I’ve been quiet here on Searchblog these past few months, not because I’ve nothing to say, but because two major projects have consumed my time. The first, a media platform in development, is still operating mostly under the radar. I’ll have plenty to say about that, but at a later date. It’s the second where I could use your help now, a project we’re calling Mapping Data Flows. This is the research effort I’m spearheading with graduate students from Columbia’s School for International Public Affairs (SIPA) and Graduate School of Journalism. This is the project examining what I call our “Shadow Internet Constitution” driven by corporate Terms of Service.
Our project goal is simple: To visualize the Terms of Service and Data/Privacy Policies of the four largest companies in US consumer tech: Amazon, Apple, Facebook, and Google. We want this visualization to be interactive and compelling – when you approach it (it’ll be on the web), we hope it will help you really “see” what data, rights, and obligations both you and these companies have reserved. To do that, we’re busy turning unintelligible lines of text (hundreds of thousands of words, in aggregate) into code that can be queried, compared, and visualized. When I first imagined the project, I thought that wouldn’t be too difficult. I was wrong – but we’re making serious progress, and learning a lot along the way.
Over the years I’ve found some of the best business partners by posting on this site. The overall audience for Searchblog has waxed and waned, but I’m deeply appreciative that there’s a core group of you who still watch this feed to see whatever it is I happen to be thinking about.
You may have noticed I’ve not been posting as much as I normally do, and there’s a reason for that. Back when I wrote about moving to New York, I promised to keep you updated on what I’m working on now that I’ve settled in. While I continue my work at Columbia and my engagement with NewCo (more on that soon), one my projects has become central, a new company I’m working on with several New York-based journalists and entrepreneurs. We’re keeping the focus of the company under wraps for now, but we’ve started hiring, and I’m looking for a business side partner who can handle any number of key functions as we build the company. I’m posting the role below. As the weeks progress, there’ll be any number of other roles we’ll be looking for, across technology, partnership/sales, and more. So stay tuned for that. But for now, I’m looking for what I’m calling Lead, Business Affairs. If you or someone you know is interested, please reach out. I’m jbat at battellemedia dot com. I look forward to hearing from you.
I’ll never forget a meal I had with a senior executive at Facebook many years ago, back when I was just starting to question the motives of the burgeoning startup’s ambition. I asked whether the company would ever support publishers across the “rest of the web” – perhaps through an advertising system competitive with Google’s AdSense. The executive’s response was startling and immediate. Everything anyone ever needs to do – including publishing – can and should be done on Facebook. The rest of the Internet was a sideshow. It’s just easier if everything is on one platform, I was told. And Facebook’s goal was to be that platform.
Those words still ring in my ears as we celebrate the 30th anniversary of the web today. And they certainly should inform our perspective as we continue to digest Facebook’s latest self-involved epiphany.
If the latest tech revelations have proven anything, it’s that the endless cycle of jaw-dropping headlines and concomitant corporate apologetics has changed exactly nothing.
Over and over, the pattern repeats. A journalist, researcher, or concerned citizen finds some appalling externality associated with one of our largest technology platforms. Representatives from the indicted company wring their hands, take down the offending content and/or de-platform the offending accounts, all the while assuring us “we actively police violations of our terms of service and are always looking to improve our service.”
This is an edited version of a series of talks I first gave in New York over the past week, outlining my work at Columbia. Many thanks to Reinvent, Pete Leyden, Cap Gemini, Columbia University, Cossette/Vision7, and the New York Times for hosting and helping me.
Every year I write predictions for the year ahead. And at the end of that year, I grade myself on how I did. I love writing this post, and thankfully you all love reading it as well. These “How I Did” posts are usually the most popular of the year, beating even the original predictions in readership and engagement.
What’s that about, anyway? Is it the spectacle of watching a guy admit he got things wrong? Cheering when I get it right? Perhaps it’s just a chance to pull back and review the year that was, all the while marveling at how much happened in twelve short months. And 2018 does not disappoint.
