Category Archives: Media2.0

PaperKarma, Craigslist and unintentional disruption

disrupters will be googled

I study and write a lot about disruption caused directly or indirectly by the Internet.

It’s actually the key tenant that matured my wonder and fascination with the Internet beyond just the technical/geeky aspect but into the socio-economic.

Most disruption is intentional, and it’s now a well-weathered story to hear about a genius young entrepreneur out-smart an entire stalwart old-school industry in a way that the big guys didn’t see until it was too late.

Yay the underdog! Go the little guy! Fuck the establishment!

But some disruption is unintentional, and often with negative impact. The biggest example is probably Craigslist and, as amazing as it is, the incredible negative impact it has had upon the quality of journalism in the US and around the world – especially local and niche journalism.

This is, of course, due to the fact that those clumsy paid-classifieds adverts financed the journalists in the newsroom. No more classifieds meant fewer journalists, which meant reduced circulation, which meant reduced advertising rates, and so on into a race to the bottom.

So it is with interest that I read today about an interesting startup whose aim is to make it easier to stop junk mail (of the physical kind) landing in your mailbox.

With PaperKarma (for iOS, Android and Windows Phone yuk – not linking to that) you snap a photo of the offending junk mail item and their system will attempt to notify the junk sender of your wish to be removed and to be put on their “do not contact” list.

Sounds awesome.

Except when you consider that its junk mail that is keeping the US Portal System afloat. Remove the junk mail, and just like removing the classifieds in local journalism, the money funding the system will disappear.

A PBS “Need to Know” article from September 2011 states:

“The days of custom stationery, handwritten letters and scented envelopes may be long gone, the USPS has been increasingly reliant on junk mail — advertisements, catalogs and other unsolicited mailbox “gifts” — to keep the service afloat. BusinessWeek notes that revenue from junk mail increased by 7.1 percent in the last quarter of 2010 – although volume has not increased since. [Postmaster General Patrick Donahoe] has also expressed optimism that junk mail volume and revenue will increase as the economy improves. But the lower cost of direct mailings means that more junk mail is needed to circulate in the system to make up for the accelerating loss of first-class mail.”

And that BusinessWeek reference notes:

“[USPS] relies on first-class mail to fund most of its operations, but first-class mail volume is steadily declining—in 2005 it fell below junk mail for the first time. This was a significant milestone. The USPS needs three pieces of junk mail to replace the profit of a vanished stamp-bearing letter.”

(emphasis mine)

I quite like having a postal service. I certainly wouldn’t want their service to deterioate any further than it already has. Perhaps I should keep my junk mail? I recycle it after all.


It’s also interesting to consider why unintentional disruption occurs.

In both examples, there was a symbiotic relationship between two otherwise disparate and unconnected factors within an economic ecosystem.

It seems strange that people wanting to sell their car, hire a nanny or find a couple to swing with would be directly funding journalists to sit in the local courtroom or investigate corruption in City Hall.

It seems perverse that we have to suffer receiving catalogs and flyers we don’t want (including the impact on the environment from the creation of these items) just so that we can receive our bank statements, periodicals and other requested and desired items delivered to us in the mail.

The free-market means anyone can build anything (within the law) and disrupt anyone they want (intentionally or not). Yay the free-market!

But that means we need to think carefully about other examples where there are dubious, untenable or just plain-crazy symbiotic financial relationships that don’t otherwise make sense. And protect or fix them before more young entrepreneurs come by and disrupt them.

I miss my local journalism, although I guess I wouldn’t miss receiving my credit card statement in the mail every month.

I still say fuck the establishment, however.

Photo: CC Steve Rhodes

Please vote for my SxSW panels!

SxSW 2009 logo

I have two submissions to SxSW 2009 and would be delighted if you would consider voting for them please:

> Taking Platforms to the Next Level

Companies are finally realizing that in order to find market success they must build their products as platforms and empower their technical audience to embrace and extend their core proposition at the edges. But what comes next? Where is this all heading? What does a platform ubiquitous internet look like? Where does this all lead to?

