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I work and write at the intersection of technology, media, and democracy.

I've been a startup founder, mission-driven investor, engineer, and product lead. I just want to help.

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Interviews with media and startup leaders

Pete Mortensen interviews Jane Metcalfe

I’m focusing on the intersection of technology, media, and democracy. Subscribe by email to get every update.

When I was the west coast Director of Investments at Matter Ventures, an early-stage accelerator for media startups with the potential to create a more informed, inclusive, and empathetic society, I co-hosted our podcast. Every week, we’d feature a new interview with a media or startup leader, recorded in front of an audience of entrepreneurs.

They’re all still online, and the conversations are every bit as relevant today. Here are some of my favorites:

Morgan DeBaun, CEO of Blavity: ‌Morgan DeBaun is the CEO and co-founder of Blavity. Together with her co-founders, Morgan figured out how to build a media business that isn’t dependent on a conventional advertising model while also elevating the voices of populations too often shut out of the media — all with a constant focus on mission, on the needs of her audience, and on prototyping toward success. They’ve reinvented media in the spirit of FUBU — for us by us — for a new generation. Inclusion is about more than representation of creators: it’s about owning the means of production, too.

Rebecca Kaden, managing partner, Union Square Ventures: ‌Rebecca is the fourth partner ever to join Union Square Ventures and their first female partner. She spent nearly six years at Maveron prior to USV, and when she sat down with Pete Mortensen, our Director of Program in San Francisco, they shared their experiences about how having a background in liberal arts and journalism can be a superpower in venture capital, especially with early stage startups. Rebecca gets to the heart of how important it is for entrepreneurs to find the right fit when it comes to funding—and it starts with understand the human side of investors.

Jennifer Brandel, CEO of Hearken: ‌Jennifer Brandel, CEO of Hearken and Matter Four entrepreneur, joined us in New York City where she and Roxann Stafford, our Director of Program there, sat down to talk about her “Drunken Walk” as an entrepreneur who really sought to change the way journalists tell stories. Hearken has turned journalism on its head by actually bringing audiences into the reporting process. It provides journalists the tools they need to ask people what they want to know before going out into the field. Hearken really opens up newsrooms to find out the real questions in their communities and create more inclusive content.

Caitlin Kalinowski, currently Head of AR Glasses Hardware at Meta: ‌Caitlin Kalinowski has been a designer at the forefront of cutting-edge technology for over a decade. She got her start at Apple as one of the lead designers on the MacBook Air before she left for Facebook. Now, she is the Head of Product Design at Oculus VR. Caitlin shared her Six Steps to Product Prototyping with a group of Matter Seven entrepreneurs in San Francisco. The talk included everything from advice about how to iterate to how important it is to train people to give negative feedback. The tools she uses as a designer are really aligned with the design thinking process (yes, it’s called that for a reason) that Matter entrepreneurs learn in our 20 week accelerator program.

Jane Metcalfe, CEO at NEO.LIFE: ‌Jane Metcalfe is the founder of NEO.LIFE, an online publication that makes sense of the neobiological revolution. Previously, she co-founded WIRED. As well as WIRED Magazine, the group owned HotBot, the internet’s fastest search engine at the time, invented the banner ad, won numerous awards, and practically invented online publishing. Most importantly, it put a human face on the technology revolution and the people who drove it. In this talk, recorded live in front of an audience of Matter Seven entrepreneurs in San Francisco, Jane discusses building a team packed with world-class talent and giving them the space to do their best work — as well as the role of media in transforming how the world sees entire industries.

Raju Narisetti, currently Leader, Global Publishing at McKinsey: ‌Raju Narisetti is the CEO of Gizmodo Media Group. His journey is inspiring: from a dairy salesman to the head of a digital media group at the heart of Univision. He speaks with Roxann Stafford, Matter's Director of Program in New York, in a fireside chat recorded live with Matter Seven media entrepreneurs. Raju's experience speaks to what we acknowledge at Matter; there is no straight line to success and importance of being true to yourself. Everyone fails forward throughout their careers, and the risks Raju took and the things Raju wished he had done go to show that all of us can embrace imperfection, state our assumptions, test them, and learn.

