Oracle Hires Former HP CEO Mark Hurd As Co-President

Oracle has confirmed that former Hewlett-Packard CEO Mark Hurd has found a cushy place to land after one of the year’s messiest tech scandals. Hurd will be joining the company as Co-President alongside Oracle CEO and close friend Larry Ellison.

This comes as no surprise if you believed yesterday’s rumors of Hurd’s hire or took note of the fact that Ellison came to his defense during the controversy over allegations of harassment by former HP contractor Jodie Fisher.

According to The New York Times, Ellison chastised HP for firing Hurd last month, calling it “the worst personnel decision since the idiots on the Apple board fired Steve Jobs many years ago.”

Mark Hurd wrapped up five years at HP last August and during his tenure the company’s stock price had more than doubled. Hurd was compensated generously for his accomplishments, pulling a $24.2 million in salary at HP in 2009.

He now has the unique opportunity to use what he learned at HP to maximize Oracle’s acquisition of Sun Microsystems, one of H.P.’s direct competitors.

Says Ellison, “Mark did a brilliant job at H.P., and I expect he’ll do even better at Oracle. There is no executive in the I.T. world with more relevant experience than Mark.”

Hurd will be replacing Oracle Co-President Charles Phillips, who was coincidentally on the receiving end of another sex scandal earlier this year.


Yet Another Social Network Launches, But At Least With An Epic Press Release

I’ve ignored more press releases in my time than I care to remember, but I still scan, and sometimes even read, a bunch of them every single day. Comes with the territory, and I’ve long accepted that – I’m sure a lot of PR folks think of those as necessary evil almost as much as we do. Almost.

But as boring as it is to read the same frickin words over and over and over and over again, there are certain times – albeit very, very few – where we manage to distill some actual useful information from the writings (but please, again, stop using words like “leading” and “award-winning” in the first paragraph all the time. Pretty please?).

And then there the rare ones that put a smile on our face. Press releases we actually enjoy reading. Not because they’re ballsy (it’s easy to provoke and get attention by running your virtual mouth) but because they’re whimsy and just the right degree of ballsy, rather.

Take for example this one announcing the launch of MeetYourFriends, some social network (posted in full below for your reading pleasure). It has everything: a headline that draws just the right amount of attention, the basic information and mostly lots of self- and industry mocking humor. Bonus points for distributing the press release on Labor Day.

Will MeetYourFriends ever stand out of the social networking crop? Almost certainly, they don’t even stand a chance. But they’ve already gotten my attention by penning a better, more memorable and attention-grabbing press release than most other companies throughout their entire existence, so that’s gotta count for something. Or something.

Update: actually, maybe you should think twice before signing up. I can’t in any way guarantee this isn’t a clever ploy (yet another?) to get gullible users to provide the makers with their personal data. Update 2: just don’t sign up, it’s better for everyone.

Either way, enjoy the read.

Latest Social Network MeetYourFriends.com Threatens to Bury Rivals ‘Within Days’

NEW YORK, Sept. 6 /PRNewswire/ — After resolving not to come up with a pretentious name and an avalanche of gimmicks, social network MeetYourFriends.com goes live to a celebration of simplicity and retro fanfare. Having not just received first round equity funding of $50 million from leading venture capitalists, the site is well set to tap into the growing market of 30- and 40-somethings who just want to talk to each other.

Developed by Neil Bryant, one of the founders of Badoo.com, MeetYourFriends will not be launched in a private beta for only a select 500 users. When visitors come to the site they will immediately find they are not immersed in a stunning 3D multi-verse, where they can interact with each other via fully customizable avatars. “It’s going to be beautiful,” says Neil, who is not going to give an overhyped, media-crazed keynote speech.

MeetYourFriends claim to have identified an emerging demographic of users who, according to Neil, are “keen to engage each other in casual chat” and are aggressively aligning their service portfolio to meet this demand. “We wanted to bring some fresh new ideas into the social networking sphere, and with a unique combination of email and live chat we think we may have just achieved that.”

For those who wish to bring up goats and cows on a virtual farm, MeetYourFriends will not satisfy. The site is a back-to-basics social network that will appeal to fans of The Beatles and sliced bread.

There’s no open API so game developers around the globe are not frantically hacking code together, right this minute, in order to launch the latest virtual pets and aquariums across the network. “We are extremely excited at the thought of all the products that will soon not be appearing on the site, contributing to the users’ rich enjoyment of the service,” says Neil.

Following the predicted growth in mobile Location Based Services such as FourSquare and Gowalla, MeetYourFriends gets in the mix through a revolutionary static PC interface, pinpointing the exact location of the user to their computer. “We think it’s important that our users can access the site whenever they are at a PC. We’re looking at a version for Notebooks right now, but it’s some way off,” says Neil.

To calm fears before they arrive, MeetYourFriends will not change its privacy policy or allow advertising once it’s settled on its laurels. “We think Facebook is nervous,” adds Neil. Global domination awaits.

ABOUT MEETYOURFRIENDS

MeetYourFriends.com is a back-to-basics social network that brings together new friends from across the globe. With simple sign-up and fast search, the website offers instant friendship using Direct Messages and Live Chat. Based on secure and powerful web technology, the social community brings the world to your front door for chat, fun, and friendship. Find out more at www.MeetYourFriends.com.


WITN?: Can India Succeed in Exporting Mobile Services Like It Did with Bollywood? (TCTV)

We’re not going to lie to you—this video may feature the world’s worst Skype connection. And that was after 45 minutes of trouble-shooting. While we have no problems connecting to entrepreneurs in Russia or Kenya, apparently London is the land that Skype forgot, which is pretty ironic given it was funded there.

But such old-world telecom connections are the new reality for Monty Munford who moved from uber-telecom connected India back to the UK last month. Munford has worked in two if the industries where India has outdone many other countries: Mobile and Bollywood. (See him above getting pampered.)

As we discussed a few weeks ago with mobile in Kenya – and as Munford wrote in his guest post on Somaliland yesterday – India is one of many countries trying to export what it has done well to Africa. Is Bollywood the model?

