Month: May 2010


Never Mind The Bollocks – Why Carol Bartz Can’t Say What Yahoo Is Now

It’s Sunday afternoon in San Francisco, and while my American friends are out in the sun, celebrating some holiday or other – is this one Memorial Day or Labor Day or Arbor Day? – I’m confined to my hotel room, finishing the final edits of my book manuscript.

Specifically I’m editing a chapter that begins with me being thrown out of a Starbucks in Chicago for swearing on my cellphone. It was a strange – not unhilarious – episode, and one that caused me to consider the contrasting American and British attitudes towards profanity…

“The concept of ‘appropriateness’ is much more real to Americans than it is to Brits, despite us being the ones who are supposed to be stuffy and formal. I’ve noticed it a lot with swearing: while Brits of both genders will be quite happy, among friends, to use the word ‘fuck’ – as a verb, a noun and adjective or an adverb – a surprising number of Americans blanche at the idea. Rather they’d talk about ‘dropping the F bomb’ as if four letters were capable of levelling Nagasaki.”

And so it was this past week at TechCrunch Disrupt when Yahoo’s Carol Bartz now-infamously told Mike Arrington to “fuck off”. The remark was clearly something Bartz had prepared in advance, and at a British conference it would have been about as notable as a speaker wearing jeans rather than a suit. But in America the idea that a CEO – a female CEO no less – might resort to comedy foul language is headline news. Literally.

The swearing had the desired effect of course; becoming the meme of the conference – full of sound and fury, signifying nothing – and distracting from the real story: that the CEO of the third most visited site on the web was unable to concisely describe what her company actually does.

Mike highlighted this ridiculousness in a follow up post, putting the swearing controversy into perspective and focussing on the  difference between Bartz’ answer to the question “what is Yahoo?” and Tim Armstrong’s much snappier response for AOL. While Bartz rambled, Armstrong simply said “AOL is planning on being the largest high quality content producer for digital media”.

In Bartz’s defence, Armstrong’s answer was just as meaningless, skirting what AOL is and instead describing what he hopes it will one day become. Armstrong’s answer was accurate in the same way that I could accurately answer the question “Who is Paul Carr?” by saying “Paul Carr aims to be the multi-millionaire author of a slew of best-selling books, written between bouts of pornographic sex with Scarlet Johansson.” If wishing could make it so, Tim.

The truth is, while we may criticise her for her on-stage performance, “what is Yahoo?” is simply not a question that Carol Bartz is able to answer right now. No-one asks Google what it is, even though it does a million different things, because it does one thing – search – better than anyone else in the world. No-one asks Facebook what it does, because it does one thing – connecting friends – better than anyone else in the world. Yahoo doesn’t have that one thing – so while it might be everything, it’s also nothing.

So what should Yahoo’s one thing be?

Not search, obviously. That ship sailed long ago. It also shouldn’t be a portal, or a destination, or any other meaningless construction. Yes, a lot of people have Yahoo as their home page, but those people – by and large – simply don’t know any better. Carol can enthuse as much as she likes about her highly-personalised homepage widgets, but the next generation of Internet users won’t care. Facebook – or whatever comes next – will be their homepage; their content destination and everything in between. There’s nothing more personalised than friendships.

How about mobile? The company recently announced a partnership with Nokia, which sounds exciting but really only serves to underline how non-core mobile is to Yahoo’s competences. Also ‘mobile’ isn’t a service, or a product – rather it’s a way to deliver services or products.

Chat? Flickr? Blogging? Forums? No, no, no. Facebook has won that fight: Flickr might be the photo sharing choice of tool for the technorati, but for the vast majority of Internet users – particularly the young Internet users who Yahoo needs to lock in to guarantee its future – a photo simply doesn’t exist unless it’s uploaded to Facebook. Likewise chat, blogging, forums and all other aspects of user generated content are all ground that Yahoo has already lost, and can’t possibly win back.

What does that leave?

