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February 09 2011

Four short links: 9 February 2011

  1. isotope -- dazzling Javascript library.
  2. Designs, Lessons, and Advice from Building Large Distributed Systems (Slideshare) -- in the words of Matt Webb, through whom I found it, There's a lovely collection of numbers from Jeff Dean at Google, about how long common computer processor and network operations take. [...] What makes this more human is this comparison, which reveals a little bit about computer time: your equivalent to a computer looking up data from a chip is remembering a fact from your own brain. Your equivalent to a computer looking up data from a disk is fetching that fact from Pluto. Computers live in a world of commonplace interactions not the size of a house, like us, but the Solar System. On their own terms, they are long, long lived, and vast.. (via Matt Webb)
  3. Amazon Selling More Kindle Books Than Paperbacks (New Scientist) -- Since the beginning of the year, for every 100 paperback books Amazon has sold, the Company has sold 115 Kindle books. Additionally, during this same time period the company has sold three times as many Kindle books as hardcover books. (via Brad DeLong)
  4. The AOL Way -- the leaked business plan for AOL's content farms. I was fascinated by how big companies plan, but this is yet more sausage best made unseen. Most sausagey for me was Slide 33 showing the fantasy: a story suggested by high searches and advertising possibilities, with heavily "SEO optimized" text. (via Chris Heathcote on Delicious)

October 19 2010

Pandora's ubiquitous platform play

Pandora on the iPad and AndroidAn informal survey of my home's device inventory reveals that Pandora is omnipresent. The music service is accessible through my various computers, an iPad, two iPods, an Android phone, and a Blu-ray player. The only reason I can't access Pandora through a DVR, stereo, distributed audio system, or car is because I don't have compatible devices (yet ...).

I began mulling Pandora's presence in my life after interviewing Pandora CTO Tom Conrad (@tconrad) at last month's Web 2.0 Expo. During our chat, I asked which of Pandora's platforms is most popular. Here's what he said:

It's about 50/50 between desktop and mobile. In fact we just slipped over into having more hours of listening consumed off of the PC than on. And the vast majority of off-PC listening is some kind of a mobile device. There's a big chunk of iPod Touch usage, and then there's a small but growing percentage that's consumer electronics devices. We've done probably a hundred or more partnerships for television and Blu-ray players, tabletop radios and stereos, and set-top boxes and even automobiles.

I'm as enthusiastic about platforms as anyone. I believe digital content should be spread far and wide: websites, phones, tablets, ereaders, Facebook, Twitter, RSS -- get it all out there. But even my liberal platform perspective pales in comparison to Pandora's. They're going for all the platforms, not just the web-based ones.

And this makes me wonder if there's a lesson here for content companies -- both those that create content and those that distribute it.

Decoupling on a different level

A lot of folks in the publishing world have grown comfortable decoupling content from containers. That's why CSS is an integral part of online content development and XML is a key tool in many production chains. But Pandora represents an entirely different type of decoupling: They're not just container-agnostic. They're device-agnostic. You want Pandora's content on a computer? Done. On a phone? No problem. On your stereo? On a TV? In a car? You bet.

Pandora is a music service, so the expectation is that the music it provides will be available through all the channels where music is consumed -- not just the ones chained to a computer. Shouldn't this be the threshold for other types of content?

Implementation of this type of distributed effort is tricky, but I think the mindset is what really matters here. If we accept that the old model of driving all the attention to specific platforms (e.g. a website, a book, etc.) has been replaced by serving audiences where they want to reside, then shouldn't content companies make their content accessible through all the appropriate channels and devices? Instead of hedging bets on specific devices or platforms, why not spread that bet across as many platforms as you can? Most will be misses, but some of the hits could come from channels you wouldn't expect.

Other examples

Pandora isn't the only content-centric company pursuing the ubiquitous path. In putting together this piece, I was reminded of three related efforts:

  • Netflix made a statement in 2009 when it switched the default tab at Netflix.com from "Browse DVDs" to "Watch Instantly." The company has followed up by spreading their streaming service far and wide. In addition to standard browser-based access, the Netflix streaming library is now available through game consoles, TVs, mobile devices and other hardware. In many ways, Netflix is the video version of Pandora.
  • Amazon's Kindle platform extends across computers and devices. The Kindle hardware is simply part of a broader effort to sell ebooks through Amazon. How and where you access Amazon's offerings isn't the priority. (Barnes & Noble and Borders are following the Amazon playbook as well.)
  • UK news publisher The Guardian encourages developers to grab its content API -- which pumps out the full text of articles -- and transform/mash-up/repurpose as developers see fit. The only caveat: the Guardian reserves the right to put ads into its API content stream. This represents one possible way to maintain an advertising model while distributing content across platforms and devices.

The defining characteristic of these efforts is commitment. These aren't tepid platform plays. The companies behind them are all in, which is necessary during this period of ambiguity and experimentation.

Really, it comes down to this: The old methods of distribution doen't mesh with the way audiences consume digital content, so a technique that relies on those old methods will either fail mightily, or -- perhaps even worse -- chug along aimlessly. A bold embrace of the digital landscape is key to seizing the digital opportunity.


The full interview with Conrad is embedded below. His Web 2.0 Expo keynote is also worth checking out.



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October 12 2010

Why blogging still matters

We tend to get caught up in the latest tech ideas or gadgets, which is understandable since a lot of this stuff is undeniably interesting. But from time to time it's worth surveying where we are and where we came from; to consider how the tech landscape has changed over the years, and how all those past technologies have influenced the things and thoughts we currently have.

That sort of slap of perspective happened to me during a recent interview with Expert Labs director Anil Dash (@anildash) at Web 2.0 Expo NY. I was reminded of the enduring power of blogging.

Here's what Dash said when I asked how his blog relates to his other work:

I'm incredibly privileged and fortunate. I can put a post up on my blog and some number of people who are smart and thoughtful will take it seriously and respond. That's unbelievable. That's the greatest thing in the world.

If I spend an hour writing a couple hundred words about a really interesting challenge that we face as an industry, as a society, as a culture, sometimes I'll get the person that I'm writing about to respond. I could write something about Twitter and get somebody that works at Twitter to respond, or write something about government and get someone who makes policy to respond. That's still a thrill. It also kicks off really meaningful conversations. I think that's all you can hope for.

That was the promise we had when we all first discovered the web. Someday it would bring us all together and we'd be able to have these conversations. It's not perfect. It's not ideal. But in some small way here's somebody like me -- with no portfolio, I didn't go to an Ivy League school, I didn't have any fancy social connections when I started my blog -- and it has opened the door to me having a conversation as a peer, as somebody taken seriously, in realms that I would have never otherwise had access to. That's the greatest privilege in the world.

The full interview with Dash, embedded below, includes his thoughts on how he's avoided burnout after more than a decade of blogging. He also discusses his crowdsourcing/government work with Expert Labs and he explains why the Gov 2.0 movement would have never happened had it required a federal mandate.



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October 07 2010

Strata Week: Videos and visualization

Many places across the U.S. are experiencing brisk fall weather this week. If you're living in one of them like I am, then perhaps you too are feeling the urge to swap your walking shoes for a quilt and a remote control to watch some movies. No problem with that if you're learning, though, right? Here, then, for your viewing pleasure and enlightenment, are some great data-related videos.

