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I hate the Daily Mail. But NewsGuard by default is a terrible idea

The Guardian is reporting that Microsoft has installed NewsGuard by default in new installs of its Microsoft Edge mobile browser. The Daily Mail is one of the affected publications:

Visitors to Mail Online who use Microsoft Edge can now see a statement asserting that “this website generally fails to maintain basic standards of accuracy and accountability” and “has been forced to pay damages in numerous high-profile cases”.

Now, don't get me wrong: the Daily Mail is a horrendous excuse for a newspaper that, indeed, appears to bend the truth in order to further a toxic, conservative agenda. But let's zoom out a bit and examine this feature in the abstract.

NewsGuard assesses news websites manually, and gives them a rating for creditability and transparency. Based on that rating, it then assigns the website a red or green rating, indicating whether you should trust it or not:

These ratings are then displayed next to website content, and embedded into search engine results, via NewsGuard's browser plugin.

As a stand-alone plugin, this is probably fine. If you've made an active decision to install it, and you trust its editorial team to provide ratings, then great: you're informed about the process, you know that NewsGuard provides subjective ratings, and you've made the decision to overlay them over your web browsing experience.

As a default feature of a web browser, it's quite another story. For these users, it's a core part of their web experience. As far as they're concerned, this is a built-in feature, endorsed by Microsoft, that provides objective ratings on the content you browse. NewsGuard has been handed the ability to decide which content and information these users should trust.

These aren't just some do-gooder journalists. NewsGuard's advisory board contains the former head of the CIA and the first Secretary for Homeland Security. In light of this, some hypothetical questions to ask include: how might an independent website publishing the Pentagon Papers have been rated? What if a publisher is considered to be politically subversive while maintaining accuracy? In the wrong hands, could this mechanism suppress whistleblowers?

A web browser has no business telling you whether to trust the content you're accessing, except on technical grounds. If the web is to remain an impartial platform that supports freedom of speech, it cannot make value judgments on that speech. At least not by default: the extensions you install in your browser are up to you.

The whole point of the web is that it's decentralized, and anyone can become a publisher at any time. Yes, disinformation is a real problem. But it shouldn't be used as an excuse to put trust in the whole platform under central control. To do so introduces a real risk for the health of the internet, and, because freedom of speech is a prerequisite for it to function, for the health of democracy.

 

The Joy of Making Something Anyway

One of the most important things a founder can do is just get started. Technical founders have a built in advantage here: while other people need to worry about convincing someone to build out their first functional prototype for them, people who know how to code just need to spend time. The tools to build platforms are all free and open source; the best operating system for web development is free and open source. All you need is any computer with an internet connection, and time. But even if you're not a coder, or you're not technical: everyone has the skills to build and create something that addresses a need, or that fosters joy and empathy. Everyone has the ability to sit down and make something.

The most successful mindset is probably not to think about it as a startup at all. Just build a tool that's actually useful for someone. Get their feedback; iterate and improve it. And only then worry about whether you can build it at scale with the time, team and resources potentially at your disposal, or whether it can be the center of a viable business.

And maybe it can't be viable; maybe it can't scale. Maybe you want to make the changes that would be necessary to make either of those things work as a startup. But it's completely okay if you don't: there's nothing wrong with building a tool as a hobby, or deciding that it was a fun experiment, open sourcing the code so other people can learn from it, and walking away. Or if you do run it as a business because you want to work on it full-time, it's also okay to decide that you want to create something that covers your costs, instead of shooting for the moon and aiming to create a trillion dollar behemoth. (Which of these is likely to be most successful anyway?)

If we let the machinations of the tech industry dictate what we build - for example, if we treat a "no" from venture capitalists as a value judgment on the thing itself - then only the things the tech industry finds valuable will be built. This kind of blinkered economic Darwinism hits tools for underrepresented communities most of all, but it also hits the products, tools, and communities at the edges of society, that are trying new things and tugging on the borders of culture. In reality, that's where the really interesting stuff is, and where the really interesting people are.

Maybe it can't be a full-time endeavor. Maybe you won't have kombucha on tap. Maybe there won't be nap pods and investors knocking down your door. But maybe you can find time and space anyway; you can brew your own kombucha in a jar; you can take a nap in your own bed; you can stay independent and refuse to take money from repressive regimes. It doesn't make it not worth it. And the communities, people, and tools that dare to be independent (or are forced to be and dare to exist anyway), are the ones that we need to exist the most.

 

Photo by Edu Lauton on Unsplash

 

Values, Values, Values!

We all know what we stand for. The trick is to state our values clearly - and to stand by them.

That goes both for individuals and businesses. When I was preparing to join the Matter team, the first workshop I gave was about determining a company's values, which are different to its mission or vision. Whereas a mission and vision are a company's north star, its values dictate how it conducts itself.

For example, Google has "ten things we know to be true". Most companies have between five and ten core values that reflect their ethics and the facets of their culture that will lead them to be successful. They're signals about how people should behave inside a company, and they're also signals to the kinds of people who they hope will join them. For example, in 2019, it's a clear and unfortunate signal if diversity and inclusion isn't one of a tech company's core values.

It would be easy to misunderstand this as being about marketing. It's about shared culture, which is the most important thing every organization has to build.

The intersection with personal values lies in the decisions we make about joining or leaving an organization. I won't join a company that doesn't care about diversity and inclusion. And I've turned down very lucrative jobs on high profile teams because it was clear they wanted their employees to spend their lives at work.

We've all got red lines. They're ours alone to draw.

Just as I think it makes sense to pick the company you work for in part based on their declared values, it makes sense to define your personal space in the same way. If your values lean towards community and shared prosperity, it perhaps makes sense that you might not want to spend your time with people who lean towards libertarianism and individualistic success. If you believe in a global world, you might not spend much time with nationalists. If you're an atheist, you might not spend much time with people who believe you have to be religious to be a moral person. And so on.

Perhaps those are extreme examples, but because our values dictate how we behave as we live out our lives and achieve our goals, differences in strongly-held values lead to incompatibilities. If you believe in a very traditional salary-earning lifestyle or traditional gender roles, you might not do well in a relationship with someone who is less motivated by that lifestyle or who actively rejects those roles. Neither side is inherently bad (although one could certainly argue that widespread adherence to traditional gender roles is broadly harmful), but they're incompatible with each other - not necessarily as friends, but certainly as partners in life.

And that's okay. We all get to decide what's important to us. One aspect of contentment is finding the values that work for you personally (regardless of whether they're "the norm"), the values that work for you professionally (ditto), and building a community and a life that will support both things.

