Austin: There’s Gold in Them Thar Silicon Hills

Marching towards progress.

Marching towards progress.

My first taste of SXSW, circa 2008, left a weary residue on my palate. Unable to see beyond the hype of the festival, I swore I’d never return. But then, this year, thanks to my co-founder Mike Gold, I came back, and with eyes freshly opened, I can say that, folks, this place is the real deal.

Culturally, economically, and ecosystemically, Austin is quickly emerging as the next big startup hub, joining the esteemed ranks of San Francisco, New York, and London. As Faith Merino writes for Vator:

The tech scene in Austin is booming, so much so that it’s been dubbed the “Silicon Hills.” Heavy hitters like Apple, Facebook, Google, HP, IBM, Dell, and more have set up shop in Austin, and the city now accounts for much of all the tech-related revenue in the state.

So if you’re looking to get your idea off the ground and you don’t want to live under a freeway overpass in Silicon Valley, Austin is the place to go.

Moreso than Boston (too stodgy), Portland (too chilly), Boulder (too small), LA (too sprawl-y), Seattle (too Amazon-and-Microsoft-y), or Chicago (too — I’m not sure what — but just not Chicago), Austin has the perfect storm of factors that position it for exponential growth in the years to come.

Consider the following fun facts, if you will:

  • Austin is the fastest-growing city in the country, with regional population increasing by 2.8% annually, and economic growth soaring by 6.8%.
  • One of the largest universities in the nation, UT Austin, sits blocks away from downtown.
  • Similar to the San Francisco counterculture of yore, Austin celebrates individuality, self-expression, and weirdness — qualities that befit an entrepreneurial culture that challenges, rather than embraces, the status quo.

More to the point, Austin has a genuine and growing startup ecosystem already in place. Vibrant spaces like Capital Factory and Conjunctured offer world-class co-working. Accelerators like TechStars, Tech Ranch, and ATI offer numerous opportunities for incubation and early-stage growth. Growth-stage startups, like WPEngine and uShip, anchor the community with proven success stories.

And then, of course, there’s SXSW Interactive, bringing together more people from more startups than any other event in the world.

Southby serves as a telling analogy to the city’s sensibility as a whole: deeply community-driven, yet friendly and open to the outside world. Tellingly, denizens identify as “local,” not “native”; hometown pride permeates every square inch of the city’s 271.8 square miles, but it’s a smiling pride, a friendly pride, a welcoming pride — a pride that says mi casa, su casa — this is my home, and it can be yours, too.

Granted, none of this is intended to paint a rose-tinted view of the place. Austin has its share of problems and shortcomings — the startup scene lacks growth-stage venture capital, and, outside of SXSW, the event community is said to be lacking (though we’re certainly thinking about ways to change that). The city itself lacks blue-state-quality public transit, endures its fair share of crime, and sits in the midst of a state that’s governed, at least for now, by a festering mold of scum better known as Rick Perry.

Then again, the gaps and shortcomings in Austin (for the startup scene, at least) imply that there’s room to grow — and, with both an open-minded and business-friendly culture, the future shines brightly.

Can Silicon Valley Save Journalism?

Journalism is dead. Long live journalism.

In August, 2013, the Washington Post made waves when it announced its sale to Jeff Bezos, Founder & CEO of Amazon. The purchase, coming at a time of historically low print circulation, led Daily Show personality John Oliver to quip, “There are now more people buying newspapers than there are people buying newspapers.”

Bezos sees things differently, foretelling a “golden era” at the WaPo, where he intends to introduce a new, startup-inspired culture of risk-taking and experimentation.

In 2012, another old media property fell into the arms of a Valley darling. This time, Chris Hughes, the Facebook co-founder who led President Obama’s online organizing efforts in 2008, purchased The New Republic, an influential magazine reaching progressive audiences in politics and culture.

Hughes, who now serves as Editor-in-Chief, seeks to expand the publication’s digital footprint — particularly on next-generation tablets and e-readers — while preserving the high-quality journalism for which they’re known. In the eighteen months since the acquisition, New Republic print circulation is up by 20% and web traffic has tripled, following a doubling of staff and an expansion into a New York Office, branching out from the company’s traditional Washington, D.C. headquarters.

