Contact Managers Suck: The Micelf Whitepaper
Contact apps haven’t changed since smartphones came out more than ten years ago. It’s time to give them a makeover.
I quit my job in August 2019 to go vagabonding - solo traveling all over the world. Before Covid-19 cut the trip short in February 2020, I visited 14 countries in Europe, Asia, and Oceania.
I met dozens of great people that I wanted so stay in touch with - and I found it surprisingly hard to do so. It felt like everyone had their own pet favorite way to stay in touch - some Instagram, some WhatsApp, some old school email and some just a phone number. Sometimes I’d open three different apps before I finally found a way to contact the person I wanted to talk to.
It felt crazy, and I asked everyone how they did it - and people just shrugged. No one had a good way, other than picking one specific app (generally either WhatsApp or Instagram) and trying to stick with it as much as possible.
It felt crazy because it is crazy. Can we do better? Should we even care?
Happiness is Love
We should care because “Happiness is love.”
That’s the principal finding of The Grant Study, a 75-year longitudinal study of hundreds of people who grew up in Boston neighborhoods between 1940 and 1945, and which continues to this day.
In a few more words, George Vaillant, the study’s principal investigator, says that the main conclusion is that “warmth of relationships throughout life has the greatest positive impact on ‘life satisfaction’”.
Meanwhile, we are now in a “loneliness epidemic” (Google that phrase - you’ll be startled how many results you get). Vivek Murthy, a former surgeon-general of the United States, called loneliness an epidemic, likening its impact on health to obesity or smoking 15 cigarettes per day.
A study published in 2010 estimated that 35% of Americans over 45 were lonely, and Britain has appointed a “Minister for Loneliness” to address the issue.
What about social media? Surely they are helping us stay in touch?
Not necessarily: “In a study of Americans aged 19 to 32, published in 2017, Brian Primack of the University of Pittsburgh, and colleagues, found that the quartile that used social media most often was more than twice as likely to report loneliness as the one using it least.
I suspect that this is because social networks optimize for their users spending copious time on their platforms (which drives ad revenue). This is very different from optimizing for creating meaningful relationships.
So what would a product that does optimize for nurturing great relationships look like?
The Perfect Relationship Manager
What’s missing isn’t some special means of communication, I think - however you want to write, send emojis, share photos and videos, video chat, or play games with someone, there’s already a good product that lets you do that.
What’s missing is a hub that ties all those existing platforms and products together in one place that is singularly focused on helping you build great relationships.
Let’s call that product a “Relationship Manager”. These are the features it should have:
Flexibility: Stores All Contact Data
The most basic purpose of a Relationship Manager is to store the various ways in which one might contact another person. We traditionally think of this as storing the name, phone number, email, and maybe mailing address of a person.
However, much of the digital interaction and communication through various social networks or platforms - Twitter, Facebook, or Linkedin. Links to profiles on these platforms should also be included.
But it goes even further - if I pay someone on Venmo, a link to their Venmo profile should be part of their contact information.
What about their various online homes that don’t necessarily fit the bill of “social network” or “a way to contact someone”? Examples might include a Spotify profile, IMDB profile, Wikipedia page etc. I think those belong here, too. Exchange: Easy To Exchange Information If I meet Bob for the first time and we decide to exchange contact information to be able to stay in touch, this exchange should be quick and easy. The whole transaction should be completed in 15 seconds or less.
If I meet Bobby Shaftoe at a party but neglect to get his contact information, can I easily find him later using just his name?
Naturally, Bobby should be able to disable this functionality if he so chooses - if Bobby doesn’t want to be found, I won’t be able to find him.
Buf if Bobby does make himself “discoverable”, it should be easy for me to find him and get in touch with him.
If I change or add any contact information, my trusted contacts should automatically get the updated information - no manual effort should be required on my part or theirs.
Automagic: Intelligently Constructed and Updated
I shouldn’t have to enter all the information myself - neither for information describing how to contact me, nor for my friends’ contact details.
The Relationship Manager should give me a handy reminder of what I have done with this person and when, ideally with relevant supporting materials (e.g. photos from the time we went hiking).
Helpfulness: Reminders and Suggestions
I am a fallible human being and sometimes forget my friends’ birthdays (sorry!). My Relationship Manager should make up for those weaknesses with its strengths: it should remind me of my friends’ birthdays as well as any anniversaries coming up.
More than that, it should offer specific suggestions - “It’s Bobby’s birthday! Click here to customize and send a ‘Happy Birthday’ message to him.”
Suggestions can be even more creative in the pursuit of building better relationships. Do you have an event scheduled in Seattle? Here’s a suggestion: “When you’re in Seattle, why not have dinner with your friend Lawrence Pritchard Waterhouse, whom you last saw two years ago? Click here to review and send a dinner invitation I’ve prepared for you.”
