Author Archives: Mike McCamon

Why Imperfect is so Perfect

When trying to solve a problem, exploit a new opportunity, or hire someone for your team, too often we look for the perfect solution. I feel like this is one of our core human resourcing issues these days when faced with a deluge of applicants, bots and filters keep candidate pools manageable. Or when it comes to solving a challenge we get blocked by getting everything right instead of just getting started.

Let me make the argument that usually the imperfect option is usually the perfect one.

Problem Statement. Figuring out the solution to problems first normally involves defining the problem statement. This is where the team, or yourself, look to exhaustively clarify and articulate the problem, its causes, factors, and then brainstorm potential solutions. The problem is, very, very few of us, if any, can leave our biases to the side and get it right. Most of the time you can get 80-90% right, but rarely 100%, and it might just be the last 20% that makes the entire problem look different. It we can’t fully articulate the problem, our perfect solution won’t be a fit.

Delays Getting Started. There’s a reason the tech industry loves the mantra, “fail fast and fail often” is that it inspires action without complete information. More than any other industry, tech’s most limited resource is time (by the way as mortal humans, it’s ours as well). So if you wait until you find the perfect solution the market has moved on and often you’re left in the dust. You’re going to learn a whole bunch more through iteration than analysis, so get some basic instructions and jump head first in the deep end. Spend six months waiting for the perfect candidate to walk in the door and you’re now six months behind on the task/project/product that person was going to solve.

Things Change. Even if you could come up with a perfect solution, as you start to implement and live with your decision, the world keeps changing. Most of the time change is slow but when you look at things over longer horizons you can see they change a lot. One good example would be our use of Facebook. How much has your usage changed in the last month? Probably not much. What about five years ago? What about ten years ago? Back in 2007, most millennials were still in high school and I’m sure they’re embarrassed by how much Facebook influenced their life. Now they don’t use it so clearly things change a lot. So even if you could find the perfect solution today, it might not work in a year, or five years from now. Take the long view. Hire someone that works today and well into the future.

Past is not the Future. Looking at your historical data doesn’t help you see the future – it only helps you to understand the past. If you’re good at marketing it’s easy to see that causality is difficult, if not impossible, to prove. Run one ad and see the result. Run the ad again and get a different result. The market doesn’t live in a petri dish and is nuanced and fickle. There are thousands of factors that impact the conversion rate of an email. At the macro level there’s the messaging, the design, the call to action. At the micro level there’s “what I’m doing when I look at this email”, what’s my current mood, or it is a busy part of my day. Your next job is different from your past ones. Everything is different except your name and the title on your business card.

Innovation Lives in the Fringes. In my view the most important, especially as part of the hiring process, reason to avoid the perfect candidate is that innovative ideas usually live on the fringes of the obvious. Perfect candidates for a particular role can 110% do the job day one. They have a great deal of historical knowledge that helps them quickly diagnose a situation and come up with a quick and often over-confident solution. This approach can result in peril. Sometimes knowing less is better than knowing it all. Knowing less means you’re more likely to explore unconventional ideas, try something completely new, and might just find a completely new growth strategy. When I joined Water.org, knowing virtually nothing about grassroots fundraising, we explored a good many unconventional ideas. One of which was to in fact NOT ask for money. And every year I was there, we raised more and more money.

The world is imperfect. I’m imperfect, you’re imperfect, your company’s imperfect – and that’s all okay. As I navigate this career search I’m looking for an imperfect place to work, that’s willing to take a chance on me just the way I am. I have a great deal of expertise at nonprofits, tech, growing organizations, marketing, leading great teams, plus a lot more but I’m far from perfect. Which of course means we’re perfect for each other.

Five Ways Automattic Could Make WordPress the Bomb for Activists

Every movement needs an online presence. A place to tell their story, their action plan, and how to connect and organize around the cause. Historically, the online world provided a safe haven to do all this, and recruit new supporters to your work.

But that all changed. Activists are not technologists and without changes we’re in deep trouble.

Generally what we all do online in the US is governed and protected by the First Amendment. Just a few weeks ago the US Justice Department requested Dreamhost, an internet website hosting company, release “all records and information” relating to the site disruptj20.org and more specifically the IP addresses of those who visited the site. For those less technical, that would be like the Justice Department requiring Target to supply the CC# of every person who walked into the store even if they didn’t buy anything. At its most innocent, it’s a witch hunt. At its more sinister, its something out of the sci-fi movie Minority Report where police can arrest you before you even commit a crime.

WordPress is used by 29% of all websites online. My guess is a fair number of those sites are used by activists – INCLUDING disruptj20.org (http://disruptj20.org/wp-admin). This means Automattic, the company behind WordPress.com and the WordPress codebase, could make five simple changes that would make WordPress the bomb for activists online.

1. Never, ever keep log files. One reason why the Justice Department can get so many juicy facts about visitors, etc is virtually every website on the web maintains, and saves log files. Think of it as list of every visitor, page visited, admin login, and on and on – all timestamped with the web location you were at when you connected, what browser you use, your screen size and so forth. I can’t speak for Automattic, but most places don’t have a tidy log file management policy meaning quite often log files are kept into perpetuity. Log files are handy for troubleshooting errors, but maybe the WordPress Admin could expose a setting on how long to keep log files – something like never, hourly, daily, monthly, etc.

