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We Have Yet to Clothe Ourselves In Data. We Will.

By - March 12, 2014

SenatorTogaWe are all accustomed to the idea of software “Preferences” – that part of the program where you can personalize how a particular application looks, feels, and works. Nearly every application that matters to me on my computer – Word, Keynote, Garage Band, etc. –  have preferences and settings.

On a Macintosh computer, for example, “System Preferences” is the control box of your most important interactions with the machine.

I use the System Preferences box at least five times a week, if not more.

And of course, on the Internet, there’s a yard sale’s worth of preferences: I’ve got settings for Twitter, Facebook, WordPress, Evernote, and of course Google – where I probably have a dozen different settings, given I have multiple identities there, and I use Google for mail, calendar, docs, YouTube, and the like.

preferencesAny service I find important has settings. It’s how I control my interactions with The Machine. But truth is, Preferences are no fun. And they should be.

The problem: I mainly access preferences when something is wrong. In the digital world, we’ve been trained to see “Preferences” as synonymous with “Dealing With Shit I Don’t Want To Deal With.” I use System Preferences, for example, almost exclusively to deal with problems: Fixing the orientation of my monitors when moving from work to home, finding the right Wifi network, debugging a printer, re-connecting a mouse or keyboard to my computer.  And I only check Facebook or Google preferences to fix things too – to opt out of ads, resolve an identity issue, or  enable some new software feature. Hardly exciting stuff.

Put another way, Preferences is a “plumbing” brand – we only think about it when it breaks.

But what if we thought of it differently? What if managing your digital Preferences was more like….managing your wardrobe?

A few years back I wrote The Rise of Digital Plumage, in which I posited that sometime soon we’ll be wearing the equivalent of “digital clothing.” We’ll spend as much time deciding how we want to “look” in the public sphere of the Internet as we do getting dressed in the morning (and possibly more). We’ll “dress ourselves in data,” because it will become socially important – and personally rewarding –  to do so. We’ll have dashboards that help us instrument our wardrobe, and while their roots will most likely stem from the lowly Preference pane, they’ll soon evolve into something far more valuable.

This is a difficult idea to get your head around, because right now, data about ourselves is warehoused on huge platforms that live, in the main, outside our control. Sure, you can download a copy of your Facebook data, but what can you *do* with it? Not much. Platforms like Facebook are doing an awful lot with your data – that’s the trade for using the service. But do you know how Facebook models you to its partners and advertisers? Nope. Facebook (and nearly all other Internet services) keep us in the dark about that.

We lack an ecosytem that encourages innovation in data use, because the major platforms hoard our data.

This is retarded, in the nominal/verb sense of the word. Facebook’s picture of me is quite different from Google’s, Twitter’s, Apple’s, or Acxiom’s*. Imagine what might happen if I, as the co-creator of all that data, could share it all with various third parties that I trusted? Imagine further if I could mash it up with other data entities – be they friends of mine, bands I like, or even brands?

Our current model of data use, in which we outsource individual agency over our data to huge factory farms, will soon prove a passing phase. We are at once social and individual creatures, and we will embrace any technology that allows us to express who we are through deft weavings of our personal data – weavings that might include any number of clever bricolage with any number of related cohorts. Fashion has its tailors, its brands, its designers and its standards (think blue jeans or the white t-shirt). Data fashion will develop similar players.

Think of all the data that exists about you – all those Facebook likes and posts, your web browsing and search history, your location signal, your Instagrams, your supermarket loyalty card, your credit card and Square and PayPal purchases, your Amazon clickstream, your Fitbit output – think of each of these as threads which might be woven into a fabric, and that fabric then cut into a personalized wardrobe that describes who you are, in the context of how you’d like to be seen in any given situation.

Humans first started wearing clothing about 170,000 years ago. “Fashion” as we know it today is traced to the rise of European merchant classes in the 14th century. Well before that, clothing had become a social fact. A social fact is a stricture imposed by society – for example, if you don’t wear clothing, you are branded as something of a weirdo.

Clothing is an extremely social artifact –  *what* you wear, and how, are matters of social judgement and reciprocity. We obsess over what we wear, and we celebrate those “geniuses” who have managed to escape this fact (Einstein and Steve Jobs both famously wore the same thing nearly every day).

There’s another reason the data fabric of your life is not easily converted into clothing – because at the moment, digital clothing is not a social fact. There’s no social pressure for your “look” a certain way, because thanks our outsourcing of our digital identity to places like Facebook, Twitter, and Google+, we all pretty much look the same to each other online. As I wrote in Digital Plumage:

How strange is it that we as humans have created an elaborate, branded costume culture to declare who we are in the physical world, but online, we’re all pretty much wearing khakis and blue shirts?

At it relates to data, we are naked apes, but this is about to change. It’s far too huge an opportunity.

Consider: The global clothing industry grosses more than $1 trillion annually. We now spend more time online that we do watching television. And as software eats the world, it turns formerly inanimate physical surroundings into animated actors on our digital stage. As we interact with these data lit spaces, we’ll increasingly want to declare our preferences inside them via digital plumage.

An example. Within a few years, nearly every “hip” retail store will be lit with wifi, sensors, and sophisticated apps. In other words, software will eat the store. Let’s say you’re going into an Athleta outlet. When you enter, the store will know you’ve arrived, and begin to communicate with your computing device – never mind if its Glass, a mobile phone, or some other wearable.  As the consumer in this scenario, won’t you want to declare “who you are” to the retail brand’s sensing device? That’s what you do in the real world, no? And won’t you want to instrument your intent – provide signal to that store that will allow the store to understand your intent? And wouldn’t the “you” at Athleta be quite different from, say, the “you” that you become when shopping at Whole Foods or attending a Lord Huron concert?

Then again, you could be content with whatever profile Facebook has on you, (or Google, or ….whoever). Good luck with that.

I believe we will embrace the idea of describing and declaring who we are through data, in social context. It’s wired into us. We’ve evolved as social creatures. So I believe we’re at the starting gun of a new industry. One where thousands of participants take our whole data cloth and stitch it into form, function, and fashion for each of us. Soon we’ll have a new kind of “Preferences” – social preferences that we wear, trade, customize, and buy and sell.

