People assume the worst. So when it comes to counting government “requests” for private data, disclosing a number, even a high number, is far better than the fear of infinity. That’s why tech giants are fighting to show they aren’t open books surrendered to the NSA. They want to prove only the suspicious are being spied upon.
“Direct access” were the words that drummed up the fear. The Washington Post reported that the National Security Agency had attained direct access to the data of nine of the world’s largest tech companies. Many of those companies aggressively denied this, saying they only provide specifically requested data when legally obligated to. Unfortunately they were heavily muzzled regarding the specifics of what they could say. The vagueness combined with their initial inaccurate reports of direct access left the public shaken. Many innocent citizens got the sinking feeling they were being spied on.
Desperate To Disclose
Over the last week, the companies have been fighting for more freedom to disclose exactly how many government requests for data they’ve been receiving from the NSA. The hope was that that would quell the speculation.
Yesterday Facebook and Microsoft both cut deals to disclose numbers. Not hard numbers, but at least a narrow range of numbers of requests they’ve recieved from the government for private user data on criminal as well as potential terrorist threats over the last six months. For Facebook, that range was nine to ten thousand requests on between 18,000 and 19,000 accounts. For Microsoft, it was six to seven thousand requests affecting between 31,000 and 32,000 users.
Previously, all companies were completely gagged when it came to requests from the National Security Agency, legally required to keep the number of requests for data on potential terrorist threats a secret. The deals let them disclose numbers…but only in aggregate with local, state, and federal criminal data requests, and only in bands of one thousand to obscure the specifics.
Numbers, Even Obscured Numbers, Fight Fear
Why Facebook and Microsoft wanted this was that these numbers establish a worst case scenario. Rather than allow conspiracy theorists and panicked journalists (which I was guilty of being) to speculate that hundreds of thousands, millions, or everyone was under the watchful eye of the NSA big brother, it capped the number of people possibly monitored at 19,000 for Facebook and 32,000 for Microsoft. That is a lot more reassuring than people being scared the surveillance extended to all users.
Facebook needed a number to point to more than anyone. It’s business model lives and dies by private data. When users feel comfortable, they volunteer the fuel for Facebook’s content relevance and ad targeting engines. If they feel paranoid, they’re not going to deactivate their accounts, as Facebook has become too crucial a utility for most. But they will be subtly weary of sharing their more personal information and content. That hurts Facebook.
But Google and Twitter immediately criticized the social network. Why? Because they cut a bargain rather than hold out for exact numbers of NSA requests and the volume of people affected. Facebook settled for giving the public something rather than nothing, even if the data on the NSA is obscured by being combined with non-NSA requests for more traditional criminal cases. That could make it harder for other companies to get the NSA to loosen up even further.
Facebook didn’t want to keep the public in the pitch dark, and couldn’t risk not getting to disclose anything. If the government does what’s right, this disclosure will just be a stepping stone to the data Google and Twitter want to provide. True transparency. That’s what the public deserves. But regardless of the criticism, what Facebook and Microsoft won for the public yesterday will go a long way to reassuring us that these companies aren’t knowingly spilling the beans on everyone, and the government might not be as powerful as we suspected.
The upcoming death of Google Reader and the addition of hashtags signal Facebook will likely launch a new way to discover and read news at the June 20th press event it’s just sent out mysterious invites to. It could be a sort of “trending articles on Facebook” feature, or a more full-blown RSS reader-style product.
Either could take advantage of Facebook’s massive treasure trove of aggregate data on what people share to surface popular and personally recommended news articles.
The event invite, first spotted by Joanna Stern of ABC News, says “A small team has been working on a big idea. Join us for coffee and learn about a new product.” The conspicuously analog invite was sent out via paper snail mail instead of by email like Facebook usually does. There’s also a coffee stain on the invite. You know where else you find coffee stains? On the newspaper, while you’re reading it, over coffee.
Nobody knows what Facebook knows. Since most users share semi-privately, it can’t be scraped for trending topics. But Facebook’s algorithms see all. Similar to how it offers ad targeting data in anonymous aggregate, Facebook could surface what articles are being shared most frequently across its user base without violating privacy.
