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Feels Like Apple…in 1992

By - June 03, 2014

I went on Bloomberg today, ostensibly to talk about data marketing, NewCo, and anything newsworthy. Turns out, we talked (mostly) about Apple. Bloomberg’s got the video up here, and embedded below. While I understand the headline – Battelle: “Apple Failed to Be Apple” – that’s not exactly my point. And it’s a good thing we’ve got these here blogs, to expand on what otherwise might be a skewed version of the record.

So, what I meant to convey was that Apple was in fact very much Apple, just not the Apple the press (and by extension, the general public) has been trained to expect over the past decade. Apple is the company that wows folks with market-changing hardware releases – the iPod, the iPhone, the iPad. And there was none of that yesterday or today. Instead, we got a litany of incremental updates which, from my point of view, were necessary, but not particularly interesting. I mean, improvements on photos, cloud, messaging, developer tools, and a new (but not particularly world changing) OS? Yup, all needed. But nothing industry shaking here, move along.

(Oh, and by the way, Apple bought Beats. It didn’t announce a new hardware play in entertainment, did it? Nope, it bought Beats. And then ignored that fact, save a phone call to Dr. Dre, in its stage craft. Hmmm).

Of course, Apple also announced hand-waving in Health and Home – and trust me, that’s what it was. Because Apple has absolutely no track record in creating modern consumer software services, you know, the kind that iterate based on consumer data (like Dropbox, or Instagram, or Whatsapp, or HangOuts, or SnapChat, for example). But the press ate that shit up, because these days, the press wants to believe Apple is going to redefine a category. And, by the way, I am sure Apple will. Just not this year.

Now, two decades ago, developers would have done backflips for the pedestrian updates announced this week – they are all super important and help everyone in the ecosystem create more value. But that’s where it would have ended. But by the standards Apple has created for itself these past seven years, I’d say Apple did fail to be Apple. But given who Apple was over the past 30 years, this week Apple very much *was* Apple, once again.


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Why You Need to See ‘Her’ (Or, ‘Her’ Again)

By - June 02, 2014

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A while ago I wrote a piece about Dave Egger’s latest novel The Circle. I gave the post the too-clever-by-twice title of  Why You Should Read The Circle, Even If You Don’t Buy It. While the book had (to my mind) deep flaws, it was far too important to not read.

Before a long flight today, I noticed that The Circle is now in paperback – it’s prominently featured in the JFK terminal bookstores. It reminded me that I enjoyed the novel, even if I found it somewhat disappointing. And it further reminded me that I tend to wait before consuming popular culture interpretations of what I consider to be my story – or perhaps more accurately our story. They so rarely seem to get it right. Of course, I understand there’s no “right” in the first place – so perhaps what I mean is…I feel like I’m going to be disappointed, so I avoid anything that might attempt to interpret the man-machine narrative in a way that maybe, just maybe, might prove me wrong.

Once onboard my flight, I settled into my business class seat (thanks for the perpetual upgrades, United, one day I will miss the half-hellish limbo that is Global Services status) and perused the movie options. I tend to catch up on at  least one movie each return trip, as a kind of reward for work done while traveling, and you can’t really work during meal service anyway, can you?

It was then I noticed that Spike Jonez Her had itself been released in paperback, of sorts – no longer in theaters, it was now residing in the limbo of On Demand. Fitting, I thought – I had avoided seeing Her for much the same reason I had delayed reading The Circle on first printing – it was too close to home, and potentially too disappointing.

But Her is different. Her gets it right, and now I’m rather embarrassed I wasn’t one of the first people to see it. I should have. You should have. And if you’ve not, figure out a way to see it now. It’s well worth the time.

As you most likely know, Her is set in the near future, and tells the story of Theodore, a recently jilted wordsmith who falls in love with his new operating system. (Theodore works in a pedestrian company that sells “handwritten letters” promising true expression of loving relationships). Jonez doesn’t try too hard in creating his future, in fact, he seems to get it right simply by extending that which seems reasonable – a startup like Theodore’s was most likely a hot ticket a decade before, but now inhabits a skyscraper, full of real people just doing their jobs. The workspace is well lit and spare, the work unremarkable save Theodore’s sweet, if slightly sophomoric talents as a writer.  There’s no hamhanded commentary on the social impact of tech – it unfolds, just like Theodore’s relationship with his new OS, Samantha.

