An Afternoon at the Media Lab: Where The Lines Between Physical and Digital Are Permeable

IcanHasHOloYesterday I took my son to the MIT Media Lab, hallowed ground for me, as reading Stewart Brand’s 1988 “The Media Lab” propelled me toward helping to create Wired magazine, where I edited the founding Director of the Lab, Nicholas Negroponte, for five years (he wrote the back column of the magazine).

For this visit, I met up with David Kong, one of the lab’s alumni wizards, who took us on a whirlwind tour of the place (David’s work on microfluidics is, I believe, some of the most important stuff being done today, but more on that in another post). I spent a day there last summer with Director Joi Ito, and it’s amazing to see how much progress can be made in a year.

Instead of describing everything, I think I’ll let video do the work – one of the Lab’s core values is to always be demo’ing, and my son and I saw half a dozen incredible projects, all demo’d by the people who created them.

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The PRISMner’s Dilemma

prismSometimes when you aren’t sure what you have to say about something, you should just start talking about it. That’s how I feel about the evolving PRISM story – it’s so damn big, I don’t feel like I’ve quite gotten my head around it. Then again, I realize I’ve been thinking about this stuff for more than two decades – I assigned and edited a story about massive government data overreach in the first issue of Wired, for God’s sake, and we’re having our 20th anniversary party this Saturday. Shit howdy, back then I felt like I was pissing into the wind –  was I just a 27-year-old conspiracy theorist?

Um, no. We were just a bit ahead of ourselves at Wired back in the day.  Now, it feels like we’re in the middle of a hurricane. Just today I spoke to a senior executive at a Very Large Internet Company who complained about spending way too much time dealing with PRISM. Microsoft just posted a missive which said, in essence, “We think this sucks and we sure wish the US government would get its shit together.” I can only imagine the war rooms at Facebook, Amazon, Google, Twitter, and other major Internet companies – PRISM is putting them directly at odds with the very currency of their business: Consumer trust.

And I’m fucking thrilled about this all. Because finally, the core issue of data rights is coming to the fore of societal conversation. Here’s what I wrote about the issue back in 2005, in The Search:

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Fred Wilson and I In 18 Minutes

I had a chance to be interviewed with Fred Wilson by Dave Morgan of Simulmedia (and Tacoda and and and…). The video is fun and ranges around from OpenCo to the future of the Web, so I thought I’d share it here:

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A Social, Elastic Model for Paid Content

esquirepieceI was interested to read today that Esquire is currently experimenting with a per-article paywall. For $1.99, you can read a  10,000-word piece about a neurosurgeon who claims to have visited heaven. Esquire’s EIC on the experiment: “…great journalism—and the months that go into creating it—isn’t free. So, besides providing the story to readers of our print and digital-tablet versions of the August issue, we are offering it to online readers as a stand-alone purchase.”

I predicted that payment systems and paid services/content were going to take off this year (see here), but this isn’t what I had in mind. But it did get me thinking. What if you added social and elastic elements to the price? For example, the article would initially cost, say, $1.99, but if enough people decided to buy it, the price goes down for everyone. The more people who buy, the cheaper the price gets. It’d never go to zero, of course, but there’d be some kind of a demand/price curve that satisfies the two most important things publishers care about: readership (the more, the better) and revenue (ideally, enough to cover the costs of creation and make a fair profit).

The tools to do this already exist. There are plenty of sites that crowdsource demand to create pricing leverage, and sites like Kickstarter have gotten all of us used to the idea of hitting funding goals. And the social sharing behaviors already exist as well: Nearly all content has social sharing widgets attached these days. Why not combine the two? Those who initially paid the highest price – $1.99 say – would be motivated to share a summary of the article with friends and encourage them to buy it as well. They are economically incented to do so – the more friends who buy, the greater the chance that their initial $1.99 charge will decrease. And they’re socially incented to do so – perhaps they could get credit for being one of the early advocates or tastemakers who recognized and surfaced a great piece of content before anyone else did.

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Halfway Into 2013, How’re The Predictions Doing?

1-nostradamusOver the past few years I’ve taken to reviewing my annual predictions once half the year’s gone by. This weekend I realized exactly that had occurred.

It’s been quite a six months, I must say. Personally I took back the reigns at a company I founded in 2005, found a co-author for my book, and hired a CEO for the company I started last year (he starts next week). But I haven’t been writing nearly as much as I’d like here, and that sort of saddens me. However, one of my “half year” resolutions is to change that, and it starts with this review of my Predictions 2013.

