The concept was simple: license the same content that anchored the majority of most major news sites — specifically the Associated Press newswire — and marry it with original contributions from citizens around the world, all in an editorless environment controlled entirely by the community. Mainstream journalism and citizen journalism would stand shoulder to shoulder on the same stage for the very first time.
It was only the second startup I had been a part of, but the first I had founded and the first I had run as CEO. Together with my four colleagues, Lance Anderson, Mark Budos, Calvin Tang, and Josh Yockey (in alphabetical order) we set off to change journalism and show how lean a news organization could be run if given the right automation, the right strategy, and the right amount of support and passion from the community.
After two quick and productive meetings with Mike Slade and Nick Hanauer of Second Avenue Partners, we closed our Series A, left our jobs, and jumped off the cliff together.
I’ve been a huge fan of Hi-Ball caffeinated mineral water for a few years now. It’s a crisp, light, sweetener-free way to get a little bit of caffeine in your system on a hot day. In addition to the virtues of the product itself, I was initially drawn to this beverage because of its beautiful packaging. Below is what the the bottle looked like when it debuted a few years ago:
A compact, easily resealable 10 ounce bottle with a very reasonable 80mg of caffeine in it.
Then, a couple of years ago, the folks at Hi-Ball decided to change up the bottle design and go with a taller, skinnier variety:
I didn’t have a huge problem with this change, although I was unclear how it qualified as an improvement. If anything, it was worse than the original since it’s much harder to reseal a glass bottle with a metal cap than with a plastic cap. Still, at least it was in that nice, convenient, 10 ounce size with only 80 mg of caffeine.
Fast forward to 2012 though, and Hi-Ball has completely dumped its beautiful glass bottles in favor of gigantic 16 ounce cans. These things are monsters:
Furthermore, the cans have that gimmicky Coors Light feature where parts of it turn blue when it’s cold as the Rockies. You know how else I can tell a beverage is cold enough for me to drink? Because I keep it in my refrigerator.
Hi-Ball is pitching this change as better for its customers since the can holds more beverage, but that’s actually my least favorite part of the entire redesign. I don’t want 16 ounces of energy drink, and I definitely don’t want 160mg of caffeine. And you know what is really hard to reseal? An aluminum can.
People have suggested just drinking a portion of the beverage and then throwing away the rest — which is what I have been doing — but there’s just something unsatisfying about buying more than you want and then dumping the rest down the drain.
It seems clear to me that Hi-Ball is now trying to compete with the Red Bulls and Monster Energies of the world by offering their 16 ounce can, but even those companies offer smaller alternatives.
I find myself buying less and less Hi-Ball now that they’ve forced this super-size on everyone. I wonder if I’m alone or if others are abandoning ship as well.
If you’re like me, you’re both particular about who you follow on Twitter and perpetually in search of more entertainment in your feed. The problem with following everyone who belches out a random good tweet is that you then have ten more ho-dum tweets a day from them in your feed. The disincentive to follow people on Twitter has never been higher than it is now, despite the fact that the service hosts more great content than it ever has.
I have a few ideas for fixing this problem, but one of them came to me a few months ago as I was using Jason Kottke’s excellent Stellar.io service (pronounced “Ste-LAH-ree-oh” by everyone except Jason). Stellar.io is a fantastic web-based service that lets you follow interesting people and receive a feed of all the tweets, Flickr images, YouTube videos, and other content they have faved on other services. In Twitter terms, imagine a feed that doesn’t contain your friends’ tweets, but rather the tweets that your friends have faved. In other words, one degree of separation away from your current Twitter stream.
Stellar is a great way to assemble this sort of feed, but if you’re like me, you’d rather see its output merged into your existing Twitter stream. To put it differently, when I open up my Twitter client, I want to see tweets from the few people I follow (as I do currently) and tweets from people I don’t follow which have been marked as favorites from people I do follow. Have I lost you yet?
To create this experience, I wrote a PHP script I call Stellar Tweetbot which runs every 5 minutes via a cronjob that checks my Stellar account for new faved tweets, and then retweets any new tweets to my zombie Twitter account @mike_stellar. Then, I follow @mike_stellar from my normal Twitter account @mikeindustries and I magically have a more interesting Twitter stream.
To see what sorts of things now appear in my Twitter feed, without having to follow any new people, peep the image below (or just follow @mike_stellar):
The first tweet is Rob Delaney making sure a can of Pepsi gets home safe. I don’t follow Rob so I would have normally missed this tweet. However, since I follow some people who faved it, I now see it in my Twitter stream.
