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Locked and Bloated

By - December 05, 2012

(image Vator News) Companies get big. Companies gain market dominance. Companies slowly pivot from their original values. Companies justify those shifts with nods to shareholder value, or consistent user experience, or inconsistent implementations of their platforms by (former) partners.

It happened to Sun. To Microsoft. To Apple. To Google. It happened in the entertainment business, it’s happening in agriculture, for goodness sake.  Now it’s happening to Facebook and Twitter. (The latest example: Instagram CEO feels Twitter card removal is the correct thing…).

I don’t have any problem with any of that, it is to be expected. The services all these companies provide are great. They’re simply wonderful. And as they get big, they get public, protective, and defensive.

I just wish these companies all had one thing consistently in common: That they let us get our data, our content, and ourselves out of their platforms if we wanted to, in a painless, one click fashion.

Imagine a world where that was possible.

A long, long time ago, at least in Internet years, I wrote a piece called It’s Time For Services on The Web to Compete On More Than Data. This was almost five years ago – January of 2008. I was contemplating the rise of Facebook and the social graph, and Google’s nascent response. In the post I argued that Facebook should let us all take our social graph wherever we want, because the company will win not on locking us in, but in servicing us better than anyone else.

Oh, how utopian that all sounds.

Now, pretty much every major Internet player is scrambling to lock us into a cloud commit conundrum. Even Twitter, in certain ways – it wants content viewed on its platform, not others’.

Again, imagine a world where coming and going as a consumer was a given, a right. Imagine that when I left Apple’s iPhone for Google’s Nexus 4, all my iTunes purchases followed me (and yes, I mean apps too). Is that too much to ask for? Really? Then you must not be an entrepreneur, because this kind of lock-in is ripe for disruption.

Five years ago, I predicted that Facebook would fail if it insisted on locking our social graph into its service:

With one move, Facebook can change the face (sorry) of this debate by making it falling-down easy to export your social graph. And I predict that it will.

Why? Because I think in the end, Facebook will win based on the services it provides for that data. Set the data free, and it will come back to roost wherever it’s best used. And if Facebook doesn’t win that race, well, it’ll lose over time anyway.

Time is ticking. It won’t be this year, it won’t be next. But the day will come when differentiation is based on service, not data lock in.

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Writing Every So Often: The Personal Essay Makes A Comeback

By - December 04, 2012

Browsing Hacker News, which I’ll admit I don’t read very closely (because, well, I’m not a hacker), I saw an interesting headline: I quit Twitter for a month and it changed my thinking about mostly everything. Well, that’s going to get my attention.

I clicked through and noted the author’s name: Adam Brault. I don’t know Adam Brault (at least, not well enough to recall reading him before), but with a headline like that, I sure wanted to read the piece. It’s quite a thoughtful rumination on his snap decision to stop using Twitter for the month of November.

Some of what Brault said didn’t resonate with me, not because I disagreed, but because it’s clear he uses Twitter in a very different manner than do I. He follows people closely and feels a connection to them that I rather envy. I follow more than 1200 people, and I’ve become a bit inured to the resulting torrent.

For me, Twitter provides a first level filter, and I then use various second-order services to tame my feed. Those filters (news.me, Percolate, Flipboard, even TechMeme) depersonalize my consumption habits. No one human voice regularly makes it into my second-order filters (but a lot of publishing brands do). In short, I don’t have much personal social capital invested in Twitter, even though it’s a very important part of my life.

Brault, on the other hand, noticed that he had perhaps too much personal investment in the people he followed in Twitter. From his essay:

I had one moment of weakness last month, when I logged into my other, private Twitter account, just to check in on what the 20 people I follow on that account had been up to recently. Within minutes I felt depressed, as I learned there was a conference canceled because people attacked it as a sexist speaker lineup and the organizers just folded rather than wade through the deluge of attacks or try to fix things… I just felt horrible for those organizers… and there was nothing I could actually do other than feel bad. It served no one any benefit and it just derailed my evening….

…I’ve realized, Twitter is outsourced schizophrenia. I have a couple hundred voices I have consensually agreed to allow residence inside my brain.

Reading that passage, I felt something – I empathized with Brault. I remember what it felt like to be connected like that. And I realized I have never been connected in that way through my “new” social media. Facebook has always been a wipeout for me, LinkedIn a utility. The only “social media” I’ve ever deeply cared about are personal blogs – which for most folks younger than 30, are usually understood to be artifacts of a pre-Facebook, pre-Tumblr, pre-Twitter era.

Writing out loud on a regular basis is not for everyone. It takes a fair bit of focus and commitment to maintain a site where you write essays for public consumption. Brault mentions that it took him at least three hours to finish his post. In the early days, tons of folks took to the blogging medium, but over time, many burned out. But I sense people are coming back to this form, because it’s a pleasure to write out loud  every so often. It needn’t be a chore, in fact, it should be joyful. I’m guessing Brault – a software and web developer by trade – has taken true pleasure in the social expression his essay has allowed.

Call it a hunch, but I think a new generation of creators are realizing that if something is really important to them, then it’s worth taking the time to write a longform essay – one that best resides on a site that is theirs.

In the blog-only era of the early 2000s, folks like me had our personal site, and we also watched a set of sites that we truly followed. RSS was our Twitter, and we carefully pruned a list of other folks who we’d check each day. I let about 40 or so “voices into my brain” each day, and those voices mattered to me, a lot. Most of us even created “blogrolls” – links to folks we felt were worthy of attention (really – remember those?!). And when someone wrote something noteworthy, others in the network might write a response, always with a link back.

This pattern still happens, of course – that’s what I’m doing now. But it happens far less regularly, and without the clear social network that used to define communities of blogs. Those early communities have been eclipsed by professionalization (I remember following what Mike Arrington wrote each day, before it turned into TechCrunch The Site, for example), but also by burnout and by the easy dopamine hits of Facebook and Twitter. Add to this the lightweight reblogging ethos of Tumblr, and the recent rise of bespoke platforms like Medium or SVBTLE, and we no longer have robust communities of individuals calling and responding in bursts of essays, each emanating from a unique, independent place on the web. I think the world’s a bit poorer for that loss, even as it has become a far richer place overall.