 

Turning 40 (Belatedly)

I'm not sure who started it (Matt Mullenweg?), but a common in-joke in tech circles is to refer to a birthday as a version number increase. You don't turn 30; you hit version 3.0. And then you add release notes about what changes and improvements have been made since the last version.

I guess I use more of an open source versioning system, because after 40 years, I think I might have just about hit version 1.0. My experiences as a child, growing up, in my early career and through the rollercoaster of my thirties have inched me towards becoming a well-rounded, self-actualized human.

Howdy. There are bugs

I'm not always happy, and not always assertive, and not always near the mark of how I want to show up in the world. But at the same time, I'm a little bit proud of where I've wound up, and I'm proud of what I've done.

I was pretty sick during the week of the 7th, my actual birthday, and I'm only now feeling like I've regained full use of my brain. I owe emails and documents to various people, and I'm beginning to get back on top of things. Still, if you're one of those people, I'm really sorry.

 

Indie Communities and Making Your Audience Known

It sounds ludicrous now, but back in 2014, when I cofounded Known as a startup, a lot of people were questioning whether a business even needed a website. Pockets of people - for example in the indieweb community, which I enthusiastically joined - were pointing out how short-sighted this was, but it was a minority opinion. There was Facebook and Twitter! Why would you want to have any kind of property that you fully controlled on the internet?

Fast forward to today, and most companies have seen the flaws in that argument. If your digital presence is how most of your customers find and interact with you, giving it over to some third party company with its own agenda is not going to serve you well. This morning, CNN's digital chief Meredith Artley says as much in an interview with Kara Swisher: going where your users are was a counterproductive startegy. You have to reach out to them and make spaces that they want to visit.

But my hypothesis with Known wasn't just that people would want to own their own websites again, and that we should make it as easy to publish on their own site as it is to publish on social media. It was part of it, but I had something bigger in mind.

Anyone who's building any kind of business - whether it's a media property, a brick and mortar store, a startup, or a food truck - knows that you have to understand your customers and meet their needs if you want to be successful. For most people, that means talking to them, again and again. When the New York Times first went online as part of AOL - before it even launched a website - the team took the opportunity to sit in the chat rooms and talk to people. The internet is a conversation, not a one-way broadcast medium, which the Cluetrain Manifesto tried to tell us 20 years ago. And businesses all over the world are doing their best to talk to people on social media.

But the same ownership principle applies. Just as companies realized that they need to own their online presence, they will begin realizing that the conversations they're having on third party social media platforms are templated for the benefit of those platforms. If they want to have deeper conversations, build trust and loyalty, and have a greater influence over the form of the discussion, then they need to own the conversation spaces, too. (And there's a lot to be said for not giving companies like Facebook all that insight data.)

Tools that allow companies to build their own social spaces as easily as they can build their own websites are important. It's something I learned when I built Elgg, although that platform is very bound in the desktop-based MySpace era. Anyone should be able to start a space to have a social conversation in 5 minutes, in a way that they own the data and can customize it for their needs. But while existing tools like Mighty Networks (and Slack) or forum tools like Discourse are great for what they do, there aren't any great platforms that let people actually build a site that directly fits the community they want to build. All online communities tend to look the same. If we know that the form of a converation influences its content - and it does - then it becomes clear how counter-productive a one size fits all approach really is.

And then the bigger picture is that if this idea is successful, moving from one monopolistic social network to lots of smaller communities loosely joined will make for a healthier internet.

That was the vision for Known: to let anyone build easy to use social spaces that they control, and liberate online conversation in the process. First as a startup, and now as an open source project. We were a little early, and made some (recoverable) mistakes. But it's still a mission I believe in.

 

Nieman Lab Predictions for 2019

Each year, Harvard University's Nieman Lab asks media and journalism professionals to make predictions about the year ahead. It's a useful barometer for the media industry zeitgeist, and true to form, 2019's predictions are all worth a read.

For the first time, I was asked to contribute. That piece is here:

In 2019, big tech companies will respond to overwhelming public opinion and lawmaker concerns, fundamentally changing the way they view privacy. Browsers will block third-party tracking by default. New legislation, inspired by Europe’s GDPR, will prevent invasive apps from spying on your calls and contacts. The adoption of always-on microphones in the nation’s living rooms will begin to slow. As revelations about technology’s role in political wrongdoing become increasingly serious, the surveillance capitalism that has defined the mobile internet era will come to a halt.

Angèle Cristin asks that newsrooms don't just consider the tech industry's use of algorithms, but their own as well:

From their use of invasive tracking systems to their reliance on real-time web analytics and their dependence on social media platforms for distribution, newsrooms are deeply enmeshed in the algorithmic world, as I have written elsewhere. To date, newsrooms have not lingered on this fact. Unlike the glory of the resistance to Trump or the breaking news of Facebook’s mishandling data, the co-dependency of news organizations and algorithmic technologies has remained a dirty topic for most journalists.

Francesco Marconi, who collaborated deeply with Matter while he was at the Associated Press, advocates applying human-centered techniques to journalism:

Iterative journalism begins with people, but it looks beyond just demographic data to understand how individuals feel and what they need when seeking news. Knowing someone’s age, gender, and what article they just read might tell journalists something — but it doesn’t tell them how to approach a story in the way most relevant for members of a certain community.

An Xiao Mina contemplates the death of consensus:

In 2019, let the idea that we’re seeing the death of truth die. What looks like the death of truth is actually the death of consensus, and a broader transition to a world of dissensus nudged along by a wide variety of media outlets online, on television and radio, and in other forms of media. Misinformation spreads most effectively in this environment because someone, somewhere will find information that fits an existing worldview, and it’s that deeper worldview that’s much harder to change.

Roberto Hernandez has a warning for bigots that I particularly hope comes true:

If you have said something racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic in a professional setting — whether being at work, an industry event or listserv — but don’t see it as a big deal…we see you. And we will replace you.

And Steve Grove, Director of the Google News Lab, predicts that tech's work with journalism will be measured and assessed:

The public conversation on this topic is reaching a fever pitch. Issues that were once just discussed at news industry conferences by experts are now being discussed at dinner tables by families and friends. And regulatory conversations, highlighted by the EU copyright directive in Europe but spanning governments around the globe, are challenging the framework of how tech platforms host or link to news content. If and how people and governments shift their thinking on how digital news content should be discovered and distributed will in turn affect the momentum and appetite that tech companies have for the news space — and ultimately what news users will be able to access via tech platforms.

There's so much more. Every piece is worth reading and absorbing. The full index is here.

 

If Not Venture Capital, Then What?

Most of Silicon Valley is financed with venture capital, and its success there has made it attractive in other industries. The model isn't always transferrable: media companies have raised using VC dollars to very little success, for example.

