Thanks to NewCo, I’ve gotten out of the Bay Area bubble and visited more than a dozen major cities across several continents in the past year. I’ve met with founders inside hundreds of mission-driven companies, in cities as diverse as Istanbul, Boulder, Cincinnati, and Mexico City. I’ve learned about the change these companies are making in the world, and I’ve compared notes with the leaders of large, established companies, many of which are the targets of that change.
As I reflect on my travels, a few consistent themes emerge:
So I had a thought about the state of the publishing world, specifically that part of it that we’d call blogging(1). And it struck me.
Why haven’t we made our own Medium? No, wait, that doesn’t quite sound right. Medium is awesome, and in fact I am writing this post in (on?!) Medium. Historical note: This may well be the first time I’ve written the first draft of a post in Medium. So my beef isn’t with Medium, rather, it’s with the blogging ecosystem’s inability to create something that embraces what Medium teaches us.
It’s been so long since I’ve written here, and I’ve missed it terribly. As startups tend to do, NewCo has taken over most of my waking hours. So I thought I’d just sit and write for a spell, even if what comes out isn’t fully baked. I’m on vacation in Bolinas, an intentionally scruffy sidebar of a town 25 miles north of San Francisco. Legend has it the locals regularly take down signs pointing the way to this place, hoping to keep folks like me away.
Truth is, I came here hoping for a bit of down time so I could write again. I can’t decide if my lapse in writing is due entirely to my focus on NewCo, or perhaps because the medium of blogging just doesn’t call to me the way it once did. So I wanted to get up early each morning this week and get at least one thing down – like Fred does so regularly. However, I’ve clearly built up quite a sleep debt over the past six months, and this week my body won’t let me get up before 9. But I’ve been at it now for two days, and the result is below.
The way we work is changing. That statement seems self-evident to anyone involved in what I call the NewCo economy – work no longer has to be a duty, it can be a calling. For those blessed with the talent, education, connections, and skill to turn work into part of their self expression, work isn’t the thing you have to do so you can “have a life” – instead, work is your life, and your life is your work – and that’s in no way a contradiction.
Our industry loves a rashomon, and in the past year or two, our collective subject of debate has been Uber. Perhaps the fastest growing company in history (its numbers aren’t public, but we’ll get to some estimates shortly), Uber has become a vector for some of the most wide-ranging arguments I’ve ever had regarding the tech industry’s impact on society at large.
It’s not that Google, Facebook, Apple, or Microsoft didn’t evoke great debate, but all those companies came of age in an era where tech was still relegated to a sideshow in the broader cultural conversation. Microsoft was taking over the computer industry in the 1990s, Google the Internet in the early 2000s, Facebook and Apple the mobile and social world in the late 2000s. But Uber? Uber is about a very real and entirely new approach to our economy, a stand in for the wealth divide festering in the US and beyond, an existential rorschach testing your values around the role of government, the social contract, and the kind of society we want to become.
2014 was the year the industry woke up to the power of mobile app installs, and the advertising platforms that drive them. Facebook’s impressive mobile revenue numbers – 66% of its Q3 2014 revenue and growing – are a proxy for the mobile economy at large, and while the company doesn’t divulge what percentage of that revenue is app install advertising, estimates range from a third to a half – which means that Facebook made anywhere from $700 million to more than a billion dollars in one quarter on app install advertising. That’s potentially $4 billion+ a year of app installs, just on Facebook. Yow. That kind of growth is reminiscent of search revenues a decade ago.
But as I’ve written before, app installs are only the beginning of an ongoing marketing relationship that an app publisher must have with its consumer. It’s one thing to get your app installed, but quite another to get people to keep opening it, using it, and ultimately, doing things that create revenue for you. The next step after app install revenue is “app re-engagement,” and the battle to win this emerging category is already underway, with all the major platforms (Twitter, Yahoo, Google, Facebook) rolling out products, and a slew of startups vying for share (and M&A glory, I’d wager).
Lots of the “apps are killing the web” meme going around these days, with the latest batch of casket sealant come from no greater validator of commonly agreed upon wisdom than the Wall St. Journal. “The Web Is Dying; Apps Are Killing It” argues Christopher Mims, and it’s hard to argue with him given the preponderance of current evidence.
I am in the midst of a long stew on the future of mobile, it’s taken me through deep links and intelligent links, to the future of search on mobile and beyond, and I’m nowhere near finished with either the reporting or the writing – so I can’t definitively counter the Journal’s argument – yet. But I feel it in my bones – apps, what I’ve disparagingly called “chiclets” – are not the model of how we will interact with information, services, or the world via mobile. The best of the web – open, low cost to entry, no gatekeepers, end-user driven, standards-based, universal namespace, etc. – will prevail.
Some years ago while attempting to explain the thinking behind my then-startup Federated Media, I wrote that all brands are publishers (it was over on the FM blog, which the new owners apparently have taken down – a summary of my thinking can be found here). I’d been speechifying on this theme for years, since well before FM or even the Industry Standard – after all, great brands always created great content (think TV ads or the spreads in early editions of Wired), we just didn’t call it that until our recent obsession with “native advertising” and “content marketing,” an obsession I certainly helped stoke during my FM years.
Today, there is an entire industry committed to helping brands become publishers, and the idea that brands need to “join the conversation” and “think like media companies” is pretty widely held. But I think the metaphor of brands as media creators has some uneasy limitations. We are all wary of what might be called contextual dissonance – when we consume media, we want to do so in proper context. I’ve seen a lot of branded content that feels contextually dissonant to me – easily shareable stories distributed through Outbrain, Buzzfeed, and Sharethrough, for example, or highly shareable videos distributed through YouTube and Facebook.
This quote, from a piece in Motherboard, hit me straight between the eyeballs:
Facebook…will not let you unFacebook Facebook. It is impossible to discover something in its feeds that isn’t algorithmically tailored to your eyeball.
“The laws of Facebook have one intent, which is to compel us to use Facebook…It believes the best way to do this is to assume it can tell what we want to see based on what we have seen. This is the worst way to predict the weather. If this mechanism isn’t just used to predict the weather, but actually is the weather, then there is no weather. And so Facebook is a weatherless world.”
The short piece notes the lack of true serendipity in worlds created by algorithm, and celebrates the randomness of apps (Random) and artists (like Jib Kidder) who offer a respite from such “weatherless worlds.”