Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Rodale: When Organic Wants to Become a Noun

I keep an eye on Rodale out of both interest and fondness.  I got my start in publishing at Rodale and remain grateful for the generous publishing tutorials provided by ex-President Bob Teufel and other executives.  This newly minted PhD had a lot to learn about the media business.

When the late Chairman Bob Rodale interviewed me for a position, he asked me what I thought about the company’s magazines.  I said from what I had seen of Prevention and Organic Gardening, they looked a little scruffy.  He laughed and hired me anyway.  I would soon learn how powerful and profitable these two scruffy magazines were.

The 1980s and 1990s were a dizzying time for Rodale in terms of acquisitions and startups including Runner’s World, The Runner, Bicycling, Cross Country Skiing, Men’s Health and Backpacker, some no longer in the fold.  These initiatives substantially enlarged Rodale’s demographic and editorial base, bringing young men and upscale advertisers to a company that had been largely down-market. 

Rodale had just announced the launch of Organic Life, which would subsume Organic Gardening where I spent a few pleasurable years trying to find the right positioning for a back-to-the land, largely mail-order magazine that was losing some of its luster and margin.  Rodale has long wanted to define “organic” as both a marketing and an editorial category, one that could attract a substantial advertising base.

In the early 1990s, Rodale, with help from Martha Stewart as a consultant, took Organic Gardening from digest-size to a full-size magazine, at the same time expanding the editorial base from gardening to cooking and d├ęcor.  This was a major and expensive undertaking by a company that had long enjoyed the financial befits of digest-size magazines.  Neither the company nor the market was then ready for this kind of repositioning.  The magazine remained full-size but settled into a predictable how-to editorial offering.    

Rodale hasn’t always been lucky combining core company values with the vicissitudes of the marketplace. The company launched Spring, the Magazine of High Energy Living, in 1983 without fully thinking through its advertising policy which rejected cosmetics that were made with chemicals.  That was not the message Madison Avenue wanted to hear.  Spring was shut down in less than a year.

The company tried again in 2001 with Organic Style to push the definition of organic to include designer dresses, European makeup, and other upmarket offerings, but the magazine was closed in 2005.  The timing was bad, the editorial was not compelling and the market has apparently not yet ready to embraces “organic” as an advertising and marketing category--in other words, as a noun.

But the third time or so might be the charm.  Organic Life, with the existing Organic Gardening as its base property, will be launched in 2015 into the so-called healthy living category that includes Hearst’s Dr. Oz The Good Life and Naturally, Danny Seo, a joint venture with Harris publications.  Rodale has hired James Oseland, a well-regarded editor from Saveur, to run the show.

Both the Hearst and the Harris titles are selling briskly on the newsstand, a good indicator of the vitality of a new title.  These magazines have an advantage in that Dr. Oz and Danny Seo are well-known and are celebrities in their own right with multiple platforms available to promote their titles.  Rodale possesses the same assets.  Perhaps a strategic question is whether the management is willing to let the new editor become a celebrity of sorts to compete in this very personalized space.  The company wasn’t pleased when the editor at Men’s Health assumed an oversized role.

Perhaps even more important is that Rodale doesn’t try to too narrowly define “organic” as it has done in the past.  The word has entered the marketplace as both lifestyle and slogan.  On the practical level, there is no evidence that organic food is necessarily better for you, but there seems a growing interest in organic, holistic living and health.  Editor Oseland promises a magazine that is community and a “clearinghouse of beautiful, authoritative information that will weave together food, shelter, gardening and good living.”


I wish Oseland every success, although I have seen this memo before.  Rodale’s other entries in the category covered similar terrain.  The key will be in the tone and the editorial voice; it will be all in the weaving. 

Saturday, August 9, 2014

The Biggest Sea Story of All

Former wrestler and ex-Governor of Minnesota Jesse Ventura was interviewed remotely on CBS This Morning by Charlie Rose and company about his successful defamation suit against the estate of late Navy SEAL Chris Kyle worth $1.845 million.  After the pleasantries, the hosts pressed Ventura on why he would sue and take money from the estate of a dead SEAL and his wife and children.  After all, Ventura was also a Navy SEAL.  Ventura responded that they should ask the jury who awarded the dollar amount.

