I got thinking about where different types of songs can be streamed for free & how that influences where I spend time listening online. I present to you a bastardised Venn Diagram for where free streaming music catalogue lives in 2012. 
 
 Main observations: 
 - YouTube has everything. EVERYTHING. Even some obscure dubplate my 16 year old self thought I had the only copy of. But in a UI optimised for video rather than music consumption 
 - Overall my listening habits (in order of hours/month): 
 1. SoundCloud/Bandcamp (new artists) 
 2. Spotify/Rdio/etc (epic catalogue, big new releases) 
 3. DatPiff (hip hop mixtapes) 
 4. HypeM/Mixcloud (curated new stuff) 
 5. YouTube (anything not available in the above) 
 - the more excited I am by new artists (e.g. right now  Swag Rap ), the more time I spend on Soundcloud/Bandcamp/DatPiff/Mixcloud. When there’s no new scene I’m into I retreat into catalogue on Spotify. 
 - I suck at drawing 
 What about you?

I got thinking about where different types of songs can be streamed for free & how that influences where I spend time listening online. I present to you a bastardised Venn Diagram for where free streaming music catalogue lives in 2012.

Main observations:

- YouTube has everything. EVERYTHING. Even some obscure dubplate my 16 year old self thought I had the only copy of. But in a UI optimised for video rather than music consumption

- Overall my listening habits (in order of hours/month):

1. SoundCloud/Bandcamp (new artists)

2. Spotify/Rdio/etc (epic catalogue, big new releases)

3. DatPiff (hip hop mixtapes)

4. HypeM/Mixcloud (curated new stuff)

5. YouTube (anything not available in the above)

- the more excited I am by new artists (e.g. right now Swag Rap), the more time I spend on Soundcloud/Bandcamp/DatPiff/Mixcloud. When there’s no new scene I’m into I retreat into catalogue on Spotify.

- I suck at drawing

What about you?

The Lost Years of Internet Start-ups

I was standing on a railway station platform near my parents’ house the other day, and saw a small coffee shack at one end of the platform. As I was waiting for my coffee, I saw the words “Est. 1997” printed on the wooden mantel. You see those words in restaurants, in bars, in local shops, in publishing houses. Usually it’s a point of pride and an indication of authenticity. It got me thinking about why you never see those words on web products.

A norm has been established around web businesses, that values rate of growth above all else. And the simplest equation that anyone tracking a start-up can use to estimate growth is [how big is it] divided by [how long has it been around].  I believe this leads many web businesses that are not yet at game-over scale, to mis-represent or obscure the age of their company to imply a more impressive growth pattern.

The first time I realised this I was watching a friend of mine present his start up at a big event, with many journalists in attendance. He is someone I look up to, and I have been a passionate user of his (pretty mainstream) product for many years, so was surprised to hear him say “we’ve been around for a year and already we’re XYZ big”. I could see journalists scribbling away getting it into their stories and wow it sounded impressive! No one seemed to be too fussed that the first alpha version came out in 2007. Start-up founders are typically hungry for journalists, VCs and others in the start-up landscape to embrace what they are doing and you see an example of founders warping the history of their start-up every day in TechCrunch, trying to compress their history to make the growth factor more impressive.

I started to notice myself doing it too. Songkick got started during in 2007 – 3 clueless kids with a passion for trying to improve live music, learning it all from scratch – web development, design, business development, growth, how the concert industry actually works - the whole enchilada. But I started to tell people we’d been going ‘for a few years’ or saying that we launched ‘properly’ in 2008. I noticed that when I warped the story a little, some people would be more impressed and everyone seemed to be doing it. I realised that without really thinking about it I’d started playing the game too. 

Unless you get lucky, it takes time to figure out how to make a profound, enduring difference to a market you love. I think we should be collectively more comfortable with the time we spend learning how to build something that people truly want. Songkick is now the second biggest concert site in the world, with much bigger ambitions than that, but yeah, it’s taken us 5 years to get where we are. And that’s ok I think. Typically, some of the highest integrity founders and entrepreneurs I most admire have always avoided juking the stats. Anthony from Hype Machine has always been clear and proud of starting HypeM in 2006, Perry Chen wrote a great post about the full founding story of Kickstarter and I love Ryan Schreiber’s old twitter bio – ‘fuckin with the haters for over 10 years’.

So from now on I’m going to stop playing the game. Songkick, Est. 2007.

Why we're there at the 9am onsale: no God mode

Songkick has a policy of not taking up offers to be put on the guestlist for shows. We didn’t actually realise this was something that unusual until Ben Sisario mentioned it in his NYT piece. Relatively quickly if you run a site for music (e.g. a medium sized music blog) you can get free tickets to most shows. We deliberately don’t do that so that everyone in our team still waits by their computer at whatever bizarre time the onsale is scheduled for and goes through the same process as every other fan out there. It keeps us close to the frustration and negative user experience that frequently characterises the process of buying tickets online. 

