Category Archives: Essays

Why the Web Still Matters for Writing

I wanted to share unique perspective for why the web matters in an app world with a guest post from Stratechery writer Ben Thompson:

This week Twitter was abuzz with the most recent report from Flurry that showed people spending most of their time on mobile using apps, not the browser:

Time Spent in APps

Many were quick to once again declare “The Web is Dead,” but I’m not sure that conclusion makes sense, at least for writing.

First off, Flurry’s numbers don’t account for webviews within mobile apps. On my site, Stratechery, 37% of my iOS traffic comes from webviews (Android doesn’t break out the difference), which on Flurry’s chart would fall mostly in the Twitter slice. More mass market sites likely take up some percentage of Facebook time, as well.

That said, it’s striking how little written content appears on Flurry’s chart; the only category that is primarily about written content is news, and even that includes video. And yet, pageviews on WordPress.com and Jetpack are up 27% year-over-year, new sites ranging from small blogs like Stratechery to huge sites like FiveThirtyEight continue to launch and grow, and multiple startups (and competitors!) continue to find writing something worth investing in.

So is the web dead or not?

I don’t think so, for a few reasons:

  • The total amount of time spent on a computing device (especially mobile), has and continues to grow significantly. This means that many of the activities on our phones, app or not, are additive to what we previously used a computer for. This makes sense: what makes mobile such a big deal is that instead of a computer being a destination device, it’s now a companion that goes with us everywhere. This is how you square the fact that apps seem to dominate usage even as writing on the web continues to grow. When the entire pie is huge and getting bigger, the total size of any particular slice grows as well, even if it becomes relatively thinner.
  • Although apps take up a huge percentage of total time, a significant percentage of app time is dominated by just two categories: games (32%) and social networks and messaging (28%). In fact, the more interesting juxtaposition raised by Flurry’s numbers is not apps versus web, but games and social versus everything else.YouTube and other entertainment apps form a solid percentage of what is left (8%), but the remainder is a mishmash of utilities, productivity, the aforementioned news, and, of course the web, which could be anything and everything.
  • The single most exciting development when it comes to writing on the web is the democratization of publishing. It it now trivial to start a blog, whether on WordPress.com or another provider, and that has led to an explosion of content. As I wrote on Stratechery in FiveThirtyEight and the End of Average:

    Most of what I read is the best there is to read on any given subject. The trash is few and far between, and the average equally rare. This, of course, is made possible by the Internet. No longer are my reading choices constrained by time and especially place.

    Why should I pick up the Wisconsin State Journal – or the Taipei Times – when I can read Nate Silver, Ezra Klein, Bill Simmons, and the myriad other links served up by Twitter? I, and everyone else interested in news, politics, or sports, can read the best with less effort – and cost – than it ever took to read the merely average just a few short years ago.

    While there is still a lot of work to be done on discovery (I mostly use Twitter, but admit the learning curve is steep), I already find the idea of being constrained to any one channel for reading to be laughably old-fashioned. And yet, that’s exactly what an app is: a single channel for one publisher’s content. Contrast this to the web, where any given piece is available instantly by simply clicking a link.

There is no question that apps are here to stay, and are a superior interaction model for some uses. But the web is like water: it fills in all the gaps between things like gaming and social with exactly what any one particular user wants. And while we all might have a use for Facebook – simply because everyone is there – we all have different things that interest us when it comes to reading.

That’s why very few of us devote all of our reading time to a single general interest newspaper these days, and that’s why we at WordPress.com have no intention of pushing anyone to any one particular platform or app. Instead our focus is on enabling and empowering individuals to create new content that is at home in the mobile browser, the WordPress.com app, Facebook or Twitter webviews, or any other channel that makes sense for the reader. Let the water flow to exactly where it’s needed! That’s the power of the web, and now that a computer is with us in so many more places, we need that flexibility more than ever.

You can read more of Ben Thompson’s writing on his excellent WordPress-powered blog Stratechery, one of my favorite sources for the “why” behind the news.

See also: John Gruber on Rethinking What We Mean by ‘Mobile Web.’

