The Network is the News

A long time ago in Internet years there was a Silicon Valley super power called Sun Microsystems.  Their slogan was ‘The Network is the Computer’, a clever aspirational statement challenging the centralized power of mainframe computers.

It wasn’t long before that vision became reality, and the Internet grew into something much more powerful than a network that computes.  The idea became more of a principle of technology today rather than something any company could own.

Many variations on this theme have surfaced and resurfaced over the years, and yet it still feels like a fresh idea with a lot of unexplored territory.

Journalism, for example, is not often enough a networked activity.

An opportunity to try something that might function as if journalism were a network arose recently when my colleague Sean Clarke was looking for some help identifying a tool he needed for a special project.  Is there a better solution than Google Docs for collecting, analyzing and rendering structured input from users?

Of course the answer must be ‘yes’, but which one?

Around the same time, Knight’s next News Challenge was announced, a very appealing high level question about making the Internet stronger.  Maybe Sean’s need was something we could answer for everyone with a new open data platform.  Ideas are cheap, though, and we needed a team to work on this very unformed idea.

Guardian architect Graham Tackley is the creator of the company’s realtime analytics platform, an incredible tool that makes analytics work for editors in a way analytics tools have traditionally failed to understand.  He was eager to look at the realtime aspects of a project like this and how you can platformize it to serve many different users and use cases.

Also agreeing to join the project was Tom Armitage, a sort of mercenary artist whose canvas is code.  I met him at our first hack day at the Guardian a few years ago, and he supported the Contributoria team in its early phases.  He had some ideas about structured participation that he could tease out with this project.

I’m very interested in journalism platforms and, in particular, ways to make journalism work in a more network-y kind of way as opposed to a broadcast-y kind of way.  In my mind journalism is not yet fully embracing the power of the Internet as a network.

Yes, media companies are now very good at manipulating network behaviour to reach the masses, but very few are effectively using the two-way, linked node architecture of the Internet software and hardware stack.  And, of course, using raw data and user participation as the ingredients for networked journalism is something that needs much more exploration still.

As Susan Crawford said in her opening keynote at the MIT-Knight Civic Media conference announcing the funding for our project, among others, “data can provide a level of factual persuasion that storytelling isn’t always capable of doing.”

We’ve called this project Swarmize.

It’s going to stay very small for now while we figure out precisely what it is and apply it to one or two specific use cases.  My hope is that it sets the stage for something very potent as we’re able to collectively generate insight across the network, that ultimately the network becomes the journalism.

The business of journalism – recalibrating social good and self-interest as congruous forces

The following article first appeared on Contributoria.com, the community funded collaborative journalism platform.  It was also published by The Guardian.


In theory, press freedom and the commercial markets should be fantastic partners on the internet. These two forces are better because of each other than either one is alone.

It’s not always a healthy marriage, though.

The mutually beneficial dynamic that many collectivist and individualist forces have worked out together on the internet today works more like a mutually exclusive dynamic between press freedom and commercial interests.

They often operate independently of each other when they could both benefit from investing in the partnership.

Meet the new boss, same as the old boss
Traditionally, financial control of a newspaper in the hands of a wealthy individual, family or shareholders has supported newspapers very effectively and for a long time. This model has existed since the beginning of the business of journalism, and it has also allowed newcomers to enter the market and either support older businesses (Jeff Bezos’ purchase of the Washington Post) or create new businesses (Pierre Omidyar’s launch of New Look Media).

Yet the internet is particularly good at distributing influence and democratising voices in a very egalitarian way. The same can’t always be said about the platforms that operate on the internet, which sometimes have more hierarchical models, but the technology and user behaviours are capable of supporting independent media if the support model is applied well.

While a patriarch may protect press freedom, it comes with strings attached. There are better options.

Best friends forever
Of course, advertising is a working model. There’s a massive and very mature marketplace operating today and both sides of the equation understand each other well. Journalism and advertising are best friends forever on the internet.

In fact, the traditional news outlets are getting smarter about making the advertising vehicles they offer mutually beneficial for the advertiser, the media owner and the end user alike. One of the best examples of that model playing out is GuardianWitness, a user-contribution platform where the sponsor was a collaborator in the creation of the product.

However, advertisers are finding their customers through other channels, too. Everyone is a publisher on the internet, including advertisers. And the wider selection of options across the media landscape means news organisations need to work a lot harder to retain those relationships.

While functionally serviceable, the press freedom and advertising relationship is mostly platonic. The internet is capable of delivering much more value at scale than what’s happening today.

Taking back control
While the dotcom giants of Silicon Valley created new power structures and operating rules over the last several years, the incumbent media forces held their ground, watched and waited to see how big the opportunity would get. By moving slowly they eventually learned how to benefit from not playing by the rules.

