The Dark Age of the Online Profile by Mara Zepeda

A few weeks ago I spoke about killing the online profile at the Technology Association of Oregon's Ignite V.5 show. I want to share how this talk came together, because it took a village. Seriously. 

Saturday, 2/8: So you might have heard that Portland experienced a Snowpocalypse this February. That weekend, I trudged through the snow and ice to attend a career networking event at my alma mater. Attendance was low because of the storm, but I met up with a few fellow alumni to talk about Switchboard. It's there the seed for the talk was planted. 

Every once in a while someone will say, "You know, the only thing missing from Switchboard is a directory. For example, I would just love to see all philosophy majors who are now working in finance." 

Usually I cringe. I have to count to five before gritting my teeth and answering with something like, "Thanks for that suggestion. We'll definitely consider it!"

In my mind what I want to say is, "Directories? Directories are ALL WE HAVE. LinkedIn is a giant directory. Facebook is built around the profile. Colleges, universities, and organizations rely on god-awful directories. People do not connect with people through profiles. I have never once connected or had a meaningful interaction with someone I found on these sites. You want to see all of the philosophy majors in finance? That exists, in at least two places! Now tell me a story about someone emailing said philosophy hedge fund manager out of the blue, and how that lead to a meaningful interaction?" 

Switchboard is an anti-directory. It doesn't catalog static profiles. It's a list of posts that you can act on. It's like a private, non-creepy Craigslist. There are only two types of posts: ask and offer. You can search and filter the what (all of the asks and offers), but you can't search and filter the who (all of the people posting the asks and offers).  Switchboard does have a profile feature, but it looks like this: 

The closest cousin is the Twitter profile: you have room for your website, your location, and short sentence about yourself. You can link to an existing professional profile, but the majority of the real estate is taken up by your asks and offers. We purposefully made it so the action I've taken on Switchboard is front and center, not a catalog of my past and preferences, which is what you find in the typical online profile.

To be fair, this "directory" suggestion is completely reasonable. It's in line with nearly every social networking site we know and use. But that weekend I couldn't shake my anger. I stomped home in the snow, muttering to myself like a lunatic. I was determined to get to the bottom of this reaction. 

Greg is often my first call when it comes to talking through big ideas. Here are the notes from that conversation: 

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Here's where we started: why is it no one ever asks for a directory of everyone on Craigslist? You never think to yourself, "Geez, that couch is terrific, but I'd love to know where the seller went to high school." I need a couch. Someone has a couch. Craigslist presents you with the couches that are for sale right now near me.

Let me parse this idea:

The couches: this is the thing you need. Namely: a couch.
For sale: this is the qualifying state of the thing you need. Namely: you can buy it.
Right now: this is the temporal quality of the couch. Namely: it is for sale in this moment. Not in the past or the future, but now.
Near me: this is the locational quality of the couch. Namely: close enough to pick it up.

Do you care about coffee tables? Do you care about the couches that were previously sold? Do you care about the couches in the past or future? Do you care about the couches 2,000 miles away? No. No you do not. 

Do you care about the seller? Only so much as he is relevant to the couch. You might like to know if he owns a cat or smokes. You might scrutinize the quality of the photos in the post, or the other furniture pictured just inside the frame as an indicator of the poster's taste. But at the end of the day you don't really care about the seller's personal photos, professional ego, or taste in movies, all of which pollute profiles in directories like Facebook and LinkedIn. 

I'll extract from my notes and condense Greg's thoughts into a paragraph: "There are countless places to groom ourselves in profiles. Profiles are like looking for a needle in a haystack. And the problem is that adding more information to a profile just adds more hay to the haystack. But with Craigslist there is an action that I want to have a specific result. It's like all of your bullets are live ammo and every listing is powerful. Why would you care what books I read, or that I'm a Democrat? Every post is a ticket to an adventure, and this catalyzes people in a different way."

It catalyzes people because there is a job to be done. And that job is that you need a couch.