WhatsApp Takeaway

whatsappFor better or worse, a great deal of investment in technology is driven by pattern matching. In that world any company (including Automattic) that generally eschews hype, is largely subscription driven, and has a small number of employees relative to its audience should be thrilled at the 19 billion dollar acquisition of WhatsApp. The deal is incredible.

This has kicked off another round of pattern matching and halo effects, which are currently incredibly favorable but will evolve over the coming years based on how things go post-integration, just like the public perceptions of Geocities, Youtube, Doubleclick, Bebo, and Skype wildly shifted based largely on the press coverage over their latest traded value.

I’m thrilled with the outcome for WhatsApp and the manner in which they built their company, their product, and I hope they bring more of that thinking to Facebook, but I don’t think they should become a playbook any more than Instagram should inspire a no-revenue playbook. The pattern we should take away from this story is that there is no pattern. (In Perl, “there’s more than one way to do it” or Tim Toady.) As an entrepreneur making decisions for your company, always go back to your first principles of what’s important to you and why you started in the first place. As a journalist, try not to fit everyone into arcs you’ve seen before or ascribe value to previous coverage (or lack of coverage). As an investor try to evaluate every situation on its unique merits. Should founders be CEOs or not? Well, it depends on the founders, the company, and what it means to be CEO, not what an over-normalized sample of a few hundred companies did before in completely different contexts.

There are also products that succeed with design that seems childish or terrible on the surface (Myspace, eBay, Snapchat). A lot of what it comes down to is have you made something people want, and are they finding out about it from their friends. That’s often the realm people think of as marketing. The best marketers in the world don’t fit our preconceptions of what that word means because they’re in hoodies instead of suits and create environments and ecosystems rather than the traditional trappings of marketing.

Update: From @dsa, here’s a great follow-up read on Techcrunch: What Games Are: Flappy Bird, Patterns, And Context.

The Four Freedoms

Eleven months before the U.S. declared war on Japan, President Franklin D. Roosevelt said “As men do not live by bread alone, they do not fight by armaments alone.” He articulated four fundamental freedoms that everyone in the world ought to enjoy:

  1. Freedom of speech.
  2. Freedom of worship.
  3. Freedom from want.
  4. Freedom from fear.

Fast forward 72 years: technology has advanced at dizzying rates and permeated every aspect of our lives, from how we are born to how we die and everything in between. In this co-evolution of society and technology, what it means to be truly “free” is no longer about just the country we live in, or even its laws, but is shaped by the products we live on.

As Marc Andreessen says, software is eating the world. It’s a creative gale of destruction that irreversibly changes every industry it touches, and if you don’t control the software, the software controls you. It mediates how and with whom you communicate, what news you see, and what other software you’re able to run. It influences the very way your brain works, as you process the creative gale of distraction that interrupts us all hundreds of times each day. With every ping, software burrows deeper into our lives.

In the early nineties, a prescient hacker named Richard Stallman — working at MIT, where today’s future had already happened — recognized this shift. He proposed a set of four freedoms that were fundamental for software in an enlightened, tech-dependent society.

  1. The freedom to run the program, for any purpose.
  2. The freedom to study how the program works, and change it so it does your computing as you wish.
  3. The freedom to redistribute copies so you can help your neighbor.
  4. The freedom to distribute copies of your modified versions, giving the community a chance to benefit from your changes.

(Aside: I originally thought Stallman started counting with zero instead of one because he’s a geek. He is, but that wasn’t the reason. Freedoms one, two, and three came first, but later he wanted to add something to supercede all of them. So: freedom zero. The geekness is a happy accident.)

This is our Bill of Rights. Stallman called it Free Software. The “free” doesn’t have to do with price, as you’re still free to charge for your software, but with freedom to create. Or as we geeks often say: not free as in beer, free as in speech.

People are scared of free software, and I understand why. You’re taking the most valuable thing you have, your intellectual property, and granting the freedom you enjoy as a creator to anyone who downloads your work. It’s terrifying, actually. It’s releasing your ideas, and letting anyone build on them — in a way that might be better than your own work. It’s releasing your traditional understanding of ownership, and your fear of being out-developed.

