Community-owned startups: taking a cue from the Co-op

3 min read

One of the first conversations I had when I moved to California was with Kaliya, about alternative models of ownership for startups. I know it's something that's come up at events like Future of Money, and it's interesting to see it emerge in USV's question of the week. What would community-owned applications look like? Are they even possible?

Growing up in Oxford, I lived around the corner from a Co-op: a national, collectively-owned chain of small supermarkets and other community businesses. Co-operative branches employ over 70,000 people, and their ownership structure makes them accountable to their communities, resulting in products and policies that are generally high-quality and ethical.

Every person who works there is an owner, and so was I: I paid £1, and in return I got a better deal and, importantly, a share of the profits. That never amounted to a lot of money, but I felt like I was part of it. This is the important bit: I also got to vote on policies, management and local representatives. It was a bit like being a part of a privately-owned democracy.

I think when a lot of people think of community ownership, they immediately imagine the stereotypical archetype of communal living, with anti-capitalist principles and heated arguments over basic ideas. That's not how it works out in practice, either for healthy small-scale communal ownership arrangements or for national co-operatives. Around the corner from me now, another co-operative - Cheeseboard Pizza - draws lines around the block twice a day, and has opened a second branch downtown. They're out to make a profit. And the Co-operative is a thriving business that includes one of the most prominent banks in the UK.

I think this model - community ownership governed by a council of representatives - could work for startups and applications, but it needs to be balanced against a startup's need to scrappily prototype and fail fast. A management bureaucracy is not going to help with those things.

So how about a community-owned venture capital firm?

One of the major criticisms of modern VC has been about the perceived bias towards exits, whatever the cost. That's for good structural reasons: firms need to deliver a return to their limited partners. The "whatever the cost" thing is overblown - investors understand the links between good business practices and good returns - but nonetheless, there is certainly room to test alternative models.

A co-operative venture capital firm would not be the same as crowdfunding. The fund would be managed by the firm's partners - but the firm's partners, investment hypothesis and policies would be voted on as part of a co-operative structure. Investment decisions would be made by representatives, in order to protect the privacy of the startups under consideration. (In other words, ordinary members, paying the equivalent of my £1 to the Co-op, would not get board-level information rights or to attend pitches.) But the fund's ethics and performance would ultimately be judged by a wide array of members, who ultimately will see dividends from the returns if it performs well. It would be, in effect, an open-access, democratically-run, rolling VC fund.

I'd consider this to be less dangerous than crowdfunding for members: there, I'm expected to do my own due diligence and keep on top of company performance. Startups also potentially miss out on the mentoring and partnership that they might ordinarily get from an investor. In this model, I have representatives that I elect, who are paid to do that diligence and nurture their portfolio based on principles and ethics that I helped vote on.


No, journalists shouldn't need to learn to code. They need better tools.

2 min read

Aaron Chimbel, over on PBS MediaShift:

At most universities, students are required to take English composition courses, and at many others speech and/or foreign language classes are also required. Yet in the debate about teaching code in journalism programs, code is often reduced to a shiny toy.

I've argued before that learning to code is not the same as being a coder, and that some degree of digital literacy is useful in a world that is slowly being eaten by software. Most recently, that was shown by the Silk Road trial, where a single investigator found the marketplace's founder using a simple Google search, two years into the investigation.

An understanding of how to put a live website together is handy. For a long time, I was a subscriber to the NICAR-L list, a mailing list full of journalists discussing computer-assisted reporting. It's often about things like embedding an OpenStreetMap map using Leaflet, or otherwise wiring up a simple dataset to a visualization. A little light JavaScript hacking, and perhaps some HTML and CSS.

It's actually pretty similar to the kinds of things Erin did when she visualized her Known checkins. (Known exports checkins as both KML and GeoRSS.) And while it's fun to do this kind of tinkering, and is quite a long way away from coding, I don't think it's good enough.

