Linda Stone asked me that question at SciFoo, and I couldn't give her an answer. To me, everything I've been passionate about is just different sides of the same project, but I've never been able to communicate it effectively in words. The experiments I build are attempts to capture parts of the vision I see in my head. The only way I can explain it is to demonstrate.
I always was a spacey kid, off in my own world. My mother claims I never made a sound until I was one year old, I was always sleeping, and all of my early memories are of solitary thinking or dreaming. It came as a shock to discover that I was sharing the world with other people, and that sense of wonder never quite wore off. I still get a shiver up my spine every time I think about the fact that there are 6 billion other people on this planet right now. Think about that for a second. Try to imagine a thousand people standing in a crowd. Now picture a crowd a hundred times bigger. The world is made up of sixty thousand of those massive crowds.
What keeps me up at nights is that I know every one of those people has a story I'd love to sit down and hear. Human lives are like fractals, there's so much depth I never get tired of learning about people's journeys, but I'm only ever going to glimpse the tiniest fraction of a sliver of all those stories.
Think about all of the people who pass each other in the street every day and never talk. There must be so many pairs who'd fall madly in love, or would write a symphony together, find the cure for cancer if they collaborated, or just become lifelong friends, but they never meet. I can only imagine how many wasted lives could be salvaged just by making the right connections.
Everything I've been driven to do, from weaving live footage of concert-goers into my visuals, to automatic expert location, to mapping social networks, has come from those urges to connect people and hear their stories. It feels like a victory against entropy to be able to say 'You guys should talk' and watch something beautiful grow.
Can you picture what the social network of the planet looks like? Imagine the richness and beauty of the web of relationships between six billion people. I can picture it in my minds eye, glimpses at least, an amazing view of each persons ties to thousands of others, constantly evolving and changing. Every individual's network is a snapshot of their life's story, and the sum of them is the story of the world.
Walt Disney said "We don't make movies to make money, we make money to make more movies". I claim to be running a business, but whenever I've been offered a lucrative opportunity that would pull me away from these goals, I've found myself turning it down. This hasn't been great for my dwindling savings, and it's driven people who try to help me crazy because I've never been able to get across to them what I'm shooting for and why I'd refuse slam-dunk chances to make money.
It's all worth it though, when I create something that communicates part of what I'm seeing, whether its the invisible web of relationships on Twitter, or the structure of a whole country's friendships. I'm convinced there's an immense amount of value in making connections, and that current 'social' software is just scratching the surface. Over the next few decades we're going to see amazing new ways of sharing our stories, and I want to be part of building those tools.