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Will Our Industry Ever Innovate Like Morse? Probably Not.

By - July 10, 2012

Last month I finished a compelling biography of Samuel Morse: Lightning Man: The Accursed Life Of Samuel F.B. Morse, by Pulitzer-prize winning author Kenneth Silverman. If you’re a fan of great biographies, or just want to learn more about the history of both our industry and of the United States during a seminal and innovative period, I certainly recommend this book.

If you had no idea that Morse was an acclaimed painter – possibly one of the top US artists of his era – well you’re in good company. I had no idea either. Born just a few years after the Constitutional convention, Morse grew up as one of the first native expressions of the new country that was America. A gifted painter, Morse never quite found his voice – his failure to create a masterpiece, in fact, drove his obsession with making his name as an inventor.

It was on a return trip from Europe in 1832, where he was studying art in Italy, that Morse came upon the idea for the telegraph. He was hardly alone, but his version of the idea turned out to be the most efficient and useful of many devised during the mid 1800s. Morse doggedly pursued his invention, convinced it was world changing. He was right, of course – but what I found most extraordinary about his story was how long Morse fought to get anyone to pay attention to his work, and, once proven, how hard he had to fight to keep claim to what was rightfully his.

Morse worked on perfecting his telegraph for nearly 15 years, and once he finally managed to demonstrate its efficacy, he endured several decades of lawsuits, public defamation, and endless commercial battles to maintain both his place in history as well as some claim to the fortunes created by his invention. In short, Morse’s life was pretty damn hellish for someone who laid the foundation for all that came after – including the modern Internet.

I can only imagine what Morse might think of the mayfly-like successes of “inventions” like Instagram, or Pinterest, or even Facebook and Google, compared with the ridicule, infamy, and commercial skullduggery he had to endure to finally see his contributions recognized, late in his life, after nearly four decades of struggle.

And it makes me wonder if our industry, for all its innovation, will ever be capable of the kind of breakthroughs that Morse represents – the man was past 50 years old when he first demonstrated his invention, and just past 80 when the world finally celebrated him as the “Father of the Telegraph.”  Imagine that – someone in the Internet industry, today, a founder with his or her first product who works on a prototype for 15 years, then introduces it at age 50?!

Of course, times are quite different today, and far faster to boot. Morse lived in a time when most of Europe was regularly at war with itself, when Britain invaded the United States, and he lived to watch the horrors of the Civil War unfold. His life spanned from America’s early, agrarian beginnings to the full bloom of the industrial age. And his invention had much to do with that shift: the telegraph shrank time and space to nearly nothing – allowing, for the first time, information to be communicated “as if by lightning.” Combined with the other great innovation of the day – the railroad – the telegraph allowed America to conquer its vast space and resources, and rise to become the most important power in the world.

When I think of the work Morse did, and the time it took him to do it, only a few people – and the companies they built – come to mind. One is Google, and the tinkering and invention Larry Page and Sergey Brin are encouraging through Google X. Another is Microsoft, which continues to drive innovation outside of its core revenue base through Microsoft Research. And another is IBM. But as much as I’d like to think that a lone inventor, obsessed to the point of near bankruptcy, might one day invent something that will forever change our world, I’m not sure that’s even possible anymore. It feels like an era that’s well over. Perhaps I’m wrong, but ….

I’ll get more into the impact of the telegraph in a review of The Victorian Internet: The Remarkable Story of the Telegraph and the Nineteenth Century’s On-line Pioneers, by Tom Standage (a must read for anyone in our industry, I’d wager). I finished that book a few weeks ago – and yes, I’m very far behind in my reviews here. Forgive me, I’ve been a bit distracted with family and work!

Other works I’ve reviewed:

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 (my review)

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

The Corporation (film – my review).

What Technology Wants by Kevin Kelly (my review)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Year Zero: This Is What the Beach Was Made For

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It’s summertime, and if you’re not already lying on a beach somewhere, I’ve got a good reason for you to go: My friend Rob Reid’s new novel is out today, and it’s absolutely tailor made for beach reading. It’s called Year Zero, and it’s a hilarious send up of the music industry, mixed, naturally, with a ripping yarn about aliens, romance, and intergalatic politics.

