If we want open software to win, we need to get off our armchairs and compete.

9 min read

The reason Facebook dominates the Internet is that while we were busy having endless discussions about open protocols, about software licenses, about feed formats and about ownership, they were busy fucking making money.

David Weinberger writes in the Atlantic:

In the past I would have said that so long as this architecture endures, so will the transfer of values from that architecture to the systems that run on top of it. But while the Internet’s architecture is still in place, the values transfer may actually be stifled by the many layers that have been built on top of it.

In short, David worries that the Internet has been paved, going so far as to link to Joni Mitchell's Big Yellow Taxi as he does it. If the decentralized, open Internet is paradise, he implies, then Facebook is the parking lot.

While he goes on to argue, rightly, that the Internet isn't completely paved and that open culture is alive and well, the assumption that an open network will necessarily translate to open values is obviously flawed. I buy into those values completely, but technological determinism is a fallacy.

I've been using the commercial Internet (and building websites) since 1994 - which is a lifetime in comparison to some Internet users, but makes me a spring chicken in comparison to others. The danger for people like us is that we tend to think of the early web in glowing terms: every website felt like it was built by an intern and hosted in a closet somewhere (and may well have been), so the experience was gloriously egalitarian. Anyone could make a home on the web, whether you were a megacorporation or sole enthusiast, and it had an equal chance of gaining an audience. Many of us would like this web back.

Before Reddit, there were Usenet newsgroups. (I'll take a moment to let the Usenet faithful calm down again.) Every September, a new group of students would arrive at their respective universities and get online, without any understanding of the cultural mores that had come before. They would begin chatting on Usenet newsgroups, and long-standing users would groan inwardly as they quietly taught the new batch all about - remember this word? - netiquette.

In September, 1993, AOL began offering Usenet access to its commercial subscribers. This moment became known as "the eternal September", because the annual influx of new Internet users became a constant trickle, and then a deluge. There was no going back, and the Internet culture that had existed before began to give way to a new culture, defined by the commercial users who were finding their way online.

"Eternal September" is a loaded, elitist term, used by people who wanted to keep the Internet for themselves. As early web users, rich with technostalgia and a warm regard for the way things were, we run the risk of carrying the torch of that elitism.

The central deal of the technology industry is this: keep making new shit. Innovate or die. You can be incredibly successful, making a cultural impact and/or personal wealth beyond your wildest dreams, but the moment you rest on your laurels, someone is going to eat your lunch. In fact, this is liable to happen even if you don't rest on your laurels. It's a geek-eat-geek world out there.

For many people, Facebook is the Internet. The average smartphone user checks it 14 times a day, which of course means that a lot of smartphone users check it far more than that. In the first quarter of this year, Facebook had 1.44 billion monthly active users. That means that almost 20% of the people on Earth don't just have a Facebook account: they check it regularly. In comparison, WordPress, which is probably the platform most used to run an independent personal website, powers around 75 million sites in total - but Apple's App store has powered over 100 billion app downloads.

Are all those people wrong? Does the influx of people using Facebook as the center of their Internet experience represent a gargantuan eternal September? Or have apps just snuck up and eaten the web's lunch?

Back in 2011, I sat on a SXSW panel (yes, I'm that guy) about decentralized web identity with Blaine Cook and Christian Sandvig. While Blaine talked about open protocols including webfinger, and I talked about the ideas that would eventually underly Known, Christian was noticeably contrarian. When presented with the central concepts around decentralized social networking, his stance was to ask, "why do we need this?" And: "why will this work?"

In the Atlantic, David Weinberger references Christian's paper "The Internet as the Anti-Television" (PDF), where he argues that the rise of CDNs and other technologies built to solve commercial distribution problems have meant that the egalitarian playing field that we all remember on the web is gone forever. While services like CloudFlare allow more people than ever before to make use of a CDN, it requires some investment - as do domain names, secure certificates, and even hosting itself. (The visual and topical diversity of GeoCities and even MySpace, though roundly mocked, was very healthy in my opinion, but is gone for good.)

For most people, Facebook is faster, easier to use, and, crucially, free.

Rather than solving these essential user problems, the open web community disappeared up its own activity streams. Mailing list after mailing list filled with technical arguments, without any products or actual technical innovation to back them up. Worse, in many organizations, participating in these arguments was seen as productive work, rather than meaningless circling around the void. Very little software was shipped, and as a result, very little actual innovation took place.

Organizations who encourage endless discussion about web technologies are, in a very real way, promoting the death of the open web. The same is true for organizations that choose to snark about companies like Facebook and Google rather than understanding that users are actually empowered by their products. We need to meet people where they're at - something the open web community has been failing at abysmally. We are blindsided by technostalgia and have lost sight of innovation, and in doing so, we erase the agency of our own users.

"They can't possibly want this," we say, dismissively, remembering our early web and the way things used to be. Guess what: yes they fucking do.

This stopped being a game some time ago. Ubiquitous surveillance, diversity in publishing and freedom of the press are hardly niche issues: they're vital to global democracy. A world in which most of our news is delivered to us through a single provider (like Facebook), and where our every movement and intention can be tracked by an organization (like Google) is not where any of us should want to be. That's not inherently Facebook or Google's fault: as American corporations, they will continue to follow commercial opportunities. It's not a problem we can legislate or just code away. The issue is that there isn't enough of a commercial counterbalancing force, and it really matters.

Part of the problem is that respectful software - software that protects a user's privacy and gives them full control over their data - has become political. In particular, "open source" has become synonymous with "free of charge", and even tied up with anti-capitalism causes. This is a mistake: open source and libre software were never intended to be independent from cost. The result of tying up software that respects your privacy with the idea that software should come without cost is that it's much harder to make money from it.

If it's easier to make money by violating a user's autonomy than protecting it, guess which way the market will go?

A criticism I personally receive on a regular basis is that we're trying to make money with Known (which is an open source product using the Apache license). A common question is, "shouldn't an open source project be free from profit?"

My answer is, emphatically, no. The idea behind open source and libre software is that you can audit the code, to ensure that it's not doing something untoward behind your back, and that you can modify its function. Most crucially, if we as a company go bust, your data isn't held hostage. These are important, empowering values, and the idea that you shouldn't make money from products that support them is crazy.

More importantly, by divorcing open software from commercial forces, you actually remove some of the pressure to innovate. In a commercial software environment, discussing an open standard for three years without releasing any code would not be tolerated - or if it was, it would be because that standard was not significant to the company's bottom line, or because the company was so mismanaged that it was about to disappear without trace. (Special mention goes to the indie web community here, for specifically banning mailing lists and emphasizing shipping software.)

The web is no longer a movement: it's a market. There is no vanguard of super-users who are more qualified to say which products and technologies people should use, just as there should be no vanguard of people more qualified than others to make political decisions. Consumers will speak with their wallets, just as citizens speak with their votes.