This gets to a conversation I have with Switchboard's UX designer Samuel Hulick a few days later. I run the idea by him. He sends me this article from Harvard Business Review called "Integrating Around the Job to Be Done." The gist, as the title implies, is that we serve customers and users best when we help them meet their needs. 

Here's the Job-to-be-Done from Ikea, which maps nicely onto the Craigslist example:

The Job-to-be-Done for the LinkedIn customer is: Recruiters need to find talent easily. The Job-to-be-Done for the LinkedIn user is (for me, at least): I need to centralize the people in my professional world.

So let's say I pull up all of those profiles of the philosophy majors now in finance. Now what? What is the job to be done? Here are some possible scenarios: a) I want to ask that person for advice on philosophy or finance or b) I want to hire that person. 

Arguably both of these are catalysts and will lead to the sort of "adventure ticket" interaction that Greg speaks of: perhaps you meet that person for coffee, become friends, or offer that person a job. This has never happened to me, and I've never heard of it happening to anyone I know via Facebook or LinkedIn. The sentence would start, "Yeah, I met them through LinkedIn and..." But please, if it has happened to you, email me and tell me about your experience of meeting someone new in this way, and the direct impact it had on your life.

Greg pointed out that there is Job-to-be-Done for social networks: social grooming. And social grooming is a really important human need. But, as Greg puts it, "Switchboard's task focus is a way of acknowledging two things: 1) existing social ties are a powerful practical tool and 2) in addition to social grooming, we build ties through practical action as well (work, projects, filling life needs)."

Post-Greg, I take this idea into HipChat and talk it over with my co-founder Sean

Monday, 3/3: I mull this idea over with Kirsten Golden, the Program Manager at PIE, and she says, "Right. It's like the phone book. It's not like you'd just flip through the white pages and call all of the Johnsons just because you share their last name and live in the same town." We laugh about calling all of the Johnsons. But this pretty much sums it up. I find the most wonderful website of old phone book images and start fantasizing a world in which I collect obsolete phone books in my spare time. 

Wednesday, 3/5: I'm still chewing on my disdain for the profile with Lena Lencek, my advisor in most things. We're sitting around the kitchen table drinking Sancerre. Here's how she frames it: "You know the old proverb? For want of a nail that the war was lost?" I don't. Here it is: 

For want of a nail the shoe was lost.
For want of a shoe the horse was lost.
For want of a horse the rider was lost.
For want of a rider the message was lost.
For want of a message the battle was lost.
For want of a battle the kingdom was lost.
And all for the want of a horseshoe nail.

In the proverb, winning the war is job to be done. The job is not done because a basic need has gone unmet: the horse does not have a nail for its horseshoe. We discuss whether a slide for my Ignite presentation might be a Facebook profile of a horse with an unanswered status update: "Needs nail." Lena, an artist and equestrian, kindly offers to draw the horse's profile and all of his horsey friends. I write another draft of my presentation that leads with this proverb.

Saturday, 3/8: I raise the idea again, this time over lunch with M., my spiritual consigliere. I've been reading about mindfulness and the thrust is to cultivate an awareness of and non-attachment to the ego: our preferences, emotions, the past. 

Mara: "Other than the most recent entry, the profile captures the past. It is an ego-centric format. So what I'm suggesting is we need to kill the idea of 'ourselves' online."

M.: "You can't say that in public. You'll sound crazy and cynical. Tell that to the one billion people who use Facebook. What do they want? They want to connect to people. So what do people want when they use Switchboard?"

Mara: "To meet their needs."

M.: "That sounds better."

Monday, 3/10: By this time the deadline to submit my slides had passed. It's two days until the event. I call in Switchboard advisor Andy Baio. Andy organizes the XOXO Festival and has seen and given countless presentations. I run through what I have. He's unimpressed. The only thing that amuses him is the story of how once I bought a dresser on Craigslist, attached it to the roof of my 1986 Saab, drove through the Philadelphia suburbs, realized it was inches away from falling off the top of the car, and used my Palm Treo to locate two guys with a van, again on Craigslist, to help me bring it home. This being a perfect example of Greg's adventure ticket hypothesis.