Ask any commentator, or entrepreneur or Investor and they’ll tell you that the hot business to be in right now is curation. There’s simply too much information – much of it user generated – flooding on to the web, and users are crying out for someone to sift and package it all in an intelligent and trustworthy way. That’s what Gilt Groupe or Groupon do for businesses, that’s what services likeQuora do for information, that’s what our Twitter friends do for everything else. But while Gilt and Quora and even Twitter are still veritable newborns, Yahoo has been curating content – using real-life, professional human beings to sift through information – since the antediluvian days when Jerry Yang and David Filo posted their first link on “Jerry and David’s Guide to the World Wide Web

The days of employing humans to curate links are over but  there remains one area in which Yahoo’s legacy of curation, audience, trusted brand and significant human resources could come together to do something better than anyone else in the world…

News.

Seriously.

Yahoo’s news product is excellent. Like Google, Yahoo offers a first-rate news aggregator – but unlike Google, the company actually has its own journalists contributing reporting to the mix. The result is a hybrid between aggregation, curation and traditional journalism, which makes Yahoo News arguably the most balanced online news source there is. Moreover, the company has spent years perfecting the use of online video for both news reporting and analysis. Take a few minutes to watch Yahoo Finance or Yahoo Sports and you’ll see some of the best (in terms of both production quality and content) programming available online; easily a match for the best that traditional broadcasting can offer.

And yet right now news and video languish in Yahoo’s overall portfolio; just one more thing that the company offers.

If Yahoo is seriously looking for the one thing that it could be the best in the world at, then news – specifically multi-media news – is a serious contender. CNN might have been the last generation’s “Most Trusted Name In News” but they just don’t have the innate understanding of the web that a company like Yahoo does. For most traditional broadcast or print news outlets, the concept of mixing together original reporting with aggregated content from other sources and the curational wisdom of the online crowds is utterly beyond their comprehension. The closest CNN has got to content aggregation is The Situation Room, while, when it comes to interactivity, even the mighty taxpayer-funded BBC hadn’t got much beyond reading out the occasional viewer email on screen.

Yahoo on the other hand understand innately how people use the web – they have billions of users whose behaviour they track; they know curation and aggregation; they’ve proved they know news and they certainly know video. By combining these resources, and then delivering the results through their hugely visible platform (yes, including mobile), they could blow CNN – and everyone else – out of the water.

At dinner the other night, I joked with a friend (who happens to work at Yahoo) that we might one day see a Yahoo journalist asking a question in the Whitehouse. That need not be a joke. Yahoo has the resources to hire hundreds of journalists – real journalists, not just the hungry children who churn out posts for Associated Content – and set them to work covering serious stories. Then it can integrate that coverage even more tightly with its news aggregation product, and at the same time expand the company’s flagship finance and sports video programming into politics, global affairs, entertainment and everything else that’s going on in the world. Mix in user-generated curation, courtesy of their billions of annual visitors, and you have the makings of a very large and very trusted online news and content network.

Put another way, Tim Armstrong may say that “AOL is planning on being the largest high quality content producer for digital media”, but Yahoo is in a position to actually make that happen.

But of course that’s just one idea. There are a dozen other possible roads that Bartz could take Yahoo, and thanks to the company’s sheer size she can still afford to take the time to explore them all. The critical thing is that she stops trying (and failing) to explain the dozens of things Yahoo does now, and instead settles on the one thing that Yahoo is going to do next. If she can do that then Yahoo might still be thriving in three years time.

If not then it’s — what’s the word, Carol?

Fucked.


#Ebony and #Ivory – The Brave New World of Online Self-Segregation

Waking up in my San Francisco hotel room yesterday, I immediately knew something was wrong. It was a mess.

In fact, the whole hotel was a mess. Carpets un-vacuumed, brassware unpolished, rooms unserviced, newspapers undelivered. It was a story writ large across the whole city – leaves piled up knee-deep on the sidewalk, restaurant tables uncleared and water glasses un-refilled. It was as if every essential – but mundane – service had ground to a halt, instantly and without warning.