This is a panel with my ‘professional hat’ on. I want to bring together some visionaries in the platform space and brainstorm a little on what the future of the platform is. We’ll concentrate on use cases, new ways platforms can work and opportunities for doing cool new thing. This won’t be a circle jerk about who will be the leading vendors, etc… at this point that doesn’t matter so much.

> Puppets, Theatre and the Conflation of ’Successful’ with ‘Popular’

Loren Feldman used a puppet to ruin a social media consultant’s career. Every day we witness ego driven squabbles and arguments play out on our twitter streams (often carefully orchestrated between the participants via the back channels). Even Micheal Arrington once went on record as saying he’s in the “entertainment business”. How did our industry deteriorate into a glorified law of the school yard? In an era of economic downturn, what damage is this having upon the rest of us who simply want to build great products, change the world and (perhaps) retire a little early?

Based on a popular blog post I wrote recently of the same title, this will be a candid reflection on the subject of the ego-fueled industry we currently work in and the implications it has for those of us trying to do great things within it.

Although this is listed as a solo discussion (ok, talk!) it is my goal to outline some thoughts and then turn the format into an interactive exchange with the audience for the rest of the session.

Apologies for the shameless plug on my blog, I realize that such requests soon become a little trite. However, this will be my first SxSW and I’m so stoked at the idea of presenting something!

Apture: elegantly adding context to your site

“Wow, that’s really really slick!”

That was my reaction when Tristan first showed me a demo of Apture (which just opened for signups, if you want to add it to your blog or website).

We’d met a few times previously and he’d been teasing with hints about the product he was working on – but refused to show me anything, or even give me any detail about what he and his fellow co-founders were really up to.

All I knew was that we shared a common interest in both grassroots and mainstream media, and importance of innovation given the nature of the content often being communicated. We’d spent several meetings discussing all sorts of interest stuff – from the way the media is often the last resort to keep governments and business in check, the need for informed society, through to the power of building products with a platform-orientated architecture.

Very much a meeting of minds – and so when I finally got to experience Apture, I was delighted that it too was at the intersection of so many of my favorite topics. I’m also proud to say that I am a member of Apture’s advisory board.

Welcome to Apture

For me, Apture is about bringing light-touch context and background to topics within the page you are looking at. In essence, it provides a simple framework to attach background context and ancillary content to subjects mentioned in your page – all without interrupting the flow of your reading and crucially, without leaving the page you looking at. In fact, you have already experienced Apture! (unless you are reading this in a feed reader, in which case check out the page on my blog)

When I saw the first demo of the product, what excited me the most was the implementation – which I think is slick and impressive. The thoughtful UI makes the product simple and intuitive to use, backed up by some pretty tight code that makes the seamless experience possible.

Elegantly handling off-site links and embeddable media

From my days working at the BBC News Website, I’ve seen first hand the importance of providing background information on the subjects discussed in a news story. Not everyone follows the news agenda as deeply as others, and providing a bit of context can really make the difference and ensure the reader is able to engage with the latest developments being written about.

I’d also seen examples of how the BBC had got some of it’s interface and style guidelines wrong – like not using hyperlinks inside body content and completely missing the early emergence of embeddable media (arguably pioneered by YouTube). I have to hold my hands up to these as much as anyone else at the Beeb as I was there at the time these things took off.

On both counts Apture solves these problems in an elegant way.

The concern around marking up body content with hyperlinks is about usability. When the user clicks on them she is taken to a new destination page mid-flow of her reading. Apture solves this concern by providing the essence of the page you want to link to in an easily manipulated floating window that the user can quickly digest and either get back to the copy or potentially elect to click through to a fuller page of content. The point is that the reader makes an informed decision whether to jump to a new page or continue reading. Apture also lets the reader position the window around the content so that they can interact with it later on when they are ready.

