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.

 

Don't keep your opinions to yourself

2 min read

The web is the most powerful platform for learning that human society has ever known. Every time we encounter someone with different skills, contexts and ideas to us, we learn from each other - as long as we share those things.

In many places, children are brought up to think of talking about politics as rude, and these attitudes can sometimes translate to social media. I feel very differently: while it may be rude to talk about differences of opinion at the Thanksgiving table, if only because the social norms have been set differently, I almost think of it as a duty to share our ideas online.

Of course, like any marketplace, a marketplace of ideas needs to have some rules. When I ran a debate forum a decade ago, we had a small number of core ideas:

  • No personal attacks (a disagreement doesn't mean that the person you're interacting with is inherently bad)
  • Keep an open mind - in other words, stay open to the idea that your deeply-held idea might be wrong
  • Understand that everyone has a different context, and what works for you might not work for anyone else
  • Try and avoid strawman arguments

I think these hold for any online conversation.

Personally? I love it when people talk politics with me, or disagree with the ideas I publish. And more generally, I think the web would be a richer, more valuable place if we all wrote about what we believed. As long as every party in the conversation is able to understand how to debate with each other, and understands that it's okay to be wrong, we all become smarter in the process.

I post about my political beliefs, as well as my other beliefs, according to this thesis. I don't think that people who disagree with me are bad in any way; it's a privilege to be able to have conversations with people all over the world about things that matter. I do think anything that adds to the commons, and the gene pool of ideas, is a good thing.

 

Why can't you comment on this post? #indieweb

2 min read

I'm sometimes asked why my posts here on my Known site don't let people comment on them.

The answer is: actually, they do. And I want to read your comments. Feedback is a gift.

Known, like p3k, Taproot and a number of other platforms, uses an open technology called webmention to power its comments. Plugins are also available to help WordPress use webmention.

What webmention gives us is a truly decentralized conversation: you can make a post on your site, mark it as being in reply to this post, and it'll show up as a comment here - but you also get to keep everything you've written on your own site. That way, even if my site goes away, you have a record of every conversation you've had with me. (If you want it.)

You don't need Known to leave a comment: you can use anything that supports webmention.

Through the power of webmention and Bridgy, you can also reply to this post on Twitter and Facebook (see the links at the bottom of the page for this post), and your response will show up here.

This isn't to say that we're not going to add public comments to Known. We are. But we want to make sure we do it right. Sites like Medium have shown interesting new models for user feedback that we're very interested in (and there are decentralized counterparts like marginalia).

We're definitely inviting feedback on this, and would love to read your thoughts. What kind of comments would you like to see?

 

Homebrew Website Club: September 10, 2014

Discuss progress; meet up; make new friends.

Location: Mozilla SF, 1st floor, 2 Harrison st. (at Embarcadero), San Francisco, CA

Time:

Ends:

Are you building your own website? Indie reader? Personal publishing web app? Or some other digital magic-cloud proxy? If so, come on by and join a gathering of people with like-minded interests. Bring your friends that want to start a personal web site. Exchange information, swap ideas, talk shop, help work on a project ...

See the Homebrew Website Club Newsletter Volume 1 Issue 1 for a description of the first meeting.

Originally posted on indiewebcamp.com.

Here's the Facebook event, if you prefer.

 

Reflecting on @fredwilson's swing back to personal sites, which is what @withknown is all about

3 min read

Fred Wilson is seeing a swing back towards personal blogging:

There is something about the personal blog, yourname.com, where you control everything and get to do whatever the hell pleases you. There is something about linking to one of those blogs and then saying something. It’s like having a conversation in public with each other. This is how blogging was in the early days. And this is how blogging is today, if you want it to be.

Which is exactly what I'm doing now, from my Known site.

What's different today is that you have access to networks like Twitter and Facebook, which allow you to more easily spread your message to your network of contacts (and to their networks of contacts). Social media has also given us new forms of content to play with, like the check-in. Known, of course, allows you to post to your own domain using a variety of media and reach audiences all over the web.

Meanwhile, Harold Jarche, a learning consultant who helps create workplace change for large corporations like Domino's, notes that workplaces are missing time for reflection. The same is true of schools, conferences, and other spaces where learning happens.

