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Jim Ponichtera, 1968-2014

This afternoon brought a joyful, awful occasion in the memorial service for Jim Ponichtera, an old friend who died suddenly last week. From the first moment I saw him on stage, a few days after I started my freshman year, I idolized -- and envied -- Jim. He was wildly funny, brilliantly silly, and sharp as a Ginsu knife. His wit was sly and devious, marked by a magical ability to conjure unexpected, pitch-perfect cultural hooks, both high and low. He harbored love of equal depth for John Donne and Scooby-Doo; Cassavetes and ComicCon; Le Bernadin and IHOP. Anyone who knew Jim knew what it was to cry from laughter;  it was his singular talent to find the comedy in anything, not least himself, even when he was battling the cancer he ultimately beat. 

After college, I hung out with him first occasionally, whenever I found myself in San Francisco, then rarely, then not at all over the past decade. I regret so acutely that long drift. What shone at the memorial service was his most excellent life centered on his much-beloved wife and 11-year-old son, with whom he did everything from Tae Kwon Do and the latest flavor of Super Mario to learning banjo and wearing coordinated, bacon-themed apparel.

If this is how it begins -- the long, slow march of loss and heartache -- it seems unconscionably cruel that it should start with Jim. He was one of the truly good ones. RIP.

This photo, posted by Brook Butterworth, captures Jim as he was when I first got to know him.



Love in the Time of Inexorable Ruin: My Own Private New York City 1970s Film Fest

Cindy and I figured it'd be fun to work our way through iconic 1970s and -80s movies set in NYC. So last night, we started with Brooklyn's own Saturday Night Fever, which is surprisingly good. Beyond the boss disco moves, it's a story of class and ambition, manhood and misogyny, and a very particular place (Bay Ridge) and time (1975 - post-Vietnam, post-Watergate, post-counterculture, but mid-stagnation). It's about borough kids who live with their parents, never go to Manhattan, work hourly jobs all week, and then erupt in a tribal frenzy of swaggering misbehavior on Saturday nights. A great movie. That happy discovery, though, led us to spark up SNF's sequel, Staying Alive, which is engrossingly terrible -- hell, repellent -- in every way. The plot is absurd, the characters stripped of depth and unmoored from the deep sense of place that made SNF so alluring. Travolta spends much of the movie in a sweaty thong leotard (thongitard?) and headband. The dancing is so laughable it makes Showgirls seem like the Bolshoi. Frank Stallone's soundtrack is excruciatingly limp. Etc. The only good bit is the final 30 seconds of Travolta strut, which is the only moment in the movie that looks back, gloriously accompanied by the Bee-Gees, to Saturday Night Fever.

So to avoid repeating that mistake, I asked people on Facebook what else should go on the list for our festival of films from the modern ruins of New York. And the people responded. Here are their recommendations for the 1970s, sorted by category (I'll tackle the '80s in a future post):

     o Apocalypse & Decline

The Warriors, Escape from New York (1981), Taxi Driver, The Panic in Needle Park, Death Wish, The Ultimate Warrior

     o Crime & Punishment

The Godfather Part IIMean Streets, Serpico, Dog Day Afternoon, The French Connection, Fort Apache The Bronx (1981), Across 110th Street, Klute

     o They're Conspiring To Kill You

Marathon Man, Three Days of the Condor

     o Blaxploitation

Shaft, Super Fly, Willie Dynamite, Black CaesarHell Up in Harlem

     o Love & its Collapse

The Goodbye Girl, Kramer vs. Kramer, Plaza Suite

     o Woody Allen

Annie Hall, Manhattan

     o Grooviness

Godspell, Hair

     o Awesomeness, Other

Fame (1980), The Prisoner of Second Avenue, Saturday Night Fever, The Out-Of-Towners, Live and Let Die, Network, Harry and Tonto, The Landlord, Opening Night

     o Not Technically 1970s, but Close Enough

Midnight Cowboy (1969), Fame (1980), Cruising (1980), Escape from New York (1981), Fort Apache The Bronx (1981)

     o Movies Set in 1970s NYC

Goodfellas (1990), Studio 54 (1998), The Royal Tenenbaums (2002), American Gangster (2007)

     o TV Series

All In The Family, Maude, Barney Miller, The Jeffersons, Rhoda, The Odd Couple, That GirlKojak, Baretta, Welcome Back Kotter, Taxi, McCloud, Saturday Night Live, and, of course, Sesame Street and its Subway Song.

