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Can The Future Be Perfect? It Can Certainly Be Better

By - November 29, 2012

As my 2011 review of his Where Good Ideas Come From: A Natural History of Innovation proves, I am a Steven Johnson fan. So it was with relish that I settled in to read his latest release: Future Perfect: The Case For Progress In A Networked Age.

Steven had already told me the premise of his book – the first he’s written since moving to my neck of the woods in Marin, California (I hope we can keep him from going back to Brooklyn, but we’ll see…).

In short it’s this: the evidence has become overwhelming that a new form of political expression is developing, an expression deeply informed by the gravitational pull of the Internet (for more on that, see Steven’s piece in the Times: The Internet? We Built That).

Johnson sought for years to give this concept a name, and last year settled on “peer progressive.” He describes how he came to the term:

Slowly but steadily, much like the creation of the Internet itself, a growing number of us have started to think that the core principles that governed the design of the Net could be applied to solve different kinds of problems— the problems that confront neighborhoods, artists, drug companies, parents, schools. You can see in all these efforts the emergence of a new political philosophy, as different from the state-centralized solutions of the old Left as it is from the libertarian market religion of the Right. The people behind these movements believe in government intervention without Legrand Stars, in Hayek-style distributed information without traditional marketplaces. Ron Paul’s rallying cry was too simple; progress is not just a question of choosing between individuals and the state. Increasingly, we are choosing another path, one predicated on the power of networks. Not digital networks, necessarily, but instead the more general sense of the word: webs of human collaboration and exchange…

…We believe in social progress, and we believe the most powerful tool to advance the cause of progress is the peer network. We are peer progressives.

Johnson’s use of the term “Legrand Star” is a reference to one of two consistent tropes throughout the book: A “Legrand Star” is a centralized, hierarchical approach to problem solving or decision making (named after the French rail system, which ran out to the country in direct lines from Paris). A “Baran Web” is a decentralized, peer network approach (named after Paul Baran, an early Internet pioneer).

As Johnson notes in the book, Future Perfect is something of a career-long work – his examples all stem from things he’s noticed over the course of more than a decade of writing books. It’s as if he had a big folder of anecdotes gathered over the past 15 years, each labeled “This must mean something,” all patiently waiting to be turned into this book.

Like many of us (I will admit an easy attraction), Johnson has for years felt disconnected from the political process. The polarization of political discourse seemed detached from what many of us were feeling on the ground – example after example of good things getting done by networks of diverse people working toward common goals. In Future Perfect Johnson organizes proofs of such work, some well known (Wikipedia), others surprising (he reinterprets the “Miracle on the Hudson” river landing as the work of an extended peer network. You’ll never think of frozen chickens in the same way again).

In this book Johnson acts as something of a peer progressive Johnny Appleseed, each new narrative another seed which plants the concept more firmly in a reader’s mind. Employee-owned companies perform better than Wall St. driven firms – peer networks for the win. Prize-driven, open-source advancement of science births commercial space aviation, and may solve even larger issues like our society’s approach to pharma research – again, peer nets FTW. Our cities are clogged with traffic, peer networks can re-route our transportation grid. Our news is Legrandian, but peer networks can not just save journalism, but improve it to the point of far higher value to each citizen, down to the hyperlocal level. Patents are a blight on true innovation, peer networks are helping us clear our intellectual property acne – peer networks FTW!

Toward the end of the work, Johnson writes a passage that sounds absolutely radical, if taken out of context:

The modern regime of big corporations and big governments has existed for the past few centuries in an artificial state that neglected alternative channels through which information could flow and decisions could be made. Because we were locked into a Legrand Star mind-set, we didn’t build our businesses and our states around peer networks that could connect us to a much more diverse and decentralized group of collaborators. Instead, we created a mass society defined by passive consumption, vast hierarchies, and the straight lines of state legibility. It didn’t seem artificial to us, because we couldn’t imagine an alternative. But now we can.

