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How Facebook Changed Us, and How We Might Change Again

By - February 05, 2014

keep-calm-and-love-data-2(image) If you weren’t under a rock yesterday, you know Facebook turned ten years old this week (that’s a link to a Zuckerberg interview on the Today Show, so yep, hard to miss). My favorite post on the matter (besides Sara’s musings here and here – she was at Harvard with Zuck when the service launched) is from former Facebook employee Blake Ross, who penned a beauty about the “Rules” that have fallen over the past ten years. Re/code covers it  here, and emphasizes how much has changed in ten years – what was once sacred is now mundane. To wit:

- No, you can’t let moms join Facebook because Facebook is for students.

- No, you can’t put ads in newsfeed because newsfeed is sacred.

- No, you can’t allow people to follow strangers because Facebook is for real-world friends.

- No, you can’t launch a standalone app because integration is our wheelhouse.

- No, you can’t encourage public sharing because Facebook is for private sharing.

- No, you can’t encourage private sharing because Facebook is moving toward public sharing.

- No, you can’t encourage public sharing because Facebook is moving toward ultra-private sharing between small groups.

And this one’s a snapchat with about 3 seconds left, so hurry up and bludgeon someone with it:

- No, you can’t allow anonymity because Facebook is built on real identity.

None of these pillars came down quietly. They crashed with fury, scattering huddles of shellshocked employees across watering holes like dotted brush fires after a meteor strike.

Re/code ends its post with “makes you wonder what might change in the next 10 years.” Well yes, it certainly does.

A close read of Ross’ post leaves me wondering about “informational personhood.” He considers all the change at Facebook, and his role in it as an sometimes frustrated employee, concluding that what he got from the experience was perspective:

It took me probably half a dozen meteoric nothings before I learned how to stop worrying and love the bomb. A congenital pessimist, I gradually began to see the other side of risk. Now, when the interns wanted to mix blue and yellow, I could squint and see green; but I thought the sun might still rise if everything went black. I felt calmer at work. I began to mentor the newer hires who were still afraid of meteors. Today I watch Facebook from a distance with 1.2 billion other survivors, and my old fears charm like the monster under the bed: I couldn’t checkmate this thing in a single move even if I wanted to. But even now, I know someone over there is frantically getting the band back together.

Fortunately, this blossoming resilience followed me home from work:

My very chemistry has changed. In relationships, hobbies, and life, I find myself fidgeting in the safe smallness of the status quo. I want more from you now, and I want more from myself, and I’m less afraid of the risks it’ll take to get there because I have breathed through chaos before and I believe now—finally—that we’ll all still be here when the band stops playing.

This is, of course, just a staple of adulthood. It’s what we were missing that night when meteors left us crater-faced for senior prom and we all thought our lives were over. It’s called perspective, and it’s the best thing I got from growing up Facebook.

Hmmm. So many things to ponder here. The constant renegotiation of the rules at Facebook changed his “very chemistry.” A fascinating observation – heated debate about the rules of our social road made Ross a different person. Did this happen to us all? Is it happening now? For example, are we, as a culture, “getting used to” having the policies around our informational identities – our “infopersons” – routinely renegotiated by a corporate entity?

I think so far the answer is yes. I’m not claiming that’s wrong, per se, but rather, it is interesting and noteworthy. This perspective that Ross speaks of – this “growing up” – it bears more conversation, more exploration. What are the “Rules” right now, and will they change in ten years, or less? (And these “Rules” need not be only internal to Facebook – I mean “Rules” from the point of view of ourselves as informational people.)

Some that come to mind for me include:

- I don’t spend that much of my time thinking about the information I am becoming, but when I do, it makes me uneasy.

- I can always change the information that is known about me, if it’s wrong, but it’s a huge PITA.

- I can always access the information that is known about me, if I really want to do the work (but the truth is, I usually don’t).

- I know the information about me is valuable, but I don’t expect to derive any monetary value from it.

- It’s OK for the government to have access to all this information, because we trust the government. (Like it or not, this is in fact true by rule of law in the US).

- It’s OK for marketers to have information about me, because it allows for free Internet services and content. (Ditto)

- I understand that most of the information that makes up my own identity is controlled by large corporations, because in the end, I trust they have my best interests at heart (and if not, I can always leave).

