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“Facebook Is a Weatherless World”

By - August 30, 2014

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This quote, from a piece in Motherboard,  hit me straight between the eyeballs:

Facebook…will not let you unFacebook Facebook. It is impossible to discover something in its feeds that isn’t algorithmically tailored to your eyeball.

“The laws of Facebook have one intent, which is to compel us to use Facebook…It believes the best way to do this is to assume it can tell what we want to see based on what we have seen. This is the worst way to predict the weather. If this mechanism isn’t just used to predict the weather, but actually is the weather, then there is no weather. And so Facebook is a weatherless world.”

- Sean Schuster-Craig, AKA Jib Kidder

The short piece notes the lack of true serendipity in worlds created by algorithm, and celebrates the randomness of apps (Random) and artists (like Jib Kidder) who offer a respite from such “weatherless worlds.”

What’s really playing out here is a debate around agency. Who’s in control when you’re inside Facebook – are we, or is Facebook? Most of us feel like we’re in control – Facebook does what we tell it to do, after all, and we seem to like it there just fine, to judge by our collective behaviors. Then again, we also know that what we are seeing, and being encouraged to interact with, is driven by a black box, and many of us are increasingly uneasy with that idea. It feels a bit like the Matrix – we look for that cat to reappear, hoping for some insight into how and whether the system is manipulating us.

Weather is a powerful concept in relation to agency – no one controls the weather, it simply *is*. It has its own agency (unless, of course, you believe in a supreme agent called God, which for these intents and purposes we can call Weather as well.)  It’s not driven by a human-controlled agency, it’s subject to extreme interpretation, and it has a serendipity which allows us to concede our own agency in the face of its overwhelming truth.

Facebook also has its own agency – but that agency is driven by algorithms controlled by humans. As a model for the kind of world we might someday fully inhabit, it’s rather unsettling. As the piece points out, “It is impossible to discover something in its feeds that isn’t algorithmically tailored to your eyeball.” Serendipity is an illusion, goes the argument. Hence, the “I changed my habits on Facebook, and this is what happened” meme is bouncing around the web at the moment. 

It’s true, to a point, that there’s a certain sterility to a long Facebook immersion, like wandering the streets of Agrestic and noting all the oddballs in this otherwise orderly fiction, but never once do you really get inside Lacy Laplante’s head. (And it never seems to rain.)

The Motherboard article also bemoans Twitter’s evolution toward an algorithmically-driven feed – “even Twitter, that last bastion of personal choice, has begun experimenting with injecting users’ feeds with “popular” content.” Close readers of this site will recall I actually encouraged Twitter to do this here: It’s Time For Twitter To Filter Our Feeds. But How?.

The key is that question – But How?

To me, the answer lies with agency. I’m fine with a service filtering my feeds, but I want agency over how, when, and why they do so.

I think that’s why I’ve been such an advocate for what many call “the open web.” The Internet before Facebook and mobile apps felt like a collective, messy ecosystem capable of creating its own weather, it was out of control and unpredictable, yet one could understand it well enough to both give and receive value. We could build our own houses, venture out in our own vehicles, create cities and commerce and culture. If anything was the weather, it was Google, but even Google didn’t force the pasteurized sensibility one finds on services like Facebook.

As we like to say: Pray for rain.

 

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Writing Is Code, Reading Is Visualization

By - August 29, 2014

Yesterday I stumbled onto a fascinating PBS Newshour interview with book designer Peter Mendelsund, well-regarded for his cover treatments of titles ranging from George Dyson’s Turing’s Cathedral to The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo.

Mendelsen argued that when we read, we visualize the text, each of us creating a different reality in our minds. Those co-created images – created by both the author and the reader – are unique and vital to the process of reading – and by extension, to our ability to imagine and to create.

In the the interview, Mendelsund is asked about our image-driven culture – there were more than a trillion photos shared last year, according to Chute, a “visual revolution” company I’ve recently joined as a Director. We’ve become a society of image sharers – the very act of sharing is celebrated - and image creators – to the point where “selfie” has made the dictionary and “food porn” is a thing.

