Category Archives: edge

Calling your web site a ‘property’ deprives it of something bigger

BBC offered another history of London documentary the other night, a sort of people’s perspective on how the character of the city has changed over time, obviously inspired by Danny Boyle’s Opening Ceremony at the Olympics.

Some of the sequences were interesting to me particularly as a foreigner – the gentrification of Islington, the anarchist squatters in Camden, the urbanization of the Docklands, etc.  - a running theme of haves vs have-nots.

It’s one of a collection of things inspiring me recently including a book called ‘The Return of the Public‘ by Dan Hind, a sort of extension to the Dewey v Lippman debates, what’s going on with n0tice, such as Sarah Hartley’s adaptation for it called Protest Near You and the dispatch-o-rama hack, and, of course, the Olympics.

I’m becoming reinvigorated and more bullish on where collective action can take us.

At a more macro level these things remind me of the need to challenge the many human constructs and institutions that are reflections of the natural desire to claim things and own them.

Why is it so difficult to embrace a more ‘share and share alike’ attitude?  This is as true for children and their toys as it is for governments and their policies.

The bigger concern for me, of course, is the future of the Internet and how media and journalism thrive and evolve there.

Despite attempts by its founders to shape the Internet so it can’t be owned and controlled, there are many who have tried to change that both intentionally and unwittingly, occasionally with considerable success.

How does this happen?

We’re all complicit.  We buy a domain. We then own it and build a web site on it. That “property” then becomes a thing we use to make money.  We fight to get people there and sell them things when they arrive.  It’s the Internet-as-retailer or Internet-as-distributor view of the world.

That’s how business on the Internet works…or is it?

While many have made that model work for them, it’s my belief that the property model is never going to be as important or meaningful or possibly as lucrative as the platform or service model over time. More specifically, I’m talking about generative media networks.

Here are a few different ways of visualizing this shift in perspective (more):

Even if it works commercially, the property model is always going to be in conflict with the Internet-as-public-utility view of the world.

Much like Britain’s privately owned public spaces issue, many worry that the Internet-as-public-utility will be ruined or, worse, taken from us over time by commercial and government interests.

Playing a zero sum game like that turns everyone and everything into a threat.  Companies can be very effective at fighting and defending their interests even if the people within those companies mean well.

I’m an optimist in this regard.  There may be a pendulum that swings between “own” and “share”, and there are always going to be fights to secure public spaces.  But you can’t put the Internet genie back in the bottle.  And even if you could it would appear somewhere else in another form just as quickly…in some ways it already has.

The smart money, in my mind, is where many interests are joined up regardless of their individual goals, embracing the existence of each other in order to benefit from each other’s successes.

The answer is about cooperation, co-dependency, mutualisation, openness, etc.

We think about this a lot at the Guardian. I recently wrote about how it applies to the recent Twitter issues here. And this presentation by Chris Thorpe below from back in 2009 on how to apply it to the news business is wonderful:

Of course, Alan Rusbridger’s description of a mutualised newspaper in this video is still one of the strongest visions I’ve heard for a collaborative approach to media.

The possibility of collective action at such an incredible scale is what makes the Internet so great.  If we can focus on making collective activities more fruitful for everyone then our problems will become less about haves and have-nots and more about ensuring that everyone participates.

That won’t be an easy thing to tackle, but it would be a great problem to have.

Targeting ads at the edge, literally

Esther Dyson wrote about a really interesting area of the advertising market in an article for The Wall Street Journal.

She’s talking about user behavior data arbiters, companies that capture what users are doing on the Internet through ISPs and sell that data to advertisers.

These companies put tracking software between the ISP and a user’s HTTP requests. They then build dynamic and anonymous profiles for each user. NebuAd, Project Rialto, Phorm, Frontporch and Adzilla are among several companies competing for space on ISPs’ servers. And there’s no shortage of ad networks who will make use of that data to improve performance.

Esther gives an example:

“Take user number 12345, who was searching for cars yesterday, and show him a Porche ad. It doesn’t matter if he’s on Yahoo! or MySpace today — he’s the same number as yesterday. As an advertiser, would you prefer to reach someone reading a car review featured on Yahoo! or someone who visited two car-dealer sites yesterday?”

