“Let us, before we die, gather up our heritage, and offer it to our children”

A couple of weeks ago my brother-in-law, who lives in Washington, DC, told me he was reading the multi-volume world history by Will & Ariel Durrant called “The Story of Civilization.” I was impressed. I have always wanted to read this series but haven’t yet done it. So I ordered a used set on Amazon and they arrived earlier this week. I started reading volume 1 last night.

The first chapter in volume 1 is titled, “The Conditions of Civilization.” Durrant defines civilization as “social order promoting cultural creation.” He lists factors that impact whether civilization exists, such as geologic conditions (“civilization is an interlude between ice ages”); geographical conditions, such as mineral wealth, fertile soil, and natural harbors; economic conditions (the sine qua non of culture is “a continuity of food”); and political conditions including “political order.”

There must be “some unity of language to serve as a medium of mental exchange.” There must be “a unifying moral code, some rules of the game of life” acknowledged by all. There may also be “some unity of basic faith” that “lifts morality from calculation to devotion, and gives life nobility and significance despite our mortal brevity.” And finally, he writes, “there must be education–some technique…for the transmission of culture. Whether through imitation, initiation or instruction, whether through father or mother, teacher or priest, the lore and heritage of the tribe–it’s language and knowledge, it’s morals and manners, its technology and arts–must be handed down to the young, as the very instrument through which they are turned from animals into men.”

How Civilizations Can Be Destroyed

Most interesting to me is Durant’s survey of how civilizations can come to an end; how even the disappearance of a single prerequisite may “destroy a civilization.” Here are some of the causes he lists which have led to the destruction of previously great civilizations:

  • “A geological cataclysm or a profound climatic change” (he published this first volume in 1935)
  • “an uncontrolled epidemic like that which wiped out half the population of the Roman Empire under the Antonines, or the Black Death that helped to end the Feudal Age” (he was 33 years old when the influenza of 1918 killed nearly 50 million people worldwide)
  • “the exhaustion of the land, or the ruin of agriculture through the exploitation of the country by the town, resulting in a precarious dependence upon foreign food supplies” (the US became a “net importer” of food in 2005 for the first time in 50 years)
  • “the failure of natural resources, either of fuels or of raw materials”
  • “a change in trade routes, leaving a nation off the main line of the world’s commerce”
  • “mental or moral decay from the strains, stimuli and contacts of urban life, from the breakdown of traditional sources of social discipline and the inability to replace them”
  • “the weakening of the stock by a disorderly sexual life, or by an epicurean, pessimist, or quietest philosophy”
  • “the decay of leadership through the infertility of the able, and the relative smallness of the families that might bequeath most fully the cultural inheritance of the race” (the total fertility rate in all European countries is below the population replenishment rate–NY Times article, 2002)
  • “a pathological concentration of wealth, leading to class wars, disruptive revolutions, and financial exhaustion” (here’s a blog post about the concentration of wealth in the US)

Durant concludes that “civilization is not something inborn or imperishable; it must be acquired anew by every generation, and any serious interruption in its financing or transmission may bring it to an end. Man differs from the beast only by education, which may be defined as the technique of transmitting civilization.”

I am an optimist, not a pessimist

I realize that by even quoting Durant, and by adding comments or links in quotes, my position on world conditions may be completely misunderstood by my readers. I am not a pessimist. I do not believe the end of civilization is imminent. I do believe, however, that the dominant leadership role of the United States in world affairs may be coming to an end. It appears likely that in the 21st century the economies of China and India will pass that of the United States. It seems certain that the mounting US debt combined with the larger role of the federal government in the economy will stifle US economic growth in the next decade or two. However I do believe that is not pre-destined. I think it is a matter of choice and will. But the lessons of history seem to be largely unknown and/or unheeded.

If the spirit of technological innovation and entrepreneurship which made the United States the most productive economy in the past century can continue to thrive, we may indeed remain a leading world power indefinitely. Attending conferences with venture capitalists and entrepreneurs with their world-changing ideas gives one plenty to be optimistic about. The move towards transparent government, promoted by so many on the left and the right, and enabled by new technology, is a huge reason to be hopeful. The scanning of all the world’s books by Google makes the transmission of culture from past civilizations possible in ways that Durant could never have dreamed of.

And the power of social networks to bring people together as friends, families, and communities, may shape our relationships in the future more than industrialization, modern transportation, and even the telephone. The future of self-government may be connected to social networks and mobile networks in ways we can’t yet imagine.

In 1935 a religious leader I revere described his vision for a future civilization of peace and prosperity by referring to the power of mobile communication. “We must…improve the means of communication until with radio in our pockets we may communicate with friends and loved ones from any point at any given moment.”

Mark Pincus from Zynga described in a speech at Stanford how 100 years from now our generation may be described by people then as the generation that brought forth treasures to the world such as Amazon.com and Facebook. He feels his career has been or should be part of a great effort to create immortal internet treasures that will benefit the world for generations.

Having been involved in the founding of Ancestry.com, the leading site for discovering one’s heritage, and more recently, FamilyLink.com, the leading social site for families, Durant’s final words struck me:

As family-rearing, and then writing, bound the generations together, handing down the lore of the dying to the young, so print and commerce and a thousand ways of communication may bind the civilizations together, and preserve for future cultures all that is of value for them in our own. Let us, before we die, gather up our heritage, and offer it to our children.

FamilyLink.com is now the top Facebook Connect site. We are helping millions of families connect with one another. We have more 16.7 million users that are connected to more than 10 relatives. We hope these families will transmit stories and memories and family values and heritage from one generation to another. Our demographic profile shows equal numbers of users from 18-30, 31-45, and 46-60, and half as many under 18 and over 60. There is clearly interest by family members of all ages to connect with other family members.