Reading Adam’s essay, I mourned a little for the way it used to be. I’m keenly aware that I’m sounding like a nostalgic, but I take heart in this rising class of “every so often publishing.” If only there were a better way of surfacing all this good stuff….hmm.

Meanwhile, Brault’s essay had another wonderful insight worth repeating:

It’s pretty simple: if I have my email turned off and I set aside a day with no meetings and no commitments other than to the work that’s on my mind, I am going to do very good work, using my best creativity, and will produce in good volumes.

In a day with even one simple standup meeting, I feel like the entire day’s focus has a layer of thought dedicated to that meeting—light stress and perhaps some preparation fills up more than the specific calendared time slot….

…I used to believe that time was the most important thing I have, but I’ve come to believe differently. The single most valuable resource I have is uninterrupted thought.

That’s how everything I’ve ever felt was meaningful about my entire life came to be—either people I’ve come to know, things I’ve learned, or stuff I’ve created.

I feel exactly the same way. If I have just one call on a day I’ve cleared for writing, the day feels tainted. It’s nice to know I’m not alone.

Circling back to the point of this post, I believe that the personal-site-based essay is making a comeback. I’m finding all manner of great pieces of writing lately, stuff that’s just too good to simply retweet and forget. Like this from Vibhu Norby (I promise to write a response soon, it’s an important topic). It was on a personal site that I rediscovered Craig Mod. When I did, I added his feed to my creaky old RSS reader. I just did the same for Norby. That made me think of Matt Haughey, one of the more wonderful early bloggers. Turns out, he still writes every week or two on his site. But, far as I can tell, Matt’s site has no RSS feed. Adam Brault is on Tumblr, so no RSS there either, at least that I can find. I’ll do my best to visit from time to time, but man, I’d sure rather have all his stuff pushed my way.

Of course, the debate about whether or not blogging and RSS is a dead medium has been raging for years. Clearly, RSS is no longer a universal standard. Regardless, I find it comforting that when someone with a truly unique point of view has something important to say, they often return to their own site to say it there. I hope they all keep writing. I’ll be listening.

Can The Future Be Perfect? It Can Certainly Be Better

By - November 29, 2012

As my 2011 review of his Where Good Ideas Come From: A Natural History of Innovation proves, I am a Steven Johnson fan. So it was with relish that I settled in to read his latest release: Future Perfect: The Case For Progress In A Networked Age.

Steven had already told me the premise of his book – the first he’s written since moving to my neck of the woods in Marin, California (I hope we can keep him from going back to Brooklyn, but we’ll see…).

In short it’s this: the evidence has become overwhelming that a new form of political expression is developing, an expression deeply informed by the gravitational pull of the Internet (for more on that, see Steven’s piece in the Times: The Internet? We Built That).

Johnson sought for years to give this concept a name, and last year settled on “peer progressive.” He describes how he came to the term:

Slowly but steadily, much like the creation of the Internet itself, a growing number of us have started to think that the core principles that governed the design of the Net could be applied to solve different kinds of problems— the problems that confront neighborhoods, artists, drug companies, parents, schools. You can see in all these efforts the emergence of a new political philosophy, as different from the state-centralized solutions of the old Left as it is from the libertarian market religion of the Right. The people behind these movements believe in government intervention without Legrand Stars, in Hayek-style distributed information without traditional marketplaces. Ron Paul’s rallying cry was too simple; progress is not just a question of choosing between individuals and the state. Increasingly, we are choosing another path, one predicated on the power of networks. Not digital networks, necessarily, but instead the more general sense of the word: webs of human collaboration and exchange…

…We believe in social progress, and we believe the most powerful tool to advance the cause of progress is the peer network. We are peer progressives.

Johnson’s use of the term “Legrand Star” is a reference to one of two consistent tropes throughout the book: A “Legrand Star” is a centralized, hierarchical approach to problem solving or decision making (named after the French rail system, which ran out to the country in direct lines from Paris). A “Baran Web” is a decentralized, peer network approach (named after Paul Baran, an early Internet pioneer).

As Johnson notes in the book, Future Perfect is something of a career-long work – his examples all stem from things he’s noticed over the course of more than a decade of writing books. It’s as if he had a big folder of anecdotes gathered over the past 15 years, each labeled “This must mean something,” all patiently waiting to be turned into this book.

Like many of us (I will admit an easy attraction), Johnson has for years felt disconnected from the political process. The polarization of political discourse seemed detached from what many of us were feeling on the ground – example after example of good things getting done by networks of diverse people working toward common goals. In Future Perfect Johnson organizes proofs of such work, some well known (Wikipedia), others surprising (he reinterprets the “Miracle on the Hudson” river landing as the work of an extended peer network. You’ll never think of frozen chickens in the same way again).

In this book Johnson acts as something of a peer progressive Johnny Appleseed, each new narrative another seed which plants the concept more firmly in a reader’s mind. Employee-owned companies perform better than Wall St. driven firms – peer networks for the win. Prize-driven, open-source advancement of science births commercial space aviation, and may solve even larger issues like our society’s approach to pharma research – again, peer nets FTW. Our cities are clogged with traffic, peer networks can re-route our transportation grid. Our news is Legrandian, but peer networks can not just save journalism, but improve it to the point of far higher value to each citizen, down to the hyperlocal level. Patents are a blight on true innovation, peer networks are helping us clear our intellectual property acne – peer networks FTW!

