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Living Systems and The Information First Company

By - October 11, 2014
uber map

A map tracing the information flows within Uber’s San Francisco market.

One of the great joys of my career is the chance to speak at gatherings of interesting people. Sometimes it’s an unscripted, wide ranging conversation (like during Advertising Week, for example), but other times it’s a formal presentation, which means many hours of preparation and reportage.

These more formal presentations are opportunities to consolidate new thinking and try it out in front of a demanding audience. Last month I was invited to speak in front of group of senior executives at a major bank, including the CEO and all his direct reports. I was asked to focus my remarks on how new kinds of companies were threatening traditional incumbents – with a focus on the financial services industry, as you might imagine.

Now, I’m not an expert in financial services, but I do know how to ask questions, and I’ve been watching as the core assumptions any number of markets, from media to transportation to hospitality, have been upended by Internet upstarts like Buzzfeed, Uber, or Airbnb. So I started preparing for this talk by interviewing half a dozen or so senior executives at the bank. I was prepared for defensive answers, but instead found myself pleasantly surprised – not only did these executives acknowledge a threat, they also spoke eloquently about the self-created barriers which blocked their ability to respond. Some of these barriers were regulatory and therefore out of their direct control, but many were organizational – this bank had been in business more than 100 years, and its DNA was pretty deeply set.

There’s no dearth of literature and leaders with strong points of view about corporate change – Clayton Christensen’s Innovator’s Dilemma  is the classic, and there are plenty of others – Downes’ Big Bang Disruption and Moore’s Crossing the Chasm come to mind. But I’ve not made my living writing about corporate disruption, nor do I expect I ever will. As much as these kinds of books lay out specific and intelligent management lessons, I didn’t want to dole out second hand advice – after all, if the banks wanted to hear that, they could have asked Christensen, Downes, or Moore.

So preparing for this talk forced me to do exactly the kind of hard work any writer both fears and relishes – coming up with something original to say.

So I started to think about why it is that large enterprises fail to innovate. What was it about new, digital companies – which I’ve come to call “NewCos” – that allows them to so quickly pose significant threats to the incumbents in their respective markets?

It struck me that corporations – which by US law enjoy the status of personhood – act much like organisms in biological systems. Some are fitter than others, and every so often you see punctuated equilibrium – a quick reset of the ecological landscape. Further, it struck me that we’re in the midst of such a phase shift as we become information – a theme I’ve written about quite a bit (and the core thesis of my long-unfinished book).

That got me pondering the role of information in companies. I wondered, what is the role of information in biological systems? A bit of Googling reminded me of living systems theory, which I last encountered reading Kevin Kelly‘s What Technology Wants, which posits that technology itself is a living system. But I found myself pursuing a narrower path: What if we understood corporations as living systems? Might there be an insight or two to gain?

Living systems theory is the work of biologist James Grier Miller. From the wikipedia entry: “Living systems are open self-organizing living things that interact with their environment. These systems are maintained by flows of information, energy and matter.”

Bingo – there it was, right in front of me – a new way to think about corporations. The first thing that struck me in this definition was the use of the word “open” – most large enterprises are not open in most senses of the world. But most interesting was the framework of understanding flows of information, energy, and matter in a corporation. Immediately, I came up with a hypothesis: most corporations are organized to maximize their use of energy and matter, because those are the most expensive parts of their businesses. NewCos, on the other hand,  place information at the center of their business.

Put another way, NewCos are “information first” companies.  They map the flows of information in a market, and organize themselves so as to exploit or leverage those information flows, even if the flows are “potential information” – information used in a new way, a manner which may be more efficient, productive, or valuable. Put information first, and let that determine how best to organize energy and matter. Industrial era-companies, on the other hand, value their hard assets first (energy, matter), and only view  information  as a way to organize or protect those assets.

I’ve been wandering the halls of theory for a while here, so some examples are in order. I’ll start with everyone’s favorite disruptor, Uber. What has Uber done? Well, it’s stared long and hard at the information flows of the transportation business, and it’s created a service that re-imagines how, by leveraging information flows, it might go about more efficiently organizing the energy (people, gasoline) and matter (automobiles, roads) in that market. Uber is an information first business, whereas taxi commissions, rental car agencies, and even automobile manufacturers are energy and matter-first businesses.