2. Replace Google Analytics. When it comes to knowing about your website traffic, there isn’t a super awesome replacement for Google Analytics. The team at Automattic could on their own, or maybe approach a partner, build a simple replacement for Google Analytics. Not only could it be more careful with data storage history, but it could also be an data island not connected the Google mainland of data sharing. If you have analytics installed on your site, Google knows a lot about your visitors – and could potentially be asked, like Dreamhost, to provide it to the government.

3. Encrypt user data. Most all the data stored in a WordPress instance is stored in plain-text. Okay, except maybe some passwords. “Plain-text” simply means data is stored in a way that is human readable without any decryption. It’s like the number on the front of your credit card not the encrypted data in your chip on your credit card. Minimally WordPress should encrypt user data; especially email addresses of admins, authors and the like. And WordPress should include a library so plugin developers can encrypt data they collect as well before it get stored into the database.

4. Business, Personal or Activist. When you first setup a WordPress blog, a step in the wizard to help you find the right theme is the choice of Business or Personal. WordPress should add an Activist option that would increase security posture of the site (like requiring 2-factor authentication), enable all the features above, and create elevated requirements for Automattic employee access to the site.

5. Curriculum and Mentoring. WordPress provides a good deal of curriculum, FAQ, guides, and help files to help the world blog. Automattic could provide additional curriculum to advocates about the precautions they should take when administering an advocacy site online and with WordPress. As we’ve seen over the past several years, journalists are under increased threat by governments around the world. WordPress is a publishing platform, and therefore its users are amateur journalists.

I’ve been using WordPress for more than a decade to host my website. I have launched several corporate sites on the platform as well. It is a very approachable tool that improves the health of the web, our conversations online and our lives. There is a good chance I missed a few idea or perhaps some of it is in the works. My goal here is to help start the conversation.

WordPress is used around the world by folks living under oppressive regimes and cultural censorship. Automattic: Let’s help to protect the next generation of advocates as they find their way online.

Five Things We All Deserve in Our Work

For the first time in a while I’m on the job market looking for my next opportunity. I’m excited and I have a good deal of flexibility when it comes to compensation and the role but there are a few “really want to haves” wherever I might land over these next few months. So here is my list of “Five Things We All Deserve in Our Next Career.”

Work with a Purpose. I’m spoiled. I love working on projects that keep me awake at night – projects that stir my passion and heart. Don’t mistake this means I can only work for nonprofits. In fact, many of my for-profit stops had a mission focus in their work: Apple “think different”, Bluetooth “connecting the world without wires”, and even SpiderOak “encrypt everything.” All of these are in addition to Water.org, a true cause, “safe water and the dignity of a toilet for everyone in our lifetime.” Make the mission bigger than one product or the next sale, and your staff will respond.

Big Challenges. I’m at my best when I’m trying to solve a big challenge. The way I think, my approach to planning and brainstorming all make me more effective when trying to move an entire market, as opposed to getting a narrow market of prospects to buy one thing. When I look back on Bluetooth, I see that was a very big challenge. Back in 2002 the future of Bluetooth was very much uncertain; it took a great team to avoid failure and make room for the success we see today. Big challenges are the ones worth solving.

Embracing Risk. When it comes to growing a business if you do the same things as everyone else, how can you expect any different results? You can’t. A cause/product/company can only grow if the leadership is willing to embrace and encourage measured risk-taking. It’s the “fail fast, fail often” mantra of the technology industry. But I would add, take ten average sized risks on projects/ideas is WAY better than taking one with a lot more risk. As a marketer, think of yourself as a venture capital firm: invest a small amount in ten deals expecting one to work and nine to flame out instead of a one investment and hope to get lucky. Stick your neck out, you will do better than you think .

Partner Engagement. Most every big problem I’ve worked on needed a partner strategy to be effective. Let’s face it, in today’s world there are very few big problems that can be solved by one team or one company. Much of the marketing success of Water.org was built on partnerships. We worked with other nonprofits, press, Hollywood, and of course the big social platforms Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube to affordably tell the world about the water crisis, and how together we could solve it for good. There is some art in doing this well and it starts with thinking of how your partner can benefit from the partnership before you do.

Autonomy & Trust. I expect my staff to do what we plan to do and I fully plan to the same for my management. It’s crushing to me when I get micro-managed. My best results come from building a plan, getting management to buy off on that plan, and then having the autonomy to get things done. I’m cool with benchmarks and metrics, checkins, and course corrections, but I like to have the room to think, do, and innovate. There have been several projects in my career that spanned multiple years and required patience and long term commitment to a distant goal. You have to have patience to see a plan through to the end. Don’t worry, I’ll let you know if I need help, but please don’t stop by desk every day asking me if I’m done yet. We want to be trusted to do the right thing.

So that’s my list. Notice compensation, title, stock options, work location, dress codes, free food, vacation policies and the like aren’t on the list. We all want more than that; give us something more and we will respond with our time, passion, and commitment.

Making Privacy Obvious to Everyone

Privacy and User agreements: We agree to them without a single thought and certainly never ever read them. Let’s start with a quick background. Since the early days of the software industry — like the days when software came in boxes — users were presented with a legal agreement to use software. It is not uncommon for the legal documents to ramble on and on for pages. All you really need to know is there’s a good chance that “you’re on your own” if you use the software.

