You Are What You Speak

18 notes

Q&A with Derek Brand: Science as Business

As I continue this blog-form investigation of technology and its effect on humans as a species, I am also carrying along with me my science social network idea. I recently spoke with Derek Brand, the Director of Business Development at the New York Academy of Sciences, to hear his insights on science as a business and get some input on my networking idea. Here’s our conversation all typed up for ya:

Zach Gottlieb: So, what is your main role at the New York Academy of Sciences?

Derek Brand: I’ve got two main tasks at the Academy. My first obligation is to get companies to enter into partnerships with us and to fund stuff that we do. So my primary goal is revenue generation, and to add more value to those partnerships. A partnership with us entails a greater or more complete relationship between the Academy and a particular company, so the company’s scientists become members of the Academy, and it’s possible for their top scientists to sit on one of our steering committees. When it comes down to it we also just try to add additional value. So the other thing I do is, where possible, is I try to leverage the networks I’ve built and networks that the Academy has built to be more valuable for our partners.

So whenever I go out to speak in the public, I make sure I’m best representing the Academy and myself. I’m a bit of an ambassador among other things. It’s a duel role of fundraising and some conglomeration of ambassador/connector/networker, so I do whatever I can to make sure people keep working with us.

ZG: Does that involve the Academy’s “Science Meets Business” program? <!—[endif]—>

DB: That’s something that’s a little more formal. It’s difficult for us to get brand new ventures off the ground sometimes because we don’t have a huge number of people to do it. But that’s something we’ve been trying to build now for a little while. The premise is that there should be greater level of connectivity at least within New York between science, finance, and entrepreneurs. And we look at the places within that spectrum that can play a role, and I think there’s a good chunk of opportunity there for us to be valuable within that community. That should bring us more opportunities to have a sort of different subset of people involved with us. Obviously what we hope to do, whenever we start something new, is have it be valuable in the three ways: first, be valuable to our community and members; two, it should be financially lucrative for us, because not everything we do makes money, so obviously we’d like to have programs that are good enough to support the academy and even bolster programs like “Science for the Public” and other programs that don’t make quite enough money to be profitable; and third, it would be valuable for us to get new people interested in what we do. So if it’s valuable to the community it brings in more money, and when you bring in new people, you bring in new interest, new potential funders. The most valuable thing that we can do is get a partner that has a vision that is shared with us and basically live that vision with us over a longer duration.

ZG: Are you interested in communicating with both corporate and start-ups?

DB: Absolutely. I view start-ups as an interesting part of our ecosystem because they’re the people who are usually on the cutting edge of innovation and really pushing the boundaries. And these are the people that our corporate partners are always interested in because they’re interested in who is doing the best and brightest stuff. And these corporate partners understand that who is in the pipeline is either going to be their competition or somebody they’re going to want to partner with. So I think having them involved with us is a very valuable thing. We try to involve all stakeholders within a given area of science, so for most of our conferences you’ll have not only academic scientists, but industry people, finance people, and others, and you get a very interesting cross section of people that is not so heavily weight towards one position.

ZG: So how did you get started in this job as the connector/networker?

DB: I kind of fell into it, actually. My background is in start-up companies for early-stage technology. I lived in Boston and my wife and I moved here when she got a faculty position at Columbia University. So when I moved to New York I got introduced to this position via one of my colleague. I was introduced to who used to work with Rene Baston, who’s now my boss, and she said she was looking for someone really entrepreneurial, and I thought the role sounded interesting and was something I could do well, so I took it. I thought it’d be a valuable role. I wasn’t totally sure where exactly it was going to go. It took me awhile to realize it, but the fact that we have a neutral platform for discourse—our mission is solely based around advancing science—it takes a lot of the other pretenses out of the discussions and gives us the ability to facilitate things and act in such a way where we come with no kind of political drive or aspiration. It’s an interesting vantage point to have.

ZG: So we’ve covered business networking for science, but what about social networking for the science community? I’ve been thinking about ways to create a science social network, and one of the biggest questions I’ve been struggling with is, where would the revenue going to come from?

DB: Ah, yes. Well, I think question of where the revenue is going to come from is a valid question. I have a couple of different views. I’m interested to hear the nuts and bolts of what you’d think it would look like. Because from a social networking perspective, one of the nice pieces of that is that it’s not necessarily infrastructure heavy, anyone can put up a website. I think from a micro-perspective, you can start to do something that you don’t even need a business model per say. I mean if you’re going to come out of school and look to do this as a business right away, yeah you should probably have a pretty good idea of what you want to do. But I think from the perspective of building something, the social network stuff can very easily start out as an experiment and then figure out where you go with it. But that’s easier to do wants you have some sort of group or following and have some sort of idea of what the community looks like. So what is your idea?

