Building digital tools for active citizenship: this week Paul Ford and Rich Ziade talk to Glenn Otis Brown, the chief digital officer at the Obama Foundation. The conversation works through each major stop in his career, from Harvard Law (including the Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society) to Creative Commons to Google and YouTube to Twitter to his current role. Topics covered include the mission of the Obama Foundation, copyright and fair use, what “product counsel” does at a place like Google, the power of livestreaming, and Rich’s fantasy vision of a Miami courtroom.
Paul Ford: Hi, you’re listening to Track Changes, the podcast of Postlight, a digital product studio at 101 Fifth Avenue in New York City. My name is Paul Ford, and I’m the co-founder of Postlight.
Rich Ziade: And I’m Rich Ziade, the other co-founder. I need to start this show more often. I’m tired of being a sidekick. We’ve talked about this before.
Paul: All right. You can start it in the next show.
Rich: Of course, sure, sure I will.
Paul: So Rich, tell the people what Postlight does.
Rich: Postlight is a digital product studio based in New York City. We design and build all sorts of amazing technology products. Platforms, apps, it really just kind of runs the gambit.
Paul: We should also let people know we’re growing. We’re looking for product managers, people who can guide products from concept all the way to completion, into the app store or platforms deployed to a big cloud. If you know what that is all about, get in touch. [email protected] We’re also looking for product designers. People who can use tools like, uh, you know, Sketch, Envision, things like that, to conceive of and think through what an application experience is like for the user, and the user can be a business person, then can be an end user, in an app store or on the web.
Rich: And we’re in New York City, so we really prefer either of those roles to be on-site.
Paul: It’s work for clients, and we’d love to hear from you. [email protected] All right, Rich.
Rich: This is a cool guest.
Paul: It’s a cool guest. This is, first of all, full disclosure, this is a client, someone who hired Postlight to, to do some work for his organization. But sometimes clients become friends. And…
Rich: That’s a good way to put it. And roommates.
Paul: And roommates, exactly. [laughter] So in our studio today, which is also just our office, we have Glenn Brown, the chief digital officer of the Obama Presidential Foundation.
Rich: Ooh — I don’t know if that’s the right title.
Paul: Oh…is it?
Glenn Brown: The official name is the Barack H. Obama Foundation. There is an Obama Presidential Center, which is the building that is in design, in the works, for the South side of Chicago. The foundation is the broader kind of organizational super-structure that includes the Obama Presidential Center and then all of the charitable programming, leadership training, active citizenship programs, that the foundation will be pushing over the years.
Paul: So Glenn: what does the Obama Foundation do?
Glenn: So the Obama Foundation is a charitable organization, a 501(c)(3), in the parlance of U.S. regulatory language. Means it’s a, it’s a nonprofit, and the mission of the foundation is to inspire and empower people, organizations, and communities to change their world. The inspire and empower part is, I think, the part to focus on, in terms of what our mode will be. The real goal of everything the foundation is doing is to encourage a culture of active citizenship, and opposed to kind of a lean-back version of citizenship. The foundation wants to encourage a lean-in version of citizenship, a hands-on, control-your-own destiny sort of version of citizenship, and inspires the sort of emotional, inspirational, rhetorical side of that equation, and empower is the more utilitarian, pragmatic part of it.
So the foundation will be inspiring people with stories of the Obama administration, or how Mr. and Mrs. Obama got to where they got, or how different leaders before them helped build the bridge for them to get to the White House, or possibly inspire by lifting up great citizen stories from around the world, of people making changes in their own neighborhoods. But then also, on the pragmatic side of things, the empower side of things, the foundation will be providing training for future leaders. We’ll be providing different kinds of online tools for people to learn how to organize around the issues they care about, with a real local emphasis.
So the foundation’s based in the South side of Chicago, and the Obama Presidential Center will be built on the South side of Chicago, but the idea is for the foundation as a whole to offer people, wherever they are in the world, ways to dig into the issues they care about, at the local level.
Paul: All right, so you are the chief digital officer.
Paul: So what…what does that person do?
Glenn: Well chief digital officer is a title that varies across organizations, I’d say.
Paul: Mmmm hmmm.
Glenn: At the foundation, the digital team at the Obama Foundation, the digital team thinks about and works on anything from CRM and databases, contact databases, content databases, which we can talk more about our work with Postlight on, to, on the other end of the spectrum, communications, press relations, et cetera. And in between, product design, content production, content partnerships, quote-unquote marketing, in a way. So part of what we’re doing is to help people understand what is the Obama Presidential Center —
Paul: Mmmm hmmm.
Glenn: Why is it being built? What will it look like? Part of it is to help facilitate the leadership training programs, which we’ll be rolling out, to make sure that anyone in the world can have a way to, at least, either do it themselves, or apply to some of the more centralized programs.
