free html hit counter Joints After Midnight & Rants Archives - Page 14 of 43 - John Battelle's Search Blog

The Future of The Internet (And How to Stop It) – A Dialog with Jonathan Zittrain Updating His 2008 Book

By - August 06, 2011

segment_9081_460x345.jpeg

(image charlie rose) As I prepare for writing my next book (#WWHW), I’ve been reading a lot. You’ve seen my review of The Information, and In the Plex, and The Next 100 Years. I’ve been reading more than that, but those made it to a post so far.

I’m almost done with Sherry Turkle’s Alone Together, with which I have an itch to quibble, not to mention some fiction that I think is informing to the work I’m doing. I expect the pace of my reading to pick up considerably through the Fall, so expect more posts like this one.

Last week I finished The Future of The Internet (And How to Stop It), by Harvard scholar Jonathan Zittrain. While written in 2008, this is an ever-more important book, for many reasons, in that it makes a central argument about what we’ve built so far, and where we might be going if we ignore the lessons we’ve learned as we’ve all enjoyed this E-ticket ride we call the Internet industry.

The book’s core argument has to do with a concept Zittrain calls “generativity” – the ability of a product or service to generate innovation, new ideas, new services, independent of centralized, authoritative control. It is, of course, very difficult to create generative technologies on a grand scale – it’s a statement of faith and shared values to do such a thing, and it really rubs governments and powerful interests the wrong way over time. Jonathan goes on to point out that truly open, generative systems are inherently subject to the tragedy of the commons – practices such as malware, bad marketing tactics, hacking etc. These threats are only growing, and provide a good reason to shut down generativity in the name of safety and order.

The Internet, as it turned out for the first ten or fifteen years, is one of the greatest generative technologies we’ve ever produced. And yes, I mean ever – as in, since we all figured out fire, or the wheel, or … well, forgive me for getting all Wired Manifesto on you, but it’s a very big deal.

But like Lessig before him, Zittrain is very worried that the essence of what has made the Internet special is changing, in particular, as the mainstream public falls deeper in love with services like Facebook and Apple’s iPhone.

His book is a meditation and a lecture, of sorts, on the history, meaning, and implications of this idea. After I read it, I was inspired to email Jonathan. I sent him this note:

“Hi Jonathan -

Wondering if, to start off an interview process (for my book), you might want to do a back and forth email interview that I’d publish on my site. It’d be mostly related to your book and some questions about how you view things have progressed since it came out. That would be both a good way for me to “review” the book on my site as well as to delve into some of the issues it raises in a fresh light. You game?”

To which he responded:

“Sure!”

And my questions, and his response, in lightly edited form, are below. I think you’ll enjoy his thoughts updating his thesis over the past three years. Really good stuff. I have bolded what I, as a magazine editor, might turn into a “pullquote” were I laying this out on a printed page.

JBAT:

- You wrote the Future of the Internet three years ago. It warned of a lack of awareness with regard to what we’re building, and the consequences of that lack of attention. it also warned of data silos and early lockdown. Three years later, how are we doing? Are things better, worse, the same?

And a follow up. On a scale of one to ten, where one is “actively helping” and ten is “pretty much evil,” how do the following companies rate in terms of the debate you frame in the book?

- Google (you can break this down into Android, Search, Apps, etc)

- Facebook (which was really not at full scale when you published)

- Apple

- Twitter

- Microsoft (again break it down if you wish)

Thanks!

JONATHAN ZITTRAIN:

Sorry this took me so long! I got a little carried away in answering –

- You wrote the Future of the Internet three years ago. It warned of a lack of awareness with regard to what we’re building, and the consequences of that lack of attention. it also warned of data silos and early lockdown. Three years later, how are we doing? Are things better, worse, the same?

It’s the best of times and the worst of times: the digital world offers us more every day, while we continue to set ourselves up for levels of surveillance and control that will be hard to escape as they gel.

That’s because the plus is also the minus: more and more of our activities are mediated by gatekeepers who make life easier, but who also can watch what we do and set boundaries on it — either for their own purposes, or under pressure from government authorities.

On the book’s specific predictions, Apple’s ethos remains a terrific bellwether. The iPhone — released in ’07 — has proved not only a runaway success, but the principles of its iOS have infused themselves across the spectrum. There’s less reason than ever to need a traditional PC, and by that I mean one that lets you run whatever code you want. OS X Lion points the way to a much more controlled PC zone, anyway, as it more and more funnels its software through a single company’s app store rather than from anywhere. I’d be surprised if Microsoft weren’t thinking along similar lines for Windows.

Google has offered a counterpoint, since the Android platform, while including an app store, allows outside code to be run. In part that’s because Google’s play is through the cloud. Google seeks to make our key apps based somewhere within the google.com archipelago, and to offer infrastructure that outside apps can’t resist, such a easy APIs to geographic mapping or user location. It’s important to realize that a cloud-based setup like Google Docs or APIs, or Facebook’s platform offer control similar to that of a managed device like an iPhone or a Kindle. All represent the movement of technology from product to service. Providers of a product have little to say about it after it changes hands. Providers of services are different: they don’t go away, and a choice of one over another can have lingering implications for months and even years.

