Archive for the ‘TechFun’ Category

The Tyranny of E-Mail Subject Lines

December 18, 2012

This blog post was cross-posted on as “Hey”:

That’s right, Hey. As my grandmother used to say, “Hay is for horses”.

A recent businessweek article titled “The Science Behind Those Obama Campaign Emails”, detailed how casual and even profanity-laced subject lines delivered crucial fundraising performance. In the article, Toby Fallsgraff, the campaign’s e-mail director, is quoted as saying “The subject lines that worked best were things you might see in your in-box from other people… ‘Hey’ was probably the best one we had over the duration.”

Butchering of the English language began well before Obama campaign email subject lines; our online proclivities for brevity and casualness have seeped into and contaminated virtually everything, watering down our thinking and making clarity a rarity indeed. I have long believed that power is directly derived from purpose. If you have clarity of purpose, you will have power. This is a crucial element in successful online strategy work: you must know your purpose, and pursue it with a focused intensity. The problem is that the casual nature of our online culture can dilute purpose to a drab subject line.

We’re guilty of it at EchoDitto; our email last week had the inspiring subject line “December newsletter”. We all get so much email — better to say something interesting, something valuable, something with purpose and focus. The Obama campaign could resort to casual email subject lines, posing as intimate friends, because of the larger narrative context of the campaign. Every day, every news outlet in the world was focused on the presidential campaign. Many of your friends on social media were focused on the presidential campaign. You were not receiving these “Hey” subject line emails in a vacuum; there was a larger cultural context provided by the presidential campaign.

So what do you do when your cause, your work, your purpose is not embodied in the culture, the way the overpowering, all-encompassing presidential campaign consumed the country and I daresay the world for the last six months? The great challenge of email, from an online strategy point of view, is the tension between test-driven messages designed to boost performance (See Micah White’s clicktivism critique) and the need to give your work a narrative arc, one that inspires and compels your audience to action (See Dave Karpf’s response to Micah) White’s clicktivism critique.

In general, I preach (and worry myself) that we simply don’t spend enough time writing our emails, and thinking about their relationship to each other. Two crucial lessons I learned from Joe Trippi during the Dean campaign:

First, use your email list to break news. It will help the list grow (because people will sign up to get the next round of breaking news you release to the list first) but also communicate to the list that you value the people there, that they are your primary constituency and your first loyalty.

Second, use your email list to tell a story over time. Build a narrative arc to your emails that leads your online community to a moment of action with building intensity and engagement. (“Thus my life draws fuel ineluctably from triumph.” writes the poet Jim Harrison in “27” from “Letters to Yesenin”). Too often the emails I read aren’t building towards anything; they have no “story of us” and are instead one-off emails, written without any larger context: no cultural context, no context even within the prior and future emails we’re sending to the list.

Yes, we have to do it all: write beautiful, compelling emails, in a sequence that builds towards engagement and action like installments in a Dickens novel, with incredible subject lines that bring the campaign to life — while also A/B testing and seeking to maximize performance, keeping the core purpose in mind. The environment of a presidential campaign is highly unusual, and incentives tactics that won’t succeed for most organizations.

P.S. Yesterday is the anniversary of my grandmother’s death a few years back, and her exquisite sense of language and grammar inspired this post.

The Future of Politics, Internet style: A Conversation with Steven Johnson

December 9, 2012

I was invited to join FireDogLake for an online chat with Steven Johnson, a noted author most recently of “Future Perfect: The Case for Progress in a Networked Age“. This post is an edited version of some of the material I posted at

When I first read Eric S. Raymond’s landmark essay on open-source programming, “The Cathedral and the Bazaar”, I was delighted. Here was a perfect exposition of my experience with programming and the open-source community. You can write code in a Cathedral model – where Bill Gates is the architect and hires thousands of Micro-Serfs to write code that conforms to his blueprints – or you can write code in a Bazaar model, where your work was part of the community, “a great babbling bazaar of differing agendas and approaches… out of which a coherent and stable system could… emerge.” I knew which camp I was in: the Bazaar model as embodied in the open-source community was intellectually exciting and full of innovation, even if it didn’t pay as well.

