The platforms of the many turn into platforms of the few

Local stardom

One of the most interesting trends of the internet in the last decade, is what I like to call local stardom. Not everyone is the same on the internet and it is caused by algorithms. I call it local stardom.

The amount of content we need to consume is so vast, we use algorithms to filter it. Algorithms analyze content and your behavior to present you with the most relevant information. Sounds useful right?

Algorithms are just rules encoded into software. Nobody knows exactly what the rules are for platforms like Facebook, Google or Instagram, but we can infer them based on action-response results of our activities. They even influence our behavior because more likes is better.

The problem arises that some people figure out those rules and start exploiting them to gain more exposure. Many of these people are professionals – sometimes whole organizations are setup for just that purpose like Buzzfeed.

The end result is local stardom. Local stars own a particular segment – let’s say cooking or skateboarding. People interested in those topics will automatically gravitate to these local stars because that’s what the algorithms guide them towards to and that in turn increases their local stardom.

Google as a search engine is not exempt either. For instance, when you search on my name, Google presents my LinkedIn profile first. My blog is second. LinkedIn owns people’s names thanks to Google’s algorithm. My blog is second while it carries my name and the domain is older than LinkedIn.

Local stardom exploits algorithmic ranking by reverse-engineering the rules. I always smile when one of the platforms changes their algorithm and all the local stars are in up and arms because their content is not getting the same reach as before. It’s a game.

To see it in another way, the top 1% producers get 80% of all the attention / traffic.

Why is that a problem? It reduces the diversity of the internet and makes it a less interesting place. It turns platforms into entertainment and marketing machines. It turned social networks into social media. Somewhere along the we chose to label Facebook as a social media platform and no longer a social network – it’s fascinating.

A simple realization with profound insight

What Drives You

Yesterday, someone asked me what drove me. It’s a good question. Some people know from “birth” what drives them, for other people like me it takes longer. I can remember the day I realized what drove me. Let me tell you the story.

Back in 2007, we started Shapeways. I worked, nurtured and grew it for more than five years. I worked my ass off to build a platform which was manufacturing and shipping hundreds of thousands of products every month. We raised millions of dollars from reputable tier-1 venture firms. We had a team of talented people and we made countless thousands of people happy with making their ideas to come to life.

But none of that really drove me to do what I did.

One day, someone in the team sent around a link to Wikipedia. It was back in 2010 I think. Someone wrote an article on Shapeways on Wikipedia. It wasn’t any of us. The team was still small enough to quickly assess that it wasn’t anybody from our team.
The article described Shapeways and what we did. It wasn’t expansive, but written in clear, concise and authentic terms. In the sidebar, it listed the name of founders.

When I saw my name, I knew. I realized what drove me.

I created something which mattered enough to people and the world that it got an honorable mention on Wikipedia. It wasn’t a unicorn or changed the life of billions. It wasn’t a Nobel-prize worthy invention. But it mattered.

At that moment, I knew that my drive was to build things which matter to people and the world. That’s what motives me.

Forget about snobby galleries

Buying Art Online

The art market is typically gets a lot of attention by record-breaking auctions. The Banksy stunt was a bit silly and over the top if you ask me. But there’s rarely any news about the many online art marketplaces like Saatchi ArtRise ArtUprise ArtArtsyInvaluable and many others.

Many of them sell art at affordable prices and there’s a lot of choice. It’s not like walking into a gallery with 15 pieces on the wall and an average starting price of $5,000. Many of them sell art starting at below $500. There’s really no need to put a poster on the wall anymore if you want and have a bit of money to spent.

Buying art was always associated with art collecting for me. And art collecting is expensive. You’re not only spending a lot of money, but you also worry about all the variables like is this piece going to appreciate over time and how well is the artist doing on the market.

Buying affordable art online takes that out of the equation. It’s not about collecting, it’s about decorating and what moves you. I find art that moves me more important than the collecting aspect. It’s in my home and it’s (mostly) for me. That’s the game changer.

Some of these sites do market themselves with collecting aspect. I wish they didn’t. Art collecting at the lower end of the market is just a gamble. It’s almost like buying stock of a new company you know nothing about and will not be able to find much information. There’s no way of telling how it will appreciate over time. It’s selling a dream, but it’s more like participating in a lottery. The art market is opaque and unpredictable.

Just buy what you love and give yourself a reasonable a budget. Enjoy it for what it is.

