Month: December 2010


Hey, Assange’s Celeb Supporters, What Time’s Your Protest Outside Quantico? Oh.

Ithink we can all agree that the one thing the world needs right now is another column about Julian Assange.

I’m sitting in a hotel bar about an hour north of London, and spread out on the table in front of me are all of today’s British newspapers – from the Mail on Sunday to the Observer. Every single one of them contains – within the first few pages – a news story or opinion about the antipodean face of Wikileaks.

Online, it’s a similar state of affairs. You can’t move your mouse pointer today without rolling over an Assange fanboy blogger, either propounding conspiracy theories on the real reason for his imprisonment, or demanding to know why Time cruelly overlooked their man for “Person of the Year”. (My theory: Time is wisely sticking to its policy of waiting for controversial people’s stories to play out a bit before putting them on the cover. The whole Hitler thing back in ‘38 rather bit them on the ass.)

With a few traditionally skeptical exceptions, the media mood – online and off – is one of satisfaction for a job well done. Assange is out; free to spend a cosy Christmas tucked up in agrand old English stately home, as opposed to – say – voluntarily returning to Sweden to face the allegations made against him.

His reluctance to go to Sweden voluntarily is odd, by the way, given that a) his supporters are so convinced of his innocence and b) current legal opinion suggests that it would be even harder for the Americans to extradite him from there than from the UK. Maybe being held accountable only swings one way, like a kitchen door. Or perhaps Assange just likes the idea of spending yuletide in a nice big castle which, we’re told, boasts an excellent Internet connection. Watch out, kids, he’ll be leaking the contents of your letters to Santa before the day is out. THE PUBLIC HAS A RIGHT TO KNOW!

Anyway. For now at least, Assange’s high profile supporters (including Jemima Khan, above, and Michael Moore) in both the media and the world of celebrity have put down their placards, returned to their luxury homes and are looking forward to taking a couple of weeks off to sing Christmas songs and bask in the glow of victory. And as for Julian himself…

“Assange said today his nine days in solitary confinement in a British jail had made him angrier than ever and steeled his resolve to continue the WikiLeaks project… His strong rhetoric came just moments before entering the plush Ellingham Hall, his place of “mansion arrest” in the British countryside.”  – The Australian

Let’s leave them, then – Dickensian narrator style – and fly away from London, across the Atlantic ocean, and down to the walls of a heavily guarded military prison in Virginia. Where, if the brig at Quantico had windows – which is doesn’t – we might just catch a glimpse of young Bradley Manning, as he prepares to spend Christmas slowly rotting in solitary confinement.

In case you’ve forgotten, Private First Class Manning – surely the most comically inappropriate honorific since the McChicken Supreme – is the 23-year-old soldier accused of passing thousands of diplomatic cables to Wikileaks in the first place. Specifically he’s accused of downloading 260,000 documents onto a CD, before disguising the disc as a Lady Gaga album and passing it on to Assange. He’s also accused of passing on the infamous “Collateral Murder” video. Thanks to the splendid reporting of Salon’s Glen Greenwald, we know that Manning spends 23 hours a day in his cell, where he is banned from exercising or doing anything else which might help prevent him going mad. He’s already been there for five months (plus two prior months in prison in Kuwait) and it doesn’t look like he’ll be leaving any time soon.

Whether Manning is innocent or guilty (he is yet to be tried, although Greenwald quotes chat logs in which Manning apparently admits to being Wikileaks’ source) is really beside the point. The point is he’s in prison because the American government believes him to be Assange’s cable dealer; the person without who’s assistance Julian Assange would still be working as a waitress in a cocktail bar (and possibly sexually assaulting himself). Assange himself rarely – if ever – mentions Manning, citing Wikileaks’ policy of neither confirming nor denying its sources. That this policy also allows Assange to keep the media’s spotlight pointed squarely at his own face is surely just a coincidence.

