Thursday, May 31, 2007

Yes, Idea Man! Creator! Innovator! Cerebrator! Tycoon!

Yes, the Idea Man! What're his hopes and dreams, his desires and aspirations? Does he think all the time or does he set aside a certain portion of the day? How tall is he and what's his shoe size? Where does he sleep and what does he eat for breakfast? Does he put jam on his toast or doesn't he put jam on his toast, and if not why not and since when?
-- The Hudsucker Proxy, Ethan Coen, Joel Coen, and Sam Raimi

Back in January, I answered a mysterious Craig's List ad for researchers. No information on what would be researched. No office to report to. No company name provided. I responded anyway, if only to find out what the hell was going on.

A few days later, I found myself walking around a stranger's home in Brentwood. I had been told to appear at this address, but there were no signs, no instructions, no people waiting around to guide my way. I walked through a gate and into a backyard. In a guest house next to a pool, a few people were busily working on brand new iMacs, but they were consumed in their work and not looking my way. No one else was around. The thought occurred to me that I should leave, that this could be a scam. An inscrutable scam, one that involved fraudulently luring in job applications, but a scam all the same. ("Okay, where's Ashton? Oh, right, I'm not famous...")

It was not a scam. I soon thereafter met Mark Jeffrey and he pitched to me the basics of Mahalo, what was to be the latest venture from entrepreneur Jason Calacanis. Two thoughts crossed my mind simultaneously:

(1) This sounds like a fun and interesting job!


(2) This idea will probably not work!

I assumed, quite naturally, that because the Internet is composed of millions of pages about millions of topics, any one of which could be of interest to anyone at any time, there would be no reasonable way for human beings to neatly organize all available information. This is the reasonable conclusion to reach. Anyone who has spent any amount of time online would understand this point.

After 5 months on the project, I am now quite confident that this is not a major concern. Not because Mahalo will be able to respond to any potential query anyone could have, but because the actual range of commonly-searched queries is quite manageable for a large enough staff of Internet "guides."

Let's take a look at this Donald Trump page. Now, people talk about Donald Trump all the time, everyday, all of the Intra-t00bz. That's his job. He says or does pretty much anything he can think of to ensure that people will talk about him. If I personally have hundreds of Mahalo pages to update, create and oversee, there's no way I could possibly find the time to put a new link on this Donald Trump page every time he insults Rosie O'Donnell. Honestly, even if I was only in charge of updating the Donald Trump page for 8 hours a day, I still wouldn't manage to get all of his Rosie insults on there. The guy's a machine.

If you'll skip down to the Gossip and Blogs section, you'll notice that we have syndicated the 3 most recent Gawker posts. Doing this in both the Gossip and News sections of the page make it, essentially, self-updating.

Naturally, someone will have to check in with the page now and again, to clear out dead links and find new articles and videos of special significance. Say, if Trump gets a new TV show, or starts picking on a different daytime television host. (Might I recommend Rachael Ray?) But even if we don't get to it for a week or two at a time, new news and information from quality sites without spam will always be available on Mahalo, 24/7. (Not to mention the fact that users can suggest their own links, which get immediately e-mailed to the guide who created the page, allowing us to update and incorporate new links at any time quickly.)

I didn't just want to brag about my involvement with Jason's remarkable invention; I'm actually building to a point here. See, the idea itself for Mahalo, no offense meant to's not that hard to come up with. You don't have to be some crazy futurist visionary to imagine a version of Google that's compiled by people, so it doesn't suck quite so bad.

A lot of search engines have even come fairly close to the same idea. This one pairs you with a live guide in a chat room, who does your search for you in real time. (It doesn't really work all that well.) This one clusters your searches for you, making them more organized and easier to scan than many Google results. This one organizes sets of sites for you before you search, allowing for more exact, targeted results. (It does appear to limit the number of sources you can search, though, instead of giving you a taste of everything that's out there.) And the guy behind Wikipedia is working on a somewhat similar concept as well, sort of a Search/Wikipedia hybrid allowing individuals to create website-portals about any topic.