Or let’s look at another market: hospitality. Hotel companies are energy and matter-first businesses – they look at the world as a collection of places where expensive hotels might be built, and they then spend a lot of energy and money convincing the market to come to their hotels. Airbnb focused on information flows first, and created a new approach to organizing the energy and matter of the hospitality market: it uses information to organize people (energy) and matter (people’s homes).

Once I started thinking about companies as either “information first” or “energy and matter first,” I began to see information first companies all over the place. This wasn’t hard, because I’ve been spending the past year looking at applicants for NewCo festivals around the world. GrubHub, for example, takes an information first approach to take out dining. Casper takes an information first approach to the design, manufacturing, sales and delivery of mattresses. DocuSign is obliterating paper with it’s information-first approach to trusted signatures. Hampton Creek is a classic information first company in food. On and on and on – the theory is perhaps too neat, but neat it was nevertheless.

Then I wondered – what are the information first companies in financial services? After all, I needed to bring this theory home with a strong example native to the folks who I’d be speaking to. And that’s when I remembered Earnest, a NewCo I had visited during our San Francisco festival.

Earnest

And man, does Earnest bring the point home in spades. In my talk to the bank, I laid out how Earnest’s “information first” approach allows it to entirely rethink the lending landscape. First, I explained how Earnest works: It builds an information-rich profile of a prospective lending client, using APIs from LinkedIn and the client’s own bank account. In his NewCo presentation, Earnest CEO Louis Beryl explained that the company uses more than 100 parameters of information to make a lending decision, and models that information against ever-more intelligent algorithms. It’s a process that is familiar to every information-first company, from Google to Uber, GrubHub to NetFlix.
Earnest 1

Let’s compare Earnest’s information-first approach to the traditional lending practices of most US firms. These companies lend money based largely on an outsourced information source called the FICO score.

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As you can see, these businesses are built on a relatively thin information flow – and most of it is outsourced to another company (FICO). Lenders tend to organize around three things: Lead generation (marketing cost), conversion (to a loan), and collections. Defaults are a cost of doing business. But Earnest’s approach focuses on identifying qualified clients, then servicing them in an information first manner. While still new, Earnest’s approach radically changes the game – it charges 50% less for a loan, and has no defaults to date. Time will tell if Earnest executes its game plan well enough to become a major disruptor in the financial services sector, but the company’s already convinced Andreessen Horowitz and several other major VCs to invest $15mm in its first round of financing.

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This post represents my first “thinking out loud” about what it means to be an information-first company, and it’s in no way complete. The concept isn’t original per se, but I think might add some structure to the terminology that has bedeviled our industry for years. So often we talk about “tech companies” who “leverage big data” to  “disrupt” incumbent players. I like the idea of calling these businesses “information first” companies – because in the end, any company can put information flows first. Get that right, and the energy and matter will follow.

  • Content Marquee

Every Company Is An Experience Company

By - September 28, 2014
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Illustration by Craig Swanson and idea by James Cennamo

Some years ago while attempting to explain the thinking behind my then-startup Federated Media, I wrote that all brands are publishers (it was over on the FM blog, which the new owners apparently have taken down – a summary of my thinking can be found here). I’d been speechifying on this theme for years, since well before FM or even the Industry Standard – after all, great brands always created great content (think TV ads or the spreads in early editions of Wired), we just didn’t call it that until our recent obsession with “native advertising” and “content marketing,” an obsession I certainly helped stoke during my FM years.

Today, there is an entire industry committed to helping brands become publishers, and the idea that brands need to “join the conversation” and “think like media companies” is pretty widely held. But I think the metaphor of brands as media creators has some uneasy limitations. We are all wary of what might be called contextual dissonance – when we consume media, we want to do so in proper context. I’ve seen a lot of branded content that feels contextually dissonant to me – easily shareable stories distributed through Outbrain, Buzzfeed, and Sharethrough, for example, or highly shareable videos distributed through YouTube and Facebook.

