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Jaron Lanier: Something Doesn’t Smell Right

By - May 08, 2012

Jaron Lanier’s You Are Not A Gadget has been on my reading list for nearly two years, and if nothing else comes of this damn book I’m trying to write, it’ll be satisfying to say that I’ve made my way through any number of important works that for one reason or another, I failed to read up till now.

I met Jaron in the Wired days (that’d be 20 years ago) but I don’t know him well – as with Sherry Turkle and many others, I encountered him through my role as an editor, then followed his career with interest as he veered from fame as a virtual reality pioneer into his current role as chief critic of all things “Web 2.0.” Given my role in that “movement” – I co-founded the Web 2 conferences with Tim O’Reilly in 2004 – it’d be safe to assume that I disagree with most of what Lanier has to say.

I don’t. Not entirely, anyway. In fact, I came away, as I did with Turkle’s work, feeling a strange kinship with Lanier. But more on that in a moment.

In essence, You Are Not A Gadget is a series of arguments, some concise, others a bit shapeless, centering on one theme: Individual human beings are special, and always will be, and digital technology is not a replacement for our humanity. In particular, Lanier is deeply skeptical of any kind of machine-based mechanism that might be seen as replacing or diminishing our specialness, which over the past decade, Lanier sees happening everywhere.

Lanier is most eloquent when he describes, late in the book, what he believes humans to be: the result of a very long, very complicated interaction with reality (sure, irony alert given Lanier’s VR fame, but it makes sense when you read the book):

I believe humans are the result of billions of years of implicit, evolutionary study in the school of hard knocks. The cybernetic structure of a person has been refined by a very large, very long, and very deep encounter with physical reality.

Lanier worries we’re losing that sense of reality. From crowdsourcing and Wikipedia to the Singularity movement, he argues that we’re starting to embrace a technological philosophy that can only lead to loss. Early in the book, he writes:

“…certain specific, popular internet designs of the moment…tend to pull us into life patterns that gradually degrade the ways in which each of us exists as an individual. These unfortunate designs are more oriented toward treating people as relays in a global brain….(this) leads to all sorts of maladies….”

Lanier goes on to specific examples, including the online tracking associated with advertising, the concentration of power in the hands of the “lords of the clouds” such as Microsoft, Facebook, Google, and even Goldman Sachs, the loss of analog musical notation, the rise of locked in, fragile, and impossibly complicated software programs; and ultimately, the demise of the middle class. It’s a potentially powerful argument, and one I wish Lanier had made more completely. Instead, after reading his book, I feel forewarned, but not quite forearmed.

Lanier singles out many of our shared colleagues – the leaders of the Web 2.0 movement – as hopelessly misguided, labeling them “cynernetic totalists” who believe technology will solve all problems, including that of understanding humanity and consciousness. He worries about the fragmentation of our online identity, and warns that Web 2 services – from blogs to Facebook – lead us to leave little pieces of ourselves everywhere, feeding a larger collective, but resulting in no true value to the individual.

If you read my recent piece On Thneeds and the “Death of Display”, this might sound familiar, but I’m not sure I’d be willing to go as far as Lanier does in claiming all this behavior of ours will end up impoverishing our culture forever. I tend to be an optimist, Lanier, less so. He rues the fact that the web never implemented Ted Nelson’s vision of true hypertext – where the creator is remunerated via linked micro-transactions, for example. I think there were good reasons this system didn’t initially win, but there’s no reason to think it never will.

Lanier, an accomplished musician – though admittedly not a very popular one – is convinced that popular culture has been destroyed by the Internet. He writes:

Pop culture has entered into a nostalgic malaise. Online culture is dominated by trivial mashups of the culture that existed before the onset of mashups, and by fandom responding to the dwindling outposts of centralized mass media. It is a culture of reaction without action.

As an avid music fan, I’m not convinced. But Lanier goes further:

Spirituality is committing suicide. Consciousness is attempting to will itself out of existence…the deep meaning of personhood is being reduced by illusions of bits.

Wow! That’s some powerful stuff. But after reading the book, I wasn’t convinced about that, either, though Lanier raises many interesting questions along the way. One of them boils down to the concept of smell – the one sense that we can’t represent digitally. In a section titled “What Makes Something Real Is That It Is Impossible to Represent It To Completion,” Lanier writes:

It’s easy to forget that the very idea of a digital expression involves a trade-off with metaphysical overtones. A physical oil painting cannot convey an image created in another medium; it is impossible to make an oil painting look just like an ink drawing, for instance, or vice versa. But a digital image of sufficient resolution can capture any kind of perceivable image—or at least that’s how you’ll think of it if you believe in bits too much. Of course, it isn’t really so. A digital image of an oil painting is forever a representation, not a real thing. A real painting is a bottomless mystery, like any other real thing. An oil painting changes with time; cracks appear on its face. It has texture, odor, and a sense of presence and history.

This really resonates with me. In particular, the part about the odor. Turns out, odor is a pretty interesting subject. Our sense of smell is inherently physical – actual physical molecules of matter are required to enter our bodies and “mate” with receptors in our nervous system in order for us to experience an odor:

Olfaction, like language, is built up from entries in a catalog, not from infinitely morphable patterns. …the world’s smells can’t be broken down into just a few numbers on a gradient; there is no “smell pixel.”