But anyway, my point is, what made Jason's Mahalo concept so special wasn't the idea itself but that he's insane enough to actually attempt to make it work. Had I come up with the idea of human-powered search, I would dismiss it out of hand immediately. Couldn't be done. Too many searches. It would take too many people. You'd have to outsource the work and would get crummy results. Spammers would get through.

Of course, Team Mahalo has still found a way to make it work. It wasn't always easy, and not everything we all theoretically want to do with the site is possible, but you can go check it out for yourself. We're off to an amazing start and it's only going to keep getting better as we go.

People have this very strange idea about ideas, as if brilliant innovations just shoot out of the foreheads of geniuses, Athena-style, who and complete. It's nonsense. The great breakthroughs are all assembled slowly over time, building on mistakes and improving gradually, because solving problems is much easier if you're willing to leave them unsolved for a while.

Is this obvious to everyone else, and has only taken me 28 years to figure out?

Because my instinct is the exact polar 180 degree opposite of this philosophy. When I encounter a problem - any kind of problem, really, personal or professional - I want to solve it immediately, right away, or I get all antsy and upset. C.K. has actually called me on this pretty recently; I meet with some difficulty, and I can't stop obsessing about it until it's taken care of, one way or another. This is, to put it simply, not how things work in the real world. Sometimes, things don't work quite right, and you take the time to figure it out, and then you fix it.

When we were first building these Mahalo pages, we had no idea what we were doing. There was no template for a human-designed search results page (or SeRP, to get all insider-y on you). A few of us guides invented it, and then scrapped that design and went with a new one, and then scrapped it again. We had all sorts of ideas that didn't come to fruition: massive cartoon graphics charting celebrity hookups, interactive maps of the "Lost" island and on and on and on. It's been an enlightening experience to make mistakes and keep making them, knowing that you'll figure them out later. It's...I don't know...relaxing.

Anyway, there's a major life lesson in all this somewhere, but damned if I can see my way through to it, exactly. Something about having the courage to actually believe that something might work, that one idea might actually be worth trying. It's not arrogance, exactly, although it can resemble arrogance. More like a particularly aggressive strain of confidence. And I can teach you all about it for the low low low price of only $39.95. Call today.


Peter L. Winkler said...

Do your job responsibilities include prolix posts gushing about what a great innovative idea Mahalo is?

Sorry to bust your bubble, but back when I first got on the Internet in early 1996, Yahoo! did exactly the same thing that you're doing. Pages were compiled by employees. Guess what? They haven't done it for a long time. I wonder why?

And how do you and the other Mahalans compile your information? By using Google, I'd bet. I went to Mahalo and decided to test it. I searched for Nick Adams and then James Dean. Now, granted, Adams is a somewhat obscure actor, but any of the major search engines, even moribund ones like Altavista, return plenty of good links on Adams.

Mahalo returned none. Worse yet, it returned none on Dean, a pop icon.

I suspect that people will much rather tolerate a certain percentage of irrelevant responses to their queries on Google rather than to use Mahalo. After a few attempts like mine, they won't return.

Lons said...

Nope, no one's paying me to write this blog post. I'm on my own time...I'm just enthusiastic about the project because I think it's going to work, and I'm working on it with a stellar group of people.

We Guides (as we call ourselves) naturally use Google to compile our results, along with Yahoo,, Technorati, Digg, iFilm, TMZ, The Smoking Gun and so on. Compare a Google search for "Paris Hotels" or "Chevrolet Corvette" or "Jesus" to a Google search and you'll see the diversity of our sources. The whole idea is not to merely replicate a Google result, but to enhance it by eliminating spam and dead links and adding in great resources that wouldn't normally come up in the first few pages of Google.

Anyway, I'm really sorry you had a bad experience, and I appreciate all of your feedback and insight. (Were there any other categories or topics you think we absolutely need that weren't represented? Let me know!)

Not sure Nick Adams is going to come up any time soon, as he is a bit obscure for our purposes, but you're right that Mr. Dean is a pop icon. I'll make a page for him tomorrow if you'd care to check back.

Thanks again for checking out the site.

Lons said...

Check it...

Now THAT'S service!

krista said...

nice athena reference.

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