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With RAD, podcasters can finally learn who's listening

7 min read

NPR announced Remote Audio Data today: a technology standard for sending podcast audience analytics back to their publishers. Podcasting is one of the few truly decentralized publishing ecosystems left on the web, and it's a relief to see that this is as decentralized as it should be.

Moreover, it's exactly the role public media should be playing: they convened a group of interested parties and created an underlying open source layer that benefits everyone. One of the major issues in the podcast ecosystem is that nobody has good data about who's actually listening; most people use Apple's stats, look at their download numbers, and make inferences. This will change the game - and in a way that directly benefits podcast publishers rather than any single central gatekeeper.

What's not listed in the spec is a standard way to disclose to the listener that their analytics are being shared. This may fall afoul of GDPR and similar legislation if not handled properly; to be honest, I'd hope that any ethical podcast player would ask permission to send this information, giving me the opportunity to tell it not to. Still, at least in the five minutes that everyone isn't sending their listening data to be processed by Google Analytics, this is an order of magnitude better than using Apple as a clearinghouse.

Here's a quick technical overview of how it works:

While MP3 files mostly contain audio, they can also contain something called an ID3 tag for human-readable information like song title, album name, artist, and genre. RAD adds a JSON-encoded remoteAudioData field, which in turn contains two arrays: trackingUrls and events. It can also list a custom podcastId and episodeId. Events have an optional label and mandatory eventTime, expressed as hh:mm:ss.sss, and can have any number of other keys and values.

The example data from the spec looks like this:

{
 "remoteAudioData": {
   "podcastId":"510298",
   "episodeId":"497679856",
   "trackingUrls": [
     "https://tracking.publisher1.org/remote_audio_data",
     "https://tracking.publisher2.org/remote_audio_data",
     "https://tracking.publisherN.org/remote_audio_data",
   ],
   "events": [
     {
       "eventTime":"00:00:00.000",
       "label":"podcastDownload",
       "spId":"0",
       "creativeId":"0",
       "adPosition":"0",
       "eventNum":"0"
     },
     {
       "eventTime":"00:00:05.000",
       "label":"podcastStart",
       "spId":"0",
       "creativeId":"0",
       "adPosition":"0",
       "eventNum":"1"
     },
     {
       "eventTime":"00:05:00.000",
       "label":"breakStart",
       "spId":"123456",
       "creativeId":"1234567",
       "adPosition":"1",
       "eventNum":"2"
     },
     {
       "eventTime":"00:05:15.000",
       "label":"breakEnd",
       "spId":"123456",
       "creativeId":"1234567",
       "adPosition":"1",
       "eventNum":"3"
     }
   ]
 }
}

The podcast player sends a POST request to the URLs listed in trackingURLs, wrapped in a session ID and optionally containing the episodeId and podcastId. By default the player should send this at least once per hour, although the MP3 file can specify a different duration by including a submissionInterval parameter. The intention is that the podcast player stores events and can send them asynchronously, because podcasts are often listened to when there's no available internet connection. After a default of two weeks without sending, events are discarded.

Here's an example JSON string send to a reportingUrl from the spec:

{
 "audioSessions": [
   {
     "podcastId": "510313",
     "episodeId": "525083696",
     "sessionId": "A489C3AD-04AA-4B5F-8289-4D3D2CFE4CFB",
     "events": [
       {
         "sponsorId": "0",
         "creativeId": "0",
         "eventTime": "00:00:00.000",
         "adPosition": "0",
         "label": "podcastDownload",
         "eventNum": "0",
         "timestamp": "2018-10-24T11:23:07+04:00"
       },
       {
         "sponsorId": "0",
         "creativeId": "0",
         "eventTime": "00:00:05.000",
         "adPosition": "0",
         "label": "podcastStart",
         "eventNum": "1",
         "timestamp": "2018-10-24T11:23:08+04:00"
       },
       {
         "sponsorId": "111128",
         "eventTime": "00:00:05.000",
         "adPosition": "1",
         "label": "breakStart",
         "creativeId": "1111132",
         "eventNum": "2",
         "timestamp": "2018-10-24T11:23:09+04:00"
       },
       {
         "label": "breakEnd",
         "sponsorId": "111128",
         "eventTime": "00:00:05.000",
         "adPosition": "1",
         "creativeId": "1111132",
         "eventNum": "3",
         "timestamp": "2018-10-24T11:23:10+04:00"
         }
     ]
   },
   {
     "podcastId": "510314",
     "episodeId": "525083697",
     "sessionId": "778A4569-4B06-469B-8686-519C3B43C31F",
     "events": [
       {
         "sponsorId": "0",
         "eventTime": "00:00:00.000",
         "adPosition": "0",
         "creativeId": "0",
         "eventNum": "0",
         "timestamp": "2018-10-24T11:23:11+04:00"
       }
     ]
    },
   {
     "podcastId": "510315",
     "episodeId": "525083698",
     "sessionId": "F825BE2B-9759-438A-A67E-9C2D54874B4F",
     "events": [
       {
         "sponsorId": "0",
         "eventTime": "00:00:00.000",
         "adPosition": "0",
         "label": "podcastDownload",
         "creativeId": "0",
         "eventNum": "0",
         "timestamp": "2018-10-24T11:23:12+04:00"
       }
     ]
   }
 ]
}

It's a very simple, smart solution. There's more information at the RAD homepage, and mobile developers can grab Android or iOS SDKs on GitHub.

 

Examining the degrees of Fortune 500 tech CEOs

6 min read

One of my recurring regrets is that I stopped at a bachelor's degree. There are many times when I wonder if having an MBA - or just the deeper study that a master's or even a PhD would provide - would be useful.

There's also a recurring meme in the tech industry that you don't need university. The story of the kid who drops out of college to start a multi-billion dollar business is often repeated. I suspected it wasn't true, but I didn't know.

So I posed the question: assuming your goal is to be the CEO of a big tech company, and based on previous experience, what should you study?

This comes with a big asterisk: being the CEO of a big tech company is not currently my goal, and I believe in education for education's sake, rather than to meet a career need. Treating education as a purely vocational pursuit is how we get to phenomenally expensive courses that are tied to salary expectations, rather than treating the collective pursuit of human knowledge as a common good, regardless of its ability to lead to a well-paying position.

Still, I thought it was doing the research. I took the relevant tech companies in the 2017 Fortune 500 list, and looked at two datasets: their first CEOs, and their current CEOs. (Where a company is no longer independent, like Yahoo, I used the last person who was CEO when it was - in this case, Marissa Meyer. And because Eric Schmidt was CEO of Google before Larry Page, while not technically being a founder, he is listed here.) In both cases, I did my best to find their educational history: their degrees undertaken, at which level they took them, and at which institutions. There are probably mistakes, but here's the whole dataset.

Here are some interesting highlights. I'm curious if there's more you've discovered from the data - let me know!

 

Founding CEOs

7 out of 38 CEOs dropped out of college: Bill Gates (Microsoft), Steve Jobs (Apple), Mark Zuckerberg (Facebook), Larry Ellison (Oracle), Michael Dell (Dell), William Morean (Jabil Circuit), and David Packard (HP). It's worth noting that Packard and Morean dropped out decades before the others. Packard later went back and got a Master's degree in Electrical Engineering from Stanford.

13 out of 38 CEOs have a Master's or higher degree. Electrical Engineering and Computer Science dominate the subjects taken, followed by Physics. None have an MBA, although Sandy Lerner, founder of Cisco, has a Master's in Econometrics.

5 have a doctorate, with Computer Science again being the most common.

 

Current CEOs

No current CEOs of any Fortune 500 tech company is a college dropout, and all went to college. This stands to reason: while founders can effectively luck or hustle their way into this position, it's highly unlikely that a new CEO will be hired without a degree.

In this list, Business Administration vies with Computer Science for being the top subject taken at an undergraduate level.

22 out of 38 CEOs have a Master's or higher degree. 13 have an MBA (again, compared to zero founders); 2 more did Law. Computer Science is relatively rare at the postgraduate level - and no current CEOs have a doctorate.

 

Fields of Study Overall

At the Undergraduate level, Electrical Engineering and Computer Science take the top spots, with 13 and 7 CEOs respectively. These two subjects are, of course, highly related, and often taught together. Mathematics and Mechanical Engineering also rate highly.

While Business Administration and Law have a few takers (7 and 3 respectively), most non-science subjects are represented with just one CEO each.

MBAs are by far the most popular graduate degrees, unsurprisingly, with 13 CEOs represented. 9 CEOs have a Master's in Computer Science; 6 in Electrical Engineering; and 3 in Law. There are no humanities represented at the Master's level.

 

Institutions

More Fortune 500 tech industry CEOs went to Stanford than anywhere else. That's completely unsurprising, given Stanford's interrelated history with Silicon Valley. This is then followed in quick succession by the University of Michigan, UC Berkeley, MIT, the University of Texas, and Princeton.

The only two CEOs to go to Harvard - Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg - dropped out of it.

More interestingly, there are very few institutions represented outside of the United States. While 51% of founders of $1bn+ companies are immigrants, most of them went to school here. No foreign university has more than one individual CEO representing it, although India and Canada have three CEOs each. I was also surprised (but not disappointed) to see that the only UK institution represented is not Oxford or Cambridge, but Bradford Polytechnic (now the University of Bradford). Bradford is one of the most racially diverse cities in Britain.

 

Conclusions

Stay in school, kids. The dropout CEOs all happened to be in the right place at the right time for a moment in computing that will never be repeated. There may be new moments, but the advantages of having a degree far outweigh any chance that you'll be successful without one.

Founding CEOs are most likely to be computer scientists or electrical engineers, with a deep level of technical knowledge that allows them to connect their vision with the feasible realities. Hired CEOs are likely to be business professionals who have risen through the ranks and found their position more deliberately. Of course, the degree taken doesn't deal with the intangibles - there are a host of skills and personality traits needed to run a company successfully. I could give my opinions as to what they are, but they can't be quantified.

Obviously, overall, my data is incomplete. There's more to examine, I'm sure there are entries to correct, and I haven't touched interim CEOs (those who served between the first CEO and the current one). But I hope you'll agree it's an interesting exploration.

Should I go back to school? Maybe, eventually. An MBA or law degree probably would be useful. At the same time, I wish there were more CEOs with humanities degrees. But what's more clear is that technical skills are an enormous boon - not a surprising finding, but it's interesting to see it reinforced. So it stands to reason that continuing to develop those skills, and keeping them sharp and up-to-date, is worth investing in.

Finally: AirTable made this much faster. I love it, and I'll sing its praises forever. If you haven't yet, give it a try.

 

Thanks to my sister Hannah Werdmuller for helping me to do the underlying research.

 

Persuading people to use ethical tech

5 min read

I've been in the business of getting people to use ideologically-driven technology for most of my career (with one or two exceptions). Leaving out the less ideologically driven positions, it goes something like this:

Elgg: We needed to convince people that, if they're going to run an online community, they should use one that allows them to store their own data anywhere, embraces open standards, and can run in any web browser (which, at the height of Internet Explorer's reign, was a real consideration).

Latakoo: In a world where journalism is experiencing severe budget cuts, we needed to persuade newsrooms that they shouldn't buy technology with astronomically expensive licenses and then literally build it into the architecture of their buildings (when I first discovered that this was happening, it took a while for my jaw to return to the un-dropped position).

Known: We needed to convince people that, if they're going to run an online community-- oh, you get the idea.

Matter: We needed to convince investors that they should put their money into startups that were designed to have a positive social mission as well as perform well financially - and that media was a sound sector to put money into to begin with.

Unlock: We need to persuade people that they should sell their work online through an open platform with no middleman, rather than a traditional payment processor or gateway.

That's a lot of ice skating uphill!

So how do you go about selling these ideas?

One of the most common ideas I've heard from other startup founders is the idea of "educating the market". If people only knew how important web standards were, or if they only knew more about privacy, or about identity, they would absolutely jump on board this better solution we've made for them in droves. We know what's best for them; once they're smarter, they'll know what's best for them too - and it's us!

Needless to say, it rarely works.

The truth comes down to this: people have stuff to do. Everyone has their own motivations and needs, and they probably don't have time to think about the issues that you hold dear to your heart. Your needs - your worries about how technology is built and used, in thise case - are not their needs. And the only way to persuade people to use a product for it to meet their deeply-held, unmet needs.

If you have limited resources, you're probably not going to pull the market to you. But if you understand the space well and understand people well, you can make a strong hypothesis about whether the market is going to come to you at some point. If you think the market is going to want what you're building two or three years out, and you can demonstrate why this is the case (i.e., it's a hypothesis founded on research, not just a hunch) - then that's a good time to start working on a product.

Which is why, while many of us were crowing over the need for web products that don't spy on you for decades, it's taken the aftermath of the 2016 election for many people to come around. Most people aren't there yet, but the market is changing, and tech companies will change their policies to match. The era of tracking won't come to an end because of activist developers like me - it'll come to an end because we failed, and Facebook's ludicrous policies (which, to be clear, aren't really different to the policies of many tech companies) reached their damaging logical conclusion, allowing everyone to see the full implications.

