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Scott Adams: FaceBook Killer (dilbert.com)
145 points by cwan on Nov 15, 2010 | hide | past | web | favorite | 53 comments

"Likewise, your credit card company and the phone company have records of what you did, as opposed to what you plan to do next."

Sorry to bust your bubble, but your CC company has already given talks about how it knows when you are about to move, when you plan on getting a divorce, when you are trying to have a baby, when you got actually going to have a baby and plenty of other personal thing... I can only imagine how fun it would be to sift CC data for patterns and cash in on what I find. A calendar of things I WANT to do isn't useful, what is valuable is what I WILL be doing.

I really want to build a factory five GTM super car and will happily put it on my want to do next year, but in reality unless someone pays me to built one for them I can't do it for a while. Once my CC starts seeing car parts they will know that it is actually something I am doing and not something I would like to do. For now my CC company knows last weekend I rented a truck, bought some house supplies and changed my address from Chelmsford to Waltham. Now would be a perfect time to sell that information to local resistants and shops that are around my new house. Or seeing as the new address is a recently purchased house now would be the time to sell that info to the home repair stores which I have not already started going to.

Edit: Anyone in the CC industry allowed to comment further on this topic? No doubt it would be a neat place to work.

I don't work for a CC company, but I did work with predictive analytics regarding churn in mobile phone and cable companies a decade ago. It's not hard to back-mine the data to establish certain patterns that happen before major events. That's how we predicted churn at a major provider (rhymes with "Blecks-dell") with 90% accuracy. There's no reason that same logic could apply to a rich data set like CC transactions. The tricky part is defining what "events" you want to detect, then getting a set of data with those events for training on the network.

That sounds interesting! I can't think of any types of things to check for to predict a user is about to churn! Care to give more examples?

The closest I could think of that might work is a neural network that would be fed data for people who churned and people who didn't but even then I cannot think of useful types of data to be fed!

One of the easiest today is using universal default. If you happen to pay your water bill late then that tells me that you're having money problems so I can expect other bills to start to falter. Some CC companies will actually raise their rates on you proactively assuming you're about to default. I think that's crap, but it's part of having everything so connected.

Other big ones that we found are simply changes in behavior. The person who pays their bill late every month is fine, and if they pay late enough to get the late charge even beneficial. The person who pays on time every month, but is suddenly late, big red flags. A person who suddenly starts using their CC card for groceries, but never did before is another example.

People also tend to live near similar people. If you're a company providing a service to many people you can start to build models of neighborhoods. If both my neighbors foreclose on their house there is a higher likelihood that I'm also going to be running into money problems.

What data do you have? If a predictive system performs with that data, QED.

As appealing as the opportunities appear, my naive guess is that "neat" is superseded by "regulated" but this makes me wonder... while finances are about as graphically personal as information can be, the optimization potential for billions of people, each with hundreds of choices, is astounding.

How could this computation be performed locally, in a directly parallel device, and in a way that protects the consumer? How about smart (real: assistive AI) cards as a disruptive technology?

This is what Google does. What you search is becoming a better and better predictor of what you will do. Most searches are based on future plans, purchase, or interests. They even know your current and future locations if you use google maps for directions. If you use gmail, Google can tell that you just broke up with your girlfriend, or are graduating college.

Sidenote: we don't "give away" this information. We exchange it for the value of the information we are searching for. Microsoft has even experimented with paying people (with discounts) to use Bing's product search features.

I have thought about this idea of broadcasting my plans for a while now. Everybody is saying that google's adsense is the biggest breakthrough in advertising in years. Think about the potential of being able to register that you are thinking about buying a car and then only seeing car commercials. I'm not talking about just adsense on the right margin of webpages but even in your tv shows and radio programs on the way into work. Or being able to say "Hey I'm overweight I want to ban all ads for unhealthy food and or alcohol across the board!". Currently I'm thinking of remodeling my kitchen; I would love to only see ads for local companies that can do this. I mean sometimes I spend my free time researching which computer I want to buy. I can't imagine that companies wouldn't want to take advantage of this and put in custom ads for me. I realize that this would represent a shift of power from the ad agencies to the consumer but so be it. I think the companies buying ads would benefit from more targeted advertisements.

