All posts made in May. 2012:

Instagram for webpages

Companies I would start if only I had the time, #2 in a series. (Previously, FuelBand for alpha waves.)

Instagram for webpages.

Hear me out:

Instagram has proven there is a mass appetite for creativity and personal expression. Look at the popular photos on Instagram: girls, pets, and sunsets; well-shot and quirky. Facebook, by comparison, is a desert -- a gridded Excel spreadsheet of relationship changes and status updates. When at last they added the possibility of creativity - of beauty and of ugliness - in the shape of Facebook Timeline banners, people leapt at it.

(Note: I'm obsessed with Instagram. I think it's brilliant. A demonstration that people in a social group when left together and given the right tools develop deep skills and a rich culture.)

The mass creativity is what I really miss about MySpace. Check out Ze Frank talking about MySpace in 2006: sure the ugly pages were a joke, but ugliness was also a sign of a huge amount of experimentation, of personal expression, of wit and one-upmanship, of tribes and remixing. Culture in action!

The granddaddy of mass creative expression online was GeoCities, started in 1994 and now dead but archived. A giant metropolis of people speaking in HTML - the bricks and cement of the Web - learning from one-another, improving their skills to speak better -- having conversations by creating and sharing. GeoCities is the roots of present-day maker culture. And it was enabled by the very thing that makers are right now injecting into the manufacturing world with open source hardware: view source. View source! See how any webpage is constructed, then copy-and-paste parts of HTML and use it yourself! What a great way to learn.

There's no "view source" on the iPad.

That smells like a gap in the market.

Productizing "view source"

We'll start with an Instagram clone for the iPhone and iPad. Instead of photos, users would share webpages written in the app itself. There's view source, of course.

What we'll do...

  • All webpages are hosted in the app, there's no separate browser. Users make them, and you see what your friends have published recently in a big list of square pages. Webpages can be viewed outside the app too
  • No links, no browsing. It's a reverse chronological list of new, fixed size webpages made by your friends
  • Built-in HTML editor, with a deliberately limited feature set (e.g., XHTML, no sound and no music)
  • Draft mode: Before a you publish a page, you can show the source to your friends to ask for hints
  • Turn the phone sideways to read the source for any page
  • CSS animations and 3D (but no Javascript)
  • Lots of fonts and glyphs
  • Ability to upload small pictures, and filters to apply to them

Pages would be a fixed width and height, and there would be a file-size limit.

We'll also have a few features to invite expression:

  • A visual editor: when you view source from anyone, you can copy a "style" and keep it in your toolbox for later. Applying the style to text is a drag-and-drop operation (although you're still using the HTML text editor so you see how it happens). Likewise you can save snippets from pages for later, ditto glyphs, ditto little pictures
  • Tagging, so a user can make a blog by tagging all their posts "blog" (then you can link to all your pages tagged blog from your profile)
  • No credits -- this is an environment where copying is okay, so nobody should get care too much about credits. It's all share-and-share-alike.
  • Templating: users would be encouraged to make a default set of templates for showing off quotes, pictures, word art, links, and chat. It'd be like Tumblr with post-by-post variety.

There's Facebook integration for sharing. The hope is that people make little webpages with poems or aphorisms in place of writing status updates, and share those each day instead.

While I was writing this, Panic launched Coda 2, their code, HTML and CSS editor. It's remarkable for its UI -- do watch the tour, and look out for the smart styling menus: it doesn't just help you type the syntax to specify a colour, it presents you with a colour picker. So yeah, we'd try and license some of the Coda technology.

Instagram for webpages

This is Instagram meets GeoCities meets Diet Coda meets Twitter art meets meets Tumblr meets social scrapbooking.

We'll know we're doing it right when half of the pages are ugly.

Money: Initially we'll find revenue from brands because people follow the brands they like.

The long-term plan is that this service invents, popularises and owns a new media type, in the same way that Twitter "owns" 140 character updates and Instagram "owns" square photos. You end up with a generation of people highly literate in HTML authorship and this new media type, and they associate this literacy - this superpower - with this particular service.

A year down the road we'll add form inputs, a super simple programming language for back-end processing only (not mixed with the HTML), and a custom micropayments widget. This is possible because it's a controlled viewing/authoring system. Bingo, we have an economy. I'm sure we can think of something to do with that.

Ze Frank on ugly

Ze Frank's 2006 defence of ugly MySpace pages as markers of mass experimentation and the democratisation of design:

For a very long time, taste and artistic training have been things that only a small number of people have been able to develop. Only a few people could afford to participate in the production of many types of media. Raw materials like pigments were expensive; same with tools like printing presses; even as late as 1963 it cost Charles Peignot over $600,000 to create and cut a single font family.

The small number of people who had access to these tools and resources created rules about what was good taste or bad taste. These designers started giving each other awards and the rules they followed became even more specific. All sorts of stuff about grids and sizes and color combinations - lots of stuff that the consumers of this media never consciously noticed. Over the last 20 years, however, the cost of tools related to the authorship of media has plummeted. For very little money, anyone can create and distribute things like newsletters, or videos, or bad-ass tunes about "ugly."

Suddenly consumers are learning the language of these authorship tools. The fact that tons of people know names of fonts like Helvetica is weird! And when people start learning something new, they perceive the world around them differently. If you start learning how to play the guitar, suddenly the guitar stands out in all the music you listen to. For example, throughout most of the history of movies, the audience didn't really understand what a craft editing was. Now, as more and more people have access to things like iMovie, they begin to understand the manipulative power of editing. Watching reality TV almost becomes like a game as you try to second-guess how the editor is trying to manipulate you.

