Posts about beta

Share your great mistakes

In the comments on the post below, John Caddell says he started MistakeBank so people could share their valuable booboos. Fascinating idea.

So what are the great mistakes you’ve made that opened up a new idea or opportunity? What are great mistakes others have made?

The failure system

Brian Frank riffs on yesterday’s post on the license to fail and argues that our standard for success should not be perfection but instead “generativity”:

. . . instead of evaluating things on how well they accord with preconceived models and assumptions, let’s evaluate things by looking at how many unexpected new opportunities they generate.

Failure breaks things open and allows us to remix the pieces in different ways. If we don’t do this from time-to-time — if we just keep accumulating more mass onto the same framework — eventually it gets too bulky and falls on our heads.

There are lots of interesting nuggets of ideas in his rambling on the idea. Frank illustrates his point talking about the progression of scientific theory from Newton to quantum and Einstein: “But now it’s becoming more difficult to stand on Newton’s shoulders. His ideas aren’t as generative anymore; they perpetuate more than they generate.” I don’t know enough there to agree or disagree; I see Frank searching for a metaphor for what I’ve been calling beta-think or what I’ve been arguing with newspaper people about finding opportunities wherever they see problems:

Much of the new science — like the new economy — is not about layering subsequent successes on top of each other, but they are generative in the sense that they open up new fields to explore. They are adventures that could very likely fail to prove their original hypotheses but can’t fail to generate new ideas and insights.

Next Frank tries his worldview on human psychology as he also challenges perfection as the goal:

Even looking at the people who hold perfection in high esteem, it isn’t perfection itself that motivates them, it’s the challenge of pursuing it — and the sneaking uncertainty that they can’t attain it: it’s a dare….

If you take the uncertainty and randomness and genuine risk out of life (as in, risking oneself, not just other people’s money) you take the life out of life…

So why would we perpetuate organizations, rules, and systems that are based on the fundamental assumption that randomness and uncertainty can be mechanized and ordered into a irrelevance?

He and I agree that this effort at order comes out of the industrial age: the need and drive to mechanize and systematize everything to do because that’s what the means of mass production and distribution demanded. In WWGD?, I argue that we are leaving that age and entering an economy and society built on abundance and knowledge (which, to return to Frank’s point, comes when you expand past old assumptions: when you generate new ideas). He concludes:

The society that embraces uncertainty, nurtures a love for it (i.e. a love of learning) and develops institutions that thrive because of randomness rather than despite it, will eventually have the most success, generation-by-generation.

: Howard Weaver also responds to my post, riffing on failure and perfection in cultures, industries, and economies:

In private life – business and commerce, the academy, creative endeavors – Jeff’s point is fundamentally applicable. I was lucky enough to be taught as a young editor periodically to ask the folks I worked with, “When was the last time you made a good mistake?”

I’d stress, of course, that a “good mistake” didn’t involve coming in drunk and misspelling all the names. A good mistake was one where we learned something we couldn’t have learned otherwise, where we were better off afterward for what we learned, where we had a clearer vision of what to try next.

Weaver agrees with Craig Newmark on British failurephobia and that makes me finally come up with a theory for what I’ve observed from my Guardian colleagues in political and media news in the U.K.: I call it the off-with-their-heads reflex that comes whenever a TV exec or a government minister or someone under them messes up. We see moments of that in America, of course. But we need to focus less on the mistake – the fall from perfection – and more on the question of whether the mistake is fixed and the lesson learned; if so, then the experience and the person may be valuable; if not, fine, behead them.

: LATER: There’s an interesting discussion about the beta life at the Business Innovation Factory.

Training the crowd as journalists

In the Philippines, the ABS-CBN TV network has been training citizens – 1,000 in the first recent class, 700 in the next – to report on the upcoming election there. They call it the Boto Mo iPatrol and count 15,000 members. Their curriculum:

They will orient the “patrollers” on the fundamentals of citizen journalism—from shooting pictures or videos using cell phones or cameras, to writing captions and telling a story, to uploading their reports to the Internet. They will also be briefed on the electoral process and the ethics of journalism.

