Telegram Office Hours Follow-up

by Peter Rojas

I've been doing open office hours off and on for the past few years, both in person and over Skype, but last month I decided to try something different and experiment with holding office hours over Telegram. There is clearly lots of value to doing these kinds of meetings in person or via video chat, but I thought holding the conversations over text messaging could offer a low pressure, more casual way for people to pitch me their startup, get feedback on their ideas, ask for advice on a product or career challenge, etc. I've become a big fan of Telegram over the past couple of years and have shifted a lot of my professional and personal messaging to the platform, so it seemed natural to try this there.  

My hope was that by making it easier to have a conversation that those who might find jumping on a Skype call with a stranger a little intimidating would feel more comfortable reaching out. I also thought it might be an easier format for those who aren't native English speaker. It probably wouldn't hurt that because everything would be conducted over text I'd probably be able to hold multiple conversations at the same time; it'd be a simple way to scale my availability since I'd be able to chat with more people during the same amount of time.

So I posted something on Twitter and on my blog asking if anyone would be interested in trying it out and received enough responses via email and DM that I decided to carve out a couple of hours on my calendar the following week for eight 15-minute sessions, with the expectation that sessions would likely run over and so some discussions would happen concurrently. (If you're especially curious, I used Calendly for scheduling the sessions.) 

Some takeaways:

  • It was a more efficient use of time. Some people had a very specific ask of me and only needed to chat for a few minutes. For those requests scheduling a call or an in-person meeting would probably not have been the best use of time for either of us, especially since with chat it's easier to get straight to the point. Trying to have that same conversation over email would likely have taken longer and required much more back and forth to get the same result.
  • I was able to be more considerate in my responses. Doing the conversations over text message meant I could take time (although not too much time!) to think about my responses. When you're speaking with someone in person or a call there is a lot of pressure to respond immediately to whatever they're saying. Chatting over Telegram gave me a little bit of a buffer to consider my responses before offering them. 
  • Having overlapping chats worked, for the most part. Only a few people needed to chat for more than 15 minutes and I was able to handle two conversations simultaneously when I needed to. But I do need to work on being more responsive, one person told me that it was sometimes hard to tell if I was preparing to respond or waiting for them to respond. This is something that you don't have to worry about with a meeting or call and I will have to be mindful of this next time around.
  • There can be miscommunications/misunderstandings. One person explaining their business model to me kept writing "1.06%" when they meant "106%" and it took more than a few minutes to untangle what they meant. I suspect if we had been on the phone or in person it would have been easier to get clear up the confusion. Fortunately this was the only misunderstanding in the eight chat meetings I had that day, but having conversations entirely over text does risk some nuance being lost and it's something else I am going to keep in mind going forward.

Will I do it again? Yes, absolutely. I had a bunch of great conversations and the flexibility of the format made it easy for me to find time for it. If you're interested in signing up for a future Telegram office hours session let me know!

Why we're doing Livecamp

by Peter Rojas

Last week we opened up applications for Livecamp, our next themed pre-seed program. For each of these Camp programs we pick a specific emerging area that we're really excited about and want to go deep on, and the focus for Livecamp, which kicks off in September in New York City, will be on startups building live interactive experiences. 

What do we mean exactly by "Live"? While previous Camps have focused on more clearly delineated categories like voice-based computing (Voicecamp), AR and computer vision (Visioncamp), and conversational software and messaging (Botcamp), this will be the first Camp where what we are looking for is tougher to define; for example, it's pretty easy to decide what does and doesn't count as an augmented reality product. We picked "Live" as the theme of our next program because we believe something big is happening at the intersection of television and gaming that is reshaping media and culture. The boundary between those two once distinct categories is becoming increasingly blurry as TV becomes more like gaming and gaming becomes more like TV. For Livecamp we want to work with startups that are exploring these boundaries and working to define the future of live by creating new kinds of synchronous multiplayer experiences that borrow from both gaming and television.

After 25 years of false promises, a lot of the crazy stuff around "interactive TV" we've been waiting for is finally becoming a reality. Apps like HQ Trivia are proving you can build a massive audience by re-inventing the game show as something everyone can play, not just watch. Streaming platforms like Twitch and Mixer and esports titles like League of Legends and Overwatch have turned gaming into a spectator sport, showing that it can be just as much fun to watch someone play video game as it is to play it yourself. There is an inexorable trend of audiences moving beyond being just passive consumers of content and towards becoming active participants in their own right.