When pressed further, he said the case was about his good name.  He had not in fact been punched out by Kyle in a bar fight in 2006 over comments about Navy SEALS’ actions during the Iraq War.  In Ventura’s words, that never happened and therefore when Kyle referred to the episode in a book and later identified the Governor in public, Ventura was defamed.  And no, he would make no attempt to talk to Kyle’s widow. But he would visit the office of Kyle’s book publisher HarperCollins to chat about the “incident.”  The publisher seemed to get the word and announced shortly after the interview that it would pull the episode in question from future editions.

It was a very strange interview. In the one corner was this relaxed, tanned and hulking ex-wrestler, politician, reality television “truth” seeker weighing in at around 280 pounds.  And by the way Ventura pointed out to his interlocutors that he was on blood thinner at the time of the “incident” and would have been marked by the alleged altercation and would surely have bled. He did not mention his titanium hip replacement.

And in the other corner three focused, professional journalists who asked and probed and did their best but seemed to get nowhere. But the last question got to the heart of the matter. Why would Chris Kyle, America’s most lethal sniper, make up such a bogus story and put it in his book?  Why would he need to?  Didn’t the man have enough “bona fides?”  

Ventura replied that it’s a sea story.  Sailors tell these stories all the time.  One sailor tells another who tells another and so on.  As a Navy veteran who just finished a novel about sea stories, I thought the Governor was reading my mind.

I don’t think this was the answer the hosts wanted or expected. In the dullness of the morning this remark from another time zone, whether “true” or not, seemed to land like a thud on the newsroom floor.  I’m not sure why this response about “tall tales” should have been particularly surprising.  Hiding behind various personas served Ventura well as a professional wrestler and politician.  His recent stint as host of Conspiracy Theories on truTV, which explored everything from FEMA preparing for a Police State to reptilians masquerading as humans in their quest to control the world, proved Ventura has a sense of humor.  And yes, he even sued TSA for aggressive pat-downs. He did mention to Atlantic.com that people should take his cancelled television show with a grain of salt.  But he did hint at a “conspiracy” in the cancellation.

I would not have been surprised if Gayle King or her associates asked Ventura that, when referring to sea stories was he referring to Moby-Dick, The Old Man and the Sea, or Treasure Island?  I’ve had this kind of conversation many times over the years while working on my novel, sometimes in earnest, sometimes in jest, and sometimes to send me packing.  After four years at sea and sleeping under too many stars, it’s reasonable to assume a sailor might need his head examined.     

I experienced this first hand, whether guys were bragging about previous engagements, surviving deadly typhoons or their sexual conquests.  I served during the Vietnam adventure and the sea stories ran apace with the military confusions, on-board conflicts and Vietcong in every sampan. There was certainly a psychological element to all of this.

Men and women who are far away from home, displaced, terrified or wounded often tell stories to lessen the pain and place memories, real or imagined in the “collective.”  The ship itself is a psychological container and “vessel” that can wear on a crew after months or years at sea.  In the Navy lexicon a sea story has more than a hint of exaggeration, such as when my ammunition ship swore it had an arsonist on board who grew more dangerous by the day.  I do wonder what the guys are telling their children and grandchildren about this event that hardly made it into the ship’s log book.  Sea stories can also be a contagion and spread fast when pushed by a punishing wind.  And ships can talk.

I can imagine the scene as if it were yesterday.  I am at the ship’s helm taking commands from my captain as we made our way through an Okinawa harbor.  From a distance I can see that the compass directions the skipper is giving me will put me on a collision course with an aircraft carrier.  My only recourse is to say, “Repeat Sir,” as if I did not understand the command.  The skipper repeated the order and I repeated my response at least four times until the captain gave me the final order, reminding me that I was disobeying a direct order. At that point, the Executive Officer assumed responsibilities for the deck and conn and ordered me to turn hard to starboard.  I did with the collision horn ringing in my ears. We missed the carrier by the skin of our teeth.  So I am able to tell this story again and again. Was I really looking through the early morning fog?  Was I seeing things?  Did the skipper have a death wish?


After the passage of time I like to keep my sea stories in deep water where they are well-feed and unpredictable with no respect for tides, time or compass. 