Lanier suspects – and I find the theory compelling – that olfaction is deeply embedded in what it means to be human. Certainly such a link presents a compelling thought experiment as we transition to a profoundly digital world. I am very interested in what it means for our culture that we are truly “becoming digital,” that we are casting shadows of data in nearly everything we do, and that we are struggling to understand, instrument, and respond socially to this shift. I’m also fascinated by the organizations attempting to leverage that data, from the Internet Big Five to the startups and behind the scenes players (Palantir, IBM, governments, financial institutions, etc) who are profiting from and exploiting this fact.

But I don’t believe we’re in early lockdown mode, destined to digital serfdom. I still very much believe in the human spirit, and am convinced that if any company, government, or leader pushes too hard, we will “sniff them out,” and they will be routed around. Lanier is less complacent: he is warning that if we fail to wake up, we’re in for a very tough few decades, if not worse.

Lanier and I share any number of convictions, regardless. His prescriptions for how to insure we don’t become “gadgets” might well have been the inspiration for my post Put Your Taproot Into the Independent Web, for example (he implores us to create, deeply, and not be lured into expressing ourselves solely in the templates of social networking sites). And he reminds readers that he loves the Internet, and pines, a bit, for the way it used to be, before Web 2 and Facebook (and one must assume, Apple), rebuilt it into forms he now decries.

I pine a bit myself, but remain (perhaps foolishly) optimistic that the best of what we’ve created together will endure, even as we journey onward to discover new ways of valuing what it means to be a person. And I feel lucky to know that I can reach out to Jaron – and I have – to continue this conversation, and report the results of our dialog on this site, and in my own book.

Next up: A review (and dialog with the author) of Larry Lessig’s Code And Other Laws of Cyberspace, Version 2.

Other works I’ve reviewed:

Wikileaks And the Age of Transparency  by Micah Sifry (review)

Republic Lost 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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Championships, Milestones, and Alzheimers

By - May 07, 2012

As readers are realizing, I’m posting photos here first, then using this as the basis for exports to other services like Twitter or Pinterest. It will be a few days before I have a “non photos” RSS feed for you to follow, forgive the interruption with non-work related stuff. But, it was a big weekend.

It started with my daughter winning the county championships in the 1oom dash for the third year in a row. Wow!

Then my son led his Eagle Project, with a crew of eight who cleared brush and built a new set of steps on a local trail near Mount Tamalpais. A major milestone.

 

Then he participated in the NorCal Championship mountain bike race, which was held in Marin for the first time ever.

In between, I went to an extraordinary fundraiser for Alzheimer’s research, and got to talk baseball with Giants manager Bruce Bochy and listen to Tony Bennet sing “I left my heart in San Francisco.”

Lots of Valley brass there (it was held on Sand Hill Road), it’s amazing to realize how little is known about this disease, which costs the US $200 billion a year, and effects the lives of tens of millions of us each year. For more info, check out this short video, also embedded below. Eye opening.

 

On Thneeds and the “Death of Display”

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It’s all over the news these days: Display advertising is dead. Or put more accurately, the world of “boxes and rectangles” is dead. No one pays attention to banner ads, the reasoning goes, and the model never really worked in the first place (except for direct response). Brand marketers are demanding more for their money, and “standard display” is simply not delivering. After nearly 20 years*, it’s time to bury the banner, and move on to….

…well, to something else. Mostly, if you believe the valuations these days, to big platforms that have their own proprietary ad systems.

All over the industry, you’ll find celebration of new advertising-driven platforms that have eschewed the “boxes and rectangles” model. Twitter makes money off its native “promoted” suite of marketing tools. Tumblr just this week rolled out a similar offering. Pinterest recently hired Facebook’s original monetization wizard to create its own advertising model, separate from standard display. And of course there’s Facebook, which has gone so far as to call its new products “Featured Stories” (as opposed to “Ads” – which is what they are.) Lastly, we mustn’t forget the grandaddy of native advertising platforms, Google, whose search ads redefined the playing field more than a decade ago (although AdSense, it must be said, is very much in the “standard display” business).

Together, these platforms comprise what I’ve come to call the “dependent web,” and they live in a symbiotic relationship with what I call the “independent web.”

But there’s a very big difference between the two when it comes to revenue and perceived value. Dependent web companies are, in short, killing it. Facebook is about to go public at a valuation of $100 billion. Twitter is valued at close to $10 billion. Pinterest is rumored to be worth $4 billion, and who knows what Tumblr’s worth now – it was nearly $1 billion, on close to no revenues, last Fall. And of course Google has a market cap of around $200 billion.

Independent web publishers? With a few exceptions, they’re not killing it. They aren’t massively scaled platforms, after all, they’re often one or two person shops. If “display is dead,” then, well – they’re getting killed.

