Friday, May 25, 2012

The eternal present

John Lilly has a post that has been doing the rounds lately, in part because of this money quote:
I picked up a phrase some time ago that I think applies: “The next big thing is always beneath contempt.” Implication being that it is, of course, until it isn’t. Until it’s too big to ignore. This has happened over and over again in our society. In the middle ages, people assumed that no serious discussion could happen in anything but Latin — the so-called “vulgar” languages had no merit. And writers assumed that nothing interesting or lasting would come from this new medium of television. And, I think, people assume right now that nothing important will be created from a 10” touch screen without a keyboard (let alone a tiny 3.5” screen).
With the benefit of hindsight, we're tempted to point at history and laugh. "How could they ever imagine that an idea expressed in Latin was worth more than one expressed in German, French, English, or Italian?" But they were stuck in what they perceived to be an eternal present. At the time, all sophisticated discourse was composed in Latin, and they assumed that this would continue forever.

This error -- the assumption that present conditions will continue indefinitely -- is a fundamental weakness of human cognition, and you'd do well to become skillful in identifying it when you see it in front of you. I once heard a television sportscaster confidently predict that women would soon be running marathons faster than men, because their times were improving so rapidly. That was 30 years ago. It didn't happen because the current slope of the curve does not define its future slope.

Extrapolating current conditions into the future is the thinking that leads otherwise sensible people to pay $1 billion for an iPhone app with niche appeal -- it is growing in popularity today, and so it will certainly be overwhelmingly popular tomorrow. It's the thinking that left Apple for dead, crowned Microsoft the champion for all time, and says Google has won search and Facebook has won social and nothing will ever change that. It's a style of thinking that's wrong every single time.

Tomorrow will be different from today. The people who change the world are the ones who can escape the eternal present.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Number games

Fast Company reports on a new study on Google+'s numbers, which (again) suggest that Google's social product is essentially a ghost town, with low engagement and very weak repeat traffic numbers.

Google, of course, disputes the point. They consistently report that Google+ is booming, with numbers going through the roof. The numbers they choose to report, however, are suspiciously vague.
The company has been asked repeatedly for monthly active users, and it's repeatedly denied such requests, essentially calling them irrelevant. The closest we've seen of active usership was when the company explained how many Google+ users were engaging with Google Plus-enhanced or -related products. The problem is that Google Plus-enhanced products include YouTube and, meaning if you are engaging with basically any Google property (there are 120 Google+ integrations thus far) while signed up with Google+, Google is basically counting this as engagement with Google+, which is incredibly misleading. 
Google is, essentially, playing the same game that Amazon plays with Kindle sales numbers. Amazon constantly brags about how great the Kindle is doing, and yet to date has refused to disclose how many, precisely, have been sold. They do so in the knowledge that some lazy reporters will pass on the headline without reflection: "Kindle sales going up, up, up!" But those who are paying attention ask: if the product is really doing well, wouldn't you want to be specific about how well it's doing?

Google is undeniably playing games with its numbers for Google+. Counting engagement with search, Gmail, and YouTube as if that were intentional engagement with a social network is disingenuous, and that begs the question: what motivates that behavior? Success tells its own story; if the numbers are really good, you'll share those really good numbers with anyone who will listen. When you brag about your success while playing games with the numbers, it makes you look like a liar.