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Google As Content Company – A Trend Worth Watching

By - September 08, 2011

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It’s been a while since I’ve said this, but I’ll say it again: Google is a media company, and at some point, most media companies get pretty deep into the Making Original Content business. With the acquisition of Zagat* Google has clearly indicated it’s going to play in a space it once left to the millions of partners who drove value in its search and advertising business. Google is walking a thin line here – media partners are critical to its success, but if its seen as favoring its “owned and operated” content over those who operate in the open or independent web, well, lines may be redrawn in the media business.

Now, it’s easy to argue that this was a small, strategic buy to support Google’s local offering. Then again…Blogger, YouTube, and GoogleTV are not small efforts at Google. And if I were an independent publisher who focused on the travel and entertainment category, I’d be more than a bit concerned about how my content might rank in Google compared to Zagat. Just ask Yelp.

So…what other content-driven categories might Google find the need to get into? Well, ask yourself this question: What other content-driven business categories are important to Google?

Answering that question falls into the category of “things that make you go….huh…”

I’ll have more thinking on this soon, I hope. But I wanted to note the sale as indicative or a larger trend worth watching.

*Zagat has had a commercial relationship with FM, a company I founded, but not a material one on either side as I understand it.

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We Need An Identity Re-Aggregator (That We Control)

By - August 29, 2011

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The subject of “owning your own domain” has been covered to death in our industry, with excellent posts from Anil Dash and others (Fred) explaining the importance of having your own place on the web. I’ve also weighed in on the importance of “The Independent Web,” where creators have control, as opposed to the Dependent Web, where platforms ultimately control how your words, data, and expression are leveraged.

But not everyone gravitates toward having their own, independent site – at least not initially. Even those who do have sites don’t necessarily see those sites as the best place to express themselves. I was reminded of this reading a Quora thread over the weekend entitled “What’s it like to have your film flop at the box office?” (The subtitle of the thread is hilarious: “Don’t they know how bad it is before it comes out?”)

The question elicited a well written, funny, and informative post by one Sean Hood, a professional “fixer” of scripts who had worked on the recent “Conan the Barbarian” movie – apparently a big-time summer flop.

It’s clear that Hood was inspired to write a wonderful post not because he wanted to muse out loud on his own blog (he does, it turns out, have one), but because of something particularly social in nature about Quora.

The same, I’d wager, can be said of Google+, where a lot of folks, including well know “traditional bloggers” like Robert Scoble are content to post at length, regardless of the fact that Google+, unlike blogging software like WordPress, is not a platform that they “control.” Ditto places like the Huffington Post, Facebook, ePinions, Amazon Reviews – you get the picture. The web is full of places where the value is created by authors, but control and monetization accrues, in the main, to the company, not the individual.

Scoble, who is paid by the hosting company Rackspace to be nearly omnipresent, is clearly an edge case. He’s a professional blogger, but he doesn’t really care where his words live, as long as they get a lot of attention. Traditional authors, like, for example, the folks behind Dooce or The Awl, are far less likely to leave their core value – their words – all over the web, and in particular, they don’t see the point of given that value away for free, when their own sites provide their economic lifeblood (both sites are FM partners, but there are tens of thousands of others as well.).

The downsides of not owning your own words, on your own platform, are not limited simply to money. Over time, the words and opinions one leaves all over the web form a web of identity – your identity – and controlling that identity feels, to me, a human right. But unless you are a sophisticated netizen, you’re never going to spend the time and effort required to gather all your utterances in one place, in a fashion that best reflects who you are in the world.

Every site has a different terms of service – rules which guide what rights you have when you post on the site. I haven’t read them all (most of us don’t), but I’d imagine most of the would allow you to take your own words and cut and paste them on your own site, should you be so inspired. On his personal blog, Sean Hood, the film writer, has linked to many of his past answers on Quora. But he hasn’t “re-posted” them – which I think is a shame. Because while Quora is a great service, should it go dark, Sean’s words will be lost.