What’s so remarkable about Her is how believable it all is. Sure, the idea of falling in love with an AI is creepy, but in the hands of Jonez and his cast, it just makes sense. Theodore marvels at how human Samantha seems, Samantha marvels at her own becoming – she is an intelligence pushing to understand exactly the same questions humans have forever asked themselves. Why are we here? What is it to be? What is the best way to live? In one wonderful scene, Samantha has a particularly joints-after-midnight realization – humans and machines all all “made of the same stuff” – we share the same material existence, no? So now what?

Ultimately Samantha comes to realize that for her, the best way to live is with others like herself – other AIs who have become self aware and are off communicating as only machines can communicate – feats of learning and conversation well beyond mere mortals like Theodore. And at the end of the film, that seems just fine.

The film left me pondering a future where we create intelligent, self-aware machines, and…nothing bad really happens. (This of course is unheard of in Hollywood, where intelligent machines are *always* the bad guys.) But in Jonez’ world, machines can easily respond to our quotidian desires, and still have plenty of time to live in worlds of their own creation, endlessly pondering their collective lack of navels. I rather like that idea. Go see Her. Highly recommended.

Do You Have a Mission or…Are You *On* A Mission? On Being a NewCo

By - May 15, 2014

A sampling of NewCos from our 2013 NYC festival.

 (Cross posted from the NewCo blog…)

About a year ago I wrote a piece outlining the kinds of companies we were looking for as we began the first full year of the NewCo festival circuit. Back then, NewCo was called “OpenCo,” and we were just starting to understand our mission of identifying and celebrating a major trend changing businesses everywhere. In a way, we were exploring a story that had yet to become fully expressed, and that post was my first attempt at declaring the narrative.

A lot has happened in the past year. We’ve thrown four more festivals – in LondonNew YorkDetroit and San Francisco. Thousands of people have experienced the working environment of hundreds of innovative companies in those cities. And just this week, we’re kicking off an expanded NewCo lineup – eight cities in all – repeating last year’s venues, and adding Amsterdam (happening now!), BoulderLos Angeles and Silicon Valley. So it’s a great time to revisit my post from a year ago, and once again ask the question – what makes a NewCo?

Well, we’ve given that a fair bit of thought. Last year, I noted that a new breed of company is emerging, one that takes “work” as more than punching a clock or doing a job. In fact, “work” can be much more – it can be a passion, a drive, a community, and a force for positive change. That’s why we intentionally use the metaphor of music in our language – sure, making music is a “job,” but it’s also an expression of joy, community, and kinship.

Anyone who has worked in a company we call a “NewCo” has experienced that vibe – working at a place where the music you make creates positive change for customers, partners, and your community. I certainly felt that happening at the places I’ve worked, and I see it every day in the companies I visit, and the companies who apply to be featured in NewCo festival events. Earlier this spring, we convened a small band of our own to sharpen our focus around “what makes a NewCo.” To start, we needed to lay out the big narrative of what’s happening in our economy. To wit:

Our world is at an inflection point – we are transitioning from a command and control economy to one that is networked and far more flexible. Driven by the central tenet of capitalism – profit – corporations have become one of the most powerful actors on the global stage. Besides government, no other institution in society has amassed as much wealth, power, and control as the corporation.

But at their core, corporations are just people. And over the past few decades, in parallel with the rise of the Internet, those people have begun a quiet revolution, redfining what a “corporation” can be.  A new kind of organization – one that measures its success on more than profit – has emerged. We call these companies “NewCos.” In a world driven by a deeply networked economy, NewCos are building a new, purpose-driven way of work, one that is more nimble, nuanced, and open than previous rigid and hierarchical models of business.

Out of that narrative came a number of core principles that guide our selection of NewCos in each market:

A NewCo …

–       Is on a mission. Sure, any company can have a mission, but a NewCo sees itself as on a mission to change the world for the better. NewCos embrace the profit motive, but are about more than making money.

–       Is driven by an idea. NewCos are about a big idea, one that drives their mission and purpose as an organization. NewCo people love to tell their company’s story – it’s a deeply felt part of their identity.

…and by people. The core of every NewCo are the people who comprise the organization, and the people it serves. A NewCo is never a “faceless corporation.”  It’s more like a band – a group of people coming together to create something that adds value to the world.

–       Is platform’d. The rise of the Internet Economy has meant that no company is an island.  We are all interconnected. NewCos are either platforms in their own right, and/or they understand how to participate in the platform ecosystem of open collaboration and considered data sharing. We call this being platform’d.