Rob let me read an early-ish draft of the book, and I loved it. It’s his first novel, years in the making, and it’s a masterstroke.

Given all the headlines just this week about the music industry’s endless self-inflicted woes, Rob’s timing couldn’t be better. Here are just two, ripped from my favorite aggregator Media ReDEFined just this week:

How Big Music Threatened Startups and Killed Innovation

Are There Too Many Music Streaming Services?

Not to mention, of course, the ongoing Kim Dotcom/Pirate Bay drama.

You guys know I don’t often recommend fiction – but despite the fact that Rob and I are drinking buddies, I must say, this is one book I can tell you to go buy, now!

Below is the Year Zero “trailer,” an idea I plan to steal for my book when it comes out next year!

Halfway Through The Year: How’re The Predictions Doing?

By - July 02, 2012

It’s time to review how my Predictions 2012 are faring, now that half the year has slipped by (that was fast, no?).

One thing that stands out is the timing wrt Twitter – my first two predictions were about the company, and now that I think about it, given the news just this week (and the attendant debate), I should have realized how the two could be in direct conflict with each other. It all makes for some interesting chin stroking, which I’m busy doing while on vacation – fishing the Rio Blanco up above Meeker in Colorado. Yes, you may now give me shit for writing that.

But to the review: I’ll take them one at a time:

Predictions 2012: #1 – On Twitter and Media

Twitter will become a force as a media company, not just a platform for others’ media.

Well, we’re only six months in, but I’d say this is happening, full force. From expanded tweets to hosting photos and videos to creating brand pages to major deals with entertainment companies, Twitter is certainly becoming a major media company. I predicted it will improve its Discover feature (it continues to – this is and has been critical to its success with Promoted Tweets, esp. in mobile), and that it’d roll out something like Flipboard. That hasn’t happened yet, but I’d wager it’s coming….

Predictions 2012: #2 – Twitter As Free Radical, Swiss Bank, Arms Merchant…And Google Five Years Ago

Every major player on the Internet will have to do a deal with Twitter, and Twitter will emerge as a Swiss like, open, neutral player in the battle for the consumer web.

Hmmm. I am not sure if this is happening quite as I might have predicted. Just this past week, Twitter cut LinkedIn off, but that doesn’t mean a new deal isn’t in the works, or that the way the old deal was going made anyone at either company – or their customers – happy. On other fronts, Twitter is flowing through search results at Bing, but no renewed deal with Google yet. Twitter is on stronger footing with Facebook than it was before – with a reciprocal deal finally in place. But its moves in media might mean it begins to act in a protective, domain-specific way over the next six months. I hope not. In other news, this move – the Twitter Transparency Report – is sure welcome news. I wrote about this just a few weeks ago….and suggested Twitter might be next. See: Google’s Transparency Report: A Good And Troubling Thing

Predictions 2012 #3: The Facebook Ad Network

Facebook will launch a web-wide competitor to AdSense.

Well, it’s certainly looking like this is coming true. Not only has Facebook begun the process by allowing its ads to be shown on Zynga.com, it also has offered its own inventory up for third-party exchanges. Both moves augur a next step: a web-wide competitor to AdSense. I’m still a bit nervous this won’t happen this year, but I’d wager it’s going to come at some point soon.

Predictions 2012 #4: Google’s Challenging Year

Despite doing well overall, Google will fumble one big play this year. 

Well, early in the year, the Search Plus Your World fracas seemed quite a fumble, but that tempest has cooled, at least for now. However, the company is the target of several government probes, and it remains to be seen how its perceived early missteps might play out.

Predictions 2012 #5: A Big Year for M&A

2012 may well be the biggest year of all for Internet M&A.

OK, I mentioned Instagram as a probable candidate, but it’s not like that wasn’t pretty damn obvious if you were paying attention. I don’t have all the numbers in, but man, it’s been a huge year so far for M&A in our space. We’ll see by the end of the year if it’s a record.

Predictions 2012 #6: “The Corporation” Becomes A Central Societal Question Mark

We’ll all start to question what role the corporation plays in our society and culture.

