Silicon Valley’s Youth “Problem”: A Rebuttal

By now Yiren Lu’s “Silicon Valley’s Youth Problem” has made it way around both my personal and professional circles. As a young person living and working in Silicon Valley, I felt a strong sense of resentment after reading the article. The author focused on specific and superficial examples to build a case against many of the talented founders and engineers I know, and thereby, completely missed what makes Silicon Valley great. 

In the section titled “Unhappy Valley”, Lu outlines a phenomenon that the layman knows as FOMO: Fear Of Missing Out. But it’s not just a “Silicon Valley problem”, but a symptom of our generation as a whole. Sure, FOMO could make us feel like we’re trapped a giant hamster wheel, forever playing catch-up to the Jones. Every generation has a certain amount of FOMO, and given the speed of information today, our generation just feels it that much stronger. I think of FOMO instead as part of the reason why technology cycles have shortened and innovation has accelerated.

The article also questions whether today’s Silicon Valley has created anything of value. To be fair, many of the buzziest startups are consumer-oriented ones, and the value of a Facebook, Snapchat, or Twitter is undoubtedly tied to ad dollars. Money talks, and naturally, VC’s will continue to fund startups with advertising business models because the advertising market is enormous. Instead of asking whether Valley startups are doing anything worthwhile, shouldn’t the question be instead, what good does advertising do for society? By the same token, the author also discounts the importance of startups such as Uber and Airbnb, who have not only provided an additional revenue stream for thousands of people worldwide, but have also fundamentally changed some of the ways that humans interact.

Naturally, Silicon Valley will always have a so-called “Youth Problem”. Startups are risky, and by and large, younger people will have a higher risk tolerance. That doesn’t mean that substantial valley startups, like Dropbox and Stripe, are not striving to recruit tech veterans in leadership positions (in this example, former Motorola CEO Dennis Woodside and former Google executive Claire Johnson, respectively). Startups, especially venture-funded ones, do not have the hubris to believe that inexperienced 20-somethings are equipped to run billion-dollar businesses on their own.

Perplexingly, the author also tries to paint some of the most positive externalities of Silicon Valley in a poor light, for example, the democratization of tech and the consumerization of the enterprise. Isn’t it great that today’s teenagers, with just a conceptual grasp of computer science, could build an app for his/her own use and/or entertainment? Shouldn’t we support the notion of making enterprise applications easier to implement and more user friendly?

Most importantly, I’ve always believed that the most innovative companies are not necessarily apparent at first. One very prominent example of this is Google, a startup founded by two 23-year-olds in a garage at a time when there were already several search engines on the internet. (Maybe yesterday’s search engine is today’s texting app?) Larry Page, in a recent interview, spoke about grander ambitions for Google:

Even Google’s famously far-reaching mission statement, to “organise the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful”, is not big enough for what he now has in mind. The aim: to use the money that is spouting from its search advertising business to stake out positions in boom industries of the future, from biotech to robotics.

Google Wallet and the Future of Mobile Commerce

Google Wallet launched in May 2011. For a number of reasons – lack of NFC adoption, Sprint as the only initial carrier partner, limited to only USA – Google Wallet never caught on. In fact, the only person I know who uses Google Wallet is a friend of mine who works at Google (and as a result, I’m forced to use it too.) 

Google Wallet recently announced integration with “leading Android apps and mobile sites.” With apps (like Airbnb and Priceline) and e-commerce destinations (such as Newegg.com and 1-800-Flowers), consumers can now check out using Google Wallet. 

This new update deviates from Google’s original plan to replace traditional forms of payments at physical PoS, taking it away from competitors like Square and Paypal. Google addresses a more immediate pain point – transacting a purchase on a smartphone can often be confusing and cumbersome. Many e-commerce sites haven’t optimized their checkout process for mobile; the smaller screen makes it difficult to input my 16-digit credit card number, much less my billing and shipping address.

With a single sign-in button, Google Wallet may be best product positioned to decrease friction for smartphone purchases. It has the potential to streamline mobile purchases much in the same way that Amazon has perfected its checkout process.

RIP Google Reader

When Google Reader underwent a transformation to become “more social”  nearly a year and a half ago, I never thought it would eventually lead to a complete shut-down of the product. Some speculate that the demise was caused by a decline in usage. It’s easy to see how the widely-criticized re-design discouraged users – sharing to all channels got more complicated and posting to Google+ was essentially the tech equivalent of Dartmouth’s slogan (for the uninitiated, it’s “the voice of one crying in the wilderness”.)