At the time of the book’s drafting, the alternatives seemed stark: the “sterile” iPhone that ran only Apple’s software on the one hand, and the chaotic PC that ran anything ending in .exe on the other. The iPhone’s openness to outside code beginning in ’08 changed all that. It became what I call “contingently generative” — it runs outside code after approval (and then until it doesn’t). The upside is that the vast creativity of outside coders has led to a software renaissance on mobile devices, including iPhones, from the sublime to the ridiculous. And Apple’s gatekeeping has seemed to be with a light touch; apps not allowed in the store pale in comparison to the torrents of stuff let through. But that masks entire categories of applications that aren’t allowed — namely anything disruptive to Apple’s business model or that of its partners or regulators. No p2p, no alternate email clients, browsers with limited functionality.

More important, the ability to limit code is what makes for the ability to control content. More and more we see content, whether a book, or a magazine subscription, represented in and through an app. It’s sheer genius for a platform maker to demand a cut of in-app purchases. Can you imagine if, back in the day, the only browser allowed on Windows was IE, and further, all commerce conducted through that browser — say, buying a book through Amazon — constituted an “in-app purchase” for which Microsoft was due 30%?

A natural question is why competition isn’t the answer here — or at least reason to not worry about the question. If people thought the iPhone made for a bad deal, why would they want one? The reason they want one is the same thing that made the Mac so appealing when it first came on the scene: it was elegant and intuitive and it just worked. No blue screen of death. Consistency across apps. And, as viruses and worms naturally were designed for the most common platform, Windows, those 5% with Macs weren’t worth the trouble of corrupting.

We’ve seen a new generation of Mac malware as its numbers grow, and in the meantime a first defense is that of curation: the app store provides a rough filter for bad code, and accountability against its makers if something goes wrong even after it’s been approved. So that’s why the market likes these architectures. I’ll bet few Android users actually go “off-roading” with apps not obtained through the official Android app channels. But the fact that they can provides a key safety valve: if Google were to try the same deal as Apple with content providers for in-app content, the content providers could always offer their wares directly to Android users. I’m worried that a piece of malware could emerge on Android that would cause the safety valve of outside code to be changed, either formally by Google, or in practice as people become unwilling to drive outside the lanes.

So how about competition between platforms? Doesn’t that keep each competitor honest, even if all the platforms are curated? I suppose: the way that Prodigy and CompuServe and AOL competed with one another to offer different services as each chased subscribers. (Remember the day when AOL members couldn’t email CompuServe users and vice versa?) That was competition of a sort, but the Internet and the Web put them all to shame — even as the Internet arose from no business plan at all.

Here’s another way to think about it. Suppose you were going buy a new house. There are lots of choices. It’s just that each house is “curated” by its seller. Once you move in, that seller will get to say what furnishings can go in, and collects 30% of the purchase price of whatever you buy for the house. That seller has every reason to want to have a reputation for being generous about what goes in — but it still doesn’t feel very free when, two years after you’re living in the house, a particular coffee table or paint color is denied. There is competition in this situation — just not the full freedom that we rightly associate with inhabiting our dwellings. A small percentage of people might elect to join gated communities with strict rules about what can go inside and outside each house — but most people don’t want to have to consult their condo association by-laws before making choices that affect only themselves.

[I guess the Qs below (about each company) are answered above!]

—-####—-

I guess now my question is, what kind of place are we going to build next?

Thanks for your thoughts, Jonathan! What do you all think?

  • Content Marquee

Twitter and the Ultimate Algorithm: Signal Over Noise (With Major Business Model Implications)

By - August 05, 2011

Note: I wrote this post without contacting anyone at Twitter. I do know a lot of folks there, and as regular readers know, have a lot of respect for them and the company. But I wanted to write this as a “Thinking Out Loud” post, rather than a reported article. There’s a big difference – in this piece, I am positing an idea. It’s entirely possible my lack of reporting will make me look like an uninformed boob. In the reported piece I’d posit the idea privately, get a response, and then report what I was told. Given I’m supposedly on a break this week, and I’ve wanted to get this idea out there for some time, I figured I’d just do so. I honestly have no idea if Twitter is actually working on the ideas I posit below. If you have more knowledge than me, please post in the comments, or ping me privately. Thanks! twitter issue.png

—-

I find Twitter to be one of the most interesting companies in our industry, and not simply because of its meteoric growth, celebrity usage, founder drama, or mind-blowing financings. To me what makes Twitter fascinating is the data the company sits atop, and the dramatic tension of whether the company can figure out how to leverage that data in a way that will insure it a place in the pantheon of long-term winners – companies like Microsoft, Google, and Facebook. I don’t have enough knowledge to make that call, but I can say this: Twitter certainly has a good shot at it.

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

Many observers have commented on how noisy Twitter is: That once you follow more than about fifty or so folks, your feed becomes unmanageable. If you follow hundreds, like I do, it’s simply impossible to extract value from your stream in any structured or consistent fashion (see image from my stream at left). Twitter’s answers to this issue has been anemic. One product manager even insisted that your Twitter feed should be viewed as a stream you dip into from time to time, using it as a thirsty person might use a nearby water source. I disagree entirely. I have chosen nearly 1,000 folks who I feel are interesting enough to follow. On average, my feed gets a few hundred new tweets every ten minutes. No way can I make sense of that unassisted. But I know there’s great stuff in there, if only the service could surface it in a way that made sense to me.

You know – in a way that feels magic, the way Google was the first time I used it.

