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Else 9.2.14: Don’t Worry, The Robots Are Our Friends. But the People?

By - September 01, 2014
Blade-Runner_610

“All these moments…will be lost in time…”

Else is back after an extended summer hiatus – thanks for taking the time off with me. I wasn’t sure if I was going to return to this newsletter, but its a good ritual for me to condense and annotate my daily and weekly reading habits, and enough of you have subscribed that I figured you might be missing the updates. I kind of was.

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The pieces I most enjoyed over the past week or so certainly had a theme: How will we resolve our increasingly uneasy relationship to the technology we have embraced? From automated newsfeeds to drones to AI, this stuff isn’t science fiction anymore, and the consequences are getting very real. To the links….

“Facebook Is a Weatherless World” (Searchblog)

In which I think about automated newsfeeds and a world without agency.

Inside Google’s Secret Drone-Delivery Program (The Atlantic)

Well, not exactly  secret anymore, as Google certainly wanted this particular story to get out, as it’s in a mad scramble for the future of “everything delivery” with Amazon and others. Still and all a fascinating look into one of Google’s many strange and disparate moonshots.

Robots With Their Heads in the Clouds (Medium)

Berkeley prof. Ken Goldberg lays out the quickening sparked by the combination of cloud compute and intelligent on the ground (or in the air) robots.

Wednesday Aug. 20, 2064 — What’s Next (Medium)

One of my favorite writers (Paul Ford) imagines what it might be like if all these drones and robots actually work in an optimistic scenario feature driverless cars, compostable made to order clothing, and, of course, budding romance.

Will artificial intelligence destroy humanity? Here are 5 reasons not to worry. (Vox)

It’s not easy to be human, so relax. The AI-driven roboto-verse will serve us, in the main.

ICREACH: How the NSA Built Its Own Secret Google (The Intercept)

Then again, we might want to worry about our own power structures. Imagine how the NSA might use the fantasy infrastructure that Ford creates in Medium. Yikes.

Why Uber must be stopped (Salon)

A few things about this piece. First, the headline is wrong. It’s not about stopping Uber, it’s about understanding the role of regulation when capitalism otherwise goes unchecked. Second, it appropriately wonders what happens when capital (Uber’s $1.5billion from Google, Goldman, et al) is used to crush competition, in particular, when the company that is doing the crushing has, as its end game, control of our automated transportation system (there are those dern robots again). A theme for our coming age. It’s not the cars, the drones, the tech – it’s the people behind their use. But sometimes, the way a society regulates people is to regulate the tech they employ.

SHOULD TWITTER, FACEBOOK AND GOOGLE EXECUTIVES BE THE ARBITERS OF WHAT WE SEE AND READ? (The Intercept)

Should journalists use all caps in headlines?! Apparently yes. This story is consistent with the others in this issue of Else, the debate is in full throat. See also The Atlantic’s The New Editors of the Internet.

The Facebook-ification of everything! Sex, authenticity and reality for the status update era (Salon)

Continuing my headline clickbait complaint, this headline is a total misfit for the unfortunately dry story, written by noted informational academic Lucian Floridi. He’s got a new book out, the 4th Revolution, which I plan to read. Then again, I have five books ahead of his…

Supercomputers make discoveries that scientists can’t (New Scientist)

See, we’ve found a great use for computers: Reading the stuff too dry to read ourselves.

Seeing Through the Illusion: Understanding Apple’s Mastery of the Media (9-5Mac)

My first job as a reporter was in 1987 covering Apple. For more than a decade after, I continued covering the company, through Jobs’ return. It never wavered in its philosophy around how it treated the press – as a nuisance and a threat. I’ve always thought Apple could have done better. This multi-part post fails to go as deep as I’d like, but it’s a decent overview of how Apple’s PR machine works.

Minecraft players build working hard drives (Cnet)

Minecraft has been on my “watch this closely” list for about a year. Here’s another reason why.

The Matter With Time (NY)

If you like your inside baseball with a side of dish, here’s a great read about the travails of Time Inc., the once great publishing house.

