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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.

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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

 

Metaservices FTW!

By - March 07, 2016

Chiclets

Way back when — well, a few years back anyway— I wrote a series of posts around the idea of “metaservices.” As I mused, I engaged in a bit of derision around the current state (at that point) of the mobile ecosystem, calling it “chiclet-ized” — silos of useful data without a true Internet between them. You know, like individually wrapped cubes of shiny, colored gum that you had to chew one at a time.

I suggested that we needed a connective layer between all those chiclets, letting information flow between all those amazing services.

It’s happening. First, with deep linking, which has successfully integrated the apps, the mobile OS via notification layer, email, and the broader mobile and desktop web. And now with an emerging, multi-tasking layer of user command and control based on the simplest of interfaces: Text.

Check out Prompt, which TechCrunch aptly called “a command line for the real world.” Prompt is about two things. First, integrations with useful mobile services — the chiclets. And second, a simple, social, text-like interface that allows us to get shit done. Text Uber, get a car. Text Nest, turn your thermostat down. Text Google, get a search result. Text Facebook, post a status update. Text any smart service, get shit done.

Bots are at the center of this interface — simple, rules-based bots that take our commands, execute them, and tell us of the result. It’s not rocket science, and that’s kind of the point.

It’s great. It’s right. It’s going to work — but only if we remember the other side of the coin. Links should go both ways, after all. If Prompt and others like it want to win, they have to become a clearing house for both data going out — our commands — as well as data coming in. It’s one thing to tell our bots and services what to do. It’s another to allow them to talk to each other, and to instrument a platform that gives us control of how they might combine. Once we light that candle, the Internet will shift to another level entirely.

Should a Company Have a Soul?

By - February 14, 2016

Much of the Republican debates have been expendable theatrics, but I watched this weekend’s follies from South Carolina anyway. And one thing has struck me: The ads are starting to get better.

This season’s debates have had the highest ratings of any recent Presidential race, and they’re attracting some serious corporate sponsorship. One spot in particular caught my eye:

This ad looks like a lot of others I’ve noticed coming out of large companies these days — dramatic, driving music, compelling fast frame visuals, an overarching sense that something important and world changing is going on.

The spot has one purpose: To make us wonder if a business can be alive. Here’s the ad copy:

Can a business have a mind?
A subconscious.
A power to store every experience, and call upon it through something called intuition.
Can a company have reflexes.
A nervous system.
The ability to react, precisely and correctly, faster than the speed of thought.
Can an enterprise have a sixth sense. A knack for predicting the future.
Can a business have a spirit?
Can a business have a soul?
Can a business be…alive?
THE ANSWER IS SIMPLE. THE ANSWER IS SAP HANA

Given our cultural fascination with evil, AI-driven corporations, I have to wonder how stuff like this gets through any big company’s Fear of Looking Scary filters, right? I mean, does the agency not watch Mr. Robot?

But somehow the spot resonates — if you work in a large company, don’t you want that company to be … alive? Don’t you want it to be fast, and smart, and nimble, and … soulful? Don’t you want to be part of something powerful and vibrant?

Clearly, the ad is working for SAP, they’ve been running it for well over a year, and they (or their agency) felt it was appropriate for the 13+ million folks watching the Republican debates on Saturday night. The ad leaves a pretty clear premise for the viewer: If you want your company to be alive, install our software!

But it begs a larger question: what is the role of corporations in our society going forward, if we’ve begun to accept that they are in fact alive? (And have the rights of people, to boot!)

I’d be curious if folks out there are buying this whole narrative. What do you think?

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

By - February 03, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On Medium, Facebook, and the Graph Conflict

By - January 21, 2016

I double took upon arriving at Medium just now, fingers flexed to write about semi-private data and hotel rooms (trust me, it’s gonna be great).

But upon my arrival, I was greeted thusly:

Screen Shot 2016-01-21 at 9.13.43 PM

Now, I have no categorical beef with Facebook, I understand the value of its network as much as the next publisher. But it always struck me that Medium was forging a third way — it’s not a blogging platform, quite, at least as we used to understand them. And it’s not a social network, though it has a social feel. It’s something … of itself, and that’s a good thing.