I want Twitter to figure out how to present that stream in a way that adds value to my life. It’s about the visual display of information, sure, but it’s more than that. It requires some Really F*ing Hard Math, crossed with some Really Really Hard Semantic Search, mixed with more Super Ridiculous Difficult Math. Because we’re talking about some super big numbers here: 200 million tweets a day across hundreds of millions of accounts. And that’s growing bigger by the hour.

A mini industry has evolved to address this issue – I use News.me, Paper.li, TweetDeck (recently purchased by Twitter), Percolate and others, but the truth is, they are not fully integrated, systemic solutions to the problem. Only Twitter has access to all of Twitter. Only Twitter can see the patterns of usage and interest and turn meaningful insights and connections into algorithms which feed the entire service. In short, it’s Twitter that has to address this problem. Because, of course, this is not just Twitter’s great problem, it is also Twitter’s great opportunity.

Why? Because if Twitter can provide me a tool that makes my feed really valuable, imagine what it can do for advertisers. As with every major player that has scaled to the land of long-term platform winners (as I said, Google, Microsoft, Facebook), product comes first, and business model follows naturally (with Microsoft, the model was software sales of its OS and apps, not advertising).

If Twitter can assign a rank, a bit of context, a “place in the world” for every Tweet as it relates to every other Tweet and to every account on Twitter, well, it can do the same job for every possible advertiser on the planet, as they relate to those Tweets, those accounts, and whatever messaging the advertiser might have to offer. In short, if Twitter can solve its signal to noise problem, it will also solve its revenue scale problem. It will have built the foundation for a real time “TweetWords” – an auction driven marketplace where advertisers can bid across those hundreds of millions of tweets for the the right to position relevant messaging in real time. If this sounds familiar, it should – this is essentially what Google did when it first cracked truly relevant search, and then tied it to AdWords.

Now, I do know that Twitter sees this issue as core to its future, and that it’s madly working on solving it. What I don’t know is how the company is attacking the problem, whether it has the right people to succeed, and, honestly, whether the problem is even soluble regardless of all those variables. After all, Google solved the problem, in part, by using the web’s database of words as commodity fodder, and its graph of links as a guide to value. Tweets are more than words, they comprise sentiments, semantics, and they have a far shorter shelf life (and far less structure) than an HTML document.

In short, it’s a really, really, really hard problem. But it’s a terribly exciting one. If Twitter is going to succeed at scale, it has to totally reinvent search, in real time, with algorithms that understand (or at least replicate patterns of) human meaning. It then has to take that work and productize it in real time to its hundreds of millions of users (because while the core problem/opportunity behind Twitter is search, the product is not a search product per se. It’s a media product.)

To my mind, that’s just a very cool problem on which to work. But I sense that Twitter has the solution to the problem within its grasp. One way to help solve it is to throw open the doors to its data, and let the developer community help (a recent move seems to point in that direction). That might prove too dangerous (it’s not like Google is letting anyone know how it ranks pages). But it could help in certain ways.

Earlier in the week I was on the phone with someone who works very closely in this field (search, large scale ad monetization, media), and he said this of Twitter: “There’s definitely a $100 billion company in there.”

The question is, can it be built?

What do you think? Am I off the reservation here? And who do you know who’s working on this?

"The Information" by James Gleick

By - July 21, 2011

Even before I was a few pages into The Information, a deep, sometimes frustrating but nonetheless superb book by James Gleick, I knew I had to ask him to speak at Web 2 this year. Not only did The Information speak to the theme of the conference this year (the Data Frame), I also knew Gleick, one of science’s foremost historians and storytellers, would have a lot to say to our industry.The Information.jpg

Now that I’ve finished the book (and by no means will it be the last time I read it) I can say I’m positively brimming with questions I’d like to ask the author. And perhaps most vexing is this: “What is Information, anyway?”

If you read The Information for the answer to this question, you may leave the work a bit perplexed. It may be in there, somewhere, but it’s not stated as such. And somehow, that’s OK, because you leave the book far more ready to think about the question than when you started. And to me, that’s the point.

When I was a kid, and fancied myself smarter than someone who might be in the room at the time, I’d ask them to explain to me where space ended. How far out? Often, and this was the trick, a youngster (we were six or seven, after all) would posit that there must be a wall at some point, an ending, a place where the universe no longer existed. “Oh yeah?!” I’d say, exultant that my trick had worked. “Then what’s on the other side?!”

I think the answer is information. Perhaps others would say God, but if that be true, then both are, and the truth is that both understanding God and understanding information are quests that are more about the narrative than the ending. At least, I think so.

Gleick’s book tells the story of how, over the past five thousand or so years, mankind has managed to create symbols which abstract meaning and intent into forms that are communicable beyond time and space. I too am fascinated with this (hence the focus and title of the new book I just announced – What We Hath Wrought .) While my book will attempt to be a narrative history of the next 30 or so years of information’s impact on our culture, Gleick’s is a history of the past 5,000 or more years – and it manages, for the most part, to stay focused just on the theory of information itself, rather than its political or social impacts. It’s ambitious, it’s heady, and at times, it’s nearly impossible to understand for a lay person such as myself.