That's a lot of screen time.  But dammit, New York City: You're worth it.


[Many earth-toned thanks to Jo, Naunihal, Lisa, Fred, Laura, Terra, Angela, Anil, Erika, Susanna, Eve, Ian, Mitch, Kenneth, David, Elan, Rodger, Pete, Stu, Michael, Adam, Howard, Yun, Daniel, Daniel, Dave, Stephanie, Glenn, Noah, Gina, Lara, Daniel, Ronaldo, Jed, David, Brian, Russell, Yoram, Michael, Paul, Yael, Matt, Robin, Jim, Andrew, Chris, and Richard.]


On CNBC: Snowden, Ellsberg, the NSA and Surveillance


In Which betaworks Acquires Instapaper

I really, really love Instapaper;  I use it daily for its clean aesthetic, its uncluttered reading experience, its super-well-honed features. So it's fair to say I'm pretty excited about this post by Marco Arment. Wired takes note.


In Which We Consider Digg's Mobile App

Matt Langer wrote an interesting post yesterday questioning Digg for the way our iOS apps present stories.  On Apple mobile devices, the Digg app by default frames and pre-caches the stories our editors highlight so that users can read them offline -- on the subway or an airplane, for example.

Matt’s making a really important point that we take seriously.

Curatorial sites and mobile apps like Digg need to drive traffic back to publishers, along with the ad impressions and clicks that many depend on for monetization.  Digg has two goals: (a) provide a terrific experience for our users, and (b) drive loads of traffic to the best publishers, big and small, so that they can keep producing more great creative work. We want The Digg Effect to be welcome, as users discover not only individual pieces of great writing, graphics, and video, but great sites, sources, publishers, and authors.

And indeed, the Digg website -- where the vast majority of our traffic happens -- does not frame or pre-cache stories, but sends readers directly to the source webpages, replete with the ad units and monetization tools the publishers have deployed.  In the mobile environment, however, we got a raft of input from users to the effect that they wanted Digg to provide a good offline experience.  In response to that, we implemented pre-caching and an embedded frame that presents only the target story.  As Matt rightly points out, that fails to immediately drive impressions and clicks back to the publisher. 

Here’s the conundrum for mobile reading apps:  (1) we want to support and improve publisher monetization as effectively as possible;  and (2) we also want to give Digg app users a great offline experience;  but (3) the vast majority of publishers do not provide portable ad formats that we can grab, attach, and render in ways that enable the publisher to capture all the impressions and clicks their ads can earn. Here's one promising approach that we’ve been talking with some publisher friends about: Publishers provide standardized portable ad units that we can automatically ingest and position alongside their stories;  Digg and other mobile reading apps embrace those portable ad units and deliver impression data, including offline impressions.

We would love publishers to provide standardized, portable ad formats that will effectively monetize their content in mobile readers.  That’d be awesome.  To see if that's viable, we’re going to do a round of conversations with publishers to figure out whether they’ve actually already got something workable (for example, the ad units that accompany mobile web versions of their content, or that some ad platforms have inserted directly into RSS outputs), or whether we should join together to build and implement something new that’d work not only for Digg, but all the other mobile reading apps out there.

It should be possible -- easy, even -- for publishers to know that their ad units are accompanying their content, and being rendered as they want, regardless of whether the reader is reading via a web browser, smartphone browser, web-based reader, online mobile app, offline mobile app, tablet reading app, Kindle, etc.  That may require some rudimentary standardization of portable ad unit formats that can painlessly be created by publishers and automatically interpreted and implemented by all the various types of reading experiences.

The other piece of feedback that we hear from publishers is that they want to know who their readers are. This is a tricky technical challenge that very few publishers have the resources for, but it’s a solvable problem that we’ve been thinking about for a while. Ted Roden and Mike Young — the guys behind the first version of — proposed this to the New York Times and it looks like they’re starting to roll it out now, in the form of NYT Everywhere.

In the meantime, we’re going to take a close look at our iOS experience to see what adjustments might do a better job of sending as many impressions and clicks back to publishers’ own sites as possible, as well as doing right by individual authors.  That may require a change in defaults or more granular user options, or maybe even something more extreme.  We'll keep you posted. 


On CNN: YouTube, Egypt, Pakistan; free speech vs. national censorship



On NPR: What Anti-Islam Film Says About Free Speech And The 'Hecklers Veto'

So I made an appearance on NPR's Morning Edition today, talking about YouTube, Egypt, free speech, divergent national and religious sensitivities, and the danger of the heckler's veto. (BTW, I can now report that NRP's Steve Henn either is or works with a Miracle Editor capable of snipping longwinded sentences into a semblance of pithiness).