So when I saw that prompt, my shoulders sagged a bit. And I may have let a bit more air than usual out of my nose. Then I hit the little “X” in the right hand corner of the prompt, and prepared to write. (No, really! Think about what the Internet of Things will do to hotel anthropology! The data! The renegotiation of a sacred social compact!)

But then something tugged at me. Wait, I thought. Did Medium really just ask me to connect my identity in Medium, to … Facebook?

No, I countered. More likely they are just testing it out, seeing the uptake, learning. I’d certainly do the same.

I decided to test my theory by logging on with another identity, that of NewCo, which is experimenting with the platform as a publisher. (Aside: I predicted this will be a breakout year for Medium, and I’m a unabashed fan of this place). Surely if this was a test, I wouldn’t see the same prompt as I had previously, when I logged on as “John Battelle.”

But alas, and indeed, the same Facebook prompt appeared under my NewCo identity. Unless I got extremely lucky (in terms of odds, anyway), this doesn’t appear to be a test.

When I first logged on to Medium (and most likely, when you first logged on as well), it asked me to connect to Twitter. That’s how I got my first 18K or so “followers” on Medium — they were all the people both on Twitter and on Medium — and I accepted that deal. Medium also auto-followed anyone on Medium that I also followed on Twitter. OK, cool. Gas, meet carburetor.

Now as has been discussed to the point of amnesia, Twitter employs a public follow model, and at its core is driven by a publicly declared interest graph.

Facebook, on the other hand, is driven by the perception of a private friend graph. I say “perception” because I think the newsfeed (and therefore the lion’s share of the Facebook experience) has morphed (evolved? mutated?) into something else entirely — it’s very clearly now a cross breed of true friends and family with … well, whatever the Like button has come to mean, as well as the new follower model the company has created for public figures and brands. Oh, plus about a hundred (a thousand? we don’t know) other things that are part of a rather murky (but still, well intentioned!) secret sauce.

But I digress. The point is, someone is trying to put their fish sticks in my chocolate, and I’m not sure I like it. I wonder if the sign up process now has an option to create your Medium account purely by connecting to Facebook? Hang on a minute…..(creates icognito tab…fires up medium.com…oh wait…huh…) it’s been two years, you can choose Twitter, Facebook, or Google.

 Screen Shot 2016-01-21 at 9.08.55 PM

Jeez. Which means that there are neighborhoods here in Medium — those who logged in with Twitter, and those who logged in with Facebook (I bet the Google option is a still a pretty small zip code — but interesting!).

Is there a “Facebook Medium”? Who out there is reading and connected via Facebook? What’s the experience like? Anyone connected BOTH Facebook and Twitter? Or…all three?!

Please, do enlighten me. We must co-create an ethnography of the place!

And wait! If you want more folks to join this conversation, please RT this. Or Like It On Facebook. You know, hit the, um, Social Action Button. Yes, I’ve never asked that here before. But … I did in my cross post on Medium so…

Business, Meet Mission: With His Final #SOTU, Obama Reframed The Climate Debate

By - January 13, 2016

2011_State_of_the_Union

President Obama’s final State of the Union address is currently trending on Medium, which is pretty much what you might expect given Medium is where the White House decided to release it (take that, Facebook! — though a piece about building Instagram has about twice as many recommendations, but I digress…).

I watched the speech last night while at a company retreat with 18 of my colleagues from NewCo. Over and over, the President hit on trends consistent with our thesis of fundamental change in business and culture. For example, he spoke of decoupling benefits such as healthcare from employers, because in the NewCo era, people move between jobs a lot more (or are self employed, or want to leap into a startup). Obama spoke of living in a time of extraordinary technological and social change, of a deepening and troubling social inequality, of optimism and hard work and a right to thrive in “this new economy.”

But what really got my attention was when he addressed innovation and coupled it to climate change, about halfway through his speech.

“We’ve protected an open internet,” he said, “We’ve launched next-generation manufacturing hubs, and online tools that give an entrepreneur everything he or she needs to start a business in a single day.”

