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This Is What Happens When Context Is Lost.

By - September 15, 2017

Buzzfeed Google Ads

(Cross posted from NewCo Shift)

Facebook and Google’s advertising infrastructure is one of humanity’s most marvelous creations. It’s also one of its most terrifying, because, in truth, pretty much no one really understands how it works. Not Mark Zuckerberg, not Larry Page, and certainly not Russian investigator Robert Mueller, although of the bunch, it seems Mueller is the most interested in that fact.

And that’s a massive problem for Facebook and Google, who have been dragged to the stocks over their algorithms’ inability to, well, act like a rational and dignified human being.

So how did the world’s most valuable and ubiquitous companies get here, and what can be done about it?

Well, let’s pull back and consider how these two tech giants execute their core business model, which of course is advertising. You might want to pour yourself an adult beverage and settle in, because by the end of this, the odds of you wanting the cold comfort of a bourbon on ice are pretty high.

In the beginning (OK, let’s just say before the year 2000), advertising was a pretty simple business. You chose your intended audience (the target), you chose your message (the creative), and then you chose your delivery vehicle (the media plan). That media plan involved identifying publications, television programs, and radio stations where your target audience was engaged.

Those media outlets lived in a world regulated by certain hard and fast rules around what constituted appropriate speech. The FCC made sure you couldn’t go full George Carlin in your creative execution, for example. The FTC made sure you couldn’t commit fraud. And the FEC — that’s the regulatory body responsible for insuring fairness and transparency in paid political speech — the FEC made sure that when audiences were targeted with creative that supports one candidate or another, those audiences could know who was behind same-said creative.

But that neat framework has been thoroughly and utterly upended on the Internet, which, as you might recall, has mostly viewed regulation as damage to be routed around.

After all, empowering three major Federal regulatory bodies dedicated to old media advertising practices seems like an awful lot of liberal overkill, n’est ce pas? What waste! And speaking of waste, honestly, if you want to “target” your audience, why bother with “media outlets” anyway?! Everyone knows that Wanamaker was right — in the offline world, half your advertising is wasted, and thanks to offline’s lack of precise targeting, no one has a clue which half that might be.

But as we consider tossing the offline baby out with the bathwater waste, it’s wise to remember a critical element of the offline model that may well save us as we begin to sort through the mess we’re currently in. That element can be understood via a single word: Context. But we’ll get to that in a minute. First, let’s go back to our story of how advertising has shifted in an online world, and the unintended consequences of that shift (if you want a even more thorough take, head over to Rick Webb’s NewCo Shift series: Which Half Is Wasted).

Google: Millions Flock to Self Service, Rise of the Algos

Back in the year 2000, Google rolled out AdWords, a fantastically precise targeting technology that allowed just about anyone to target their advertisements to…just about anyone, as long as that person was typing a search term into Google’s rapidly growing service. (Keep that “anyone” word in mind, it’ll come back to haunt us later.) AdWords worked best when you used it directly on Google’s site — because your ad came up as a search result right next to the “organic” results. If your ad was contextually relevant to a user’s search query, it had a good chance of “winning” — and the prize was a potential customer clicking over to your “landing page.” What you did with them then was your business, not Google’s.

As you can tell from my fetishistic italicization, in this early portion of the digital ad revolution, context still mattered. Google next rolled out “AdSense,” which placed AdWords on publishers’ pages around the Internet. AdSense didn’t work as well as AdWords on Google’s own site, but it still worked pretty well, because it was driven by context — the AdSense system scanned the web pages on which its ads were placed, and attempted to place relevant AdWordsin context there. Sometimes it did so clumsily, sometimes it did so with spectacular precision. Net net, it did it well enough to start a revolution.

Within a few years, AdWords and AdSense brought billions of dollars of revenue to Google, and it reshaped the habits of millions of advertisers large and small. In fact, AdWords brought an entirely new class of advertiser into the fold — small time business owners who could compete on a level playing field with massive brands. It also reshaped the efforts of thousands of publishers, many of whom dedicated small armies of humans to game AdWords’ algorithms and fraudulently drink the advertisers’ milk shakes. Google fought back, employing thousands of engineers to ward off spam, fraud, and bad actors.

AdWords didn’t let advertisers target individuals based on their deeply personal information, at least not in its first decade or so of existence. Instead, you targeted based on the expressed intention of individuals — either their search query (if on Google’s own site), or the context of what they were reading on sites all over the web. And over time, Google developed what seemed like insanely smart algorithms which helped advertisers find their audiences, deliver their messaging, and optimize their results.