For example hiding your website behind a paywall, where Google can’t find you, and focusing the attention of your readers on a direct and explicit transactional relationship instead of syphoning them off Facebook is an interesting way to protect your revenues from going elsewhere. After all, the argument goes, readers should be paying for the quality journalism they are reading. It’s simple logic.

Simple answers aren’t going to solve the problem, though. As FT columnist John Grapper tweeted, “I find the argument that people ‘should’ pay for news as flawed as the claim that it ‘should’ be free.”

Mathew Ingram a journalist covering the media business at GigaOm suggests the paywall is too blunt and fails to respect the relationship the reader wants to have with the media. “The paywall is undifferentiated. It gets applied across everything the newspaper produces and forces people to pay whether they want to or not. On the other hand, with a subscription model like Andrew Sullivan’s (The Daily Dish) you know exactly what you’re getting. It comes down to the question, ‘Do your interests align with the creator?’ In that sense Andrew Sullivan’s is a very personalised paywall.”

The paywall business model may in fact define the value of the business to its readers, but it doesn’t value the impact of the story in the world. It protects the existence of the business first and foremost, a choice many newspapers have decided justifies the costs of being less accessible to the world’s media distribution channels.

Rather than joined up in a healthy and supportive partnership, one side is always subservient to the other side in these relationships, an unhealthy long-term agreement regardless of which side thinks it is in control.

An open relationship
Newspapers can learn a lot from open publishing platforms which fuel mutually beneficial relationships between the producer, the host, advertisers and the consumer.

WordPress, for example, is host to over 75m blogs in the world today. It not only hosts websites for free, it licenses its software openly, too – the source code itself. WordPress makes money by selling premium services to those who need more support.

Newspapers face additional costs as a result of the hands-on role they take in paying for, crafting and selecting individual articles. They have civic responsibilities to respect certain institutions, industry codes of conduct such as commitments to accuracy and privacy standards, political influences including prior restraint laws and regulatory bodies, and cultural expectations, which vary from country to country.

The open content host or open distribution model can be too risky for the stable and nurturing relationship that press freedom seeks sometimes, but there are some interesting examples that begin to blend these two worlds and create mutually beneficial relationships that are worth watching closely, including Daily Kos, the New Jersey News Commons and Global Voices, to name a few.

What’s mine is yours
There may yet be an answer in generative platforms, a more purely and intrinsically internet-native model that leverages the natural give-and-take relationship the internet fosters so effectively.

The ideal system would fuel growth by building value collectively as a result of serving the needs of the individual.

When it works it can snowball and develop into what is known as a network effect. These platforms generate value as more participants join and become active across the system.

A generative business model fuelling the operational requirements of investigative journalism would be a powerful innovation indeed. With democratic commissioning on one side and self-serve licensing and open distribution on the other, the journalist could sit in the middle and manage their own relationship to multiple funding channels.

Notwithstanding Contributoria’s mission to support journalism in precisely this way, to date, a two-sided platform for journalism has yet to be applied at scale.

Til death do us part
Of the many revolutionary developments the internet has inspired, the most important might be the recalibration of social good and self-interest as congruous forces.

Perhaps this union comes from way down at the deepest layers of the internet’s protocols where give-and-take goes in both directions in a very literal sense. Perhaps it’s the limitless nature of the space we’re creating and a natural human desire to work together to shape it.

Whatever the reason, we’ve become incredibly effective at using the internet to barter, to share resources, and to collaborate on the creation of things. The result of this approach is that communities are benefiting as a whole as a direct result of fulfilling the needs of the individual.

The details of the relationship may be difficult to work through and require more compromise and sometimes even sacrifice than either side may prefer, but the right relationship is always worth fighting for even when times get tough – particularly when it comes to ideals as important as press freedom and trade.

Applying Internet philosophies to the journalism process

When I joined the Guardian a few years ago I was really eager to bring some ideas I had about applying the philosophies that made the early Internet possible to the publishing process and to journalism itself.

Transparency, networks, open data, platforms, collective behaviors, generative media, etc are all meaty concepts. I’m fascinated by how those words translate for industries that were formed before the Internet came along.

There are no answers, but there are certainly best practices and lots of ways to iterate and build and grow when you’ve found something that seems to work.

I was initially focused on opening up the Guardian’s content and data. That’s how the API got off the ground.

Then we took a Hack Day experiment on mobile reporting and we evolved it into a platform service called n0tice. n0tice powers GuardianWitness, among other things (more to be announced soon), and we offer that service to other publishers around the world.

And then this week another small crew (Sarah, Dan, Tom, Dean) launched a new business called Contributoria. It’s a collaborative writing platform where members drive all aspects of the publishing process together, including commissioning stories and the editing process itself.

Based on the initial reaction and the first participants to join Contributoria, I’m becoming really hopeful that we’ve created a new market, a new way of doing things that will help a lot of people who care about the future of journalism and want to be a part of it and to see it succeed.

