds an image into an image search engine and uses the result to start a new search. A narrative of unexpected relationships reveals itself as the images progress.

In any case, I hope the Supremes do the right thing this week and uphold the rights of all to have access to civil marriage benefits and responsibilities that literally have nothing to do with religious freedom or popular opinion. This is one progression whose arrival is long overdue.

Design, Digital, Ideas , ,

Leaving White Space: The Growth of Remix Culture

February 24th, 2013

One of my favorite ideas on interactivity comes from something of an unexpected source. In his 1995 diary turned book: A Year With Swollen Appendices, arty soundsmith Brian Eno suggests that the term ‘interactive’ is really just a hyped-up tech term for ‘unfinished’. Coming from 1995, the year that Microsoft Windows took over the computer world, Eno envisioned a future where music would be left unassembled, still in pieces, waiting for the listener to finish the song as they see fit. Since then, we’ve seen the technology emerge for anyone with an Internet connection to do just that. Becoming much more than an underground music trend, “Remix Culture” has caught on big time with some of our biggest companies; What started with drum loops being lifted from old LPs has expanded into a web best-practice.

For example, the biggest content websites in the world: Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter, each offer up remote access to their content through APIs — little snippets of code that allow websites to pull and push content to and from other sites — so that anyone can replicate key points of functionality from anywhere on the web. These APIs are the reason you can see your friends’ favorite articles on the New York Times site, update Twitter from your iPhone, or watch music videos on some kid’s Tumblr blog. In essence, what these sites have realized is that it isn’t necessarily best to keep tight control over how and where people view your content. In fact, people are sometimes much more engaged with content if they feel some sense of authorship over it. In the age of the Internet, people have come to expect their participation in media (and many other things) to come on their own terms.

I was reminded of this idea recently by two different encounters with culture I’ve had here in New York over the past year. The first was the subway advertisements that appeared to announce the arrival of the fifth season of Mad Men. The posters were little more than a stark white space with a familiar suited figure falling through it. They were striking ads on their own, but the coolest thing is what passers-by did with them. All over the city, these ads were treated as canvases, unfinished dots to be abstractly connected into a new pictures. As anyone in NYC can tell you, subway ads have long been defaced as interactive canvases, these ads just left a little more to the imagination. I’m not sure if this was a foreseen feature of these ads, but it was very fun nevertheless.

mad men subway ads

 

More recently, artist Rutherford Chang has taken over the Recess space in SoHo (at 41 Grand Street) with an installation titled ‘We Buy White Albums’. Chang has filled the gallery with a bank of record players and bins upon bins filled with his extensive collection of first-printings of The Beatles so-called ‘White Album’. Going through the collection, you’ll find that some of the most interesting specimens have been decorated and filled-in by their former owners, endowing the objects with much more power than their more pristine brethren. (These images were lifted from Dust & Grooves, which offers a great interview with the artist.)

whitealbum01whitealbum02

 

Philosophically, the idea of decentralizing authorial control over meaning is nothing new. The academic grad-schoolers among you will recognize the notion that an audiences’ interpretation may, in fact, represent the true meaning in any work of art. Browse some of the post-structuralist musings of Jacques Derrida from way back in the 60′s and you will find that some creative philosophies actually give the audience more credence than the author. Maybe this is what the Beatles were acknowledging when they put this record out in 1968… or maybe they were just trying to clear their minds after their extended hang with the Maharishi.

In any case, whenever I make something — especially when I’m designing a platform that will be populated with user content — I try to leave room for this idea of the unfinished. I believe that some of the most engaging experiences (and business models) are those that leave room for a little serendipitous audience manipulation. Why try to build a world all by yourself, wall it in, and declare it finished, when your audience would be thrilled to offer up their own energy to help build alongside you.

 

Advertising, Design, Digital, Ideas

Does Netflix Like Throwing Money Away?

