The iPhone is the nerd’s revenge

Nerds!In an earlier post I talked about how much I admire Apple as a company and how they devastate beyond the desktop. Today, on the eve of probably their biggest and most hyped technology release (in case you somehow hadn’t heard, the iPhone), I’m watching report after report after report come across my news reader of people standing in line to get their hot new product.

I haven’t seen anything this big for the geek world since the release of Star Wars: Episode I in ’99. Back then I remember standing in line with a whole legion of costumed Yodas and Darth Vaders to get tickets, coordinating with a friend who was standing in line at a different theater just to make sure one of us could get those $9 pieces of paper. We were all more excited than a group of Tri-Lambs about to win the interfraternity olympics.

This time, I’m not in line, and I’m not going to get an iPhone (at least, not immediately) but I still feel the excitement. And the thing that is different about this event is that it is the type of geek celebration that everyone can get into . . . but why is that? Is it that the release of a new phone is any less geeky than the release of a new movie, or have we become more geeky as a nation?

Last year I visited my sister in Dallas. She is no slouch intellectually, but is decidedly the least geeky person you could run across. She’s the one who taught me that “any woman can dress well, but not every woman can accessorize.” However, during this visit I watched in wonderment as she pasted javascript snippets into her Myspace page, relaunched her page, then spent some time fine-tuning its appearance.

So the answer is YES, with the prevalence of consumer technology and the Web coming into its own, we have all gotten more geeky. So today is your day, America. Go out, get in line, get an iPhone (or not, who cares?), and celebrate your inner (or outer) nerd. Geek culture isn’t just for geeks anymore, and perhaps the nerds’ greatest revenge is that we would all eventually join the ranks.

The greatness of Chicago beach volleyball, and Flickr

Volleyball - sunsetVolleyball - spike and skylineVolleyball - from aboveThere are few things in Chicago that are better than beach volleyball in the summer, with the vast, blue span of the lake to the east and the dramatic skyline to the west. A sunset game after work is what it’s all about.

These photos were found using Flickr’s (Yahoo!’s) photo search. I’ve found again and again that if you are looking for good pics this is the place to go, not Google image search. The main reason Flickr is better is because of the tags that its users who upload the photos attach to each photo. Now that Yahoo! is finally integrating Flickr into its own main search, it will be ahead of Google for this type of content. More on why.

[Photo credits: Top left: starart, Top right: Ken Ilio, Bottom: Symbiosis]

UPDATE: To see some serious volleyball on Chicago’s North Beach, see it when the AVP tour comes to town this summer.

Is Facebook the classier social network?

Blogger Danah Boyd is getting a lot of attention for an essay she recently published which compares the user bases of MySpace and Facebook. In it she broadly states that MySpace users tend to be less educated, counter-culture folks and Facebook users are more educated, mainstream folks. Of course she’s setting herself up to ruffle a lot of feathers by establishing stereotypes at all, but does she have a point?

Well, maybe she does. But the point she is making becomes a lot less interesting if you remind yourself how social networking works. When selecting a social network, a young internet surfer does not visit all of the top social networks and carefully consider the look and feel and feature set of each one before committing the time to build a profile. He or she doesn’t consider if the user base in a given network is educated enough or counter-culture enough for them. They go where their friends are. It’s that simple.

MySpace was started by a couple of guys who wanted to give free web space to indie rock bands and their fans. Facebook was started by a guy at Harvard so that other kids at Harvard could get together online. They both stayed in their respective worlds for a long period of time before they really got popular. So is it really surprising that their user bases still reflect the characteristics of the original members? We all know how social groups work – people recruit more people like them. That fact is as old as jocks not hanging out with geeks in the high school hallway. So Danah’s observations are at their best uninteresting, her 2000 visits to Myspace pages kind of like someone dropping 2000 tennis balls off of a second story deck to confirm the fact that gravity exists.

It doesn’t really matter who started these websites at this point. What’s more interesting is who’s running them now and what each of them will do to attract the other’s audience.

[Via Scobleizer and my brother Jim]

To be a musician

Monday night I went out to see a little movie named Once with Megan. It follows the adventures of a vacuum repairman (Glen Hansard of The Frames) who spends his spare time playing acoustic guitar and singing on the street for change. It’s a great movie about what it means to be a musician – how personal it can be and how it can forge meaningful relationships quickly. And it’s incredibly accessible, for musicians and non-musicians alike. The love story (of course) takes place and the characters are defined mostly through the movie’s unpretentious and beautiful songs.