I could also set reminders manually: “In two months, prepare an email from me to Goto Dengo that starts with: “Hey Goto, how’s life? How is your new company coming along? I’d love to grab lunch sometime and catch up”.
Intentionality: Transition into Actions in Other Services
This is a mouthful. What I mean is that the Relationship Manager not only shows contact information or links to social media, but provides a pre-filled entry point into specific actions.
Here are some examples:
- Email: Draft an email to this contact with specific text prefilled.
- Venmo: Request money from this contact.
- Calendar: Create a calendar event with this contact and me as guests.
Focus: Optimize for the Right Use Case
The Relationship Manager should make it easy for me to interact with the right person in whatever way I choose.
I originally didn’t think of this, as this feature felt “obvious”, but added it after thinking deeply about social networks. I hope this feature will make sense to you once you read about how social networks fit into the picture below.
Current Solutions, and How They Fall Short
I’m going to refer to the desired features as described above using the short (one- or two-word) titles that I gave them above.
Here’s a quick overview of the tools that people nowadays use as part of their contact management process, and how they fare on the desired features we identified above:
From my anecdotal research, the vast majority of people use the Contacts app that comes by default with their phone - either Apple or Google Contacts.
These do fine at the bare minimum of storing contact information - but no more than the bare minimum. For example, to store a link to someone’s Facebook profile in my Google Contacts app, I have to shoehorn it by adding a “Custom” “IM” profile, and setting its name to “Facebook”… which stores the username, but still doesn’t link to the profile. Apple’s solution is slightly better, but only works well for a small set of social media platforms.
Exchanging information is shockingly bad on both platforms. From my informal survey, the vast majority of people manually type in the information of new people they meet. This, in 2020, when everyone has a smartphone with Bluetooth, and cameras and QR codes, and near-ubiquitous internet access… this is nuts.
This is particularly disappointing since Bump, perhaps the last really interesting innovator in this space, had a far better solution already some ten years ago (you and your new friend physically “bump” your phones together). It’s even more disappointing considering that Google acquired Bump in 2013 (and then promptly shut it down and directed the people to work on other projects).
Contacts Apps tend to store information in everyone’s private silos, and so features like Discoverability or Bidirectional Sync are out of the question. Automagic is also a no.
Google does provide a timeline of interactions via Google services on their web app. Given Google’s vast reach, this already is really helpful. As far as I can see, this feature is not available on the smartphone app.
Birthday reminders do happen via Google’s Calendar app, but not more creative suggestions. There is some Intentionality with respect to other services.
Given social networks’ centralization, they naturally excel at certain features: Exchange, Discoverability, Bidirectional Sync, Automagic. Some, though not all, also do well on Timeline and Helpfulness.
Social Networking companies have refined, fine-tuned products that drive those companies to huge valuations. To do this, the companies work very hard to optimize for time spent on their platforms, which drives revenue.
This is a bad metric to optimize for a Relationship Manager. A Relationship Manager should facilitate direct connection with a specific individual (or set of individuals).
By contrast, social networks like endless feeds that flit from one person to another, which presents ample opportunity to insert ads. Social networks thus fail badly on the Focus metric.
Many social networks (e.g. Instagram) like to pretend they’re the only game in town and restrict users to a single link on their profile.
Facebook is a notable exception - they make it very easy to add links to other social media. In their apps though, they make this information difficult to get to, making Facebook a poor Relationship Manager. This shouldn’t be surprising given what Facebook is optimizing.
Search engines often play a part in what one might call the contact management lifecycle. They are particularly great at Discoverability, obviously, but also Automagic - they pull appropriate information from all the corners of the web and present it.
When meeting the mysterious Enoch Root at a party, for example, looking him up on a search engine is a great way to answer the basic question: who is this person?
This works particularly great for notable people: if you meet LeBron James at a party and are for some reason unsure of who he is, Google will provide you with a great overview via a “knowledge panel”:
Importantly, this includes not just the summary, but also links to LeBron’s website and social media profiles.
For most of us, though, search engines think in terms of links and pages rather than people. This means that for most searches, results from different individuals are all mixed up in the results.
Landing Pages are in part a response to the drawbacks of social networks and search engines when they are used as part of a Relationship Manager.
Many social networks allow each person to have only one link on their profile - so it makes sense to have a single page that serves as a hub that then links to all the other pages. This is the premise behind Linktree, for example.
Consultants and similar professionals like more focused pages that seek to direct the user to a specific action; about.me is a service frequently used for this.
Landing Pages provide great Flexibility and Focus, but are not really designed to have the other features a good Relationship Manager should have.
