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What We Lose When We Glorify “Cashless”

By - July 24, 2012

Look, I’m not exactly a huge fan of grimy greenbacks, but I do feel a need to point out something that most coverage of current Valley darling Square seems to miss: The “Death of Cash” also means the “death of anonymous transactions” – and no matter your view of the role of  government and corporations in our life, the very idea that we might lose the ability to transact without the creation of a record merits serious discussion. Unfortunately, this otherwise worthy cover story in Fortune about Square utterly ignores the issue.

And that’s too bad. A recent book called “The End of Money” does get into some of these issues – it’s on my list to read – but in general, I’ve noticed a lack of attention to the anonymity issue in coverage of hot payment startups. In fact, in interviews I’ve read, the author of “The End of Money” makes the point that cash is pretty much a blight on our society – in that it’s the currency of criminals and a millstone around the necks of the poor.

Call it a hunch, but I sense that many of us are not entirely comfortable with a world in which every single thing we buy creates a cloud of data. I’d like to have an option to not have a record of how much I tipped, or what I bought at 1:08 am at a corner market in New York City. Despite protections of law, technology, and custom, that data will remain forever, and sometimes, we simply don’t want it to.

What do you think?  (And yes, I am aware of bitcoin…)

BTW, this mini-rant is very related to my last post: First, Software Eats the World, Then, The Mirror World Emerges.

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First, Software Eats the World, Then, The Mirror World Emerges

By - July 18, 2012

David Gelernter of Yale

(image Edge.org) A month or so ago I had the pleasure of sitting down with Valley legend Marc Andreessen, in the main for the purpose of an interview for my slowly-developing-but-still-moving-forward book. At that point, I had not begun re-reading David Gelernter’s 1991 classic Mirror Worlds: or the Day Software Puts the Universe in a Shoebox…How It Will Happen and What It Will Mean.

Man, I wish I had, because I could have asked Marc if it was his life-goal to turn David’s predictions into reality. Marc is well known for many things, but his recent mantra that “Software Is Eating the World” (Wall St. Journal paid link, more recent overview here) has become nearly everyone’s favorite Go-To Big Valley Trend. And for good reason – the idea seductively resonates on many different levels, and forms the backbone of not just Andreessen’s investment thesis, but of much of the current foment in our startup-driven industry.

A bit of background: Andreessen’s core argument is that nearly every industry in the world is being driven by or turned into software in one way or another. In some places, this process is deeply underway: The entertainment business is almost all software now, for example, and the attendant disruption has created extraordinary value for savvy investors in companies like Amazon, Netflix, and Apple. Further, Marc points out that the largest company in direct marketing these days is a software company: Google. His  thesis extends to transportation (think Uber but also FedEx, which runs on software), retail (besides Amazon, Walmart is a data machine),  healthcare (huge data opportunity, as yet unrealized), energy (same), and even defense. From his Journal article:

The modern combat soldier is embedded in a web of software that provides intelligence, communications, logistics and weapons guidance. Software-powered drones launch airstrikes without putting human pilots at risk. Intelligence agencies do large-scale data mining with software to uncover and track potential terrorist plots.

That quote reminds me of Wired’s first cover story, in 1993, about the future of war. But in 1991, two years before even that watershed moment (well, for me anyway), Yale scholar Gelernter published Mirror Worlds, and in it he predicted that we’d be putting the entire “universe in a shoebox” via software.  Early in the book, Gelernter posits the concept of the Mirror World, which might best be described as a more benign version of The Matrix, specific to any given task, place, or institution. He lays out how such worlds will come to be, and declares that the technology already exists for such worlds to be created. “The software revolution hasn’t begun yet; but it will soon,” he promises.

As we become infinite shadows of data, I sense Gelernter is right, and VCs like Andreessen and the entrepreneurs they are backing are leading the charge. I’ll be reviewing Mirror Worlds later in the summer – I’m spending time with Gelernter at this home in New Haven next month – but for now, I wanted to just note how far we’ve come, and invite all of you, if you are fans of his work, to help me ask Gelernter intelligent questions about how his original thesis has morphed in two decades.

It seems to me that if true “mirror worlds” are going to emerge, the first step will have to be “software eating the world” – IE, we’ll have to infect our entire physical realities with software, such that those realities emanate with real time and useful data. That seems to be happening apace. And the implications of how we go about architecting such systems are massive.

One of my favorite passages from Mirror Worlds, for what it’s worth:

The intellectual content, the social implications of these software gizmos make them far too important to be left in the hands of the computer sciencearchy…..Public policy will be forced to come to grips with the implications. So will every thinking person: A software revolution will change the way society’s business is conducted, and it will change the intellectual landscape.

Indeed!

It’s Hard to Lay Fallow

By - June 27, 2012

I’ll admit it, I’m one of those people who has a Google News alert set for my own name. Back in the day, it meant a lot more than it does now – the search results used to pick up blog mentions as well as “regular” news mentions, and before FacebookLand took over our world (and eschewed Google’s), a news alert was a pretty reliable way to find out what folks might be saying about you or your writing on any given day.

Like most folks who maintain a reasonably public conversation, I now watch Twitter’s @replies far more than I do Google news alerts. Of course, Twitter doesn’t catch everything, so I never unsubscribed from my Google News alert.

Yesterday, one came over the transom, and it kind of crushed me.  “The End of the Tech Conference?” it asked. The opening line was included in the snippet: “The heartbreak was palpable when John Battelle announced via blog post back in April that the Web 2.0 Summit would not be held for the first time since its debut in 2004.”

The funny thing is, while I think the writer intended to describe the Web 2 community’s “heartbreak” – certainly an arguable supposition given how overwhelmed our industry is with conferences – what she may not have realized is how close to home the line hit for me. When I read it, I felt my own loss – it’s difficult to stop doing something you’ve done well and for a long time. In my case, I’ve hosted a gathering of Internet industry leaders nearly every year since 1998 (before Web 2, there was The Industry Standard’s “Internet Summit”). That’s a decade and a half. Not doing it is far harder than I thought.

