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.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Big and Small and Branding (with free advice for the Republican party)

Partially because of a pitch I just finished working on, where our ideas played with the notion of bigness, I've been thinking a lot about big and small. Specifically, I think these two words have an interruptive value: they can make you stop and reconsider things.

A classic example is the 'Think Small' ad to the left. The assumption the car buying public made at the time was that bigger is better, but this ad challenged the notion head on. It forces you to ask an obvious question: why, exactly, do I want or need a bigger car? Many people, I believe, answered it by saying they were shopping for bigness because of social pressures and not because they really wanted it. And so a smaller car made them feel not just frugal, not even smart, but like an individual. The word small didn't just mean physically smaller, but psychologically smaller, moving from a collective level of decision making to a personal one.

An interesting counter-example can be found in the cell phone business, where Samsung seems to be trying to stake out a place for itself as the 'big' smartphone maker. It starts, of course, with making a phone so big that some people question whether it is even practical, but a look at their ad will also give you a sense that (even though they don't use the word) they are trying to link that physical bigness to a sense of transformation, of expanding possibilities. It subverts the trend towards smallness that tends to rule in the technology space. But I think being more explicit about the value of bigness in a space that so often devalues it would have potentially been a lot more disruptive than their reliance on the oft-abused stand in, free.

Why are the notions of big and small so powerful in branding when used correctly? I think we can trace that back to the interplay between our desires for stability and progress. Our default position is to stick with what we know and our comfortable with. But we also don't like being stuck with something outdated, so we tend to assume certain trends: that cars will keep getting bigger or cell phones will keep getting smaller. In other words, we assume progress is linear and predictable, and buy accordingly. Marketers use those assumptions to keep selling new versions of their products. But sometimes products come along that flip the trend assumptions on their heads. What is a savvy marketer to do? Challenge the trend head-on, and give people reason to think that the trend is arbitrary or played out. Your departure from the norm isn't then lesser, or even just different, but bold, better: in short, a sign of radical, unexpected progress people can get excited about.

At some point in thinking about this topic, the wires in my brain that think about marketing got crossed with those that think about politics. It might have been this article that Jonah Goldberg wrote about federalism, and how absurd it is for the federal government to interfere in local disputes about things like the proper care arrangements for the six-toed cat population of Key West, Florida. He writes:
Federalism reduces partisanship by shrinking the importance of the federal government. It increases happiness by maximizing the number of people who get to live the way they want to live.Unfortunately, proponents of federalism tend to start the conversation with the really big issues: gay marriage, drugs, guns, abortion, etc.I'm for making all of those things local issues wherever possible, too. But, admittedly, those questions are complicated or emotionally freighted. Some questions do cut to the heart of what it means to be an American.  But many don't. So let's start there.
This struck me as an interesting idea for shaking up the political status quo. However, it has a branding problem. Support for federalism is often associated with the big issues he outlines, and supporters of local decision making are demonized: if, for example, you support federalism in the case of gay marriage, you are really a homophobe who wants to deny civil rights. If you support federalism in gun laws, you are really trying to take firearms from law abiding citizens one state at a time.

So, even though I am a supporter of federalism even in the case of big issues, I agree with Mr. Goldberg that we should start with the less controversial issues. I would go further to say that the taint that has been put on the word 'federalism' might require politicians to think of a new way to promote this cause.

A model for this would be the 'Big Society' movement launched by the Conservative party in the UK. They call this, "a massive transfer of power from Whitehall [the seat of their national government] to local communities." It plays off of the notion of 'Big Government', the idea that in an increasingly tumultuous and challenging world, we need a central power to set the rules that will make things fair and happy for more people. However, I think the challenge we face isn't that people don't like 'government', but that they increasingly don't like 'big'. So implying that society is going to get big implies shifting that stress to a different place.

Almost any institution that gets the word 'big' affixed to it is loathed. Not just Big Government but Big Business (and its tributaries like Big Finance and Big Pharma) and Big Labor. The word, in the context of institutions, has come to imply imbalance and heavy-handedness: the individual is simply too small to push back if one of these forces is arrayed against them. It also suggests facelessness. Who do you appeal to if Big Business screws you over? People are just tools of the system. Any individual bureaucrat might be nice enough, but if he can't help, there's nothing you can do. (Check out this article on rebuilding after Sandy for an example.) People are fed up with Big, and a lot of them feel like it's holding them back.

In the last election, a lot of people seemed to view Obama versus Romney as a choice between Big Government and Big Business, or as a choice between the poor and the rich. Neither of those formulations seemed to favor Romney. So, my promised free advice to Republicans: be the party of Small. Right now, they try to embrace Small Business, which is a start, but what about Small Decision-Making (the label might need work, but I mean keeping decisions and laws local as outlined in the libertarian argument above). What about Small Finance (breaking up Too-Big-To-Fail Banks and treating hedge fund earners like the rest of us)? I'll let someone else find the name, but what about acknowledging that there are only a few issues where government needs to dictate a uniform standard of morality to all 50 states and 300 million Americans? And of course Small Debt, which is self-explanatory.