Thankfully, crops of alternatives have emerged. I’ve been playing around with Feedly’s mobile product these days and I am quite looking forward to Digg’s RSS reader. One of my  more interesting use cases for Google Reader is searching through posts I’ve already read. I have a greater incentive to add feeds to Google, because every post I read is essentially archived and searchable. (This is great for sending posts to friends in the vein of “Speaking of _____, I just read this awesome article on ______”)

As for a post-Google Reader world, I think Curata said it best,

As you may know, Google announced that they are discontinuing Google Reader as of July 1, 2013, which has upset many people online. But in reality it’s a blessing. For the past 8 years, we have seen little innovation in the feed reader market because of Google’s monopoly. Many have used Google Reader without qualms because it’s “good enough.” But why settle for “good enough”?

I, for one, am definitely looking forward to a renaissance in content aggregation.

Sure, “Facebook Now Owns Over 25% Of Total Time Spent On Mobile Apps”

According to new data from comScore, Facebook leapfrogged Google Maps in October 2012 to become the most popular smartphone app in the U.S (as measured by monthly unique visitors).

But when that’s done on an Android OS, isn’t Google the ultimate winner?

Sure, “Facebook Now Owns Over 25% Of Total Time Spent On Mobile Apps”

Is Google Search broken? These two images indicate that it just might be.

(Background: The Spreading Santorum website/meme began in 2003, when sex columnist and gay rights activist Dan Savage re-defined Santorum’s name as a protest against the then-Senator’s anti-gay agenda. Ironically, Savage has stated on his podcast that he and Santorum used to be college roommates at Penn.)

Long considered the king of search engines, Google is now facing dissatisfaction from a number of users who have realized that its Page Rank, SEO-focused algorithm may be too easy to game. The results above is a good example of Google Search’s shortcoming. While most people know “Santorum” as a candidate for the GOP leadership, I doubt that any of them are looking for the perverse definition of “Santorum” that Google returns as its top result. On the other hand, DuckDuckGo returns the official results for Santorum, but also gives users the option of adding “Dan Savage” as keywords if you are indeed looking for the alternate definition. (Ironically, you can also add “Google Problem” to your search.)

DuckDuckGo is a search engine launched in September 2008 by Gabriel Weinberg. Often referred to as a “hybrid” search engine because of its ample use of various search APIs, DuckDuckGo prioritized the user’s privacy and promises not to track your searches. DuckDuckGo also differentiates itself by staying away from displaying websites in which low-quality content has dominated the SEO game (ie. “content mill”). Instead, it prioritizes information from crowd-sourced website, such as Wikipedia, and trusted/curated sources, such as the NYT. 

What I appreciate most about DuckDuckGo is its efforts to “pop the filter bubble”. In an earlier blog post, I cautioned against echo chambers and talked about the biases that my own filters have encouraged. DuckDuckGo seems to pull in the other direction; it wants to show perspectives that would otherwise have been filtered out of my usual search results. 

While I love the idea of DuckDuckGo, I wonder if its algorithmic advantage is enough to draw users away from Google. For one, Google already has a stronghold in mobile search with its native integration with Android. Secondly, I don’t think the Google problem is as severe as some make it seem – ultimately, the most relevant result will show up in the first few links, if not at the top. DuckDuckGo’s potential lies instead in a partnership with Apple’s Siri, where concise and accurate information is more crucial to the user. 

Google Listen

I’ve always been a huge fan of listening to others talk. When I was younger, I remember borrowing tons of books-on-tape at the local library to listen to as I cleaned up my room, or did chores around the house. When I got my first iPod, I loved that the podcasts subscriptions on iTunes were all free. 

Since getting an Android (and subsequently having my iPod break on me), I’ve been looking for a decent podcast management app. Recently, I’ve started using Google Listen, which is a podcast streaming app that updates via the RSS feeds. At first, I found it somewhat clumsy to use – there wasn’t a great availability of podcasts through its in-app search function and it wasn’t clear whether the app was updating automatically.

I’ve since found ways around these issues. For one, my Google Listen RSS subscriptions have showed up in my Google Reader (surprise!), which gives me the option to listen to podcasts easily on my computer as well. Furthermore, while the in-app search function is lacking, Google Reader has made it easy enough for me to subscribe to any podcast on the web that has a functional RSS feed. 

If you’re also a fan of podcasts and a loyal Android user, give this a try! Some of my favourite subscriptions include: 

Google Listen

Step 1: Click on this link

Step 2: Hit “I’m Feeling Lucky”

If you’re good at following instructions, you would have landed on Google’s Logos page, which is a repository for Google doodles of bygone days. Pretty neat!

On that note, it’s interesting how Google’s “I’m Feeling Lucky” button has nearly become a relic in search. As Business Insider reported back in September 2011, the release of Google Instant, in which Google searches as you are still typing in the keywords, has effectively killed the “I’m Feeling Lucky” button. 

Back then, this seemed like a good idea – people were fans of the auto-complete and Google’s vast amounts of data on previous searches allowed for fairly accurate predictions of what you were looking for. (On a side note, you should totally watch this video on “Being a Google Autocompleter”.) However, in light of the search capabilities of Siri and more curated search services, such as Quora, the path that Google chose to take may very well be counter-intuitive. 