Toward the end of the work, Johnson writes a passage that sounds absolutely radical, if taken out of context:

The modern regime of big corporations and big governments has existed for the past few centuries in an artificial state that neglected alternative channels through which information could flow and decisions could be made. Because we were locked into a Legrand Star mind-set, we didn’t build our businesses and our states around peer networks that could connect us to a much more diverse and decentralized group of collaborators. Instead, we created a mass society defined by passive consumption, vast hierarchies, and the straight lines of state legibility. It didn’t seem artificial to us, because we couldn’t imagine an alternative. But now we can.

But after reading Steven’s book, and living through many of the same stories as has he, I have to say, I wholeheartedly agree.

Other works I’ve reviewed:

Super Sad True Love Story: A Novel by Gary Shteyngart (review)

The Victorian Internet: The Remarkable Story of the Telegraph and the Nineteenth Century’s On-line Pioneers by Tom Standage (review)

Year Zero: A Novel by Rob Reid (review)

Lightning Man: The Accursed Life of Samuel F. B. Morse by Kenneth Silverman (review)

Code: And Other Laws of Cyberspace, Version 2.0 by Larry Lessig (review)

You Are Not a Gadget: A Manifesto (Vintage) by Jaron Lanier (review)

WikiLeaks and the Age of Transparency by Micah Sifry (review)

Republic, Lost: How Money Corrupts Congress–and a Plan to Stop It by Larry Lessig (review)

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

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

The Corporation (film – review).

What Technology Wants by Kevin Kelly (review)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Craig Mod on Subcompact Publishing.

By - November 28, 2012

The Verge pointed me to Craig Mod’s manifesto on “Subcompact Publishing.” It’s a must read if you care about where digital publishing might go.

It’s a wonderful, thoughtful piece. It’s why we have this web thing. Go read it.

Oh, and my favorite quote:

Content without a public address is non-existent in the eyes of all the inter-operable sharing mechanisms that together bind the web.

On Open Platforms, Wifi, Home Automation, and Kitty Litter

By - November 26, 2012

At least this platform is open….

(image Shutterstock)

The world needs more open platforms. The term is  loaded, but it’s worth unpacking. To me, an open platform is a consistent opportunity space where anyone – without prior permission – can attempt to create value, and the market gets to vote on that attempt.

When the Clinton administration declared the Internet a “free trade zone” in 1997, it helped create one of the most powerful open platforms in the history of business. Anyone could set up a website, sell their services, wares, or their snake oil, and the market sorted out the winners and the losers.

But an open platform doesn’t necessarily mean a free one. The last time I checked, Comcast is still charging me $65 a month for my “high-speed business” Internet connection. Once I pay that fee, I am free to launch any site I want and consume any content I desire. Comcast has no say in the matter (so far).

Another wonderful example is the Global Positioning System (GPS), once the realm only of the United States military, but now the driver of countless commercial opportunities around the globe (again thanks to decisions made during the Clinton administration).  Anyone can access civilian GPS data – it’s open and free to all. Had this system not been in place, my weekend would have been less interesting – I could not have tracked my family’s hike across a mountain in Marin, checked into my writing retreat this morning on Foursquare, or effortlessly mapped my route to the new restaurant where I met a dozen friends last Saturday night.

Over the years we’ve seen the rise of semi-open communications-driven platforms, some of which have been built on top of the Internet (think Facebook), others which were built on top of regulated, oligarchical networks like those of the cell phone carriers (think iOS ). These systems are open to developers, but subject to stricter rules and oversight by corporations (Facebook and Apple, for example).

But sometimes platforms rise out of unexpected places. That’s the story I want to tell today.

This tale is based on an open platform of sorts – or at least, re-imagining an existing platform. In this case, that platform is the home – and in particular, the wifi-enabled home.

A report issued earlier this year found that 25% of homes worldwide have wifi installed. In the US, that figure is much higher – 61% of US homes are lit by the airborne Internet. That’s a pretty astonishing number, and it continues to climb. Wifi-lit homes are now a platform waiting for innovative ideas to hatch. Last week I got a chance to chat with someone behind one of them.

Kevin Ashton is best known as an RFID pioneer, and for coining the terms “The Internet of Things.” But what many may not know about the British-born engineer and entrepreneur is his current work on home automation. Two years ago he sold his cleantech startup Zensi to Belkin International, a 30-year old computer networking and accessory firm in Los Angeles. Belkin’s a pretty traditional company, to be honest, but that may be about to change.

Zensi specialized in monitoring a building’s electrical information, tapping into the structure’s electronic grid and sampling the “voltage noise” that spikes across the wires. That noise turns out to be pretty valuable information – every electronic gadget has a signature, and by paying close attention, Ashton’s startup could reliably determine the energy use of every node node on a building’s electronic network. That energy “can be presented to the energy user in a way that can be very beneficial,” Ashton told me.

Ashton’s first customers wanted some pretty simple data. “Nothing more than knowing the total energy consumed in the building,” he says. But Ashton knew a lot more could be done with the information, if he could just open the platform up a bit, and instrument it with a few more useful appendages.

That’s what he and his team have been up to over the past two years at Belkin. This past summer Belkin introduced WeMo, a home automation system that plugs into any outlet and allows you to control electronic devices over the Internet. The system consists of a plug, a motion sensor, and an iOS app. It’s pretty rudimentary – you plug any device you want to control into the WeMo outlet, and that device becomes controllable via the iOS app. But add in the motion sensor and you  combine the ability to turn things on and off based on the ability to “know” some action has occurred. That’s when things get interesting. Now portions of your home have remote eyes and hands, in a limited sense. WeMo’s sensors  can “see” motion and “act” on what they see by turning things off and on.

Belkin’s promotional site for WeMo shows all kinds of uses for the system: keeping your dog off the couch while you are at work, easing your mind about whether or not you turned off that curling iron before leaving the house, automating when heaters or lights are turned off and on, etc. It’s all very cool, but it suffers from the same problem that plagues all early platforms: Early adopters and hackers love the system, but most consumers aren’t going to go to the trouble of buying, coding, and installing the Wemo system just so they can turn the lights off and on, or ease their mind about an errant curling iron.

