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Humanist technologist. Equality and adventures.

I co-founded Elgg and Known, worked on Medium and Latakoo, and now invest in innovative media startups to support a stronger democracy at Matter.

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Not taking VC for the wrong reasons

3 min read

I come from open source communities and bootstrapped my first startup for the first few years. I've also been heavily involved in the ethics of data collection and the implications of high-growth models. Although I am one today (albeit at what I consider to be an ethican firm), I understand why people choose to avoid VC.

I'm worried, though, that some people have decided that venture investment is wrong for reasons that don't hold up.

I often see this from first-time founders who are used to having a paid salary that allows them to build product all day. Often, they would like to continue to do the same thing, but on a product that they control. It's a nice idea: frankly, I'd like that too. I'd love to be fully in control of a product I spend all day making.

But there's literally no model that allows you to do this as a full-time founder.

Whether you're bootstrapping, doing an ICO, taking venture investment, crowdfunding or soliciting donations, you still have to do the hard work of actually building a business. The same is true whether you want to make a multi billion dollar business, or whether you want to create something sustainable that pays for you to live well (the dreaded "lifestyle business", which is actually a perfectly fine and honorable thing to build). It's also true, for what it's worth, if you're building a non-profit: how are you going to keep getting enough donations on an ongoing basis so you can make a profit and grow when you need to?

It forces you into some uncomfortable positions - particularly if you've never run a business before. Data-driven testing barely makes sense when you're starting out (how do you get to statistical significance?), but that's what most developers seem to want to do; in fact, a whole bunch of qualitative, real world understanding is required before you write even a line of code. And then you need to keep doing it, while you figure out your growth strategy, your pricing, what your user journey looks like, how you retain users, and so on.

Those aren't things that VC businesses need to work on. That's something every internet business needs to figure out. If you're sitting and building code all day, as fun as that would be, you're doing it wrong. The code exists in service to the business. You need to figure out your core risks and address them: your user risk, your business and financial risk, and finally, your technology risk. You need to be able to build something that people want and which will viably make money - with the time, resources, and expertise at your disposal.

Investors can give you not just the financial runway to figure that out, but also the expertise. They've seen most of this before; they can connect you to people who can help you. The wrong investors will absolutely lead your company to horrible places, but the right ones, who interact with you with a service mindset, will help you achieve your goals - whatever they are.

If you're doing something good, you need to make it sustainable so you can keep doing it. Smart, ethical investment can help with the money, and it can help with the network and skills to actually build your business. Sitting and building product all day absolutely won't.

 

A backdoor to democracy

1 min read

In 2001, I built viral personality tests that for a while were the most  shared content online. In 2016, this same mechanism was used as a backdoor to democracy.

I wrote a piece over on Medium about how Cambridge Analytica created psychographic profiles for 50 million users:

Elections have become information warfare battlegrounds, fought using all of our personal details without our consent. Here, the weapons are vast data silos like Facebook and Twitter, alongside open, anonymous marketplaces for highly targeted advertising.

Read the whole piece here.

 

A day in the life of an engineer turned investor

4 min read

When I talk to former colleagues about my life at Matter, and in particular how much of my day I spend talking to people. As an engineer, maybe I had three meetings a week; these days it's often eight a day. And I love it: as a former founder, I'm excited to meet with hundreds of people who are all working on things they care deeply about - and I'm excited to find them.

This is what yesterday looked like for me:

7am: I finished a blog post draft that will be published on Thursday. I'm excited about intelligent assistants and the shift to ambient computing, and I was able to back up my piece with sources from an internal investment trend document I wrote.

8am: Headed into work, listening to On the Media, my favorite podcast.

9am: Caught up with email. I'm still figuring out a process for this: I get more than I can really handle, and I don't feel good about sending one-line responses.

9:30am: A standup with the team, talking about the day, and any new developments.

10am: I welcomed a group of foreign journalists who were interested in Matter. We talked for an hour about new trends, how we think about products vs teams (hint: we invest in teams), and whether there's still a future for print.

11am and 11:30am: I jumped on the phone with some founders who wanted to learn more about Matter, and whether it would be a good fit for their companies.

12pm: More email, including outreach to some startups that I'm hoping will apply. There are a lot of people out there who don't think of themselves as working on a media startup, but who are exactly what we're looking for, and who could be substantially helped by the Matter program.

1pm: I joined in on a workshop with our Matter Eight teams, thinking about how to pin down the top-down trends that make their startups good investments. Key question: why is now the right time for this venture? Our Directors of Program are, frankly, geniuses at helping people think their way through these kinds of questions, and I'm always excited to learn from them.

2pm: I sat down with the CEOs of one of our portfolio companies to give them some feedback on how they're describing their venture to investors.

3pm: I spoke to another founder who didn't join Matter, but wanted to give me an update about where they were. It's always exciting to hear about how a team has progressed.

3:30pm: I took an audit of our application process on the web. Some applicants drop off while they're filling in the form, and I wanted to know where that might be happening. At the same time, I did some SEO work on the website. (SEO work follows me in every role, wherever I go.)

4pm: I have a personal goal of reaching out to at least five startups a day - so I spent more time doing research and uncovering both communities to visit and events to attend, as well as individual startups that I would love to see join the program.

5pm: Facilitated introductions for some portfolio founders who wanted to meet certain investors. I always do double blind introductions, asking the investors first if they want to connect. Then I turned to going over our applicants, reading through their decks, and doing some research on their markets and founders.

7pm: I went home to eat.

8pm: I caught up on my RSS subscriptions, reading about the various industries and founders I'm interested in.

There's no time for coding anymore - but there's a lot to do, and I couldn't be happier to support these amazing founders. If that's you, applications are open now.

 

The GNU Peaceful General Public License

3 min read

I've been thinking a little bit about repurposing of software. One line I've always said I won't cross - inspired by one of the original investors in Elgg, who said the same thing - is that I won't build software that will be used directly or indirectly to kill people. That rules out working on defense contracts, or anything involving weaponry.

The trouble is, software can be repurposed. You could write an algorithm that identifies objects in photographs in order to improve search results, for example, and come into work one day to discover that it could be used for drone targeting. Algorithms can be used for evil. (I would argue that drones, at anybody's hand, fit the definition of "evil".)

I mentioned this on Twitter this morning, and Julien Genestoux made a really important point:

 Open source software can be used by anyone for anything, as long as the four freedoms are adhered to:

The freedom to run the program as you wish, for any purpose (freedom 0).

The freedom to study how the program works, and change it so it does your computing as you wish (freedom 1). Access to the source code is a precondition for this.

The freedom to redistribute copies so you can help your neighbor (freedom 2).

The freedom to distribute copies of your modified versions to others (freedom 3). By doing this you can give the whole community a chance to benefit from your changes. Access to the source code is a precondition for this.

There is nothing to prevent unethical use of the software. This is a real gap: while I applaud the principles of freedom at work in open source licensing, I would be appalled if Elgg or Known or anything else I'd written were used to cause harm to others. I want no part in that.

Specific modifications to open source licenses exist to achieve certain goals. For example, if software is released under the GNU Affero Public License, running it on a server for people to use counts as redistribution, and any modifications to the code must be made public.

So what if there was a version that refused use for military / defense applications? That would allow software to continue to be used freely, but would deny the license to anyone directly working for, or contracted by, military or defense organizations. Those parties would need to negotiate a specific license, allowing the softare vendor to make decisions on a case by case basis.

The license wouldn't be universal - not everyone has the same objections I do. But for developers like me, it would provide some peace of mind.

 

How we run the Matter application process using Typeform, AirTable, Zapier and Slack

7 min read

Applications for Matter Nine are open. It's my job - together with my New York City counterpart, Josh Lucido - to run the process, source candidates, and find the twelve teams that will walk through our San Francisco garage door on August 13.

We get many hundreds of applications for every class, which almost all arrive via our website. The trick is to ensure that everyone is handled fairly, robustly, and with transparency internally to the team. Nothing happens based on a whim, and nobody can fall through the cracks.

Inspired by Nick Grossman's piece about how Union Square Ventures ran their analyst application process, I thought it might be interesting to show off how we're using a collection of tools to drive our Matter accelerator application process.

The application form

The entire application to our accelerator takes place on a single form. We don't ask for a video, although we do want to see links to external resources like your website - and we definitely want to see a deck.

We've used Typeform to power our application form for years. The interface is both simple and pleasant to use. For a while, we had it embedded on our site, but a few users reported that the embed didn't work well on mobile devices, so I decided to link directly to the form instead.

Although the form is designed to be quick to fill in, we ask for a lot of information that will be useful to us as we make our decisions. (It's early stage, so these answers are more than likely imperfect, and that's fine.) Do you know who your user is? Who is the team, and can you execute? What is the mission, and why is that important? What are the trends that make this the right time to start this venture? How do you think you'll make money? We also ask diversity and inclusion questions to help us track our progress on our goal to build a more diverse and inclusive kind of startup community.

All of this data is used to make decisions in the sourcing process individually. It's also used in aggregate to examine trends in the startups that apply to us, and to help us figure out where the gaps in our sourcing might be, as well as how to iterate our process.

So storing it in a way that can be analyzed easily is vital. I don't have time to write my own scripts, and the investments team shouldn't need to have a computer science degree or know how to code in order to do this.

Luckily, AirTable exists.

The database

AirTable looks like a spreadsheet (at least, by default), but is much more like a database. Datasets are split up into "bases", which each contain "tables". Each table in a base can reference each other. And while a traditional database might have field types like text and integers, AirTable adds file-sharing, images, tagging, spreadsheet-style formulae, and a lot more.

Our ecosystem base has two core tables: People and Companies. These contain all the people and all the companies in Matter's ecosystem; not just those who have come through the application process.

To that, we add Applications and Assessments. Almost every question from our form is represented here. For example, we use a tag field (technically a "multi-select") for the areas of focus for the venture, a text field for a link to the deck, and long-text for the qualitative questions.

Our form asks about each member of the team, and these are represented in the People table. Similarly, the startup itself is added to the Company table. Each Application links to a Company, which in turn links to several People. That way, if a company applies to several classes, we can easily see each of them, and see how the company has evolved from one application to the next.

Because AirTable allows us to view a table using a Kanban view, we can easily create a view that starts applications in Inbox, allows us to drag them to Under Consideration, Invite for Pitch, and so on. It looks like this (I've hidden our actual applicants, and there are closer to 15 statuses in total):

 

 

For every single startup that applies, we assess the applicant using a special set of questions that we also use in our Design Reviews throughout the program itself. The answers to these questions get stored in the Assessment table, which links to the Application table. AirTable lets us structure this as a form, which I keep linked from my browser bookmarks tab:

 

(This is a subset of the questions.)