The most experienced entrepreneurs can cling to the concept that your idea is something precious that must be protected from the world, and meted out in a controlled way. Lots of us hang on to the assumption that scarcity creates a proprietary advantage. It’s how many non-tech markets work.

Open source abdicates your flexibility as a developer to better serve the people who actually use your products. You can see that as a constraint… or you can see it as a door to iteration, innovation, and constant progress.

I’ve spent a third of my life building software based on Stallman’s four freedoms, and I’ve been astonished by the results. WordPress wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for those freedoms, and it couldn’t have evolved the way it has.

WordPress was based on a program called B2/cafelog that predated it by two years. I was using B2 because it had freedoms 0 and 1: I could use it for whatever I wanted, including my zero-budget personal blog, and the source code was open. It was elegant and easy to understand, and anyone could tweak it.

B2 was ultimately abandoned by its creator. If I’d been using it under a proprietary license, that would have been the end — for me, and all its other users. But because we had freedoms 2 and 3, Mike Little and I were able to use the software as a foundation, giving us a two-year headstart over building something from scratch, and realize our own vision of what blogging could be.

We were just consumers of the software, volunteers in the forums, and occasional contributors to the codebase, but because (of the GPL) we had the freedom to build on B2, we were able to continue development as if it had been our own creation.

Ten years later, those freedoms are still embedded in every copy of WordPress downloaded, including the 9.2 million downloaded in the past month or so since our 3.8 release.

I believe that software, and in fact entire companies, should be run in a way that assumes that the sum of the talent of people outside your walls is greater than the sum of the few you have inside. None of us are as smart as all of us. Given the right environment — one that leverages the marginal cost of distributing software and ideas — independent actors can work toward something that benefits them, while also increasing the capability of the entire community.

This is where open source gets really interesting: it’s not just about the legal wonkery around software licensing, but what effect open sourced software has on people using it. In the proprietary world, those people are typically called “users,” a strange term that connotes dependence and addiction. In the open source world, they’re more rightly called a community.

The core features of WordPress aren’t rocket surgery. A handful of smart people in a room for a year could create a reasonable approximation of the software, and undoubtably improve some things — I see other startups do this three or four times a year.

What they miss is that WordPress isn’t a checklist of features. It’s over 29,000 plugins created by the community, from the in-demand things like SEO to niche features like using your 404 page to help adopt homeless dogs in Sweden. Every WordPress site looks different, because of the thousands of themes available. Instead of one event to outdo, there are more than 70 volunteer-organized WordCamps on six continents (and there’ll be more in 2014).

WordPress marketing has nothing to do with its website or logo, it’s the tens of thousands of people who make a living building WordPress sites and receive so much value from it that they proselytize to anyone that will listen, spreading the flame one site at a time. It works — as of December 2013, 21% of websites are powered by WordPress. One-fifth of the web is built with a tool that anyone can use, change, or improve, whenever and however they want (even more when you count other open source projects, like Drupal).

This approach to building isn’t an abdication of developers’ and designers’ responsibility to build beautiful, functional software. Design and forethought are more important than ever when every change sends millions of independent actors down a new path. Changes to WordPress have consequences today, tomorrow, five years, and ten years down the road, but the passion and talent of the community helps ensure that it always moves forward in a positive way.

The four freedoms don’t limit us as creators — they open possibilities for us as creators and consumers. When you apply them to software, you get Linux, Webkit/Chrome, and WordPress. When you apply them to medicine, you get the Open Genomics Engine, which is accelerating cancer research and bringing us closer to personalized treatment. When you apply them to companies, you get radically geographically distributed, results-based organizations like Automattic. When you apply them to events you get TEDx, Barcamp, and WordCamp. When you apply them to knowledge, you get Wikipedia.

William Gibson is attributed with saying “The future is already here — it’s just not very evenly distributed.” The world is changing faster than any one person or organization can keep up with it. Closed off, proprietary development creates closed off, proprietary products that won’t keep pace in the long run. Open source provides another path — one that’s open to everyone, and can take advantage of the skills and talents of anyone in the world to build software that helps everyone.