So if an ideology-first approach usually fails, how did we persuade people?

The truth is, it wasn't about the ideology at all. Elgg worked because people needed to customize community spaces and we provided the only platform at the time that would let them. Latakoo worked because it allowed journalists to send video footage faster and more conveniently than any other solution. Known didn't work because we allowed the ideology to become its selling point, when we should have concentrated on allowing people to build cross-device, multi-media communities  quickly and easily (the good news is that because it's open source, there's still time for it). Unlock will work if it's the easiest and most profitable way for people to make money from their work online.

You can (and should) build a tool ethically; unless you're building for a small, niche audience, you can't make ethics be the whole tool. Having deep knowledge of, and caring deeply about, the platform doesn't absolve you from the core things you need to do when you're building any product. Which, first and foremost, is this: make something that people want. Scratch their itch, not yours. Know exactly who you're building for. And make them the ultimate referee of what your product is.

 

The Facebook emails

3 min read

I still need to read the documents unsealed by British Parliament for myself, but they seem pretty revealing.

From the Parliamentary summary itself:

Facebook have clearly entered into whitelisting agreements with certain companies, which meant that after the platform changes in 2014/15 they maintained full access to friends data. It is not clear that there was any user consent for this, nor how Facebook decided which companies should be whitelisted or not.

[...] It is clear that increasing revenues from major app developers was one of the key drivers behind the Platform 3.0 changes at Facebook. The idea of linking access to friends data to the financial value of the developers relationship with Facebook is a recurring feature of the documents.

[...] Facebook knew that the changes to its policies on the Android mobile phone system, which enabled the Facebook app to collect a record of calls and texts sent by the user would be controversial. To mitigate any bad PR, Facebook planned to make it as hard of possible for users to know that this was one of the underlying features of the upgrade of their app.

In the New York Times:

Emails and other internal Facebook documents released by a British parliamentary committee on Wednesday show how the social media giant gave favored companies like Airbnb, Lyft and Netflix special access to users’ data.

In Forbes:

In one 2013 email from Facebook's director of platform partnerships Konstantinos Papamiltiadis, the executive tells staff that “apps that don’t spend” will have their permissions revoked.

“Communicate to the rest that they need to spend on NEKO $250k a year to maintain access to the data,” he wrote. NEKO is an acronym used at Facebook to describe app install adds, according to The Wall Street Journal.

Meanwhile, the email cache reveals that Facebook shut down Vine's access to the Facebook friends API on the day it was released. Justin Osofsky, VP for Global Operations and Corporate Development, wrote Mark Zuckerberg at the time:

Twitter launched Vine today which lets you shoot multiple short video segments to make one single, 6-second video. As part of their NUX, you can find friends via FB. Unless anyone raises objections, we will shut down their friends API access today. We’ve prepared reactive PR, and I will let Jana know our decision.

Zuckerberg's reply:

Yup, go for it.

Purely coincidentally, I'm sure, Facebook changed this policy yesterday. As TechCrunch reported:

Facebook will now freely allow developers to build competitors to its features upon its own platform. Today Facebook announced it will drop Platform Policy section 4.1, which stipulates “Add something unique to the community. Don’t replicate core functionality that Facebook already provides.”

That policy felt pretty disingenuous given how aggressively Facebook has replicated everyone else’s core functionality, from Snapchat to Twitter and beyond. Facebook had previously enforced the policy selectively to hurt competitors that had used its Find Friends or viral distribution features. Apps like Vine, Voxer, MessageMe, Phhhoto and more had been cut off from Facebook’s platform for too closely replicating its video, messaging or GIF creation tools. Find Friends is a vital API that lets users find their Facebook friends within other apps.

It will be interesting to follow the repercussions of this release. My hope is that we'll finally see some action from the US government in the new year. In the meantime, it's ludicrous that it took action from the UK - and legislation from the EU - to bring some of this to light.

 

 

It chops you into pieces

5 min read

I've long said that there are two sectors I will never work in: banking and the military.

The reason I wouldn't want to work on technology for the military is hopefully obvious: I don't want my work to contribute towards killing people, in any capacity. I haven't stood behind any modern war we've been involved in, and it's bad enough that my tax money is being used to support those efforts, as opposed to creating a strong social safety net and supporting important infrastructure like schools and public healthcare. Building software to kill people would make me a murderer, and I have no interest in being more complicit than I already am.

Banking might be less obvious. For one thing, many modern banks have actually invested in arms manufacturers and traders. But modern banks are part of a system that forces people into poverty and is fueling unprecedented inequality. We need banks, but I think very few today are ethical.

One effect of rising inequality is that, to protect yourself, you can find yourself softening your morals. Wouldn't it be nice to have one of those big company salaries?, it's easy to think. And who could blame you, when you live in a place where you can still struggle with a six figure salary? Some companies are paying half a million dollars a year to the right technical leaders. Some are paying much more than that. Wouldn't that make everything better? To not have to worry about money all the time? To feel successful?

Tying success into money is a trap, of course. Everyone's definition of success is different; mine is about the impact I make, and not the money I bring home. For others, it might be about getting to live in a certain kind of house, or having a particular family dynamic. But when you're rubbing shoulders with millionaires and billionaires when you walk down the street, not having that kind of wealth can get under your skin. What's wrong with you that you don't have a two million dollar home? That person you're friends with has the kind of comfortable lifestyle you could only dream of. Does the fact that you don't mean you're not good enough?

It's as if there are invisible billboards yelling at you to be rich. In fact, there literally are billboards on the freeway into San Francisco advertising the benefits of retiring early. And at the feet of those billboards are people who have been displaced from their homes because of personal tragedy or financial misfortune or simply not having happened to have been born into the right sort of family, who can't have the safety net or routes up that they desparately need. Around the corner from them, a place where you can get eggs on toast for $12, where people in designer hoodies discuss how to minimize their tax burden when they exercize their options.

Not being wealthy is not a value judgment at all - it just means you made different choices, with different priorities. And it's a pretty appalling way to think. Consider teachers, nurses, care workers: people at the core of society, who nothing could function without. They're not earning six figure sums and generous stock options. Perhaps they should be, but they simply don't. There's a whole cultural history of jobs that are associated with women being monetarily valued lower, but there's also this simple fact: a job that pays more money is not more valuable. We value goods in a marketplace in terms of what people are willing to pay for them, but that value is numeric and arbitrary, and doesn't relate to something or someone's meaningful value. A price tag is not social or human worth. The libertarian ideal of the invisible hand of the market, which is baked into the heart of modern American culture, is nothing more than patriarchal fascism.

Your values matter. Everyone has to do what they need to in order to survive, but nobody needs to suspend their moral compass in order to bring in hundreds of thousands of dollars to feed an economic machine that forces people onto the streets for non-compliance. It is not a failure of skills or worth to turn a position down because it does not fit your ethics or life goals. Conversely, it's not in any way glorious to take a high-value position with questionable ethics because the money and market prestige are meaningful. Success at capitalism doesn't automatically absolve anyone of moral responsibility, and doesn't mean that a person is better by any other metric. And it is not possible to become rich without someone else being adversely affected.

But those aren't the messages. Just as fashion magazines constantly broadcast the benefits of skinniness, and just as damagingly, the tech industry has upheld wealth as a virtue. It's not virtuous. Virtue would be a world where everyone has the opportunity and the outcome of living a comfortable life, where everyone is empowered with information, and nobody is effectively put to death because somebody else wants to be rich. Virtue is your core humanity, and not your market cap.

 

Facebook's monopoly is harming consumers

8 min read

I was asked last week about the ethics of social networks: what would need to change to create a more ethical ecosystem.

Targeted display advertising, of course, has a huge part to play. Facebook created a system designed to capture the attention of its users so that they could interact with advertising that was tailored for them in order to manipulate them into an action or position. People buy advertising on Facebook to drive sales, but they also buy them to manufacture brand awareness and loyalty - and to manipulate users into adopting a politcal position. Facebook's machine was not originally built to manipulate, but its business model ratified its sociopathy.

The persuasive effect of its targeted advertising and engagement algorithms would have been diminished, however, if Facebook wasn't completely ubiquitous. In Q3 2018, it had 2.27 billion monthly active users. For context, there will be an estimated 3.2 billion people online by the end of the year: Facebook's monthly active users represent 71% of the internet. In America, it's the site most commonly used to discover news, or in other words, to learn about the world.

This is a dangerous responsibility to place in the hands of a single corporation with no meaningful competition. Yes, other social networks exist, but each serves a different purpose. Twitter is a kind of town hall zeitgeist Pandora's box full of wailing souls (sorry, a place that aims to "give everyone the power to create and share ideas and information instantly, without barriers"); Instagram (which, of course, is Facebook again) is the Vogue edition of everybody's life; Snapchat rests on its "mom don't read this" ephemerality. Facebook is designed, as its homepage used to proudly proclaim, to be a social utility that "reinforces connections to the people around you". Over time, it aims to make those social connections dependent on its service.

In a world where Facebook is a core part of life for billions of people, its policy and product decisions have an outsized effect on how its users see the world. Those decisions can certainly swing elections, but they have a measurable effect on public sentiment in other areas, too. It's not so much that the platform is reflective of the global culture; because that culture is shared and discovered on the platform, the culture reflects it. A bad actor with enough time and money can construct a viral message - or suite of messages - that can sweep across billions of people in less than a day. Facebook itself could engage in social engineering, with almost no oversight. There are few barriers; there is no real vaccine beyond a vain hope that Facebook will do the right thing.

But imagine a world where there isn't one Facebook, and we all participate in many social communities across many different platforms. Rather than one mega filter bubble, we engage with lots of bubbles, loosely joined - all controlled by a different entity, potentially in a different culture, with different priorities. In this world, the actions of a single one of these bubbles become less important. If each one is making different policy and product decisions, and is a logically separate network with its own codebase, userbase, and way of working, it becomes significantly harder for anyone to make a message ubiquitous. If each one has a different feed algorithm, while a malicious campaign could infiltrate one network, it would be much harder for it to infiltrate them all. In a healthy market, even discovering all the different communities that a user participates in could become a difficult task.

Arguably, this would require a different funding model to become the norm in Silicon Valley. Venture capital has enabled many businesses to get off the ground with the capitalization they need; it is not always the bad guy. But it also inherently encourages startups to aim towards monopoly. Venture capital funds want their investments to grow at an expontential rate. VCs want to return 3X the value of each fund inside 10 years (typically) - and because most startups fail, they're looking to invest in businesses that will return around 37X their original investment. That usually looks like owning a particular market or market segment, and that's what tends to find its ways into pitch decks. "This is a $100 billion market." Subtext: "we have the potential to capture all that". In turn, targeted advertising became popular as a way for startups to make revenue because asking customers for money creates sign-up friction and reduces growth.

So accidentally, venture capital creates Facebook-style businesses that aim to grow as big as possible without regard to the social cost. It does not easily support marketplaces with lots of different service providers competing with each other for the same market over a sustained period. And businesses in Silicon Valley have a hard time getting up and running without it, because the cost of living here is so incredibly expensive. Because of the sheer density of people who have experience building technology businesses here, as well as high-end technical talent and a general culture of helpfulness, Silicon Valley is still the best place to start this kind of business. So, VC it is, until we find some other instrument to viably fund tech companies. (Some obvious contenders are out: ICOs have rightly been slapped down by the SEC, and revenue sharing investment only really works for very small amounts of investment.)

Okay, so how about we just break Facebook up, and set a precedent for future businesses, just like we did with Microsoft in the nineties? After all, its impact is even more catastrophic than Microsoft's, and its actions are even more brazenly monopolistic. Everything else aside, consider its use of a VPN app it acquired to identify apps whose usage was threatening Facebook's, so that it could proactively acquire them and shut them down.

American anti-trust law has been set ostensibly to protect consumers, rather than competition. As Wired reported a few years ago:

Under current U.S. law, being a "monopoly" is not illegal; nor is trying to best one’s competitors through lower prices, better customer service, greater efficiency, or more rapid innovation. Consumers benefit when Apple disrupts the market with iPhones and iPads, even if this means RIM sells fewer BlackBerries or that Microsoft licenses fewer desktop operating systems. Antitrust law only springs into action against a monopoly when it destroys the ability of another company to enter the market and compete.

The key question, of course, is whether a particular monopoly is harming consumers – or merely harming its competitors for the benefit of those consumers.

With any lens except the most superficial, Facebook fails this test. Yes, its product is free and available to anyone. But we pay with our data and privacy - and ultimately, with our democracy. Facebook's dominance has adversely affected entire industries, swung elections, and fuelled genocides. In the latter case, this hasn't been in the United States - at least, not so far - and perhaps this is one of the reasons why it's escaped serious repurcussions. Its effects have been felt in different ways all over the world, and various governments have had to deal with them piecemeal. There is no jurisdiction big enough to cover its full impact. Facebook is, in some ways, more powerful than the government of any nation.

