ello: Can Social Media Exist Without Ads?

on Wednesday, Oct. 1st

A version of this story aired on NPR’s Morning Edition.

Vermont’s known for its green pastures, farmsteads, and roads free of billboards. The founders of the new social network ello live in the state, and they want to bring Vermont-like serenity to the internet.

“We set out to prove that a social network will survive and thrive that doesn’t have an business model of selling ads to its users,” said CEO and co-founder Paul Budnitz. He owns a bicycle company in Vermont, and he’s also the founder of Kidrobot, which makes high-end art toys. Budnitz said ello’s creators initially launched the site for their circle of friends. They wanted a clean online space to exchange large images and longform text. The site has been growing steadily for about a year, he said. But that changed last week, when news stories about a group of disenchanted Facebook users mentioned ello as an alternative, and set off a stampede of interest.

“We’re getting 40,000 combined signups and requests per hour…so it’s a lot,” Budnitz said with a chuckle.

You need an invite from a friend to use ello, and that amps up the allure. Many ello users I talked to, like 24-year-old Charity Walden, say they joined simply out of curiosity. “I use Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, Instagram, Pinterest, and Snapchat,” she said — and now ello rounds out that group. “I think it’s really cool to be there at the beginning, and see how it’s developed.”

The spike of interest in a new social network also points to intensifying concerns over issues like data mining, online bullying, and the protection of privacy. Users can’t make their ello accounts private, but the founders say that’s coming soon. And ello’s stated mission is to be profitable without selling user data — a claim that attracts scrutiny. Once it was learned that ello received venture capital money in January, the critics went to town.

Aral Balkan is one of them. He’s a privacy advocate who’s building an independent operating system. Balkan says he doesn’t want to support a VC-backed social network that will face pressure to balloon in size and value.

“If you take venture capital, that means at the very beginning, you had to present your exit plan, because that’s when the investors make their money back. Even before you built the thing, you’re selling the people that you hope to get to use it,” he said.

I mentioned to Balkan that for many ello users I spoke to, the fact that it’s ad-free wasn’t necessarily the reason they joined. Attitudes like this are a problem, he said. “We’re just rushing headlong, we’re just making things…not necessarily being critical about the impacts they will have, and just jumping from one bandwagon to the next.”

After just a few days, ello user Jimmy Chan is also losing interest in the site, but for a different reason — he says he’s not getting much out of it. “Some of my friends are jumping in to say ‘You’re all still here?’ as if it’s Monday morning, and people are still in their living room from a Sunday night party,” he joked. Chan says ello probably won’t be fun for him until it picks up traction with more friends, and offers different features.

The site’s being tweaked and re-worked in full view of a rapt online audience. The founders are responding to complaints and requests as the site takes shape. Co-founder Paul Budnitz has a relatively chill attitude about the critiques: “I’m in Vermont, not in Silicon Valley.”

He’s confident that ello can make money through a “freemium” model. Users would pay for extra features like the ability to access multiple accounts with a single login.

Budnitz maintains that the founders don’t feel undue pressure to compromise their ideals. He says they’re content to stay small and modestly profitable in a Vermont kind of way.

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You’ll Believe A Geek Can Fly–Virtual Reality in LA

on Tuesday, Aug. 19th

This past weekend in Sylmar, a neighborhood in the far north end of Los Angeles’ San Fernando Valley, a few hundred curious nerds descended upon New Deal Studios, a production company and special effects house who played host to the latest Virtual Reality Los Angeles event.

Companies on the cutting edge of the virtual reality scene—from Oculus VR to Sony and a host of smaller companies in between—showed off their latest wares. Some of it is consumer-ready, while other companies are essentially giving sneak peaks at what they believe will be the future of entertainment.

If the flying simulation I got to play with at the start of the event is any indication, they just might be right.


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Uh Oh: Google Jumps Into VR With Cardboard

on Wednesday, Jun. 25th

Well, we can’t say that today’s Google I/O conference keynote didn’t have some surprises.

To be certain there wasn’t anything as world-turning as the announcement of Glass, in fact the offerings this time out–another attempt to take over TV screens, smart watches–almost look like Google is out of big ideas. Yet everyone at the event was given a cardboard box which might be the most high tech thing ever: a DIY setup that turns Android smart phones into virtual reality devices.

The app that allows all this to happen is called Cardboard and Google has released both the app and instructions on how to build your own viewer to the public.