I have also called on the sea gods relentlessly, and they mercifully kept the wind at my back for 100,000 words or so.  Sea stories that contain a psychological resonance might well become narrative fiction or a novel.  Mine is called “USS Bunker Kills: A Sea Story.”  It’s available at Amazon in paperback and on Kindle. http://ow.ly/zTOLJ


        




Tuesday, July 29, 2014

LinkedIn and the End of an Affair

Not long ago, it was all the rage to ask, always rhetorically, whether Facebook, Twitter and Google were media companies. The answers, as convincing as the sound of one hand clapping, still hang in the air, largely ignored.  We now know every X, Y or Z will sooner or later become a media company, even LinkedIn.

LinkedIn, the trusty service that helped me network my way up through those treacherous New York media ranks, is more ubiquitous these days and therefore potentially a pain in the ass. What used to be a friendly reminder to congratulate friend John Smith for surviving one more year in that hell-hole of a company, is now a daily reminder to congratulate someone in my muscular network for crossing the street, showing up on time or having a tight epigram retweeted to the masses.  While I applaud the powers-that-are for trying to meld me and my LinkedIn connections into one highly-connected and indulgent family, I’d like to remind them that it is not necessary or even wise corporate policy.  Aren’t we doing enough for your business by letting you market our names to your growing list of advertisers who are improving your share price?  You don’t need to bombard me with tons of emails.  I will still love you in the morning.

Now let me count the ways.  I appreciate that LinkedIn sent me a personal invitation to write for their new Special Edition site.  How could I refuse?  The template is one click away and so are the instructions.  First, I should write thoughts, presumably my own.  Second, I should not misspell any words or offer images that don’t look good.  The example offered is about writing killer content for LinkedIn. 

Dear LinkedIn: for a site devoted to media professionals and anyone else you can collect, I am surprised you provide a writing template that might be better suited to a sixth grade class in the Bronx (no offense, Bronx).  I realize you are casting a wide net and are trying to be helpful. But we have been together a long time, and I thought you really knew something about me. Have all those data points I provided been wasted?  And what if I really want to write about the psychology of dreams or the Catholic Church’s suppression of the feminine?  Do I really have to go to medium.com to exercise these particular muscles?  What if that is a bridge too far? (medium.com/ChuckMcCullagh).

I don’t mean to sound like a spurned lover, but this is not the first time I’ve been disappointed.  Now about Pulse, the news readers you purchased in 2013 for a cool $90 million!  I liked Pulse before the purchase and was excited about the prospects after the purchase.  I’m sorry to say that I’m guessing all the “new” Pulse editors must work for LinkedIn because most of the content seemed very similar to the LinkedIn updates that I’ve grown accustomed to ignoring.  I like and have flown Virgin Airways but don’t think Richard Branson has much to teach me about hard-scrabble ways to manage my small business.  Or the other rich and famous you offer me on a regular basis.

Since we now have this personal thing going, I fully understand why you are shifting the company focus away from media professionals like me who just want to puff up our resumes and brag about our “connections” and move in the direction of a genuine B2B platform.  Though you might have been late to the game, your purchase of Slide Share for $119 million in 2012 makes sense.  Who doesn’t like to share a slide show?  And your recent acquisition of Bizo, the ad-tech platform for $170 million, is a dead giveaway that you are moving into that bland, impersonal, automatic ad sharing world that is driving Facebook stock price through the roof.  I understand that now I will be even more of a keyword, a data point, or a hiccup on a cluster.  Use me as you see fit.  Anyway, the arrangement has always been uneven.

I’m not saying you’re wrong and am definitely not pointing the finger.  I’m hardly a bystander.  But you’ll be the first to know when that # Executive Recruiter calls me for the very first time. 


Count on it. 

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Felix Dennis: The Maximum Man

Felix Dennis, publisher, provocateur, entrepreneur, poet, and planter of a million trees is dead at 67 after a long battle with throat cancer.  Dennis, a very wealthy man, was the rare individual who wrote his life as he lived it, mainly over-the-top.  What else does one say about a man who claimed to have spent a cool $100 million on wine, women and drugs?  Well, he did hang with John Lennon and Mick Jagger.   And yes, he was jailed for his involvement in an edition of Oz magazine that showed the Rupert the Bear half-naked and wearing genitals. 

I got to know Dennis and his Maxim magazine when I was part of a team launching Men’s Health in the UK in the mid-1990s.  Special-interest magazines at this time largely catered to women but in the UK, with the launch of “lad” magazines such as FHM and Loaded, men were now being chased by publishers. By the splash, noise and notoriety that accompanied the Maxim launch, I knew this company was a force to be reckoned with.  Within two years, Maxim would be launched in the states and soon was outselling all the other men’s magazines in the category.