Behavioral and demographic targeting is going to become increasingly important this year as marketers shift budgets away from blanket branding campaigns toward direct response marketing. Over the next few years advertisers plan to spend more on behavioral, search, geographic, and demographic targeting, in that order, according to Forrester. AdWeek has been following this trend:

“According to the Forrester Research report, marketer moves into areas like word of mouth, blogging and social networking will withstand tightened budgets. In contrast, marketers are likely to decrease spending in traditional media and even online vehicles geared to building brand awareness.”

We tried behavioral targeting campaigns back at InfoWorld.com with mild success using Tacoda. The main problem was traffic volume. Though performance was better than broad content-targeted campaigns, the target segments were too small to sell in meaningful ways. The idea of an open exchange for auctioning inventory might have helped, but at the time we had to sell what we called “laser targeting” in packages that started to look more like machine gun fire.

This “edge targeting” market, for lack of a better term, is very compelling. It captures data from a user’s entire online experience rather than just one web site. When you know what a person is doing right now you can make much more intelligent assumptions about their intent and, therefore, the kinds of things they might be more interested in seeing.

It’s important to emphasize that edge targeting doesn’t need to know anything personally identifiable about a person. ISP’s legally can’t watch what known individuals are doing online, and they can’t share anything they know about a person with an advertiser. AdWeek discusses the issue of advertising data optimization in a report title “The New Gold Standard“:

“As it stands now, consumers don’t have much control over their information. Direct marketing firms routinely buy and sell personal data offline, and online, ad networks, search engines and advertisers collect reams of information such as purchasing behavior and Web usage. Google, for instance, keeps consumers’ search histories for up to two years, not allowing them the option of erasing it.

Legalities, however, preclude ad networks from collecting personally identifiable information such as names and addresses. Ad networks also allow users to opt out of being tracked.”

Though a person is only identified as a number in edge targeting, that number is showing very specific intent. That intent, if profiled properly, is significantly more accurate than a single search query at a search engine.

I suspect this is going to be a very important space to watch in the coming years.

A handy music playlist tool

I’ve been looking for a way to share playlists on my blog and elsewhere online for a long time. It’s been surprisingly hard to find a really convenient way to do it.

DRM and industry lockdown have been a big part of that, but there have also been too few technical ways to point to music files that are already publicly available. There are tons of legal MP3′s on the Internet that reside at readable URLs today.

Lucas Gonze and his team at Yahoo! solved this problem. They launched a source-agnostic embeddable media player. You can read more about it on YDN.

It’s fantastically simple. All you do is paste this reference to Yahoo!’s media player javascript code anywhere on your web page (I added it at the bottom of my blog templates):

<script type=”text/javascript” src=”http://mediaplayer.yahoo.com/js”></script>

Then you just add an HTML link somewhere on your web page to any MP3 file you want to see in your playlist.

That’s it. You’re already done. The link you just made will now include a small play button in front of it, and a mini media player will appear in the browser.

Here’s a short playlist I quickly put together to show how it works. The 4th track here is particularly relevant to my life:

Cut Chemist – The Garden
Young Einstein (Ugly Duckling) – Handcuts Soul Mix
They Might Be Giants- Birdhouse in Your Soul
LCD Soundsystem – Losing My Edge

The code for that playlist looks like this:

<a href=”http://download.wbr.com/cutchemist/TheGarden.mp3″> Cut Chemist – The Garden </a>
<a href=”http://www.uglyduckling.us/music/HandCutsSoulMix.mp3″> Young Einstein (Ugly Duckling) – Handcuts Soul Mix </a>
<a href=”http://midwesternhousewives.com/mix/The%20Might%20Be%20Giants-%20Birdhouse%20in%20Your%20Soul.mp3″> They Might Be Giants- Birdhouse in Your Soul </a>
<a href=”http://www.personal.psu.edu/users/s/m/smk291/muchies/LCD%20Soundsystem%20-%20Losing%20My%20Edge.mp3″> LCD Soundsystem – Losing My Edge </a>

They’ve included some other nice things in the code that give you some flexibility. You can create a shareable playlist file, and you can add cover art, for example.

