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Once Again, RSS Is Dead. But ONLY YOU Can Save It!

About 14 months ago, I responded to myriad “RSS is Dead” stories by asking you, my RSS readers, if you were really reading. At that point, Google’s Feedburner service was telling me I had more than 200,000 subscribers, but it didn’t feel like the lights were on – I mean, that’s a lot of people, but my pageviews were low, and with RSS, it’s really hard to know if folks are reading you, because the engagement happens on the reader, not here on the site. (That’s always been the problem publishers have had with RSS – it’s impossible to monetize. I mean, think about it. Dick Costolo went to Twitter after he sold Feedburner to Google. Twitter! And this was *before* it had a business model. Apparently that was far easier to monetize than RSS).

Now, I made the decision long ago to let my “full feed” go into RSS, and hence, I don’t get to sell high-value ads to those of you who are RSS readers. (I figure the tradeoff is worth it – my main goal is to get you hooked on my addiction to parentheses, among other things.)

Anyway, to test my theory that my RSS feed was Potemkin in nature, I wrote a December, 2010 post asking RSS readers to click through and post a comment if they were, in fact, reading me via RSS. Overwhelmingly they responded “YES!” That post still ranks in the top ten of any post, ever, in terms of number of comments plus tweets – nearly 200.

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Google+ Spreads to AdSense, Will It Spread to the Whole Web?

Seen in the wild (well, OK, on this very site):

The “Recommend this on Google” hover box at the bottom is new, I’ve never seen it before (then again, my ads are usually from FM). It’s what we in the biz call a “social overlay” or a “social ad” – and as far as I can tell, it’s only available to those advertisers who use Google AdSense.

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The Future of War (From Jan., 1993 to the Present)

(image is a shot of my copy of the first Wired magazine, signed by our founding team)
I just read this NYT piece on the United States’ approach to unmanned warfare: Do Drones Undermine Democracy?. From it:

There is not a single new manned combat aircraft under research and development at any major Western aerospace company, and the Air Force is training more operators of unmanned aerial systems than fighter and bomber pilots combined. In 2011, unmanned systems carried out strikes from Afghanistan to Yemen. The most notable of these continuing operations is the not-so-covert war in Pakistan, where the United States has carried out more than 300 drone strikes since 2004.

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Put Your Taproot Into the Independent Web

(image) This article – Early Facebook App Causes Is Being Reborn As A Polished Web Site For Good – caught my eye as I was nodding off last night (thanks so much for moving the web into my bedroom, Flipboard. No really.)

Now, it didn’t catch my eye because of its subject – Causes – but because of what its subject was doing: refocusing its business back out on the Independent Web, from its original home in the zoological garden that is the Facebook platform.

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The Singularity Is Weird

http://rcm.amazon.com/e/cm?t=johnbattelles-20&o=1&p=8&l=as1&asins=0143037889&ref=tf_til&fc1=000000&IS2=1&lt1=_blank&m=amazon&lc1=0000FF&bc1=000000&bg1=FFFFFF&f=ifr

It’s been a while since I’ve posted a book review, but that doesn’t mean I’ve not been reading. I finished two tomes over the past couple weeks, Ray Kurzweil’s The Singularity Is Near, and Stephen Johnson’s Where Good Ideas Come From. I’ll focus on Kurzweil’s opus in this post.

Given what I hope to do in What We Hath Wrought, I simply had to read Singularity. I’ll admit I’ve been avoiding doing so (it’s nearly six years old now) mainly for one reason: The premise (as I understood it) kind of turns me off, and I’d heard from various folks in the industry that the book’s author was a bit, er, strident when it came to his points of view. I had read many reviews of the book (some mixed), and I figured I knew enough to get by.

I was wrong. The Singularity Is Near is not an easy book to read (it’s got a lot of deep and loosely connected science, and the writing could really use a few more passes by a structural editor), but it is an important one to read. As Kevin Kelly said in What Technology Wants, Kurzweil has written a book that will be cited over and over again as our culture attempts to sort out its future relationship to technology, policy, and yes, to God.

I think perhaps the “weirdness” vibe of Kurzweil’s work relates, in the end, to his rather messianic tone – he’s not afraid to call himself a “Singulatarian” and to claim this philosophy as his religion. I don’t know about you, but I’m wary of anyone who invents  a new religion and then proclaims themselves the leader of it.

