Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Public Relations

If corporations are people, what are their personalities? Can we have relationships with them? What is that like?

So I set off to explore the ways relationships between people and corporations could develop. As a result, I ended up studying the corporations themselves on social media. A corporation on social media is a strange new entity: it's sort of the corporation, but as it must be controlled in real time by a person, it's sort of one person too. It's a very public, very immediate spokesperson.

A person tweeting behind a corporate handle is neither that person (who would tweet about personal things) nor the company (which would tweet a boring party line, much like if you called a company on the phone and got a recording). It seems closer to the company identity, but I wanted to see if I could get to the human involved.

I started trying to find existing human conversations with companies, much like Chip Zdarsky and Applebee's. (or this, this, this, or this.) This proved fruitless, because most conversations with companies were someone complaining at a company, or else companies talking with other companies to try to appear fun; it was all business. So I went to create my own conversations.

I didn't want any of our conversations to be biased by anything particular about my identity, so I created @MarioLoweystro. Mario is intentionally as bland as possible. But he's obviously human; I didn't want anyone to think he's a bot. I then tweeted at some companies, trying to get to know the people behind them.

Here are my experiences.

And here's a guide showing how to make friends with corporations.

I started off with popular companies, including top-100 Twitter accounts, companies that are supposedly good at Twitter, and really big companies. This turned out not super fruitful - they tend to have millions of followers, and therefore, they can't talk with me. Their accounts are just broadcasts. But then I started tweeting at smaller companies, more local companies, less "sexy" companies. (from a list of Pittsburgh corporations.) They tended to be friendlier. As I went, I varied my styles and talked about different topics; to see what happened, check out my slides above.

Who were my best friends? Probably @WholeFoods, @Tesco, @Huntington_Bank, @Kennametal, and @Zappos. We had some good talks.

We had an exhibit at CMU too for all our final works:
I displayed the record of my conversations, the guide I created, and a bunch of name tags for the companies I met. Plus my computer, so you could try making friends with corporations too. (in fact, go log on to Twitter and try it yourself now!)

Monday, April 14, 2014

Thinking about predicting relationships and protests from Twitter

(There are some similarities.) I had a quick talk with Kenny Joseph the other day which got me to thinking about a couple things. Incidentally, we've got a project we'll be working on in Design Fiction that could use some thinking about the future consequences of these things.

On the protest front, there's this: Can Twitter predict major events such as mass protests?
What if a "they" could predict when you'll protest next, just based on your tweets? Or rather, if they could predict when someone would protest next?

On the relationships front, there's an idea in sociology that your conversation topics and your relationships co-evolve. I'm linking to this paper, even though I cannot say I understood it. But the idea is that you talk with your weak ties about pop culture things, and with your close friends about more niche things. They're not saying which way this evolves, which causes which, but it's a good marker at least of how someone's relationship status is now.

So the obvious dystopia is: The Government, The NSA, is watching all of us and they identify and Guantanamo all probable protesters. (or Turkey's government, or Egypt's, etc.)

But what about the corporate angle? One theme in Kenny's work is: how can we identify and change people's biases? In his case, it's to reduce violence against women and children, or potentially racial violence. What if they develop a powerful new technique to modify biases using Twitter, and Applebee's gets a hold of it? Do you get more people becoming friends of Applebees? More conversations like this?

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Fulfillment Fitness

Related to the aforementioned "design fiction" project, but much more successful, has been Fulfillment Fitness.

A reflection on the fulfillment centers that drive all your online purchases. Not really trying to be all exposing-cruelty about it, because it's hard to say how bad it is. News articles (one, two, three) would have you believe it's terrible, but people who work there (one two three four five six) seem more sanguine about it. Regardless, it is weird: people become basically robots stuck in a video game all day. (you could imagine SimFactory, where you manage a group of "workers", or a ripoff of Starcraft.) At the same time, sometimes people want to be robots stuck in a video game, like at the gym.

Anyway, it's been fun. Working with Angela and John has been great; they're both wizards, in their own ways. I'm learning how it's hard to get across a point, both to distill the point and to technically get it done. (I've learned to make many kinds of things, but they tend not to be the kind of things that tell stories or stir people's emotions.)

