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May 22 2013

07:46

Tools liberate your data from apps

1950s washing machineAn app is something that makes it easy for a user to achieve one thing.

It’s an appliance. Like a washing machine.

On the new ScraperWiki platform we talk a lot about tools.

A tool is something you use with materials and with other tools to achieve a variety of things.

Like a hammer.

Framing hammer

At ScraperWiki, we’re all about liberating data. Data is the material.

Sometimes it is nice to be trammelled into the ways of a particular app, in return for it being easy to use.

In other cases, you want to do more: invent your own analyses, visualisations and alerts, not just use the same ones your competitors are using. Mix together data from multiple apps, which the creators had never intended to be used together.

In the original ScraperWiki, we helped you do that, if you had the time and desire to learn to program.

ScraperWiki Classic

In new ScraperWiki, our ultimate aim is to help anyone work with their data the way they want to.

To get data.

Importer chooser

And to use it.

Tool chooser


Tags: beta thoughts

May 14 2013

13:13

Summarise #4: Images and domains

(This is the fourth part in a series of posts about the “Summarise this dataset” tool on the new beta.scraperwiki.com platform  – go there and sign up for free to try it out! The code is open source; take a look in facts.js for the key parts)

URLs are a type of data that is particularly easy to detect. The summarise tool does a reasonable job of displaying them anyway, but a couple of tricks make it even better.

The first insight is that just as time can be grouped by days or months or years, URLs can – in theory – be grouped by protocol, domain, partial paths or query parameters. We found the domain was the most useful, as it shows which website the URLs are from.

For example, I use a tool called Pocket to bookmark things to read or watch later on my phone. This is the list of the most common websites I bookmark that way:

Domain grouping

Images are another common kind of URL that is easy to detect. A regular expression catches most of them automatically based on the file extension. (Although see this bug, at some point we’ll need a semantic layer…)

Here you can see the top artwork tracks from a Last.fm scraper, which gets the data of all the music that I’ve ever listened to:

Images

You can immediately see that Yann Tiersen features heavily in the most replayed, with both Goodbye Lenin! and Amelie.

As explained in Summarise #2: Pies and facts, the summarise tool generates lots of different “facts” about the data. It then has a ranking algorithm to decide which are the best to show.

When the data is a URL, extra facts as described above (tables of website domains, collages of images) are generated. The tool then selects whether those are more interesting than the basic facts about the URLs.

For example, if there were only a few different URLs, they might all be shown in a pie. But if there were a lot more, but from only a few domains, then the domains would be shown in a pie.

Try it yourself! Use “Create a dataset” to get some data into new ScraperWiki. Then pick “Summarise this data” from the tools menu and see what it tells you.

Next time – words and countries! And then, a final post to round it up, about data that is (nearly) always one type, and other interesting tidbits.


Tags: beta

December 07 2011

15:20

SocMap.com's Location-Based Data Maps Becoming Real

SocMap.com is pleased to announce that we've launched the "tweets" and "places" features on our site, and we hope to debut "local initiatives," "local questions," and a city-planning game on February 1st.

SocMap, a 2010 Knight News Challenge winner, is building a map-based interface for location-related data such as tweets, local initiatives, local news, public hearings, city-planning games, etc. We want to turn a city into a neighborhood, a place where everybody can see and hear their friends, communicate with each other, and get involved based on their geographical location. The project was started on Jan. 1, 2011.

Here's an overview of some of the progress we've made while beta-testing the site:

How we approached the Landing Page

The landing page is mainly responsible for attracting new users. Here's what the evolution of the SocMap landing page looks like.

socmap1.png Click here to expand image

First Landing Page

  • % of visitors registered to SocMap.com: 5.4%
  • Total attracted users: 46
  • Total users during given period: 46
  • Number of new visitors during given period: 852
  • Total unique visitors: 852
  • Period active: Aug. 1 - Sept. 1 (4 weeks)

Upon being opened, the map was centered roughly on where the user was located. The authorization button was situated on the top left, which took users to the Twitter login window.

This login button was small, hard to notice, and didn't communicate visitors' need to log in, so it achieved a poor conversion rate -- only 5.4 percent. Additionally, if a visitor was attempting to add content to SocMap, no suggestions of "Please Log In" were displayed, which left many users confused about the site's functionality and made them leave.