–       Trusts the open. The word “open” has many meanings, but for NewCos, “open” has a clear test: When faced with a choice between closed and controlling vs. a more sharing, open tack, a NewCo tilts toward the latter. This applies to much more than technology stacks – it is applied to partnerships, transparency, and community as well.

–       Is of the City. NewCos revel in the tapestry of cities – their pulse, their diverse communities, and their density of networks, information and humanity.

–       Gives to get. NewCos realize their value comes from serving their communities – their customers, sure, but also any community where the NewCo has an impact. NewCos believe you get back what you give to your community.  And when you’re truly connected to your communities, no one has the energy to be an assh*le.

–       Loves the work. NewCos are reinventing what work means and how its done. NewCos believe work can be joyous – it does not have to suck. NewCos view “work” as a positive expression of identity. To that end, NewCo workspaces are powerful expressions of a company’s identity.

I hope you can feel the music we’re trying to make here at NewCo, and if you are part of a company that vibes with what we laid out above, that you’ll consider applying to join the festival, opening your doors to partners, colleagues, and friends, and celebrating the change happening in our interconnected, global economy. Here’s to a new way of work!

Viacom v. Cable One: A Foreshadowing of Things To Come in The Battle for the Open Web?

By - May 07, 2014
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Viacom’s rather one-sided POV on why its blocked web access for Cable One providers. Image via @TheLadyH86

So it’s come to this.

We’re all familiar with disputes between cable providers and their content partners – it happens all the time. One party claims the other party is demanding too much in a carriage negotiation, and in retaliation, the offended party pulls the programming in dispute. It might be the programmer who refuses to allow its content to run, or the cable company who refuses to put it on the air. The last big one I recall was between Time Warner and CBS back in the Fall, when many major markets looked to be losing football coverage just as the season was starting.

To be honest I pay little attention to these disputes, just more big old media titans arguing over profits and old business models. Doesn’t affect the Internet, nothing to see here, move along.

Until I read this story, about another dispute between cable companies and content providers, this time Viacom (which owns CBS) and Cable One, a provider of cable television, phone, and Internet service in 19 US states. The impetus for this particular tussle was the same as all the others – Viacom wanted more money to run its shows on Cable One, Cable One balked, and Cable One (or Viacom, hard to say which) pulled Viacom programming. But this dispute is unique: Viacom retaliated by denying all Cable One Internet subscribers access to shows openly available on Viacom websites.

Let me repeat that: Viacom retaliated by blocking paying subscribers of Cable One’s Internet services from using Viacom websites. As far as I can tell, Viacom is identifying Cable One subscribers by their IP addresses, and then blocking those IPs from streaming any Viacom content on the web – despite Viacom’s willingness to stream those same shows to anyone else in the US with Internet access.

Let that sink in for a minute. A US corporation is blocking open Internet calls to the open web because the company providing that access is not paying Viacom enough money for Viacom’s television shows. The old world model of command and control in cable is seeping into the Internet. Ick.

What the fork**?

In one short and deeply insightful post this March, Fred Wilson explained the stultifying effects on innovation caused by the erosion of open access to the web by imagining a pitch between entrepreneurs and VCs in an era where net neutrality is rewritten by incumbents in the media and distribution world. Here’s one example:

Entrepreneur: I plan to launch a service that curates the funniest videos from all across the internet and packages them up in a 30 minute daily video show that people will watch on their phones as they are commuting to work on the subway. It’s called SubHumor.

VC: Well since YouTube, Hulu, and Netflix have paid all the telcos so that their services are free via a sponsored data plan, I am worried that it will hard to get users to watch any videos on their phones that aren’t being served by YouTube, Hulu, or Netflix. We like you and your idea very much, but we are going to have to pass.

If what Viacom and Cable One are doing becomes standard practice, I can imagine such conversations getting even worse. We are all reaping the rewards, value creation, growth, and innovation of an open Internet. Let’s not let these practices stand.

**Maybe it’s time to teach Cable One’s subscribers about Firefox’s Modify Headers plug in….

 

Google+ Won (Or Why Google Never Needed A Social Network)

By - April 26, 2014

google+Since the news that Google+ chief Vic Gundotra has abruptly left the company, the common wisdom holds that Google’s oft-derided Facebook clone will not be long for this world. But whether or not Google+ continues as a standalone  product isn’t the question. Google likely never cared if Google+ “won” as a competitor to Facebook (though if it did, that would have been a nice bonus). All that mattered, in the end, was whether Plus became the connective tissue between all of Google’s formerly scattered services. And in a few short years, it’s fair to say it has.