There's one thought that gives me hope. Anyone who has watched Facebook closely knows that it didn't grow through brilliant strategy and genius maneuvering. Its growth curve closely maps to the growth of the internet; it happened to be in the right place at the right time, and managed to not screw it up enough to drive people away. As people joined the internet for the first time, they needed a place to go, and Facebook was it. (The same is true of Instagram, which closely maps to the growth in smartphone camera usage.) As the internet became saturated in developed nations, Facebook's growth curve slowed, and it now needs to bring more people online in developing nations if it wants to continue dominating new markets.

That means two things: Facebook will almost inevitably stagnate, and it is possible for it to be outmaneuvered.

In particular, as new computing paradigms take hold - smart speakers, ambient computing, other devices beyond laptops and smartphones - another platform, or set of platforms, can more easily take its place. When this change inevitably happens, it is our responsibility to find a way to replace it ethically, instead of with yet another monopolistic gatekeeper.

There is work to do. It won't be easy, and the outcome is far from inevitable. But the internet is no longer about code being slung from dorm rooms and garages. It's about democracy, it's deadly serious, and it needs to be treated as such.

 

Photo by JD Lasica, shared on Wikipedia under a CC BY 2.0 license.

 

The unexpected question I ask myself every year

4 min read

Okay, but seriously, how can I get to work on Doctor Who?

It's a dumb question, but my love for this show runs deep - I've been watching it since I was five years old at least. As a non-aggressive, third culture kid who couldn't fit in no matter how he tried, growing up in Britain in the eighties and nineties, the idea of an alien pacifist who solved problems through intelligence, kindness and empathy appealed to me. It still does. It's brilliant. The best show on TV, by far.

I love it. I love watching it. I love reading the books. I dream complete adventures, sometimes. For real.

I don't need to work on it.

Oh, but I do.

I want to play in that universe. I want to take my knowledge of its 55 years of television, and my deep feeling for the character and the whole ethos of the production, and help to build that world. I want to make things that resonate for children in the same way it resonated for me.

It's not about Daleks or Cybermen or reversing the polarity of the neutron flow. It's about the fundamental humanity of telling stories that teach empathy and peace. It's about an action show where the heroes wield understanding and intuition instead of weapons. It's about an institution that genuinely transcends time and space, after 55 years, in a way that its original creators could never have understood. It's a through line to my life and how I see the world.

It's obviously a pipe dream. Still, every year, I ask myself: "am I any closer to working on Doctor Who?"

Every year, the answer is "no".

It's not like I've been working hard to take my life in that direction. I write, for sure; I've had science fiction stories published. But I work in technology - at the intersection of media and tech, for sure, but still on the side of building software and businesses. There was a time when the show was cast aside, and enthusiasts were welcomed to participate - if not with open arms, then with a markedly lower bar than today, when it's one of the hottest shows on TV.

Someone I went to school with did end up working on the show; her dad, Michael Pickwoad, was the production designer for a time. He worked on TARDIS interiors for Matt Smith and Peter Capaldi, among other things. His daughter worked on it with him for a little bit, and was even name-checked in one episode, when her soul was sucked into the internet through the wifi.

I felt a pang of envy for a moment, but mostly I thought it was cool.

What would you even need to do to work on the show? Should I be focusing more on writing fiction? Should I try and write for something else first? Could I maybe find my way into an advisory position, helping the writers to better understand Silicon Valley? (Because, listen, Kerblam! was a good episode, but the ending ruined the parable. Did Amazon ask you to change it?) I don't understand how this industry works; I don't know where to even begin. The show isn't really even for me, anymore; I'm not the six year old watching Peter Davison on BBC1 while I sit cross-legged on the floor. I'm a grown-ass, middle aged man. And who am I to think I can even stand shoulder to shoulder with the people who do this incredible work? People like Malorie Blackman and Vinay Patel, who wrote this year's standout stories?

Like I said: it's a pipe dream. I'm fine. I don't need to be a part of this. I can just enjoy it. I can.

But.

The year is closing out. We're all preparing to turn over new leaves. A new calendar on the wall means a fresh start. There's so much to look forward to, it feels like the world is finally turning a corner, and I'm working on amazing things.

Just ... look. I just need to ask one question. I can't stop myself, as stupid as it is.

Am I any closer to working on Doctor Who?

 

Asking permission to be heard is an idea that needs to die

6 min read

I remember reading about Tavi Gevinson when she was just starting out; a wunderkind blogger. Now her media company is winding down - but at least it's winding down on her terms.

Her goodbye letter is beautiful:

In one way, this is not my decision, because digital media has become an increasingly difficult business, and Rookie in its current form is no longer financially sustainable. And in another way, it is my decision—to not do the things that might make it financially sustainable, like selling it to new owners, taking money from investors, or asking readers for donations or subscriptions. And in yet another way, it doesn’t feel like I’m deciding not to do all that, because I have explored all of these options, and am unable to proceed with any of them.

This was what I wanted to help solve. It was my job, but it went far further than that. I was up late at night while writers turned entrepreneurs cried on my shoulder; sometimes, I cried with them. I felt every setback and every problem, always wondering if there was more that I could do. And I did this as just one part of a bigger team, which in turn was just one part of a bigger movement, all understanding the importance of media, all invested in new ways to pay for it.

It is so far from being solved.

And yes, we're talking about a fairly privileged fashion blogger from New York City. But we're also not. This experience is wider and deeper than just this one publication. And even when we are focused back in on Rookie, Gevinson's unique perspective, alongside the unique perspectives of all the previously-unpublished young women writers she supported, is worth preserving.

I want these voices - of women, of people of color, of anyone with a new perspective or an insight or just words that make you feel anything at all - to be sustainable. The world needs them. Our tapestry of culture is better for their presence. Ensuring we have a thriving media has never just been about direct journalism and reporting the news (although those things are vitally important); if we accept that media is the connective tissue of society, the way we learn about the wider world, we must also accept that a vibrancy of diverse voices is central to that understanding. Not just in terms of who gets reported on and who stories are about, but who gets to make media to begin with.

The most compelling business model for media companies in America is to be propped up by a billionaire. Overwhelmingly, they lose money, and depend on wealthy benefactors to survive - sometimes through acquisition, and other times simply through donation. There are other, incrementally devolved versions of this: in a patronage model, publications ask rich people to pay so that everyone can read. Subscription models create gated communities of information. Kickstarters ask wealthy people to benevolently pay for something to come into existence. In all of these models, young media companies, outlets for voices, must in some way contort themselves to be appealing to rich people, who are predominantly white, straight men, even if those people are not its core audience.

So, then there's this. This quote is so real, and it viscerally conjures up so many feelings for me:

One woman venture capitalist told us, after hearing my very nervous pitch, “I hate to say this because I hate that it’s true, but men who come in here pitch the company they’re going to build, while women pitch the company they’ve already built.” The men could sound delusional, but they could also sound visionary; women felt the need to show their work, to prove themselves.

Women have been told "no" so many times that they don't dare to discuss the true vision for what they want to build. I've certainly been in funding discussions where the true vision was obvious but unspoken; allowing it to flourish required creating a very safe space, and one that I'm inherently less qualified to provide. An ambition unspoken is not an ambition unconceived.

Public media, as with public art, has a measurable impact on everybody's quality of life. There should be public money available for both, as there is in other countries. The reliance on wealthy individuals to graciously provide is perverse. But here we are.

Given the strangehold that rich people and their agents have on culture, we should empower more diverse people to be able to deploy that money where it's needed. Venture capital firms should aim to have more diverse partners, to make safer spaces for more diverse founders - not just for social reasons, but because immigrants founded over half the billion dollar startups in the world and companies run by women perform better.

We can't, though, accept this status quo. Ensuring that more funding goes towards supporting diverse voices means overhauling the system of funding itself. That means removing all of the funding gatekeepers. Why are they there to begin with?

My ideal would be an independent pool of money that predominantly comes from public funds, but I recognize that this is a very European-style idea that is unlikely to gain traction in the US.

Ultimately, though, it's a half-measure. A solution to a world where the decisions over whose voices get to be heard and who gets to be distributed are related to wealth is simply this: the wealth needs to be more evenly distributed. So many of our diversity problems are because society is unequal. Income inequality continues to grow in the United States, as it does in many other places - and of course, the people who hold an increasing majority of the world's income are white men.

A world where everyone has money in their pocket to support what they care about is one where many different types of voices are supported. That, it seems to me, is the real problem to solve. We have to remove the strangehold of a very small number of rich people on all of society; a strangehold that was originally established through racism, colonialism, and oppression. We're building a world where everyone else, and every endeavor that they do not directly control, must go back to them to ask permission. Everything else - problems in our political system, problems with media business models, productivity, economic diversity, crime - can be drawn back to this. We urgently need, coherently, together, and in a way that embraces our ideological diversity and differences of contexts and backgrounds, to find a way to empower everyone to live.

 

Photo by Rita Morais on Unsplash

 

Teaching mission-driven founders

2 min read

I was privileged to participate in Warwick Business School's Entrepreneurial Finance class yesterday. A group of students, some UK-based and some remote, convened in San Francisco to learn more about how startups raise money. My aim was to give them some storytelling ideas. I wanted to drive home that human-centered narratives are the best way to turn all the complicated interrelated complexities of a business into an easily-digestible form - and that the best startup businesses are human-centered from the outset.

Teaching accelerator classes was one of the best parts of Matter, and I miss it. I was the Director of Investments on the west coast, which meant that in addition to sourcing, evaluating, selecting and investing in the teams that would participate in the Matter accelerator, I taught workshops in the program about fundraising, and held office hours sessions about every aspect of running a startup. It meant I got to use every part of my working skills for the first time outside of being a startup founder: often I would be asked about fundraising strategy and database technologies in the same meeting. For a short while I was also the acting Director of Program, which meant that I taught a wider range of workshops. Because Matter's startups (and therefore founders) are mission-driven, it was fulfilling, meaningful work.

I sometimes dream about being able to take everything I've learned from the Silicon Valley ecosystem and bring it back to Europe; maybe have feet in both worlds, and help European startups find footholds over here. So yesterday's session was fulfilling for me in multiple ways, and I'm looking forward to doing it again.

 

Keeping it small is okay too

4 min read

I think lifestyle businesses are massively underrated.

In contrast to a venture-funded business, whose aim is to gain as much value as quickly as possible, a lifestyle business is intended to allow its owners to maintain a certain level of income - and no more. Growth is nice, but it's not a core aim. In a VC business, you want to achieve a valuation worth billions of dollars that can be realized for you and your investors. In a lifestyle business, you want to do something meaningful that allows you to live well on an ongoing basis.

Imagine you want to create a hundred billion dollar business - a VC-powered behemoth that will be the next Silicon Valley decacorn. Where do you start?

It's not by saying "this product is for everyone". It's not even "this product is for millennials", or "this product is for people with cars". These are insanely broad categories that don't allow you to tailor your business towards the real, nuanced needs of your customers. Sure, they're very large demographic buckets, but they lack definition. It's that definition - that deep understanding of the people you want to be your initial power users - that will allow you to win. You need to have insights about those people that nobody else does, which will, in turn, allow you to serve their needs better than anybody else can.

So, you start with a small group that can sustain the early stages of your business, you serve them well, and you build a deep, loyal base.

Now, imagine you want to create a lifestyle business that will hopefully bring in $20,000 a month. That number may still seem quite high, but living costs are higher than they should be. In my neck of the woods, families earning $117,000 qualify as low income. This leads to horrible inequalities and is one of the most important domestic social justice issues of our time, but that's a topic for another post. Right now, that's the baseline. Assuming reasonable overhead costs, my $20K number might net you a take-home pay of around $10,000 a month, of which San Francisco rent might steal 40%. It's not going to make you a millionaire, but it's certainly more than most people earn, and it allows you to build a financial cushion to get through lean times.

What do you need to do?

To make that kind of money, you need to find a small group whose needs are not being met, and serve those needs better than anyone else. To do that, you need to get to know them better than anyone else, and -- you get the idea.

Billion dollar decacorns and lifestyle businesses have a lot in common. More often than not, they come from the same kernel, even if they make different trade-offs between profit and growth. The only real difference is, once you have that initial nucleus of a business built, the decisions you take next: do you keep it small and run it profitably for yourself, or do you take investment to grow it to the next level?

I have a lot of respect for the people who choose to keep it small. They might continue to grow their business organically, and end up making a billion dollars a year - the GIS firm Esri is one example of a technology company that was built exacly this way. Or they might just keep it small forever. My first job was for a local Oxford publisher that repeatedly turned down multi million pound offers. The owner, a man called John Rose, knew exactly what he wanted (and what he wanted to avoid). He became a local hub, well-known in the community he served, but never wanted to expand beyond that.

There are thousands of tiny businesses that work this way, providing value to their owners and their communities. We don't hear about them, because they don't fit into the rock star startup narrative. But they're there, ticking along, beloved by the people who need them.

