Results tagged “ginatrapani”

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.

The History, and Future, of Web Protest

January 18, 2012

This week, many of the web's most popular sites shuttered their doors in protest of SOPA and PIPA, the pair of bills that had been winding their way through congress with the stated intent of fighting piracy and the unfortunate side effect of fundamentally threatening the web. After this concerted outburst of activism from the web community (which even extended to a first-of-its-kind offline protest by the New York Tech Meetup community), the sponsors of the bills have withdrawn their support, many undecided or former supporters of the bills changed their positions and in all, people who love the web are claiming a victory. Hooray! And it's still not too late to express your displeasure to your elected officials if you'd like to make sure they know how you feel.

But. There are a number of unanswered questions about this victory, and some important questions about what it means going forward, not just for web freedom, but for the technology community as a driver of public policy and legislation. We should start, as always with a brief look back.

Blogs Were Born To Do This

The entire modern social web was born from the blogging movement, and social activism has been part of the blogging medium since its birth. But ironically, the most common form of protest for our young medium has been self-censorship.

  • One of the inarguable pioneers of blogging, Dave Winer, started his first blog as the news page of the 24 Hours of Democracy campaign. What was that about? Well, it should sound familiar — the leading voices and sites of the social web spent 24 hours protesting onerous potential legislation that they thought would significantly curtail free speech on the web. SOPA? Nope! It was the Communications Decency Act (CDA) which unified the nascent personal web sixteen years ago, and the protests that accompanied the 24 Hours of Democracy included the Blue Ribbon Campaign and the Black World Wide Web shutdown, which climaxed in an estimated 7% of all active U.S. websites changing their background colors to black in protest.
  • Just a few years later, my late, lamented friend Brad Graham, who coined the word "blogosphere", also created one of the first blog-specific protests when he launched the Day Without Weblogs in 1999 in observance of World AIDS Day. Patterned after the Day Without Art, and named "Day Without Weblogs" because the word "blog" was not yet in common usage, this moving demonstration was an annual tradition for many years (eventually evolving into a more information-oriented project called "Link and Think") and carried on the social web's deep tradition of drawing attention by shutting itself down and forcing users to confront a black page. Sadly, it seems much of the early record of Day Without Weblogs has been lost since Brad's untimely passing.

Just at a cultural level, it's fascinating to me that our medium finds that the most powerful thing we can do is deny the rest of the world our voices and creations, and that this almost invariably takes the form of a black screen confronting unsuspecting, perhaps uneducated, and certainly confused non-geeky users.

How It Works

Does this form of protest work? It's hard to say — most of the CDA protests from 1996 took place after the law had already been signed. But we have some feedback on the more contemporary protests:

When Rupert Murdoch dog whistles "terror" about a topic, he's saying he wants some people illegally detained and tortured. So that's a good sign we had some impact.

This is a particularly stunning turn for a few reasons. First, as Bijan Sabet noted, congress members had considered SOPA and PIPA a done deal. Not "likely to pass", but "such a sure thing that I should sponsor it, even though I haven't read it and don't really understand it, so I can have my name on successful legislation".

This is especially remarkable because the tech industry sucks at 1. understanding how legislation happens 2. how legislation can impact their businesses and 3. actually responding to these issues before it's too late. John Battelle discusses this in depth, explaining "[T]he fight isn’t over. In fact, it’s only starting. And the folks who basically wrote SOPA/PIPA are pissed, and they plan on using the same tactics they always have when they don’t get what they want: They’re throwing around their money." Marco Arment continues, correctly, by stating that SOPA will keep coming back, over and over, in some form until it passes. Does that doom us to recurring bouts of black page syndrome? Maybe not.

The Infrastructure

One of the most unheralded successes of this week's SOPA and PIPA victories was the role that pioneering open government and government transparency efforts had in enabling the protests to take off. Just a few weeks ago, few online had heard of either bill, almost no one could understand their potential impact, and even fewer had read the actual bills.

