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My Predictions for 2018

By - January 03, 2018

(cross posted from NewCo Shift)

So many predictions from so many smart people these days. When I started doing these posts fifteen years ago, prognostication wasn’t much in the air. But a host of way-smarter-than-me folks are doing it now, and I have to admit I read them all before I sat down to do my own. So in advance, thanks to Fred, to Azeem, to Scott, and Alexis, among many others.

So let’s get into it. Regular readers know that while I think about these predictions in the back of my mind for months, I usually just sit down and write them at one sitting. That’s what happened a year ago, when I predicted that 2017 would see the tech industry lose its charmed status. It certainly did, and nearly everyone is predicting more of the same for 2018. So I won’t focus on the entire industry this year, as much as on specific companies and trends. Here we go….

  1. Crypto/blockchain dies as a major story this year. I know, this is a silly thing to say given all the hype right now. But the Silicon Valley hype cycle is a pretty predictable thing, and while new currencies will continue to rise, fall, and make and lose tons of money, the overall narrative thrives on the new, and there’s simply too much real-but-boring work to be done right now in the space. Does anyone remember 1994? Sure, it’s the year the Mozilla team decamped from Illinois to the Valley, but it’s not the year the Web broke out as a mainstream story. That came a few years later. 2018 is a year of hard work on the problems that have kept blockchain from becoming what most of us believe it can truly become. And that kind of work doesn’t keep the public engaged all year long. Besides, everyone will be focused on much larger issues like…
  2. Donald Trump blows up. 2018 is the year it all goes down, and when it does, it will happen quickly (in terms of its inevitability) and painfully slowly (in terms of it actually resolving). This of course is a terrible thing to predict for our country, but we got ourselves into this mess, and we’ll have to get ourselves out of it. It will be the defining story of the year.
  3. Facts make a comeback. This has something to do with Trump’s failure, of course, but I think 2018 is the year the Enlightenment makes a robust return to the national conversation. Liberals will finally figure out that it’s utterly stupid to blame the “other side” for our nation’s troubles. Several viral memes will break out throughout the year focused on a core narrative of truth and fact. The 2018 elections will prove that our public is not rotten or corrupt, but merely susceptible to the same fever dreams we’ve always been susceptible to, and the fever always breaks. A rising tide of technology-driven engagement will help drive all of this. Yes, this is utterly optimistic. And yes, I can’t help being that way.
  4. Tech stocks overall have a sideways year. That doesn’t meant they don’t rise like crazy early (already happening!), but that by year’s end, all the year in review stock pieces will note that tech didn’t drive the markets in the way they have over the past few years. This is because the Big Four have some troubles this coming year….
  5. Amazon becomes a target. Amazon is the most overscrutinized yet still misunderstood company in all of tech. For years it’s built a muscular and opaque platform, and in 2017 it benefitted from the fact that, so far anyway, Russians haven’t found a way to use e-commerce to disrupt western democracy. Yes, Trump seems to have a bug up his bum about the company, but his tweets last year seemed to only increase Amazon’s teflon reputation with the rest of society. In 2018, however, things will change for the worse. The company is smart enough to keep hiding its power — it hasn’t accumulated the cash of its GAFA rivals, nor does it play (as much) in the high profile worlds of media and politics. But by 2018, the company will find itself painted into something of a box. Last year I thought the fear of automation and job losses would dominate the political discussion, but Russia managed to eclipse those concerns. This is the year Amazon becomes the poster child for future shock. In particular, I expect the company’s “Flex” business to come under serious scrutiny. And what it’s doing with in house brands is the equivalent of Google giving preference to its own products in search results (that hasn’t worked out so well in Europe). Further tarnishing its image will be its lack of leadership on social issues — Jeff Bezos is no Tim Cook when it comes to empathy. By year’s end, Amazon’s reputation will be in jeopardy. Then again, I do think the company will be nimbler than most in responding to that threat.
  6. Google/Alphabet will have a terrible first half (reputation wise), but recover after that. Why a terrible first half? Well, I agree with Scott, there’s another shoe to drop in the whole Schmidt story, not to mention more EU fines and fake news fallout, and that will kick off a soul-searching first half for the search giant. The company will find itself flat-footed and in need of some traditional corporate revival tactics — ever since Page stepped back into the obscurity of Alphabet, the company has lacked a compelling overarching narrative. I’m not sure how the company recovers its mojo, but it could be by pushing deeper into a strategy of letting its children grow up outside the Alphabet conglomerate structure. Perhaps not a government driven breakup, per se, but a series of spin outs, led by Sundar Pichai (Google), Susan Wojcicki (YouTube), and perhaps a new spinout around Doubleclick/Adtech, possibly run by Neal Mohan. Alphabet will remain as a holding company with stakes in all these newly (or soon to be newly) public companies, as well as a place that incubates new ventures and figures out what the hell to do with Nest.
  7. Facebook. Ah, what to say about Facebook. Well, let’s just say the company muddles through a slog of a year, with a lot of rearguard work politically, even as it starts to dawn on the world that maybe, just maybe, every advertiser in the world doesn’t want to be handcuffed to the company’s toxic engagement model. Of course, with YouTube in particular, Google has this issue as well, so here’s my Facebook prediction, which is more of an ad industry prediction: The Duopoly falls out of favor. No, this doesn’t mean year-on-year declines in revenue, but it does mean a falloff in year-on-year growth, and by the end of 2018, a increasingly vocal contingent of influencers inside the advertising world will speak out against the companies (they’re already speaking to me privately about it). One or two of them will publicly cut their spending and move it to other places, like programmatic (which will have a sideways year more than likely) and places like….
  8. Pinterest breaks out. This one might prove my biggest whiff, or my biggest “nailed it,” hard to say. But for more, see my piece from earlier in the weekAdvertisers will find comfort in Pinterest’s relatively uncontroversial model, and its increasingly good results. The big question is whether Pinterest can both scale its inventory in a predictable and contextual way, and whether it can make its self service/API-based platform super simple to use. Oh, and of course continue to attract a growing user base. Early signs are that it’s doing all three.
  9. Autonomous vehicles do not become mainstream. I’ve said it before, I’m saying it again: This shit is complicated, and we’re not even close to ready. We’ll see a lot of cool pilots, and maybe even one (probably small) city will vote to let them run amuck. But I just don’t see it happening this year. However, I do think 2018 will be the year that electric vehicles are accepted as inevitable.
  10. Business leads. Business doesn’t change by fiat, it changes through the slow uptake of new social norms. And a crucial new norm in business poised to have a breakout year is the expectation that companies take their responsibilities to all stakeholders as seriously as they take their duty to shareholders“All stakeholders” means more than customers and employees, it means actually adding value to society beyond just their product or service. 2018 will be the year of “positive externalities” in business, and yes, NewCo will be there to take notes on those companies who manage to live up to this new normal. A good place to start, of course, is the Shift Forum in less than two months. I hope to see you there, and have a great 2018!