The second tweet is to a really interesting article tweeted by Rob Pegoraro. I don’t follow Rob, but I do follow the person who faved it: Tim Carmody (not to be confused with Tom Carmony, who I also follow, but let’s not even get into that).
The third tweet is by the funniest person on Twitter, Ken Jennings. Since I already follow him, I won’t see this as a dupe in my feed. Magic.
So that’s it. The Stellar Tweetbot. I’ve opened sourced it on GitHub, and it’s the ugliest designer-written PHP code you’ve likely ever seen, but it works, yo! If you’re one of those propeller heads who writes much better PHP, feel free to rewrite it, and merge it into the GitHub Branch Repository Chamber Fork Commitment Thingamajigger.
Otherwise, feel free to do what I do and just use it. It will make your Twitter feed more interesting.
Everyone has their favorite album that never appears in any famous “Top 10 Albums of All Time” lists. That album, for me, is Blood Sugar Sex Magik, by the Red Hot Chili Peppers. To me, Blood Sugar is the greatest rock album of the last 25 years or so, and it is by far the best album the Red Hots have ever released. Much like U2, their commercial success continued long after their seminal album, but they were never able to match the energy, originality, and overall “breakthroughness” of their early work.
I have a theory that everyone’s all-time favorite album is one they heard during their formative music listening years (usually between age 15 and 25) and Blood Sugar falls right in the middle of that zone for me. There’s just something about how your brain works when you are that age which you can never reproduce later in life. You enjoy music now, but you were shaped by it then.
I remember reading an article (in Rolling Stone, I believe) 10 years ago or so about how this fantastic album was produced. It turns out instead of recording it in a studio, the band camped out in Harry Houdini’s old mansion and laid down each track in low-fi fashion using tools like metal pipe and an empty oil drum. I was amazed to find out how sophisticated of a sound they were able to produce with such a higgledy piggledy setup. The only modern musician I can think of who succeeds at this breed of music production today is Jack White.
So tonight, when one of my favorite cellists, Nick Ogawa (a.k.a. Takenobu), tweeted that he was researching how his favorite bands of old recorded their music, I asked him if he had heard the story of Blood Sugar. He said he hadn’t. I pointed him to a 60 minute documentary on the making of the album which he then discovered existed on Google Video here:
It’s a great documentary to watch if you enjoy this album as much as I do. It’s even been listed in some Top 20 Music Documentaries of All Time lists. It’s a bit NSFW at times, but it’s a great look into how great albums are created: with volatile personalities, at volatile times, in volatile surroundings.
Several really smart people in our industry are arguing very publicly right now about a company called Readability and how great and/or evil their service is. One side thinks what Readability does is wrong, and by extension, that the company’s founders are immoral. The other side says Readability is providing a valuable service, and although they may not have gotten everything right yet, their intent is good.
There are two issues at the center of the controversy:
1. When you save a “cleaned” version of an article (e.g. no ads, homogenized layout) to Readability and then try to share it publicly via Readability’s share tools, the shared link is to the Readability version of the article and not the source. When someone clicks over, they don’t even hit the original content creator’s server.
This seems quite bad to me, and it might even be illegal. By facilitating the public retransmission of an author’s content in a format not authorized by the author, it would seem that Readability is committing copyright violation, en masse. When courts ruled in 1984 that it was ok for someone to make a personal copy of a television broadcast using their VCRs, they did not also rule that people (or VCR companies) could then re-transmit that copy to someone else, without commercials, or however else they saw fit.
This issue seems straightforward to me, and as of this writing, the folks at Readability have apparently changed their tune and decided to do the right thing; although I just downloaded a new Readability Chrome extension and I still see the old behavior.
So, that’s it for the first issue. Bad for publishers? Yes. Bad for readers? Only in that it’s bad for publishers.
Update: Rich from Readability tells me that the only reason I’m still seeing this behavior is that I am clicking the link when I’m already signed in to Readability and the item is already in my reading list. I then tested clicking the link from another browser and it indeed went to the original article, albeit framed with a Readability callout on top. I’m fine with this. So, this problem appears to be resolved.
2. Readability collects voluntary fees from its users (suggested amount: $5 per month) and then attempts to redistribute 70% of this revenue back to publishers, providing said publishers have signed up for their service. This is proving controversial because Readability is “collecting fees on behalf of publishers” without their consent, only distributing the fees back to the publishers if they sign up, and deciding themselves what the details of this arrangement are.
