The future is privileged information

There is an increasingly obvious pattern explaining how the Internet works at scale, and it seems like it could shed light on how future Internet activity will unfold.

The Activity-vs-Complexity Wave
Here’s how it works:

A new media model on the Internet enables exciting new ways for people to share information and to communicate. As the volume of activity increases the experience becomes more complex. The complexity growth curve eventually forces a change - it starts increasing at a faster rate than the growth of the activity itself.

A breaking point occurs. Participating becomes something people have to do in order to be part of the network, not something they want to do.

As a result, a new type of activity appears in response, something that solves the complexity problem and enables exciting new ways of connecting.

The cycle begins again.

activity-vs-complexity.002The cycle appears to happen via two distinct but parallel waves – information sharing and new ways of communicating evolve across a 5-year wave, while new hardware, operating systems and dominant network protocols evolve on a slower 10-year wave.

Ultimately, there are three run away champions. One that dominates the space via advertising, one that dominates through transactions, and one that owns the key hardware and operating system that people use to participate. They all achieve this position by establishing business models that benefit from the current pattern, optimized to leverage the characteristics of the new activity.

Five years ago when I was looking at this stuff the pattern indicated that by this year, 2015, social activity was going to become overwhelming and a breakthrough would appear in response to it.

Hello private messaging!

WhatsApp, Snapchat etc are a direct response to the overwhelming amount of activity happening on the big social platforms. Private messaging solves today’s complexity problem.

If the pattern is going to answer questions about the future then it needs to answer some other things like, “Who benefits from a world where people value privilege over sharing? How do you make money if people value exclusivity? What kinds of financial resources are going to accelerate growth in a market shaped like this?”

Private ad exchanges, members-only programs, privileged access services, private transactions and cybercurrencies will all flourish in this environment. Inequality will become a commercial virtue.

However, a large-scale network that values privilege is going to create serious long term problems if we fail to at least acknowledge the implications of it.

Inequality breeds resentment and power struggles. The Internet’s amazing democratic capabilities will become even more politicized. Divergent agendas will wage legal, economic and cultural battles with increasing sophistication and with more at stake.

But perhaps we can keep an eye on what to expect further down the line in order to maintain perspective on these short term shifts.

What comes after the current wave? What happens in 2020?

If the pattern continues then the volume of this new activity will become overwhelming which will trigger a response. We’ll hit a ceiling when the amount of exclusive activity becomes unmanageable.

A great outcome would be a reinvestment in the open Internet, but, if history serves us, then the incumbents will be deeply established and too strong to overcome. A total rejection of the network is more likely than a return to its roots.

A less dramatic outcome would be about alternative protocols on alternative networks. Technologies enabling Internet-of-Things are obvious candidates for the new hardware wave. If that’s happening then it’s easy to imagine physical gestures becoming the dominant way we experience the network.

Who benefits? How will people make money? These are big question for another time.

Can we zoom out on this model? Is there a meta pattern in the pattern?

Maybe there’s a 20-year wave where complexity across all network activity increases to unbearable levels. If that is actually what happens then it’s reasonable to expect a transportation revolution.

When remote communication becomes overwhelmingly complex then we will want better ways to get places and to be with people. This might be forced on us all by external events such as climate change, so it seems likely to happen at some point, anyhow.

Maybe this pattern offers some clarity on what circumstances will get us there and when.

You can’t take any of this too seriously, obviously.

The pattern lacks rigor. There’s no data behind it. It doesn’t take into account external events that shape rates of change. And the time frame we’re looking at is too small to draw meaningful conclusions.

It’s merely a working hypothesis.

However, if Bill Gross is right about the importance of timing then maybe this pattern is worth applying to whatever you are working on.

If privilege is what matters then you need to have a position on it.

Are you building trust as a core activity of your work? Do you make your customers feel privileged? Does activity increase in value to your customers the more exclusive it becomes?

You don’t have to do those things as a pureplay like messaging apps or dating services or private trading networks to be relevant. But you can be sure that those issues will matter more and more over the next 3 to 5 years.

Equally, who is keeping privilege in check? Who becomes more powerful in a privileged world, and who is ensuring they are using that power fairly?

Who is going to worry about all this on behalf of the rest of us who get caught up in it?

The nuances of privacy in this new world are going to make it harder than ever to keep power in check and to challenge authority.