Hunter Walk, one of my favourite writers on product strategy explains his term for this ‘No God Mode’ and how he applied it at YouTube.

be careful to not create a distorted reality. Your users are likely on worse hardware with slower connections. They bump against your system limits all the time. The best way to motivate and fix problems is to encounter these same frustrations, and make sure your executives do as well.”

It would be interesting to think through the deliberate constraints that companies could be applying with other products e.g. for Google+, perhaps every Google Employee should be prevented from seeing other Googlers on the product, as a reminder of more normal usage patterns.

A peer-to-peer escrow

Dan and I spotted an interesting innovation while in Jakarta. The most popular online marketplace in Indonesia is Kaskus. It evolved from a Counter-Strike forum and now facilitates a Craigslist-esque service for buying and selling all types of goods.


One challenge online businesses in Indonesia face is the high level of fraud to contend with. Fraudulent sellers & buyers appear to be relatively common, and we heard there is a high level of distrust around buying & selling online. An interesting solution has emerged organically to this among the Kaskus community – a peer to peer escrow. The way it works is:

  • Within the Kaskus community there are superusers known to provide this service
  • The buyer, A will decide to buy item X from seller B
  • A transfers the money for the good to one of these superuser intermediaries, Y
  • Intermediary Y will confirm to seller B that they have received the money
  • B will ship item X to A
  • On satisfied receipt of X, A will tell Y to transfer the money to B
  • Transaction completed. Intermediary Y accrues additional positive reputation and takes a cut (up to 5% I heard?) of the transaction value

This seems like a interesting solution to a marketplace fraught by fraud, and it’s very interesting to see it created by the community in a fully emergent fashion. Typically most online marketplaces I have observed offset the risk of fraud as part of the marketplace’s core offering (e.g. eBay, Airbnb), but for markets where the level of fraud is high, this is another solution.

Does a similar online peer-to-peer escrow exist in any other markets?

Erotica and social media

I don’t know a lot about the history of erotica online, but I find what has been occurring on Tumblr (and to a lesser extent Pinterest) very intriguing. From my experience, erotica has not intersected much with social networks. Sites like Literotica enable user submitted erotic stories, but due to the real world identity-centric focus of Facebook & its predecessors, combined with the nature of erotic content, I’ve observed limited overlap. Compared to offline erotica (Anais Nin, Henry Miller, Pauline Reage etc), the online landscape feels somewhat de-humanizing. Flickr was probably the only mainstream social platform where I observed erotica finding a niche, but natural home.

 

Tumblr has 3 attributes that I think might be allowing a new form of social erotica to emerge: 1. support of pseudonymity; 2. a classy, creative environment for sharing images, videos, text; 3. An ecosystem in which content spreads incredibly socially.

 

I first stumbled across the erotica on Tumblr when reading a profile about James Deen, a male porn star who is particularly popular with women. If you look at the James Deen tag on Tumblr, there are many people curating content featuring him. There are a ton of Tumblrs where erotica/porn is the primary form of content being curated. It appears that the demographics of people curating and consuming this are different to for example the broader online porn space with a higher % of women and couples. 

 

Mostly it appears that everyday Tumblr users are curating what they find erotic and organically building a following around this. It is sometimes mixed media, for example a story followed by an image.  The ‘ask me anything’ feature of Tumblr frequently intersperses the erotica & creates a conversation between curator and visitor around personal sexual peccadilloes. The animated GIF is very much alive and well. Sometimes users will interlace curated external content with images of themselves. It all feels quite  human.

 

It seems interesting that such a personal form of erotic expression is occurring online, compared to much of the soulessness found in the porn landscape. I’m curious to see where this goes next, and in particular whether a dedicated service that extends and amplifies this behaviour emerges on the social web. I know a whole big bunch of VCs wouldn’t go near it with a bargepole! Ain’t no khaki pants round here.


Curious to hear if anyone has any thoughts on this. Am I just way behind and this has been going on forever in social media, or is this a relatively new phenomenon? 

Does social media use in Indonesia predict Facebook's decline?

I just spent a week in Jakarta exploring opportunities for Songkick, and was really surprised at the consumption patterns around social media there. Firstly it’s huge. Similar to Brazil, URLs are often left off advertising hoardings, and there are only FB/Twitter handles to activate. Everyone I spoke with was an active and passionate user of social media and fluent in the landscape of apps/services, from Whatsapp to Foursquare. 

