The Internet is not a bound book or a printed newspaper or a shelf to store your old home movies; it's not a mailman shuttling messages back and forth. No, the Internet is happening now. It's a mirror to the world. And though it’s hard to think back, before Twitter, the Internet as a medium was missing that great immediacy, that feeling of happening that other mediums had. It was static, in a way; more static than TV, certainly more static than radio; think of that incredible news report, of Orson Welles broadcasting War of the Worlds over the airwaves, convincing everyone who was listening that there was an actual alien invasion happening. He wasn't just playing on the power of the newsman, he was playing on the power of the medium, the power of immediacy, and the Internet lacked that power before Twitter. It's changed the world.
But now, Twitter itself seems to be changing. And maybe not for the better. What can we expect from it, and who does it aim to serve? That answer shifts from hour to hour, as the company makes fitful motions away from its core features and user-base, and towards something else. Something foreign. But what else could it do?
Twitter basically serves two functions:
- A social network for people to post updates and to communicate in two-way conversations with friends and persons of interest.
- A content-creation platform that is a micro-blogging site. One where content creators push out content to followers and occasionally engage those followers in conversation.
Twitter is also a bit of a platform. One that has enabled a number of companies to build software that supports and improves upon Twitter's social-networking and content-creation functions.
by Brendan Steidle
Pause for a minute to consider this fact. Because it says that people like the back-end data of Twitter, but not the front-end management or UI. This is very curious. After all, few social networks—few websites—have this third-party intermediary. But Twitter has become something like a cable-company: offering great content but with a deficient UI.
Cable companies are not good company to keep. They are still collecting nice profits, but their days are waning—not just as they see competition from alternatives like Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon, but as they see companies like Apple, Tivo, and Google creating new user interfaces to improve the TV experience. This is likely why Apple hasn’t yet unveiled its game-changing Apple TV. Because content creators are wary of Apple, afraid the company will gobble up all of the profits in their industry, leaving them with only one role: the dumb pipe.
It’s a valid fear; just ask the phone carriers. Telecommunications is yet another service that is good in terms of the information it provides, but the interface itself is often lacking and as a result, others entered the market to improve it. There is just one problem with this story:
In almost all of these cases, it's the people who made the interface—not the people who built the initial infrastructure—who have gained the greatest portion of the profits, who have benefited most and led the industry in new directions.
Even the simplest of clients can disrupt the way their hosts make money. For example, accessing a Gmail account through your iPhone's mail client eliminates all of the ads that Google makes money on. Fast-forwarding through commercials with your Tivo also blurs past ads. So as Twitter looks at the history of clients, what does it see? It sees itself getting further and further away from companies whose success it wants to emulate—like Facebook—and closer and closer to the problem-cases of today’s technology world; the cable operators, the phone carriers, the providers of the dumb pipe.
That’s a dangerous trajectory, and Twitter seems to know it. The first thing it’s decided to do is disallow access to its data, cutting off the threats to its prosperity. That means no more apps. If people are going to interact with Twitter, they'll interact through Twitter. Not some third-party client. This, of course, won't solve anything alone; it's a stop-gap measure. And today Twitter isn't offering any real alternative to its users that mimics the functionality of these great social networking apps.
By cutting off third-party apps, Twitter seems to have abandoned the idea of supporting developers and making them a core feature of its service. The assumption is that they can’t make money this way, but is this right? Is it a valid assumption? Just because it hasn’t been done before, doesn’t mean it’s a bad idea. A robust app ecosystem can also be a profitable one; Apple’s App Store has generated more than $7 billion in revenue since 2008.
Twitter’s developer business model could work like this:
- Twitter charges developers.
- Developers charge users.
- Everyone wins.
In this model, Twitter would serve as the central node, the party that keeps the databases clean and the back-end running. It would also act as an evangelist for developers, helping them to create new features while it worked to foster an active ecosystem for users. But would users pay? How frequently? And what, exactly, would they be paying for?
They'd be paying for whatever apps were created—but what can developers create with this platform? We already know what developers can do with a mature ecosystem like the iPad or iPhone, but how can Twitter emulate this success? At the heart of the iOS ecosystem are the iOS devices themselves, which Apple has gone out of its way to cram with cool interface elements, physical sensors, and transmitters. Making these available to developers through APIs, Apple has in effect laid out a generous spread of basic ingredients:
- Light sensor
- Multi-touch screen
- Still camera
- Video camera
And that's just hardware—you also have services like push notifications, Maps, iCloud, and maybe one day soon, Siri.