What WeMo needed was the power of an open platform, and a community that could come up with uses for the device that the company never imagined.

When WeMo launched, Ashton told me, “we didn’t have many good ideas what people would do with it.” Ashton and his team knew that “lighting up” a home with new sensory appendages could ignite a big change in how people interacted with their living spaces, but instead of taking a proprietary approach to innovation on Belkin’s new platform, they created a free, open API for Wemo, and partnered with IFTT (If This Then That), an internet service that enables anyone to create rules-based actions triggered by data from any number of sources. A simple example of an IFTT “recipe” is this: “If (I post a photo to Instagram) then (put a copy of it into my Dropbox).”

IFTT is a small but thriving community of tens of thousands of folks weaving new kinds of connections between our digitally disparate lives, and Ashton’s team figured tapping into this group might provide Belkin with some novel ideas for WeMo.

They were right. There are nearly 200 WeMo recipes on the IFTT site, ranging from “Text me if my door opens!” to “Post a Facebook status message anytime someone reaches for the cookie jar.” But the one that really got Ashton’s attention is this: “Tell me when it’s time to clean up the litter box.” It’s one of WeMo’s most-used recipes (and it turns out, it did come from within his team, but not until the IFTT connection was established).

“When we were developing (WeMo),” he told me, “there was absolutely no way that anybody – in a focus group or in our think tank – was going to come up with that as an application. If they did, we didn’t think it would be meaningful.”

At the moment, the number of people who have employed the kitty litter recipe can be counted in the dozens. But that’s a function of WeMo’s total installed base, which is still small. That base will likely remain small until a few inter-related things change: First, WeMo-like sensing needs to get cheaper and more accessible. For now, fitting out your house with a full complement of WeMo devices runs upwards of $1000, and the devices are used mostly by a small group of motivated hobbyists (not unlike 3D printing or the Arduino platform). But if sensing devices are built into electrical outlets as a matter of course, and/or are easily retrofitted into existing homes, the presumption that your home is “smart” could tip in a matter of years.

Also, consumers must begin to expect WeMo-like functionality from their homes and devices. The kitty litter recipe is a small but leading indicator of such a shift. Ashton tells me, for example, that he already has inquiries from pet lovers about promoting WeMo – just for its role in helping humans take care of their cats. As the number of hacker-driven recipes for WeMo uses multiplies and device prices and ease of installation diminish, the home sensing revolution could be right around the corner.

Thirdly, the platform wants more data – the more, the better. Imagine if WeMo also had access to all that energy sensing data built into Zensi’s original products. Because the Zensi technology “knows” the signiature of every electrical device on the home network, it “knows” when you’re watching TV, or using the microwave, working at your computer, or firing up the oven. Making all that data “knowable” opens all manner of innovative applications, again, most of which Belkin alone couldn’t dream up all by itself.

But if all this is to happen, it’s critical that access to home automation devices and data remain on an open platform, where innovation can occur unimpeded by conflicting commercial or regulatory imperatives. At the moment, anyone can create a recipe for WeMo, without Belkin’s approval. Ashton says he’s committed to that philosophy – one that he hopes informs far larger issues than curling irons and kitty poop. ”We are open to anything that adds value to the system for our users,” Ashton told me.

It wasn’t a natural act for Belkin to open up the WeMo platform.  The company’s CEO has run the company for 30 years, and has never done anything like the IFTT experiment. He took a risk by allowing Ashton’s team to create an API. It’s not a bet the company move, but Ashton believes it augurs a larger change happening across many industries. (GE, for example, is embracing this idea, as are IBM and many other large companies).

“If you can create a business in which other people’s business is adding value to your product, more people will buy your product,” Ashton says. He compares that to traditional, vertically integrated companies that try to control every aspect of their product’s expression (like most automobile manufacturers.) Ashton predicts that all industries will eventually tip toward a more horizontal, open platform approach to business. “In one generation,” he asserts, “this model will win.”

All this reminds me of a book I recently finished – Steven Johnson’s Future Perfect: The Case For Progress In A Networked Age. I’ll be reviewing that work shortly, but Johnson’s point is simple: if we are to solve our largest societal problems, we need to take a more peer-driven, open-platform approach to business, politics, and culture. With WeMo, Belkin’s taken one small step in that direction. I expect many more will follow.

On Native and Programmatic

By - November 06, 2012

Earlier this week I was asked an interesting question by Digiday. “What’s More Important: Native Ads or Programmatic Buying?” I thought the question was a bit conflated – it’s not either or. It very much depends on how you define the terms.

My response is below. Check the story for the opinions of many others in the industry as well.

If I had to wager a guess, I’d have to say that programmatic will be a larger force, but only if you take “native” to mean the native units at domain-specific platforms like Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr and the like. But it’s very important to define your terms here because in five years time, I think you will be able to buy all of these “native” units across a unified “programmatic” platform — and that platform has not yet been built. We are, as an industry, heading in that direction, and it’s a very exciting one. When programmatic merges with native and is fueled by data and a transparent, objective framework, everyone wins.

For more on this, check my earlier posts What Should the Ads Be Like? and The Evolution of Display: Change Is Here, For Good.

What Should the Ads Be Like?

By - November 05, 2012

The home page of HotWired at launch in Fall of 1994. The banners were on the interior pages.

(Part two of a series. Part one is here. The post that sparked the series is here).

When I’m asked about my views of where digital marketing is headed, I often tell an anecdote about the past. I may have told it here before (5300 posts and ten years into this blog, I sometimes forget what I’ve written), but it’s worth another spin.

The year was 1994, the place, Wired headquarters in San Francisco. As I recall it (and I’m perfectly willing to admit I may not be getting this exactly right), a small group of us were in an editorial meeting – a weekly affair that included our founder, CEO, and Editor in Chief; our Executive Editor; and our Art Director. The subject of our new “HotWired” project came up – Wired was devoting significant resources to the launch of an ambitious Internet publication – one of the first of its kind.