Only when I reached the Civic Center did I realise what was going on: all the Mexicans were gathered there, protesting Arizona’s new senate bill, SB1070.

“Stop!” I cried, “stop this nonsense! Put down your bi-lingual protest signs and your American flags and get back to work!” My hotel room was not going to clean itself, and I was hungry for enchiladas. But the Mexicans ignored me – perhaps because I don’t speak a word of Spanish or perhaps because they couldn’t hear me over the chanting; but probably because I’m white. Racists.

Indeed, this week, the subject of racism is on everyone’s lips. First Arizona turned the concept of innocent until proven guilty on its head, passing a law that forces people who look Mexican to carry documentation that proves they’re not in the US illegally or face six months in prison. (British readers may be forgiven for feeling a sense of deja vu.) Meanwhile, across the Atlantic, we Brits were having our own race-related scandal, when Prime Minister Gordon Brown was caught on a live microphone calling 66-year old voter, Gillian Duffy, “bigoted” after she harangued him over the number of Polish immigrants “flocking” to the UK.

To his eternal shame, Mr Brown apologised profusely for his comments the next day, claiming he had misunderstood Mrs Duffy’s words despite the fact that, like many older white voters, her blaming polish immigrants for many of the UK’s problems plainly is a form of bigotry (Poles are Britain’s equivalent of Mexicans in the US, except Poles are allowed to immigrate to the UK freely and without a visa).

I’d like to say that I’m shocked at Arizona’s new law, or at an old white lady living in the north of England being fearful of foreigners – but of course I’m not. Arizona is a state with an increasingly large population of white people above retirement age and study after study has shown this group to be the most likely to hold anti-immigrant, or even out-and-out racist views. But equally, I’m heartened – and I mean this in no way callously – that these people are literally a dying demographic. Growing up in their place is a generation which, thanks to the Internet, is exposed daily to people of different races, colours and creeds.

Thanks to the proliferation of social networks, which recognise no national or social boundaries, it’s now just as easy to make friends with someone in Africa as it is to connect with someone in Arkansas. At Munich’s DLD conference two years ago, Randi Zuckerberg spoke inspiringly about how Facebook was bringing together young people from both sides of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict through their shared membership of Facebook groups. Just last week, Slate cited a paper from the University of Chicago which showed that people who get their news from online sources are more likely to have a balanced news diet (ideologically speaking) than those who get their news offline. As an avid Internet user, so the study claims, I’m likely to visit both the new York Times and Fox News in order to get a balanced picture of events than someone who relies on a single newspaper.

The trend, according to champions of Internet diversity, is clear: the Internet makes us less fearful of people with different ideologies, backgrounds or skin colours to our own. And this, of course, is A Good Thing. In just a generation, laws like that passed in Arizona or opinions like that expressed to Prime Minister Brown in Rochdale will be a thing of the past and, thanks to social media, we’ll all live together in perfect harmony. Ebony and Ivory, etc etc etc. In fact, as far as I can tell, there’s just one problem with that vision of Christmas yet to come…

It’s total horseshit.

Let’s start with the Chicago study. Certainly the results paint a positive picture of online diversity: the numbers clearly indicate that online news ‘consumers’ visit a ideologically-balanced range of sources every day, especially compared to their offline counterparts. But what the study doesn’t, and can’t, show is why they visit those sources.

A quick look at my browser history shows that in the past 24 hours I’ve visited BBC News Online, the New York Times and the Guardian. Liberal news organisations all. But in that same time period, I’ve also checked in to the Murdoch-owned Sun newspaper, the Drudge Report and even Fox News (several times). According to the study, then, I’m an open minded person with a balanced news diet. But of course I’m nothing of the sort. In reality, my reasons for visiting FoxNews.com are the same as those of most of my cheese-eating, US-hating, Osama-hugging, socialist liberal friends – I’m checking in on the enemy, hoping to find something outrageous to back up my pre-existing biases against the American right. And before any Proud Hannity-waving Patriots reading this get too outraged by that confession, admit it: you visit the Guardian and the New York Times for precisely the same, if polar opposite, reasons.

