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Life As A Google Maps Editor

Bianca Bosker   |   January 21, 2013    2:15 PM ET

When users report a problem with Google Maps -- a missing roundabout, a road closure, a one-way street that's marked incorrectly -- it's Nick Volmar who hears them.

Volmar is a program director on Google's Ground Truth team, which has been an essential part of Google's efforts to create a comprehensive, detailed and accurate map of the world. To build Google Maps, Google relies not only on satellite imagery, data from third-party sources and information captured by its Street View fleet, but also on the thousands of corrections it receives daily from its users, which are manually consulted and addressed by Googlers like Volmar, who reviews up to hundreds of reports a day and updates Maps by hand.

For our "Life as" series, we spoke with Volmar about how Google improves its maps, the strangest report he's ever received from a user and what happens when Google must supplement digital data with boots-on-the-ground research.

What are you responsible for?
I’m primarily responsible for working with a lot of the reported map issues that come in from external users -- analyzing the things they’re requesting, verifying their claims and trying to improve our maps using the different resources that are available to us internally.

So what kind of reports do you get from users? And how do you incorporate them into Google Maps?
Users report things we may not have had in our maps initially, and we investigate their claims, working with other partners that are willing to give us data, like the Street View or satellite imagery teams, to map them. Somebody might say, “I live in Bakersfield and we actually have this new overpass that was built,” or “There are these new and important roads that have been created.”

Any reports about construction closures or other things that affect day-to-day driving we’ll also inject into our maps to make the more useful. When we get a report that there’s construction happening in California, for example, we’ll check the California Department of Transportation website to see how long the closure will last, then we put in some scheduled construction notice.

How many reports can you personally handle a day?
It could be anywhere from tens to hundreds of corrections a day.

We try to use the imagery the Street View team has collected to resolve some problems more quickly. If Street View has driven an area, they know where the roads are, they know geometry of the roads and other things that are not available from satellite imagery. They have automatically extracted street signs, turn directions and other things we might have missed when we did the initial mapping effort. We can use those things to quickly resolve mapping issues.

What corrections are done manually? And with algorithms?
My job involves a lot of manual data updates and entries. We haven’t yet developed an intelligent way of automatically defining what is actually being requested in user reports, what the user’s need is and how to address it. For other maintenance projects -- say, updating speed limits throughout a state or town -- we can use information that is going to be automatically detected through Street View technology and algorithms.

Do you ever have to send someone out to physically investigate an area to answer a question?
If someone reports that there’s been a new housing community built in a town and we don’t have that data available to us to confirm it, we can ask the Street View team to go out and drive the road, so we can get the street names for the roads, draw in the roads and other things that we wouldn’t be able to see unless we had an on-the-ground picture and understanding.

How many user reports do you get a day?
We get tens of thousands a day. During the holidays, if there are a lot of people traveling, we tend to get a lot more because people are using our product to navigate areas they’re unfamiliar with.

google groundtruth team
What Volmar, and other members of the Ground Truth team, see as they edit Google Maps.

How long, on average, does it take for a member of the Ground Truth team to respond to a user report? \Are there people responding to reports 24 hours a day, worldwide?
It depends on the type of issue being reported, but once reviewed by someone on our team, the majority of updates go live on Google Maps within minutes. We have teammates around the world who can review and verify reports to ensure the quality of the map data.

Users can not only report problems with Google Maps, but make their own additions to Maps using Google’s Map Maker tool. How do you use the Map Maker data?
Users are willing to spend lot of extra time to put in really detailed pieces of information on top of the dataset we’ve already provided. If they find a minor difference between the speed limit we’ve put down and what it actually is, they’ll go in and correct it. We hold ourselves to different standards: In Ground Truth, we’re trying to create really good map data, but Map Maker users are taking that and pushing it so much further.

What's the strangest report you ever received from a user?
There are some fun "Easter Eggs" in Google Maps, like when you search for directions from San Francisco to Tokyo, one of the steps is "Sail across the Pacific Ocean." One user submitted a report that said sailing wasn't a very feasible suggestion as opposed to hopping on a plane.

CORRECTION: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that the Ground Truth team receives 10,000 reports a day from users. The Ground Truth team actually receives tens of thousands of reports daily.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. See the rest of HuffPost's "Life As ..." series, which profiles tech world's unsung heroes, behind-the-scenes pioneers and unknown actors, here.

Why The Next Big DJ Will Be An Algorithm

Bianca Bosker   |   January 13, 2013    3:54 PM ET

Professor and entrepreneur Francisco Vico is staking out new ground for machines by proving they can reach beyond artificial intelligence to a higher plane: artificial creativity.

Vico’s research team at the University of Malaga in Spain created a computer program, Iamus, that can compose music. The Mozart-like machine recently released an album, composed of symphonies performed by the London Symphony Orchestra, and has “written” over 1 billion songs across a wide range of genres.

“Sooner or later, computers will be doing art in every sense, not just music,” predicts Vico.

Vico is using the technology behind Iamus to seed a new startup, Melomics Media, which will sell royalty-free versions of its more than 1 billion songs online. Songs will retail for around $2 per song and buyers will receive all rights to any song they buy.

“We’re offering music as a commodity,” he said.

For our “Life As” series, HuffPost Tech asked Vico about the subliminal advertising he predicts will be coming soon to our favorite songs; how music will mimic our emotions; and why artificial creativity may be a boon for human ingenuity.

You were able to reverse-engineer the Nokia cellphone ring and then mutate that musical “genome” to create 1 million different variations of that tune. Why?

This opens up a very interesting way of advertising: it’s giving an ad without a user noticing she’s getting one.

Imagine you’re playing music, and at some point in the song, you hear something somewhat familiar. It’s not the Nokia tune, but it’s close enough to elicit this concept in your mind, and it’s subconsciously representing the Nokia brand in your brain.

