free html hit counter January 2017 - John Battelle's Search Blog

We Must Fix This Fucking Mess

By - January 11, 2017

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Here are the caveats for the rant I am about to write.

  1. The fact that I am writing this on Medium will cause many of you to dismiss me for hypocrisy. Don’t. Read to the end.
  2. I will be saying the word “F*CK” a lot. If that bothers you, time to depart for calmer waters.
  3. This post will be subject to dismissal due to charges of high nostalgia — I will be accused of living in the past, failing to get the future, not getting with the times, being the old man yelling “get off my lawn,” etc. These characterizations will be all entirely right. And totally irrelevant.
  4. This post will be compared, most likely unfavorably, to the many, many, many, many wonderful (and better) posts that have already been written on this subject. That’s fine. I just want to add my voice to the conversation.
  5. This post will piss off friends of mine at Facebook, Medium, LinkedIn, and probably Google. Sorry in advance. Kinda.

Ok, now that we’ve got that out of the way, it’s time to say something out loud.

WE GOT IT FUCKING RIGHT THE FIRST TIME.

We were lucky, we were visionary, we were idiots, we were savants. But we got Internet publishing right the first time — and then we (sometimes actively, sometimes by inaction) fucked it up. Moreover, we KNEW it was on a path to peril, and we slouched towards Bethlehem, expecting that at some point the problem would correct itself.

IT DIDN’T.

Internet based publishing is so fucked up that the people most responsible for some of its loveliest platforms — Ev Williams of Blogger, Twitter and Medium, Matt Mullenweg of WordPress — these guys positively, absolutely HATE the Internet’s chosen business model. Always have. Probably always will.

Ev hates advertising so much, he damn near killed his own company last week trying to get away from the practice. Matt, well anyone who knows Matt will tell you, the guy would rather wear a tutu than woo an advertiser. Both feel there’s something utterly corrupt about the whole affair. And they’re not entirely wrong.

But they’re not entirely right, either. More on than in a minute.

But first, for those of you reading this and wondering “What the F is this guy talking about?” well, first of all, welcome to History 101, and secondly, thanks for sticking around. We can’t fix this without your help. I certainly don’t want to go back to using early versions of WordPress or Moveable Type.

But when I was, I’ll tell you one thing.

I KNEW WHO THE FUCK WAS READING ME. I KNEW WHY. I KNEW WHO SENT THEM TO ME, AND I WAS GRATEFUL TO THOSE PEOPLE/SITES/PLATFORMS THAT SENT ME THOSE READERS.

Now, I have no idea. Again, for emphasis: despite all the whizzy bang-y social media we’ve invented these past ten years, I HAVE NOT ONE CLUE WHO IS READING ME ON A REGULAR BASIS, NOR DO I KNOW WHO TO THANK FOR SENDING THEM TO ME.

Sure, I have a general idea. I can look at my analytics in all those aforementioned platforms, and I could, if I have either earned or hired a double PhD in Big Data and Theology, I might be able to divine some patterns as to how my readers ended up reading my stuff. But given they’re scattered across four, five or six platforms, all with different algorithms, business models, presentation layers, analytics (or lack thereof), and permissions, well, good fucking luck making sense of your audience as an actual community that cares about what you’re saying.

And we wonder why publishing is so fucked.

This is the single most immutable rule of media, folks. PUBLISHING IS COMMUNITY. And if you don’t know who your community is, you’re screwed.

Kudos to Jessica, to Ben, to Sarah, who’ve realized this and demanded readers become paying subscribers, and not on anyone else’s platform, but out there on the messy, attenuating Open Web. But let’s call their success what it is: Proof by exception. These are small communities of thousands, or tens of thousands of readers, all willing to pay in the tens or hundreds of dollars for inside access to a valuable industry. Would each of those readers pay similarly for a dozen or two dozen other services, so as to be both well read and members of diverse communities? NO FUCKING WAY. And therein lies the problem.

