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

By - August 05, 2011

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The question is, can it be built?

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

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

By - August 03, 2011

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

Goog Ad pref main.png

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

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

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

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

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

my safari google data.png

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

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

my chrome data Google.png

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

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

Firefox data Google.png

Just as I would have expected it.

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

Who Will Be Here One Generation From Now?

By - August 01, 2011

crystal-ball-2.jpg (image) I just re-read my post explaining What We Hath Wrought, the book I am currently working on. (Yes, I know that’s a dangling participle, Mom). And it strikes me I might ask you all this question: Which company do you think will be around, and let me add – around and thriving – one generation from now?

I could install a widget and let you vote for a company, but that’s the easy way out. I’m looking for folks willing to take the time to name a company in the comments or maybe on Twitter (#wwhw), and defend why you think, when my kids grow up, that company will still be a dominant force in our culture. In a month or so, I’ll have redone the site, and added Disqus, but for now, it’s hard to comment, and hard to follow them. Sorry about that. But stay old school with me for a minute, and help me with this, will ya?

I’ll throw out a few names to get you started. And after you all answer, I’ll give you my gut feel:

- Apple

- Amazon

-AT&T

- eBay

- Facebook

- Foursquare

- Google

- Groupon

- HP

- Intel

- LinkedIn

- Microsoft

- Twitter

- Verizon

- Yahoo

- Zynga

I’m sure I missed any number of companies, so tell me what you think. Who will be a dominant force one generation from now? And why?

Looky Here, It's Me, In an Ad, On Facebook! Is This Legal? Allowed? Who Knows?!

By - July 24, 2011

john in fb ad.pngIn the past 12 hours, about ten friends (and counting) have sent me a copy of this ad on Facebook for a company called “AppSumo.” I have nearly 5000 “friends” on Facebook, a problem I’ve written about in the past, but seeing this ad threw me.

Apparently, this is *not* part of Facebook’s social ads, where people can buy ads targeting friends of particular people on third party sites – after all, this appears on Facebook.com. And those ads can only use my profile picture, which that pic is most definitely not (it was my author photo for my last book). Also, apparently, I have the ability to turn this off in my Facebook settings. However, since I am essentially “Facebook bankrupt” and have never really figured out how to fix that fact, I have never visited my “ad” settings.

Now I have. Here’s what settings says about ads using my name and picture:

Ads shown by third parties

Facebook does not give third party applications or ad networks the right to use your name or picture in ads. If we allow this in the future, the setting you choose will determine how your information is used.”
So this AppSumo use seems to be a pretty clear violation, no? I mean, it’s not allowed, right? Or is it that they are *not* a third party application or ad network, but rather, something else? Here’s a pic of my current settings, which again, says Facebook does not allow this, but “if we do in the future…” my settings would apply.
Screen shot 2011-07-24 at 3.39.33 PM.png
Is the future now? How can AppSumo target just my friends, without Facebook helping?
I’ve asked Facebook. And if anyone from “AppSumo” is out there, can you please tell me what this is about and how you did this? And where you got that picture, because, that’s not my Facebook profile picture….and it’s owned by a photographer, not by you….
Oh, and who wrote the copy? I mean, “Do you love John Battelle?” Migod…..One note…perhaps this is OK because I also have a Facebook “fan page” which makes me a “Facebook public figure?” I dunno. Any thoughts out there? Does AppSumo owe me (and the photographer) a cut?!
Update: Couple things. First, this is clearly not the first time that AppSumo has pulled this stuff. Matt Mullenweg pointed me to this story about them doing a similar thing with Tim Ferris. Second, Facebook has responded to me, agrees this is abuse, and is working with me to resolve the issue. Thanks Facebook and Matt!

