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Neal Stephenson on Important Work

By - December 12, 2011

(image) An interesting interview in the NYT  I missed from last week, with noted author Neal Stephenson. In it, he riffs on something that’s been bugging me as I work on the book. Asked about “the future of computing,” he responds:

“I’ll tell you what I’d like to see happen,” he said, and began discussing what the future was supposed to have looked like, back in his 1960s childhood. He ticked off the tropes of what he called “techno-optimistic science fiction,” including flying cars and jetpacks. And then computers went from being things that filled a room to things that could fit on a desk, and the economy and industries changed. “The kinds of super-bright, hardworking geeky people who, 50 years ago, would have been building moon rockets or hydrogen bombs or what have you have ended up working in the computer industry, doing jobs that in many cases seem kind of ignominious by comparison.”

Again, a beat. A consideration, perhaps, that he is talking about the core readership for his best sellers. No matter. He’s rolling. He presses on.

“What I’m kind of hoping is that this is just kind of a pause, while we assimilate this gigantic new thing, ubiquitous computing and the Internet. And that at some point we’ll turn around and say, ‘Well, that was interesting — we have a whole set of new tools and capabilities that we didn’t have before the whole computer/Internet thing came along.’ ”

He said people should say, “Now let’s get back to work doing interesting and useful things.”

I know that many of us in the Internet industry believe we are working on things that are changing the world. But it’s worth asking ourselves if honestly that’s true. We’ve got some really big problems to attack, and we need the best minds of our generation on them.

Stephenson’s thoughts are elucidated in more detail in a piece he wrote for World Policy here.

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Instrumenting People Into Location Services

By - December 08, 2011

So this week a well known VC made the trek to my writing retreat in Marin, and we hung out in a room that until this year was a large storage closet behind my garage. I rethought the space, soundproofed it, added a hodge-podge of AV gear and musical instruments, and named the place the “Ross Social Club”  - on Foursquare, anyway. I haven’t really told anyone that I gave the place a name, but it was sort of an experiment – would anyone ever check in there besides me?

Now I chose that name for various reasons I won’t get into here (another story, one I’ll be glad to tell you over a bourbon). But I like being able to name a space on Foursquare, and it’s become a habit for me to “check in” whenever I actually use the room. It’s like  leaving a digital breadcrumb for me, a record of my new relationship to music (I’m learning to play the drums). A lot of friends hang out there too, often playing their own instruments or riffing on the whiteboards I’ve hung about the place. But  I don’t make it a habit to mention the room’s Foursquare doppelganger. It seems a bit … forced. And as far as I know, many of them don’t use the service.

On the same day I created the RSC on Foursquare (and probably because he asked me what I was doing on my phone), one fellow did check in. With some whimsy, he added a tip: “Try the wings.” It’d make you laugh if you’ve ever been there, trust me. Since then, in the past nine months, countless folks have been through the place, but only one other person has checked in.

Anyway, yesterday this well-known VC came by, and we met in the RSC mainly because it was too loud in my home office (construction going on outside). And as he walked in and sat, he put his iPhone down on a nearby table, as did I. I thought about asking him to check in, but….then I forgot. We spoke for an hour or so, reviewing all manner of things in our industry, discussed our business, and on his way he went.

Then I thought to myself – hey, he should have checked into that space. Then there’d be a record of his visit, and that’d be cool. Kind of like a guestbook of sorts.

But…I don’t even know if the fellow uses Foursquare. And he of course had no idea that the Ross Social Club was “lit up” on the service. And I wasn’t sure mentioning it to him wasn’t, well, kind of dorky.

You see all those social instrumentation and nuance problems I’m having?

Anyway, here’s a thought on one way to add just one wrinkle of nuance to location services. While I’m sure at some point in our collective future the concept of a “place” being digitally “alive” and communicable will be commonplace, at the moment, it’s rare and noteworthy.

As a transition between the two, I’d love a feature on Foursquare (or any other location service, er…say Google, or Facebook, or Twitter…) that allows me to send someone who I’ve been with somewhere (like the VC) an invitation to check in post facto. It’d kind of be like saying “Hey, send your phone over to my house. I’ll check you into the Ross Social Club.” The idea is, he didn’t know he could check in (and I forgot to tell him about it), but I can vouch for his presence there. He should get credit on Foursquare for being there (and the great Database of Intentions would get another bit of data), but he’s back in San Francisco now, so there’s no way for him to check in. But if he “sent his phone over” to me, I could do it for him.

