A different way of thinking about print newspapers

After the failure of Apple’s Newton you’d have trouble finding anyone who thought a computer that fit in your pocket was a good idea. Perhaps it was better connectivity that was missing, but the subsequent failure with the PalmPilot indicated that wasn’t it either.

The number of reasons for the current smartphone surge goes far beyond the limits of the listicle, but the failure of predecessors did not preclude success for the iPhone and the explosive market that followed.

Now, the number of reasons why printed newspapers will not exist in a few years time would make a long listicle, too, but a change in thinking might alter that apparent inevitability.

To be perfectly honest, I can’t decide whether the recent interest in print is a nostalgic inclination, a flooring of the decline or something different, maybe even something new (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7). Regardless, there is scope for different approaches to why and how to produce a newspaper.

Photo by Michelle Marshall
Photos by Michelle Marshall

We weren’t exactly surprised to see so much interest in the printed version of Contributoria because we intuitively believed people would like it in newspaper format, particularly if it was designed nicely. But the effect on the business has been more than just a nice-to-have.

First and most obvious is that people understand what we’re up to. The mental leap required for understanding community-powered journalism can be challenging even for people who are in the business. But it only takes one or two seconds to explain it when you can give someone the output of what we’re doing to hold in their hands.

They’re encourged to hear that our business model is about membership in a community, but that sometimes requires an explanation. When they see the newspaper they see quality journalism, and that’s something everyone understands.

Second, it buys credibility. New digital brands can take years to develop. And while we have a long way to go before Contributoria is established and mature people are surprised that we are only 6 months old with such a small team. But the Contributoria team is actually made up of several thousand people working together to create something, not just the handful with Contributoria.com email addresses.  The newspaper helps to reflect that.

Third and fourth, the marketing options are very compelling and the commercial opportunities have real potential. We can piggyback distribution off other channels, such as the Guardian newspaper (our parent company), and sponsors intuitively understand the value of being part of a print run.

Let’s be honest, though. That’s all justification. The real truth is that we just really like it.

When we have our monthly meeting I bring a stack of the latest issue and drop it on the table. The reaction from that heavy sound, seeing the beautiful covers layered on top of each other, the smell of ink on paper and then picking it up and turning the page is always, “Ooooohh. Nice!”

It’s very satisfying.  And the writers are always on top of us to get a copy out to them as fast as possible.

Until some sort of virtual reality can replace the sense of touch I think people will always value holding a product in their hands.

Again, I can’t say with any confidence that print has a bright future as a medium. The reports of print’s resurgence including newsstand sales increases at The Guardian, The Atlantic and others have to be viewed as interesting indicators but not promising trends.

In our case, I think people like what the Contributoria brand is starting to become, and print solidifies that.

More importantly, being part of the development of the final product draws people in. People feel a sense of ownership of the product having played a part in its existence whether that’s helping to fund it or to create it.

Is the reinvention needed by newspapers a democratization of their production? We’ll see.

But have no doubt that paper still captures people’s imaginations and will continue to do so as long as what’s printed on it is wonderful.

The importance of cloning on the Internet

Tracing the history of a technology helps a lot when you’re working out what features matter and how to apply them. The building blocks of the Internet such as the web server, web browser, and network transport protocols hold the keys to a lot of insights if you look closely at how they work.

Take the primary function of Apache’s http web server, for example. When you ask a web site for a page the web server doesn’t give you the original. It makes a copy to give to you.

The effect of seeing that page on your computer makes you feel like you have opened a window directly to that site. In fact, you’re really just holding a copy of what you asked for, just like everyone else.

The experience is like magic, and I’m often still in awe of it all 20 years after installing my first web browser.

That’s not all. The page you asked for gets split up into little bits which each get a destination address and assembly instructions stamped onto them so they know where to go and how to reassemble at the other end.

Perhaps the inventor of the Internet is actually Roald Dahl as the founding fathers were clearly inspired by Wonkavision.

This copy-and-send idea has been translated and reapplied in a lot of different ways since the web server was first created.

