Category Archives: Tech

Announcing “Captivology”, My Book on the Science of Attention (HarperCollins/2015)

Dear friends, family, colleagues, and supporters,

I’m thrilled to announce my first non-fiction book, working title “Captivology: The Science of Capturing People’s Attention“, due in early 2015 from HarperOne, an imprint of HarperCollins.

I hope you will sign up for updates on Captivology through my book’s website. You can follow @Captivology on Twitter or like Captivology on Facebook. You can also follow @BenParr for regular updates. And finally, here’s a link for sharing this announcement.

Or you can just click this lovely button for updates:

Captivology is about the science and psychology of attention; why we pay attention to certain people, products, companies and ideas; and how to capture, maintain and grow attention. My book pairs the research of the world’s greatest scientists and psychologists in attention theory with the stories from the world’s Masters of Attention.

The book dives into topics such as:

  • The role scarcity and working memory play on our attention.
  • How Nintendo’s Shigeru Miyamoto created one of the world’s most iconic characters.
  • The power that framing and salience have in directing our attention.
  • The secret sauce of disruptive campaigns and viral products.
  • Sheryl Sandberg on the power of motivation when it comes to capturing attention.

During the course of my research, I have had the opportunity to interview more than 50 scientists, researchers, experts and Masters of Attention. I’m grateful to thought leaders such as Sheryl Sandberg (Facebook), Dr. Alan Baddeley (leading researcher in working memory), Steven Soderbergh (famed director), Alexis Ohanian (founder of Reddit), Dr. Michael Posner (leading cognitive psychologist), Jeff Weiner (CEO, LinkedIn), Adrian Grenier (actor, producer and director), Dr. Eli Finkel (expert on attraction), Grant Imahara (Discovery’s Mythbusters), Susan Cain (NYT bestselling author, Quiet), Jon Armstrong (Magician, Chairman of the Academy of Magical Arts), Dr. John Sweller (leading expert on cognitive load), Alexia Tsostis (Co-Editor, TechCrunch), Shigeru Miyamoto (Nintendo), Josh Elman (Partner, Greylock), Dr. Dietram Scheufele (Expert on Communications, Framing), Michael Stevens (creator, Vsauce), and many more who have taken time our of their days to chat with me for this book.


Above: A screenshot from my interview with Adrian Grenier and Dr. Thomas De Zengotita. A special thanks to NASDAQ for letting me use their studios for the interview.

If you have suggestions for my book, please email me at ben@captivology.com with your ideas! I’m especially looking for interesting people to interview and unique stories about how you or somebody you know captured the attention of an individual, an audience or the entire world. A major reason we’re announcing the book now is to gather great stories for the book that I might have otherwise missed.

I hope to complete this research-heavy book in the next few months, so please forgive me if I’m much slower than usual responding to your emails, texts and tweets until then.

A Few Other Announcements

I’m working on Captivology on top of my day job as Co-founder and Managing Partner of DominateFund, the early-stage venture capital firm I started last year with Matt Schlicht and Mazy Kazerooni. We’ve expanded the fund from its original focus on connecting Hollywood with tech, though that is still a component of what we do. Our focus now is on helping startups capture attention for their products and accelerate their growth through our expertise in five key areas: Strategic Celebrity Partnerships, Press, Marketing, Customer and User Acquisition, and Building Viral Products. The fund is the reason I decided to write this book.

We will be making more announcements about DominateFund in the near future, including several new additions to our team and updates on our amazing portfolio companies.

Because I had all of this on my plate, CNET and I decided to retire The Social Analyst, my column at CNET, last year. I want to thank CNET, and especially Jim Lanzone, Mark Larkin and Jim Kerstetter, for being so supportive of me and my column, for being amazing bosses, and for putting up with me and my hectic schedule.

I won’t be bringing The Social Analyst back. At least, not in its current form. The column, which I started at Mashable in 2009, has been my place to opine on the most pertinent issues in tech. CNET was kind enough to let me continue my column.