I am not suggesting that FamilyLink might become one of the “immortal internet treasures” that Pincus described, or that we are going to play a key role in preserving culture and civilization. In fact, we are a product of the civilized world’s focus on the family, not the cause of it. If we didn’t play the role we play, to paraphrase Durant, “given like…conditions…another [company] would beget like results.”

But I am suggesting that on this holiday weekend, you might want to get your own copy of “The Story of Civilization” and join with me and my brother-in-law in a conversation about what lessons can be learned from history and philosophy that might help all of us “preserve for future cultures all that is of value for them in our own.”

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Marriner Eccles and Franklin D. Roosevelt

This is getting fun! I now have pictures on my blog!

My blog traffic has declined a lot in the past couple of years.

I used to have thousands of readers back when I posted articles every week on internet marketing and entrepreneurship. But my consistency wore off and my readership waned.

I heard recently (I think it was at the CrunchUp in Redwood City) that blog posts with images get like 3 times as many readers as posts without. I can’t find my source on that, so I don’t know if it is true, but I do know that I have almost never included images in blog posts because it took me too long to do it.

Not anymore. Now I can find an image anywhere on the web, click on the Share on Posterous link on my Google Chrome browser bar, add a few comments, and voila!–a new blog post with an image.

It looks like I can’t type comments above the image, but I imagine Posterous will address that flaw at some point.

But what I can do is start every blog post on any topic by finding a nice image from somewhere, in this case from Life Magazine’s excellent photo archive, and then I can write my post.

I decided to include this photo of Marriner Eccles with President Roosevelt because it illustrates in my mind how any blog post–even on some obscure topic like what the Federal Reserve and the Treasury Department tried to do in the 1930s to bring the country out of the Great Depression–can become far more real and interesting by including a photo.

Marriner Eccles was a successful Utah banker who founded First Security bank in 1928. None of his banks ever lost a dime for their customers and none failed during the nationwide run on the banks.

Marriner started speaking out on what the government could uniquely do to lead the country out of the depression, and his controversial views got the attention of some powerful people in Washington, D.C. By 1934 he was appointed Chairman of the Federal Reserve and served in that role for 14 years.

He wrote his memoirs in 1951. I found a used copy on Amazon and bought it and devoured it. It is amazing to read his very honest and open account of government efforts to end the depression–and to learn which programs worked and which failed miserably.

As I read Eccles’ memoirs, I wished I could get a copy of the book to every decision-maker in Washington, DC, but the book is out of print and the Eccles family has so far declined from allowing me to create an electronic version that could be distributed to legislators and government employees.

You would kind of sort of think that if we are spending trillions of dollars to try to stimulate the US economy, that we might kind of want to go back to the 1930s and learn first hand from the people who were on the front lines back then, when the government was spending billions of dollars on all kinds of new programs, and get a close up look of what worked and what didn’t and at least one very smart man’s opinion of why various programs succeeded or failed. (Even if he and others like him in the 20s and 30s seemed to have somewhat socialist leanings partly because the Russian experiment seemed so promising back then–it hadn’t played out fully yet.)

There is currently only 1 copy of this book for sale on Amazon and it is more than $200 (and it is NOT my copy which I am NOT giving up!): http://bit.ly/gJudd

I wish we could tap into the experience of people like Marriner Eccles somehow and harness it in our current debates over the government’s role in the economy.

Which historical figure would you like to consult with most about our economic problems and what government should or should not do to intervene?

Posted via web from Paul’s posterous

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GenSeekers Wanted

A few months ago I twittered about wanting to hire someone to travel for the next 365 days throughout North America for a special project (which is still in the works.) I even suggested the person may have to legally change their name, in the publicity-stunt spirit of Half.com, Oregon or DotCom Guy from Texas.

Within an hour or so I had 9 candidates who direct messaged me on Twitter or replied on Facebook wanting to learn more! This amazed me, and a few of them have reminded me over the past few months of their strong interest in such an adventure — an all-expense paid year of travel to every state, learning, blogging, meeting people, getting local publicity, doing deals.

As I said, this project is still in the planning stages, but we are now considering another project for a different division of our company that may also attract the interest of some adventurous retired couples or young couples who want to travel for a year and help us form partnerships all across the country.

I call this the GenSeeker Project.

GenSeek.com is a forthcoming website being built in partnership between FamilyLink.com and FamilySearch.org. It features a new version of the FamilySearch Catalog, and a myriad of social and Web 2.0 features that will enhance the usefulness of what is already the largest catalog of genealogy sources in the world.

There are millions of sources of genealogical and local history contest that have not yet been catalogued by the team in Salt Lake City. The new web site will enable libraries, archives and societies to add their unique content to the catalog, which will bring it to life in a new way and make more people aware of it for the first time.

But how shall we make libraries, archives, and societies all over the world aware of how GenSeek can help them bring awareness to their unique holdings?

While driving through Idaho and Montana last week, I stopped at a couple of small towns, checked out some historical sites and even tried to visit a pioneer museum. (It was closed.)

I love travelling to places I’ve never been before. And I realized, as I travelled, that in every town, city, and county across this country (and the world) there are interesting local historians and genealogists, librarians and archives in every location. Someone in every community feels a need to preserve and organize historical records.

In Sweden, there are nearly 2,000 local historical societies that preserve records. And from a population of 9MM people, there are 450,000 paying members of these local historical societies. That is 5% of the population. Astonishing really. But many families in these towns and villages have lived on the same land for centuries. Same is true of much of Europe.

With the western migration and the mobility of modernity, we don’t seem to develop such deep roots here in the U.S.  But in the smaller communities we still do have roots. And individuals that are knowledgeabout about local history and genealogical records and are devoted to preserving them and providing access. Mostly these local history savants are probably old-timers with family ties to the area.

