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When you hear “The Blockchain,” grab your wallet

All the “thoughtful” executive types (VCs, C-levels, analysts) now seem to share the same low-risk opinion about crypto-currencies.  (“Superficial contrarianism,” perhaps)

It goes like this: “Well, Bitcoin itself is in a bit of a speculative frenzy [knowing chuckle, transitioning to sober contemplation] … however, we think there’s tremendous promise in The Blockchain”

A year or three ago, this seemed like a reasonable stance (give or take the adjective “tremendous”). In 2014, mail-order heroin and low-stakes gambling were basically the only uses for Bitcoin itself.

But 2017 has been the year of the ICO, and the major coins have pretty demonstrably become targets of Real Money by now. So, where are all these promising applications?

Here are some real live examples of the cockamamie schemes that are purporting to use “The Blockchain” as of January 2018. Names have been withheld to protect the fatuous:

  • Copyright (or other intellectual property) registration
  • Paying people to look at advertisements on the Internet
  • CARFAX (automobile history)
  • Employment resume / C.V. verification
  • Basically all of corporate finance (M&A, debt, equity)
  • Foreign Exchange

What do all these things have in common? They are real-world difficulties that are worth paying money to solve. What else do they have in common? They are all things that can be very acceptable solved with pencil and paper, or at most, 1990s Oracle RDBMS type technology.

Why would people change their behavior and pay good money to move these processes to The Blockchain? Surely these proponents have a logic: there must be some particularly compelling piece about The Blockchain, right?

  • “It’s decentralized!”
  • “It is totally immutable!”
  • “It’s totally automatic [‘smart contracts!’] with no way to cheat!”

If you hear this level of glib bullshittery being slung your way as rationale for using The Blockchain for some application, better hold onto your wallet.

Thinking about markets, not technology

In a parallel to the abuse of terminology around the word “disruption,” where people misappropriate Clay Christensen’s theory and talk about technologies themselves as “disruptive,” blockchain cheerleaders talk about technological features as if they were ipso facto benefits.

But “decentralized” or “immutable” or “automatic” or whatever – aren’t necessarily benefits, much less unique and transformative catalysts for market value.

Starting with The Blockchain and trying to shoehorn it in to various market needs is backwards-minded and almost always going to fail. Here’s why.

The Blockchain is not a fundamental technological capability on its own. Rather, it’s a clever combination of three particular features – each of which is a well-understood [if arcane] and widely-available capability. If you need these three particular capabilities for your market application, then The Blockchain is your huckleberry:

1. Path-dependent, unchanging history,
… that works decentralized with
2. untrusted nodes and counterparties,
…and wherein you need to have
3. cheating discouraged by math, not by secrets.

What do these three things mean?

Path-dependent, unchanging history – More or less, this is a “ledger,” where the final state is dependent upon all the changes that went before. One key difference, though, is that in ledgers, you can often go back and insert transactions you forgot to record. Another is that, with ledgers, the final state doesn’t really depend on whether you cashed check #101 before #102, as long as they both got cashed before the reporting date. If you need to keep a ledger that can never be changed (fixed; or, in fairness, cooked) and where it really matters what order everything happened, you need yourself one of these. Happily, we more or less have them and we call them “append-only databases.”

Untrusted nodes and counterparties – In other words, do you need to reliably transact while also expecting that each person you deal with is trying to screw you, possibly with the collusion of at least several others? If you do, my apologies, and you should seek better friends, but at least you have the benefit of decades of academic research on things like the “Byzantine Generals problem,” along with algorithms that can be proven to keep things on the level even when dealing with a network of partially treacherous counterparties.

Cheating discouraged by math, not by secrets – Most of the time when we want to discourage cheaters or thieves, we require some secret-ish piece of information, like a PIN number, a password, or even the pattern of notches carved into a physical metal key. As long as you can make sure the non-cheaters have the secrets (and none of the cheaters have the secrets) this works well. If you can’t be sure of this, though, you can make sure that would-be cheaters have to prove that they’ve done lots of long division and shown their work longhand on paper, which takes some amount of time no matter how clever they are. This is more or less the idea of “proof of work.”