That's because VC depends on scalability. The core idea is that an investor - or more usually, a collection of investors, all investing on the same terms and at the same time, in a round of funding - will put money into a company while it's relatively small and unproven, and the investment is therefore relatively cheap. The company will then hopefully grow enormously quickly, proving out its hypotheses and gaining value at a rapid rate. Venture capital investors deploy money from a fund, itself invested into by their limited partners (rich people and institutions like pension funds). They have usually promised their partners that the fund duration will be ten years or less, and correspondingly, they want to see returns from their investments very quickly. The goal in many funds is to return 3X the value to their limited partners; because most investments will fail, they're looking to invest in companies that have the potential to return 30-40 times their money.

Although secondary markets exist, VCs only typically make money when an investment is acquired by another company or when it IPOs on the stock market (an exit). So in addition to enormous growth expectations, there's a built-in timer on these investments. You can think of most VC-funded Silicon Valley startups as being financial vehicles more than they are product or service companies. That's why advertising has been such a popular business model: stopping and asking people to pay for your product slows your growth, and therefore your attractiveness to investors.

For some companies - Facebook, say - this model works exceptionally well. For others (like those media companies), not so much. But VC has become the de facto funding model for internet services, because of its abundance, and because that's what a lot of the tech press chooses to talk about. In turn, the parameters for venture capital funding have become misunderstood as the parameters for starting any kind of venture on the internet at all. Because VC won't look at a venture that doesn't have a potential market of billions of dollars, it's become understood that ventures with smaller market sizes are not going to survive. Because VC needs high growth, it's become understood that all startup ventures should aim to be high-growth. And because exits are most often acquisitions, it's become understood that market consolidation and a trend towards monopoly is actually a good thing.

Venture capital has, inadvertently, created a template for what can be built on the internet. It's harmful, and it's a lie.

This is going to become even more problematic if predictions of a downturn turn out to be correct. As Fred Wilson wrote:

However, I do think a difficult macro business and political environment in the US will lead investors to take a more cautious stance in 2019. It would not surprise me to see total venture capital investments in 2019 decline from 2018. And I think we will see financings take longer, diligence on new investments actually occur, and valuations to come under pressure for even the most attractive opportunities.

A common, and correct, critcism of alternative funding models has been that they don't adequately describe the upside for potential investors. For example, in a revenue-sharing model, investors put money into a company in exchange for a percentage of revenue up to a cap, which might be 5X. If an investor puts in $50,000, they expect to receive $250,000 back, in payments that constitute 10 or 20% of the company's total revenue (usually once the company is making enough annual recurring revenue that these payments aren't an existential threat). Notice that this is dramatically lower than the 30-40X expected from VC - and while it could be argued that a revenue-focused company is less likely to fail than a growth-focused one, there aren't actually any numbers to back that up yet. So it could just be an investment with a smaller upside for the investor.

For the startup, the numbers start to look daunting after it takes more than even a small amount of seed funding: while repaying $250,000 to investors is potentially reasonable for a profitable company, a $1M investment might need $5M to be returned from revenue. That might be fine if we're talking about a VC-sized investment opportunity - but if we are, why wouldn't the startup take VC money and forgo paying dividends?

The answer, I think, is to think smaller and more specific. Rather than trying to build something that addresses a large portion of the internet, build something that addresses a highly niche group that has been thus far unspported because of the industry's focus on growth. Instead of being the next Facebook or Uber, think about being the next MetaFilter or The Well.

Lifestyle businesses have a bad reputation because it's harder for the financial ecosystem to make money from them. But for their owners, save for a very small number of outlier founders who ride VC to high net worth valuations, they can be every bit as lucrative. And you get to do it on your terms, serving a community that you genuinely care about, rather than following a paint-by-numbers path to success. The irony is that by serving a smaller community well, in a way that doesn't lend itself well to scaling fast, founders are probably setting the groundwork for a company that really could be VC-scale, if they wanted it to be. (The choice is theirs.)

As for the investment return question, I think you have to adjust the scope and definition of investment and returns to be about more than money. Communities can be stakeholders in other ways. Consider the Kickstarter / Indiegogo crowdfunding model, where investors don't get equity at all - instead, their rewards are early access to products and services, and even more than that, the social aura of having helped something they care about to be birthed into the world. By deeply understanding the community they're serving before you build anything, making connections, and getting to know them as people, founders can motivate them to help provide the seed funding and momentum they need.

VC is going to continue to be one part of the funding landscape. But I think we need to see it as just one part. There is nothing wrong with building something that is smaller and more focused. There's nothing wrong with bringing your community into your venture more deeply. And there's nothing wrong with considering how to remake the tech industry as one that is less monopolistic, inherently more inclusive, and more resilient, through rejecting unicorns in favor of lots of small pieces, loosely joined.

 

Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

 

My Resolutions for 2019

Happy New Year! May your year be full of joy and success, by your definitions and on your terms.

I think that qualification is important: your definitions of joy and success, achieved in a way that's right for you. We're all innundated with messages telling us that we're not enough, that now is the time to make a change for the better - you slob! - and I think these all represent empty illusions of forward momentum. Some of them, like aggressive calls to lose weight or make more money, border on cruelty. All of them carry a commercial subtext. You'll be a better person if you just buy this thing.

This year, I want to make some much more positive resolutions.

Sure, sharing your goals makes them less achievable, but the individual goals aren't really the point. And I'm certainly not going to beat myself up if I don't achieve them. It's much more about the theme and direction of my year - the broad strokes of how I hope to live and interact with the world. This year, the theme is "resist" - not just politically, but personally. Our political system isn't the only substrate at the mercy of rich manipulators wielding trillions of dollars. Advertising and commercialism want to break us down and reconstitute our needs and worries in terms of products to be sold. Money is in all of our blood, like mercury poisoning, leading us to poor decisions and unnecessary anxiety.

So here are some thoughts on how I want to live in 2019:

 

Try to be kind (vs nice). Have compassion for everyone, and a strong moral compass that leans towards equality, inclusion, and democracy. Don't tolerate intolerance. Don't be conflict-avoidant when strong words or actions are necessary. And remember that being kind includes being kind to yourself.

Have a bias towards action. Rather than waffle or over-plan, plant a flag and take action, even if that action turns out to be imperfect. I can always course correct. But life doesn't wait.

Make sure people know I love them. Tell them often.

Be a man. Which is to say, by my definition, not some arbitrary, outdated ideas of what masculinity entails. Every man (and every woman, and every human) gets to decide what being themself means.