Say you have an earworm [a piece of music that you can’t get out of your head] for a brand or product and you promote it in a song. Mutations of that tune could be played everywhere, in different songs, and you’d be getting advertisement even when you didn’t realize it.

What other new abilities do you plan to give Iamus?

We are working on creating empathetic music that adapts to you and the evolution of your physiological states. The music player will learn from your current situation to know what you need to hear.

Say you’re in bed but you can’t fall asleep. The program that is running on your smartphone could know your current state, and the music could evolve according to that, changing the volume, tempo and instruments. It’s exactly as if you had a violinist looking at you and trying to play music to help you fall asleep.

How do you hope to improve the computer's ability to compose music?

I think there is a huge bias against computer composers. But putting aside that bias, many people still do think that the music [made by computers] seems to go nowhere. It’s empty music: it’s enjoyable, but in principle there’s no message behind it because the computer did not mean anything with the music. The computer did note code into the music an intention like, “try to evoke this feeling in the listener at this point, then at this other point, you’ll change to this other feeling.”

In the future we could add that layer of feelings, of intentionality. Introducing that intentionality into music is something we plan to do over the next few years with Iamus. This will be very, very easy compared to what we have already done.

There were some experts in artificial intelligence and cognition who considered chess a creative, intellectual endeavor on par with music and literature -- until IBM’s Deep Blue beat chess master Garry Kasparov. How will Iamus’ achievements change how we think about music?

With this tool that we have now, we could really explore the music space much faster and more deeply.

In the case of music, technology will help us discover new genres, new instruments, new structures, new ways of playing, new ways of experiencing music and, of course, it will greatly affect the music industry. Imagine you have a genome in front of you that represents a rock song, and another one that represents flamenco music. You can create an entirely new genre by combining the genres you already have. This is a very powerful tool that will speed up the development of music.

What will be the most significant change in music we see five years from now?

The arrival of computers will democratize music: Everyone will be able to produce music, just like everyone is able to take wonderful photographs. It will be disruptive because there will be many more musicians. Anybody who has some musical sensibility and ear will be able to produce wonderful music.

When people got cheap digital cameras, they started taking pictures of everything. Now, when you go to Flickr, you can see professional-quality pictures that weren’t taken by professional photographers.

The main contribution of artificial intelligence to the music industry will be that anybody will be able to pick up a song and either leave it as it is, or slightly adapt the raw material, with simple tools, into something very beautiful.

Your computer can compose a song in seconds. So when will Melomics have its first Lady Gaga?

Hopefully never. But I predict that this year, you’ll be able to download pieces from Melomics that can be taken directly to a discothèque, and people will think the songs were made by a human DJ.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Life With Mind-Reading Machines

Bianca Bosker   |   December 24, 2012    3:20 PM ET

Smile: Your computer is watching.

Affectiva, a three-year-old startup that grew out of MIT’s Media Lab, is teaching machines to understand what you feel.

Affectiva has developed a way for computers to recognize human emotions based on facial cues or physiological responses, and then use that emotion-recognition technology to help brands improve their advertising and marketing messages.

For example, Affectiva might train a webcam on users while they watch ads, tracking their smirks, smiles, frowns and furrows to measure their levels of surprise, amusement or confusion throughout a commercial and compare them to other viewers across different demographics. Affectiva also makes a wearable biosensor that can monitor the user's emotional state via her skin.

For HuffPost Tech's "Life as..." series, Affectiva’s co-founder and chief technology officer Rana El Kaliouby offered a glimpse at what happens when machines know we're amused and the future of computers with a sense for feelings.

Affectiva’s technology allows brands to not only listen in on what we say about what we’re feeling, but to actually see for themselves what we're feeling. Which industries are interested in applying Affectiva’s emotion-recognition technology to their work?

The closest use case is measuring responses to media -- whether you’re watching an advertisement, movie trailer, movie, TV show or online video. If an ad is supposed to be funny, but we look at 100 participants and none laugh, then we know it’s not really effective. The idea is to enable media creators to optimize their content.

Political polling is another big area for us -- measuring people’s responses to a political debate. There are applications in games, in all things social, and in health, too. We can read your heart rate from a webcam without you wearing anything -- we can just use the reflection of your face, which shows blood flow. Imagine having a camera on all the time monitoring your heart rate so that it can tell you if something’s wrong, if you need to get more fit, or if you’re furrowing your brow all the time and you need to relax.

What have you learned about people that you wouldn’t have known without Affectiva’s emotion-recognition technology?

In some cultures, like Middle Eastern, Egyptian or Asian cultures, people are often hesitant to give any negative feedback. There was an ad in India for body lotion, and there was one particular scene where a husband is being playful with his wife, whose tummy is showing, and he touches her tummy. We recorded women watching the video, then asked them whether they liked the ad.

Some didn’t bring up the scene at all, and others said the ad was really offensive -– “How could you do that?” and so forth. But when we looked at the data, for 100 percent of the women, there was always an “enjoyment” smile when they watched that scene. They clearly enjoyed it.

I can imagine politicians using Affectiva to tailor their ads to ensure potential voters feel a certain way when they see them -- overjoyed, for example -- and another way when they see their opponent -- say, terrified. How do you envision Affectiva being used in campaigns?

We measured about 100 people’s responses to the third Obama/Romney debate. In the third debate, Obama did especially well, and we found that both Democrats and Republicans responded very positively to Obama. He cracked a number of jokes and people universally found those funny. Imagine if this feedback had been given in real time to the politicians and they’d used it to optimize their messaging. I do see that happening.

affectiva emotion recognition technology

Affectiva's "Emote Your Vote" feature uses the company's Affdex technology to gauge individuals' emotional reactions to Super Bowl ads. In the picture here, the points at which the author smiled during the ad (shown bright turquoise) are contrasted with other viewers' smile activity (graphed below in green, yellow, red and magenta).

You mentioned there might be social applications of the technology. Hypothetically, could Facebook figure out what it should show me to make me feel a certain way -- i.e. that certain people’s profiles make me happy, so I should see their profiles when I’m feeling sad?