Dennis had a keen nose for finding business opportunities early, whether it was launching computer magazines, Star Wars and Jaws issues, or Kung-Fu specials.  And he knew when to get out of a business. After the advertising downturn following the 2007 recession, the “lad” magazines in the states felt the pinch.  Dennis sold Maxim, Stuff, and Blender to the Quadrangle Group for $250 million.  Today, Maxim is worth next to nothing, having been passed around by investment companies like an old shoe.

He told journalism students at Columbia University in 2008 that “You are all useless tossers, but I will be forced to employ you to provide content on the web.” In 2001, he warned European paper manufacturers of the coming digital tsunami. The man was equally comfortable with digital or print.  I recall him discussing a perpetual web business to celebrate the endless dead and dying and those who mourn them.  In his view, the latter would pay a pretty penny because they surely ignored the old man when he was alive.  Dennis’ wicked sense of humor never kept him from an interesting business opportunity.     

I recall our meetings in New York City during which Dennis was never reluctant to tell me what was wrong with American publishing.  Executive editors were spoiled and overpaid; the executive ranks were filled with people who would have trouble tying their shoelaces; and the cost of producing magazines was scandalous. Hyperbole aside, he has been proven prescient.  We have been watching for the last few years the downsizing and restructuring of media companies in the U.S. with Time Inc. the most public example.  Dennis never forgot he was an entrepreneur, the only position worthy of him.

What is remarkable about Dennis is that he developed such a rich interior life while still chasing the money.  He started writing poetry in 1999 and became seriously dedicated to his muse.  I still have a T-shirt that reads, “Did I mention the free wine,” an invitation to attend poetry readings delivered with a delicious hint of bribery.  Dennis said he would be pleased to leave behind two memorable lines of English verse. Felix, spoken like a true poet!

The letters to his friends in 2012, when Dennis was recovering from throat cancer surgery, are full of wit, despair, and ruthless reflection.  He mentions Freud and Jung in his ravings, but his self-analysis seems more fitting to the occasion. He knew his demons well (www.felixdennis.com).

Dennis’ gift of a forest of trees in “The Heart of England” says a lot about what this man considered to be permanent and for that reason must have come from a very old soul.


Thursday, June 5, 2014

The NYT, Time Inc. and a Very Long Tale

The New York City media tends to get a little excited when covering one of their own.  We’ve seen that recently in the coverage of the dismissal of Executive Editor Jill Abramson, the first female editor of the New York Times.  I think Lewis DVorkin at Forbes online had the right response: download the leaked Times Innovation Report and re-read “The Kingdom and the Power” by Gay Talese, in which he quotes a NYT executive from a generation ago: most of our staff are “cathedral-builders, not stonecutters.”  The coverage of Ms. Abramson’s departure suggests that sentiment is still in the air at the newspaper.

Much more important than the termination, whatever the editor’s legitimate grievances, the Innovation document suggests that the paper has much deeper problems than egos in the newsroom.  The NYT deserves credit for the clarity and honesty of this report.  Having read and written my share of these white papers, I was astonished that the paper did not whitewash issues and shone a rare light on the interaction between the business and newsroom sides.  The report is brutally honest about the dangers posed by fast-rising competitors, including Vox Media, BuzzFeed, the Huffington Post, and others.  The report also acknowledges that website and news app traffic are declining. The authors of this paper understand the need for audience development, unlocking the power of data, and the importance of management agility.

The Times’ digital solutions appear to be focused, specific and probably late to the game.  I was a little surprised to read about a renewed effort to make better use of “evergreen” content through tagging, metadata and structured data.  By their count, the paper has 14,723,933 articles in its archives, dating back to 1851.  The need for more structured data has been in the publishing air for decades, spearheaded by IDEAlliance and others and embraced by companies including Time Inc.  Media companies have known that this is money in the bank as well as a way to deepen and personalize content.  It makes good sense for the report to recommend organizing the content by relevance rather than data.  For example, articles about art and culture have a long shelf life.  What an amazing perspective this company is sitting on.

The authors come out in favor of the “stonecutters,” suggesting that the paper’s staff needs to push back against perfectionists and focus on “minimal viable products;” not everything has to be perfect. The report notes that The Verge has redesigned its home page 53 times in the last year.  It also points out that Gawker “plundered” a NYT story about “12 Years a Slave” and milked it endlessly.  The Times tends to publish an article and forget it.  Their digital rivals carve out content in chunks and spoon feed an audience.