In this clip we talk about what India did well with Bollywood. It’s an interesting lesson for any emerging market looking to build more than a copy cat industry, but something that can be a true global sensation.


Merger Mania: Corp Dev Execs Talk For An Hour About Who They’d Buy And Why

We’d heard this was a great discussion but haven’t been able to get our hands on the footage until now. On July 29th senior corporate development executives from Cisco (Derek Idemoto), Facebook (Michael Brown), Google (Amin Zoufonoun), Microsoft (Fritz Lanman), Twitter (Jessica Verilli) and Yahoo (Taylor Barada) convened at Startup2Startup to talk about what kinds of companies they want to buy, and why.

The panel was moderated by CODE Advisors founder Michael Marquez, who was also a former corp dev executive at both Yahoo and CBS. He put together a panel of buyers that will represent most or all of the M&A activity in the online space over the next year or so, with the possible exception of AOL.

My favorite part is at 27:30 where each panelist says the top acquisitions that the person to their right should make. Watch everyone’s body language – lots of nervousness up there on stage. But the entire hour is worth watching if you’re even thinking about selling your company right now.

  • 10:54 – Mike Brown gives some insights into high level strategy of Facebook
  • 11:51 – Fritz Lanman talks about why Microsoft hasn’t been as active as its peers (although that will be changing)
  • 13:33 – Fritz hits on the highlights of a typical M&A process
  • 20:45 – “Speed Round”, all panelists comment on the areas they believe are most overhyped or underhyped
  • 22:23 – “Speed Round”, all panelists comment on the best under the radar company
  • 27:30 – “Role Playing” – Mike asks the panelist to speculate on the top acquisition choices for others on the panel
  • 32:56 – Taylor answers how a company can best interact with Yahoo!
  • 35:30 – Amin gives advice on how to best survive the Corporate Development process
  • 39:50 – Fritz (and all other panelist) comment on the Corporate Development “bidding” process
  • 52:07 – Panelists talk about M&A learning lessons from “failed” M&A
  • 57:38 – Closing words of advice from each panelist


The Attack Of Branded Content: Who Will Control TV On The Web? (TCTV)

I’ve got to admit, the concept of “branded content” on the Web makes me cringe. It is generally used to refer to Web videos created and packaged specifically for an advertiser. Maybe I am old-fashioned, but I like my videos created for the audience first, not advertisers. And yet, in the budding Web video industry, branded content is bringing in some serious dollars and even some serious talent.

There is a lot more going on here than advertisers bankrolling the production of their own videos because there isn’t enough professionally produced Web video to show their ads against (although that is part of it). The rise of advertiser-produced video entertainment is but a sign of a much larger shift that is happening as people consume more video on the Web. Advertisers love broadcast and cable TV because of its massive reach into every home. They are finding it nearly impossible to replicate that reach on the Web. The only way they can do it is by spreading ads across tens of thousand of sites through video ad networks.

Many of those video ad networks also create their own content for their own sites, but some are also starting to become broader video distribution networks as well. One of the biggest video ad networks that specializes in creating branded content is Digital Broadcasting Group (DBG). Last week, I met with COO Rick Kleczkowski, who told me about a few of the Web video shows DBG is producing, including the upcoming ControlTV, Built Green, and Family Versus Chef. We also got into a spirited discussion about why branded content seems to be taking over the Web, and whether or not that is a good thing. I ask him if guys like him are going to put guys like me out of business (see videos below).

DBG is one of the top 10 video ad networks in the U.S., with a potential reach of 167 million viewers (comScore), but the sweet spot of its business is producing Web TV shows with specific advertisers in mind, and then distributing it through its network of sites where they play in editorial slots rather than as in ad slots off to the side of the page. Some of these shows actually sound kind of interesting.

ControlTV will be directed by Seth Green, the guy behind the Robot Chicken animations on Adult Swim. An actor in his 20s will be the main character and the audience on the Web will be able to control his every move for 18 hours a day. It’s so We Live In Public, you kind of expect someone like Josh Harris to be behind it, not a video ad network. Whether or not it turns out to be compelling entertainment will depend on execution, but I can see the appeal. It will be shown on its own dedicated site, and DBG has already lined up Sprint and Ford to be sponsors (the main character will drive a Ford Fiesta and carry around a Sprint HTC EVO phone).

The other shows are Built Green and Family Versus Chef. Built Green will be a construction project and home renovation show focusing on green materials. It will be sponsored by Kohler, the faucet company. Family Versus Chef will be a cook-off show where a professional chef is paired against a home cook, and the judges have to rate each meal without knowing who prepared what.

I could imagine these last two on TV just as easily as on the Web. But if they were on TV, they would be created by producers at HGTV or the Food Network, not the advertisers themselves. The advertisers would just come along for the ride once the shows found an audience or because it fits thematically with their brand message. The difference is that TV can pretty much guarantee a minimum number of viewers no matter how bad the show.

On the Web, there are no TV networks. The new power brokers in video, other than YouTube and Hulu, are the video ad networks—companies such as Tremor and Break, and DBG. Advertisers like the video ad networks better because they give them more control over where their ads are placed. And if they can have shows created for them on spec, so much the better. They are more than happy to pay premium rates.

But will this produce good TV? (Do not doubt that sooner or later all TV will move online). Part of this is just early days, when advertisers can essentially have shows created for them just like at the dawn of the TV era. Eventually, though, new networks and talent will rise, creating TV with the Web in mind first. TV that looks great on your tablet computer and your flat screen TV.

Audiences can sniff out when branded messages are being pushed down their throats and will gravitate towards the good stuff. Smart advertisers and advertising companies already realize that and will separate the content creation part for the packaging and distribution part, and we will be back to where we are today with TV networks. The church and state between creative and money will be restored. But the TV networks will look completely different. These companies we see as nothing more than video ad networks could very well become the TV networks of tomorrow.

