Thursday, April 25, 2019

An Author-Optimized Social Network Approach

Sciam Art credit: jaybendt.com/
In this month’s edition of Scientific American magazine, Wade Roush comments on social networks' potential deleterious impact on emotional well-being. (Scientific American May 2019: Turning Off the Emotion Pump)  He prompts, "Are there better social technologies than Facebook?" and cites previous attempts such as now-defunct Path and still struggling Diaspora as potential promising developments. I don’t wish to detract from the contemporary concerns about notification overload and privacy leaks. But I’d like to highlight the positive side of social platforms for spurring creative collaboration and suggest an approach to potentially expand the positive impacts they can facilitate in the future. I think the answer to his question is: More diversity of platforms and better utilities needed. 


In our current era, everyone is a participant, in some way, in the authorship of the web. That's a profound and positive thing. We are all enfranchised in a way that previously most were not.  As an advocate for the power of the internet for advancing creative expression, I believe the benefits we've gained by this online enfranchisement should not be overshadowed by aforementioned bumps along the road.  We need more advancement, perhaps in a different way than has been achieved in most mainstream social platforms to date.  Perhaps it is just the utilization that needs to shift, more than the tools themselves. But as a product-focused person, I think some design factors could shape this change we'd need to see to have social networks be a positive force in everybody's lives. 


When Facebook turned away from "the Facebook Wall", its earliest iteration, I was fascinated by this innovation.  It was no longer a bunch of different profile destinations interlinked by notifications of what people said about each other. It became an atomized webpage that looked different to everyone who saw it, depending on the quality of contributions of the linked users.  The outcome was a mixed bag because the range of experiences of each visitor were so different. Some people saw amazing things, from active creators/contributors they'd linked to.  Some people saw the boredom of a stagnant or overly-narrow pool of peer contributors reflected back to them. Whatever your opinion of the content of Facebook, Twitter and Reddit, as subscription services they provide tremendous utility in today's web.  They are far superior to the web-rings and Open Directory Project of the 1990s, as they are reader-driven rather than author/editor driven. 


The experimental approach I'm going to suggest for advancement of next-generation social networks should probably happen outside the established platforms. For when experimentation is done within these services it can jeopardize the perceived user control and trust that attracted their users in the first place.   


In a brainstorm with an entrepreneur, named Lisa, she pointed out that the most engaging and involved collaborative discussions she'd seen had taken place in Ravelry and Second Life.  Knitting and creating 3D art takes an amazing amount of time investment.  She posited that it may be this invested time that leads to the quality of the personal interactions that happen on such platforms.  It may actually be the casualness of engagement on conventional public forums that makes those interactions more haphazard, impersonal and less constructive or considerate. Our brainstorm spread to how might more such platforms emerge to spur ever greater realization of new authorship, artistry and collaboration. We focused not on volume of people nor velocity of engagement, but rather greatest individual contribution. 


The focus (raison d'ĂȘtre) of a platform tends to skew the nature of the behaviors on it and can hamper or facilitate the individual creation or art represented based on the constraints of the platform interface. (For instance Blogger, Wordpress and Medium are great for long form essays. Twitter, Instagram and Reddit excel as forums for sharing observations about other works or references.) If one were to frame a platform objective on the maximum volume of individual contribution or artistry and less on the interactions, you'd get a different nature of network. And across a network of networks, it would be possible to observe what components of a platform contribute best to the unfettered artistry of the individual contributors among them. 


I am going to refer to this platform concept as "Mikoshi", because it reminds me of the Japanese portable shrines of the same name, pictured at right. In festival parades, dozens of people heft a one-ton shrine atop their shoulders.  The bobbing of the shrine is supposed to bring good luck to the participants and onlookers. The time I participated in a mikoshi parade, I found it to be exhausting effort, fun as it was.  The thing that stuck out to me was that that whole group is focused toward one end.  There were no detractors.   


