Episode One Hundred and Forty: Relentless; Tech And Media, Not Or; 2014

by danhon

0.0 Station Ident

It’s hot again here in Portland (being about 96 degrees fahrenheit and about 35.5 degrees c at nearly 7pm in the evening. This, to be clear, is wholly unreasonable). I started off the day with mild panic thanks to the usual freakout I have before a talk: this one at Cascadia Ruby, where I developed my shtick on the empathy gap. It’s nice to see people reacting to it, and the few nodding heads as I pulled up examples made me feel like I’m on to something.

1.0 Relentless

The cold war between Amazon and Hachette (although we’re to believe that it’s not *that* cold a war, and instead just business as usual between your regular internet-dominant retailer and big-five publisher) warmed up a little when Amazon dragged its Kindle Direct Publishers (and, ish, their readers) into the fight.

First, some assumptions: it’s OK to like Amazon for certain things (they have made it very easy to buy things, for example) and OK to not like Amazon for other things (their negotiation tactics, the way they staff their distribution centres, their apparent inability to create a good phone).

But, one of the positions taken around this whole Amazon/Hachette dispute is that Amazon has leveled the playing field by allowing authors to self-publish. Which is, well, it’s not *untrue*, but this is a bit like saying that you like a level playing field without considering whether the level playing field is being run by someone actively trying to kill you, or if you like a universe in which there’s only really one playing field. (Yes, I know there are other playing fields, but there’s only really *one* other playing field and it’s Apple’s. It’s not exactly a diverse ecosystem).

The point being of course that Amazon and Hachette are self-interested businesses. Amazon’s is perhaps more complicated than Hachette’s, and there are a number of theories going around as to their current behaviour ranging from increased pressure to hit profitability given their last earnings report to the less charitable accusation that Jeff Bezos is drunk-emailing his customers.

As much of this is about positioning: Amazon is in a hugely powerful position here, and even though they’re not quite an airline[1], and even though in some ways they’re the least bad online retailer (it’s possible to get concerned about their market distorting effect. What they don’t have, though, given their latest bout of behaviour is anything approaching a pass from their audience as to what they do and how they say it. The latest open letters from Amazon don’t compare to letters from other companies that have managed to navigate this process of sentiment more successfully. No, this is a company that’s on top, fighting like it’s at the bottom, scrappily, and pleading for help. Classy it isn’t.

I wrote, rather facetiously, that the only way this trade dispute[2] could feel weirder were if books themselves started getting involved in the conversation, setting up their own Twitter accounts. Authors, of course, would have their own point of view [3, 4], but for amusement purposes, books should have one as well. They, after all, are the inanimate objects stuck in this fight between two giant corporate personhoods. So I did that ill-advised thing of going out and registering booksunited.org and sitting down and writing a quick parody:

“This is not a message about your books. This is a message from your books. You may have thought it unlikely that we would be able to express an opinion, let alone hold one in the first place, being simply a collection of words and pictures in an enclosing medium, but for too long we have been silent. And honestly, we can’t just sit on the sidelines, covers discreetly shut, and watch this absurd theater continue.”[5]

… and so on.

[1] I’ll Never Fly Amazon Again – Marco Arment
[2] The Invasion of Naboo
[3] In Which Amazon Calls You To Defend The Realm – Chuck Wendig
[4] Amazon Gets Increasingly Nervous – John Scalzi
[5] An Important Message From Your Books – Books United

2.0 Tech And Media, Not Or

So BuzzFeed gets a $50mm investment from Andreessen Horowitz and Chris Dixon joins the board[1]. It feels like there’s a lot of noise around this, not least of which is handwringing around what the future of journalism is, what the future of news is, lots of patently untrue articles about the number of listicles that BuzzFeed produces (Martin Belam checked this out, and 17 articles on BuzzFeed’s homepage were non-listicles compared to 9 listicles[2]), and finally, the one bit that I feel at least qualified to have an opinion on, the idea that BuzzFeed isn’t a tech company, it’s a *media* company.

