People as Attributes (or how Uber got it right)

In Part II of our series on people search today, online identity and privacy (read Part I ‘Searching for the Self’ Here) we examine how Uber disrupted the taxi industry by recognising that many industries that have traditionally been ‘searches for people’ are actually searches for a very limited set of specific attributes. 

Let’s start with a thought experiment. Suppose you were building an app to find tennis partners, how would you do it? The simplest way would probably be to have people input their location, availability and estimated ability on a score of 1-10. You would probably also want the app to verify that this was a real person, so you might insist on a social log-in but basically what you are interested in is the above three characteristics.

The app would then use a simple interface to make matching with other potential tennis partners extremely easy and would, in an ideal world, make it possible to book a court/set a time without ever having to leave the app. Hey presto, you have a tennis partner.

Essentially what has happened here is that person you are being matched with is being reduced to three key attributes: Ability at tennis, location, availability. Who they are beyond that is unimportant, for the most efficient service to enable the largest number of competitive tennis matches – this is all that matters.

Much of the way that people search is carried out in the 21st century is through this kind of ‘attribute search’. Uber are the most successful example of this. Despite their initial tag line of ‘everyone’s private driver’, Uber have actually done something rather different. Uber have successfully commodified the attributes of their drivers to the point where the personality of the driver has almost completely been erased, as exemplified by the relatively recent feature allowing the passenger to play their own music by connecting their Spotify. The driver is there to provide a journey; he or she is not there to be a person.

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A CBS Insights Report

Unlike with our tennis player example, the ‘ability at tennis’ score is the product of a service-side verification by Uber. We do not really care that our driver is a 10 not a 7, what matters is that he/she is above whatever the threshold is that defines a ‘safe driver’. Our tennis player app is essentially ‘Uber for tennis players’, a tagline (Uber for X) that you increasingly see clogging up the pages of techcrunch and on the slides at demo days.

The Uber model of identifying attributes and commodifying them as efficiently as possible (by which I mean reducing the individual who possesses them to that limited set of attributes) is one that has been revolutionary for 21st century capitalism. Many industries that used to require relationships with an individual have no intrinsic reason for doing so, other than a relationship was required in order to get that service. For instance getting a plumber to fix a sink does not require any relationship with the plumber, provided you know their ‘ability at plumbing’ attribute is above the threshold for competency. A more efficient system would be an Uber for plumbers, meaning that you don’t have to wait for ‘your’ regular plumber to be available and that demand is more effectively spread around the ‘competent plumber’ work force. There are other useful market forces at work here that help make the market more reliable – i.e. more full of cherries than lemons. Clearly an ‘Uber for Plumbers’ leads to a desirable outcome for both consumers and competent plumbers, but it does mean that people no longer have a relationship with the person who comes to fix their sink (whether or not this is a desirable outcome is of course up to you).

However there are many industries that cannot be ‘Uberfied’. Hiring a full time employee is someone you see everyday, you can’t just bring in a rotating series of temporary workers summoned at a moment’s notice. There are skills that have to be learned, personal relationships that have to be established. Above all there is no ‘minimum competency threshold’ that applies for all cases. What makes someone a good employee in one team may make them a terrible one in another, people are different and work together differently.

Let us return to the tennis player app though experiment. Yes it’s efficient, but is it the most desirable system? Does it produce the maximum utility for its users? People don’t play tennis in silence, they arrive at the court a bit early and hang around waiting for their time slot, they take breaks between sets – standing in awkward silence during these moments would be far from desirable. Suddenly, wouldn’t the app be improved if you could see the interests of potential partners? Wouldn’t the tennis game be more enjoyable if you had a shared topic to talk about between sets?

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This guy is probably too good to be on the app

Taking it further – what if the person was from your industry? Someone you might potentially bump into in meetings, or might be good for giving you user feedback down the road? Perhaps someone who knew similar people to you and so you could interact with both on the level of tennis but also turn it into something with potential business benefits, or whom you could interact with on a social level by gossiping about mutual acquaintances, or on the intellectual level by talking about your shared love of art or literature.