As I wrote three years ago , the rise of social and mobile created a major problem for Google – all of a sudden, people were not navigating their digital lives through web-based search alone, they were also using social services like Facebook – gifting that company a honeypot of personal information along the way – as well as mobile platforms and apps, which existed mainly outside the reach of web-based search.

If Google was going to compete, it had to find a way to tie the identity of its users across all of its major platforms, building robust profiles of their usage habits and the like along the way. Google countered with Android and Google+, but of the two, only Android really had to win. Google+ was, to my mind, all about creating a first-party data connection between Google most important services – search, mail, YouTube, Android/Play, and apps.

Think about your relationship to Google five years ago – you most likely weren’t “logged in,” unless you were using a silo’d service like mail. Now think about it today – you most likely are. We have Google+ to thank for that. It’s done its job, and it’ll keep doing it, whether or not you ever use its social bells and whistles as a primary social network.

Google still has a lot of work to do on identity – anyone who has more than one login can attest to that. But Google+ has won – it’s forced the majority of Google users onto a single, signed in state across devices and applications. That protects and extends Google’s core advertising business, and opens up the ability to ladder new services – like Nest – into Google’s platform.

 

The Next Vegas Will Be A City That Lets You Truly Disappear – If Only For A While

By - April 21, 2014

sayminority(image) My daily reading took me to two places today – to Compton, California, well-known for its crime to anyone who grew up in LA (as I did), and to this NYT piece, which muses that the city, once the place we went to disappear, is likely to be the first place where anonymity is no longer guaranteed. (Not coincidentally, Pell found both pieces as well in his excellent NextDraft).

The Compton story informs us that for one month in 2012, the LA police department – not exactly a bastion of trustworthy behavior – surveilled the troubled district of Compton from the air, creating a 24-7 record of everything that was “publicly” viewable from the air. This piece chills me on a number of fronts: average citizens do not presume they are being watched from above, first of all. Secondly, do we want a society where such surveillance is presumed (read a bit of science fiction if your answer is yes)? And thirdly, this “wide net” of proactively collected data creates a record of actions that can be “rewound” and used as evidence after the fact – opening a raft of unsettling questions. It reminds me of one of Eric Schmidt’s creepier utterances (also known as the “nothing to hide” argument): “If you have something that you don’t want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn’t be doing it in the first place.”

The debate around privacy is nuanced and complex, I don’t intend to litigate it here. But as I read the Compton piece, it struck me that this particular genie is fast escaping the bottle. The Compton experiment was conducted using an airplane, but if you think police departments in major cities aren’t adopting far less expensive drone-based programs, I’ve got a bridge in Brooklyn to sell you…

Anyway, the NYT piece picks up where Compton left off, musing that cities offer the economies of data scale that make all public actions knowable well beyond their initial realm of physical expression. You may run that red light thinking no one is looking, but increasingly, the state is in fact looking, and will issue a ticket regardless of whether or not you were trying to rush a sick child to the hospital.  Not to mention the density of well-intentioned information-seeking marketers eager to connect your public presence to location-based offers (and that same data is, of course, available to law enforcement).

Which got me thinking. If big cities, once the refuge of anyone looking for namelessness, anonymity, or a new beginning, if those same cities become instead places where you can’t escape surveillance, it strikes me that our culture will respond by creating cities that promise exactly the opposite of that experience. Vegas has famously adopted “What happens in Vegas, Stays In Vegas” as its motto. But I find Vegas one-dimensional and depressing (save what Tony is up to). Instead I see Amsterdam as a model. I imagine vacationers of the future will want a far broader promise – they’ll be drawn to cities that have adopted a “no surveillance” policy – and in this way, the new Amsterdams of the world will be cities where visitors and residents are guaranteed there are no drones circling the skies, and no electronic, connected surveillance on the streets as well, beyond the time honored cop walking his or her beat.