The whole world of reposts and retweets is fundamentally an extension of the way the web server responds to a request. However these fresh interpretations include the brilliant addition of stamping the source of the re-whatever as a new point of distribution where further copies are offered to others.

Whereas this kind of activity happened only at the deepest levels of the Internet’s architecture they have now been exposed at the surface so that normal people can do the same thing. The effects have been incredible to watch as Twitter, Tumblr and Facebook took off largely as a result of applying these concepts in their own ways.

We’re basically taking about cloning the original data and offering it back out with some amendments.

The first consumer-y ‘cloning’ feature that really struck me was Yahoo! Pipes in early 2007. You could create a data feed using Pipes, and then others could clone your feed and adjust it for their needs. It had this incredible jumpstarting effect where more advanced users would identify useful things to do first and others could learn from them by copying their work and adjusting it for themselves – self-serve vocational training at its best.

Of course, ‘cloning’ things and making them your own is an idea as old as language. Anyone with children knows this is natural human behavior. But it is a core principle of the way the Internet works that often fails to find its way into digital services that would benefit from it.

The API boom of the last decade was a wholesale deployment of cloning at scale. Many API providers fail to offer services that benefit either the clonee or the cloner, but those that do find their core business expanding at pace with the Internet’s growth as opposed to expanding at pace with their customer acquisition strategy.

Uber is the latest startup to grasp the importance of a loosely connected and distributed business model. According to TechCrunch they plan to allow others to add Uber functionality into their products. Those products will be better and Uber will get more business. Everybody wins.

It’s not unlike McDonald’s franchise model, though there’s a big difference between 1) franchising the way something works vs 2) franchising the whole business and brand.

The first is simply encouraging the replicate features of Internet software to do what they already do. The second is a lot more complicated and controlling and requires a very committed partner network. The first requires only seeding to get started. The second requires financial incentives which may take a long time to become meaningful.

It’s very easy to get caught up in controlling your brand as it gets copied and distributed around the world from web server to web server. That paranoia will lead to features that curb activity rather than encourage more usage.

The trick is to build cloning as an integral piece of the business, not just technically but core to the way the business operates and succeeds.

Your software wants to clone stuff, so let it.

Preconstructionism and the crowdfunding revolution

“Crowdfunding is just capitalism by another name,” according to one of the attendees I spoke with at Activate Summit in July.

I get why he felt that way after such a long day of talks – a steady stream of crowdfunding experts with relentless enthusiasm talking about how it’s going to change everything. It did feel like going to crowdfunding church with all that hype. But he was complaining to the wrong person. I’m in the camp that believes the market-making fueled by crowdfunding is much more important than just another flavor of capitalism.

Crowdfunding is an enabler of the total overhaul of every aspect of production of everything.

Perhaps this is revisionist history before it’s time, but I’m hopeful we’ll look back at the many institutions created by and because of the industrial revolution designed intentionally to prefabricate the world for consumption purposes in the name of profit and see them eroding over time, replaced with people-powered processes and products that help us to create and grow things, to strengthen our relationships to each other, the institutions that support us and the environment.

At a basic level we’re seeing people take back control of production.

People are using these new crowdfunding markets to get backing for ideas before they are made, a step in the production process that bakes in the customer appetite when it gets released. The manufacturing process for just about everything increasingly relies on a distributed networked supply chain rather than a string of dependencies and expensive capital investments. And distribution increasingly happens through a lifecycle of development, evolution and re-distribution rather than a one-time manufacture-and-deliver model.

At a macro level we are witnesses to a deconstruction and redistribution of every aspect of making things – a revolution with deeper implications than we initially imagined when the Internet first became a thing. The American dream is being realized at super scale.

Academics will surely call this era “Preconstructionism” or some sort of similar term that symbolizes the change in emphasis from the output of things to the process of creation itself.

While many aspects of the manufacturing process have already opened up and become collaborative experiences, it wasn’t until crowdfunding came along that the new production model found a consistent supply of commercial fuel. And now that the marketplace has its method of payment established I think we’re about to see enormous growth in this space.