As Bill Joy said, “No matter who you are, most of the smartest people work for someone else.” Good ideas aren’t the sole province of groups of people behind high walls, and software shouldn’t be either.

This was adapted from a talk I gave at the Life is Beautiful festival in Downtown Las Vegas. Thanks to Michelle, Ben, Davide, and Paul for help with this.

Matt 3.0

As in WordPress, the X.0 release is just the one that came after (X-1).9 before it, so while it seems more significant, it’s just another iteration in the steady march of progress, a job never done. I’ve now managed to stay alive for three decades, thirty rotations around the sun, and I woke up this morning a little hungover (there’s a lot of tequila in Mexico) but with a huge grin on my face.

In many ways life accumulates complexity as you get older, but the things that are most important are simple and universal: friends and loved ones, health, and working on something you enjoy and has an impact. I’m happier and finding balance more often than at any period I can remember since I was a young child.

This was another year in motion, traveling 345,211 miles to 78 cities in 13 countries. I’m still really enjoying being on the road, and it’s very intrinsic to how Automattic works, so I expect that to continue or even pick up pace.

Every generation feels this way, but it also genuinely seems like we’re at shift in how society works, with technology accelerating change, and navigating and more importantly creating that change is one of the most interesting challenges I can imagine working on.

Finally I’m humbled and amazed by the support for the charity: water campaign, which already is going to bring close to 2,000 people clean water.

Tomorrow I’ll wake up a little sunburnt, but hopefully with that same grin and ready to take on the years of my life that start with 3 and hopefully end with a bigger impact than my 20s had. It was a decade when I failed a lot, tried even more, and most importantly learned how to say yes and how to say no, something that gets easier as you learn about yourself.

My twenties: 19, 20, 21, 22, 23, 24, 25, 26, 27, 28, and 29.

The Intrinsic Value of Blogging

Blogging is harder than it used to be. We’ve gotten better at counting and worse at paying attention to what really counts. Every time I press Publish the post is publicized to Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Path, and Google+, each with their own mechanisms for enumerating how much people like it.

pathNone of those services except Path have a clickable way to dislike something, so if something isn’t great it’s usually met with silence. But sometimes something that is great is met with silence too if it doesn’t drop at the right time, have the right headline, or have the right tone to invite interaction. There is no predictable connection to the effort and thought you put into something and the response it receives, and every experienced blogger has a story of something they spend a few minutes on and toss out casually going viral, a one-hit wonder that makes your stats in future months and years puny in comparison.

Stats systems, like Jetpack’s, have gotten very good at telling me which post got how many visitors and where they came from, but it’s all anonymous and the numbers don’t really mean anything to me anymore. This is very discouraging, and at its most insidious causes people to deconstruct the elements of what makes something sharable and attempt to artificially construct these information carbohydrates over and over. (Visit that site and try not to click through any headlines — it’s tough.)

The antidote I’ve found for this is to write for only two people. First, write for yourself, both your present self whose thinking will be clarified by distilling an idea through writing and editing, and your future self who will be able to look back on these words and be reminded of the context in which they were written.

Second, write for a single person who you have in mind as the perfect person to read what you write, almost like a letter, even if they never will, or a person who you’re sure will read it because of a connection you have to them (hi Mom!). Even on my moblog I have a frequent commenter who I’ll often keep in mind when posting a photo, curious to see her reaction.

This post might be ephemerally tweeted by dozens of avatars I might or might not recognize, accumulate a number in a database that represents the “hits” it had, and if I’m lucky might even get some comments, but when I get caught up in that the randomness of what becomes popular or generates commentary and what doesn’t it invariably leads me to write less. So blog just for two people.

Brands Everywhere

louis-vuitton-monogram-canvas-dog-bag-40-brown-women-softsided-luggage While brushing my teeth this morning, which is usually when my mind wanders, I noticed that just on the counter everything I was looking at had a brand or logo of some sort on it. It’s usually invisible to me but once I noticed it became garish as Times Square.