Fast forward to the internet age. Since virtually every app or service we use today is free, software companies came up with a Privacy Agreement that basically gives them permission to use your data in unprivate ways. Monetizing user data is THE business model of the internet age so as the saying goes, “if the product is free, then you are the product.” Use Facebook, and all that data about you is used by Facebook to sell ads. Same for Google, Twitter, YouTube, and on and on. By the way this extends to “apps” like Amazon where your Shopping Cart contents are widely shared with ad networks.

If people actually realized what was going on with their privacy, they might change their behavior. There are three primary questions users should want answered by these types of agreements:

  1. Can the service provider ever read my data or is it encrypted?
  2. Where is my data stored? On my device, in the cloud, or both?
  3. Does the service provider monetize my data?

Why not come up with a simplified labeling requirement for internet service agreements? This idea could be used for ISPs, your mobile carrier, the apps you use online, and then all the way down to the search engine you use.

Each of three questions have two or three states so it’s a pretty simple iconography problem. Above is a terrible sketch of what I’m thinking. I bet with no other info, you can figure out which one is Facebook and which one is a my Alarm Clock. Put it at the top of the agreement and allow new users to read the entire agreement if they want, but at least they would get the top-level questions answered before they start using the product.

Would this idea make privacy more obvious to the masses? For the longest time if you wanted nutritional information at places like McDonald’s you had to request what was a very large foldout poster of mountains of information. I’m sure it cost McDonald’s a fortune to print and keep these things in stock in thousands of locations. Today, their menu above the counter already includes the key metric you’re mostly likely wanting to know: calories. And yes, that info has changed my behavior. I don’t get to McDonald’s often, but it’s a real drag that my favorites are obviously the worse for me as well.

Legislation might be required to get providers to make this change. I’m okay with that. Users have a right to know, and I also believe vendors have the responsibility to transparently disclose how they use my data. It was my data in the first place.

Six everyday technologies that would change our Democracy

Like many of you, I too have contacted my members of Congress with an opinion or concern about pending legislation or topics that matter to me. You know the drill: write a letter, or more common of late, make a phone call. During the first few months of this year when I called, the most likely result was a busy signal or a full voice mailbox.

We deserve better.

Why is it acceptable that it is easier for my teenager to like a stranger’s funny cat video on YouTube when she’s riding along with me in the car, than for us to participate in our democracy sitting in our own homes? How is it I can know my Uber/Lyft driver will arrive in two minutes, but I have no earthly idea what my Representative is doing today, this week, last month — ever?

Basically our democracy has failed to creatively implement technology to engage us as constituents, voters, and advisers. Lots of nonprofits have mastered this, but right now it seems like our feedback systems for Congress are more designed to suppress and limit comment than engage us in the democracy. Maybe it’s by design.

We don’t need a wall in America, we already have one around our government. Technology can tear down the wall between the government and the governed.

So here are six, very low tech, technologies I’d love to see on my Representative’s website. Ya’ listening Mr. Yoder?

Online Calendars. What is my representative doing this week? Who are they meeting with, what legislation are they working, are there committee meetings to attend, and what’s coming up for votes on the floor? Most of what we get today is backward looking fluff. I’m sure you keep your calendar electronically so it’s really only a permissions and publishing setting. What I’m imagining is something that gives me a real-time view into what’s coming next.

Shared Notes. And when you get done with those meetings, it would be great if you posted notes online for everyone to review. I know this is frighteningly transparent, but you do work for me. So just like when I send a staffer to a meeting I expect to see notes, same goes for you.

Biweekly Vlogs. No less than twice a week I’d like to see a short video or podcast (think less than two minutes) on something coming up in Congress. It would be a great way to explain complex issues and a way to share insight as to why my representative plans to vote in this way or another. No script, no rehearsal. Just first person, authentic and no bullshit talk on a very regular basis. Teenagers have mastered vlogging, so can you.

Mark Up Legislation. UX would be hard but maybe something like Medium where my representative could post a pending bill, write comments and then open it up for responses from constituents. If you’re looking for a research project go figure out what legislation is pending this week, what’s your congressional delegations view and what gaps of knowledge would they like to find to be better informed. Let me know what you find.

Constituent Polls. Suppose there’s an important (they all are) vote coming up in the House this week. Wouldn’t it be great to have a way to be notified of that pending vote and then a way I could vote through a poll online? It could be more subtle than Yes/No, but that would be good to know as well. I’m not talking about it being binding, just some quick directional feedback.

Scalable POTS. Okay this isn’t really a current “everyday technology,” but the architecture behind it’s design is quite everyday for most internet apps: virtualization. Getting ready to launch a big ad campaign, toss up a few AWS instances with a load balancer to handle the load. Design systems to automatically scale during high use. A phone number is simply a POTS (plain old telephone system) endpoint and could (with the proper design), never be busy.

With most of these, you’d have to implement some sort of authentication system to ensure you don’t get gamed by bots or trolled by folks out of your district, but that’s okay because with this level of access, constituents can incur a bit of inconvenience.

I suppose we need to keep the phones and email but my thinking is that if I had more engaging ways to connect with my government, I wouldn’t use them as much — and I’d likely feel more engaged and fulfilled. Reflect on your own life: are you more likely to post something on Facebook for a whole bunch of your friends to see or send a long email to each one of them?