But as we snap and share, share and snap, we must remember the value of the mind’s innate ability to create images from code* – the code of writing. Words are pure symbols capable of painting entire worlds across our mind’s eye. And the extraordinary thing is each of sees something unique when we encounter the written word, yet we all understand the same code.  “The idea of imagining things ourselves…this world we occupy when we’re reading… is more valuable than ever,” Mendelsund said, referring to our image-addicted culture. “There are few other places – maybe other than when we are dreaming – where we get this feeling of occupying a metaphysical realm.”

I plan on reading Mendelsund’s What We See When We Read this weekend, I’ll post a review here if this short burst proves insufficient….

*Of course, musicians and coders also “see” and dream in code, and famously, the cast of “The Matrix” “saw” through dripping lines of code into the visual reality painted by the film’s antagonist AIs.

NewCo New York 2014: My Chairman’s Picks To Visit

By - August 25, 2014

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Last week I created my schedule for NewCo San Francisco, and wrote about them here. What many folks don’t know is that there are now nine confirmed NewCo festivals around the world. Three weeks after San Francisco, nearly 100 New York companies will be opening their doors and welcoming festival goers in our second annual NewCo New York, Sept. 30th-Oct. 2nd. If you live in NY, or are going there for Advertising Week this Sept.29-October 3rd, please register and visit some of your favorites.

With that in mind, here are my picks for New York.

Day One, Weds. October 1st

tumblr9 am - Tumblr. I knew the company back before it was acquired by Yahoo!, but I have not been back since. I cannot wait to grok the vibe of the place again. This is perhaps the most compelling part of NewCo Festivals for me – the vibe of the company you get simply by being inside the place. Tumblr has not yet uploaded its session description (tick tick, folks!), so I don’t know who is presenting, but it doesn’t matter – I want to get smart about this company once again. Runners up:  Simulmedia and Dstillery. Both are run by great colleagues of mine – so I already know a lot about their businesses. But both are worth a look – as they are disrupting media models in television and advertising, respectively.

foursquare10:30 am – Foursquare. Founder and CEO Dennis Crowley will be presenting Foursquare much-anticipated reboot, and I’m looking forward to hearing about the strategy from the founder’s mouth. Crowley has ridden the hype cycle up, down and now back up again, and I plan to learn as much as I can from that experience. Runners up: Evoke Neuroscience and General Assembly. Evoke is all about wearables and health data, a field I want to learn – but I’ll have to wait. And GA is re-thinking education in the tech space, a burgeoning market that I’m keeping an eye on.

Chartbeat12 pm – Chartbeat. I keep hearing great things about this “attention metrics” company, but know precious little about it. What a great opportunity to learn more and connect to its leaders – as with most NewCo sessions, the presentor is also the CEO. Runners up: Basno, a bitcoin blockchain company, and Glimpse, whose founder is doing a session on the ups and downs of running a startup.

retoy1.30 pm – Retoy. This is a flyer, but who doesn’t want to see a new kind of toy company? The CEO of Retoy will present on overcoming the “jar jar effect” of groupthink inside companies of all sizes. Runners up: RebelMouse and Zeel. RebelMouse is one of my investments and has a great founding team. Zeel is bring massages on demand everywhere – including the NY NewCo session!

MRY3 pm – MRY Group. I’ve always marveled at the work of agencies in the media world, but not spent much time with the creative side of that industry. MRY sounds like a new kind of agency that is rethinking how to work with cutting edge brands. Runners up: The New School and Startup Institute. Both are educational in nature, but very unique. I’ve always wanted to get to know the New School – I may change my sked, it was really a toss up between MRY and The New School. And Startup Institute sounds like a very New York place to hang.

LHV4.30 pm – Lerer Hippeau Ventures. One of the most connected and successful New York venture firms. I just could not pas sup a chance to see how they do what they do. Runners up: Yahoo! and OrderGroove. Yahoo! is always interesting, and I’d love to learn how the New York office feels compared to the Valley. And OrderGroove seems to be onto something really important when it comes to the conversation economy – connecting brands to truly loyal customers.