But after reading Steven’s book, and living through many of the same stories as has he, I have to say, I wholeheartedly agree.

Other works I’ve reviewed:

Super Sad True Love Story: A Novel by Gary Shteyngart (review)

The Victorian Internet: The Remarkable Story of the Telegraph and the Nineteenth Century’s On-line Pioneers by Tom Standage (review)

Year Zero: A Novel by Rob Reid (review)

Lightning Man: The Accursed Life of Samuel F. B. Morse by Kenneth Silverman (review)

Code: And Other Laws of Cyberspace, Version 2.0 by Larry Lessig (review)

You Are Not a Gadget: A Manifesto (Vintage) by Jaron Lanier (review)

WikiLeaks and the Age of Transparency by Micah Sifry (review)

Republic, Lost: How Money Corrupts Congress–and a Plan to Stop It by Larry Lessig (review)

Where Good Ideas Come From: A Natural History of Innovation by Steven Johnson (review)

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

The Corporation (film – review).

What Technology Wants by Kevin Kelly (review)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Must All Grasshoppers Die?

By - November 28, 2012

I’ve been reading a lot lately – and the topics have been pretty diverse. Popular science fiction from ten years ago (Outerland), political commentary from last month (Future Perfect), seminal computing tracts from the 1990s (Mirror Worlds), and just published manifestos on synthetic biology (Regenesis).

It is a luxury to read this much, even if it’s also not exactly pleasurable (memo to Dr. Church: Most of your readers do not have college degrees in organic chemistry…). But it does change how you think.

Last night I came home early from my writing retreat. I wasn’t happy about doing so, but life sometimes conspires to force you off plan. Yesterday was not a good day – any number of projects in which I’m involved unexpectedly demanded attention, and I failed to say no to their requests. I also contracted a swell case of poison oak. As I completed my tenth conference call – at a writing retreat in which I was supposedly to focus only on writing – I looked up and saw this:

Had I not looked up, I’d have missed it entirely. Five minutes later, it was dark. I packed my bags, locked the door behind me, and drove home.

When I got there, my wife introduced me to a dying grasshopper, a bright green declaration of life poking feebly at an impervious ceramic wall of white. Somehow, it had gotten into our house and ended up in our bathtub. There it lay, slowly tapping out what seemed a last message, scraping its minute grasshopper claw against an unfeeling bed of marble.

I’d like to say that I gently lifted that grasshopper from the tub and lay it on a pillow of leaves. That I googled “how to nurse a grasshopper back to life” and concocted just the right nectar to  revive the tiny beast. But I didn’t. Like most of us would, I looked away. I was sad but I was caught up in my own shit. That grasshopper was running on fumes, it was out of gas. And when a grasshopper runs out of gas, well, that’s it, ain’t it? Perhaps I should have placed it outside, to die in situ. But it was warmer inside…and…well. Make a your sign over it, say a few words after life retreats.

As a culture, two classes of animated beings populate our lives. One are living – people, pets, E Coli, grasshoppers. The other are machines – computers, leaf blowers, automobiles. Each type requires fuel. But only machines can lay dormant for a long period of time between hitting the gas station.  The machines. We envy them, then we remind ourselves that we are alive – we are sentient, living beings. We die, yes, but that’s worth the trade, right?

I wanted nothing more than to pull that dying grasshopper into a QuikStop. Well, no, that’s not true. What I wanted more was to look away, because I knew no such thing exists.

What I’ve noticed, as I’ve been on my journey of reading, is that as a society, we are beginning to have a grand conversation about what it means to rethink the idea of being alive. I’m not just talking about robots that act human, or the synthetic creations of Craig Venter. But really, what does it mean to be animate? Can we separate life from machines? Can we give them life?

To live has been forever defined by the idea of death. A grasshopper that never dies is not alive, is it? It must be, instead, a creation of life, but not living itself. It’s a machine.

These boundaries are going to be pushed in the next 30 years. This is not hype, it’s simply true. We are drawing close to understanding the machinery of life and death. At least, as a culture, we believe we are close. It’s all over the books I’ve been reading.