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Why I’m Watching Deep Linking In Mobile

By - August 18, 2014
first web page

The first ever web page, created by Sir Tim Berners Lee to explain, naturally, the WWW.

We are at a turning point in the mobile app ecosystem where deeplinking is becoming a priority and not just a feature.URX blog

This week marks the beginning of a journey I’m taking to understand “deep linking” in mobile. I’ve kept one eye on the space for some time, but it’s clearly heating up. Last Spring three major mobile players – Facebook, Google, and Apple – all announced significant developments in deep linking. Twitter has also fortified its deep linking capabilities of late, as has Yahoo.

Most of these major players are supporting deep linking for commercial reasons – their business is driven by advertising, and a huge cut of mobile advertising revenues are in turn driven by app installs. Marketers want to be able to link directly to specific places inside their apps, so they can drive qualified leads to convert (and measure effectiveness/optimize campaigns). To be clear, these are the ads that show up inside apps on your mobile phone encouraging you to download a free game or service. These install ads make up a huge percentage of mobile advertising revenue, though it’s hard to find hard figures for exactly what percentage. Current estimates range between 30 and 50% - either way, that makes them the largest category of mobile advertising, period.

This all reminds me of how search played out on the desktop Web – search was a huge percentage of overall “online advertising” revenues in the early days, but it took a while before analysts started breaking search out as a category independent of “online advertising.” Twenty years into search, that category still represents more than 40% of all online ad revenues. So yep, I’m watching deep linking, because I think there’s a big there there.

But there’s a funny hitch to the evolution of linking inside our mobile ecosystem. On the Web, the link is pretty much the atomic unit of value – from the get go, *anyone* could create a link from one web page to another. The web was built on links, and in the early days those links were built, for the most part, by *users* of the web – people like you and me. We built link-heavy websites, we blogged and linked profusely, we emailed links around, and in doing so we connected static web pages one to another, all in the name of navigation, discovery, and ease of use. It was only later, as search rose to prominence and people started to realize the commercial value of links, that the SEO industry became a commercial monster. In short, linking behavior predated commercial exploitation.

But in the mobile web, commercial exploitation is driving linking behavior, and I find that fascinating. Certainly there’s any number of reasons for this, from Apple’s early iOS design decisions to the fact that apps are, for the most part, personalized experiences that are not driven by the early web’s model of static pages meant for consumption by any and all comers. Regardless, I’ve got a hunch about deep linking - I’m hoping it’s the seedbed for a major shift in how we experience mobile computing. For now, mobile deep linking is the purview of developers and savvy mobile marketers. But I think in time this may change. I wrote a bit about that hunch here:

…while developer-driven deep links are great, the next step in mobile won’t really take off until average folks like you and I can easily create and share our own links within apps. Once the “consumers” start creating links, mobile will finally break out of this ridiculous pre-web phase it’s been stuck in for the past seven or so years, and we’ll see a mobile web worthy of its potential.

I imagine a time when applications encourage their users to share links from inside apps, and everyone finds that sharing behavior will create a positive feedback loop similar to the one that drove the rise of the original Web. From there, any number of innovations will arise, speculating on what those might be is worthy of several future posts.

For now, I’ve come across a crop of startups focusing on deep linking as well various industry efforts in the field (I have Semil Shah and Roy Bahat, among others, to thank for my early lessons in the space). In the coming weeks, I’m meeting with many of them, including URX, Kahuna, DeeplinkAppboy and several stealth startups, and of course larger players like Twitter. As I get smart, and if I find interesting stuff, I’ll report back here. In the meantime, if you’ve got any suggestions for me, please leave them in comments or ping me on Twitter. Thanks!

It’s Time For Twitter To Filter Our Feeds. But How?

By - July 27, 2014

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“We don’t put an algorithm between you and your feed.” – Twitter exec Adam Bain, March 2013

“Please do.” Me, today

Twitter has always appealed to tinkerers, to makers, to the people who first took up blogging, who championed RSS and HTML in the early days – you know, the people who created the open web. And because of that, Twitter has always had a strong dose of egalitarianism in its DNA. Twitter expresses that DNA in a particular way: it never decides what you might see in your feed. Whenever you come to the service, you are presented with everything. It’s up to you to figure out what’s valuable.