Someone who lives in the same location as you, is free at the same time and has a similar tennis ability, while also sharing at least one of the above attributes would be the ‘optimal’ tennis partner. At Wholi, this is the kind of relationship we want to help create in the long-term – by expanding the attributes to describe the person behind them rather than severely limiting the attributes to create ‘an Uber for X’. We want to create ‘people search’ not simply ‘attribute search’.

Life is short, why waste time playing tennis with people with whom you have nothing in common. Uber revolutionised how we think about hailing a taxi, and the lesson we can learn from this is that they were able to revolutionise people search taking the ‘personality’ out. With richer contextual information it will, long term, be possible to not only make people search incredibly efficient, but actually able to foster more meaningful connections than those that currently exist.

Recruiting for permanent roles is clearly one industry that cannot be ‘uberfied’, simply because (despite the best efforts of Meyers-Briggs devotees) what creates a good employee is not simply something where being above an ‘attribute threshold’ is what matters. Any time personality play a big role in a relationship, that relationship is ‘uberification-proof’. Hiring, finding an investor, a mentor, new friends, people to date, people to travel with, people to play sports etc. with are all examples of huge industries with a number of existing solutions – industries which cannot be fixed by tapping a button and immediately having someone who is ‘good enough’ sent to you. We believe that all of these industries can be improved through richer contextual people search, where the attributes of someone’s personality play a determining role in putting great people in the room together. Thinking about people as attributes has allowed Uber to shape the way we think about the service industry, but recognising its limitations is vital to building a world where the best people are more easily able to find and contact each other.

Searching for the Self

People search is a fascinating area. Almost everyone has an opinion about it, even if they haven’t exactly realised that’s what they have an opinion on. In the following series of articles, we’ll be examining online identity, people search today and privacy (aka the creepiness factor). What follows is Part I: Searching for the Self

You are not who you think you are. You’re perhaps sitting reading this on your phone, with one hand propping up your head, imagining that you’re a complete person. Digitally, you’re wrong. What you actually are is a collection of different fragments, scattered across the wide expanse of the Internet, which are linked to you, define you and represent you. You don’t know where a lot of them are, you don’t know what combination of them people are seeing and you don’t know how that makes them think of you. At Wholi, we’re trying to change that.

Our aim is to build a search tool that enables the right people to find each other by aggregating public information in one place, and giving users the ability to curate and manage this collated identity. This will allow people to not only see what the world sees when they search for you, but give you the power to reshape it. We want to do this without losing the flexibility that the Internet has given us to define who we are differently in different places. Because of this, what it means to have identity online is our central concern as we build Wholi into the pre-eminent platform for finding people.

If you’re looking to find someone, where is the first place you look? The answer to this question has changed dramatically in recent times. Searching for someone is now synonymous with searching for his or her information. Identity is now comprised of information, aggregated from all sorts of different locations. Fragments of our selves exist all over the Internet, yet the aggregation of those fragments is unlikely to be equivalent to any singular ‘self’ that you would recognise, like trying to build Frankenstein’s monster from an eclectic mix of body parts. Finding the right fragment-answer for your specific question is the fundamental challenge of building a tool to enable people to find each other most effectively.

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The fragmented self

People search already has a significant impact on our lives, but is complicated by the fact that we are not the same person in every situation. We are frequently impacted and shaped by powers beyond our control, powers derived from the contexts in which we find ourselves. Put simply, you act differently in different situations – to the extent that we can think of these situations as producing multiple version of yourself (think how you act in a library vs. a night-club, for example). The way we act is often derived from the external forces that act upon us – yet this is something which people are very bad at recognising. Social psychology calls this the ‘fundamental attribution error’, which means that people have a tendency to place undue weighting on their internal disposition as opposed to external factors. By way of example: if someone crashes their bike people are more likely to attribute this to their being a risky cyclist, rather than the fact that the road is slick with rain.

Yet identity is significantly influenced by outside forces. One of the reasons, perhaps, why sociology is less well understood to be an important discipline is that it appears to undermine our own agency – we think we act entirely through self-determination as this is how it appears to us, and don’t like the idea that we are suspended in strands of culture, power and influence which curtail and direct our behaviour on a daily basis (if this interests you check out either Michel Foucault or Pierre Bourdieu). We dislike the idea that there is not an essential ‘I’.

