Surely we can do better than this

2 min read

On my way home tonight, an elderly homeless man stopped me in the street and asked if he could sleep on my floor  because it was cold and rainy. To my shame, I said I couldn't help him, although I could offer him some money, which he declined.

He told me that he had been an actor, and had been in a movie with Lucille Ball. He said that he had been in a version of the Threepenny Opera directed by Jack Nicholson. And he said that nobody would give him the time of day, let alone a roof over his head, because they don't want to say they know a homeless man.

Here, by which I mean in America, homelessness is particularly pronounced. I've read that it's 1000% what it is in the UK. The real 10X. At least in the San Francisco Bay Area they're allowed to exist; in some other cities they're routinely arrested and deposited elsewhere. Out of sight, out of mind.

There is a strain of particularly harmful thought that says it's their fault. Because received wisdom says that anyone can make it here if they try hard enough, they must be lazy, or broken, or sick, and they deserve at least a little bit of what they get. Bullshit. There should be a safety net. This shouldn't be allowed to happen. There but for the grace of God go all of us.

I'm a startup founder. I don't think I have it in me to be Travis Kalanick: society matters. People matter. Ruthless individualism pales in comparison to the power of people who work together. I want to find ways to throw my support behind the experts and great secular organizations who are already fighting homelessness. I want to find ways to motivate other people to do it. We talk about disruption; I wish we could disrupt the culture of greed and individuality above all else. In a part of the world with so much wealth, nobody should have to beg for shelter.

As I walked to my front steps, I saw an older woman use a flashlight to hunt in the bushes for empty cans and bottles that she could redeem for pennies.

I hope the gentleman I spoke to tonight will be okay.

 

Opinions are a feature

4 min read

Lately I've been thinking about the differences between entertainment and technology:

entertainment n. the action of providing or being provided with amusement or enjoyment.

technology n. the application of scientific knowledge for practical purposes.

I've heard a lot about "delighting the user" lately. This is a good thing: a satisfying product does delight the user as a side effect of the way it operates. It might, as Android Lollipop does, provide slick animations to let the user know that their command has been received. It could predict the user's intentions in new ways. It might analyze the data the user implicitly creates in order to suggest tasks.

It is not a goal in itself.

I see a lot of movies, I used to play games before I ran a startup, and I enjoy live music. I was the inaugural Geek in Residence at the Edinburgh Festivals Innovation Lab. I believe the arts are an integral part of our culture, and that we cannot function or progress as a society without them.

It's important to remember that in technology, we are in the business of making tools, artfully. Most of us are not making entertainment. There's a running joke in Mike Judge's Silicon Valley sitcom that every startup thinks it's making the world a better place. But that is the goal: to improve peoples' lives by building better tools. As Ev Williams put it in his XOXO talk: find something people are doing, and take out steps.

I think the best startups are the ones that take this need to improve peoples' lives a step further, and inherently make an argument about how the world could be better. By definition, these startups are doing something that's never been done before; they're often iterating on an existing model, but are at the same time making something new. Facebook is a social utility that believes everyone should be connected. Twitter turns communication into bite-sized notifications, making it easy to consume information rapidly. Dropbox thinks your important files shouldn't be constrained by hard drives. Uber thinks taxis are broken.

All of those experiences are delightful in different ways (remember when you synced with Dropbox for the first time?), but in service of a new way of interacting with the world. I don't think it's enough to be well-designed or well-executed. You have to be opinionated. Make an argument for how the future should behave. Take sides.

Mediocre tools don't try to persuade you. They just exist, hoping you'll use them instead of the hundred other tools that do similar things.

Great art is opinionated, too, of course. The best movies also make an argument; reading a well-written novel can transform the way you think for the rest of your life. Mediocre entertainment just exists, without provoking deep thought or behavior change.

At Known, we believe that everyone should be able to share and communicate from a space that they fully control. We believe that everyone - you and me - have given control of our identities to a handful of companies. And we believe that expression - of individuals, of communities, and ideas - should not be constrained by the decisions that those companies have made. You, as a creator, should have full ownership of the things you create. As a toolmaker, we want you to have more freedom over the form, content and audience of your creations - your writing, your classes - than you would have with any other tool.

It's a mission statement, but it's also an argument that motivates us to build the best, most focused tool we can. I hope it will motivate our future employees. I hope it motivates creators and educators to give us a try. And we hope we will help everyone to share their ideas, their unique creations, and their opinions.

 

Shoplifters and thieves #podcastsunday

Some thoughts about shoplifting from Whole Foods and startup culture.

 

8 tips for writing open source web apps that anyone can use

10 min read

I’ve spent my career writing open source web applications that are designed to be used by non-technical users. Elgg was a social networking platform that was described at the time as “MySpace in a box”. Known is a web platform that allows you to share and communicate from your own domain as easily as posting to Twitter or Facebook.

Elgg was ultimately used by organizations like Stanford, Harvard, Oxfam, Greenpeace and the World Bank. Known’s open source community is growing fast.

Here are some lessons I’ve learned from both projects.