Monday, February 24, 2014

Tell Me Your Life Story, part 3

continued from part 2

It's up!

You can now publish only part of your life story, if you want. (chunks you leave out will show up as "private".) That's kind of neat. Adds a little mystery to it.

A little clunkier, more words, for better usability.

I hope it makes sense. I have no idea if it will. Also I have no idea if people will think this is in any way cool or makes them think.

I don't know that a website is a good medium for this. It feels too cheap. It's like an *application*, something that you have to do, to be more efficient or store some data or something. I think if I had to do it again, I might print it out as a deck of (large) laminated cards, and give it out (or sell it, in the far future...) with dry erase pens. As a small-party-game, or a Coffee Table Thing, it's kind of fun and personal; as a website, it's not.

Preliminary results with a few friends and a few Turkers: friends find it interesting but don't want to share much. I guess that's fine, as with so few users there is little anonymity. Turkers mostly tell the school-college-work story. Also reasonable, as they're (I'm assuming) mostly trying to make a few bucks.
A couple things people posted are neat:
"1 - 8: Don't remember, had a trampoline."
"15 - 25: I still wanted to be a singer, but Imade sure I got high grades and got accepted into a "good" college. I ended up dropping out many times."

Enough talk, try it out!

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Tell Me Your Life Story part 2

continued from part 1
... partial implementation and further design.

I've been thinking a website from the start, just because it's the easiest way to make an interactive thing that people can use. But if I'm going website, then horizontal (the way I've drawn out life stories on paper) is not so good:
There's no way you can space everything out sort of equally and still leave room to type in each box. So I went vertical.
and you can sort of type stuff in here and save it; functional, not yet pretty. So now a couple of questions:
1. how should it look and feel?
2. what should it do when you're done?

For look and feel, it's got to be expansive and welcoming. This should be a space for people to creatively re-imagine their lives. I'm not going to tell them their re-imagination is wrong, or they'll retreat back into the boring school-school-work story. So none of this:
And none of this:
And nothing computery and cold, like I usually dig:
But I don't want it to be new-agey woo anything-goes; no pastel blues and greens and handwriting:
How about cartography? You're mapping your life. Map-making is a good analogy here: you have to take an expanse of time or space that exists, but the way you draw your map (even the projection you use) incorporates your current bias about it.
Plus, I like this aesthetic. I think the old-fashioned look makes it appear valuable. Still, it's not imposing to draw on old-fashioned paper.
shout out to ("rice paper 3") for the background.

For what it should do when you're done... well, I think if it just says "okay, thanks", that is not perhaps as provocative as it could be. There should be some way to display your story, I think, but it should also make you reflect on it.
"Is there anything you would change?"
"What did you learn from telling this story?"
"How do you feel about this story?"
"What happens in the next 5 years?"
(this is after you finish it; the 0-5, 5-8, etc would be filled in with whatever you entered)

Still to do: it would be neat to be able to compare this to some pre-existing milestones; maybe get your school/move/work dates in there too. Or maybe get common culturally-accepted milestones in there to compare your story to those.

A thing I've already learned from this: don't make websites for class projects. I spend more time debugging than I do thinking about the design or the overall experience of the thing.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Tell me your life story

A class project for Design Fiction.
The prompt: "Our formal critical selves" - do something looking at your past in a counterfactual kind of way. See how your life could have been if you had done something differently, or if something different had happened to you.
The timeframe: two weeks. (due the Tuesday after next)

Early thoughts:
1. All the time I've "wasted" throughout the years, and count up the hours I could have been doing something "productive", in this creepy totalitarian sense.

Then I could transform it into N masteries, just by dividing by 10,000! If I've slacked for 20,000 hours by now, I could be an expert in piano and chess. Easy as that. The humor comes from the fact that of course it is not as easy as that.

2. 23 and Me is weird. I have all this data about what risks for diseases I might have. I can't act on it at all. What does it mean that I have a 1.2% chance to get kidney disease? Should I eat more prunes?
I could make it a little more real by making a "wheel of Dan" where you spin a wheel and it tells you "okay, with this lifetime where you started with Dan's genes, you have Alzheimer's and gout." And then I could let you upload your 23 and Me data, and then spin your own wheel, and compare with me, and maybe ask you if you'd trade with me. Make it personal. And maybe compare these risks to other risks, like the odds of being struck by lightning. Whatever.