Try to be healthier. Be happier in my own skin, and more forward-facing in my thoughts. Be stronger, physically and mentally. But remember that vulnerability is strength too; don't harden. And don't succumb to other peoples' ideas of how I should improve myself unless I'm sure they're not a reflection of their own desires and neuroses.

Try not to make fear-based decisions. Instead, think: where do I want to be in 2 years? In 5? In 10? Avoid acting in the short term as much as possible.

Read more. Books, not posts (although posts are great too). In 2019 I want to try and read a book a week.

Write (and draw) more. But only in partnership with reading more.

Limit my exposure. At Thanksgiving 2018, I decided to log out of social media and remove all my social apps -  and I've been blogging almost every day instead. It's the best thing I've ever done on the internet as an adult. Suddenly, I was far removed from influencers, sponsored messages, and the outrage of the day. I feel no less connected to the people I love, or to what's happening in the world (in fact, I read far more journalism). I plan to continue this indefinitely for Facebook and its subsidiaries, although I'll probably return to Twitter now and then.

And finally, some quick specifics: Stop using Amazon. Be much better at email. Don't use ridesharing apps except in emergencies. Make eating out a special occasion instead of a regular activity. Commit to helping out with a Presidential campaign, somehow. And find ways to be more environmentally sustainable.

 

What are your resolutions? What are your hopes for the next year?

 

Picture: the first light of 2019, over Lake Mendocino, just outside Ukiah, CA.

 

Farewell, 2018

I'm in an AirBnb on the edge of Lake Mendocino and I want to get out and see the redwoods, so I'll keep this short:

2018 was a hell of a year for me personally. I lost family, I lost a job I cared about, for a while I thought I was going to get a terminal genetic disease, and the health of my family is suffering. It was also a year that I gained a lot, through new connections, opportunities, and life experiences. And then, of course, from Facebook to Trump, ubiquitous surveillance to child detention camps, it was a harrowing year for the world. It was a rollercoaster that leant towards the negative.

But what made it worthwhile is what always makes life worthwhile: people. I'm so grateful for all of you, and more broadly for all the incredible people I get to have in my life. They inspire me, give me hope, and remind me of the joy and beauty of humanity. I sometimes (often) am not the communicator I want to be, but I'm proud to have them in my life, and for them to be in mine.

Tomorrow, we look forwards. But for now: redwoods.

Onwards.

 

Bicycles

I miss my bike.

Growing up in Oxford, bicycles were the default mode of transportation for just about everyone. I cycled to school and back every day; I'd cycle into town to go shopping; later on, I'd cycle to the pub to meet my friends. I remember cycling through the University Parks cycle path in the dead of night after seeing a midnight movie. Sometimes - by which I mean, a couple of times a week - I would cycle around the perimeter of the city, or up to Shotover Park, just for the hell of it.

It was just a thing that you did. Most people didn't have very expensive bicycles, because they were a target for thieves; certainly, nobody dressed up to go cycling. You carried your helmet and your bike lights with you. Maybe, if you were fancy, you attached bike clips to your jeans.

Every year, a student would die or be seriously injured because they were new to the city and didn't understand that bikes needed to adhere to the rules of the world. They'd run a red light and be hit by a car, or they'd hit a curb at the wrong angle and hit their unhelmeted head on the sidewalk. But mostly, it was a safe thing to do, partially because there was safety in numbers: the cyclists almost travel in herds.

In Edinburgh, the wind, the hills, and the freezing, horizontal rain combined to form too oppressive a force. People did cycle, but I quickly realized that I wouldn't be one of them. And then when I moved to California, it became obvious that cars were the kings of the road, and my sense of self-preservation kept me away. There's also a terrifying trend, in Berkeley at least, of cyclists militantly rejecting road rules, as if red lights and stop signs don't apply to them. Again: this is how you die.

I think this year, I might finally go back to cycling. Using Oxford rules, though: I don't need or want to pay a four figure sum for a bicycle, and while mountain biking in Marin looks like a lot of fun, I don't think anyone needs to see me clad head to toe in spandex to do so. No offense intended for anyone who goes for the expensive bikes or full cycling gear - it does look like fun - but for me, simplicity appeals.

Oxford isn't my only influence here. I was born in the Netherlands, and my first memory is of Amsterdam, now the bicycle capital of the world. The country has 22,000 miles of cycle paths, and its size means that you could feasibly take a week or two and travel around the whole country this way. If that's too ambitious, every train station has a bike rental place attached to it, and for a few Euros - far less than the extortionate amounts charged to tourists in San Francisco, for example - you can have freedom to roam for a day. I've spent lovely days cycling around places like Gouda, between the irrigation canals, stopping in at cheesemakers along the way. While this kind of thing used to be a cheap hop that I wouldn't have to think much about, it now requires travel that I have to budget for. Nevertheless, I think there are more trips like those in my future.

I'm learning that my presence here isn't ephemeral: I'm probably in the States for good - or at least, for a long time to come. I didn't arrive here as an entirely new person, but with the turbulence of my life here, I've let go of a lot of the things I used to do, or used to enjoy. But my life is a continuous line, and what feels like breaks are nothing of the sort. It's possible to reach back for big things and small. A bicycle is a small thing, but a reminder that I'm the same person I was there; just, removed.

 

Eggnog

We have a half gallon of eggnog in the fridge.

I'm surprised by how old it is. I don't remember it really featuring in British supermarkets, and based on its modern incarnation - Christmas drinking custard - I would have guessed that it had been invented in maybe the fifties or sixties, for an America audience. But nog was already a kind of English ale in the late 1600s. Posset, an alcoholic drink where milk was curdled with wine or ale and spiced, was mixed with egg as early as the 1300s. The word "eggnog" is first recorded as having been used in 1775, the year before the Declaration of Independence was issued.

In 1826, military cadets at West Point rioted because they were served alcohol-free eggnog. In the end, some cadets went on a mission to a tavern a couple of miles away and came back with gallon jugs of whisky, before getting boisterously drunk and wreaking havoc across the Academy. In the end, 70 cadets were arrested.

Ten years ago today, my mother told us that she'd been diagnosed with idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis, the disease that at that time had killed my grandmother. She had finally got her persistent cough checked out, and gone through a series of increasingly invasive tests. And now, days before Christmas, we had the result.

The average life expectancy after an IPF diagnosis is 3 to 5 years. We didn't know what was going to happen, and typing this today, knowing this expectancy, I don't know why I didn't go through the logistical steps of moving to California to be closer to them immediately. There were things holding me back, of course - a whole life and roots and a network - but none of them were anywhere near as important. In the event, it took until she was carrying an oxygen tank on her back for me to pack two suitcases and make the jump. My grandmother had worn an oxygen tank, and then she had been gone. It was my first conscious introduction to losing a loved one, and I remember, at six years old, sitting in my bedroom while I heard my mother weeping in the living room. My grandmother had been in Austin, Texas, while we had been in Oxford, England, far away from her bedside.

