Author Archives: Matt McAlister

Eternal transitions

Market transitions in digital media can be absolutely fascinating both as a bystander and as a participant.

I’ve been on both the frontfoot and the backfoot as part of media businesses trying to lead, fast-follow, steer away from or kill different technologies and services that come and go.

Transitioning seems to be part of being in this business, something you’re always doing, not the end game.

There are a few patterns I’ve observed, but i’m hoping some clever business model historian will do some research and really nail down how it works.

There are job training issues that people face. Remember all those Lotus Notes specialists? Organizational issues. How about when the tech teams finally let editors control the web site home page? Leadership issues. It wasn’t until about 2003 before media CEOs started talking openly aout the day when their Internet businesses would overtake their traditional businesses. Technology strategies. Investing in template-driven web sites was once a major decision. Etc.

The mobile wave we’re in right now shares all the same issues for people who are in the business of running web sites. Re-educate your developers or hire new ones? Should mobile be a separate business; should it be added to the queue for the tech team; should the editors or product managers manage it? Is mobile-first a subset of digital-first or does it mean something more profound than that? Responsive, native, both? What’s the mobile pureplay for what you already do?

Media organizations have become so diverse over the last several years that they can easily get caught thinking that you can do all of the above – a hedge-your-bets strategy by investing lightly in all aspects of the transition. While that strategy has drawbacks it is definitely better than the hide-and-hope or cut-til-you-profit strategy.

The most interesting part of this story is about the anomolies, those moments of clarity that signal to the rest of us what is happening.

For example, everyone who disregarded the Newton and then the PalmPilot for failing missed the point. These were anomolies in a world dominated by Microsoft and the PC. They understood computing was going to be in people’s pockets, and they were right to execute on that idea.

What they failed to get right was timing of the market transition, and timing is everything.

(Harry McCracken’s retrospective review of the Newton is a fun read.)

So, when is an anomoly worth noticing? And when is the right time to execute on the new model?

Google has been a great example of both in many ways. They cracked one of the key business models native to the Internet at just the right time…they weren’t first or even best, but they got it right when it mattered. Android is another example.

But social has been one challenge after another. They ignored the anomoly that was Twitter and Facebook (and Orkut!) and then executed poorly over and over again.

They don’t want to be behind the curve ever again and are deploying some market tests around the ubiquitous, wearable network – Google Glass.

But if they are leading on this vision of the new way, how do they know, and, importantly, how do other established businesses know that this is the moment the market shifts?

I’m not convinced we’ve achieved enough critical mass around the mobile transition to see the ubiquitous network as a serious place to operate.

The pureplay revenue models in the mobile space are incomplete. The levels of investment being made in mobile products and services are growing too fast. The biggest catalysts of commercial opportunity are not yet powerful enough to warrant total reinterpretations of legacy models.

The mobile market is at its high growth stage. That needs to play out before the next wave will get broader support.

The ubiquitous network is coming, but the fast train to success aka ‘mobile’ has arrived and left the station and everyone’s onboard.

Is Google Glass this era’s Newton? Too early? Dorky rather than geeky-cool? Feature-rich yet brilliant at nothing in particular? Too big?

They’ve done a brilliant job transitioning to the mobile era. And you have to give them props for trying to lead on the next big market shift.

Even if Google gets it wrong with Google Glass (See Wired’s commentary) they are becoming very good at being in transition. If that is the lesson they learned from their shortcomings in ‘social’ then they may have actually gained more by doing poorly then if they had succeeded.

n0ticeVIP_LOGO

The mobile publishing technology behind GuardianWitness

n0ticeVIP_LOGO
One of the great ah-hah moments in my career happened in 2006 when Amazon launched EC2.

To be honest, the shockwave I observed across Silicon Valley at the news inspired that ah-hah rather than any insight I had about the product. I don’t think I really understood virtual machines. The idea still makes my head spin.

But when I realized Bezos was exposing Amazon’s incredible internal infrastructure and selling those capabilities externally everything clicked. What a smart thing to do.

Why don’t more companies do this?

Yes, it might be hard to move legacy bespoke systems into a state where they can support paying customers, but it’s not hard to design the possibility for commercializing technology externally at its conception.

