Cloudflare TV

🎂 John Battelle & James Allworth Fireside Chat

Presented by James Allworth, John Battelle
Originally aired on 

2020 marks Cloudflare’s 10th birthday. To celebrate this milestone, we are hosting a series of fireside chats with business and industry leaders all week long.

In this Cloudflare TV segment, James Allworth will host a fireside chat with John Battelle, Co-Founder & CEO of Recount Media.

Watch more Fireside Chats 🎂

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Transcript (Beta)

Welcome everyone to Cloudflare TV. I'm James Allworth. I head up innovation here at Cloudflare.

Today we are very excited to have John Battelle join us for our 10 year birthday celebrations.

John is the founder of seven companies, most recently Recount Media, a property featuring political news and analysis that's easy to access and watch on the go where he's the CEO.

He was the co-founding editor of Wired magazine back in the day, which I'm very excited to talk to him about as well.

He served as a visiting professor at UC Berkeley and is currently a senior research scholar and adjunct professor at Columbia University.

He's also the author of The Search, Business and Culture in the Age of Google.

I could actually keep going too, but I'd like to get into the conversation.

John, we're very excited to have you join us here on Cloudflare TV today.

Thank you so much. Yeah, it's great to be here.

And happy birthday to Cloudflare, by the way. I know this is a birthday week.

Last weekend was the actual birthday. Let's start off a little bit with your background.

You're involved in the founding of Wired magazine. I am super interested to hear a little bit more about that.

And I'm sure lots of folks listening would be too.

Yeah, I mean, I had one, I guess you could call it a job prior to that.

I worked at a startup magazine covering technology for the trades. You know, the trades don't really exist the way they used to, but they covered technology and print.

So it was about Apple is the magazine that I worked at that was a startup.

And then I went to grad school. Out of grad school, I had an idea for a magazine that I thought of as the rolling stone for technology.

But I was 26 or something, five, six.

And, you know, there wasn't even a startup culture, right?

It was 1991, 92. And I got lucky enough to fall in with a sort of merry band of pranksters.

I call it like the metaphor I use is like a band, you know, you just happen to end up with the right set of musicians and your first album goes platinum, right?

And that's what happened with Wired is we, the sort of six of us made this music and it turned out people wanted, you know, wanted to buy the album, so to speak.

And the core idea of it, which I don't think ages at all, is that technology is radically, you know, changing society, that society isn't thinking about this very deeply and that there needs to be some thoughtful journalism about it.

And it's touching everything. It's not just a let's cover hard drives and speeds and feeds and, you know, that kind of stuff.

It's what is the impact of this on education, on health care, on culture, on politics?

And so I think we were a little bit ahead of our time.

You think about, you know, people thought we were kind of crazy, but we had this core group of subscribers who got exactly what we were talking about.

And, you know, the story's obviously only gotten more and more important over the past, you know, 25, 30 years.

That's awesome.

So you spent a lot of your career on the management side of journalism, which is a fascinating side to me.

It's given you front row seats to a pretty tectonic shift in the industry.

I'd love to hear a little bit about that. So going from the 1990s through to now, so much has changed.

Yeah, it certainly has. I mean, you know, when we set up our sort of pandemic lair where I am right now for the past seven months, yeah, we kind of left New York City pretty quickly.

But I brought a few things that were important to me.

They're behind me and they're all magazine covers.

And it's interesting to think about, you know, most of the people watching this are probably never subscribed to a magazine.

And never had had a habit of, you know, anticipating that thing coming in the mail and opening it and just diving into it like a bath and staying there for 45 to 50 minutes.

Now people dive into algorithmic push driven streams of feed, right, which I have to say, I'm going to sound like an old man, you know, yelling about people being on my lawn, does not feel to me like a really good media experience.

And I think what has happened over the past 30 years of digitization is we have lost some of the trust in editorially created media brands to deliver to us a shared experience.

And we are, I think, in the midst of figuring out how to recreate those natively in a sort of post-social, post-digital world.

