A Visual Tour of My Life

Google is really scary. On the other hand, Google brings the world closer together. And it’s with that idea that I’m going to take my readers on a little tour of my life.

I’ve move around a lot in life. Such is the life of a minister’s kid. Spent years in central Africa. Lived all over Maryland… twice (getting ready for a third time). Lived in snowy New York. Lived all over. Usually if I were to give someone a tour, I’d have them in a car and drive around through old neighborhoods, passing by old houses, telling stories.

I’m going to do that now because I’m in a reminiscing mood.

It started in Tonawanda, NY – a city-suburb of Buffalo. The very first home I lived in on Roswell Ave. Sadly, I don’t know anything about that place because I was too young to even remember it.

Lovejoy, Buffalo, New York

My first memories of life happened on Longnecker St in East Buffalo. I actually have a surprisingly good recollection of this place. I remember that it was in this place, my dad who was a line man for the power company, would come in with ice in his beard. I remember when he put in a wood burning stove into the house and built the chimney. Never have I felt a hotter heat than that.

I remember the milk machine on the corner of Lovejoy and Longnecker. Yes, we had milk machines back in the 70s.

I lived in the Lovejoy neighborhood, which was always a sketchy place to live but has become a terribly drug-ridden neighborhood today even since my earliest memories in the early 80s.

Kinshasa, D.R.C. (Zaïre)

In 1984, my parents moved us out to the Democratic Republic of Congo (then Zaîre) where they were missionaries. I remember these days very well. How many American kids can really say they spent time growing up in third world Africa? Not many.

Sadly, Google Street View has not gotten to Kinshasa (and probably won’t for awhile), so I rely on what photos are available of the area nearby where I lived. Here is a photo of the Rte de Matadi, a “highway” that runs between the capital city of Kinshasa and one of the provincial capitals, Matadi. It, to this day, is one of the few usable inter-city roads in the country.

Bukavu, D.R.C.

Bukavu was an interesting 6 months of my life. We moved from Kinshasa to the eastern side of the country to a provincial capital surrounded by rain forest. It was quite isolated. We lived in an old hotel that was turned into a sprawling palatial duplex with another American family living in the other side.

This estate sat on top of the highest point in the city and overlooked Lake Kivu, one of Africa’s Great Lakes that is torturously poisoned by methane gas from the volcanic activity in the region, and unsafe for humans, to the north and across the border into Rwanda to the northeast.

For the recent history buffs, during the genocide that continues to happen but began in Rwanda (Think Hotel Rwanda), Bukavu became a refugee camp for people streaming across the border. In fact, CNN reported on this development in the early 1990s from my front lawn. I did not live there anymore, but nonetheless… that happened.

Photo by Nick Hobgood
Photo by Nick Hobgood

Back in Buffalo

The time in Bukavu was short-lived as the entire family contracted a form of airborne Hepatitis. No, we were not all promiscuous, what with me being the oldest of 3 at 11 years old. It’s just life in a third world country and is the reason that, to this day, I cannot give blood – and never will be able to.

My dad was evacuated to Nairobi, Kenya for emergency medical attention and we all flew home to Buffalo for observation and testing shortly after that and lived there a year before we were cleared medically to return. During 1987, we lived in a little house in the Buffalo suburb of Depew. This is where I lived (I believe :P).

Kinshasa Again

In 1988, we moved back to Kinshasa. Political forces that were the ominous clouds of what would ultimately come were brewing and after a year, we, along with several other American families, were ejected from the country. While some returned, we never would. In 1991, revolution would overcome the country as tribal hatred spread from Rwanda into Eastern Zaïre and would continue until dictator “President” Mobutu Sese Seko would overthrown and exiled by rebel forces led by Laurent Kabila. The civil war continues in parts of the Congo today.

This is a satellite view (again, no street view, but the satellite imagery is far better than when I looked at it last – nice work, Google) of a mostly American neighborhood named Joli Park. On our street, almost all residents were American and Canadian missionary and embassy workers.

The Move to Maryland

After returning from Zaïre, we moved to Maryland. Of all my U.S. experience at the ripe old age of almost 13, I’d never lived outside of Buffalo. I was not prepared for the intense summer humidity and change of lifestye. I learned how to catch crabs with just a piece of twine and chicken bait tied to the piers here at Hunter’s Harbor on the Magothy River in Pasadena, MD.