(It’s worth noting that Assange’s statement from prison included a call for the world to “protect mywork and my people from these illegal and immoral attacks” – emphasis mine – which might lead a cynic to conclude that Wikileaks is nothing more than a huge self-aggrandising stunt by someone who can’t even write an OKCupid profile without sounding like a less GSOH version of Marx and Engels.)

The contrast between Assange’s current situation and that of Manning couldn’t be more stark. Nor could the difference in certainty regarding the men’s fates: we’re told Assange might be extradited to America, where he could face a grand jury, a high profile trial and possiblymaybe a lengthy jail sentence. For Manning, jail is the definite starting point: the crap-calm before the shit-storm. And yet it’s Assange – the alleged sex pest with a website – rather than Manning – the apparent actual leaker of secret documents – who is the cause célèbre, gurning out from the world’s front pages every day. Could there be a more damning indictment of our celebrity-driven culture than that?

I’ve made clear since the beginning of this sorry story that I have very little sympathy for Wikileaks, and I have even less sympathy for a junior soldier who, it is alleged, took it upon himself to leak information that was already shared amongst hundreds of thousands of trusted Americans. As I wrote here, the inevitable result of Wikileaks is less, not more, diplomatic openness.

And yet for all my cynicism, I would dearly love to see Assange’s celebrity supporters marching on Manning’s jailers with the same furious cries of “Habeus Corpus!” with which they demanded their media-friendly hero’s release. It would certainly show that they were serious in their convictions: unlike springing Assange from Wandsworth prison – which simply involved throwing money at the problem – getting Manning out of Quantico would put campaigners directly at odds with the might of the US military, and would drag them into a case that will take years – maybe even decades – to resolve, mostly away from the glare of the TV cameras.

But then again, where would be the fun, or the glamour, in that?


Lessons from London – and a few UK Start-ups that aren’t Rubbish

So that was London for another year – my annual trip back to the old town to see what’s what, en route North to spend Christmas with the family.

Interested readers might recall (almost) a couple of weeks ago as I was leaving San Francisco, I reiteratedmy already year-old proposition that there are no interesting start-ups (which is to say companies less than 5+ years old) in the British capital. By “interesting”, I dunno, I think I meant companies that are making a splash on the world stage, or might one day bring in – say – ten million pounds plus in annual revenues (hell, even ten million dollars would be nice).

My reason for being so mean-spirited in my review of the UK start-up scene was two fold. First off, I was concerned that my reception in London would otherwise be too warm: punching every British entrepreneur on the nose before I’d even landed seemed like a good way to head off that possibility. But secondly, and more importantly, I wanted to be proved wrong. Brits love proving people wrong, and so I figured that by saying there were absolutely no good start-ups in London, scores of brilliant entrepreneurs would contact me to refute my claim.

Guess what? Didn’t happen.

I mean, yes, scores of people came out of the woodwork – via email, or at the half-dozen parties and gatherings I attended in town – to tell me they passionately disagreed with my post (or myfollow-up video chat with Sarah). But here’s how the conversation generally went…

Entrepreneur: “So, I read your post (/saw your video) where you said there were no good London start-ups. You’re an idiot.”

Me: “Oh?”

Entrepreneur: “Yeah, just because the Silicon Valley echo chamber hasn’t heard of a company, doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist”

Me: “Fair point. So what are the good start-ups that I haven’t heard of?”

Entrepreneur: “Moshi Monsters is doing brilliantly.”

Me: “I know, I wrote about their success on TechCrunch and – uh – I profiled (founder) Michael Smith in my book. Trouble is, Mind Candy (the company behind Moshi) was founded seven years ago.”

Entrepreneur: “Ok! Moo.com

Me: “Yeah, same.”

Entrepreneur: “Last.fm!”

Me: “You’re kidding, right?”

