Archive for Observations

Here, There and Everywhere

I need help. No really, I do. No snark, sniping or sarcasm this time – I need some honest-to-pete technological counsel. While this is not a problem your average Internet user faces, it is something those of us living in our browsers struggle with daily: how do you choose where to post stuff?

I have The Guidewire blog. My Tumblr account. Facebook profile. And Twitter. Oh and there’s Sharp Skirts, but that runt of the litter hasn’t been updated since Sarah Palin first graced us with her presence.  Arguably, each of those sites has a different audience and focus. Of course the audiences overlap. And are also disparate. My high school Facebook friends don’t care about tech startups. Actually some of them do. Are you grasping my problem here?

I finally emerged from my cold-medicine fog this morning and, as usually happens with renewed energy, had a dozen items I wanted to share: a picture of the Loch Ness Monster (ahem), a fabulous Bill Withers tune, a quick comment to my tech friends in Austin (soon to be my new home!), a quiz to find out which Tarantino character I was (that had particularly high priority), and apparently ten thousand parenthetical remarks to accompany each item.

It didn’t take long for me to grow frustrated, as I had a decision to make with each item: where does this go? Do I tweet it, which will also dump it into my Facebook status – unless it contains a link, which will add it to my Facebook feed? Post it on my Tumblr account? What the hell do I have a Tumblr account for, anyway? Should I just save everything for the giant link-dump that The Vortex is becoming? When can I stop asking questions?

This is a technology problem that desperately needs an answer. Give me one feed to rule them all, as it were. I don’t care where it lives. I don’t care if it filters down into 100 different sites and services. Just give me one button to push, no decisions to make, and one united audience. To avoid inundation on the reader end, perhaps filter the feed by subject. So my tech stuff gets one designation and elusive mythical creatures gets another. Then followers choose what they want.

At one time not so long ago, I believe this magic solution was called a blog. You posted interesting items and thoughts and categorized them. People commented and forwarded the link to their friends. It worked pretty well. But blogs are no longer sufficient and our sharing has quickly become over-sharing. So here we find ourselves, members of more communities than we can keep track of, asking our friends and followers to come visit us here. No wait, go over there. But have you seen that up there? Honestly, I don’t know what the solution is. But could someone come up with it? It seems we’re way past the point of having one, unified, all-purpose online identity.

Now I’m going to hit publish on this post, which will send it to my Facebook feed. Then I’ll send out a tweet with a link. Maybe I’ll even call my mom and give her the URL…

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So 5 Minutes Ago

Taping this week’s DEMOcast with Keith Shaw got me waxing philosophical. We were discussing the moon landing and, if it occurred today, what sort of reaction it would elicit. The conclusion we ultimately came to was that it would generate some excitement for a few hours, then everyone would move on to the next meme. In the Twit-verse, Andy Warhol’s 15 minutes shrinks to seconds.

There is no better example of this than what happened on June 25th. We were all humming along happily on Twitter, changing our timestamps to Tehran and tinging our avatars green, when the Iranian political struggle ran smack-dab into the death of an American pop icon. Guess who won? Not only did the death of Michael Jackson push Iran’s issues deep into the archive, it actually prevented many Iranians from accessing Twitter at all. Risking life and limb to fight for freedom in one of the world’s harshest dictatorships? Sorry, but the guy wrote ‘Beat It.’

I’m being a bit harsh here for comic effect. I was a Michael fan too and certainly won’t argue that his death wasn’t news. The sad part is, that in our new Internet-powered reality, once you’re usurped online, you’re history. It seems that there are no longer moments in which the world stops and holds a collective breath.

In the time of the moon landing, there were (maybe) three television stations. And that was it. No YouTube to watch keyboard cat play off Neil Armstrong. No Facebook Connect to record your minute-by-minute reactions. Just a bunch of people crowded around radios and TVs to witness the true power of human ingenuity. There were no distractions from the awesome event at hand. Even in this century, we had a collective-breath moment on 9/11, albeit a breath of horror. Granted, Twitter would have been incredibly valuable that day in many aspects. But I think it would have altered the day, and the ensuing weeks, ever so slightly. When a populace can communicate instantaneously, and simultaneously, it affects the actual course of the event.

This can be both a positive and a negative. Imagine, for a moment, that Twitter had existed during the Columbine massacre. (I’m reading that book right now and can’t get it out of my head.) One of the many tragedies that day was massive confusion about the number of shooters, their location, and bomb placement. Because of this, several victims arguably died needlessly. Insert the ability of students to tweet from inside the building and the police response might have been decidedly different. The negative is that this instantaneous nature can also impact an event’s importance, a la Iran. You’re at the mercy of the global brain, and if the brain is distracted by a shinier object, you fade quickly.