We’ve been applying this strategy to n0tice from the start. Now we have a very significant case study in the form of GuardianWitness, and others will be announced soon.

While the GuardianWitness project is clearly going to have a big impact both in terms of open journalism and in terms of new revenue for the Guardian, there’s a parallel world where the technology making GuardianWitness possible can be used to build both a technology licensing business and an interesting partner network.

appsGuardianWitness was built using n0tice, the mobile publishing platform we launched publicly almost exactly a year ago. The web site, iPhone and Android apps, and a bunch of new capabilities, including moderation tools, video processing and YouTube integration, high performance, scalability and security levels, and a customer support process were all built with the intention of selling those services, too. The n0tice API servicing all this is now very robust.

We have a marketing site at http://vip.n0tice.org explaining the offering. I’ve written a bit more detail about what we did on the n0tice blog. And you can find a lot more technical information on the developer web site here, which includes an architectural overview of the n0tice platform.

If we’ve done this right then any professional publisher, broadcaster, brand, community, developer, etc. who wants to give their customers the ability to post photos and videos from their phones will be able to do so with specialised, high quality, enterprise-level technologies and services.

There’s a ton of great capability here at the Guardian, and we are not the only media organization that could benefit from the technologies that enable us to do what we do.

Mrs. Robinson is the enemy of great software

I was watching The Graduate the other night, and another brilliant quote struck me – not the ‘plastics’ quote this time.

Benjamin describes his post-grad disillusionment to Mrs. Robinson’s daughter Elaine, “It’s like I’m playing some kind of game, but the rules don’t make any sense to me. They’re being made up by all the wrong people. No, I mean no one makes them up. They seem to make themselves up.”

The anxiety of being disoriented and confused about how to win the game in the early parts of your career is a wonderful thing. It forces you to adapt quickly, to learn hard, and to test limits.

But different people react differently to the pressure. Some become all about the rules – either creating, enforcing or avoiding them. Others don’t see rules at all.

This gets hammered home in an excellent blog post where Good Sense looks at how trust and autonomy and freedom promotes productivity and creative problem solving whereas controls and requirements and micromanagement have the opposite affect:

“I was part of a scrum team at a large company. Someone already broke the workload up into user stories. Those user stories were further broken down into tasks. The tasks were then evenly divided amongst all the engineers. Each engineer didn’t have much of a say in it.

I was told exactly what to work on and even the day I was going to work on it. It was the most unproductive time of my life.”

That sense of freedom you have after walking away from your last day of school is incredible, and yet so many capable people fail to capitalize on that freedom. They end up recreating structures in their lives that ensure they never face it again.

Of course, there are also many people who thrive on having structure. And there are many who support creativity by trying to create freedom within a structure. Not everyone works well with no rules. And some can even do a lot of damage without boundaries in place.

Agile development intends to deal with this, but I’m amongst those who believe that once you’ve defined a process for something you’ve already sucked the mojo out of it.

The comments on Hacker News are really worth a read:

“Scrum says that team members should answer three questions each working day:
1. What have you done in the last day?
2. What are you doing today?
3. Are you experiencing any impediments to your work?

Here is how these questions get implemented at many companies:
1. Did you do what I told you to yesterday?
2. Here’s what I want you to do today.
3. Fuck the third question.”

Sometimes that scenario plays out with more subtlety, perhaps under the mask of collaboration. I’ve seen many managers using the word “agile” to describe the way they are working when they really mean something totally different.

It’s these kinds of behaviors that Benjamin can’t get his head around in The Graduate – the unwritten rules, the cultural reinforcements, the hidden hierarchies and agendas.

Josh Williams, former co-founder and CEO at the now defunct Foursquare competitor Gowalla, wrote a brilliant post-mortem of sorts recently that should be a real inspiration to the Benjamins out there feeling overwhelmed by all the rules and systems and the perception of predetermination.

“Truth be told, we didn’t really care about Check-Ins. What we really wanted was for people to see the world through the eyes of their friends.

It turns out there was another app that shared a similar vision. They made the act of taking and sharing photos (many of which just happened to be location-tagged) fast, simple and fun.