We’re going to need clever journalism now more than ever before.

What does it take to get on the wave?

If you’re reading blog posts like this about current trends then you’ve probably missed the leading edge of the current wave already. Rather than ride this one you may get thrown by it, and going against it may get really difficult. You might be forced to shift your agenda in ways that contradict your latest 5-year plan.

It’s certainly not too late to try to get on it.

Being open to partnering with people who are closer to the leading edge than you are can be a good way to navigate unfavorable conditions even if they challenge the very core of why you exist. An external mirror is very useful when facing existential crises.

Also, I don’t know if “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” works in a world built on coopetition. But it’s a good idea to know who Facebook worries about.

The good news is that you can be sure that there will be another chance to get your timing right.

When there’s too much privileged, private and exclusive activity the network will become too complex again. And everything will change because of it. That’s one thing we can all count on.

Get up early, paddle out to the waves you want to catch, and try a few to warm up. Stand up when the right one comes along and ride it for all it’s worth.

Sustainable journalism beyond the limits of our understanding

“When will micropayment technologies be good enough to buy articles?”

This was a question posed at a journalism event recently.

I was really surprised to hear it.

I wasn’t sure whether to list the many technologies and examples of places where it has been tried and failed over the last 15+ years at news orgs large and small or to respond to the business model implied by the question.

It’s easy to understand why people still believe sustainable journalism can be achieved through traditional commercial trade like this – reader gives publisher money, publisher gives reader articles. It sounds very sensible because it used to work just fine this way.

New thinking will eventually clear out the old thinking, but in many cases we also need to unlearn what we think we understand.

There’s a great example of this by SmarterEveryDay who demonstrated a brilliant experiment in cognitive dissonance. He unlearned how to ride a bike (h/t @albertwenger).

It turns out that the reason riding a bike feels easy once we’ve learned is because our brains ruthlessly protect our understanding of how to do it. We tend to lock down hard-earned knowledge and keep it that way, though children’s brains are very willing to adjust to changes in conditions.

Paywalls, micropayments, paid news apps, etc. are all industrial production-style business models translated for the Internet. They make sense given what we thought we knew, and, as a result, a lot of people are certain they will work.

Just like TV is much more than radio with pictures and how a web site is much more than a magazine on a computer, the business models enabling sustainable journalism can’t be translated from the technological predecessor.

A generation of entrepreneurs is going to wipe away those ideas and reinvent network-native business models for sustainable journalism that have a lot less friction and benefit many more constituents.

While some of those models are already proven and many more are still playing out I do think there is a bigger challenge for future visionaries to take on:

What models for sustainable journalism operate beyond the limits of the medium through which the journalism materializes?

It’s probably the wrong question, come to think of it. I’ve got my own biases that need to be recalibrated, too.

Regardless, a change in thinking is required in the hivemind that believes the answer is a digital version of past successes, and I suspect it’s going to be much harder than learning how to ride a backwards bike.

The Internet’s precarious state of openness

The state of the open Internet and the role of journalism in the world is more precarious than I understood just a few months ago. It’s easy to focus on your day-to-day agenda and forget to look up sometimes.

This view crystalized for me while attending UNESCO’s World Press Freedom Day event in Latvia, a country with relatively fresh memories of living without free speech.

In addition to the concerns shared at journalism conferences there are troubling events happening in small closed countries [1] and big open ones [2] demonstrating very clearly that we are not protecting some things that should be looked after better.

Serious consequences are becoming apparent. Future generations will wonder what we were thinking.

The good news is that there are solutions and there’s still time.

Let’s be clear about what’s wrong, first:

1) Authority in all its forms has been flattened irrevocably except when it’s not

Now that we have the Internet in our pockets and can shout to the world whenever we want there is no power or unfair advantage that will go unchallenged…

Mapping Media Freedom in Europe…except when authoritative figures and institutions fight back unfairly and even violently to keep us from challenging them.

Some countries have no qualms about killing access to the Internet or parts of it to keep people quiet, something very difficult to imagine for people who have never been offline before.

2) The Internet doesn’t belong to us, and we don’t seem to mind.

Whether using choke points, back doors, or traffic sniffers, states and commercial orgs are listening to conversations. They can turn off, intercept and interject whenever, wherever they want. They watch people and listen to people even when we’re not using our phones.

