BBC offered another history of London documentary the other night, a sort of people’s perspective on how the character of the city has changed over time, obviously inspired by Danny Boyle’s Opening Ceremony at the Olympics.
Some of the sequences were interesting to me particularly as a foreigner – the gentrification of Islington, the anarchist squatters in Camden, the urbanization of the Docklands, etc. – a running theme of haves vs have-nots.
At a more macro level these things remind me of the need to challenge the many human constructs and institutions that are reflections of the natural desire to claim things and own them.
Why is it so difficult to embrace a more ‘share and share alike’ attitude? This is as true for children and their toys as it is for governments and their policies.
The bigger concern for me, of course, is the future of the Internet and how media and journalism thrive and evolve there.
Despite attempts by its founders to shape the Internet so it can’t be owned and controlled, there are many who have tried to change that both intentionally and unwittingly, occasionally with considerable success.
How does this happen?
We’re all complicit. We buy a domain. We then own it and build a web site on it. That “property” then becomes a thing we use to make money. We fight to get people there and sell them things when they arrive. It’s the Internet-as-retailer or Internet-as-distributor view of the world.
That’s how business on the Internet works…or is it?
While many have made that model work for them, it’s my belief that the property model is never going to be as important or meaningful or possibly as lucrative as the platform or service model over time. More specifically, I’m talking about generative media networks.
Here are a few different ways of visualizing this shift in perspective (more):
Even if it works commercially, the property model is always going to be in conflict with the Internet-as-public-utility view of the world.
Much like Britain’s privately owned public spaces issue, many worry that the Internet-as-public-utility will be ruined or, worse, taken from us over time by commercial and government interests.
Playing a zero sum game like that turns everyone and everything into a threat. Companies can be very effective at fighting and defending their interests even if the people within those companies mean well.
I’m an optimist in this regard. There may be a pendulum that swings between “own” and “share”, and there are always going to be fights to secure public spaces. But you can’t put the Internet genie back in the bottle. And even if you could it would appear somewhere else in another form just as quickly…in some ways it already has.
The smart money, in my mind, is where many interests are joined up regardless of their individual goals, embracing the existence of each other in order to benefit from each other’s successes.
The answer is about cooperation, co-dependency, mutualisation, openness, etc.
We think about this a lot at the Guardian. I recently wrote about how it applies to the recent Twitter issues here. And this presentation by Chris Thorpe below from back in 2009 on how to apply it to the news business is wonderful:
Of course, Alan Rusbridger’s description of a mutualised newspaper in this video is still one of the strongest visions I’ve heard for a collaborative approach to media.
The possibility of collective action at such an incredible scale is what makes the Internet so great. If we can focus on making collective activities more fruitful for everyone then our problems will become less about haves and have-nots and more about ensuring that everyone participates.
That won’t be an easy thing to tackle, but it would be a great problem to have.
After seeing Google’s “News near you” service announced on Friday I thought it was a good time to jump into the conversation and share what I’m up to. Clearly, there are a lot of people chasing the same or similar issues.
First, here’s some background. Then I’ll detail what it does, how it works, and what I hope it will become.
It took half a second from working out how to identify a user’s location to realizing that this feature could be handy for citizen reporters.
Around the same time there was a really interesting little game called noticin.gs going around which was built by Tom Taylor and Tom Armitage, two incredibly talented UK developers. The game rewarded people for being good at spotting interesting things in the world and capturing a photo of them.
Ushahidi was tackling emergency response reporting. And, of course, Foursquare was hitting its stride then, too.
These things were all capturing my imagination, and so I thought I would try something similar in the context of sharing news, events and listings in your community.
However, I was quite busy with the Guardian’s Open Platform, as the team was moving everything out of beta, introducing some big new services and infusing it into the way we operate. I learned a lot doing that which has informed n0tice, too, but it was another 12 months before I could turn my attention back to this project. It doesn’t feel any less relevant today than it did then. It’s just a much more crowded market now.
What does n0tice do?
The service operates in two modes – reading and posting.
When you go to n0tice.com it will first detect whether or not you’re coming from a mobile device. It was designed for the iPhone first, but the desktop version is making it possible to integrate a lot of useful features, too.