But thanks to efforts like OpenCongress, which routinely creates valuable resources like this look at the money behind SOPA through its support from the Sunlight Foundation and the Participatory Politics Foundation, the web was able to see who was helping pay for the law. Giving that information a place to live on the web was a fundamental step that enabled powerful demonstrations like the GoDaddy protests in which thousands of users moved their business from the company in protest of its support of SOPA. (I have some misgivings about the tactics and effectiveness of that particular protest, but overall as a first example of the organization and focus of those who would object to SOPA, it was inarguably powerful.)

Similarly, the Center for Responsive Politics powered detailed look at lobbying dollars which drove the bills, which organizations like MapLight could use to create a clear picture of how SOPA and PIPA were purchased.

Of course, I've got a dog in this fight; Expert Labs was founded specifically to conduct experiments about getting people on social networks to organize in ways that would allow them to impact policy makers. And we had some amazing successes in unexpected ways — Clay Johnson on our team educated hundreds of thousands of people on how techies can effectively engage with the policy-making processin his piece "Dear Internet: It's No Longer OK to Not Know How Congress Works". And despite her well-earned misgivings about having a disproportionately large social network, Gina Trapani demonstrated the best potential of that network with a result that is best illustrated in a single tweet:

That's the CTO of the United States, Aneesh Chopra, directly thanking Gina for her honest, forceful feedback about SOPA and linking to an official White House response to a petition asking for a veto of SOPA. Despite the well-intentioned skepticism of folks like Felix Salmon in response to my admittedly optimistic visions of "#OccupyWhiteHouse", the idea that this sort of direct online feedback could have a meaningful impact was validated by none other than the Director of the White House's Office of Public Engagement:

Still, amidst the web-nerd triumphalism, it's worth noting: This isn't how I thought it would work. While I've always believed in the potential of the open government and transparency movements, I predicated our work at Expert Labs on the idea that the type of large-scale, effective, (relatively) well-organized demonstrations we've seen against SOPA and PIPA online were unlikely to happen. I was, perhaps, too willing to assume that change would only happen through more traditional channels. While we've made an amazing tech platform in ThinkUp, I was trying to push it to conform to the lobbyists-and-big-dollars world of D.C. today, and this week's victory gives me hope that I was wonderfully, delightfully, completely wrong about that decision.

So Now What?

What we've gotten so far, with our SOPA and PIPA demonstrations, is a first, rough beta test of the power to impact policy online. What we don't have is the way to use this power effectively. We are missing a few key things:

  1. The ability to organize for issues that aren't life-or-death for big tech players
  2. The ability to clearly and quickly form communities of interest around particular issues that are complicated
  3. The desire and willingness to stand up for issues that aren't simply about the self-interest or self-preservation of technology experts

This final point is my biggest concern and greatest wish for our industry. We now know we have the power bend the law to our will, and to make legislators respect our values, if we can just coordinate our efforts and focus our attentions. But there are many issues which have to do with the soul of our nation that may not galvanize a redditor who's only concerned with legislation that might interfere with watching movies online.

Google Waterboarding

We have discovered that our biggest companies, our most popular sites, or most passionate communities on the web are willing to stand up and have a powerful impact on the laws that govern our country. But we're on the fence. Google's spending somewhere around $10 million dollars on old-fashioned lobbying this year. Maybe that's useful — as Clay said, we need to know how the old system works before we can reform it.

But maybe we should be darkening our sites for deeper, more profound issues. We have the ability to affect marriage equality and reproductive freedom and immigration reform and many other issues where those of us who love technology tend to have similar values regardless of which of the traditional political parties we list on our voter registrations.

This is the power we were promised the web would give us. Let's use it.