As I became more involved in politics, the ethos of the open-source movement seemed confusingly in conflict with my experience of the Democratic Party. In their book, “Crashing the Gate: Netroots, Grassroots, and the Rise of People-Powered Politics“, Jerome Armstrong (of MyDD) and Markos Moulitsas (of DailyKos fame) described the explosive encounter of the netroots with the Democratic Party establishment. But that isn’t the full story – the power of the netroots and the open-source movement stretches much deeper, well beyond mere party power politics. Something else is at work – something that Steven Johnson has surfaced and named in his excellent and insightful book, “Future Perfect: The Case for Progress in a Networked Age“.

One of my great frustrations about the digital age is how poor our language is to explain and understand what is happening in our midst. At the outset of Future Perfect, Johnson offers us a new word to describe an emerging political consciousness: peer progressive. It is an apt term, well-coined. Peer progressives believe in the progress of humanity – that we are on a path of continual improvement, and that the exciting technological innovations of the digital age offer new and compelling ways forward. While embracing a progressive worldview, peer progressives believe in the power of peer-to-peer networks, not institutions. They are “wary of centralized control, but they [are] not free-market libertarians…they [are] equally suspicious of big government and big corporations.” (page xxxvi)

In many ways, “Future Perfect” follows directly from Johnson’s earlier books on the impact of technology on our culture. Here, he describes what it means to be a peer progressive, including provide a historical context that suggests there is a long tradition of the decentralized anti-institutional progressive point of view. He goes on to look at the impact of a peer progressive point of view on our politics, our government, our media, and our corporations. A key framework of the book is the difference between the Legrand Star and the Baran network. The Legrand Star is the French railway plan where all roads lead to Paris, the “star” at the heart of the rail system. Johnson uses “Legrand Star” as vocabulary to describe how the priorities of a large institution can deliver a centralized solution with significant constraints. On the other end, Paul Baran is one of the founders of the digital era. His primary insight about how to harness the power of networks led to packet switching, a technology upon which the entire internet, from email to TCP/IP, is built. A Baran Web has no center, and consequently is enormously flexible in responding to a wide range of challenges. Johnson looks at different examples in the spheres of politics, government, policy, and corporate strategy: is this a Legrand Star solution or a Baran Web solution?

I’m ready to call myself a peer progressive. This grows out of my own experience, of having liberal values about many issues, but not seeing government as the solution to many of our challenges. Part of it is my experience of the open source movement, where complex problems (albeit technical ones) can be solved in an open collaborative way without formal institutions given good leadership and clear process. Johnson has begun the process of integrating a peer progressive point of view into a coherent political agenda that combines liberal social values with a more libertarian attitude about institutions. But remember that institutions includes corporations: an important characteristic of the peer progressive is that “peer progressives genuinely like free markets; they’re more ambivalent about CEOs and multinational corporations.” (p. 29)

I’ll be honest: I have significant reservations about what we might leave behind as we embrace the opportunities of the networked age. (I have written my own book on this subject, which won’t be out for a few months.) Regardless of my own reservations, I am convicted of the moral imperative to peer progressive approaches to our institutions. Johnson notes that “The peer-progressive framework is in its infancy, after all. We don’t yet know its limits.” (p. 208) It is up to us to find those limitations; I suspect we will all be surprised at the resiliency and opportunity that a peer-progressive future might provide. Read this book; our future depends on it.

Five ideas that animate the Internet: Core concepts and readings

September 23, 2011

This was originally posted at Journalist’s Resource, a project of the Harvard Shorenstein Center where I teach. I’m desperately overdue to blog something so I’m resorting to cross-posting.

Understanding the core ideas that guide how the Internet’s space and culture are constructed is crucial to interpreting an increasing number of events, from Barack Obama’s election and Wikileaks to the Arab Spring and the ongoing upheaval of major industries.