“CRM” stands for “Customer Relationship Management”, and it’s generally a suite of tools that should encompass and track all the different parts of the relationship between a business and its customers and prospective customers (often other businesses). CRM software is big business; Salesforce, likely the best-known company in the space, has a market cap of $189B.
Modern CRMs are really great at what they are built for, and some of those features translate well to Relationship Managers for individuals: Flexibility, Timelines, Focus, Intentionality, and to a lesser extent Helpfulness.
They are so great that I actually considered getting a CRM subscription to manage my own personal contacts. But that would be shoehorning them for a purpose for which they are not designed, and in which they do have some drawbacks - they don’t provide Exchange, Discoverability, or Bidirectional Sync.
I gave CRMs a 😐 (“kind of okay”) rating for Helpfulness. I should note that I only have detailed first-hand experience with Hubspot’s CRM, and while Hubspot does try to be Helpful, those features are not quite as good as they could be. It’s possible that Salesforce or other CRMs are better at this metric.
Summary - Current Solutions
Let’s review how the existing solutions fare on the features that we’ve identified as important:
There are a few really interesting observations here:
Contacts Apps fare poorly. Contacts apps are great on just one feature: Focus. This is surprising on the one hand - they are the only tool in our list specifically designed for managing relationships, and they don’t do it well. On the other hand, this is also not so surprising: there’s no obvious gold mine in Contacts Apps, and so they receive only minimal resources and development time compared to other apps.
“Big Business” products are great in their subset of features. This is the converse of the previous point: products that do have an obvious gold mine - Social Networks, CRM Software, Search Engines - have received a ton of development resources and have therefore become really great at what they are made for.
All the desired features already exist somewhere. Between the different products, all of the desired features already exist somewhere - just not in the same place. Helpfulness stands out as a feature where there is substantial room for improvement, perhaps because it is uniquely tricky and requires broad access and insight into the user’s life.
The Micelf Proposition
So far we have identified the desired features of a great contact management system, and we’ve also identified how each of those features is implemented in an existing product, though no existing product has them all.
Can we bring all those desired features into one new product? What would it look like?
Let’s call this platform Micelf.
The goal of Micelf is to help you build meaningful relationships - so let’s start with a CRM-like view of someone, laser Focused on your relationship with that one individual, with no distractions and news feeds and “promoted posts”.
The profile has a headshot / avatar, and the profile stores and lists all their contact information, including social media profiles, websites, phone numbers, addresses, birthdays and other important dates, relationship, employer, a UUID etc. It has Flexibility - it stores all pertinent contact information about this person.
Micelf creates profiles Automagically by scraping publicly-available information from the internet. That means that when I create my Micelf profile, Micelf will help prefill links to social media and other websites as appropriate. Even better - let’s say Bobby Shaftoe hasn’t made a Micelf profile yet. When I meet Bobby Shaftoe as a contact and get his phone number, I’ll look for him on Micelf and find his automagically-generated public profile. I can then link the phone number, which will stay visible only to me, to his public profile. This doesn’t change Bobby’s public profile in any way, but whenever I look for his contact details in my phone, I see the phone number in the same place as his public profile.
This also fosters great Discoverability - I can search Micelf for anyone, and as long as they have some public information, I’ll be able to find links to wherever they have decided to put publicly-available information about themselves online. This also makes great landing pages from search results.
Exchanging contact information with someone is quick and easy. Let’s say Lawrence Pritchard Waterhouse is already on Micelf when we meet, so I just show him a QR code, and just like that we are connected in ten seconds or less. Let’s say Enoch Root isn’t on Micelf yet - so my Micelf app will generate a vCard QR code - when Enoch scans it, my contact information will get added to his default Contacts app. Even this is an order of magnitude better than how people exchange information today.
If we are not in the same place when we meet (let’s say we meet online), the above can easily be accomplished via a URL rather than a QR code.
It should be noted that I likely will not want to share the same set of information with everyone I meet. Micelf makes this easy by letting me assign people to different circles, such as Work Contacts, Acquaintances, and Close Friends. Whether someone sees a particular piece of my contact information depends on what circles I’ve put them in.
Once I’m connected with someone on Micelf, Bidirectional Sync happens automatically in the background: when I update my phone number, everyone who’s had access to my phone number automatically gets the new information. The same happens when I add a new social media profile - I choose which circles it should be visible to, and everyone in those circles gets the new information automatically.
On the profile of each person you’re connected with, Micelf shows you a great Timeline of your interactions with this person, digital or otherwise. Clearly this is limited by the amount of information you give us access to.
Micelf is Helpful: We’ll show reminders based on birthdays, anniversaries, and any other dates we know about - complete with specific suggestions and pre-drafted messages: “It’s Bob’s birthday! Click here to customize and send a ‘Happy Birthday’ message to him.”
