Results tagged “andybaio”

XOXO and Reckoning With Nice

September 27, 2013

This year's XOXO festival exceeded its predecessor in every way. It was bigger, smarter, more challenging, more engaging and easily among the best conferences or events I've ever participated in.

There were highlights throughout the two days I was there. Others will document them better, but the emotional resonance began right from the first talk. Max Temkin's opener somehow wove videos of Aaron Swartz and a few wedding proposals and David Foster Wallace into a gripping examination of the power of living our values, while also being a narrative of how to make a best-selling card game. Usually I'm very conflicted about seeing a room full of smart people applaud someone when their story is "Here's how I got rich!" but to my surprise, this felt pretty natural at XOXO.

Max's talk was bookended near the end of the festival by Cabel Sasser's brave, heartfelt, truly moving reckoning with the challenges of success. In describing the creation of the sequel to Coda, one of their flagship apps, Cabel revealed that Panic isn't just the name of his company. A candid description of how depression and anxiety and obligation can undermine creative endeavor really starkly highlighted how different a venue this was; Regular business conferences don't feature multiple speakers standing on stage describing their talks as self therapy.

The narrative highlight for me was the series of three speakers on the second day, where Jay Smooth, Christina Xu and Mike Rugnetta went back-to-back, each challenging the audience to reckon with the costs of homogeneity and monoculture, though a series of powerful examples of the rewards of inclusion. They were funny and soulful and resonant in a way that echoed exactly what I hope to see in every event I attend.


And yet, my impulse for wanting to be self-critical was triggered almost immediately at XOXO. Part of this is my proximity to XOXO; Andy Baio is a good friend and was actually my coworker when he started gestating the first XOXO conference, so I've gotten a front row seat to its creation. Second, I had at least an online connection with the vast majority of attendees and many of the speakers. Third, there was an orthodoxy around the positive nature of Kickstarter and a narrowly-defined indie aesthetic that I found to be troubling even though I share much of those values.

Now, I don't just go looking for things to criticize for the sake of criticism; I'm a big believer in sincere enthusiasm. But if XOXO's best trait was a willingness for speakers to be humble and self-critical, then one of its most glaring omissions was its unwillingness to be critical of the orthodoxy of the community overall. Put more simply, it's a lot easier to get a room full of digital hipsters like me to feel bad about our lack of racial and economic diversity in the room than to challenge us on our lack of political or aesthetic diversity.

This jumped out to me in a few ways during the event. The most striking example was the dramatic contrast between Molly Crabapple's polemic about the inequity of how social networks reward their contributors and the plaintive nature of Ev Williams' examination of how the social web's tendency to reward convenience could lead to the complete triumph of factory farmed content online.

Now, there's no inherent contradiction between the different focuses of Molly and Ev's talks, but an argument about today's social network founders following some of the patterns of Industrial Age robber barons being followed by a rumination from one of those founders is a pretty remarkable thing. The juxtaposition is a testament to XOXO's (and Andy's) intellectual rigor. But what was missing, and in fact what perhaps best exemplifies what I'd like to see from XOXO in the future, would be a respectful but firm highlighting of that tension.

How should we decide the ways that people are rewarded for being on social networks? What is the fair exchange of value between Internet companies and the individuals who contribute to their networks? What does it mean if Ev's company Medium pays Molly to contribute, but Ev's company Twitter doesn't? These are questions that could only be answered by a public dialogue, and given that XOXO is the only place that enough of these people trust to be able to host such a dialogue, isn't it then an obligation to do so?

Similarly, I really (sincerely, for those who wonder if I'm being sarcastic, given our past history) liked Marco Arment's talk about how being an indie creator means that we have to look at the places we participate as not being zero-sum games. If a band can create music in a genre while still seeing other bands in that genre as kindred spirits or even potential collaborators, then certainly indie software developers should be able to do the same. Reckoning with seeing others who make apps as peers instead of just competitors that feed our insecurities made Marco's talk a self-reflective rumination that was again a welcome contrast to typical conference fare.

