Archive for the ‘Business’ Category

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.

The People

It seems like Seattle underindexes just a bit on the “outgoing” scale, while San Francisco overindexes. My theory on this is that since so many people in Seattle are from the region, went to school there, and have such comfortable living situations, they are less likely to seek interactions with strangers. San Francisco, however, much like New York, is more of a melting pot. People come here from all over, don’t have high school and college friends to congregate with all the time, and live in tiny matchboxes, so they are more likely to go out and meet new people.

The effect isn’t dramatic, but I notice it almost daily. More people make eye contact, more people say hello, and more people go out at night. It’s a nice change of pace.

The Design Community

I never really felt like part of the Seattle design or tech community, despite having been a de-facto member of it since about 1997. Perhaps it’s for the reasons listed above. People in Seattle generally seem more content to just do great work as part of their jobs, and then spend nights and weekends doing other things entirely, with other people entirely. The parties I usually attend in Seattle have very little to do with my profession or my colleagues.

In San Francisco, it seems like there’s a much tighter social relationship with one’s contemporaries. Some people don’t like to talk about work outside of work, but I’m not one of those people, so I quite like this dynamic. A lot of what I’m noticing could be self-fulfilling, however, as I’m new here and I may be subconsciously seeking out more community interaction than I did at home.

The Twitters

Where do I start!?

This place is amazing in so many ways, and perplexing in plenty of others.

Let’s start with the really good stuff: I’ve never worked around this many supremely talented people in my life. If you have a great idea here, not only can you find people willing to build it, but you can often find people who have already built parts of it. I feel like I have to preface each sentence I say with “Someone’s probably already thought of this, but…”. It’s a really great feeling knowing there is enough intellectual horsepower and willpower in this organization to envision and create the previously impossible.

The Design team in particular is one of my favorite things about my job so far. We are a diverse group, all having arrived here by wildly different means, and often with wildly different skillsets and perspectives on design. Since the company is so young and the team has exploded from a small handful of people to almost 40 in such a short period of time, most of us have been here for only a few years at most. Having been at Newsvine/NBC for almost seven years and ESPN for 5 years before that, I’m still getting used to the concept of a two-year employee being a “veteran”. In any case, I love my team and we’re about to go through a really great stretch.

Twitter’s new building is pretty amazeballs too. The space is beautifully designed, the food — complete with round-the-clock unlimited bacon — is fantastic, and it’s very conveniently located as far as public transportation goes. The only bummer is there is this annoying air horn at the construction site across the street that goes off incessantly.

On the perplexing side, I am amazed at how much happens here every day that I am completely unaware of. Perhaps it’s just the combination of me being new and the company being so big, but I feel like I know about 1% of everything that goes on every day. It feels like getting dropped blindfolded into downtown Tokyo. I fear that at any moment, someone could ask me a very basic question about something going on in the company and I would have no idea what they were talking about. I’ve been spending much of my first month learning everything I possibly can about all corners of the company in order to make sure that doesn’t happen.

The other interesting thing is the reshaping that’s going on right now as a result of how quickly the company has grown over the last two years. Increasing your staff 20% every year for five years is a growth plan most companies can easily manage, but increasing it something like 700% in only a couple of years creates all sorts of entropy. In the face of this sort of hyper-expansion, it can take awhile for people and even entire departments to find their sea legs. With such a dramatic influx of talent, however, also comes the opportunity to extend the product and the business into new areas, and that seems like what’s happening right now.

The other thing, of course, is managing technical and design debt effectively. If you’re like me, there is no shortage of things you wish Twitter would change, eliminate, add, or improve, and all I can say is: your lists are probably very similar to ours. I know this because I talk to critics all the time, and I was one before joining. Still am, actually:

The great news is that we’re on the same page, and we’re excited about moving Twitter forward as quickly as the universe allows.