So to assess an incoming application, and at each stage of the application process, each reviewer's feedback is captured on the form, which is them recorded in AirTable. The investment team meets every week to decide who to advance through the process, based on the feedback.

Connecting Typeform to AirTable (and letting us know about it)

I built a Zapier zap to automatically translate incoming applications from Typeform into AirTable (as well as to notify us in a special investments-incoming channel in Slack).

It looks at the company in the application; if it doesn't already exist in AirTable, it builds a new entry in Companies. Otherwise, it updates the existing one.

It looks at each individual in the startup; if they don't already exist in AirTable, it builds new entries in our People table. Otherwise, it updates the existing ones.

And finally, it always creates a new Application entry, sets the Status to Inbox, and sends a summary of the information to Slack, so we're immediately notified that something new has come in.

In summary

We can now track every application for every company, including all our assessment notes, from a simple interface that also allows us to perform operations on the quantifiable information we capture. From this, we could theoretically create live dashboards that chart our process; we can (and do) also create static summaries of how our applications pool breaks down across themes, stages, team skills, intersectional diversity and inclusion statistics, and more.

I wish some of these steps were easier (for example, if AirTable's own forms were prettier, we might not need to use Zapier etc at all). And there are definitely things we could improve. Still, it's a robust process that allows us to run a very competitive application process in a data-driven way using a small team.

In the future, this structure will allow us to add new interfaces - for example, why not apply to Matter with a conversational chatbot? - that talk to this AirTable back-end. We can also easily perform experiments with the application process to make it more streamlined, brand application forms for specific events or partnerships, or better support certain communities.

In particular, I've been incredibly impressed with AirTable, and I've started recommending it to everyone. I'd love to hear your experiences.

And of course: Applications are open. Join Matter Nine today.

 

Blogging and newsletters

2 min read

I'm doing a lot more writing on my own blog this year. Writing has always helped me think through a problem space and socialize ideas; it's a good way to get feedback on something you're thinking about early. Unlike an article or a project, a blog is deliberately imperfect, and it works best if you do it regularly.

I'm not a lone blogger. There's something nice about reading my news feed away from the noise of social media (and on a reverse-chronological stream rather than somebody's algorithm), and I find myself learning about things I never would have otherwise discovered. It's a struggle - social media absolutely is addictive - but it's really worth it.

Here's my reading stack:

I use NewsBlur to power my subscriptions. It's $36 a year, and absolutely worth it. One great feature is that it allows you to subscribe to email newsletters: you can create a Gmail filter to forward your newsletters to a special address, and essentially keep them confined to a special inbox.

Because the reader ecosystem is pretty open, a few native apps are available. I've settled on Reeder for my Mac and iPhone; it's slick and gets out of my way. (The mobile app is $4.99 and the desktop app is $9.99.)

I'm trying my best to only follow individuals for now, but I expect I'll start adding some particularly insightful corporate / startup blogs over time. I'd love to hear recommendations.

Finally, I've noticed that Fred Wilson (who has blogged every single day for years) also allows readers to subscribe to his posts via email. If I'm going to continue to write on a regular basis, this seems like a pretty good idea; sadly the RSS ecosystem, as wonderful as it is, is very far from being mainstream at this point. He uses Feedblitz, and I'm thinking of giving that a try too. I'd love to hear whether you'd find that useful.

 

WebSkills - a proposal for open intelligent assistants

3 min read

It's clear at this point that intelligent assistants - and more broadly, ambient computing devices that you interact with naturally, rather than holding like a smartphone or laptop - are going to play an important part in our digital future.

Of the platforms doing the rounds at the moment, I'm most excited by Alexa, because of its relative openness: Amazon has made it available as an operating system for manufacturers, so it'll start showing up in cars and offices, and they've treated their product line-up as a series of proofs of concept. Nice.

Still, you need to plug Alexa Skills (their name for apps) through their APIs in a relatively closed way. Back-end deals need to be done for new functionality, and so on.

What if that didn't need to be the case? Picture this:

1. I'm using my favorite web service. It lets me know that I can install its functionality into my WebSkills-compatible intelligent assistant, either using UI on the site itself, or through a strip at the top of the page, a bit like how Safari on the iPhone tells you about relevant apps. I push the button, because I'd love to be able to talk to this service whenever I need.

2. My device prompts me to make sure I want to authenticate with this skill and install it in my assistant. Sure I do.

3. What's actually happening is that an endpoint, referenced in the website's HTML through a <link rel="webskill" href="..." trigger="service name"> tag, is being registered with my device. (No, trigger isn't a valid link propertt right now, but bear with me.) The trigger is the unique service word that can be used to trigger the request. For example, if the trigger was "Wolfram Alpha", the request to the assistant might be of the form, "Alexa, ask Wolfram Alpha what is the GDP of Bhutan?"

4. When a request is made, the intelligent assistant looks to see if the trigger word has been registered. It then calls the associated URL from the link tag using a GET request with a q property that contains the full text of the request.

5. The endpoint returns either text to be read out, or the contents of a WAV or MP3 audio file. The intelligent assistant dutifully plays this out.

This is one example of a simple mechanism that would allow any provider on the internet to add intelligent assistant skills in a cross-platform way. It's unsophisticated, but it would allow a thousand intelligent assistant platforms to bloom, with the web at their core, rather than a few monopolistic platforms.

I'd love feedback! It's easy to talk about these kinds of projects, but talk is cheap, so my next plan is to build a proof of concept.

 

Stellar as a platform (not a speculative investment)

2 min read

I'm starting to more closely follow developments over at Stellar. The platform forked from Ripple a few years ago, and while the former has made hard connections to a bunch of traditional banks (Santander, UBS, American Express are all partners), the latter is trying to create a genuine platform that can be used to underpin a variety of real services that allow people to quickly move funds in a decentralized way, including across borders.

As a result, one of its areas of interest is helping to support the underbanked. That absolutely piques my interest: if services can be built to lift people out of poverty in a non-predatory way (that last part is key), it's a genuine good for the world. LALA, which helps migrants send funds back to their unbanked families, is one such service that just announced it'll be using the platform.

Open Garden is another: a way for people to share internet connections with each other. You share your internet via your phone's wifi hotspot, and earn value that can in turn be traded to use someone else's bandwidth while you're on the move. Theoretically, this should prevent people from taking without also contributing to the network.

A lot has been made of its partnerships with IBM and Deloitte; Stripe is also on the list - and has been since the beginning - which implies some interesting payment integration possibilities in the future. Of course, it might also just be watching the market.

But what's most exciting to me is the advisory board: the founders of WordPress and Stripe are both represented, as is the Director of the Apache Software Foundation, and Sam Altman from Y Combinator. That's a solid combination of platform builders, openness experts, and startup supporters.

I do have a small number of Lumens (840 at the time of writing; my only cryptocurrency holding), because I decided I wanted to learn more about the space. I'm very turned off about speculative cryptocurrency investments; it's just not something that's interesting to me, in the same way that hedge fund trading is not in any way my bag. What I've always cared about is open platforms that have a positive societal impact, and I think that's what Stellar has the potential to be. Once the Wall-Street-like crypto buzz has died down, these are the things that will matter.

 

 

Edinburgh, Austin, San Francisco - a startup tale of three cities

3 min read

I sometimes tell the story of the three places where I’ve been involved in founding startups.

in Edinburgh, the cost of living was low, and I never worried about healthcare. I don’t think I would have founded a startup, or entered this world, without these kinds of democratic socialist protections. But at the same time, everybody told me it would never work and that I should get a real job. And although it’s changed since, in 2003 there was absolutely no infrastructure for starting this kind of business: precious little money or expertise.

in Austin, there was a lot of enthusiasm; very little “get a real job”. But with the exception of certain pockets, my perception is that investors were primed for more traditional businesses, and didn’t quite have the risk appetite or the value-add in terms of expertise they could offer. (This is changing rapidly, too.)

In San Francisco, there’s money and expertise everywhere. You can get funded and have coffee with people who have been on the journey many times before. Sometimes, you bump into those people in the burrito line. It’s a completely different universe. But, correspondingly, the cost of living is much higher and it’s harder to stand out, because there are a million other startups vying for everybody’s attention.

It’s not quite Goldilocks and the Three Bears, but it’s not three even choices, either.

I don’t think it’s possible to build a technology business and not at least visit the Bay Area regularly. Should you live here full time? I’m actually not sure - although you’re maximizing your opportunities for serendipitous meetings, the whole area is absolutely beautiful, and everyone’s really just a short walk away, you’re also meaningfully shortening your runway. There are lots of people here who don’t work in startups, so it’s absolutely possible to stay grounded, but some people only travel in those circles, and that’s an existential danger, too. And obviously there are the people who are only in it for the hope of VC money, absolutely everywhere.

Like everything, I think you’ve got to work out what’s best for you, your team, and your mission. But start with the individuals. What nourishes you? What kind of place will make you feel supported even when things are going wrong? Where does your joy come from, and where can you be in a place that makes you feel passionate about something, where you feel like being human is beautiful and not something flawed that needs to be improved? Where will you not just work best, but live best?

I’ve found that here, but it’s different for everyone. Start there and work backwards.

 

On Holocaust Memorial Day

2 min read

It’s easier than ever to understand how the Holocaust happened. As many have said, it doesn’t start with concentration camps and gas chambers; it starts with scapegoating, labeling certain groups as inferior, and reducing their rights. It starts with bigotry. And standing by in silence, which is a quiet bigotry all of its own.

The Holocaust was legal. It’s the clearest example of how justice isn’t the same as the law, and how standing up for what’s right is not the same as upholding what is legally allowed.

The people who were silent were patriots. They believed in their country. They believed they were putting Germany first. They didn’t question their leaders because they believed in the greatness of their nation. Or, worse, they just didn’t want to care about “politics”.

After the war, principles were established. If you don’t question authority - even as a soldier - you are complicit. If you’re asked to be part of a war crime, or if a war crime is the path of least resistance, you must refuse. Everyone has agency and you don’t get to hide behind superiors. Soldiers have commanding officers; civilians have peer pressure and social norms.

It’s worth asking, in 2018, what you would do if you saw any group marginalized in the way people of Jewish descent were in Germany in 1933. What would you say? Where would you march? To what lengths would you go to preserve democracy and equality?

Because it’s up to all of us. It always is.

 

It's two minutes to midnight, for real

2 min read

For 71 years, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists has used a clock to represent how close we are to armageddon. Midnight represents the end of human civilization. And today they brought it closer to midnight than it's ever been: just two minutes away.