I’ve argued that training is going to be a key role for the professional journalists and news organizations as they learn to collaborate with and empower communities to report on themselves. ABS-CBN News is doing that, gaining thousands of new witness-reporters in a story too large for any news staff to cover alone and adding value to their coverage, including verification.

The need for – and risks of – government transparency

At yesterday’s Personal Democracy Forum – where I was in the unfortunate position of speaking inbetween two of my favorite geniuses, danah boyd and David Weinberger – I sang the obvious hymn to the choir, arguing that government in a Google age means transparency. All governments’ actions and information must be searchable and linkable; we need an API to government to enable us to build atop it.

I also argue that as newspapers die – and they will – government transparency is a critical element in the new news ecosystem that will fill the void. When government information is openly available, a dwindling handful of journalistic watchdogs in a state capital can be augmented by thousands, even millions of watchdogs: citizens empowered. I’ll write more about this as part of the New Business Models for News Project.

But at PDF, I also listed four cautions regarding transparency – charges to us as citizens:

* We have to give permission to fail. In speaking with government people about What Would Google Do?, I’ve learned how much they fear failure and how cautious that makes them. Without the license to fail, government will never experiment, never open up, and never be collaborative.

In other words, we need beta government: the ability of government to try things, to open up its process, to invite us in, to collaborate. That was the lesson I learned from Google about releasing a beta: it is a statement of humility and openness and an invitation to join in. We need that in government.

* Transparency must not always mean gotcha. Oh, there are plenty of people to catch red-handed. But if transparency is about nothing more than catching bureacrats and politicians buying lunches, then we will not have the openness we need to make government collaborative.

* We have to figure out how to make government and its work collaborative. What if we were able to help government do its job? What if it acted like a network? What if it acted like Wikipedia, where a small percentage – less than 2 percent, says Clay Shirky – create it; it would not take many citizens to help make government work in new ways.

* We have to turn the discussion to the positive, the constructive. Again, there are plenty of bastards to catch. But we must move past that – especially once we have more watchdogs watching – so we can build.

I ran around the auditorium like a fool – a role I enjoy – playing Oprah and asking everyone in the audience to say what they thought government for the Google age looked like. Since I was running, I couldn’t take notes, but the #pdf09 Twitter hashtag captured some and PDF will put up a video later. Lots of great thoughts.

Beta-think: Live work’s Marc Benioff says the future of computing will be like Twitter – that is, live, not batched. “Any concept of batch or delay in development or execution, I think, will not be tolerated by customers anymore,” Benioff said at Structure 09 according to the Digitalbeat report.

But this urgency isn’t just about speed. It’s about organizing work around process over product: beta-think. “Even in development, customers are demanding now that they want to be able to build in that sandbox and deploy immediately, instantly, no delay,” Benioff said. Take that principle past software to other industries – news and advertising, to name two – and to work itself as beta becomes a principle of workflow and management. And that shift will bring a cultural clash to countless workplaces just as we’ve seen in the newsroom.

Many companies haven’t realized this is where things are headed, he said. Benioff recounted attending meetings with chief information officers who all refused to believe that Twitter represents anything significant; they don’t have accounts themselves because “it’s not their generation.” Benioff’s response? He types the name of their company into Twitter search and shows that they’re missing out on a huge part of the conversation. (Benioff isn’t an impartial observer here, since Salesforce’s Service Cloud product is all about connecting companies to their customers on services like Twitter.)

“I think corporations have to step it up in terms of integrating with these real-time systems,” he said.

That’s the same lesson that Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has learned recently as Twitter is used to organize anti-government protesters, Benioff added: “He’s probably on Twitter right now.”

Beta life

Three apparently unrelated items on the shift from valuing the product to valuing the process as the product:

* Trendwatching tells the story of what it calls “foreverism” – that is, that things never end (friendships, news stories, product development) and uses as illustration not only process journalism but also beta chocolate. TCHO is a chocolate company populated with geeks and so they brought betathink to their candy, releasing it as a beta, taking feedback from customers, and iterating it 1,026 times before coming out with the 1.0 chocolate. They didn’t put out bad chocolate to start with; they did their best. But then their customers helped make it better, ever better.