I took the decision to step away from the Web 2 Summit as inevitable for two main reasons. First, I needed to work on the book, and there didn’t seem to be room for such an ambitious project if I kept my two other day jobs (Web 2 and Federated Media Publishing). Web 2 takes an extraordinary amount of time to do – with nearly 70 speakers and three days of programming, my life very quickly becomes overwhelmed with research, production calls, and pre-interviews, not to mention all the sales, operations, and marketing work.

Second, I had been doing Web 2 for a long time, and I wanted to step away and look at it with fresh eyes – let it lay fallow, so to speak. Stop tilling and seeding the same soil, let it repair, in the most catholic interpretation of the word (“repair” derives from the Latin “to go home”). And it’s this part that’s been really hard. It’s a natural cycle of grief, in a way – I’m probably deep in the trough of sorrow right now – but I do kind of miss the work.

In other words, it’s hard to lay fallow.

But the beauty of a fallow field is what’s going on underneath. If you trust yourself enough, you’ll realize all kinds of seeds are competing to push through and gather the resources of your attention. I’m learning that it takes a lot of will power to let that process run its course. I find myself “watering” all sorts of potential new growth ideas. I’m not sure which will take root, which are weeds, and which might yield the wrong crop, so to speak. And that’s scary.

But it’s also good. If you’re not a little scared, you’re not really paying attention, are you?

Meanwhile, I can report that I *will* be involved in a new kind of gathering this Fall, one that I can’t yet announce, because it involves many other wonderful partners. It’s not a typical tech conference, and it’s certainly not on par with Web 2 in terms of commitment or time – either from me or the attendees. But it’s a seed, one I’m happy to be cultivating. Stay tuned for more on that soon.

Meanwhile, back to the fallows…

(image: Shutterstock)

Do Not Track Is An Opportunity, Not a Threat

By - June 10, 2012

This past week’s industry tempest centered around Microsoft’s decision to implement “Do Not Track” (known as “DNT”) as a default on Internet Explorer 10, a browser update timed to roll out with the company’s long-anticipated Windows 8 release.

Microsoft’s decision caught much of the marketing and media industry by surprise – after all, Microsoft itself is a major player in the advertising business, and in that role has been a strong proponent of the current self-regulatory regime, which includes, at least until Microsoft tossed its grenade into the marketplace, a commitment to implementation of DNT as an opt-in technology, rather than as a default.*

For most readers I don’t need to explain why this matters, but in case you’re new to the debate, when enabled, DNT sets a “flag” telling websites that you don’t want data about your visit to be used for purposes of creating a profile of your browsing history (or for any other reason). Whether we like it or not, such profiles have driven a very large business in display advertising over the past 15 years. Were a majority of consumers to implement DNT, the infrastructure that currently drives wide swathes of the web’s  monetization ecosystem would crumble, taking a lot of quality content along with it.

Once released, it’s estimated that IE 10 could quickly grab as much as 25-30% of browser market share. The idea that the online advertising industry could lose almost a third of its value due to the actions of one rogue player is certainly cause for alarm. Last week’s press were full of conspiracy theories about why Microsoft was making such a move. The company claims it just wants to protect users’ privacy, which strikes me as disingenuous – it’s far more likely that Microsoft is willing to spike its relatively small advertising business in exchange for striking a lethal blow to Google’s core business model, both in advertising and in browser share.

I’m quite certain the Windows 8 team is preparing to market IE 10 – and by extension, Windows 8 – as the safe, privacy-enhancing choice, capitalizing on Google’s many government woes and consumers’ overall unease with the search giant’s power. I’m also quite certain that Microsoft, like many others, suffers from a case of extreme Apple envy, and wishes it had a pristine, closed-loop environment like iOS that it could completely control. In order to create such an environment, Microsoft needs to gain consumer’s trust. Seen from that point of view, implementing DNT as a default just makes sense.

But the more I think through it, the more I’m somewhat unperturbed by the whole affair. In fact, I’m rather excited by it.

First off, it’s not clear that IE10’s approach to DNT will matter. When it comes to whether or not a site has to comply with browser flags such as DNT, websites and third party look to the standard settings body knows as the WC3. That organization’s proposed draft specification on DNT is quite clear: It says no company may enforce a default DNT setting for a user, one way or the other. In other words, this whole thing could be a tempest in a teapot. Wired recently argued that Microsoft will be forced to back down and change its policy.

But I’m kind of hoping Microsoft will keep DNT in place. I know, that’s a pretty crazy thing for a guy who started an advertising-run business to say, but in this supposed threat I see a major opportunity.

Imagine a scenario, beginning sometime next year, when website owners start noticing significant numbers of visitors with IE10 browsers swinging by their sites. Imagine further that Microsoft has stuck to its guns, an all those IE10 browsers have their flags set to “DNT.”

To me, this presents a huge opportunity for the owner of a site to engage with its readers, and explain quite clearly the fact that good content on the Internet is paid for by good marketing on the Internet. And good marketing often needs to use “tracking” data so as to present quality advertising in context. (The same really can and should be said of content on the web – but I’ll just stick to advertising for now).

Advertising and content have always been bound together – in print, on television, and on the web. Sure, you can skip the ad – just flip the page, or press “ffwd” on your DVR. But great advertising, as I’ve long argued, adds value to the content ecosystem, and has as much a right to be in the conversation as does the publisher and the consumer.

Do Not Track provides our industry with a rare opportunity to speak out and explain this fact, and while the dialog box I’ve ginned up at the top of this post is fake, I’d love to see a day when they are popping up all over the web, reminding consumers that not only does quality content need to be supported, in fact, the marketers supporting it actually deserve our attention as well.