It could show you not just happy profiles, but also offer affect-based recommendations for things to do or people to talk to or things to watch. Or games can even adapt to your emotional experience, or your emotional state. There’s definitely a lot of stuff that can be done once you figure out that person’s moods.

If we’re all watching a YouTube video, it would be really cool if you could get a sense for how that YouTube video affected people’s emotional states. Say it makes you happy and you laugh your head off. We’d also know a million other people who saw that video and at that same scene also laughed. It’s very intriguing to be able to take something very human, like an expression of emotion, and share that globally.

Could companies that use Affectiva technology also manipulate our emotions to make us feel a certain way, so we’re more inclined to consume their product? For example, if Facebook knows I spend more time on the site when I’m anxious, might it try to make me anxious by showing me more content that unsettles me?

With every technology there will be misuses of it. At Affectiva, I believe we have a role to educate people about what can and can’t be done with the technology. I don’t think its super easy to manipulate people’s emotions in that way.

Although places like casinos already do try to manipulate our emotions, right? It seems like Affectiva might allow people more granular control, in real-time, to put people into the right frame of mind to shop or spend.

People do that anyhow. If you walk into Best Buy or Target, they spend a lot of effort trying to make this a place where you’d want to spend more time. All this stuff hasn’t yet been optimized for a digital experience. And I think there is an opportunity to do that and do it in a way that respects people’s emotional states.

You noted Affectiva is “big on opt-in” and believes people should “always be in control of what they share or do not share.” Still, reading our emotions marks a new level of intimacy with brands online. How does this change our expectation of privacy?

I think at some point somebody is going to do something that’s not opt-in, but so far everyone we’ve worked with, we’ve insisted they do it so that it’s opt-in. And sometimes we’ve pushed back. When we first started Affectiva, some of our early customers said, “We don’t want to tell people they’re being recorded because either they’ll opt out or it’ll affect their experiences.” We’re always adamant that they tell people up front and people have to sign a consent from.

Does using Affectiva change how people express their emotions?

Early on in our research, we thought having the camera on would make people more aware of it and so they’d be less emotive or artificially more emotive. But we found that very quickly people forgot they had the cameras on. We’ve had people in their bedrooms -- they clearly forget the camera’s on.

Where might we encounter Affectiva’s technology in the future?

Anywhere from laptops to mobile phones. There’s a large percentage of mobile phones that now have a camera that’s with you a lot of the time, and there’s a lot of interest around those cameras as a data collection mechanism. And cars: we’ve done a number of projects with various car manufacturers looking at drowsy driving, distracted driving, and how to measure when people are getting angry, frustrated or bothered. There’s a lot of interest from the car people.

You can also tie emotional response with location. Think of Foursquare, but you don’t know just know where a person is, but how she’s feeling.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

CORRECTION: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that Affectiva was a two year-old startup. The company, founded in December 12, is three years old.

Life As A Social Media Major

Bianca Bosker   |   December 16, 2012   10:39 PM ET

#A+: Starting in the fall of 2013, Newberry College students will be able to major in social media.

The curriculum includes courses like SOM 101: Introduction to Social Media ("[Students] will gain theoretical and professional knowledge that will enable them to understand the key issues and challenges within social media; they will also develop projects in which [they] will simulate social media environments") and SOM 301: Social Publishing Platforms ("Students will design online websites including content such as writing, video, digital photography and design of site"), as well as classes in computer graphics, digital photography, "communications law and ethics" and e-commerce.

For our “Life as…” series, Tania Sosiak, the founder of the school's social media program and an associate professor of graphic design and social media, spoke with HuffPostTech about the need for a social media program, her own tweeting habits and what her students will study.

Why offer a major in social media?
Some people think that I’m crazy and that my students are crazy for doing this, but someone’s got to do this because social media is not going anywhere and I think we’re doing something special and exciting by preparing these graduates.

I have a friend whose daughter is working in social media and she wishes there had been a major because she had to learn it the hard way: from scratch and on the job. It’s not like we’re teaching 48 credit hours of social media courses only. We’re teaching students to do a lot of things and they’re going to be highly successful and they will be prepared to get a job. And in this day and age, it’s really important to be able to get out there, to think on your feet, to have a strong arsenal of tools and to be prepared.

What kind of courses will students have to take?
They’ll be taking a blend of graphic design, communications, marketing, business, psychology and statistics courses, then four new social media courses. Those courses will be incorporating things like a senior capstone class, and there will be a social media publishing platforms class, there will be an introduction to social media sort of survey class, and a social media mobile marketing class.

What will students get out of studying social media in the classroom, for their major, that they don’t already get from using it recreationally?
The social media portion is just one portal. The major is not just social media, it’s also all the other stuff they’re going to learn -- the graphic design, the video production, the digital photography. The exciting part is all the additional courses that they’re taking and how they implement those skills into social media.

Let me play devil’s advocate. I use Facebook and Twitter and Instagram all the time. Why should I major in it?
Social media is not just doing Facebook or doing YouTube. I see how a generation of teens and 20-year-olds integrates it [social media], but it can be integrated in so many other ways. It has to be done in a way that critical thinking is incorporated.

The students will see that the tools go beyond using Facebook to interact with friends. For instance, in the social media publishing platforms class, I’m going to have different faculty members come in and conduct their courses using social media tools. The students will also develop a service learning project [on a topic] that will be chosen and develop some sort of publishing platform that will help a community project. Students will realize how much social media can be used to benefit the community,

Is there a risk that incoming students who major in social media will know more about it than their professors?
Students might come in and know more about certain things than we do, but there’s no way they know more about how to position a product than I do, or they won’t know more about statistics than, say, Professor Schroer, or social psychology, or information systems. They might think they know all about YouTube, but they won’t know more about video editing.