In a way, younger generations are already getting prepared for such a world – what is the selfie but a kind of digital dress up?

Lastly, as with real clothing, I believe brands will be the key driving force in the rise of this industry. As I’m already over 1,000 words, I’ll write more on that idea in another post. 

*(fwiw, I am on Acxiom’s board)

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To Be Clear: Do Not Build Your Brand House On Land You Don’t Own

By - February 28, 2014

Too07(image) I took a rigorous walk early this morning, a new habit I’m trying to adopt – today was Day Two. Long walks force a certain meditative awareness. You’re not moving so fast that you miss the world’s details passing by  - in fact, you can stop to inspect something that might catch your eye. Today I explored an abandoned log cabin set beside a lake, for example. I’ve sped by that cabin at least a thousand times on my mountain bike, but when you’re walking, discovery is far more of an affordance.

Besides the cabin, the most remarkable quality of today’s walk was the water – it’s (finally) been raining hard here in Northern California, and the hills and forests of Marin are again alive with the rush of water coursing its inevitable path toward the sea. White twisting ribbons cut through each topographic wrinkle, joining forces to form great streams at the base of any given canyon. The gathering roar of a swollen stream, rich with foam and brown earth – well, it’s certainly  good for the soul.

I can’t say the same of my daily “walks” through the Internet. Each day I spend an hour or more reading industry news. I’m pretty sure you do too – that’s probably the impetus for your visit here – chances are you clicked on a link on Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, Google, or in email. Someone you know said “check this out,” or – and bless you if this is the case – you actually follow my musings and visit on a regular basis.

But the truth is, we now mostly find content via aggregated streams. Streams are the new distribution. We dip in and out of streams, we curate and search our streams, we abandon barren streams and pick up new streams, hoping they might prove more nourishing. Back before streams ruled the world, of course, we had a habit of visiting actual “pools” – sites that we found worthy because they did a good job of creating content that we valued. (Before that, I think we read actual publications. But that was a long, long time ago…)

Which got me thinking. What makes a stream? In the real world, streams are made from water, terrain, and gravity. To belabor the metaphor to the media business, content is the water, publishers are the terrain, and our thirst for good content is the gravity.

As publishers – and I include all marketing brands in this category – the question then becomes: “What terrain do we claim as ours?”

Deciding where to lay down roots as a publisher is an existential choice. Continuing the physical metaphor a bit further, it’s the equivalent of deciding what land to buy (or lease). If your intention is to build something permanent and lasting on that land, it’s generally a good idea to *own* the soil beneath your feet.

This is why I wrote Put Your Taproot Into the Independent Web two years ago. If you’re going to build something, don’t build on land someone else already owns. You want your own land, your own domain, your own sovereignty.

Trouble is, so much of the choice land – the land where all the *people* are – is already owned by someone else: By Google, Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Yahoo, and Apple (in apps, anyway). These platforms are where are the people are, after all. It’s where the headwaters form for most of the powerful streams on the Internet.  It’s tempting to build your brand on those lands – but my counsel is simple: Don’t. There’s plenty of land out there on the Rest of The Internet. In fact, there’s as much land as you want, and what you make of it is up to you as a publisher.

Quick: Name one successful publisher that built its brand on the back of a social platform? Can’t do it? Neither can I, unless you count sites like UpWorthy. And those flying near the social network sun risk getting seriously burned. There’s a reason publishers don’t build on top of social platforms: publishers are an independent lot, and they naturally understand the value of owning your own domain. Publishers don’t want to be beholden to the shifting sands of inscrutable platform policies. So why on earth would a brand?

Despite the fact that my once-revolutionary bromide “all brands are publishers” is now commonplace, most brands still don’t quite understand how to act like a publisher.

Which takes me to this piece, Facebook is not making friends on Madison Avenue (Digiday). Besides the quippy headline and the rather obvious storyline (a burgeoning Internet company failing to satisfy agencies? Pretty much Dog-Bites-Man), the thing that got me to perk up was this:

One point of frustration is Facebook’s ongoing squeezing of traffic to organic brand content. A digital agency exec described a recent meeting with Facebook that turned contentious. In what was meant to be a routine meeting, the exec said the Facebook rep told him the brands the agency works with would now have to pay Facebook for the same amount of reach they once enjoyed automatically. That position and Facebook’s perceived attitude have led to some disillusionment on Madison Avenue, where many bought into the dream peddled by Facebook that brands could set up shop on the platform as “publishers” and amass big audiences on their own….

…The cruel irony in all of this is that brands themselves greatly helped Facebook by giving it free advertising in their TV commercials and sites, urging their customers to “like” the brand — and paying Facebook to pile up likes. Facebook has returned the favor by choking off  brands’ access to those communities. That’s one expensive and frustrating lesson that it’s better to own than rent.

Put another way: “Wait, I did what you asked, Facebook, and set up a big content site on your platform that drew a fair number of visitors organically. Now you’ve changed the rules of the game, and you want me to pay to get their attention?!”

Yup. You leased your land, Mr. Brand Marketer, and the rent’s going up. If I were you, I’d get back to your own domain. Spend your money building something worthy, then spend to drive people there. Your agencies have entire creative and media departments that are good at just such practices. They might even spend a fair amount carefully purchasing distribution through Facebook’s streams. I’m guessing Facebook will be happy to take your money. But there’s no point in paying them twice.

 

Linked In Is Now A Publishing Platform. Cool. But First Get Your Own Site.

By - February 21, 2014

Screen Shot 2014-02-21 at 4.59.15 AMI’ve been a LinkedIn “Influencer” for a year or so, and while the honorific is flattering, I’m afraid I’ve fallen down in my duties to post there. The platform has proven it has significant reach, and for folks like me, who thrive on attention for words written, it’s certainly an attractive place to write. Of course, it pays nothing, and LinkedIn makes all the money on the page views my words drive, but … that’s the quid pro quo. We’ll put yer name in lights, kid, and you bring the paying customers.