By combining these ingredients in new and interesting ways, developers can create new and interesting experiences that consumers are willing to pay for. So we must ask:
- What are the ingredients that Twitter, as a database, provides?
- What are the new combinations that can be created?
- And will people be willing to pay for them?
Creating new ingredients isn't easy. Apple does it full-time. And leaves the combinations, in large respect, to others. Has Twitter invested the time in creating new ingredients?
Let's stop here and ask ourselves whether this is the right venue for this model—because this "new ingredients and new combinations" idea doesn't always translate to everything. Does a social network have enough raw ingredients to yield new and interesting apps? Maybe the people who run Twitter just decided: "it doesn't.”
But let's ask it this way: What great applications could you create if you had complete access to everyone's social networking data?
Yes, data. Maybe for Twitter, the ingredients aren’t sensors and transmitters, but the data itself. Already, applications have been developed to show which topics are "trending now." This information can lead to new insights. For example, following this year's Presidential Debates, there were widespread reports breaking down which moments generated the greatest number of Tweets.
But the potential of social data goes even further than this. Even data that isn’t strictly "social" in nature. Two examples:
Health data is personal. Naturally, it's something that people aren't quick to share, but that doesn't meant that it's not worth sharing. The Johns Hopkins School of Medicine can now predict when emergency rooms should expect surges in flu-patients simply by studying data in Google Flu Trends—a full week before the Centers for Disease Control. On Twitter, officials were able to track the spread of cholera following the 2010 earthquake in Haiti two weeks faster than traditional reporting.
But flu and cholera are just the beginning: you can make connections about drugs that aren't working, or treatments that are working well; you can find out if everyone whose got your same ear-ache also posted a message about swimming in a pond or lake—discovering causes and cures for ailments in real-time. True, health data isn't something most people boast about to their friends, at least not at the level of granular detail that would be useful to this kind of application. But it's worth it to find ways to make it work. The health data set might be randomized and separated from user IDs, for example.
Tons of stores would love to know your spending habits, and they go out of their way to find them out. Just look at the controversy surrounding Target’s use of data to predict customer behavior. It’s assumed that only stores can benefit from this information, but what’s true for businesses is often true for individuals: you can only manage what you can measure. Greater insight into personal spending habits can have dramatic effects. Do you spend more on eating out than gas? Do you tend to spend more before or after you've been on a first date; do you buy more for lunch on rainy days or sunny days?
Linking up your receipts to your social life and the world around you, from local weather to world news events, can unveil new patterns of activity and help you not only better manage your finances, but better manage your life. Banks could do some of this, and innovative banking concepts like Simple are making great strides, but they won’t connect your data to the weather in your area, the relationship status you posted, or your health.
Getting people to report health and financial data won’t be easy, and managing the privacy controls, and the APIs will be a real nightmare—but the value to the user could literally be life-changing. Life-changing enough, even, for the user to be willing to pay for an app that makes it all possible. That would be the new role for Twitter, the new role of a social network in today’s world: to fight these battles and create these new APIs, these basic ingredients that are the building-blocks of real innovation.
So maybe it is possible for a social network to live and even prosper by this ecosystem model. But it won't be easy and its untested, unproven. A big gamble that some will surely balk at. Perhaps Twitter today already has. What, then, is their real plan? By closing the door to developers, is there a real way for them to prosper?
The developer option is actually a very clever way to surmount a vexing problem: how to get people to pay for a social network. Facebook has repeatedly vowed that it will not charge users a monthly subscription fee for use of the service. The reason: a social network’s value is directly proportional to how many users it maintains; the more users, the more valuable it’s assumed to be. Charging for the service puts a toll-plaza between Facebook and its users; some would quit, others would pay, and fewer and fewer would sign up.
But before Twitter accepts the Facebook assumption that charging users is a death-sentence, it should consider this: For Facebook to be useful, your friends have to be there, but this doesn’t hold true for Twitter. In fact, Twitter helps you make new friends, rather than rediscovering or strengthening old ones.
Consider the contrast:
- You get a Facebook friend request from someone you’ve never met. You study their picture, look to see if their friends are your friends, and then decide: Nope. I have no idea who you are, buddy.
- You get a Tweet from someone you’ve never met. A new follower. You review their recent Tweets. Check out a few links. And begin a new conversation.