It’s quickly becoming a viable reality for all types of production from consumer electronics, to real estate projects to journalism as we’re doing with Contributoria.

Yes, crowdfunding can be considered capitalism by another name, but that’s like saying the Internet is just another media channel. Super investor John Doerr once famously said during the first dotcom boom that the Internet is underhyped. Similarly today I think we’re miles away from crowdfunding’s peak hype and even further from realizing it’s full potential.

Contributoria after six months

I spent my 4th of July with an interesting group of technophiles in Brighton at the IndieTech Summit hosted by Aral Balkan.

Aral’s opening keynote was a passionate plea to reevaluate our relationship with technology, to understand the impact of handing over control of our personal data to organizations whose self-interests can be in conflict with our own.

Appropriately, the next speaker was Richard Stallman whose purist views on technology echoed that sentiment, that our lives must not be contaminated by commercial software.

A bit later I walked through an overview of Contributoria which I described in this presentation as a democratization of the editorial process in journalism.  I went through how we got to where we are, what it is that we’re doing, and a direction of travel for the future. Those slides are here.

The timing of the event was perfect, as we just launched our membership program which essentially completes our first phase of development and takes us out of Beta.  And it’s important to us that Contributoria resonate with people who want to work independently.  It’s intended to operate a bit like a virtual co-working space, as my colleague Sarah Hartley once described it.

As part of the announcement we produced some nice charts showing our growth in the first 6 months.  We’re thrilled with progress, and you can see why:

Contributoria Metrics - Six Months

There’s one aspect of the project that feels a bit under-reported, so far, which is our recent introduction of a newspaper.  Yes, we’re a digital pureplay that is doing print!

What a bizarre twist!  But when you’ve held it in your hand you’ll understand why we’ve done it.  It’s a piece of magic created by our technical lead Rev Dan Catt and designer Dean Vipond using the Newspaper Club platform.

A community-produced print product – one where all the articles have been commissioned, written and edited by a collective – is a truly unique thing.  It makes being a member here incredibly compelling.

In fact, I’ve started to wonder how long it will be before all publishers start to open up the physical versions of their media the same way they’ve begun to do with their digital platforms.

Contributoria Newspapers


Democratizing the editorial process

In the mid-1990’s I briefly covered Internet technologies and games for Macworld.com. I had no previous experience as an editor but enough knowledge about the beat to do something with it.

On the first day my colleague said, “You already know some of the reporters, so just go and start assigning stories.”

I was suddenly thrown. “I am going to ‘assign‘ them?” I asked.

“Uh, yeah,” she responded. “Didn’t you know that?”

I don’t know what I thought the process was, but as an early twenties first-time editor I didn’t feel qualified to tell professional writers what to write about. Of course, there’s much more back-and-forth than that, but the word ‘assign‘ sets the tone of that relationship and the process.

Is that the right word?

The Internet has a tendency to expose the insides of most processes, and publishing is no exception. Often problems occur when the machines replace human processes with something of lower fidelity. The Internet makes us better, however, when people can use it to accomplish things together that are hard to do as well alone.

This is one of the key principles behind Contributoria. We wanted to flatten the traditional hierarchy of the publishing process and extend authority to people in a community.

The piece that has been missing out there is the democratization of funding. Without power over the output and the budget the community is only participating in the editorial process.

We want the community to be driving the process from beginning to end.  We can then play host and facilitate an interesting conversation.  We can even amplify voices sometimes, too.

This could go in a lot of directions from here, but today’s announcement is the realization of the initial concept for Contributoria.  With the new membership program we are handing over more control to independent journalists and their supporters – everyone in the community here can ‘assign’ stories in the ‘designate’ sense of the word.

Maybe ‘commission’ is a better name for what’s happening here.

Please join Contributoria and support independent journalism.  It’s your chance to start commissioning and/or to get commissioned from a community that cares very much about the future of journalism in the world.

The open Internet of the future needs more commercial innovation today

Ethan Zuckerman led a panel with Emily Bell, Jillian York and Nathan Freitas at the MIT-Knight Civic Media Conference last week discussing a range of issues around the future of the Open Internet.

