By Phloating man (Own work) [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons

SPECIAL GUEST: Mike Murchison (co-founder of Volley). As we've gone online, we've dragged our relationships along with us, encoding them in social networks like Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn. These technologies are already having far-reaching impacts on how we relate to each other, how we connect, and the stories we tell each other. On this episode, we're joined by Mike Murchison, co-founder of Volley, a social networking tool to help you reveal deeper connections and unlock the potential of your social graph in new and exciting ways. Recorded 10/19/2014.


You can download the episode here.


Mike & Matt's Recommended Reading:

Volley site

Mike Murchison on the web

Episode 113 - Social Break, where we talked about social technologies and their effects on people

Episode 91 - Waiter, There's A Phone In My Service..., where we talked about smart phones and their effect when we're out

Episode 85 - Facebook's Contagion Experiment, where we talked about how Facebook experimented on their users unknowingly

Reddit, the front page of the Internet

Woman Who Dumped Cat in Trash: 'I Thought It Would Be Funny' on Huffington Post (8/25/2010)



Alpha: Welcome to another episode of Robot Overlordz, episode #116. On the show, we take a look at how society is changing, everything from pop culture reviews to political commentary, technology trends to social norms, all in under 30 minutes, every Tuesday and Thursday.

Mike Johnston: I’m Mike Johnston.

Matt Bolton: And I’m Matt Bolton.

MJ: And joining us today is Mike Murchison, co-founder of Volley. Mike, thanks for joining us.

Mike Murchison: Great to be here guys.

MJ: For the audience, could you tell us a little bit about Volley and what it is?

MM: Volley is a web platform that gets you introduced to people in your extended network who could help you with a challenge you’re facing. We’re focused on helping you unlock knowledge, reputation and connections in your extended social network. I’m excited to be here today to talk to you guys about some thought I’ve put into the social web and what we’re trying to do with Volley in that context.

MJ: I’ve actually used Volley. You’re the first person I’ve had on the show that I’ve connected with via Volley. But I’ve got two others sort of in the pipe that I’ve been talking to try to get on the show. Actually, last night Matt and another friend of ours who has been on the show a couple of times, Mark Davis, were talking about -- I was introduced through Volley to Muse, the brain-sensing headband.

MM: Oh, very cool. Yeah, I’ve been following Muse for a while now. I don’t know anyone who works there, but that’s a very cool story, a pretty cool piece of technology.

MJ: It is. I hadn’t heard of it until -- I think my first Volley request, somebody replied with “You should check out this company and maybe try to make a connection there.” I still haven’t, but I now have a Muse, so we were talking it a little last night.

MM: Oh, you have one? So, you pre-ordered one?

MJ: I guess they’ve been shipping for a while because I ordered mine from Amazon.

MM: Oh, wow. I didn’t realize that, that’s amazing. What do you think of it?

MJ: Not to get too much on a tangent about that, but I think it’s pretty cool. As I was telling the guys last night, for meditation, it gives you a little more direct feedback.

MM: Yeah, the whole biofeedback movement is pretty interesting, lending you insight into your biomechanical, your biological behavior that you otherwise didn’t have insight into and it’s pretty cool.

MJ: I have to give credit to Volley for getting me off my butt to actually start asking people to be on our show, so it’s definitely had an influence on us. How do you see Volley fitting into how most people use social networks currently?

MM: That’s a good question. I think there are a couple interesting trends that we can look at that I think Volley is tapping into in a context of the web and how people are connecting more broadly. The first is that your social network today has really never been so big. You’re connected to more people today because of the proliferation of social networks like Facebook and LinkedIn and every new one that seems to pop up every other day, it seems like now. Your social network is really increasingly becoming a superset of many distinct subnetworks. What’s happened as a result of that is your degrees of separation from any other person on the planet has decreased from six degrees to something like four degrees. What Volley helps you do is it helps you tap into that network in a new way. The way we do that is around a request that you have. We think that a really efficient way of helping you tap into this new huge network that you have, and that extended network, is through an ask, a simple request for help. In your case, it was to find people to come onto Robot Overlordz.

