John Battelle on the Future of Search

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John Battelle is an entrepreneur, journalist, professor and author who has founded or co-founded businesses, magazines and websites. Currently on leave from Graduate School of Journalism at the University of California, Berkeley, Battelle, 39, is founder and chairman of Federated Media Publishing. He is also a founder and executive producer of conferences in the media, technology, communications and entertainment industries, and "band manager" with BoingBoing.net. Previously, Battelle was founder, chairman and CEO of Standard Media International (SMI), and publisher of The Industry Standard and TheStandard.com. Prior to founding The Standard, Battelle was a co-founding editor of Wired magazine and Wired Ventures.

Battelle recently completed work on a forthcoming book, "The Search: Business and Culture in the Age of Google," and is the monthly "Titans of Technology" columnist for Business 2.0 magazine. He also maintains a daily site covering the intersection of media, technology and the internet at www.battellemedia.com.

Battelle was named a "Global Leader for Tomorrow" and "Young Global Leader" by the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland and a finalist in the "Entrepreneur of the year" competition by Ernst & Young. He holds a bachelor's and a master's degree from the University of California, Berkeley.

Battelle chatted with iMedia Executive Editor Brad Berens about the new book, the future of search and the future of media.

John Battelle will be speaking at ad:tech in New York on November 7th. He will be a panelist at the "Next Generation Search -- The Future Ad Models" session.

Web 2.0

Brad Berens: With Web 2.0, you're just off what must have been a draining but exhilarating conference -- what are the big new takeaways from that conference?

John Battelle: I think the biggest story out of the conference, other than the fact that it was very, very well attended and supported, is the fear of another bubble, or at the very least, the fear that we might start smoking our own shit again. That is very, very healthy, to my mind.

Once you get past that big story, there were so many important contours to the discussions. It's clear an ecosystem is shaping up of smaller, innovative companies, some of which are truly great companies, others of which are simply great products or services, and others still which really won't last in any fashion. That's OK; there's so much room for innovation in this space, we can afford to fail, and fail well -- the cost of entry is so much smaller now, we can try any number of things, and the only thing that is lost is a team's time, and perhaps some angel money. That's very different from Web 1.0, where the money lost was often the public's.

Berens: Did you have any moments where you thought, "Darn it, I wish I'd known about THAT when I was writing 'The Search!'" If so, what were those moments? How did Web 2.0 change your vision of the future?

Battelle: I have to say, I was so wrapped up in the execution of the conference, I did not have the third party view of the content. I was there on stage the whole time, saying to myself, "Am I asking the right questions? Is the person on stage engaging the audience? What does the audience want that we are not giving them?" I never got the perspective up there to have that kind of a moment. I did love the dialogue that emerged between all the leaders of the platform companies, from Diller to Miller to Medhi to Sergey and Semel -- it was great fun to see them reacting one to the other.

Battelle's new book, "The Search"

Berens: Let me ask a big picture question about your new book, "The Search: How Google and Its Rivals Rewrote the Rules of Business and Transformed our Culture." Why'd you write it?

Battelle: I became fascinated with the implications and importance of this idea of search, and convinced that it was a very, very big story that we, as a culture, had not really taken the time to consider much. In a way if felt like "The Digital Revolution" when we started Wired, and "The Internet Economy" when we started The Industry Standard, ideas that were not really in the cultural conversation at first, and soon entered the conversation as the magazines grew. Search has certainly entered the conversation now, thanks in large part to Google's success, but we have still not really begun the conversation about what it all means. I hope the book helps frame that dialogue; much is at stake.

Berens: For the most part, it's written with non-webheads as the audience that you seem to have in mind, so what do you want this new reader's takeaway to be?

Battelle: Pay attention to this thing we are all creating by using search as our spade to turn the soil of human knowledge, it's going to be a very, very big deal.

Berens: How do you want the reader's perspective to be changed after? Is there, in other words, something actionable about this book, and what is that action?

Battelle: Not specifically, but I think an informed consumer/user of search and the internet makes for a much smarter one.

Berens: I found my copy of "The Search" in the business section of my local bookshop, and that's where it lives on Amazon.com as well (although I had to do the unthinkable and browse the subject headings to find that out). Admittedly, the book has "the rules of business" in the subtitle, but it also has "our culture." So, I wonder if the booksellers -- online and offline -- are missing something by putting "The Search" in business. I thought the same thing about Malcolm Gladwell's "The Tipping Point," which also lived in the business section. How do you imagine the audience for your book?

Battelle: The publisher is the business imprint of Penguin (Portfolio) which means it's pretty much a fait accompli. But I am hoping the book has crossover appeal, so to speak. I think it's a thinking person's book, even if they are not really into business. Business and culture are so interconnected these days...

Berens: On page 174 you write, "Sites that wall themselves off are becoming irrelevant, not because the writing or analysis is necessarily flawed, but rather because their business model is." Since you wrote that, AOL has taken down the wall from its content garden and opened http://www.aol.com/ up to all comers. At the same time, the New York Times is rumored to be considering building a wall. Any predictions for the future of the NYT if it does indeed retreat behind a pay-for-play wall?

Battelle: I think they are suffering from the problem most old line publishers have: how to sell the old model in a new model world. I have a lot to say about this, but not sure we need to go into all of it here. Suffice to say, it's all about the content. And if the content is not selling, then, perhaps, the content is not right.

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