kottke.org posts about Matt Webb

Facebook and Instagram as company townsApr 11 2012

One of the more thought-provoking pieces on Instagram's billion dollar sale to Facebook is Matt Webb's Instagram as an island economy. In it, he thinks about Instagram as a closed economy:

What is the labour encoded in Instagram? It's easy to see. Every "user" of Instagram is a worker. There are some people who produce photos -- this is valuable, it means there is something for people to look it. There are some people who only produce comments or "likes," the virtual society equivalent of apes picking lice off other apes. This is valuable, because people like recognition and are more likely to produce photos. All workers are also marketers -- some highly effective and some not at all. And there's a general intellect which has been developed, a kind of community expertise and teaching of this expertise to produce photographs which are good at producing the valuable, attractive likes and comments (i.e., photographs which are especially pretty and provocative), and a somewhat competitive culture to become a better marketer.

There are also the workers who build the factory -- the behaviour-structuring instrument/forum which is Instagram itself, both its infrastructure and it's "interface:" the production lines on the factory floor, and the factory store. However these workers are only playing a role. Really they are owners.

All of those workers (the factory workers) receive a wage. They have not organised, so the wage is low, but it's there. It's invisible.

Like all good producers, the workers are also consumers. They immediately spend their entire wage, and their wages is only good in Instagram-town. What they buy is the likes and comments of the photos they produce (what? You think it's free? Of course it's not free, it feels good so you have to pay for it. And you did, by being a producer), and access to the public spaces of Instagram-town to communicate with other consumers. It's not the first time that factory workers have been housed in factory homes and spent their money in factory stores.

Although he doesn't use the term explictly, Webb is talking about a company town. Interestingly, Paul Bausch used this term in reference to Facebook a few weeks ago in a discussion about blogging:

The whole idea of [blog] comments is based on the assumption that most people reading won't have their own platform to respond with. So you need to provide some temporary shanty town for these folks to take up residence for a day or two. And then if you're like Matt -- hanging out in dozens of shanty towns -- you need some sort of communication mechanism to tie them together. That sucks.

So what's an alternative? Facebook is sort of the alternative right now: company town.

Back to Webb, he says that making actual money with Instagram will be easy:

I will say that it's simple to make money out of Instagram. People are already producing and consuming, so it's a small step to introduce the dollar into this.

I'm not so sure about this...it's too easy for people to pick up and move out of Instagram-town for other virtual towns, thereby creating a ghost town and a massively devalued economy. After all, the same real-world economic forces that allowed a dozen people to build a billion dollar service in two years means a dozen other people can build someplace other than Instagram for people to hang out in, spending their virtual Other-town dollars.

Also worth a read on Facebook/Instagram: Paul Ford's piece for New York Magazine.

Facebook, a company with a potential market cap worth five or six moon landings, is spending one of its many billions of dollars to buy Instagram, a tiny company dedicated to helping Thai beauty queens share photos of their fingernails. Many people have critical opinions on this subject, ranging from "this will ruin Instagram" to "$1 billion is too much." And for many Instagram users it's discomfiting to see a giant company they distrust purchase a tiny company they adore - like if Coldplay acquired Dirty Projectors, or a Gang of Four reunion was sponsored by Foxconn.

So what's going on here?

First, to understand this deal it's important to understand Facebook. Unfortunately everything about Facebook defies logic. In terms of user experience (insider jargon: "UX"), Facebook is like an NYPD police van crashing into an IKEA, forever - a chaotic mess of products designed to burrow into every facet of your life.

Planetary sci-fiDec 03 2010

Matt Webb of BERG shares some of his favorite sci-fi about each of the planets. And the Sun (sort of)...no solar system sci-fi list would be complete without a mention of Sunshine.