Here we go:
Prediction #1: Crypto/blockchain dies as a major story. Cast yourself back to late 2017 when Bitcoin was pushing $20,000 and the entire tech sector was obsessed with blockchain everything. ICOs were raising hundreds of millions of dollars, the press was hyping (or denigrating) it all, and the fools were truly rushing in. In my prediction post, I struck a more measured tone: “…there’s simply too much real-but-boring work to be done right now in the space. Does anyone remember 1994? Sure, it’s the year the Mozilla team decamped from Illinois to the Valley, but it’s not the year the Web broke out as a mainstream story. That came a few years later. 2018 is a year of hard work on the problems that have kept blockchain from becoming what most of us believe it can truly become. And that kind of work doesn’t keep the public engaged all year long.” I think I got that right. Bitcoin has crashed to earth, and those who remain in the space are deep in the real work – which I still believe to be fundamentally important to the future of not only tech, but society as well. Score: 10/10
Prediction #2: Donald Trump blows up. I don’t usually make political predictions, but by 2017, Trump was the story, bigger than politics, and bigger than tech. I wrote: “2018 is the year [Trump] goes down, and when [he] does, it will happen quickly (in terms of its inevitability) and painfully slowly (in terms of it actually resolving). This of course is a terrible thing to predict for our country, but we got ourselves into this mess, and we’ll have to get ourselves out of it. It will be the defining story of the year.” I think I also got this one right. Trump is done – nearly everyone I trust in politics agrees with that statement. I won’t recount all the reasons, but here are a few: No fewer than 17 ongoing investigations of the President and/or his organizations. A tanking stock market that has lost all faith in the President’s leadership. Nearly 40 actual indictments and several high profile guilty verdicts. A Democratic majority in the House preparing an endless barrage of subpoenas and investigations. And a Republican party finally ready to abandon its leader. Net net: Trump is toast. It’s just going to take a while for that final pat of butter. Score: 10/10
Prediction #3: Facts make a comeback. Here’s what I wrote in support of this assertion: “2018 is the year the Enlightenment makes a robust return to the national conversation. Liberals will finally figure out that it’s utterly stupid to blame the “other side” for our nation’s troubles. Several viral memes will break out throughout the year focused on a core narrative of truth and fact. The 2018 elections will prove that our public is not rotten or corrupt, but merely susceptible to the same fever dreams we’ve always been susceptible to, and the fever always breaks. A rising tide of technology-driven engagement will help drive all of this.” I’d like to claim I nailed this one, but I think the trend lines are supportive. Real journalism had a banner year, with subscriptions to high-integrity publications breaking records year on year. Most smart liberals have realized that the politics of blame is a losing game. And I was happily right about the 2018 elections, which was one of the most definitive rebukes of a sitting President in the history of our nation. As for those “viral memes” I predicted, I’m not sure how I might prove or disprove that assertion – none come to mind, but I may have missed something, given what a blur 2018 turned out to be. Alas, that “rising tide of technology-driven engagement” was a pretty useless statement. Everything these days is tech-driven…so I deserve to be dinged for that pablum. But overall? Not bad at all. Score: 7/10
Prediction #4: Tech stocks overall have a sideways year. It might be hard to give me credit for this one, given how the FANG names have tanked over the past few months, but cast your mind back to when I wrote this prediction, in late December: Tech stocks were doing nothing but going up. And where are they now? After continuing to climb for months, they’re….mostly where they started the year. Sideways. Apple started at around 170, and today is at … 156. Google started at 1048, and is now at…1037. Amazon and Netflix did better, rising double digit percentages, but plenty of other tech stocks are down significantly year on year. The tech-driven Nasdaq index started the year at around 7000, as of today, it’s down to 6600. So, some up, some down, and a whole lot of … sideways. As I wrote: “All the year-in-review stock pieces will note that tech didn’t drive the markets in the way they have over the past few years. This is because the Big Four have some troubles this coming year.” Ummm….yep, and see the next two predictions… Score: 9/10.