"I'm sorry to be so blunt," Andy says. "But it's just not working for me." And then, off the cuff, he outlines what a talk needs to do. This might be the single best formula for public speaking I've ever heard. I frantically capture it in my Google doc:

"My only advice to you is to This American the Life out of that shit." These are his parting words. What he meant was he wanted story, anecdote, some reason to care about my singular crusade against the directory. 

So for the next few hours I listen to old episodes of This American Life. In desperate times, I turn to the radio journalist Scott Carrier and his legendary piece "The Friendly Man." In that piece, Scott transforms a dull bureaucratic job into a portal into his own psyche. Could I adopt this formula, replacing "bureaucratic job" with "startup"? I revisit an advice article on radio journalism called "Say I." I even dig up my notes from my first day of journalism school. 

And then I scratch it all and start again.  It comes down to this: the profile offers no opportunity for grace or serendipity. One day I hope we'll look back on this era of self-classification as the dark ages, long abandoned in favor of helping one another and getting shit done. 

Thursday, 3/13: Here's the final result, all five minutes of it. There's a lot of room for improvement. I think I'll be chewing on this issue for years to come, and building on it in my next talk at Webvisions this May. I'd love to hear your feedback and ideas. 

Also, to correct the impression that my love for Tori Amos has diminished, a bonus playlist of favorite songs.

My thanks to Greg Borenstein, Sean Lerner, Samuel Hulick, M., Lena Lencek, Kirsten Golden, Andrew Berns, Andy Baio and Kieran Hanrahan for their help, and reading over these thoughts. And to the Technology Association of Oregon for the invitation. It was real. 

Oculus, virtual reality, fragility, reality by Mara Zepeda

Today is one of those days when the brain is firing on all cylinders. You know those days? You know.

I read about Facebook buying Oculus. I was going to Tweet something like, "The end of times." But then I decided to share this story instead.

Today I had a morning meeting at Pearl Bakery. I walked over from my office which is five blocks away. Let me give you a sensory account of that journey: it was drizzling out and after a few steps I opened my leopard print umbrella I had borrowed from a friend. I was wearing taffeta pants and they made a swishing sound as I walked. I passed two delivery men dropping off kegs at the brewery on the corner. I made way for their dolly barreling up the sidewalk. I noticed the art gallery next door has a new display of glasswork. I turned right on 9th Avenue. I stopped to inhale the smell of pancakes and bacon as I passed Fuller's diner. A mother and daughter dipped hash browns in ketchup. I made note of the "Cash only" sign on the register and resolved to have more meetings at those nostalgic bakelite counters. I noticed a Cretan restaurant I'd never seen before and browsed the menu. It brought to mind my dear Greek friends in Philadelphia, and my husband who is teaching himself Greek with the help of a native speaking conversation partner. They meet in the social hall of an Orthodox church in South Carolina.  I arrived at my destination. The bakery was bustling and humid with the smells of coffee and croissants. I admired their packaging: royal blue ink on butcher paper bags.

I ran into my friend Lennon. We chatted for a few minutes. He told me that his company recently hired a young Reed graduate named Connor. I was elated. Connor was one of the first kids Switchboard supported. And now he'd landed a job with a fantastic local tech company. I admired Lennon's cozy looking gray sweater. I forgot to ask him what book he was reading. The foam left over from his cappuccino looked delicious. 

My coffee date arrived. Katherine walked over from Portland's Development Commission. She was wearing a wonderful necklace that resembled an arrowhead. Her freckles caught in the light of the sun. I have a special fondness for people with freckles. We chatted about diversity in entrepreneurship. It was one of those conversations with a few elbow touches. I went on my way, without need for the umbrella on the walk home. I was energized by the smells, Connor's news, the small town-ness of Portland, my conversation with Katherine. 