"The Information" by James Gleick

By - July 21, 2011

Even before I was a few pages into The Information, a deep, sometimes frustrating but nonetheless superb book by James Gleick, I knew I had to ask him to speak at Web 2 this year. Not only did The Information speak to the theme of the conference this year (the Data Frame), I also knew Gleick, one of science’s foremost historians and storytellers, would have a lot to say to our industry.The Information.jpg

Now that I’ve finished the book (and by no means will it be the last time I read it) I can say I’m positively brimming with questions I’d like to ask the author. And perhaps most vexing is this: “What is Information, anyway?”

If you read The Information for the answer to this question, you may leave the work a bit perplexed. It may be in there, somewhere, but it’s not stated as such. And somehow, that’s OK, because you leave the book far more ready to think about the question than when you started. And to me, that’s the point.

When I was a kid, and fancied myself smarter than someone who might be in the room at the time, I’d ask them to explain to me where space ended. How far out? Often, and this was the trick, a youngster (we were six or seven, after all) would posit that there must be a wall at some point, an ending, a place where the universe no longer existed. “Oh yeah?!” I’d say, exultant that my trick had worked. “Then what’s on the other side?!”

I think the answer is information. Perhaps others would say God, but if that be true, then both are, and the truth is that both understanding God and understanding information are quests that are more about the narrative than the ending. At least, I think so.

Gleick’s book tells the story of how, over the past five thousand or so years, mankind has managed to create symbols which abstract meaning and intent into forms that are communicable beyond time and space. I too am fascinated with this (hence the focus and title of the new book I just announced – What We Hath Wrought .) While my book will attempt to be a narrative history of the next 30 or so years of information’s impact on our culture, Gleick’s is a history of the past 5,000 or more years – and it manages, for the most part, to stay focused just on the theory of information itself, rather than its political or social impacts. It’s ambitious, it’s heady, and at times, it’s nearly impossible to understand for a lay person such as myself.

Gleick traces the narrative of information from the first stirrings of alphabet-based communication to the explosion of academic excitement that accompanied the rise of “Information Science” and “Information Theory” in the mid to late 20th century. Nearly all the geek heros take a star turn in this work, from Ada Lovelace and Charles Babbage to Lord Kelvin, Claude Shannon, and Marshall McLuhan (Wired’s patron saint, in case you younger readers have forgotten…). Einstein, Borges, and scores of other folks who make you feel smart just for reading the book also make cameos.

The work really picks up speed as it describes the rise of early telecommunications, the role of information in mid century warfare, and the birth of both genetic sciences and the computing industry. In the end, Gleick seems to be arguing, it’s all bits – and I think most of us in this industry would agree. But I think Gleick’s definition of “bit” may differ from ours, and while it may be esoteric, it’s there I want to really focus when he visits Web 2 in October.

Reviews of The Information are mostly raves, and I have to add mine to the pile. But as with his earlier work (Chaos cemented my desire to be a technology journalist, for example, and may as well be viewed as a precursor to The Information), this most recent book is sometimes a rather dry tick tock of various academics’ journeys through difficult problems, often accompanied by descriptions of insights that, I must admit, escaped me the first two or three times I read them*. While I thought I knew it, I had to look up the definition of “logarithm” at least twice, and honestly, as its used in some passages, I had to just give up and hope I didn’t miss too much for my ignorance of Gleick’s nuanced use. (Given his larger point, that the core information is that which can be reduced to its essence, I think I got the point. I think).

I guess what I’m saying is that I had to work hard through parts of this book – for example, in understanding how randomness relates to the essence and amount of information in any given object. But I find the work worth it. I’m also still getting my head around the relationship of randomness to entropy (Maxwell’s Demons help…)

But isn’t that the point of a great book?In the end, I feel far more prepared to be a participant in what we’re making together in this industry, more rooted in the history that got us here, and more….yeah, I’ll say it, more reverent about the implications of our work moving forward. For that, I thank Gleick and The Information.

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Previous books I’ve reviewed as I prepare for What We Hath Wrought: In the Plex. Next up: Jonathan Zittrain’s The Future of the Internet (And How to Stop It), which I am finishing this week.