Now, eBay founder Pierre Omidyar is jumping into the journalism ring, too. Omidyar’s new media venture, First Look Media, “seeks to reimagine journalism for the digital age, combining the promise of technological innovation with the power of fearless reporting.”

Since launching less than a week ago, the venture’s first in-house publication, The Intercept, stars former Guardian journalist Glenn Greenwald, whose series of articles about the NSA, based on documents leaked by whistleblower Edward Snowden, ignited a fierce and ongoing debate about the limits of government surveillance.

With founders now donning the mantle of Editor-in-Chief (as Hughes has done), it’s no wonder that a reverse migration is happening, too. Consider Kara Swisher and Walt Mossberg, the magnetic duo formerly behind AllThingsD, the flagship digital publication of the Wall Street Journal. Their new venture, Re/code, places them in competition with other tech-focused news upstarts, including PandoDaily and TheVerge.

Even Bill Keller, former Executive Editor of the New York Times, is joining a new venture after a 30-year career at the so-called paper of record. His new role will make him Editor in Chief of The Marshall Project, a newly-formed nonprofit that raises critical awareness about the American criminal justice system, which, in Keller’s words, “is bizarrely horrible and weirdly tolerated.

Despite fears of an eroding press, journalism bustles with activity and innovation. New outlets are springing up regularly, while those in the old establishment await a new, experimental culture inspired by a surge of founder-driven acquisitions. The future of the media may be brighter than we once imagined.

Parenting in the Age of Facebook

A photo by Kate Picton of Avi and his father Shannon Clark

A photo by Kate Picton (http://www.pictonphotography.com) of Avi and his father Shannon Clark

Recently Slate posted an editorial about the steps a parent is taking to keep his children off the Internet – not just to keep them off, but to keep any references, photos or tags of them from social media sites.

On Facebook I posted how I disagree completely with this approach to parenting.

As a new father, my wife and I have benefitted greatly from sharing our parenting experience with our friends and family on Facebook, Google+ and other social media networks. My post on Facebook was limited to my friends there, one of whom, Christian Perry of SF Beta asked that I write this post for SF Beta.

Here is, edited a bit, what I posted to my friends on Facebook. It sparked quite a discussion there.

If you are my friend here on Facebook you clearly see I’m not following this approach. I think it is actually short sighted.

Given a generation raised digitally the impact of baby photos on future collage applications will be trivial but the value in just a few short years of being connected digitally to a world of friends and family is massive.

And the value is for my wife and I as well as for our son. As he grows older he will be able to see comments from his grandparents and great grandparents on his baby photos – given that his great grandparents are in their 90′s they may not be around when he is a teenager.

As well his extended family is a global family – with family across the US and relatives around the globe.

My wife and I both grew up without a lot of childhood photos and few if any videos. I want to give my son digital memories of his childhood.

Equally being connected even briefly via “likes” has been hugely helpful for my wife and I remaining sane and calm as new parents.

Sure we get some unsolicited advice and spark debates amongst our friends about our decisions but one that I do not regret in the least is sharing his photos and our life as parents with our friends and family.

Am I careful about what I post – sure, I try whenever possible to post photos with good light and the grandparents have asked for photos where his eyes are open (harder when he was a newborn but getting easier now that he is 8 weeks old) and I try to avoid photos of myself or my wife at our most sleep deprived.

But the idea that somehow baby photos we post now will haunt him in the future – or that facial recognition or data mining will somehow impact his college applications or future job applications is silly.

At the moment we are seeing the impact of a second generation growing up with ubiquitous connectivity – while Generation X grew up with the dawn of the Internet in the 1990′s, the Millennial generation is a mobile first generation where Internet connectivity is not just a given but increasingly an always available part of the core fabric of their lives.

Connectivity means more than just searching Wikipedia for school answers – it also means never having to leave old friends behind – unless you want to. It means growing up, as my nephew does, with grandparents half a world away teaching you their native language via Skype.

And it means a world where everyone assumes that nearly every moment of their lives is captured digitally.