They made their own rules. They called it Instagram.”

Why EveryBlock’s closure is disappointing

There is a big difference betwen a signal of future potential and the path leading to its real outcome.

The future signal may be wrong even though the path to it might feel right at the time (PointCast, WAP, personalized home pages, Kozmo.com). Or the signal might be right, but the path to it may take the wrong turn (Napster, RSS, AltaVista, Flickr).

The longer I’m in the digital media business, the less sure I am that I can tell the difference in the very early stages of these trends.

For example, I’m a bit embarrassed to admit that around 2001 I still thought Google was just another search engine and that it would be a temporary phenomenon. Even worse, I was sure that Facebook was making a mistake when it opened beyond the university networks to the wider masses in 2007 or whenever that was.

So, when things happen like last week’s news that EveryBlock closed down I have to recalibrate my thinking a bit. It’s clear now that EveryBlock fits in the second camp – right signal, wrong path.

I was never convinced they were on a sure path to achieving their ambitions, but I believed in Adrian and that the vision and execution were strong enough to get there with some adjustments and a little bit of luck.

Regardless of the dotcom measures of success, anyone who cares about news and journalism will agree that EveryBlock demonstrated something special about local information – an important step toward recapturing our neighborhood identities in a way that local newspapers used to do, or at least in the way younger people imagine they must have done.

I remember the launch of EveryBlock in 2008. I paid close attention to how it progressed in my neighborhood (Potrero Hill) even after I moved to London later that year.

The attention to detail in data was remarkable – both in terms of capturing the essence of challenging sources but also in the presentation of it. I knew a little about hierarchical geodata from spending time with the Maps and Where On Earth teams at Yahoo!, but EveryBlock was adding human dimentionality to those purely physical interpretations of the world.

For example, crime mapping was a particularly fascinating topic at the time, something I experienced first hand, and there were a few different approaches to addressing it in addition to Adrian’s own groundbreaking ChicagoCrime map. One of the very best that shouldn’t be forgotten was the ‘Not Just a Number‘ campaign done by Katy Newton and Sean Connelley in partnership with the Oakand Tribune.

Crime data is just one of the many information types that catalyze collective understanding in local areas, and EveryBlock rigorously tackled a range of different sources from construction and business permits to travel and commuting information to real estate data. They even started tackling social data including meetups, flickr photos and even conversations amongst EveryBlock users.

The result was a data-rich lens of local life.

People now expect this lens on their local life. It’s not even a matter of wanting it. It’s just supposed to be that way.

And EveryBlock executed on it very well.

So, if the vision was right and the execution was strong, what happened?

Without speaking to the team or NBC it’s not fair to presume to know the answer. But from my view as an industry observer and fellow traveler on the local media train my guess is that the problems were not so much errors in judgment but rather circumstantial challenges.

They may have arrived when local media incumbents were still strong enough to drive the news agendas in their respective areas, cornering EveryBlock into a data pureplay that wasn’t compelling enough for the news junkies to build an exclusive addiction to them.

Though I suspect the decision to join MSNBC in 2009 was completely appropriate and rational at the time, having MSNBC behind them must have limited the partnerships they may have needed to do with those same local media incumbents.

They may have been too early in the game of local data, too, stuck in an awkward market condition where the cities with both good data and tech savvy users were few and fickle.

Perhaps they needed original reporting. A more traditionally news-y positioning may have helped, but the wider digital media market has been flooded with countless startups that offer no editorial structure to them at all. That shouldn’t have been a prerequisite to mass adoption.

It’s probably some of those things and many others that we can’t see from the outside.

I find it very interesting that so many people are so disappointed. I think people would like to believe that good ideas done well will survive and prosper.

Of course, if the world were that simple it would be pretty boring. I’ll take chaos and uncertainty over the sure thing any day, even if that means good things die sometimes.

But, unfortunately, that’s exactly what happened last week when EveryBlock died.

Where n0tice is headed in 2013

Reposted from the n0tice blog:

There are lots of reasons to be reflective today and to think about the past year. It has been a very serious time with some very serious human stories resulting in many testing questions about fate and destiny and our responsibilities in a civil society.

