The betaworks 2015 book

I wrote several essays for the betaworks 2015 book and posted three of them online.  Here’s a quick summary and links to the three.

A critique of artificial intelligence is the longest one — I went on a deep dive into AI and wrote about why I believe the integration of computing into ourselves is transBetaworks_Logo1 copyforming us and our world faster than any external singularity event. You can read the full post here and I included an Instapaper folder of all the background reading here.  The folder is titled AI, IFTTW — that was my working title for the post — Artificial Intelligence, If this, then what.

Second.  Gilad and I did a post about media hacking.   Last year we saw a series of incidents where media was hacked by Russian media / bots.  Interesting stuff.  Finally. I posted a review of betaworks investment performance.  Its 6+ years that we have been investing at betaworks – we did the math and figured out what we invested and how the returns look so far.

Thats it for now.  I need to give this blog some love, its become a link blog.

You gotta read this! / Thoughts about reading and internet media use

Back in May Mike Hudack posted a rant about the state of the news media. The gist of it is: here we are in 2014, the Internet is at scale — the mobile internet is in the pockets 30%+ of adults worldwide and social networks are at a proportionate scale and yet the news media seems to be becoming more and more dumb. Put another way: the world of news creation and access have been blown open and yet most news organizations have hollowed out their news capabilities and are posting the trivial listicles about “28 young couples you should know”. The response was interesting — one reason is Mike works at Facebook. Alexis Madrigal summed up much of the sentitment in a sentence in the comments: “Hey, Mike, … My perception is that Facebook is *the* major factor in almost every trend you identified.”

A month later — here in New York our extended spring was rolling onward and on Sunday, June 8th, the University of Redding in the UK put out a press release saying that the Turing test had been passed for the first time, ever. The media ran with the story — or more accurately reproducing the press release. The headlines were excellent, easily shareable, easily clickable. I for one saw it fly by my steam and thought “wow, milestone passed”, I will share that. The problem was the press release wasn’t true, and neither were most of the stories that were published. Fast forward to a month later — right at the end of June the the AP announced that they are going to start algorithmically writing stories. Using earnings reports data they are going to let machines “write” business stories.

Lets take a step back and think a bit about what is going on here. We have a dominant social distribution system that favors sharablility — case in point: the Hudack discussion. Its biased towards speed, and that bias is short circuiting fact checking — as the Turing example shows. And in the case of Facebook its mediated by algorithms that arent transparent. Layer in the economics, the cost, of the creation of this “news” add in the AP announcement and you get a good idea of where this is headed. Algorithmically created news stories, mediated by algorithms, shared by people, people who are barely reading these posts. If we can all just get services like Socialflow to do our sharing — we humans can completely quit this loop.

Maybe this isn’t the whole story?   Read on … 

What can homescreens tell us about the way people use their phones. 

Screen Shot 2014-02-22 at 5.07.15 PM At betaworks we aim to build apps that people love: the essential apps that people use every day and that they obsessively want to have on the homescreen of their devices, one touch away. Yet, measuring progress against this goal is a challenge. We have internal analytics, tools, and KPIs that give us an indication of progress. We are obsessive users of Chartbeat, which we helped design specifically to track real-time social engagement. We use Twitter and social channels to measure the scale of engagement and its depth. Twitter is especially good at giving us a sense of depth: examining the language, the influencer clusters and the sentiment that people use to describe our work. When people talk about Dots as an obsession they love or a Tapestry story as something that moved them, we take these as indicators that we are accomplishing our goal. However, it’s just an indicator and the world we build in today is balkanized. More often than not, we can’t get enough visibility into many of the platforms on which we build experiences. Whether it’s the App Store, Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, most platforms today are opaque in terms of metrics and data. But at the start of each year there is an elegant hack we apply.

Each new year, people share pictures of their homescreens on Twitter, Instagram and other social sharing platforms. If you search Twitter for #homescreen2014, you will see a stream of pictures of people’s homescreens — the primary screen of their phone with all the apps they choose to keep there. It is fascinating to browse through this stream of images — analyzing it is even more interesting. Right after the new year, we culled 1000 homescreen images from Twitter, cut up the images and tabulated the apps on the homescreens vs. those in folders. Admittedly, it’s a hack, and the sample is skewed: among all smartphone users, we’re biasing completely for people who use Twitter, and among Twitter users we’re selecting for the type of person who is willing to share a homescreen image. But, caveats aside, the data are fascinating. Eighty-seven percent of homescreens shared in our sample were iOS and 12 percent were Android (1 percent was Windows). For the sake of consistency, we focused the analysis below on iOS — the 87 percent.

