One of our themes is Protocol. We’ve been investing in companies built around technology protocols since 1994. One of my first investments, when I moved to Boulder in 1995, was in a company called Email Publishing, which was the very first email service provider. SMTP has been very good to me.
We made some of the early investments in companies built around RSS, including FeedBurner and NewsGator. RSS is a brilliant, and very durable, protocol. The original creators of the protocol had great vision, but the history and evolution of RSS were filled with challenges and controversy. Like religious conflict, the emotion ran higher than it needed to and the ad-hominem attacks drove some great people away from engaging with the community around the protocol.
And then Facebook and Twitter took over. RSS Feed Readers mostly vanished, and the feed became the “Twitter feed.” After a while, Facebook realized this was a good idea, and created the “Facebook news feed.” I think it’s hilarious that the word “feed” is still in common usage – The Dixie Flatline is amused.
Over dinner, after he had become the COO of Twitter (but before he was the CEO), Dick Costolo (who had previously been the founder/CEO of FeedBurner) told me that he viewed Twitter as the evolution of RSS. At a protocol level this wasn’t true, but at a functional level (providing another way to get access to everything going on any website that was publishing content) this became true. Our investment in Gnip (which Twitter eventually acquired) helped extend this, by allowing companies to build products on top of the Twitter firehose (which was the name for the entirety of everything being tweeted on Twitter.)
Time passed. Facebook and Twitter gobbled up all the direct attention of end-users. Publishers pushed their content through Facebook and Twitter, not realizing the control over the user they were giving up to these platforms. For some reason, there was more focus for a while on Google, and how they were aggregating content. The beauty, and brilliance, of the web, started to become the walled garden of Facebook. For those of us who remembered AOL’s walled garden vs. the web (and Microsoft’s failed attempt as MSN as a walled garden), there were echoes of the past all over the place.
Some smart people started talking extensively about decentralization and lock-in right around the time that the Facebook privacy stuff became front and center. As it unfolded, and the dust settled, there was nothing new, other than a continued schism between the effort to control (and monetize) users and the effort to create broadly democratized and decentralized information. Oh – and privacy. And legitimacy (or authenticity) of information, much of which is wholly subjective or imprecise anyway.
In the middle of all of this, Wired’s Article It’s Time For An RSS Revival caught my attention. I’ve been using RSS continuously for over a decade as my primary source of information. My current feed reader is Feedly, which I think is currently the best in class. It’s one of my primary sources for information that informs me, is private, and allows me to control and modulate what information I look at.
While RSS has disappeared into the plumbing of the internet, there’s still something fundamental about it. Its durability is remarkably impressive, especially in the context of the lack of the evolution and perceived displacement of the protocol over the past few years.
The tension between walled gardens (or lock-in, or whatever you want to call it) and a decentralized web will likely never end. But, it feels like we are in for another significant turn of the crank on how all of this works, and that means lots of innovation is coming.
Yesterday’s post Relentlessly Turning Input Knobs To 0 generated a bunch of interesting private comments. It also generated a few public ones, including the link to the article What is the problem with social media? by Jordan Greenhall which was extraordinary.
Jordan asserts that the problem with social media can be broken down into four foundation problems.
- Supernormal stimuli;
- Replacing strong link community relationships with weak link affinity relationships;
- Training people on complicated rather than complex environments; and
- The asymmetry of Human / AI relationships
He then has an essay on each one. The concept of supernormal stimuli is straightforward and well understood already, yet Jordan has a nice set of analogies to explain it. Tristan Harris and his team at the Center for Humane Technology have gone deep on this one – both problems and solutions.
I found the second essay – replacing strong link community relationships with weak link affinity relationships – to resonate with something I’ve been experiencing in real time. As my weak link affinity relationship activity diminishes (through lack of engagement on Facebook and Twitter), all the time I spent on that has shifted to strong link community relationships. Some of these are in person, some by video, some by phone, and some by email, but they are all substantive, rather than shallow (or weak.) I also find that I’m having a wider and deeper range of interesting interactions, rather than a continuous reinforcement of the same self-affirming messages. And, I’m more settled, as I’m not reacting to endless shallow stimuli or interacting with lightweight intention. And, my brain feels like it has more space to roam.