This is how the site looked right after Login function was implemented. This version was not made public and mainly served development purposes and testing by a limited number of experts. During this phase, the site was mainly visited by members of the development team.

socmap2.png Click here to expand image

Second Landing Page

  • % of visitors registered to SocMap.com: 7.7%
  • Total attracted users: 95
  • Total users during given period: 141
  • Number of new visitors during given period: 1,033
  • Total unique visitors: 1,224
  • Period active: Sept. 2 - Oct. 5 (4 weeks)

The map was centered on the user's location according to his or her IP address. Upon entering the site, a welcome window asking the user to log in appeared and displayed a description of key features to motivate visitors to actually press the "Sign in with Twitter" button. In contrast to the first version, the "feed" tab on the left was hidden, though it could still be opened if desired. By opening the feed tab, still unregistered users were shown the login button and SocMap content sorted chronologically. No content was displayed on the map.

Text in the welcome window was too long and not compelling enough, and the window itself was at odds with the overall style of the site. Despite this, however, the highlighted "Sign in with Twitter" button achieved a slight rise in conversion rates (over 2.3 percent), reaching 7.7 percent.

This was our first attempt at making visitors register. Their attention was immediately directed to the login button. Unfortunately, an empty map and this type of window didn't engage users or stimulate them to register, since it was not made clear what the site is about and how easy it is to register. We were forced to rethink the landing page to make it more attractive and socially engaging.

socmap3.png Click here to expand image

Third Landing Page

  • % of visitors registered to SocMap.com: 11.2%
  • Total attracted users: 32
  • Total users during given period: 173
  • Number of new visitors during given period: 286
  • Total unique visitors: 428
  • Period active: Oct. 6 - Oct. 19 (2 weeks)

The "feed" tab was completely hidden, prompting visitors to do just one thing: log in with Twitter. Also, a subtle "follow @SocMap" option was added to allow for feedback and to let users know we care about them as individuals. The Twitter button was supported by an engaging question that could be answered by logging into SocMap.

This type of approach turned out to overshadow what's important about SocMap -- the map, which, if empty, doesn't invoke any associations in the user. The Twitter button took up the major portion of the landing page's conversion potential, but didn't really tell the user why logging in might be a good idea -- it just looked like a Twitter ad. This type of landing page raised the conversion rate by 3.5 percent (a 50 percent increase), giving us confidence that we were on the right path. Some browsers had trouble opening this version, but the quirks were worked out, and we proceeded to bring some life to the landing page idea.

socmap4.png Click here to expand image

Fourth Landing Page

  • % of visitors registered to SocMap.com: 12.9%
  • Total attracted users: 50
  • Total users during given period: 223
  • Number of new visitors during given period: 386
  • Total unique visitors: 507
  • Period active: Oct. 20 - Nov. 15 (3 weeks) and onwards

On this landing page, the pronounced, blue "Come in" button served the purpose of logging users in. Parallel to it, we enlivened the map interface, and the content creation tab became present from the start. Activities on the map moved the welcome message to the side to allow for better visibility. Users were prompted to log in upon attempting content creation.

This landing page achieved a conversion rate of 12.9 percent and met our expectations.

While the efficiency of the landing page is steadily increasing, lack of new content creation is a cause for concern and has led us to think that perhaps users are given the impression that SocMap provides ready content and doesn't require user participation. From now on, we'll pay greater attention not only to the conversion rate, but also to content creation rates.

Not enough activity per registered users

Presently, 224 users have made 403 entries, which would be fine, if most of the entries weren't created by the developers. Our next goal is for everyone to contribute content.

The functionalities for comments, posts and retweets on the map interface are already there. A few days ago, a notification function that alerts users to activity near them was added as well. But the problem remains: Users don't create content. Reasons for that might be the copy on the landing page, as well as users perhaps not being sure what to write, who will see it, and what will happen to their message. Maybe we've made a mistake in thinking users would be comfortable creating messages on a map.

This is why we'll try a new approach -- perhaps users will use the map interface to get information they need. To do this, we'll create a Q&A feature that will allow users to learn what they need with the social search method. It will work like this: Users will be able to ask their Twitter and Facebook friends about their neighborhood -- e.g., "Where is the most romantic spot in Boston?", "Where are the best burgers in NY?", "Which parks in Chicago need cleaning up?", "Where's a good place to watch today's NHL game and drink some beer?", "Where are we partying tonight?"

We came to this conclusion after studying Twitter content. We'll experiment with the ability to ask questions and get answers in hopes of sparking a geographically significant discussion. Naturally, all communication will have a geographic reference.

Hopefully, this will start online discussions with a reference to physical space. We'll see!

Twitter limiting our user base

Even though the conversion rate for new users is high, we strive to increase it even more, especially by implementing a login option with Facebook accounts. It would both increase conversion rates and open SocMap for a far broader user spectrum. Some of the most interested parties (municipalities, government institutions, urbanists, architects) don't use Twitter as much as Facebook.

Opening SocMap up to Facebook accounts could attract these types of users and create a base of quality content.