MJ: What do you say to people who are already barraged by all the noise in social networks that would see request as one more thing they don’t have time for? Matt and I were talking about this just the other day on one of our episodes, that there is a lot of noise in people’s social signal now.

MM: Totally. I think asking for an introduction, trying to meet someone with a specific skillset is not a new behavior. I think you guys probably won’t disagree that it’s a behavior that you see on a lot of other social networks. People ask for help all the time on Facebook, in Facebook groups; they use their Twitter following to ask for help; they use LinkedIn groups perhaps to look for a specific introduction or try to meet someone. Volley is not trying to create a new social network. We’re trying to create a way for you to tap into the social ties you’ve already accumulated online. So, right now we do that through your Gmail contacts, but as we move forward, we intend to allow you to do that through whatever network you like. Our hope is that we’re not creating a totally new social experience, we’re creating a new way for you to tap into existing social experiences.

MJ: Kind of tying them all together then?

MM: Yeah. I think that you could see value being created if you could introduce someone who you’ve met through Twitter to someone who you have as a LinkedIn contact, for example. We’re just trying to take that one behavior that people are using these other networks for loosely and put it in one place, and at the same time, help you access all of those networks at once.

MJ: How long has Volley been around? I think I first read about it on TechCrunch a couple months ago.

MM: We’ve been around for about 6 months now actively and we’re excited about where we’re going. We’re hiring more people, our product is growing at a pace that we’re pretty excited about, and we’re just trying to get Volley out to more people and onto more platforms as quickly as we can.

MB: For people who don’t know, is it more of a way to meet people that you normally wouldn’t meet or is it more to get questions answered? Or both?

MM: It’s both. We’re focused on helping you solve the kind of problems that require introductions to people. So, if we’re talking about the rise of the social web, I think we can all agree that Google has done an incredible job at helping you answer really well-defined, factual questions. But there’s this whole other class of problems that Google can’t help you solve really efficiently, and that’s because they require the expertise of a person, they require a conversation with a person. Those are the kinds of questions that I think we’re now in a position to solve because of the rise of the social web.

MJ: On our episode #113 last Tuesday, we talked a little bit about the ways that people see the social web and some of those technologies disconnecting people. As someone in the space, what do you say to those people who complain that every time they go out with their friends, everybody sits around with their cell phone and they’re not paying attention to each other. All of these technologies, I’m not indicting Volley necessarily in this, that people aren’t spending time now with the people they actually know.

MM: Right, I couldn’t agree more. I had that experience last night actually, where I was out with some friends and some of them weren’t really present, they were on Twitter or something. One thing that I’m really interested in is in facilitating real world connections through technology, and that’s what I’ve sort of poured my soul into through Volley. Most of the people on Volley end up connecting and have real world relationships. They converse in person, they meet up for coffee, they Skype, they have extended email conversations… So I think, to answer your question, technology is distracting, technology pulls us away from our immediate surroundings and it perhaps distracts us in connecting us to people who are further away. But it doesn’t have to, necessarily. I don’t think that it necessarily needs to be a distraction.

MJ: Do you have any strategies you use yourself to make sure you keep present when you’re out with other people?

MM: I do. I actually deliberately try not to check my phone. That’s one strategy I pursue. An interesting example I think is if you look at the rise of tablets and the way people comport themselves face-to-face in meetings today, it’s interesting how it’s still seen as disrespectful if you bring a tablet to a meeting and are taking notes on a tablet, but it’s seen as respectful if you bring an analog standard notebook and pen and paper. I think that’s really interesting because the tablet, even if you are taking notes, it represents a window to another world and it conveys that you aren’t actually present. But the analog technology, the traditional pen and paper conveys that you’re just writing down what this person is saying, and therefore it’s a sign of respect.