Compare that to Google, which decides what content you see based on your search query or, more recently, your location (and tons of other data), or Facebook, whose impassive algorithms sift through a sea of friends’ updates and determine what the service, in its ineffable wisdom, decides you will see. Both of these giant companies have, at their core, the idea of editorial judgement - they decide what you see, and for the most part, you have no idea how they made that decision, or why.

Twitter makes no such distinction. And this, of course, has always been both its declared strength and its obvious Achilles heel.

For it is in making editorial judgements that the edges of a media product emerge – and to most of us, Twitter is  a media product (it’s certainly an advertising product, which to my mind makes it a media product as well).

In the coming months, I expect Twitter will finally execute a major shift in its approach to our feeds, and roll out an algorithm, not unlike Facebook’s EdgeRank, which consumes the raw material of our feeds and process them into a series of media products that redefine our experience with the service. Doing so will solve for three of Twitter’s most critical business problems/opportunities: Its vexing “I don’t get Twitter” issue, its slowing user growth and engagement, and Wall Street’s ongoing uncertainty around how far the company’s current advertising model can scale (IE, whether it can grow to Facebook or Google level revenues, currently orders of magnitude larger).

Three years ago I wrote Twitter and the Ultimate Algorithm: Signal Over Noise (With Major Business Model Implications). My main argument was that Twitter has to figure out how to make my feed valuable to me – a point I’ve been talking about for years. It would take a lot of math, a lot of algorithms, and a lot of trial and error, but ultimately, I wanted Twitter to surprise and delight me each time I came back, and there’s no way a raw feed could do that. In short, I argued that it was time for Twitter to create algorithmically-driven editorial voice, one that presents me media product(s) that extract maximum value out of the feeds I followed.

It’s fair to say that three years later, Twitter hasn’t done what I wished for. Back then, Twitter wasn’t a public company, and its ad business was in its early stages. But today Twitter is a $24 billion public company with strong advertising revenues tracking at more than a billion dollars a year. So what do I know?

Well, I know that the problem still exists, and there’s no way Twitter can grow into (and beyond) its current valuation, much less compete with Facebook and Google, if it doesn’t tack into the waters of editorial judgement. This means Twitter has to stare down its existential DNA problem – it has to be willing to put itself between us and our  feeds.

And I think there’s all sorts of opportunity in doing so. I think nearly everyone wants Twitter to try, and while I have no inside information, I’m pretty sure that Twitter is working hard on doing just that. Ever since the company made it clear it didn’t want developers creating consumer facing applications that built new interfaces for the consumption of tweets, the responsibility for creating that value lies squarely with Twitter.

But even as the product and engineering folks at Twitter labor to create these new interfaces, there’s no need for the company to abandon its core philosophy of showing us everything - that should be a mainstay (and differentiating) feature of the service. We just want media products on top of those feeds that mine the best stuff and present it to us in a way that keeps us engaged, provides us significant value, and thereby keeps us coming back. This of course would solve for quite a few other pesky problems – user growth and engagement chief amongst them. Oh, and it’d create the kind of media product that’s rife with signals of user intent  - exactly the place where new Twitter ad products can thrive.

Earlier this year I argued that Twitter might encourage a class of “super curators,” a kind of crowd sourced approach to solving the problem, but that’s not enough. For Twitter to grow at Facebook or Google like rates, it has to build a media product that is automated, but feels uniquely “Twitter-y.” And to me, that means making something that exposes its inner workings to its users, and lets those users customize their consumption in ways that can be shared, celebrated, and even commercialized.  In Who Owns The Right to Filter Your Feed?, I wrote “No one company can boil the ocean, but together an ecosystem can certainly simmer the sea.”

It’s my hope that Twitter lets its tinkerers, makers, and users help make it better and better. The company’s roots are as a user-driven service. Users came up with hashtags, retweets, and other core Twitter features. One of its most valuable assets is its open DNA – and it needn’t abandon that to create an algorithmically edited version of its main product. In fact, given all the suspicions both Facebook and Google have fostered because of their black box algorithms, a more open approach could be a great strength for any new Twitter product. Show us why your algorithm created a particular media product, and let us play around with making it better. I’d bet that plenty of folks would love to do just that. I know I would.