A very NewCo sentiment. But then he turned his focus squarely on climate change, which I believe will be the defining issue of both business and culture over the next 40 years. First, he set up those who would deny that climate change is real (pretty much the entire Republican establishment). Making a direct reference to the era of Mutually Assured Destruction — which until climate change marked the only time mankind created an existential threat to humanity — Obama ridiculed climate deniers:

“When the Russians beat us into space, we didn’t deny Sputnik was up there. We didn’t argue about the science, or shrink our research and development budget. We built a space program almost overnight, and twelve years later, we were walking on the moon.”

Jabbing further, Obama continued:

“Look, if anybody still wants to dispute the science around climate change, have at it. You’ll be pretty lonely, because you’ll be debating our military, most of America’s business leaders, the majority of the American people, almost the entire scientific community, and 200 nations around the world who agree it’s a problem and intend to solve it.”

And then he landed a devastating left hook (the President is left handed, after all):

“But even if the planet wasn’t at stake; even if 2014 wasn’t the warmest year on record — until 2015 turned out even hotter — why would we want to pass up the chance for American businesses to produce and sell the energy of the future?”

BAM! Nothing like turning the single biggest threat to humanity into a massive business opportunity with one rhetorical flourish! It was almost laughable to watch the gallery respond to that one, as the Democrats applauded thunderously, and the climate-denying right wing struggled to figure out if they just missed something important.

Because, truth is, they are missing out. If the United States doesn’t lead in the transition to a business culture that values sustainability, clean energy, and a work ethos that views people not as replaceable “human resources” but rather as invaluable creative assets, well, the rest of the world will lap us within a generation.

In my travels to NewCo festivals in Barcelona, Amsterdam, Istanbul, London, and soon Mexico City, I’ve seen the future, and it couldn’t care less about our internal debate about climate change, sustainability, and work culture. The future’s already happening. We can either lead, or get pushed out of the way. What excited me about last night is that for the first time, I heard a sitting President say exactly that. And once again, it gave me hope.

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Mobile Gets a Back Button

By - January 12, 2016

Screen Shot 2016-01-12 at 6.32.45 PMI just opened an email on my phone. It was from a fellow I don’t know, inviting me to an event I’d never heard of. Intrigued, I clicked on the fellow’s LinkedIn, which was part of his email signature.

That link opened the LinkedIn app on my phone. In the fellow’s LI feed was another link, this one to a tweet he had mentioned in his feed. The tweet happened to be from a person I know, so I clicked on it, and the Twitter app opened on my phone. I read the tweet, then pressed the back button and….

Wait, the WHAT? The back button? But…back buttons only exist in a Browser, on the PC Web, right?

Yes, that used to be true, but finally, after years of chicletized, silo’d apps that refuse to talk to one another, finally, the chocolate is meeting the peanut butter. The mobile operating sysem — well, Android anyway — is finally acting like a big-ass web browser, only better — with sensors, location data, and other contextual awareness.

It doesn’t happen a lot, but thanks to deep linking and the inevitable need of commerce to connect and convert, it’s happening more and more, and it represents the future of mobile. The chocolaty goodness of the linked web is merging with the peanut-buttery awesomeness of mobile devices.

It’s about time.

Dear Microsoft. I Want To Use Office 365. But…

By - January 06, 2016

Here’s what I encountered when I, as a first time ever user, was directed to a document that lived in Office 365 World:
Screen Shot 2016-01-06 at 12.08.38 PM

Holy crap, Microsoft! I just wanted to read the document a colleague at another (much larger, older, and traditional) company had sent me.

When this happens with Google, well, most of us have a Google account, so the link would redirect to this:

 Screen Shot 2016-01-06 at 12.12.47 PM

Pretty easy, and even if you don’t have a Google account, you see this:

 create google

Better, but still not great.

So I wondered what it’s like at, say, DropBox.

Screen Shot 2016-01-06 at 12.10.05 PM

Ah, yes. That’s the ticket.

Microsoft, you have a lot to learn about living on the web.