ZG: Well, it’s not entirely developed yet. I want it to be a little like LabSpaces.net, or at least what LabSpaces.net set out to be—I spoke with the founder of it, Brian Krueger, and he admitted it has become more of a news aggregator than a social network. I want to create a place where scientists can sign up and have a profile similar to something like Facebook, that explains where you’re working, where you’re degrees are from, where you’re interests are, and then try to facilitate some sort of discussion about science and the work they’re doing. But more than just facilitating discussion between scientists, I want it to be place where scientists can discuss their work with the public. I think there’s a lot of room for more connections to be made, and I think that a lot of people are afraid of science or are disinterested because they feel disconnected.

DB: Okay, I have a couple ideas. One of them is a program here at the Academy, and one is a website that is doing something in the right space that you’re thinking of. So we’ve started a program called “Scientists Without Borders,” and that is aimed at people who are working in the developing world or people working on projects that will help the developing world. It’s sort of what you describe, in that people can develop profiles, and it was initially meant to be a system for recognizing unmet needs and trying to form collaboration for integrated aid. So an example we use a lot is companies providing medication to a village of people suffering from dysentery. It’d be really useful for that company to see if there were people doing water projects in the area. So the basic point is to drive better solutions and more integrated aid into the developing world. And yes, the business model is difficult. We don’t have a recurring business model yet, and we’re thinking about those things, but from a functionality standpoint, it is very, very good.

The second community that I thought of is PatientsLikeMe.org, which I think started as a discussion group for people who have particular illnesses to talk about their illness, or how they feel, or what kind of medication they’re on. It connects people with a similar condition and lets them discuss how they’re feeling or what they’re taking and what is working to help them.

ZG: That’s interesting, I wasn’t aware of that site. It makes me realize though, that there’s quite a bit out there already doing this kind of thing.

DB: Yes, but remember, it doesn’t have to be new. There are a few out there already, and I think there’s certain ones that are done pretty well, but I thin there’s room for a lot of new stuff like this if it’s done well and if it’s done in an organized way. And at the same time, it doesn’t have to start big; you can find groups of people who are passionate about a particular area of science. You can definitely start small. And that’s how you build up a group of people who are generally interested in what you are trying to do. So in terms of thinking about this, think about different things you can do, different communities you can reach, and think about what kind of value your exchange is gong to provide.

I think that it is difficult is to work in generalities with something like this. Unless you’re creating a platform that changes the way that mass-groups of people interact, things like Facebook or Twitter, I think the more that you have honed in the needs of a particular set of people, using a particular set of tools, that’s probably the best way to test your idea and figure out what will work. There’s a lot of kinds of groups out there, patients and even doctors and scientists, look at who’s got ideas that aren’t being communicated and who would be the people looking to receive those ideas, and that is something that I think sounds like something that could be pretty useful.

ZG: And how much do you think the poor communication abilities that tend to exists among many scientists will be a factor?

DB: Well it depends on what kind of things they’re going to discuss. If you have someone doing hardcore particle physics, it’s unlikely they are going to share their latest equation breakdown with someone off the street, and it’s unlikely that someone off the street would even be interested. So I think it depends on the forum. If the forum is centered on a conversation that the scientists want to have and people want to listen to, it will be well received. But the harder you have to get both sides to participate in what you’re doing, the more difficult it’s going to be to make it a success. So if you can find the applications and areas where there’s good synergy, where both sides want to hear the other one, then you’re in a really good spot. If you can’t, that goes a long way towards shaping your idea. What you’ll find is as you start to do things, you might say “well, nobody seems to be really responding when we do this, but when we do it this way, people seem to get fired up” and that’s when you know you’ve hit on something. But you won’t get there until you try something in the first place.

ZG: What are some of other big problems that certain models like these tend to face?

DB: To be honest, I’m not sure exactly why things like this don’t work. I would say the business model is probably one. A lot of times when people are looking to start something, it’s not necessarily proven and the scalability is difficult. I think it takes work to try to build a viable community and try to provide value for stuff like that. And there’s going to be a lot of blood, sweat, and tears to get the first people to start using it, and then once it starts to grow, you have to start figuring out how to manage things. So what a lot of web business and social media run into is how do you monetize it, where is the money going to come form, and again, who’s going to pay for it.

ZG: Yeah that was my next question.