Searching with Siri is the voice equivalent of the “I’m Feeling Lucky” button. In its usual style, Apple also prides itself in its black-box approach. Siri, like other Apple product, not only works, but works very well. And yet, the user is supposed to have absolutely no idea how everything is computed.

Google, on the other hand, is fan of data transparency. As stated on its website, Google’s mission statement is to “organize the world‘s information and make it universally accessible and useful.” To this end, its approach has largely been one of brute force – Google indexes all the data available and then presents it all for the user to decide. Given this overwhelming task, it’s not surprising that most users never go beyond the second page of Google search results.

I think the juxtaposition of Google Search and Siri mirrors nicely the progression of the Internet as an information network. In the early days, data on the internet was scarce, and thus Google’s approach in presenting the information in all its breadth and depth was largely useful. However, as the Internet grew larger, the amount of data “noise” grew as well. The difficulty of search today isn’t necessarily having enough information, but getting precisely the information that you want. Here’s where Siri comes in, to help filter this noise and deliver information in a bite-sized, completely digestible way.  

While Siri appears to be the future, now, I’m sure the folks at Google are aware of the threats their Search bread-and-butter faces. This will indeed be an interesting battle to play out. 

Step 1: Click on this link

Google brings game mechanics to Google News

I landed on Google News to read up on recent OWS developments when I saw this post about the new Google News Badges embedded in my news feed.

These badges are Google’s first foray into the world of gamification, an area pioneered by foursquare and their multitude of check-in badges. The Google News Badges are awarded by topic, and are branded as Bronze, Silver, Gold, Platinum, and Ultimate based on the number of articles read. They’ve also incorporated a social element by allowing users to share them with friends. The game is designed to keep readers engaged over the long-term – levels can be achieved quicker with more consistent news consumption over time and there is a level gauge to help track your progress. 

Google News’ latest design is an strategic move against Twitter. Google News’ interface was previously much more similar to that of Google Search. The current news feed is set up like Twitter’s, with each article displayed with a thumbnail image and truncated to show only two lines of text. On the right, there are now options for personalization, as well as a list of “Editor’s Picks” and popular items, which mimic Twitter’s trending topics. 

I’m a devoted Twitter user, and when people ask me how I use the service, my first response is usually about personally-curated news. I’m certain that a significant portion of Twitter users employ this use case, since a significant portion of them have accounts, follow others, but hardly tweet themselves. Twitter is an effective news outlet because news through social networks and crowds travel much faster than through traditional news media. I also appreciate the dialogue aspect of Twitter – even if it’s just a link to a NY Times article, I still like the short tweet that gives it context. The one thing that Google News does better than the competition is multimedia – clicking on a article title will show a stream of photos or videos related to the article. I’ve always disliked the way the web version of Twitter deals with photos on your profile: as another stream on the right side of your profile. 

Google News missed the opportunity to become a source for quick and relevant news and is now trying to best Twitter with a gamification approach. Personally, I’m not sure these badges will motivate me to read more on Google News. After all, I still find the experience on Twitter much more dynamic and personal. If anything, the News Badges could be an interesting experiment in gamification. Will people begin to use the service more purely for the badges, despite some of Google News’ shortcomings? Can the badges then be used as data for something else (for example, as credentials on Quora or further personalization on Google)? Is this another gateway to making news more social? 

Q&A

It’s interesting to see the rise of Q&A websites such as Quora and Stack Overflow through the lens of the defunct Ask Jeeves search engine. Despite how terrible the search functions of Ask Jeeves was, it was a step ahead of the competition by allowing users to search through questions. From popular search results on Google, it is easy to conclude that users feel much more natural asking a question instead of providing the right key words for a search. 

Although I’m not terribly active on either Quora or Stack Overflow, I am consistently impressed with the quality of knowledge that can be found on both. While online forums are usually overrun with trolls, the voting mechanism and reputation aspects of both sites help maintain their overall qualities without much need for formal moderators. 

Ask.com is now both a search engine (like Google) and a Q&A community (like Yahoo! Answers). However, its Alexa rank of 47 is well below either of its competitors (Google ranks #1, Yahoo! ranks #4). Perhaps Ask Jeeves is an example of a company that failed despited some successes; it was at once ahead of its time and behind the competition. 

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Edit: A friend of mine pointed out that comparing Quora and Stack Overflow to a website like AskJeeves is not a proper comp, as AskJeeves was just a regular search engine without any natural language processing capabilities. I definitely agree with him on this point. What I had hoped to highlight in the original post was the design aspect of AskJeeves that moved search into a natural language paradigm. Early search engines are all about keywords, as anybody who has dealt with an academic database will tell you. And even earlier, the only way to speak to machines was not at all intuitive. Q&A is just one of many areas of technology that are moving towards to more natural way of communicating with the devices in our lives.