Another key part of this is the selection of the media you use to provide that background to your post. Apture helps you there too – by recommending relevant content from across numerous repositories on the internet – including Wikipedia, Flickr and IMDB. Finally, it reformats these pages so that the pertinent information is displayed clearly inside the Apture window that is associated with your subject.

Apture also provides a unique way to embed media, and can even handle certain types of media asset just by it noticing you are linking out to a photograph or a video in your piece.

Open for business

Having been in closed beta for some months, this week Apture was released to the public. Getting Apture on your site is really simple (just a line of javascript or the installation of a WordPress Plugin) and of course it is totally free.

You can also take a tour of the product and see more demos of it in action.

Google, Facebook and Plaxo join

(Ben Metcalfe is a founding member of the DataPortability Workgroup – which promotes and encourages the implementation of open-standards and open-access to data using technologies such a OpenID, OAuth, Microformats, APML and more) logo

Over at, we’ve been sitting on some BIG news for the passed few days that I can finally blog about…

Google, Facebook and Plaxo have joined the Data Portability Workgroup.

It’s a massive and exciting breakthrough that we’re thrilled about. Data Portability is about true interoperability and data exchange (both between social networks and other apps we use). It’s breathtaking to see these companies sign up and align themselves with that ideal.

I’m also stoked to have some amazing people represent each of these companies on the group. Joseph Smarr will represent Plaxo (who I also work with on the OpenSocial committee), Brad Fitzpatrick will represent Google (a major coup seeing as he helped create OpenID ) and Benjamin Ling will represent Facebook (Benjamin is also ex-Google).

I’m on-site at MySpace today so can’t blog further reaction right now, but reaction can be found from Marshall Kirkpatrick at Read/WriteWeb and Duncan Riley at TechCrunch.

You can also join the public Google Group for Data Portability.

Channel 4 launches tiny widget/mashup competition

Given that I helped establish (probably) the first developer mash-up competition run by a media organization and also my recent foray into the world of widgets, I was particularly interested to read that UK broadcaster Channel 4 is dipping its toe into the water by running a similar competition around it’s Film4 service.

And to continue the ‘toe dipping’ analogy further, I’d have to suggest that it is only a little toe – as a quick review of the ‘Platform 4’ contest site demonstrate.

Create a widget or mashup from two RSS feeds, the winner gets £1500 and two runners up get £250 each. That’s it.

Now don’t get me wrong, it’s a fantastic start and I want to congratulate them for it (I have a feeling my ex-BBC colleague and supporter Matt Lock could be behind this as he’s now at C4). However I really hope they build out Platform 4 into a complete developer resource to help bring innovation into Channel 4.

Finally, if the BBC, Channel 4 and even ITV can get together and build out an IPTV offering, it would be great to think that Beeb and C4 could combine efforts along with other developer networks to help support each other.

[via TechCrunchUK]

Advising MySpace on their Platform…

When I moved to San Francisco, just over a year ago, I came with three intentions:

  • To get further involved in social software, ideally social networking
  • To continue to my interest in platforms and API’s
  • To get involved with start-ups

I’ve already been working API stuff with Orange Labs, but with the two announcements I’ve got this week, I’m pleased to say that I’ve managed to achieve all my three goals (gosh, I’m going to need to think of three more!).

MySpace comes to San Francisco

So first up, I’m absolutely delighted to announce that I’m going to be working with MySpace to help advise them with their platform project(s). It’s an incredible, much talked about project (sometimes inaccurately), and I’m honored to have been invited to work on this with them.

MySpace approached me a few months back to see whether I’d be interested in working with them on this, and we’ve been discussing it for some time since. During that period they put their hat into the Google OpenSocial ring, which made the opportunity even more interesting!