In the first video below, Kleczkowski describes the concepts behind some of DBG’s “branded content” shows. In the second, we talk about the rise of branded content and why it is happening. (Sorry for the audio quality, the video was taken on my iPhone in a loud New York City cafe).


Super Angel/VC Smackdown: Why the Hate? (TCTV)

Watching the battle of words, blog posts, term sheets and Tweets unfold over the last few weeks between VCs and Super Angels has been a little surreal. I’ve spent a career convincing editors that the internal workings of Venture Capital are more interesting than they sound, but even I can’t muster the passion to declare convertible debt AWESOME while equity TOTALLY SUCKS.

Clearly, this cultural explosion of tension is about more than just terms and who does what deal. After all, in theory, both these group need each other to thrive.

Rather than commission yet another guest post on the subject, we figured let’s just invite Super Angel rabble-rouser David McClure and early stage VC defender David Hornik into the studio for a no-holds-barred Smackdown. This is a five-part series tackling five wedge issues of the debate, and we’ll post one every day this week– consider it a primer on what you missed if you took August off, Mr. Old School VC.

Today’s topic: Why the hate? Don’t you two need each other?

As always when Dave McClure is involved, the language is NSFW. There, you’ve been warned.


Recommendations Working Like A Charm: Twitter Follower Growth Is Accelerating

It’s been about a month since Twitter turned on its people recommendation engine, a set of algorithms that enables the service to automagically suggest people you don’t currently follow but may find interesting.

Twitter has indicated that these suggestions are based on a variety of factors, including the people you already follow and the people they follow. They are, for now, only visible on Twitter.com and the Find People section.

And based on my experience, the algorithms seem to be doing their job just fine indeed – I have most certainly discovered a lot of new interesting people on Twitter who I wasn’t following yet, and my own follower count has increased significantly in the past few weeks.

So for fun, I decided to use TwitterCounter to look up the counts for a couple of accounts I follow, to see if this is a general trend of something I’m noticing for my account only.

Watch with me:

Yes, that sure looks like a trend in my book.

Even dropping follower counts can get reversed thanks to recommendations served by Twitter, as we can see with GigaOm founder Om Malik‘s personal Twitter account:

And it’s not just media folks – check out the trend for angel investor Dave McClure and Googler Matt Cutts, for example:

Notably, even the accounts of celebrities, who already have millions of people following them, have seen a spike in new followers since the beginning of August 2010:

Now, I have to say these bumps in followers counts can not be seen with every single Twitter account. Gizmodo and Engadget are both growing, but linearly. Bill Gates’ account is showing steady growth, as is Twitter’s. No bumps like demonstrated above to be seen.

In fact, the Twitter account for Fake Steve Jobs and Google, for example, are both still showing growth, but clearly leveling off rather than increasing rapidly.

Neverthless, I’m going to go ahead and assume Twitter’s recommendation algorithms are working as advertised, and that they’re seeing numbers of engagement and followers across the board go up consistently ever since turning on the feature last month. With 145 million users and counting, that’s clearly a very good thing for them.

Now wait what happens when the company launches an API that will enables third-party developers to integrate suggestions for new people to follow into their apps and services (which they’re planning to release in the near future).

Have you seen your follower count go up in the past month? If not, you will soon I’d wager.

Information provided by CrunchBase


Facebook Denies Testing Places In The UK – But It Looks Close

Is Facebook testing its location based service Places for imminent rollout in the UK? Notes on Twitter started to surface over the weekend indicating that might be the case. And as you can see from this screengrab from @kierondonoghue on Saturday, it did work for a short time.

However, we’ve checked with Facebook’s official spokespeople and they say “We weren’t testing it this weekend contrary to reports.” And a simple check of the iPhone app reveals that even if some people can access their location via mobile in the UK, most can’t.

So there you go. But, the imminent arrival of Facebook Places in the UK and across the rest of Europe is clearly going to have an interesting impact not least on local location-based startups who already compete with Foursquare and Gowalla, to name the two main US players whose services have migrated to Europe.

Location-based check-in services which have developed locally in Europe like Tellmewhere and Plyce which have strongholds in France, and Friendticker in Germany may have their fans but Facebook’s penetration into Europe is deep. When it hits the location button it’s going to be tricky for these local startups, and looking for value beyond location and offers is going to have to become core to their proposition.

I’m fairly confident however that startups that concentrate on content, not just location, have a fair wind behind them, and in that respect Rummble (strongest in the UK) and Qype (pan European) have much stronger foundations.


Can Wikileaks Afford To Back The Undiplomatic Julian Assange?

“He’s a classic Aussie in the sense that he’s a bit of a male chauvinist.” That quote comes at the end of a piece on the recent escapades of Julian Assange, founder and chief spokesman for Wikileaks. It seems apt, because it’s becoming increasingly clear that an organisation which aspiries to transparency and the high ideals of open information is going to have problems going forward if it continues to entertain an individual who lacks transparency and whose private life is alleged by his female accuses to be be riddled with low ideals.

Because let’s be clear, delicate diplomancy and skirting the choppy waters of international issues which involve thousands of lives – like releasing highly sensitive government information about the Iraq war – is not the kind of thing you want someone who is careless about their personal life to take charge of.

How would you react if you heard this story: A guy sleeps with two women in quick succession, annoys both with his sexual habits, they talk but he dismisses their concerns. When they go to the Police he calls it an “international conspiracy”. Uh… what?

This is more or less what appears to have happened. The Daily Mail newspaper’s delving into how Assange had consensual sex with the women but was reported to police after he refused to use a condom or, later, take an STD test, seem more like a bedroom farce than the actions of a high-minded individual.

At least it was clear that a high minded Anna Ardin helped bring Assange to Sweden for a speaking engagement. She allegedly let Assange stay in her one-bedroom flat in Stockholm. They went out to dinner and – as consenting adults will – later had sex, according to a “police source”. During this he insisted the condom had split. To quote LOLcats: orly?