A lot of people live not too far from where they were born. (Source: FamilyLink survey, March 26, 2009)

How far do you live now from where you were born? (5071 responses)

  • Less than 50 miles
  • 18%
  • Less than a mile
  • 9%
  • Less than 10 miles
  • 15%
  • Less than 100 miles
  • 8%
  • Between 100 and 1,000 miles
  • 26%
  • More than 1,000 miles
  • 24%

I love driving to new places and meeting new people and discovering local history. I look up Wikipedia articles for virtually every place I visit (on my blackberry or iPhone) and am always excited to discover famous people or events, or in particular, entrepreneurs or inventors from these places. I love the stories that make local communities interesting.

If I had fewer responsibilities holding me back, I’d get a big kick out of getting in a car and driving for the next 365 days to visit interesting places. Someday, I think my wife and I will probably do something just like that. And if there’s a business model to support it, this kind of a road trip could last even longer.

So back to the GenSeeker Project.

What if we found some retired couples or other small teams who were willing to get in a car and travel for the next 365 days to thousands of communities across North America to meet with the genealogists, historians, archivists, and librarians in each community? What if they were armed with smart phones and smart applications that helped them find the right people to meet with in every community, and set up meetings as they went? And what if they had a group of people at company headquarters who helped them plan, communicate, document and publish things they learned along the way?

What if all the expenses were paid for by FamilyLink, including food, fuel and accomodations, and the autos were furnished as well?

Would we want one team, or two, or more?

Should we start by experimenting with a single couple/team for a month or two and see how it works out? Or should we jump in whole hog and recruit 3-4 teams and set them loose on this year-long historical and genealogical information-gathering expedition?

This project is also in the idea stage, but it is likely that if I start finding some interested participants, that we could start an experiment like this, for a month or two, as early as August or September.

So send me an email (PAUL AT FAMILYLINK.COM) if this sounds interesting. Please put GENSEEKER in the subject line, and make sure you explain the skills that you and your companion or team would have that would convince us to choose you to represent us (FamilyLink/GenSeek/WorldHistory.com) in hundreds of meetings with local groups across the U.S. as you immerse yourself in an historical travel adventure.

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Prediction: Facebook will be the largest social network in the world

I saw history in the making today.

For some reason, I was lucky enough to be in San Francisco for the Facebook f8 Platform launch event. This announcement was at least an 8.0 on the Richter scale. It was a whopper.

In fact, I haven’t come away from an event so excited since September 21, 1995, after attending the Online Developers II conference, also in San Francisco, when it hit me that my CD ROM publishing days were ending, and that I would soon become an internet entrepreneur. In the next five years, our team quickly shifted from publishing to online, launched Ancestry.com and MyFamily.com, and then went on to raise $90 million, acquire Rootsweb (and later Family Tree Maker / Genealogy.com) starting what has since become the largest genealogy company in the world. (Note: I left the company in Feb 2002 and have recently started a competing firm, with two properties: WorldVitalRecords.com and FamilyLink.com)

For me, that journey all started at Online Developers II.

That story doesn’t necessarily have a happy ending for any of the company’s founders or even its early employees or investors. Like Ray Noorda used to say, “Finders Keepers, Founders Weepers.” Crossing The Chasm by Geoffrey Moore explains why pioneers (company founders and innovators) don’t often do well in the end, while settlers (who are usually better are operations) do. I’m actually fine with that, and reading that in Moore’s book was one of a dozen things that helped me move on emotionally.

Today felt just like September 1995 to me.

And it makes me wonder what the next 10 years might bring.

I sat on the third row and drank deeply of the kool-aid as Mark Zuckerberg, who turned 23 years old just 11 days ago, presented what may be the best business opportunity for internet entrepreneurs in the past ten years.

A huge new opportunity was presented to the few hundred people in the room, including 65 companies that have spent the last few weeks developing applications for the launch of Facebook Platform.

Facebook is inviting anyone to develop applications for their users on top of what Mark calls their “social graph”–the core of their service which basically keeps track of real people and their real connections to each other.

Facebook has 24 million active users (meaning they’ve used the site in the last 30 days–I like how they aren’t overstating numbers like SecondLife) and 50% of them login each day. Mark says the next most active social network is not more than 15%.

Last fall as I taught Internet Marketing at BYU we learned that a UCLA survey showed that 50% of college age females said Facebook was their #1 most important web site (even more than Google, Wikipedia, or anything else) and that 1/3 of college age males said it was their #1.

Look how many “addicts” Facebook has, according to Quantcast. 63% of visits are from addicts. eBay is only 56%.

Facebook is adding 100,000 new users per day. That’s 3% growth per month. And the fastest growing segment is over age 25. At this rate, they’ll have 50 million users by the end of this year, and 75% of them will be out of college. I read just on paidcontent.org that Facebook is the fastest growing social network in the UK, and today Mark said that 10% of Canada’s population is using it.

With 40 billion pages view per month, Facebook has passed eBay in page views, and is now in 6th place, just behind Google.

So this is no small thing for a 3 year old web site. Facebook is absolutely for real. I like Facebook a lot; while I can’t stand MySpace. Facebook is clean and nicely designed and architected. MySpace in my opinion is messy and mostly full of garbage. Facebook is a real social network for real people. And it is really, really popular.

And it’s growth will be dramatically accelerated by the Platform announcement. If Facebook is adding 100,000 new users per day with its own few simple applications (like its photo sharing, a very simple service that has given Facebook twice as many photos as all other photo sharing sites combined), what will happen when thousands or tens of thousands of developers start building apps in Facebook and marketing them to more users?

Facebook will reach 50 million, then 100 million, then 200 million users, and beyond.

Rather than continue to try to develop features within its own proprietary, closed network, basically keeping all of its users to itself (and kicking out widgets they don’t like, like MySpace does), Facebook intuitively gets the concepts that are so brilliantly discussed in Wikinomics (which are so non-intuitive to old school business types), and has chosen to open up its network for all to participate in. Because they embrace the winning philosophy, they will win.