March 25 2011

20:52

It’s coming…

…and it is unbelievable. Just got a FB posting from a comrade at an O&O in SF that he is no longer shooting with a pro camera, but a Panasonic HMX370. Jeez. Under $10k and 1/3 inch chips. I kinda expected this revolution to move in insidiously…in the night, beginning with smaller markets. Well, yeah, it has…but seriously. San Francisco? Babycams?

I was just kinda joshing when I posted back in February about what the future might hold for broadcast camerafolk:

While there will always be room for big bucks, high end, expensive cameras, I am convinced that the news broadcast standard is the 1/3 inch three chip pro-sumer camera…with of course, the requisite bells and whistles. XLR, manual controls, shoulder mount, good glass.

Shudder…kinda glad I’m not in the mix. Forward movement is always accompanied by some degree of jerkiness and readjustment. The leap from 16mm film to 3/4 (ick) tape was nasty. We went from shooting crisp clear film to ugly smeared blotches of color. Cheap little plastic cameras with cheap little plastic lenses.

Hmmmm…that sounds familiar.

Then from there we moved up to decent cameras (TK76) to better cameras and a better format (Betacam). The switch to digital and DVCPro cams was sweet music…better quality, more solid, everything the old cams had plus more!

And now back to the past again…cheap little camera, cheap little lens.

All I can predict now is…the quality WILL get better…the cameras will become more professional.

Until that next best idea for advanced technology leaps out in front of us…


October 04 2010

22:35

Bringing the past into the present…

The problem with getting old is stuff – waayyyy too much stuff. Bookshelves full of tapes…boxes full of tapes and film (yeah, believe it). A case or two of LPs. Audio tapes.

So now I’m organizing said stuff. But first, have to do the tech bit and build an easy way to convert it all to digital. I’m talking BetaMax, VHS, VHS-C, pro Beta, DVC-Pro, 3/4 inch plus the film (8mm, 16mm) and audio (cassettes) and LP (vinyl records). Fortunately I’ve misplaced the 2″ reel to reel or I’d have a real problem.

Picked up a 19inch rolling rack off ebay from a retired and retiring producer. Got the shelving, a monitor and router…DAC coming in the mail soon. And today the diagram…the master plan for how to hook it all up. See above.

Why all go to all the trouble? For years whenever I wanted to dub something I’d have to drag out the playback system, wire it up, hook it up and do the dub. Then (of course) whatever I wanted to do next was a different format.

Some of you youngsters may be laughing behind your hands…but beware. In YOUR lifetime, things are gonna change. Since 2000 we’ve gone from CD to thumb drives to SD cards and DVDs and mini-dv tape and hard drive cameras…and it hasn’t slowed down yet. Always have a plan…if you want to save your stuff.


May 16 2010

16:03

Editing your customers

“Almost everything you see in Twitter today was invented by our users,” its creator, Jack Dorsey, said in this video (found via his investor, Fred Wilson). RT, #, @, & $ were conventions created by users that were then—sometimes reluctantly—embraced by Twitter, to Twitter’s benefit. Dorsey said it is the role of a company to edit its users.

Edit. His word. I’m ashamed that I haven’t been using it in this context, being an editor myself and writing about the need for companies to collaborate with their customers.

I have told editors at newspapers that, as aggregators and curators, they will begin to edit not just the work of their staffs but the creations of their publics. But that goes only so far; it sees the creations of that public as contributions to what we, as journalists, do. And that speaks only to media organizations. Dorsey talks about any company as editor.

I have also told companies—it was a key moral to the story in What Would Google Do?—that they should become platforms that enable others to take control of their fates and succeed.

Twitter is such a platform. As Dorsey said in the video, it constantly iterates and that enables it to take in the creations of users. Months ago, when I wished for a Twitter feature, Fred Wilson tweeted back that that’s what the independent developers and applications are for. Indeed, Twitter enabled developers to create not only features but businesses atop it. But then when Twitter bought or created its own versions of these features created by developers, it went into competition with those developers, on whom Twitter depended to improve—to complete, really—its service. That’s a new kind of channel conflict—competing with your co-creators—that companies will also have to figure out as they become not just producers but editors.

Anyway, I like Dorsey’s conception of company as editor because it requires openness—operating and developing in public; it assumes process over product; it values iteration; it implies collaboration with one’s public; it still maintains the company’s responsibility for quality. An editor has nothing to edit if others haven’t created anything, so it is in the editor’s interest to enable others to create. And the better the creations that public makes, the better off the editor is, so it’s also in the company-as-editor’s interest to improve what that public creates through better tools and often training and also economic motives.

April 04 2010

16:25

iPad danger: app v. web, consumer v. creator

I tweeted earlier that after having slept with her (Ms. iPad), I woke up with morning-after regrets. She’s sweet and pretty but shallow and vapid.