Prediction #6: Google/Alphabet will have a terrible first half (reputation wise), but recover after that. Well, in my original post, I predicted a #MeToo shoe dropping around Google Chairman Eric Schmidt. That didn’t happen exactly, though the whisper-ma-phone was sure running hot for the first few months of the year, and a massive sexual misconduct scandal eventually broke out later in the year. But even if I was wrong on that one point, it’s true the company had a bad first half, and for the most part, a pretty terrible year overall. In March, it had a government AI contract blow up in its face, leading to employee protests and resignations. This trend only continued throughout the year, culminating in thousands of employees walking out in protest of the company’s payouts to alleged sexual harassers. Oh, and that empty chair at Congressional hearings sure didn’t help the company’s reputation. I also predicted more EU fines: Check! A record-breaking $5 billion fine, to be exact. Further, news the company was creating a censored version of its core search engine in China also tarnished big G. But I whiffed when I mulled how the company might get its mojo back: I predicted it would consider breaking itself up and taking the parts public. That didn’t happen (as far as we know). Instead, Google CEO Sundar Pichai finally relented, showing up to endure yet another act in DC’s endless string of political carnivals. Pichai acquitted himself well enough to support my assertion that Google began to recover by year’s end. But as recoveries go, it’s a fragile one. Score: 8/10.
Prediction #7: The Duopoly falls out of favor. This was my annual prediction around the digital advertising marketplace, focused on Facebook and (again) Google. In it, I wrote: “This doesn’t mean year-on-year declines in revenue, but it does mean a falloff in year-on-year growth, and by the end of 2018, a increasingly vocal contingent of influencers inside the advertising world will speak out against the companies (they’re already speaking to me privately about it). One or two of them will publicly cut their spending and move it to other places.” This absolutely occurred. I’ve already chronicled Google’s travails in 2018, and there’s simply not enough pixels to do the same for Facebook. This New York Times piece lays out how advertisers have responded: No Morals. In the piece, and many others like it, top advertisers, including the CEO of a major agency, went on the record decrying Facebook – giving me cause for a #humblebrag, if I do say so myself. Oh, and yes, both Facebook and Google posted lower revenue growth rates year on year. Score: 10/10.
Prediction #8: Pinterest breaks out. As I wrote in my original post: “This one might prove my biggest whiff, or my biggest “nailed it.” Well, near the end of 2018, a slew of reports predicted that Pinterest is about to file for a massive IPO. As if by magic, the world woke up to Pinterest. It seems I was right – but as of yet, the IPO has not been confirmed. So…I’ll not score myself a 10 on this one, but if Pinterest does have a successful IPO early next year, I reserve the right to go back and add a couple of points. Score: 8/10.
Prediction #9: Autonomous vehicles do not become mainstream. Driverless cars have been “just around the corner” for what feels like forever. By late 2017, everyone in the business was claiming they’d breakout within a year. But that didn’t happen, regardless of the hype around the first “commercial launch” by Waymo in Phoenix a few weeks ago. I’m sorry, but a “launch” limited to 400 pre-selected and highly vetted beta ain’t mainstream – it’s not even a service in any defensible way. We’re still a long, long way off from this utopian vision. Our cities can’t even figure out what to do with electric scooters, for goodness sake. It’ll be a coon’s age before they figure out driverless cars. Score: 9/10.
Prediction #10: Business leads. I think I need to avoid these spongy predictions, because it’s super hard to prove whether or not they came true. 2018 showed us plenty of examples of business leadership along the lines of what I predicted. Here’s what I wrote: “A crucial new norm in business poised to have a breakout year is the expectation that companies take their responsibilities to all stakeholders as seriously as they take their duty to shareholders. “All stakeholders” means more than customers and employees, it means actually adding value to society beyond just their product or service. 2018 will be the year of “positive externalities” in business.” Well, I could list all the companies that pushed this movement forward. Lots of great companies did great things – Salesforce, a leader in corporate responsibility, even hired a friend of mine to be Chief Ethics Officer. Imagine if every major company empowered such a position? And a powerful Senator – Elizabeth Warren, who likely will run for the presidency in 2019 – laid out her vision for a new approach to corporate responsibility in draft legislation called the Accountable Capitalism Act. But at the end of the day, I’ve got no way to prove that 2018 was “a break out year” for “a crucial new norm in business.” I wish I did, but…I don’t. Score: 5/10.