What I like most, probably, is the architecture of the solution. Anyone who already links to MP3 files can just add the music player javascript code to their page templates, and it will just work immediately. You don’t have to force fit a heavily branded HTML badge into your web page. And since the links are all standard HTML href’s, the content of the playlist is search engine friendly.

It’s the first time I’ve seen a media player so closely aligned with the way the Internet works.

Lucas posts about the need to unlock how media files are referenced. He wants to take the complexity out of distribution and reduce the concept of music sharing and discoverability to the Internet’s roots with URLs as identifiers:

“Almost all online music businesses right now are in the distribution business, even if they see other functions like discovery or social connection as their main value, because they have no way to connect their discovery or social connection features with a reliable provisioning service from a third party. But provisioning is a commodity service which doesn’t give anybody an edge. They don’t want to import playlists from third parties because *that’s* where they are adding value.

Exporting playlists for others to provision, though, is a different story, and it makes much more sense from a business perspective. Let somebody else deal with provisioning. This is what it would mean for somebody like Launchcast or Pandora to publish XSPF with portable song identifiers that could be resolved by companies that specialize in provisioning.”

It seems Lucas is thinking about how to get music flowing around the Internet with the same efficiency that text has enjoyed. Very smart.

Building markets out of data

I’m intrigued by the various ways people view ‘value’. There seem to be 2 camps: 1) people who view the world in terms of competition for finite resources and 2) people who see ways to create new forms of value and to grow the entire pie.

Umair Haque talks about choices companies make that push them into one of those 2 camps. He often argues that the market needs more builders than winners. He clarifies his position in his post The Economics of Evil:

“When you’re evil, your ability to co-create value implodes: because you make moves which are focused on shifting costs and extracting value, rather than creating it. …when you’re evil, the only game you want to – or can play – is domination.”

I really like the idea that the future of the media business is in the way we build value for all constituencies rather than the way we extract value from various parts of a system. It’s not about how you secure marketshare, control distribution, mitigate risk or reduce costs. It’s about how you enable the creation of value for all.

He goes on to explain how media companies often make the mistake of focusing on data ownership:

“Data isn’t the value. In fact, data’s a commodity…What is valuable are the things that create data: markets, networks, and communities.

Google isn’t revolutionizing media because it “owns the data”. Rather, it’s because Google uses markets and networks to massively amplify the flow of data relative to competitors.”

I would add that it’s not just the creation of valuable data that matters but also in the way people interface with existing data. Scott Karp’s excellent post on the guidelines for transforming media companies shares a similar view:

“The most successful media companies will be those that learn to how build networks and harness network effects. This requires a mindset that completely contradicts traditional media business practices. Remember, Google doesn’t own the web. It doesn’t control the web. Google harnesses the power of the web by analyzing how websites link to each other.”

The Internet’s secret sauce: surfacing coincidence

What is it that makes my favorite online services so compelling? I’m talking about the whole family of services that includes Dopplr, Wesabe, Twitter, Flickr, and del.icio.us among others.

I find it interesting that people don’t generally refer to any of these as “web sites”. They are “services”.

I was fortunate enough to spend some time with Dopplr’s Matt Biddulph and Matt Jones last week while in London where they described the architecture of what they’ve built in terms of connected data keys. The job of Dopplr, Mr. Jones said, was to “surface coincidence”.

I think that term slipped out accidentally, but I love it. What does it mean to “surface coincidence”?

It starts by enabling people to manufacture the circumstances by which coincidence becomes at least meaningful if not actually useful. Or, as Jon Udell put it years ago now when comparing Internet data signals to cellular biology:

“It looks like serendipity, and in a way it is, but it’s manufactured serendipity.”

All these services allow me to manage fragments of my life without requiring burdensome tasks. They all let me take my data wherever I want. They all enhance my data by connecting it to more data. They all make my data relevant in the context of a larger community.

When my life fragments are managed by an intelligent service, then that service can make observations about my data on my behalf.

Dopplr can show me when a distant friend will be near and vice versa. Twitter can show me what my friends are doing right now. Wesabe can show me what others have learned about saving money at the places where I spend my money. Among many other things Flickr can show me how to look differently at the things I see when I take photos. And del.icio.us can show me things that my friends are reading every day.