The truth is, if we’re not careful, the Internet is going to make us more, not less, distant from people who don’t share our views or heritage. In the real world – in the workplace, in bars or just walking down the street – it’s almost impossible to avoid interacting with people who are different from ourselves. Of course some people still try to avoid that inevitability – think apartheid in South Africa, or the more recent story of a British holidaymaker who demanded that a hotel in Florida keep all “people of color” (or those with “foreign accents”) away from him and his family. But thankfully in 2010, the majority of people consider such examples to be (in the former case) grounds for regime change or (as with the latter), bizarre front page news.

And yet in the online world such filtering and sorting happens every day without being in the least bit remarkable. Just consider the news that – according to a study by Edison Research (reported by Business Insider) – “black people represent 25% of Twitter users, roughly twice their share of the population in general”. As a white person this number surprised me somewhat – and if you’re white, I’ll bet it surprised you too. Twitter feels like one of the whitest sites in the world to me: full as it is with self-important middle-class hipster kids retweeting New York Times stories and the fact that they’re having sushi for lunch.

On Facebook or other social networks that better reflect my real-world relationships, I see a far more representative number of non-white faces in my friend lists and on the pages of friends-of-friends, while Twitter – by contrast – is hideously white. In fact, the only time I see a high concentration of faces that are different to my own is when I venture into the curious world of trending topics, and specifically hashtag memes. There I can guarantee that at least one of the daily trending memes will have been started by (vast majority) African American teenagers, exchanging #jokes on subjects like #funeralrules and #iWantMyMoneyBack (both grabbed from Twitter’s front page just now). Like the confused 30-year-old white person I am, I spend a couple of minutes browsing the jokes, get confused and scamper back to the safety of my own feed and its talk of trendy Japanese food and how terribly racist Arizona is.

Without really meaning to, I’ve created my own little Twitter bubble of People Like Me: racially, politically, linguistically and socially. And every day across the Internet a new tool or service is launched that makes it easier for people to do exactly the same: to filter the vast amounts of information available online, according to their personal beliefs or interests. Hashtags, follower lists, RSS feeds, personalised news sites – all the better to surround ourselves with people and views like ourselves and our own.

There are two basic types of dystopian future: the 1984 future and the Brave New World future. In the 1984 future, the government forces us to think and act in a certain way, driving undesirables into ghettos and threatening with physical harm those who think or act differently. In the Brave New World future (or possibly the Neil Postman future), the government doesn’t have to do anything to force our behaviour. Instead we’re given the tools to do whatever we want, creating an illusion of total freedom which no-one fights or questions until its too late and we realise we’ve lost the capacity for critical thought.

If apartheid or the new laws in Arizona represent the 1984 future, then there’s a real possibility that the Internet – and social media specifically – will eventually lead us into an even more terrifying Brave New World future. A future where the tools that once promised to help us meet people with different backgrounds and ideologies from our own actually end up being used, quite unintentionally, to segregate us from those same people.

And given the increasing influence that online behaviour has on how we act  in the real world, perhaps a generation from now – rather than laughing at Arizona’s long-overturned SB1070 and the years-dead concept of racial or ideological segregation – we’ll find ourselves sitting in our electronically filtered and hashtag-segregated ghettos, looking back at the good old days. The days, way back in 2010, when it was only the very old or the very stupid who thought that finding ways to filter and separate ourselves from those who are different was a good idea.


Leave Britney Alone! (Where by Britney I mean Steve, Mark and Jimbo)

There’s the unmistakable smell of revolution in the air this week. And if I were Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg or Jimmy ‘Jimbo’ Wales I’d be keeping an eye out for angry French peasants dragging guillotines.

For Jobs, the rebellion  is opening up across several flanks: from once-loyal partners like Adobe bitter over Apple’s decision not to support Flash to once-loyal journalists penning op-eds about heavy-handed treatment of the fourth estate and blanket censorship of adult content on the iPad. For Zuckerberg, as I wrote last week, it’s the continuing user-generated outcry over privacy. For Wales it’s an alleged mutiny by wiki editors over his decision to unilaterally delete hardcore pornography from Wikipedia.