Application developers can now have access to core Facebook features, such as user profiles and user connections, and even publishing to the News Feed, all with the control and permission of Facebook users. So if a Facebook user chooses your app, it will show up on their profile for all their friends to see, and they can enable that app with a single click, and so your application can spread virally to the 24 million other users.

When Facebook has 100 million users, in the not too distant future, having the ability to develop an App in their system will almost be like being able to get a link on Google’s own home page.

Can you imagine Google ever doing that? No way. They have too much at stake. Their $147 billion market cap couldn’t take it. Google’s philosophy was to not be evil. But I think Facebook’s philosophy is a decade fresher and even more in line with where things need to go than even Google–a company that I admire more than any other.

When Clayton Christenson spoke at the first Open Source Business Conference (again in San Francisco) about three years ago, he spoke about how the LAMP stack has provided a powerful low-cost platform for companies to develop applications on top of. Linux, Apache, MySQL, and PHP enable companies to develop applications that used to cost millions, but by building on top of all these projects, companies could move “up the stack” and focus on providing unique value that wasn’t in the stack already.

There are more and more free layers being added to the stack all the time, powerful services that can be embedded in your own new applications, like Skype, Maps from Google or Microsoft, storage and utility computing from Amazon, and video layers like YouTube and Google Video.

When anyone develops an application on top of the LAMP stack, like a CRM system for example, they always risk being disrupted by someone who provides that for free on top of the already existing stack.

Any new open source application or creative commons layer can be added to the stack, which might commoditize that application and put some companies out of business, but then that enables everyone else to again add more value on top of the stack.

This process continues, and all the while the consumer benefits greatly, and developers can continue developing innovative and valuable services on top of the ever-growing application stack.

The way I view the Facebook Platform announcement is this: the LAMP stack has just been extended by the huge and growing “social graph” that Facebook is opening up to the world. (It’s not completely open, because you have to develop apps within Facebook, but it’s a start in the right direction.)

Now, instead of application developers having to each build their own web site and try to get people to find it and use it and share it, the viral marketing of any good application site will come right from the Facebook interface itself. As users adopt new apps, they will spread quickly through the network.

Mark made three big announcements. 1) Applications can be deeply integrated with Facebook 2) Distribution of the applications will occur through the network, and 3) The business opportunity Facebook is providing will give 100% of advertising revenue (for third party applications) and 100% of transaction revenue to the application developers.

Now that is the true spirit of Wikinomics.

VPs from Microsoft and Amazon were present to express their support for the Facebook Platform. Microsoft will enable application develop with Silverlight and Popfly, and Amazon discussed how its web services enable Facebook Platform apps.

The CEO of Slide mentioned that the Platform developer wins big, but that applications developers also have a huge business opportunity here.

Microsoft’s market cap is $280 billion. But the top three application developers on Microsoft’s platform have a combined market cap of $40 billion.

I don’t think Facebook’s market cap vs it’s application developers will be nearly that lopsided. In fact, the way they are treating their own applications versus Platform applications makes it a pretty level playing field. Facebook users can deselect apps they don’t want to use–even Facebook’s own apps–and sign up to any other.

The core asset Facebook wants to own, extend, and leverage, is the social graph–who is connected to whom.

It is even possible that some future Facebook app developers could end up with a greater market cap than Facebook–if they permanently maintain the 100% of revenue going to the partner model. For example, a MMORP game built into Facebook might someday have 10 million users paying $10 per month, or $1 billion in revenue, when Facebook might at that point have $500 million in advertising revenue. (Reportedly it will make $150 million this year.)

Okay, not likely, but maybe possible.

The cool thing is that the marketing costs for these application developers will be basically nothing. All viral. All courtesy of Facebook’s users.

One of the self-serving reasons why companies like Google and Amazon create so many APIs and web services is to get a vast community of developers doing R&D for them and prototyping applications to see what works best. Then, they acquire the ones the like best.

Facebook will certainly be in a strong position, once it has a liquid currency, to acquire some of the most interesting application developers using its Platform.

If you haven’t read it recently, read Chapter 7 of Wikinomics, “Platforms for Participation” in the context of today’s announcement.

Here are a couple quotes.

“The winners in this evolution will be companies that can create the most comprehensive incentive frameworks to adequately reward all stakeholders.” (p. 207)

How about letting them keep 100% of their ad and transaction revenue? That’s quite an incentive.

“Winning in a world of cocreation and combinatorial innovation is all about building a loyal base of innovators that make your ecosystem stronger.” (p. 210)

Like I said at the beginning, I felt very lucky to be invited to this event. I got the invitation because we invested in YackPack last year, which is one of the companies that is launching its application within Facebook.

I didn’t see anyone else from Utah there, partly because every internet entrepreneur and marketer in the state was probably attending Seth Godin’s speech in Salt Lake City, which was probably very good.

If you are from Utah and went to the Facebook f8 event, please comment here or email me. I really want to connect. I think we need a Facebook Platform Developer Community here in Utah.

I searched LinkedIn tonight and found 140 Facebook employees, board members, etc, on LinkedIn. I’m 2 degrees away from many of them. But then I searched for “facebook api” to see how many people in my 2 million + network have any experience developing for Facebook and only 1 person came up.

Hopefully there will be some developer forums that emerge quickly so that more people can get guidance on how to proceed.

So here is my final thought. I’ve been pretty fortunate in my career to kind of see the big waves and trends coming and to get positioned to take advantage of them. I think I have pretty good instincts, because my brother Curt taught me to read everything (and he buys me new books from Amazon almost every month) and to go to conferences all the time. I already mentioned the transition from CD ROM publisher to Internet Publisher. After reading Net.Gain in 1998, we created Ancestry.com’s user generated content strategy (it became our most popular database) and launched MyFamily.com which was really an early social network for families. At our peak we were adding 20-30,000 new users per day. Unfortunately, our investors stopped supporting that free site because it wasn’t making money. Doh.

