Ten Things I Learned During Internet Week 2010

Last week was “Internet Week” here in New York, which means I went to a lot of events.  Four, in fact.   Over the course of three evenings (Monday through Wednesday) and one day-long extravaganza Friday, and learned a ton.  Here’s some of that wealth.

1) The power of good yields tears with thank yous.

At the ReadWriteWeb Summit, I lead a session titled “The Long Production Cycle of Television: How Traditional Media Can Survive in a Real-Time World” or something to that effect.  During it, I mentioned how Sesame Workshop has a lot of outreach programs, and mentioned a recent one, When Families Grieve, which uses the death of Elmo’s Uncle Jack — and the grieving of Elmo and his cousin (Jack’s daughter) Jesse — to help children cope with the loss of a relative.  I happened to have a resource kit with me and I passed it around, causing one participant to tear up.   She later told me that finding out about the hour-long special and the resource kit was timely for her family, and thanked me for the work the Workshop was doing.  It’s a moment I’ll hardly forget.

2) Michael Jackson was probably innocent of child molestation charges.

At IgniteNYC, Anil Dash made a compelling argument that Michael Jackson did not actually molest a child in 1993, even though he paid the family of that child $20 million (and never faced criminal charges).  The salient points:  (1) The child’s father, a dentist, was the screenwriter for Robin Hood: Men in Tights and had a massive incentive to try and hit someone like Jackson up for a lot of money, and  (2) the guy killed himself a few months after Jacko’s death.

There are other things out there which buttress this stance.   As a lawyer, I’m trained to trust in the legal system, and given no convictions here, I’m leaning toward agreeing with Dash.

3) Al Gore really did invent the Internet.  (Even though he didn’t really claim that.)

I actually knew this already, but not to the degree I was about to.

Bob Wyman joined my friend Jeremie Miller‘s discussion at the RWW Summit (more on this directly below), and suggested that he was present at a meeting to discuss the future of ARPANET, a (if not the) precursor to the present-day Internet.   APRANET was the largest of many mini-Internets, and these networks were used mostly for military and/or research purposes.

Gore, then a Congressman, was in those meetings as well, and he championed the idea of making these networks into a venue for commerce.  Specifically, Gore pushed the idea that from society’s point of view, having all these networks was unworkable, as it created islands where we needed seamless inter-connectivity.  We needed one “Internet”.

Take a look at Gore’s actual claim: “During my service in the United States Congress, I took the initiative in creating the Internet.  I took the initiative in moving forward a whole range of initiatives that have proven to be important to our country’s economic growth[.]”

Indeed, as Wyman pointed out, that’s exactly what he did.

4) People are already coding stuff for the Internet of 2020.

That’s not a typo.  Twenty-twenty.

Jeremie is building TeleHash, a protocol which allows for decentralized everything.  Basically — and I’m 50% sure I have this right (and 50% sure I have it wrong), when completed, TeleHash will allow an application to connect to another application without having to go through a central server or switch.   So instead of posting something to (say) Facebook or Twitter or whatever and having your friends login to that service to see it, you simply post the message and the application, via TeleHash, finds your friends and brings the info directly to them.

But what I didn’t know is that TeleHash is years away from being mainstream-useful.  At one point, Jeremie said that he’s envisioning this as a part of the Internet of 2020 — ten years out.  To put that in perspective: In 2000 — ten years ago — AltaVista was looking at an IPO, Facebook and YouTube had not yet been founded, and PayPal was still an independent company.  Looking to solve the problems of 2020 is incredibly ambitious, although for some people, ambitious protocol development is par for the course.

5) We’re at the point where the speed of light — literally — is a significant factor in decision-making at Google.

In the same discussion, someone asked if we still need big, powerful super-computers, or if a big task can be distributed over many much less powerful machines and done piecemeal.  Both Miller and Wyman believed that with rare exception — so rare, in fact, neither could come up with one off the top of their head — distributed computing could process any task that a monolithic super computer could do.

Which lead someone to ask: Then why does Google have server farms — singular warehouses with huge numbers of very powerful computers?  First, Wyman said that the computers probably aren’t all that powerful, which is a bit surprising.  Then, he said the most important reason is convenience and cost.  Specifically, he noted the air conditioning — it’s cheaper to cool a lot of machines at once than each machine individually.  But those are not technical barriers.

Wyman said that there probably aren’t any technical barriers.  “Except the speed of light,” he added, his tone dead serious.  It’s true.

