If Content is King, Platform is Galactic Emperor

As Facebook and others amass power, open standards and free flow of content play second fiddle.

Do you remember RSS? Ten-fifteen years ago, the web was all about open standards. Yes, we’d had the browser wars as an early sign of big players showing muscle, but essentially the Internet was about content. ICANN and W3C set the rules, and we followed, because that was our ticket to ride on the World Wide Web.

With the rise of Web 2.0 in the mid-00’s, new services allowed us to easily publish, share, and aggregate. Blogging was the medium of choice, and the glue holding everything together was RSS.

The big power-shift

This made sense in a world where content owners were still in power: legacy media outlets were happy to embrace RSS, since a universal syndication protocol made it easy for readers to access their content. And for those of us with blogs, it was the way to get our messages out there, alongside the New York Times, or whoever people had decided to follow.

Today’s media landscape is different, however. The days are long gone when I would check Google Reader constantly, second only to email. Social media, and Facebook in particular, have become the content hub of choice, and this is where we get our daily (or hourly) feed of what’s new.

All hail the profit

But another thing happened. Ads.

As Facebook and Google grew, the had to develop business models that made them profitable. And in order to display ads effectively, they have to keep users in their own universe as long as possible.

This may be the real reason Google Reader was discontinued. It is certainly why original content posted on Facebook or LinkedIn is featured more prominently than links to stuff hosted elsewhere.

It is also the ultimate thinking behind Facebook’s recent decision to discontinue support for third-party tools to share posts automatically to Facebook Profiles.

Big is Bigger

They do this because they can. In 2018, the platform owners are in power, and anyone producing content operates at their mercy.

You see the same thing playing out with Netflix or Booking.com; distributors who have grown so big that they now set the rules.

For anyone who had illusions that the Internet would make the world a more free, open, and democratic place, this is punch in the gut. The tides may turn again, but for now we’ll have to play along.

This means posting your content across platforms, creating separate versions for each. And you’ll do this manually, for even though there used to be open standards that could help your content flow, the giants have effectively killed that dream.

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What can Iceland’s football team teach us about women in leadership?

Let’s learn a lesson or two from the Vikings.

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The Icelandic miracle is over for this World Cup, but with inspiring play and a draw against Argentina (1-1) these North Atlantic peaceful marauders have captured our hearts once again.

How did a country of merely 350,000 make it so far? Others have described the miracle, including Time Magazine in a cover story on June 7.

time_icelandA combination of investment in year-round facilities, more and better coaches, a sports-for-all philosophy, and full support from the population has paid off.

Can we learn anything from this in a business setting? Yes, I believe we can.

Increase the talent pool

On one level, it’s a numbers game. If you look at the best teams in football, you see big countries like Germany, the UK, and Brazil, but also small ones like Croatia, Uruguay, my native Denmark, and yes, Iceland, punching way above their league in terms of population.

On the other hand, China is a mediocre team which rarely qualifies, not to speak about India or Indonesia.

So it’s not about how many people, it’s about how many people play football. This is a different picture, with Iceland in 17th place with 11% of the population in 2006 (probably even more today).

The business application of this has been raised before. By actively or passively excluding minorities, you are reducing the talent pool for employees and leaders. And if you routinely discard half of your employees for leadership positions just because of your gender, you miss out on a lot of potential.

For instance, women hold only 14.2 percent of the top five leadership positions among S&P 500 firms, Sylvia Ann Hewlett wrote for Inc., stating: “Companies that ignore the insights of their talented women will lag the curve in delivering successful solutions to the marketplace.”

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Remove barriers

True to its name, Iceland has long, cold, and wet winters. This was previously a big obstacle for raising the level of outdoor sports, but by investing in indoor facilities and making them accessible to all children and young people, they effectively removed one of the key barriers to success.

To achieve equality in a corporate setting it is necessary to look at both invisible barriers. These can include work-life balance opportunities, meeting schedules, but also cultural elements such as excessive ‘locker-room talk’, small-talk in a native language, or other elements of stereotyping.

More and better coaches

Instead of relying on parent coaches, Iceland has invested heavily in upskilling of their coaches, with a huge increase in UEFA-licensed coaches, and not only to top-tier clubs. “In Iceland, anyone can join a local sports club that employs elite coaches, for an average of $600 a year,” writes Time.

To succeed in business, you also need good coaches and mentors. If middle-managers play the dog-eat-dog game, thinking only about their next promotion, they are not worthy of the manager title. On the other hand, having managers who nurture and guide their people, spotting talent, also in minorities, is essential to the long-term success of any organization.