It’s a big problem, folks. It’s a mighty big problem. Sure, we might see the “pay for a few important sources” model play out across all manner of “industries” — lots of small, focused publications paid for by a subscriber base that has a vested, commercial interest in the information they receive. But how is that possibly encouraging the open, democratic access to information upon which our Republic depends?

If you’ve read your Hamilton (the book, damnit), you know America is built on the back of brilliant pamphleteers, but damn it, it’s also built on capitalism. And capitalists need a place to speak to the people! Rivington’s newspaper (where Hamilton first published) was called the New York Gazetteer, sure, but it’s second name was the fucking Weekly Advertiser.

So I’m tired of all this nonsense about how the Internet’s business model is broken because advertising sucks. I call bullshit. Advertising is a greatbusiness model. But it has become completely divorced from the creators and conveners of community — authors and publishers. It’s been channeled into a few oligarchic platforms which have, through no obvious, direct, or apparently malicious intent of their own, drunk our fucking milkshakes. The rest of us (and there are MILLIONS of us, and we are MIGHTY, if we decide to be), well the rest of us are left fighting over a shrinking pie, building extraordinary technology which we have increasingly bent toward the gray.

I know, I know, it’s fashionable to blame Google, Facebook*, and their ilk for siphoning off all the advertising dollars publishers used to get, but I’m not going to. They simply did what conditions allowed them to do, which is create a welcoming place for advertisers who were feeling a bit unloved by the vast, bleached coral reef that is the open web. They identified a need, and they filled it. They built impressive, scaled, data-driven advertising machines. They won.

But what they failed to win was the Gazetteer portion of the equation. The CONTENT. Thanks in large part to Safe Harbor syndrome (I just made that up, please hashtag that shit and make it a thing), these platforms disavowed any responsibility for the content that pulsed through their systems, the very content written by us millions, the very lifeblood of our Republic. They were never publishers, after all, nor were they media companies. No no, they were platforms, neutral to the core, bloodless algorithms matching a reader’s intent to a publisher’s content, nothing to see here, move along, just providing a service and taking our small tax along the way…

And that was kind of true, in the beginning, anyway. Back when Google was young, blogging was a thing, and the web shone brightly in its Golden Age. The great Search Engine That Won ruled as a benign monarch, impassively distributing intent like oxygenated water across the kelp beds of web publishing. For a brief, wonderful moment, it all Worked.

I won’t go into why it broke down (that’s another essay), but I do want to take a look at why it worked. Because perhaps there are some lessons to be learned as we look to the future of Internet publishing. (And yes, I do think publishing has a future on the Internet — we must tell stories. We must converse, we must because that is who we are, at such a deep level I can’t even fathom an argument about it.)

So what worked? Here’s my list, add to it as you will (that’s why there are comments, after all):

  • Open Links. An open economy of links allows authors and publishers to create a gift economy that sends attention and influence from one place to another. Of course, the open link economy is subject to fraud, abuse, rent extraction, and corruption.
  • Trackbacks. Built on open links, trackbacks allow publishers to know who’s gifting who. They’re a critical social proof in an attention economy. In another essay, I called them “meaningful handshakes from one mind to another.” Knowing who was linking to your stuff was deeply important to trace-route the social fabric of your community. Of course, trackbacks failed because spam (see above).
  • Analytics. Early web publishers had access to meaningful signals of how readers engaged with their content. Of course, once you’re publishing on someone else’s platform, the meaningful signals are reserved for the platform, not for the content creator.
  • Comments. I know, I know. But before comment spam and the rise of troll culture, comments Really Fucking Mattered. Medium has brought comments back in a meaningful way through Responses. Thank you.
  • Advertising. I’m sorry, but advertising really does matter, in that it encourages small publications with ardent and meaningful audiences to continue doing what they were doing, which is inform, connect, and inspire communities of people. What broke with advertising was its disconnection from community, just as with publishers. Sure, you can buy audience all day long. But without context? C’mon.
  • And and and… There are more, but I want to get to my conclusion.