DB: To be honest, I really have no idea. But until you figure out what the value is that you’re bringing and what the group is that you’re really serving, you probably don’t know what that’s going to be. So at the end of the day, if you don’t know what that value is, you’re just trying to sell something to people rather than trying to provide something actually valuable.

ZG: For start-ups and entrepreneurs, what recommendations would you have? What makes an entrepreneur successful?

DB: Well I don’t know if I’m really the best person to answer that question. There are a lot of successful people out there who have gone down a more entrepreneurial path than me, but I have the absolute utmost respect for people that have gone out and started their business and run something successfully. So, I don’t really know what makes a good entrepreneur, but I do think at the end of the day, we need people who are thinking creatively how to do things and how to do things better. More entrepreneurs than not is definitely a good thing.

5 notes

Have computers destroyed the evolution of the human species?
Judging by the progression shown here, it looks like we peaked when we just had plain ol&#8217; sticks to whack things with, but once we turned those sticks into rakes, we started hunching towards ultimate doom.
So, if you really are scared for the future of humanity, don&#8217;t blame digital technology, blame those farmer folks and their fancy-nancy ol&#8217; grass gatherin&#8217; sticks. Damned rakes!

Have computers destroyed the evolution of the human species?

Judging by the progression shown here, it looks like we peaked when we just had plain ol’ sticks to whack things with, but once we turned those sticks into rakes, we started hunching towards ultimate doom.

So, if you really are scared for the future of humanity, don’t blame digital technology, blame those farmer folks and their fancy-nancy ol’ grass gatherin’ sticks. Damned rakes!

4 notes

Q&A With Brian Krueger of LabSpaces.net

Earlier this month, naturejobs.com published a piece by Peter Fiske, chief technology officer of WAX Water Technologies, in which he claimed that scientists do not take enough of an active approach to their science, both in writing papers and in communicating their work to the public.

This ties directly into an idea I’ve had for a media project—a science social network. One of the key issues in science communication is a lack of a strong presence from the scientists themselves, actively talking to the public. Sometimes we get to hear them (or read them) speak in an article, but that’s the end of it—we never get any depth or detail on who they are and what they really are doing in their day-to-day lives. I think that opening this door would help make science more real and relatable to the general public, because right now there seems to be a great barrier between the two.

Currently, there are a few science social networks that popped up on the web over the past few years. I recently had the opportunity to speak with Brian Krueger, a molecular biologist at the University of Florida and founder of LabSpaces, a science social network and science news curation site.

Here is a write up of the key points of the talk:

Q: Why did you start LabSpaces?

A: Originally the whole idea was that, right around then, Facebook and MySpace were really starting to take off and I thought maybe that scientists would enjoy becoming part of a niche social network to discuss the latest research and trends and different techniques, stuff like that. My other focus was to help spread science news, which is really what the site has come to be right now. The goal there was to get scientists and the public interacting in the same place, talking about science. These days we have a lot of journalists who report on different stories but they don’t get their facts straight, so I thought that maybe having the scientists who are actually doing the research post about it on blogs, and be there in the community to explain their research in more details, would be pretty cool. But that hasn’t really started to pan out because there aren’t a lot of scientists who like to talk about their science to the public.

Q: Do you think that lack of direct communication between researchers and public is a central problem in science communication?

A: Yeah, I think that would really help bridge the gap between some of the mystique that goes on in the interaction between public and scientists. The public is afraid to talk to scientists because they think we’re all smart and stand-offish, and the scientists are afraid to talk to the public because they don’t know how to. So that’s where journalists come in, to try to help mediate that interaction. But it would be nice if scientists took a more active role in that process, and that was kind of the impetus behind the news portion of the site.

Q: What are some of the ways do you see getting around this?

A: I think that what ScienceBlogs is doing, getting scientists involved in scientific blogging, is important. That can really be helpful in the long-term because if we can get some of these scientists who are already into it to get their colleagues to start out and just blog here and there and get some feedback from the audience, I think that would be really cool. I think the other problem is that a lot of scientists don’t have a lot of time to be doing something that they don’t think will impact how their research is done. Scientists are kind of within their own close-knit community. They put the blinders on and just focus on what’s going on in their field, they don’t take a step back and say ‘hey the public is the one who is funding, maybe I should let them know what I’m doing’ and have them understand why fruit fly research is important, instead of, you know, Sarah Palin talking trash on one of the most important organismal genetic systems of the century. Or something like the mystique of vaccines causing autism, and having people stop taking vaccines. So I think scientists need to realize that what they’re doing is important, and it’s not just important for their specific scientific community, it’s important that everyone understands what they are doing and why.