Journalists, and people like them, need better software, which makes these links more obvious. Taking location data from a platform like Known and bringing it into Google Maps or OpenStreetMap should be a one-click (or drag) operation. For us, that'll become more important later this year, when we release more data-centric tools. But it should be a given for everyone. You shouldn't need to know an arcane URL parameter, or understand that KML exists, to be able to manipulate your data in the way that you need.

We spend so much time talking about data that's locked in through business models and terms and conditions that sometimes we forget about data that's locked through design decisions. Letting your data flow freely is part of an open web.


Artists should control their work. That means we need better networks.

3 min read

The musician Zoë Keating (who I admire) has written a very transparent, and a little sad, post about the decision she needs to make about YouTube:

They were nice and took time to explain everything clearly to me, but the message was firm: I have to decide. I need to sign on to the new Youtube music services agreement or I will have my Youtube channel blocked.

So what's in the YouTube music services agreement?

It turns out to be a five-year contract that requires her to make all of her catalog available for free on YouTube, with an ad on it. In other words, YouTube requires her to relinquish control over what she releases where.

Is such control too much for an artist to ask for in 2015? It’s one thing for individuals to upload all my music for free listening (it doesn’t bother me). It’s another thing entirely for a major corporation to force me to. I was encouraged to participate and now, after I’m invested, I’m being pressured into something I don’t want to do.

Yet this is the web! Zoë should be able to post her content to her own website, as well as services like Bandcamp, SoundCloud and the Pirate Bay. And she does do all those things (including, progressively, making her content available over BitTorrent). But YouTube gives her something that she feels she can't get simply by sticking her shield out on the web at large: audience.

This is the same reason that people are choosing to post to Medium rather than their own blogs. It's why photographers initially flocked to Google+, and why you'll find so many on Instagram now. It's because there are ready-made network effects that artists can harness in order to obtain greater reach, and ultimately get paid for what they do.

When a single entity controls the audience for a particular medium, as YouTube now effectively does, they can leverage control over the artists. The result is a worse situation both for artists and their audiences, as the activity of both is shaped to fit the platform owner's interests. From an artist's perspective, the terms demanded by sites like YouTube can feel predatory and invasive. In particular, why would mass market listeners pay for Zoë's album on her terms, when they can listen for free on YouTube's site?

The solution is to build the audience-generating network effects employed by YouTube to the web itself. It's not just about decentralized conversations: it's about driving traffic to artists' own websites, and allowing for organic, seamless discovery of media wherever it lives online. Ironically, it could be argued that this is what Google - still the web's go-to search engine provider - should really be doing.

So, fine. Google is choosing not to do that, and to build value into its own platform. In the best tradition of Internet technology, that leaves room for someone else to fill the gap. And in the best tradition of Internet technology, they will. It's just a matter of time.

If you've read this far, you should go get yourself a free Known site. Publish on your own site using a variety of media, and share it across the web.


Censorship and Silos

5 min read

This is a summarized version of my talk at Hacks and Hackers tonight at Matter in San Francisco.

This last summer, Alberto Guzman, a hairdresser in New York, uploaded a picture of him and his husband sharing a kiss on their wedding day. He tagged it with the hashtag , as well as and . It was a wonderful day for them both.

And then Instagram removed it - for being inappropriate.

It turned out that it had been flagged as inappropriate, which is very easy to do on Instagram. You just click flag, and then tell them why. There isn’t a lengthy procedure to go through, and the moderators typically remove items very quickly.

This happens all the time. Famously, it isn’t safe to upload photos containing breastfeeding to Facebook, because they’re flagged as pornography. The company changed its policy a few years ago, but as recently as last year, mothers were demonstrating outside of Facebook’s headquarters because their photos were still being removed.

Late last year, drag queens had their profiles frozen and removed from Facebook because they weren’t using their “real names”.

In each and every case, these deletions were caused by organized groups of users who wanted the content gone because they didn’t like it.

It’s not just photos of motherhood and same-sex marriages that are being removed.

As the British blogger Elliot Higgins noted last year, Facebook pages about the sarin gas attacks in Syria have also almost all been removed. History is being rewritten.