Another popular line of conversation was the “British start-ups don’t have a chance because there’s no investment here” argument. Or, worse, the “people in Silicon Valley only care about companies founded by their friends” complaint. I heard that latter whine wheeled out not once but twice aboutPath – Dave Morin’s new social start-up. I had to gently explain to the poor critically-ignored London entrepreneurs that the attention given to Path was probably less down to the fact thatMorin has friends in the tech media (which he certainly does), and more because he was previously senior Platform Manager at Facebook. At that they skulked away.

So, all depressing news then? Not quite. While few people here were able to readily identify London’s new crop of potentially world-beating start-ups, a small amount of independent investigation reassured me that those start-ups do exist. (I should probably insert a quickdisclosure here and point out that due to the Petri-dish-like size of the London tech scene, a lot of the following companies employ – or were founded by – friends of mine. You simply can’t be a Brit writing about London technology without that being thus conflicted.)

Take, Huddle. The collaborative working start-up founded by Alastair Mitchell and Andy McLoughlin in 2006 continues to expand in both London and San Francisco (perhaps a little too hastily: rumour has it they’ve just laid off about a dozen people from their SF office – although the company says the number isn’t that large). The company raised $10.2m in Series B funding this year and according to their website, clients include HTC, Fujitsu and UNICEF. They also recently moved from Huddle.net to Huddle.com, so you know they mean business.

Or Skimlinks, which hopes to provide a viable revenue stream for online publishers by inserting affiliate ads in editorial content. Founder Alicia Navarro have disagreed in the past about whether automatically mixing editorial and advertising is a good thing or the work of the devil, but numerous publishers including the UK’s Daily Mirror newspaper are using the technology. Also, judging by the number of revellers at the Skimlinks Christmas party on Tuesday night, the company growing fast. Like Huddle, they’ve also just opened up shop in San Francisco.

Or Struq – one of several companies responsible for those creepy banners and buttons that stalk you around the web, from retailer to blog and back again. Unlike Skimlinks, Struq respects the moat between editorial and advertising, but again they’re growing fast as advertisers and media owners desperately leap on the new advertising format.

And not least – but, as far as I can tell, last – there’s Mendeley, a start-up which aims to ‘disrupt’ the cozy, costly, world of academic journals by offering a “research management tool for desktop & web” and also a way to “explore research trends and connect to other academics in your discipline.” I met the company’s Research Director, Jason Hoyt, in Palo Alto last year after he responded to one of my previous claims that the London start-up scene was dead – and he did a pretty decent job of convincing me that Mendeley might be an exception to that truth. Certainly judging by their advisory board – including former Last.fm chairman, Stefan Glänzer and former head of digital at Warner Music Group,  Alejandro Zubillaga – and the rave reviews from Wired, the New York Times and even the US government – the company probably deserves a place near the top of any list of promising UK startups.

So what can we learn from the success of Huddle, Skimlinks and Mendeley (and Moo, Moshi et al before them)?Firstly, we can learn that there are certain types of companies that do very well in London. Media companies, for one.  The UK is very good at media – be that music, book publishing, magazines, TV formats and even film (writing them, if not actually making them). If your company is a media play, rather than a pure technology one, then London could be a really good place to start  – not least because it’s a city where the leading media, technology, advertising and investment companies sit side by side. In the US there’s an entire containment between the technology and the creatives, a gap that forces entrepreneurs to pick New York (creative, but lacking in tech) or Silicon Valley (tech, but lacking in advertising and media expertise) as a base of operations – which, either way, represents a compromise.

Other companies that do well out of London are those, like Betfair, which involving gambling (the laws here are reasonably pro- online gambling, the laws in the US – not so much) and those involving academia (see Medeley) where, again, the UK is a recognised centre of excellence.

The second thing we can learn is that, if you’re a London-based entrepreneur who hopes to compete with Silicon Valley companies – say in areas like collaborative working or social networking – then you’d better book a flight to SFO, fast. You can whine all you like about Silicon Valley cliques and the bubble-mindedness of the US investment community – but that’s the reality. You can either get on a plane or – to quote Curated.by’s Bastian Lehmann – “stay at home and play with the losers”. Frankly, if your entrepreneurial skills don’t stretch to getting an O Visa then you’re probably not going to ever be the next Mark Zuckerberg. Or even Jonathan Abrams.