As an employer I won’t hold an employee’s digital archive against them – in fact I will expect it. What would surprise and actually worry me would be an employee without a digital footprint.

And that is today – in ten years or twenty years I strongly believe it will be the children without a digital life, without connections to the fabric of friends and extended family who will be at the disadvantage when it comes time to apply to colleges and to jobs.

This may still be Facebook or, more likely, it will be whatever comes after Facebook, but it will be a history that stretches back decades and links my son to his family and to our friends (and to his friends).

This digital world will help him find his place – whatever his passions and interests. And the support this extended family will give him and my wife and I will have helped us all have a richer childhood.

Rich with love, feedback, care, attention and connections.

Of course there will be embarrassing moments – but it is those moments that make us laugh and that make us human.

LOLCats and the Arab Spring

In the words of Tomcat Jefferton.

In the words of Tomcat Jefferton.

The tango ever twists betwixt technology and its intended uses. The telephone, intended for serious man-talk of the business-y persuasion, found its fanbase amongst teens and housewives. The beeper, intended for serious man-beeps of the business-y persuasion, digitized the urban drug trade far moreso than the man-beep telecommunication grid; as quips some chick from a forum:

I’m an 80′s girl.. grew up with a rotary phone not a cell phone. I remember when beepers came out but we couldn’t get beeper because those were for drug dealers.. and Michael jackson… Hello his best years were in the 80′s!

Now the internet, in all its Discordian tomfoolery, may have turned the axiom upside down — where serious man-beep devices no longer weave their way into consumerdom, but quite the inverse.

Sites sporting the flimsiest veneer of purported public interest may be the very catalysts galvanizing wave after wave of popular uprising — so much the trend these days, these uprisings, perhaps owing to a collective catacylsmic apoplexy raging against the Legion of Morose Hipster Ennui — from the Arab Spring to Occupy Wall Street to the Egyptian Uprising to the Popular Revolts of Brazil to Moral Monday, and more.

What do all these mass movements have in common? The power of lolcats.

Well, sort of. According to the cute cat theory of digital activism, penned by Ethan Zuckerman of the Center for Civic Media at the MIT Media Lab, popular social networks, far moreso than tools specifically geared towards activists, become the very tools that activists employ in their organizing:

The cute cat theory of digital activism is a theory concerning Internet activism, Web censorship, and “cute cats” (a term used for any low-value, but popular online activity) developed by Ethan Zuckerman in 2008. It posits that most people are not interested in activism; instead, they want to use the web for mundane activities, including surfing for pornography and lolcats (“cute cats”). The tools that they develop for that (such as Facebook, Flickr, Blogger, Twitter, and similar platforms) are very useful to social movement activists, who may lack resources to develop dedicated tools themselves. This, in turn, makes the activists more immune to reprisals by governments than if they were using a dedicated activism platform, because shutting down a popular public platform provokes a larger public outcry than shutting down an obscure one.

Censorship, whether analog or digital, is a popular bludgeoning tool wielded by states threatened by the prospect of an informed, organized, and unruly populace. However, even the more draconian of governments recognize the people’s right to humorous pictures of cats, if not Marxist screeds against the repression of the proletariat. And woe behold the government who stands between the people and their lolcats.

Zuckerman states that “Web 1.0 was invented to allow physicists to share research papers. Web 2.0 was created to allow people to share pictures of cute cats.”Zuckerman says that if a tool passes “cute cat” purposes, and is widely used for low-value purposes, it can be and likely is used for online activism, too.

If the government chooses to shut down such generic tools, it will hurt people’s ability to “look at cute cats online”, spreading dissent and encouraging the activists’ cause.

Viva la meowvolution!

Thanks to Rachel Swift, author of I, Cyborg: Parsing the Pleasure of Being Hooked on Machines, for the topic suggestion.

Is Snollygoster the new Mister Splashy Pants?

Mister Splashy Pants, the snollygoster of internet whales.

Mister Splashy Pants, the snollygoster of internet whales.