While we’ve yet to do much future-proofing of Contributoria against the many threats to the Internet as we know it today, I remain an optimist about the wider network. And perhaps if we get enough momentum behind it, Contributoria can become a tool for or at least a participant in securing the principles that made the early Internet such a wonderful thing.

At worst, the guys have made a pretty neat platform. Wish us luck!

Dear Britain (Part II)

As you know, I became British recently. You now have a population of 63M + 1.

I’m still working out what being British means, but based on my observations as an immigrant the last several years there’s a lot of scope for self-referential commentary and a bit of naval-gazing here.

These are some of my impressions, so far.

Britain at its best

The first thing to say is that you are complicated. Now, it won’t surprise you that as an American I would find you or any other culture complicated. But it’s true.

On one hand you are totally brilliant and creative and funny and sensible and worldly, and then on the other you are petty and embarrassed and cranky and ironically hypocritical.

Let’s start with your brilliance because when you get it right, you get it really right.

Your success as an entertainer is pheonomenal.

You give the world some of the strongest and most powerful actors. Your artists and writers have a great balance of attitude with insight. Of course, you already know that your humor is unparalleled, a cultural attribute worth marveling.

Banksy on Whymark

And your music…how do you do it? And keep on doing it? The music you give the world consistently punches above your weight.

I sometimes worry you’re being a bit too cavalier with your position in the popular music world, though.

Yeah, it’s very entertaining watching talent shows where the judges say out loud the horrible things that you’re thinking in your head, but it’s not helpful to those performing and doesn’t yield good music. It’s shallow, mean-spirited, and keeps true creativity reigned in.

You are an ingenious inventor.

You gave the world hugely important tools and technologies like the pencil, the radio, typewriters, carbon fiber, silicone, steam engines, jet engines, submarines. You discovered invisible worlds like cell biology and calculus.

Everyone forgives you for polyester, which, not surprisingly, was actually popularized by an American you love nearly as much as we do – Elvis.

You invented practically every professional sport. Strangely, you’re rarely the best at any of them. *

That fact is very interesting to me because it doesn’t seem like an isolated trait. It’s something every Brit is aware of and just accepts as truth, like some maligned strand in the British cultural DNA.

This is precisely where I find it harder to relate, because it doesn’t have to be true.

Backseat driver

I think maybe you don’t want to be responsible or accountable for anything you might not win. You’d prefer to observe, analyze and then criticize those who make mistakes.

When things go wrong you can legitimately say, “I told you so”, because you eagerly reported all the many ways it was going to fail. One of them was going to be right.

For example, instead of following through on the English republic, a somewhat more controlled democracy seemed preferrable to all-out people-powered rule. I won’t pretend to understand everything that happened during that period, but ultimately you voluntarily revoked your own independence and invited the monarchy back.

And to this day you still pass the Commander-in-chief role through family lines rather than democratically elected officials, and you govern through appointed Lords who keep your people’s representatives in check.

Queen's Diamond Jubilee Parade and Muster at Windsor Castle

I’m not arguing the British governing system is broken or wrong — we all know America’s form of democracy has plenty of challenges, too — but rather that these choices define you and demonstrate what matters to you as a society. In some ways it feels like you’re in denial about who is in charge here.

On the other hand your creativity in both foreign affairs and domestic policy are profound and forward-thinking.

Perhaps the first ever manifestation of a concept of freedom of speech in the world appeared as a result of the end of the republic in your 1689 Bill of Rights. You thought people should be able to petition the monarch without fear of retribution.**

That was surely revolutionary at the time and remains a core tenant of democratic values today.

It seems to me that your commitment to that premise is on shakey ground at the moment, as your politicians are challenging free speech in many worrying ways. But you’ll get past this episode, as it clearly matters deeply to you.

Later you invented the World Wide Web, the most profound open market for free speech the world has ever known. ***

Again, like many others before it, your role in your invention’s life was a strange one.

First, you watched from the sidelines while US entrepreneurs created massive commercial institutions off the back of it.

And then when you realized the Web mattered to the world so much you used it to monitor conversations instead of protecting its meaning and its existence as a public space.

The inventor of fingerprinting, iris scanning, and DNA databases, unsurprisingly, turned the great communications channel of the world into a weapon against your own allies by literally tapping into the information flow going through it.

Knowledge is power. It didn’t surprise me to learn recently that you coined that term.

The cancer of self-doubt

It’s not your sophisticated and sometimes dangerous information machines that are the problem but rather your lack of faith in yourself as a positive contributor in the world that is going to do the most damage over time.

That fundamentally British cynicism can become a sort of infectious disease within your culture. It can destroy some of your greatest capabilities…creativity chief among them.

As much as I value the grounded way in which you view yourself, I think you are too cynical.