Data visualization for journalism

Geoffrey McGhee, an online journalist who has worked for outlets such as NYTimes.com, ABCNews.com and Le Monde Interactif, has produced a wonderful documentary called Journalism in the Age of Data. McGhee was one of 12 U.S. Knight Journalism Fellows studying at Stanford during the 2009-2010 academic year, and created this video report during that time.

The project's description reads:

Journalists are coping with the rising information flood by borrowing data visualization techniques from computer scientists, researchers and artists. Some newsrooms are already beginning to retool their staffs and systems to prepare for a future in which data becomes a medium. But how do we communicate with data, how can traditional narratives be fused with sophisticated, interactive information displays?

To answer this question, McGhee interviewed many of the researchers and designers currently breaking ground in the field, including Martin Wattenberg, Fernanda Viégas, Ben Fry, Aaron Koblin, Jeffrey Heer, Matthew Ericson, Amanda Cox, Nigel Holmes, Nicholas Felton, Eric Rodenbeck, and many others.

Career planning for college students

Earlier this week, LinkedIn, in partnership with PricewaterhouseCoopers LLP (PwC), launched a new tool for current college students called Career Explorer. For now, the tool is in a limited roll-out to students in 60 universities across the U.S. that tend to feed talent to PwC, but a larger roll-out is on the way.

Career Explorer uses data from LinkedIn's 80 million users to help students map out potential career paths based on paths commonly taken by others in their fields of interest. Students can create and save multiple maps, search available jobs, and look for connections within their own networks who may be able to help. Career Explorer also provides statistics about various fields and jobs.

This short video shows some of Career Explorer's data-based features.

3D: Movies and data

At the Web2.0 Expo in New York last week, Julia Grace gave a keynote talk about the dimensionality of data. The movies, she said, are the ultimate dream-factory of data visualization and user interfaces because they allow us to design without the imperative to implement. Certain scenes from "futuristic" '80s movies look oddly familiar today.

Julia showed us the seven-foot sphere she purchased for her research lab that allows her to show three-dimensional data on a three-dimensional display. "Jumps and reductions in dimensionality equal distortion and inaccuracy," she said. If you have 3D data, you need a 3D display.

What will the future bring? Maybe it will look like the displays in "Avatar," or maybe like something else. But it is coming, fast.

Watch the keynote for yourself.

Touchable Holograms

Speaking of bringing the future forward, researchers at Tokyo University are doing just that with "touchable holograms," simple holographic images that can "feel" like physical objects. Two Nintendo Wiimotes track the user's hand, and ultrasonic waves create a sensation of pressure on the hand of the user when it interacts with the image.

As its inventors told NTD Television, there are several practical uses for this technology. "For example, it's been shown that in hospitals, there can be contamination between people due to objects that are touched communally. But if you can change the switches and such into a virtual switch, then you no longer have worry about touch contamination. This is one application that's quite easy to see," said Hiroyuki Shinoda, Professor at Tokyo University.

Another possibility is rapid-prototyping or implementation of UI design, since interfaces may be changed without the need to manufacture any physical parts.

So far, this technology has been used to create only simple objects. But it's the first step toward something Picard may one day be proud of. I'll see you in the future, Moriarty.

October 06 2010

10 Lessons for Gov 2.0 from Web 2.0

What is Web 2.0? In 2005, it meant geeks embracing a set of principles and practices: using the web as a platform, harnessing collective intelligence, data is the new "Intel inside," and others. By 2010, many of the dominant companies and services that embody or fuel Web 2.0 have become global brands: Google, Craigslist, Amazon, Facebook, Twitter, and a host of new mobile communities or platforms. These companies are often defined by what they allow users to do: upload pictures or video, stay connected to friends, track and discover news, save bookmarks, create communities, etc.

For non-geeks, Web 2.0 meant the online world became a place you could publish and participate. It became about everyone with an Internet connection exploring an interactive web. Instead of static brochureware, the web became a read/write medium, with a social layer that accelerated quickly. As with most technical innovations, the evolution of an Internet operating system has been incremental and cumulative.

The same is true of government 2.0, or "Gov 2.0," which Tim O'Reilly defined as thinking like a platform provider that can bring services to citizens using government data and the creative power of the private sector.

Gov 2.0 has often been defined by its utility to help citizens or agencies solve problems, either for individuals or the commons. That's what the giants of the Web 2.0 era have been able to do successfully outside of the government world, and that's the paradigm that many Gov 2.0 events have been exploring.

In that vein, Gov 2.0 is not defined by social media any more than Web 2.0 is. Collaborative software -- including blogs, wikis, RSS, interactive video and social networks -- is an elemental feature of Gov 2.0, but it does not encompass all of it. For example, a congressional hearing this summer defined Government 2.0 in the context of Web 2.0 technologies, balancing potential security and privacy issues against innovation and cost savings.

So what does Web 2.0 mean to Gov 2.0? Many aspects cannot be discerned at this point, but one thing is certainly clear: It's about all of us. Creating a smarter, more innovative government matters to every citizen.

In their analysis of "Web 2.0 five years on, John Battelle and Tim O'Reilly wrote that "if we are going to solve the world's most pressing problems, we must put the power of the web to work -- its technologies, its business models, and perhaps most importantly, its philosophies of openness, collective intelligence, and transparency. And to do that, we must take the web to another level. We can't afford incremental evolution anymore."

In his advice on the direction of the first Government 2.0 Summit, federal CTO Aneesh Chopra urged the technology community gathering for the Gov 2.0 Summit not to focus on the successes of Web 2.0 in government, but rather on the unsolved problems that confront the country.

That community that Chopra has looked to for ideas came together at the Web 2.0 Expo last week in New York City. In no particular order, following are 10 lessons from Web 2.0 that could be applied to government. If you also attended the conference or have been thinking about the topic, please share your thoughts in the comments.

Work on stuff that matters

Thinking about the future is an obvious place to start when looking at the lessons of Web 2.0 for Gov 2.0. Tim O'Reilly recently spoke about the big issues that we all confront and some of the long-term trends that confront the tech industry, citizens and government alike: financial crises, income inequality, soaring healthcare costs, to name a few. Humanity as a whole has even greater challenges.

What does this mean to government? Can citizens collaborate with officials, workers and one another to apply a civic surplus to open government? During the 2008 election, then Senator Barack Obama said that "the challenges we face today -- from saving our planet to ending poverty -- are simply too big for government to solve alone. We need all hands on deck." As President, finding solutions to grand challenges means that Obama is looking again to the technology community for answers. Whether he finds them will be a defining element in judging whether a young Senator from Illinois that leveraged Web 2.0 to become President can tap into that collective intelligence to govern in the Oval Office.

Explore the power of platforms

This year, the overarching theme for the Web 2.0 Expo was platforms. In an increasingly mobile, social, and real-time world, Facebook and Twitter have continued to grow in popularity as the globe's No. 1 and No. 3 social networking websites.