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Data Concentration In Platforms – A Modest Proposal

By - December 12, 2017
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(I’ve been writing on NewCo Shift for the most part, but I wanted my Searchblog readers to know two things: One, I’m working on getting this site totally redone, and will be posting here in the New Year. And two, I really feel awful about how I’ve neglected this site. All of that will change next year.)

—-

Over the past few years I’ve been looking for a grand unifying theory that explains my growing discomfort with technology, an industry for which I’ve been a mostly unabashed cheerleader these past three decades.

I think it all comes down to how our society manages its most crucial new resource: Data.

That our largest technology companies have cornered the market on the data that powers our society’s most important functions is not in question. Who better than Amazon understands at-scale patterns in commerce (and with AWS, our demand for compute-related resources)? Who better than Google understands what products, services, and knowledge we want, and our path to finding them? Who better than Facebook understands our relationships to others and our interaction with (often bad) ideas? And who better than Apple (and Google) understand the applications, services, and entertainment we choose to engage with every day (not to mention our location, our ID, our most personal data, and on and on)?

These companies also dominate two crucial assets related to data: The compute power necessary to translate data into actionable insights, and the human talent required to leverage them both. Taken together, these three assets — massive amounts of data, massive compute platforms, and legions of highly trained engineers and data scientists — represent our society’s best path to understanding itself, and thereby improving all of our lives.

If anything should be defined as a public good — “a commodity or service provided without profit to all members of a society” — it should be the ability to study and understand society toward a goal of improving everyone’s lives.

But over the past decade, the most valuable data, processing power, and people have become concentrated in a handful of private companies that have demonstrated an almost genetic unwillingness to share their platform as a public good. Sure, they’ll happily share their platforms’ output — their consumer products — as for-profit services. And yes, each of us as consumers can benefit greatly from free social media, free search, free access to the “Everything Store,” and expensive but oh-so-worth-it smart phones.