That’s not to say Kurzweil doesn’t have a point or two. The main argument of the book is that technology is moving far faster than we realize, and its exponential progress will surprise us all – within about thirty years, we’ll have the ability to not only compute most of the intractable problems of humanity, we’ll be able to transcend our bodies, download our minds, and reach immortality.

Or, a Christian might argue, we could just wait for the rapture. My problem with this book is that it feels about the same in terms of faith.

But then again, faith is one of those Very Hard Topics that most of us struggle with. And if you take this book at face value, it will force you to address that question. Which to me, makes it a worthy read.

For example, Kurzweil has faith that, as machines get smarter than humans, we’ll essentially merge with machines, creating a new form of humanity. Our current form is merely a step along the way to the next level of evolution – a level where we merge our technos with our bios, so to speak. Put another way, compared to what we’re about to become, we’re the equivalent of Homo Erectus right about now.

It’s a rather compelling argument, but a bit hard to swallow, for many reasons. We’re rather used to evolution taking a very long time – hundreds of generations, at the very least. But Kurzweil is predicting all this will happen in the next one or two generations – and should that occur, I’m pretty sure far more minds will be blown than merged.

And Kurzweil has a knack for taking the provable tropes of technology – Moore’s Law, for example – and applying them to all manner of things, like human intelligence, biology, and, well, rocks (Kurzweil calculates the computing power of a rock in one passage). I’m in no way qualified to say whether it’s fair to directly apply lessons learned from technology’s rise to all things human, but I can say it feels a bit off. Like perhaps he’s missing a high order bit along the way.

Of course, that could just be me clinging to my narrow-minded and entitled sense of Humanity As It’s Currently Understood. Now that I’ve read Kurzweil’s book, I’m far more aware of my own limitations, philosophically as well as computationally. And for that, I’m genuinely grateful.

Other works I’ve reviewed:

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)

28 Comments on The Singularity Is Weird

Facebook Coalition To Google: Don’t Be Evil, Focus On The User

Last week I spent an afternoon down at Facebook, as I mentioned here. While at Facebook I met with Blake Ross, Direct of Product (and well known in web circles as one of the creators of Firefox). Talk naturally turned to the implications of Google’s controversial integration of Google+ into its search results – a move that must both terrify (OMG, Google is gunning for us!) as well as delight (Holy cow, Google is breaking its core promise to its users!).

Turns out Ross had been quite busy the previous weekend, and he had a little surprise to show me. It was a simple hack, he said, some code he had thrown together in response to the whole Google+ tempest. But there was most certainly a gleam in his eye as he brought up a Chrome browser window (Google’s own product, he reminded me).

Blake had installed a bookmarklet onto his browser, one he had titled – in a nod to Google’s informal motto –  “Don’t be evil.” For those of you who aren’t web geeks (I had to remind myself as well), a bookmarklet is “designed to add one-click functionality to a browser or web page. When clicked, a bookmarklet performs some function, one of a wide variety such as a search query or data extraction.”

When engaged, this “Don’t be evil” bookmarklet did indeed do one simple thing: It turned back the hands of time, and made Google work the way it did before the integration of Google+ earlier this month.

It was a very elegant hack, more thoughtful than the one or two I had seen before – those simply took all references to Google+ out of the index. This one went much further, and weaved a number of Google’s own tools – including its “rich snippet” webmaster tool and its own organic search listings, to re-order not only the search engine results, but also the results of the promotional Google+ boxes on the right side of the results, as well as the “typeahead” results that now feature only Google+ accounts (see example below, the first a search on my name using “normal Google” and then one using the bookmarklet).

After Blake showed me his work, we had a lively discussion about the implications of Facebook actually releasing such a tool. I mean, it’s one thing for a lone hacktivist to do this, it’s quite another for a member of the Internet Big Five to publicly call Google out. Facebook would need to vet this with legal, with management (this clearly had to pass muster with Mark Zuckerberg), and, I was told, Facebook wanted to reach out to others – such as Twitter – and get their input as well.

Due to all this, I had to agree to keep Blake’s weekend hack private till Facebook figured out whether (and how) it  would release Ross’s work.

Today, the hack goes public. It’s changed somewhat – it now resides at a site called “Focus On The User” and credit is given to engineers at Facebook, Twitter, and Myspace, but the basic implication is there: This is a tool meant to directly expose Google’s recent moves with Google+ as biased, hardcoded, and against Google’s core philosophy (which besides “don’t be evil,” has always been about “focusing on the user”).