Of course he wouldn’t actually send his phone over, the service would verify me as trustworthy and let me check the VC in on his behalf. But it’d add a rare human element to the service, and I for one would see many uses for it. If nothing else, it’d drive more interaction between people around the platform, and isn’t that what we all want anyway?

Just a random thought. OK, on with work…

“We need some angry nerds”

By - November 30, 2011

Jonathan Zittrain has an important op ed up on Harvard’s site, and I hope all of you will go read it. It sums up many of the points that I hit as I write here at Searchblog, and that will enliven my next book What We Hath Wrought. Key points:

Rising numbers of mobile, lightweight, cloud-centric devices don’t merely represent a change in form factor. Rather, we’re seeing an unprecedented shift of power from end users and software developers on the one hand, to operating system vendors on the other—and even those who keep their PCs are being swept along. This is a little for the better, and much for the worse…..

…in 2008, Apple announced a software development kit for the iPhone. Third-party developers would be welcome to write software for the phone, in just the way they’d done for years with Windows and Mac OS. With one epic exception: users could install software on a phone only if it was offered through Apple’s iPhone App Store. Developers were to be accredited by Apple, and then each individual app was to be vetted, at first under standards that could be inferred only through what made it through and what didn’t. For example, apps that emulated or even improved on Apple’s own apps weren’t allowed.

The original sin behind the Microsoft case was made much worse. The issue wasn’t whether it would be possible to buy an iPhone without Apple’s Safari browser. It was that no other browser would be permitted…

….Developers can’t duplicate functionality already on offer in the Store. They can’t license their work as Free Software, because those license terms conflict with Apple’s.

The content restrictions are unexplored territory. At the height of Windows’s market dominance, Microsoft had no role in determining what software would and wouldn’t run on its machines, much less whether the content inside that software was to be allowed to see the light of screen…

…tech companies are in the business of approving, one by one, the text, images, and sounds that we are permitted to find and experience on our most common portals to the networked world. Why would we possibly want this to be how the world of ideas works, and why would we think that merely having competing tech companies—each of which is empowered to censor—solves the problem?

This is especially troubling as governments have come to realize that this framework makes their own censorship vastly easier…

…A flowering of innovation and communication was ignited by the rise of the PC and the Web and their generative characteristics. Software was installed one machine at a time, a relationship among myriad software makers and users. Sites could appear anywhere on the Web, a relationship among myriad webmasters and surfers. Now activity is clumping around a handful of portals: two or three OS makers that are in a position to manage all apps (and content within them) in an ongoing way….

….If we allow ourselves to be lulled into satisfaction with walled gardens, we’ll miss out on innovations to which the gardeners object, and we’ll set ourselves up for censorship of code and content that was previously impossible. We need some angry nerds.

I’m not a nerd, quite, but I’m sure angry.

Top Searches of 2011 Start Coming In, and They Remain Vapid

By - November 28, 2011

Bing released its top searches of the year today, continuing the trend of presuming the year ends before December begins (watch for Yahoo and Google’s lists in the next week or so). Once again, the data is utterly uninspiring and shallow. I mean, did we really not know that the US is fascinated with celebrities and iPhones?

This is becoming something of a trope for me, but given all the data to which search giants like Microsoft and Google have access, I’d love to see some real data science being applied – find us the conceptual scoops, the insights, the second and third order trends. Is that too much to ask?

The Problem and the Opportunity Of Mobile Advertising

By - November 18, 2011

I hate to pick on the good folks at TextPlus, because I like the service (and my kids do too). But my family recently had an experience that reminded me how stunted the advertising ecosystem remains in the (relatively) new world of apps.

Quite serendipitously, after that experience I had the pleasure of meeting the CEO of Gogii, the company behind TextPlus. More on what I learned from him in a moment. But first, to the problem.

TextPlus is a star in what I’ve come to call “AppWorld,” that Jobsian funhouse mirror universe of apps (TextPlus also on Android, where I’m told it’s growing faster than in iOS). Parent company Gogii is backed by Very Serious Venture Capitalists like Kleiner Perkins and Matrix Partners. Clearly, this is a horse that smart money is backing.