So why is this content dissonant? I’m thinking out loud here, but it has to do with our expectations. When a significant percentage of the content that gets pushed into my social streams is branded content, I’m likely to presume that my content streams have a commercial agenda. But when I’m in content consumption mode, I’m not usually in a commercial mode.  To be clear, I’m not hopping on the “brands are trying to trick us into their corporate agendas” bandwagon, I think there’s something more fundamental at work here. There are plenty of times during any given day when I *am* in commercial context – wandering through a mall, researching purchases online, running errands in my car – but when I’m consuming content, I’m usually not in commercial context. Hence the disassociation. When clearly commercial content is offered during a time when I’m not in commercial mode, it just feels off.

I think this largely has to do with a lack of signaling in media formats these days. Much has been made of how native advertising takes on the look and feel of the content around it, and most of the complaint has to do with how that corporate speech is somehow disingenuous, sly, or deceitful. But I don’t think that’s the issue. What we have here is a problem of context, plain and simple.

Any company with money can get smart content creators to create, well, smart content, content that has as good a chance as any to be part of a conversation. In essence, branded content is something of a commodity these days – just like a 30 second spot of a display ad is a commodity. We’re just not accustomed to commercial content in the context of our social reading habits. In time, as formats and signaling get better, we will be. As that occurs, “content marketing” becomes table stakes – essential, but not what will set a brand apart.

Reflecting on my earlier work on brands as media companies, I realize that the word “media” was really a placeholder for “experience.” It’s not that every company should be a media company per se – but rather, that every company must become an experience company. Media is one kind of experience – but for many companies, the right kind of experience is not media, at least if we understand “media” to mean content.

But let’s start with a successful experience that is media – American Express’ Open Forum. If I as a consumer chose to engage with Open Forum, I do so in the clear context that it’s an American Express property, a service created by the brand. There’s no potential for deceit – the context is understood. This is a platform owned and operated by Amex, and I’ll engage with it knowing that fact. Over the years Amex has earned a solid reputation for creating valuable content and advice on that platform – it has built a media experience that has low contextual dissonance.

But not every experience is a media experience, unless you interpret the word “media” in a far more catholic sense. If you begin to imagine every possible touchpoint that a customer might have with your brand as a highly interactive media experience – mediated by the equivalent of a software- and rules-driven UX – well now we’re talking about something far larger.

To illustrate what I mean I think back to my original “Gap Scenario” from nearly five years ago. I imagined what it might be like to visit a retail outlet like Gap a few years from now. I paint a picture where the experience that any given shopper might have in a Gap store (or any other retail outlet) is distinct and seamless, because Gap has woven together a tapestry of data, technology platforms, and delivery channels that turns a pedestrian trip to the mall into a pleasurable experience that makes me feel like the company understands and values me. I’m a forty-something Dad, I don’t want to spend more than 45 seconds in Gap if I don’t have to. My daughter, on the other hand, may want to wander around and engage with the retail clerks for 45 minutes or more. Different people, different experiences. It’s Gap’s job to understand these experience flows and design around them. That takes programmatic platforms, online CRM, well-trained retail clerks, new approaches to information flows, and a lot of partners.

I believe that every brand needs to get good at experience design and delivery. Those that are great at it tend to grow by exponential word of mouth – think of Google, Facebook, Uber, Airbnb, or Earnest (a new lending company). When marketing becomes experience design, brands win.

There’s far more to say about this, including my thesis that “information first” companies win at experience-based marketing. All fodder for far more posts. For now, I think I’ll retire the maxim “all companies are media companies” and replace it with “every company is an experience company.” Feels more on key.

Thoughts On Alibaba

By - September 21, 2014

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(image WSJ)

A caveat before I think out loud, quite possibly getting myself into a running battle I know I can’t win: I’m not a public market stock investor, I’ve never been one, and take the following ruminations at the price they’re offered: IE, free.

But this Alibaba stock debut doesn’t smell right to me, and it’s not the company- which is certainly a huge success story inside China, driven by a scrappy founder with a laudable (if manicured) personal narrative.