Secure full support

Everyone in Iceland is a part of the football adventure. New York Times writes that “In a country of fewer than 350,000 people, most everybody either knows someone on the team or knows someone who does. There is no celebrity culture.”

Around 30,000 fans travelled to France for the Euro 2016 – that’s more than 10% of the population! Similar numbers are reported for the World Cup in Russia. And a staggering 99.6% watched the match against Argentina.

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How’s that for a commitment to corporate values? Nobody would expect numbers like that, but if you do want to succeed as a company, you’re surely better off if your employees support the journey. And that’s all employees, mind you.

So, to sum up, there’s a lot to learn from Iceland. Who, by the way, had the world’s first democratically elected female president, from 1980 to 1996. Huh!

A Good Day for World Peace

After 70 years of “war” in Korea, was this the breakthrough we were waiting for?

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The Singapore Sling is an iconic drink, created more than 100 years ago. You take an American mixture of something strong and something sweet, add a few Asian flavors, and you’ve made history.

That was also the recipe for today’s summit on Sentosa Island, Singapore, the first-ever meeting between the leaders of the United States and North Korea.

Theodore Roosevelt’s foreign policy made the phrase “Speak softly, carry a big stick” famous. That’s not the first expression you would use about Donald Trump, but he does seem to have somehow broken through to the world’s weirdest regime. Despite several many potential flies in the ointment, that itself is a big achievement.

A Fool’s Errand

From threatening mutual destruction to suddenly embracing each other as friends, Trump and Kim have come a long way.

Only last year, they were calling each other a madman and a dotard, respectively, and worse.

Kim-Jong-un-1Kim Jong-Un:
”I will surely and definitely tame the mentally deranged US dotard with fire.”
“Sound dialogue is not possible with such a guy bereft of reason.”

051117trump-angryDonald Trump:
“Rocket man is on a suicide mission for himself and his regime.”
”Kim Jong Un of North Korea, who is obviously a madman who doesn’t mind starving or killing his people, will be tested like never before!”

Objectively speaking, they were probably both correct.

And perhaps this is one of the real reasons they apparently hit it off in Singapore today – they are both equally crazy, and on some level understand each other.

Win-Win?

Critics say that Trump has played right into Kim’s strategy. Certainly, as argued in Politico, “Kim’s diplomacy is a progression of Kim’s strategy.” His agenda includes better international relations and improved quality of life for his people.

In that light, the summit and agreement is a big win for Kim. And personally for Trump, who has not had many policy breakthroughs and is facing mid-term elections later this year.

It also weakens U.S. bargaining chips, say some, but if the end result is lasting peace in Korea, doesn’t that make us all winners?

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BFF

In today’s press conference Trump was confident and spoke almost like a statesman, especially in his prepared statement. Hats off to the ghost writer, but also to Trump himself for saying words such as:

“The past does not have to define the future. Yesterday’s conflict does not have to be tomorrow’s war. And as history has proven over and over again, adversaries can, indeed, become friends.”

To an oratorically deprived audience, such words from the president seemed almost blissfully out of character. In the following Q&A he reverted occasionally into his usual self-defense mode, but still with more composure than has often been the case.

Ten years ago on this blog I was hoping for a thaw in relations between North Korea and the world, but not a whole lot happened. Will it this time? Only time will tell.

Ban or no Ban?

How can a liberal society justify outlawing ‘religious expression’?

Denmark is making international headlines, not for hygge and happiness, but once again as a battle-ground for the clash between Western and Muslim civilizations.

The Danish parliament voted last week to ban burqas and niqabs, following the lead from France and other countries.

Additionally, there has been heavy public debate on (male) circumcision, sparked by a citizen’s petition calling for a full ban on circumcision of anyone under 18.

Do these cases represent attacks on religious liberty and liberal values? No, it’s not quite that simple.

The self-righteous left will probably interpret the ban as an attack on religious liberty. I would rather see it as a sad, but necessary counter-attack on individual liberty.

It’s all a matter of perspective. And campaigners are quick to label their opponents’ views and practices as sexism and child abuse, or religious persecution, respectively. Calling each other names will not resolve the issue, however.

Religion as victim or oppressor?

It is an easy temptation, especially in religious circles, to portray religion as the victim. To argue that the most important civil right is the right to freely express your religion.

But even as a religious person myself, I don’t subscribe to that point of view. Surely, the right to live is more important? The right to decide your own fate? The right to not be oppressed?

The civil rights movement in the U.S. was about basic human dignity, not religion. In fact, you had churches and ministers fighting vehemently for their right to treat black people as, well, not people.

During the Rwandan genocide in 1994, churches which were believed to be places of refuge were converted to scenes of mass slaughter.