#Onward

If you want to be part of the team and you’re interested in working on a product that, on any given day, has the potential to save actual lives, we’d love to meet you. We don’t care where you went to school or how big your previous gigs were. All we care about is how talented you are and how fun you are to be around. If you fit those two qualifications, please join us in helping shape the future of Twitter.

I'm Joining Twitter

Over five years and exactly 10,000 tweets ago, when I first tiptoed into the lonely textfield that was Twitter’s “What Are You Doing?” box, I typed the following:

It was a reaction to many things, good and bad. The ease of publishing messages. The prevalence of insignificant breakfast trivia in the public feed. The lack of any filtering controls. The growing number of my friends becoming instantly addicted to it.

Since then, Twitter has gone from quirky little internet CB radio to exploding social upstart to what I now consider one of the most important information platforms in the world. At its best, Twitter is an international treasure.

As both a user and an information designer, I’ve grown to love Twitter more each year, and so it is with great excitement that I’m happy to announce I have agreed to move down to San Francisco and Join The Flock™ in the newly created position of Vice President, Design.

I couldn’t be more thrilled to help lead an already world-class team of designers working alongside all of the other great people in the company to make Twitter a positive force in as many people’s lives as possible.

I can’t speak too much about strategy yet, especially considering I don’t even start until the end of the month, but I will just say this:

I’ve always viewed Twitter as a personal information agent, and I think as we work to make it both smarter and more responsive to what people want from it, it has the potential to be the most useful connected service in the world.

I hope to be able to post more thoughts in the coming months, but it’s probably wise to wait until I’m at least on the payroll before saying something that might get me fired.

On a personal note, I will say that I’m heartbroken about leaving both NBC/Newsvine and Seattle. NBCNews (and MSNBC.com before it) has been an outstanding parent since they acquired my company five years ago, and Seattle is the only city in the United States I like more than San Francisco. This was literally the only position at the only company in the only city in the world that could have gotten me to leave.

And so with that, I look forward to improving your experience on Twitter starting October 29th. If you’re a news organization, a designer, a technologist, a sports fan, an early Twitter user, or just someone who wants to see Twitter be as good as it can be, you’ve got a friend on the inside.

A Fond Farewell to Newsvine, NBC, and Seattle

The last time I wrote one of these posts, it was 7 years ago and I was getting ready to leave a great job at ESPN to start my own media company, Newsvine.

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.

The first year — from August 2005 to August 2006 — was one of the best times of my life. We raced into private alpha within a few months, then into private beta, and opened the gates to the world on March 1st, 2006. Nowadays, timelines are even more compressed because of mature frameworks like Django and Rails, but back then, we built everything from scratch.

There are lots of stressful moments at startups, but the biggest underlying fear you have in the earliest stages is: will anyone use this? Watching the first people come through the turnstiles those initial few weeks was fascinating. People came to write about politics. People came to write about religion. People came to write about chips and salsa; all on a little site that was originally intended to be a people-powered version of ESPN.

Most of all, people were coming.

There are many wonderful things that have been created because of Newsvine, including 1,238,468 original articles, 4,651,414 seeds, 33,161,638 comments, at least one marriage (my own!), and at least one baby we know about (wasn’t me), but the earliest achievements are what I still remember with the most clarity and awe:

… when Corey Spring snagged an interview with Dave Chappelle.

… when Killfile first broke the news of the Virginia Tech shootings.

… when Old Fogey got his name on the ballot for Congress in Ohio and documented the entire experience, providing a civics lesson for conscientious citizens everywhere.

When you create something which directly inspires and enables so many others to create even better things, you feel like you’re doing your part to improve the world.

Year two was also quite fun, and together with our 6th employee Tom Laramee (now of Zulily tycoon fame), our marketing lead Jim McGee, our engineering intern Eric Glomstad, and our design intern extraordinaire Bobby Goodlatte (now of Facebook tycoon fame), we grew the site past the point where it could be sustained by such a small staff and such modest financing.

In May of 2007, as we set out to raise a Series B, a funny thing happened.

