Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Wanted: A Personal Growth Engine

You may have heard about the controversy over Facebook's new Graph Search feature: some people have shown how it could expose embarrassing information that Facebook users had thought would be largely private.

I find it interesting that most commentators skipped right to the potential privacy concerns and ignored what ought to be the central question: what is the benefit of being able to search your extended social network for what your friends "like" or are otherwise interested in? (I'm assuming, here, we're talking about individuals and not businesses. Plenty of people have talked about what business might get out of Graph Search.)

I think there is the seed of something valuable in what Graph Search offers, but it is fundamentally crippled by the logic of Facebook. Furthermore, the interest in this type of personalized search points the way towards a potentially massive business opportunity. (If anyone reading this goes on to get rich off this thinking, throw me a bone, will ya?)

What Graph Search offers is the chance to search for people by their accumulated Likes, Shares, Profile interests and other Facebook activities. So, in theory, if I wanted to find men near me to play basketball on the weekends with, I could search for "Men in Maplewood who like basketball and have children." (I'd throw in that last bit to make sure I found the other old farts.) But here's the catch: I can only see results from people who have shared all that info publicly. So I might not be able to find enough guys to get a game if too many local hoop enthusiasts are restrictive in their privacy settings. Or, even worse, I could contact some guys only to have them react negatively to the invitation because they didn't realize that information was public.

Maybe Facebook can overcome these issues: they certainly have enough money to try. But I think Facebook is limited by the fact that people generally don't use it to meet new people, they use it to keep tabs on the people they already know. What's needed is something else: a digital hub that we go to for personal growth, to encounter new people and ideas that can push us.

I'll call this hub, for the sake of simplicity, a Personal Growth Engine. The idea is simple: it would be a place were you'd set goals, learn skills, and connect with people who can help you on the way. Think of it as a digital life coach or mentor. If we built an online destination with the objective of growth instead of sharing, it would look very different from Facebook. Let me sketch out a few potential features of a Personal Growth Engine:

  1. Instead of building a profile around who you are today, you would start out by defining where you want to be. What do you want to get better at? What do you want to learn that you don't know today? How do you want to change your life? You'd share what you already do and know, too, so people who want those skills can connect with you for advice.
  2. The Engine would encourage you to work with other people you already know who share your goals, since the best knowledge we have about goal achievement says it is easier in groups.
  3. Next, you would be given resources to help you achieve your goals. One of my goals is to be a better father, so the Engine would connect me with, for example, an online class from Coursera on child psychology, highly rated activities for kids in my area, popular daddy bloggers, and other parents in my area or my social network with the same goal.
  4. Another key feature would be a goal achievement plan. If I wanted to learn Spanish, the Engine would lay out available instruction and give me a timeframe to complete the levels in. It would compare my progress with other people who started on that goal at about the same time, because we are spurred by competition. And if I failed, it would suggest an alternate path to achieve my goal, for example by switching from individual lessons on YouTube to a group practice forum.
  5. Finally, the network effects would let you find the right tool to achieve your goal. For example, I might search for weight loss tips for guys who have kids, work in an office and like beer. Instead of generic advice, I would find diets that still let me have some brew and I can make work between work and kid time.
Facebook, for the most part, is online junk food. We visit it when we have a free moment to see what our friends are up to or to share a (hopefully) interesting bite-sized nugget of our lives. It isn't meant to take us anywhere or help us grow. Now, generally speaking, junk food is the business you want to be in: people would much rather get candy than be told to eat their vegetables. But the popularity of online classes from Coursera and other sites, as well as online advice about everything from raising children to staying healthy, tells me people do in fact spend a lot of their online time trying to improve themselves. I don't think Graph Search is the right tool to make self-improvement social and personalized, but the demand for that tool is there.

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