Though such events can seem shocking in their novelty and speed, the reality is that the underlying logic embedded in the Internet long ago helped set the table. Programmers, designers and theorists — who substantially came from the open-source movement — made decisions that are now having consequences, from the local to the global.

Ultimately, it’s important to see why the construction of the Internet is not necessarily friendly to the establishment.

For the hyper-connected, these core ideas are well known; they are taken for granted and are, as it were, the air the digital community breathes. But for many others, it is a matter of catching up. Digital norms and architecture need to be, in a sense, discovered for the first time. To be without this basic knowledge is to be subject to continuing blindsides and perpetual spin.

Below are five recommended readings that can help expose the bedrock of the digital world. Each examines key ideas and connects to wider notions. I have included some brief, informal remarks to set each reading in context and have linked to Wikipedia pages to clarify basic terms.


Reading: “The Cathedral and the Bazaar,” Eric Raymond.

Relevance: This essay focuses on how the computer programming community in a networked world should operate. Raymond argues against one way of writing source code: the “cathedral” way, with a single architect or small elite planning and an army of serfs building the structure. In contrast, he advocates a “bazaar” model, whereby many people participate in a messier mutual system of trade. This system is often chaotic, but it’s also beautiful in its engaging liveliness. Software starts with “scratching your own itch” — solving problems that make your work more efficient. Raymond believes it’s good to then put this tentative software on the Internet where it may be improved by others, often perfect strangers — “release early and often,” he implores. This shared approach to work and problem-solving is embodied in the phrase, “Given enough eyeballs all bugs are shallow.” And embedded in this idea is that there are effectively no resource constraints to scaling up ideas.


Reading: The Search, John Battelle.

Relevance: This book about the central ideas of Google gives crucial insights into the development of the company’s Internet search innovations. Google’s world-changing algorithm PageRank took on the problem of trying to figure out users’ intentions — what they are really looking for. Google needed a way of establishing authority that was very hard to game. The fundamental way that Google went about this was to adopt the academic, scholarly model of peer citation. One of the most important measures that determines any web page’s authority and importance, and hence its ranking, is the number of other in-bound links. The number of other web sites, the terms that they link to you on, the frequency with which they link — all of these are a proxy for authority. And authority itself is thereby defined in a whole new, distributed way. Of course, it’s more complex and there are many other variables. But this is Google’s core genius, and it set the template and standard for how to assess importance on the Internet — and ultimately how informational power is constructed.


Reading:What is Web 2.0?” Tim O’Reilly.

Relevance: In this essay, O’Reilly coins and articulates the idea of “Web 2.0,” a buzz term that is often now thrown around so loosely that it has lost its original meaning. The core concept is the “web as platform.” Traditionally in computer science, a platform is a piece of software that controls a bunch of resources so they easily can be shared. Microsoft Windows, for example, controls your keyboard, speakers, battery, keyboard, screen, and much more. This means that Excel and Firefox and whatever other programs a computer is running don’t need to each manage a computer’s basic functions. The idea of “web as platform” exports this technical computer science notion to the interactive Web world. This concept is made manifest in, for example, the way Wikipedia harnesses user-generated content; or, the way Netflix harnesses user ratings to recommend other movies to its audience. O’Reilly discusses how the Web can be used to take advantage of the sprawling, constantly growing digital world to accomplish larger goals, in business, social organizing and beyond.


Reading: The Wikipedia Revolution, Andrew Lih.

Relevance: This book looks at how Wikipedia has worked out a way to harness and organize the power of a vast, decentralized community. An astonishing percentage of the world uses Wikipedia on a regular basis; it may be the only media with truly global reach. The most important thing is Wikipedia’s governance structure, which provides a new model for the world. The organization has a community with norms and values that is working toward establishing an authoritative, neutral point of view on the sum total of human knowledge. But there is no easy or clean way to achieve this. Disputes need to be resolved, but often cannot be; “flame wars” break out over facts and accounts of events and people; there are a wide range of viewpoints. Wikipedia operates with the idea of asynchronous collaboration online, whereby a variety of people with differing views contribute across a wide range of time. (The digital media theorist Clay Shirky also has a lot to of relevant insight on this sort of project, organized around his idea of “cognitive surplus.” His thesis is that small amount of free time spent by individuals on interactive projects — when spread out over a larger community — can result in the creation of things of enormous value.)


