Social media helps governments monitor their citizens — but it also helps those citizens rise up

The vast quantities of information we reveal about ourselves as we move around the internet and interact through social networks — what some have called the “data exhaust” of our lives, from GPS co-ordinates to the emotional signals sent by our Facebook (s fb) likes — is a treasure trove of information for anyone engaged in surveillance, whether it’s governments or the companies whose services we use to post all that information. But that same kind of behavior is also a powerful tool for allowing dissident movements to rise up against their oppressors.

That’s the lesson I took away from an excellent piece published on Medium by sociologist Zeynep Tufekci, a professor at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill who specializes in researching the effects of social media. Her work helped show just how crucial social media was in helping to foment what became the “Arab Spring” movements in countries like Tunisia and Egypt in 2011.

Social tools empower dissidents

Tufekci, who is Turkish by birth, talks about visiting her homeland during the increasingly violent demonstrations there against the government of Prime Minister Recep Erdogan — and in particular, she talks about how Twitter (s twtr) in particular became a crucial source of information for protesters and would-be protesters, since the traditional media in Turkey refused to cover the demonstrations, out of fear that the government might retaliate against them.

“After each volley of tear gas, protesters would pull out their phones and turn to social media to find out what was happening, or to report events themselves. Twitter had become the capillary structure of a movement without visible leaders, without institutional structure. Without even a name.”

Citizen journalism

As Tufekci has noted in her research and publishing about social-media use during the Arab Spring uprisings, tools like Twitter and Facebook don’t create dissent, but they can definitely help connect dissidents with each other — and they can reassure those who are thinking about dissent that others share their feelings and are also willing to act. This can cause what she calls an “information cascade,” which can help movements tip over into open rebellion more easily.

One big double-edged sword

Of course, all of that activity can also be seen — and blocked, or used as evidence — much more easily as well. Oppressive regimes use Facebook pages against those they wish to target, and try to block information (as Venezuela appeared to be blocking violent images of demonstrations in that country from Twitter’s website recently). And they can even send text messages like the rather Orwellian one sent to Ukrainian dissidents recently, stating simply: “Dear subscriber, you are registered as a participant in a mass riot.”

But these tools are the quintessential double-edged sword, as Tufekci notes in her piece (which is entitled “Is the Internet good or bad? Yes”). They provide plenty of information to governments, but they also empower those who use them:

“Yet the more we connect to each other online, the more our actions become visible to governments and corporations. It feels like a loss of independence. But as I stood in Gezi Park, I saw how digital communication had become a form of organization. I saw it enable dissent, discord, and protest. Resistance and surveillance: The design of today’s digital tools makes the two inseparable. And how to think about this is a real challenge.”

Big brother is watching you / privacy / security

It’s not 1984 or Bentham’s Panopticon

Tufekci also makes what I think is an important point: everyone likes to think of today’s political and digital environment as Orwellian, because it enables ubiquitous surveillance of a kind that seems similar to 1984 — the NSA and other agencies spying on everyone, recording phone calls, etc. Others choose to see it as a version of philosopher Jeremy Bentham’s “Panopticon,” in which everyone is surveilled without knowing by whom or when, and therefore no one misbehaves.

But in reality, the sociologist says, what we have is unlike either of these fictional inventions (Bentham actually tried to build a prison using the panopticon model but it never opened). Surveillance tools aren’t just being used by an oppressive government like Oceania, but by companies as well — and in many cases users are volunteering for that surveillance because it brings them benefits of some kind.

But at the same time, Tufekci argues it is undeniable that the very same tools that can be used to keep tabs on our every movement allow dissidents to organize and find like-minded citizens. Does that make all the surveillance and other negative aspects worth it? Perhaps not — but at least it helps to level the playing field. As one Turkish parent put it in talking about her children and the web:

“They were right and we were wrong. We didn’t understand our kids. None of this would be possible without the Internet. The Internet brings freedom.”

Post and thumbnail images courtesy of Richard Engel, NBC and Flickr users Petteri Sulonen and Thomas Leuthard

Is Marc Andreessen right about what is holding the media industry back? Mostly, yes

Venture investor Marc Andreessen of Andreessen Horowitz doesn’t have many media investments, apart from small stakes in sites like Pando Daily, Talking Points Memo and RapGenius — but that hasn’t stopped him from holding forth on Twitter about his views on the industry, a process that includes an often passionate back-and-forth with critics of his views. In the latest instalment of this manifesto, Andreessen looked at what he believes is holding the existing media industry back.

