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Where Good Ideas Come From: A Tangled Bank

By - January 31, 2012

After pushing my way through a number of difficult but important reads, it was a pleasure to rip through Steven Johnson’s Where Good Ideas Come From: A Natural History of Innovation. I consider Steven a friend and colleague, and that will color my review of his most recent work (it came out in paperback last Fall). In short, I really liked the book. There, now Steven will continue to accept my invitations to lunch…

Steven is author of seven books, and I admire his approach to writing. He mixes story with essay, and has an elegant, spare style that I hope to emulate in my next book. If What We Hath Wrought is compared to his work, I’ll consider that a win.

Where Good Ideas Come From is an interesting, fast paced read that outlines the kinds of environments which spawn world-changing ideas. In a sense, this book is the summary of “lessons learned” from several of Johnson’s previous books, which go deep into one really big idea – The Invention of Air, for example, or  the discovery of a cure for cholera. It’s also a testament to another of Johnson’s obsessions – the modern city, which he points out is a far more likely seedbed of great ideas than the isolated suburb or cabin-on-a-lake-somewhere.

Johnson draws a parallel between great cities and the open web – both allow for many ideas to bump up against each other, breed, and create new forms. 

Some environments squelch new ideas; some environments seem to breed them effortlessly. The city and the Web have been such engines of innovation because, for complicated historical reasons, they are both environments that are powerfully suited for the creation, diffusion, and adoption of good ideas.

While more than a year old, Where Good Ideas Come From is an important and timely book, because the conclusions Johnson draw are instructive to the digital world we are building right now – will it be one that fosters what Zittrain calls generativity, or are we feeding ecosystems that are closed in nature? Johnson writes:

…openness and connectivity may, in the end, be more valuable to innovation than purely competitive mechanisms. Those patterns of innovation deserve recognition—in part because it’s intrinsically important to understand why good ideas emerge historically, and in part because by embracing these patterns we can build environments that do a better job of nurturing good ideas…

…If there is a single maxim that runs through this book’s arguments, it is that we are often better served by connecting ideas than we are by protecting them. ….when one looks at innovation in nature and in culture, environments that build walls around good ideas tend to be less innovative in the long run than more open-ended environments. Good ideas may not want to be free, but they do want to connect, fuse, recombine. They want to reinvent themselves by crossing conceptual borders. They want to complete each other as much as they want to compete.

I couldn’t help but think of the data and commercial restrictions imposed by Facebook and Apple as I read those words. As I’ve written over and over on this site, I’m dismayed by the world we’re building inside Apple’s “appworld,” on the one hand, and the trend toward planting our personal and corporate taproots too deeply in the soils of Facebook, on the other. Johnson surveys centuries of important, world changing ideas, often relating compelling personal narratives on the way to explaining how those ideas came to be not through closed, corporate R&D labs, but through unexpected collisions between passions, hobbies, coffee house conversations, and seeming coincidence. If you’re ever stuck, Johnson advises, go outside and bump into things for a while. I couldn’t agree more.

One concept Johnson elucidates is the “adjacent possible,” a theory attributed to biologist Stuart Kauffman. In short, the adjacent possible is the space inhabited by “what could be” based on what currently is. In biology and chemistry, for example, it’s the potential for various combinations of molecules to build self-replicating proteins. When that occurs, new adjacent possibilities open up, to the point of an explosion in life and order.

Johnson applies this theory to ideas, deftly demonstrating how Darwin’s fascination with the creation of coral reefs led – over years – to what is perhaps the most powerful idea of modernity – evolution. He concludes that while most of us understand Darwin’s great insight as mostly about “survival of the fittest,” perhaps its greatest insight is how it has “revealed the collaborative and connective forces at work in the natural world.” Darwin’s famous metaphor for this insight is the tangled bank:

It is interesting to contemplate a tangled bank, clothed with many plants of many kinds, with birds singing on the bushes, with various insects flitting about, and with worms crawling through the damp earth, and to reflect that these elaborately constructed forms, so different from each other, and dependent upon each other in so complex a manner, have all been produced by laws acting around us. . .

Johnson also extolls the concept of “liquid networks” – where information freely flows between many minds, of “slow hunches,” where ideas develop over long periods of time, as well as the importance of noise, serendipity, and error in the development of good ideas. He explores “exaptation” – the repurposing of one idea for another use, and the concept of “platforms” that allow each of these concepts – from liquid networks to serendipity and exaptation – to blossom (Twitter is cited as such a platform).

Johnson concludes:

Ideas rise in crowds, as Poincaré said. They rise in liquid networks where connection is valued more than protection. So if we want to build environments that generate good ideas—whether those environments are in schools or corporations or governments or our own personal lives—we need to keep that history in mind, and not fall back on the easy assumptions that competitive markets are the only reliable source of good ideas. Yes, the market has been a great engine of innovation. But so has the reef.