One reason I don’t post on LinkedIn that often is my habit of writing here: there are very few times I come up with an idea that doesn’t feel like it belongs on my own site. And by the time I’ve posted it here, it seems like overkill to go ahead and repost it over on LinkedIn (even though they encourage exactly that kind of behavior). I mean, what kind of an egomaniac needs to post the same words on two different platforms? And from what I recall, Google tends to penalize you in search results if it thinks you’re posting in more than one place.

But this news, that LinkedIn is opening up its publishing platform to all comers, has changed my mind. From now on I’m going on record as a passionate advocate of posting to your own site first, then posting to LinkedIn (or any other place, such as Medium).

Why? Well, it comes down to owning your own domain. Building out a professional profile on LinkedIn certainly makes sense, and bolstering that cv with intelligent pieces of writing is also a great idea. But if you’re going to take the time to create content, you should also take the time to create a home for that content that is yours and yours alone. WordPress makes it drop dead easy to start a site. Take my advice, and go do it. Given the trendlines of digital publishing, where more and more large platforms are profiting from, and controlling, the works of individuals, I can’t stress enough: Put your taproot in the independent web. Use the platforms for free distribution (they’re using you for free content, after all). And make sure you link back to your own domain. That’s what I plan to do when I post this to LinkedIn.  Right after I post this here.

Looking Back: How Did My 2013 Predictions Fare?

By - December 30, 2013

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It’s that time of year: The annual ritual of looking back and looking forward is in full voice. Long time readers know I always make predictions around the turn of the year, and I expect my 2014 prognostications will come sometime this weekend. Meanwhile, it’s time to take a look at what I wrote a year ago, and judge how well I did.

You may recall I took a different approach in 2013, and wrote predictions mainly for things I *hoped* would come true, rather than things I expected would. I’ve been doing these predictions for nine years now, and I guess I was looking for a fresh angle. All in all, things came out OK, but you be the judge. Here are my predictions, and my short summary on how they fared.

1. We figure out what the hell “Big Data” really is, and realize it’s bigger than we thought (despite its poor name).

One can argue whether “we” figured out what Big Data is, but we sure realized it’s bigger than we thought. The Rocket Fuel IPO is one clear measure of that, the Snowden/NSA revelations are yet another. And “Big Data is going to be big” is an echoing theme once again for 2014, from the various predictions posts I’ve seen over the past few weeks. Whether or not society has a clear grip on the definition of “Big Data,” I’d argue every thinking person in our world understands it’s a concept that has significant bearing on our collective and individual future. With that in mind, I’ll declare this prediction box checked.

2. Adtech does not capitulate, in fact, it has its best year ever, thanks to … data. 

At the beginning of the year, many were predicting that ad tech was going to have a year of capitulation – but the opposite has in fact occurred. Terry Kawaja revised his charts to show a more than doubling of the companies in the space this past year, and while some might argue that a few ad tech IPOs were not high flyers- Tremor and Yume take the lead here – the fact is, they got out and are now stabilizing. Meanwhile, Rocket Fuel is a massive win, so is Criteo, and so is Twitter – which is as much an ad tech business as it is a social networking or platform company. My own experience in the space – FM’s ad tech business – only corroborates my prediction – our business had an extraordinary 2013, beating all our forecasts handily and growing at near triple digit rates on a large base from 2013.

The basis for all this growth? Data, of course, but more importantly, a more sophisticated approach to data. Criteo and Rocket Fuel were rewarded for this sophistication, and understanding how to manage this new currency of data will be at the center of value creation for 2014.

I think this prediction has also proven accurate. So far, 2 for 2.

3. Google trumps Apple in mobile 

In this prediction, I laid out that I hoped Google would steal Apple’s crown as the leader in mobile. Judging this one is going to prove tricky – Google has clearly outstripped Apple in sales and buzz, Apple still won on profit and driving high end behaviors like e-commerce. I’d argue that sales matter more in the long term, and this prediction has occurred.   However, in my 2013 post I suggested that Google would win by coming up with The Next Big Thing, like the Razr or the iPhone, and while the Nexus 5 and the Moto X are well-received devices (I have the Nexus 5, and I believe it’s far better than any iPhone out there), it’d be difficult to argue they are The Next Big Thing. And Glass – well, not yet, anyway.

I also wrote this: “Google needs to actively promote a vision that is 180 degrees from that of Apple: Open, interoperable, accessible, ungated. This allows for real innovation in UI, services, and apps. Google will win by highlighting things that only Android-based devices running Jellybean or later can do: you (consumers and developers) can interact with digital services and content in a web-like fashion.”

So far, this has not occurred – at least in the marketplace. Google did take a big step forward with Android app linking, but it’s not clear this feature is going to take off, or be implemented in a way that creates the ecosystem I was pining for in my original post.

I’d give myself a half check on this one. So far, 2.5 of 3.

4. The Internet enables frictionless (but accountable) payments, enabling all manner of business models that previously have been unnaturally retarded.

Well…sort of. Bitcoin woke us all up to a new way to pay, and culturally I think a much larger percentage of us have become accustomed to the idea that money no longer comes with the friction it once had. Credit Uber for that – but Uber is not exactly used by the masses. And Square had, by all accounts, a massive year. Still and all, the ecosystem breakthrough I was hoping for has not happened. I also predicted that major consumer-facing online platforms based on “free” – Google and Facebook chief among them, though Twitter is a potential player here as well – will begin to press their customers for real dollars in exchange for premium services. This is undeniably true. Facebook and Twitter ask us for money to promote my posts, LinkedIn keeps trying to upsell us to Premium, Google wants to sell us a better Play experience, Hulu,

Spotify, you name it, they want our money.

I got this one mostly right, I’d say – perhaps 75% right. 3.25 of 4 so far.

5.  Twitter comes of age and recommits itself as an open platform. 

I think I missed at least half of this one, but it’s worth talking about why. First, sure, if having a killer IPO is coming of age, then Twitter came of age. But the real point I was making is the one about committing to being an open platform. I predicted (again, remember these are my hopes) that the company would clarify its sometimes confusing rules of the road, resulting in some breakout new services from third parties. I also predicted Twitter would get itself into some good old fashioned tempests with Big Overbearing Governments and Corporations, much to the delight of folks who used to cheer Google for doing similar things in the past. Lastly, I predicted Twitter would roll out paid services.