The beauty of this platform, which I'll call the Freedom to Live Small, is that it allows people to campaign on big and popular principles while acknowledging that local beliefs might not support each manifestation of those principles. So a Republican in New Jersey can be personally in favor of tight gun control, but respect the right of Texans to live differently, and not be a hypocrite. I actually think it would be pretty refreshing to hear a politician on either side of an issue, instead of grandstanding, say, "We believe in X in my state, have passed laws that support it, but I see no reason to impose that belief on the entire country."

But the psychological benefits of Smallness go beyond any particular law that might be enacted (or avoided). It is a promise that we'll have fewer anger-fueled national arguments, that a flawed educational or economic theory won't hamstring the entire country for a generation if it is implemented, that we won't live our lives buckling under the pressure of one powerful institution after another. It is a promise that we can increase the level of mastery over our own lives, that smaller is simpler.

Maybe I'm crazy, and there's not much to this idea. If so, just chalk it up to me being a Big bullshitter.

Friday, January 4, 2013

Mortality, Money and Other People

The data might not be this clear-cut, but clearly the US is an outlier.
How much is your life, or your health, actually worth? I'm sure you'd put a pretty big number on it. If, for example, you needed to borrow $100,000 to cure a chronic, life-altering disease, I would bet you would do so. Where you place your personal cutoff point when health care is no longer worth the money will vary, but at some point almost everyone will decide that it is better to accept your mortality than to expend your family's wealth in pursuit of life-extending care.

But what if I re-phrased the question? What if I asked how much your life and your health should be worth to some third party who is obligated to pay for your care? It is much less likely you would say, "you know, the government/insurance company has wasted enough money on me, it's time to let go." No, if you are entitled to care from someone else, you will want as much of it as you can get.

I think the above chart (which, in updates to the blog posts where I originally saw this now point out, is a display of GOVERNMENT spending, and may have other inaccuracies) is showing what happens when that psychological truth is given free reign. In the other countries shown, there is an understanding that the government will impose limits on what will be paid for in the interest of fairness and frugality. In the US, by contrast, there are very few limits. This leads Matthew Yglesias to argue that the much-maligned death panels are actually just what we need. As he puts it:
The "death panels" charge was a potent one for a reason. But not only is this health care spending on the elderly the key issue in the federal budget, our disproportionate allocation of health care dollars to old people surely accounts for the remarkable lack of apparent cost effectiveness of the American health care system. When the patient is already over 80, the simple fact of the matter is that no amount of treatment is going to work miracles in terms of life expectancy or quality of life.
To clarify, again, Yglesias was writing when he thought the chart captured ALL healthcare spending in each country, but surely adding in non-government spending on elderly patients would not invalidate his general point. Namely, that the decisions other countries make about what care is economically justifiable, which we would call "death panels", are the only way to constrain the growth in healthcare spending when the government is footing the bill.

But the reason the death panel argument is so potent is that we in the US understand healthcare as an entitlement, full stop. Politicians have sold Medicare, Medicaid and now Obamacare as a guarantee of full care. Think about this statement by President Obama: "I'm running because I believe that in America no one should go bankrupt because they get sick." That is a pretty remarkable statement, when you stop and think about it, because healthcare is enormously expensive. And as a practical matter, he doesn't mean it: someone who opts for experimental procedures, who tries a costly drug to tread a disease for which it is not indicated, or even someone who chooses a doctor outside of their insurance plan can all still go bankrupt. What he really means is that no one who follows the rules and limits the government imposes on healthcare will go bankrupt because they get sick, but that's not what most people hear. And so when the government tries to impose or extend those limits, people get very angry. And, as has been noted extensively in political commentary, older people vote.

There isn't a happy ending to this story, because people don't like giving up something they think they've been promised. But the only way out of the healthcare mess we're in is to make people feel they're making a financial tradeoff when they consume healthcare. One simple suggestion: the government could give tax credits (or even cash awards) to seniors who are among the lowest consumers of Medicare. Eventually, we could seek to establish a lifetime dollar target for an individual's government health benefits. People who die under that number would pass on some percentage of the difference to their estates. Or, we could provide an annual grant to seniors to buy coverage, and they pocket the difference if they find a cheaper option. (This is essentially Paul Ryan's Medicare reform proposal.) 

None of these changes would be painless, and there is a large contingency that wants to maintain the status quo no matter the costs. But a system that pretends there are no limits on what we can afford to cover, and implies there are no limits on how much care it is even rational to get, encourages people to seek out the maximum amount of care instead of the care that makes sense for them, their families, and their finances.

I know, in writing this, that I might be thought cruel. In other words, that I'm saying we should let people die if they're poor. But I'm not: what I'm saying is by creating a system that encourages the view that you should do everything possible to stave off death, no matter the financial or personal toll, we've driven people to disbelieve in their own mortality and have outsized expectations for what medicine can do. In contrast, I would recommend this piece on how doctors die: people who truly understand medicine, health and the human body are much less inclined to seek end-of-life care.

There is dignity in accepting when our life has run its course. One of the under-discussed benefits of giving more control of our health decisions back to us is that we will more clearly make our own decisions about when to keep fighting and when to let go. With no death panels required.