While in that neighborhood, I lived in this house for a year and made friends with my next-door neighbor, Tim, who introduced me to the finer things in life like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Mega Man. It was also at this house that I encountered my first, and thankfully only “Warrior Turtle” – a three-legged alligator snapping turtle that looked like he had personally won World War II for the Allies and was looking to make sure someone paid for it.

Severna Park Troubles

A year later, we moved about 10 miles away to Severna Park where we famously lived in the sub-development next to Pat Sajak’s. It was also the pinnacle of my teenage rebellion where I suppose I may have had the brilliance to try running away from home. Literally, running away from home. With my dad on my heels running after me down the middle of the street. Did I think I could get far? Clearly I did. Do I laugh at myself now? Sure… and I know I could run faster than my dad now. :)

As a bonus, I played my one and only play in high school football at Severn School where, as a member of the JV squad (and mostly practice at that), I was sent in to play a route as a WR… I wasn’t going to get the ball. I was just going to run a route. As a defensive back by position, I was so nervous I lined up 7 yards off the line of scrimmage instead of on the line, as a receiver should, and the play was whistled dead for illegal formation, thus ending my illustrious high school football career.

Back to Pasadena

In the next two years, I lived in two more houses. I began my working life at first, beginning a job at Wendy’s 2 blocks from my house. To this day, I have a few people I keep up with. I hope that tomorrow, when Maryland approves Question 6 allowing marriage equality in the state, I will be able to attend my old boss’s, and current friend’s, wedding to his long-time partner.

In the second of homes in that time, I wasn’t actually home much. I got my first vehicle when I turned 18 and I liked to spend my time working or out with friends getting into trouble. I would finally leave home (and this home) to head to upstate New York in 1995. (It’s that house behind the tree)

Bible School

Which leads me to Lima, NY and Elim Bible Institute. Once upon a time, I wanted to be a preacher. So I started doing what I was supposed to to become one. That meant enrolling in Elim, and moving north to the great one-stoplight town 17 miles south of Rochester – Lima, NY.

I never was good with academics, though, so this really only lasted a year. Also, my family moved up there too which put more pressure on me as a young adult trying to find my own way in the world. I’d leave after only a year on “The Hill”. At least Google got this photo on the one day there wasn’t piles of drifting snow.

NYC

I took my talents, in October of 1996, to Astoria, Queens where I would live for two years and fall in love with the City. I still love New York to this day. Living on a small stipend plus room, board and meals for free, I volunteered my time with an organization that worked largely with the homeless population in the city, the New York School of Urban Ministry (or NYSUM).

I owe the two years I spent in New York for my personal bias toward New York-style pizza, public transportation, and dangerously safe driving.

I also owe my time in New York to where my mind began to open up to more progressive, and non-traditional philosophical ideas, much to the dismay of the religious leadership around me.

Back to Maryland

In Oct of 1998, I left NYC and went back to Lima for a short time. It was a few months after that, that I moved back to Maryland in an old Chevy S-10 pickup truck my dad gave me since I was broke and couldn’t afford a car and he needed a new one anyway. In all rights, that truck shouldn’t have made it past the Village line, but in fact it got me to Baltimore and gave me wheels for a month or two before it finally choked.

I holed up in a Glen Burnie apartment where I worked multiple jobs and would eventually meet a girl who would become the mother of my son a few years later. Although we didn’t last, this period is somewhat memorable for me.

I would get married 22 months later and we would find the cheapest place we could afford, even if it meant living out in the country. That led us to a single bedroom apartment adjoined to a house on acres of land in the middle of nowhere, Carroll County, MD (for which I have no visual evidence).

When we moved again, to be closer to work, we’d hole up in a basement apartment in a private home. It was terrible.

In 2003, we bought a house on the Baltimore City/County line and lived there for 18 months, selling before the housing market imploded. It was in this house that we had our son, Devin, who is now 9. I was working as a contractor for the Navy in DC and had decided at the age of 27 to enlist. A long story why that didn’t happen would follow, but sufficed it to say, that never transpired. The house is bigger than what it looks like and wasn’t bad for a first home.

In 2004, we moved into a smaller apartment that was supposed to be temporary until I shipped for basic training and got my orders. Like I said, that never happened so what was meant to be a temporary solution ended up being home for several year. Essentially until our divorce.

