May 20, 2013
Seven years ago, my wife Alaina Browne and I were living happily in San Francisco when she went off to NYC to visit with our friends and attend a party. By the time she flew back, we were on a path that not only led to our return to New York City, but to getting a front-row seat to the birth of what would become Tumblr. Along the way, I've had the chance to see Tumblr from the perspective of a user, a competitor and a fan. Since so much of the conversation today is about the dollar amount of their sale, and the speculation about their future with Yahoo, I thought it'd be nice to look back at a few distinct moments in their evolution, as seen by an interested outsider.
Before the Beginning
Alaina had come back excited from visiting New York, telling me about having been introduced to Ed Levine by our friends David Jacobs and Meg Hourihan. Ed wanted to build a food community site called Serious Eats, and had hired two young guys recommended by Fred Seibert to build out the site. I heard secondhand from my friends about the content management system that was being built by Davidville, the consulting company run by David Karp and Marco Arment. David and Marco were building a tool to power Serious Eats, but I didn't know anything about them except that they were really young.
Serious Eats had gotten a launch sponsorship, and as a result needed to get up and running by the holiday season. But by October, all that I'd seen of the publishing tool they were building was a very simple single-column blog that presented photos really nicely, but had no way to show standard banner ads at all. After debating whether the ads that needed to be delivered could be fit into the simple structure of the tool that had been built, the team decided in favor of just launching Serious Eats on off-the-shelf technology because they needed to get running quickly. As David Jacobs described in his post on the Yahoo/Tumblr deal, the team picked Movable Type since they were all very familiar with the software and knew those of us who worked on making that app.
In short, some of the fundamental constraints that shaped Tumblr in its most nascent stages was that publishers weren't yet able to get advertisers to buy native, in-stream ad units, and that traditional ad buys made units that were not easy to integrate into super-simple tumblelogs. Hmm!
Update: I think Marco had some objections to my characterization of this point in the evolution of their work. His tweets on the matter follow:
As usual, Anil Dash is wrong: dashes.com/anil/2013/05/s…Serious Eats and Tumblr shared no code except our generic PHP MVC framework.— Marco Arment (@marcoarment) May 20, 2013
What we built for Serious Eats wasn’t too simple — it was too complex and overreaching.It wasn’t a single-column blog for photos… at all.— Marco Arment (@marcoarment) May 20, 2013
Given that I made no assertion over how much code was shared between the two companies, and since a simple CMS is usually little more than a nice wrapper around an MVC framework, it seems there's little in dispute here except whether the content management system was a poor fit for being too complicated or for yielding output that was too simple. I'm happy to believe Marco has a better memory of the project than I do, since he worked on it and I barely even visited.
Marco also offered some other snarking at Meg about whether the client or consultant was to blame for an underspecified set of goals for the content management system, but these things are almost always everybody's fault, and that's sort of beside the point which is that the ideas of Tumblr were in tension with conventional blogging of the era.
Tumblelogs Take Off
Meanwhile, David and Marco took that simple publishing system they'd built and kept refining it. They were insistent even in those early days on calling the output "tumblelogs" instead of just "blogs", which I mentally filed away as "those sites like projectionist".
At the time, Tumblelogs had been around for a little while, best known to us old-time bloggers due to Jason Kottke's seminal post on Tumblelogs, which defined the format just as it was about to take off, and featured project.ioni.st as its leading light. But in a classic case of geeks looking at a thing from a technical standpoint instead of from a cultural one, many of us who were familiar with blogs already saw tumblelogs as "just a simple blogging template", similar to what we were already doing on Movable Type or WordPress at the time, rather than a fundamentally different medium.
Despite that myopia, there was a lot of momentum around simplified, media-rich blogging at that moment in history. Twitter had launched just a few months earlier in mid-2006, without any of its current photo or video capabilities, but with a super-simple posting experience similar to what made Tumblr so easy to use. Much of the early team behind Movable Type had moved to working on a platform called Vox, which was a simpler blogging tool for sharing media from other services, but included privacy features similar to the Flickr or LiveJournal, which kept it from being as dead-simple to use as Tumblr. WordPress, too, had incorporated a feature called "Asides", based on a popular plugin from Matt Mullenweg, and it made regular posts of photos, quotes and video clips easy to integrate into a more traditional blog.