Amen, I say. I look forward to our great tech companies – Apple and Facebook amongst them – becoming more tangled bank than carefully pruned garden.

A nice endcap to the book is a survey Johnson took of great ideas across history. He places each idea on an XY grid where an idea is either generated by an individual or a network of individuals (the X axis) and/or a commercial or non-commercial environment (the Y Axis). The results are pretty clear: ideas thrive in “non-market/networked” environments.

Johnson's chart of major ideas emerging during the 19th and 20th centuries

This doesn’t mean those ideas don’t become the basis for commerce – quite the opposite in fact. But this is a book about how good ideas are created, not how they might be exploited. And we’d be well advised to pay attention to that as we consider how we organize our corporations, our governments, and ourselves – we have some stubborn problems to solve, and we’ll need a lot of good ideas if we’re going to solve them.

Highly recommended.

Next up on the reading list: Inside Apple: How America’s Most Admired–and Secretive–Company Really Works by Adam Lashinsky, and Republic, Lost: How Money Corrupts Congress–and a Plan to Stop It, by Larry Lessig.

####

Other works I’ve reviewed:

The Singularity Is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology by Ray Kurzweil (my review)

The Corporation (film – my review).

What Technology Wants by Kevin Kelly (my review)

Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other by Sherry Turkle (my review)

The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood by James Gleick (my review)

In The Plex: How Google Thinks, Works, and Shapes Our Lives by Steven Levy (my review)

The Future of the Internet–And How to Stop It by Jonathan Zittrain (my review)

The Next 100 Years: A Forecast for the 21st Century by George Friedman (my review)

Physics of the Future: How Science Will Shape Human Destiny and Our Daily Lives by the Year 2100 by Michio Kaku (my review)

 

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What Happens When Sharing Is Turned Off? People Don’t Dance.

By - January 30, 2012

One of only two photos to emerge from last night's Wilco concert, image Eric Henegen

Last night my wife and I did something quite rare – we went to a concert on a Sunday night, in San Francisco, with three other couples (Wilco, playing at The Warfield). If you don’t have kids and don’t live in the suburbs, you probably think we’re pretty lame, and I suppose compared to city dwellers, we most certainly are. But there you have it.

So why am I telling you about it? Because something odd happened at the show: Wilco enforced a “no smartphone” rule. Apparently lead singer Jeff Tweedy hates looking out at the audience and seeing folks waving lit phones back at him. Members of the Warfield staff told me they didn’t like the policy, but they enforced it  - quite strictly, I might add. It created a weird vibe – folks didn’t even take out their phones for fear they might be kicked out for taking a picture of the concert. (A couple of intrepid souls did sneak a pic in, as you can see at left…)

And… no one danced, not till the very end, anyway. I’ve seen Wilco a few times, and I’ve never seen a more, well, motionless crowd. But more on that later.

Now, I have something of a history when it comes to smart phones and concerts. Back in 2008 I was a founding partner in a new kind of social music experiment we called “CrowdFire.” In my post explaining the idea, I wrote:

Over the course of several brainstorming sessions… an idea began to take shape based on a single insight: personal media is changing how we all experience music. (when I was at Bonnaroo in 2007), everyone there had a cel phone with a camera. Or a Flip. Or a digital camera. And when an amazing moment occurred, more folks held up their digital devices than they did lighters. At Bonnaroo, I took a picture that nails it for me – the image at left. A woman capturing an incredible personal memory of an incredible shared experience (in this case, it was Metallica literally blowing people’s minds), the three screens reflecting the integration of physical, personal, and shared experiences. That image informed our logo, as you can see (below).

So – where did all those experiences go (Searchblog readers, of course, know I’ve been thinking about this for a while)? What could be done with them if they were all put together in one place, at one time, turned into a great big feed by a smart platform that everyone could access? In short, what might happen if someone built a platform to let the crowd – the audience – upload their experiences of the music to a great big database, then mix, mash, and meld them into something utterly new?

Thanks to partners like Microsoft, Intel, SuperFly, Federated Media and scores of individuals, CrowdFire actually happened at Outside Lands, both in 2008 and in 2009. It was a massive effort – the first year literally broke AT&T’s network. But it was clear we were onto something. People want to capture and share the experience of being at a live concert, and the smart phone was clearly how they were now doing it.

It was the start of something – brainstorming with several of my friends prior to CrowdFire’s birth, we imagined a world where every shareable experience became data that could be recombined to create fungible alternate realities. Heady stuff, stuff that is still impossible, but I feel will eventually become our reality as we careen toward a future of big data and big platforms.

Since those early days, the idea of CrowdFire has certainly caught on. In early 2008, we had to build the whole platform from scratch, but now, folks use services like Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, and Foursquare to share their experiences. Many artists share back, sending out photos and tweets from on stage. Most major festivals and promoters have some kind of fan photo/input service that they promote as well. CrowdFire was a great idea, and maybe, had I not been overwhelmed with running FM, we might have turned it into a real company/service that could have integrated all this output and created something big in the world. But it was a bit ahead of its time.