At present, the conversation between content creator, content consumer, and marketer is poorly instrumented and rife with mistrust. Our industry’s “ad choices” self regulatory regime – those little triangle icons you see all over display ads these days – is a good start. But we’ve a long way to go. Perhaps unwittingly, Microsoft may be pushing us that much faster toward a better future.

*I am on the board of the IAB, one of the major industry trade groups which promotes self-regulation. The opinions here are my own, as usual. 

In 1844, Morse Gets The Scoop, Then Tweets His Dinner

By - June 07, 2012

I’m reading a fascinating biography of Samuel Morse – Lightning Man: The Accursed Life Of Samuel F.B. Morse by Kenneth Silverman. I’ll post a review in a week or so, but one scene bears a quick post.

Morse successfully demonstrated his telegraph between Baltimore and Washington DC in May of 1844. Three days later the Democratic party convention commenced in Baltimore. In what turned out to be a masterstroke of “being in the right place at the right time,” Morse’s telegraph line happened to be in place to relay news of the convention back to the political classes in DC.

Recall, this was at a time when news was carried by horseback or, in the best case, by rail. It took hours for messages to travel between cities like Baltimore and DC – and they were just 45 miles apart.

Adding to the sensationalism of the telegraph’s public debut, the Democratic convention of 1844 was fraught with controversy and political implication – candidates’ fortunes turned on nation-changing issues such as whether to reclaim Oregon from the British, and whether to annex Texas into the Union, which had serious implications for a growing movement for the abolition of slavery.

Remember, this was 15 years before the Civil War began, and just 30-odd years after the war of 1812, during which the British torched the House of Representatives.

Morse, who by his fifties had endured nearly a dozen years of false starts, failures, near-bankruptcy, and more, turned out to be a master publicist. He positioned his partner Alfred Vail at the convention and himself near Congress. Vail began sending regular reports on the convention to Morse, who was surrounded by hundreds of reporters, Senators,  and other dignitaries in DC. News came in short bursts familiar to anyone who’s spent time on Twitter or Facebook. In the “conversation,” most likely the first of its kind to report news in real time, all of Washington learned that the “dark horse” candidate James Polk, who supported bringing Texas into the Union, would prevail.

It makes for fascinating reading, with a funny kicker at the end:

V[ail] Mr. Brewster of Pa is speaking in favour of Buchanan

M[orse] yes….

V Mr Brewster says his delegation go for VB but if VB’s friends desert them, the Delegation go for Buchanan…. The vote taken will be nearly unanimous for J K Polk & harmony & union are restored

M Is it a fact or a mere rumor

V Wait till the ballot comes…. Illinois goes for Polk … Mich goes for Polk. Penn asks leave to correct her error so as to give her whole vote for Polk….

M Intense anxiety prevails to … hear the result of last Balloting

V Polk is unanimously nom

M 3 cheers have been given here for Polk and 3 for the Telegraph.

V Have you had your dinner

M yes have you

V yes what had you

M mutton chop and strawberries

And so began a revolution in communications and industry. But even back then, folks shared both the extraordinary and the mundane across the wires….

 

 

On Small, Intimate Data

By - May 29, 2012

Part of the research I am doing for the book involves trying to get my head around the concept of “Big Data,” given the premise that we are in a fundamental shift to a digitally driven society. Big data, as you all know, is super hot – Facebook derives its value because of all that big data it has on you and me, Google is probably the original consumer-facing big data company (though Amazon might take issue with that), Microsoft is betting the farm on data in the cloud, Splunk just had a hot IPO because it’s a Big Data play, and so on.

But I’m starting to wonder if Big Data is the right metaphor for all of us as we continue this journey toward a digitally enhanced future. It feels so – impersonal – Big Data is something that is done to us or without regard for us as individuals. We need a metaphor that is more about the person, and less about the machine. At the very least, it should start with us, no?

Elsewhere I’ve written about the intersection of data and the platform for that data – expect a lot more from me on this subject in the future. But in short, I am unconvinced that the current architecture we’ve adopted is ideal – where all “our” data, along with the data created by that data’s co-mingling with other data – lives in “cloud” platforms controlled by large corporations whose terms and values we may or may not agree with (or even pay attention to, though some interesting folks are starting to). And the grammar and vocabulary now seeping into our culture is equally mundane and bereft of the subject’s true potential – the creation, sharing and intermingling of data is perhaps the most important development of our generation, in terms of potential good it can create in the world.

At Web 2 last year a significant theme arose around the idea of “You Are the Platform,” driven by people and companies like Chris Poole, Mozilla, Singly, and many others. I think this is an under-appreciated and important idea for our industry, and it centers around, to torture a phrase, the idea of “small” rather than Big Data. To me, small means limited, intimate, and actionable by individuals. It’s small in the same sense that the original web was “small pieces loosely joined” (and the web itself was “big.”)  It’s intimate in that it’s data that matters a lot to each of us, and that we share with much the same kind of social parameters that might constrain a story at an intimate dinner gathering, or a presentation at a business meeting. And should we choose to share a small amount of intimate data with “the cloud,” it’s important that the cloud understand the nature of that data as distinct from its masses of “Big Data.”

An undeveloped idea, to be sure, but I wanted to sketch this out today before I leave for a week of travel.

An Appreciation of The “Home Phone”

By - May 23, 2012

Last night on a whim I asked folks on Twitter if they had a home phone – you know, a “hard line” – the k ind of communications device that used to be ubiquitous, but seem increasingly an anachronism these days. The response was overwhelming – only three or four of about 35 responses, about ten percent, said they did, and most of those had them due to bad cel reception or because it makes people feel safe in case of an emergency (the “911 effect”).