This is a partial index of all that the Oculus would miss: the kegs, rain, arrowhead, pancakes, art, bacon, blue ink, croissants, sweater, church basement, ketchup, elbows, Connor, freckles, swishing, Cretan appetizers, serendipity of running into Lennon, foam. These are the moments that will never be captured by virtual reality.

An e.e. cummings poem popped into my mind after reading about the Oculus sale. It must have been the rain. I've always read it as a love poem to a lover, but this time I read it as a love poem to the world: "nothing which we are to perceive in this world equals / the power of your intense fragility."  The price tag for that fragility exceeds $2 billion. Days like these remind me that it's priceless. 

somewhere i have never travelled, gladly beyond

somewhere i have never travelled, gladly beyond
any experience,your eyes have their silence:
in your most frail gesture are things which enclose me,
or which i cannot touch because they are too near

your slightest look easily will unclose me
though i have closed myself as fingers,
you open always petal by petal myself as Spring opens
(touching skilfully,mysteriously)her first rose

or if your wish be to close me, i and
my life will shut very beautifully ,suddenly,
as when the heart of this flower imagines
the snow carefully everywhere descending;

nothing which we are to perceive in this world equals
the power of your intense fragility:whose texture
compels me with the color of its countries,
rendering death and forever with each breathing

(i do not know what it is about you that closes
and opens;only something in me understands
the voice of your eyes is deeper than all roses)
nobody,not even the rain,has such small hands


Humility by Mara Zepeda

It's an honor to share a room with Rick Turoczy everyday. Really. And this talk he gave on humility exemplifies why.  The story of the woman who keeps a slip of paper in her pocket that says, "He might be right" gave me goosebumps. Rick practices what he preaches and models this value to companies he mentors, including ours.  See more on The (Humble) Path Less Taken here.

Cognitive Surplus by Mara Zepeda

I had a great time speaking at Refresh Portland the other night. I made new friends (and promptly asked them for favors, as I do).  For the first time, my calligraphy world (thanks, Tara and Linnea!) collided with my tech world. And I finally had the chance to start exploring out loud (for better or worse) some of the ideas I've been chewing on about asking, offering, and the nature of gift economies. 

I recently revisited Clay Shirky's book (and TED talkCognitive Surplus. It isn't as well known as Here Comes Everybody but to me, the message resonates more. Here, from his TED talk:

"Free cultures get what they celebrate. We've got a choice before us. We've got this trillion hours a year. We can use it to crack each other up, and we're going to do that. That, we get for free. But we can also celebrate and support and reward the people trying to use cognitive surplus to create civic value. And to the degree we're going to do that, we'll be able to change society."

Cars, Rumi, Twizzlers: A Midnight Report by Mara Zepeda

It's close to midnight. I'm alone at PIE. This could be the start of every entry for the last two weeks. Sean, like some lunatic Dunkin' Donuts worker, takes the 5 AM - 4 PM shift. Mark, my office mate who I rely on for spiritual guidance/acrobatic shenanigans is gone. It's me, a bowl of Twizzlers (Adam remarked, accurately, "they are on brand!"), a children's ski coat featuring pegasuses (the plural would be...what exactly?) and my notes for my Refresh PDX talk on Wednesday. 

I've been thinking about what I want to feel like, and what I want attendees to feel like, at tomorrow's event. Not just tomorrow, but using Switchboard in general.  Is this normal to think about? Am I admitting too much? There are two videos I keep toggling back and forth between. The first is this one: 

Crazy, unbridled joy and enthusiasm. Surprise. Wonder. Amazement that the universe is so generous and benevolent. Inspired to give of ourselves abundantly, excessively, freely. And then this one: 

Man in white tunic, love, something real. Appropriately, Roger read this poem by Rumi in class tonight: 

Your grief for what you've lost lifts a mirror

up to where you are bravely working.

Expecting the worst, you look, and instead,

here's the joyful face you've been wanting to see.

Your hand opens and closes and opens and closes.

If it were always a fist or always stretched open,

you would be paralyzed.