Woman No. 2 met Assange the next day at the conference organised by Ardin, was later invited out for lunch with Assange and his entourage. She lent him a charger for his laptop, paid for his metro card and they went to a movie, becoming “amorous”. A few days later they had sex without a condom, despite her insistence that he wear one, according to the Mail.

Woman B then called Ardin and the pair put two and two together. They claimed a fear of STDs and pregnancy, but one can also see another angle – both were deeply concerned by Assange’s care-free approach to them.

I asked a Swedish friend about this. She says “Most women I know in Sweden/Stockholm take the pill or have a sterilet/copper ring. I have never heard of anyone demanding that their sex partner take a STD test after unprotected sex unless the woman knows for a fact that she has been infected and then in order to trace/stop the source the partner can be asked for an STD test.”

But at any rate, how would a normal, more sensitive, man react? Apologise, maybe? Certainly a man with a lot at stake and concerned about how something like this might look would think twice about his next moves.

No, Assange refused an STD test asked by the women. Incensed, they went to police and a warrant for Assange’s arrest was issued. A prosecutor decided there was no evidence of rape but by that stage the news was out. Now another Swedish prosecutor has reopened the investigation saying there was “reason to believe that a crime was committed” citing “sexual coercion and sexual molestation”.

But instead of apologising Assange calls the claims a Pentagon smear campaign and that “Australian intelligence” had warned him to expect such “dirty tricks”.

So, ultimately, it is completely unsurprising that there is internal dissatisfaction at Wikileaks about the the way Assange has handled this scandal.

According to The Daily Beast, this is the last straw for some organizers of WikiLeaks, who are demanding that Assange step aside.

I can see how all this appears to the quite moral society of Sweden. Swedes are pretty open about sex and are happy to talk about it. But with that openness comes also some fairly high expectations about how you handle yourself. Having worked in Sweden myself and knowing plenty of Swedes, I know that they would think Assange’s action to be extremely arrogant. People there rarely behave like Assange, and his alleged behaviour is quite frowned upon.

If a Swedish man had done something like this he probably would have thought nothing of taking the STD test if only out of respect for the women he’d offended, even if he was innocent.

A WikiLeaks organiser and backer, Icelandic politician Birgitta Jonsdottir, has told The Daily Beast that while she does not believe the assault allegations, she has asked Assange to step aside as WikiLeaks’ public spokesman until after the criminal investigation is over. It was Jonsdottir that called him the classic Aussie “male chauvinist”.

Another WikiLeaks organizer says Assange has been resisting efforts over the last two weeks to step down, but this is creating “a mess for everyone”. I can imagine. The site is preparing to release an additional 13,000 classified American military reports from the war in Afghanistan.

There’s even a suggestion that engineers on the site have taken it down protest several times in the last few days.

And incredibly, Assange has told a a Swedish newspaper that he was “losing confidence in the Swedish justice system” as a result of the investigation. This is the opposite of diplomatic – this is the very country that has shepherded him and his organisation with its long tradition of freedom of the press and where he is trying to obtain a residency permit.

Increasingly Assange’s approach to this controversy has reminded me of another famous Australian who is chauvinist, sexually promiscuous and at the centre of regular diplomatic storms: Sir Les Patterson, a fictional Australian diplomatic invented by comedian Barry Humpreys.

Sir Les is of course a caricature of an uncouth, loud mouthed Aussie diplomat, always chasing girls and offending people. So quite unlike Assange, of course.

But if he continues on his current path, Assange will look more and more like that comedic creation, even as he tries to grasp the moral high round for Wikileaks.


Overblog and Wikio Just Married. Pregnant with a European Google News for Blogs.

A trusted source has confirmed that French-blogging platform, Overblog, will soon be part of the Wikio family. Rumor has it that the growing Luxembourg-based news portal is apparently trying to develop European Google News for blogs.

For anyone who isn’t familiar with Wikio, all you really have to know is that it’s a news portal founded by Pierre Chappaz in 2005 after his previous company, Kelkoo, was acquired by Yahoo in 2004 for some 475 million euros. For acquisitions à la Française, that’s not too shabby.

So far, no details concerning the financial transaction have been released but we’re told that it should be up there with the likes of Exalead and Priceminister – two French companies that were acquired during the summer for roughly €135 million and €200 million respectively. As far as Wikio is concerned, the group has also been on a bit of an acquisition spree lately, buying e-reputation solution Neotia in April as well as marketing group eBuzzing in December of last year.

The new Wikio family should count some 120 employees across several European countries, including offices in Paris, London, Rome and Milan. Pierre Chappaz will direct the new team that will be reinforced by the new addition of Frédéric Montagnon, Overblog’s founder. Montagnon is also one of the co-founders of Nomao, a local competitor of TellMeWhere – who plays alongside the likes of Yelp and Qype.

Information provided by CrunchBase

Information provided by CrunchBase


Facebook, Relationships And “Catfish”: It’s Complicated

If ever a trailer did not depict what a movie is actually about it’s this trailer for Universal Pictures’ “Catfish”, a movie about Facebook the subject matter of which could not be further from that other movie about Facebook. I’d like to use this sentence to say “Spoiler Alert” about fifteen times because the next couple paragraphs are going to be full of them.

If you hate spoilers do yourself a favor and stop reading now. That said, the following exposition shouldn’t prevent you from seeing the movie, I’ve seen it twice and enjoyed both times.

“Catfish” is a movie about Nev Schulman, a 24-year-old New York photographer and his relationship with eight year old Abby Pierce and her 19-year-old sister Megan Faccio whom he meets on Facebook in 2007. I’m sure all of you can see this coming, but Megan isn’t who she claims to be and neither is Abby. Nev and Ariel Schulman, Henry Joost and the viewer get taken for a wild and well-documented ride, especially for the last 40 minutes of the movie.

In summary Megan and a bunch of other Facebook identities are characters invented by artist Angela Wesselman’s imagination, as Wesselman is trapped in Michigan taking care of two disabled children and has no outlets for creative expression other than her paintings — which she ships to Nev Schulman under the guise of them being her (real) daughter Abby’s — and her elaborate storytelling on Facebook. “Scam is not the word,” say the filmmakers regarding Wesselman’s bait and switch.