That’s because, again with few exceptions, independent web sites rely on the “standard display” model to scratch out at least part of a living. And that standard display model was not built to leverage the value of great content sites: engagement with audience. Boxes and rectangles on the side or top of a website simply do not deliver against brand advertising goals. Like it or not, boxes and rectangles have for the most part become the province of direct response advertising, or brand advertising that pays, on average, as if it’s driven by direct response metrics. And unless you’re running a high-traffic site about asbestos lawsuits, that just doesn’t pay the bills for content sites.

Hence, the rolling declaration of display’s death – often by independent industry news sites plastered with banners, boxes and rectangles.

But I don’t think online display is dead. It just needs to be rethought, re-engineered, and reborn. Easy, right?

Well, no, because brand marketers want scale and proof of ROI – and given that any new idea in display has to break out of the box-and-rectangle model first, we’ve got a chicken and egg problem with both scale and proof of value.

But I’ve noticed some promising sprigs of green pushing through the earth of late. First of all, let’s not forget the growth and success of programmatic buying across those “boxes and rectangles.” Using data and real time bidding, demand- and supply-side platforms are growing very quickly, and while the average CPM is low, there is a lot of promise in these new services – so much so, that FMP recently joined forces with one of the best, Lijit Networks. Another promising development is the video interstitial. Once anathema to nearly every publisher on the planet, this full page unit is now standard on the New York Times, Wired, Forbes, and countless other publishing sites. And while audiences may balk at seeing a full-page video ad after clicking from a search engine or other referring agent, the fact is, skipping the ad is about as hard as turning the page in a magazine. And in magazines, full page ads work for marketers.

Another is what many are now calling “native advertising” (sure to be confused with Twitter, Tumblr, and others’ native advertising solutions…) Over at Digiday, which has been doing a bang up job covering the display story, you’ll see debate about the growth of  publisher-based “native advertising units,” which are units that run in the editorial well, and are often populated with advertiser-sponsored content. FMP has been doing this kind of advertising for nearly three years, and of course it pioneered the concept of content marketing back in 2006. The key to success here, we’ve found, is getting context right, at scale, and of course providing transparency (IE, don’t try to fool an audience, they’re far smarter than that.)

And lastly, there are the new “Rising Star” units from the IAB (where I am a board member). These are, put quite simply, reimagined, larger and more interactive boxes and rectangles. A good step, but not a panacea.

So as much as I am rooting for these new approaches to display, and expect that they will start to be combined in ways that really pay off for publishers, they have a limitation: they’re focused on what I’ll call a “site-specific” model: for a publisher to get rewarded for creating great content, that publisher must endeavor to bring visitors to their site so those visitors can see the ads.  If we look toward the future, that’s not going to be enough. In an ideal Internet world, great content is rewarded for being shared, reposted,  viewed elsewhere and yes, even “liked.”

Up to now, that reward has had one single currency: Traffic back to the site.

Think of the largest referrers of traffic to the “rest of the web” – who are they? Yep – the very same companies with huge valuations – Google, Facebook, Twitter, and now Pinterest. What do they have in common? They’ve figured out a way to leverage the content created by the “rest of the web” and resell it to marketers at scale and for value (or, at least VCs believe they will soon). It’s always been an implicit deal, starting with search and moving into social: We cull, curate, and leverage your content, and in return, we’ll send traffic back to your site.

But given that we’re in for an extended transition from boxes and rectangles to ideas that, we hope, are better over time, well, that traffic deal just isn’t enough. It’s time to imagine bigger things.

Before we do, let’s step back for a moment and consider the independent web site. The…content creator. The web publisher. The talent, if you will. The person with a voice, an audience, a community. The hundreds of thousands (millions, really) of folks who, for good or bad, have plastered banners all over their site in the hope that perhaps the checks might get a bit bigger next month. (Of course this includes traditional media sites, like publishers who made their nut in print, for example). To me, these people comprise the equivalent of forests in the Internet’s ecosystem. They create the oxygen that feeds much of our world: Great content, great engagement, and great audiences.

Perhaps I’m becoming a cranky old man, a Lorax, if you must, but I’m going to jump up on a stump right now and say it: curation-based platform models that harvest the work of great content creators, creating “Thneeds” along the way, are failing to see the forest for the trees. Their quid pro quo deal to “send more traffic” ain’t enough.**

It’s time that content creators derived real value from the platforms they feed. A new model is needed, and if one doesn’t emerge (or is obstructed by the terms of service of large platforms), I worry about the future of the open web itself. If we, as an industry, don’t get just a wee bit better at taking care of content creators, we’re going to destroy our own ecosystem – and we’ll watch the Pinterests, Twitters, and yes, even the Google and Facebooks of the world deteriorate for lack of new content to curate.

Put another way: Unless someone cares, a whole awful lot…it isn’t going to get better. It’s not.

Cough.

So I’m here to say not only do I care, so do the hundreds of people working at Federated Media Publishing and Lijit, and at a burgeoning ecosystem of companies, publishers, and marketers who are coming to realize it’s time to wake up from our “standard display” dream and create some new models. It’s not the big platforms’ job to create that model – but it will be their job to not stand in the way of it.

