Finally, #IAMW16 in my words (and then a bit)

There are conferences and then there are conferences. When Andres Colmenares got in touch late last year to ask if I was interested in speaking at their Internet Age Media Conference in April this year, I was curious, and all I read and saw about it online was positive, so I said yes (it was also in Barcelona!). In the following few months leading up to the conference, I got to know the IAM team better, met them in person when they were over in London on work, and began working on my talk.

I’d like to mention the collegial culture – more of a community – that Andres and Lucy, the organisers of IAM, are creating, two years on from the launch of the conference. A few of last year’s speakers were in attendance again, for no other reason than to be part of it again. It helped that no one really had to dash away to their offices, and it was a fairly global audience, from all over Europe and some from the US – you didn’t feel like you were just speaking to the same people you know from work.

The passionate talks by the publishers of niche media really stood out for me: Oslo-based Recens Paper (a youth culture magazine targeted at 16-25 year olds founded by 16 year-old Elise By Olsen), Brownbook Magazine (based in Dubai, and catering to the Middle East and North Africa region), Freunde von Freunden (or Friends of Friends, by Berlin-based agency More Sleep), and Stack Magazines (a subscription-based business that sends out a different indie magazine every month). It wasn’t surprising to hear more than one member of the audience ask the same question: ‘how do you make money?’ (there’s no easy answer).

Zach Seward on the genesis and evolution of Quartz’ new-ish bot-based iPhone news app was also fascinating. It is impressive that every single talk by a Quartz employee that I’ve seen so far (mostly in London; this was the only non-UK based one I’ve seen in person) has been so open in terms of truly opening the business up to the audience. You really get the sense that they are about the future of publishing, not steeped in legacy as so many news publications are today. The only other publication that comes to mind when I think of that ethos is Medium – which I know is not a ‘publication’ in the traditional sense of the word, but their engineers are so focussed on product and market fit that yesterday’s news of the $50m Series C round did not seem surprising to me at all; witness this from an interview this month with Ev Williams:

“If you look at feedback loops like likes and retweets, they’ve been very carefully crafted to maximise certain types of behaviours. But if we reward people based on a measurement system where there’s literally no difference between a one-second page view or reading something that brought them value or changed their mind, it’s like – your job is feeding people, but all you’re measuring is maximising calorie delivery. So what you’d learn is that junk food is more efficient than healthy, nourishing food.”

Anyway, that was an aside. Back to IAM – also check out Exposed Magazine, which came out of the incubator at CIID in Copenhagen last year: a dual media publication in the form of a printed magazine and a free iPhone app that recognises images inside the magazine, with additional content. I got a copy.

John Willshire gave a thought-provoking talk on meta-mechanics (or how the internet works, or should) in true Smithery style – it’s up here. The ‘future of museums’ was also neat – the past meets the present and future – and we were brought up close and personal with people from Rhizome (affiliated to New York’s New Museum), the Tate (their Tate Collectives division, working to engage young people with museums, has some cool projects like last year’s hilarious 1840s GIF party in their portfolio) and the V&A (who launched a sleek new website last week in collaboration with Made by Many).

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the very experimental internet-y things during the conference, like Domestic Data Streamers‘ real-life emoji experiment after each talk (you had to put up one of 5 emojis that were handed out at the beginning of the conference, to indicate your opinion about it), and Sergio Albiac’s code-as-art experiment with the attendee badges. This was mine (it involved speaking into a laptop for a minute, and getting a picture taken):


Anyhow, back to my talk, which happened to open the first day of the conference (no pressure). It was broadly about internet culture, seen through the lens of my work with Ada’s List and the Other Valleys. There’ll hopefully be a video soon, but till then, here are my slides.

Lucy and Andres, thank you for the opportunity. And to the entire IAM family – YOU ROCK.

OK Go go to Facebook this time, but who’s to say what the future will hold?

If you’re an avid consumer of the internet, you would have seen OK Go’s latest rather neat music video, released last Friday. It was shot in zero gravity, on Russian airlines S7, and the final version was finally done in a continuous take, but over 45 minutes due to the restrictions of physics, so to speak! My thoughts:

Every video of theirs is better than the last, which is a really hard thing to do. The annual brouhaha around SuperBowl ads in the US and Christmas ads in the UK is proof of that – and rarely do brands consistently deliver. Harvard should do a short ‘modern’ case study on them. I’d be interested to watch a short documentary, even – the ‘making of’ video is a good teaser.

