The Stanford Bubbles

As I was elected to be the Sloan Fellows representative to our school’s newspaper The GSB Reporter for this year and even though I have (see Herbert’s reflection on organizing our flash mob) and will be recruiting classmates to do most of the writing, I did submit an opinion below into the first issue that came out this week. Re-posting it here as getting the paper fully online is one of the priorities for the editorial team, but a work in progress. And for the non-local readers, have spiced the text up with some hyperlinks for background & context.

The Stanford Bubbles

The heat of the Summer quarter on campus, a luxurious head start the Sloan Fellows of GSB had this year left us a little space to ponder where have we landed. Walking one day between our campus lawns maintained exclusively with nail clippers, so lush green on the backdrop of deeply burned hillsides around The Dish it suddenly struck me:

We are truly living in a bubble here.

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Week 17: Economists Designing Orgs, Ethos of Problem-Making and Sick Bush in Japan

Stanford GSB Sloan Study Notes, Week 7 (17), Autumn quarter

This week will go down in history as the one that finally saw the portfolio of profiles of every single Fellow of the Stanford Sloans class of 2013 hit the public interwebs. Please meet my lovely class in its diversity, internationally and otherwise.

On other news, Americans re-elected Obama for their President (aka POTUS – didn’t know that one before) on Tuesday, which in the fair state of California sounded more like a sign of relief. And I, in turn, spent far too much time on Estonian blogs, chats and Facebook threads, tracking an insane sequence of judgement lapses by some party politics leaders back home. Between these two parallel world, I could not have had a better week to start a new class, Political Communications: How Leaders Become Leaders taught by a very experienced practitioner in the field, David Demarest.

Covered in this issue:

  • Why calling taxes “revenue enhancement” works
  • Why globalization and CxO executive titles should be taken less for granted than people think
  • How the classic forms of political communications, a speech and a debate, are constructed by the best
  • How 20-30 year old experimental art tends to turn into everyday products eventually
  • Necessary evils around good old software development: intangible assets, intellectual property, patents

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Fry’ing the Trolls

I’ve been a long time opponent of anonymous, unauthenticated comments fire-hosed into mainstream online media decidedly without editorial review. They are an unfair and easily manipulative tool for beating down anyone who dares to stick their neck out and state their views in a public forum under their own name – either by writing themselves, or getting written about. Healthy societies need intelligent public discussion, contradicting views and debate-driven consensus, or at least educated compromises. I just don’t get how this cowardly bashing gets flagged as free speech while the opinions it suffocates get dismissed as one.
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Product Manage Your Blog

Andrew Chen is an entrepreneur and a blogger. He is one of the top minds in the industry for understanding and analyzing viral loops. After we met in that context in early 2010, I’ve been keeping an eye on his blog and reading some of his insightful essays from the archives.

Over the last few years since the raise of Twitter, blogging circles have been struggling. Significantly reduced friction of quick updates and link sharing have been taking many writers’ attention, time and dedication away from their previously regular blogs.

What I’ve found is that the perceived value of and expectations to a blog post have gone up. You can think of it as a hierarchy of “weight” when broadly & publicly communicating out, something in the lines of:

Re-tweet -> Tweet -> Facebook post (with comment action) -> Blog post -> A-list media

(Two side remarks here: 1) There branded list of particular communication services changes over time of course. For example Quora is currently entering this hierarchy aggressively, and far more right than Twitter/Facebook. 2) A-list media is on the end here not for its reach for broader audiences — you can actually do much better with blogging by reaching the right ones — but for their remaining editorial authority and the share of control you as an author have to hand over to them when submitting your work, i.e ou can’t change and improve later what’s “on paper”.)

Many people broadcasting online spend majority of their allocated time on the left of this scale now. You can (re)tweet 10 messages a minute and there is a lot of slack for the quality and integrity of what gets through. It is a cloud of ideas for the receivers to pick (and re-share) what they find valuable. The little time still remaining for the right side of the scale makes you pick meatier and meatier topics and weigh much more carefully what is worth the proper writing time. Have you noticed how the blog posts that matter move away from pure subjective opinion, improve in structure, display much more carefully gathered evidence, first hand experiences analyzed, research committed?