In fact, the problem is so bad that when Mark Zuckerberg posted in favor of free speech following the awful events in Paris last week, a legitimate question about freedom of expression in the comments was flagged and removed.

These aren’t government requests. All of these were due to ordinary people: civilians making a decision about what people should be allowed to publish and how they should define their identities.

I'm picking on Facebook because they're big. 835 million people access Facebook alone every day. It’s how they get their news, how they talk to their friends, how they learn about the world. Smartphone users check Facebook 14 times a day on average.

We’re all familiar with Edward Snowden, and his revelations about illegal NSA surveillance. But the truth is that we’re all spying on each other, too. The content standards that Facebook sets, and its policies regarding inappropriate content, have a real impact on how people learn about the world.

And it’s a real impact. The PEN American Center found that the number of writers in democracies who report that they self-censor the topics they write about is approaching the number of writers in non-democracies who self-censor. Which is to say that one third of writers in so-called “free” countries self-censor because of surveillance.

I would argue that we have the cloud to thank for this. This famous slide from our friends at the NSA describes the best place to intercept data being stored in Google’s cloud. “The cloud” sounds fluffy and nice, but it actually means that you’re storing your stuff on someone else’s hard drive. If you store your data on Google’s cloud, you’re storing it on Google’s hard drive. If you store your data on Facebook’s cloud, you’re storing it on Facebook’s hard drive. Their hard drives, their rules.

And as we’ve seen, it’s easy for someone to get your content removed if they don’t like it, whether they’re the government or just a person who disagrees with you. In a world where reach is everything, no wonder writers self-censor.

And yet, the Internet is amazing. It’s the most powerful engine for communications and learning the world has ever known. It’s an important driver for free speech and it’s changed the way we do business. And we shouldn’t have to give up any of those things.

The early Internet was designed to be resilient: the opposite of the giant siloed stacks we now pour all of our content and conversations into. The idea was to connect up universities and military labs to share resources, in a decentralized way.

That decentralized structure allows us to use services like Google, Twitter and Facebook through a single browser window, but what if we rethought how we shared data online? What if each of us had our own service? What if our conversations and ideas lived on our own devices, in our own living rooms and in our newsrooms? And what if these devices were as easy to use as an iPhone?

We’re beginning to see this future emerge. The Intel Compute Stick is a tiny computer that costs just $89, while platforms like Sandstorm turn publishing and talking to people online from your own server into a one-click operation. Sandstorm, by the way, just announced $1.3 million in funding.

In the old days, Microsoft disrupted the tyranny of mainframes and timesharing by imagining a world with a computer on every desk. Today, I believe we should be imagining a world where we all own our content and conversations online.


Homebrew Website Club: January 14, 2015

Discuss progress; meet up; make new friends.

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



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

Here's the Facebook event, if you prefer.


Being a human on the Internet (and discovering my non-throttleable self)

5 min read

I just spent a couple of weeks back in the UK, partially to talk to universities and organizations about using Known, but mostly to reconnect with old, dearly-missed friends who I haven't seen in a few years. The two and a half years since I'd last been there is the longest single period in my life when I haven't visited another country, and I felt it. America is isolating: because it's so far away from anywhere else, getting out is hard, and expensive.

I'd worried that after so much time (I've lived in the US for three and a half years now), my friends would have moved on and it would be a lonely, stark trip. I needn't have: on day one, on two hours of sleep and groggy with jet lag, I sat in a crowded pub with people I'd grown up with, as if almost no time at all had passed. Yes, my friends have moved on - I attended a wedding while I was there; others have had children - but I could still be a part of their lives.

Someone who's opinion matters a lot to me, and who knows me better than almost everyone, said that they kind of wanted to throttle my social media persona. It felt like a marketing campaign, and it so clearly wasn't me.

