Category: Technology

An Epitaph for Newsvine

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.)

Behavioral Targeting is Getting Scary

This fascinating article about how an “election management firm” — under contract with the GOP — mined social network data and used it to bombard impressionable voters with content designed to manipulate them is thought-provoking and troubling.

Go ahead, read it first, and then come back. Also, for balance, read this counterpoint from Bloomberg doubting the data’s effect on the election, and listen to this podcast from Michal Kosinski who is the Stanford researcher featured in the article. Kosinski is unsure what effect data mining and targeting had on the election, but has plenty of fascinating things to say.

Read more…

⇗ A Self-Driving Car Ethical Problem Simulator

Via Jason Kottke comes this thought-provoking exercise challenging you to apply your own morality to difficult "trolley problem" scenarios that self-driving cars will have to deal with the moment they hit the streets. In other words, when a self-driving car must make a decision to kill (either its own passengers or pedestrians), what criteria should it use to make that decision?

Please go through the exercise yourself before reading any more of this post, as I don't want to poison your answers with my own.

Ok, all done?

There are no objectively right answers to this problem, but my strategy was as follows: First, I disregarded all demographic differences between humans. I don't feel comfortable assigning different values to men, women, the elderly, kids, athletes, criminals, obese people, etc. There was one question where I did have to use this as a tie-breaker, but that was it... and it still didn't feel good. Then, I optimized for saving people who were doing nothing wrong at the time. In other words, pedestrians who crossed on a Don't Walk signal were sacrificed pretty consistently. Then I optimized for greatest number of human lives saved (pets were toast... sorry pets). The hardest question came down to a scenario where you had to pick killing four innocent people in the car vs. four innocent pedestrians. For this, I chose to spare the pedestrians, as those who choose to take a vehicle seem like they should bear the risk of that vehicle more than those who made no such decision.

The summary page at the end is interesting, but it can also give false impressions. For instance, even though I explicitly disregarded demographics, it showed me as significantly preferring to save people who were "fit" and people who were "older". Depending on your strategy, some of these conclusions may be enlightening, and some will just be noise from a small data set. Also, don't forget to design some of your own. Here is the hardest one I could create, based on my own decision-making criteria.

Tough stuff, but it's good to get people acclimated to these dilemmas now, because although no technology can eliminate traffic deaths, self-driving cars will probably greatly reduce them. Curious to hear other strategies if you have them. Jason's, for instance, were different than mine. Also, can I just say that I love the idea of pets "flouting the law by crossing on a red signal?"

Read more ⇗

⇗ My Distraction Sickness — and Yours

Andrew Sullivan goes deep on his own experience trying to rid himself of the digital distractions that have taken over our attention spans. Lots of great thinking and food for additional thought here. It seems like there are two camps on the issue of hyper-connectivity: one is that this is the new normal while the other is that it's unsustainable. I tend to be in the second camp, and when I think of the products I really want to build in the future, most of them are squarely aimed at giving people their time and attention back so they can live better lives in the real world.

Read more ⇗

Shipping vs. Learning

“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?

Read more…

⇗ The Artificial Intelligence Revolution

To absorb how big a deal a superintelligent machine would be, imagine one on the dark green step two steps above humans on that staircase. This machine would be only slightly superintelligent, but its increased cognitive ability over us would be as vast as the chimp-human gap we just described. And like the chimp’s incapacity to ever absorb that skyscrapers can be built, we will never be able to even comprehend the things a machine on the dark green step can do, even if the machine tried to explain it to us—let alone do it ourselves. And that’s only two steps above us. A machine on the second-to-highest step on that staircase would be to us as we are to ants—it could try for years to teach us the simplest inkling of what it knows and the endeavor would be hopeless.

A mind-blowing piece on the ramifications of the sort of artificial intelligence we may be headed towards in our lifetime. Like, within a few decades. The most likely outcomes are startlingly binary: extinction or immortality. This was such an entertaining read, and reminds me how smart some of our fellow humans (like Tim Urban) are!

Read more ⇗

⇗ How Technology Hijacks People’s Minds — from a Magician and Google’s Design Ethicist

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.

Read more ⇗

⇗ Deep Learning Is Going to Teach Us All the Lesson of Our Lives: Jobs Are for Machines

On December 2nd, 1942, a team of scientists led by Enrico Fermi came back from lunch and watched as humanity created the first self-sustaining nuclear reaction inside a pile of bricks and wood underneath a football field at the University of Chicago.

Read more ⇗

On Teleportation

I remember the first time I heard of a real product described as a teleportation machine. It was only a couple of years ago, actually. A founder of a popular photo sharing network described the ultimate purpose of his product as a means to teleport anywhere around the world. I remember reading that sentence and thinking “this is a really great product, but it doesn’t actually make me feel like that.”

Maybe it was the fact that individual photos only provide a split-second glance into someone’s world. Maybe it was that filtering, cropping, and opportunistic life-editing sometimes creates a veneer that doesn’t feel like real life. Most of all though, I think it’s because the experience wasn’t live.

The difference between something typed or captured minutes before you see it and something you experience simultaneously — cooperatively — with the person doing the broadcasting is transformative.

Read more…

We Are Expanding the Design Team at Twitter

First things first: we are expanding the Design Studio at Twitter! A few days ago, I opened 8 new positions, which can be viewed here. If you have fantastic design, production, or research chops and you love Twitter, we’d love to talk to you.

Secondly, below is a not-so-brief update on how things have gone in my first month here.

The City

So far, San Francisco has outperformed my already high expectations. It’s an even more enjoyable city to live in than I imagined. The only thing that’s been a bummer is housing selection and pricing. For a 1300 square foot place, I am paying about 2.5-3x what the same place would go for in a nice neighborhood in Seattle; and Seattle isn’t exactly cheap either. I thought I would just have to overpay a little down here in order to get into a decent place, but the reality is that the city is littered with apartments as expensive as $6000 a month that you wouldn’t even want to live in. Thankfully, we got a place on a great block in Noe Valley so at least the neighborhood is perfect for us, but man is it pricey for what it is.

The food in San Francisco has been predictably terrific, and I will just come out and say it: the coffee is better than it is in Seattle. Between Ritual, Philz, Martha’s, and Blue Bottle, just about the only place in Seattle which can compete is Uptown Espresso. That has surprised me a bit. It’s also nice being this close to In-N-Out Burger, which helps (almost) make up for the lack of Skillet down here.

People keep telling me the weather is supposed to turn to shit any day now, but it’s the middle of December and it’s been sunny and mid 60s for most of my time here. I could really get used to this, although I’m sure the summers won’t be nearly as nice as they are in Seattle. I still plan to fly up every couple of weeks during the summer and throughout Husky football season.

Read more…

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