Q: So in terms of LabSpaces, how do you plan to get scientists to start talking?

A: I think the key is to show scientists that there actually is value in that interaction with the public. But it’s really hard to know what scientists would value there. Does it increase their reputation to talk to the public? It seems that is more what scientists are interested in, is promoting their research, and I’m not sure that scientists feel that talking to the public is going to work its way back to the granting committee. You know, you don’t list how many times you’ve commented on a blog post, or how many blog posts you have when you apply for a grant. So it’s kind of more like a civil service than something that’s actually going to forward their research. Maybe what we need to do is work from the top down and get granting agencies to take into account the amount of interaction scientists have on social networks and talking with the public. For my site, I’ve toyed with the idea of coming up with a lab rank. Kind of like Facebook or Twitter where people can see how many lists you are on or how many followers you have. So maybe I need to start doing something like a lab rank where you can increase your rank by commenting on news articles or blogs or adding new publications to your profile.

Q: Did you have a background in web design before starting LabSpaces?

A: Web design has always been one of my hobbies. I coded my first website in 8th grade I think, it was a site that I coded with HTML. And from there, every winter break, during my weeks off from school, I’d just sit down with a book and learn a new coding language. So I spent one winter learning Flash, and another learning JavaScript, and then PHP and MySQL for this “Facebook for Scientists” thing, so I just tried to keep on top of it that way. So yeah, it’s a self-taught coding experience for me.

Q: How important is it to have website coding skills when starting a business online?

A: I think if you look at people with the more successful internet businesses, like Mint.com, the website that just got bought out by Inuit—that guy was a web developer. He coded this whole site to manage your personal finances. Coded it entirely on his own, got some venture capitalists to fund it, and then hired an engineer. He started out as a coder and had a good idea, got venture capital investment, found one someone who was a good coder that was just sleeping on someone’s couch in San Diego to be his engineer, and they bust out this thing and then he gets bought out for $170 million. So I think that’s the way to do it, either you know someone that can really help you get off the ground running, or you put that coding time in yourself.

Q: So are you the only one working on LabSpace?

A: It’s just me. The site doesn’t actually make much money, just enough to cover the hosting fees for the site. Every month I’ll go out and e-mail companies asking them to sponsor the site or to advertise, and until I’ve broken the 100 thousand pageviews per month barrier, I’ve had absolutely no interest. But now I have 2 companies on board now to sponsor me for a couple of months to run a contest. I’m going to try to get other people to help me submit news links on the site, because it’s come to be that I’m spending 2 to 3 hours a day updating the site with science news releases. The idea here is to have a contest and offer a prize package to the top two or three submitters of these news stories and links every month. So we’ll see how that works, maybe that will incentivize the Twitter community, at least. But yeah, right now, when I have this post-doc job, being a scientist myself, and trying to spend 2 or 3 hours a day on the site, it’s hard to find more time to add more features and try to bring more people on.

Q: When you’re starting a networking site, how do you get people to join in the beginning?

A: When I first started out I invested probably $2,000 of my own money, even though I’m a broke college student, for Facebook advertising to try to get people to join the site. Right now there’s about 500 people registered, but I’m the only regular person on the site. So that $2,000 was a waste. If I was to do this all over again I think I would have written a business plan and spoken to venture capitalists to try to get money and advertise properly. Its also really hard to get a user-base started on a site like that unless you have a group of 10 of your friends that are really behind you on the project to help spread the word, because if you don’t have that critical mass, it’s just going to turn into a science news website (laughs).

Now, If you go back and think about how a website like ScienceBlogs started, it’s a group of maybe a hundred scientist bloggers, so what happened was Seed magazine thought it’d be cool to have a bunch of blogs by scientists, so they went out and rounded up the top scientists and paid them. They brought them all into one site under their ScienceBlogs flagship and there you go, you have that critical mass. You have all these science bloggers, you have all the people that were following them, and here they are all at one site, centralized. That’s the way to do it, because then you don’t have to do all the hard work in the beginning to get people to go to your site, you don’t have to waste thousands of dollars to advertise your site. The content producer has pretty much done all the hard work, they bring the blog readers to your site, and then there they are, ready to look at related bloggers and related stories.

Q: Are there other science social networks on the web?

A: There is a bunch, like more than 10 science social networks on the internet. I was one of the first ones, and around that same time Nature Publishing Group had a science social network, which is a little more like ScienceBlogs, where it is more of a blogging network than it is and actual social network for scientists. But now you’ve got places like SciLinks, ScientistConnection, ResearchGate, and god knows what.