I went there expecting Facebook to be the wildly dominant social platform. I’d read stories about the explosive growth FB had seen there, and have heard reports that FB internally forecast it to be their largest or second largest market long term. 

When I arrived, one of the common questions I’d ask people was which social networks they use. The response was extremely constant: Twitter, followed by Facebook. People on the whole seemed to be bored with Facebook. There was a sense it had been huge a year or two back, but now was less relevant. One user captured the broad sentiment towards FB well saying that it had become similar to an old email account that you check every now and then to see if there’s anything there.

Twitter was incredibly actively used, I’d see people using it on their phones everywhere. Path was also getting real traction, people see it as a natural complement to Twitter, intimate vs public. Most people had also tried and were often using many other social apps e.g. Foursquare, Whatsapp etc. Nothing on the level of Twitter though. 

I think initially I viewed this as some kind of quirk of the social media landscape in Indonesia. People seemed to be churning through social apps incredibly quickly, trying out everything, getting hooked on some, getting bored of others far more quickly than in the UK or US. It felt like weird alternative social ecosystem, where everyone was way more into social networking than most places I’ve been.

It felt like watching the story of social media story play out in fast forward.

Then I remembered that there was another place I’d seen like that - Silicon Valley, where the social platform trends are often leading indicators for those in the world at large. 

That made me start thinking a bit more about what the underlying cause of this higher adoption/decline velocity might be. I think the primary underlying cause for this ‘fast forward’ social media culture in Indonesia is probably demographics. The median age in Indonesia is 28! Compare that to the US (37) and UK (40). People across the population are highly networked and in many cases, mobile native. They are aggressively curating their technology use based on the value it brings. It made me wonder whether in Jakarta I really was watching the global story of social media in fast forward. If so it does not bode well for Facebook.

Jay-Z connecting the dots between Russell Simmons and Mark Zuckerberg

“People in the record business had always made a lot of money. Not the artists, who kept dying broke, but the execs. Still, regular fans had no idea who they were. Russell changed that. His brand as an executive mattered not just within the industry, but among people in the street. And with Def Jam he created one of the most powerful brands in the history of American entertainment.

Russell also made being a CEO seem like a better deal than being an artist. He was living the life like crazy, fucking with models, riding in Bentleys with his sneakers sticking out the windows, and never once rapped a single bar. His gift was curating a whole lifestyle—music, fashion, comedy, film—and then selling it. He didn’t just create the hip-hop business model, he changed the business style of a whole generation of Americans.

The whole vibe of start-up companies in Silicon Valley with twenty-five-year-old CEOs wearing shelltoes is Russell’s Def Jam style filtered through different industries. The business ideal for a whole generation went from growing up and wearing a suit every day to never growing up and wearing sneakers to the boardroom.

Even as a teenager, I understood what Russell was on to. He’d discovered a way to work in the legit world but to live the dream of the hustler: independence, wealth, and success outside of the mainstream’s rules. Coming from the life I was coming from, this was a better story than just being a rapper, especially based on what I now knew about how rappers got jerked.

I first met Russell when Dame, Biggs, and I were negotiating for a label deal for Roc-A-Fella after Reasonable Doubt dropped. I remember sitting across the table from him and Lyor Cohen in disbelief that we were negotiating a seven-figure deal with the greatest label in rap history. But I was also feeling a dilemma: I was looking at Russell and thinking, I want to be this nigga, not his artist.” - Jay-Z, Decoded

Introducing the World Series: #1 Yancey Strickler

I love spending time with people who are creating something unusual. 

Those people are hard to track down in person. They often skip the conference circuit to spend more time working on their product or art. But if you travel to see them, over dinner and drinks you can learn so much about the process of creating something enduring.

I’ve been lucky to meet a ton of people like that over the past few years while building Songkick and I want to find a way to connect those creators in places like New York, Berlin, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Beijing and Tokyo with the growing community of people building interesting things in London.

I’m going to try a small experiment tomorrow night. I’ve rented a room that can hold just over 30 people at the Hoxton Hotel from 7-9pm, and put a deposit on the bar tab. My friend Yancey Strickler, co-founder of Kickstarter is in town from New York. We’ll have a short Q&A between Yancey and I to introduce what he’s been doing and some of the unusual ways he and his team have approached things, then an open discussion with the room. Consider this the World Series #1!

If you’re building something in London, or excited about the intersection of technology, art, and culture, I’d love to see you there. Just drop me an email (ian.hogarth AT [google’s_mail]) to see if there’s space.

Scaling the Manhattan Project

A couple of months ago someone I love was diagnosed with a brain tumour. Alongside with the very personal aspects of this, it’s got me thinking about the rate of progress being made at solving the hardest problems humanity faces, and what could be done to accelerate that.