Overall, I have to say, this was one of the most successful reviews of my predictions ever – and that’s saying something, given I’ve been doing this for more than 15 years. Nine of ten were pretty much correct, with just one being a push. That sets a high bar for my predictions for 2019…coming, I hope, in the next week or so. Until then, thanks as always for being a fellow traveler. And happy new year – may 2019 bring you and yours happiness, health, and gratitude.
At the beginning of each year I make predictions, and at year’s end, I hold myself to account. It’s kind of fun to look back and see how wrong (or right) my musings end up being.
I’ll be writing my Predictions 2017 post this weekend (I think), and publishing it shortly thereafter. But for now, let’s take a stroll down memory lane, and see how I did. Here’s a short report card for each of my twelve 2016 predictions.
#1 – 2016 will be the year that “business on a mission” goes mainstream. Well, this was pretty self serving, given it’s at the core of the work I did all year long at NewCo andNewCo Shift. But I did predict that massive companies would put their missions at the core of their marketing, and that certainly happened with corporations like Unilever, Ikea, H&M, and many others. I also said the press would start covering the story as a regular beat, more than just annual “doing good by doing well” lists. While coverage (and the number of those annual lists) has increased, I can’t argue the story has broken out as big as I expected. And while organizations like Just Capital have launched to track company data beyond price and profit, I think this story needs another year or two to mature. Overall, this prediction trended in the right direction, but didn’t fully come true this year, so I’m going to give myself a (noble, well intentioned) whiff on this one.
#2 – Mobile will finally mean more than apps. It may seem counterintuitive, but I think this is the year my mobile prediction actually came true. Here’s the detail from my post: “by year’s end, we’ll find ourselves interacting with our technology in new and far more “web like” ways – bouncing from link to link, service to service, much as we did on the original web, but with the power, context, and sensor-laden enablement of mobile apps and devices.” In fact, that’s exactly how using my phone now feels – deep linking has gone mainstream, and more often than not a link from a search opens an app on my phone, or a call to action in an email or inside an app opens another app – or a mobile web view – inside a third party site. Plus, every new release of Android (I don’t use iOS) seems to increase the utility of notifications, voice, and search. That’s how the next generation internet should work, and it’s here, now. Which is a really good thing (and augurs some very cool new opportunities, which I’ll probably explore in my predictions post). I’m going to grade myself a “mostly nailed it.” Why mostly? Because at the end of my prediction, I said Google’s app streaming was going to help make it all happen. While the company continues to refine and roll out the service (and related services like Instant Apps, or Apple’s On Demand Resources), I deserve a ding for that call. I’d rate it a 75% win.
#3 – Twitter makes a comeback. I don’t really need to go into much detail here. This did not happen. It’s all about the product. And while the election certainly helped Twitter, Twitter did not help itself much this past year. My wishful thinking earned me a fail on this one. Damnit Twitter, please be all we know you can be in 2017!
#4 – Adtech and the Internet of Things begins to merge. Weeks after I wrote this prediction, the industry bellwether Dmexco, arguably the most important marketing conference in the world, declared that IoT was the future of adtech. Core adtech companies – Google, Facebook, Amazon (yes, Amazon is a serious player in adtech) – all released key products or platforms that vector IoT directly into their adtech strengths (Google Home? Check. Facebook Messenger bots? Check. Amazon’s Alexa/Echo? Check.) This merger will be messy and fraught, but bots and voice are the future for all the major internet players, and advertising business models and tech platforms will drive them all, in new and perhaps unexpected ways. Add to that the unprecedented amount of work done this past year in autonomous vehicles (which is a major IoT category and of course, a huge advertising platform in and of itself), and I think it’s fair to say this prediction came true. However, there’s a lot more to this trend than just merging advertising and IoT. That’s the easy (and obvious) part of the equation. The less obvious work remains to be done – as I wrote in the prediction: “I’m suggesting that the underlying technology powering adtech is perfectly suited to execute the highly complicated and highly performant rules-based decisioning required for the Internet of Things to touch our lives on a regular basis.” I honestly don’t know of any development over the past year that proves this part of my prediction, but I can’t imagine it’s not being worked on by the Amazons, Googles, and Facebooks of the world. We did have a major IoT event that proved the power of my predicted merger: Hackers harnessed millions of poorly secured IoT devices to mount massive DDOS attacks across the web.