ThinkUp 1.0 and Software With Purpose

November 15, 2011

Today, ThinkUp is out of beta and available for free. If you have a presence on Twitter, Facebook or Google+ and know how to run a PHP/MySQL app on a web server (or on EC2), you should install it and get it started now. ThinkUp will collect all of your activity across these networks and give you great analytics, search and archiving for them.

I'm incredibly excited about the launch of this app, of course. Gina Trapani has been shepherding ThinkUp's evolution through 25 releases, three names and five dozen contributors over the past two years, ably assisted by a phenomenal community that I'm proud to be part of. ThinkUp is also the flagship platform for our efforts at Expert Labs, enabling some incredibly powerful new ways of connecting citizens and their government, which we'll be talking about soon.

But today, ThinkUp's launch matters to me because of what it represents: The web we were promised we would have. The web that I fell in love with, and that has given me so much. A web that we can hack, and tweak, and own.

Where We Stand Today

  1. Picture everything you've ever written on Twitter
  2. Now add in every photo or status update you've ever posted on Facebook
  3. Add to that every message you've ever sent on Google+
  4. And then include every response you've ever gotten from anyone to any of those messages

Now understand: The companies behind these networks can, and someday will, destroy all of those moments. Delete them from the record. Forever. With no advance notice. I want you to understand, and really truly believe that. Read the terms of service yourself if you don't think they can do that.

Sand Castles

Why would I ascribe such awful behavior to the nice people who run these social networks? Because history shows us that it happens. Over and over and over. The clips uploaded to Google Videos, the sites published to Geocities, the entire relationships that began and ended on Friendster: They're all gone. Some kind-hearted folks are trying to archive those things for the record, and that's wonderful. But what about the record for your life, a private version that's not for sharing with the world, but that preserves the information or ideas or moments that you care about?

I'm not saying this destruction is always deliberate or malicious. I'm friends with a lot of nice folks at the companies that run our big social networks. I think they mean well, and when they can, they do the right thing. And most people wouldn't be that upset if their online presence were destroyed.

Beyond the Numbers

But whether everyone cares about the risks of today's social networks isn't the point: Vast and important parts of our culture are bring destroyed in the digital domain. ThinkUp can't help everybody, yet. But it should help anyone with more than 1000 connections on their network, or anybody who cares about what they're creating online.

Right now the only way we have to show that we care about our networks is to quantify them, and assign metrics that aren't as meaningful as the conversations they're meant to represent.

Of course ThinkUp has great analytics — but it does not, and will never display some arbitrary score to your profile. We want you to better understand who you're talking to on your networks, and to better share what you discover by letting you publish a pretty, embeddable version of your Twitter or Facebook conversations.

And while those features are unique and valuable, simply being able to look back and search for the things my friends and I have shared on our networks is the driving force for enabling all of the amazing things that are built, or will be built, on top of ThinkUp.

In ThinkUp, I can find the message where I announced my son's birth. On Twitter or Facebook, I can't.

I'm Old-Fashioned

ThinkUp Timeline thumbnail

Caring about these issues on the web isn't, frankly, very fashionable in the tech world right now. Building apps that are open source, decentralized, and require the pain in the ass of installing a PHP app on your own web server is certainly not in vogue. But, being built by a non-profit and a community of volunteers, we have the luxury of creating something valuable even if it's not what's currently in favor amongst the Techmeme set. Plus, we've got great hackers adding all kinds of cool features every day.

This isn't just some nostalgia trip for me, though. I take a long view of the tech industry and of the web as a medium. I know we swing from centralized to decentralized and back again. If everyone's headed to one giant centralized network, then somebody oughtta be looking the other way, too.

But we're not making some shiny, loud app that's designed to get TechCrunch coverage. What Gina started two years ago, what Expert Labs has been proud to support, what an incredibly enthusiastic (and, importantly, extremely diverse) community has been moved by is that ThinkUp is software with a purpose. It is technology with a set of values.

ThinkUp's values are simple:

  • Meaningful conversations are important
  • People's self-expression is valuable and worth preserving
  • Technology meets its highest use when in service of people's desires instead of big institutions
  • Well-built networks can empower people in a way that counters social imbalances
  • Good tools can impact culture in a positive way

Get Going

I know there's still some of us out there that believe in these ideas. If you do, block out some time during your lunch hour or this weekend, and install the app. Don't have time? Run it on your EC2 account; It'll only take about 5 minutes — as easy as when you first set up WordPress. You'll find some bugs and some rough spots, and we'll be eager to see both your bug reports and your code over at Github.

  • If you'd like to see a ton of screenshots in an app walkthrough, Gina Trapani's post has you covered.
  • For the official announcement of ThinkUp 1.0, hit the Expert Labs blog where there are complete details and a changelog.
  • And do take a look at ReadWriteWeb's review, one of the best of the early looks at the app, which opens by calling ThinkUp "the social media management tool that matters most".

All In Favor

June 9, 2011

By request, a bit of explanation of how and why I favorite things on the internet. (Or favor them. Or like them. Whatever.)

First, where do I favorite? On Twitter, certainly: I love lots of tweets! On Facebook! That's mostly for liking things outside of Facebook, around the web. I like lots of videos on YouTube and on Vimeo, the latter of which probably has the most satisfying like/favoriting animation on the web. I judiciously like things on MLKSHK. I suppose I still favorite things on Google Reader from time to time, which always involves me starring, sharing, +1ing and clicking 10 other buttons in their UI, since I don't really know which one does what. YouTube has both liking and favoriting, too, but somehow that redundancy doesn't bother me as much.

And, perhaps more visibly than anywhere else, I star all kinds of things on Stellar, which is also where many of these favorites get aggregated and shared with others; It's my, erm, somewhat enthusiastic use of favoriting on that service (I'm by far the most prolific star-giver in these early days of the awesome little site) which has inspired the most recent "dude, what the hell?" responses from many of my friends. As of 6 weeks ago, Jason showed me stats where I had about 1/3 more favorites than the next-highest person on the site.

DavoritingWhy am I so prolific with the stars? Well, one part is that I am just an enthusiastic person: I like lots of stuff! There's also social expectation; My favorite (see what I did there?) friend David Jacobs is a master of favoriting and taught me the wonders of the form years ago. In the early days of (now-defunct) Vox, David was specifically called out when the app added favoriting:

By popular demand, we've introduced the ability for users to mark posts, photos, audio, video and books -- from their own blog as well as other Vox blogs -- as favorites. We've nicknamed this feature the "David Jacobs" after friend and Vox user, who, at last count has favorited 1,677 photos on Flickr. It's a great way to keep track of good stuff you've seen on Vox, as well as keep a record of your own things that you particularly like.

Do me a favor

Despite my enthusiasm, my habit of enthusiastically clicking stars and thumbs-up all over the web is not unconsidered. Instead, my intention is fairly consistent, though I'm aware the semantics of these functions are slightly different in all these various services. A few common themes:

  • Acknowledging good work: When someone writes a tweet that makes me laugh or think, or produces a video that's worth the time to watch it, I favorite it or like it as a "reward" of sorts to them. I don't know anyone who doesn't check the number of likes/faves on a work they've made at least some of the time, and that way they know I was rooting for them.
  • Retaining for the future: Favoriting items increases my ability to retrieve them later. I've got Instapaper and Readability and Pinboard all hooked up together so that things I star get saved as bookmarks that I can retrieve later. Similarly, ThinkUp can show me a rough version of the links that were shared in tweets that I've favorited. Basically, I'm more likely to favorite something if I think it's worthwhile enough to return to later.
  • Implicit sharing: These days, this may be my main motivation for favoriting lots of stuff on the web. Truth is, I often miss the curation and editorial fun of the link blog that I used to publish on this site. (Give me a shout if you remember that — it's been seven years since I stopped doing it, old-timer!) By judiciously favoriting good things across the web, I can share them with my friends, assuming they're on services like Stellar and Favstar and Facebook with me.