But smart money cannot an ecosystem fix – at least not so far. With some notable exceptions, the mobile advertising ecosystem has been pretty broken. A few reasons why:

1. Every app maker I have spoken to tells me that they mostly rely on third party ad networks. They then complain that those networks “don’t understand our business” and are not aligned with their core interests. These networks provide limited visibility into future revenues, and the ads they deliver are rarely if ever targeted well.

2. These third party ad networks sometimes pay well, but most of the time, they pay very poorly. If an app is going to make it, they have to depend on Apple’s iTunes store and iAds (which brings with it its own set of gordian policy and business strategy issues) or on their own sales force, which is difficult, as most apps don’t have the scale to build and execute salable ad products.

3. Bad actors and practices often creep into how networks execute campaigns on third party apps.

Which brings me to my experience with TextPlus.

I recently helped my daughter set up her TextPlus account. We downloaded and configured the free version (you can buy an ad-free version for a few bucks, more on that later). After about three minutes, my daughter was happily texting my mobile number. It was a cool experience – my daughter doesn’t have a “real phone” yet, but now she can text me just like her older siblings. She proudly held her iPod Touch up to show me her latest text, then asked me why my phone number didn’t have a name like “Dad.” I thought about it for a second and realized she hadn’t set up any Apple contacts yet. So I opened the Contacts app, put myself in there, and reloaded TextPlus. Sure enough, there was “Dad” in the text stream. My daughter was radiant.

As I was about to hand the iPod back to her, however, the entire screen was taken over by an ad for Cadillac. That was bad enough, but to make matters worse, I couldn’t figure out a way to make the ad go away. I had to wait for 15 seconds or so, till the ad cleared. The moment of delight between my daughter and I was ruined (my unscripted burst of expletives probably didn’t help).

In those 15 seconds, my opinion of both Cadillac and TextPlus dropped precipitously. It wasn’t the actual ad – the creative was pretty good in fact (the image at left is not what I saw, but I didn’t manage to get a screengrab). What angered me was the interruption and the lack of fit – why on earth would Cadillac push an ad to a girl who couldn’t even drive yet?  Given I am pretty deep in this industry and aware of the points I made above, I figured it was entirely possible that both Gogii and Cadillac had no idea this experience was happening to me.

Turns out, I was right. And therein lies one of the big problems (and opportunities) in the mobile advertising world.

Rather than bang out a post about how terrible my experience was (I was tempted), I lobbed a call into Gogii to ask if perhaps the ad was a mistake. Over the years at FM, I have had enough experience with similar issues in the HTML web to know it was certainly possible. As it happened, the CEO of Gogii (based in LA), was in San Francisco the next day. We set a meeting.

Scott Lahman is a mobile and gaming veteran, having held senior positions at Activision, EA, JamDat, and now as founder of Gogii. He came by the FM offices and within a few minutes we cleared up the Cadillac ad question – a third party network had “snuck” the ad past TextPlus’s filters. Lahman hates when that happens, but … it happens. He was aware of it (other customers had complained) and he had already addressed the problem.

With that settled, we could dig into the bigger issues of the mobile advertising landscape, from the point of view of a Serious App Maker like Gogii. Gogii has more than 25 million downloads, a very engaged and attractive base of customers (millions of teens), and has begun to build out a content driven social element to its service. It also has some big things planned that I’m not allowed to talk about yet.

While Gogii sells an ad-free version of its app, its future is deeply tied to advertising. This initially seems counter intuitive given you can buy your way out of ads on TextPlus for a few bucks – for life. That’s a pretty low estimate of the lifetime value of a customer. Clearly, something else is going on. At the moment, Gogii has one product that it sells at a premium – essentially a home page skin – but it makes the rest of its revenue from the networks.

Given all that, I wondered how Lanham felt about the three points I made earlier in this piece.

In short, Lanham told me, the mobile advertising industry is about five years behind the HTML web in just about every way. Which is interesting when you think about what was going on in web advertising back in 2006.