But while each of us gets to benefit individuallynone of us get to benefit from the wholistic, aggregated view of the world that the tech oligarchy has over its billions of consumers. And only the tech platforms — and their shareholders — are accruing the benefit of that perspective.

Why am I on about this? Because having access to good, at-scale data, and the platforms and people to learn from that data, is a clear proxy for progress in our society. We all marvel at the extraordinary capabilities, profits, and market caps of the tech platforms. They are the modern equivalents of the industrial powerhouses that transformed the American landscape in the early 20th century.

Back then, what was good for GM was good for the USA. But when we went to war, we went to war in partnership with those companies. GM, Alcoa, US Steel and their peers’ capitalistic platforms became our government’s most important wartime assets.

And while it feels odd to write this, no serious scholar of modern geopolitics disputes that we are now at war — a new kind of information-based war, but war, nevertheless — with Russia in particular, but in all honesty, with a multitude of nation states and stateless actors bent on destroying western democratic capitalismThey are using our most sophisticated and complex technology platforms to wage this war — and so far, we’re losing. Badly.

Why? According to sources I’ve talked to both at the big tech companies and in government, each side feels the other is ignorant, arrogant, misguided, and incapable of understanding the other side’s point of view. There’s almost no data sharing, trust, or cooperation between them. We’re stuck in an old model of lobbying, soft power, and the occasional confrontational hearing.

Not exactly the kind of public-private partnership we need to win a war, much less a peace.

Am I arguing that the government should take over Google, Amazon, Facebook, and Apple so as to beat back Russian info-ops? No, of course not.But our current response to Russian aggression illustrates the lack of partnership and co-ordination between government and our most valuable private sector companies. And I am hoping to raise an alarm: When the private sector has markedly better information, processing power, and personnel than the public sector, one will only strengthen, while the latter will weaken. We’re seeing it play out in our current politics, and if you believe in the American idea, you should be extremely concerned.

 

During WWII, the US economy mobilized, growing at more than 10 percent for several years in a row. Sweeping new partnerships were established between large American corporations, new entrants to the workforce (black Americans and women in particular), and the government. And when the war was won, the peace dividend drove the United States to its current position as the most powerful nation — and economy — on the planet.

We desperately need a new compact between business and government, in particular as it relates to the most important resources in our society: data, processing power, and human intellectual capital.

In my next column I’ll dive into ideas for how we might mitigate our current imbalance, and the role that anti-trust may — or may not — play in that rebalancing. (Update, here it is.)

Amazon’s HQ2 Isn’t a Headquarters. So What Is It?

By - September 28, 2017

Crossposted from NewCo Shift.

Everyone’s favorite parlor game is “where will Amazon go?” Better to ask: Why does Amazon needs a second headquarters in the first place?

It’s the future! Rendering of Amazon’s new Seattle HQ. The first and original one. 

Why does Amazon want a new headquarters? Peruse the company’s RFP, and the company is frustratingly vague on the question. “Due to the successful growth of the Company,” Amazon says of itself in the royal third person, “it now requires a second corporate headquarters in North America.”

It requires”?

Is this a request for bulk discounts on toner ink? Did Jeff Bezos outsource this momentous and extremely public communication to his purchasing department? Is there really no more room in Seattle?

So…Why? Why is Amazon doing this? If I were one of the hundreds of Mayors and local civic boosters huddling in meeting rooms around North America, that would be my first — and pretty much my only question. After all, if you don’t know why Amazon is looking for a “second headquarters,” then your response to their RFP is going to end up pretty rudderless. If Amazon’s true reason for another HQ boils down to, say, Latin American expansion, then Chicago, Toronto, and Philly should pretty much pack in in, no?

While the RFP is comprehensive in requirements (transportation networks, nearby international airports, sustainable office space, etc.), it nevertheless demonstrates a stunning lack of vision — the very vision that once defined “startups” like Amazon. The current accepted mythology about our fabled tech companies, those lions of our present economic theatre, is that they are fonts of vision — driven not just by profit, but by outsized missions to change the world, and to make it better. So what mission, exactly, will this new headquarter actually be charged with? Can anyone answer that? Absent any serious data, the default becomes “to expand Amazon.” And what, exactly, might that mean?

Amazon’s lists of current and projected businesses include e-commerce (its core), entertainment, home automation, cloud services, white label products, logistics and delivery, and any number of adjacent businesses yet to be scaled. It also harbors serious international expansion plans (one would presume). Any and all of these businesses might inform the “why” of its Bachelor-like RFP. But nowhere in the RFP does the company deliver a clue as to whether these factors play into its decision.