 

Photo by rawpixel on Unsplash

 

Gefilte bubbles

6 min read

My nuclear family - the one I grew up with - has four different accents. My mother's is somewhere between New England and California; my dad's is Dutch with some Swiss German and English inflections; my sister has traveled further down the road towards a Bay Area accent; and mine is just softened enough that most people think I'm from New Zealand. Thanksgiving, like Christmas, is for us a wholly appropriated holiday: not about genocide or holiness, respectively, but simply about being together as a family. Like magpies, we've taken the pieces that resonate with us, and left the rest.

Technically, I'm a Third Culture Kid: "persons raised in a culture other than their parents' or the culture of the country named on their passport (where they are legally considered native) for a significant part of their early development years". I'm not British, but grew up the place; I love it there, but I also did not assimilate.

I've never felt any particular belonging to the countries on my passports, either, which turns out to be a common characteristic among TCKs. Instead, our nationality and religion is found among shared values and the relationships we build. I've written about this before, although back then I didn't fully understand the meta-tribe to which I belonged. It's also part of the Jewish experience, and the experience of any group of people who has been forcibly moved throughout history. Yes, I'm a product of globalization, but that doesn't mean I'm also a product of privilege; migration for many, including my ancestors, has not been optional.

I was well into my thirties before I understood that my experience of culture was radically different to many other peoples'. It hadn't occurred to me that some people simply inherit norms: the practices of their communities become their practices, too; the way things were done become the way things are and will be done. If you live in this sort of cultural filter bubble, challenges to those well-established norms are threatening. We know that people prefer to consume news and information that confirms their existing beliefs; that's why misinformation can be so effective. The same confirmation bias also applies to how people choose to build relationships of all kinds with one another. It's at the heart of xenophobia and racism, at its most overt, but it also manifests in subtler ways.

I lost count of the number of people who told me I should give up my nationalities and become British, or who made fun of my name, or took issue with my lack of understanding of shared cultural norms. Food is just one example of something mundane that can be incredibly contentious: the dishes from your community carry the weight of love and history. When someone presents as being from your community - no visible differences; more or less the same accent, even if they mispronounce a word here and there - but doesn't have any of that shared understanding, it simply doesn't compute.

I'm fascinated by this survey of Third Culture Kid marriages. The TCK blogger Third Culture Mama received 130 responses from TCKs and their spouses, in an effort to discover how cross-cultural relationships can thrive. It's the first time I've seen anything like this, and I found some of the qualitative responses to be unexpectedly comforting. For example:

When multiple cultures are involved it’s easy to idealize your own culture and how you were brought up. But if you can set it aside to listen to another point of view and another way of doing things, you realize there isn’t only one right way. As a couple you need to decide to say “this is how WE do things. This is what WE believe.” Not “this is what she did. Or this is how my family did it growing up.” There is great validity in understanding both of your pasts and how you were raised. But you need to move on from there and choose a path that you go down together. Doing this takes humility, love, and a desire to do right more than to be right. Listen to one another.

Particularly in startup-land, but in the media in general, there is a glut of how-to articles that assume what worked for the author will work for you. It's a great idea to read other peoples' experiences and learn from them, but you can't apply them directly: you have to forge your own path. Rather than take someone else's pattern verbatim and throw yourself into it, you need to build something that is nurturing and right for you. That's true in relationships, and it's true in business. Over half of all billion dollar startups were founded by immigrants, and I think this mindset is one of the reasons why. As an immigrant, you don't have the luxury of following patterns; you have to weave your own from first principles. You can't make assumptions about how people will behave; you have to study them. Taking this outside perspective is a path to success for everyone.

Another response:

Ask questions, let them cook food from their childhood, look at pictures, learn key phrases in their language. Understand that we’re constantly fighting against this dichotomy of wanting to venture off, but also wanting a place to belong. Realize that we approach emotional intimacy and relationships very differently.

For me, the relationships that have worked are the ones where we've made the space to create our own culture together. I'm drawn to outsiders and people who are willing to question established norms, and over time, through trial and error, bad interactions and good, I've found that I find slavish adherence to cultural norms in a person as threatening as some people find the opposite in me. I've decided that the edge of established culture is where the interesting work happens, and where some of the most interesting people can be found.

In other words, my filter bubble is my psychological safety zone. It's an emotional force field, just as it is for everyone. We all choose who we interact with, who we listen to, and the spaces that we inhabit. The important thing is not that we blow those bubbles to smithereens, but that we see them for what we are, and - just as those happily married TCKs have - let people in to help us grow and change them.

This weekend, children were shot with rubber bullets and tear gas at the US border with Mexico. The root of America's refusal to let them in is a fear of a disruption to those norms. It's in vain. Populations have been ebbing and flowing for as long as there have been people. America is changing, just as all countries are changing, how they always have been, and how they always will. And people like me - those of us with no nationality and no religion, but an allegiance to relationships and the cultures we create together - are growing in number. Selfishly, but also truthfully, I believe it's all for the better.

 

Photo by Elias Castillo on Unsplash

 

How machine learning can reinforce systemic racism

4 min read

Over Thanksgiving, the Washington Post ran a profile of the babysitting startup Predictim:

So she turned to Predictim, an online service that uses “advanced artificial intelligence” to assess a babysitter’s personality, and aimed its scanners at one candidate’s thousands of Facebook, Twitter and Instagram posts.

The system offered an automated “risk rating” of the 24-year-old woman, saying she was at a “very low risk” of being a drug abuser. But it gave a slightly higher risk assessment — a 2 out of 5 — for bullying, harassment, being “disrespectful” and having a “bad attitude.”

Machine learning works by making predictions based on a giant corpus of existing data, which grows, is corrected, and becomes more accurate over time. If the algorithm's original picks are off, the user lets the software know, and this signal is incorporated back into the corpus. So to be any use at all, the system broadly depends on two important factors: the quality of the original data, and the quality of the aggregate user signal.

In the case of Predictim, it needs to have a great corpus of data about a babysitter's social media posts and how it relates to their real-world activity. Somehow, it needs to be able to find patterns in the way they use Instagram, say, and how that relates to whether they're a drug user or have gone to jail. Then, assuming Predictim has a user feedback component, the users need to accurately gauge whether the algorithm made a good decision. Whereas in many systems a data point might be reinforced by hundreds or thousands of users giving feedback, presumably a babysitter has comparatively fewer interactions with parents. So the quality of each instance of that parental feedback is really important.

It made me think of COMPAS, a commercial system that provides an assessment of how likely a criminal defendant is to recidivate. This tool is just one that courts are using to actually adjust their sentences, particularly with respect to parole. Unsurprisingly, when ProPublica analyzed the data, inaccuracies fell along racial lines:

Black defendants were also twice as likely as white defendants to be misclassified as being a higher risk of violent recidivism. And white violent recidivists were 63 percent more likely to have been misclassified as a low risk of violent recidivism, compared with black violent recidivists.

It all comes down to that corpus of data. And when the underlying system of justice is fundamentally racist - as it is in the United States, and in most places - the data will be too. Any machine learning algorithm supported by that data will, in turn, make racist decisions. The biggest difference is that while we've come to understand that the human-powered justice system is beset with bias, that understanding with respect to artificial intelligence is not yet widespread. For many, in fact, the promise of artificial intelligence is specifically - and erroneously - that it is unbiased.

Do we think parents - particularly in the affluent, white-dominated San Francisco Bay Area communities where Predictim is likely to launch - are more or less likely to give positive feedback to babysitters from communities of color? Do we think the algorithm will mark down people who use language most often used in underrepresented communities in their social media posts?

Of course, this is before we even touch the Minority Report pre-crime implications of technologies like these: they aim to predict how we will act, vs how we have acted. The only possible outcome is that people whose behavior fits within a narrow set of norms will more easily find gainful employment, because the algorithms will be trained to support this behavior, while others find it harder to find jobs they might, in reality, be able to do better.

It also incentivizes a broad surveillance society and repaints the tracking of data about our actions as a social good. When knowledge about the very existence of surveillance creates a chilling effect on our actions, and knowledge about our actions can be used to influence democratic elections, this is a serious civil liberties issue.

Technology can have a part to play in building safer, fairer societies. But the rules they enforce must be built with care, empathy, and intelligence. There is an enormous part to play here not just for user researchers, but for sociologists, psychologists, criminal justice specialists, and representatives from the communities that will be most affected. Experts matter here. It's just one more reason that every team should incorporate people from a wide range of backgrounds: one way for a team to make better decisions on issues with societal implications is for them to be more inclusive.

 

I'm going dark on social media for the rest of 2018.

4 min read

For a host of reasons, I've decided to go dark on social media for the remainder of 2018. If my experiment is successful beyond that time, I'll just keep it going.

Originally, I'd intended to do this just for the month of December, but as I sat around the Thanksgiving dinner table yesteryday, surrounded by family and friends, I asked myself: "why not now?"

So, now is the time.

There are two reasons:

The first is that, ordinarily, if a company was found to be furthering an anti-semitic smear in order to protect itself from accusations that it had allowed illegal political advertising in order to influence an election, I probably wouldn't buy goods or services from that company. Particularly if they tried hard to hide that news. The fact that this company has ingrained itself in nearly every aspect of modern life doesn't mean it should be excused - in fact, it makes its actions exponentially more disturbing.

Similarly, other social networks have not exactly shown themselves to be exemplars. While I firmly believe that the web is a net positive for democracy which has provided opportunities for everyone to have a voice, social networking companies have largely shirked the responsibilities of the privileged positions they have found themselves in. We use them more than any other source to learn about the world - but they've chosen to serve us with algorithms that are optimized to maximize our engagement with display ads rather than nurture our curiosity and empathy. Emotive content tends to rise to the top, which has real effects: we're more divided than ever before in the west, and in countries like Myanmar, social networking has been an ingredient in genocide.

I don't want my engagement, or engagement in the content I contribute, to add value to this machine.

The second reason is that it doesn't make me feel good. Partially this is because of the emotive content the algorithms serve to me, which takes a real emotional toll. Partially it's because the relationships you maintain on social networks are shallow. In some cases, they are shadows of real, deeper relationships, but they don't serve those relationships well; posting feels like emotional labor, but has little of the emotional effect or intimacy of real communication. It's an 8-bit approximation of friendship where the conversations are performative because they're always in front of an audience.

One of the things that was stopping me from withdrawing from social media is a worry that people will forget about me. Many of my friends are overseas, and we don't see each other on a regular basis. But I've decided that this is manufactured FOMO; my really meaningful relationships will continue regardless of which social networks I happen to use. The idea that Facebook is an integral part of my friendships seems more toxic the more I think about it.

Finally, I'll admit it: I'm kind of depressed. Social networking has been shown to make people more so. Cutting it out for a while seems like an okay thing to try.

I removed all my social apps on my phone and replaced them with news sources and readers. So here's where to find me for the next little while:

I'm cutting out Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn, and Mastodon completely. (Mastodon doesn't suffer from the organizational issues I described above, but by aping commercial social networking services, it suffers from the same design flaws.) As of tonight, I won't be logging into those platforms on any device, and I won't receive comments, likes, reshares, etc, on any of them.

I will be posting regularly on my blog here at werd.io. If you use a feed reader (I use NewsBlur and Reeder together), I have an RSS feed. Yeah, we still have those in 2018. But if you don't, you can also get new posts in your email inbox by subscribing over here. I've set it up so you can just reply to any message and I'll get it immediately.

You can always email me at ben@benwerd.com, or text me on Signal at +1 (510) 283-3321.

I'm not removing any accounts for now - I'm simply logging out. If this experiment continues, I'll go so far as to remove my information.

Please do say hi using any of those methods. And if we find ourselves in the same city, let's hang out. I'm hoping that this experiment will lead to more, deeper relationships. But for now: this is why you're not going to see my posts in your usual feeds.

 

The Tech Correction

3 min read

If I participated in public markets at all (I don't), I might have gleefully shorted Facebook's stock already. But it looks like it's too late for that to be as effective as it might have been.

As Fred Wilson pointed out today:

Apple is down almost 25% in the last two months.

Facebook is down about 40% since July.

Bitcoin is down about 80% from its highs last December.

Ethereum is down about 90% from its highs in January.

[...] But the thing to understand more broadly about what is going on right now is that big sophisticated investors are reducing their risk exposure across all asset classes and have been doing that for some time. The pace of the “risk off” trade is accelerating. Which means a flight to safety is going on. And when that is happening, you really need conviction to be buying.

For investors who aren't deeply connected. to the industry, technology isn't the obvious bet it once was. The public markets are taking a beating in general - the downturn certainly isn't limited to technology - but the result is that money isn't free-flowing. Lots of people have recently raised new venture capital funds, and there's still a lot of money to deploy, but much of it will be deployed with increased caution.