So what might a new approach look like? Well first and foremost, it doesn’t mean abandoning the site-specific approach. Instead, I suggest we augment that revenue stream with another, one that ties individual “atomic units” of content to similar “atomic units” of marketing messaging, so that together they can travel the Seussian highways of the social web with a business model intact.

Because if the traffic referral game has proven anything to us as publishers, it’s that great content doesn’t want to be bound to one site. The rise of Pinterest, among others, proves this fact. Ideally, content should be shared, mixed, mashed, and reposted – it wants to flow through the Internet like water. This was the point of RSS, after all – a technology that has actually been declared dead more often than the lowly display banner. (For those of you too young to recall RSS, it’s a technology that allows publishers to share their content as “feeds” to any third party.)

RSS has, in the main, “failed” as a commercial entity because publishers realized they couldn’t make money by allowing people to consume their content “offsite.” The tyranny of the site-specific model forced most commercial publishers to use RSS only for display of headlines and snippets of text – bait, if you will, to bring audiences back to the site.

I’ve written about the implications of RSS and its death over and over again, because I love its goal of weaving content throughout the Internet. But and each time I’ve considered RSS, I’ve found myself wanting for a solution to its ills. I love the idea of content flowing any and everywhere around the Internet, but I also understand and sympathize with the content creator’s dilemma: If my content is scattered to the Internet’s winds, consumed on far continents with no remuneration to me, I can’t make a living as a content creator. So it’s no wonder that the creator swallows hard, and limits her RSS feed in the hopes that traffic will rise on her site (a few intrepid souls, like me, keep their RSS feeds “full text.” But I don’t rely on this site, directly, to make a living.)

So let’s review. We now have three broken or limping models in independent Internet publishing: the traffic-hungry site-specific content model, the “standard display” model upon which it depends, and the RSS model, which failed due to lack of “monetization.”

But inside this seeming mess, if you stare long and hard enough, there are answers staring back at you. In short, it’s time to leverage the big platforms for more than just traffic. It’s time to do what the biggest holders of IP (the film and TV folks) have already done – go where the money is. But this time, the approach needs to be different.

I’ve already hinted at it above: Wrap content with appropriate underwriting, and set it free to roam the Internet. Of course, such a system will have to navigate business process rules (the platforms’ Terms of Service), and break free of scale and ROI constraints. I believe this can be done.

But given that I’m already at 2500 words, I think I’ll be writing about that approach in a future post. Stay tuned, and remember – “Unless….”

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*As a co-founder of Wired, I had a small part to play in the banner’s birth – the first banner ran on HotWired in 1994. It had a 78% clickthrough rate. 

**Using ad networks, the average small publisher earns about seventy-five cents per thousand on her display ads. Let’s do the math. Let’s say Molly the Scone Blogger gets an average of 50,000 page views a month, pretty good for a food blogger. We know the average ad network pays about 65 to 85 cents per thousand page views at the moment (for reasons explained above, despite the continuing focus of the industrial ad technology complex, which is working to raise those prices with data and context). And let’s say Molly puts two ads per page on her site. That means she has one hundred “thousands” to sell, at around 75 cents a thousand. This means Molly gets a check for about $75 each month. Now, Molly loves her site, and loves her audience and community, and wants to make enough to do it more. Since her only leverage is increased traffic, she will labor at Pinterest, Twitter, Facebook, and Google+, promoting her content and doing her best to gain more audience.

Perhaps she can double her traffic, and her monthly income might go from $75 to $150. That helps with the groceries, but it’s a terrible return on invested time. So what might Molly do? Well, if she can’t join a higher-paying network like FMP, she may well decide to abandon content creation all together. And when she stops investing in her own site, guess what happens? She’s not creating new content for Pinterest, Twitter, Facebook and Google to harvest, and she’s not using those platforms to distribute her content.

For the past seven years, it’s been FMP’s business to get people like Molly paid a lot more than 75 cents per thousand audience members. We’re proud of the hundred plus million dollars we’ve injected into the Independent web, but I have to be honest with you. There are way more Mollys in the world than FMP can help – at least under current industry conditions. And while we’ve innovated like crazy to create value beyond standard banners, it’s going to take more to insure content creators get paid appropriately. It’s time to think outside the box.

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Special thanks to folks who have been helping me think through this issue, including Deanna Brown and the FMP team, Randall Rothenberg of the IAB, Brian Monahan, Chas Edwards, Jeff Dachis, Brian Morrissey, and many, many more. 

 

The Week In Wine

By - May 03, 2012

In a previous post, I said I’d be posting pictures here, and it’s been a pretty good week in the world of wine. Two of particular note:

 

These guys have all sorts of varietals and regions. This 06 Pinot, Flax Vineyard from Williams Selyem was good, but not as good as others I’ve had from WS. So the next night, it was on to…

..happy stuff, the Truchard 07 Pinot. This was my first bottle, I stocked up, and I am glad I did.

I’ll be back with industry related writing soon, forgive this right turn into wine. I also plan to create an RSS feed for photos like this, and one that has them omitted…

 

Hello, SF

By - April 30, 2012

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SF from top of Mt Tam yesterday (a test of my remote photo posting skills)

Get Ready for Some Pictures, Folks

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A wine we enjoyed last weekend.