What reading material will social media majors be assigned ? Will you have students reading Twitter feeds, Instagram accounts or checking Facebook pages for their reading assignments?
I look at all of that kind of stuff and we’ll have our students looking at a lot of different kinds of things. Students have access to online reference material and that’s pretty much what we’ve been using. I don’t foresee being able to use a lot of textbooks because they become obsolete so quickly.

Everyone’s going to have special Facebook accounts, Twitter accounts, Pinterest accounts -- all of that. But I also think that will all change. Who knows in a year what social media will even be popular. We’ve all seen in a year what can happen.

What will students’ assignments be? Will they be graded on, say, the number of followers they can attract or whether they’re able to make something go viral?
Something we want to do in the social media marketing class is have students create their own brand and product, along with a campaign for it, then have them follow it to see how it progresses because a lot of them don’t really understand about brands or branding. They could do something campus-wide where they would follow and maintain data about their campaign.

Why have you only tweeted three times in three years?
My old Twitter account was corrupted, so I haven’t completely set it up. Someone got into my Twitter account -- we won’t even go into that -- but I still have high hopes for social media. I’m not worried about that.

Life As A YouTube Talent Scout

Bianca Bosker   |   December 2, 2012    7:56 PM ET

Sarah Penna is the co-founder and head of talent management at Big Frame, a new breed of talent agency that represents YouTube celebrities and viral video stars.

By helping talented e-entertainers create must-see TV, Penna is leading the reinvention of online entertainment and making YouTube web series a compelling alternative to traditional cable TV shows.

YouTube superstar “Jenna Marbles" (née Mourey) who has the fifth most popular channel on the site and nearly 5 million subscribers, got her start with Penna, who boasts a stable of stars such as MysteryGuitarMan and Miss Glamorazzi who command enormous audiences on the video sharing site (Mourey is now represented by another talent agency). In her quest to uncover new talent and stay up-to-speed on eighty-odd Big Frame creators, Penna personally watches between one and 10 YouTube videos a day.

Penna is also proving that YouTube creators can make a mint off a platform best known for cat clips and home videos. Though Penna declined to specify how much Big Frame’s talent earns from advertising, brand deals, book contracts and merchandising, she notes, “For most of our talent, this is their full-time job.” The Independent recently estimated creators who attract around 5 million views per month can bring in “six-figure incomes,” and some YouTube stars are said to be worth millions.

For our “Life as…” series, Penna spoke with HuffPostTech about creating viral sensations, fighting for talent and how data drives the shows.

What are the attributes of a YouTube creator that scream “star” to you?
I try to figure out if this talent is someone that people are attracted to and who can have a lot of influence.

I look in the comments on the video to see how people are reacting. I’ll also send a video to people who are not in the YouTube world, like family and friends, and see what they think. If they’re like, “I get it! This is funny!” then I’ll know the creator can reach beyond the typical YouTube audience and it’s worth exploring. Starting a channel from scratch with someone who hasn’t been on YouTube is exceptional, though there have been a couple of people who have just had viral videos that we’ve made into YouTube talent.

What separates a so-so YouTube artist from a star?
Honestly, there’s no formula: That’s why companies that try to make viral videos don’t succeed. A viral video is born every day, but you can’t make a viral video, unless you buy a lot of views. Big viral videos are always accidental and you can’t capture what it is the internet will want to gravitate toward that day.

How do you help a YouTube creator go from unknown vlogger to viral sensation?
Jenna Marbles had only one YouTube viral video and wasn’t going to make any more until I called her and said, “You should make viral videos.” I flew her out here for a week, set her up with some YouTube talent, cleaned up her social media – she had four channels and five Twitter feeds -- and got her on a schedule -- she’s on a once-a-week schedule now [posting one video a week]. I told her to remind people to subscribe to her channel in each video and we planned out the next two months of content while she was here.

As soon as she started putting out content on a regular basis, asking people to subscribe to her videos, and showing up in bunch of other YouTube videos, it all coalesced to rocket her to the top where she is now. Some talent just have that thing that people are attracted to. Obviously her content is funny to lot of people.

How do you use analytics -- like video views or number of “likes” on a video -- to tweak the content a YouTuber creates for a channel?
The analytics team will look at comments, subscribers, views and so forth, and they’ll look at the top five videos and the themes addressed within them to see if those themes can be replicated. They’ll see if there’s a particular type of content that’s very catchy on a channel, then see if we can replicate that and try to help channels develop content around that.

For example, we have a small channel called Mars Rising and they sometimes do action videos, sometimes comedy, sometimes things that are very specifically targeted to the nerdy community, like LARPing (live action role-playing games). We looked at their videos and saw that action videos tend to do best, so we suggested they stay away from comedy and encouraged them to do more action videos.

What’s the most important difference in the way people watch video on YouTube as opposed to traditional cable TV?
Everything. YouTube has shorter-form content and it’s much more personality driven than content driven. When I’m on YouTube, I want to watch the personalities I like. When I turn on the TV, it’s because I like the show.

What are the YouTube creators’ goals? Internet domination? A traditional TV show?
Jenna Marbles could have done any show on any network at any point, but she turned them all down. For a lot of YouTube creators, their YouTube channel comes first and nothing gets in the way of the time they’re dedicating to the channel. They also have full creative control of their channel [which is more rare with a network show]. So there might be a conversation where I’m like, “This great deal, they talent will be so excited,” but the creator is like “no, because I know my audience will react in this way and I don’t want it to look like them like I’m selling out.”

How do you find new talent on YouTube?
A lot of times, our talent will recommend people. We also have a business-email people write into and we’re also always on the lookout for new talent. Some of my talent coordinators’ jobs are to actively look through YouTube and see what they can find, especially if we’re looking for a particular type of content like a cooking channel or a comedy channel.

How cutthroat is the competition over YouTube talent in the industry?
It’s extremely high. We’ve had instances where someone will reach out to us, and we’ll say “We’ll take a look at your channel,” then watch it and discuss it, and by the time we get back to them five days later, they’ve already decided to sign with someone else. Traditional agencies are getting into this space, too. People are talking about signing bonuses and that kind of stuff. It’s getting crazy.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. See the rest of HuffPost's "Life As ..." series, which profiles tech world's unsung heroes, behind-the-scenes pioneers and unknown actors, here.