Slowly, the trappings of my old life stripped away. Her diagnosis was a contributing factor to my leaving Elgg: suddenly, life was too short to deal with interpersonal bullshit. I had thought - hoped - that I was going to move with my girlfriend at the time, who I would eventually ask to marry me. That didn't happen, and it took me years to accept that it wasn't simply because I wasn't good enough. Every tie, save for those of friendship, faded. I was in California now, building a new life, trying to live while being aware, every day, of the undercurrent of tragedy that brought me here. Some days, I would attend an open data event and talk about open source. Some days, my mother would be helicoptered from a regional hospital in order to save her life.

Over time, it became clear that we're all at the forefront of familial pulmonary fibrosis; my mother was discussed at medical conferences. My mother saw symptoms in her sister, my wonderful aunt Erica, who she dragged in to see her doctors. She had two lung transplants. Over time, her son, my beautifully-spirited, generous, kind cousin, was diagnosed, too. We laid them both to rest last year and this year respectively. I think about them both every day.

My mother had a double lung transplant in 2013. I was in their home the night they got the call, the conversation soundtracked by the two refrigerator-sized oxygen concentrators running in parallel to keep her alive. Oxygen concentrators use containers of distilled water to prevent the oxygen from drying you out, and the sound is somewhere between a diesel generator and an aquarium. But suddenly, they were gone, and the torpedo-sized oxygen tanks were no longer a daily fixture. Somewhere I still have the discarded green plastic caps; one of us was going to turn them into an art project, but none of us could.

It wasn't an easy recovery. The following five years brought stomach tubes, throat surgeries, pneumonia, and dialysis. This year in particular has been one of the most difficult. There is talk of needing more surgery, but surgery is off the table. I treasure every moment. My dad is like some kind of superhero, looking after her diligently and with love, despite his own health slipping. There is sadness and stress in every day, but there's also so much love.

Research is now advanced enough to know that our familial pulmonary fibrosis is a symptom of dyskeratosis congenita, an incurable genetic condition that affects how you produce telomerase, an enzyme that protects your telomeres. These are the end-caps to your chromosomes, which shorten as you age, and with stress or illness. When you don't have the right levels of telomerase, your telomeres shorten prematurely. The effect is particularly pronounced in areas where your cells reproduce and are refreshed more frequently, like your lungs, and your bone marrow. The implications are terrifying, but there is one that isn't: it's possible to test for it.

This summer, my sister and I decided to get tested together. We were warned of the insurance implications, but Europe was our safety net; if we had the genetic marker and insurance became a problem, we would relocate to somewhere with a functional healthcare system. The probability of neither of us having it was less than 25%. I gave up meat and alcohol in preparation for having to get a lot healthier; I knew the kinds of tests they made you do to prove you could cope with a lung transplant. Mostly, I hoped that my sister wouldn't have it; I could accept my own life coming to a premature end, but not hers. She's the most amazing person I've ever met, someone I am proud and bewildered to be related to; her life ending would be like turning the lights out in the universe. But in the end, we were clear, and both of us openly wept in the genetic counselor's office.

I don't know how much time we all get as a family, but we have today. We have this Christmas. I'm so grateful for the bonus time. This week, this holiday, I'm maing a resolution to be present, in the moment. I want to remember everything.

We have a half gallon of eggnog in the fridge. I can hear my family now, awake and down in the living room. I'm going to go downstairs, pour a little eggnog in my coffee - those West Point cadets missed a trick - and join them.

 

Matter and Energy

Corey has made an announcement about Matter over on its Medium publication:

I’m proud of the impact we’ve made, the team we’ve built, and the people and organizations that we have transformed. But now it’s time for me to flare.

For the last two years I have tried to secure Matter’s future. While I succeeded at figuring out how to successfully expand Matter and its unique culture to NYC and to tranform Matter into an organization that could continue to operate if I were hit by a bus, I have yet to successfully raise Matter Fund III and we’ve come to the end of our runway.

I've had the privilege of being on many sides of the Matter table. My third startup, Known, was funded by it, and I took part in the third accelerator class. I was a mentor and occasional advisor. And then I was asked to join the team and was the west coast Director of Investments. (I had an abstract ambition to one day come back as an LP, completing the set, but oh well.)

When I discovered Matter, it felt like an oasis: here was an accelerator that wanted to make the world more informed, empowered, and connected. An investment community that prized empathy and inclusivity. And rather than talking about this vaguely, or staying at 30,000 feet, the hands-on accelerator process was designed to give entrepreneurs the tools they needed to test their assumptions and succeed in the real world. It was Corey's process, and it worked - both for the entrepreneurs who took part in it, and for the media partners like KQED and the Associated Press who used it to improve their own internal innovation.

It changed my life.

Not just by teaching me the principles of human-centered venture design, although it did do that. Not just by taking a bet on my work, although I will always be grateful. But more than anything else, by introducing me to an amazing community of people who I'm proud to call my friends - and then allowing me to help build it.

It was meaningful work that allowed me to use every part of myself. It pushed me in ways I'd never been pushed before, and in the same way that participating in the accelerator transformed the way I'll build products and ventures forever, I am a much better person for having worked on that team. It was very far from just being a job. I worked and cried with founders late into the night. I helped some of the world's biggest media institutions work on their most existential problems. I helped bring Chelsea Manning to demo day. And I did it as part of a group of people who I still can't believe I got to be part of. Years later, I honestly still can't believe my luck.

I'm very grateful to Corey for founding this community, which I believe I'll be part of for the rest of my life. In the same way people talk about the PayPal Mafia, I think people will start talking about the Matter Underground in media circles: people who were part of the Matter community, changed by its values, and then went on to change media and technology for good. That also goes for the incredible people I worked with, which certainly includes Corey. I wish him the best in whatever he chooses to do next, and I can't wait to hear about it.

I'll finish by including this photo, which I stole from his post. It represents my single proudest moment in my professional career to date: the day that a group of people that I helped source, select and invest in walked through the garage door. Each one of them had a mission with the potential to create a more informed, inclusive, and empathetic society. And each of them was an amazing individual who I'm proud to know.

Corey's full post is here.

 

My Oxford

VICE has a long-running series where British writers bring photographers back to their hometowns, which I stumbled into this morning via Metafilter. It's stunning, and while I didn't recognize the Edinburgh entry almost at all, there was another piece that unexpectedly took my breath away.