Emily talked about the authoritative position the leaders of the big Silicon Valley dotcoms are in and the lack of checks and balances they are held to. They can be very self-serving and sometimes just naive when it comes to free speech, owning our identities, and other human rights.

It isn’t a doomsday scenario, as there are many wonderful examples of the open Internet enabling a much more accessible and engaged civic dialog in the world. Marco Civil, TurboVote, and Promise Tracker are some of the more recent ones, to name a few.

But Emily is right that too much power is in the hands of too few. We gave them that power, and they developed incentives for us to keep giving it to them. Now their financial position gives them the ability to control even more aspects of the digital world if and when they want to.

There are political remedies to the centralization of authority that may end up just happening as they tend to do when commercial superpowers exercise too much control over large enough markets.

We must be careful what we ask for, however. Stifling technological innovation through regulation can turn into a costly and even self-destructive game of whack-a-mole.

Yet the market is failing to solve this problem organically.

Let’s be honest here — What incentives are offered to new companies by the open Internet? Do those things make a young business more successful than the alternatives, or will the privately-owned digital markets like the Apple bundled stack make it impossible for the open Internet or any public good to compete? Are the creators and custodians of the key industry standards driving the open Internet failing to embrace changes fast enough?

The macro implications are serious as Sir Tim Berners Lee said in a recent plea to protect the open Internet:

“Unless we have an open, neutral internet we can rely on without worrying about what’s happening at the back door, we can’t have open government, good democracy, good healthcare, connected communities and diversity of culture. It’s not naive to think we can have that, but it is naive to think we can just sit back and get it.”

But much of that is meaningless to the average entrepreneur trying to make it big or to the average end-user who just wants things to work.

I’m coming to the conclusion that the first step in this recovery is that anyone interested in a publicly-owned open Internet needs to look closely at the next gen entrepreneurs. Protecting the future requires a focus on the commercially-centered standards and issues, fighting for the ones that protect the open Internet and challenging the ones that will kill it. Celebrate organizations today that are both fueling open principles and making money in ways that demonstrate the values future custodians of this space will be proud to fight for.

For example, how can cybercurrencies be used to strengthen the open Internet? And what role does DRM play in the open Internet, or is it purely a threat?

Legislation is a critical battleground, but entrepreneurs care about money. And as the saying goes, when money walks out the door love flies out the window.

If the open Internet isn’t the best way to achieve the things people want to achieve then it is destined to be merely a servant of the path that is.

The Network is the News

A long time ago in Internet years there was a Silicon Valley super power called Sun Microsystems.  Their slogan was ‘The Network is the Computer’, a clever aspirational statement challenging the centralized power of mainframe computers.

It wasn’t long before that vision became reality, and the Internet grew into something much more powerful than a network that computes.  The idea became more of a principle of technology today rather than something any company could own.

Many variations on this theme have surfaced and resurfaced over the years, and yet it still feels like a fresh idea with a lot of unexplored territory.

Journalism, for example, is not often enough a networked activity.

An opportunity to try something that might function as if journalism were a network arose recently when my colleague Sean Clarke was looking for some help identifying a tool he needed for a special project.  Is there a better solution than Google Docs for collecting, analyzing and rendering structured input from users?

Of course the answer must be ‘yes’, but which one?

Around the same time, Knight’s next News Challenge was announced, a very appealing high level question about making the Internet stronger.  Maybe Sean’s need was something we could answer for everyone with a new open data platform.  Ideas are cheap, though, and we needed a team to work on this very unformed idea.

Guardian architect Graham Tackley is the creator of the company’s realtime analytics platform, an incredible tool that makes analytics work for editors in a way analytics tools have traditionally failed to understand.  He was eager to look at the realtime aspects of a project like this and how you can platformize it to serve many different users and use cases.

Also agreeing to join the project was Tom Armitage, a sort of mercenary artist whose canvas is code.  I met him at our first hack day at the Guardian a few years ago, and he supported the Contributoria team in its early phases.  He had some ideas about structured participation that he could tease out with this project.

