Sunday, February 20, 2011

Social network revolutions

Ever since the Tunisian and Egyptian “revolutions,” there has been a ton of debate on the effect of social networking. As a self-proclaimed social networking strategist, I have a few opinions on the matter myself.

First, I hate the talking heads that say either that social networking is the new savior of democracy (by allowing these groups to get organized) or that it is the new tool for dictatorship (to allow regimes to censor and track activists). The truth is that they do both, or neither, it’s all about how these tools are designed, implemented, and managed. As my favorite answer to student questions in class – the real answer is that “it depends.”

But since WE have the power to design, implement, and manage these tools, we can make sure that the positives outweigh the negatives. It is possible to create wi-fi mesh networks that would resist government censorship and prevent them from shutting down the Internet in the event of a revolution. It’s also possible to create anonymous and untraceable profiles for activists. We can effectively do what Christian Slater kind of did in the movie “Pump up the Volume” (great flick btw) with his pirate radio station.

So it's up to the designers at Facebook, Twitter, etc. to modify their platforms. But if they can pull this off, the power it would give activists would be incredible. But as with any kind of power, it can be used for good or for ill.

Household cap and trade

A couple of Eastern European countries are piloting a household level cap and trade system. Each household gets a certain quota of carbon emission credits. If you want to use more, you have to buy credits from someone who will use less. There is a big, central, market for the credits, so it’s not like you have to go out and find the person to buy from/sell to. Would that change your behavior? The pilot studies are finding that people are using less electricity, driving less, etc. But since it’s their choice, it is more “free market philosophy” than government mandates.

An extra benefit is that since lower income households tend to use less energy than high income, it also reduces the need for social safety net spending without raising taxes or government spending. Rich households are buying emissions from low income households. But again, rather than forcing this on people, it is free market based. If a low income household wants to use more energy, they can. And if the high income household wants to reduce emissions and save money, they can do that too.

Smart Homes

There is a new prototype for a smart home electric meter. Existing models can tell you what the differential price for electricity is at any given time and allow you to customize your usage (thermostat, running the washing machine, etc) accordingly.

But this one decides autonomously. When prices go up, it automatically changes the thermostat or delays the washer. Are you willing to give a computer that much control? I assume that the eventual product would allow you to set some basic preferences like the range of temperature you are willing to accept or how long you are willing to wait to wash your clothes.

There are some great applications of human factors design in creating this kind of preferences interface so that it is easy to use as well as effective in translating user preferences into system performance. The great thing is that it pays for itself in energy savings too.

High Tech contact lenses

There is a lab that has developed a prototype contact lens that can superimpose basic text. It’s still early, but the potential is to create something like the terminator had.

For example, when you see someone who is in your contact list, it could superimpose his or her profile information. You'd never forget someone's name again. Or when you look at a building, it could tell you what the building is. You could even get your GPS directions when you are walking down the street.

I’m not sure what I think of this. It could just be too much for me.

Feeling Wasteful

Feeling Wasteful

Some new research coming out of London and Jerusalem has some interesting findings on loss aversion. It turns out, it is not the loss per se that makes us crazy. It’s the feeling of responsibility for the loss. Basically, they report on two findings:

1. we are willing to waste money, time, effort if it makes us feel like we wasted less

2. if we can blame the waste on other people, it doesn’t have the same effect.

So for example, if you get offered a deal for movie tickets that is either 3 for $12 or 2 for $10, but we only want two tickets, we might buy the 2 for $10. But then later if we decide we want another ticket, we can’t bring ourselves to pay $5 for it, or even $4 for it (which is less than we paid for the first two), because we could have had it for $2.

There was also a study that found if you lose your $5 ticket, we won’t buy another one for $5 because it feels like we are paying $10 for something worth only $5. Even though no matter what you do, you don’t get your original $5 back so you are really just paying $5 for something that you were willing to pay $5 for just a few minutes ago.

They cite lots of other examples also. It's amazing how irrational we are. But not surprising. At least not any more.