1. It’s not about you

As a developer, it’s easy to approach software development as a way to “scratch your own itch”: building around your own needs and frustrations.

This is an important place to start, because it means you’re “dogfooding” the product: using it yourself, ideally every day. But it can’t be the only way you drive development, or even the most significant driver.

External feedback is one of the most important aspects of any software project. If you’re building software for a particular market, you need to talk to people in that market, show them prototypes, and react accordingly.

In a successful open source project, you’re getting feedback all the time, but it’s important to be aware that the people leaving issues and bug reports are a subset of your users. They’re the technically involved ones, who can manage GitHub (or wherever you host your project) and understand how to fill out a bug report. You can’t limit your feedback to the open source community, either.

When we were building Elgg, we regularly held meetups in pubs, in order to talk informally with the people who were using the product in the real world. With Known, we had the benefit of Matter’s accelerator program, which is heavily focused on design thinking. Over the first five months of our company’s existence, we spent over half the time talking to people, getting feedback on iterations of the product, and understanding their needs.

I’m convinced that good software development is a social process.

2. It’s not about the technology

Both Elgg and Known are based on PHP and MySQL.

Somewhere, a programmer is gasping. In the distance, a dog howls. A baby is crying.

One of the attributes of an open source project is that you can run it on your own infrastructure. That’s particularly true if you want it to be useable by less-technical users.

The web hosting landscape is dominated by shared hosts that allow you to upload files using FTP, install applications using cPanel and Softaculous, and pay $4 a month for the privilege. The people who buy these products in droves aren’t going to care to set up a Digital Ocean droplet or find an image in the AWS Marketplace.

It’s a strategic decision. If you want to use the in-vogue evented server platform, go right ahead. If you want distribution on the hundreds of millions of shared hosting accounts that non-technical people are using all over the web, then you’re going to need to meet those users where they’re at.

There’s also this: I’ve worked with PHP for years, and the language has never been better. In particular, PHP 5.4 has seen it turn a corner and become a modern web platform. So, at the very least, it’s not as bad as you think.

And you’re doing this to build a genuinely useful product, not because you just want to code, right? Right.

3. Design isn’t something you do at the end

Design encompasses the entirety of how your users will interact with your product. Yes, it’s the UI and the visuals, but it’s also the experience associated with everything from the initial installation, through using it day-to-day, to what happens if your users decide to move to another product.

See above: it’s not about you. Get as much feedback as you can. Watch people using your product; just stand behind them and take notes, and ask them questions at the end. Do this as often as you can. It can be heartbreaking, but it gets less heartbreaking over time.

Remember, too, that your product is open source. It’s okay if you’re not a designer. You’re almost certainly already thinking about how to involve engineers in your product development process. How can you attract and involve designers, too?

Confession: I don’t fully know the answer to this. On Elgg, we hired Pete Harris, a wonderful designer who defined the look and feel of the product. He didn’t know it, but he was the most highly-paid person in the company. On Known, my co-founder, Erin Richey, is a brilliant user experience designer. We’re very interested in attracting more designers to the open source community, but how this works is an open question.

4. Benevolent dictatorships are (mostly) A-OK

I’ve been a benevolent dictator in both open source communities. That means that I’ve had the final say about product direction and feature development. A lot of people believe that this isn’t appropriate in an open source community, but for this kind of user-facing product, I think it’s important. (Also, I’m a control freak.)

I believe that someone has to be able to say no on an arbitrary basis. A lot of projects and communities devolve into endless conversations, and sometimes argument, that hamper development. Being able to cut through this quickly is important - as long as you can act decisively!

All good products have an underlying vision that informs development. Someone needs to stick to their guns and be the keeper of that vision - while also engaging the community and being as open as possible to ideas, code and features. You’re a project leader, not a vanguard; keep an open mind.

5. Open is as open does

Your code needs to be super-readable and well-documented. Unlike most projects, lots of people are going to be reading it in order to understand your software. While some developers believe that you should be able to read the code, I think a documentation block above each class and method (at the very least) goes a long way.

Ideally, you need stand-alone documentation that can be read on its own terms. This is the equivalent of writing a book about your software at the same time as writing the software itself. Read The Docs is a great project that makes it easy to host searchable documentation.

Finally, you should keep the code as presentable and neat as possible. I’m not above using an automatic code beautifier to make sure that tabs, spaces, braces etc are all in line and standard throughout the codebase. If the source code is consistently formatted, it’s easier to read.

6. Your project is a community

Lead by example.

I favor lots of small source code commits over longer ones. Not only does that make it easier to roll back the source code incrementally, but it also lowers the barrier to entry for other people. If you’re committing a couple of lines here and a couple of lines there, it’s easier for someone else to follow suit.

It’s never okay to be a dick. There are open source project leaders who have become infamous for berating contributors for writing code they don’t like. That’s not only a great way to get a reputation for being an unpleasant human being, but also limit the kinds of people who contribute to your project. It hurts your software. Don’t do it.

Similarly, RTFM culture should never be tolerated. RTFM is a UNIX-era term for “Read The Fucking Manual”, which is how some communities interact with newcomers asking simple questions. That’s a horrible way for any community to act, and it limits growth.

