Results tagged “entrepreneurship”

Three Years Under Our Thumbs

November 15, 2013

We’ll spend three years of our lives with our thumbs on our phones. What will we have to show for it?

I keep bumping up against this statistic about how much time we spend online, and how much time we spend on our smartphones and tablets. Depending on the source you cite, it’s at least three years of our lives that we’ll spend scrolling up and down on little timelines.

For geeks like me and my friends, it’ll be more, of course. And new wearable devices only promise to raise that number further. That’s not even counting the time we spend on, you know, regular old-fashioned computers.

As I work on building ThinkUp, this number lingers in my mind, popping up nearly every time I am talking to a new person about our work. Can any of us who make apps be worthy of the investment of time and effort that we ask of our users?


Those of us who make technology have to take responsibility for the time that people choose to spend with our creations. We seldom have conversations about this kind of responsibility, but when we do they usually come back to a few words or ideas: What’s useful, what’s important, and what’s meaningful?

“Useful”

The truth is, I’m not sure I want to make an app that’s “useful” anymore. At least not on purpose. Useful has come to imply an almost robotic utilitarianism, focused on efficiency at the expense of soul. So much of our fixation on utility leads to soulless production tools where the only emotion they inspire is frustration. I’m happy to make something that’s incidentally useful, but art isn’t useful, and as Ev famously said to those who complained Twitter isn’t useful, ice cream isn’t useful either. And ice cream is great!

“Important”

Making something “important” is a scary idea, too. Packed into that word are a lot of judgments about what matters, and a lot of danger of being pretentious and overbearing. Right now a lot of technology promises to help you by trying to filter information down to what’s “important”. But that hasn’t seemed to be a problem that algorithms are very good at yet. Worse, we bring our own cultural and personal assumptions to any conversation about of what’s important, and while technology necessarily has values baked into it, tech culture overall isn’t very good at having productive conversations about these values yet.

“Meaningful”

So that leaves “meaningful”. I’m as wary of this word as I am of any other jargon, but this aspiration is closest to my heart. Because we can find meaning in anything. We can find meaning through any lens that technology provides us, whether that’s a telescope or a microscope or a mirror.

So I’ve decided that is what I want to do, use technology build a mirror to hold up to all our time online, to let us reflect on the years of our lives spent mediated by technology. The hope is that this is how we can each find what’s meaningful to us. If we can reveal to ourselves what we do and what we say and how we act, we’ll each make our own personal choices about what is the most meaningful path to pursue.

This question is how we build technology to help us find that meaning. I don’t know the answer, but I feel good about the question.

Three years

Three years sounds like a long time to spend on a mobile device, but three years is just the blink of an eye. My son is not yet three years old, but in the brief time I have known him, he has already become the most meaningful thing in my life. And he taught me my biggest lesson about technology.

Since my son was born, I’ve spent more time reading my Twitter timeline than I’ve spent reading to him. I am not proud of that fact, but there it is. My son has challenged me to find some worth in all that time spent.

How do we find enough meaning in the hours we while away flipping through a feed on our phones? Years from now, decades from now, will we be able to explain why this is how we spent our days? As the whole world picks up their phones, I actually think this may be one of the most important challenges I can work on.


I know the conventional tendency is to dismiss our online lives as trivial, to say that social media and social networking are made up entirely of distractions. But I think we wouldn’t be there if there weren’t substance there, or at least the possibility of finding some substance. And I’m going to enjoy trying to find it.

To that end, I’m working with my friend Gina to build a company, a community and a culture focused on that goal, knowing full well that it’s equal parts ambitious and absurd. So far, a few thousand other people have been willing to bet on the possibility that we might all find something meaningful together. I hope you’ll join us.

What I Learned From Twitter's Leaders

November 8, 2013

[This piece was originally written for CNN on the occasion of Twitter's IPO.]

The Internet is buzzing with news of Twitter's initial public offering on Thursday, inspiring enough enthusiasm from investors to push the company to a $23 billion valuation in its first day. It has been quite a ride for a company started just seven years ago, attracting just a few geeky users at first, and then accelerating to eventually reach more than 232 million active users each month.

The company has been through an extraordinary set of triumphs and tribulations along the way. I've watched much of this happen—I work in the tech industry and count many of the leaders and founders of Twitter, since its earliest days, as friends—and I think I can identify some of the more human lessons we might take away from Twitter's milestone. The rest of us aren't going to get rich from Twitter's IPO, but the people who are embody some basic truths about what it takes to take a small company big.

Their work informs the work I do each day, both in my own new startup ThinkUp and in my life overall.

Dick Costolo, CEO: Costolo is widely acknowledged as one of the most innovative executives in the tech industry, creating a series of companies focused on delivering real-time information. But while he famously has a background in stand-up comedy (he shared the stage in Chicago years ago with folks like Steve Carell), there's a bigger lesson to be had here: That serious business can be informed by a sense of improvisation. Improv is based around the idea of saying "Yes, and..." rather than "No, we can't," and that's a fundamental philosophy for building a business that can adapt to the real world.