The first metric that we pull from the sample is the percent of people who have apps we are developing at the betaworks studio on their homescreens. We then look at the investments we have made. These are our KPIs, so let me start with them and then offer up some data and perspective beyond betaworks.

Our results. Betaworks apps we are building at the studio are on 17.3 percent of people’s phones, up from less than 5 percent at the start of 2013. In terms of the investments that betaworks has made — that haven’t exited — they account for a further 15 percent. That is a significant jump in presence and share.

Read more over on medium

RSS Community Meetup

DSC00787Dave Winer posted the idea of a RSS community meet-up this weekend.  A good idea, in the middle of a steamy New York summer the world of RSS is rumbling once again. Google’s exit from the reader market has created a vacuum and nature abhors vacuums.  At betaworks we have been developing RSS related products for a while now — superfeedr, twitterfeed and more recently bloglovin and the new digg reader.

RSS is about more than readers — it’s about notifications, alerts, it’s about writing, reading and reading lists — and more generally it’s about publishing about the push architecture of the web.  Bringing people together in this space across startups, tech companies, publishers and academia is a good idea.  I hope the meet-up happens, if we can help catalyze this in anyway, happy to.  If you have comments please post them over on Dave’s post.

And reminder: today is the last day to export your data, your reading list, from Google Reader. Here is a how to:

Pando fireside chat

This is a long interview. It covers a broad range of topics from early days of betaworks, to why and how the studio model works, to how New York has become a tech center.

power lunch?

I was down at the stock exchange to talk about Dots and betaworks on CNBC’s power lunch. Here is a picture of the setup where they do the interviews — its amazing how few people work today on the actual floor of the exchange.  More screens per sq inch of real estate than I’ve seen in a while. DSC00774

The highlight was that interviewer has a son whose school is using dots to help kids develop fine motor skills. Amazing, especially since the game isnt two months old. Video clip here: Betaworks CEO: 4 Million Downloads of ‘Dots’

how we beta-work

The Bloomberg team came over to the office to talk about how we work, at betaworks. Clip here:

2013 Shareholder Letter

Its time for the annual betaworks shareholder letter. This is something that I hammer out at the end of each year — its long this year, sorry we didnt have the time to edit it further.

tapestry: a new way to write


I did a post over on svbtle about tapestry, a new way to write, it includes a collection of new tap stories.  More after the jump …


Sandy and how the technology we build could serve us more effectively

Last week was a rough one here in New York City. People lost their homes, some a lot worse. We were lucky. I live downtown and all that my family and I had to deal with was no electricity for most of the week, no cell access and a lot of water in our kitchen, no one got hurt and the damage is all fixable. But the lack of basic technology services got me thinking about what could have worked differently. With all the technology that has been placed in the hands of users since the first personal computer I found it remarkable how little was useable. Let me start with a personal overview of our situation and then lay out some ideas about what could be done differently.

When Sandy hit my family and I found ourselves with:
– no power
– no cell phone access (ATT, our provider was down)
– Lack of reliable connectivity

For four days our only access to the internet at home was via one Verizon enabled iPad. Luck would have it, that this turned out to be the one Apple device you want. The iPad has the best battery of any the options available (iPhone, android phone, laptop), and the Verizon network proved to be far superior to ATT.

Yet many of the web sites we needed barely functioned. Con Edison was the worst. After 45 mins of dropped connections the ConEd website told us that they weren’t aware of an outage in our area . Power in all of lower manhattan was out and somehow the site couldn’t tell us that.  The map they had of outages had a few flags on it — those were the brave souls who persisted and reported an outage with pitch black all around them.  And from what I gather ConEd was way better than Connecticut Light and Power — their home page was still saying “Prepare for Sandy” days after the storm hit. News sites were too general, what I wanted was hyper local news. Twitter wasn’t useful. Twiter is hard to filter and the content stream moved too quickly to use effectively given intermittent connectivity. Facebook wasn’t useful, I wasn’t interested in pushing information out, I wanted to get information.