What rules do you think much of our society currently operates under? And are they up for renegotiation, or are we starting to set them in stone?

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else 2.4: “Seeing ourselves as bits and bytes”

By - February 04, 2014

faceprintThis week, lots of talk of data ethics and infopolitics. As always, if you want to keep up with what we’re reading/thinking about on a weekly basis, the best way is to subscribe to the “else” feed, either as an email newsletter or through RSS. And tweet us links!

Google Beat Facebook for DeepMind, Creates Ethics Board — The Information
DeepMind acquisition terms required that Google establish an artificial intelligence ethics board.

When No One Is Just a Face in the Crowd — NYTimes
Whether tracking potential shoplifters or big spenders, commercial facial recognition in the physical world using “Faceprints” is becoming a reality.

When Big Data Marketing Becomes Stalking — Scientific American
Kate Crawford argues for data broker ethics to address the current power imbalance.

The Age of ‘Infopolitics’ — NYTimes
Philosopher Colin Koopman contends that we are becoming “informational persons,” and thus we need an “infopolitics” to address the power structures that travel with data. “We understandably do not want to see ourselves as bits and bytes. But unless we begin conceptualizing ourselves in this way, we leave it to others to do it for us.”

For the NSA, espionage was a means to strengthen the US position in climate negotiations — Information
Fascinating insight into how NSA spying shaped global politics.

Tech Giants, Telcos Get OK to Release Stats on NSA Spying — Wired
Tech companies are allowed to disclose FISA orders. While the disclosing in ranges is still obscure, its a step towards surveillance reform.

Out in the Open: Teenage Hacker Transforms Web Into One Giant Bitcoin Network — Wired
Ethereum is exploring how cryptocurrency protocols and architectures could serve as a model for other parts of the internet.

Google Glass to Be Covered by Vision Care Insurer VSP — NYTimes
VSP insurance provider is now covering Google Glass, which is also getting a design refresh to be more prescription friendly, but it’s really only reimbursing the lenses, not the hardware. There’s also talk of encouraging personalization with accessories. I still want my Warby Parker model, though.

Apple Hires Chief Medical Officer From Pulse Oximetry Company Masimo, Possibly for iWatch Team — MacRumors
Recent hires in the health informatics space suggest Apple might be integrating wearables into whatever smart watch efforts they are working on.

Bill Gates Active Again At Microsoft? Bad Idea.

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bill(image) This story reporting that Gates will return to Microsoft “one day a week” to focus on “product” has been lighting up the news this week. But while the idea of a founder returning to the mothership resonates widely in our industry (Jobs at Apple, Dorsey at Twitter), in Gates’ case I don’t think it makes much sense.

It’s no secret in our industry that Microsoft has struggled when it comes to product. It’s a very distant third in mobile (even though folks praise its offerings), its search engine Bing has struggled to win share against Google despite billions invested, and the same is true for Surface, which is well done but selling about one tablet for every 26 or so iPads (and that’s not counting Android). And then there’s past history – you know, when Gates was far more involved: the Zune (crushed by the iPod), that smart watch (way too early), and oh Lord, remember Clippy and Bob?

If anything, what Gates brought to the product party over the past two decades was a sense of what was going to be possible, rather than what is going to work right now. He’s been absolutely right on the trends, but wrong on the execution against those trends. And while his gravitas and brand would certainly help rally the troops in Redmond, counting on him to actually create product sounds like grasping at straws, and ultimately would prove a huge distraction.

Not to mention, a return to an active role at Microsoft would be a bad move for Gates’ personal brand, which along with Bill Clinton, is one of the most remarkable transformation stories of our era. Lest we forget, Gates was perhaps the most demonized figure of our industry, pilloried and humbled by the US Justice Department and widely ostracized as a unethical, colleague-berating monopolist. The most famous corporate motto of our time – “Don’t be evil” – can thank Microsoft for its early resonance. In its formative years, Google was fervently anti-Microsoft, and it made hay on that positioning.