OK Go went with Facebook for the launch of this video over YouTube, thanks to the lack of ad revenue that the band saw with YouTube in previous years. Also, the record labels and YouTube together struck a deal which made it *less* profitable for them if they allowed embeds, so they didn’t – and fans suffered as a consequence, as they usually do (more here). It will be interesting to know how the Facebook strategy compares to YouTube for OK Go, specifically with regard to the data they’re able to collect on their audiences.

Today’s Monday Note has a good summary of why pledging allegiance to one social platform can be suicide for a brand in the long run – as a lot of people advocating the open web have said for a long time. To be clear, the Monday Note piece refers to media unicorns specifically, but the logic is the same:

When a content provider makes 44x more traffic outside its own premises, it becomes highly vulnerable to changes the third party might make to its distribution mechanism. As long as publishers’ and distributors’ interests are aligned, everything’s fine. But who can guarantee such harmony will last?

We all know the havoc that the changes to Facebook’s organic reach caused to brands back in 2014 for example. However Facebook’s growing advantage is reach, and its new(ish) focus on mobile and video is probably what caused OK Go to go with them for this one release, a smart choice for now.

What will be really interesting – and it’s likely we’ll see this in the months to come – is for a brand to release entertainment content in formal partnership with someone like Netflix or Amazon Instant Video as they grow in reach (the documentary idea I mentioned above could be an additional part of such a package). Spotify’s newly launched Video format might also be an interesting experiment for some. At some point, market forces must lead to Facebook and Google’s stronghold over video and/or mobile loosening, surely?

Collaboration, a documentary

Yesterday I watched a documentary on collaboration with some of my colleagues at PHD. It’s worth watching; features Vint Cerf (‘co-father of the internet’, as they called him!) and Howard Rheingold amongst others. There was an interesting point about how innovation spreads when networks are connected, which resonated with me because it’s something I do a fair bit. Vint Cerf mentioned how the value of the web isn’t inherent in technology itself, it’s in the kinds of things & collaborations that people use technology to do. There was also a point made by Mr. Rheingold about the importance of not just being a leech – he referred to Van Gogh’s work, a lot of which focussed on fields, and the principle of  ‘sowing and reaping’. The point being that a lot of people consume what other people create on the web, but it’s our responsibility to build on these things and not just consume mindlessly –  vital for a strong and nourishing internet. If we want the good of the web to overpower the bad, then those of us who create need to remember to do this responsibly and over the long run, and not abandon it to ‘someone else’.

Labs: to be or not to be

The latest issue of NESTA’s The Long & Short has a really interesting read on innovation labs in the social and political arena through the years. Specifically, this stood out:

Type the term “social lab” into Google’s N-Gram and you will see two spikes in its usage in the 20th century: the Depression, and the oil crisis of the 70s. It’s not difficult to see the attraction that labs promising to prototype the future hold when current institutions are failing – and whose very failure generates for labs (like their close relatives, the thinktank and the startup) a vast gene pool of talent in today’s reserve army of the underemployed. Here at the fag-end of our own lost decade it’s perhaps wise to ask whether we are poised on the cusp of a new golden age of experimentalism, or rapidly approaching Peak Lab?

There are lessons for marketing labs no doubt. The article indicates that social labs came up at a time when underemployment was rampant. I plotted the growth of ‘innovation labs’, ‘advertising labs’ and ‘marketing labs’ from 2005-2015 on Google Trends. The results for ‘advertising labs’ were too small to be of significance compared to the other two. I excluded ‘media labs’ because the results were too many (prompted by searches of institutions like MIT Media Lab, I’d assume).


Anyhow, ‘marketing labs’ peaked as a search term around mid-2009 when the economic recession was in full flow (meaning one of the article’s theses makes sense). ‘Innovation labs’ peaked in June this year. Doesn’t indicate good news on the global economy front.

I think we’re hitting Peak Lab indeed, and that innovation needs to be folded into the larger business as a core objective if it is to make any difference. Otherwise it’s all an exercise in vanity – and besides, I’d say the economy needs innovation to work and not stay an experiment.

It’s time to talk about ad blocking

Photo Credit: Rev. Xanatos Satanicos Bombasticos (ClintJCL) via Compfight cc
Photo Credit: Rev. Xanatos Satanicos Bombasticos (ClintJCL) via Compfight cc

The story so far

It’s time to talk about ad blocking.

Over the last few months, not a day goes by that doesn’t have another news story about the philosophical imperative of advertisers doing the right thing by the user on the one hand and the financial impact of ad blocking for media businesses on the other. The thing is: the two do not need to be at odds with one another. It doesn’t need to be a mutually exclusive arrangement.

Let’s step back and examine the situation as it stands. In the 12 months to June 2015, PageFair reports that usage of ad blockers has spiralled by the not-inconsiderable figure of 82% in the UK, to 12 million Monthly Active Users (MAUs). In the US, figures are obviously larger: a growth of 35% to 77 million MAUs. AdBlock Plus on Chrome is the most widely used plug-in, at nearly 60 million users worldwide. Peak usage is by 18-29 year olds, according to PageFair, and in general males tend to use it more than females.

As someone who works in the media industry, I know how much money is spent by publishers, agencies and brands on digital advertising every single day. As a fairly active member of the digital community, I also know how irritating said ads can be when they are irrelevant, and consist of large-sized images or videos, causing pages to load sluggishly and occasionally to crash altogether.

From a publisher’s perspective, the user is wrong to deploy ad blockers in the first place because ads are what keep the web free. Some publishers, like ITV and Channel 4 in the UK, simply refuse to display content when they detect an ad blocker on a page. Others have started using work-arounds being offered by technology companies: for a premium, they are allowed to bypass the ad blocker and serve their ads (talk about one industry begetting another, similar to the cleaning and management services that cropped up in the wake of Airbnb’s popularity – in this case however, it’s a pretty vicious circle). It’s also not a permanent solution, it’s simply treating the symptoms instead of the real problem.

From the user’s perspective, the publisher is wrong for two reasons: one, they track people’s movements on the web in a rather opaque manner; there’s no real knowledge of what the data being collected on users exactly is and how it is being used – so there’s a privacy issue. The second reason is that ads increasingly spoil a user’s experience of the internet altogether. Indeed, some publishers don’t have any concept of self-control, resulting in a situation where people are over-targeted and shown the same ad, or a similar ad, too many times. In effect, these publishers are signing their own death warrant.

The situation isn’t without its repercussions within the hardware manufacturing cohort. A lot of intelligent people have already weighed in on Apple’s plans to create provisions for ad blocking in iOS9 when it launches in September, which could change the playing field. As developer Paul Hudson noted, this is because these provisions could be used to build an ad blocker without too much work, especially if you consider that “the modern definition of “one man year” is “365 Reddit users working overnight”.  And as of 2 days ago, Mozilla’s built an ad blocker into the Developer and Aurora builds of Firefox.

Alternative business models: the technology startup landscape

In the gap in between are the plethora of startups like Powr of You who are creating new business models predicated on a much clearer value exchange: you give us permission to access your online data voluntarily, we show you in a neat manner what exactly that data is, and we pay you when companies decide they want to buy that data to reach you with better messaging (‘better messaging’ is of course the very reason re-targeting exists –  it’s just that it’s always been a very one-way relationship that I wouldn’t blame the user for rebelling against). I had the chance to speak to Powr of You founders Shruti Malani Krishnan and Keshav Malani about this recently and they echoed the same sentiments. They said, ‘Data is the currency of the future. We as consumers are creating a ton of data, but are not getting anything back in return, while brands are also struggling to understand how people spend their time across devices, their likes and dislikes. There is a natural fit there in how the data can flow one to the other, and Powr of You strikes that balance by changing how the data economy works’. Crucially they spoke about how this process can create better brand trust, which is the core factor at risk when it comes to brand success.

Other business models in this space include intent-casting, where the user indicates a need for a service before being spoken to by brands (Uber is the most popular example of this). A whole plethora of companies are involved in this space,as Project VRM documents here.

So where does that leave ad-blocking?

Potential industry solutions

Let’s consider this from the perspective of the user, without whom, let’s face it, content can’t be monetised in the first place. Let’s call this user Ann. Ann is a rational person who wouldn’t use ad blockers if ads weren’t so tiresome. In order to give Ann what she wants, agencies and brands alike should commit not to re-target incessantly, and include frequency capping as a mandatory part of their media buying process. Doc Searls at Harvard University recently suggested anotherinteresting solution, by way of sign-posting ads that are about brand marketing instead of acquisition, because the former are the ones that are less about data collection. He says that perhaps people in the know will see an ad that’s marked as a ‘brand’ ad, understand its contribution to keeping the web free (while not serving as a hub of data collection), and not block it. That would be a whole project for an industry body like the IAB, but it’s a thought.

Another solution is the one being floated by coalitions of different kinds such as the Do Not Track compromise led by theElectronic Frontier Foundation in the US and the Digital Catapult’s Trust Framework initiative in the UK. These initiatives guarantee the user’s position of privilege and asks media owner participants to respect their choice not to be tracked, so that users become comfortable enough with these sites to not use ad blockers in return.