Back then, FM was one years old, but our model was gathering steam. Successful websites (the TextPluses of the world) were growing like crazy, but struggling with poor ad network revenue streams. There was a glut of inventory in both traditional media sites as well as “the Independent Web” – sites like Boing Boing, Dooce, NotCot, etc. – but there was no scaleable way to bring truly engaged marketing into the picture. Of course, since then the FM model and many like it have evolved to bring real revenue and relationships to the ecosystem. We’re not where we want to be, of course, but we’ve come a long way.

But at the same time as this progress was beginning, that same glut of inventory was feeding a new set of players – the second-generation ad networks. It was about five years ago that those networks were snapped up in a frenzy of M&A. AOL already had purchased Advertising.com. Google bought DoubleClick (and its nascent exchange business). Yahoo bought Right Media. Microsoft bought AdECN. There was a lot of froth in the marketplace, as the major players realized Internet advertising was ripe for consolidation and new business models.

Since then, we’ve seen the rise of exchanges, demand side platforms, and programmatic buying. We’ve also witnessed the attendant response from the publishing world – supply side platforms like Lijit, hand wringing from premium publishers like ESPN, and innovations in ad products like conversation targeting, which can’t be bought on exchanges (at least, not yet.) We’ve seen online advertising split into two large buckets: “Unsold” or remnant inventory, where the networks mainly play, and “premium,” where publishers (or their partners) create more engaging executions that resonate for brands.

Put another way, a lot has happened in the non-mobile web, and it’s all about to happen again, but faster, in the mobile web. There’ll be a lot of consolidation (the firing shots were, of course, AdMob/Google and Quattro/Apple), there’ll be engaging new products (think really new) that scale across federations of quality apps like TextPlus, and there will be new technology solutions that will, more likely than not, be snapped up for prices that don’t seem to make a ton of sense.

Which is all a long way of saying that I think things are about to get far more interesting in mobile advertising, in particular for apps that comprise “the Independent Web” of the mobile world. It’s about time. In a future post I hope to delve into some of the architecture, data, and business model issues that will need to be addressed if we really want to see a truly independent world of apps thrive. I for one certainly do.

Government By Numbers: Some Interesting Insights

By - October 28, 2011

As part of the work I’m doing for my book, I’ve been working with my research manager, LeeAnn Prescott, staring at various charts and graphs related to how we’ve funded our “Commons” over the past half century or so. I’ve got a working hypothesis that we are in the process of transitioning very important portions of our “public lives” to private corporations, and that this transfer is related to our adoption of digital technologies and platforms. Examples include identity (from driver’s licenses and SSNs to Visa, MasterCard, Amex, and Facebook), delivery of important information and items (from the Post Office to Telcos, Internet, and FedEx and UPS), and protection (outsourcing both prisons and military jobs to private companies). Not to mention retirement (from Social Security to 401ks, etc.).

Of course, were such a hypothesis true, one might imagine that the over percentage of GDP represented by government workers would have gone *down* over the past few decades. However, as this chart shows, that’s not the case:

If we’re depending on government less and less, as I hypothesize, how on earth could government employees go *up* by ten percent in the past six decades?

Either my hypothesis is wrong, or there are devils in the details. And indeed, as you drill down further, some interesting things start to pop up.

For example, check out this chart of what’s growing in our government, and what’s not:

Aha! Turns out, the Federal Government has actually shrunk by more than half, but we, as a society, have simply moved the burden to State and Local Governments. I wonder how the folks at the Tea Party HQ would respond to this data: They spend an awful lot of time talking about Big Government, but they seem overly focused on the Big Bad Feds. They might take aim at their own backyards instead.

Let’s take a look at some detail:

Ahh….Education. Very interesting. As local governments have taken over the once Federally run education system, payroll there has skyrocketed (has performance? Nope. But that’s another story).

Also interesting to note how dramatically our Military spending has dropped, but, given we’re comparing to Cold War, Korean War and WWII eras, that’s not too surprising.

Now let’s compare Government as a percent of GDP to private Industry. If my hypothesis is to hold water, I’d wager that private industry is taking over more and more of our GDP over time. Is it? Yep.

As one might expect, the numbers show the rise of the services industry, and the decline of manufacturing in our economy. But they also show a rise in percent of GDP by government, due in the main to state and local increases.

