Today, the creation I am most proud to have brought into the world disappeared from the internet.
After 11 years and 7 months in service, Newsvine, a participatory news site I launched with four friends on March 1st, 2006 was officially sunsetted by NBCNews.
Although I’ve been away from the company and the service for five years now, today brings back a rush of memories and some perspective on how the problems Newsvine set out to solve over a decade ago are actually the opposite of the problems that most need solving today.
In 2005, I found myself five years into a stint at Disney, wondering what was next for news. We owned ESPN, ABCNews, and several other media properties, but most of the fresh new takes on news seemed to be coming from non-traditional sources. Neither Twitter nor the iPhone had been invented yet, and Facebook was still just a campus dating site, but blogs were sprouting up by the thousands and sites like Digg and Slashdot were becoming popular destinations.
There seemed to be this growing bifurcation between mainstream media and citizen journalism. Mainstream newsrooms didn’t want to share their platform with amateur writers, and a lot of amateur writers grew more distrustful of mainstream media. Our big idea with Newsvine was to license the same Associated Press feed of professional reporting that made up the majority of what you’d see on a site like CNN.com, publish it faster than any other site in the world, and enlist citizens from around the world to create original, paid journalism around and alongside it… and open up every single piece of content for threaded discussion as well.
In other words:
CNN = AP Wire stories + Professional Journalism
Newsvine = AP Wire stories + Citizen Journalism + Discussion
… and we could do it all with a staff of under 10 people.
We didn’t know for sure if it was going to work, but the day we decided we’d be happy to have tried it even if it failed was the day we ended up quitting our jobs (incidentally, if you are thinking about leaving your job for a new risky thing, this is the acid test I recommend).
We spent about 6 months getting the company off the ground and the service into public beta, and it wasn’t long until extraordinary acts of journalism began appearing. Chris Thomas, one of our most prolific users, broke news of the Virginia Tech shootings on Newsvine before it appeared anywhere else. Jerry Firman, a 70 year old Newsviner from Ohio, got his name on the ballot for Congress and documented the process of running for office. Corey Spring, a student at Ohio State, scored an original interview with Dave Chappelle.
The design, tech, and operational work associated with growing Newsvine were fairly straightforward, but the one thing that seemed to get more and more difficult as the site grew was moderating and cultivating the community. Your first 1000 users are easy. People are just happy to be there. Then when you get to 10,000 you have a few fights here and there but nothing unmanageable. Even at 100,000, a small team of thoughtful people can stay on top of things. But when you hit 1 million, 10 million, and beyond, the community becomes much less intimate and more volatile.
Such was the case when we were acquired in 2007 by MSNBC.com (now NBCNews.com). Our site was already decently big but MSNBC’s was many times bigger… about 45 million people at the time. The post-acquisition work was twofold: 1) continue growing Newsvine as a standalone property, 2) use our technology to add registration, profiles, discussion threads, and other features to MSNBC.com. We also ended up powering all of the company’s blogs and some other things.
I ended up staying at MSNBC for about five years, and I would say the results of the experiment were mixed overall. On the upside, we provided technology that helped launch new editorial brands quickly and connect journalists to their audiences, but on the downside, “community” at that scale can be very messy. Additionally, with the eventual rise of Twitter and Facebook, Newsvine never grew to those usage levels. MSNBC.com was a great parent throughout though, and I have nothing but love for the people I worked with.
It’s interesting to compare Newsvine (and sites like it) to the now wildly successful fortunes of Facebook and Twitter. Newsvine at its core was a news site with a social network wrapped around it. Facebook at its core is a social network with news (and photos, and events, etc) wrapped around it. Twitter is probably structured more like Facebook in this regard as well, but its biggest challenge, in my opinion, has always been a lack of commitment to building those real-life social connections into the service.
When we look at how the average person’s news and media diet has changed over the last decade or so, we can trace it directly back to the way these and other modern organizations have begun feeding us our news. Up until 10 or 15 years ago, we essentially drank a protein shake full of news. A good amount of fruits and vegetables, some grains, some dairy, some tofu, and then a little bit of sugar, all blended together. Maybe it wasn’t the tastiest thing in the world but it kept us healthy and reasonably informed. Then, with cable news we created a fruit-only shake for half the population and a vegetable-only shake for the other half. Then with internet news, we deconstructed the shake entirely and let you pick your ingredients, often to your own detriment. And finally, with peer-reinforced, social news networks, we’ve given you the illusion of a balanced diet, but it’s often packed with sugar, carcinogens, and other harmful substances without you ever knowing. And it all tastes great!
As someone who has created Newsvine, worked at Twitter, and had many discussions with people at Facebook, I can tell you that this sort of effect was never “part of the business plan”. However, maximizing engagement was and still is, and that has led to a world in which what appears on people’s screens is what is most likely to keep one’s attention, as opposed to what is actually most important to know and understand.