We suddenly started getting calls from large news organizations. First MSNBC.com across the water in Redmond reached out. Then several others did. Then one night, I had dinner with Charlie Tillinghast, MSNBC.com’s president.

The following day, Charlie notified us that he was interested in acquiring Newsvine. Then I traveled across the country and had more dinners. More acquisition offers followed.

The whole acquisition process is an entire post in itself, so I won’t get too deep into it here. It involved one of the worst days of my life and several of the best. Let’s just say that MSNBC.com was our first choice from the start, and when we signed their official Letter of Intent to acquire us on August 1st — two years to the day after beginning work on the site — the entire team couldn’t have been more excited. Joining a world class organization like MSNBC.com, which was then owned by two other world class organizations, Microsoft and NBC, would allow us to positively affect even more people on a daily basis as part of one of the most respected news companies in the world.

I was excited about joining my friend Rex, my then internet buddy Jim Ray (who would later become a great friend and officiate my wedding ceremony), and all of the other people I had met in Redmond while giving controversial speeches to the newsroom about audience participation.

When the transaction closed on October 5th, 2007, the team began a long, successful journey helping modernize an already modern news organization. While we continued to maintain and improve our own product (although admittedly not to the extent we may have wished for), we provided many important services to our parent: registration, single sign-on, trackable threaded discussions, interactive polls, a full content management system, and a large armful of other services. As of the date of this writing, the majority of stories viewed by the approximately 50 million people who visit NBCNews.com every month are served up either directly by the Newsvine platform or touch our software in other ways.

People often say that the majority of acquisitions don’t work out, but in this case, I can say with certainty that both the acquiree and the acquirer have been extremely happy with how things have worked out. We have been so happy with NBC that we’ve stuck around long past our contract dates, and NBC has been so happy with us that they’ve treated us excellently and made it enjoyable for us to stay.

It’s been seven years, however, since beginning work on Newsvine, and when the opportunity to join Twitter in the newly created VP of Design position came my way, I was forced to think about where I could make the most positive impact on the world.

Twitter is at a crucial moment its own life, as well as in the evolution of information and media. It is not perfect, but it represents a new approach to information production, aggregation, and discovery. It’s the best window into how we will consume information in a society dominated by the computers we keep in our pockets and on our bedside tables. It already reaches over 140 million people in the world, and it’s only scratched the surface of what it could be and what it should be.

There are more thoughts on joining Twitter in the companion post to this post, but I can’t close without mentioning three things which I am very sad to be leaving:

  1. Seattle. I’ve lived here all of my adult life, and until being offered this position, I never thought anything could have gotten me to leave this city. This is quite literally the only position at the only company in the only city that could have done it. I love everything about Seattle (except the Autumn, when all the days start getting shorter and all of the incorrigible Autumn lovers can’t shut up about how beautiful the soon-to-be-littering-my-yard leaves are) and I will be back to visit plenty of times each year. I’m keeping the house I’ve built, keeping my Husky football season tickets, and keeping Seattle at the top of my list of greatest cities in the world. It hurts like hell to leave all of our friends and family up here, but we rationalize it by remembering we’ll only be a 90 minute flight away at any given time.
  2. My co-workers at Newsvine and NBCNews. To all past and current members of the Newsvine team, thanks for being the greatest group of people I’ve ever had the pleasure of working with. I will miss the Wall of Shame, the never-ending supply of prop bets, the walks to Skillet, the impossible hypotheticals, and everything else that makes our office atmosphere great. To my friends within the larger NBCNews organization worldwide, thanks for being such an excellent partner. I will certainly miss being able to say I am a part of the larger journalistic mission we serve every day, across the world, often in the line of fire.
  3. The Newsvine community. This is probably also an entire post in itself, but let me just say that the entire team at Newsvine could not be more thankful and more humbled that so many people choose Newsvine as their home online to discuss issues of importance. Newsvine has never been a place to have your opinions reinforced by your existing social graph. Nor has it been a place for drive-by one-liners. When we show off comment threads with 5000 word well-constructed arguments, some people think our users are crazy. We’ve always just considered them passionate. Newsvine at its worst is much like many other online discussion forums, but Newsvine at its best is one of the most amazing places in the world to expand your perspective. Its promise today is the same as it was when we launched it: Get Smarter Here. To all of those who have done just that, thank you so much for participating. I’ll be looking on fondly from afar to see how the site evolves once I’m gone. It’s in good hands.