So, how did I fare? It’s hard to say, definitively. I don’t feel like I have a clear sense of how important Twitter’s role is in the Open Source world, but it’s clearly committed to being an active player. As for clarifying its approach to developers and opening up an ecosystem for third parties, unless I’m missing something, I don’t think that really happened. Topsy, which is one of the most important Twitter developers, was bought by Apple, but as I posted earlier, I don’t think that was because of Twitter per se. And where are all the cool new third party apps built on top of the Twitter platform? Honestly, I don’t see them. The Twitter platform is best when used as an identity layer, so far. Nothing new there. And no breakout new apps, at least, not from third parties.

Now, on the issue of “tempests with Governments,” Twitter most certainly checked the box. While incidents in the UK, France, and other countries kept execs busy, what was most interesting is how Twitter was *not* implicated, at least directly, in the NSA fracas this year. The company also joined its peers in expressing dismay, and recently implemented tougher anti-snooping security, going beyond the HTTPS that Google, Yahoo and others have installed.

All in all, what I was going for in this prediction was the emergence of an open, robust third-party platform from Twitter, and while I can’t say it’s gotten worse, I also can’t say much happened to push it forward. So I’d say this one was mostly a miss, overall – though I’d give myself .25 for “coming of age” and committing to stand against Big Bad Government. I stand at 3.5 of 5 now. 

6. Facebook embraces the “rest of the web.”

Well, this was probably my biggest “hope” of all the predictions I made. I wrote: “I believe 2013 will be the year it realizes it’s OK to share – bilaterally – with The World That Isn’t Facebook. That means making it really easy to export your identity and data, for example – competing on service, not lock in. And creating a kickass web-based advertising network/exchange. And  learning how to play nice with the hundreds of thousands of publishers out there, pro, semi pro and amateur, who create the value that drives so much engagement on its core platform.”

Umm…not so much. I still think this strategy is crucial to Facebook’s long term value. But it didn’t happen this past year. Big miss. I’m now 3.5 of 6.

7.  By the end of the year, Amazon will have an advertising business on a run rate comparable to Microsoft.

Well, this one is refreshingly specific, isn’t it!? I should easily be able to show if I was right, one way or the other. Well, not so fast. Both companies bury their advertising revenue inside other categories, which make it nearly impossible to understand and compare the media components. By all accounts in the press and from what I’ve heard from industry folk, Amazon’s advertising business is growing very quickly. I made this prediction to highlight that, by year’s end, Amazon would be a force to be reckoned with in advertising. I think anyone paying attention to programmatic advertising would agree this is true. I just can’t prove it yet. So…give me half a check.

4 of 7 so far.

8. The world will learn what “synthetic biology” is, because of a major breakthrough in the field.

Well, it didn’t happen, at least, not in a massive way. No major breakthrough that hit a 24 hour news cycle, just a constant, steady drip of small but important steps all year long. Sigh, I missed this one completely, since I predicted “the world will learn” and unless you were really paying attention, you’d have missed that 2013 was a big year in synthetic biology. No points for me here.

So, that’s 4 of 8, or batting .500. Not an awesome year, but not bad either. The predictions where I whiffed – Facebook, synthetic biology, Twitter’s open platform – I whiffed because I badly wanted them to come true, but the facts are in the way. Lesson learned….my next post will be my 2014 predictions. We’ll see if I take those lessons to heart.

Apple+Topsy: It’s Not About Twitter (And Twitter Is Probably Cool With That)

By - December 03, 2013

TopsyApple

I’m going out on a limb, but a fairly stout one: Like Azeem, I think Apple bought Topsy for its search chops. But Azeem, who I admire greatly, says Topsy could become the search engine “for iOS… to index both the social Web, but also the best bits of the Web that power Siri and Apple Maps, [and] reduce the reliance on Google and reduce the flow of advertising dollars to the big G.” Certainly possible, but I don’t think Apple bought Topsy for its ability to search the web, or even for its trove of Twitter data. That might be a nice bonus, but I don’t think it’s the bogey.* Others have written that Topsy might be used to improve Apple’s iTunes/app search, but again, I think that’s not thinking big enough.

No, Apple most likely bought Topsy because Topsy has the infrastructure to address one of Apple’s biggest problems: the iOS interface. Let’s face it, iOS (and the app-based interface in general) is slowly becoming awful. It’s like the web before good search showed up.  To move to the next level, Apple needs a way to improve how its customers interact with iOS. Topsy will help them get there. Also, I think Twitter is happy that Apple bought Topsy – but more on that later.

Let me explain. First, my statement that iOS is “becoming awful.” Faithful readers know I’m not a fan of iOS. I switched to Android almost two years ago, and I’ve never looked back. But it’s not as if the Android interface is much better – I just like its chances of developing into something more powerful down the line. In the past few years, I’ve written several posts about the kind of interface I believe needs to emerge across mobile (which until last year, Apple pretty much dominated). Given my  obsession with the topic, it’s probably no secret that I view mobile’s biggest problem boils down to one of search.

In  Apple Won’t Build a (Web) Search Engine and Of Course Apple Is Going to Do Search, I argued that Apple must get into the “app search” game. Just as web search became the coin of the web realm, app search will be next. It won’t look like web search, I argued, but at its core, it’s quite similar.

That was three years ago, right after Apple bought Siri, launched iAds, and was relentlessly touting the growth of its app ecosystem. I was certain Apple was going to figure out a way to create value above the level of a particular app, using all that tasty data it had within its restrictive walled garden to build the next generation iOS interface.

But so far, Apple has failed to innovate inside its own ecosystem (unless you count minimalist icons and bright base colors as innovation). Three years later, we’re still stuck in a user interface of app-filled screens, most of which we never use, each disconnected  from the other save for the fact they happen to reside on your phone, possibly right next to each other, but otherwise unaware of the value they might reap should they magically start sharing links and data with each other. (You know, the way the web works.)

This has to change.

Google knows it, which is why I find Google Now so fascinating. Apple knows it too – the days of home screens littered with app icons are numbered. What will replace it?