MB: To your point, if you think about it, if you’re writing on a tablet, other than if you’re making doodles or writing a novel, that’s literally all you can do with a pad and paper.  But if you’re on an iPad, you may look like you’re taking notes or something, but you may be searching Facebook or doing a hundred different things and that might be why if you’re in a meeting with some kind of a tablet that it might look like you’re not actually paying attention when it doesn’t make sense.

MM: Exactly. In other words, from the observer’s perspective, they’re having to question the extent to which you’re present, and that questioning doesn’t exist when you’re taking notes with traditional pen and paper. I think there’s a much broader conversation to be had around this actually, and that stems from this observation, that I’ve noticed at least, around just who we’re connecting with online. I think that until very recently, it used to be that your offline connections, let’s call them your analog connections, they preceded your digital ones. Your online world was a reflection of your offline world. Increasingly, I think the opposite is actually true. Your offline world is a reflection of your online one. This discussion about tablets and pen and paper and you being present with someone, I think it’s ultimately a consequence of that. The three of us met for the first time online. We’ve never actually met in person. That means that we engage with each other in a very different way than if we were to have met for the first time in a coffee shop.

MJ: Do you think some of that is just because society is still catching up with these technologies and hashing out the social norms around them?

MM: Yeah, I think the social norms are still very much evolving. My girlfriend, for example, works in a hospital. As I’m sure you guys are aware, hospitals are often very bureaucratic and they’re pretty behind in the technology they use. The way they use a lot of technology is fundamentally different than the way that you and I use it today. So, for example, the way that her colleagues communicate on email, they write as though they’re in 19th century England. It’s amazing. They’re properly formatted, they use long words, they’re grammatically correct. Whereas for the Silicon Valley types, email is now a chat application. There’s no social requirement, that you invest a bunch of time revising your words or the way you communicate. I think that these social norms are evolving in different niches and different populations, and some populations are ahead or have appropriated it differently than others.

MJ: Matt and I, in our episode #85, talked about Facebook’s experiment that they did on people back in 2012, the ethics of that. As someone in the social networking space and also as a user of something like Facebook, what’s your opinion on it and the ethics of that?

MM: Of which experiment?

MJ: I think they called it the “Emotional Contagion” experiment, where they were tweaking people’s feeds to make it more positive or more negative.

MM: Oh, right, yeah. There’s so much to be said about that. I had a conversation recently about actually that -- I don’t if it was that specific Facebook example or another one, but it was in the context of social networks and technology more broadly; social technology more broadly as games, games that can be exploited and people who want to win the games. On Twitter, for example, we might define the Twitter game as having as having as many followers as possible and the Facebook game as something similar. How many likes can my post get? When Facebook and the Twitters of the world introduce new rules, there are all these really interesting consequences. For example, someone in the last few weeks recently discovered that saying “Congratulations” to somebody as a comment on their Facebook post increased the likelihood that that post would appear on their friends’ news feeds and linger longer on their news feeds. This is related in the sense that maybe Facebook’s algorithms thought it was a more positive piece of content, that people would enjoy it more and therefore that it would provide a better experience and a more engaging experience, and it ultimately converted advertisements better, I suppose. But it’s interesting how the company can perform an action for one reason and its users can try to exploit it for a different reason. So, all these people now were posting ads essentially, or posting their new blog posts and having their friends comment “Congratulations,” even though it was totally divorced from the context, just to increase the number of eyeballs that would see it.

MJ: I read about that “Congratulations” thing just within the last week.

MM: Yeah, that’s a relatively new example.

MB: That’s good to know. I’ll start adding the word “Congratulations” to everything I post.

MM: It’s pretty funny. Your question about “Is this stuff good for us?” Who knows? Perhaps the more relative question might be “What does it mean and why are we connecting this way?” I think that technology that takes off is taking off for a reason. It’s tapping into a fundamental human behavior that’s not new. Facebook isn’t a new technology in the sense that it’s invented a new human behavior or it’s enabled us to do something we couldn’t do before. People love chatting with their friends, they love hearing their friends’ stories, they love telling their stories to the world, and I think that’s ultimately why Facebook is so successful. I think most social technologies can be boiled down to that. For that reason, I think that they’ll be here for the foreseeable future and they’ll likely be used for the foreseeable future.