Here’s my point: One by one, we lost what was Good about the early web, and ceded it all to the platforms. What held promise ten years ago — that the web would spawn an ecosystem of millions of robust, connected voices — was lost to an oligarchy of Facebook, Google, and to a lessor extend LinkedIn, Twitter, and Snapchat. But I deeply believe we can bring it back. And yes, I believe advertising has a role to play. And Big Data. And subscription, but not if it’s of the micro-payment, subscribe-to-just-this-site variety.

We can get there, but not without all of us getting together and figuring out what our next steps should be.

Who’s in?

  • Yes, yes, YES, I saw the fucking news from Facebook today. Great! You know the best way to change this formula? Tilt the revenue gains to the publishers, and make sure they have kickass analytics (and real data!) about their readers. You know, get them paid, for reals, and connect them to their audiences, for reals (IE stop preferencing your platform over theirs). I’ve not spoken to a single publisher who feels they are getting reliable, understandable, reasonable, or meaningful revenue or data from chasing Facebook traffic. Fix that, be a hero. I doubt it’ll be more than a rounding error in overall Facebook revenue or growth.
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Predictions 2017: A Chain Reaction

By - January 06, 2017

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This is my 14th annual predictions post. And as I look back on the previous 13 and consider what to write, I’m flooded with uncertainty. That’s not like me. Writing these predictions is something I’ve always looked forward to – I don’t prepare in any demonstrable way, but I do gather crumbs over time, filing them away for the day when I sit down and free associate for however long it takes me to complete this post.

But this time, well, for the first time ever I have very little idea what’s about to come out of the keyboard. Honestly, when I consider the coming 12 months, so much feels up for grabs that I wonder whether it’s wise to prognosticate. Then I remember, it’s all of you reading these words who keep me writing in the first place – your encouragement, your wise (and sometimes cutting) commentary, and your willingness to spend a little time with me and my thoughts. One of my New Year’s resolutions is to write more – it’s always been how I make sense of the world, and this year, the world feels like it needs a lot more sense making. So I’ll be writing at least a few times a week going forward, starting with this uncertain post.

Let’s see what happens….

1. The bloom comes off the tech industry rose. Two years ago, I predicted that the tech industry would wake up to the power it had accrued and start giving a shit both about its impact on the world, and about the world’s largest problems, with climate change being the most pressing of them. That didn’t really happen, despite truly commendable philanthropic, social, and climate change work done by all of the “Big 5″ tech companies (Microsoft, Amazon, Google, Apple, Facebook). As of this writing, the technology industry is now the undisputed leader of the business world. Its power has concentrated into demonstrable oligarchy – beyond the Big 5, Uber and Airbnb are now being called to question because of their potential monopolistic, rent extracting behavior. But the industry’s philosophical outlook remains rooted in its days as a challenger brand. This can’t stand. 2017 will be the year the industry is cast as a villain – for its ravenous and largely opaque data collection practices, its closed and self-serving approach to its own platforms, and its refusal to acknowledge or address the very real externalities, particularly in employment, created by its products and services. Some of this backlash will be unfair – but that’s not my point. Society vilifies those in power who appear to be unfairly profiting from that power. And in 2017, tech will be that villain.