What It's Like To Never Forget

Bianca Bosker   |   November 23, 2012   12:00 AM ET

Memoto CEO and co-founder Martin Källström is building a postage-stamp-sized wearable camera that can document every moment of his life -- or yours -- by snapping two photos a minute, 1,920 pictures a day.

This "lifelogging" camera, which will automatically take a photo every 30 seconds and save it to a private site (a daily total of 1,920 assumes eight hours sleep), has received $509,000 in backing from more than 2,600 funders on Kickstarter. The project hit its initial $75,000 fundraising goal in a matter of hours. The Memoto camera is currently in development and slated to ship in February 2013.

Källström said he thinks of Memoto as "a small, really tiny robot sitting there taking notes, like 'Oh, I have to tell Martin about this later.'" Its creator boasts that it will allow users to "revisit any moment of your past."

"Imagine if you could capture and relive every memorable moment of your life," Källström said in a press release when the Memoto concept was unveiled in October. "With Memoto, you can effortlessly travel back in time to that moment when you met the love of your life, the day your daughter took her first step, or that night you laughed the night away with friends."

For our "Life As ..." series, we spoke with Källström about life with total recall and how our relationships, minds and perceptions of privacy could be reshaped by his mini-camera.

How will our memories -- and relationships -- change if they're not only remembered, but documented?
It's important to forget. There's a function to memory transforming over time, and perhaps sometimes you need to get rid of some memories to develop as a person or to free yourself from something in the past.

I don't want to create a machine that tells people who they really are and overrides their memories of a situation. I feel like over time my memories of something are more important than the photos or videos that I have. I haven't actually looked at my own wedding video because I don't want that to override the beautiful memories I have of that occasion. I have memories of my wedding from my own viewpoint, and I really don't want to replace those memories with something that a video camera saw from further away at a different angle.

People will have to develop a way to relate to their documents. People may be better off not looking at every moment of their past.

What do you predict will be the most important ramification of this device?
You actually can preserve memories of everyday situations. When I look back at what parts of my life I have documented or captured in photos, it's really the moments where you're all dressed up, everyone is smiling, it's Christmas, it's a birthday. Those are important moments, but I think it's important to realize the power of everyday moments as well. Those moments should be given more value. The in-betweens are getting lost more and more.

Sadly, I've lost both my parents, and I really feel that my memories of them are fading much more quickly than I'd like them to. What's left are the stories we've always told each other about what we experienced ... and the photos that have ended up in albums.

Three Memoto cameras, via Kickstarter.

How did you dream up the Memoto lifelogging camera?
For a long time, I've been the sort of person that has had the urge to document my life, but I've never been very successful at it. At the beginning [of the project], I wasn't looking into taking pictures, but gathering as much data as possible and making it very, very effortless.

What happens to privacy when everyone can record each other at all times? Will it be lost?
I don't think we should limit the development of technology just because of privacy issues. You really can't expect lawmakers to move as quickly [as the technology], and they really shouldn't because then they might make mistakes that have negative consequences. That's why it's important to develop ethics with the technology, so we think consciously about the consequences of people using the technology that we develop.

So what ethics have you built into Memoto?
It's one ethical choice to take a photo. It's another to then publish it and share it with someone else. By separating that choice to really two decisions instead of one, we're making it easier for people to respect each other.

One example of how we think about privacy is that we made the decision not to put an on/off switch on the camera because if I'm in a situation where it's inappropriate to take pictures, like I'm going into the locker room at the gym, if I switch off Memoto with a small button, then other people would still feel uncomfortable and think, "Am I being photographed right now or not?" Instead we built in a function that makes Memoto turn itself off when it's put someplace that's dark. So you have to take it off physically [to turn it off], so other people won't be uncomfortable.

Will the knowledge that we can rely on a camera to remember all the details for us make our memories atrophy?
I think what happens is that you can use your brain for other stuff. If you relieve your brain from one thing, it uses that extra bandwidth for something else.

The biggest relief that I'm looking for with Memoto is the ability to capture memories right when you're living them in the moment. You get rid of the thought of "I have to pick up my camera and put a thing between me and reality right now, in this moment where everything feels good."

What do you envision as the future of wearable computers and lifelogging devices? How do you hope the technology will evolve?
I want technology to disappear in the sense that I shouldn't be so much aware of it as we are now.

Looking 10 years ahead, I hope I'm able to have the same computational power or technology with me, but that it will have disappeared totally so that I'm no longer carrying something around -- it's somehow with me and I can use it, but it's not a thing that I have. It's something that's perhaps in my clothes or perhaps my glasses. It's making technology disappear out of our lives, but still giving us super powers without any implications in terms of us having more stuff, more things in our lives.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. See the rest of HuffPost's "Life As ..." series here.

Life As The Voice Of Facebook

Bianca Bosker   |   November 17, 2012   10:34 AM ET

When Facebook speaks to you, it’s Alicia Dougherty-Wold who’s talking.

Dougherty-Wold oversees Facebook’s content strategists, a team of exacting writers that includes a children’s book author, Fulbright scholar, former advice columnist, and a ghostwriter for the Travelocity gnome. Charged with naming and explaining the social network’s numerous features, Dougherty-Wold’s staff is the voice of Facebook, quietly shaping our digital lives with meticulous word choices that influence how Facebook’s 1 billion users share.

From titling new tools to finessing the micro-copy that instructs users how to tag this or upload that, Dougherty-Wold massages content in ways that “[set] the tone for the site” and “[help] you tell your story and feel comfortable sharing.” Before joining Facebook, Dougherty-Wold worked as a journalist and completed a master’s degree in clinical psychology.