That said, Alibaba’s star turn smells of collective greed, with a hefty side of whistling past the graveyard.

I wouldn’t be writing this post if I didn’t have some knowledge around the deal, at least as it relates to the culture of access enjoyed by those with relationships to investment firms. I’ve missed a TON of great deals over my career, mainly due to my being a journalist (or acting like one, as it relates to holding stock) for a large percentage of my working life. But over the past few years I’ve carefully gotten into investing, mainly in early stage startups. I don’t look to invest in IPOs, but every so often, about twice a year, they get offered to me.

This is what happened with Alibaba. I was given the opportunity to – possibly – invest a small sum in Alibaba about a month ago. I figured it was a no-lose deal, so I said “sure” and I didn’t give it much more thought.

But as the IPO drew near, I reconsidered that decision. Not because I thought the stock was going to tank right after the IPO  – I knew there was far too much money at stake, at least in the short term, for that to happen. No, I second guessed myself because I realized I honestly don’t understand the company, or the powers that control it. I pinged the fellow who had offered me the chance to invest, so as to recant my investment. But in the end, it didn’t matter. His fund didn’t end up getting an allocation of precious “at the open” stock anyway.

I can only imagine what it must have been like running that allocation, deciding who amongst all the wealthy, connected individuals and firms would get Alibaba stock at the opening price. It’d be like doling out rigged lottery tickets – everyone’s a winner! One thing I am sure of – it wasn’t a fair process, and I almost ended up benefitting from it by happenstance. So here’s why I am concerned about Alibaba, in no particular order:

1. Greed. The company was considered, by everyone I’ve spoken to, a “sure bet” that would “pop at the open” just like the Internet stocks of old (and it did!).  And yet, everyone that I have spoken with also believes that Alibaba is an offering that encourages the kind of negative Wall Street behavior none of us really want to see happen again. The book closed early. The stock priced above its initial range and moved up by nearly 40% on its first day of trading. Financial institutions, uncertain if they were going to get the allocations they wanted, started currying favor and hustling and pleading and whining. There was a frenzy of money making activity going on, and it felt like…pure greed. Alibaba is the ultimate insider’s stock – pedestrian retail investors did not get access to shares at the opening price, and most likely they will be the sheep to whom the wolves of Wall Street quickly sell (if they haven’t already). Insiders – wealthy people with access to early distribution of IPO shares at the open, have already made their fast buck. And the ultimate insiders have made a huge killing: a consortium of big banks poured $8 billion into Alibaba this June at a $50 price, a quid pro quo if ever there was one for giving a Chinese company access to the US markets. This kind of behavior adds questionable value to our society. I don’t doubt that everyone who held pre-IPO or at-the-IPO shares will make money, in fact, I’m sure of it. And that smells of a rigged game.

2. Shallow understanding. If you’re reading this, and you bought the stock at $93 (roughly the price of its first public trade, up from $68), tell me – have you ever used Alibaba’s services? Do you really understand the company? I doubt it, because Alibaba is a Chinese company. Most of us here in the US don’t speak Chinese, or have a reason to use Alibaba’s services. But for some reason we all seem willing to buy into the “Chinese eBay,” or the “Chinese Facebook,” as if throwing those successful public companies’ reputation over Alibaba’s frame somehow equates to quality. It’s a “bet on China,” as most of the press puts it. Certainly that sounds good, given the country’s growth and early stages, but it leads me to wonder… will most analysts who are covering the stock have done core due diligence on Alibaba – the kind where you go to the market in question and talk to customers, suppliers, and regulators? That would mean they have access and understanding of the culture that controls Alibaba, and I’m pretty sure that culture will not ever allow such diligence to occur (more on that below). What bankers and analysts will tell you is they’ve run the numbers that Alibaba has given them, and they are fantastic. Then again, so are the numbers on Chinese GDP growth – and most well informed people I’ve spoken to say those numbers are unreliable. (Oh, and by the way, if you think the $81 billion China just injected into its own economy was a shrug, I guess you should buy Alibaba without concern). Which leads to…