Day Two, Thursday, October 2

wichcraft9 am - ‘wichcraft. Ya gotta throw in a few curveballs at any NewCo. This is a food purveyor, one I’ve never heard of. But they focus on local and seasonal ingredients, and it’s always good to start your day with a company that has great food! Runners up: NYC Media Lab and NextJump. The NYC Media Lab sounds fascinating – a connector between NYC’s universities and its workplaces. And NextJump is a very “newco” NewCo – it’s mission is dead on to NewCo’s philosophy: “To change the world by changing the workplace.”

casper10.30 am – Casper. “Taking back sleep on bed at a time.” A new kind of company disrupting the totally bullsh*t mattress industry? Yes please! Runners up: Kickstarter and DonorsChose. One has redefined how projects get funded, the other is one of the most powerful and agile philanthropic orgs around. So many great choices!

pave12 pm – Pave. A better way to borrow money for a generation that grew up with the Internet. Fascinating. Runners Up: Parse.ly and Atavist. Both are editorial companies, the former focused on editorial analytics, the latter (and I am an investor) on story telling platforms and quality narrative product.

purpose1.30 pm – Purpose. How do “movements” come together? I hope to learn that and more at Pave’s session, which includes case studies on movement-building around gun safety, the Syrian humanitarian crisis, marriage equality, climate, and more. Runners up: MPOWERD and Aviary. My kids use both these companies’ products, one to solar power his phone, the other to edit her photos on her mobile device.

sprinklr3 pm – Sprinklr. Companies like Sprinklr help brands manage their content marketing streams. As someone with a bit of history in the field, I’m looking forward to finally meeting the team behind Sprinklr. Runners Up: SeatGeek and Animoto. SeakGeek helps fans figure out if they are getting scalped for tickets, and Animoto helps anyone make great videos (I could use the help!).

grubhub4.30 pm – GrubHub. Did anyone think food delivery would be a massive business after Kozmo fell down? Well, it is, and I want to see how GrubHub did it. Runners up: Kenshoo and Capital One Labs. Kenshoo is a very smart marketing automation company, and I’d be quite interested in learning how an old school credit card player is innovating these days….

Once again, 12 companies in two days. And consider this sked subject to change, there are so many great choices, I may well move it around a bit. Then again, as with last year, sessions will fill up quickly, so if you haven’t already, go register and fill out your sked now! NewCo New York promises to be an incredible experience.

AdTech Is Alive and Well: I’ll Have the Full Stack, Please

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National-Pancake-Day-at-IHOPReading The Information’s piece on Facebook’s reported re-introduction of the Atlas ad-serving technology, I wondered – Does the market really need six or more full stack adtech solutions?

Google is the undisputed leader in the field – it’s spent nearly ten years stitching its own technology into acquisitions like DoubleClick (the original ad server), AdMeld (supply side platform), AdWords (search), AdMobs (mobile), Teracent (targeting), Invite Media (demand side platform),  spider.io (anti-fraud), Adometry (attribution) and many others.

So why would anyone want to challenge Google’s dominance? Because if you’re a major Internet player, you can’t afford to hand Google all the leverage – both financial as well as data and insight. If you have hundreds of millions of logged in customers (all of whom create valuable data), you need to be able to understand their actions across multiple channels and offer those insights to your marketing clients. And that means you need to own your own ad stack.

This is why Facebook is building its own adtech stack. This is why Yahoo! and AOL are once again investing in their stacks. And this is why Twitter is building out a similar stack with MoPub (mobile), AdGrok (search), RestEngine (email marketing), Bluefin (video analytics), Trendr (social analytics), Gnip (analytics), Namo (native ads), TapCommerce (retargeting), and certainly more to come.

I think the most interesting one to watch in all this is Apple, which has a rather Microsoft-like approach to advertising – it’s in the game, big time, but seems uncertain of how it wants to play in the space. Apple has made significant purchases – Quattro (mobile) and Topsy (analytics) come to mind, but it hasn’t fully committed, and its data use policies and general philosophy are famously confusing to marketers.

And beyond Apple, there’s Amazon – which is quietly building out a full stack solution of its own. Oh, and there are several point-solution companies that are now public, or near-public, who want to play as well – AppNexus, Turn, Rubicon, and RocketFuel, which recently bought DMP X+1. Not to mention the consolidators – Oracle, Salesforce, Adobe, IBM, even SAP – any of which may decide they want to get into the full stack game as well.

Given my point of view on what adtech really represents, I think the truth is no major Internet company can afford to outsource its ability to gather, process, leverage, and exploit real time information on the database of intentions. Adtech may be today’s poster child of stock market slumps, but I think the market is failing to understand adtech’s true value proposition. And that means more deals are on the way.