We were hiring literally dozens of editors and writers, convinced that this new medium would prove revolutionary. We wanted to be at the forefront of it – and looking back, I think it’s fair to say HotWired certainly was.

In any case, the question came up: How are we going to pay all these people?! At the magazine, of course, we sold subscriptions and we took advertising. That model was well understood, and it worked. HotWired had a lot of expenses, and it needed a revenue model.

This was a puzzle. At that point it seemed inconceivable to charge for access to the site (and counter productive, because we wanted as much traffic as possible.) Online, information wanted to be free – at least, that was what we believed. Without the distribution and printing costs of print, we figured subscriptions were unnecessary. So that left advertising. But as we sat in that meeting, the question remained – what should the ads be like?

This is when I spoke up with, given hindsight, what may have been a pretty bad idea. Since the late 1980s I had been a subscriber to many online services, including Compuserve, AOL, The Well, and even Prodigy, which was perhaps the worst of them all. I paid for those services because they connected me to content and communities I cared about (and allowed me to send email). But now that you could simply pay one fee for “Internet service,” the subscription was decoupled from the value proposition of content and community. Besides our belief about information wanting to be free, we couldn’t ask folks to pay twice – once for Internet service, and again for HotWired.

The Prodigy service, I recalled, also featured advertising – in the form of a very irritating, blinking, ugly banner framed at the bottom of the service’s window. You couldn’t turn it off, you couldn’t “scroll” it away (online services didn’t work that way), and it was one of the main reasons I didn’t like the service. But for whatever reason, it was the only model of advertising I had seen online that I could recall clearly. Perhaps, I suggested in the meeting,  we might put something like Prodigy’s banner on our new service, but figure out a less irritating approach?

That’s when our founder’s eyes lit up. He understood the power of a web page – it had a scroll bar! “We could put it at the top of the page,” he proclaimed, “and people could scroll it out of view!” (Please take this quotation with a grain of salt. This is what I remember him saying.) The team at HotWired took our founder’s idea, iterated it, and in October of that same year, the banner was born.

I can’t speak for others at Wired and HotWired, but personally, I want to say, with a bit of a twinkle in my eye: I’m sorry.  I’m sorry because over the proceeding two decades, we’ve managed to take the banner, place it in second-class real estate on most sites (at the top, on the side, away from the content), and train an entire generation of audience members to ignore the voice of marketers. And that was not a healthy move for the ecosystem of digital publishing.

Now, let me explain the twinkle. The fact is, the banner – and its descendants the box, the tower, the wide tower, the Rising Star, the expandable, Project Devil, the Conversationalist and on and on – these units have been very good to the web. They’ve gotten us to where we are – to billions and billions of revenue, and countless hundreds of thousands of web publishing sites driven by that revenue. It’s been a scalable, consistent, efficient platform for marketers. Federated Media Publishing, where I remain Chair, has served up banners by the hundreds of billions over the years – it now serves nearly 30 billion a month across its network.

So I’m proud of the banner. It’s been a workhorse. But as I wrote in my last post, we’re at an inflection point in the display ecosystem. Banners continue to evolve, and I don’t think they’ll ever go away for good. But if you run a high quality site that has to pay its creators, and you want to make a business of it that includes marketing as a core piece of your revenue, I believe it’s once again time to ask that question: What should the ads be like?

My answer is this: They should be like the content they support.

Now, before you scream bloody murder about the wall between editorial and advertisement, let me remind you that successful ad models have always mirrored the vocabulary, grammar, and visual nature of the medium they inhabit. Open any issue of Vogue for proof of that. And tell me whether or not the Old Spice Man thirty-second spots employ the same visual and narrative vocabulary as the shows where they appear. Truth is, television and print are storytelling mediums, and they provide marketers a scaleable place to tell a story. Yes, they also interrupt the flow of the editorial. But that’s the price we pay to insure we can access the content. Period, end of sentence. If you do not believe advertising has a right to at least a portion of your audience’s attention, you should not be selling advertising.

Until recently – and upon reflection, quite incredibly – most web publishing was based on the idea that advertising did not have the right to that attention. Relegated to the top and right rail, ads on the web moped from the sidelines, hoping that they might prove relevant enough to possibly elicit a click. Quite understandably, this pushed the entire display ecosystem to be driven by the metrics of “below the line” or “direct response” marketing. Of course we’ve innovated along the way – with page and site takeovers, expandables, and clever one-offs here or there. But while those may work at scale on a very large site like Yahoo, marketers hate inefficiency. They don’t want to make unique creative for every single site that they might wish to support. They’ll do it for large platforms that have proven return – Google, Twitter, Facebook. But for smaller content sites? We can do better.

The independent web is a fractured place. There’s no single template for what a website should look like. That’s what makes it so wonderful – and so difficult to monetize efficiently. So I’d like to offer up some recommendations for sites who want to have a profitable relationship with marketers. Some of these might strike you as going too far. And I’m certainly not suggesting we have to adopt them all. But if we want to create a lasting digital publishing industry that supports the efforts and product of talented content creators, we best adopt at least a few of them.

*First, we have to retrain our audiences to understand that high quality content costs money, and advertisers are our partners in providing that money. If you want our content free of charge, you have to give our advertisers a portion of your attention as well. That’s the deal. We’ve not done a good job of making that explicit across the quality independent web, but we must. For some more thinking on this concept, see my post on Do Not Track from June.

*Next, we need to think about designing our sites so they can accept standardized, high quality ad units that actually work for all involved. The traditional blog (like this one) is not well suited for such units, but it’s not too hard to rethink it so as to accept them. At the very least, this means adopting some standard “ad friendly” templates on our sites.  For more, see info on the NCS below.