The question is whether showing you adverts that you think you'd like to see is more or less effective than inferring what adverts you'd like to see based on your actions (you're reading a blog about gardening -> show gardening adverts,etc).

It is almost freaky when I go to type something I thought was obscure into the google search bar and it predicts what I am going to type after the first word.

A less obscure example (but the only one I could think of) is when I type is "How to fix " and it correctly filled in "a leaky faucet". No context, but it guessed correctly.

Agreed. I was hanging out with Friends last night in Foster City, CA, and I had decided that I was going to spend Thanksgiving in Reno. A few of my friends said "Is there anything to do other than Gamble in Reno?" So, I did what any silicon valley denizen would do, an whipped out my iphone. I typed in the following:

What is there

That's it, just three words.

Third line down on my screen, courtesy of google, was:

"What is there to do in Reno"

Scared the living crap out of me.

It autocompletes the same thing for me. Leaky faucets are a common problem; I suspect this is a case of confirmation bias.

Far spookier is the autocompletion for "a pair of pl".

how to fix -> ticking clicking sound in macbook pro unibody

Seems like the faucets are better here, but the macbooks are broken.

No suggestion for "a pair of pl".

Where I am, "a pair of pl" autocompletes to "a pair of pliers and a blowtorch", not just "a pair of pliers".

This is a quote from Pulp Fiction.

Ironically, the "French Crush" commercial directly advertised this transaction. Play cute music against a cute story and highlighting the fact that you can be very accurately understood and predicted based on Google searches becomes heartwarming.

Oui--heartwarming, and not a post-apocalyptic nightmare scenario. I'd like a low-powered computing device that (a) observes my habits and emulates their neighboring variations in a sandbox and (b) I can unplug if I choose, so as to carry the quantitative overload of life, but help ONLY ME, recurse for all others.

That's quite perceptive of you. I hope more people look at Google that way. I especially hope Google management looks at it that way. I think this perspective always gets lost on people both inside and outside Google when they talk about Facebook overtaking Google, or when they fret over Google not making big in the social networking space.

I think the concept is good hypothetically, but wouldn't work in practice. People are not that organized. Knowing beforehand where you are going to go and what you are going to do at various points in the future is hard enough to imagine, let alone consistently input into a computer, even if there is a value proposition as he points out. That's my thinking anyway.

You could do something that requires less effort on the part of the user. For example, extract future intentions from the content of existing "status update" streams.

"I just bought a used Ford" = "I need a mechanic in six months".

"I'm going rock climbing for the first time this weekend!" = "I need a chiropractor next week".


Jokes aside, seems like this would be a fairly approachable mid-way between the existing system and the one proposed.

That's a good point. However, as you mention this data already exists on services like Twitter and Facebook, so I guess it just needs to be mined and analyzed.

This is exactly why systems like this never work out. One could argue that to-do apps like Remember the Milk would have cashed in on this if there was really a market for it. The problem is that, for most of us, our lives are the result of goals and objectives and a healthy dose of luck and randomness.

Like that old commercial pointed out, very few children say they want to "claw my way to middle management" despite the fact that's what happens to a lot of us.

I would expect a service like this to fail partly because people aren't that organized and partly because those that are would be underwhelmed by how things turn out. Nobody likes a service that makes you feel like a failure.

You're correct. Unless a new interface could be invented, there's far too much friction in the idea, and like any network, it's value is proportional to the number of nodes. Unless all of a person's plans are in there, the value falls quickly.