Paul: See, I think this is a really interesting aspect of any big NGO, or, I guess, in this case, FGO, for formerly-governmental organization, but like, you are both, you have to be kind of a media organization. You have to have a big list of people that you reach out to on a regular basis, because that’s your, that’s how you survive from year to year, you know, people are gonna give you money and they need to know about the work you’re doing, and you need to reach millions and millions of people every year in order to keep your mission going. At the same time, you’ve got these activists that you’re gonna train up, you’ve got a physical thing to build, you’ve got all the stuff that needs to happen. So do you find yourself balancing between those two worlds, or are they all just one big world, where you’re like…how does that work for you?
Glenn: Um…I think it, I definitely see it balance between the two, but I think of it as, one of the mental models we use for the foundation, at least on the digital team, is thinking of it as a little bit like, um, a sports franchise or another kind of like, training network.
Paul: Mmmm hmmm.
Glenn: So if you think about, say, the White Sox or the Cubs — I’m not gonna take sides on that one — they’re an international sports franchise with fans around the world, with a talent network that comes from around the world. They’re very much rooted in Chicago. There’s only one, it used to be Comiskey Park, there’s only one Wrigley Field, and it is in Chicago, and there’s a heavy physical local aspect to that, but there is also the media presence of that franchise that could be national or international, and there’s also the talent network that feeds into it, so players competing from all over the world to enter into that talent network, to make it onto the starting nine. Gonna abuse the metaphor, but you get the idea of —
Paul: Mmmm hmmm.
Glenn: How we imagine our role as interacting with that physical real estate side of the Presidential Center.
Paul: So an enormous number of embroidered hats are in the future. [laughter]
Rich: It’s fair to say that we’re living in strange days. I don’t want to get into strange days, but…would the foundation ever step into, sort of, well, let’s, this is a great example, actually: the flood in Houston. Obviously the foundation is young right now, but as a voice, obviously people wait desperately to hear what a, you know, what the president’s — even a tweet, I think he tweeted once during the hurricane. So is there anything in that charter, quote-unquote charter, that speaks to current events and how the foundation — is the foundation a vehicle for messaging, or is that completely separate, and the foundation has its own mission?
Glenn: Sure, there’s a vehicle for it. I would say we should take care to make clear that it’s not a political —
Rich: Right. Sure.
Glenn: And it is a charitable one, and that we’re focused much less on traditional red-blue electoral politics — in fact, we’re not focused on that at all.
Glenn: As we are on the kind of preconditions of democracy, of active citizenship, and of what people can do on their own, outside of the government —
Glenn: To improve their world. So the example of the storm in Houston, the foundation, I think, you can see a glimpse of how it will interact with the world, sometimes, which is to lift up the good work that’s already happening out there.
Glenn: So both the president in his personal capacity in his response and the foundation in our response, the role was to basically point out and make it easier for people to figure out where to pitch in or help.
Glenn: Given the good work already underway by local charities.
Rich: Got it.
Glenn: So there’s sort of a routing curatorial function to what we do, and I think that’ll always be part of…part of the mission.
Rich: Any precedent? Previous administrations doing something like — I…I am not versed in this, but I think Jimmy Carter has something similar out there.
Glenn: Uh, I don’t know, it’s hard to compare. So the Carter Center’s definitely an active presidential center, and we have taken notes, certainly, from the different presidential foundations that are out there.
Rich: Mmmm hmmm.
Glenn: I think that the, it’s fair to say that the ambitions for the Obama Foundation are, uh, unprecedented, in terms of…uh…the ability — we want to make it possible for literally anybody in the world to get involved. At whatever level of involvement they want to get involved.
Rich: Oh interesting. So beyond the U.S.
Glenn: Beyond the U.S. for sure.
Rich: So local in…Africa.
Rich: Is part of this mission.
Paul: How are you approaching that? Because that’s a…I mean, that’s a…there’s the U.S. market, and understanding how to serve the U.S. market digitally.
Glenn: Mmmm hmmm.
Paul: And then there’s the rest of the world. Where do you even start?
Glenn: Well you start with, first of all, making it easy for people to find the online tools. So if they’re looking for it, that’s the kind of pull aspect of it. So we have a presence on three, four social networks, that’ll probably build over time. We’re not currently doing localized versions of any of that. We’re not currently doing localized versions of language, or anything like that. But you could see that that might be a bridge we cross at some point. In the meantime, I think that we can work through partners, we can work through, um, different institutions that have worked with the president in the past.
So there was a institution called the Young Leaders Network, run out of the State Department during the Obama years. And a lot of those Young Leaders, in largely Africa, Southeast Asia, and Latin America have, of their own accord, reached out — or of their own initiative, reached out to the foundation and want to get involved with what we’re doing. So you could imagine, it’s too early to say, local chapters popping up, more or less formally.
Glenn: Or partner institutions around the world.
Paul: Right, and of course, because of your profile, people are gonna reach out to you, which is always very…that’s, that’s powerful.