Now, there are a couple of factors that make my favoriting behavior unusual, compared to normal web users. (Beyond the fact that I probably waste even more time on the web than most people.) First, my social graph is extremely distorted. I have a lot of Twitter followers, so many apps and services that use "popular" Twitter accounts as fodder for link/tweet popularity factor in my favoriting behavior disproportionately. I'm not quite a suggested user on Stellar the way I am on Twitter (since Stellar doesn't have that concept), but I do have an exaggeratedly prominent placement on that site, too, so the impact of my favoriting is amplified.

In short, favoriting or liking things for me is a performative act, but one that's accessible to me with the low threshold of a simple gesture. It's the sort of thing that can only happen online, but if I could smile at a person in the real world in a way that would radically increase the likelihood that others would smile at that person, too, then I'd be doing that all day long.

Further reading

  • ToRead is To Be Human, from 2007, was about the fundamental optimism people have when they tag an article as something they intend to read in the future. Many people use favoriting this way today.
  • An Interview with Paul Bausch that I did on the old Six Apart blog back in 2003. I've assigned the epithet "father of the permalink" to Paul for years, but in reality, just before Paul was implementing permalinks in Blogger, Jason was experimenting with them on Kottke.org. I think it's no accident that both are innovating on favoriting, Jason with Stellar and pb with continued experiments (some inane) on MetaFilter. Favoriting is the most fundamental, natural action to perform on the permalink, which is the atomic unit of content on the web.
  • The Power of the Audience, from early last year, was the first time I really explored the idea of favorites as social, gestural feedback for creators. The situation here hasn't gotten much better since then.
  • Actions are the Body Language. Back in 2008, I'd made a page to capture my social actions like favoriting, and wrote a bit about why. (The page of those actions is totally broken now, sadly, but being able to archive those gestures is one of the reasons I'm so passionate about making ThinkUp work well.)
  • Matt Haughey's post on his feedback loops that he relies on online, from early 2010.
  • And finally, last year at Web 2.0 Expo NYC, I asked API head Ryan Sarver why favoriting is an afterthought on Twitter, at 7:27 in this interview video.

I wish there were a website that just had "favorite" (or "like") buttons you could embed, without it being all tied in to all the other crazy stuff Facebook does. But I'd settle for someone hacking ThinkUp to better support archiving my Facebook "likes" so I'd have a record of all the things I enjoy on the web. Actually, what the hell: $500 to the charity of your choice if somebody wants to make that work. Plus, if you tweet about doing it, I'll favorite your tweet.

Call and Response

November 7, 2010

Lots of nice writing out there that either replies to or references some recent posts here. Highlights:

Did I miss any other good responses? Nothing's more satisfying than seeing people use ideas here as raw materials for their own work elsewhere.

Expert Labs, ThinkTank, Gina Trapani and our Grand Challenges

February 17, 2010

A few months ago, I started as director of Expert Labs, a new independent non-profit effort with the goal of improving government by letting policy makers tap into the collective wisdom of the public. We're part of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and because our goal could have seemed a bit nebulous I've held off on explaining the full vision of the effort until today, when we're announcing our first project, platform and project director. Here's the highlights:

  • We'll be collaborating with the White House in support of the Grand Challenges initiative. The President has defined a list of the biggest scientific and technological challenges facing America, as part of his Strategy for American Innovation. But they need our help, especially from those of us in the scientific and technological community: What should our highest priorities be for the biggest technological challenges of our time? What items have been omitted from the President's list of priorities? In short: If you had to pick the next project on the scale of the moon landing, or the human genome sequencing, what would you suggest? And how would you find the leadership and community that would achieve that goal? These are the questions we want to help answer.
  • To help get answers for these questions, Expert Labs will be sponsoring the development of a technology platform that allows policy makers and community members to ask questions across the existing social networks that exist on the web. My guideline for the technology platform was that it be free and open source, make smart use of existing technologies and APIs, have a thriving developer community, and be appropriate for use in cloud environments for easy deployment by government agencies, private industry, and even individuals. So I'm excited to announce that we've selected the ThinkTank application as our first official technology platform project at Expert Labs.
  • And, as you might expect since we've agreed to sponsor her application, I'm ecstatic to announce that Gina Trapani is joining Expert Labs as our Project Director for the Grand Challenges project, overseeing our technology efforts around ThinkTank and making sure that the platform is a good fit for the community of policy makers, scientists, technologists and the general public that it's designed to serve. Gina is of course the founding editor of Lifehacker and publisher of Smarterware, a best-selling author, and a co-host of This Week in Google, one of the most popular podcasts on the Internet. She's also an incredible talent and a woman of remarkable character and I couldn't be more excited to have her on the team.

Phew! That's a lot of great news. Since I announced my role at Expert Labs two and a half months ago, we've been hard at work meeting with folks across the Federal Government to find out how we could be of the most value. The truth is, when I started this project, I really only had a hunch that there was something amazing happening at the confluence of technology and government. But the months since have shown that my optimism there is well-founded, even if it is still just early days for this kind of effort.

The Startup Mindset

You see, Expert Labs sits at an interesting intersection. We are not part of the government, don't take any money from the government or any tax dollars, and don't take orders from anyone in the White House or any other part of the administration. In the early days of refining Expert Labs, I saw us as something like a "gCombinator", creating technology that serves government needs, but with a model that looks a lot more like an entrepreneurial technology incubator.

And while we're proudly independent, we've also been given a remarkable amount of access. The federal government as a whole is making an incredibly rapid evolution towards becoming more open and accessible, particularly to technologists. You can look at something like the OpenGov Tracker and see the results of this in real time. That's not to say things are ideal; Only 611 ideas for improving government have been submitted in total thus far. But I think that we can get orders of magnitude more Americans to participate in, and suggest ideas for, better governance if we make it as easy as just using Twitter or Facebook. And I think we can provide great motivations for them to do so if we show that their ideas and inspiration have direct impact on the policy decisions that are made.

White House - Grand Challenges

This is a time of remarkable opportunity for the tech industry that I have spent my career working in. I'm just a regular guy, who was working just a few years ago as a PHP coder building content management systems. Today, I've been able to go to the White House and help make the case that a better technology platform, connected to the social networks we already use, could have the same transformative effect on policy making that it did on the world of media or business. And they were ready to listen, not just to me, but to our entire community. (I'm not saying that to name drop; In the new world of open government, things like visitor records for the White House are actually easily accessible.) I mean, hell, I got excited just knowing that my project's website got linked to from the White House blog — imagine when that's a two-way conversation for all of us!

And if you're a web programmer today, you can have a huge impact, even if you don't know the first thing about government or policy. You don't have to work for the government to work for your country. All you have to do is follow the ThinkTank project and make submissions of any code fixes or improvements that you have. Or join the mailing list and become part of the community. Or simply run the app for your own business and submit your feature requests about how it could be better suited to answering large-scale questions on various social networks. Simply by playing with new technology, participating in an open source project, and sharing what you've learned about what works in crowdsourcing ideas online, you can make a huge impact in our government's ability to listen to our ideas.

Just Getting Started

I'm incredibly excited to get started with our first official project at Expert Labs, and there are more to come in the future. Today, I hope you'll read over the Grand Challenges Request for Information from the White House and understand a bit more about what this project is about. Then you can visit the Expert Labs site (or follow @expertlabs on Twitter) and keep up to date with us as both the technology platform and the overall Grand Challenges effort progress.

