Fluid dynamics

Wait, don’t leave just yet! And don’t go dust off the old physics textbooks either. I did spend some time kite-boarding this weekend, and a refresher on aerodynamics wouldn’t have hurt, but I have a different kind of flow in mind right now: on Sunday morning, venture capitalist Fred Wilson posted his thoughts on the raging discussion around data portability. His insight? Data flow, rather than data itself, is the truly valuable currency on social networks, the one that competitors like Facebook and Google’s Friend Connect are mercilessly fighting over. He goes on to demonstrate how his kids literally depend on the many event streams going through Facebook to keep their social life in check.

Somehow this prompted me to reflect on what I perceive as a growing acceleration and fragmentation, dare I say balkanization, of influence in social media.

Here’s the thing: blogs, some ten years ago, gave an accessible conversation dissemination platform to anyone with a voice, thus creating the opportunity for more informal circles of trust and influence to evolve, beyond mainstream media, around specific topics. That was then. What we’re witnessing in 2008 is the rise of a new crop of services, from now old school Twitter to aggregators like FriendFeed, that help further tear down the barriers to entry for contribution, and push ever further the micro-chunking phenomenon.

What does that mean in terms of influence? The fragmentation bit is obvious: increasingly, memes propagate across the social mesh rather than simply across mainstream or even topic-centric publications. When republishing and aggregating services appear, they allow for the explicit consumption of vetted information and content along friend graphs. Acceleration follows: the ability to send link love rippling around those same graphs is only a click away. There are other meaningful consequences when it comes to influence. In particular, as meme velocity increases, so is meme mutation rate: ideas flowing through the social ecosystem are appropriated, augmented, altered with each reformulation – depending on where you stand, this is the true beauty of the medium, or instead the kink in an imperfect replication scheme.

For anyone in the business of surfacing influence, this translates into a clear opportunity: the ability to sense and react on the spot to emerging trends in the medium, and capture meme momentum across a broadened range of vectors, leads to unprecedented targeting options. In particular, I tend to be more optimistic on this than Matt Maroon: in a recent post on the shortcomings of ad plays on social networks, he contends that Facebook will always lag Google in terms of engagement. I agree, but only to a point: I see massive room for improvement past the current ads we see there, untargeted for the most part beyond primitive demographics. While the notion of engagement on social sites is more akin to flash mobs forming and dissipating rapidly, than to continued focus on a stable topic, engagement does happen. For instance, around events organized and propagated through the mesh. Such events exhibit many of the traits of influence I just discussed, from velocity to topic-centricity to friend-based vetting. If we’re quick enough to catch it, there’s definite engagement happening at those edges.

Cross-posted on the Buzz blog.

I’m sold!

Going OnceWe’re moving. It’s a good thing we love the food at the restaurants around South Park, though, because we’re likely to remain daily visitors there: we’re only traveling a couple of blocks. But there’s more: unlike the food, a lot else is going to change in the move.

Here’s the short, Twitter-friendly version: we’ve just been acquired by Buzzlogic. We’ve been talking to the team there for over six months: they rock. So I’m totally excited, elated, ecstatic, thrilled, stoked, and psyched about the deal. Did I mention I was excited?

A longer version follows, and you can also get more details about the news from the usual suspects.

I started Activeweave with Marc back in 2005. We built two products, BlogRovR and Stickis. Ever since, we’ve been focusing all our energy on building technology that would delight our users and help them as they go about their busy lives online. We’ve been working on doing one thing well: making it easy for you to stay informed in the face of ever growing quantities of content (some signal, some noise) fighting for your attention.

BlogRovR in particular has resonated with close to 200,000 of you, faithfully fetching posts relevant to the page you are visiting, from the bloggers you choose, and bringing them right into the browser as you go, for just-in-time context. BlogRovR connects readers and bloggers anywhere on the web where they have something of interest to say to each other. For a reader, it means seeing what your favorite bloggers have to say anywhere you surf, and for a blogger it gets your message to your readers beyond your blog or their feed reader, everywhere on the web where you have something to say.

We do this with an on-the-fly, personalized, contextual search. We’re nerds. But we don’t mind that others have thought this a mouthful and called us Techmeme on steroids, the Muhammad Ali of feed readers, or web 3.0 today instead.

