A medium without a message is an empty vessel

Evan Williams shared some interesting insights about the things that Medium doesn’t consider important.

It’s a good read. He breaks down some of the metrics that have come to dominate the way people in the digital media industry view success.

tl;dr Being big is not everything.

In the media world revenue is predicated on the existence and actions of customers who value what the medium carries across it. Certainly having more of those people is a good thing, but if none of them value what you offer then failure will be looming around the corner.

How do you measure value? Maybe numbers aren’t the answer.

Despite tons of data points you can get from an app, a web browser and a web server, those technologies aren’t very good at identifying what people care about and how things change when ideas resonate.

Yes, the Internet is very smart about what we are doing, and many digital media companies can work out some things that interest us. And when it can’t identify those things from our direct actions the Internet is getting better at inferring our interests by association, through proxies and relationships.

But digital media companies trade in something more elusive than those things. It’s not Monthly Active Users and Session Duration that matter. Those are indicators of success – symptoms, not drivers.

The good media organizations (the ones I tend to value, anyhow) live and die by the way they catalyze ideas.

Twitter, Facebook and some of the new media players such as Buzzfeed and Upworthy are recognized as winners because they have millions and millions of people using them. They are remarkable, no doubt, but ultimately the metrics qualifying their ‘success’ are weak.

The packaging wrapped around an article or video in whatever form it takes says a lot about the substance itself, and the more our many Internet services repackage and manipulate the way links are shared the more distant we will feel from the meaning behind those articles and videos.

I’m certainly thankful that so many people can inform and influence what I think about. Free speech must protect our right to share things as much as it needs to protect our right to say things.

But the value of the things that are said and therefore the medium carrying those things is not measurable in terms of how successfully they were packaged and delivered alone.

Apple’s white boxes and the unveiling that happens when you open them have a big impact on the way people think about their products, but ultimately it’s the product itself that Apple customers love.

Mat Honan’s Wired article from December is yet another industry amplifier of metric obsession that leads people into very short term thinking. In the end he grounds it all in the knowledge that he and everyone at Wired know very well:

“A good story, well told and suited for its audience, has always been the thing and always will be. But never more than now, when the story has to live on its own.”

The Internet gives us some incredible insights into how media businesses work because it records every action by a customer in a log. Those logs tell fascinating stories, but it’s the soul of the business that enabled those numbers to talk in the first place.

Leadership lessons from 2014

I’ve been lucky in my career to work with some pretty inspiring leaders. I’ve found myself reflecting on the lessons from some of those people recently given the time of year and, more importantly, because one of them, Pat McGovern, died in March this year and one of the others, Alan Rusbridger, announced he is leaving his long time post at the Guardian.

Pat McGovern was a remarkable person. He had some unusual quirks as most great leaders do, and you couldn’t help but wonder if those things that made him unusual were fuel for his accomplishments.

A good example of that was his notorious holiday handshake. I loved that he did that, as painful as it was for himself and for the hundreds of staff members he spent a few minutes speaking to directly, one on one. But it showed a deep commitment from him which everyone valued and respected.

As Harry McCracken wrote,

“His emotional and intellectual investment in the company he founded was boundless. Why would he not love traveling to IDG offices to talk with IDG employees about their work at IDG?”

Pat also had some strong philosophies underpinning his approach to working.

Pat used to say, ‘the specific wins over the general’. He understood the Long Tail before that became a thing.

He didn’t want big, centralized command-and-control systems and preferred to keep decision-making with self-contained business units that were focused on a particular market or customer base. He was happy to put money behind people he believed in and let them run their business…unless they started losing his money which never lasted very long.

He used those concepts to build a global network of 350+ businesses.

Alan Rusbridger’s recent announcement is still pretty fresh, and I don’t think any of us understand the extent of his impact, yet. But I can speak to his influence on me.

When I first started at the Guardian in 2008 I was under the impression that Alan’s presence was more directive than what I later learned to be the truth.

Yes, he was very good at achieving the results he wanted and was clear about what he expected. And there was never any doubt about who was in charge.

But he achieved that state by supporting those whose ideas and intentions would lead him in a direction that interested him rather than directing everyone’s actions. And with an unending collection of interests and an insatiable curiosity that meant the many explorers he surrounded himself with were expanding his influence in all those areas and, as a result, the power of the Guardian brand.

Alan was very loyal to his people, and that loyalty was given back to him.

I recall an eye-opening chat with one of his long time lieutenants as the initial hacking coverage by Nick Davies began to unfold in the pages of the Guardian.

“Alan is putting himself out there pretty far with this one, and I’m not sure we know how to back him up. That’s the problem with visionaries. You don’t always know what you’re following until you get there.”