The Deterioration of Hi-Ball Packaging Design

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.

What the Betamax Case Teaches Us About Readability

The Betamax SL6500! I totally had this model!!!

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.

Choice Quotes from the 2011 Berkshire Hathaway Annual Report

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:

  • “More than 98% of my net worth is in Berkshire stock, all of which will go to various philanthropies.”
  • “About 95% of … (our companies’ capital investments)… were made in the U.S., a fact that may surprise those who believe our country lacks investment opportunities. We welcome projects abroad, but expect the overwhelming majority of Berkshire’s future capital commitments to be in America. In 2012, these expenditures will again set a record.”
  • “People may postpone hitching up during uncertain times, but eventually hormones take over. And while ‘doubling-up’ may be the initial reaction of some during a recession, living with in-laws can quickly lose its allure.”
  • “We now have eight subsidiaries that would each be included in the Fortune 500 were they stand-alone companies. That leaves only 492 to go. My task is clear, and I’m on the prowl.”
  • “The first law of capital allocation – whether the money is slated for acquisitions or share repurchases – is that what is smart at one price is dumb at another.”
  • “There are a lot of ways to lose money in insurance, and the industry is resourceful in creating new ones.”
  • “If something’s not worth doing at all, it’s not worth doing well.”
  • “Even in the U.S., where the wish for a stable currency is strong, the dollar has fallen a staggering 86% in value since 1965.”
  • “(A cube of) 170,000 tons of gold will be unchanged in size and still incapable of producing anything. You can fondle the cube, but it will not respond.”

… and the most profound passage of the entire report:

  • “Today, IBM has 1.16 billion shares outstanding, of which we own about 63.9 million or 5.5%. Naturally, what happens to the company’s earnings over the next five years is of enormous importance to us. Beyond that, the company will likely spend $50 billion or so in those years to repurchase shares. Our quiz for the day: What should a long-term shareholder, such as Berkshire, cheer for during that period? I won’t keep you in suspense. We should wish for IBM’s stock price to languish throughout the five years.”

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.

Twitter Buys Summify, Gives Everyone a Reason to Use It

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.

And oh by the way, Summify was created by a team of about under 10 people. Mircea, Cristian, and crew are extremely smart and very nice people, but still, what a great product from such a small team.

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!

UPDATE: I forgot to mention that there is another great service worth trying called Percolate that is a slightly different take on curation than what Summify provides. Give it a shot.

SOPA and The New Gatekeepers

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 :) ).

You Aren't Who You Hang Out With

Every new app you try these days wants to know who your friends are. It’s easy to understand why. On the marketing side, it’s to encourage users to evangelize the app amongst their friends. On the user experience side, however, it’s to help users consume more relevant content.

Here’s are a few examples:

  • Upon signing up for Rdio and connecting your Facebook account, you are shown music your friends are listening to.
  • Upon installing Oink and connecting your Twitter account, you are shown food and other items your friends have sampled.
  • Upon checking your Facebook news feed, you are shown status updates from friends reacting to movies they’ve just seen.

While this sort of content tailoring provides value, I often find myself uninterested in it. The reason is that although in many cases my friends are similar to me, my taste in things like music, movies, and food do not map to my friends’. The taste correlation between friends may be greater than between two random strangers, but it’s still not very high in most cases.

There’s a better way to expose people to new experiences and I think we’ll start to see more of it in the future. It may already have a name, but I’ll call it “phantom friending”.