In the United States, Russia, and elsewhere around the world, plans for nuclear force modernization and development continue apace. The Trump administration’s Nuclear Posture Review appears likely to increase the types and roles of nuclear weapons in US defense plans and lower the threshold to nuclear use. In South Asia, emphasis on nuclear and missile capabilities grows. Conventional force imbalances and destabilizing plans for nuclear weapons use early in any conflict continue to plague the subcontinent.

This is closer than during the Cuban Missile Crisis or any moment in the Cold War since 1947 - which sounds surreal, or melodramatic, even. But here we are.

Somehow we've moved away from global peace and diplomacy to a world full of posturing, inequality, and isolationism. The only way to turn back the clock is to bridge divides and create a more inclusive, empathetic society once again: one where everybody has the ability to prosper and the emphasis is on the global human experience, not the exceptionalism of just one nation.

Turning back the clock is all of our jobs.

 

 

Eventually, every app builds for the web. Here's why.

2 min read

Snapchat is letting users share some stories to the web:

By opening up Stories to the web, Snap envisions a way for content on its platform to go more broadly viral — the way Twitter and Instagram posts have captured real-time news and cultural events. News organizations, for example, could link to Snapchat Stories on the web, while celebrities will be able to share their personal Snaps outside of the app.

This is exactly why every social app will eventually allow users to share to the web. A crucial part of every user journey is discovery: that touch point where someone discovers your service for the first time. Building something slick and assuming users will just show up is a massive mistake: they simply won't.

In the name of growth, and because it's a genuinely useful feature, every social service eventually allows you to share content with people who haven't signed up yet. And when you do share to someone who doesn't have the app installed yet, there are really two possibilities:

1. They get a page telling them to install the app.

2. They get a preview of the content that they would experience using the app.

Speaking for myself, I would never randomly install an app from a share - or at least, the barrier is much, much higher. Most people carefully guard what they install on their phones. But if I click through and see some great, personal content without needing to install the app - and then I see more and more of it over time, perhaps via Twitter or Facebook, but potentially sent to me via IM or email - I'm much more likely to install the app and sign up myself. That's the growth story for Instagram. A version of it was the growth story for YouTube. And even Twitter, back in the old days, had amazing web embeds that started to show up on peoples' blogs.

Sharing an experience without asking you to install software is something only the web can do.

It's a sign that Snapchat wants to grow faster and build a much larger audience. It's also a sign that it's growing up beyond what was an exclusive, and slightly obtuse, social network into something it wants everybody to use. Such is the path of every social network.

 

 

Decentralized paid subscriptions for independent publishers

3 min read

A real problem that needs to be solved is making it easier to subscribe to independent publishers putting out great, regular content. Online magazines, blogs, podcasts, etc. Independence and autonomy are important, but discovery and ease of use are too.

RSS is a pretty ancient technology, but it's in far more use than you'd think. For example, every podcast runs on RSS. There are a lot of sites that use MRSS behind the scenes, to power portals like AOL News, and to ingest multimedia content in back-end systems. Readers are largely gone, but not the backbone technology.

What RSS is missing is authentication. Knowing who the user is would allow for more personalized experiences, and it would also allow publishers to add business models to monetize their distributed content.

So what if we added OAuth 2.0 as a really simple auth layer, so that content providers could accurately assess who was requesting a feed, podcast, etc?

Add three new tags to the RSS feed:

  • The URI of the OAuth endpoint
  • A human-readable URI where an authenticated user can pay to subscribe or manage their account
  • Whether this feed contains premium content or not (maybe a label for the content level - "free" / "subscribed")

This way, a compatible feed reader / podcast client could tell a user if it's possible to subscribe to get premium content. They could auth the user (possibly allowing them to register with the publisher) and point to a subscription page.

From then on, the reader makes a signed request whenever it looks for the feed. The publisher is responsible for figuring out whether to serve premium content or not based on the user's identity.

The publisher gets to decide which CMS to use, which payment provider to use, how much to charge, etc etc - they retain full autonomy. If they want to use Stripe; fine. Bitcoin; whatever. The only major standardization point is authentication itself.

The market is then open to anyone who wants to create a hub for finding content. Publishers might pay the hub to promote their sites - or lots of business models are possible. But paid subscriptions are baked into apps and readers, and are totally under the publisher's control.

Everyone gets to have their own website and content model. Everyone gets to have a standard way of pointing to a built-in revenue model, and decide what that is.

Imagine if Apple News, Flipboard, Medium, and maybe even the Facebook news feed, as well as hundreds of independent apps, could all feed directly into independent publisher revenue streams.

Anyway, just a thought I've been having. Thought I'd share.

 

This piece was originally a tweetstorm.

 

The news industry needs to wake up and join the web

4 min read

Emily Bell has a timely opinion piece in The Guardian today about Facebook's ethical responsibility with respect to news:

Facebook’s retreat from news, and the complexities of taking responsibility for the type of content circulating on its platform, has many implications for press organisations in the US and Europe, but at least in rich, western democracies, its actions can be mitigated by other strategies. In countries such as the Philippines, Myanmar and South Sudan and emerging democracies such Bolivia and Serbia, it is not ethical to plead platform neutrality or to set up the promise of a functioning news ecosystem and then simply withdraw at a whim.

Yes, Facebook needs to recalibrate itself and understand the responsibilities that go alongside its position. But in so much news commentary there's a subtext that megasilos like Facebook, and the internet as a whole alongside them, are some unmovable force of nature that require a reactive response.

The internet is an open platform evolving through collaborative means. The web is open source. All of the paradigms we've come to use across software have evolved over time, one set of developers iterating on ideas created by another, iterated upon by another set, and so on. Standards on the web are open source. New movements and innovations are typically created by very small groups of people, failing fast and prioritizing running code over consensus, which are then codified by working groups that themselves are made of loose federations of people.

Yes, Facebook et al deeply need to understand their responsibility to democratic society and adjust their objectives in that light. But the news industry need to deeply grok that it isn't subject to the whims of the internet. If organizations lean in, they can materially help shape the platforms that have disrupted their businesses. They're not doomed to be outsiders; they are welcome to join.

At the beginning of Emily's piece, she notes:

The homepage is back, and not just for those chronically old people over 40, but for every news organisation that wants to survive falling off the great Facebook cliff of 2018.

The homepage's return is a very good thing. Any information business needs to have control over its platform. Returning to the feed economy and innovation around new ways to subscribe to information will also be good; let a thousand reader services bloom. I'm still waiting for the first decentralized reader with integrated subscription or per-item content payments, but those are the kinds of developments we need. And they're the kinds of developments that need to have publisher voices included - or even to be driven by publisher organizations.

Why were news organizations so dependent on one company's algorithmic policies to begin with? Yes, they capitulated to insane supplier power, and yes, it looks like a horrible decision in hindsight (as well as to those of us who worked in open technology at the time). But their business models were collapsing, and it was an easy answer. Most of us would probably have made similar decisions under similar pressures. But it's time to move on.

Publishers need to be supporting and collaborating with teams building products, perhaps through organizations like Matter (selfish plug, but also, the partner program really works). They need to be supporting the evolution of technology platforms by joining organizations like the W3C and participating in groups like WHATWG.

And finally, they need to start collaborating by building the software they want to see in the world, under an open source license, in a way that allows all of them to benefit. It's not about building something that draws a direct profit; instead, they can help create an ecosystem that better supports their current businesses, and provides a clearer framework for supporting them as their businesses evolve into the future. They need to hire teams to build an ecosystem that holistically supports them, and in turn, democracy.

Because honestly, Facebook has put journalism in peril. And there's no such thing as democracy, or freedom, without it.

 

 

Bad UX and the Hawaii missile scare

2 min read

It turns out that the origin of the missile scare that terrified Hawaii the other day was a poor UX choice. Instead of triggering a test alert, a civil defense employee accidentally triggered a real one - which then wasn't rescinded for 38 minutes:

Around 8:05 a.m., the Hawaii emergency employee initiated the internal test, according to a timeline released by the state. From a drop-down menu on a computer program, he saw two options: “Test missile alert” and “Missile alert.” He was supposed to choose the former; as much of the world now knows, he chose the latter, an initiation of a real-life missile alert.

He "feels terrible", according to reports. I bet.

It reminded me of a UX story that was relayed to me by a university advisor.

My computer science dissertation was on accident reporting: I built a system that allowed you to log events that led to an accident, and then draw weighted causal links between them (using primitive JavaScript, because this was 2001). You could then determine the root causes of an incident using graph theory, often revealing issues that might not have been obvious.

This particular advisor had been involved in assessing the incident at Three Mile Island. The controls to shut down the reactor were, as you might imagine, in a prominent, protected place in the operations room, to avoid accidental shutdowns. It wasn't quite a big red button, but it was close. Which was all fine, until a maintenance officer had to change the overhead bulb: they were observed climbing onto the console and placing their feet on either side of the shutdown control.

I don't know how true the story is, but it's good even if it's just a parable. Observing your user and understanding their context is vital if you're going to design something for them. That's particularly important if the consequences could be life or death, when surprising insights can mean the difference between war and peace.

I feel really awful for the people of Hawaii. I'm also not at all keen on the Cold-War-esque atmosphere that seems to be ratcheting up. May cooler heads prevail.

 

Facebook is deprioritizing news posts, and that's great!

3 min read

A lot has been said about Facebook's upcoming changes to its news feed, which will downgrade posts from Facebook Pages and news publishers in favor of people you actually know. Facebook stock fell 4.5% in response: not a lot, but enough to be felt.

It's easy to see why they're changing their strategy here, even though it will result in shorter visits to Facebook and fewer ad dollars spent in the short-term. In addition to having been instrumental in the Brexit referendum and the instrument for foreign actors hoping to sway the US election (not to mention a propaganda weapon for the likes of Duterte), passively reading your Facebook feed makes you feel bad. Over time, that can only result in fewer people using the service. (It's also worth noting that linking itself so tightly to journalism may cause it difficulties in China.)

Publishers are variously up in arms. Digiday's post was particularly alarmist:

The end is nigh. Facebook is planning a major change to its news feed, starting as early as next week, that will decisively favor user content and effectively deprioritize publishers’ content, according to three publishers that have been briefed by the platform ahead of the move.

The end is nigh. Later on in the piece, one anonymous publishing executive is quoted as saying, "we're losing hope".

But I don't think any of this fear is warranted. This is the web, and Facebook isn't the only game in town. Publishers are already diversifying away from it in order to acquire readers, strengthening their businesses in the process. Facebook's monopolistic supplier power has been overwhelming for the last few years, and the result has not just been felt in the publishing businesses themselves, but in democratic society. A change is long overdue.