I moved to Alexandria, VA to live with a friend for about six months in late 2008-09. I won’t post his home because he still lives there but then, it was back to Maryland. I was feeling the DC thing after Baltimore. I had begun to develop friendships with DC folks and as a newly single man, I like the opportunity for some level of anonymity while I explored my new world in a new city. It was really quite awkward, looking back, but I enjoyed it nonetheless. I would live in Bethesda, MD from 2009-2010, almost 1.5y.

Google doesn’t take it’s car back there. I can only imagine that when they passed by, it was the 2010 #Snowpocalypse and they couldn’t get in.

Now I’m in Austin. I won’t show you these photos either, for privacy, and I’m moving back to Baltimore, God willing, in January. So the saga continues.

I really wanted to just share this stuff though. It makes me nostalgic and technology is both terrifying and amazing.

Product is King. Content is Not.

Photo by The Rocketeer on Flickr
Remember the bad old days of blog networks. Like when I was at b5media championing the idea of content as the great savior of the Internet, the bellwether of future journalism, the dawn of an era of online advertising as the dominant (and only) truly valuable means of creating revenue online?

Yeah… so about that.

I was wrong.

I was wrong about the idea of wide adoption of online advertising as a primary revenue source for the long tail. I was wrong about content not being a commodity. I was wrong to think that successful online startups could have successful advertising models. I was just wrong.

As recently as this week, AOL laid off it’s “freelance writer” staff as part of the recent Huffington Post acquisition and subsequent roll-up of AOL properties.

All you people thinking you can make money online using the standard advertising/content model… well, think again. You’re not.

Advertising is a commodity. Commodities, by definition, are resources that flood the marketplace, diluting the individual value of each resource. Advertising online is dominated by “remnant” advertising, which is cheap commodity advertising that costs the buyer little to purchase in bulk (think Adsense) and results in little payout to the publisher. There’s very little real money in commodity advertising. The real players are getting paid on direct sales advertising targeting big sites with high payouts (Think Apple taking out prominent advertising space on the New York Times for tens of thousands of dollars).

Content is a commodity. There are millions of bloggers. Millions of publishers. Hell, just this week, I migrated a site to WP Engine that had 11k+ sports blogs. Content is a commodity and, by definition, not valuable.

But if you want to keep thinking it’s valuable, go for it. You keep writing blog posts and giving yourself some sense of value. While you’re at it, take a look at the sky and convince yourself it’s actually orange.

Content companies are not likely to generate enough value in today’s economy. Certainly not for any kind of acquisition or exit.

I was wrong. I’m man enough to admit it.

In today’s internet economy, the real value and, in my opinion, the only viable model for successful online business is in product. Products. Real, tangible products. An iPhone app. A digital goods marketplace. A software product. A social network, perhaps. Something that has measurable customer acquisition and a real exchange of monetary value. You know, like the good old days where I pay you for something that I can, with certainty, validate receipt. I give you $30, you give me a text editor application for my Mac. I pay you $15/mo, I get an online invoicing service. I pay $0.99 and get a car locator app for my phone.

Content commoditization strategy says, I do something for you, Mr. Advertiser (put some code on my site), and you may pay me something if anything productive (click, action, impression) comes from it and, oh yeah, there’s no real measurements or guarantees for said exchange. Keep churning out content and page views will pay me.

No. That’s not how it works anymore. Why do you think Netflix built their model on a pay-for-service concept instead of intro/outro/in-video advertising? Why do you think Amazon continues to diversify their product offering with no real advertisement and certainly no content? Need a server? You can have 10 for cheap. Need music? We’ve got that covered at a competitive rate and now you can play it from anywhere. Need toilet paper? We’re partnered with retailers across the country to provide any essential product you might need and you can even have it shipped free if you pay for this other service we call Prime

See? It’s product… not content. Content is becoming significantly less valuable.

Time to pivot.

AOL, 2006 Called and Wants Its Content Commoditization Strategy Back…

Photo by jdlasica on Flickr
It was a Monday like any other Monday. After a weekend of too much drinking, low-key football-centric Sunday celebrations (Go Packers!) and an early night to bed, I woke up this morning in the way I normally do on a Monday: Cursing ye gods of Mondays past, and hoping the day would not turn into the inevitable case of the Mondays that they all do.

Wearily, I reached for my laptop to find out what the Monday morning tech news buzz was and my eyes flew open in surprise: AOL had acquired the Huffington Post for $315M in a hybrid cash and stock transaction. This only a few months after TechCrunch had been acquired, also by AOL, for an undisclosed amount.