There’s not much we can do about this phenomenon. We’re far past the point of no return. And, as I’ve pointed out, it isn’t necessarily a negative development. It simply made me stop and ponder the reality that, well, we don’t stop and ponder anymore. There’s a possibility that technology could be its own solution someday. Perhaps a product, or even entire market sector, will come along that will allow us to reconstruct online moments. So that when we land on Mars, or colonize the moon, or cure cancer, we’ll be able to reconstruct and refer back to our collective reaction. Rather than have it lost in an ether of tweets.

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Observations from the Real World

Ah vacation. There’s nothing like a little time off to give one perspective. So it was that a week ago Friday, I tweeted that I’d be making no tech-related updates during my time off.  Then, I promptly forgot about Twitter completely. I made a once-daily visit to Facebook to keep up with personal friends and Lexulous games, but otherwise I let social media fall by the wayside.

The time off was everything I thought it could be. I did some major closet-cleaning, hung out with my kids, read The Monster of Florence (no, thank you), and generally existed in the real world as a run-of-the-mill human who thinks FriendFeed is catchy slang for a dinner party.

It was enjoyable to be free of deadlines for a week, yes, but it was also eye-opening to step back from the swirling vortex of the technosphere and look at it from afar. I love my job. I love the potential of emerging technology.  But in these days away, I realized I hate the level of commitment social media demands of us, and I hate what it’s done to Silicon Valley.

Way back in the last century, tech celebrities rose up through smarts and perseverance. Bill Joy, Linus Torvalds, Andy Grove, Steve Jobs, Bill Gates and many others made their mark with high IQs.  Silicon Valley was a meritocracy, where what you did mattered more than what you said.

Now, Mensa membership doesn’t cut it anymore;  you’re only as good as your last retweet. The Valley’s upper echelon consists of those who know how to game the system through link bait, site stats and SEO.  Now, what you say matters even less than how many people you get to listen to it.  In this swirl of tweets and status updates, some of the smartest people I know are also some of the least-known.  They’re too busy innovating to update their blog and Twitter page and their work goes ignored in a Valley that has become “egotocracy” where meritocracy once reigned.

Silicon Valley has become the Hollywood of the North, with less Botox and bulimia but the same amount of  who-you-know b.s. that serves only the selfish. We’ve become so enamored of ourselves that we’ve lost sight of why we’re here in the first place – to provide a nurturing and vibrant environment in which entrepreneurs can develop and propagate technologies to further humanity.

Occasionally, the social media echo chamber rises above itself. Twitter, for instance, managed to silence my continuous complaints with its recent role in the Iranian uprising. The service didn’t install a new leadership in the country, but it did provide a voice that didn’t exist ten years ago.  It was proof that what we do in Silicon Valley has real-world relevance. That in the vast eddy of seemingly frivolous sites and services, there are products that can affect real change. And that the time we spend pimping personalities and arguing over tech conferences is valuable time wasted.

I’m under no illusions that this little rant will register in the tech world. But for my own sanity, I’m starting my own New Year this week, complete with resolutions. It’s time to take my life back from the all-consuming technosphere. It’s time to reward and recognize intelligence again. It’s time to restore civility and creativity to our industry. It’s time to graduate from high school hijinks and recognize the limitless potential of emerging technology. It’s time to grow up.

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Up the Stream Without a Paddle

There are many big brains in the tech industry but one of the sharpest is Nova Spivack’s. He is one of those people who has so many concepts banging around in his head that you can literally see the neurons ablaze as he talks. I’ll admit that I sometimes fear conversations with him, lest my ignorance quickly be revealed. So I was happy to read about his latest concept, The Stream, as it dovetails perfectly into something I’ve been noodling on lately.

The theory behind The Stream is that the next phase of the Internet lies in “the collective movement that is taking place across” sites and services. That the ideas and conversations occurring on Twitter, Facebook, FriendFeed and the like are a new layer on top of the existing Web. As Nova puts it:

The stream is our collective mind, what the Web is thinking and doing right now… a world of even shorter attention spans, online viral sensations, instant fame, sudden trends, and intense volatility. It is also a world of extremely short-term conversations and thinking.

His concluding question is, of course, how users are supposed to cope with the stream. And that’s where I’d like to step in. I’m all for the idea of a dynamic stream. But it’s time the rest of my online tools caught up.