I wonder, what will come of all of it? Any thoughts?

Meantime, I’m just glad I looked up and saw that sunset before I left yesterday. It reminded me that  there’s still a fair bit of wonder in the world. And that helps put the whole day in perspective.

Dave Pell on Facebook’s Gift to Itself

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I enjoy NextDraft, an email newsletter penned by Dave Pell each day. I value point of view and voice in any medium, and Dave’s got it. I think Searchblog readers would appreciate this item, so I’ve reposted it here. Dave, I hope you don’t mind…

The Gift of Data

Facebook knows a lot about you. But there are a couple things that would make its collection of personal data a whole lot more valuable: Your home address and your credit card number. In addition to having a big revenue potential, Facebook’s new birthday gift store could lead to a data treasure trove (and herald a new era when just typing “Happy Birthday” when prompted is no longer enough).

Craig Mod on Subcompact Publishing.

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The Verge pointed me to Craig Mod’s manifesto on “Subcompact Publishing.” It’s a must read if you care about where digital publishing might go.

It’s a wonderful, thoughtful piece. It’s why we have this web thing. Go read it.

Oh, and my favorite quote:

Content without a public address is non-existent in the eyes of all the inter-operable sharing mechanisms that together bind the web.

On Open Platforms, Wifi, Home Automation, and Kitty Litter

By - November 26, 2012

At least this platform is open….

(image Shutterstock)

The world needs more open platforms. The term is  loaded, but it’s worth unpacking. To me, an open platform is a consistent opportunity space where anyone – without prior permission – can attempt to create value, and the market gets to vote on that attempt.

When the Clinton administration declared the Internet a “free trade zone” in 1997, it helped create one of the most powerful open platforms in the history of business. Anyone could set up a website, sell their services, wares, or their snake oil, and the market sorted out the winners and the losers.

But an open platform doesn’t necessarily mean a free one. The last time I checked, Comcast is still charging me $65 a month for my “high-speed business” Internet connection. Once I pay that fee, I am free to launch any site I want and consume any content I desire. Comcast has no say in the matter (so far).

Another wonderful example is the Global Positioning System (GPS), once the realm only of the United States military, but now the driver of countless commercial opportunities around the globe (again thanks to decisions made during the Clinton administration).  Anyone can access civilian GPS data – it’s open and free to all. Had this system not been in place, my weekend would have been less interesting – I could not have tracked my family’s hike across a mountain in Marin, checked into my writing retreat this morning on Foursquare, or effortlessly mapped my route to the new restaurant where I met a dozen friends last Saturday night.

Over the years we’ve seen the rise of semi-open communications-driven platforms, some of which have been built on top of the Internet (think Facebook), others which were built on top of regulated, oligarchical networks like those of the cell phone carriers (think iOS ). These systems are open to developers, but subject to stricter rules and oversight by corporations (Facebook and Apple, for example).

But sometimes platforms rise out of unexpected places. That’s the story I want to tell today.

This tale is based on an open platform of sorts – or at least, re-imagining an existing platform. In this case, that platform is the home – and in particular, the wifi-enabled home.

A report issued earlier this year found that 25% of homes worldwide have wifi installed. In the US, that figure is much higher – 61% of US homes are lit by the airborne Internet. That’s a pretty astonishing number, and it continues to climb. Wifi-lit homes are now a platform waiting for innovative ideas to hatch. Last week I got a chance to chat with someone behind one of them.

Kevin Ashton is best known as an RFID pioneer, and for coining the terms “The Internet of Things.” But what many may not know about the British-born engineer and entrepreneur is his current work on home automation. Two years ago he sold his cleantech startup Zensi to Belkin International, a 30-year old computer networking and accessory firm in Los Angeles. Belkin’s a pretty traditional company, to be honest, but that may be about to change.