I have a theory about why Amazon issued such a vision-free RFP — and why the world responded with a parlor game instead of a serious inquiry as to the motivations of “the most valuable company in the world.” And that theory comes down to this: Amazon needs a place to put workers that are secondary but necessary — back office service, lower level engineering talent, accounting, compliance, administrative support. It will move those support positions to the city that has the cheapest cost per seat, and consolidate its “high value” workers in Seattle, where such talent is already significantly concentrated.

Put another way, “HQ2” isn’t a headquarters at all. But calling it one insures a lot more attention, a lot more concessions, and a lot more positive PR. Maybe Amazon doesn’t have an answer to the question, and is hoping its call for proposals will deliver it a fresh new vision for the future. But I doubt it.

I’d love to be wrong, but absent any other vision the most likely reasoning behind this beauty pageant boils down to money. It may sound like the cynical logic of a rapacious capitalist — but more often than not, that’s what usually drives business in the first place.

The Data Deal Is Opaque. We Should Fix It.

By - August 23, 2017

I wrote this post over on NewCo Shift, but it’s germane to the topics here on Searchblog, so I’m cross posting here…

What Did You *Think* They Do With Your Data?

Admit it, you know your data is how you pay for free services. And you’re cool with it. So let’s get the value exchange right.

Topping the charts on TechMeme yesterday is this story:

So as to be clear, what’s going on here is this: AccuWeather was sharing its users’ anonymized data with a third-party company for profit, even after those same users seemingly opted out of location-based data collection.

But the actual story is more complicated.

Because….come on. Is anyone really still under the impression that your data isn’t what you’re trading for free weather, anywhere, anytime, by the hour? For free e-mail services? For free social media like Instagram or Facebook? For pretty much free everything?

All day long, you’re giving your data up. This is NOT NEW. Technically, what AcccuWeather did is more than likely legal, but it violates the Spirit Of Customers Are Always Right, Even If They Don’t Know What They Are Talking About. It also fails the Front Page Test, and well, when that happens it’s time for a crucifixion!

Hold on, a reasonable person might argue, sensing I’m arguing a disagreeable case. The user opted out, right? In this instance the user (and we can’t call them a “customer,” because a customer traditionally pays money for something) did in fact explicitly tell the app to NOT access their location. Here’s the screen shot in that story:

But what does that really mean? Access for what? Under what circumstance? My guess is AcccuWeather asked this question for a very specific reason: When an app uses your location to deliver you information, it can get super creepy, super fast. It’s best to ask permission, so the user gets comfortable with the app “knowing” so much about where the user is. This opt out message has nothing to do with the use of location data for third party monetization. Nothing at all.

In fact, AccuWeather is not sharing location data, at least not in a way that contradicts what they’ve communicated. Once you ask it not to, the AccuWeather app most certainly does NOT use your location information to in any way inform the user’s experience within the app.

Here’s what AccuWeather should ask its users, if it wanted to be totally honest about the value exchange inherent in the use of free apps:

“Ban AcccuWeather from using your anonymized data so AccuWeather, which really likes giving you free weather information, can stay in business?”

But nope, it surely doesn’t say that.

Yet if we want to get all huffy about use of data, well, that’s really what’s going on here. Because if you’re a publisher, in the past five years you’ve had your contextual advertising revenue* stripped from your P&L. And if you’re going to make it past next Thursday, you have to start monetizing the one thing you have left: Your audience data.

AcccuWeather is a publisher. Publishers are under assault from a massive shift in value extraction, away from the point of audience value delivery (the weather, free, to your eyeballs!) and to the point of audience aggregation (Facebook, Google, Amazon). All of these massive platforms can sell an advertiser audiences who check the local weather, six ways to Sunday.** If you’re an advertiser, why buy those audiences on an actual weather site? It’s easier, cheaper, and far safer to just buy them from the Big Guys.

Publishers need revenue to replace those lost direct ads, so they sell our data — anonymized and triangulated, mind you — so they can stay in business. Because for publishers, advertising as a business sucks right about now.

Anyway. AcccuWeather has already responded to the story. Scolded by an industry that fails to think deeply about what’s really going on in its own backyard, AccuWeather is now appropriately abject, and will “fix” the problem within 24 hours. But that really won’t fix the damn problem.***

  • * and that’s another post.
  • **and with a lot more detailed data!
  • ***and that’s probably a much longer post.

