Making stuff as Founder and CEO of Avocado. Former music-making person. Tuna melt advocate. Started Google Reader. (But smarter people made it great.)

Dreams, discernment, and Google Reader

There’s been some interesting critical discussions of some design and product changes within Google Reader recently and I’ve kind of stayed out of it since I’m heads down on making big changes elsewhere. But I grabbed a few minutes, and I’d like to share a few notes I’ve written about it…
 

  • If Reader continues being understaffed, absorbed, or is eliminated then the internal culture at Google will adjust to a newly perceived lack of opportunity for building things that are treasured. No one knows what effect this will actually have, though. The response could be tiny.
     
  • Technology will route around the diminishment or disappearance of Reader. Even if this means something other than feeds are being used.
     
  • It’s a tough call. Google’s leaders may be right to weaken or abandon Reader. I feel more people should acknowledge this.
     
  • However, saying “no” to projects doesn’t make you Steve Jobs if you say no to inspiring things. It’s the discernment that’s meaningful, not the refusal. Anyone can point their thumb to the ground.
     
  • The shareable social object of subscribe-able items makes Reader’s network unique and the answer to why change is painful for many of its users is because no obvious alternative network exists with exactly that object. The social object of Google+ is…nearly anything and its diffuse model is harder to evaluate or appreciate. The value of a social network seems to map proportionally to the perceived value of its main object. (Examples: sharing best-of-web links on Metafilter or sharing hi-res photos on Flickr or sharing video art on Vimeo or sharing statuses on Twitter/Facebook or sharing questions on Quora.) If you want a community with stronger ties, provide more definition to your social object.
     
  • Reader exhibits the best unpaid representation I’ve yet seen of a consumer’s relationship to a content producer. You pay for HBO? That’s a strong signal. Consuming free stuff? Reader’s model was a dream. Even better than Netflix. You get affinity (which has clear monetary value) for free, and a tracked pattern of behavior for the act of iterating over differently sourced items – and a mechanism for distributing that quickly to an ostensible audience which didn’t include social guilt or gameification – along with an extensible, scalable platform available via commonly used web technologies – all of which would be an amazing opportunity for the right product visionary.
     
  • Reader is (was?) for information junkies; not just tech nerds. This market totally exists and is weirdly under-served (and is possibly affluent).
     
  • The language for decisions based on deferred value is all about sight, which I find beautiful (and apt for these discussions). People are asking if Google is seeing the forest for the trees. I’d offer that Google is viewing this particular act-of-seeing as a distraction.
     
  • Reader will be an interesting footnote in tech history. That’s neat and that’s enough for me; wasn’t it fun that we were able to test if it worked?
     
  • Google is choosing to define itself by making excellent products in obvious markets that serve hundreds of millions of people. This is good. A great company with evident self-consciousness that even attempts to consider ethical consequences at that scale is awesome. But this is a perfect way to avoid the risk of creating entirely new markets which often go through a painful not-yet-serving-hundreds-of-millions period and which require a dream, some dreamers, and not-at-all-measurable luck. Seemingly Google+ could be viewed as starting a new market, but I’d argue that it mainly stands a chance of improving on the value unlocked by other social networks, which is healthy and a good thing, but which doesn’t require an investigation into why it’s valuable. That’s self-evident in a Facebook world. Things like Reader still need a business wizard to help make sense of the value there.
     
  • If Google is planning on deprecating Reader then its leaders are deliberately choosing to not defend decisions that fans or users will find indefensible. This would say a lot about how they would communicate to the marketplace for social apps and about how they’d be leading their workforce. If this is actually occurring and you’re internal to Google – it’s ok, I can imagine you’d be feeling that these decisions are being made obtusely “just because” or since “we need to limit our scope to whatever we can cognitively or technically handle” or such but I’d offer that maybe it’s needed for driving focus for a large team? I suppose sacrificing pet projects, public responsibility, and transparency could be worth it if the end is a remarkable dream fulfilled. But what if the thing you’re driving everyone toward isn’t the iPod but is instead the Zune? So just make sure it’s not that.
     