Every time you search for an aspect of someone’s identity online, you are searching within a given context for a particular aspect of who someone is. When you search on Yelp and find Sarah, the plumber, you are searching for her ability to fix your sink, rather than as a friend, tennis partner, or for her specialised knowledge of how to grow geraniums in the acid soil of West London.

Individuals are represented as different people in different contexts, meaning that the information about people that exists in the contextually different parts of the Internet both reflects and actually constitutes the person. For instance, if Sarah the plumber’s rating goes down on Yelp, she will be perceived to be a worse plumber and might well get less work, which will lower the number of her ratings (in itself an indicator of popularity) and the cycle will continue. The days of saying ‘it’s just the Internet, it’s just words, it doesn’t matter’ are long behind us. The words on the Internet are inescapably tied to the person we are offline, changing the words changes the person.

In many ways, this fragmentation is an extremely good thing, as it allows us to more accurately recognise the way in which contextual forces shape our interactions and our behaviours and to isolate the specific part of an individual that we want to interact with. For instance, when our sink is broken we do not care that Sarah is a good tennis player or expert gardener, all we care about is her ability with a spanner. For this reason distinct platforms exist to find these different forms of Sarah: she is on Yelp as a plumber, Meetup.com as a tennis partner and genericgardeningforum.com for her knowledge of flowers.

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tricky things

So what should a modern people search tool look like? Clearly we are different people in different contexts, so meshing all the different ways it is possible to interact with someone into one generic platform could easily become a backwards and confusing step. For instance a platform that was functionally a merger of LinkedIn and Tinder would be very confusing, as the way you communicate with someone on a dating app is manifestly different to how you would in a professional context (unless you’re a misogynist who has watched too much Mad Men). For this reason, having distinct search tools to find a prospective partner (Tinder) as opposed to a prospective employee (LinkedIn) is an easy way of marking that distinction and preventing confusion.

However, even if we want to keep the communication channels distinct to protect separate registers of appropriate speech, the attributes valued within one context can overlap with another. When we meet someone on Tinder we might well Google them and pull up their LinkedIn to see whether or not we might be compatible (the reverse, of course, is also true but here is not the space to get into discriminatory hiring practices). Someone’s job, or education, or the fact that they are a great plumber, tennis player or gardener might well play a big role in someone’s choice of a potential partner. Attraction is a nebulous thing (We will go further into how Tinder has revolutionised search in the context of dating in Part III). It might be a minor role, of course, but in finding the right person for you the fact that someone plays tennis could well make him or her more eligible. To use the language of people search: it would make him or her a more relevant ‘search result’.

There is a vast amount of public data on the web. When we try and find people to build relationships (in the non-romantic sense of the world) all sorts of elements of their fragmented self come into play. The modern world increasingly reduces human interactions to transactions (see Part II) but there are still plenty of contexts where having a relationship with the person who is a combination of those fragments is still extremely important (for instance, when you hire someone to do a job they need to be good for the task they are hired for (a specific attribute), but their personality and how they fit with the team is just as important); it is not possible to remove personality from the “equation of good fit” and the effervescence that is created when the right people are in the room together is one of the core reasons why great businesses, enterprises, revolutions and artistic movements succeed.

As this unique ‘good fit’ is so important, using technology to put the right people in the room together is an extremely important and interesting challenge – the one which we are trying to solve here at Wholi. An effective people search tool will be able to reveal people in the specific context of your search, while acknowledging the fact that the person you are looking for has other attributes that might make him or her the right ‘search result’. This is already going on. Every time someone Googles a job applicant or potential date they are pulling in information from all across the web in an inefficient way to build an incomplete picture of that person. A picture which that person has limited control over. A modern people search tool will make finding the right person more efficient, not by removing or reducing the efficient fragmentation of personality that has been enabled by different platforms, but by acknowledging it.

 

Photo Credit: ‘I’m watching’ By Alejandro Gomez on Flickr