Some good thought experiments for web technologists in publishing houses are: what does it look like to retake control of our distribution? How can we work with other publishers, as well as startups and technology companies, to make reading the news easy and fun? We've been hacking the monolithic social network model to be a news distributor for the last decade, but what else is already out there, and who can we work with?

There's a lot out there, from new kinds of technologies explicitly designed for distribution that gives publishers more control, to new ways to pay for content, to interesting new platforms for discovery. And this is before we consider new paradigms like ambient computing (Alexa etc), AR and VR, which are all on the up.

Overall, a lot is possible on the web, if you speak to experts, understand your audience (and your potential audience) deeply, and approach distribution with an innovation mindset.

And to think, not so long ago, publishers were contemplating moving themselves wholesale onto Facebook itself. What a disaster that would have been.

 

This isn't just investing.

2 min read

It's been a long week of 8am starts and 8pm finishes. It's such a privilege to do this job. When I started, I met a VC investor who told me I'd lose my idealism because I'd realize investing was just moving money around. But that's not what we do.

We take people who want to make the world more informed, more inclusive, and more empathetic. We support them with a little bit of money, yes, but more importantly, we plug them into a community and a structured program to help them be more effective in reaching that goal.

When these ventures grow, they have more and more influence. Hearken is changing the way news organizations serve the public on a grander and grander scale. NextRequest is making government more transparent. It's a privilege just to know these people. There have been 61 of these companies (so far).

In the last few months I've spoken to hundreds of teams, all of whom share this goal. 2017 was a tough year, but it was made so much better by meeting so many people who wanted to make a more empathetic, inclusive, informed world.

I can't believe I get to do this. Honestly, I can't. It's a privilege and an honor to get to meet the people I do and learn from them (as well as the incredible team I get to work with).

I'm profoundly grateful.

 

Seeing pitches as a former founder

2 min read

I've been seeing a lot of presentations lately as part of the run-up to Matter Eight, and thinking a lot about my experience as an investor vs as a founder. I think there's a longer piece on this that I should write.

I actually applied to Matter twice (once with Known, and once with Wavelist, a social network for podcasts) and got to the finalist round in both cases. Known was, of course, funded, and I've been a part of the community ever since.

The result of that experience - and the other two startups I either co-founded or had a core part in running - is that I can't help but put myself in the shoes of anyone who's pitching me. It's hard. It's nerve-wracking. It can feel really awful. And the truth is that if you don't get funded, it's not a value judgment on your project; it just might not be a fit.

It might also be that the investor, or one of their partners, is wrong about something core about the venture - not because you described it badly (although storytelling skills are vital), but because of assumptions they have. We've started running mini bias training sessions before each day of pitches to try and prevent this. But declaring your core assumptions and justifying them is a really smart thing to do - at least then you can have an informed conversation about them.

Anyway. Seeing pitches is the best part of my job, but making decisions is the hardest - I ideally would love to support everyone. In most cases I can see the potential, and I can definitely empathize with what the founder is going through.

 

Insta capitalism

2 min read

Fascinating story about Instagram dropshippers by Alexis C. Madrigal in The Atlantic:

Ganon searches out some lion-themed objects, including the one that he anticipates making the most money from, a gold-plated lion bracelet that he puts on sale for $0. He gives some tips for finding popular dropshippable items, too. He sorts Shopify-hosted sites by traffic with myip.ms, and then digs below the most popular stores, which generally sell products they make themselves. Deeper into the top 1000 stores, there are dropshippers reselling Aliexpress goods, just like Ganon is, so if can ferret out what products are selling at high-performing stores, he can siphon off some of those dollars. All he’d need to do was do reverse image searches to find the listings in Aliexpress, suck those products in with Oberlo, and he could effectively clone the store in a few minutes.

There's nothing particularly new about any of this, but I've seen an uptick in ads for these Everlane-lite products in my Instagram feed and had wondered what the model is.

I'm curious about the effectiveness of the storytelling involved: one store discusses a founder who "had a constant desire to present himself well but didn’t believe fashion and style should come with such a high price". I don't think I could count the number of times I've seen an online store with a founder story like this. It never came across as authentic, but over time the bullshit factor surely becomes overpowering.

Also, importantly: the cross-platform techniques described aren't going to work under the GDPR, because they heavily depend on targeted advertising. Embedding a Facebook pixel in your Shopify site is going to necessarily be a thing of the past, at least in Europe. So hounding someone with ads because they happened to visit a product page on a website may become a thing of the past, forcing marketers to find more authentic and user-friendly ways of reaching potential customers.

This seems like such a soulless way to build a business, and if these aren't technically scams, they sit on the very blurry edge of the border of scamland. I won't be sad if, through a combination of legislation, better privacy features, and new business models, this kind of dropshipping becomes a footnote in the history of social media; just one more reason why targeted advertising is insanely bad.

 

Designing consent for the GDPR is onerous - and that's a good thing

3 min read

PageFair has some really interesting GDPR consent designs:

In late 2017 the Article 29 Working Party cautioned that “data subjects should be free to choose which purpose they accept, rather than having to consent to a bundle of processing purposes”. Consent requests for multiple purposes should “allow users to give specific consent for specific purposes”. Rather than conflate several purposes for processing, Europe’s regulators caution that “the solution to comply with the conditions for valid consent lies in granularity, i.e. the separation of these purposes and obtaining consent for each purpose”.

The sample wireframes they've come up with are hilariously onerous, and Europeans will have to opt in on every single site where data is collected. The result will be that almost nobody agrees to give their information universally across all sites, which is the current status quo (because right now, nobody's being asked for anything).

As David Carroll points out on Twitter, it's a fairer negotiation:

I see two big wins from this:

1: Constraints breed innovation. In order to allow advertising and tracking companies to continue to survive, they will need to become more compliant very quickly. We're going to see a new breed of technologies that respect user privacy.

2: More importantly, we're going to see publishers and platforms move to different business models. I'm particularly excited about this. Targeted display advertising has been a catch-all business model for a long time, and the GDPR removes this lazy route to monetization. Everyone is going to need to think harder and more carefully about how they make money - and the result is likely to be something that aligns readers and publishers (or users and platforms). Display ads do the opposite, as the arms race between ad companies and ad blockers has shown.

Sure, there's an argument to be made that the EU shouldn't be interfering with the digital economy in the way that they are, but I think it's dead wrong. Government should be adjudicating and legislating around issues like privacy. I strongly suspect that similar legislation will make its way to the US and other countries - and either way, this is the internet, so the effects will be felt worldwide.

 

Skeptically dabbling in cryptocurrency

2 min read

I've been pretty cynical about cryptocurrency, not least because of a lot of the community around it. It's hard for me to get excited about something when it presents as bro-fessionally as crypto does. But it turned out over New Year that a $20 joke investment in Dogecoin that I made in 2014 was worth almost $500 - so I decided to pull it out and invest it in a "real" currency to see what all the fuss was about.

Eventually I identified Stellar Lumens as something that fit the bill for me: a kinda sorta fork of Ripple that has a much more palatable governance model and ambitions. The project is trying to make it easy to build global financial applications for humans, and one of their stated goals is to help immigrants send money back to their families. Okay. That sounds interesting to me.

But to get my funds there, I had to sign up to a bunch of services that all made me feel like they were going to take my money and run. I needed to convert Dogecoin into Ethereum, then move it to another exchange, convert it to Lumens, and then withdraw it into my own private wallet. Various exchanges went down while I was doing this, and none of them made me feel at all safe. It looks like I made it under the wire with at least one, which has decided to close registrations for new users.

Stellar has done okay since then: I'm up, but not by a lot.

Contrast with Coinbase, which provides a beautiful, safe-feeling interface for Bitcoin, Ethereum and LightCoin. It makes trading those currencies significantly easier - and it and related services are likely partially responsible for their value. User experience leads to real value, and it'll be interesting to see the effect if and when it adds others. (I'm sure they're aware of this.)

My bigger question is: is this socially useful in any way, or should we be worrying about bigger things?

 

Changing how I post in 2018

1 min read

This year, I’m moving back to blogging on a regular basis. Blog posts are shorter than full-length articles, and usually contain some brief thoughts around an issue or a link. I’ve been blogging since 1998, but sadly not in a consistent place, and over the last few years I’ve let Twitter take more of a focus.

If you use a feed reader (I’m a paid user of Newsblur), you can follow my posts by subscribing to https://werd.io/feed - or I’ll continue to cross post to Twitter. I may add a newsletter later (although, aren’t we all fighting our inboxes almost all of the time?).

I’m writing this on public transport, and this will also encourage me to keep improving my own mobile posting experience.

And finally, comments are off - so if you disagree with what I write about, you’ll need to post your replies on Twitter or on your own site. I’ll see them.

Onwards!

 

You are not too smart to listen

3 min read

A couple of years ago, Brendan Eich was ousted as CEO of Mozilla. It was a tough issue: he had contributed to the Proposition 8 campaign against marriage equality, but had done so as an individual. Mozilla contributors argued in both directions, but many felt that they couldn't feel safe working on a project or at a company where the person steering the ship didn't care about their rights.

Where I believe the debate came off the rails was his refusal to engage with the debate. Sure, his donation had been as a private individual, but as the CEO of a company with shareholders he had a responsibility to make a statement, and to reassure everyone that Mozilla had a culture that welcomed everybody. It's hard to know exactly what happened behind closed doors, but from the outside, it looked like he was choosing the "higher ground". This higher ground was actually the lowground: by staying quiet, he gave the impression of not caring about these contributors, whereas he needed to engage on an emotional level. He gave the impression of not listening.

A lot of startups operate this way: they'll hire high achievers, people who on paper are the brightest in the world, and then trust them to make the right decisions. That's fine, to some extent - but even the most empathic person in the world isn't prepared to understand the nuances of every situation.

At best, you have a hypothesis about how to react to a situation - but all hypotheses must be tested. And in every situation, there is someone more insightful than you. Any startup founder worth their salt will tell you that validating your assumptions is key. Any engineer will tell you that user testing is brutal for the exact same reason. These are things you have to do, because it's impossible to understand everybody.

But this isn't just about business. It happens all over geek culture:

Being smart means acknowledging that you might be wrong. For kids that grew up getting As throughout their academic career and being told they were gifted, that might be hard to take. It doesn't make it less true.