This year Anil Dash, director of Expert Labs, talked with Ryan Sarver, Twitter's director of platform, and Bret Taylor, the chief technology officer of Facebook. Both have been entrusted with maintaining and improving the application programming interfaces (API) that enable millions of developers to build apps upon their platforms. Twitter's success has been driven by acting as a platform for thousands of such apps, allowing third parties to add functionality to Twitter that the relatively tiny company could not. While that strategy has evolved as Twitter itself has matured, Facebook has gone even further toward allowing value to be created on its platform, in particular social gaming. Zynga, the makers of the wildly popular Farmville game, has grown dramatically since 2007, with a potential valuation of some $5 billion. Facebook's platform for adding a social layer is well-liked: Five months after launching social plugins, Taylor said that about 2 million websites have added them.

What could embracing platforms mean for government? Making community health data as useful as weather data has potential. Open source may improve healthcare through NHIN Direct. Standardizing APIs, empowering users, and working with developers can be a crucial complement to publishing open data online, as may be true in rebooting FCC.gov. As Nat Torkington has pointed out, however, "government-as-platform doesn't absolve us from asking what services should be provided by a government."

Make better data-driven decisions

How will the e-commerce platforms of tomorrow compare to the engines of today? Given Charlie Kim's analysis on data-driven e-commerce, we can expect them to be smarter, leaner and more efficient. Next Jump, which Kim founded during the .com boom, uses data to turn browsing into buying. There's no question that real-time monitoring is important to cybersecurity and fighting insider threats. Just as sentiment analysis at the point of sale and understanding of customer behavior improves Web 2.0 businesses, real-time monitoring of log management is crucial to improved cybersecurity.

What does data-driven e-commerce mean for government? If the government is to provide citizens with better e-services, save energy through data center consolidation or unlock innovation through healthcare information, the lessons of data-driven e-commerce are relevant.

Crowdsourcing can empower citizens

Yes, the term "crowdsourcing" has become a buzzword. That does't mean the underlying phenomenon doesn't have immense power. After Lukas Biewald of CrowdFlower and Leila Chirayath Janah of Samasource stepped off stage to talk about "the future of work," they'd offered a reminder of how channeling crowdsourcing into distributed work effects government, research and the workforce.

What does crowdsourcing mean to government? The power of empowered citizens to improve communities and collaborate with government showed how this Web 2.0 idea is an elemental component of the future of Gov 2.0 and participatory platforms.

Location, location, location

Location isn't just significant in the real estate game. No one was surprised to see Dennis Crowley focusing on the power of location-based social networking, APIs and location data at the Web 2.0 Expo. After all, he founded Foursquare, which just passed 3 million users. The bigger question that the success of Foursquare inspires might be whether location-based services could increase civic engagement in millennials. In September, Foursquare announced a partnership with CNN that would give a "healthy eater" badge to anyone who checks in at one of 10,000 farmers' markets.

What does this mean for government? Don't expect Michelle Obama to check in after she "gets up and moves" to the White House farmers' market quite yet. But citizens may be another matter. "We've seen time and time again how Foursquare can be used to drive people to action, and CNN's campaign is a perfect example of how brands can use the platform to promote good behavior, such as healthy eating," said Crowley. Foursquare has embraced a platform approach in allowing other services to build on top of its API. If it goes ahead and creates civic badges for volunteering or registering to vote, Foursquare could become a platform for civic involvement. The 1,600-pound gorilla, however, is Facebook. If the social networking giant puts more resources behind its Places product, government could have both new opportunities and privacy risks to consider.

Find better filters for information overload

Katie Couric at Web 2.0 ExpoWhen CBS Evening News anchor Katie Couric said that we need better filters for a tsunami of news at Web 2.0 Expo, she was was expressing a frustration common to government officials, media and citizens alike. Will hanging out with the geeks improve the quality network news? Judging from Couric's comments, she's using online platforms to share what she's reading and interact with the people formerly known as her audience. Now that she's joined the online conversation, however, she's beset with the same challenges of finding relevant news, sourcing information and attributing material. Given her old school journalism chops, much of that will come easily. But identifying and mastering digital tools that make the real-time web relevant while retaining a healthy flow of news won't be a walk in the park.

Will hanging out with the geeks change government as well as broadcast media? Maybe. The consequences of successfully applying the lessons of Web 2.0 to Gov 2.0 have the potential be even more far reaching in government. It's in the self interest of traditional media to support a more educated citizenry with greater digital literacy. Living in an information bubble with like-minded people is both "limiting and dangerous to a democracy," said Couric during her talk. That's one reason that the Knight Commission was created, and why the information needs of this democracy must be considered as technology continues to evolve.

Design for how people live and work

"Design is really part of life. In particular, it's a fundamental ingredient for progress," said Paola Antonelli. senior curator in the Department of Architecture and Design at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA). "When technology people and when scientists create revolutions or create something new, designers are the ones who make these revolutions into objects that people can use."

What's the Web 2.0 lesson on design for Gov 2.0? It's simple: Design matters. Well designed websites help citizens find key services. Better designed signs make for safer traffic patterns, evacuations, safety precautions or access to key utilities. Infographics can explain crucial public health messages.

Live in the future

What can pornography, neuroscience and maps teach people about the future of media and business? Plenty. Each has driven the web's development. Today is no different. Congressional representatives may be unhappy with people accessing pornography from government computer equipment, but the technology that's driven the industry deserves further study on its own merits. As New York Times technology writer Nick Bilton observed in his talk, we're now living in the future that science fiction authors imagined in decades past.

What do changes in media consumption mean for government? Citizens are searching more for information online, and in more places, than ever before. They will interact with legislators and consume e-services outside of normal business hours. Government officials building the infrastructure for a more participatory digital republic should consider how to reach those digital natives while retaining real world facilities for those left behind by the digital divide.


Look to HTML5 and mobile access

It's not hard to see that the future is mobile, as cellphone ownership skyrockets around the world and wireless broadband data usage soars. These days, it seems like there's an app for nearly anything and everything. When Daring Fireball's John Gruber talked about Apple and the Open web, the importance of learning HTML5 as a means of offering the best experience to all mobile platforms shone through. "Web 1.0 is http in your browser. Web 2.0 is http everywhere," said Gruber. If Web 2.0 means people will be accessing the web everywhere, delivering rich media experiences that are platform-neutral is crucial.

What does HTML5 mean for government? As government entities create new .gov sites and invest in new apps, it's important to think of how the open web has evolved. Sure, Flash and HTML may be converging, but some actions speak volumes: "One of the major technology decisions we're dealing with is mobile platforms," said Brett Taylor, the CTO of Facebook. "We're doubling down on HTML 5." Why? It's about giving the most people the best mobile experience possible, without requiring people to buy an expensive smartphone to use an app.

Learn how to Mayor

Web 2.0 has also been driven by laughter, from the LOLcats to Rickrolling to the steady march of shared funny news. That's why it makes sense to end with Baratunde Thurston's talk on "how to Mayor," where he takes "Foursquare politics to the next level." The Onion's web editor understands the confluence of technology and humor better than most, and at Web 2.0 Expo he demonstrated that mastery to a live audience.

What does humor mean to government? Business, politics and government, after all, are often deadly serious. If Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates manages to "leave them laughing," however, you can see how humor can be a useful tool. When Thurston added humor to a healthy Foursquare competition between friends, the result was a valuable lesson in how new media can be put to good use for campaigns. In the heated election season to come, a little laughter to the partisan wrangling will be a welcome respite. While the political videos that go viral are often the misfires, using technology to discover and speak to the needs, desires and sentiments of constituents where they live and work will still matter. As former Speaker of the House Tip O'Neill famously said, "all politics is local." In a world where Web 2.0 includes location data, mapping mashups and social media, we can expect that aphorism to continue to ring true.

