Getting the Band Together Again at SmartNews

Following a month off after my unexpected liberation from Gigaom, I started this week as Director of Media & Technology Partnerships at SmartNews. I feel very fortunate to have discovered this company at a time when I believe I have a lot to offer.

First, some recent coverage,

While researching the company, I was delighted to learn they had hired Rich Jaroslovsky. Rich and I crossed paths a few times when I was working at Dow Jones as he was getting wsj.com off the ground. We both have a fascination with technology’s impact on media and I shared his mission to bring The Wall Street Journal online. We had since gone our separate ways but I always admired his love and respect for good journalism as a writer, editor, and business guy.

Rich explained to me that SmartNews thinks of itself as a machine learning company with a news front-end which is right in the nexus of what makes me tick. The co-founders, Ken Suzuki and Kaisei Hamamoto, are super-sharp engineers who see news discovery as an interesting problem to solve and hugely important for society to get right. To give you a sense for how they think, as they look for real estate for their San Francisco office, Ken and Kaisei each created their own interactive maps showing the locations of high tech startups and compared notes to determine that the area of 2nd and Howard was the ideal spot to focus their search.

I made my pitch (excerpted below) and here I am!

Two of the hardest challenges for the publishing industry are distribution and advertising. When publishers moved online, they had to reinvent their traditional distribution channels and navigate a new landscape.

Initially it was the portals such as Yahoo and AOL that would curate the best of the web. Advertising was also sold this way, manually curated and matched to broad channels of interest maintained by the portals.

As technology improved, search engines such as Google automated discovery and matching a reader’s interests to a publisher’s content. Advertising was automated and optimized via keyword matching and auction systems to extract maximum value. Distributed widgets allowed publishers to embed advertising into their sites and a combination of publisher tags and indexing that allowed them to take advantage of an ad network’s inventory.

Social media platforms have recently taken over as a source of traffic for publishers and content snippets shared via these networks represent the fastest growing segment of inbound readers for a publisher.

A common thread to success across all these channels is attractive representation of a publisher’s content within each distribution channel. Whether it’s meta-data, SEO, or “social media optimization,” each new distribution channel has spawned a new method of representing your content to the service which is doing the crawling and aggregation.

For a new distribution channel both the crawling and aggregation algorithms are key to successful presentation of content and relevant advertising to the reader.

Technology has enabled effortless distribution of news so the looming challenge is not so much the distribution of content but more its discovery and presentation. Social media burnout and personalization algorithms are still very basic and often push more and more similar content to the reader resulting in a “filter bubble” which shows the reader only what they want to see or worse, what they already know.

Working with publishers to find them new sources of readership and readers to teach them something they didn’t know is an important goal that aligns with my interests. The fact that the team is based in Japan, a culture with a strong culture of news readership, is attractive to me as I am a big fan of introducing Japan to the rest of the world.

Is Social Media Just Network Television Reborn?

What if we follow the trend of the “app-ificaiton” of media to the next logical step? What if Snapchat’s Discover feature is just the modern version of network television where channels control distribution and readers become passive again, replacing their allotted 5 hours of TV with 5 hours of browsing Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat and the rest?

If in five years I’m just watching NFL-endorsed ESPN clips through a syndication deal with a messaging app, and Vice is just an age-skewed Viacom with better audience data, and I’m looking up the same trivia on Genius instead of Wikipedia, and “publications” are just content agencies that solve temporary optimization issues for much larger platforms, what will have been point of the last twenty years of creating things for the web?

– The Next Internet is TV

Is Comcast the new AT&T?

comcast lobby email

We all know this stuff goes on. Lobbyist ghost writes letters for elected officials or even drafting legal amendments to try and turn their way towards their clients. But it’s not pretty when you see it in broad daylight like this. The latest exhibit is from Comcast who is using their influence to fabricate support for their proposed merger with Time Warner Cable, creating the essentially the largest ISP monopoly in the nation.

This is what happens when you get a monopoly. Last year Comcast was the new AOL, this year, it’s the new AT&T.

For those of you who forgot what it was like the last time a single communications provider was the only game in town, I present you with Lily Tomlin who, on Saturday Night Live in the late 70s, skewered the then dominant AT&T on a regular basis.

We’re the phone company, we don’t care because we don’t have to.

Privileged information? That’s so cute.

Gigaom Search & Alerts

I never got around to writing about the Search and Alerts products I worked on while at Gigaom. Using native WordPress features and extending it just a bit, we were able to build a full-fledged faceted search engine and notification platform at a fraction of the cost of what it cost to do when I was at Factiva.

search.gigaom.com pulled in content from across gigaom.com, research.gigaom.com, and events.gigaom.com and presented results in a way that allowed you to filter by tags and explore relationships between tags applied on to the content. Built in was a well structured taxonomy and basics smarts which would map a keyword to the appropriate tag.

