Tools like Twitter and Facebook have let people share in near real-time what they are doing. Now with a new generation of location-aware mobile devices, you can tell your friends or the entire world where you’re doing it. Jeff Holden’s company, Pelago, is one of many trying to come up with a killer application that blends location, images, text, and social networking to create a new kind of group awareness. Before starting Pelago, Jeff had a long career as the Senior Vice President of Consumer Websites for Amazon and before that, the Director of Supply Chain Optimization Systems. He’ll be speaking at O’Reilly’s Where 2.0 Conference on “Footstreams: Clickstreams for the Physical World.”
James Turner: Pelago’s first product is Whrrl. Can you start by describing what Whrrl is and what the experience to date has been?
Jeff Holden: Yeah. Sure. So Whrrl actually, there’s a little complexity there because we just launched Whrrl V. 2.0, which is the prize we’re focused on. And Whrrl V. 2.0 is a real-time storytelling product for people’s daily lives.
JT: When you say storytelling, I’ve seen a lot of people talk about storytelling with these new social network things. What concretely does that mean to you?
JH: The most important aspect of what we mean by that is the organization of the content as the story unit. So the unit of content inside Whrrl is the story. And a story for us is something that has a beginning and an end. It can have multiple people involved in the story who can all share and contribute to a single story together. It has a location associated with it. And then people basically inject into those containers, those story containers, photos and text. As they’re doing that, that’s actually being shared out to any number of friends that they choose. And those friends can then jump in and actually comment on the story which then becomes part of the story as well. And so that’s what we mean by it is we’re focused on this — I think some people use that term generically. We’re using it very specifically to refer to the core unit of content in Whrrl.
JT: From a practical standpoint, apart from people who are chronic Twitterers and would just use it every moment of their life, what would you see a typical story being?
JH: What we’re seeing right now is a lot of the families are using the product to share stories. And, in fact, just this morning Alison Sweeney, she’s the host of the Biggest Loser and she was on Days of Our Lives for years. She’s a really famous soap opera actress. She just started using Whrrl today. And she visited the set of Days of Our Lives with her family. And so it’s actually entitled, “Family Visits Days.” And we feature that story because it’s such a cool — and she did it publically. And it’s a really cute story about her kids and the visit with the cast of Days of Our Lives. So we’re seeing a lot of that kind of thing. We’re seeing people at a more general level are viewing kind of very, very funny things like Melissa Pierce, who’s a really very successful video blogger and just general blogger; she’s done a number of very, very funny stories. She did one called “Lonely Bear” about this gummy bear lost in the world. And through a sequence of photos and text updates, she told the story of Lonely Bear and kind of left it dangling and was going to have a follow-up segment. And is actually going to be collaborating with people to build the next story.
So people are using it in different ways. And it’s really kind of unleashing a lot of creativity.
JT: To some extent, pieces of this already exist. Like Flickr has photo streams. And Twitter, you can have your real-time life laid out. What prevents this from just turning into this utterly fragmented space where everyone is in their own little gated community of the people who happen to use that service?
JH: Well, first of all, comparing it to other services, the most subtle things can dramatically alter the way people use a product. And so people are perceiving Whrrl appropriately, I think, very, very differently from, for example, Twitter, Facebook, and other products that are social networking type products. But one of the things about our product in terms of this gated communities question is that we actually let people have complete control over the privacy level, the level at which they want to broadcast. And they can control that separately in real-time and after the fact. And so we actually are fine with it if people want to use it to communicate just with trusted friends. There are enough people who are very excited about publishing to a very large audience. You can see a lot of public content appear around you in Whrrl. So we haven’t had any problem with that. In fact, we’re surprised by the number of people who publish publically. But there’s also a lot of private publishing, and we think that’s great. It’s serving a purpose for people who then oftentimes come back to the website and they use our website tools which allow you to polish this story and edit it and change the flow and tell different sides of the story and publish it out again. And in some cases, people are very comfortable publishing after the fact to a much larger audience than they are in the moment. And so we provide both of those capabilities. But we’re starting from the customer and working from there as opposed to trying to create some kind of everybody’s got to be public with everything they do kind of sharing community.
JT: Sure. I was looking at it from a slightly different perspective which is if you look at one aspect of social networking, you’ve got LinkedIn and you’ve got — I can’t name them all — but there’s like 27 different services like that now. And it gets to be that people just get sick of it because there’s so many of them.
JT: I can see that happening again. You’ve got Facebook. You’ve got Flickr. You’ve got — again, you could name the 200 of them. And you may offer things that they don’t, but people are going to kind of stick with their favorite things. It’s going to be like the old days and to some extent, the way it still is, where you’ve got nine different IM protocols and everybody’s on a couple of them.