All these machines need to communicate with each other, and they can only do so at speeds up to the speed of light.  The speed of light is about 187 miles per millisecond, which means that two machines next to each other can communicate basically instantaneously.  But it’d take 15 milliseconds for the same communication to travel between New York and Los Angeles.  It doesn’t seem like it, but it adds up.

6) LiveStreams of interesting panels are impossible to follow.

I tried to watch a few, and failed repeatedly.  Most notably, I tried to watch Dave Winer’s Sources Go Direct panel — I’d commented on two of his blog posts on the topic and find the thesis interesting.

Perhaps we’re spoiled by the high production values of events like the Super Bowl or the Oscars, or even the evening news.  The camera is almost always trained at the right target, and in the odd event that it isn’t, we immediately notice.  Livestreams seem to be that bad stuff, with a bit of good stuff mixed in.

7) There startup/innovation sector in New York City is orders of magnitude larger than I thought it was — and I thought it was big to begin with.

Fom Monday through Wednesday, I went to three events which had probably had, in total, over 500 people.  And while those events were going on, so were a bunch of others.  For example, while I attended IgniteNYC on Wednesday, a lot of others were in Brooklyn for Social Climbing.  While I went to the #140conf Party, I skipped the NY Tech Meetup which started just as the former ended — 30 minutes away.

Of those hundreds of people, how many did I see at more than one event?

Under five.  Yes, I had met many of them beforehand, and yes, I’d end up seeing a few of them on Friday.  But the overlap between the early groups was virtually zero, which is a testament to the size and diversity of the NYC tech scene.

8 ) The average wait time for a doctor’s appointment in New York?  24 days.

At IgniteNYC, Karsten Vagner of ZocDoc gave an impassioned cry for better customer service in the health care industry.   He pointed out that when we go on a trip somewhere, and our plane is delayed even an hour, we flip out — how dare they!  But when a doctor makes us sit and wait, whatever.

According to Vagner, a New Yorker will wait, on average, the better part of a month to get an appointment with a doctor.  From experience, this is unsurprising.    It’s mostly driven by specialists, though, who have non-emergency/timely matters.   For example, we book allergist appointments months in advance, knowing full well that there’s a need for a checkup/re-test, but nothing which can (or should) be don immediately.

Even so, that’s a great little factoid.

9) Even a near-perfectly scripted presentation by a master showman can be upstaged by an errant comment from the peanut gallery.

The master showman?  Steve Jobs.

Heather Gold ran a breakout session at the ReadWriteWeb Summit, talking about “tummeling.”  Not knowing what that meant — and I’m all but sure that it is not a real word —  I joined the conversation, intent on finding out.   When I joined, she was speaking with Marshall Kirkpatrick about how often, the best part of a blog post or speech is the authentic, unplanned-on feedback you get from the audience.

Cue “ah-ha” moment.  I piped up and mentioned that Steve Jobs ran into network problems during his keynote, and at one point, asked if anyone had any suggestions.

An audience member offered one:  “Verizon.”  (You can see that part in the video at Gizmodo, with roughly 20 seconds left until it ends.)

That was the highlight of the keynote.  Certainly the most memorable part.

10) There are people out there who are leading indicators of what’s going to become big news.  And they may not even know it.

Kirkpatrick gave an opening keynote at the RWW Summit and discussed how the blog tracks potentially viral stories.  One of the techniques the RWW team uses is to take trending Techmeme stories and look back at Del.icio.us to see if anyone bookmarked stories ahead of time.

They gather up those early bookmarkers and build a small, informal database.  Over time, the find repeat users in the list.   They now have about a dozen people who, solely by virtue of this process, RWW recognizes as meme bloodhounds.

That’s incredibly impressive, and kudos to the RWW team for mining these networks to find true gems — even if the gems don’t know their value.

* * *

Thank you to everyone I met, spoke to, and listened to last week.  Internet Week 2010 was a great learning experience, and I’m better off for having participated.

Pitying the Fool Who Gets Bad Facebook “Research Poll” Results

Facebook just served me a “Research Poll,” results above, asking me if I was planning on seeing the A-Team movie.  These polls are sponsored — I assume by the marketing force behind the movie — so I am understandibly skeptical about the “Research” aspect.  (If anyone has used this before, and my skepticism is not well-founded, please let me know.)

Two thirds of respondents are incredibly unlikely to see the movie.   Yikes.   That is probably not the marketing message they wanted to send.

Why Do Facebook’s Friend Suggestions Suck?