The business models traditionally of media companies have been insanely challenged.

And generally speaking, the economic forces in the media business have favored consolidation and bigness.

And they have also favored tininess, smallness, you know.

So I had a company called Federated Media in the mid-2000s that ran for about 10 years, which was about celebrating and creating a platform for individual voices of bloggers.

That was a moment in time that felt very potentially fruitful for distributed independent open dialogue through the voices of individuals.

It got overrun, I would say, by lots of voices that might not have been as well curated or edited, number one, but it really got consolidated onto humongous platforms like YouTube and Facebook.

That's really what happened to the business is that it was initially supported by advertising and advertisers found a more efficient way to find an audience through Facebook.

And I think what we have to do as media creators is reimagine what the power relationship and the economic relationship is between audience, the most important part, in my opinion, media creator, marketer, and now this fourth thing that's come into the equation, platforms.

How do all of those elements work together to create a healthy media ecosystem that informs the public, engages readers and viewers, and ensures we have a healthy dialogue in our society that is the underpinning, frankly, of democracy?

And it is incumbent upon all four of those parties to demand something better.

And the power structure right now tilts toward the platforms. And so I think it's incumbent on the platforms to do a little bit harder thinking than they have been doing about their impact on the media ecosystem and therefore the dialogue in this country and to figure out ways to support a strong media industry.

I'd like to pull on a couple of threads there.

One, you said that we've lost trust a little bit in the editorial-based, the news organizations that are more editorial -based.

And the other is it feels like the platforms have this balance of power that they're winning and it's giving them outsized power.

It doesn't feel like an optimal structure in which, as you talk about journalism being one of the foundations of democracy, it doesn't feel like a very fertile environment for that right now.

No, I would call it hostile. And the numbers support it in terms of the thousands of jobs, particularly across local, that have been lost in journalism.

And the hostile environment, which I can attest to, for media innovation in the startup world.

As you noted, this is my seventh company. And this is a very difficult environment to raise money to support a new idea in journalism.

As a matter of fact, most of the money that's supporting journalism right now is in nonprofit and charity, foundation grants and so on.

The business model of journalism is so sort of universally understood to be bleak that most venture capitalists won't touch it with a 10-foot pole.

And it is exactly the fact of that that makes me optimistic.

Usually, the best new media forms are imagined in times of difficulty and scarce resource.

And I think we have, as media entrepreneurs, a responsibility to try to think of new ways to do things.

And I think in particular, in video, sight, sound and motion, the most powerful medium we've ever imagined.

When you combine video with digital, and Cloudflare has offerings across the range here, the things you can possibly do are extraordinary.

And the economics have gotten to the point where you are no longer gated by insanely high bandwidth bills to do that.

It is totally incumbent on us to reimagine how can we inform people using this narrative medium of video.

But not wasting people's time with wallpaper, yap, yap, yap, that's divisive and bullshit.

That's essentially the business model of news on cable. Or rabbit holes that you get lost in, that get increasingly insane and confirmation bias -laden, which is essentially the business model of online video.

Both of those waste your time, and both of them are driven by some really dumb, big algorithms, which are, we make more money if you're engaged for longer.

I don't want to be engaged for longer, I want to be engaged for better.

I want to be engaged for higher quality. I'd rather do 15 minutes of high-quality engagement than 15 hours of shit.

And I think there's a business model for that.

We just have to discover it, and we need brave brands and platforms and partnerships to enable it to flower.

I am convinced we are going to create new formats in video, and that's a royal we, not my company, over the next 10 years, over the next 5 years.

Just as we created new formats for text in the first 30 years of the Internet.

If you look at what your partner Ben does with Stratechery, or what Casey Newton just went off and decided to do on Substack, these are new forms of how we connect with audiences using mainly text.

It's taken us 20 years to figure that shit out. So I think video is way behind, but it's incredibly powerful, it's very nuanced, but you have to figure out how to do it, and to do that you have to try.