The product could potentially ket people follow outside sources of news through a format like RSS, but we can’t confirm that. The product is likely to take advantage of hashtags that Facebook users can now add to posts to help its algorithms understand what topics different news articles are about.
When I asked Facebook about what more it could do with its data on what people share, it initially offered to put me on the phone with someone, but ended up just referring me to the hashtag announcement from earlier this week. That blog post notes ”Hashtags are just the first step to help people more easily discover what others are saying about a specific topic and participate in public conversations. We’ll continue to roll out more features in the coming weeks and months.”
A better way to surface news could be that next step. In fact, I’m pretty much positive it is, though I couldn’t get anyone at Facebook to confirm on the record.
Whether the new product includes formal RSS reading capabilities that take advantage of the long-running content syndication standard remains to be seen. Asking users to choose different sources and subscribe to feeds of them could be a lot of work and seem somewhat redundant for the average Facebook user. Still, that kind of functionality could find an audience amongst hardcore Internet users.
As our Ingrid Lunden wrote yesterday, “Lines of code referring to “rssfeeds” have recently started to appear in Facebook’s Graph API code (as spotted by developer and Facebook sleuth Tom Waddington). Linking the RSS feed to a user’s Facebook ID, the code schema also covers such aspects as title, URL and update time. Each RSS feed subsequently has entries and subscribers.” This code could be part of the new product, but it also may be unrelated, having to do with a user’s own posts being an RSS feed, rather than a user reading feeds produced by others.
A Facebook news reader with RSS would come at a perfect time, just two weeks before Google shuts down Google Reader for good. The June 20th launch date might give Facebook just enough time to help people migrate onto its version.
Alternatively, Facebook’s new product could more resemble Reddit or a list trending articles based on what’s being shared the most on the social network. That would make it instantly and easily valuable to people.
Whatever it’s exact design, I hope it won’t just be a clone, but something that combines the unique social signals Facebook has access to with tried-and-true news consumption mediums.
A reader of any form would certainly qualify as a “big idea”, as Facebook is all about connecting you to people, things, and information you care about, and news is by definition what people care about. A successful launch could drastically increase time spent on Facebook, fill it with useful data about what topics people are interested in, offer new advertising opportunities around current events, and most importantly, make us all better informed citizens of Earth.
Today Boatbound, the Airbnb for boats, launches its service to help boat owners offset the cost of ownership and let more people experience the joys of the water. With over $1 million in funding led by Benjamin Ling and 500 Startups, Boatbound’s listings website lets pre-screened captains rent fully insured vessels across the country ranging from basic motorboats to sailboats to yachts.
Back in February, co-founder Aaron Hall gave us the first interview about Boatbound as it went into private beta. He explained how most boats sit unused for 95 percent of the year, making ownership incredibly expensive for the value it provides. That’s why boats have even more potential than homes for the sharing economy. With a few rentals a month, most boats could pay for themselves with little inconvenience to the owner.
The challenge is making those owners confident that their boats won’t be damaged, and if they are, they’ll be paid for in full. So Hall and his design / UX guru co-founder Matt Johnston have spent the time since we last spoke hammering out the details so they can call Boatbound “the first fully-insured boat rental marketplace.”
They’ve also been storming AngelList to fill out Boatbound’s $1 million+ early-stage funding round. Hall and Johnston previously co-founded wedding e-commerce startup Tailored, which was part of 500 Startups, and led them to return to the accelerator to get Boatbound out of the dock. Along with 500 and Ling, the full list of investors include Kima Ventures, Expansion Venture Capital, Atlas Venture Partners, Dave McClure, David Beyer, Fabrice Grinda, Semyon Dukach, Haroon Mokhtarzada, Mike Walsh, Jim Patterson, Tim Csontos, Ding Zhou, Kevin Lee, Apostolos Apostolakis, and Joel “J” Mueller.
Now Boatbound is ready for business and has listings across the country for a variety of boats, with a focus on top boating destinations like San Francisco, Miami Beach, and South Lake Tahoe. Owners set up listings with photos of their boats, descriptions of its amenities, details of its engine and capacity, location, asking price, and availability. Today it will list around 50 boats but it has almost 1,000 already pre-approved that will be added to the site over the next week once scalability is ensured.