I hope the work we are doing at Songkick is going to really matter. A lot of our vision for the future of live music is not visible yet, but I hope that by the time we are done we will make a meaningful contribution to music. I believe that increasing access to art and improving the general health of cultural industries is valuable work. I hope one day Songkick’s contribution will start to look like some of the culture centric companies I admire most - like IMDB, Kickstarter, Pitchfork.

 

But with this news about my loved one, I’ve been thinking a lot about paths not taken, and specifically the work I was doing during my Masters in Machine Learning. My professor had been working closely with a local hospital to build a data set of cancer biopsy images, which had been classified by the hospital’s pathology team into various grades. My project was to take this set of ‘training data’ and design a machine that could learn to classify biopsy images. Were this to be successful it could be applied as a pre-screening filter, saving time for overloaded oncology teams. There would have been another benefit – automation of classification might have helped to make the process of doing biopsies more scalable, enabling more people to have biopsy’s taken.

 

I made some progress, and developed a classifier that went some of the way to being able to pre-filter biopsy data. However, I didn’t take it even close to something that could be used in production by a hospital, and after my Masters did not continue working in the field. Over the past few months I have been trying to connect the news about my loved one’s diagnosis with my choice to leave the field. Asking myself why I didn’t keep contributing. Asking myself if it would have made any difference if I did. Asking myself what the most useful way for me to help is today.

 

Looking backward at my decision to leave academia, I found the sheer scale and complexity of the overall problem driving my research (cancer) unbelievably overwhelming. It felt impossible to contextualise how important or valuable what I was doing was in the space of what was being developed in the field more broadly. For example I found out late in my masters that some technology developed by the military for detecting enemy encampments in the desert was being applied to the same problem of medical image classification with great success and was way ahead of what I had done. There was no easy way to make a connection between my day to day challenges of tweaking machine learning algorithms and the bigger problem that was situated within. I work best when I can see the big picture and derive enormous motivation from affirming that the work I am doing has a high chance of being worthwhile.

 

A couple of months ago I read a brilliant piece by my friend Richard Price, co-founder of Academia.edu. Richard has been working extremely hard on the problem of better networking academics in the hope that this speeds up the pace of scientific discovery. It hasn’t been easy and but he has been working relentlessly on it since 2007 despite a general level of apathy from VCs for the space. The kind of entrepreneur who is on a mission.

 

Reading his essay was the first time I connected networked web services to the questions I have been asking myself since my loved one’s diagnosis. And it makes me think that there is something missing from the web that could make a difference.

 

4 themes that seem connected to me:


1. the step change in aggregate knowledge that comes from allowing anyone with access to the web to contribute to the sum of knowledge on a topic. Wikipedia is the obvious example of a networked crowd working together to produce a richer version of encyclopedic knowledge, but there are many others from open source software to the Goldcorp crowdsourced gold-mining example

2. the increasing ability of people to use social platforms to coalesce around issues they are passionate about. From Arab Spring to Occupy Wall Street

3. the increasing ‘siloization’ of research due to entrenched corporate interests, academic publication cycles and paper availability. Sergey Brin’s project to unite 

4. the increasing cross-departmental nature of scientific progress suggesting that the network of potential contributors around any given problem is expanding

 

I think there might be an opportunity to create a new internet platform at the scale of Wikipedia that enables humanity to collectively solve the biggest problems it faces. The internet equivalent of the Manhattan Project. For problems spanning Alzheimers to our energy issues. The characteristics of this platform might be:


- Focused on problems unsolved by humankind. Rather that how Wikipedia/Quora/Stack Overflow focus on aggregate knowledge on a topic, the service would focus on solving unsolved problems. A shift in focus from knowledge to progress


- A structure that enables huge problems to be broken down into sub-problems with the contribution of solving those sub-problems (build a classifier for breast cancer biopsy images) clearly related to the overall parent problem/s (treatment of breast cancer)


- Top down and bottom up. The motivation derived from top down problems ‘put a man on the moon’ cannot be underestimated, but we will also find solutions to problems that have not yet been contextualized against something else. This emergent reconciliation of solutions from different areas of scientific progress may end up being one of the most valuable features of the system

 

- A structure that enables anyone to contribute. From hobbiest hackers to amateur geologists. Similar to Wikipedia and others a key part of the thesis is the broader contribution the crowd can make


- A structure that recognizes and rewards individual contributions. It is critical in my mind that the best minds of our generation feel incredibly motivated to participate in solving components of these problems. As my friend Jeff Hammerbacher, once of Facebook, said “The best minds of my generation are thinking about how to make people click ads”. I see this needing to be a for profit entity that distributes both global recognition/reputation and financial reward to contributors.