There are many many behaviors both implicit and explicit that could be managed using this formula or what is starting to look like a successful formula, anyhow. Someone could capture, manage and enhance the things that I find funny, the things I hate, the things at home I’m trying to get rid of, the things I accomplished at work today, the political issues I support, etc.

But just collecting, managing and enhancing my life fragments isn’t enough. And I think what Matt Jones said is a really important part of how you make data come to life.

You can make information accessible and even fun. You can make the vast pool feel manageable and usable. You can make people feel connected.

And when you can create meaning in people’s lives, you create deep loyalty. That loyalty can be the foundation of larger businesses powered by advertising or subscriptions or affiliate networks or whatever.

The result of surfacing coincidence is a meaningful action. And those actions are where business value is created.

Wikipedia defines coincidence as follows:

“Coincidence is the noteworthy alignment of two or more events or circumstances without obvious causal connection.”

This is, of course, similar and related to the definition of serendipity:

“Serendipity is the effect by which one accidentally discovers something fortunate, especially while looking for something else entirely.”

You might say that this is a criteria against which any new online service should be measured. Though it’s probably so core to getting things right that every other consideration in building a new online service needs to support it.

It’s probably THE criteria.

Why Outside.in may have the local solution

The recent blog frenzy over hyperlocal media inspired me to have a look at Outside.in again.


It’s not just the high profile backers and the intense competitive set that make Outside.in worth a second look. There’s something very compelling in the way they are connecting data that seems like it matters.

My initial thought when it launched was that this idea had been done before too many times already. Topix.net appeared to be a dominant player in the local news space, not to mention similar but different kinds of local efforts at startups like Yelp and amongst all the big dotcoms.

And even from their strong position, Topix’s location-based news media aggregaton model was kind of, I don’t know, uninteresting. I’m not impressed with local media coverage these days, in general, so why would an aggregator of mediocre coverage be any more interesting than what I discover through my RSS reader?

But I think Outside.in starts to give some insight into how local media could be done right…how it could be more interesting and, more importantly, useful.

The light triggered for me when I read Jon Udell’s post on “the data finds the data”. He explains how data can be a vector through which otherwise unrelated people meet eachother, a theme that continues to resonate for me.

Media brands have traditionally been good at connecting the masses to eachother and to marketers. But the expectation of how directly people feel connected to other individuals by the media they share has changed.

Whereas the brand once provided a vector for connections, data has become the vehicle for people to meet people now. Zip code, for example, enables people to find people. So does marital status, date and time, school, music taste, work history. There are tons of data points that enable direct human-to-human discovery and interaction in ways that media brands could only accomplish in abstract ways in the past.

URLs can enable connections, too. Jon goes on to explain:

“On June 17 I bookmarked this item from Mike Caulfield… On June 19 I noticed that Jim Groom had responded to Mike’s post. Ten days later I noticed that Mike had become Jim’s new favorite blogger.

I don’t know whether Jim subscribes to my bookmark feed or not, but if he does, that would be the likely vector for this nice bit of manufactured serendipity. I’d been wanting to introduce Mike at KSC to Jim (and his innovative team) at UMW. It would be delightful to have accomplished that introduction by simply publishing a bookmark.”

Now, Outside.in allows me to post URLs much like one would do in Newsvine or Digg any number of other collaborative citizen media services. But Outside.in leverages the zip code data point as the topical vector rather than a set of predetermined one-size-fits-all categories. It then allows miscellaneous tagging to be the subservient navigational pivot.

Suddenly, I feel like I can have a real impact on the site if I submit something. If there’s anything near a critical mass of people in the 94107 zip code on Outside.in then it’s likely my neighbors will be influenced by my posts.

Fred Wilson of Union Square Ventures explains:

“They’ve built a platform that placebloggers can submit their content to. Their platform “tags” that content with a geocode — an address, zip code, or city — and that renders a new page for every location that has tagged content. If you visit outside.in/10010, you’ll find out what’s going on in the neigborhood around Union Square Ventures. If you visit outside.in/back_bay, you’ll see what’s going on in Boston’s Back Bay neighborhood.”

Again, the local online media model isn’t new. In fact, it’s old. CitySearch in the US and UpMyStreet in the UK proved years ago that a market does in fact exist in local media somehwere somehow, but the market always feels fragile and susceptible to ghost town syndrome.