If we want products that protect people's privacy and give people control over their data and identities - and we absolutely should - then we have to make them, ship them, and do it quickly so we can iterate, refine and make something that people really love and want to pay for. This isn't politics, it's innovation. The business models that promote surveillance and take control can be subverted: if we decide to compete, we can sneak up and eat their lunch.

Let's get to work.

 

Community is the most important part of open source (and most people get it wrong)

3 min read

This post by Bill Mills about power and communication in open source is great:

Being belittled and threatened and told to shut up as a matter of course when growing up is the experience of many; and it does not correlate to programming ability at all. It is not enough to simply not be overtly rude to contributors; the tone was set by someone else long before your first commit. What are we losing by hearing only the brash?

Bottom line: if you, either as a maintainer or as a community, are telling people to shut up then you're not open at all.

If you make opaque demands of people to test their legitimacy before participating then you're not open at all.

If you require that only certain kinds of people participate then you're not open at all.

The potential of open source is, much like the web, that anyone can participate. On Known, we're really keen to embrace not just developers, but designers, writers, QA testers - anyone who wants to chip in and create great software with us. That's not going to happen if we're unfriendly or project the vibe that only certain kinds of people can play. Donating time and resources on an open project is a very generous act, that not everyone can participate in. Frankly, as a community we should be grateful that anyone wants to take part.

As a project founder, a lot of that is about leading by example. That means being talkative and open. I get a lot of direct messages and emails from people, and I try and direct people to participate in the IRC channel and the mailing list - not just because it allows our conversations to be findable if people in the future have similar questions, but because every single message adds to the positive feedback loop. If there's public conversation going on, and it's friendly, then hopefully more people will feel comfortable taking part in it.

Like any positive communication, a lot of this is related to empathy. I'm pretty shy: what would make me feel welcome to participate in a community? Probably not abrupt messages, terse technical corrections or (as we see in many communities) name-calling. Further to that, explicitly marking the community as a safe space is important. We're one of the few communities to have an anti-harassment policy; I'm pleased to say that we've never had to invoke it. More communities should do this.

Which isn't to say that there isn't more that we can do. There is: we need better documentation, better user discussion spaces, a better showcase for people to show off what they've built on top of Known. We're working on it, but let us know what you think.

And please! Whether you're a writer, designer, illustrator, eager user, or a developer, we'd love for you to get involved.

 

10 things to consider about the future of web applications

3 min read

  1. Twitter - by far the social network that I use the most - is struggling to break 300 million monthly active users and is not hitting revenue targets. (Contrast with Facebook's 1.44 billion monthly actives.) Even investor Chris Sacca has warned that he's going to start making "suggestions".
  2. Instagram - still a newcomer in many peoples' eyes - is beginning to send re-engagement emails in response to flagging user growth.
  3. The 2016 US election is apparently going to be huge on Snapchat. Translation: Snapchat is over. The next generation of young users are already looking for something else. Snapchat was released in September 2011.
  4. The Document Object Model - core to how web pages are manipulated inside the browser - is slow, and may never catch up to native apps. We've known that responsiveness matters for engagement for over a decade.
  5. It's possible to build more responsive web apps by going around the DOM. But these JavaScript-based web apps are harder to parse and often can't be seen by search engines (unless you provide a fallback, which requires a lot of extra programming time).
  6. Push notifications - which are core to apps like Snapchat, and possibly the future of Internet applications - are not available on the open web. Browsers like Chrome are implementing them on a browser-by-browser basis.
  7. Facebook has no HTML fallbacks, renders almost entirely in JavaScript and lives off push notifications. Twitter has HTML fallbacks, is very standards-based, uses push notifications but also SMS and email, and is generally a good player (with respect to the web, at least, although it's less good at important features like abuse management). Facebook is kicking Twitter's ass.
  8. The thing that may save Twitter? Periscope, a native live video app, which is highly responsive and live-video-heavy.
  9. Users have stopped paying for apps, and instead opt for free apps that have in-app purchases, so they can try before they buy. We're a long way off having a payments standard for the web.
  10. There's no way to transcode video in a web browser, which means uploading video via the web is effectively impossible on most mobile connections. (Who wants to sit and wait for a 1GB file to upload, even on an LTE connection?) Meanwhile, the web audio API saves WAV files, rather than some other, more highly-compressed formats you may have heard of. Similarly, resampling images is difficult. In other words, while the web has been optimized for consumption (albeit in a slower way than native apps, as we've seen), it has a long way to go when it comes to letting people produce content, particularly from mobile devices.

What does all of this mean?

I don't mean to be pessimistic, but I think it's important to understand where users are at. The people making the web aren't always the people using it, and there's a serious danger that we find ourselves trying to remake the platform we all enjoyed when we first discovered it.

Instead, we need to make something new, and understand that if we're building applications to serve people, the experience is more important to our users than our principles.

All of these things can be solved. But while we're solving them at length, native app developers are going off and building experiences that may become the future of the Internet.

 

Remembrance on Memorial Day

2 min read

Memorial Day is an American holiday that commemerates people who have lost their lives in service to the United States. It's similar to Remembrance Day in the commonwealth countries, except that it's also a long weekend that marks the start of the summer.

My dad spent the first few years of his life in a Japanese-run internment camp, while my grandfather was captured by the Nazis and had to deny his Jewishness to stay alive. My great grandfather's family fled pogroms in Ukraine. I'm a pacifist, and war is evil, but I also believe it is sometimes necessary as a last resort.

But in remembering the brave people who fought and died, it's also important to remember who sent them, and why. Many people died in Iraq for shameful political reasons. Many people died in Afghanistan. Vietnam. Patriotism can't just be about remembering their sacrifice: it has to also be about trying to make sure it never happens again, whether we consider war to be just or not. One life lost is too many. There are still war criminals involved in some of those wars who need to see justice. There are still politicians who make joining the armed services and dying for their country the only viable career choice for many people.

I also want to remember, as Marc has in his own post, the people who are fighting for freedom domenstically. People have lost their lives for civil rights, for equality, for better working conditions for immigrants, for the right to form a union, for the right to vote. In contrast to resource skirmishes for policial purposes, their sacrifices have changed our societies for the better in tangible ways. They should never be forgotten.

 

A walk in the park

11 min read

"Daddy," Wendy said, looking up at the sky, the cloudless blue stretching opaquely in all directions. "Can people fly?"

I smiled at her. "They say that some people can," I said.

"Can I fly?"

I shook my head, smiling. "No, honey," I said, gently. "Mommy and daddy can't fly either."

"Why not?"

"Well, for one thing, being on the ground's just fine," I said, patting the grass in the park. "It's nice down here."

And for another, I thought, I can't afford that upgrade.

I can't be completely certain on which day I died, but I'm pretty sure it was the Wednesday before Thanksgiving: the first real cold day in months, when the wind picked up and remembered it was fall, and the auburn of the leaves finally overwhelmed the green. Wendy was with her grandparents, and I just thought, well, why the hell not?