It’s not that the Left are any better. Remember Stalin? Mao? Chavez?

The right to live

No, religious liberty as a value should not be put above other values and basic human rights.

The values of liberty and justice and equal rights may have roots in religion, and perhaps even in the divine. I believe that recognizing all human beings as loved by a Creator should carry an imperative to treat them with the dignity and respect that they are often deprived of.

But the sad reality is that organized religion has not always been the most ardent proponent of this principle.

Societal values

So back to burqas. For all its populism and symbolic gestures (the number of people carrying them is disproportionately small), I believe the ban has merit.

People have the right to choose, but choosing badly has consequences. They have a right to choose, but not to enforce their views on others or disturb the public order.

When some Muslim women say, “no, we are not oppressed,” they are speaking their individual belief, but I disagree.

And when some Adventist women say, “we do not want ordination of women,” they are also speaking their individual belief, but I disagree.

The burqa represents a world-view we do not want to condone, just as Feudalism and censorship has been removed in our society. And as a society, I believe we must defend our values of individual rights and liberalism, even if it has a few paradoxical consequences and draws criticism from those opposed to those values.

When English takes on new meanings abroad

Foreigners beware: What you think of as an English term may be something made up entirely by your fellow foreigners.

Languages develop; always have, and always will. New terms and words develop; words and terms are borrowed from one language into another. My high school Latin teacher often derided English for being “impure”, and he does have a point: there are remarkably many borrowed words in the world’s lingua franca.

That has cultural and historical reasons, of course, as does the fact that German ceased in dominance in the 20th century, as English rose to conquer the world. The borrowing goes mostly the other way now, and English terms fill our lives like never before. You could argue that crappy English is now the world’s most spoken language.

An interesting side effect is how foreign languages make up their own terms in English. That’s right – importing words is not enough, they even have the audacity to alter it, and often don’t even notice it themselves. This means that in Denmark we speak words in English to each other which no native speaker would have heard before.

You have to be bilingual, and somewhat of a geek, to notice these things. Well, here I am. I can only speak for Denmark, but I would imagine the phenomenon exists elsewhere too.

I’ll give you a few examples:

Soft-ice. You know, the creamy ice cream featured in a Sundae? In American English, it’s known as soft serve, but each country has its own term, apparently, with Germanic Northern Europe tending towards a variety of soft ice.

Body. This word entered my vocabulary with fatherhood. Known in English as a onesie or a romper, it’s what you put on your baby, right after the diaper. It took me a while to discern that the Danish term body probably derives from body stocking; a term which applies only to adult lingerie, however. Oh, and we pronounce it “buddy”.

Ghettoblaster. Not strictly a foreign invention, however what is known elsewhere as a boombox the Danes refer to only as a ghettoblaster (in one word). According to urbandictionary.com, ghetto blaster was a pejorative nickname, “reflecting the belief that they are popular in poor inner-city neighborhoods (ghettos), especially those populated by black Americans.”

Stationcar. A type of car, known in English speaking countries mostly as station wagon or estate. It’s not that station wagon is an unknown term, but for some reason that was not enough. You can see the logic of calling it a station car, and most people would be able to guess what you are referring to. But that doesn’t make it correct.

Feel free to add your favorite examples.

The social contract of shovelling snow

For what I hope will be the last time of the season, I was out shovelling snow this afternoon.

It takes me 15-20 minutes to clear the driveway and our stretch of sidewalk, so the chore is not too tiresome. Plus, it has been a weak winter in Denmark, as is often the case, and I think I can count on one hand the times I’ve had to shovel this year.

Still, as a homeowner its something you do – to make sure you can get your car out, so visitors can approach safely – and because you are obligated by law. As a general rule in Denmark, any stretch of paved sidewalk must be kept clear and passable by the landowner.

It is easy to see, however, that the obligation is taken quite lightly. Nowhere in the places I’ve lived or visited in the last few years do you see 100% compliance. Sure, many people do it, but pedestrians can never be sure of clear passage.

I may not be the first to shovel (that honour often goes to our next-door neighbour), but I do try to do my duty, and I am definitely not the last on the street.

Why the variance?

There are many excuses for the lack of compliance. Ruling out the weak and elderly (which I believe may be granted exemption), most would say they are too busy with work and tight schedules. It is a weak argument, however.

The small-business-owner across the street, for instance, has plenty of time for loud building projects and polishing his Tesla, but not once in our four years on the street have I seen their stretch of sidewalk cleared of snow.

Another reason could be that many people drive more. They are oblivious to the annoyance they bring down on pedestrians, since they rarely walk themselves.