  • The following sentence is unfair but it’s a kind of myth and fog that has been drifting into view about ‘em: Google seems to be choosing efforts like SketchUp over Reader. I doubt there’s a common calculus, but it’s now harder for Google’s users to really know how important it is that many millions of people are using a product every day when Google is deciding its evolution and fate.
     
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Bad advice blues

It’s not a good idea to take advice from people who need you to fail in order for them to succeed.

e.g. The real estate developer looking to expand might forecast dropping prices, which benefits them if you wait to buy as it leaves more inventory available. In other words, they’re helped by suppressing any talent and luck you may have in completing the task that could impede them.

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War machines.

It’s not worth framing enemies in business. Because if you gear a workforce up for fighting a foe you get a war mentality which, like a robot in a sci-fi narrative, eventually turns on clients or users of that business. I know it seems counter-intuitive, but I keep seeing this and I think it’s because war is like liquid, it finds every opportunity to expand.

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Eulogy

for my father

He’d have missed some of these latest days
our family re-joined
old stories re-told
but told longer this time
as if they grew like rings on trees every year.

And in the fashion of teachers everywhere
I feel compelled to ask you
to raise your hand (and keep it raised) if you were related to Chuck
or if you weren’t related but if he ever smiled at you
or if you ever made anyone else feel at home anywhere
or if you ever laughed at anything ever.
And to also ask you to look around a little because, if Dad were here today,
the people who hands are raised are
the people he would make feel welcome
whose day he’d prefer to brighten
whose hopes he’d like to lift
whose laugh he’d try to earn
and who would likely come to love him sometime during their long, long first conversation.

Ok, i’ve asked too much for my stunt. please go ahead and lower your hands.

Dad would tell me things in confidence
about so many people
about his brothers and sister, his parents, his wife, his daughter,
his grandchildren, his colleagues,
about the many people who touched his life -
He would say such gracious and beautiful things about all of you
and his candidness is all the more remarkable
for its being entirely accurate.
All of you are a part of my parents’ gift to me
and I’m grateful to consider you
my friends and family.

And this is where I should hear my dad’s voice
this is his place, talking to all of you
not mine.
It was his gift, sharing and relating,
I can only pretend to do it –
nevertheless my father deserves my real voice today
not the one I adopted to get dates or fit in
but the mewling, nerdy, know-it-all one
that’s actually more about he and I given its provenance from his selflessness.
So I’ll use *it* hoping maybe I can still conjure his
loving presence
since I can’t hold him.

Especially now
I sometimes feel more like my dad than myself.
I lazily believed I contained only lonely possibility
but listening carefully I hear a gulf mostly filled with his beautiful echoes.
I carry Dad’s cadence, a sing-song “welllll now, Mary”
is my preamble now.
His whistle, used as the transition between dialogues
as if air were filled with fuel for music
which he would combust easily into playful flickerings,
this whistle I’ve adopted
less his talent.

You know, hearing him in my own voice got harder as
Dad and I spoke of death more often
nearer to today’s memorial.
He cried sometimes,
his agility devolved by medicine or maybe
illness,
or ministrations,
or misfortune,
or loneliness,
or maybe even joy and wouldn’t we be so lucky if that were true.
And my last words about death to him (just hours before he died)

“I’d rather not risk my father who can still use words like ‘elicit’”

laid perpendicularly to his last words about it

“well, son, if that was the last Blazers game i’ll see, it was a good one”

(And it was – they came back from an four point deficit with 32 seconds on the clock to a series of teeth-gritting plays that led to a wildly improbable last-second lob – if you didn’t see it you missed an actual thing.)

The game was a barn-burner
for a man familiar with farms
but while we talked this deep, terrible hole was being burned open beneath us.
I thought him fatalistic
and Dad instead gained another opportunity
to teach me about hubris.