It seems like a lot of people jumped on the “me too” bandwagon of Facebook, and I’m not going to say I didn’t do the same thing, but it seems like right around 2007-2008 these kind of sites started springing up all over the place. And they are all ghost-towns, there’s very little interaction. The best one is probably ResearchGate, but it’s mostly European researchers, or researchers in under-funded countries, so they talk about how to get a hold of certain publications or materials because they don’t have the resources that American researchers do. So going back to “why wouldn’t a social scince network work?” is that in the big power countries that are involved in scientific research, like the US, the whole point of the university system is to bring in a whole group of people on your campus that do the same thing. And the resources are right down the hall, you can talk to the expert face-to-face. The incentive to get online isn’t that great because you have the real person right down the hall that is the expert and is publishing on that. It’s kind of like, “why go online when I can just walk down the hall?”

Q: What is your day-to-day schedule like with LabSpaces?

A: When I first made the website I spend a crapload of time on there looking for science links and copying and pasting press releases by hand, and then after awhile I realized that spending three hours in the morning and three hours at night wasn’t doing me any good. So I actually programmed my own ScreenScraper script to go through a couple of the press release sources that I use, so all I had to do was type in the URL and it would take in all the data I wanted, and automatically download all the pictures and all the content. So it went from spending three minutes on each press release to about one minute. So now, I wake up at about six o’clock in the morning and spend an hour checking over the press releases that have accumulated while I’m sleeping overnight, put those on the site. Then at lunchtime I’ll spend 30-45 minutes going over press releases, and then at night I’ll spend about another hour. Throughout the day I am on Twitter about every half hour. And that’s where I do most of my interacting, I think that’s a better way to do it because it didn’t seem to be happening on the site the way I wanted it to.

5 notes

Social Media: Time-Waster or Productivity Booster?
(photo credit: bump, flickr)
If you&#8217;ve ever worked a 9-to-5, you&#8217;re probably among millions of bored workers who have done some covert web-browsing (or not-so-covert web-browsing, as seen above), possibly tweeting about how terribly you want to gouge your eyes out because your boss just gave you two last-minute assignments to finish today, and of course, it&#8217;s Friday.
While most bosses would cringe at the sight of their loyal workers &#8220;wasting precious time&#8221; browsing social media sites like Facebook and Twitter, Brendan I. Koerner's article in the March issue of Wired points out that a little social media on the job may not be such a terrible thing:

"Studies that accuse social networks of reducing productivity assume that time spent microblogging is time strictly wasted. But that betrays an ignorance of the creative process. Humans weren’t designed to maintain a constant focus on assigned tasks. We need periodic breaks to relieve our conscious minds of the pressure to perform — pressure that can lock us into a single mode of thinking"

Indeed, time away from focused tasks does seem important. Of course, as Koerner points out later in the article, not just any goofing off will do. Rather than turning your break time towards complete time-wasters that offer zero intellectual or creative value (addictinggames.com is a black hole for productivity for many), work breaks are actually useful if they involve exposure to new ideas. On social media sites that offer micro-blogging, such as Facebook and Twitter, these new ideas come en masse, whether it be in the form of a tweet from NeuroNow about the latest neuroscience news, or a humorous Facebook status update about your old college buddy&#8217;s weekend dalliances.
For me, this is an extremely useful tool, and I think it can be for virtually anyone if used properly. I have essentially set-up Twitter as my personalized newspaper&#8212;I choose the authors, who constantly feed me new, up-to-the-minute headlines. I have found Facebook to be a little less useful than Twitter for this purpose (likely just the nature of how I have set-up each site), but even a random status update about a friend&#8217;s thoughts on her latest TV craze can hold some value. In the end, whether serious and intellectual, or humorous and lighthearted, you really never know what another person&#8217;s experience might inspire in your own mind.
Overall, I that think using social media as a means towards productivity is increasingly important in a world where so many media outlets are shouting about the same old uninspiring nonsense. In social media, however, you get the voices and viewpoints of actual people, not some uniform, streamlined sense of reality offered up by corporate media.
More importantly, new exposure leads to new ideas, and social media is ultimate exposure, hitting you with new bits of information multiple times per minute. As new ideas pile up in your mind, new connections will be made, and while some connections will be destined to go nowhere, still others will lead to fruitful futures.

Social Media: Time-Waster or Productivity Booster?

(photo credit: bump, flickr)

If you’ve ever worked a 9-to-5, you’re probably among millions of bored workers who have done some covert web-browsing (or not-so-covert web-browsing, as seen above), possibly tweeting about how terribly you want to gouge your eyes out because your boss just gave you two last-minute assignments to finish today, and of course, it’s Friday.