2. The conversation economy breaks out. This is certainly related to #1, if oddly oppositional. The Big Five will be in an all out battle to engage us through conversational interfaces this year. If you’ve been reading me for over a decade, you might remember my predictions around the “conversation economy.” I was a bit early (OK, a decade too early), but the technology and the consumer behavior/expectations are now aligned to allow for a breakout year in user experience to finally occur. This began in earnest last year with the hype around chatbots, and the ascendance of Alexa and Google Home, all of which followed on the heels of Google Voice Search and Siri. But what will really shift the experience will be the explosion of smart chatbots that actually get shit done – I’m with Kik CEO Ted Livingston, chat is the new browser. Combine smart chat with voice, and … well, we’ll start to see a new UX for the web. What’s the economic model for this new UX? Good question! But the key will be meaningful interaction between all these services, instead of attempts to create a vertically integrated, locked-down walled garden. But that will only happen if…

3. Open starts to win again. It’s dangerous to link two predictions, because if one doesn’t work out, the other is likely to fail as well. It’s even worse to link your first three… but what the hell. Tech’s hegemony is so great at this point, that the only way I can see it breaking down is through a return to the open standards which bequeathed us the Internet in the first place. 2017 will be the year that open starts to win again as a business model and an approach to creating a developer (and hence consumer) ecosystem. Google can and should be the leader here, given its core DNA, but I’m not sure that will be the case. Now, what do I mean by open? Well, interoperability, for one. It’s great that anyone can create a chatbot on Messenger, or Kik, or WhatsApp, but true innovation will come when anyone can create a chatbot that works with all of them, sharing data and user profiles across platforms. The same goes for the marketing industry – publishers and marketers alike should be able to consolidate and leverage data across all meaningful platforms, instead of cultivating different patches in every service’s walled gardens. The same goes for consumers, of course – I want to know what data is being used to mold the choices being laid out in front of me (including the ads, and yes, my f*cking newsfeed!). There will be meaningful demand from “users” to have more fluid and intuitive controls of their experience. And if my #2 holds true, then voice becomes a literal lingua franca, rendering platform lock in long-term meaningless, because jumping from service to service will be as easy as saying “Alexa, WhatsApp my pal Chris with the results of my Google search on open platforms.” This year won’t be a turning point in this battle, but it will show meaningful progress, in large part because…

4. Privacy will become a strong product category. These linked predictions are  certainly becoming a theme. But last year saw strong growth for a number of stand alone privacy products like Signal and Confide, and the inclusion of strong crypto into massive platforms like iOS (remember the FBI fracas?), WhatsApp and Google (via its new Allo and Duo products). Influencers like Fred and many others are predicting a boon in this field, and I agree. But it’s one thing to encrypt your messaging. It’s another to secure your entire online life. That kind of security is hard to do, mainly because it obviates much of the value of the data harvesting which drives convenience in the consumer tech world. But fear of cyber warfare, fraud, and over-reaching marketers and government will create huge openings for consumer friendly versions of currently opaque products like PGP, password managers, and the like. And it’ll also drive political and consumer pressure for more robust consumer control around algorithmically driven consumer experiences. Smart companies won’t resist this trend, they’ll encourage it.

5. Adtech has a ripper of a year. Wait, I just predicted consumers will pivot to caring about privacy, but I’m saying the adtech business is going to have a great year?! Well…yes. Embrace the contradictions, because adtech is ready for its second act. It’s really sucked to be a leader in the advertising technology industry – half of the media industry openly hates your guts, and the other half is convinced your days are numbered because of the Google/Facebook oligarchy. But they’re all wrong. Advertising technology is, at its simplest, the ability to apply data to a decision at scale. And the more open and free flowing that data economy becomes, the better and more valuable the companies which enable it become. If my predictions 1-4 come true, then this one will as well: Independent, high-integrity companies in ad/martech are going to have a banner (no pun intended) year, because they’ll tack into the resistance the large platform players have to the trends I’ve outlined above. Watch: Sovrn Holdings*, AppNexus, Acxiom*, Trade Desk, and OpenX.

6. Apple releases a truly bad hardware product. OK, this one isn’t really tied to the others, but I think Apple’s poised to not just have a boring year (as I predicted it would last year,) but to really lay an egg for the first time in a very long time. It may be their answer to Amazon Echo/Alexa, or Google Home/Assistant, or it may be a follow on to the watch, or perhaps something the company has had up its sleeve for a few years that it feels obliged to roll out given its essentially uninspiring last few years of product releases. But in 2017, the press and the public will find a tangible reason to turn on Apple, and the company will likely respond by reorganizing, repatriating its cash (to curry favor with the current administration), and keep buying its way into the markets where it has repeatedly failed (IE, software as a service, entertainment (NetFlix?!!), and possibly social media).