In a world where more and more people are connected, empathy is the most important life skill. It's not something you can intellectualize; no elaborate mind palace will help you understand other peoples' experiences and feelings. A white, male, upper middle class Stanford graduate can't automatically understand the experiences of people different to himself. You've got to ask people, and then change your stance accordingly.

The technology industry has been less about actual technology and more about networks for some time. Guess what: networks are made of people. The internet is people. We've already shown ourselves to be adept at building amazing devices and incredible software. Now we have to learn to be great listeners.

 

We all work in massively megalithic open plan offices now

3 min read

Samuel Hulick writes that he's breaking up with Slack:

Which is to say, I thought you were providing some relief from the torrential influx of messages, alerts, and notifications I was receiving on a daily basis. “Me + Slack = Fewer distractions and more productivity,” I thought at the time. I have to say, though, that I’ve since found it to be the opposite.

Like, WAY the opposite.

I love Slack. It's a handy, lightweight way to reach people you work with, wherever you are. But I also find myself closing it from time to time, and turning off my notifications throughout my workday. I'm not sure this kind of notification management is something everybody does, and people have, on occasion, been mad at me for not seeing a notification in real time.

Simultaneously, some companies are rethinking open plan offices. As Stowe Boyd wrote last year:

Recent research in Denmark shows a correlation with sickness: the larger the open space is in an office, the more people will take sick leave. Compared to traditional single occupant offices, those in open offices with more than 6 occupants had more than double — 62% — the normal days of sick leave.

That's partially because open plan offices are germ vectors, but this isn't the only reason:

A growing body of research is gradually cementing the idea that open offices can also make it harder to get work done. By overstimulating us, they can make us more stressed and more distracted -- and therefore less productive.

By hyper-connecting everyone via platforms like Slack, we're constructing a giant open-plan office that is almost impossible to escape.

Not only do constant notifications decrease productivity and stress us out, but if you have ownership over your problem or product, you're more creative when you work alone.

That's not to say that we shouldn't be connected. But the onus is on us to manage our connections - and it has to be acceptable to switch them off on our own terms. A number of countries have examined banning after-work emails, but this doesn't cover the interruptions while you're at work.

The excitement of ubiquitous connectivity - we all have smartphones now! and they're amazing! - is wearing off. With it, we need to examine design trends like calm technology, and learn to be proactive about controlling our information environment, rather than reactive to ever beep and information blast that comes in. (No matter how addictive they might be.)

We all want to be more effective, creative and efficient at work. It's time we took another look at designing the best environment to do it in.

 

Stop writing specs, start finding needs - what I've learned working on Known

4 min read

Working with Erin Jo Richey changed the way I think about building software.

There's a kind of software development I like to call checklist development. That's where you just draw up a long list of features you want your software to have. This could be based on your own intuition, or it could be because you have a collection of stakeholders who have all told you that they want certain things.

The end result is a kind of shopping list of software features. You might take that list and have someone else develop it, or you might develop it yourself. Either way, it's the single worst way to build a software product.

Throw out the shopping list.

I already knew that checklist development was a harmful antipattern. You need to have the right features, built in the right way, to solve real needs.

What Erin has brought to Known is an intellectual rigor in finding those needs. It doesn't matter if you've been working in software development for thirty years. Building based on your assumptions is not the same as determining unmet needs through a scientific, data-driven process.

The first week Known existed as a company, we had countless phone calls and conversations with the kinds of people we thought we might want to build it for. We just shut up and let them talk, and Erin created a framework for distilling that information into actionable insights. (She also open sourced the scripts she used.)

From there, we created simple prototypes of product iterations that built on those insights, and tested them again. Those prototypes didn't need to be software, and in fact they were worse if they were; the lower the fidelity, the more people projected their own assumptions onto them, and the more we learned.

We've run design thinking workshops at universities to glean real insights from students, faculty and staff; we've spoken to a huge number of people about specific markets like podcasting and chatbots; we've covertly created lots of different kinds of prototypes in order to learn and iterate.

My instinct is often to intuit and try to be a kind of software artist; all the while, Erin has rigorously questioned our assumptions and found ways to test them. Of course, being a startup cofounder, she does a lot more, too. But I think this approach to design is unique in open source projects, and still fairly rare in software overall.

Design is a science.

In the two years we've worked together, I've often thought that "user experience design" is the wrong term. For the layperson, it implies visual design, and the craft of building a beautiful user interface (even if design is, in truth, a much larger and richer field). In fact, user experience design is about applying scientific user research to the product idea itself, and then continuing to use research to iterate that product in order to make sure it's meeting their needs in a satisfying way.

A lot of developers think of design as a superficial layer that you add at the end. Instead, if you're serious about making something that people can actually use, it should be the thing that comes first. And second. And third. Scientific design should be part of every stage of development. Development becomes one part actual engineering, one part investigative journalism, and one part data science.

My first question used to be: "what can we build?" Now it's: "who can we talk to?"

I came from the huddle-down-and-just-build-something school of development. It took me a little while to come around. But these days, I wouldn't do it any other way, and that's all down to Erin.

We approach projects differently.

This different approach means that, when we work with external clients, we like to make sure we understand the core needs first. A checklist of feature specifications can be a negative signal (unless you've already done your own empathy-based needs-finding). We like to hear about goals and real people.

The good news is that Erin can help you find those needs, and tease out those user stories, through the techniques she's developed. Then, she can create a low-fidelity paper prototype - usually wireframes - to get feedback. From there, higher-fidelity prototypes can be created and tested, bringing you closer to a final product that actually meets a need - and therefore is more likely to succeed.

That's how we do our projects at Known, both for ourselves and other people. We find it allows us to build better online communities. I'm never going back to building in a vacuum - and neither should you.

(What if you don't need Known? That's okay too. Legend has it, she also does her own freelance user experience consulting.)

 

Matter is building a more informed and connected society. Here's why I think you should join them.

3 min read

Real talk: Known should list Matter as a cofounder.

Erin and I brought Known, Inc to Matter's third class in May, 2014. Over the next 19 weeks, we honed the fundamental story of our business, learning new techniques to validate assumptions and determine concrete needs along the way. They gave us $50,000 and a new way of thinking about startups.

Matter is a values-based accelerator that funds "ventures that have the potential to make society more informed, connected, and empowered". It's the only accelerator that I would have considered bringing Known to, and I think its mission makes it unique in Silicon Valley.

It funds ventures, not projects. That means you have to be driven - as I am - to create businesses based on these values. It's not good enough to build an interesting software platform; it has to be something that will attract investment or be able to grow through real revenue.

If that's what you have, Matter doesn't end at Demo Day. This last Friday, Corey Ford and I took a walking meeting around South Park. This isn't something that happens every few months: he and the Matter team have been there for us when we've needed help and advice every single time. When we began, I couldn't imagine the support we'd still be receiving almost two years later. (When we joined, Matter was a two-person startup in itself; Corey and Lara Ortiz-Luis have now grown into a much larger team.)

What's not immediately obvious when you read about Matter is the community. I've picked up the phone and called founders who went through the program years ago, and they've been happy to share their time and expertise with me, no questions asked. I could ask a question right now and four founders would give me advice before I've finished my coffee. More importantly: I consider them all friends, and the community persists even for the founders who have exited or closed their companies.

Here's another reflection on why Matter is different: half of Matter Three and Matter Five's CEOs were women. Two thirds of Matter Four's CEOs were women. Two thirds of the Matter team itself are women. I haven't seen that mentioned anywhere, but given the current Silicon Valley climate, that is certainly worth highlighting.

The partners are also awesome. We've enjoyed a close relationship with PRX and KQED in particular. Since we joined the community, Google News Lab, the Associated Press, Belo, Tribune Publishing, CNHI and McClatchy have all joined - and the Knight Foundation, one of the most important forces in American journalism, is a founding partner. They've joined because they see media changing, and they want to be a part of the future. These aren't small opportunities.

I wasn't asked to write this post. If I'm effusive, it's because I'm grateful. As a values-based entrepreneur - I've dedicated most of my career to building open platforms for media and education - I appreciate that Matter even exists. This is a firm that counts Wael Ghonim among its portfolio founders. It's not just an accelerator, and while that $50K seed might be a carrot, it's the least of its value.

So I'm writing this post because of that. I know lots of people who follow me are working on mission-driven ventures. You might be looking for partners, but need to find the right kind of community to protect the value of what you're building. All I'm saying is: Matter Six is open for applications, and it's worth your time.

 

I'm a startup founder. Here's why I support Bernie Sanders.

19 min read

It's fair to say that American politics is having a meltdown.

The poster child is Donald Trump, the heir to a multi-million dollar empire who would have made more money if he'd spent his life finger-painting, but nonetheless portrays himself as a shrewd deal-maker. In one sense, he is a businessman: he's found a gap in the voting market - a poorly-educated, disenfranchised group of voters hungry for scapegoats - and is milking it for all it's worth. Anyone with barely a passing knowledge of 20th century history should be terrified of the rhetoric he's cynically used to build himself a following, and the repercussions of his campaign will be felt for a generation.

A lot of people see Bernie Sanders as being on the same spectrum: an appeal to disenfranchised voters who need something new and don't know any better. I disagree: I think there are very rational reasons to support Bernie over other candidates. (This does not mean that I wouldn't support a Hillary Clinton nomination. I would absolutely vote for her if she was the Democratic candidate.)

There's been a lot of shouting from supporters on both sides, from Trump fans to Bernie Bros. I don't think it's productive or interesting. So let's just say this up-front: I don't need you to agree with me, but I would genuinely love to hear what you think. I think sharing arguments - not shouty arguments, but the logical kind - makes us all smarter. Freedom of speech is a gift.



Where I come from

I think this is worth saying, as it undoubtedly colors my opinion: I'm an American citizen, but I grew up in England. That means I grew up using the socialized National Health Service. I was also in the last ever university class to not have to pay any tuition fees: I attended the University of Edinburgh tuition-free, and so did every single one of my domestic classmates. (Foreign students had to pay.) So I grew up with a lot of Bernie Sanders campaign promises; they were my reality.

I attended state schools for my entire childhood. Some of these were co-run by the Church of England, but I was taught that evolution is a fact, that homosexuality is not a sin, and so on. Evangelical religion and religious restrictions on education were not a part of my reality. (For what it's worth, I'm a lifelong atheist, despite this educational background.)

Terrorism was a part of life: the IRA conducted a bombing campaign for most of my childhood.

Who am I now? I'm the founder of Known, a startup based in San Francisco. As a startup founder, I am not anti-capitalism. I want to make money solving problems for people (in an ethical way).