While most bosses would cringe at the sight of their loyal workers “wasting precious time” browsing social media sites like Facebook and Twitter, Brendan I. Koerner's article in the March issue of Wired points out that a little social media on the job may not be such a terrible thing:

"Studies that accuse social networks of reducing productivity assume that time spent microblogging is time strictly wasted. But that betrays an ignorance of the creative process. Humans weren’t designed to maintain a constant focus on assigned tasks. We need periodic breaks to relieve our conscious minds of the pressure to perform — pressure that can lock us into a single mode of thinking"

Indeed, time away from focused tasks does seem important. Of course, as Koerner points out later in the article, not just any goofing off will do. Rather than turning your break time towards complete time-wasters that offer zero intellectual or creative value (addictinggames.com is a black hole for productivity for many), work breaks are actually useful if they involve exposure to new ideas. On social media sites that offer micro-blogging, such as Facebook and Twitter, these new ideas come en masse, whether it be in the form of a tweet from NeuroNow about the latest neuroscience news, or a humorous Facebook status update about your old college buddy’s weekend dalliances.

For me, this is an extremely useful tool, and I think it can be for virtually anyone if used properly. I have essentially set-up Twitter as my personalized newspaper—I choose the authors, who constantly feed me new, up-to-the-minute headlines. I have found Facebook to be a little less useful than Twitter for this purpose (likely just the nature of how I have set-up each site), but even a random status update about a friend’s thoughts on her latest TV craze can hold some value. In the end, whether serious and intellectual, or humorous and lighthearted, you really never know what another person’s experience might inspire in your own mind.

Overall, I that think using social media as a means towards productivity is increasingly important in a world where so many media outlets are shouting about the same old uninspiring nonsense. In social media, however, you get the voices and viewpoints of actual people, not some uniform, streamlined sense of reality offered up by corporate media.

More importantly, new exposure leads to new ideas, and social media is ultimate exposure, hitting you with new bits of information multiple times per minute. As new ideas pile up in your mind, new connections will be made, and while some connections will be destined to go nowhere, still others will lead to fruitful futures.

5 notes

Onward Into the Future (of media technology)

Two weeks ago, Vaughn Bell wrote a wonderful piece on Slate.com that provided a history of media technology scares. While I won’t go through the many interesting examples (such as the 1883 Sanitarian article that suggests school might be a bad thing for children), I do think there is something more to consider here.

It is true that whether it be Socrates’ concern about the written word, or the advent of the radio, or the sudden explosion of internet social networks, our fears of new media would is almost entirely an over exaggerated expression of unfamiliarity (humans are, after all, mostly afraid of the unknown).

Bell also points out that not all forms of media are completely harmless. For this reason, I do think that we do need some people to question the use of our media technologies, especially as they grow and develop. Sure our fears may cycle around and around, and it probably “won’t be long until they start the cycle anew,” but there’s is a vast difference between our fears about technology, and the technology itself.

Human emotions are for the most part cyclical; any sort of linear direction in the development in human emotion is every so subtle, if existing at all. But technology does move on a linear path, and the more I think about it, media technology is becoming a living and breathing thing, especially when it combines humans, a la Facebook, Twitter, and the dozens of other social media. It is dynamic, ever-changing and constantly moving (see science blogger Mike Orcutt’s post on links as internet “fuel”) and because it has so many composite parts, it is somewhat of an uncontrollable beast.

In other words, the new media technologies of today hardly touch on the simplistic, controlled structure of yesterday’s printing press. The internet has opened a completely new way through which humans share and absorb information, and as it moves on it’s linear course into the future (with the occasional speed bump or track back), it is hard to imagine it won’t come with social consequences.

5 notes

Q&A with Singularity Hub’s Keith Kleiner

I recently had the opportunity to chat with Keith Kleiner about his experiences in the world of web journalism. Keith is the founder and editor of Singularity Hub and an associate founder of Singularity University. Thanks, Keith, for your time and insights!

Here is a print-up of the Q&A:

Q: So, what is Singularity Hub?

A: Well, primarily we’re a blog. But increasingly we’re more than that. We’re a network, we’re a network of news information. We use the blog as our primary outlet, but increasingly we find ourselves reaching out to people through Facebook, and Twitter, and other means. So I like to think of us more as a news source that has a distributed way of communicating with its followers whether they come to us on the blog, or through an RSS Feed, Facebook, Twitter. I mean, you can even read us on the Kindle.

Q: When did you guys begin?