I intended to write some sort of happy-clappy “what a great year!” type of message today, but I’d prefer to write about the challenges ahead.

Of course, it has been a truly amazing year for n0tice. We moved the service out of beta in the Spring, launched a robust developer platform, rolled out our first sponsored partnership, kicked off an exciting social marketing campaign, rebuilt the n0tice iOS app, launched our new Android app, developed some fun new curation tools, and integrated with the Guardian in some creative ways.

The team, everyone participating on the platform, and the many observers wanting to know how this project unfolds will surely feel the progress we’ve made and hopefully enjoy being part of this journey.

But n0tice is still very far from playing the role it could and should play in the world.

There are many forces challenging the civic fabric that keeps people engaged in the idea of progress. This is happening both in our local communities and the world at large – threats to the shape of the Internet itself, how it is governed and what people can do with it; deep issues of trust in our institutions; economic disparity and shrinking resources; and, worst of all, physical threats both from mother nature and our own kind.

On an admittedly hopeful and probably shallow level I always thought that n0tice could help people to address problems that face us by becoming a more integral part of the spaces we inhabit. Starting with a shared digital platform for reporting what’s happening nearby right now and what’s going to happen tomorrow we could improve local discourse which could then turn into action.

The public noticeboard is the perfect metaphor for what we’re doing. It facilitates a public conversation about our local communities – a space that is open to all, where leadership is flattened and authority is distributed and perhaps even competitive.

The technologies making this possible have pros and cons, of course.

There can be no doubt that being present and aware in the physical world we inhabit will get harder and harder as the digital distractions continue to fight for our focus. It’s also true that the immediacy of today’s digital media is training people to think that everything can happen fast, but sometimes meaning has a longer gestation period which affects cultural evolution at glacial pace.

There’s a big gap between noticing a dangerous street corner to getting a new sign posted which is a far cry from changing the law and even further from changing people’s behaviors.

But maybe these new technologies can enhance our experiences in the real world rather than compete with them. And maybe our local communities will improve as a result of what people accomplish using the digital network.

Sometimes a spark is all that’s needed to put momentum behind a movement.

When we kicked off the #keepcycling campaign we had a feeling it would resonate, but we certainly didn’t expect people to spread it across Twitter as far as it has gone now. Similarly, we were hoping the #localshopping and #gdngig campaigns would trigger an interest in sharing the best of people’s local experiences, and, sure enough, hundreds of reviews and photos later we have some wonderful social maps of what’s happening in small neighborhoods and big cities alike.


#keepcycling

#GdnGig Live Music Map

These are just little tastes of where this journey could start going – turning observation into action. Awareness is the first step toward empathy. And once people start to care about the little things happening around them they might think more about the bigger things.

n0tice may not be able to put fate and destiny back into our own hands. The world is full of surprises – both horror and magic. But we can certainly progress as individuals and as communities by democratizing information about the spaces we inhabit and making that information actionable.

n0tice has had a great year. The n0tice team – Daniel, Sarah and Tony – have been brilliant – creative, hard-working, thoughtful, collaborative, skillful, etc. The n0tice community has been incredibly helpful in steering us and telling us openly and honestly what they think. Our partners have been invaluable as we evolve the tools and strategy – Talk About Local, LBi, Mentally Friendly, Tyrell Mobile. And we’ve had some amazing support from the Guardian, CEO Andrew Miller, in particular, and several editors, community leaders, and the sales team who have pushed us in smart new directions.

Next year is going to be more challenging, in many ways – a more serious test of what this platform can achieve. We know we can build useful social software. Can we also help people actually make a difference?

Testing a photo gallery tool

This collection of Boniver pictures comes via a new photo gallery embed tool called Hash Gordon. I just wanted to see how it looks in a blog post.

Embed: <a href=”http://n0tice.com” data-search=”boniver” data-limit=”9″ data-image-size=”200″ data-pagination=”infinite” > </a><script src=”http://platform.n0tice.com/embed.js” charset=”utf-8″></script>

Building momentum on local outreach and n0tice

We’ve been rolling out a pretty comprehensive upgrade to n0tice this month. We called it n0tice 2.0 in the press release which is here. Journalism.co.uk and TheNextWeb both covered the launch well.