What do Tomek from Poland, Stephanie from Boston, David from Los Angeles, and Nathan, also from Boston, have in common?

Facebook thinks I should be friends with all of them.

And I have no idea who any of them are.

I am, of course, talking about Facebook’s Suggestions — people I should consider being friends with.   And the suggestions are awful.  But they don’t have to be.  Facebook has a ton of data about me — how old I am, where I live, where I’ve lived, who I’m married to, where I work, have worked, went to school, who I consider my friends, which friends I interact with most often (on Facebook, at least), etc.

And one would assume that Facebook would want to make the Suggestions tool as close to perfect as possible.  Hey, it fits with their mission, over there on the right in big bold letters: “Facebook helps you connect and share with the people in your life.”   If Facebook could actually help me find those people, it’d be a huge first step toward connecting and, subsequently, sharing.

Further, Facebook certainly makes suggestions a focal point of the site.  They appear on the front, News Feed page, right near where the only ad on the page lies.  On other pages, they’ll often take the place of ads.  That’s dedication.

So Facebook should be able to get Suggestions right, or, at least close.  But do they?  Hardly.  The criteria Facebook uses in making its suggestions seems to be simple and binary: Do you and your suggested new friend have a friend in common?  And the results are ridiculous.

Let’s look at Tomek,  Stephanie, David, and Nathan once more, and see what information Facebook has.   As you will see, Facebook has the ability to draw an impressive graph of my social network, and with a high degree of accuracy, should be able to predict whether I actually know someone.   That they fail here is stunning.


I can’t figure out why Tomek and I should connect.  How can Facebook?

  • Tomek and I have one mutual friend, a former co-worker of mine.  That co-worker and I have eleven friends in common; Tomek is not friends with any of them.
  • Tomek lives in Poland.   I haven’t worked there.  I did not go to school there.   There is no reason to believe I have ever been there for anything more than a few days.

The mutual friend and I share eleven friends; that’s a social circle of 13 people.  Tomek is connected to only one of those thirteen people.  Facebook should take this as evidence that he’s not connected to the other 12; unfortunately, they do the opposite.


The interesting angle here: I may have actually met Stephanie before — in fact, it’s incredibly likely — and I don’t think either would recognize the other on the street.   If Facebook can differentiate a  person I may have once met from a person that I actually know, well, that would be great.  They should be able to.

  • Stephanie and I have two mutual friends.  They are siblings, which Facebook knows.
  • The siblings and I have, in total, three other mutual contacts; that is, there are three people who are friends with me and both of the siblings.  One of those three people is my wife; another is one of the sibling’s spouses.

My guess is that Stephanie is a relative of the siblings, and I’m pretty sure Facebook could do some interesting math to figure that out.     Facebook also has Stephanie’s connection data, and that would buttress my guess.   If I’m right — that this is a question of cousins, then she’s be a poor suggestion, albeit not a terrible one.


This one is obviously wrong.

  • David is originally from Los Angeles but now lives outside D.C.  I, again, have never lived or worked in either place.
  • David and I have one mutual friend.  That mutual friend lives in D.C. (and did not grow up in LA).
  • The mutual friend and I went to college together (we’re in the same college network) and our four mutual friends all also went to that same college at roughly the same time.

So: David and our mutual friend know each other from their current lives, while I know the mutual from college.   David is not part of that social circle.  This suggestion is clearly incorrect.


This is another case where the social circles are easily drawn, and Nathan and I are not in the same ones.

  • We have two mutual friends — who are married.
  • The couple and I have three other mutual friends, who are not friends with Nathan.
  • The couple and I went to the same college.  Nathan went elsewhere.

Married couples have joint friends; that is, friends of the couple as much as any individual.  But they also have individual friends — friends who are legitimately friends with both individuals independent of the other.   I don’t know if Nathan is in the former group, but there is reason to believe he is.  Meanwhile, I am most likely in the latter group, having going to college with both husband and wife.  In any event, the three other mutual friends make it clear that Nathan is not within that circle.

Facebook can easily draw my “social graph” — they, quite literally, coined the term.  They have all the info they need.  Why aren’t the using it?

Five Great ABC Videos, Featuring Jean Luc Picard and Darth Vader

1) SuperSimpleSongs: Letter Magnets

With almost 30 million YouTube views in just over three years, I am definitely not alone in liking this one!  It’s simple and elegant.  I really like how they turn “now” into “know” at the end.