Paul: Just sort of being a good listeners sometimes is enough.
Paul: So let’s talk a little bit about how you’ve ended up in this very specific role.
Rich: Childhood. [laughter] Where did you grow up?
Glenn: It has nothing to do with this job, I don’t think, but maybe it does. I grew up in Austin, Texas, by and large.
Rich: OK. School.
Glenn: College? University of Texas at Austin.
Rich: OK, you’re still in Texas.
Paul: Went and became a lawyer.
Glenn: Went and became a lawyer.
Rich: Law school?
Glenn: Law school at Harvard.
Rich: OK. That’s not Texas.
Glenn: Not Texas.
Rich: OK. Clerkships while you’re at Harvard?
Glenn: I did a judicial clerkship after law school, yeah, in Miami.
Glenn: At the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals.
Rich: Got it. What are the courts like in Miami?
Glenn: Well there’s state and federal courts.
Rich: You’re in federal court?
Glenn: Federal appeals court.
Glenn: For the Honorable Stanley Marcus.
Glenn: Who is one of the two 11th Circuit judges in Miami.
Glenn: So um…
Paul: I’m watching —
Glenn: District court is the trial court at federal, and then appeals court is up from that, one level below the Supreme Court.
Paul: I’m watching Rich’s brain turn around as if the, as if the court is, like, filled with people in bikinis, and there’s like — [laughter]
Rich: Well I just imagine, you know the spinning ice machine that kind of puts out some really nice margaritas and daiquiris and such?
Rich: Just being right there next to the transcriber.
Paul: Everything’s like white stucco, everywhere.
Rich: White stucco…
Rich: Little neon on the edges…
Glenn: That’s only in, I think, only in Scarface is it like that. [laughter] That isn’t reality.
Rich: The judges are in white. The judges are in white robes. [laughter]
Paul: So now we have to get, so…
Rich: All right, let’s keep going.
Paul: Yeah, that’s the thing, like, Harvard Law to CDO of Obama Foundation is, is like…
Rich: Well there’s still some stuff in between, Paul.
Rich: That said, OK, so what happens? How do we get digital? That’s what I’m trying to figure out.
Glenn: Yeah, the short version is that I went to law school from 97 to 2000, and before getting there, didn’t know much about the internet, or technology, and it was actually there…
Rich: That’s primetime.
Rich: 97, it’s about to, it’s about to burst.
Paul: But you weren’t, like, at home, hacking on your Commodore 64.
Glenn: I was as a grade schooler.
Glenn: Actually literally hacking on a Commodore 64, or an Apple…but I think by the time I got to high school, I’d lost interest.
Glenn: Well and, you know, sports.
Rich: Mmmm hmmm.
Glenn: It was more music, it was more, I thought you had to pick.
Rich: Bass guitar?
Glenn: More of a humanities person at that point.
Paul: I don’t know, I’m not thinking bass guitar. I’m thinking…I don’t know. What — maybe even, like, classical guitar?
Rich: Oh God!
Paul: Real sensitive, like, look you in the eyes while he plays —
Rich: Class — the only guy playing classical guitar in Texas!
Paul: Glenn’s like, a bluff guy here.
Rich: What do you call the sliding guitar that’s on your…
Glenn: That’s called slide — lap steel.
Paul: All right, what —
Rich: Lap steel!
Glenn: I didn’t play lap steel. That would be great. [laughter]
Paul: What, what did you play?
Glenn: I started off playing bass, actually.
Rich: Called it.
Paul: I was totally wrong.
Rich: Called it.
Paul: Al right, so…the internet’s happening, you’re a lawyer, what’s hap —
Glenn: Yeah. Well so —
Rich: Where are you? Are you in a law firm in 98?
Glenn: No, so I was in school, and I mean, the most important thing in my trajectory, in what I owe most of my…the good parts of my career to, is the Berkman Center, which is now called the Berkman Klein Center…
Paul: Mmmm hmmm.
Glenn: At Harvard. Then it was entirely housed in the law school. Now it’s a university-wide center. It’s called the Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society. And at the time it was, like, a row of desks in a building at the law school, and it was considered among, I would say, the vast majority of the kind of law school community, a kind of corridor for eccentric people to talk about futuristic things —
Glenn: That probably don’t really exist.
Paul: Right, but that is also, I remember being an internet person. It was that for us, too. It was like, what is happening there?
Paul: But it must have been really fun to look at.
Glenn: It was really fun. I mean, I was drawn to it, one, because unlike most of the rest of what you’re learning about in school, there were no rules.
Glenn: And I very much liked the historical side of law school, where you’d find rules that were 300 years old, but it was also really interesting and exciting to, to look into the areas where there weren’t any rules, or there weren’t any yet, and it was all wide open. It also, frankly, the people who were working there and in that area tended to be kind of eccentric and interesting.
Paul: No, it was kooky bloggers.