We met the folks at Buzzlogic a while back and hit it off: they’ve been preoccupied with the blogosphere as well, working on technology to map conversations in a fine-grained fashion, tracking influence, and allowing their customers to better target their research and advertising. We saw the right synergies, we saw complementary business models, and we saw a great team in action.

We also saw a novel business opportunity. Buzzlogic is using an analysis of the blogosphere similar to ours to help advertisers identify its most influential regions, on which to message potential customers. Buzzlogic calls this conversation tracking. Both their current technologies and the directions in which they’re taking them align well with what we’ve done and the kinds of products we’ve been building. The more we talked about possible collaborations, the more areas of overlap emerged. It soon became clear that our technology could help inform Buzzlogic’s influence tracking, and that we would also be able to contribute personally to their future.

So, we’re moving onto even wider challenges from the ones we’ve been facing: Jean will become the Chief Technology Officer at Buzzlogic, and Marc will become Senior Vice President of Product.

The last two and a half years have been a wild ride. I remember reading on someone’s blog (where else?) only weeks before launching the company, that being an entrepreneur requires a hefty dose of irrationality: one has to find a way to brush off the countless near-catastrophic failures, the endless doubts, the crazy daily grind, and the reality of doing everything on half a shoestring, in order to thrive instead on the rare breakthrough, or the occasional unsolicited friendly message from a happy user. Indeed, we experienced all of this first hand. But as Winston Churchill put it: success is the ability to go from one failure to another with no loss of enthusiasm.

There have been innumerable of you who’ve helped us along the way, and we can only really name a few by name. Many have helped with ideas, enthusiasm, exposure, and guidance. We’re particularly grateful to our investors, who’ve supported us financially and who’ve continued to believe in us throughout. Special shout-outs to Eric Di Benedetto, our lead investor and board member, and Esther Dyson, a key investor and advisor.

BlogRovR isn’t going away. If anything, it’ll benefit from the improvements we keep making to the underlying technology, from the talent at Buzzlogic, and from their mighty hardware too.

Just as importantly, we remain committed to respecting our users’ privacy: we’ve been clear all along about what value we deliver as you browse, and we’ve been equally clear about how we use the data we come in contact with in the process of delivering that value: we only use it anonymously and in the aggregate. We don’t store individual click-streams, and instead derive aggregate attention metrics based how you interact with RovR.

Cross-posted to the Activeweave blog.

Free: so good it hurts

Gift EconomyMike over at Techcrunch lashed out at Billy Bragg for whining, in a New York Times op-ed, about the doomed, sorry state of business for digitally distributed music. I agree that Bragg shouldn’t hold his breath for any of Bebo’s cash, and that whining isn’t going to help solve anything. But man, is Mike tough on those artists.

What’s one difference between Techcrunch and some music artist, aside from the obvious that Mike probably (hey, I might be wrong there, who knows) wouldn’t make a great living playing the guitar, while any random musician likely has little understanding of the inner workings of the Valley startup scene?

Here’s one: one the one hand, Mike and the gang get to focus on building the value of the Techcrunch property, and then enjoy the very same economies of scale he denies the artist, through unbounded distribution at little marginal cost (bandwidth). In Mike’s case, distribution is fueled by the quality of the content, spreads via the viral pathways of the blogosphere we all like to call link love, aided if need be by aggregators like Techmeme.

So Mike’s striking gold, because he gets ad impressions and prospers more or less proportionally to traffic at the site. He certainly prospers unfettered by the fixed cost of publishing Techcrunch. Great!

Yet I wouldn’t get too cocky about it: it’s not like he came up with the business model or anything. He just happens to sit at a juncture where it’s been enabled and trail-blazed for a while. Great timing, it affords him the chance to focus on content.

On the other hand I see angst-ridden artists, driven to a state of quasi-panic by the impending doom of the model they had assumed regimented their industry, for the reason Mike highlights: costless distribution, ultimately leading to the drying up of any distribution-related revenue stream. It gets worse for artists: no one is putting up with ads around the medium. All we can offer them, right now, is to hop on a bus and tour the country: concert time, baby.