Your deepest presence is in every small contracting and expanding,

the two as beautifully balanced and coordinated

as birdwings.

These forces, of cars, candy, coats, and closings, are the ones we're going to dig into on Wednesday. Join me so you can tell me in person if I managed, at all, to pull it off.

Free Book Club by Mara Zepeda

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I picked up Cheryl Strayed's Tiny Beautiful Things the other day, on Maria Popova's advice. And despite being embarrassingly late to this party, and I was totally hooked.  

This, from the introduction, which speaks so much to the need for Switchboard:

We’re hurtling through time and space and information faster and faster, seeking that network...But at the same time we’re falling away from our families and our neighbors and ourselves. We ego-surf and update our status and brush up on which celebrities are ruining themselves, and how. But the cure won’t stick.

And this from Cheryl, which could easily apply to any endeavor, like starting a business:

We get the work done on the ground level. And the kindest thing I can do for you is to tell you to get your ass on the floor. I know it’s hard...darling. But it’s harder not to. The only way you’ll find out if you “have it in you” is to get to work and see if you do. The only way to override your “limitations, insecurities, jealousies, and ineptitude” is to produce. You have limitations. You are in some ways inept.

I'm going to tell you something unexpected and unnerving about being a CEO: it's a lot like being an advice columnist. And what I mean by that is every day there are dozens of questions waiting for answers. And the answer has to arrive from some deep, honest sense of what is right. And then you do your best to convey that right answer to the question, and cross your fingers you're not completely wrong. The book has visibly influenced my writing style. My sentences are shorter. I'm motivated to be more declarative and honest and brave. 

I was so taken with this book that I went to Powell's and bought a heap to send to friends (and a shout out to Powell's for saying, simply, "thank you for making the choice to buy all of these here.") Then in a late-night crazy person decision I tweeted that I would buy this gem of a book book for anyone I knew personally. All told it was about a $150 investment to sprinkle these books around to the people I love.

Marshall of Little Bird stopped by my desk not long after and we started talking about books (he recommended this one).  I told him of my little experiment and I said, off the cuff, "I should do that every month with a book I love." And so I'm going to try exactly that. Every month I will buy a book I love for anyone who asks me for a copy. We'll see how this goes. That's my offer. And an ask, I suppose, of you.

To sit and wait by Mara Zepeda

"As soon as I felt a necessity to learn about the nonhuman world, I wished to learn about it in a hurry. And then I began to learn perhaps the most important lesson that nature had to teach me: that I could not learn about her in a hurry. The most important learning, that of experience, can be neither summoned nor sought out. The most worthy knowledge cannot be acquired by what is known as study — though that is necessary, and has its use. It comes in its own good time and its own way to the man who will go where it lives, and wait, and be ready, and watch. Hurry is beside the point, useless, an obstruction. The thing is to be attentively present. To sit and wait is as important as to move. Patience is as valuable as industry. What is to be known is always there. When it reveals itself to you, or when you come upon it, it is by chance. The only condition is your being there and being watchful." -Wendell Berry, The Long-Legged House 

What we have by Mara Zepeda

Today I met with a recent Reed graduate who has been a long-time fan of Switchboard and inexhaustible evangelist. She was telling me all about her post-graduation trip to Latin America: 30 hour bus rides, the pleasures and perils of staying in hostels, that moment when, with $800 crumpled in your hiking boots it crosses your mind that maybe you should change your ticket and go home early. She walked me through every city and town and then she got to Buenos Aires. Everything clicked. She found an English speaking comrade, a community of friends. She found a jiu-jitsu studio and worked out a trade with the owner: she'd clean the gym in exchange for classes. So what changed? Was there some pivotal moment? And then she said something that embodies what Switchboard stands for.


I think this is the engine that has powered anything that is good.

Build it Now by Mara Zepeda


Fumbling around Lena's basement for poetry and I came across Rilke's long-forgotten Duino Elegies. This excerpt from the 7th resonated. From David Young's translation, which is so good, and so unfindable online.