A: Officially, it started in June 2008. But at that point it was just a side project. Then,at the start of 2009 I quit my day job and pursued it as a full-time endeavor.

Q: What drove you to do that? Why jump into web media?

A: Well, I think I got started in it for the right reasons. The best reason to get into something a lot of the time is because you’re passionate about it. It’s not because you’re thinking about the money or the fame or whatever, it’s just you’re excited about it. That’s what was going on in June 08, it was just a hobby, it was for fun, I got really excited about the many technological advances tat were happening everyday so I thought I’d just start blogging about them. Then by Jan 2009, I was just having so much fun with it, and I saw the potential that could make it economically sustaining, so I decided to give it ago.

Q: What sort of growth have you seen in year one?

A: Well, in December 2009 we saw our best month, about 250,000 page views, which is, not enormous, but that’s pretty darn good for your first year, and this year we’re looking to do much better.

Q: What sort of challenges have you faced thus far, and how have you met them?

A: Well, the biggest challenge overall is just turning it into a business. I’m spending a lot of time and money on it, and I want to get a return on that. Now, the biggest challenge everyday is just getting people to come to the site. I think we have great stories, of course, but in the beginning I was writing these awesome stories for an audience of 2, you know, nobody. But now, the audience is getting bigger which is great. It’s always a challenge to get more and more people to the site, because ultimately that’s what’s going to bring revenue up.

Q: Are Facebook and Twitter primary tools for building that traffic?

A: Primary? That’s hard to say. They’re definitely enormous assets. Most people don’t realize that, even people who are in the business. You know, there are a lot of blogs that have been around a long time, like 5 or 6 years, much older than us, but they haven’t realized that things like Facebook and Twitter can be useful. They haven’t really adapted to the times, so they’re missing out on a great opportunity.

Q: I’ve noticed SH has more audio and video clips up on the site. Have you found those multimedia aspects increase traffic to the site?

A: Well, for each story we’re trying to tell, we’re trying to do it in the most engaging way possible that makes people enjoy having read that story and also makes them want to share that story with other people. All of the things you mentioned—videos and that stuff—that’s like putting icing on the story. You know, the story is there, and then you can put on the icing and sprinkles, the videos, the images. But the real asset is the writing of the story, the text. Text is still king.

Q: There’s a lot of hype that print media is close to being completely blown up as a result of web journalism. Do you see this sort of blog-form writing being the new wave?

A: Well, I mean, there’s no debate about it. It clearly is the new wave already. The question is, will blogs still be the new wave, or will something supplant that? There’s no doubt that blogs have already destroyed the old model, and they now represent the current model. How long it will be before something else replaces the blog, I don’t know. But see, the blogs have enormous advantages over old media, and a lot of people don’t understand why they’re successful. One reason is that traditional media publishes once per period, whether that be once per month, per week, or per day. But news does not develop once per X period of time. It develops continuously. Blogs are able report up to the minute, or update a story that’s already been published, or quickly publish a follow up story. There’s also the concept of live blogging, where maybe you’re at a conference, and instead of sitting at the conference all day, taking notes, then writing the story afterwards and publishing the following day, which is the old model, you can now, with the new model, sit there at the event, have your laptop and make multiple blog posts in real time. So, there’s really just no comparison between that and the old model.

Q: Turning towards the content of your site. You guys write a lot about very science-y topics, which can be a subject that turns some people off. Have you found this to be an issue, and if so, how do you get around it?

A: Well, first of all, there’s a huge market for science, there’s no doubt about that. I mean, sure, we’re not going to be able to compete with TMZ, you know, science isn’t going to be as sensational as Tiger Woods getting divorced (laughs). But that doesn’t mean there’s not still an enormous market for us. If you look at traditional media, Scientific American, Popular Science, they’ve had tremendous success building a business strictly around science, so my company is just trying to apply that model to the modern era of blogging. There’s no doubt there’s a market for people who are interested in science and technology, and in fact, technology at least—science is a little diff—but technology has sort of been the poster child for blogging, one of the real success stories.

Q: So how about your personal involvement on the site. Can you take me through a day in the life?