After reading an article in Industry Standard in 1998, I decided to attend the first ever affiliate summit held in New York City, where Commission Junction, Be Free, and LinkShare all presented. We chose Be Free, launched our affiliate program, and over the next few years, affiliate marketing was our #1 source of new customers at Ancestry.com.

In the last few years, I blogged before Google’s IPO that it would disrupt Microsoft by offering free software (including Office apps) and said it will one day pass Microsoft in market cap. And, more recently, in my latest example of prescience, I blogged about Lindsay Campbell of Wallstrip after her first day as anchor, and suggested that she might one day rank up there with Soledad O’Brian and Diana Sawyer, and now CBS paid $5 million for Wallstrip, and Lindsay’s career will soar. Way to go, Lindsay!

The only reason I’m reciting these past predictions is to try to lend a little weight to my next prediction: that Facebook will become the #1 social network worldwide (and the first to get 1 billion users–I love Facebook mobile, by the way) and that thousands of entrepreneurs will become extremely successful by developing to this new platform.

I hope that Facebook won’t be acquired. I hope it will go public and become the next major Internet company along with Google, Yahoo, Amazon and eBay. Another hugely profitable company that can potentially acquire lots of other great smaller companies.

I like Mark Zuckerberg a lot. I met him tonight as he was just visiting with lots of the individual companies supporting the launch event, and thanking them for their support. He was very genuine. I can see him in 10 years with the influence of the Google founders and in 20 years with the influence of Bill Gates. He is just getting started. At the recent Startup School, he advised startups to hire coders — even in the marketing department — and he talked about time he spends thinking about philosophies and how at this young age his life is not cluttered with things and family responsibilities.

Can you imagine in a couple years when Facebook has 200 million users worldwide, with half of them logging in every day, and a 25 year old will be CEO of this company? I can’t think of a parallel in world history where someone this young had this much influence. Oh wait. Alexander the Great.

Ok. I’ll stop now. It’s 2:40 am. And my post is going on and on and on, and all over the place.

But I’m serious about this Facebook Platform. Check it out. Mark’s philosophy of openness is an open invitation to co-create something remarkable with him and his 24 million users.

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The Real Ellis Island Experience

I had a great experience Tuesday at Ellis Island.

Hundreds of people gathered on a historic day, April 17th, to celebrate the lives of some of the immigrants to America who came through Ellis Island. We remembered several individuals whose hands helped build America, and whose descendants have contributed so much to this country.

April 17, 1907 was the busiest day in the history of Ellis Island, with 11,747 immigrants coming through on a single day.

On this day each year, the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island Foundation remembers all American immigrants by honoring a few famous Americans whose ancestors came through Ellis Island. This year they presented Family Heritage Awards to William D. Novelli, CEO of AARP and founder of Porter Novelli, John Mack, CEO of Morgan Stanley, Mike Krzyzewski, head coach of Duke’s mens basketball team, and Josie Natori, a first generation American from the Philippines (naturalized in 1976), who was given a special “Peopling of America Award.”

Bill Novelli’s grandfather came from Italy in 1897 and worked as a coal miner in Pennsylvania. John Mack grandfather came in 1903 from what is today Lebanon; he sold household goods door to door to make a living in Marion, North Carolina. Coach Mike Kryzyzewski’s grandfather came from Poland in 1906. He too worked in the coal mines of Pennsylvania.

Coach K. couldn’t attend the ceremonies due to weather. But the other recipients were clearly flooded with emotions as they watched the video presentations about their ancestors and reminisced about the sacrifices their parents and grandparents made to make their life and success possible.

It was so moving.

A common thread tied the honorees and all of us in the audience together. We all have ancestors who courageously came here from other lands, leaving the familiar behind, to encounter a new life in a strange new country. Most of the honorees shed tears and expressed a deep love for this country as well as for their ancestors who made it possible for them to live the American Dream.

This was such an outstanding event. I hope I can come in future years to this ceremony. I’ll never forget it.

It was at the same time extremely personal – each honoree has a totally unique family experience — and also universal, as I believe each of us in the audience felt similar feelings as well recalling our own immigrant ancestors, and their sacrifices. I enjoyed being back at Ellis Island and to spend a few hours in the museum, learning more about the immigrant experience. If you haven’t been to Ellis Island before, plan a trip around it. Spend a few hours here, walk through the museum, watch the wonderful movie that shows what it was like here. And let your heart turn back to your own ancestors and what they have done for you. It is a very satisfying experience.

The Secretary of Interior Dick Kempthorne (former governor of Idaho) as well as leaders in the National Park Service were also there. He is hoping for $3 billion in funds for the “Centennial Challenge” to improve the national parks for the 100th anniversary of their creation in 2016. He clearly is impressed that The Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island Foundation has raised $550 million in private donations (no government dollars used) since its inception for restoring the statue and building the museum, among other worthy purposes. Secretary Kempthorne called this relationship between SOLEIF and NPS the most successful public-private partnership in US History.

Donations are still accepted for future Ellis Island projects, so visit EllisIsland.org to plan your trip there and make a donation while you are at it. (Or do research in the 25 million records that are online at ellisisland.org as a result of a partnership between Ellis Island the LDS Church. And buy a passenger record, or a ship manifest of your own ancestor’s journey here, and provide funds that way to help the Foundation.)

Tommy Lasorda, a Foundation board member, and honoree last year provided the laughter for the day.

He had us all rolling when he explained why so many Italians are named Tony, and why every person in the US has an Italian friend named “Tony.” Because so many Italians had their foreheads stamped “TO NY” when they came here on the ships. He also said if it hadn’t been for his parents who immigrated here, he’d probably be addressing us as “Pope Thomas the XXVth.”