Aside from Bragg’s unlikely claim to Bebo’s stash, I think it all boils down to the not-so-surprising, frightened reaction of artists as the tectonic plates shift under their feet, with no new model in sight, aside from the clearly less scalable concert and t-shirt angle. At the very least, it’s understandable they should exhibit symptoms from the growing pains of being forced into evolving a business brain, instead of focusing on creating great content, in their case making music.

So a bunch of musicians are probably feeling, right now, like kids whose favorite toy has just taken a bad fall from the table and is irremediably broken: they’re going to try hard and put the thing back together, in spite of the foregone conclusion, until they land a new toy.

I wouldn’t throw stones: the ad-supported blogosphere is our collective glass house; if all of Mike’s readers, one way or another, ad-blocked away his income source, he’d be scrambling to find a new business model too.

I brought this up in a conversation with Mike in the comments to his post. His answer: we need to deal with reality. Correct. Whether we want to or not, we all deal in reality here so, clearly, his suggestion of moving back to digging holes if your business model falls apart is always an option.

But I still think we’re missing the bigger picture, the bigger point: why feel so smug about beating up on the artists? They’re one of many canaries in the coal mine. Nick Carr, unsurprisingly, is quick to draw the parallels with the exploitation he repeatedly spots and denounces as sharecropping in the content generated by users in social networks. And commenters to Mike’s post eloquently point out that the software industry exhibits the very same costless distribution traits currently driving artists to panic. Software is on a commoditization and collision path with the same fate, and I think blogging is far from immune. Free economy all around, indeed.

What we need is a new set of business models. No time for whining, but no time for belittling the insecure artist either.

Music is only one of many instances of the collectively self-imposed and fashionable trend toward canceling the gains in productivity that economies of scale have afforded many industries until now. In Carr’s words: we’re operating under the cloud of neo-hippie technobabble about virtual communities, social production, and the gift economy.

So while we can wait until we’re in the same tight spot as artists, and only deal with the problem then, why delay? The underlying issues are at least partially common, and solutions revolve around coming up with new, scalable models for the digital age, not around going back to an artisan model where you can only earn income from performing live, being paid by the word for your articles or by the hour for your software.

Fred Wilson, constructive as always, focuses on just that: solutions. At least in the case of music, he reminds us that royalties based on streaming make a lot of sense, and suggests what we need is infrastructure making it easy to pay for content as we go. I like that it ties right back into the simple notion, too often depicted as obsolete, that paying for stuff we consume makes sense. Until the day we truly find ourselves living in a world of abundance, it feels about right.

Photo: for a girl called zaza, by jek in the box; Creative Commons license: Attribution, Non commercial, No Derivative Works.

2008: We’re a Webware 100 finalist!

Great news on the BlogRovR front: we have been nominated as a finalist, in the browsing category, for the 2008 edition of CNET’s Webware 100. Yes, we’re up against some serious competitors: Firefox, Google Reader, Internet Explorer to name only a few. Given that we are a browser add-on to Firefox and IE, and have worked to integrate tightly with Google Reader, the last thing I think of these guys as is competition. But heck, who could ask for better company? The good news: this year, you all get 3 votes in each category, so even the little guys (that’d be us in case you’re wondering who’s the underdog between BlogRovR and, say, Adobe AIR) can get some of your love!

TED talks: ideas worth spreading

Ever since the organizers at TED started posting video footage of the conference talks, back in 2006, I have been watching avidly, and bugging my friends to do the same: each in their own way, most if not all of the presenters are truly fascinating and inspiring, both in substance and in style.

TED is now digging into its archives, posting talks going all the way back to the very first edition in 1984. Faced with this accelerating stream of great content to consume and disseminate, I am giving up on spamming friends with email to highlight this or that talk. Instead, here’s my growing list of favorite presentations, in no particular order.

Neuroanatomist Jill Bolte Taylor: My stroke of insight.

Sir Ken Robinson challenges the way we’re educating children.

Majora Carter: Greening the ghetto.

Anna Deavere Smith: Four American characters.

Arthur Benjamin: Lightning calculation and other Mathemagic.

Craig Venter: on the verge of creating synthetic life.

Matthieu Ricard: habits of happiness.