Oh, and at the end of this prediction, I ventured that in 2016, we’d see a blockchain based adtech player emerge. We did see the emergence of BitTeaser and its related HubDSP, though they are in very early stages as of now. Overall, I’d say this prediction played out – score it as another 75% – a passing grade, at the very least.
#5 – Tesla’s Model 3 will garner more than 100,000 pre-orders. Many of you thought I was crazy to predict massive orders for the Model 3, but….Tesla blew through my most optimistic numbers. Orders are now approaching half a million, and counting.
#6 – Publishers and platforms come to terms. This is a hard one to prove. I wrote: “In 2016, Medium, LinkedIn, and Facebook will all make strides in helping all publishers succeed.” And I think this is largely true. Medium rolled out a publisher program, and limited, but improving advertising options for its publishers. LinkedIn hasn’t yet rolled out a publisher friendly platform, but it’s become a crucial traffic driver for a lot of publishers, and I’ve heard plenty of well-sourced rumors that a publishing platform is coming once the Microsoft integration is complete. And Facebook, well, Facebook had an uneven year when it comes to publisher relations, but there isn’t a serious publisher in the world who isn’t busy integrating with Instant Articles and the Newsfeed in one way or another. Add in publisher centric moves from Google (Amp, etc), and Apple (Apple News continue to grow, slowly), and I’d give this prediction a passing grade.
#7 – Search has a dominant year, thanks in large part to voice and AI. I think this also came to pass this year. We can debate if “traditional search” had a dominant year, but that was not my point. Search is in transition to new models based on voice and AI-assistants like Siri, Now, Alexa, and Cortana, and in 2016, these most certainly came into their own. I predicted that search volume, if once counted voice and AI, would be “way up” in 2016. Voice search volume did indeed explode in 2016, but we’ll have to wait for Mary Meeker’s mid year update to know by exactly how much. Regardless, I think I got this one right.
#8 – Apple endures a boring year. Yep, this pretty much happened. I wrote: “short of yet another iPhone folks feel obliged to purchase, there’ll be nothing spectacular. I don’t think folks will be calling for Tim Cook’s head, but many will wonder if Apple is meandering its way toward a boring, profit-milking middle age.” Check.
#9 – Microsoft and Google get serious about hardware. Oh yes, they sure as hell did. Microsoft became a billion dollar a quarter player in tablets/computing with Surface, and Google rolled out Home, Pixel (its first true Google phone), and more Chrome gadgets. Both companies are very, very serious about hardware now.
#10 – Medium has a breakout year. I wasn’t sure this was going to happen, but just this month, Medium released its growth numbers – up 140% year on year, to 60 million users. Combined with the launch of its publishing platform and the release of far better iOS and Android apps, Medium was indeed on a tear in 2016.
#11 –China goes shopping. In 2015, we all expected Chinese companies like Alibaba to start snapping up startups left and right. It didn’t exactly happen. But I predicted that 2016 would see it come to fruition, and indeed Chinese firms were very busy this past year. China dealmaking rose 145% in 2016, according to Bloomberg, and Internet and Software was one of the hottest sectors, with adtech – much maligned for years – a major standout.
#12 – Sports unbundle. Well….no. I really, really wanted to drop my cable sub this past year, and the only thing keeping me from doing so was my beloved San Francisco Giants. Alas, nothing happened this year that will change that. There was a lot of hand wringing about the future of sports-driven brands like ESPN, and nearly everyone things sports will someday unbundle, just as HBO and many others have recently done. But not this year, so…my wishful prediction was a swing and a miss.