The government mostly stayed out of Google’s way during this period.

When Google went public in 2004, it was estimated that between 15 to 25 percent of advertising on its platform was fraudulent. But advertisers didn’t care — after all, that’s a lot less waste than over in Wanamaker land, right? Google’s IPO was, for a period of time, the most successful offering in the history of tech.

Facebook: People Based Marketing FTW

Then along came Facebook. Facebook was a social network where legions of users voluntarily offered personally identifying information in exchange for the right to poke each other, like each other, and share their baby pictures with each other.

Facebook’s founders knew their future lay in connecting that trove of user data to a massive ad platform. In 2008, they hired Sheryl Sandberg, who ran Google’s advertising operation, and within a few years, Facebook had built the foundation of what is now the most ruthlessly precise targeting engine on the planet.

Facebook took nearly all the world-beating characteristics of Google’s AdWords and added the crack cocaine of personal data. Its self service platform, which opened for business a year or so after Sandberg joined, was hailed as ‘ridiculously easy to use.’ Facebook began to grow by leaps and bounds. Not only did everyone in the industrialized world get a Facebook account, every advertiser in the industrialized world got themselves a Facebook advertising account. Google had already plowed the field, after all. All Facebook had to do was add the informational seed.

Both Google and Facebook’s systems were essentially open — as we established earlier, just about anyone could sign up and start buying algorithmically generated ads targeted to infinite numbers of “audiences.” By 2013 or so, Google had gotten into the personalization game, albeit most folks would admit it wasn’t nearly as good as Facebook’s, but still, way better than the offline world.

So how does Facebook’s ad system work? Well, just like Google, it’s accessed through a self-service platform that lets you target your audiences using Facebook data. And because Facebook knows an awful lot about its users, you can target those users with astounding precision. You want women, 30–34, with two kids who live in the suburbs? Piece of cake. Men, 18–21 with an interest in acid house music, cosplay, and scientology? Done! And just like Google, Facebook employed legions of algorithms which helped advertisers find their audiences, deliver their messaging, and optimize their results. A massive ecosystem of advertisers flocked to Facebook’s new platform, lured by what appeared to be the Holy Grail of their customer acquisition dreams: People Based Marketing!

The government mostly stayed out of Facebook’s way during this period.

When Facebook went public in 2012, it estimated that only 1.5% of its nearly one billion accounts were fraudulent. A handful of advertisers begged to differ, but they were probably just using the system wrong. Sad!

Facebook’s IPO quickly became the most successful IPO in the history of tech. (Till Alibaba, of course. But that’s another story).

(Meanwhile, Programmatic.)

The programmatic Lumascape. Seems uncomplicated, right?

Stunned by the rise of the Google/Facebook duopoly, the tech industry responded with an open web answer: Programmatic advertising. Using cookies, mobile IDs, and tons of related data gathered from users as they surfed the web, hundreds of startups built an open-source version of Facebook and Google’s walled gardens. Programmatic was driven almost entirely by the concept of “audience buying” — the purchase of a specific audience segment regardless of the context in which that audience resided. The programmatic industry quickly scaled to billions of dollars — advertisers loved its price tag (open web ads were far cheaper), and its seemingly amazing return on investment (driven in large part by fraud and bad KPIs, but that’s yet another post).

Facebook and Google were unfazed by the rise of programmatic. In fact, they bought the best companies in the field, and incorporated their technologies into their ever advancing platforms.

The Storm Clouds Gather

But a funny thing happened as Google, Facebook and the programmatic industry rewrote advertising history. Now that advertisers could precisely identify and target audiences on Facebook, Google and across the web, they no longer needed to use media outlets as a proxy for those audiences. Media companies began to fall out of favor with advertisers and subsequently fail in large numbers. Google and Facebook became advertisers’ primary audience acquisition machines. Marketers poured the majority of their budgets into the duopoly — 70–85% of all digital advertising dollars go to the one or the other of them, and nearly all growth in digital marketing spend is attributable to them as well.

By 2011, regulators began to wrap their heads around this burgeoning field. Up till then, Internet ads were exempt from political regulations governing television, print, and other non digital outlets. In fact, both Facebook and Google have both lobbied the FEC, at various times over the past decade or so, to exclude their platforms from the vagaries of regulatory oversight based on an exemption for, and I am not making this up, “bumper stickers, pins, buttons, pens and similar small items” where posting a disclaimer is impracticable (sky writing is also mentioned). AdWords and mobile feed ads were small, after all. And everyone knows the Internet has limited space for disclaimers, right?

