Did Facebook Promote The ALS Ice Bucket Challenge To Promote Autoplay Videos?

When the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge took over our Facebook feeds last month, I was a bit uncomfortable. I’m generally suspect of altruistic efforts that seem more trendy than helpful (have we caught Kony yet?), but was at least relieved the ALS Association ended up raising an incredible sum of money. But that’s not what got me really uncomfortable about the Challenge.

Being obsessed with all things media, I instantly remembered an announcement from March: Facebook planned to push it’s ability to deliver autoplaying video to advertisers, effectively recreating television advertising for the mobile age. That is the type of advertising you can make a lot of money on. 

But through the Spring, I didn’t see a ton of autoplaying Facebook videos. Most of the video I would see on Facebook was an embedded Youtube, or a Vine, or an Instagram, and it was rare someone I knew chose Facebook for spontaneous video creation, hosting and sharing.

That all changed with the Ice Bucket Challenge. The NY Times outlined the success: 17 million Ice Bucket videos uploaded, with 440 million people watching them over 10 billion times. That is insane. I completely support a competitor to Youtube, but there’s one thing that never sat well with me:

The first celebrity I noticed on my feed doing the challenge was Mark Zuckerberg. The day after Zuckerberg did it, it became a constant presence in Facebook’s top right trending bar. Every Ice Bucket post from anyone, even people whose posts I’ve never clicked on, started making it to the top of my feed. Zuck’s Ice Bucket challenge also surprised me because I can’t remember ever seeing a post from him before (and though I wish he was my friend, he’s not).

How exactly did Zuck’s Ice Bucket Challenge fit into the viral explosion? I can’t figure out how to pull the data on # of Ice Bucket Facebook Posts, but a quick Google Trend analysis is really interesting. Zuck’s challenge was on August 14th. Look at the trend line. It absolutely explodes right after. That’s virality that would make Jonah Peretti blush.

Screen Shot 2014-09-08 at 10.39.27 PM

I wonder how it went down. I’m okay with the idea that Mark Zuckerberg was approached about a burgeoning trend that could get people comfortable both uploading, and experiencing, auto play video on Facebook, and could potentially do good for the world. A quick search makes it all seem pretty organic. Zuckerberg was challenged by Chris Christie, who was challenged by the Philadelphia 76ers owner, and the challenge seemed to be taking off among athletic executives (even Roger Goodell) on August 12th. 

What I’m not okay with is if Facebook manipulated all of our feeds to fill them with Ice Bucket posts and Zuckerberg’s post was a well-coordinated start. There’s a constant debate among media types over the validity of Facebook’s algorithm, but this is the most suspicious to me yet.

Can Facebook completely control what enters our feed and end up creating trends that help further their long-term commercial needs? Was the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge artificially promoted by Facebook to encourage people to upload video and get comfortable with autoplay for eventually lucrative video ads? Does that not only compromise the entire user experience, does it mean brands paying for distribution on Facebook will always play second fiddle to “free” promotion if it benefits Facebook? The cynical MBA in me almost accepts this as a reality, and that trend line above seems to confirm it. But the longtime Facebook user just can’t get comfortable with that notion as it would kill the entire utility of the platform.

The only thing I can take away with certainty is I pray that Twitter doesn’t kill it’s pure, reverse chronological timeline.

 

 

 

A Knowledge Time Machine (or Timehop for Reading)

They say a picture is worth 1,000 words, and I couldn’t agree more, especially when there’s nostalgia involved. An image can instantly transport you back to the moment it was taken, conjuring up all the associated emotions. I never realized you could do the same thing with just a sentence or two.

My cofounder, Emily, came across a script on Github (written by Shopify founder Tobias Lutke) that performs, as it describes itself, “a very simple purpose”. It goes through all your Kindle Highlights and emails one highlight at random every morning. I’ve long upheld the benefits of highlighting while you read, and Emily offered to implement the script for me. I still don’t know how it really works, or if my usage of “implement the script” makes developers snicker, but every morning there’s a new email with one random highlight. It’s incredible.

One sentence can spark a memory of the exact paragraph, or the overall chapter, or the entire book, or even the physical place you were when you were reading. It’s like a knowledge time machine (or Timehop for Reading in less flowery terms).

I recently started using Instapaper’s new highlighting functionality a lot more, and this is where I implore the Instapaper engineers to add this functionality to their email newsletter. The dream would be they sync up with Timehop and it makes it’s way into my daily stream of nostalgia (if you haven’t tried it, Timehop tells you what you posted on social media in years past). 

I’ve argued that a simple piece of information delivered in a creative, timely manner can be more valuable than all the most ornate and elegant new apps and websites being created every day. The Random Kindle Highlight Email is a perfect example of this and has definitely solidified it’s place in my information diet.

The last ten highlights. For those who know me, my reading list is sadly predictable. For others, this is an almost creepy reflection of where my head lives day-to-day. It also might be time to read more fiction:

 

Google’s first outpost in the Big Apple was opened by Tim Armstrong, the current CEO of AOL, in 2000. He was selling advertising, working out of a Starbucks on the corner of 86th and Columbus Avenue.

— Tech and the City: The Making of New York’s Startup Community, 1 year ago

 

the eBay execs believed that they were pioneering a new type of virtual commerce where supply and demand met to identify the perfect price for any product. They were also put off by Bezos’s startling laugh. The venture capitalists backing eBay asked around and heard that one did not work with Jeff Bezos; one worked for him.

— The Everything Store: Jeff Bezos and the Age of Amazon, 10 months ago

 

There is a difference between being interlocal and translocal. The former implies connection, the formation of a bridge. The latter involves flying over. Someone who is interlocal does not travel above localities, transcend them, or flit about from place to place. He traverses between localities. He is keenly rooted in each to varying degrees.
— Reimagining India: Unlocking the Potential of Asia’s Next Superpower, 6 months ago 

 

Of Istanbul’s 15 million residents, more than a third (including this book’s authors) live in Asian Istanbul, a.k.a. Anadolu Yakasi (ah-nah-doh-loo yahkah-suh, “the Anatolian side”).

— Rick Steves’ Istanbul, 1 year ago

 

Then, he spotted two empty AK-47 clips taped together on a tabletop and recognized this as a classic combat configuration, allowing a quick change around. This was no goonda (hired thug) drive-by.

— The Siege: 68 Hours Inside the Taj Hotel, 6 months ago

 

We went into Toshiba, and at the end of the meeting they showed us the 1.8-inch hard drive. They didn’t know what to do with it. I said, “We’ll take all you can make.” I went to Steve and I said, “Hey, I’m gonna need about ten million bucks.”

— Design Crazy: Good Looks, Hot Tempers, and True Genius at Apple, 7 months ago

 

Although the French pressed to move the Reichsbank totally out of Germany, possibly to Amsterdam, the rest of the committee recognized that this would be the ultimate humiliation, putting Germany on the same footing as the indigent nations of Egypt and Turkey—in the words of one participant, it would “turkify” the German economy.

— Lords of Finance: The Bankers Who Broke the World, 4 years ago

 

to this day I can’t believe how differently people treat me. To have been the “pear-shaped fat kid” for all those formative years and then join the ranks of the easy-on-the-eyes crowd is like turning on another life cheat code.

— Without Their Permission: How the 21st Century Will Be Made, Not Managed, 5 months ago

 

Israel’s surge in willing investment after the 2000 meltdown wasn’t a sign of a new start; it was the lingering benefits of the great run of the 1990s. That’s why venture funding can be an unreliable short-term metric of an economy’s entrepreneurial mojo.

— Brilliant, Crazy, Cocky: How the Top 1% of Entrepreneurs Profit from Global Chaos, 2 years ago

 

When I speak in Japan to Japanese business people, I often talk about developing this global mind-set—one that looks beyond the borders of our island and sees our future as part of an integrated whole. Commerce is the first step, but we must build upon it with richer human relationships. This is how the marketplace does more than make money—it changes the world. The fundamental shifts of marketplace and mind currently underway suggest that in the future, the traditional role of “nation” will be greatly altered. We may still recognize these traditional borders and the cultures that go along with them. But the Internet age allows human beings to organize in new ways. People can express their allegiances in new forms and with clarity and speed. In the future, I believe, brands will be forces for human organization and inspiration—much the way nations have been throughout our history.

— Marketplace 3.0: Rewriting the Rules of Borderless Business, 1 year ago

 

 

A Quiet, Yet Complete, Revolution In Digital Media

A few weeks ago when Buzzfeed announced it’s $50mm funding, the reaction from old media was what you would expect. The FT and NY Times reacted with predictable derision.

Felix Salmon summed up the quiet, yet almost complete, revolution in digital media Buzzfeed seems to have already executed. They’re paired with companies like Upworthy or Business Insider or even Distractify, because they appear to play the game of millions better than anyone else. 150 million unique visitors seems to effectively crown them the champion of the digital traffic wars.

But that misses the entire point. 

They have built an entirely different business model. It’s not the standard post a bunch of content, do whatever it takes to get readers to that content, and then put some ads around that content. It’s even different than the “get people to your homepage and push them towards mediocre 3rd-party sponsored content” model as well. Salmon sums it up:

That’s partly because, its massive traffic numbers notwithstanding, BuzzFeed is not actually in the traffic business, and describing it as a “web traffic sensation” rather misses the whole point of the company. While a company like Business Insider makes money by selling inventory to advertisers, BuzzFeed doesn’t: you won’t see any ads on a BuzzFeed story page. If you feel a little bit disappointed after clicking through to a Business Insider story, at least the company has sold your visit to a client. But if you feel a little bit disappointed after clicking through to a BuzzFeed story, BuzzFeed gets no benefit at all…

 

BuzzFeed is an interesting type of media company. Historically, media companies have been in the business of selling individuals to advertisers: you put together some kind of a product that people love, and then bundle that product with advertising. But BuzzFeed is different. It starts the same way, by building products that people love. But then, instead of inserting advertising into that product, it then sells advertisers its expertise at building such things.

 

That’s the key. If you’re disappointed when you land on a Buzzfeed article, they derive absolutely no value. It’s effectively negative value for them if it affects their brand. That’s 100% distinct from almost every other digital media company out there. While old media laments the loss of sustainable business models to support Journalism, it appears something that feels similar to the newspaper model has already been built. An incredibly powerful and valuable advertising model that coexists with original Journalism.

I’m beyond curious if this was all part of the master plan. Distract the competition by letting them continue to think you’re superficial click-bait, and quietly build a powerful editorial operation and a next-generation business model while they snicker. Whatever the path has been, it’s nice to know there are optimistic companies out there successfully making a better internet.

 

 

 

How Do You Measure Relevance?

At Informerly we are focused on one thing: delivering relevance. We want to be the best at getting the right articles in front of the right users. The service that meets the professional information needs of our users and helps them be better at what they do.

The question we obsess over is how to measure our ability to deliver relevance. How do we know that the articles we’re sending are actually useful to the person receiving them.

John Borthwick wrote a seminal piece on engagement in today’s media environment. He gives us idea of the Hill of Wow, that moment in content consumption where you’ve clicked on an article and it delivers on it’s promise. It’s the “right hill” in the reader’s journey below.

hillofwow

The content consumption journey

We want every link we send to live on that Hill of Wow.

The words “content matching and distribution process” don’t exactly make one dance on a table, but we’ve built a unique process to deliver relevant content that we’re pretty excited about. It’s a big step towards getting the right articles in front of the right people. We’ve been using it to power an email newsletter (twice a week, 5 links per email) and we think we’re impressed with the results.

I say “we think” because understanding whether an individual link is relevant to an individual  user is a never-ending process. Some headlines are just more clickable, some topics are just more enticing. Did that link help you with your job? Did it take you to the Hill of Wow?

Open Rates

As we’re just an email product on the surface, the topline metric we monitor is of course, the open rate. They’re really good. We see 60%+ open rates on every campaign. The test group is incredibly small by newsletter standards (500), but we’ve chosen a very specific group. We knew it’d be a lot easier to chop up TechCrunch and send a newsletter to a homogeneous audience of twenty-something tech guys in SF.

Instead we’ve managed to put together group composed of everyone from entry-level marketers to CEOs, food delivery to lingerie companies, Amazon to McKinsey to Alibaba, and from 27 different countries. With a group this diverse, high open rates start to convince us that something is working. But we know the open rate is not nearly enough.

Click-Through Rates

Click-through rates are the next convenient metric. Out of all emails sent, 25-30% of people click a link, and out of people who open the email around 45% of people click a link. Again, pretty good, but does it really mean we’re building a brand as a trusted source of business information?

This is where our obsession with tracking everything and the technology currently out there starts to make things interesting. We’ve been using a tool called Litmus that does some pretty amazing things with email tracking.

Read vs. Glance

Litmus has a metric whether someone “read” or “glanced” at your email. 85% of people who open are “reading” the emails, which means the email was open for more than 8 seconds. We’re a bit suspect on how accurate this one actually is.

Multiple Opens + Forwards

Litmus also tells you how many times someone opens the email. This was one of those “holy shit” data points. Each week at least 10% of the overall group open the email more than once. Then there are the ones who open it over and over again.

Which brings us to the beloved email forward. Litmus captures when someone forwards the email (it doesn’t work perfectly). This is an instant indicators of relevance. If the email is so good someone is willing to forward it on, our confidence is high we’re delivering value.

Lifetime User Behavior

Then comes question of habit: do our users open our emails with regularity? This is important because it convinces us there’s far more than subject line magic. We’re still working on how to represent lifetime user engagement in aggregate. For specific high-value users we regularly check their behavior, but en masse, we’re limited to a few high-level metrics. Out of all emails we’ve ever sent: 61% have been opened, 27% have been clicked, 13% have been opened more than once.

For each individual user, we’ve built a profile that shows there lifetime statistics, along with what they’ve clicked on (both headlines and the associated tags). We are madly in love with users who have clicked 100% of emails over the four months we’ve been sending them, but we’re still searching for how to quickly and accurately gauge engagement over time.

So far all the metrics I’ve mentioned relate to user behavior. But what about the content itself?

Content Matching

If Informerly is going to be the company we want to be, we need to be able to get the right content in front of the right user. Is the subject matter of the articles we’re sending relevant to the jobs our users do every day?

Each article that enters our content pool is parsed and tagged. We also preset an interest string for each user based on their sector, title, and region. We monitor what are the most common tags of the articles they’re clicking on. When we get it right, the common tags match the interest string. When they don’t match, we adjust the interest string. It’s an ongoing process trying to understand what users need to read about.

Aggregate Links Clicked

Finally, in trying to understand if the links we’re sending are relevant, we look at the overall number of links clicked per campaign. For a campaign of 500, we’re sending 2500 links. Around 9% of all links sent are clicked on average. We think that’s pretty good.

The Qualitative 

Beyond all these numbers, there are the things we can’t quantitatively measure that make us smile. When we get an unsolicited email that has the word “relevance” in it, we kind of freak out (in a good way).

“wanted to thank you again for the informerly tip. The newsletter has great quality/relevancy!”

“Just wanted to say I think this service is absolutely brilliant. It also has content that’s relevant and interesting to me.”

“Informerly has become an important, relevant and truly curated source of information for me and my team.”

So what’s the point of all this?

Borthwick concludes, “people who are focussed on building around this second hill are going to end up with stronger businesses.”

The businesses and models playing on the left hill have already been built. We’ve seen people coming up with some pretty creative ways to get millions of people to them, with little regard for what happens after. The long-term opportunity is owning the right hill. That’s where the next generation of media companies will have to play and win. We want to live atop the Hill of Wow.

Why Bloomberg TV Should Make An Xbox One App

Young, financial-types all over New York City are cutting the cord and utilizing gaming consoles as their primary living room media devices.

…or more accurately, like a proper Times trend piece, this assertion is based on my own behavior, along with corroboration from a few passing conversations with friends in the industry.

I made the switch three months back, moving my Apple TV to the bedroom, and making the Xbox One the main media device in my living room. I’m a full convert and was spreading the gospel to a few trader friends, only to find out they had long ago done so.

I cut the cord to cut costs. It puzzled me why a group of traders who could easily afford cable would not only cut the cord, but why they’d choose an Xbox One or PS4 as their primary media device. My anecdotal, non-scientific findings:

The Controller

This is the biggest reason. You’re dealing with a group of users who fit a very specific demographic: all between 25-35 and male. We’ve grown up with a video game controller in our hand. These controllers aren’t something that need to be learned, they’re almost an extension of our bodies. Even with all it’s hardware expertise, the Apple TV remote is still an odd piece of equipment. Smart TV remotes are the same thing, each a unique beast that requires hours of upfront commitment. Our generation has grown up navigating television screens with gaming controllers.