I’ve become increasingly troubled by the “data traps” springing up all over AppWorld and the Internet, and while I’ve been pretty vocal about their downsides, I also use them quite a bit – especially for photos. That, I hope, is about to end.

However, I’m afraid it means you, dear reader, are going to be seeing a few more pictures of Mount Tamalpais and my favorite wines here on Searchblog.

Allow me to explain. I have done a pretty good job of partitioning my life digitally, posting utterances and stories that I’m happy to share with anyone on Twitter, leaving a few sparse comments and “Likes” on Facebook (I’m not a huge user of the service, I’ll be honest), and sending any number of photos to thousands of “followers” on Instagram and Tumblr.

The fact is, none of these services comprise what I call the Independent Web, as I describe it in this post: Put Your Taproot Into the Independent Web. And over time, it’s come to bother me that my content and my usage has been aggregated into a deal that feels out of balance. These companies are getting huge valuations (and exits) on the back of our collective usage (often with little or no revenue model). And what are we getting back? A free service. One that is constantly taking data from our interactions, and leveraging that data for ever higher valuations.

The Lobby of AT&T, where I visited last week

If you’re a professional content creator, as I am, there’s only so long you can go without feeling a bit…used.

I’d be OK with this tradeoff if these services made it easy to export my data outside of their walls, but so far, that’s not been the case. I’ve got hundreds of shots stuck on Twitpic, for example (and I know, you can runs some kind of script, but I’m not really going to figure out how to do that). And about that many on Instagram. Plus scores on Tumblr, which I used, briefly, as a kind of photo blog (the 500K image limit in email stopped that habit).

So as a way of putting my money where my mouth is, I’m going to start sending all photos that I care to share publicly to this site. WordPress has a new version of its app that promises to make photo uploads pretty easy from my phone (fingers are crossed, I haven’t used it yet). Consider the shots “Unicorn chasers,” if you will, respites between my half-baked predictions, long rants on identity, or musings on antiquities from the future. If the spirit moves me, I’ll then push those same photos to Tumblr or Instagram (or whatever comes next). At least this way, the photo “lives” on my site, and whatever initial pageviews and data is created stays on this site, where I can leverage it to support my work (IE, show ads next to them, and/or understand consumption in some way that helps me create a better site).

Mount Tamalpais from Bald Hill, Marin County - quite literally my backyard.

This approach, for example, will allow me to “pin” these photos to Pinterest, and any traffic from Pinterest will come back to this site, rather than Instagram or Tumblr.

Now, I can’t exactly replicate what Twitter and Facebook have created here on this blog, so I’ll continue to use those platforms as I have in the past. For me, I mostly use social services to point to things I think my “followers” may find interesting out there on the web. Going forward, that will include my public photos – on my own site.

I hope seeing the odd photo now and again – even if they’re a bit out of context – won’t turn you off as a reader. I figure I’ll only post shots that I’d be happy to send to Twitter anyway, where I have a very large and very vocal audience in any case. As always, tell me what you think….and forgive my technical lameness as I get started. I’m working out the kinks (anyone know how to make sure I get proper right margins on photos in WordPress, and stylized captions?!).

 

Does the Pebble Cause a Ripple In Apple’s Waters?

By - April 27, 2012

Ever since the Pebble watch became an cause célèbre in tech circles for its kickass Kickstarter moves (it’s raised almost $7mm dollars and counting), something’s been nagging me about the company and its product.

It’s now Valley legend that the company had to turn to Kickstarter to get its working capital – more than 46,000 folks have backed Pebble, and will soon be proudly sporting their spiffy new iPhone-powered watches as a result. Clearly Pebble has won – both financially, as well as in the court of public opinion. I spoke to one early investor (through Y-Combinator) who had nothing but good things to say about the company and its founders.

But why, I wondered, were mainstream VCs not backing Pebble once it became clear the company was on a path to success?

The reasons I read in press coverage – that VCs tend to not like untested hardware/platform plays, that retail products have low margins, etc., all sounded reasonable, but not enough. In this environment, there had to be more going on.

Now, I don’t know enough to claim this as anything more than a theory, but it’s a Friday, so allow me to speculate: Perhaps one reason VCs don’t want to invest in Pebble is because they fear Apple.

Here’s why. If you watch the video explaining Pebble, it become pretty clear that the watch is, in essence, a new form factor for the iPhone. It’s smaller, it’s more use-case defined, but that’s what it is: A smaller mirror of your iPhone, strapped to you wrist. Pebble uses bluetooth connectivity to access the iPhone’s native capabilities, and then displays data, apps, and services on its high-resolution e-paper screen. It even has its own “app store” and (upcoming) SDK/API  so people can write native apps to the device.

In short, Pebble is an iPhone for your wrist. And Apple doesn’t own it.