MB: We’ve seen a lot of change over even the last 10 years, from basically the death of MySpace and going into Facebook and all these other things -- do you see anything coming out of -- I keep reading that Facebook is getting less popular, especially with younger people mainly because their parents are getting on it, and their grandparents and stuff.

MM: I think there’s a couple things that are happening here that I’ve observed in the last few years. The first is definitely, probably the most importantly, the rise of community online. I don’t think we’ve ever seen the internet have so many distinct communities that are very, very unique and powerful in their own right. It’s increasingly true that technology is not a differentiator online, that community is. In other words, it used to be that whoever had the most servers was able to build the most beautiful interface or who could execute on the product side the best would ultimately win. And now I think what we’re seeing is because of the proliferation of something like Facebook, there’s increasing demand for smaller communities to rise and to organize, and that’s becoming the differentiator. So, as I look into the future of the web, there’s a couple places that you can look today that will provide a window into how the web will evolve. The first is Reddit. I think Reddit is a fascinating place; Reddit, of course, is a community of communities. Popular subreddits, in my opinion, provide an interesting window into the social networks and popular products of the future. I think we’ll see the unbundling of Reddit in the next few years, sort of in the same way that we saw the unbundling of Craigslist 5 years ago. Look at Uber, or Airbnb certainly came out of Craigslist, that one listing part of Craigslist; a lot of the ride-sharing and software to service businesses can be seen as coming out of Craigslist and the same will be true of Reddit from the community perspective moving forward.

MB: I’ve seen a lot of stuff coming out of Reddit, it’s been around for quite a while but it seems like recently I’ve seen a much quicker surge of information coming out of Reddit than I did in the past.

MM: Reddit definitely, as a community itself, will grow. But what I mean to convey there is these subreddits, these smaller communities that exist on Reddit, will themselves branch off and form their own larger community.

MB: That’s what I was trying to get at, was because Reddit is getting so big and so popular, I think you’re going to see a lot of these subcommunities. I think you’re right, just because of Reddit overall, and you’re getting more and more people involved in it, and any time that happens then you’re going to start seeing the subgroups and business branching off from that.

MM: Totally agree.

MJ: What’s your take on the negative aspects of those communities? Just thinking of Reddit, there’s the groups that have kind of splintered off from that, and you know the whole “Fappening,” the celebrity picture distribution, and some of the cyberbullying and things that have gone on, on the social web, what’s your take on that negative aspect to it?

MM: Again, I don’t think that’s new. I think that there were negative communities before the internet and we have a tendency to see that they're new when we see them on the internet for the first time. But there are bad people who rally together offline and there are going to be bad people who rally together online and there’s going to be the same sort of groupthink mentality, and crowd mentality and herd mentality that happens online in the same way that it happens offline. A classic example is -- do you guys remember, it was in Vancouver in believe, I don’t know if you guys have heard of this story, where the Vancouver Canucks, the hockey team, were in the Stanley Cup Finals and they lost. There was this huge riot in the streets and all these people were burning cars and breaking windows. The question was “Well, how is it that some of these kids are such nice kids, how is that they could have done those awful things? How is it that some people were arrested? Vancouver has such nice people.” This herd and crowd mentality brought the worst out in people for whatever reason, they did things they didn’t think they would do otherwise, and the same thing is true online. I don’t think that’s because of Reddit, I don’t think that’s because of the internet. I think that’s just because of who we are as people, and those are just fundamental human behaviors that, again, I don’t think are that new.

MJ: I would definitely agree. I’ve also noticed somewhat the online “vigilantism.” I remember a case, Matt you might have seen it on BoingBoing, of a woman who was throwing kittens in the trash or something like that.