While there are certainly hard times ahead for many companies, and with them, workers, I think there will be some silver linings. The rapid influx of cash has not made the tech industry a fun place to work or live; it's incentivized founders to create morally rudderless companies, and the deep underlying inequalities make it hard for anyone not carrying a startup salary to rent, let alone buy, a home. As one VC, who will remain nameless, put it to me when I first started as an investor: "you're idealistic now, but soon you'll realize that you're just moving money around for rich people."

I think there will be four effects:

1. Startups that could only exist through enormous funding rounds will dwindle, replaced by companies that more closely resemble traditional businesses - and companies run by incredibly driven founders who will make their vision a reality regardless of circumstances.

2. Alternative financing will become more mainstream, as venture capital refocuses back on seed stage and beyond, leaving a hole at the earliest stages.

3. We'll see fewer people move to Silicon Valley to make their fortunes; people will continue to move here because they love technology and its implications for improving peoples' lives.

4. We may see rents and home prices decrease. Bad news for existing owners, but great news for people who aren't already on the latter. This, in turn, will mean more people are able to risk starting their own businesses, and we'll see an increase in really interesting new ventures a few years out. The higher the cost of living is, the less freedom people have to experiment.

Don't get me wrong: I'm not cheerleading for broad devaluation in my industry. But I think if there is going to be a correction, there is an opportunity for it to be more than financial: a way to rethink how businesses are made in the technology industry. It'll trim off our worst excesses by necessity, but the industry itself isn't going away. The question is, when the good times return - and they will return - will we learn from this bull run, or will we make wiser choices?

 

Media for the people

2 min read

Yesterday, in the afternoon, I collapsed. Everything seemed overwhelming and sad.

Today, I'm full of energy again, and I think there's only one kind of work that matters. The work of empowerment.

Broadly: How can we return to a functional democracy that works for everyone?

Narrowly: How can we make sure this administration is not able to follow its authoritarian instincts, how can we make sure they are nowhere near power in 2020, and how can we make sure this never happens again?

A huge amount of this is fixing the media. Not media companies - but the fabric of how we get our information and share with each other. I've been focused on this for my entire career: Elgg, Latakoo, Known, Medium, Matter and Unlock all deal with this central issue.

A convergence of financial incentives has created a situation where white supremacy and authoritarianism can travel across the globe in the blink of an eye - and can also travel faster than more nuanced ideas. Fascist propaganda led directly to modern advertising, and modern advertising has now led us right back to fascist propaganda, aided and abetted by people who saw the right to make a profit as more important than the social implications of their work.

I think this is the time to take more direct action, and to build institutions that don't just speak truth to power, but put power behind the truth. Stories are how we learn, but our actions define us.

Non-violent resistance is the only way to save democracy. But we need it in every corner of society, and in overwhelming numbers.

There are people out on the streets today, who have been fighting this fight for longer than any of us. How can we help them be more effective?

How can we help people who have never been political before in their lives to take a stand?

How can we best overcome our differences and come together in the name of democracy, freedom, and inclusion?

And how can we actively dismantle the apparatus of oppression?

It's time to create a new kind of media that presents a real alternative to the top-down structures that have so disserved us. One that is by the people, for the people, and does not depend on wealthy financial interests.

And with it, a new kind of democracy that is not just representative, but participative. For everyone, forever.

 

Gab and the decentralized web

7 min read

As a proponent of the decentralized web, I've been thinking a lot about the aftermath of the domestic terrorism that was committed in Pittsburgh at the Tree of Life synagogue over the weekend, and how it specifically relates to the right-wing social network Gab.

In America, we're unfortunately used to mass shootings from right-wing extremists, who have committed more domestic acts of terror than any other group. We're also overfamiliar with ethnonationalists and racist isolationists, who feel particularly emboldened by the current President. Lest we forget, when fascists marched in the streets yelling "the Jews will not replace us", he announced that "you had very fine people on both sides". The messaging could not be more clear: the President is not an enemy of hate speech.

As the modern equivalent of the public square, social networking services have been under a lot of pressure to remove hate speech from their platforms. Initially, they did little; over time, however, they began to remove many of the worst offenders. Hence Gab, which was founded as a kind of refuge for people whose speech might otherwise be removed by the big platforms.

Gab claims it's a neutral free speech platform in the spirit of the First Amendment. (Never mind that the First Amendment protects you from the government curtailing your speech, rather than corporations enacting policies for private spaces that they own and control.) But anyone who has spent 30 seconds there knows this isn't quite right. This weekend's shooter chose to post there before committing his atrocity; afterwards, many other users proclaimed him to be a hero.

It's an online cesspit, home to of some of the worst of humanity. These are people who refer to overt racism as "wrongthink", and mock people who are upset by it. As Huffington Post recently reported about its CEO, Andrew Torba:

[...] As Gab’s CEO, he has rooted for prominent racists, vilified minorities, fetishized “trad life” in which women stay at home with the kids, and fantasized about a second American civil war in which the right outguns the left.

Gab is gone for now - a victim of its service providers pulling the plug in the wake of the tragedy - but it'll be back. Rather than deplatforming, the way to fight this speech, it claims, is with more speech. In my opinion, this is a trap that falsely sets up the two oppositing sides here as being equivalent. Bigotry is not an equal idea, but it's in their interests to paint it as such. While it's pretty easy to debate bigots on an equal platform and win, doing so unintentionally elevates their standing. Simply put, their ideas shouldn't be given oxygen. A right to freedom of speech is not the same as a right to be amplified.

I found this piece by an anonymous German student in Saxony instructive:

We also have to understand that allowing nationalist slogans to gain currency in the media and politics, allowing large neo-Nazi events to take place unimpeded and failing to prosecute hate crimes all contribute to embolden neo-Nazis. I see parallels with an era we thought was confined to the history books, the dark age before Hitler.

An often-repeated argument about deplatforming fascists is that we'll just drive them underground. In my opinion, this is great: when we're literally talking about Nazis, driving them underground is the right thing to do. Yes, you'll always have neo-Nazis somewhere. But the more they're exposed to the mainstream, the more their movement may gain steam. This isn't an academic problem, or a problem of optics: give Nazis power and people will die. These are people who want to create ethnostates; they want to prioritize people based on their ethnicity and background. These movements start in some very dark places, and often end in genocide.

When we talk about a decentralized social web, the framing is usually that it's one free from censorship; where everyone has a home. I broadly agree with that idea, but I also think the discussion must become more nuanced in the face of communities like Gab.

I agree wholeheartedly that the majority of our global discourse can't be trusted to a small handful of very large, monocultural companies that answer to their shareholders over the needs of the public. The need to make user profiles more valuable to advertisers has, for example, seen transgender users thrown off the platform for not using their deadnames. In a world where you need to be on social media to effectively participate in a community, that has had a meaningful effect on already vulnerable communities.

There's no doubt that this kind of unacceptable bigotry at the hands of surveillance capitalism would, indeed, be prevented by decentralization. But removing silos would also, at least in theory, enable and protect fascist movements, and give racists like this weekend's shooter a place to build unhindered community.

We must consider the implications of removing these gatekeepers very deeply - and certainly more deeply than we have been already.

A common argument is that the web is just a tool, oblivious to what people use it for. This is similar to the argument that was made about algorithms, until it became obvious that they were built by people and based on their assumptions and biases. Nothing created by people is unbiased; everything is in part derived from the context and assumptions of its creators. By being more aware of our context and the assumptions we're bringing to the table, we can hopefully make better decisions, and see potential problems with our ideas sooner. Even if there isn't a perfect solution, understanding the ethics of the situation allows us to make more informed decisions.

On one side, by creating a robust decentralized web, we could create a way for extremist movements to thrive. On another, by restricting hate speech, we could create overarching censorship that genuinely guts freedom of speech protections, which would undermine democracy itself by restricting who can be a part of the discourse. Is there a way to avoid the second without the first being an inevitability? And is it even possible, given the possible outcomes, to return to our cozy idea of the web as being a force for peace through knowledge?

These are complicated ethical questions. As builders of software on the modern internet, we have to know that there are potentially serious consequences to the design decisions we make. Facebook started as a prank by a college freshman and now has a measurable impact on genocide in Myanmar. While it's obvious to me that everyone having unhindred access to knowledge is a net positive that particularly empowers disadvantaged communities, and that social media has allowed us to have access to new voices and understand a wider array of lived experiences, it has also been used to spread hate, undermine elections, and disempower whole communities. Decentralizing the web will allow more people to share on their own terms, using their own voices; it will also remove many of the restrictions to the spread of hatred.

Wherever we end up, it's clear that President Trump is wrong about the alt-right: these aren't very fine people. These are some of the worst people in the world. Their ideology is abhorrent and anti-human; their messages are obscene.

No less than the future of democratic society is at stake. And a society where the alt-right wins won't be worth living in.

Given that, it's tempting to throw up our hands and say that we should ban them from speaking anywhere online. But if we do that, the consequence is that there has to be a mechanism for censorship built into the web, and that there should be single points of failure that could be removed to prevent any community from speaking. Who gets to control that? And who says we should get to have this power?

 

We fought wars to stop nationalists. Now the President is one

3 min read

“Patriotism is when love of your own people comes first; nationalism, when hate for people other than your own comes first.” - Charles de Gaulle

“You know, they have a word. It sort of became old-fashioned. It’s called a nationalist. And I say really, we’re not supposed to use that word. You know what I am? I am a nationalist. Use that word.” - Donald J. Trump

I am not a nationalist. But I'll willingly use that word to describe Trump, his government, and the people who continue to support him.

This election in November is nothing less than a referendum on what America is, stands for, and should be in the future. Trump knew what he was doing when he described himself as a nationalist; it's part of a long-running push of the Overton Window to the far-right. And he was using it in the context of talking about a caravan of refugees who are reportedly hoping to enter America. It's his most baldly white supremacist statement yet.

He's not alone. Together with Britain, Brazil, Poland, and other countries around the world, Trump is part of a far-right resurgence. On the internet, and therefore in the backchannel to society, the neo-reactionary and alt-right movements are gaining steam.

Yes, many of the supporters are people who have been overlooked by a negligent Democratic Party. But in 1930s Germany, many of the supporters were people who were similarly feeling the effects of the Treaty of Versailles. This idea doesn't undermine the insidious evil of racism and bigotry. It doesn't override the cynicism and manipulation of the people who would use that discontent to fuel a movement based on hatred.

And we have to stop them. We have to.

I think of my great grandfather, who fled Pogroms in Ukraine with his family. My grandfather, who was captured by the Nazis as a Prisoner of War and is ashamed of denying his own Jewishness to survive. My other grandfather, who led the resistance against the Japanese in his part of Indonesia. My grandmother, who somehow shepherded her children through years in an internment camp, sometimes by gathering snails and cooking them, and sometimes by asking her twelve year old daughter to sneak through the sewers to find food. And my dad, who lived through it all and took care to make sure I understood why inclusion and fairness are so important.

The discussions we're having aren't arbitrary or academic. I think of my friends who are trans and being threatened with erasure; who are gay; who are people of color; who are of middle-eastern descent; who aren't part of this vision of a white picket fence America. This is about them. In some cases, it threatens their lives.

The first thing we need to do is vote in great numbers (although Trump is already discussing invalidating the election results). The second thing is to support groups that protect the civil liberties of these targeted communities; groups like the ACLU, the Southern Poverty Law Center, the Transgender Law Center, and Black Lives Matter.

But those are just the first steps. Then - no matter what happens - comes a bigger struggle. Equality, peace, inclusion and empathy are too important to let fall to a transient movement based on fear and hatred. It's not enough to resist; the goal must be to prevent. A peaceful society where everyone is welcome and there are opportunities for all people is what's at stake.

 

Desirability, Viability, Feasibility, Sustainability

5 min read

Building a product as part of any kind of business is risky. Most new businesses fail, for a variety of reasons. Your job in the early stages is to mitigate those risks and navigate your company to a point where you're building something that people actually want, that can serve as the heart of a viable business, and which you can provide at scale with the team, resources, and time reasonably at your disposal.

One of the things I learned while investing at Matter was that your mindset matters more than anything. The founders who were most likely to succeed were able to identify their core assumptions, test those assumptions, be honest with themselves when they had it wrong, and act quickly to course-correct - based on imperfect information. Conversely, the founders most likely to fail were the ones who refused to face negative feedback and carried on with their vision. The former wanted to build a successful company; the latter wanted to pretend to be Steve Jobs.

De-risking a venture is all about continuously evaluating it through three distinct lenses:

Desirability: are you building something that meets a real user's needs? (Will the dog hunt?)

Viability: if you are successful, can your venture succeed as a profitable, growing business? (Will the dog eat the dog food?)

Feasibility: can you provide this service at scale with the team, time, and resources reasonably at your disposal? (Can we build the dog?)

Building a product through an iterative, human-centered process means putting on each one of these hats in turn. Is this product desirable, leaving aside viability and feasibility considerations? If not, what changes do you need in order to make it so? And then repeat for viability and feasibility.

This is at the heart of the design thinking process taught by Matter and others. It changed the way I think about building products forever.