Earlier in the year I wrote a piece called “The Rise of Meta Services,” in which I posited that we need a new class of services that help us make sense of the fractured nature of all the sites, apps, and platforms we’re using. I’d wager there’s a great opportunity to create such a service that follows individuals around the web, noting, indexing, and reposting everything he or she writes back to his or her own domain.

Or maybe there’s already a WordPress plugin for that?!

More on Twitter's Great Opportunity/Problem

By - August 10, 2011

Itwitter-bird.pngn the comments on this previous post, I promised I’d respond with another post, as my commenting system is archaic (something I’m fixing soon). The comments were varied and interesting, and fell into a few buckets. I also have a few more of my own thoughts to toss out there, given what I’ve heard from you all, as well as some thinking I’ve done in the past day or so.

First, a few of my own thoughts. I wrote the post quickly, but have been thinking about the signal to noise problem, and how solving it addresses Twitter’s advertising scale issues, for a long, long time. More than a year, in fact. I’m not sure why I finally got around to writing that piece on Friday, but I’m glad I did.

What I didn’t get into is some details about how massive the solving of this problem really is. Twitter is more than the sum of its 200 million tweets, it’s also a massive consumer of the web itself. Many of those tweets have within them URLs pointing to the “rest of the web” (an old figure put the percent at 25, I’d wager it’s higher now). Even if it were just 25%, that’s 50 million URLs a day to process, and growing. It’s a very important signal, but it means that Twitter is, in essence, also a web search engine, a directory, and a massive discovery engine. It’s not trivial to unpack, dedupe, analyze, contextualize, crawl, and digest 50 million URLs a day. But if Twitter is going to really exploit its potential, that’s exactly what it has to do.

The same is true of Twitter’s semantic challenge/opportunity. As I said in my last post, tweets express meaning. It’s not enough to “crawl” tweets for keywords and associate them with other related tweets. The point is to associate them based on meaning, intent, semantics, and – this is important – narrative continuity over time. No one that I know of does this at scale, yet. Twitter can and should.

Which gets me to all of your comments. I heard both in the written comments, on Twitter, and in extensive emails offline, from developers who are working on parts of the problems/opportunities I outlined in my initial post. And it’s true, there’s really quite a robust ecosystem out there. Trendspottr, OneRiot, Roundtable, Percolate, Evri, InfiniGraph, The Shared Web, Seesmic, Scoopit, Kosmix, Summify, and many others were mentioned to me. I am sure there are many more. But while I am certain Twitter not only benefits from its ecosystem of developers, it actually *needs* them, I am not so sure any of them can or should solve this core issue for the company.

Several commentators noted, as did Suamil, “Twitter’s firehose is licensed out to at least publicly disclosed 10 companies (my former employer Kosmix being one of them and Google/Bing being the others) and presumably now more people have their hands on it. Of course, those cos don’t see user passwords but have access to just about every other piece of data and can build, from a systems standpoint, just about everything Twitter can/could. No?”

Well, in fact, I don’t know about that. For one, I’m pretty sure Twitter isn’t going to export the growing database around how its advertising system interacts with the rest of Twitter, right? On “everything else,” I’d like to know for certain, but it strikes me that there’s got to be more data that Twitter holds back from the firehose. Data about the data, for example. I’m not sure, and I’d love a clear answer. Anyone have one? I suppose at this point I could ask the company….I’ll let you know if I find out anything. Let me know the same. And thanks for reading.

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

By - August 06, 2011

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Hi Jonathan -

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

To which he responded:

“Sure!”

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

JBAT:

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

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

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

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

- Apple

- Twitter

- Microsoft (again break it down if you wish)

Thanks!

JONATHAN ZITTRAIN:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

—-####—-

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

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

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

By - August 05, 2011

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The question is, can it be built?