But at the same time, Marco's talk had a pretty straightforward pitch and promotion for his new podcasting app. I think it sounds cool, and will almost certainly end up trying it out, but given the nominally anti-commercial (or anti-some-kinds-of-commercial) nature of XOXO, it leaves me wondering: Which app aesthetics are allowed to promote in this kind of event? Ev never said Twitter out loud (understandable, given that the company is in its IPO quiet period), but he also never said Medium out loud. Cabel mentioned Panic's products, but only in the context of his narrative. Everyone mentioned projects they were working on, but the expectation was that they needed to be framed in a narrow set of aesthetics, predicated on an aw-shucks mindset where everyone was assumed to have impostor syndrome about their work.

Beyond Indie Impostors

I loved XOXO, and I'm phenomenally proud of my friends who organize it, impressed by my friends who presented, and delighted by my friends who attended. So the challenge I have to XOXO isn't just to Andy and Andy who organize it, but to all of my friends and peers who were there:

Can we get beyond having to be apologetic for our success? Can we admit that our don't-ask-don't-tell relationship with ambition is limiting? I'm so glad that XOXO encourages creative people to wrangle with the economic realities of creative endeavors directly, but if we have a billionaire on stage alongside people who are barely making rent, and neither gets mentioned, are we really being honest about what "independence" means? Don't get me wrong - I have good, close friends whose work I champion who exist along that entire economic continuum, and I'm glad they can interact in meaningful ways.

Just as importantly, can we recognize independent creators if their work isn't twee or conventionally "indie"? If we see that the Kickstarters and Etsys of the world don't reflect the mainstream, popular tastes of most people, can we be self-critical enough to at least ask, "Why don't we connect with more people?" And if we do have artists like Jack Conte of Pomplamoose, who can make works mainstream enough to be featured in a car commercial, can we allow that to be one of goals we're allowed to articulate explicitly, instead of implicitly.

These are the challenges I want us to focus on as creators and people who value independence. And it's not merely to be contrary, though of course that's appealing, too. Rather, it's because those who define our culture, who dominate our economics, who control our political systems — they don't shy away from being popular. They don't look with skepticism at people wanting to be commercial. They don't try to force an orthodoxy on the products and people they exploit.

And if we want our voices and our creations and our values to matter as much to society as theirs, we have to stop shackling ourselves by dancing around our aesthetic and economic constraints. XOXO matters, for being a place that can bring such great minds together. Now it needs to open up, to a more truly diverse (not just race and class and gender, but self-criticism) audience, in order to achieve the truly profound and great social goals that it could enable. It's the highest praise I can offer that I think XOXO may be able to do so.

See Also:

There are lots and lots of good pieces about XOXO this year. Here are some that spoke to me:

Expert Labs Ends and ThinkUp Begins

March 26, 2012

Back in 2009, I founded Expert Labs based on the idea that technology could help all of us better engage with our government and encourage policy makers to listen to us.

@whitehouse infographic The idea was, frankly, a bit nebulous and hard to explain, but the ambition and optimism of the mission has attracted some of the greatest talents I've ever worked with. Gina Trapani joined a few months later, followed a few months later by Andy Baio and finally Clay Johnson. Along the way, we've made some extraordinary progress. From our initial effort supporting the White House's Grand Challenges initiative to publishing deep insights into the Twitter Town Hall at the White House to making detailed recommendations about the future of Open Government and creating a complete overview in infographic form of the White House's use of Twitter in 2011, we've been constantly publishing what we've learned about how government can use social media better to listen to regular citizens.

We're also into making some serious technology. Our flagship platform ThinkUp has been growing by leaps and bounds (more on that below), but it's just as importantly working to power tools like the Federal Social Media Index. The FSMI is the first tool to give a live dashboard of how federal agencies are engaging with citizens on social media, and was probably the first tool to collect all of the different agencies' social media accounts in one place.

But Expert Labs was always conceived as an experiment, a focused project backed by the MacArthur Foundation for two years working to get the public to engage with policymaking. When we started in 2009, early in the current administration's tenure, the idea that ordinary people would gather together on social networks in order to have their voices heard by lawmakers seemed ridiculous. Just over two years later, it's not just reality, it's a proven form of engagement which has had profound effects.

We don't claim that Expert Labs caused that success, but we are extremely proud to have played a part in promoting these ideas, in building tools that have helped people understand what's possible, and in engaging an incredibly dedicated and passionate community of technologists, developers, policy makers, public servants and ordinary citizens who are united in the belief that the technologies we use to power the web can also make for a better society.