Going rates float from a few hundred to a few thousand dollars a day depending on boat size. The fees pay for comprehensive insurance plans covering boats worth up to $2 million plus an extra $1 million liability insurance. That means any size boat is covered for anything from scratches and dings to sunk ships and broken docks. To make sure that doesn’t happen, renters must be licensed seafarers, and Boatbound can help people get certified if they aren’t yet thanks to its partnership with BoaterExam.
That certification usually costs $30, but now it’s free and heavily Boatbound-branded. Hall says the site will help 150,000 people get licensed over the next six months, which will push lots of traffic to his site. The renters can then browse the listings, find a boat they like, choose dates and pay. Boatbound takes a percentage cut and the owner gets the rest.
Hall tells me he’s excited to see his site become a gateway to the fun of getting away from land with a few friends. He concludes, “If you know people with boats, let them know they can list their boats on Boatbound to make money.”
An 11-hour flight, 150 techies, and one problem: How do we educate more engineers? This was the premise for the British Airways UnGrounded “Innovation Lab In The Sky.” While heavy on ideas with few to execute them, the flight forced Silicon Valley elite to stop and think about education. How? It took away their Wi-Fi.
Something crazy happens when you cram brainy people in a flying fuselage with no Internet. They actually talk to each other. No work could be done and there was nowhere to hide. Andreessen Horowitz partner Todd Lutwak, Google(x) VP Megan Smith, Craigslist founder Craig Newmark, and an army of startup founders didn’t have a choice. They had to brainstorm, productize, and pitch their solutions to the world’s shortage of great programmers.
From March when British Airways announced the flight, a marketing stunt appealing to entrepreneurs but with a social good angle, it came off a bit half-baked. What would we do up there? No one seemed to know. An open discussion would surely devolve into chaos, especially when you factor in the open bar. Luckily BA brought on renown design firm IDEO to turn the problem into a process for improving education in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math). The itinerary started yesterday in San Francisco with an intro session at the Clift hotel. British Airways announced it would launch APIs to surface their cheapest tickets and offer access to their seat-selection system with hopes that partners could build better apps in exchange for a small revenue cut.
BA then piled the passengers into shuttles and shipped us to SFO. There, we did what any self-respecting adults would do at 3 p.m. with the rest of the day off work. We drank. Champagne and scotch flowed in the BA departure lounge, which made the prospect of spending the night at 30,000 feet with a bunch of nerds a lot less daunting. We boarded the double-decker plane, lifted the wheels, and the IDEO ice breakers started. A geeky crossword with clues like “A gem of a programming language” was distributed, and we were asked to sketch portraits of each other. So far, so bubbly.
Grab Your Magic Markers
When we finally got down to business, it started to feel like less of a wank and more like a mission. The issues at hand? STEM seems geeky to kids, there aren’t enough women involved, the emerging market is desperate to modernize, and the first-world economy demands more tech talent. We were tasked to come up with solutions, commit them to poster board, pitch them to each other, and present the best ones at the DNA Conference in London where we landed. Seeing dignified tech execs fumbling with magic markers and getting ink all over their hands had a bit of perverse pleasure to it, and some of the projects were downright silly.
A nutrition label-style sticker for tech products that tells kids what STEM education went into building them? Oh yeah, because kids love nutrition labels. A “global network that connects tech talent to jobs”? Yes, LinkedIn does exist.
But some weren’t so bad. AdvisHer sought to put promising female STEM students in touch with successful women in tech who could mentor them. A crowdsourced children’s television show hoped to let kids show off cool science projects to each other. Maybe I’m biased, but I thought my team had a decent idea for a next-generation bookmobile where kids could play electrical engineering and computer science games like a mobile Exploratorium.
Each passenger was given little stickers to paste to their favorite projects. I wandered the aisles of hand-drawn pitch decks taped to the overhead compartments. Veteran VCs and corporate VPs giddily promoted their ideas to scrappy young founders, pandering for votes. Then something special happened. Somewhere in the hackathon’s fourth hour I forgot we were hurtling through the sky at 500 miles per hour and just lost myself in the spirit of progress. It wasn’t until I looked over to the window and saw the sunset over the wing that I remembered how surreal the scene was. It made me think that we discount the value of turning off our phones and thinking uninterrupted for a while.