The reason I conducted my unscientific poll on the home phone came down to my own experience – my home phone (yes, I have one) rings quite rarely, and when it does, it’s almost always a telemarketer, despite the fact that we’re on the “do not call list.” All of our friends and family know if they want to get in touch, they need to call our cels. Of course, our cels don’t work very well in the hills of Marin County, California, which creates a rather asynchronous sense of community, but more on that in a bit.

I set about writing this post not to bury the home phone, but to celebrate it. The home phone is relatively cheap, incredibly reliable, and – if you buy the right phone – will work for years without replacement. Oh, and far as I can tell, a home phone won’t give you brain cancer.

In a perfect world, the hard line should have become a platform for building out an entire app ecosystem for the home. And yet….it didn’t. Thanks to its monopoly nature and the resultant lack of competition, basic home phone service hasn’t changed much in 20 or so years – we got voice mail, call waiting, and a few other “innovations,” and that’s about it. It’s a dumb technology that is only getting dumber.

Now, I understand why the hard line is dying – mobile telephony is much more convenient for the consumer, and far more profitable for the telephone companies. Mobile phones are not a regulated monopoly (at least, not quite yet), so there’s a lot more innovation going on, at least at the platform level.

But I’m not sure we’ve really thought about what we’re losing as we bid adieu to the home phone (and I’m not talking about 911, which is a mostly solved problem). That one phone number – I can still remember mine from my earliest days growing up – was a shared identity for our family. When it rang, it forced a number of social cohesions to occur between us – we’d either race to answer it first (if we thought it might be for us) or we’d argue over who should get it (if we didn’t). An elaborate system of etiquette and social standards flowered around the home phone: how long a child might be allowed to stay on the phone, how late one could call without being impolite, and of course the dread implications of a late night call which violated that norm.

In short, the home phone was a social, shared, immediate technology, one that existed in rhythm with the physical expression of our lives in our most formative space: Our home. But it’s quickly being replaced by a technology that is private, mobile, asynchronous and virtual. Today, my kids don’t even look up if our home phone rings. But they’ll spend hours up in their room, texting their friends and chatting over the Internet. In other words, the loss of the home phone has sped up the phenomenon Sherry Turkle calls “being alone together.” We may be in the same physical space, but we are not sharing the same kind of social space we used to. And something is lost in that transition.

We may yet might decide there’s value in what the home phone once represented. I believe smart entrepreneurs will see opportunity in the “hard line,” and might help us rediscover the benefits of sharing some of our communications bounded once again in real space and time.

Jaron Lanier: Something Doesn’t Smell Right

By - May 08, 2012

Jaron Lanier’s You Are Not A Gadget has been on my reading list for nearly two years, and if nothing else comes of this damn book I’m trying to write, it’ll be satisfying to say that I’ve made my way through any number of important works that for one reason or another, I failed to read up till now.

I met Jaron in the Wired days (that’d be 20 years ago) but I don’t know him well – as with Sherry Turkle and many others, I encountered him through my role as an editor, then followed his career with interest as he veered from fame as a virtual reality pioneer into his current role as chief critic of all things “Web 2.0.” Given my role in that “movement” – I co-founded the Web 2 conferences with Tim O’Reilly in 2004 – it’d be safe to assume that I disagree with most of what Lanier has to say.

I don’t. Not entirely, anyway. In fact, I came away, as I did with Turkle’s work, feeling a strange kinship with Lanier. But more on that in a moment.

In essence, You Are Not A Gadget is a series of arguments, some concise, others a bit shapeless, centering on one theme: Individual human beings are special, and always will be, and digital technology is not a replacement for our humanity. In particular, Lanier is deeply skeptical of any kind of machine-based mechanism that might be seen as replacing or diminishing our specialness, which over the past decade, Lanier sees happening everywhere.

Lanier is most eloquent when he describes, late in the book, what he believes humans to be: the result of a very long, very complicated interaction with reality (sure, irony alert given Lanier’s VR fame, but it makes sense when you read the book):

I believe humans are the result of billions of years of implicit, evolutionary study in the school of hard knocks. The cybernetic structure of a person has been refined by a very large, very long, and very deep encounter with physical reality.

Lanier worries we’re losing that sense of reality. From crowdsourcing and Wikipedia to the Singularity movement, he argues that we’re starting to embrace a technological philosophy that can only lead to loss. Early in the book, he writes:

“…certain specific, popular internet designs of the moment…tend to pull us into life patterns that gradually degrade the ways in which each of us exists as an individual. These unfortunate designs are more oriented toward treating people as relays in a global brain….(this) leads to all sorts of maladies….”

Lanier goes on to specific examples, including the online tracking associated with advertising, the concentration of power in the hands of the “lords of the clouds” such as Microsoft, Facebook, Google, and even Goldman Sachs, the loss of analog musical notation, the rise of locked in, fragile, and impossibly complicated software programs; and ultimately, the demise of the middle class. It’s a potentially powerful argument, and one I wish Lanier had made more completely. Instead, after reading his book, I feel forewarned, but not quite forearmed.

Lanier singles out many of our shared colleagues – the leaders of the Web 2.0 movement – as hopelessly misguided, labeling them “cynernetic totalists” who believe technology will solve all problems, including that of understanding humanity and consciousness. He worries about the fragmentation of our online identity, and warns that Web 2 services – from blogs to Facebook – lead us to leave little pieces of ourselves everywhere, feeding a larger collective, but resulting in no true value to the individual.

If you read my recent piece On Thneeds and the “Death of Display”, this might sound familiar, but I’m not sure I’d be willing to go as far as Lanier does in claiming all this behavior of ours will end up impoverishing our culture forever. I tend to be an optimist, Lanier, less so. He rues the fact that the web never implemented Ted Nelson’s vision of true hypertext – where the creator is remunerated via linked micro-transactions, for example. I think there were good reasons this system didn’t initially win, but there’s no reason to think it never will.