I’m very interested in journalism platforms and, in particular, ways to make journalism work in a more network-y kind of way as opposed to a broadcast-y kind of way.  In my mind journalism is not yet fully embracing the power of the Internet as a network.

Yes, media companies are now very good at manipulating network behaviour to reach the masses, but very few are effectively using the two-way, linked node architecture of the Internet software and hardware stack.  And, of course, using raw data and user participation as the ingredients for networked journalism is something that needs much more exploration still.

As Susan Crawford said in her opening keynote at the MIT-Knight Civic Media conference announcing the funding for our project, among others, “data can provide a level of factual persuasion that storytelling isn’t always capable of doing.”

We’ve called this project Swarmize.

It’s going to stay very small for now while we figure out precisely what it is and apply it to one or two specific use cases.  My hope is that it sets the stage for something very potent as we’re able to collectively generate insight across the network, that ultimately the network becomes the journalism.

The business of journalism – recalibrating social good and self-interest as congruous forces

The following article first appeared on Contributoria.com, the community funded collaborative journalism platform.  It was also published by The Guardian.

In theory, press freedom and the commercial markets should be fantastic partners on the internet. These two forces are better because of each other than either one is alone.

It’s not always a healthy marriage, though.

The mutually beneficial dynamic that many collectivist and individualist forces have worked out together on the internet today works more like a mutually exclusive dynamic between press freedom and commercial interests.

They often operate independently of each other when they could both benefit from investing in the partnership.

Meet the new boss, same as the old boss
Traditionally, financial control of a newspaper in the hands of a wealthy individual, family or shareholders has supported newspapers very effectively and for a long time. This model has existed since the beginning of the business of journalism, and it has also allowed newcomers to enter the market and either support older businesses (Jeff Bezos’ purchase of the Washington Post) or create new businesses (Pierre Omidyar’s launch of New Look Media).

Yet the internet is particularly good at distributing influence and democratising voices in a very egalitarian way. The same can’t always be said about the platforms that operate on the internet, which sometimes have more hierarchical models, but the technology and user behaviours are capable of supporting independent media if the support model is applied well.

While a patriarch may protect press freedom, it comes with strings attached. There are better options.

Best friends forever
Of course, advertising is a working model. There’s a massive and very mature marketplace operating today and both sides of the equation understand each other well. Journalism and advertising are best friends forever on the internet.

In fact, the traditional news outlets are getting smarter about making the advertising vehicles they offer mutually beneficial for the advertiser, the media owner and the end user alike. One of the best examples of that model playing out is GuardianWitness, a user-contribution platform where the sponsor was a collaborator in the creation of the product.

However, advertisers are finding their customers through other channels, too. Everyone is a publisher on the internet, including advertisers. And the wider selection of options across the media landscape means news organisations need to work a lot harder to retain those relationships.

While functionally serviceable, the press freedom and advertising relationship is mostly platonic. The internet is capable of delivering much more value at scale than what’s happening today.

Taking back control
While the dotcom giants of Silicon Valley created new power structures and operating rules over the last several years, the incumbent media forces held their ground, watched and waited to see how big the opportunity would get. By moving slowly they eventually learned how to benefit from not playing by the rules.

For example hiding your website behind a paywall, where Google can’t find you, and focusing the attention of your readers on a direct and explicit transactional relationship instead of syphoning them off Facebook is an interesting way to protect your revenues from going elsewhere. After all, the argument goes, readers should be paying for the quality journalism they are reading. It’s simple logic.

Simple answers aren’t going to solve the problem, though. As FT columnist John Grapper tweeted, “I find the argument that people ‘should’ pay for news as flawed as the claim that it ‘should’ be free.”

Mathew Ingram a journalist covering the media business at GigaOm suggests the paywall is too blunt and fails to respect the relationship the reader wants to have with the media. “The paywall is undifferentiated. It gets applied across everything the newspaper produces and forces people to pay whether they want to or not. On the other hand, with a subscription model like Andrew Sullivan’s (The Daily Dish) you know exactly what you’re getting. It comes down to the question, ‘Do your interests align with the creator?’ In that sense Andrew Sullivan’s is a very personalised paywall.”