 

As with web platforms in general, this would likely be focused on a niche to start. This first ‘mission’ would likely be characterized by 1. High importance to humanity, such that a solution would dramatically validate the platform, and that people could be mobilized around it more broadly e.g. Alzheimer's 2. Being in an area where a high percentage of potential (amateur) contributors have been largely marginalized.

 

I would greatly value being part of the distributed team of people working to help improve the prognosis of my loved one. I have some evenings and weekends. I am skilled in various areas that could be of help and I am incredibly motivated. I could help indirectly by raising money for a charity or research organisation working in the area, but I would love to contribute more directly if I could.

 

Is anyone making any progress on something like this? 

 

Separately if anyone knows someone working at the cutting edge of research into glioblastomas I would be very grateful to speak with you.

Designing for Emergence

I’ve become increasingly curious about whether you can explicitly design systems to exhibit emergent phenomena. Not trying to be all meta and shit, but the good folks at Wikipedia have come up with a definition of emergence as:

“the arising of novel and coherent structures, patterns and properties during the process of self-organization in complex systems” - Goldstein ‘99

That seems like a winner if you’re an entrepreneur working with networked techology and someone who likes to enable novel stuff to happen. They go on to specify:

“The common characteristics are: (1) radical novelty (features not previously observed in systems); (2) coherence or correlation (meaning integrated wholes that maintain themselves over some period of time); (3) A global or macro "level” (i.e. there is some property of “wholeness”); (4) it is the product of a dynamical process (it evolves); and (5) it is “ostensive” (it can be perceived). For good measure, Goldstein throws in supervenience – downward causation.“ - Corning '02

Something radically novel, that naturally perpetuates itself to global/macro scale seems like what many of us working with technology are striving towards.

Towards a unified theory of starting up

Wired asked me to write something for the last issue about start-ups, aka that ol’ heartache. 

Here’s my attempt at a unified theory for starting up:

1. Find the people you believe you could build something amazing with. These are your cofounders.

2. Find something you love deeply that could be so much better. This is your market.

3. If you spent your lifetime on that thing, what could it become? This is your vision.

4. What is the smallest possible thing you could build that would test whether others agree? This is your minimal viable product.

5. Recruit the smallest team needed to build it. These are your seed investors and first hires. Be utterly ruthless about choosing people who share your values, vision and ambition level.

6. Build it and launch it. This is your first test.

7. Celebrate. It’s really important to do this. That was some intense stuff!

8. Tell some people that you think will care. These are the most important people in the world now, the first ever users of your product.

9. Is there anything about your product that your new users couldn’t live without? If not, return to step 4, it’s OK. If so, onward!

10. Improve that specific thing that they can’t live without. See if they start to tell their friends about how great it is.

11. Go back to step 3. Maybe it’s even bigger than you thought. If so, tell everyone in your team how so.

12. Figure out a way to make money that is aligned with what your users can’t live without.

13. Use that money to move faster towards your vision. This means making more users happier, faster.

14. Go back to step 3. Making something better is addictive. Doing it with the best people in the world, for something you love, is worth the heartache.

Do I trust these founders with this market?

Alfred Lin, once mentioned to me how important founder-market fit is to a start-up’s success. His point (if I’m remembering correctly) was that the depth of passion a founder feels for their market is a powerful predictor of whether they’ll make it through the hard times, and build something enduring.

I’ve been thinking about that a lot since and I’ve realised that the products that I get most invested in are the ones where on a deep, gut level, I trust the founders or leaders of the company to define the future of something that I care about – more so than anyone else out there. The trusted ‘guardians’ of a market’s long term destiny. I think it boils down to 3 things:

  • passion: a hackneyed word in start-up land but broadly some deep fascination and reverence for their market
  • integrity
  • ambition: for what their market could become (more so than for themselves)

I think the first time I got that feeling was with Google. Everything about their culture and product embodied a fascination and love for information and learning, and a wild ambition for what a company that focused on ‘organising the world’s’ information could achieve for humanity.  I’d read about their work to digitise every book and I’d be shocked by the ambition, and I’d feel it in every interface decision, that emphasized utility and access for everyone. I came to trust, that Google deserved to be and should be the company to organise the world’s information, and as a user, I wanted them to succeed.

The first indicator of such a founding team is some kind of ambition to make a market, a wild-eyed order of magnitude better. If the closest thing to an owner of the ‘information’ market in the past were libraries, Google felt like a transformative, expansive ambition. The founders that I have gotten to know well who embody this are people like Alex and Eric at Soundcloud, who believe that ‘audio’ as a digital experience, should be much broader and wider than just music. Or Yancey and Perry at Kickstarter, who believe that the world’s creative output could be so much greater than current structures allow. That level of ambition, faced with existing monopolies, incumbencies and inertia in the market, usually means that change takes time. Perry and Yancey were working on Kickstarter since 2005, and had a ton of knockbacks in the early years. That depth of passion for creators was necessary to get through that first phase. Alex and Eric are now backed by some of the best investors in the world, but early on, they too struggled to find supporters who could see how different things could be.