This year’s predictions were a bit different in that I wrote about things I *wished* would happen this year, as opposed to those I thought most likely to happen. They were still predictions, but more personal in nature. So let’s see how I did, shall we?

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A Berkeley Commencement Speech, Some Years Ago…

Last week LinkedIn asked me to post a commencement speech, if I had given one, as part of a series they were doing. Turns out, I’ve given two, but the one they wanted was at Berkeley, my alma mater. If you want to read the one I gave at my high school, I’d be happy to post it (I think it’s better), but since I already have the Berkeley one at the ready, here it is. I want it to be on my own site as well, just for the record.

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Back in 2005, as Web 2.0 was taking off, I was honored to be asked to give the commencement address at UC Berkeley’s School of Information Management, or SIMS. It was a perfect day, and the ceremony was outside at the base of the Campanile, which is Berkeley’s proudest monument. As a double Cal graduate, and three-generation legacy, this was a crowning moment for me. Below are some excerpts, edited for clarity given the time that has lapsed since.

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Hold Hands or Die Apart

I’ve been a bit slow to update this site lately, as my return to Federated Media, and preparation for the CM Summit and OpenCo NYC, have pretty much eaten up all my time lately. But I did want to repost a few things I have written elsewhere, starting with this article in Ad Age, written two weeks ago.

Titled Publishers, Ad-Tech Firms, Marketers Need to Connect, Build Trust (no, I didn’t write that headline, if I was in charge, it might have been “Hold Hands or Die Apart” – pageviews, ya know?), the article argues that our industry is not yet prepared for what the market is going to demand – solutions that integration adtech and brand marketing. Here’s a sampling:

Something troubling has jumped out at me. There’s an extraordinary asymmetry of information among these three important players in our industry, and a disturbing sense of distrust. Brand marketers don’t believe that ad-tech companies view brands as true partners. Ad-tech companies think brand marketers are paying attention to the wrong things. And publishers, with a few important exceptions, feel taken advantage of by everyone.

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Who Owns The Right to Filter Your Feed?

The old Tweetdeck interface.

(image) Last week I was in Salt Lake City for the Adobe Summit, on a stage the size of a parking lot. After some opening remarks about how the world is increasingly lit with data, I brought out Adam Bain, President of Global Revenue for Twitter. (He Vined it, natch.) Five thousand or so folks in the Internet marketing and media business were in attendance, behind us was a 7,000 square foot HD screen (I kid you not). I’ve been in front of a few big crowds, but this one was enormous. You could have parked a few 787s in the space.

My point is this: Bain knew he was in front of a lot of people, including nearly 200 journalists. As we worked our way through any number of predictable but important topics – Twitter’s revenue (growing but no numbers), the acquisition of BlueFin (TV analytics and more), etc. – I asked Bain to distinguish between Twitter and its competitive set. This was a relatively politic way of asking the inevitable “What about Facebook” question. It was then that Bain uttered what I thought was the most interesting comment of the day: “[With Twitter,] there’s no algorithm between you and your feed.”

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The iWatch: What I Hope Apple Actually Does (But Probably Won’t)

(image AppleInsider) Back in April of last year, I pondered Pebble, the then-wildly successful darling of Kickstarter fame. Pebble is a wristwatch device that connects to iPhones and displays various smart things. In the piece, Does the Pebble Cause a Ripple In Apple’s Waters?, I asked whether Apple would allow such third-party hardware to play in their backyard. It struck me Apple’s entire business was about hardware. Pebble, I figured, was in for a tough road. No wonder it went to Kickstarter, I mused. VCs would never back something so clearly in Apple’s target zone. From the post:

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.

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That Guilty Pile of Outdated Technology

(image Wired) Way back in the day when I was making magazines, I was buried in print. I subscribed to at least twenty periodicals, easily twice that many came my way without my asking. It made for a huge pile of printed material on the end of my desk (stuff I really should read), and it creeped into the horizontal spaces behind me (stuff I think I should read, in case I get the time), or on my shelves (stuff I can’t throw out yet), and the damn things even spilled onto my floor (stuff I probably will never read, but feel too guilty to toss out).

I dubbed this mountain of print The Guilt Pile. Every so often, usually when it was time to move offices, I’d take inventory of the pile, and toss most of it. It always felt so good – a fresh start, a new day, this time, I promise, I’ll not let that pile accumulate again!

Then digital took over my print life, and the pile vanished.

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