Here is more detail by industry on what’s growing and shrinking:

Check out that first item: Financial services has nearly doubled and now leads our nation in terms of contribution to GDP. No wonder 2008 was such a (continuing) disaster.

But it’s clear to me we have an education and healthcare problem on our hands (quite a surprise, eh?). Now, education is, in the main, a government enterprise. Healthcare, not so much (Obama’s plan is in essence private, folks). So the question then becomes, will education make the transition from public to private sector in the digital era, and might Healthcare move the other way? I can imagine an argument for both. I post these charts not to draw conclusions, but to open debate.

One last chart of detai on how our Federal Government spends money:

Huh. Social security has risen a lot. So has Treasury and Health. One might reasonably conclude that 1. Our population is aging, creating the demand for more Social Security services. And the two dominant private industries in our country – finance and health – require significant regulation, hence the rise of Treasury and Health.

But I’m not a government economist, so I’m just guessing. I look forward to interviewing many of them as I dig in. Meantime, I just thought it’d be fun to share these data points with you. Enjoy.

 

 

 

Only Connect: Facebook, From The Eyes of an Old Newbie

By - October 27, 2011

I recently joined Facebook. Have you heard of it?

I know, I know, that sounds crazy, given that I’m “an Internet guy.”  If you search for me on Google, say “John Battelle Facebook,” you see that I am already there, and that I have nearly 5000 “friends.” (The interplay between Google search and Facebook is worthy of an entire treatise, I’ll leave that for later). You’ll see I also have a fan page, which has about 5400 “fans” – I think that’s the terminology, though now I think Facebook has turned those fans to “Likes.”

But as many of you know from reading my past posts on the subject, I’ve been essentially “Facebook bankrupt” for years. The service has never been of much value to me, in the main because I made an early and fatal decision to accept any and all folks who asked to be my friend. (For details on that, see this post: I Blew It On Facebook.)

So this week, as both research for my next book and because I’ve been meaning to do it for more than two years, I re-joined Facebook under a slightly different name. I created a new account from scratch, and I promised myself I’d really curate this one so that it’d be meaningful to me personally.

It’s not turning out to be easy.

I’m sure this process will yield more posts, so consider this the first chapter. What I’ve experienced so far, however, only strengthens my belief that Facebook hasn’t even crawled out of the sea when it comes to understanding the nuances of how people communicate with each other. Sure, it’s an extraordinary service and platform, etc. etc. And I know and respect a ton of people who work there. But it’s a testament to how utterly thirsty we are to connect that Facebook, in five short years, has captured the attention of nearly everyone in the online world.

Because, let’s face it. The initial experience with Facebook is pretty bad, from a social point of view.

Here’s why I feel that way.

First is what I’ll call The Guilt of Not Connecting. When you sign up for the first time, Facebook bludgeons you relentlessly to connect to others. It’s beyond irritating – a newcomer to the system (like me) gets constant reminders to find friends before you even get a page going. And once you do, it continues, like an irritating beep in the background – all over your page. “People you may know” stare out at you on the right side of my page, forlorn, as if to ask “How could you NOT want to be my friend?!” Large ads at the top of my page, replete with beckoning profile pics, ask “Are They Your Friends Too?”

And you know what? These are certainly people I know. But being forced to chose if you care enough about them to add them as friends is an intrusion at this early point. I’m just figuring this thing out, Facebook. There’s gotta be more to it than just adding friends, right? Right?!

The second thing I’ve noticed that feels broken is The Forced Rudeness. When I set up my page, I did add a few friends – mostly family members. I added my wife, my kids (the ones who are on the service), and my Dad, who recently joined. Come to think of it, I think I started this whole process because my Dad joined and tried to “friend” my old account, the bankrupt one. I knew if I accepted his request, his voice would be lost in the cacophony that was my old identity.

I also searched for a few folks who came to mind – really close and true pals of mine. All in all, I think I sent out about ten “friend requests” under my new name (which is pretty much the same as my old name, I just added my middle initial). I’m pleased to report that everyone accepted my request pretty much on day one, which I kind of expected (I would have grounded my daughter if she refused, after all). But as soon as the first few folks added me as a friend, the Facebook friend machine went into overdrive, and all of a sudden, I began to get new friend requests. From people I know. But…not that well.