Paul: I mean, it was, they, it was, you’d, somebody, you’d be like, “Well, I don’t know if I agree with a single word they’d say,” and then the next day they’d be like, “I’m going to the Berkman Center.” [laughter]
Glenn: Right. Well they weren’t even — there weren’t even bloggers yet.
Glenn: That term didn’t exist at the time, which is kind of crazy.
Paul: All right, so you started hanging out with internet weirdos.
Paul: That’s cool.
Paul: OK, so, that is actually — that’s, your, that is your path, at that point. If you started hanging out with that network — because the people who were there went on to various kinds of glory.
Glenn: Yeah, so…basically all of the kind of, what they call cyber law in academia, or information law, most people who work in that area at some point passed through the Berkman Center.
Paul: All right, so did you hook up with Lessig? Is that what happened.
Glenn: Lessig was the —
Paul: There you go.
Glenn: Was the Berkman Professor of Law there —
Paul: Lawrence Lessig, yeah, yeah, OK.
Glenn: Charles Nesson was the founder of the Berkman Center —
Glenn: With Jonathan Zittrain.
Paul: Mmmm hmmm.
Glenn: Both of them are still at Harvard. Lessig’s back at Harvard. There, yeah…
Paul: Really, in some ways, these are, these are pioneers of American cyber law.
Paul: Like, there’s no way around it. These guys framed a lot of it, and also, especially in terms of Lessig, really popularized the concept that there — a legal system would have to adapt to new technology.
Glenn: Yeah, and started a conversation that I don’t think anyone had framed explicitly, which is that people who deal with the law and people who deal with code need to be able to translate to each other what the hell’s going on on each side of the fence.
Paul: Right. Now that sounds completely obvious, but at the moment, everybody just thought this was some weird new thing that, you know, it wasn’t any more crazy than, like, TV, or…or, you know, the phone system. Like, eh, we’d figure it out.
Glenn: Right, it seems obvious to think — to still, probably, I would say, it’s still probably not a mainstream thing.
Glenn: It’s not like those cultures have merged. They have in a certain way, but I would say you take your average technical person, you know, in corporate Silicon Valley, take their understanding of how civics works, and it’s probably — there’s some room for improvement there.
Paul: Sure. [laughter] Sure.
Glenn: And take your average — take your average law firm lawyer’s understanding of how code works, or how an organization that builds code should work, there’s probably a long, long way to go there, too.
Paul: So you found yourself with some knowledge from both sides of the table, and then where’d you go?
Glenn: Well so after law school I clerked for, for Judge Marcus in Miami, and then, uh, some hand waving in between, some short term…short-term gigs here and there. I went to help start Creative Commons, the nonprofit out of —
Glenn: Stanford, in 2002, with Molly Van Houweling, Molly Shaffer Van Houweling, who’s a, who’s a professor at Berkeley now.
Paul: We have to really release this podcast, like, CC 2.0 now?
Glenn: Yeah, we could do that, actually.
Paul: OK, all right. [laughter] All right, we’ll do it. We will release this podcast Creative Commons.
Glenn: And obviously Lessig and Hal Abelson and um…other kind of legends of…
Paul: So there’s a real Berkman-Creative Commons link there.
Glenn: Yeah, some other early work and thought that came into Creative Commons that helped get it started happened at the Berkman Center at MIT both.
Paul: And then Creative Commons to…
Glenn: Well, Creative Commons for three years.
Paul: Mmmm hmmm.
Glenn: So and was the executive director there, and, until 2005, and then went to Google, in-house counsel at Google.
Paul: Ah. Make a little money.
Glenn: A role called “product.”
Rich: It’s time. It’s time. He did his part.
Glenn: Product counsel.
Paul: Did good. Creative Commons was great.
Rich: Let’s go to Google.
Paul: Creative Commons actually created a framework for talking about rights, digital rights, that didn’t exist before. Like, I remember when it came out, I felt a little eye-rolly. I was like, “Ugh, really? All the other stuff in the world and we have to take this seriously now, too?” But then it actually gave a way, you could have the conversation. You couldn’t have it before.
Rich: You look at the early 2000s and what was coming together, right? You had this incredible sort of commercial pressure bearing down on the internet. Which, this could’ve gone very differently. That’s, that’s how I look at it when I look back.
Paul: Mmmm hmmm.
Rich: Like, it wanted to happen so badly, the commercial appropriation of just all of it, in a lot of different ways — and we still defend it to this day. There’s still a spirit of defending a lot of it today.
Paul: But it, and it did happen in various ways, it just never worked. Like, you know, Microsoft would come in and MSN would pop up, and —
Paul: There was always somebody ready to promise that they could control everything.
Rich: And you have to appreciate the immune system that took hold, that sort of, for some reason, and it didn’t take laws to protect it, it just would spit it up, and it was kind of fun to watch. You guys remember PointCast? That was gonna like, replace the internet, at one point…
Paul: Push was gonna replace —
Rich: All this bullshit.