It was a deja vu kind of moment this morning as I saw the stereotypical business model of the mid-2000s flash before my eyes. In those days, everyone thought they could make money purely on advertising and content. Crank out the content, get more eyeballs, get more ad dollars, PROFIT!

The problem was (and still is!) is that the more content that is produced, the less valuable it becomes. It’s really very simple economics. More importantly, the advertising world has two buckets… maybe three if you put Adsense by itself in the lowest bracket. You have direct-buy, expensive, high-return type ads. These are most often purchased by big companies with big advertising budgets like Apple, Cisco, etc.

The second type of advertising (putting aside alphabet soup forms like CPA, CPM, CPC, etc) is generically called “remnant advertising”. Remnant ads make up the vast majority of internet advertising. It’s cheap to buy in bulk (and in a less targeted way), doesn’t usually pay a lot and, in general, is a good way to do commodity advertising.

This is what we did at b5media. I’ve not spoken much about my time at b5media because, frankly, it disgusts me where they’ve come. We actually had a good product going and things went awry. I won’t place blame. But what I will say is… we built that company on commodity advertising, commodity content, and had a tough time growing the company. I left with over 350 blogs in a dozen “channels”, each channel being a grouping of 20-30 blogs around a topic like sports or entertainment.

It was easier to try to do ad sales for a group of blogs on a topic, than it was to do targeted, lucrative advertising.

The problem with the b5media model, along with the Weblogs Inc model that sold (ironically also to AOL), the Gawker model, the Glam model, and now the AOL model, is that the content quality sucks. When I pick up a magazine or newspaper, I would not liken most media to The Atlantic or The New Yorker, both of which are highly intelligent publications that put out content that is exceptionally tuned and academic. The quality of the content is orders of magnitude higher than most newspapers or magazines (obviously including this blog).

Those publications are rare and can get private money from subscriptions, etc. The advertising route is the cheap route, and the route that business models go when they aren’t good enough to charge for access (a more reliable revenue source).

For the record, commodity business don’t normally pay their writers anything comparable to what their “colleagues” at uncommoditized media organizations get paid. That’s because, their work is not valuable unless it is in bulk.

Going back to the $25M Weblogs Inc acquisition in 2005, AOL has gone down this road of commodity content before. They even killed off a bunch of the WIN properties keeping only the ones that were truly valuable – like Engadget. They are taking a different approach and buying individual high-productivity sites now – which is better – but then their strategy is one that involves combining these sites, at least on a content integration level, into a mass-produced, commoditized content machine.

So is it really different?

FTC to Close Loopholes in Blogger-Marketer Relationships

Late last night, I came across an AP article that indicated a long awaited smackdown was coming from the FTC regarding paid reviews on blogs. Digging deeper into the article, it seems that the issue is not so much paid reviews as it is proper disclosure and verifiable claims.

In the blog world, we are subject to increasing amounts of “freebies”, particularly as our individual or demographic influence grows stronger. Companies want to get involved and get bloggers on their side, spouting their reviews and influencing opinion. As a disclosure, I participated in a Sears promotion, have been provided VMWare software on a “view” basis and was given a pair of Joe’s Jeans. Early on, I was also provided a cell phone from Sprint. That’s about the extent of the freebies I received. In terms of reviews, my policy has already been defined.

In some sections of the blogosphere, it’s reached a tipping point.

Meanwhile, some readers of Outside the Beltway see the move as indicative of future malfeasance by the federal government.

The problem is, this enforcement measure is just that – enforcement. There already are fair trade regulations on the books that dictate appropriate ways for businesses to engage in commerce – whether marketing, communications, disclosures, advertising, etc. These regulations already exist to protect the consumer. As with many industries, new media was a disruptive introduction and businesses are left trying to figure out how to compete in a new landscape.

The medium changes, but the business does not.

Businesses are still subject to FTC regulations that protect the consumer from the overrun of over-capitalistic companies trying to beat the competition at the expense of the consumer. This new regulation will simply update existing regulations to more specifically clarify that, hey, yes, companies have to play by the same rules when it comes to bloggers too. Companies should be enforcing their legal requirements on anyone peddling their goods in a quid pro quo or financial exchange. This is fair trade.