A: Sure! Let me start by saying the business I run has many, many aspects to it, and it’s really hard for one person to take care of all of those aspects. Let’s go over the components: First is just writing the stories. Then there’s is finding story ledes to write about. Next, you need to get information about the story you need, be it scheduling interviews, or acquiring video, or acquiring images, and so on. And then there’s distribution. You write a story, but you don’t want it to fall on deaf ears, you want real eyeballs to see it, so everyday you’re working to promote that story and get as many eyeballs to see it as possible. You do that either by getting more Facebook or Twitter followers, or you can do it by syndicating your content to other outlets beyond just your own blog. For example, getting your story on the front page of Digg is a great way to get more eyeballs. Another component is all the technical stuff—running the site, adding features, making sure it can handle a large traffic load and grow with your traffic. And then there’s making money—primarily, about 90% of the time, that’s advertising and that’s a whole job right there of setting up systems and networks like Google Adsense, or working individually with companies to buy individual advertising on your site. And if you want other forms of revenue you can consider selling products that would interest your target audience, or partnerships with other companies, that sort of stuff. So those are the major components of running a site like mine.

You can see that for someone big like Gizmodo, you have at least one person taking care of each of those categories. Now you look at a company like mine, and you can see why it can be quite daunting for one person to break out and start up a blog—you don’t have a full budget, so you can’t really hire full-time staff. So my typical day is doing pretty much all those things. Fortunately, I’m uniquely positioned to do this—I have the IT expertise to build a website and run it. I have the confidence, or whatever you want to call it, to cold call companies and ask them to advertise on my site, and have 9 out of 10 tell me to go take a hike (laughs). I have the resources to find stories and get the content to go a long with them. Basically I’ve just spent the past year building a network of contacts in the industry. I’m also the editor, so I’ve got to read every story before it gets published. And I also take care of the business and financial aspects. So, yeah, it’s a lot.

Q: That’s pretty wild. How long would you say you’re on the clock each day?

A: There’s two ways to look at it really- if I didn’t have other obligations, I’d argue it’s a 24/7, around the clock job, if you enjoy it and want it to grow. Of course, I do have a family and other obligations, so I have a more normal approach to it. I work from about 7 am until about 4 or so. And even when I’m off the clock, I’m always connected, always interacting with potential contacts, getting potential story ledes into my phone. Always ready to put out fires if the site has a technical issue.

Q: How big is your company?

A: Right now it’s just me and one full-time employee who does most of our writing. But we’ve got an awful lot of guest posts, and I’ve experimented with part-time staff. But as soon as we get some more revenue up, my first expenditure is going to be to buy another writer so we can double our content.

Q: What are you’re thoughts on advertising as a main revenue source?

A: Advertising is still the main way, and it still works really well. I think it’s a very simple formula—the more people you have coming to your site, the more ad companies are going to want to be in front of those eyeballs. Blogs are way more profitable at this. You take one of the most successful blogs like TechCrunch—they have about 20 employees, and the revenue they make is probably up there with some traditional media companies that have a couple hundred employees. So if you get up there, you’ll be successful, but of course, it’s a big if, you have to get the eyeballs. Advertisers don’t want to talk to you if you don’t get a lot of eyeballs on your site everyday. Basically, you have to reach a certain size before it’s economically viable. But if you’re big enough, advertisers will be talking to you.

Q: What advice would you give to up-and-coming media entrepreneurs?

A: I would tell them, a lot has changed about the media industry, but a lot also hasn’t changed. One thing that hasn’t changed is that, if you make good quality content, there is going to be a market for it. One of the key ingredients to my success with the blog will be that we make good content. Some people will try to get cheaper labor and say “how bout we just have a website where volunteers write all day long”. Imagine if the Wall Street Journal did that, if they just said, “we’re going to find the cheapest writers we can find to increase profits.” Really, really quickly people would stop reading the Wall Street Journal.  So, you’ll have a future in this business if you focus on making good stuff that people want to read. Now, what is your future going to be? I mean I just showed you how hard it is to do what I do. You have to be able to wear a lot of hats, but not everyone can do that. So, really you’ve got to know it’s something that builds over time.

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Inaugural Address

Thanks all for coming to my page. You are revered for having joined me on my path at such an early stage, but you, noble soul, will undoubtedly be rewarded as you follow the progression of You Are What You Speak.

You see, folks, in this ever-changing world of media and communications, just about everyone is confused. Some are scared, some are excited. Some are strongly opinionated and think they know the future, while others abashedly run and hide. But whatever your respective stance, the fact is, just about all of us are standing on the same platform as we head into this new age of media, and if you are standing in the right place, you might be able to see the light at the end of the tunnel.

In my own efforts to pave a road through this foggy and cluttered forest of new ideas, I have set out to pursue my own education on the matter, both formally and informally. With, You Are What You Speak, I plan to take you along this road, and in the process, explore the different ways in which the the progressive and innovative nature of mankind—in society, politics, arts, culture, medicine, and technology—relate to the ways in which we define ourselves individually.