Anyway, that was the state of play up until 2011, when Facebook submitted a request to the FEC to clear the issue up once and for all. With a huge election coming in 2012, it was both wise and proactive of Facebook to want to clarify the matter, lest they find themselves on the wrong end of a regulatory ruling with hundreds of millions of dollars on the line.

The FEC failed to clarify its position, but did request comment from industry and the public on the issue (PDF). In essence, things remained status quo, and nothing happened for several years.

That set the table for the election of 2016. In October of that year, perhaps realizing it had done nothing for half a decade while the most powerful advertising machine in the history of ever slowly marched toward its seemingly inevitable date with emergent super intelligence, the FEC re-opened its request for comments on the whether or not political advertising on the Internet should have some trace of transparency. But that was far too late for the 2016 election.

The rest, as they inevitably say, is history in the making.

Time will tell, I suppose.

So Now What?

Most everyone I speak to tells me that last week’s revelations about Facebook, Russia, and political advertising is, in the words of Senator Mark Warner, “the tip of the iceberg.” Whether or not that’s true (and I for one am quite certain it is), it’s plenty enough to bring the issue directly to the forefront of our political and regulatory debate.

Now the news is coming fast and furious: At what was supposed to be a relatively quotidian regular meeting of the FEC this week, the commissioners voted unanimously to re-open (again) the comment period on Internet transparency. The Campaign Legal Center, launched in 2002 by a Republican ally of Senator John McCain (co-sponsor of the McCain Feingold Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002), this week issued a release calling for Facebook to disclose any and all ads purchased by foreign agents. (Would that it were that simple, but we’ll get to that in the next installment.) One of the six FEC commissioners, a Democrat, subsequently penned an impassioned Op Ed in the Washington Post, calling for a new regulatory framework that would protect American democracy from foreign meddling. The catch? The Republicans on the commission refuse to consider any regulations unless the commission receives “enough substantive written comments.”

Once the link for comments goes up in a week or two, I’m pretty sure they will.

But in the meantime, there’s plenty of chin stroking to be done over this issue. While this may seem like a dust up limited to the transparency of political advertising on the internet, the real story is vastly larger and more complicated. The wheels of western capitalism are greased by paid speech, and online, much of that speech is protected by the first amendment to our constitution, as well as established policies enshrined in contract law between Facebook, Google, and their clients. There are innumerable scenarios where a company or organization demands opacity around its advertising efforts. So many, in fact, that if I were to go into them now, I’d extend this piece by another 2,500 words.

And given I’m now close to 3,000 words in what was supposed to be a 600-word column, I’m going to leave exploring those scenarios, and their impact, to next week’s columns. In the meantime, I’ll be speaking with as many experts and policy folks from tech, Washington, and media as I can find. Suffice to say, big regulation is coming for big tech. Never in the history of the tech industry has the 1996 CDMA ruling granting tech platforms immunity from the consequences of speech on their own platforms been more germane. Whether it’s in jeopardy or not remains to be seen.

This is not a simple issue, and resolving it will require a level of rational discourse and debate that’s been starkly absent from our national dialog these past few years. At stake is not only the fundamental advertising models that built our most valuable tech companies, but also the essential forces and presumptions driving our system of democratic capitalism*. Not to mention the nascent but utterly critical debate around the role of algorithms in civil society. And as we explore solutions to what increasingly feels like an intractable set of questions, we’d do well to keep one word in mind: Context.


*Ask yourselves this: Are the advertising platforms behind Alibaba and Tencent worried about transparency?

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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.

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.

Ads. Grrr.

By - May 03, 2017

(Cross posted on Medium)

I honestly didn’t want to say this, but. I did have other things to do tonight than write about advertising. Again. But g’damn, folks. Can we get our shit together?

I know Google thinks it is doing something about it. But that Chrome feature you call ad blocking? Well, OK, there’s some good in it — it even addresses the issue I’m on about right now, sort of*. But come on. It has no power unless you block ads in Facebook’s feed, amiright?!!! (Wink!)

Anyway, just now, five minutes ago, I was grokking Sam Harris’ latest podcast, featuring a very controversial intellectual by the name of Charles Murray (long, looooong fucking story). Yeah, I’m late to the podcast game. It’s been NetFlix, music, sports and Stern during Normal Podcast Times, so I kind of side-stepped that resurgence for the past few years till recently.