Deeper in, we see the same kind of attention and connection to affiliate marketing – the online business tool that allows a blogger to sell a product or service on behalf of someone else, and make a commission on it. While I don’t endorse eliminating affiliate marketing, I do find it borderline seditious and would not mind stiffer requirements on it’s use. For example, there should probably be an LLC or other legitimate business entity behind the use of affiliate marketing to ensure that paper trails and accountability can be traced.

Either way, this sort of thing requires some kind of enforcement, I think. It doesn’t feel right. On the flipside, this feels completely right from an ethical standpoint.

Update: Caroline McCarthy of CNET has more. Everyone keeps talking about the freebies. I want to know more about the affiliate crap.

Trends in Publishing, Advertising and Paid Subscription Model

The economic downturn is hitting everyone hard. Online content models and advertising is one of the harder hit areas. Long before the beginning of the market freefall, advertising revenues began declining. Evidence shows that, while print and television advertising is declining at an incredible rate, online advertising is not faring much better. The saving grace in online advertising is that, while it is declining, it is declining at a lower rate than offline advertising.

However, it is still declining.

The days of making money online via advertising would, by most accounts, seem to be over and with it comes the question, “How exactly do we make our industry profitable again?”

Conventional wisdom suggests that there are two models. The first is the advertising model. The second is a paid subscription model. Though we have been brainwashed to expect free at every turn, part of me wonders if a paid subscription model would work better. Surely, readers are willing to pay a small fee for access to valuable content?

For my part, I am considering a switch to a paid model. It is my belief that the content found here is worth paying a small fee for. In exchange, such a model would eliminate advertising and would probably be in the neighborhood of $5 a month. But I want to talk to you first.

Does this make sense to you? Would you be willing to support the emergence of a new model that benefits the larger community and how content business models evolve for a low price?

Consolidation in the Blogosphere – Part II

Yesterday, I posted a video that suggested that perhaps a little consolidation needs to happen in the blogosphere. I was not the first. At the time of that recording, it had slipped my mind that Mike Arrington predicted a roll-up of blogs back in March.

Regardless, the issue has sparked a very interesting discussion around the blogosphere. Duncan Riley took the first major step of actually putting out a call to action on the concept of an advertisement federation.

Steve Hodson complained that he was concerned about the users who read a blog for the blog and might not like editorial restraint that might come from a new “conglomerate”. He did a whole podcast around this. Thanks Steve!

From my perspective, there’s two parts to this equation. There’s a play for advertising dollars where a combined alliance of 5-8 blogs each doing 150k pageviews a month can command a far more significant direct sale interest than any one of those blogs alone.

The second part of that equation is in content, and more importantly, diversity of content. Mark “Rizzn” Hopkins seems to think there is no problem with bunches of bloggers talking about the same things all the time. I disagree, as I think most. But putting that aside, there will always be the echo chamber, regardless of alliances. It’s just that an alliance can present a distributed voice on a wide variety of topics making it more desirable for the combined audience of all member blogs put together as well as the advertisers.

End of the day, this concept still has miles to go before anything actually happens. But I’m happy with the direction of the conversation.

Here’s the second video.

Where Social Gets to Business – Panel at GSP East 2008

Continuing the Live coverage of Graphing Social Patterns. We’ll be bringing live coverage of a panel entitles “Where Social Gets Down to Business”. On the panel is Michael Lazerow, Kevin Barenblat, Eddie Smith, Chris Cunningham and Shiv Singh.

The description of this panel is:

How does traditional advertiging work on social networks? What products and techniques are required to develop a viral marketing campaign? Find out how to use social networks, social advertising, and social applications to reach hundreds of millions of today’s online users.

Ad Repping

Just a little bit of housekeeping and a cry for help to our readers…

I’ve been desperately (admittedly) looking for means of monetizing this site recently. This site is in the awkward in-between stage of hot property and an long tail property where it cannot be repped by larger ad repping sites like Federated Media because it’s not large enough, and simply cannot make enough money with Adsense or most of the “commodity” advertising properties.

Since leaving b5media, I’ve attempted to do my own ad repping but I’ll be honest – it’s not my thing. I don’t have a nose for advertising, nor the experience to do direct selling.

In the past week, I’ve applied to several agencies to gauge interest.

So I ask in all humility, and in the spirit of crowd-sourcing, how would you monetize this site if it were yours? What tips can you share with me? Introductions you might be able to make? While I would love to have this conversation in comments, I also recognize that some conversations might be better had in private. So please, email me at aaron@technosailor.com or one of the other methods listed here.