While terms like “friend” and “like” (which was nearly “awesome” instead) predate Dougherty-Wold’s team, she’s helped name many of Facebook’s most iconic features. Timeline is Timeline thanks to Dougherty-Wold's staff. They considered names like “Unwrapped,” “Moments” and “Celebrations” before finally settling on “Facebook Gifts.” And Facebook’s standalone photo-sharing app, “Camera*,” was close to being called “Snap,” Filter” or “Lens.”

Dougherty-Wold’s motto: Simpler is better. And never miss an opportunity to find a better word.

“There are thousands of individual tiny tasks ..." Dougherty-World interrupts herself. “I shouldn’t say ‘tasks'. That’s a wonky term for it. ‘Activities’ that make up the use of Facebook.”

Dougherty-Wold spoke with HuffPostTech about life as a the voice of Facebook, why ellipses matter, and how Facebook sets the tone for its users.

How does Facebook talk? What’s Facebook’s tone?
We try to speak with people who use Facebook the way you might speak with a neighbor, so we work on being friendly, being empathetic, and thinking about using language to build trust.

We try to talk like people, so we keep things really friendly and conversational. We use contractions, We try to avoid formal language.

How do you achieve that friendly, neighborly tone?
We have defined content principles that focus on keeping language very simple and accessible in a concrete way. That means using short words and sentences, and making sure that our content is easy to read, translate and localize.

If you think about something like “What’s on your mind?” that prompt (which appears at the top of the News Feed) is forward, but there’s a contraction in there makes it feel a little more friendly. It’s a question -– it’s not a command to tell us “what’s on your mind.” It’s not robotic. It sounds like how people talk to each other.

How does the tone affect how people behave on Facebook?
By taking a friendly, conversational tone, in a subtle way you’re setting the tone for anyone to connect with people they know. It makes it easier for someone to say, “I’ll say something here, I have something to share with my friends.” If Facebook is conversational, than I’ll feel comfortable sharing something, whether it’s simple or profound.

Most of the terms on Facebook are extremely very simple: “like,” “poke,” “friend,” “wall,” “gift.” A kindergartener would understand them. Why so elementary?
We strive for these really simple words because they’re the most universal and they set the tone for the site. It’s the difference between sitting on a comfortable couch and a really stiff bench somewhere at a bus stop. It offers a little bit of softening around edges and sets the tone to make you want to stay.

Just by using more simple words, the site feels faster.

Facebook encourages users to “Write a comment…” It’s not “Write a comment!” or even just “Write a comment.” The ellipses must be there for a reason. Why?
If you look at the design of that comment box, it looks like a very small place to say something, but the ellipses give a subtle hint that you can add more than one line.

We might test something as subtle as the punctuation at end of that line to see which one helps people understand what they can do there. “Write a comment.” might make people more inclined to be terse. “Write a comment!” might sound too demanding. That’s a place where you could ask a question -- “Do you have a comment to share?” -- but we have to carefully weigh the load that puts on people to digest that sentence.

Last year, my Facebook “profile” became my Facebook “Timeline.” What other names did you consider for “Timeline,” which is such a core part of the Facebook user experience?

The one obvious question was: Do we keep calling this a 'profile'? And that, for a variety of reasons, seemed like it wouldn’t communicate enough that this was different. Sometimes you use language to help people understand what’s different and bring their attention to what’s new. If they have a model for how to interact with something and what’s new has changed, the language can help people understand the change and make use of it.

What things are you measuring when a user is testing out new language for a new tool? What do you look at to see if it’s effective?
We are measuring how easy it is to complete task and how you feel when you engage with that content. Do you feel invited in? Or do you feel bossed around?

Ideally the language is pretty transparent so they [users] understand really quickly how to accomplish what they want to accomplish and feel good at the end. If we do usability testing in person, we actually get qualitative feedback from people. If they are stopping and reading the text out loud, if they’re asking questions about what it means, then we know we need to do more work. We also look quantitatively over time at what we might expect people to be able to do with a feature, and if there’s a new feature and people haven’t noticed it, we might use a dialogue or give you some small cue this new feature exists and then hopefully can use the content in a way to bring something valuable to your attention and make it something part of regular use of Facebook.

See the rest of our "Life As..." series here.

Behind @ConEdison: The 27 Year-Old Preventing Panic, One Tweet At A Time

Bianca Bosker   |   November 3, 2012    8:44 PM ET

On Saturday, 27-year-old Kate Frasca was manning Con Edison’s Twitter account, @ConEdison, responding to customers’ frustrations, questions, praise and criticism at an average clip of one tweet every six minutes.

“What is the status of steam service below 14th street, East of Broadway?” one Twitter user asked. “Still working to restore appx 500 steam customers. We're focused on the process of steam restoration over the nxt week,” Frasca as @ConEdison tweeted back. Another user warned there was an uprooted tree “leaning toward wires & a home.” “Pls call 1-800-75-ConEd and local police immediately to report the situation. Be careful and do not go near the tree #ConEdison,” advised Frasca, a public affairs manager at Con Edison.

By 6 p.m. on Saturday, @ConEdison had tweeted 109 times that day. Con Edison posted more tweets on Nov. 2 -- 236 in total, according to -- than in the months of July, August and September combined.

Con Edison’s Twitter account, which has gone from 800 followers to more than 22,300 in less than a week, has made itself an indispensable resource for New Yorkers desperate to know when they expect a return to normalcy -- and powered, heated homes -- in the wake of Hurricane Sandy.

For the last six days, Frasca and her colleague Amber Sisson, a fellow member of Con Edison’s public affairs team, have been alternating 12- to 14-hour shifts handling the @ConEdison account to ensure the company is tweeting day and night. Before last Sunday, the day before Sandy made landfall in New York, Frasca had never posted a single tweet to the Con Edison account.

At 11:05 Friday night, while other 20-somethings in Manhattan were drinking by candlelight or enjoying their first evening in a heated apartment in nearly a week, Frasca was tweeting from her iPhone in her bedroom on the Upper West Side as she got ready to go to sleep. She says she’s even been tweeting to @ConEdison from bed.