I'm from Oxford as much as I'm from anywhere, but I've never read a piece that captured my experience of the city. Instead, it's always the opulent, ancient buildings of the university, the famous writers like CS Lewis and JRR Tolkein, or the plummy, upper middle class concerns of the North Oxford set. An outsider could be forgiven for thinking that the city was all cream teas and tennis.

Not so much. As Nell Frizzell writes:

Say its name and people will think of spires, books, bicycles, punting, philosophers and meadows. Few will think of cheap European lager, samosas, hardware shops, GCSEs, underage drinking, the number 3a bus or going twos on a roll-up beside a mental health hospital. They may not even think of the car factory, the warehouses on Botley Road, Powell's timber merchants, the registry office in Clarendon Shopping Centre, The Star pub, plantain sandwiches or Fred's Discount Store. But that's the Oxford I grew up in.

Me too. Nell's description of east Oxford is spot on, although we moved in different social circles; there was no cocaine in my world, even if we also gathered at exactly the same pub. All of these places are my places too, and the things she cares about in her hometown are things I care about also. In a life where I've lived in multiple countries and never quite found myself fitting in, including in the place I grew up, that's an incredible rareity.

I'm very glad I moved away - living in a variety of places has been right for me, and I expect I'll continue to move around. Having no nationality and no religion means that the pull to travel and exist in different contexts is strong. And Oxford really does have some deep problems. But that doesn't mean I don't miss it, too.

Because of the images that Oxford conjures in the minds of people who have never been there (and even some who have), I find it hard to explain where I came from. I can immediately taste the samosas and smell the beer-stained floorboards, but it's hard to convey. Now, at least, I have something I can point to; a description I actually recognize.

If you're interested in a realer Britain, the whole series is worth reading.

 

Open APIs and the Facebook Trash Fire

The New York Times report on Facebook's ongoing data sharing relationships is quite something. The gist is that even while it claimed that its data sharing relationships had been terminated in 2015 - to users and to governments around the world - many were still active into this year. Moreover, these relationships were established in such a way as to hide the extent of the data sharing from users, possibly in contravention of GDPR and its reporting responsibilities to the FTC:

“This is just giving third parties permission to harvest data without you being informed of it or giving consent to it,” said David Vladeck, who formerly ran the F.T.C.’s consumer protection bureau. “I don’t understand how this unconsented-to data harvesting can at all be justified under the consent decree.”

The company's own press release response to the reporting attempts to sugarcoat the facts, but essentially agrees that this happened. Data was shared with third parties during the period when the company declared that this wasn't happening, and often without user permission or understanding.
Back to the NYT article to make the implications clear:

The social network allowed Microsoft’s Bing search engine to see the names of virtually all Facebook users’ friends without consent, the records show, and gave Netflix and Spotify the ability to read Facebook users’ private messages.

The social network permitted Amazon to obtain users’ names and contact information through their friends, and it let Yahoo view streams of friends’ posts as recently as this summer, despite public statements that it had stopped that type of sharing years earlier.

In September 2007, I flew out to Silicon Valley to participate in something called the Data Sharing Summit, organized by Marc Canter. At the time, I was working on Elgg, and we believed strongly in establishing open APIs so that people wouldn't be siloed into their social networks and web services. I met people there who have remained friends for the rest of my career. And all of us wanted open access to APIs so that users could move their data around, and so that startups wouldn't have as a high a barrier to entry into the market.

That was an ongoing meme in the industry ten years ago: open data, open APIs. It's one that has clearly informed Facebook's design and influential decisions. I certainly bought into it. And to some extent I still do, although I'd now prefer to go several steps further and architect systems with no central point of control or data storage at all. But such systems - whether centralized or decentralized - need to center around giving control to the user. Even at the Data Sharing Summit, we quickly realized that data control was a more meaningful notion than data ownership. Who gets to say what can happen to my data? And who gets to see it?

Establishing behind-the-scenes reciprocal data sharing agreements with partners breaks the implicit trust contract that a service has with its users.

Facebook clued us in to how much power it held in 2011, when it introduced its timeline feature. I managed to give this fairly asinine quote to the New York Times back then:

“We’ve all been dropping status updates and photos into a void,” said Ben Werdmuller, the chief technology officer at Latakoo, a video service. “We knew we were sharing this much, of course, but it’s weird to realize they’ve been keeping this information and can serve it up for anyone to see.”

Mr. Werdmuller, who lives in Berkeley, Calif., said the experience of browsing through his social history on Facebook, complete with pictures of old flames, was emotionally evocative — not unlike unearthing an old yearbook or a shoebox filled with photographs and letters.

My point had actually not so much been about "old flames" as about relationships: it became clear that Facebook understood everyone you had a relationship with, not just the people you had added as a friend. Few pieces dove into the real implications of having all that data in one place, because at the time it seemed like the stuff of dystopian science fiction. Some of us were harping on about it, but it was so far outside of mainstream discourse that it sounded crazy. But here we are, in 2018, and we've manifested the panopticon.

In the same way that the timeline made the implications of posting on Facebook clear, this year's revelations represent another sea change in our collective understanding. Last time - and every time there has been this kind of perspective shift - the Overton window has shifted and we've collectively adjusted our expectations to incorporate it. I worry that by next election, we'll be fairly used to the idea of extensive private surveillance (as a declared fact rather than ideological speculation), and the practice will continue. And then the next set of perspective shifts will be genuinely horrifying.

Questions left unanswered: what information is Facebook sharing with Palantir, or the security services? To what extent are undeclared data-sharing relationships used to deport people, or to identify individuals who should be closely monitored? Is it used to identify subversives? And beyond the effects of data sharing, given what we know about the chilling effects surveillance has on democracy, what effect on democratic discourse has the omnipresence of the social media feed already had - and to what extent is this intentional?

I'm done assuming good faith; I'm done assuming incompetence; I'm done assuming ignorance. I hope you are too.

 

Image: Elevation, section and plan of Jeremy Bentham's Panopticon penitentiary, drawn by Willey Reveley, 1791, from Wikipedia

 

Groups 2.0 is Explode, kinda

I'm getting really strong deja vu from Gro.ups 2.0 - an open source social networking platform that is now entirely implemented in JavaScript widgets.

From the Product Hunt thread:

I should also note that Grou.ps v2 is actually a set of GraphJS widgets Put on top of a gorgeous Bootstrap theme. That makes it super easy for developers to (a) come up with new templates, look & feel (b) port the social functionality to other digital assets they may have, like a mobile app, WordPress blog or website (but Not cryptocurrencies LOL)

GraphJS has been around for a little while, and is designed to be an embeddable set of widgets.