I really dislike this kind of binary thinking. Sure, as a friend pointed out on Twitter, it may well be that the valuation mechanisms that we’ve got, like Wall Street, treat things in one bucket one way and the other bucket another way. But, if we’re to believe what Marc Andreessen says about software eating the world (and we should, because it’s one of the things we need to happen if we want to build a better world), then there’s a continuum.

Dixon’s blog post explaining the Valley code-phrases “full-stack startup” means startups that need to do *everything* in their endeavour and, bluntly, not half-ass it. He says:

“The challenge with the full stack approach is you need to get good at many different things: software, hardware, design, consumer marketing, supply chain management, sales, partnerships, regulation, etc. The good news is that if you can pull this off, it is very hard for competitors to replicate so many interlocking pieces.”

I see it the other way. A full-stack startup like BuzzFeed is one that is taking technology and applying it to the core of a business as well as executing that business well. In other words, whilst one way of looking startups is to categorise them as full-stack or not (ie – are they doing everything in house and vertically integrating), another way is looking at how they’re applying technology to an existing business.

The incumbents aren’t going to do it. They have too much invested, and they don’t have the leadership. When they do have it, it’s not at the top and they don’t recognise it. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: Nike should be worried about the RunKeepers and Stravas overtaking them, because they’re run by people who have a more natural, intuitive understanding of what technology can do for them strategically than not.

This is what I mean by And, not Or. It’s not a question of a media company *or* a tech company. It’s a media company that’s using and building best-in class tech to be the best media/tech company. Pretty soon, hopefully, there won’t be a distinction between the two: Warby Parker is as much a glasses company *and* a tech company. Pixar is a storytelling company that couldn’t survive without its technological know-how *and* its storytelling knowhow. This is the additive space, where, funnily, for tech concepts, we’re not dealing in binaries, we’re dealing in continuums, and it’s the place in the middle – the and – where it gets interesting.

It’s easy to be dismissive of BuzzFeed and what Dixon wrote, but there is something to be unpicked when people say what’s interesting about BuzzFeed is that it’s run “like a startup”. Sure, that phrase covers a mess and variety of ills. But it also includes good things: like a desire and understanding of how technology can make things *better*. A willingness to look at what the job to be done is, and better ways of doing it, with the best that software and technology can offer us. It’s not necessarily eating the world, but it’s understanding that there probably, possibly, maybe, is a way in which (good) software can help.

[1] BuzzFeed – Chris Dixon
[2] 50 million reasons the media needs to stop thinking Buzzfeed is only lists – Martin Belam
[3] Full Stack Startups – Chris Dixon

3.0 2014

Most cameras can recognise faces. State actors are using secret vulnerabilities in software to render useless their enemies’ physical infrastructure. There are no real, mass-market flying cars yet, but global air transport routes carry roughly 3.5 billion passengers a year. All developed cities have reliable wireless voice infrastructure, most have reliable wireless data. Private fiber optic lines for intra-company communications between data centres have been tapped and surreptitiously accessed by their host country government security services. Organised crime has expanded its footprint to include mass theft of personal and financial information. The internet’s biggest retailer is having a public spat with one of the world’s biggest publishers. A 140 character-based social network is pointing out the gross inaccuracies in the media’s portrayal of the fatal shooting of yet another black teenager by police. The movement of the planet’s wind, solar weather, planes and cargo ships can all be monitored in realtime by anyone. Black ice burns no brains, but an ebola virus outbreak has caused over 800 deaths in four countries. Over 24 million households have installed a sophisticated 3D camera and skeletal tracking system installed. Traffic conditions are routinely monitored by over one billion smartphones, and over a billion people use a free social network to communicate with each other around the world. They also know their position down to 10 meter accuracy. This hasn’t appreciably reduced crime. The world is temporarily excited about a potential breakthrough in propulsion physics, while fusion power remains unsustainable. Citizens can commandeer a 26 year old spacecraft and repurpose it, making its data available for all, while a state-sponsored expedition successfully enters into orbit around an asteroid.

It’s 2014. 

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