Category Archives: internet

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.

Orchestrating streams of data from across the Internet

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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…

A magazine I would love to read

There’s a magazine that I’d love to read if someone published it (yes, the print kind). Of course, it’s about the Internet. It’s about the stack that makes up the Internet, the platform or, as many people are calling it, the Internet Operating System. It’s mostly technology. But it’s a little bit business. And it’s definitely artful.

It’s not Business 2.0 or Red Herring. It’s not The Industry Standard, though I’d be happy to read that again, too. Those were/are too business-focused and often misunderstand the wider impact of many breakthroughs.

It challenges the people in positions to change things to make changes that matter. It exposes the advances in the market that have negative repurcussions to the Internet as a platform for good.

It’s critical and hard-hitting. It’s accurate. And it is therefore trusted and respected.

It isn’t first to report on anything. It might even be last, but it gets the story right.

It dives into services like Pipes, EC2, and Google Apps. It analyzes algorithms, data formats, developer tools, and interactive design. It studies human behaviors, market trends, new business models, leadership strategies and processes.

It’s not about startups, but it may be about why VCs like certain startups. I love the fact that Brad Burnham of Union Square Ventures disclosed the broader motivations for investing in AdaptiveBlue:

“We are particularly excited about the prospect of AdaptiveBlue developing tools that allow users to build the semantic web from the bottom-up to fill in the gaps and correct the top-down approach when necessary.”

This magzine should be printed monthly with lots of possibilities online that may actually be more successful in the long term. (I can imagine the print magazine turning into a sort of marketing vehicle for the web site. )

It includes longer deep-dive articles that have been throughly researched and copyedited. The editors are paid very well because they are experienced and talented. It also includes samples from the blogosphere and insights from contributors and participants who care deeply about the subject. There are intelligent interviews of people who are innovating and actually doing important things. There are insightful case studies of both the methods and results of certain technology breakthroughs. And there are columns that remind us to keep it real.

What I want from a new magazine about the Internet Operating System is to understand the technology breakthroughs and their meaning in the conext of the history of the Internet. I want to know what we can learn from art and innovation online to understand what lies ahead. The business model breakthroughs matter hugely, but I think they often matter as a result of an innovative technology rather than serve as a driver.

How is the Internet as a platform, operating system, network — whatever you want to call it — evolving? Who and what is influencing change? What are the trends that indicate this progression? How do new online developments impact communication, governments and social organizing principles?

Of course, a lot of this is out on the web in bits and pieces. But I’m too lazy to go through my entire feedreader and follow all the links to all the interesting stories out there. Maybe someone could invent a personalized and distributed Digg that surfaced what mattered to me more efficiently. But even then, I’d still pay a subscription fee and happily browse through endemic advertising for someone to assemble something thoroughly thought through, designed nicely and printed on my favorite portable reading medium — paper (recycled, of course).

And I’d read it in part because I would know everyone in the business would be reading it, too. At least, I suspect I’m not alone in wanting this…?