How I Started Blogging

bloggercon

Dave Winer posted a call for co-remembrances of the BloggerCon conferences he held in 2003/2004 which got me thinking about how I started this blog and kicked off a series of events that brought me to California to work at a blogging company and catch a wave that I’ve been on ever since.

I attended BloggerCon II in Boston in 2004 on a hunch. I was working at Dow Jones, publisher of The Wall Street Journal, for the Electronic Publishing division (only a newspaper company would have such a division) and was working with enterprise customers integrating news into corporate intranets. Most companies at that time were using large portal software packages such as Plumtree or Microsoft Sharepoint to drive their portals so blogs for corporations were very much under the radar. At the time, I was a regular reader of John Battelle’s Searchblog and Joi Ito and was playing around with Blogger so I could see the promise. My gut told me that the blogger community was something worth investigating.

When I got to Cambridge, where BloggerCon was held, I immediately knew that I was in the right place. The unconference format was very natural to me and the sharing openness of the attendees was a welcome change from the competitive world of enterprise software.  Each session included an IRC chat and seeing the IRC scrolling on the screen behind the speakers was a philosophical shift that echoed the shift of the conversation from the publisher to the community that was taking root with blogging. I think their was some kind of streaming audio for remote viewers as well. I recall someone typed something into the IRC that made the entire room erupt in laughter,  that person then typed “Cool, I just made the room laugh.” It was a powerful learning moment for me, to listen and include your audience. It was a pre-cursor to what we see today when the twitter/hashtag feed serves as a back-channel commentary to the podium. The community could drive the agenda. This was in 2004, before the Kryptonite/Bic Pen video and all the other Social Media fails that were to follow.

I had been pretty much all alone in corporate-ville trying to explain the power of this new self-publishing platform but most of my talk was falling on deaf or pretentious ears. Meeting others at BloggerCon helped me put more eloquent words to what I was trying to say and emboldened me to spin up a few initiatives of my own.

I was a always struggling with the best way to get the word out to our more developer-minded customers. All communications were filtered through the Marketing and PR departments where things I wrote were watered down and stupefied to the point where they didn’t make sense. We sometimes had outages and by the time my post-mortem communications were approved and made it to the customer, it was too late and only served to remind them of something they had already forgotten about.

I launched a product blog for my product and gave the address to a small group of customers that I knew would appreciate it. On that blog I would give them a head’s up on new features and asked customers questions about future product direction. They left thoughtful comments and the knowledge shared in the commentary helped everyone who read them. It was a lightweight community, an alternative to more formal “focus groups” which cost a lot to set up and required people to travel in order to participate.

I was nervous because I was going around the Marketing Department so after a couple of weeks I mentioned to the VP of Marketing what I was up to and his response was, “Don’t tell me anything more. I don’t want to know what you’re doing but keep doing it.” From that day on the die was cast and I was off and running. Within a year, convinced of the power of this form of communication, thanks to an introduction from my sister, I had a long, animated conversation with Anil Dash who had already moved to California to work at Six Apart, an early blog software pioneer. Within a few months I joined my sister, Anil, Andrew Anker and others as the company geared up to launch Six Apart’s hosted blogging platform, TypePad.

The rest is history. Since BloggerCon, my career has always leveraged lessons that were put into motion that weekend in Cambridge. Every job I have held since has involved an appreciation of the social media community that started at BloggerCon. Thank you Dave for giving a home to the early pioneers and setting me on a path that I am still blazing down today. It’s been a glorious ride.

Daniel Suarez Nightmare a Reality

I wrote back in June about Autonomous Robotic Weapons and the fear that SciFi writer Daniel Suarez had that these would one day be built and what could go wrong.

Looks like it’s real.

In the recruitment video above, the Air Force invites future cadets to work with them on creating a network of autonomous quadroters that can work without human intervention.

“The objective of this project is to code a system that allows this quadroter to think and act autonomously.”

This is precisely what Daniel Suarez warned about. By designing drones that operate autonomously, you start down the road towards a world where the decision to cause war & violence are pushed away from humans. Daniel lists three powerful factors that cause this shift,

  1. The deluge of video footage will overwhelm ability for humans to analyse so that, “drones will tell humans what to look at.”
  2. Electromagnetic jamming by the enemy means that drones will be required to act on their own and not be piloted by humans. Drones will know their objective and react to external circumstances on their own, ignoring incoming radio signals, friendly or not.
  3. Plausible deniability because drones are made from commodity materials that can be procured by anyone, even a criminal gang.

Suarez’s latest book, Kill Decision is about this very topic and this latest news shows that his nightmare scenario is a very real possibility.

Happiness is a Filter

Author Michael Lewis (Moneyball, Liar’s Poker) sits in on an episode of This American Life and tells a wonderful story of Emir Kamenica, a refugee from the Serbian conflict, who, in his own words, caught a lucky break by meeting an “angel” who encouraged him to transfer from the greater Atlanta public school to an exclusive private school where he was awarded a scholarship that lead to Harvard and University of Chicago Business School where he teaches today.

As Emir tells it, it was blind luck that got him there. As we learn later, it wasn’t luck, he was a talented hard worker already and probably would have ended up where he is regardless. Despite the probable or actual outcomes, Michael’s story is about your state of mind and how the way you face opportunity (and challenges) is such an important contributor to your overall demeanor. Here’s Michael:

There is no obvious connection between a person’s happiness and the way he tells stories about himself. But I think there’s a not-so-obvious one. When you insist, the way that Emir does, that you’re both lucky and indebted to other people, well, you’re sort of prepared to see life as a happy accident, aren’t you?

It’s just very different than if you tell yourself that you simply deserve all the good stuff that happens to you. Because you happened to be born a genius or suffered so much or worked so hard– that way of telling the story– well, it’s what you hear from every miserable bond trader at Goldman Sachs, or for that matter, every other a-hole who ever walked the earth.

When I travelled through Italy I remember thinking the Italians, with all their quirky infrastructure, never seemed too unhappy about it. They collected their trials and tribulations little mementoes that they could bring out and share with friends and strangers. I met someone on a train and we had a horrible time that day as the train was continually delayed and it took us forever to get where we wanted to go. We passed the time playing cards and telling stories and I remember how cheery he was – he never let the delays get him down. After one particularly outlandish excuse for further delay (everyone suspected the relief conductor was sleeping in) my travel companion said, “at least this will make a good story!”

Listen for yourself – it’s a great story, starts at around 10 minutes in.