Metaphorically, I see the mikoshi act of revelry as somewhat similar to the collaborative creative artistry sharing that Lisa was pointing out. In Lisa's example, there was a barrier to entry and a shared intent in the group. You had to be a knitter or a 3D artist to have a seat at the table. Why would hurdles create the improved quality of engagement and discourse? Presumably, if you're at that table you want to see others succeed and create more! There is a certain amount of credibility and respect the community gives contributors based on the table-stakes of participation that got them there.  This is the same with most other effort-intensive sharing platforms, like Mixcloud and Soundcloud, where I contribute. The work of others inspires us to increase our level of commitment and quality as well.  The shared direction, the furtherance of art, propels ever more art by all participants.  It virtuously improves in a cycle.  This drives greater complexity, quality and retention with time.   


To achieve a pure utility of greatest contributor creation would be a different process than creating a tool optimized purely for volume or velocity of engagement. Lisa and I posited an evolving biological style of product "mutation" that might create a proliferating organic process, driven by participant contribution and automated selection of attributes observed across the most healthy offshoot networks. Maximum individual authorship should be the leading selective pressure for Mikoshi to work. This is not to say that essays are better than aphorisms because of their length. But the goal to be incentivized by a creativity-inspiring ecosystem should be one where the individuals participating feel empowered to create to the maximum extent. There are other tools designed for optimizing velocity and visibility, but those elements could be detrimental to individual participation or group dynamics. 


To give over control to contribution-driven optimization as an end, it would Mikoshi would need to be a modular system akin to the Wordpress platform of Automattic. But platform mutation would have to be achieved agnostic of author self-promotion. The optimizing mutation of Mikoshi would need to be outside of the influence of content creators' drive for self promotion. This is similar to the way that "Pagerank" listened to interlinking of non-affiliated web publishers to drive its anti-spam filter, rather than the publishers' own attempts to promote themselves. Visibility and promulgation of new Mikoshi offshoots should be delegated to a different promotion-agnostic algorithm entirely, one looking at the health of a community of active authors in other preceding Mikoshi groups. Evolutionary adaptation is driven by what ends up dying. But Mikoshi would be driven by what previously thrived.


I don't think Mikoshi should be a single tool, but an approach to building many different web properties. It's centered around planned redundancy and planned end-of-life for non-productive forks of Mikoshi. Any single Mikoshi offshoot could exist indefinitely. But ideally, certain of them would thrive and attract greater engagement and offshoots.

The successive alterations of Mikoshi would be enabled by its capability to fork, like open source projects such as Linux or Gecko do.  As successive deployments are customized and distributed, the most useful elements of the underlying architecture can be notated with telemetry to suggest optimizations to other Mikoshi forks that may not have certain specific tools.  This quasi-organic process, with feedback on the overall contribution "health" of the ecosystem represented by participant contribution, could then suggest attributes for viable offshoot networks to come.  (I'm framing this akin to a browser's extensions, or a Wordpress template's themes and plugins which offer certain optional expansions to pages using past templates of other developers.)  The end products of Mikoshi are multitudinous and not constrained.  Similar to Wordpress, attributes to be included in any future iteration are at the discretion of the communities maintaining them.


Of course Facebook and Reddit could facilitate this.  Yet, "roll your own platform" doesn't fit their business models particularly.  Mozilla, manages several purpose-built social networks for their communities. (Bugzilla and Mozillians internally,  and the former Webmaker and new Hubs for web enthusiasts)  But Mikoshi doesn't particularly fit their mission or business model either.  I believe Automattic is better positioned to go after this opportunity, as it already powers 1/3 of global websites, and has competencies in massively-scaled hosting of web pages with social components. 


I know from my own personal explorations on dozens of web publishing and media platforms that they have each, in different ways, facilitated and drawn out different aspects of my own creativity.  I've seen many of these platforms die off.  It wasn't that those old platforms didn't have great utility or value to their users.  Most of them were just not designed to evolve.  They were essentially too rigid, or encountered political problems within the organizations that hosted them.  As the old Ani Difranco song "Buildings and Bridges" points out, "What doesn't bend breaks." (Caution that lyrics contain some potentially objectionable language.)  The web of tomorrow may need a new manner of collaborative social network that is able to weather the internal and external pressures that threaten them.  Designing an adaptive platform like Mikoshi may accomplish this.  