*This, for example, is a typical footnote: “The finite binary sequence S with the first proof that S cannot be described by a Turning machine with n states or less is a (log2 n+cp)-state description of S.” My blogging software doesn’t even have the right scientific notation capabilities to do that phrase justice, but I think you get the point I’m making….

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

By - July 15, 2011

wwhw twitter.png

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By - July 13, 2011

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

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

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

jbat twitter.png

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

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

jbattwitter.png

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

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

jbatgoogleplus.png

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

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

More soon.

Last Week's Signal

By - July 04, 2011

logo-bug.jpgI fell out of the habit, but here are the Signals from last week. If you want to get my daily roundup of stories worth paying attention to, get the RSS here, or sign up in email at the top right of the page here.

Monday Signal: Is Google Too Big?

Tuesday Signal: Will Big Data Save Us? We Can Pray.

Weds. Signal: A Good Day for the Open Internet

Thursday Signal: So Many Links, So Little Time

Friday Signal: Happy Birthday, USA. Now Get to Work

The World Is An Internet Startup Now

By - July 01, 2011

peepstalkinweb2.png

(image) Last night I got to throw a party, and from time to time, that’s a pretty fun thing to do. To help us think through the program and theme of the Web 2 Summit this Fall, we invited a small group of influential folks in the Bay area to a restaurant in San Francisco, fed them drinks and snacks, and invited their input. (Here are some pics if you want to see the crowd.)

Nothing beats face to face, semi-serendipitous conversation. You always learn something new, and the amount of knowledge that can be shared in even a few minutes of face time simply cannot be replicated with technology, social media, or even a long form post like this one. I always find myself reinvigorated after spending an evening in a room full of smart folks, and last night was certainly no exception. In fact, about halfway through, as I watched several of my close friends from my home turf of Marin mingling with the crowd, I realized something: The whole world is an Internet startup now.

Let me try to explain.

Back even five years ago, our industry was dominated by people who considered themselves a select breed of financier and entrepreneur – they were Internet startup folk. I considered myself one of them, of course, but I also kept a bit apart – it’s one reason I live up in Marin, and not down in the Silicon Valley. Why did I do that? I am not entirely sure, other than I wasn’t certain I wanted to be fully immersed in the neck-deep culture of the Valley, which can at times be a bit incestuous. I wanted to be part of the “rest of the world” even as I reveled in the extraordinary culture of Internet startup land.

Part of living up here in Marin is meeting and befriending smart folks who have pretty much nothing to do with my business. In the past ten years, I’ve become good friends with real estate developers, investment bankers (and not ones who take Internet companies public), musicians, artists, and doctors. When we first connected, I was always “the Internet guy” in the room. And that was that.

But as I scanned the room last night and watched those friends of mine, I realized that each of them was now involved in an Internet startup in some way or another. I then thought about the rest of my Marin pals, and realized that nearly every one of them is either running or considering running an Internet startup. Only thing is, to them it’s not about “starting an Internet company.” Instead, it’s about innovating in their chosen field. And to do so, they of course are leveraging the Internet as platform. The world is pivoting, and the axis is the industry we’ve built. This is what we meant when we chose “Web Meets World” for the theme of the 2008 Web 2 Summit, but it’s really happening now, at least in my world. I’m curious if it’s happening in yours.

A few examples – though I have to keep the details cloudy, as I can’t breach my friends’ confidence. One of my pals, let’s call him Jack, is a highly successful banker specializing in buying and selling other banks. But he’s an artist in his soul, and has a friend who is a talented photographer. Together they’ve cooked up a startlingly new approach to commercial consumer photography, including a retail concept and, of course, a fully integrated digital and social media component. Jack is now an Internet startup guy.

Another pal is a doctor. We’ll call him Dr. Smith. Smith is a true leader in his field, redefining standards of medical practice. He often gives speeches on what’s broken in the medical world, and holds salons where some of the most interesting minds in medicine hold forth on any number of mind bending topics. For the past year or so, Smith has been working on a major problem: How to get people to understand the basics of nutrition, and engage with their own diets in ways that might break the cycle of disease driven by poor eating habits. He’s got a genius answer to that question, and now, Smith is an Internet startup guy as well.