The heavy traffic on the left slowly fades to oblivion (hey, Memolane! :)) while the content you publish on the right remains more and more with you, to represent and define you. The conscious or subconscious pressure to take proper time and be great if you take time at all could be one of the reasons we see less blogging that we used to.

Texts define people. And the ones that remain on the first page of the Google results on your name search — ever more so.

Coming back to Andrew, he recently did two things that christallized my line of thought above and triggered me to write this post here:

  1. He surveyed his dedicated readers and found that a 2/3 landslide asked him to focus on high-quality long essays on a monthly interval given options for shorter and more frequent posts.
  2. He now published a full content roadmap for his 2011 blogging plans, focusing on the life challenges of early stage startups and clearly defining his goals and milestones for covering this area.

Especially I think the latter is a great idea – treat your personal content production as a product and manage it as such: define your audiences, pick the channels to market, consider the resources available, build a backlog of topics you will cover and keep that stack-ranked as life changes, iterate and see what works and what not.

Even doing it for yourself will help you structure your thoughts and manage time, which will lead to better content for your readers. By taking the next step and publishing these detailed plans, Andrew has of course achieved additional benefits: it is much easier for users to decide if they want to subscribe, and there is a high likelihood of early feedback to help him finetune his roadmap to match actual “market needs” and interest.

So all he has to do now is write, write, write for his alert audience. No pressure, Andrew.

PS: I’ve written two slightly related attempts to touch this topic in 2009:

A Day in Twitter User’s Life

I’ve found myself using Twitter more and more recently. In large part it comes on the expense of blogging here – the mental entry barrier is so much different from taking proper time out of a busy day to write a polished blog entry versus shooting away compressed 140 character thought-bits from my mobile in the middle of a meeting or in transit when travelling.

I’ve experimented quite a bit with what I tweet about. At some point I jotted down a few blogging principles (in Estonian here) and Twitter was initially a channel for the leftovers that didn’t fit in, e.g. short messages about me, my location, my random inner thoughts – rather than something specifically designed for the reader. As my followers count has grown (getting very close to the number of RSS subscribers on this blog – interesting tipping point soon; now ranking in the top 2 of #Estonian users – hi, Cyrus), I’ve knowingly pulled back from more egocentric and personal stuff and craft my short messages for a broader, more anonymous audience. To a notable extent I’m also taking feedback from those near and dear to me about which content they feel could be uncomfortable or too revealing.

Either way, Twitter is a concept-stretching medium and part of the beauty of it is that though we more or less know what is the “old” stuff that it is changing we can have no clue yet to what, in which direction. Even better, it is still up to us as the users to define it – both when consuming microcontent (whom we follow, how we filter, what we re-share) and when creating it (just linking or creating new? talking about yourself or the readers? social realism or philosophical abstractionism?).

Anyway, what sparked this post was actually a funny incident today. Apple App Store opened up for Estonian users today. As we launched the Skype client for iPhone this week and it has skyrocketed to a million downloads in less than 48 hours, we are all of course very closely following this space right now. So, when I learned about Apple’s Estonian expansion this morning, I of course tweeted it (at 10:58) as something my followers could care about. At 11:46 Eesti Päevaleht, one of the largest Estonian dailies, ran a news story, quoting my tweet as the original source. They had a comment from EMT (the local iPhone-exclusive mobile operator), who apologized that they still haven’t heard about it from Apple and don’t know what to say.

From one side I even feel a bit sorry for my friends at EMT for stealing the thunder from their official press if and when they were planning to run it. On the other hand – it is a great example of casual, yet targeted real-time content bending the borders between “mainstream” and social media.

Tired of Steve Jobs Health “Reports”

Well, ever since Steve Jobs went skinny (again, that is), the global Apple community and both new and old media have been nuts about speculations around his health.

During the holidays it was quite funny to see a classic butterfly effect in action when Ross and Robert Scoble were… buying yogurt in Palo Alto. “Confirmed: Steve is healthy!” went from a casual comment of the yogurt counter employee to Chinese tech news in just a matter of hours.