The economics of journalism today means that most of the 535 members of Congress can quietly, and without much supervision, do whatever they wish far away from the visibility of their constituents. They can blockade our input with full voicemail systems or with something as easy as a busy signal. They can refuse to host town halls and not take our appointments. This is flat wrong. We don’t need a wall in America, we already have one around our government. We deserve better.

The Rise of the Attentive Class

How did you find this article?When it comes to the latest news, where did you go to find it?

I’ve done a fair amount of research on the velocity of messages on social media. My goal was to efficiently leverage and in some cases, game sites like Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube, to raise awareness for the international water crisis. Much of what I saw helps explain how machine-curated news and social media have changed what we know and when we know it but has also pushed into our own black hole of agreeable viewpoints.

Walter is Gone. While certainly imperfect in his perspective and inclusiveness, when I was a kid Walter Cronkite curated the news. Okay not all the news, but metaphorically. Back then our news was discovered, researched, and reported by career professional journalists like Walter Cronkite. A good deal of news went unreported due to network news cycles and personal biases, but at least there was a professional filter. Today, most (all) online news is curated by algorithms which serve stories based on how many people have already clicked on them. If lots of people click, that news goes to the top of the feed. Is it fake news? Hell, the machines don’t care — they are just counting clicks. On platforms like Facebook, the most clicked posts show up in more of your friends’ feed. It’s technically democratic but certainly distorted in some very bad ways.

Machine-curated news and social media have created a seismic shift in how we know what we know.

Attention is Wealth. Online, attention is the currency that fuels the marketplace. In a world where clicks and views increases advertising revenue and time-on-site metrics, everyone is striving to get you on their site for as long as possible to consume and hopefully click on advertisements. This fact is well covered ground but from an economic point of view, this only looks at half, the supply side, of the equation. If attention is the currency of the web, demand is being driven with people with free time — unused attention. Who are the most wealthy “buyers” in the market? People with the most disposable attention. From what I’ve observed “time spent online just surfing the web” when plotted against a viewers age on a graph looks like an inverted bell curve. Generally, young and old have more disposable time than busy midlife folks. The marketplace responds to demand; and this new Attentive Class are more interested in Justin Bieber, Selena Gomez, obsessing over lost emails, immigration, and the (perceived) demise of American Greatness. The busier midlife folks simply didn’t have as much time to spend finding stories that make us Stronger Together.

Follow the Money. Someone needs to call it like it is: Facebook, Twitter and Google are NOT technology companies — they are media networks. At their heart, the only material difference between Facebook and Disney, or Twitter and ABC, Fox News or Google and the New York Times, is their method of delivering content. They are beholden to advertisers because it is their primary revenue model; monetizing attention. There was a time when your Facebook timeline was mostly organic, but algorithms specifically designed to deliver higher profits to Facebook changed all that. I personally saw the drastic drop in follower “views” of branded content unless brands boosted posts with advertising. The predominate business model of our mainstream internet companies is monetizing your attention and data. And they share a lot. Put something in your Amazon cart and later visiting Facebook watch an ad for that very product magically appear.

Nobodies and Somebodies. One of the more interesting quantitative research projects I did several years ago was to answer the question, “How many nobodies online does it take to have the same influence of one somebody?” The answer is 334. If 334 nobodies (people with <150 followers) tweeted the same thing, they got more click thrus than one somebody (account with >500,000 followers). If you’re interested in the research email me but the short explanation is we had a platform that posted over 300,000 tweets over a variety of different campaigns and timelines, each with custom URLs, and all we needed to do was measure click backs comparing nobodies and our somebody. Mobilize the mob, and your voice is louder than the prognosticators.

Technology improves our lives in immeasurable ways each and every day. I’ve been lucky enough to build a long career in tech so I’m a big, big fan. But sometimes there are real unintended consequences of progress. I cancel my subscription to the newspaper to read it online and media companies go away, I shop online and I hurt local working class shop owners, we click on fantastical headline while the Attentive Class curates our news feed.

I’ll close with one of my favorite lines from the move Gladiator. “Rome is the mob. Conjure magic for them and they’ll be distracted. Take away their freedom and still they’ll roar. The beating heart of Rome is not the marble of the senate, it’s the sand of the coliseum.” And now in 2017 it’s clicks in cyberspace. What we know, and how we learn about it has changed in drastic ways this past decade. Are we being ruled by the mob — by the Attentive Class? What would Walter say about all this? My guess is matter of factly, “And that’s the way it is, Monday, February 20, 2017. Good Night.”

Privacy: Social Cause or Business Imperative?

Does your company have NDAs or Confidentiality Agreements? If you do, then your company understands privacy is a business imperative.

For most of us, privacy is a social cause; a way of life that protects a basic civic liberty. But online privacy isn’t just a social cause. It’s also a business imperative. And encryption is one of the easiest ways to protect our livelihood. But first back to business imperatives…

Does your company lock the front door at night? Does it have locks on personnel files? Does your company have non-disclosure agreements? Does it have confidentiality agreements for vendors and employees? Does it secure the WiFi network with a password? Do you need a password to login to email?