Open source has a diversity problem. Being personally inclusive, watching for abuse, and protecting the culture of your community help you widen the gene pool of ideas. The greater the variety of people who contribute to your project, the stronger and more useable your project becomes.

7. Don’t over-integrate; don’t over-prepare

It’s easy to add a gazillion hooks into your software and prepare for any eventuality. I’ve seen projects spend months doing this legwork before producing something users can see.

Don’t do it.

Your project is already open by definition. It’s a great idea to add some hooks that allow other developers to build on top of your software. Both Elgg and Known have plugin APIs that have helped the projects grow healthy third-party ecosystems. But those APIs evolved over time, as a result of feedback.

The truth is, you don’t really know what’s going to be useful until the need arises. Real-world feedback is important. It’s a great idea for you to experiment and build your own extensions to the software, but remember that your platform isn’t set in stone: if you need a hook later on, you can create it. If someone in the community needs a hook that doesn’t exist, they can create it, or ask someone to make it for them.

It’s much more important to put your product in front of users and start getting feedback. Don’t spin your wheels on maybes.

8. Make it sustainable

If you’re doing something good for your users, you owe it to them to keep doing it.

Automattic, the company behind WordPress, is worth over a billion dollars. WordPress powers 23% of the web; there’s no way they would have reached this market share, or helped all those users, if they hadn’t been able to pay themselves to keep working on it. A flash-in-the-pan platform that hooks people in and then goes away is arguably harmful.

If you’re building a product for real-world users, you need to think about a funding model as a feature. And - sorry - donations are not a real funding model.

Known provides a fully-hosted service for people that don’t want to worry about the technical aspects of running a site. Our Known Pro product is an easy, turnkey solution for people who want to host their own professional website and reach their audiences across social media. We also have educational subscriptions, enterprise licenses, and organizational support.

From a business perspective, our open source product is a very cost-effective way to get wide distribution. It’s also core to our values: we believe that using open software is a core component of having control over your space online. That alignment between business and ideological considerations is at the heart of what we do.

Don’t shy away from making your open source project into a friendly, open business. You’ll reach more people, create a more useful product, and potentially change the world in the process.

 

Open-sourcing .NET is the best thing Microsoft could have done.

2 min read

Microsoft open sourced their .NET platform today.

Superficially, this is a huge deal: a proprietary platform at the heart of their development offerings is now available under an MIT license. Fantastic! This has been a long time coming and illustrates that Microsoft has turned a corner.

I think this is undeniably a good thing. It's also a fantastic thing for Microsoft.

It's not that .NET is going to be maintained by the community and Microsoft is leaving it to fend for itself. Instead, they will continue to direct the project - but it will be available on more platforms, and support a more diverse array of hardware. It also lowers the barrier for third-party companies to participate in their ecosystem. In effect, the community's enthusiasm will help spread their product, and will improve its quality and development.

They'll continue to make money on Visual Studio, on Windows, on their countless developer support packages. But now these offerings are more valuable, because their platform is available in more places, to more people.

And it makes them look awesome, forward-thinking, and community-minded, to boot.

It's a vote of confidence in their proprietary software that adds value to the platform. Visual Studio is a very fully-featured IDE; most of Microsoft's other products are similarly strong. The problem has always been that the platform is limited by an enterprise mindset.

Meanwhile, Internet Explorer has transformed from a terrible product that was literally destroying the web into a standards-based platform that works well on a variety of platforms. And Office, Microsoft's bread and butter, is happily running on my Nexus 5.

I'm excited about Microsoft's future, for the first time in ... well, ever. And I'm interested to see where they take the platform from here.

 

Everything big started small: next steps on a grand adventure.

6 min read

Imagine a global social network that nobody owns, where your profile can be uniquely your own, and you have full control of your identity.

In May, Erin Jo Richey and I started work on Known as a full-time startup business. Our mission is to empower everyone to communicate from their own websites. We love social networks like Twitter, but we think there’s a lot to be gained by controlling the form as well as the content of the spaces that represent us online.

We quickly found allies in Matter Ventures, who invested $50,000 in us as a participant in their third accelerator class. From their offices, we did as much research as possible, in order to validate our assumptions and find a focused place to start. Everything big started small; our global ambition needed a village-sized launchpad.

We spoke to mothers who had shared beautiful photographs of their children with their extended families - using Posterous, which disappeared into the ether. We spoke to marketers who thought of Facebook as a frustrating black box that kept changing its behavior. And we spoke to students, whose class content was deleted from their campus learning management systems as soon as it was complete.

While each of these groups resonated with us, we chose to begin with students. We had an unfair advantage in higher education: my previous project, Elgg, was one of the first social platforms to be used by universities, and is still heavily relied upon worldwide. Harvard, Stanford, Oxfam, NASA and the World Bank have all been Elgg users. Known builds on those ideas, so it made sense to get feedback from those institutions, too.