Often the first indicator of this depth of passion and vision is an unconventional background prior to founding their business. Alex was a sound engineer; Perry and Yancey had bounced around various roles in creative industries from Pitchfork to art galleries. A level of dissatisfaction, and searching prior to founding their companies seems part of the story. And part of the ambition and integrity that will bear no long-term compromise.

Once I come to feel this about a product and it’s founders, I start to believe in their vision, even if on a gut level it doesn’t yet make sense to me as a consumer. Personally for me, audio is largely the same as music, but I believe that Eric and Alex, can see into that market’s future further than I can. I feel the same trust for Anthony Volodkin with ‘cultural curators’, Drew and Arash with ‘my personal digital content’ and Chris Poole and ‘identity’.

It’s a lovely feeling when that happens.

The flipside of this is when you see a founding team or leader who is currently representing a market, and you don’t yet feel that sense of trust that they are the right guardians of its destiny. I think if a founding team does not possess passion, integrity and ambition for their market it can still lead to a ton of medium success, but not an enduring company. 

TL; DR as a service?

Part of the reason I’ve started this blog is to find more resonant moments.

Part of it is to explore thoughts that I can’t let go of.

But part of it is to try to get better at writing. I think the web has given greater and greater leverage to people who can express their ideas via keystrokes. Hackers and writers. Every day I read whatever keystrokes people like Fred Wilson, or danah boyd, or Ian Rogers decide to share with me. And I learn so much - about shared interests, and about them. I’d like to figure out if I can influence the things I love more effectively if I learn to write well.

I know there are emerging services that help people learn to turn keystrokes into code.

I would like to pay for a service that helps me turn keystrokes into good prose. I’d like it even more if it was somehow embedded within a blogging/writing platform so I could save the draft, hit ‘send to editor’ and get feedback from a professional writer.

I’m not interested in some machine learning semantic thing. I want a human at the other end of the line.

Does anyone know if this exists?

Sometimes you have to go to the ropes. What Muhammad Ali can teach fighters everywhere.

Most of the people I really admire are trying to do something amazing in the face of great adversity. The artists trying to express the heart of something. The start-up teams trying to do the impossible. The critics holding everyone to the highest standards. Anyone fighting the odds to do something great.

 

The first phase of building Songkick hasn’t been easy, and if we’re going to make a lasting contribution to live music then there are major, daunting obstacles ahead. When dealing with a daunting challenge, I often think of When We Were Kings, the documentary about the Ali / Forman fight in Zaire. I love boxing. It’s a sport where a champion can come from anywhere. It’s all about the quest for greatness, and the value of ‘heart’. It’s an amazing metaphor for the struggle to make something happen against huge odds.

 

The documentary captures a point in history when some of the smartest voices in culture were following boxing. From Norman Mailer to George Plimpton, the talking heads are brilliant insightful voices. Step by step they follow Ali and Forman through their training, the days leading up to the fight, and the night itself.

 

Going into the fight Forman is younger, stronger, heavier than Ali - the odds were 7-1 in Forman’s favour. Early in the film they show footage of Forman pounding the heaviest hanging bag leaving dents the size of a watermelon in it. It’s an unbelievably daunting image. As much as you know of Ali’s speed and his skill - the force with which Forman hits the bag is terrifying. The rest of the film explores how Ali goes about winning arguably the hardest fight of his career.


1.   Inspire.


Ali’s first shot against Forman starts well before the fight, when he travels around the towns in Zaire meeting the people, and showing them that his fight is their fight. He teaches them a chant – “Ali, Bomaye” - Ali, Kill him. The night of the fight almost the entire crowd is chanting it, and it messes with Forman in a powerful way. It goes from one man fighting another to a crowd standing for what Ali symbolises. If you want to beat the odds you have to find that crowd of people who want it to happen as much as you. And you have to make their fight your fight.


2. Change the game.


Ali does something super unusual when the fight starts. He hits Forman with a ‘right hand lead’. To understand the significance of this you have to think about the body positions of two right handed boxers facing each other. They stand with their left shoulders closer to their opponent than their right. Their left hand is up ready to jab out, and the right stays back protecting the right side of their head from the powerful right of their opponent. In the case of Forman that right hand was truly brutal and only a crazy man would consider what Ali does next.