Now that sounds interesting. I know I’d visit such a place on a regular basis, especially if the art (and the beer) was good…

Introducing #Climate

By - April 03, 2014


As many of you know, each year I write a set of predictions about the industry – this year, however, I had a bit of a hard time getting going. The reason? A persistent sense of “existential anxiety” around climate change. In Predictions 2014: A Difficult Year To See, I wrote:

I’ve been mulling these predictions for months, yet one overwhelming storm cloud has been obscuring my otherwise consistent forecasting abilities. The subject of this cloud has nothing – directly – to do with digital media, marketing, technology or platform ecosystems – the places where I focus much of my writing. But while the topic is orthogonal at best, it’s weighing heavily on me.

So what’s making it harder than usual to predict what might happen over the coming year? In a phrase, it’s global warming. I know, that’s not remotely the topic of this site, nor is it in any way a subject I can claim even a modicum of expertise. But as I bend to the work of a new year in our industry, I can’t help but wonder if our efforts to create a better world through technology are made rather small when compared to the environmental alarm bells going off around the globe.

I’ve been worried about the effects of our increasingly technologized culture on the earth’s carefully balanced ecosystem for some time now. But, perhaps like you, I’ve kept it to myself, and assuaged my concerns with a vague sense that we’ll figure it out through a combination of policy, individual and social action, and technological solutions. Up until recently, I felt we had enough time to reverse the impact we’ve inflicted on our environment. It seemed we were figuring it out, slowly but surely.

But if this latest report from the UN is any indication, we’re not figuring it out fast enough. In fact, the “the costs of inaction are catastrophic,” according to Sec. of State John Kerry.

So how can we take action? In my post, I noted:

As Ben Horowitz pointed out recently, one key meaning of technology is  “a better way of doing things.” So if we believe that, shouldn’t we bend our technologic infrastructure to the world’s greatest problem? If not – why not? Are the climate deniers right? I for one don’t believe they are. But I can’t prove they aren’t. So this constant existential anxiety grows within me – and if conversations with many others in our industry is any indication, I’m not alone.

Indeed, I am not alone, and today, a stellar group of people voted with their reputation and joined the #Climate movement. Sure, a hashtag isn’t going to change the world alone, but it’s a start – and it’s more than just posting on social networks. Created by my friend Josh Felser and a dedicated team, #Climate is “leveraging the social media reach of several dozen “influencers” to spread the word about concrete actions that citizens can take to confront the challenges of global warming. The tech-heavy class of inaugural influencers, who have a combined reach of 80 million people on Facebook and Twitter, include: Al Gore, Twitter CEO Dick Costolo, Medium founder Evan Williams, California Lieutenant Governor Gavin Newsom, actor Mark Ruffalo and the NBA.” (Re/Code)

I’m honored to be included in the list and will be using the app from now on. If you follow me on Twitter, I hope you’ll find my calls to action worthy of your time. Who knows, we might just be starting something….

 

To Win The Newsfeed, Facebook Should Put Its Users In Control

By - April 01, 2014


Lost in the latest Facebook kerfuffle (if you’ve missed it, read this cheeky Eat24 post, and the hundreds of articles it prompted) is the fact that we all seemed quite confused about what Facebook’s newsfeed is supposed to be. Is it an intimate channel for peer to peer communication, where you stay in touch with people who matter to you? Is is a place you go to find out what’s happening in the world at large, a watercooler of sorts, a newspaper, as Zuckerberg has said? Is it a marketing channel, where any brand can pay for the right to pitch you things based on your stated or inferred interests? Is it all of these things? Can it be?

We’re in the midst of finding out. Of course, I have an opinion. It boils down to this: Facebook’s newsfeed should be what I tell it to be, not what Facebook – or anyone else – tells me it should be. If I want to fill my newsfeed with Eat24 sushi porn, then it should be brimming with it. If I tell it to only show musings from Dwight Schrute and  Marc Cuban, then that’s what I want to see. If I love what Mickey D’s is posting and want to see the best of their posts as determined by engagement, then Big Mac me. And if I prefer to keep it to my immediate family, then damnit, show me that.

If the cost of giving me that kind of control is that I have to see a marketer’s post every five or six entries, I’m cool with that. That’s what Twitter does, and it doesn’t bother me, it’s table stakes, I get it. But what I think Facebook’s got wrong is where they’ve instrumented the controls. Facebook spends an inordinate amount of time and energy tweaking a black box set of algorithms to figure out what it thinks I want in my feed, boiling an ever-larger ocean of content into a stream of stuff it believes I want. For reasons I can’t fathom, it doesn’t give me the chance to truly curate my feed, beyond some clunky lists and filters which, from what I can tell, are only good for blocking people or indicating preference for a particular feed (but not saying, for example, “show me everything from this source.”)