Zensi specialized in monitoring a building’s electrical information, tapping into the structure’s electronic grid and sampling the “voltage noise” that spikes across the wires. That noise turns out to be pretty valuable information – every electronic gadget has a signature, and by paying close attention, Ashton’s startup could reliably determine the energy use of every node node on a building’s electronic network. That energy “can be presented to the energy user in a way that can be very beneficial,” Ashton told me.

Ashton’s first customers wanted some pretty simple data. “Nothing more than knowing the total energy consumed in the building,” he says. But Ashton knew a lot more could be done with the information, if he could just open the platform up a bit, and instrument it with a few more useful appendages.

That’s what he and his team have been up to over the past two years at Belkin. This past summer Belkin introduced WeMo, a home automation system that plugs into any outlet and allows you to control electronic devices over the Internet. The system consists of a plug, a motion sensor, and an iOS app. It’s pretty rudimentary – you plug any device you want to control into the WeMo outlet, and that device becomes controllable via the iOS app. But add in the motion sensor and you  combine the ability to turn things on and off based on the ability to “know” some action has occurred. That’s when things get interesting. Now portions of your home have remote eyes and hands, in a limited sense. WeMo’s sensors  can “see” motion and “act” on what they see by turning things off and on.

Belkin’s promotional site for WeMo shows all kinds of uses for the system: keeping your dog off the couch while you are at work, easing your mind about whether or not you turned off that curling iron before leaving the house, automating when heaters or lights are turned off and on, etc. It’s all very cool, but it suffers from the same problem that plagues all early platforms: Early adopters and hackers love the system, but most consumers aren’t going to go to the trouble of buying, coding, and installing the Wemo system just so they can turn the lights off and on, or ease their mind about an errant curling iron.

What WeMo needed was the power of an open platform, and a community that could come up with uses for the device that the company never imagined.

When WeMo launched, Ashton told me, “we didn’t have many good ideas what people would do with it.” Ashton and his team knew that “lighting up” a home with new sensory appendages could ignite a big change in how people interacted with their living spaces, but instead of taking a proprietary approach to innovation on Belkin’s new platform, they created a free, open API for Wemo, and partnered with IFTT (If This Then That), an internet service that enables anyone to create rules-based actions triggered by data from any number of sources. A simple example of an IFTT “recipe” is this: “If (I post a photo to Instagram) then (put a copy of it into my Dropbox).”

IFTT is a small but thriving community of tens of thousands of folks weaving new kinds of connections between our digitally disparate lives, and Ashton’s team figured tapping into this group might provide Belkin with some novel ideas for WeMo.

They were right. There are nearly 200 WeMo recipes on the IFTT site, ranging from “Text me if my door opens!” to “Post a Facebook status message anytime someone reaches for the cookie jar.” But the one that really got Ashton’s attention is this: “Tell me when it’s time to clean up the litter box.” It’s one of WeMo’s most-used recipes (and it turns out, it did come from within his team, but not until the IFTT connection was established).

“When we were developing (WeMo),” he told me, “there was absolutely no way that anybody – in a focus group or in our think tank – was going to come up with that as an application. If they did, we didn’t think it would be meaningful.”

At the moment, the number of people who have employed the kitty litter recipe can be counted in the dozens. But that’s a function of WeMo’s total installed base, which is still small. That base will likely remain small until a few inter-related things change: First, WeMo-like sensing needs to get cheaper and more accessible. For now, fitting out your house with a full complement of WeMo devices runs upwards of $1000, and the devices are used mostly by a small group of motivated hobbyists (not unlike 3D printing or the Arduino platform). But if sensing devices are built into electrical outlets as a matter of course, and/or are easily retrofitted into existing homes, the presumption that your home is “smart” could tip in a matter of years.

Also, consumers must begin to expect WeMo-like functionality from their homes and devices. The kitty litter recipe is a small but leading indicator of such a shift. Ashton tells me, for example, that he already has inquiries from pet lovers about promoting WeMo – just for its role in helping humans take care of their cats. As the number of hacker-driven recipes for WeMo uses multiplies and device prices and ease of installation diminish, the home sensing revolution could be right around the corner.