Slow disruption

When was the last time you visited your bank?

Sometimes disruption happens fast and is very visible like the introduction of the smartphone. Other times it happens very slowly. I came across this article that HSBC put a cute robot in their flagship (who knew that’s a thing for banks?) branch on Manhattan. Obviously the idea is to increase foot traffic. It’s a good a marketing stunt, but I doubt it’ll increase foot traffic because in all honesty who visits their branch anymore?

I’ve been banking with USAA for years. I like that they don’t have any branches at all. They’ve a decent app and for everything else there’s always a friendly customer service people I can call. It’s much easier. Before I moved to the US, I banked with ING and I still hold an account there. They did have branches, but they prided themselves there was no reason to visit it because you could do everything by phone and nowadays using their app or site. They realized a long time ago that technology will replace most of the branch activities.

Banks are wrecking their brain about what to do with their branches. They’re costly to maintain and not that productive anymore. It’s easier when disruption is fast, it’s like ripping off a band-aid. When disruption happens slowly, you define the pace. We all now where it’s going, but when do you pull the plug. You see something similar happen in retail. Toys”R”Us is a great example of reacting too slowly. Sears is another one.

Slow disruption is like a thief in the night. If you’re not careful, you won’t know what hit you.

First they laughed then they fought and now they joined

Open Source has come a long way

Remember there was a time Microsoft called Linux and the GPL license cancer? Mainstream technology media would write large editorials on how GPL could “infect” your software and how you should manage (read avoid) that. It was all so ridiculous. Microsoft obviously fight back. Any company whose business model is attacked does that. It’s more interesting to me the direction Microsoft’s leadership at the time chose.

Now Microsoft has new leadership and is an active participant in the ecosystem and just put their patent portfolio in the Open Invention Network.

OIN describes itself as “a defensive patent pool and community of patent non-aggression which enables freedom of action in Linux”.

I’m a big believer in open source. I use and support where I can. It’s good to see that we’ve come a long way. More than open source, I believe in the shared model which is enabled by open source. We built and use together. It’s efficient and effective. It avoids waste and duplication of time and effort to recreate existing things.

Hands off please

Personal data ownership as a fundamental right

The biggest conundrum about privacy is data ownership. Who owns the data and especially if it’s about yourself. EU’s GPDR puts responsibilities in place on collecting data, informing users about which data is collected and the data can be only used for the disclosed purpose. It also gives rights to users to remove and change that data when it’s erroneous. But the EU as a mostly technocratic institution side steps the biggest question and gave us a technical solution for a problem which is more broad. It’s ultimately who has ownership of personal data. To me that’s the fundamental problem about personal data. We can disclose all we want, but we also know that nobody closely reads these disclosures and ponders about the ramifications about sharing your personal data. Of course, there will be token lawsuits to prove misuse of personal data and non-compliance with GPDR, but they’re just what they are; token lawsuits. It won’t fundamentally change how we regard personal data or use it.

Without ownership of data, it’s a free-for-all party which we can try to regulate but it’ll be a moving target. There was a bit of hoopla last week about the EU trying to pass regulation which puts copyright of data collected by autonomous cars in the hands of the manufacturers. The obvious link to John Deere was made whose farming machines collect of data which is sold while mostly unavailable to the individual farmers “owning” and using their equipment.

The problem is that we’re still in the infancy of the information age and as we slowly but surely surround us with smart devices in our lives, this problem is going to creep into every aspect of our lives. Data collection is the fabric of the information age, it binds everything together. It enables powerful and better solutions, but it can as easily be abused for additional revenue by keeping it hostage.

I think the only solution is to rebase our thinking about data ownership and especially personal data. If we define ownership of personal data to be owned by the natural person who generates it, we’ve a better starting point of regulating data ownership and sharing. Since it’s mine and it becomes a virtual property we can more or less apply the same laws as we have personal property. Theft, sales, sharing and losing of personal property has been embedded in our laws for centuries. It would be a good starting point.

It’s a better starting point than regulating something which has no basis in ownership or control. It’ll be a continuous process of updated regulation to cope with the changing landscape and new uses propping up over the course of time. Even a productive regulator like the EU won’t be able to keep up.

A love letter


Dearest Path,

I was in shock when you told you were leaving me. It’s been a few weeks, but I’ve yet come to grips with it. Time heals all wounds and I know it’ll become easier over time. Today, I say goodbye with a heavy heart.