I will eventually be back writing columns and thought pieces on a regular basis, but ones that are about more than just technology. There is a mountain of research from my book I want to discuss and advice I want to dispense for every entrepreneur who struggles to get the attention of users or artist who wants to be heard. I also have a lot of other insights in media, entrepreneurship, investing and science I hope to eventually share.

One final announcement — I’m proud to announce that I have signed with the Worldwide Speakers Group, which now represents me for all my speaking engagements. You can check out my speaking topics or book me by sending a message to Keith Lambert at KLambert@wwsg.com or calling WWSG at 703-373-9806. I primarily speak about attention, attention for brands, innovation, technology and entrepreneurship.

I want to thank a few people right now for all of their help the last few months. Thank you to everybody I’ve interviewed for the book so far. A special thanks to the best agent in all of publishing, David Vigliano, for always having my back. The same is true of Will LoTurco, who works with Vig. Thank you Marcy Simon and Melinda Mullin, for going above and beyond the call of duty for me. Thank you to my editor, Genoveva Llosa, for being just sensational. Thank you to my partners Matt Schlicht and Mazy Kazerooni for being my unofficial brothers (Nat, you too). A thank you to Hallie, my badass EA. Thank you to my family (love you mom & dad!), and finally a special thank you to my girlfriend Julie, for being my rock.

Onward and upward!

Thank you for kindness,
~ Ben

Please follow me and Captivology on social media!

(p.s. — Happy birthday, sis!)

The Tech Community Must Invest More In San Francisco

Several years ago, when Square was just eight people, I was invited by Jack Dorsey to his loft in SOMA to meet the team and get a sneak peek at the Square device. After I interviewed Dorsey, he took me up to his roof and showed me his neighborhood. He specifically pointed out the outdoor tables and chairs, which he helped get placed in his neighborhood. It was just phase one of a bigger plan he had to help his neighborhood.

You see, Dorsey’s always been active in his community, whether it’s his neighborhood or San Francisco at large. Dorsey and other Square employees picking up trash in San Francisco on Fridays is an extension of his values and his long-held sense of civic duty.

Unfortunately, Dorsey’s the minority here. The stereotype — and the tension — has been, for as long as I have lived here, that the techies who fill the ranks of Facebook, Google and the startup community’s rosters jump on their air-conditioned shuttles, drive up housing prices and don’t respect San Francisco’s unique, quirky and downright amazing culture.

A blog post by a tech founder and recent SF transplant only helped to confirm this stereotype in the eyes of many. And who can blame long-time San Franciscans for thinking that techies are ruining their city, with unfortunate blog posts like these?

It’s clear that the city is changing and that unlike the tech bubble of the late 1990s the techies are likely here to stay, along with the higher rents that come with it. In some ways, this is a good thing — it means that San Francisco and the bay area are economically booming in an era of stagnant job growth, although it’s also clear that not everybody is sharing in the wealth or the benefits. From the LA Times:

“Unlike in previous booms, the tech industry isn’t creating as many middle-class jobs or as much goodwill. The gap between Silicon Valley’s high and low earners is widening, with average per-capita incomes going up while median household incomes have fallen for the third consecutive year, according to Joint Venture Silicon Valley, a private group that publishes an annual report card on the region.

In a region that lays claim to some of the world’s wealthiest companies, food stamp participation has hit a 10-year high, and homelessness has increased 20% in the last two years, the group found.”

We can do better than this.

This is not a (complete) indictment of SF’s tech community. There are some that have gone above and beyond the call of duty to help San Francisco (Dorsey, Conway), and others who volunteer with a favorite charity or keep active with their neighborhood. I suspect, though, that the vast majority of us techies aren’t doing the things that we, as civic-minded individuals, should be doing. Simple things like volunteering, attending neighborhood meetings, manning the polling booths, meeting our neighbors. Oh, and did I mention volunteering?

But we need to do more. No matter if you’ve been here for three months or thirty years, this place is now your home. Our home. And while you may be overwhelmed by your startup, it isn’t an excuse to ignore the state of your home and the plight of others. Make it a company activity if you have to. Every little bit helps.