In the first part of the series, the former Netscape Communications co-founder talked about why he is fundamentally optimistic about the future of journalism (although perhaps not the future of traditional media entities). In the second part he talked about ways that new media entities can make money online, and in the third he gave some examples of companies that he thinks are doing it well — including VICE Media, The Atlantic and Wirecutter.

Part 4: Things & ideas in journalism business, probably/arguably counterproductive to twin growth of quality journalism + quality business.

— Marc Andreessen (@pmarca) February 11, 2014

Bloated cost structure

On Tuesday, Andreessen listed off some of the reasons why he thinks most traditional media companies have not been able to make the transition from print to digital, or at least not as smoothly as they might have. First on the list: “Bloated cost structure left over from monopoly/oligopoly days. Nobody promised shiny HQ tower, big expense accounts, lots of secretaries!”

Judge’s ruling: This one might seem a little unfair, since hardly anyone has a shiny headquarters (most have sold them and moved to much less impressive digs) or lots of secretaries. But the part about a bloated cost structure is arguably still true, even after waves of layoffs — and a big part of that cost structure is things like pensions, which Andreessen mentions in his next post:

2 Unions & Pensions: Useful once, but now impose structural rigidity in rapidly changing environment. Everyone with equity = better model.

— Marc Andreessen (@pmarca) February 11, 2014

Staying married to objectivity

Next, Andreessen mentions the principle of objectivity, which he says is “still relevant for some, but broad journalism opportunity includes many variations of subjectivity.” In the days before World War II, Andreessen argues, subjectivity was the dominant model for newspapers — as he describes it, “lots of points of view battling it out in marketplace of ideas.” Objectivity as a guiding principle for all media, he argues, was “an artifact of new monopoly/oligopoly structures; necessary to ward off antitrust; embraced by reporters.”

The VC added in follow-up tweets that “many stories don’t have two sides; describing with point of view can even be better” — a comment that echoes journalism professor Jay Rosen’s repeated criticism of false balance, or what he calls The View From Nowhere. David Weinberger of Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society has argued that “transparency is the new objectivity.”

Judge’s ruling: Andreessen is right when he says that objectivity, often held up as an inviolable tenet of journalism, is a relatively recent invention. Early newspapers were incredibly lop-sided in their political and social viewpoints, since many of them were owned by rich proprietors who had an agenda they wanted to promote. The risk, of course, is that not everyone will read every perspective, which could leave some with a distorted picture.

The Chinese wall and too much defense

Next, Andreessen mentions the “Chinese wall” that many media entities maintain between the business side and the editorial side. This approach is flawed, he says: “No other non-monopoly industry lets product creators off the hook on how the business works.” Many businesses, Andreessen argues, manage to balance incentives and conflicts and can still “hold the line on quality.”

There are intermediate points between “holier than holy” and “hopelessly corrupt” that don’t equal warped coverage and do work as business.

— Marc Andreessen (@pmarca) February 11, 2014

The venture capitalist then accuses media outlets of spending most of their time and effort on “playing defense and protecting the old” as opposed to a strong offense or inventing the future. In the long run, he says, this approach leads to almost certain doom. Even newspapers that are now making a go of things in digital “would be much better off today if [they] had shifted resources/focus harder/sooner,” Andreessen says.

Judge’s ruling: The division between business and editorial did serve a purpose in the old days of newspapers, in order to prevent the desires of advertisers infecting the purity of the journalism. But Andreessen is right that Chinese walls are expensive. As for his point about newspapers playing too much defense and not enough offense, he is 100 percent correct on that one, as Digital First Media CEO John Paton would no doubt agree.

Too much competition?

His final point is that the industry in North America at least suffers from an excess of competition, in the sense that too many general news organizations — from newspapers to TV networks — are chasing the same market. More than 15 full-scale national news entities in the U.S., he says, along with international players, “consolidation [is] required.”

NYT, WSJ, WP, LAT, CT, NBC, CBS, ABC, PBS, NPR, Reuters, AP, CNN, Bloomberg, BBC, FT, Guardian, etc + all online co’s too many general orgs.

