Blackbox Republic

200907141930.jpg My friend Sam Lawrence unveiled his latest project, Blackbox Republic on the world today. Billed as an online relationship market for the sex positive community, the site features event planning, commerce, and mobile features on top of a general social networking platform.

I will admit that when Sam first pinged me about this I thought it was an elaborate prank… “a social network for the ‘sex positive‘ community?” what my first reaction followed quickly by “is it a porn thing?” and then “okay this must be a prank and I’d better play along so as not to give him the satisfaction of punking me”. It is, it’s not, and it definitely isn’t a prank and the reason why I am telling this story is to get it out in the open because I am sure that I was not alone in my reaction nor will Sam not have to answer those questions going forward.

There are two independent threads that recently converged for me that explain why I am so intrigued by what Sam is doing. I joined the board of SpectrumDNA largely because of my belief in the white label social network for affinity groups, PlanetTagger. Jim Banister, the CEO and inspirational founder, and I had a bunch of conversations about the concept of social nicheworking as a compliment to what Facebook, Myspace and the other generalized network are doing. Let me be clear, social nicheworking is not the opposite of social networking, it’s just a more specialized variant that offers tremendous value to affinity groups, and this is what Sam is doing with Blackbox Republic. Facebook Connect comes to mind as legitimate evidence supporting the notion that these two ends of the spectrum compliment each other rather than compete.

Look around you, think about your own life… outside of family and professional interests we all have passions that we pursue. In the pursuit of these hobbies and interests we often align ourselves with other people who are like us, mostly for sharing purposes but also, in many cases, to provide economic support, whether in the form of actual commerce or events. It’s not news to anyone that tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands, of message forums have popped up on the web to support these groups and up until recently they have taken the form of message boards.

Where message boards stop social networks begin, not because of the much talked about social graph but because, very simply, we want to connect not just with people but people like us. Community sponsors, whether in the form of actual economic sponsors like media entities or organizers like the folks who put on Burning Man, want to have a community that enriches the experience rather than tries to shoehorn it into a grab bag of features with limited branding opportunity and no content programming capabilities.

This gets to the second epiphany that I had recently, a conversation with Kevin Marks about overlapping public spaces. Who we are in our woodworking community is the same person we are in the Indian motorcycle community and that is the same person we are in our kindergarten parents community, yet the experience in each of these communities is fundamentally different even if some of the participants overlap. At it’s core, we want to belong to publics of our peers but in each community instance we define our peers differently while defining ourselves the same.

Social nicheworking is at it’s core about overlapping public spaces and a rich community experience as a function of the community participants having a lot of control over how the community behaves, both technically and socially. While you may disregard Blackbox as some kooky sex community thing, the underlying concepts that Sam is tapping are exceptionally powerful and will define the next generation of social networking experiences that emerge more broadly across the industry of providers doing this stuff and more importantly among the communities embracing them. The community platforms will be at the core of go to market strategies for brand advertisers and service providers who want to tap into the economic potential that every affinity group possesses, and technology providers are going to have to provide services that are intrinsically connected with content, whether syndicated or user generated.

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Read more on Lawrence at Wikinvest


Better password inputs, iPhone style. Please, please, please, let’s stop pretending that password masks do anything to improve security. They don’t, we know it, and yet we continue to blindly adhere to a user experience that is overwhelmingly negative for people.

How the AP fails to get search and SEO (again). Danny takes apart the AP for their lame attempts at being relevant online, pointing out that they really have no one to blame but themselves.

Danny also wrote a really kick ass post on who the real time search players are and how they are different.

The time has come to regulate SEO and search engine marketing. Basically this is a call to regulate Google and it’s not without merit, although I am generally a fan of limited regulation under the belief that it basically doesn’t work and ultimately only serves to increase the cost of doing business. In this case it is clear that Google, which has an undisputed leadership position in search, requires more competition but also must be restrained in the way they interact with their customers. While government regulation will likely have minimal real impact, the threat of it and a groundswell of support for it will most certainly have an impact on Google.

Breaking News Online… how a 19 year old is shaking up what it means to be in the news business.

The unemployment data paints a far gloomier picture of the economy than the Obama administration is admitting publicly.

This 1,500 frame per second video from a Formula One race is frickin mind blowing.

Connecting Google Reader shared items to Twitter.

Clay Shirky on shared public spaces and a next generation patronage model for journalism. If you are interested in online media this is a must read.

Life in Taxopolis, how Mayor Bloomberg’s “luxury product” became unaffordable.

How California’s budget fiasco is being complicated by confusion over what the budget numbers actually are… when the people that are supposed to know how much money is coming and going can’t even figure it out, maybe we have a bigger problem than a big deficit.

and closely related, how the tech boom terminated California’s economy.

Businesses can learn a thing or two from Walmart about how they promote their availability on twitter.

Great blog post on how nonprofits can take advantage of twitter and by “nonprofits” I mean the intentional kind and not the startup variety.

FastPencil, an interesting new self-publishing service for writing and producing books.

50 “noise free” Twitter tips and links in marketing, SEO, design, and writing. Quite a good list.

Learning the art of listening… something we can all improve ourselves on.

Education Reform

There is a lot of talk in California right now about how the budget crisis will affect education investments, and I write investments very deliberately because education spending is a form of investment that is supposed to yield future returns. It’s evident that we’ll have to deal with the budget hole by cutting education spending rather dramatically, in fact it is absolutely unavoidable because education spending is about 50% of the state budget and when you include all of the other initiative mandated spending, the state government controls less than 20% of the actual budget… with a $26b hole in the budget the state could cut every dollar spent on things not mandated by voters and there would still be a deficit.

Okay, so we’re going to have a less generously funded school system, a system that already competes for last place in the country in terms of educational quality. There is also the reality that we will dramatically reduce our funding for community colleges and at the same time raise fees, a reality for the California State University system and the University of California system.

While we are going through this fiscal realignment is it not also appropriate to ask what we are getting out of our education system? K-12 is a basket case and parents with economic means opt out of the system while those on lower income tiers are effectively denied something every child deserves, a quality education.

Community colleges are long held up as filling a gap in the higher education system but is the outcome valuable for the students, not to mention the taxpayers who fund the system? California’s state university system ($3.5 billion from the state) is on par with other state university systems and the UC system ($18.5 billion from the state) is world class, on par with private institutions considered the best in the world.

Here’s a proposal to consider which would address all of the issues on the table:

1) Blow up and recreate K-12 education. There is no evidence to support the notion that pre-K (Headstart) does anything for children beyond providing state funded day care, so eliminate it and refocus K-12 on accomplishing primary and secondary education and chunking 9-12 grades to two years of traditional high school and 2 years of college prep.

2) Eliminate the community college system. An AA degree is worthless in the real world, and if the 2 years of college prep courses in what is now high school do their job, students will be ready to move to a 4 year university.

3) Expand the CSU system.

4) Establish a vocational training system. Not every young person is going to be an accountant, lawyer, or computer programmer. In addition to mechanical, building trades, and healthcare professionals, the state would greatly benefit from a vocational system that trains young people for careers in restaurant and food service, environmental vocations, and transportation, among many others.

5) Privatize the UC system. The $18b that would be saved could be devoted to #3 and #4, with enough left over to fund a financial aide system for qualifying state resident students. The UC system has proven that it can compete with other private institutions, let’s allow them to fully compete with the private institutions by removing the feigned outrage over executive salaries and fee increases. If we have an expectation that the UC system should remain world class, then unleash it from the shackles of political oversight.