Reading: The Filter Bubble, Eli Pariser.

Relevance: This is a relatively new book that contains a useful warning for all journalists, researchers or other information workers who use Google or other search products. Part of basic digital literacy now is understanding that search results are being customized and personalized to individuals’ browsing and search histories. (This also relates to how social networking applications are organizing your experience.) As Pariser notes, the amount of data now being created every 48 hours is roughly equal to all of the data in human history prior to 2003. This presents an enormous challenge. Google is trying to manage this torrent of information by serving up results that the company thinks may be better suited to what you are looking for. This new dynamic of personalization introduces a number of problems — for research, establishing authenticity, building movements, shaping public opinion. It’s an aspect of the digital world that everyone who cares about information should be watching, and this book provides a powerful lens through which to see this important trend.

June 2, 2008

I’ve been working on a new project with Dave Winer — For the last few months, I’ve been annoyed at how hard it is to follow the political coverage. News pops up in a lot of different places, and having single source to follow what’s happening throughout the day has been an itch that needs scratching. Dave remembers the briefing books we had on the Dean campaign, a fixture of many campaigns. So started as a way to scratch the itch of the political news junkie, and a way to begin to build an open briefing book.

During the 2000 cycle, I worked as the webmaster and technical director of the Shadow Conventions. That’s actually where I first met Dave, through Edit This Then during the 2004 cycle, I worked as the webmaster for Howard Dean. This cycle (2008) after a false start, I’m excited to be working on NewsJunk.

Dave nicely summarizes what you can do on NewsJunk right now:

  1. Refresh the home page periodically.
  2. Subscribe to the RSS feed.
  3. Follow it on Twitter.
  4. Befriend it on FriendFeed.
  5. 5. Watch for developments on the weblog.

Google = Evil

March 10, 2008

About two months ago I noticed that Google was marking my website,, with a notice that said “This site may harm your computer” as part of natural search results. If you click through to my website, Google puts a screen between the search results screen and my blog that says “Warning – visiting this web site may harm your computer!“. This is the order of things right now – you can go see this process. I’ve also taken screenshots and put them on my flickr feed. Among other things, they have terrified my mother, which is not a good thing. Talk about making me angry.

I immediately contacted Google and was directed to I filled out a form to appeal their decision to classify my personal blog as “badware”. A couple weeks later, on Feb. 15th, I received this reply:

We have received and processed your request for review of your website, Google’s most recent test of your website found no badware behaviors on the site. As such, the Google warning page for your site has either already been removed or should be removed shortly. In addition, if your site has been listed in our Badware Website Clearinghouse, we will remove your site from the Clearinghouse list.

Sometimes website owners are confused about why Google placed a warning in the search results for their site. In many cases, a website run by an innocent site owner has been hacked by a malicious third party, causing the site to distribute badware without the site owner’s knowledge. If your site was distributing badware because it has been hacked, then simply removing the bad code from your site is not enough to keep your site clean in the future. You will also need to work with your hosting provider to fix all security vulnerabilities associated with your site.

Please note that we will be retesting your website at periodic intervals in order to monitor that it remains free from badware. If we find that you are hosting or distributing badware in the future, the reviews process may take considerably longer than the original review.

Answers to commonly asked questions from site owners who are the subject of Google warnings can be found at:
For tips on keeping your website clean and secure, please visit:

The StopBadware Team

“Should be removed shortly” my ass.

It’s almost a month later – March 10 – and my site is still marked as badware.