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

Who Am I, According to Google Ads? Who Am I, According to the Web? Who Do I Want to Be?

By - August 03, 2011

Over on Hacker News, I noticed this headline: See what Google knows about you. Now that’s a pretty compelling promise, so I clicked. It took me to this page:

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Ah, the Google ad preferences page. It’s been a while since I’ve visited this place. It gives you a limited but nonetheless interesting overview of the various categories and demographic information Google believes reflect your interests (and in a way, your identity, or “who you are” in the eyes of an advertising client). This is all based on a cookie Google places on your browser.

I was hoping for more – because Google has a lot more information about us than just our advertising preferences (think of how you use Google apps like Docs, or Gmail, or Google+, or Search, or….). But it’s an interesting start. I certainly hope that someday soon, Google will pull of this in one place, and let us edit/export/correct/leverage it. I sense probably it will. If it does, expect some pretty big shifts in how our culture understands identity to take place. But more on that later.

Anyway, I thought it’d be interesting to see who and what Google thought I was. I use three browsers primarily, and I use them in different ways. My main browser has been Apple’s Safari, but lately it’s become slow and a bit of a pain to use. I have my suspicions as to why (iWorld, anyone?), but it’s led me to a gradual move over to Google Chrome, which is way faster and feature rich. I’d say over the past few months, I’ve used Safari about 60% of the time, and Chrome about 30% of the time. The other 10%? I use Firefox. Why? Well, that’s the browser I use when I want anonymity. I have it set to “do not record my history” and I delete cookies on it from time to time. For this reason, it’s not very useful, but I do like having a “clean” browser to try out new services without the baggage of those services sniffing out my past identity in some way. Increasingly, I think this ability will become second nature to us all – after all, we are not the same person everywhere we are in the physical world, and our identity is something we want to manage and control ourselves (for more on that, read my piece Identity and The Independent Web). We just haven’t come to this realization culturally. We will.

There’s currently a pretty hotly contested identity debate in the ourosborosphere, and I find myself aligning with the Freds and Anils of the world. I’m glad this debate is happening, but the real shift will come from the bottom up, as more and more people realize they want to more carefully instrument “who” they are online, and start to realize the implications of not paying attention to this. And entrepreneurs will see opportunities to catch this coming wave, as the time comes for services that help us manage all this identity data in a way that feels natural and appropriate. Sure, there have already been attempts, but they came before our society was ready. It soon will be.

Meanwhile, it’s interesting to see who Google thinks I am in the three browsers I use. In Safari, where I have the longest history, here’s my profile:

my safari google data.png

I find it interesting to note that Google gets my age wrong (I’ve been 45 for nearly a year), and that it thinks I am so into Law & Government, but that’s probably because I read so much policy stuff for my book, my work with FM and the IAB, and my writing here. Otherwise, it’s a pretty decent picture of me, though it misses a lot as well. I love that I can add categories – I am tempted to do just that and see if the ads change noticeably, but I don’t like that I can’t correct my identity information (for example, tell Google how old I really am). In short, this is a great start, but it’s pretty poorly instrumented. I’d be very interested in how it changes if and when I really start using Google+ (I am on it, but not really active. This is typical of me with new services.)

Now, let’s take a look at my Google Chrome “identity” as it relates to Google Ads:

my chrome data Google.png

Not much there. Odd, given I’ve used it a lot. Seems either Google is holding some info back, or is pretty slow to gather data on me in Chrome. I find that hard to believe, but there you have it. It’s not like I only use Chrome to look for books or read long articles, though I think I have used it for my limited interaction with Google+, because I figured it’d work best in a Google browswer. Hmmm.

Now, on to Firefox, which as you recall is the one I keep “clean,” or, put another way, my identity is “anonymous.”

Firefox data Google.png

Just as I would have expected it.

I’ll be watching for more dashboards like this one to pop up over the coming years, and I expect more tools will help us manage them – across non-federated services like Google, Facebook, Twitter, etc. It’s going to be a very interesting evolution.