My guess is some kind of intelligent, search-driven interface that “understands” you, based on the intent you signal through your use of all kinds of apps – including browser apps, of course, as well as true search apps like Siri (or Google Now). This new kind of interface responds to your voice as well as your location, your history, and anything else you might willingly (or unwittingly) feed it. It will strive to always put the very thing you need at your fingertips – something that simply isn’t possible without understanding your interactions as the equivalent of …. well, a personal interest graph.

And to do that, Apple needs a powerful engine, the kind of engine that, say, has been hard at work understanding a massive corpus of interest data for, say, six or so years. Something like Topsy.

My prediction: Apple doesn’t really care about Twitter data. The more I think about it, the more I’d wager that Twitter most likely blessed Apple’s purchase – and why not. With its newfound post-IPO billions, Twitter could have easily forced Topsy’s price well past $200 million. But Twitter is probably thrilled that Apple bought Topsy – Apple just took out a company that Twitter eventually would have had to either buy or kill. Now, Twitter is free to build enterprise value on top of its own data, as well it should, and Apple has a team of engineers who I’m guessing can’t wait to get their hands on a new kind of tweet stream – all that structured data captured, but not leveraged, off your mobile phone. It’s a win win win – if I’m right. Apple gets the tech and talent to build the guts of its next interface, consumers get a better OS, and Twitter gets to keep its cash and eliminate a potential competitor to boot.

Smart move, Apple. I hope I’m right.

*For the record, I spoke to no one at Twitter or Apple before I wrote this. It’s all my own brand of pure speculation. 

Why The Banner Ad Is Heroic, and Adtech Is Our Greatest Artifact

By - November 17, 2013

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Every good story needs a hero. Back when I wrote The Search, that hero was Google – the book wasn’t about Google alone, but Google’s narrative worked to drive the entire story. As Sara and I work on If/Then, we’ve discovered one unlikely hero for ours: The lowly banner ad.

Now before you head for the exits with eyes a rollin’, allow me to explain. You may recall that If/Then is being written as an archaeology of the future. We’re identifying “artifacts” extant in today’s world that, one generation from now, will effect significant and lasting change on our society. Most of our artifacts are well-known to any student of today’s digital landscape, but all are still relatively early in their adoption curve: Google’s Glass, autonomous vehicles, or 3D printers, for example. Some are a bit more obscure, but nevertheless powerful – microfluidic chips (which may help bring about DNA-level medical breakthroughs) fall into this category. Few of these artifacts touch more than a million people directly so far, but it’s our argument that they will be part of more than a billion people’s lives thirty years from now.

There is one exception. The artifact we’re investigating is already at massive scale, driving billions of dollars in revenue and touching every person whose ever used the Internet. That artifact is currently called “programmatic adtech,” and it is most famously illustrated by Terry Kawaja’s Lumascapes (and less famously, my own “Behind the Banner” visualization).

lumascapedisplayYes, this is the infrastructure that allows a pair of shoes to chase you across the web. How can it possibly be as important as, say, a technology that may cure cancer? Because I believe the very same technologies we’ve built to serve real time, data-driven advertising will soon be re-purposed across nearly every segment of our society. Programmatic adtech is the heir to the database of intentions - it’s that database turned real time and distributed far outside of search. And that’s a very, very big deal. (I just wish I had a cooler name for it than “adtech.” We’re working on it. Any ideas?!)

Think about what programmatic adtech makes possible. An individual requests a piece of content through a link or an action (like touching something on a mobile device). In milliseconds, scores of agents execute thousands of calculations based on hundreds of parameters, all looking to market-price the value of that request and deliver a personalized response. This happens millions of times * a second,* representing hundreds of millions, if not billions, of computing cycles each second. What’s most stunning about this system is that it’s tuned to each discrete individual – every single request/response loop is unique, based on the data associated with each individual.

Let me break that down:

1. A person indicates a request: a desire, an intent, a preference - The Request

2. Billions of compute cycles and sh*tons of data are engaged to process that desire - The Process

3. A personalized response is generated within 100-250 milliseconds. - The Response

At present, the end result of this vastly complicated “Request Process Response” system is, more often than not, the proffering of a banner ad. But that’s just an artifact of a far more interesting future state. Today’s adtech has within it the glimmerings of a computing architecture that will underpin our entire society. Every time you turn up your thermostat, this infrastructure will engage, determining in real time the most efficient response to your heating needs. Each time you walk into a doctor’s office, the same kind of system could be triggered to determine what information should appear on your health care provider’s screen, and on yours, and how best payment should be made (or insurance claims filed). Every retail store you visit, every automobile you drive (or are driven by), every single interaction of value in this world can and will become data that interacts with this programmatic infrastructure.

OK. Let’s step back for a second. When you think of this infrastructure, are  you concerned? Good. Because it’s imperative that we consider the choices we make as we engage with such a portentous creation. This year alone, each human on the planet will create about 600 gigabytes of information, and that number is growing rapidly. What are the architectural constraints of the infrastructure which processes that information? What values do we build into it? Can it be audited? Is it based on principles of openness, or is it driven by business rules and data-structures which favor closed platforms? Will we have to choose between an oligarchy of “RPR vendors” – Google, Facebook, Microsoft – or will we take a more distributed approach, as the original Internet did?

These questions have been raised, and continue to be well articulated, by LessigZittrainWu, and many others. But we’re entering a new, more urgent era of this conversation. Many of these authors’ works warned of a world where code will eventually augur early lock down in political and social conventions. That time is no longer in the future. It’s now. And I believe as goes adtech, so goes our social code.

“Adtech” is a very important, very large application we’ve built on top of the platform we call “the Internet.” It’s driven by the relentless desire of capitalism to turn a profit, yet (so far) it has leaned toward the Internet’s core values of openness and interconnectivity. Thanks to that,  it’s suffering some endemic maladies (fraud comes to mind). It’s still a very young, relatively immature artifact. But so far, it’s more open than not. I’m not certain that will always be the case.

My argument boils down to this: What we today call “adtech” will tomorrow become the worldwide real-time processing layer driving much of society’s transactions. That layer deserves to be named as perhaps the most important artifact extant today.