Plot twists aside, the film uses social networking and other tropes unique to the Internet age such as Google Maps, “sexting” and Photoshop in order to give a richer view of the emotional narrative, as Nev Schulman and Angela/Megan’s digital courtship drags on for eight months of phone calls, MP3 exchanges and even Facebook wall “infighting” among the various imaginary members of the Pierce family. At some point Schulman sends Megan an IRL post card, and remarks how odd the act of sending snail mail is.

What’s the most interesting about the film is that Wesselman is a totally new kind of artist, creating a entire world for Nev through multiple fabricated online identities. When asked during a screening last week why he, as a self-proclaimed part of the “Google Generation” never bothered to Google search Abby Pierce or Angela Wesselman or Megan Faccio, Nev Schulman said he did and came up with nothing, not pushing it any further because wanted to believe. “There are plenty of people with no Google presence,” says Schulman. Heh

This ambiguity surrounding “Catfish” (including its bloody Catfish logo) has lead it to be the subject of many attacks most notably from Movieline in their post “Does Sundance Sensation Catfish Have A Truth Problem?” which asserts that both the Schulmans and Joost knew that Megan wasn’t who she said she was right from the beginning. As counter to this, filmaker Ariel Schulman revealed that the movie is not being marketed as a documentary because the “D-word” turns off younger viewers to whom he thinks the film would be most beneficial as a cautionary tale.

While some scenes from the movie tend to reinforce the “they knew the entire time” hypothesis (as does Schulman’s shit-eating grin throughout) the “whether or not any of the boys suspected it” issue is complicated and best left to individual viewer discretion.

What should remain with you after seeing “Catfish” is how convincing the Facebook soap opera Wesselman pulled off could be to someone yearning for a human connection, and also as a side note, that model Aimee Gonzales’ boyfriend, whose images Wesselman used to pull off the ruse, chided her shortly after hearing about her inadvertent role in the film, “See I told you you shouldn’t have put all those pictures online.”

Catfish hits theatres September 17th, one month before the more glamorous “The Social Network.” Both Wesselman and Nev Schulman are still friends on Facebook.

Information provided by CrunchBase


As It Moves Away From The Wikis, Wetpaint Launches TV News And Entertainment Site

Online publishing company Wetpaint has been undergoing a strategic shift in its business model over the past year. Wetpaint began as a simple wiki/social publishing tool but then started to build entertainment sites for big brands, including MSN. And the heavily funded startup succumbed to layoffs last July and December. But today, Wetpaint is taking the company in a new direction: original content. The startup is launching Wetpaint Entertainment; a TV news site that covers news and gossip from over 15 major TV shows, such as Glee, Grey’s Anatomy, and Gossip Girl.

Each show has a dedicated online channel (the site is launching with 15 channels), and will compile the most popular photos, videos, fashion gossip, and headlines to provide one place for all the information about fans’ favorite shows.

Wetpaint’s founder and CEO Ben Elowitz says that each show will have roughly 20 posts of information per day and will include a live updating news feed on the homepage. Roughly 30 percent of the content on the site will be written and curated by Wetpaint editors while the 70 percent of content will be sourced from other sites. However, Elowitz says that editors won’t simply repost another site’s news with a link; Wetpaint will add its own editorial spin to repurposed content.

Wetpaint’s entertainment platform has also created Facebook pages for each show; allowing fans to interact with content and editors via the social network. The company says that 500,000 fans have joined Wetpaint’s Facebook pages over the past few months. In fact, Facebook, says Elowitz, is currently accounting for 40 percent of traffic to the site (which soft launched a few months ago). He believes that the cross platform integration with Facebook will help differentiate the site from its competitors. And with limited exposure during the soft launch, traffic to the site is growing by 50 percent monthly.

Starting today, Wetpaint Entertainment includes channels for “The Vampire Diaries,” “Grey’s Anatomy,” “America’s Next Top Model,” “Castle,” “Hellcats,” “Nikita,” “Glee,” “Dancing With The Stars,” “Top Chef,” “Pretty Little Liar,” “Bachelorette,” “The Bachelor,” “Gossip Girl,” “Jersey Shore” and “The Real Housewives of DC.”

The startup plans to launch mobile apps later this year and may eventually move into other verticals in entertainment and arts. At the moment, the site faces competition from many of the entertainment and gossip news sites that cover TV news such as Entertainment Weekly, People.com, and US Magazine.

Information provided by CrunchBase


Rollover Minutes: How Adam Penenberg Has Legitimised New, New, New Journalism. Again.

Adam Penenberg. If you call yourself an online journalist, and yet that name doesn’t immediately prompt a nod of recognition – a smile, even – then it’s time to close your laptop and bow your head in shame. Or at least head over to Netflix.

It was Adam Penenberg who, back in 1998, first forced traditional journalists to sit up and take online reporting seriously. And he did so with a double whammy: scooping them on a big story – a scandal that went to the heart of one of America’s journalistic institutions – while also exposing a rising star of print journalism as a hack and a liar.

The lying hack was New Republic wunderkind Stephen Glass and the story of how Penenberg – then a reporter for ‘Forbes Digital Tool’ (now sadly swallowed by the execrable Forbes.com) – exposed Glass’ fabricated reporting was subsequently made into a movie. (Penenberg was portrayed in the movie by Steve Zahn while Glass was played by Hayden Christensen. Weirdly, Jonathan Chait was played by Chloë Sevigny.)

Penenberg, then, is one of the founding fathers of digital journalism. His expose – ‘Lies, damn lies and fiction’ – sent a clear message to print journalists: “digital journalism is more than just an underpaid, under-skilled subset of real reporting. We web guys are breaking stories and – FEAR US – we’re fact checking your sorry asses.”