If you answered “Yes” to any (and I bet you answered “Yes” to all) of these questions, your workplace understands the business imperative of privacy. You don’t have to be Silicon Valley startup or Apple to be paranoid about the future of your business. These privacy policies are designed to protect the company, its assets, your stockholders, and frankly your own job and livelihood.

Let’s be honest, most businesses shouldn’t be that worried about hackers, foreign operatives, and compromised credit card records. It’s the other very real things that will more likely kill your business or/and ruin your career, things like theft, corporate espionage, ransomware, litigation from former employees, and workplace morale. Also don’t forget information leakage from BYOD, mobile, and the informality of most electronic conversations. The volumes and volumes and volumes of plain text information shared, discoverable, and hosted in the cloud will be the next gold rush for litigators. Just ask Sony or Gawker .

Yes, corporate privacy is more than IT security. It is everything the company does after it secures the network with taller walls and wider moats. Encryption of business information is the simplest and best method of protection. And many argue if your data is encrypted and unreadable by any actor, either inside or outside your network, you can always sleep at night knowing you are safe again.

Privacy is a 7×24 business imperative. We need to move away from “Do you care about privacy?” and move toward “What are you going to do today to better protect your business?”

Slack’s Top 5 Privacy Mistakes Competitors Can’t Make

Everyone makes mistakes. I do too. But when it comes to privacy, uses should keep their guard up and most businesses who collaborate online will appreciate it.


Slack is a great product and people love it. I get it. I think it’s great fun too, but it’s just not suited for business collaboration.

There are some popular features in Slack that competitors should avoid if they care about user privacy.

1. The Browser “Playground”

Your browser is a vulnerable place. Think of it as a public playground where every website you’ve ever visited has left its germs and viruses. There are countless security vulnerabilities with deploying an application through the browser; everything from the browser itself, to your security settings, plugins, extensions, the code from every website you visit, and the cookies that track you. With one click, malware can easily get installed on your computer so while there are things you can do to try to protect your activity online, sometimes that’s just not enough.

2. Integrations

Integrations are small applications that extend the functionality of a platform. Slack impressively boasts both a marketplace and investment fund to get more Integrations built for Slack. Most every Integration people use is hosted by Slack meaning every bit and byte that comes through an Integration can be read by Slack. (But I guess if you’re already using Slack heavily, you’re already okay with their ability to read every bit and byte).

3. Inline Pixie Dust

Most collaboration tools will overload posts that include URLs with metadata like images, titles, source content, and icons. This is also true of fun features like Giphy. While it might make the timeline more visually interesting, because you deserve, competitors should not offer this feature.

Here’s the issue: By implementing inline pixie dust, all of this content would get automatically downloaded to your device and you couldn’t control it. Clickable URLs are fine since the user is in control since meaning you choose when you want to visit a site.

4. Email Digests

For those not familiar, lots of products use email digests as a way to summarize a day’s worth of conversations into one quick scannable list sent to your inbox at the end of each day.

The problem? When a team has a conversation, it would be a critical privacy compromise that one/some/all of that team now have those same messages sent over the internet in an email. Email is one of the most vulnerable methods of communication, with a 789% year-over-year spike in malware and phishing. People set weak passwords, which are easily hacked and constantly stolen (remember the 1.6 billion passwords stolen two years ago?). All you need to do it look at the news for the latest email scandal (this week, the DNC was hacked and the Russians stole and exposed their opposition research on Trump).

There is certainly value in having a quick way to “get back up to speed” and we plan to build a “While you were away” feature in Semaphor that gives users the same benefit without compromising the privacy of your conversations.

5. Presence

Is so-and-so online? Presence allows users to passively know if another user is on/offline. Unlike the above features, we are giving serious thought to adding this feature to Semaphor — it is quite handy. That said, it will most certainly be implemented in a privacy-minded way. Does everyone on your team want everyone else on the team to know they are online? Should this summer’s intern know the CEO of your multinational company is “In a Meeting?” This level of transparency has benefits, but it needs to be controlled by users. Defaults should be set to Hidden, and only the user should be able to opt-in to such a feature.

The Grand AdWords Heist

“The Internet can feel like a dark, dangerous, syringe-filled alley”

I have always been skeptical of the value that online advertising brings to a company. And in particular, paid search like Google AdWords. If you haven’t given it a try it’s pretty simple: create your ads, define a budget, and determine a bid price for search terms. The results are instantaneous and site traffic is impressive, thanks to Google’s network.

So on October 21st we jumped in. SpiderOak setup a modest budget with the intention to test our way to the best search terms and then in 2016 we would expand the scope of our use of Adwords to help drive conversions of our backup product, SpiderOakONE. By mid November we turned off Google AdWords for good and completely abandoned the idea of paid search.

Why? Because of the Great AdWords Heist. Over our 21 days experiment Google reported 10,535 clicks on our ads. But our website analytics were only reporting 5,951 visits to our site. That’s right, Google was reporting nearly DOUBLE the number of clicks what we were able to verify came to our site. Wait a second. SpiderOak just spent $1,168.01 and nearly half of those clicks didn’t result in a visit? If there’s one thing I’ve learned in my 25+ years in business it’s that if something smells like bullshit, it usually is bullshit.