Sunday, April 14, 2019

My 20 years of web

Twenty years ago I resigned from my former job at a financial news wire to pursue a career in San Francisco.  We were transitioning our news service (Jiji Press, a Japanese wire service similar to Reuters) to being a web-based news site.  I had followed the rise and fall of Netscape and the Department of Justice anti-trust case on Microsoft's bundling of IE with Windows.  But what clinched it for me was a Congressional testimony of the Federal Reserve Chairman (the US central bank) about his inability to forecast the potential growth of the Internet.

Working in the Japanese press at the time gave me a keen interest in international trade.  Prime Minister Hashimoto negotiated with United States Trade Representative Mickey Cantor to enhance trade relations and reduce protectionist tariffs that the countries used to artificially subsidize domestic industries.  Japan was the second largest global economy at the time.  I realized that if I was going to play a role in international trade it was probably going to be in Japan or on the west coast of the US.
 I decided that because Silicon Valley was the location where much of the industry growth in internet technology was happening, that I had to relocate there if I wanted to engage in this industry.  So I packed up all my belongings and moved to San Francisco to start my new career.

At the time, there were hundreds of small agencies that would build websites for companies seeking to establish or expand their internet presence.  I worked with one of these agencies to build Japanese versions of clients' English websites.  My goal was to focus my work on businesses seeking international expansion.

At the time, I met a search engine called LookSmart, which aspired to offer business-to-business search engines to major portals. (Business-to-Business is often abbreviated B2B and is a tactic of supporting companies that have their own direct consumers, called business-to-consumer, which is abbreviated B2C.)  Their model was similar to Yahoo.com, but instead of trying to get everyone to visit one website directly, they wanted to distribute the search infrastructure to other companies, combining the aggregate resources needed to support hundreds of companies into one single platform that was customized on demand for those other portals.

At the time LookSmart had only English language web search.  So I proposed launching their first foreign language search engine and entering the Japanese market to compete with Yahoo!'s largest established user base outside the US.  Looksmart's President had strong confidence in my proposal and expanded her team to include a Japanese division to invest in the Japanese market launch.  After we delivered our first version of the search engine, Microsoft's MSN licensed it to power their Japanese portal and Looksmart expanded their offerings to include B2B search services for Latin America and Europe.

I moved to Tokyo, where I networked with the other major portals of Japan to power their web search as well.  Because at the time Yahoo! Japan wasn't offering such a service, a dozen companies signed up to use our search engine.  Once the combined reach of Looksmart Japan rivaled that of the destination website of Yahoo! Japan, our management brokered a deal for LookSmart Japan to join Yahoo! Japan.  (I didn't negotiate that deal by the way.  Corporate mergers and acquisitions tend to happen at the board level.)

By this time Google was freshly independent of Yahoo! exclusive contract to provide what they called "algorithmic backfill" for the Yahoo! Directory service that Jerry Yang and David Filo had pioneered at Stanford University.  Google started a B2C portal and started offering of their own B2B publishing service by acquiring Yahoo! partner Applied Semantics, giving them the ability to put Google ads into every webpage on the internet without needing users to conduct searches anymore.  Yahoo!, fearing competition from Google in B2B search, acquired Inktomi, Altavista, Overture, and Fast search engines, three of which were leading B2B search companies.  At this point Yahoo!'s Overture division hired me to work on market launches across Asia Pacific beyond Japan.

With Yahoo! I had excellent experiences negotiating search contracts with companies in Japan, Korea, China, Australia, India and Brazil before moving into their Corporate Partnerships team to focus on the US search distribution partners.

Then in 2007 Apple launched their first iPhone.  Yahoo! had been operating a lightweight mobile search engine for html that was optimized for being shown on mobile phones.  One of my projects in Japan had been to introduce Yahoo!'s mobile search platform as an expansion to the Overture platform.  However, with the ability for the iPhone to actually show full web pages, the market was obviously going to shift.

I and several of my colleagues became captivated by the potential to develop specifically for the iPhone ecosystem.  So I resigned from Yahoo! to launch my own company, ncubeeight.  Similar to the work I had been doing at LookSmart and prior, we focused on companies that had already launched on the desktop internet that were now seeking to expand to the mobile internet ecosystem.