I’ve thought about this a bit — as someone who runs a company that also returns revenue back to content creators (90% in our case, with prior consent) — and I think detractors might be looking at this the wrong way. As I see it, Readability has no obligation to return any revenue to publishers. Unless I’m missing something, they are even within their rights to help individual users make offline, ad-free versions of articles for personal use per the same principles in the Betamax case. A VCR allows me to watch a show later, in another context, while skipping the ads, so why shouldn’t Readability allow me to do the same thing?
The anger about the financial side of Readability seems to come from the opinion that the company is “keeping publishers’ money” unless they sign up, but I guess I look at it differently: I don’t think it is the publishers’ money. I think it is Readability’s money. Readability invests the time and resources into developing their service and they are the ones who physically get users to pay a subscription fee. It’s hard to get users to pay for content and they are the ones who are actually doing it. They realize that the popularity of their service is a direct result of content creators’ efforts so they are voluntarily redistributing 70% of it back to publishers in the only way it is feasible to: based on pageviews from publishers who register themselves.
If you are a publisher and you don’t sign up, Readability doesn’t take your money. It’s all accounted for and available to you once you sign up. I’m not even sure if there is an expiration date on this collection, but there should be. If I were Readability, I’d probably put something like a year limit on it such that if it wasn’t claimed within that time period, it would go onto the company’s balance sheet as revenue.
Readability has no universal contract with the publishing industry, nor do they need one; much as the makers of VCRs had no contract with TV or movie studios. When a reader signs up to pay their monthly fee, Readability then has a contract with the reader. That contract does not say “we will use 70% of your fee to pay your favorite publishers”. It says (paraphrased) “we will take your fee, keep 30%, and give the rest of it away to your favorite publishers, as long as they claim it.” The fact that certain publishers may not want to claim this 70% or may take umbrage as to the details of the arrangement does not change the contract between Readability and its customers. It also does not hurt the publisher any more than other competitive services like Instapaper do.
I would feel very differently about this whole case if our fair use laws weren’t as they are today, but courts have told us that “personal archiving” is a legal activity. As such, it’s legal — and perfectly moral — for a company to create a service which makes personal archiving easier whilst charging a monthly fee for it. That Readability sees a future in which personal archiving may hurt publisher revenues and pushes forward an experiment to counteract those effects should be applauded.
Finally, this whole episode is a good reminder that the problems of the publishing industry haven’t gone away just because the world has gone digital. In fact, personal archiving is an example of a way it’s gotten worse. You never needed a “reading layout” with a magazine or a newspaper because they were already optimized for reasonably efficient reading. Now layouts are optimized for “time on site”. You also never needed a separate service to help you “Read Later” a magazine or newspaper because you could, you know, just read it later. As digital publishing continues to try and balance profits with audience satisfaction, you can expect many more debates like this from smart people like Anil, Gruber, and Zeldman. Just as it’s important for us to defend upstarts who fight the status quo, it’s also important to hold them to as high of a standard as we hold ourselves.
There are several interesting things about this photo (spelled out in Cory’s post), and I now suspect the kid in the back may be the only one actually facing the television, but compare what “watching” looks like for this generation to what it looked like a few generations ago:
They are barely even related activities anymore. One is focused, intense audio/visual consumption, while the other is almost incidental exposure. Cinematic professionals must hate this.
I still try to keep digital distractions to a minimum when I’m watching a favorite show or sporting event, but I feel like that is rapidly becoming an attitude of the past. How short will our attention spans get before we realize that this may be a problem? Or is the problem imaginary and our brains will adjust or even thrive under these new circumstances?
While the latest version of Mac OS X, Lion, is generally wonderful, there is one “feature” that annoys thousands of people to no end: whenever your machine is restarted, every single application you happen to have open at the time is also relaunched and restored to the state it was in before you restarted. If you restart manually via the “Restart…” menu item, there is a checkbox you can uncheck which is supposed to shut off this behavior but it doesn’t always work. Additionally, if your computer restarts for any other reason — e.g. a power failure or a crash — you don’t even have the option of trying to prevent this behavior.
The downside of the behavior is obvious: it increases the time it takes to start up your machine into a steady state and it re-opens apps you may not be using anymore.
