Why we made Brave Today

(Full announcement here: https://brave.com/announcing-brave-today/)

My media diet is never going to be satisfied by a single publisher. That said, most of the publishers I like have useful apps and give me a lot of what I want. The good ones have some visual appeal; they’re timely, relevant, and a pleasure to use.

Any publisher app is basically going to be disappointing, though because my preferred source of international political news is very rarely the source I turn to for financial coverage which is never the source I want for coverage of my favorite basketball team. And none of those will ever give me the insights I love from super niche publications about things like woodworking or classic cars.

The aggregators are better at serving a varied media diet, but I don’t want them to know my niche interests or even my broader interests, because that would mean even more precise data about me is being harvested which I really don’t want. It’s very disturbing when you read an article and then start seeing ads about that subject everywhere you go.

The only time I’ve ever felt like I had all the media coverage I wanted the way I wanted it was back in about 2005. When we had RSS and news readers I was able to tune my media diet using an app that fed headlines from tons of different publishers into one place. I loved adding new feeds as I discovered them. Even more than that, I loved turning off a feed I didn’t like anymore knowing that it was actually gone forever. They couldn’t retarget me or send emails or sell my data because they never knew who I was in the first place.

Admittedly, those of us who valued RSS readers most back then were probably excessive consumers of news and magazines and blogs with a high tolerance for geekery, unlike the wider population that had no time for the fiddly interfaces of tools like Newsgator, Bloglines and FeedDemon and the frustratingly ever-increasing count of unread items, much less the confusing buttons used for adding a feed to a feed reader. Even Google Reader was probably a bit too awkward for most people.

But that’s not to say the market hasn’t improved. The user experiences for scanning content are far better today, and the volume and variety of coverage has grown massively. We now have volume and variety within niches of niches in terms of how we interact with media, who is producing it, what they are producing, where it’s getting distributed, and how to profit from it.

The most important breakthrough that made all this possible probably wasn’t search or social distribution. It was the adtech that adopted the service oriented architectures of 2005 and learned how to track people and target them with messaging.

While the funding that resulted from the adtech innovations made it possible to evolve content apps and services, the deal included a massive sacrifice to our privacy on the Internet. At the time that trade would’ve seemed worth it. But it’s not worth it anymore. It’s not necessary, either.

As Francois Marier describes in the blog post about Brave’s private CDN it’s possible for the app or provider to build a network-based service that knows nothing about the user consuming it and can’t know anything even if it wanted to.

In our case, to be more specific, the user’s request for content from the server gets encrypted and passed via an intermediary that can’t see what the user requested but sends the request message on behalf of the user to the server. The server can see the address of the intermediary for its reply and the contents of the encrypted message, but the server can not see the user’s address or any other data about the user. The server has no idea who sent it.

The work required to do this would’ve been total overkill back in 2005. Why would you do all that when at the time everything was clearly moving toward search and social which employed user tracking to get the most out of the ad business attached to it? Platforms and publishers wanted more data about users, not less.

Now that platforms and publishers have all been feeding this tracking ecosystem for the last 15 years the whole thing has gone way too far, but I still want my news and links to interesting things happening in the world. Can I have it with no tracking, please?

When a small team of us started working on a news reader at Brave a few months ago we were reminiscing about RSS readers and wishing the world still worked that way. We prototyped a concept that was initially going to use some APIs to gather headlines, but we found most of the feeds we needed to make it work. It turns out that most publishers are actually still using RSS. What a great surprise!

Why wouldn’t they? The format is an open standard with very basic output which makes it really simple to syndicate your content (see what I did there?). Most CMS’s generate RSS feeds automatically, anyhow.

We found the prototype to be surprisingly compelling. The only thing it needed was a modern privacy strategy and a business model. Both of those things come pretty easily to the team at Brave, and the prototype expanded into a proper news reader that we called Brave Today.

We didn’t want to wait too long to get a version into people’s hands and see how the market receives it. So, we prioritized the user experience, content delivery, privacy controls and advertising features first. But we have our eye on a fully open RSS reader that you can configure with feeds you find anywhere on the Internet. That would complete the bridge from 2005 to today which, if successful, could democratize content distribution on the Internet again as it was before Google and Facebook swallowed everything.