The paywall business model may in fact define the value of the business to its readers, but it doesn’t value the impact of the story in the world. It protects the existence of the business first and foremost, a choice many newspapers have decided justifies the costs of being less accessible to the world’s media distribution channels.

Rather than joined up in a healthy and supportive partnership, one side is always subservient to the other side in these relationships, an unhealthy long-term agreement regardless of which side thinks it is in control.

An open relationship
Newspapers can learn a lot from open publishing platforms which fuel mutually beneficial relationships between the producer, the host, advertisers and the consumer.

WordPress, for example, is host to over 75m blogs in the world today. It not only hosts websites for free, it licenses its software openly, too – the source code itself. WordPress makes money by selling premium services to those who need more support.

Newspapers face additional costs as a result of the hands-on role they take in paying for, crafting and selecting individual articles. They have civic responsibilities to respect certain institutions, industry codes of conduct such as commitments to accuracy and privacy standards, political influences including prior restraint laws and regulatory bodies, and cultural expectations, which vary from country to country.

The open content host or open distribution model can be too risky for the stable and nurturing relationship that press freedom seeks sometimes, but there are some interesting examples that begin to blend these two worlds and create mutually beneficial relationships that are worth watching closely, including Daily Kos, the New Jersey News Commons and Global Voices, to name a few.

What’s mine is yours
There may yet be an answer in generative platforms, a more purely and intrinsically internet-native model that leverages the natural give-and-take relationship the internet fosters so effectively.

The ideal system would fuel growth by building value collectively as a result of serving the needs of the individual.

When it works it can snowball and develop into what is known as a network effect. These platforms generate value as more participants join and become active across the system.

A generative business model fuelling the operational requirements of investigative journalism would be a powerful innovation indeed. With democratic commissioning on one side and self-serve licensing and open distribution on the other, the journalist could sit in the middle and manage their own relationship to multiple funding channels.

Notwithstanding Contributoria’s mission to support journalism in precisely this way, to date, a two-sided platform for journalism has yet to be applied at scale.

Til death do us part
Of the many revolutionary developments the internet has inspired, the most important might be the recalibration of social good and self-interest as congruous forces.

Perhaps this union comes from way down at the deepest layers of the internet’s protocols where give-and-take goes in both directions in a very literal sense. Perhaps it’s the limitless nature of the space we’re creating and a natural human desire to work together to shape it.

Whatever the reason, we’ve become incredibly effective at using the internet to barter, to share resources, and to collaborate on the creation of things. The result of this approach is that communities are benefiting as a whole as a direct result of fulfilling the needs of the individual.

The details of the relationship may be difficult to work through and require more compromise and sometimes even sacrifice than either side may prefer, but the right relationship is always worth fighting for even when times get tough – particularly when it comes to ideals as important as press freedom and trade.

Applying Internet philosophies to the journalism process

When I joined the Guardian a few years ago I was really eager to bring some ideas I had about applying the philosophies that made the early Internet possible to the publishing process and to journalism itself.

Transparency, networks, open data, platforms, collective behaviors, generative media, etc are all meaty concepts. I’m fascinated by how those words translate for industries that were formed before the Internet came along.

There are no answers, but there are certainly best practices and lots of ways to iterate and build and grow when you’ve found something that seems to work.

I was initially focused on opening up the Guardian’s content and data. That’s how the API got off the ground.

Then we took a Hack Day experiment on mobile reporting and we evolved it into a platform service called n0tice. n0tice powers GuardianWitness, among other things (more to be announced soon), and we offer that service to other publishers around the world.

And then this week another small crew (Sarah, Dan, Tom, Dean) launched a new business called Contributoria. It’s a collaborative writing platform where members drive all aspects of the publishing process together, including commissioning stories and the editing process itself.