So, Expert Labs is ending, as we noted on our team blog last week. But the work we've been doing is going to continue in a new format.

(Re-)Introducing ThinkUp

Perhaps more than anything else we've done at Expert Labs, we've been thrilled by the success of our ThinkUp platform. In some ways, it's a simple tool: An open source app that runs on a web server and collects all of your activity and data from your social networks.

But what ThinkUp represents is a lot of important concepts: Owning your actions and words on the web. Encouraging more positive and fruitful conversations on social networks. Gaining insights into ourselves and our friends based on what we say and share. And the possibility of discovering important information or different perspectives if we can return the web back to its natural state of not being beholden to any one company or proprietary network.

We think these goals, and the values that inform them, are important. So Gina Trapani (the creator of ThinkUp) and I, and our open source community of hundreds of people who participate in the project, are going forward with ThinkUp as its own new business. We'll share some parts of the mission of Expert Labs, but express them through a company that's purely focused on making a product, and an experience, that ordinary people on the web can make use of.

We'll talk more about the details of this in the future as things get more defined, but right now there's one specific thing I'd personally ask you to do to help us make this possible:

  1. Visit our ThinkUp proposal for the Knight News Challenge.
  2. Like (heart) or Reblog the post on Tumblr.
  3. Spread the word about our News Challenge entry to encourage your friends to Like it as well.

If we're able to get ThinkUp's submission among the top 5 entries for the News Challenge, it will improve our odds of being considered for a grant from Knight. If you've never given the app a try and you're a geek go Check out ThinkUp and I think you'll see why we're so excited about its potential for the future. Once you've done that, go read Gina Trapani's post about ThinkUp's future, and join us on Github to be part of our future.

Thank You

Finally, I want to extend my sincere thanks to all who have made Expert Labs possible:

  • First, our team: Gina Trapani, Andy Baio and Clay Johnson are those rare people who combine boundless passion, tremendous talent and deep conscience to make the world better through their work. I'm glad that I"ll continue working with them all.
  • Our incredible Expert Labs advisors: Susan Crawford, Caterina Fake, and Hilary Mason proved indispensable with deeply insightful recommendations at key points in our evolution, and I'm quite thankful for their wisdom.
  • Valerie Chang at the MacArthur Foundation has been a tireless supporter of Expert Labs, not just through their obvious sustaining funding for our project, but in the obvious thought and care she put into making sure we've been effective.
  • Beth Noveck is the one person without whom Expert Labs may never have existed. Her example, both in her pioneering work around Wiki Government, as well as in her direct inspiration for the project which evolved into Expert Labs, has been indispensable.
  • And finally, my most sincere thanks goes to all of our colleagues at the American Association for the Advancement of Science, particularly Dr. Alan Leshner. Dr. Leshner has been tirelessly supportive and endlessly curious about the mission and goals of Expert Labs, giving us extraordinary resources and support even though we have to have been among the more unusual and unprecedented projects in all of AAAS. As a mentor, leader and visionary for new realms of scientific exploration and experimentation, he's been one of the most remarkable people I've had the chance to work with, and all of us at Expert Labs are extremely thankful.

Okay, enough of the awards show thank-yous. We've got work to do! Go Like that Tumblr post and we'll talk more about ThinkUp soon.

Fair Use for Fair People

April 8, 2009

Worth noting: Both independent bloggers on the web and the Associated Press are in the news this week for asking for appropriate credit for their work when it's excerpted for fair use by online news aggregators. But the web natives frame their argument in terms of respect for the reader and defending the credibility of the information being published, assuming correctly that their businesses will grow if they honor these principles. In contrast, the AP leads with its business argument first, establishing an atmosphere of legal threats and aggrieved arguments about licensing fees with no mention of what readers want, or what respect they have for the very stories they're ostensibly fighting to present. Hijinks ensue.

A Basic Disconnect

Andy Baio collected some reactions from Matt Haughey, Merlin Mann and Joshua Schachter on having their recent works excerpted at length, republished on the Wall Street Journal-owned AllThingsD, and arguably being misrepresented as contributors to a site they don't actually participate in.

