Archive for August 2004


When All Mail Becomes Junk Mail...

August 17th, 2004 — 10:34pm

Here’s a few exam­ples of how Gmail has fared at match­ing the con­tent of email mes­sages to my Gmail address with adver­tis­ing con­tent.
A for­warded review of King Arthur gives me “King Arthur Com­pe­ti­tion” and “King Arthur — Was He Real?” For some­thing this easy and con­tem­po­rary, I would have expected to see sug­ges­tions about movie times and loca­tions, offers to pub­lish my screen­play, and col­lec­tions of King Arthur col­lectibles.
An anec­dote about Eamon de Valera deliv­ers Shil­le­lagh (sic.), “Irish Clan Aran Sweaters”, and “Clas­sic Irish Imports”. This truly an easy one, since it’s a small pool of sim­i­lar source terms to sort through. “No, I meant Eamon de Valera, the famous Irish bal­let dancer…” Will Gmail sug­gest links with cor­rect spellings at some future date, or offer cor­rect links to things that you’ve mis-spelled?
A mes­sage about another for­warded email sent a few moments before brings “Group­wise email”, “Ecarboncopy.com”, and “Track Email Read­ing Time”. These are accu­rate by topic, but not inter­est­ing.
A recent email exchange on how to use an excel spread­sheet tem­plate card sort­ing analy­sis offers four links. Three are spon­sored, the other is ‘related’. The spon­sored links include “OLAP Excel Browser”, “Microsoft Excel Tem­plates”, and “Analy­sis Ser­vices Guide”. A related link is, “Gen­er­at­ing Spread­sheets with PHP and PEAR”. These are sim­ple word matches — none of them really approached the cen­tral issue of the con­ver­sa­tion, which con­cerned how to best use auto­mated tools for card sort­ing.
Last month, in the midst of an exchange about mak­ing vaca­tion plans for the 4th of July with fam­ily, Gmail offered “Free 4th of July Clip Art”, “Fire­works Weather Fore­casts”, and “U.S. Flags and patri­otic items for sale”. Given the obvi­ous 4th of July theme, this per­for­mance is less impres­sive, but still solid, offer­ing me a convenience-based ser­vice in a timely and top­i­cal fash­ion.
Most inter­est­ing of all, a mes­sage men­tion­ing a rel­a­tive of mine named Arena yields links for “Organic Pas­tas” and “Fine Ital­ian Pasta Mak­ers”. Someone’s doing some­thing right with con­trolled vocab­u­lar­ies and syn­onym rings, since it’s clear that Google knows Arena is an Ital­ian sur­name in this instance and not a large struc­ture for per­for­mances: even though it only appeared in the text of the email once, and there was no con­text to indi­cate which mean­ing it car­ried.
Beyond the obvi­ous — you send me a mes­sage, Gmail parses it for terms and phrases that match a list of spon­sored links, and I see the mes­sage and the links side-by-side — what’s hap­pen­ing here?
Three things:
1. Gmail is prod­uct place­ment for your email. In the same way that the Coke can vis­i­ble on the kitchen table dur­ing a pass­ing shot in the lat­est roman­tic com­edy from Touch­stone pic­tures is more an adver­tis­ing mes­sage than part of the over­all mise en scene, those spon­sored links are a com­mer­cially dri­ven ele­ment of the expe­ri­ence of Gmail that serves a spe­cific agenda exte­rior to your own.
2. Gmail con­verts adver­tise­ments (spon­sored links) into a form of hyper­text that should be called adver­text. Gmail is cre­at­ing a new adver­text net­work com­posed of Google’s spon­sored links in com­pan­ion to your cor­re­spon­dence. Before Gmail, the spon­sored links that Google returned in accom­pa­ni­ment to search queries were part of an infor­ma­tion space out­side your imme­di­ate per­sonal uni­verse,
3. Gmail con­nects vastly dif­fer­ent infor­ma­tion spaces and realms of think­ing. Google’s spon­sored links bridge any remain­ing gap between per­sonal, pri­vate, indi­vid­ual con­ver­sa­tions, and the com­mer­cial­ized sub­set of cyber­space that is Google’s ad-verse. You will inevitably come to under­stand the mean­ing and con­tent of your mes­sages dif­fer­ently as a result of see­ing them pre­sented in a con­text informed by and com­posed of adver­tis­ing.
The impli­ca­tions of the third point are the most dra­matic. When all of our per­sonal spaces are fully sub­ject to col­o­niza­tion by the ad-verse, what com­mu­ni­ca­tion is left that isn’t an act of mar­ket­ing or advertisement?