— Marc Andreessen (@pmarca) February 11, 2014

Judge’s ruling: Andreessen has a point that there are a lot of national and international news entities chasing the same group of readers or viewers — and there are a lot of new online startups entering the field as well. But would it be any better if those groups were consolidated so that one or two owners controlled TV networks and newspapers and radio stations, and their online equivalents? This is one area where I’m not convinced. What’s wrong with competition?

In his last point, which requires no judging, Andreessen notes that these are all “business challenges/opportunities that can be rethought, addressed, fixed” if the industry wants to and puts its collective mind to it. And he closes with a quote from legendary baseball manager Tommy Lasorda: “Nobody said this f***ing job would be all that f***ing easy.” But even though it is hard, the Netscape founder said, “it can be done, and it is worth doing.” Amen to that, sir.

Post and thumbnail images courtesy of All Things Digital

Flickr co-founder launches Slack, an all-in-one messaging tool designed to kill email forever

When Flickr co-founder Stewart Butterfield was building an online game several years ago, he and his team of designers and developers built their own hacked-together IRC-based replacement for instant messaging and email as a way of getting things done. After he shut the game down last year and was looking for something else to do, Butterfield decided his workflow software was worth refining, and the result is Slack, which launched to the public today.

If there’s one market that is filled to the brim with competitors — even more so than consumer photo-sharing apps — it has to be workflow or collaboration services. There are large, project-management style suites like Basecamp (which 37signals announced it is now focusing on full time), as well as HipChat, Microsoft-owned Yammer and Salesforce’s Chatter, along with half a dozen others like Asana.

On top of that, many companies and teams use a variety of other services to accomplish the same thing, whether it’s Skype or Google Hangouts. So what makes Butterfield think that he can beat all of these competing solutions? He says no one is approaching the problem in the same way that Slack is — namely, by integrating as many different information providers and pipelines as possible.

“There are three basic types of message: One is a person writing to another person, another is someone trying to send a file, and the third is computers sending you a message — like you have a new follower on Twitter or someone commented on your post. We figured if we could get all three of those kinds of message in one place, there was a chance to build something that would be the one app you have open all the time.”

One ring to rule them all

Butterfield says the need for something like Slack is shown by how quickly adoption has grown: the service launched as a beta “preview” last August, and did no marketing or media relations of any kind, but has continued to grow at double-digit rates week after week for six months. One of the company’s venture backers, Marc Andreessen of Andreessen Horowitz, said: “Growth like this is not something we have seen before. Enterprise software growing 50-80% per month based entirely on word of mouth is unprecedented.”

Slack growth

Butterfield says he didn’t want to build a project-management tool like Basecamp because that inevitably involves philosophical issues about how projects should be managed — instead, he just wanted to put together a single communications tool that would pull in as many different sources of potentially useful information as possible for teams, whether it was chat or automated crash reports.

Slack, which has both an iOS app and an Android app as well as a Mac app, allows team members to easily track messages from co-workers but also to see status reports from across the company, by connecting to tools like SVN, Github, MailChimp, Crashlytics, Heroku and JIRA — things that would otherwise have likely remained in a separate silo or service. An API allows for almost any other service or tool to be integrated into the system as well, Butterfield said.

“We see a lot of people switching from Hipchat or Campfire, but we see an even larger number — an order of magnitude more — coming from nothing. Either it’s a jumble of different services or just email or just Skype, or maybe this group has IRC, this other one uses Hangouts — it’s like a hodgepodge. There is no one service where all the communication goes.”

Ambient awareness of your colleagues

The problem that arises when teams within a company don’t use the same tool, Butterfield says, is that information becomes hard to find, since there is no single repository of all the important data. Teams using Slack “get this kind of ambient awareness of what people are doing. So, for example, the engineers can see what people are tweeting about us, so when we say they’re complaining about this or that they actually take you seriously.”


Butterfield says Slack’s adoption curve is growing faster than Flickr did at any time during its history pre-Yahoo, and is also growing faster than many other workflow-related startups such as Github. The Slack founder said he doesn’t track things like installs or signups because those metrics are “bogus,” but the app is now being used by a wide range of companies from startups like BuzzFeed and Square to large companies like Citrix and Expedia.

True real-time workplace collaboration is something of a holy grail, Butterfield says, in the sense that companies keep promising it will arrive but it never really does — and so teams continue to use email even though it is broken, or mash together various pieces of software to try and make something that works. “There’s a 30-year legacy of broken promises around collaboration, from Lotus Notes on,” he says. “But I feel like now the world is ready for it.”