In each case the specifics are different but the thrust is the same: having built hugely successful and popular companies in their own image, some of technology’s leading visionaries are coming under attack from the people who were once their biggest allies.

It’s worth pointing out that, for all their ferocity, the attacks are having little noticeable effect on the performance of the companies concerned: all three continue to go from strength to strength. But clearly for the founders themselves there’s a real  impact. Last Tuesday, it was reported (although later denied) that Wales  has voluntarily surrendered almost all of his editing privileges over Wikipedia, reducing his status to that of a junior editor. For his part, the normally unflappable Jobs has taken to protracted and snippy late night exchanges with a Valleywag writer who asked “If Dylan was [sic] 20 today, how would he feel about your company?” Zuckerberg’s suffering, meanwhile, is positively Alighierian: with leaked email exchanges and a Hollywood movieconspiring to destroy any last vestiges of privacy that the 26-year-old enjoys. I suspect all three have stopped reading their Google News alerts.

Now don’t get me wrong, I like a bit of schadenfreude as much as the next failure, but as I listen to the growing chorus of disapproval at some of technology’s most iconic founders I can’t help but feel uneasy.

No matter what Danah – sorry – danah Boyd – sorry – boyd – might say, Facebook isn’t a public utility, and nor should it be treated as such. (The test by the way for if X is a utility: if the sentence ‘Millions of children in Africa have no access to x’ doesn’t sound like a headline from the Onion. Try it with electricity, water and Facebook. See?) No matter what some bloggers might think about the First Amendment implications of banning porn, Steve Jobs is not an arm of the US government. Likewise Jimmy Wales’ democratic powers are safely confined to the space between the words Aardvark and Zyxt – is it really a pseudo-constitutional scandal for him to delete a bit of porn?

The problem here is one of perspective. We hardcore internet users might do well to realise that, just because we spend our days trawling TechCrunch and TechMeme and Hacker News doesn’t mean that the wider world shares our belief that privacy settings for photos we’ve chosen to post online, Flash on the iPad or our God-given right to see erections on Wikipedia are the most important issues in the world today. And why should they? By and large, Jobs, Zuckerberg and Wales are going about their lawful business, providing fun digital toys that we could easily survive without, but choose not to.

The second problem is one of entitlement. Just because the founders of web and technology companies are inherently  more accessible to us than other CEOs (see Jobs replying to emails or Jimmy Wales’ and Mark Zuckerberg’s frequent conference appearances) doesn’t mean that they are any more answerable to us. The respective visions of Jobs, Zuck and Wales have created companies that we gladly use every day in our millions. What right do we have to tell them that their vision is suddenly wrong, just because it happens to clash with our own?

As Mike Arrington wrote on Wednesday in relation to Digg, it’s simply not the obligation of an entrepreneur to make decisions based on what the crowd demands. In fact it’s ludicrous to think that a business which has attracted millions of fans thanks to a founder’s singular vision should suddenly start taking their orders from those fans. The whole point of a visionary is that they can see things that others can’t; if thousands of users think they know what path a visionary should take then that path is inherently the wrong one.

I may disagree with Steve Jobs’ approach to pornography on the iPad (I do), or with Zuckerberg’s high-handed approach to privacy (I do) or with Jimmy Wales’ spontaneous clean-up operation to avoid bad press (I don’t, actually) but provided they remain within the law, I will shrug my shoulders to the death in defence of their right to do what they think best.

If they continue to make the right calls, their companies will continue to grow, and if they make the wrong ones, then they will fail. Until there’s any meaningful sign of the latter happening to Apple, Wikipedia or Facebook we – the journalists, the bloggers, the Twitterers and the shrill activists – should probably put away our guillotines and consider that maybe, just maybe, when it comes to their businesses, these visionaries know what they’re doing.

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