Cute line, appropriate for retweets. But as my hangover settles in, I realize that there’s something much more basic and profound that worries me about the iPad — and not just the iPad but the architecture upon which it is built. I see danger in moving from the web to apps.

The iPad is retrograde. It tries to turn us back into an audience again. That is why media companies and advertisers are embracing it so fervently, because they think it returns us all to their good old days when we just consumed, we didn’t create, when they controlled our media experience and business models and we came to them. The most absurd, extreme illustration is Time Magazine’s app, which is essentially a PDF of the magazine (with the odd video snippet). It’s worse than the web: we can’t comment; we can’t remix; we can’t click out; we can’t link in, and they think this is worth $4.99 a week. But the pictures are pretty.

That’s what we keep hearing about the iPad as the justification for all its purposeful limitations: it’s meant for consumption, we’re told, not creation. We also hear, as in David Pogue’s review, that this is our grandma’s computer. That cant is inherently snobbish and insulting. It assumes grandma has nothing to say. But after 15 years of the web, we know she does. I’ve long said that the remote control, cable box, and VCR gave us control of the consumption of media; the internet gave us control of its creation. Pew says that a third of us create web content. But all of us comment on content, whether through email or across a Denny’s table. At one level or another, we all spread, react, remix, or create. Just not on the iPad.

The iPad’s architecture supports these limitations in a few ways:

First, in its hardware design, it does not include a camera — the easiest and in some ways most democratic means of creation (you don’t have to write well) — even though its smaller cousin, the iPhone, has one. Equally important, it does not include a simple (fucking) USB port, which means that I can’t bring in and take out content easily. If I want to edit a document in Apple’s Pages, I have to go through many hoops of moving and snycing and emailing or using Apple’s own services. Cloud? I see no cloud, just Apple’s blue skies. Why no USB? Well, I can only imagine that Apple doesn’t want us to think what Walt Mossberg did in his review — the polar opposite of Pogue’s — that this pad could replace its more expensive laptops. The iPad is purposely handicapped, but it doesn’t need to be. See the German WePad, which comes with USB port(s!), a camera, multitasking, and the more open Android operating system and marketplace.

Second, the iPad is built on apps. So are phones, Apple’s and others’. Apps can be wonderful things because they are built to a purpose. I’m not anti-app, let’s be clear. But I also want to stop and examine the impact of shifting from a page- and site-based internet to one built on apps. I’ve been arguing that we are, indeed, moving past a page-, site-, and search-based web to one also built on streams and flows, to a distributed web where you can’t expect people to come to you but you must go to them; you must get yourself into their streams. This shift to apps is a move in precisely the opposite direction. Apps are more closed, contained, controlling. That, again, is why media companies like them. But they don’t interoperate — they don’t play well — with other apps and with the web itself; they are hostile to links and search. What we do in apps is less open to the world. I just want to consider the consequences.

So I see the iPad as a Bizarro Trojan Horse. Instead of importing soldiers into the kingdom to break down its walls, in this horse, we, the people, are stuffed inside and wheeled into the old walls; the gate is shut and we’re welcomed back into the kingdom of controlling media that we left almost a generation ago.

There are alternatives. I now see the battle between Apple and Google Android in clearer focus. At Davos, Eric Schmidt said that phones (and he saw the iPad as just a big phone… which it is, just without the phone and a few other things) will be defined by their apps. The mobile (that is to say, constantly connected) war will be won on apps. Google is competing with openness, Apple with control; Google will have countless manufacturers and brands spreading its OS, Apple will have media and fanboys (including me) do the work for it.

But Google has a long way to go if it hopes to win this war. I’m using my Nexus One phone (which I also had morning-after doubts about) and generally liking it but I still find it awkward. Google has lost its way, its devotion to profound simplicity. Google Wave and Buzz are confusing and generally unusable messes; Android needed to be thought through more (I shouldn’t have to think about what a button does in this use case before using it); Google Docs could be more elegant; YouTube’s redesign is halfway to clean. Still, Google and Apple’s competition presents us with choices.

I find it interesting that though many commercial brands — from Amazon to Bank of America to Fandango — have written for both Apple and Android, many media brands — most notable The New York Times and my Guardian — have written only for Apple and they now are devoting much resource to recreating apps for the iPad. The audience on Android is bigger than the audience on iPad but the sexiness and control Apple offers is alluring. This, I think, is why Salon CEO Richard Gingras calls the iPad a fatal distraction for publishers. They are deluding themselves into thinking that the future lies in their past.