I’m torn over this. On the one hand this definitely gives people and developers who are excited about virtual reality something to play with. The DIY nature means that those who bother to build their own Cardboard viewer will know just how “alpha” the tech is. The problem is that VR has some serious issues when it isn’t working near 100%. Cybersickness isn’t just about the possibility of puking: it can lead to some serious aftereffects when exposures are long and users are unaccustomed to virtual environments.

In so many ways the last thing VR evangelists need are super-cheap viewers in the hands of the general public. It has more potential to turn people off than it does to get the general public fired up. Given how badly Google botched the public relations rollout of Glass it doesn’t surprise me that they’re diving in with both feet and a smile on The Next Big Thing. It just disappoints me that the company hasn’t seemed to have learned the lesson that public betas of hardware aren’t a wise bet.

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Data Shows SF Housing Stock Impacted By Airbnb

on Tuesday, Jun. 24th

Airbnb, the “sharing economy” darling that lets anyone become a hotelier for a day (week, month, lifetime) is not known for sharing their data. That’s something that fair housing advocates and others who are concerned with how deeply the practice of temporarily renting out a home/apartment impacts housing stock in an era of high rents.

So the San Francisco Chronicle took matters into their own data-savvy hands:

Although the company refuses to release numbers, a data analysis commissioned by The Chronicle found almost 5,000 San Francisco homes, apartments, and private or shared rooms for rent via Airbnb. Two-thirds were entire houses or apartments, showing how far Airbnb has come from its couch-surfer origins, and contradicting its portrayal as a service for people who rent out a spare room and interact with guests.

Look: I’ve known more than one person who has managed to make ends meet thanks to Airbnb, Lyft and their cousins. The core idea isn’t all that hideous, but it is becoming increasingly obvious that so long as these practices are left unregulated they will trend towards behaving like industries and not as ways for people to eek out a little extra cash. That can have all kinds of unintended effects: like turning the already tourist-centric San Francisco into a city where no one really lives.

Via Alexis Madrigal’s 5 Intriguing Things

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Uber Clocks In With A $17B Valuation

on Friday, Jun. 6th

In the world of start-ups no name is more polarizing than Uber. The car service “disruptor,” which has become the poster child of the so-called “sharing economy” has drawn the ire of pundits and regulators alike as it seeks to redefine urban ground transportation.

It has also drawn boatloads of cash. Today Uber announced a funding round of $1.2 billion against a massive $17 billion valuation. The Street believes in Uber, despite a string of nasty regulatory battles and a string of lurid reports about the actions of some of its drivers.

And Uber? Uber totally believes in itself:

Uber is changing the fabric of these cities. At our current rate, Uber is responsible for directly creating 20,000 new jobs per month and powering billions in economic impact in cities around the world – while also improving the environment, reducing DUI rates and fueling urban economic development.

Of course, that 20,000 doesn’t run the math on how many taxi drivers Uber puts out of business or flips. Nor does it cop to the fact that the service built out its infrastructure on the back of a long standing rivalry between cabbies and black town car drivers. It also fails to mention the Uber ambition of adding driverless cars to its fleet.


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Google Complies With EU “Right To Be Forgotten,” Disappoints

on Friday, May. 30th

As I get older I find myself becoming sympathetic to the idea of “radical transparency.”

The recent ruling by the highest court in the European Union establishing a “right to be forgotten” for its citizens has created a tricky trap for search giant Google: they have to provide a way for EU citizens to remove search results that link to pages that are “inadequate, irrelevant or no longer relevant, or excessive in relation to the purposes for which they were processed.” That’s a pretty broad mandate, and it has been left to Google to define how to do this.

So they created a form.

The form requires a photo ID, a list of the offending URLs, a statement of what country the request originates from, and an explanation of how the request meets the EU criteria.

Naturally there are critics that say this isn’t enough.


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The Joy of Tech: iBeacon Means No More Lost Sunglasses

on Monday, Apr. 28th

With all the concerns we have about privacy and data mining by marketers Apple’s iBeacon technology, which uses low energy Bluetooth signals to communicate with iPhones, has seemed to have more downsides than up. After all, if a store shelf is talking to your phone, then it knows where you are. That fact alone can make people uncomfortable.

So what are the potential upsides?

How about a pair of sunglasses that hollers at you when you lose them? That’s what the Australian sunglass maker Tzurkuri has in mind, as reported by 9 to 5 Mac:

As for iBeacon features, the companion iOS app will automatically start sending notifications if you leave the glasses behind (at 16ft, then again at 32ft and 50ft). You’ll also be able to track your glasses “if you misplace your Tzurkuris at home, you can track distance to the nearest foot. Alternatively, in wide-open spaces, the app will save the last location you had your glasses and show you on a map.” With iBeacon post iOS 7.1, users won’t even have to open the app to get notified.