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Trans students meet with education leaders to discuss fight against anti-LGBTQ+ bills

““I don’t really feel safe anymore. I used to feel safe,” said Maya, a 12-year-old trans girl who traveled to Washington D.C., from Texas with her mom for the meeting.”

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Early Remote Work Impacts on Family Formation

“In absence of time-consuming commutes, remote workers—particularly those living with children—are spending more time on childcare and housework. This increased flexibility and time helped boost birth rates over the pandemic, specifically for wealthier or more educated women.”

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Newsrooms Ponder Whether To Pay For Twitter Blue Checks

“As a company, we do not think it’s a wise use of resources to pay for individuals to retain a blue checkmark that is no different from anyone else’s — an amateur medical expert, Elon stan, or otherwise — who is simply willing to pay the fee for a blue check.”

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The Three-Legged Stool: A Manifesto for a Smaller, Denser Internet

“We believe this moment, when people are so dissatisfied with the platforms that have dominated for the past decade-and-a-half, presents a unique opportunity to build a digital public sphere where people and communities with different preferences and purposes can participate accordingly.”

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Podcast Standards Project

“The Podcast Standards Project is a grassroots industry coalition dedicated to creating standards and practices that improve the open podcasting ecosystem for both listeners and creators.”

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Rising groundwater threatens clean air and water across the US

“As Earth warms, groundwater — long seen as an immutable resource — is in flux. Most often, climate change is associated with a decrease in groundwater, fueled by worsening drought and evaporative demand. But in some areas, this water is actually creeping higher, thanks to rising sea levels and more intense rainfall, bringing a surge of problems for which few communities are prepared.”

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Nashville Shooting Fuels the Right’s Engine of Anti-Trans Hate

“The stakes felt especially high for me to get this story right, because right now, we are working in a media and political environment that is saturated with misinformation and extremist rhetoric about transgender people. I feel very supported by my editor and my colleagues at The 19th News, but I know that most transgender people working in the media either do not have any support or are simply not given full-time employment.”

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EU countries approve 2035 phaseout of CO2-emitting cars

“The EU law will require all new cars sold to have zero CO2 emissions from 2035, and 55% lower CO2 emissions from 2030, versus 2021 levels. The targets are designed to drive the rapid decarbonisation of new car fleets in Europe.”

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Nashville shooting suspect’s gender sets attack apart from most mass shootings

“Amid the confusion, several conservative and far-right media personalities have used the reported identity of the shooter as an opportunity to shift the conversation away from gun control and onto restricting gender-affirming care for transgender people, or simply to focus on anti-trans rhetoric.”

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Guardian owner apologises for founders’ links to transatlantic slavery

“The Scott Trust is deeply sorry for the role John Edward Taylor and his backers played in the cotton trade. We recognise that apologising and sharing these facts transparently is only the first step in addressing the Guardian’s historical links to slavery. In response to the findings, the Scott Trust is committing to fund a restorative justice programme over the next decade, which will be designed and carried out in consultation with local and national communities in the US, Jamaica, the UK and elsewhere, centred on long-term initiatives and meaningful impact.”

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The TikTok ban is a betrayal of the open internet

“Banning TikTok is not, as lawmakers claimed in the hearing, a sign that we’re about to get real tech reform. It will almost certainly be a PR move that lets some of the same politicians who profess outrage at TikTok get back to letting everyone from Comcast to the DMV sell your personal information, looking the other way while cops buy records of your movements or arrest you using faulty facial recognition.”

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How I used GPT-4 to code an idea into to a working prototype

“I used GPT-4 to code a command line tool that summarizes any web page. It felt wonderful to collaborate with AI like this.” I wonder if I could use this with my RSS feeds?

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A spill outside Philadelphia adds to the growing list of chemical accidents this year

“Only three months into the year, there have already been 50 incidents resulting in chemical spills or fires around the United States, according to the Coalition to Prevent Chemical Disasters. Such incidents occur roughly once every two days, the Guardian estimated in a recent analysis of Environmental Protection Agency data spanning several years.” This one directly affected me; I did buy water.

