Social Software ideas

While social software may be the internet revolution du jour among venture capitalists, as a user I'm still waiting for the killer social software app that lives up to all the market hype. Recently I've been thinking about how the current crop of options could be improved upon, or at the very least, how they could be leveraged to be something useful for users. I've come up with a few ideas, some half-baked, others fully baked. I offer them here in the hopes that someone, somewhere already built it or would like to build it.

Colloquial mapping

The gist
Yahoo Maps + Slashdot
Have you ever been literally steered wrong by automated mapping systems like Yahoo Maps or Mapquest? Either the maps are out of date or the algorithm that determines the shortest distance between two points doesn't account for local traffic patterns. I find the difference between how Yahoo Maps says I should get from a point A to a point B and how a friend or family member would tell me how to get there differs about half the time. I find that the more rural or off-the-beaten-path a destination is, the bigger the difference.
I'm finding that in Oregon, the speed difference between two lane roads with stop signs and four lane freeways is substantial. Yahoo Maps suggests the shortest distance and it almost always includes backroads that are riddled with delays. Where these systems fall short is that they are not aware that a quick 5 minute jog over to a major freeway can save 20 minutes or more on an hour long drive.
The idea
Create a mapping service that allows the community to suggest alternate paths along with reasons for it. Suggest the routes to be taken as dictated by the software's GIS information, but also list user suggestions, and to ensure quality, also add ratings of user suggestions by others.
If I wanted to go from San Diego to Ventura, CA, there are several paths I could take and it would depend on time of day, day of week, time of year, and/or the weather. Software would dictate that I go directly up the 5 and 405 freeway to the 101, but that'd be murder during rush hour on a weekday and might take 4-6 hours to cut through three major metropolitan areas. During a holiday period, you'd probably save lots of time taking an eastern route around most of Southern California even though it would be a longer distance.
The rub
The biggest obstacle I can see is normalizing all the data. By its very nature, getting directions from people would be "dirty" and require some significant logic to normalize and get it into a database format that could be queried. You could store the paths based on the geographic start and end points, and perhaps take long/lat points along the way, then you could show users paths suggested by users that had start and end points that were shorter or longer than their desired path. The trickiest thing would be providing user suggested paths for a trip between say Los Angeles and Ventura, CA that could correctly draw upon some of the suggested paths from the San Diego to Ventura submissions.
Allowing other users to rate the quality of suggested directions would hopefully keep bad directions to a minimum and at the same time float the best alternate paths to the top. With proper reputation management in place, the service could keep track of a user's overall quality of suggested directions and highlight those ingenious travelers that always seem to know the quickest way to get somewhere.
Along with the proven utility of internet mapping, adding a suggested route system could fill in the last remaining gaps and produce a hybrid automated and human created system that any amount of AI programming couldn't match. Mapping software relies on simple mathematics and a conceptual map of the earth's surface that imaginary vectors can be plotted along. Humans that are veteran drivers in a particular region have extensive knowledge based on years of experience that simple mathematical models can't replicate. This service would attempt to bring those two worlds together to provide the best possible experience for users trying to get from point A to point B.