At a technical level, many of these efforts were descended from a super-geeky concept that folks had been kicking around a few years earlier, called structured blogging. The technical focus of people in the community resulted in it having the super-nerdy name "structured blogging" and yielded a set of poorly-adopted technical specifications rather than a usable experience for normal people. But the fundamental idea behind structured blogging was that people would want to easily post the cool stuff they were finding on other sites and publishing in other media such as photo or video. And Tumblr proved that the idea of this kind of sharing was exactly right, even if the "structured blogging" name and implementation was exactly wrong.
One of the most important justifications for putting "structure" around different kinds of content was so they could be aggregated together into a reader, something like Google Reader, or earlier tools like Bloglines or My Yahoo or Userland Radio. The difference with Tumblr was that David and Marco very early on built in their reader, just like Twitter and LiveJournal had done, making viewing and creating take place in almost the same environment, and forming better connections between users on the site.
Tussling With Tumblr
By the time Tumblr opened up to the public just a few months later, it was clear they'd hit a perfect mix of features to connect with an audience that cared more about expression than technology. Gina Trapani was one of the early, enthusiastic users, and as Marco rightly pointed out in a podcast the other day, part of what made Tumblr so popular early on was that they let people use their own domain name, with a beautiful design, for free. Other free tools were either more complicated, or like WordPress or Blogger, they charged extra to use a domain name and/or constrained the template customization that a user could do.
Since I worked at the time for a company that mostly made its money by selling paid software and support for blogging, I didn't really see Tumblr as a threat so much as an interesting new entrant that offered the best free product for many users. I jokingly made a reference to Tumblr a year later on a promo page for TypePad, which I worked on at the time and after Fred Wilson and Bijan Sabet picked it up, Marco took offense, to my great surprise. In retrospect, it was obvious that Marco would see us as competitors and my joke as disrespect, but at the time I really had thought it was clear I was being playful but respectful because Tumblr had made something cool and I had met, and liked the founders.
Elbow to Elbow
When I say that I knew Marco and David a little bit, it's impossible to overstate how close the NYC tech community was at this point. The office where Tumblr was still based back then was 419 Park Avenue South, and Tumblr shared the space with Serious Eats, Next New Networks (now YouTube Next Lab) and Frederator, Fred Seibert's studio.
When I ran into David around that time a few blocks away at Shake Shack, I excitedly pulled him aside and said "I really think Tumblr is like LiveJournal 2.0", which is another one of those endorsements that probably sounded to him like a slight or an insult or some willfully obscure reference, but to me was about as high a form of praise as I could offer — LiveJournal is and was the most seminal social networking platform that's ever existed, and almost nobody had captured the addictive, expressive environment of its friends list as well as Tumblr's dashboard did.
Part of what I learned in my very-limited interactions with David and Marco in those early days was how disconnected and arrogant my own view of blogging and social software could be. Because Tumblr recapitulated many earlier ideas, albeit in a vastly superior way, I had thought it wasn't really as new as it has turned out to be. And some of this is just generational; My very first impression of meeting the then-20-year-old David and 24-year-old Marco was "Wow, these guys have a really good eye, and are really full of themselves." I still think both those things are true, and that those traits have served them very well.
But there was also a half-generational gap between me and these millennials, a cultural difference I hadn't yet understood or reckoned with. It led me (and many others I know) to underestimate what Tumblr's importance was, and actually retroactively made my analogy to LiveJournal seem more apt than perhaps I'd intended.
In the case of LiveJournal, I got to watch first hand as many of the most fundamental parts of social networking and blogging were invented and then mishandled as advertising was introduced. But I never thought those mistakes were intrinsic to this kind of evolution in communities - it just required leadership that understood and truly respected a community.
In the case of Yahoo's acquisition of Tumblr, I mostly don't have a lot to say — my Activate cofounder Michael Wolf is on the board and we've done work that makes me far from objective in this regard, but even if we hadn't, I'd be optimistic about this deal. For me, it's the concepts I wrote about in Stop Publishing Web Pages — we've found a model for user interaction and social connection that really works, and it feels like the more places that's adopted and embraced, the better. Whether that's on Yahoo's homepage or Tumblr's Dashboard, or in some new app on my iPhone, we're reaching a consensus around how we want to connect with each other.
