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.