What has happened since that first Outside Lands is that at every concert I’ve attended, I’ve noticed the crowd’s increasing connection to their smart phones – taking pictures, group texting, tweeting, and sharing the moments with their extended networks across any number of social services. It’s hard to find an experience more social than a big concert, and the thousands of constantly lit smartphone screens are a testament to that fact, as are the constant streams of photos and status updates coming out of nearly every show I’ve seen, or followed enviously online.

Which brings me back to last night. I was unaware of the policy, so as Wilco opened at the sold-out Warfield, something felt off to me. Here were two thousand San Francisco hipsters, all turned attentively toward the stage – but most of them had their hands in their pockets! As the band went into the impossible-not-to-move-to “Art of Almost” and “I Might,” I started wondering what was up – why weren’t people at least swaying?! The music was extraordinary, the sound system perfectly tuned. But everyone seemed very intent on…well…being intent. They stared forward, hands in pocket, nodded their heads a bit, but no one danced. It was a rather odd vibe. It was as if the crowd had been admonished to not be too … expressive.

Then it hit me. Nobody had their phone out. I turned to a security guard and asked why no one was holding up a phone. That’s when I learned of Wilco’s policy.

It seemed to me that the rule had the unintended consequence of muting the crowd’s ability to connect to the joy of the moment. Odd, that. We’re so connected to these devices and their ability to reflect our own sense of self that when we’re deprived of them, we feel somehow less…human.

My first reaction was “Well, this sucks,” but on second thought, I got why Tweedy wanted his audience to focus on the experience in the room, instead of watching and sharing it through the screens of their smartphones. By the encore, many people were dancing – they had loosened up. But in the end, I’m not sure I agree with Wilco – they’re fighting the wrong battle (and losing extremely valuable word of mouth in the process, but that’s another post).

There are essentially two main reasons to hold a phone up at a show. First, to capture a memory for yourself, a reminder of the moment you’re enjoying. And second, to share that moment with someone – to express your emotions socially. Both seem perfectly legitimate to me. (I’m not down with doing email or taking a call during a show, I’ll admit).
But the smart phone isn’t a perfect device, as we all know. It forces the world into a tiny screen. It runs out of battery, bandwidth, and power. It distracts us from the world around us. There are too many steps – too much friction – between capturing the things we are experiencing right now and the sharing of those things with people we care about.

But I sense that the sea of smart phones lit up at concerts is a temporary phenomenon. The integration of technology, sharing, and social into our physical world, on the other hand, well that ain’t going away. In the future, it’s going to be much harder to enforce policies like Wilco’s, because the phone will be integrated into our clothing, our jewelry, our eyeglasses, and possibly even ourselves. When that happens – when I can take a picture through my glasses, preview it, then send it to Instagram using gestures from my fingers, or eyeblinks, or a wrinkle of my nose – when technology becomes truly magical – asking people to turn it off is going to be the equivalent of asking them not to dance – to not express their joy at being in the moment.

And why would anyone want to do that?

RSS Update: Not Dead, But On The Watch List

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Since I posted my call to action last week, nearly 600 folks have raised their hands and told me they’re reading this site via RSS. That’s pretty good, given my actual request was buried under 500 words of rambling conjecture, and my Disqus commenting system went down for portions of the first day. Not to mention, my RSS feed has grown by about 90% since the last time I posted the request, yet the number of comments (plus Tweets and other responses) was three times higher. It was the most comments I’ve ever gotten on any post, period.

So I think it’s fair to say the call was answered (we missed the overall number by about 85 votes, but there’s still time). For at least a very vocal minority of readers, RSS is still a critical tool. But, reading through the comments, it’s clear RSS has major issues, and that no one is really expecting those issues to get resolved. Most of you depend on Google Reader, and feel like the Google+ integration has been a step backward. And those of you who are publishers feel like Feedburner (also a Google product) is neglected and untrustworthy, and that there are simply no good monetization tools.

But a ton of you thanked me for making my feed full text, and I won’t be stopping that anytime soon. Thanks all, and if you haven’t left a comment on the original thread, please do! If we get to 664, I’ll feel somehow more complete!

For Posterity

By - January 27, 2012

I had to post this image from Twitter.

 

 

There. If this continues, I figure I’ll be at least in a good negotiating position come the Rapture.

Once Again, RSS Is Dead. But ONLY YOU Can Save It!

By - January 25, 2012

About 14 months ago, I responded to myriad “RSS is Dead” stories by asking you, my RSS readers, if you were really reading. At that point, Google’s Feedburner service was telling me I had more than 200,000 subscribers, but it didn’t feel like the lights were on – I mean, that’s a lot of people, but my pageviews were low, and with RSS, it’s really hard to know if folks are reading you, because the engagement happens on the reader, not here on the site. (That’s always been the problem publishers have had with RSS – it’s impossible to monetize. I mean, think about it. Dick Costolo went to Twitter after he sold Feedburner to Google. Twitter! And this was *before* it had a business model. Apparently that was far easier to monetize than RSS).