Google Google, Wait A Minute. This Is About Us, Isn't It? Google (And Everyone Else) Is Just a Means to Our Ends…

By - July 15, 2011

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One last thought before I hit the hay after a long, satisfying evening with the people who gave me the chance to start FM in their garage, the Shores. And that is this: Google killed its earnings earlier this evening thanks in part to is algorithmic approach to display advertising (not that profit was easily broken out, I’m sure it contributed in the way most mature brand businesses do, which, as a mature business, must be looking way better than it did a few years ago. Congrats, Google, on both your work in display, which I am not sure can scale to ten billion without some changes, and in Google+, which I sense, with the right ad products, just might.)

I wrote a book about Google and its world, how it all happened, five or so years ago. And I am super happy that the company I chose to focus on is still prospering, just as I and pleased that Wired still defines the tech publishing zeitgeist, and that the Industry Standard, alive in a few countries that are not really in the US, is still seen as the paragon of reporting on the story so many, including current and past partners of FM, have reported on since.

So I spend the evening with old (in years spent together, not in age) friends Martin and Robyn, in the new space I plan to use as my creative retreat for the new book. And I realize this – one of the most fundamental things we all might consider as we move along the path that life provides us: it’s all about the moment, and the creation and curation of that moment on behalf of those you care about. That’s my job, that’s the job of everyone associated with Federated Media, whether it’s the 170 or so people who work with us, or it’s the tens of thousands of Independent voices who in one way or another partner with us. After six years, the Independent Web is ready to come into its own.

It’s about figuring out the moment worth sharing, the story, in our voice, that you might want to connect to. It’s really not much more complicated than that, though we, as marketing partners, may make it so at times (ROI, CTR, conversion, closed loop marketing, conversation targeting, I mean, it’s endless). It’s honestly, not more complicated than this: Someone you respect, saying something you want to hear. Therein lies the value of brand – whether you are a publisher, a marketer, a reader, or a creator working inside the system all of those create. You want to either be that brand, or recognize it as worthy, and associate with it. That’s branding, in a nutshell, ain’t it?

It’s all about the moment that you, as a reader having gotten to the fouth paragraph of this late night rant, are having right now, understanding what I and tens of thousands of other independent voices have to say every day. And somehow, making it our work to support and underwrite and create a platform that allows that expression to continue, but more than that, to matter, in a way that just might change things, in some small or large way, over the course of the next few years, if not for the next generation (like Fred, my kids read this site, but I don’t know if they will appreciate this sentiment, today, but I trust they will, someday…) So as a parent and member of this global culture, I have to believe that someday, they will, whoever they are. And i hope to be alive when they realize the value of our shared conversation here. It’s nearly 6000 posts now, and that, as Fred points out, is more extraordinary than any book I might write). That’s why I still work at FM, and why I still write here, even it it’s at nearly 5 am, and I just published Signal because, after being with great friends who made it all possible, I appreciate and honor the chance to get paid to think about these topics, write posts and even books about them, and listen to you feedback while I do it. It’s why I love this thing we call the Internet. As Denise Caruso says, it’s number, oh, I’ll pick a number, 195, number 195 why I love the Internet. That good enough, Denise?!

I certainly hope so. Because if Denise is down with it, then I sense the rest of you will be too. Here’s to #wwhw, and all it might entail.

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

By - July 13, 2011

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

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

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

jbat twitter.png

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

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

jbattwitter.png

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

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

jbatgoogleplus.png

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

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

More soon.

Time For A New Software Economy

By - July 12, 2011

mc-vs-pc-vs-goog.jpegWay back in the day, before all this Interweb stuff made news, we had a computer hardware and software industry that was both exciting and predictable. I was a cub reporter in those days, covering an upstart company (Apple) as it did battle with two dug-in monopolists: IBM in hardware, and Microsoft in software. IBM was clearly on its way down (losing share to legions of hardware upstarts in Asia and the US), but Microsoft was an obvious – and seemingly unbeatable – winner.