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In praise of Ms Rachel

In our house, Ms. Rachel of Songs For Littles has become a celebrity. She’s also the first YouTuber I’ve looked forward to new videos from since the year the service started - not so much for me, but for our little one, who is enthralled by every word.

The last YouTuber I really followed was lonelygirl15, the fictional web series that started by passing itself off as a vlog but quickly revealed itself to be a darkly dramatic thriller with ARG tendencies about a creepy religious cult (albeit filmed on a shoestring). I’ve never quite trusted a YouTube series since, and it wouldn’t completely surprise me to spot oblique references to Aleister Crowley in the background of one of Ms. Rachel’s songs.

Lately, Ms. Rachel has come under fire from some quarters for mentioning featured songwriter Jules’ preferred pronouns:

Ms. Rachel began receiving backlash early this year because of her work with Jules. As previously mentioned, Jules is nonbinary and uses they/them pronouns … and that is essentially the full extent of the “controversy.” People who identify as “traditional” parents began commenting on Ms. Rachel’s videos and posting on TikTok that they could no longer continue following her because she included Jules in the videos. Many slammed her for introducing “they/them” pronouns to children and stated that Jules’ mere appearance was “enough” for them to turn on Ms. Rachel.

The whole thing is obviously tiresome: the same people who always complain about declaring preferred pronouns are making a fuss again, as if it’s anything but a considerate thing to do.

What’s more remarkable is that Ms. Rachel, alongside her collaborators like Jules, has become a major media personality in a very short time: one whose choices draw criticism from conservative spaces. She’s not affiliated with major any media organization; a Master’s student in childhood education who makes videos from her home using commodity equipment.

That gives me a little bit of hope in this new normal of book banning and militant activism for “traditional” (read: regressive) values. It’s not that Ms. Rachel is notably progressive - although I would be very happy if she was - but she can call her own creative shots as an independent and still find a large audience. As our cultural landscape declines further, this independence will be a great thing.

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Far-right governments everywhere should be resisted. Protests give me hope.

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Daniel Ellsberg, the Man Who Leaked the Pentagon Papers, Is Scared

“The media as a whole has never really investigated the secrecy system and what it’s for and what its effects are. For example, the best people on declassification outside the media, the National Security Archive, month after month, year after year, put out newly disclosed classified information that they have worked sometimes three or four years, 10 years, 20 years to make public. Very little of that was justified to be kept from the public that long, if at all.”

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The Uniquely American Future of US Authoritarianism

“Nearly half of Republicans say they would prefer “strong, unelected leaders” over “weak elected ones,” according to a September Axios-Ipsos poll, and around 55 percent of Republicans say defending the “traditional” way of life by force may soon become necessary. About 61 percent of Republicans don’t believe the results of the 2020 presidential election.”

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I’m more comfortable with LLMs if I think of them as autocomplete for thinking. They don’t reason and aren’t really AI but they can offer decent suggestions. And maybe that’s ok?

The challenge, as with all software, is doing it privately and safely.

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For a period of about a year, and really after my mother’s death in 2021, I made a series of impulsive, very hurtful decisions that (to say the least) don’t live up to the values I talk about every day, and which I genuinely hold dear. As part of this hypocrisy I hurt people I care about very much.

Not writing about it doesn’t mean I’m not sorry about it. My whole life isn’t written on this blog and I’m not a public figure. It’s something that will rightly stay with me for the rest of my life: a way in which I let everyone around me down and caused real harm. My primary responsibility is to my family, and I’m trying to repair those relationships, but it will take years, if it’s even possible at all.

I’m also working on multiple kinds of therapy. There’s an underlying - cowardice? mental block? codependence? - that has meant sometimes I’ve found it difficult to make decisions or take actions that, while correct and ethical, would have made other people unhappy. There’s a split here: I can take those actions at work without fear, but in my personal life, something holds me back in order to manage peoples’ feelings, sometimes to the point of lying. I’m 44 years old and this has had a major impact on my whole life, as well as the people around me who have always had a right to expect better, particularly based on the work I do and what I care about.

