Category Archives: Essays

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.

Culture of Distraction

From the Hacker News discussion of my Silicon-Valley-is-destroying-the-world remark I came across a Joe Kraus talk on We’re Creating a Culture of Distraction. (I’m a huge fan of Joe and excited to see he’s on WordPress now.)

It’s also important to read Paul Graham’s Acceleration of Addictiveness where he compares addictive technology to alcohol and cigarettes, society developed “antibodies” to the danger of cigarettes, but it took about a hundred years, and technology is changing much faster than that now.

The most prescient here is Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death, originally published in 1985. It’s long, but I’m going to quote the foreword in its entirety because it’s worth reading a few times over:

We were keeping our eye on 1984. When the year came and the prophecy didn’t, thoughtful Americans sang softly in praise of themselves. The roots of liberal democracy had held. Wherever else the terror had happened, we, at least, had not been visited by Orwellian nightmares.

But we had forgotten that alongside Orwell’s dark vision, there was another – slightly older, slightly less well known, equally chilling: Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. Contrary to common belief even among the educated, Huxley and Orwell did not prophesy the same thing. Orwell warns that we will be overcome by an externally imposed oppression. But in Huxley’s vision, no Big Brother is required to deprive people of their autonomy, maturity and history. As he saw it, people will come to love their oppression, to adore the technologies that undo their capacities to think.

What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one. Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance. Orwell feared we would become a captive culture. Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture, preoccupied with some equivalent of the feelies, the orgy porgy, and the centrifugal bumblepuppy. As Huxley remarked in Brave New World Revisited, the civil libertarians and rationalists who are ever on the alert to oppose tyranny “failed to take into account man’s almost infinite appetite for distractions”. In 1984, Huxley added, people are controlled by inflicting pain. In Brave New World, they are controlled by inflicting pleasure. In short, Orwell feared that what we hate will ruin us. Huxley feared that what we love will ruin us.

This book is about the possibility that Huxley, not Orwell, was right.

Oh, and we just launched new comment push notifications for iPhone and iPad. It’s one of those days. 😉

On the Evolution of Investing

Today Y Combinator announced they are adding two new partners, Garry Tan and Aaron Iba. This announcement is unique because it does not list their academic credentials, their previous investments, the boards of companies or non-profits they have sat on, how many years of experience they have, or any of the usual badges of honor investors parade in their biographies and Crunchbase profiles.

Instead we get accolades of “rare individuals who can both design and program” and “best hackers among the YC alumni.” Take note of this moment.

I was part of a dinner conversation the other night that included institutional and angel investors, entrepreneurs, and someone who was part of the YC program. The group circled with alarming intent on grilling the YC entrepreneur: “How much time did you actually get with PG?” “It’s a cult of personality.” “The average quality of the companies has really dropped as they’ve broadened.” “I can’t wait for this bubble to pop.” I believe it was mostly in jest — few topics were spared that night — but there was some truth in the defensive undertone.

The hackers and engineers of Y Combinator are doing what hackers and engineers do to any industry, they’re efficiently and ruthlessly disrupting the traditional model of venture capital and are going to destroy far more more wealth for their contemporaries than they create for themselves, as broadband did to entertainment, Craigslist did to newspapers, and Amazon did to traditional retailers. This is what outsiders, by definition, do.

The dark humor in this is that the same people who delight and celebrate investing in disrupting other industries are blind or in denial about it happening to their own.

The question then becomes if you’re an investor with a traditional LP model (and expectations), or a more financial background than an operational one, or an operational background more in management than in design or coding, what should you do to stay relevant through this shift?

What’s Next for Apple

I have no inside information or insight, but historically Apple’s product improvements have strongly broadcasted where they’re going in the future. Here are six things I think are inevitable for Apple to do over the next decade, from most to least obvious: maps, iCloud, payments, TVs, search, and cars.

1. Maps

When the iPhone was first released Steve Jobs called Maps on iPhone the best version of Google Maps on the planet, with emphasis on what Apple’s designers had brought to Google’s raw technology (can’t find that link). Four years later, you can’t imagine such a core piece of the mobile experience reliant on their largest competitor. Hopefully this will also give Apple a chance to fill usability gaps in the maps experience today, like that you can’t click from the “where” field in a calendar appointment straight to maps. (Drives me crazy.) Note that the only “Google” branding in maps today is in the bottom left, they know they’re getting replaced and have done an admirable job on the Safari version of maps on iPhone and iPad.