Gleick traces the narrative of information from the first stirrings of alphabet-based communication to the explosion of academic excitement that accompanied the rise of “Information Science” and “Information Theory” in the mid to late 20th century. Nearly all the geek heros take a star turn in this work, from Ada Lovelace and Charles Babbage to Lord Kelvin, Claude Shannon, and Marshall McLuhan (Wired’s patron saint, in case you younger readers have forgotten…). Einstein, Borges, and scores of other folks who make you feel smart just for reading the book also make cameos.

The work really picks up speed as it describes the rise of early telecommunications, the role of information in mid century warfare, and the birth of both genetic sciences and the computing industry. In the end, Gleick seems to be arguing, it’s all bits – and I think most of us in this industry would agree. But I think Gleick’s definition of “bit” may differ from ours, and while it may be esoteric, it’s there I want to really focus when he visits Web 2 in October.

Reviews of The Information are mostly raves, and I have to add mine to the pile. But as with his earlier work (Chaos cemented my desire to be a technology journalist, for example, and may as well be viewed as a precursor to The Information), this most recent book is sometimes a rather dry tick tock of various academics’ journeys through difficult problems, often accompanied by descriptions of insights that, I must admit, escaped me the first two or three times I read them*. While I thought I knew it, I had to look up the definition of “logarithm” at least twice, and honestly, as its used in some passages, I had to just give up and hope I didn’t miss too much for my ignorance of Gleick’s nuanced use. (Given his larger point, that the core information is that which can be reduced to its essence, I think I got the point. I think).

I guess what I’m saying is that I had to work hard through parts of this book – for example, in understanding how randomness relates to the essence and amount of information in any given object. But I find the work worth it. I’m also still getting my head around the relationship of randomness to entropy (Maxwell’s Demons help…)

But isn’t that the point of a great book?In the end, I feel far more prepared to be a participant in what we’re making together in this industry, more rooted in the history that got us here, and more….yeah, I’ll say it, more reverent about the implications of our work moving forward. For that, I thank Gleick and The Information.

—–

Previous books I’ve reviewed as I prepare for What We Hath Wrought: In the Plex. Next up: Jonathan Zittrain’s The Future of the Internet (And How to Stop It), which I am finishing this week.

*This, for example, is a typical footnote: “The finite binary sequence S with the first proof that S cannot be described by a Turning machine with n states or less is a (log2 n+cp)-state description of S.” My blogging software doesn’t even have the right scientific notation capabilities to do that phrase justice, but I think you get the point I’m making….

Google+: If, And, Then….Implications for Twitter and Tumblr

By - July 13, 2011

It’s hard to not voice at least one note into the Morman Tabernacle of commentary coming out of Google’s first two weeks as a focused player in the social media space.

I haven’t read all the commentary, but one observation that seems undervoiced is this: If Google+ really works, Google will be creating a massive amount of new “conversational media” inventory, the very kind of marketing territory currently under development over at Tumblr and Twitter. Sure, the same could be said of Facebook, but I think that story has been well told. Google+ is a threat to Facebook, but for other reasons. The threat to Tumbrl and Twitter feels more existential in nature. (Ian remarks on how Google+ feels like content here, for example).

Let’s look at a typical flow for Tumblr, for example. Most of the action on Tumblr is in the creator’s “dashboard.” Mine looks like this:

jbat twitter.png

As you can see, this is a flow of posts from folks that I follow, with added features and information on the right rail. I can take action on these posts in the dashboard, including reblogging them on my own Tumblr, which is, for the most part, a blog. A blog, like…Blogger.

Now let’s look at what my flow looks like in Twitter. I use the web app for the most part:

jbattwitter.png

Again, flow on the left, info and services (and ads) on the right. However, Twitter has no integrated blog like function, though I love using it as a platform to promote my blog posts (as many of you undoubtedly have noticed). Also, Twitter recently bought Tweetdeck, which organizes flow more along the lines of “Circles” in Google+, but more on that later.

Now, let’s look at my flow for my “Colleagues” circle on Google+. I choose “Colleagues” because it’s really the only one with content in it. My “friends” and “Family” are not really using Google+ yet. If those streams start getting traction, well, then we can talk about Facebook’s existential threats. But already, I am finding this stream useful:

jbatgoogleplus.png

Look familiar? Yeah, it sure does. Just like Tumblr’s dashboard, and Twitter’s main stream. Both those companies are focused now on how best to monetize this key “conversational media” content, and just as they are getting traction, Google comes along with a product that is nearly identical. However, there are important differences, and of course, Google has a massive advantage: Google+ is integrated into everything the company owns and operates.

I’ll be adding more to this post later tonight, but I wanted to get this idea out there. Later, I’ll go into the key differences, and also, map out the advantages Twitter and Tumblr maintain compared to Google+. My one thought to keep you going while I’m away: If Google+ works, and Google integrates all that conversational media inventory with its extraordinary advertising sales machine, there’s even more of a need for what I’ve come to call a truly “independent” and “conversational” media company. Twitter and Tumblr are not playing the same game as Google, and they’ll need to tack into the advantage *not* being Google provides to them.

More soon.

The World Is An Internet Startup Now

By - July 01, 2011

peepstalkinweb2.png

(image) Last night I got to throw a party, and from time to time, that’s a pretty fun thing to do. To help us think through the program and theme of the Web 2 Summit this Fall, we invited a small group of influential folks in the Bay area to a restaurant in San Francisco, fed them drinks and snacks, and invited their input. (Here are some pics if you want to see the crowd.)