JH: Right. Right. Well, luckily, I mean the way we think about the different sort of anchors of the social networking world: Twitter and Facebook and MySpace and these guys, we embrace them as opposed to trying to compete with them. So one of the things you can do in Whrrl, which a lot of people do, is you can publish your story out as your Facebook status. And you can publish your story out on Twitter as an update. And the way it works is it doesn’t publish every single update you do as a separate post; it does it as one time you say, “Hey, this is a time right now when I’d like to have this thing appear as my status update on Facebook.” So it embraces the Facebook community. And we take that so far that if you actually sign in with your Facebook credentials, you don’t need to create an account in Whrrl. So we very much embrace these existing ecosystems. And we see them as in many ways amplifying and augmenting what we do and vice versa as opposed to trying to compete with them and steal people away from Twitter or steal people away from Facebook or from MySpace.
JT: So you can almost see Whrrl as a portal site?
JH: Well, we don’t think of it that way. I mean we think of it more as kind of a symbiotic relationship with these other sites. We’re providing a particular set of capabilities. We wouldn’t mind, for example, if people started using the story polishing tools from inside their Facebook experience. That would be fine with us. So to call it a portal, I think, would be not quite the right characterization.
JT: The obvious Web 2.0 question here; what’s your monetization model for this?
JH: So we’re not talking about it yet. But I can tell you some things it’s not. It’s not location-based coupons, SMS bombs where you walk by the Dunkin Donuts and you get Dunkin Donuts coupons. It’s not location-based banner advertising. It’s something that I don’t think anyone’s really talking about at all yet. And that’s why we’re not talking about it either because we feel like it’s pretty different. And so we’re working on it actively. But nothing is running yet. There’s no dollars coming from the strategy yet. And I want to just make sure we kind of bring it out and talk about it at the right time.
JT: Since you brought it up, although you’re saying you’re not going to be doing any of those things, certainly a lot of these new location-based mobile services you can kind of see as the slippery slope that leads to the holographic advertising popping up as you go down the sidewalk.
JT: How are we going to keep the personalized experience under the control of the consumer?
JH: Well, the basic way we’re approaching that the consumer controls sort of when and where the data appears and is used. We’re not entering into relationships; for example, we don’t intend to share personally identifiable information with third parties. And so from our perspective, the way we intend to use the data isn’t annoying in that way. So I can only go so far as to say what we’re doing and how we’re not contributing to that problem. But there’s no question that the sort of Minority Report world is something that people are actively working on, right? And it’s not us. But there’s no question people are trying to make that happen.
JT: I have to ask a question because you obviously have experience as an iPhone app distributor.
JT: I went and checked out your app on the iTunes store. And like a lot of apps there, there’s a lot of people who say they absolutely love it and gave it a five, and then there’s a lot of people who say they absolutely hate it and gave it a one.
JT: What’s your experience been using the iPhone distribution channels?
JH: Well, it’s mixed. It’s the best game in town, so that’s thing number one. So from our perspective, it’s an incredible revolutionary improvement over the way the world used to be. So that’s thing number one. But when you get into the details of it, sort of once you’re in the frame, the discovery experience and in general the community review process has got some obvious problems with it. If you look at the reviews on our product, they’re almost all four and five stars. There’s a very, very tiny number of actual reviews with text in them that actually rate it below four stars. I think there’s one three-star and like five one-stars. And then besides that what is zillions of one-star ratings and it’s just ratings. And one of the things that you can do or what happens with an iPhone is when you uninstall an app, it asks you to rate it. And it defaults to one-star. And we know for a fact that we get tons of one-star ratings because when we were feature, like when we first launched the app, Apple featured us which a really nice thing for them to do. The problem is…there’s no kind of qualification. Anybody just downloads it and checks it out or doesn’t check it out, right? You get very interesting kind of download and users’ behavior from that feature’s status. And I think a number of people run it and they see that you have to sign in and they just delete it. And you get a one-star rating out of those experiences. So the stuff we look at closely is where we actually get textual feedback from people. And most people actually send that directly to us. And so we get tons and tons of feedback. You can just shake the phone inside our app at any time and we capture the contacts and you can send feedback that way. And that’s the way we get most of our feedback.
And then we scrutinize any of the App Store feedback as well. But if I had to sort of say there’s one big improvement that could be made, it would be making the community of reviewers and raters in the App Store non-anonymous, number one because that always leads to a higher — I mean owned the review system for Amazon.com for many years. And that’s one of the things about it that it’s much, much weaker if it’s anonymous. It’s just no one’s putting any skin in the game is what they say. And I would also make sure that you don’t have biases kind of like these one-star default undelete rating widgets. Make sure that if you have something like that, you have something on the other side too so you get a really balanced score. And generally what we’ve seen is that talking to other app providers when you’re featured, if you don’t have like a completely mainstream — you know, like a game or something, something that fits more of a specific audience and demo, then you do get sort of deluged with one-star ratings. And when you come off the featured list, you start to see that balance out. So that’s kind of probably more than you wanted to know.