Facebook is therefore viewed as paternalistic – it has a vibe of “we’ll figure out what’s best to show you.” You have *some* input into the feed, but you are not encouraged to actively curate it the way you can curate friends or brands on Instagram or Twitter (and I think both have a long way to go as well). I think Facebook could trump all this debate once and for all by putting the end-user of its service in charge, and iterating the newsfeed based on that feedback. Scary, perhaps, but ultimately liberating and, more importantly, truly authentic. Over time, the value will accrue back. As we say around the office at NewCo, give (control) to get (benefit back).

 

Might Curators Be An Answer To Twitter’s Signal To Noise Problem?

By - March 28, 2014
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My stats in 2008.

jbat 3.14 twitter

And at present. 10X the number of folks followed = Signal to Noise problem.

Twitter’s lack of growth over the past few months has quickly become its defining narrative – witness Inside Twitter’s plan to fix itself from Quartz, which despite the headline, fails to actually explain anything about said plan.

As with most things I write about Twitter, I have no particular inside knowledge of the company’s plans, but I’ve written over and over about its core failing, and promise. In 2008 (!) I suggested “TweetSense“, and in 2011, I wrote Twitter and the Ultimate Algorithm: Signal Over Noise (With Major Business Model Implications). It opens with this:

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?

I go on to say that it most certainly has to, because solving the problem allows it to attach sponsored advertisements (promoted tweets in particular) to just the right timelines in just the right context. I called the solution “TweetWords” – because AdWords came before AdSense. Twitter’s promoted tweets product did in fact evolve toward interest-based targeting – alas, in one way only, as far as I can tell. Advertisers can target Twitter users based on their interests (as expressed by what they tweet, retweet, follow, etc.), but they can’t place their promoted tweets contextually into timelines (IE, in a manner that “fits” with the content around them). **Update. Twitter has had keyword targeting – a key step in contextual ad targeting – for a year now. I missed this. My apologies. 

So far, there’s no such thing as TweetSense or TweetWords – where ads are contextual to the stream in which they appear. It seems Twitter has not focused on this particular problem – and it may not have to. Revenues are doing extremely well, and Twitter is clearly opening up new forms of advertising based on larger formats, video (Vine), and cards.

But if the core problem of understanding individual timelines as context is not going to be solved, it’d be a shame – because solving that problem will address Twitter’s core signal to noise issue as well. Here’s more from that 2011 post:

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  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.

I still think this is a huge opportunity for Twitter, and not for revenue reasons. I get a ton of value out of the Twitter platform, but I don’t turn to it for news and happenings anymore. I follow too many people, and managing multiple screens on Tweetdeck is just too much work. Instead, I depend on great curators like Jason Hirschorn and his team at MediaReDEF – essentially the morning newspaper for folks like me – and a number of machine-driven services that consume my feed and spit back the most popular shared stories (News.me, Percolate, etc).

I find the machine services are predictable, but Jason’s service is top notch – he’s an Editor’s Editor. His stuff, along with folks like Dave Pell, have become my go to these days. But Twitter can’t get the mass market users on its system via human curation – or can it?

Back when Twitter was small and the signal was high, I found a lot of value in my Twitter feed. Individuals who were great curators were my favorite follow. Over time my feed clogged with too many other types of folks – and I’ve never found a tool that can help me get back to those halcyon days where the best stuff rose to the top. Twitter’s Discover tab is  interesting, but lacks instrumentation. Wouldn’t it be cool if Twitter somehow elevated the best curators on its platform in some way – promoting their work and helping them gain audience? Sure, it’d feel a lot like the old “who to follow” of the old days (and there was much to criticize with that system), but given how much Twitter now knows about its own platform, it might be a pretty powerful half-step toward giving people a better handle on the richness the platform has to offer. It’d be a great, lightweight way to start using the service, and for power users who have bankrupted their feeds (IE, me), it could really change the game.

I’d love a service on Twitter that pointed out the best curators for any given topic where I’ve indicated a strong interest (and my interests have already been mapped by Twitter, for purposes of promoted tweets). Further – and this is important – I’d love for Twitter to break out those feeds for me as part of its core service – a sort of Headline News to its constant 24-Hour barrage. It’d mean a break with the one-size-fits-all mentality of the main Twitter stream, but I think such a break is overdue.

Chances are, Twitter’s already explored and dismissed these ideas, but…are they crazy?