And that's why I got off the bench, because I moved to New York to teach at Columbia, maybe write a couple more books, kind of be a chin-stroking greybeard.

I don't know how many times I've been introduced in these kinds of talks as an OG.

You know, like the original gangster of the Internet, it's like, OK, well, I'm not dead yet, so why not do some shit, you know?

And let's try. That's the job, is to just keep trying to make news stop. And I think that's what we're doing at The Recount, and honestly, I want everybody in the media industry to be animated by this idea that we should try to make new kinds of things.

Because we have a huge information problem in this country and broadly in this world that we have to adapt to.

I love that. This feels like a great time for you to tell us a little bit about The Recount and what you're working on at the moment.

Yeah, I'd be happy to. So the problem specifically that we decided to, you know, attack at The Recount, my partner John Heilman and I two years ago, was that there was not an answer to a simple question two years ago, which is, where do I go to see?

In other words, video, sight, sound, motion. Where do I go to see what's happening right now in our country?

Like, I want to see it, and I want it to be trusted.

I want it to be journalism. And oddly, you know, when it comes to this device right here, right, there was not an answer to that.

Because if you went to YouTube, you quickly, you know, went down the rabbit hole.

If you went to Twitter, you're not seeing it.

You're getting yelled at, right? And if you go to, you know, linear cable, you're not actually learning anything.

You're getting an hour of people talking about one thing, right?

And you're getting your time wasted.

I want to see what's happening right now. Show it to me. If Trump said something crazy, I want to see that thing he said that was crazy.

Where do I go for that?

We realized there wasn't an answer to that. And that seemed crazy given that everybody's moving to video, you know, in terms of the audience demand.

Everyone's already on their phone, and everyone's already on social, right?

So how do you solve for that was the question we asked.

And the way we decided to, you know, approach a, you know, solution to it was to see everything that is being made visually about that story, the story of national affairs and politics in the United States, as our source material, and to recreate something from that source material.

We'll obviously add our original editorial voice, graphics, and the choices we make editorially are crucial to curation and what the final product feels and looks like.

But 10,000 journalists are already making video about national affairs and politics.

It's all over social media. It's all over our podcast. It's all over local affiliates and national broadcasts and international feeds and White House feeds and C-SPAN.

It's everywhere. We just want to make it make sense and give you something super concise to understand what's happening right now.

That's the idea.

So my friend and partner, John Heilman, calls it hip-hop journalism. The idea really is what hip-hop did to the music scene was take the beats, take the lyrics, take the loops, and make something new from it, right?

And that's what we're trying to do with video journalism.

And I think we've succeeded. I mean, we're absolutely in the center of the dialogue and politics.

And then from there, it's a very simple step to move into coverage of anywhere that power needs to be called out.

That's what journalism is supposed to do. Identify the truth, declare the facts, call bullshit on people who are in power and not paying attention to the truths and the facts.

Journalism, right? And video is such a powerful medium to do that because here is the fact.

Donald Trump last night did not decry white supremacy when given it on a platter to do so.

He didn't. So what was the video that, of course, got millions of views last night?

Him not doing it because we picked exactly that thing and showed it, right?

And so that's the power of the medium in the hands of really high-quality journalists.

It can, I think, change the course of dialogue in this country, and I hope it will.

And we're seeing early signs that we're succeeding, so I'm excited about that.

That's awesome. If folks are interested, where can they find out more about The Recount?

We have a product all day long, every day.

We're also, and we have a killer app on, obviously, Android and iOS where you can see everything we do in real time, and it's super engaging.

That's great. So let's pivot a little bit to the Internet.

Let's stick on this topic, though.

Politics and journalism. Could you talk a little bit about how you feel the Internet's changed politics, journalism, political reporting?

Yeah. You know, I think politics has always been a bare -knuckles, elbows-out, no-holds-barred, high-stake, serious, power-center kind of endeavor.