So there we are – a few learnings from London, for what they’re worth. Now, just time for some festive cheer before I hop back on a plane to the Valley bubble, where the cliquey US tech press give regular handjobs to their best friends’ startups and money is plucked off trees by colluding investors, and handed to anyone with an American accent and a Stanford hoodie.

I can’t wait. See you at the Crunchies.


TC Commenters – Though there’s pain in my chest, I still wish you the best with a FAQ

It’s been almost a year and a half since I started writing for TechCrunch, and a lot has changed since then. I’ve quit drinking, I’ve written anotherbookGreece and Ireland have both gone broke, the Chilean miners have become international heroes, and Julian Assange has been locked up. Oh, and TechCrunch has been sold to AOL.

And yet, plus Assange, plus c’est la meme chose. Long time readers might recall that in my first column I proposed a few basic guidelines for commenting on TechCrunch.

“Rule One: The next time one of you asks the rhetorical question “why is this news?” I swear to God I will come round to your basement, gather up all of your Wil Wheaton action figures and melt them down into a giant plastic phallus. If you’ve ever seen the Miriam Karlin scene in A Clockwork Orange, you know what happens next. Save us both a trip and next time you find yourself asking “why is this news?”, instead ask yourself “why do I still live with my parents?”. It’s news because people better than you said so.”

…that kind of thing. The initial result was encouraging – for a brief period of maybe 30 or 40 seconds the quality of comments on TechCrunch rose noticeably, including a 20% drop in misspelled name-calling and 35% fewer ungrammatical demands for any given writer to be fired. Since then, though, things have tailed off again – to the point where several of the writers no longer even look at comments, lest they be so disheartened with the state of humanity that they’re prompted to go on a killing spree.

I admit, having in the past few days alone been called a “cock”, an “idiot”, “scum”, a “wanker” (bless) and – worst of all – a “Republican” by commenters, I too am close to installing the TC comment blocker Chrome extension.

But before I take that final drastic step, and because I’m a uniter not a divider, I want to try one last time to restore dignity to TechCrunch comments. I admit, my first instinct was simply to write a post restating my earlier commenting rules, perhaps underlining a few of them that are more important than ever. (“I would rather encourage my only child to trick-or-treat his way down the sex offenders register than to spend one moment in the company of someone who would leave an anonymous comment on a blog. Man up or fuck off.”)

Two factors, though, gave me pause: first – I did a lazy cut and paste column last week and I probably can’t get away with that trick again for at least a month, and second – I remembered another thing that has changed at TechCrunch: we now have a community manager – the delightfulElin – who is working hard to bridge the gap between writers and readers. As such, she might not take kindly to me deliberately antagonizing you freaks guys. In any case, maybe aggressive rules are not the best approach: maybe like the basement-dwelling, mid-pubescent children so many of you clearly are you don’t respond well to authority. Perhaps engagement is the secret?

It’s worth a shot.

So, in that new spirit of engagement, I’ve just spent an “enjoyable” hour looking through some of the recent (and totally genuine) comments posted below my columns in an attempt to figure out what lies at the heart of your rage. What I discovered fascinated me: a large number of the negative comments on TechCrunch take the form of questions. It also gave me an idea: perhaps if I could answer those questions in a helpful and friendly way, the people asking them – week in, week out – might stop being so angry. Order will be restored! Just in time for Christmas!

As I say, it’s worth a shot. Here, then, is a handy – and very friendly – FAQ for TechCrunch commenters. I hope you find it useful.