Thirdly, the platform wants more data – the more, the better. Imagine if WeMo also had access to all that energy sensing data built into Zensi’s original products. Because the Zensi technology “knows” the signiature of every electrical device on the home network, it “knows” when you’re watching TV, or using the microwave, working at your computer, or firing up the oven. Making all that data “knowable” opens all manner of innovative applications, again, most of which Belkin alone couldn’t dream up all by itself.

But if all this is to happen, it’s critical that access to home automation devices and data remain on an open platform, where innovation can occur unimpeded by conflicting commercial or regulatory imperatives. At the moment, anyone can create a recipe for WeMo, without Belkin’s approval. Ashton says he’s committed to that philosophy – one that he hopes informs far larger issues than curling irons and kitty poop. “We are open to anything that adds value to the system for our users,” Ashton told me.

It wasn’t a natural act for Belkin to open up the WeMo platform.  The company’s CEO has run the company for 30 years, and has never done anything like the IFTT experiment. He took a risk by allowing Ashton’s team to create an API. It’s not a bet the company move, but Ashton believes it augurs a larger change happening across many industries. (GE, for example, is embracing this idea, as are IBM and many other large companies).

“If you can create a business in which other people’s business is adding value to your product, more people will buy your product,” Ashton says. He compares that to traditional, vertically integrated companies that try to control every aspect of their product’s expression (like most automobile manufacturers.) Ashton predicts that all industries will eventually tip toward a more horizontal, open platform approach to business. “In one generation,” he asserts, “this model will win.”

All this reminds me of a book I recently finished – Steven Johnson’s Future Perfect: The Case For Progress In A Networked Age. I’ll be reviewing that work shortly, but Johnson’s point is simple: if we are to solve our largest societal problems, we need to take a more peer-driven, open-platform approach to business, politics, and culture. With WeMo, Belkin’s taken one small step in that direction. I expect many more will follow.

A Week of Contemplation and Thanks

By - November 25, 2012

I’m not writing as much as I’d like, either for the book, or here, on Searchblog or its “Four Letter Words” cousin. I hope to change that this coming week, as I settle back into my writing shack. I had family in town this past week, and I couldn’t very well isolate myself, much as I may have wanted to (at times, I’ll be honest, I did).

But the past week or so have had many fine moments of friends, family, and other wonderful things. Here are a few images of them.

Today we took a strenuous hike up the hill behind our house (it’s called Bald Hill, and it’s about 1100 feet up). We went mainly off trail, and found a buddah sitting on a rocky outcropping, facing West, into the setting sun. This statue was at 800 feet above sea level, and weighed at least forty pounds. Someone worked very hard to get it into position, and it really made our day. Thanks to whoever did that, this is our way of paying it forward….

Here’s the same fellow, in profile (that’s Mt. Tam in the distance):

This led to some contemplation by my daughter, who found the statue.

Here’s my son doing his impression, somewhat backwards, as is his want….

A holiday week means we can put some work in on my favorite hobby, which is playing with the (literal) garage band. We’re not pros, nor do we pretend to be. But being part of a community of guys who just want to play better is perhaps the best thing that’s happened to me this past year. Here’s what our whiteboard looked like last week:

If you don’t recognize some of those tunes, it’s because we’re also writing our own stuff. Never fear, Band of Horses, your day job is safe.

The week before last, I was honored with an award for innovation in the Bay Area by sfBIG (the Hal Riney Award). It was an incredible night, and I was asked to give a talk. It was wild to go down memory lane and remember the things I’ve been a part of for the past 25 years. I found this old cover of the first magazine where I worked, MacWEEK, and also, some old (and very fat) Industry Standards:

I started there in 1987.

That top issue had 225 pages of ads in it. Talk about fat!

My first slide was simply: Wow.