You refuse to let yourself believe that you are actually good at anything unless you are definitively the best at it. You can’t seem to see or imagine the sky beyond the heavy clouds that rain on you all the time.

The London Olympics were absolutely wonderful, and yet a year after you were still debating whether or not it was a success.

It was a huge success!

In fact, it was the London Olympics and the brilliant opening ceremony that first inspired me to make my naturalisation happen. It thrust the country onto the world’s stage in a big way, and I know I wasn’t the alone in my admiration for you.

Untitled

Why can’t you pat yourself on the back, Britain? Is the system more important to you than the individual?

That could explain the great English superhero James Bond. Yes, he is a talented man, but his abilities are amplified by the secret intelligence machine behind him, an invisible hand that provides for his lifestyle and is always prepared to catch him when he flies too close to the sun. His super power is actually the government and country. (…a force that is prepared to dispose of him, too.)

Often that collective spirit is a huge plus.

Instead of operating without a leader in 2010 when you couldn’t choose a party to run the government, you joined up two parties to run it together. As much as the politicians are clearly annoyed with it, the model is very sensible and grown up.

My American countrymen seem incapable of collaborating with oppositional forces at all. There has to be a winning team and a losing team, even if that results in a worse outcome than both sides giving up a little for the good of all.

It’s likely that some of your many talents result from the struggle against the institutional powers that work so hard to maintain the social net and the status quo.

Great art often arises out of conflict, and the struggle against immovable forces may just be what makes Britain so British.

The British pride contagion

My first draft of this letter included some things I think should change, but, on reflection, that seemed too, well, American. Instead I’ll adopt my new culture, accept us the way we are, and continue to study what it means to be British until it’s clearer where I can have a meaningful impact.

To be clear, I’m very proud to be a dual citizen. The naturalisation ceremony hammered that home. It’s also true that your quirks have really grown on me.

My favorite is how you queue everywhere, whenever possible, as if the future of the human race depended on it. It makes me laugh, but I also get it.

I’ve become very proud that my children are British. I love to see my American friends and family react when they hear their accents.

I love that we can expose them to foreign people and languages both via our home city in London and with cheap holidays to foreign countries.

I love the newspapers here, particularly the Guardian, of course. The BBC is brilliant.

London is one of the truly great cities in the world. Dorset, Norfolk, and Sussex have all treated us very well on our travels.

I’ve learned to really enjoy football here, though the Premier League shenanigans can make that a difficult relationship, as I think most people here feel, as well.

And my friends and colleagues here, and the kids’ school are all brilliant.

I look forward to voting and becoming a more active member of your society.

I’m proud to live here, warts and all. It wouldn’t be home any other way.

* Britain’s Olympic medal count over time and in London, in particular, shows that athletic capability is stronger than you might think. Maybe I’m being unfair in my criticism here and in fact Britain dramatically outperforms relative to its size. That wouldn’t be surprising.

** Going a step further and calling for the abolition of the monarch carries a life sentence even still today.

*** While, technically, it was a subset of the Internet which had been around for years, the World Wide Web was the best solution for publishing open and connected public documents and thereby the key to unlocking the Internet as a free speech engine.

Dear Britain (Part I)

In November on the day before Thanksgiving I officially joined your ranks. I now have dual citizenship here and in the US.

I wasn’t expecting this new status to make me feel any different about you, but the truth is that I do feel different.

I’m thankful. I’m inspired to be an active citizen. And I’m proud to be a member of your society which I respect and admire very much.

More than anything else it was the citizenship ceremony itself that changed the way I think about being British.

In particular, I was really struck by the language in the ceremony. They referred to free speech and democracy at the same level, interlocked and co-dependent. I wasn’t counting, but I believe there were more references to free speech and democracy than to either the Queen or God.

That resonated deeply with me, but it surprised me to hear it at the ceremony.

Before becoming a citizen I considered the British forms of free speech and democracy almost like methods for distributing and managing authority held at the core as opposed to true pillars and foundations of society.

For example, I don’t find it encouraging for future generations that a newspaper editor acting responsibly and clearly in the public interest should be called into a parliamentary hearing to defend his acts of journalism – and to declare his love for his country, bizarrely.

But I also know that this episode is the exception to the rule. Free speech and democracy run deeply through the veins of the British culture. And like everything else that is British, they are occasionally challenged in a very public way. (More on that in Part II.)

In the ceremony we are all told very clearly and specifically that being British means that we value free speech and democracy. What a wonderful command. I can get behind that.

I was also stuck by the multiculturalism represented in the ceremony itself. It’s one of the things I love most about London, but it was great to see multiculturalism so deeply woven into the naturalisation process. Not one of the organizers of the event was white, and it seemed likely based on their accents that none of them were born here, either.

What a great way to be welcomed into the country!

Thank you, Britain. I will do my best to make you proud.

Becoming a British citizen

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?