The User Interface

These gaming consoles might be from Microsoft and Sony, companies not exactly known for their design chops, but they’ve managed to make these systems better than what’s out there. The Apple TV interface in no way resembles the intuitive nature of iOS, and other than maybe Samsung, Smart TV interfaces generally feel like programming a VCR. The gaming industry knows better than anyone how to drive action on a TV screen, and it really shows.

Sports, Sports, Sports

This was the most interesting behavioral change in the group. The main hesitation for cutting the cord always used to be around watching live sports. Sony and Microsoft have not only allayed this concern, they’ve turned it into an advantage. One friend told me he specifically cut the cord to “justify subscribing to MLB.tv, Sunday Ticket, and NBA Game Time”, with two citing last year’s Madden 25 Sunday Ticket promotion as the moment they crossed the rubicon. Both console companies seem keenly aware that sports are where they can really differentiate themselves for their audience, and seem to be aggressively pushing this path.

So much like the classic trend piece, this is the where I insert my personal agenda into what appears to be a general observation about the world around us.

CNBC still dominates every trading floor television and it’s a monopoly that is tough to beat. After 12 years of personal observation, they still dominate nearly every television. To Bloomberg, the FT, the WSJ, or any creator of financial video: reach the new generation when we’re at home and in ways that fit into our lives. Become our evening habit and build your brand on the devices where we’re already spending time. Let us navigate your menus with two thumbs and two fingers.

Build apps for gaming consoles.

The Most Perfect Piece of Information

Every day I come across some shiny new app that looks prettier than yesterday’s beautiful new thing. Almost none of these elegant wonders live to see a 2nd day. Yet one of the most valuable pieces of technology that I interact with every day is an ugly, hacked together text message.

Every morning at approximately 6:30am I get a text message with the day’s forecast, that I set up using IFTTT. It has just the high and low temperature, and usually 2-3 words on whether it’s going to be rainy, snowy, or sunny.

 

 

That little snippet is one of the most perfectly delivered pieces of information I’ve come across.

The timing is set for right before my alarm goes off. The message is short enough that all the info displays in message preview on my lock screen so I don’t even need to unlock my phone to see it. Every morning it’s the first thing I see.

That one line satisfies maybe 90% of my weather-related information needs. When weekend planning, I might open up an app or even go to that mockery of a website, weather.com, but every morning all I really care about is the approximate temperature and if it’s going to rain or snow.

I’ve tried out a number of weather apps out there. The ones from major players like the Weather Channel and Yahoo were full of information. The gorgeously designed Forecast.io even made it to my homescreen for a bit. But this simple, hacked-together solution has managed to become my daily weather reporter. It’s somehow one of the most perfectly crafted information delivery systems I’ve experienced.

It’s a great reminder that a simple piece of information, delivered at the right time, in the right place, in the right format, in a reliable and consistent manner, can be more valuable than all the feature-rich and ornately designed services being created every day.

Addendum #1

I’ve been trying out Poncho, a Betaworks company that delivers a similar weather service. I’m a huge Betaworks fanboy, but this is a perfect example of trying to get too creative. Poncho’s onboarding is incredible, but it’s actual delivery ends up problematic as you can see in the two examples below (nicely juxtaposed against the IFTTT solution):

 

 

Addendum #2

I would pay to be a fly on the wall during a weather.com staff meeting. What they’re trying to do with that absurdly valuable piece of real estate is way beyond me.

“I Only Date Guys With Bloomberg Terminals”

Yes, I actually once heard that line on the trading floor. I still cringe when I think about it, yet it reminds me how embedded in the culture those machines were. It came to mind at a dinner last week, when a former coworker brought up something really interesting about their prized Bloomberg Terminals:

We can’t talk about shit on there anymore

Apparently Bloomberg chat is becoming severely restricted and traders can no longer openly talk positions, are ‘strongly discouraged’ from discussing their personal lives, and most importantly, are banned from chatting with traders at other banks. The FT confirmed this, as JP Morgan, Goldman, and RBS have all indicated they’re going to ban “multi-firm chat rooms”.

Trading floors are a different place than my time through the 2000s, but if this trend continues, it will be a monumental cultural shift. It’s tough to describe how integral “IB” (Instant Bloomberg) or “Bloomberg Chat” was to the entire social structure of the bank trading community.

My seven years in front of a Bloomberg Terminal made me see just how impressively their chat functionality developed. A timeline of what I saw:

When I started in 2002, we only had Bloomberg Messaging, which allowed users to simply static message each other within the Bloomberg ecosystem. I think it was maybe 2004 that Instant Bloomberg was introduced and began to write the book on product stickiness.