Twelve years later, of course, none of this is news. Digital journalism is a recognised branch of the 5th Estate, particularly when it comes to fact-checking the [sic] mainstream media, and planting the first seeds of reporting, ready to be picked up by print and television. Thanks to the Internet, the traditional news cycle has become a cyclone; a churning, chewing machine that sucks in every fact or rumour that flits past its peripheral vision, before spitting it out – often undigested – in the form of minute-by-minute, second-by-second BREAKING NEWS headlines. Compared to today’s digital news output, 24 hour cable news seems almost narcoleptically relaxed.

The idea, then, that a huge story could go unreported in today’s news environment – where everyone and his cellphone is a ‘citizen journalist’ and where one moment’s tweet is the next moment’s “BLOGGERS CLAIM THAT…” headline on CNN – is slightly ridiculous.

And yet, three days ago that’s exactly what happened.

On Thursday, a Mississippi jury awarded $131 million in compensatory damages to the family of ‘star New York Mets prospect’, Brian Cole, who was killed in 2001 when his Ford Explorer flipped as he drove home from spring training. Although the damages in the Cole case were the largest Ford has paid in relation to the Explorer (they were based on predictions of Cole’s future earnings), it is far from the only such incident: of the Explorers built between 1990 and 2001, a staggering one in 2700 has been involved in a rollover incident where at least one person in the vehicle has died.

Read that again. One in 2700 Explorers made between 1990 and 2001 flipped over and killed at least one person.

And yet, despite the size of the damages, and the inherent newsworthiness of the story – a sports star, a centimillion dollar verdict and one of America’s largest corporations – not one news outlet covered Thursday’s verdict. No wire service, no national newspaper, no cable channel, not even the local Mississippi press.

Fortunately, though, a lone reporter was paying attention: a contributing writer for Fast Company who, back in 2003, wrote a book called ‘Tragic Indifference’ about Ford’s negligence over the safety of their SUVs. The book (since optioned as a movie by Michael Douglas) told the true story of Arkansas Trial Attorney, Tab Turner, whose client Donna Bailey, who was almost killed in a similar accident to the one that killed Cole. In fact Turner is now representing Cole’s family and, moments after the verdict, a source close to his office called the Fast Company reporter to give him a heads up.

No longer involved in day-to-day breaking news, the reporter nevertheless wanted to flag up the verdict to his 2900 Twitter followers. So he went online, and began hitting refresh on all the major wire services, expecting the story to break any moment.

Hours of refreshing later; still nothing.

And that’s when he decided: if no one else was going to break the story, he’d have to do it himself. Firing up Twitter, the reporter started to do his job, in dozens of 140 character bursts – starting with the lede: the sports star and the $131 million damages – before moving on to the background, the implications for Ford and finally a play by play of the Donna Bailey accident and how – incredibly – Ford had apparently decided it was cheaper for them to settle the lawsuits brought against them than it was to retool the Explorer so it didn’t kill any more people.

Sure enough, as the tweets went on, other journalists started to take notice, starting with Felix Salmon at Reuters and then David Folkenflik at NPR and someone at the New York Daily News. Finally the story began to appear; first on the AP wire and then… and then…. By this afternoon Google News was listing 277 stories about the verdict.

The similarities between the Ford story and Adam Penenberg’s Stephen Glass expose are stark. In both cases, the mainstream media was caught napping. In both cases it took a lone reporter, using the oft-maligned tools of digital journalism, to break the story and shame his peers in print. In both cases the result was much wailing and gnashing and playing catch-up by traditional reports – and crowing by online hacks that finally – this time – new media has shown itself to be a legitimate platform for breaking news.

But the biggest similarity of all between the two stories? The $64,000 headfuck? That would be the identity of the latter-day Penenberg 2.0 who broke the Ford / Cole story on Twitter.

Step forward, Adam Penenberg.

WAIT, WHAT?

SERIOUSLY?

AGAIN?

Yep.

Much as it pains me to do independent reporting, I have to ask Penenberg (right) what gives.

“What gives?” I ask when he answers the phone at his home in New York. I mean, what’s wrong with traditional journalism that – twelve years later – he is still the one having to draw attention to its deficiencies?

I’m expecting him to shrug: this was just another example of how lazy the print media has got. How newsroom headcounts have been slashed how no one is searching for stories any more. How this one just slipped under the radar. But no. The story he tells is far more sinister.

“Ford is a scary company.”

He says that like a man who knows. And, turns out, he does know: “A few years back I got into a dustup with a magazine – I’d better not name it – over Tragic Indifference. I won a reader contest and they were going to write about the book. But then just before publication, they pulled the plug.” In fact, an editor called Penenberg to explain that Ford had bought a majority of the ad pages in that month’s issue, and running such an anti-Ford review would be commercial suicide. The review was pulled; the ads remained.

“Jesus,” I say.

“Yeah,” says Pennenberg. Then he pauses. “Ok, I’ll name the magazine – it was Fast Company.” His current some-time employer – although he takes pains to say that the censorship episode occurred under the previous regime. “It wouldn’t happen now.”

Judging by the initial lack of media reaction to the Cole judgment, though, the attitude seems to still prevail in the rest of the media. Once again, in scooping his print rivals, Penenberg has drawn attention to a malignant cancer at the heart of old media. Last time it was a lack of fact-checking, this time it’s the relationship between advertisers and editorial. Ford is one of the world’s biggest advertisers at a time when print advertising is declining and magazines and news publications are bleeding red ink.

But, says Penenberg (only slightly prompted by me) that’s not all that’s wrong with mainstream journalism today. “What’s discouraging,” he says, “is the he-said-she-said… this so-called objective journalism”. He points out that even when the rest of the media finally reported the Cole story, they still felt obliged to give equal prominence to a denial from Ford:

“Brian Cole had been driving over 80 mph when he drifted off road for unknown reasons, suddenly turned his steering wheel 295 degrees, lost control, and caused the vehicle to roll over more than three times… He was not wearing his safety belt and died after being ejected from the vehicle. His passenger, who was properly belted, walked away from the accident.”