Malcolm Gladwell: What we can learn from spaghetti sauce.

Erin McKean: Redefining the dictionary.

Hans Rosling: Debunking myths with the best stats you’ve ever seen.

Patrick Awuah: Educating a new generation of African leaders.

Larry Lessig: How creativity is being strangled by the law.

Nicholas Negroponte: From 1984, 4 predictions about the future.

Ideas worth spreading, indeed.

Ambient social networks: one step closer

Brad Fitzpatrick, of Livejournal and memcache fame, and now a Google employee, just announced the release of the social graph API. It leverages the public, explicit relationships declared in XFN or FOAF by various sites, and harvested as part of Google’s crawl, to expose someone’s graph in a form suitable for building applications. In these days of growing Facebook fatigue, this could help bring the vision of an ambient social network, where your graph (i.e. your posse) travels with you everywhere you go instead of being trapped in a particular site, one step closer to reality. Caveat: Google has shown its willingness to end support for popular APIs before, so there’s clearly risk involved in building anything dependent on this.

Social Graph API – Google Code

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Valleywag: Mark Zuckerberg cashes out… not

[…] Zuckerberg’s most important backer, Peter Thiel, does not work on Sand Hill Road. From his offices in San Francisco’s Presidio, he’s set about changing the rules of how startups get funding and how founders make their fortunes. Through his Founders Fund, he has begun issuing “Series FF” shares to the entrepreneurs he backs, giving them the right to sell shares alongside their companies to new investors. Thiel, who felt unjustly treated as the cofounder of PayPal, wants to let his protégés build companies without worrying about how to make rent. Old lions like angel investor Ron Conway will probably view this development with outrage.

Scoop: Mark Zuckerberg cashes out?

Or, as Mashable puts it: nice pocket change for Zuckerberg.

Except it didn’t happen: Valleywag retracted the story.

So much drama for a Saturday.

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Are we seeing the end of ultimate geek power?

Arguably, there may well have never been such a thing as ultimate geek power; fine.

But I remember a slew of fluff pieces back in the first bubble that were all about the geeks’ role in the economy. More specifically, about how software programmers had suddenly taken over the kingdom and how they were, for the first time, in charge! How they were finally enjoying some of the fame once reserved for business types (if that means crisscrossing the world at the back of a plane, I don’t know that we benefited all that much in the bargain).

Ugh, right. You didn’t buy it either, did you? Still, from our twisted vantage point in the middle of the valley, it is clear that the rise to prevalence, in the last decade or so, of all things web, has allowed many a software engineer to contribute solid technology, innovation, and ultimately build very successful companies.

Is this still going on today? Are software whizzes putting their skill to the same use? Or are we, instead, seeing a shift away from that trend?

I think geek supremacy is at risk! Or rather, I think we need to wake up and focus, or face complete irrelevance. Why? Commoditization (a good thing) and complacency (a bad thing) are combining to create massive distraction.

Here’s what I mean: in the current advertising-driven web economy, a hit mentality has developed and spread everywhere. Eerily similar to 1999’s startups, today’s ventures ride on eye-balls. So far, so good, but what’s troubling for geeks is that technology doesn’t seem to be playing a significant role in what makes or break many of the services in that new crop. In other words, there’s no technical barrier to entry in a lot of the companies monopolizing the airwaves these days.

Hence the distraction: drawn by the current frothiness in the startup scene, we have lots of entrepreneurial engineers coming out of the woodworks, trying to join in with this or that project. But they’re not competing on technology. I am not saying they ever purely were (the mysterious art of marketing, for instance, has always played a decisive role). But things are exacerbated today, as engineers find themselves competing on something where they don’t have any unfair advantage: taste.

Take Facebook’s applications, for example. All the rage these days! It’s a great eco-system with lots of potential for rapid, viral growth, and instant monetization via ads. This sounds like the perfect, low-hanging fruit for your next startup. And it is, in some ways. But is there really anything predisposing a geek to succeed better than anyone else in that arena? Is a geek particularly equipped to anticipate how this or that app will appeal to and stick with various Facebook constituencies? I think not.