Q) Why is this story on TechCrunch?
A) Great question! In fact, this is by far the most common question asked in response to my columns. It’s fantastic that so many of you are interested in the editorial process here at TechCrunch! To answer: generally speaking, a story will appear on TechCrunch because one of the professional writers employed here decided it was something that might be of interest to his or her readers. Also, if you read carefully (or at all), there’s a very good chance you’ll notice that the story involves technology in some way. (That said, other possible reasons include: because the author wanted to take revenge on a hotel company, because the author is having a bad day or because the author is keen to have sex with a particular PR person. That’s how journalism works, kids.)

Q) Do you actually get paid to write crap like this?
A) Another common question – but non the poorer for it! The answer is yes. Which makes one of us. Now, pray, what brings you here?

Q) You’re a typical “libtard” aren’t you?
A) Why yes! That’s why I used to write for the Guardian.

Q) You’re a typical Republican aren’t you?
A) Why yes! That’s why I used to write for the Telegraph.

Q) How can you say [opinion X] in this post when TechCrunch previously said [opinion Y]?
A) Because there are multiple writers at TechCrunch, you fucking imbecile curious reader. Also, to further confuse matters, I suffer from multiple personality disorder. As do I.

Q) Seriously – more link bait crap?
A) I admit, cherished and loyal correspondent, that this question is somewhat irritating as it operates on the assumption that we are directly rewarded based on the amount of traffic our posts get. Fortunately for me (and unfortunately for Jack McKenna) that is not the case. In fact our compensation is inversely proportional to the average IQ of the commenters we attract. This is why I’ve taken to writing about Sarah Palin with such frequency.

Q) Are you on drugs?
A) This one has cropped up on my posts with alarming regularity of late, which makes me worry that maybe I am on drugs. Alternatively it might just be a handy fall-back question for commenters who disagree with a point I’m making but lack the rhetorical skills – or basic intellect – to explain the basis of their objection. In that regard it’s the commenter equivalent of a girl shunning your romantic approaches, and you calling her a lesbian.

Q) No, but seriously, are you on drugs?
A) Yes, I am on a cocktail of very strong drugs.

Q) Is this what happens when you get acquired by AOL?
A) A relatively new entry to the comment hall of fame, this one takes a variety of forms – often appearing as a statement: cf. “Clearly this is what happens when you get acquired by AOL”. Either way, no matter what the editorial position – that Sarah Palin is a bad parent, that Wikileaks is a net negative to the world, that content farms are evil, or that AOL is the killer of all things good – you can be sure to see a comment from someone suggesting that our new corporate owners somehow had a hand in it. Moving to Discus? AOL. Favourable coverage of Yahoo? AOL. Jason Kincaid writing about Android? AOL. MG buying a Macbook Air? AOL. 9/11? AOL. For the avoidance of doubt there is actually only one question relating to TechCrunch to which the correct answer is “because TechCrunch has been acquired by AOL.” and that’s “Why the hell does TechCrunch have all these bottles of shitty AOL branded wine around the office?”

Q) Is this TechCrunch or Huffington Post?
A) TechCrunch.

Q) Is this TechCrunch or Politicrunch?
A) TechCrunch. (Also, there is no such site as Politicrunch).

Q) Is this TechCrunch or Mashable?
A) TechCrunch.

Q) Is this TechCrunch or Valleywag?
A) TechCrunch.

Q) Is this TechCrunch or Fox News?
A) TechCrunch.

Q) Is this TechCrunch or Faux News?
A) Kill yourself.

Q) Why is this article Not Safe For Work?
A) Because it contains a comment in which I call you a fucking dick.

Q) Serious Arrington, will you please fire this guy?
A) Probably.


Everyone at Le Web is Wrong: Wikileaks Should be Condemned not Celebrated

Le Web. I’m still unclear on the unique selling point of Europe’s “leading technology conference”, and yet here I am, for the third year in a row, hanging out in a snow-bound venue four hundred miles from the centre of Paris, watching a succession of American entrepreneurs being interviewed – in English – by journalists who have flown in specially from California.

