Role of Governments: to Serve the People or to Control the People?

This recent podcast by NPR’s Planet Money reminded me of my own issues with the government, Episode 923: Good Teachers, Bad Deal:

A Department of Education program gives talented, up-and-coming teachers a grant, not a loan, to help them pay for college. The condition: After you graduate, you have to teach in a low-income school.

Thousands of teachers kept their end of that bargain but had their grants turned to loans anyway after sending in a required form a day late or accidentally missing a signature. Some are in crippling debt because of it.

Hearing about these teachers’ struggles reminded me of why people hate governments: governments act like they’re here to control or rule us, not to serve us (through the taxes we pay). It’s not supposed to be this way, at least not in the United States.

Chris Rock made a joke that when it comes to the police, you get what you pay for, and that got me thinking: if police were paid double, would you get more talent into the employee pool? Could we do more with fewer officers? People who would be open to trying new ideas, more efficient ways of keeping community? If job security were no longer a guarantee, as it is for many government employees, would that change how they treat people (who should be recognized as the customers)?

A year ago I received a citation from the City of San Jose about a car that was registered to someone with a similar name. There’s no number to call or person to talk to so you can resolve the issue directly. Instead, you are directed to pay first, and then appeal. I thought that was ridiculous, why should I pay first when this person is not me? There’s no proof it’s me included here either, like a title for the car showing me. I sent the letter below.

Dear City of San Jose,

I am sending this notice for your information. Previously, I was issued a parking violation citation issued under license plate ****.

As I mentioned before, I have no relationship to this vehicle. I have never heard of this vehicle (or owned or leased it) until I received the notice from the City of San Jose. Since then, I have conducted research with the DMV on this matter.

On Friday, February 16, 2018, I visited the Santa Clara DMV and called the DMV office at 1-800-777-0133.

Elvin (ID ****) and Georgett (Rep and Senior Technician) at the 1-800 DMV number helped me with the following information:

  • I have exactly one vehicle (2013 ****) registered under my name and address. This is clearly not the Red Nissan that was cited.
  • You may look up my vehicle information under license plate ****. I have included a DMV report of this vehicle (from February 23 CA DMV Visit in Santa Clara).
  • The release of liability for the Red Nissan lists a “Michael ****” and San Jose without a street address or additional identifying information. There is no information that ties the vehicle to me.
  • In the city of San Jose alone, there are 123 people under the name “Michael ****”. In California, there are 1191 people with my name.

I believe this provides clarity that your citation is a mistake.

Sincerely,

Michael ****

No response from the City. 1 year later, earlier this year, I received notice that San Jose made a claim on my taxes. I called the City to protest this. The person I talked to confirmed that they received my letter a year ago but since I had not paid the fine, they would not review my complaint. I reiterated everything mentioned in the letter and told them, but the employee had this “I don’t care, that’s your problem” attitude and could not give any evidence about why they believed the car was mine. She said there was proof it was mine, but did not go into more detail – her case was it’s your name, why would we be wrong? She said I could write a letter to the City, but in a “yeah right, good luck” way.

I asked her what she would do if she had gone through the process I had to prove that the person in question was not me, and she had nothing to say but to dismiss me.

I wrote the city again after that, and a few months later, I got a check for the amount that had been taken from me in the fine. However, there was no information in the letter, no message saying this had been a mistake, that the fine had been cancelled. My concern is what if I get another notice next year that I have another claim on taxes for an unpaid fine, how am I supposed to provide evidence that the issue has been cleared?

There’s no transparency, no responsibility for the government with its constituents. As a citizen, I’ve been treated like a pain in the ass the government is trying to get rid of, and when you listen to the Planet Money podcast, that’s exactly how it feels.

And this makes me question, why do we pay taxes, what is the government’s relationship with its citizens?

A Look at Facebook Dating through the Lens of FriendsPlus

In 2013, I led a team to create FriendsPlus, a mobile app that was acquired (and killed) right at launch.

It turns out Facebook’s new dating app, announced last week, is very similar. Let’s see how Facebook talks about it:

Facebook Dating product manager Charmaine Hung tells me that “I have 2,000 Facebook friends. I’m not best friends with all 2,000 people, and there’s a good chance that one of that could be a really good match with me. I trust them, I appreciate them and I know we’re compatible. The only thing missing is knowing if we’re both interested in being more than just friends without the fear of rejection if you were to do this in real life.”

Let me first share how I talk about FriendsPlus on my LinkedIn Profile, with my intro deck and a screenshot below.

Dating service acquired in 2013 by Vietnam’s largest dating community, Noi.vn.

► Recruited and managed 5 person cross-functional team to produce FriendsPlus, a social / local / mobile dating (SoLoMo) app for iOS and Android.

► Created service targeted towards professional-age females, emphasizing real relationships to make romantic connections in contrast to typical male-oriented “browsing”​ dating services. Product Manager.

► Led startup to acquisition of application and technology platform.

An overview of Friends+ as pitched to investors and later, acquisition partners. The application and technology platform were acquired pre-launch in Q4 2013 by Vietnam’s largest dating service, Noi.vn

I first started work on FriendsPlus in 2013 while I was COO at Cyworld, a social networking service. When I first arrived in Vietnam in 2006, it was still common for women to get married as early as age 18 and slightly older for those who went to university. My theory is that limited life options in education or careers streamline roads to marriage and children.

As women started to build great careers in the blooming (tiger) Vietnamese economy, there was less time to focus on relationships; some of Cyworld’s female employees became increasingly frustrated at growing older but not finding marriage partners.