Lanier, an accomplished musician – though admittedly not a very popular one – is convinced that popular culture has been destroyed by the Internet. He writes:

Pop culture has entered into a nostalgic malaise. Online culture is dominated by trivial mashups of the culture that existed before the onset of mashups, and by fandom responding to the dwindling outposts of centralized mass media. It is a culture of reaction without action.

As an avid music fan, I’m not convinced. But Lanier goes further:

Spirituality is committing suicide. Consciousness is attempting to will itself out of existence…the deep meaning of personhood is being reduced by illusions of bits.

Wow! That’s some powerful stuff. But after reading the book, I wasn’t convinced about that, either, though Lanier raises many interesting questions along the way. One of them boils down to the concept of smell – the one sense that we can’t represent digitally. In a section titled “What Makes Something Real Is That It Is Impossible to Represent It To Completion,” Lanier writes:

It’s easy to forget that the very idea of a digital expression involves a trade-off with metaphysical overtones. A physical oil painting cannot convey an image created in another medium; it is impossible to make an oil painting look just like an ink drawing, for instance, or vice versa. But a digital image of sufficient resolution can capture any kind of perceivable image—or at least that’s how you’ll think of it if you believe in bits too much. Of course, it isn’t really so. A digital image of an oil painting is forever a representation, not a real thing. A real painting is a bottomless mystery, like any other real thing. An oil painting changes with time; cracks appear on its face. It has texture, odor, and a sense of presence and history.

This really resonates with me. In particular, the part about the odor. Turns out, odor is a pretty interesting subject. Our sense of smell is inherently physical – actual physical molecules of matter are required to enter our bodies and “mate” with receptors in our nervous system in order for us to experience an odor:

Olfaction, like language, is built up from entries in a catalog, not from infinitely morphable patterns. …the world’s smells can’t be broken down into just a few numbers on a gradient; there is no “smell pixel.”

Lanier suspects – and I find the theory compelling – that olfaction is deeply embedded in what it means to be human. Certainly such a link presents a compelling thought experiment as we transition to a profoundly digital world. I am very interested in what it means for our culture that we are truly “becoming digital,” that we are casting shadows of data in nearly everything we do, and that we are struggling to understand, instrument, and respond socially to this shift. I’m also fascinated by the organizations attempting to leverage that data, from the Internet Big Five to the startups and behind the scenes players (Palantir, IBM, governments, financial institutions, etc) who are profiting from and exploiting this fact.

But I don’t believe we’re in early lockdown mode, destined to digital serfdom. I still very much believe in the human spirit, and am convinced that if any company, government, or leader pushes too hard, we will “sniff them out,” and they will be routed around. Lanier is less complacent: he is warning that if we fail to wake up, we’re in for a very tough few decades, if not worse.

Lanier and I share any number of convictions, regardless. His prescriptions for how to insure we don’t become “gadgets” might well have been the inspiration for my post Put Your Taproot Into the Independent Web, for example (he implores us to create, deeply, and not be lured into expressing ourselves solely in the templates of social networking sites). And he reminds readers that he loves the Internet, and pines, a bit, for the way it used to be, before Web 2 and Facebook (and one must assume, Apple), rebuilt it into forms he now decries.

I pine a bit myself, but remain (perhaps foolishly) optimistic that the best of what we’ve created together will endure, even as we journey onward to discover new ways of valuing what it means to be a person. And I feel lucky to know that I can reach out to Jaron – and I have – to continue this conversation, and report the results of our dialog on this site, and in my own book.

Next up: A review (and dialog with the author) of Larry Lessig’s Code And Other Laws of Cyberspace, Version 2.

Other works I’ve reviewed:

Wikileaks And the Age of Transparency  by Micah Sifry (review)

Republic Lost by Larry Lessig (review)

Where Good Ideas Come From: A Natural History of Innovation by Steven Johnson (my review)

The Singularity Is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology by Ray Kurzweil (my review)

The Corporation (film – my review).

What Technology Wants by Kevin Kelly (my review)

Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other by Sherry Turkle (my review)

The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood by James Gleick (my review)

In The Plex: How Google Thinks, Works, and Shapes Our Lives by Steven Levy (my review)

The Future of the Internet–And How to Stop It by Jonathan Zittrain (my review)

The Next 100 Years: A Forecast for the 21st Century by George Friedman (my review)

Physics of the Future: How Science Will Shape Human Destiny and Our Daily Lives by the Year 2100 by Michio Kaku (my review)

On Thneeds and the “Death of Display”

By - May 07, 2012

It’s all over the news these days: Display advertising is dead. Or put more accurately, the world of “boxes and rectangles” is dead. No one pays attention to banner ads, the reasoning goes, and the model never really worked in the first place (except for direct response). Brand marketers are demanding more for their money, and “standard display” is simply not delivering. After nearly 20 years*, it’s time to bury the banner, and move on to….

…well, to something else. Mostly, if you believe the valuations these days, to big platforms that have their own proprietary ad systems.

All over the industry, you’ll find celebration of new advertising-driven platforms that have eschewed the “boxes and rectangles” model. Twitter makes money off its native “promoted” suite of marketing tools. Tumblr just this week rolled out a similar offering. Pinterest recently hired Facebook’s original monetization wizard to create its own advertising model, separate from standard display. And of course there’s Facebook, which has gone so far as to call its new products “Featured Stories” (as opposed to “Ads” – which is what they are.) Lastly, we mustn’t forget the grandaddy of native advertising platforms, Google, whose search ads redefined the playing field more than a decade ago (although AdSense, it must be said, is very much in the “standard display” business).

Together, these platforms comprise what I’ve come to call the “dependent web,” and they live in a symbiotic relationship with what I call the “independent web.”

But there’s a very big difference between the two when it comes to revenue and perceived value. Dependent web companies are, in short, killing it. Facebook is about to go public at a valuation of $100 billion. Twitter is valued at close to $10 billion. Pinterest is rumored to be worth $4 billion, and who knows what Tumblr’s worth now – it was nearly $1 billion, on close to no revenues, last Fall. And of course Google has a market cap of around $200 billion.