3. Controlled by a corrupt government. Do you know how China works? I don’t, but I’ve talked to enough folks who have lived and worked in China to get a pretty clear picture: The economic and government culture does not hew to US standards, to put it mildly. And like every other company in China, Alibaba is ultimately controlled by the whims of the Chinese government. It’s something of an open secret that Chinese corporate culture is definitionally corrupt by US standards. So…does listing it on the US stock markets change this fact? I could be wrong (see my caveat at the top), but I don’t believe it does. At least when companies are corrupt in the United States, we have a free and open press, and a democratic rule of law, to keep them in check.  One could reasonably argue that it’s a supreme proof of our capitalist system that now Alibaba is public in the US, so it will now have to play by US regulations. I wish I could buy into that narrative, but I sense all we’ll really get is a company well versed at playing our game, rather than a company that is an active builder of value in our society and in other free markets.

Let me put this another way: Here are a list of Internet leaders who decided to forego China, because the government has made it nearly impossible for them to do business in the way that built our capital markets: eBay, Yelp, Twitter, Google, Facebook….and that’s just off the top of my head. So by buying into Alibaba, we’re buying into a system that has, through government fiat, denied innovative US companies growth in the world’s largest market, then capitalized that fiat into a stock it’s now selling back to us. Again, that just seems wrong.

4. Hazy growth outside core markets. Many observers are expecting Alibaba to come into the US and other large markets, and either buy or compete its way in, so as to fuel its long term growth. This I find to be difficult to believe, on many levels. Sure, Alibaba could try to buy…Yahoo!, Yelp, Twitter, hell, maybe even Box or Square or one of the other heavily funded “unicorns.” But…does anyone really believe it can *manage* those companies to success post transaction? To get a sense of how odd that sounds, imagine Google or Facebook buying a slate of Chinese companies and then managing them well. Sounds pretty risky to me.

Anyway, I’ve gone on long enough, and undoubtedly I’ve managed to piss off any number of friends and colleagues across multiple industries. So let me repeat: I’m no expert in Chinese markets, nor am I a professional public market stock investor. I’m just an industry observer, making industry observations. Caveat emptor.

A Big Day For The Internet

By - September 10, 2014

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Today scores of big companies are taking symbolic action to defend the essential principles of an open Internet, and I support them. That’s why, on your first visit here today, you’ll see the “spinning ball of death” up on the right. For more information about the Internet Slowdown, head here.

We’re Innumerate, Which Is Why We Love Visualizations

By - September 02, 2014

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This weekend I reviewed my notes from a few weeks of late summer meetings, and found this gem from a  conversation with Mike Driscoll, the CEO and co-founder of data analytics firm MetaMarkets. MetaMarkets helps adtech firms make sense of the reams of data they collect each day (hour, minute, second…). Most of this data is meaningless without some kind of pattern recognition and interpretation, Driscoll told me. He then used a great metaphor, one that resonated given my post earlier last week that Writing is Code, Reading Is Visualization.

When we read, Driscoll noted, we both ingest the words and simultaneously “see” a story. Stories, of course, are how we understand the world. Reading pre-supposes that a story is being told – we don’t read texts full of random words and letters, literate texts are formed so as to impart knowledge. Reading presupposes literacy. We read the text and, assuming the writer is reasonably skilled, we “see” what the author intended – a narrative story is delivered and received.

Numbers, however, are different. Very  few of us are highly numerate – we can’t “read” numbers and see stories from them in our heads. In short, most of us are innumerate – we can’t see a story by looking at numbers. Computers are excellent at reading numbers, of course, but they are terrible at telling stories. This is why people who can do both at the same time – like the cast of The Matrix,  the “Rain Man,” or advanced mathematicians of any stripe – seem so cool and alien to us.

Alas, for the rest of us, we don’t “see” much of anything when we look at a text made up of hundreds or thousands of numbers. Numbers on a page are mute. But once those numbers are run through a visualization filter, they transform into stories – visual narratives that, with a bit of practice, become highly informing. And this is why “data scientist” and “data visualization” are two of the most promising careers these days. We’re awash in data, but we lack the code to make meaning from it.