So what could have have been done differently? Here are five ideas:

1. Data and accessibility:

The data is there it just needs to be made accessible. ConEd and other utility service providers could design their websites for constrained circles of accessibility. Think of an inner most circle with no web access, just SMS. One ring outwards represents low bandwidth or intermittent access, mostly email, some web — and then the furthermost ring represents high bandwidth access. Ideally, utility websites should be adaptive across all these rings, at a minimum they should offer users the ability to navigate it at different levels, depending on the situation. So when an emergency hits users shouldn’t be faced with a site that is optimized for high bandwidth access with videos expelling things. What I wanted from the ConEd site was a simple status update of power restoration in our neighborhood. All the rest of the media and information on the website was of no use, in fact, it detracted from what should have been a simple experience.

Going one step further if ConEd and utility service providers made their basic service data accessible via API’s then it could easily be reformatted and delivered to people using the channel best suited to the situation. In the case of Sandy that would have been a simple web site, optimized for low bandwidth and intermittent connectivity, with neighborhood navigation. Someone would have made that site if ConEd and other utility providers made block level service status data available.

[update: there are a few end points that people found to ConEd data, that generated some data, for a good example see this thanks to @cmenscher who sent this to me and @ckundo who created the visualization]

And if service providers had basic API’s they could share them with each other. As @Auerbach reminded me ConEd may not actually know if power is down in your building but Time Warner Cable knows it. And the street lights have connectivity back to a central station. A little bit of data sharing could go a long way here.

2. Usability:

Utility web sites seem to have been designed primarily as marketing tools. This is backwards. The sites shouldn’t be managed by the marketing department, particularly in the case of a utility where customer churn is basically nonexistent. Take a look at the coned twitter feed: The number of messages with media, essentially promotional,is high. But ConEd and CLP are were at least active on Twitter this past weekend. In contrast AT&T’s marketing department seem to have gone home for the weekend.

Socialmedia is opening up channels for people to talk to companies and companies to talk to customers. The departmental lines between marketing and customer service are a fabrication of an era that is past. Customer service is becoming marketing and it should have primacy in situations like this. Companies and brands are starting to think they need to produce media in order to talk with customers. This makes sense in a marketing context but in a situation like Sandy it doesn’t. I’m not interested a Utilities video channel. What I want is usable information.

3. Simplify, Simplify, think /status

As technology advances systems become complex. During emergency situations that complexity needs to be unwound so that basic services remain available and accessible – the first and most basic is an awareness in an organization that systems, critical systems need to scale up and down this curve of complexity. If that awareness can become part of how we design technology then as new, more, complex functionality is added to a product will make the roll back actually possible.

Another approach to simplifying or unwinding a complex systems is for there to be basic standards that system providers agree to. Consider really simple things — i.e.: what if service providers adopted a standard so that users knew that if they went to or or they would get a network status update. In emergencies simplicity of navigation goes a long, long way. There are simple solutions and while this disaster is fresh in our minds is a good time to consider a few.

4. City, local, government data hubs:

Government and city government’s first job is to keep citizens safe to that end government could play an important role as a hyper local data aggregator. If the service providers made service/status data accessible via API’s then cities could easily aggregate that down to a neighborhood level. What I really needed was a single page with aggregate information for power, cell access, flood levels for our neighborhood or even block.  This is a prototypical public good that local governments could offer citizens. Match that page with a simple notification system to alert me of changes and we would have a very simple, usable, local status page.  Note the data I’m talking about is not account level data, its simple service level availability data. This isn’t a radical shift in the role of government, or governments access to data — at some level data becomes a public good and government are the most natural and benign aggregator of that data.

5. Towards a Machine readable city:

By the end of this year there will be approximately 2.3bn people connected to the network. Thats a big number, but we are on the cusp of an explosion in that number. Sensors that communicate with purpose built devices are going to be everywhere (think fuel bands and Nests for consumers and for the enterprise think about all the industrial hardware that will be wired up with sensors to monitor use and state of wear).  Additionally, I believe, cities will become machine readable. Imagine if a city simply added to its street signs simple QR codes. Not only would this give added information to citizens but information could be programmatically updated in the case of an emergency like Sandy. Over the coming decade billions of sensors get wired into the network, many of them in our cities. Most of these sensors primary purpose will be commercial yet there will be some level of aggregate data that the city government should have access to aggregate.  Weatherunderground had some useful maps of the tide levels on monday night as Sandy approached but the detail needed on a local level to make informed decisions was missing.