(Lesson: jQuery Mobile is amazing. It makes your mobile projects better faster. I wish I had used it from day one.)
It will then ask your permission to read your location. If you agree, it grabs your latitude and longitude, and it shows you what has been published to n0tice within a close radius.
(Lesson: It uses Google Maps and their geocoder to get the location out of the browser, but then it uses Yahoo!’s geo services to do some of the other lookups since I wanted to work with different types of location objects. This combination is clunky and probably a bad idea, but those tools are very robust.)
You can then zoom out or zoom in to see broader or more precise coverage.
Since it knows where you are already, it’s easy to post something you’ve seen near you, too. You can actually post without being logged in, but there are some social incentives to encourage logged in behavior.
Like Foursquare’s Mayor analogy, n0tice has the ‘Editor’ badge.
The first person to post in a particular city becomes the Editor of that city. The Editor can then be ousted if someone completes more actions in the same city or region.
It was definitely a challenge working out how to make sensible game mechanics work, but it was even harder finding the right mix of neighborhood, city, country, lat/long coordinates so that the idea of an ‘Editor’ was consistent from place to place.
London and New York, for example, are much more complicated given the importance of the neighborhoods yet poorly defined boundaries for them.
(Lesson: Login is handled via Facebook. Their platform has improved a lot in the last 12 months and feels much more ‘give-and-take’ than just ‘take’ as it used to. Now, I’m not convinced that the activities in a person’s local community are going to join up naturally via the Facebook paradigm, so it needs to be used more as a quickstart for a new service like this one.)
The ‘Editor’ mechanics are going to need a lot more work. But what I like about the ‘Editor’ concept is that we can now start to endow more rights and priveleges upon each Editor when an area matures.
Perhaps Editors are the only ones who can delete posts. Perhaps they can promote important posts. Maybe they can even delegate authority to other participants or groups.
Of course, quality is always an issue with open communities. Having learned a few things about crowdsourcing activities at the Guardian now, there are some simple triggers in place that should make it easier to surface quality should the platform scale to a larger audience.
For example, rather than comments, n0tice accepts ‘Evidence’.
You can add a link to a story, post a photo, embed a video or even a storify feed that improve the post.
Also, the ratings aren’t merely positive/negative. They ask if something matters, if people will care, and if it’s accurate. That type of engagement may be expecting too much of the community, but I’m hopeful it will work.
Of course, all this additional level of interactivity is only available on the desktop version, as the mobile version is intended to serve just two very specific use cases:
getting a snapshot of what’s happening near you now
posting something you’ve seen quickly and easily
How will n0tice make money?
Since the service is a community notice board, it makes sense to use an advertising model that people already understand in that context: classifieds.
Anyone can list something on n0tice for free that they are trying to sell. Then they can buy featured promotional positions based on how large the area is in which they want their item to appear and for how long they want it to be seen there.
(Lesson: Integrating PayPal for payments took no time at all. Their APIs and documentation feel a little dated in some ways, but just as Facebook is fantastic as a quickstart tool for identity, PayPal is a brilliant quickstart for payments.)
Promotion on n0tice costs $1 per 1 mile radius per day. That’s in US dollars.
While still getting the word out and growing the community $1 will buy you a featured spot that lasts until more people come along and start buying up availability.
But there’s a lot we can do with this framework.
For example, I think it would make sense that a ‘Publisher’ role could be defined much like the ‘Editor’ for a region.
Perhaps a ‘Publisher’ could earn a percentage of every sale in a region. The ‘Publisher’ could either earn that privelege or license it from us.
I’m also hopeful that we can make some standard affiliate services possible for people who want to use the ad platform in other apps and web sites across the Internet. That will only really work if the platform is open.
The client code for the mobile version is posted on Github with an open license (we haven’t committed to which license, yet), though it is a few versions behind what is running on the live site. That will change at some point.
The idea in this approach to openness is that the value is in the network itself, the connections between things, the reputation people develop, the impact they have in their communities.
The data and the software are enablers that create and sustain the value. So the more widely used the data and software become the more valuable the network is for all the participants.