Paul: And then you had, Microsoft went to war with Linux, which is like going to war with weather. [laughter] Like, it’s just like…and now Linux is, like, built in, you can, you can get an Ubuntu shell inside of your Windows box — I mean, it’s…that moment, there were all these very clear battle lines drawn, and there was a sense of absolutism, and Creative Commons — Creative Commons sort of gave, it got rid of that absolutism.
Glenn: Yeah, I think that’s right. I think that it was pre-Creative Commons, any conversation outside of, you know, academic legal circles or specialist lawyers, about intellectual property or copyright tended to have a very binary…
Paul: You stole my stuff versus —
Paul: It’s all infinitely reproducible, what are you talking about?
Glenn: Right. Right. And so part of what we were trying to do was refine that conversation, make it clear that we’re actually talking about, the phrase that we used at the time, “a spectrum of rights.” It was not an on/off switch of rights, when you’re dealing with —
Glenn: Creative materials, you’re dealing with an equalizer. Um, not just a toggle.
Paul: How big was Google when you were there?
Glenn: Uh…let’s see, so this is post-IPO, so it was, there were probably, I would, in the legal department, there were probably 50 lawyers, so —
Glenn: The company probably had 3,000 people.
Paul: Right, so there’s probably that many lawyers now.
Glenn: Yeah, exactly. I haven’t kept track, but that’s probably right. [laughter]
Glenn: I was there for five years, total. Six years total. Most of which I spent at YouTube, so.
Paul: So sort of rights and licensing stuff?
Glenn: So I was a product counsel, which means that I was a lawyer to product managers and engineers.
Paul: That’s a job we have never — we’ve described most of the jobs on this podcast. We’ve never described product counsel.
Rich: That’s interesting.
Paul: That’s good. OK. So…
Rich: You’re in the eye of the storm. They could’ve put you on…
Paul: Boy, at that moment, too. That was when all the…
Rich: To be on YouTube versus Google Keep… [laughter] as product counsel is uh…way more fun, I’m guessing.
Paul: All right, are you…so are you there at the moment when they decide that actually we’re gonna start kicking money back to the labels and it’s all gonna, like, we’re gonna find some sort of peaceable union here, or…?
Glenn: Well there was, before the acquisition of, of YouTube by Google, even before that, the business and legal teams at YouTube had started creating deals with music companies, among others, to get them paid for user-generated content. In exchange, letting that user-generated content live on on the site.
Paul: Mmmm hmmm. Mmmm hmmm.
Glenn: So um…it was really kind of genius, way ahead-of-its-time dealwork by Zahava Levine and Chris Maxcy, who I ended up working for after the acquisition, both of them. One a lawyer, one a businessperson. Backgrounds in the music industry. And they did deals with, um, a couple of labels, I think all the labels, before, um, even before the acquisition, to make it free and clear, totally without any dispute, OK for users to be able to include commercial music in their vacation videos.
Glenn: Their skateboarding dog videos.
Paul: You’re not gonna get a charge for $3,000 and no one’s gonna come to your door.
Glenn: Right. And it also laid in the framework for that to happen while passing royalties through to the labels and the songwriters, via publishing companies.
Paul: Was the DMCA kicked in yet?
Glenn: DMCA was in place since the late 90s.
Paul: Oh, I didn’t know that.
Paul: OK, I thought it was later. OK.
Rich: OK, you’ve taken a particular tack here, right, of how you’re gonna handle things, but isn’t YouTube just…sprinting way ahead of you in its growth anyway, and you’re just watching it all flood and you’ve, you know, you can do only so many deals, but I remember, there was a time when YouTube had just burst into flames, and it was just too much.
Glenn: I don’t remember that era. It all seemed to be, um, it was a great, uh…experience.
Rich: So you were ahead of all the…oh, you’re being sarcastic.
Glenn: No, I’m not, actually!
Glenn: No, for a copyright nerd, which is definitely what I was — I’m probably kind of burned out on it by this point, a decade later — but at the time it was exactly what I wanted to be working on. And also the aspect of trying to create a, a win-win-win for like, users, to make sure they had a good user experience and didn’t feel like they had to live in a grey area, for getting people like songwriters and labels paid and figuring out a model for that, without, like Paul said, without it being a binary, you’re either a pirate, you know, or a, you know…capitalist. That there’s a way for us to triangulate how this works. It was all exactly what the doctor ordered.
Paul: Let me, let me ask a meta question here —
Paul: Because this is something I think about a lot. You went from an ideologically pure zone, Creative Commons.
Glenn: No! Ideologically — OK, let’s come back to that, but go ahead.
Paul: But a very, like —
Rich: We’re trying to picture Glenn soiling himself. [laughter]
Paul: Well no, this is the thing, like, you’re —
Rich: Once he went to Google.