Explode was an embeddable JavaScript social network I made out of Elgg almost twelve years ago. Here's the TechCrunch article from the time:

A new open source cross-site social networking service called Explode launched today and looks like a very appealing alternative to the now Yahoo! owned MyBlogLog.  Built by UK open-source social network provider Curverider (whose primary product, Elgg, is similar to PeopleAggregator), Explode offers an embeddable widget that links out to users’ respective profile pages on any social network but allows commenting and befriending in one aggregated location.  I found Explode via Steve O’Hear’s The Social Web, one of my new favorite blogs.

What's old is truly new again. It's interesting to see people experiment with open social networks in 2018 - something I spent at least a decade of my life on. More power to them.

 

Unlock and Joint Ownership

Since August, I've been helping my friend Julien Genestoux at his startup Unlock.

Unlock is a protocol which enables creators to monetize their content with a few lines of code in a fully decentralized way. In the initial version, anyone can sell their work on the internet by adding two lines of code. Those are the only steps: create your content; add code; you're ready to accept payment. It's blockchain-based, so it's equally accessible to everyone in the world, both to buy and to sell.

It's really a decentralized protocol for access control. There are two elements to consider: a lock, and a set of  keys. You place a lock on some content to protect it; anyone with a key for that particular lock can access it. Publishers can use the same lock for as many different items of content as they want, and anyone with an appropriate key can access all of it. Content could be an article, a video, a podcast, or a software application. It can also be a mailing list, which is on the roadmap for 2019.

It's an open protocol at heart, which means it starts to get really interesting when other people begin to build on it. The initial Unlock code is a paywall; you can run our hosted version, or you can install the software and run your own. But you can also take the Unlock blockchain and structure and build something completely new. Over time, there will be more Unlock code and libraries that you can use as building blocks. Unlock, Inc doesn't need to be the central hub, and it doesn't need to own the blockchain. Unlike a service like Twitter, where the underlying company gets value by controlling access (and running ads), and therefore developers may get burned if they use it to underpin their products, Unlock the company is physically incapable of exerting central control over the Unlock Protocol.

I think what I've described is a good thing for the web - Unlock is the low-friction payments layer that should have been there from the very beginning - but much more is possible, and this isn't a "decentralize all the things!" argument. There are concrete benefits for businesses today. One thing I'm particularly excited about is that, because the blockchain is both transparent and decentralized, jointly-owned content becomes much more possible.

Two hypothetical examples:

Radiotopia is a podcast co-operative. Each podcast is wholly owned by its producer, but they raise money together and distribute funds as a stipend between them. Right now, they're fundraising using CommitChange; funds presumably pool to one central point - someone holds a bank account - and then are distributed by a human. But what if they could raise money by creating a lock that people purchase keys for, and the proceeds from that lock were automatically and transparently sent to every member of the Radiotopia network? They could still use CommitChange as a front end (particularly as it's based on the open source Houdini project), but their accounting and payments overhead would be dramatically lower. Each member of the network would also be able to trust that payments were made to them immediately and automatically. And for new networks - baby Radiotopias - creating a bundled content network becomes just a case of deciding to work together.

Project Facet is an open source project for collaborative journalism. Increasingly, in a world of budget cuts and changing business models, newsrooms need to collaborate to produce investigative reporting. Right now, they pool resources in informal ways, and produce separate stories based on the reporting. With the Unlock Protocol, they could collaborate on the substance of the stories themselves, and put them under a shared lock that automatically pools the revenue between the participating organizations. This would be much harder in a universe where you'd have a custodial bank account and an accountant who made payments; here it could be fully transparent, and fully automatic.

These are purely hypothetical, and non-exclusive; much more is possible. Just a flexible paywall, or paid-for mailing lists, are exciting. The point is that we can think beyond how we've traditionally restricted access, and how we've transferred value. Personally, in my work, I'm most motivated by concrete human use cases - and Unlock illustrates how blockchain services have a lot of potential. This isn't an ICO, and it's not a speculative coin play. It's a way for creators to pool and share value, and make money from their work in a flexible way. And that's exciting to me.

The code is fully open; you can get involved here.

 

Photo by Francois Hurtaud on Unsplash

 

The Trolls from Olgino, the Sabateurs from Menlo Park

There's a lot in the news this morning about online influence campaigns conducted by the Internet Research Agency, a propaganda firm with close ties to the Russian government. Two reports were prepared for the Senate Intelligence Committee: one by an Austin-based security firm called New Knowlege, and the other by the Oxford Internet Institute's Computational Propaganda Project.

As of today, both are freely available online. Here's the full New Knowlege report; here's the full Oxford Institute Institute report.

This is the first time we've really heard about Instagram being used for an influence campaign, but it shouldn't be a surprise: if I say the word "influencer", it's probably the first platform that you think of. Like any decent digital advertising campaign, this one was cross-platform, recognizing that different demographics and communities engage on different sites. In a world where 44% of users aged 18 to 29 have logged out of the Facebook mothership, any campaign hoping to reach young people would to include Instagram. And of course, that's why Facebook bought the service to begin with.

News stories continue to paint this as some kind of highly sophisticated propaganda program masterminded by the Russian government. And it does seem like the Russian government was involved in this influence campaign. But this is how modern digital campaigns are run. People have been building Facebook Pages to gain as many likes as possible since the feature was released, precisely so they can monetize their posts and potentially sell them on to people who need to reach a large audience quickly. Influencers - people who are paid to seed opinions online - will represent $10 billion in advertising spending by 2020.

It is, of course, deeply problematic that a foreign influence campaign was so widespread and successful in the 2016 election - I have no desire to downplay this, particularly in our current, dire, political environment. But I also think we're skimming the surface: because of America's place in the world, it's highly likely that there were many other parallel influence campaigns, both from foreign and domestic sources. And all of us are subject to an insidious kind of targeted marketing for all kinds of things - from soft drinks to capitalism itself - from all kinds of sources.

The Iowa Writers' Workshop is one of the most influential artistic hubs of the twentieth century. Over half of the creative writing programs founded after its creation were done so by Iowa graduates; it helped spur the incredible creative boom in American literature over the next few decades. And its director, Paul Engle, funded it by convincing American institutions - like the CIA and the Rockefeller Foundation - that literature from an American, capitalist perspective would help fight communism. It could be argued that much of the literature that emerged from the Workshop's orbit was an influence campaign. More subtle and independent than the social media campaigns we see today, for sure, but with a similar intent: influence the opinions of the public in the service of a political goal.