Which brings me to the final reason: something has changed in our society in terms of solidarity. That’s a big word to use for a small matter, I know. But I believe it is an example of how we care less for what others think, and more for ourselves.

The lawful obligation to clear your own sidewalk most likely comes from a time when this was the common solution to such issues: it was natural for people to think of the better good of their neighbours and communities. The social contract mandated that you did your duty to keep things tidy.

That social contract seems to have changed, even while the legislation remains.

Possible solutions

What should we do about it, then? A common answer would be nothing; there are bigger issues to worry about. They have a point. But the case still presents a mismatch which I cannot quite ignore.

There is the American option: do away with sidewalks altogether: no shovelling, no problem. Not very child-friendly, though.

There is the ‘fascist’ option: increase the penalty for non-compliance. Today you can sue for damages if you slip on a non-cleared sidewalk, but it rarely happens. You could have the police do rounds and enforce the law. Probably not the best use of their time.

There is a campaign option: through communication efforts you can remind people that this is important, and why.

Another option is to revise the legislation: acknowledging that we will never see full compliance, remove the obligation from the homeowners, make it a public responsibility, and send the bill back to citizens through higher taxes. Good luck with that.

Ignoring the reality

What amuses me, though, is a common objection to doing anything at all. Many people will respond by saying something like: “People know the rules, they just need to follow them.” While technically not incorrect, it also completely ignores the fact that currently people do know the rules, but they don’t follow them.

If the system is outdated, and the social contract dissolved, then an appeal like that will achieve absolutely nothing.

Bottom line: It is difficult to change a social tradition that has been in place for generations, even if and when it stops working.

A Frenchman in the Cold North

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Photo credit: Torben Eskerod, Kongehuset

Prince Henrik, who passed away yesterday, was a dividing figure, as well as a unifying one. He was ahead of his time and opened Denmark to the world before we were ready for it.

A French noble and diplomat, he came to Denmark from France in 1967 to marry Crown Princess Margrethe, renouncing his career, nationality, and religion, and even changing his name from Henri to Henrik.

Clearly in love with the popular and soon-to-be-queen Margrethe, his eccentricity was well-received at first. But despite his sincere efforts to become Danish, in the public eye he remained, to his death, different.

A man of the world

He was cosmopolitan and well-educated, with a degree from Sorbonne and a budding career in the French Foreign Service.

He had spent his childhood in Vietnam, had a passion for East Asia in general, and spoke Mandarin. While on many people’s radar today, Asia was far away back then.

He unashamedly enjoyed life, the arts, food and wine in a manner perhaps uncommon in Denmark in the 70’s. Also that has changed, with the Copenhagen dining scene among the best in the world, and indulgence a national pastime.

For these things, and for his work as ambassador for Danish business and cultural interests, he was celebrated by politicians, the business community, and international relations.

Don’t stand out

In the gossip magazines, however, these things were ignored, or even seen as a liability. In little Denmark, equality rules, and you’re not supposed to stand out. To the masses, he primarily rode on the popularity of his wife, children, and grandchildren, and challenging the glossy image did not go down well.

Henrik was also traditional in his views on family, and never came to terms with his role. Which, in all fairness was never defined. As the first-ever prince consort in Denmark, he was expected to support his wife the Queen, but it was his own nightmare to consolidate that with his role as husband and father.

Most fatally, however, he never shed his accent, notwithstanding his sincere efforts to integrate, and his foreign language skills in general. Prince Henrik himself has admitted this regret, that he did not learn to speak Danish better, and more quickly.

Assimilation, not integration

This illuminates an important, and sad, point about Denmark. Despite our own language skills, to really become one of us you need to master the language perfectly. Which is not exactly easy. Any hint of an accent, and we’ll forever think of you as coming from somewhere else. Perhaps it is our smallness which makes us feel threatened by outsiders and defend the well-known. Or perhaps it is our social democratic culture and tall-poppy syndrome (jantelov) which seeks to cut down anything different, whatever the reason.

The obituaries for Prince Henrik are rightfully positive, lauding the man’s efforts, but all commenting on the fact that he was both loved and criticized by the people he tried to serve.

In the public debate in Denmark there is much talk of integration of immigrants. But if Prince Henrik is any measure – and mind you, he came into privilege, starting on a wave of popularity – what we want is not integration, but assimilation.

Prince Henrik died in peace, surrounded by family, and the press had backed down on their criticism of him after the announcement of dementia last year. But I believe it’s morbid stroke of luck that he did not survive his wife: had the Queen been the first to die it would have made his role even more difficult.

Rest in Peace, Prince Henrik.