Now, I made the decision long ago to let my “full feed” go into RSS, and hence, I don’t get to sell high-value ads to those of you who are RSS readers. (I figure the tradeoff is worth it – my main goal is to get you hooked on my addiction to parentheses, among other things.)

Anyway, to test my theory that my RSS feed was Potemkin in nature, I wrote a December, 2010 post asking RSS readers to click through and post a comment if they were, in fact, reading me via RSS. Overwhelmingly they responded “YES!” That post still ranks in the top ten of any post, ever, in terms of number of comments plus tweets – nearly 200.

Now, put another way this result was kind of pathetic – less than one in 1000 of my subscribers answered the call. Perhaps I should have concluded that you guys are either really lazy, secretly hate me, or in fact, really aren’t reading. Instead, I decided to conclude that for every one of you that took the time to comment or Tweet, hundreds of you were nodding along in agreement. See how writers convince themselves of their value?

Which is a long way to say, it’s time for our nearly-yearly checkup. And this time, I’m going to give you more data to work with, and a fresh challenge. (Or a pathetic entreaty, depending on your point of view.)

Ok, so here’s what has happened in 14 months: My RSS feed has almost doubled – it now sports nearly 400,000 subscribers, which is g*dd*am impressive, no? I mean, who has FOUR HUNDRED THOUSAND people who’ve raised their hands and asked to join your club? I’ve WON, no? Time for gold-plated teeth or somesh*t, right?

Well, no.

While it’s true that nearly 400,000 of you have elected to follow my RSS feed, the grim truth is more aptly told by what Google’s Feedburner service calls my “Reach.” By their definition, reach means “the total number of people who have taken action — viewed or clicked — on the content in your feed.”

And that number, as you can see, is pathetic. I mean, “click,” I can understand. Why click when you can read the full article in your reader? But “view”?! Wait, lemme do some math here….OK, one in 594 of you RSS readers are even reading my stuff. That’s better than the one in 1000 who answered the call last time, but wow, it’s way worse than I thought. Just *reading* doesn’t require you click through, or tweet something, or leave a comment.

Either RSS is pretty moribund, or, I must say, I am deeply offended.

What I really want to know is this: Am I normal? Is it normal for sites like mine to have .0017 percent of its RSS readers actually, well, be readers?

Or is the latest in a very long series of posts (a decade now, trust me) really right this time  - RSS is well and truly dead?

Here’s my test for you. If I get more comments and tweets on this post than I have “reach” by Google Feedburner status, well, that’s enough for me to pronounce RSS Alive and Well (by my own metric of nodding along, of course). If it’s less than 664, I’m sorry, RSS is Well And Truly Dead. And it’s all your fault.

(PS, that doesn’t mean I’ll stop using it. Ever. Insert Old Man Joke Here.)

Google+ Spreads to AdSense, Will It Spread to the Whole Web?

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Seen in the wild (well, OK, on this very site):

The “Recommend this on Google” hover box at the bottom is new, I’ve never seen it before (then again, my ads are usually from FM). It’s what we in the biz call a “social overlay” or a “social ad” – and as far as I can tell, it’s only available to those advertisers who use Google AdSense.

Why am I on about this? Because some weeks ago, Facebook told a bunch of advertisers and third parties (FM was one of them) that it was no longer OK to integrate Facebook actions into third party advertisements. This was always in their policies, but everyone was pretty much ignoring it – including most of the largest advertisers on the planet. After all, it’d be pretty hard to tell major television advertisers to stop asking viewers to “Like us on Facebook”. But for some reason, Facebook recently decided enough was enough online, and won’t let folks do exactly the same thing – with interactive functionality – online. You won’t be seeing ads on any site that integrate Facebook Likes, Shares, or other verbs, unless the advertisers paying for those ads have cut special deals with Facebook. (Or, of course, unless Facebook launches its own ad network…)

And yes, my sense of why Facebook might all-of-a-sudden-restrict advertisers or their partners from using Facebook actions in their ads stems from my prediction that Facebook is going to launch a competitor to AdSense, and that Facebook will want to differentiate its competitor by making “FaceSense” the only place across the web where you can run ads that drive Facebook social actions – Likes, Subscriptions, Shares, Recommendations, etc.

Because of this, I recently asked Google whether it would impose the same kind of restrictions on how advertisers might integrate Google+. I got a nuanced and careful response – Google doesn’t support it now, but is open to the idea in the future.