One of the biggest elements of this most recent push is the marketing campaign. We always knew that the hard part of starting a new brand like n0tice was developing a meaningful and robust community. The tech would come more easily. So, this campaign is designed to address that and to show people the power of this platform – why n0tice should matter to local communities, how it’s different, what can be done with it, what impact it can have, etc.

I’ll go into more detail on the approach another time, but I wanted to show some of the campaign assets developed by our partner LBi.

First, here’s a living infographic that pulls in live data from n0tice:

It shows what people are posting to the My High Street noticeboard, a space we setup to encourage people to see and share things that they want to either celebrate or change about their local neighborhood. We want to demonstrate how n0tice can actually help communities unite into action…that shared observation is a powerful thing.

Second, here’s a short video interviewing local activists around the UK about what’s happening to the High Street (that’s “Main Street” for my American friends) and how people are sharing local information:

The positioning of this first campaign in the series is spot on with what inspired n0tice in the first place (1, 2).

But there’s some clever tech involved in the campaign, too, in the way we it works with Twitter and Instagram, in particular. Engaging people in the social spaces they already inhabit is very important to making outreach effective.

We have some really interesting campaigns in the series that will follow this, including one that went live already. It’s all about encouraging people to #keepcycling during the winter months.

This campaign will result in many lessons and examples for different types of communities to use in order to model local activism and community building that is meaningful for them. We’ll document more of it as we go along.

Orchestrating streams of data from across the Internet

The liveblog was a revelation for us at the Guardian. The sports desk had been doing them for years experimenting with different styles, methods and tone. And then about 3 years ago the news desk started using them liberally to great effect.

I think it was Matt Wells who suggested that perhaps the liveblog was *the* network-native format for news. I think that’s nearly right…though it’s less the ‘format’ of a liveblog than the activity powering the page that demonstrates where news editing in a networked world is going.

It’s about orchestrating the streams of data flowing across the Internet into a compelling use in one form or another. One way to render that data is the liveblog. Another is a map with placemarks. Another is a RSS feed. A stream of tweets. Storify. Etc.

I’m not talking about Big Data for news. There is certainly a very hairy challenge in big data investigations and intelligent data visualizations to give meaning to complex statistics and databases. But this is different.

I’m talking about telling stories by playing DJ to the beat of human observation pumping across the network.

We’re working on one such experiment with a location-tagging tool we call FeedWax. It creates location-aware streams of data for you by looking across various media sources including Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, Google News, Daylife, etc.

The idea with FeedWax is to unify various types of data through shared contexts, beginning with location. These sources may only have a keyword to join them up or perhaps nothing at all, but when you add location they may begin sharing important meaning and relevance. The context of space and time is natural connective tissue, particularly when the words people use to describe something may vary.

We’ve been conducting experiments in orchestrated stream-based and map-based storytelling on n0tice for a while now. When you start crafting the inputs with tools like FeedWax you have what feels like a more frictionless mechanism for steering the flood of data that comes across Twitter, Instagram, Flickr, etc. into something interesting.

For example, when the space shuttle Endeavour flew its last flight and subsequently labored through the streets of LA there was no shortage of coverage from on-the-ground citizen reporters. I’d bet not one of them considered themselves a citizen reporter. They were just trying to get a photo of this awesome sight and share it, perhaps getting some acknowledgement in the process.

You can see the stream of images and tweets here: http://n0tice.com/search?q=endeavor+OR+endeavour. And you can see them all plotted on a map here: http://goo.gl/maps/osh8T.

Interestingly, the location of the photos gives you a very clear picture of the flight path. This is crowdmapping without requiring that anyone do anything they wouldn’t already do. It’s orchestrating streams that already exist.

This behavior isn’t exclusive to on-the-ground reporting. I’ve got a list of similar types of activities in a blog post here which includes task-based reporting like the search for computer scientist Jim Gray, the use of Ushahidi during the Haiti earthquake, the Guardian’s MPs Expenses project, etc. It’s also interesting to see how people like Jon Udell approach this problem with other data streams out there such as event and venue calendars.