Given adtech’s rise, let’s not forget its atomic unit of value: the oft-derided banner ad. In time the banner as we know it will most likely fade away, but its place in history is certain. One generation from now, we may not “click” on banner ads, but we’ll always be pulling into traffic, filing health insurance claims, buying clothes in retail stores, and turning up our thermostats. And those myriad transactions will be lit with data and processed by a real time infrastructure initially built to execute one pedestrian task: serve a simple banner ad.

More than 200,000 Minutes of Engagement, and Counting

By - November 08, 2013

BehindBannerScreenShot

Some of you may recall “Behind the Banner,” a visualization of the programmatic adtech ecosystem that I created with The Office for Creative Research and Adobe back in May. It was my attempt at explaining the complexities of a world I’ve spent several years engaged in, but often find confounding. I like to use Behind the Banner in talks I give, and folks always respond positively to it, in particular when I narrate the story as it plays.

I realized yesterday that I didn’t know how many people had actually viewed the thing, and naturally as a creator I was curious. So  I pinged my colleague at Adobe, who of course are analytics pros, among many other things. What came back was pretty cool: The visualization has been viewed nearly 50,000 times, with an average time spent of well over 4 minutes per view. That’s more than 200,000 minutes of engagement, or more than one-third of a year! It’s certainly got nothing on the Lumascape, but it’s neat nonetheless.

The version above is really a “beta” – we all wanted to do so much more, but we had to ship it in time for the CM Summit this past May. I’m eager to make it better – create an embeddable version, lay down a narrative track, add more companies and richer detail, fix things folks feel need fixing. If anyone out there is game to help, let me know. It’d be a fun project to work on!

(PS – we found out last week that Behind the Banner has been shortlisted for the Kantar Information Is Beautiful awards. Hurrah!)

Google Now: The Tip of A Very Long Spear

By - October 09, 2013

Yesterday my co-author and I traveled down to Google, a journey that for me has become something of a ritual. We met with the comms team for Google X, tested Google Glass, and took a spin in a self-driving car. And while those projects are fascinating and worthy of their own posts (or even chapters in the book), the most interesting meeting we had was with Johanna Wright, VP on the Android team responsible for Google Now.

Some of you might respond – “Google what?!” – and that’d be normal. Google Now is one of those products that to many users doesn’t seem like a product at all. It is instead the experience one has when you use the Google Search application on your Android or iPhone device (it’s consistently a top free app on the iTunes charts). You probably know it as Google search, but it’s far, far more than that. It’s the tip of a very important spear for Google, and if you study its architecture, all manner of interesting questions and insights can be found about where Google – and the Internet – may be headed.

When you fire up the Google search application on your phone, Google Now is all the bits that are not the familiar search bar. Here’s a screen shot of my Google Now “home page”:

gnow

As you can see, the search bar, which in a PC format is usually the *only* thing one sees, is most certainly not the main event. Certainly it’s at the top, and voice search is prominently featured (I could write 1,000 words just on voice search…another time, perhaps). But, the screen is dominated by “cards” of information – in this case a reminder of a call I have coming up (Google Now integrates with my calendar and contacts), as well as information about my drive home (Google Now knows I usually drive home in the afternoon). If I were to scroll down, more “cards” of information are shown, including local weather, points of interest, and sports scores (when the SF Giants were playing this past summer, I’d see scores – because Google Now knew I searched for “SF Giants scores” a lot).

These cards are extremely important to understanding where Google is heading with not only search, but with all of its various services (the card interface is now incorporated into Google’s “knowledge graph” search results, Google+, Gmail, and Google Maps, among many others). First, the cards “know” things about me – most critically my location, but also my search history, my calendar and contacts, my browsing history, key links in my Gmail, and more. They show up based on what interests and needs that Google believes will be most important to me. In essence, they are very tangible expressions of Google’s pivot from being a company that answers search queries, to being a company that anticipates your most important questions in real time, and answers them before you ask.

This, of course, has been the holy grail of tech  for some time – predating Google and even Microsoft. But now that rich data streams course constantly through the silicon veins of a very personal mobile device, that long-held vision is becoming reality.

In short, Now is Google’s attempt at becoming the real time interface to our lives – moving well beyond the siloed confines of “search” and into the far more ambitious world of “experience.” As in – every experience one has could well be lit by data delivered through Google Now.

Google knows that this moment – the moment of our lives becoming data – is happening now, and the company is very, very focused on seizing it.

If you doubt my hyperbole, I’d not be surprised, but I tend to test such hyperbole on multiple senior sources working deeply inside Google. To each I posited this question: “Is Google Now one of the most important products  at Google today?” Each answered emphatically yes.

To see why, consider this message, which popped up on my screen as I was preparing to write this post:

share daily commute

This is Google, asking me if I’d like to let selected people know where I am, in real time, during my daily commute. Of course, I can only share that status with people who are also Google+ users (no option to share on Facebook, Twitter, Foursquare, etc) – and that’s my point. First, questions like these are habituating us to the idea of sharing intimate information about ourselves with others, in real time. Second, a feature like this is *only* available to Google Now because of its integration with Google+ – one platform is reinforcing the other. Will Google let others play in this sandbox? Such a feature raises a very important question about what kind of world we want to live in – a world dominated by tightly integrated vertical platforms, or a world, as David Weinberger elegantly stated it, made up of small pieces loosely joined?

It was this question that weighed on my mind as I sat down with Johanna Wright yesterday. Since introducing Google Now (and the extremely related Google Knowledge Graph), the company has introduced more than 40 cards – cards for hotels, car rentals, and other travel information (like boarding passes), cards for movies, events, music and local businesses, cards tracking your activity (like walking, biking, etc.), and cards for nearby restaurants. There’s even a card that listens to your TV and tells you what music is playing.

Sound familiar? It should, because, to put it in words we can all understand: There’s an app for that. Or rather, there are apps for each of those. Let me list just a few of them, in order what what I laid out above: Hotel Tonight, Expedia, Lyft, Sidecar, Travelocity; Fandango, NetFlix, Hulu, iTunes, Spotify, Eventful, Yelp, Foursquare; Fitbit, Jawbone Up, Fuelband, Human; OpenTable, Urban Spoon; Shazam.