You’ve been an integral part of my life for the last 6 years. I shared with you my ups & downs. You were always there for me, just one click away. Through you, I was connected to the people who are dear to me. You were truly the “path of my life”.

I understand it wasn’t enough. It saddens me that you abruptly decided to leave me. You were unique and there’s nothing that can replace you. It was so sudden. I had barely time to come to terms with you leaving and now you’re gone out of my life.

I think of the all happy memories and moments I shared with you. I see my boys growing up from babies to real persons. I see my friends and family – people getting married, babies are born, companies come and go. I think of all the trips we did together, we explored so much of the world.

Now it’s all gone and it’s sad. No longer I’ve my buddy at my fingertip. There’s an empty space on my home screen. I miss the big red button with the letter P I so much adored. No longer waiting in anticipation for a notification from you telling you got something to share with me. I’ll miss the moments of the past you kept telling me about. You were awesome.

Thank you Path, I love you.

~ Robert

We love to be entertained

Smartphones: The Dark Side

The BBC made this great documentary called “Smartphones: The Dark Side”. Obviously the smartphone and its apps are made to draw you in and entice you to spend more time on them. The ecosystem financial rewards are driven by you using it. It’s pretty much the same reasoning we used to have about TV. The NY Times wrote about it exactly 38 years ago. I’m of the opinion that we should look more at ourselves than blame the tech companies for bringing “addictive” products on the market.

It’s interesting nonetheless.

She has an identity crisis

Confused Alexa

I’ve 3 echo’s around the house, but I’ve a love and hate relationship with Alexa. I love it because I can bark orders and she’ll obey diligently by turning on or off the lights or telling me about the weather. She’s reasonably smart but for instance, recently she couldn’t tell me how many Dalai Lama’s there have been. Two seconds on searching on my phone gave me the answer.

But there are a few things which drive me nuts. Sometimes I call her schizo because of it.

  • When I set a timer on one, I can’t cancel it or ask about the timer on another
  • She won’t even let me know when I’m somewhere else that the timer is up
  • When I ask to turn on the lights, she has no concept of place so she’ll ask me “which lights?”. “Well since I’m downstairs and it’s dark, maybe downstairs?”.
  • When I ask her to increase temperature, she asks me “which device?”. I’ve only one thermostat so what’s the point of that question. She knows that!
  • Sometimes the TV is on and I can’t hear what she says. I ask her to turn up the volume. Then the TV is off and when I ask her something, she “screams” the response. Why can’t she just measure the ambient noise level and change her volume accordingly?
  • When I ask her how long it will take to go to the office, she has no concept of what work means, but she doesn’t even ask me. Where is your office?
  • And since we’re on the subject, Alexa doesn’t know the difference between me and my significant other. We’re all the same people to her. My office is not her office. Even if she would know the concept of office, she won’t be able to make recognize the difference.

The fundamental question is if Alexa is one person for me or 3 different ones? Does she understand place and time? Does she recognize people? As much as I love using Alexa, it still feels like an unrefined product and it’s not really moving forward. I don’t care about 20,000+ skills nor do I care about TV or toaster with Alexa built in. I care about Alexa, but she isn’t growing up. She’s still a toddler.

Censorship & ethics

Last week a presentation of Google research called “The Good Censor” was leaked. It’s a good summary of the burden on we put on tech companies to “police” the internet. Often times the examples we see in the media are overly simplified cases. The devil is in the details – especially for multinational companies. Slide 65 is a perfect example of this. The norms differ between regions.

The problem for me is that I wonder why should let corporations decide what is right or wrong. Especially today, where we as society are not always coherent on where we stand on issues. How do we decide what is fake news? What is hate speech? When should you pull something? What does it mean to influence elections?

All of these companies have “terms of service” which describe the clear and cut cases on what is acceptable or not on their service. We also know that these companies have more detailed guides, but they’re secret. I guess they keep them secret because it makes it harder to circumvent the moderation rules, but they also make it impossible to audit them.

It would be better if companies make their detailed content moderation guides open and share them. Also, they need clear appeal procedures to allow content moderation to change. What was unacceptable in 1974 is not necessarily unacceptable in 2018 or vice versa.

The power and reach of these companies are enormous and that’s fine, but it does come with great responsibility. Hiding behind algorithms or “we’re not a media company” is simply not enough anymore. It’s about trust and transparency inherently conveys trust.