In short, Facebook may have a trillion friend connections, but almost all of those connections were made in the real world, face-to-face, at some time or another. Twitter has far fewer connections, but a good number of them were created right there, on Twitter. Facebook needs the real world to be successful; Twitter doesn’t. Facebook is a map of the social connections you’ve already made; Twitter is an undiscovered country to map new ones. This is why Twitter has the potential to eclipse Facebook: because it helps you grow.
Since Facebook needs lots of users and can’t scare them off by charging them, Facebook has earned its revenue as many others have earned it before them: advertisements. Twitter seems to be following in kind, leaving the real test of user-perceived value to others like App.net.
But there's a basic flaw in this idea that ads will be the saving grace of Twitter—or even effective—on Twitter. The problem is one of proportion. Ads, in almost every medium, are themselves only a fraction of the size of the content of that medium. Television commercial breaks are about 10 minutes every 30. Magazine ads take up one of every five or ten pages (or every other page if you're Vanity Fair). Trailers take up the first 10 minutes at the movies. Radio ads are 4 minutes every ten to fifteen minutes. Print, television, movies, radio...
Online, ads are the same way: they take up the space of three or four sentences at the most, on the average New York Times article. On blog posts they're even fewer. Executives might falsely believe the issue here is how much space they take up on the page. They're missing the point. The point is how big an ad unit is relative to how big the content unit is. If that ratio is off-kilter, you probably have a problem.
Would you watch a movie if there was an off chance you walked in on a 2.5 hour infomercial? No. Would you tune into your favorite show if 15 minutes were dedicated to ads? No. The problem for Twitter is that people who are looking to consume something that's going to take about 5 seconds to read, don't want to be disrupted for 5 seconds before they read it. Now, executives might present counter-examples.
Radio, for instance: the basic unit of radio isn't like a TV show—it's not 22 minutes long. A song is only 3 minutes long. About the same length as an advertising commercial break. Less, in most cases. And that's true: but no ad within that break is 3 minutes long. Also: you know what I do when I tune into a music station that's running ads? I tune out. And even in radio, longer programming has better ad stickiness. On talk radio, for example, I'm more likely to tune in after the commercial break because I'm not just looking for short tunes, but longer analysis.
This theory of proportion suggests one reason why ads are so vehemently opposed on Twitter today. Moreover, the need to keep ads short and unobtrusive will put constraints on advertisers and the kinds of messages they are able to convey. Smaller ads mean smaller revenue. If ads, then, are inherently antithetical to the Twitter social network model, then what can Twitter do?
Maybe Twitter has decided it doesn't want to be a social network. Maybe it wants to be a content-creation—and consumption—platform. It doesn't want to foster conversation; it wants, instead, to provide a podium for one-way communication. Does this change Twitter’s advertising prospects? Maybe, and here’s why: We expect ads to stand between us and our media. But we don’t expect them to stand between us and our communication. It’s one thing to hear an ad in a podcast we’re listening to; it’s quite another to hear it on the other end of a phone conversation.
The Twitter media-platform already exists. It’s a world populated by a few prolific content creators pushing out information to many more inactive followers. When considering Twitter as a media platform, it’s easy to assume that its success is in the hands of those followers. If people enjoy following Twitter feeds, the service will be successful. But in reality, Twitter’s fate is squarely in the hands of content creators. The real question: what is it offering these content creators?
Imagine you’re a content creator. Twitter is offering you a platform to reach new audiences and it’s providing the bandwidth to host tweets. For those features, Twitter has a price: ads. With these ads, Twitter profits from your tweets. But are these features worth that price?
Maybe not. Take the platform, for instance: Today, Twitter is a social network, a place for sharing between friends and with the world. This liquidity means your content can spread fast. But if Twitter abandons its social-network aspirations, if the majority of its users aren’t engaged, but instead are just followers, then this liquidity will dry up. And people, instead, will share on real social networks like Facebook.
And now consider bandwidth: Tweets are—by their very nature—tiny bits of information. They don’t take up a lot of bandwidth to host. In fact, they take up less than a blog. If you can host a blog, you can certainly host your own tweets. So what’s keeping you as a content creator from hosting your own tweets? A micro-blog standard.
Imagine a web standard that was created for micro-blogging. It could have the same character-limit that makes Twitter so addictive, but provide content-creators with a way of hosting their own micro-blogs on their own websites. The micro-blog standard could be simple and easy to search on search-engines. Just as you can today search videos, images, or blogs on Google, you could very well search micro-blogs. But what about discovering new micro-blogs, rather than just trending topics?