How scalable is the platform?
The user experience can scale globally given it is based on knowing latitude and longitude, something treated equally everywhere in the world. There are limitations with the lat/long model, but we have a lot of headroom before hitting those problems.
The architecture is pretty simple at the moment, really. There’s not much to speak of in terms of directed graphs and that kind of thing, yet. So the software, regardless of how badly written it is, which it most definitely is, could be rewritten rather quickly. I suspect that’s inevitable, actually.
The software environment is a standard LAMP stack hosted on Dreamhost which should be good enough for now. I’ve started hooking in things like Amazon’s CloudFront, but it’s not yet on EC2. That seems like a must at some point, too.
The APIs should also help with performance if we make them more cacheable.
The biggest performance/scalability problem I foresee will happen when the gaming mechanics start to matter more and the location and social graphs get bigger. It will certainly creak when lots of people are spending time doing things to build their reputation and acquire badges and socialize with other users.
If we do it right, we will learn from projects like WordPress and turn the platform into something that many people care about and contribute to. It would surely fail if we took the view that we can be the only source of creative ideas for this platform.
To be honest, though, I’m more worried about the dumb things like choking on curly quotes in users’ posts and accidentally losing users’ badges than I’m worried about scaling.
It also seems likely that the security model for n0tice is currently worse than the performance and scalability model. The platform is going to need some help from real professionals on that front, for sure.
What’s the philosophy driving it?
There’s most definitely an ideology fueling n0tice, but it would be an overstatement to say that the vision is leading what we’re doing at the moment.
In its current state, I’m just trying to see if we can create a new kind of mobile publishing environment that appeals to lots of people.
There’s enough meat to it already, though, that the features are very easy to line up against the mission of being an open community notice board.
Local UK community champion Will Perrin said it felt like a “floating cloud of data that follows you around without having to cleave to distribution or boundary.”
I really like that idea.
Taking a wider view, the larger strategic context that frames projects like this one and things like the Open Platform is about being Open and Connected. Recently, I’ve written about Generative Media Platforms and spoken about Collaborative Media. Those ideas are all informing the decisions behind n0tice.
My hope is that we can move n0tice from being a hack to becoming a new GMG business that supports the Guardian more broadly.
The support n0tice provides should come in two forms: 1) new approaches to open and collaborative journalism and 2) new revenue streams.
It’s also very useful to have living projects that demonstrate the most extreme examples of ‘Open and Connected‘ models. We need to be exploring things outside our core business that may point to the future in addition to moving our core efforts where we want to go.
We spend a lot of time thinking about openness and collaboration and the live web at the Guardian. If n0tice does nothing more than illustrate what the future might look like then it will be very helpful indeed.
However, the more I work on this the more I think it’s less a demo of the future and more a product of the present.
Like most of the innovations in social media, the hard work isn’t the technology or even the business model.
The most challenging aspect of any social media or SoLoMo platform is making it matter to real people who are going to make it come alive.
If that’s also true for n0tice, then the hard part is just about to begin.
* The hack was originally called ‘News Signals’. But after trying and failing to convince a few people that this was a good idea, including both technical people and potential users, such as my wife, I realized the name really mattered.
I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about generative media platforms, and the name needed to reflect that goal, something that spoke to the community’s behaviors through the network. It was supposed to be about people, not machines.
Now, of course, it’s hard to find a short domain name these days, but digits and dots and subdomains can make things more interesting and fun anyhow. Luckily, n0tice.com was available…that’s a zero for an ‘o’.
Jay Rosen has an interesting post on the failure of AssignmentZero, an effort to build a publicly funded crowdsourced news organization.
Among the many lessons, he keeps coming back to motivation and incentive.
“A well managed project correctly estimates what motivates people to join in, what the various rewards are for participants, and where the practical limits of their involvement lie.
…amateur production will never replace the system of paid correspondents. It only springs to life when people are motivated enough to self-assign and follow through.”
The idea wasn’t fundamentally broken, in my mind. Crowdsourced news is very powerful. As Derek Powazek said,
“At its best, crowdsourcing is about expanding the walls of the newsroom to the internet, giving an opportunity to people with real experience to share their expertise. This is a point that’s often lost on people who are just looking to make a quick buck on Web 2.0.”