Credit: Katie Couric photo by James Duncan Davidson.



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September 23 2010

Reality has a gaming layer

Kevin Slavin has been thinking about the intersection of games and daily life for nearly a decade. As the managing director of Area/Code, he's worked with Frank Lantz to integrate gameplay into the fabric of reality using a technique they call "big games." In the following interview, Slavin discusses the thinning boundary between the game world and the real world.

What are "big games"?

Kevin SlavinKevin Slavin: They're games that take place using some elements from the game system and some elements of the real world. Something Frank Lantz had worked on with Katie Salen and Nick Fortugno was called the Big Urban Game. It involved transforming the city of Minneapolis into a game board. They did that by using huge inflatable game pieces, about 25-feet high. The players, among other things, were moving these huge pieces around the city.

At Area/Code we built another big game in 2004 called ConQwest. It used huge inflatable totem animals that would take over the city. I think it was also the first use of optic code with phone cams in the United States. Players used Qwest phones that were programmed to recognize codes embedded throughout the city. Some codes were on huge billboards. Some were on the sides of coffee cups. Some were on napkins. The codes had infiltrated the city and players could unlock treasure with the magic technology of these phones.

That was a very exciting thing to play around with. It you chose to participate, you were experiencing the same physical space as always, but it involved totally different criteria and totally different objectives.

Using an urban landscape as a game board sounds a lot like Foursquare.

KS: It's not a total coincidence. Dennis Crowley was the third partner at Area/Code for a little while, in between being at Google and starting Foursquare. Part of the underlying ethos of Foursquare is also what is underneath Area/Code. There's a few of us who have been thinking about how "play" and the "city" were going to combine. We've been drinking the same Kool-Aid from the same cooler for quite a while.

How do virtual games like Second Life compare to the games you develop?

Kevin Slavin: We always thought we would use Second Life as the enemy, that it was the exact opposite of what we were trying to do. If Second Life was about trying to simulate reality optically, what we were interested in was running light interference with the real world to make it more interesting.

One thing that Second Life and the movement toward augmented reality have in common is that they both believe the pleasure of a game and the meaning of a game and the experience of a game rest primarily in the optics. The closer we can get to making something look like it's really there, the more excited we'll be about using it.

But I think that there's a fundamental misunderstanding about what makes games fun. Chess wouldn't be more fun if you had perfectly rendered kings and actual castles. Monopoly wouldn't be better if it was true to the actual layout of Atlantic City. What makes games great are the systems with which you're engaging. When you play a game, you're not so much looking at something; you're doing something.

I think one of the best examples of this is Tamagotchi, the plastic keychain that had a digital creature on it. You actually felt an obligation to this little creature. The creature itself was maybe eight pixels by eight pixels and black and white. What made it feel real wasn't that it looked real; it was that it acted real. It could articulate demands upon you that your eye itself couldn't do. In Tamagotchi versus Second Life, I'll go with Tamagotchi.

Aren't things like Tamagotchi the precursor to the repetitive games we see today, like FarmVille?

KS: That's a big question, and there's a lot of ways to answer it. I think as every form of culture has become ascendant, the idea emerges that we were once tidy and productive citizens who have suddenly shifted into a different mode of behavior and no longer value our time. Right now, social games are in focus. There's a lot of things to look at here that are very important and interesting.

For example, years ago we made a Facebook game called Parking Wars. It had incredible numbers, like a billion pages a year. The game was successful in part because it was so simple to engage with. Basically, you're trying to park illegally on somebody else's street and you're also trying to catch people who are parked illegally on your street.

Parking Wars had a bunch of side effects that were fascinating to watch. It became a kind of conversation that people were having with each other. There would be vendettas where people would check every five minutes to see if somebody in particular had parked on their street.

But I think what these games do is best characterized in a story that's ultimately very sad. At one point we added an ice cream truck into the Parking Wars mix. If it was parked on a street, it amplified the value of all of the other cars. There was an alpha player, a woman named Ellie, who would park the ice cream truck on a street and then let everybody know so they could come get double points.

It turned out that Ellie was very sick and ultimately, she passed away. What was so powerful was to see how everybody responded to her passion. What they wrote to her post-mortem were these really beautiful notes that talked about her generosity and her humility. The thing that's really interesting is how much of her personality she was able to express through 47 pixels of an ice cream truck.

That speaks to what games are really doing, which is allowing people to express themselves in a living system with other people who are doing the same. You're actually making decisions that are going to move one way or the other and that will have effects concretely on other people. I think that for many people, sometimes including me, real life doesn't always feel like something that you can have concrete effects on in a systemic way. It's not always easy to figure out how to be generous in a way that can touch a lot of strangers. Games allow us to do these kinds of things. It's true that what's happening in them is fictional and useless, but it's as fictional and useless as literature or cinema. Games allow us to see each other, for a moment, in a way that living in a city prevents.

If we make the real world part of a fictional world, will we ignore the real world that isn't part of that fictional world?

KS: When we were thinking about ConQwest -- the game with the optic codes -- the specific inspiration for that piece of it was the old James Carpenter film, "They Live." The conceit of that film is that if you have these glasses on, you can see the real world. This is a common trope in science fiction, but the idea that the glasses allowed our hero to see things differently and thus act on that shift in vision made us think: "God, what power that is. How beautiful that would feel."

I'd argue that we're already living in deeply fractured realities. I'm sitting in an office with a high-end laptop, and there are no fewer than three homeless people that I can see from my window. We are fractured, and this is particularly true in cities.

To turn it around a little bit, the thing that's powerful about these new forms of play is not so much that they fracture us into our individual realities, but that they're connect us to common ones. Something like Foursquare doesn't fracture the world. It pulls people together. Ultimately, if we can understand these game layers as a place where we're convening rather than the place where we're all departing from, I think there's a lot of beautiful things still left to do.


Kevin Slavin will discuss the influence of invisible systems at Web 2.0 Expo New York.




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September 15 2010

Email still isn't dead

Web 2.0 Expo New York - 20% off with code RadarEmail lacks the flair of check-ins or the pulse of real-time data. And we all know it's got plenty of technical issues and eager competitors. But ask yourself this: How many times per day (or hour) do you check your inbox?

It's clear that email is still viable.

Ben Lerer, co-founder and CEO of Thrillist, knows this firsthand. His company, which creates and sends daily newsletters to more than 2.1 million subscribers in 17 markets, is the rare web outlet that puts email first and everything else second. Thrillist is a good reminder that when it comes to technology, "mature" is not synonymous with "dead."

Lerer explains his company's ongoing commitment to email and offers some useful lessons learned in the following interview.





Was a newsletter part of your original plan for Thrillist?


Ben LererBen Lerer: It was always part of the gameplan because it was very simple. We understood the idea of getting an email each day, and Daily Candy had done a good job creating a model that we could copy in some regards.

What's interesting to look at is with all of these cool new technologies that are coming out, very rarely does one stick for a long period of time. Email isn't the sexiest thing in the world, but it hasn't changed because it's a spectacular product.

How did you know the newsletters were catching on?