Near the beginning Glen asks “do you know about music?” You sense that he is asking about more than just listening to it or playing an instrument. If you want to know a little more about music go see Once.

Good coverage of the movie and its story are on NPR’s website. Also, showtimes.

Games that mean something

Sims ScreenshotI’ve been a casual “gamer” my whole life, even though at this point I probably play fewer games than ever – and I don’t even own a console. But I’ve long believed that not all games are pointless fun, and a lot of them aren’t childish. The more artfully created ones can be powerful enough to change the way you see the real world.

In an earlier post I wrote about how Guitar Hero is going to save rock n’ roll. Lately I’ve been reading Chuck Klosterman‘s provocative book Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs, which is a collection of his witty, insightful essays on pop culture. One particularly entertaining essay concerns his experience playing The Sims, a game that involves creating and controlling a virtual person and leading them through what basically amounts to a simulation of real life. Chuck’s early findings after his simulated self gets depressed:

And why isn’t my SimChuck happy? Because he’s a self-absorbed, materialistic #$%^. This is perhaps the most disturbing element of the Sims: The happiness of the characters is directly proportional to the $%^& you elect to buy them. As far as I can tell, acquiring electronic equipment and name-brand furniture is just about the only thing Sims find psychologically satisfying.

Later, Chuck calls Sims game creator Will Wright and quizzes him about this facet of the game. Will’s response:

“Materialism is the red herring of the game,” he says. “Nobody seems to pick up on that. The more you play, the more you realize that all the stuff you buy eventually breaks down and creates all these little explosions in your life. If you play long enough, you start to realize that those things won’t really make you happy.”

Will provides a more thorough commentary on the value of games for Wired magazine.

Buying a pair of virtual sunglasses

Elvis shadesA very good article came across Techcrunch last week about the online economy for virtual goods. In it, virtual goods are touted as the next big business model for online businesses. People already spend $1.5 billion per year worldwide on stuff that doesn’t really exist.

Yes, I said $1.5 billion . . . and growing. Most of these online items involve some sort of personal accessory (bling for your online self, a virtual pet, a new sword for your World of Warcraft character) or a gift for someone else (virtual flowers, pixelated puppies). The prevalence of this online trend shows that materialism isn’t really about the material, it’s about the virtual effect that material produces for you.

Ok, that statement’s a little bit nebulous – let me get more specific. My favorite consumer good in understanding why people buy things, and how they think about it when they buy things, is sunglasses. In college I had a friend who never went anywhere without her shades on. It actually was a little annoying, because I could never see her eyes when I was talking to her. When I eventually asked her why she wore her shades all of the time, she told me she had sensitive eyes and needed them.

Over the years I have repeated the same experiment over and over with habitual shade-wearers, and there seems to be a whole segment of our species that has a vampire-like inability to deal with natural sunlight. I can’t imagine their suffering 100 years ago before the invention of sunglasses!

Ok, of course that isn’t the real reason why people wear shades. The real reason is they make you look cool. Heck, they make you FEEL cool. I bought a pair for Vegas last week that looked a little like Elvis’ famous shades, and damn if I didn’t feel a little Jailhouse Rock when it was time to double-down at the blackjack table. Oh . . . and that girl in college was one of the cooler ones I’ve known.

But back to virtual goods. There’s no fooling yourself when you buy a pair of virtual shades, or anything else virtual. You don’t need this stuff because it doesn’t really exist. But it still gives you the same satisfaction when you have it. Anyone who doesn’t understand that, and doesn’t understand why the market for virtual goods WILL work, is still wearing their shades and thinking they are doing it because that sun is so bright.

In concert with the Techcrunch post was a recent Virtual Goods Summit event out west. Tech blogger Robert Scoble has a good link to notes from it and to all of the online conversation it spurred.

UPDATE: Shades do have health benefits, they prevent cataracts. Of course, this is mainly the case if you are a fisherman in Chesapeake Bay, as the study mentions . . .

Doug’s in the spam filter again

Dumpster divingI’ll admit I spend a little more time rooting around in my spam filter than normal people. I’m kind of fascinated by what they are trying to sell and the games they play to try to get around the filter. This may be because I spend a lot of time on the legitimate side of direct email marketing, kind of like a legitimate, professional investor might be fascinated by the exploits of Gordon Gekko.