Google Maps + Navigation on Android is my favorite mobile app of the past 3 years (haven’t used Siri yet) — it’s what Garmin should have built $8 billion in revenue and R&D ago. (Remember the Garmin Nüvifone?) Apple was smart to partner in the beginning, but they can, and should, raise the bar.

2. iCloud

The abstraction of documents, photos, videos, their equivalents in “bought” media (iBooks, music, movies, and TV shows from the iTunes store), the deemphasis of the filesystem with every iteration of OS X, and the rough ideas of things like MobileMe’s dock syncing, points to the combination of services that will ultimately disrupt the “magic folder” providers like Dropbox. I love Dropbox, but it’ll be impossible for them to do the deep OS integration needed to match the direction Apple is heading — never thinking about what is where, ever again, just having everything you’ve ever created or used available in the same place on all your devices.

They know this is best for consumers. My friend Rene told me how when his hard drive crashed last year he contacted Apple support and they gave him a link to re-download the past 4 years of music he’d purchased on iTunes. That’s obviously the right thing to do, even if labels have had to be dragged kicking and screaming toward it. By this time tomorrow it’ll just be part of the experience when he signs into iTunes on a new computer. Update: Apple released iTunes 10.5 a day early with this feature.

3. Payments

Your phone becomes your credit card. Apple doesn’t replace Visa or Mastercard, but they do replace all of those scammy rewards and branded cards that prey on unsophisticated consumers. Google will probably do this first, but it’ll be like Microsoft Surface, brilliant but two sandwiches short of a picnic.

4. TVs

I recently got one of the new Thunderbolt displays and man, a super-sized version of this would be killer in my living room. (The speakers are surprisingly good.) TVs are just so bad, not so much in the hardware which can be beautiful like Samsung’s C9000 but in the mediocre software, un-features like Auto Motion (which makes beautiful films look like they were shot by a Jersey Shore cameraman with a beer in his other hand), and interfaces that just don’t do anything you would expect. Hello — you can detect when a cable is plugged in, don’t make me switch between 15 sources when only one is connected. My TV takes 5-10 seconds longer to turn on than my iPad. “Smart TVs” look like “smart phones” did in 2005 — completely lacking in imagination or joy.

But to really imagine the strategic importance of this you need to think beyond a super-sized Thunderbolt display and imagine what replaces iMac, one of Apple’s most beautiful creations. People’s need for a desktop is seriously declining for the first time since pundits started predicted the decline of the PC a decade ago. The post-PC ecosystem is in place now — touch, battery life, mobile-first applications, ubiquity of internet access, flash memory. (In Steve Jobs introduction of the first iPod, two things stand out to me: that terrible font, and the fact one of the main features is 20 minutes of skip protection.) Mobile works and is getting better, and you won’t have what we call a desktop 10 years from now.

Now imagine Apple has a shining 55″ monolith smack dab in the middle of your house. How big of a wifi antenna could they put in there? Could they crush all that lame Cisco teleconference stuff with TV FaceTime? Is there room for a few disk drives that don’t need to worry about skipping plus a SSD to make it fast? If you look at the direction Apple has been heading with Time Capsule locally caching software updates it’s not hard for something similar to work in the other direction, a digital hub that’s your media server for the house, a large-format display, a time capsule, and an Airplay target all in one. Imagine just one power cable coming out of it, and everything else wireless, just like the iMac, and a few killer apps we can’t even imagine yet.

Finally, home theatre needs disruption — this is a land of $200 Monster HDMI cables and similar gouging that functions like a state lottery, an intelligence tax. When I walk through Best Buy, which I try to do once every few months, it feels like it’s technology at its worst, the magic of progress used as smoke and mirrors to confuse and dupe consumers rather than make their lives better. The Apple TV is just another form factor for the unified experience Apple wants to create every time you touch an electronic device.

5. Search

There are hints of this in maps, but just like Craigslist is being killed not by a Craigslist-like clone but rather by a thousand highly focused replacements, so too Google will face its existential crisis not from another webpage with a centered white box, but from the interface and context of search changing completely. Many of Google’s searches aren’t that valuable, and a huge percentage of the ones that are aren’t going to happen at the desktop anymore .The context of your location (which your phone already knows) the “results page” of a fantastic map application and the input of a next-generation search interface, like Siri, completely changes the rules of engagement. Google’s not investing in mobile because they wanted a better phone.