The third essay – training people on complicated rather than complex environments – totally nailed it for me. Ian Hathaway, my co-author on Startup Communities 2, has been working deeply on how startup communities are complex (rather than complicated) systems. This is a central theme of our upcoming book and the contrast between a complicated system (having a finite and bounded (unchanging) set of possible dynamic states) and a complex system (having an infinite and unbounded (growing, evolving) set of possible dynamic states) is a really important one. I loved Greenhall’s conclusion:
“In the case of complexity, the optimal choice goes in a very different direction: to become responsive. Because complex systems change, and by definition change unexpectedly, the only “best” approach is to seek to maximize your agentic capacity in general. In complication, one specializes. In complexity, one becomes more generally capable.”
He then goes on to define social media as training humans to navigate a complicated system, taking time away from us “training our sense making systems to explore an open complex space.” His examples of how this works in the context of Facebook are excellent.
While the asymmetry of Human / AI relationships is nothing new, the Ke Ji / AlphaGo / AlphaGo Zero story is a reminder of what we are contending with. I loved:
“The Facebook AI is Alpha Go. The equivalent of Alpha Go Zero is a few minutes in the future. We need to get our heads around the fact that this kind of relationship, a relationship between humans and AI, is simply novel in our experience and that we cannot rely on any of our instincts, habits, traditions or laws to effectively navigate this new kind of relationship. At a minimum, we need to find a way to be absolutely dead certain that in every interaction, these gods of social media have our individual best interests in mind.”
I didn’t expect this treat to come out of my blog post yesterday, but it’s part of why I blog. And I doubt I would have found it scanning my social media feeds.
Ahhhh. The new Gmail client for the web is finally here. And a lot of things are fixed. The two things I like the best are really simple but dramatically increase my email throughput.
+name: When I add someone to an email thread, I use the shortcut “+name” to indicate to everyone on the thread that I’ve added them. I started doing this around 2008 (I can’t remember where I picked it up from, but I think it might have been Mark Pincus at Zynga.) It started appearing in some Google apps a few years ago (Docs and Inbox) and it is now in the main email client. For example, if I want to copy Amy on something, instead of having to put her email address in the To: field, I now merely need to say +Amy Batchelor in the body of the email and Gmail does the rest. Yay – finally.
Send threading: If you are on a fast internet connection, this won’t matter to you. But, if you do email on a plane or a house in Longmont, Colorado (where I regularly have internet performance that is < 5 MB) you will love this feature. The only annoying thing is the endless (and unnecessary) popup that informs you that Gmail has sent your message (it’s no big deal on a desktop, but bothersome on a laptop.) Either way, I no longer have to sit and wait while Gmail is trying to complete the send process.
My guess is that the combination of these two features increases my email throughput by 25%. And, for someone who processes hundreds of inbound emails a day, this helps a lot.
There are a lot of other fun things under the hood and a nice new paint job on the surface. Nothing is dramatic, but overall it’s definitely an update. If you haven’t gotten it yet, tell your Google administrator to turn it on for your domain. Then click Settings in Gmail (the little gear icon on the top right and select the first option “Try the new Company Name Mail”.
Update: In my ongoing love affair with Canada, it turns out that Google’s new version of Gmail made in Kitchener.
I was talking to a friend last week about demos. She mentioned the Steve Jobs iPhone demo from 2007 and I referred to Doug Engelbart’s Mother of All Demos from 1968. She hadn’t heard of it, or him, which wasn’t that surprising since she was born at least 15 years after Englebart’s canonical demo.
While it doesn’t ever surprise me that someone hasn’t heard of – or seen – Engelbart’s demo, it’s an important part of computer history.
While it’s long (over 90 minutes), it’s worth watching from beginning to end. Fire up Youtube on the big screen, grab some popcorn, and settle in.
“We cannot afford the advertising business model. The price of free is actually too high. It is literally destroying our society, because it incentivizes automated systems that have these inherent flaws. Cambridge Analytica is the easiest way of explaining why that’s true. Because that wasn’t an abuse by a bad actor — that was the inherent platform. The problem with Facebook is Facebook.”