Going deeper into the problem, traditional methods such as matchmaking could be a bit archaic or difficult if a woman was working away from her hometown. Dating apps like Tinder were primarily focused on (ahem) male psychology; women needed a digital tool to help them meet people in a way that still felt conservative and true to the values (less about hookups) with which they grew up.

After hearing about these problems for some time, I decided to take action. I formed a new company to help my female employees find love: FriendsPlus.

From my user research, I learned that Vietnamese women did not want to meet random people. At the same time, it was not yet culturally acceptable to make the first move (unless you were my future wife).

My problem was how can you bring two people together in a natural, almost magical way?

The solution we proposed was: serendipity.

At the time, Facebook was already the most popular (sigh…Cyworld) social networking service in Vietnam, and you could still pull in friends lists from the service. We let users connect their Facebook accounts to FriendsPlus and select up to the second degree of friends (friends of friends) of people they were interested in as “romantic crushes”; the idea was to include your friends and people that you might have known or seen occasionally but were still a bit shy around.

From here, the app was “set it and forget it.” As other people started to use the app and set their own crush preferences, our system would monitor when two crushes were in close proximity (ex. 1KM away on a weekend afternoon). If you were both around each other, the app would ping you and try to convert you two into meeting – this would also be the first time you knew about each other’s mutual interest. This was a magic moment that might not happen again for a very long time.

FriendsPlus was about removing frictions to create a real meet up and opportunity at love. One point that spurred furious internal argument was leading users to meet offline in the real world instead of to chat. My argument was that if you start chatting, it’s easy to postpone a meet, and basically never meet. Chatting was also what every other dating service did; I felt that the case for chat was the common mistake of seeing what everyone else was doing and assuming you needed to do the same. FriendsPlus needed to be clearly different in how it operated and generated successful outcomes for users.

If you have noticed, however, FriendsPlus had a problem, at least in comparison to social apps of the day: engagement. In 2013, success was about creating addiction, a problem we understand more clearly in light of Facebook, YouTube, and fakes news /  junk content / data privacy. FriendsPlus was a utility that only appeared in your life when something special was about to happen.

Thus, there wasn’t a clear business model (though we could have highlighted places to meet as ads, that ad volume would have been low) or virality. Before launching, we also added ways for people to meet people at random, my homage to ChatRoulette. You can see a preview of that below.

Friends+ Screenshot – Finding People Nearby

FriendsPlus Screenshot.jpg

Feature: Allowed you to propose a meetup right now based on the type of activity and person you would like to do and meet.

To be honest, the app was not going to be easy to launch and have traction grow on its own; this is why I ended up selling it to Noi.vn, Vietnam’s most popular dating service. Noi never launched the app either. I suspect it was hard to get internal support for something that did not work on traditional engagement metrics.

Going back to Facebook, its Dating team is going to face the same issues in defining success. After you set up crushes, what do you do?  FriendsPlus would wait for that magic moment, but if the user does not take action right away with Facebook Dating, she will not go back into the app. It’s also not like you add new friends (I guess this rate declines with age) constantly and consistently over time and can be reminded to set new crushes.

I imagine the real-world usage as follows: I set some crushes. Some time later, as not all users will use the app at the same time, a crush of mine may also use Dating and set me as a crush. Facebook whisks us into an awkward chat:

Facebook: “You guys seem to be crushes. Go chat!” (at a random time of day in which the pair may or may not be busy)

Me: “Hi”

You: “Hi” (anywhere from immediately to days later, have you seen how the modern generation replies to messages?)

Me and You: [Uhhh, what now?] (Hopefully, not a dick pic)

Potential awkward fail, at least based on how the app is described in the TechCrunch article.

The Facebooks and Googles of the world get easy media attention any time they release a new app. My impression is that most of these apps are tests from product teams that need to build out their resumes. These apps are not real businesses; they get 15 minutes (seriously, go search Techcrunch) of media attention and die out months later.

While this sounds like a humble brag, I claim this more about my failure in social products: I feel I hit my peak as a social innovator in 2012/2013, seeing pain points and constructing social utilities to solve them on a monthly basis. Because I was in Vietnam, these ideas died; I could not get investor support for anything without clear virality (“build it and they will come” and gamification are not strategies) and revenue models. (Cyworld and Mimo failed in significant part because unlike MySpace, Facebook, and Snapchat in the West, we had to grow users rapidly and make money.) Months or years later, I would see these same ideas I had get millions in funding in Silicon Valley, like Facebook Dating. They unsurprisingly all failed, though perhaps some like FriendsPlus in Vietnam eventually got acquired.

That is what I expect to happen here.

And1 Tai Chi Mixtape Shoes – In the Wild!

Introducing the TAI CHI MIXTAPE, a limited edition remix on one of the most iconic basketball shoes to date, the AND1 Tai Chi.

And I’ve got them. You can’t read my past blog posts on my extensive fan love anymore but I was a huge And1 fan – I had jerseys, mixtapes, mixtape poster, mixtape tours, books, etc. I tried to intern for them over a decade ago, writing a personal letter to Seth Berger. I even have an autographed card from the team’s 2005 E3 appearance to promote their And1 Streetball game. It sits framed in my apartment and has traveled the world with me. It’s been great to see them getting back to their streetball and community roots over the last few years – you can also find their gear at affordable prices in places like Walmart.

The shoes look great in person. The only problem is if I can bear to wear them and get them dirty…IMG_1477IMG_1479IMG_1480IMG_1482