Language giveth, language taketh away; as new words percolate into popular speech, others fade into vernacular’s Valhalla, joining the erstwhile if long-forgotten ranks of eath (a nifty Scottish word functioning both as adjective and adverb meaning “easy”) and the still-comprehensible, if alliteratively gangly, landlubberliness (“the state of being like a landlubber”).

The high priests of English officialdom reside where they have always resided: in the hallowed halls of dictionary editorial boards. (Not all countries follow suit, by the way: French is governed, quite literally, by the L’Académie française, an arcane committee established in 1635, ruled by forty lifetime-appointed members called immortels.)

Each year, English dictionary boards determine, to fanfare approaching the lexical equivalent of Oscar nominations, which newbies (first known use: 1970; defined in already-quaint terms as “a newcomer to cyberspace”) might join the ranks of “ranks” and “the,” among a hundred-thousand-or-so brethren that now include such technology-infused utterances as:

  • woot (“used to express elation, enthusiasm, or triumph”)
  • MMORPG (clumsily, “an internet based computer game set in a virtual world, which can be played by many people at the same time, each of whom can interact with the others”)
  • cyberbullying (“the electronic posting of mean-spirited messages”)
  • mash-up (“something created by combining elements from two or more sources”)
  • sexting (“the sending of sexually explicit messages or images by cell phone”)

Sometimes, however, the internet serves a second role: that of preservationist. The very threat of extinction can serve as a word’s revivalist champion, rekindling obscure vocables via a process whose moniker itself has yet to enter the dictionary, but is surely in contention: the Streisand effect, in which “an attempt to hide, remove, or censor a piece of information has the unintended consequence of publicizing the information more widely.”

In 2003, Mirriam-Webster quietly laid to rest a dated gem: snollygoster, a nineteenth-century Americanism that, in 1895, the Columbus Dispatch creatively defined as, “a fellow who wants office, regardless of party, platform or principles, and who, whenever he wins, gets there by the sheer force of monumental talknophical assumnacy.” (Neither “talknophical” nor “assumnancy” have any known usage outside this definition, making this phrase as mimsy as the borogoves.)

More broadly referenced as “an unprincipled but shrewd person,” snollygoster enjoys a newfound popularity, a tweedy, rejuvenating hipster moment in which someone, somewhere, probably in Brooklyn, indignantly huffs that they said snollygoster before it was coolQuoting an Atlantic article quoting Mirriam-Webster lexicographer Kory Stamper, “We have, oddly enough, seen more unironic and unself-conscious use of snollygoster in print in the last few years.”

With a decisive +1 from The Atlantic (not to mention a TED talk), snollygoster may be approaching an Arrested Development / Grover Cleveland moment, becoming one of the few words to enter, leave, and re-enter the bindings of Mirriam-Webster’s tome. M-W’s own Stamper waxes optimistically about the odds of this happening — that if snollygoster continues to resurge, the dictionary’s curators will “certainly consider adding it back.”

Much of snollygoster‘s triumph may be attributed to the ephemeral, viral pull of the internet, an attention engine that, in a manner similar to Cupid (the god, not the dating site), strikes immortel-like popularity into words, memes, clips, and so on, seemingly at random, but often with delicious irreverence.

As with words, so with names, as Greenpeace discovered in 2007 when inviting the internet to vote on the proposed name of a humpback whale in the South Pacific. Inserted amongst 29 other candidates, with benign, whale-sounding names like Aurora and Kaimana, was “Mister Splashy Pants,” likely intended as a joke, but one that the internet took very, very seriously.

From Facebook to Twitter, and particularly on Reddit, Mister Splashy Pants became a cause celebre, spiking traffic on Greenpeace to “near-untenable levels” and capturing an oceanic 78 percent of the vote, rivaled only by “Humphrey,” who bogarted a second-place 4,329 votes, less than three percent of the total.

When the internet refuses to let something die, it lives. The fate of snollygoster seems now to fare as swimmingly as that of Mister Splashy Pants, and it’s only a matter of time before the term is dropped by a New York Times columnist, before turning into a verb — “Bob snollygostered his promotion to Assistant Manager with monumental talknophical assumnancy.”

One hopes a similar fate awaits the interrobang.