As you can tell from the graphic below, there’s an extraordinary amount of information in the programmatic adtech ecosystem – orders of magnitude more than in our current financial system.  Driscoll’s firm turns that raw information into meaningful narratives for his clients. I have a feeling that’s a very good business to be in going forward.

 

MetaMarkets Adtech Data vs. Financial Markets

Programmatic marketing is “the most complex marketplace the world has ever created, in terms of both transactional scale and richness,” says Mike Driscoll, CEO MetaMarkets.


“Facebook Is a Weatherless World”

By - August 30, 2014

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This quote, from a piece in Motherboard,  hit me straight between the eyeballs:

Facebook…will not let you unFacebook Facebook. It is impossible to discover something in its feeds that isn’t algorithmically tailored to your eyeball.

“The laws of Facebook have one intent, which is to compel us to use Facebook…It believes the best way to do this is to assume it can tell what we want to see based on what we have seen. This is the worst way to predict the weather. If this mechanism isn’t just used to predict the weather, but actually is the weather, then there is no weather. And so Facebook is a weatherless world.”

- Sean Schuster-Craig, AKA Jib Kidder

The short piece notes the lack of true serendipity in worlds created by algorithm, and celebrates the randomness of apps (Random) and artists (like Jib Kidder) who offer a respite from such “weatherless worlds.”

What’s really playing out here is a debate around agency. Who’s in control when you’re inside Facebook – are we, or is Facebook? Most of us feel like we’re in control – Facebook does what we tell it to do, after all, and we seem to like it there just fine, to judge by our collective behaviors. Then again, we also know that what we are seeing, and being encouraged to interact with, is driven by a black box, and many of us are increasingly uneasy with that idea. It feels a bit like the Matrix – we look for that cat to reappear, hoping for some insight into how and whether the system is manipulating us.

Weather is a powerful concept in relation to agency – no one controls the weather, it simply *is*. It has its own agency (unless, of course, you believe in a supreme agent called God, which for these intents and purposes we can call Weather as well.)  It’s not driven by a human-controlled agency, it’s subject to extreme interpretation, and it has a serendipity which allows us to concede our own agency in the face of its overwhelming truth.

Facebook also has its own agency – but that agency is driven by algorithms controlled by humans. As a model for the kind of world we might someday fully inhabit, it’s rather unsettling. As the piece points out, “It is impossible to discover something in its feeds that isn’t algorithmically tailored to your eyeball.” Serendipity is an illusion, goes the argument. Hence, the “I changed my habits on Facebook, and this is what happened” meme is bouncing around the web at the moment. 

It’s true, to a point, that there’s a certain sterility to a long Facebook immersion, like wandering the streets of Agrestic and noting all the oddballs in this otherwise orderly fiction, but never once do you really get inside Lacy Laplante’s head. (And it never seems to rain.)

The Motherboard article also bemoans Twitter’s evolution toward an algorithmically-driven feed – “even Twitter, that last bastion of personal choice, has begun experimenting with injecting users’ feeds with “popular” content.” Close readers of this site will recall I actually encouraged Twitter to do this here: It’s Time For Twitter To Filter Our Feeds. But How?.

The key is that question – But How?

To me, the answer lies with agency. I’m fine with a service filtering my feeds, but I want agency over how, when, and why they do so.

I think that’s why I’ve been such an advocate for what many call “the open web.” The Internet before Facebook and mobile apps felt like a collective, messy ecosystem capable of creating its own weather, it was out of control and unpredictable, yet one could understand it well enough to both give and receive value. We could build our own houses, venture out in our own vehicles, create cities and commerce and culture. If anything was the weather, it was Google, but even Google didn’t force the pasteurized sensibility one finds on services like Facebook.

As we like to say: Pray for rain.

 

Writing Is Code, Reading Is Visualization

By - August 29, 2014

Yesterday I stumbled onto a fascinating PBS Newshour interview with book designer Peter Mendelsund, well-regarded for his cover treatments of titles ranging from George Dyson’s Turing’s Cathedral to The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo.

Mendelsen argued that when we read, we visualize the text, each of us creating a different reality in our minds. Those co-created images – created by both the author and the reader – are unique and vital to the process of reading – and by extension, to our ability to imagine and to create.

