Everyone’s favorite parlor game is “where will Amazon go?” Better to ask: Why does Amazon needs a second headquarters in the first place?
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.”
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
Here are the caveats for the rant I am about to write.
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.
I will be saying the word “F*CK” a lot. If that bothers you, time to depart for calmer waters.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Way back in 2012 – four years ago in real time, three decades or so in Internet time – I predicted that Facebook would build an alternative to Google’s AdSense based on its extraordinary data set. I was right, but…off by a few years. From Ad Exchanger:
AdExchanger has learned Facebook Audience Network is one month into a test involving about 10 publishers that would see the ad network’s placements run on mobile web pages. The expansion brings its own set of technical hurdles, along with a large revenue expansion opportunity for Audience Network, which reached a $1 billion run rate last quarter.
…A Facebook rep confirmed the test and Diply’s involvement, but declined further comment.
“This is Facebook coming in and offering an alternative to AdSense,” said a source with knowledge of the test who did not want to be identified revealing private information.
Facebook will …launch a web-wide advertising network along the lines of Google’s AdSense. I’ve talked about this for years (short handing it as “FaceSense,”) and I’ve asked Mark Zuckerberg, Carolyn Everson, Bret Taylor, and Sheryl Sandberg about it on stage and off. The answer is always the same: We’re not interested in launching a web ad network at this time.
I predict that line will change in 2012. Here’s why:
– Once public, Facebook will need to keep demonstrating new lines of revenue and growth. Sure, the company already has the attention of 1/7th of all time spent “on the web.” But there’s a lot more attention out there on the Independent Web, and the default ad service for that other 6/7ths is Google’s AdSense, a multi-billion dollar business.
– Facebook already has its hooks into millions of websites with its Open Graph suite – all those Like, Recommend, Share, Connect, and Facebook Comment plugins. These buttons are pumping data about how the web is being used directly into Facebook’s servers. That data can then be combined with all the native Social Graph data Facebook already has, making for a powerful offering to marketers across the entire web. Think of it as “social retargeting” – marketers will be able to buy attention on Facebook.com, then know where folks are across the web, and amplify their messaging out there as well.
– Because Facebook is already integrated into millions of sites, it’ll be a relative snap for the company to start signing up publishers to offer their inventory to the social giant. It will be interesting to see what terms Facebook offers/requires – I’m assuming the company will match Google and others’ non-exclusivity (IE, you can use any ad network you want), but don’t assume this will be the case. Facebook may have an ace or two up their sleeve in how they go to market here.
– Lastly, let’s not forget that the team who built and ran AdSense is now at Facebook (that’d be Sheryl Sandberg and her ad ops chief David Fischer, oh, and one of the “fathers of AdSense,” Gokul Rajaram).
Critical to the success and rollout of Facebook’s web ads will be two key factors. One, the structural underpinning of the system: AdSense scans the content of a page and delivers relevant ads (though many other factors are now creeping into its system). This leverages Google’s core competence as a search engine (it’s already scanning the page for search.) Facebook’s core leverage is knowing who you are and what you’ve done inside the Facebook ecosystem, so the key structural construct for its web ad network will turn on how the company leverages that data. I imagine the new ad network might initially roll out just to sites that have Facebook Connect installed, so that visitors to those sites are already “inside” the Facebook network, so to speak.
The second issue is what may as well be called the “creepiness factor.” Search display retargeting is still a gray area – a lot of folks don’t like being chased across the web by ads that know what sites you’ve recently visited or what terms you’ve searched for. Cultural acceptance of ads on third party sites that seem to know who your friends are, what you ate for dinner last night, or what movies you recently watched might provoke a societal immune response. But that’s not stopped Facebook to date. I don’t expect it will in this case either.
Each January for the past 13 years, I’ve been making predictions on this site. Twelve months later, I pull back and review how those predictions have fared. I’ve already got a running list of predictions for 2016, but in this post, I want to handicap how my prognostications for 2015 turned out.
I made a total of 12 predictions in 2015, so I’ll run through each in turn.
1. Uber will begin to consolidate its namesake position in the “The Uber-ization of everything” trend.
In essence, I predicted that Uber would launch delivery and logistics businesses in 2015. This wasn’t particularly insightful of me – the company had already launched two small pilots (UberEssentials and UberFresh) in the Fall of 2014. But in January 2015, Uber killed UberEssentials, and for months, there was no expansion of either service. So was I wrong? Nope. In April 2015, Uber launched UberEats in four markets (since grown to a dozen), and this past October, Uber launched Uber Rush in three major US cities. I think I got this one right.