His father immigrated here, with the attitude that “maybe I’ll have to take tough jobs but my children will be able to be anything they want to be.” He said he shed tears last year while seeing the photos of his own parents on the big screen.

It was nice to see an LA Dodger welcomed so warmly in NY Yankee territory. (I guess the Dodgers used to be in Brooklyn, and Lasorda pitched for them early in his career.) It was nice to see that the ties that bind us in this country are so much deeper than the differences that separate us. It was nice to see how deep the feelings for our respective heritages run, whether Italian, Polish, Lebanese, or Philippino, and how much those feelings have in common, including gratitude for the family members who made the American experience possible.

I was especially moved by Bill Novelli’s speech. He is one of the world’s great idea marketers. He said that all 4 of his grandparents had emigrated from Italy. They had raised 14 children, but only 1 of them, his Uncle Nick, had made it to college. But they made it possible for their children to go.

He said it is so important that we teaching our children the immigrant values of hard work, strong families, sacrificing for each other and respecting our heritage. As the head of the AARP I think he can do something to make sure grandparents are able to share these values with their grandchildren.

The music for the event was performed by Josh Tanner, whose magnificent voice is heard on Broadway each night. He plays the adult Simba in the Lion King. He sang a song about the hands that made America. And then he closed with God Bless America.

Nearly 30 million people have visited Ellis Island since the museum was opened in 1990. Mayor Bloomberg issued a proclamation that Tuesday was “Ellis Island Family History Day.”

Ellis Island is one of the most memorable historic sites I’ve ever visited and I highly recommend it to anyone who wants to have a moving experience thinking about the hardships that tens of millions of immigrants went through to make a good life possible for their families in America.

If we don’t remember what they did for us, and as Bill Novelli said, teach those values to our children, we risk losing what made this country great in the first place.

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Catching the Geni that’s out of the bottle: introducing FamilyLink

On January 16th, an amazing, innovative, well-financed company (especially now, after raising $10 million!) launched a brilliant, web 2.0 based online family tree building tool called Geni..

After getting TechCrunched more than once, Geni caught the fancy of many bloggers and started spreading through word of mouth, but more powerfully, its innately viral application started attracting thousands of users very quickly. (Geni’s Alexa chart doesn’t look great, but Geni’s Quantcast chart looks better. No “addicts”, however, which comprise 38% of Ancestry’s traffic.)

I was both thrilled and disappointed. You see, I want interest in family history to spread all over the world. The family is fundamentally the most important unit in society, and modern societies with the ever weakening family are bring hosts of problems that will never be solved by government, which relies on force to tax people and create policy. The Old Testament ends with two haunting verses: “Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the LORD; and he shall turn the heart of the fathers to the children and the heart of the children to the fathers, lest I come and smite the earth with a curse.” (Malachi 4:5-6).

Getting families to pay more attention to each other is important not only to those who believe in the Old Testament. Phillip Longman, author of “The Empty Cradle” which decries the falling birthrates in industrialized countries from an economic standpoint ends his book with these powerful words: ” If free societies have a future, it will be because they figure out or stumble upon a way to restore the value of children to their parents, and of parents to each other.”

Even the Soviet Union, when its birth rates kept declining, spoke out. Andrei Kirilenko, the ideology chief, said at a Kremlin rally in 1979, “Our common responsibility for the country’s future requires us to strengthen the family, to elevate the prestige of motherhood and to increase the demands made on the parents as to how their children are growing up.” Note how the language implies the power of government (which is always coercive) to get parents to do better. (Cited by Longman)

So I was thrilled by the launch of Geni, the best free online family tree building tool since MyFamily.com/Ancestry.com launched its free online family tree building tool back in 1999, and excited by the new attention that was being given to the family history category by the blogosphere. The first time ever really, since Ancestry.com/MyFamily.com are rather mature web sites and The Generations Network, which owns both of them, is more in its “monetization phase” than in a “build the market” phase. The blogosphere has never gotten all that excited about what Ancestry.com does and since MyFamily.com hasn’t been free since 2001, it has experienced “negative population growth.”

(Speaking of negative population growth, no less a thinker than Peter Drucker said that negative population growth is the single biggest issue facing civilization today. So on my recent trip to Europe it was very interesting to read “The Empty Cradle” completely and to consider the factors there that are leading to fewer children. Italy used to have a million births a year–now it’s 500,000.)

Not that Geni or MyFamily.com or any site that connects families is going to increase the worldwide birth rate. We’ll leave that job to matchmaking sites like eHarmony.com.

The CEO of eHarmony.com spoke at Stanford on Valentine’s Day, and casually pointed out that on any given day, 200 marriages occur where the people met on eHarmony, and that by the end of this year, there will have been 100,000 babies born to couples married because of eHarmony. No wonder he says doing any other job seems trivial compared to this most-satisfying company. Maybe the solution to worldwide negative population growth is to make sure eHarmony rolls out worldwide as quickly and inexpensively as possible!

Okay, so back to Geni. I was disappointed by Geni’s appearance because I had decided late last year to stop running my Provo Labs incubator, and start focusing on just one company, and turn that company into a raging success. I had chosen to focus on World Vital Records, along with the very talented team that is already there, for many reasons, one being that we felt we could be the first genealogy company to launch a social network for family history, and social networks are generally the fastest growth web sites today.

We were planning to do something entirely different than what family history web sites have done before, and we still are. But Geni’s launch has caused us to change our time table for many of our product features.

To be honest, my disappointment has entirely faded. It’s been swallowed up by an overwhelming feeling of excitement about family history sweeping the world, about families actually using technology to connect, rather than to disintegrate. The Geni launch, as well as all the great moves that Ancestry.com is doing (like launching international sites, kicking off its first-ever integrated advertising campaign — worth $10 million — to boost interest in the brand) and the newly formed alliance between werelate.org (see what Dick Eastman said about werelate.org last June) and the Allen County Public Library, the second largest family history library in the country — all of these things add to the level of excitement.

Anyway, the big question is can another family history social network take off? Can anyone catch Geni?

I’m not going to answer that question, because I simply can’t predict it. And it really doesn’t matter. Geni provides a great service to people who want to build their first family tree and to invite family members to collaborate on it. Geni is obviously great at listening to customers (Geni blog, Geni forum) and at responding to their requests quickly.

And of course Ancestry would certainly dispute the need to “catch Geni” in the first place. Ancestry is loudly defending its leadership position in this space. They have made it clear through recent press announcements that the Ancestry family tree software is attracting millions of records, photos, and more. And with revenues of $150 million per year, they have a very good chance to defend their leadership position.

So where does World Vital Records stand? How we can think that we have a chance to compete in this venture-capital driven world of online genealogy?

The key for us is to attract millions of users to our new free social network for family history which we call FamilyLink. We are some days away from our beta launch, and we can hardly wait. Our site will offer unique and valuable help to every serious family history researcher, and it will nicely coexist with all of the TGN web sites as well as Geni.com.

Our team is cautiously optimistic about our initial launch, and wildly enthusiastic about the long-term potential that we have to provide value to family historians worldwide. And we believe that by adding new databases every day to our World Vital Records web site, that our revenue will be able to keep up with our expenses. It won’t be cheap to run FamilyLink. But World Vital Records continues to generate record revenue each month and we are getting ever closer to being a sustainable business.

Thanks to the GEDCOM standard for data exchange, anyone who downloads a family tree from familysearch.org or Ancestry.com or Geni will be able to import their family data into virtually any genealogy software program or upload it to sites that accept gedcom uploads. And based on Geni’s March 15th blog post, any gedcom upload site that gets 100 uploads of family trees with at least 1,000 names in them, will end up with bigger trees than Geni has right now.

Of course, the magic in Geni is not in the size of its trees, but in its virality. Reid Hoffman of LinkedIn says he keeps a list of 12 people in the world who truly understand viral marketing (and he is one of the 12.) I wonder if anyone at Geni is on that list. Probably so, given the common PayPal connections. I doubt that anyone from TGN is on his list. But I hope that FamilyLink might convince him to add one more name to this list…and soon.

You can visit FamilyLink today and sign up for the beta. We’ll let you know when it is available. It won’t be long.

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My European Awakening

I just returned from 7 days in Europe. Thanks to LinkedIn Answers, I probably saved $1,000 on airfare on this trip by taking the advice of some of my connections who are more experienced last-minute travellers. (I’ve joked that with all this great advice, I could publish an ebook on last minute European travel and probably sell it for $10 on our ebook site.)

Reid Hoffman, founder of LinkedIn, said in his excellent podcast from Stanford University last month that he hopes LinkedIn Answers becomes the first truly useful Answers service online. He told about asking a question (took him 2 minutes) and getting 26 answers, 18 of which were very helpful.

My experience was similarly helpful. I asked about 200 of my 600 LinkedIn connections how to get a cheap last-minute flight to Europe. I got 37 responses, most of them were very helpful. (One told me jokingly to pretend there was a funeral in the family and get the bereaved family discount. Another said I could be a courier and fly for free.)

From these answers, I learned of about 10 online travel sites that I had previously not used. SideStep.com was the most useful on my trip. (Venere.com, an Italian site, turned out to be the most useful for booking last minute hotels in Paris and London.)

I booked a flight on Air France two days before leaving for Europe, for $980 round trip from LAX to Rome, with a stop in Paris at CDG (Charles De Gaulle) airport. (Air France serves great food, by the way.) After Rome, I fly one-way to London, got a hotel downtown for 69 pounds per night, then on Saturday morning flew round trip to Dublin on British Airways for under US$200. Rather than fly back to Rome, I took the Eurostar train from London to Paris, and arrived in Paris Sunday night. I think it was US$229. My hotel was across the street from the Gare du Nord station and cost only 60 Euros.

So all in all, the travel costs weren’t so bad, considering the last-minute planning. What adds up was the cost of transportation within each city (taxis, metro) and the cost of food, which was surprisingly high.

But the trip itself gave me a sweet taste for world travel. I grew up with a very tiny reality map (see my Connect magazine article titled “Expanding Your Reality Map” in March 2006.) But it has been expanding every year. And especially now.

Reading Russian literature in high school, I dreamed of travelling, and meeting with the kinds of fascinating souls that Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky described in 19th century Russia. Their characters had great depth, education, and were master conversationalists. My favorite novel of all time, Brothers Karamazov, explains human nature better than any other book I have ever read. I wanted to be Alyosha.

So in college, I studied International Relations, which soon led to my talking a Russian class and then switching my major to Russian. I loved the language and the culture and the history of Russia. After graduation I went to DC looking for a job. I applied with the NSA and started undergoing their 6-8 month long background check process. But I never ended up interviewing with them. Instead, I started working at Folio, my brother’s search engine company.

For the last 19 years I’ve been in various high tech startups. But I’ve had a latent interest in world history, international affairs, foreign languages, and cultures and religions of the world. That interest has grown lately as my reading list has started including more books about the flat world we live in, and the economic booms in China and India.

But nothing has opened my eyes and piqued my interest in world affairs like my recent trip to Europe. Though my entire trip was business focused, I was able to visit several historic sites in Rome, including the Colosseum, the Pantheon, and the Vatican Museums which includes the famous Sistine Chapel, and in London, and in Dublin I saw the Book of Kells, created by Irish monks in 800 AD, and walked through the library at Trinity College, the largest library in Ireland, with more than 4 million volumes, including 200,000 very old tomes in one great hall. (Wikipedia says that the Jedi library in Star Wars may have been modeled after this great library.) Years ago I read “How the Irish Saved Civilization.” Now I must re-read it, after having seen these historic artifacts.