I’m thinking Google can differentiate itself by not acting like Facebook, but instead allow any advertiser to integrate “+1″ into their ads, regardless of where that ad runs – be it a direct buy on ESPN, an independent web player like FM, or, as seen above, a buy on Google’s own AdSense service.*

Anyway, it’s worth thinking about as we plot the strategies of the Big Five – what will their policies be relating to corporate speech and social services? So far, the answer is “not sure.” Worth asking Microsoft, Apple, and Amazon, come to think of it….I can’t imagine, for example, that Apple welcomes Facebook icons integrated into its iAds product – but then again, Facebook now doesn’t allow it anyway. Which seems to me a violation of some corporate right to free speech – but I digress. For now.

* If you’re wondering why is AdSense on my blog these days, well, I’m getting more traffic than we thought I would in January, and AdSense is picking up some of the extra impressions. Thanks for reading – I’m honored. 

The Future of War (From Jan., 1993 to the Present)

By - January 24, 2012

(image is a shot of my copy of the first Wired magazine, signed by our founding team)
I just read this NYT piece on the United States’ approach to unmanned warfare: Do Drones Undermine Democracy?. From it:

There is not a single new manned combat aircraft under research and development at any major Western aerospace company, and the Air Force is training more operators of unmanned aerial systems than fighter and bomber pilots combined. In 2011, unmanned systems carried out strikes from Afghanistan to Yemen. The most notable of these continuing operations is the not-so-covert war in Pakistan, where the United States has carried out more than 300 drone strikes since 2004.

Yet this operation has never been debated in Congress; more than seven years after it began, there has not even been a single vote for or against it. This campaign is not carried out by the Air Force; it is being conducted by the C.I.A. This shift affects everything from the strategy that guides it to the individuals who oversee it (civilian political appointees) and the lawyers who advise them (civilians rather than military officers).

It also affects how we and our politicians view such operations. President Obama’s decision to send a small, brave Navy Seal team into Pakistan for 40 minutes was described by one of his advisers as “the gutsiest call of any president in recent history.” Yet few even talk about the decision to carry out more than 300 drone strikes in the very same country.

Read the whole piece. Really, read it. If any article in the past year or so does a better job of displaying how what we’ve built with technology is changing the essence of our humanity, I’d like to read it.

For me, this was a pretty powerful reminder. Why? Because we put the very same idea on display as the very first cover story of Wired, nearly 20 years ago. Written by Bruce Sterling, whose star has only become brighter in the past two decades, it predicts the future of war with an eerie accuracy. In the article, Sterling describes “modern Nintendo training for modern Nintendo war.” Sure, if he was all seeing, he might have said Xbox, but still…here are some quotes from nearly 20 years ago:

The omniscient eye of computer surveillance can now dwell on the extremes of battle like a CAT scan detailing a tumor in a human skull. This is virtual reality as a new way of knowledge: a new and terrible kind of transcendent military power.

…(Military planners) want a pool of contractors and a hefty cadre of trained civilian talent that they can draw from at need. They want professional Simulation Battle Masters. Simulation system operators. Simulation site managers. Logisticians. Software maintenance people. Digital cartographers. CAD-CAM designers. Graphic designers.

(Ed: Like my son playing Call of Duty?)

And it wouldn’t break their hearts if the American entertainment industry picked up on their interactive simulation network technology, or if some smart civilian started adapting these open-architecture, virtual-reality network protocols that the military just developed. The cable TV industry, say. Or telephone companies running Distributed Simulation on fiber-to-the-curb. Or maybe some far-sighted commercial computer-networking service. It’s what the military likes to call the “purple dragon” angle. Distributed Simulation technology doesn’t have to stop at tanks and aircraft, you see. Why not simulate something swell and nifty for civilian Joe and Jane Sixpack and the kids? Why not purple dragons?

(Ed: Skyrim, anyone?!)

Can governments really exercise national military power – kick ass, kill people – merely by using some big amps and some color monitors and some keyboards, and a bunch of other namby-pamby sci-fi “holodeck” stuff?

The answer is yes.

Say you are in an army attempting to resist the United States. You have big tanks around you, and ferocious artillery, and a gun in your hands. And you are on the march.

Then high-explosive metal begins to rain upon you from a clear sky. Everything around you that emits heat, everything around you with an engine in it, begins to spontaneously and violently explode. You do not see the eyes that see you. You cannot know where the explosives are coming from: sky-colored Stealths invisible to radar, offshore naval batteries miles away, whip-fast and whip-smart subsonic cruise missiles, or rapid-fire rocket batteries on low-flying attack helicopters just below your horizon. It doesn’t matter which of these weapons is destroying your army – you don’t know, and you won’t be told, either. You will just watch your army explode.

Eventually, it will dawn on you that the only reason you, yourself, are still alive, still standing there unpierced and unlacerated, is because you are being deliberately spared. That is when you will decide to surrender. And you will surrender. After you give up, you might come within actual physical sight of an American soldier.

Eventually you will be allowed to go home. To your home town. Where the ligaments of your nation’s infrastructure have been severed with terrible precision. You will have no bridges, no telephones, no power plants, no street lights, no traffic lights, no working runways, no computer networks, and no defense ministry, of course. You have aroused the wrath of the United States. You will be taking ferries in the dark for a long time.