Now, this wasn’t what I meant last week when I asked what a Facebook search engine might look like, but one can be very sure, this is certainly how Facebook and many others want Google to look like once again.

From the site’s overview:

We wanted to see how much better social search could be for consumers if Google chose to use all of the information already in its index. We think the results speak for themselves. Specifically, we created a bookmarklet that uses Google’s own relevance measure—the ranking of their organic search results—to determine what social content should appear in the areas where Google+ results are currently hardcoded. That includes the box on the right; the typeahead; and the indent under the first result for brand searches like “Macy’s” or “New York Times”.

All of the information in this demo comes from Google itself, and all of the ranking decisions are made by Google’s own algorithms. No other services, APIs or proprietary data stores are accessed.

Facebook released a video explaining how the hack works, including some rather devastating examples (be sure to watch the AT&T example at minute seven, and a search for my name as well), and it has open sourced the codebase. The video teasingly invites Google to use the code should it care to (er…not gonna happen).

Here’s an embed:

It’d be interesting if millions of people adopted the tool, however I don’t think that’s the point. A story such as this is tailor made for the Techmeme leaderboard, to be sure, and will no doubt be the talk of the Valley today. By tonight, the story most likely will go national, and that can’t help Google’s image. And I’m quite sure the folks at Facebook, Twitter, and others (think LinkedIn, Yahoo, etc) are making sure word of this exemplar reaches the right folks at the Federal Trade Commission, the Department of Justice, Congress, and government agencies around the world.

Not to mention, people in the Valley do care, deeply, about where they work. There are scores of former Google execs now working at Twitter, Facebook, and others. Many are dismayed by Google’s recent moves, and believe that inside Google, plenty of folks aren’t sleeping well because of what their beloved company’s single-minded focus on Google+. “Focus on The User” is a well-timed poke in the eye, a slap to the conscience of a company that has always claimed to be guided by higher principles, and an elegant hack, sure to become legend in the ongoing battle of the Big Five.

As I’ve said before, I’m planning on spending some time with folks at Google in the coming weeks. I’m eager to understand their point of view. Certainly they are playing a longer-term game here – and seem willing, at present, to take the criticism and not respond to the chorus of complaints. Should Google change that stance, I’ll let you know.

Related:

What Might A Facebook Search Engine Look Like?

Google+: Now Serving 90 Million. But…Where’s the Engagement Data!

Our Google+ Conundrum

It’s Not About Search Anymore, It’s About Deals

Hitler Is Pissed About Google+

Google Responds: No,That’s Not How Facebook Deal Went Down (Oh, And I Say: The Search Paradigm Is Broken)

Compete To Death, or Cooperate to Compete?

Twitter Statement on Google+ Integration with Google Search

Search, Plus Your World, As Long As It’s Our World

86 Comments on Facebook Coalition To Google: Don’t Be Evil, Focus On The User

On “The Corporation,” the Film

If you read my Predictions for 2012, you’ll recall that #6 was “The Corporation” Becomes A Central Societal Question Mark.

We aren’t very far into the year, and signs of this coming true are all around. The “Occupy” movement seems to have found a central theme to its 2012 movement around overturning “the corporation as a person,” and some legislators are supporting that concept.

We’ll see if this goes anywhere, but I wanted to note, as I didn’t fairly do in my prediction post, the role that “The Corporation”  played in my thinking. I finally watched this 2003 documentary over the holidays. Its promoters still maintain an ongoing community here, and it doesn’t take long to determine that this film has a very strong, classically liberal point of view about the role corporations play in our society.

If you can manage the film’s rather heavy handed approach to the topic, you’ll learn a lot about how we got to the point we’re at with the Citizens United case. Obviously the film was made well before that case, but it certainly foreshadowed it. I certainly recommend it to anyone who wants the backstory – with a healthy side of scare tactics – of the corporation’s rise in American society.

My next review will be Ray Kurzweil’s The Singularity Is Near, a 2005 book I finished a few weeks ago. I’m currently reading Steven Johnson’s Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation, which is a pleasure.

Other books I’ve reviewed:

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)

8 Comments on On “The Corporation,” the Film

Google+: Now Serving 90 Million. But…Where’s the Engagement Data!

Google didn’t have a great earnings call today – the company missed Wall St. estimates and the stock is getting hammered in after hours trading – it’s down 9 percent, which is serious whiplash for a major stock in one day.

But while there’s probably much to say about the earnings call – in particular whether Google’s core CPC business is starting to erode (might that be due to Facebook, Wall St. wonders?) – I’m more interested in Google’s jihad against samesaid competitor, a jihad called Google+.