Independent web publishers? With a few exceptions, they’re not killing it. They aren’t massively scaled platforms, after all, they’re often one or two person shops. If “display is dead,” then, well – they’re getting killed.

That’s because, again with few exceptions, independent web sites rely on the “standard display” model to scratch out at least part of a living. And that standard display model was not built to leverage the value of great content sites: engagement with audience. Boxes and rectangles on the side or top of a website simply do not deliver against brand advertising goals. Like it or not, boxes and rectangles have for the most part become the province of direct response advertising, or brand advertising that pays, on average, as if it’s driven by direct response metrics. And unless you’re running a high-traffic site about asbestos lawsuits, that just doesn’t pay the bills for content sites.

Hence, the rolling declaration of display’s death – often by independent industry news sites plastered with banners, boxes and rectangles.

But I don’t think online display is dead. It just needs to be rethought, re-engineered, and reborn. Easy, right?

Well, no, because brand marketers want scale and proof of ROI – and given that any new idea in display has to break out of the box-and-rectangle model first, we’ve got a chicken and egg problem with both scale and proof of value.

But I’ve noticed some promising sprigs of green pushing through the earth of late. First of all, let’s not forget the growth and success of programmatic buying across those “boxes and rectangles.” Using data and real time bidding, demand- and supply-side platforms are growing very quickly, and while the average CPM is low, there is a lot of promise in these new services – so much so, that FMP recently joined forces with one of the best, Lijit Networks. Another promising development is the video interstitial. Once anathema to nearly every publisher on the planet, this full page unit is now standard on the New York Times, Wired, Forbes, and countless other publishing sites. And while audiences may balk at seeing a full-page video ad after clicking from a search engine or other referring agent, the fact is, skipping the ad is about as hard as turning the page in a magazine. And in magazines, full page ads work for marketers.

Another is what many are now calling “native advertising” (sure to be confused with Twitter, Tumblr, and others’ native advertising solutions…) Over at Digiday, which has been doing a bang up job covering the display story, you’ll see debate about the growth of  publisher-based “native advertising units,” which are units that run in the editorial well, and are often populated with advertiser-sponsored content. FMP has been doing this kind of advertising for nearly three years, and of course it pioneered the concept of content marketing back in 2006. The key to success here, we’ve found, is getting context right, at scale, and of course providing transparency (IE, don’t try to fool an audience, they’re far smarter than that.)

And lastly, there are the new “Rising Star” units from the IAB (where I am a board member). These are, put quite simply, reimagined, larger and more interactive boxes and rectangles. A good step, but not a panacea.

So as much as I am rooting for these new approaches to display, and expect that they will start to be combined in ways that really pay off for publishers, they have a limitation: they’re focused on what I’ll call a “site-specific” model: for a publisher to get rewarded for creating great content, that publisher must endeavor to bring visitors to their site so those visitors can see the ads.  If we look toward the future, that’s not going to be enough. In an ideal Internet world, great content is rewarded for being shared, reposted,  viewed elsewhere and yes, even “liked.”

Up to now, that reward has had one single currency: Traffic back to the site.

Think of the largest referrers of traffic to the “rest of the web” – who are they? Yep – the very same companies with huge valuations – Google, Facebook, Twitter, and now Pinterest. What do they have in common? They’ve figured out a way to leverage the content created by the “rest of the web” and resell it to marketers at scale and for value (or, at least VCs believe they will soon). It’s always been an implicit deal, starting with search and moving into social: We cull, curate, and leverage your content, and in return, we’ll send traffic back to your site.

But given that we’re in for an extended transition from boxes and rectangles to ideas that, we hope, are better over time, well, that traffic deal just isn’t enough. It’s time to imagine bigger things.

Before we do, let’s step back for a moment and consider the independent web site. The…content creator. The web publisher. The talent, if you will. The person with a voice, an audience, a community. The hundreds of thousands (millions, really) of folks who, for good or bad, have plastered banners all over their site in the hope that perhaps the checks might get a bit bigger next month. (Of course this includes traditional media sites, like publishers who made their nut in print, for example). To me, these people comprise the equivalent of forests in the Internet’s ecosystem. They create the oxygen that feeds much of our world: Great content, great engagement, and great audiences.

Perhaps I’m becoming a cranky old man, a Lorax, if you must, but I’m going to jump up on a stump right now and say it: curation-based platform models that harvest the work of great content creators, creating “Thneeds” along the way, are failing to see the forest for the trees. Their quid pro quo deal to “send more traffic” ain’t enough.**

It’s time that content creators derived real value from the platforms they feed. A new model is needed, and if one doesn’t emerge (or is obstructed by the terms of service of large platforms), I worry about the future of the open web itself. If we, as an industry, don’t get just a wee bit better at taking care of content creators, we’re going to destroy our own ecosystem – and we’ll watch the Pinterests, Twitters, and yes, even the Google and Facebooks of the world deteriorate for lack of new content to curate.

Put another way: Unless someone cares, a whole awful lot…it isn’t going to get better. It’s not.

Cough.

So I’m here to say not only do I care, so do the hundreds of people working at Federated Media Publishing and Lijit, and at a burgeoning ecosystem of companies, publishers, and marketers who are coming to realize it’s time to wake up from our “standard display” dream and create some new models. It’s not the big platforms’ job to create that model – but it will be their job to not stand in the way of it.

So what might a new approach look like? Well first and foremost, it doesn’t mean abandoning the site-specific approach. Instead, I suggest we augment that revenue stream with another, one that ties individual “atomic units” of content to similar “atomic units” of marketing messaging, so that together they can travel the Seussian highways of the social web with a business model intact.