This one is fuzzy to begin with – it’s hard to prove such a zeitgeisty prediction. A challenge to Citizens v. United failed to get the court’s attention, had it been reviewed, we’d certainly be talking about this issue a lot more. I’d wager I might be a bit early on this one.

Predictions 2012 #7: Shooting From The Hip

In which I cover ten or so other rapid fire predictions. In turn:

- Obama will win the 2012 election, thanks in part to the tech community rallying behind him due to issues like SOPA, visas, and free speech.

Can’t call this one yet!

- Both Apple and Amazon will make billion-dollar acquisitions. More interestingly, so will Facebook.

One down, two to go….

- Android will be brought to heel by Google, eliciting both massive complaints and cheers, depending on where you sit.

 Seems to be happening, from accounts I’ve read.

 - Microsoft Windows Phone will become the Bing of mobile (IE, move into double digit market share).

 The phone is clearly a win for Microsoft so far, we’ll have to wait for version 8 to see if it maintains double digit share.

 - Microsoft Xbox will integrate meaningfully with the web (Kinect is key), and start to compete in social across the digital spectrum

This is happening in some ways (an ecosystem is developing) but I’m not sure yet about social…

- IBM will emerge as a key player in the consumer Internet.

 Not yet. But it is an emerging player in marketing IT, which drives much of the consumer Internet.

 - China will be caught spying on US corporations, especially tech and commodity companies. Somewhat oddly, no one will (seem to) care.

It’s happening, but we haven’t yet had the spectacular news (like the Google hack last year) that folks can then ignore.

- A heads up display for the web will launch that actually is worth using, but most likely in limited use cases.

Thanks, Google Glass!

All in all, not so bad for six months in. There’s still a lot of time to either prove me a fool, or of Nostradamus’ lineage.

Related:

Predictions 2011

2011: How I Did

Predictions 2010

2010: How I Did

2009 Predictions

2009 How I Did

2008 Predictions

2008 How I Did

2007 Predictions

2007 How I Did

2006 Predictions

2006 How I Did

2005 Predictions

2005 How I Did

2004 Predictions

2004 How I Did

 

 

 

 

Google’s “Mute” Button: Why Didn’t I Think Of That? Oh, Wait…

By - June 30, 2012

One of my pet peeves about our industry is how slowly we change – I understand it takes a long time to gather consensus (it took three years to get AdChoices rolled out, for example) – but man, why don’t the big players, like Google, innovate a bit more when it comes to display advertising?

Well, yesterday Google did just that, announcing a “mute this ad” feature that it will roll out across its network over the next few months. The feature does what you might expect it to do – it stops a particular ad from “following” you around the web. It will look like this:

 

As you can see, the “mute this ad” is right next to the AdChoice icon, adding a bit more clutter to the creative, but also, more control for consumers, in particular those who find the practice of “retargeting” irritating.

All I can say is, it’s about time. Back in August of 2010, I wrote about my own experience: On Retargeting: Fix The Conversation. In the post, I suggested:

…as I’ve said a million times, marketing is a conversation. And retargeted ads are part of that conversation. I’d like to suggest that retargeted ads acknowledge, with a simple graphic in a consistent place, that they are in fact a retargeted ad, and offer the consumer a chance to tell the advertiser “Thanks, but for now I’m not interested.” Then the ad goes away, and a new one would show up.

Well, it looks like Google has gotten with the program. Of course, Facebook already has that “X” on all of its display ads, but so far, retargeting hasn’t come to Facebook – yet. Watch that space, because I gotta believe it will soon.

How Not To Post A Comment

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Recently my site has been hit with a ton of “manual spam” – folks who are paid to post short comments in the hope they’ll appear and drive pagerank back to various sites (or perhaps just increase their or their clients’ visibility.) It’s not hard to kill these comments, though it’s a bit of an irritant when they pile up. I don’t really mind, because their full-blown amateur-hour earnestness is pretty entertaining. Besides leaving chuckleworthy comments like “Facebook now 100 billion company there big really now”, the spammers also leave behind their user handles, which are simply priceless. Enjoy:

It’s Hard to Lay Fallow

By - June 27, 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Meanwhile, back to the fallows…

(image: Shutterstock)

When You’re Stuck, Go Out And Talk To People

By - June 22, 2012

Yay! It's a nameless hotel ballroom! But the people who fill it are what matter...