Dan, another anonymized pal of mine, made his name in real estate. Two years ago he effectively retired, having made enough money several times over to live a very good life and never have to work again. But Dan is a restless soul, and he’s also a bit haunted by the loss of his father to a poorly understood but quite well known neurological disease. He’s dedicated his life to supporting new approaches to research in the field, and the work he’s funded is tantalizingly close to a breakthrough. It’s an entirely new framework for understanding the illness, one that isn’t easy to grok if you’re a layman (as he was when he started). As I listened to him explain the work, I had a very strong sense of deja vu. Dan was an Internet startup guy now, pitching me his new approach to disrupting a sclerotic industry (in this case, the foundation-driven research institutes and their kissing cousins, the pharmaceutical companies.). It may work, it may not, but he’s going to go for it. To raise funds for his new approach, Dan is talking to angels and VCs, and developing a new model for profiting from drug compounds that may come out of the research he’s funded. In short, Dan’s appropriated the Internet’s core funding process to try to solve for one of the most obstinate problems in health.

I could go on. There’s the award winning filmmaker and his musician/producer partner who are creating mind-blowing next generation online games. The agency creative who’s won every traditional advertising prize on the planet, and is now obsessed with digital. And on and on and on….

I guess my point is this: The Internet no longer belongs to the young tech genius with a great idea and the means to execute it online. Innovation on the Internet now belongs to the world, and that is perhaps the most exciting thing about this space. It’s attracting not just the “next Mark Zuckerberg,” but also thousands of super smart innovators from every field imaginable, each of whom brings extraordinary insights and drive to play. And that’s another reason I love this industry, because, in the end, it’s not a singular business. It now encapsulates the human narrative, writ very large.

What a great story. Does it resonate with you? Do you have examples like mine? I’d love to hear them.

What We Hath Wrought: The Book

By - June 29, 2011

(Image: Samuel Morse, source Wikipedia) File:SamuelMorse.jpeg

Sometime today the following blurb was sent to the book publishing trade press:

Author of The Search, co-founder of Wired, founder of Federated Media, Inc., and Executive Producer of the Web 2.0 Summit, John Battelle’s WHAT WE HATH WROUGHT will give us a forecast of the interconnected world in 2040, then work backwards to explain how the personal, economic, political, and technological strands of this human narrative have evolved from the pivotal moment in which we find ourselves now. Based on thorough analysis and hundreds of interviews with political, technological, and cultural leaders, as well as a deep understanding of this story’s colorful history, Battelle will work with Dominick Anfuso and Hilary Redmon at Free Press (World) and Esther Newberg at ICM to bring this visionary tale to life. The book is scheduled to arrive in early 2013.

Apparently the announcement was picked up as the first item in a publication called Publishers’ Marketplace, but I can’t link to it, because it’s subscription only. Ah, the publishing world. I can’t believe I’m jumping back in. But more on that in a future post.

The new book announcement blurb is a staple of that world, it’s funny how short and dense they are, given they are attempting to describe what will probably be a 400 or so page tome once all is said and done. I suppose it makes sense in a way – as the author, I’m not really sure what path this book will take, and to be honest with you I’m more than a bit terrified by the scale and scope of this project.

Which is why I decided to do it.

So a bit more on what it is, and why I’m doing it now.

Those of you who visit regularly will be familiar with my annual predictions, which are a popular feature of the site. For the past four or so years, I’ve predicted that I’ll finally get around to starting work on my next book. (For those of you who are new to Searchblog, the site started as a way to bounce ideas around in public as I wrote my first book, The Search, way back in 2003. That book came out in 2005.)