Healthcare

One of the core promises in the Sanders manifesto is free healthcare for all:

Bernie’s plan would create a federally administered single-payer health care program. Universal single-payer health care means comprehensive coverage for all Americans. Bernie’s plan will cover the entire continuum of health care, from inpatient to outpatient care; preventive to emergency care; primary care to specialty care, including long-term and palliative care; vision, hearing and oral health care; mental health and substance abuse services; as well as prescription medications, medical equipment, supplies, diagnostics and treatments. Patients will be able to choose a health care provider without worrying about whether that provider is in-network and will be able to get the care they need without having to read any fine print or trying to figure out how they can afford the out-of-pocket costs.

It sounds great, but understandably, there have been a lot of worries about how this will be paid for. There is a justifiable argument that this will increase government spending; meanwhile, the Sanders campaign argues that it will save $6 trillion over the next ten years when you consider government subsidies of the existing system.

The economic arguments against universal healthcare seem to assume that growth in medical costs will not increase, but fail to take into account the drop in medical costs once you remove the insurance-based system. Today, a simple blood test can easily cost over a thousand dollars; removing the existing closed marketplace system will reduce these. As Vox noted:

Sanders's plan is very optimistic, assuming huge reductions in per-person health care spending that bring the US much closer to existing countries with single-payer like Canada (which spends nearly 48 percent less per person) or Australia (more than 56 percent less). "If you look at every other country that has adopted a universal single-payer health care system, their costs per capita are far lower than they are in the United States," Gunnels told me.

If the government manages to reduce these costs, the Sanders plan makes economic sense. If you don't believe that the costs of procedures and materials will shrink under a single-payer system, there are more questions.

However, containing costs is vital for the future of American healthcare. As Dr Ed Weisbart noted in the American Medical Association's Journal of Ethics back in 2012:

A single-payer model would eliminate the inefficiencies of fragmentation by converting public programs such as Medicare, Medicaid, and CHIP into a single administratively efficient financing system. Streamlined billing under single payer would save physicians vast amounts in overhead. In addition to reduced billing expenses, physicians would also enjoy a meaningful drop in their malpractice premiums.

[...] We spend more but use less of most services than other member nations of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. In other words, our prices are much higher. [...] Only a single-payer system enables the kind of bulk purchasing of drugs and medical devices that would give the buyer power. A model for this structure exists today in the United States: the Department of Veterans Affairs. Due to governmental authority to negotiate drug prices for the VA, it pays roughly half of the retail price of drugs.

There is precedent, in other words, for government healthcare programs to reduce healthcare costs.

Access to healthcare isn’t just an important social issue: I believe large out-of-pocket medical costs have a chilling effect on innovation.

I pay for my own healthcare insurance, which comes to around $290 a month. This plan comes with a $6,000 deductible, which means I pay the first six grand of any costs I have. In other words, while this will prevent me from going bankrupt if I'm hit by a bus or get cancer, it won't save me anything when it comes to regular doctor's appointments over the year.

$290 isn't a completely unreasonable amount if I'm making an above-average middle class salary. As a startup founder, however, I don't. I know health insurance is important (and that I'm legally required to have it) so I pay for it every month, but as a chunk of my monthly outgoings, it's second only to my rent.

For many would-be entrepreneurs, these out-of-pocket costs have a real effect on their ability to take risks and start a business. Most people get health coversage through their employer - something that goes away when you start your own business. As the Philadelphia Inquirer reported in 2009, this is a problem:

"We think it's a major impediment to growth," said Robert E. Litan, vice president for research and policy at the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, which promotes entrepreneurship. "There's so much logic that supports it, it's almost impossible to deny.

Decoupling healthcare from employment would remove barriers for a class of people to start businesses. It would certainly have made a real difference in my life as an entrepreneur. In addition to the social reasons for having a healthy, working populace, this is why I support the Sanders universal healthcare plan.

 

Education

The Sanders manifesto promises to work towards eliminating tuition fees at public colleges and universities, reducing student loan interest rates, and providing better grant support for low-income students:

In a highly competitive global economy, we need the best-educated workforce in the world. It is insane and counter-productive to the best interests of our country and our future, that hundreds of thousands of bright young people cannot afford to go to college, and that millions of others leave school with a mountain of debt that burdens them for decades. That shortsighted path to the future must end.

Two reasonable questions might be: what kind of impact will free college tuition really have, and how will we pay for it?

As Bob Samuels, President of the University Council - American Federation of Teachers, wrote in 2011:

Currently, only 30% of Americans who start college or university end up graduating, and this represents a huge waste of time and money. If students did not have to work while in school, the graduation rate would improve drastically, and students at universities could graduate in four years instead of six or more years. In fact, the biggest reason why students drop out of higher education is that they cannot afford the high cost of tuition.

We've known for a while that college graduates earn more - about $1 million more - over their lifetimes. It turns out they benefit their local communities, too. In 2015, the Brookings Institution released a study noting that college graduates yield an enormous benefit for their local economies:

Using data from the 2013 American Community Survey (ACS), Rothwell calculated that the average college graduate spends $278,000 more on local goods and services—in addition to $44,000 more on state and local taxes—than the average high school graduate. Even someone with an associate’s degree spends around $81,000 more.

This effect strongly depends on an area's ability to keep graduates once they enter the workforce, and some cities are better at this than others. Nonetheless, ensuring that more people graduate from college will have secondary and tertiary benefits in communities across the United States - and if low-income students get better support, those benefits will be seen in more disadvantaged communities, too.

Peter R. Orszag, vice chairman of corporate and investment banking and chairman of the financial strategy and solutions group at Citigroup, agrees on the positive economic effect of more college graduates:

More graduates would mean lower inequality, because the wage premium for a college degree would be reduced by the additional supply. And it would mean higher national income, because better-educated workers are, on average, more productive.

While researching this post, I wondered whether the employment market could actually absorb more graduates. The data on this turns out to be contentious, but the Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce suggests it can:

[Our predictions] suggest that the economy will create 55 million new job openings over the next decade, and 65 percent, or 37 million, of these new job vacancies will require some postsecondary education and training.

Great. So how are we paying for this again?

Sanders wants to impose a tax of "a fraction of a percent" on "Wall Street speculation" in order to raise the $75 billion a year needed to pay for it. This translates to "50 cents on every $100 of stock trades on stock sales, and lesser amounts on transactions involving bonds, derivatives, and other financial instruments".

Would this minor restriction on trading really raise enough money? Absolutely (PDF link):

It is argued that trading volume will be sharply reduced in response to the tax; therefore the government will collect little revenue. In fact, the calculations of the revenue raised through a tax assume sharp reductions in trading volume. Current levels of trading are so large that even a 50 percent reduction in volume would still lead to a very substantial amount of revenue being collected. A calculation based on 2008 trading volumes showed a broadly based tax collecting more than $170 billion a year, assuming that trading volume falls by 50 percent.

In 2010, the Institute of Development Studies in Britain investigated this form of taxation and concluded that the UK should implement it, ideally in conjunction with other governments worldwide. Other supporters include David Stockman, who was the Budget Director for Ronald Reagan's government, Warren Buffett, and Lawrence Summers. (Oh, and the potential reduction in trading volume? That would bring us down to 1980s levels.)

The policy, then, benefits lower-income students, creates prosperity in communities all across America, and pays for it by imposing a minor tax that most taxpayers will never see.

 

Foreign Policy

There's been a lot of talk about Sanders being a single-issue candidate. Nowhere has this been more pointed than his perceived lack of foreign policy expertise:

Sanders has yet to give a speech exclusively on foreign policy, and on Friday his campaign backed away from an earlier commitment to deliver one before the Iowa vote. Numerous Democratic foreign policy insiders contacted by POLITICO could not name anyone who regularly advises the Vermont Senator on world affairs — a stark contrast to a Clinton campaign teeming with several hundred foreign policy advisers. It is also a contrast to Barack Obama's 2008 campaign, which by this point in that campaign featured a cadre of prominent foreign policy hands, including former national security advisers Anthony Lake and Zbigniew Brzezinski.

Foreign policy is vital. America's actions overseas affect its actions domestically, and vice versa; it isn't possible to cleanly separate one from the other. As such, this decision by the Sanders campaign is questionable.

Understanding a candidate's stance on American policy is important to me. We have by far the largest military in the world (spending four times as much as China, which comes in at number two), and almost 20% of the federal budget is spent maintaining it. We enact and enforce ubiquitous surveillance worldwide and domestically, despite zero evidence that it helps keep anyone safer. Hawkish US foreign policy helped create ISIS - and before it, Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda. It used torture. And all of this is just in the 21st Century. America's post-World War Two history of warfare and foreign operations is shameful, from the horrors of the war in Vietnam, through the  assassination of Salvador Allende, to the Iran-Contra affair. Beyond warfare, the US has furthered a conservative agenda overseas, including tethering US assistance fighting AIDS to abstinence-based programs.

No wonder most of the world sees the United States as a negative, destabilizing force.

In turn, the perception that the United States is a combative, rather than collaborative, force makes us less safe. As Newsweek reported:

The most likely—though not most lethal—terror threats to Americans come from individuals living within the United States who are partially motivated to undertake self-directed attacks based upon their perception that the United States and the West are at war with the Muslim world.

In this global landscape, it's unforgivable to gloss over foreign policy.

Luckily, Sanders actually does have extensive experience. Lawrence Korb, senior adviser to the Center for Defense Information and a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, wrote recently:

In my dealings with him, and in analyzing his record in Congress over the past 25 years, I have found that Sanders has taken balanced, realistic positions on many of the most critical foreign policy issues facing the country. In the mold of realists like Brent Scowcroft, national security adviser to Presidents Richard Nixon and George H.W. Bush, Sanders voted against the invasion of Iraq in 2002, while wisely supporting the war against in Afghanistan in 2001 and the intervention in the Balkans in 1990s. And Sanders certainly isn’t a foreign policy lightweight: In fact, given his long tenure in the House and Senate, he has more foreign policy experience than Ronald Reagan or Barack Obama did when they were running for office the first time.

Korb goes on to detail how Bernie Sanders repeatedly votes for a restrained, but realistic, military strategy (for example, while he was against the invasion of Iraq, he supported action in Afghanistan). He has an "admirable commitment to diplomacy".

Sanders has put climate change front and center as the greatest threat to national security, and I believe this is correct. For example, a peer-reviewed study last year showed that drought was a major contributing factor to the conflict in Syria:

There is evidence that the 2007−2010 drought contributed to the conflict in Syria. It was the worst drought in the instrumental record, causing widespread crop failure and a mass migration of farming families to urban centers. Century-long observed trends in precipitation, temperature, and sea-level pressure, supported by climate model results, strongly suggest that anthropogenic forcing has increased the probability of severe and persistent droughts in this region, and made the occurrence of a 3-year drought as severe as that of 2007−2010 2 to 3 times more likely than by natural variability alone. We conclude that human influences on the climate system are implicated in the current Syrian conflict.