JH: But that’s just sort of one of the dynamics of the App Store experience. Like I said, best game in town.
JH: So I wouldn’t trade it.
JT: And luckily, you’re a free app so you don’t have to deal with the gotcha of refunds.
JH: Yeah, exactly. Yeah. That’s an interesting little space to deal with. But I think Apple’s trying to evolve there. But yeah, I’ve been following all of the fun with if you get the 100 percent refund, you give but not Apple.
JT: Before you started Pelago, you did spend a lot of years at Amazon, the last few running the website experience. I have to say just in comment because you talked about the review system, I religiously use the review system, even if I’m not going to be buying something from Amazon.
JT: And I’m a Prime Member, so a lot of times I do, but —
JH: My team built Prime, too. I was very proud of that one actually. I love that feature.
JT: It definitely does change your buying experience. Like, “I need tissue. I wonder what the price is on Prime.”
JH: I know. Exactly. The right of first refusal.
JT: Right. Amazon obviously knows some geographical information about their user base because they have to ship stuff to them.
JT: Does Amazon leverage that at all into the product recommendation engine?
JH: Let me think about that for a second. The product recommendation engine do we use geo-location? Without giving anything away, I’ll say it’s not a primary component of the recommendation engine. But you can imagine that pretty much every piece of data that’s consumed for recommendations at Amazon. It’s a very evolved recommendation system at this point.
JT: One of the things that I’ve found amusing is my wife is in graduate school for psychology and also likes religious books. And we share an account. And I have to go in and uncheck all of her stuff or I start getting very bizarre recommendations.
JH: Well, the shared account thing was something that we struggled with for a long time. We went down a path of trying to let people tag things and then do recommendations by tag. I think that feature might still be there, but it never really took off. And so there’s all of these different ways we tried to sort of crack the code on that, but never really — it’s a hard problem.
JT: Where do you see mobile-location based technology going in the next five to ten years?
JH: Well, I don’t know if you looked at our blog at all, but this is something that I’ve spoken a fair amount about in there in terms of my vision and the trends of where I think things are going. I think — and this sounds obvious now, but I think it’s going to be obviously pervasive. And so you’re going to see location aware in everything. And I think what that’s going to lead to ultimately — I use this term “people are the media.” I think what you’re going to find is life gets completely digitized. There’s going to be an adoption of that over time. But people will get to the point where there’s a lot of comfort. In fact, so much value will be created by that that people will not just get used to it, they’ll actually love it. And so when I say digitize, I mean people’s movements and what they’re doing in their lives will be very, very easily captured and shared. And people will get a huge amount of value out of that. I think one of the things that’s just kind of the obvious intuition, but wouldn’t it be amazing if your parents, for example, could share literally an indelible record of all of the things that they did, especially the key moments in their lives in terms of where they were, who they were with, what they were doing. And if that had just been captured as they lived their lives, they didn’t have to go back and recreate that.
That’s what I think is going to happen is that people living their lives are going to be the media. And what we’ll see from that the second order effect, I think, is that you see people get inspired. That’s one of the reasons we chose the story unit in Whrrl is because it’s this source of inspiration. It’s the thing that people go to for inspiration. And I’ve actually gotten feedback from people that are like, “I’m actually doing more fun things now because I actually want to tell better stories through Whrrl,” which I’m like amazed that it’s happening this early. But that’s certainly one of the key things we wanted to achieve with the product. The mission statement for the product was to increase the possibility of adventure and human connection in our daily lives. And so I think that’s what you see with the digitization of people’s lives is that inspiration goes up and literally I joke but net adventurism goes up. People’s lives become less rutted and more varied and more interesting. And that’s what my hope is. That’s where I think you can create a huge amount of human value. And I think there’s going to be a lot of other ways that digitization of human life will lead to value. But that’s kind of the track we’re focused on.
JT: I don’t know if you saw, [but] there’s a gentleman who has one eye missing who’s putting a camcorder in the eye socket.
JH: Oh my goodness. No, I didn’t see that. That’s amazing.
JT: That’s like when you see the science fiction where the news reporter who’s like got the implanted thing; we’ve gotten there now.
JH: Right. And that’s just — there’s obviously a trend towards this term people use augmented reality. When I talk about digitizing human life, I mean it’s bidirectional; it’s not just capturing and pushing out what you’re doing. It’s also consuming information as you’re living your life. And almost like a sixth sense, you know? The information is perfected in the sense that it comes to you in the right format at the right time so that you can actually consume it while you’re actually actively doing something in your physical life. And that’s, I think, where this is all going or a very big piece of where it’s all going.