There’s no such thing as a private conversation anymore, but we’re not doing much to un-invite them.

It’s as if we’ve entered the New Restoration and decided we don’t want to self-govern afterall.

3) Structural weaknesses are corroding the effects of independent journalism.

The business models enabling sustainable journalism aren’t dire, but meaningful funding without strings attached is trickier than ever. Policies that once protected free speech are being used to protect people from being offended. Some are being amended to increase control of the media. The tools of the trade leave journalists and their sources exposed. And the more modern structures of the journalism trade aren’t mature enough yet to replace the more traditional tactics that got us here.[3][4] The transition is happening, but it’s not a smooth one.

All these things create serious trust issues, the founding principle shaping our belief in journalism as a health check on democratic principles.

Of course, not everyone values the role of journalism and regulators in the world equally, some not at all. That’s fine. But those of us who do value the role it plays must fight harder for it as others turn away from it.

What can we do about these issues?

Frameworks and ecosystems are supportive structures and fuel for solutions, whereas rules and policing tend to incite conflict and battles. What does this picture look like through a constructive lens as opposed to a combative one?

1) Technology.

Pragmatically, none of the solutions will mean anything without a physical manifestation of independence. If we can’t say things in private then everything else is a non-starter. There actually is a silver bullet to the technical challenge in front of us – cryptography.

Encryption is the sticky glue holding the envelopes closed on all of our correspondence. It should be embraced wholeheartedly by anyone and everyone who cares about democratic principles in the world whether you have something to hide or not.

EFF offers surveillance self-defense tools and how-to’s. It’s a great place to start.

Equally, we should all be better about supporting and embracing open standards on the Internet.

Before Facebook and Twitter we had a distributed messaging standard owned by nobody that made possible a global content network for sharing stuff that people could choose to follow. Tons of interesting, useful and entertaining sources were publishing in real-time through it. It was called RSS.

The new “social” platforms came along and treated openness and sharing as a core activity rather than as a tiny button deep in the ‘About Us’ pages of the web site as publishers did with RSS. Now those platforms dominate content sharing on the Internet.

If you don’t want to learn about open standards (they can feel like nonsense sometimes, so nobody would blame you for being annoyed by them) then maybe consider them like a tax we all need to pay in order to maintain an open Internet.

2) Ownership.

Why isn’t the Internet a public good? This network we inhabit doesn’t have to be controlled by either nation states or corporations.

That ideal may be aiming too high, for now, but there are things we can do to level the playing field.

Primarily, we can be much more distributed in the way we publish – the things we say, where we say them and the commercial activity around those conversations. There is plenty of room for a lot of people to make a lot of money producing important information and art at a global scale without having to own all the inputs and outputs for it.

Things like crowdfunding, cryptocurrencies such as Bitcoin, open licenses, net neutrality and media pluralism policies can all be very effective means of distributing control of the Internet and journalism in the world.

3) Culture.

Now that “hate speech” and “free speech” are being used as weapons of war we need to re-think what we wanted those terms to do for us in the first place. They are losing their meaning, and people are getting hurt.

We don’t like everything we can see and hear now that we’re all connected, but even so, the Internet should not be used as a weapon.

More urgently, people are being punished for speaking out.

Bloggers and journalists are being jailed and killed, and the perpetrators carry on with impunity. This is the greatest weapon authority has in its arsenal today, and in many places it is becoming very effective in applying it.

Impunity breeds very dangerous conditions that easily snowball into fear. Exposing it relentlessly, as Joshua Oppenheimer did with ‘The Act of Killing‘, is the first step. For that, we need professional journalists who can operate safely.

Some of the solutions above are more mature than others. But we mustn’t lose sight of the opportunity and what we’re trying to achieve.

The enemy here is not the government or capitalism or God. It’s not social media, either.

There is no enemy.

In our ongoing pursuit of independence as individuals, communities and countries we tend to seek power through tools – tools that are physical, religious, economic, political or a combination.

The trade off where we authorize power to act on our behalf in exchange for reaching beyond our individual capabilities creates room for our darker nature as humans to exert itself.

A little too much of that has crept into the Internet.

While I prefer to avoid seeing the world as a series of boxes and battle lines, there are many who are playing a zero-sum game on the Internet and doing a lot of damage in the process.