The management advice is familiar: reward entrepreneurs; kill off mediocre efforts; and focus on projects than are “replicable” rather than one-offs.  The gutsiest and most challenging part of the report is about Unbolting the Newsroom, which is an effort to build an audience-based collaboration between the business side and the newsroom, focused on reader experience.  There is still too much talk of tradition and turf and the church and state separation. The report suggests appointing evangelists who can help push the newsroom to embrace their digital futures.  This seems to be like a Super Committee.  The report says this with a straight face.

I think this well-charted effort might be a fantasy, and not for a lack of trying.  Lewis DVorkin, quoting from the report, puts his finger on the contradictions the NYT faces. “We still have a large and vital advertising arm that should be walled off.”  No company can win in the digital arena with this kind of restraint.  It seems a little surprising, given the recommendations of the leaked Innovation report, that the Times would appoint a new Executive Editor with little digital experience.

I’ve been thinking about the impending Time Inc. spin-off from Time Warner and how this company is trying to get out from under its legacy media shadow.  The New York Times might find some lessons here.  Even though Time Inc. might have been, by some measures, overstaffed with recent C-level staff lacking in digital acumen, its fundamentals are solid.  Time Inc. embraced early on the idea of structured data and generating income from its archives.  I know first-hand that this wasn’t always considered a high priority in-house (or in the publishing community for that matter) but the technical staff waged this battle and won.  Deep tagging of content significantly increases its value, especially as screens proliferate and advertisers seek more specific and personalized solutions.  

I’ve noted before that I think Time Inc. has had a somewhat muscular definition of “church and state” separation that was not always consistent with the fast-changing demands of the digital business.  That issue has been rendered moot by the new reporting structures at the company.  That Time magazine and Sports Illustrated ran a small Verizon ad on the cover of a recent issue suggests that this is a new beginning.  As a long-time editor, I’m not appalled at this development.

One gets the sense that a more streamlined Time Inc. will be able to move faster.  The recent purchase of Cozi, a free home-management app and website for meal-planning, calendars, and shopping, will likely be the first of many.  It has 10 million users and gives Time Inc. a leg up in the productivity category.

When I read the Times Innovation report, I thought that the company had a lot of digital catching up to do. When I read a report by Internet guru Mary Meeker about Internet Trends, delivered at the Code Conference recently, I realized that the newspaper and the rest of us better hurry up.  Not surprisingly, print is almost absent from this report but Meeker notes that “print remains over-indexed,” which means that there is a disproportionate relationship between the amount of advertising spent on print and the actual time consumers spend with print (19% of total advertising vs. 5% of consumer time spent).  The metrics for radio, TV, and the Internet are much closer and more consistent, except for mobile. Consumers spend 20% of their media time on mobile and this platform gets only 4% of the advertising.  Meeker says this gap represents a $30 billion opportunity for mobile in the USA.

I’ve heard the word “disruption” in media circles so often that these days it seems quite tame.  One could infer from Meeker’s numbers that advertisers are spending too much on print, though the print guy in me would say that the “over-index” exists because of the intrinsic value of print (engagement etc.).   I’m not sure how long I can hold out on this.  As display advertising gives way to more emphasis on programmatic sales, this print “over-index” will surely get more scrutiny.

If Meeker is correct, the Brave New World that we’ve been ploughing through for the last two decades will become even more interesting or frightening, depending on what chair one is sitting in.  Please don’t believe the hockey stick predictions for mobile growth, but do think about the fact that now there are almost as many mobile phone in the world as televisions. And in 2013, 25% of web usage was via mobile.

Just as I’m getting used to multi-purpose apps, Meeker tells me to pay attention to apps as a service layer that only opens when they have something to say to me that is informed by context, location sensors, history of use and predictive consumption.  Perhaps someone will remind me to buy “Mother Jones” magazine.

Meeker indicates that industry verticals are likely to change given the marriage of content, community, and commerce.  She cites Houzz, a site that brings together photos, professional consumers, and products in an ecosystem devoted to home renovation and design.  This sounds like a magazine to me.

The NYT Innovation report and the Meeker perspective, though different in intent, reside at distinct ends of a digital and existential divide.  But she has a lot to say to and about content companies.  According to her research, two-thirds of Digital Universal Content is created by consumers in the form of videos, social media, and image sharing.  That’s staggering.