And of course, Joseph Goebbels was heavily influenced in his approach by Edward Bernays, the American founder of modern public relations, who realized he could apply the principles of propaganda to marketing. Even today, that murderous legacy lives on: the Facebook misinformation campaigns around the genocide in Myanmar are its spiritual successor.

So political influence campaigns are not new, and they have the potential to do great harm. The Russian influence campaign is probably not even the most recent event in the long history of information warfare. While it's important to identify that this happened, and certainly to root out collusion with American politicians who may have illegally used this as a technique to win elections, I think it's also important to go a level deeper and untangle the transmisison vector as well as this particular incident.

Every social network subsists on influence campaigns to different degrees. There's no doubt that Facebook's $415 billion market cap is fuelled by companies who want to influence the feed where half of adultsdisproportionately from lower incomes - get their news. That's Facebook's economic engine; it's how it was designed to work. The same is true of Instagram, Twitter, etc etc, with the caveat that a feed with a lower population density is less valuable, and less able to have a measurable impact on the public discourse at large. There's one exception: while Twitter has significantly lower user numbers, it is heavily used by journalists and educators, who are then liable to share information gleaned there. Consider the number of news stories of the form, "here's what Trump tweeted today," which are then read by people who have never logged on to Twitter and wouldn't otherwise have seen the tweets.

The root cause of these misinformation campaigns is that people will do whatever they can to obtain, or hold onto, power. I don't think solving this is going to be possible during the entire remaining span of human civilization. So instead, let's think about how we can limit the "whatever they can" portion of the sentence. If people are going to use every means at their disposal to obtain power, how can we safety-check the tools we make in order to inhibit people from using them for this purpose?

Moving on from targeted advertising is a part of the answer. So is limiting the size of social networks: Facebook's 2.27 billion monthly active users are a disease vector for misinformation. As I've written before, its effective monopoly is directly harmful. Smaller communities, loosely joined, running different software and monetized in different ways, would make it much harder for a single campaign to spread to a wide audience. Influence campaigns would continue to run, but they would encounter community borders much more quickly.

A final piece is legislation. It's time for both privacy and transparency rules to be enacted around online advertising, and around user accounts. For their protection, users need to know if a message was posted by a human; they also need to know who placed an advertisement. And advertising for any kind of political topic in an election period should be banned outright, no matter who placed it, as it was in the UK. You can't have a democratic society without free and open debate - and you can't have free and open debate if one side is weighted with the force of millions of dollars, Facebook's market cap be damned.

 

Photo by Jakob Owens on Unsplash

 

Checking in on my social media fast

Three weeks ago, I decided to go dark on social media. No convoluted account deletion process; no backups. I just logged out everywhere, and deleted all my apps. It's one of the best things I've ever done.

I thought I'd check in with a quick breakdown: what worked, and what didn't. Here we go.

 

What worked

I haven't logged into Twitter, Facebook, or Instagram. I feel much calmer for it. I also feel better for not contributing to the Facebook machine. And I've gained 7 to 10 hours a week in time I'm not looking at my phone.

Crucially, I don't feel like I'm missing out or going to be forgotten, which were two of the things I was afraid of. I miss the hour-to-hour outrage but am on top of the important news. Lots of people have reached out to me; I've reached out to others; I've had the most non-work one on one email conversations in a decade. It's led to lunches, meeting up with people for dinner that I haven't seen in ages - it's been genuinely great.

The way I use my phone when I am looking at my phone has changed, too. I'm reading a lot more news and long-form content. I treated myself to a New Yorker digital subscription, which has been nourishing. (I've also got subscriptions to the NYT, Washington Post, and WSJ, and realizing that I'm missing a more international perspective. Recommendations needed!) I'm still thinking about this James Baldwin essay. I've started heavily using Pocket to save articles I might want to do something with later. Have you read the Laurie Penny blockchain cruise piece? You really have to.

And I'm blogging a lot more. For the first week or so, I felt compelled to write something every day. I'm definitely not doing that now, but not tweeting lets the thoughts bubble up until they're something a little more substantial. I've also branched out into writing things for other outlets; I'm hoping one will show up today. But the best part about blogging is that writing helps me order my thoughts and go deeper on topics I'm interested in. It also, for more personal subjects, helps me process.

 

What didn't work

I had to log back into LinkedIn. Of all the social networks, I'm sad that this is the one that proved indispensible. But it turns out I don't have a lot of peoples' email addresses, so when I needed to reach out to someone, I couldn't do it any other way. I've accepted my fate here for now, but I'm fairly uncomfortable with Microsoft being at the center of my professional relationships, so I'll need to figure something else out.

And I can't help it: I check Google Analytics for my blog. It's taken the place of hoping for interactions on my tweets, and the little realtime graph still provides enough of a dopamine rush to give me a hit. I need to wean myself away - perhaps by simply removing Google Analytics from my site. (Arguably, if I'm serious about decentralization and privacy, this is something I should do anyway - so I've just talked myself into it. It'll be gone today.)

I still spend far too much time looking at my phone. I thought about illustrating this piece with some stats, but I decided not to. They're embarrassing.

Finally: my blog is still mostly about tech. Or at least, it has been - but that's not the entirety of what I read and think about. So I'm trying to figure out if I want to have two outlets, or if anyone cares whether I digress from user privacy to talk about writing for Doctor Who or - and this might be a piece that happens soon - making pad thai for my mother. In some ways, I feel like I need to ask your permission to do this, which is sad, and I shouldn't. (So, again: I've just talked myself into not worrying about it.)

In other words: I haven't been bold enough. I could go further. So, I will.

 

Conclusions so far

This change has been more positive than expected. I'll probably keep it up in the new year, perhaps with some tweaks. Give it a try!

 

With RAD, podcasters can finally learn who's listening

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

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

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

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

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

The example data from the spec looks like this:

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

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

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

{
 "audioSessions": [
   {
     "podcastId": "510313",
     "episodeId": "525083696",
     "sessionId": "A489C3AD-04AA-4B5F-8289-4D3D2CFE4CFB",
     "events": [
       {
         "sponsorId": "0",
         "creativeId": "0",
         "eventTime": "00:00:00.000",
         "adPosition": "0",
         "label": "podcastDownload",
         "eventNum": "0",
         "timestamp": "2018-10-24T11:23:07+04:00"
       },
       {
         "sponsorId": "0",
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It's a very simple, smart solution. There's more information at the RAD homepage, and mobile developers can grab Android or iOS SDKs on GitHub.

 

Examining the degrees of Fortune 500 tech CEOs

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Founding CEOs

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

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

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

 

Current CEOs

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

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

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

 

Fields of Study Overall

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

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

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

 

Institutions

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

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

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

 

Conclusions

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

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

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

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

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

 

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