Why now? Some of it is simply cultural: we've had entire generations grow up for whom gaming and its dynamics are now second nature and they expect participatory experiences by default. It also helps that we’ve reached a point where a lot of the core infrastructure that’s needed to build these kinds of live interactive experiences is in place and is increasingly cheap and easy to use. That means startups can focus more on crafting amazing experiences and less on trying to keep servers from crashing (though of course that does still happen from time to time). That moment when startups need to differentiate through creativity and not just sheer engineering talent is exactly what we get excited about here at betaworks, because that’s when the real experimentation around product starts to happen. That is why we’re doing Livecamp: We're convinced something is going on here and we're looking for fresh approaches to what it means to build live interactive experiences. 

If you’re working on anything in this space we’d love to hear from you and see how we may be able to help. You can learn more about Livecamp here. If you're ready to apply you can start the application process here. Any questions? You can contact me here.

Freelance Event Producer for The Mobile Augmented Reality Summit

by Peter Rojas

I'm working with a small group planning a half-day summit for May 15th in San Francisco and we're looking for a freelance event manager/producer to help us out. Our ideal candidate is someone organized and detail-oriented who can assist with the following tasks (among others):

  • Interfacing with the event venue

  • Scheduling speakers

  • Coordinating technical and A/V needs for the event

  • Managing the day of the event (badges, check-in process, speakers, catering, etc)

This is a part-time role, we’d expect just two or three hours a week of your time in the weeks leading up to the event and full days the day before and day of the event. This will be an especially fun project to work on if you’re interested in augmented reality!

Send your resume/background and hourly rate to me here and we’ll get back to you!

A News Feed Without News

by Peter Rojas

The day nearly every digital media company has been fearing has finally come: Facebook is going to change the way News Feed works. In a post last week Mark Zuckerberg announced that over the coming months Facebook will begin showing users less "public content from businesses, brands, and media," and instead prioritize updates and content shared by friends and family. For publishers who have become addicted to the free traffic which has flowed from Facebook users clicking and sharing articles which have populated their News Feeds, this is bad news (especially given that the amount of traffic Facebook sends publishers has already been dropping steadily since last year). For those who have built their entire readership acquisition strategy around social distribution through Facebook, it may well prove fatal.

For media companies, relying on Facebook for traffic was seductive. While the good times rolled, it was easy to overlook that despite being called "News Feed", anyone getting their news via Facebook is a side effect of the platform, not its intent. News publishers, who often put a considerable amount of effort into optimizing their content and websites to maximize Facebook shares, became accustomed to thinking of that traffic as "theirs." They mistakenly believed that the distribution of their articles and videos via News Feed was a natural extension of Facebook's core functionality -- or even the point of the platform in the first place. But Facebook's purpose is not to deliver the news, or even more broadly, "information." At the end of the day, Facebook doesn't care whether anyone becomes better informed by using Facebook. What ultimately matters to Facebook is that you continue to use it, which is why News Feed has been a machine designed to show you more and more of whatever it is that you will look at, click on, and share.

Up until this announcement it largely didn't matter whether that content was your friend's cat photos, a story about Yemen in the New York Times, or a recipe from AllRecipes. I can't tell whether Mark Zuckerberg is being disingenuous when he wrote in this past Thursday's announcement about the changes that he expects, "the time people spend on Facebook and some measures of engagement will go down," but that also the time spent "will be more valuable" and that in the long term such changes will be "good for our community and our business." You can bet that Facebook has already done plenty of A/B testing of these changes. It's entirely possible that they've determined that time spent will actually go up. Or that even if the amount of time the average person spends using Facebook goes down, it won't negatively impact revenue because engagement with ads improved and/or those brands and publishers which can afford it will pay for distribution they previously enjoyed for free.

Zuckerberg also said in his announcement that what content from businesses, brands, and media users see, "should encourage meaningful interactions between people." Sounds great, right? What worries me is that this may have the unintended consequence of making the fake news problem even worse. Strong engagement is why deliberately fabricated articles have done so well on Facebook in the first place. If you don't care much about being accurate -- or the damage you might do by misleading people -- it's all too easy to create content which will strike just the right kind of emotional nerve to drive clicks and shares. Today's polarized climate has made it especially easy for anything which inflames political passions to get shared, regardless of how true it may be. All that clicking and sharing is just the kind of big fat engagement signal the NewsFeed algorithms have looked for when calculating what to show users. Making things worse, these false stories didn't just have the effect of crowding out legitimate, but less engaging, content from your News Feed -- a situation which will likely be exacerbated by these changes. They also had a knock-on effect of diminishing the authority of articles which did surface in your News Feed from more established publications. How? Putting every piece of content, one after the other, in a single undifferentiated, uniformly-designed feed effectively flattens any distinctions between. You can't put a spurious site like Infowars next to a reputable publication like the New York Times in someone's News Feed and not expect the authority of the latter to rub off on the former. (This is a problem Google has as well with respect to ranking of search results.)