Google AdWords offered this explanation in their documentation; “A click is counted even if the person doesn’t reach your website, maybe because it’s temporarily unavailable. As a result, you might see a difference between the number of clicks on your ad and the number of visits to your website.” Bullshit. Our site was certainly not unavailable.

Just as we did our due diligence with AdWords testing, I dug into Google AdWords Reporting — which I can report is pretty nice — and was able to learn a little bit more about the numbers. Seems that that over 85% of our clicks were coming from the Google Display Network (not Search) and well over 50% of the clicking was happening in Romania, Brazil, Pakistan, India, Vietnam, Burma, Saudi Arabia, Kosovo, Philippines and Bangladesh. After a bit of sorting and filtering of the data I get another surprise, only 30 of our 10K+ clicks were from the US. When I compare all this info with our analytics data I see that most of the UIDs (unique identifiers of those who click) have more than one click — in fact most have dozens and several are over a hundred. Why would the same people keep clicking on the same ad?

There are good people in those countries but I have no idea why they’re clicking that often on ads that are written in English. Staring at this data I was reminded of the lively conversations about click fraud back in the early days on online advertising. Like everyone else I was confident all the issues had gotten sorted out before we moved onto more important problems like self-driving cars but then again… Bullshit.

Maybe we set AdWords up wrong. Maybe I’m reading the data incorrectly. Maybe our website was offline when 43% of people tried to visit it from far off places around the world. Maybe we were suckers who hadn’t a clue. Maybe I’m a complete idiot. Or maybe we were another victim of the AdWords Heist.

The online world can be a dark, dangerous, syringe-filled alley. Just the sort of place in the real world we might expect to get robbed. No matter off or online, safety does boil down to trust. In the offline world, we can visit the shop or have an in person meeting with a business owner to get a read on if we might choose to trust them or not. Online, it’s mostly slick marketing speak, corporate proclamations, and complicated terms of services. Mostly all bullshit.

Was it a heist? I don’t really know and I don’t really care. For SpiderOak, we now understand the value that online advertising brings to the organization, and it ain’t much. Mostly I feel like someone robbed $500 from us and we will never use AdWords ever again. We need to feel safe again online. Perhaps I should start rethinking who I trust as I navigate all these dark alleys.

“Yeah, we ditched Google.”

Why SpiderOak made a conscious decision to break up with Analytics

Most reports indicate Google has over 70% share of the analytics marketplace. Does that jeopardize our privacy?

After we gave it some more thought, we realized we were hypocrites. Since inception, SpiderOak has been an advocate for online privacy. Unlike many others in our market, we strive to be very clear about how our product design truly delivers Zero Knowledge privacy for our users. We tell potential supporters, what matters most is who has the keys and how they are stored. But you can read more about how we solved those problems from our many other posts our site.

For the past five years, we had been using Google Analytics for monitoring our web traffic. Innocent enough decision, right? Then we asked ourselves, “are we contributing to the mass surveillance of the web by using a feature-rich, yet free service that tracks web visitors?” Sadly. we didn’t like the answer to that question. “Yes, by using Google Analytics, we are furthering the erosion of privacy on the web.”

Most people might say, “well it’s only a cookie,” or “I don’t have anything to hide.” Yes our site is only one short stop you might make today while browsing the web, but why does Google and their advertisers need to know about it I would ask. Most of us visit scores of websites each day. The fabric behind the scenes that stitches a stunningly detailed history of your online day is Google Analytics. Even if you don’t have a Google account, or don’t stay logged into Gmail, your browsing history every single day is tracked across sites that include the JavaScript library.

So a few months ago we decided we were wrong and Google Analytics had to go.

Like lots of other companies with high traffic websites, we are a technology company; one with a deep team of software developer expertise. It took us only a few weeks to write our home-brew analytics package. Nothing super fancy yet now we have an internal dashboard that shows the entire company much of what we used analytics for anyway – and with some nice integration with some of our other systems too.

Some of us still have Gmail accounts and others keep using Chrome. Google makes good products. But where SpiderOak decided to draw the line was with the privacy of our current and soon to be customers. You deserve a choice when it comes to privacy online and we realized we could do better by not contributing to your browsing history with Google. And now that we’ve fixed that, we can sleep at night.
Be safe out there.

The Attention Manifesto

The rules have changed. We need a new way to think about spreading messages in our online world. The ongoing diffusion of technology continues to reshape what we as a society discover, learn, create, and share. For my parents’ generation Walter Cronkite helped to shape our conversations; today that is determined by the Attentive Class. How to think about our new world? The Attention Manifesto.

  1. The rarest natural resource of western life is attention.
  2. Attention is the currency of the online world.
  3. Wealth online is measured by the market for disposable attention.
  4. Those with the highest disposable attention are among the Attentive Class.
  5. The Attentive Class consumes, creates, and curates our world’s news.
  6. Unlike traditional segmentation, the Attentive Class defy age, gender, and education.
  7. The velocity of memes are directly correlated to its appeal for the Attentive Class.
  8. “Celebrity” is transforming for in today’s online world, we are all famous for 15 friends.
  9. Genuine communicators sharing heartfelt narratives trump hysterical narcissists.
  10. Mobile presents new opportunities to monetize boredom in the attention economy.
  11. This is not new. What has changed is the ongoing diffusion of connectedness.

Thanks to Ellen for suggesting #9!