Feels Like Apple…in 1992

By - June 03, 2014

I went on Bloomberg today, ostensibly to talk about data marketing, NewCo, and anything newsworthy. Turns out, we talked (mostly) about Apple. Bloomberg’s got the video up here, and embedded below. While I understand the headline – Battelle: “Apple Failed to Be Apple” – that’s not exactly my point. And it’s a good thing we’ve got these here blogs, to expand on what otherwise might be a skewed version of the record.

So, what I meant to convey was that Apple was in fact very much Apple, just not the Apple the press (and by extension, the general public) has been trained to expect over the past decade. Apple is the company that wows folks with market-changing hardware releases – the iPod, the iPhone, the iPad. And there was none of that yesterday or today. Instead, we got a litany of incremental updates which, from my point of view, were necessary, but not particularly interesting. I mean, improvements on photos, cloud, messaging, developer tools, and a new (but not particularly world changing) OS? Yup, all needed. But nothing industry shaking here, move along.

(Oh, and by the way, Apple bought Beats. It didn’t announce a new hardware play in entertainment, did it? Nope, it bought Beats. And then ignored that fact, save a phone call to Dr. Dre, in its stage craft. Hmmm).

Of course, Apple also announced hand-waving in Health and Home – and trust me, that’s what it was. Because Apple has absolutely no track record in creating modern consumer software services, you know, the kind that iterate based on consumer data (like Dropbox, or Instagram, or Whatsapp, or HangOuts, or SnapChat, for example). But the press ate that shit up, because these days, the press wants to believe Apple is going to redefine a category. And, by the way, I am sure Apple will. Just not this year.

Now, two decades ago, developers would have done backflips for the pedestrian updates announced this week – they are all super important and help everyone in the ecosystem create more value. But that’s where it would have ended. But by the standards Apple has created for itself these past seven years, I’d say Apple did fail to be Apple. But given who Apple was over the past 30 years, this week Apple very much *was* Apple, once again.

Google+ Won (Or Why Google Never Needed A Social Network)

By - April 26, 2014

google+Since the news that Google+ chief Vic Gundotra has abruptly left the company, the common wisdom holds that Google’s oft-derided Facebook clone will not be long for this world. But whether or not Google+ continues as a standalone  product isn’t the question. Google likely never cared if Google+ “won” as a competitor to Facebook (though if it did, that would have been a nice bonus). All that mattered, in the end, was whether Plus became the connective tissue between all of Google’s formerly scattered services. And in a few short years, it’s fair to say it has.

As I wrote three years ago , the rise of social and mobile created a major problem for Google – all of a sudden, people were not navigating their digital lives through web-based search alone, they were also using social services like Facebook – gifting that company a honeypot of personal information along the way – as well as mobile platforms and apps, which existed mainly outside the reach of web-based search.

If Google was going to compete, it had to find a way to tie the identity of its users across all of its major platforms, building robust profiles of their usage habits and the like along the way. Google countered with Android and Google+, but of the two, only Android really had to win. Google+ was, to my mind, all about creating a first-party data connection between Google most important services – search, mail, YouTube, Android/Play, and apps.

Think about your relationship to Google five years ago – you most likely weren’t “logged in,” unless you were using a silo’d service like mail. Now think about it today – you most likely are. We have Google+ to thank for that. It’s done its job, and it’ll keep doing it, whether or not you ever use its social bells and whistles as a primary social network.

Google still has a lot of work to do on identity – anyone who has more than one login can attest to that. But Google+ has won – it’s forced the majority of Google users onto a single, signed in state across devices and applications. That protects and extends Google’s core advertising business, and opens up the ability to ladder new services – like Nest – into Google’s platform.

