Category Archives: Better technology

Geeks as tastemakers

A “tastemaker” is someone who has influence over, or can decide, what becomes popular

Imagine a partnership between Willy Wonka and IBM. A geeky technology company and a candy-maker join forces; that sounds ridiculous. But that’s what just happened:

KitKat Google Android partnership

KitKat and Google’s Android, together, at last. The launch included a complete revamp of; turning it into one big long, insider, nerd joke.

Justin Jackson nerd mullet unix jokeFor people like me, who grew up as bespectacled geeky kid, it feels like I’m in a parallel universe. (Yes, that’s me with the ninth-grade nerd mullet). When I tried explaining a UNIX joke I’d found on rec.humor to my junior high friends I was met with blank stares. And now, in 2013, KitKat is wisecracking about “its world-renowned, tri-core, wafer thin CPU with full chocolate coverage”. What happened?

I had a journalist take my course on how content gets distributed on the internet. She noticed I spent a lot of time discussing tech networks like Hacker News.

My interest in Hacker News, Slashdot, Designer News, and Reddit is partly personal: my audience is in the tech industry, and (as we’ve established) I’m rather geeky myself.

But networks like these have become interesting in another regard: they’re increasingly influential in setting global trends (outside of the geek culture). Hence, KitKat now finds itself on the Hacker News homepage for the first time ever. The results of the launch are good: Google Trends shows global interest in KitKat just went through the roof.

Why geeks are becoming more influential

The geek community has a few unique characteristics.

First, the participants in these communities are almost always online. Programmers, designers, and other technologists are continuously connected via the internet. I have friends in San Francisco who I can reach instantly on five different messaging platforms. I’ve never met them in real life. It’s way easier to reach a hacker online than, let’s say, a plumber.

Second, these communities are highly concentrated. While there are a lot of plumbers using the internet, they don’t congregate in a centralized way. We shouldn’t be surprised: this is the internet after all, and it’s natural that geeks would be building the best online networks.

This has produced an interesting side-effect: because geeks rule the highest value networks, they have a huge influence on what gets popular.

The best example of this is on Google, where certain keywords have been hijacked by nerds. A search for “java” should reveal results for the Indonesian island, and its popular variety of coffee. Instead, you get pages and pages of links to a programming language by Oracle. The same is true when searching for “ruby“: Yukihiro Matsumoto’s language handily wins the popularity game. Ironically, the icon used for both languages is represented by the physical incarnation of their namesake (a steaming cup of coffee, and the gem, respectively).

This is how winners are created on the internet. Most of the web’s directories (Google included) are based on ranking algorithms where the content with the most votes becomes the most popular.

Patrick McKenzie, who’s well known on Hacker News as Patio11, explains this phenomenon on his blog:

There is going to be one far-and-away winner and then there is going to be a massive cliff separating them from second place.  Content creation on the Internet typically fits the bill pretty well — winners win, because why would you go to the second best place when the first best is, well, better? This is the basis for the Filthy Linking Rich phenomenon — the page which achieves authoritative status for a particular concept, query, or idea will typically tend to achieve self-reinforcing authority for it.

On the web, reaching “first place” creates a powerful feedback loop. The #1 spot gets the most traffic, gets shared the most, and gets the most inbound links. It then has a higher chance of being cross-posted on other high-value networks. This multiplies the effect even further, as people in those networks start sharing the content.

This is useful to keep-in-mind, as it applies to almost every directory on the web: Google search, the iTunes store, Quora, Reddit, and even an email inbox.

And who has the most votes on the internet? It’s geeks. They’re always online, and they’re the members of the highest value networks.

This is what I mean when I say geeks are the new tastemakers. Television, newspaper, and radio used to be the central conduits for getting your message out. Now information consumption has switched to online channels, and it’s increasingly geeks who control those channels.

What does this mean for content creators, marketers and businesses?

My theory is that no matter what niche you’re targeting, you’re going to need initial traction from hackers, technologists, developers, and designers. I’m wondering if this is a part of KitKat’s strategy with Android.

This might have less to do with geeks being granted tastemaker status, and more to do with geeks being the de facto influencers because of the ranking authority we have on the internet.

One of my readers, Raymond Duke, wrote a post about flossing his teeth. It ended up being highly influential in the dentistry space. But its early popularity didn’t come from dental professionals, it came from geeks up-voting it and sharing it online.

I’ve seen a similar pattern with other niches as well. The New York Times’ Snow Fall – The Avalanche at Tunnel Creek became a sensation before they even published it on their homepage. It received more than 3.5 million page views. What’s surprising is that most of that traffic came from outside their platform. On Hacker News it amassed 512 points, and stayed on the homepage for most of the day. Hacker News alone could have easily driven hundreds of thousands of those page views.

If I’m right, and geeks truly are today’s tastemakers, what changes might we see in our society?