Why I’m Watching Deep Linking In Mobile

By - August 18, 2014
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The first ever web page, created by Sir Tim Berners Lee to explain, naturally, the WWW.

We are at a turning point in the mobile app ecosystem where deeplinking is becoming a priority and not just a feature.URX blog

This week marks the beginning of a journey I’m taking to understand “deep linking” in mobile. I’ve kept one eye on the space for some time, but it’s clearly heating up. Last Spring three major mobile players – Facebook, Google, and Apple – all announced significant developments in deep linking. Twitter has also fortified its deep linking capabilities of late, as has Yahoo.

Most of these major players are supporting deep linking for commercial reasons – their business is driven by advertising, and a huge cut of mobile advertising revenues are in turn driven by app installs. Marketers want to be able to link directly to specific places inside their apps, so they can drive qualified leads to convert (and measure effectiveness/optimize campaigns). To be clear, these are the ads that show up inside apps on your mobile phone encouraging you to download a free game or service. These install ads make up a huge percentage of mobile advertising revenue, though it’s hard to find hard figures for exactly what percentage. Current estimates range between 30 and 50% - either way, that makes them the largest category of mobile advertising, period.

This all reminds me of how search played out on the desktop Web – search was a huge percentage of overall “online advertising” revenues in the early days, but it took a while before analysts started breaking search out as a category independent of “online advertising.” Twenty years into search, that category still represents more than 40% of all online ad revenues. So yep, I’m watching deep linking, because I think there’s a big there there.

But there’s a funny hitch to the evolution of linking inside our mobile ecosystem. On the Web, the link is pretty much the atomic unit of value – from the get go, *anyone* could create a link from one web page to another. The web was built on links, and in the early days those links were built, for the most part, by *users* of the web – people like you and me. We built link-heavy websites, we blogged and linked profusely, we emailed links around, and in doing so we connected static web pages one to another, all in the name of navigation, discovery, and ease of use. It was only later, as search rose to prominence and people started to realize the commercial value of links, that the SEO industry became a commercial monster. In short, linking behavior predated commercial exploitation.

But in the mobile web, commercial exploitation is driving linking behavior, and I find that fascinating. Certainly there’s any number of reasons for this, from Apple’s early iOS design decisions to the fact that apps are, for the most part, personalized experiences that are not driven by the early web’s model of static pages meant for consumption by any and all comers. Regardless, I’ve got a hunch about deep linking - I’m hoping it’s the seedbed for a major shift in how we experience mobile computing. For now, mobile deep linking is the purview of developers and savvy mobile marketers. But I think in time this may change. I wrote a bit about that hunch here:

…while developer-driven deep links are great, the next step in mobile won’t really take off until average folks like you and I can easily create and share our own links within apps. Once the “consumers” start creating links, mobile will finally break out of this ridiculous pre-web phase it’s been stuck in for the past seven or so years, and we’ll see a mobile web worthy of its potential.

I imagine a time when applications encourage their users to share links from inside apps, and everyone finds that sharing behavior will create a positive feedback loop similar to the one that drove the rise of the original Web. From there, any number of innovations will arise, speculating on what those might be is worthy of several future posts.

For now, I’ve come across a crop of startups focusing on deep linking as well various industry efforts in the field (I have Semil Shah and Roy Bahat, among others, to thank for my early lessons in the space). In the coming weeks, I’m meeting with many of them, including URX, Kahuna, DeeplinkAppboy and several stealth startups, and of course larger players like Twitter. As I get smart, and if I find interesting stuff, I’ll report back here. In the meantime, if you’ve got any suggestions for me, please leave them in comments or ping me on Twitter. Thanks!

My 2014 NewCo SF Schedule: Hard Choices

By - August 14, 2014
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The NewCo award, given to host companies who join the NewCo festival this year.

As I did last year, I picked my NewCo San Francisco schedule early, so I could prepare in advance of the festival this September 10-12. There are nearly 130 extraordinary companies to choose from, so it’s not easy to decide where to spend your time. But decide we must. Here are my choices for this year’s SF festival (there are festivals in Amsterdam, New York, Silicon Valley, LA, Detroit, Boulder, London, and Istanbul so far).