We’ve created this situation. And we can fix it.

I choose to believe that Bruce Schneier is right when he says,

“We have reached “peak indifference to surveillance.” From now on, this issue is going to matter more and more, and policymakers around the world need to start paying attention.”

But let’s not kid ourselves. It won’t fix itself. History is proving the opposite to be true – things will get worse if we fail to actively support policies of openness.

Google’s deal with publishers is good for journalism

Google announced a new partnership with several publishers today. The company will create a €150M fund to support innovation in journalism and product development in Europe. It’s called The Digital News Initiative.

The company launched a $5M fund with similar goals in 2010 through a partnership with the Knight Foundation in the US and later with the International Press Institute in Europe.

I’m a huge fan of this idea. Contributoria (an open journalism network) and Swarmize (a data journalism platform) wouldn’t exist today without it.

It’s certainly easy to be cynical about a company like Google funding new development with partners in a market that they often battle…

And it could easily feel like a diversion from what really matters…

But I think it’s great news all the same.

This kind of opportunity helps organizations not only to think differently, it helps them to actually act on those ideas.

Innovation around the edges of your business is critical, and many publishers are learning from places like the Guardian and NYT how to do that more effectively. But unless you have a way of taking on much larger systemic issues, reinventing your own core activities and supporting failures which will happen now and again as part of the process you may find yourself changing only incrementally and watching the world go by without you.

You will ultimately be managing decline instead of focusing on producing great journalism.

This is not good for publishers large and small. It’s not good for publishing as a market. It’s not good for wider society.

And, as Google and even Facebook are aware, a healthy publishing market is good for business on the Internet.

I’m always a fan of finding ways to create opportunity in the face of adversity. Given the challenges journalism is up against in the world investing in new ideas is going to do a lot more for the trade than costly and destructive legal battles.

4 things I learned in Perugia at #IJF15: crowdfunding, advocacy, formats and impact

What did I learn at the International Journalism Festival in Perugia?

First, I learned that I want to come back to this event again. It’s just a fantastic experience.

I also learned that the journalism pack is circling around a few common themes:

  1. Crowdfunding
  2. Advocacy
  3. Formats
  4. Impact

Here is a bit more on what I heard people talking about there:

1. Crowdfunding is a feature, fuel for open journalism, not a standalone model.

The role of crowdfunding in the creation of de Correspondent is a short story, but the implications of the way it was established extend into the way it operates today. Paying members created the business, and now they are invited into the daily journalism experience, led by the staff writers.

Frederik Fischer of Krautreporter gave an excellent overview of the crowdfunding journalism market. He made the case that it is a very challenging business to run as a pureplay platform without other sources of revenue. Though, as Krautreporter and Kickstarter both demonstrated, crowdfunding has proven itself as one of many methods for supporting independent journalism in the world.

All this resonated with me given what we’re learning at Contributoria.

I don’t think drive-by crowdfunding is the way forward for journalism. But when crowdfunding is treated as part of the process it can have a profound effect on the way journalism gets made.

2. If journalism can advocate it should.

There were many demonstrations of advocacy layered onto journalism creating outcomes in addition to the reporting. I was surprised not to hear any defenders of the status quo. It’s conceivable we will witness a sweeping and dramatic change in the way journalism relates to outcomes across mainstream media very soon.

Some startups are going all-in as Fusion.net has done. Others embrace it in more targeted ways such as Wired Italy’s asbestos project.

As Ben Rattay of Change.org showed journalism can be a compelling signal telling us where help is needed and inspiring others to get involved.

Jeff Jarvis, Dan Gilmor and other journalism academics have argued for a long time that it’s impossible not to bring bias to the reporting process, but the methods for expressing it were dependent on the media and models delivering it. Now that digital media has taken over and transparency becomes a feature of the reporting process it almost becomes an expectation.

Advocacy in journalism just requires an increased investment in methods for maintaining trust.

Dan Gilmor went as far as making the case for things that journalists should actively fight for such as freedom of expression, freedom to associate, freedom to collaborate, freedom to innovate.

“We can’t be neutral here. We should be openly biased toward openness and freedom. Period.”

3. Data, video and storytelling are making NGO work look like journalism

I was pleased that none of the speakers were talking about their successes using social networks for delivering journalism.