It's been fascinating to watch Tumblr evolve, and as a member of the New York tech community, I am thrilled for the whole team (and its inestimable investors) on the success of the company. As a blogger, it's still a really sweet moment to watch the medium of blogging be validated in this way, since a huge number of dollars is a clear signal even to those who don't understand the artistic and expressive importance of blogging. And as someone who still loves hacking on these kinds of software, it's been tremendously useful to see my own assumptions and preconceptions be challenged by a new generation of young entrepreneurs and creators who take this medium I've watched since its inception, and push it to fascinating and inspiring new forms.
May 7, 2013
I got the chance to revisit some of the themes of the Web We Lost in the broader context of how we confront our mortality and impermanence in the digital realm on WNYC a few weeks ago. I'm pleased with how the conversation came out, and if you've got 15 minutes, you can listen to it here.
May 2, 2013
Mark Zuckerberg built himself a political action committee called FWD.us, and they're diving headfirst into trying to change immigration policy as their first priority. They seem to have good goals, and they've already adopted some extremely polarizing tactics, so I've tried to collect my thoughts here, as informed by a roundtable conversation yesterday which included FWD.us President and co-founder Joe Green. Spoilers: I don't have a simple, easy "It sucks!" or "It's great!" conclusion about FWD.us, but hopefully I've put together enough perspective here to help inform the discussion, provide some specific areas of improvement for the PAC, and offer a useful starting point for the discussion within the tech community of how we'd like to be effective in driving policy, whether specifically about immigration or on any broader issue.
It's already clear that with FWD.us, the tech industry is going to have to reckon with exactly how real the realpolitik is going to get. If we're finally moving past our innocent, naive and idealistic lack of engagement with the actual dirty dealings of legislation, then let's try to figure out how to do it without losing our souls.
Mark Zuckerberg wrote an editorial in the Washington Post a few weeks ago announcing the launch of FWD.us, in concert with a list of prominent Silicon Valley supporters. (Post CEO/Chairman Donald Graham is on Facebook's board, hence the choice of platform.) Zuck started by listing top-tier tech execs like Reid Hoffman, Eric Schmidt and Marissa Mayer, went through listing VCs and investors who are well known within the industry, and concludes with former Facebookers Aditya Agarwal and Ruchi Sanghvi, who aren't big names in the industry but are actual immigrants, in contrast to most of the other backers. Shortly after launch, names like Bill Gates, Reed Hastings and Fred Wilson were added as they apparently became financial backers as well.
All those dollars are being spent to support an organization that's pretty small — half a dozen people in Silicon Valley and four people on the ground in DC. ADrian Chen's excellent look at FWD.us offers lots of good perspective on the functioning and funding of FWD.us, but this is an organization that seems to be built with a long-term mission in mind.
I've long wanted the tech industry to engage in a serious and effective way with the policy world. At the peak of the protests against SOPA and PIPA, my dream was that we might black out our sites in protest of torture as state policy rather than simply focusing on self-serving goals. And while we've thus far had limited avenues for participation such as the White House's innovative petition platform, we obviously haven't played in the serious realm of policy before, either with our attention and interest or with the greasing of palms that actually makes legislation happen in DC.
So if we've got a practical organization working on meaningful problems and that's what I've wanted the tech industry to do, why am I so concerned? Let's take a look.
This is Zuckerberg's Game
I come by my skepticism about Mark Zuckerberg sincerely. This is a man who's an absolute radical extremist when it comes to issues of identity and privacy. He ignores his own privilege when making decisions that impact the lives of billions of people around the world. And his single greatest credential for engaging in civics or the public sphere was stage managed by Sheryl Sandberg in response to an unflattering movie portrayal. Worse, his donation to those Newark schools has yet to yield any substantive results, despite its extravagant scale. There's very little to indicate that Zuckerberg's ability to make a popular social network translates into effective policy advocacy. Worse, his extremism in regard to people's personal information and identities as seen as some esoteric tech concern, and not as a serious threat to civil rights and personal freedom with significant political implications.
Mark Zuckerberg already has tremendous political impact, but it's in realms that most people in mainstream society don't yet identify as being political, including Zuckerberg himself.