I was the last on my block to die. None of us knew it yet, of course. If anything, we were excited for it and what it meant: the Mayor had been the first to go all the way, and he came back from the store telling us about all the new colors he was seeing. A more vivid spectrum, he said; he could see the life-force in everything around him, from the squirrels in the trees to the trees themselves. He said it was magical. He used that word: magical.

Pretty soon, everyone was doing it. The police all did it as a group, before the police disbanded, and then the local businesspeople in town started to die one by one, and then the rich part of town, and then our neighbors. Finally, when it seemed like everyone else had gone and done it and I was overwhelmed with fear that I was missing out on something vital, I went and did it, too.

Wendy was the last living girl I knew.

When Samantha died, she was gone, and it felt like there was a hole in my heart that was torn fresh each morning and could never heal. I clawed at the walls wishing time would peel back with the wallpaper, and found ways to smile for our daughter even as I wanted to rip myself apart. When she slept, mercifully in her own room because she was a big girl now, I retired to our bed and wept. Were it not for the life that was entrusted to me, my precious girl, I would have simply found my way to the bridge and stepped into nothingness.

Death isn't what it used to be. When I died, I saw new colors in the trees, my metabolism was automatically managed for me by an intelligent software agent, and I gained the ability to manage my emotions from an elegant control panel on my wrist. My memories were organized. For the first time in my existence, I felt fully in control. It was magical.

When I first stepped out of the store, having paid the staff to configure me, I was struck by the silence in my head. The pain of Samantha's legacy death was gone, along with the background ebb and flow of dread that had been my soundtrack. Samantha's face was not staring at me from my mind's eye, as it had done every day for the past four years. I had no desire to whisper her name and call out to her. I had no desire at all.

Instead, I saw information. My mind had become a dashboard, and everything in the world was a point of data. I felt free, and suddenly the world seemed full of possibilities. They had worked hard on designing that first emotion: it was spectacular. The app told me I was empowered.

Wendy and I held hands as we walked through the park. The glow of the energy in the trees rivaled the sunshine. She sang to herself, softly, and my controller app told me it was an old Sandie Shaw tune. It suggested I sing a few bars along with her to build empathy, and I complied.

"Wow, that's a real old song," I said. "Where did you learn that?"

"It's from a commercial," Wendy said, matter-of-factly.

The controller told me which one and played a few seconds for me, and I smiled.

"Do you want to go get a burger?" I asked, sensing that she was hungry.

"How did you know it was from that commercial?" Wendy said, smiling. She nodded.

The burger joint was on the edge of the park; we crossed a tall bridge to get there, and paused briefly to play pooh sticks. We stood at the top of the bridge and each dropped a stick into the water. The winner would be the stick that the current passed through first; like always, I engineered my throw so that it would be Wendy's, and like always, she was delighted. One day she would tire of this game and I would have to find new ways to entertain her. Luckily, I had access to a vast database of games.

It was a traditional sort of place, not unlike the kind my dad had taken me to when I was Wendy's age. Everything was primary-colored, and the tables were wipe-clean. Booths lined with glittered cushioning sat against the walls, while the floor was dotted with circular tables. Once, almost every table would have been occupied with families like ours. These days, almost nobody needed food, so the loop of soft, upbeat music played to an empty room. I already knew what Wendy wanted, and my app communicated this to the kitchen wordlessly; we simply took a booth, and a drone waiter flew out the food once it was ready.

"How's your hamburger?" I asked, knowing the answer was written on her smiling face. The hamburger meat was made with insect meal, but that was all that Wendy had ever known, and anyway, they found plenty of ways to make it just as juicy and delicious as the beef I had enjoyed as a child. I felt her emotions as if they were my emotions and knew that it was good.

"Don't you want to eat anything?" she asked between mouthfuls.

"I'll eat later," I said.

I sighed happily, although my oxygen is processed for me and I no longer use my lungs. "What next, pumpkin?"

"I haven't finished my fries yet," Wendy pointed out, and although I knew she didn't really need them nutritionally, I saw that they would have an emotional benefit. "Once I've finished my french fries, let's go home," she said.

"Sounds like a plan," I said, smiling. The app suggested I look out the window, and I took in the amber light of the dimming sun.

The app strongly suggested I step outside. "I'll be right back, okay, honey?"

"Okay, daddy."

I slid myself out from the booth seat and walked through the swing doors to the street outside. The controller app gave me directions and I turned to follow them exactly, suddenly aware that my energy levels were running low. My pace increasing, I walked around to the rear of the restaurant and scanned the backlot.

There was an old Ford Fusion parked against the dumpsters, and I could see a man rummaging around inside them, his torso fully submerged in trash.

"Excuse me," I said, understanding why I was here.

With the advent of the controller apps, there was no need for a police force: everyone became the eyes and arms of the law. When it was introduced halfway through a lavish keynote presentation, crowdsourced enforcement was hailed by the press as the future of policing. They took great pains to point out that it was not the same as vigilante justice: the apps were highly-regulated, and everything app users saw and heard was recorded for later algorithmic judicial compliance. Anyway, using the app to begin with enforced compliance with social norms; virtually everyone had it installed, so it was rare that policing was even required. Staying on the straight and narrow felt good. The app made sure of it.

The man kept rummaging.

"Excuse me," I said again.

The man pulled himself out of the dumpster and turned to look at me. He was wearing a flannel shirt, and had an unsanitary beard. He'd managed to pull out some discarded food: leaves of lettuce, a few packages of insect meal.

"That food is the property of this restaurant," I said. "You really can't take it."

"They're just throwing it out, dude," the man said.

"It's theft," I said. "If you're hungry, there are ways to get credit so you can buy your own food."

"It's wasteful," the man said.

"It's their property," I said.

He sighed. "Fucking users," he said, under his breath.

"Pardon me?"

"Fucking users," he said again, loudly and deliberately.

He turned to run, but naturally, my reaction time was faster. I caught up to him before he managed to get up to speed without needing to increase my heart rate, and forced his arm behind his back.

He yelled in pain. "I've got kids, man."

"You need to respect the rules of your community," I said. "Your children don't outweigh the rights of this restaurant to their property."

My body sent me a notification. I was critically low on energy; I needed to recharge quickly, or I would shut down.

"Put the property down," I said. "Now."

"Fuck you," the man said, spitting. "I need to feed my family."

Another notification. I would be down soon. "You should put down the food," I said, holding the arm lock. Behind the scenes, the app sent a request to the cloud controller.

Request approved. Unthinkingly, I let go of the man's arm, and put both hands around his head. For a moment, he screamed out in fear, but the app downloaded quickly, and he fell limp. For thirty seconds, we stood in the backlot together, me cradling his head, distant birdsong the only sound. Silently, a spot of light on my wrist pulsed to the rhythm of my long-discarded heartbeat.

Fully charged; needs met. With a single movement, I picked up the carcass and threw it in the dumpster.

Wendy had finished her burger and fries, and was patiently watching for me through the window. She waved at me through the glass as I approached, and flashed me a toothy grin as I sat back down opposite her. "That was delicious," she said, smiling. "Are we ready to go home?"