 

Else 4.21.14: It’s (Almost) All Google

By - April 21, 2014

GOOG5.21.14Welcome back to Else – I took a week off for Spring break, so this covers two weeks of the best stories related to the work I’m doing on the book. Reflecting an increased focus on Google, this edition of Else is flush with Google news, from its purchase of Titan Aerospace to its unusual willingness to show us a peek behind the curtain of Google X. Google also had a confounding earnings release, took steps to consolidate power in the hands of its founders (again), and had an entertaining wrinkle in its ongoing tiff with European publishers.

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To the links:

Why Google Isn’t Growing – BI 

In fact, Google is growing – earning prove it – but the point here, cribbed from asymco, is that as goes Internet penetration, so goes Google, and the Internet is growing far more slowly than it used to. This points to two things – one, the need to own “the next 2 billion” people who have yet to get on the Internet – this is why Facebook and Google are buying drone makers – and two, the need to get into entirely new lines of business – which explains Nest, among other things.

You may own shares in Google and Facebook, but you have virtually no say in what they do — and that’s wrong – GigaOm 

Matt Ingram takes a strong POV on recent moves by the Internet giants to insure shareholders don’t have much power. It’s all legal, and it’s also unsettling. Are we putting too much faith in companies that have cheery mission statements and trustworthy CEOs? At what point do we need more influence over them, or do we?

Google, once disdainful of lobbying, now a master of Washington influence – The Washington Post

A very detailed overview of how Google has become a very large player in DC. A timely piece.

Why Google and the Music Industry Want a YouTube Hit – The Information

YouTube is the largest music app in the world, but no one sees it that way. Soon, we will. It’s critical that Google get this one right.

A German business model – Buzz Machine

Jarvis takes off the gloves and beats up Axel Springer, a company for whom I have far more sympathy, even if I do agree, in the end, you can’t cry in your beer. All of this keys off a very public back and forth between Eric Schmidt and the CEO of Axel.

Station to Station – Pitchfork

A very well done article “experience” about the future and present of streaming music. Bravo.

The Naked Android – VisionMobile

A history of how Google tried to put the Android genie back in the bottle.

Google to Buy Titan Aerospace as Web Giants Battle for Air Superiority – WSJ

Take that, Facebook!

Surveillance, Good and Evil- Random House 

An overview of the recent book Social Physics: How Good Ideas Spread—The Lessons from a New Science. This is now on my reading list – seems to be an important new work on the impact of data on our society.

Amazon Ad Business Sparks Controversy—and Growth – The Information

Amazon strikes me as the most natural competitor to Google, not Apple.

The Truth About Google X: An Exclusive Look Behind The Secretive Lab’s Closed Doors – Fast Company

It’s unusual to see Google open up like this. Seems part of a larger strategy worth watching.

IAB Report: US Internet Ad Revenue Grew To $42.8B In 2013, Overtaking Broadcast TV – TechCrunch

A historic year – until you realize, the distinction between TV ads and “internet” ads is false. TV is an app of the Internet, or soon will be.

900 Years of Tree Diagrams, the Most Important Data Viz Tool in History  - WIRED

Fascinating to see how this approach to visualization has informed our understanding of data.

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To Win The Newsfeed, Facebook Should Put Its Users In Control

By - April 01, 2014


Lost in the latest Facebook kerfuffle (if you’ve missed it, read this cheeky Eat24 post, and the hundreds of articles it prompted) is the fact that we all seemed quite confused about what Facebook’s newsfeed is supposed to be. Is it an intimate channel for peer to peer communication, where you stay in touch with people who matter to you? Is is a place you go to find out what’s happening in the world at large, a watercooler of sorts, a newspaper, as Zuckerberg has said? Is it a marketing channel, where any brand can pay for the right to pitch you things based on your stated or inferred interests? Is it all of these things? Can it be?

We’re in the midst of finding out. Of course, I have an opinion. It boils down to this: Facebook’s newsfeed should be what I tell it to be, not what Facebook – or anyone else – tells me it should be. If I want to fill my newsfeed with Eat24 sushi porn, then it should be brimming with it. If I tell it to only show musings from Dwight Schrute and  Marc Cuban, then that’s what I want to see. If I love what Mickey D’s is posting and want to see the best of their posts as determined by engagement, then Big Mac me. And if I prefer to keep it to my immediate family, then damnit, show me that.