In 2057, the Sun is dying, and the Earth is freezing. So the ship Icarus 2 goes on a mission to reignite it with a massive bomb. This is the movie Sunshine, and if you get a chance to see it, watch it on a big screen. The crew themselves watch the Sun close-up, awestruck, from a view-port the exact dimensions of a movie screen, so the Sun fills your picture too and you spend half the film bathing in powerful yellow light. Like some kind of church.

Although I didn't, Matt, appreciate the diss of Pluto. Never forget, my friend.

Personal light conesDec 02 2008

When I was born 35.2 years ago, a light cone started expanding away from Earth out into the rest of the universe (Minkowski space-temporally speaking, of course). Thanks to updates from Matt Webb's fancy RSS tool, I know that my personal light cone is about to envelop the Zeta Herculis binary star system, located 35.2 light years from Earth in the constellation Hercules.

With a mass some 50 percent greater than the Sun, however, and beginning its evolution toward gianthood (its core hydrogen fusion likely shut down), Zeta Her A is 6 times more luminous than the Sun with a radius 2.5 times as large. Nevertheless, the star gives a good idea of what the Sun would look like from a great distance, in Zeta Her's case 35 light years. The companion (Zeta Her B), a cooler class G (G7) hydrogen-fusing dwarf with a luminosity only 65 percent that of the Sun and a mass about 85 percent solar, orbits with a period of 34.5 years at a mean distance of 15 Astronomical Units (over 50 percent farther than Saturn is from the Sun). A rather high eccentricity takes the two as far apart as 21 AU and as close as 8 AU.

Hercules is of course named for the Greek hero, Heracles. Next up is Delta Trianguli, another binary star system, in about two months.

Matt Webb on movement as a metaphor for the web (Webb 2.0?)Feb 06 2008

Matt Webb recently gave a talk at Web Directions North 2008 about movement as a metaphor for thinking about the Web. The slides take awhile to get through properly but it's worth the effort. Some interesting points:

The meat of what Matt is getting at with his movement metaphor is contained in two systems he refers to in the talk. The first is the internal combustion engine:

To my mind, this is a more beautiful Rube Goldberg machine: the internal combustion engine.

Intake, compression, power, exhaust.

So what's happening here. It needs a spark to get going, just like a message-board community online. And then it keeps cycling, and almost as a side-effect it outputs mechanical motion which goes to the wheels. But another side-effect of the process is that the motion also provides the intake stroke to start the cycle again. It's self-perpetuating, just you use the energy from breakfast to go and make dinner, and you use the energy from supper to go and get breakfast again.

And the second is David Allen's Getting Things Done:

The cleverness of GTD is not that it's a system for achieving tasks. It's that it's a system for keeping you motivated to run the system for achieving tasks. It helps you start. It gives you reasons to continue. It helps you start again with a blank slate if you get overwhelmed, you know, to get back on the wagon.

It contains small and big rewards.

What's more, it has a catchy name which advertises itself, and it's easy to grasp too so when you tell your friends about it they remember it. So it's a system that contains its own growth cycle too. Very clever.

A hardware API is like a software API for hardware (duh). Matt and his partner are working on a radio for the BBC which has a hardware API. For example, they're planning on having different parts for the radio that hook together using magnets, much like Apple's MagSafe power connector.

Snap is a proposal for syndicating actions. Instead of using RSS for passive input (news reading, blog reading, etc.), Snap imagines using an RSS-esque reader for doing things (purchasing books, managing todo lists, posting to blogs, etc.) without using a proper browser. Matt wrote a whole bunch more on Snap here.

But my main takeaway from Matt's talk is his process for thinking about, describing, and explaining things. He uses idea scaffolding and metaphor.

So one of the way I work, being not-a-designer, is to use a lot of metaphors. Metaphors are a great sort of idea scaffolding.

I start by saying, as the Web is to cities, so weblogs are to Catalhoyok. Or, so this online social music website is to the London underground system. Or, so this repository of scientific papers is to Borges' infinite library.

You know, so you make the analogy and then extend the metaphor. The consequence would be this, the consequence would be that. It's a way to provoke creative thinking.