*Third, we have to work with our marketing partners to create advertising content that measures up to the quality of the content our audiences have come to enjoy. While there’s a lot of amazing creative out there on the web, I think it’s fair to say that most creative agencies – the folks who make ads – don’t consider digital to be nearly as important as television or even print. That must change. Ads on the web need to be creatively compelling, and they need to be “native” to the environment in which they live. Publishers can help with this – see the section on content marketing below.

*Fourth, we need to give advertisers ad products that have scale, and enough of a canvas to tell that story which is native to the environment. Boxes and rectangles relegated to the sidelines check the scale box, but not the creative canvas box. Here are a few new units that I believe, with scale, give advertisers that canvas:

*The interstitial/overlay. Many high quality sites have already adopted this unit. It shows you an ad when you first land on the page, before you get to the free content. It’s often video (marketers are nuts for video these days.) It interrupts the flow of the audience member’s intent – usually he or she is coming in from a social or search link intent on reading a specific story, right now  - but it certainly checks the box for getting our attention. I think the interstitial can and should be adopted widely – and evolve to the point where it appears as a reward for engaging with content, rather than a prerequisite.

*  The Native Conversational Suite. (Scroll down to see it) This group of products – from Federated Media Publishing, so I’m clearly biased – lives in the editorial well of the site itself. Just as the ad unit at Twitter is a tweet, or at Facebook is a post, with the NCS, the unit is a piece of content that lives natively on the site. It’s clearly marked as sponsored, but it’s given the same respect and space as any other piece of content. To me, that’s a lot like a page of a magazine – it may be a story, or it may be an ad. The trick is getting the ratio, the creative, and the scale right. FM is leaning into driving the NCS across our entire network – which has a reach past 200 million in the US alone.

* The full page ad. I’ve always like the magazine model of full-page and two-page ad spread. You can quickly flip past them as you browse, but if an ad really speaks to you, you pause and absorb it. With the rise of tablet design models, I believe the time is near for the equivalent of a full page digitally-enhanced ad, similar in nature to what you see on Flipboard. It needn’t be relegated to just one app.

* The Mobile Moment. I’m calling this a “moment” because on smaller mobile devices, it’s even more true that traditional boxes and rectangles don’t work very well. Independent publishers must design our sites for mobile, and for advertising units that can appear at the right moment for both the audience and the marketer. An easy example of this is an interstitial video that appears as a player is “leveling up” during a game. For a publisher, that moment might come at the end of a story, or before a second one is chosen.

Content marketing. This could be an entire post, and probably will be, but for now I’ll summarize. Again, FM has been a leader here, and it’s a part of our business that is growing nicely. To me, content marketing is a broad category that includes a range of activities, but the short of it is this: Content marketing is a publisher helping a marketer act natively in the environment a publisher knows best – in short, helping a brand do all the things I’ve been on about above. It’s a publisher helping a marketer create content that works – that engages an audience in various ways.

If you’re going to be a serious publisher on the web, you need to devote part of your energies to working directly with marketers to help them express themselves both on your site as well as across the web in general. This is an area where FM and many others are investing significant resources. Content marketing can be as lightweight as helping a marketer create sponsored posts, or as significant as becoming a partner on a brand-driven media platform like openforum.com or makeup.com.

There are certainly other examples, but I’ll stop there. Imagine if all major publishers across the independent web banded together and implemented a few of these ideas. Then marketers would have broad, engaging canvases, great content to associate with, and that most important of check boxes: Scale.

But there’s even more publishers can do. Foremost among them is getting smart on how to leverage social platforms, and how to lever our own data through programmatic platforms. First, on social: Not having a strategy for social is akin to not have a search-engine optimization plan five years ago. Social drives more than traffic, it drives customer engagement, and just as brands can’t afford to ignore it, neither can publishers. But we have to be smart – don’t put your taproot in the soils of social, but rather leverage it to take care of your audience.

Next, on programmatic. Traditional banner inventory is already undergoing significant change, and publishers need to understand that change, and get smart about how best to navigate it. Programmatic buying is growing at double digit rates, and by some estimates, will account for more than half of all display advertising budgets within two years. That’s stunning given programmatic buying platforms barely existed just three years ago. I believe publishers need to consider who they’ll partner with on programmatic platforms, and how their data and inventory will be used. It’s going to become a crucial publishing skill to either manage your own inventory wisely, or trust a third party who shares your same interests – a partner who is on your side. Again, this is why FMP combined with Lijit Networks, and is investing so much in driving that business forward.

Within five or so years, I believe, most inventory, even the units I mentioned above, will in some way be purchased via a programmatic platform. That might leave us wondering what the people will do. Currently our industry employees tens of thousands of people who market, sell, manage, flight, optimize, and report on display advertising. There’s going to be disruption in this marketplace, to be certain, but the crucial thing to remember is this: we want to employ people to do what people do best, and machines to do what machines do best. People are very good at creating content (machines, not so much), and very good at working in a consultative fashion with marketers. They are very good at coding and tending machines. And most importantly, we are exceptional at insight.  The best publishing teams of the future are going to be partners to brands, publishers, and agencies, creating integrated, native experiences that leverage the machine’s scale and real time algorithms. The future, to me, is bright. Getting there, however, means we embrace change. Let’s get to work.

The Evolution of Display: Change Is Here, For Good

By - October 31, 2012

The first banner ad to run on the web – AT&T’s “You Will” campaign. It asked “Have you ever clicked your mouse right here?” The answer turned out to be “You Will…for a while. Then, not so much.”

 

Earlier this year I wrote a long post about the “death of display,” since then, I’ve consistently been asked about it, and in particular, to expand on my thoughts around display advertising economics, and the prospects for what might broadly be termed “independent creators of content,” or what I call “the independent web.”

Now, I love this topic, as many of you know. So in this post I’ll reprise the core points from On Thneeds and the “Death of Display”, and then riff a bit about where I see things now, and where they might be heading. Spoiler: It’s not all bad. Double spoiler: This post will be written in two parts. This is just the first.