2. Geographical opinion systems

The gist
Epinions + Friendster
Last summer I moved to a town in a place far away from where I've spent the past few years, and one of the first problems I had to solve was finding the perfect everything. I quickly amassed a bunch of questions that took months of trial and error to answer through a network of new friends and neighbors. Where could I get a good haircut? Which one of the local dentists would be most understanding of my dental anxiety? Which store should I shop for food at if I want a lot of organic, natural, and meatless food? Are there any trustworthy mechanics in this town? Which one of the two Thai places is "the good one?" Where should I go for a nice night out here? Which theater plays the art house movies? Which one of the furniture stores should I trust with my money?
The idea
Even with a small network of friends, it's tough to find answers for all the questions you might have when you move to a new city. Worse yet is traveling to a new place and having to send off emails to friends that live there, asking them for all their favorite places to eat and have fun. The crux of this idea is to build something that combines a service like Friendster with a review site like Epinions. Basically the site would serve as a digital representation of the connections and knowledge one builds over time when living in the same place.
I'd be more than happy to write detailed reviews of all my favorite places in San Francisco for friends. Currently I do it over email when asked by friends and on localized or private email lists when the questions come up. It took me years to find the one honest mechanic, the nicest dentist on earth, and the best sushi in San Francisco. I share knowledge freely with my friends and they do the same right back at me, but it's tough to keep track of this stuff. This site/service would serve a place to share this information among a trusted network of friends or strangers given appropriate levels of privacy control and reputation management.
The rub
The hardest part of course is weeding out the tainted information. If limited to your friends network, this wouldn't be too hard to manage, as you probably do it currently. I might not treat my friend Jonah's opinion of hairdressers highly because I know he is married to one and talks up his wife's business too much. The bigger rub is when you expose the reviews to strangers, because it quickly becomes a minefield where trust management is paramount to keeping the service useful. Given any system that tracks quality or quantity of any property, participants will game the system to rise in rankings. People signing up fake accounts to rate their own services highly would be the death keel for this service among the many possibilities for tainting data.
Another obvious problem is why anyone would enter all this information somewhere. Sure, epinons could someday do this and it was fun at first, but writing reviews takes work, and I believe epinions relied on encyclopedic reviews and should have instead allowed shorter 1 paragraph reviews that might only be meant for friends. Reducing some of the formality and perceived amount of work would reduce the friction of getting information. Using perhaps an existing network like Friendster, keeping reviews private to only those close to you would also help. If you wanted to share a review of your favorite bar, it wouldn't mean spending fifteen minutes writing to help out some nameless corporate website network, if it was for your friends only, then you'd have the more immediate feeling of helping people you care about out. This would also give an incentive to expand your friend networks, in order to access to this privelaged, private information. sort of does this by putting some emphasis on geographical location, though they seem to be more of a Craigslist style classified ad network. When I log in, I usually see a list of strangers trying to sell a guitar amp or get a knitting group together, which is fairly different than what I envision here.

3. Collaborative consumed media

The gist
Friendster + ??? (some sort of media management service)
Friendster currently lets you list interests in a free-form way and those become links to others interested in the same subject matter. What I want here is something a bit more formal than "rock music" or "AC/DC". I'd love to know the last five books my friends purchased and the last five CDs they liked. I'd love to know what's spinning in their MP3 player currently and what DVDs they enjoyed watching recently. While this may be a potential privacy problem, as long as my friends are the only ones that can see this info, I wouldn't mind sharing it, and I'd love to check up on what media they've been loving recently.
The idea
A central service perhaps built upon existing systems at Amazon or Friendster that allows you to share as easily as possible all the media you are consuming. Currently my friends do this using a mish-mash of web services, spaghetti code scripts, and their weblogs. I might think about getting the New Pornographers album after I hear my friend Andre rave about it on his site, or if I see Jason's "now playing list" that features the tracks.
The rub
As with the last idea, reducing the friction as much as possible is key to allowing people to enter data into the system. At amazon, simply let people share their recent purchases with friends and perhaps let them write micro-reviews that don't show up as formal amazon reviews. Provide javascript bookmarklets to let users quickly add movie listings, book ordering pages, and band homepages into their media library to share with friends. This would be trivial to tie into an existing commerce system like amazon, which already has the data and only needs to make it easy as possible for me to say "hey friends, I just finished reading Word Freak and it was a blast from start to finish!"
Privacy concerns would have to be addressed, as this could be a Total (media) Information Awareness listing of everything you've bought, watched, listened to, and read. Users would have to trust the company running the service and trust that their data wouldn't be used against them in any way.
Currently Erik's ingenious service All Consuming does this by scraping weblogs (and letting you dictate which ones are your friends) and creating pages and sending you alerts when friends mention new books, though it doesn't do music and movies, and it sort of does a end-run around the data by grabbing it from your site and normalizing it into an amazon-like framework.
Audioscrobbler does "what's playing" lists pretty well (here's my out-dated profile), perhaps if they could be incorporated into an amazon purchase history, it could be extended to movies and books.