I smiled at my daughter, the only living child in town. "Absolutely."

We lived in a small, suburban house with a driveway in front and a small yard in the back, similar to around 60% of our town's population. It was a little too big for just two of us, but moving would have been one stressful experience too many for Wendy, so we stayed. The remnants of Samantha's presence no longer bothered me, and Wendy had been too young. For her, they were a curiosity.

Much of the bandwidth for the National Internet had been dedicated to controller apps; almost nobody strolled the web or talked to each other over immersive video, because they didn't need to. We were all a mesh now, united by our controllers and tethered to the cloud. But I had Wendy, so I continued to purchase Internet service so she could tap into the movies. We would often sit on the couch together until she fell asleep, a blanket covering us both, like we had always done. I could sense that it was comforting to her, and it was a pattern that I found pleasant, too. I don't know if what I felt was real closeness, or a well-designed authentic emotional experience. They are materially the same, so I don't believe it matters.

There we lie, father and daughter, as the movie runs to its credits. She dreams of adventures and new experiences, and I watch the electrons dance inside her brain. And then I carry her up to her bed, ready for another day, my hands cradling her head just a little. She is beneficial.

 

Publish on your Own Site, Reflect Inwardly

2 min read

Known gives you the ability to share the content you create across social media platforms at the point of publishing, with just one click. I'm deliberately not doing that with this post.

If you're reading it, it's because you came to my site, or you picked up the content in a feed reader.

One reason to publish on the web is to make a name for yourself, and create an audience for your content or services. But that's not the only reason, or even the best one. I think structured self-reflection is more valuable - with or without feedback.

We've been trained to worry about audience and analytics for our posts. How many people read a piece about X vs a piece about Y? Is it better to post at 2pm on a Thursday or 10pm on a Sunday? Which demographic segments are most interested?

That's fine and dandy if you're a brand, but not all of us need to be brands. Not every piece of content needs to be a performance. If we unduly worry about audience, we run the risk of diluting our work in order to appeal to a perceived segment. Sometimes the audience is you, and that's enough.

The dopamine hit that comes from a retweet or a favorite creates a kind of awkward emotional dependence. A need for audience. There's a lot to be said for slow reflection for its own sake. That's what we encourage when we give blogs to students, and that's probably what we should be practicing more of ourselves.

And of course, I'm speaking for myself. I've decided I need to ease back on social media interactions, and start using my own space as just that: my own space. My own space to reflect, to think out loud, and to publish because I want to. That's how we used to do it on the web. As I've said before: I think the world would be better if we revealed more of ourselves.

 

Elgg and Known: how deep insight can help you build a better community platform

2 min read

Ten years ago last November, we released the first version of Elgg. An open source social networking platform originally designed for higher education, where it was used by Harvard and Stanford, it spread to organizations like Oxfam, Orange, Hill & Knowlton and the World Bank, as well as national governments in countries like Australia, Canada and the Netherlands.

Not bad for a couple of industry outsiders based in Scotland.

Elgg is still in wide use today. I credit that to a technical emphasis on extensibility and ease of use, as well as our focus on being responsive to the needs of the community - but not too responsive. We never veered from the vision we had of an open social networking infrastructure for organizations.

The web has changed unrecognizably since 2004, and Known takes those changes into account: mobile-first, with an emphasis on streams and shorter bursts of content. You can still run it in an organization, but you can run it as a personal platform, too. Higher education institutions are using it to give self-reflective websites to all their students, and more and more private companies are using it to create social feeds internally, too. Design thinking is core to our process, which helps us stay responsive and build tools that truly solve a deep user need.

Known, Inc goes beyond Known the platform: we're exploring new applications that use design thinking, and our deep community platform knowledge, to solve problems in different verticals.

Most importantly, we offer that experience and toolset to other organizations. If you need platform strategy advice, or even to build a new social website or app for your organization, we can help. We have over a decade of experience in building organizational social platforms, and you can put it to work. To get started, get in touch via our website.

 

The full-stack employer

7 min read

Just over four years since I permanently moved to California, I'm beginning to understand the differences in work style between the US and Europe. America still has a largely time-based view of productivity, even in Silicon Valley. But with tech industries in other nations catching up fast, and remote working becoming a more viable option, you need to compete for talent with companies all over the world. You have to be a full-stack employer.

What is a full-stack employer?

Over the past year in particular, there's been a lot of discussion about "full-stack employees", "full-stack developers" and "full-stack startups". The trend is that employees are expected to have a broader range of skills, and be able to switch between them seamlessly. Employees apply their skills in a more holistic manner, moving away from a dedicated position on an assembly line.

This is arguably related to startup culture, and the growing trend for even larger companies to innovate by creating much smaller, more autonomous internal product teams. It has worked for a number of corporations. But the full-stack expectation places greater demands on employees, which must be met by the employer. Simply put, to innovate, you need support.

I'm shamelessly repurposing the term "full-stack" to mean not just the technology you use to build your products and services, not just the skills you are expected to use in the course of doing business, but also the support mechanisms that humans need in the course of doing their job. A full-stack employer is one that sees their employees as a community of people, and that provides structures, support networks and services for them based on that understanding.

The good news is, treating the people who work for you as human beings has a real effect on productivity, sales and the health of a company.

What it's like to have a full-stack employer

The new reality is that you are expected to use a variety of skills in the course of doing your job. But those skills didn't just come to you, fully-formed. Nobody puts on a headset, Matrix-style, and emerges minutes later knowing kung fu: mastering a new skill requires time, effort and investment. Full-stack employers recognize that providing dedicated training and professional development for their employees creates a measurable return on investment. You're expected to join the company with intelligence, an enthusiasm for learning, and skills that relate to your core role - but the reality is that even those will develop as you continue at your company. Importantly, it's needs-led: as an employee, you can tailor your professional development based on your needs. Training isn't dropped on you from above.

You are not expected to be always-on. Phone calls at 3am, Slack messages late at night, urgent emails that need to be responded to out of hours are not on the table. It comes down to respect: the employer understands that you have your own life, and that your choice to work for a company is a relationship that goes both ways.

The ethics of this are clear, but it turns out that workers are more productive when they are rested and take more breaks. The same is true during working hours. Employees are trusted to do their work, and aren't measured in terms of the amount of time they spend at their desks. In fact, research suggests that they should build some break-time into every hour, and they may be encouraged to do this. Similarly, they may be encouraged to take a full hour for lunch, perhaps with a walk. And they're encouraged to go home after eight hours. It all results in happier, healthier employees, and more productivity.

Employees have some choice over their benefits, but they always have full medical coverage in countries where this isn't a given. Childcare is paid for (because the employer saves money by making it available).

Generous parental leave is provided, for both mothers and fathers, engineered in such a way that both parents take it more or less equally. Studies have shown that equal paternity leave helps to prevent against pay discrimination, and provides happiness (and therefore productivity) boosts across both parents. The company becomes a better place for women to work, allowing it to remain competitive.