Because if the traffic referral game has proven anything to us as publishers, it’s that great content doesn’t want to be bound to one site. The rise of Pinterest, among others, proves this fact. Ideally, content should be shared, mixed, mashed, and reposted – it wants to flow through the Internet like water. This was the point of RSS, after all – a technology that has actually been declared dead more often than the lowly display banner. (For those of you too young to recall RSS, it’s a technology that allows publishers to share their content as “feeds” to any third party.)

RSS has, in the main, “failed” as a commercial entity because publishers realized they couldn’t make money by allowing people to consume their content “offsite.” The tyranny of the site-specific model forced most commercial publishers to use RSS only for display of headlines and snippets of text – bait, if you will, to bring audiences back to the site.

I’ve written about the implications of RSS and its death over and over again, because I love its goal of weaving content throughout the Internet. But and each time I’ve considered RSS, I’ve found myself wanting for a solution to its ills. I love the idea of content flowing any and everywhere around the Internet, but I also understand and sympathize with the content creator’s dilemma: If my content is scattered to the Internet’s winds, consumed on far continents with no remuneration to me, I can’t make a living as a content creator. So it’s no wonder that the creator swallows hard, and limits her RSS feed in the hopes that traffic will rise on her site (a few intrepid souls, like me, keep their RSS feeds “full text.” But I don’t rely on this site, directly, to make a living.)

So let’s review. We now have three broken or limping models in independent Internet publishing: the traffic-hungry site-specific content model, the “standard display” model upon which it depends, and the RSS model, which failed due to lack of “monetization.”

But inside this seeming mess, if you stare long and hard enough, there are answers staring back at you. In short, it’s time to leverage the big platforms for more than just traffic. It’s time to do what the biggest holders of IP (the film and TV folks) have already done – go where the money is. But this time, the approach needs to be different.

I’ve already hinted at it above: Wrap content with appropriate underwriting, and set it free to roam the Internet. Of course, such a system will have to navigate business process rules (the platforms’ Terms of Service), and break free of scale and ROI constraints. I believe this can be done.

But given that I’m already at 2500 words, I think I’ll be writing about that approach in a future post. Stay tuned, and remember – “Unless….”

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*As a co-founder of Wired, I had a small part to play in the banner’s birth – the first banner ran on HotWired in 1994. It had a 78% clickthrough rate. 

**Using ad networks, the average small publisher earns about seventy-five cents per thousand on her display ads. Let’s do the math. Let’s say Molly the Scone Blogger gets an average of 50,000 page views a month, pretty good for a food blogger. We know the average ad network pays about 65 to 85 cents per thousand page views at the moment (for reasons explained above, despite the continuing focus of the industrial ad technology complex, which is working to raise those prices with data and context). And let’s say Molly puts two ads per page on her site. That means she has one hundred “thousands” to sell, at around 75 cents a thousand. This means Molly gets a check for about $75 each month. Now, Molly loves her site, and loves her audience and community, and wants to make enough to do it more. Since her only leverage is increased traffic, she will labor at Pinterest, Twitter, Facebook, and Google+, promoting her content and doing her best to gain more audience.

Perhaps she can double her traffic, and her monthly income might go from $75 to $150. That helps with the groceries, but it’s a terrible return on invested time. So what might Molly do? Well, if she can’t join a higher-paying network like FMP, she may well decide to abandon content creation all together. And when she stops investing in her own site, guess what happens? She’s not creating new content for Pinterest, Twitter, Facebook and Google to harvest, and she’s not using those platforms to distribute her content.

For the past seven years, it’s been FMP’s business to get people like Molly paid a lot more than 75 cents per thousand audience members. We’re proud of the hundred plus million dollars we’ve injected into the Independent web, but I have to be honest with you. There are way more Mollys in the world than FMP can help – at least under current industry conditions. And while we’ve innovated like crazy to create value beyond standard banners, it’s going to take more to insure content creators get paid appropriately. It’s time to think outside the box.

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Special thanks to folks who have been helping me think through this issue, including Deanna Brown and the FMP team, Randall Rothenberg of the IAB, Brian Monahan, Chas Edwards, Jeff Dachis, Brian Morrissey, and many, many more. 

 

A Coachella “Fail-ble”: Do We Hold Spectrum in Common?

By - April 18, 2012

Neon Indian at Coachella last weekend.

 

Last weekend I had the distinct pleasure of taking two days off the grid and heading to a music festival called Coachella. Now, when I say “off the grid,” I mean time away from my normal work life (yes, I tend to work a bit on the weekends), and my normal family life (I usually reserve the balance of weekends for family, this was the first couple of days “alone” I’ve had in more than a year.)

What I most certainly did not want to be was off the information grid – the data lifeline that all of us so presumptively leverage through our digital devices. But for the entire time I was at the festival, unfortunately, that’s exactly what happened – to me, and to most of the 85,000 or so other people trying to use their smartphones while at the show.

I’m not writing this post to blame AT&T (my carrier), or Verizon, or the producers of Coachella, though each have some part to play in the failure that occurred last weekend (and most likely will occur again this weekend, when Coachella produces its second of two festival weekends). Rather, I’m deeply interested in how this story came about, why it matters, and what, if anything, can be done about it.

First, let’s set some assumptions. When tens of thousands of young people (the average age of a Coachella fan is in the mid to low 20s) gather in any one place in the United States, it’s a safe bet these things are true:

– Nearly everyone has a smartphone in their possession.

– Nearly everyone plans on using that smartphone to connect with friends at the show, as well as to record, share, and amplify the experience they are having while at the event.

– Nearly everyone knows that service at large events is awful, yet they hope their phone will work, at least some of the time. Perhaps a cash-rich sponsor will pay to bring in extra bandwidth, or maybe the promoter will spring for it out of the profit from ticket sales. Regardless, they expect some service delays, and plan on using low-bandwidth texting services more than they’d like to.