[Note: After circulating a draft of this post privately, I realized that I almost certainly read Tim Bray’s “I Don’t Believe in Blockchain” at some point last year and unconsciously plagiarized much of the above.  But, even on a re-read this is still mostly true and definitely how I’ve been thinking about this stuff.  So, although I promise I wrote all the words in the section above, let’s consider most of the ideas, right down to the use of specific phrases, to have come from Tim.]

Here’s the obligatory Venn diagram:

http://rlucas.net/crypto_currency_venn.pdf

Now, what kind of ice-cream sundae do you make with these three particular scoops? Bitcoin, of course. But what is it really useful for? Well, I would say, a medium-sized economy among participants who expect many of the others to be thieves, who are afraid of getting cheated by welchers yet need to trade with these snakes, and who have no way outside of their interaction to share secrets between themselves.

In other words, you have a technological mélange purpose-built for mail-order heroin. That’s basically it.

OK, snarky guy, are you saying there are absolutely no apps for The Blockchain?

Let’s try to be fair-minded here. What are some use cases that really could leverage (or perhaps even require) all of these core capabilities?

The Domain Name System et al. For example, Namecoin. You can imagine that the DNS might one day be (or is already) too big or unwieldy for ICANN to administer through its ICANN/Registry/Registrar/Registrant system. You might then imagine that it becomes much more practical to allow a blockchain-based system where a node can lay claim to a particular unused name after a proof of work, even if others upon seeing it would like to steal it away. This checks the boxes as being a good fit. However, for DNS (and for ARIN and BGP tables and many other things) simply having a means to definitively establish the truth isn’t enough; there’s also the operational side of giving up to date answers very quickly to billions or trillions of queries, for which the actual blockchain piece is useless.

Voting. If you want to have an actually fair election, being able to prove all the votes in an immutable and universally verifiable way, even with the vote-counters as adversaries, this could be a really good app. (Unfortunately it’s a dismal business.) Consider that here you expect everyone else to be a thief/welcher/vote-rigger, and the scale of the problem begs decentralization, plus, there are real practical issues with handing out secrets ahead of time.

Distributed Computation 1: Storage. For example, Filecoin. If you want censorship-proof storage of information, but you need to incentivize participants, Filecoin seems well thought-through. In order to serve both privacy and censor-resistance needs, you need to treat everyone as a thief, and you need to prevent anyone from changing history to be truly censorship-proof. Finally, in order to be sure someone has earned their incentive you need a proof of work. Very clever. Unfortunately, this is also a dismal business, mainly because the cost of storage keeps dropping, and the sorts of things that you really need to keep in a censor-resistant data store, at least in a rule-of-law Western society, are either truly nasty (kiddie porn, nuclear weapons secrets) or simply not that lucrative (proof of governmental wrongdoing / whistleblower leaks).

Distributed Computation 2: CPU. This isn’t built yet. But you could imagine a Filecoin-type system meant to incentivize participants to conduct computation on their own devices and send the results home – sort of a SETI@Home for the blockchain. The problem here is that to really reach venture scale, you will need to allow not just specialized processing of SETI signals, or protein folding, or various of the other specialized decomposed computation problems that are well known, but truly general computing that allows customers to reliably and securely get ad hoc compute jobs of all sorts done. This is much harder than storage; in storage, I can encrypt files or blocks and have a reasonable certainty that the actual storage nodes will never be able to read or tamper with them. In compute, this gets a lot trickier. Imagine doing, say, massively distributed OCR or video rendering. The algorithms to do the heavy lifting will require the input data in an unencrypted, unobscured form – the OCR will need to actually “see” the image in order to read the words. If you are running a malicious node, you can “see” the page I’m sending to you and you could likewise interfere with the results, without me ever knowing. It seems technologically plausible to be able to transform at least some subset of compute tasks in a way that effectively encrypts or obscures both the computation and the I/O – but to do so in a way that is efficient seems quite tricky. If this nut gets cracked, you could see something truly transformative, as it would have the functional properties of Filecoin but with potentially far more attractive unit economics.

What about applications that are partial fits, using at least 2/3 of these core capabilities?

Title plants (land ownership). In the U.S., thanks to some ancient English traditions we’ve inherited, nobody definitively knows who owns what piece of land. The way we solve for this is the quiet but giant title insurance industry, who guarantees the ownership interest. They in turn underwrite the ownership by accumulating “title plants,” which are basically databases from individual jurisdictions (counties, parishes, states, etc.) going back as far as they possibly can, showing all of the valid changes in title. A title plant is an immutable historical append-only record. It’s presently centralized (and this makes for quite a lot of jobs in county recorders’ offices around the country). But it also means that for transactions that “touch” the title to real estate, there’s a small but significant delay and hassle in recording all such transactions with the centralized keeper of the record. If title plants were maintained on blockchains, you could imagine that real estate transactions – not only sales, but mortgages, liens, etc. – could close in seconds at the swipe of a finger or the call of an API. Is this a venture scale opportunity? Certainly if you controlled it all, you could charge a handsome fee and displace the entire title insurance industry. However, it’s unclear that there is any market pressure to do this: most sales, mortgages, and liens involve many other moving parts and changing the turnaround time from one business day to a few seconds on the recordation is of questionable standalone value.

Anti-spam (and robocalls, etc.). It could be that a mix of the proof-of-work and byzantine generals capabilities might be a great recipe for collaborative approaches to stopping or reducing spam and robocalls, by imposing costs on nodes and sub-networks for bad behavior. There are lots of approaches to this problem, though, and it’s not clear that even 2/3 of the blockchain is important – proof-of-work alone might be enough (or you could also just impose tiny charges on each message without fancy crypto math).

That’s it. I’m sure there are more to be found, but not vast greenfields of more applications.

The Blockchain is more like XML than like the Web.

The Web exposed a way to connect mostly-already-existing information and transactions to millions, and shortly thereafter, billions, of people. Subsequently, and building upon that network, new kinds of interactions that were now possible became commonplace (i.e. “Web 2.0” or “social” and “collaborative” technologies).

But The Blockchain isn’t like that. The Blockchain is a technological mishmash of capabilities or features that, in the right spot, can help solve some tricky coordination problems. It doesn’t, on its own, connect people to things they largely couldn’t do before.

In this way, The Blockchain is more like XML. Does anyone remember the 1998-2003 timeframe and the hoopla about XML? At the time, a very valid point was made that markup languages (well, really just HTML) were part of a huge important wave (Web 1.0), and the thought was that this could be extended to all parts of the information economy. XML, as the sort of generalized version of HTML (pace, markup language nerds, I know “Generalized” has a special meaning to you but work with me here), was going to be transformative! After all, it was:

– Vendor agnostic! (hah)
– Text-based and human readable! (hah)
– Stream or Document parseable with off-the-shelf tools! (hah)

Well, it turns out that those things, even when they were all true, were just capabilities that were well suited for some real-world problems and not so much for others. In fact, it was mainly suited for data interchange in a B2B context, or for certain kinds of document transformations. Not particularly compelling for much else.

What was actually important then was the particular flavor of XML called HTML, and the absurd gold rush around that time surrounding it. HTML seemed approachable and it was El Dorado. Everyone and her brother were “coding” HTML and learning how to FTP GIFs to their servers. Eventually, most of those people and companies failed, but in the midst of that gold rush they created a ton of real value.

[One commenter who was early in the promulgation of XML objected a bit here.  I think this is fair.  I’m not saying HTML came from XML; rather, I’m saying that attempts to generalize the basic underpinnings of HTML/HTTP — the human-readable-ish markup for wide interop — fell short, because the tech underpinnings were less important than the entrepreneurial and speculative frenzy.]

What the real story of Bitcoin is.

The real story here is quite the opposite of the new sober conventional wisdom. It’s not the underlying blockchain technology that’s fundamental, transformative, or even particularly interesting.

What’s interesting is precisely the speculative bubble: the specific crypto-coin(s), or more importantly, the frenzy of activity by fortune-seekers drawn to this El Dorado.

The actual underlying technology happens to be a bunch of particular features and capabilities, some of which have been around decades, that happen to be very useful for the main original Bitcoin use-case (mailing around LSD blotter paper with the “B$” logo, or whatever).

The Blockchain of the dilettante investor’s imagination is some kind of brave new philosopher’s stone that can upend any business process. Bullshit.

The real opportunities here are going to be generated by lots of aggressive and more or less smart people feverishly trying new, heretofore “unfundable” things, financed by their own crypto-currency gains or more likely by the wild gambling of the pilers-on who missed the first wave. Some of these gold-rushers are going to create things of real value and of venture scale, if only by a stochastic process.

Fukushima-type reactors in the USA

I was moving a bookshelf around my house this weekend when I found a copy of “Nuclear Power Reactors in the World,” an April 2000 publication by the IAEA.  (Don’t ask why I have this kind of crap lying around …) It struck me that people would want to know what reactors are “like” the Fukushima Daiichi reactors in Japan which have been causing all sorts of problems lately. Well, here goes:

View BWR 1970s reactors in the USA in a full screen map

The March 2011 earthquake / tsunami / reactor emergency brought to the public eye the dangers of “active safety” in engineered systems.  Elements of reactor design and operation which may have seemed appropriate in the 1960s (when these reactors were designed) now seem like “what were they thinking??” anachronisms to concerned laypersons.

Specifically, I’m talking about the need for electrical pumps to be in continuous operation to prevent reactor core overheating; use of water (hydrolysible into 2H2 and O2, explosive and reactive gasses) as coolant; use of cladding and fuel alloys that are subject to fire risk and enhanced toxicity (zirconium and MOX); and storage of spent fuel rods in top-floor containment pools subject to sloshing and evaporation and requiring electrical pumping. Keep in mind that all of the bad shit at Fukushima started happening after the earthquake and tsunami had passed, during a period where the active safety systems relatively slowly stopped working.

(Lots of folks don’t realize it, but you can build stable, passively safe, high tech systems, to a degree. Simple airplanes are built to fly themselves. If you’re up in the air piloting a Cessna in level flight at, say, 5000 feet, you could probably take a 10 minute nap and live to tell about it. Yes, there’s gravity involved, but the aerodynamics involved let the plane stay up there either flying (engine on) gliding (engine off) for quite a while with no requirement for constant input and management. Contrast this with something like the Joint Strike Fighter, where the plane is intentionally aerodynamically unstable and, without the constant inputs of a high-speed computer, would fall out of the air like a brick. We want reactors that are boring and Cessna-like, not delicate JSF divas that literally melt down without enough attention.)

(Non-geek version: the Fukushima-type reactors are like delicate plates spinning on top of poles.  You can’t just leave them be without expecting to break a lot of shit.  And they don’t tend to revert to safe or stable states when they break.)

The above map names the US-based reactors with BWR type (boiling water; arguably the most dangerous type still in service), manufacture by GE (GE, Toshiba, and Hitachi were the suppliers at Fukushima), and construction dates that include the 1970s (1969 in the case of Nine Mile Point).  This does not mean that you should freak out if you live near these plants.  But it does mean that, in the broadest sense, these types of reactors are subject to the same types of risks as the Fukushima reactors.  (Keeping in mind that even Fukushima was fine for 30+ years until a 9.0 earthquake.)

If you want to do something positive about nuclear power in general, don’t freak out or ask for all nukes to be banned. Instead, the nuke-minded citizen should:

  • …push for greater research on safer alternatives like pebble bed reactors.
  • …push your Congressional representatives to get off their asses and open up a real, centralized, better-than-inaction interim solution for the nation’s nuclear waste. (This gets rid of fuel rods sitting in ponds at the very place where they can do the most incremental harm when things go wrong…)
  • …pay, pay, pay. [Good] nuclear power will not be cheap. But it can be vastly improved from the Fukushima state of affairs. However, it will take enormous amounts of money for research, and the political will to eschew interim half-assed solutions (like putting cheap BWRs into service well into the 1970s, when other approaches were already either viable or in progress).

Newest source of entrepreneurial financing: the dole

From the VC grapevine comes word of a new innovation in startup funding in Portland (and elsewhere), Oregon: the unemployment department

From http://www.oregon.gov/EMPLOY/UI/ui_special_programs.shtml#Self_Employment_Assistance__SEA_

The Oregon Self Employment Assistance (SEA) Program helps eligible unemployed workers set up a business on a full time basis and still receive full unemployment benefits.  …
To qualify for the SEA program, you must:

  • have a viable business idea,
  • be willing to work full time in developing the business, and
  • have or be able to obtain the financial backing needed to start and sustain the business until it becomes self-supporting.

Kind of cool.  Normally, I’d understand that there’s a hazard here (given that I am an investor in several Oregon companies that all pay unemployment insurance premiums, which could be raised if this gets exploited).  But unfortunately, I paid enough premiums immorally required on myself (which payments I could never collect, because I was the entrepreneur and would have been ineligible had I quit) during my Oregon years that I feel a bit justified here.

One-click Unsubscribe: For ALL Your Emails

I sign up for (let’s call it) 5-10 new web sites a week. It’s an occupational hazard.

(In fact, there’s an even weirder effect where sometimes there are web sites I know only from Webex demos or slide decks, and not from visiting the site itself. But I digress.)

As a startup, you SHOULD be sending retention and call-to-action emails. It’s a no-brainer. I don’t fault you for it. In fact, if I were an investor or advisor, I’d insist that you do it. (So many Web services naturally get more valuable over time, with the addition of users, data, events, etc., that you are often literally doing your users a favor the first time you harass them to come back.)

And, inevitably, the day comes when I tire of your appeals, and I want to pull the plug (or at least turn up the squelch knob).

BUT: when your “unsubscribe” link prompts me to sign in to your Web site — with a username I don’t remember (not even pre-filled in for me), with a password I even more certainly have forgotten, into your unfamiliar interface — in order to stop those email from coming in, then you are doing wrong.

Your “unsubscribe” link should have enough of a unique auth token in it that I can manage my email preferences. At the very most, it should be a two-or-three-additional-click process to verify with a round-trip email and link combination.

Instead, after two or three times trying to play nice and click your crappy “unsubscribe” link, I will just start clicking “report spam.” Enough of that, and your email throughput will suffer, and with it, all of your retention/CTA messaging.

So please: make it easy to unsubscribe (or at least to manage email prefs). Short-term minimization of your unsubscribe rate is not clever, and will ultimately kill your other metrics (not to mention incur user wrath).

Massachusetts Doesn’t Add Up

One nice thing about having a (practically infinitely) divisble currency unit is that you can use arithmetic to sum your accounts and settle them on a “net” basis.

Sometimes, such as in CDS clearing situations, this gets a bit hinky: lots of counterparties, etc. Sometimes, with lots of debits and credits on both sides, you really need to double-check to make sure you’ve got it all added up right.

But if I owe you A and B, I really ought to be able to pay you a sum C = A + B.

Not in Massachusetts.

Somehow this would seem less objectionable if it weren’t for the fact that I was trying to dissolve an inactive corporation so as not to have to keep shelling out tribute. You can (send one) check out any time you like, but you can never leave…

This video is no longer available due to a copyright claim by WMG.

Was looking today at a Facebook email (yuck) exchange regarding heavy metal and hard rock with an overseas pen pal. One of the links traded was to Ronnie James Dio’s “Holy Diver” video, a rockin’-ass metal song with laughably horrific production values in the vid.