In my 2010 predictions, for example, I wrote this: “I’ll figure out what I want to do with my book. SOGOTP, so to speak. Three years of predicting that I’ll start it is getting a bit old, eh? I feel good about branching back out into more contemplative fields, with FM in a strong position and our economy coming out from its defensive crouch.” Well, by the end of the year, I had figured out, broadly, what I wanted to do, but I had not given it a name, nor had I written a proposal or gotten my work life in a space that would allow me to actually execute the reporting and writing necessary to do justice to the topic I had chosen. A year later, in 2011, I didn’t even bother writing about the book in my predictions, because I knew I’d be working on it by mid year.

And here we are. It’s been a long process, getting ready to work on this book. FM was born at the same time as my last book, and for a while, I was both a startup CEO, new author (with 26 international editions and a lot of publicity support to do), as well as the Executive Producer of a new conference, the Web 2.0 Summit. For the next four years, my main focus was Federated, with a side of Web 2. But the new book was calling me the entire time. I knew I had to get back to writing, because when I did, I knew I’d be more engaged, much smarter about the world I love, and frankly, a more valuable asset to the company I founded. Back in September of 2009, I hired Deanna Brown as President and COO of Federated Media. Early this year, I promoted her to CEO, and took the title of Executive Chair. Deanna has been doing an extraordinary job, and I feel, after 18 months of preparation, that I can finally take the time to tackle this next big project. My commitment to FM remains, but now I have the time to dig into this new project.

So what is it? Well, settle in. This is my first attempt at describing the book in public, and I’m not sure where it’ll go. I’ll start with the title, which is a play on the first words sent over American telegraph wires by Samuel Morse in May of 1844. On the occasion of opening an experimental telegraph line between Baltimore and Washington, DC, Morse decided to send a Biblical quote comprised of these words: “What Hath God Wrought.” There’s a longer story as to why those words were chosen, but I find them compelling for a number of reasons. Morse, an artist by trade, was attempting to describe, in as few words as possible, the magnitude and potential of the moment. Here was man transmitting his thoughts, his intentions, his very words across time and space. (Were such an invention extant when Morse’s wife had died, he’d have had time to be by her side, for example). Such a concept was so foreign to that era that its impact could really only be ascribed to God.

Fast forward 167 years or so, and we can see what hath been wrought – but by man, not God. Morse’s first public telegram – a prehistoric tweet, if you will – begat a wave of communications and computational innovation that is only quickening. And as an observer and occasional journalist covering this field, I’m struck by the current moment – a time where the average consumer and citizen creates terabytes of data, and the average company or government is rapidly reorganizing itself to capitalize on that fact. In short, we’ve built a platform capable of totally rewiring how our society works. What, I wonder, will we make of it?

That is the driving question of the book. As I wrote in my proposal:

The world is captivated by stories of the Internet’s expanding power. Revolution sweeps across Egypt, Tunisia, Libya and beyond – powered by Facebook and Twitter. A café owner in Oregon tries out a new promotional service called Groupon and finds herself overwhelmed with hundreds of new customers – and nearly out of business. Terrorism in Moscow, murder in Tehran, and madness in Hollywood are broadcast for all to view on YouTube – as we watch, we are transformed.

But how will that transformation look a generation from now?

In less than five years, more than 600 million of us have committed our identities to Facebook, a service whose story is already an Academy Award-winning film. Every move by Apple has become a cultural event, and the company is credited with revolutionizing not just the music industry, but the communications and computing industries as well. And the fastest growing company in history, Google, recently ceded that title to yet another Internet phenomenon – the social commerce site Groupon.

In the decade since search redefined how we consume information, we have learned to make the world a game and the game our world, to ask and answer “what’s happening,” “what’s on your mind,” and “where are you?” Each purchase, search, status update, and check-in layers our world with data. Billions of times each day, we pattern a world collectively created by Twitter, Zynga, Facebook, Tencent, Foursquare, Google, Tumblr, Baidu, and thousands of other services. The Database of Intentions, first described in The Search, is far larger than even I imagined, and it is scaling to nearly incomprehensible size and power.