One solution might be the Apple Podcast model. When you search for podcasts in iTunes, you’re not searching an Apple library that hosts the world’s podcasts. You’re just searching a directory—like the yellow-pages—that links to where the podcasts are actually hosted. That’s why podcasts can sometimes take longer to download than songs, because they’re not hosted on Apple’s server’s, they’re hosted by the content creators. A similar directory service could be created for micro-blogging, essentially replacing Twitter’s functionality.
In this world, why would you choose to host your content on Twitter, rather than host it yourself; where you could maintain full control of the experience, and benefit directly from all advertising? Already, a number of developers have begun working on protocols to make this a reality. Tent, for example, is a protocol inspired by the same protocols that made email so ubiquitous, and its founders are taking a smart approach, expanding its functionality beyond social networking and even offering some hosting solutions through Tent.io. Others like Status.net and Diaspora* have done similar work.
That's not to say it will be easy. As has been pointed out by Hypercritical's John Siracusa, making posts instantly-searchable and hosting popular users who have not just a few but tens of millions of followers puts tremendous strain on an open platform. This suggests why Twitter has been so wondrously successful, but if there's ever a time when a protocol could turn social networking into an open standard, it's today.
Twitter can compete with self-hosting content in only one way: offer a better experience. And I'm not just talking about bandwidth and hosting. Give content creators tools and capabilities that they couldn't find anywhere else.
What do content creators want? They want a platform to reach a new audience. They want a way to interact with that audience. They want a way to understand their audience demographics. They want an easy and intuitive interface. They want tools and capabilities to integrate multimedia into their content: photos, videos, music. And the ability to build and create new experiences: the way a website lets you create HTML5 applications, take a test or quiz, map a location, calculate your BMI or the height of a tree, etc. They also want a way for their audience to learn more about them, a way to access permanent information. And they want a way to monetize their work, to be rewarded for their effort. But that’s just the beginning.
Content creators also may need to manage multiple audiences, speaking to specific users about specific topics, while maintaining a unified face. They need a way to have a private conversation if necessary. And what about a way to customize their look: not just on their own site, but ideally the way their Tweets look in a user’s feed. What about a way to express a bigger idea? Or to assign Tweets to different feeds within a single account: a feed for all of their Tweets about movies, and all of their Tweets about books, and all of their Tweets about politics.
These small features are important, but if Twitter is to provide a unique service to content creators—if it’s to become ubiquitous as Facebook has become ubiquitous across the Internet—it will need to think big. It will need to live outside of Twitter itself.
Some of the most influential content creators are actually content curators; people who find great ideas, great writing, photographs, and multimedia spread across the web and direct us to those sites. Look at John Gruber in technology, Mike Allen in politics, and Maria Popova in the creative arts. Each of these individuals are great thinkers, too, but they all have impeccable taste and an adventuring spirit that saves us the trouble of trawling the dregs of the web.
Since Twitter serves as a perfect linking medium, for many individuals it has become a natural gateway to the web—but a different kind of web: a web that’s been scored, arranged and selected just for them. Twitter, with the help of great curators and commentators, has become the gateway to a better, more relevant web. If Twitter’s become such a gateway, then why not make it come alive through that gateway we all use to interact with the web? A browser.
What would a Twitter browser look like? How would it help us to achieve the value of a more relevant web? First, it would vastly reduce the size of the web. Rather than an infinite Internet that you subtract things from, it would present you with a clean, un-trammeled Internet—a blank sheet of paper to add things to. And how would you add pages and content to this new, clean Internet? By populating it with the living recommendations of those you follow on Twitter. Follow more people, and your web will expand; follow fewer, and it will contract. Too many and the web will become bloated; too few and you’ll quickly become bored.
But perhaps the most interesting thing about this browser would be that you wouldn’t just have one web of everything everyone recommended: you’d have a handful of unique views of the web. Like the story of Rashamon, each portal would provide its own individual insight, colored by the personality and interests of those you follow.
But what in the world would this kind of web look like? How would you navigate it? The web we experience today is navigated primarily through links and bookmarks and searches. This browser would do away with all of those methods; because instead of trying to make sense of something like this:
...you'd have something like this:
Or, because you'd follow more than one person, you'd have this:
Where before you were wandering through a forest without compass or intention, this browser would present a series of pages one after the next curated with purpose and direction: with order. Because in addition to these pages, you’d have the running commentary and thoughts of your guide. And immediately, something becomes clear: this isn’t just a new way to experience the web, it creates a new kind of medium.