When we do disconnect for a digital detox, we’re usually on vacation, not trying to solve big problems without the aid of Google search. Maybe we shouldn’t need an actual lack of connectivity to connect.
High-Minded, But UnGrounded
After a comically short three-hour scheduled nap time, we were awoken by a perky voice on the loud speaker announcing the votes had been tallied. The winning projects were: “Beacon In A Backpack,” a mobile stem toolkit that helps travelers become STEM evangelists to rural villages; CertifyMe, a certification tool to determine if developing world talent has the STEM skills for serious tech jobs; Init, that tech nutrition label idea I can’t see any gadget-maker showing on their boxes unless legally required; and, my favorite, AdvisHer.
Women in STEM education majors can sometimes feel out of place. They’re often the minority and can face unfair scrutiny, trouble finding work groups, and misogyny. A better mentorship program like AdvisHer could keep them on the path to high-powered engineering and tech product management jobs where their perspective is sorely needed.
AdvisHer founder and Women Innovate Media managing director Kelly Hoey tells me “If girls in pipeline programs don’t see more role models, we’ll never change the percentages of women entering and remaining in STEM-related fields.” She follows that the AdvisHer site is live, and “We’ll see if the constituents we designed the site for embrace it as enthusiastically as we hacked it.”
Tomorrow, AdvisHer and the other winning teams will present to the G8 Innovation Summit and DNA conference, which features speeches and panels from tech leaders like Microsoft’s Paul Allen, Lean In’s Gina Bianchini, and several of the flight’s passengers.
The hope is that the DNA (Decide Now Act) conference organizers will find a way to put one of the UnGrounded flight’s projects into practice. Simon Talling-Smith, British Airways’ EVP, tells me he thinks the event performed “Beyond expectations” but admits the goal “was more to create proposals than make them happen today.”
In Silicon Valley, though, ideas mean nothing and execution is everything. That’s why the lack of a concrete plan to fund or implement the output of the flight was disappointing. Even the winning team has little plan beyond just putting its idea out there and seeing if anyone takes to it. This makes the ideas generated on the flight feel like well-wishing in a space that needs real impact.
But up above the clouds, the UnGrounded passengers seemed satisfied to suspend their cynicism for a minute and just dream. While the plans in our colorful posters may never come to fruition, the importance of STEM education won’t be forgotten. The people aboard are in a position to pass that insight on. We need more engineers to bring about tomorrow, and the next generation can’t afford that understanding to vanish into thin air. [Image Credits]
“[Twitter bird logo] #brand” just became an endangered species. Hashtags are becoming universal as Facebook will start supporting them. That neutralizes an important growth vector for Twitter. Before, each print or tv ad mentioning a hashtag nagged people to join Twitter. Now they can join the real-time conversation through the social network they already use.
Businesses and events want their social mentions to achieve maximum reach, so advertising a “Twitter hashtag” doesn’t make much sense when they could promote a universal hashtag. I expect we’ll either see the Twitter logo drop off before displayed hashtags, or the Facebook logo added.
Whether hashtags get popular on Facebook remains to be seen. Subscribe, its Twitter-style asymmetrical following feature for celebrities and journalists, hasn’t quite become a hit. And hashtags will be posed with the challenge that much of what’s posted on Facebook is only shared with friends, not the public.
Facebook hashtags have one thing going for them. For really popular events, I might not care what strangers are posting about on a Twitter hashtag. But when you click on or search a Facebook hashtag, it may find a way to prioritize surfacing what your friends are saying. Personally, I’d care more to see what my buddies and acquaintances said about the Game Of Thrones #redwedding than have those truly social mentions drowned out by millions by people I’ve never met.
Facebook hashtags may flop and even with a little traction, Twitter will likely remain the king of real-time conversation. But today’s news could reduce the unique value-add of Twitter. It’s part of Facebook’s on-going “good enough” strategy to box out competitors. Someone else might do it better, but Facebook does it at scale on a network people don’t have to start on anew.