Umair Haque explains why local is so hard:

“Why doesn’t Craigslist choose small towns? Because there isn’t enough liquidity in the market. Let me put that another way. In cities, there are enough buyers and sellers to make markets work – whether of used stuff, new stuff, events, etc, etc.

In smaller towns, there just isn’t enough supply or demand.”

If they commit to building essentially micro media brands based exclusively on location I suspect Outside.in will run itself into the ground spending money to establish critical mass in every neighborhood around the world.

Now that they have a nice micro media approach that seems to work they may need to start thinking about macro media. In order to reach the deep dark corners of the physical grid, they should connect people in larger contexts, too. Here’s an example of what I mean…

I’m remodeling the Potrero Hill shack we call a house right now. It’s all I talk about outside of work, actually. And I need to understand things like how to design a kitchen, ways to work through building permits, and who can supply materials and services locally for this job.

There must be kitchen design experts around the world I can learn from. Equally, I’m sure there is a guy around the corner from me who can give me some tips on local services. Will Architectural Digest or Home & Garden connect me to these different people? No. Will The San Francisco Chronicle connect us? No.

Craigslist won’t even connect us, because that site is so much about the transaction.

I need help both from people who can connect on my interest vector in addition to the more local geographic vector. Without fluid connections on both vectors, I’m no better off than I was with my handy RSS reader and my favorite search engine.

Looking at how they’ve decided to structure their data, it seems Outside.in could pull this off and connect my global affinities with my local activities pretty easily.

This post is way too long already (sorry), but it’s worth pointing out some of the other interesting things they’re doing if you care to read on.

Outside.in is also building automatic semantic links with the contributors’ own blogs. By including my zip code in a blog post, Outside.in automatically drinks up that post and adds it into the pool. They even re-tag my post with the correct geodata and offer GeoRSS feeds back out to the world.

Here are the instructions:

“Any piece of content that is tagged with a zip code will be assigned to the corresponding area within outside.in’s system. You can include the zip code as either a tag or a category, depending on your blogging platform.”

I love this.

30Boxes does something similar where I can tell it to collect my Upcoming data, and it automatically imports events as I tag them in Upcoming.

They are also recognizing local contributors and shining light on them with prominant links. I can see who the key bloggers are in my area and perhaps even get a sense of which ones matter, not just who posts the most. I’m guessing they will apply the “people who like this contributor also like this contributor” type of logic to personalize the experience for visitors at some point.

Now what gets me really excited is to think about the ad model that could happen in this environment of machine-driven semantic relationships.

If they can identify relevant blog posts from local contributors, then I’m sure they could identify local coupons from good sources of coupon feeds.

Let’s say I’m the national Ace Hardware marketing guy, and I publish a feed of coupons. I might be able to empower all my local Ace franchises and affiliates to publish their own coupons for their own areas and get highly relevant distribution on Outside.in. Or I could also run a national coupon feed with zip code tags cooked into each item.

To Umair’s point, that kind of marketing will only pay off in major metros where the markets are stronger.

To help address the inventory problem, Outside.in could then offer to sell ad inventory on their contributors’ web sites. As an Outside.in contributor, I would happily run Center Hardware coupons, my local Ace affiliate, on my blog posts that talk about my remodelling project if someone gave them to me in some automated way.

If they do something like this then they will be able to serve both the major metros and the smaller hot spots that you can never predict will grow. Plus, the incentives for the individuals in the smaller communities start feeding the wider ecosystem that lives on the Outside.in platform.

Outside.in would be pushing leverage out to the edge both in terms of participation as they already do and in terms of revenue generation, a fantastic combination of forces that few media companies have figured out, yet.

I realize there are lots of ‘what ifs’ in this assessment. The company has a lot of work to do before they breakthrough, and none of it is easy. The good news for them is that they have something pretty solid that works today despite a crowded market.

Regardless, knowing Fred Wilson, Esther Dyson, John Seely Brown and Steven Berlin Johnson are behind it, among others, no doubt they are going to be one to watch.