Here’s an even better example: Kawasaki’s Truemors. I attended one of his very engaging talks last night, where he covered the launch his latest startup. Whether or not you think truemors stands a chance is not relevant here: the site works, it’s functional. It was built in a couple of months, and for $4.5k initially (Guy threw in another $10k later; he jokes that should he need a second round of funding for the company, he could cover his operating costs for a year from the fees of a single talk). So he built and runs the site pretty much for free. It obviously stands on the shoulders or many giants, the top of the stack being WordPress and a bunch of plug-ins, but that’s precisely the point: in that venture, technology is a commodity. So if you’re not competing on technical execution, you’re competing on marketing and idea. How many software engineers are better equipped than Guy when it comes to generating buzz and ideas?

As he keeps saying: the point of entrepreneurships is not to level the playing field. It is to tilt the playing field toward you as much as you possibly can. I couldn’t agree more.

There’s lots of technology to be built and invented, and I think software engineers certainly have an unfair advantage with that. So it’s about resisting the tempting calls of the low-hanging fruits, and investing instead the cycles required to grasp the harder-to-reach ones. As Twitter’s Ev says, you have to decide what game you’re playing: picking is also about knowing your strengths.

By the way, technology innovation is what we strive for at BlogRovR. It sure feels like we thrive on technical barriers, especially those we can’t quite figure out how to climb at first! If you want to help, come join us.

Is the social web getting loud, or what?

Damn. I did it again: it’s not even noon yet and, just like the car talk brothers always say, I just wasted another perfectly good hour. Except, this time, I spent it tweaking my buddy list on Twitter and answering a deluge of invitations from folks on various social networks.

As an entrepreneur deep in the trenches of the evolving web (take that, web x.0 versioning zealots!) I should love that stuff: I started our company in that space precisely because I want to make the web a more social, participatory place. And at first glance, it seems we’re finally getting there, with the Internets chattier than ever. There are more and more fantastic options available to publish all sorts of content, from concise status updates to events to full-length blog posts to podcasts to video. And tools to share the goods with friends are mushrooming as well. What’s not to love, right?

Well, something about the pattern emerging right now bugs me. As a whole, I fear the social web ecosystem is currently amplifying the pain rather than actually helping users communicate and interact better. I read an interview with Aaron Swartz a few weeks back, where he mentioned that early Reddit users wrote about spending too much time on the addictive site. Like Aaron, I am not sure this is a good thing. I am hooked on Twitter, for instance, but I hate loving it.

Why? Because as someone not merely out there to kill time, but rather looking for valuable information nuggets, I don’t feel empowered; quite to the contrary, I feel played: since when does it count as progress that I have to manually sift through everybody’s mundane whereabouts just so I don’t miss the rare piece of signal in the noise? Sure, I want to know where the party’s at, but there has to be a better way to find out than following 1,234 users just to catch the few valuable announcements between countless quips about cappuccino runs and BART delay.

Twitter (or Jaiku, for that matter) isn’t a worse offender than others, mind you: I am frantically trying to keep up with numerous meeting trackers and calendars, from Outlook to Google to Yahoo to 30boxes to upcoming, not to mention old school evite. And should I update my profile and connections on Facebook today and on LinkedIn tomorrow, or the other way around? If I also have to watch the life-casting of my 50 closest friends, I might just as well give up on work right now.

My point: massive production overload, lack of any potent filtering. It may be fine for a while, or for die-hard exhibitionists and voyeurs, but I feel like we’re letting users down severely when it comes to having the stuff that matters to them bubble up to the top of their attention.

To answer Mike’s diatribe about the Valley getting rotten because of too much cash, too many parties, I’d say that in terms of innovation, we’re barely getting started: in my view, the point’s not only giving users yet another megaphone, but facilitating interaction, collaboration, online or even (let’s dream a little) in first life. While the promise of a web more participatory is what fires me up, I think we need to seriously ramp up the consumption side of things. And search in its current state is not the answer; it simply isn’t keeping up right now. Yes, I keep tabs on who’s writing about my company with blog search, but what is the Technorati tag for personalized “cool stuff, cool events, or cool people”? What’s really hot, in my view, is a chance to build and deliver that kind of filtering value for users, beyond gimmicks and raw entertainment plays just adding to the noise. What do you think?