I've observed that there's much resistance in contemporary society to simply trying out ideas to see if they work. It seems more important to many people to know who they are and what they believe. New ideas are either accepted or rejected and then those choices are vigorously defended. If it's going to help you figure something out, why not look at a problem from every possible angle? Working on kottke.org is a big part of my process of idea scaffolding. I don't necessarily agree or disagree with everything I link to1 but reading articles and then describing them to others is a good way to continually wonder, "Gosh, isn't it interesting to think about the world this way?"

[1] I often get email from people saying that a particular idea expressed in some article that I've linked to is wrong and that I should alert my readers or remove the link. To which my response is a lusty hell no. What's the big deal? It's just an idea; it's not going to hurt you.

Matt Webb's presentation slides and transcripts areJun 05 2007

Matt Webb's presentation slides and transcripts are always worth reading through...this one is no exception: Products Are People Too. I hope to catch one of his talks in person someday.

PopTech, day 3 wrap-upOct 23 2006

Notes from day 3 at PopTech:

Chris Anderson talked about, ba ba baba!, not the long tail. Well, not explicitly. Chris charted how the availability of a surplus in transistors (processors are cheap), storage (hard drives are cheap), and surplus in bandwidth (DSL is cheap) has resulted in so much opportunity for innovation and new technology. His thoughts reminded me of how surplus space in Silicon Valley (in the form of garages) allowed startup entrepreneurs to pursue new ideas without having to procure expensive commercial office space.

Quick thought re: the long tail...if the power law arises from scarcity as Matt Webb says, then it would make sense that the surplus that Anderson refers to would be flattening that curve out a bit.

Roger Brent crammed a 60 minute talk into 20 minutes. It was about genetic engineering and completely baffling...almost a series of non sequiturs. "Centripital glue engine" was my favorite phrase of the talk, but I've got no idea what Brent meant by it.

Homaro Cantu gave a puzzling presentation of a typical meal at his Chicago restaurant, Moto. I've seen this presentation twice before and eaten at Moto; all three experiences were clear and focused on the food. This time around, Cantu didn't explain the food as well or why some of the inventions were so cool. His polymer box that cooks on the table is a genuinely fantastic idea, but I got the feeling that the rest of the audience didn't understand what it was. Cantu also reiterated his position on copyrighting and patenting his food and inventions. Meg caught him saying that he was trying to solve the famine problem with his edible paper, which statement revealed two problems: a) famines are generally caused by political issues and therefore not solvable by new kinds of food, printed or otherwise, and b) he could do more good if he open sourced his inventions and let anyone produce food or improve the techniques in those famine cases where food would be useful.

Richard Dawkins gave part of his PopTech talk (the "queerer than we can suppose" part of it) at TED in 2005 (video).

Bob Metcalfe's wrap-up of the conference was a lot less contentious than in past years; hardly any shouting and only one person stormed angrily out of the room. In reference to Hasan Elahi's situation, Bob said that there's a tension present in our privacy desires: "I want my privacy, but I need you to be transparent." Not a bad way of putting it.

Serena Koenig spoke about her work in Haiti with Partners in Health. Koening spoke of a guideline that PIH follows in providing healthcare: act as though each patient is a member of your own family. That sentiment was echoed by Zinhle Thabethe, who talked about her experience as an HIV+ woman living in South Africa, an area with substandard HIV/AIDS-related healthcare. Thabethe's powerful message: we need to treat everyone with HIV/AIDS the same, with great care. Sounds like the beginning of a new Golden Rule of Healthcare.

2.7 billion results for "blog" on Google. Blogs: bigger than Jesus.

Wikipedia contrailsJun 21 2006

Matt Webb recently posted his Wikipedia contrail, a record of his recent travels among the pages of the online encyclopedia. Neat idea. When I was a kid, we had a World Book encyclopedia which I read at any possible opportunity, and I would have loved to look back at where I'd been. Actually, it would be nice if Wikipedia kept track of this for me as well...maybe it does if you're logged in? (I don't have a Wikipedia account, so I don't know.)