Walmart and Google: A Match Made By Amazon

The retail and online worlds collided late yesterday with the news that Google and Walmart are hooking up in a stunning e-commerce partnership. Walmart will make its impressive inventory and distribution network available to shoppers on Google’s Express e-commerce service. This market the first time Walmart has leveraged its massive inventory and distribution assets outside its own e-commerce offerings. A few weeks ago I predicted in this space that Walmart would hook up with Facebook or Pinterest. I should have realized Google made more sense — though I’m sure there’s still room for more partnerships in this evolving retail landscape.

Those 1.3 million Records We Wanted? Never Mind.

Defenders of citizen’s rights briefly went on high alert when the Department of Justice subpoenaed the IP addresses (and much more) for every single visitor to an anti-Trump website. The web hosting company at the business end of that subpoena, DreamHost, went public with the request, which alerted the world to the government’s unreasonable demands. As the outcry grew, the DOJ relented, saying yesterday, in effect, “never mind, just kidding.” Here’s what chills me — and should chill you: What if DreamHost hadn’t stood up to the man?

No. Social Terrorists Will Not Win

By - August 10, 2017

Social Terrorist

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

small group of social terrorists have hijacked the rational discourse led by society’s most accomplished, intelligent, and promising organizations.

(cross posted from NewCo Shift)

Let’s start with this: Google is not a perfect company. It’s easy to cast it as an omniscient and evil villain, the leader of a millennium-spanning illuminati hellbent on world subjugation. Google the oppressor. Google the silencer of debate. Google, satanic overlord predicted by the holy text!

But that narrative is bullshit, and all rational humans know it. Yes, we have to pay close attention — and keep our powder dry — when a company with the power and reach of Google (or Facebook, or Amazon, or Apple…) finds itself a leader in the dominant cultural conversation of our times.

But when a legitimate and fundamentally important debate breaks out, and the company’s employees try to come together to understand its nuances, to find a path forward …..To threaten those engaged in that conversation with physical violence? That’s fucking terrorism, period. And it’s damn well time we called it that.

Have we lost all deference to the hard won lessons of the past few hundred years? Are we done with enlightenment, with scientific discourse, with fucking manners? Do we now believe progress can only be imposed? Have we abandoned debate? Can we no longer engage in rational discourse, or move forward by attempting to understand each other’s point of view?

I’m so fucking angry that the asshat trolls managed to force Google’s CEO Sundar Pichai to cancel his planned all hands meeting today, one half hour before it started, I’m finding it hard to even write. Before I can continue, I just need to say this. To scream it, and then I’m sure I’ll come to my senses: FUCK YOU. FUCK YOU, asshats, for hijacking the conversation, for using physical threats, implied or otherwise, as a weapon to shut down legitimate rational discourse. FUCK YOU for paralyzing one of our society’s most admired, intelligent, and successful engines of capitalism, FUCK YOU for your bullying, FUCK YOU for your rage and your anger, FUCK YOU for making me feel just like I am sure you feel about me: I want to fucking kick your fucking ass.

But now I will take a breath. And I will remember this: The emotions of that last paragraph never move us forward. Ever.

Google was gathering today to have an honest, difficult, and most likely emotional conversation about the most important idea in our society at present: How to allow all of us to have the right to our points of view, while at the same time insuring the application of those views don’t endanger or injure others. For its entire history, this company has had an open and transparent dialog about difficult issues. This is the first time that I’ve ever heard of where that dialog has been cancelled because of threats of violence.

This idea Google was preparing to debate is difficult. This idea, and the conflict it engenders, is not a finished product. It is a work in progress. It is not unique to Google. Nor is it unique to Apple, or Facebook, Microsoft or Apple — it could have easily arisen and been leapt upon by social terrorists at any of those companies. That it happened at Google is not the point.

Because this idea is far bigger than any of those companies. This idea is at the center of our very understanding of reality. At the center of our American idea. Painstakingly, and not without failure, we have developed social institutions — governments, corporations, churches, universities, the press — to help us navigate this conflict. We have developed an approach to cultural dialog that honors respect, abjures violence, accepts truth. We don’t have figured it out entirely. But we can’t abandon the core principles that have allowed us to move so far forward. And that is exactly what the social terrorists want: For us to give up, for us to abandon rational discourse.

Google is a company comprised of tens of thousands of our finest minds. From conversations I’ve had tonight, many, if not most of those who work there are fearful for their safety and that of their loved ones. Two days ago, they were worried about their ability to speak freely and express their opinions. Today, because social terrorists have gone nuclear, those who disagree with those terrorists — the vast majority of Googlers, and by the way, the vast majority of the world — are fearful for their physical safety.