2) Sesame Street: James Earl Jones

There’s a back story here.   It’s going to be hard for an adult to get through it — it’s incredibly slow — but that’s part of the point.  Muppet Wiki sums it up:

The first time a child sees the performance, he responds to the invitation to say the alphabet along with the actor. Upon later viewings, the children would name the letter as soon as it appeared, but before it was named by Jones. Further repetition encouraged children to shout out the letter even before it appears. The “James Earl Jones effect” thus demonstrated to Sesame Street’s producers and curriculum advisors the value of both repetition and anticipation, and supplied proof that Sesame Street could promote interactive learning as opposed to merely passive viewing.

3) Captain Jean-Luc Picard… Really.

Sadly, he calls “Z” “zed”, which is something James Tiberius Kirk would never do.  Never.

4) Sesame Street, Tilly and the Wall

I admit that I had never heard of Tilly and the Wall before seeing this clip.  It’s fun, unique, and engaging — and the second of three Sesame videos.  (I’m biased, I know.)

5) Sesame Street: Hip Hop ABC

Show this to any pre-schooler and watch.  It’s addictive. But on a personal level, I really like this one because if you focus on the Sesame Street Muppets, you’ll see that their individual personalities can come out even when singing the same song. Especially Grover and Elmo.

Five Neat Visualizations of the Alphabet

Chalk this post up to occupational hazard: working for Sesame Street, I am naturally exposed to the ABCs on a regular basis.  Later this week, I’ll be putting up a collection of great ABC Song videos, so please subscribe to my RSS feed if you want to be notified when that’s up.

1) Beard ABC, by Tim Yarzhombeck

I think most of these are somewhat plausible facial hair configurations, although the Z look is over the top.

* * *

2) The Brand Alphabet, by In Picture Design

Most of these are familiar, but I confess — I can’t actually identify all 26 brands.

* * *

3) Fire in the Hole, by Oliver Munday

Truth be told, I’d rather that this didn’t include parts of toy soldiers — but then I remember, they’re plastic, not real.

* * *

4) Not-Quite-Sign Language Alphabet, author unknown, via A Public Flogging

I’ve always been a fan of turning the black space around objects into the focal point of a piece, so this one fits nicely.  Blur your vision if you can’t see the ABCs immediately.

* * *

5) The Alphabet Sky, author unknown, via Ajsha’s Blog

There are a few neat ones over there, but this one is the best of the bunch.  It looks up toward the tops of buildings to see the shapes — letters — formed by sky peeking in.  Brilliant.

Let’s Teach American Airlines How to Share

Mike Arauz, a digital media strategist, had a great observation in March of 2009:

If I tell my Facebook friends about your brand, it’s not because I like your brand, but rather because I like your friends.

Spot on, and it applies to friends, and sharing, generally — not just to Facebook.

But on Friday, I received the email below from American Airlines.

American should read the Mike Arauz quote above a few hundred times, because they did basically everything wrong.  Why is American Airlines explicitly asking me to spam my friends?  And why do they think I’d sell my friends for a handful of air miles?

I clicked through, thinking that maybe I misunderstood.  Maybe they were offering my friends 10,000 air miles, and wanted me to make the introduction, so to speak.

Clicking the banner leads me to a Flash movie (??) and then, finally, this form:

Nope.  They’re offering my friends 1,000 miles to sign up — and they mention that as an aside.  As one member of FlyerTalk (a forum dedicated to air miles deals) noted: “My friendships are too valuable to me for me to try and market to them for a thousand miles. The relationships are worth a lot more than that.”  Bad play, American.

Then, there’s the email.  You fill out the form and it generates an email, automatically, and sends it to your friend(s).  I grabbed the “preview” text, below.

The email above isn’t editable, which means that I’m stuck with it*, and it invokes another quip of wisdom I picked up from Hugh MacLeod recently:

* And I would definitely have changed the email.  American suggests “a dream vacation to Manhattan” as a potential use of the miles.  Given that I live in Manhattan, work in Manhattan, and a lot of my friends do too, that would be a really bad vacation for me to suggest to my friend down the block or to my co-workers.

The whole project still reeks of thoughtless execution — even when you get past the punch-in-face language representative throughout the campaign.  Tactically, American approached the project with the attitude that the Internet was frozen in time in 1999.  There’s no way to share the offer with your friends outside of the form above.  There’s no special URL you can share on Facebook, Twitter, IM, on a message board, or via an informal personal email.  I need to provide not only the email addresses of my contacts (by hand — no importers apparently) but I also have to provide their first and last names.  Even to the FlyerTalk crowd, many think it’s just “too much work.”   (And it leads to creepy requests.)