Yesterday I was occasionally peeking on a real-time feed by covering the MacWorld ’09 Keynote (which was not delivered by Steve any more, as you know). Less than 30 minutes into the session a screaming “STEVE JOBS JUST DIED” note was inserted into the feed – here’s a screenshot:

Unbelievably sick hack into MacWorld Keynote feed

It took the editors 3 minutes to figure out their system had been penetrated and retract the “news” (but they could not delete it). Then the hackers went over the top spamming with new messages and eventually the whole site was taken down.

As MacRumors is probably one of the most heavily used outlets for non-official Apple coverage, I can only imagine the tweets and posts on the friendfeeds and facebooks of this world that could have been triggered by the naive among readers in those brief minutes. No, I’m not even going to research for this.

I think it would have been wise for Steve had broken his typical radio silence before he finally did to avoid or just to respond early to speculations. Even though no person is really obliged to comment on the matters as private as their health, this rumor mill has become much more unhealthy than it’s subject. Just a few words at the right time direct from the source could have stopped the madness before it begun. A great PR case study in the age of unstoppable instant social media.

I hope Steve has many long and fruitful years ahead of him. And so does Apple, and all the other talented people working there. And the “fanboys” let them to enjoy their ride.

Possibility of Innovation In a (not The) Valley

Thomas L. Friedman wrote in the Herald Tribune a few years ago a column that acknowledged, and probably injected a lot of self confidence to innovators outside of the usual suspect American hightech hubs. Written from an angle of criticism towards the American high school system, I found his text much more useful read upside down – thinking about how the more remote areas previously known for their cheap labour and mass quantity low tech production are winning share on the global innovation arena. “In a flat world people can now innovate without having to emigrate,” as Friedman put it in rhyme.

Now in one of the recent issues of FastCompany, Richard Florida took a look back and found that the innovation world has not gone flat afterall. Highly recommended read as a whole, but I picked out a few interesting facts for myself:

  • Of the roughly 170,000 patents granted in 2003 in the United States–which gets applications for nearly all major inventions worldwide–nearly 80% went to Americans, Japanese, and Germans. The next 10 most innovative countries–the usual suspects in Europe, plus Taiwan, South Korea, Israel, and Canada–produced another 15%. The rest of the world accounted for only 5%, with India and China responsible for just 0.4%.
  • Indian and Chinese entrepreneurs founded or cofounded roughly 30% of all Silicon Valley startups in the late 1990s, generating $20 billion in annual revenue and about 70,000 jobs.
  • There are about 150 million (!) people in highly mobile, global creative class who migrate freely among the world’s leading cities–places such as London, New York, Paris, Tokyo, Hong Kong, Singapore, Chicago, Los Angeles, and San Francisco

What Friedman originally called for as producing a comprehensive U.S. response – encompassing immigration, intellectual property law and educational policy – is more valid than ever in this situation… but maybe even more so for the “receding valleys between spikes” as described by Florida. Umm… like Estonia?

On Estonia at The World

To share another recent radio appearance (the previous one in Estonian only, sorry) here is my interview for Marco Werman at PRI’s The World that aired on a network of radio stations across the US in January: MP3, 4.5 minutes. We talked a little about Skype, but more about the factors that have enabled tiny Estonia to introduce a number of tech innovations both inside the country and for the world.

To understand the context for the interview, please listen to (direct MP3 link) Cyrus Farivar‘s report on Enterprise Estonia opening offices in Silicon Valley, featuring also Andrus Viirg and Steve Jürvetson.

PS: on a totally different topic, I got reminded of the above audio files being available by a blog post on The Future of Newsrooms. Interesting reading around journalists’ changing role (information broker VS investigator). I’m afraid this specific post above here creates a crashing meta-referral of “my own thoughts” back to “mainstream media”, El Oso?

Give a Hundred to Save a Million Kids? Nah…

Read a great column by Clive Thompson in Wired’s September issue on how big numbers (and lack of numeracy there) affects people’s charity decisions.

He studies a troubling paradox in human empathy: We’ll usually race to help a single stranger in dire straits, while ignoring huge numbers of people in precisely the same plight. We’ll donate thousands of dollars to bring a single African war orphan to the US for lifesaving surgery, but we don’t offer much money or political pressure to stop widespread genocides in Rwanda or Darfur.
The problem isn’t a moral failing: It’s a cognitive one.

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