Mental Models

I think we all make mental models constantly — simplifications of the world that help us understand it. And for services on the Internet, our mental models are probably very close — logically, if not in implementation — to the reality of what those services do. If not, how could we use them?

I also like to imagine how the service works, too. I don’t know why I do this, but it makes me feel better about the universe. For a lot of things, to a first approximation, the what and how are sufficiently close that they are essentially the same model. And sometimes a model of how it works eludes me entirely.

for example, my model of email is that an email address is the combination of a username and a system name. My mail server looks up the destination mail server, and IP routes my blob of text to the destination mail server, where that server routes it to the appropriate user’s “mailbox,” which is a file. Which is indeed how it works, more or less, with lots of elision of what I’m sure are important details.

I’ve also begun sorting my mental models of Internet companies and services into a taxonomy that have subjective meaning for me, based on how meritorious and/or interesting they are. Here’s a rough draft:

The What The How Example Dave’s judgment
obvious as in real life email Very glad these exist, but nobody deserves a special pat on the back for them. I’ll add most matchmaking services, too.
obvious non-obvious, but simple and/or elegant Google Search (PageRank) High regard. Basically, this sort of thing has been the backbone of Internet value to-date
not obvious / inscrutable nobody cares Google Buzz lack of popularity kills these. Not much to talk about
obvious obvious Facebook Society rewards these but technically, they are super-boring to me
obvious non-obvious and complex natural language, machine translation, face recognition Potentially very exciting, but not really very pervasive or economically important just yet. Potentially creepy and may represent the end of humanity’s reign on earth.


Google search is famously straightforward. You’re searching for some “thing,” and Google is combing a large index for that “thing.” Back in the Altavista era, that “thing” was just keywords on a page. Google’s first innovation was to use the site’s own popularity (as measured by who links to it and the rankings of those links.) to help sort the results. I wonder how many people had a some kind of mental model of how Google worked that was different than that of Altavista — aside from the simple fact that it worked much “better.” The thing about Google’s “Pagerank” was that it was quite simple, and quite brilliant, because, honestly, none of the rest of us thought of it. So kudos to them.

There have been some Internet services I’ve tried over the years that I could not quite understand. I’m not talking about how they work under the hood, but how they appear to work from my perspective. Remember Google “Buzz?” I never quite understood what that was supposed to be doing.

Facebook, in its essence is pretty simple, too, and I think we all formed something of a working mental model for what we think it does. Here’s mine, written up as SQL code. First, the system is composed of a few tables:

A table of users, a table representing friendships, and a table of posts. The tables are populated by straightforward UI actions like “add friend” or “write post.”

Generating a user’s wall when they log in is as simple as:

You could build an FB clone with that code alone. It is eye-rollingly boring and unclever.

Such an implementation would die when you got past a few thousand users or posts, but with a little work and modern databases that automatically shard and replicate, etc, you could probably handle a lot more. Helping FB is the fact they makes no promises about correctness: a post you make may or may not ever appear on your friend’s wall, etc.

I think the ridiculous simplicity of this is why I have never taken Facebook very seriously. Obviously it’s a gajillion dollar idea, but technically, there’s nothing remotely creative or interesting there. Getting it all to work for a billion users making a billion posts a day is, I’m sure, a huge technical challenge, but not requiring inspiration. (As an aside, today’s FB wall is not so simple. It uses some algorithm to rank and highlight posts. What’s the algorithm and why and when will my friends see my post? Who the hell knows?! Does this bother anybody else but me?)

The last category is things that are reasonably obviously useful to lots of people, but how they work is pretty opaque, even if you think about it for awhile. That is, things that we can form a mental model of what it is, but mere mortals do not understand how it works. Machine translation falls into that category, and maybe all the new machine learning and future AI apps do, too.

It’s perhaps “the” space to watch, but if you ask me the obvious what / simple how isn’t nearly exhausted yet — as long as you can come up with an interesting “why,” that is.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *