A Trumpless Twitter (and a Twitterless Trump)

A few days ago, the US President’s Twitter account was suddenly deleted. And I can’t have been the only one who found it amusing.

The first thought that struck me was that the tech titan had suddenly grown some cojones. Finally deciding that enough was enough, the company had taken the ultimate stance, showing strong moral leadership in respect of an account that many view as broadcasting a range of offensive and confusing (covfefe anyone?) content. This would qualify as a strident political statement by the tech sector, no doubt of that, and one to dwarf the great SOPA/PIPA protests of 2012.

“Good on ’em”, I thought. And I doubt I was alone.

But before I’d even heard the echo of my chuckle bouncing back off the opposite wall, I realised how unlikely it was that a major US tech company had actually decided to arbitrarily delete the official account of its own President. There might be well-known tensions between the tech industry and the state-sponsored powers of surveillance. But to see Twitter actively remove the chosen mouthpiece of its own President really would be an unbelievable story – even during the onslaught of unbelievable political stories that we’ve seen from across the pond in recent months.

Of course, as we now know, the reality of the situation is that this was nothing more than a failure of company procedure, as opposed to the opening shots of revolution. It turned out that a departing Twitter employee had been unable to resist that big flashing red button and took that once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to have a story to share in pubs for a lifetime, deleting Trump’s account on the way out of the building. Indeed, the reports of the incident took more time to write up in the press than the incident itself. It took Twitter all of 11 minutes to restore the account and put it back online.

But the point here is not the fact that the account went offline. Believe it or not, I do have more interesting exciting things to do than to spend my time commenting on the failings of internal corporate procedures. No, the reason that I found this interesting is simple: I realised that in my initial reaction, I was being two-faced about the whole thing. And, more worryingly perhaps, if I’d been more active on Twitter myself at that time, it’s that initial – and wrong – reaction that I would have shared with the world.

Let me explain. I’m a believer in the principles of decentralisation where technology makes this both safe and possible. I also believe that we’re currently in the midst of a mostly silent (and technical) fight to ensure that we as individuals don’t lose our human rights to freedom of expression online in modern society. I think as individuals, we’re sleepwalking together into a ever tightening web where our views, data and identities are increasingly owned by other organisations (for good or evil, it matters little) and that unless we actively work to find a better way, the chance to find a better way forward will soon be gone.

The web was invented as an open platform to enable greater collaboration between individuals regardless of national boundaries. But in the internet that we all use today, we’ve moved far away from that ideal. Don’t take my word for it – listen to Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the Web itself, for whom this has become a lifelong campaign.

It’s precisely because of these reasons that I support movements such as the SAFE Network and I’m fascinated by attempts to create decentralised versions of identity (see uPort and Civic) and social media/content platforms (see Steemit and DECENT).

So how come in this case my gut instinct was to enjoy this story when it cuts across so many of my beliefs? After reading Daniel Kahneman’s classic ‘Thinking, Fast and Slow’ earlier this year, one of the explanations might simply be the fact that when you revisit the decisions that you make, it’s often the case that your first, automatic reaction is rarely correct. I’ve been pondering how I took the story here as a result because to me at least, it shows the level of bias – unconscious, unintentional – that can exist. And when you end up finding yourself supporting something, no matter how briefly, that directly contradicts an area that you thought of as non-negotiable, it’s a good a time as any to take note and challenge yourself.

As you move through life, I increasingly think that one of the most important (and underrated) skills to learn is how to avoid becoming fixed in your beliefs and approaches. Whether they’re right or not often depends on the context – but in that case, why not try changing your context? Read a book. Listen to a talk. Meet up with people whose opinions you disagree with. When I suggest changing your context, I’m not saying that you should just give up and change your opinion. After all, it can be just as hard to genuinely connect with someone who holds no opinions as it can be to like someone who refuses to accept feedback about his own (looking at you POTUS). But don’t stop checking whether the context you have today changes the opinions that you formed yesterday. Many people think that it’s a weakness to change your mind. Yet it’s often a strength.

Bias. We all have it. But to my mind, rigidity of thinking and inflexibility must surely be the much greater crime.

“When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do?”

    (Winston Churchill. Or John Maynard Keynes. Or someone else entirely.)

Speaking of which, in the aftermath of The Great SegWit 2X-Hardfork-That-Never-Was Battle of 2017, I think it’s important that we all remember that within the Bitcoin community in particular. Dogmatic opinions – both ways – generally help no one.

 

Engagement v Numbers

Just before Christmas, Instagram announced that it had hit the milestone of 300 million monthly active users. Not bad for a 4-year old company and, as many commentators were quick to point out, one that now moved in front of Twitter in terms of users (‘languishing’ with ‘only’ 284 MAU’s towards the end of the year).

There was a robust response from Evan Williams however who rejected the importance of such numbers. He quickly pointed out one very valid point in response – lining up a photography site as a competitor to a real-time breaking news network is hardly credible. When viewed subjectively about their impact on the modern world, the two are in fact entirely different and incomparable.

However, he then published an essay on his site Medium which sets out a crucial point for anyone who has is running some kind of web-based business. As he points out, the web took a wrong turn back in the 1990’s and pursued an advertising-driven model. Even the inventor of the pop-up ad Ethan Zuckerman has come out against what has developed as the norm. The reality is that the usual aim of websites is to do anything that will help them in their fight for eyeballs that can be delivered to the advertisers.

On this basis, if you’re looking to maximise the number of visitors, page views would tend be a key metric. However, building your diagnosis around a system that rewards a visitor who simply flicks through a number of pages successively without spending any time to digest the information on the page has many flaws.

Williams suggests that instead Total Time Reading (TTR) is a far more accurate indicator of success when it comes to his site Medium. He makes the great point that the most valuable resource in today’s over-crowded digital arena is that of time. Therefore, we should be ignoring the Click Web model and pursuing an Attention Web instead. TTR is not perfect but, as others have pointed out, there’s no God metric when it comes to measuring the effectiveness of online content.

In short, don’t just focus on the hits. Measure the depth of engagement rather than the breadth and ultimately your advertisers – and much more importantly your users – will thank you for it.

The Future Of Bitcoin on CNN

I was delighted to be asked by CNN to be one of the panellists debating the future of Bitcoin this evening via Twitter. Despite the chat overlapping with the livestream of Lawsky’s outline of revisals to New York’s BitLicense, it managed to attract a huge amount of attention around the web.

Whilst I’ve been using Twitter for six years now, it was the first high profile Twitter event that I’ve taken part in. And a pretty full-on hour it was too. Trying to get your answers out whilst responding to others and also scanning the rest of the conversation meant that the time flashed by. And according this report on the debate in CryptoCoinNews, it appears it seemed to be even more chaotic for many of the people who were looking on.

Twitter’s a powerful platform. Ever since it clicked for me that it had nothing to do with everyday mundanities but that it was instead a mainline that led me to all of the key information that I needed (whether I knew that I needed it or not), I’ve been a big fan. To me, the price that you pay for the immediacy of information is the very fact that it can be a bit chaotic. That’s clear if you’ve ever followed trending topics during major breaking news events. Such chaos doesn’t come without certain risks, of course, but the discovery value is clear nonetheless.

Regardless, it was fantastic to be involved. The reality as we are all aware is that the topic can be complex and provoke plenty of strong reactions as any brief glance at the Bitcoin sub-reddit or Bitcoin Talk forum tends to highlight. And even Andreas popped his head in briefly to get involved at one stage:-

So thanks again CNN. I’m pretty certain that this conversation is one that’s going to keep going for many years yet. It’s far from over.

Three Key Megatrends In Technology (And Society)

Binoculars
It’s not always that easy to see what’s ahead…

If you’re interested in technology, it’s very easy to be seduced by the hype that surrounds the new, shiny product or service that everyone’s talking about that month. And whilst that’s mostly harmless for the consumer, it can be fatal for a VC. Not only are the companies that you invest in risky but by paying above the odds, you now need your winners to succeed on an even greater scale to have a chance of repaying the people who trusted you with their cash.

So I always find it interesting to hear VC’s explain how they make the decisions about what to invest in given that they focus only on sectors that they believe have tremendous growth potential. Fred Wilson is both a top VC and daily blogger who’s particularly insightful and his recent talk at Le Web on three key megatrends in technology is no exception. You can check out the full talk in the video below.

 

You See Better From Further Out

Fred’s approach is to move one step back from focusing on so-called hot areas in general (such as machine learning and big data) to try to understand the bigger picture. Don’t attempt to guess which technology will be the most important. Look instead at how society is developing and the gaps that are being created. And it’s on this basis that he sees three ‘mega-trends’ driving business over the next few years.

1. Transition from bureaucratic hierarchies to technology-driven networks

Business traditionally functioned from the top down. Management orders filtered down the levels whilst customer feedback would usually go directly to front-line (and often junior) staff. When the system worked, that feedback would have to travel back up through the various layers until management made the decision about whether or not to make changes. Inefficient yes but justified by the high costs of communication.

But now these costs have plummeted, traditional hierarchies are being replaced by technology-driven networks. Think about the disruption to the newspaper industry: vast newsrooms with armies of reporters directed by a publisher with stories being edited to meet deadlines before the publication of a physical daily newspaper. Cue the entry of technology-driven networks (and the advent of Twitter and blogs in particular) and now everyone can be a reporter.

