Friday, June 17, 2011

How wishlists are like orthodox rituals

First, I'll grumble about wishlists a bit. There should be a way to group items with AND, OR, and NOT operators. For example, I want bag A, or bag B, or bag C, all of which look very similar, but not all three. But in addition to those bags I also might like a wallet, which is assigned an equally high priority in my list. So my wishlist clause would be (Bag A OR Bag B OR Bag C) AND (Wallet D OR Wallet E).

Overthinking much? Maybe that's why I'm the least fun person to get gifts for. Knowing how to want the right kind of presents is an art I have never mastered. By right kind I mean the kind that easily lend themselves to dropping hints. Isn't that how Miss Manners claims it should be done? A lady gushes about the beauty of a particular object, and her significant other, family or friends are make note of that. That's how they get ideas for what to get her for birthdays and holidays.

And of course, the items should be in the right price range for the significant other, family, etc.

But what if the items you truly crave are so specific that a mere hint would not suffice -- the exact make and model is needed? What if, indeed, dropping a mere hint could lead to a gift-giving disaster, where the giver spends a chunk of cash on a product that differs from your object of desire in small, crucial detail? What if it's an iPad when you wanted an Android tablet? Or it has a touchscreen keyboard when you need a physical one?

In a world of increasing customization, where advertising industry pushes products "as unique as you are", it's getting harder to be satisfied by things that were supposed to please everyone in a certain demographic category: perfume, a journal with handcrafted covers, a DVD of a popular movie. I myself have been guilty of wanting rather idiosyncratic products: a wallet that would double as a handbag and a waistpack; an MP3 player that would record radio programs AND play audiobooks. Those things do exist but they are not easy to find. And if they lack one of these functions, I'd rather not have them at all than let them rot in the back of the closet.

So I made up a wishlist. makes it so easy. Not only it sells everything under the Sun, but if another online store has an item Amazon doesn't sell, you can still add it to your Amazon wishlist via a Firefox extension. (I haven't installed it and can't vouch for how it works.) Great -- you made it easy on your nearest-and-dearest. But how is it different from them handing you a wad of cash and telling you to go buy what you want? There is no surprise in it -- and in my old-fashioned notions, surprise is a key element of gift-giving. Perhaps technology that lets you have your wishes fulfilled so precisely could also help you restore the element of surprise. Maybe wishlists could have some kind of "random" feature, that would let the gift-giver pick a random element from category A, B, or C. But isn't this just building a layer of meaningless ritual to soften the ruthless practicality of the transaction? Isn't it akin to Orthodox Jews keeping hallway lights on all night on Sabbath, because they're not allowed to operate light switches? Or programming elevators to stop on every floor, because they're not allowed to push buttons? Or connecting two houses with a string so they could bring something to a neighbor's house, because then the two houses are considered to be "under one roof? (Is carrying stuff on Sabbath permitted under the same roof, but not outside? It boggles the mind too much to even seek logic in this.) Similarly with wishlists -- once they destroy the spirit of gift-giving, trying to reintroduce it would be just as artificial.

As they say on Twitter, #firstworldproblems.

Friday, June 03, 2011

I need my own Facebook filtering system

Anyone who uses Facebook has been occasionally or continuously annoyed by the ranking system Facebook uses to decide which posts to display to you. "Top News" posts are completely random. Often they are the ones most commented on, but some have no comments.

"Most Recent" does not by default display all the posts from all your friends either. Facebook has some algorithm for "determining" what posts you would most like to see. It's funny how it considers game and gift notifications or places' check-ins must-see news. So anything of actual interest gets lost in the trivia of who's having lunch where, and who sent somebody hearts or flowers.

Unfortunately, even if Facebook implemented a different ranking system to separate wheat from chaff, most people still wouldn't be satisfied because each of us have a different idea what is important. (One exception may be that no one likes to see game or app notifications.) Maybe you want to see someone's cookie recipes, but not their political rants. Check-ins into places are noise, unless it's someone whose whereabouts you temporarily (or permanently) want to know. Not necessarily a crush -- maybe it's a person at the same conference you're at, who knows all the best parties.

What does "show me more like this" mean?

One way to implement such a system would be to allow you to rank your friends posts by desirability. The ranking system could be similar to show/don't show me more posts like this. (Your thumbs up or thumbs down rating would not be seen by your friends, of course, to avoid unnecessary drama.) The question is, what exactly "like this" means? What criteria should Facebook infer from your like or dislike? If the rating system was anything like Pandora's the last time I listened to it (I gave up 2 years ago), it would be irrelevant, because "lead female vocal, acoustic piano, and minor key" does not begin to capture what I like in a song; it's more of a mix of elusive qualities relating to the progression of the chords.

So how should we tell Facebook what we are looking for in a post? Perhaps each user could have their own taxonomy of tags to apply to other people's Facebook posts. The taxonomy could use semantic web methods to enable powerful sentiment analysis (how you feel about a particular person, event or organization, such as this Evri API). After a user has tagged a sufficient number of posts, Facebook would have learned what is relevant to him or her, and would tag the posts before the user does, so as to filter out the posts the user doesn't want to see.

Of course, even if somebody came up with such a system, Facebook probably wouldn't want to deploy it. Many people suspect that Facebook wants to have control over what posts you see, while giving you a minimal illusion that you have a choice. After all, according to the famous quote, you are not Facebook's customer, you are its product. Its customers are advertisers, and they might decide what posts they want us to see. A filtering system that bypasses their wishes would have to be implemented by a third-party application. Even then, I'm not sure Facebook would allow it into its ecosystem. But it doesn't even have to be a Facebook app, it could be a browser add-on that would accomplish all this with Javascript. Kind of like Adblock, which blocks ads in a web page. That way Facebook would have no control over it.