What happened here in NYC was nothing compared to the earthquake in Japan and the nuclear fallout that followed. Yet alot of our technology failed us. Technology needs to be designed as flexible, adaptable to the context that it exists in. Over the coming decade we will see contextual computing upend many of the services that today we take for granted. Building and designing technology with events like Sandy as a consideration are a first step down the path of making computing and the machines we depend on, function regardless and in regard of the context they exist in.


Bloomberg interview re: Digg

How Bloomberg does interviews …

I did a live interview last Friday on Bloomberg TV.  It was interesting.  A conversation about the early stage technology environment, increases in the cycles of change, new things at betaworks and the Facebook IPO.

Borthwick on Facebook IPO, Betaworks' StrategyMay 12 (Bloomberg) — John Borthwick, chief executive officer of Betaworks, talks about the company's investment strategy in technology startups, Facebook Inc.'s pending initial public offering and the outlook for its shares and competition.


If the subject of the Facebook IPO and the acceleration of the rate of technology change interests you there are two other posts on the subject I saw this weekend.

Here’s Why Google and Facebook Might Completely Disappear in the Next 5 Years

Mobile – Facebook And Google Can’t Live With It And They Can’t Live Without It

Back to Bloomberg and the live interview

Live TV is always interesting, I dont enjoy it but I love the fact that its live, its your words, no editing possible. That aside, the way that Bloomberg do these segments is fascinating. The host is wired up, standing in the atrium of the Bloomberg building, producer jammed into her ear.  She has two screens in front of her, both are bloomberg terminals, running windows.  First check out that keyboard, Bloomberg terminals and airport checkin are the only places you see things like that.  Back to the screens.   From what I could gather one on the right was email and a chat window.  Email was moving fast, a stream of a message or so every few minutes, Twitter sending new follows, notifications, @mentions, etc.  On the left was an application to let the host compose real time a feed into her teleprompter.

The segment began with a discussion of Facebook and Google.  Part way through it the producer (in her ear) tells her there is a breaking story about JP Morgan.   As soon as there is a pause she says “we are going to jump to a breaking story after the advertising break”.   During the ad’s she composes the introduction to the breaking story on the screen on the left.

Its fascinating to watch the process, only thing that is missing is a chartbeat terminal with a live feed of user metrics (ie: who is watching what).   The way media is made is changing as the real time stream is becomes an integral part of the creation / production process.

betaworks 2012 shareholder letter

Related links:










Today at betaworks we are launching findings, a platform for sharing and discovering what people are reading.  You can see my bookshelf of what I’m reading here – this includes books as well as web pages from which I have clipped highlights that interest me.  You can see the quotes I have highlighted here, or the same collection as an xml feed.  All these quotes are then placed into a social framework where you can explore who I follow on findings and who follows me.  Users of findings get to choose whether to make their collections public or private.  The default is public because at betaworks we believe that making data open and sharable adds value to the data in its entirety. I’m not sure if it’s a squared relationship but I do believe that it’s more than linear.

Building findings was a slow brew or a “slow hunch”.  Back in 2005, Steven Jonson wrote a great blog post about his use of DevonThink software and how he was using it as his personal Memex.  The piece resonated with me.  At the time I had a flatfile system with years worth of collected quotes and clips; it was searchable but the happenstance of the discovery tool that Devon offered opened up a whole new dimension to my collection.  Steven and I started to develop the first version of findings about four years ago with the goal of creating a platform to help people collect, share and discover things they were reading.

Along the journey Steven found this wonderful quote from Robert Darnton about the commonplace book:

“Unlike modern readers, who follow the flow of a narrative from beginning to end, early modern Englishmen read in fits and starts and jumped from book to book. They broke texts into fragments and assembled them into new patterns by transcribing them in different sections of their notebooks. Then they reread the copies and rearranged the patterns while adding more excerpts. Reading and writing were therefore inseparable activities. They belonged to a continuous effort to make sense of things, for the world was full of signs: you could read your way through it; and by keeping an account of your readings, you made a book of your own, one stamped with your personality.”  (You can see the origin of this clip and others by Darnton on this page.)