If we’ve learned anything about Apple over the years, it’s that Apple is driven by its hardware business. It makes its profits by selling hardware – and it’s built a beautiful closed software ecosystem to insure those hardware sales. Pebble forces an interesting question: Does Apple care about new form factors for hardware? Or is it content to build out just the “core” hardware platform, and allow anyone to innovate in new hardware instances? Would Apple be cool with someone building, say, a larger form factor of the iPhone, perhaps tablet-sized, driven by your iPhone?

I don’t know the answer to that question (and doubt Apple would answer my call asking such a question), so I’ll toss it out to you. What do you all think? Is Pebble playing with fire here? Would Apple ever change its developer terms of services to cut the new company off?

Direct Mail Ain’t Dead, Says Facebook

By - April 19, 2012

I’m a bit behind on my snail mail, so to procrastinate from writing anything useful on the book, I went through a pile that’s accumulated over the past week. Perhaps the most interesting piece of mail came from a very familiar brand: Facebook.

The letter had all the trappings of direct mail – a presorted postage mark, impersonal address label, etc. I almost tossed it, but then I thought, why is Facebook using snail mail to message to me? I guess Facebook can’t grow using only its own platform to market its wares. After all, Google is now a major brand advertiser, and probably does direct mail as well. It’s kind of interesting that Facebook is now marketing in new ways….so open it I did.

The one page letter was an offer designed for folks who run “agencies.” I don’t run one, but I do manage a business, registered in the State of California, through which I manage my writing and speaking work. Facebook clearly bought some list, somewhere, that had my name on it (oh, the irony – don’t they already have this information?). The offer was for Facebook’s advertising products – I could offer a free $100 credit to all my clients if I signed up for Facebook advertising myself. I’d have to qualify as an agency, and I’m pretty sure I don’t. So despite my desire to offer all of you, my reading “clients,” $100 in free Facebook ads, I’m afraid I can’t. But I can post (a bad photo of) the letter, in case you’re interested. The front is the offer, and the back is a case study of a company (Victory Motorcycles) that’s had success with Facebook’s platform. For the record, if nothing else.

Front:

Back:

 

 

A Coachella “Fail-ble”: Do We Hold Spectrum in Common?

By - April 18, 2012

Neon Indian at Coachella last weekend.

 

Last weekend I had the distinct pleasure of taking two days off the grid and heading to a music festival called Coachella. Now, when I say “off the grid,” I mean time away from my normal work life (yes, I tend to work a bit on the weekends), and my normal family life (I usually reserve the balance of weekends for family, this was the first couple of days “alone” I’ve had in more than a year.)

What I most certainly did not want to be was off the information grid – the data lifeline that all of us so presumptively leverage through our digital devices. But for the entire time I was at the festival, unfortunately, that’s exactly what happened – to me, and to most of the 85,000 or so other people trying to use their smartphones while at the show.

I’m not writing this post to blame AT&T (my carrier), or Verizon, or the producers of Coachella, though each have some part to play in the failure that occurred last weekend (and most likely will occur again this weekend, when Coachella produces its second of two festival weekends). Rather, I’m deeply interested in how this story came about, why it matters, and what, if anything, can be done about it.

First, let’s set some assumptions. When tens of thousands of young people (the average age of a Coachella fan is in the mid to low 20s) gather in any one place in the United States, it’s a safe bet these things are true:

- Nearly everyone has a smartphone in their possession.

- Nearly everyone plans on using that smartphone to connect with friends at the show, as well as to record, share, and amplify the experience they are having while at the event.

- Nearly everyone knows that service at large events is awful, yet they hope their phone will work, at least some of the time. Perhaps a cash-rich sponsor will pay to bring in extra bandwidth, or maybe the promoter will spring for it out of the profit from ticket sales. Regardless, they expect some service delays, and plan on using low-bandwidth texting services more than they’d like to.

- Nearly everyone leaves a show like Coachella unhappy with their service provider, and unable to truly express themselves in ways they wished they could. Those ways might include, in no particular order: Communicating with friends so as to meet up (“See you at the Outdoor stage, right side middle, for Grace Potter!”), tweeting or Facebooking a message to followers (“Neon Indian is killing it right now!”), checking in on Foursquare or any other location service so as to gain value in a social game (or in my case, to create digital breadcrumbs to remind me who I was once in hit dotage), uploading photos to any number of social photo services like Instagram, or using new, music-specific apps like TastemakerX on a whim (“I’d like to buy 100 shares of Yuck, those guys just blew me away!”). Oh, and it’d be nice to make a phone call home if you need to.

But for the most part, I and all my friends were unable to do any of these things at Coachella last weekend, at least not in real time. I felt as if I was drinking from a very thin, very clogged cocktail straw. Data service was simply non existent onsite. Texts came in, but more often than not they were timeshifted: I’d get ten texts delivered some 20 minutes after they were sent. And phone service was about as good as it is on Sand Hill Road – spotty, prone to drops, and often just not available. I did manage to get some data service while at the show, but that was because I found a press tent and logged onto the local wifi network there, or I “tricked” my phone into thinking it was logging onto the network for the first time (by turning “airplane mode” off and on over and over again).