BTW: that’s why you’ve not read anything about OpenSocial from me on the blog. I’m still yet to find out how OpenSocial fits into MySpace’s wider strategy – but perhaps that’s something I’ll be working with them to work out – which is why I can’t really about it talk much until I know what’s what.

So, there have already been raised eyebrows from a couple of close confidants upon informing them of my decision to work with MySpace, a subsidiary of Fox/News International, especially as I’ve always aligned myself with the values of the BBC. In the past, I’ve gone on record to say I’m not a fan of Fox News’s agenda and it’s one of the reasons I have decided not to own a TV here in the USA.

My reasons for taking on this gig are twofold: Firstly, I’m confident that MySpace is sufficiently separate to Fox News and no part of my contract involves working on anything to do with Fox News – in fact Fox News is an entirely different company as I understand it. Secondly, I’m particularly minded the project I’ve been asked to work on has values centered on open data and 3rd-party community development – values which I hold dear.

Passing up this contract would be a missed opportunity to help MySpace offer its 200m+ users the kinds of platform features we all want to see out of our chosen social networks.

When it comes to opportunities around platforms, MySpace really has been the 800lb gorilla in the social networking corner and it is tremendously exciting to think about the shear potential this project could have upon the social networking landscape.

I’m going to be working with MySpace 4 days a week out of their brand new San Francisco office, with one of those days spent down at MySpace HQ in Beverley Hills.

But there’s more…


I’m also thrilled to be in final negotiations with a white-hot startup, recently announced on TechCrunch. The idea is fantastic, the team is fantastic and it also looks to be a lot of fun.

I’m going to be advising them 1 day a week on a number of things – but this time not so much platform stuff but more general product development and perhaps a bit of evangelism to-boot. I can’t go into specifics otherwise it might identify the company in question – which I don’t want to do until everything is signed.

However, what I will say is that I’m simply stoked at the thought of working with these guys.


I shall be continuing my independent consultant status here in USA, which means I shall be consulting for both companies on a contract basis rather than taking employment with either company. I shall be concluding my consultancy with Orange Labs next week – I shall miss the team there, you guys rock!

Would you pay a voluntary contribution for your BitTorrent usage?

When it launches tomorrow, the Radiohead price experiment is going to be very interesting to analyze.

(Background: Users pay what they like for the new Radiohead album, from £Free – £100. See the BBC News article)

Having pushed for so long for digital distribution methods that afford us our full rights under copyright (ie no DRM), it’s kinda time that we step up to the plate and prove that today’s digital media consumers are not looking to freeload(… or are we?)

I was just chatting about this issue with a heavy BitTorrent user I know well, who’ll remain anonymous. For her, she finds BitTorrent the most convenient way to select and consume media – she watches a lot of foreign TV and also occasionally enjoys watching video on her PSP (which doesn’t support any DRM-for-video technology even if the content she wants to watch is available in a DRM’d format). Downloading torrent files from sites across the world and transcoding them into a PSP-friendly format has become a simple and painless process which she finds quicker and more convenient for her needs than any DRM system out there right now.

She is frustrated that she has to use what are currently deemed ‘illegal methods’ to obtain the media and can’t do anything to legitimize the content she is viewing.

Donate your money to the Disney, Fox, TimeWarner, et al

Then I had an idea. Wouldn’t it be interesting if there a mechanism whereby people downloading TV and video from sites like ThePirateBay or MiniNova could voluntarily contribute 50c per show they download, with the money going to the media company behind the content?

This would not be propositioned as paying for the video (it’s not the BitTorrent site’s content to sell) but instead would be offered as a voluntary contribution to represent the audience’s willingness to pay for content if offered on the kind of terms they want (easy downloads, p2p, no DRM, etc).

It could be as simple as a simple PayPal-powered system, cutting monthly checks to the top 50 or so TV and media companies around he world. As a symbolic gesture you’d want to get it to the DRM influencer’s in the company rather than the rights holders themselves (I’m sure the EFF has such a list).