Educational technology is undergoing a massive change, informed by the wider change in networked software, and sparked by tools like Elgg. Learning management systems like Blackboard are costly, and cumbersome to use: while 93% of institutions run one, 65% of those say they have terrible usability. The total cost of ownership of one of these platforms is over a million dollars a year for a large institution. But most importantly, they don’t help you learn.

Just as many of us have moved from intranet platforms like Sharepoint to more social platforms like Slack, many educators are moving towards connectivism as a way to think about their teaching. It has been shown that self-reflection makes a meaningful impact on a student’s grades. A growing number of educators have been choosing to use blogging as a major component of their courses, encouraging students to reflect on their learning, and comment on each others’ reflections. They’re called “connected courses”, after one of the most popular.

Known makes this easy. We had already built a beautiful, social profile that you can run on your own website. We sell a hub platform that makes deploying these profiles at an institution easy, and creates class spaces that students can participate in from their own sites. Once you’re logged into your own site, you click once to see content from all your classes, and click again to see content from a specific class. You can post right there in the stream: short notes, blog posts, photos, audio, and more. You can also comment, star or share a piece of content, just as you might on Twitter or Facebook.

Of course, the difference is that this is all on your site, and it’s all under your control. Our platform is open source, or we have a fully-managed SaaS product. You can run it on your own server, or you can leave all of the technical infrastructure management to us.

It’s not a million miles from WordPress’s business model, which is intentional. WordPress powers 23% of the web, and we love their platform, their attitude towards their customers, and the way they look at the world. We also think there’s an opportunity for a personal social platform to grow in a similar way.

I’m proud of what we’ve been able to put together using a small amount of investment. It’s also been exciting to see peoples’ reactions, and to hear what they want to do with it.

Most gratifyingly, we’re already getting a lot of interest from outside education. We’ve heard from individuals who want to use Known for their own publishing, and from organizations who want to use it to run communities. And the cool thing about open source is that our community has built integrations to scratch their own itches, expanding our product to fit their needs: links with WordPress, Buffer, Diigo, LinkedIn and more.

We stole one of our best features from Pulse, the iPad reader app that was bought by LinkedIn last year. They launched with a little heart icon at the top right of their app, through which any user could send the team immediate feedback. We now have a similar feature: if you’re logged into Known, you see the heart on every page. Whether you’re self-hosting or running your Known site on our service, you can send us direct feedback in a click. We do our best to reply to every message quickly, because we learn something from every interaction.

We’ve had a lot of interactions. Each one has allowed us to become a better company, and build a better product. The feature took us less than an hour to build, but it’s one of the most important things we’ve ever done. We’ve gained customers through it; we’ve discovered new opportunities; we’ve learned about bugs. Most importantly, we’ve heard a lot about which features are valuable to people, and, most fundamentally, why people use Known to begin with.

The result of that learning is Known Pro: a managed version of Known for professional groups and individuals.

Just as in education, we believe in growing our company through direct revenue, at a fair price. So this is an experiment for us: we’ve gathered together some of our most-requested features, as well as others that just made sense, and offered them as a pre-sale for 30 days. The total cost is just $10 a month, but the pre-sale is a discount on that: $96 for a year.

We considered a crowdfunding campaign, but selling our product directly just felt right. Unlike a crowdfunding campaign, we won’t charge anybody’s payment card until the product has actually been delivered and is in their hands. That means nobody’s asked to spend money for something they don’t have.

You can pre-order Known Pro right here.

This is the next step on our grand adventure. We believe in a world where everyone owns their content and identity online, and we would love for you to join us on this journey.

 

The top podcasts are professional, but everyone's voice should be heard. #podcastsunday

This last week, Kevin Roose published an article in New York Magazine about how podcasting is enjoying a renaissance. Here's what he said:

What's happening? And why now? The word podcast is roughly ten years old, after all, and the "pod" to which it refers has been discontinued. [...] There are a few possible reasons for the resurgence. The first is that today's podcasts are simply better. Most podcasts used to be pretty amateurish — two people talking about sports for an hour, say, or a businessman ad libbing MBA lessons. And some still are. But today's top podcasts [...] are full-scale productions with real staff, budget, and industry expertise behind them.

Kevin went on to talk about how the way cars are sold have helped podcasts along. Virtually every car over the last five years or so has been sold with Bluetooth built in, making it really easy to listen to podcasts during your morning or evening commute.

That certainly jibes with my experience. I use an app called BeyondPod, which sits on my Android phone and automatically downloads the latest feeds early each morning. Then, when I'm driving or I'm riding BART into the office, I can listen to the latest news and the shows I subscribe to without worrying about whether I have signal. It's a lot more convenient than trying to stream from the web, or listening to drivetime radio, when I'm interrupted by commercials every five minutes.

All of the podcasts I listen to are professional. I get the news from NPR and the BBC; I listen to This American Life and amazing podcasts like Radiolab, 99% Invisible and On The Media. I also religiously listen to This Week in Google and the Gillmor Gang. PRX, the Public Radio Exchange, is a founding partner of Matter, the accelerator that funded Known. I'm a contributor to their Radiotopia Kickstarter, and you should be too. It's not too late.

