said last summer. "They want Google to tell them what they should be doing next.""I actually think most people don't want Google to answer their questions," Google's then-CEO Eric Schmidt
What should you be doing next? A former Googler named Jyri Engeström, whose microblogging service Jaiku was cooler than Twitter, but was acquired into oblivion by Google three years ago, now thinks he can beat Google to the punch on that question. His new service Ditto launches today (iPhone app). It aims to use social suggestions, structured data and your existing Twitter and Facebook social graphs to recommend places and activities to fullfill your every desire.
Ditto is a beautifully designed app for the iPhone. Users declare what they are going to do and where, then that message appears in the streams of all their friends. Friends can say "Ditto" with the click of a button, meaning they are going to or want to do the same thing, or they can reply with suggestions.
I'm going to the Amtrak Station in downtown Portland this evening and I'd like to grab food nearby, for example. When I clicked the big, plush button for the activity type "Eat Out" I was then given the option to drill down into a sub category of sub-types of this activity: Asian, Breakfast, Fast Food, Mexican, etc. Had I said I wanted to exercise, a whole other set of options would be available (jogging, gym, soccer, etc.) and the activity types end up acting as constraints on the types of venues that pop up from the Foursquare database when I click to select a venue. (If I happen to be within 120 meters of that venue, I can choose to be automatically checked-in there on Foursquare, too.)
Once I declare my intention to eat near the train station, my friends offered suggestions where I should grab food. It was cool. My expression of interest could have been pushed to Twitter or Facebook, or it could remain within Ditto, where such expressions make the most sense in context. (People complain when you Tweet about what you ate for breakfast already, imagine Ditto messages pushed to Twitter about the mere fact that you intend to eat breakfast!) If I like a friend's suggestion, I can thank them and they will get a little trophy on their profile.
Bumps in the Road
There's something that strikes me as a little awkward about the service, initially. I don't think it's quite got the grammar of intention-check-ins down quite right yet. When I said I wanted to grab food, the app suggested places near me right now. I'm going downtown to the train station though - there's no way to change my location to that spot and search from there. I can just say, effectively, "I want to eat food at the train station." And then use the free text comment area to say "I don't really want to eat at the train station, I want to eat near the train station, where I will be later, who can recommend a good place near there?" At that point the structured part of the data and search feel like more trouble than they are worth. I may as well use Twitter. The exciting part about Ditto is its structured activity types and the way they are supposed to just let me click a few big buttons and have expressed my desire for something to do.
It's not clear if I'm supposed to post to Ditto after I leave home or when I've arrived someplace. I'm not sure if the venue database is supposed to tell me where exactly I should go or if my friends are. I'm not clear why I would use Ditto to tell my friends where I am if I am already there. Is Ditto still for suggestions? Is it still unique? I suspect that Ditto is going to be most useful when I'm wandering around in an urban environment, with available friends nearby, with time to kill and a general idea of the type of activity I want to engage in but without clarity on where I want to do it. That isn't very often, to be honest.
It could just be a new way to use the social Web and thus feel unfamiliar to me, but the relationships between place and venue, intention and real-time, activity and recommendation, Ditto and other social applications like Twitter and Foursquare are all going to take some time to get worked out better than they are right now, I think. There's certainly huge potential here though.
Structured activity stream data, especially if offered in a standardized format, could serve as a platform not just for recommendations but for analytics, targeting across platforms and many other types of innovative services of value to users, service providers and commercial organizations.
The combination of a pleasing interface with structured activity data as output could make all kinds of things possible in the future. Engeström says the things the service learns from the way its users interact with the first set of options will influence how future activity types and iterations are implemented.
Nearby movie listings are integrated already, but Engeström says that books, movies and music will all be offered soon as well, using services like Netflix and Spotify. "The idea is to discover something new," Engeström says. "Foursquare rewards you for going back to a place over and over again, we're the oposite of that. We're looking for generic discovery mechanisms that will make it easy to apply to anything. We think this could replace Google as a way to find things to consume." (Ditto would then monetize those consumption recommendations through affiliate fees or advertising.)
That's a very ambitious goal, but the design, focus on data, vision and pedigree behind Ditto are enough to help it gather some prominent backing to pursue that goal. The company is funded by hot startup backers Betaworks (Twitter, Tweetdeck, Tumblr and many more) and True Ventures (StockTwits, Urban Airship, GigaOM and more). Those are investors who focus on companies with a strong love of data - so don't think that this app is just about pretty pictures and sharing things with your friends.
Ditto is fresh out of the gate and will likely see a whole lot more features and interface development soon. The minds behind it are very sharp, and the opportunity here is huge. I hope the service ends up feeling like something I want to launch regularly.
I'm not sure I want Google telling me what to do next - but I think I would like it quite a bit if a service like Ditto, and my friends using it, could come up with some good ideas.