With Our Eyes Wide Open

In 2008, the U.S. economy tanked. The devastation revealed how little even the “experts” understood our increasingly complex financial system, which we gradually understood to also be gamed by the foxes running the hen house.

Now six years later, the institutions who profited while individuals lost everything are going strong, thanks to some bailouts and a lack of regulatory response.

Humanists may hope that people can self-improve; unfortunately, the passage of time and events does not demonstrate any evidence to support this assumption. In 2014 we seem to be “outing” unethical behavior earlier (that is, before we are plunged into a macroeconomic crisis), but it appears to be technology rather than human virtue or evolution that is driving this phenomenon.

A recent example is the revelations emerging from the recent hack on Sony’s IT systems. These uncovered executive racial biases and, more conspiratorially, an all-out effort (in cahoots with Comcast…) to launch both a smear campaign and what The Verge blog labelled “legally ambitious” efforts disrupt the mechanics of the web to preserve their hold over entertainment content.

Such brazen attempts at manipulating markets may be unsurprising coming from industries that are effectively monopolies; yet they are actually rewarded when they come from those seeking to “disrupt” monopolies. One need only to reference obligatorily-referenced bad Bros at Uber, a firm that sometimes overtly, sometimes obscurely, breaks laws, laughs at the notion of ‘ethics’ and obfuscates commerce for market share. The primary consequence for such repulsive practices seems to be ongoing funding driving increased market share and multi-billion-dollar valuations. If you’ve read about the growing interest in social enterprise, you won’t be reading about Uber.

The tl;dr? Provided the end-game involves lots of cash, anything still goes regardless of whether you are a startup or an established Wall Street player. In an age where all is now available for the public record, shame on us for being shocked when bankers continue to ring in profits after scores of their customers have foreclosed, when crooks get funded, and when politicians back legislation funded by their own campaign funders.

Because it’s all there for us to see. True progress would entail us moving beyond outrage to actually doing something about it.

On a more positive end-note, I would like to end with some hope. Specifically, you can help stop the money trail in politics and business by supporting Mayday. It’s the most fundamental way I know of to address the root cause of so much that is broken in our country today. Merry Christmas!

Don’t let hate stop your thinking

I am a mass media hater as much as anyone. I hate how it manipulates people through fear and soundbites. I hate how it dumbs down issues requiring thought and analysis to the detriment of accuracy. I hate how it proliferates through the enhanced sharing capacities we have today. And I hate how it leaves victims in the dust with no recourse or accountability.

The good news is that I am not alone. People are tired of being played to generate more clicks and ad revenues for an Estate that absolved its responsibility to maintain a healthy Democracy through an informed populace.

The sad news is that because of its legacy of negligence, the media has created a real problem. We’re numb to real crises. And the consequences could be significant.

The latest chapter in this is Ebola. A shock-weary society is fighting back against the hype, saying that we are unduly concerned. “More people die from flu and cancer than Ebola. Focus there.”

I joined this chorus. “Stop the hype” I told my mother, who routinely forces me to consult Snopes.com. My sister (a nurse) joined arms with me in trying to stem the tide of what was (certainly in my mother’s case) media-induced paranoia.

Then – ironically via clickbait outlet BusinessInsider – my sanity was restored by (my) new favorite author, Nassim Taleb. Best known for Black Swan, Taleb is known for establishing pragmatic (though perhaps not intuitive) ways to think around risk, unpredictability and uncertainty.

Here’s a rare moment of me appreciating the conciseness of an ad-driven pub, allowing me to call out the salient bit:

The argument that the US should be more worried about a disease like cancer — which has more stable rates of infection than Ebola does currently — is a logic that Taleb calls “the empiricism of the idiots.”

The basic idea: The growth of Ebola infection is nonlinear, so the number of people catching it doubles every 20 days. Because of this, you have to act quickly at the source of infections, he says. “The closer you are to the source, the more effective you are at slowing it down … it is much more rational to prevent it now than later.”

The problem Taleb sees is that if there is not more urgent action in Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Guinea — to the point of restricting travel and other measures that may now seem like an overreaction — then there will be consequences here.

Thankfully we are not limited to BusinessInsider and can get a bit more analysis from the likes of Zeynep Tufekci.

In short, it’s not unfounded paranoia, despite the media’s self-interested position to generate it. And it’s not an issue of looking at gross numbers. It’s an issue of risk. I’m ready to put my media hate away if it means we can think and – better yet – act rationally. There are high stakes.

D2D Is Coming Out

Over the past year I’ve had the pleasure of getting to know Adam Benayoun and the Binpress team. Their mission to clarify the meaning and value of “free and open source” resonates well with what we were doing at WebFWD.

In Q1, I continued to support developers when I joined Mozilla’s Developer Relations group, and continue to support Binpress in its efforts to help open source developers build sustainable businesses.

The latest iteration of this support came this week, when the team asked me to participate in its first event, “Marketing to Developers.” Lest you think this sounds specious given the Developer DNA aversion to anything smelling of marketing (read Microserfs as classic reference point). While I thought I was novel in spontaneously describing many of our WebFWD startups as “D2D” in 2012, my friends at SFBeta industrialized the term earlier this year. The startup world is deciding that is ok to be explicit about something that has been happening for years: marketing and selling to developers. There’s even a D2D program in SF (and probably lots more popping up).

The team was able to attract 150 people to this event, along with some great speakers. Neeraj Gupta kicked things off with an overview of how Appcelerator has built their developer community over time. Next up was Kelly Shearon, who did a fantastic job sharing some basic tenets of marketing (e.g. if the product is bad, no amount of marketing lipstick will help; marketers must have empathy, etc.) – all shared with some fun edgy Github-esque slides.

Rounding out the evening (and hopefully a complement to Neeraj’s kickoff talk) was our panel featuring Amber Feng, Slava Akhmechet and Thomas Sarlandie. As the panelists represented Stripe, RethinkDB and Pebble respectively, my job as moderator was to tease out some of the good, the bad and the avoidables for building developer communities.

Some of the takeaways:

  • Building and supporting your community needs to be a company-wide ethos. It’s not something you just delegate to a community manager, because at heart your community cares about and contributes to your products. RethinkDB means this: in an era where tech talent is insanely difficult to find, they are willing to let a talented engineer go if they are not supportive of the community.
  • Community does not equal consensus. Many developer communities consist of members with very strong and often conflicting points of view. Navigating this without sacrificing your own brand voice is a challenge. Share how you will address what you’ve heard. But it is not feasible to let the community dictate every decision.
  • Diversity is hard but attainable. Clearly the developer community is not a diverse one at the moment, but healthy communities are built by intentional efforts to reach out to different populations, crafting documentation and messaging that is not exclusionary or tone deaf (last description is my paraphrase ;), and enforcing a sound code of conduct policy.
  • Community-building is a long-term play. While marketers to consumers and users establish clear funnels for acquisition and retention, these funnels can be trickier to track when you are working with developers, who tend to have longer time horizons to contribute. This makes “Developer Acquisition Cost” models tricky to realize ROI, but the models are still a worthy goal for which precedents exist.
  • Bonus Point: The Hacker News Heuristic. Hacker News was cited multiple times as sort of a filter or benchmark for communications. “Will it fly on HN?” is sort of a filter heuristic for dev communities.
  • Interested in keeping the learning up? Join Binpress’ newly-formed “Marketing to Developers” meetup group where the slides will be posted and future events will happen.

    Just in: Binpress’ recap of the event with decks and photos, and another recap from attendee Laura D’Ambrosio – great sanity checks!