Dinner Time Lectures and the NSA

For the past couple of years I’ve delivered what seems the same lecture roughly every fortnight to my kids:

Privacy on the Internet is an illusion. Don’t ever post or sharing anything anywhere you don’t want 1000s, or 1,000,000s of people to read or know. When you’re on the Internet, act like you would if you were in a crowded public place.

I wasn’t warning about this them out of concern some all-seeing all-knowing government program. Instead, my concern for them was about more real, tangible, and nefarious snooping — by big companies who are in business to get us to share more in order to sell that data. Gail Collins perfectly nails it with this line in her column today:

The other side is worried about privacy, but the public is resigned to the idea that some Big Brother is monitoring their communications. After all, we live in a world where you can e-mail your husband about buying new kitchen curtains and then magically receive an online ad from a drapery company.

Of course, the drapery company ad makes it all seem so benign. But imagine you tell a friend you’ve got cancer via gmail. An ad is displayed because the advertiser bought the keyword cancer, and it catches your attention. You click on the ad,  and the company that bought the ad now knows your IP address. If they have a lot of data and are clever, they may be able to triangulate and figure out pretty precisely who you are. Somewhere, in some database owned by some company, the keyword “cancer” gets put next to your name, your IP address, and any other data they might have (your LinkedIn profile, your Facebook page, your home address, your detailed travel patterns). Who knows where it ends up.

So all you people shouting from the rooftops now about the NSA — where were you over the last decade as people were seduced into uploading their most intimate details in the relentless pursuit of profit? Or looked the other way when Google started putting ads next to our private communications?

Plus: all that sits between you and the information you send over “apparently” private networks or services is a sloppy or disgruntled employee, or a smart hacker. Spend time with any developer who knows the dark corners of the Internet and you’ll discover that vast swaths of private data are available for purchase, trade, barter. Your life is already for sale, potentially to people with far more disturbing and nefarious motives than our government. Let Mat Honan introduce you to Cosmo the God to give you a flavor.

Which leads me to the NSA and what they’re doing.

For the last 48 hours, my Twitter feed has been in full-on mob mode. Now, I may eventually join the mob. But for now I’m withholding judgment. I want to to know more, learn more. It feels like we’re at the beginning of this story, not the end. And all credit to  Glenn Greenwald for that — he’s done what real journalists do, and that’s going to force us to have a real discussion. And my bet is that Obama will engage; these kinds of debates play perfectly into his cool, hyper-rational approach.

But I’m not entirely sure that debate will play out the way we expect.

Because there are hard questions and tough facts and huge tradeoffs involved here. Try, if you can, to put yourself in the shoes of someone who works at the NSA, or FBI, or the White House. Your charged with protecting people, and there is a worst-case scenario that haunts you every day. The Black Swan event. I’m not talking about garden variety terrorism — underwear bombers, pressure-cooker or pipe-bomb makers, or even plane-hijackers. But instead, some massively devastating event like a nuclear explosion or deployment of a biological weapon or agent. Something so horrible and awful and at such a scale that we can’t possibly imagine it. What do you do?

Now, at this juncture, I know what’s coming — “Oh, sure, there you go terror monger. Just go yell ‘terrorism’ to justify the spying, like Bush and Cheney. Nazi.” And it’s true that one of the most horrible legacies of the Bush administration is the legitimacy of this reaction —  they lied about Iraq having nuclear weapons, and used that lie to get us into a war we shouldn’t have entered. They used scare tactics to justify erecting a monstrous national security state that we have to continue to live with.

But before the Bush administration, the thing that scared the hell out of people in the Clinton administration and the Congress was this possibility of someone getting a “loose nuke” or biological weaponry and using it to devastating effect. Real adults had these very real worries long before 9-11. Serious investigative journalists wrote serious pieces about just this kind of threat, and how, as a country, we were asleep at the switch and not very alive to the threat. Take just take a second to imagine a nuclear device going off in New York City. Are we willing to accept some level of risk of that happening? Or, is the potential devastation of such an event so off-the-chart we should tolerate no risk at all?

Some people may say the risks of this happening are extremely low. The threat is wildly overblown. And that should be part of the debate for sure. For those of you who argue this, I’d like to introduce you to Pakistan, an incredibly unstable country and proud owner of at least 100 nuclear warheads.