To illustrate phantom friending, imagine you want to watch a movie tonight and you need a recommendation. Now imagine you have these two options:

  1. Calling your best friend, asking them what good movies they’ve seen recently, and picking one of them.
  2. Consulting a list of preferred, recent movies put together by someone across the country who you don’t know but who has in the past indicated that they hate a lot of the same movies you hate and love a lot of the same movies you love.

I hold that in almost every case, the second option will provide a better result. Even if you were able to poll 5, 10, or 20 friends, a well-picked phantom friend would produce a better result. That is because the phantom friend doesn’t represent someone you like to socialize with — as your real friends do — but rather someone who watches movies the same way you do. They have your same tolerance for violence, same appreciation for special effects, and same patience for heavy dialogue. In other words, they may be unlike you in every other way, but their brain consumes movies the same way yours does.

The phantom friend concept works better for some subjects than others. It would seem to work well for movies, food, and music. It may work less well for TV shows, because a big part of TV shows is discussing them week after week with our friends. The same goes for clothing. We often wear similar clothing as our friends in order to fit in better.

For the many situations where phantom friends are better influencers on us, I’d love to see more apps and services geared towards this type of discovery. One example I’ve always wanted is a “Movie Critic Dating Game”. I rarely read movie reviews because I haven’t identified a movie critic who is a lot like me. Here’s how it would work:

  1. I am presented with a list of 20 movies.
  2. I rate each movie with a thumbs up, thumbs sideways, or thumbs down.
  3. The app finds me the national movie critic who has rated the 20 films most similarly to how I have rated them.
  4. I then begin reading the critic’s reviews each week and choose new movies to watch accordingly.

Interestingly, the above scenario works almost as well if the system can find someone with the exact opposite tastes as me. If I can find the person who I disagree with the most, I can just always do the opposite of what they suggest (the “Costanza strategy”). Furthermore, even if you extended the questionnaire to 200 movies, there is someone in the world (although perhaps not a professional movie critic) who answered all 200 the same way you did.

Undoubtedly I am not the first to think of this concept, but given that it doesn’t seem computationally ferocious to do, I’m surprised we haven’t seen more of it. Hunch seemed like it was after a similar result, but it always seemed too impersonal to me. I don’t want a computer telling me what people similar to me like. I want a computer matching me up with someone and then letting me know what else they like. There is a difference there.

I can imagine a world in which I have a movie sensei, a restaurant sensei, a music sensei, and a bunch of other senseis. I may eventually know them by name or I may not, but it would be a fun set of relationships to have.

Never Be Another

When someone dies, the phrase “there will never be another” gets used quite frequently. It’s one of those phrases that is both always true and yet almost always not true. It’s true that, yes, no other person will ever be exactly like any other person, but it’s usually false in the compliment it’s actually trying to pay.

In almost every case, when a public figure dies, there are plenty of his or her contemporaries ready to fill the void. A great guitarist died? Well we at least have hundreds of other world class guitarists to listen to. A basketball star died? Luckily we have plenty of those too.

The truth of the matter is that even best of the best in most fields, at any given time, is only a little better than the rest.

Counterexamples to this seem to happen only a handful of times per century. The number of times we lose someone whose impact was so dramatic and whose substitute seems so unfathomable is vanishingly small.

We lost that person yesterday in Steve Jobs, and we are only beginning to feel the impact of his absence.

What gets lost in all of these Steve Jobs tributes you read online is just how dark things were for personal technology only ten years ago. People forget that until the iPhone came out, “The Apple Way” was still largely on the sidelines. Windows PCs were unavoidable. Cell phones were unapproachable. There were even a few years around the turn of the century when many websites didn’t even work on Macs because developers only coded to PC Internet Explorer “standards” (airiest of air quotes there, of course).

It was just dark as hell out there; especially for those of us who wanted so badly for the story to end differently. The lesson that idealism and attention to detail could lose out to “good enough and a little cheaper” was not something we wanted to learn.