Lessons from the era are coming back to me as we progress, such as the importance of a great cold-start experience, the value of relevance and personalization in reducing the noise, constraining configuration options so it’s not confusing but offering enough to make the feed feel like your own. And then there are so many new capabilities available to us now that can make this old idea so much better this time around, particularly through mobile devices but also with other media formats. User behavior norms have evolved, as well, which means people are now totally comfortable with and perhaps even prefer having infinitely scrolling lists.

I’m pretty sure this is going to scratch an itch for a lot of people. It definitely will in my case, and I can’t be the only one who wants a modern news reader that preserves your privacy.

Data pattern-hunting makes everything boring

Digital platforms have finally become the economic powerhouses many of us whose careers have spanned a few technology waves always knew was possible.

Among other things I’m quite interested in how their use of statistics and cohort analysis is driving conformity in society at scale. Admittedly, this is a subjective chicken and egg question, really, but it seems to me that being unique and different today is harder and riskier than ever before while the rewards for being normal become greater and greater.

There was a weird moment somewhere around peak Simon Cowell when everyone realized we were complicit in pop music’s boringness. His show eliminates outliers to form a cohort of pretty good but mostly forgettable performers. Then we vote for the least worst one.

This is happening everywhere. Cars all look the same. News outlets report the same news. Even fashion brands who trade on being different are literally losing their edge.

Is there a better sign of the times than the full embrace of the color gray?!

Guitar solos, roadsters, columnists and fashion icons reminded us that we can step out of the machine if we want to. Now we don’t even try. Instead we blend everything interesting until the mass has no distinctive color at all.

Normalizing everything didn’t happen because of Internet platforms. It started decades before they were even invented. But the Internet platforms mastered the art and became commercial juggernauts, as a result.

What makes them good at it? It’s too simple to say they’re good at computers. That may be true, but it’s really all about how they manage the information flowing in and out of their computers.

Marc Andreesen was right. Software ate the world.

The people who are looking at that data and making software that feeds the computers are assessing patterns. They’re not looking for exceptional data or data that sits outside the norm. There’s so much data flowing through these computers that they can only handle data that looks the same. They literally throw away unusual signals. They call it noise. Sometimes they call a weird data signal an ‘error’.

It’s much easier to make sense of large clusters of common behaviors and then to focus on those clusters. If you can drop people doing the same thing through a conversion funnel and get transactions at the bottom then you have a business model.

Startups have a lot of pressure to scale quickly, so there’s really no time to waste on the anomalies. They have no incentive for handling unusual activity other than to find a way to shove anomalies or ‘errors’ back through the funnel somehow. They are looking for normal patterns and doing everything they can to make all the data they collect fit in the same bucket.

To be honest, I find it unfair to blame the platforms for this market dynamic.

I remember very clearly the dismissive tones from the non-techies in the late ’90s every time an amazing Internet startup would appear, “Yeah, but nobody’s making money, yet. It’s just hype.” That went on for years.

Then things started to work. But let’s be clear. The platforms weren’t intentionally employing nefarious data manipulation to exploit us. They were optimising ads. That’s all it was in the beginning.

Equally, the dotcom leaders need to acknowledge their moral obligations today. Their businesses have become part of our lives. They sold it that way and we bought it. That deal needs to change now, just like their terms and conditions change all the time.

The problem is that outliers and anomalies are easy to ignore. And until trolling or misinformation or abuse or fraud or whatever else infiltrates and distorts the normal patterns of behavior in large enough quantities these digital spaces that want our time and attention really just don’t care.

It’s not just the bad behavior they don’t care about. They don’t care about good behavior that is non-normal, either.

Journalism is a great example. Performance of news on Facebook declined for several consecutive months in 2017 and instead of looking at how to embrace news they turned it off. Large numbers of people valued getting news via Facebook, but the nuances of trust, a very human value, by the way, were considered too hard to address.

I refuse to believe that these non-normal patterns are too expensive to identify and serve in a sensible way. The same machines and statistics that are so good at finding normal patterns are just as good at finding things that are not normal. But rather than build the tooling and reporting and insights that value the non-normal they build error handling systems and quantify them with negative terms.

Can a digital business succeed by serving the outliers? Of course they can! It’s crazy to think they don’t have the creativity, manpower or computing resources to value the things that are different. They choose not to because it requires some thinking. It’s easier to encourage the outliers to behave like everything else and just ignore those that don’t.

There’s another question about whether this trend is bad. It would be easy to argue that more people are more educated, safer, suffering less than in pre-platform history. They bring people together and create shared understanding which probably increases peace in the world on balance.