If the cost of giving me that kind of control is that I have to see a marketer’s post every five or six entries, I’m cool with that. That’s what Twitter does, and it doesn’t bother me, it’s table stakes, I get it. But what I think Facebook’s got wrong is where they’ve instrumented the controls. Facebook spends an inordinate amount of time and energy tweaking a black box set of algorithms to figure out what it thinks I want in my feed, boiling an ever-larger ocean of content into a stream of stuff it believes I want. For reasons I can’t fathom, it doesn’t give me the chance to truly curate my feed, beyond some clunky lists and filters which, from what I can tell, are only good for blocking people or indicating preference for a particular feed (but not saying, for example, “show me everything from this source.”)

Facebook is therefore viewed as paternalistic – it has a vibe of “we’ll figure out what’s best to show you.” You have *some* input into the feed, but you are not encouraged to actively curate it the way you can curate friends or brands on Instagram or Twitter (and I think both have a long way to go as well). I think Facebook could trump all this debate once and for all by putting the end-user of its service in charge, and iterating the newsfeed based on that feedback. Scary, perhaps, but ultimately liberating and, more importantly, truly authentic. Over time, the value will accrue back. As we say around the office at NewCo, give (control) to get (benefit back).

 

Might Curators Be An Answer To Twitter’s Signal To Noise Problem?

By - March 28, 2014
prmote twitter-tm

My stats in 2008.

jbat 3.14 twitter

And at present. 10X the number of folks followed = Signal to Noise problem.

Twitter’s lack of growth over the past few months has quickly become its defining narrative – witness Inside Twitter’s plan to fix itself from Quartz, which despite the headline, fails to actually explain anything about said plan.

As with most things I write about Twitter, I have no particular inside knowledge of the company’s plans, but I’ve written over and over about its core failing, and promise. In 2008 (!) I suggested “TweetSense“, and in 2011, I wrote Twitter and the Ultimate Algorithm: Signal Over Noise (With Major Business Model Implications). It opens with this:

My goal in this post is to outline what I see as the biggest challenge/opportunity in the company’s path. And to my mind, it comes down to this: Can Twitter solve its signal to noise problem?

I go on to say that it most certainly has to, because solving the problem allows it to attach sponsored advertisements (promoted tweets in particular) to just the right timelines in just the right context. I called the solution “TweetWords” – because AdWords came before AdSense. Twitter’s promoted tweets product did in fact evolve toward interest-based targeting – alas, in one way only, as far as I can tell. Advertisers can target Twitter users based on their interests (as expressed by what they tweet, retweet, follow, etc.), but they can’t place their promoted tweets contextually into timelines (IE, in a manner that “fits” with the content around them). **Update. Twitter has had keyword targeting – a key step in contextual ad targeting – for a year now. I missed this. My apologies. 

So far, there’s no such thing as TweetSense or TweetWords – where ads are contextual to the stream in which they appear. It seems Twitter has not focused on this particular problem – and it may not have to. Revenues are doing extremely well, and Twitter is clearly opening up new forms of advertising based on larger formats, video (Vine), and cards.

But if the core problem of understanding individual timelines as context is not going to be solved, it’d be a shame – because solving that problem will address Twitter’s core signal to noise issue as well. Here’s more from that 2011 post:

If Twitter can assign a rank, a bit of context, a “place in the world” for every Tweet as it relates to every other Tweet and to every account on Twitter, well, it can do the same job for every possible advertiser on the planet, as they relate to those Tweets, those accounts, and whatever messaging the advertiser might have to offer. In short, if Twitter can solve its signal to noise problem, it will also solve its revenue scale problem. It will have built  an auction driven marketplace where advertisers can bid across those hundreds of millions of tweets for the the right to position relevant messaging in real time.

I still think this is a huge opportunity for Twitter, and not for revenue reasons. I get a ton of value out of the Twitter platform, but I don’t turn to it for news and happenings anymore. I follow too many people, and managing multiple screens on Tweetdeck is just too much work. Instead, I depend on great curators like Jason Hirschorn and his team at MediaReDEF – essentially the morning newspaper for folks like me – and a number of machine-driven services that consume my feed and spit back the most popular shared stories (News.me, Percolate, etc).