In the the interview, Mendelsund is asked about our image-driven culture – there were more than a trillion photos shared last year, according to Chute, a “visual revolution” company I’ve recently joined as a Director. We’ve become a society of image sharers – the very act of sharing is celebrated – and image creators – to the point where “selfie” has made the dictionary and “food porn” is a thing.

But as we snap and share, share and snap, we must remember the value of the mind’s innate ability to create images from code* – the code of writing. Words are pure symbols capable of painting entire worlds across our mind’s eye. And the extraordinary thing is each of sees something unique when we encounter the written word, yet we all understand the same code.  “The idea of imagining things ourselves…this world we occupy when we’re reading… is more valuable than ever,” Mendelsund said, referring to our image-addicted culture. “There are few other places – maybe other than when we are dreaming – where we get this feeling of occupying a metaphysical realm.”

I plan on reading Mendelsund’s What We See When We Read this weekend, I’ll post a review here if this short burst proves insufficient….

*Of course, musicians and coders also “see” and dream in code, and famously, the cast of “The Matrix” “saw” through dripping lines of code into the visual reality painted by the film’s antagonist AIs.

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.

A Return To Form In Media

By - June 30, 2014

mediaappsOnce upon a time, print was a vibrant medium, a platform where entrepreneurial voices created new forms of value, over and over again. I’ll admit it was my native platform, at least for a while – Wired and The Industry Standard were print-driven companies, though they both innovated online, and the same could be said for Make, which I helped early in its life. By the time I started Federated, a decidedly online company, the time of print as a potent cultural force was over. New voices – the same voices that might have created magazines 20 years ago, now find new platforms, be they websites (a waning form in itself), or more likely, corporate-owned platforms like  iOS, YouTube, Instagram, Tumblr, and Vine.

Now, I’m acutely aware of how impolitic it is to defend print these days. But my goal here is not to defend print, nor to bury it. Rather, it’s to point out some key aspects of print that our industry still has yet to recapture in digital form. As we abandoned print, we also abandoned  a few critical characteristics of the medium, elements I think we need to identify and re-integrate into whatever future publications we create. So forthwith, some Thinking Out Loud…

Let’s start with form. If nothing else, print forced form onto our ideas of what a media product might be. Print took a certain form – a magazine was bound words on paper, a newspaper, folded newsprint. This form gave readers a consistent and understandable product  – it began with the cover or front page, it ended, well, at the last page. It started, it had a middle, it had an end. A well-executed print product was complete – a formed object – something that most online publications and apps, with some notable exceptions, seem never to be.

Now before you scream that the whole point of online is the stream – the ceaseless cascade of always updated stories – I want to question whether “the stream” is really a satisfying form for providing what great media should deliver – namely voice and point of view. I would argue it is not, and our obsession with producing as many stories as possible (directly correlated to two decades of pageview-driven business models) has denatured the media landscape, rewarding an approach that turns us all into hummingbirds, frantically dipping our information-seeking beaks into endless waving fields of sugary snacks.

I, for one, want a return to form in media. I want to sit down for a meal every so often, and deeply engage with a thoughtful product that stops time, and makes sense of a subject that matters to me. A product that, by its form, pre-supposes editorial choices having been made – this story is important, it matters to you so we’ve included it, and we’ve interpreted it with our own voice and point of view. Those editorial choices are crucial – they turn a publication into a truly iconic brand.*

Closely tied to the concept of form (and antithetical to the stream) is another element of print we’ve mostly discarded – the edition. Printed magazines and newspapers are published on a predictable episodic timeline – that’s why we call them periodicals. They cut time and space into chunked experiences, indeed, they stop time and declare “Over the past (day, week, month), this is what matters in the context of our brand.”