But let’s be honest about the cost of normalizing everything and failing to value the outliers in society at large. If we want magical music like Stevie Ray Vaughan’s version of “Little Wing” and beautiful cars like the 1962 Aston Martin and intelligent perspective like Edward R. Murrow commentary then we owe it to ourselves to ensure the outliers have room to explore and push the boundaries.

The value of a cohort should not be measured exclusively by its relative proximity to the mean. We’ll keep losing the good stuff in this world if we do that.

Now that software has won and platforms drive the economy (and lots of other things, too) they must look at their role in the world with a wider field of vision. They need to be serious about diversity from the boardroom all the way down to the simplest line of code.

The deceitful promise of freedom

There’s a very powerful essay by Hossein Derakhshan on Medium about the Internet wasteland. It’s particularly poignant coming from someone who spent several years in jail as a result of his activities online:

“I can’t close my eyes to what’s happening: A loss of intellectual power and diversity, and on the great potentials it could have for our troubled time. In the past, the web was powerful and serious enough to land me in jail. Today it feels like little more than entertainment.

Anyone deeply engaged in the days of blogging will relate to these views.

That was an exciting time that seemed capable of capturing the utopia the Internet appeared to offer. If only it hit mainstream before the social networks got their claws in.

Of course, sometimes I wonder if our memories deceive us and that the people’s struggle to break free of control was never any more attainable during the blogging days than it is today.

Perhaps the fight is eternal, an innate anthropological prison humans find themselves trapped within, sometimes both emotionally and physically.

I’m not that fatalistic, really. There have been many battles won on our behalf before our time that have made our lives much better than our predecessors’. And there will be other great victories won by the people in the future.

Unfortunately, in the case of blogging, I agree with Hossein that freedom got outflanked before that revolution had legs to stand on. Annoyingly, we’re all complicit and every time we ‘like’ and ‘retweet’ we’re pumping more collective fuel into the centralized machines that defeated it.

Being a parent is a fantastic education. Watching my kids take toys apart to see how they work only to discover they can’t put them back together is a sharp reminder of how our brains work.

Computers, networks, phones, and social networks weren’t invented by people who wanted to control the world. They were invented by intensely curious and ambitious people who wanted to take apart ‘the system’.

They took great pride in their David vs Goliath stories, never more brazenly than the historic Apple Big Brother ad.

But after dismantling the status quo many of these folks have spent the rest of their careers putting the pieces of their foe back together again in their own image.

Instead of defending the freedom they espoused in obtaining their position of power they focused all their power on securing their future for themselves, constructing impenetrable walls against the threat of a younger and hungrier version of themselves attacking.

The promise of freedom from tyranny is a great marketing strategy for a startup. That message resonates deeply within our psyche because it is a universal sentiment.

But sometimes it’s a lie.

We need startups to invent better ways of doing things. We need people to lead the never-ending fight for our freedoms. We all need to be more honest about when those two things are in conflict.

Who is in charge of the global economy – us or them?

I’ve always looked up to independent-minded people who can strike a balance between operating within ‘the system’ and changing it through their work, particularly when that work is in the public interest.

Vivienne Westwood is such a person.

I met her recently to discuss working together, and she didn’t disappoint. She began the meeting describing a world view that concerns her, one that should concern all of us. And we considered ways to use people-supported journalism to improve public dialog about it.

The world view that concerns her is the way global power is getting rewired. She’s going to edit the next issue of Contributoria to focus on this.
Vivienne Westwood edition of Contributoria

It’s about international trade agreements and corporate law. It’s about the democratic process within and between countries. It’s about human rights and the environment. And it’s about those who we normally depend on to keep power in check but either can’t do it, won’t do it or fail to do it well.

It’s a big topic with lots of nuance that I don’t understand, yet, but it is easy to see the erosion of democracy when international trade deals result in agreements that disregard laws and policies won through hard-fought democratic processes.

Democratic principles can be interpreted in different ways, but at minimum people should have a voice in the decisions made on their behalf. And they need a role in choosing who is making those decisions.

Everyone, including profit-motivated groups, have a right to question the law. But democracy is pretty good at making sure we know what we’re gaining and losing if we decide to change the law.

Is democracy really at risk here?

I dunno. I find it hard to believe we would let it get to that.

But then again I had no idea that ISDS existed until very recently.