Bill Gates has become the patron saint of  philanthropy and the poster child of rebirth, and from what I can tell, rightly so. Why tarnish that extraordinary legacy by coming back to Microsoft at this late date? Working one day a week at a company famous for its bureaucracy won’t change things much, and might in fact make things worse – if the product teams at Microsoft spend their time trying to get Gates’ blessing instead of creating product/market fit, that’s just adding unnecessary distraction in a market that rewards focus and execution.

If Gates really wants to make an impact at Microsoft, he’d have to throw himself entirely back into the company, focusing the majority of his intellect and passion on the company he founded nearly 40 years ago. And I’m guessing he doesn’t want to do that – it’s just too big a risk, and it’d mean he’d have to shift his focus from saving millions of lives to beating Google, Apple, and Samsung at making software and devices. That doesn’t sound like a very good trade.

 

Step One: Turn The World To Data. Step Two?

By - February 03, 2014

housenumbers1Is the public ready to accept the infinite glance of our own technology? That question springs up nearly everywhere I look these days, from the land rush in “deep learning” and AI companies (here, here, here) to the cultural stir that accompanied Spike Jonze’ Her. The relentless flow of Snowden NSA revelations, commercial data breaches, and our culture’s ongoing battle over personal data further frame the question.

But no single development made me sit up and ponder as much as the recent news that Google’s using neural networks to decode images of street addresses. On its face, the story isn’t that big a deal: Through its Street View program, Google collects a vast set of images, including pictures of actual addresses. This address data is very useful to Google, as the piece notes: “The company uses the images to read house numbers and match them to their geolocation. This physically locates the position of each building in its database.”

In the past, Google has used teams of humans to “read” its street address images – in essence, to render images into actionable data. But using neural network technology, the company has trained computers to extract that data automatically – and with a level of accuracy that meets or beats human operators.Not to mention, it’s a hell of a lot faster, cheaper, and scaleable.

Sure, this means Google doesn’t have to pay people to stare at pictures of house numbers all day, but to me, it means a lot more. When I read this piece, the first thing that popped into my mind was “anything that can be seen by a human, will soon be seen by a machine.” And if it’s of value, it will be turned into data, and that data will be leveraged by both humans and machines – in ways we don’t quite fathom given our analog roots.

I remember putting up my first street number, on a house in Marin my wife and I had just purchased that was in need of some repair. I went to the hardware store, purchased a classic “6″ and “3″, and proudly hammered them onto a fence facing the street. It was a public declaration, to be sure – I wanted to be found by mailmen, housewarming partygoers, and future visitors. But when I put those numbers on my fence, I wasn’t wittingly creating a new entry in the database of intentions. Google Street View didn’t exist back then, and the act of placing a street number in public view was a far more “private” declaration. Sure, my address was a matter of record – with a bit of shoe leather, anyone could go down to public records and find out where I lived. But as the world becomes machine readable data, we’re slowly realizing the full power of the word “public.”

In the US and many other places, the “public” has the right to view and record anything that is in sight from a public place – this is the basis for tools like Street View. Step one of Street View was to get the pictures in place – in a few short years, we’ve gotten used to the idea that nearly any place on earth can now be visited as a set of images on Google. But I don’t think we’ve quite thought through what happens when those images turn into data that is “understood” by machines. We’re on the cusp of that awakening. I imagine it’s going to be quite a story.

Update: Given the theme of “turning into data” I was remiss to not mention the concept of “faceprints” in this piece. As addresses are to our home, our faces are to our identity, see this NYT piece for an overview.

 

A Big Day For Federated, and the Birth of Sovrn Holdings

By - January 28, 2014

LINFMSOVRNToday marks a big milestone for Federated Media, the company we launched way back in 2005. As you can read here, LIN Media is acquiring Federated Media’s brand and content marketing business, and a new company, sovrn Holdings, Inc. (“sovrn”), has been born. Sovrn will continue to build on what was FM’s programmatic publisher platform, a business based on our acquisition of Lijit Networks back in 2011.

When I returned as FM’s CEO in early 2013 after a two-year absence, it was my job to assess where we stood, and how we could most successfully invest our resources. At the time, FM had two distinct business lines: Its pioneering content marketing practice, and its burgeoning programmatic exchange. As readers of this site know well, I’m bullish on both.  I love our legacy as one of the creators of modern content marketing and defender of premium independent publishing, and I’m extremely proud of our massive exchange, which is growing like crazy (more than 90% topline growth y/y, and profitable). Both businesses have strong partners, strong people, and great futures.