Haven’t heard of NewCo? Learn all about it here. In short, we pick extraordinary companies that are mission-driven and changing the face of our city and our society, and they open their doors to the public for a one hour session on a topic of their choice. It’s free, but if you want to insure that you get into the companies you care about, you can pay a small fee to jump to the head of the line right now. Some companies are already full, others are almost full. When we open General Admission, which is free, they’ll all fill up quickly. So it’s worth $90 to get in where you want to go. Here are the ones I plan to visit:

Day 1 – Thursday September 11

M_128_black9 am – Medium. I’m fascinated by Medium’s rise as a reliable place to find thoughtful and well crafted writing. Founder Ev Williams has been improvising on the theme of publishing platforms for nearly 15 years – first with Blogger, then with Twitter. Medium is a place in between those two, as it relates to the point of view of the creator. It has yet to develop a full throated business model, but I sense one emerging. I’m going to find out more about the company and its people and community. Medium is also one of the Yahoo Media Innovation sessions – a curated track that Yahoo! and NewCo put together to highlight innovative media companies who are participating in NewCo SF.  Runners up: GitHub and Brigade. GitHub has always fascinated me – sure, it’s a code-base repository and developer community, but more importantly, it’s the center of an emerging power class in our society. And Brigade has at its core a mission that fascinates me – it asks the question: Can we leverage new technologies to change our political system?

ACT10:30 am – American Conservatory Theater/The Costume Shop. Look, how often do you get a chance to actually see the backstage magic that creates first-class theatre productions? I’m a total theatre geek, though I don’t get to shows nearly as often as I’d like. I’m hoping to re-kindle my love affair with the stage by seeing behind the ACT’s curtain for the first time. Super excited. Runners Up: The Moxie Institute and Chute. I am a huge fan of filmmaker Tiffany Shlain, who is a pal. Her “Let It Ripple” films on AOL are a huge hit, and her “The Future Starts Here” series is up for an Emmy. And I’m on the Board of Chute, which is a promising startup in the visual discovery, rights management, and adtech publishing market. But for me, NewCo is about new – so I’m going with ACT.

Rickshaw-BagworksNoon - Rickshaw Bagworks. It’s not a bad hop from mid-market, where ACT has set up shop, to Dogpatch, where Rickshaw Bags manufactures its wares. I met the CEO of Rickshaw at last year’s festival, and was inspired by his devotion to quality, community, and local manufacturing. I haven’t gotten a chance to see his digs yet, and I know the tour of his shop will be inspiring. Plus, I am a customer of Rickshaw, I love my Rickshaw backpack. It’s cool to be able to see where it was made.  Runners Up: PUBLIC Bikes and SVAngel. I’m a biker, and I want to understand the rise of the “city bike,” which PUBLIC Bikes creates right in the heart of SF. And while I know folks at SV Angel, I’ve actually never seen their space. It will have to wait till next year, alas!

Earnest-logo1.30 pm – Earnest. When someone leaves Andreessen Horowitz to start a mission-driven company, you know he or she must be pretty, well, driven. In this session, I get a chance to meet the CEO of Earnest, which is a new lending platform with the outsized goal of changing how lending works. Classic NewCo company. Runners Up: the melt and KITE Solutions. I’ve never had a melt sandwich, but I love how the company has grown over the past two years, and wish I could be in two places at once. And KITE, run by my pal Mark Silva, is matching innovative startups to large brands, a business I love. But again, the new beats the known at NewCo for me.

lit-motors-c13:00 pm – Lit Motors. I was so bummed to miss Lit last year, and thrilled they are back at NewCo SF this year. Lit makes new kinds of vehicles, not exactly cars, but not cycles either. I can’t wait to learn about the ideas which inspire these creations. Runners Up: AdStage and City & County of SF. AdStage is a super promising platform for managing marketing – but I’m an investor so I know a fair bit about it. And I love that the Mayor’s office is part of the NewCo platform – their session will provide insights on how the city works with entrepreneurs to tackle big civic problems and opportunities.

Twitter_logo_blue4:30 pm – Twitter. Sure, I get inside Twitter from time to time to meet with friends and colleagues, but this session is going to be different. Twitter is focusing its NewCo session on how it is leaning into community development and philanthropy. This is a critical issue to the mid market area, as well as to all cities who are experiencing a tech-driven boom. Not to be missed. Runners Up: Yahoo!, Pinterest, and DocuSign. Yahoo! continues its reinvention, and this session is an opportunity to learn how it’s going. DocuSign has a tiger by the tail, I’m deeply impressed with what Keith Krach and his team have done there (Krach is a speaker at our VIP Plenary kickoff party, which you can attend by buying a VIP ticket here). And Pinterest is on FIRE. Tough choices here.