MM: Oh, I remember that. That was Reddit that did that, right? They found out exactly who it was?

MJ: It might have been Reddit that actually did all the legwork on it. I think that’s good in a sense, because obviously I’m not really for people hurting animals. But at the same time, I think some of those cases, you lose out on some of the context and it triggers that mob mentality, that herd mentality, and that kind of thing can follow people around for their entire life. I think online culture lacks some empathy for people that have made bad decisions.

MM: I agree, especially when you introduce anonymity into the mix, which Reddit of course does. I think what that example actually highlights, which is perhaps unique to online communities, is that there’s this weird tension between the creators of the community allowing the community to evolve and to become its own organism; the tension between that and them controlling the community, them sort of dictating what is allowed and what is not. It’s that tension that I think is so hard for technologists to figure out because we’ve seen examples of technologists trying to control the community too much, and the community leaving as a result of that, or the community backlashing as a result of that. And we’ve seen examples like you highlighted, where if there are no reins, the community can go and do some things that are ultimately destructive. So, I think that tension is fascinating and it’s super-complicated.

MB: Yeah, there definitely is a fine line that you have to walk if you want to develop a community. Especially in the newer stages, you kind of almost don’t want to have any restraints and then build the restraints as it goes I would think, as oppose to starting with them. Because if you start with a whole bunch of rules and restraints that people can and can’t -- then they’re just going to move on from that to begin with and never develop it.

MM: It’s a weird tension. There’s probably some analogy there to government that we could talk about. There’s probably some relationship between online community building and the rise of real world governments. You as a citizen of the US are autonomous to some extent, but you have elected these community leaders who are acting on your behalf a little bit. So, maybe the same is true, to some extent, with moderators of subreddits and the creators of Reddit more broadly. There’s this idea, particularly in North America, that everybody is online, that we’re all connected now and I think it’s really important to realize that the internet is so new, it is so nascent. We are at the beginning of this. There are more people, and this is a fact, not online, who are not connected to the internet today in the world, than there are people who are. And that’s incredible, that is incredible to me to think about because we’re just at the beginning of the extent to which we can become connected. We’re just beginning to realize how connected we can become. So, it’s not that we’re completely connected now, it’s that we’re just starting to become.

MJ: I would certainly agree. I think it’s going to be amazing to see what comes next. I’m really looking forward to it.

MM: Yeah, me too. I think there are all sorts of interesting things that are going to come as a result of that. You have to imagine, we feel bombarded with messages and connections and social ties today, but it will be multiple orders of magnitude and more complicated than that in the near future.

MB: I think getting more and more people connected to the internet, that way you’re getting the collective knowledge of the world. We touched on that in a podcast way, way back, it was on a TED Talk that we talked about, where there was a small tribe or something in Africa and thanks to the internet, they were able to figure out a way to grow crops in their small community, where they hadn’t been able to before. It was all thanks to being connected and being able to talk to other tribes in the area and figure things out like that.

MM: Right, the communications that didn’t exist before.

MB: Yeah.

MM: Yeah, it’s incredible.

MJ: Yeah. Okay, we really appreciate you joining us.

MM: Thanks for having me. It was awesome talking to you guys and I’d love to help you guys find other people to interview in the future.

MJ: yeah, if you know anyone that’s got something interesting like this, feel free to send them our way. Maybe we’ll circle back with you in a little bit and check in with where Volley is at too.

MM: That would be awesome, that would be really cool.

MB: Awesome, thanks.

MJ: Thanks a lot for joining us then.

MM: Thanks Matt, thanks Mike. I really appreciate it.

A: That’s all for this episode of Robot Overlordz. You can find our show notes, including links from this episode, on our website at RobotOverlordz.FM. That’s it for our radio broadcasting. We would love to hear your thoughts on this episode on our forum, or you can review us on iTunes. We’re Robot Overlordz with a Z.

MJ: Thanks everyone for listening.

MB: Thanks.


Image Credit: By Phloating man (Own work) [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons