Category Archives: culture

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.

No backlog

The backlog has lots of benefits in the software development process, but is it necessary?  Could there be more to gain by just trusting your crew will do the right thing at the right time?

It occurred to me while tracking Github commits on a project that I didn’t need to maintain a backlog or a burn down chart or any of those kinds of things anymore.

Everyone was watching each other’s commits, commenting on issues, and chatting when they needed to.  I could see what everyone had done the day before.

They were all in synch enough to collaborate on the output when it helped to collaborate or work independently when that was more effective.

What could I add? Remind them of all the things they haven’t done? That’s uninspiring for everyone involved.

How does everyone know what to work on next?

The devs know what’s important, and they know how to do their job efficiently…let them work it out. If they don’t know what’s important it will become obvious in their commits. Then you can just steer when the emphasis is wrong rather than mapping hours to tasks.

They may in fact want to maintain a list that works like a backlog.  But maybe that should be a personal productivity choice, not something that’s imposed by someone else.

What about all those things you want to do that aren’t getting done?

I’ve never had a feature that really mattered to me just fade from memory. In fact, having no backlog forces a sharper focus.

How do you know when things will get done?

Your devs will tell you, and they will be accurate if it’s a personal agreement between you rather than a number on a spreadsheet.  If you have a deadline that really matters, then just be clear about that.  That becomes framework within which to operate, a feature of the code.

What if the developer doesn’t understand the requirements?

Well, do you actually really need to spell out requirements? Aren’t your developers tasked with solving the need? Let them pitch a solution to a problem, agree on it, and then let them run with it.

Of course, I don’t know how well this approach would work in a team larger than maybe 8 people, or a large-scale project with multiple parallel streams to it.  And maybe the chaos does more harm than good over time.

Clearly, I’m exaggerating for effect a little here, but I wonder a lot about how far you could go with this approach and where it really breaks down.

I think a lot of folks want things like backlogs because one can establish a meaningful agreement and reduce tension between people who organize stuff and people who create stuff.  But it’s often used to protect one side from the faults of the other rather than join them up to create a stronger whole.

But all projects and teams are different.  And it can be very tricky working out what should be done, by whom and when.

I think what I’m suggesting is that rather than making decisions around time and resource where success is measured by how effectively activity maps to a plan, maybe the better way to lead a software project instead is to adjust decision making according to the appropriate abstraction level for the project.  That way you can value quality and creativity over precision of delivery.

For example, the resources required to build, say, a global transaction platform vs a web page are very different.  And your teams will not allow you to rank them together.  You have to zoom in or out to understand the impact of those two projects, and that will then affect how you allocate resources to make them each happen.

Once that discussion has been had and everyone has agreed on what they are supposed to be working on, make sure they have enough caffeinated beverages and get out of the way.

Keep an eye on their commits each day.  And drop the backlog.

It’s incredibly liberating.

The generosity strategy

I’ve wondered for a long time why WordPress doesn’t get the dotcom homage some of the other perhaps less interesting organizations are showered with.

There are many reasons to pay attention to them, but there’s one primary aspect of what they do that’s worth spending some time thinking about – what they give to the market in order to fuel a network that they benefit from in the end.

As Andy Weissman wrote about TED, sometimes giving away the core assets of your business is exactly what will create success for you.

“With the content, processes and brand more freely available, the community and the set of values can instead drive the business. And those are not as easily replicable.”

This attitude is what won them the war with their first rival in the blogging world, Movable Type.  It turns out that generosity is a very competitive strategy in a globally connected world.

Except it’s not my impression that was what they were intending the strategy to be used for. I think they used that strategy because it resonated with what type of company they wanted to have first and foremost.

It’s also true that ‘free’ can destroy established markets in order to create advantage for alternative models.  Bill Gurley has written before about how Google is intentionally using a scorched earth policy with Android, in particular, in order to build an unapproachable moat around their core business.

The WordPress approach has similar effects in the content management market, but they’ve built the core business itself on the open strategy.  They have made themselves dependent on the success of their customers.

I had the good fortune of inteviewing Matt Mullenweg on stage at The Guardian’s Activate Summit event last week where we spent most of our time talking about how the WordPress team operates. This is not a man chasing wealth for the sake of wealth, though wealth may in fact be chasing him. This is a person who understands the DNA of the Internet and knows intuitively how to craft a movement optimized to use the most powerful aspects of the network.

In case you’re unaware, WordPress is a publishing platform. They sell access to the WordPress tools, and they also give away the software.  The whole thing. They put it out there to download for free with an open license. They even make it super easy to install. No tricks. It’s genuine. They want you to use their software even if they don’t see a shred of direct value coming back to them as a result.

Their software is their core asset. Without it they have nothing. Why would they give it away?

What they are building is not your traditional enterprise software business. What they are building is at the very least a partner network if not something even bigger, something that looks more like a movement.

Looking at their business through the enterprise sofware lens is easy to do and certainly worth more consideration. They are leaving a lot of money on the table. They know this, and they’ve made impressive progress recapturing that lost opportunity with their VIP business.

But the founder’s philosophies lead the commercial strategy, not the other way around. WordPress wants to be a platform for free speech. Everything else comes after that.

As Matt said at Activate, “We are a neutral force. We participated in the SOPA blackout because we felt it posed a threat to our ability to stay that way.”

Operating the business strategy at that level creates a framework for all their decision-making.

They can open source their core assets because it strengthens the collective power of the WordPress toolset as a platform for free speech. In addition, it gives them a sensible model for working with developers who want to contribute code to the platform. They can operate with a small staff, prioritize product over profit, and play fast-follower to the break-neck pace of innovation that most of the rest of the top players in the business may be forced to play.

What’s the result of the generous nature of their business?

75M blogs, about half of which are hosted by them, and many of those pay them a monthly hosting fee. 341M monthly users across the network. 20,000 software plugins built by a huge network of developers working on the platform…many of whom make money being professional service providers and premium template designers for WordPress.

Now, they have a lot of powerful forces challenging their existence. Not least of which is the atomization of everything and challenges to the idea of blogs and even articles.

But by embracing a strategy of giving and a deep-seated commitment to enabling others to speak their minds on the global stage, WordPress has something more valuable than robust revenue streams. They have a network of customers who need them to succeed in the world.

That network of people is more valuable than any software or hardware distribution platform.

The problem with being popular (part 2)

One of the more interesting sciences, in my mind, is how information relevance is both determined, surfaced and then evolved.

In Fred Wilson’s recent Cautionary Techmeme Tale he argues that making news popular takes away its social context and therefore becomes meaningless. He found Techmeme more useful when its sources more closely resembled his network of friends:

“For years, I’ve been using curators to filter my web experience…Techmeme has been the killer social media curator for my world of tech blogs. Lore has it that it was created using Scoble’s OPML file. It doesn’t matter to me if that’s true or not, I love that story. Because my OPML file was unusable until I found Techmeme and after that I stopped reading feeds and started reading curated feeds.”

This feeds into a larger argument about why pop culture and the art of being or becoming popular can be a bad thing. Not long ago I was inspired by the movie “Good Night and Good Luck” to dive into this idea myself:

“The real problem with popularity-driven models is that they reduce both the breadth and depth of the sources, topics and viewpoints being expressed across a community. Popularity-driven models water down the value in those hard-to-find nuggets. They normalize coverage and create new power structures that interesting things have to fight through.”

This is exactly why personalization, recommendations and social media technologies really matter. They can solve this problem of creating conformist media consumption practices by creating relevance through networks of people rather than through networks of commercial institutions.

I haven’t used My Yahoo! as much as I’d like, but there is a simple function in it that I love which could ultimately create amazing benefits for people who want a human filter for the Internet. It’s called “Top Picks”.