The article ends with a parallel quote from Tim Berners-Lee, creator of the World Wide Web
“The web that many connected to years ago is not what new users will find today. The fact that power is concentrated among so few companies has made it possible to weaponize the web at scale.”
I just read the article and all of the attached long-form interviews. I think my favorite, only because it’s so provocative, is the one with Roger McNamee titled ‘You Have a Persuasion Engine Unlike Any Created in History’
There are a few mentions of Zynga (which we were investors in) in the various article chain which caused me to reflect even more on the 2007 – 2010 time period when free-to-consumer (supported by advertising) was suddenly conflated with freemium (or free trials for enterprise software). The later (freemium) became a foundational part of the B2B SaaS business model, while the former became an extremely complex dance between digital advertising and user data.
Tristan’s quote “the price of free is actually too high” is important to consider. What is going on here (“free services”) is nothing new. The entire television industry was created on it (broadcast TV was free, supported by advertising, dating back well before I was born.) Nielsen ratings started for radio in the 1940s and TV in the 1950s. The idea of advertisers targeting users of free services based on data is, well, not new.
Propaganda is not new either. The etymology of the word from Wikipedia is entertaining in its own right.
“Propaganda is a modern Latin word, the gerundive form of propagare, meaning to spread or to propagate, thus propaganda means that which is to be propagated.Originally this word derived from a new administrative body of the Catholic church (congregation) created in 1622, called the Congregatio de Propaganda Fide (Congregation for Propagating the Faith), or informally simply Propaganda. Its activity was aimed at “propagating” the Catholic faith in non-Catholic countries From the 1790s, the term began being used also to refer to propaganda in secular activities. The term began taking a pejorative or negative connotation in the mid-19th century, when it was used in the political sphere.”
So what? Why the fuss? A cynic would say something like “this is not what the hippy-techies of the 60s wanted.” True, that. But the arch of human society is littered with outcomes that diverge wildly from the intended actions. Just watch Game of Thrones or Homeland to get a feeling for that, unless you struggle with conflating fact and fiction, which seems less of a problem for many people every day based on the information we consume and regurgitate.
I think something more profound is going on here. We are getting a first taste of how difficult it is for a world in which humans and computers are intrinsically linked. Tristian’s punch line “The problem with Facebook is Facebook” hints at this. Is the problem the leadership of Facebook, the people of Facebook, the users of Facebook, the software of Facebook, the algorithms of Facebook, what people do with the data from Facebook, or something else. Just try to pull those apart and make sense of it.
I think this is a pivotal moment for humans. I’ve heard the cliche “the genie can’t be put back in the bottle” numerous times over the past few weeks. Any reader of Will and Ariel Durant know that the big transitions are hard to see when you are in them but easy to see with the benefit of decades of hindsight. This might be that moment of transition, where there is no going back to what was before.
Whenever someone tells me about the progress humans have made, I remind them that since the beginning of humans, man has been trying to kill his neighbor to take over his backyard. And yes, as Amy likes to regularly remind me, it’s often men doing the killing.
Simultaneously, governments around the world have spent zillions of dollars building surveillance systems since the beginning of – well – humans. Or at least since the beginning of governments.
In 14 years, Facebook has created the most incredible and effective surveillance machine in the history of humankind. And we, the humans, have given the machine much of the data. John Lanchester has the best article on this I’ve read to date titled You Are the Product in the London Review of Books. It’s long – 8674 words – but worth reading every one of them. The magical paragraph is in the middle of the article and follows.
