Category Archives: Social Network

foursquare 2.0 UX Sloppiness

Foursquare just released a new version of its iPhone app.

Something I noticed right away which disappointed me was that they basically slapped on a new view to the existing app, and didn’t even bother to match the style of the original app!

Screenshot from official foursquare blog

Not only is the new bar a different color, it’s also a different height than the existing one! It also lacks labels where the original one has labels below the icons. This is simply sloppy design. These two screens exist in the same version of their app! It wouldn’t have taken much more work to either update the app so both bars are grey, or match the new views to the old one.

I recently saw that foursquare is looking for a new Product Manager. I’m considering applying to help them out with their product issues 🙂

After emailing back and forth with Alex Rainert, foursquare’s head of product, it seems that, to answer my own question, this was a conscious design decision to change the visual style of the buttons. In one context, they are for navigating various top level features, and in another, they are buttons for various pop-up actions. It’s of my opinion that the change in visual style is a bit too much (the change in height along with the loss of the location footer in some screens), but that’s a design choice that foursquare made intentionally.


I finally heard about Quora enough times (I suppose I reached my contagion threshold) to make a profile for it a week or so ago, and I ended up exploring it in depth today.

Quora is basically a site that lets you ask questions and answer other people’s questions. Facebook also just recently released a feature called Questions that seems sort of similar. While Quora hasn’t put limits on what kinds of questions you can ask, the bulk seem to be about technology and startups, probably because of the types of early adopters who are using the site.

Quora is interesting to me because it’s basically enabling people to share knowledge. In a way, it’s like Wikipedia, but with a seemingly smaller barrier to entry. While Wikipedia has some harsh rules on how to edit an article, Quora is centered around questions and answers on various topics. You can literally sign up and answer questions within a few minutes.

As with any great piece of social software, Quora seems to work because it makes the right things visible, which gives incentives for people to keep contributing. Personally, I see it as a way to build up my online reputation as an expert on a number of subjects. It’s interesting because the incentives to use the site are baked into the site itself. It’s easy to see who has answered many questions, who has a lot of followers, who has been “endorsed” by others, etc. With this system, pretty much everyone wins. The question askers have their questions answered, the answerers get the glory of answering a question well, and even users who do neither can still benefit from reading good answers to good questions.

Another neat aspect of the site is that there are many users who could be considered “internet celebrities” or important in some other right. There are many founders of companies and other execs who go to the trouble of answering questions about the companies they founded. This is cool because users are all sort of on the same level (or at least have the potential to be). Think of the opportunities if you were one of the first 1000 people on Twitter and could have great conversations with the other early adopters.

From playing around with it a bit today, I’m very impressed and excited about Quora. By comparison, I just goofed off on Facebook Questions and unlocked the Rickroll Easter Egg (ask “How is babby formed?”). Quora still has a few things it could do better (like make it easier to find really great answers to really great questions, perhaps older ones) but even now it seems like a great tool. With the right attention to detail and community, I feel like it could be the next Wikipedia in terms of social computing success stories.

Oh, and here’s an example of a really good answer to a question: Why is Facebook creating a Q&A product to compete against Quora?

Openbook Reveals Less Than Facebook’s Own Search

A while ago, I found “Openbook,” a frontend to Facebook’s own search APIs that expose status updates from people who have them set to be public. The site’s purpose is basically to point out how much potentially embarrassing information is available, and how easy it is to find.

I thought this was a really clever idea. Then I realized that Openbook actually shows less than what Facebook does. I went over to Openbook and clicked on the query for “getting divorced.” Then I ran the same search inside of Facebook. Openbook has the same results, but Facebook also includes replies and “likes” to the status messages. In some cases it even shows comments from users who do not make their own status messages public (but replied to a public one). I suppose that’s another thing that should be added to the list of “Things Facebook shares about you that’s not readily apparent.”

Here’s the Openbook search I did:

And here’s the Facebook one:

Way to one-up Openbook, Facebook!

Linked: How Everything is Connected to Everything Else – Book Review

It looks like I’m continuing my long list of book reviews on my blog. Here’s a review of Linked by Albert-László Barabási (yes, I copy-pasta’ed that).

Linked is the story of the birth of graph theory and how early network models evolved to how we understand them today. Barabasi does a really good job of inserting character and context into the early scientists that formed the early ideas about networks. For example, he introduces Euler with a story about how he gave his nephew some lessons and worked on calculations that would some day lead to the discovery of Neptune. Oh, and he died that day, never to see the fruits of his labor. This kind of narrative is what I found lacking in Connected, and the kind I also noticed in Six Degrees. Go Barabasi!