Simply not true, says Penenberg. Yes, Cole was thrown from the vehicle “but he was wearing his seatbelt at the time of the accident…. the problem is, it didn’t lock.” Indeed, he adds: “in the Donna Bailey case, it was found that her seatbelt had eight inches of ‘give’”.

“No wonder you’re such a fan of online journalism,” I suggest. No-one would ever accuse bloggers – or Matt Drudge – of balance. Wisely, Penenberg ignores my fatuous point and instead continues his point. Another problem with the state of journalism today – both online and off – he says “is this obsession with being first – wanting to beat your rival to the story by two minutes. Is it really that important to be first?”

This is something that really bugs Penenberg. And it bugs me too. So much so, I forget to take notes for the next few minutes as we rail against how today’s news journalists are expected to churn out half a dozen stories a day, often with little-to-no fact checking, simply to make sure they’re first with every tiny development. Whether they’re right, or whether they’re missing a wider, bigger, more important, story becomes secondary. Fuck it, we can always go back and edit.

Except they never get the chance to go back and edit: not when that have five more stories to file that day. Look at the 277 stories about the Cole case. See how many reporters just rehashed the lede – the size of the damages – and Ford’s response, without asking a single new question, or presenting so much as half a new fact. But then again, how would they? That would have involved a single fucking phone call.

Which brings us to the question of mentorship. “When you started out in journalism, new reporters had editors as mentors,” I said. “Today, reporters are often their own editors. Who is teaching tomorrow’s Adam Penenbergs?”

“Well, we’re trying,” replies Penenberg, referring to his current gig as a journalism professor at NYU.

“Of course,” I say, “but we both know that, after they graduate, your students are going to end up at Associated Content, churning out shit like everyone else.”

Pausing briefly to defend against the slur – pointing out that his students all go on to jobs with respectable media companies (“but then again, there are only, like, 15 students in our class – you’re right generally”) – Penenberg says he has faith that good journalists will come to the fore, even without mentorship. “I really believe quality rises to the top,” he says.

So, has he created a new kind of hybrid journalism with his Ford tweets – somewhere between breaking news and long-form journalism. We’ve become used to seeing stories unfolding in real time through social media – are we now seeing the potential for professional journalists to use Twitter to tell properly researched news stories, in a way that makes the events feel very personal, and even more dramatic? (After getting off the phone, it occurs to me that what I was describing is similar to how Jules Verne first published 80 Days Around The World in daily installments in major newspapers around the world. Even though the story was already completed before the first installment was published, the format meant that readers felt they were watching it happen in real time.)

“I have no idea,” says Penenberg, “I’d be lying if I said I did.. but I’ll definitely use [the format] more from now on.” Certainly if Penenberg has invented a new journalistic form – New New New Journalism? – then he’s one of the few reporters with both the chops and the freedom to practice it. Getting under the skin of a story like the Ford one can take months of research, and involves countless sources. Says Penenberg: “I know a lot about this shit – I wrote the book on it.” And yet, he acknowledges, “If you work for the New York Times you can’t do this.” There’s a process, there are editors, there’s a cycle.

So one last question: are we now at the point where online journalism is on a level playing field with “traditional” journalism?

Pennenberg laughs. “I’m sure certain journalists would prefer to write for the New York Times, [in print, rather than online]. But the truth it doesn’t matter any more. The only question is are you a good journalist or a bad journalist?”

I laugh too. Penenberg was, perhaps inadvertently, quoting himself: the final lines of his Stephen Glass expose back in 1998. Words which served as a rallying cry for a whole new generation of online reporters that followed in his wake. And words that are just as relevant today.

“It is ironic that online journalists have received bad press from the print media for shoddy reporting. But the truth is, bad journalism can be found anywhere. It is not the medium; it is the writer.”

In print, or on Twitter, Penenberg is one of the good guys.


Is Android Surging Only Because Apple Is Letting It?

This weekend, I’ve been catching up on some reading. One post that was of particular interest to me was David Beach’s article from last week about developing for Android. Beach, who is a product manager at eBay Mobile and a co-founder of 12seconds, basically says that the experience sucks for a number of reasons (all of which Google can fix, but will take quite a bit of work and time). But one quote in particular stuck out to me:

Android has succeeded despite Google. In fact it’s safe to say that Android is successful for one primary reason. The iPhone is only available on AT&T. If the iPhone was on Verizon a year ago. Android would be no where near as popular.

Obviously, Beach isn’t the first person to bring this idea up. But he brings it up in a way that he’s able to back-up his feelings from a developers’ perspective, while at the same time roping in what isn’t ideal from a consumer perspective about Android as well.

This is going to sound like flame bait, and everyone knows that I love the iPhone — but I have to agree with Beach. I’ve used no less than six Android phones for extended periods of time over the past couple of years. I really am trying to like them. But I just can’t.

Now, don’t get me wrong, almost all Android phones are a million times better than the phones we had just a few years ago before the iPhone burst onto the scene. And if the iPhone didn’t exist, there is no question that I would use an Android phone and would probably be very happy with it. But the iPhone does exist. And I simply can’t bring myself to use an Android phone when I know a superior device is out there. That’s my only requirement for me to use a product: it has to be the best.

The only valid argument I can see for the iPhone not being the best is the AT&T requirement. So let’s put that aside for a second.

While I obviously understand that people have different tastes, I can’t see how you can objectively say that the overall experience of using an Android phone isn’t worse than using an iPhone. There are a dozen or more elements that are better about the iPhone. Everything from the big: the App Store versus the Android Market (from the consumer perspective) — to the little: the multi-touch and overall touchscreen responsiveness.

Even the most diehard Android loyalists I know (like Jason and Mike) will readily admit that the iPhone offers a better user experience. So why do they love Android (again, besides the lack of AT&T requirement)? The openness. They hate that you can’t get Google Voice on the iPhone (I hate it too). And in general they hate Apple’s restrictive policies for the App Store (which I don’t like either). But those are problems that most regular consumers don’t think about — or realize exist at all.