If you want to prevent this behavior entirely, there is now a foolproof, fully reversible way to do it. Simply:
~/Library/Preferences/ByHost/com.apple.loginwindow.*.plist(whereby * is a bunch of characters)
File > Get Info(or command-I if you’re a pro), and lock it using the
Voila. You’ve now prevented Lion from saving what apps and windows are open. To reverse this setting, simply unlock the file!
Another helpful hint as well: Lion, by default, hides your
~/Library/ folder. To make it visible again without showing all of your other invisible files, simply open up Terminal and type:
chflags nohidden ~/Library/
I’ve been a Berkshire Hathaway fan since I was in 6th grade, and like many others, I always look forward to reading their annual report. It’s amazing that in the 46 years since Warren Buffett took over management of the company, there hasn’t been a single major down year for investors to fret about. When the S&P shed 9%, 12%, and 22% during the three-year dot-com 1.0 bust, Berkshire’s book value was up about 10%. During the 2008 financial crisis, the S&P dropped 37% while Berkshire only lost 9.6% (their worst year ever). Every Berkshire annual report is written in plain English and provides indispensable advice for all levels of investors, but there are always a handful of choice quotes that really make me proud to put a few pennies where Warren Buffett puts his. Among my favorites from this year’s report include:
… and the most profound passage of the entire report:
That last bit is why no casual investor (and even many professional ones) should ever think they know even half as much about investing as Warren Buffett. For a compelling, uplifting take on where the U.S. economy might be headed, be my guest and read the rest.
Today, it was announced that Twitter has acquired an awesome little Pacific Northwest company called Summify. If you haven’t heard of Summify, they provide what I consider to be the best next-generation news delivery platform in the world right now.
Isn’t Twitter itself a news delivery platform though? Not really. Twitter is an information delivery platform, of which news is a small but extremely important subset. In other words, when you read a joke on Twitter, that’s not news. When you ask someone a question about a restaurant on Twitter, that’s not news. When you receive a response from an expertly crafted bot on Twitter, that’s not news. In short, the great majority of what Twitter traffics is non-news information.
It’s long been a complaint of Twitter users, however, that when they do want to use Twitter as a news source — perhaps even their only news source — it’s a less than ideal experience. People keep their excellent Twitter clients open all day hoping they’ll stay abreast on what’s going on in the world, but often they miss important events because the firehose of chatter drowns out critical links.
What Summify does is essentially stand in front of your firehose, collect the drops of water that are news-related, and then fill up a nice, tidy cup for you containing only (or mostly) news. You can tell Summify you want a tall, a grande, or a venti and the platform delivers the right sized cup to you at whatever interval you choose.
And oh by the way, Summify can analyze your Facebook account and your Google Reader account as well as your Twitter account if you’d like.
And oh by the way, your news summary is available via web, via RSS, via tablet, and via phone.
So why is this such a smart acquisition for Twitter? In my mind, there are two reasons.
First, although the Twitter design staff has gone to great pains to craft the interface and sign-up process such that people know how to use Twitter immediately, I feel like they’ve now solved that problem. Do a Twitter search for a trending hashtag and you’ll see all sorts of people of “various knowledge levels” getting around just fine.
I feel like the new problem to solve is not “how do I use Twitter” but “why should I use Twitter”. This problem doesn’t apply to everyone that is currently using it, obviously, but it applies to my mom, my fiance, and all of the other millions of the people in the world who just don’t see a value proposition yet. Basically the “I don’t have anything to say to strangers” crowd, the “I don’t care what celebrities are saying” crowd, and the “I already have Facebook” crowd.
With Summify folded into Twitter, there will now be one activity that almost everyone in the world can get obvious value from: a simple summary of what news stories you should know about every day, based on who influences you.
The second reason this is a great acquisition is that it helps hedge against a phenomenon that I think is coming over the next few years: information overload followed by consumption retreat. It’s only a matter of time before people look at all of the distractions they expose themselves to every day and realize it is keeping them from living productive lives. Twitter, Facebook, and RSS before them have hastened this effect, and while it’s still only a problem at the edges, it will get more pronounced each year.
Summify offers a simple antidote; one that Twitter can weave into their UI such that users can dial up or dial down their desired consumption level as they see fit. Right now there is actually a disincentive to follow people on Twitter, in many cases. Summify potentially eliminates that problem entirely by promising to send you better stories, not more stories for each new account you follow.