2. Related, Uber will be the center of a worldwide conversation about the impact of tech and business culture on the world.
Well, again I think I got this one right. And again, it was a pretty safe bet that the company would be the talk of tech and culture throughout 2015. A major proof, to my mind, was Rachel Whetstone’s decampment from head of Google comms to take a similar role at Uber this past May. For nearly a decade, Whetstone had successfully guided Google as it consolidated its position as the world’s most controversial and talked about tech brand (yes, yes, Facebook and Apple might compete for that honor, but we can argue that another time). But in 2015, Uber was the go to protagonist (and antagonist) of the tech conversation, from its incessant opportunistic fundraising to its starring role in critical economic, policy and cultural issues. I think it’s fair to say the company took pole position from Google, Facebook, and Apple in 2015.
3. Google will face existential competition from Facebookdue to Facebook’s Atlas offering.
This prediction stemmed from my penchant for adtech geekery, and while I think it will prove long term true, I didn’t find a lot of proof that it came to fruition in 2015. Facebook made steady gains here, including the hiring of key Google adtech talent, but I think this one needs another year to prove out.
4. The Apple Watch will be seen as a success.
Well, you didn’t see this one coming did you? I’m usually an Apple naysayer (though I love the Mac), but I believed that the watch was a natural extension of the phone, and I still believe this to be the case. The results are decidedly mixed – Apple’s Tim Cook agrees with me, naturally. But plenty of others believe Apple’s foray into wearables was a disappointment. Apple doesn’t break out units shipped for its watches (a strong sign the company is itself disappointed), and estimates range from a low of single digit millions to a high of nearly 20 million. Given the paucity of data here, all I have is my gut, and my gut says, the Apple Watch was a push. Not a failure, not a success. Since I said it was going to be seen as a success, I think I whiffed this one.
5. And Apple Pay will not.
Long term, I think I’ll be proven wrong on this one, but in 2015, I think I got it right. This Fall, Bloomberg called Apple Pay “underwhelming,” and Cook’s prediction that 2015 would be “the year of Apple Pay” is widely seen as off the mark. However, I think 2016 will prove Cook directionally correct.
6. But Beacons will re-emerge and take root.
Ummm…my first reaction to this one is to cringe – beacons were not really top of mind for anyone in tech this past year. And try as I might, I couldn’t find proof otherwise. So, another whiff, at least for now.
7. Google’s Nest will build or buy a scaled home automation service business.
Well, no. Nest did launch a developer platform, which is related, but not the same. I still think this is a natural fit for Nest, but it didn’t happen in 2015. Whiff.
8. A breakout healthcare startup will emerge in the consumer consciousness
Well, does Theranos count? Because, well, I think it does. Not in the way I had expected, but still…give me half credit for this one.
9. A breakout mobile startup will force us to rethink the mobile user interface.
Oh man, we are so so so close here. Overall, my intent with this prediction was to say that in 2015, we’ll finally realize that it’s time to break out of the “apps and home screen” approach to mobile. And I really think that happened. Just so much great work happening here. There’s Google App Streaming, of course. And there’s Wrap. And this widely cited post from Intercom.io on the end of apps as we know them. And much, much more. But again, no one breakout mobile startup that acted as a forcing function. Alas. I’d say half credit here, right on the intent, wrong on the specifics.
10. At least one hotly-anticipated IPO will fizzle, leading many to declare that the “tech correction” has begun.
My final prediction was that adtech would rebound by the end of 2015, after a terrible 2014. And while the public adtech stocks are still battered, I think I got this one right as well. Rubicon, seen as a bellwether in the category, is on an upward trajectory after hitting a low in September. AppNexus is once again looking to go public, and my sources with knowledge of the company say it’s doing quite well. And while I can’t delve into specifics, I’ve never been more bullish about sovrn Holdings, where I am Chair. The company completed an opportunistic financing round in 2015, and is positively killing it going into 2016. Overall, I think the world is going to figure out that adtech is about more than ads – it’s about creating an open, accessible processing and notification layer for the entire Internet. In 2015, adtech was definitely back.
So overall, how’d I do? Well, by my count, I got seven right and two half right, and whiffed on three. Not a bad year, to be honest – 8 of 12, for an average of .750. That’s at the upper end of my predictions, which usually come in between .500 and .750. I guess I’ll try again in a week or so. Till then, thanks for reading in 2015. I plan on writing a lot more in 2016…here, at NewCo, and on Medium and LinkedIn as well.