* reports – translating the newspaper La Stampa – that Italians are buying goods less often and renting them more often.

But the real revolution is that renting is becoming a way of life which is changing consumption and society. Car sharing, bike sharing, i.e. quick rentals of cars and bikes, but also dress sharing, i.e. the rental of clothes and handbags. There is toy sharing: children toys, small machines, lego, and puzzles. Even tools for the disabled, wheelchairs, orthopaedic supports, computers, and whatever you might need in the gym, sports or vacation. You don’t need to buy, you can just rent.

I think this ties into the idea of process: You can always rent the latest without having to buy it. You can afford to do so because you are sharing the cost with other users. Companies can find larger customer bases who are likely to be satisfied more because they are getting the latest. We move from a consumption economy to a use economy.

* NYU student Cody Brown delivers a neat take on the discussion about process v. product journalism last week, making distinctions between batch and real-time processing of journalism (read: The New York Times as opposed to blogs). Because The Times’ brand hinges on it as a product that has been curated and edited and checked and polished – note editor Bill Keller’s language on The Daily Show about his package – it finds itself in dangerous territory trying to compete in real time with those whose brand expectations are entirely different.

Brown says that for print, the “gestalt” is “batch processing.” How should it develop its brand? “As the voice of god.” How should it publish information on a developing story? “Cautiously. It should triple check it’s information and call every source involved in the story to give them an opportunity to comment.” How should it produce its product? “Into tight neatly written comprehensive articles … meant to exist as a ‘first draft of history.’” Who should do this? “Professionals. It’s expensive. A finite number of pages means a constant question: what is newsworthy to the most number of people?”

Compare and contrast with his take on online. Gestalt: “”Real Time Processing. Information is processed on the fly.” Brand? “An open platform…. Take the values/tactics that go on behind the walls of a newsroom (’the magic journalism box’) and execute them publicly.” How to publish? “Instantly. When a page is able to be updated at any frequency, corrections can be made just as fast. Rumors and gossip can be used as leverage to get sources, who otherwise wouldn’t, to spill what they know. Publishing incomplete information is the fastest way to get users to contribute to the bigger picture. This is a tactic in effective commons-based-peer production and it is how Wikpedia grew so fast and so well. As Harvard Law Professor, Yochai Benkler, describes, it often looks like a ‘disaster area.’ This is the ’scuttlebutt’ the Times can’t wrap its head around.” How should it produce its work? “API.” Who should do it? “Everyone in the beat. When a website has unlimited pages: there is no excuse.”

Brown says it’s possible for one to produce like the other But “the challenge is in branding.”

The messy, opinionated, incomplete, rumorladen, shit-show that is actual news production is hidden away. If you want a real time news website, it must be brought to the surface. This isn’t a problem for a brand like Tech Crunch, but it puts print news brands in a terribly awkward position. How does The New York Times show the mess under its articles without wrecking the omniscient aura of the brand it has worked so hard for? …

Batch is killing them. Online, it is expensive, slow, and wasteful. It’s not sustainable and it’s a problem that will only get bigger for the The New York Times. … The fundamental problem The New York Times has online is that its brand carries too much weight. The Times stamp means a piece has been packaged, and is no longer in process. If they’re interested in participating in the journalism of the 21st century, they need to shed the baggage of the last one.

They won’t.

Very neat take on the question. It’s not just the standards, tradition, and ego of the legacy press that prevents it from enjoying the benefits of beta, Brown argues, but the perception and value of its practices and reputation. That would seem to argue that it’s impossible for the legacy to update from product to process. I’m not sure I agree, but I do think that Brown put the challenge clearly through one end of the prism. The question is whether the legacy press – for the benefit of its staff even more than its audience – can issue enough caveats to enable it to work real-time. Forget blogs in this discussion. Will The New York Times ever be comfortable working on the standards and practices of 24-hour cable news? Can it afford to? Don’t they have to?

(By the way, the subject of last week’s NYT snipe, Michael Arrington, did well in an On the Media interview on his process with Bob Garfield.)