Nothing beats face to face, semi-serendipitous conversation. You always learn something new, and the amount of knowledge that can be shared in even a few minutes of face time simply cannot be replicated with technology, social media, or even a long form post like this one. I always find myself reinvigorated after spending an evening in a room full of smart folks, and last night was certainly no exception. In fact, about halfway through, as I watched several of my close friends from my home turf of Marin mingling with the crowd, I realized something: The whole world is an Internet startup now.

Let me try to explain.

Back even five years ago, our industry was dominated by people who considered themselves a select breed of financier and entrepreneur – they were Internet startup folk. I considered myself one of them, of course, but I also kept a bit apart – it’s one reason I live up in Marin, and not down in the Silicon Valley. Why did I do that? I am not entirely sure, other than I wasn’t certain I wanted to be fully immersed in the neck-deep culture of the Valley, which can at times be a bit incestuous. I wanted to be part of the “rest of the world” even as I reveled in the extraordinary culture of Internet startup land.

Part of living up here in Marin is meeting and befriending smart folks who have pretty much nothing to do with my business. In the past ten years, I’ve become good friends with real estate developers, investment bankers (and not ones who take Internet companies public), musicians, artists, and doctors. When we first connected, I was always “the Internet guy” in the room. And that was that.

But as I scanned the room last night and watched those friends of mine, I realized that each of them was now involved in an Internet startup in some way or another. I then thought about the rest of my Marin pals, and realized that nearly every one of them is either running or considering running an Internet startup. Only thing is, to them it’s not about “starting an Internet company.” Instead, it’s about innovating in their chosen field. And to do so, they of course are leveraging the Internet as platform. The world is pivoting, and the axis is the industry we’ve built. This is what we meant when we chose “Web Meets World” for the theme of the 2008 Web 2 Summit, but it’s really happening now, at least in my world. I’m curious if it’s happening in yours.

A few examples – though I have to keep the details cloudy, as I can’t breach my friends’ confidence. One of my pals, let’s call him Jack, is a highly successful banker specializing in buying and selling other banks. But he’s an artist in his soul, and has a friend who is a talented photographer. Together they’ve cooked up a startlingly new approach to commercial consumer photography, including a retail concept and, of course, a fully integrated digital and social media component. Jack is now an Internet startup guy.

Another pal is a doctor. We’ll call him Dr. Smith. Smith is a true leader in his field, redefining standards of medical practice. He often gives speeches on what’s broken in the medical world, and holds salons where some of the most interesting minds in medicine hold forth on any number of mind bending topics. For the past year or so, Smith has been working on a major problem: How to get people to understand the basics of nutrition, and engage with their own diets in ways that might break the cycle of disease driven by poor eating habits. He’s got a genius answer to that question, and now, Smith is an Internet startup guy as well.

Dan, another anonymized pal of mine, made his name in real estate. Two years ago he effectively retired, having made enough money several times over to live a very good life and never have to work again. But Dan is a restless soul, and he’s also a bit haunted by the loss of his father to a poorly understood but quite well known neurological disease. He’s dedicated his life to supporting new approaches to research in the field, and the work he’s funded is tantalizingly close to a breakthrough. It’s an entirely new framework for understanding the illness, one that isn’t easy to grok if you’re a layman (as he was when he started). As I listened to him explain the work, I had a very strong sense of deja vu. Dan was an Internet startup guy now, pitching me his new approach to disrupting a sclerotic industry (in this case, the foundation-driven research institutes and their kissing cousins, the pharmaceutical companies.). It may work, it may not, but he’s going to go for it. To raise funds for his new approach, Dan is talking to angels and VCs, and developing a new model for profiting from drug compounds that may come out of the research he’s funded. In short, Dan’s appropriated the Internet’s core funding process to try to solve for one of the most obstinate problems in health.

I could go on. There’s the award winning filmmaker and his musician/producer partner who are creating mind-blowing next generation online games. The agency creative who’s won every traditional advertising prize on the planet, and is now obsessed with digital. And on and on and on….

I guess my point is this: The Internet no longer belongs to the young tech genius with a great idea and the means to execute it online. Innovation on the Internet now belongs to the world, and that is perhaps the most exciting thing about this space. It’s attracting not just the “next Mark Zuckerberg,” but also thousands of super smart innovators from every field imaginable, each of whom brings extraordinary insights and drive to play. And that’s another reason I love this industry, because, in the end, it’s not a singular business. It now encapsulates the human narrative, writ very large.

What a great story. Does it resonate with you? Do you have examples like mine? I’d love to hear them.

My, My, Time Does Fly

By - June 16, 2011

FM logo.png

Over at the Federated Media site, I’ve posted an appreciation of the company I started in a garage six years ago this week. FM came about because of my work on my first book – it was through the study of search’s impact on media and markets that I came up with the idea in the first place. Which means, in a pretty direct way, it was attributable in part to the musings here on Searchblog, and to your responses to those musings. 

FM is great success by any metric now, so I wanted to briefly say thank you to all of you who still read me here, and know that I will be writing a lot more in the next year or so, thanks to a new book project soon to be announced. 

From my post on FM’s six year anniversary:

FM was the first company that I built from scratch – no initial corporate parent (as I had with The Industry Standard), no initial set of partners (as I had with Wired or Web 2), just an idea and equal measures of optimism and trepidation…..