I find the machine services are predictable, but Jason’s service is top notch – he’s an Editor’s Editor. His stuff, along with folks like Dave Pell, have become my go to these days. But Twitter can’t get the mass market users on its system via human curation – or can it?

Back when Twitter was small and the signal was high, I found a lot of value in my Twitter feed. Individuals who were great curators were my favorite follow. Over time my feed clogged with too many other types of folks – and I’ve never found a tool that can help me get back to those halcyon days where the best stuff rose to the top. Twitter’s Discover tab is  interesting, but lacks instrumentation. Wouldn’t it be cool if Twitter somehow elevated the best curators on its platform in some way – promoting their work and helping them gain audience? Sure, it’d feel a lot like the old “who to follow” of the old days (and there was much to criticize with that system), but given how much Twitter now knows about its own platform, it might be a pretty powerful half-step toward giving people a better handle on the richness the platform has to offer. It’d be a great, lightweight way to start using the service, and for power users who have bankrupted their feeds (IE, me), it could really change the game.

I’d love a service on Twitter that pointed out the best curators for any given topic where I’ve indicated a strong interest (and my interests have already been mapped by Twitter, for purposes of promoted tweets). Further – and this is important – I’d love for Twitter to break out those feeds for me as part of its core service – a sort of Headline News to its constant 24-Hour barrage. It’d mean a break with the one-size-fits-all mentality of the main Twitter stream, but I think such a break is overdue.

Chances are, Twitter’s already explored and dismissed these ideas, but…are they crazy?

Why You Should Read The Circle, Even If You Don’t Buy It

By - March 24, 2014

thecircleLast month I finished Dave Eggers’ latest novel The Circle, the first work by a bona fide literary light that takes on our relationship with today’s Internet technology and, in particular, our relationship with corporations like Google.

It took me a while to start The Circle, mainly because of its poor word of mouth. Most of the folks I know who mentioned it, did so in an unfavorable light. “Eggers doesn’t get our industry,” was one theme of the commentary. “He did zero research, and was proud of it!” was another. I wanted to let some time go by before I dove in, if only to let the criticism ebb a bit. It struck me that it’s not a novelist’s job to get an industry *right*, per se, but to tell a story and compel us to think about its consequences in way that might change us a little bit. I wanted to be open to that magic that happens with a great book, and not read it with too much bias.

Once I began, I found the novel engaging and worthy, but in the end, not wholly fulfilling. I found myself wishing Eggers would reveal something new about our relationship to technology and to companies like Google, Facebook, Apple – but in that department the book felt predictable and often overdone.

But first, a bit of background. “The Circle” refers to a fictional company by the same name, a rather terrifying monolith that arises sometime in the near future. The Circle has the arrogance and design sensibilities of Apple, the ‘we can do it because we’re smarter (and richer) than everyone else’ mentality of Google, the always-be-connected-and-share-everything ethos of Facebook, with a dash of Twitter’s public square and plenty of Microsoft’s once-famed rapaciousness. The Circle is, in short, a mashup of every major tech-company cliche in the book, which to be fair kind of makes it fun. It’s run by the “Three Wise Men,” for example, a direct nod to Google’s ten year rule of the “triumvirate” – Page, Brin, and Schmidt.

The story revolves around Mae Holland, a young woman who jumps from a dull job at a local utility to the golden ticket that is an entry level gig at The Circle. Mae is overwhelmed by her luck and eager to please her new bosses. Early on, reading was a lot of fun, because the patter of the Circle employees feels so…familiar. Every problem has a logical and obvious solution, and nearly all of those solutions involve everyone using The Circle’s services. All employees of the Circle become citizens of the Circle, wittingly or not. They live, eat, sleep, fuck, and party with others from the Circle, because that’s how they get ahead. Mae is swept into this culture willingly, losing sight of her family, non-Circle friends, and most of the facets of her life that once defined her. And so the story is pushed along, as Mae slowly becomes a product of the Circle, even as she (unconvincingly) rebels from time to time.