But folks like Joe Green (From NationBuilder and Causes, and President and Co-founder with Zuckerberg of FWD.us, though the site lists him as "Founder") and Daniel Shih (a Rhodes scholar Stanford Grad who worked as a policy analyst for Joe Biden) are much more credible and intentional political actors than Zuckerberg. Both of these guys have engaged with policy for some time, and to their credit they also have reasonable credentials for being sincere in their desire for meaningful immigration reform. So let's look at what they're doing right and wrong.
- Lots of money: FWD.us seems to be backed by a real, serious investment of tens of millions of dollars that they're willing to spend on advancing their agenda. This isn't a casual slacktivist effort by a few techies who want to meet with politicians, it's enough funding to support a protracted engagement in Washington, D.C. That's progress.
- Pragmatic tactics: They're trying to win, by doing pragmatic things like ad buys in the home districts of congresspeople who are both on the fence on the immigration issue and at risk in upcoming elections. For too many years, geeks have tried using ineffective, unrealistic tactics to influence politicians, but spending money the same way that real, grown-up industries do is important. It's especially key that the spending be accompanied by education of elected officials about issues and how an industry functions — these basic methods are what power successful lobbying efforts from teachers' unions to military contractors, oil companies to pharmaceutical companies.
- Multi-faceted reform: If I take Green's statements yesterday at face value, then FWD.us doesn't intend to focus just on the narrow immigration challenges for engineering professionals (so called "skilled" immigrants), but on comprehensive immigration reform, encompassing border security for conservatives and paths to citizenship for undocumented immigrants to appease progressives. This is the claim I'm most skeptical about, but they've repeated this breadth of commitment explicitly, and unprompted, in several different meetings so I'm cautiously optimistic that the intention is sincere.
- Transparency, kinda: Much of the criticism of FWD.us has been about their willingness to fund politicians on both ends of the conventional political spectrum (more on that below). But the reason we know FWD.us backs both the obviously conservative Americans for Conservative Direction and the ostensibly-progressive Council for American Job Growth is because there's actually a surprising amount of information available about where FWD.us is sending its money. Who knows if this will stay true now that their transparency has been used to criticize the PAC, but thus far at least, it's a surprising amount of visibility into where the funds flow.
- Proactive, not reactive: We've seen from SOPA/PIPA, and to some degree from later efforts like the CISPA actions led by the Internet Defense League, that geeks are willing to try and stop legislation that they think is bad. But long term, staying on defense all the time doesn't get any points scored, and so I'm happy to see any tech-led initiative that's aimed at actually creating good legislation, not just stopping bad laws.
Given my skepticism about FWD.us in general, and about Mark Zuckerberg in particular, it's surprising how many positive aspects I've found to the organization. Naturally, I've found just as many negatives to the organization:
Zuck's new lobbying organization fwd.us is cynical and crooked and it's going to bite the tech industry in the hand thinkprogress.org/immigration/20…— Joel Spolsky (@spolsky) April 27, 2013
- No standards for what's beyond the pale: This is slightly different from the primary criticisms from the tech industry. Much ink has been spilled by those concerned that FWD.us is funding ads promoting drilling in ANWR or building the Keystone XL pipeline; TechPresident's Sarah Lai Stirland ably describes the reaction of geeks, which ranges from baffled to disgusted, a perspective well articulated by Josh Miller of Branch. But Green made a smart case for the pragmatic strange-bedfellows approach that FWD.us is taking on backing candidates, so my concern is more nuanced: What positions won't be supported by FWD.us? We know they'll go counter to most of their ostensible constituents (and a few of their financial backers) on issues like oil drilling, but what about marriage equality? There clearly must be some standards, but are they documented, and if so are they by consensus of all the funders of FWD.us, let alone by consensus of the industry the organization claims to represent?
- There's no admission of "collateral damage": Green used the phrase "collateral damage" to refer to the important issues that might get sacrificed in favor of a single-minded (at present) focus on immigration reform, and it seems relevant. If we compromise on marriage equality and bring in a new crop of immigrant workers but many of them aren't able to bring their spouses, how can that be considered success? FWD.us needs to communicate clearly to those of us who it would like to enlist in a grassroots community about where it draws the line. Will they back ads that promote the border safety plank of the immigration reform bill by using images or language that vilify people of color? What cost is too high?