I don't know exactly how the new News Feed will handle issues like this. It's reasonable to assume that once publishers have some sense of what signals around engagement the algorithms are looking for, they will optimize their content for the new algorithms. Misleading content may actually be more likely to surface in users' feeds than informative content from legitimate sources as a result. It is also worth noting that most publishers won't be able to afford to pay to promote their content in order to drive click-thru. The cost of doing so will usually exceed their ability to monetize via advertising, potentially giving an advantage to anyone (including a state-sponsored actor with malicious intent) who has the resources to pay to promote misleading content into users' News Feeds but has no need to generate revenue from that traffic.

The solution to all this could be to have Facebook "do the right thing" and just show us dispassionate, authoritative, high-quality news articles anyway, right? Well, that kind of news may be better for us, but would likely lead to people using Facebook less and that would be bad for business. We don't necessarily want to admit it, but news, or at least the kind of news that we want people to read so they'll be better citizens, isn't necessarily what they want to look at online. There's nothing stopping anyone from just going directly to places like The Washington Post or Economist or New York Times to get their news (or better yet, subscribing to them). However, most people are casual consumers of news in whatever form is most convenient, whether it's via whatever they see in their Facebook feed, headlines at the top of the hour on the local FM station, or CNN when they're flipping channels. When they do actively seek out news by going directly to a source it is often to read or watch about a specific topic or area of interest, like sports, celebrity gossip, or tech (something I tapped into with Gizmodo and Engadget - during my time at each site the majority of traffic came from direct visits).

Even if social platforms like Facebook and Twitter disappeared, would any of that change? Before the rise of social media, most internet users who consumed news online did so via big portals like Yahoo and AOL (which is why getting on those homepages was a key strategy for digital media business at the time). Plus, it's not like the era immediately preceding the web was exactly a golden era of journalism producing a well-informed citizenry, either. Daily newspaper subscription rates began falling decades before the advent of the web, supplanted mainly by broadcast and then cable news. Yes, we had fewer debates over what was true and what was false, but this was because we had a media ecosystem which was largely closed to bad actors. And over time, consolidation via mergers and acquisitions meant that a relatively small number of gigantic media companies determined most of what we consumed. As damaging as Facebook has been for our political discourse, the sad reality is that most people don't go out of their way to become better informed by seeking out quality journalism about the state of national and international affairs. News Feed has been good at giving us what we want, not what we need.

For a while everything seemed great. Users who weren't naturally inclined to seek out news ended up consuming it because it showed up in their feeds. All that free traffic from Facebook masked two problems for publishers. First, a big platform which doesn't care much whether you live or die essentially controls access to your readers. Second, readers that only visited you because they clicked on a link in their News Feed probably don't have a strong connection to your brand -- or possibly even much awareness of which sites they were reading what articles. Getting them to go out of their way to find you when those links stop showing up is going to be difficult.

Could you address both of those problems by having a group of publishers come together to create a new platform for distributing their articles and videos via a News Feed-like newsreader app, perhaps one including options for monetization via ads, subscriptions, and micropayments? Yes, but simply offering an app for people to read the news and calling it a day won't be enough, especially if you want to get more people reading high quality, informative journalism and not celeb-driven clickbait. Aggregating a large audience is key, remember that all these websites flocked to share their content on Facebook in the first place because of its potential to deliver massive amounts of free traffic. Anything which doesn't move the needle in terms of audience (and hence revenue) is not going to be worth the effort. I don't pretend to have the answer here, but there would have to be something distinctive and compelling about the way news is consumed and shared on a platform like this if there's going to be any hope of attracting audiences at the scale for which publishers are looking.

That said -- and without minimizing the challenges inherent in building sustainable news businesses -- I am hopeful that in the long-run breaking publishers' addiction to Facebook traffic will free them from having to create so much pageview-driven clickbait (something even prestigious publishers engage in), allowing them instead to focus more on audiences who seek out journalism and pursue subscriptions and other non-advertising based sources of revenue. It's why I'm definitely in favor of more experimentation with how people discover and consume news; publishers have to become less reliant on big platforms like Facebook (and Google, for that matter) for distribution if they are going to survive and. For my part, I've opted out of Facebook (I quit almost eight years ago and never looked back), use an RSS reader to get most of my news (which lets me decide what sources of news I read), and am a paid subscriber to publications I value. These may be small steps, but they feel like the least I can do to help foster a healthier ecosystem around news.