On This Week in Google last night, I went too far slathering over the iPad and some of its very neat apps (ABC’s is great; I watched the Modern Family about the iPad on the iPad and smugly loved being so meta). I am a toy boy at heart and didn’t stop to cast a critical eye, as TWiG’s iPadless Gina Trapani did. This morning on Twitter, I went too far the other way kvetching about the inconveniences of the iPad’s limitations (just a fucking USB, please!) in compensation. That’s the problem with Twitter, at least for my readers: it’s thinking out loud.

I’ll sleep with the iPad a few more nights. I might well rebox and return it; I don’t have $500 to throw away. But considering what I do for a living, I perhaps should hold onto it so I can understand its implications. And that’s the real point of this post: there are implications.

: MORE: Of course, I must link to Cory Doctorow’s eloquent examination of the infantilization of technology. I’m not quite as principled, I guess, as Cory is on the topic; I’m not telling people they should not buy the iPad; I don’t much like that verb in any context. But on the merits and demerits, we agree.

And Dave Winer: “Today it’s something to play with, not something to use. That’s the kind way to say it. The direct way: It’s a toy.”

: By the way, back in the day, about a decade ago, I worked with Intel (through my employer, Advance) on a web pad that was meant to be used to consume in the home (we knew then that the on-screen keyboard sucked; it was meant to be a couch satellite to the desk’s PC). Intel lost nerve and didn’t launch it. Besides, the technology was early (they built the wireless on Intel Anypoint, not wi-fi or even bluetooth). Here’s the pad in the flesh. I have it in my basement museum of dead technlogy, next to my CueCat.

March 08 2010

12:50

TEDxNYed: This is bullshit

Here are my notes for my talk to the TEDxNYed gathering this past weekend. I used the opportunity of a TED event to question the TED format, especially in relation to education, where — as in media — we must move past the one-way lecture to collaboration. I feared I’d get tomatoes — organic — thrown at me at the first line, but I got laugh and so everything we OK from there. The video won’t be up for a week or two so I’ll share my notes. It’s not word-for-word what I delivered, but it’s close….

* * *

This is bullshit.

Why should you be sitting there listening to me? To paraphrase Dan Gillmor, you know more than I do. Will Richardson should be up here instead of me. And to paraphrase Jay Rosen, you should be the people formerly known as the audience.

But right now, you’re the audience and I’m lecturing.

That’s bullshit.

What does this remind of us of? The classroom, of course, and the entire structure of an educational system built for the industrial age, turning out students all the same, convincing them that there is one right answer — and that answer springs from the lecturn. If they veer from it they’re wrong; they fail.

What else does this remind us of? Media, old media: one-way, one-size-fits-all. The public doesn’t decide what’s news and what’s right. The journalist-as-speaker does.

But we must question this very form. We must enable students to question the form.

I, too, like lots of TED talks. But having said that….

During the latest meeting of Mothership TED, I tweeted that I didn’t think I had ever seen any TEDster tweet anything negative about a talk given there, so enthralled are they all for being there, I suppose. I asked whether they were given soma in their shwag bags.

But then, blessed irony, a disparaging tweet came from none other than TED’s curator, dean, editor, boss, Chris Anderson. Sarah Silverman had said something that caused such a kerfuffle Anderson apologized and then apologized for the apology, so flummoxed was he by someone coming into the ivory tower of TED to shake things up with words.

When I tweeted about this, trying to find out what Silverman had said, and daring to question the adoration TEDsters have for TED, one of its acolytes complained about my questioning the wonders of TED. She explained that TED gave her “validation.”

Validation.

Good God, that’s the last thing we should want. We should want questions, challenges, discussion, debate, collaboration, quests for understanding and solutions. Has the internet taught us any less?

But that is what education and media do: they validate.

They also repeat. In news, I have argued that we can no longer afford to repeat the commodified news the public already knows because we want to tell the story under our byline, exuding our ego; we must, instead, add unique value.

The same can be said of the academic lecture. Does it still make sense for countless teachers to rewrite the same essential lecture about, say, capillary action? Used to be, they had to. But not now, not since open curricula and YouTube. Just as journalists must become more curator than creator, so must educators.

A few years ago, I had this conversation with Bob Kerrey at the New School. He asked what he could do to compete with brilliant lectures now online at MIT. I said don’t complete, complement. I imagined a virtual Oxford based on a system of lecturers and tutors. Maybe the New School should curate the best lectures on capillary action from MIT and Stanford or a brilliant teacher who explains it well even if not from a big-school brand; that could be anyone in YouTube U. And then the New School adds value by tutoring: explaining, answering, probing, enabling.

The lecture does have its place to impart knowledge and get us to a shared starting point. But it’s not the be-all-and-end-all of education – or journalism. Now the shared lecture is a way to find efficiency in ending repetition, to make the best use of the precious teaching resource we have, to highlight and support the best. I’ll give the same advice to the academy that I give to news media: Do what you do best and link to the rest.

