The Value of Culture

A friend of mine sent me a link about the variety of dialects found in Pennsylvania, it’s a pretty cool read. The article basically argues that because of the number of dialects, 5 in total, Pennsylvania is one of the most interesting states in the US for linguists. It reminded me of whenever I first moved to the Netherlands. I made a few friends and they were always making fun of the Limburgians because Limburgese sounds really funny. It’s has a mixture of Dutch, German, Spanish, and other stuff, plus they say the Dutch words really funny. So I decided to play them a PIttsburghese song, they couldn’t understand a word in the song. They actually asked me if it was English.

Which brings me to my next point, the Netherlands, which is roughly half the size of PA, has 2 languages at least 5 dialects (Limburgese is on it’s way to being a third language). Sure the country has a lot more people 18 million vs. 12 million, but there’s a lot more diversity in their language than in PA. Which is pretty interesting – especially considering that they’ve kept this variety whenever they also know somewhere between 3-5 languages (Dutch, English, German, Spanish, French for example). One of the concerns of the Slate article about PA is that the folks that leave decide to lose their accents which isn’t the case in the Netherlands.

These are all part of the local culture and language is one of the best representations of a culture. The words that people use to describe things really influences the way they want to live. For example the Dutch word “Gezellig” (link explains how to say the word) doesn’t really have an English translation the closest being “warm and cozy” for a room, but can be used in many different contexts (most beyond my understanding of the application). This word kind of represents a goal of a gathering, house, or anything. I think it strongly influences who the Dutch are and who they want to be their friends. It’s embedded in their culture.

I’m currently reading a book called “People’s Platform” which has a huge emphasis on culture and the cultural enablers of the internet. The internet is both the best thing and worst thing that has ever happened to our culture. It’s fantastic because I can still find out about awesome bands from friends all over the world, but it’s also extremely isolating because of algorithms that shape how we find content from 3rd parties. It’s one of the reasons why I’ve heard people express the thoughts that people are the best at recommending a new band compared to Pandora.

We have the opportunity to expand our culture a little bit if we put forth the effort. However, that’s a lot of effort. It’s hard to find people you have things in common with on some platforms and it’s easier to just find the popular people and follow them. I’ve made the effort to keep Dutch connects on my twitter feed because I loved living there. I have intentionally followed many women because I want to see their opinions as well as a few minorities. However, for the most part they are fairly under represented. It’s tough, because you want things that interest you on your twitter feed and a lot of people are into very different things than I am.

Which begs the question, how do we ensure a robust culture in an environment where we and our algorithms are actively trying to homogenize the cultural goods we interact with? This isn’t an easy problem to answer especially since we like free goods on the internet. I stream Pandora for free (ads on my phone), I haven’t bought an actual song or album in years. I want to support bands, but I know so little goes to the actual band these days. For Twitch I support 2 people (kbmod and nipnops) because I know the money goes to them to help produce the content I love. However, even with all the people paying, it’s not enough to allow nipnops to live solely on this income.

I think that we should seriously consider a living wage for artists and entertainers. I believe there is a need to support content I don’t like because we need to make sure that people see it. If the Dutch don’t understand all aspects of Americans (they’d never heard of Pittsburghese) how can we ever hope to understand other cultures if we don’t help enable them to reach us?

 

What are your thoughts?

Missing out on a break through company

There are many stories in business today about how companies decide not to purchase a company that has since gone on to be a market defining company. Yahoo! is one of the worst offenders. Yahoo managed to turn down both Google and Reddit both in very different ways. In the case of Google, Yahoo realized their mistake and tried to buy Google and then Google turned Yahoo down.

A company like Yahoo is in a tough spot when approached by a novel company that’s trying to compete in a market that Yahoo doesn’t really understand. Although, this isn’t really the case with Google, but Yahoo was much more confident in the technology they knew as their search platform and didn’t understand the potential ad growth that Google was eventually able to deliver.

Reddit, according to Alexis Ohanian and his book Without their permission, an executive at Yahoo told him that reddit was a rounding error to Yahoo’s web traffic. Which so greatly insulted Ohanian that he has used this as a motivational statement to this day.

Eventually Google IPO’d while reddit was bought by Condé Nast media. I believe that because of the direction of management that these companies were both able to flourish to this day. Google is obviously, one of the largest companies in the world, while reddit has become a huge community that the members still feel as if they are in a special club no one knows about.

It is likely that if either company had been acquired and managed in a different way, we wouldn’t have the same internet we have today. Condé Nast essentially left reddit alone and has only started to push the company to become profitable – 7 years after they were bought. It was only 3 years ago they introduced reddit gold and within the last few months they included a daily target for profitability using reddit Gold. In that time reddit has exploded in user base and introduced features to increase user base and interest in the site. If you’re interested in reading more about the history of reddit Randal Olson has an amazing analysis here, it’s really interesting.

On the other hand, Google has gone on to create an amazing ecosystem in Android, Chrome, Glass, the web, and so on. They have shut down more heavily used platforms than most companies create. None of this would have happened if Yahoo had bought Google, because Yahoo doesn’t or at least didn’t think that way.

Yahoo has two fairly large social platforms, Tumblr and Flickr, and is looking to acquire imgur. Acquiring Imgur is essentially admitting defeat with Flickr, as imgur was designed to make sharing photos on reddit easier, and Flickr is horrible to share photos with on reddit. So, it’s likely Yahoo will survive and possibly thrive in the future, but why did it miss out on yesterday’s internet of the future?

Missing out

I believe that these decisions aren’t because of bad managers. In fact, it’s likely because of high quality “traditional” management. While the internet was evolving companies like Yahoo developed metrics like views, clicks, and click throughs, to measure success of a website and the growth of a platforms. As Yahoo is a platform, being approached by other potential non-compatible platforms that were smaller was something to be expected. It is likely that Yahoo turned down hundreds of other unsuccessful platforms along with Google and reddit.

Yahoo wasn’t able to understand the potential of these different platforms, because their metrics were different than Yahoo’s. Yahoo was likely looking at both volume and number of clicks within the platform, while both reddit and Google’s engagement model focused more on sending users to other websites while minimally keeping the users on their platform. However, because of the content the users would continually come back.

Using the innovator’s dilemma as a lens here, we see that the quality of these platforms is much lower than Yahoo’s. Google’s home screen is the same as it has always been. Just Google with a search box and two buttons. Reddit on the other hand is a series of blue links with little to no ads and some arrows next to each link. Very plain and simple. Very different than Yahoo.

Furthermore, these platforms were servicing different users. Google users were searching the internet more broadly, while Yahoo was trying to both allow searching and be a one stop shop. Reddit was trying to engage with the politically active techie, which is a VERY small subset of the internet user base. Yahoo was servicing a lot of the people that had fairly recently left AOL and wanted a similar portal. It makes the internet less scary to have a platform for inexperienced users.

Measuring these platforms with the same metrics and vision of Yahoo, these would have made very bad buys and likely would have been killed off, directionally changed from the trajectory they were on and led to their success. Condé Nast essentially provided a “skunk works” area for reddit and enjoyed the clicks to the other sites that they owned that redditors also visit frequently.

It is likely that if Yahoo had bought either or both Google and reddit, the end result would not have lead to internet we have today. These platforms would have been warped into very different products that many young people would have avoided. I believe that Yahoo has learned a great deal and will likely do a better job with Tumblr and Imgur than they have with Flickr.