Here’s another one: what if a consortium of publishers charge a ‘digital license fee’ to users who are willing to pay, similar to the TV license fee in the UK that largely funds the BBC? Think of it as a paywall, but an industry-led one. Of course this fee would need to be split by the free sites that a user visits. Payment would need to be voluntary, because a free internet is for the good of all and not everyone can afford to pay. The accruing revenue is likely to make at least a few sites profitable over time, especially the smaller ones with fewer overheads – and definitely better than no revenue at all.

More realistically however, what is likely to happen is the continued rise of native programmatic advertising. The foundations are already in place: in May 2015 the IAB released a native programmatic standard, called OpenRTB 2.3. Many agencies and technology companies are also forging partnerships to execute on native programmatic as well: WPP’s Xaxis and Disqus for example, and in mobile, InMobi and the Rubicon Project.

If we’re lucky, as an industry we’re also likely to see better quality advertising in general: think visually-rich large-format images and informative research wrapped up as advertising, both of which sites like Quartz already use.

It’s important for all of us, agencies and clients, to be aware of these issues – in terms of ad trackers, some media owner sites deploy dozens, some hundreds, and this is getting people into trouble. Have these conversations where relevant so the right information is out in the open.

As I indicated when I started this piece, people block ads when the disadvantages outweigh the advantages. Brands, agencies and publishers need to be more mindful than ever about the need to do right by their audience. If they do, ads are less likely to be blocked, content can remain free, and everyone wins.


My Other Valleys newsletter is now also a searchable blog: is this an interesting feature to you? Answers on this form pls!

My Other Valleys newsletter has been going for over 35 weeks now. I love writing it, and like any writer, enjoy the feedback I get from readers now and then. Recently though, I’d begun to feel that I needed a way to search my Tinyletter emails for things I knew I’d written about but couldn’t quite find in the newsletter sea of words. I wanted to reference them somewhere else, mostly, or sometimes just remember the details of a project. Newsletters aren’t search-friendly – I suppose they aren’t meant to be. It’s not a blog, right? The Other Valleys *could* be a blog on its own, but I like the relationship with readers and the general process of writing a newsletter. And being able to search a newsletter of the type that the Other Valleys is, which has profiles of interesting companies listed every week, was something I was beginning to want.

I was discussing this with my friend Paul Battley a few weeks ago, and after throwing around a few ideas, he said it might be worth trying to hack together a searchable blog based only on my Tinyletter posts. So that’s what he’s done for me. It does what I wanted it to very well – and the search functionality is way better than many other blogs. It also has an Atom feed.

Here’s what I want to know: if you write a newsletter, is this an idea that’s interesting to you? Answers below please. It might not be, which is fine, but I’m curious to know if there are other people like me…

.@JasonSilva on cognitive ecstasy, shots of awe & more @cannes_lions yesterday

I’m not at Cannes this year but yesterday techno-philosopher Jason Silva took to the stage there with PHD to speak about the exponential leaps and opportunities in biotech, genomics, nanotech and robotics that we should expect in the years to come. The Atlantic has called Jason the “Timothy Leary of the viral video age”. He hosts Brain Games on National Geographic Channel, which set a record as the highest-rated series launch in the channel’s history (an average of 1.5 million viewers for the first two episodes).

You can see the whole talk here, but this is a shorter interview with Jason and PHD Worldwide CEO Mike Cooper behind the scenes at Cannes.

A lot of us were able to watch the livestream as it was one of the seminars that made it through the public vote, and here are things I noted down – phrases, sentences – that were amusing and interesting in equal doses:

– cognitive ecstasy (snippets of what that means on Jason’s Shots of Awe YouTube channel)

– shots of philosophical espresso (likewise)

– ‘Robots will inherit the earth. Yes they will, and they will be our children’ (!!!)

– McLuhan’s quote on PC’s being the new LSD back in the day (and he was friends with Timothy Leary, no wonder! This Boing Boing piece documents their friendship)

how ants have used the internet’s TCP algorithm for ages

– Stuart Kauffman on the ‘adjacent possible‘ and Steven Johnson’s work building on that

I’ll admit Jason was a bit overwhelming; he has this crazy energy that shines through like a lighthouse illuminating the dark sea on a cloudy night, and a lot of it is Ray Kurzweil/Inception territory.

He closed his speech by saying ‘we have a responsibility to awe’.

Can’t argue with that for a philosophy of life.


Well done @madebymany on @schoolincloud

Very proud of my old alma mater Made by Many. They’ve been working with Sugata Mitra, Microsoft, TED and IDEO to launch the School in the Cloud, formally announced at TED 2014. Read their blog post about the design process here and the TED Prize blog post here. The School in the Cloud genuinely is ‘an organic movement toward more inclusive, universal education’ and one of the best social good projects I’ve seen lately.