BL: We measured success by hearing from businesses we covered and getting feedback that our coverage was working. That meant we were writing about a restaurant and people went. Or we would write about a service and people used it. We got validation from the actual subjects of our editorial. It showed that people trusted us and were taking our content seriously.

What tips do you have for companies considering newsletters?

BL: The first thing you need to do is know why you're creating an email newsletter. Don't just do it because you know you should be doing something with email.

You need to define the product. There are two options: one is you're using a newsletter as a traffic driver, the other is the newsletter itself is the product.

If you're creating a newsletter to be the product, create a rich experience on one page that provides everything the user needs. Don't make a teaser that clicks off to the website.

On the flip side, you can also build a successful newsletter product that's a traffic driver. You can use email to highlight the best or the most timely stories and bring people to the site.





Ben Lerer will explore the opportunities for online publications at the upcoming Web 2.0 Expo in New York. Radar readers can save 20% on registration with the code "radar."







What mistakes have you made?

BL: We're still making them. There's mistakes in every piece of the business, in every department.

For example, we've made mistakes when we've been too obsessed with timeliness. There have been times where we haven't written about things because we didn't get to it first. But what we found was that other publishers in the space were not doing the same quality of reporting.

Sometimes, we would have been better served to wait a little while. To make sure the place we were featuring was as great as we thought it was, that we had better photos, had better menus, and had better information.

There's lessons there for any newsletter publisher: Make sure you focus on quality and make sure you're willing to change your approach if the audience isn't responding to what you're sending.

How do you deal with spam filters and other technological hurdles?

BL: You absolutely need to worry about deliverability. That's where relationships with the email service providers come in. As long as you're not doing sleazy things to build your list, as long as you're building it organically and through smart partnerships, you don't have a ton of problems with spam filters. There's a lot of companies that you can work with that have the technology to send at the proper speeds and use the correct throttling. When you're sending out to the email service providers, you're playing by the rules that they set up.

The technology behind newsletters can become challenging once you get to a certain volume. If you have ads or content that's intended for segments of the audience, there's heavy server load that comes in there. You need to have your servers set up properly.

There's a lot of angst in the online advertising world. How are newsletters holding up?

BL: In the past, email at a lot of the big media companies was always looked at as an afterthought. You'd do a big print buy or a big digital buy with GQ and as added value, they'd give you email. What people found over time is that emails are a very efficient place to advertise because you have a captive audience and a subscription mentality.

Email is susceptible to the same ups and downs of any sort of digital advertising. If companies are spending, the market is going to be good. If companies are spending less, the market is going to be not as good.

We grew very nicely through the recession and we're still growing from an email and advertising perspective. Ad dollars are finding us because dollars are moving online.

Thrillist targets a specific demographic in specific cities. Would your business have worked if you had pursued a national audience?

BL: I think that it would have worked, but it would've worked because we'd eventually figure out we had to go local.

This interview was condensed and edited.



Related:


September 14 2010

The Startups at the Expo Showcase

web 2.0 expo nyc We have selected 30 young, mostly unknown and some unlaunched companies to participate in the Startup Showcase at the Web 2.0 Expo NYC. We have a really wide range of companies including The Social Bicycle System (the bike lenders), Facebook-killer Diaspora, Twitter account manager SocialFlow and email manager SaneBox. As a startup it's sometimes hard to get noticed; it's our hope that this will provide them an opportunity to get some visibility. Our attendees will get to meet these young companies in person.

On Wednesday night, September 29, we’re going to have 30 startups demoing in one large room. You'll have 50 minutes to check them all out and vote for your favorites (we’ll sound a chime every five minutes, letting people know it’s time to circulate). At the end of the hour, Tim O’Reilly (O’Reilly Media Inc.) and Fred Wilson (Union Square Ventures) will each announce their top pick along with the audience favorite. These three startups will then each give a pitch and have an on-stage conversation with Tim and Fred. The showcase is sponsored by .CO.

And without further ado here's the list.



The program for the Web 2.0 Expo NYC is complete. We have sessions for Developers, Designers, Marketers and Biz Dev. We have added more speakers including Katie Couric (CBS News and talking about the future of journalism), Drew Curtis (Fark and talking about online ads), John Gruber (Daring Fireball, but talking about Apple), Tom Hughes-Croucher (Yahoo! but talking about Node.js) and Eric Meyer (Complex Spiral, but talking about HTML5). Radar readers get 20% off with the code radar.

If you want to speak at the next Web 2.0 Expo SF our CFP is open until 9/20. Let us know what's on your mind.

September 13 2010

Why Twitter's t.co is a game changer

TwitterTwitter has been open with its data from the start, and widely available APIs have created a huge variety of applications and fast adoption. But by making their platform so open, Twitter has fewer options for monetization.

The one thing they can do that nobody else can -- because they're the message bus -- is to rewrite tweets in transit. That includes hashtags and URLs. Twitter could turn #coffee into #starbucks. They could replace a big URL with a short one. And that gives them tremendous power.

Twitter recently announced a new feature that makes this a reality. The t.co URL shortener -- similar to those from bit.ly, awe.sm, and tinyURL -- might seem like a relatively small addition to the company's offering. But it's a massive power shift in the world of analytics because now Twitter can measure engagement wherever it happens, across any browser or app. And unlike other URL shorteners, Twitter can force everyone to use their service simply because they control the platform. Your URLs can be shortened (and their engagement tracked by Twitter) whether you like it or not.

Web marketers obsess over the "funnel" -- the steps from first contact to purchase. They try to optimize it constantly, tweaking an offer or moving an image. They want to know everything about a buyer or a visitor.

While every click of a visit to these marketers' sites is analyzed with web analytics, it's much harder to know what people are doing elsewhere on the web. Modern marketers crave insight into two aspects of online consumers' behavior.

  1. They want insight into the "long funnel" -- what happened before someone got to their site that turned a stranger into a visitor.
  2. They want to measure engagement -- more than just knowing how many people a message might have reached, they want to know how many acted on it, regardless of where that link took them.

Web analytics is a huge industry, but the tools marketers rely on to understand visitors are breaking.

Web 2.0 Expo New York - 20% off with code RadarCookies, long the basis for tracking users, need web browsers to store them. In a world where we share URLs via email and social networks, those cookies get lost along the way, and with them the ability to track viral spread of a message. Invasive practices like toolbars and cross-site tracking cookies that try to tie users across websites have triggered huge consumer backlash (that hasn't stopped them from becoming common). Despite adoption, cross-site tracking cookies' days are numbered. This is one of the reasons companies like Tynt are finding other ways of following the spread of messages.

If you're a nosy marketer, it gets worse. We're moving from a browser-centric to an app-centric world. Every time you access the Internet through a particular app -- Facebook, Gowalla, Yelp, Foursquare, and so on -- you're surfing from within a walled garden. If you click on a link, all the marketer sees is a new visit. The referring URL is lost, and with it, the context of your visit.

This is why short URLs are so important. URLs survive the share. Because the interested reader is forced to go to the URL shortener to map the short URL to the real one, whoever owns the shortener sees the engagement between the audience and the content, no matter where it happens. That's why URLs are the new cookies.





Web analytics, marketing and points of control will be discussed at Web 2.0 Expo NY. Radar readers can save 20% on registration with the code "radar."