Finally, the aspect that may make American managers shake their heads with disbelief. Every employee gets a minimum of six weeks of vacation time a year, and they are strongly incentivized to use it. In order to combat a culture of working all the time, full-stack employers may create a financial bonus for employees that go on holiday, knowing that vacations dramatically increase productivity. Happier workers are more productive.

Why it's great to be a full-stack employer

While it sounds expensive, full-stack employers actually save money. Happier employees are measurably more productive, and arguably more creative, leading to more innovative solutions. These measure also reduce churn, which is important when the cost of employee turnover can be as much as twice their salary.

Providing a better place to work can be a differentiator, which can help companies compete for employees in a cost-effective way. By way of example, I was once offered a position at a very well-known Silicon Valley web company; one whose services people use every day. The salary was great, and it would have looked good on my resumé. At the end of our meeting, the interviewer remarked to me, "you do end up spending a lot of time at work, but it's okay, because your colleagues become like your family." I refused the job, and started noticing when employees posted Instagram photos of their office on Saturdays and after midnight.

Optimizing the workplace for people who have lives outside of work allows for more experienced employees (who are more likely to have families), and people who have outside hobbies and interests. All of these things provide more bang for your salary buck as an employer - as well as creating a far more enjoyable place to work.

What does this mean for employees and managers?

Although some of the benefits sound costly, most of them actually save the company money over time. The biggest adjustment it requires is an attitude shift.

I would argue that the American reliance on time-at-desk as a productivity metric is an ideological, rather than fact-based, approach. German workers, for example, are at least as productive as their US counterparts, while enjoying six week vacations, more regular working hours, and so on.

Therefore, the biggest required change is for managers to respect the time of the people on their teams, and to create conditions where employees don't feel guilty for stepping away from their desks, putting their phones down, and spending regular, quality time away from work. In fact, they should feel empowered to do so, because they will be better workers as a result. The same goes for asking for professional development resources, and expecting fair compensation in both monetary and benefit terms.

It's a seismic shift for a country so deeply involved in the Protestant work ethic.

What of the future of work?

Ubiquitous mobile Internet was supposed to give us more freedom and allow us to live more fulfilling lives. It has not necessarily lived up to this potential.

Just because an employer can contact an employee at midnight on a Thursday night, does not mean that we should do so. We have gained all kinds of new, amazing tools to help us be productive and create more innovative companies. Now it's time to learn to do so responsibly.

After the industrial revolution, Henry Ford and others learned that five-day weeks and eight-hour days allow us to be more productive. After the information revolution, it seems we now have to relearn these lessons.

 

Convoy is a new kind of progressive enhancement for self-hosted web applications.

2 min read

We just released Convoy, an add-on service for Known that lets you use our servers to more easily share content with social media.

Previously, self-hosted site owners needed to create individual developer accounts on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, etc, and manage API integrations with each one. It was a pain, and lots of people told us that they'd prefer to avoid it.

You still can mess around with API integrations if you really want to. But Convoy gives you another option: connect your site, and then log into each service as easily as you would with any centralized cloud application. You still own all your data on your own server, but we handle the fiddly technical bits.

Service integrations aren't the only things that add value to a self-hosted site. Typically, shared hosts aren't good at search: there's no great dynamic search engine in the LAMP stack, and we get lots of complaints about MySQL's build-in full-text search. So we're looking at how we can add this to Convoy, too. The same goes for notifications and a host of other services that can help your self-hosted site use all the great new web technologies that the centralized services do.

I think of this as progressive enhancement: your site will still work without them, and you still store all your data. These services serve to add to the user experience without taking away any of your agency.

We're not removing functionality from the open source codebase: you can self-host everything if you have the technical ability. But if you'd prefer not to, Convoy is here for you.

And of course, it needn't be limited to Known at all ...

You can learn more about self-hosted Known on our open source site, or get started with our free hosted service.

 

Forget the mass market: the untribe is the new normal.

9 min read

There was one conversation I used to hate more than any other. I used to brace myself for it; grit my teeth in anticipation.

Here's how it would happen.

"Where are you from?" someone would ask, detecting that my accent wasn't quite British; something else was lurking just underneath.

"That's a long story," I would start to say, hoping to leave it at that and turn to some other, more interesting topic. But once someone has the scent that you're not a part of the tribe, that perhaps you don't belong, they never let it go. So I would explain. "My mother's Ukrainian / American, my dad's Dutch / Swiss / Indonesian, I grew up here, and -"

"Oh," they would say, stopping me. "You could become a British citizen, you know."

Then I would have to nod and smile, and perhaps bumble something along the lines of, "oh, well, yes, I suppose I could, now that you mention it, that's a rather good idea ..." Hugh Grant style, a polite stream of bashfulness that stood in for the lies, "nobody has ever suggested this before" and "clearly that's exactly what I need to do".

The implication was: "you could do this one thing and then you would belong!" It was as if being a part of the tribe would elevate me, somehow. The implication was that having the right sort of passport would make me the right sort of person, and I despised it.

There was exactly one time, every five years or so, when I ever wished I had been a British citizen. Although I could vote in local elections, I wasn't able to take part in the general elections that would help pick who would run the country. I couldn't help select a Prime Minister, but I cared deeply. I would pay close attention to the campaign pledges, flinch into my real ale when a politician mentioned immigration reform, and, once the polls were closed and results were announced, suck it up until next time.

Perhaps I could have become British, but that would have required - literally, in this case - giving up a part of who I was.

I grew up in Oxford, a few miles east of the university's picturesque dreaming spires, in a pebbledash duplex between a pub and a gas station. My high school's catchment area covered both my side of town - arguably the bad side, with its tiny houses and tower blocks - and the fancy North Oxford Victorians where the professors raised their children. High school is notorious for nurturing cliques, and England is notorious for class awareness. One friend's professor parent was very open about looking down on me because I came from the wrong side of town, and in a perverse way I'm thankful to him for his honesty; I'm not sure how many others did so behind my back. Meanwhile, many of the kinds from my end of town openly despised me for being visibly interested in learning. My parents are both highly academic, and I was overtly a computer geek who loved writing.  As is the high school way, everyone picked on everyone else for the ways in which they didn't fit their ideal archetype.

By the end of high school, I was a nervous wreck, but I had also found the people I identified most strongly with: the people who were not easily described. I guess you could call us the people who weren't part of the other cliques. In some ways, that was a tribe, too, and we found strength in our friendships. These are people I love dearly and I still talk to some of them every day.

But I had also discovered the Internet, which felt like a magical, invisible layer on top of the world. Hidden in invisible corners there, where no-one else could find us, on newsgroups and IRC, not limited by geography, space or time, we reached out to each other. I believe we were the first generation of teenagers to make friends in this way. I think we were also probably the last to be allowed to travel and meet each other without supervision. We traveled across Britain to show up at "meets", where we acted like British teenagers do, loitering outside pubs, hanging out in parks, and cementing friendships that could not have been created any other way.