Here’s that previous post, boiled down to bulleted form:

* The model of “boxes and rectangles” – the display banner – is failing to fully support traditional “content” sites beyond a handful of exceptions. For 15 years, independent websites have “direct sold” these units on their sites, or hired someone (like Federated Media Publishing) to do it for them. But marketers increasingly are turning away from direct-sold display units. Why? Read on….

* A new generation of “native” ad units are on the rise, which live primarily on large social sites that curate and aggregate content. Examples include Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr and of course the grandaddy of them all, Google’s AdWords. Big sites like HuffPo and fast social comers like BuzzFeed are also employing native units. Pinterest is expected to roll out something similar soon.

* With the notable exception of Google’s AdSense (which is essentially a programmatic machine, see below), none of the other large “native” platforms  help independent content creators make money, other than a “quid pro quo” deal that if those content creators engage with the platform, they’ll earn traffic back to their sites.

* These publishers hope that by accepting this quid pro quo, they will drive traffic to their site that they can then monetize with display advertising. However, as I stated before, this model is breaking down. Why?

* Because even as all those “Boxes and Rectangles” morph into far larger units, they are increasingly bought and sold in real time by machines (“programmatic buying” or “Demand Side Platforms,” also known as “DSPs” – the largest include Google’s AdX, AppNexus, and Turn).

* So far, the rise of programmatic buying  has not made it possible for most independent publishers to make enough money to create content full time. Hundreds of thousands are making money using these platforms, but if you want to run an independent content brand that employs people full time, boxes and rectangles are usually not going to be enough. Some are opting out of playing in the programmatic market, but it’s quite hard to direct-sell small sites that are not at scale. Marketers and their agencies are finding they can far more efficiently find the audiences they want using machines, at a fraction of the cost of working directly with traditional web publishers.

* If we don’t figure out better models for how to get the “content creator” paid, we risk losing the oxygen that feeds the web ecosystem. After all, what would Google, Twitter, Facebook, or Pinterest be without harvesting the hundreds of thousands of pieces of great content created every day on the web? Ditto for the DSPs, which depend on inventory created by these same independent content creators.

* At the moment, the lion’s share of digital marketing dollars and equity value is flowing to either those large content-harvesting platforms, or to programmatic platforms.

* At the end of the post, I suggest a new model that attaches value to an individual piece of content, such that the piece of content is monetized as it travels around the web, getting reposted, tweeted, shared on Facebook, pinned on Pinterest, and so forth. Such a model is incredibly difficult to create, but not impossible. I promised a follow up post.

Well, this is it (at least, it’s part one).

That took a lot to summarize, but readers know I’m passionate about getting independent content creators paid. In the past five or so months since that post was written, the direct-sold display marketplace has continued to deteriorate. Yahoo, a bellweather for display advertising, has had two more quarters of flat-to-declining display revenues that have missed Wall Street targets. In its latest earnings report, the New York Times Company noted that display revenues actually declined year over year.  We’re seeing it at Federated Media Publishing, as it has both direct-sold and programmatic businesses, and I’m hearing it from folks I speak with privately – models that depend on direct-sold “quality display” are under increasing pressure.

Meanwhile, business is great for the two platforms I outlined above. Programmatic buying platforms are seeing double and triple digit increases in revenue year over year (again, we see this at Federated, because we acquired such a business more than a year ago). As more data and insights are applied to programmatic, and better inventory secured, I  see a very bright future for this part of the market. Business is way ahead of plan at Twitter, executives there have said, and Facebook’s recent earnings highlighted the growing success of that company’s “native” advertising products - promoted posts and sponsored stories.

Unfortunately, neither of these two high-performing sectors of the marketplace help most full time independent web publishers make enough money – at least not yet.

Given all this, what is a publishing business to do? Well, as much as I’d like to say my idea of “monetized content traveling around the web” is imminent, I think that’s going to take a few years.  And while programmatic is getting better each quarter, it’s also going to take time and improvements over years before that ecosystem is fully expressed. If independent web publishers are to thrive in the near term, we’ve got to change our approach to the market. Change is scary, change is hard, but change is needed – and change is good.

How do we do it? In short, we’ve got to be far smarter about how we “feed” those platforms – making sure the value we get is equal to or more than the value we’re giving. We’ve got to be smart about how we interact with both social and programmatic platforms, and align ourselves with companies that put publishers first. And lastly, we’ve got to rethink how we bring high-touch marketing onto our sites – we need to more rapidly adopt new advertising products, new architectures for our sites, and a deeper understanding of how to partner. We can no longer relegate marketing to second-class real estate. If high quality sites on the independent web are going to thrive, we will have to embrace change. That’ll be the subject of my next post.

Time To Begin, Again

By - October 19, 2012

Family, colleagues, and friends knew this day was coming, I knew it was coming, but here it is: I’ve rented a new place to write, a small, remote house directly on the beach, about 12 miles as the crow flies from my home in Marin county. It’s not a direct 12 miles – that crow would have to fly up about 2500 feet so as to clear the peak of Mt. Tamalpais. And that mountainous impediment is intentional – it takes close to the same time to ride a mountain bike from my home to this office as it does to drive one of several winding routes between here and there. I’m hoping that will spur me to take my commute by bicycle. I won’t be here every day, but I certainly hope to spend a fair bit of time here over the coming months.

I’ve added this new address to my long list of offices for one reason: To complete the book I’ve been talking about for nearly half a decade. That book began as an idea I called “The Conversation Economy,” but grew in both scope and ambition to encompass a much larger idea: an archaeology of the future, as seen through the digital artifacts of the present. Along the way, it’s changed a lot – 18 months ago, its title was “What We Hath Wrought.” Now, I’m thinking it’ll be called “If/Then.” I may yet call it “If/Then…Else” – or, as I wander through this journey, it might end up as something entirely different.

At this moment, I’m not certain. And that’s a bit scary.