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Revisiting Tufte - 5 Years On

August 10th, 2004 — 7:23pm

I first saw Edward Tufte deliver his well-known sem­i­nar Pre­sent­ing Data and Infor­ma­tion in the heady sum­mer days of ’99. At the time, I was work­ing for a small inter­ac­tive agency in down­town Boston. I’d heard about Tufte’s sem­i­nar from a for­mer col­league, and was eager to learn more about Infor­ma­tion Design, user inter­faces, and what­ever else was rel­e­vant to cre­at­ing user expe­ri­ences and infor­ma­tion spaces. Tufte’s sem­i­nars also seemed to tap into some sort of trans­for­ma­tional mojo; the per­son I was work­ing with went in as a Web Devel­oper, and came back a Usabil­ity Spe­cial­ist. The logic of this still escapes me, since I haven’t heard the esteemed Pro­fes­sor men­tion usabil­ity, let alone lec­ture on it yet: I think it’s more a good les­son in how des­per­ate Seth was to escape writ­ing HTML.
But I’m get­ting away from the point.
In ’99, Tufte deliv­ered a solid and suc­cinct ground­ing in Infor­ma­tion Design his­tory and prin­ci­ples, sup­ported by fre­quent ref­er­ences to his gor­geous self-published titles. Bravo.
He promptly fol­lowed this with a short seg­ment on “The Web”, which was mostly irrel­e­vant, and wholly behind the times. Pro­fes­sor Tufte’s chief gripes at the time included exces­sive use of chrome on but­tons, bul­leted lists, and unfor­mat­ted tables. He was mired in recount­ing the fail­ings of HTML 2.0. Out­side, it was 1999. But in the lec­ture hall, it felt more like 1996… I was embar­rassed to see an old mas­ter danc­ing poorly to new music.
For­ward five years, and now clients are ask­ing me to attend Pro­fes­sor Tufte’s pre­sen­ta­tion in New York, again in the sum­mer. I expected to be severely dis­ap­pointed; if Tufte was this far behind when there wasn’t much his­tory in the first place, then it could only have got­ten worse.
And so I was pleas­antly sur­prised. The Infor­ma­tion Design show­case was like refresh­ing cool rain after too much time using low-fidelity chart­ing appli­ca­tions. But what really caught my ears was his ready embrace of core Infor­ma­tion Archi­tec­ture lan­guage and out­look. Dr. Tufte is hip to IA now. He even gave us some good home­work: the ses­sion hand­out lists 11 clas­sics of 20th cen­tury Infor­ma­tion Archi­tec­ture — on page 2, right after the day’s agenda.
Yes, his piece on the Web was still a bit behind — sta­tic nav­i­ga­tion sys­tems and generic cor­po­rate mar­ket­ing site IA aren’t exactly cut­ting edge top­ics, and it’s hardly open-minded to say that there’s no rea­son for hav­ing more than a sin­gle nav­i­ga­tion bar at the top of a page — but at least it was behind in the right direc­tion.
And it was still nice out­side.
Kudos to the old mas­ter for pick­ing bet­ter music.
And for being canny enough to know that it’s good for busi­ness to encour­age evey­rone to take notes, but not pro­vide note paper in the regstra­tion packet — its for sale of course at the back of the hall…

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