That video in question I had found as a “related video” while surfing some other metal (probably Sabbath) on YouTube.

You heard me right: I probably never would have found out about Holy Diver if not for a bunch of dubiously-legit uploads to YouTube, which uploads, through the collective intelligence of commenting, tagging, and merely self-serving passively surfing users, became woven into a preferences graph that drove me into Dio’s grip. (Forgive me.)

WOE IS THE F-ING RECORD COMPANIES, THEY HAVE LOST SO MUCH REVENUE BOO HOO HOO BECAUSE I WATCHED A 20-YEAR-OUTDATED ROCK VID ON YOUTUBE, flail and rend garments etc.

Oh, wait — no, that’s not correct:

Yep, I bought the song. That is: the system works. Exactly like folks like Steve Jobs and the YouTube boys and your humble correspondent have been saying. There’s a place for freedom, and a place for commerce, and they can coexist. My anonymous and unknown friend in cyberspace puts up a crappy VHS-dub of Dio to share with me, I discover and rock out to it, and I buy the song.

But Warner Music Group (WMG) is operating on a plainly brain-dead policy. For instead of promoting that virtuous cycle above, they have chosen as a matter of policy to piss all over my unknown cyber-friend, me, RJD’s bank account, and indeed all precedents of good internet behavior. They have used the threat of violence-through-the-courts to have the link broken, and replaced with “This video is no longer available due to a copyright claim by WMG.” In WMG’s preferred universe, I never discover Holy Diver, RJD never gets his 10c or whatever from iTunes, and you never have to read this rant.

So, let me review the options WMG has:

1. Benign neglect toward music-sharing (especially of old and/or non-premium formats). Begets wider distribution of the catalog. Enables an increase in fan discovery and delight. Drives marginal purchases based upon that discovery and delight, and encourages the budding polyglot.

2. Relentless malignancy toward music-sharing. Squelches wider distribution of the catalog. Precludes an increase in discovery and reduces delight. Increases dependence on old, broken business model of top-40 radio and brick-and-mortar distributors, and cultivates mono-consumers who cleave to niche preferences.

In fair-mindedness, I must back down from the “brain-dead” accusation (see also my self-moderation imperative from earlier posts). There is, to be fair, one very good remaining reason why WMG might rationally choose #2 above. That is the legal doctrine that rightsholders like WMG must assert their rights or face losing them due to estoppel (I may have the legalese wrong). In other words, WMG may well have right-thinking, option #1 favoring executives, but if the general counsel raises the spectre of losing all copyrights, then that fear could drive an otherwise bad decision.

What we need is a law or court decision that provides some limited protection to copyright holders: a failure to enforce rights in one specific medium, format, or type of venue shall not be deemed a waiver of rights in any other medium, format, or type of venue. Then, WMG could let YouTube run amuck, with some sort of implicit understanding that HD videos or 128k audio would provoke legal action, but that sub-par stuff would not.

Otherwise, we end up in world where online video is Hulu, not YouTube. Don’t get me wrong — Hulu is fine for what it is: a way to rot your brain with mainstream media candy. It’s fun for catching “30 Rock” or “The Daily Show.” But YouTube is different and more important, culturally and economically, than Hulu, because it enables and empowers a different class of people to participate in the (potentially-)mass media.

Microsoft: Clueless or Actively Hostile to Search?

I know that large enterprises have traditionally taken a lot longer to get clues, both generally, and specifically around search. To some extent, this is just a factor of organizational size: Voyager‘s awesomely successful enterprise search marketing company, SEMDirector, is helping enterprises learn to adapt to this brave new world, and creating a lot of value doing it.

Of all big enterprises, Microsoft is one that we’d expect to be relatively early on the search bandwagon. After all, they’ve largely reoriented the company around search and advertising.

But inexplicably, the very best assets that Microsoft has from a search-marketing content perspective — the gigs and gigs of support info and (heh) bug workarounds on their massive, persistent, ubiquitous installed base — are piss-poorly optimized for search!