A Different Way to Social Network

I can’t really trace back to how this came to me the other week but it occurs to me that the next big social network should actually not be a social network at all. Everyone keeps trying to innovate by building new web experiences to compete with Facebook and Twitter. In fact two of the higher profile efforts these days, Path and Medium, are from folks who were early purveyors of those two platforms. But alas, they’ve got it all wrong.

People don’t need a better social network, they need a different way to social network. What’s broke? Firstly, whether they know it or not, most want control of their content. They want simple to understand concepts for managing who sees what. They want to have a stable user experience. Ads make some people money, but rarely do we click on them, meaning we get served even more of them in more offensive presentations (really, when I zoom a photo in my timeline?). As brands and corporations, we want an ecosystem that we can build upon, not one that changes with a whim. Bottom line, we want control.

But the one thing that will kill an online experience, is the moment everyone figures out ultimately we are all simply along for the ride to justify a valuation. It is not our social network, it is theirs. Theirs to change the user interface whenever they like. Theirs to change the terms of service whenever they like, and quite publicly in Twitter’s case, it is theirs to change an entire partner ecosystem whenever they like. Now of course we all clicked the checkbox and said “okay” but that doesn’t prevent us from saying “goodbye” as well.

Where would we all go and what would we all do? If I had the money, talent, and the time I know what I would do. I would take a page from the early days of messaging and invent the next social network.

In 1992 if you weren’t a super smart university professor or scientist and you wanted to send electronic mail to people you got an account on AOL or CompuServe. These dialup services took the community concepts of bulletin board systems (BBSs if you’re too young) and gave them rich user experiences and simple electronic messaging. Unfortunately it was next to impossible for a good while to share messages with people on another system which at that time also included Prodigy, AppleLink and a few others I’ve long forgotten. We all lived in wall gardens, or islands. Pick your metaphor.

What changed? We grew up. With the growing momentum for standards like SMTP and POP, companies could build and others could easily install their own mail servers, connect them to the internet, and then people could exchange messages between desperate electronic messaging systems. The citizens of the system grew up and realized a better system was where they were in control, able to define how it worked for them. Some companies set up free web-based email systems like Hotmail and over time more and more email clients became available (along with IMAP) so that today you can use Mail on an iPhone 5 and easily exchange messages with people … still on AOL.

The next social network should be a collection of new standards, not too different from IRC, SMS, SMTP, and IMAP that allow anyone to create new “social network server” applications on which users create accounts to store their content and their social graph. The same or other companies can build new “social network clients” that connect to any and all standards-based social network servers on the web. Our content would live where we want, our user experience would be how we want it — maybe free ad-supported, but maybe for a few bucks I get out of that jail. My client could connect to any social network I wanted. In fact, maybe like email, I could have a place to host personal social network content and graph, and a completely different place for my work identity.

Contrary to what most people think, standards-based ecosystems spur innovation and this change would be no different. Why couldn’t a mobile carrier build a social network server that directly interfaces with an SMS backend? Maybe someone figures out a way to merge the concept of an email server with a social network server? Could someone solve the email spamming problem with simply a social graph? Maybe someone could figure out a commerce system that allows creators to get compensated for the content they create. And in the strangest of ironies, maybe someone creates a new social network client that consumes and creates content for a hosting company like Facebook?

We don’t need a better social network, we need a different way to social network.

I’ve Never Attended TED & Other Sorta Techie Guy Embarrassing Confessions

Every spring I lament all the fuss over TED and more importantly my omission from the invite list. Not that I have the spare few grand it takes to rub elbows with the best of the brightest but that might explain my state college education and that my first car was a Ford Tempo. Okay, I wish I was in the select few but for all I’ve had the opportunity to do, TED isn’t on the list. Following is a semi-complete list of my other (bigger) confessions about my life – thus far – in tech.

I never paid for that CompuServe account. Back in the days of dial-up a fellow and unnamed, System Engineer at Apple in St Louis let me borrow his complementary CompuServe account and until we finally got internet in the home it was my primary way online. For those younger, CompuServe was one of the first mainstream dialup networks – even before Prodigy, and AOL. And speaking of AOL, I never once opened one of the CDs you mailed me. Still know folks who have an AOL email account I guess I can see there was some solid math behind that customer acquisition campaign.

I usually chicken out when I can meet someone super famous in the industry. On the list of those I’ve met: Walt Mossberg (okay it was a set meeting so I had no choice), Steve Jobs, and Sergey Brin. On the list of folks I have been no more than six feet from and chickened out when I had an opening: Bill Gates, Marc Andreessen, Mark Zuckerberg, and Steve Case. Didn’t that last guy once own a big online company? I should add none of my “met list” would remember my acquaintance nor did I admit they were on my bucket list so I’ll count us even.

I can’t explain the difference between GET and POST. So I suppose I could take the 30 minutes to learn this but it has endlessly confused me and somedays I feel too old to learn new stuff. CURL also on that list. I conceptually get it, so I’ll just stick to RESTful APIs and I’ll never know the better that I’m constantly using them every time I fire up my web browser.