Sanders has also argued against ubiquitous surveillance, which has been a significant infringement of our domestic rights and has had a chilling effect on journalism and freedom of speech.

A more peaceful, diplomacy-led foreign policy that also protects our rights at home will make us safer and allow the United States to be proud of its role in the world. I support this approach.

 

Guns

This is the elephant in the room, and it's where I part from Bernie Sanders. His positions on gun control and the causes of mass shootings have been outright wrong. (Gregory Meeks called Sanders' record "troubling" recently, but I don't think that word is strong enough. "Troubling" is what you call an off-color joke; guns are responsible for thousands of deaths every year.)

In an interview with NPR last year, Sanders said he didn't think gun control would solve America's violence problem:

"So obviously, we need strong sensible gun control, and I will support it," Sanders told Greene. "But some people think it's going to solve all of our problems, and it's not. You know what, we have a crisis in the capability of addressing mental health illness in this country. When people are hurting and are prepared to do something terrible, we need to do something immediately. We don't have that and we should have that."

It's true that America needs better healthcare, including mental healthcare, and this is addressed in his policies. However, I think it's disingenuous, counterproductive and deeply harmful to blame gun violence on mental health issues. The New York Times Editorial Board called this out last year:

But mass shootings represent a small percentage of all gun violence, and mental illness is not a factor in most violent acts. According to one epidemiological estimate, entirely eliminating the effects of mental illness would reduce all violence by only 4 percent. Over all, less than 5 percent of gun homicides between 2001 and 2010 were committed by people with diagnoses of mental illness, according to a public health study published this year.

Indeed, the single biggest predictor of gun violence is gun ownership. Or to put it another way, to curtail gun violence, we need fewer guns. States with stronger gun laws have fewer gun deaths.

For a candidate who puts such an emphasis on social justice issues, Sanders' stance here seems incongruous. He's at once ignoring an issue that disproportionately affects low-income African Americans, while also stigmatizing mental illness.

There's an argument that Vermont's status as a rural state makes it harder for him to support gun control, which he made on Meet the Press last year:

I come from a state that has virtually no gun control. And yet, at political peril, I voted for an instant background check, which I want to see strengthened and expanded. I voted to ban certain types of assault weapons, which are designed only to kill people. I voted to end the so-called gun show loophole. What I think there needs to be is a dialogue. And here's what I do believe: I believe [in] what I call common sense gun reform.

This isn't as far-reaching as I'd like to see, but it's better than nothing.

Plus, a revolution in mental health, making sure that if people are having a nervous breakdown, or are suicidal, or homicidal, they get the care they need when they need it. I think the vast majority of the American people can support and agenda composed of those features.

Damnit, Bernie. Again: while America absolutely needs stronger mental health support, linking this issue to gun crime is irresponsible.

On this issue, Hillary Clinton has a much more solid platform, including the removal of the immunity protections that gun manufacturers currently enjoy.

 

Overall

He's not a perfect fit for my beliefs, but he's far from the single-issue, light-on-substance candidate he's often painted to be. As Hillary Clinton has repeatedly stated, the larger danger is from the socially conservative, fiscally irresponsible policies being peddled by the front-running Republican candidates, and I would rather see either Democratic candidate become President.

I support him on healthcare, education and foreign policy, as I've shown. I also applaud his stances on womens' rights, marriage equality, veterans' rights, and reforming the financial sector.

It's probably clear that I'm concerned about social justice issues. But I'm also in business, and I believe these policies directly benefit me in ways that include:

  • Creating a stronger safety net, removing some of the potential downside from starting and running a small business.
  • Building more prosperous communities across America, strengthening middle class Americans (or as I call them: "customers").
  • Creating a more peaceful, more collaborative world, which will open global markets and new business opportunities.
  • Strengthening opportunities for diverse voices in business, making America more innovative.

Much of this is inherent to the Democratic platform as a whole. However, one some key issues - like banking regulation and foreign policy - I believe he is the strongest candidate.

I believe a more inclusive, safer society is better for business. I'm saddened by Sanders' stance on gun control, but on every other issue, I am convinced by the picture he paints of a fairer, more prosperous America. Whether he eventually becomes the Democratic candidate or not, I think that picture will be enduring, and I'm excited about the future.

 

Bernie Sanders photo by Michael Vadon.

 

How we built Known

11 min read

We've got some exciting new things in store for 2016 that solve real problems for both higher and corporate education. We'll discuss this in a future post on the Known blog. First, though, I wanted to take a step back and explain the technical decisions we made for Known.

What is Known?

Known is an open source web platform that allows groups and individuals to publish in a group with a variety of media. You can choose who can see the content you publish, as well as where you reach your audience: you can syndicate your content to services like Twitter, Facebook, SoundCloud, Flickr, LinkedIn and more.

It's also an open platform designed to be extended:

  • Every content type is provided by a plugin, so any organization can add new kinds of content. (For example, we don't provide video out of the box - but you could.)
  • Every syndication service can also be extended, so while we provide plugins for social media, a university could extend Known to allow students to submit their work to their Learning Management System. Internally in the company, we'll often create Known sites for particular projects and then syndicate our posts to Slack.
  • Known supports themes.
  • Plugins can also provide Single Sign On (we provide LTI and LDAP to our enterprise customers, but for example, KQED uses SSO to link Known to WordPress accounts).

Known works for a single user - my website runs on it - or five thousand. It's up to you.

Did I mention it's fully responsive, meaning it works just as well on your smartphone as it does on your laptop? Or that every page is an API endpoint?

Install anywhere, extend easily

A key goal for Known is the ability to install it virtually anywhere.

Installing self-hosted web software is, unfortunately, not as easy as installing an app on your iPhone or your laptop. However, it doesn't need to be a developer-centric process.

Shared web hosts are immensely popular, and abstract away a lot of the really technical work involved in maintaining a server. You can often select an application to install from a directory of available projects, answer a few questions, and be ready to go in a couple of minutes. At its hardest, you can upload some files via FTP. You never have to drop to a command line and run Linux commands - and indeed, often you can't.

We wanted to be compatible with these hosts (our web hosting sponsor is DreamHost), as well as power users who have deeper technical control over their servers. That implied a number of requirements:

  • The software language needs to be compatible with a large number of servers
  • Users need to be able to install the software without command line tools
  • Knowledge of version control systems like git, or managers like GitHub, shouldn't be required
  • Use of a package manager like npm or composer shouldn't be required

It turns out that the most widely-supported language on shared hosts is PHP.

PHP has received not a small amount of scorn in developer circles over the last decade, and a lot of it is fairly earned. But the truth is that modern versions - particularly 5.4 and above - have consistent interfaces, and modern language features like namespaces and closures that bring it closer in line with more cutting-edge languages. The PHP style recommendations produced by the Framework Interop Group and popularized by PHP The Right Way have done a lot to standardize PHP code.

In fact, PSR-4, which defines a template for class namespaces and a way for objects to be autoloaded on demand, turns out to be useful. Every plugin in Known uses this standard for autoloading.

The only question is PHP version: not every host supports these features. In fact, while it turns out that 98.8% of PHP hosts support version 5 or above34.3% of these are on version 5.3. We expect this number to shrink over time, and consider it acceptable to be supported by the remaining 65% of web hosts. The syntactic features you gain, like closures, are worth it.

To support virtual URLs, we initially required the Apache web server (which is still the leader overall on the web). However, a number of community members have created open source configurations for nginx.

The data model

I don't think it's acceptable for plugins to create and maintain their own database tables. For one thing, you may wish to prevent Known from having database modification access permissions. For another, this means that every plugin is a potential database security risk or performance drain.

Instead, from the beginning I wanted plugins to access the database via an abstracted interface, and never have to worry about the schema. At the same time, I wanted plugins to be able to store any data they needed to function, in a way that made sense in the context of that plugin.

The first versions of Known used a NoSQL database, MongoDB, as its sole data store. This worked well for development, but it quickly became apparent that shared hosting would not support this as a data layer. In interview after interview, users said they wanted to run Known on hosts like Reclaim Hosting and Nearly Free Speech. In fact, many shared hosts support MySQL - and that's it. This left us with a challenge: could we provide a schemaless database layer while providing full support for MySQL?

Kevin Marks provided the answer: a balanced schema developed by FriendFeed back in the days before NoSQL databases became commonplace. We created a highly-indexed metadata table, which is purely used for searching for objects, and then stored the complete objects in JSON in an object database. All of this is provided by a seamless database layer called the Data Concierge, that abstracted many of the functions provided by the MongoDB PHP extension.

A side effect of this abstraction is that more databases could be added easily. Today, as well as MongoDB and MySQL, Known supports SQLite and Postgres.

Distributed social networking and uncool URIs

One of the core original visions for Known was that data could be distributed. A user on site A could participate in a community on site B. Imagine creating a group for a project across two companies, and then allowing users from a second company to join and collaborate without re-registering! There are lots of real-world possibilities for distributed social networking.

To prepare for this, we decided that every object would have a URI as its definitive UUID. The idea was that you could access any resource by its UUID anywhere on the web, and as long as the request was properly signed, you'd be able to access it as if it was locally stored. In the end, I consider this a core mistake, but one that is hard to move away from.

Tim Berners-Lee famously said that "cool URIs don't change". Unfortunately, in the real world, URIs change all the time - and there's no way to require that they don't.

  • Domain names expire
  • People lose control over their domain names (eg a subdomain at a university)
  • People choose to move sites into subdirectories

Imploring people to strongly consider their website layouts, as the W3C does, is not helpful for individuals who just want to run a site. The web is not set in stone; websites change, and URIs should be treated as volatile in any internal data model. 

As it stands, Known contains a number of protections that allow it to be moved to different domains or directory locations, so users don't notice a difference. It's not a technical decision I'm proud of - but it may yet come into its own. We already use the indie web technologies for some distributed social networking, and it's an idea that I'm convinced will transform the web.

The front end

Creating a native mobile app for a platform that can be infinitely extended is difficult. Instead, we created a fully responsive, touch-friendly interface.

Known separates model, view and controller, and any page can be viewed with a different template. For example, here's my website using a JSON template, and here's a Star Wars crawl. Any plugin or theme can override any template element, so I could write a plugin that changes out the WYSIWYG editor (we use TinyMCE), or that displays avatar images as 3D spheres (if I really wanted to). I could write a template to display Known sites using a virtual reality browser - and someone really should!