Our untribe grew with the Internet. It turns out that everybody is a niche. Everyone has their own complicated mix of interests, background, skills and personality, which is unique to us like a fingerprint. The fact that I have an individual background is not, in itself, unique to me. We all do. With the accessibility of international travel, as well as the ubiquity of international communication, more and more people have backgrounds and contexts that cross traditional borders.

Chris Anderson called this endless parade of uniqueness "the long tail". I don't know if it's a tail: over time, mainstream demographics have revealed themselves to be a ruse, a kind of statistical slight of hand that allows us to dehumanize collections of people, remove the characteristics that make them real, and average them out into buckets so they can be marketed to efficiently. Desires and demographic groups have been manufactured in order to sell; their glue is a kind of peer pressure, the desire to belong bringing with it manufactured social norms. But it's not a tail. In reality, there is no mass market. We are all part of an untribe.

As the Internet has matured, marketers are discovering new ways to sell and to target their messages. Commerce has adapted to the untribe. But a further cultural shift is still to come.

"I don't think you want to belong," someone once said to me, in reference to my outside-ness with respect to nationality. I think it was meant as a criticism, but it was completely true. I had always felt that by bending myself into the social norms of a particular group, I would lose - at least to an extent - the part of myself that didn't fit into those norms, unless it was nurtured in some other way. Most importantly, in a world where we can all make connections based on our individuality, why should an artificial group membership based on where we are born matter at all? To make the point bluntly, if we get along, why should I give a shit where you're from?

Nationality is an artificial demographic. There are more differences within nationalities than between them. Because of the Internet, the friendships we make, the business we negotiate, the media we consume and even the people we fall in love with are not bound by these borders. In this context, being proud of being from a particular place is ridiculous. One might as well be proud of rolling a double 6 in a game of Backgammon, and there are uncomfortable implications. By being born in the United States, say, are you inherently a better person than someone who was born in India? Would you give preference to someone from your home country over someone who wasn't? This is no longer a hypothetical question.

Nationalities no longer make sense as a tribe. In contrast, the Internet has allowed people to define themselves by their passionate interest groups. Consider fandoms, which always existed but previously had been relegated to photocopied fanzines and minor conventions. Those conventions are booming; fanzines are now major publications. Rather than define ourselves by things entirely out of our control, we can use the things we really care about; the tribes we have chosen for ourselves. Nobody will reject you from a convention. There is no entrance requirement.

Really what we're defining ourselves by are our values, of which our interests are a subset. It could be argued that this is one reason why politics have become more divided on the web: increasingly, we are either liberal or conservative. But I think this is an artifact of our moment in time, between the Internet's demographic fracturing and a necessary split from a two-party system. Representative democracy is a good idea, but our parties no longer represent us. If we are all part of an untribe, we need a more granular way of thinking about our values. Our governments are likely to fracture, too, to coalitions of smaller representative groups, but the result will be political structures that more closely resembles who we are as populations. I have to wonder if the same could be true of religions.

In a world where I can have a conversation with someone in Iran as easily as someone in Palo Alto, clinging to traditional borders is an anachronism. Traditional flag-waving patriotism feels like a relic from the past, because it is. We don't need to let go of these traditions and backgrounds entirely - history is a crucial part of who we are, and there's nothing wrong with advocating for a place you love - but we do need to accept our new reality. I am not arguing that ethnicities or sexualities are not a part of who we are, or that they should not be acknowledged, but I do think the aspects of ourselves that we choose are more important than the ones we do not. There is no need to pledge allegiance to a demographic, or discriminate against people who are not of ours. We are all people, connected to each other by our interests, our skills and our personalities.

There is so much to be gained by embracing this, and so little value - as always - in clinging meaninglessly to the past, and robbing people of their individuality. We are all different. The world is so much richer when we think of it in those terms.

 

Introducing the Indie Dash Button! #indieweb #vrm

4 min read

I wish I knew how to quit youWe've all been there: you're standing by the washing machine, about to start a load, and you realize you're out of laundry detergent. Or you're getting ready for bed and you realize you've forgotten to buy more mouthwash. Less often, you find yourself wondering how to fly to a particular destination cheaply, or needing a good deal on a new car.

You don't want to deal with a single vendor for each of these things, but you also don't want to spend ages doing price comparisons. What would be great is if you had a personal shopper that would find the best version of these things and automatically get them for you.

For regular, low ticket value essentials - laundry soap, mouthwash, diapers - wouldn't it be nice if you could get these products in a vendor-agnostic way by pushing a single button?

Here's how it works.

What you'll need

A website running on your own domain, with the ability to accept webmentions. Hey, Known does this! So do a variety of other projects!

The request

First, you need to publish a request on your own site. To you, it's a simple statement: something like, "I need some more laundry soap". (The button could make this statement for you.)

On the back-end, the statement is marked up using microformats, and a note is made to a PubSubHubbub hub that there's new content.

A product request aggregator is subscribed to your request, and is notified immediately via PubSubHubbbub. Your request is pushed to an aggregated feed of requests from all over the web. Vendors can subscribe to the requests, or filter them by location, or other profile characteristics that you have published on your own website. Again, these profile fields are just published as HTML, using microformats; there's nothing fancy or proprietary here.

Over time, as vendors build relationships with individual consumers, they can subscribe to their feed of requests directly. There's no requirement for a middle-man.

Making an offer

Vendors can then respond with an offer.

Offers are written as HTML statements too: product details, the quantity, and the price. For example, a statement could include a box of Tide at a particular price.

This statement is published as a reply to your original request using webmentions. In other words, your request to buy something - an item on your personal URL - is answered by a corresponding offer, which is an item on the vendor's personal URL.

Accepting an offer

You can peruse all the offers that have been made on your request. But you could also tell the platform that runs your URL to automatically accept offers within a certain range (for example, if you're offered Tide at a reasonable price, or airfare from SFO to LHR under $800).

To accept an offer, another statement is made, again written as HTML marked up with microformats. This just says something to the effect of, "yes please". Using webmentions, it is attached as a response both to the vendor's offer, and to your original request. That means that any vendor can see that you have accepted an offer, and the vendor can see that their offer has been accepted.

All of this happens behind the scenes, and although the formats involved are very simple, the user gets to use their phone, their browser, or another familiar interface. Again, it could all be done with a simple button.

And then the connection is made. If you have no prior arrangement with the vendor, they get in touch with you (via contact methods published on your URL) to arrange payment and delivery. Otherwise, if the arrangement is already set up, you're good to go.

Finally, another webmention is sent when the product has been shipped - or if the order had to be canceled or changed for any reason.

Why does this make the world better?

This model for commerce - commonly referred to as Vendor Relationship Management, or VRM - turns traditional advertising on its head, and removes the need for complicated targeting technology. Customers readily identify themselves, creating more valuable sales channels where guesswork is all but eliminated.

Additionally, the use of indieweb technologies like webmention and microformats here removes the need for complex or proprietary identity technology. The customer can use the platform of their choice, without the risk of a single vendor locking stakeholders into a single service and impeding commerce and innovation over time.