The solutions to these problems will not come easy. They aren’t as simple as banning some jerk from Twitter or improving bot detection on Facebook. We’ve trained people to get their news and information from the cookie jar, and since we now know exactly what that world looks like, we must begin the job of untraining them… or at least engineering a healthy cookie.
We probably got a lot of things wrong at Newsvine, but one thing I still feel we got absolutely right is our longstanding tagline:
Get Smarter Here.
That’s really the only promise we ever wanted the service to fulfill.
After 800,000 articles, 65 million comments, 11+ years, thousands of new friendships, and at least one marriage and child from the site that I’m aware of, I’m confident it has fulfilled its mission for at least some who roamed its jungles.
(Special thanks to the entire Newsvine community. Without the dedicated efforts of all of you, we would have never had this special corner of the internet to write, meet new people, and have our perspectives changed. Thanks also to my partners Calvin, Mark, Lance, Josh, Tom, Tyler, Sally, Luke, Todd, Bobby, Dave, Arun, Jim, Mike, Brenda, Carl, Charlie, Rex, and everyone else at MSNBC.com for making this all possible. Also, extra special thanks to Nick, one of our investors, for introducing me to my wife, who I would have never met were it not for this little chance we took. And finally, thanks to my wife who helped get me through everything back then and since.)
(This post also available on Medium.)
It may seem hard to believe, but only a couple of decades ago, it was nearly impossible to provide feedback on new or redesigned products. Take for example, Crystal Pepsi. One day in 1992, while you were looking for your favorite dark brown soda on the shelves, here was this new clear thing! You tried it, shrugged it off, and likely never bought it again. Because the process of providing feedback to companies was so difficult back then, you simply voted with your feet.
If you were intensely motivated, you’d pick up a phone book, call Pepsi headquarters long-distance, hope to get routed to anyone close to the Crystal Pepsi “user experience” division, and then come up with some sort of feedback smart enough to justify the amount of effort you just exerted. Or maybe you’d handwrite a letter and mail it off to a possibly unmonitored mailbox.
Barely anybody did this, and the end result was that a lot of products, including Crystal Pepsi, failed without their creators knowing quickly enough why people were rejecting them.
But now we have Twitter! And evvvvvverybody has feedback.
Today, a couple of friends of mine, Soleio Cuervo and Adam Michela, took the wraps off of their new design studio/venture fund Combine. I almost never make announcements about investments because I’m not much of an investor, other than boring municipal bonds and index funds, but I’m really excited about this for one reason:
Design, as a discipline, is very often brought into startups only when founders feel like they can no longer do without it. We are still at a point in our industry where those who have never worked with a great product designer before believe design is there to animate things, or make decks look shiny, or write blog posts about the geometry of a new logo.
The cascading effects of this sort of thinking are many. Products don’t end up evolving as quickly as they otherwise could. Design, as an industry, continues to struggle with uneven perceptions and expectations. And finally, designers themselves end up with very little equity in the companies they join because they didn’t join early enough.
There are a lot of ways that compensation in the tech world needs to change, but speaking from my own experience only, the clearest line between who makes life-changing money at a company and who does not comes down to when you started and at what level (the “when” part being more important usually). The difference between being a day zero founder and a day one employee is significant. The difference between being hired the day before a Series B round and the day after is significant. The difference between being hired the day before an IPO and the day after is significant. We are talking about, in many cases, one day or one week or one month being the difference between never having to work again when you’re done and barely even noticing a difference in your life.
Is getting in early just being “lucky?” Sure, to a point. But I would argue it’s hitching your horse to the right wagon that is the lucky part. Getting companies to value design and designers at the very earliest stages of product and company development is something we can change if we put some effort into it, and that is the part of Combine that I am most excited about.
If Adam and Soleio’s vision of assembling the best established and emerging designers in the world and helping place them inside of well-funded, early stage companies pans out, we will benefit from both better designed products and more designers who share financially in the success of what they help create. That is something I am happy to be a very small part of.
I am not a spokesperson for Combine, so any questions you might have should be directed towards Soleio or Adam. Actually, I can answer one question: it’s pronounced COM-bine. Anyway, if you are a designer or researcher interested in finding out more about the program, I encourage you to get involved. If this sort of thing was around ten years ago, I would have jumped in head first.
(This post also available on Medium.)
As someone who has managed and worked with designers for most of my adult life, I get a lot of calls from people looking to check references on someone I’ve worked with or find out from me if there are other designers they should be talking to.
When I think about the range of critique I’ve provided in these situations, the term I always use to describe the very best designers I’ve ever worked with is five-tool designer.
Five-tool player is actually a baseball term used to describe someone who can hit for average, hit for power, run the bases, throw, and field. It’s the highest compliment you can pay to a player and is generally reserved for only the most complete athletes, like Ken Griffey Jr. and Willie Mays. In fact, Major League Baseball estimates there are only 8 five-tool players in the game today.