And because of that, open and transparent debate has been shut down.

What. The. Fuck.

If because of physical threat we can no longer discuss the nuanced points of a difficult issue, then America dies, and so does our democracy.

This cannot stand.

Google has promised to have its dialog, but now it will happen behind closed doors, in secrecy and cloaked in security that social terrorists will claim proves collusion. Well done, asshats. You’ve created your own reality.

It’s up to us to not let that reality become the world’s reality. It’s time to stand up to social terrorists. They cannot and must not win.

My New Column – Please Sign Up!

By - August 05, 2017

Hi Searchblog readers. I know it’s been a while. But I’m writing a new column over at NewCo Shift, and instead of posting it verbatim here every other day (it comes out three times a week), I figured I’d let you know, and if you’d like to read it (my musings are pretty Searchbloggy, to be honest), you can get it right in your inbox by signing up for the NewCo Daily newsletter right here.

Here are my columns so far:
Is Social Media The New Tobacco?

Dow 36,000?

Bears and Dragons Bite Tech Where It Hurts

Memo to Tech’s Titans: Please Remember What It Was Like to Be Small

Don’t Quite Grok Blockchain? We Got You Covered.

This Is How Walmart Will Defend Itself Against Amazon

Facebook’s Data Trove May Well Determine Trump’s Fate

Google and Amazon Hit the Feed Trough

A Trio of Tech Takedowns

Thanks for reading Searchblog. I’ll continue to post stuff here – but probably not every column, which are meant to be short takes on key news of the day.

The Internet Big Five Is Now The World’s Big Five

By - May 17, 2017

Back in December of 2011, I wrote a piece I called “The Internet Big Five,” in which I noted what seemed a significant trend: Apple, Microsoft, Google, Amazon, and Facebook were becoming the most important companies not only in the technology world, but in the world at large. At that point, Facebook had not yet gone public, but I thought it would be interesting to compare each of them by various metrics, including market cap (Facebook’s was private at the time, but widely reported). Here’s the original chart:

I called it “Draft 1” because I had a sense there was a franchise of sorts brewing. I had no idea. I started to chart out the various strengths and relative weaknesses of the Big Five, but work on NewCo shifted my focus for a spell.

Three years later, in 2014, I updated the chart. The growth in market cap was staggering:

Nearly a trillion dollars in net market cap growth in less than three years! My goodness!

But since 2014, the Big Five have rapidly accelerated their growth. Let’s look at the same chart, updated to today:

Ummm..HOLY SHIT! Almost two trillion dollars of market cap added in less than seven years. And the “Big Five” have become, with a few limited incursions by Berkshire Hathaway, the five largest public companies in the US. This has been noted by just about everyone lately, including The Atlantic, which just employed the very talented Alexis Madrigal to pay attention to them on a regular basis. In his maiden piece, Madrigal notes that the open, utopian world of the web just ten years ago (Web 2, remember that? I certainly do…) has lost, bigly, to a world of walled-garden market cap monsters.

I agree and disagree. Peter Thiel is fond of saying that the best companies are monopolists by nature, and his predictions seem to be coming true. But monopolies grow old, fray, and usually fail to benefit society over time. There’s a crisis of social responsibility and leadership looming for the Big Five — they’ve got all the power, now it’s time for them to face their responsibility. I’ll be writing much more about that in coming weeks and months. As I’ve said elsewhere, in a world where our politics has devolved to bomb throwing and sideshows, we must expect our businesses — in particular our most valuable ones — to lead.

Dear Facebook…Please Give Me Agency Over The Feed

By - May 07, 2017

(cross posted from NewCo Shift)

Like you, I am on Facebook. In two ways, actually. There’s this public page, which Facebook gives to people who are “public figures.” My story of becoming a Facebook public figure is tortured (years ago, I went Facebook bankrupt after reaching my “friend” limit), but the end result is a place that feels a bit like Twitter, but with more opportunities for me to buy ads that promote my posts (I’ve tried doing that, and while it certainly increases my exposure, I’m not entirely sure why that matters).

Then there’s my “personal” page. Facebook was kind enough to help me fix this up after my “bankruptcy.” On this personal page I try to keep my friends to people I actually know, with mixed success. But the same problems I’ve always had with Facebook are apparent here — some people I’m actually friends with, others I know, but not well enough to call true “friends.” But I don’t want to be an ass…so I click “confirm” and move on.