Day 2 – Friday, September 12

175686-29c2d3209bfc05aa95c9c509d5bc31b3-medium_jpg9.00 am – Tumml. I’m taking a flyer here, as I know very little about this startup, but I love their mission, which is all about addressing issues of urban environments through public/private partnerships. Also, the session is taking the form of a pitch session, where entrepreneurs in the Tumml program pitch the audience. That should be a blast. Runners Up: Bloomberg and Blossom Coffee. I went to Bloomberg last year and loved seeing behind the scenes of how TV gets made. And who doesn’t need a good cup of Joe at 9 am?!

lemnos10:30 am – Lemnos Labs. This speciality VC firm funds hardware startups. What do I know about hardware? Almost nothing! And that’s why I’m heading to this session. Runners up: TechShop and Salesforce.com. I went to TechShop last year and learned a ton about the new culture of DIY and Big Machines. And Salesforce, which is hosting our plenary VIP event, is a great company doing well by doing good.

FCCNoon – Founders Circle Capital & Shasta Ventures. I’m an advisor to FCC, so I’ve been to their South Park offices. But it’s always good to hang at a homebase during NewCo, and I love FCC’s model of founder-driven secondary financing. A much needed innovation for fast growing companies, plus I get to meet the folks at Shasta. Runners Up: Automattic (just a wonderful company well worth the visit) and Yerdle.

airbnb1.30 pm – Airbnb. OK, so I’ve been wanting to see the new offices ever since they opened last year. I can’t wait to get inside and see how one of the most valuable startups in the world gets its business on. Runners Up: Backplane and Hightail. Backplane has built a platform based on the insights from creating Lady Gaga’s Little Monsters community, and Hightail is competing in the world of Box and Dropbox. Both are run by fascinating entrepreuners.

cloverpop3:00 pm – Cloverpop. Another flyer, but this one seems super cool. The company is attempting to “upgrade how we make decisions” using social data and storytelling. There’s a special invite for their private beta for those who come to the session. Now that’s pretty awesome. Runners Up: SEAGLASS, Delectable, and Scoot. In fact, this is the most difficult hour of the whole festival – so many amazing companies. Please head to SEAGLASS, last year they had pure honey dripping from actual honeycomb. It’s an incredible restaurant. And Delectable is all about wine, and my guess is there’s wine to be had there. And Scoot is just a super cool idea – electric scooter sharing.

jawbone-logo-display4:30 pm – Jawbone. I’m eager to know what’s next from this innovative company – now that Apple has purchase Beats in particular. If not for NewCo, I doubt I’d ever get a chance to visit Jawbone – and that’s kind of the point! Runners Up: Comcast Ventures and Trulia. Comcast Ventures is making a move to be a player in SF VC, and I find any move by Comcast significant these days. And Trulia, recently merged with Zillow, is just a fascinating business.

Wow. That’s a dozen deep dives into companies in just two days. I really love the NewCo concept – I know, I know, I’m Chair of it, after all. But really, where else do you get a chance to get inside so many extraordinary organizations and really experience how they are changing our society? Please, join me and dive in. I’ll see you there!

 

NewCo Sizzle Reel, SF Sked Are Up!

By - July 30, 2014

It’s hard to describe what it’s like to attend a NewCo till you’ve been to one, but this video, below, should certainly help. It comes right on the heels of NewCo’s SF schedule going up, which for those of you who’ve never been is like announcing the lineup at Bonnaroo for those of us in the NewCo world. In SF, companies opening their doors include Medium, Carbon Lighthouse, ACT, IFTTT, the melt, Lit Motors, Salesforce, Bloomberg, OpenTable, Scoot, NextDoor, and 100+ more.

Here’s a post announcing the schedule going live – companies fill up fast, and the only way to ensure you’ll get in is to get a VIP or Reserved ticket. But if you can’t pop for the $90 (Reserved) or $295 (VIP, including kickoff party), never fear. NewCos are always free to the public after Reserved and VIPs pick their schedules.