And here’s where Facebook utterly falls down. Because while I do know these people, and I even like them, I may not want to connect with them right now. I have my reasons as to why, and I’d sure like to explain myself to these folks.

But Facebook doesn’t really enable me to do this. In the email notification, I can’t even say no. It’s either “Confirm” or “See All Requests”, which forces me back to Facebook to manage my next steps. Since I don’t want to connect, I pick the second choice. On the site, I am given the choice of either accepting, or pushing a button that says “not now” or somesuch. I have *no idea* what that rejected friend on the other end of this transaction is told once I hit “not now.” And that’s a big problem – is the person notified that I’ve said no? How? If not, I’d like to know that – and ideally, before I see them in real life. These kind of nuanced signals are pretty much table stakes in a “real” relationship. But on Facebook, you get black or white. And that’s just not good enough.

Unlike with a real email request from a real person (not the service), or a phone call, or a face to face conversation,  there’s no simple way to respond to the friend request with a short note like “Hi (name) – Thanks for reaching out to connect with me. I’m restarting a new Facebook account, and for now, I’m limiting it to family and a very small group of really close pals. As I figure out how to navigate the service, I’ll be sure to add you. For now, I want to make sure I don’t overshare!”

Now, my messaging would change depending on the recipient. That one above might be for a business colleague who found me through my close friendship with someone who also happens to be in my industry. But I’d modify my message for the mother of my son’s high school pal. This is a person I see at school functions from time to time but who, to be utterly honest, isn’t someone with whom I’d otherwise spend much time (or share personal experiences with via an online platform). I’d wager she feels the same way about me (but I don’t know! It’d be nice if Facebook allowed her to explain why she’s friending me, but … it doesn’t!) We like each other, we’re cordial when we see each other, but why is Facebook forcing me to be rude to her by telling her “not now” (if, in fact, she’s even told – which I don’t know!).

This is going to make for a pretty awkward soccer party next month, I can tell you that.

Because, really, that’s what it feels like should I decide not to accept her request. It’s rude. So I am going to go out on a limb here, and say that Facebook seems to be counting on this fact to drive connections. And you know what? That’s a house of cards. It insures a lack of truly honest social instrumentation when it comes to building your “social graph,” and down the line, I’m going to predict that will come back to haunt Facebook, if it hasn’t already.

Now, I know many of you are snickering at this post, because most of these issues have been raised and settled, so to speak, over the past few years. Heck, I’ve even made similar points on this site from time to time. But through the fresh eyes of my recent experience, I sense something far deeper is at work. Most folks only take one run at crafting their digital identity on Facebook. I’d reckon most of us don’t want to spend hours going back to rejigger our “graph” once it’s created. That’d be way too much work.

But that graph is based on a extremely rudimentary set of social rules that break down over time, and will fail to reflect our true selves as we extend our identity online. And as Facebook moves to leverage that identity through the Open Graph to nearly every action we take online, I can’t help but think the brittleness of this system will be exposed. It then becomes a race – between Facebook’s ability to reverse engineer more nuanced social interaction back into its platform (and it is, I can see attempts in the interface already), and some new startup (or, OK, maybe Google) that allows us to do the same with far less work.

Of course, Facebook has what amounts to a “moat” around social platforms due to its network effects – as Sean Parker pointed out in our conversation at Web 2 last week. It’s really hard to leave, because you want to bring your “real friends” with you, and asking them to step over to a new service is too much of an imposition. If they leave, they will want to bring their friends, and now you have a real shampoo problem on your hands.

But I predict that we’re racing headlong into a cultural moment when we realize we need more control and nuance in our lives when it comes to what Facebook currently represents for us (if you think this isn’t related to #occupywallstreet, it is, in a really interesting way. That post is coming). Facebook works really well for folks who are just beginning to define who they are in the world, like my kids, or college kids just learning what it means to be out on their own. But those kids ultimately grow up, and become deeply refined social creatures. The question is, can Facebook?

I’m not sure. The DNA and core driving principles of the company have been set. The entire system seems driven by the maxim “only connect.” I wonder how our culture will interpret the first word of that phrase, and whether Facebook, as it’s set up today, has the capacity to redefine it.

There’s so much more to say, but I’m pushing two thousand words. Best to press “publish,” and hear from you.