And Harris’ interview with Charles Murray this week was, well, a revelation in a couple ways. First….two hours? On an intellectual tempest that underpins a fair amount of the shit going on in our country today? What a … novelty, right? And second…damn! I knew the Bell Curve was a major thing, but…Harris *really* put his reputation on the line here, and, that makes for some good baseball, no matter your point of view.

Anyway, I’ve spent enough time around ideas and the folks who create them to know there’s always more to the story, so after listening, I googled around (yes Google, I did that on purpose, sorry, but it’s lower case usage for you from now on, please block Facebook ads in your Chrome extension that would be such a cool dust up to watch okthanksbye) to find out who might disagree with the cautious but still high-on-camaraderie conversation I had just ingested.

That’s when I found this extremely contrarian post on a site I’d never heard of (which is quite normal for me. The independent web is huge and growing. Don’t believe the hype that says the platforms have won — it’s plain wrong). I still haven’t grokked *the site itself*, though I did read the post. And that’s not because I didn’t want to (I do, I always do), but because midway through my focused read of the post itself, the site did something that will forever place it on my shit list: It forced a pop-under ad into (well, under) my browser, which then autoplayed, quite loudly, commercial audio that interrupted a particularly wonderful passage in “Dawned on Me” from Wilco’s The Whole Love, the album I had chosen as my companion for my minor but heretofore pleasant intellectual journey.

And that is some Serious Bullshit. Some serious, serious bullshit. As I immediately said on Twitter (because, really, the best and first use of Twitter is to mutter like an old man to the sympathetic person you imagine is in the room with you, right?):

“It used to be, when you visited a site, you’d learn something about it from the ads. Now you just learn what the ads think of you.”

What I learned was that the ads (and by extension, the site) had exactly zero interest in my current state of mind, despite the fact that the content I was consuming was entirely about influencing my state of mind. Nope, the site said, all we care about is that you’re *paying attention.* That can be arbitraged for a twelve-dollar CPM! So fuck you, reader. I’ll take the cash.

These asshats crashed my Wilco-enhanced journey of intellectual advancement. That kind of pisses me off. Maybe I’m wrong to assume I have a right to that journey. I understand. (But honestly, fuck you.)

I think we can do better.

So, sorry, site, I’m done with you, despite your best efforts to change my mind about Sam Harris and Charles Murray, or to inform what may or may not be a rational point of view about the critical issues I am attempting to consider (and damn, they are pretty damn critical right about now).

So. Here’s my conclusion. We need a place to discuss ideas that is absent the dark gravity associated with this kind of advertising.

This seems to me a rather urgent thing to build. Remember “We Must Fix This Fucking Mess”? That.


*And Google, as much as I’d love you to top-down this problem, that’s not how we fix it. We fix it through culture and community, not by fiat. 

Pick Up the Phone and Call.

By - April 07, 2017

phone

(cross posted from NewCo Shift)

People in business who like to Get Shit Done fall in love with each version of The New. When I was a kid, new was the the Apple II. Then the IBM PC, digital phones and voice mail, the Mac — oh God, the Mac! — word processing, email, the cell phone, the Internet — mmmmm, the Internet! — and then the iPhone — oh…the iPhone!
Well damn the iPhone, because I lay at its feet the death of the most efficient technology ever created for the speedy disposition of Getting Shit Done — the plain old telephone. But not just any old-school telephone. The high tech, multi-line, digitally switched telephone of the late 1980s — the kind of phone upon which you could conduct, merge, and manage multiple direct conversations with your peers, colleagues, partners and adversaries — a direct line of human expression brain to brain — the kind of shit it’ll take us decades to replicate (if we ever do).

Why was that phone so perfect? It certainly wasn’t the technology, though it was pretty darn boss at the time. It was how our society adapted to it, optimizing direct, one-to-one communications in real time between a network of engaged colleagues. As a young reporter, and later as an editor and a CEO, my call list was my life. I’d spend hours a day calling sources, collaborators, even employees down the hall — and as a result, we’d Get Shit Done.*

Because to Get Shit Done, you have to engage real time with the people who help define what it is You Are Actually Doing. And nothing, nothing at all, beats a conversation to move that ball along.

For reasons I am sure will merit multiple PhD defenses some day, we’ve evolved to an almost apologetic relationship to the humble telephone. Through email or social media (ick!), we ask each other for a “quick call” — then we offload the rest to calendar apps with their annoying reminders — shitty simulacrums of our intent which pervert our goal: to connect and exchange, to respond and to act.