Google Now supplants the need to open an app by surfacing cards – cards that magically turn into just the information you need, when you need it – *without having to go to an app to get it.*

You following where this is going? Google is potentially disrupting the app world much the way its Universal Search disrupted major web properties  - taking the most valuable service or information, and surfacing it up for free. You may recall that universal search was quite controversial when it came out, because it appeared to favor surfacing Google-owned properties, such as YouTube, Finance, and Maps, over other web properties. Now, six years later, Universal search is, well universal, and that debate, which included an FTC investigation,  is over. Google properties won.

It’s worth noting that a key product manager for Universal Search was Johanna Wright, now the VP over Google Now. With all this in mind, I asked Wright about Google’s plans for Now: Would it be an open platform, where third parties can compete to be surfaced based on merit, or would favored services win out? And would various commercial products and services be able to pay to get integrated into Now’s suggestions and services?

Wright was understandably careful with her words when approaching this question. She declined to talk about monetization and business models for Now, but she did note that Google’s overall philosophy was one that favored the open web. The key, she said, was that Google get the user experience for Now right. The business model will come later (though she did note that Google Offers was already integrated into Now).

While Wright deferred comment on Now’s business model, I have no doubts there are plenty of folks inside Google thinking long and hard about the next steps the company will take to monetize Wright’s work. For now (no pun intended), Google Now is, in the main, a closed platform – surfacing only information that Google has deemed worthy of being surfaced, and integrating on a selective basis with only those services that Google believes will add value its consumers  (Google’s restaurant card, for example, integrates with OpenTable). Just as it did with search, Google is angling to control a key moment of a person’s daily life and attention – the point at which we lift our phone up to receive new information. When and if Google Now become ubiquitous, I can certainly imagine that the question of access and fairness will once again be raised. This movie, it seems, is fated to play out once again.

Here Are the Companies I Chose For OpenCo SF This Year. Damn, That Was Hard

By - October 01, 2013

opencosfI spent about an hour today choosing which companies I plan to visit during next week’s OpenCo. And I have to say – despite my obvious bias as a founder of the event – the difficulty I had deciding only gets me more excited about participating. There are just so many great organizations opening their doors during this two-day festival, and it makes me so proud that this thing is, well, happening. I mean, it’s really happening – 135 or so companies are letting the public come inside, and they’re talking about what makes their  organization special, what makes it tick. And for two days, I get to hang out in their space, take notes, get inspired. It’s just…really cool.

I like this so much more than hanging out in yet another ballroom at a tech industry confab. I mean, I love those conferences. It’s great to see all my pals and meet new people. But OpenCo really is different. The serendipity of each company’s vibe, the instant social network that forms around each session (“So why did you come to see Rock Health?!”), the seemingly endless choices. Nearly 2500 people have registered, and we expect to break 3,000 by the end of the week. You can’t fit 3,000 people in the ballroom at The Palace Hotel. But the city will welcome us all next week. It’s just … cool.

So here are the companies I chose, and why:

Thursday, Oct. 10

9am: San Francisco Symphony (City Center). Whaaat? The symphony is an OpenCo? I know, that’s what I thought. But OpenCo Advisor Nancy Hellman Bechtle has brought many key arts players into the OpenCo fold, including American Conservatory Theatre, the American Institute of Architects, the California College of the Arts, Alonzo King LINES Ballet, the San Francisco Jazz Organization, the Children’s Creativity Museum, the San Francisco Opera, and SF MOMA. How many opportunities do you get to go hear from the leaders of these vibrant cultural institutions? Very, very cool.

Companies also going off at 9 am that I wish I could see: Event Brite, AIA, Google, and IFTTT (it was sold out already, damnit). 

wework10:30 am: WeWork SOMA (SOMA area). There are about half a dozen collaborative workspaces that will be opening their doors next week, but I chose WeWork because I liked the vibe of their mission: “Do what you love.” A focus on “beauty” in workspace seems to drive their approach, and I want to see that up close. The company has workspaces in many cities around the country, I’m hoping they’ll all be OpenCos someday.

Companies also going off at 10:30 that I wish I could see: SoundCloud (full already), Presidio Trust, Rackspace.

12:00 pm: High Fidelity, Inc. (SOMA area) Philip Rosedale’s at it again, this time with a head trip of a company that is pioneering a new approach to, well, time and space. (Rosedale founded the way-ahead-of-its-time Second Life). They’re re-imagining reality, based on, I kid you not, “sparse voxel octree data structures.” I gotta see this.

Companies also going off at 12:00pm that I wish I could see: Superfly Presents (my pals behind Bonnaroosfly and Outside Lands), Lit Motors (FULL!), Granicus, Rickshaw Bags, twofifteenmccann (did our logo design for OpenCo among other things!).

1:30 pm:  TechShop (SOMA/Downtown area). The concept of sharing resources is tearing up the old economy and making new kinds of innovation possible. I want to see it in action. From TechShop’s description: “Part fabrication and prototyping studio, part hackerspace and part learning center, TechShop provides access to over $1 million worth of professional equipment and software.” I’m in.

Companies also going off at 1:30pm that I wish I could see: Wired (for old times’ sake, but it’s already FULL), Dandelion Chocolate (more chocoloate in the world is a good thing), Net Power & Light, Ridepal….there are so many….

proj frog 23:00pm: Project Frog (Mission). By this point in my schedule, I’m starting to realize how many great companies I’m missing, but … chose we must. I liked Project Frog’s description – I’d never heard of it before. “Since 2006, Project Frog has been on a mission to revolutionize the way buildings are created by applying technology to overcome the inefficiencies of traditional construction.” When on earth am I ever going to get a chance to grok that idea in action? Apparently, next week! Cool.

Companies also going off at 3:00pm that I wish I could see: Dropbox (FULL!), the Kite Pitch Doctor, Exygy (I want to work with these guys!),  Innovate SF (Mayor’s Office of Civic Innovation – a great partner!), Stamen (love their work). 