On my public page, I post stuff from my work. I readily admit I’m not very good at engaging with this page, and I feel shitty whenever I visit, mainly because I don’t like being bad at media (and Facebook is extremely good at surfacing metrics that prove you suck, then suggesting ways to spend money to fix that problem). But, if you want to follow what I’m up to — mostly stuff I write or stuff we post on NewCo Shift, well, it’s probably a pretty decent way to do that.

However, on my personal page, I’m utterly hopeless. Except for the very occasional random post (a picture of my drum kit? a photo of my kids here and there to appease my guilt?), I don’t view Facebook as a place to curate a “feed” of my life. The place kind of creeps me out, in ways I can’t exactly explain. It feels like work, like a responsibility, like a drug I should avoid, so I avoid it. I’ve had enough work (and drugs) in my life.

But unlike me, most of true friends put a lot of care and feeding into their Facebook pages. It’s become a place where they announce important milestones, like births, graduations, separations, deaths, the works. These insanely important moments, alas, are all interspersed with random shots of pie, flowers, cocktails, sunsets, and endless, endless, endless advertisements for shit I really don’t care about.

Taken together, the Facebook newsfeed is a place that I’ve decided isn’t worth the time it demands to truly be useful. I know, I could invest the time to mute this and like that, and perhaps Facebook’s great algos would deliver me a better feed. But I don’t, and I feel alone in this determination. And lately it’s begun to seriously fuck up my relationships with important people in my life, namely, my…true friends.

I won’t go into details (it’s personal, after all), but suffice to say I’ve missed some pretty important events in my friends’ lives because everyone else is paying attention to Facebook, but I am not. As a result, I’ve come off looking like an asshole. No, wait, let me rephrase that. I have become an actual asshole, because the definition of an asshole is someone who puts themself above others, and by not paying attention to Facebook, that’s what I’ve become.

That kind of sucks.

It strikes me that this is entirely fixable. One way, of course, is for me to just swallow my pride and pick up the habit of perusing Facebook every day. I just tried that very thing again this weekend. It takes about half an hour or more each day to cull through the endless stream of posts from my 500+ friends, and the experience is just as terrible as it’s always been. For every one truly important detail I find, I have to endure a hundred things I’d really rather not see. Many of them are trivial, some are annoying, and at least ten or so are downright awful.

And guess what? I’m only seeing a minority of the posts that my friends have actually created! I know Facebook is doing its best to deliver to me the stuff I care about, but for me, it’s utterly failing.

Now, it’s fair to say that I’m an outlier — for most people, Facebook works just fine. The Feed seems to nourish most of its sucklers, and there’s no reason to change it just because one grumpy tech OG is complaining. BUT…my problem with my feed is in fact allegorical to what’s become a massive societal problem with the Feed overall: It’s simply untenable to have one company’s algorithms control the personalized feeds of billions of humans around the world. It’s untenable on so many axes, it’s almost not worth going into, but for a bit of background, read the work of Tristan Harris, who puts it in ethical terms, or Eli Parser, who puts it in political terms, or danah boyd, who frames it in socio-cultural terms. Oh, and then there’s the whole Fake News, trolling, and abuse problem…which despite its cheapening by our president, is actually a Really, Really Big Deal, and one that threatens Facebook in particular (did you see they’re hiring 3,000 people to address it? Does that scale? Really?!)

It’s time for the model to change. And I have a modest and probably far too simple proposal for you to consider.

This proposal breaks all manner of Silicon Valley product high holy-isms, but bear with me. I think at the end of the day, it’s what we need to get beyond the structural limitations of trusting one company with so much power over our informational diets.

The short form version of my solution is this: Give me filter control over my feed. I know — this probably breaks Facebook’s stranglehold on our attention, and therefore, impacts their business model in unacceptable ways. But I could argue the reverse is true (but this is already getting long, and that’s another post.)