Paul: You’re at a not-for-profit defined — you know, creating licensing terms for a global internet that is, uh, where you’re…you’re…you’re leading that, and you’re looking for compromises and, you know, you’re doing really good, and then you’re going into a publicly-traded company that is doing deals with enormous licensing organizations.
Paul: Did you feel heat going from one to the other? Did people go, like, “Oh. He’s with them now.”
Glenn: Not…out loud. I think probably some people were curious about it, but I don’t, it wasn’t like it was front-page news. I don’t think anyone was paying attention. [laughter]
Paul:How did you process it?
Glenn: Uh…to me it all felt very of a piece.
Glenn: It didn’t feel too different. The role was very different.
Glenn: So at Creative Commons, I was a general manager. So I did do some legal stuff, but I was mostly thinking about…how’s the staff growing? Do we, are we hiring the right people? Are we explaining our message in a way that people can actually understand it? Are we in every country in the world where we need to be? Are we fundraising the right way? Is the board happy? Are the people using the licenses on a day-to-day basis happy? Is the website working OK? How can I prevent our XYZ engineer from getting poached by a big company that pays him a lot more?
Paul: For the people listening, like, Glenn’s eyes are looking very far away as he’s going through this list, like he’s, he’s gone back about 10 years. [laughter]
Glenn: Yeah. Well it was a great experience.
Paul: So you’re ready, at that point. You can kind of manage anything. You can deal with a lot of complexity, and you’ve got your legal brain.
Paul: So Google, Google shows up.
Glenn: Google shows up, and very different role, it’s a legal job, 100% legal job, but in this product counsel role, you know, you’re encouraged to, in fact, directed to not only come up with legal solutions. Say 98% of the time, what could be a legal question, if you’re thinking 10 years down the product roadmap, likely the solution is not a legal solution. You don’t contract into a product that works better.
Glenn: You design a product that works better, and that is a really cool thing to collaborate with a product manager on.
Glenn: Or an engineer on. You know, obviously I mentioned before, like, the sort of public service that Lessig and company started with encouraging this kind of conversation that translates between technical people and lawyers. That happened on a daily basis, and you don’t always translate to each other in a way that’s understandable. So it’s not like it was smooth sailing all the time, but that was part of the process.
Paul: And then after Google, what happens?
Glenn: So after Google, went to YouTube, ended up working full time at YouTube, switched out of a legal role and into a business role.
Glenn: Thought it had a ton of law in it, because it was, uh, music partnerships at YouTube. So Content ID was at that point built, or getting built. The lawsuits were —
Paul: Content ID is the…it can tell you what, tell you what song is playing?
Glenn: Content ID is where…an unbelievable technology that I still don’t fully understand where, separate from hashing or literal copies, segments of music, or segments of video, can get recognized by reference files as they’re getting uploaded and transcoded.
Paul: Mmmm hmmm.
Rich: That’s crazy.
Glenn: And you’re talking about, you know, days of video —
Paul: Mmmm hmmm.
Glenn: An hour, happening.
Paul: Mmmm hmmm.
Glenn: Coming through the system, and getting compared against a reference database that has reference files in it pre-loaded there that have business rules attached to them, you know —
Glenn: Block track, or monetize. So pretty miraculous stuff. So when that started coming out from Google engineering and YouTube engineering and on the legal side, we’d won summary judgement early on in the Viacom class-action lawsuit there, with those two things in place I thought it was a good time to switch over into trying my hand at business negotiating-type stuff.
Glenn: And it was still very rooted in law, because music is law, and… [laughter] Like a little-known thing —
Rich: That’s very romantic, Glenn.
Rich: Music is law.
Glenn: It is, unfortunately, the innards of it are.
Glenn: I don’t…yeah. I don’t…um…I don’t encourage anyone to go into that if you’re a music fan.
Rich: Or a musician. [laughter]
Paul: Just play bass.
Glenn: Exactly. More fun.
Paul: OK, so then, Twitter after that, right?
Glenn: Then yeah, then Twitter. So burned out on music, for the reasons I just explained.
Paul: Mmmm hmmm.
Glenn: Burned out on music law, that is. [laughter] Still like music. Wanted to return to just liking music for itself. But was, I definitely had the video bug, and I had the real-time bug, because of some livestreaming stuff that YouTube did with Twitter back when Google and Twitter played friendly together.
Paul: Mmmm hmmm.
Glenn: So we livestreamed some concerts and back then it was fairly standard to have, like, a box of tweets below the video stream, I don’t know if you remember. So we did a livestream series with Vevo, the big music video website.
Glenn: And I remember seeing, we livestreamed an Arcade Fire show at Madison Square Garden and remember backstage watching the stream and seeing the tweets coming through and what blew me away was that probably 75% of them were in Spanish or Portuguese. So there were pe — Arcade Fire hadn’t yet toured Latin America, but they had a ton of fans down there, and so it was a really cool, vivid way to see the power of what real-time could do.