And yes, there was much wine over the past week (I’m still drying out!), but I’ll save those shots for another post. This one’s getting a bit long as it is. Thanks to those of you who read these “Four Letter Word” posts. It’s a nice place to put some memories – a place that feels more intimate and real to me than Facebook or places like it. Have a great week….

In a Nutshell, The Android Problem: Totally Forked

By - November 20, 2012

(image) I’m a fan of “open.” Anyone who knows me, knows this about me.

But I’m also a fan of “easy.” And of “good design.” So, for the past couple of years, I’ve been an iPhone user, mainly because it was easy, and had better design than any alternative. Also, my company supported the iPhone, even though it was terrible for calendar, contacts, email, you know, pretty much everything that mattered to me.

But because I’m no longer day to day at my company, I’ve been eager to move away from the iPhone, for many reasons, including the extraordinarily awful experience I recently had, chronicled here.  And I really like the philosophy of Android. It’s open, it’s hackable, it’s generative in all the right ways.

However, it’s also a utterly confusing mess. Alas, this seems to be the price of “open” – chaos.

There are something like 800 versions of Android, a developer who I was interviewing for my book told me today. EIGHT HUNDRED! And every one of them might change at any time. There’s versions modified by all the carriers around the world (stuffed with crapware, bloatware, portalware). Versions modified by all the handset makers – one for each phone, sometimes (same crap). Versions for televisions (I hear the new Samsung TVs are utterly borked with unchangeable bullsh*t). Versions that are specific to Google’s “own” products. And versions that have been so forked as to be spoons, like what Amazon’s done with Kindle.

This is not a new complaint. To those of you out there who are sophisticated, it’s terribly naive. You’ve spent your 72 hours deciding which one to buy, setting it up, working out the kinks, and now it works great for you (or maybe your IT department did that work for you). Congratulations. I wish I had the time. But if that’s what it takes to make a damn smart phone “smart”, I want something better.

I’m not afraid to admit it: I want an Android phone, I’m willing to spend lavishly to get the best one, but after hours of research, I’m utterly f*cking confused about which product to buy. One thing I do know – once I buy it, I don’t want to spend three days figuring out how to make it work.

Is anyone else having this issue? Any suggestions?

Meanwhile, I recall that one of my predictions for last year was this: “Google will focus on providing a clear, consistent experience through Android for tablets and mobile, but it will take a third party to unify the experience. I don’t see that happening this year.”

Yeah, it didn’t happen in 2011. And it’s not happening this year, though I can *feel* the pain at Google HQ as the folks there watch Android splinter into a million hamfisted pieces of forkin’ crap. Is this why they bought Motorola? One wonders.

Can Google put all the pieces together again? I certainly hope so. But there has to be a better way. Do you remember the Blackberry? Remember how magical that was? God, I sound old. And yes, I hear the Windows phone is really cool. But I’ve only heard that once.

Meanwhile, which phone should I buy? I mean, really, which one? HTC? Nexus 4? Galaxy S3?  Motorola Razr (holy shit, really!???!) Help!

A Moment To Appreciate The Place Between

By - November 13, 2012

Less than an hour North of  San Francisco lies a network of small towns that exist utterly detached from the hamster wheel of our nation’s obsession with technology. They have names like Dogtown, Bolinas, Forrest Knolls, and Olema. Somehow, they’ve managed to escape most trappings of gentrification. They feel authentic, real, and fragile – rather like hummingbirds feeding on flowers despite a gathering storm (or perhaps in spite of it). And I get to drive through them almost daily, because I’ve made Stinson Beach my new office (for more on that, see Time To Begin, Again).

Northern California has always meant the world to me, but moving my base of work close to these places has cemented my love for this special patch of the world. Today I left my hut on the coast and rode my bike up and over the 2,000 foot barrier between the surreal – where fairies dance – and the very real – where most of us live and labor to produce the information economy (also known, in this case, as Mill Valley – fast becoming the Brooklyn of San Francisco).

Here’s a picture of the view from the divide between the two. Looking, as always, to the west.