November 10th, 2012

So I’m a little confused by this one. Netflix has apparently purchased the Google AdWord for the term ‘netflix’. This advertising strategy seems strange to me for two reasons:

1. Netflix.com is ALWAYS going to show up first when someone googles the term ‘netflix’. I mean, the 2nd-place result is currently a blog article from forbes.com — a site that has no chance of being more relevant for this search term. Why bother defending your position in search results if your position is iron-clad. Apple doesn’t buy the the AdWord for the term ‘apple’ and Hulu doesn’t buy ‘hulu’ because there is literally no reason to. It doesn’t make sense.

2. Netflix has to pay Google every time a user clicks the ad. Let me repeat this important fact: Netflix has to pay Google every time a user clicks the ad.

Considering how many users use the search box to navigate the Internet (as opposed to typing in the full URL of the site they want to visit), Netflix must end up paying Google thousands upon thousands of dollars every year just to deliver this almost entirely redundant search entry. Is it really worth it to get that alternate title and description in there?

 

In a related story, Netflix also hands over money to Bing for a similarly stupid service. However, it appears Hulu has joined them there in the redundant stupidity.

* Slaps forehead… clicks on the ad just to punish Netflix for being dumb. *

 

 

Advertising, Design, Digital

iPhone5 Saves Facebook’s Mobile Strategy

September 20th, 2012

The iPhone 5′s extra 176 pixels of vertical screen space just inadvertently saved Facebook. The social giant was having trouble thinking of ways to integrate ads into the cramped screen real-estate of the iPhone. As you can see from the illustration below, however, they need worry no longer.

My recommendation: buy FB!

Digital, Gadgets

Why Facebook Changed Your Email

June 26th, 2012

Facebook automatically updated the default email of most of its users today without warning. Even if you didn’t create a Facebook email account, a randomly assigned email address is now your new default email in their system.

So what gives? Facebook knows that no one likes it when the company alters user data. Facebook also knows that no one, and certainly no one’s friends, is likely to adopt a random new email for their personal use at this point. So why would they risk consumer ire by pushing what seems like an inconsequential email system?

Well, it turns out that this new email address could be of major consequence to Facebook’s future value even if you and your friends never actively use it for any interpersonal communication. Even if you never tell a soul that your new email is jimmy.joe.555@facebook, the truth is that you will give out this email over and over again: every time you use Facebook Connect to sign into a third party site.

The nagging fear bubbling deep in the gut of every Facebook exec is that, however unlikely it may seem at this point, the use of Facebook as the default social graph for most of the web might just be a temporary fad. Any day now, another social contender — maybe one of the usual suspects or maybe some startup lurking on the horizon — could waltz in and replace Facebook as the social dance partner of a thousand websites and apps. Facebook Connect may be ubiquitous today, but as long as the sites using it are able to collect your real email address from Facebook, they could ditch Facebook and easily retain you as a customer. Meanwhile, on Facebook’s end, the river of information about your web usage would begin to slow to a trickle. Game over for Facebook.

That’s where this little email gambit comes into play. For most Facebook users, it would never even come to mind to go into the settings panel and start cleaning up. So, as long as Facebook is able to quietly replace their default email, a funny little Facebook address is all that will be exchanged when these same users sign up for Instagram, Pinterest, or Words With Friends using their Facebook credentials. The email that no one wanted suddenly makes Facebook itself an indispensable link in the chain of contact.

While this seems sneaky and perhaps a bit dismissive of the accepted definitions of respect for the user, you could also see it as a positive; Third party sites will no longer get access to your private email address. This could mean less spam coming in to your primary inbox. That’s a good thing, right?

The gamble for Facebook is that if third parties are no longer able to communicate with their customers without Facebook getting in the way, they may be far more hesitant to offer Facebook Connect as a user credential system. The gamble for users is if they use Facebook to sign up for a bunch of other services, they might feel shackled to their Facebook account even if they fall in love with another social network.

Anyways, the net net is that this move brings into question, once again, the nature of Facebook as a product. The more it turns itself into a privately owned web utility, the more dangerous its ubiquity becomes. All of the moves Facebook is making are great utility moves, but let’s not forget that Facebook is now a publicly traded company with obligations not just to users, but also to shareholders. The further Facebook goes down the ubiquitous utility path, the more they will need to eventually be regulated.

Note: If you wish to change this setting back to your real email, just follow these instructions.

Digital