Katie Stanton, head of international strategy: In between her stints building products at Yahoo and Google and her current role heading international efforts at Twitter, Stanton worked both at the White House and the State Department. That she did this showed an awareness of the importance not just of having a global perspective, but of serving—and interacting with--one's community, one's city, or country. More of the tech industry, and every industry, would benefit from being more civic-minded.

Jason Goldman, former vice president of product: One of the least-heralded leaders of Twitter during its early days, Goldman was a quiet but forceful voice for improving the process of running Twitter as a company. Much of the hardest work in building anything big and ambitious gets done in roles that aren't glamorous, that focus on just trying to get a little bit better each day.

Chloe Sladden, head of media: Sladden was one of the first people at Twitter to think systematically about how the company would connect to more traditional media, like television. Inside the tech industry, people are used to making big distinctions between technology and media, or between "new media" and "old media," but it's a huge insight to realize that those boundaries are increasingly arbitrary. That kind of thinking is how opportunities are created.

Alex Macgillivray, former general counsel: At several points in its history, Twitter made choices to do the right thing when it didn't have to, choices that a lot of companies have backed away from. From its stand on free speech to its efforts to be more transparent about the ways it utilizes users' data, many of Twitter's initiatives happened because the company and its lawyers were willing to do extra work on behalf of what was right. One of the most consistent advocates for fighting the good fight was Alex Macgiillivray, who left the company last summer. His advocacy has hopefully influenced all kinds of companies to stand up for people's rights.

Biz Stone, co-founder: In the many stories and books that have already been written about Twitter's history, the role of Christopher "Biz" Stone is one of the least understood; reporters have often left it as, essentially, "He seems like a nice guy." His contribution to Twitter, and to the many projects he has worked on before and since, has been so much more than that. He has displayed a consistent ability to articulate—in human language, understandable to all-- what's valuable about a piece of technology. This is perhaps best exemplified by his early description of Twitter itself: "The messaging system we didn't know we needed until we had it." In a tech industry that often seems disconnected from regular people, this is one of the most crucial skills to have.

Jack Dorsey, co-founder: Though he's become one of the most famous names in technology, the most striking thing about Dorsey's career is his focus on every small detail of how things are presented, whether that's a product or a company or a process. That kind of sweating the small stuff is what propels a company's ambitions, and it's a trait Dorsey has carried into his mobile payments company, Square.

Michael Sippey, vice president of product: Sippey was among the earliest people to create a blog on the Internet, and more than a decade and a half later, he's working on building more features like photos and video into Twitter, based on the fundamental ideas of multimedia sharing that were pioneered during the early days of the blogosphere. That kind of fixation on a big, meaningful problem like finding better, richer ways to communicate with friends and communities, is a tough thing to stay focused on in the short-attention-span tech world, let alone on which to build a long career.

Evan Willams, co-founder: Perhaps no one person is more responsible for Twitter's existence than Evan Williams, who bankrolled the company out of his pocket in its early days, and serves on its board today. The headlines from the financial press will be about how Williams became a multibillionaire after Thursday's IPO, but the bigger story is one of his sheer persistence. Williams was co-founder of Blogger, where the company went through a near-death experience before being acquired by Google, and just a dozen years ago, he was tapped out. But he kept with it, and brought that same persistence to the ups and downs of Twitter--and is putting the same ethos to work in his new company, Medium. There's an important lesson in that example of never giving up.

The strengths and stories of the people who built the company to its success—and there are many more--are instructive for any company. At the same time, of course, they are just people—smart ones, but imperfect, and lucky, too. Certainly it helps that all these smart people grew up in America, where they never had to worry about clean water or good public schools or political instability.

The privileges we enjoy in the United States allow us to succeed on this level, and it's why I challenge Twitter to extend these kinds of opportunities more broadly by expanding the diversity of its board, and in the process better reflecting its increasingly international and diverse user base.

On a day when many are celebrating Twitter for its financial success, and lauding the value of its stock price, we can find a deeper value in the personal stories of this handful of people who helped build Twitter. Hopefully the positive values that helped Twitter get to this point are what this newly public company can use as its definition of "success" going forward.

Where does video go?

January 22, 2007

Last time, a rumination on video quality. Today, a look at Ze Frank going Hollywood, courtesy of the NY Observer. The nut graf, to me, is buried halfway down the story:

In March of 2001, Mr. Frank was an art director at Dennis Interactive. He became an Internet rock star overnight when, as he put it, “The ‘How to Dance Properly’ thing hit.”

“You know, I made a little birthday invitation that I put online of myself dancing like an asshole with some sarcastic commentary, and I sent it to about 17 people, and then millions of people were watching it within a couple days,” he said. “It’s one of the strangest things that can happen to you. It’s just so crazy to be getting e-mails at that rate, where every single time you refresh there’s 60, 70 new e-mails from around the world. It was just so weird and exciting.”

Mr. Frank knew he was on to something. He quickly threw up a Web site and quit his job.

Again and again, the lesson I am learning is that jumping in with both feet and being really committed is the key to success. I've seen lots of people who have made little things that took off on the web, (hell, I've made some myself) and almost none of them have done what Ze's done with it. I don't know that my goal would be to get to Hollywood -- Ze's headed West just as I'm moving back East -- but it's still an impressive and useful reminder.

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