The camel’s back broke for me last week as I was going through my RSS feeds. Keeping up with individual items has been a thorn in my side for months now. I can never manage to check them daily and inevitably end up reading only the first few dozen, then deleting the rest. So I was already cranky when I came across an item touting the latest social profile aggregator (I honestly can’t remember the name now). I almost threw my laptop out the window. I have no desire to 1) aggregate everything into one place or 2) visit a Web site to do this. That’s when the light bulb came on: I no longer want to visit Web sites. I want pertinent and relevant information delivered to me on a desktop app and on my Facebook feed. I just don’t have the time or inclination to click around anymore.

I’m not the only one in this mood. Webgiftr, a reminder/recommendation service for gift giving, recently announced that it is shutting down its Web service and migrating all user data to Facebook.  The company clearly saw dwindling site visits combined with increased Facebook activity and did the math. One of our Innovate!Europe finalists, Mixin, is integrating event information into the Facebook feed, making it easier to determine where your friends will be this weekend. This shows foresight on their part and I hope other services begin to follow suit.

I agree wholeheartedly that the stream is a smart – and potentially lucrative – concept on which to place your business bets. The trick now will be two-fold: integrating it into the necessary, high-traffic sites and applications and homing in on the content streams that will matter most to consumers. FriendFeed hits closest to the mark currently; it’s key problems are an unpopular interface, difficulty integrating real-world friends, and too much noise. But if it can face down those challenges, it seems to me a relatively seamless way to insert the stream into everyday consumers’ lives.

In short, I love the idea of The Stream. It’s time to think about content, and our relationship to it, differently. The age of the frequently updated Web site is over. Thinking about content, in all its forms, as an ever-shifting overlay to our time online should be our key focus in the months ahead.

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Facebook Jumps the Shark

The hullaballoo over the Facebook redesign has reached Threat Level Red; in its latest issue, Entertainment Weekly likens it to New Coke and Betamax. Ouch. When a mainstream entertainment magazine is taking jabs at your user interface, you can be sure of two things: 1) nothing you do escapes notice and 2) you screwed up.

The official poll on Facebook has now reached 1.2 million thumbs down. The comments generally fall into three main categories. There’s the “If I wanted to be on Twitter, I’d sign up for Twitter” contingent, the “Where the hell did everything go?” camp, and those that think, “It’s too much information I don’t need and not enough that I do.”  But perhaps it’s summed up best by  Tom Henderson of ExtremeLabs, who simply said, “No soul.”

Whatever your individual nits, the consensus is that Facebook is turning into something the majority is not entirely happy with. And in the democratized world of the Internet these days, the majority expects to be heard.  The question is whether, and how, Facebook will respond. They’ve made mistakes before and backtracked somewhat (see Beacon). But they’ve also faced a loud outcry before and ignored it (see News Feed). Perhaps the more appropriate question is this: if they ignore us, will users retaliate and leave? Or are we too deeply entrenched in the site to walk away?

Robert Scoble is of the opinion that Facebook should turn a deaf ear to its hapless users, who wouldn’t know a good business model if it bit them in the rump. I’m paraphrasing a bit, so will let Robert sum it up for you:

Zuckerberg is not listening to you because you don’t get how Facebook is going to make billions.

I’d wager every last cent to my name that 99.9% of my friends on Facebook don’t care one whit about Facebook’s business model. They’re consumers – they use a service because it benefits them in some way. Do you use Crest because you like its business strategy? Do you watch NBC because it has great ad sales?  Are you on Twitter because you like its business model? (Impossible – they don’t have one. Cue rimshot.) The answer to these questions is of course no. Brand loyalty is established because consumers develop an affinity for the user interface: I like the way Crest tastes, I like NBC’s programming, etc. While there are cases in which business strategy comes into play in buying decisions, those are generally from a negative angle, i.e, I don’t like Wal-Mart’s business strategy, so I don’t shop there.

If users leave Facebook, it will be for one reason only: they’re no longer enjoying the user experience. “Here’s how we’ll look in five years” has zero interest to mainstream consumers. So my advice to Mark Zuckerberg – because I know you’re not hearing enough – is to ignore Robert Scoble. And if Valleywag tipsters are to be believed, ignore your own advice. When over one million of your users are complaining, they may be on to something. Companies who listen to their customers are rewarded handsomely in the long run. Companies who don’t, lose them.

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Tech Policy in the Next Administration

Sometimes, maybe too often, I don’t realize what I think about an issue, topic, or trend until I’m asked about it.  That was certainly the case this week when Tech Policy Central’s founder Natalie Fonseca asked for my views on technology policy in the new administration.     Tech Policy Central is an outgrowth of the Tech Policy Summit, an annual event entering its third year that “brings together prominent leaders from the private and public sectors to examine critical policy issues impacting technology innovation and adoption in the United States and beyond.”   The event’s speakers are a Who’s Who of policy makers, technology executives, and elected officials.