It’s Time For Twitter To Filter Our Feeds. But How?

By - July 27, 2014

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“We don’t put an algorithm between you and your feed.” – Twitter exec Adam Bain, March 2013

“Please do.” Me, today

Twitter has always appealed to tinkerers, to makers, to the people who first took up blogging, who championed RSS and HTML in the early days – you know, the people who created the open web. And because of that, Twitter has always had a strong dose of egalitarianism in its DNA. Twitter expresses that DNA in a particular way: it never decides what you might see in your feed. Whenever you come to the service, you are presented with everything. It’s up to you to figure out what’s valuable.

Compare that to Google, which decides what content you see based on your search query or, more recently, your location (and tons of other data), or Facebook, whose impassive algorithms sift through a sea of friends’ updates and determine what the service, in its ineffable wisdom, decides you will see. Both of these giant companies have, at their core, the idea of editorial judgement - they decide what you see, and for the most part, you have no idea how they made that decision, or why.

Twitter makes no such distinction. And this, of course, has always been both its declared strength and its obvious Achilles heel.

For it is in making editorial judgements that the edges of a media product emerge – and to most of us, Twitter is  a media product (it’s certainly an advertising product, which to my mind makes it a media product as well).

In the coming months, I expect Twitter will finally execute a major shift in its approach to our feeds, and roll out an algorithm, not unlike Facebook’s EdgeRank, which consumes the raw material of our feeds and process them into a series of media products that redefine our experience with the service. Doing so will solve for three of Twitter’s most critical business problems/opportunities: Its vexing “I don’t get Twitter” issue, its slowing user growth and engagement, and Wall Street’s ongoing uncertainty around how far the company’s current advertising model can scale (IE, whether it can grow to Facebook or Google level revenues, currently orders of magnitude larger).

Three years ago I wrote Twitter and the Ultimate Algorithm: Signal Over Noise (With Major Business Model Implications). My main argument was that Twitter has to figure out how to make my feed valuable to me – a point I’ve been talking about for years. It would take a lot of math, a lot of algorithms, and a lot of trial and error, but ultimately, I wanted Twitter to surprise and delight me each time I came back, and there’s no way a raw feed could do that. In short, I argued that it was time for Twitter to create algorithmically-driven editorial voice, one that presents me media product(s) that extract maximum value out of the feeds I followed.

It’s fair to say that three years later, Twitter hasn’t done what I wished for. Back then, Twitter wasn’t a public company, and its ad business was in its early stages. But today Twitter is a $24 billion public company with strong advertising revenues tracking at more than a billion dollars a year. So what do I know?

Well, I know that the problem still exists, and there’s no way Twitter can grow into (and beyond) its current valuation, much less compete with Facebook and Google, if it doesn’t tack into the waters of editorial judgement. This means Twitter has to stare down its existential DNA problem – it has to be willing to put itself between us and our  feeds.

And I think there’s all sorts of opportunity in doing so. I think nearly everyone wants Twitter to try, and while I have no inside information, I’m pretty sure that Twitter is working hard on doing just that. Ever since the company made it clear it didn’t want developers creating consumer facing applications that built new interfaces for the consumption of tweets, the responsibility for creating that value lies squarely with Twitter.

But even as the product and engineering folks at Twitter labor to create these new interfaces, there’s no need for the company to abandon its core philosophy of showing us everything - that should be a mainstay (and differentiating) feature of the service. We just want media products on top of those feeds that mine the best stuff and present it to us in a way that keeps us engaged, provides us significant value, and thereby keeps us coming back. This of course would solve for quite a few other pesky problems – user growth and engagement chief amongst them. Oh, and it’d create the kind of media product that’s rife with signals of user intent  - exactly the place where new Twitter ad products can thrive.

Earlier this year I argued that Twitter might encourage a class of “super curators,” a kind of crowd sourced approach to solving the problem, but that’s not enough. For Twitter to grow at Facebook or Google like rates, it has to build a media product that is automated, but feels uniquely “Twitter-y.” And to me, that means making something that exposes its inner workings to its users, and lets those users customize their consumption in ways that can be shared, celebrated, and even commercialized.  In Who Owns The Right to Filter Your Feed?, I wrote “No one company can boil the ocean, but together an ecosystem can certainly simmer the sea.”