We delivered our first campaigns to FM partners in late 2005, and we’ve never really looked back. From our early start – about 20 sites, mostly tech, comprising about 2 million uniques and 20 million pageviews – we’ve grown to one of the largest Internet media companies in the world – with more than 75 million worldwide uniques and billions of pageviews across a multitude of categories, including food, parenting, lifestyle, and of course technology and business.

….

Along the way, FM became synonymous with innovation in media and marketing. I’m bragging like a proud papa here, but given where I sit at the moment (no longer CEO, but a very active Founder/Chairman reflecting on six years of sleepless commitment), I hope you’ll indulge me. We’ve worked with some of the best brands in what we’ve come to call “the Independent Web” – that part of the media world that isn’t Facebook (though we’ve worked with them, of course), or Google, or Yahoo, or AOL for that matter. Early on, I called this the “rest of the world,” and it’s a very vibrant and deeply passionate place.

….

FM was the first company to bring Fortune 500 brands to blogs, at scale. The first to identify and bring a business model to community driven news sites like Digg. The first to bring brands into the Facebook platform through partnerships with innovators like Graffiti. The first to evangelize “conversational marketing,” and the first to deliver actual ad units which allowed marketers to bring their own voice, in real time, into the real estate previously considered a wasteland. In fact, we were honored in 2006 with a Webby for our RSS-driven ad units, where a marketer’s own messaging (or the content of those authors they supported, now celebrated as “content marketing”) was updated as the conversation changed across the web. Now, of course, the idea that a brand might drive a conversation, and that this conversation should be central to a brand’s marketing efforts, is the axis around which Facebook, as one example, drives its current business. We didn’t start FM to be Facebook, (the Independent Web is pretty much the ying to Facebook’s yang) but it’s nice to know our ideas have not only gained currency, they’ve become the de facto currency of digital marketing…

…When Twitter took off in 2008, FM was there, creating the first brand integration, with our partner Microsoft. And when the world’s largest publishing platform, WordPress – long a friend to the company – was ready to explore monetization, FM again was the partner of choice

Over the past three decades, I’ve been at the center of a few amazing companies – two of which have passed 500 employees in girth. Wired, which still lives on, was the first. The Industry Standard, which lives on in a few markets outside the US, was the other. But FM is my proudest and most cherished accomplishment – with just 175 or so extraordinary employees, we’ve managed to deliver more than $100 million back to the creators of the Independent web over the past six years. That means that thousands of independent voices have rung out true, in part because FM and its partnesr were there to help them pay the bills.

I can’t really put in words how proud that makes me feel.

Web 2 Map: The Data Layer – Visualizing the Big Players in the Internet Economy

By - June 03, 2011

As I wrote last month, I’m working with a team of folks to redesign the Web 2 Points of Control map along the lines of this year’s theme: “The Data Frame.” In the past few weeks I’ve been talking to scores of interesting people, including CEOs of data-driven start ups (TrialPay and Corda, for example), academics in the public dataspace, policy folks, and VCs. Along the way I’ve solidified my thinking about how best to visualize the “data layer” we’ll be adding to the map, and I wanted to bounce it off all of you. So here, in my best narrative voice, is what I’m thinking.

First, of course, some data.

<>
roughdatalayer1.png

On the left hand side are eight major players in the Internet Economy, along with two categories of players who are critical, but who I’ve lumped together – payment players such as Visa, Amex, and Mastercard, and carriers or ISP players such as Comcast, AT&T, and Verizon.

I’ve given each company my own “finger in the air” score for seven major data categories, which are shown across the top (I don’t claim these are correct, rather, clay on the wheel for an ongoing dialog). The first six scores are in essence percentages, answering the question “What percentage of this company’s holdings are in this type of data.” The seventh, which I’ve called Wildcard data, is a 1-10 ranking of the potency of that company’s “wildcard” data that it’s not currently leveraging, but might in the future. I’ll get to more detail on each data category later.

Toward the far right, I’ve noted each company’s overall global uniques (from Doubleclick, for now, save the carriers and payment guys – I’ve proxied their size with the reach of Google). There is also an “engagement” score (again, more on that soon). The final score is a very rough tabulation computing engagement over uniques against the sum of the data scores. There are pivots to be built from this data around each of the scores for various types of data, but I’ll leave that for later. This is meant to be a relatively simple introduction to my rough thinking about the data layer. Hopefully, it’ll spark some input from you.

Now, before you rip it apart, which I fully invite (especially those of you who are data quants, because I am clearly not, and I am likely mixing some apples and watermelons here), allow me to continue to narrate what I’m trying to visualize here.

As you know, the map is a metaphor, showing key territories as “points of control.” The companies I’ve highlighted in the chart all have “home territories” where they dominate a sector – Google in search, Facebook in social, Amazon and eBay in commerce, etc. What I plan to do is create a layer based on the data in the chart that, when activated, shows those companies’ relative size and strength.

But how?

v.earlyviz.png

Well, the best idea we’ve come up with so far is to show each as a small city of sorts, where the relative height of the buildings is determined by a corresponding data point. So Twitter, for example, will have a tall building in the middle of its city, representing “Interest data.” Google’s tallest building will be search. Facebook’s, social, and so on. And of course the cities can’t be all on the same scale, hence our use of total global uniques, and total engagement. Yahoo may be nearly as big as Facebook, but it doesn’t have nearly the engagement per user. So its city will be smaller, relatively, than Facebook’s.