By the time Edward Snowden got through to Glen Greenwald, Alan had created the window through which others could see where he was taking the Guardian. He had the kind of support needed not just to execute the journalism he envisioned but, more importantly, to act as a truly independent voice in the world.

Similar to Pat, it was a philosophical underpinning to the meaning of his work in the world that he was able to apply every day. His 2010 Cudlipp lecture is a classic in that regard.

“There is an irreversible trend in society today which rather wonderfully continues what we as an industry started – here, in newspapers, in the UK. It’s not a “digital trend” – that’s just shorthand. It’s a trend about how people are expressing themselves, about how societies will choose to organise themselves, about a new democracy of ideas and information, about changing notions of authority, about the releasing of individual creativity, about an ability to hear previously unheard voices; about respecting, including and harnessing the views of others. About resisting the people who want to close down free speech.

As Scott said 90 years ago: “What a chance for the newspaper!”

Alan’s strategy for the Guardian meant that the Snowden revelations and other stories of that scale were possible in a way that the digital era had not yet seen. For that we should all be thankful, regardless of your view of the Guardian.

I’ve had many encounters with people who dislike the Guardian yet willingly admit they want it to exist. Alan’s accomplishments are so great that competitors and enemies alike respect and admire him.

I imagine John Wooden was a similar type of character in his world in his day.

There are several other people I’ve worked with who I use for inspiration from time to time, too, people in various stages of careers that I believe will be extraordinary if they aren’t already – Chad Dickerson, John Battelle, Emily Bell, to name a few.

Of course, reducing the contributions of these or any other individual to a word or some forgettable listicle-style chunks of knowledge is antithetical to the type of leadership they’ve all offered. Simplicity and clarity should never be confused with vapidity.

But the short version of the key observations here is worth amplifying:

  • Being committed to your team makes them happy and committed to you.
  • Distributing authority and enabling your best people to do what they do expands your influence as they expand theirs.
  • Grounding your vision with a philosophy that others can apply in their day-to-day jobs creates a network of support required for executing the more risky things a leader wants to achieve.

Now that the tech and media worlds have begun maturing in the era of Life After Jobs it’s worth understanding the styles employed by some of the people who lead from behind the scenes instead of from the stage.

In that respect, you won’t find many role models better than either Pat or Alan.

When the technology/editorial walls come down magic happens

The Guardian’s home-brewed analytics platform called Ophan featured on Journalism.co.uk this week. It’s well worth the read if you are a publisher.

While the detail on what it does is useful to understand, the conditions that made it possible to create such a thing are also important.

There is often an uncomfortable gap between the technology teams and the editorial teams at news organizations. That cultural mismatch often gets expressed through the tools used internally at those organizations.

Editors hate the pace of change for the small things that they need like approval buttons and copy&paste features, things that will make them more effective in their jobs. Equally, developers hate the lack of understanding of the things they are trying to accomplish, things that could solve much bigger challenges for the entire company.

It can be two sides of the same coin that just can’t see each other.

Magic is possible, though, when developers listen well and bend the path to fulfilling their vision in order to accommodate realworld tactical needs of the editors.

That’s what happened when Graham Tackley was given the freedom to create his realtime analytics platform at the Guardian alongside Chris Moran. Graham had ideas about some new tools that would give editors insights on what’s happening on the web site in realtime. And Chris had experimented with Yahoo! Pipes in Hack Days to look at referral traffic in a different kind of dashboard format.

The project was initially about technology. But it adopted bigger ambitions as it started answering questions for them. Chris told me, “We realised how useful it would be to others and started listening to more editors around the building. They had interesting questions, too.”

The project was explicitly endorsed by the CEO Andrew Miller, the Chief Digital Officer Tanya Cordrey and Graham’s manager Shanon Maher. They all knew the project mattered and needed to be handled differently. Creating that space for Ophan to happen was a brilliant investment – it didn’t cost much and it wasn’t hard to do.

Of course, Graham’s time was in high demand, and the effort required to evolve Ophan would have to come from somewhere. So he was careful not to spread himself too thin and applied his time wisely in order to progress it without failing the day-to-day needs of his colleagues.

Similarly, getting it adopted internally would require time and patience. Chris worked closely with Graham and fellow architect Phil Wills to shape it into something that could be demo’d in meetings, bringing on one editor at a time and eventually informing the daily publishing process.

It didn’t happen overnight, but it did happen in the end. Ophan became business critical at the Guardian. You can see why in the Journalism.co.uk article.

Ophan tells editors the stories they need to hear about what’s happening on the site in language that is relevant to their jobs in ways that are enjoyable to use.