So let me get this straight:

  1. Google marks my site as badware, setting up a big scary screen to anyone who tries to enter my site warning them of my badware-ness.
  2. At no point does Google notify me directly or explain why my blog was classified as badware.
  3. There are no published criteria as to what constitutes badware. As near as I can tell, they just decided I’m badware because they don’t like me.
  4. I changed nothing about the server setup and appealed to
  5. After a few weeks they decide that I am in fact clean.
  6. Google does nothing about it.

My server is a small shared setup with BlueHost running nothing but a dozen or so WordPress installations. No malware, no recent installations, nothing malicious. If there is something wrong with my setup, Google had given me zero information to help track down the problem.

What is going on? I am really, really angry. Google thinks they can simply decide I am evil, and no one should visit my site, without any justification and with no recourse?

I am going to go nuts.

I despise AT&T Wireless

December 10, 2007

This morning I discovered an email in my spam filter inviting me to participate in a research panel as an AT&T Wireless customer. I rubbed my hands together in glee. I’ve been waiting for this opportunity. At the end of the survey (which appeared to be primarily about overage charges), they asked if I had “any other comments”. Why yes, yes I do have some other comments! So here is what I wrote:

Network coverage is a serious issue. I live in a major metropolitan area – Boston – and every day I have dropped calls, even if I’m just sitting at my desk at my home office without moving. Frequently the connection is so bad – with noise and static – that I have to call several times to get a clear connection. And in major areas of the city and the region there appears to be no service coverage whatsoever. It is a constant and daily problem and leads me to despise AT&T. If it wasn’t for the iPhone, I would never come near your products and service. I believe it is borderline criminal to charge the same rates as your competitors whose network is an order of magnitude better. My dissatisfaction with your coverage knows no bounds and the second the iPhone is carried by a superior network, I will leave AT&T behind in the dust.


January 31, 2007

I’m headed out to Seattle for a few days, but somehow seem to be running ahead of schedule. I’ve got a long list of blog posts I’m always intending to write but never seem to get to, so having a few extra minutes to write is exciting. One of my new year’s resolutions was about writing on my blog more often…

I’m asked every day to participate in campaigns and activities for non-profits and political causes. I’m certainly not your average person on this front, but when something comes along and totally captures my imagination, I pay attention. Kiva is an example of this. I first heard about it a year ago, and it has kept me engaged for an entire year. Every month I end up putting more money into it. I was shocked to discover the amount of cash I had feed into Kiva at the end of the year. And at a time when everyone is trying to get me to forward everything to my friends, Kiva is one of the few things I’m really an evangelist about.

Why? It’s intimate, transactional and transformative. It allows me to watch my money directly at work. It connects me to other people who are entrepreneurs, (both lenders and borrowers) like me. It taps into issues I already care about: poverty, development, technology. I’m not telling you too much about the site; if you haven’t used it, you should try it. It’s very, very smart in a lot of ways.


October 27, 2006

Kottke draws our attention to an amazing little site called the Line Rider. Really quite clever. You’ve got to try it to understand it. Lately I’ve been wondering about how our vocabulary is limited – or has limited itself – around words like “game” and “play”. Is Line Rider a game? You’ve got to try Line Rider. But after you try it, you must, MUST, watch this YouTube video. It’s astonishing what Line Rider is capable of – more videos here.

Yowee Zowee

October 9, 2006

The tech world is buzzing about the Google-YouTube deal. A few people have asked me what I think this means. Implications of this deal: the networks should be crapping their pants. Google is a media company built on advertising revenue. Adding YouTube’s video audience and infrastructure to Google’s audience and ad sales machine is the beginning of the end for network television. Its not clear yet where its all going but one thing is clear: the audience of YouTube and the ad revenue of Google is coming directly out of network tv’s audience and revenue stream. The valuation is totally absurd but it makes me think that (a) Google has got something up their sleeve that makes the valuation worthwhile and (b) Microsoft is totally irrelevant and it didn’t take that long.

speaking of the plentiful imagery of the world

March 17, 2006

To a geek like me, raised on Ray Bradbury’s “Martian Chronicles” and steeped in sci-fi lore, Google Mars is just too cool for words. Rockets, Robots, and Mars. Space is Cool.