I love this city. I love being able to walk from my apartment in Russian Hill and dance away at a blues and jazz street fair. I love being able to hike through Lands End to the beach and relaxing with friends. I love the city’s secret pop-up art gatherings. I don’t want these things to go away.

I also love the tech community, and its idealism and its innovation. I don’t think that the tech industry and San Francisco are incompatible in any way. I simply think we, as a tech community, need to make a greater individual effort to be part of the community at large.

So if you haven’t been very civic thanks to your startup or your long-ass ride on the Google bus, ok, I understand. But let’s start something now. I’m committing to volunteering in San Francisco — something I haven’t done enough of since my Eagle Scout days — and I hope you’ll join me in embracing San Francisco as well. Go to the Opera and donate if you love music. Go check out VolunteerMatch or the Bay Area’s volunteer information center. Even just going to a local show does a lot to support the community. Grab some friends while you’re at it. Start small to get started and you’ll find that it’s incredibly rewarding and fun.

I’m also calling on the startups and tech companies of San Francisco to do more as well. Give your employees opportunities to give back to the community.

San Franciscans — if you have a great cause or charity, tell me about it by posting in the comments or tweeting at me. I will add it to this post and to a new post I’ll write with more ways people can get involved in their city. And if your company is already giving back, I want to hear about it so we have more examples of how companies and startups can be more involved.

Start with one small act, and others will follow. Let’s be good citizens to our neighbors and our community.

Badass image by Ubeam’s Meredith Perry. Seriously, she’s amazing.

What Will It Take For Us to Get Angry?

Occupy Wall Street 2011

Edward Snowden, The Guardian and The Washington Post know how to keep a story in the news.

Instead of dumping all of their leaked documents to the public, they are slowly releasing information on PRISM, the NSA and more to the press in waves.

Drip. Drip. Drip.


Europe is pissed with us. Russia’s Vladimir Putin basically gave America the middle finger. Hong Kong (and China) did the same thing. Edward who? Oh, he left hours ago because you messed up his middle name. Also, what’s this about you spying on us?

The only ones who don’t seem pissed are Americans themselves. Sure, you can’t read Reddit without coming across at least one “Fuck the NSA” or “Fuck Obama” post. But have you seen what’s going on in Egypt? How about the protests in Turkey?

The U.S. government has been invading the privacy of hundreds of thousands of people, including Americans, at a scale that has never before seen in the history of mankind.

And how do we react? We whine about Paula Deen.

Okay, perhaps I’m oversimplifying the situation. But I haven’t seen anybody in the streets taking our government to task. This includes me. I’m upset, don’t get me wrong. But for some reason, I’m not angry.

There’s a very big difference between upset and angry. When you’re upset, you get a few articles. When you’re angry, you get worldwide protests that scare the shit out of politicians. Just look at the Occupy Movement for a small demonstration of the power of the American people when they’re angry.

Drip. Drip. Drip.

Are the NSA, FBI and U.S. government’s assaults on personal liberties not egregious enough for us to finally become angry? Are we too comfortable with our lives on the top of the global food chain to take our government to task? Or is the ignition that will light up the American people still waiting to be leaked by Glenn Greenwald?

I don’t know the answer. What I do know is this: we should be angry. We should be very angry. But we are not, and until something — or someone — acts as the catalyst to unite the American people, we will continue to lack the will to take action. And that is far more dangerous than any secrets the NSA is collecting about you.

Drip. Drip. Drip.

Image (The Occupy Wall Street General Assembly in Washington Square Park) courtesy of David Shankbone, Wikipedia

Bay to Breakers, Through the Eyes of Google Glass

I decided to wear Google Glass to Bay to Breakers, San Francisco’s annual “What kind of ridiculous and/or slutty costume can I wear?” race/celebration. This is part of my month-long experiment to wear Google Glass as often and as long as possible to see A) how people react, B) how my habits change and C) whether I will like them enough to keep wearing them.