“What this means is that even more than it is in the advertising business, Facebook is in the surveillance business. Facebook, in fact, is the biggest surveillance-based enterprise in the history of mankind. It knows far, far more about you than the most intrusive government has ever known about its citizens. It’s amazing that people haven’t really understood this about the company. I’ve spent time thinking about Facebook, and the thing I keep coming back to is that its users don’t realise what it is the company does. What Facebook does is watch you, and then use what it knows about you and your behaviour to sell ads. I’m not sure there has ever been a more complete disconnect between what a company says it does – ‘connect’, ‘build communities’ – and the commercial reality. Note that the company’s knowledge about its users isn’t used merely to target ads but to shape the flow of news to them. Since there is so much content posted on the site, the algorithms used to filter and direct that content are the thing that determines what you see: people think their news feed is largely to do with their friends and interests, and it sort of is, with the crucial proviso that it is their friends and interests as mediated by the commercial interests of Facebook. Your eyes are directed towards the place where they are most valuable for Facebook.”
Jean-Louis Gassée, always the provocateur, is blunt: Mark Zuckerberg Thinks We’re Idiots. It’s another article worth reading, but if you just like pull quotes, the best one shows up early in the article.
“As Facebook’s leader, Zuckerberg resolves to get things straightened out in the future (“it’s my job, right?”) while he delivers a callcenter-style broken record reassurance: “Your privacy is important to us”. Yes, of course, our privacy is important to you; you made billions by surveilling and mining our private lives. One wonders how aware Zuckerberg is of the double entendre.”
For a more balanced, but equally intense view, Ben Thompson at Stratechery has a long post titled The Facebook Brand. It explains, in detail, how easy it was for any developer to get massive amounts of data from the Facebook Graph API between 2010 and 2015 (where Ben suggests that Facebook was willing to give everything away.) If you don’t want to read the article, but are interested in an example of the Facebook Graph Extended Profile Properties, here it is.
Ben’s conclusion is really important.
“Ultimately, the difference in Google and Facebook’s approaches to the web — and in the case of the latter, to user data — suggest how the duopolists will ultimately be regulated. Google is already facing significant antitrust challenges in the E.U., which is exactly what you would expect from a company in a dominant position in a value chain able to dictate terms to its suppliers. Facebook, meanwhile, has always seemed more immune to antitrust enforcement: its users are its suppliers, so what is there to regulate?
That, though, is the answer: user data. It seems far more likely that Facebook will be directly regulated than Google; arguably this is already the case in Europe with the GDPR. What is worth noting, though, is that regulations like the GDPR entrench incumbents: protecting users from Facebook will, in all likelihood, lock in Facebook’s competitive position.
This episode is a perfect example: an unintended casualty of this weekend’s firestorm is the idea of data portability: I have argued that social networks like Facebook should make it trivial to export your network; it seems far more likely that most social networks will respond to this Cambridge Analytica scandal by locking down data even further. That may be good for privacy, but it’s not so good for competition. Everything is a trade-off.”
In the meantime, Facebook is arguing with Ars Technica about whether or not Facebook scraped call, text message data for years from Android phones. Facebook is pretty insistent that it isn’t. But, given that Facebook quietly hid webpages bragging of its ability to influence elections, it’s hard to know who to believe.
In shocking news, Facebook is now under federal investigation by the Federal Trade Commission. I’m sure they will get to the bottom of this quickly. I wonder if the NSA is going to have to delete all the Facebook data they’ve slurped up over the years after this is over.
In 2008, I gave a talk at my 20th-year reunion at MIT Sloan. The title of the talk was something like “Privacy is Dead” and my assertion, in 2008, was that there was no longer any data privacy, anywhere, for anyone.
I’ve been living my life under that assumption since then.
The current Facebook scandal around Cambridge Analytica, and – more significantly – data privacy, shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone. All of my experiences with companies around Facebook data over the years have been consistent with what is nicely called “data leakage” from Facebook out into the world. Facebook’s privacy and data settings have always been complex, have changed regularly over the years, and are most definitely not front and center in the Facebook user experience. And, that data has been easily and widely accessible at many moments in time to any developer who wanted access to it.
Answer the following questions:
- Do you know what your Facebook privacy settings are?
- Are your Facebook privacy settings to your liking?
- Do you understand the implications of your Facebook privacy settings?
- Do you think your data has always been subject to these current settings?
If the answer to all of these questions is yes, good on you. But, my answers are no to all of them and, unless you do some real work, you probably are answering no to at least two or three of them.
