I have spent the last several years living a life that would be quite foreign to most Americans. Every morning for the last year, I wake up early and drive my wife to her job and take my dog on a brisk walk. That part might be familiar. But then I meander over to my home office and close the door behind me. My commute is actually seconds — and in the worst case, minutes, if I detour to my kitchen to make myself a coffee.
I live, and work, on the Internet.
I am the founder of a fast-growing technology company. Our team sees nothing but opportunity ahead. We have one of the world’s smartest and most motivated product teams, and we offer perks that are hard to beat: not only competitive pay and benefits, but also the ability to work from home and control one’s own schedule.
I spend several hours in my office, but frequently take breaks for long walks to think, or to exercise, or to read something relevant to the work I am doing. But when I produce some output — a piece of code, a decision, an email — I basically carry those tasks out on the Internet.
Our real office is not a physical space, but a suite of software products we use together in our fully remote team, on the Internet. We speak face-to-face with Zoom Video or Google Meet; we chat using Slack; we email with GMail; we code assisted by Github; we support a product which is itself part of the tapestry of software-as-a-service (SaaS) offerings in the market.
The company we have built, Parse.ly, was not only born and raised on the web, but its purpose is to study the other people who live here too. The hundreds of millions of people who use the Internet everyday to learn something about the world around them. In particular: we study the news media and the flow of information and traffic online. Our product tells people who run the web’s largest sites how the Internet works, too. And we’ve learned that the Internet is an amazing and crazy place.
Occasionally though, we do leave it. A few weeks ago, I had the pleasure of seeing most of my team in the real world during our annual product retreat. We held it in Brooklyn, NY. For one full week, we worked on projects side-by-side; we visited Parse.ly’s NYC offices together; we talked about the future; we thought about how we could even better serve our customers. We also celebrated a year of hard work.
At the end of this week, I felt a little tired, but mostly energized. It felt like we could accomplish anything together.
The retreat preceded the biggest traffic day ever: the US presidential election. Our company had been studying the trends around digital news audiences and election coverage for months already. We knew it was going to be a huge day on the Internet.
And we prepared appropriately, so that, despite record traffic, we didn’t suffer a single major outage. We were really proud; our ability to weather that storm was steeped in some serious high-scale engineering work we had done in the past couple of years.
But, the day after the election was a mixed bag, emotionally.
It was an impressive professional accomplishment, but we woke up to find a country severely politically divided. I think it’s fair to say that particularly in the tech sector, there was widespread displeasure with the results.
But this post is not about politics.
It’s about this: whatever happens in the world, I have a great team, a great job, and a great challenge ahead of me.
The world will change. The market will change. But this isn’t a time to sit around and sulk. Instead, it’s time to get to work. For me, my team, and for our customers.
A great, big, diverse team
I’m going to spend some time making you jealous of my team for a moment. They are programmers and designers who come from all over the world. They live in North Carolina, Colorado, Virginia, Vermont, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Texas, Oregon, Toronto (Canada), New York, Edinburgh (Scotland), Vienna (Austria), Bonn (Germany), and many other places.
They are not workaholics. They are, instead, work connoisseurs. They found Parse.ly the way one discovers a favorite wine. By sampling lots of wine — some really bad — and realizing that this one, this vintage is great. For them.
Our product team has a mixture of diverse skills including programming, data processing technologies, design, user experience, product management, and more. But they have equally diverse interests outside of work. They raise children. They tend to pets. They exercise. They play board games. They create video games. They invent. They build. They read. They write. They paint. They do a million things. They are creative, motivated, optimistic, and they can do anything.
My co-founder and I would never have dreamt, a few short years ago, to work with a team this good. And the only reason we have a team this good is because of how each of us has found some purpose, some deep meaning, in the work we do every day.
So, what, exactly, is that work?
A great, big, hairy problem
We measure how people spend time on the Internet.
And we measure it in the present — although my team actually lives in the future.
What do I mean by this? As we continue to learn, people are spending more and more time online. And it’s not just because of work demands, but it’s because the Internet is eating many of the other “manufactured” pastimes of prior ages. Watching TV and reading newspapers has given way to Google, Facebook, and a huge long-tail of popular websites. Listening to the radio has given way to podcasts. We carry a connected device in our pockets at all times.