PS – I posted this picture earlier on Instagram, but that just wasn’t good enough.

Facebook Is Now Making Its Own Weather

By - November 09, 2012

(image) The past month or so has seen the rise and fall of an interesting Internet tempest – the kind of story that gets widely picked up, then quickly amplified into storms of anger, then eventually dies down as the folks who care enough to dig into the facts figure out that the truth is somewhere outside the lines of the original headline-grabbing story.

The topic this time around centers on Facebook’s native ad unit called “Sponsored Stories,” and allegations that the company is gaming its “Edgerank” algorithm such that folks once accustomed to free promotion of their work on Facebook must now pay for that distribution.

Edgerank determines the posts you see in your Facebook newsfeed, and many sites noticed that sometime early this Fall, their traffic from Facebook shrank dramatically. Others claimed traffic had been declining since the Spring, but it wasn’t until this Fall that the story gained significant traction.

I’ve been watching all this play out – first via an angry post on the New York Observer site in which the author posits that Facebook is “broken on purpose” so as to harvest Sponsored Story revenue. An even angrier post on the same theme came five weeks later on a site called Dangerous Minds. From it:

Spring of 2012 was when bloggers, non-profits, indie bands, George Takei, community theaters, photographers, caterers, artists, mega-churches, high schools, tee-shirt vendors, campus coffee shops, art galleries, museums, charities, food trucks, and a near infinite variety of organizations; individuals from all walks of life; and businesses, both large and small, began to detect—for it was almost imperceptible at first—that the volume was getting turned down on their Facebook reach. Each post was now being seen only by a fraction of their total “fans” who would previously have seen them.

The author goes on to argue that Facebook was breaking the implicit contract between himself – an independent blogger – and Facebook, the corporation.

…as a publisher of a medium readership blog, I used to get a great deal from using Facebook—but I understood it to be a two-way reciprocal arrangement because I was driving traffic back to Facebook as well, and reinforcing their brand awareness with prominent widgets on our blog.

Now, if you’ve read my Thneeds post, you know I’m sympathetic to this point of view. I believe large social platforms like Facebook and Twitter “harvest” content from the Indpendent Web, and leverage the traffic and engagement that this content creates on their platforms to their own benefit via scaled advertising offerings. Most of us are fine with the deal – we promote our work on social sites, social sites drive traffic back to us. We like that traffic, either just because we like more folks reading our work, or, in the case of commercial sites like this one, because we serve ads against it.

Now, as I’ve noted many times over the past six months, this bargain is breaking down, because it’s getting harder and harder to monetize traffic using standard display advertising units. That’s not Facebook’s problem, per se, it’s ours. (See here for my suggestions as to how to solve it).

Nevertheless, for many sites, the spectre of losing significant traffic from Facebook means a serious blow to revenues. And from the point of view of the Dangerous Minds blogger, Facebook first cut his traffic off, then began asking him to pay to get it back (in the form of promoting his posts via Sponsored Stories).

This makes for a very good narrative: corporate greed laid bare. It got picked up by a lot of sites, including Ars Technica and even the aforementioned George Takei, who is upset that he’s lost the ability to push his posts to all 2.9 million of his Facebook fans.

Turns out, the truth is a lot more complicated. I’ve done some reporting on this issue, but not nearly as much as TechCrunch did. In a follow up to the Dangerous Minds story, TechCrunch claimed to have debunked the entire story. Titled Killing Rumors With Facts: No, Facebook Didn’t Decrease Page Feed Reach To Sell More Promoted Posts, the story argues that Facebook didn’t change its algorithms to drive up revenue, but rather to cull “spammy posts” from folks’ newsfeeds.

Facebook has always shown just a percentage of all possible posts in a given person’s newsfeed. Anyone paying attention already knew that. The company uses its Edgerank algorithm to determine what it thinks might be interesting to an individual, and sometime in the past few months, I can confirm through sources which wish to remain anonymous that Facebook made a pretty significant change to Edgerank that penalized posts that it felt were not high quality.