Sometime, try searching for something like, oh, say:

exchange server pop mail marked as read  

…which you might do if, like me, you’re frustrated that MSFT’s latest version of Exchange server can’t seem to support POP3 access without flagging all the POP’ed messaged as read (thereby screwing up the flawed but de facto organizational method that Outlook has trained us all to use over the years). (Yes, it’s a real problem; no, I haven’t found a solution.)

Well, the first several hits are forums, blogs, and ISV’s offering solutions. Somewhere around 9th place comes a hit from Microsoft, though, and you’re thinking: “Great! these forum postings are people complaining, but the solution will just be right here in the handy Microsoft link! Boy, what smart guys they are!” So you click on Microsoft Office Outlook 2003 Solution Center

…and what you get back is a huge page full of what I can only describe as “useless crap”. Twenty or thirty topics, all loosely grouped around a product, but nothing apparently on my problem. A confusing mess of acronyms and key terms.

Sigh. OK, So then you pull out the backup. Use your browser’s in-page-search (cmd-f) to find “POP.” Surely, one of these thirty topics is about what I want, I just need to find it here. (Though, isn’t that what the search engine was supposed to have done? Whatever.)

Search: “POP.” A few instances, but nothing relevant. OK, Search: “marked as read.” One instance, but describes the opposite of my problem. How about “marked as unread.” Also irrelevant.

Now you sit back and scratch your head: Every single other link in Google, prior to the Microsoft link, was relevant (if not useful) to my particular problem and my carefully worded query. Now comes the link from the very author of my misery, the Leviathan, and NOT A SINGLE G.D. SENTENCE is relevant to my problem!!

And that’s when it hit me: Microsoft’s “support” pages are actually search engine spam.

(And Google has properly detected this: that’s why for Microsoft’s own product, and despite Microsoft’s huge “Google Juice,” its own support pages rank a pitiful 9th.)

The answer to what needs to be done is fairly simple. (Our friends at SEMDirector could walk you through it.) Push the search engine juice out to the edges of the graph (leaf nodes with real info, rather than these pseudo-indices which serve only to conflate keywords together that don’t belong on the same page); let real human end-users discuss topics, using words that come naturally to them (and hence to other help-seekers); engage external bloggers and forums both to push info out into the ecosystem and to get deep links back in to the leaf nodes.

(Back in 2004, I was seeing this kind of search-friendly behavior on HP’s server support forums, and it was AWESOME. But then, that was all about running Linux on a well-engineered, open platform.)

All of the above recommendations are anti-hierarchical, control-ceding, conversation-seeding moves. They require a mental move from hold on tightly to let go lightly. I’m talking about not just opening the kimono, but playing volleyball on the nude beach. Do you think that a company unable to do that with its support pages is going to be able to embrace a whole new and orthogonal, search-and-ads based strategy?

Customer Satisfaction Owners: Read Your "noreply" Messages!

A quick thought: If you have responsibility for customer satisfaction at a company that relies heavily on the Web for customer experience, you should seriously consider making a practice of /reading the emails that come in to your “noreply” spambot addresses/. (Of course, you should /not have/ noreply addresses; it’s so f’ing insulting to your customer it’s beyond belief.) Essentially, if you want to see the misery of your least happy customers, the total flaming death-threat rants of your spurned customers, the pleading, pathetic missives penned into dodgy webmail interfaces and painstakingly drafted for maximum persuasive effect in solving the customers’ issues, and not least the Tourettean shitstorm of schizoid freakouts that result from when the former (bivalent term) customers have their first emails to “noreply” bounced and yet, beyond all logic and reason, reply again to curse the souls of the whoreson mongrel ancestors who brought a demon like you forth onto the Earth — then you must look into the heart of darkness, the festering cistern of the bit bucket to which you have relegated your hardest problems. Yeah, I got my email reply to a support ticket bounced from a “noreply” address today. Helpful stuff, too, had anyone been around to read it.