I used to believe that if you just got the right smart people in a room, they could produce something great together. I wanted to build something and then put it out into the world. That's both a risky and egotistical strategy: it implies that you think you're so smart that you know what everybody wants. It's also often undertaken with a "scratch your own itch" mentality: build something to solve your own needs. As a result, the needs of wealthy San Franciscan millennials who went to Stanford are significantly overserved.

Market realities usually bring people back down to earth, but if you've spent a year developing a product, you've already burned a lot of time and resources. Conversely, if you're testing on day one, and day two, and day three, and so on, you don't need to wait to understand how people will react.

It's a great framework. There is, however, a missing lens.

I was pleased to see that Gartner has listed ethics and privacy as one of its ten key strategic technology trends for 2019. The world has changed, and market demands for technology products are very different to even three years ago. In the wake of countless data leaks and a compromised election, people are looking for more respectful software:

Technology development done in a vacuum with little or no consideration for societal impacts is therefore itself the catalyst for the accelerated concern about digital ethics and privacy that Gartner is here identifying rising into strategic view.

The human-centered design thinking process is correct. But it needs a fourth step that makes evaluating societal impact a core part of the process.

 

In addition to desirability, viability, and feasibility, I define the fourth step as follows:

Sustainability: does this venture have a non-negative social and environmental impact, and does it respect the human rights of the user?

Of course, it could easily be argued that "non-negative" should be "positive" here - and for mission-driven ventures it probably should be. Unfortunately, in our current climate, non-negative is such a step up from the status quo that I'm inclined to think that asking every new business to have a meaningfully positive impact is unrealistic. It would be nice if this wasn't the case. A positive impact also leads to questions like: how can we quantify our impact? Those are good questions to ask, but not necessarily core to the heart of every venture.

If you're confused about how "human rights" are defined, the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights is a good resource. It was written in 1945, after the Second World War, and covers everything from equality through privacy, freedom from discrimination, and the right to a real court trial. There's also the European Convention on Human Rights, which has a broader scope, while being more narrowly focused on citizens of Europe. The purpose of including human rights in this context is to force questions like: are we discriminating against certain groups of people? And: can our platform be used to further genocide?

The technology industry used to have the luxury of operating in a vacuum, without having to consider the broader societal impact in which it operates. Its success means that its products are ingrained in every aspect of our lives. This brings new responsibilities, and the old days, when engineers and technologists could afford to be apolitical and apart from the world, are long gone. It's time that the ways in which we build products are brought up to date with our new reality.

 

Start with the spark, not the fire

4 min read

It took me too long to realize I had my head in the clouds.

When I co-founded Known, I had a huge vision: a world where everyone had full control of their identity and content online. Anyone could create a stream of content anywhere - on a web host, on a device they kept in their living room, on their pick of services - and access it using whatever aspects of their identity they wanted to share. The whole web would become a collaborative canvas which would revolutionize business, creativity, and the internet itself. We wouldn't be beholden to these giant, centralized silos of data and value any longer.

It was an exciting vision - which led to a few obvious questions.

Like: where will you start?

How, exactly, do you get there?

How will you make money in the meantime?

Who is this for? No, not "content creators"; not "millennials"; certainly not "everyone". Who exactly will use this tomorrow? Two years from now?

We were lucky that Matter bought into our vision. Its accelerator changed how I think about building products, and literally changed my life (long before I joined the team). Part of the structure included a monthly venture design review, where we would pitch an experimental version of our venture, and a panel of experts (investors, founders, mentors) would give us their brutally honest feedback.

The first time we pitched our startup at a venture design review, we were eviscerated. We hadn't answered any of those questions. We did have working code, but we couldn't articulate who it was for, and how it connected to this bigger vision. It was the first time we received truly honest feedback, and it felt like a punch in the stomach.

It's not enough to have working code. It's not enough to have a vision. You've got to have a holistic, concrete understanding of your entire venture and the context it sits within.

Your vision can be a raging fire that might change the world. But you can't have a fire without a spark that takes hold.

So, I learned not to let go of that vision, but to take my head out of the clouds and bring myself down to earth. It's easy to have a big, romantic notion; it's much harder to put the actual nuts and bolts together to get a real venture off the ground. To do that effectively, you have to find: the real people you want to serve, get to know them personally and gain really unique insights about their needs, and then build the smallest possible thing that will meet those needs.

That smallest possible thing is probably embarrassing to you. It's almost certainly the grand invention you had imagined. But as Paul Graham once wrote:

Don't be discouraged if what you produce initially is something other people dismiss as a toy. In fact, that's a good sign. That's probably why everyone else has been overlooking the idea. The first microcomputers were dismissed as toys. And the first planes, and the first cars. At this point, when someone comes to us with something that users like but that we could envision forum trolls dismissing as a toy, it makes us especially likely to invest.

Microcomputers, planes, and cars all started as something small for a very limited audience, but they've rewritten how all of human society works.

Conversely, take the Segway: a product whose inventor dreamed would change how cities were designed. It had a grand vision but failed to understand its core users or create a strong hypothesis of how it would grow. They're now the domain of mall cops and goofy city tours. The company now makes those electric scooters used by startups like Lime and Bird, which were created with a concrete human use case in mind. But they orginally started fire-first, rather than spark-first, and faltered.

You have to nail the spark before you can grow. I still speak to a lot of startups, and many of them fail to understand this. They want to go big first; the vision is the fun bit, and is the emotional core that drove them to found their venture to begin with. It's where a whimsical idea hits the road and becomes real work. But it might be the most important business lesson I ever learned.

 

The day I realized I was going against the career grain

4 min read

One of the most surreal professional experiences of my career was going to work for Medium. It was a decision I thought long and hard about, and was a sea change in the way I worked.

For my entire career, I'd gone against the grain. I bootstrapped an open source startup from Scotland, determined that I wouldn't move to Silicon Valley. I was the first employee at another one, based in Texas, that was determined to be Texan through and through. And then I finally founded a company in the San Francisco Bay Area, but was determined that it should be open source and decentralized (at a time when almost all investors were against the idea). In all these cases, while I had equity, I had a pretty low salary. In fact, I had never made much money at all, because I had put the highest priority on maintaining my social ideology.

So when I came to Medium, I immediately earned double the highest amount of money I'd ever made. Suddenly I was in this incredibly slick work environment, with empathetic, thoughtful people who were at the top of their skills. There were high-burn frills like kombucha on tap, but much more importantly, there were real benefits. Vacation was encouraged, there was parental leave, and I could spend thousands of dollars on my own education without drawing from my salary. (Side note: a lot of fancy tech company benefits are things that every employee in Europe is entitled to by law.)

Most strikingly, the people I worked with had mostly never worked in low-budget startups. If they'd been involved in small businesses at all, they had very quickly attracted millions of dollars in venture capital - but quite often, they'd come from companies like Google, and had enjoyed these kinds of salaries and benefits for their entire working lives.

Only then did I realize that for my entire career, by going against the grain and trying to build my own environments from scratch, I had made life incredibly hard for myself. Honestly, I thought that this was just how work was. But it turned out there was this world where, if I could accept not being my own boss and coming into an office building every day (which had both felt like psychological barriers, but in reality were very minor), I could make good money, go home at a normal time, take decent vacations without worrying so much about the budget, and be a healthier human being. What?!

In reality, I became incredibly anxious. Because I was working with people who had just had the luxury of focusing on their skills for their whole careers, I had really strong imposter syndrome. And everything was so slow, methodical, and ordered compared to the bouncing-off-the-walls chaos of an early-stage startup. I was still a little bit addicted to the adrenaline, and adapting was tougher than it should have been. This was the cushiest job I ever had, with some of the most genuinely amazing coworkers. I was a highly privileged technology worker, making really good money in a lovely environment - and I felt guilty for not being as happy as I felt I should have been.

Over time, it got easier. Matter offered me a job at the end of my first year, which I couldn't say no to. I think I wouldn't have done as well if I hadn't gone to Medium first: I had become a team player, and a much better employee. Had I stayed, I'm certain the unease would have continued to fade over time. I continued this growth trajectory at Matter; it was like losing an addiction to radical independence.

Honestly, I think that kind of radical independence is oversold. Being a founder - or frankly, even just a sole operator or consultant - is lonely, hard work, and the pay is bad. It's a bit sad that it took me over a decade to understand this. And while founding something is something I don't want to downplay, you should only do it if there's a foreseeable path to a point where you won't be in survival mode. (Real investment really helps, but it's not appropriate for every business, and not everyone can raise it.) Doing what regular people do - which is to get a job, potentially move to where the jobs are, pull a salary as part of a much larger organization, and build a financially stable future - is not at all a bad way to live. And I wish I could go back and tell me 25 year old self about it.

 

Meeting subscribers where they're at

3 min read

Yesterday I upgraded my laptop to OSX Mojave. Among the improvements: a desktop version of the iOS news app, which is slick. I checked into it a few times yesterday, and I expect I will again today.

Under the hood, it's a highly-curated feed reader. There's a proprietary API, but a lot of content is delivered via RSS (and there's an opt-out form for publishers, implying that Apple sometimes adds a feed without a publisher's permission). In fact, I did a quick search, and some of my favorite blogs are represented. Here's Fred Wilson's AVC:

So I thought I'd add this blog to it, too. I signed up, and it turns out that they would vastly prefer you to use that proprietary API:

I'll go back and look at the API, but for now I decided that RSS was more than good enough. I submitted this site, and it's under review. We'll see what happens.

Meanwhile, a little while ago, I quietly started embedding a mailing list sign-up form at the bottom of every post. I have a system that, at 11am PT every day, checks for new posts and emails them to subscribers. It's not rocket science, but it has a major advantage over other ways of sending content: subscribers can just hit "reply" and have a one-on-one conversation with me. It's happened a few times now, and I love it.

Personally, I still love RSS. After a few years of doing without it, my reader app is my first stop on my phone each morning, and I check it again from my desktop every lunchtime. It lets me read thoughts from people I'm interested in (I don't subscribe to brands) in a calm way. I wouldn't have seen a lot of the most interesting pieces on Twitter or Facebook, because they're not emotive enough to rise through the algorithm. But I get a lot from them. RSS feeds also power podcasts, which I'm addicted to; they're one of the best parts of the open web.

But it's different for everyone. I know that most people don't use text-based RSS readers, and I'm not dogmatic enough to require that they do that if they want to keep up with this blog. So, there's a mailing list option, and I'll keep tweeting links to new articles.

It shouldn't be a reader's job to figure out where to read a particular publisher's content. It should just be there for them, in their app of choice. The only reason to force someone to use a particular option is for monetization, but ultimately, that will be true there too: monetization options for independent publishers need to reduce friction by accompanying content wherever it can be read. Whether it's paid feeds, paid mailing lists, advertising, or whatever the publisher needs. If apps and gateways for readers use open standards and protocols behind the scenes, publishers get the ability to add their content easily, and everybody wins.

If you liked this article, feel free to subscribe - via email, using your feed reader of choice, or wherever you read your content.

See? Easy. That's what the future of publishing will look like.

 

It's time for a new branch of public media

3 min read

President Lyndon B Johnson signed the Public Broadcasting Act in 1967, which established the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Previously, an independent public broadcaster had been established through grants by the Ford Foundation, but Ford began to withdraw its support.

Here's what he said:

"It announces to the world that our nation wants more than just material  wealth; our nation wants more than a 'chicken in every pot.' We in America have an appetite for excellence, too. While we work every day to produce new goods and to create new wealth, we want most of all to enrich man's spirit. That is the purpose of this act."

To this day, PBS and NPR carry balanced, factual programming, supported by listeners and underwriters rather than ads.

Meanwhile, C-SPAN was established in 1979 as an independent, non-profit entity. It was founded by cable operators, and gets its funding through carrier fees. It gets 6 cents per cable subscriber in the United States. Its coverage of America's political process is unprecedented.

Public broadcast media hasn't just had an effect on the education of the public and on elections. It's also had an effect on private media, acting as a bar for the kinds of high-quality content that audiences might expect. For example, NPR sets the bar for commercial podcasting.

If companies like Facebook and Twitter are media companies too - and they are - we haven't yet seen a non-commercial equivalent as we have for TV and radio. There's an argument that open projects like Mastodon have a similar spirit, but there's no major backing.

As more and more of us get our news and information from social media, there's more of a call for a public media equivalent. Just as NPR and PBS don't need to worry about which content will sell commercials, this wouldn't worry about promoting engagement to sell display ads.

In the same way that NPR and PBS have set the bar for factual content on radio and TV, an online service run in the public interest would set the bar for how content is delivered online. It would improve the ecosystem for everyone, as well as being directly informative.

History points to different ways this could be funded. The Ford Foundation could back it, in the same way they backed the original US public broadcasters. The Corporation for Public Broadcasting, or an organization like it, could back it. Or it could be created through contributions from service providers, as was done with C-SPAN.