But first, always to connect.

At some point in the last ten years we replaced direct connection with technology-intermediated obsequity. And when we do “get on a call,” it’s fraught with a Moderator and an Agenda and Follow Up Action Items and … well, wait what the f*ck are we talking about?

No more. It’s time to pick up the phone and start calling each other again.

Hey — It’s John. You have a few minutes to bounce something around? Cool!…

*Some industries continue to work this way — I’d love your input on which one you think still do.

Bad Policy Makes Us Sick. Business Must Lead Us Back.

By - April 03, 2017

WALL-E-382

(Cross posted from NewCo Shift)

Walking around Disneyland with my daughter the other night, I found myself face to face with one of our country’s most intractable taboos.

(Disneyland is still awesome for me, as a kid from 1970s LA. Truly magical.)

If you’re an observer of crowds, one of the more prominent features of the Disneyland crowd is how generally overweight our country has become (I live in the Bay area, and readily admit my interaction with folks on most days is not representative of a broad cross section of our population). I’d estimate at least a third of the folks at Disney are seeing Mike and Molly-level images in the mirror — and about 2–3% or so have more weight than they can carry around, and have therefore graduated to “mobility scooters.”

These industrial strength scooters have become commonplace at the Happiest Place on Earth. I’m guessing from the name that they were initially created for disabled and elderly folks, but clearly they’ve been reinforced for more rigorous duty. For every one of them we saw piloted by a fellow with a knee brace or an elderly grandmother, there were ten requisitioned for moving Big People around.

For a spell, I sat on a bench with my daughter and watched them wheel by.

I fell into reverie, thinking about how our policy choices have led to a predictable and avoidable epidemic, and how that epidemic mirrors many others in what is increasingly feeling like a gravely ill society. Our maddening melange of libertarian individualism, technological (and medical) savior-ism, American exceptionalism, and steroidal capitalism has delivered us a health care horror show — one with an endless appetite for cheap food, expensive medicine, and hollow self-delusion.

It strikes me nowhere can we identify how badly we need a new compact between business and society than right here on Disney’s Main Street USA. Libertarians and fanatical anti-regulation types love to claim that individual responsibility is paramount, and I suppose that means the growing percentage of obese people in our society are all at fault, and deserve the shame our culture heaps upon them. I tend to believe otherwise, that outcomes are driven by inputs, and right now, the inputs in our society are making us very, very sick.

Can we face up to this fact without dehumanizing or victimizing the people who now comprise more than a third of the US population? Is talking out loud about this issue even allowed? (I think I’m about to find out…)

It certainly feels taboo, because these are real human beings we’re talking about, and our society relentlessly shames overweight people as lacking will power and failing to conform to ideal body images projected in popular culture.

But come on, America’s obesity epidemic has been building for decades, and it’s only getting worse. When will we call it what it really is: A public health crisis, driven by outdated and dangerous policies around food subsidies and health care?

First and foremost amongst those failed policies is our society’s approach to food — how we grow it, how we market it, and certainly how we eat it. In short, we subsidize cheap calories — in particular sugar and corn syrup — and we’ve forsworn nutrition for convenience. Food companies, driven as all businesses are by profit and policy inputs, are literally rewarded for selling as much of their product to us as they can, regardless of the consequences. It feels an awful lot like our approach to energy — just as we’re hooked on cheap and environmentally damaging carbon-based fuels, we’ve built an entire economy on cheap and physically destructive food, and there are extraordinarily powerful forces at work insuring things stay that way.

(I should note that I actually do not lay blame at the feet of these forces — I believe they exist because we’ve created a system that requires them to act the way they do. The only way to change that is to change the rules of the system, not to reactively punish large corporations for doing what our society incentivizes them to do.)

Adding to the policy failure is our society’s approach to health care. Everyone seems to agree it’s a mess, but we have to think systemically if we’re going to fix it. Believe what you will about Obamacare, but they got one thing absolutely right: The new program instituted a historic shift from a reactive to a proactive stance. How? Through the economic lever of how payments were processed. The old government healthcare (and let’s not fool ourselves, the government is the single largest force in healthcare, period) paid set fees for service. This created a moral hazard in the market, as actors organized themselves around creating as many payment opportunities as possible. Need a knee replacement because you’re overweight? Check, there’s a fee for service. Knee replacement didn’t work, because you’re overweight and/or didn’t have proper follow up by your doctor? Check, we’ll do another one. Broke your hip because the second knee buckled? Check, there’s a third service to get paid for.