The downside is that very few people have done 23 and Me, so it's hard to make it actually personal.
Another downside: what am I trying to say? I think there are a lot of interesting things to say about 23 and me, but others say them better than I do, or else I don't really care about them.

3. Something about browser history or email relationships over time. Meh. Been done. I tried to mine all the neat personal data I have about myself, my sleep logs and fitbits and stuff, but I ended up with the same old personal-informatics gripe: what the hell is this data good for?

4. Life stories. I started looking for meaning in Flappy Bird, and then started looking at how people look for meaning in Flappy Bird, which is kind of funny because there is probably not that much meaning to find in Flappy Bird. But all the game developers want there to be some meaning in Flappy Bird, so they tell all kinds of stories, like "really polish a simple game mechanic and it'll shine" or "make sure you can restart quickly" or whatever.

We tell these stories about our lives.
"You may ask yourself, well, how did I get here?"
And most of the time, there's no real story, you just did.
I started looking at the story I tell myself. It was very broken up by where I lived and where I worked. New school, new job, new box in my life story. But
if you mix up those boxes, draw the lines really arbitrarily, you might hit some really more interesting stories. I drew a bunch of random boxes with arbitrary lines. The second box above is "what I liked at various ages", the fifth is "how I felt at various ages", and both are much more interesting than "where I worked."
I want to make a tool to help people retell their life story, but give them a little twist: let the system arbitrarily decide where the boundaries end.

Messing around with the flow here a little bit, or what happens after you tell your story.

More to come!

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Professors Must Break Away From the Undergraduate Mentality

A partial response to Ph.D. Students Must Break Away From the Undergraduate Mentality.

Being an undergrad is characterized by classes. Endless, time-sucking, life-eating classes. Classes that you have to take, classes where grades matter, classes that will determine your employment after you graduate. At CMU as an undergrad, we took ~50 "units" per semester, (~17 credit hours), which meant that we were "supposed" to work about 50 hours/week. We all probably worked more, because some "12-unit" classes took 20+ hours on their own. Undergrad was fun, but not sustainable. (I mean, we also lived in dorms. You can't do this forever.)

Immediately upon entering grad school (hopefully before), you'll be informed that classes, in fact, do not matter, and that you should stop optimizing for them. This is fine advice. After all, you won't be a great researcher if your main qualification is "did well in class." (Mor Harchol-Balter's excellent inside scoop to grad admissions makes this very clear: "did well in class" doesn't even get you in to grad school, much less out.)

However, the faculty still forces you to take classes. You'll get minimal credit for completing them, but you have to do so. In the article above, Jason even advises, "you should do more than the bare minimum amount of work needed for your courses."

Where does this time come from? Not from your research. It's one reason your job as a grad student stretches beyond the "standard" and healthy 40 hours (which may even be too long) into 60+ hours. Remember: that's doable for a limited time, as an undergrad, when you're living on campus, and it's kind of miserable then. It's not a prolonged lifestyle. Your advisors want you to take classes, and do research, and not work too hard, but it doesn't seem a contradiction in their minds. Your advisors want you to take classes during your magic time, that extra bit of time you keep hidden in your Bag of Holding or your TARDIS. Your advisors probably had this time; after all, as Philip Guo says, "Only about 1 out of every 75 Ph.D. students from a top-tier university has what it takes to become a professor at a school like Stanford." For the rest of us, that "magic time" is our sleep or our friends/family time. It's not a healthy tradeoff.

So we have some hoops to jump through that are causing us pain. Let's rethink this. Why mandate certain classes? Why mandate classes at all? I'd like to see a shift in how classes are perceived. Instead of forcing certain classes, or a certain number of classes, let students pick which classes will actually benefit them. Make all homework assignments, papers, and projects optional. You learn more, and build your career, actually doing research.

"But classes help you learn new skills that you'll need!" Yes, some do. And some assignments within those classes do. But some don't. Let me decide that. Let me pick which skills I want to acquire and how much of them I need. Treat me like an adult, not an undergraduate.