Post and thumbnail images courtesy of Thinkstock / Creatas

Marc Andreessen talks about the evolution of the news business and why he is optimistic

Everyone seems to have an opinion about what’s wrong with the news business — whether it’s the best of times or the worst of times for journalism, whether paywalls are the answer, and so on — and that includes high-profile venture investor Marc Andreessen, who unloaded some of his thoughts on Twitter on Wednesday. While Andreessen isn’t actually involved in the media industry directly, he had some interesting thoughts about it, so I collected some of them here (there’s also a Storify collection that includes these and others).

Andreessen started by saying that he’s more optimistic about the future of the news industry than anyone he knows, and that he expects it to grow dramatically over the next couple of decades. Then, he launched into a series of tweets about how the journalism business is being disrupted by its transformation from a series of monopolies or oligarchies into a much more open and competitive market.

Starting point: I am more optimistic/bullish about future of news industry over next 20 years than almost anyone I know. Will grow 10x-100x.

— Marc Andreessen (@pmarca) February 5, 2014

Analyzed as a business, the news industry is going through a fundamental restructuring and transformation, for worse AND for better.

— Marc Andreessen (@pmarca) February 5, 2014

The main change is that news businesses 1946-2005 were mostly monopolies and oligopolies, and now they’re not. Wrenching change for anyone.

— Marc Andreessen (@pmarca) February 5, 2014

On this, Andreessen is right on the money: in the good old days of “mass media” — which at least some people believe was a historical anomaly, based on demographics and the lack of a cheap distribution technology like the internet — newspapers and TV stations were effectively monopolies, with control over the channels of distribution. That in turn gave them the ability to limit the amount of content that users got, and also made them a preferred avenue for advertising. But all that has changed, as Andreessen noted.

(1) Distribution going from locked down to completely open, anyone can create & distribute, no $ premium for control of distribution.

— Marc Andreessen (@pmarca) February 5, 2014

(2) Formerly separate industries colliding on Internet. Newspaper vs magazine vs broadcast TV vs cable TV vs wire service, now all compete.

— Marc Andreessen (@pmarca) February 5, 2014

(3) Market size dramatically expanding–many more people consume news now vs 10-20 yrs ago, many more still in 10-20 yrs. Big, big deal.

— Marc Andreessen (@pmarca) February 5, 2014

The first and second of these factors drive prices down, Andreessen argued, while the third drives the potential addressable market for news up — and while most people in the industry are focused on the decline in prices and the increase in competition, Andreessen said they should be more focused on the third factor. Even if costs can’t be cut by as much as they seem to require given lower revenues, he said, the massive expansion in the potential market should make up for that.

After a number of commenters asked what this might mean for local news, since the market for it is restricted geographically much more than national or international news, Andreessen said that he didn’t think there was ever much of a market for local news, but this was disguised by the ability of local newspapers to make money from classified ads, real estate, Sunday grocery fliers and other methods. Most people, he said, just weren’t that interested in local news — something that the failure of AOL’s Patch seems to help support.

When it comes to investigative or other forms of journalism, Andreessen said that in the grand scheme of things the cost of that kind of resource isn’t very large at all — perhaps only $20 million a year or so in total in the U.S. — and that this could easily be supported by philanthropism of the kind that supports ProPublica, along with crowdfunding and other methods of revenue generation. Andreessen said this would also serve to tie the fortunes of a media outlet directly to their readers.

In other comments during the same discussion, Andreessen said that he doesn’t think paywalls are going to work for many media companies, because they “penalize most loyal customers” and are therefore very tricky — another point I think he is correct on. However, he said charging for access to specific targeted information such as business news, the way the Wall Street Journal and newer ventures like Jessica Lessin’s The Information do, makes a lot of sense (Andreessen said he is a big fan of The Information).

Andreessen also said that he believes the online advertising industry and the media industry have both pushed that business down to the lowest common denominator, and argued that it should be possible to come up with premium advertising that would help pay the bills for content businesses — something that outlets like Vox are also betting (or hoping) will be the case. The biggest problem with many media companies, he suggested, was that they blame their customers for not wanting to buy, instead of blaming what they are selling.

Post and thumbnail photo courtesy of All Things D