NBC F—ing Gets It; Why Don’t You Other Media Types Dig?

Who here has seen The Office — American version? Yeah, I thought so: it a pretty darn worthwhile download. (Those of you who are puzzled at why I called it a “download” rather than a “TV show” had best get with the picture: “push” style TV is dead to an entire rising generation of attention-greedy, affluent knowledge workers. We consume our video via iTunes and BitTorrent, thank you very much.) Here’s the twist, though. If you google around for the character names, you’ll run across “blogs” set up for the characters by NBC. (In the past, you may have found such things done by rabid fans, as for the series Arrested Development, or outsourced to niche creative geniuses like my man Elan Lee, but now we’re seeing the oldest of old-line players get on board.) What’s so special about this? Well, think of it this way: those blogs are in-character and professionally written — but not just for the main characters! In fact, some of the funniest stuff that NBC has put up is for an ancillary character, downtrodden boomer office schlepp Creed. The blog is exploring and fleshing out an entire new space and giving depth to a minor character, with production value and infrastructure underpinning it. Which, if you think about it, is an extension of the ostensible value the network adds in the first place (plot, character, production, etc.), but instead of being constrained to 22 minutes a week of airtime, they are going deeper and wider. Previously (pre-Web world), you couldn’t justify paying a creative to create this deeper world around each character, because it wasn’t economical to put it in the show. But now, the show is kind of just a long video ad for the web property… The blog creative work plus the quick release to iTunes can only mean that someone at NBC really f—ing gets it! And kudos to him. Because most of the media industry deserves to die in shame and penury, but the product manager for The Office is a goddam hero of the revolution. Finally, I want to share with you this gem before some corporate assclown takes it down: more Creed Thoughts on all-you-can-eat-buffets contains the bachelor boomer’s thoughts on nutrition-in-bulk by means of buffet restaurants, including musings on fat waitress seduction and plate-diameter pricing models. But the real reason that that this is an ingenius and genuine bit of fan outreach is to be found in the comment section.  His commenters have been cheering him on with crude, even vulgar commentary, engaging with him as though he were a kind of dirty class clown sitting in back.  And NBC — either out of ignorance or winking complicity with the engaged fans — has left the crude comments there, unedited.  It’s a bit unfortunate that the example here is such a crude one, but folks, this is real social media, and it’s why the sucess of The Office‘s franchise is different not only in degree but in kind.  Whoever is moderating that blog is either way out-of-it, or with-it, and I suspect the latter.

Everything Old Is New Again: Innovation to Adoption Lag

There are a lot of problems in software that aren’t solved well in a ubiquitous product (think PIMs, Personal Information Managers; they all suck royally despite everybody’s best efforts, and the OSAF Chandler project has taken years trying to redesign the very concept, with little to show for it to date). But there are precious few problems that haven’t been solved at all.

In fact, a ton of things that are being held up these days as “innovations” are rehashes of old concepts from the 90s, or the 80s, or sometimes even the 70s. Today this came into sharp focus when I saw this bit from a circa 1999 document on the Semantic Web by the Right Reverend Tim Berners-Lee. Here he asks, then answers, a question:

<blockquote> Surely all first-order or higher-order predicate caluculus based systems (such as KIF) have failed historically to have wide impact?

The same was true of hypertext systems between 1970 and 1990, ie before the Web. Indeed, the same objection was raised to the Web, and the same reasons apply for pressing on with the dream. </blockquote>

Then, while searching for some theory on append-only databases (such as would be used in a revision-control system), I came across this 1994 piece on “collaborative filtering.” That report in turn points to earlier work on “Information Tapestry” from the early 1990s.

So: 1970-1990, hypertext exists and is studied in CS departments. 1995, Netscape IPO. Early 1990s, collaborative filtering exists and is studied in research labs. 2006-2007, rise of Digg and Delicious.

I think there’s a very strong case to be made that VCs should stop looking for “innovation,” per se, and start looking for 10-20 year old CS masters’ theses that touch on an emerging market space…