It's pretty simple to see this - few of us even keep our 'formal' calendar up to date, of meetings, calls and plans. Very few people keep their 'informal' calendar up to date. I, for one, never create a task called 'buy truck', 'plan holiday'. The important, high value items never need to be written down. The ones that get tracked and remembered are the low-value ones like 'pay electricity bill' and 'pick up worming tablets for dog'. And they're the ones with little advertising value.

That said, there is probably a specific vertical niche in here that could be expanded, but more of an add-on to an existing network like facebook than a stand alone. Something like a 'holiday planning' where people could post a future plan like a trip to the Maldives, and have their friends (and advertisers) provide input on what to do while you are there.

Is there a reason why he intentionally mis-capitalizes "Facebook" to "FaceBook"?

Scott Adams strikes me as a careful and fastidious writer; I'm wondering if there is an inside joke that I'm not getting.

From the comments:

  Why for heaven's sake are you writing "FaceBook" instead of "Facebook." I will assume you are not an avid user of this so-called "Book."

  [Ha! Busted. Indeed it is not practical for me to be on Facebook. I have corrected the spelling. -- Scott]

So I was right. And they downvoted me! FOOLS!

That really bugged me while reading the post, and doubly so when he didn't capitalize the M in FutureMe, which arguably deserves it.

Incidentally, there is already a site/service called FutureMe (http://www.futureme.org/). It's for sending yourself emails way off in the future. I used it once in 2006 and got the email a year later. The future wasn't at all what I had expected. Not even close.

The real futureme is a great service. I'm someone who likes the idea of a journal, but doesn't have the tenacity to actually keep one. Instead, I use futureme once a year around new years to email myself. I recap how the year went, what I accomplished and what goals are still unrealized and then I send it to myself one year into the future. I've been doing this since 2005 (received my first email in 2006) and am always anxious to get the emails and read have that one-way conversation with my younger self.

I also use it to email friends and family in the future on birthdays or other events, though to a lesser extent. I sincerely hope they stay in business for years to come.

Perhaps something to do with FB's attempt to TM "book"? Very subtle, if so.

Because he's an out-of-touch anachronism?

This. Although I'd argue it's a spurious correlation -- I don't really "get" Facebook either, so it's hard for me to use it as a bellwether of being in-touch.


I couldn't ever get into PlanCast, though. It just never got integrated into my daily habits. I still like the idea, though...

Haven't actually tried it but it looks like it doesn't allow for nebulous plans. Lots of plans start out only half formed at best. Say you want to go to the beach. Your only time constraint may be some weekend soon. However your friend might want to tag along and he's only available on a certain Sunday. Purchase plans can be even more nebulous. You could want to purchase a new laptop but you friend tells you that Apple has a big announcement coming up so you decide to wait until after that.

Telling the world what you did and are doing assumes the world cares. This is a stretch, but people do it.

Not only telling the world what you are planning on doing, but expecting guidance from peers even more optimistic. I don't see this often in facebook status updates, or at least not things that people can really expect help from like Adams envisions. Displaying your intentions puts all your cards on the table; it's biologically discouraged. I don't think this will work.

But people love to give advice. Look at the topics here. The ones that get huge responses ask a question that allows anyone with even limited experience to weigh in.

Want to see pages and pages of comments? Post to a forum where parents are members that you're having a baby and are thinking about different approaches to parenting. A firestorm will ensue; nobody has to care about you and your baby at all.

How about "I'm going to buy a laptop, should I get a Mac or not?" This sort of thing causes server owners to consider liquid cooling systems.

The article even says that you aren't telling the world your plans, your telling a specific group of people. I could see this being useful by starting out general and making the plans more specific over time, just like the article says. For example, I could post to a group of close friends that I want to go out on Friday night. Someone else could suggest dancing, and advertisers could suggest a specific club. Because this plan was generated by a group of close friends we can all go. This isn't all that different from how I see my plans made today, but it's online and made with a little more notice.

Telling the world what you did and are doing assumes the world cares.