Paul: Mmmm hmmm.
Glenn: So I got the bug of, like, OK, live video, real-time stuff, I know, you know, I have some colleagues, former colleagues, former classmates at Twitter, and went in there with the idea of trying to figure out what Twitter video could look like.
Paul: Mmmm hmmm.
Glenn: Less on the UGC side and more on the premium video side, and that’s when I got back into sports again, which I hadn’t been into in a long time.
Paul: Mmmm hmmm.
Glenn: Because with the small team we had there, we thought, what would be the coolest Twitter — most Twitter-y experience possible? It would be, we know people have their phones open when stuff’s happening on TV. That was all the great work done by the early Twitter folks, discovering that.
Paul: So wait, what are you? You’re not a lawyer. You’re not a…
Glenn: I was a business unit owner.
Paul: Oh, OK. You are now a tech manager.
Glenn: Mmmm hmmm.
Paul: At a high level.
Glenn: Um, sure.
Paul: Yeah, I mean —
Glenn: It was sort of a skunkworks group when it started. What became Twitter Amplify, which was, you know, sports highlights and second-screen video —
Paul: No, what I’m hearing is you went from lawyer to product, really. Like —
Glenn: Yeah, it wasn’t formally called product, but yeah, that, it kind of…
Rich: A little more business-hued, it sounds like.
Rich: Versus, like, let’s review the UI.
Glenn: Yeah, although it all started with —
Paul: That’s part of it.
Glenn: The user ex — we wanted to have, I say we, because at the time, it was three people, it was a guy named Je Carr, who’d worked with at YouTube, and a guy named Mike Park, who I’d done a deal with at YouTube.
Paul: Mmmm hmmmm.
Glenn: At a different company, and who had been a product manager before, and all we wanted to do was fulfill a use case, which was: if someone dunks on TV, in an NBA game or a college game, or I’m in the stadium and I see him dunk, I want to see it again on my phone so I can share it.
Glenn: And at the time, that actually didn’t exist.
Paul: But if I get that, I know I can make money.
Glenn: Well then the whole, then the second wave that comes from that is, well that’s clearly a sponsorable event, and again, you get this kind of opportunity to let the user win, let the rights holder win, and pay for it, so you know, we’re in a commercial environment, and so um, that’s when we started doing deals with ESPN, was the first, and the NBA, NCAA. Eventually had hundreds of partners. The biggest deals we did were with the NFL, which were rights that didn’t exist in the mobile environment outside of the official Verizon app until we did the first Twitter deals with them.
Paul: See, this is all starting to line up now. Because we’ve got a lawyer who understands product, who understands audience, who understands sort of real-time. That becomes someone who’s gonna be really attractive to a large politically-inflected — or formerly politically-inflected — NGO. Right? Because you can do, you need the legal. You actually, like, it’s very useful, to be able to think law first, in this world.
Rich: It’s like a synthesis of a lot of different angles. Like, all these factors just almost blend together as you make decisions, I’m guessing.
Glenn: Uh, sure. I mean, I don’t know…I don’t have to make any kind of legal judgements. We have an amazing legal department for that. I must probably be processing things in some sort of legal way, in the back of my mind, even though that’s not, um —
Paul: I can tell —
Glenn: The first thing I’m thinking of.
Paul: I can tell you. I mean, now we can talk a little bit about it. We did some work together. Early days, before uh…before the administration was over, we were gathering some information before everything ended.
Paul: In order to use as a, a framework. This is Postlight working for the Obama Foundation. And you were becoming CDO at that point. And…we would be on conv — we’d be in a lot of conversations, because when you’re working with political data, you have to really follow the rules. You can’t just, like, be like, “Eh, I’ll download the video!” You gotta look at the API guidelines and you have to make sure you’re in compliance. And in talking to you and talking to other lawyers, as we were doing this work for you, my goodness, there is a lot of law. [laughter] And it was — I am not a lawyer. Rich was, but I am not, and I have read a lot of contracts and am roughly informed. This was a lot of legal stuff. And that was just to kind of get out of the gate. So I think it’s got to be, it’s got to be a pretty big part of the grounding in sort of the specific kind of chief digital officer you are.
Glenn: Well thanks. I mean, I think it helps. But I think that uh…it’s interesting how, you know, it’s a very different context, totally different environment, radically different stakes, but there are some similarities between, like, early Creative Commons and what we’re doing, in that it’s not a political organization.
Glenn: It is a both symbolically important and practically important organization. I think that, you mentioned before, like, you described Creative Commons as an ideologically pure space. I never really thought of it as an ideological organization. There were lots of different opinions on that.
Paul: Mmmm hmmmm.
Glenn: I would say even within the board and the staff, were we an ideological organization or a pragmatic organization? I probably leaned way harder, me personally, on the pragmatic side.
Paul: The licenses are descriptive more than prescriptive.