6. Cars

This is the most far-out, but I think most certain. Voice-controlled search through Siri and Apple Maps provide the hands-free framework for a rich interactive experience while driving. Walk down the car stereo aisle in Best Buy and see what $800 gets you, or a $300 GPS from Garmin, vs an iPad or iPhone. The screens feel like a TI-92 calculator. The typography makes my eyes bleed. I find it morally reprehensible how bad these products are because it’s one of the areas of technology where a bad interface is most directly tied to injuries and deaths. Car folks are making their iPhone/iPod integrations better and better, which may be a glass of ice water in hell, but they’ll never make the jump to providing a beautiful marriage of media, search, and navigation that a great in-car experience needs. Right now you can spend 110k on a Tesla Roadster, a car of the future, and for an additional $4,500 (9 iPads!) get this Alpine head unit. (Watch that video and try not to laugh at how bad the interface is.) Retail it only sets you back 1.4 iPads. That’s just sad.

“People who are really serious about software should make their own hardware.” — Alan Kay, 1982. People who make hardware should get their software act together before Apple does for them.

Discussion on Hacker News.

Why Your Company Should Have a Creed

Does your company have a creed? Twice a year, True Ventures (one of Automattic’s investors) organizes an event called Founders’ Camp, a one-day conference for the founders and CEOs of companies in their portfolio. The latest was held in the Automattic Lounge at Pier 38 in San Francisco (it could be the last).

There was an interesting conversation led by Ethan Diamond, Alex Bard, Howard Lindzon, and Narendra Rocherolle on the importance of culture in an organization and how it gets formed. Despite its importance, “culture” is one of those fuzzy things that’s difficult for many founders, especially men, to discuss earnestly.  Even though I have extremely strong opinions about company culture, I find it feels “corny” to talk about it directly. Nevertheless, as part of the discussion, I shared the following practical example from Automattic about something we did to codify and share our values.

It started innocently enough — someone copied me when they emailed their paperwork to accept a job offer. For the first time in a while I looked at the offer letter and realized that it read like a bad generic legal template: no branding; terrible typography; the most important information (start date, salary, stock options) buried under a sea of text; and, worst of all, it was being sent out in .docx format (especially embarrassing for a company whose foundation is Open Source). The offer didn’t reflect who we were, how we worked, and certainly not how we thought about design and user experience.

Nick and MT of the Janitorial team at Automattic designed new documents and worked out a clever way to have a web form on our intranet generate the pages as HTML. It has some extra goodies like vector signatures. Anybody sending a contract or offer can create a PDF out of that web page, and email the document out to the recipient. Everything is logged and tracked. (As a bonus our legal templates for employees and contractors are now tracked in SVN along with the rest of our code.)

Finally, as a hack to introduce new folks to our culture, we put a beta “Automattic Creed”, basically a statement of things important to us, written in the first person. We put it after the legal gobbledygook and before the signature area; if you chose to accept the offer, you’d sign your name next to the values before starting work. This seemed like a powerful statement and might affect people’s perceptions in the same way that putting signatures at the top of forms increases honesty.

That was around the beginning of May last year, and everyone who has joined since then (about half the company) has gotten the creed in their offer letter. The feedback from the beta was excellent and later that same month we added the creed to the home page of our Automattic Field Guide (our internal reference site), where it still lives today with a link to a recent discussion about what the creed means in practice.

Adding the creed before the signature block ended up being an easy change that had a big impact on the company.

A fair number of founders at the event have asked what the creed is. If you’re curious here it is (as of September 19th, 2011):

I will never stop learning. I won’t just work on things that are assigned to me. I know there’s no such thing as a status quo. I will build our business sustainably through passionate and loyal customers. I will never pass up an opportunity to help out a colleague, and I’ll remember the days before I knew everything. I am more motivated by impact than money, and I know that Open Source is one of the most powerful ideas of our generation. I will communicate as much as possible, because it’s the oxygen of a distributed company. I am in a marathon, not a sprint, and no matter how far away the goal is, the only way to get there is by putting one foot in front of another every day. Given time, there is no problem that’s insurmountable.

I’m sure that it will evolve in the future, just as Automattic and WordPress will. If you’re building a startup or any sort of organization, take a few moments to reflect on the qualities that the people you most enjoy working with embody and the user experience of new people joining your organization, from the offer letter to their first day.

Of course if you’d like to see the above in an offer letter, consider applying for Automattic.

If you write a creed for your company or non-profit after reading this, please leave it in the comments!