Ali leads out at Forman with his right – a right hand lead. Given his body position his right fist has to travel much further to strike than his left would, so it requires incredible speed. During that time, he leaves himself exposed on the right, to that deadly blow from Forman. His hands are so fast though that he takes the risk and Forman, never expecting anyone to try that is hit multiple times square on - 12 right hand leads in total. The kind of punches that you would expect to tip the fight in Ali’s favour. It’s an incredible tactical move. And one that against a less powerful opponent should have set Ali up to win. And he does it out of nowhere. There was no signal in all the training camp sessions that he was preparing this. He changes the game on Forman.


3.  Go to the ropes.

But Forman is something else. A force of nature unlike anyone Ali has fought. Despite the crowd and the right hand lead combinations he stays up and Ali has to think of something else. Mailer is sitting ringside, and as the bell for the end of a round goes he describes the moment:

Ali went back to the corner…
Finally the nightmare he’d been awaiting in the ring
had finally come to visit him.
He was in the ring with a man he could not dominate,
who was stronger than him, who was not afraid of him,
who’d try to knock him out, and who punched harder than Ali,
and this man was determined and unstoppable.
Ali had a look on his face that I’ll never forget.
It was the only time I ever saw fear in Ali’s eyes.’
Ali looked as if he looked into himself and said,
“All right, this is the moment.
This is what you’ve been waiting for.
This is…that hour.
Do you have the guts?” And he kind of nodded,
like, “Really got to get it together, boy.
“You are gonna get it together… you WILL get it together.”
 

You can see this moment at the end of the scene I’ve embedded above. Ali gets up from that round and goes to the ropes. Round after round he takes a fearsome punishment from Forman – blow after blow after blow. Huge, bone shattering blows that he has to resist with every inch of his being. It looks to everyone like it’s over:


‘And a lot of people thought that moment the fight was over.
‘Especially on TV, it looked like Foreman was killing a very weak Ali.’

But he resists, he stays up and then many rounds later, with Forman exhausted from the marathon - he strikes. He strikes fearsomely and knocks Forman down. The image from that moment has looked down from bedroom walls ever since.


It’s fucking incredible. If you’ve not seen this film you have to.

 

Somehow this fight has become a symbol I take inspiration from when I’m feeling overwhelmed by how hard it can feel. How daunted I am. I remember to find the smartest and best intentioned allies to collaborate with. I try to find the most innovative way to approach the problem and change the game.

 

But if none of that works? You have to go to the ropes.

 

When I look for people to work with I think that’s really what I’m looking for. Someone who will be as inspiring as they can. As smart and innovative as they can. Someone who will change the rules of the game so it’s not less about working hard – and more about thinking different. But if they have exhausted all other options – they’ll go to the ropes and find a way through.

One exciting thing about having two internets: Douban.com

 

One of my favourite things about learning a new language, is discovering words that only exist in it. That old cliché about Sami having 100 ways to describe snow. Schadenfreude, litost, torschlusspanik, saudade, ya’aburnee. Feels to me that you can learn a lot about a culture, by understanding its Relative Compliment.

 

I’ve been learning Mandarin since I was 18 and there are many examples of this in Chinese. 热闹 for example, which is describes the energy of a place or crowd - closest to ‘bustling’ but not quite there.

 

Quite a bit has been written about how the Chinese & non-Chinese internet spaces have been diverging over time. Twitter & Weibo; YouTube & Youku. There are certainly interesting differences between the same class of application for example the way media is treated on Weibo vs Twitter.

 

But I’m most intrigued by applications on the Chinese internet that don’t currently exist on the non-Chinese internet. When I was last in Beijing a friend showed me 豆瓣, Douban.


It’s so cool.

 

I love creative works of culture – movies, books, music etc. And it’s always struck me that the largest communities on the web centered around art are vertical e.g. IMDB for movies or Last.fm for music. That’s never quite fitted with how I consume and share creative works offline. When I’m catching up with a friend, I’m as likely to talk to them about how amazing Martha Marcy May Marlene was as hear what they’re reading right now. It’s not vertical offline, but it is online.

 

Facebook and other companies trying to build a broad 'interest graph’ have always felt too horizontal to mirror this. I want a place that feels centred around culture and creativity, where I can meet likeminded people around whatever is moving me right now.

 

Douban is the closest thing I’ve seen to that. A community built around celebrating and discussing creative works of all disciplines – and it’s huge – a top 20 Alexa site in China. Your profile centres around books, movies, and music. From my Chinese friends it sounds like it has retained an intellectual core, while scaling into the mainstream. It seems like it’s more about meeting new people around the art you love, than your existing friendship circle.

 

I recently resolved to start working on my Mandarin again. I want to become a part of the community on Douban and see how it feels. I hope it’ll lead me to other unique services on the Chinese internet that I’ve been missing out on and new Chinese artists.