“We really aren’t taking breaks. We're getting so many questions so quickly and we’re really just trying to put everyone at ease and trying to bring some information to them,” Frasca said. “Everyone is so scared and they just want to know what’s going on.”

The account not only offers safety tips and updates on the energy company’s progress restoring electricity, but has also been a source of comfort for annoyed New Yorkers short on patience, power and information. While most companies seem to get quieter in times of trouble, the volume of tweets sent daily from Con Edison’s Twitter account, now more than double what they were five days ago, sends the message to customers that the giant utility is aware and responding to their problems. Instead of “trust us,” @ConEdison says “we hear you” -- and here’s what we’re doing about it.

".@ConEdison is the best PR a utility could never buy," tweeted @Cenedella. "Truly superb use of Twitter for accurate, timely, informative updates in emergency."

Of course, not all tweets are so complimentary, and for every customer praising @ConEdison, there's another lambasting the company for still not having restored power in their area.

"i lost my patience along time ago. Sleeping in a 49 degree home for a week and possibly another week is not okay," @Jackie_Corco wrote.

"I know they're not mad at me," Frasca says to such tweets. "They're just taking their frustrations out."

The speed and personalized nature of the tweets has helped attract New Yorkers to the feed, Frasca notes.

“We’re trying to answer as many people’s questions as specifically as we possibly can and we’re trying to keep up with everyone asking us questions,” Frasca explained. “It’s impossible for us to get back to every question, but honestly we do try to do it as much as we can.”

When they’re not tweeting from their iPhones, Frasca and Sisson are working out of a “situation room” in Con Edison’s Union Square headquarters in Manhattan, where they sit with members of the company’s communications and operations teams to ensure the information that’s shared is on-message and accurate. If they don’t know the answer to a Twitterer’s query, they’ll check in with the operations team, which is in direct contact with Con Edison workers on location in New York neighborhoods.

Frasca divides her time between Twitter and Facebook, but updates Twitter much more frequently, noting it’s more conducive to customers asking and answering individual questions. In the past week, @ConEdison has been mentioned 100 to 150 times a minute on Twitter, according to Frasca, who uses Radian6 and HootSuite to manage the company’s social media accounts.

She said she’s able to answer about 80 percent of queries, and if multiple users ask the same question, she posts a reply to the main feed, rather than sending numerous tweets directed at individuals.

Con Edison spokeswoman Sara Banda noted that Con Edison has used Twitter to become its own media organization, collecting and disseminating information straight from the source.

Social media “allows companies like us to be part of the media,” said Banda. “We can get information out directly to our customers, and that’s a great thing.”

So how did Frasca hone her social media chops? In addition to the training and “social media boot camps” the company has provided, Frasca notes she’s personally an avid tweeter and became an “instant Facebook stalker” when the social network launched during her freshman year of college.

“In my interview with ConEd, they asked me about my social media skills,” she said. “I told them I can find an ex-boyfriend’s new girlfriend in seconds.”


The Huffington Post is eager for insights from our community, especially people with experience in power, infrastructure and engineering, on the adequacy of emergency preparation in advance of Hurricane Sandy, and the degree to which past disasters have informed adequate planning and construction. Please send a note to with insights and suggestions for the important questions that need to be asked of relevant private sector and government officials, and point us toward stories that need to be pursued.

Life As An OkCupid Moderator

Bianca Bosker   |   October 21, 2012    9:00 AM ET

Christopher Cantwell never asked to become a moderator of online dating site OkCupid. The site tapped him, without warning, and now he’s privy to private conversations, lovers’ tiffs, and the sometimes dark, often inane, unseen side of the online dating world.

Many OkCupid moderators are pulled from the site’s userbase and just six months after signing up for the singles site, Cantwell was elected to the army of arbiters who review posts flagged by OkCupid users and are tasked with marking the profiles “deleted,” “left alone” or “can’t tell.” Moderators can see comments from other moderators and how they ruled on an issue, but not who those moderators are or what ultimately happened to each of the posts in question. OkCupid’s arbiters of right and wrong also have access to the profiles of people who were flagged, though not the people doing the flagging. OkCupid did not respond to requests for additional information on how it works with its moderators.

What doesn’t fly on the site? There are strict guidelines for profile pictures -- no nudity, it must be of you (no "pets, cars, artwork, etc."), no extreme closeups -- and a predictable set of rules governing good behavior -- no spamming, no hate speech, no harassment, no "commercial solicitations," no “crude, overt sexual remarks" and no threatening messages.

Cantwell walked us through life as an OkCupid moderator and what happens on the side of the Internet most never see.

What did you have to do to become qualified to be a moderator?
Absolutely nothing, apparently. I’m not a very active user of the website and all of a sudden they notified me that I had been made a moderator. As far as I could tell, it was completely random.

What kinds of things do you see getting flagged?
Users can flag a profile and then the profile gets put into what’s basically a queue for the moderators to go through. And most of it is kind of frivolous. People report things like, “There’s a picture of their car” and I’m like, “I don’t care if they post a picture of their car, I don’t care what the rules are.” Out of a few dozen, I’d say I’ve only flagged two or three for deletion.

You mentioned that one of the things flagged was a series of private messages between two users. A man contacted another user, the “flagger," who said she/he wasn’t interested in him because he was too young for her/him. He responded with a terse “You’re pretty ugly yourself.” One of your fellow moderators weighed in with, “Not ban worthy, but he’s clearly a jerk.”

It’s remarkable that people have access to private messages, in some cases, and get to weigh in on them.

Yes. It is interesting that this person flagged a private message on a dating site and now it’s up for scrutiny by anonymous people who have apparently been chosen as moderators for no reason at all that I can find.