Quick thoughts:

  • I took a lot more photos and videos while wearing Glass. It was just… so easy to do.
  • I got asked by at least 20 strangers to try on the Glass. Some thought I was assholes for not letting them try it on (I only let friends try it on).
  • It is distracting having a camera on your head, no matter what anybody says. Maybe it becomes less distracting over time, but I felt compelled to take pictures.
  • The device’s battery lasted through most of the day with heavy photo and video use. I was surprised. The battery is still underwhelming, but it’s not as bad as I first thought.
  • Quality is good enough, but clearly not consumer ready. Just check out the video above to see the quality.
  • The sunglasses extension are your friend.

Now here are some photos from Glass:

My Column Is Heading to CNET!

Dear friends, colleagues and supporters,

I’m thrilled to announce that I’m joining CNET and CBS Interactive as a contributing columnist and commentator!

Ever since my departure from Mashable, I’ve posted my personal take on the big technology news of the day on BenParr.com. The response to my work has been overwhelming, and traffic to this blog has skyrocketed. Thank you all for reading, commenting and sharing.

But now I have a chance to make a much bigger impact with my writing. Starting this week, my commentary on technology, social media and startups will appear on CNET several times per week. I will not be doing any straight reporting — CNET has a talented team that already does an amazing job at that. Instead, I will be doing what I’ve been doing here on BenParr.com: breaking down the big issues and players in tech and explaining what it actually means for both the tech industry and society as a whole.

To do that, I will be writing a combination of thought pieces, analysis stories, response pieces and the occasional long-form column. My CNET column is called The Social Analyst, just like my column on Mashable. It’s going to have more bite than my old column, though. I intend to keep tech’s biggest names honest.

I decided to join forces with CNET/CBSi because CBS Interactive CEO Jim Lanzone and CNET General Manager Mark Larkin have an ambitious vision for the future.

CNET is huge: it is one of the 100 most visited websites in the world, but Mark and Jim are not content with resting on their laurels. I believe in their vision and their leadership, and I am thrilled to be working with them.

CNET isn’t my only gig, though. For the last few months, I’ve also been working behind-the-scenes on a startup, which we can’t wait to talk more about! My co-founder and I have a clear vision, as well as a duty to our investors, and we will move heaven and earth (and forgo sleep) to make sure our company succeeds.

My new role at CNET and CBSi is the best of both worlds. I get to reach millions of people with my thoughts on technology, but still retain the flexibility to be an entrepreneur, build amazing products and change the world.

Don’t take your eyes off of CNET. Big things are happening over there, and you won’t want to miss all the action. 2012 is going to be an amazing year.

Cheers,
~ Ben

One OS to Rule Them All

Most people think that Apple has two operating systems — iOS and OS X — but the reality is that Apple is creating one OS right before our eyes, piece by piece.

Apple unveiled OS X Mountain Lion on Thursday, dropping the “Mac” label from the name in the process. It’s not a rebirth of Apple’s flagship computer OS, but instead transforms some of OS X’s most important apps into perfect counterparts to Apple’s most popular iOS apps.

iChat is no more. Instead, it is being replaced by Messages, which is interoperable with the Messages app on iPad and iOS. Reminders is being divorced from iCal, and iCal is becoming Calendar. Notes is become a standalone app from Mail. Game Center, Notification Center and iCloud are making their OS X debuts.

If that weren’t enough, OS X Mountain Lion is introducing Gatekeeper, which will, by default, limit the apps you can install to apps from the OS X store or verified Apple developers.

Oh, and one more thing: OS X Mountain Lion boasts complete integration with Twitter, just like iOS. Microsoft will need Facebook integration in Windows 8 more than ever if it’s going to catch up to Apple (remember, Microsoft is a Facebook investor).

These changes come on top of the additions Apple introduced with OS X Lion, which introduced Launchpad and the Mac App Store.

Apple is pushing iOS and OS X closer and closer together. In three years, you’re going to barely be able to tell the difference between the two, especially with OS X now employing a yearly development release cycle.

Apple wants you to have one seamless experience across all of its devices, whether it’s the iPad, iPhone, Macbook or the highly anticipated Apple television set. Everything you do on one device should simply “be there” on the other ones. That’s where iCloud comes into play. It is quickly becoming the cornerstone of Apple’s products, and its influence will only grow.