So why split them up? Well, the truth is LIN Media offered us a deal that just made sense. LIN, a public company, is focused on building a world-class digital media offering, and has the resources and people that can take Federated’s business to the next level. It’s incredibly important to me personally that something I was instrumental in building finds a home that respects and appreciates its history, while at the same time desiring to invest in its future. That’s exactly what LIN is committed to doing. Now that it is part of LIN, the Federated Media brand can grow faster – and that means more revenue and opportunities for the partners who have made FM what it is.

Meanwhile, our programmatic business has been growing so fast that it demands the focused attention of its executives, as well as more investment – the opportunity is tremendous. This transaction with LIN will allow the new company – sovrn – to pursue its dream of building a next-generation publisher-facing programmatic platform leveraging all the data and insights we’ve gained over the past few years.

Personally, this deal means I will be stepping back into the role I had in 2011 and 2012, but now as Executive Chair of sovrn. (Yes, that means I can once again focus on writing, among other things!) Walter Knapp, my COO and the leader of our programmatic business, is stepping into the role of CEO of sovrn. It’s been an honor to work side by side with Walter over the past year, he’s incredibly talented and deeply passionate. I know with him at the helm, sovrn is going to do extraordinary things.

And for Federated Media, the same team – all of them – who have been running our award-winning content marketing business will remain with Federated, and continue to work with our great publishing and marketing partners to power the best of the independent web. Chris Eberle, a wonderful and talented exec who I put in charge of the content marketing business last year, continues as Federated’s GM. And I’ll be working with LIN and Federated in various ways during the transition as well.

I’ve seen a lot of ups and downs in my nearly 30 years working in this business, but I can honestly say that this deal feels special. I left Wired before it was sold to Conde Nast and Lycos, so I didn’t experience that transition. At the Industry Standard, well, I stayed till the bitter end, but the company didn’t make it – that story’s best told over a whisky. With the Web 2 conferences, I made the choice to stop even though the business was doing fine – a personal decision that allowed me to focus on FM and writing. But with FM, the circle has been completed – FM is moving on to a new chapter, with new leaders and owners, nearly nine years after its first steps.

A couple of months ago my first child was admitted into the college of his choice, and in June we’ll be watching him leave the nest and explore new worlds. It’s bittersweet and emotional. I feel similarly about Federated – it’s time to help something I started head out into the world and into its next home. I’m thrilled that that home is LIN, a company whose people I’ve come to know and deeply respect. And I want everyone involved with FM to know I’ll always be there if they need advice and support.

So, onwards! Here’s to a remarkable nine years with Federated, and here’s to the future of both Federated Media and sovrn, the company it helped to create.

else 1.27: “Humans are pretty good at deceiving themselves”

By - January 27, 2014

This week we read about reverse engineering algorithms for dates, anticipatory algorithms, and more social weirdness with Google Glass. As always, if you want to keep up with what we’re reading/thinking about on a weekly basis, the best way is to subscribe to the “else” feed, either as an email newsletter or through RSS. And tweet us links!

Gartner Says by 2017, Mobile Users Will Provide Personalized Data Streams to More Than 100 Apps and Services Every Day — Gartner
Gartner offers some estimates on apps, wearables, internet of things, and other interfaces that are becoming data.

OfficeMax Blames Data Broker For ‘Daughter Killed in Car Crash’ Letter — Forbes
The extent of data brokers’ overreach into the sensitive details of our personal lives is revealed in uncanny misfires such as this.

Amazon Wants to Ship Your Package Before You Buy It — WSJ
Patents for “anticipatory shipping” reveals how Amazon could use data from “previous orders, product searches, wish lists, shopping-cart contents, returns and even how long an Internet user’s cursor hovers over an item” to get things where you want them, even before you click “buy.”