Everyone looks for slightly different things in the designers they hire, but for me, there are five tools that stand above the rest.
The first book I checked off my list this year was one I had heard about thousands of times since I was little but never actually read: 1984 by George Orwell.
I think what finally got me over the edge was this Reading List for the Resistance from Jason Kottke, so thanks Jason.
I very much enjoyed the book, and in a way, I’m glad that I waited until this very instant to read it. I think my younger self would have dismissed it as delusional and irrelevant, as I tend to retreat from science fiction the moment it feels implausible to me.
Reading the 1949 novel now though, at a moment in which the stiff boot of authoritarianism threatens to become part of American lives for the first time, I’m struck by how prescient it now seems.
There are a lot ideas from the book that feel more and more familiar in today’s world, but the one I can’t get away from is the concept of newspeak. For those who haven’t read the book, newspeak is a new language developed by the oppressive government that drastically reduces the amount and complexity of words in order to drastically reduce the amount and complexity of thought amongst the citizenry. The idea is, if you can remove say, 95% of words from the English language, new generations will not be able to formulate the undesirable thoughts represented by the eliminated words (think “coup”, “resistance”, “steal”, etc).
The end result is something of a pidgin. Very basic sentences, using a tiny subset of words, representing the minimal amount of thought necessary to keep the wheels of the totalitarian society running.
It strikes me that many of our communication channels today — while not being created with any sort of negative intent — may have ended up with similar properties:
“What did you ship last quarter?”
“When is this going to ship?”
“Real artists ship.”
The verb “ship” has a long history in the software development world and before that, the physical world. In the physical world, it originally meant “to transport something on a vessel”, and in the software world, it meant “to press a tape/disk/CD and send it out to consumers”. Since then, it has come to simply mean “release”, and even then, usually not in any sort of final form.
Everyone inside tech companies loves shipping. It’s the culmination of a lot of hard work and creativity from designers, engineers, PMs, researchers, and any number of other people, and when it’s good it puts a dent in the universe. It is no wonder then that so much of the machinery of tech organizations is centered around shipping.
But should it be? Especially given how much shipping itself has changed in the last couple of decades?
AIGA just published a fantastic rundown of all Olympic logos, as graded by Milton Glaser. Glaser is a legend, having created some of the most iconic design work of the 20th century, including the I ❤️ NY logo and the fantastic poster for Bob Dylan’s Greatest Hits.
Logos, however, are a subjective endeavor, and one man’s trash is another man’s treasure. In other words, there is little objective truth in logo design… only a preponderance of opinions and feelings. It is possible to objectively grade a logo’s craftsmanship by looking for transgressions in things like alignment and stroke width, but in terms of how a mark makes you feel, beauty is much more personal.
With that in mind, there were some things in Glaser’s grading that I agree with and some that I disagree (even strongly) with, and thus, I decided to re-rank them according to a few criteria:
With those criteria in mind, here is my re-ranked list, in order of worst to best. Since I’ve ordered it this way, instead of by year, there is also a lot more snark at the beginning, but bear with me. Additionally, it’s important to remember that in practice, logos often go through many layers of politicking, compromising, and otherwise watering-down of what may have once been something much more impressive. Sometimes it is the designer’s fault that something didn’t turn out great and sometimes it is external factors entirely.
Results. Metrics. Impact.
When deciding how to evaluate employees, these are often the things companies land on. It makes sense on its face. If a company’s goal is to, say, grow its customer base from X to Y in 12 months, what better way to align employees to that objective than to try and directly measure their contribution towards it? You worked on Project A and it singlehandedly got the company 20% closer to its goal? Congrats, you are judged to be a successful employee and you will likely enjoy everything that goes along with that.
But what if you worked on Project B — not even by choice but because you were assigned it — and it ended up being a failure? Your results were terrible, you didn’t move metrics, and your project had no impact. Then what?
Welcome to the controversial world of employee evaluation in product design & development.
Here’s the unfortunate truth — several billion people have a slot machine their pocket.
An important essay on the responsibility we have as designers to provide experiences which enrich lives as opposed to merely illusions of enrichment. If you work on digital products, this is a great gutcheck. If you use digital products, this is a wake-up call to take control of your precious attention.
I had only been to San Francisco on random business trips and a couple of times with my family when I was very young. It seemed like a place I might live if I had never found Seattle.
It was go-time now though.
A drawn-out dance of interviews over the course of six months resulted in an offer to move down to the City and join Twitter to lead its Design team. My wife and I had never considered leaving Seattle before, but the opportunity to join Doug, Dick, and a few other people I knew designing a product that reached hundreds of millions of people was exactly the sort of thing you drop everything for.
“We can always hightail it back up here the second things go to hell.”
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