Based on the initial reaction and the first participants to join Contributoria, I’m becoming really hopeful that we’ve created a new market, a new way of doing things that will help a lot of people who care about the future of journalism and want to be a part of it and to see it succeed.

While we’ve yet to do much future-proofing of Contributoria against the many threats to the Internet as we know it today, I remain an optimist about the wider network. And perhaps if we get enough momentum behind it, Contributoria can become a tool for or at least a participant in securing the principles that made the early Internet such a wonderful thing.

At worst, the guys have made a pretty neat platform. Wish us luck!

Dear Britain (Part II)

As you know, I became British recently. You now have a population of 63M + 1.

I’m still working out what being British means, but based on my observations as an immigrant the last several years there’s a lot of scope for self-referential commentary and a bit of naval-gazing here.

These are some of my impressions, so far.

Britain at its best

The first thing to say is that you are complicated. Now, it won’t surprise you that as an American I would find you or any other culture complicated. But it’s true.

On one hand you are totally brilliant and creative and funny and sensible and worldly, and then on the other you are petty and embarrassed and cranky and ironically hypocritical.

Let’s start with your brilliance because when you get it right, you get it really right.

Your success as an entertainer is pheonomenal.

You give the world some of the strongest and most powerful actors. Your artists and writers have a great balance of attitude with insight. Of course, you already know that your humor is unparalleled, a cultural attribute worth marveling.

Banksy on Whymark

And your music…how do you do it? And keep on doing it? The music you give the world consistently punches above your weight.

I sometimes worry you’re being a bit too cavalier with your position in the popular music world, though.

Yeah, it’s very entertaining watching talent shows where the judges say out loud the horrible things that you’re thinking in your head, but it’s not helpful to those performing and doesn’t yield good music. It’s shallow, mean-spirited, and keeps true creativity reigned in.

You are an ingenious inventor.

You gave the world hugely important tools and technologies like the pencil, the radio, typewriters, carbon fiber, silicone, steam engines, jet engines, submarines. You discovered invisible worlds like cell biology and calculus.

Everyone forgives you for polyester, which, not surprisingly, was actually popularized by an American you love nearly as much as we do – Elvis.

You invented practically every professional sport. Strangely, you’re rarely the best at any of them. *

That fact is very interesting to me because it doesn’t seem like an isolated trait. It’s something every Brit is aware of and just accepts as truth, like some maligned strand in the British cultural DNA.

This is precisely where I find it harder to relate, because it doesn’t have to be true.

Backseat driver

I think maybe you don’t want to be responsible or accountable for anything you might not win. You’d prefer to observe, analyze and then criticize those who make mistakes.

When things go wrong you can legitimately say, “I told you so”, because you eagerly reported all the many ways it was going to fail. One of them was going to be right.

For example, instead of following through on the English republic, a somewhat more controlled democracy seemed preferrable to all-out people-powered rule. I won’t pretend to understand everything that happened during that period, but ultimately you voluntarily revoked your own independence and invited the monarchy back.

And to this day you still pass the Commander-in-chief role through family lines rather than democratically elected officials, and you govern through appointed Lords who keep your people’s representatives in check.

Queen's Diamond Jubilee Parade and Muster at Windsor Castle

I’m not arguing the British governing system is broken or wrong — we all know America’s form of democracy has plenty of challenges, too — but rather that these choices define you and demonstrate what matters to you as a society. In some ways it feels like you’re in denial about who is in charge here.

On the other hand your creativity in both foreign affairs and domestic policy are profound and forward-thinking.

Perhaps the first ever manifestation of a concept of freedom of speech in the world appeared as a result of the end of the republic in your 1689 Bill of Rights. You thought people should be able to petition the monarch without fear of retribution.**

That was surely revolutionary at the time and remains a core tenant of democratic values today.

It seems to me that your commitment to that premise is on shakey ground at the moment, as your politicians are challenging free speech in many worrying ways. But you’ll get past this episode, as it clearly matters deeply to you.

Later you invented the World Wide Web, the most profound open market for free speech the world has ever known. ***

Again, like many others before it, your role in your invention’s life was a strange one.