Facebook status stream:

"Waiting in line. It's going slow"

"Eating a burrito, no cheese"

"Ate a burrito... I think the no cheese will pay off"

"Low on gas, going to fill up"

"Can I use my cellphone if I'm just using Facebook at the gas station?"

"Just in case you're wondering, I didn't blow up at the gas station. Still here"

"I like to do it on the dog house"

People no longer care if the world cares. I don't think we really know anymore what is biologically encouraged is discouraged. Biology has never been here.

This is quite a simple and compelling idea. I see friends asking for product reviews and recommendations in their status messages all the time.

Facebook doesn't just know about your past. I recently got engaged, and all the Facebook ads I see are about weddings, honeymoons, etc...

What should kill Facebook is an open, distributed system. It should be more like email. That's why frid.ge stands no chance, because it is basically the same as Facebook. I have hopes for Diaspora.

Openness and profits don't have to be exclusive. Any successful email marketer probably can testify to this. And Google most definitely can.

Just for the sake of professional pride, talented developers and entrepreneurs should be able to make something that can compete with FB. I have little sympathy for top-people like the Google Maps creator joining Facebook. They should be better than that.

But who knows, maybe I'm just a liberal crackhead living in a dream-world and people really do need a walled system where they can get rid of that pesky privacy, the overwhelming choices of open systems and the boring speeches of arrogant intellectuals.


I'm trying to do a very specific subset of this within my app. The plan is ask users when they would like to take a cruise, where they're leaving from, about how much to spend, how to contact etc. Store this in a database and give cruise vendors access to this information where they can send out what they have available that matches the users criteria through the app.

Obviously this is much less general than what Adams is describing but makes more sense to me. I've never liked all the spammy aspects of social technology and hope I can be profitable sending info only when the user requests it. Of course this is just one of the many ways I'll be trying to monetize my app.

Should be titled:

  Scott Adams: FaceBook Complementer

Yeah, why can't this be a Facebook app?

A whole lot of Facebook's value is the social graph, which is hard to re-create. Add this app into Facebook's already-existing graph, and you might have a winner.

"You're worried that this system allows the stalkers and mooches in your network to ruin your future plans. But remember, you are only broadcasting your plans to people you specify. If you choose to tell a stalker where you'll be, don't blame the application when you get stabbed."

Getting stabbed would be my own fault, but being afraid to post plans in fear of getting stabbed is certainly the application's fault.

Perfect timing.

Coincidentally, we have just launched an early version of a microblogging site called idlike.to which lets its users share their wishes, plans and goals.

We are working on a bunch of new features and our roadmap is quite similar to Scott's vision.

We don't see idlike.to as a Facebook killer (we'd like to take a different direction) but this post is definitely very encouraging.


It sounds a little like Needish or Redbeacon. You ask for what you want/need and then people/companies make you offers for it. Sort of a reverse eBay.

I don't know how Redbeacon is doing, but I know Needish didn't do very well, maybe because of the market they targeted, but they ended doing a clone of Groupon and then selling it to Groupon to build Groupon Latam.

I think he's got the right idea: most web surfing right now is a waste of time, the wave of the future will be getting practical benefits from the internet. (I kniw online shopping and email and stuff is really useful in theory, but I just mean most of the time normal people actually spend online is frittered away on Facebook etc)

Content is value, a lot of wall statuses are spontaneous, video links, cute articles, what is happening. That makes people come and stick around. The plan is useful, but not that sticky for people to see any changes.

I think the biggest problem is only sharing information with specific people. Everyone is too lazy to do it manually and I don't think we are anywhere near creating a working suggestion method.

Tim Harford wrote about something similar to this in 2006. http://timharford.com/2006/06/lets-get-personal/

Isn't CarWoo effectively doing this now on a small scale?

We should have a programming contest based on this :)

doesn't twitter do this? broadcasting whatever I do.

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