I had one of those kind of days yesterday that reaffirm my belief in our industry, in its people, and in the work I do.

It’s not easy to sit here and write, much less write a book, and I’ll admit lately my faith (and my productivity) has flagged – there’s so much work left to do, so little time in which to do it, and so many other things – Federated Media, conferences, board positions, family, new business ideas – competing for my attention.

Fortunately I had reserved yesterday for a Valley reporting day. I managed to drag myself out of my recently-unproductive writer’s lair and into the bright sunlight of Sand Hill Road, Sunnyvale, and Palo Alto. I was fortunate to meet with some of the smartest folks in the business, and as I did, I relaized how easy it is to shake yourself out of a funk: Just get the hell out of your routine, pick up the phone, make a few appointments, and go talk to some interesting folks.

I’ll give you another example. Last week I went to Chicago for a joint board meeting between the IAB (where I am a board member), the Association of National Advertisers, and the 4As (that stands for the American Association of Advertising Agencies). I’ll admit I really didn’t want to go. I have come to hate business travel because it interrupts the flow of creation – I find it nearly impossible to write anything if I have to take the majority of the week to drive to the airport, get frisked, eat crap food on an airplane, then spend a couple of days in an airless, soul-sucking ballroom that practically drips with the steamed ghosts of ten thousand badly cooked chickens. Lather, rinse and repeat for the trip back. Ugh.

Only…once I settled into the meeting, I learned more in two days than I ever could from two weeks sitting in front of this screen. I got far smarter on the issues of marketing measurement, self regulation, and Do Not Track. I serendipitously managed to do some due diligence on a business I’ve been looking into. I gathered some critical intel on another deal I’ve been working, met a handful of senior people in the marketing industry I’ve been meaning to get to know, had lunch with an old colleague with whom I’d have otherwise never connected, and even managed to take a long run in the woods of Northbrook, Illinois, during which I happened upon a family of raccoons happily climbing a tree.

I left both excursions feeling like I had far more to say than when I began. And that’s my point. When you’re stuck, get out and talk to people. It always works for me.

Four Letter Words

By - June 19, 2012

If you’ve been following this site for a while, you’ll remember my experiment earlier this year with posting pictures of wine, bike rides, and other “life” things. Many of you liked those posts, others, not so much. (Here’s one example.) My reason for posting these photos was pretty simple – I prefer to have my content emanate from my own site, rather than be bound to Facebook, Pinterest, Instagram or some other third-party walled garden. If I could figure out a way to post stuff to my own site, then I’d share it out to those services, but keep the content firmly planted in what I call “The Independent Web.”

But I knew not all of you wanted to hear about my rides or consumption of wine, so I created feeds that filtered out the non-work related stuff. Alas, that wasn’t enough. I heard from a lot of you that you didn’t like my site clogged up with the pictures, and I don’t blame you. Having a website should mean having flexibility, so I’ve created a section of the site, which I’m calling “Four Letter Words,” for posting personal stuff. You can find it here.

The main RSS feed for Searchblog will include only posts that are *not* tagged with “Four Letter Words,” and the main site will only display my typical industry-related stuff. But if you want to check out the other side of my life – one of my favorite four letter words, along with life, wife, kids, bike, and wine –  check it out. And thanks for coming. Means the world to me.

Google’s Transparency Report: A Good And Troubling Thing

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A couple of days ago Google released its latest “Transparency Report,” part of the company’s ongoing commitment to disclose requests by individuals, corporations, and governments to change what users see in search results and other Google properties such as YouTube.

The press coverage of Google’s report was copious – far more than the prior two years, and for good reason. This week’s disclosure included Google’s bi-annual report of government takedown requests (corporate and individual requests are updated in near real time). The news was not comforting.

As the Atlantic wrote:

The stories Google tells to accompany the broad-brush numbers (found in the “annotations” section and its blog) paint a picture to accompany those numbers that Google calls “alarming” — noting, in particular, that some of the requests for removal of political speech come from “Western democracies not typically associated with censorship.”