This phenomenon is certainly not foreign to any young tech worker at Google or Facebook, but Eggers takes it to extremes. He nails the breathless “save the world” mentality that often accompanies the pitches of young tech wizards, but offers no counterpoints save perhaps the reader’s own sense of improbability. For example, one exec at The Circle is working on a plan to implant a chip into every newborn’s bones, so there’d be no more child abductions. Another ruse is the sweeping adoption of “Transparency” by elected officials – every public servant uses The Circle’s technology to be “always on” while attending to their duties, so that anyone can check on them at any time (Mae ultimately goes transparent as well). Toward the end, much of government is close to becoming privatized through The Circle, because it’s more efficient, transparent, and accountable. And various ridiculous mottos espoused by The Circle – “Privacy Is Theft,” “Secrets Are Lies,” “All That Happens Must Be Known” – are readily accepted by society. All of these examples are offered as matter of fact, logical ends serving greater social means, but as readers we smirk – they are likely never happen due to issues the book fails to consider.

Then again…It may be that the lack of contrarian views is intentional, and if you can suspend disbelief, you find yourself in the a place not unlike 1984 or Animal Farm – a twisted version of the near future where absolutists have taken over society. And it’s for the creation of that potential that I give The Circle the most credit – it litigates the idea of the corporation as Paternitas, the all seeing, all caring, all nurturing force to which individuals have forsaken themselves so as to allow a greater good. It’s too early to say whether The Circle will stand with such classics, but certainly it does stand as a warning. I found myself disturbed by The Circle, even as I found it easy to dismiss. Because its predictions were too easily made – I couldn’t suspend disbelief.

But perhaps that’s Egger’s point. The Circle forces us to think critically about the world we’re all busy making, and that’s never a waste of time. And besides, the story has all manner of enjoyable and outlandish contours – if you work in this industry, or just find it fascinating, you’ll leave the book entertained. A worthy read.

What Would You Ask Sundar Pichai, SVP Android & Chrome at Google?

By - February 24, 2014

sundar_pichaiA week from this coming Sunday at SXSW, I’ll be interviewing Sundar Pichai, Google’s Senior Vice President, Android, Chrome & Apps. Pichai has a huge job at Google, overseeing the company’s mobile ecosystem, from hardware (the Nexus platform) to the burgeoning Play store (oh, and that little browser/OS called Chrome, to boot). Last year, he took over Android from its founder Andy Rubin, who has moved his focus to new (and currently undisclosed) Google moonshots. Android is a huge business for Google – more than a billion devices have been activated since its inception. And that’s well before markets for autos, wearables, and enterprise heat up.

The interview is in classic SXSW keynote form – just us on stage, with a room of 1,000 or so attendees from the festival’s interactive track. On a prep call last week, Sundar mentioned he’d be up for hearing from readers here and on various social networks, so I’m issuing a call: What questions do you have for the man in charge of Google’s mobile future? A few that come to mind:

- What is Android’s role beyond phones & tablets? Pichai has said Android is moving into areas such as the enterprise, wearables, and automobiles. How might that play out? Will Nest become an Android device? Will you have to join Google+ to manage your thermostat?!

- I’ve called Google Now “The tip of a very long spear.” Is that a fair characterization?

- Much has been written about fragmentation in the Android ecosystem-is this a problem? Is Android truly “open”?

- The relationship between Google and Samsung seems strained – how is it going?

- What is the future of the Nexus effort – is Google committed to being a hardware player, or is the Nexus line mainly a way to show off how best to create devices? Related – what happened with Motorola? Was that a mistake, or part of a master plan?

- How do Chromebooks and the Chrome OS fit into Google’s future? How do we think about Chrome as separate from Android?

-  Chromecast, Google Fiber, Play, YouTube: All seem positioned to combat the Comcasts of the world. What’s Google’s POV on cord cutting and the cablecos?
Might Google up and buy sports rights?

What questions do you have for Pichai? Leave a comment here, or tweet them to me @johnbattelle. Hope to see you at SXSW!