The customer says they need to buy something; vendors respond with their best offer; money is made, products are sold, and everyone walks away happy, with almost no friction.

 

Marc Benioff is doing the right thing. Every founder should take note.

2 min read

Marc Benioff, the CEO at Salesforce, is cancelling all programs in Indiana:

Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff says he doesn’t want his employees subjected to discrimination as part of their work for the San Francisco-based company, and he is cancelling all required travel to the state of Indiana following the signing of a religious freedom law that some say allows business to exclude gay customers.

As CNN reports, the bill is extremely regressive:

On his website, Miller highlighted examples of the law's effect: Christian bakers, florists and photographers won't have to participate in "homosexual marriage," he wrote, while Christian businesses won't be punished for "refusing to allow a man to use the women's restroom."

It's a law for bigots and shouldn't be protected by any claims of freedom of religion (just as racism isn't).

There's always pressure as a company founder to not reveal your political values, but I believe this case is clear, and taking a stand against it is the right thing to do. The technology industry is often too apolitical in cases where it could make a difference. I'm glad that Benioff is taking a stand and bringing Salesforce with him; I hope the industry follows suit. More than that, I hope more founders feel that it is safe for them to publicly declare their values, and follow them up with action.

 

Facebook wants to own our news and communications. Here's why it has to fail.

2 min read

TV News

Earlier this week, it emerged that Facebook was in talks to host the content from publications like the New York Times, Buzzfeed and National Geographic. Today, it "opened up" their Messenger app into a platform that can be incorporated into a host of other apps and services, as well as a raft of other new features around identity and communications.

As a society, we tend to raise a skeptical eyebrow at nations with state-controlled media. But a world where one major entity controls the distribution of news, not just nationally but internationally, is arguably more harmful. I don't believe that Facebook as a company has nefarious intent here, but the precedent is worrying. News and information are important to democracy; informed voters are better voters. The implications of a single algorithm controlling how a population gets its news goes far beyond a web company trying to increase its market share.

Even if you don't buy that argument, Facebook's history with censorship should give any news outlet pause for thought. And that's the real danger: if someone other than you is hosting your content, can you trust them to treat it responsibly?

Brands looking to incorporate Facebook Messenger should have similar worries. It's a seamless-looking platform, but what if Facebook changes the rules, or changes its features, somewhere down the line? What if they choose to monetize the conversations you have with your customers?

Brands and news outlets need more audience. In that light, it makes sense to put your money behind the largest social networking platform on the planet, at least on the face of it. But the web remains the largest content network that is, with no single gatekeeper controlling how you use it. For identity, nothing beats a well-made website. For chat, services like XMPP carry zero business risk, and are easier to integrate than you'd think.

For startups, the opportunity is to provide open solutions that let media companies have all the sharing and integration benefits of the Facebook News Feed, Facebook Profiles and Facebook Messenger, without any of the concerns, and without any of the business uncertainty.

The web stopped being a game some time ago. It's not about whether this web toy or that web toy will win; it's about how we learn about the world, how we talk to each other, and how we represent ourselves to each other.

 

Some thoughts on building a high-growth startup with an open source product

10 min read

Known is my second open source startup. I've spent over a decade working with free and open source software, and have been producing it in a startup context for most of that time. I've had a lot of time to think about the realities of doing this.

I believe that free and open source software is important for both social and technical reasons. In this post, I'd like to explore the implications for running an end-user open source software project from a startup business perspective.

What is free and open source software?

First, let's back up a second and talk about "free software". This was defined by Richard Stallman as giving you the following four freedoms:

  • The freedom to run the program as you wish, for any purpose (freedom 0).
  • The freedom to study how the program works, and change it so it does your computing as you wish (freedom 1). Access to the source code is a precondition for this.
  • The freedom to redistribute copies so you can help your neighbor (freedom 2).
  • The freedom to distribute copies of your modified versions to others (freedom 3). By doing this you can give the whole community a chance to benefit from your changes. Access to the source code is a precondition for this.

Note that "free" refers to "freedom", and doesn't necessarily mean "free of cost". However, this is not immediately obvious to newcomers. "Open source", in contrast, is purely a development methodology rather than a social movement. Because of that, and because the wording is unambiguous, I prefer to use this term. There's a lot of disagreement on this, and my preference shouldn't be construed as me prescribing this for other people.

Why is free and open source software desirable?

Free and open source infrastructure software - things like Linux, the Apache Web Server, OpenSSL and so on - have allowed for highly functional server stacks that aren't limited to a single vendor. Here's a slightly unfair way of looking at it: while Windows Server and similar products are Lunchables, where the whole stack is made by the same group of people, Linux is a picnic, with lots of individual ingredients provided by different organizations that add up to a richer whole. Each ingredient does one thing really well; the jam is really good jam, the cheese is awesome cheese. And because everyone gets the list of ingredients for each item in the picnic, you know that the jam and the cheese don't contain any nasty surprises. With the Lunchables, not so much.

Maybe my analogy needs work. But while free and open source software is particularly suitable for infrastructure software, it has broad implications for end-user software, too.

By end-user software, I mean products that non-technical people will use directly. WordPress is probably the best example: 23% of the web is made up of WordPress sites. Elgg, the social networking platform I founded, is another. Ghost is another, more recent example. And finally, Piwik, the self-hosted web analytics library, is one more.

What if I told you that only one of those projects was a traditional tech startup? And it's probably not the one you're thinking of.

The structure of open source startups

A common misconception is that Automattic, the company founded by WordPress cofounder Matt Mullenweg, is also the company behind WordPress. It's not. WordPress is a non-profit foundation, while Automattic provides the hosted WordPress.com service, as well as anti-spam tools, analytics and other centralized functionality.

Ghost, which was founded by an ex-Automattic employee, is also a not-for-profit organization. John O'Nolan explained his rationale for this in a blog post, where he clearly backs the social movement side of free and open source software:

The point of Open Source is to promote furthering technology for the entire world by not locking down software with patents and charging millions for them. The point of Open Source is that shared technology is better than closed technology because it has so many more people working on it. The point of Open Source is that the software you create benefits not just yourself, but many others - and in return you receive the same.

[...] I wanted to make it completely clear that Ghost is about making great software. I own 0% of the company. Hannah owns 0% of the company. According to our legal documents of incorporation, neither of us can pay ourselves enormous tax-free dividends. Just normal, taxable salaries.

Elgg, the open source social networking platform I cofounded, is also now a non-profit foundation.

Piwik, meanwhile, is a startup, albeit one that was founded significantly later than the project. They're a distributed company, with headquarters in New Zealand and Poland.

Why end-user projects are different to infrastructure projects

Over 80% of Linux kernel patches are written by corporations that use Linux, either as part of the infrastructure that serves their products (e.g. at companies like IBM), or as part of Linux-based end-user projects like embedded devices and Android phones.

By definition, end-user projects are the product, rather than a building block that becomes part of the product. There are far fewer levels of stakeholders downstream from the project to contribute to it, both monetarily and in terms of code patches.