It could also be established as a nonprofit fund that would back and underwrite promising storytelling platforms that promised to be run in the public interest. A little bit of seed funding across multiple projects at first; then more funds to back the platforms that succeeded.

If we've learned anything from broadcasting (or Facebook!), for-profit alone isn't enough to create a healthy media ecosystem. But any noncommercial service is going to need to find both financial & cultural backing.

I think it's one of the most important things we can be doing.

 

This piece was originally published as a Twitter thread.

 

Pigeonholes, engineers, and writers

3 min read

I've always envied people who have built a career around one particular skill. Career engineers, for example, have had the luxury on going deep on that one set of skills, honing their understanding of algorithms, toolsets, protocols and approaches for years. Often, they have a real love of these underlying ideas. They'll sometimes argue about which programming language is better.

I started out as a storyteller. My ambition was to go to university and study computer science and drama; something that turned out to be impossible at the time in the British system. In 1996, when I applied to go to university, my idea was that software was an opportunity to tell stories in interesting new ways. I was right, but very few other people saw it that way, and there wasn't an opportunity for me to study the art and craft of language and literature together with the art and craft of software.

So I made a pragmatic decision: I'd go down the software route, not because I loved it, but because it would probably pay me better. I don't believe that's why someone should choose an academic discipline, in an ideal world, but sometimes trade-offs must be made. (I've never gone back and studied writing and literature, but it's something I would still dearly like to do.)

I became an engineer after graduation - although I also had a website on the side that was getting millions of pageviews a day. Then I became a startup founder. And then a CTO. And then another startup founder.

I was writing thousands of words, putting together pitches and decks, speaking all over the world, having partnership conversations and leading product development - but all the while, I was still described as an engineer. It was a label that stuck.

This is a disservice to the people who have spent their life in true engineering. It's also a misdescription: I'm not a top-level engineer and could never pretend to be, but I understand the technology and how it fits into the broader narrative, and the broader social context. I can lead products well because I can understand both the engineering and the business sides. I can use human-centered design and design thinking - both journalistic processes - to de-risk businesses quickly. I can wrap it all up in a narrative, and I can use that narrative to build a community of support that snowballs, Katamari-style. It's not something that fits into a neat pigeonhole, but I think it's more interesting.

I've become really appreciative of other people who don't fit into the pigeonholes that others try and fit them in, both in work and life. Observing from the outside, the people who are really making change are multidisciplinary, often guided by an overarching mission. They're not worrking on something because they want to become the best at a particular skill, but because they want to build something that achieves a certain effect. It's the difference between trying to ace an exam on a particular subject, and trying to create something that nobody knows exactly how to grade because it uses so many different skills. That can make it more difficult to find the right job - I've often had to make jobs for myself, and when I haven't (like now), I'm drawn to collaborate with similarly multidisciplinary outsiders. But for me, it also makes for much more fulfilling work.

 

Article 13 makes it official. It's time to embrace decentralization

5 min read

Today the EU passed Articles 11 and 13 of its new Copyright Directive in a 438 to 226 vote. This has, rightly, been widely painted as a complete disaster for European internet businesses - and the internet industry as a whole. Here's the first clause of Article 13 in its entirety:

Information society service providers that store and provide to the public access to large amounts of works or other subject-matter uploaded by their users shall, in cooperation with rightholders, take measures to ensure the functioning of agreements concluded with rightholders for the use of their works or other subject-matter or to prevent the availability on their services of works or other subject-matter identified by rightholders through the cooperation with the service providers. Those measures, such as the use of effective content recognition technologies, shall be appropriate and proportionate. The service providers shall provide rightholders with adequate information on the functioning and the deployment of the measures, as well as, when relevant, adequate reporting on the recognition and use of the works and other subject-matter.

It's called the "upload filter" article, because in effect, it requires every internet service to scan uploaded material for copyright violations before publishing. This is bad because:

1. It's an easy way to create a censorship filter. If all content must go through a central clearing-house and receive approval before publishing, it can all be surveilled. That's Orwellian enough, but once this framework has been established, it would be technically trivial to censor any content. This can't be overstated: it's a threat to freedom of speech on the  internet.

2. It puts an undue burden on service providers to integrate with rights-scanning software. This software may be expensive or may function poorly.

3. Copyright filters do function poorly. Internet services are incentivized to make them function broadly, in order to limit their potential liability across geographies. One German music teacher discovered this while uploading Beethoven to YouTube; out-of-copyright material was automatically being flagged.

Meanwhile, Article 11 will require a license simply to link to content. The intention is to force Google News and similar services to pay the news organizations it links to. In reality, one obvious outcome may simply be that international news organizations issue a blanket license to link to them, and organizations that do not will suddenly find that they don't have an audience. It's highly likely to be counter-produtive to its goal of making income for journalism.

While this is a European directive, the effects will be far-reaching. GDPR - which, in contrast to this directive, was a very positive change - saw services around the world change their architecture to avoid being penalized by the EU. I had assumed that compliance measures would be made specifically for European users, but it turned out to be more efficient simply to roll them out to everyone.

The one saving grace is the wording: "information society service providers that store and provide to the public access to large amounts of works or other subject-matter uploaded by their users". In other words, although it uses incredibly imprecise language, it can be reasonablly inferred that the directive targets large service providers like Google and Facebook. It doesn't target small communities or people who are independently hosting their content.

European directives leave it up to the member states to implement. The resulting legislation in the Netherlands will necessarily look different to Germany, and so on. While each of these nations could expand upon the directive and make it even more far-reaching, it's fair to assume that it will probably be retained.

All of which means that peer-to-peer decentralized social networks are exempt, if you're hosting your profile yourself. Nobody on the indie web is going to need to implement upload filters. Similarly, nobody on the federated social web, or using decentralized apps, will either. In these architectures, there are no service providers that store or provide access to large amounts of work. It's in the ether, being hosted from individual servers, which could sit in datacenters or could sit in your living room.

While the internet economy has been dominated by services that leverage network effects to date, this directive is one way that monolithic networks have changed from an asset into a liability. Because the cumulative value in a network is owned by a single party, that party becomes subject to enormous rules and regulations over time. The network effects are enjoyed by everyone, but owned by one company. Instead, it's better to create a system where the network effects are both enjoyed and owned by everyone.

It's fascinating that this directive is being passed just as the move to decentralization has begun to pick up steam. In his remarkable book World After Capital, Union Square Ventures Managing Partner Albert Wenger discusses the three freedoms that are required to make a transition to the Knowledge Age:

Economic freedom. We must let everyone meet their basic needs without having to hold a job. This way, we can double down on automation and enable everyone to participate in the knowledge loop.

Informational freedom. We must remove boundaries to learning from existing knowledge, creating new knowledge based on what we learn and sharing this new knowledge.

Psychological freedom. We must free ourselves from scarcity thinking and its associated fears that impede our participation in the knowledge loop.

It's clear that this directive directly infringes on all three freedoms, by imposing undue costs, applying censorship measures to content, and creating artificial scarcity in the market for information. But decentralized apps at least have the potential to establish all three, by allowing people to make money from their work through peer-to-peer markets, circumventing censorship, and freeing information from scarcity.

Ultimately, this directive targets an era of the web that is already beginning to wane. It's not a disaster; it is a turning page. Let's see what the next chapter brings.

 

It's time to get out of the way of artists making money on the internet

4 min read

I'm spending some of my time trying to better understand how people who make creative work on the internet - writers, artists, musicians, indie developers - can build an audience and make a living from their work.

I have a lot of questions about how these creators can find people who their work resonates with. This is the opposite of founding a startup or a small business, for example: there you're finding the audience first, and building something that resonates with them. While some creative work is along those lines, more of it comes from a different creative space. The work is some function of the creator's need, with the feedback loop from the audience factoring into the mix as it grows.

Community-building, then, is a big question - particularly in the world of opaque social media algorithms that get in the way of talking directly to your followers. I'm calling it "community-building" becaues while promotion is a component, it's not the whole purpose, nor the overriding instinct. Finding kindred minds is a more immediate emotional need, even if the financial act of covering your bills is closer to the base level of Maslow's Hierarchy.

In the current ecosystem, community-building and compensation have been rolled up into one set of tools. By providing value over the top of facilitating transactions, platforms can attract creators. The more creators they attract, the larger the audience they bring with them, and the larger the cumulative profit they ultimately earn.

Medium does this well: by submitting work to the Partner Program, you're much more likely to be featured on the homepage and in its newsletters - and its payments are not insubstantial (here's my featured story Rules for Resters). Substack performs a similar trick for email newsletters (I subscribe to Daniel Ortberg). Patreon attempts to do it for every kind of creative work on every medium, which is a tricky balancing act (I back Hallie Bateman and Mastodon).

Everybody is more or less aligned here, and real money is being made, but this bundling makes it difficult to tailor your revenue or community-building tactics to your audience. One size has to fit all.

This may work for some creators; others, not so much. Every community and audience is different, and understanding their needs and desires is a core part of building a following, and a subscriber base. It's not about what you assume their needs and desires are; it's all about getting to know them as real people, and through this holistic understanding, developing unique insights about them. These insights can validate or invalidate your assumptions, but they can also take you in entirely new directions. (This principle applies to both artists and business founders, although, as I pointed out earlier, the starting point in this learning cycle is probably different.)

There's a clear benefit to making payments easier, and having a common gateway to do that, so that audience members don't have to enter their credit card details again and again and again. But that doesn't mean that everything needs to be bundled. There's also a clear benefit to having the tools of community-building and taking payments made out of small pieces, loosely joined, so that you can create the stack that makes the most sense for your own community, with tools that are tailored for them. One size fits all services are the first step, and maybe the entry point. But this is the web, and more is possible.

Patreon et al don't just want to own the payment relationship between artists and their audiences; they want to  own all aspects of that relationship. They want fans to visit their homepages instead of the artists' own. Ultimately, they want to own the way artists communicate with the world - making those communications subject to their own rules.

By establishing open standards for one-click, peer-to-peer payment that can then integrate with multiple tools, artists can potentially be better served. They can meet their audiences where they're at. They can make money without adhering to anyone else's rules. And they can more quickly reach a point where they're covering their costs through the work that they love.

This open source, decentralized world is coming. It's great news for anyone who wants to see a diverse cultural landscape where anyone can make money on their own terms, without regard for language, borders, or what someone at a desk in San Francisco thinks would be nice to promote. And it will change everything.

 

Making work in the Trump era

3 min read

Honestly, most days, I feel paralyzed. I feel like there's so much happening, that we're literally descending into fascism on a global scale, and that I don't know if anything I do can possibly be impactful enough. I also feel that while it would be easy to block it all out and carry on as normal, to put politics aside and live my life as if none of this was going on, to do so would be complicity.

I have the privilege to set everything aside, as a white male in Silicon Valley. But if I did that, I would feel the weight of my ancestors - people who fled pogroms in Ukraine, who fought for social justice in 1930s America, who fought the Nazis in Europe, who led the resistance against the Japanese in Indonesia - weighing down on me. And I would feel the weight of my friends of color, my LGBTQIA friends, my immigrant friends. It would be an entirely selfish act. And even selfishly, the result would be a world that I simply don't want to live in: a restrictive, brutal, theist society built around the supremacy of a narrow, arbitrary demographic.

If you are not vocally political in the current era, your inaction is tacit support for the current regime and its bigoted value system. End of story.

I know I'm not alone.

But I also know there's work to be done.

I'm vocal; I give a significant percentage of my income; I march. But I also need to pay my rent and cover these donations to begin with.

I've already made myself one pact: while I work in tech, an industry that has undeniably been part of the problem, I will only work on mission-driven problems at the intersection with democracy. I've turned down large salaries at companies you can name, because I want to be able to feel like I'm part of the solution and not the problem. It means I'll probably never be a millionaire. I can live with that.

The second, newer pact, is to work hard at the work I do, to the exclusion of distractions. This is not something I've been good at, but it's a skill I need to rebuild. Like many of us, I've been glued to social media, simultaneously addicted to and exhausted by every new development. And honestly, I have to break out of it.

Although raising and maintaining awareness is vital, sitting and typing outraged tweets on social media is masturbatory, and benefits the very platforms that were a large part of creating this current situation. Taking a step back and using my voice to amplify others who might not enjoy the same privileges, while also taking more calculated moves to have impact where it counts, is more important.

 

Alternative funding may be the best route to a startup ecosystem outside Silicon Valley

10 min read

I'm asked a fair amount about creating startup ecosystems outside of Silicon Valley. My first startup was founded in Scotland and initially bootstrapped; I was the first employee at another that was founded in Austin, Texas and funded by non-tech angel investors. My third was founded in San Francisco and funded by Matter Ventures, where I also later worked as the west coast Director of Investments. (I have only good things to say about being on both sides of that particular table.)

The level of knowledge outside the tech ecosystem varies wildly. I've been asked if startups should pay to join an accelerator (absolutely not); if a year is a reasonable time between application and funding (it's death); and why investors don't put their money into projects as well as ventures (because they're investments that expect a return, not grants).