More than anything else, I suspect that AssignmentZero failed because there weren’t any readers. Motivation wouldn’t have been a problem with a NYTimes-sized audience.
To date, I’ve never seen a better explanation of the motivations in collaborative online experiences than Yochai Benkler’s paper called Coase’s Penguin. One of my favorite excerpts from that is where he warns against paying for contributions from the community:
“An act of love drastically changes meaning when one person offers the other money at its end, and a dinner party guest who will take out a checkbook at the end of dinner instead of bringing flowers or a bottle of wine at the beginning will likely never be invited again.”
There are as many motivations as there are contributors in a shared media project. What holds them together is more art than science. Some of that art includes good timing and luck. But it also requires a unique kind of commitment and salesmanship from the leaders of the project.
I’ve begun to wonder if the tipping point happens when the confluence of the community size, the ROI to the contributors and the depth of the trust relationship with the company or the brand creates more value than the sum of the parts. Maybe the science of collaboration services can be found by quantifying the meaning of the relationships between those elements: size, cost, benefit and trust.
Or it could also be that the secret sauce inside the Craig Newmarks, Stewart Butterfields and Jimmy Waleses of the world is much more complicated and nuanced than anyone realizes.
The recent blog frenzy over hyperlocal media inspired me to have a look at Outside.in again.
It’s not just the high profile backers and the intense competitive set that make Outside.in worth a second look. There’s something very compelling in the way they are connecting data that seems like it matters.
My initial thought when it launched was that this idea had been done before too many times already. Topix.net appeared to be a dominant player in the local news space, not to mention similar but different kinds of local efforts at startups like Yelp and amongst all the big dotcoms.
And even from their strong position, Topix’s location-based news media aggregaton model was kind of, I don’t know, uninteresting. I’m not impressed with local media coverage these days, in general, so why would an aggregator of mediocre coverage be any more interesting than what I discover through my RSS reader?
But I think Outside.in starts to give some insight into how local media could be done right…how it could be more interesting and, more importantly, useful.
The light triggered for me when I read Jon Udell’s post on “the data finds the data”. He explains how data can be a vector through which otherwise unrelated people meet eachother, a theme that continues to resonate for me.
Media brands have traditionally been good at connecting the masses to eachother and to marketers. But the expectation of how directly people feel connected to other individuals by the media they share has changed.
Whereas the brand once provided a vector for connections, data has become the vehicle for people to meet people now. Zip code, for example, enables people to find people. So does marital status, date and time, school, music taste, work history. There are tons of data points that enable direct human-to-human discovery and interaction in ways that media brands could only accomplish in abstract ways in the past.
“On June 17 I bookmarked this item from Mike Caulfield… On June 19 I noticed that Jim Groom had responded to Mike’s post. Ten days later I noticed that Mike had become Jim’s new favorite blogger.
I don’t know whether Jim subscribes to my bookmark feed or not, but if he does, that would be the likely vector for this nice bit of manufactured serendipity. I’d been wanting to introduce Mike at KSC to Jim (and his innovative team) at UMW. It would be delightful to have accomplished that introduction by simply publishing a bookmark.”
Now, Outside.in allows me to post URLs much like one would do in Newsvine or Digg any number of other collaborative citizen media services. But Outside.in leverages the zip code data point as the topical vector rather than a set of predetermined one-size-fits-all categories. It then allows miscellaneous tagging to be the subservient navigational pivot.
Suddenly, I feel like I can have a real impact on the site if I submit something. If there’s anything near a critical mass of people in the 94107 zip code on Outside.in then it’s likely my neighbors will be influenced by my posts.
“They’ve built a platform that placebloggers can submit their content to. Their platform “tags” that content with a geocode — an address, zip code, or city — and that renders a new page for every location that has tagged content. If you visit outside.in/10010, you’ll find out what’s going on in the neigborhood around Union Square Ventures. If you visit outside.in/back_bay, you’ll see what’s going on in Boston’s Back Bay neighborhood.”