Continuing the Conversation

August 18, 2009

Phew! Seems like there are a ton of people talking about the topics we've all been discussing here lately. Here's some highlights:

Startup.gov

After I posited that the U.S. executive branch is the most interesting startup of 2009, there have been some amazing responses. Craig Newmark (you love his list!) very kindly gave a nod towards my post, adding "In some results, it's run like a really good Silicon Valley startup", and spreading the word on The Huffington Post as well. Mike Masnick at Techdirt chiimed in as well:

For plenty of reasons that you can guess, I'm pretty jaded by people in government, and it's rare to come across people who seem to be doing things for anything other than "political" purposes. But I have to admit that the amazing thing that came through in both [Federal CTO Aneesh] Chopra's talks was that they were both entirely about actually getting stuff done, with a focus on openness and data sharing. Chopra talked, repeatedly, about figuring out what could be done both short- and long-term, and never once struck me as someone looking to hoard power or focus on a partisan or political reason for doing things. It was never about positioning things to figure out how to increase his budget. In fact, many of the ideas he was discussing was looking at ways to just get stuff done now without any need for extra budget. Needless to say, this is not the sort of thing you hear regularly from folks involved in the government.

Towards the end of my essay, I'd pointed out one particular challenge that faces this new startup-minded government effort: "Acquiring and retaining talent is hard, especially in a city that doesn't have as deep a well of people with tech startup experience." Amazingly, the latest perfect example of the type of talent that are heading to D.C. these days just popped up, with Christopher Soghoian's announcement that he is joining the FTC. I only know Christopher's work by reputation at Harvard's Berkman Center, but I think the fact that the government is looking for talented people in academia (a talent pool that typical tech startups often overlook) is a great sign.

Of course, there are skeptics. Gautham Nagesh covers the government for Nextgov and Atlantic Media, and he thinks I'm believing the hype". Of course, I think Gautham and I just disagree about government's role in general, and that I'll take small signs of progress as successes, even if there is a lot of work left to do yet.

In fact, I'll be talking about this a bit later today on Federal News Radio's Daily Debrief show. If you're in D.C., tune in to 1500 AM at 4:05 EDT and one idea I'll be discussing is how the recent web achievements by the executive branch are a lot like Microsoft's recent success with Bing; It doesn't mean that the whole giant organization is on the right track, it just means that it's still possible for these behemoths to do the right thing.

The potential is also hinted at in Brady Forrest's post about EveryBlock's acquisition over on O'Reilly Radar. I'm ecstatic to see Adrian and his team at EveryBlock get even more resources for their work, but just as pleased to see the government's work being discussed as a peer to even the most cutting-edge startups in the private sector.

Google's Wave Moment

After my recent posts about The Wave Way and Google's Microsoft Moment, I was very graciously invited to join Leo Laporte, Gina Trapani and Jeff Jarvis on their awesome podcast about Google and cloud computing, This Week in Google. If you have an hour or so to spare for listening to a podcast, I am very proud of how it came out, and especially that I got to participate with such pros on a show like this. TWiG is available on iTunes and Boxee and all of those usual services as well.

The idea that Google is facing a reckoning as it grows in size and influence seems to have caught on, and comparing the company to Microsoft has gone from seeming a bit radical at the time I posted to becoming much more popular when Wired covered the idea to finally having become something approaching conventional wisdom in just a few weeks. Take, for example, New Google is the old Microsoft, by Galen Ward, which lists the ways that Google ties its nascent (or even unsuccessful) efforts to the results of its dominant search engine.

Apple Blinks on Secrecy?

Less than three weeks ago, I was arguing that Apple's culture of secrecy can't scale. Fortunately, we may never know if I'm right. Astoundingly, Apple has opened up to some degree, most notably via VP Phil Schiller reaching out personally to bloggers John Gruber and Steven Frank. Of course, that's not a complete course change for Apple, but it is still significantly more human, personal and open than any recent communications they've made about their efforts.

