Let's Talk About Revolutions (in media)

Pop!Tech 2008 - Clay Shirky

I reread this morning Clay Shirky’s great SXSW piece about the media business and i wanted to share some of his thoughts here.  Let me go through the end of the article a bit.  He starts:

Elizabeth Eisenstein’s magisterial treatment of Gutenberg’s invention, The Printing Press as an Agent of Change, opens with a recounting of her research into the early history of the printing press. She was able to find many descriptions of life in the early 1400s, the era before movable type. Literacy was limited, the Catholic Church was the pan-European political force, Mass was in Latin, and the average book was the Bible. She was also able to find endless descriptions of life in the late 1500s, after Gutenberg’s invention had started to spread. Literacy was on the rise, as were books written in contemporary languages, Copernicus had published his epochal work on astronomy, and Martin Luther’s use of the press to reform the Church was upending both religious and political stability.

I want to draw the obvious parallel to today’s revolution in publishing and in technology. I belive that just having email and IM has increased the literacy in America (maybe the world).  Not 15 years ago no kids were daily expressing themselves in written words, now they do all the time.  In 1996, i would frequently get emails in ALL CAPS and poorly written.  Now it’s a must-have skill.  But let’s continue with the speech….

What Eisenstein focused on, though, was how many historians ignored the transition from one era to the other. To describe the world before or after the spread of print was child’s play; those dates were safely distanced from upheaval. But what was happening in 1500? The hard question Eisenstein’s book asks is “How did we get from the world before the printing press to the world after it? What was the revolution itself like?”

Chaotic, as it turns out. The Bible was translated into local languages; was this an educational boon or the work of the devil? Erotic novels appeared, prompting the same set of questions. Copies of Aristotle and Galen circulated widely, but direct encounter with the relevant texts revealed that the two sources clashed, tarnishing faith in the Ancients. As novelty spread, old institutions seemed exhausted while new ones seemed untrustworthy; as a result, people almost literally didn’t know what to think. If you can’t trust Aristotle, who can you trust?

I find this same thing is happening with columnist and journalism.  Poor articles just get overlooked or debunked in comments.  The threshhold for well researched facts is higher as the audience is double-checking you every step of the way.  What happened with Aristotle is happenign today with every sports, politcal, and news writer in the world.

During the wrenching transition to print, experiments were only revealed in retrospect to be turning points. Aldus Manutius, the Venetian printer and publisher, invented the smaller octavo volume along with italic type. What seemed like a minor change — take a book and shrink it — was in retrospect a key innovation in the democratization of the printed word. As books became cheaper, more portable, and therefore more desirable, they expanded the market for all publishers, heightening the value of literacy still further.

Sound familiar to anyone? Can you say BLOG or TWITTER – such a simple concept.  Take publishing an article on a web page and shrink it to a blog or 140 characters.  What seems like a minor change has some profound responses.

That is what real revolutions are like. The old stuff gets broken faster than the new stuff is put in its place. The importance of any given experiment isn’t apparent at the moment it appears; big changes stall, small changes spread. Even the revolutionaries can’t predict what will happen.

Old stuff is indeed getting broken. Newspapers are gone or going fast.  Magazines are next.  Paper is being replaced by netbooks, iPhones and Kindles.  These devices are embracing different technologies and shorter-form content.  This is the real revolution that’s happening in front our face.  That Time Magazine you have in your mailbox will be a story you tell your grandkids about, “hey kids, get this, i used to walk to the mailbox and pick up a ‘magazine’ that had stories in it written down, printed once a week and sent to me.” and they will look at you the same way i look at my grandparents when they talk about a world with radio programs only and no TV.   Our new world has more content, better content, that is more easily shared and discussed – and it’s a beautiful thing.

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4 Reasons Twitter Makes My Life Better

Image representing Twitter as depicted in Crun...
Image via CrunchBase

There’s an article i read today (thanks to Lizard) about how Twitter can you a better and happier person.  The reasons listed in the article are:

  1. Transparency & Values: Twitter constantly reminds me of who I want to be, and what I want to stand for
  2. Reframing Reality: Twitter encourages me to search for ways to view reality in a funnier and/or more positive way
  3. Helping Others: Twitter makes me think about how to make a positive impact on other people’s lives
  4. Gratitude: Twitter helps me notice and appreciate the little things in life

I find all of these true.  Sometimes i want to post a tweet about my life and i have to reflect about what i’m really doing and how it’s interesting to others.  It often makes me adjust what i’m actually doing – and if i don’t do that then it makes me realize how i’m actually living my life.  In that respect, it’s quite helpful.