This all left me wondering – what if? What if there was an open pipe, both up and down, that could handle all that traffic? What if everyone who came to the show knew that pipe would be open, and work? What kind of value would have been created had that been the case? How much more data would have populated the world, how much richer would literally millions of people’s lives been for seeing the joyful expressions of their friends as they engaged in a wonderful experience? How much more learning might have countless startups gathered, had they been able to truly capture the real time intentions of their customers at such an event?

In short, how much have we lost as a society because we’ve failed to solve our own bandwidth problems?

I know, it’s just a rock festival, and jeez Battelle, shut off your phone and just dance, right? OK, I get that, I trust me, I did dance, a lot. But I also like to take a minute here or there to connect to the people I love, or who follow me, and share with them my passions and my excitement. We are becoming a digital society, to pretend otherwise is to ignore reality. And with very few exceptions, it was just not possible to intermingle the digital and the physical at Coachella. (I did hear reports that folks with Verizon were having better luck, but that probably because there were fewer Verizon iPhones than those with AT&T. And think about that language – “luck”?!).

Way back in 2008, when the iPhone was new and Instagram was a gleam in Kevin Systrom’s eye, I was involved in creating a service called CrowdFire. It was a way for fans at a festival (the first was Outside Lands) to share photos, tweets, and texts in a location and event specific way. I’ve always rued our decision to not spin CrowdFire out as a separate company, but regardless, my main memory of the service was how crippled it was due to bandwidth failure. It was actually better than Coachella, but not by much. So in four years, we’ve managed to go backwards when it comes to this problem.

Of course, the amount of data we’re using has exploded, so credit to the carriers for doing their best to keep up. But can they get to the promised land? I wonder, at least under the current system of economic incentives we’ve adopted in the United States. Sure, there will always be traffic jams, but have we really thought through the best approach to how we execute “the Internet in the sky?”

Put another way, do we not hold the ability to share who we are, our very digital reflections, as a commons to which all of us should have equal access?

As I was driving to the festival last Saturday, I engaged in a conversation with one of my fellow passengers about this subject. What do we, as a society, hold in commons, and where do digital services fit in, if at all?

Well, we were driving to Coachella on city roads, held in commons through municipalities, for one. And we then got on Interstate 10 for a few miles, which is held in commons by federal agencies in conjunction with local governments. So it’s pretty clear we have, as a society, made the decision that the infrastructure for the transport of atoms – whether they be cars and the humans in them, or trucks and the commercial goods within them – is held in a public commons.Sure, we hit some traffic, but it wasn’t that bad, and there were ways to route around it.

What else do we hold in a commons? We ticked off the list of stuff upon we depend – the transportation of water and power to our homes and our businesses, for example. Those certainly are (mostly) held in the public commons as well.

So it’s pretty clear that over the course of time, we’ve decided that when it comes to moving ourselves around, and making sure we have power and water, we’re OK with the government managing the infrastructure. But what of bits? What of “ourselves” as expressed digitally?

For the “hardwired” Internet – the place that gave us the Web, Google, Facebook, et al, we built upon what was arguably a publicly common infrastructure. Thanks to government and social normative regulation, the hard-wired Internet was architected to be open to all, with a commercial imperative that insured bandwidth issues were addressed in a reasonable fashion (Cisco, Comcast, etc.).

But with wireless, we’ve taken what is a public asset – radio spectrum – and we’ve licensed it to private companies under a thicket of regulatory oversight. And without laying blame – there’s probably plenty of it to go around – we’ve proceeded to make a mess of it. What we have here, it seems to me, is a failure. Is it a market failure – which usual preceeds government action? I’m not sure that’s the case. But it’s a fail, nevertheless. I’d like to get smarter on this issue, even though the prospect of it makes my head hurt.

As I wrote yesterday, I recently spent some time in Washington DC, and sat down with the Obama administration’s point person on that question, FCC Chair Julius Genachowski. As I expected, the issue of spectrum allocation is extraordinarily complicated, and it’s unlikely we’ll find a way out of the “Coachella Fail-ble” anytime soon. But there is hope. Technological disruption is one way – watch the “white spaces,” for instance. And in a world where marketing claims to be “the fastest” spur customer switching, our carriers are madly scrambling to upgrade their networks. Yet in the US, wireless speeds are far below those of countries in Europe and Asia.

I plan on finding out more as I report, but I may as well ask you, my smarter readers: Why is this the case? And does it have anything to do with what those other countries consider to be held in “digital commons”?

I’ll readily admit I’m simply a journeyman asking questions here, not a firebrand looking to lay blame. I understand this is a complicated topic, but it’s one for which I’d love your input and guidance.

What Doesn’t the Valley Understand About Washington?

By - April 17, 2012

A few weeks ago I ventured to our nation’s capital to steep in its culture a bit, and get some first hand reporting done for the book. I met with about a dozen or so folks, including several scholars, the heads of the FCC and FTC, and senior folks in the Departments of Commerce and State. I also spoke to a lobbyist from the Internet industry, as well as people from various “think tanks” that populate the city. It was my first such trip, but it certainly won’t be my last.