And in the earnings call, Google+ was identified as one of the shining stars of the quarter.

Here’s a quote from the press release, the very first quote, attributed to Larry Page. I’ve highlighted the parts where Google+ is mentioned.

 “I am super excited about the growth of Android, Gmail, and Google+, which now has 90 million users globally – well over double what I announced just three months ago. By building a meaningful relationship with our users through Google+ we will create amazing experiences across our services.”

You getting that? The lead quote had to do with Google+, pretty much, not the company’s earnings, which ended up being a miss (Google is blaming fluctuations in foreign currency for much of that, and I have no idea whether that’s true, false, or silly).

But here’s my question: When is Google going to release actual engagement numbers for Google+? Because in the end, that’s all that really matters. As I have written in the past, it’s pretty easy to get a lot of people signing up for Google+ if you integrate it into everything Google does (particularly if you do it the way they’ve done it with search).

But can you get those folks to engage, deeply? That’d be a real win, and one I’d give full credit to Google for executing. After all, it’s one thing to get the horse to water…another to have it pull up a chair and share a few stories with friends.

Now, Page did talk about engagement in his comments today, but as far as I can tell, it was not specific to Google+ (though it was crafted to be easily conflated, and in reports I’ve seen across the web, it has been). He certainly led with Google+, but this is what he said:

“Engagement on + is also growing tremendously. I have some amazing data to share there for the first time: +users are very engaged with our products — over 60% of them engage daily, and over 80% weekly.”

Er….so you’re saying the folks who use Google+ use *Google* a lot. That’s not surprising – most of them came to Google+ because they were already using Google a lot. But what about minutes per month using Google+? I’m guessing if Google had good news on that particular front, they’d be trumpeting it in a more direct fashion.

Look, I’m being critical here, and perhaps unfairly. But like many others, I’m a bit baffled by Google’s moves last week around search integration, and I’m looking forward to Google addressing the mounting criticism from not only its competitors, but its fans as well. So far, the company has decided to ignore it – both in its earnings calls, and in my own communications with company representatives. That only leads to speculation that Google is doing this on purpose, to get to critical mass with G+ before, cough cough, apologizing a month or so down the line and “fixing” the approach it’s taken to search integration.

I’m going to be down there soon, talking to key execs in search and, I hope, at Google+. There are always more sides to the story than are apparent as that story develops. Stay tuned.

25 Comments on Google+: Now Serving 90 Million. But…Where’s the Engagement Data!

On The Problem of Money, Politics, and SOPA

(image) Earlier this week I ventured down to the Silicon Valley from my lair on the side of Mt. Tamalpais in Marin. Those of you who have visited Marin might understand why for me, after more than 25 years of working across the bridge in San Francisco and on planes around the world, I find it rather pleasant to just stay in my office and Think Big Thoughts whenever possible. But duty called, Jonathan Zittrain (who I’ve interviewed here) had asked me to participate in a conference he was hosting called “Ideas For A Better Internet,” and it was an honor to be asked.

Not to mention, I needed to get down to the Valley to see a few folks at Facebook (more on that in another post).

Given the conference convened on the eve of yesterday’s historic SOPA protest, the room was laden with potential energy. Groups of students presented their ideas for improving the Internet, and various luminaries pronounced on the issues of the day.

Toward the end of the evening, we had a panel with various notables (and me, for some reason). SOPA threaded in and out of that discussion, and I’m sure I had any number of things to say about it which were perfectly forgettable. But I do recall one thing that I said has stuck with me: We can’t afford to not engage with Washington anymore.

Now, plenty of folks have said this, and a few have even made it their life’s work in the past several years. Silicon Valley is waking up to the fact that we have to be part of the process in Washington – for too long we’ve treated “Government” as damage, and we’ve routed around it.

The battle over SOPA and PIPA is a signal event in the history of our industry. The bills were breezing their way through the final days of Congress’s pre-holiday session, and just about everyone thought they’d pass. But thanks to Reddit, Boing Boing, and countless other independent voices, the issue caught fire across the Internet, and we all realized we had an existential threat on our hands. Protests were organized, large companies like Google and Amazon joined the movement, and within two weeks, the Obama administration had come out against key provisions of the legislation (doing it on a Saturday, perhaps hoping no one would notice, but at least they did it).