Meanwhile, the idea that Apple's traditional secrecy is untenable has gotten an even larger audience with The Times' lengthy look at Steve Jobs and Apple:

[A]long with computers, iPhones and iPods, secrecy is one of Apple’s signature products. A cult of corporate omerta — the mafia code of silence — is ruthlessly enforced, with employees sacked for leaks and careless talk. Executives feed deliberate misinformation into one part of the company so that any leak can be traced back to its source. Workers on sensitive projects have to pass through many layers of security. Once at their desks or benches, they are monitored by cameras and they must cover up devices with black cloaks and turn on red warning lights when they are uncovered. “The secrecy is beyond fastidious and is in fact insultingly petty and political,” says one employee on the anonymous corporate reporting site Glassdoor.com, “and often is an impediment to actually getting one’s work done.”

But employees are one thing; shareholders are another. Should Jobs (who, as far as the world is concerned, is Apple) have been allowed to conceal the seriousness of his illness? Warren Buffett, the greatest investor alive, doesn’t think so. “Whether [Steve Jobs] is facing serious surgery or not is a material fact.”

Some say another sign that Apple omerta has gone too far was the death of Sun Danyong, a 25-year-old employee of Foxconn, a Chinese manufacturer of Apple machines. He was given 16 prototypes of new iPhones. One disappeared. Facts beyond that get hazy, but it is clear that Sun committed suicide by jumping from a 12th-storey apartment. Internet babble says he killed himself because of the vanished prototype and, therefore, because of Apple’s obsessive secrecy.

Pushing the Right Buttons

Finally, the idea of the Pushbutton Web seems to be gaining steam. I am delighted to point out Om Malik's The Evolution of Blogging, which Om uses as an example of a longer-form blog post he's enjoyed recently, but which I also hope will be a catalyst for the evolution of blogging that he's calling for in the post overall.

That point is taken even further with Farhad Manjoo's ruminations in Slate, which reference my Pushbutton post:

[A]s technologies like PubSubHubbub proliferate around the Web, with companies like Google, Facebook, and others embracing them, real-time Web updates will become the norm. It won't be hard to build competitors to Twitter—systems that do as much as it does but whose decentralized design ensures that they're not a single point of failure. Winer envisions these systems coming up alongside Twitter—when you post a status update, it could get sent to both Twitter and whatever decentralized, next-gen Twitter gets created. If these new systems take off, Twitter would be just one of many status-updating hubs—and if it went down, there'd be other servers to take its place.

Seeing so many great conversations pop up recently around the topics I've been obsessing over has been very inspiring; Right after I made offhand mention of one of my Big Think interviews being about the Philology of LOLcats, my original piece on LOLcat language, Cats Can Has Grammar, was indirectly cited in Time's profile of "I Can Has Cheeseburger", through a reference to "kitty pidgin". It might seem like a minor mention, but the idea that a random dude like me can write a post that results in a phrase showing up in Time or The New York Times is still very exciting to me, after all of these years.

Best of all, there have been a spate of amazing comments on all of these posts lately, both on this site and in some of the responses I've linked to above. I'm having more fun than ever in watching the conversation across the blogosphere.

In the meantime, two to consider:

  • Slow Web: "There's a web that well-considered and worth savoring. We'll show you where."
  • Every Friday, Rain or Shine: "When you see an interesting idea expressed in 140 chars that you think could use elaboration, ask them to do a longer-form post to explain. Especially on Fridays."

Tomboy Hacks

June 2, 2008

Trapani ventured that if the internet had been around when she was a teenager she might have felt less isolated: "I kind of wish I had the access to the internet that teenagers have today." She got a gleam in her eyes when she started to talk about what life could've been like as a wired youngster, being able to "express yourself online in a way that you'd be totally afraid to do in real life." She added, "I think I would have had a lot of alter egos online as a kid if I had access to the internet."

Cheryl Coward, on AfterEllen, writing about Gina Trapani.

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