How a Math Genius Hacked OkCupid to Find True Love — Wired
An interesting profile of McKinlay who reverse engineered his OkCupid profile to make himself optimally appealing to more women. Still, there’s no mention about how we might expect the system to bias imperfect matches to keep us coming back for more…

How Real is Spike Jonze’s ‘Her’? Artificial Intelligence Experts Weigh In — WSJ
Stephen Wolfram and others pick apart the details of Her. Also, speaking of Her, Jonah Hill on SNL did an amazing spoof where the he falls in love with the OS that mirrors himself. (It’s kind of how I imagined Her anyway, as this perfectly suited algorithmic “other.”) Watch it.

Exclusive: Google to Buy Artificial Intelligence Startup DeepMind for $400M — Re/code
And the investments in deep learning continue…

Protesters show up at the doorstep of Google self-driving car engineer — Arstechnica
Protest go beyond the obscure targeting buses to targeting specific Google employees who are “Building an unconscionable world of surveillance, control and automation.”

Google Pushes Back Against Data Localization — New York Times
Companies are starting to offer data storage differentiation, post-Snowden revelations, but some argue this isn’t really solving the problem (the data still has to travel).

CONFIRMED: Man Interrogated By FBI For Wearing Prescription Google Glass At The Movies —Business Insider
It’s a wild story, but a good example of how we’re all learning to adjust to new technologies that we don’t yet fully understand.

Sex With Glass lets users swap position suggestions and films their whole romantic interlude. — PSFK
There’s so much going on here. Embodying the other’s gaze, and yet somehow it’s still a male-focused command. Also, how am I not surprised that this exists?

Note to Interwebs: Pinterest Can’t Be, And Won’t Be, Only About Images.

By - January 21, 2014

pinterstPinterest is an interesting service – built entirely on the curation and sharing of images, and valued at billions of dollars. But when it comes time to lean into a business model, every service has to find and leverage its core DNA – and for Pinterest, it’s clear it can’t be images. That bus left a while ago (and Facebook was driving it, with Instagram riding shotgun and Snapchat….oh, never mind).

Anyway, two bits of news today that I think help us understand where Pinterest is going. First, Pinterest’s announcement that it’s getting into recipe search. And second, news that Pinterest is experimenting with GIFs.

To me, the conclusion is this: Pinterest is about collecting, curating, and sharing media objects, regardless of what they are. They can be images, which is how Pinterest got to its first jaw-dropping valuation. Or they can be….anything. Recipes? Sure. GIFs? Uh-huh. Web pages? Why not? Videos? Sure! Ummmm…files? Well, yeah, of course.

It seems everyone is converging on a simple set of facts: Our lives are digital, and we wish to share our lives. Pinterest came at it through images, artfully curated. Facebook came at it through friends, cunningly organized. Dropbox came to it via files, cleverly clouded. Countless others will come at the same opportunity through countless other ways. And countless others – Flickr, delicio.us, Friendster, Myspace – have already tried.

It’s getting a bit crowded, don’t you think?

else 1.20: “The future is much simpler than you think.”

By - January 20, 2014

This week we thought about the data in our homes, connecting the Internet of Things, and what’s next for the openness of the internet. As always, if you want to keep up with what we’re reading/thinking about on a weekly basis, the best way is to subscribe to the “else” feed, either as an email newsletter or through RSS. And tweet us links!

 

Nest thermostat acquisition is Google’s home invasion — New Scientist
Google’s $3.2B acquisition of Nest is all about staking a claim as the data interface into the home.

Why Her Will Dominate UI Design Even More Than Minority Report — Wired
Downplaying the dominance of screens and interfaces in the “slight future.” Also – Her was great for a lot of other reason that resonated with the themes we’ve been mulling over. Highly recommended!

Theodore, and the disappearing interface of the “slight future.”

Internet of Things: The “Basket of Remotes” Problem — Monday Note
But to get to that “slight future” vision of seamless interactions with technology, we need to do a lot of work to integrate interfaces so that they begin to talk together, fixing the “Basket of Remotes” problem.

This group just created a address book for the internet of things — GigaOM
The Wireless Registry is trying to become the DNS or addressing system for connected devices. I, for one, am excited by the prospect of sending out a bat signal that declares my food allergies in a restaurant.

The internet of bees could save our food supply — Quartz
RFID sensors allow Australian scientists to study bees’ routine movements for clues to identify causes of Colony Collapse Disorder.