ISDS is an “instrument” of international law. It’s a method or standard for enforcing trade deals, enabling companies to sue governments for lost profits. It means public policy can’t conflict with what’s been decided in the deal. ISDS ensures that the law is subservient to the trade agreement.

In one of the pamphlets (pdf) championing ISDS in the UK they say proudly, “ISDS gives UK companies access to independent tribunals and to possible compensation when they are treated unfairly by [partner countries]. It also deters [partners] from acting unfairly in the first place.”

In other words, “Don’t worry about international laws. We’ve got your back. And if any government gives you trouble, we’ll help you to sue the pants off them. They won’t bother you again.”

It’s being used more like a weapon than an “instrument”.

To be fair, an international court may in fact fuel growth if companies have some assurances that they can fight back if they’ve been treated unfairly somewhere. But only big corporates with deep pockets are going to benefit, and they will likely only use that system against smaller countries with weaker legal systems who might threaten their business model, perhaps for good reason.

An excellent piece in The New Yorker explains how ISDS is designed to undermine sovereignty.

“I.S.D.S. was originally meant to protect investors against seizure of their assets by foreign governments. Now I.S.D.S. lawsuits go after things like cancelled licenses, unapproved permits, and unwelcome regulations.”

The context becomes clear when you look at what Philip Morris did when Australia passed plain packaging legislation on cigarettes there. Philip Morris sued Australia because they claimed the new plain packaging law affected their profits.

Even more bizarrely, they didn’t have the right trade deal in place to sue Australia directly. They essentially invested in operations in Australia in order to use a different trade deal in Hong Kong that then made it possible to sue Australia.

And somehow Philip Morris seemed to think they were the victims:

“The forced removal of [Philip Morris] brands and trademarks by the Australian Government is a clear violation of the terms of the bilateral investment treaty between Australia and Hong Kong, and we believe we have a very strong case for actual damages that may amount to billions of Australian dollars.”

Most democratic societies have a system of checks and balances to prevent corruption and too much power concentrated in one area. These international trade agreements are creating cross-border super-systems that are too opaque with fantastic opportunities for corruption and concentrated power.

We are unable to vote for or against what’s being decided on our behalf by unelected people in far away places. They are making their own rules about some pretty important stuff – the environment, labor laws, culture, etc.

The game needs to be exposed so we can deal with it. The good news is that it is becoming clearer to see with deals like the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership or TTIP (“tee-tip”) and the Trans-Pacific Partnership or TPP.

However we only know the details now because documents have been leaked, not because the information was made public.

Even our own elected leaders are unable to get involved in the details.

In a Politico report US officials behind TPP said that we can “expect the real horse-trading to begin now that Obama has signed “fast-track” legislation requiring Congress to pass or reject TPP without amendments.” 

Occupy-ers, if you were ever unsure of how you could bring your fighting spirit to something tangible, now is your moment.

The fight against TTIP and TPP is a symbolic move we can all make together to say, “Hang on, how is this decision getting made? Who is signing up to it and with what authority? Who is going to benefit and how? What happens if we don’t like it? Who will monitor it and tell us all if it’s working or not?”

The fight against international trade deals is a line in the sand between the new global powers and the people. Whoever wins is going to have a massive leg up in whatever comes next.

Have no illusions about what’s at stake – these kinds of trade deals are marginalizing democracy. You have a right to know what your country is deciding on your behalf. Given the scale of these deals I think we have a right to know what other countries are deciding on our behalf, too.

If it all feels too technical or inaccessible, then just start asking around…see if you can find anyone who understands it. Better yet, see if you can find someone who has read these agreements.

When you come up empty you may come to the same conclusion I did which is that whatever this is all about it’s not being done for the good of the public.

Let’s get a good look at these deals. Let’s run the proposed terms through ‘the system’. Of course ‘the system’ needs to change. It always will. It’s made by humans. And maybe there are provisions in the deals that we should consider.

But as it stands today TTIP and TPP and their legal weapons like ISDS look very much like people in positions of power using their advantages to lock down even more of it.

That’s not independent-thinking. That’s not improving ‘the system’. That’s not working in the interest of the public.

That’s worth challenging.

There are lots of ways to get involved. One thing you can do is help Vivienne Westwood and Contributoria to fuel the public debate. https://www.contributoria.com/proposals

At minimum, use this amazing thing called the Internet to educate yourself. This stuff matters.

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.