I haven’t used Facebook for a while. I broadcast my blog posts to it, but I’ve never really figured out how to engage properly with it in a way that is satisfying to me. Periodically I think about deleting my Facebook account, but since I’ve been operating under the assumption that privacy is dead since 2008, it doesn’t really bother me that my Facebook data is out in the world.
As I read articles about the current version of the Facebook Data Privacy Meltdown (or whatever name it is ultimately going to get this time around), I’m fascinated by the amplification of “nothing new going on here, but now we are outraged.” A pair of articles that are a little off the beaten path (just watch CNN if you want the beaten path on this one) include:
- Both Facebook And Cambridge Analytica Threatened To Sue Journalists Over Stories On CA’s Use Of Facebook Data
- The Cambridge Analytica scandal isn’t a scandal: this is how Facebook works
I’m not sure what I’m going to do, but I do know that I’m not surprised.
Oh – and happy Pi Day. And MIT Admission Notification Day. And Einstein’s birthday. And Amy’s half birthday. And the day that Stephen Hawking transitioned to the next quantum energy level.
I never understood why ICO advertising has been allowed. I’ve heard the phrase “wild west” applied to ICOs for the past few years and it’s clear the regulatory regimes are finally hustling to catch up with the phenomenon. Up to this point, the phrase “consumer protection” hasn’t really been in my head around ICOs, but it is today.
When I was in college and my early 20s, I read Forbes Magazine religiously. Dave Jilk turned me on to it when I was a freshman (he was a senior) and from 1983 to 1995 I read almost every issue cover to cover. The pink sheet and penny stock phenomenon crested in the 1980s with intricate pump and dump schemes, boiler rooms, and an entire layer of the investment banking industry that promoted worthless public companies. Forbes covered this extensively and by the time firms collapsed and people went to jail I had a healthy skepticism about broad-based advertising and promotion scheme around any financial instrument.
When I first heard the phrase “ICO” three or four years ago, my immediate thought was something like “that’s just an invitation to the SEC to regulate that. Why do a play off the acronym IPO – call them something innocuous like “Papayas” instead. Knowing the SEC would move very slowly, I didn’t pay much attention. Last year, the SEC finally started putting out some vague statements that are now starting to get crisper and more precise.
From where I sit, it seems like similar rules to selling private equity should apply to ICOs. In addition, there are some rules associated with selling public equity that should apply. In both cases, the idea of advertising an ICO is ludicrous to me.
When a company we are investors in is raising a new round of financing, I’m not allowed to even write a blog post about the financing, let alone run an advertisement about it. Tweeting isn’t allowed. Neither is giving a speech in a public forum. Promoting it on Youtube would bring down the wrath of Jason Mendelson on my head.
Now that we are a “registered investment advisor” (since we also invest in other venture funds), we have an entire compliance infrastructure that I have to go through to even get blog posts approved (like the one about Glowforge yesterday) when I simply mention a company of ours on the web. While I can argue that the regulations around what I can write and/or promote are over-reaching, they are the rules that I, and our companies, have to live with.
The idea that a company can do an ICO, raise money, and ignore this set of rules makes no sense to me. I can imagine a category (currently being called “utility tokens”) that look more like frequent flyer miles or tokens at a video arcade than equity, but the boundaries around this are very blurry to me right now.
Anyone that is paying attention to cryptocurrencies and ICOs knows that there is a huge amount of fraud going on. A Google search on ICO Pump and Dump turns up a bunch of current stuff that is fascinating to read. Telegram, which is home to a huge ICO that is ongoing, is a popular platform for organizing ICO pump and dump schemes. If you think this kind of action is healthy long term, just go watch The Big Short.
I learned the phrase “buyer beware” in my early 20s while reading all those Forbes Magazines. Today, we have John Oliver to help us out.
We (the tech industry) like to label everything. I attribute the source of this desire and need to Regis McKenna although he may have just been the genius that amplified it.
The labels I dealt with early in my professional career (the 1980s) included micro computers, mini-computers, artificial intelligence, expert systems, neural networks, middleware, super computers, parallel computing, and killer app. Oh – and groovy. And music by Boston, Journey, Rush, Pink Floyd, and AC/DC.