What should American have done?

1) Redo the offer to focus on the payout to my friends.

Give my friends a meaningful incentive to join — a chance to win a free trip, or upgrades for life, or something really cool.  AAdvantage miles are meaningless to them if they are not in the program already — especially if they are invested in a competitor’s program.

And American has to lead with that information.  Make it obvious to me that they’re giving me a unique opportunity to do something for my friends.  This encourages sharing, which is American’s strategy.

And of course, they should have tied it to the payout to me.  How’s this for a great offer:

“Invite your friends to become an AAdvantage member — and your friend will be entered to win two first class tickets anywhere we fly!  And if they win, so do you — we’ll give you two first class tickets, too!  And just for signing up, both you and your friend get 1,000 AAdvantage miles!”

Much better (even if inarticulately written).

2) Make it dead simple to share everywhere.

In order to share, I have to fill out a form.  The form requires that I know my friends’ email addresses, that I invite my friends one-by-one, and that they’re going to be OK with me sending a pretty stupid email to them which, by the way, is clearly not written by me and reads like the spam it is.

And it is way too complicated.  American should be making it easy to share — that’s the whole point of the email!

Here are a few ideas:

  • Allow me to forward the email to a friend.
  • Add a “Post to Facebook” and “Tweet this” button.  How’s this for a tweet:  “Get 1,000 American Airlines air miles *and* be entered to win two first-class tickets anywhere around the world! http://aa.com/fakeurl”
  • Give me a pass-around URL to share.  Do it below the fold if you’re concerned about scaring off those demographic who will meet a URL with puzzle and fear.
  • If you want to do the “heavy lifting” of writing the message for me, let me edit it.

And most importantly:

3) Hire someone who could have prevented the mistakes outlined above.

I am a typical over-sharer.  I am active on Facebook, Twitter, and even FourSquare.  I have a blog and regularly share links via two IM clients.  Making something which I cannot reasonably share is a disaster, because if I could have shared it, I could have easily and gladly distributed the link to hundreds of people.

There are a lot of “me”s out there.  Trying to tap into these networks is easy — if you just think it through, and if you give someone in the organization the authority to modify the plan before it gets executed on.   There really is no excuse for the disaster above.

Standing Still While Time Moves Past Me

I’ll be at the ReadWriteWeb Real-Time Summit next Friday, and I’m not a good fit for it.  Which is why I’m excited to be there.

While Sesame Workshop produces content across types of media, the core content is, of course, video.   Video plus Muppets necessarily requires a too-l0ng-for-real-time production cycle.   Factor in the time it takes to ensure that the content is educational — as demanded by the Workshop’s mission — and being reactive, on video, in real-time is basically impossible.

So I’m looking for ways we can fit in.  We can definitely be trendsetters which dictate some degree of the information stream, but only in small doses.  There’s a huge, untapped pool in which we can make a difference, and I’m hoping the RWW Summit helps us understand that.

On a similar note, I’m still looking to put together a panel on how we can use social media to improve the lives of children (defined as ages 9 and under).  If you are interested in helping, please drop me a note.

The Indignity of the DH and the Death of Newspapers

Newspapers are slowly dying off because the cost to distribute content via newsprint — something that used to be the industry’s biggest competitive advantage — is now a massive disadvantage.  But the editorial cycle, where writers and editors are vetted and hired; articles are vetted and edited by these pre-screened talents; etc.

The goal is to maintain a high level of quality and accuracy.   This comes at the expense of speed, as additional checks and approvals inherently require additional time.  Note that in the pre-digital world, this didn’t matter, because publications were only able to publish once a day anyway — they, quite literally, had all day to write, edit, and fact check articles.

But the alleged benefits — again, quality and accuracy — are supposed to be the point of differentiation between newspapers and newer media, e.g. blogs and tweets and email blasts and the like.  So when the New York Post publishes a column by Filip Bondy bemoaning how Major League Baseball veterans are relegated to the undignified designated hitter role, one expects the argument to be a home run.

Instead, we get classless claptrap.  Witness:

The DH may forever represent an unwanted demotion for older sluggers – [Hideki] Matsui, too, felt that way – but it is the fate of almost everyone, if they’re good enough to hang around. Thurman Munson was spared this indignity, in tragic fashion, dying at age 32.

In other words: “It’s a good thing Thurman Munson died in a plane crash, or he would have become a designated hitter!  How awful!”

If this made it past the controls at a newspaper, where’s the value in the process?