Again, the local online media model isn’t new. In fact, it’s old. CitySearch in the US and UpMyStreet in the UK proved years ago that a market does in fact exist in local media somehwere somehow, but the market always feels fragile and susceptible to ghost town syndrome.
“Why doesn’t Craigslist choose small towns? Because there isn’t enough liquidity in the market. Let me put that another way. In cities, there are enough buyers and sellers to make markets work – whether of used stuff, new stuff, events, etc, etc.
In smaller towns, there just isn’t enough supply or demand.”
If they commit to building essentially micro media brands based exclusively on location I suspect Outside.in will run itself into the ground spending money to establish critical mass in every neighborhood around the world.
Now that they have a nice micro media approach that seems to work they may need to start thinking about macro media. In order to reach the deep dark corners of the physical grid, they should connect people in larger contexts, too. Here’s an example of what I mean…
I’m remodeling the Potrero Hill shack we call a house right now. It’s all I talk about outside of work, actually. And I need to understand things like how to design a kitchen, ways to work through building permits, and who can supply materials and services locally for this job.
There must be kitchen design experts around the world I can learn from. Equally, I’m sure there is a guy around the corner from me who can give me some tips on local services. Will Architectural Digest or Home & Garden connect me to these different people? No. Will The San Francisco Chronicle connect us? No.
Craigslist won’t even connect us, because that site is so much about the transaction.
I need help both from people who can connect on my interest vector in addition to the more local geographic vector. Without fluid connections on both vectors, I’m no better off than I was with my handy RSS reader and my favorite search engine.
Looking at how they’ve decided to structure their data, it seems Outside.in could pull this off and connect my global affinities with my local activities pretty easily.
This post is way too long already (sorry), but it’s worth pointing out some of the other interesting things they’re doing if you care to read on.
Outside.in is also building automatic semantic links with the contributors’ own blogs. By including my zip code in a blog post, Outside.in automatically drinks up that post and adds it into the pool. They even re-tag my post with the correct geodata and offer GeoRSS feeds back out to the world.
“Any piece of content that is tagged with a zip code will be assigned to the corresponding area within outside.in’s system. You can include the zip code as either a tag or a category, depending on your blogging platform.”
I love this.
30Boxes does something similar where I can tell it to collect my Upcoming data, and it automatically imports events as I tag them in Upcoming.
They are also recognizing local contributors and shining light on them with prominant links. I can see who the key bloggers are in my area and perhaps even get a sense of which ones matter, not just who posts the most. I’m guessing they will apply the “people who like this contributor also like this contributor” type of logic to personalize the experience for visitors at some point.
Now what gets me really excited is to think about the ad model that could happen in this environment of machine-driven semantic relationships.
If they can identify relevant blog posts from local contributors, then I’m sure they could identify local coupons from good sources of coupon feeds.
Let’s say I’m the national Ace Hardware marketing guy, and I publish a feed of coupons. I might be able to empower all my local Ace franchises and affiliates to publish their own coupons for their own areas and get highly relevant distribution on Outside.in. Or I could also run a national coupon feed with zip code tags cooked into each item.
To Umair’s point, that kind of marketing will only pay off in major metros where the markets are stronger.
To help address the inventory problem, Outside.in could then offer to sell ad inventory on their contributors’ web sites. As an Outside.in contributor, I would happily run Center Hardware coupons, my local Ace affiliate, on my blog posts that talk about my remodelling project if someone gave them to me in some automated way.
If they do something like this then they will be able to serve both the major metros and the smaller hot spots that you can never predict will grow. Plus, the incentives for the individuals in the smaller communities start feeding the wider ecosystem that lives on the Outside.in platform.
Outside.in would be pushing leverage out to the edge both in terms of participation as they already do and in terms of revenue generation, a fantastic combination of forces that few media companies have figured out, yet.
I realize there are lots of ‘what ifs’ in this assessment. The company has a lot of work to do before they breakthrough, and none of it is easy. The good news for them is that they have something pretty solid that works today despite a crowded market.
Regardless, knowing Fred Wilson, Esther Dyson, John Seely Brown and Steven Berlin Johnson are behind it, among others, no doubt they are going to be one to watch.