According to a Twitter email, t.co will "wrap links in Tweets with a new, simplified link." There's good reason to believe this will become the dominant URL shortener. Here's why:

  • Twitter is adding malware detection to the links it shortens.
  • T.co links will include a custom display that shows more of the destination before you click on the link.
  • The company has Twitter clients on most mobile devices, where it can make t.co the default shortener if it wants.
  • The extremely short URL saves precious characters.

Back in late 2008, Twitter was looking for ways to monetize its platform. With t.co, Twitter has found a product marketers will embrace if they want to understand how the world interacts with the messages they put out there.

By now, it's clear that Twitter is not just a site. It's a protocol for asymmetric follow. It's a message bus for human attention. It's able to force every Twitter user to let it know when an interaction happens, simply by changing URLs.

This is the real value of the company -- not just knowing what people are talking about, but knowing which things prompt an action, wherever that happens.


Related:

September 01 2010

What we can learn from data, 3-D and a giant globe

Web 2.0 Expo New York - 20% off with code RadarRows and columns are great for spreadsheet vendors, but end users have to jump through all sorts of cognitive hoops to make them work. We're just so used to them, and our alternatives are so limited, we don't know how bad we have it.

Julia Grace knows. As a researcher at IBM (and occasional commercial star), Grace is exploring new ways of finding, sorting and interacting with data -- and her tools go way beyond spreadsheets and pivot tables.

Grace digs in to her recent observations in the following interview, and she previews her keynote for the upcoming Web 2.0 Expo in New York.

Here's a few highlights from the Q&A:

  • The "I don't care what you ate for breakfast" detractors are happy because many social media users are shifting away from personal updates. But Grace isn't sure that's a good thing. To illustrate, she recalls a pleasant personal exchange with one of her Twitter followers -- someone she follows in turn -- that probably won't happen again. "I'm a data source now," Grace explains. "I'm not necessarily a person."
  • Her day job sometimes combines social data, geo location and a seven-foot-tall, three-dimensional globe.
  • Grace says the 3-D shift isn't just for movie theaters and televisions. The third dimension could also change how we access information.

The full interview follows.




What insights or capabilities does social media data give us that we didn't have 5-10 years ago?

Julia GraceJulia Grace: These technologies have reduced the barrier for entry for sharing, communicating and talking with other individuals. This is a story that's been told many times before: we used to interact with people locally, then we could call them on the phone, then we could go on planes, then we could email them, etc.

But to expand this: I think of someone walking past a stream or creek who can use their social network to report on conditions: "This stream bed is really low." "There's trash." Citizen science sorts of things.

And then your peers see this information and think "these people are interacting with the environment" or "maybe they're exercising more" or "maybe they're going to cool events." This kind of data broadens your horizons and allows you to understand more about the people you know. You also come in contact with people that perhaps would have been inaccessible before.

As the novelty of social networks fades, how do you see them changing?

JG: The beautiful humanizing features of social networks are slowly going away. It's becoming more about finding information fast, and getting it to your network fast.

As an aside: I met Omar Wasow, the co-founder of BlackPlanet, at a conference. He came up to me and said: “I read your Twitter stream. I feel like I know you.” We had this fantastic moment together. I told him I also followed his tweets, and I congratulated him for being on "Oprah."

But I don't think this kind of exchange would happen anymore because I don't share the sorts of things I used to. I'm a data source now. I'm not necessarily a person. I'm curious to see what will happen in the future as we become more and more boring because we're about news and not about people.




Julia Grace will make the case for a new dimension of data analysis at the Web 2.0 Expo in New York. Save 20% off registration with the discount code "radar."





What will you focus on in your Web 2.0 Expo keynote?


JG: We're at the dawn of the 3-D era. No longer will we go to the movies and see flat content. We're looking to bring 3-D into our homes, 3-D in video games, etc.

I've been thinking about how this 3-D movement is affecting Web 2.0. How can we take data and digital artifacts and use 3-D to tie this information together and show it?

We had charts. We had bar graphs. Then we made the charts interactive and we made the bar graphs clickable. And then we built mashups and put stuff on Google Maps. But inevitably, these visualizations are distorted and they're inaccurate. And you really can't show rich data. All of the tweets and Facebook updates and photos and geotagged information can't be shown on a bar graph.

But how can you represent that? How can I show something in 3-D? What we did at our lab was buy a seven-foot-tall, three-dimensional spherical projection surface. It's a big globe that we can project data on.





This seven-foot-tall globe helps IBM researchers explore data in new ways. In this photo, the globe is illustrating the spread of disease as part of the STEM public health project.


When I saw the globe I thought it would be cool to gather all the photos I've taken over the past two years and chart them. For example, I have Halloween photos. I know when Halloween was. I know where I was on Halloween, more or less. But it would be much easier for me to find those photos if I could look at the geographic regions where my photos were clustered, and then zoom in.

Instead of sorting by time, I think in the future we'll sort by and visualize by geography. That's a much better way to organize and recall information. More importantly, using this globe and using 3-D is a cooler and more pervasive way to show social networking data and personal data.

When I go to use something like Twitter and Facebook, like all of us do, everything is always time ordered. But now that we're generating truly global data, and we're able to look at information on this global scale, location is more important than time. You need to know where information is coming from in order to really understand what's going on.

As we adopt 3-D, will we need to deprogram our 2-D reference points?

JG: When we think about data, we think about something on a physical device. It's something we have to query for. But if we could just show it on a display, then visually, I think it will communicate. It will come across very clearly because we won't need complex mechanisms for sorting and searching. It will all be a natural and intuitive way to move around and zoom in as if it were on some sort of a map.


This interview was edited and condensed.


Related:



Julia Grace will discuss the relationship between Web 2.0 and 3-D at the Web 2.0 Expo in New York, being held Sep. 27-30. Save 20% off registration with the discount code "radar."

August 31 2010

Hacking online advertising

I gloss over the text ads that appear at the top of Gmail, but this one caught my eye:

Mike Arrington ad

I think it's clear I'm not the founder of TechCrunch. In that sense the ad failed to reach its intended audience. But I did notice the ad. I even clicked through. And in the world of infinite web inventory and diminishing attention, that counts as a win.

Now, will this work again? Probably not. I'm on to it, and "clever" has an expiration date.

Yet, there's something to be said for of-the-moment creativity: the actions and initiatives that only work once. The best recent example of this is Alec Brownstein's job search.

As the following video shows, Brownstein spent $6 on ads targeting the names of five creative directors:

It worked. Brownstein landed a job at Y&R New York.

I'll admit, these examples earn little more than a chuckle and passing admiration when taken on their own. But there's more going on here. The creativity hints at something much bigger.

These are ad hacks

Web 2.0 Expo New York - 20% off with code RadarOnline advertising has big problems. That's clear. Audiences are too dispersed and browsing habits are too entrenched for traditional models to take hold. Unfortunately, the knee-jerk response has been a mix of shoe-banging rhetoric and ill-advised projects.

Both of the examples I noted above are relevant because they represent counterpoints to grand and bold declarations of demise.

The people behind these ads took a system many believe is irreparably damaged and calibrated it for their specific needs. They didn't rail on and on about the need for a new model. They didn't passively seek salvation in a new device. Instead, they got to work and hacked online advertising.

Will either of these efforts "save" media? No. Absolutely not. And that's not the point.