Gigaom Alerts solves a different problem. While search allows you to search back in time through the archives (which at Gigaom were a significant portion of their total traffic), Alerts let’s you, in a sense, look forward. One of the problems of a media site is that it is often not a destination. Visits come by way of an app or aggregator so the challenge is getting your readers to return. Newsletters are one way but we are experiencing a proliferation of newsletters competing for readers’ attention.

Alerts was built as a way to store a standing query which would deliver notification if and only if there was new content which matched that query. Results are highly relevant because the alerts are constructed by those who read them. If you explicitly state your interest in “Nest” or “Tony Fadell” then there is a high likelihood that you will click thru on a notification of new articles about those topics. Indeed, we did see high engagement from readers that came in via Gigaom Alerts, they stayed on the site longer and read significantly more pages per session the our average readers.

Gigaom Alerts leverages the native WordPress post-taxonomy architecture so that you can have scale to a large number of individual alerts without a significant cost.

  1. Each saved alert is a post
  2. The terms for the alert are taxonomy terms on the post
  3. The author of the post is the user to be alerted

WordPress VIP kindly archived a talk that Casey Bisson did at one of their meetups which I’ll share here along with a link to the slides.

Hat tip to the folks at Followistic.com who let me know that Casey’s session was posted. If Gigaom Alerts sounds interesting to you, I’d check them out. They have built a plug-in which works much the same and is super-easy to install if you’re running WordPress.

Stewart Brand and the Pace Layer Model

Update: The full audio of the talk is now up on the Long Now blog.

I had the good fortune to see Stewart Brand speak the other night with futurist Paul Saffo as moderator at the The Interval, a bar/salon built by The Long Now Foundation. Brand edited the original Whole Earth Catalog (which Steve Jobs famously called, “Google in paperback form”), founded The Well which pre-dated (and set the tone for) internet newsgroups, and weaved his life in amongst Ken Kesey’s Merry Pranksters and the Haight-Ashbury scene in the 1960s. I am a huge fan of Stewart’s philosophy and knew this would be a special talk. I was not disappointed.

Stewart Brand & the Pace Layer Model

“What does this even mean?”

So posted my neighbor in response to my Facebook posting of the diagram above.  I would describe it as a rubric to apply to the way change happens over time.  There is a natural order to systems where some elements move faster than others. This fractal pattern of fast & slow is repeated in all things, best described in Stewart’s book, Clock Of The Long Now

Consider, for example, a coniferous forest. The hierarchy in scale of pine needle, tree crown, patch, stand, whole forest, and biome is also a time hierarchy. The needle changes within a year, the tree crown over several years, the patch over many decades, the stand over a couple of centuries, the forest over a thousand years, and the biome over ten thousand years. The range of what the needle may do is constrained by the tree crown, which is constrained by the patch and stand, which are controlled by the forest, which is controlled by the biome. Nevertheless, innovation percolates throughout the system via evolutionary competition among lineages of individual trees dealing with the stresses of crowding, parasites, predation, and weather.

This model of thinking can be applied to all systems, natural and man made, and is useful to understand inter-dependencies. The model first came together in another book by Stewart, How Buildings Learn: What Happens After They’re Built

Pace Layering

Stewart noted that different layers in a building had different rates of change. The furniture (stuff) gets re-arranged freely while other layers such as the structure or skin are much less malleable. The most immutable is the site which is the plot of land upon which a building is standing, in cities bounded by streets and sight lines.

Huge skyscrapers dance to the choreography of (a city) street plan.

Besides rate of change, there are other properties of the layers of the model as you progress from the outside in,

Outer Inner
Fast Slow
Learn Remember
Propose Dispose
Absorb shock Integrate shock
Discontinuous Continuous
Innovation Constraint
Revolution Consistency
Gets Attention Has Power

The interplay between each layer in the model, the “slip zones” is where, as Stewart says, “all the action is.” The outer layers move more rapidly than the inner ones but each ring is not independent. There is tension of one upon the other so that something like fashion, which wiggles back and forth, revisiting and revising itself over time influences the other. As one ring moves, there is a viscosity between each layer and there is a tension that pulls and pushes neighboring layers so that changes in fashion lead to changes in commerce which then influences the infrastructure necessary to support that commerce and so on.