Instead, I heard innovative journalists talking about how they try new things on their own platforms or create new technologies themselves.

Facebook made it very clear why journalists are reluctantly using social networks and generally only for driving traffic back to their web sites when Andy Mitchell delivered his keynote in the form of a product pitch. Making the case for why journalists should believe in Facebook and partner with Facebook was a foregone conclusion to him. As the angry Q&A period made clear, what Facebook needed to do was get back to basics and explain why it wasn’t the enemy of journalism.

As proof that the definition of journalism and its role was being tested through different means, Oren Yakobovich, Gabi Sobliye, and Balazs Denes showed how NGOs are using the techniques of journalists to expose human rights abuses and raise social issues through data, video and new tools.

Videre est Credere, for example, distributes cameras and trains individuals in threatening situations and then uses the footage to challenge abusive regimes. It’s a powerful example of journalism outside the context of a media organization bringing about meaningful change to people whose voices can’t be heard otherwise.

Clearly with some personal bias here, the Guardian feels like it is on its way to becoming the gold standard for all this type of activity. Aron Pilhofer gave the Thursday keynote showing the #keepitintheground campaign, the internal editorial analysis tool Ophan, the GuardianWitness platform (powered by n0tice, a platform built by us here at the Guardian which other publishers can also use) and the structural changes Aron has been making to operate this way with even more sophistication.

4. The threats to journalism are more serious and more daunting than ever before

I was late to join the queue and missed several of the most important talks at the event including Snowden’s chat and a panel about ISIS. But the threats to journalism was an undercurrent throughout the event.

Sustainability is always a threat to journalism, but there seem to be a few escape hatches from what seemed to be a sinking ship a few years ago (see crowdfunding above for one example). While the existential crisis may seem less threatening in some respects, there are many indicators that the transformation of journalism into its future self is not only spread unevenly but that it may be weaker than we want to believe.

Andrew Finkel and Yavuz Baydar gave a powerful lecture on media in Turkey. They described the not-so-gradual take over of production, distribution and access to journalism by powerful authoritative forces in the region. It’s a terrible state of affairs now and should be considered a warning shot across the bow of democratic societies around the world who have not reinforced independent media with the policies and resources required to hold power to account without fear of retribution.

The threats are deep but solvable, as Annie Machon and Simon Davies from Privacy International argued. The worst part is that we can be our own worst enemy – as media orgs, journalists and as individuals.

Around the world people are willingly relinquishing control of personal information to entities such as social networks that maybe shouldn’t be trusted to hold that information. Systematic manipulation of the journalism process is a deterrent to democracy itself.

Conditions are much much worse in places like Bahrain where Ali Abdulemam of BahrainOnline was forced into a year of captivity, abuse and torture on charges of having circulated false information.

Why put yourself and your family through such an ordeal? Abdulemam said,

“I want my son to grow up in a better world.”

It was Abdulemam’s simplest of needs that unified everyone in attendance at the event. Journalism can make the world a better place.

A marketplace for journalism

One year ago today we published the first community-powered issue of Contributoria.

We’ve now produced 12 issues using the same model but instead of a handful writers we’re now supporting thousands.

There was a particularly interesting team meeting after that first issue went out where we asked ourselves whether Contributoria was a publisher or a marketplace. This critical distinction would determine the shape of everything that we would do subsequently.

The Arguments:

1) Publishers depend on audiences and advertising. Marketplaces grow as supply and demand increase.

Capturing audience attention is getting harder and harder, but demand for journalism is only going to increase over time.

Publisher 0 – Marketplace 1

2) Publishers focus on their own assets. Marketplaces help others develop valuable assets.

Giving is a more interesting strategy than taking, and since we want journalists to be successful in their careers and publishers to be successful in delivering journalism, we figured there must be a way to help both interests.

Publisher 0 – Marketplace 2

The only reason to be a publisher seemed to be to support our marketplace ambitions. Publishing can be a good marketing strategy.

The “Writers first” Mantra

The gap between where we were in March 2014 and where wanted to be was big. We needed principles that would help us achieve marketplace conditions.

We knew the first principle without even thinking – “Writers first“.

We then explored ways to enable commissioning, the demand side of a journalism marketplace.

In discussions with potential media partners we found that this was a much more complicated proposition than we initially imagined.