“The Top Picks module automatically highlights stories from your page, based on the articles you have recently read on My Yahoo! The more stories you click on, the more you will see this module reflect your interests.”

Actually, the technology beneath it is not so ‘simple’ but the application of it here makes so much sense that it feels like it’s simple when you watch it work. It works by using implicit behaviors. I don’t have to tell it what I like. It learns.

If it could also show me what my social network is tapped into right now, then the experience would feel nearly complete.

Media researchers will note here that people need pop culture to feel connected to a greater whole. I believe that’s true, too. Television is an amazingly powerful community builder.

But I would gladly trade a powerful singular social voice tied together by networks of distribution ownership for a less unified but still loosely connected network of pop culture tied together by my personal activities and my social connections.

Getting back to basics

There was something really depressing about Web 2.0 Expo that I can’t quite put my finger on. Though when I woke up Monday morning after a weekend of working on my house it started to become more clear.

On Friday I prepared the work plan, rented a truck, and bought some new gear (loving the laser-guided cicular saw). On Saturday four of my friends came around to my house. We removed one wall and put up a new wall. On Sunday I hauled the junk to the dump, bought a bunch of sheetrock and more 2×4’s for next weekend’s job.

(By the way, great tip here, instead of hiring a garbage removal company for $700-1000, rent a 15 footer and just load all your trash directly into the truck bed. Drive it right into the dump yourself and push it out. The dumping cost for me was $75 plus the truck rental fee…which of course was super handy for getting the lumber, tools and sheetrock, too.)

Anyhow, now I have a 2 bedroom house where we once technically just had 1 bedroom. I also have a sore back and aching hands. Shredded skin on my fingers. A bruised elbow. Tired legs. I couldn’t be happier.

Struggling to get my body out of bed Monday morning, I realized I hadn’t thought about or even used the Internet for 3 days. I saved ideas by writing them down in a notebook with a pencil. I used the yellow pages to find things I needed. I contacted people using the telephone.

I wasn’t worrying about the scalability of the construction (only the joists over my workspace), optimizing the collaborative labor (except that they got coffee, food and beer), or marketing my property. I was simply building. With my hands (and a few borrowed ones).

I’ve argued over and over about how the Internet can change just about everything. And though I’m sure there are ways it could have helped me this weekend, there was something deeply satisfying about getting back to basics for a few days, particularly after losing the plot a bit last week.

Somehow the tone of the dialog in the Internet market has shifted away from the fundamentals, things like expanding the network or the concept of the network itself, building the tools and systems and data streams that help people accomplish things, creating the opportunities for new breakthroughs to emerge.


It’s a natural progression for a mature market to start optimizing for revenue gains as the platforms define themselves. I guess I’m just paranoid that the smell of instant fortune is wafting in the noses of sharks and leeches while the revenue models that they plan to exploit are emptier than they know. The spending arms race will surely follow where budgets won’t matter, hiring will get out of hand, and marketing messages will get silly.

But if the market crashes again or worse, violence or viruses erupt in our cities or the planet heats up, I’ll have my hammer ready for building things that people care about. That’s all I need. My trusty hammer. And my thermos. All I need is my thermos and my hammer, and maybe my chair…

Membership has its privileges

Mark Glaser asks his readers this week to submit the answer to the following question:

“What would motivate you to contribute to a citizen media site?”

I can’t imagine that anyone is going to be able to answer that question in an interesting way. It’s the wrong question. It’s kind of like asking why do people sing at church? Or why do people meet their friends at the pub?


Photo: -bartimaeus-

If the church asks you to sing, you sing. If your friends tell you to meet at the pub, you go to the pub. The community and purpose of doing things together is already implied, so you do whatever everyone else in that community does if you want to be a part of it.

Jon Udell starts to dig into the critical mass hurdles for social networks in a recent post where he quotes Gary McGraw saying:

“People keep asking me to join the LinkedIn network, but I’m already part of a network. It’s called the Internet.”

The real question is not about getting people to do things. There are too many things to do and too many people to socialize with in a day already.