It's just that it has, until recently, not been watched by a crowd of hundreds of millions who, at any time, can yell whatever they want while it's being done, right?

And I think when you combine something that I've championed and been an evangelist for for multiple decades, which is the ability for anyone to have a voice.

The thing that Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg says all the time, we want everyone to have more power.

Everyone gets a voice. Everyone gets connected to anyone they want, right?

All of that somewhat rosy-lensed optimism of the tech industry has externalities to it.

And those externalities are that not only are politicians now responding in real time to Twitter mobs and Facebook campaigns, but we are all responding to each other in ways that are, I think, not productive.

And our politics has begun to be defined by the intersection of this ability to have a voice and say anything you want with the ability to hide behind a screen, either anonymously or, you know, use your real name.

But, you know, you never get punched in the face if you're sitting behind a keyboard.

And it turns out that in real politics, getting punched in the face happened a lot and often stopped people from being assholes, you know?

And so instead, we've got this sort of open mess of a debate without a lot of curation or editorial, you know, sort of gatekeeping, which has been seen, I think, as a negative.

Oh, the old media and the gatekeeping.

There's a reason that some stuff just doesn't get through a filter. There's a reason.

And it's that civility and the ability to have structured dialogue is kind of important.

And I think without that, add in this steroidal business model of engagement that drives advertising results and you get a politics that I think has been pretty warped by the reward of divisive content over thoughtful dialogue.

And that's unfortunate, I think. And one of the things that we're trying to address, you know, in our small way at The Recount.

Interesting. So in the cause and effect here, you think that the reason it's gotten more divisive is because of the business models of the platforms?

I think they're directly correlated, you know, and if I had nothing else to do, I'd love to run a long, you know, longitudinal study on that.

But I don't think you can argue that the two are not correlated. I just don't.

I think it's impossible. And every single day, whether it's Casey, you know, or Judd or, you know, Washington Post reporters who are finding these incredible coordinated behaviors of influence with false journalism at its core.

On the left and the right, to be honest. It's not just the right, although the right seems to be much better at it.

And, you know, we see it. All of us see it in our families, in our friends, in conversations where you're like, wait a minute, you believe what?

Where did you get that? Well, I saw this and this is now my truth.

You know, there is no truth with a capital T. And I think philosophy could argue that there never will be.

But there is truth as it relates to how we make decisions.

And we just don't agree anymore. And we're now so tribal, it's like sports.

You know, we just love our team, regardless of whether or not our team is truly, you know, winning or losing.

And, you know, it used to be 20, 30, 40 years ago, a reason that your parents might not want you to marry someone is because of their race or their religion.

Now the reason people don't want you to marry someone is because you're a Republican and they're a Democrat.

You can't imagine doing that, right?

And so this is really an interesting reality in our political culture that, you know, I don't know how we get past it.

But I'm pretty sure part of the way we get past it is learn how to talk with each other again.

Yeah, that makes a ton of sense. Let's, the last part of this, let's step back a little bit and look at the Internet, though.

Thinking back over the last 10 years, I'm curious, what surprised you about the way that it's developed?

I think the most surprising thing for me is how dominant the, you know, the sort of the big four or five technology companies in the Internet space have become.

You know, there are so many wonderful companies that, you know, that have a zero or two less on their market cap, Cloudflare being a good example of one of those companies.

But the dominance of the major companies, 10 years ago, I think, you know, I would have predicted that they would be incredibly important.

All of those, you know, Apple, Facebook, Amazon, Google, Microsoft, I would have, you know, Netflix even, would have predicted they would continue to be very important.

But as the core dominant engines driving our entire society and our economy, that's, you know, that's surprising.

And the corollary of that is the weakness with which we have deeply thought about the impact of that as it relates to the new sort of economic commodities that are being mined in order for that dominance to be cemented.

And those economic commodities are the ability to do processing at scale and the ability to collect data and leverage it at scale.