I’ll say this, though: the food is good this year – really good.

Now, having satisfied my annual obligation to be snarky about Le Web, I’m free to talk about what passes for the big story of the conference, and indeed the biggest story of the world right now. Wikileaks. Specifically, the continuing DOS attacksagainst companies who are perceived as enemies of Wikileaks.

Judging by the hostile reaction to Paypal’s Osama Bedier yesterday, the audience here in Paris is of a single mind on the subject. Julian Assange is a hero – a paragon of virtuous openness; a flesh-coloured bottle of sunshine, disinfecting the fetid swamp of global diplomacy. Those who would cross him – the Paypals, the Visas, the Mastercards and the EVERY SINGLE GOVERNMENT IN THE FREE WORLDs – are the enemy, and – inshallah – their websites will soon crumble under the crowdsourced vengeance of all of those who cherish our freedoms.

And then there’s me.

I hate Julian Assange. I hate the way he’s posing as a champion of truth and justice whilst hiding in the shadows and resorting to blackmail in a drawn-out attempt to avoid having to answer criminal charges in a publicly-accessible court of law. I hate the fact that he’s trading on a myth that We The People have a right to know everything our governments are saying and doing in our name when, in fact, we elect people to act in our best interests on a global stage without necessarily giving us a heads up every time they want to have an off-the-record chat with a dictator. (If every tiny decision has to be made based on how it will play in public, then we’ll soon end up with a whole load of crowd-pleasing decisions but very little actual diplomacy. Palling around with Chinese leaders orArab kings might be a strategic no-brainer but it doesn’t play great in the heartland.)

Also, I hate his hair.

But here’s what I hate most about Wikileaks, and what no-one else here seems to be saying: that with this most recent round of leaks, the organisation has actually become a sworn enemy of openness.

The release of a quarter of a million diplomatic cables – documents which have made Wikileaks a top story around the world, and Assange a celebrity – has been variously compared to Watergate and the Pentagon papers. Of course the comparison is ridiculous. Both the Pentagon Papers and Watergate involved scandalous information that almost nobody knew. “Cablegate”, on the other hand, involved cables that were routinely shared between members of the US government and armed forces, and trusted figures from friendly nations.

Thousands – maybe millions – of people had access to the cables – which, as openness goes, is pretty impressive. Hell, even a lowly Private like Bradley Manning – the junior soldier with a grudge against the American military who allegedly leaked the documents to Wikileaks – had access to them. Now, however, thanks to Wikileaks, all of that is likely to stop. What’s also likely to stop is the routine documenting of casual conversations, the candid sharing of opinions between allies – and a whole bunch of other acts of openness which if Wikileaks actually meant a word it said, the organisation should be all for. And for… what? So that millions of us who had no real business – beyond a basic prurient interest – in knowing what conversations are being had behind closed diplomatic doors could feel important. Well, great. Responsible openness’ loss is a few million busybodies’ gain.

But of course none of that seems to matter to the crowd at Le Web who applaud Wikileaks’ Assange and showed their displeasure towards Paypal’s Bedier. All that matters to them is that THE MAN is trying to HIDE SOMETHING, and he’s being assisted by EVIL CORPORATIONS like Paypal and Visa and Mastercard. Possessed by that belief, it seems perfectly right and proper that those corporations should be made to suffer, and those behind the retaliation should be applauded for their denial of service attacks. The fact that many of the “hacktivists” are the same people who share child pornand harass the parents of dead children is immaterial: the enemy of the enemy of the enemy of my enemy is my friend.


Another Year, Another Possibly Depressing Visit to London

Another day – another year, actually – another airport. This time I’m at gate A11 at SFO waiting for my flight to London. My plan was to use the 10 hour flight to write a column about how I’m looking forward to seeing London again but how I’mdepressed nervous at the idea of catching up with the state of the city’s tech entrepreneurial scene.