The number of takedown requests from governments is on the rise – up about 100% year to year for the US alone. Part of this, perhaps, can be explained by what might be called a “catchup effect” – governments are coming to terms with the pervasive power of digital information, and finally getting their heads around trying to control it, much as governments have attempted to control more analog forms of information like newspapers, television stations, and books.

But as we know, digital information is very, very different. It’s one thing to try to control the press, it’s quite another to do the same with the blog postings, YouTube videos, Twitter feeds, and emails of an entire citizenry. Given the explosion of arguably illegal or simply embarrassing information available to Google’s crawlers (cough, cough, Wikileaks), I’m rather surprised that worldwide government takedown requests haven’t grown at an exponential rate.

But to me, the rise of government takedown requests isn’t nearly as interesting as the role Google and other companies play in all of this. As I’ve written elsewhere, it seems that as we move our public selves into the digital sphere, we seem to be also moving our trust from the institutions of government to the institution of the corporation. For example, our offline identity is established by a government ID like a driver’s license. Online, many of us view Facebook as our identity service. Prior to email, our private correspondance was secured by a government institution called the postal service. Today, we trust AOL, Microsoft, Yahoo, Facebook, or Gmail with our private utterances. When documents were analog, they were protected by government laws against unreasonable search and seizure. When they live in the cloud….the ground is shifting. I could go on, but I think you get my point.

As we move ourselves into the realm of digital information, a realm mediated by private corporations, those corporations naturally become the focus of government attention. I find Google’s Transparency Report to be a refreshing response to this government embrace – but it’s an exercise that almost no other corporation completes (Twitter has a record of disclosing, but on a case by case basis). Where is Amazon’s Transparency Report? Yahoo’s? Microsoft’s? And of course, the biggest question in terms of scale and personal information – where is Facebook’s? Oh, and of course, where is Apple’s?

Put another way: If we are shifting our trust from the government to the corporation, who’s watching the corporations? With government, we’ve at least got clear legal recourse – in the United States, we’ve got the Constitution, the Freedom of Information Act, and a deep legal history protecting the role of the press – what Jefferson called the Fourth Estate. With corporations, we’re on far less comforting ground – most of us have agreed to Terms of Services we’ve never read, much less studied in sixth grade civics class.

As the Atlantic concludes:

Google is trying to make these decisions responsibly, and the outcome, as detailed in the report, is reason to have confidence in Google as an arbiter of these things if, as is the case, Google is going to be the arbiter of these issues. But unlike a US Court, we don’t see the transcripts of oral arguments, or the detailed reasoning of a judge. …The Transparency Report sheds more light on the governments Google deals with than with its own internal processes for making judgments about compliance….Google’s Transparency Report is the work of a company that is grappling with its power and trying to show its work.

I applaud Google’s efforts here, but I’m wary of placing such an important public trust in the hands of private corporations alone. Google is a powerful company, with access to a wide swath of the world’s information. But with the rise of walled gardens like iOS and Facebook, an increasing amount of our information doesn’t touch Google’s servers. We literally are in the dark about how this data is being accessed by governments around the world.

Google is setting an example I hope all corporations with access to our data will follow. So far, however, most companies don’t. And that should give all of us pause, and it should be the basis of an ongoing conversation about the role of government in our digital lives.

Apple To Kill Ping, Add Facebook

By - June 12, 2012

(image) I know you all know that Apple has cut a deal to integrate Facebook, because of the relentless coverage of Apple’s developer conference this week. However, I just saw this story from ATD:

Apple’s Ping to End With a Thud in Next Release of iTunes

And thought to myself – “Hey, didn’t I predict that a while back?”

Every year I write predictions, and every July 1 or so, I see how I’ve been doing. So I went back to my 2012 predictions, and nope, it wasn’t there. Ah, time flies….it was in 2011 that I wrote, as Prediction #6:

Apple will attempt to get better at social networking, fail, and cut a deal with Facebook.

 I was only off by six months! My half-year “how’m I doing?” post will be out soon….