As the authors note in their report, the NYT is perfectly positioned to experiment with collections comprised of videos and articles, such in the heavily-reported sex-trafficking, building at the same time a new frame around old content. The newspaper might learn from medium.com, founded by Evan Williams, ex-chairman of Twitter, which is built around specific content verticals written by people knowledgeable in specific fields (I contribute).  This could be a good way to extend the brand in a managed, professional way. Their fine professional journalists can’t do everything.

Or buy the company.  Lots of them.

The path to a digital future is probably not through the committee room door.


(The Mary Meeker presentation can be found at recode.net).    

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Dark and Comic Technology in "The Circle"

I think it very hard to write historical fiction or even contemporary fiction set in a familiar landscape, especially one on which the media is cutting its teeth.   I’m finishing a novel loosely based on events in the Tonkin Gulf during the closing months of the Vietnam War.  In some respects, there is little new to be said about this period.  Robin Williams has probably told many Americans all they need to know about US involvement in Vietnam in his “Good Morning Vietnam.”  The comedian will always own Da Nang.  The Tonkin Gulf Resolution that legitimized what was essentially an illegal war pricks the public conscience about as much as the WMD fantasy that sent us into Iraq.  And George Bush is painting his dogs. 

This dilemma is quite real for me.  I served in the Navy in that region during this period.  I know the historical narrative and the seascape quite well.  For these and other reasons, I am casting my novel as a sea story, in the fullest sense of the word, replete with fictions, mythologies, and a range of characters who might be involved in conduct unbecoming.  The ships, the weapons, and the weather all adhere to the strictest specifications, as any military manual would require.  But I reserve the right to take appropriate liberties with those who roam the decks.  The richness must be in the characters, the personas and the necessary fictions they create.  And I know this is easier said than done.

I offer these remarks as a prologue to a review of the novel The Circle by Dave Eggers that seems like a loosely fictionalized account of some of the big boys in the data, content, and privacy game.  It would be a little unfair to say that The Circle reads like a faintly disguised “roman-a-clef” about Google, though many of the themes promulgated by the Three Wise men who are the brains behind such quotable phrases such as Secrets are Lies and Privacy is Theft, seem faintly familiar, though inverted.  By the end of the novel, “Do No Evil” will seem pretty tame.

One quickly catches on that The Circle will have little in common with Dante’s jaunt; the novel seems more like a parlor game that gets creepier as we get inside the workings of this company that is referred to on the first page as “heaven.”  On arriving at the corporation, the lead character Mae marvels at the beautiful campus, the picnic tables arranged in concentric circles, and the children from the day-care center squealing.  One can detect a thin layer of satire in the opening pages but that element doesn’t completely allay for me the sense that the narrative fix is in.  Just follow the yellow brick road.  This walkway has tiles with imploring messages of inspiration, including:  Dream, Participate, Innovate, Imagine, and Breathe.

If The Circle is about technology, it is technology in the fanciful extreme.  We soon learn that one of the founders had devised a Unified Operating System that combines everything online: social media profiles, payment systems, passwords, email accounts, preferences, and every last tool, real and imagined.  From here the thematic hockey stick would track a familiar course, one slogan at a time.

This is a breezy, easy book.  The author fills the book with enough human interaction and pathologies to make it interesting.  Mae seems to remain, more or less, in a state of wonder and her character is not particularly well-rounded.  The Circle offers a never-ending menu of good food, comedians, booze, and chamber orchestras, and dormitory rooms for those who indulge too much.  On her first day on the job Mae has some wine and says to a fellow male traveler she’s just met: “You fuck me not.”   Of course, this is a marker of sorts, suggesting Mae can’t handle her wine, is thinking about sex, or the ribald line is a hint that beneath the best Operating Slogans is an itch that needs to be scratched.

In a sense the novel is all about visual layers; about screens on top of screens on top of screens.  But this is more about data than depth.  More about the thematic than the dramatic!  Mae begins her job in Customer Experience under the guidance of managers who remind her that “no robots work here.”  This becomes a very visible inside joke.  The Plan by one of the Wise Men to place cameras at surfing spots turns into a project that places cameras everywhere, even in the most repressive kingdoms.  The business logic is simple:  All That Happens Must Be Known.  The novel now enters the dawn of the Second Enlightenment.  Why not chips inside of children, inside everyone?  And cameras on everyone, politicians included!  Given that there is no real pushback to these schemes and no one is falling on her sword, the increasingly wacky efforts can continue at their riotous pace.