Anyhoo, here's my Wikipedia contrail:

  • Jason Kottke - I'm working on a bio for a conference and I checked in to see what I've been up to recently. Apparently I'm married and working on kottke.org "part time".
  • Cabinet of curiosities - Doing some research for an upcoming talk.
  • Stigmergy - Didn't know there was a term for it.
  • Capote - Saw the film, went to read up.
  • Groove Is In the Heart - Couldn't remember who sang this and "What is Love". (A: Deee-Lite.)
  • Harper Lee - Truman Capote's childhood friend, wrote To Kill A Mockingbird, won a Pulitzer for it, and then barely wrote anything public again.
  • Jack Dunphy - Author, companion of Truman Capote.
  • Truman Capote - Wrote for the New Yorker, most famous for his "non-fiction novel", In Cold Blood, subject of the film, Capote, threw wicked parties.
  • Ann Coulter, Internet troll - These two are related.
  • .htaccess - Brushing up on password protecting directories.
  • Keratitis, Phlyctenule - Part of my eye went all weird and squishy one evening and I was trying to find out what was going on. Wikipedia was not helpful in this regard.
  • Taxicab geometry - Geometry of the driving cab, not the flying crow.
  • Perplex City - Linked into this from somewhere...don't even really know what it is.

If you want to find your own contrail, type "en.wikipedia.org/wiki" into your browser and see what comes up in the autocomplete list. Here are contrails from Adrian McEwen, Tom Stafford, and rodcorp.

SweetheartingOct 03 2005

Here's a feature I would like on my mobile phone: the ability to "ping" someone with 2 or less keypresses (something that takes around a second to do), even if the keypad is locked. The idea is that when I press a couple of buttons on my phone (say, 1#), a tiny content-less message is sent to the person corresponding to that key combination. On their end, they see something like "Jason pinged you at 7:34pm" with the option to ping right back. You'd have to set up what pings mean beforehand, stuff like "I'm leaving work now" or "remember to pick up milk at the store".

Pings would be perfect for situations when texting or a phone call is too time consuming, distracting, or takes you out of the flow of your present experience. If you call your husband on the way home from work every night and say the same thing each time, perhaps a ping would be better...you wouldn't have to call and your husband wouldn't have to stop what he was doing to answer the phone. You could even call it the "sweetheart ping" or "sweethearting"...in the absence of a prearraged "ping me when you're leaving", you could ping someone to let them know you're thinking about them.

This reminds me a bit of Matt Webb's Glancing project: I'm Ok, you're Ok. I guess you could think of pinging as eye contact via mobile phone...just enough information is conveyed to be useful, but not so much that it disrupts what you're already doing. Webb cites Howard Rheingold's Smart Mobs:

Howard Rheingold in his book Smart Mobs gives a good example of text messaging being used for this. He talked about kids in Sweden after a party. Say you've seen someone you quite liked and you'd like to see them again, but don't know if the feeling's shared. You'd send them a blank text message, or maybe just a really bland one like "hey, good party". If they reply, ask for a date. The first message is almost entirely expressive communication: tentative, deniable.

Matt does a fine job explaining why this stripped-down style of communication is sometimes preferable to more robust alternatives.

Typically humorless MeFi thread on Matt Webb'sJun 08 2005

Typically humorless MeFi thread on Matt Webb's recent musings on how much of the web is templated on American cities, especially SF. Unpucker, folks...it's ok.

Matt Webb on who the web isJun 08 2005

Matt Webb on who the web is and isn't for (this is a great little essay). "The huge influx of cash at the turn of the millennium led to the whole Web being built in the image of the Bay area. The website patterns that started there and - just by coincidence - happened to scale to other environments, those were the ones that survived."

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