Just think of popular music. It began on the radio, and songs were the focus of every artist. But then the record was introduced, and the moment artists began grouping songs together, they had to answer a new question: what order to put them in? Because listeners would listen to songs in order, the order meant something; and so the album was born. Artists, then, began constructing albums and even songs with a thematic cohesion—some even began to tell longer, more complicated narratives: new stories borne of one simple innovation that was probably just an accident: order. What kind of stories could be told by ordering and arranging a group of links into an interactive tour of the Internet?
- You could create a narrative
- You could deconstruct the development of an event moment by moment
- You could uncover misinformation and fact-check websites against reliable sources
- You could instruct users on how to fulfill complex online tasks like researching a topic, finding the cheapest flight, or planning a vacation
- You could trace a trend back to its birth
- You could show multiple perspectives converging on a single idea
This, then, doesn’t just provide Twitter users with a unique experience, it provides content creators with a new way to express themselves; to tell their story in a manner that isn’t just a ticker-type machine of links, or a static page of quoted text and snapshot images, but an actual get-up-out-of-your-seat-and-follow-me walking tour of the real live world. What could this do? It could very well compete with the blog as a primary medium for content creators looking to tell expansive, living stories.
But some may disagree. In the analogy above, getting up and taking a Socratic walk in the market-square sure beats reading about it in a book or getting little 140 character updates—because it brings the situation alive. But in reality, are these web-pages we’d be visiting—are they really all that alive? Think about it this way:
Going to the Presidential Debate in person sure beats reading a transcript of it. But does going to NBCNews.com to read an article really beat reading a quote of that article on someone’s blog? Probably not; in fact, NBCNews.com is almost certainly crammed with a mess of advertisements, distracting headlines, and confusing links. You’re not really missing anything by getting the content somewhere else. This puts a damper on the argument that an interactive browser would be better than a blog. The solution to this problem is simple: websites need to get better. They need to have more interactive, engaging content and they need to present it in a compelling way that makes going there in person far better than reading about it through a quote or blurb.
Fat chance, you say; websites aren’t going to improve just to make this browser a success. I agree. But they are going to improve—they have to improve, because if they don’t, websites will quickly become obsolete. Already, I’m sure, a number of news articles get more play by being shared—and quoted—on Facebook than by being visited on a news outlet’s website. Each view on Facebook is a penny made by Facebook’s ads and a penny less for the news outlet’s website. And it’s not just Facebook: blogs are aggregating news, there’s of course actual news aggregators like Google News, and increasingly-popular apps like Flipboard. In a world of content liberated from its source, what’s to be the future of the news website?
Maybe there is no future. Maybe the news website is a curiosity of the early days of the Internet, and instead news outlets will partner with distributors like Facebook and Flipboard to get their stories out, just as they partner with delivery companies to get the newspaper to your door. Already, Flipboard has partnered with a number of publications to provide an uninterrupted, full-article reading experience inside the app itself. So maybe this is the future.
But I’m not sure it’s the future that any news outlet should want; since it erects a barrier between the news and the audience. How could you ever control your own destiny when others are standing in the way, siphoning off your success? News outlets shouldn’t give up on their websites, because websites are becoming the only place where they can reach their audience directly, and directly profit from that relationship. But if they’re serious about it, then they need to get serious about it. Content creators need to recognize that other content avenues exist, that they’re a threat, and that they can’t be stopped by litigation or payouts, partnerships or acquisitions: the only way to win is to win fair and square: by competing directly and offering a better, more complete and unique experience on the web.
This new browser is designed to help make that happen; to encourage the creation of better websites and to send more visitors their way. Why is this so important? Because for Twitter—or any platform—to be successful, it must make friends with content creators, not enemies. Where others like Facebook have become more and more like content aggregators, Twitter has an opportunity to forge a positive relationship with content creators by taking the positive principles of link-blogging and expanding them to tell new narratives. Longer narratives, narratives that—by virtue of being longer—are more forgiving of ads.
Not everyone will like this format. Not everyone will want to tell longer stories. Twitter, after all, is a great medium for sharing short, individual ideas. And that's okay, too. Because even the presentation of short, individual Tweets and links could benefit from an easy way to navigate to those links without pulling you away from Twitter. One might object on moral grounds: This is horrible, it's limiting your own view of the world. Well, maybe. Or, maybe it's helping you to discover only the best content out there. And rather than just reading someone's take on that content, it's directing you to the original source and providing you with the context surrounding not just the comment, but the quoted text itself.