I counted 11 brands on the counter at that exact moment: Dr. Hauschka, Orabrush, Common Good (soap), Kohler (sink), Bongio (faucet), Philips (toothbrush), Rembrandt, Royal Velvet (toothpaste), Sonos, Neorest (toilet), and Tom’s of Maine (mouthwash). My iPhone was on the counter but the Apple was covered in a WordPress iPhone case, I guess a 12th brand, but the only one I chose to be there.

None of these labels are easy to remove either — the Common Good, a liquid soap dispenser, looked like it was going to be easy but as it started to peel off lots of sticky residue was left behind. I’ll try soaking it later. For most of the others, including the sink and faucet, the brand was embedded in a way that would be impossible to remove without switching the contents to a different container (toothpaste, mouthwash, or moisturizer) or sanding something off (toothbrush, Sonos…).

Earlier this year I attended Burning Man for the first time, and one of the things you notice after a day there is the complete absence of brands — it’s considered gauche to have visible branding there, some people even cover up small logos (Patagonia, the Polo horse) on their clothes. As much as the rest of the experience was bizarre, living a few days in the absence of brands and advertising makes it as alien as anything else.

I don’t think you can call it a trend, but it is interesting that brands like Muji or high-end fashion like Bottega Veneta distinguish themselves as much by the absence of branding as their product quality, the visual antithesis of Louis Vuitton luggage. It’s like the first level of affluence is about broadcast, and then the ultimate level is about (apparent) minimalism.

But for regular, everyday goods, how can we get all of the advertising off them? I don’t need my sink telling me who made it. If there’s a brand around me, I want it to be one I choose. I think this is one reason people appreciate the ability to 100% customize WordPress, and counter-intuitively why most choose to leave the “Powered by” somewhere on the site, because they have the choice.

Take a look around you, how many visible brands or logos can you count?

Update: Om writes on An Unbranded Life.

Fifth Estate

Here’s the post I wrote on a dinner I attended while at Davos for their forum blog: Online we can act as a fifth estate.

The common thread that kept coming up at a dinner, and discussions centred around the idea of “online power”, was equality of access. Before the widespread rise of the Internet and easy publishing tools, influence was largely in the hands of those who could reach the widest audience, the people with printing presses or access to a wide audience on television or radio, all one-way mediums that concentrated power in the hands of the few.

Now an audience of more than 1 billion people is only a click away from every voice online, and remarkable stories and content can gain flash audiences as people share via social networks, blogs and e-mail. This radically equalizes the power relationship between, say, a blogger, and a multibillion dollar corporation.

I heard stories of companies such as Dell shifting the direction of their products in response to online outcry started by a single blog post, authors who have millions of followers on Twitter and Facebook and able to speak to their audiences directly for the first time, a Twitter hashtag (#f***washington) becoming a rallying cry for hundreds of thousands of frustrated citizens, and how a blackout of Wikipedia to protest proposed SOPA/PIPA legislation overloaded phone systems in Congress. I shared how a community of volunteers around the world collaborated on Open Source software (WordPress) that eventually overtook all its proprietary competitors.

All of these stories shared a David and Goliath character – a seemingly unmovable force swayed by a single voice that quickly multiplies online, but they also gave me pause. We spoke about this multiplying of online voices being used for things we’d all generally agree were “good”, but that was probably largely a function of the people sharing the stories and our similar world views. You could easily imagine a viral story spreading online with malicious intent, and just as many if not more examples of untrue rumours spreading at the speed of Twitter. One table shared a fictional account of a world where online voting was ubiquitous in a country, but it had the unintended side-effect of making voter coercion easier because you could see how someone voted.

There is no moderator or ombudsman online, and while the transparency of the web usually means that information is self-correcting, we still have to keep in mind the responsibility each of us carries when the power of the press is at our fingertips and in our pockets.

I am an optimist, and I believe that people are inherently good and that if you give everyone a voice and freedom of expression, the truth and the good will outweigh the bad. So, on the whole, I think the power that online distribution confers is a positive thing for society. Online we can act as a fifth estate.

I had a really wonderful time at the Forum, it was a really unique experience.