From what I’ve heard from Brit friends who have visited the Valley, it seems that London 2.0 has remained – at best – stagnant since I was last there twelve months ago. In some cases, comically so. This time last year, we were all eagerly anticipating the imminent US roll-out of Spotify – the next big UK-based startup that was going to change the world (see previously Bebo – subsequently killed by AOL – and Last.fm – now set in amber by CBS). Twelve months on and, uh, we’re all eagerly anticipating the imminent US roll-out of Spotiy. And that’s it. As far as I can tell, there’s almost nothing else out of London that’s making even the smallest blip on the rest of the world’s radar.

I was going to write a column about that sad fact. That and the acknowledgement that I’m probably completely wrong about it. How it’s far more likely that I’ve just been stuck in the Valley bubble for the past twelve months, and that, when I get back to the UK, I’ll quickly realize how exciting and vibrant everything really is there, and how many companies are on the verge of making it big.

Or at least that was my plan until about ten minutes ago when I realized two things. Firstly, that I’ve spent so much time traveling domestically in the US that I’d forgotten that international flights don’t offer Wifi; which makes writing and posting a column from 37,000 feet a little tricky. And secondly, that this exact time last year I was taking the same flight, with the same concerns about London 2.0 – and writing the exact same last-minute column about how I was hoping to be proved wrong by the reality on the ground. Spolier alert: I wasn’t proved wrong at all.

For both of those reasons, then – as they make the final call for my flight – I figure it might be a cynically fun idea to simply copy and paste what I wrote last year, with just a couple of adjustments [marked by brackets] to bring it up to date. You might call it laziness, I might call it an ironic underscoring of the depressing rut of London 2.0. Either way, here goes.

It’s depressing how few brackets I need.

NSFW: Sleepless in London. It’s scary outside the bubbleDec 6, 2009

I’m tired. Very tired. It’s a little after 4am San Francisco time – noon GMT – and I’m sitting in the arrivals lounge Heathrow airport, thanking the lord for Boingo hotspots and trying to commit these few hundred words to cyberspace before the daylight finally penetrates my brain and my whole body goes into jet-lag meltdown.

And to think I was so organised 24 hours ago. My column was written – 1000 words on a big subject of the week; a big subject that I now can’t talk about, for reasons I also can’t talk about. Don’t ask.

Still, I’m a professional and there’s no use crying over spilt milk – I’ve spent five [six] pounds on a coffee, opened a fresh Google Document and am all set to write an alternative column on how happy I am to be back in London, and how excited I am for the opportunity to catch up with all the amazing and inspiring start-ups my erstwhile home has to offer.

But therein lies the problem. While I’m certainly happy to be here – it’s my 30th [31st] birthday tomorrow, and there is a party planned – the truth is, I’m just not all that excited about London’s current crop of dot com hopefuls.

When I moved to San Francisco at the start of the year, I promised myself I’d head back to the old country twice a year – mainly to keep my cynicism topped up and to make sure I didn’t lose the accent that your American women find so endearing. But also for a third, more serious reason: I don’t want to forget my roots. The London technology scene is where I cut my columnising teeth, and it’s Brit entrepreneurs that first inspired me to try – and fail – my hand at building a start-up. Whereas Valley entrepreneurs point to Facebook and Google as their inspirations, mine came in the form of MooLast.fm and Bebo. Smaller fish perhaps, but each with a uniquely British vibe that somehow made them more fun; more human. Also – say what you like about San Francisco as a technology hub, but the London scene’s parties shit all over the rest of the world.

But recently [last year] something has changed. I noticed it when I last visited back in June [2009] and, in what turned out to be my penultimate column for the Guardian, I  called time of death on London’s start-up scene. Everyone was running out of money, I said, people were getting laid off in their droves, and all the real action is – as ever – in San Francisco. Two days later, Guardian Tech’s freelance budget ran out of money, my column was laid off and I was hired by TechCrunch in San Francisco. QED.