Why You Should Read The Circle, Even If You Don’t Buy It

By - March 24, 2014

thecircleLast month I finished Dave Eggers’ latest novel The Circle, the first work by a bona fide literary light that takes on our relationship with today’s Internet technology and, in particular, our relationship with corporations like Google.

It took me a while to start The Circle, mainly because of its poor word of mouth. Most of the folks I know who mentioned it, did so in an unfavorable light. “Eggers doesn’t get our industry,” was one theme of the commentary. “He did zero research, and was proud of it!” was another. I wanted to let some time go by before I dove in, if only to let the criticism ebb a bit. It struck me that it’s not a novelist’s job to get an industry *right*, per se, but to tell a story and compel us to think about its consequences in way that might change us a little bit. I wanted to be open to that magic that happens with a great book, and not read it with too much bias.

Once I began, I found the novel engaging and worthy, but in the end, not wholly fulfilling. I found myself wishing Eggers would reveal something new about our relationship to technology and to companies like Google, Facebook, Apple – but in that department the book felt predictable and often overdone.

But first, a bit of background. “The Circle” refers to a fictional company by the same name, a rather terrifying monolith that arises sometime in the near future. The Circle has the arrogance and design sensibilities of Apple, the ‘we can do it because we’re smarter (and richer) than everyone else’ mentality of Google, the always-be-connected-and-share-everything ethos of Facebook, with a dash of Twitter’s public square and plenty of Microsoft’s once-famed rapaciousness. The Circle is, in short, a mashup of every major tech-company cliche in the book, which to be fair kind of makes it fun. It’s run by the “Three Wise Men,” for example, a direct nod to Google’s ten year rule of the “triumvirate” – Page, Brin, and Schmidt.

The story revolves around Mae Holland, a young woman who jumps from a dull job at a local utility to the golden ticket that is an entry level gig at The Circle. Mae is overwhelmed by her luck and eager to please her new bosses. Early on, reading was a lot of fun, because the patter of the Circle employees feels so…familiar. Every problem has a logical and obvious solution, and nearly all of those solutions involve everyone using The Circle’s services. All employees of the Circle become citizens of the Circle, wittingly or not. They live, eat, sleep, fuck, and party with others from the Circle, because that’s how they get ahead. Mae is swept into this culture willingly, losing sight of her family, non-Circle friends, and most of the facets of her life that once defined her. And so the story is pushed along, as Mae slowly becomes a product of the Circle, even as she (unconvincingly) rebels from time to time.

This phenomenon is certainly not foreign to any young tech worker at Google or Facebook, but Eggers takes it to extremes. He nails the breathless “save the world” mentality that often accompanies the pitches of young tech wizards, but offers no counterpoints save perhaps the reader’s own sense of improbability. For example, one exec at The Circle is working on a plan to implant a chip into every newborn’s bones, so there’d be no more child abductions. Another ruse is the sweeping adoption of “Transparency” by elected officials – every public servant uses The Circle’s technology to be “always on” while attending to their duties, so that anyone can check on them at any time (Mae ultimately goes transparent as well). Toward the end, much of government is close to becoming privatized through The Circle, because it’s more efficient, transparent, and accountable. And various ridiculous mottos espoused by The Circle – “Privacy Is Theft,” “Secrets Are Lies,” “All That Happens Must Be Known” – are readily accepted by society. All of these examples are offered as matter of fact, logical ends serving greater social means, but as readers we smirk – they are likely never happen due to issues the book fails to consider.

Then again…It may be that the lack of contrarian views is intentional, and if you can suspend disbelief, you find yourself in the a place not unlike 1984 or Animal Farm – a twisted version of the near future where absolutists have taken over society. And it’s for the creation of that potential that I give The Circle the most credit – it litigates the idea of the corporation as Paternitas, the all seeing, all caring, all nurturing force to which individuals have forsaken themselves so as to allow a greater good. It’s too early to say whether The Circle will stand with such classics, but certainly it does stand as a warning. I found myself disturbed by The Circle, even as I found it easy to dismiss. Because its predictions were too easily made – I couldn’t suspend disbelief.

But perhaps that’s Egger’s point. The Circle forces us to think critically about the world we’re all busy making, and that’s never a waste of time. And besides, the story has all manner of enjoyable and outlandish contours – if you work in this industry, or just find it fascinating, you’ll leave the book entertained. A worthy read.