Sometimes people refer to the art of code and code-as-art. What I see in my mind when I hear people say that is a giant global canvas in the form of a connected network, rivers of different colored paints in the form of data streams, and a range of paint brushes and paint strokes in the form of software and hardware.

The savvy editors in today’s world are learning from and working with these artists, using their tools and techniques to tease out the right mix of streams to tell stories that people care about. There’s no lack of material or tools to work with. Becoming network-native sometimes just means looking at the world through a different lens.

Information physicality

The recent advances in human-to-computer interaction should be scrambling your brain if you’re paying attention at all. From gesture interfaces (both 2D *and* 3D) to location-aware social media and the rapid adoption of connected devices, our relationship to computing and the increasingly ubiquitous network is changing dramatically.

Whereas I grew up in an era where we had to work relatively hard to get a computer to behave the way we wanted, kids today will grow up expecting computers to respond to them instead.

What is this trend going to mean to journalism and publishers? Getting closer to the leaders will help uncover some answers.

The gaming consoles have been working on this stuff for years already, but now Google, Amazon, Sony and even the telcos all have relevant projects starting to ship now.  

Google, for example, just unveiled a new project called Field Trip to add to its portfolio of location-responsive media that also includes Google Now and Google Glasses.

The app is populated using data from “dozens” of content partners, according to Google. Songkick (show information), Eater (restaurants), Flavorpill (events of all kinds), and Thrillist (hot cafes and shops) are there to tell you where to go and what to eat. Architizer (public art, interesting buildings), Remodelista (designy boutiques), and Inhabitat (a designy blog) are there for the nerdier stuff. You can turn any of these services on or off, or ask to see more or less of the items from each partner.

Also served to you are Google Offers, which show up as coupons and deals for nearby businesses, and restaurant reviews from Zagat, Google’s crown jewel in this space.

- Google’s New Hyper-Local City Guide Is a Real Trip, Wired

What kind of publisher is well-suited for a world where technology responds?

What does it mean for information to adjust to the way we move our hands, the way we slide our fingers across a glass surface, where our eyes are focused, and which direction we’re facing?

What does it mean for information to alter based on our location, places we’ve been and places we’re going?

How do you make information more physical?

The answers have yet to be invented, but there are some obvious ways to re-factor current assets and processes in order to get invited to the party.

  • Atomize everything. Separate independent elements and link them intelligently. Well-structured information and consistent workflow help a lot with this.
  • Add a concept of time and space to media. Location can be a point on the planet, a place, a geopolitical boundary. And time can be a moment or a period. And then look at adding more context.
  • Standardize around formats that software developers like to work with. Offer APIs that can accept data as well as release data.

It’s about adjusting, being malleable and responding. Information, how it’s collected, where it goes, and how it is experienced needs to adjust according to the way the user is looking at it and touching it.  It needs to synch with where in space and time the person is focused and interested.

More simply, make everything you do as software-friendly as you possibly can. And then go partner with people whose brains and financial incentives are inextricably linked to the new hardware and software.

This presentation may communicate some of these ideas more effectively than a blog post:



Posted from London, England, United Kingdom.

Rethinking news for a world of ubiquitous connectivity

I gave a presentation on the implications of ubiquitous connectivity for journalism at the Rethinking Small Media event held at the University of London yesterday. The slides are here:

I realized by the time I finished talking that the point I really wanted to make was more about how important it is that we move the dialog away from an us v them view of small and big media. Fracturing a community that is mostly full of people trying to do good in the world is not helpful, even if the definition and method of doing good varies.

The more important issue is about protecting the open public space we call the Internet.

As the network begins adopting more and more nodes, more streams of nonhuman data, new connected devices, etc., we must work harder to ensure that the interests that make all these things possible are aligned with the principles that made the Internet such valuable infrastructure for people across the globe.

But, in the meantime, there are certainly some tangible things people from both small and big media can do to point in the right direction.

The list includes atomizing information, adding more context such as time and space, linking it, making it developer-friendly, and sharing it openly with partners, among other things.