It was a kind of offhand comment, but social media is the way I stay in contact with a lot of my friends, so it stuck. I've been trying to drum up interest in Known, for sure, but beyond that I hadn't realized that I was fronting a persona. I don't have a social media strategy: I just share what I find interesting, and sometimes (like when I've posted links about police racism) lose lots of followers in the process. How is that not me? Have I changed since I've been here?

I've been thinking a lot about the contrasts. One contrast between American and European culture I've been thinking about a lot since my trip is how people define and contextualize themselves. The US celebrates individualism: the ability for a single person to realize their potential and achieve what they set their mind to. It's a lie, of course, because everyone sits in the context of society, and all of us depend on the social commons in order to survive. There is no such thing as strictly individual achievement: we are all connected. The lie helps individuals capture value from society without having to give back.

But this is a gross generalization: the US is one of the most compassionate places I've ever lived. My family is spread across the north-east, as well as here in California, and they are some of the most generous, community-minded people I've ever met. I'm proud to be descended from union leaders and artists: good people. Most people here are not libertarians or religious zealots, despite what you read and see on TV. Media is a funhouse mirror that amplifies the already-amplified. It distorts reality.

What is more true is that this is a more consumerist culture. People seem to be much more willing to define themselves by what they buy, the car they drive, and so on. I'd argue that this is more of a function of wealth and fashion than self: there's no reason in the world why driving a Mini Cooper should make you feel good about yourself. What really fundamentally matters in a person is their kindness, their intelligence, their empathy and what they do that positively affects other people. Whether they have a Ford or a Toyota, or an iPhone or an Android phone, is arbitrary. Using our consumer choices as value judgments only makes sense if we are trying to promote ourselves.

So maybe that's the seed of the problem. A social media account, by its nature, is one person sending out a signal - and the easiest way to do that is to share links that you find interesting. While that's fine, and sometimes really useful, it's not you: it's a reflection of a persona that you are publishing. You have no sense from my posts about open source and data ownership that I like to draw comics, or that I admire emotional vulnerability, or that I think traditional social norms are stifling. In a way, it absolutely is a marketing campaign: social media, as typically used, is a game where you compete for attention.

But yet. Just as it would be unfair to suggest that most people in America believe in the individual at the expense of community, I don't think it's right to say that everyone on social media is motivated to promote themselves. We want to make friends; we want to find love; we want to learn from each others' experiences. We crave real, deep, human connections that have nothing to do with our professional development or selling our wares. (Maybe it's just me, but I doubt it.) We want to share our feelings, our desires, the things that make us people, and not to get a "like" or to build followers or to make a buck, but to be alive.

I don't know what it means to be more "me" on the Internet, but I do know that all relationships take work. Cheap sharing is never going to lead to deep connections. While the software and devices we use to share can be designed to help us, the real effort has to come from us. We need to stop self-censoring; we need to stop asking what kinds of content our networks want to read. Magazines and news networks don't suffer heartbreak, or hold hands in the sunset, or laugh around the kitchen table. We are not those things.

I use the Internet to reach out to far-away people who mean so much to me. I hope they see some of me in the reflection.


A trade war is emerging over where you store your data - but you don't have to participate

2 min read

The Telegraph reports on the rivalry between the EU and Silicon Valley:

As European governments increasingly push back against the growing power of American internet giants on antitrust, privacy and tax, the competition in question increasingly looks like a clash of economies rather than rival companies. The EU and the US are on the brink of a new kind of trade war, where flows of data are just as important as flows of capital.

Information has become power. As more and more of us pour it into fewer and fewer centralized locations, a real battle over whose jurisdiction it's stored in is emerging. In the court case surrounding Europe's controversial right to be forgotten, Google refused to disclose where, geographically, it stores user data, for competition reasons.

There are all kinds of reasons why you should care about where your data is stored. If you're a business or institution, there may be legislative and auditing requirements relating to your servers. Many educational institutions in Europe, for example, can't store data in the US without jumping through numerous hoops - and requiring service providers to jump through more.

This is another reason why user choice is important. The cloud has allowed us to use the Internet to power new kinds of applications. For many users, it's tempting to think of a service's server farm as a given: if you sign up with a service, of course you have to use their infrastructure wherever it might be, right? And therefore, of course you'll be subject to their local laws and practices?