I’ve noticed a few interesting experiments in edition-driven media lately – Yahoo News Digest, Circa, and email newsletters (hello ReDEF!) most notably. But I think we could do a lot better. When the iPad came out, powerful media outlets like NewsCorp failed spectacularly with edition-driven media like The Daily. And the online world gloated – “old” media had failed, because it had simply ported old approaches to a new medium. I think that’s wrong. The Daily likely failed for many reasons, but perhaps the most important  was its reliance on being an paid app in a limited (early iOS) ecosystem. As I’ve said to many folks, I think we’re very close to breaking free of the limits imposed by a closed, app-driven world. It’s never been easier to create an excellent app-based “wrapper” for your media product. What matters now is what that product stands for, and whether you can earn the repeated engagement of a core community.

Which takes me to two critical and quite related features of “print” – engagement and brand. I like to say that reading a great magazine or watching a great show is like taking a bath, you soak it in, you commit to it, you steep yourself in it. When good media takes a bounded form, and comes once in a period of time, it begs to be consumed as a whole – it creates an engaging experience. We don’t dip in and out of an episode of Game of Thrones, after all – we take it in as a whole. Why have we abandoned this concept when it comes to publications, simply because they exist online?

The experience that a publication creates for its audience is the very essence of that publication’s brand – and without deep engagement, that publication’s brand will be weak. A good publication is a convener and an arbiter – it expresses a core narrative that becomes a badge of sorts for its readership. I’m not saying you can’t create a great branded publication online – certainly there are plenty of examples. At FM, we helped hundreds through launch and maturity – but those were websites, which as I said before, are declining as forms due to social, mobile and search. But every brand needs a promise – and that promise is lost if there’s no narrative to the media one experiences.

Our current landscape, driven as it is by sharing platforms and mobile use cases, rewards the story far more than the publication. Back and forth, back and forth we go, dipping from The Awl to Techcrunch, Mashable to Buzzfeed. Playing that game might garner pageviews, but pageviews alone do not a great media brand make. Only a consistent, ongoing, deep experience can make a lasting media brand, one that has a commitment from a core community, and the respect of a larger reading public. If the only way that public can show respect is a Facebook Like or a Twitter retweet, we’re well and truly screwed.

Reflecting on all of this, it strikes me that there’s an opportunity to create a new kind of media, one that prospers as much for what it leaves out as for what it decides to keep in. Because to even consider the concepts of “in” and “out” you need a episodic container – a form. Early in the Internet’s evolution (and I think it’s safe to say, two decades in, that we’re past the “early” stage), it made sense to explore the boundless possibilities of formless media. And while most media companies have been disappointed with “apps,” remember, it’s early, and that ecosystem is still nascent. We’re 20+ years into the Internet, but barely half a decade into apps. The next stage will be a mixture of the link economy of the original web with the format of the app. And with that mixture comes opportunity.

But as we consider the future of media, and before we abandon print to the pages of history, we should recall that it has much to teach us. As we move into an era where media can exist on any given piece of glass, we should keep in mind print’s lessons of form, editions, and brand. They’ll serve us well.

NB: Writing this made me realize there are many topics I had to leave out – longer ramblings on the link economy, on how the stream and “formed” media can and should co-exist, on the role of platforms (and whether they should be “owned” at all), on the role of data and personalization, on why I believe we’re close to a place where apps no longer rule the metaphorical roost in mobile, and more. As summer settles in, I hope to have time to do more thinking out loud on these topics…..

*I’ve noticed a few publications starting to do this, whether it’s the experiments over at Medium (with Matter, for example, or the hiring of Levy to focus tech coverage), or The Atlantic’s excellent Quartz. 

 

Search and Apps – Give Consumers Back Their Links

By -

I’ve railed against the “chicletized” world of apps for years. I’ve never been a fan of the way mobile has evolved, with dozens, if not hundreds, of segregated little “chiclets” of stovepiped apps, none of which speak to each other, all without any universal platform to unite them save the virtual walled garden of Apple or Google’s app store and OS platform.

Of the two, Google has been the most open to the “webification” of apps, encouraging deep links and building connective tissue between apps and actions into its Android OS. Given Google’s roots in the link-driven HTML web, this is of course not surprising.

Last week’s I/O included news that Google is now actively encouraging developer’s use of deep links in apps. This is a very important next step. Watch this space.

I’ll have more to write on this soon, but my takeaway is this: 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.