  1. We’re going to see more data. People like Nate Silver are going to become more valuable.
  2. More talk about innovation. The default question will become: “what’s groundbreaking in your field?” We’ll see different companies and industry sectors trumpeting their ingenuity. Examples I’ve seen: creative HR practices, nutrition, and politics.
  3. More diverse geek related hires. You’re not just going to hire geeky developers. To compete in this economy you’re going to need a sales geek , an operations geek, and a management geek; their defining characteristic will be how they collect and interpret data.

We’re also going to see more companies trying to be a part of the community. I had this funny thought the other day: “I wonder if Red Bull would sponsor a hacker?” It turns out they already have.

Justin Jackson

This essay originally appeared in my course, Amplification. It’s been modified.

Why I would pay for Twitter

Why I would pay for Twitter

There’s mounting pressure on social networks to prove that they can be profitable. Their answer to the revenue problem seems to be “more ads”.

I think Twitter in particular has a number of opportunities for making money that have nothing to do with advertising. Here are some tools and features that I would pay for (separately, or as a part of a pro package).

1. Analytics

There are a number of companies offering analytics for Twitter users: Crowdbooster, Buffer, Hootsuite, TwitterCounter. These services are charging $9+/month so users can see their top tweets (by retweet and “impressions”), their most clicked links, and insights on notable followers. Having this information is helpful for businesses and users with a big follower base.

2. Multiple account management

Yes, I would pay for this: the ability to log-in once (on the web) and manage multiple Twitter accounts. Currently “you can only be logged in to one Twitter account at a time, in the same browser” (Twitter). It’s odd to me that Twitter would push users to TweetDeck, when they could offer this as a premium service.

3. Publishing tools

Twitter: let me schedule my tweets! Based on the click-through rates on my links, recommend which times I should tweet (Crowdbooster and Buffer currently do this). When I compose a tweet, let me choose between “Post Now” and “Schedule”.

4. Multi-user support and TwitSpark both offer the ability for support staff to reply to tweet inquiries from a single corporate Twitter account. These conversations are threaded, and include information on which team member resolved the case. Give companies the ability to have multiple people use the same account, but with different logins so it’s more secure.

5. Let me purchase my username dammit!

When I went to register my first Twitter account on Oct. 29, 2008 @justinjackson was already taken (I chose @mijustin instead). It looks like the original user registered via text message, but hasn’t done anything with it since. This account has been inactive for 4 years. I know there are lots of other accounts like this as well. I’d like to see usernames that have been inactive for over 3 years opened up to auction: let us buy these unused Twitter handles!

5. Let me edit my tweets

Once I’ve published a tweet, the only way to fix a typo is to delete the tweet, and re-post. This ruins the initial permalink, which I might have already linked to in other places. Let premium users edit their tweets.

Is there anything I missed? Leave a comment below.

Do you work from home?

Do you feel like you waste time at your desk? Are you trying to figure out how to be more productive?

These are topics I cover in my upcoming book: Hack Your Office. If you’re interested in receiving a sample chapter, sign-up here:


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Retina is not a big deal

Retina is not a big deal.

I can remember being a kid and switching from CGA to EGA:

What a difference! We went from purple a turquoise to 16 colors. The next big jump was going from EGA to VGA:

I begged my parents to sell our Tandy 1000 so we could buy a new 386 with a VGA monitor. VGA could display 256 colors (at 320 x 200). ATMachine has a great comparison between King’s Quest V in EGA and VGA.

However, the biggest leap was going from VGA (320 x 200, 256 colors) to SVGA (800 x 600, and up to 16 million colors):

I’ve used two games from my childhood to illustrate the difference: Scorched Earth (on the left, VGA) and Worms (on the right, SVGA).

To me, all these jumps: CGA to EGA, EGA to VGA, VGA to SVGA felt significant.

I’m not sure if I’m just getting old, but the jump from “regular” iPhone, iPad, and Macbook resolutions to Retina doesn’t feel as significant:

So I’m trying to decide if Retina is a big deal. Eventually, yes, I’ll upgrade. But I don’t have the same desire to upgrade as I did when I had an EGA video card, and I really wanted a VGA card. Likewise, I wonder if my kids would notice (or care) about the difference between a Retina and non-Retina display.

Kathy Sierra is brilliant

In the end, all that matters is what happens when the clicking/swiping is done. What do they NOW feel? What do they now SHOW for it? How are they now better in a meaningful and — better still — OBVIOUS way? It is those moments that create a reliable, sustainable result in both WOM (word of mouth) and WOFO (word of obvious) that is the heart and soul of authentically “viral” and lasting growth. ~ Kathy Sierra’s comment on this post.

Kathy nailed it.

Better typing

In the modern office, we waste a lot of time.  Much of the wastage is spent re-typing commonly used bits of data: phone numbers, mailing addresses, and answers to frequently asked questions.  You can become more efficient by using an application that expands a shortcode to a specific piece of text (ie. “AAmailing” becomes the full mailing address).

On the Mac I use TextExpander (I even paid for it).  On my PC netbook, I use a free app called Texter.