Very few people ask about the investment itself, but this is key. While traditional venture capital deals have become the norm in the Silicon Valley tech ecosystem, it's not a given that this should be the case, or that other locations should simply copy the model.

In traditional VC, an investor either buys shares in a company at a certain price, or debt that will convert into shares at an agreed-upon price. In both cases, the investor is betting that the value of the company, and therefore the shares, will wildly increase. Because the company is not publicly traded, they can't simply sell those shares; they have to wait until there's an exit event, where either the company is bought by another one, or it chooses to start selling shares on the public markets. At that point, the investor can liquidate their investment and hopefully see a return. The company might also buy back their shares, or an early-stage investor might agree to sell their shares to a later-stage investor as part of a funding round.

In order to de-risk their investments, VCs rarely invest alone. Instead, they'll join a round where a few investors will put their money in using the same terms. At early stages, when a company has not yet proven itself, the money is more "expensive" for the company and investors get a better price. The expectation is that the company will continue to raise money through increasingly bigger rounds, where the price becomes more favorable to the company and less to investors as the company proves itself in the market. There's no incentive to actually turn a profit; the companies must merely gain value. Often, actually taking money from customers is seen as a point of friction to achieving high valuation growth. (This is one reason why advertising has proven so popular: ads don't ask users to stop and pay for anything before signing up.)

This is risky enough that a very small percentage of companies provide a return to their investors. In turn, investors look for companies that have the ability to become exponentially more valuable. Venture capitalists aren't investing using their own money: they're fund managers who are managing money provided by wealthy individuals, institutions like pension funds, and university endowments. In order to provide a 3X return to their investors, they're looking for companies that can provide more like a 30-40X return to them. All of this is inside a pre-defined time period: usually a venture capital fund is designed to last 8-10 years start to finish.

All of this depends on there actually being other players in your ecosystem: VC investors who can join rounds, companies who can make acquisitions, connectors between them, and a market that can tolerate this kind of insane growth. The incentive isn't to create long-lasting, sustainable companies; it's to create companies that can amass a large amount of value in a short time, and then return that value to their stakeholders. You may have heard of "unicorns" in the startup context: these are private, venture-funded companies that have managed to hit a valuation of a billion dollars or more.

If you're trying to build a sustainable tech ecosystem somewhere new, this might not be the best model to pick. It might be, depending on the characteristics of your location - venture capital certainly has a part to play. But it's worth looking at alternatives.

I'm a huge fan of Zebras Unite - a movement to create a different kind of startup ecosystem. Rather than create unicorns, they're promoting the founding of zebras. As their manifesto puts it:

To state the obvious: unlike unicorns, zebras are real.

Zebra companies are both black and white: they are profitable and improve society. They won’t sacrifice one for the other.

Zebras are also mutualistic: by banding together in groups, they protect and preserve one another. Their individual input results in stronger collective output.

Zebra companies are built with peerless stamina and capital efficiency, as long as conditions allow them to survive.

It's worth double-underlining that while VC is zero-sum - investors are often betting that a company will own an entire market - zebra companies collaborate with each other. When you're trying to establish any kind of community, including a new ecosystem for tech startups, this is a much healthier approach. Nobody's trying to kill each other - they're trying to build something together.

In VC, the incentives are to burn capital quickly in order to rapidly gain value. In the zebra ecosystem, capital efficiency is key: instead of burning money, these companies are attempting to become sustainable while using as few resources as possible. The result is a bias towards profitability.

Wheras an acquisition or exit event releases value into other communities - and possibly straight back to Silicon Valley - profitability ensures that value is retained locally, with few outside strings. These are companies that can call their own shots. And as they grow in value and enrich their founders, they're likely to pay it forward and invest in a new set of local investors.

Clearly, then, this approach needs a new kind of financing that trades the demand for exponential returns for an incentive for profitability - and trades zero sum competition for collaboration.

I think revenue sharing is an obvious route forward. It's beginning to gain traction - for example, I was involved in negotiating Creative Action Network's demand dividend funding. As they put it in their announcement:

Last year, due in part to changes in the retail landscape, and in part to the surge in energy in our artist community post 2016 election, we identified our first real need for outside capital. This time, we knew it wouldn’t be coming from Venture Capital. The problem was, as far as start-up funding sources in the bay area goes, “not VC” isn’t really an option. You can be a non-profit and get grants, you can be established business and get bank loans, or you can be start-up and sell equity in your company to VC’s. Even with impact investors interested in social-impact companies, and with most angel investors acting independently, the core financing infrastructure they rely on is still generally the VC model that puts companies on a path towards exit or bust.

"Exit or bust" is not the only way.

Demand dividend financing pays back investors over time once the company has hit a pre-agreed revenue threshold. There is an equity component: if the company is acquired, the investors see a venture-style return. Otherwise, investors get dividends up to a pre-agreed multiple. Creative Action Network's post notes that this deal was set at 5X, but you can imagine adjusting this and the revenue threshold based on the riskiness of a deal. An early-stage investment might be set at 5X; a later-stage investment might be 3X. (Indie.vc has a similar model with a 3X return.)

Because the startups are incentivized to sustainably make money instead of grow really fast, the theory is that they are more likely to survive. In particular, the company is not expected to grow to a massive size and hit an exit event before the investor's fund runs out of time. Sustainable revenue is hoped for, which puts investors and founders in tighter alignment. The legacy becomes more companies, lasting longer, and making more money for their local economies.

The change in risk profile means that I also think there's less incentive to raise a round with other investors. An investor could theoretically go it alone and make an investment without anyone else's participation. That in turn means that companies may find it easier to raise using this model - and investors may find it easier to realize a return - in ecosystems where there are simply fewer investors and acquirers. As such, it could be a good way to bootstrap a new ecosystem and differentiate it from Silicon Valley. I think this is particularly true in Europe, where the challenges of the market (lots of small, interrelated markets with different rules and languages; investors with a more conservative mindset; privacy rules that rightly discourage growth at all costs) demand a radically different approach.

Because it's not necessarily obvious to anyone who hasn't walked this walk, I think it's important to explicitly call out two important caveats:

1. Startups are more likely to succeed when they're run by their founders, and when they're invested in by people who have built companies before. Hands-on founders win. Any investor that seeks to remove control from a founder, or install their own management oversight, is shooting themselves in the foot.

2. Early-stage investments are vital for any ecosystem. You can't simply wait until companies have proven themselves. Someone has to go first and take a risk - and those really early investors should be rewarded for taking on that greater risk with a significantly better deal.

As technology becomes deeper ingrained in society, having most of it produced in a single region of the world becomes more harmful. Having worked as a founder and investor in Silicon Valley, and as a founder elsewhere, I care deeply about enabling ventures from everywhere in the world. It would have made a world of difference to me to have the level of support Silicon Valley companies enjoy when I was starting out in Edinburgh. (It has come on in leaps and bounds over the last 15 years, but I'm still personally very emotionally invested in that city in particular becoming a better tech community.) And even here, I think it's important to find ways of funding companies that provide an alternative to the prevailing model. Even if it takes some time to refine a model, it's never wrong to try.

Demand dividends and the zebra movements give me hope, both separately and together. Mission-driven founders give me hope. And I believe that - as useful and inspiring as Silicon Valley has been - we will move to a model where tech is made everywhere, by everyone, in a way that is right for them.

Onwards.

 

Basic Attention Token is both good and bad - but hooray for Brave for trying something new

2 min read

I'm quite taken by Brave's Basic Attention Token, which rewards site owners with currency based on the percentage of each user's total attention they have captured. At the same time, I'm also worried about the model.

First, the good: by combining BAT with an ad blocker, Brave compensates publishers for the ad-blocking activity of its users. The users get the upside of not having to see ads, but the publishers don't see the downside of losing the corresponding revenue. Depending on the performance of the token, there's even a possibility that Brave payments will outperform ads. And if this model catches on, the incentives for publishers to track users across the web is diminished. The result is a more transparent web with less surveillance. Great!

So here's the bad: by pro-rating payouts based on the time spent on each site, Brave incentivizes publishers to keep users engaged. These mechanics are why we've seen algorithmic feeds replace reverse-chronological content on sites like Facebook: by showing you posts that will keep you browsing, and hiding topics that you may not want to engage in as much, the networks can increase their revenue. But a side effect is that you see a very skewed version of the world, particularly as emotive, sensationalist content performs better than fact-based pieces. In aggregate, the societal effects are dire

Nonetheless, I'm excited that Brave is trying something new here. Its model feels a bit influenced by Flattr, particularly with respect to tipping users on social networks. I'm intrigued to see if it will catch on. But there's no argument from me that targeted ads are both a negative for society and for the web.

I've signed up for Brave Payments for this site, so reading my posts with Brave will compensate me for writing them. I'll let you know how I get on. And if you want to try Brave, using this referral link will add some affiliate tokens to my wallet.

 

I'm really scared.

2 min read

I have some medical tests today that will help me understand whether I have, or am likely to contract, the condition which runs in my family. I've taken some time and space to help me deal with the emotional impact of this, but it's been easy to run from until today. I woke up sobbing.

On one level, I'm scared for myself. I'm scared of blipping out of my existence, and of my life not having ever meant anything. I'll have been around for a few decades and then I just won't be. Of course, we all have to deal with that at some point, but I hope to have more time. If I'm going to exist, if I'm going to be on this earth and use resources and take up space that could have gone to someone else, I want it to mean something. Maybe this is futile - it almost certainly is - but it's where I am. It's what I want. And I don't think I'm anywhere near there yet.

But that pales into insignificance compared to the fear I feel for the rest of my family. These beautiful, smart, empathetic, creative, generous people with so much to offer. I don't want them to have to succumb to this terrible thing either. And that's why I was sobbing. That's the thing that keeps me up at night.

It's easy to run away. I wrote a blog post this morning, and tweeted some stuff, and went through my feed reader. On Friday, I'll take a train across the country. But this isn't something I can carry with me forever, whatever happens, and it's not something I can take infinite time to deal with. So: tests, to bring me to a place of certainty. And then, therapy; self-care; and spending time with my wonderful friends and family, these amazing people who I'm lucky enough to have in my life - which is the thing that makes life worth living, after all.

And maybe ice cream.

 

Stop building for San Francisco

4 min read

Eric Meyer's post about the unexpected side effects of securing every website is an important read:

The drive to force every site on the web to HTTPS has pushed the web further away from the next billion users—not to mention a whole lot of the previous half-billion.  I saw a piece that claimed, “Investing in HTTPS makes it faster, cheaper, and easier for everyone.”  If you define “everyone” as people with gigabit fiber access, sure.  Maybe it’s even true for most of those whose last mile is copper.  But for people beyond the reach of glass and wire, every word of that claim was wrong.

Overwhelmingly, our software is built by well-paid teams with huge monitors and incredibly fast computers running on a high-bandwidth internet connection. We run MacBook Pros, we have cinema displays, we carry iPhones.

That's not what the rest of the world looks like.

Human-centered design has transformed the way I think about building products: it starts with deep insights about the people you're trying to build solutions for, and then using rapid qualitative testing to determine whether you're on the right track, rather than just starting with technology or attempting to build a solution based on your own intuition. It works. But while we talk a lot about user needs, we don't talk a lot about the technology available to them (or the technology that's likely to be available to them two years from now).

First of all, you need to understand who your audience is, as people. If they're genuinely wealthy people in a first world city, then you do you. But for people in rural areas, or countries with less of a solid internet infrastructure, failing to take these restrictions into account will limit your potential to grow. If you're not building something that is accessible to your audience, you're not building a solution for them at all. That means faster loading times, smaller file sizes, and HTML that at least falls back to displaying clearly on older devices and browsers, including low-cost Android phones.

It all depends on who you want to be able to reach. But if you only want to reach people in San Francisco, I'd strongly argue that you should reconsider. I'd certainly like this blog to be more widely accessible, for example.

In his classic 2015 talk The Website Obesity Crisis, Maciej Ceglowski singled out Medium (a platform where I was an engineer) as being particularly bad:

Or consider this 400-word-long Medium article on bloat, which includes the sentence:

"Teams that don’t understand who they’re building for, and why, are prone to make bloated products."

The Medium team has somehow made this nugget of thought require 1.2 megabytes.

It's easy to forget that this is a problem when you're in a fancy office with a powerful internet connection, a wall-size Lite Brite, and kombucha on tap. To be clear, I had a lovely year there, and it's a team filled with wonderful people, many of whom are still friends. And while it's easy to rag on Medium, my personal website is no better in terms of file size, and arguably probably worse in terms of loading time, because I don't have a fancy CDN to load it from. Not to mention the aforementioned HTTPS.

I'm going to rethink how I could make this site more accessible, and certainly faster to download. (I'll reshare my work as a Known template that others can use.) But this is just a blog, and not my livelihood. If I was in the middle of building a product that I wanted to see wide use, I'd make damn sure I didn't leave billions of people out in the cold.