I thought we were heading toward divergence not convergence. Okay it was self-serving for the executive director of a short-range wireless technology trade association to predict a time when we would have “best of class devices” for each task and we would use wireless to connect them all together. Strangely I was wrong at a number of levels. I now carry three smart devices that are “best of class” that do have free short-range wireless technology but they don’t connect to each other over it at all. Oh, and if all three had a 3G modem I would have to pay for three different wireless data plans as well. So I guess on this one we can blame the business managers, not the engineers.

I have never built a computer with my bare hands. Lots of my friends are proud to showoff their slick home brew desktop but for a variety of reasons, least of which is no desire whatsoever, I skipped this rite of passage for those of us in the 20+ years experience in the PC industry. I once heard of guy named Steve Wozniak who had a few goes at this; hope it worked out for him. Maybe I should try to meet him someday – maybe I’ll get my chance the first time I get invited to TED.

Why Steve was our Elvis

Thousands of more respectful and talented writers will pen an eulogy for Steve Jobs. Many will recall his personality, belief system, impact on technology, and his business style and successes. Hopefully I’ll stand alone in comparing him to The King.

I broke the news earlier this evening to my good friend, who also happens to have been the primary reason I ended working at Apple in the 90s. Even though Steve was in exile most of our tenure, we talked like we had lost a friend. And even with the company only a few years away from it’s innovative-less darkest hours, the often-cited DNA was firmly still part of the Apple culture. We really did believe we were “changing the world one person at a time” and “the journey is the reward.”

For my mother’s generation coming of age in the 1950s, Elvis Presley was the icon of change. While he borrowed ideas from others, he alone popularized them. While he was clearly full of talent, it was his style which overflowed. He broke the rules, smiled and others laughed along with him. He was going to do it his way, or not at all.

More importantly, like Elvis, a new pop culture emerged around his talent becoming something bigger; almost a reflection of how a generation lived, valued and thought about their life. No one knew exactly where they were going, but everyone wanted to get there.

My professional career began as the first personal computers were finding their way into the workplace. While the original Macintosh borrowed ideas from others, its execution felt remarkably new and it did in fact popularize the graphical user interface we use everyday. We didn’t know it then, but we were just starting the journey toward the persistently connected technology enriched mobile life many of us live today.

From his influence on mainstream entertainment (music, Disney, Pixar), and products like the Macintosh, iPod and now the iPhone, Steve Jobs became a icon that defined how my generation imagines, creates, communicates, collects, and shares it’s life with others and in that, in some ways how we value it. For many of us who worked in the technology industry, we didn’t want be like Steve Jobs, we wanted to be Steve Jobs.

I only had one uneventful three minute conversation with Steve Jobs back in 2003 and thanks to my mother I was drug to the LA Forum as a preteen and saw the King in concert. Both were flawed men. They left us in two absurdly different ways, but while they were here they bent the universe in a new direction. And like Elvis, Steve Jobs will ultimately be remembered as the first to leave the generation he defined.

Was the journey the reward? Funny, only they now know.

Information and the Chatter

[From my day job]

For the past several years, Water.org’s social media engagement strategy has not only focused in growing online conversations but has also looked to leverage the Twitter API to quantify, measure, and manage these efforts. Starting with a base of just under 2,000 followers in late 2009, @water now boasts over 375,000.

One recent example was our approach to supporting Blog Action Day in October of 2010. Each year Change.org selects a global topic and promotes conversation in the blogsphere and in 2010 it was the water crisis. Water.org saw this an opportunity to further extend its reach on social media channels while educating new audiences on how the water crisis impacts peoples’ lives in the developing world.

By spending a few short hours with the Twitter API, we were able to develop a few simple applications to help us measure not only the reach of of the chatter on Twitter but also what conversations got the most traction. It all started with encouraging the use of a hashtag for the campaign and @change selected #BAD10. Our monitoring code checked the Twitter stream for use of this hashtag and logged each tweet. A secondary application then collected basic user demographics of those who were posting these tweets.

Here are a few of our findings. During the days leading up to Blog Action Day, the #BAD10 hashtag was used in over 5,200 tweets. We know that 20 of the top 25 tweets from that week were either authored by @water or retweets of our posts. What got the most traction? Not self-promoting fluff. Tweets that included interesting and provocative facts about the water crisis like “More people have a cell phone than have a toilet” were by far the most retweeted during the campaign week.

By collecting user demographics of those tweeting we were able to established new mutually following relationships. For instance, if someone tweeted for the campaign and had a quality following (not just “how many followers”), we followed them. Nearly half that time, they followed us back. In another study we did earlier in 2010 we found that when we followed influential folks who tweeted about the water crisis, fully 60% followed us. Mind you, this wasn’t auto-following, it was intentional-following that was data driven. We believe that online there is “following capital” and because it has real value, we are deliberate who we follow.

Given 17% of all tweets the week leading up to Blog Action Day either mentioned @water or were tweets of ours that were retweeted, we estimate Water.org made 18.9 million brand impressions in less than five days. Not bad for a little bit of thoughtful planning ahead of time and a daily commitment to encourage a conversation. Few, if any, other outreach efforts of Water.org have cost so little, performed as well, or were as measurable as Blog Action Day 2010.

We have reused many of these and other learnings, to inform our daily Tweets, how we select search terms for Promoted Tweets, and how we design future campaigns. While we continuously monitor the online chatter, we believe that by transforming that into actionable information we can extend the reach of our cause and build a following of people who want to solve the water crisis in our lifetime.