He’s gone

and now i think my heart might be a different shape
it feels odd in my chest
like it gained right angles

I need him here. I’m very selfish. I need him to see the rest. And he deserved a longer life; he earned it.

And I know he’d hate this struggle we have
coping with his passing,
so I’ve been re-reading this prose I found,
like a koan.
It’s a small part of a poem by Wendell Berry
and if I read it maybe it’ll actually cast some easement here
but you have to imagine you’ve laid your head
on my Dad’s chest
and he’s reading it to you after some bullies in school
stole your bicycle.

“But do not let your ignorance
Of my spirit’s whereabouts dismay
You, or overwhelm your thoughts.
Be careful not to say
Anything too final. Whatever
Is unsure is possible, and life is bigger
Than flesh. Beyond reach of thought
Let imagination figure
Your hope. That will be generous
To me and to yourselves.”

Our taste in poems and other deft art was similar and precise
as wide in variance as a hairline crack in a glacier,
apt, since we both liked art with a bit of peril
as if to say
this experience might tip you from this-you to the next
changing you to something unrecognizable to yourself
but better, more true to the universe as it is now.

Especially one day,
Dad, after watching a TV special about a man dying of cancer,
one of the talking wounded specials,
suggested that “well son, it’s a story that’s almost enough to make a guy tell the truth for the rest of his life.”
These seemingly small moments of brave sharing
would nearly burst my heart with sharp joy
and now my lives may always have to measure the reach
of this father-friend
who liked to show me the shape I would become
rather than cutting my edges so I could fit a preferred cast more to his liking
since it seemed what he liked best was to recognize native clay
solid in its mystery
and observe how its wonder was synecdoche for the indescribable majesty of
its being observed by someone.

Hard to believe
he will no longer age
as I continue changing
growing strange to whatever I once was.

But he’s growing still
as something like light in me and my family
and as I feel tossed lightly and dropped suddenly
living as we all do
like a dinghy in a vast sea
I know there’s a point
I can steer toward
since his life will be my lighthouse
so that I’ll always know how to go home.


Charles Adelbert Wetherell III, 1941-2011

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The Social Network might be about socialness in work.

The Social Network was potboilery fun: crisp, witty, and beautiful. Fun especially if you’re building web technology as the film pointed a sliver of mirror at our heart’s toil during the “wget” scene.

Some are upset about the movie’s historical fuzziness or purported message. Lessig, for one, is sad about what the movie didn’t address. To his point, yeah, a movie about the magic of the Internet would be one I’d watch. But, look, since no part of the movie attempts to describe the Internet’s role in disintermediation and its lowering barriers of entry, it seems beside the point to say they makers of the film missed something and more accurate to say they were trying to explore something else entirely.

Of course, it’s not cut and dried what message, if any, was being explored. We can’t just trust Word of God. Who knows what exactly the film wanted us to think, but it’s fun to guess what it might be trying to have us think. Maybe it’s this…?

If the thing that prevented the creation of billion-dollar businesses was labor, technology, and capital + a great idea, what now happens when the costs of creation and maintenance become low enough that the only thing left to prevent massive, global success is the great idea?

I like that the movie explores possible changes in (business) tactics and their ethical quandaries. What happens if the value of an idea and the time-to-market suddenly matter even more than they did? If the technical know-how becomes easier to acquire, markets might reward those who are even better at idea prevention, execution suppression, and other techniques used to smother competitive incubations particularly as performed via social/personal relationships.

To be clear, I don’t know if that’s where we’re at. Seriously, I don’t. Fiction can make beautiful delusions seems like facts and the movie is highly dramatized (read: it ain’t true) but I sure like that it has me thinking about these things.

(Something else I’m thinking about: why didn’t the Saverin character take a cab or call Mark when waiting at the airport? I like that this helps suggest how he may have often failed to take the initiative in his own life where Facebook was concerned.)

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