Pace Layering

When the tension becomes too great, we get “slippage” that must be absorbed to prevent the system from breaking apart. Like tectonic plates along a fault line, if one layer gets too out of sync with another, the shock from rapid movement of a layer causes ripple effects felt throughout the system. Healthy systems can incrementally absorb movements at their own speed. Those that cannot, because of inflexibility, crack and break as a result of the stress. If a government cannot adjust, it will ultimately be overthrown. If commercial pressures  in pursuit of ever greater profits outstrip the ethics of a culture, that too may break apart a system.

The 1906 Earthquake in San Francisco impacted the insurance industry that was not prepared to underwrite damage on such a large scale. This led directly to the financial panic of 1907. This is an example of a rapid movement in nature impacting commerce which required later adjustments to infrastructure and governance after the fact to address the new, post-earthquake reality.

Jupiter

Another way to visualize the Pace Layer model is by looking at the rings of Jupiter. Each ring moves at a different rate and the “shear” on the boundaries of each layer causes the turbulence seen above. Stewart calls these boundaries areas of “productive turbulence” rich in innovation and evolutionary change, similar to the tidal zones of the ocean side.

The intersection of change in these zones gives birth to our greatest ideas. The combination of the counter-culture movement of the Sixties with the convergence of technical advancements made available by the space race in Silicon Valley gave us the internet.

When the Pace Layer model is applied to our world today, Stewart argues that some forces such as technology have permeated each layer to the point where they act as “gravity” pulling layers along and keeping them in sync. The trend in wearable computing are very much in the fashion layer and demands and constraints there are driving commerce to keep up. New infrastructure is required to support new devices such as Apple’s iWatch (think beacons) and debates about data privacy are driving debates in our governance. The impact of everyone sharing location are forcing us to re-think our cultural norms. Will the culture of selfies and “competitive happiness” of status updates from Facebook here to stay or will there be a backlash?

Concepts such as Democracy and Capitalism are accelerators. The transparencies of  these methods of organization help transmit information quickly from one layer to the next. Think of them as catalysts that help the slower layers to move in sync with the others, preventing the need for large adjustments of the slower layers which inevitably cause shocks to the system.

Stewart added that the layers also act as filters which sift ideas from the outside layers. His example was that both hula hoops and jogging were born in the same Summer but only one survived to have broader impacts to the inner layers. Jogging begat an appreciation for exercise which drove new industries in commerce, infrastructure changed to allow for jogging paths as an important part of city development and so on.

As a parting thought, Stewart Brand left us all with some homework.

Identify a global issue/challenge foremost on your mind…

Now ask yourself:

  1. Out of which pace layer did it emerge?
  2. In which pace layer are its impacts most felt?
  3. From which pace layer is a solution most likely to emerge?

Consider the time dimension for each of 1 – 3:

  1. How long did it take for the issue to emerge?
  2. How long will it take to resolve?

The challenge proposed was global warming. While changes to the upper layers in fashion and commerce have impacted nature, the feedback from the planet in the form of super storms and long term droughts are now being felt with increasing frequency. Will the upper layers be able to absorb these changes or can changes in the governance layer lessen the impact and put in place laws and infrastructure that can reign in the onward momentum of the upper layers?

One challenge before us is that our existing structures of governance are limited by geography. Local, State and Federal governments are coming together to address climate change but to impact changes as deep as the global climate change, a new form of global governance may be necessary, one that has the teeth to make and enforce global policy changes. If not, we may be in for a rough ride and can expect multiple shocks to the system.

Lane Becker on Get Satisfaction, the Help Tab, and Code for America

Lane Becker is an optimist. He was co-author of a NY Times best seller Get Lucky and his twitter bio says, “You’re pretty.”

I got to know Lane during the early days of blogging and he was one of those ever-cheerful folks that helpfully pointed out the way forward,  never talking down at you or taking privilege from his influence in the community. A true community builder, he lead by inclusion. Get Satisfaction, the distributed support network he built with Thor Muller was a reflection of his spirit.

Many aspects of the service were cutting edge and advanced concepts we take for grated today. I invited Lane to speak at the third segment of the Better Builder’s Bureau to talk about the early days and over the course of an hour he weaves a tale of Web 2.0 history that takes you right back to those times where,

  1. SaaS was not a thing
  2. Social Businesses didn’t exist
  3. Web sites were a series of static pages, not interactive “apps”

So sit back and relax and take a trip back and remember what it was like back in 2007.

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Highlights/Notes

3:00
You just have to be slightly ahead of the curve to succeed, “Silicon Valley is about the relentless present. The goal is to be right, right now.” People who are too far off in the future are often failures. It’s as much about timing as everything else.

4:30
OED entry for the word “blog” and the story around its genesis.

8:00
Valleyschwag, “e-commerce as performance art.”