When we invested in Fitbit in 2010, the phrase we used to describe the product was human instrumentation. If you read the original post, you’ll be amused by the lack of marketing language for what, in a few years, would evolve through labels like quantified self and wearables. And yes, I still call it human instrumentation (as a subset of human computer interaction), since that’s the part that is interesting to me.
BodyHacking and BioHacking and trendy labels for this. They’ve long been a favorite troupe of the sci-fi that I enjoy and are now regularly showing up in sci-fi movies. One of the annual conferences, BDYHAX, even has a description that fits with the notion of transhumanism.
BDYHAX is 3-day celebration of human enhancement, transhumanism, and biohacking. With a special focus on DIY healthcare and other body hacks, BDYHAX brings together industry experts, curious newcomers, and everyone else in between.
Mom / Dad – do these words skeeve you out? I’m betting they do. Or, at the minimum, you feel detached from them. It is, in this way, that I think the tech industry, with their labels, are doing humanity a great injustice on this topic.
Here are some common bodyhacks that we’ve been doing for a long time.
- Glucose monitor
- Hip replacement
- Dental implant
You get the idea.
I think part of the problem might be gender. Go read the following post by Kate Preston McAndrew titled Vagina, vagina, vagina.* (the subtitle is “Redesigning the pelvic exam experience“). Kate starts the post strong.
“Gender disparity is real, and traditionally, medical equipment designers have tended to have penises. That is problematic on a general level, but specifically, it means that problems that are specific to vaginas are often ignored or overlooked.”
I hadn’t connected this issue to the labels we use until I read the post. The post is outstanding, especially in the use of language and the unfolding of the thought process around the product. While reading it, I felt like I was in an alternate universe from the typical conversation I have about products. It was awesome.
Tech (hardware and software) is being interwoven into everything we do as a human species. To make this accessible to everyone, maybe we should start working a little harder on the words. More meaning, and less either (a) tech or (b) marketing. Ponder that all your cryptowarriors out there. Or members of any particular technology company mafia. And those of you in ecosystems.
What are you really trying to say?
Did you sell any bitcoin (or other cryptocurrencies) in 2017? If you did, do you know how to pay taxes on the transaction(s)?
I’m going to guess that a lot of people in the US that fit in the category of having sold some bitcoin in 2017 haven’t spent a millisecond thinking about what tax they might owe. There are probably others who feel like they shouldn’t have to pay any tax because they believe bitcoin is outside the reach of the government. And then there are others who believe the theoretically anonymous elements of the cryptocurrency they are trading should prevent anyone – especially the government – from finding out about what they are up to.
Two interesting articles came out in the past week. The first, When Trading in Bitcoin, Keep the Tax Man in Mind, is an excellent overview that addresses the following questions.
- I sold some Bitcoin last year. What do I need to do?
- I bought a computer (or another product or service) using Bitcoin. Are there tax implications?
- I’ve successfully ‘mined’ Bitcoins. Now what?
- I was paid in Bitcoin. Are there any special tax consequences?
- What if I paid someone else in Bitcoin for their services?
- Can I reduce my tax bill by donating my cryptocoins?
- Will I receive any tax forms from my exchange? Do I have to track my own transactions?
The second article, Why the I.R.S. Fears Bitcoin, is an Op-ed in the NYT that I have mixed feelings about. While there are a number of scenarios about how to evade taxes, it ultimately leads to a proposal:
“A smarter response would be for the government to switch from taxing income when it is received to taxing income when it is spent. Many economists support moving to this kind of consumption tax, but it would require a major overhaul of the tax code.”
The “shift from a consumption tax” from an “income tax” is an endless debate that I’ve been hearing since I first started reading Forbes Magazine in college over 30 years ago. So, while logical, it feels like you could potentially compress the article into an argument for a consumption tax.
But, I loved the final paragraph.
“More generally, cracking down on tax evasion will require that the community learn to trust government. Since this goes against the very ethos of the cryptocurrency movement, it poses the most difficult — but no less necessary — challenge.”
The rabbit hole goes deep.