There's a lot of value in having a place to publish and share extended reflections, which we miss in shorter-form, rapid-fire platforms like Twitter (as much as I love them), and which also aren't served by mass publishing platforms like Medium. A personal space is just that: personal.

As Fred noted, Elizabeth Spiers, the founding editor at Gawker, just relaunched her own personal blog:

But now I’m at the opposite end of the continuum; I’m usually working on one or two long-form writing projects, but not very much writing gets done in public otherwise. And there are things about blogging that I miss. I like consistently writing for an audience and getting feedback. It helps me work out my arguments and thoughts about various issues and clarifies muddy thinking.

These are some of the reasons why education is interested in personal publishing at the moment (here are some notes from our pilot at the University of Mary Washington). But it goes much wider. The web is the most effective way there has ever been to connect people with different contexts and skills. Right now, a very small number of platforms control the form (and therefore, at least to an extent, the content) of those conversations. I think the web is richer if we all own our own sites - and Known is a simple, flexible platform to let people do that.

To learn more, click here to add yourself to the beta list, or get in touch.

 

Publish on your own site, syndicate elsewhere - very cool to see @davewiner joining in

2 min read

It's been fun to see Dave Winer's experiments in content syndication with Little Facebook Editor, a proof of concept that allows you to write a post in a minimalist text box (which I love), cross-post to Facebook, and update the Facebook version when updates are made.

We've had content syndication in Known since the beginning. So far we have plugins for Facebook, Twitter, Flickr, Foursquare and SoundCloud in-house, and our open source community has also contributed one for WordPress. I love that Dave's software keeps the post up-to-date as well as cross-posting it. This is something we'll be adding for the platforms that support it (i.e., everything but Twitter).

I completely agree with Dave when he says:

I want Facebook to become a first class publishing surface, accessible from tools that run outside the Facebook environment. With this, the tools can overcome one major objection, that they don't connect with the powerful engagement features of Facebook, and the huge user base. And, even more important, it will make it possible for new tools to gain traction, because users will not have to choose between an attractive idea and all their readers and friends. They can have both.


We believe that this should be true for all of our social networking tools. Our sites should hold the primary copy of our content - it's ours, after all. But these networks wield massive reach and power, and we should be able to leverage that to find new audiences and meet new people. We're not trying to replace Facebook; we're trying to use it to its full potential.

I'm really looking forward to more updates on the Little Facebook Editor. To stay up to date with Known developments, click here to add yourself to our beta list.

 

Homebrew Website Club: August 27 2014

Discuss progress; meet up; make new friends.

Location: Mozilla SF, 1st floor, 2 Harrison st. (at Embarcadero), San Francisco, CA

Time:

Ends:

Are you building your own website? Indie reader? Personal publishing web app? Or some other digital magic-cloud proxy? If so, come on by and join a gathering of people with like-minded interests. Bring your friends that want to start a personal web site. Exchange information, swap ideas, talk shop, help work on a project ...

See the Homebrew Website Club Newsletter Volume 1 Issue 1 for a description of the first meeting.

Originally posted on indiewebcamp.com.

Here's the Facebook event, if you prefer.

 

PHP's cURL implementation makes Squid return a 417 error: how to fix it

2 min read

This is a more technical post than usual, but this has been driving me nuts, and I wanted to document it in case others run into the same issue.

PHP's cURL implementation sends an Expect: 100-continue header when you use it to send a POST call over a certain size.

Squid, ever the diligent proxy, looks for well-formed requests, and will throw an HTTP 417 error if it gets that header but the call is malformed. Edit: it also can't handle the header at all in incoming requests if you're using anything earlier than Squid 3.2.

cURL malforms the call (or extra behavior is required and documented, but I haven't seen anything yet).

The result is that running an API behind Squid that is used by PHP cURL clients may cause unforeseen 417 errors.

How to fix it

A widely accepted fix is to tell cURL to send a blank "Expect:" error. That does solve the issue from one side, but it's half the problem. What happens if you can't control the incoming cURL libraries?

It turns out that Squid has a setting called ignore_expect_100 which is off by default. Add "ignore_expect_100" to your squid.conf file, restart Squid, and you should be good to go.