But, I hope analysis of the threat is a big part of the debate we’ll have. And that we talk about our options, including how we can or should use the NSA, and what constraints should be put on those efforts so that they’re not misused or abused.

Until all the facts are in, and until we have that debate, I’ll watch Twitter roar but I’m going to withhold final judgment. In the meantime, maybe we should direct some of our energy and focus towards Google, Facebook, Apple, Microsoft and Yahoo and how they use our data for purely commercial purposes. I suspect that might turn out to be far more frightening.


It Ain’t Always a Problem You’re Solving

Twice this week I’ve seen posts advising entrepreneurs to “be very clear about what the problem is that you’re trying to solve.”

And yet, that framework often simply does not apply. What problem did Twitter solve? What about Instagram? Or YouTube? Or Facebook?

More broadly, what problem does TV solve? Or radio? Or the movies?

Things that entertain us, or allow us to communicate in novel ways, or that give us new forms of self-expression don’t really solve problems. They satisfy needs.

Building something that satisfies a need is quite different from making something that solves a problem. If you’re an entrepreneur, it’ll help if you know which of these things you’re trying to do.

Digital Media, Internet, Social Networks

This Explains Everything


Stephen Wolfram unleashed a motherlode of data in a post yesterday: Data Science of the Facebook World. If you’re in the social media business don’t just read it, study it; there are some incredible insights here and helpful visualizations of the data.

I particularly like the chart above: it explains almost everything. Why photo-sharing apps and networks are so very viral. Why Facebook had to buy Instagram. Why Twitter and Pinterest (and interest-graph services) may be better long-term businesses than Facebook. Why many social networks explode then wither. Why companies that build graphs more slowly, methodically (i.e., LinkedIn) may in fact be more durable long-term.

Our online graphs and networks are most dense when we’re in our late teens and early twenties. Apps and services that tap into these particularly rich, dense networks can explode. They can also die off quickly as people get older, tastes change, or better alternatives come on the scene.

If I were a VC investing in these areas, I’d commit this chart to memory.

Internet, Media Business, Video

99 Problems, Video Discovery Ain’t One

This post is part of a conversation-by-blog with Hunter Walk about this question: “Is video discovery a scalable business?” Read Hunter’s post first.

Dear Hunter-

You had me at “video discovery.”

That may sound odd coming from me. After all our startup launched Vodpod in 2007 — “Pinterest for video” long before Pinterest ever launched! — and Showyou in 2011, and both services frequently get lumped into the “video discovery” category.

I find it hard to argue with any of your points given both personal experience with the services we’ve built and close observation of the online video world going all the way back to 1997 (I think you were in college then, right?). Pair up almost any form of media — music, video, news, blogs, events, concerts — with the word “discovery” and you’ve got trouble. For all the reasons you point out, and more.

Take “music discovery.” Remember all those “music discovery” startups? Of course not. Turns out no one wanted music discovery. We just wanted to listen to some music. We wanted a better radio. There’s a lesson in there somewhere.

I think that lesson is this: that by framing a service as “media discovery” you unwittingly adopt the framework and mentality of “utlity” services and apps: “What is the pain-point for the user?” And that framework almost never works when it comes to media. I’ve got 99 problems, “media discovery” ain’t one.

That doesn’t mean, however, that the future is dim for new video services and apps. Just the opposite, I think. As Chauncey Gardner wisely observed, we “like to watch.” We want to be entertained. And informed. And nothing is as entertaining as video. I mean, my God, did you see that Trolololo video?

Devices like the iPad (and to a lesser extent the smartphone) demand we rethink where and how we’re entertained. When we talk about tablets we talk about how they’re a replacement for PCs. But they’re also replacing televisions. They’re portable screens we can carry around the house, from a comfy chair to our beds. We use our tablets in the evenings and the weekends, sometimes alongside our TV, sometimes as a replacement for it. And when we tune in on these devices, we don’t want to snack, we want to gorge.

And while YouTube is a colossus that stands astride the web, it hasn’t cracked the code here. We ask people who have just downloaded Showyou about how they use the YouTube app. You won’t be surprised, I suspect, to learn that the main reasons they launch the YouTube app are (1) to search for a video, or (2) when they’ve tapped a link on a web page which in turn spawns the YouTube app. People generally don’t (yet) think: “Oh, it’s 9PM, I’m tuning into YouTube.”