In time, the company will peer inside Mae’s body, soul, and psychological state.  She is criticized for engaging in activities not included in her profile.  She is caught on camera in a kayak she “borrowed.”  This excursion gets her in hot water and to a meeting with one of the Wise Men.  During her apology to the entire Circle team, Mae utters three phrases:  Secrets Are Lies, Sharing Is Caring, and Privacy Is Theft.  Her candor is greeted with thunderous applause and from that point on Mae will be on the inside and “would be going transparent.”

Mae wears a camera that records her day except for the private moments.  In some respects she becomes the center of the Circle universe, relaying through her lens the inner workings of the company.  The statements from the Wise Men about completing the Circle and Making the Circle Whole take on a touch of the delusional, even though these words find themselves at ground level on campus tiles.  Mae imagines the Circle as the center of a perfect democracy.


Any growth in Mae’s character comes at the author’s hands.  It seems a little forced, as if she has been anointed.  A mysterious man, Kalden, who wanders the underworld of the Circle, warns her against descending too deeply into the inner circle.  Mae seems more interested in having sex with this mysterious old/young man in some handy underground alcove.  The heavy breathing might as well come from some indulgent comic book scene.  Only the word balloons are missing.  

Mae does have a family and a slight background, but these don’t seem to bear on her choices.  In fact, she uses all available Circle technology to find a friend, Mercer, who is running away from everything the Circle stands for.  In the language of an increasingly mean-spirited Mae, Mercer is a fugitive from friendship.  The SeeChange cameras and the drones find him soon enough.  Mercer drives off a gorge, killing himself.  One of the Wise Men reminds Mae that she was “trying to help a very disturbed, antisocial young man.”  Suicide is also evil.  This is perhaps the best and most chilling scene in the book.  Other parts of the novel could have benefited from such a close up of the price of dark technology.

The Circle is a novel about technologies that are all too familiar, if somewhat conflated.  The author has simply taken these ideas and platforms to their illogical conclusions.  One is not surprised that the Machine God appears in the form of her lover, the missing Wise Man, who counsels her against closing the circle, gives her a manifesto to read to her watchers, and then suggests they bike through the Mongolian steppe. 

Mae had gotten so close to the Apocalypse, it rattled her.


It’s unlikely to rattle you.  

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Hatching Twitter in Four Acts

Hatching Twitter by Nick Bilton is a curious and perhaps necessary book.  In his introduction, Bilton reminds us that “history is the certainty produced at the point where the imperfections of memory meet the inadequacies of documentation.”  Although Twitter the company didn’t let Bilton in the door, he conducted sixty-five hours of interviews with current and former board members, the four Twitter founders, and many more, on and off the record.  The author found, as do most historians, that people remember past events differently.  Bilton does his best to triangulate various events, using social media in the process to even out discrepancies.  The tweets, videos, and photos shared over a decade substantiated the basic narrative.

I am writing this the day after the Academy Awards, during which host Ellen DeGeneres took out her Samsung Galaxy Note 3—a sponsor-- for a “selfie” with a group of celebrities.  Her post has been retweeted about three million times, almost bringing Twitter to its knees and wiping our President Obama’s election retweet record.  All in all, this was another night at the office.  Ms. Ellen used her Galaxy on a number of occasions to tweet photos of other celebrities.  Media folks call sponsored advertising that seems intrinsic to an event or brand, native advertising, as if it’s been there all along in plain sight.  Who can imagine the Academy Awards without Twitter?

Hatching Twitter offers abundant evidence that this solipsistic Oscar celebration was by no means inevitable.  I am not simply referring to the fits and starts associated with a startup, the lack of capital, or even the internal spats, Silicon Valley style, that inevitably bubbles up in that basement apartment or adjacent garage.  The drama that engulfed the four Twitter founders, Evan Williams, Jack Dorsey, Biz Stone and Noah Glass, was marked by intrigue, revenge, betrayal, and mendacity.  Jack Dorsey could play a mean Iago in Shakespeare’s Othello.  Other playwrights can accommodate the rest.  