I still haven’t moved past the lecture and teacher as starting point. I also think we must make the students the starting point.

At a Carnegie event at the Paley Center a few weeks ago, I moderated a panel on teaching entrepreneurial journalism and it was only at the end of the session that I realized what I should have done: start with the room, not the stage. I asked the students in the room what they wished their schools were teaching them. It was a great list: practical yet visionary.

I tell media that they must become collaborative, because the public knows much, because people want to create, not just consume, because collaboration is a way to expand news, because it is a way to save expenses. I argue that news is a process, not a product. Indeed, I say that communities can now share information freely – the marginal cost of their news is zero. We in journalism should ask where we can add value. But note that that in this new ecosystem, the news doesn’t start with us. It starts with the community.

I’ve been telling companies that they need to move customers up the design chain. On a plane this week, I sat next to a manufacturer of briefcases last week and asked whether, say, TechCrunch could get road warriors to design the ultimate laptop bag for them, would he build it? Of course, he would.

So we need to move students up the education chain. They don’t always know what they need to know, but why don’t we start by finding out? Instead of giving tests to find out what they’ve learned, we should test to find out what they don’t know. Their wrong answers aren’t failures, they are needs and opportunities.

But the problem is that we start at the end, at what we think students should learn, prescribing and preordaining the outcome: We have the list of right answers. We tell them our answers before they’ve asked the questions. We drill them and test them and tell them they’ve failed if they don’t regurgitate back our lectures as lessons learned. That is a system built for the industrial age, for the assembly line, stamping out everything the same: students as widgets, all the same.

But we are no longer in the industrial age. We are in the Google age. Hear Jonathan Rosenberg, Google’s head of product management, who advised students in a blog post. Google, he said, is looking for “non-routine problem-solving skills.” The routine way to solve the problem of misspelling is, of course, the dictionary. The non-routine way is to listen to all the mistake and corrections we make and feed that back to us in the miraculous, “Did you mean?”

“In the real world,” he said, “the tests are all open book, and your success is inexorably determined by the lessons you glean from the free market.”

One more from him: “It’s easy to educate for the routine, and hard to educate for the novel.” Google sprung from seeing the novel. Is our educational system preparing students to work for or create Googles? Googles don’t come from lectures.

So if not the lecture hall, what’s the model? I mentioned one: the distributed Oxford: lectures here, teaching there.

Once you’re distributed, then one has to ask, why have a university? Why have a school? Why have a newspaper? Why have a place or a thing? Perhaps, like a new news organization, the tasks shift from creating and controlling content and managing scarcity to curating people and content and enabling an abundance of students and teachers and of knowledge: a world whether anyone can teach and everyone will learn. We must stop selling scarce chairs in lecture halls and thinking that is our value.

We must stop our culture of standardized testing and standardized teaching. Fuck the SATs.* In the Google age, what is the point of teaching memorization?

We must stop looking at education as a product – in which we turn out every student giving the same answer – to a process, in which every student looks for new answers. Life is a beta.

Why shouldn’t every university – every school – copy Google’s 20% rule, encouraging and enabling creation and experimentation, every student expected to make a book or an opera or an algorithm or a company. Rather than showing our diplomas, shouldn’t we show our portfolios of work as a far better expression of our thinking and capability? The school becomes not a factory but an incubator.

There’s another model for an alternative to the lecture and it’s Dave Winer’s view of the unconference. At the first Bloggercon, Dave had me running a panel on politics and when I said something about “my panel,” he jumped down my throat, as only Dave can. “There is no panel,” he decreed. “The room is the panel.” Ding. It was in the moment that I learned to moderate events, including those in my classroom, by drawing out the conversation and knowledge of the wise crowd in the room.

So you might ask why I didn’t do that here today. I could blame the form; didn’t want to break the form. But we all know there’s another reason:

Ego.

* That was an ad-lib

February 13 2010

19:30

Buzz: A beta too soon

As soon as Buzz was announced — before I could try it — I tried to intuit its goals and I found profound opportunities.

Now that I’ve tried it, reality and opportunity a fer piece apart. It’s awkward. I’d thought that I had wanted Twitter to be threaded but I was wrong; the simplest point quickly passes into an overdose of add-ons. Worse, Google didn’t think through critical issues of privacy — and it only gets worse (via danah boyd). I won’t go as far as Steve Rubel and some others, who instantly declared Buzz DOA; there is the essence of something important here (which I think will come out in mobile more than the web). But there’s no question: Buzz has kinks.

I was going to use that line in the headline — that Buzz is a beta too soon — but the irony is that Buzz is the one product Google did not release as a beta. Big mistake, I think.

In fact, even if Buzz had been released as a beta to a small audience, I’m not sure all the problems would have surfaced because it takes a lot of people using it to surface those problems: unwanted connections and too much noise.