Obamacare is in the process of shifting government payments away from fee-for-service and toward outcomes — doctors and hospitals are paid a certain amount for a positive health outcome, and that’s that. No more triple knee surgeries — you get paid when the patient’s surgery is proven to have worked. There’s a set amount for that outcome, and that’s it. This kind of economic incentive drives markets to optimize for proactive health care — the kind that creates early detection of potential obesity, supplying nutrition education so the knee replacement is never needed in the first place.

It’s exactly this kind of thoughtful, informed policy we need right now if we’re going to solve our country’s obesity epidemic. And given the current administration, it’s highly unlikely we’ll see much of it coming out of Washington over the next four years. That means one thing: our country’s largest food and health care companies must get in front of this crisis, andlead. Whether or not they do, it’s abundantly clear is that our current crop of politicians will not. Meanwhile, our society is getting sicker, poorer, and more alienated. That’s not a recipe that’s good for anyone.

It’s Time For Facebook to Start Making Media

By - March 22, 2017

There’s only one company that can possibly spin media gold on Facebook. And that’s Facebook.

Round and round and round goes the debate — Facebook’s not a media company, Facebook’s not a traditional media company, Facebook’s a new kind of media company. Facebook’s gonna pay media creators to make stuff on Facebook! Wait, no they’re not. Wait, maybe they will make it themselves! Gah

We’ve seen this debate before — Google refused to call itself a media business for years and years. Now, well…YouTube. And Play. Twitter had similar reluctancies, and now…the NFL (oh, and college softball!). Microsoft tried, but ultimately failed, to be a media company (there’s a reason it’s called MSNBC), and had the sense to retreat from “social media” into “enterprise tools” so as to not beg confusion. Then again, it just bought LinkedIn, so the debate will most certainly flare up (wait, is LinkedIn a media company?!).

Truth is, with all these platform players, media is not only a crucial product, it’s the primary product. I’m not going to get into why in this post (I will next time, promise.) Instead I’ll predict that quite soon, platforms, including Facebook, will lose their equivocation and embrace content creation.

In the meantime, let’s talk about cute toddlers, shall we?

Here’s a video of two cute toddlers practicing for a future as nightclub promoters (or WWF entertainers, it’s hard to decide). It’s been watched nearly 70 million times on Facebook. In one day.

Did you read that right? Yep. 70 million times. In one day.

The video is two minutes long. Scores of “traditional” media outlets have somehow gotten access to the video, chroming it up with their own logos, music, and advertising. But the thing went viral on Facebook, and it’s Facebook that insured the kids got their 140 million minutes of fame (and counting).

Here’s the thing. There are literally dozens, if not thousands, of these kinds of media objects on Facebook every day. Sure, maybe they’re not all 70-million-views-in-one-day big, but nevertheless, they’re media gold. They spread all over Facebook, all day long, but what drives me crazy is there’s no way to find them reliably. There’s no media product on Facebook that curates these gems, there’s only media distribution. And as everyone in the Valley (and in media) will tell you, Product Matters.

So it’s time for Facebook to start making good media products. I mean, who wouldn’t want to visit a “Facebook trending viral videos” product at least once a day? Right? Search for viral videos on Facebook now, and you get dreck like this. I don’t know what angle these jokers’ are playing (I mean, there’s no ads there…), but it ain’t what Facebook, with their inside knowledge of what makes stuff go viral, could create.

Sure, there are a ton of “media” players trying to find a way to make a living on Facebook — and the entire media world is now fretting over how dependent they’ve become on the attention black hole Facebook’s become. But the truth is, only Facebook knows what’s really happening behind that 2 billion person curtain. Anyone else making shit for Facebook is running with cement in their shoes.

Facebook will never open up its ecosystem and let a million media flowers bloom. And the “media experience” on the site blows. Soon enough, they’ll have to fix it. It’s time for them to get on with it.

We Must Fix This Fucking Mess

By - January 11, 2017

gazetteer

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.
gazetteer

Predictions 2017: A Chain Reaction

By - January 06, 2017

Nostradamus_prophecies

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

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

Let’s see what happens….

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Related:

Predictions 2016 

2016: How I Did

Predictions 2015

2015: How I Did

Predictions 2014

2014: How I Did

Predictions 2013

2013: How I Did

Predictions 2012

2012: How I Did