It’s not just news stories, even though that’s still where a lot of attention is spent. But people now read, watch, and listen about everything online — whether it’s cultural reflections, celebrity rumors, quick takes on politics, sports updates, travel plans, product research, or anything else. The Internet isn’t just becoming a new medium. It is subsuming every other medium for information sharing and expression.
The Internet is becoming dominant — and complicated.
At Parse.ly, we have seen this first-hand. In this year alone, we had to expand our web/mobile measurement tools to include new products from Facebook and Google. We had to build specialized support for video players. We started to offer Parse.ly’s collection infrastructure as a service, so that data scientists can understand Internet attention data like never before.
Why measure Internet activity? Our products help the web’s largest information networks figure out how to build sustainable businesses on the web. This is vital and necessary.
In the long term, the Internet will be the primary source of information. This is a bet that companies like Facebook and Google made early, and they are being rewarded handsomely for it in the market. But the Internet will not be a wonderful and diverse source of information if we allow only two companies to dominate its users’ everyday behaviors.
The bet we’re making is that, over time, every single business will care about what the collective consciousness of billions of web users are reading and watching online. We’re betting that every business will want to be a part of that global, online conversation with audiences. We simply can’t have a pair of information monopolies controlling everything we see, read, and hear.
So, Parse.ly’s mission is to help Internet companies measure and understand audiences. Through a better understanding of their audiences, these companies will build fierce, independent operations that make us all better informed about the world around us.
This problem is loaded with lots of risks, but also lots of potential.
We had to hire a team of backend data engineering experts to scale to ridiculous traffic levels, to handle some of the largest sites on the web.
And this year, we have finally moved into the realm of doing network-wide insights across our petabyte-scale dataset. We are now learning more about what people read online, how much time they spend, and even the things editors can do influence whether their stories are widely seen.
And we’re only getting started.
The future of the Internet
As this historic year comes to a close, and I look to the year ahead, I think the future of the Internet is bright. I think it’s much brighter than many nay-sayers have stated.
The Internet is perhaps the greatest technological innovation in support of a part of the US Constitution I hold dear: the First Amendment. I’ll repeat here, because trust me, it’s worth re-reading from time to time:
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.
The freedom of speech. Of the press. The right to peaceably assemble.
These are such important American values, they are not just in our constitution: they are the First Amendment of our Bill of Rights. This is widely viewed — rightly, I think — as a global human right.
The Internet has made the freedom of speech, and of the press, truly possible in the modern era. But merely having an open and decentralized network is not enough.
It only works if there are companies that can thrive — financially, sustainably — off the attention and support of people who use the Internet as a source of information. Parse.ly is making a bet that a better understanding of the data behind audiences will help them get there. But there are other bets to make — and so much work to do.
The Internet is a place
So, the Internet is not really a thing, but more a place. Some of us live here already. And, like many other places one can live, it is a mixed bag.
Here on the Internet, the rules for living are quite different. Those of us who live here don’t spend hours per day commuting to and from work. This is a great relief. But we also sometimes feel lonely, shielded behind a computer screen from some of our closest collaborators. This can sometimes distance us emotionally from each other.
We remind ourselves of our humanity by seeing each other face-to-face. I come back from these Parse.ly retreats each time, refreshed and reconnected with my colleagues. They remind me of why I love everyone I work with so much — because of how unique, creative, and motivated they are.
I think there is a lesson here for our customers — many of them some of the finest journalists in the world. They can learn from this personal experience I describe above.
Your audience is not a number or a Twitter follower or a Google searcher. Your audience is comprised of humans. Hundreds of millions of unique, diverse, beautiful, and yes, sometimes, flawed humans beings.
They live millions of private lives. And yes, they all use the Internet, but they don’t necessarily live here — at least, not yet.
You may want to meet with them where they live, to learn exactly how they live. You may want to remind them, like I often remind my staff, that though we may live fully remote lives, we are here for each other.
Here’s the full photo album from Parse.ly’s 2016 product team retreat in Brooklyn, NY. Here’s some more information on our product. And, of course, we’re always hiring.