A Big Issue: Taking Control of Your Own Identity and Data – Singly Founder Responds

By - October 18, 2011

If there was a theme to Day One at Web 2 Summit, it was this: We have to start taking control of our own identity and data. And this is not just because we might be worried about how the government or large platforms might use our data (though both issues certainly came up in talks with Chris Poole, Senator Ron Wyden, Genevieve Bell, and Sean Parker, among others). But also because of the value and benefits that will accrue to us and to society in a culture that values individual control of data. Problem is, it’s not simple or natural to do so….yet.

This reminded me of a post I did a couple of weeks ago, called I Wish “Tapestry” Existed. It elicited a very thoughtful response from Jason Cavnar, co-founder of the important Lockers Project and Singly, the startup which hopes to drive this trend forward. So for a bit of light reading, go back to that link and peruse my musings, then read this, which Jason was kind enough to write up based on the points I made (in bold) and agree to let me post:

JB: Services don’t communicate with each other; and # of services (apps) we use is skyrocketing
Cavnar: they don’t talk to each other, but what all apps do talk to, is you. You should be the protocol around which those things are built and data flows.

Also important: data doesn’t do us justice. This is about LIFE. Our lives. Or as our colleague Lindsay (@lschutte) says — “your story”. Not data. Data is just a manifestation of the actual life we are leading. Our data (story) should be ours to own, remember, re-use, discover with and share.

JB: Cool idea…but Tapestry would be hard to do b/c of policy, not tech
Cavnar: the technology actually isn’t trivial – most startups are spending 3-6+ months just doing data aggregation and cleaning — creating common reference points between data sets; (we have talked to 3 dozen + startups about this including sophisticated folks like the people down at SRI). More important than data reclamation and organization would be: how it gets stored; where it gets stored; who do you trust to hold onto it; ensuring the format “operable” (can developers do things with that data?) no matter where it lives; etc. The Locker Project (a placeholder name) is a community that will make sure the data structure gets figured out — the standards for “me” data. Singly is going to be the storage and access brand that you trust to store and empower you with your digital life.

JB: Tapestry = snapshot of what Dr. J is up to; Dr. J doesn’t use social services b/c value doesn’t exceed time invested
Cavnar: the point about Dr. J using those services more if Tapesty existed is very true and interesting — I wish more people recognized that; Also cool: if Dr. J were assured permanence of the data he is creating, he would likely create more liberally.

JB: I have only 5 social platforms
Cavnar: a ton of the data we create as individuals doesn’t take place on those 5 platforms first. The growth of apps is outpacing the growth of those platforms. Ex: most of my photos on Facebook are now originating from Instagram. My listening on Rdio/Spotify. My location data takes place at the service provider level (ATT, Verizon) first. Health Data…Car data…purchase data, etc.

What I really hear you asking are these questions:

Where do we combine and take with us all of our data?
Where is our data home? (a phrase coined by @mdzimm)
What will be our data address?
Shouldn’t that address be mine?
How is that related to our identity?
Shouldn’t the life I lead wind up with all of it’s memories stored in my home?
Shouldn’t someone provide me with home security?
Who is watching the kids when they are home alone and someone (app) wants to borrow milk (data)?
Does the proverbial USPS decide who I am? Or do they just ensure I can be found and send/receive?

JB: An option = pour all of this into Facebook
Cavnar: the problem is not just that it isn’t under your control, but that a 3rd party with interests other than solely and objectively empowering us then dictates how that data is structured and re-used, if at all. Should we, as a society, around such an important issue (our lives), trust a single company to decide / perform those functions? We haven’t, as a society, decided to all live within the same planned communities, home models and use the same interior decorators.

Tapestry can only be built if Facebook decides to enable them to develop it’s own feel/look/value. And you’d only be able to instrument Tapestry to you to the degree that Facebook decided. IE: not developers and not the end user. No home remodeling allowed. Facebook wants to empower developers and is grappling with how to create a win-win for developers and FB. As an industry, we’re at a point where we need to start thinking about win-win-wins (companies with data, developers and you/me/us). Your Tapestry example is one of thousands.