It's important to us that Known allows you to choose where you host it. You can use our servers, which are in the US, or we can create a fully-managed hosted infrastructure in Europe or Asia. You can also run it on your own servers, wherever they might be.

We're not alone. A growing number of web services understand that there are real organizational considerations relating to where you store your data. It's all part of user choice and addressing real-world user needs.


Flickr selling its CC photos shows: users don't just need control, they need to understand it, too

3 min read

Dazed reports that Flickr is going to start selling off your Creative Commons licensed photographs:

The site plans to handpick a few select photographers who will get 51% of the sales, but the vast majority of people will see their images printed onto canvas and sold for up to $49 a pop. The only credit they'll get is a small sticker at the bottom of the print bearing their name.

Flickr's founder, Stewart Butterfield (now founder of Slack), is on record as saying, "it's hard to imagine the revenue from selling the prints will cover the cost of lost goodwill".

On his blog, Jeffrey Zeldman says:

I want people to use my photos. That’s why I take them. I want that usage to be unencumbered. That’s why I chose a Creative Commons license. [...] But Yahoo selling the stuff? Cheesy, desperate, and not at all fine with me. I pay for a Flickr Pro account, and am happy to do so. That’s how Yahoo is supposed to make money from my hobby.

I've been a Flickr Pro customer for as long as that's been possible, and quite a few of my photographs have been uploaded under a Creative Commons license. I stopped in 2007, when it became clear that companies like Virgin Mobile were trawling the site to find photographs to use in their advertising for free.

There are a few parallel issues that both events reveal about giving users the ability to license their own work. Flickr is much more liberal than most services about letting users choose how their data is used; being able to apply a legal license of your choice to your photographs is theoretically great. But:

  • Users didn't understand that freely releasing photographs as being usable for commercial purposes meant that anyone, including advertising agencies and major corporations, could do this;
  • Users didn't understand that licensing photographs of people also meant getting a model release contract from the subjects.

In other words - and this shouldn't be a shocker - users weren't aware of the details of intellectual property licensing law. Anyone who's seen a YouTube video with "no copyright intended" earnestly pasted into the description field knows that the vast majority of people don't really understand the rules surrounding content.

Selling photos uploaded to Flickr under a Creative Commons license that allows commercial use is perfectly reasonable legally. However, it defies user expectations, and will come across as yet another way that sites are abusing private data (even if it's actually a side effect of them giving users more control). Legally it shows the flexibility of Creative Commons; strategically it's dumb. As Stewart Butterfield noted, this is likely to hurt them.

So that leaves an interesting case study for other vendors service providers who are trying to give users control. (For example, us at Known.) It's not enough for users to have that control; they also need to understand it. The former is an engineering challenge, while the latter is a design and legal task. Making the implications of sharing and licensing clear is a non-technical undertaking that any open platform should understand it is taking on.

For open source platforms, that leaves one more challenge: convincing both designers and lawyers that they should be contributors. Our open source tools, frameworks, communities and social norms are set up for developers. Finding ways to restructure them to make them more inclusive to other professions and skillsets will, in turn, lead to more usable software that empowers users more robustly than ever before.


Surely we can do better than this

2 min read

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Opinions are a feature

4 min read

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

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

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

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

It is not a goal in itself.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Shoplifters and thieves #podcastsunday

Some thoughts about shoplifting from Whole Foods and startup culture.


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

10 min read

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

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

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

1. It’s not about you

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

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

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

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

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

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

2. It’s not about the technology

Both Elgg and Known are based on PHP and MySQL.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

4. Benevolent dictatorships are (mostly) A-OK

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

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

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

5. Open is as open does

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

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

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

6. Your project is a community

Lead by example.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Don’t do it.

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

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

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

8. Make it sustainable

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

2 min read

Microsoft open sourced their .NET platform today.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

6 min read

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You can pre-order Known Pro right here.

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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