Now imagine two armies, two strategically assisted, cyberspace-trained, post-industrial, panoptic ninja armies, going head-to-head. What on earth would that look like? A “conventional” war, a “non-nuclear” war, but a true War in the Age of Intelligent Machines, analyzed by nanoseconds to the last square micron.

Who would survive? And what would be left of them?

Who indeed.

Put Your Taproot Into the Independent Web

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(image) This article - Early Facebook App Causes Is Being Reborn As A Polished Web Site For Good – caught my eye as I was nodding off last night (thanks so much for moving the web into my bedroom, Flipboard. No really.)

Now, it didn’t catch my eye because of its subject – Causes – but because of what its subject was doing: refocusing its business back out on the Independent Web, from its original home in the zoological garden that is the Facebook platform.

This is indicative of what I believe will become a trend over the next year or so, barring moves by Facebook to stem the tide (I’ve heard tell of far more “weblike” canvas pages coming, for instance). Companies that have planted their presence too deeply into the soils of Facebook are going to realize they need to control their own destiny, and move their focus and their core presence back into the independent waters of the open Internet (think Zynga “project Z”, for instance). Listen to Causes VP Chris Chan on the decision to move back to Causes.org:

As the years have progressed the web has gotten a lot more social, and it makes more sense to have our own brand and site. We can still be ‘on’ Facebook in the sense that we plug into News Feed and fan pages, but having our own brand gives us full, top to bottom control over the product experience, something that we think is critical for building the best tool possible for organizers to create campaigns for social change.

That “full, top to bottom control” means a lot more than just the chrome finishes on your website. It means controlling all the data created by interactions on that site, including if and how you share that data with your consumers and your partners (including Facebook, of course).

In seminars, writings, conferences, and speaking gigs around the world over the past couple of years, I’ve started using a phrase when asked my opinion of what a brand’s social strategy might be, in particular when it comes to Facebook. The context is nuanced (I’m a fan of integrating Facebook into your brand efforts), but the point is simple: If you are a brand, publisher, or independent voice, don’t put your taproot into the soils of Facebook. Plant it in the independent web. (A bit more on this can be found here).

Now, that doesn’t mean “don’t use Facebook,” not at all. I think Facebook is an extraordinarily important part of the Internet ecosystem, and having a robust presence there is a critical part of any brand (or company’s) strategy.

But Facebook is a for profit, advertising and data-driven company. If you seat mission critical portions of your business inside its walls, you are driving value to Facebook – and you are presuming the trade, in terms of traffic and virality, will come out on balance favoring you. I wouldn’t count on that. Facebook will always have more data than you do about how consumers use the Facebook platform, and will always be able to leverage that data more effectively.

Not to mention, have you checked out Facebook’s terms of service when it comes to using data derived from its platform? Here are a few choice terms that come from a quick perusal (sources are here and here):

- You own your own content, but you grant Facebook license to use it as well.

- You may only request user data needed to operate your app (if you create a Facebook app as part of your presence on Facebook).

- You may not use data collected in your app in your other advertising efforts (including ad networks).

- You may not integrate analytics from third party sources into your efforts inside Facebook. Facebook, however, can gather data from how your app or page is used for their own advertising programs.

- Facebook reserves the right to do exactly what you’re doing at any time – if you create a killer new app inside Facebook, and it takes off, Facebook can decide to do the same thing. (Clearly Facebook isn’t motivated to do this if it angers a major advertising partner, but this term does give pause).

- Facebook reserves the right to market your work in Facebook’s own promotional efforts.But if you want to promote what you are doing on Facebook across third party advertising networks out on the Independent Web, you must get written permission.*

(I’ll be writing more about terms of service in general in another post). 

Now, I don’t think Facebook’s terms are particularly crazy, they’re written by lawyers looking to protect and  preserve as much value as possible for Facebook as a corporation. They have the right to do so, and they are quite open and transparent about their policies.

But it drives me crazy to see major brands using expensive television time to drive consumers to a Facebook program that lives exclusively inside Facebook. (I imagine the reverse is true when Facebook executives see those same ads). I’m sure it works in the short term – you get folks there, they “like” or “follow” your brand, and they engage in whatever promotion or campaign is currently running. But if that campaign, promotion, or program lives only on Facebook, well, good luck deriving all the value you possibly can from it.

If that same program lives out on the Independent web – your own site, on your own domain, with your own platform – then you own all the data and insights, and you can broker those assets back into a Facebook page, or anywhere else you may care to. It doesn’t work the other way around. Imagine trying to replicate the value you create in a Facebook-exclusive program into, say, Google+ or Twitter, or in a major buy across an agency trading desk. Not with the terms outlined above.