11:00
Flashlight forums and “beam shots” as the model of an engaged online community that is independent of a company.  The existence of these communities convinced Lane that there was a business around community sites around company products, “stuff could be a thing that connected people.”

12:30
Questions, Problems, Ideas, and Praise
Get Satisfaction as a place for a broader conversation, one that not only includes a channel for problem resolution but also hosts threads about ideas and praise. Customer Service without companies.

16:00
Google Alerts hack that got them the attention of every single marketing executive, “we had accidentally created a direct line to every marketing person on the planet around the problems with their product that were key and important for them in that moment. This turns out to be key in the growth of our organization.”

27:00
Help tab came out of a specific set of circumstances. Product Managers are the ones that can synthesize multiple inputs and create features as solutions for these situations. How do we solve the problem of how to “get on every page” while still staying true to the product’s personality and soul. A good PM has a gut instinct for the “system” that lies underneath the UI & UX of their product.

34:00
Good guerrilla marketing does not equal a good business plan. Lane wishes he had just written a better help ticket system. That would have given him the runway to innovate. The future markets very well but the present sells.

“We were directionally right but specifically wrong.” Social did change business. It is reality today but the specific Get Satisfaction solution “bounced off the answer but it wasn’t the answer”

40:00
Code for America
No tensions around advertising. You don’t need to sell a government service.
This allows you to make wildly different choices in product design.
No need for customer growth, city governments can tell you where everyone lives and how to get in touch with them. More important is to reach and get responses from the population. You cannot have a target market and optimize just for that.

47:00
Government policy is waterfall development. All the arguement comes up front. What would it look like if they went agile, that power and authority comes from execution, not elective office or budget.

52:50
City of Oakland Record Trac shows speed and status of Public Information requests. By making public each department’s response time public the service has worked so well that each department uses Record Track instead of internal channels. The project was so successful that Code for America is spinning Record Trac off as a separate company.

I no longer have a role at Gigaom

Last week certainly was interesting. On Wednesday morning I was abruptly informed that, along with my VP and two engineers, that our services were no longer needed at Gigaom.

While unravelling my personal social profiles from the various company pages I had set up for Gigaom, it was Facebook’s robotic bit of micro-copy that really brought it home, “You no longer have a role on Gigaom.” Harsh.

No Role at Gigaom

Japanese has this wonderful phrase, iro iro (いろいろ) which means roughly, “lots of things that I’d rather not go into now but feel free to ask me over drinks” and I’ll leave it at that. Nothing dramatic, just a sudden shift of course that made it clear that it was time to move on. I’ll leave it at that.

I had a great run at Gigaom and I thank Daniel Raffel for the introduction and Paul Walborsky and Om Malik for their support while working there.  I joined when Gigaom was a collection of blogs with a nascent premium subscription business. Gigaom Research is now a major driver of revenue. As a Product Manager and later Director of Product the team tackled a number of projects of which I’m proud.

  • acquired and integrated paidcontent.org
  • redesigned Gigaom, Gigaom Research, and Gigaom Events as responsive
  • replaced the e-commerce back end
  • redesigned the gigaom.com post page and front page (twice)
  • rolled out a major re-brand across all properties
  • re-configured the Gigaom Research subscriber acquisition funnel
  • launched Analyst Connect, a simple way to connect to Gigaom Research analysts
  • launched Data Connect, a charts-centric view into Gigaom Research
  • launched Gigaom Search, a faceted search engine across the 15 year archive
  • launched Gigaom Alerts, a free tag-based notification service

In addition to the projects above, I am also pleased with my contribution to setting up how the Product Team is run. As the company grew through the critical 50 employee mark where unstructured cross-department communications begin to break down, the daily stand-up, weekly Dev Diary, Friday Show-and-Tell presentation, and quarterly Product Roadmaps all played an important role in keeping things on track. The methodology was simple and I think that’s what led to its success.

The engineers greased communication even further by migrating off our group Skype chat into HipChat rooms with integrations into GitHub and a script that could spawn a Google Hangouts on demand. We even had a Sonos-driven alarm that would play Bob Marley’s Get Up, Stand Up on queue to remind us all when it was time for our daily check-in. Sometimes it’s the little things.

It’s always bittersweet to leave a place of employment, like the breakup of a band. There’s a lot of talent there and I’ll miss working with them. I will also personally miss the vortex of activity that comes with working at an organization that takes in the news of the day and validates, organizes, and distributes it back to its readers.

Gigaom is a premium content business with increasingly valuable content and services made available to customers at its higher tier customers. I often tell people that the most valuable content is in the internal Gigaom newsfeeds, the price of which is full time employment. As of now, I am unsubscribed.