 

Why I'm okay with Twitter going beyond the social graph

2 min read

I've been glued to the Ferguson coverage for the last week. Like many people, I've been wondering how this could be happening in a supposedly democratic, developed nation - and I've been getting all of my news via Twitter. No matter what they try and do, the traditional news media has just been late on this story, in the way that traditional publishers began to seem out of date when blogging picked up steam a decade ago.

I've been watching up-to-the-second updates of a situation that should concern everyone who lives in the US. Meanwhile, conspicuously, the story is virtually nowhere to be found on Facebook.

We're increasingly consuming information in filter bubbles. Much has been said about this over the last few years, but it's harmful: if an idea, or an event, hasn't permeated a social circle, it's less likely to than it ever was. Back in the old days, we'd all crowd around a TV for the evening news, or read a newspaper in the morning. Everyone got the same information. Now we subscribe to individuals and curate our own information streams.

Mostly this is a good thing: it's dangerous for everyone to be getting all their information from a single source. But as circles congeal online, they effectively become the same thing: a unified voice of people who more or less agree with each other. Not only is that democratically dangerous, but for networks like Twitter, there's the possibility of it atrophying the network and impeding growth. Past a certain point, introverted social spheres can't grow any further; it makes sense to add a little something to break the surface tension.

But in the democratic sense, a little more serendipity is also a good thing. I want to discover stories I might not have otherwise seen; ideas I might not otherwise have heard.

If Twitter was just a piece of software running as a service, this would be unthinkable: it's not obeying your subscription preferences! But that's not what it is. With this change, Twitter is cementing itself as a media company, just like the broadcasters of old. In its own way, it's curating an information source for you - one that can continue to scale beyond your friends and networks.

 

The ROI of building open source software

2 min read

Eran Hammer discusses justifying the return on investment for open source development at Walmart Labs:

If this all sounds very cold and calculated, it’s because it is. Looking for clear ROI isn’t anti-community but pro-sustainability. It’s easy to get your boss to sponsor a community event or a conference, to print shirt and stickers for your open source project, or throw a release party for a new framework. What’s hard is to get the same level of investment a year, two years, or three years later.

If you're creating something that the community relies upon, it's important to also make it sustainable. Open source is a license and a way of thinking about distribution; it is not the opposite of thinking about software in business terms. If you're creating software in the context of a business, you need to tie it to business goals, including the license.

At Known, like Elgg before it, we know that open source distribution acted as a multiplier for the small teams of developers writing the code in-house. We talk about it as a strategy. The effect is the same - anyone can pick up our core code for free - but it's been done for a reason. Eran's metrics seem about right to me:

For example, every five startups using hapi translated to the value of one full time developer, while every ten large companies translated to one full time senior developer.

For us, a "startup" could be a university, a non-profit or a government department. The nice thing about open source is that while all good software is built in collaboration with its users, here the users can literally write some of the code. The result is a startup less constrained by limited resources, and a user-base that gets to use a more useful application. Everybody wins.


Interested in open source businesses? You should check out Known and add yourself to the beta list.

 

Homebrew Website Club: August 13 2014

Discuss progress; meet up; make new friends.

Location: Java Conference Room, Mozilla SF, 2st floor, 2 Harrison st. (at Embarcadero), San Francisco, CA

Time:

Ends:

Are you building your own website? Indie reader? Personal publishing web app? Or some other digital magic-cloud proxy? If so, come on by and join a gathering of people with like-minded interests. Bring your friends that want to start a personal web site. Exchange information, swap ideas, talk shop, help work on a project ...

See the Homebrew Website Club Newsletter Volume 1 Issue 1 for a description of the first meeting.

Originally posted on indiewebcamp.com.

Here's the Facebook event, if you prefer.

 

Known and education: a love story

3 min read

I started my career in education, writing e-learning tools for the University of Edinburgh. It was there that I met my Elgg co-founder, Dave Tosh (because they placed us together in an ex-broom closet with a window that didn't shut; a kind of gallows bonding experience). Elgg was designed as a community platform for education, that took the informal learning that was happening on the nascent social web in 2003 and applied it to the formal education space. It did well, and it's still in wide use in institutions today. Through Elgg, I've written and spoken widely about social learning environments.