As we learn to leverage this ever-shifting platform called the Internet, we are at once renegotiating our social, economic, and cultural relationships – and we’re doing it in real time. How we interact with each other, how we engage with our government, how we conduct business, and even how we understand our place in the world – all has changed in the short fifteen years since the dawn of the commercial Internet. The pace only quickens. How might we understand where this is all headed?

Predictions of the future are tiresome – they lack detail, narrative, and staying power. But what if we could report the future? That sounds like a pretty good story. What We Hath Wrought will tell the story of the Web one generation from now.

To tell that story, I’m going to have to do a lot of reporting. I’ll need to talk to technologists, leaders of major corporations, marketers, politicians, academics, authors, artists, and yes, futurists as well. My goal is to steep myself in what’s happening now, and play the trends out one generation. I know, it’s an ambitious and even presumptuous goal. But it’s what keeps me up at night. And it’s also what we did at Wired for the five wonderful years while I was there – our goal was the report the future by playing out trends we could see right now.

One generation ago, I started as a cub reporter covering this industry. In the mid 1980s, personal computers were a novelty, the Internet was a research project, and phones sat on desks and tables, many with rotary dials. Who then could have predicted Google, or the iPhone, or Facebook?

Well, turns out a lot of folks wrote about the future back then, and many of them got a lot of things right (more got stuff wrong, of course). I’ve got a reading list of books that numbers in the hundreds, just for starters, and a source list that’s even longer. And I’m just getting started. Over the course of the next year I’ll be attacking the reporting of this book, and sketching up what I learn right here on this site, just as I did for The Search. And if I get half the feedback for this book that I got for the last one, I’ll consider myself a lucky man.

In a future post, I’ll outline how I plan to approach the reporting and writing of the book, in terms of structure. In short, I see four major narrative storylines. First is how the individual interacts with others – the social and cultural self. Second is how the individual interacts as a citizen – self to government – and how governments interact with each other. That’s the political and geopolitical narrative. Third is how the individual interacts with the economy – that’s the commercial narrative (and the one in which I’m the most versed as a journalist, certainly). Lastly, there’s the technological narrative – a description of the extraordinary tapestry of processors, bandwidth, and data we’ve built, and how it might evolve.

It’s my hope What We Hath Wrought will read like narrative journalism, playing 15 years of Internet history out into the future, describing that future as it came to exist, based on a number of clear storylines already in progress.

One last thing I’d like to say. Any narrative needs tension, and key actors. I can’t disclose who the actors might be, because honestly I have not decided. But I can frame the tension driving the story, and in short, it’s this: I believe we are in a critical moment in our civilization’s development, one where we will face a number of fateful decisions about how we interact with each other, with business, and with government. The decisions we make during this period will frame the kind of world we’ll leave to future generations. Who will control the data we create? What access will we allow citizens to the machinations of government? What kind of people will we become when every single one of us is deeply connected to a socially aware platform like Facebook? Are we building systems – in healthcare, energy, finance – that are too complicated for any of us to understand, much less control?

In short, can we handle what we are creating? Thirty or so years from now, will we be questioning ourselves – “Lord, what hath we wrought?” Or will we look upon what we hath wrought, and be pleased? I think the answer lies in exploring where we are, right now, and laying out the implications of our actions today. (And yes, I’m an optimist, which is why I moved the “hath” over one position in the title…)

To say I approach this book with trepidation is to understate my case. But I’ve never really done anything knowing with certainty where it’s going to end up. I hope you’ll join me on this journey. I’ll need the company!

PS – I’ve been tweeting stories that fit the book’s theme on the #wwhw hashtag. At some point, it might make more sense to just do a roundup of those stories here on Searchblog, instead, we’ll see. I’ll be easing into the work on this book this summer, and really be at it by the time Web 2 is over in the mid Fall. Meanwhile, the theme of Web 2 is directly related to the book, of course….