For indies like John Gruber, Matt Haughey, or Merlin Mann, they're more concerned about the appearance of being affiliated with a publication without their consent. Merlin wrote, "It reflects a basic disconnect about what we're really 'selling' when we self-publish. Obviously, I'm not selling paper or plastic discs or even words. I'm selling me."

None of the writers Andy interviewed (and, by way of disclaimer/boasting about how proud I am of their success, I count all of these guys as friends) balked about being linked to, or was even quoted mentioning compensation for the ads that were run next to the excerpts of their work. Indeed, the refrain from each of these web experts was that they wanted clarity about the presentation of their work, and a completely unambiguous disclaimer about how their words ended up on those pages.

In short, each of these guys was concerned about two things:

  • Protecting their credibility and reputation
  • Making sure the information being communicated to a reader was absolutely transparent in terms of sourcing and accountability


These requests for clarity from the bloggers were made even when they might negatively impact revenues for their individual websites. Contrast this, then with the Associated Press reaction to a directly analogous situation of being excerpted and linked to by aggregator sites like Google News and, presumably, AllThingsD.

“We can no longer stand by and watch others walk off with our work under misguided legal theories,“ Singleton said at the AP annual meeting, in San Diego.

As part of the initiative, AP will develop a system to track content distributed online to determine if it is being legally used. AP President Tom Curley said the initiative would also include the development of new search pages that point users to the latest and most authoritative sources of breaking news.

The Associated Press announcement addresses pricing, licensing, and legal threats. There is no statement made about the credibility of the information being published through these online channels, nor whether the act of aggregating and disseminating news this way has an impact on its accuracy or accountability.

Ken Doctor, an analyst specializing in selling online information products is one of the industry experts who has been working mightily to reframe the conversation, and his quote in this BBC article articulates this view well:

The real question is, "Is it fair for news companies to produce all this content for Google and for Google to keep the lion's share of revenue?" What we should be focusing on is "fair share".

I have no quibbles with Doctor's business focus here, and Google's responded well to that part of the conversation. But by letting people who are focused on selling the news as information products lead the conversation, newspapers are missing the most persuasive moral grounding for the case they are trying to make.


If the Associated Press made its argument on the basis of credibility and reputation, transparency and accountability, as the web-native publishers have, it would be far easier to defend their desire to share in the business model developed by the aggregators. The good news is, I'm sure there are many passionate, articulate and credible members of the Associated Press who'd be willing to present a thoughtful argument to that effect, if given the platform. And the web natives who've built those successful aggregators might be a lot more likely to want to work out a relationship.

Corey Spring and the Future of Journalism

June 29, 2007

Corey Spring has broken the details of a story that no one in traditional journalism had figured out yet. Wrestler Chris Benoit’s murder-suicide seemed to have been predicted by edits to his Wikipedia profile which mentioned the death of his wife.

But the edits were the work of a prankster, which Spring figured out using some fairly straightforward deductions about the IP address of the person who made the edits. This isn’t the first time that his knowledge of how the Internet works has helped Spring share a story; he posted a link to about the New York Times’ story on the AOL search history leak. And Spring’s earned recognition for his reporting on NewsVine before as well; he posted an interview with Dave Chappelle the day the site launched.

But what’s interesting to me here, as in a lot of the work of people who are at the intersection of tech and journalism, such as Andy Baio (more) and Adrian Holovaty (more), is not just the familiarity with how the web works.

What’s most impressive for this new style of journalism is the effortless switching between original reporting, editing, and curating content from other sources, all with the seamlessness of someone who’s a web native. Find a good story in the NY Times? Link to it on Digg or Netscape. Read an original story from the wire services that you can add something to? Start tracking down IP addresses yourself. Find something valuable enough to want to share? Post it on your blog or publish it on NewsVine and make a story out of it. And all of this at the speed that news happens, using a combination of original source material from traditional outlets and powerful tools for researching and publishing online, most of which are free or nearly so.

The most impressive part is that there’s even starting to be rewards for doing so. Sharing links on social services, publishing on the new breed of news sites, or running ads on one’s own blog can all be knitted together into steady enough income that, in a few years, there will be countless people making a living from the skills that Corey Spring is already putting to use.