Of course, that begs the question: How does Facebook determine what “quality” is? The answer, in the main, is by measuring engagement – is the post shared, liked, clicked on, etc? If so, then it is seen as quality. If not, it’s demoted in value.

Is this sounding familiar to anyone yet? In short, Facebook just executed a Panda.

I held back from writing anything till this predictable cycle played out, because I had a theory, one that I believe is now confirmed: Facebook is now making its own weather, just like Google, and in the past couple months, we’ve witnessed the first widespread instance of a Facebook weather event.

For those of you who don’t know quite what I’m talking about, a bit of history. Ten or so years ago, the ecosystem around search began to notice shifts in how Google drove traffic around the web. Google would make a change to its algorithms, and all of a sudden some sites would see their traffic plummet (other sites sometimes saw the opposite occur). It seemed to those injured that the only way to get their Google traffic back was to buy Google AdWords – corporate greed laid bare. This story played out over and over, to the point where the weather events started to get names, just like hurricanes do. (The first was called Boston).

Early last year Google made a major change to its algorithms that penalized what it believed was lower quality content. Dubbed “Panda,” the changes targeted “content farms” that cranked out SEO friendly pages as AdWords bait. This had dramatic effects on many sites that specialized in “gaming” Google. It also hit sites that weren’t necessarily playing that game – updates like Panda often create collateral damage. Over time, and as it always does, Google fine-tuned Panda until the ecosystem stabilized.

I believe that Facebook is now learning how to manage its own weather. I don’t know the Dangerous Minds website well enough to know if it deserved the drop in traffic that occurred when Facebook had its Panda moment. But one thing does strike me as interesting to note: A significant drop in traffic means a particular site is losing audience that has proactively decided to click on a link inside their newsfeed. That click means the person leaves Facebook and goes to the the Dangerous Minds site. To me, that’s a pretty serious sign of engagement.

However, one might argue that such a signal is not as important to Facebook as internal ones such as “liking” or “sharing” across the Facebook network. To that end, I am sure we’ve not heard the last round of serious grumbling that Facebook is gaming its own Edgerank algorithm to benefit Facebook’s internal goals – to the detriment of the “rest of the web.” Be they publishers or folks like George Takei, who after all wants to push his Facebook fans to any  number of external links where they might buy his books or sign up to meet him at the next Comic Con, the rest of the web depends on “social traffic” from Facebook. The question is, should they optimize for that traffic, or will their efforts be nullified in the next Edgerank update?

Facebook is learning how to tread the delicate line between its own best interests, and those of its users – and the Internet That Is Not Facebook. Google does this every day – but it has a long history as a distributor of traffic off its main site. Facebook, not so much. Over time, the company will have to decide what kind of a relationship it wants to have with the “rest of the web.” It will probably have to start engaging more openly with its own ecosystem, providing guidance on best practices and how to avoid being penalized. This is a practice that took Google years to hone, and many still think the company has a lot of work to do.

Regardless, Facebook is now making its own weather. Now comes the fun part: Trying to predict it.

On Native and Programmatic

By - November 06, 2012

Earlier this week I was asked an interesting question by Digiday. “What’s More Important: Native Ads or Programmatic Buying?” I thought the question was a bit conflated – it’s not either or. It very much depends on how you define the terms.

My response is below. Check the story for the opinions of many others in the industry as well.

If I had to wager a guess, I’d have to say that programmatic will be a larger force, but only if you take “native” to mean the native units at domain-specific platforms like Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr and the like. But it’s very important to define your terms here because in five years time, I think you will be able to buy all of these “native” units across a unified “programmatic” platform — and that platform has not yet been built. We are, as an industry, heading in that direction, and it’s a very exciting one. When programmatic merges with native and is fueled by data and a transparent, objective framework, everyone wins.

For more on this, check my earlier posts What Should the Ads Be Like? and The Evolution of Display: Change Is Here, For Good.