The investor Fred Wilson talked about this change in quality recently, too:

It is also true that the quality of podcasting content has massively improved in the past five years. Back in 2005 and 2006, our family used to do a podcast called Positively 10th Street. It was a fun experiment but we were pretty terrible at the podcasting thing and dropped it after a year or so. All of the episodes seem to have vanished from the Internet which is shocking to me but probably a happy fact for my kids.

That's perhaps true, but for me, one of the promises of the Internet is an incredible diversity of voices. I love reading peoples' blogs, even if the majority of them are not professional writers. I like listening to professional shows, but I also love raw opinion. In a podcast, just as on a blog, there's no need to adhere to a particular format, or a particular length. There's tremendous room for experimentation.

This summer, we added the ability to upload audio to Known. Any Known feed can be used as a podcast, and imported directly into applications like iTunes and my beloved BeyondPod.

SoundCloud is a massively successful social network built around audio. It's got over 250 million users and is valued at over $700 million. You can find a lot of music there, but you can also find spoken rants, sonic experients, mashups, sound effects, and more. This is the kind of diversity that could live on our own websites, but to a large extent, doesn't, really. At least, not yet.

So, here's what I'm going to do. Every Sunday, I'm going to post a piece of audio, and hashtag it #podcastsunday. I would love it if you would do the same - add to a global tapestry of ideas. There's no need for the opinions we post to be limited to blog posts. The web gives us so much more. Let's use it.

This has been Ben Werdmuller, on Sunday, November 2nd, 2014, publishing at werd.io. Have a great day.

 

Your audience isn't your social network: it's time to start publishing for yourself

6 min read

The web is the most powerful platform for collective discussion in the history of human civilization. However, the form and content of these conversations are effectively owned by a small number of companies.

The photo sharing service TwitPic shuts down for good on Saturday:

It’s with a heavy heart that I announce again that Twitpic will be shutting down on October 25th. We worked through a handful of potential acquirers and exhausted all potential options. We were almost certain we had found a new home for Twitpic (hence our previous tweet), but agreeable terms could not be met. Normally we wouldn’t announce something like that prematurely but we were hoping to let our users know as soon as possible that Twitpic was living on.

With it goes a vast archive of images uploaded by tens of millions of users over a period of six years, including the water landing of US Airways flight 1549 in the Hudson River, the G20 protests in London, and countless moments in its users' lives. In the days before Twitter had support for built-in photos, Twitpic added a layer of visual immediacy that added value to the platform.

It's just the latest in a series of closures. Companies go out of business all the time; when they do, they take their sites with them. A power user will pour years of their lives into a social networking profile, with photographs, status updates, checkins and other details. One site closure can wipe out millions of years of collective personal history.

By placing our online personas in a few centralized locations, we make them vulnerable to single points of failure. That's only part of the problem.

Each service has made design decisions about what their platform feels like to interact with, and with it, the form of the content that's hosted there. Twitter, of course, is limited to 140 characters. Facebook supports a few common formats like status updates, photos and videos. Foursquare is made up of checkins and reviews. And each one contains a logically separate network of contacts, even though we may be connected to the same people on multiple sites.

We all have multiple personae: the version of us at work, in our family lives, and so on. When we publish content, we usually do it from one of those personae and for an audience of people related to that persona. These divisions between sites force us to think in terms of which site we'll communicate with: are we going to publish this content on Twitter or Facebook? Medium or LinkedIn? The implication is that each social network is its own distinct community of people with its own characteristics.

The reality is that the communities connected to each of our personae probably aren't split across social networking lines. These are artificial barriers, which serve the needs of the service owners more than the needs of the content creator. An audience of people may be individuals with specific interests who may be on a combination of social sites, or no site at all.

By limiting a message to a particular social networking service, rather than to an audience of individuals, we unnecessarily stunt our work.

Compounding the problem, many social networks enforce a "real names" policy, and require that you maintain a single profile that represents you online. This forces us to conflate our personas, so that our work connections, our family connections, our friends and our fandoms all sit on top of each other. The intention may be to make our online profiles into a better reflection of us, but in practice it does the opposite; we hold back what we publish, worrying that, for example, a piece of content for our friends may offend our coworkers.

We see these problems in schools and universities, too. The form and design of learning management systems places tight constraints on learning, by having even more limited content types than consumer social networks. Online spaces for classes are removed once the class is over, denying students the ability to build on this content as they continue their learning journey.

Content on the web is not living up to its full potential.

We designed Known to be a focal point for your content. You control where it's hosted (whether it's on our service or somewhere else); you decide what it looks like; you choose what you post and who can see it.

There's no need to have just one Known site. There aren't any regulations about the name you use, or whether your site is public or private. You can syndicate content to reach your connections across networks, and our intention is to allow people to reach each other person to person, and slowly forget about the divisions between networks.

Being able to host and extend your own profile means that you also get to choose the kinds of content you post there. Very few social platforms iterate on the core content types: posts, status updates, photos, videos, bookmarks, checkins and events. Our fellow Matter portfolio members GoPop do a good job with this, and we hope that over time developers will create new kinds of content. We also hope that they reinvent what the content container looks like: there's no need to limit online content to a reverse-chronological stream. We've built easy-to-extend APIs into the heart of Known, and we're delighted that developers are beginning to use it as a lab.