The Fight for the Future: The Internet, Censorship, Surveillance, and You

Here's the keynote talk I did at the Portland Digital eXperience (PDX) event, in which I talk about the North African revolutions, the onslaught of Syria's pro-Assad hacker army, the new dynamics created by China's Weibo platforms, and the success of the anti-SOPA/PIPA movement in the United States, what ties those things together, how they reveal much about the world we are now actively building, and what all that counsels for policymakers and entrepreneurs alike.  Thanks to Mark Zusman and Rick Turoczy for the invite and the warm Portland hospitality, and to the Rich Report for recording & posting the video!

Best fringe benefit of the excursion, besides hanging out with my awesome sister Meg, was seeing Beirut play "Santa Fe" as the sun set over Portland.




A very exciting bit of personal news:  I've joined betaworks as entrepreneur-in-residence. Led by the incredibly gifted John Borthwick, betaworks is forging a new, ambitious, wildly interesting model for creating and scaling innovative tech companies. It's become a real center of gravity for the start-up scene in New York, and I'm thrilled to be a part of it. 

To get a sense of betaworks, check out the amazing list of companies it has invested in -- for example, Twitter, TumblrAirbnb, BranchEverlane, ideeliGroupMe, Groupon, Kickstarter, Path, Tweetdeck. Its studio companies include Digg,, Chartbeat, SocialFlow, and Findings, with others under construction. (I'll have more to say about what I'm actually working on in the not-too-distant future.)

Huge thanks and a fond farewell to Tumblr, David Karp, and all my former colleagues there.  I'm really proud of what my teams -- international, outreach, communications, community, editorial, user support, marketing -- pulled off since I joined last year. Personal highlights: the amazing Storyboard blog, the Brazil launch, the human-friendly terms of service and policy docs, new policies on self-harm, SxSW, the fight against SOPA, and the vast global cohort of new Tumblr blogs and partners we brought onboard. I'm especially grateful to everyone who joined those teams on my watch. Tumblr's a terrific company, and an important platform for creativity, free speech, and community.


Organizing Lessons from SOPA and PIPA


Video of my panel at Netroots Nation 2012, on "Organizing Lessons from SOPA and PIPA." Excellent moderator: Art Brodsky.  Great co-panelists:  David Moon, Stephen DeMaura, and Steven Renderos.

A Conversation with Slate's Jacob Weisberg, Part 4

In which Jacob and I discuss Tumblr vs. Pinterest, Facebook vs. privacy, the case for baseline rules to protect consumer Internet privacy in the US, the horrible implications of the French push to create a "right to be forgotten", and why it would nevertheless be a catastrophe if the Internet comes to serve as an inescapable Permanent Record.

A Conversation with Slate's Jacob Weisberg, Part 3

In which Jacob and I discuss Tumblr, Facebook, Twitter, copyright, and the challenge (and imperative) of making money for social networks, content creators, and publishers.


A Conversation with Slate's Jacob Weisberg, Part 2

In which Jacob and I talk about Google's (and my) experience in China, why foreign tech companies will almost certainly fail there, and why China's government is slowly losing its grip over information.


A conversation with Slate's Jacob Weisberg, Part 1

Here's the first part of a recent conversation with Slate’s Jacob Weisberg. This bit is on Tumblr’s founder, the ethos and juju of the platform he created, and how Tumblr’s approach to identity translates into positivity, creativity, and anti-trollery.


Fight for the Future: Libraries, Tech Policy, and the Fate of Human Knowledge

Librarians + technology = a personal nirvana.  There is no more awesome set of people doing more important work than the librarians and their nerd allies at the bleeding edge of library tech -- they are engaged in an underappreciated struggle to work out how mankind is going to preserve, extend, share, and democratize the sum of human knowledge in our increasingly digital age.  So I was really psyched to go a do a talk at the 2012 Library Technology Conference about the technological forces driving the great policy issues of our age, along with an argument about why and where the library community should be engaged.  Bonus for me: The event was at Macalester College, where I spent my high school summers taking Russian while trying to look like something other than the huge dork I was.

Here's my keynote, "Fight for the Future: Libraries, Tech Policy, and the Fate of Human Knowledge."


Andrew McLaughlin @ Library Technology Conference 2012 from Library Technology Conference on Vimeo.

 The Prezi is here.