JB: If Tapestry gains traction, I’m worried Facebook would ban it
Cavnar: A few thoughts:

1) Facebook has actually expressed (including this year at f8) their conviction that people own their data. (Mark Zuckerberg’s blog post). John Doerr at KPCB (a Facebook investor) reiterates this belief (37:20) Facebook allows people to download their data from them because of this belief, and their TOS is a license of your data. And there will be more solutions they can offer people coming into play that will let them live out this belief even more elegantly.

2) Ecosystems win: Given that Dr. J, and a lot of other people don’t use Facebook zealously, would Tapestry suffer without Facebook as an experience? And if Tapestry took off, or Dr. J uses Facebook more because of Tapestry, won’t it behoove Facebook to be a part of that experience rather than absent from it?

3) Empowerment wins: once each of us have a digital home, and Tapestry is built on top of that data, along with a whole world of useful, personalized apps, this worry fades. What Jeremie experienced with Jabber is not dissimilar. Utility and empowering people to do more, connect more, etc will win the day and I don’t see Facebook ignoring the AOL history lesson, especially after they go public. Their leadership is sharp.

4) Inalienable rights win: I refuse to believe we are at a point in history where it is a forgone conclusion that people aren’t fundamentally entitled to the data they create. At the foundation of our country’s heritage is the Lockean notion of “Lives, Liberties and Property which Men have in their Persons as well as Goods”. In a worse case scenario, this issue goes to Washington. The folks there are deeply aware of people’s rights in this space. Look no further than Aneesh Chopra and Danny Weitzner and you find people who truly “get it”. Not just on a policy level but an innovation/economic opportunity/systemic problem-solution level.

5) We’re in this together: the leaders of our industry are decent people. We innovate because we care about people’s stories. And making the world better through technology. We are all part of a narrative far greater than those spelled out in Terms of Service. Not only has Facebook said people own their data, but of course Google is starting to make that easier (Takeout) and Dick Costolo tonight reaffirmed Twitter’s core belief that people should have a copy of their Tweets and it’s simply a matter of time to get the history off disk.

6) Innovation wins: Nobody in the business of innovation and human advancement/potential would argue that innovation takes place at the edge of the network. Closest to people. From mainframes to PCs. From landlines to smartphones. The closer to people that you put information, processes (apps), and power (tech), the more creative and economically productive we get. It’s that simple. We need our data. Closest to us. Apps, running on that data. Building Tapestry shouldn’t be hard. Tapestry existing makes the world a better place. Again, Terms of Service cannot argue with that narrative.

What’s Next:
Let’s suspend belief for a minute that we all got a digital home. What we then need is:

- a standard way to organize our data (this is why Singly is open source – so structure isn’t a point of control)

- a place to store all of our data (a home) that we trust and who is aligned to protect us, not use our data for other means. This doesnt have to be a single company, by any means.

- a medium you trust through which you can transmit the data

- a platform that can “address” your data home and mine all the same no matter where we choose to host it, so that Tapestry can have both of us as users and neither of us have to be locked into a single storage choice. Don’t trust Apple anymore? Cool, go to Singly. Don’t trust Singly? Go host your Data on your home server. Etc.

- a rich developer ecosystem adding value time and time again both to the underlying core software, as well as at the application layer.

I Wish "Tapestry" Existed

By - October 07, 2011

tapestry03lg.jpeg

(image) Early this year I wrote File Under: Metaservices, The Rise Of, in which I described a problem that has burdened the web forever, but to my mind is getting worse and worse. The crux:

“…heavy users of the web depend on scores – sometimes hundreds – of services, all of which work wonderfully for their particular purpose (eBay for auctions, Google for search, OpenTable for restaurant reservations, etc). But these services simply don’t communicate with each other, nor collaborate in a fashion that creates a robust or evolving ecosystem.”

I noted that the rise of AppWorld only exacerbates the problem (apps rarely talk to each other or share data).

This must change. Not due to my philosophical problems with a closed web (though I do have that problem) but because yesterday, while driving back from an afternoon in the Valley, I had an idea for a new service, which for now I’ll call Tapestry, for lack of a better name. And then I got depressed: I figured making such a service would be really, really hard to do. And it shouldn’t be. And I hate getting depressed so quickly after having a fun idea.

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Me, On The Book And More

By - October 06, 2011

Thanks to Brian Solis for taking the time to sit down with me and talk both specifically about my upcoming book, as well as many general topics.