Soon, you were either on Bloomberg or you “didn’t exist”. It was an obnoxious, yet incredibly common networking practice to meet someone and instead of exchanging business cards, you’d promise to just ‘find them on Bloomberg’. If you weren’t a subscriber it instantly impacted your credibility with potential clients. It became an effective rite of passage for a young trader to “get their Bloomberg”.

This developed into an odd social protocol. When you first met a potential business contact, you MSG’ed (Bloomberg Messaging) them. If both parties felt it was a worthwhile connection, you’ d step it up to IB (chat). If you became business besties, you would create a ‘recurring’ chat room, meaning every time you loaded up your Terminal the chat room would automatically open. A recurring chat relationship wasn’t something you jumped right into. It meant something.

I’m not exaggerating about the “relationship” aspect of this. The absurdity of this hit a high point when my friend made the comment about only dating guys with Terminals. I cringe thinking about that line, yet she almost had an argument. Almost. At the time nearly all other forms of communication were blocked. If the object of your affection was on IB, you could set up a recurring chat room and have an open line of communication to them, all day long (one can debate the relative merits of this).

Even when I moved to the Financial Times, salespeople for premium products used IB to engage with clients and leads. It somehow seemed less intrusive to send an Instant Bloomberg than a cold call or email. There was also again that element of social validation: if you could afford the subscription people perceived your product was of higher value. It justified that subscription price.

Bloomberg’s simple chat functionality has come to define Warren Buffett’s idea of economic castles surrounded by unbreachable moats. It’s ubiquity across the financial community made it the communications mode of choice for any large bank or fund participant. Either you were on Bloomberg, or you weren’t.

The company is now in a very precarious situation: it has to balance the indispensable compliance needs of its biggest customers against its most powerful lock-in, it’s chat functionality. As it begins to lose its grip as the center of communications for the financial industry, the question of “is it worth the price” becomes a lot more difficult to answer. Is it just becoming a really, really expensive chat app?

I Don’t Need A Flying Car

There has been a good amount of debate over whether the world is seeing true technological progress, or if we’re just churning out a bunch of meaningless photo-sharing apps that cater to wealthy Silicon Valley-ites. “We wanted flying cars, instead we got 140 characters”, has become a clarion call for those who argue that Facebook, Twitter and the other new networks of the world do little in the way of moving humanity forward.

I have to disagree.

The ability to quickly communicate with anyone, anywhere in the world is one of the most magnificent things that’s happened in my lifetime. The ability to do it with images is even more profound. It may have began with pet pictures and tweets about your breakfast, but when I think about the universal, human networks that have been built in the past few years, I am just in awe.

It always brings me back to a story my Dad told me.

He immigrated from India in 1969. When he left behind his entire family to chase the American dream, there wasn’t exactly Facetime and Skype. To communicate with his parents back home, he’d have to schedule an appointment at a local calling center. That was just the beginning.

He would have to send a letter via airmail to Calcutta to let his parents know when to be by a phone, which took around 2 weeks to arrive. They didn’t even have their own phone, so the call would need to take place at an uncle’s house. Being Indian, this somehow turned into a party of sorts, with a bunch of relatives coming over to eat and gossip. I vividly remember the scratchy long-distance connections to India in the 1980s, so I can only imagine the crackling that was a 1967 phone call.

Remember these?

I love the image of a circle of relatives taking turns speaking in their “long-distance voice” (not quite conversational, not quite a scream) into a phone, and I smile at the Bengali ability to turn an incredible inconvenience into a celebration. But I can’t imagine it taking a letter, an appointment, and a few weeks for my Dad, an only child, to exchange just a few words with his parents. I can’t even begin to fathom how awful that level of disconnect must’ve been when my grandfather suddenly died of a heart attack in 1970.

As with most children of immigrants, I’ll never quite appreciate the sacrifice my parents made to give my sister and me the privileged lives we’ve had, and I marvel that my grandparents allowed their children to move as far away as they did. But I do appreciate when moving to Singapore in 2009, I could contact my family without a second thought. Skype video, emailing directly from my phone, or sharing photos on Facebook, all in an instant. I recognize when my niece was born the other day in Boston and my parents were exchanging pictures with relatives in India while still sitting at the hospital, that was a pretty incredible thing.