As a lead up to the Summit in March 23-25, 2009 in the San Francisco Bay Area, Natalie has been polling her Advisory Board members (click here for her Q&A with Craig Newmark), and yesterday was my turn to respond to her questions.  I’d not put much though to tech policy in the context of the current economy, so Natalie’s questions sparked some thinking.

Here’s the Q&A:

Tech Policy Central: When it comes to promoting technology innovation, what do you think the top priorities should be for the next Administration and Congress?

Chris Shipley: Programs that promote and support entrepreneurship. Entrepreneurs are the driver of the technology economy, particularly in difficult times. They build the companies, hire the workers and create new value.

I’d like to see the National Science Foundation’s business development grants program expanded for technology innovation and tech transfer. The funding, relative to viable ideas/need, is remarkably little. I’d like to see investment in regional Innovation Centers. I’d like to see tax credits for entreprenerus who take personal risk to start their companies.

TPC: You meet with hundreds of entrepreneurs from around the world every year. Based on your conversations with those innovators and your own travels abroad, do you believe that Silicon Valley is in danger of losing its competitive edge in the global economy?

CS: I think Silicon Valley is learning that the global market is spawning innovation in every corner; that Silicon Valley doesn’t have a lock on great technology invention and innovation.  Still, the Valley remains the epicenter of innovation.  Foreign technology companies believe that they must come to the U.S., generally, and Silicon Valley, specifically, in order to grow their company and capture significant market share worldwide. Silicon Valley’s wealth of expertise, capital and experience is a magnetic pull for non-U.S. companies, and I believe it will continue to be in the foreseeable future.

TPC: If you were to name one tech policy area where you’d like to see greater federal government involvement, what would it be?

CS: Broadband digital infrastructure is critical to the economic competitiveness of the United States. And, as importantly, it bridges the divide in the U.S. between those who have and those who have not. Access to information is and will continue to be a tremendously valuable currency.  Investment in universal access to broadband infrastructure is an investment in a wide array of health and human services, including education, anti-poverty programs, public safety, crime prevention and the like.

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Address for the Job You Want Done

The iconic business book, given to me as I started my career those many years ago, was Women’s Dress for Success. In it, the author prescribed a wardrobe of “power suits” augmented by silky bows, pumps, and pearls.  As I looked around the newsroom at men and women dressed in denim, loafers, and baggy sweaters, I knew I’d chosen the right profession. I am, decidedly, not the silky bow type.

Still, I was admonished to “dress for the job you want.”  I did.  Jeans, a black turtleneck. (And yet I’m not the CEO of Apple.)  I realized pretty quickly, though, that while I was completely comfortable at work, I wasn’t dressing for the job my parents wanted me to have. Still, I’ve done a pretty good job emulating the wardrobe of a tech analyst and, well, nearly 25 years later, here I am.

I was reminded of all this early this week when I sat down to catch up with Soujanya Bhumkar, CEO of Cooliris.  In the spirit of full disclosure, I am an adviser to this incredible company.  More often than not, though, I come away from my visits with Soujanya energized by his thoughtful and insightful leadership of his company.   This visit was no exception.

After reviewing the status of the company (it’s on a roll) and getting a peek at the product roadmap (heading in exciting directions), Soujanya talked about the new hires he’s planning:  a VP of User Growth and a VP of Partner Distribution. Huh?  Not the normal titles you’d see on an org chart, to be sure.

“I call them what they are responsible for,” Soujanya says. “I’m not hiring a VP of Marketing, because you can be sure that person will come up with a plan to spend money on tradeshows. I want my guy or gal focused on growing the user base.”

It’s not a new idea, perhaps:  Reward the behavior you want.  But with a twist: Name the job for the performance you must have.

It’s easy for  a new company to throw up a traditional org chart and label boxes VP of Engineering, VP of Marketing, VP of Business Development.  Oddly enough, it’s harder to talk about what you want those people to do, what you want them do day to day, for what you want them to be responsible.

“I won’t hire a Biz Dev guy,” Soujanya told me.  “What does that person do?  I’m hiring a VP of Partner Distribution because those partnerships are critical to our success.  We need partners to distribute our product. The VP of Partner Distribution is responsible for that.”

Especially now, with daily admonitions to startups to tighten their belts, control costs, and stay focused,  young companies need to hold every employee responsible for the success of the company, and ensure that every day, every employee knows exactly what he or she should be doing.  Forget fancy titles; address for the job you want done.

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