The Guardian editors don’t have to think about how Ophan works. It just does. And it makes them better at their jobs.

The lesson here is more about attitude than technology. Graham says straddling the technology/editorial divide helps him to write better code. “When I work this way I have a much better understanding of what’s important and what is not.”

Yes, Graham is clever, but he did something unusual with his talent. Rather then solve a hard problem for the sake of solving problems, he listened.

“We never planned to create our own real time analytics system. But we just kept talking to people and implementing the next thing that would make a difference. And here we are today.”

Google’s crowdfunding solution for publishers is not really that at all

When Google announced that it had a “crowdfunding tool for publishers” my twitter feed lit up. Crowdfunding journalism a subject that I think about a lot (1, 2, 3).

I was dubious as one who works at a news org tends to be any time a technology company says it can fix publishing as if it were a surgeon merely exacting a remedy on torn tissue.

There are certainly structural issues in the world of journalism and the wider publishing market, but incremental advances in the way display advertising works are only going to shore up Google’s own flaws. Reversing its own display performance declines disguised as a solution to the woes of an industry that were arguably a result of Google’s dismissal of that industry in the first place is a sign the company has truly failed to listen.

At a more fundamental level, swapping one display advertising solution for another is not the answer publishers need from Google.

It’s worth saying that being a fast-follower of the tech titans is not a bad strategy for publishers to use. But if you’re applying that strategy you must also recognize where departure is necessary.

Not viewing ads is a far cry from funding articles via the crowd.

The “web vs apps” debate is symptomatic of our hopes and fears for the Internet

Framing the web-vs-apps debate either as a zero-sum-game or an it’s-all-internet-traffic argument seems to reflect much larger issues or ‘symptoms’, as Mathew Ingram noted.

The debate ultimately keeps reinforcing my views about the importance of the open Internet.

First, I’m repeatedly reminded how remarkable the network is to enable differentiation like this. It would have been impossible to create a system where both things co-existed if you planned it this way.

I mean, how could it be that we agreed to a collection of open standards that were adopted by influential individuals and organizations who helped to scale them in a way that would support the amount of activity happening across the many technologies that have been deployed on top of those standards globally so many years later?

The mind boggles. It also worries. Was it an isolated event? Will it last?

Second, when corporate interests’ self-serving tactics unwittingly blast through our interests as a global society inequality abounds. They can be too quick to leave standards bodies behind and often the needs of real people.

There’s obviously nothing wrong with self-serving interests. Used the right way that can be the fastest route to solving huge problems collectively. And competition needs to be protected just as the public spaces need to be protected.

But equally we should never be surprised when commercial interests build marketplaces on top of public spaces and turn those marketplaces into winner-takes-all games at the expense of the common benefit of the space. That’s what they do.

And that’s why Obama’s bold position in favor of the Internet-as-utility matters so much.

History’s pendulum of public opinion needs to swing back the other way and help all the things that are caught in the middle of this push-pull relationship between the commons and the free markets.

Yes, standards and trade orgs and policies can all be slow to form and annoying to work with and incapable of understanding commercial opportunity, but when they do successfully enable marketplaces for us all to benefit from then you get a far healthier environment in the end.

It’s ‘the rising tide lifts all ships’ argument.

While the app market is a commercial variant that may bring some uncomfortable baggage with it into the public spaces, the question that should worry us more is about how we secure the context for this kind of market to happen again and again.

My reading of the web-vs-apps debate is that we have yet more reason to strengthen and fight for open network principles in the world.

If the current spaces failed to move fast enough for mobile marketplaces to form the way they probably should have been formed using open standards then what can we do now to ensure the public spaces underpinning the next network can support it for the benefit of all?

Does the “Internet of Things” have a strong enough commons-based underpinning to support the wave of commercial activity flooding it now, for example? Or is the race to establish inequality and win the whole thing too far gone already?

The network model we have now that includes the web and apps and many protocols most people don’t even know about might just be a once-in-a-generation slice of magic. But it might also be a principle used by future generations to build new markets.

I’m hopeful it’s the latter. It’s certainly not too late for that.

Maybe the debate can evolve into a constructive conversation about the “network we want”.

(Btw – Yes, I realize I’m late to this meme. I’m trying to get my blogging pace back up again. Not sure if I can do that or not yet.)

Was DNS a mistake? It won’t matter if publishers embrace networks.

There was an interesting choice made many years ago when the Internet was given domain names.

Yeah, it made sense at the time, but the White House’s new push to reclassify broadband access providers as “common carriers” gives me hope that some things can be fixed. And maybe the domain name was one of those miscalculations that we can look at differently now.