Just how does one organize a book about a bunch of really smart, childish adults who write code and act spoiled?  Bilton’s answer to my hypothetical appears to be in his choice of a dramatic structure for his book, starting with the ouster of Evan in a board coup on October 4, 2010, led by Jack Dorsey.  In a way, this is a smart choice because we already know, more or less, how the story ends.  The intrigue is presumably in the early chapters where the restless psyches of the founders are fully on display.  That said, there is still something surreal about this book, as we are taken inside the heads and psychologies of the major players, as we would expect in a novel.  In a way, this approach is in keeping with the main narrative.  There is something surreal and improbably about the launching of Twitter.  One can never know too much.

The seeds for Twitter were appropriately sown in or near San Francisco on the heels of the dot com collapse.  Evan Williams launched Blogger, push-button publishing for the people, which he sold to Google in 2003, for millions.  At this time, Noah Glass, who was working with Evan on an audio extension of the Blogger, turned Audblog into a separate startup.  Evan would launch Odeo, a pod-casting startup with decent financial backing.  By 2005, the four founders were all involved in Odeo and the squabbling had already begun, especially between Ev and Noah. 

Who invented Twitter is a discussion worthy of a book such as Hatching Twitter.  Twitter, like success, seems to have many fathers.  By Bilton’s account, Jack and Noah, though not in parallel, souring on the prospects for Odeo, began thinking about other business.  Jack has apparently been thinking about a “status update” since 2000 when he used a blogging service called LiveJournal.  On a primitive level, the status update was in the air.  According to Bilton, Noah took the concept to another level: “This status thing could help connect people to those who weren’t there.  It wasn’t just sharing what kind of music you were listening to or where you were at the moment; it was about connecting people and making them feel less lonely.”

Ev raised the prospect of Odeo becoming a messaging platform.  Biz Stone, who came from Google, had been obsessed with the idea of a “Phone-ternet” for particular communities.  The status-thing was getting everyone’s attention.  Names like Smssy, Friendstalker, Twitch, Twit, Twitchy were banded around until Noah stumbled across the word to describe the light chirping sound made by certain birds.  Twitter was it.  The rough, self-conscious tweets began.  The internecine struggles would soon follow, with Ev forcing Noah out over management issues.

Existential questions about Twitter remained.  What exactly was this business?  Jack saw it as a place to say: “What am I doing?”  Ev saw Twitter as a mini-blogging product.  The 2007 San Francisco earthquake brought some clarity to this question.  By this time, 15,000 tweets had been sent, all about status.  Sharing the quake on Twitter suggested the platform would also be about a status larger than the individual self.  That conversation would continue.  While Twitter debated the matter, the outside world used the service in all sorts of adventurous ways, including for hard news, celebrity chatter, fake personas, politics, police scanners and so on.  Twitter would become whatever we say it is.

By the time Yahoo knocked on Twitter’s door the service had almost 250,000 active users.  The joke around the Twitter offices is that the company should take no less than $100 million.  Yahoo offered $12 million, since Twitter was simply a messaging service.  And Yahoo could replicate that.  That’s the oldest negotiating trick in the book.  Twitter would seek venture funding.

Twitter suffered the growing pains many startups endure: lack of strategic direction and focus, tension among management, burn rates, technical issues (servers crashing) and liquidity.  This time, the axe fell on Jack, who at the time was trying to make a separate peace with Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg.  That didn’t work out nor did Zuckerberg’s attempt to buy Twitter.  The Facebook CEO would have a long memory.

Nick Bolton devotes considerable space to the psychological pain suffered by the founders who were fired or demoted.  He seems to give disproportionate attention to Noah and Jack in a manner I thought bordered on bathos.  I’m not sure I wanted to go so deep into their loneliness, whether it was well-reported or not.  Most of the individuals who were displaced were financially well-off.  My heart doesn’t beat any faster learning that in the early days Biz Stone and his wife had to raid their piggy bank, or how Noah and wife have a baby, or about Ev’s rumination or parenting, or Jack  dressing and sounding like Steve Jobs.

The founders launched a very successful company and were as ruthless, venial, cutthroat, confused and savage, as many who have come before them.  It’s always about the money, the power and bragging rights.   A ten-page coda at the end of a very enjoyable book seems an unnecessary and pious redemption.

The trouble with writing a book about a startup, especially a remarkable one like Twitter, is that the book is inevitably going to be all prologue.  Success can cancel out even the most delicious narrative.


Just ask Jack Dorsey.