 4:30pm: SF MOMA (Embarcadero). OK, I know what you’re saying. Opening with the Symphony, closing with MOMA? Well, yes. I don’t really engage with these amazing institutions in my day to day life, and I want to change that. The director of SF MOMA will present in a “on the go” space at Pier 24, because the museum is closed (it’s undergoing a massive expansion.) This is a chance to hear what’s happening at a world-class museum, from the person who’s running it. Hell yes I’m going.

Companies also going off at 4:30pm that I wish I could see: The Slanted Door  (yes, the restaurant group!), HomeJoy (starting a movement to change cleaning! I love it), Twyxt (cool service for couples), WideOrbit (adtech/platform). 

jawbone

And that’s just day 1.

Day 2, Friday Oct. 11, rolls like this:

9 am: Federated Media Publishing (Embarcadero). Well, I’m actually giving the presentation for this one, so I better have it on my sked, no? I’m really looking forward to participating as an OpenCo after helping to found OpenCo. How great is that? I’ll be talking about connecting data and publishing, because I believe independent publishers must understand their data to thrive in today’s Internet ecosystem.

Companies also going off at 9 am that I wish I could see: ACT, Jawbone (FULL!), Salesforce (FULL!), NextDoor.

10:30 am: Inner Circle Labs (SOMA). This firm specializes in PR for innovative companies in SF, and is bringing in a great panel of its own clients. I think the professional services that help startups are an underappreciated part of our landscape, and I’m looking forward to learning more about this firm.

Companies also going off at 10:30 am that I wish I could see: RocketSpace, Instructables, SV Angel  (FULL, damn you David and Ron, open more space!), gitHub.

12:00pm: Scoot Networks (SOMA). “Combining battery-powered scooters with smartphone technology, Scoot allows for quick, affordable, one way trips around San Francisco.” Enough said. I love the city bike share nets that are popping up all over the world, but in SF, sometimes you need a battery! Hey Scoot, we should do something to get folks around OpenCo, no?!

crave toysCompanies also going off at 12:00pm that I wish I could see: SF OperaTCHO (FULL!), Crave (sex toys with data!!!), CleanTech GroupGirl Ventures.

1:30 pm: Mad ValleyThis agency-driven incubator is having a lot of success lately, and though I’ve been to the space many times to see clients, I’ve never heard the pitch. I am really looking forward to getting smart on a venture I’ve been close to, but never really seen.

Companies also going off at 1:30pm that I wish I could see: Imagine H2O, Code for America (went last year!), Hotel Tonight

3:00 pm: yerdle. Look, how much stuff do you have sitting in your house that plagues you with guilt – it has value, but you’re not using it? But it’s too much work to figure out how to get it to a useful place in the universe, right? Enter yerdle – a way to share or give stuff you’ve got to those who want or need it. Love this idea.

Companies also going off at 3:00pm that I wish I could see: Bloomberg (FULL!), Viglink, isocket

4:30 pm: 99 Designs. This site has taken off, helping connect creatives and those looking for creative inspiration. I want to see what makes it tick.  I also want to learn how to become a good client of its services.

everlane

Companies also going off at 4:30pm that I wish I could see: Everlane (bespoke and transparent!), SEAGLASS, Hightail, IDEO (Full, DAMNIT).

Well, that’s it. A dozen amazing experiences await me next week, a dozen new groups of people, a dozen founders, idealists, and entrepreneurs telling their stories for us to hear.

I. Am. Stoked. Thanks to American Express OPEN Forum, Yahoo!, IPG/MediaBrands, the Mayor’s office, SFBIG, and the team at OpenCo (and all our wonderful partners) for making this possible. What an honor to say I was there at the founding of the OpenCo movement. If you’ve gotten all the way to this point in my post, GO REGISTER, IT’S FREE! 

See you out in the modern working city!

The Best Platform for Incubation Is the Web

By - September 10, 2013

egg_20hatch1(image) Yesterday in the course of my seemingly endless attempt to stay current in this industry, I came across this article on VentureBeat: Searching for the next Zuckerberg: A day in the life of a Lightspeed Fellow. It chronicles the experiences of the chosen few who have made it into a VC-backed incubator, focusing on two Stanford students who are trying to create a new sensor for lap swimming.

I recently took up the sport, and find the gadget interesting. But what really struck me was the casual use of Zuckerberg’s name in the headline, and how it was used in context of the ecosystem that has sprung up in the past five or so years around entrepreneurship. Don’t get me wrong, I think incubators and accelerators are important components of our business ecosystem. But I’ve always liked the fact that anyone with a great idea, access to the Internet, and an unrelenting will can spark a world beating company simply by standing up code on the Internet, and/or leveraging the information and relationship network that is the web.  That’s how Facebook started, after all. And Google, and Amazon, Twitter and eBay, and countless others. No gatekeepers, no contests, no hackathons or pre-seed rounds. A great idea, and a great platform: the Web.

I wonder if the next Larry Page or Mark Zuckerberg would ever start at Lightspeed, Y Combinator, or TechStars. Certainly amazing companies and ideas have come from inside those estimable establishments, and more will come in the future. But the peculiar fire which drives folks who are truly “the next Zuckerberg” – I wonder if that fire needs stoking from anything else than the Internet itself. If we institutionalize that fire, I think we lose something. A simple page on the open web, offering a service, waiting to be engaged with, to learn from that engagement, to rapidly iterate and grow, to fall down and fail and try again.

In the past few years, entrepreneurship seems to have become a profession, like acting or sales or architecture. On the one hand, that’s a good thing, it means more companies, more jobs, and more great ideas. On the other, something about it strikes me as a bit …forced. I can’t put my finger on it, quite yet, but it centers around the idea that we’re credentializing innovation.  That feels somehow off. The beauty of the innovation that flows from the open web is that no one has to ask for permission, get a credential, or win a Disrupt or Launch award to go prove their idea is worthy. They just…put up a page on the web, iterate, iterate, iterate…and eventually, a Facebook emerges.

I may be just an old school dude, reacting to how the kids are doing it now. Maybe – but I never saw starting companies as a career path. I saw it as something I just had to do – the only thing I could do. I plan to spend more time at these incubation spaces, to check my gut and see what I might be missing. Consider this some out loud thinking for a late Tuesday night. What do you think?