I also think spam might function as a cultural barometer – because the most popular spam products must be where spammers concentrate. Simple economics, right? So here is a breakdown of the last 100 spam emails I’ve received:

Anatomical “enhancement”: 27%
Illicit pharmaceuticals: 26%
Online gambling: 24%
General fleecing: 7%
Stock scams: 7%
Others: Pointless raving, international penpal requests, sketchy job offers, replica watches, easy online degrees, cheap software: 9%

Male insecurity barely eked it out against recreational drug use and games of chance. Congratulations, male insecurity! To wrap up this post, some nice poetry from one of the spam pieces:

The gleam went out, the sun sank, the
moon was gone, and evening sprang into the sky.

Fear and loathing of Las Vegas

Swingers the MovieI got into it about Vegas yesterday at lunch with some coworkers because a few of us are headed up there this weekend to relax and blow off some steam. To most people who have ever been there, “Vegas” is a word that inspires either the warm feeling of booze and adrenalin, or the nagging feeling of shallow excess and decay. It’s seldom in between. A great way to get to know someone is to find out how they react to the word “Vegas,” and why. It’s like a geographic Rorschach inkblot test.

I think it’s also true for other cities with a strong and enduring character, like New Orleans, Miami, New York, Chicago, San Francisco, Austin – not to mention taking it international to London, Venice, Rio, Tokyo, Hong Kong, Dubai. Cities have personalities of their own, and you like the ones that feel like you. What are your top five cities?

The shuffle

The LRiding the L in to work every day is an adventure. People pack into the crowded train cars, cramming themselves between the strangers around them. As the train lurches around each of its many turns, it’s a balancing act not to inadvertently touch another rider in way that would be illegal in Illinois.

Quite a few people plug in their iPod and get the tunes rolling in order to transport themselves to a happy place where Patrick the investment banker isn’t pressed up against them, me among them. The problem is that most of the earbuds people use bleed sound into the car, so you get some pretty strange remixes going on. Also, you get some unlikely people listening to certain types of music, like the little old lady next to you bobbing her head to some Kanye.

I always leave my iPod on shuffle. In a weird way I view the songs it picks every day almost like my musical horoscope. If the iPod gives me a little Don’t Stop Believin’ that ends right as I get off at my stop, the day is looking good. If it digs deep and finds one of its sad, wailing Radiohead songs I’m thinking I might just walk around the neighborhood around my office until it gives me something better. Every now and then I’m embarrassed when, as I find myself in close quarters with other commuters, my shuffle blurts out something like “Do Me” by Bell Div Devoe. Who put that in my iTunes? But even in those times I enjoy the randomness of it – even if riding the train everyday gets routine the ride is never the same. New ideas and thoughts flow as the shuffle dictates.

Facebook will beat MyYahoo, and then MySpace

Social networking and media is a fascinating movement on the web that I’ve been messing around with since I received my first invitation to Friendster 4 years ago. Over the past couple of years, it’s been fun to watch MySpace and Facebook rise (I have profiles on both) and begin to battle it out as the juggernauts in this new space where most people now spend most of their time online.

But a few weeks ago, Facebook released an API that developers can use to integrate closely with their users’ personal homepages, opening up personal profile pages on their network to third party capabilities that flow seamlessly into their social experience. Now suddenly Facebook is no longer on a collision course with MySpace, it is on a collision course with all the personalized home page providers out there.

Years ago Yahoo became a force because they supplied the first great personalized “portal” page (MyYahoo), where you could get your weather, news, stocks, etc. all in one place, customized! Now everyone’s in that game, with iGoogle, Netvibes, Pageflakes, and hundreds of others. And because Facebook has changed course toward them, their great vulnerability has been revealed – they aren’t social.

Startup iLike, a social music discovery and sharing service, was one of the first to develop a plug-in to go on Facebookers’ personal pages using the new API. And they are blowing the roof off of their subscribers, tallying as many as 300,000 new registrants IN A DAY. This is the power of being social, and will lure other firms to start rolling out these features for Facebook in droves.

And after Facebook takes the non-social personalized homepages out behind the woodshed? They will beat up on Myspace because of they went first to the API approach – Myspace hasn’t figured it out yet.

Facebook is in an enviable spot, so many have speculated on an acquisition by some of the big players in tech and the internet (Yahoo! among them last fall), but more and more it looks like that won’t happen. I think Facebook wants to grab the #1 spot as the personal homepage for the average internet user, and they are willing to go public to do it. In this new social world, they could be the new Yahoo!.