So, I see a bigger, more expansive opportunity for startups here. A chance to build a new kind of entertainment platform for the 21st century. One that plays to the strengths of the Internet, that taps into its architecture of abundance, its use as a “communication” (i.e., social) platform, its openess; but that does so within the context of how and why we use our tablets.  That’s a huge opportunity; but it’s something very different, and more profound, than “video discovery.”

Internet, Startups

Of Mercenaries and Missionaries

Right at the end of my time at college I discovered the Mac. I remember being astounded at just how much better it was than anything else I had tried to use. I was struck by the care taken with the whole user experience. I had a sense of connection via the object with the designers. I started to learn more about the company, how it had been founded, its values and its structure. The more I learnt about this cheeky almost rebellious company the more it appealed to me, as it unapologetically pointed to an alternative in a complacent and creatively bankrupt industry. Apple stood for something and had a reason for being that wasn’t just about making money.

Jony Ive, talking about why he joined Apple

If you had to pick a company in Silicon Valley (and maybe the US) with the strongest culture, Apple would have to be at the top. Really, who is better? The loyalty of their top executives is astonishing. Jony Ive, 20 years (he joined in 1992). Eddy Cue, 23 years. Phil Schiller, 17 years at Apple all together, 15 of them in his latest run. Scott Forstall, 15 years. Tim Cook, 14 years. Bob Mansfield, 13 years.

For each of them I suspect Apple is their life’s work. Ive’s quote is telling; it succinctly sums up why people come to Apple and why they stay. I have friends who work at Apple and almost all of have said something similar to me over the years. By all accounts, it’s not an easy place to work. It is full of stress. But people go, and stay, because they feel like they’re part of a larger mission and cause. It’s why this video was so incredibly important when Steve Jobs returned in 1997.

But Apple, alas, is not the norm. A more mercenary culture is pretty pervasive in Silicon Valley, and indeed in the tech world. I saw it throughout the late 1990s, and you see it very much in evidence today. People latching on to a rising startup for a year, two, three or four; looking for riches through that IPO or the acquisition. Then ditching out and on to the next thing.It’s accepted practice among the career-minded and ambitious. But it can have a devastating effect on the startups those folks join; when times get tough, or even a little uncomfortable, the mercenaries are always the first to flee.

If I were an active investor, this would be one of the key ares where I’d focus. Is the company full of mercenaries? Or missionaries?

And as someone hiring people at a startup, it’s one of the first things I try to understand. Are you just another mercenary? Or do you want to help us change the world, through thick and (a lot of) thin?

Apple, Digital Media, Internet

Where A Photo Is Worth 10 Words

Content was never king. Contact was always king.Douglas Rushkoff (h/t @aweissman)

This line from Rushkoff has been my mantra the past few months. It’s a simple but sublime observation about the Internet, and it came to mind again today while reading about Instagram.

In case you missed it: some people are hopping mad about Instagram because it “debases photography.”

Where these critics go wrong is they think that Instagram is about photography and photo-sharing.

I’ve been on Instagram for a while, from when it launched, but it wasn’t until I saw how my 13-year-old daughter and her friends use it that I truly understood it. For them, it’s a replacement for Facebook. They share photos, but those are just points of entry, a way to a conversation. They are status updates, expressed visually.

They tart up their photos and comments using an array of 3rd party apps like Versagram, PicFrame, Emoji. It’s a ping to let your friends know you exist, and what your doing; and you hope for a “like” (a ping back) to let you know you’re not alone on the network.

Of course, this is what we’ve all been doing with Instagram. We’ve just been under the illusion we were sharing photos. Seeing the behavior of these 13-year-olds made that clear to me.

We’re not using Instagram to make art. Or to hone our craft as photographers. It ain’t Flickr.

We’re just trying to connect with our friends, to start a conversation. Instagram is really a communications platform disguised as a photo app.

This is true for almost all successful social media services. Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr — they work because they help us to communicate. What we think of as acts of self-expression are really just opening lines.

Which brings me to video, and to “social video apps.” The real way to gauge these apps, to judge them, is to ask whether they help you craft a great opening line; a way to start a conversation.

The photos you uploaded to Facebook from your birthday, the picture of the sunset with a high contrast filter you made with Instagram, that song you soundtracked, the precious cat-cuddling-with-warthog video from  YouTube you tweeted — they all might be great opening lines.