And since then London has only become less relevant as a home for dynamic exciting start-ups. Take ‘Silicon Roundabout’. Last year, Dopplr co-founder Matt Biddulph noticed that a number of high profile start-ups – including Moo, Last.fm, and of course Dopplr – were all based within walking distance of the old street roundabout in East London. He jokingly suggested that the region be renamed ‘Silicon Roundabout’. Today the Old Street roundabout remains but Dopplr – and Biddulph – have left for Berlin, Last.fm is owned by CBS in New York and Moo has opened a US base of operations in Providence, Rhode Island. A similar story is true right across the Capital, with Bebo laying off almost all [all] of its local staff and countless other London 2.0 poster children looking to the US for money or a new base of operations. The idea that a company can thrive – or even survive – in London alone seems entirely implausible; ridiculous even.  Off the top of my head I can’t think of a single exciting web business that has come out of the UK in the past six months. Spotify is the nearest candidate and that was created by Swedes.

Moreover, in the few short months since my last trip back home I’ve gone utterly native in my attitude towards my homeland. I see plenty of my Brit friends when they visit San Francisco, but rather than asking for news from the old country, I’m more likely to ask them when they’re going to come to their senses and move to the Valley. I still visit TechCrunch Europe several times a week – Mike Butcher always does a solid job at covering what’s going on over here – but even there I’ve noticed a curious change in my attitude to what I read. Where once I read TCEU through the eyes of a local – noting new companies and inwardly congratulating the latest Belgian company to secure funding – I now look at European technology news in the way American news channels cover foreign stories about escaped bears. Not to learn anything useful, but rather to amuse myself on how parochial foreigners can be. Oh, bless, the French have launched their own rival to Facebook. Ho ho ho.

Things have got so bad that I’ve even started to mentally turn on my friends who are still toiling away near Old Street. A couple of days ago, one such friend – who I won’t name, sufficed to say he’s CEO of a hot London start-up – emailed me an amazing screed in response to a post by one of my TC colleagues hyping a Valley-based rival. The thrust of my friend’s complaint was that his company has been virtually ignored by TechCrunch.com even though TechCrunch Europe had hailed it as one of the continent’s rising stars. This disparity he blamed on the fact that TechCrunch (US) is only interested in local companies, created by people who happen to be friends of our writers. Six months ago, I’d have agreed with him – I mean, there really no need for ten thousand Pandora stories for every Last.fm post, or four hundred Foursquare plugs for every mention of Rummble. But on reading my friend’s email this week, my first response wasn’t sympathy, but apathy. Mate – I thought – that’s just the way it is. TechCrunch is based in San Francisco and so are most of the companies TechCrunch covers. Those are the rules of the game. If you don’t like it, stop whining and get on a fucking plane.

But the fact is, my friend is right; and I’m wrong. There are hundreds of amazing technology companies outside of the Valley, many of which haven’t taken a penny of American money and are making money hand over fist without a single San Francisco-based user. Just read a couple of Lacy’s recent dispatches from India or China; or a week’s worth of TechCrunch Europe posts and you’ll see that’s true. The problem – my problem – is that living in the Valley has it easy to forget, or care, about them. The skin of the bubble is just too thick and the voices from Europe (and beyond) just too faint and distant.

And so I’ve taken my own advice and got on a fucking plane. In the three weeks I’m in town, I’m planning to meet as many UK-based start-ups as possible, to keep half an eye on what comes out of LeWeb next week, to catch up with friends who are still doing cool things near Silicon Roundabout, to re-avail myself of the kick-ass social scene here – and above all to remind myself that the old country is still home to plenty of new thinking. And then at the end of the month, I’ll return to the bubble – re-energised with cynicism and hopefully slightly less convinced that Foursquare represents the most important thing in the future of the world. I mean, everyone here knows that’s Spotify.

But all that will have to wait until next week. I’ve got a birthday to have first – and right now I just need to get some sleep.

Hello [again] London. And goodnight.

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