If it caught on, it could help push the momentum to just give us the space in which we can play fair – just like Radiohead are hoping will happen with their new album “In Rainbows”.

An introduction to APML

Hot on the tails of my in-depth post addressing Tom Morris’ issues with APML, I’ve been meaning to ‘back up’ and write a higher level “introduction to APML”.

Well Marjolein Hoekstra has written a superb introduction to APML and I guess done the hard work for me. 🙂 Turns out Marshal Kirkpatrick has picked this up and linked to it from his article on recommendation engines over on ReadWrite/Web too.

If you’re still not up to speed on APML and attention profiles in general, please hop on over to her blog

Also the website has just had a redesign + refresh too! Check it out.

My first take on Seesmic

(DISCLOSURE: Since writing this post I have accepted an advisory role with Seesmic)

A couple of weeks ago I had the pleasure of a demo of Loic Le Meur’s new start-up Seesmic – which I guess is best described as a video based Twitter-like service with a slightly higher emphasis to the social network aspect of the play over products I’ve seen this area [see screenshot]. It also appears to plug-in to existing social experiences very well.

Of course this is going to be a crowded market, but from what I have seen I think Loic has built a good foundation to launch from. Also, given its strict SMS and IM orientation I doubt very much Twitter will launch into this space – meaning there’s all to play for.

To me there are three key aspects to a service like this which will ultimately decide who wins and who doesn’t:

1) Ubiquity of video ingest
… ie ‘how do people get their video’s into the system?’.

On this front I’m not sure how Seesmic is going to handle this, beyond the expected “file upload” approach of uploading video from a file on your hard-drive (which is a necessary ‘default’ but still cumbersome). I’m guessing he’ll build a flash-capture system and some kind of phone capture too, but this is where a strong API comes into it’s own because then anyone can build the functionality into their existing video-capture system (be it software or hardware).

From a non-technology perspective, it’s interesting to read from today’s TechCrunch article that Loic also plans to open a mini studio in San Francisco (and perhaps elsewhere) for people to upload their videos from.

2) Distribution
… ie ‘how and where will people see it?’

I know Loic has a few tricks up his sleeve on this one that I’m not going to reveal, but in short making sure you can get your video out there and discovered is obviously important… And I mean off-site.

As competition in this space increases, people are invariably traversing sites like YouTube less and less, and you can’t expect to be running a destination site with guaranteed traffic. Also as the userbase matures, they’re going to expect more ways to use their video to add value to own sites (from blogs to Facebook and MySpace profiles). And by that, I mean beyond the now standard video embed.

3) Context
… ie ‘Why are people creating this video?’

The one thing I do think Loic needs to think about is context… Perhaps the single biggest reason why Twitter was successful was that it has a context: “What are you currently doing?”

If Twitter was just a technology stack (SMS, IM and web messaging system) that let users do whatever they wanted, I’m not sure whether it would have been so successful. There’s a slight paradox because of course user’s don’t just use Twitter to answer that question, but the point is it forms a foundation and people know when their running as edge cases to it.

If only 10% of the internet population currently create content (and that might be an exaggerated claim, it’s probably less) then doing the most to help stir their creative juices is important. Not everyone has inspiration on tap which leaves people without motivation to create and in turn a ghost town ecosystem. Also factor in those who are motivated to create despite a lack of inspiration 🙂

I think the trick to getting more people to create good quality video that others will want to subscribe to help them with the inspiration, (in addition to empowering them with simple editing tools).

Look at Facebook – on it’s own it’s a foundation of creation tools – photos, events, etc. But it seems to me people really engage with the Facebook apps where a context is applied – eg “rate your favorite films”, “are you a chav”, etc.

If Seesmic can keep things fresh by having a good context – perhaps a daily changing question that users can opt-in to answer if they so wish – I think it will have a ton of quality content.

I’m looking forward to seeing what happens.