It’s my hope that Twitter lets its tinkerers, makers, and users help make it better and better. The company’s roots are as a user-driven service. Users came up with hashtags, retweets, and other core Twitter features. One of its most valuable assets is its open DNA – and it needn’t abandon that to create an algorithmically edited version of its main product. In fact, given all the suspicions both Facebook and Google have fostered because of their black box algorithms, a more open approach could be a great strength for any new Twitter product. Show us why your algorithm created a particular media product, and let us play around with making it better. I’d bet that plenty of folks would love to do just that. I know I would.

Content Marketing And the New Mainstream

By - July 08, 2014

Content-Marketing(image) On the eve of our third annual P&G Signal (a private event I’ve produced for P&G these past few years) comes this piece in HBR: The Content Marketing Revolution. Just this morning I was reflecting on the speed with which the idea that “all brands are publishers” has moved from evangelical blog post to standard business practice – less than four years since we officially canonized it at FM, and about seven since I first began writing about “conversational marketing” in earnest on this site.

The HBR post notes “Nine out of ten organizations are now marketing with content – that is, going beyond the traditional sales pitches and instead enhancing brands by publishing (or passing along) relevant information, ideas, and entertainment that customers will value. The success of content marketing has radicalized the way companies communicate.”

That’s quite a shift in what is, by the standards of media and marketing, a very, very short time. Back in 2007 (!) I wrote a post that pointed to early examples of content marketing in a social and digital context, and offered a framework for why this nascent movement made sense. In it, I said:

Marketers are realizing that while it’s fine to advertise in traditional ways (Hey! This movie is about to open! Hey! Check out the cool new car/product, etc.), it’s now an option to begin a dialog with the folks who you hope are noticing your ads. In fact, it might even be a great experience for all involved. Brands might hear criticisms that are valid, and have the chance, through conversations with customers, to address those critiques. Customers have the chance to give their input on new versions of products, ask questions, learn more – in other words, have a dialog.

And in the end, isn’t having a dialog with your customers what business, and brands, are supposed to be about?

We’re still early in the shift to conversational marketing, and not all brands are excellent at it. But even the most traditional brands are now deeply engaged in figuring out how to be part of conversations that matter to them. And that’s a very good thing. Content marketing has birthed native advertising, which has given new life to independent publications like Quartz and Vox. And it’s become the lifeblood of massive platforms like Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, and LinkedIn. In short, content marketing is working.

Sure, there are as many examples of flat footed or poorly thought-out executions as there are screaming successes, but again, we’re just getting started. Brands are finding their voice, and we, their audiences, will determine the value they add by our response to what they have to say.

Else 7.7.14: You’re Not A Target Till You Are

By - July 07, 2014

NSAThe past week brought fresh revelations about how the NSA targets US citizens, and new insights on the founders of Google, the history of technology, and ongoing stories from Facebook and the EU. To the links….

In NSA-intercepted data, those not targeted far outnumber the foreigners who are – The Washington Post - This is a long-ish read, but please, if you read only one story, read this one. The details are important, and most likely will be the basis of alot of debate yet to come about Snowden’s impact.

Betting on the Ponies: non-Unicorn Investing – Reaction Wheel – Investor Jerry Neumann writes a fine overview of his philosophy on investing, and why it makes no sense whatsoever to chase the best in field.

Fireside chat with Google co-founders, Larry Page and Sergey Brin – Khosla Ventures Kudos to Khosla for giving all of us a look behind the walls of its annual CEO conference, and inside the minds of Google’s founders.

When the Terminators come, only Google’s co-founders will be safe – Verge – And here’s what they are really thinking about – A funny little Easter Egg shows that the top brass at Google are worried about the same things we are…sort of.

Historian of Technology Cruelly Crushes Internet Myths - Scientific American  Q&A with a technology historian is a good read, reviews many of the myths and stories behind the creation of networks and platforms we now take for granted.

The EU’s Right To Be Forgotten Is A Mess & How Google’s Making It Worse – SEL - I didn’t think this was going to work out well…

Screwing with your emotions is Facebook’s entire business – Vox – We are reminded that the entire business of advertising is an attempt to “screw with our emotions.” Then again, so is the entire business of humanity, on some level.

A Return To Form In Media – Searchblog My musings on what Print can teach us in a world of digital.

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