While this is a vision of the Internet of Things I can get behind (I’m already down two pairs of sunglasses this year) it’s going to cost: the glasses will be available for around $230 dollars as part of a crowdfunding pre-order, and then jump in price once they land in stores next year.

Image: Tzurkuri

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Twitch Takes Two Big Steps Towards A New Identity

on Thursday, Apr. 17th

The integration of Twitch.tv into both of the new video game consoles released this past holiday season all but anointed the service as the one, true platform for streaming games. This week the service has taken two steps towards its evolution into a game distribution platform.

First, the company is matching funds in the Kickstarter campaign for the game Choice Chamber, which uses a chat room based mechanic similar to the cultural phenomenon Twitch Plays Pokemon that allows the audience of the game to create the challenges that the player faces. In an article at The Verge designer Michael Molinari says that the game turns the audience into “torture artists” who have their fun by throwing the player into trouble at every turn. Choice Chamber is built around a concept known as “asymmetrical multiplayer,” in this case with the potential of thousands of audience members slipping into the role of sadistic game designers for a short while.

Twitch’s other big move? It is now possible to buy games on the service. Okay. A game. Indie studio Vlambeer’s Nuclear Throne. The pitch for buying it through Twitch as opposed to the other supported marketplaces, i.e. Steam and the Humble Store? Access to subscriber-only chats on Twitch.

This tiptoeing into game distribution raises a question: how will the distribution platforms that have already embraced Twitch–Sony’s PlayStation, Microsoft’s Xbox, and Valve’s Steam–take the streaming service’s moves onto their turf? Choice Chamber and Nuclear Throne are both indie efforts, but that’s a part of the marketplace that Sony and Valve have staked out pretty heavily. Can any of these platforms they tolerate partner/competitors who have an intense relationship with their users?

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The Not-So-Overnight Success of eSports

on Wednesday, Apr. 16th

This story airs on American Public Media’s Marketplace.

Over the past two years, there has been an explosion of interest in competitive online gaming, known as eSports. Professional video game players face off in matches broadcast around the globe, sometimes for hundreds of thousands of dollars in arenas filled with tens of thousands of fans.

At the recent Call of Duty World Championship in Los Angeles, two four-man teams of gamers, their shirts covered in corporate logos, faced off for the top title.

The gamers were observed by a studio audience, which peered into a control room constructed on a gunmetal stage. On the side of that stage sat the play-by-play men, who called the action in suits and ties.

A million dollars in prizes was on the line at the tournament, which was broadcast free online by Major League Gaming, an eSports promoter that’s been around since 2002, when most of America was on dial-up. (more…)

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Indie Van Game Jam Hits The Road with First Episode

on Monday, Apr. 14th

Here’s the pitch: three game developers hop in a van in Austin, Texas and travel to another city to interview some of their heroes. On the way they make a video game inspired by their interviewee’s work.

While in the van.

That’s the premise behind Indie Van Game Jam a documentary web series about indie games that puts the spotlight on a different studio with each episode. The team behind it, Binary Solo, took a stab at raising funds for the project on Kickstarter last year, but when that didn’t work they persevered.

Now the first episode is out in the wild. The first episode, and the first game. Each episode of the series will not only feature the video documentary, but alongside it will release a game from the roving game jam.

Episode one focuses on Chicago’s Rob Lach (Sphere, Pop: Methodology Experiment One) and features the Binary Solo jam It’s Not Me, It’s You. The game is a perspective twisting play on the first-person shooter genre, and is a delightful way to spend a few minutes on a foggy headed Monday.

Here’s to more game jams and vans from the Binary Solo crew.

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To Build The VR Education of Tomorrow One Scholar Turns To The Past

There are plenty of folks in the education technology field who are excited about virtual reality as the next great educational tool.



We’re Closer To Our Photorealistic VR Future Than You’d Think (INTERVIEW)

A look into the virtual world of tomorrow with USC researcher Paul Debevec.


Prepare Yourselves For The Personal VR Video Revolution

Virtual Reality is rapidly approaching a watershed moment.

Ralph Echemendia

Spoiler Alert: Hollywood Isn’t Taking Cyber Security Seriously (LA Film Fest)

Tonight at the Los Angeles Film Festival, squeezed in between movies and red carpet events, a symposium on Cyber Security is being held at the Grammy Museum.

Gumroad Rentals H

Rent Video Straight From Social Media Via Gumroad

The people who brought the “Buy Now” button to Twitter are going all-in on film distribution.