Because your site is fully under your control, you're not subject to the kinds of shutdowns we've seen from TwitPic, Posterous and others. Even if Known the company goes away (not that we have any intention of going away!), your Known-powered site will be alive and well.

Every independent content creator deserves to own what they publish, and to reach their community directly. That's our mission, whether you're an educator or an artist; a developer or a demagogue. We're building a new kind of platform, and we hope you'll join us on this journey.

This post was also published on LinkedIn and Medium.

 

Twitter Digits: decoupling identity from email is the key to a more equal web

2 min read

Dick Hardt has written a nice overview of Twitter Digits over on Medium:

The email and password prompt popular for the last 20+ years of the web does not work for the emerging markets when their first computer is a mobile phone. The “digital” identifier they have and use to identify themselves to others is likely a phone number, and they are unlikely to have (or don’t know) an email address.

I buy this. It's worth reading the whole article; he does point out, I think rightly, that using phone numbers for many kinds of transactions is problematic.

For me, the most salient point is that everyone on the Internet cannot be guaranteed to have an email address. For those users, a telephone number - the most common digital identifier from the pre-Internet tech world - makes a lot of sense.

It's worth thinking about the things someone without an email address can't do. Not only can't they sign up for a vast array of services, but they also can't participate in the building blocks of the web. In the indieweb community, we often talk about every user having their own domain. I do think that's important, but if you don't have an email address, you can't register a domain name. (This is before we consider the money involved.)

The domain name infrastructure lags behind the user experience of the rest of the Internet by quite some way, but it also lags behind the realities of who is on the Internet, how they're online, and why they're here. If we're going to advocate that everyone has a personal domain, we need to figure out ways for everyone to have a personal domain.

How can we make that first step easier and more accessible? Answering this opens the doors for a more equal web.

 

What cards mean for the future of social web content

4 min read

Over on the Intercom.io blog, Paul Adams discusses the "end of apps as we know them":

How we experience content via connected devices – laptops, phones, tablets, wearables – is undergoing a dramatic change. The idea of an app as an independent destination is becoming less important, and the idea of an app as a publishing tool, with related notifications that contain content and actions, is becoming more important. This will change what we design, and change our product strategy.

Specifically, he discusses cards: containers that include content and actions on that content. The latest iterations of the iOS and Android notification centers introduce this as a dominant paradigm. What used to be a list of text notices has turned into a stream of widgets, each with their own contextual information and set of inline actions.

This makes a ton of sense for apps on a mobile device, which are typically software agents that retrieve information for you in the background, and serve it to you in a lightweight way. Your email app gets your email, your calendar tells you about meetings you have coming up and new invitations, and so on.

But it's also an interesting thing to think about in the context of web content. Kevin Marks has been talking about cards for a while, and they start to become very interesting indeed when you begin to subscribe to content from disparate sources (rather than, eg, homogenous user accounts on a single site like Facebook or Twitter).

In a fully-decentralized system, which is what the web really is, each node can be running its own software with its own capabilities. Each user profile and content source can be running its own platform, and can make different content types and actions possible.

We've been trained to think about interactions on social content as being one of the following:

  • Reply
  • Reshare
  • Like
  • RSVP
  • Tag

This is because, almost without exception, we participate in social silos and monocultures where everybody is using the same platform. When everyone uses the same software to power their content, everyone has access to the same content types, and everyone can use the same interactions.

If everybody you interact with is using a different platform, however, there's suddenly the potential for everyone to have access to different content types with different actions associated with them.

  • I can click on a bread recipe and say that I've made it.
  • I can play a game and save a high score.
  • I can respond to a Yo with another Yo.

In this context, your subscriptions begin to look like app notification cards. Each piece of content on your friends list has a common container, but it might contain completely different content - and completely different buttons to interact with it. The source of the content becomes responsible for the form, content and logic of your subscription. And the line between a subscription and a notification blurs into nonexistence.

For this to really work, we need a common framework for authentication between the source and the reader, that's flexible enough to support custom actions. For apps, the device operating system provides much of this framework. For the web, something less hardware-centered is required. I believe that many of the indieweb technologies can provide this support. (It's also interesting to think about Chrome's notification experience in this context.)

Just as apps are becoming integrated into the fabric of the mobile experience, social content can become more integrated into the web. Imagine a single page containing all of the content you want to subscribe to, in all its disparate forms, ready for you to interact with it in a contextually appropriate way. Because it's the web, you can remix it: some might consume it as a stream, while others might consume it as a wall of cards, and others still might build animations or lightweight dashboards. Think of them as social snippets, ready to be combined into an active feed that can be configured for your needs.

Just as apps are learning from the web, the web can learn from the way apps are becoming elements in a much more seamless experience.

 

Known 0.6.4 Release Candidate 1 is ready for testing

1 min read

We've spent a long time on the next incremental version of Known, in order to reduce its technical requirements and improve compatibility with commonly-used shared hosts.