I’m still not done being impressed with technologies that make the world a smaller place. Sometimes, I have to force myself to remember how incredible it is that when I open Facebook, it reinforces personal connections from all over the world. When I open Twitter, I can find out what’s happening in far off lands. When I open Instagram, I can see the entire world in a long scroll.

Mobile messaging, Skype’ing, Gchatting, emailing, texting…they all deepen human ties that geography had historically strained. Technologies that help connect people from around the world truly are amazing, unbelievable, and impossible things.

I consider that progress.

Fab.com and the Future of News

Fab.com’s founder, Jason Goldberg, today made declaration that flash sales will no longer be the focus of Fab emails. Instead the goal is to create as tailored an experience as possible for each user. He writes:

It’s really simple: Follow the stuff that excites you. We’ll personalize your Fab experience on-site based on what you follow.

We’ll also only send you notifications when there are new arrivals of the stuff you follow, and you’re in complete control of how you hear from us.

His language may create the impression of a drastic pivot, but Fab has been moving towards this user-centric content experience for a while now. They’ve been cautiously introducing elements of social commerce: feeds incorporating what your Facebook friends “love” or recommendations of items similar to what you’ve “loved”. Creating a better way to discover things you love is a critical element in what Goldberg believes can be a move away from Amazon-led commodity commerce, to an era of “emotional commerce” (a must read for anyone in ecommerce).

How come when I go to the NY Times homepage, except for a tiny “Recommended for You” section way below the fold, I see the same articles as everyone else (I’m checking in if this is true for subscribers to the website), but the same holds true for BostonGlobe.com, FT.com, etc. Even with the opportunity to know an incredible amount about their users, the content delivery experience is identical. When you land there you’ll see stories that have been deemed important not for you, but for everyone. There’s certainly some news that is universal and necessary, but even the most old-school of editors can’t argue that we should completely disregard what the user has already shown interest in.

There are a number of companies trying to create tailored content experiences like Flipboard, Prismatic, Zite, etc. Instead of looking at the Flipboard model as simply a distribution channel to be partnered with, news organizations need to start thinking of them as the type of technology to power their own delivery. Personalization is not a feature, it’s a mindset, that’s a radical shift from the way news organizations have functioned for decades. Take a lesson from Jason Goldberg and put your users first.

Tear Down That Corporate Firewall

For my friends still working in the trading world, I’m often their “guy” for questions on whatever shiny, new tech thing is out there. When it comes to Twitter, I’ve been harping for a few years on how they need to become fluent in it. Last week, after the AP’s Twitter account was hacked, and a bogus tweet about explosions in the White House caused an instant drop in the stock market, I got a flurry of emails to the tune of “so this is what we get from your fancy Twitter?”

Information flow as a trader at a large bank can be an odd exercise. For years I sat in front of four screens, using platforms like a Bloomberg Terminal, Reuters, internal chat rooms, and a host of other options to monitor news from every corner of the world. Trying to get an information edge was our lifeblood, especially as I was focused on the economies of emerging, opaque markets.

Even though the bank spent thousands every month on fancy information systems for our team, since it was a massive corporation, all the traditional corporate firewall practices applied. Gmail and Gchat, Facebook, Skype and any other communication tools the bank deemed threatening were blocked. It wasn’t just social platforms or external email, up and coming financial blogs like Zerohedge and Dealbreaker were also blocked.

We survived on information, yet the bank actively worked to restrict potentially valuable channels.

Bloomberg recently announced that it was going to incorporate Twitter streams into it’s Terminal product. This made me smile. It was a huge validation of how valuable the information being produced in the social media world can be, and that it’s simply impossible to ignore. Of course, some people blamed this inclusion for the chaos that resulted from the hacked AP tweet, but that ignores the bigger picture. Industries that survive on information are accepting they can no longer ignore the social media world. There will be hiccups along the way and lessons learned, but the broader corporate world is finally coming around.

To put how oddly this transition is playing out in perspective, I was asking a friend still at Bank of America about his Twitter access. He told me Twitter.com is blocked and he can’t download any desktop Twitter clients, yet can now access Twitter via Bloomberg. He concluded by pointing out the most important reason this breakdown in corporate firewalls is accelerating :

“Dude, we have smartphones. We just access it on there.”