So I wonder whether Google should have moved the users up the design chain — something I’ve been advising retailers and manufacturers to do. The sooner one can learn from one’s customers/users/public (not turning design into democracy but enabling the target to help make you smarter and make what you’re creating better), the better. What if Google had released screenshots and wireframes of Buzz? It’s not as if someone else was going to steal it; Buzz was Google catching up to Twitter, Facebook, and Foursquare anyway. Very few people would have bothered to dig into the design of the product but enough might have — the 1% rule — to warn Google off the worse of Buzz’s bloopers.

Then again, isn’t that what Google did with Wave? Some — many of the same insta-critics — declared it too difficult and DOA while I reminded people that Google specifically said it released a version very early in the process so people could use it and, more importantly, develop new products atop it and through that, Google would learn what Wave really was.

So where’s the happy medium? Or as I ask in the presentation I’ve been making on Beta (likely next book): When’s the beta baked? How done is done?

I’ll be contemplating the answer to those questions and I ask your help and opinions and stories and examples.

Were I to give Google advice on Buzz — what the heck, everyone else is — I think I’d release a product plan for comment and then put out a clearly labeled beta and then invite only volunteers to try it and then make sure that at every step there’s a clear opportunity for me to opt out of a choice and tell Google why I was doing it so Google could learn. I’d listen better.

: MORE: This is a video I did for the release of What Would Google Do? summarizing the beta section in the book, which in turn inspired the thinking above:

November 30 2009

12:58

Media after the site

Tweet: What does the post-page, post-site, post-media media world look like? @stephenfry, that’s what.

The next phase of media, I’ve been thinking, will be after the page and after the site. Media can’t expect us to go to it all the time. Media has to come to us. Media must insinuate itself into our streams.

I’ve been trying to imagine what that would be and then I was Skype-chatting with Nick Denton (an inspirational pastime I’ve had too little of lately) and he knew exactly what it looks like:

@stephenfry.

Spot on. Fry insinuated himself into my stream. He comes to us. We distribute him. He has been introduced to and acquired new fans. He now has a million followers, surely more than for any old web site of his. He did it by his wit(s) alone. His product is his ad, his readers his agency. How will he benefit? I have full faith that he of all people will find the way to turn this into a show and a book. He is media with no need for media. I was trying to avoid using Aston Kutcher as my example, but he’s on the cover of Fast Company making the same point: “He intends to become the first next-generation media mogul, using his own brand as a springboard…. ‘The algorithm is awesome,’ Kutcher says…”

That’s media post-media.

This view of the future makes it all the more silly and retrograde for publishers like Murdoch to complain about the value of the readers Google sends to them. Who says readers will or should come to us at all? We were warned of this future by that now-legendary college student who said in Brian Stelter’s New York Times story (which foretold the end of the medium in which it appeared): “If the news is that important, it will find me.”

If a page (and a site) become anything, it will be a repository, an archive, a collecting pool in which to gather permalinks and Googlejuice: an article plus links plus streams of comments and updates and tweets and collaboration via tools like Wave. Content will insinuate itself into streams and streams will insinuate themselves back into content. The great Mandala.

The notion of the stream takes on more importance when you think about your always-connected and always-on device, whatever the hell you call it (phone, tablet, netbook, eyeglasses, connector….). I recently saw a telecommunications technology exec show off a prototype of a screen he says will be here in a year or so that not only has color and full-motion video and can be seen in ambient light but that takes so little power that it can and will be on all the time. So rather than hitting that button on the iPhone to see what’s new, your post-phone post-PC device is always on and always connected. You don’t sneak it under the table to turn it on now and again. You leave it on the table and it constantly streams.

Is that stream news? Only a small portion of your stream – whatever you want, whatever you allow in – will be. Just as publishers’ news is only a small portion of the value of what Google returns in search, we mustn’t be so hubristic to think that the streams flowing by readers’ eyes will be owned, controlled, and filled by media with what they declare to be news. They will be filled with life.

The real value waiting to be created in the stream-based web is prioritization. That’s part of what Clay Shirky is driving at when he talks about algorithmic authority and what Marissa Mayer talks about when she says news streams will be hyperpersonal. The opportunity in news is not to try to mass-prioritize it for everyone at once – impossible! – but to help each of us do it. To make that work, it will have to be personal and personal will scale only if it’s algorithmic and the algorithm will work only if we trust and value what it delivers. So how do you learn enough about me, who I am, what I do, and what I need so you can solve my personal filter failure and show me the emails and tweet and updates and, yes, news I’ll most want to read? What tricks can you bring to bear, as Google did and Facebook did: the wisdom of a crowd – perhaps my crowd? the value of editors still?