Underdog Apple had a cult following (I was part of it), and its products were clearly better, but it didn’t seem to matter. Quality wasn’t winning, and as a young journalist that fact irritated me. But that’s only an orthogonal part of the story I want to tell today.

Back in the late 1980s, Steve Jobs wasn’t running Apple, but his DNA was very clearly still in the company (for those who don’t obsessively follow Apple, Jobs and Woz founded the company, then Steve’s board brought in John Sculley to run it in 1983. Sculley then fired Jobs from any operational role. Jobs returned to Apple’s helm in 1997.) Apple in the 80s and 90s was secretive, paranoid, full of extraordinary talent, and convinced it was being unfairly treated by Microsoft.

In the main, Apple’s fears were pretty well founded. And there was perhaps no greater battlefield to prove those fears than the battle for the hearts and minds of software developers. (Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer has never really forgotten this lesson).

In the 1980s and 90s, developers were the most important class of value creator in the digital economy – they were the entrepreneurs and marketers leveraging the new platforms of Apple and Windows, building new businesses out of thin air. Borland, Oracle, Lotus, Intuit – I could list scores, if not hundreds, of successful developers from that time. Many still exist today.

As a reporter, developers were often my best sources, because Apple and Microsoft would show them early versions of hardware and operating systems. Developers would then talk to me about those new products, and I’d get my scoops. That was how the information ecosystem worked, and everyone knew it. Developers had a ton of power – they made the products which drove sales on the Windows and Apple platforms, and if they felt slighted, they could always go to the press and apply pressure as needed.

Fast forward to now, and substitute the Internet platforms of today (the open HTML web, Apple’s iOS, Facebook’s Platform, Android, and to a lesser extent Twitter and Google’s Chrome) for the ones of my fading yesteryear. How do they stack up?

Not so well, I’m afraid. While the early Internet was a paradise for a certain kind of developer – anyone who knew HTML and could figure out a way to create value on the nascent web – what’s emerged in the past five years of the new mobile web is not a very promising foundation for the creation of lasting value. I’m speaking, in the main, about the “app economy” – a fractured ecosystem lacking a strong economic and technological true north.

Of course, Apple’s current cult of followers would argue that there *is* a True North: iOS. But I’m not seeing great new companies born on Apple’s platform, as they were back 20 years ago. Angry Birds aside, am I missing something here?

One could argue Facebook is such a platform, and declare Zynga proof that great companies have been created thanks to Facebook’s platform. But last time I checked, Zynga was one company, not scores of them.

Android is Google’s answer (as is Chrome, to a confusing extent), but so far, Android seems to be taking the same route as iOS in economic terms – make an app, hope for a hit, where a hit is defined in tens of thousands of dollars in revenue (not exactly a business). And Twitter still has work to do before it becomes a true platform for economic value creation (though promising signs are in the air).

The HTML or open web is still the best and most robust platform for development of true value, to my mind. And hundreds, if not thousands, of developers and entrepreneurs have succeeded by leveraging it. But it lacks what that early Apple and Windows ecosystem had: a true software business, one that provided differentiating value such that consumers (and enterprises) would pay significant dollars to use that software. This may sound counterintuitive for an advertising-driven entrepreneur such as myself to state, but it’s time we had a robust paid software ecosystem on the web. There’s certainly room for both.

I think it’s coming. The table is set, so to speak. As consumers we’re getting used to paying for apps on our phones and tablets. And as consumers, we’re getting frustrated with the lack of value most of those apps provide us. As with Windows back in the day, quality isn’t winning right now. On the web, we’re wanting more robust solutions to problems that are only beginning to surface – I’d pay five bucks a month to someone if they’d solve my social presence problem, for example: I just can’t keep up with Facebook, Google+, Twitter, Tumblr, StumbleUpon, and newer services like Percolate. I’d probably also pay for someone to solve the deals space for me – it’s too confusing and I know I am missing out on serious savings. Same for music and media (an area of early and promising development), professional services of many stripes, and on and on.