The educational technology community has developed the dual concepts of the Personal Learning Environment and the eportfolio. The first is a tool that puts students at the center of their learning; the second is a way for them to represent themselves and their learning, to themselves, to their peers at their institution, and to the outside world once they graduate. In an educational setting, I think Known is very clearly both a PLE and an eportfolio:

  • Known profiles allow you to post to a space that represents you, using a variety of media, from any device
  • Known's syndication feature lets you post to your own profile, while syndicating to external sites and applications - like your campus's Learning Management System.

Educators agree. The Reclaim Your Domain project is a particular evolution of eportfolio thinking, where members of a campus's community own the domains that represent them (just like indieweb!), and we've developed a good relationship with this community. And we're discovering that more and more institutions around the world are coming to us, because they see how Known can help them to empower their students.

Universities have discovered that providing a social space that allows for personal reflection allows for deeper learning than a Learning Management System can provide. Known provides a layer for this that can either work with a campus's LMS or as a stand-alone product. It's easier for teachers to administer, and because it uses the latest modern web technologies, it works with the mobile devices that students are using to access the Internet more than 50% of the time.

Known works well as an educational product. Our experience building awesome social tools for education over the last decade allows us to more quickly understand the challenges involved, and to provide something that fits in with the culture of education. We're also aware that there are startups whose aim is to own a part of the education stack, and our grounding in indieweb and open source means that we reject that entirely. We have an open project that we have designed to empower; the intention is to provide more control, not remove it.

I couldn't be more excited to work deeply with educators to help them make electronic learning a more personal experience - and we want to hear from you. Software is a collaborative experience, and we couldn't think of better collaborators than the people who are helping to make the world a more informed and educated place.

 

Drawing a line from @elgg to @withknown: an adventure in #edtech and #indieweb

6 min read

1. Elgg: a social networking engine for education.

Elgg communitiesIn November, 2004, we released the first version of Elgg to the world. We originally called it a learning landscape: an educational software platform that took its cues from the emerging social web rather than rigid classroom structures. In many ways, it was as much a reaction to Blackboard and WebCT as it was to Livejournal and MySpace.

I'd been building web communities since 1995, so when I arrived at the University of Edinburgh to work on elearning software, I was appalled at what I'd found. Every single person who used the dominant learning management systems, from the administrators down to the students, hated them. Students only used them because they were forced to; as it turned out, administrators only used them because they were forced to.

And yet, people were learning from each other on the web all the time. Through platforms like Livejournal and Delicious, people with different skills and contexts were colliding and creating a new kind of culture. The web had made it possible for anyone to publish as long as they bought some web space and learned HTML. Suddenly, anyone could publish, as long as they could connect to the Internet at all.

Elgg took the social web, applied it to education, and wrapped the whole thing in an open source license. It took off like wildfire.

Embedded podcastFrom the beginning, it was important to us that users got to control their own space. They could choose their own theme, and hack it, if they wanted to. Most importantly, they could choose exactly who could see each and every post: long before Mark Zuckerberg declared that the age of privacy was dead, our research indicated that students felt more comfortable with web publishing if they could keep tight reigns over who could see their work.

We knew Elgg was bigger than education when non-profits in Columbia got in touch to let us know they were using the platform. Soon afterwards, schools in Bangladesh were featured by the BBC for using it. Over time, as more non-education users emerged - more non-profits like Oxfam and Greenpeace, alongside Swatch, BMW, hedge funds, and the rugby star Will Carling - it evolved into a social networking engine that anyone could pick up and use. We started with a very specific use case - reflective learning in higher education - and widened into something much bigger. To date, Elgg users have included Harvard University, NASA, Hill & Knowlton, the federal governments of several nations, and the World Bank.

I made the choice to move on to new pastures a few years ago. Today, Elgg is managed by a non-profit foundation. The current team is doing an amazing job, and, under their stewardship, the platform has transformed again, into a programming toolkit for people who want to build social applications.

2. Known: the easiest way to own your own space on the Internet.

Meanwhile, individuals are in need of spaces that they truly control more than ever before. In the old days, we thought this was important to help them feel more comfortable with posting their personal reflections to a public space (not everything has to be about maintaining your "personal brand", after all). While that's still true, sites like Facebook are pointing to a more imperative need: a place to publish where you won't be experimented on without your permission, where you won't be spied upon, where you can move your content at any time, and where your content and conversations aren't owned by one of a very small number of corporate silos.