It’s not like Facebook is stopping brands from leveraging the service out on the open web – that’s the point of the Open Graph, after all (and it’s what Causes is using now). Facebook knows that independence is critical to the future of the Internet, and has created tools to insure it’s a major player there. My advice: use those tools inside your own presence on the web. But put your taproot into soil that you control, soil that is shared by the millions of other independent voices on the web. That insures you’ll be part of a free and open ecosystem where serendipity and opportunity can create wonderful new possibilities.

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*Thanks to my researcher, LeeAnn Prescott, for analysis of these terms. If I’ve gotten any of this wrong, I hope folks from Facebook and/or my smarter-than-I-am readership will correct me, and I’ll update this post accordingly. 

Also, an important caveat – I am founder and Chair of a company that promotes the Independent Web, and operates a significant network for the purposes of advertising. 

The Singularity Is Weird

By - January 23, 2012

It’s been a while since I’ve posted a book review, but that doesn’t mean I’ve not been reading. I finished two tomes over the past couple weeks, Ray Kurzweil’s The Singularity Is Near, and Stephen Johnson’s Where Good Ideas Come From. I’ll focus on Kurzweil’s opus in this post.

Given what I hope to do in What We Hath Wrought, I simply had to read Singularity. I’ll admit I’ve been avoiding doing so (it’s nearly six years old now) mainly for one reason: The premise (as I understood it) kind of turns me off, and I’d heard from various folks in the industry that the book’s author was a bit, er, strident when it came to his points of view. I had read many reviews of the book (some mixed), and I figured I knew enough to get by.

I was wrong. The Singularity Is Near is not an easy book to read (it’s got a lot of deep and loosely connected science, and the writing could really use a few more passes by a structural editor), but it is an important one to read. As Kevin Kelly said in What Technology Wants, Kurzweil has written a book that will be cited over and over again as our culture attempts to sort out its future relationship to technology, policy, and yes, to God.

I think perhaps the “weirdness” vibe of Kurzweil’s work relates, in the end, to his rather messianic tone – he’s not afraid to call himself a “Singulatarian” and to claim this philosophy as his religion. I don’t know about you, but I’m wary of anyone who invents  a new religion and then proclaims themselves the leader of it.

That’s not to say Kurzweil doesn’t have a point or two. The main argument of the book is that technology is moving far faster than we realize, and its exponential progress will surprise us all – within about thirty years, we’ll have the ability to not only compute most of the intractable problems of humanity, we’ll be able to transcend our bodies, download our minds, and reach immortality.

Or, a Christian might argue, we could just wait for the rapture. My problem with this book is that it feels about the same in terms of faith.

But then again, faith is one of those Very Hard Topics that most of us struggle with. And if you take this book at face value, it will force you to address that question. Which to me, makes it a worthy read.

For example, Kurzweil has faith that, as machines get smarter than humans, we’ll essentially merge with machines, creating a new form of humanity. Our current form is merely a step along the way to the next level of evolution – a level where we merge our technos with our bios, so to speak. Put another way, compared to what we’re about to become, we’re the equivalent of Homo Erectus right about now.

It’s a rather compelling argument, but a bit hard to swallow, for many reasons. We’re rather used to evolution taking a very long time – hundreds of generations, at the very least. But Kurzweil is predicting all this will happen in the next one or two generations – and should that occur, I’m pretty sure far more minds will be blown than merged.

And Kurzweil has a knack for taking the provable tropes of technology – Moore’s Law, for example – and applying them to all manner of things, like human intelligence, biology, and, well, rocks (Kurzweil calculates the computing power of a rock in one passage). I’m in no way qualified to say whether it’s fair to directly apply lessons learned from technology’s rise to all things human, but I can say it feels a bit off. Like perhaps he’s missing a high order bit along the way.

Of course, that could just be me clinging to my narrow-minded and entitled sense of Humanity As It’s Currently Understood. Now that I’ve read Kurzweil’s book, I’m far more aware of my own limitations, philosophically as well as computationally. And for that, I’m genuinely grateful.

Other works I’ve reviewed:

The Corporation (film – my review).

What Technology Wants by Kevin Kelly (my review)

Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other by Sherry Turkle (my review)

The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood by James Gleick (my review)

In The Plex: How Google Thinks, Works, and Shapes Our Lives by Steven Levy (my review)

The Future of the Internet–And How to Stop It by Jonathan Zittrain (my review)

The Next 100 Years: A Forecast for the 21st Century by George Friedman (my review)

Physics of the Future: How Science Will Shape Human Destiny and Our Daily Lives by the Year 2100 by Michio Kaku (my review)

Facebook Coalition To Google: Don’t Be Evil, Focus On The User

By -

Last week I spent an afternoon down at Facebook, as I mentioned here. While at Facebook I met with Blake Ross, Direct of Product (and well known in web circles as one of the creators of Firefox). Talk naturally turned to the implications of Google’s controversial integration of Google+ into its search results – a move that must both terrify (OMG, Google is gunning for us!) as well as delight (Holy cow, Google is breaking its core promise to its users!).