Decentralizing journalism and everything

Dave Winer said something the other day during the latest “Newspapers are dead” meme that I can’t get out of my head:

“In the future, every educated person will be a journalist, as today we are all travel agents and stock brokers. The reporters have been acting as middlemen, connecting sources with readers, who in many cases are sources themselves. As with all middlemen, something is lost in translation, an inefficiency is added. So what we’re doing now, in journalism, as with all other intermediated professions, is decentralizing.

I remember the whole disintermediation discussion from around 1998 when people debated which markets would be crushed by the Internet first. It was obvious then that just about any job that functions like a broker or agent would at least be challenged if not destroyed completely. It was amazing to watch the travel agency business disappear as fast as it did.

But there are subtleties to the form of disintermediation playing out today that seemed impossible 10 years ago. Umair Haque and John Hagel have suggested in their investigations of edge economics that any job function that makes money off the friction of distribution of information is threatened.

This kind of ends the whole debate about whether or not content wants to be free. That doesn’t really matter. The question is more about how else can we remove friction in the flow of information. What other kinds of information will be decentralized and when?

Is attention finite?

John Hagel explores the economics of attention and describes the issues for today’s business leaders:

“Attention economics starts with the observation that, as products and information proliferate, attention becomes the scarce resource … we each have only 24 hours in the day. Where we choose to allocate this attention will increasingly determine who creates economic value and who destroys economic value.”

He provides some insightful advice for an executive in the attention economy:

“The attention economy is surfacing around us today … it is not some distant future. As with most economic trends, those who spot them and act on them early are most likely to create significant value. Here are some early action items:

1) Explore the implications of attention scarcity for firm structure … I view attention scarcity as a key catalyst driving the unbundling and rebundling of firms that is occurring on a global scale
2) Master the management techniques required to increase return on attention, not only for customers but for employees and business partners as well
3) Create mechanisms to help customers and employees attract the attention they need to become more successful in their endeavors, especially in terms of their talent development.”

Hagel’s arguments are valid, but this view sounds a too narrowminded to me. He’s proposing a way to make tomorrow’s new business models backwards compatible with today’s business models.

The problem with discussing attention in economic terms, in my opinion, which is, by the way, completely uninformed by any kind of economic education, is this notion that attention is finite.

It’s true that time limits how many words I can read on a page, how many links I can click on in a browser, and how many billboards I will see in a day. In addition to time, the language, user interface and art of design as we know it limits what I can take in and digest.

But the fluidity of attention is limited more by the medium and the information therein than it is by the brain’s ability to absorb, interpret and output ideas. The brain has an amazing ability to abstract things, to alter viewpoints and understand them both on macro and micro levels. Depending on your perspective, ‘time’ can be as literal as the movement of shadows on the ground or as abstract as evolution of species.

Imagine describing to someone 100 years ago the idea that you could play hours and hours of new and interesting music from a personalized stream of songs produced by pros and amateurs alike from around the world that never repeats itself. Imagine describing to a teen as recently as 1990 that she could build a nearly infinite network of friends and interesting strangers and stay in touch with all of them almost all the time.

It’s as if attention is expanding because of better production methods, easier distribution mechanisms and deeper meaning in the information that gets produced and distributed. While discussing this with Cameron Marlow on the train this morning, he came up with the term “attention inflation” to describe this phenomenon. I like that.

Hagel is right about the most obvious approach to making money in this world. There will always be opportunities in the inefficiencies (or “friction” as edge economists say) in the way information is communicated.

We see this now in the way media properties charge advertisers a fee for the cost of reaching valuable eyeballs. But advertisers are forever chasing people to get their attention. They are always paying for the inefficiencies in the market. And media properties are motivated to retain inefficiencies in order to capitalize on that friction. This business model locks companies on both sides into the status quo.

The opportunity, on the other hand, is vast for those who are able to alter our viewpoints and abstract the way we understand information. It’s about offering new methods to communicate and taking advantage of the methods that are already infinitely fluid. The supply of attention can be limitless when the barriers are removed and the right lubricant is applied.

I guess all I’m testing out here is the idea that the attention economy is not so much a supply and demand issue as much as it is an issue of abstraction. New markets form when people can expand their attention rather than allocate it. And the early movers to find abstract solutions to communication and information problems enjoy enormous benefits down the road when everyone else wants to hop on the ride.