Back to the Digital Drawing Board — New York Times
Susan Crawford suggests that all is not lost with the latest net neutrality ruling—instead this is a chance to more clearly define internet service as a “common carriage.”

Eagle Scout. Idealist. Drug Trafficker? — New York Times
The Times has an in-depth profile on the man allegedly behind the Silk Road and a closer look at the libertarian ideals behind his vision for internet commerce.

Big Data + Big Pharma = Big Money — ProPublica
A closer look at the data markets for prescription habits and preferences shows us what is at stake with these kinds of emerging information asymmetries.

Google Buys Nest

By - January 13, 2014

nestToday comes the news that Google is buying Nest, a move that, upon reflection, should have been obvious (the price tag of more than $3 billion, not so obvious!). If the company is truly executing its mission of helping us organize the world’s information and make it available, it makes sense to have a major play in the Internet of Things, in particular, those things that consumers view as extremely valuable. Nest, a company that has rethought the previously unsexy world of home control devices, is a perfect platform for launching computing devices that feed on valuable data, and tie seamlessly to Google’s other platforms, like Android, Nexus, Search/Knowledge, and more.

My first thought upon hearing this news was of Apple – if ever there was an Apple-like company, it’s Nest. Founded by an ex-Apple employee, Nest devices do for thermostats and smoke alarms what the Mac did for PCs – made them relevant and far more valuable. And Nest was in essence a design driven company – just like Apple. But it’s a sign of how sprawling Google’s ambitions are when compared to Apple, which I can’t imagine ever getting into home control systems, much less autonomous cars or robotics.

Google is proving itself willing to make huge bets in markets it believes will become drivers of tomorrow’s data ecosystem. Draped in that light, Nest seems an inevitable move. So what might be next? To answer that question, start with those things we view as super-valuable, but are not yet widely lit with computable information. Clothing? Cars? Healthcare? Food?! Well…why not?

else 1.13: “Keep the instrument in its place”

This week, we look at more applications machine learning, new wearables from CES, and some visions for the coming year. As always, if you want to keep up with what we’re reading/thinking about on a weekly basis, the best way is to subscribe to the “else” feed, either as an email newsletter or through RSS. And tweet us links!

How Google Cracked House Number Identification in Street View  — MIT Technology Review
Interesting details into the development of the neural network  that’s helping to identify distorted street numbers picked up by Street View images.

Pinterest, Yahoo, Dropbox and the (kind of) quiet content-as-data revolution — GigaOM
A nice rundown of the acquisitions that point to movement in machine learning and parsing of text and image content for consumer social platforms.

Sony’s new Core fitness tracker will be the ‘heart’ of its wearable experience (hands-on) — The Verge
Among the many wearables featured at CES, Sony is experimenting by drawing together activity trackers and life loggers, combining self-quantification and journaling features into one consolidated device and application combo.

This Clear, Flexible Electronic Circuit Can Fit on the Surface of a Contact Lens — Smithsonian Magazine
Flexible, printed circuits “one-sixtieth as thick as a human hair” are are the near-future of wearable sensors.

Bitcoin’s Incredible Year — Forbes
Kashmir Hill offers a thorough overview of the last year in bitcoin, which started in January valued at $13.50.

Portraits From Clips and Bytes – NYTimes
Interesting profile of data artist R. Luke DuBois who uses “technology to expose something about a subject that is not normally visible.”

Where Do We Go From Here? 8 Hypotheses About Tech in 2014 — The Atlantic
Alexis Madrigal has a nice take on the technoanxiety of the last year that has left us all a little skeptical and jaded. Happily, there are a lot of overlaps with where we have been focusing our attentions for the book.

Big Data and Its Exclusions — Stanford Law Review
Big data isn’t just about the privacy risks of inclusion by capturing data. This paper looks at who is excluded from an emerging data-driven ecosystem, and suggests a way to reconcile the data haves and have-nots with a “data antisubordination” doctrine.

Machine envy — Aeon
A nice history of science case for continued hypothesis-driven science, and the instruments that support it in an age of Big Data correlation.

Please enjoy this video of dancing drones — Engadget
Just for fun, watch this video of drones dancing like some retro-futuristic mash up of Daft Punk and Busby Berkeley.