There’s a lot I can’t and won’t say in this space, to protect the well-being of people I have already hurt. It will never suffice, and I suspect nothing ever really will (not that this will stop me from trying), but I am truly very sorry.

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Pitch: a private blogging platform for businesses that you log into with Slack or Microsoft Teams, with a built-in RSS reader. New post notifications go to channels or email. Free for a fairly generous initial tier; over 50 blogs, corporate SAML, or ACL requires a subscription.

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Build for you, too

I had a revelation about the book I’m writing at about midnight last night: something that elevates the whole idea and ties it together in a way that I didn’t think I’d even been looking for. It makes the idea more resonant for me, which is what I need to emotionally follow through with a project. I’ve been struggling, and I hope this extra motivational push will help me. It turns it from something I think is a good idea to something that is intensely personal for me. It answers the question why should I write this? in a way that isn’t just because.

This led me to thinking about the software projects I’ve built. It’s all well and good to say that you need to build something that people want - which, of course you do - but that doesn’t answer the question of why you will follow through with it. Why is it meaningful to you?

I’ve worked on many things, but probably the two most prominent projects were something called Elgg and something called Known. Elgg was an open source social networking engine, built for higher education, which was originally inspired by LiveJournal: a place where anyone could post to as big or as small an audience as they wanted, and converse, using any media. Known was more of a publishing platform: something like a decentralized, self-hosted Tumblr that allowed you to build a stream of content that any number of people could contribute to. Perhaps by coincidence, I build them a decade apart.

When I worked on Elgg I had a giant chip on my shoulder. I was much younger, and high school was still relatively fresh in my mind. There, teachers had laughed at my ambitions, and more so, at me. I wanted to prove that I was capable of doing something smart and meaningful. More than that, as a third culture kid, I constantly felt out of sorts: posting online had allowed me to show more of myself and find friends. Creating a platform that allowed other people to do the same also carried the hope that I would meet more people through it. Through the software I made, I hoped I would be seen. It won awards, was translated into many languages, and became relatively influential. Because it was fully open source, any organization could pick it up and use it for free. I felt good about it, and it felt like I had done something good that in some ways justified my existence. My photo is on my high school’s alumni website: I showed those teachers.

In some ways, that motivation carried me through Known, too, although with a new chip: although in the early days I’d written every line of code and designed the core mechanic, I hadn’t been the CEO of Elgg. What if I was? How would that feel? What other choices would be possible? As it turned out, it did not feel good, and I don’t think that particular chip was enough to hang a company off of. Elgg introduced the idea of social media to a higher education context - and then NGOs, followed by corporations. Known didn’t really break any new ground; I wonder now if I just wanted to see what happened if I did it again in a different context. I met people through both projects, but one felt like a company - something that could, theoretically, grow and live beyond me - and the other was always just a project. The personal resonance that Elgg had for me could be felt by others. It’s not that Known wasn’t meaningful for me, but Elgg was on another level, in part because I was in another place in my life.

My next project is a book, not a software product. I’m unapologetic about that. I’m sure I will build another software platform afterwards; I think, eventually, I may even have another startup in me. But regardless of the form or the nature of the project, I think that personal resonance really matters. People notice if you’re just trying to make either a point or a buck; if it’s something that really matters to you, that will come through in the quality of your work, the conviction of your arguments, and the time and effort you spend on it. We’re all human, and creating work that resonates with each other is the best we can hope to do.

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Your reading should be messy

“After years of treating my books as if they ought to be preserved in a museum, I now believe that you should honor the books by breaking them. Read them all so messily! Fold them, bend them, tear them! Throw them into your backpack or leave them open in Jenga-like towers by the side of your bed. Don’t fret about stains or torn edges or covers left dangling off the spine after years of reading.”

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Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, by Gabrielle Zevin

A beautiful novel about work, friendship, love, and identity. I suppose it's about video games too, but not really; it could just as easily be about any creative act. I loved Zevin's writing, the melancholy story, and even the characters (although they've been maligned elsewhere). For me, the work is only diminished by the knowledge that she used concepts from some real-world games (e.g., Train) without credit. It would have been so easy to fix.

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