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Fred Wilson's Take on Twitter

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There’s a good video by Fred Wilson about Twitter and what he, as an investor in it, thinks about it.  What he boils it down to is three points:

  1. “the single most important is that twitter from day 1 is a platform that others can build upon”
  2. “it is very one-dimensional…it doesn’t do anything that is not in the timeline….It’s power comes from that – it’s straightforward”
  3. “Twitter is the news feed for the web” as people embed links in their tweets and it’s now an alerting system

What else is interesting is that Twitter wasn’t pitched to Fred but rather he was an early user of it and he pitched to them to try to get them to take money from Union Square Ventures.  This is why i think Fred is one of the best VC’s in the business because he uses the products.  The web is all about product.  It’s not like the industrial revolution, it is a consumer facing which means that the usability is extremely important.  He is an early adopter and gets into the weeds. I have a hard time imagining other VC’s using Twitter when it was still a part of Odeo.


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Thoughts on URL shorteners

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This week there was lots of buzz around Bit.ly, a URL shortener company from Beatworks that raised 2 million dollars.  Betaworks is an incubator started by John Borthwick who i had the priveldge of working with at AOL.   Bit.ly is pretty sweet. Check out the things it can do for you:

  • It uses a cookie to remember the last 15 links you’ve shortened and displays that history on the home page when you visit
  • It allows you to set up a custom URL ending for your link.
  • It automatically creates 3 thumbnails for every page you save a link to.
  • It saves a cached copy forever of every page you shorten a link to, on Amazon‘s S3 storage (processing is done on EC2, as well, so uptime looks good).
  • It tracks click-through numbers and referrers so you can see what kind of traffic your shortcut got and from where.
  • There’s a simple API for adding Bit.ly functionality to any other web app
  • It uses Reuter’s Calais to determine the general category and specific subjects of all the pages its users create shortcuts to.
  • All the data, including traffic data and thumbnails, is easily accessible by XML and JSON feeds.

That’s pretty slick indeed.  I think it’s interesting to see that investors see a service that helps developers and others garner more value from the web as a legitmate business. I’m presonally not sure where the business is in there.

An interesting post i read related to this is Delicious Joshua Schachter’s blog post about URL shorteners.  As he states, there are 3 people involved in shortening: (1) the site the link refers to, (2) the site/service  – the transit – containing the shortened URL, and (3) the user clicking on the shortened URL.  In his view, ALL are harmed from this service.  As he states:

The transit’s main problem with these systems is that a link that used to be transparent is now opaque and requires a lookup operation. From my past experience with Delicious, I know that a huge proportion of shortened links are just a disguise for spam, so examining the expanded URL is a necessary step. The transit has to hit every shortened link to get at the underlying link and hope that it doesn’t get throttled. It also has to log and store every redirect it ever sees.

The site where the link points to has milder problems. It’s possible that the redirection steps steals search juice. It certainly makes it harder to track down links to the published site if the publisher ever needs to reach their authors. And the publisher may lose information about the source of its traffic.

But the biggest burden falls on the clicker, the person who follows the links. The extra layer of indirection slows down browsing with additional DNS lookups and server hits. A new and potentially unreliable middleman now sits between the link and its destination. And the long-term archivability of the hyperlink now depends on the health of a third party. The shortener may decide a link is a Terms Of Service violation and delete it. If the shortener accidentally erases a database, forgets to renew its domain, or just disappears, the link will break. If a top-level domain changes its policy on commercial use, the link will break. If the shortener gets hacked, every link becomes a potential phishing attack.

Those all sound hairy, although it seems that Bit.ly has taken care of the some of the problems of the site disappearing by caching the page.  Even still, is the additional metrics provided by Bit.ly worth the loss of SEO juice?  It will be interesting to see how services like this begin to change the linking landscape and whether their services of providing accurate gauges of what’s “hot” are useful

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Twitter Thoughts – More like MySpace than Facebook

I spent a lot of time this weekend explaining Twitter to people.  People want to know not just what it is but why they should use it.  It’s confusing for people who have never tried it.  It’s so simple yet so confounding.  This chart explains the early stages well: twitter3

One thing i’ve noticed in my explanations is that Twitter is much more like MySpace than Facebook.  I also heard the term “egocasting” for the first time.  It makes sense. Both Facebook and MySpace are social networks but if you look at their architecture, you’ll see that Twitter is more like MySpace in that all profiles are public by default and it’s a place for sharing.