- The case for H1B increases is not solid: Within the technology industry, it's been taken as an article of faith for some time that we have a talent shortage in the United States, and that there aren't enough STEM graduates here in the U.S. to meet the industry's needs. I had accepted this conventional wisdom as correct without questioning it for so long that I was deeply disappointed in my credulity when this recent Economic Policy Institute report provided a well-supported set of evidence that we actually don't have a talent shortage. We reflexively talk about overseas talent as the solution to a tech shortage, but we seldom talk about whether there's evidence for that "shortage". The Atlantic's Jordan Weissmann outlines the issue well, and he's been on this beat for a while with pieces like this article from February. FWD.us needs to either clearly demonstrate that this shortage exists, or explain why these findings don't apply to the technology industry that it is trying to serve.
- What will we do for these workers? Even if we concede that there's a talent shortage, or if we simply accept that it's a good goal to have smart immigrants coming to the United States, almost no part of the conversation from FWD.us has been about how they'll help improve conditions for the workers who come to the country on these visas. H1B workers live in a costly, stressful limbo for years on end, with little control over their professional careers and with their personal lives often being stuck in suspended animation. Immigrant workers of all sorts, whether in the technology industry or in so-called "unskilled" trades such as agriculture or the hospitality industry, have significantly less control over their working conditions, wages and negotiations with employers, and meaningful immigration reform has to give a worker a life where they're not living as an indentured servant to a company that can essentially threaten them with deportation-by-firing at any time. FWD.us must address the issues of dignity and respect that immigrant workers are often denied.
- You're the richest people in the world, and this is what you work on? Despite FWD.us's protests that they're working on areas such as education and science funding (both of which I care about a lot!) it's hard to believe this is the most important issue that this group of incredibly powerful and wealthy people can support. Essentially they're pushing an agenda that will make a number of super-rich people slightly more rich, while providing some legitimate jobs and opportunities to people who'll never substantially participate in the profit-taking that FWD.us's benefactors will enjoy. It'd be easier to believe that FWD.us will be a positive force if we knew the full breadth of its agenda.
How to get this right
There are a lot of good intentions, and a lot of grave concerns, about FWD.us. Here's what they can do to address these issues, making the PAC both more effective and less fraught with risk.
- If FWD.us wants to "win", how is "winning" defined? Provide a clear public list of which policies the organization wants to impact, which bills or proposed legislation they support, and which causes or debates they won't use to achieve their goals.
- Don't concede to politicians that you have to support their most cynical, extremist issues. Maybe pragmatism requires FWD.us to back a candidate that is against background checks for guns; Sometimes life has these compromises. But instead of funneling dollars into a campaign vilifying a reasonable compromise on weapon reform, FWD.us could simply pay money for conventional attack ads against the candidate's opponent on other policy grounds. Starting with zero spine on non-immigration issues that Silicon Valley cares about is going to make it impossible to go back and fix things later.
- Stop bullshitting about whether this is Zuckerberg's personal agenda or Facebook's corporate agenda. The stated claim this is a personal from Zuckerberg, but given his dominant control of the company what's the difference? If Facebook is blocking ads that protest FWD.us on the grounds that Zuckerberg is intrinsically part of Facebook's brand, then it's pretty clear what the reality is. Acknowledge that this is both company policy and Zuckerberg's personal focus.
- Relatedly, Zuckerberg is focusing his social, technical and political powers on a set of goals, but he's never identified those goals nor been made to answer for his extremist, radical principles. This is critical especially because of Zuckerberg's backing of Chris Christie — are tech's biggest names being used to prep a policy platform for a future Presidential campaign? It's easy to overlook, but given the number of big names involved, there are undoubtedly tech execs who are going to contribute to FWD.us simply to ensure that they're seen as part of Zuckerberg's A-list. That's a hell of a commitment given how opaque Zuckerberg's overall agenda is.
- Finally: What are they going to do when the coalition falls apart as FWD.us starts to succeed or fail. What if a candidate who's against foreign aid for preventing malaria asks for an ad from FWD.us? Is Bill Gates going to let his money be spent backing that politician?
One of Mark Zuckerberg's most famous mottos is "Move fast and break things." When it comes to policy impacting the lives of millions of people around the world, there couldn't be a worse slogan. Let's see if we can get FWD.us to be as accountable to the technology industry as it purports to be, since they will undoubtedly claim to have the grassroots support of our community regardless of whether that's true or not.
- Do take a look at the official FWD.us website — it's particularly notable for how little substance it offers about policy goals.