What is interesting about this approach is that each company’s “cityscape” emerges as distinct. Microsoft’s is wide but not tall – they have a lot of data in a number of areas. It will probably end up looking like a suburban office park – funnily enough, that’s what Microsoft really looks like, for the most part. Amazon and eBay will have high towers of payment data, with a smattering of shorter buildings. And so on. I don’t have a good visualization of this yet, but the designers at Blend, who I’m working with, have sketched out a very rough early version just so you can get the idea. The structures will be more whimsical, and of course be keyed with color. But I think you get the idea.

I’m even thinking of adding other features, like “openness” – ie can you access, gain copies of, share, and mash up the data controlled by each company? If so, the city won’t be walled. Apple, on the other hand, may well end up a walled city, with a moat, on top of a hill.

Now, a bit more detail on the data categories. You all gave me a lot of really good input on my earlier post, where I posited these original categories. But I’ve kept them the same, save the addition of the wildcard data. Why? Because I think each can be interpreted as larger buckets containing a lot of other data. I’ll go through each briefly in turn:

Purchase Data: This is information about who buys what, in essence. But it’s also who *almost* buys what (abandoned carts), *when* they buy, in what context, and so on.

Search Data: The original database of intentions – query data, path from query data, “intent” data, and tons more search signals.

Social Data: Social graph, but also identity data. Not to mention how people interact inside their graphs, etc.

Interest Data: This is data that describes what is generally called “the interest graph” – declarations of what people are interested in. It’s related to content, but it’s not just content consumption. It includes active production of interest datapoints – like tweets, status updates, checkins, etc.

Location Data: This is data about where people are, to be sure, but also data about how often we are there, and other correlated data – ie what apps we use in location context, who else is there and when, etc.

Content Data: Content is still a king in our world, and knowing patterns of content consumption is a powerful signal. This is data about who reads/watches/consumes what, when, and in what patterns.

Wildcard Data: This is data that is uncategorized, but could have huge implications. For example, Microsoft knows how people interact with their applications and OS. Microsoft and Google have a ton of language data (phonemes, etc.). Carriers see just about everything that passes across their servers, though their ability to use it might be regulated. Google, Yahoo and Microsoft have tons of email interaction data. And so on….

Now, of course all these data categories get more powerful as they are leveraged one against the other, and of course, I’ve left tons of really big data players off the map entirely (Tons of small startups like Tynt, Quora, or Sharethis have massive amounts of data, as do very large companies like Nielsen, Quantcast, etc.). But you have to make choices to make something like this work.

So, that’s where we are with the Web 2 Summit map data layer. Naturally, once the data layer is live, it will be driven by a database, so we can tweak the size and scope of the cities and buildings based on the collective intelligence of the map users’ feedback. What do you think? What’s your input? We’ll be building this over the next two months, and I’d love your feedback before we get too far down the line. Thanks!

The in.imit.able will.i.am: Embracing Brand As An Artist

By - June 01, 2011

Next week will mark the third time in one year that I’ve interviewed Black Eyed Peas frontman will.i.am on stage, and each time it’s gotten better. If you’re coming to CM Summit, you’re in for a treat. Will is in New York for a benefit concert in Central Park, and he’s stopping by to chat with us along the way.

I’ve found will.i.am to be a rare bird – a massively successful commercial artist who embraces brands and marketing as part of his work, instead of a distraction from his work. He reminds me of another William – William Gibson, an author who natively embraces marketing as part of a narrative, finding signal in the work of branding, rather than noise. And no one can argue with Will’s street cred, his philanthropic work is a model for all celebrities. Not to mention, the dude is director of innovation at Intel. Intel!

If you want a preview of what we’ll be talking about, check the interview we did back in February at Signal LA. Expect more of the same, with a few twists, when we meet in New York next week.

As a reminder, we’ll hear from more than 30 presenters at CM Summit, 11 of which will be one-one interviews. Those include:

Google’s Neal Mohan: A $200 Billion Opportunity

Reimagining Yahoo!: Chief Product Officer Blake Irving

Filmmaker Tiffany Shlain Declares Interdependence: The Internet Is Changing How We Think

The Colorful Bill Nguyen: The Market Will Come

The Swan Song of Mich Matthews, Outgoing Chief of Marketing at Microsoft

Taking Twitter to the Next Level: President of Global Revenue Adam Bain

On the Future of Media: Starcom MediaVest Group CEO Laura Desmond

I’ll be adding posts on the remaining folks – Demand CEO Richard Rosenblatt, Visa CMO Antonio Lucio, and Facebook’s Carolyn Everson, shortly.

The CM Summit is less than one week away, and nearly 450 folks have registered, we can only take 500….so register today before we sell out.

Special thanks to our sponsors: Blackberry, AT&T, Google, Quantcast, Demand Media, Facebook, Outbrain, Pandora, Pixazza, R2integrated, Slideshare, Yahoo!, AOL, American Express OPEN, Balloon, BriefLogic, Evidon, Marketing Evolution/Telmar, Mobile Roadie, Spiceworks, and Ustream. And a shout out to our partners at IAB, Mashable, paidContent, ReadWriteWeb, SMAC, and TechZulu.