But the fight isn’t over. In fact, it’s only starting. And the folks who basically wrote SOPA/PIPA are pissed, and they plan on using the same tactics they always have when they don’t get what they want: They’re throwing around their money. Or, put another way, they’re withdrawing it. Go read this article to see what I mean:

EXCLUSIVE: Hollywood Moguls Stopping Obama Donations Because Of President’s Piracy Stand: “Not Give A Dime Anymore”

Does this matter? Damn straight it does. In politics, money not only talks, it seduces, it cajoles, it forces, and it commands. And this is one of the boldest declarations of what’s wrong with our political system I’ve seen in quite some time. Major Obama donors in Hollywood assumed they were buying their way into legislative protection of their threatened business models, and when the President didn’t do their bidding, they “leaked” their displeasure to Finke’s widely read blog. But to call it displeasure is a disservice. It’s more like the tantrum of gods who have come to realize that no one believes their myths anymore.

Check this quote: “God knows how much money we’ve given to Obama and the Democrats and yet they’re not supporting our interests.” 

Are. You. Kidding Me? What exactly *are* Hollywood’s interests? As far as I can tell, they don’t want their movies and music pirated. I can get behind that concept, no problem, and so can most reasonable people (the President said as much on Saturday). And we already have laws that make piracy illegal. If they’re not enough (I honestly don’t know one way or the other), let’s be serious about how best to strengthen those laws, that shall we? Gutting the Internet as we know it so as to protect an industry that is already immensely successful is, well, beyond silly.

There are deeply naunced arguments to be had about this issue, and I’m not going to get into all of them here. What I do want to talk about is this issue of money in politics.

Bear with me as I tell you another story. A few weeks ago I ran into a fellow who I won’t call out publicly, because I like him too much and haven’t asked for his permission to use his name. He’s a very successful businessman who has worked tirelessly on behalf of President Obama’s various political campaigns, mainly in the area of fundraising. And to make a long story short, he essentially offered me an opportunity to brainstorm with the President and various members of his staff on the subject of tech and Internet policy.

The catch? It’d cost me about as much as a year’s tuition at any one of our nation’s finer private educational institutions. Which is….a lot of fucking money.

Why am I telling you this story? Because I was tempted to pay that fee so as to get in front of the President. But upon reflection, I realized I would be doing exactly what Hollywood has done, playing the same game, and expecting the same results. Were Obama to sign legislation I disagreed with, I’d feel cheated  – “Hey, that’s not what I paid for!

Not to mention, it struck me that if the President and his staff truly valued my input, they’d ask for it without requiring a check at the same time. I’ve been paid an awful lot to opine on any number of topics over the course of my career. I’m not looking to BE paid – in fact, I’d be proud to offer what advice I can simply to be part of the process. But to ask to PAY, well, it just feels wrong. Here’s how I put it in an email to that businessman friend of mine:

Fact is, Obama or his team should be sitting down with people like me to get smarter on tech policy (and in my case, on media and marketing regulation). They should be seeking out people like me in all fields. Instead, they cannot afford to do it unless a steep price tag is paid – it fucks up the social relationship totally and changes the dynamics of how the world actually works in normal information sharing scenarios between smart people. 

My friend the fund-raising businessman agreed with my point, but he’s a realist: This is how the world works, he told me. We have to pay to play.

I think that’s a tragedy. I’ve pointed out on Twitter that at the moment, Hollywood has given seven times more money to the various backers of SOPA than our industry has. Many in our industry believe the way to tip the balance back our way is to simply play the same game, and out-donate the bastards. (Lord knows we have the money…)

But that sure as hell doesn’t sound very Internet-y to me. We have a problem on our hands, folks. In our own businesses, when faced with a problem, we find innovative solutions. We don’t just throw money at it. That’s the beauty of our industry.

There’s got to be a better way. And as I said at the Stanford conference, I for one am committing myself to helping figure this out. My first step will be to read this new book from Larry Lessig, an intellectual warrior who many (including myself) lament as bailing on our core issue of IP law to tilt at the supposed windmill of political corruption.

But I think, upon deeper reflection, that Larry is simply playing chess a few moves ahead of us all. It’s time to catch up, and move forward together.

Update: Larry spoke the same night as I did, at the Long Now Foundation. I would have been there had it not been for my commitment to Zittrain, who is Larry’s replacement at Harvard, in a funny twist. Anyway, here’s the link to Kevin Kelly’s very cogent summary. Totally worth checking out. 

44 Comments on On The Problem of Money, Politics, and SOPA