What have you learned about people since being a moderator on OkCupid?
I’ve learned that people are nitpicking and if they see something they don’t like, they’ll flag it for no good reason. For example, I’m looking at picture of woman in a driveway with dog and the picture is a little far away. So someone flagged the picture because it doesn’t show her face. I haven’t done a lot with it because most of the complaints, like this one, are total crap.

okcupid moderator
via, a Tumblr of screenshots chronicling "the woes of a lowly OKCupid moderator."

Why do you think people bother to tattletale? And what does that say about how we behave online?
For the same reason that they vote for asshole politicians and 'cause all the other problems they cause in the world: because they’re assholes. I really have no faith in the human race. I look at this stuff, I look at politics and I think people are idiots and there’s just no hope for them.

What’s the strangest thing you’ve seen during your time as a moderator?
I’ve seen some nude photos, but I’m no stranger to that, and I’ve seen scammers. The worst thing I’ve seen is people asking for money and it looks like it’s bullsh-t. I used to work in a data center and I was responsible for the abuse department serving thousands of servers, so seeing scammers trying to rip people off could be off-putting for some people, but it's run-of-the-mill on the Internet for me.

In the course of your work in the abuse department you said you had to deal with everyone from spammers to child pornography purveyors. What would you do when you came across something illegal?
In the case of child porn, we would pull down the site and contact the FBI. Though there was one incident where the FBI demanded that we leave it up because they were running an active investigation on our networks and want to see who was accessing it. That was pretty disturbing. We told the site [hosting the child pornography] that the server had frozen up.

Besides that people are idiots, what’s your takeaway from your look behind the scenes on OkCupid?
I’m not taking much away from this except people are nosey busybodies.

Still, I would also say OkCupid looks like an okay site and you shouldn’t worry about it -- moderators are not deleting people for no reason, the complaints are pretty mild. There’s a shining little glimmer of hope for mankind.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. For more on what goes on behind the scenes of OkCupid, check out the NSFW Tumblr

Life As An Writer Taking Orders From Readers

Bianca Bosker   |   October 13, 2012    4:00 PM ET

When author Holly McDowell has writer’s block, she doesn’t get up for more coffee or browse the web. Instead, she just consults her readers.

McDowell is writing her interactive serial novel King Solomon’s Wives armed with a computer, her imagination and lots and lots of data about her readers. Thanks to McDowell's publisher Coliloquy, a pioneering digital publishing startup that lets readers determine a book’s outcome, when her readers stop reading, she knows. When they go back to reread a section, she knows. And when they want to hear more about a character, she knows -- because she asks them.

At the end of each installment of the serialized story, which sees a new "episode" released every three to four months, readers get to vote on what should happen next or which character should take center stage. Recently, the readers weighed in to determine the setting for a forthcoming episode. Chicago and New Orleans beat out Paris, Venice, Rome and Istanbul. In a forthcoming poll, McDowell will survey her readers on which male character they want to take center stage.

"I'm really curious to know the answer," she said.

We asked her what it’s like to be an author writing by committee and how books that read readers will reshape literature.

What do you learn about readers as they read?
I know how many read to the end of the book and how many go back and reread certain chapters. I know if someone stops in the middle of the story and puts it down. If a lot of people stop at the same point, I’ll know that maybe that chapter wasn’t as interesting. It’s incredible.

What data do you use when you write?
The main thing I look at are the choice points people voted on. At the end of episode two, I’m asking people which one of the wives would they most like to see have a romantic storyline, which is dangerous for them [N.B.: the female protagonists have been put under a curse that makes their touch addictive to others]. Which one will they put in trouble? Episode two isn’t out yet, but I’m really curious to know the answer.

Does this data-intensive approach make writing easier? Harder?
It makes it tons easier. It’s like I have a million options and the voting narrows those options down to just two or three, and that gets my imagination going. It’s like a writing prompt. It’s a jumping off point.

It also helps me know if I'm on the right track with the pacing. If I have a lot of exposition and less action, and that did well in one episode, then I know to keep the same level of pacing in the next episode.

Are you on guard against certain information you don’t want to let change the way you write?
There are things I’m trying to say about what it’s like to be a woman in society today and the pressures we have. If all the feedback showed that people just wanted a chase scene and didn’t necessarily want to read about how my characters feel about their world, I might find that a little frustrating.

Do readers know what they want?
They know what they’re interested in and they know what they want to hear more about. For sure. They’ll read a chapter where I’m describing all of the wives, and certain ones intrigue them, and certain ones don’t. They’ll want to hear more about some and not others.

Are we headed for a place where everyone writes by committee?
It is sort of writing by committee, but it’s not exactly a democracy. Because in the end, if I really didn’t want to write about New Orleans, I wouldn’t have to.

Have you ever overridden them?
Not yet. The thing to remember is I get to pick the list of five, say, wives the reader gets to pick from so I’m not opposed to any of them up front.

How will books be shaped if they know how they’re being read? How does that dialogue between text and reader change the text?
What I’m writing now is not really a book at all. I consider it a story.

I think that stories can be significantly bigger. It’s like a TV series: You can explore five big themes instead of two. You can explore many more aspects of your world.

It’s also like role-playing in a video game where you go in as one character, play it through, then go in as another character and play it all again. The story you're seeing plays out changes and gets bigger and bigger, even though the world it's in stays the same.

So you move away from the tyranny of the plot? It seems like it becomes about the world you're creating and the characters in it rather than a sequence of events.
Absolutely. This is not a linear storyline. You can think of it like concentric circles. In each episode you’re moving closer and closer into the center rather than going in a straight line.

How would Anna Karenina or The Great Gatsby be different if the authors had had input from their readers?
Take Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises: The main character in that novel does some things readers aren’t crazy about. He makes some poor choices. Sometimes he’s a little bit of a jerk.

Imagine if Hemingway had released one chapter at a time and he had readers telling him, "This guy is sort of a jerk. Why is he doing that?" It would have been a completely different book if Hemingway had listened.

So the readers might have saved the protagonist from himself?
I wonder. If they did, I’m not sure the book would have been as great.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.