– Nearly everyone leaves a show like Coachella unhappy with their service provider, and unable to truly express themselves in ways they wished they could. Those ways might include, in no particular order: Communicating with friends so as to meet up (“See you at the Outdoor stage, right side middle, for Grace Potter!”), tweeting or Facebooking a message to followers (“Neon Indian is killing it right now!”), checking in on Foursquare or any other location service so as to gain value in a social game (or in my case, to create digital breadcrumbs to remind me who I was once in hit dotage), uploading photos to any number of social photo services like Instagram, or using new, music-specific apps like TastemakerX on a whim (“I’d like to buy 100 shares of Yuck, those guys just blew me away!”). Oh, and it’d be nice to make a phone call home if you need to.

But for the most part, I and all my friends were unable to do any of these things at Coachella last weekend, at least not in real time. I felt as if I was drinking from a very thin, very clogged cocktail straw. Data service was simply non existent onsite. Texts came in, but more often than not they were timeshifted: I’d get ten texts delivered some 20 minutes after they were sent. And phone service was about as good as it is on Sand Hill Road – spotty, prone to drops, and often just not available. I did manage to get some data service while at the show, but that was because I found a press tent and logged onto the local wifi network there, or I “tricked” my phone into thinking it was logging onto the network for the first time (by turning “airplane mode” off and on over and over again).

This all left me wondering – what if? What if there was an open pipe, both up and down, that could handle all that traffic? What if everyone who came to the show knew that pipe would be open, and work? What kind of value would have been created had that been the case? How much more data would have populated the world, how much richer would literally millions of people’s lives been for seeing the joyful expressions of their friends as they engaged in a wonderful experience? How much more learning might have countless startups gathered, had they been able to truly capture the real time intentions of their customers at such an event?

In short, how much have we lost as a society because we’ve failed to solve our own bandwidth problems?

I know, it’s just a rock festival, and jeez Battelle, shut off your phone and just dance, right? OK, I get that, I trust me, I did dance, a lot. But I also like to take a minute here or there to connect to the people I love, or who follow me, and share with them my passions and my excitement. We are becoming a digital society, to pretend otherwise is to ignore reality. And with very few exceptions, it was just not possible to intermingle the digital and the physical at Coachella. (I did hear reports that folks with Verizon were having better luck, but that probably because there were fewer Verizon iPhones than those with AT&T. And think about that language – “luck”?!).

Way back in 2008, when the iPhone was new and Instagram was a gleam in Kevin Systrom’s eye, I was involved in creating a service called CrowdFire. It was a way for fans at a festival (the first was Outside Lands) to share photos, tweets, and texts in a location and event specific way. I’ve always rued our decision to not spin CrowdFire out as a separate company, but regardless, my main memory of the service was how crippled it was due to bandwidth failure. It was actually better than Coachella, but not by much. So in four years, we’ve managed to go backwards when it comes to this problem.

Of course, the amount of data we’re using has exploded, so credit to the carriers for doing their best to keep up. But can they get to the promised land? I wonder, at least under the current system of economic incentives we’ve adopted in the United States. Sure, there will always be traffic jams, but have we really thought through the best approach to how we execute “the Internet in the sky?”

Put another way, do we not hold the ability to share who we are, our very digital reflections, as a commons to which all of us should have equal access?

As I was driving to the festival last Saturday, I engaged in a conversation with one of my fellow passengers about this subject. What do we, as a society, hold in commons, and where do digital services fit in, if at all?

Well, we were driving to Coachella on city roads, held in commons through municipalities, for one. And we then got on Interstate 10 for a few miles, which is held in commons by federal agencies in conjunction with local governments. So it’s pretty clear we have, as a society, made the decision that the infrastructure for the transport of atoms – whether they be cars and the humans in them, or trucks and the commercial goods within them – is held in a public commons.Sure, we hit some traffic, but it wasn’t that bad, and there were ways to route around it.

What else do we hold in a commons? We ticked off the list of stuff upon we depend – the transportation of water and power to our homes and our businesses, for example. Those certainly are (mostly) held in the public commons as well.

So it’s pretty clear that over the course of time, we’ve decided that when it comes to moving ourselves around, and making sure we have power and water, we’re OK with the government managing the infrastructure. But what of bits? What of “ourselves” as expressed digitally?

For the “hardwired” Internet – the place that gave us the Web, Google, Facebook, et al, we built upon what was arguably a publicly common infrastructure. Thanks to government and social normative regulation, the hard-wired Internet was architected to be open to all, with a commercial imperative that insured bandwidth issues were addressed in a reasonable fashion (Cisco, Comcast, etc.).

But with wireless, we’ve taken what is a public asset – radio spectrum – and we’ve licensed it to private companies under a thicket of regulatory oversight. And without laying blame – there’s probably plenty of it to go around – we’ve proceeded to make a mess of it. What we have here, it seems to me, is a failure. Is it a market failure – which usual preceeds government action? I’m not sure that’s the case. But it’s a fail, nevertheless. I’d like to get smarter on this issue, even though the prospect of it makes my head hurt.

As I wrote yesterday, I recently spent some time in Washington DC, and sat down with the Obama administration’s point person on that question, FCC Chair Julius Genachowski. As I expected, the issue of spectrum allocation is extraordinarily complicated, and it’s unlikely we’ll find a way out of the “Coachella Fail-ble” anytime soon. But there is hope. Technological disruption is one way – watch the “white spaces,” for instance. And in a world where marketing claims to be “the fastest” spur customer switching, our carriers are madly scrambling to upgrade their networks. Yet in the US, wireless speeds are far below those of countries in Europe and Asia.

I plan on finding out more as I report, but I may as well ask you, my smarter readers: Why is this the case? And does it have anything to do with what those other countries consider to be held in “digital commons”?

I’ll readily admit I’m simply a journeyman asking questions here, not a firebrand looking to lay blame. I understand this is a complicated topic, but it’s one for which I’d love your input and guidance.