Here’s my prediction: in four years or less, Apple will not have two operating systems. It will have one unified OS with one brand and one development cycle.

You may think the two operating systems are too different to merge, but remember that iOS was derived from OS X. “The iPhone runs OS X” was even Apple’s official stance when the device was first unveiled.

Apple’s clearly merging iOS and OS X. The only question is how long it will take Apple to make it happen.

The Rise of the Smart Assistant

Almost everybody wants to have an assistant, even if people won’t freely admit it. Who doesn’t want an extra set of hands to help out with chores, scheduling, reminders, meetings, reservations, and the myriad of other tasks that we need to complete every single day?

Just a few years ago, the only way you could get yourself an assistant was to pay one a full-time salary. Very few people can afford the luxury having somebody help them with all of the tasks and information in their lives. But that has rapidly changed with new technology that makes it easier to outsource our lives.

This is what I call “Smart Assistant” technology, and I group it into three distinct buckets:

  1. Technological Assistants: The best known of these is Apple’s Siri, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Evi, for example, is far better at searching for relevant information on-the-fly.
  2. Virtual Assistants: Virtual assistants have been around for a while, but now they’re far more affordable thanks to services like Zirtual (which I use and love) and FancyHands. Rather than paying somebody $50K a year, you can pay $50 to $200 a month and get almost all the same benefits.
  3. Task Outsourcing: I’m a huge fan of services like Taskrabbit and Zaarly, which lets you outsource chores like food delivery, IKEA furniture assembly, laundry and grocery shopping. The convenience is worth the price.

While each bucket is vastly different, they help accomplish the same things — they help people save time, and they help put people’s minds at ease.

We’re only at the beginning of this phenomenon though. I believe it’s especially true for technological assistants, which are in the best position to deal with (but have yet to solve) one of the biggest problems of the Internet age: cognitive and information overload.

Smart assistants are huge businesses. Five years from now, you’re going to wonder how you lived without them.

Siri image courtesy of Flickr, Kaptain Kobold

Surprise! RIM’s Stock Price Plummets

Ouch.

This is what happens when you delude yourself into thinking things are fine. RIM needs an outsider, not an insider, to fix things.

RIM Is Still Delusional About Its Bleak Future

RIM announced on Sunday that its longtime co-CEOs are stepping down. It decided to make the announcement during the Giants-49ers game, which I’m sure they knew would dominate Twitter and the news media.

While the move was absolutely necessary if the company was to turn things around, its announcement gives me absolutely no confidence that its new CEO, former co-COO Thorsten Heins, can right the ship.

Here are a few quotes from the company’s press release that give me pause. All of the quotes are from Heins:

“Mike and Jim took a bold step 18 months ago when RIM purchased QNX to shepherd the transformation of the BlackBerry platform for the next decade. We are more confident than ever that was the right path. It is Mike and Jim’s continued unwillingness to sacrifice long-term value for short-term gain which has made RIM the great company that it is today.”

I can buy that buying QNX was a bold move, but RIM has failed to integrate QNX into its phones in any compelling way. Also, I’m calling bullshit on his statement that RIM’s freefall in the markets is simply because its former co-CEOs were “unwilling to sacrifice long-term value for short-term gain.” Under their leadership, the company has dropped from $50+ per share to less than $20 in the span of a year.

“We have a strong balance sheet with approximately $1.5 billion in cash at the end of the last quarter and negligible debt. We reported revenue of $5.2 billion in our last quarter, up 24% from the prior quarter, and a 35% year-to-year increase in the BlackBerry subscriber base, which is now over 75 million.”

RIM neglects to mention that revenue dropped by 5% from the previous year, where it earned $5.5 billion in Oct-Dec 2010. Profits dropped 71% due to poor sales of the BlackBerry Playbook.

“BlackBerry 7 has been well received. We are very excited about PlayBook 2.0 and BlackBerry 10. The reception of our products at this year’s Consumer Electronics Show was encouraging.”