First, you watched from the sidelines while US entrepreneurs created massive commercial institutions off the back of it.

And then when you realized the Web mattered to the world so much you used it to monitor conversations instead of protecting its meaning and its existence as a public space.

The inventor of fingerprinting, iris scanning, and DNA databases, unsurprisingly, turned the great communications channel of the world into a weapon against your own allies by literally tapping into the information flow going through it.

Knowledge is power. It didn’t surprise me to learn recently that you coined that term.

The cancer of self-doubt

It’s not your sophisticated and sometimes dangerous information machines that are the problem but rather your lack of faith in yourself as a positive contributor in the world that is going to do the most damage over time.

That fundamentally British cynicism can become a sort of infectious disease within your culture. It can destroy some of your greatest capabilities…creativity chief among them.

As much as I value the grounded way in which you view yourself, I think you are too cynical.

You refuse to let yourself believe that you are actually good at anything unless you are definitively the best at it. You can’t seem to see or imagine the sky beyond the heavy clouds that rain on you all the time.

The London Olympics were absolutely wonderful, and yet a year after you were still debating whether or not it was a success.

It was a huge success!

In fact, it was the London Olympics and the brilliant opening ceremony that first inspired me to make my naturalisation happen. It thrust the country onto the world’s stage in a big way, and I know I wasn’t the alone in my admiration for you.


Why can’t you pat yourself on the back, Britain? Is the system more important to you than the individual?

That could explain the great English superhero James Bond. Yes, he is a talented man, but his abilities are amplified by the secret intelligence machine behind him, an invisible hand that provides for his lifestyle and is always prepared to catch him when he flies too close to the sun. His super power is actually the government and country. (…a force that is prepared to dispose of him, too.)

Often that collective spirit is a huge plus.

Instead of operating without a leader in 2010 when you couldn’t choose a party to run the government, you joined up two parties to run it together. As much as the politicians are clearly annoyed with it, the model is very sensible and grown up.

My American countrymen seem incapable of collaborating with oppositional forces at all. There has to be a winning team and a losing team, even if that results in a worse outcome than both sides giving up a little for the good of all.

It’s likely that some of your many talents result from the struggle against the institutional powers that work so hard to maintain the social net and the status quo.

Great art often arises out of conflict, and the struggle against immovable forces may just be what makes Britain so British.

The British pride contagion

My first draft of this letter included some things I think should change, but, on reflection, that seemed too, well, American. Instead I’ll adopt my new culture, accept us the way we are, and continue to study what it means to be British until it’s clearer where I can have a meaningful impact.

To be clear, I’m very proud to be a dual citizen. The naturalisation ceremony hammered that home. It’s also true that your quirks have really grown on me.

My favorite is how you queue everywhere, whenever possible, as if the future of the human race depended on it. It makes me laugh, but I also get it.

I’ve become very proud that my children are British. I love to see my American friends and family react when they hear their accents.

I love that we can expose them to foreign people and languages both via our home city in London and with cheap holidays to foreign countries.

I love the newspapers here, particularly the Guardian, of course. The BBC is brilliant.

London is one of the truly great cities in the world. Dorset, Norfolk, and Sussex have all treated us very well on our travels.

I’ve learned to really enjoy football here, though the Premier League shenanigans can make that a difficult relationship, as I think most people here feel, as well.

And my friends and colleagues here, and the kids’ school are all brilliant.

I look forward to voting and becoming a more active member of your society.

I’m proud to live here, warts and all. It wouldn’t be home any other way.

* Britain’s Olympic medal count over time and in London, in particular, shows that athletic capability is stronger than you might think. Maybe I’m being unfair in my criticism here and in fact Britain dramatically outperforms relative to its size. That wouldn’t be surprising.

** Going a step further and calling for the abolition of the monarch carries a life sentence even still today.

*** While, technically, it was a subset of the Internet which had been around for years, the World Wide Web was the best solution for publishing open and connected public documents and thereby the key to unlocking the Internet as a free speech engine.