The question is about forming meaningful communities and the kinds of things that will help a community flourish. Meaning comes in millions of different shapes and sizes, but there are lots of precedents in terms of ideologies, aesthetics, and methods.

News, for example, is inherently about being first to report on an event. Successful community-based news sites enable people who care enough about a topic to either be the first to report on it or be clued in before less speedy outlets pick up on something. It feeds into a competitive and sometimes gossipy human nature. Just ask your best reporters why they became reporters. Digg appeals to the reporter in all of us.

I used to attend a charity event called Rebuilding Together where groups of people would assemble and fix up houses and schools around the city of San Francisco. There was a core team who selected applications for fix-it team deployments. Then there was a leader who would drive the work to be done by each team at each site. On the chosen date, people would jump on a project and invite their friends to join. It was impressive to see what a focused group could accomplish in a day, fixing plumbing, painting, cleaning, rebuilding fences, etc.

Why did people do it?

There was a purpose. We were helping people truly in need. The commitment was lightweight. It was 1 day a year. It was well organized. I didn’t have to debate with people about how things should be done. The result was impactful, a total overhaul of a building. It was fun. I had a laugh with my friends and met new people.

Often when people start asking how you get to critical mass, they’re losing the plot. Sure, it would be great to worry about scaling a site rather than fighting for a Digg. But if you and your community are doing something unique and valuable, then size really shouldn’t matter. And in many cases, it makes sense to make the community exclusive and smaller rather than bigger and diluted, anyhow.

The question then becomes, “Are you offering a service that a lot of people find unique and valuable?”

I think a lot of publishers fail to understand the size of a potential market, what’s unique about an offering, and the value of that offering to the people who do actually care about it.

Then there’s also the issue of recognizing what you can actually deliver. You have to play to your strengths.

Yahoo! Answers is a good example of that. The idea of getting immediate answers to any question you can think of from real humans is outrageously ambitious. There are lots of ways to get answers to questions out there. But Yahoo! played to its strengths to get it off the ground, then it just took off. It’s easy. It’s fun. It works. And, therefore, it’s meaningful. And now there’s nothing like it out there anywhere.

Of course, not everybody can point a firehose of traffic at a domain, but there are plenty of cases where Yahoo! failed to create a community by pointing a firehose of traffic at it.

So, what makes a meaningful community that has a definitive purpose? Yeah, well, that’s an answer you can get from Cameron Marlow, danah boyd, and a lot of people a lot smarter than me.

Though perhaps this is all just echo blogging and the real question gets to something people already understand. Maybe the question is simply: “How do you make membership in your community desirable?”

Wikipedia defines “privilege” as follows:

A privilege—etymologically “private law” or law relating to a specific individual—is an honour, or permissive activity granted by another person or a government. A privilege is not a right and in some cases can be revoked.

I think the answer is in there somewhere for everyone who is struggling to get their community to do stuff.


Photo:Manne

The excellent buzz in the MySpace office

Last night I visited my brother Mitch who works at MySpace in the London office in soho. I was quickly reminded how removed I am from pop culture as people rattled off band names and industry gossip that was completely meaningless to me.

The youthful energy and excitement swirling through the office felt very much like most of my time at The Industry Standard. I recall the sense that we were doing something that mattered and the occasional vertigo you get when a company grows that fast. It’s a strange mix of confidence and fear that motivates you to push harder and harder.

The joke running through the office yesterday was the Kelly Likes Shoes video which blasted out of one cube and then another and then another followed by guffaws and imitations. Erik Gibb forwarded that link to me weeks ago, so for just a moment I felt like I had just a sliver of an edge of dot com cool over them.

But moments later I was informed that Britney divorced Kevin followed by the news that the Democrats took Congress and that Rumsfeld was booted…all news to me at that moment…and I realized that the advanced form of pop culture ADD built into their DNA moved too fast for me, and my self-perceived coolness evaporated as quickly as it arrived.