Overtime I believe the 'two internets’ will start to converge. It’ll be interesting to see what the dominant sites are when that happens. For this transitional period it’s exciting to see new Chinese internet services that are developing from a new foundation and showing new models for online interaction.

If you liked this post I’m on twitter as @soundboy.

Same time, online. On building Synchronous Social Services

One of the people who has inspired me to try to write more is John Borthwick, who we are lucky to have as an investor in Songkick. He and Andy have written heavily on and invested in the theme of the ‘now’ or 'real time’ web. There’s a subset of that 'now’ meme that I’m particularly excited about, and that is synchronous social services.

I love live music, and Songkick’s mission is to make it a more mainstream experience. It is probably the largest scale 'synchronous’ offline social experience you can have. 100,000 people all standing in a field as Jay-Z comes out and satirises the British Rock Establishment at Glastonbury:

Why could online synchronous experiences be a big deal?

Over the past few years, two of the most unique web applications to emerge have been Chatroulette and Turntable.fm. For me the reason for that is that they have introduced new modes of synchronous social behaviour.

Humans do things everyday that require offline synchronicity - same place, same time, same focus. Meals, concerts, playing games or sport, surgical operations, sex, demonstrations, and good old conversation over a pint.

Moving something online typically dilutes it for me - I’m less excited about watching a livestream of a band play live than seeing them in the flesh. However there are ways in which moving an experience online can relax constraints and create important new experiences:

1. Removing the constraint of co-location

This is the most common derivation of synchronous or semi-synchronous web services - enabling things that would have normally happened offline, to still happen, even when the parties are not in the same location. E.g Skype, IM. Keeping in touch with loved ones is such a deep human need that these services reached epic scale relatively early in the web’s evolution. We will trade the vitality of a face to face conversation for an online version if that is all we can have.

Another example of this is telesurgery, enabling surgical specialists to perform operations wherever a patient is located assuming a telerobotic setup is possible.

Now, same place = the internet.

This is part of the magic of Turntable for me - being able to listen to music with someone wherever they are, similar to how I would sit with a friend playing records back and forth for an evening. I think this is part of why the international licensing issues that have cut off Turntable everywhere outside of the US have felt so brutal.

2. Removing the constraints of location size & increasing number of synchronous participants

Massive synchronous multiplayer games are an interesting example. Offline games are somewhat constrained by the number of people you can fit round a board or console. I’m fascinated by new online synchronous games that combine the elegance of Go or Chess with a huge volume of concurrent players.

Another is around concurrently consuming media. This is part of the magic of 4chan, tens of thousands of concurrent viewers and the consequences of that synchronicity.

Another offline example of synchronous social behaviour that hasn’t really migrated online yet is demonstrations. I’m not talking about some Facebook poll that builds up asynchronously over time, but the online equivalent of the 1963 Civil Rights March. It’s a more frivolous use case, but Anthony’s idea to hold back a Hypem relaunch until 10,000 people were concurrently on the Hypem homepage was an early (2007!) and super creative indicator of how a demonstration could move synchronously online.

3. Removing some of the risks of offline synchronous behaviour

The way that Chatroulette lowered the risk of meeting new people 'face to face’ was a  example of this. Yes online you might see a penis, but it’s not going get worse that that. This 'lower risk’ version of offline synchronous social experiences feels very ripe for exploration.

4. Relaxed identity constraint

I’m a believer in the need for pseudonymous or anonymous social experiences. Offline this has always been possible - from the bar in Lost in Translation, to a fancy dress party.

Virtual worlds like Second Life felt like an example of this but I think we’ll see more modern equivalents emerge in the next few years. A place to experiment with our identities.

A lack of distribution for synchronous social services?

That’s all well and good, but the 2 coolest new synchronous services that I’ve mentioned have both suffered from the same engagement pattern.

(source: Alexa)

(Source: Alexa)

There are people out there arguing that this is to do with penises, or the services being non-substantive. I don’t agree with that. I think they’re seriously cool and should be growing not declining. I think the spike/crash might be due to the lack of a distribution channel for synchronous experiences. Facebook, Twitter and Google all are asynchronous distribution platforms. Yes, if you spend enough time on twitter, it moves closer to synchronous, but like IM it’s designed to approach synchronicity asymptotically and never quite reach it.

These existing distribution platforms allow these new synchronous services to grow explosively as chatter & buzz build over time, but there is no distribution to drive continued synchronous engagement.

I think we’ll see some kind of distribution mechanism for synchronous experiences emerge and when it does, a wider set of synchronous online experiences will emerge, and see more stable engagement patterns. Mobile seems like where this will occur given the need for an immediate response.

I’m excited to see what happens next. Meanwhile am going to enjoy being in the US for a week and head to Turntable for an hour.