Known is a platform for a new kind of social web. You can think of each Known site as being a single social profile, either for an individual or a group. Each one can interact with each other in a decentralized way (using indie web technology), or they can interact with all the other sites they use - including Elgg, as well as Facebook, Twitter, Foursquare and all the rest of them. Educational institutions are already asking us if we can integrate with learning management systems like Canvas - and the answer is, yes.

We have privacy, too. Known site owners can choose who can see their content, and they can choose the look and feel of their sites, including what kinds of content they want to publish.

We know that over 50% of Internet use happens on a mobile device, and any new platform has to take that into account. We've made Known fully responsive, so it works on any mobile device with a web browser, including your iPhone, Android phone, Windows Phone device, iPad, tablet, and so on. Even your BlackBerry works with Known. Because mobile usage leads to new kinds of content, Known supports location check-ins and posting photos while you're moving around. And, of course, individuals and organizations can roll their own content types using custom plugins.

On any device, ownership of your site and content, combined with an understanding of your community, gives you a new kind of clarity about your online self. You know exactly who can see each item you post. You know who's responding to you on which networks, and you understand which kinds of content your audiences are interested in. Known is both a safe space to reflect, and a singular site that represents you on the web. And more than anything else, it's respectful software that puts you at the center of your online world.

Known is open source. As a company, we're providing software and customization services to make it easier for organizations to administer, as well as support subscriptions for everyone who uses Known. Finally, we're also working on providing managed infrastructure for anyone who wants to run Known, either individually or for their organization, without the hassle of server administration.

I've been privileged to spend over a decade working on open platforms that empower people and organizations to control their own spaces on the Internet. The pendulum is swinging back to a world where users are asking for that control, and I'm looking forward to making Known the definitive way to own your content online.

If you've read this far, you should definitely check us out: at withknown.com, on Twitter, and on AngelList.

 

The problem with OKCupid is not a problem with the social web.

2 min read

Guest-posting on Jason Kottke's blog, Tim Carmody argues that the problems with Facebook and OKCupid's involuntary human testing are problems with the social web at large:

Still, for as long as the web does work this way, we are never only these companies' "products," but their producers, too. And to the extent that these companies show they aren't willing to live up to the basic agreement that we make these things and give them to you so you will show them to other people -- the engine that makes this whole world wide web business go -- I'm not going to have anything to do with them any more. What's more, I'll get mad enough to find a place that will show the things I write to other people and tell them they shouldn't accept it either. Because, ultimately, you ought to be ashamed to treat people and the things they make this way.

It's a great piece, and I agree, with a major caveat: this isn't how the web - or even the social web - works at all.

What Tim is referring to is a silo-centric version of the commercial web that we've come to accept as the new normal. The accepted thinking right now is that of course services and applications are running psychological tests on us without our permission. Of course they're using opaque algorithms to monetize our ability to communicate with our friends and family. Of course they're mining our private communications in order to display advertising.

There's no of course about it. We founded Known because we know that these policies harm independent content creators. We're not alone: projects like Indie Box and Sandstorm, not to mention the entire indie web community, are springing up to provide more empowering, respectful software and services. Before long, taking advantage of your users will be a market disadvantage, and businesses that have built themselves up by disenfranchising the people who use their products will find themselves in a tough spot. Even today, though, the social web doesn't have to mean being taken advantage of, and we're proud to be building a more respectful alternative.

 

Homebrew Website Club: July 30, 2014

Discuss progress; meet up; make new friends.

Location: Mozilla SF, 1st floor, 2 Harrison st. (at Embarcadero), San Francisco, CA

Time:

Ends:

Are you building your own website? Indie reader? Personal publishing web app? Or some other digital magic-cloud proxy? If so, come on by and join a gathering of people with like-minded interests. Bring your friends that want to start a personal web site. Exchange information, swap ideas, talk shop, help work on a project ...

See the Homebrew Website Club Newsletter Volume 1 Issue 1 for a description of the first meeting.

Originally posted on indiewebcamp.com.

Here's the Facebook event, if you prefer.