Each of the conversations was specific to the person I was interviewing, but I did employ one device to tie them together – I asked each person the same set of questions toward the end of the conversation. And as I was on the plane home, I wrote myself a little reminder to post about the most interesting set of answers I got, which was to this simple question: What doesn’t the Valley understand about Washington?

It’s not a secret that the Valley, as a whole, has an ambivalent attitude toward DC. Until recently, the prevailing philosophy has trended libertarian – just stay out of the way, please, and let us do what we do best. Just about every startup CEO I’ve ever known – including myself – ignores Washington in the early years of a company’s lifecycle. Government is treated like plumbing – it’s dirty, it costs too much, it’s preferably someone else’s job, and it’s ignored until it stops working the way we want it to.

SOPA and PIPA is the classic example of the plumbing going out – and the Internet’s response to it was the topic of much of my conversations last month. Sure, “we” managed to stop some stupid legislation from passing, but the fact is, we almost missed it, and Lord knows what else we’re missing due to our refusal to truly engage with the instrument of our shared governance.

To be fair, in the past few years a number of major Internet companies have gotten very serious about joining the conversation in DC – Google is perhaps the most serious of them all (I’m not counting Micrsoft, which got pretty serious back in 1997 when it lost an antitrust suit). Now, one can argue that like Microsoft before it, Google’s seriousness is due to how interested Washington has become in Google, but regardless, it was interesting to hear from source after source how they respected Google for at least fully staffing a presence in DC.

Other large Internet companies also have offices in Washington, but from what I hear, they are not that effective beyond very narrow areas of interest. Two of the largest e-commerce companies in the world have a sum total of eight people in DC, I was told by a well-placed source. Eight people can’t get much done when you’re dealing with regulatory frameworks around fraud, intellectual property, international trade, infrastructure and spectrum policy, and countless other areas of regulation that matter to the Internet.

In short, and perhaps predictably, nearly everyone I spoke to in Washington told me that the Valley’s number one issue was its lack of engagement with the government. But the answers were far more varied and interesting than that simple statement. Here they are, without attribution, as most of my conversations were on background pending clearance of actual quotes for the book:

- The Valley doesn’t understand the threat that comes from Washington. Put another way, our industry figures it out too late. The Valley doesn’t understand how much skin it already has in the game. “When things are bent in the right direction here, it can be a really good thing,” one highly placed government source told me. Washington is “dismissed, and when it’s dismissed you neither realize the upside nor mitigate the downside.”

- When the Valley does engage, it’s too lightly, and too predictably. Larger Valley companies get an office on K Street (where the lobbyists live) and hire an ex-Congressperson to lobby on that company’s core issues. But “that’s not where the magic is,” one source told me. The real magic is for companies to use their own platforms to engage with their customers in authentic conversations that get the attention of lawmakers. This happened – albeit very late – with SOPA/PIPA, and it got everyone’s attention in Washington. Imagine if this was an ongoing conversation, and not a one-off “Chicken Little” scenario?  Counter to what many believe about Washington, where money and lobbying connections are presumed to always win the day, “Fact-based arguments matter, a lot,” one senior policymaker told me. “Fact-based debates occur here, every day. If you take yourself out of that conversation, it’s like going into litigation without a lawyer.” Internet companies are uniquely positioned to change the approach to how lawmakers “hear” their constituents, but have done very little to actually leverage that fact.

- The Valley is too obsessed with the issue of privacy, one scholar told me. Instead, it should look to regulations around whether or not harm is being done to consumers. This was an interesting insight – and perhaps a way to think about protecting our data and our identities. There are already a thicket of regulations and law around keeping consumers safe from the harmful effects of business practices. Perhaps we are paying attention to the wrong thing, this scholar suggested.

- The Valley assumes that bad legislation will be rooted out and defeated in the same way that SOPA and PIPA were. But that’s a faulty assumption. “The Valley is techno-deterministic, and presumes ‘we can engineer around it,’” one scholar told me. “They don’t realize they’ve already been blinkered – a subset of possible new technological possibilities has already been removed that they are not even aware of.” One example of this is the recent “white spaces” spectrum allocation, which while promising avenues of new market opportunity, was severely retarded by forces in Washington far more powerful than the Internet industry (more on this in another post).

- The framework of “us vs. them” is unproductive and produces poor results. The prevailing mentality in the valley, one well-connected scholar told me, is the “heroic techie versus the wicked regulator…Rather than just having libertarian abstractions about regulations versus freedom,” this source continued,  “it’s important to realize that in every single debate there are… regulations that strike better or worse balances between competing values. You just have to engage enough to defend the good ones.”

Put another way, as another senior government official told me, “The Valley doesn’t understand there are good and decent people here who really want to get things done.”

If I were to sum up the message from all my conversations in Washington, it’d be this: We’re here because as a society, we decided we needed people to help manage values we hold in common. Increasingly, the Internet is how we express those values. So stop ignoring us and hoping we’ll go away, and start engaging with us more. Decidedly better results will occur if you do.

I don’t pretend that one trip to DC makes me an expert on the subject (it surely does not), but I left DC energized and wanting to engage more than I have in the past. I hope you’ll feel the same.

(image: traveldk.com)