For the default template, we chose Bootstrap and jQuery. The former provides a solid, responsive UI that can be extended easily (and which removed the need to develop it from scratch). The latter provides a powerful, performant way to query elements on the page. Not only did this combination let us get up and running quickly, but plugin authors could use them to create simple, grid-based user interfaces that would be in line with the platform as a whole.

For glyphs like social media logos, we use FontAwesome. The latest version contains 605 different user interface icons, is well tested, has a good community, and a compatible open source license. All of these things made it perfect for our use - and, again, making features available to plugin authors.

Every page is HTML5, CSS3. Content is encoded using microformats, allowing software to read and extract meaning from our human interfaces. This forms the basis of important decentralized social web protocols like those used by the indie web community.

Over time, we've learned that we do need to support a mobile app. The mobile web has evolved to be decent for consumption, but there are obvious missing pieces for producing content on a mobile over the web.

For example: it's difficult to upload media. Resizing camera JPEGs in front-end Javascript on a mobile device is not a reliable process. The web audio API produces WAV files, rather than MP3s, which are uncompressed and potentially large. We could resample these on the server side using something like ffmpeg, but it's not reasonable to expect a shared host to support media encoding - and nor is it reasonable to expect users to link up to a third-party media encoder like Zencoder. Worse: we found that the web audio API actually crashed many mobile browsers!

This problem is compounded by video uploads. Video files are huge, and there's no way to compress them in a browser. Backround uploads are hugely tricky, and resuming failed uploads is also hard. That's even before they've reached the server - and when files can be as large as 1GB per minute of footage, both storage and encoding is hard.

For the mobile web to effectively compete with apps, it needs to support the content composition experiences that native apps have been using for years. If we want people to build websites, the web needs to support building, across devices. It's a frustration, and an ongoing problem.

Moving on

Our PHP-based infrastructure and need to support shared hosts means that some features are much harder to produce. The truth is that technologies like websockets (useful for performant real-time user interfaces) are hard for non-developers to self-host. New web platform features like web workers show enormous promise, but require secure connections - and even with empowering projects like Let's Encrypt, setting up secure sites is still too complicated for most people.

The good news is that some progressive enhancement is possible: companion services that provide extra capabilities to hosted software. It's also true that hosts are evolving, and our friends at DreamHost and Reclaim Hosting are thinking hard about the future of the space. 

I'm proud of the platform we've created - it's one we use every day, and I'm delighted to see people posting on their own servers all over the world. We've got big plans for the Known open source project this year, and we're looking forward to sharing them with you, in conjunction with something new that we'll tell you about soon.

It's going to be a great year.

 

San Francisco, enough is enough. It's time to look further afield.

5 min read

This afternoon, Greg Wester tweeted this screen grab:

Your eyes are not deceiving you. That's a 420 square foot studio apartment - not even a one bedroom - for $3,050 a month. That's a base cost: your bills, and most likely parking, are extra.

There are only two kinds of people who can afford this:

  • Workers on a substantial salary (realistically $100K+, which would still leave you with a bi-weekly check of a little under $2500 after taxes, meaning rent would be well over 50% of your monthly cost)
  • The independently wealthy

Let's leave aside the obvious social inclusion issues at play here, and the effect this has on diversity in the city. Let's ignore that this is killing the artistic temperament of the city and turning it into a primarily financial center like any other. Let's pass over the inevitable effect this will have on the city when these high-value residents start to ebb away. Let's pretend not to see the rising homelessness problem. Not because those are unimportant issues - they're vital to the future of San Francisco - but because it's harmful to the ecosystem that helped create this situation to begin with.

If only rich people can afford to live in San Francisco, it is impossible to really innovate. All the creative energy is being driven out. There's no way for ordinary people - people who haven't made it yet - to experiment. Everyone is either on salary or has raised money from institutional investors with a proven business model.

So the gentrification cycle turns:

Deindustrialization creates low-rent vacancies in industrial districts; artists are drawn to these districts by the depressed rents and spacious "lofts"; the district becomes a hub of avant garde creativity, generating media attention and foot traffic, both of which create a "buzz" around the neighborhood; shops and restaurants are drawn to the area to cater to the increased foot traffic and capitalize on the "buzz;" the introduction of these shops and restaurants in turn induces more foot traffic, more media attention, and more "buzz;" eventually national chain stores see the area as ripe for investment and begin to move in; finally, of course, each of these trends causes rents to escalate until, with the arrival of deep-pocketed chain stores, the very artists who made the district trendy are priced out.  The district ends up as nothing more than a high-end outdoor shopping mall with little street "cred," and the artists relocate to a new low-rent industrial area, triggering the process all over again.

We've seen this process start to rapidly transform Oakland:

Oakland neighborhoods that are experiencing "advanced gentrification," according to the study, include Lower Bottoms, Old Oakland, and Northgate/Koreatown. The researchers define "advanced gentrification" as areas that have experienced significant demographic changes and high levels of real estate investment. Those areas are also very vulnerable to gentrification due to their locations near transit, historic housing stocks, rising house prices, and high rates of market-rate developments. [...] The researchers also said “the crisis is not yet half over” and that the city can expect the displacement of lower-income households to accelerate in coming years.

The interactive map is worth exploring for yourself.

All of which means that the rents in Oakland are already rapidly increasing (partially because it's within commuting distance of San Francisco). So where's next? If I'm running a small startup that needs to lengthen its runway while I figure out my product / market fit - or better yet, if I'm an artist that wants to live somewhere nurturing, affordable and creative - where can I go?

My money's on one of two places:

Sacramento.

As Thrillist noticed this summer, California's capital has a plethora of food and culture, for a much lower living cost:

We have a hard time even talking about San Francisco rent anymore. We start sweating, breaking out in hives... yeah. Especially when we think about rent in Sacramento. I mean, look at this -- $1,650 for a four-bedroom HOUSE!? That’ll get you, what... a patch of ground under the freeway in San Francisco?

Pretty much. In fact, Sacramento is 36.5% cheaper to live in than San Francisco overall (and rent is 65% less). And, yeah, it's the seat of state government, which gives enterprise startups access to a different kind of infrastructure. The only real bummer is that if you do need to get back to the Bay Area for meetings, the drive will take you two hours in good traffic.

Santa Rosa.

Situated in the middle of wine country, Santa Rosa is also adjacent to a lot of the trappings of fine living, although it's a little less hot on live music and theater. (Those needs are met by Sebastopol, just a few minutes down the road, which is also a base for O'Reilly Publishing.) Overall, it's a little more industrial than Sacramento in itself, but is set in outstandingly beautiful countryside and high-class local amenities.

But here's the big plus: as well as being super-close to Petaluma (home of TWiT), Sebastopol, Sonoma, Healdsburg and Napa, Santa Rosa is only an hour's drive from San Francisco. The Smart Train will provide effective public transport for the north bay - something it's sorely lacking right now - and further reduce the commuting pain. The first stretch, between Santa Rosa and San Rafael, opens in 2016. It'll use the same Clipper card system used by BART and Muni, effectively linking the north bay to the greater San Francisco Bay Area transit system. And expansions will link the train to the existing ferry infrastructure.

My bet is that the Santa Rosa corridor will be the next place to look. Its top-tier office space is a third of San Francisco's cost, it's surrounded by beautiful countryside and some of the country's best food, and is still within a hop, skip and a jump of Silicon Valley.

 

My 2016 year in review

4 min read

Rather than taking a retrospective look back at 2015, I think it's interesting to look ahead think about what I want my themes for the next year to be, both personally and professional. Here's mine; I'd love to see yours.

Be more social.

I want to spend more time around more people. Humans are social animals; spending more time around people has an important effect on my mood (as well as opening new horizons and opportunities).

I love people, but I spend a lot of my time behind a screen. When I'm on my deathbed, I don't think I'll look back and think, "gosh, I wish I'd spent more time on the Internet". I want to spend more time away from a screen, not thinking about work or computers, hanging out with people I care about.

And guess what: I bet it'll improve my work, too.

Be healthier.

I’ll turn 37 in the first week of 2016. As much as I hate to admit it, I have to acknowledge that I’m approaching middle age. I intend to live past 90, but that doesn’t happen by chance.

I'm also worried about what happens if I encounter a major health issue later in life. If you have to have a major operation - something many people I love have had to do - your chances of survival and recovery are much better if you're fit. It still feels a bit weird to be accepting my own mortality, but that's just stage one; stage two is embracing it.

Accept the superficial.

I was brought up to believe that appearance doesn't matter; that it's what's inside that counts. This should be true, but it isn't at all.

I know that my personal appearance affects how I feel, even aside from first impressions, but even today, I feel actively guilty for thinking about it. This is a very silly thing to be worried - particularly given what I do for a living. I could write a whole essay about all the issues at play here. It's a weird hang-up.

Be more organized.

Specifically, I'm going to start scheduling more of my off-time in the same way that I schedule meetings.

Not only will this allow me to schedule in gym time and other exercise, but keeping a tighter schedule will give me more free time for chilling out, hanging out, personal creativity, and trying new things: all vital parts of being an actual human being.

Separate creativity and work.

I've repeated this quote before: "the business of business is business". Work can be creative, which is awesome, but very few of us are lucky enough to have a job that is our creative outlet. I think if you try and shoehorn that creative need in, you run the risk of being unsatisfied both with your creativity and with your job.

I want to write more; draw more; publish short stories and write more personal pieces. And in turn, I want to be more focused in my work. What I build does not need to be a reflection of me, and in turn, who I am is not a reflection of what I build. This perhaps sounds trite and reductive, but it's important.

Be more "me".

In 2016, I want to be more political. I'm less interested in tweeting links than actually marching on the streets, phoning representatives and doing real work to support the causes and politicians I believe in. I believe in a fairer society, globally, and I'm not ashamed to want to advocate and fight for that. I want to live in a progressive society.

So politics is one thing. But I value art, and creativity, and outsider culture. I want to spend more of my time in the kinds of anarchic artistic communities I was a part of in Edinburgh. Mainstream culture is deeply conservative, and deeply boring. I think the voices pushing at the edges are usually the most interesting, and I think it's a real shame that there aren't more safe spaces for them.

I want to be more experimental in my personal expression. I want to be more supportive of the voices I value. I want to be clearer in my non-support for the status quo.

I don't think this hurts what I do (although I'd do it even if it did). In a world that's becoming increasingly algorithmic and computational, our humanity is our sustainable competitive advantage.

It's good to be a person. I want to nurture more of myself, and more of the people around me, in the year ahead.