Summing up, how’d I do? Pretty darn well, it turns out. I whiffed on only three – Business on a mission, Twitter, and Sports – and pretty much nailed the rest of them. That’s one of my best showings yet – nine for twelve, or a .750 batting average. Good enough to convince me to try again for next year! Have a great New Year’s Eve, and I’ll be back soon with predictions for 2017.
Picking a schedule for a NewCo festival is an art – it takes a lot more time and thought than your average event. But it’s also fun – each session and company description has been highly curated, and I learn a lot simply by reading through the diversity of experiences that are on offer.
This year in LA there are 80+ companies to chose from. The festival runs over two days – the afternoon of Monday Nov 9th through the evening of Tuesday Nov. 10th. It wasn’t easy, but here’s where I’ll be visiting:
Monday, Nov. 9th
1.30 pm – Maker Studios. Video is the hottest medium on the Internet, and the model keeps evolving, as the recent YouTube Red news illustrates. Maker is one of the most successful of the original “MCNs” and has grown past its YouTube roots into a powerhouse in all things video. I want to get behind the scenes and learn about video because NewCo will be launching video channels next year, along with its media business. I also want to see the Culver City neighborhood where Maker has its HQ – it’s home to an abundance of LA’s best entertainment startups. Wish I could go: Cross Campus, MomentFeed, Inspire Energy.
3.00 pm – Hired. Another selfish business reason here: I’m very interested in the recruitment field, both because NewCo is growing, but also because I sense opportunities for what we’re building as well. Hired has been on a tear lately and has a lot of buzz. I’m looking forward to seeing how the sausage is made. Wish I could go: Tradesy, Omaze, Google.
1.30 pm –Soylent. This food-replacement drink has been the subject of much derision and celebration. But it’s certainly pushing the envelope of how we think about nutrition and the role of food in society. Wish I could go: Science, Inc., Funny or Die, Upfront Ventures.
3.00 pm –Surf Air. Another new approach to transportation – one that promises to rethink how we do shorter haul flights. We’ll get to board and tour their airplanes as well! Wish I could go: Parachute, Expert DOJO, VNTANA (another Manatt pick).
4.30 pm – Flightly. I’ll admit, Flightly’s location helped me chose it (bc it’s near the meetup afterwards, and traffic is rough in LA in the afternoon!). Then again, I’ve wondered about the company ever since it was announced as Twitter’s only e-commerce integration. I’ve long thought Twitter had a huge e-commerce business lurking inside of it – and now’s my chance to hear about it from the source. Wish I could go: WeWork, onefinestay, Crowdfunder.
But I have a different take on why our recent college and high school graduates aren’t opting for politics, and it has to do with a far more positive reason: This is the first generation to come of age in an era where “entrepreneur” is not only a viable career option, it’s actually a compelling one.
I’ve never had a real job I didn’t make myself – back when I was starting out some 25+ years ago, the only path that seemed to make sense for me was joining a startup (job #1), or making one myself (jobs #2-7). I started out well before the Internet, and before the 1990s boom which brought the idea of a college-dropout CEO to the fore of our cultural conscience. Sure, we had Bill Gates, but he was a complete outlier, not a demarcation of a trend, as Zuckerberg became during the Web 2 era.
Back in the early 1990s, my friends and family struggled to understand what it was I was doing with my life. It was as if I had some kind of undiagnosed disease – I was addicted to risk, and clearly allergic to “real work.”
But think of the options a smart kid has coming out of college these days. Not only has company creation become mainstream and entirely acceptable, we’ve built scores of institutions that teach and enable company creation – from Babson to Slack to Y Combinator. I recently met with Sam Altman, CEO of YC, who told me his company receives more applications to his program each year than Stanford does. How many apps does Stanford get? About 40,000!
Cynicism aside, the main reason anyone wants to get into politics is to make positive change in the world. And I believe thoughtful young people are taking a hard look at our major change-making institutions – government, religion, education, and corporations – and they’re deciding that the best way to have an impact is to start a company (or join one). And more and more, those companies are focused on creating positive change in the world. To which I can only say: Right on!