It's the mindset that matters: worming inside a system and moving pieces around to make it do what you want it to. This mindset, which isn't a hallmark of entrenched media, is why the future will be determined by upstarts who don't realize -- and perhaps don't care -- that they're reinventing an industry.


Related:





The future of online advertising will be discussed at the Web 2.0 Expo in New York, running Sept. 27-30. Save 20% on registration with the discount code "Radar".

August 18 2010

Thousands of workers are standing by

Web 2.0 Expo New York - 20% off with code RadarLabor isn't what it used to be. Where in past years the expectation was that jobs were done at a certain place and time, now there are entire swaths of work that can be accomplished by anyone, anywhere.

Lukas Biewald, CEO of CrowdFlower and a speaker at next month's Web 2.0 Expo in New York, is at the center of the labor shift. His company has found an interesting way to tap Internet-connected groups to get work done -- think Mechanical Turk, but with additional tech and quality-assurance layers added on. What's really surprising is that many of the groups CrowdFlower turns to would never define themselves as formal workforces.

Biewald covers a variety of topics in the full interview, including:

  • He sees similarities between "labor on demand" and cloud computing: both keep costs down and reduce the risks associated with scale.
  • "It’s hard to explain my business to my mother," Biewald says. In the interview, he digs into CrowdFlower's unusual -- and somewhat complicated -- business model.
  • He provides further proof that virtual currency is a big deal: Around half of CrowdFlower's work involves it in some fashion.
  • He acknowledges that distributed work has a disruptive and negative affect on many businesses. However, Biewald believes it's a "rising tide" that will "increase the GDP of the world."

Read more after the jump.

What is "labor on demand"?

Lukas BiewaldLukas Biewald: What labor on demand means to us is that you can access tens of thousands, or hundreds of thousands, of people instantly. Truly instantly. You send us a job and we post it online through all of our different channels, and we get lots of people working on your job all at once. Or, we find the specific person that's best for your job.

It's exciting for businesses because they can scale up and scale down. Just as cloud computing made it so businesses didn't have to predict how many servers they were going to need at any given time, labor on demand allows businesses to not have to predict how many people they're going to need at any given minute.

Can you walk me through a typical CrowdFlower job?

LB: Let's use a business listing verification as an example. Suppose Yelp, which isn't one of our customers, gets a complaint saying that a business address is incorrect. Now, they don't want to take the business down immediately, but they do want to respond to that complaint as fast as possible. So they send that complaint to our system, and we post the job. It gets sent all over the world to everyone who happens to be in the CrowdFlower system at the time. Anyone can grab that job, and they will call the business in question or visit the company's website -- whatever the specific instructions are.

Sometimes we have multiple users employ different strategies. So two people call the business and one person checks the website. That's why we're a technology company; our process involves redundancy. We'll have workers spot-checking each other. We'll use all kinds of automated systems to prevent fraud and errors.

Returning to the example, we get results back and decide we're 98-percent confident that this specific business does exist. We shoot the information back to Yelp. The cool thing is all of this happens within five minutes or so. It means the client can always have updated information instead of waiting a day or a month for someone to get around to checking.

How do workers become aware of jobs?

LB: This is the thing that's a little bit complicated about CrowdFlower's business model. It's also why it's hard to explain my business to my mother.

We make deals with other companies that have lots of people around: outsourcing companies, e-rewards companies, even game companies. For every job that they get someone to do, CrowdFlower will pay the company money and that company can incentivize users with things like free seeds for a game or airline miles. We also put jobs inside Amazon Mechanical Turk, which then pays people small amounts of money for doing tasks. We have an open API where anyone can monetize people if they can get them to do these tasks.

We're not in the business of actually collecting people. We go through channels, and most of our channels don't consider themselves workforces.

What we do is add quality control on top of workforces. That was the core technology that started the business. Not every worker is going to be good at every task, but our system can figure out who's going to be good and who's going to be bad.

Is virtual currency a big part of your business?

LB: People think it's a minor part of our business, but it's actually a huge source of work for us: It's about half virtual currency.

How do you address complaints from professionals who are disrupted by crowdsourced work?

LB: Any sort of important technology or shift has winners and losers, right? Look at something like 99Designs, which professional designers often complain about. They say the quality of designs is going down. Yet, at the same time, lots of businesses that were just designing things themselves are now getting things designed.

Look, I believe in minimum wage. I think people should have to pay a certain minimum amount of money. Employers shouldn't be able to exploit people.

Overall, the amount of work out there is increasing. There are certainly tons of examples of people that are hurt by this, but I think it's a rising tide. This will actually increase the GDP of the world.

What's your take on the relationship between human work and machine learning? Are they at odds?

LB: With machine learning it's easy to get to 90 percent a lot of the time, but it's hard to get to 99 percent. And 99 percent is what you need for lots of applications.

If you look at machine learning implementations in the real world, they almost always use a technique called active learning to more efficiently collect data. Active learning is based on the idea that human beings and machine algorithms learn best when presented with confusing information.

For example, think of a machine classifier that's trying to decide if a boy or a girl is the subject of a photo. If you show tons of pictures that are obviously boys and tons of pictures that are obviously girls, that's not going to be as effective as showing a few obvious boys and a few obvious girls and then lots of examples where it's tricky.

When the algorithm gets tripped up, companies can send us the examples where the classifier is confused. We then categorize the examples that will help the algorithm improve.

That's a specific example of machines and people working together that excites me about my business. I think it's the future of machine learning.

Related to that, there's a discussion about why we have more digital work. The assumption was there'd be less because as more gets automated, you'd expect outsourcing to decrease.

Yet, outsourcing -- digital work in particular -- has taken off over the last 20 to 30 years. I don't have a great sound byte answer to explain that phenomenon, but I have seen that it's the companies that do the most machine learning that end up with the most of these kinds of tasks.

As we get used to automated processes working well, they leave a big trail of stuff that needs to be dealt with by people in their wake. So, I absolutely don't fear artificial intelligence and I don't view it as a competitor. Mechanical Turk uses this brilliant term: "artificial, artificial intelligence." It has all of the benefits of people and computers.

What will you focus on in your Web 2.0 Expo New York keynote?

LB: There's this amazing phenomenon going on. Companies are taking core parts of their business and they're sending them not to outsourcing call centers -- like they were doing 20 years ago -- but sending them to millions of people distributed around the world.

I want to talk about not just how this phenomenon is affecting business, but also the social impact of anyone in the world who has access to a computer and broadband. It's a surprisingly large number of people, and these people are now able to compete in a global information marketplace.

When you try to open a factory, it's a tough process. You have to ship goods. You have to go through all kinds of regulations. But when you shift information back and forth, there's very low overhead. There's no need to send hundreds of people into an office and buy them computers and infrastructure. Many people already have the tools to be effective global workers. We're seeing people in refugee camps actually finding useful, meaningful work and making money off of the refugee camp information infrastructure. This is changing the way business operates and also changing the fabric of the world we live in.

This interview was condensed and edited.


Related:




Lukas Biewald will discuss the business and social repercussions of distributed work at the Web 2.0 Expo in New York, being held Sep. 27-30. Save 20% off registration with the discount code "radar."

August 11 2010

How to fix online advertising

Web 2.0 Expo New York - 20% off with code RadarOpinions about online advertising shift like the stock market. When things are bullish, ad folks are brimming with confidence and new networks pop up like weeds. But then the bears roll in and online advertising is sent to the scrap heap (or the grave yard, depending on your perspective).