Before we had domain names we had numbers and dots. How could any normal person be expected to remember an address made of numbers and dots? The answer is obviously to use words instead.

Branding the way addressability was handled on the network would surely make it easier for nontechnical people to find stuff, right?

The free web servers and web browsers and the open industry standards they embraced created an information explosion, with clearly defined addresses that organizations learned how to promote in a big way.

Yes, it worked! Everyone embraced the Internet very quickly as a result.

But there were repercussions.

This combination of forces signalled to every commercial entity in the world that it had to own the nodes on the network. And thus began cyberspace’s great property landgrab.

When domain names were established as the prize ecosystems thriving on their existence formed to enshrine them. Business models were defined by how well they could draw audiences to a domain and control people’s time when they ‘arrived’ there.

The ability to publish what you want on your own server and making it freely accessible globally is a critical principle in the network’s design, but the attachment of that server to a branded address sends a heavily weighted signal about the importance of the server as opposed to the published material or the creator of it.

Without a domain name we would’ve had to work out means for distributing material with authorship attached to it as it went across the network.

That concept was already cooked into the hardware and software standards, but it wasn’t yet enshrined in the media production process when the domain + web server + web browser combo permeated every aspect of the Internet.

And now that model is in question, perhaps even outdated already.  Mobile internet traffic growth, for example, has nothing to do with domain names. It doesn’t need them.

Why are organizations struggling to identify mobile-native business models? Because so many of them have invested 15 to 20 years in driving people to spend time on their domains instead of developing their roles via the wider network.

The moment to redefine how syndication works across the network might be right now – while the transition to mobile is still fresh, as new legal definitions of ISPs take shape, as increased awareness of the threats imposed by centralized platforms shake people’s trust in domains, etc.

It’s clearly an exaggeration to blame DNS for the closed Internet trend, but it’s equally naive to think that we can secure the future of free speech by entrusting the way we access it to a handful of people at ICANN.

Could this moment right now be the much-needed window of opportunity needed for reshaping what digital media means on the network?

A new data journalism platform

Swarmize-homepageMy colleagues Tom Armitage and Graham Tackley are unveiling a data journalism platform called Swarmize today. It’s an alpha-ish prototype which was funded via the Knight News Challenge with support from The Guardian.

While there was a real editorial use case inspiring Swarmize it was the absence of an easy to use and robust enough platform for conducting data journalism projects that made us think this was something that needed to be built.

It seems to me that the tools for collecting, analyzing and outputting data that tell a story haven’t evolved as much as I thought they would have by now. I suspect it’s holding back a form of journalism that is eager to evolve.

While the article and the video clip reign supreme as digital storytelling formats the Internet has the potential to unlock an entirely different type of journalism experience fueled by raw data.

It may hit us on a more adhoc case-by-case basis for a while yet, as this list shows, but you can be sure a new generation of developers will uncover ways to make data journalism work systematically.

I think there’s a certain kind of network-native developer brain that’s needed for this — someone who can think of what they are doing on the Internet as interconnected activities rather than places to go.

I tried to characterize this way of thinking a while back now. In retrospect this seems incomplete but it’s mostly still relevant:

  • Instead of caring about how much value you will get from your customers in exchange for your goods, you care about how much value you create for your customers with your services
  • You want to help other people succeed knowing that you will benefit from their success
  • You simultaneously seek ways to embed what you do into other things and to embed strengths of what others do into your things
  • You view those who do the same thing as you as partners rather than competition
  • You view those who take more than they give as threats
  • Nothing you do is ever done

indyref-graph3All the code for Swarmize is available publicly on GitHub, and Tom has done a great job documenting the API and writing up case studies including some useful screenshots.

The tools of the trade always affect what gets made. Hopefully, Swarmize will unlock new network-native data-rich journalism projects that otherwise would hide untapped and unseen.

What’s your favorite question?

I really like a good question. Some of the questions Peter Thiel asks are thought provoking, such as “What do you believe that nobody else does?”  Occasionally, there’s a great question on Quora, or, more likely, there’s a great answer from an unexpected source to a good question on Quora.

 

Most recent questions posted:

(This blog post is actually just a test of a new tool called Swarmize.com.  Swarmize is a data journalism platform designed to help editors run everything from simple one-off surveys to high volume custom interactives.  It is being developed by Tom Armitage and Graham Tackley and was initially funded by the Knight Foundation. It is currently still an Alpha product.)

The operating system for news

A lot of people are looking at the way journalism gets made and rethinking the inputs, processes and outputs for it.