This browser might not replace Safari or Chrome or Internet Explorer, but by doing a few things better, it could replace them in a few instances. For a few limited jobs to be done. And, over time, this low-end browser may have the potential to be disruptive. If Twitter makes it easy for creators to own their unique way of looking at the web, it has the potential to do content creation better than so many other services.
No matter which direction Twitter takes, as a social network or a content creation platform, it needs to recognize that its role in all of this is as a facilitator. To run a social networking site, Twitter needs to facilitate dialogue. To provide a platform for developers, it needs to facilitate the development of creative and useful content. And to serve as a podium for content creators, it needs to facilitate the creation of better content, and make that content easy to consume.
None of these goals can be accomplished by shoving around developers, stepping on users, violating their trust, confounding their expectations, or disrupting their work. Twitter doesn't make friends by being cryptic in its intent, or corporate in its diction; it doesn't gain users by being hostile to their innovations or deaf to their complaints; and it doesn't inspire confidence in its future by being monolithic in its actions and narrow in its outlook. The company appears to be consolidating its power, which is fine, as long as it remembers where that power comes from: its ability to empower others.
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Notes and Sources
The panic induced by the radio program "War of the Worlds" in 1938 was very real. Here's a great look back by Time magazine:http://www.time.com/time/arts/article/0,8599,1855120,00.html And for those who think that this kind of panic could only happen in a "simpler time," listen to this RadioLab program that recounts other broadcasts: http://www.radiolab.org/2008/mar/24/
For more details on Twitter's clamping down on developers, see its "Rules of the Road": https://dev.twitter.com/terms/api-termsAlso check out this story from Mashable in August: http://mashable.com/2012/08/16/twitter-api-big-changes/
App Store revenue generation of $7 billion since 2008 is based on Asymco's June 2012 estimate of $5 billion paid to developers, plus Apple’s 30 % cut, which equals over $7 billion. http://www.asymco.com/2012/06/14/are-revenues-per-app-decreasing/
The top-Tweeted moment of the final debate: "horses and bayonets." http://video.foxnews.com/v/1919848758001/final-presidential-debates-top-tweeted-moments/
Simple (formerly Bank Simple) is a creative re-imagining of what banking can be: https://simple.com/blog/Simple/announcing-reports/
For a great visualization of Facebook's user base in comparison to Twitter and other networks, see this Bloomberg Businessweek cover from earlier this year: http://bizweekgraphics.tumblr.com/post/32982051319/jenniferdaniel-infographic-cover-for-this
App.net crossed the 20,000 user threshold and reduced its yearly cost by 40 percent in October, 2012:http://techcrunch.com/2012/10/01/app-net-now-has-20000-users-drops-its-price-from-50-to-36-per-year-introduces-a-5-per-month-plan/
Primetime TV commercial length actually varies according to the network. Walt Disney and Nickelodeon place about nine and a half minutes of commercials every 30 minutes, while ESPN plays nine and a half and MTV 12 and a half. Source:http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10000872396390444082904577609893517491070.html
Twitter isn't monolithic. There are several challengers out there, including Tent.io, status.net, and Diaspora*. For an intelligent discussion of Twitter and Tent, listen to a discussion between John Siracusa and Dan Benjamin on the 5by5 Hypercritical podcast here: http://5by5.tv/hypercritical/88
The quote by Harold Bloom is taken from a Booknotes interview conducted by Brian Lamb in September 2000. The full transcript is available here: http://www.booknotes.org/FullPage.aspx?SID=157968-1
John Gruber: www.daringfireball.net
Mike Allen: Politico Playbook http://www.politico.com/playbook/
Maria Popova: brainpickings.com
For more information on creative browser ideas, check out the history of Stephen Fry's Pushnote (http://www.stephenfry.com/2011/01/17/pushnote/) and Google SideWiki (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CsjJOsx84MA&sns=em), both of which were discontinued.
Meditations by Marcus Aurelius is one of the great books. "That which doesn't make a man worse, how can it make his life worse?" The full text is available here: http://classics.mit.edu/Antoninus/meditations.html
Click on the top story at NBCnews.com and count the ads. My count: 31.
Usage statistics for Internet browsers are available from Wikimedia: http://stats.wikimedia.org/archive/squid_reports/2012-10/SquidReportClients.htm