Turns out Ross had been quite busy the previous weekend, and he had a little surprise to show me. It was a simple hack, he said, some code he had thrown together in response to the whole Google+ tempest. But there was most certainly a gleam in his eye as he brought up a Chrome browser window (Google’s own product, he reminded me).

Blake had installed a bookmarklet onto his browser, one he had titled – in a nod to Google’s informal motto –  “Don’t be evil.” For those of you who aren’t web geeks (I had to remind myself as well), a bookmarklet is “designed to add one-click functionality to a browser or web page. When clicked, a bookmarklet performs some function, one of a wide variety such as a search query or data extraction.”

When engaged, this “Don’t be evil” bookmarklet did indeed do one simple thing: It turned back the hands of time, and made Google work the way it did before the integration of Google+ earlier this month.

It was a very elegant hack, more thoughtful than the one or two I had seen before – those simply took all references to Google+ out of the index. This one went much further, and weaved a number of Google’s own tools – including its “rich snippet” webmaster tool and its own organic search listings, to re-order not only the search engine results, but also the results of the promotional Google+ boxes on the right side of the results, as well as the “typeahead” results that now feature only Google+ accounts (see example below, the first a search on my name using “normal Google” and then one using the bookmarklet).

After Blake showed me his work, we had a lively discussion about the implications of Facebook actually releasing such a tool. I mean, it’s one thing for a lone hacktivist to do this, it’s quite another for a member of the Internet Big Five to publicly call Google out. Facebook would need to vet this with legal, with management (this clearly had to pass muster with Mark Zuckerberg), and, I was told, Facebook wanted to reach out to others – such as Twitter – and get their input as well.

Due to all this, I had to agree to keep Blake’s weekend hack private till Facebook figured out whether (and how) it  would release Ross’s work.

Today, the hack goes public. It’s changed somewhat – it now resides at a site called “Focus On The User” and credit is given to engineers at Facebook, Twitter, and Myspace, but the basic implication is there: This is a tool meant to directly expose Google’s recent moves with Google+ as biased, hardcoded, and against Google’s core philosophy (which besides “don’t be evil,” has always been about “focusing on the user”).

Now, this wasn’t what I meant last week when I asked what a Facebook search engine might look like, but one can be very sure, this is certainly how Facebook and many others want Google to look like once again.

From the site’s overview:

We wanted to see how much better social search could be for consumers if Google chose to use all of the information already in its index. We think the results speak for themselves. Specifically, we created a bookmarklet that uses Google’s own relevance measure—the ranking of their organic search results—to determine what social content should appear in the areas where Google+ results are currently hardcoded. That includes the box on the right; the typeahead; and the indent under the first result for brand searches like “Macy’s” or “New York Times”.

All of the information in this demo comes from Google itself, and all of the ranking decisions are made by Google’s own algorithms. No other services, APIs or proprietary data stores are accessed.

Facebook released a video explaining how the hack works, including some rather devastating examples (be sure to watch the AT&T example at minute seven, and a search for my name as well), and it has open sourced the codebase. The video teasingly invites Google to use the code should it care to (er…not gonna happen).

Here’s an embed:

It’d be interesting if millions of people adopted the tool, however I don’t think that’s the point. A story such as this is tailor made for the Techmeme leaderboard, to be sure, and will no doubt be the talk of the Valley today. By tonight, the story most likely will go national, and that can’t help Google’s image. And I’m quite sure the folks at Facebook, Twitter, and others (think LinkedIn, Yahoo, etc) are making sure word of this exemplar reaches the right folks at the Federal Trade Commission, the Department of Justice, Congress, and government agencies around the world.

Not to mention, people in the Valley do care, deeply, about where they work. There are scores of former Google execs now working at Twitter, Facebook, and others. Many are dismayed by Google’s recent moves, and believe that inside Google, plenty of folks aren’t sleeping well because of what their beloved company’s single-minded focus on Google+. “Focus on The User” is a well-timed poke in the eye, a slap to the conscience of a company that has always claimed to be guided by higher principles, and an elegant hack, sure to become legend in the ongoing battle of the Big Five.

As I’ve said before, I’m planning on spending some time with folks at Google in the coming weeks. I’m eager to understand their point of view. Certainly they are playing a longer-term game here – and seem willing, at present, to take the criticism and not respond to the chorus of complaints. Should Google change that stance, I’ll let you know.

Related:

What Might A Facebook Search Engine Look Like?

Google+: Now Serving 90 Million. But…Where’s the Engagement Data!

Our Google+ Conundrum

It’s Not About Search Anymore, It’s About Deals

Hitler Is Pissed About Google+

Google Responds: No,That’s Not How Facebook Deal Went Down (Oh, And I Say: The Search Paradigm Is Broken)

Compete To Death, or Cooperate to Compete?

Twitter Statement on Google+ Integration with Google Search

Search, Plus Your World, As Long As It’s Our World