You can download it as a .zip archive here.

This is an incremental, early release for self-hosted users. A full release of 0.6.4 will follow.

 

"Middling" doesn't need a name - but I'm glad to see it's back

2 min read

Andy Baio is returning to longer-form posting:

Twitter's for 140-character short-form writing and Medium's for long-form. Weirdly, there really isn't a great platform for everything in the middle — what previously would've just been called "blogging." Mid-length blogging. Middling.

Gina Trapani is also returning to the form (and has some excellent advice). It's something that John Gruber and a few others never stopped doing, and - as you'd expect, as cofounder of a personal profile platform, and a former prolific blogger - it's something I'm pretty excited about.

I've discovered, for me, that it takes a little mental energy to move beyond a simple share or retweet ("here's a link, I found it interesting") to a longer-form post ("here's a link, and here's what I think about it"). But it becomes easier and easier to actually share your opinions relating to a link as time goes on, and I find that the act of writing actually helps organize my thoughts around a topic. Overcoming the initial intimidation is rewarding.

I do think longer-form thoughts make the web richer. More selfishly, though, I want to learn from the people I'm connected with. As Kevin Marks's Twitter bio has read since forever, he's "reading your thoughts, if you write them first". Please continue to do that; it's awesome.

 

The "right to be forgotten" points to a wider problem with the web

3 min read

The BBC is publishing a list of articles removed under the EU's "right to be forgotten" law:

The BBC will begin - in the "next few weeks" - publishing the list of removed URLs it has been notified about by Google.

Mr Jordan said the BBC had so far been notified of 46 links to articles that had been removed.

I'm with Jeff Jarvis, who argued in May that the right to be forgotten is a hopelessly misguided law:

The court has undertaken to control knowledge — to erase what is already known — which in concept is offensive to an open and modern society and in history is a device used by tyrannies; one would have hoped that European jurists of all people would have recognized the danger of that precedent.

The court has undermined the very structure of Sir Tim Berners-Lee’s invention, the link — the underpinning of the web itself — by making now Google (and next perhaps any of us) liable just for linking to information. Will newspapers be forced to erase what they link to or quote? Will libraries be forced to take metaphoric cards out of their catalogs?

This is one of those laws that starts with good intentions but is obviously prone to widespread abuse with serious implications. It doesn't help that each company's implementation may be different, but the underlying principle is flawed. If information is incorrect, libelous or otherwise harmful, the law typically provides other routes to remove it. A court can now essentially adjudicate that published content is out of date and should not be referred to.

There's a still deeper issue, which is that search is our gateway to the Internet, and whereas we now have a healthy market of competing web browsers, most of us rely on a single provider to find our information. If content is erased from Google, it often might as well cease to exist entirely. Many web users even ignore URLs, using Google search to reach every single resource on the web.

Social discovery mitigates this to some extent: you can reach this unlinked BBC post because I've posted a link, and I in turn saw it via my social networks. Google also has a little competition via Bing and the brilliant DuckDuckGo.

But even if we use alternatives, the problem remains that we are reliant on a very small number of organizations, who are vulnerable to links to resources being pulled.

The upshot is this: we are in need for new, more distributed methods of finding information, that are resilient to points of failure, whether they're imposed by states or corporations. While there are peer to peer alternatives like YaCy, which are certainly interesting, there is still no simple, beautiful alternative to the status quo.

In the meantime, we need to hold our governments, and the services we rely on, to a higher standard. The BBC's choice to publish a list of retracted links is a good one, in conjunction with efforts like the Legally Restricted HTTP error code. Freedom to publish is a privilege that must be protected; let's all do the same.

 

Yes, you can build great products without spying on users. #indieweb

3 min read

Dustin Curtis, the creator of Svbtle, recently wrote:

Apple is going to realize very soon that it has made a grave mistake by positioning itself as a bastion of privacy against Google, the evil invader of everyone’s secrets. The truth is that collecting information about people allows you to make significantly better products, and the more information you collect, the better products you can build.


Cole Peters responded:

Data isn’t inherently good or bad, useful or useless; therefore, access to data does not equal access to insights that will be beneficial to product development (and, ultimately, user experience). One could easily argue that obsessing over user data could impede product development; time spent on analysing data, and attempting to glean from it relevant and accurate insights (again, this doesn’t always happen) could just as well be spent on testing and (re)iteration of the product.


I would go further than this. What Dustin seems to have been talking about was a kind of data-driven user research: getting feedback from users in aggregate.

This is realistically useful for a small subset of the tasks involved with building a great product.

User research is key to building great products. (By the way, we open-sourced our user research materials.) But deliberate research is far more useful than collecting aggregate data about user details, and reducing your userbase to a series of statistics.

Certainly, keeping track of key performance indicators about your platform can help you understand how it's doing. If nobody's posting to a social network after a month, you've got a problem, for example. But I'd argue that building and improving your tools - i.e., actually pushing forwards - requires a more humanist approach.