As a closing thought, I’ve had this idea in my head for the last few years of what a perfect news site looks like, and it’s quite simple: a white screen with a list of 5 or 10 links that changes once a day. That’s it. Here’s the tricky part though: the 5 or 10 links need to be THE 5 or 10 links that are most useful to me on any given day. In other words, let’s say there are 10,000 new stories every day. This site needs to be smart enough to pick the top 5 or 10 for me with almost 100% certainty. You will know it works when it’s creepy. I liken it to Barack Obama’s daily briefing he gets from his advisors. He doesn’t have time to scour news sites all day so his advisors tell him what he absolutely needs to see every morning and then, here’s the key part: he gets on with his life.
I want that.
I feel like Twitter — with Summify in tow — can eventually provide that.
Sign me up!
I’ll admit that on a scale of 1-10, my following of the SOPA/PIPA escapades is only about a 6. This may seem low for someone who runs a platform that hosts 50 million unique visitors a month; all of whom are able to post user-generated content which potentially violates SOPA/PIPA principles.
Having been acquired by msnbc.com, a company 50% owned by Microsoft (who opposes SOPA as drafted) and 50% owned by NBC (who is one of the most visible proponents of the bill) our little organization is powerless to do much about the situation and frankly to even express much of an opinion about it. Note: I have not been told to shut up about anything. I just feel like there are enough smart people working this out right now that the world doesn’t really need my opinion on it.
What I do want to talk about, however, is a truth about the new world of legislation that this SOPA/PIPA fracas has made extraordinarily clear:
If you want to pass any sort of bill that affects the internet, you better vet it with the people who control the internet.
By “control the internet”, I of course don’t mean the people manning the tubes. I mean the people who run the most important destinations on the internet and the people who back those people. This includes the heads of for-profit destinations like Twitter and Facebook, the caretakers of non-profit destinations like Wikipedia, the investors who back all of the great online companies of tomorrow, and the government officials who are sympathetic to their cause.
From this anything-but-exhaustive list, we have Dick Costolo, Mark Zuckerberg, Jimmy Wales, Paul Graham (and cohorts), and none other than Barry O. himself. None of these people support SOPA as it has been drafted. Not only do they oppose it, but many have gone out of their way to publicly denounce it. Jimmy Wales has gone so far as to shut down the world’s most important collection of knowledge for a day to demonstrate what shutdowns actually look like.
It seems incredible to me that these gatekeepers of the modern internet were seemingly not even polled as to what they thought of this bill before it was floated. It would be like the EPA trying to sneak through a law that automobiles get 100mpg by year’s end without even talking to the car companies first. In some ways it’s even worse than that.
The truth is that the most powerful and influential people today look very different from the most powerful and influential people of the last century. The 20th century was all about industrialization. The game was to take a natural resource (like oil or cotton) process it until something useful (like gasoline or clothing) and then sell it for as much of a profit as you could. Since many congressmen came from industrial professions before they took office, or at the very least could easily wrap their heads around fairly straightforward concepts like oil drilling or cotton ginning, they had little difficulty a) maintaining relationships with important people in industrial fields, and b) drafting laws which made sense for consumers and producers at the time.
This new world, however, in which probably less than 10% of our elected officials can even tell us what a DNS server is, is a disconnected one. How are congressmen supposed to write bills that are palatable to the public if they don’t understand the ramifications of how the bills are to be technologically enforced? If you listen to the various SOPA debates like this one on PBS with Ben Huh and Rick Cotton, you don’t hear the anti-SOPA people disagreeing with the spirit of the bill. You hear them disagreeing with the letter of it; and to Rick Cotton’s credit, he even asks Ben if Ben would support the bill if it were written differently.
The people at media companies who helped write this bill are lawyers. It is usually a lawyer’s job to write up documents that are most favorable to their client. It is then, however, the other side’s job to modify that language into something equitable. “The other side” in this case is our elected representatives. What seems to have failed in this case was not that the initial draft was written as it was written, but that Congress did a terrible job of analyzing it, shopping it to important technologists, and then presenting something that actually made sense. As a result, this bill will fail, and that’s about the worst outcome private sector SOPA supporters could ever imagine. So in a sense, Congress failed both SOPA supporters and SOPA opponents. Amazing but true.
We either need a world where our elected officials know more about how technology works or a world where they at least consult a more heterogenous group of gatekeepers before proposing laws that affect technology, IP, and free speech.
It seems like it will be at least another generation until we get the former, so it is imperative that we immediately get the latter.
Note: I am speaking on behalf of myself here and not on behalf of any of the organizations who employ me (who I love equally :) ).
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