But sharing that blurry, grainy, shaky video you took with your phone where you can’t really make out what’s happening? Well, the jury is out on that. And so we have the founder of Socialcam admitting (after the sale of his app to Autodesk) “that the comparison to Instagram was a fallacy from the beginning.” The two apps launched today (Ptch and Vyclone) are exciting because it’s possible to imagine a way to craft a video using your phone that might be compelling.

But here’s the other thing — it helps if it’s easy and fast to craft that opening line. Instagram works because we can take and make a fun cool photo in a few seconds. Same with sharing a link to an article, or a song, or a video. Making a video takes so much more time and effort.

To beat this metaphor into submission, it’s hard to craft an opening line with a video you’ve taken. It’s much easier to do with a video you’ve found and loved.  Most of us are good at judging if a video is funny, interesting, beautiful, worth sharing. Few of us are good at making a video worth sharing.

Why did YouTube succeed on the web?  Because they gave us a place where we could always find something great that we could share; and they allowed us to take those videos and talk about them wherever we liked; our blogs, our Myspace pages, and more recently on Facebook and Twitter.

In this new world, where we spend more of our time on mobile and tablet devices and where apps reign supreme, we need something different. My hunch is that the social video apps that succeed will be the ones that give us those great opening lines; that make it easy for us to find videos that are cool, amusing, incredible with just a few taps or swipes.

But Instagram shows us, if nothing else, those apps will need to do one more thing; provide us a place to talk with our friends about the videos we find.

Instagram could have been a photo app, and outsourced the conversation to our existing social networks. They won in the photo space because they figured out that we all really wanted to connect and talk, and they gave us a fun and new way to do that.


Facebook, Internet

Fun with Statistics

There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics, Mark Twain or Benjamin Disraeli

You know that feeling that’s both amusing and depressing? Is there a word for it? “Demusing?”

Nothing is more demusing than reading a breathless blog post that some new app has gotten “millions of users” in a few weeks time.

This is happening with increased frequency, as more services use the “frictionless” sharing and signup tools offered by Facebook to drive what looks like spectacular growth, which really isn’t. This is not to blame Facebook for their platform; instead, I’m asserting that it’s trivially easy to twist some of the data based on their platform to mislead people; or, more commonly and more innocently, to allow people to mislead themselves using that data.

The canonical demusing blog post used to go like this: “Look at this, this app got 42 million users in 3 weeks. They’re crushing it!” You’d dig and find out that what happened is 42 million people clicked a dialog on Facebook providing authorization to an app. With blogs posts like this one, most readers and writers alike have gotten more sophisticated, and properly skeptical, of these claims.

The newer form of these bemusing posts goes like this: “I now know that what matters is engagement, not signups. But look at this app! I checked out AppData and 50% of their MAUs are DAUs. They’re crushing it!”

Not really.

You see, the way that the Facebook API works, it can appear that a service or app has a lot of daily active users. But in almost every single case where you see a breathless, too-good-to-be-true claim about users or usage, it’s a result of the quirks of how the Facebook API works. What appears to happen is this: if your app or services asks for offline permission to read your stream, or asks for permission to access your news feed, it can appear that you are “active on a daily basis” even if you haven’t touched that app for a week or a month.

For example, a service might ask for permission to check your Facebook newsfeed in order to grab stories being shared by your friends on Facebook. If that service checks your newsfeed every day to see if there are new stories on your behalf, it will appear that you are active every day when you look at the data presented on services like AppData. Even if you haven’t opened up the app. That’s because to Facebook’s API, it looks like you’re active.

I follow a really simple rule: do the stats look better than Instagram’s at a similar point in its history? Instagram is the fastest growing, most successful app or service I’ve seen the last two years. People use it, and people love it. It has taken Instagram two years to get to 20 million monthly users (as reported by AppData). It has taken them two years to get to 7 million daily active users (a phenomenal number).  For those of us who have been following, the growth has really exploded the past 5 months.

If the stats from the too-good-to-be-true app or service are half, or even a tenth, as good as Instagram’s but the service is only a few months old, take a breath and step back. Check out the signup process, look to see if the app or service has asked to access the news feed or for other similar permissions. Do a Twitter search for the app or site URL to see if there is real, frequent use. Look at your own feeds to see if your friends or people you know use the app.

You just can’t and shouldn’t rely on the publicly reported DAUs or MAUs most apps and services using the Facebook; you’ll need to dig deeper to find out it’s as good as Instagram or instead a mirage like this.