This, however, is not to say that there are far fewer stakeholders overall. For example, there are plenty of people who use WordPress - it powers 23% of the web, remember? There are hosting service providers, web shops, and consumer users who depend on the software. This may represent a less technically-savvy base of people, but it may also be greater in terms of raw numbers.

Creating a self-sustaining project clearly demands a different strategy - particularly if the open source project is going to serve as the core of a startup.

What startups need

Startups need to be more than self-sustaining: their engine is scalable revenue.

In other words, revenue for a startup needs to have several properties:

  • It needs to be recurring
  • It needs to be able to grow non-linearly with the team (in other words, revenue isn't tightly bound to team size)
  • It needs to be subject to experimentation (the startup needs to have freedom to run experiments around pricing, features, angle, and virtually every aspect of their business)

Where is the intersection between this and the four freedoms we discussed at the beginning? That's where an open source startup needs to operate.

Services

One of the first things you learn as a startup founder is that professional services should be avoided, because they're not recurring, and they're not scalable. By professional services in this context I mean customizations, consultancy contracts and so on. They're clearly tightly bound to the size of your team. It can be interesting to offer these services in the beginning in order to learn more about your market, but you need to be careful, because it will stunt your ability to grow quickly.

This isn't to say that it will completely stunt your ability to grow. After all, professional services are the classic open source business model: offer consultancy and support. It's essentially what Red Hat has made its billions on (at the time of writing its market capitalization is $12.77B). But it flies in the face of the startup model where you build something that will rapidly expand.

So let's look at Automattic, which was valued at $1.16B after a round of funding last year. How have they grown?

While Automattic isn't directly responsible for the WordPress open source project, it is directly responsible for the WordPress.com hosted version. The bulk of its revenue comes from premium subscriptions. It does also provide a professional services "VIP" offering for high-value customers. To augment its income, it created an advertising network, and the company was actually founded to provide anti-spam services.

It's a smart mix: a lot of people don't have the expertise or resources to maintain code on their own servers (by way of example, around 10% of Known sites are self-hosted, while the other 90% are on our service). But even if they do, they can certainly use the Akismet anti-spam service, and because Automattic employs many members of the core WordPress team, high-value customers like the New York Times can use their expertise to get the best possible performance out of the platform. Perhaps most importantly, running a service allows platform developers to more quickly learn from its users.

By providing services to self-hosters, Automattic avoids a common pitfall with open source startups, where the most engaged users - the people who really, really care about running the project, and the principles behind it - are the ones who bypass the company entirely. The freedom of the WordPress open source project is not compromised, and all of the services are additive to the overall WordPress ecosystem. Anything that helps WordPress helps the company, and vice versa.

While Ghost is a non-profit, it provides similar services to WordPress.com. Similarly, Piwik Pro is a hosting service for Piwik. And, of course, WithKnown.com is a hosted platform for our open source Known software. (You should try it!)

Free as in free

While the principles of freedom that underly free and open source software are strong and important, it's also fair to say that many people choose it because it's cheaper. Freedom from lock-in also implies a freedom from recurring license costs. WordPress is arguably so popular today because its competitor, Moveable Type, decided to impose a licensing charge a decade ago, prompting a mass exodus.

It's hard to charge for end-user software, whether it's open source or not. Non-free platforms tend to get away with this by running advertising - and in fact, even WordPress.com runs ads on free sites for non-logged-in site visitors. A lot of open source campaigners are also pro-privacy, and don't believe in the invasive tracking that modern targeted advertising typically uses. Yet, at the same time, they often won't pay to use a platform, which obviously leaves the startup in an interesting bind.

Of course, if a platform is free and open source, you have a choice of where to run it. WordPress.com isn't the only place where you can get a hosted WordPress blog, so if you don't like their advertising policies, you don't have to use them. It could be argued that choice gives Automattic an ethical get-out clause: if you don't want advertising, go ahead and host your blog elsewhere or pay a subscription fee. When we ran a customer survey a few weeks ago, a fair proportion wanted us to run ads on the platform. So far, we have chosen not to do this.

Free software is a social movement, which is sometimes seen as being in line with anti-capitalist movements. If you have chosen to run a startup, you are probably a capitalist: you've chosen the route of revenue growth and creating business value. I believe that this is compatible with having strong social values (which I believe I do), but many people disagree. Ultimately, as a founder, you have to accept that you won't be able please everybody, and you have to be able to pay the people who work for you. Luckily, with open source software, everyone who runs the platform has a choice about who to run it with.

There is power in a movement

I do think that making your software open source gives your users more control and power, while allowing you to build a high value, scaleable business. It also more easily allows you to create an ecosystem around your software, allowing other people and companies to make money out of it too (potentially leading to even stronger growth). The trick is being aware of what open source entails, and what the implications are for your business, but you can absolutely build a high-growth, ethical business. We're on our way.

 

Venture capital isn't evil.

3 min read

I enjoyed this episode of This Week in Startups with USV's Fred Wilson. It's a fairly candid conversation from this year's Launch Festival, and Fred comes across as having both integrity and a very practical approach to investing in startups.

The story that jumps out at me is that of Tumblr's acquisition by Yahoo!. There are two important details: the first is that Tumblr's initial investment round was less than a million dollars. The second is Fred's disclosure that the acquisition happened at a time when Tumblr had spent a lot of money on growth, and would have to either raise a huge round to make up the shortfall, significantly diluting the existing shareholders in the process, or raise unrealistic amounts of revenue. So selling to Yahoo! for $1.1 billion made sense for them.

There has been a great deal of backlash against venture capital in data ownership circles over the last year. Certainly, VC money gravitates towards a certain kind of company strategy, where designing for extremely rapid growth is a hallmark, and a profitable exit - either to IPO or acquisition - is desired. Rapid, sustainable growth is very difficult to achieve without a budget. It also overwhelmingly leads to strategies like revenue through advertising, where user growth isn't hampered by having to pay to use a service. Advertising is often criticized for requiring people to give up some personal privacy so that advertisements can be more targeted, and therefore more valuable to the service.

I think it's worth considering that services like Tumblr, Twitter and Facebook have also connected us and become a part of the cultural landscape in ways that wouldn't have been possible if people had needed to pay for them. Assuming that everyone should pay for a service is not realistic if you want to build a global community. Again, a resource-strapped startup is also more likely to see slower growth than one with millions of dollars in the bank: their box of tricks is necessarily more limited.

If you're opposed to this kind of financing, it's worth asking: would you pay for Tumblr, or Twitter, or Facebook? If not, why not? How many services do you actually pay for?

Venture capital isn't the only way. Notably, O'Reilly Alpha Tech Ventures created Indie.vc in order to explore a more revenue-centric funding model (and I hope more will follow). But I do think VC is a legitimate funding tactic for a particular kind of highly-available, free-to-use mass-market tool, and it seems to me that whether it has a detrimental effect on a startup's service has more to do with the individuals at the startup, and the personalities of the VC investors they choose, than the model as a whole.