Someone coming from a technology point of view would be forgiven for thinking that the solution to the future journalism is an “operating system for news“.

But as much as we might like to break down news into its component parts and treat it like a blockchain on the way to some rendering machine, the information that makes up a story is not the same as the story itself and the role of that story in making change happen.

As the atomization of news progresses we need to be cognizant of what happens when we put too much weight on data that may not be stable enough to support the subsequent effects of the way a piece of information gets interpreted and socialized.

Just as a little thoughtless bug in a piece of software may cause incredible damage, bad data can do the same thing. It can infect journalism like a virus as it spreads and, as a result, our collective understanding of things.

I’m encouraged to see research indicating jobs for people with journalism skills are actually increasing, appearing in government agencies, banks and marketing firms that need help understanding what’s going on in the world, places that collect and generate huge volumes of data.

There will always be more data to collect, faster ways to process it and more interesting ways to output it. There’s a big market for that because there are big entities built on rich data that will devour it.

But let’s not confuse the job of moving mountains with expressing the human condition. Michelangelo famously said,

“In every block of marble I see a statue as plain as though it stood before me, shaped and perfect in attitude and action. I have only to hew away the rough walls that imprison the lovely apparition to reveal it to the other eyes as mine see it.”

That’s the really exciting opportunity.  There are stories within the volumes of new data being generated all the time that just need insightful people to reveal them.

If you are working in Big Data you must remember that the search revolution failed to grasp the importance of social. Search people viewed the Internet as an operating system, too. But the Big Data world must grasp the significance of stories and how they affect people’s lives if it is to become as important to the human experience as it wants to be.

 

A different way of thinking about print newspapers

After the failure of Apple’s Newton you’d have trouble finding anyone who thought a computer that fit in your pocket was a good idea. Perhaps it was better connectivity that was missing, but the subsequent failure with the PalmPilot indicated that wasn’t it either.

The number of reasons for the current smartphone surge goes far beyond the limits of the listicle, but the failure of predecessors did not preclude success for the iPhone and the explosive market that followed.

Now, the number of reasons why printed newspapers will not exist in a few years time would make a long listicle, too, but a change in thinking might alter that apparent inevitability.

To be perfectly honest, I can’t decide whether the recent interest in print is a nostalgic inclination, a flooring of the decline or something different, maybe even something new (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7). Regardless, there is scope for different approaches to why and how to produce a newspaper.

Photo by Michelle Marshall
Photos by Michelle Marshall

We weren’t exactly surprised to see so much interest in the printed version of Contributoria because we intuitively believed people would like it in newspaper format, particularly if it was designed nicely. But the effect on the business has been more than just a nice-to-have.

First and most obvious is that people understand what we’re up to. The mental leap required for understanding community-powered journalism can be challenging even for people who are in the business. But it only takes one or two seconds to explain it when you can give someone the output of what we’re doing to hold in their hands.

They’re encourged to hear that our business model is about membership in a community, but that sometimes requires an explanation. When they see the newspaper they see quality journalism, and that’s something everyone understands.

Second, it buys credibility. New digital brands can take years to develop. And while we have a long way to go before Contributoria is established and mature people are surprised that we are only 6 months old with such a small team. But the Contributoria team is actually made up of several thousand people working together to create something, not just the handful with Contributoria.com email addresses.  The newspaper helps to reflect that.

Third and fourth, the marketing options are very compelling and the commercial opportunities have real potential. We can piggyback distribution off other channels, such as the Guardian newspaper (our parent company), and sponsors intuitively understand the value of being part of a print run.

Let’s be honest, though. That’s all justification. The real truth is that we just really like it.

When we have our monthly meeting I bring a stack of the latest issue and drop it on the table. The reaction from that heavy sound, seeing the beautiful covers layered on top of each other, the smell of ink on paper and then picking it up and turning the page is always, “Ooooohh. Nice!”

It’s very satisfying.  And the writers are always on top of us to get a copy out to them as fast as possible.

Until some sort of virtual reality can replace the sense of touch I think people will always value holding a product in their hands.

Again, I can’t say with any confidence that print has a bright future as a medium. The reports of print’s resurgence including newsstand sales increases at The Guardian, The Atlantic and others have to be viewed as interesting indicators but not promising trends.

In our case, I think people like what the Contributoria brand is starting to become, and print solidifies that.

More importantly, being part of the development of the final product draws people in. People feel a sense of ownership of the product having played a part in its existence whether that’s helping to fund it or to create it.

Is the reinvention needed by newspapers a democratization of their production? We’ll see.

But have no doubt that paper still captures people’s imaginations and will continue to do so as long as what’s printed on it is wonderful.