As people start learning and experimenting with these languages authorship, they don't necessarily follow the rules of good taste. This scares the shit out of designers.

In Myspace, millions of people have opted out of pre-made templates that "work" in exchange for ugly. Ugly when compared to pre-existing notions of taste is a bummer. But ugly as a representation of mass experimentation and learning is pretty damn cool.

Regardless of what you might think, the actions you take to make your Myspace page ugly are pretty sophisticated. Over time as consumer-created media engulfs the other kind, it's possible that completely new norms develop around the notions of talent and artistic ability.

Here's the video.

FuelBand for alpha waves

I was waiting for a bus the other day, and had a pretty good time stand there, wool gathering, contemplating the world, thinking about the various things I needed to do, etc.

And on the bus after I thought: I don't give myself enough time to stop and think.

And then I thought: I don't give myself enough time to exercise either, and what I did in that case was buy a Nike+ FuelBand and monitor how many steps I take each day. (There was a surprise there: Factoring out exercise, there's a huge variation in my regular everyday activity, a four-times difference between quiet days and active days although they feel much the same.)

So I bought a MindWave from Neurosky which is a portable electroencephalography (EEG) headset with dry sensors. That is, it measures faint electrical activity on my head to read my brainwaves, and it's "dry" so I don't need to soak the sensors in saline or anything like that.

In theory it should be able to measure when I'm concentrating, when I'm excited/agitated, and when I'm relaxed.

It comes with a dongle to plug into my Mac so I can read the data from it using the MindWave developer tools. (In retrospect I should have bought the MindWave Mobile which uses Bluetooth and can also connect to the iPhone.)

It's a shame the MindWave doesn't store data itself -- if I want to get long-term readings then I will have to keep it paired with my Mac and store and analyse the data there.

Why? Because I'd like to wear this the whole time, and become more mindful of how much time - and for how long - I'm concentrating, reflecting, etc. And over time, being mindful of this, could I see whether I'm happier/more productive/more creative when I spend (say) regular time each day reflecting, or long periods of time on a single day concentrating, and so on.

Companies I would start if I wasn't doing this one:

The models currently in this space are exemplified by two companies, both based on Neurosky's technology:

  • Home of Attention, which caters to managers for trainers and managers for education and self-improvement. In their literature there are phrases like : You learn to relax at any time, You learn how to use your concentration to access any required performance at an instant. Other companies focus brain training on different sectors, and adjust their branding accordingly.
  • Toys and games, of which my favourite is the Necomini cat ears headset. These ears perk up when you see something interesting (food, a pretty boy), and fall when you relax. A neat toy... and done right it would be entertaining to see these in bars, although I have a feeling they're really a Hypercolor for checking people out.

Neurosky themselves have an app store.

But I think these companies are missing a trick. I'd like to introduce focus, good design, and vertical integration, and take lessons from successes like Nike+ and Foursquare.

I would love to take the Neurosky MindWave technology, have it store data for later syncing as a Bluetooth Smart Device, make it look great, wrap a FuelBand self-awareness and goals iPhone app around it, build in a mood tracking feature for feedback - maybe correlate it with email and calendar/todo list activity, Twitter/Facebook updates (for another mood datapoint), and Foursquare (for location) - and sell it as a headband.

You would share the time you'd spent reflecting each day on Facebook. There would be challenges, and self-awareness. I might bootstrap a distributed network of gym instructors for meditation (we'd have a marketplace for subscription yogis).

Kind of a cross between Brain Age (or Brain Training depending on your territory), FuelBand, product sales plus subscription services, quantified self, and mental well-being.

The really interesting stuff would happen when we start using machine learning across vast amounts of data from tens of thousands of individuals, all submitting brain wave and activity/mood data. We'd data-mine like crazy. What would we learn? It would be a little like 23andme, the data-mining + pathologies + gene sequencing company, and a little like Knewton with their personalised, adaptive learning. Maybe we would end up saying things like:

You know you need to be on top form in 5 days? We know from past behaviour and by looking at people like you that you need to spent 30 minutes more per day in uninterrupted quiet reflection in order to achieve this. Here's your goal. Go!

There's not quite a business here, not at launch... but after you find out what combinations of which mental states over a day promote what kind of behaviours, and you can help people be mindful of that? There's something really big there, I'm sure.

I wish I had more hours in the day.

Right now

I am using my MindWave and playing Blink/zone to explode fireworks whenever I blink. When I don't blink they don't explode, when I do blink they do. It works surprisingly well. It's a weird experience to have something I regard as so interior picked up by a computer.

Science questions


  • Is it true the human ear never stops growing?
  • If the universe is infinite then why is so much of the night sky black?
  • How come the biggest corn flakes are on the top of the pack and don't sink?
  • Why do people imitate birds by whistling when birds don't have lips?
  • Is it true that dogs see in black and white?
  • Is it true that dogs die from eating chocolate?
  • Is it true that dogs can see ghosts?
  • Was there a dog jesus?
  • If there wasn't a dog jesus, if a dog dies from eating chocolate, does a dog go to heaven?
  • Or does the dead dog become a dog ghost?
  • Is this why dogs can see ghosts?
  • Because ghosts are dogs?
  • And dogs are ghosts?
  • Mountains, are they small or far away?