So, when I come to Facebook, here’s what I’d love: Ask me what I’m looking for, and present me with simple ways to filter by the things I want to see. As far as I can tell, the only way to filter your Feed today is to toggle between “Top Stories” and “Most Recent.” That’s lame. Here are some possible additions:

  • Close Friends. Let me see just posts from folks I’m truly close to. Facebook already lets you tag people as “close friends,” but you can’t see only what they post and nothing else. You can “see first” people, but that feels like a half measure at best.
  • Key Moments. Let everyone tag posts they believe are truly important — the deaths, the births, the divorces, the new job, the graduations. Sure, there will be spammers, but hell, Facebook’s good at catching that shit. I know Facebook lets you tag your posts as “Life Events” (did you know that?! I just found out…), but… why can’t you filter the Feed so you only see the ones that matter?
  • Outrage. This is a kind of a joke, but with a purpose: let me see just posts that are political rants. This kind of content has overtaken Facebook, so why not give it a filter of its own so you can see it when you want, or filter it out if you don’t?
  • Kittens. This is the fluff setting. Users, posters, and Facebook’s own AI/Algos can identify this stuff and filter it into a category of its own. This is where the funny videos and pictures of pets go. This is where the endless stream of food porn goes. This is where most of the content from Buzzfeed goes.
  • Bubble Breaker. Show me posts that present views opposite my own, or that force me to engage with ideas I’ve not considered before. This could become an incredibly powerful feature, if it’s done right.

There are probably tons more, and most likely these examples aren’t even the best ones to focus on. And I am sure the smart folks at Facebook have considered this idea, and determined it’s a terrible one for all manner of fine reasons.

But my point is this: Facebook does not really allow us to decide what the Feed is feeding us, and that’s a major problem. It leaves agency in the hands (digits?) of Facebook’s algorithms, and as much as I’d like to believe the company can create super intelligent AIs that nourish us all, I think the facts on the ground state the opposite. So give us back the power to determine what we want to see. We might just surprise you.

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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The Waze Effect: Flocking, AI, and Private Regulatory Capture

By - February 03, 2016

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A couple of weeks ago my wife and I were heading across the San Rafael bridge to downtown Oakland for a show at the Fox Theatre. As all Bay area drivers know, there’s a historically awful stretch of Interstate 80 along that route – a permanent traffic sh*t show. I considered taking San Pablo road, a major thoroughfare which parallels the freeway. But my wife fired up Waze instead, and we proceeded to follow an intricate set of instructions which took us onto frontage roads, side streets, and counter-intuitive detours. Despite our shared unease (unfamiliar streets through some blighted neighborhoods), we trusted the Waze algorithms – and we weren’t alone. In fact, a continuous stream of automobiles snaked along the very same improbable route – and inside the cars ahead and behind me, I saw glowing blue screens delivering similar instructions to the drivers within.

About a year or so ago I started regularly using the Waze app  – which is to say, I started using it on familiar routes: to and from work, going to the ballpark, maneuvering across San Francisco for a meeting. Prior to that I only used the navigation app as an occasional replacement for Google Maps –  when I wasn’t sure how to get from point A to point B.

Of course, Waze is a revelation for the uninitiated. It essentially turns your car into an autonomous vehicle, with you as a simple robot executing the commands of an extraordinarily sophisticated and crowd-sourced AI.

But as I’m sure you’ve noticed if you’re a regular “Wazer,” the app is driving a tangible “flocking” behavior in a significant percentage of drivers on the road. In essence, Waze has built a real time layer of data and commands over our current traffic infrastructure. This new layer is owned and operated by a for-profit company (Google, which owns Waze), its algorithms necessarily protected as intellectual property. And because it’s so much better than what we had before, nearly everyone is thrilled with the deal (there are some upset homeowners tired of those new traffic flows, for instance).

Since the rise of the automobile, we’ve managed traffic flows through a public commons – a slow moving but accountable ecosystem of local and national ordinances (speed limits, stop signs, traffic lights, etc) that were more or less consistent across all publicly owned road ways.

Information-first tech platforms like Waze, Uber, and Airbnb are delivering innovative solutions to real world problems that were simply impossible for governments to address (or even imagine). At what point will Waze or something like it integrate with the traffic grid, and start to control the lights?

I’ve written before about how we’re slowly replacing our public commons with corporate, for-profit solutions – but I sense a quickening afoot. There’s an inevitable collision between the public’s right to know, and a corporation’s need for profit (predicated on establishing competitive moats and protecting core intellectual property).  How exactly do these algorithms choose how best to guide us around? Is it fair to route traffic past people’s homes and/or away from roadside businesses? Should we just throw up our hands and “trust the tech?”

We’ve already been practicing solutions to these questions, first with the Web, then with Google search and the Facebook Newsfeed, and now with Waze. But absent a more robust dialog addressing these issues, we run a real risk of creating a new kind of regulatory capture – not in the classic sense, where corrupt public officials preference one company over another, but rather a more private kind, where a for-profit corporation literally becomes the regulatory framework itself – not through malicious intent or greed, but simply by offering a better way.