JT: I have to ask about not dark side but the potential peril of this, which is as you get more and more people casually uploading kind of their experience into the collective cloud and you get technologies like Photosynth and other things that can create aggregates out of it, you get into a situation where just people walking down the street are in some sense, to the extent that they’re not already being surveilled by CCTV and all of that other stuff, are going to just be part of this pervasive reality without necessarily opting in.
JH: Well, yeah. I mean there’s certainly stuff like the CCTV is a great example. If you’re in London, your movements can be tracked kind of anywhere. And there’s definitely a trend in that direction. My sense is that people won’t be willing to let go of their privacy completely. And there will be some forces that are constantly chipping away that we, obviously, with Whrrl we’re not focused on trying to get people to give up their privacy. We want people to share in the most comfortable way that they can. And so if you choose to share with one person or you choose to totally make it private, that’s your choice. We’ll give you the tools to be able to capture. And I think people do value privacy. And so you’re going to see a social kind of reaction to your — like a social visceral reaction community level to giving up privacy in its entirety. And so I don’t know how that will all play out. We’re happy that our product is not pushing that particular envelope. But, like you said, there are examples out there where there’s just a better surveillance technologies. And, obviously, devices can be tracked and your mobile device can be tracked even if it’s not through GPS. I mean, it can be tracked in other ways. And conversations are all digitized now. And so they can be stored. And there are a lot of those kinds of trends in play. But my sense is with regard to products when you’re developing something that you want consumers to purchase or to use, you’ve got to be sensitive to the concerns about privacy. And so that’s one area that we’re incredibly focused is making sure that we never violate someone’s expectations there.
JT: That’s a very fair point. The only concern I have is again kind of this second derivative effect which is it’s not that I was taking a picture of my wife; it’s that the guy from America’s Most Wanted is standing behind it and maybe did you did want to know that he was there, but maybe this is some guy who the state police want to pick up.
JT: And when TV shows film, they have to get waivers from everybody who happens to be walking in the background.
JT: And there isn’t that kind of effect in this new social media where all of this stuff is in there and you could have facial recognition software and then all of the sudden, you could see someone mining Flickr or something and finding out every place a guy had been just by where he appeared in the background.
JH: Right. No, that’s a very real situation. And there’s going to be — like I said, your users expect that there’s going to be a social kind of reaction to it and that things will kind of reach equilibrium at some point. But one of the things that’s true is that these technology waves, cameras appearing in every phone, there’s absolutely nothing anyone can do about that. It’s an unstoppable wave. And so you can find ways of living your life in such a way that you try not to be influenced by that or affected by that. But it gets harder and harder and harder because technology is everywhere. It’s pervasive and it is capturing these moments. And even if you’re not actively — as you said, the first order effect of you giving up your own privacy is different from you being captured in somebody else’s story or something and being discoverable that way. So I think that’s a reality of the sort of wave of technology moving forward.
JT: I guess people just have to start wearing those hats with mosquito netting on it.
JH: That’s right. Exactly. Maybe that’ll be the social reaction. Everyone will dress in — or they’ll start wearing these — you’ve seen this technology that allows you to bend light so you can literally have a cloak of invisibility. Maybe those will sell well.
JT: Now you’re going to be speaking at Where 2.0 about this idea you have called Footstreams.
JT: Can you give us a little preview of what the talk is going to deal with?
JH: Yeah. Well, what we want to do is I’ll share the concept there and try to motivate people to understand the power of footstreams which are — literally, it’s the places people go in the real world. And so a sort of simple analogy is to a click stream on the web. On the web, everything you do is a click and this digital information is stored. And, obviously, in the real world, there isn’t any of that. And so the question is what can you do with that data? And we can show from the early days of Whrrl 2.0 and from our Whrrl 1.0 learnings, how that data looks and what kind of interesting things we can do with it. And one of the things you can do, as you can imagine with my background at Amazon, too, in the whole personalization space, you can analyze it as “people who do this also do that.” And so for the first time really you’ll be able to start to create value for people by opening up new kind of pathways for them in the physical world the way you can online among 20 million books, for example. There are obviously an insane number of places and things to go and things to do. We can start to expose things to you in a kind of push-oriented way based on your activities and the activities of other people in the community. That’s a very powerful value-add for people. So that’s essentially the material I’m going to talk about.
JT: I just got this flash of being in a restaurant and having this thing come up that says 94 percent of the people who ate here went to St. John’s Emergency Room for their food poisoning.
JH: It might happen. And that would probably have an effect on the number of people who go there in the future.
JT: We’ve been speaking to Jeff Holden who is the Founder and CEO of Pelago. He will be speaking at Where 2.0 on Footstreams: Clickstreams for the Physical World. Thank you so much for taking the time to talk.
JH: Yeah. You’re very welcome, James. Thanks for the call.