That isn’t to say that Barabasi isn’t the king of all prose. One bugaboo I kept running into while reading linked was that Barabasi seems to have a certain idiosyncrasy in his writing. To be blunt, he starts too many sentences with the word “indeed.” I’m not sure if anyone else has noticed this, but in some paragraphs he uses “indeed” twice! I think the max number on a page was three. I have taken the liberty of documenting one of these pages:

Please note that this doesn’t mean I don’t like the book or Barabasi’s writing. Indeed, I just complemented his writing earlier in this review. I just think his editor needs to help him with a larger vocabulary.

Besides that pet peeve, I thought the book was really well written and interesting. It had my attention up to Barabasi’s discovery of scale-free networks and the near-ubiquity of them in other systems. The book started getting a bit slow around the 13th chapter when the subjects were biology and business. I’m not sure if I was just scale-free fatigued or what.

I feel the book was not balanced enough. The beginning, which consisted of a lot of history, was much more interesting than the explanations of how scale-free networks seemed to pop up everywhere. While it is a key takeaway that many of these observed properties of networks seem to be universal, it also isn’t as interesting as evolving a model of network analysis. I guess this isn’t really a fault of the author though. Also, this book was published in 2002, before many of the popular social network websites became super popular. I just looked up Barabasi on Amazon and it appears he has a book due out this year. Sweet!

I think that I can safely say that I enjoyed Duncan Watts’ book more than Linked. But it also isn’t a fair comparison because I read Watts’ book first and much of the content of both authors overlaps, so I may have felt that reading Linked was redundant. Linked came before Six Degrees, so maybe a lot of Six Degrees’ success has to do with Barabasi’s book. Either way, both books were good. I’m glad I read both of them. Now that I discovered the existence of a second Barabasi book, I can look forward to reading it in April.

Connected: The Surprising Power of Social Networks and How They Shape Our Lives – Book Review!

I just finished reading this book with a really long title: Connected: The Surprising Power of Social Networks and How They Shape Our Lives. Whew. Being a connoisseur of social network research, this book was very relevant to my interests. Previously I had read Six Degrees by that Duncan Watts guy.

In Connected, Christakis and Fowler argue that social networks are a natural part of our lives. We’ve evolved to be good at navigating them and using them for our needs. While it’s simple to prove our actions have an effect on people who we are directly connected to, we apparently also have an effect on the people who are connected to the people we are connected to. This effect fans out from us to our third degree contacts (friends of friends of friends). Our actions might affect others’ obesity, happiness, loneliness and promiscuousness. Conversely, people we don’t even know can affect whether we’re happy or fat (not mutually exclusive).

I actually saw James Fowler talk about some research that made it into the book at a complex systems seminar at the University of Michigan back when I was a student. He focused on how happiness could spread and talked less about the fatness issue. He apparently caught a lot of flack for writing about how the obesity “epidemic” really is an epidemic. That is, the more fat friends you have, the more likely you are to become fat. You could imagine how this could make overweight people feel: like some vector for a contagious disease known as chubbiness. While the oversimplification seems funny, when you boil it down to human behaviors (as the book describes), it makes sense. People mimic each other. When everyone else around you is overweight, it’s easy to assume that behaviors that lead to weight gain is the norm. It works with lots of other things too. And that’s basically what the book amounts to. Many examples of people in networks spreading ideas, diseases, love, hate, etc. The book also touches on how technology has amplified our natural ability to network into hyper-networks.

One criticism of the book I have is that it feels a bit too dry. The book is describing all kinds of interesting phenomena, but it does so in a really scientific way. Don’t get me wrong, I like science, but I also like a story in my non-fiction hardback book. Six Degrees is a good example of a great non-fiction book that tells a wonderful story. The narrative fits together well and the content is interesting. Duncan Watts is good at both science and storytelling. You could compare this against Malcolm Gladwell, who is good at telling a story but stinks at actual science. He kind of makes stuff up and jumps to conclusions that aren’t really backed by anything factual. Christakis and Fowler (which one did more writing?) are great at the science but the story lacks a clear narrative. Extending the idea for Pasteur’s Quadrant, Gladwell is in the “only story” quadrant, Christakis/Fowler seem to be closer to the “only science” quadrant, and Watt sits pretty well in “story + science” quadrant. Freakanomics authors Dubner and Levitt seem to fit into “story + science” though sometimes I feel they like to jump to conclusions like Gladwell does. If I were a researcher-cum-book-writer, I think I’d like to sit in that Watts quadrant myself.

Overall, I think the book is compelling and interesting. The ideas from the book have already gotten my head juices flowing and thinking about future network analysis directions. Connected could definitely be improved by including some underlying narrative or cohesive theme, but it’s still worth reading as it is.

Next on my plate is “Linked” by the guy who was named after that preferential attachment network model thing. Or was it the other way around? I just realized that the set of names for these network analysis books is growing smaller day by day! We’ve already seen books called “Linked,” “Connected,” “Nexus,” and “Six Degrees.” I wonder what the next one will be called? “Affixed?” “Conjoined?” “Hooked Up?” Maybe I should claim the name of my book before someone else does.