You need to talk to people. A lot of people. You need to ask the right questions, but mostly you need to listen to them, and understand as well as possible not just the needs they're telling you, but also their unspoken needs. The things they reveal as insights in conversation. Similarly, you can watch them as they use your product, and even go so far as to track their eye movements, individual clicks, and tiny physical responses.

These conversations are often compensated, and they always happen with the full consent of the user. There's nothing hidden or nefarious about them, and they are not asked to reveal any personal information that they don't want to. They're also far more useful than bulk information that's totally disconnected from the individual human context of the user.

What aggregate statistics are useful for: demographic information for targeted advertising. Let's not trick ourselves into thinking that the assumptions that make ads possible are absolute, unmovable, or necessary to build any kind of well-designed product.

 

Some reflections on a summer at @mattervc (written on the way to demo day)

5 min read

When the garage door rose at 421 Bryant and a beaming Corey Ford welcomed us inside, I didn't know what would await us over the next eighteen weeks. What I found was an unparalleled support network, new tools that changed the way I thought about my nascent business, and a community of amazing entrepreneurs that I'm proud to call my friends.

Matter's tagline is "change media for good". That mission was appealing to me: our media shapes us as a culture in profound ways. In a democracy, the population must be informed in order to vote effectively. Yet at the same time, the media industry we depend on to do this is undergoing a radical change, largely at the hands of the Internet. The opportunities - both socially, and for new kinds of businesses - are great.

I share a core belief with Matter: if you're doing something good, you have an obligation to make it sustainable, so that you can keep doing it. But whereas I had internalized it as an abstract idea, Matter has taken design thinking and its community and created a concrete framework to make it happen.

Here's how it works: each company (including ours) receives a $50,000 investment to ensure your team is undistracted over the summer. After a bootcamp in the first week, you spend a little over four months researching, prototyping and refining. For two days each week, you have the opportunity to meet with outside mentors; once a week, each startup shares something with the class. At the end of each month, there's a design review, wherein you spend seven minutes pitching your company to a panel of investors and entrepreneurs. It's a confidential, safe environment, but the feedback is real, and panelists and audience members are encouraged to give "gloves off" advice. Based on that, you sprint to the next design review, and ultimately, to demo days in San Francisco and New York.

The first week's design thinking bootcamp was an intense but rewarding introduction to the methodologies we'd use for the rest of the program, but it also taught me another important thing: I was horribly out of shape. Previously, I'd been sitting at my computer for most of the day, often without leaving my apartment. Now we were being asked to jump onto our feet, do guerrilla user testing in the street, build lots of prototypes at breakneck speed and energetically improvise a fictional startup together in just a few days, all in the middle of a heatwave - and I was exhausted. I left the office each day barely able to walk.

Of course, it was exactly the kind of shake-up I needed, and it's become a core part of Known's DNA: jump on the phone with someone, give yourself a ten minute timebox to brainstorm ideas, keep the creative energy flowing. If I have one criticism of Matter, it's that it's sometimes hard to actually build software in an environment when uptempo music is playing in the background and people are running around, but that's not what it's for. Matter is not an accelerator that encourages you to sit in a room and build something for three months. You're there to build, but you're building the story of your startup.

The walls are covered in whiteboards, the furniture is deliberately makeshift, and you're encouraged to make the space your own. I don't think it's an accident that the office - actually a converted garage - feels more like a workshop. Tables were dragged, posters were erected, rooms were occasionally literally covered in paper - all in the name of testing lots of tiny prototypes, and creating a successful proposition through failing faster. "Hey, do you have five minutes?" someone would often ask me. Of course, I'd say yes, as we all would, and I'd be catapulted into someone else's app experience for a short while, possibly through the medium of Sharpies and Post-Its, giving my feedback and thinking aloud as honestly as I could.

There's a widely-accepted maxim in software, and particularly in open source: scratch your own itch. That's certainly the mindset I walked in the door with. Although that can be helpful in the sense that it may reveal insights, user research is important if you want to reach people who aren't exactly like you. It was a hard transition, at least at first; here, the technology itself has little value unless it's meeting a deep, and scalable, user need. Halfway through the program, I was doing some pretty existential self-questioning. But ultimately, it was rewarding. As I write this, on my way to the New York demo day, thousands of people have used Known. Our initial focus, developed through extensive research, is on university educators, which has turned out to be a perfect decision: our first pilots are running right now, and we have more scheduled in the fall.

Perhaps because everyone is there to make a difference, it's also a wonderful group of people. Every single person in Matter has been a joy to work around, and one of the best parts of the whole thing has been seeing our fellow startups develop. We're in it for each other, and I think we always will be. I'm heavily emotionally invested in the outcomes of Educrate, Musey, Louder, LocalData and Stringr, and in the ongoing success of Matter itself. One of the hardest challenges is going to be transitioning to working without my friends on the tables around me. It'll be quieter, for sure, but they have been an incredible network of supporters. I hope to spend as much time with them as possible.

I can't imagine having found a better home for our startup. I believe the future is very bright for Known, but it's brighter for having been a part of this community.

Matter's fourth class is open for applications: you should go take a look.

Demo day SF photos from Matter's gallery.