Being a developer in a nascent ecosystem was fascinating.  But it's much more complex than the open internet because discovery of content on the phone depends on going through a marketplace, which is something like a business directory.  Apple and Google knew there were great business models of being a discovery gateway for this specific type of content.  Going "direct to consumer" is an amazing challenge of marketing on small-screen devices.  And gaining visibility in Apple iTunes and Google Play is even more challenging a marketing problem that publicizing your services on the desktop Internet. 

Next I joined the Mozilla to work on the Firefox platform partnerships.  It has been fascinating working with this team, which originated from the Netscape browser in the 1990's and transformed into an open-source non-profit focusing on the advancement of internet technology in conjunction rather than solely in competition with Netscape's former competitors.

What is interesting to the outside perspective is most likely that companies that used to compete against each other for engagement (by which I mean your attention) are now unified in the idea of working together to enhance the ecosystem of the web.  Google, Mozilla and Apple now all embrace open source for the development of their web rendering engines.  Now these companies are beholden to an ecosystem of developers who create end-user experiences as well as the underlying platforms that each company provides as a custodian of the ecosystem.   The combined goals of a broad collaborative ecosystem are more important and impactful than any single platform or company.  A side note: Amazon is active in the wings here, basing their software on spin-off code from Google's Android open source software.  Also, after their mobile phone platform faltered they started focusing on a space where they could completely pioneer a new web-interface, voice.

When I first came to the web, much of what it was made up of was static html.  Over the past decade, web pages shifted to dynamically assembled pages and content feeds determined by individual user customizations.    This is a fascinating transition that I witnessed while at Yahoo! which has been the subject of many books.   (My favorite being Sarah Lacy's Once You're Lucky, Twice You're Good.)

Sometimes in reflective moments, one things back to what one's own personal legacy will be.  In this industry, dramatic shifts happen every three months.  Websites and services I used to enjoy tremendously 10 or 20 years ago have long since been acquired, shut down or pivoted into something new.  So what's going to exist that you could look back on after 100 years?  Probably very little except for the content that has been created by website developers themselves.  It is the diversity of web content accessible that brings us everyday to the shores of the world wide web.

There is a service called the Internet Archive that registers historical versions of web pages.  I wonder what the current web will look like from the future perspective, in this current era of dynamically-customized feeds that differ based on the user viewing them.  If an alien landed on Earth and started surfing the history of the Internet Archive's "Wayback Machine", I imagine they'll see a dramatic drop-off in content that was published in static form after 2010.

The amazing thing about the Internet is the creativity it brings out of the people who engage with it.  Back when I started telling the story of the web to people, I realized I needed to have my own web page.  So I needed to figure out what I wanted to amplify to the world.  Because I admired folk percussion that I'd seen while I was living in Japan, I decided to make my website about the drums of the world.  I used a web editor called Geocities to create this web page you see at right.  I decided to leave in its original 1999 Geocities template design for posterity's sake.  Since then my drum pursuits have expanded to include various other web projects including a YouTube channel dedicated to traditional folk percussion.  A flickr channel dedicated to drum photos.  Subsequently I launched a Soundcloud channel and a Mixcloud DJ channel for sharing music I'd composed or discovered over the decades.

The funny thing is, when I created this website, people found me who I never would have met or found otherwise.  I got emails from people around the globe who were interested in identifying drums they'd found.   Even Cirque de Soleil wrote me asking for advice on drums they should use in their performances!

Since I'd opened the curtains on my music exploration, I started traveling around to regions of the world that had unique percussion styles.  What had started as a small web development project became a broader crusade in my life, taking me to various remote corners of the world I never would have traveled to otherwise.  And naturally, this spawned a new website with another Youtube channel dedicated to travel videos.

The web is an amazing place where we can express ourselves, discover and broaden our passions and of course connect to others across the continents. 

When I first decided to leave the journalism industry, it was because I believed the industry itself was inherently about waiting for other people to do or say interesting things.  In the industry I pursued, the audience was waiting for me do to that interesting thing myself.  The Internet is tremendously valuable as a medium.  It has been an amazing 20 years watching it evolve.  I'm very proud to have had a small part in its story.  I'm riveted to see where it goes in the next two decades!  And I'm even more riveted to see where I go, with its help.

On the web, the journey you start seldom ends where you thought it would go!