There Are No More "Dot Coms"

By - May 19, 2011

Screen shot 2011-05-19 at 7.48.53 PM.png

At least, there shouldn’t be. We’ve passed that era. Any business of scale and worthy of going public, as LinkedIn did today in spectacular style, isn’t a dotcom. It’s a real business, with significant impact in several important markets. In LinkedIn’s case, those markets include publishing, recruitment, and professional services. So what if they are leveraged over a digital platform that has a “.com” address? At this point, that’s pretty much the entire US economy, not to mention a significant percentage of the “rest of the world.”

I’m tired of the easy comparisons to the dotcom bubble. They simply aren’t accurate.

Set The Data Free, And Value Will Follow

By - April 28, 2011

foreign_coins.jpg

(NB: Much has been written and said on this topic, and this post is in no way complete. We’ll be exploring this issue and many others related to data at the Web 2 Summit this Fall).

Perhaps the largest problem blocking our industry today is the retardation of consumer-driven data sharing. We’re all familiar with the three-year standoff between Google and Facebook over crawling and social graph data. Given the rise of valuable mobile data streams (and subsequent and rather blinkered hand wringing about samesaid) this issue is getting far worse.

Every major (and even every minor) player realizes that “data is the next Intel inside,” and has, for the most part, taken a hoarder’s approach to the stuff. Apple, for example, ain’t letting data out of the iUniverse to third parties except in very limited circumstances. Same for Facebook and even Google, which has made hay claiming its open philosophy over the years.

And this trend is not limited to the large players. I currently have 302 photos locked up in a service called Twitpic. I’d very much like to export them into my iPhoto library, so I can mange them as part of the rest of my photo library. But the only way to do that is to “right click” on each and every one of those photos, copying them to my desktop. That’s several hours of work that most folks simply won’t do. When an enterprising coder wrote an automated script that exported photos from Twitpic to another service called Posterous, Twitpic blocked the program. That was about the time I stopped using Twitpic.

This trend, I predict, will become the petard upon which our industry will hoist itself over the next couple of years. Very well intentioned projects like DataPortability.org and others are working on this issue, but it’s largely hidden from public view and debate, because that debate has been framed as “Us versus Them”, where the “Them” are presumably evil and profit-driven companies who want to leverage our data for their own gain. (See the entire WSJ series as exhibit A in this debate).

So far, the approach companies seem to be taking boils down to this: The data we have is too valuable to let our customers understand it, manage it, and ultimately, do whatever they want with it. We’ll say soothing things, and we’ll let our users take some actions with their data – Facebook will let you authenticate using Facebook Connect on third party sites, for example – but we won’t let you take the data you’ve created on our services, put it in your own pocket (so to speak), and hand it over to other services and platforms such that those platforms can add value to your daily life.

In other words, if information is truly currency in today’s economy, so far the coins in your pocket are all from different countries, and there’s no global exchange mechanism. They’re only worth something in the nation in which they’ve been minted.

For example, you can’t pass your Facebook identity to a third party site so as to enable that site to serve you a better advertising experience. While Facebook insists that your Facebook data is, in fact, *yours*, it turns out it’s not yours if you want to use it to help a third party make money. In other words, it’s not really yours if it has true value to a third party. Which, in essence, means it’s only yours if it’s not valuable to anyone but you. But value is most often a social concept – something has value because a third person values it.

If the true value of the economy we are building is to be unlocked, that value has to flow unchecked from one party to another. Were this to be true, differentiation of services would migrate to a higher level of the stack, so to speak. Services would be considered valuable for what they did with data given to them by consumers, rather than by their ability to lock consumer’s data into their proprietary platform. New models would emerge to reward those services for adding that value, and those models would be both more robust, and far larger than the “one ring to rule them all” model currently at play.

As things stand today, our industry’s practices are gaining the attention of dead-serious regulators, spurred to potentially early lock down of how data is used based on an incomplete understanding of how value will flow through future economic models yet to be invented. (More on this in another post).

A generation from now our industry’s approach to data collection and control will seem outdated and laughable. The most valuable digital services and companies will be rewarded for what they do with openly shareable data, not by how much data they hoard and control.

Now, I live in the real world, and I understand why companies are doing what they are doing at the moment. Facebook doesn’t want third party services creating advertising networks that leverage Facebook’s social graph – that’s clearly on Facebook’s roadmap to create in the coming year or so (Twitter has taken essentially the same approach). But if you are a publisher (and caveat, I am), I want the right to interpret a data token handed to me by my reader in any way I chose. If my interpretation is poor, that reader will leave. If it adds value, the reader stays, perhaps for a bit longer, and value is created for all. If that token comes from Facebook, Facebook also gets value.

Imagine, for example, if back in the early search days, Google decided to hoard search refer data – the information that tells a site what the search term was which led a visitor to click on a particular URL. Think of how that would have retarded the web’s growth over the past decade.

Scores of new services are emerging that hope to enable a consumer-driven ecosystem of data. Let’s not lock down data early. Let’s trust that what we’re best at doing is adding value, not hoarding it.   

More on this in my 2007 post The Data Bill of Rights, not to be confused with the “Commercial Data Privacy Bill of Rights,” introduced last week. While well intentioned, this bill does not consider data ownership and portability.