Glenn: Well the, the thing is, though, that’s right, there is still a…there’s no, you don’t have to choose between whether it’s a symbolically important organization and a kind of cultural identity, for a lot of people, and the fact that it’s also really useful to a lot of people who trade open courseware or trade royalty-free images. So it’s kind of both, and I, I mentioned at the top of the, of this podcast that the Obama Foundation’s mission is to inspire and empower —
Glenn: People, um, and organizations and communities to change their world, and I think that twin aspect of both the rhetorical, emotional, symbolic inspiration and the purely utilitarian, tool-providing, training-providing, network-providing pragmatic side of things is core to what the Obama Foundation’s doing.
Paul: OK. So look, you’ve got a big job. What do people do to help — what do you need? Who should get in touch?
Glenn: I mean, we want to make it possible for anybody to pitch in, at whatever level they want to. So a lot of organizations say they open to feedback. We really are — go on the website, obama.org, or look at our social channels, and we’re constantly asking people to give us advice on what they want to see us working on.
Paul: Mmmm hmmmm.
Glenn: That could be purely technical. Or it could be more on the programming side, like, what kind of training do you want to see? How should the Obama Foundation work on things like the terrible storm in Houston?
Paul: I mean, do you need people to come work for you? Do you need people to pitch you ideas?
Paul: What would be good right now?
Glenn: So people can come pitch us ideas. People can come to the website. People can go to our social channels. We actually check that stuff. We go through it.
Paul: Mmmm hmmmm.
Glenn: We scour it. We pull up great examples that people give us. We might republish them on the website. That’s one kind of tier of participation. We have internship programs in Chicago and Washington, DC. I would love to start on in New York. I’d love to have some interns in California as well. That internship program is fairly new and informal at the moment. It will get more formal and grow over time. We are looking for creative people and designers, editorial-type people, but also technical people, backend coder, frontend coder, multi-purpose engineers.
Paul: So if someone had done well in, like, a, in a media organization, in, like, the product and technology side, they might be a good fit in your world.
Glenn: A great fit. So I think the two mental models for our team would be, I’m oversimplifying, but an in-house creative agency —
Paul: Mmmm hmmmm.
Glenn: That has the both creative and the technical chops to do projects to promote the message of the, of the overall org. And a small media company.
Glenn: So we are, we don’t think of ourselves as, like, oh we are the next Disney or something like that, but we do want to, uh, have a, and we do, have a voice of our own, which means that anybody with production experience in video or web or design would be great.
Paul: Well we haven’t talked too much about it, but one of the things that we did when we worked together is we built this giant database of all the, all the data we could get, that was available and open and public domain, in order to make it searchable, to make new kinds of media, right? So that was the work Postlight did for the foundation. And so there’s a really, there’s good tools there, like, you can get in and hit the ground running, and you have eight years of the most important years in America, the most recent eight years, to play with and to work with and to sort of explore, in order to make new things happen.
Paul: And so…I liked that idea, like, not only did we do the work and that was good for us as a business, but thinking meta that way, and being like, hey, what are we gonna need in order to create really great media? Well, you know what, it’d be great if we had the whole last eight years at our fingertips. Those are great tools that media organizations almost never build for themselves, and so it was really, it was fun for us to do something right, and uh, so I think it’ll be a hell of an organization.
Paul: As, I mean, there’s just a lot to amplify. So very good to have you on.
Glenn: Thanks for having me.
Paul: And come back and tell us more, as things are growing.
Glenn: Will do.
Glenn: For sure.
Rich: So Glenn shared a lot of different ways you can get involved, and a great starting point is obama.org. Thanks again, Glenn.
Glenn: Thank you.
Rich: This was great.
Paul: All right, Rich. I don’t even know what to add to that. There is a lot going on.
Rich: Well, you know, he went from, like, doing stuff that’s interesting for the world, and then he went and made money, and then he came back out to do interesting stuff…he’s, he’s just a multi-dimensional human being, which I’m not, which makes me think about myself a lot. [sad pause] Whoa, this got dark fast!
Paul: Yeah, let’s not even go there.
Rich: All right.
Paul: Anyway, look, the Obama Foundation is one hell of an organization, so give them —
Rich: It was great to work with them, actually.
Paul: Yeah, they were, they were probably one of my all-time favorites — all the clients are wonderful.
Rich: Everybody is equally loved, clients… [laughter]
Paul: But some clients you just…they’re just special.
Paul: I think it might’ve had something to do with the fact that a lot of our work for them was, was in the context — anyway, regardless of what’s going on in politics today, it was wonderful to work for the Obama Foundation.
Rich: Yes. This podcast showed great discipline. [laughter]
Paul: Yes, exactly. No one railed…uh, if you need us, [email protected] Give us five stars on iTunes. We love you. We’ll see you soon.
Rich: Talk to you soon.
Paul: Let’s get back to work.
Rich: Bye bye.