- Adrian Chen's critique of FWD.us's self-serving goals is detailed and worthwhile.
- Josh Miller also talked to Joe Green and his primary concerns are about the PAC's lack of boundaries about what campaigns it will support.
- A little less directly related, but very important to understanding how Zuckerberg sees civic engagement, is this excellent Fast Company story which details his $100 million donation to Newark schools as an explicit public relations move not tied to any direct social goals.
- Salon rightly points out that Zuckerberg is not trying to drill in ANWR, going into some depth about FWD.us's whatever-it-takes tactics.
- The Atlantic's debunking of the tech talent shortage is a must-read to understand why we should look at the need for H1B reform with a sharply critical eye.
- The Economic Policy Institute's analysis of the high-skill labor market is also an essential read to understanding whether there's truly a talent shortage.
And some related pieces from my own archives here:
- The history and future of web protest, outlining how the tech industry needs to be more proactive after its initial success in fighting SOPA and PIPA. This is also echoed in Ignoring it won't make it go away, where the reflexive libertarianism of Silicon Valley culture again rears its ugly head.
- Zuckerberg's history of being blinded by his privilege to the serious social and political consequences of his extremism on privacy and identity underpins The Facebook Reckoning. This reached its apotheosis two years later when Facebook made it official at the end of last year that users have no say in site governance policies, by ending user voting on its terms of service.
- And as a broader look at ways we can impact policy in addition to direct lobbying, there's How the 99% and the Tea Party can Occupy WhiteHouse.gov, which is about exactly what it sounds like.
April 29, 2013
I lament the end of the personal CMS market; I was happy to back Ghost on Kickstarter today for the same reason that I back pretty much any effort at making blogging software — I think these tools matter. I find it interesting, and telling, that there are still so many static publishing tools that geeks care about, and though I think WordPress is an awesome tool, I lament the virtual monoculture that's resulted from its success in the run-your-own blogging software market.
This is a particularly acute pain for me not just because I used to help make these kinds of tools, but because my own needs are sort of prosumer-grade concerns. We have the Garage Bands and iMovies of blogging, but we really don't have Logic or Final Cut for individual bloggers who aren't trying to run some giant professional blogging network.
So, my contribution is to collect some of the notes I've been gathering for the last few years about what I'd like to see in a blogging tool. I know there are apps with many, perhaps even all, of these features, but I'd like to see one emerge as a leading platform for doing innovative work. My blogging features wishlist:
- I enter markdown in plain text files; these are stored on Dropbox/Google Drive/Skydrive and/or S3 and/or GitHub.
- The system renders those plain files into JSON assets in a documented format.
- A Bootstrap-themed reading client app lives at my site, on my domain, and reads a single simple config file to learn how to display and navigate between those JSON assets. This client app would also have to handle URL routing and persisting states, while ideally also keeping preferences and reading history for readers.
- The default theme offers a YouTube-style browsing view of all my content, where people can make playlists of posts (this is equivalent to navigating my archives by tag), embed my posts on their own sites, and easily explore by traditional groupings like category or date.
- There might be an optional administration interface separate for me, just for editing the markdown files through a plain text in-browser editor; In this case, it should be a responsive app that works in all my browsers.
- Ideally comments are handled as small messages in a documented json format, sent between instances of this blogging application. Of course in the short term I would just embed Disqus/Facebook/Google-style comments until that infrastructure was further along.
- Having a documented format for the json objects which represent posts and comments would permit transclusion and sending of posts between sites, in a manner analogous to how Fargo does this for outliners, and in a way that would bring back some of the positives of TrackBack in the early blogosphere.
- "Themes" would largely be implemented as Bootstrap CSS stylesheets, with some affordance for separate content modules. By default, themes are public so I would just be able to tell an admin app to import a theme from your site so I could remix it.
- The API endpoint for discovering the json representations of content would double as the API for others to access my data to build around it; Eventually a posting app which saved POSTs of that json format as fiels in dropbox would allow a write API.
I think that's it for now. Let me know if somebody's got all these boxes checked on their platform today, but I suspect the hardest part is the client app for readers, which works in a way analogous to an RSS reader or email client, but would have to support a new format and would be optimized for clean reading and subsequent discovery, rather than the three-pane model which has dominated those apps for the last decade or two.