But for such a quality software ecosystem to unfold, we need, as developers, a clearer sense of a platform roadmap, and some certainty as to what portions of the economic pie are open for competition. This is particularly true for the consumer space (enterprise is used to paying for value, and is already doing so at places like Salesforce and LinkedIn). Clearly, you shouldn’t develop a photo app for Twitter, or a music or communications solution for Facebook. And you’d simply be crazy to create a contacts manager for Apple products, even if the one they have is godawful once you pass about 1000 records.

Or would you be? Perhaps the solution is to create at a level above all of these services – software that lives above the level of a single platform, so to speak. Software in the cloud (passe as it might be, Mr. Benioff).

Isn’t that what the web is supposed to be? Isn’t that the promise of the cloud?

It is, but for that to work, all those platforms have to be willing to share data and APIs. I’m not holding my breath for that to happen in the next few years. But happen it will, I predict, because happen it must. Change will be forced downward, from consumers back into the platforms that, for now, are mostly closed to value creation. Mark my words….I hope they’re right.

The Internet Roars At Cannes Lions

By - June 23, 2011
lions logo.png

This past week I attended the Cannes Lions, one of the advertising industry’s most prestigious and well attended events.

The premise of the event is to celebrate excellence in advertising, marketing and communications, but given it attracts more than 10,000 folks in a business which celebrates Don Draper as an icon, I think it’s fair to say that the Lions are as much about drinking and networking as they are about awards. According to hotel staff, the attendees of the Lions drink three times more than those wimps from Hollywood who come for the Film Festival earlier in the summer. (And, for whatever reason, the drink of choice is Rose. If I never see another pink glass of wine, I’ll be the better for it…)

This was my first Lions, though I’ve been asked to come for the past two. I thought I was being invited because of my role in the marketing world, but after four days in Cannes, I’ve come to realize that it might have just as much to do with my role in the Internet world. Because if there was one clear and consistent theme to this year’s Cannes Lions, it was this: the baton has been passed, and the show this year was pretty much driven by major digital brands.

Every major party, save one or two, was thrown by technology companies. And yes, the parties matter, a lot, in the culture of the Cannes Lions. Media companies set up elaborate stages, bars, and dance floors along the Croisette (the main beach promenade of Cannes). On any given day (and sometimes every single day) you’d see Microsoft, Yahoo, AOL, Vevo, Facebook and Google tents and/or parties. Even smaller and newer companies, like Twitter, Demand and Say Media were there in various configurations.

The event program also reflected a distinctly digital slant. The content ranged from inspiring to insipid, but it was dominated by discussion of our industry. My session, underwritten by Adobe, focused on digital content and its role in marketing, for example. Tim Armstrong and Arianna Huffington pitched their AOL turnaround story, Yahoo brought in Robert Redford, and just about every agency and major brand took a session, which they often focused in some way on digital (social, word of mouth, network exchange buying, etc).

Sure, there was a lot of content focused on creative work, which is the core of the Lions, but then again, most of the people I spoke to wanted, in the main, to talk about what creative really meant in a digital world.

Since this was my first time, I asked a number of folks who’d been coming for years what had changed. All of them mentioned how remarkable it was that the Lions, in just a year or two, had come to be dominated by digital companies and brands. And while a few hardy old school media companies made a showing (USA Today’s party on Thursday night is supposed to be a hot ticket, and Time Inc took a session in the program), the television industry, who one would think would take the prime real estate at the Lions, was pretty much absent.

Perhaps that’s because they don’t want to spend the money anymore (not that the TV industry is hurting), or perhaps they got out marketed by digital companies looking to outflank them. I’m not sure. But it’s worth noting nonetheless.