The long, but impeccably planned, turnaround that Steve Jobs has led over the last 14 years is impressive for thousands of reasons. None is more astounding to me than this one though: he was quite literally the one person on the face of the earth capable of pulling it off.

One. Out of 6,800,000,000 people.

He wasn’t just the best choice. He was the only choice. And that’s why we’ll miss him so much.

When people die after suffering from prolonged illness or pain, my thoughts are almost always positive. Death is not something I fear, and when it’s ultimately the relief method for someone’s pain and suffering, I feel happy for their newfound peace. I felt this way when Kurt Cobain died, for instance.

With Steve Jobs, however, I don’t get the feeling death was any sort of relief at all. Yes he was obviously at peace with the concept, as he expressed beautifully in his Stanford commencement speech, but SJ put the pedal to the metal until his final breath.

What would you do if you knew you had a short time to live? Most of us would quit our jobs. Many of us would travel. Some of us would relax and keep our stress levels down. What did Steve do? He hit the gas. He released the iPhone, unveiled the iPad, and led Apple to its current and still unfathomable status as the most valuable company in the world.

Just as incredibly, he was able to lift his body out of Apple without also removing his soul; on a day when many once feared AAPL stock would dive precipitously, it’s comfortably unchanged from the day before.

He had his flaws and he may not be the greatest person to ever live, but no one has ever left this world more on top than Steve Jobs has just left it.

Thanks for everything.

Shared
Why I Just Asked My Students To Put Their Laptops Away:

A great essay about how toxic everyday distractions can be.

Humanity's deep future:

A group of researchers at the Future of Humanity Institute talk about where our race may be going and how artificial intelligence could save or kill us all.

Steve Jobs speaks about the future at the International Design Conference in 1983:

31 years later, it’s safe to say this is one of the most prescient speeches about technology ever delivered. Jobs covers wireless networking, tablets, Google StreetView, Siri, and the App Store (among other things) many years before their proliferation. A fantastic listen.

How to travel around the world for a year:

Great advice for when you finally find the time.

LiveSurface:

A fantastic app for prototyping your design work onto real world objects like billboards, book covers, and coffee cups. This seems like just as great of a tool for people learning design as it does for experts.

50 problems in 50 days:

One man’s attempt to solve 50 problems in 50 days using only great design. Some good startup ideas in here…

How to Do Philosophy:

If you’ve ever suspected that most classical philosophy is a colossal waste of time, Paul Graham tells you why you’re probably right.

TIME: Why Medical Bills Are Killing Us:

Stephen Brill follows the money to uncover the pinnacle of corruption that is the U.S. Health Care system. A must-read article if there ever was one.

DIY Dot Org:

A beautifully designed site full of fun and challenging DIY projects. I could spend months on here.

The Steve Jobs Video Archive:

A collection of over 250 Steve Jobs videos in biographical order

Self-portraits from an artist under the influence of 48 different psychoactive drug combos.

Water Wigs are pretty amazing.

David Pogue proposes to his girlfriend by creating a fake movie trailer about them and then getting a theater to play it before a real movie. Beautiful and totally awesome.

Jonah Peretti's letter to BuzzFeed’s employees:

If you’re wondering what a excellent blueprint for a modern media company looks like, look no further than Buzzfeed CEO Jonah Peretti’s latest email to his employees. In it, Peretti explains a lot of his company’s virtues, the most important being a relentless focus on always providing what’s best for the user. Vox Media (operators of The Verge) is the only other company I can think of which approaches this level of reform and execution.

The Covers Project:

I love this so much: a cross-referenceable database of cover songs, searchable by song or artist. Slowed down, acoustic covers — no matter the song — are so enjoyable to me that I wish it was a requirement to play one at every show. If you like them as much as I do, make sure to check out M. Ward’s Let’s Dance or Sun Kil Moon’s entire album of Modest Mouse covers.