I’ve made many false starts at this book, and I’ve failed on more than one occasion to truly commit to it. There are many reasons why, but I think the main one is that I believe this project requires that I place it first, ahead of anything else. And until recently, that’s simply been impossible. As readers know, up until this year, I ran the Web 2 Summit, which I put on hiatus this year so I could focus on the book. I’m also founder and Executive Chair of an Internet media startup, now in its seventh year. Federated Media Publishing has undergone many changes since 2005, and doubtless will see many more as it navigates what is an exciting and tumultuous media market. And because I’m a founder, I’ve always placed FMP ahead of anything else – even as I handed over CEO duties to a far more competent executive than myself 18 months ago.

In the past few months, I’ve been getting ready to put the book first, and it’s not an easy thing to do.  Not just because of the rapid evolution in the media business  (for more on that, see my “Death of Display” post), but because committing to a book project is an act of faith – faith that isn’t necessarily going to be rewarded.

Staring at a blank screen, knowing you have things to say, but not being certain how to say them, that’s just hard. I’ve been practicing for nearly a year. It’s time to get in the game.

I’ll still be a very active Chair at FMP, and I’ve got a few more long-planned trips to take, but for the most part, my calendar is cleared, and I’m ready to start. I’ve already spent the past year doing scores of interviews, reporting trips, and research on the book. I’ve got literally thousands of pages of notes and clips and sketches to go through. I’ve got many, many drafts of outlines and just as many questions to answer about where this book might take me. And of course, I’ll be writing out loud, right here, as I wander in the woods. I hope you’ll come along for the trip.

Super Sad True Love Story: A Review

By -

In my continuing quest to reflect on books which I have found important to my own work, I give you a work of fiction, first published in mid-2011:  Super Sad True Love Story: A Novel, by Gary Shteyngart, an acclaimed writer born in Russia, now living in the US. This is my first read of Shteyngart, known also for his previous works Absurdistan and Russian Debutante’s Handbook, both of which established him as an important new literary voice (Ten Best Books – NYT, Book of the Year – Time, etc. etc….). Of course, I was barely aware of Shteyngart until a friend insisted I read “Super Sad” and I will forever be grateful for the recommendation.

Based in a future that feels to be about thirty years from now (the same timeframe as my pending book),  Shteyngart’s story stars one Lenny Abramov, a schlumpy 39-year-old son of Jewish Russian immigrants who lives in New York City. Abramov works at a powerful corporation that sells promises of immortality to “High Net Worth” individuals. But he’s not your typical corporate climber: The book begins in Italy, where Abramov has taken a literary vacation of sorts – he’s left an America he no longer loves to be closer to a world that he does – a dying world of art, literature, and slower living. But Abramov’s duty to his parents and his need for money drive him back to America, where most of the action occurs.

It turns out the future hasn’t been very kind to America. Just about every possible concern one might have about our nation’s decline has played out – the economy is in a death spiral, the Chinese pretty much control our institutions, large corporations control what the Chinese don’t, books and intelligent discourse have disappeared, shallowness and rough sex are glorified, and the Constitution has pretty much been suspended. Oh, and while the book doesn’t exactly put it this way, Facebook and Apple have won – everyone is addicted to their devices, and to the social reflections they project.

It doesn’t take long for a reader to realize Super Sad True Love Story: A Novel is also a work of science fiction, but somehow, that construct doesn’t get in the way. In fact, it’s rather fascinating to watch an accomplished literary novelist tackle “the future,” and do a pretty damn good job at it. I’m no science fiction expert, but Shteyngart projects our present day obsessions with devices, data, social networking, and the like into a dystopia that feels uncomfortably possible. Everyone is judged by their credit scores, their youthful appearance, and their ability to gather attention from denizens of an always on, always connected datasphere (those that are particularly good at getting attention are dubbed “very Media!”). Shteyngart is clearly working fields well sown by Dick, Gibson, Stephenson, Doctorow, and many others, but it works for me anyway.

The story is indeed a love story – an improbable and poignant one at that – between Lenny, a middle-aged man beset by insecurities, and a young Korean woman caught between familial duty and the pointless, consumer-driven world of shopping and social networking. The narrative is driven by America’s collapse into a security state, and I won’t give away any more of the plot than that. I’ll leave it here: By the end of this often hilarious novel, you will feel super sad, and you may also come to question the path we are on as it relates to data. I know that’s a pretty odd thing to say about a love story, but data, in fact, plays a central role in the novel’s meaning.  Here are a few of the passages I highlighted:

“Shards of data all around us, useless rankings, useless streams, useless communiqués from a world that was no longer to a world that would never be.”

“I’m learning to worship my new äppärät’s screen, the colorful pulsating mosaic of it, the fact that it knows every last stinking detail about the world, whereas my books only know the minds of their authors.”

“Streams of data were now fighting for time and space around us.”

“And all these emotions, all these yearnings, all these data, if that helps to clinch the enormity of what I’m talking about, would be gone.”

“I wanted to be in a place with less data, less youth, and where old people like myself were not despised simply for being old, where an older man, for example, could be considered beautiful.”

That last passage is from near the end of the book, when the fate of our protagonist has resolved – I won’t tell you how, in case you haven’t read the book. And if that is the case….I certainly recommend that you do.

—–

Other works I’ve reviewed:

The Victorian Internet: The Remarkable Story of the Telegraph and the Nineteenth Century’s On-line Pioneers by Tom Standage (review)

Year Zero: A Novel by Rob Reid (review)

Lightning Man: The Accursed Life of Samuel F. B. Morse by Kenneth Silverman (review)

Code: And Other Laws of Cyberspace, Version 2.0 by Larry Lessig (review)

You Are Not a Gadget: A Manifesto (Vintage) by Jaron Lanier (review)

WikiLeaks and the Age of Transparency by Micah Sifry (review)

Republic, Lost: How Money Corrupts Congress–and a Plan to Stop It by Larry Lessig (review)

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

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

The Corporation (film – review).

What Technology Wants by Kevin Kelly (review)

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

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

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

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

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

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