The fact that we haven't had a legislative, you know, moment where we're like, OK, let's think deeply about this and do something, right, has not occurred, that we've remained laissez-faire essentially about it.

One could argue Europe's not that laissez-faire and a number of other countries aren't as well.

But let's be honest, these companies are all based here.

It's incumbent on us to figure this out.

And we haven't had that dialogue at any kind of scale. That's not to say there's not an amazing amount of dialogue.

I mean, listen to your podcast, James. It's about antitrust, right?

I mean, there's people talking about it, right? But we need to have a more at-scale conversation than we're currently having about what's going on with the impact of this technology in our society.

I sound like the editor of Wired 25 years ago.

But let's go, guys. You know, it's game time, man.

We can't ignore these elephants in the room. It's a pretty neat trick, though, like having this effect and achieving this dominance while at the same time creating a divisiveness such that people, even if they do talk about it, it doesn't feel like we're getting anywhere inside the political process.

Yeah, yeah. Now, you know, I predicted last year that we'd make no meaningful progress on legislation around, you know, how data flows in society, privacy, antitrust.

And the reason I did is because I thought it's an election year.

And all we're going to be thinking about is, you know, do we get this guy out or do we give him another term?

That's, you know, you can't think. But it was going to be one of the most important issues in the election, which, you know, what's your strategy as it relates to digital?

But have you heard it even raised?

You know, no, because we're in the midst of the clown show that we saw last night.

Yeah. And a pandemic, by the way, and a recession.

Yeah. And a massive cry for social justice because race is the core problem in this society.

And we're not talking about that either. Right. I mean, if anything, those are the silver linings to COVID, that we're bringing those topics up and they're in the fall.

We've got just a few minutes left, though. And again, 10 year anniversary.

And that's looking back over the last 10 years of the Internet. I'm curious if we look out.

Instead of looking back, we look forward. Big trends shaping the Internet over the course of the next 10 years.

Well, I'm sure Cloudflare is going to put a zero on that market cap.

Oh, that's very kind of you to say.

No, really, I should at least take a minute to appreciate the philosophy of the company, you know, which I've always appreciated.

And I think it's one of the, you know, federation of good guys, so to speak.

I should use non -gender, you know, good, you know, good actors in the Internet, you know.

And, you know, when we see, you know, prominent CEOs in the tech space saying we don't have a business having a philosophy about anything.

Our job is just to do what our core mission is.

I disagree. The externalities of technology are vast. And our industry has, in the main, failed to imagine what those externalities might be prior to shipping.

Right. The best example of that is Facebook. We are grappling with our externalities now.

And companies that in their philosophy imagine those externalities are good companies.

And I think in the next 10 years, we're going to see the reward increasingly go to companies that have that kind of philosophy.

Not just in the tech industry, but in all industries. And, you know, so this tension between the Milton Friedman School and the sort of, you know, lipstick on a pig business roundtable school.

I think we have to win over here and think more about stakeholders and less about shareholders.

And as it relates to the Internet, companies that have philosophies that go beyond just, you know, making a dollar are, I have to say, optimistically going to increasingly win.

As a matter of fact, the original Internet companies were exactly those kinds of companies.

You know, it's just that they got very, very big and very, very used to winning.

And that can change the philosophy of a company when you're that big and you're making that much money.

So I think the pendulum is going to swing back to some of the core philosophies that we share.

You know, open the open Internet, the distribution of power to the node as opposed to the center.

And, you know, a belief that, you know, equal access means 10x to 100x more innovation in our economy.

And I would start with equal access to data and I guess leave it there. Yeah.

Well, I feel like that's an optimistic way to finish this up. That the power swings back from the Navy to the pirates.

That mission focus definitely resonates for me.

John, this has been fantastic. I feel like I could chat with you for another 30 minutes easily and not run out of things to talk about.

We really appreciate you joining us for the 10 year celebration.

So thank you so much. Thank you for having me.

And again, happy birthday. Looking forward to all the announcements to come.

Thank you.