Instead, like Beach says, the thing some consumers don’t like about the iPhone is that it’s AT&T only (in the U.S., obviously). Even if you live in an area where AT&T doesn’t absolutely suck, having no choice of carriers is a big restriction. People have work plans, family plans, etc, etc, that they just can’t switch. Or they don’t want to.

If the iPhone was on Verizon (which is a larger network, remember), is there any question that it would be selling at least double the amount of units it is right now in the U.S.? I don’t think so. What if it was available on all the networks? And what would happen to Android sales if that was the case? That is the big question here.

Next year, it’s looking increasingly likely that we’ll get at least a partial answer. If the iPhone is available on Verizon or even just T-Mobile, will the pace of Android sales slow down in the U.S.?

I know a number of people who are Android users simply because of the iPhone/AT&T restriction. If and when the devices comes to Verizon, they will jump ship. The big question is: will millions of others follow? Or, perhaps more importantly, will millions of new users that would have gone with Android now go with iPhone?

I’m seriously curious to know why you like Android over the iPhone if you do. Is it because of the openness ideal? Is it the variety of devices? Is it the variety of carrier choices? Or is it something else?

The Market is a mess, the media situation is arguably worse, and the user experience is still just off when compared to the iPhone. Google is working on improving all of those things, but Apple is rock solid in all of those areas right now. Both sides will keep improving, but Google’s problem is that Apple is ahead and has remained ahead. Can Google surpass them? I’m just not sure I can see how unless Apple regresses — which they’ve shown no signs of doing. What I can see is a Verizon iPhone. And so do plenty of others.

Apple and Google are in the midst of a PR war for who is activating more devices each day. Google is doing 200,000 a day. Apple is doing 230,000 a day. But Apple says Google’s numbers may include upgrades. Google says Apple is wrong. This will go on and on.

It’s great that there is competition in the market right now. But would it be as fierce in the U.S. if it weren’t for the AT&T situation? Would most people just be using an iPhone? Beach states it as a fact, but I don’t think it’s an unreasonable question to consider. And it’s something I’m sure Google is considering as the Verizon iPhone approaches.

[photo: flickr/laihiu]


Guest Post: Could Tiny Somaliland Become the First Cashless Society?

Bob Dylan once said that ‘money doesn’t talk, it swears’, but in Hargeisa the capital of Africa’s Somaliland it stinks. It literally stinks, reeking of rotten paper, like a leaky library in a monsoon.

That’s because there’s so much of it. For every dollar there are almost 17,000 Somaliland Shillings and the highest-denomination note is 500 Shillings, which is by no means the most common note in circulation. Money-changers sit within self-built stacks of money (picture left, video below) and children take wheelbarrows of it from one place to another, reminiscent of 1930s Weimar Germany when the Deutsch Mark became worthless.

By all criteria, cash doesn’t work here. Could tiny, unknown Somaliland become the first nation to become a cashless society? It is not only possible, it is almost certain. There is already a surprisingly strong base for this to happen. Thanks to a cobbled together-by-necessity system of money-transfer posts from Somaliland’s diaspora and a surging mobile banking industry, the country has to do away with cash. But first some background.

The currency is not formally recognised and neither is the country. Somaliland has no ATMs and credit cards are not only impossible to use, but are regarded as ridiculous items by local people. The country declared itself independent in 1991 after a brutal civil war with Somalia and now has a free press, a free market and a recent election was widely perceived as free and fair.

A significant diaspora send American dollars home by using Dahabshiil, an African version of Western Union that is extraordinarily efficient. Wherever in the world money is paid in, Somalilanders can withdraw American dollars within five minutes of funds being deposited via 24,000 agents and branches in 144 countries. Moreover they receive a SMS before that time telling them their dollars can be picked up.

I was thankful of Dahabshiil after arriving overland from Ethiopia. I had flown in from India after acting in my second Bollywood movie and was used to people escorting me from my trailer carrying umbrellas and catering for my every need. I would have needed a trailer if I had changed all my dollars; an obviously insane and unsustainable system.

Consequently, Selesom, the major mobile carrier has launched a service where cash is completely bypassed. Mobile banking in Africa is nothing new and is far more advanced in the West or Asia, but Somaliland can take this to a further level because the country itself doesn’t officially exist. The state itself runs on a budget of only $40 million dollars so entrepreneurship and innovation is vital to keep the country going as it strives for formal recognition from the rest of the world.

In less than six months more than 80,000 people in Hargesia have signed up with Selesom for its ZAAD mobile money service for money transfers, retail purchases and bill payments, a significant number in an already buoyant mobile sector of five carriers in a ‘country’ the size of England and a population of only 3.5 million.

Calls from Somaliland are the cheapest in Africa and fierce competition between the country’s carriers means calls from Somaliland are five to six times cheaper than other African countries. Mohamed Saed Duale, the founder of Dahabshiill has joined the fray and recently launched Somtel and joins Telesom, Telcom, Africa Online, Nationlink and Soltelco as the country’s sixth carrier.

The implications are clear. Somtel will use the 18-year money-wiring experience of its parent company to take on Selesom in the mobile money sector. The diaspora will continue to wire money home but the recipients will no longer need to go to a bank or visit the money-changers.

They will only need their mobile for all transactions and it means the money-changers will be kicked out of the Somaliland cash temples forever. Where Selesom has led, Somtel will attempt to dominate while the four other carriers will undoubtedly emulate.

So while the world wasn’t watching, a small peaceful country in the Horn of Africa that doesn’t officially exist will set an example that the rest of Africa will inevitably follow. Funny old world. Perhaps Dylan should write a song about it.


Monty Munford has more than 15 years’ experience in mobile, digital media, web and journalism and returned to the UK in September, 2010 after living in India for two years. In that time he consulted clients such as Paramount Digital Entertainment in LA and Liverpool FC to deliver their content to an Indian mobile audience, spoke at events in London, Dublin and Singapore and landed two speaking parts in two big-budget Bollywood movies that will be released in December 2010.