So imagine this future without pages and sites, this future that’s all built on process over product. If you’re what used to be a content-creation – if you’re Stephen Fry, post-media – you’re all about insinuating yourself into that stream. If you’re about content curation – formerly known as editing – then you’re all about prioritizing streams for people; that’s how you add value now.

Getting people to come to you so you can tell them what you say they should know while showing them ads they didn’t want from advertisers who bear the cost and risk of the entire experience? That’s just so 2008. Now it’s time to go with the stream.

November 11 2009

13:39

The future of business is in ecosystems

Last week, I said that the future of news is entrepreneurial (not institutional). Today, a sequel: The future of business is in ecosystems (not conglomerates or industries).

At the Foursquare conference last week, I was struck by the miss-by-a-mile worldviews held by the chiefs of big, old conglomerates and the entrepreneurs starting new, nimble companies. The conference is off the record, so I won’t quote anyone by name. And in truth, these are the same conversations I hear often elsewhere. Having these different tribes conveniently in the same room merely focused the contrast for me.

In one moment, a very successful mogully man was slack-jawed in amazement at how little money – “$50,000!” – one of three entrepreneurs had used to start another fast-growing enterprise. The big man thinks big – that’s what made him big. The small guys think small and get big by using existing platforms and depending on their users to like and market them. To the new guys, it’s so obvious.

Here was the key moment for me last week: In a discussion about the importance of distribution, some start-up guys – each the creators of new enterprises that took off like gun shots – were asked by a representative of the big, old club which company they would most want to do distribution deals with. The start-up guys cocked their heads like confused puppies. Why would we want to do that? they asked. What was unsaid: Doing a deal with one company would be so limiting. We get our distribution through customers and developers, through embedding and APIs and social connections. That’s how we grew so big so fast for so little. Don’t you see that?

No, they don’t.

This week, we see this contrast, too, in Rupert Murdoch’s threat – he thinks it’s a threat – to cut off Google. Nose. Face. Cut. Spite. Murdoch – whodoesn’t use the internet – does not see how distribution works today. He does not understand that being open to the link economy brings him free distribution, free marketing, great benefit. That’s because he, like his fellow old machers, won by taking control rather than giving it up. This new world is utterly inside-out from the world they built. It breaks all their rules and makes new ones (which is what I tried to analyze in What Would Google Do?). That’s what makes it so damned hard for them to understand it.

In our New Business Models for News at CUNY, we saw quickly that a big, old newspaper company was not going to be replaced by a big, new newspaper company but that instead, news would come more and more from ecosystems made up of scores of companies operating under different means, motives, and models, each dependent on the others to optimize their success. That is why we built in networks that enable separate sites to join, creating critical mass they can sell to advertisers. That is also why we factored in the benefit of platforms, cutting their infrastructure costs to near-zero.

And there, I believe, is the structure of the future of business in the new, post-industrial, decentralized, opened economy. Oh, sure, every economy has always been an ecosystem made up of interdependent relationships. But they were based on zero-sum arithmetic: take and control so others cannot. They work at arm’s length. They negotiate every relationship.

Sure, even in the huggy ecosystem, companies fight and compete. But in an ecosystem-based economy, companies benefit – they find efficiency and growth – by working collaboratively. As I see it, the new economy and its opportunities will be built in three layers:

1. Platforms. There’s tremendous benefit in building a platform and the more people use to succeed, the more the platform succeeds. Google, YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, Amazon, eBay – you know all the examples.

2. Entrepreneurial enterprises.
Thanks to the platforms, it’s incredibly inexpensive to start new companies. It’s also a helluva lot cheaper to fail (and try again). This is why I believe that the future of news – and many other industries – is entrepreneurial: because it can be. It’s not just media and its bits. It’s manufacturing (because you can use others’ factories and distribution channels and your own customers as your platforms).

3. Networks. It is still necessary to gather the smalls together into bigs: audience brought together so advertisers can buy access to them more easily; purchasing brought together to get better prices. So there is business in creating and serving these networks.

For the sake a PowerPoint, a diagram of the three layers of an ecosystem-based economy:

ecosystemchart500

In our New Business Models for News Project, this is how I (crudely) drew the ecosystem for news.

ecosystemnews

How do you draw the conglomerate-based industry? With boxes, each separate, with arrows pointing to each other at a distance. Simplistic? Sure, but the change in the worldview of the new economy looks that basic when you hear the two tribes trying to understand each other.

And if you haven’t had enough of my silly charts, here’s another on video.

13:30

WWGD – The videos (3)

Another two videos from the aborted v-book edition of What Would Google Do?:

In this, I recreate at my whiteboard slides some of you have seen about a process v product view of our emerging world:

And introducing Schwagman:

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