This quote exemplifies how I read, and write, today.  Despite this, the tools and the language of sharing quotes and marginalia are still only loosely formed. With, we take a step forward (or back!) to this future.

Back in 2007, there were no ebook readers, no kindles, no iPads – not even a nook. The iPhone was barely six months old and had no apps –  unless you decided to jailbreak.  In short, it was too early for findings so we bought the domain and shelved the development.  As a side note, we originally started with the domain but that was a mouthful so we moved over to  A bit easier to pronounce.  The project sat on the shelf for about 18 months.

About two years ago, Steven Johnson and I again started talking about the need for a common platform where quotes and marginalia could be shared, re-organized and re-combined.  With devices that enabled “networked” long-form reading on the market, the potential behind the findings idea seemed both timely and unbounded.  About a year ago Corey jumped on board and the three of us got to work; Corey built another beta.  Once again, we didn’t ship this second version; rather we tested, trialed and kicked it around at betaworks.  We kept asking ourselves how to make this useful, how to retain the context of the book yet give the atomic unit (aka quote) a place to exist independently…and with social context.  Today we are launching findings.  The experience is simple yet the meta-data that is processed in the background is complex.  I hope you will give it a try.  Sign up for an account and clip and synch your highlights – let’s see what we can build around digital marginalia.

Since we started working on findings people like James Bridle have helped construct a roadmap.  As James has written, marginalia is a vital and vibrant part of the reading experience.  It’s both personal and social: “digital technologies do not just disseminate, they recombine, and in this reunification of our reading experiences is the future of the book”.  Thanks to James and others for their insight, we are collectively just starting to understand what is possible and what reading will be in the future.

Thanks to the current team of StevenCoreyJason, JefferyNeil and Alex its great to see findings live.  And thank you to the original development team of NateNeil and Trevor.  Sometimes ideas need time to develop, simmer and brew.

And a final note, please be patient with us the site had a lot more traffic than we expected today.

Steven’s post on the launch is here.

tumblr’s blow out round

     tumblr is on a tear.  The growth numbers are insane and they have just announced a big, big funding round.  Back in May of this year TechCrunch ran a post outlining that tumblr was doing the same number of pageviews a day as they did in a month back in 2009: 250m pageviews a day.  If you look at the same metric today, the Quancast pageview (impression) count is now close to 400m. The NYT reports that the service is now doing “13 billion page views per month from 2 billion page views per month. Since the site was first introduced, 30 million blogs have been created using the tool. Those 30 million blogs now generate more than 40 million posts each day.”

This is stunning growth and is a testament to great work by David and the team over the past five years.  Its also an indicator about how fast new social platforms can get to scale.  We are living in an age of mutlple social platforms.   The next five years is going to be fascinating as the established platforms (ie: Facebook, Twitter), relate to the new platforms (ie: tumblr).

I remember meeting David before we started betaworks; I was still running Fotolog and David was working with the  Next New Networks team.  It was April of 2007, and my old friends Emil and Fred had recruited David to work as a contractor to help them build out the Next New product.  tumblr was a side project that David had created because he believed web publishing could be different. He believed publishing could be a simple and beautiful experience; holistic design of the publishing experience, from the post dashboard to the layout of every pixel, could be something simple and bold. I remember talking with David about the early forms of blogging and how tumblogging was emerging as a short variant.  We talked about dashboards and how they should be integrated into the published experience (vs. a toolset that sits outside), and we talked about re-blogging and different tools and forms to amplify and syndicate posts.  We also talked about reposting from other networks and how he wanted tumblr to retain the layout of posts vs. linking out.

The thing I remember the most from the conversation was David himself.  He is one of the best and most dedicated product entrepreneurs I have ever met – he thinks carefully and deeply about every interaction that he and his team creates, and always has.  Every pixel has been considered with care.  It’s wonderful to see and work with someone who cares so much about the actual product experience. David is different and special. The rest of the story is history.  David left Next New Networks and started focusing on tumblr full time. I started betaworks and made tumblr one of our first investments. Its been a pleasure to work with David over the years and to be part of what is becoming a great “banner” New York company in the social web.  Congratulations to David, John and the team.  Here is a video of David speaking at last year’s betaday event.

Note that as backdrop this talk was the day after tumblr had a large outage, so I think David had been pretty much up all night.  It’s a wonderful example of his dedication and commitment as a person and a builder.