If this was a new startup, a one or two person shop, I’d give it a thumbs up for innovation and good execution on a simple but viral idea.
But the fact that this is coming from Odeo makes me wonder – what is this company doing to make their core offering compelling? How do their shareholders feel about side projects like Twttr when their primary product line is, besides the excellent design, a total snoozer?
Twitter, like Blogger before it, was a side project that turned into something more important than what the team originally thought it needed to build. For me, reading that post sharpened something I've been thinking about over the past few days, as I've been getting ready for Hardly, Strictly Young and helping others gather data on past Knight News Challenge winners.
Twitter and Blogger were accidents, or side projects, that solved a problem, and someone was around (in both cases, Ev Williams) who knew how to turn them into tools for a general audience, and did this as the core product faltered.
There's a parallel here with open source software. Someone solves a problem in the course of doing something else, sees some common functionality and releases it to the wider world where it can grow into a more general tool.
If one day, DocumentCloud shuts down, there's still lots of really useful software I can and will keep using. Beyond building tools, it has helped the news ecosystem.
Every time I use one of those tools, though, a part of me wonders why DocumentCloud is the stand-out among Knight Challenge winners. Why isn't this kind of incremental code release, and the community-building that has happened around it, the norm among winners of a contest that requires open sourcing your code?
The other thing I haven't seen (it might have happened, but it hasn't been obvious) is a major change in direction from any grantees. EveryBlock might be the closest here. it's recent redesign shifts focus from pure data aggregation to community cohesion. But that happened two years after MSNBC bought the site. A few projects have simply disappeared.
I don't have good or easy answers for these questions, and I don't want to pick on Knight unfairly. They've funded some fantastic projects (including some of my past work). But this is part of what I'm thinking going into this weekend's conference, where our goal is to help the Knight Foundation figure out its next steps in building better information ecosystems in local communities.
For $25 million, how can we produce more projects that don't just succeed on their own, but build a better ecosystem for those that come later?