7. A Fortune 100 company will announce its intention to become a B Corp. Large companies are increasingly under pressure from employees, customers, and society to create value for more than just their shareholders. For decades, business was allowed to tax environmental, social, and societal resources in pursuit of profit. A new generation of consumers and employees are demanding that business ladder to more than simple profit, but rather, have a core purpose—one that makes the world a little (or a lot) better place. Of course, there’s already a corporate governance structure that encourages this approach to running a company—the Public Benefit Corporation, or B Corp. (I wrote about B Corps last year here). My money is on Unilever, which has already been publicly discussing such a move. Two dark horses: Walmart and GE.

8. President Trump leaves Twitter. Ever since Twitter launched, I’ve usually included a Twitter prediction. This one sounds crazy, but it strikes me there are a few ways this might plausibly happen. Perhaps Trump will come to his senses and stop trying to run the country through a series of tweets. OK, that’s not very plausible. More likely is Trump will end up in some kind of a feud with Twitter over something utterly ridiculous, claim he’s the only reason the service is viable anymore, and decamp for Facebook, Snapchat, or who knows, maybe VK (that’s the largest Russian social media network, FWIW). Or maybe someone slips a cure for narcissism into his evening flute of Trump Champagne….

9. Snap soars – then sours. I’m increasingly of the opinion that this company is going to force a total rethink of our online culture. In fact, I think most of us have no idea how over our skis we are when it comes to the power that Snapchat has aggregated. I’m not talking about typical tech power, like number of active users or advertising revenue. I mean the power of the platform to engage and exploit our pleistocene-era social brains. I’m not entirely sure Snap Inc. has fully grokked that power. But Snapchat feels like a step function beyond anything that has come before it. I watch my own children use it, and I’ve watched them fall in love with Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, and countless pretenders (though I’m keeping my eye on Houseparty). Nothing compares to what happens when a group of kids connect on Snapchat. It literally becomes their social geography, and that fact will be widely recognized by the business community when Snap goes public. But almost hand in hand with that will come the Snapchat backlash, as scholars, alarmists, parents and school administrators speak out about the impact the app is having on the structure of society. Spectacles? By the end of 2017, those will seem quaint. Side note: There’ll be an amazing science fiction novel that comes out in early 2017 whose main protagonist will be compared to Snap. And yeah, that’s a fix, because I’ve already read it…

10. Human connection commands a premium in the workforce. OK, OK, this has certainly been the case for all of history, at least – ahem –  for a certain kind of connectivity. But in an age where it seems every job can be replaced by AI or a robot (or both), we’ll see a shift in how society values previously under-appreciated jobs that cannot be automated away (or if they can, the automated version fails to deliver human connection). Think about jobs that are socially valuable, require direct human contact, but are currently very poorly remunerated: Teacher, nurse/home care aide, waiter, small business owner, musician/artist come to mind. In 2017, we’ll come to realize that we’re valuing the wrong things, and start a conversation about paying people to connect with each other – because if we can automate the other stuff, why the heck wouldn’t we value each other more?! Related: The conversation around Universal Basic Income (or my preferred term, the Citizens’ Dividend) will become white hot (it’s white hot in the Valley at present, but it’ll move into broader circles in 2017).

Well that’s ten predictions, which seems like a nice round number. As I review them, I realize there’s a pretty high chance I could seriously whiff this year. What do you think?!

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Related:

Predictions 2016 

2016: How I Did

Predictions 2015

2015: How I Did

Predictions 2014

2014: How I Did

Predictions 2013

2013: How I Did

Predictions 2012

2012: How I Did