4. Reputation management ideas

The gist
Multi-variate reputation management
Reputation systems have been around for a few years and it's about time to improve upon them. I've noticed that after using eBay for a few months that the simple +/- rating system doesn't always tell you what you want to know about an unknown seller, nor does it equate with trust in some cases. This could work with any reputation system, but eBay comes to mind as the most obvious application.
The idea
This is less of a product or service and more like a bunch of ideas around reputation systems.
Add additional variables for tracking reputation in a community system. For eBay, there are numerous informative data points that could help calculate trustworthiness. I'm going to trust someone that has high ranking for selling ten $1,000+ items more than someone that sold 50 $5 trinkets, and doubly so if I want to buy a $500 item. After having been burned by an overseas transaction gone wrong, I'm wary of buying from sellers that are very far away, unless they have extremely high marks.
Similar to the "grade inflation" problems common in colleges everywhere, everyone at eBay seems to have the same positive rating of "GOOD COMMUNICATION WOULD USE AGAIN A+++++++++++" which doesn't really tell you much and becomes meaningless if every bit of feedback looks like that. If you plumb someone's profile and all their previous transactions, you can eventually figure out if they've moved any big ticket items but it'd be great if that information (which is already in the database) could be surfaced and used to assess an adjusted reputation ("This user has been rated positively on 125 sales of items over $500". Other bits of info could include things like location of both the seller and the buyers (I'll trust a seller in Spain if they have lots of high ranking sales to others in my country).
Besides eBay, a system such as the one in use at Slashdot that keeps tally of a user's karma could be expanded to include additional datapoints, such as # of words per highly rated answer. You might prefer encyclopedic answers, or you might instead like to know the efficient users that pack the highest ratings in the fewest words/post.
Additional data would really help out sites that involve larger sums of money changing hands. The eBay-like freelance job site eLance and the home improvement finder site Service Magic could improve their simple +/- systems with a cost calculation. I wouldn't hire a handyman that typically does $50 doorjamb fixes to hang $10,000 worth of windows and at eLance, if I was looking for a cheap $500 website for my business I'd hire someone that had successfully done those jobs in the past and had a portfolio filled with low-cost jobs.
Update: Jay Allen lists an idea I would also love to see, an address book that could be shared with friends. This past xmas I had to email my new address out to a couple dozen people that asked, and most all of them were already connected to me in friendster.

Thanks Philip

This month marks Philip Greenspun’s tenth year publishing on the web. Sometime in 1995, I stumbled across and proceeded to learn quite a bit about web publishing, photography, storytelling on the web, and eventually how databases and collaborative community spaces are built.

There are three or four people that shaped my learning about web technology and during a time where books on the subject were rare, it was due to these folks that I got jobs doing web things and created a number of personal sites and services. They were generous enough to share everything they learned along the way and I’ve tried my best to pass along my lessons to others. I remember reading every word of Philip’s guide to building a community site online and then buying a hardcopy when it was released. The book taught me how to view any potential site as a giant database that could be used by thousands. I used a lot of the ideas when planning out the mechanics and programming of MetaFilter and two years later I was getting accolades for the work inspired in part by this book.

I’ve put some effort into tracking down and personally thanking the folks that helped me out early on by publishing tutorials, but Philip was one I never got around to contacting. So thanks again Philip for all you’ve done and I hope to see you continue for ten years to come.

Every great movie ends with an awards ceremony

After four tries, I finally got to see Return of the King today. It seems living in a small town of 30k people that only has one cineplex showing the movie on a single screen makes for many sold out shows.

The showing I caught was turned up really loud and at several points I was terrified by the action. The first couple hours were scarier than any horror movie I’ve seen. I haven’t read the books, so I can’t remember the names of them (were they modors from azkiban or raelians from babbiton?), but those giant flying pterodactyl things with the guy from Scream riding them were really scary. Whenever they flew over the crowd I felt like an 8 year old wanting to bury my face in my hands and leave the theater, totally terrified.

It also struck me how epic the whole journey was and I wondered why I’ve never heard of Tolkien re-enactment groups, since the whole thing felt so Civil War-ish. A quick search on google reveals there actually is a Middle Earth Historical Reenactment Society and a House of Cardolan group that specializes in these sorts of things.

Extraordinary, not ordinary

For the second time in my life, today I felt what it was like to read an email sent by someone no longer living. It’s an odd feeling to know they are in your address book but that any email sent their way will go unanswered. You can also look back at the last 2 or 3 things they sent and read them as if the messages were new. Their email address still exists, though someone else (or an auto-response script) will be bouncing the bad news from here on out.