Let me explain more.  one of the strangest things i noticed during SXSW last week was that during panels, whenever someone asked a question, they came up to the microphone and (a) stated their name, (b) said their twitter handle, (c) asked their question.  Everyone did that.  It was amazing.  People at SXSW are entrepreneurs but more than promoting their company, they are there to promote themselves.  People are brands now more than ever and promoting yourself and your brand is more important now more than ever. Twitter lets you do that better than any other social tool.  Just like MySpace allowed bands to simply say, “hey go to www.myspace.com/pinkfloyd” users can say, “hey just go to twitter.com/pescatello to find out about me.”  It’s public, it’s just a URL and it will provide all the info you need to get to know someone.

Whether it’s good or bad that the popular tools of society are built to broadcast yourself out to the world is a good question.  Regardless of the answer, the fact is that Twitter is here and embraced and only go to grow in strength and adoption.  There’s a whole other post on why Twitter caught on. I do think it’s a good tool for our time and it combination of “egocasting,” easy mobile usage, and a great API have helped. I’d love to hear more about what you think. Please comment below


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Real-Time Search

I got quite inspired when reading this post by John Borthwick.  First of all, the YouTube data really surprised me in that YouTube is now the 2nd largest search site online, bigger than Yahoo! at over 3 billion searches a month.

Second and more importantly, i started thinking about real-time search.  Finding out what is happening right now on the web is really cool and going to becoming increasingly important and interesting.  As real-time events happen such as earthquakes, sporting events, meetups, etc. we’ll want to search the web and find out what people are thinking.  This is a fascinating new arena that comes with real-time messaging.  We’ve always has AIM and Facebook‘s status messages, but we’ve never had a way to search through them and get a snapshot of what’s happening.  Until now.  Go to Twitter’s search at http://search.twitter.com and type in something and you’ll immediately see what people are thinking and doing on the web.  It’s incredible


I’m still getting my head around what this means and how it’ll play out but i have to imagine that real time information will be quite valuable.

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Recording Life

I just read a great article by Clive Thompson called “Head for Detail” about Gordon Bell‘s latest experieement.  Please just read the first 2 paragraphs.  It’s about Gordon and how he is recording everything he’s doing (video, audio, emails, web, everything).  He’s been doing it for the past 14 years and is able to bring up almost eveyrthing.  Clive writes about Bell, saying:

He[Bell] had a tiny bug-eyed camera around his neck, and a small audio recorder at his elbow. As we chatted about various topics–Australian jazz musicians, his futuristic cell phone, the Seattle area’s gorgeous weather–Bell’s gear quietly logged my every gesture and all my blathering small talk, snapping a picture every 60 seconds. Back at his office, his computer had carefully archived every document related to me: all the email I’d sent him, copies of my articles he’d read, pages he’d surfed on my blog.

This really resonated with me as i am already trying to record my life. I have photos up on Flickr, i have my ideas going to my blog, i have my mundane thoughts going to Twitter, my videos going to YouTube, and my friend interactions recorded on Facebook.  I’m already on the web but just in the totality that Bell is.  Storage is getting cheaper and cheaper it’s gone from $233,000 for a gigabyte in 1980 to less than $1 today.  Soon there will be enough storage in your cell phone for your entire life to be stored.  I do this because i want to remember. I want my memories to be accesible all the time and reading the article made me realize how inefficent i’ve been in capturing them.

I really like articles like this becaues they make you think about where the world is going and wonder how human interactions and functions will change.  It touches on how humans will change when we no longer have to remember stuff.  I already don’t remember phone numbers beceuase of your cell phone. What if you don’t have to remember people’s names and interactions and you free you mind to be more creative.  Just imagine – that’s what i’m doing now….

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Twitter thoughts

I read this article by Tim O’Reilly called “Why I Love Twitter” and it has some good points. Specifically:

  1. “Following” instead of “Friending” – in my opinion, only true/proper social networks that are primarily about social interactions (like Facebook or MySpace) should use 2-way friending.  The rest should allow for 1-way following.
  2. “Ambient intimacy” is about deepening people relationships via short messages and thoughts.  Similar to how you get to know someone who’s desk is right next to yours because of offhand comments, you can do the same via twitter
  3. Cooperating with others – Twitter allows others, even competitors, to utiilze them.  And it seems to only strengthen twitter.
  4. A true mobile app – for me this is the first mobile application that works better on mobile than the web.  It has truly changed how i think about working on a mobile device

Twitter is an interesting beast because it’s still niche but gaining steam.  People also love to bitch about how it doesn’t have a business model.  This is true, it doesn’t but neither did email for a long time and now it’s one of the biggest driver of pageviews and engagement on the web.

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