The Motorola Xoom was well received at CES as well, and look at how that turned out.

“RIM earned its reputation by focusing relentlessly on the customer and delivering unique mobile communications solutions. We intend to build on this heritage to expand BlackBerry’s leadership position.”

What leadership position? Apple and Google took that away from RIM years ago.

“As with any company that has grown as fast as we have, there have been inevitable growing pains. We have learned from those challenges and, I believe, we have and will become a stronger company as a result.”

Hopefully they have learned some tough lessons, but I’m still not convinced.

“Going forward, we will continue to focus both on short-term and long-term growth, strategic planning, a customer- and market-based product approach, and flawless execution. We are in the process of recruiting a new Chief Marketing Officer to work closely with our product and sales teams to deliver the most compelling products and services.”

Getting a new CMO is fine, but there isn’t a CMO on the planet that can successfully market a vastly inferior product in a market as competitive as smartphones.

Look, I know I’m being really, really hard on RIM, but they deserve it. They got their ass kicked by Apple and Google and they’ve been doing a terrible job of playing catch-up ever since. It failed to invest in apps, and as a result it just doesn’t have the developer ecosystem it needs to survive in today’s market.

There will be no Rocky-esque comeback for RIM. Instead, after a few more years of struggling and failing to regain relevance, the once-great technology giant will likely find itself in the hands of an acquirer like Amazon.

Image courtesy of IntoMobile

A Breakdown of the First Battle of the Great Megaupload War of 2012

Shit hit the fan on Thursday; the U.S. government took down Megaupload, one of the largest file-sharing sites in the world. Here’s a quick recap of the key events in this crazy story:

  • Megaupload is one of top 100 most-visited websites on the web for years, mostly because it was an easy and relatively “safe” way to download and transfer pirated content. Yes, people hosted legal stuff there, but the vast majority of it was pirated.
  • On December 9, a bizarre video was released with A-listers seemingly endorsing Megaupload. P Diddy, Will.i.am, Alicia Keys, Snoop Dogg, Kanye West were among the stars featured.
  • Universal and the RIAA were NOT happy with this, so they asked YouTube to take it down due to copyright infringement,. They succeeded, though Megaupload continued to host the video (YouTube eventually brought it back as well). Megaupload essentially gave the music industry the middle finger.
  • Everything exploded yesterday, though. The FBI led a coordinated strike against Megaupload that involved 20 search warrants in eight countries. The result was the shutdown of Megaupload.com and the seizure of more than $50 million in assets.
  • Megaupload’s staff was also arrested and denied bail in New Zealand. This includes founder and majority owner Kim Schmitz — aka Kim Dotcom. Yes, that’s what he goes by.
  • Here are some pictures of the New Zealand government confiscating the Megaupload team’s very fancy cars.
  • Oh, and it was revealed that Swizz Beatz is the company’s acting CEO. Yes, the guy who’s married to Alicia Keys. This was likely an attempt by Kim Dotcom to reduce the heat on himself.
  • GigaOm has a fantastic summary of the indictment itself, if you want to learn more.
  • There was an important part of the Internet that didn’t like how this raid went down though: Anonymous. The shadowy hacker group launched its largest attack ever merely minutes after the raids became public. They attacked “the White House, the FBI, the Department of Justice, multiple record label sites, the MPAA, and RIAA, and the U.S. Copyright Office” all at once. Anonymous considered the destruction of Megaupload an act of war, and they responded with an all-out counterstrike.

If you think today is the worst of the retaliation, then you’re deluding yourself: Anonymous is nowhere near done. The IRC chatrooms where Anonymous plans its attacks are still active. I suspect that it will continue to lash out as more details of the Megaupload takedown come to light.

Questions remain: will Megaupload’s leaders be extradited to the U.S.? Where are pirates going to store files now? What is Anonymous’s next move?

The fireworks are just beginning, so find the nearest bunker, because yesterday was just the first of many battles in the Great Megaupload War of 2012.

Image courtesy of Flickr, Bryan Burke. FYI, nobody was harmed in this photo.