Media orgs have very closed, bespoke commissioning systems and processes. It’s a market opportunity ready for some fresh thinking, but with our first principle, “Writers first” we knew this would be a distraction.

But how would we unlock the demand side of the market if media orgs were too challenging for a small startup to serve?

It was hard to see at first. The answer eventually found us.

We were talking to many people who wanted to work with writers via Contributoria who were not traditional media orgs. Universities, non-profits, campaigners, foundations, etc. were all crazy about what Contributoria meant as a new way to surface important stories that don’t often grace the home page of a big media site.

We just needed to figure out how to let the demand side of the marketplace express demand.

Pull-style Demand

After starting over on the concept of commissioning our designer Dean Vipond got his ah-hah moment. Instead of replicating what happens in a news room where editors call the shots, Dean came up with the idea of ‘Topic Suggestions’, an invitation to write rather than an assignment – a pull-style model.

The idea began to permeate our thinking in all kinds of ways and resulted in a full-fledged partner program, the realization of our marketplace where supply and demand can negotiate.

The crucial twist is that the marketplace is optimized for the needs of the writer with an additional layer for buyers, not the other way around.

This model requires that we frame the conversation between the seller and the buyer. But that’s easy. That’s where our publishing roots become incredibly useful.

Leading by example

The partners we’ve signed up in the first instance are all people who value journalism. They want quality journalism to spread far and wide. They want it to raise the profile of the issues they are working on every day. These are human rights and free speech organizations including:

Open Society Foundations, Arcus Foundation, Oak Foundation, Equality Now, International Press Institute (IPI), the global free expression network IFEX, Internews, Committee to Protect Journalists, and the World Wide Web Foundation. We’re also working with The Atlantic and PBS Mediashift.

The premise that they could be part of the journalism process rather than bystanders was what captured their imaginations. I’m hopeful we’ve unlocked a lot of useful resources that are willing and eager to support independent journalism in the world.

One step at a time

In March 2014 we produced the first issue powered by the community – articles pitched, selected and edited by the community. A year later we’re opening more elements of the journalism process – commissioning, funding and distribution.

I won’t guess what next year holds in store for us.

We’re just looking ahead to the Spring, and it seems we’ve got a marketplace nearly ready to bloom.

Journalism is more than a customer acquisition strategy

The many media channels that have blossomed so dramatically over the past few years now provide fantastic fuel for supporting journalism in the world.

While this is a good thing, generally, it’s important to recognize that the business models supporting many of these media channels are optimized for something other than journalism and its effects.

Unless journalism is the core commercial activity at a company or its reason for being then journalism will be used along with many other tools to capture attention. It risks being tossed out the window when ROI as seen through an attention lens drops compared with other activities.

Few organizations are capable of withstanding the cost argument in the face of adversity. We’ve seen this play out recently as budget pressure weighs heavier and heavier on traditional media and opportunity cost embeds itself deeply into decision-making at the fast-growing digital platforms.

Despite pressure on budgets traditional media seems to be increasingly aware of the unique opportunity in front of it right now.

The processes, policies and staffing that enable the challenging reporting that hold power in check could help news orgs recapture their role as both trusted information provider and as independent voice for the people.

The new digital platforms are looking the other way still, too busy trying to grow.

Yes, they are becoming much more sophisticated in the way they think about publishing, but at the end of the day most of the digital pureplay media models are predicated on how well they move attention around.

On the other hand, I’m seeing more clearly now than ever before how open contribution platforms are capable of adopting, applying and reinventing most of those processes and policies of traditional editorially-led organizations that we as a very well informed society have taken for granted in our transition to digital media channels.

The two worlds may in fact collide or rather consolodate as they swirl around seemingly more common goals. And those that understand how to create and extract real value from journalism or things that act like journalism are going to matter more to people, have an impact on real issues and build meaningful brands.

I agree with Ryan Sweeney that quality winning over quantity is a tremendously healthy thing. The pendulum has swung in the right direction, but we mustn’t be surprised if it swings back.

If the journalism budget is merely a row in your customer acquisition spreadsheet then it will only take one or two public smackdowns to kill that function of the business. It needs a stronger foundation supporting it.

Tony Fadell, creator of the iPod, once told the crowd at LeWeb, “There is a reason they call it hardware. It is hard.”

Journalism is hard, too. It’s not an add-on. It’s something you are.

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.”