To be quite honest, my extended family feels a lot like my extended neighbors, or any large set of strangers I’ve spent time with. There are a few standout pals, a sea of unknowns, and a real bastard or two all lurking among the crowd. Sure we all share a bit more body chemistry than a group of strangers, but I’ve never felt particularly close to people simply based on genetics.

One of the standout pals among the strangers was my great aunt (grandmother’s sister on my dad’s side). She spent most of her life as an educator, researching how children and the developmentally disabled learned going back into the 60s. Very early on I could tell she was different than all the other family members I knew. She stressed learning above all else and I remember during the times I got to spend with her that she taught me an important life lesson. She taught me that doing the minimum to fulfill a requirement was only doing an ordinary amount of work, and while that was satisfactory, putting in a bit more effort would yield extraordinary results. “Why be ordinary when you can be extraordinary” has carried with me since I was a kid.

She was the first grown up to teach me it was ok to be smart, that excelling at what you do was important and commendable, and that other people’s opinion of you didn’t really matter.

I’m going to miss my Aunt Molly. I can’t make the funeral this weekend, and I haven’t seen her in person in almost two years, but I did get to talk to her on the phone a couple weeks ago and I planned a trip to see her at the end of this month so we could catch up. However, she went from initial diagnosis of pancreatic cancer to death in just a few weeks, surprising us all. She’s gone but her lessons live on in my life and I’ll continue to do my best passing them along to others. So long Molly, I love you and will miss you greatly.

Lame, lame, lame

I’ve met, read, and been interviewed by some lazy reporters in my time, but I’m pretty impressed by John Leo’s display of ineptitude. He wrote an article about how the left thinks Bush is Hitler and scoured a few site looking for supporting evidence. One of them is MetaFilter. Here is his entire quote:

Another vexing question about Rove: Is he Goebbels or Josef Mengele? Goebbels is the top choice among antiwar commentators, but a writer to the MetaFilter site said: “Karl Rove made up stories about John McCain, just as Josef Mengele conducted medical experiments on children in Auschwitz.”

Now read the post he plucked it from.

Clearly — to anyone that reads the post — they could see it was posted in a mocking, over-the-top tone. The comment used in the quote is obviously a joke. Other comments on the thread by MetaFilter’s conservative and liberal posters were mocking the article and writing it off as pathetic, but Leo used it anyway. It’s the laziest display of “journalism” I’ve seen and now it is being syndicated across a range of conservative news sites.

I don’t dispute the fact that a small segment of the extreme left thinks bush is hitler. But many pundits on the right have tried to push their viewpoint that extremists are the left going back at least to the WTO protests in Seattle (where a few psycho anarchists were supposed to represent anyone that didn’t vote for Bush) and that’s ridiculous. It’s as ridiculous as trying to paint all conservatives as white supremacists. Quoting someone’s joke intended to mock an extremist screed is also ridiculous and beyond the pale.

Putting the ‘fun’ in fungi

Just got back from what was easily the best meal I’ve had in Oregon at the Joel Palmer House. Jack, the founder, is a renowned mushroom expert going way back and searches the local forests for truffles, porcinis, and chanterelles, then serves them up in his meals.

He captured the essence of mushrooms in every dish. The dishes tended towards hearty and earthy flavors but were also a bit heavy and creamy, which is just fine for winter. He toured the dining area at one point and I got to ask him what he serves in the summer and he said “lots and lots of local berries, but the dishes are best eaten when it is cold outside.” Their wine list had an impressive chunk of the entire willamette valley region to offer as well.

I really wanted to ask him how risky it was to harvest wild mushrooms specifically to serve customers, but figured it was best to skip that kind of morbid topic at a fine meal (“have you ever served fugu encrusted with death caps?” or “So what are our chances of dying tonight?” probably would have been my questions).

If you go, by all means opt for the “mushroom madness” prix fixe menu which is what I imagine is the closest you could get to judging an Iron Chef battle. There are five courses all based around different mushrooms, then a dessert that includes them as well. The portions started small and light, as they should be, but eventually grew into full sized plates. I had to practically be rolled out of the place by the end.

But it was a nice place and a great dining experience that I’ll be dragging all my out-of-town visitors to enjoy.