Fark.com founder Drew Curtis, a speaker at next month's Web 2.0 Expo in New York, hasn't given up on advertising. The model still has juice, he says. It's the pricing and the sales strategy that need to change.

In the following interview, Curtis outlines specific moves he believes will improve online ad sales. He also weighs in on the most useful online metrics and he explains why paywalls are "the kiss of death" for legacy media websites.



Why does the traditional print ad sales model not work online?


Drew Curtis: A number of reasons:

  • Too much inventory.
  • Financial desperation among legacy media companies, which brings prices down.

However the two most important reasons are:

  • Accurate stats -- We know how many impressions get served and how many people act on the ads. That has taught us that advertising is much less effective than previously thought. Some folks like to argue that it's only Internet advertising that is (relatively) ineffective. Those people sell ads for a living.
  • A change in how ads are served -- Content on the Net is served a la carte. Legacy media is served in bulk. If no one reads a particular online article, then no ads are served. As opposed to magazines, where anyone who buys a magazine is presumed to have consumed all the ads in it. Or TV where everyone is presumed to never get up during commercials. This changes the overall available inventory numbers.

Is online advertising a viable model in its current form?

DC: It's not the model. It's the pricing. That sounds obvious, but it all comes down to effective sales methods. Digital salespeople are slowly building a narrative that not all ad impressions are equal, and those that are wrapped around compelling content are more valuable than, say, impressions that rip by when you poke someone on Facebook.

One huge mistake I see many large media conglomerates make is trying to have a unified sales team pitch massively different properties. Niche content commands higher CPMs. As a result, if you're the fifth-largest media property -- CPM-wise -- inside a media conglomerate, you're pretty much screwed. Your name is never going to come up in sales pitches.

To give a more concrete example, the main reason Reddit makes no money is because the same salespeople selling them are prioritizing selling much more valuable inventory on Wired.com and other Conde Nast properties.

You'll look at ways to fix the online ad model in your Web 2.0 Expo session. Can you preview a few of your solutions?

DC: Most of these things are easier said than done. But one way or another all of these things will eventually happen.

  • Change the sales narrative -- Not all impressions are created equal. Not all audiences have the same value. For example, SEO-generated audiences move the needle on a traffic stats basis, but not on an advertising consumption basis.
  • Reduce industry-wide available inventory -- Step 1: Classify ad impressions on journalistic content as much more valuable than ad impressions on social media content. This is something media buyers already know, but few digital ad sales teams capitalize on. Step 2: Within the next few years some legacy media sites will leave the game while others stabilize their finances. Prices will rise when companies are less desperate for cash. This is already happening as it turns out
  • Augment with subscription content of some kind -- Any kind. I swear the main reason people sign up for TotalFark is to get a badge by their name so they can be cooler (and boy does it work!)
  • If you have a community, do an annual event.
  • If you have a content niche, sell product on it.
  • Cut overhead dramatically -- Legacy media was used to having individual regional monopolies with 40-percent profit margins. That is mindbogglingly high compared to almost any other industry. Most large companies thrive on much tighter margins. Every journalist I've talked to can identify dozens of areas in their organization where money is being wasted. Usually this takes the form of overpaid and unnecessary executives.

From where I sit, the revenue legacy media currently makes from selling ads against ubiquitous content is staggering compared to what we're capable of doing with our own sales efforts. This is mainly due to the power of brand and available sales expertise. I can't name them due to confidentiality, but if Fark was sold by a particular large media conglomerate that I'm personally familiar with, our revenue would leap upwards by a factor of 20 times. However, from where legacy media sits, this same revenue is far below what they used to be able to bring in. Herein lies the problem facing legacy media.

That may seem to conflict with what I said earlier about Reddit and Wired. The emphasis in that particular example was on the issue using a unified sales team to sell both a niche property and a general interest property at the same time. My Fark example is what would happen if the sales team of one general interest property (unnamed legacy media conglomerate) sold ads for another general interest property (Fark).

That begs the question: Why aren't they doing sales for Fark already? The answer: They're still getting used to the idea. Legacy media takes time to warm up to unconventional business strategies. There are also no guarantees it would work on a long-term basis, and a down market is not the best time to take chances.

What is the most useful online metric?

DC: U.S. (or domestic) audience. For the most part you can't monetize any international traffic.

But it's not really any one metric. It's more about what ratio of uniques to visits to page views is the best. Ideally, you want a large number of uniques who visit on a regular basis and consume 3-5 page views per visit.

A ratio of low uniques and high page views means you're going to be running remnant ads most of the time, and really low remnant due to frequency capping.

A ratio of uniques to page views close to 1:1 means you don't have an audience, you have SEO traffic. Response rates will be terrible. You will be able to land sales meetings without a problem, but results will be disappointing for the advertiser. Getting repeat clients will be difficult.

Can paywalls work on content sites?

DC: Yes, if the information has value and/or is not easily accessible elsewhere. That rules out legacy media for the most part. But great examples of success include Cooks Illustrated, Stratfor, ESPN's Insider product, and The Wall Street Journal.

If I were legacy media I'd use my free news sites to route traffic to paywall sites with desirable information.

But can a legacy media website throw up a paywall and succeed? No way in hell. It's the kiss of death.

This interview was condensed and edited.


Related:



Drew Curtis will expand on many of these ideas during his session at Web 2.0 Expo New York, being held Sept. 27-30. Save 20% on registration with the discount code "Radar".

Web 2.0 Expo Makes the Move to Midtown

Our vision for Web 2.0 Expo NY looks like this: smart leaders, looking toward the future of the web, gather together in a lively venue to meet, exchange ideas, and get a serious dose of inspiration. You make connections, you learn a lot, you have fun.

Here's what Expo NY looked like last year: smart leaders, looking toward the future of the web, gathered in the vast lobby of the Javits Center and had a hard time finding our show at all. The Web 2.0 Expo signs were obscured by the much larger banners of a manufactured chemicals show that was in town the same week--and the conference portion of our show, in line with the Javits layout, was in the basement.

New York hosts not only a burgeoning tech startup scene, but also thousands of people who lead tech adoption in sectors like media, fashion, finance and the arts. Attendees of Web 2.0 Expo have repeatedly told us that they're part of these groups, and they're looking to our show to help them connect. So while Javits, like most expo halls, has acres of space designed to show off everything from new cars to fancy packaged foods, it's not an ideal place for the Web 2.0 community to meet.

This year, to better align the venue with our vision and our attendees' needs, we're moving to the Sheraton Hotel & Towers in midtown. It's better suited to fostering the kinds of connections we care about and, excitingly, it lets us hold evening program onsite.

We've cooked up three great nights. On September 27, we're bringing back an annual Expo favorite: Ignite, a fast-moving series of entertaining and enlightening presentations (with all-new speakers). On September 28, we're hosting The Liar Show: four people tell outrageous tech stories--but only three are true. Grill the storytellers and guess which is fiction. On September 29, we're holding Startup Showcase, in which 30 young companies demo their products, and you help pick three to join Tim O'Reilly and Fred Wilson for onstage pitch sessions. Of course, our evening events all include food and bevvies.

What else would you do with a conference-friendly hotel space?

[Cross-posted to the Web 2.0 Expo blog.]

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