The crowd on each network determines what is popular (by retweets, follower count and the like) and the news that is relevant is delivered to us instantly via our mobiles. The same disruption can be seen in film/television (YouTube) and the music industry (Soundcloud).

Consumers now have the power to clearly signal what they want and find useful. But Fred believes we’re still in the early stages of this process which is only now starting to ripple through other industries like hotels (Airbnb, OneFineStay), creative industries (Kickstarter) and learning (Codecademy). Most industries will be affected by networks over the medium term.

2. Everything is being unbundled

It used to be expensive to get products and services to market. That cost meant that businesses tended to bundle things together that the customers had to pay for, even if they didn’t necessarily want the full selection (think of the Sunday papers with News, Holidays, Finance, Fashion, Classified Ads & Sports sections). Yet technology makes it cheap for new companies to be built to deliver single parts of these products, with the result often being that the bit you actually want is now both cheaper and of a higher quality.

Banking is a great example of an industry that’s being unbundled. It used to be very expensive to open and run a physical branch so the banks offered all types of products, including mortgages, credit cards, small business loans and working capital finance. Yet new businesses are now able to use networks of individuals to provide more efficient, specialised and more effective products – through peer to peer lending for example (Lending Club).

University education is another area where the high costs of traditional delivery – sourcing a building, lecturers, expensive academic books in libraries, face-to-face lectures – are being disrupted by MOOCs and mobile online learning platforms. The network model is also changing the face of research, both with the growth of Open Access publications and by enabling people to collaborate across different locations to enable researchers to share expensive, scarce research resources (such as expensive medical equipment).

3. We are all now a node on the network

The mobile phone has changed the game forever. Whilst those in the developed world still have the option of choosing to use a laptop or desktop rather than our phone, in the developing world, mobile has already won that race for dominance. With the cost of a desk computer too high in such countries for general adoption, people just moved straight to cheap (predominantly Android) smart phones. But regardless of the location, the result is that we are all now connected to each other all the time. Cue a wave of opportunities for businesses who are able to build upon that knowledge of people, locations and photographs across the network – in transport/logistics (Uber), payments (Dwolla, Square) and dating (Tinder).

Where The Three Collide

Fred goes on to identify four key sectors in which each of these three mega-trends are making their presence felt in particular:-

BITCOIN

It’s obvious that we’re heading for major change in the world of money. I agree with Fred’s view that Bitcoin (or similar) is going to be responsible for so much more than just innovation in payments. It has the potential to become the financial and transactional protocol for the internet that has always been missing. As the standard way in which financial value is exchanged across the web and one that is entirely free from the control of any one party, money will be able to flow as freely and easily as content does today. As a protocol, it will also act as a foundation upon which entrepreneurs can build a whole variety of products and services.

HEALTH & WELLNESS

Think of the growth of wearable technology with individuals wearing devices that can report back with details of their vital signs (Fitbit, Fuelband etc). In the future, some of this data will remain personal and private, some will be shared across networks and some will be exchanged solely between you and your doctor, caregiver or family member. Throw gamification into the mix (Fitocracy) and suddenly you’ve got a profound force for good with individuals making positive decisions about how to keep themselves fit and healthy.

DATA LEAKAGE 

When the industrial revolution arrived, the side-effect of such rapid development was the pollution that poured into our environment. By the time we realised and started the clean-up started, almost a century had passed and we faced a far harder task than it could have been had we dealt with it at the time.

Arguably we’re now facing exactly the same problem in the information age – only this time the pollution is data. Every digital activity we carry out leaves data exhaust which is, like it or not, letting other parties observe our activities. Fred’s view is similar to most people that I speak to: most of the time, he’s happy to let the government, Google, Facebook and others spy on him. However, sometimes the services that we’ve used end up recording our activities when we don’t want them to. Therefore, getting some control over this data leakage, both at an individual and a societal level is important.

TRUST & IDENTITY

Currently, many of us sign into services using our identities from other platforms (e.g. Facebook, Google, Twitter etc). Whilst it is extremely handy to use their authentication services, we are essentially giving these companies knowledge about everything that we do. Fred predicts the emergence of a standard protocol that will provide individuals with control over their own identity, trust and data which will be distributed (like Bitcoin, across many thousands of computers), free from any one party’s control and global.

Tick The Boxes

No matter whether you’re a VC, entrepreneur or just a citizen in the modern digital era, Fred’s talk provides plenty of food for thought. Using this framework provides a useful lens through which to watch just how the world will change in the next few years as a result of developments in the tech world.

We’re only just at the starting line: the pace of technological advancement can only accelerate from here on in as networks strengthen and the remaining friction that slows down the voluntary exchange of information between people anywhere across the world disappears completely. So if you’re looking to start up a new business or simply to future-proof the one you have, you could do far worse than take start to consider how to take account of all three.

photo credit: C.P.Storm via cc