If you give Micelf access to your calendar and/or location, get even better suggestions: “When you’re in Seattle, why not have dinner with your friend Lawrence Pritchard Waterhouse, whom you last saw two years ago? Click here to review and send a dinner invitation I’ve prepared for you.”
Set reminders manually if you’d like: “In two months, prepare an email from me to Goto Dengo that starts with: “Hey Goto, how’s life? How is your new company coming along? I’d love to grab lunch sometime and catch up”.
Through integrations with other apps, Micelf will also facilitate great Intentionality by letting you quickly initiate specific actions for a particular contact within those apps.
Here are some examples:
- Email: Draft an email to this contact with specific text prefilled.
- Venmo: Request money from this contact.
- Calendar: Create a calendar event with this contact and me as guests.
Concerns & Challenges
An obvious concern that comes to mind around Micelf is privacy, especially around how Micelf automatically creates and updates profiles based on publicly-available information.
Let’s face it: governments, corporations, bad guys, and just about anyone with money already has access to these kinds of databases. In fact, it was reading about a shady company amassing and selling such information that partially inspired this idea. I realized that there was no way to put the genie back in the bottle, so I thought instead about what we could now do with this genie by democratizing access to it.
Micelf hopes to empower individuals to take control of their narratives online. Micelf will make it easy to see what’s out there about you so that you can take appropriate action on it. Applying for a new job soon? Take a look at what a thorough background check - including an online search - might reveal on you, so that you have a chance to clear it up before your prospective employer sees it.
As CEO of a growing company, I got a ton of unsolicited emails and phone calls on a regular basis from people trying to sell me something - including people selling databases of contact information that enabled others to make these annoying unsolicited calls! I find that really bothersome, so let me be very clear: Micelf will never sell your information, or anyone else’s.
Integration and Gatekeepers
To be truly useful, in much of day-to-day use Micelf would need to be practically invisible. When you’re adding the recipients of an email or a text, contacts should be pulled up directly from your Micelf database automatically. How feasible is that?
Based on how most of us communicate and the technology we use, this means that Micelf would need to integrate tightly with the contacts stored on our phones and with Gmail. So there are two gatekeepers: Google and Apple.
From a computer, this could be accomplished reasonably well via a browser extension. In phone apps, though, there doesn’t seem to be a way to do this seamlessly enough to make this appealing to anyone but the most dedicated people.
You could of course not rely on Micelf for these tasks - but then this greatly diminishes the utility of Micelf.
What Others are Building
Since starting to think about this problem and writing an early draft of this whitepaper, I have come across a number of applications that are trying to make better Contacts apps, CRMs for personal relationships, ways to exchange contact information and so on.
Thanks to the friends who pointed me to apps such as these during our conversations about the Micelf idea.
None of them, as far as I can tell, have or are planning to build all of the features I think a great personal relationship manager should have. I think some decisions some of them have made will actually make it harder to build out the rest of the features.
For example, a number of companies are copying the features of business CRMs and creating “personal CRMs” - without addressing the weaknesses of traditional CRMs for personal relationships. The relationship between a business and a potential customer is highly asymmetrical, and so CRMs are structured asymmetrically as well. But relationships between friends are generally symmetrical - I am a friend to you in the same way that you are a friend to me - and so a “personal CRM” should reflect this. Specifically, traditional CRMs lack the Exchange, Discoverability, and Bidirectional Sync features described above - and the companies copying CRMs for personal relationships aren’t building them in, either.
Given that it appears extremely challenging to build “the perfect relationship manager” at this time (largely due to the gatekeepers of Apple and Google), perhaps the startups mentioned above are actually doing the right thing: building something useful, if limited, and hoping for the best.
Strong relationships are the most important contributing factor to overall happiness, and yet as we grow more and more connected we are also growing more and more lonely.
Existing applications are not designed to nurture meaningful relationships, and indeed fail at this task.
We can do better by taking the best features of contacts apps, social networks, landing pages, CRM software, and search engines and uniting them around a singular goal: nurturing great relationships.
A number of startups have identified this need and opportunity and are working to address it. I am happy to see that.
I think that given the limitations of integrating with the apps people use to communicate, building a great solution with mainstream appeal with these approaches will be extremely challenging, if not impossible, unless you happen to be Apple or Google.
That is why, for now, I have decided not to pursue this idea myself.
If you are interested in talking about contact managers or other ideas in this whitepaper, please get in touch - I’d love to talk.
P.S. At the time of this writing, my teeny tiny barebones prototype of a subset of Micelf features is up at micelf.com. Here’s my profile, and here’s some musician’s.