I had some excellent ideas for a mobile application for history travellers, which would be built for worldhistory.com, which is likely to become part of World Vital Records in the future. (History and genealogy are really inseparably connected.)

I couldn’t stop considering that Utah, where I was born and raised, was settled by the Mormon pioneers (including my ancestors and my wife’s) started in 1847–just 160 years ago. While most of the places I visited have recorded history going back at least 10-15 times that far back.

More importantly, on this trip I met many wonderful people. Genealogy is a great subject to start any conversation with, because everyone has some knowledge of where there family came from, and how they fit into the world. My discussions with people from England, Ireland, Poland, Italy, and France were very enlightening, albeit sometimes rather depressing. Life is hard in many countries. Many people aren’t having children because they can’t afford to. They have to live in big cities where costs of living are so high, that they don’t know how they can possibly have a family. And it is important to face the realities of what people around the world actually think of the U.S. More than one European told me that the US was exporting materialism to all the world through its media, and causing people to be disatisfied with anything except a fast-paced materialistic, hedonistic lifestyle. (Coming home to a ton of billboards, radio and TV commercials, and seeing how everything in the US centers around selling stuff, I see their point.) And of course, most people strongly oppose the war in Iraq.

So I get to learn history and meet people. I’m in heaven really. I’m a former humanities major now working in a high-tech business (online world genealogy) that requires me to travel to many different countries of the world. In each country, I must learn its history and politics to determine when governments started keeping records, what kinds of records they kept, and where they are preserved now. I must also understand the religious histories and cultures of each country, since so many records of births, deaths and marriages were created and kept for religious reasons. I get to revitalize my knowledge of Spanish and Russian, and start studying bits and pieces of French, Italian, German, and hopefully Mandarin and Arabic as well. I’m planning to buy a mobile translation device soon, probably a high-end Franklin Publisher dictionary that handles 400,000 phrases and also supports audio. I know I’ll never have time to really learn these things, but a little exposure to them is extremely interesting nonetheless.

Besides my Blackberry, which worked nicely in Europe (I called T-Mobile on the way to the airport last week and they took care of it all in a few minutes), the most useful tools I had were LinkedIn.com, which enabled me to set up some last minute meetings, and Wikipedia, which basically enlightened me about every place I went, and all the things I saw. What a marvelous invention for travellers!

My dream is to travel with a Blackberry 8800 (with its GPS and Google Maps integration) and have a fully-functional mobile version of LinkedIn, and a mobile version of Sidestep so that I can plan trips on the fly (I usually procrastinate trip planning, but then while I’m there I want to make the most of it). I also want a business version of Dodgeball, so that I can find out if anyone that I’m connected to is also in the area. I may need to try out Twitter, since it’s getting so much positive buzz. (In fact, the Financial Times had it on the first page last Friday or Saturday as the next big thing from Silicon Valley–they called it miniblogging.) Perhaps it will be a helpful tool to let people contact me when I’m travelling… this would sort of be a pull approach to getting meetings, rather than a push approach. Finally, I need a database of all the LDS Family History Centers on my Blackberry, as well as a Genealogists Address Book, so that wherever I travel I’m seconds away from finding out where any local repositories or societies are. (Oh, and the Blackberry should support all the functionality of the Franklin device I described above. I don’t want to have to carry multiple devices.)

If I were young and without responsibilities, perhaps I’d take off and travel the world for the next year, visiting nearly every country, and just running World Vital Records from wherever I happen to be. As it stands, I’m currently planning a week a month for a multi-country trip. I guess I’ll see if I have the stamina to pull this off, and if it continues to make business sense to do so.

So…if you happen to be highly involved with genealogical records anywhere in the world, and would like to see if partnership makes sense between you and your organization and World Vital Records, please let me know. I don’t mind last minute trips, since my LinkedIn friends have shown me how to pull them off.

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Team Formation Summit for Worldhistory.com

Last year I wrote in Connect magazine that I would be trying a grand experiment in team building. I would be trying an idea I got from The Entrepreneur’s Manual, a very popular book for entrepreneurs published in 1997. I would hold a 2-day retreat with a couple dozen executives to brainstorm, network, plan, and then vote on the Founders Team for Worldhistory.com.

Sometimes I have too many ideas, so I can’t get around to all of them. Sometimes ideas just go away. They stop bothering me. I almost always write every idea down, so that I won’t forget them forever, but they stop getting current brainshare.

But this team formation idea has been popping up its head every month or so. So I’ve decided to go ahead with it. Instead of a 2-day summit, we’re going to try a 1-day retreat to a local cabin. The date will be Friday, October 20th. I’m going to invite 15-20 friends developers, marketers, consultants, strategists, and entrepreneurs to meet for a day (probably from 9 am to 4 pm) to determine the future of Worldhistory.com.

So far, I have invited several individuals who know about the Worldhistory.com mobile subscription business model and love it. 100% of the people invited so far have said they will come.

But since I don’t know everyone (yet), I thought I should also blog about this Summit and invite others to apply to attend it. Even if you aren’t looking for a new job, consider coming. We need advisory board members as well as a group of founders who can make this company happen.

If you are interested in being invited, please contact Pat Sheranian at 373-6565, our Provo Labs office manager, talk with her about your background and interest, and email her your resume. Or, email me your resume if you want. (paul “AT” provolabs.com)

This will be a great networking event, and you’ll meet some fantastic people and hear some very interesting discussions about the future of mobile location-based services, the delivery of text, audio and video content to cell phones and other mobile devices, and see the very beginning of what I hope turns into another Utah business success story.

The first half of the day will be devoted to Corporate Alliance type networking, where you will have a chance to meet every other attendee and connect with them on a personal level. After lunch, which will be provided, we’ll break into teams and do some planning and brainstorming.

Finally, there will be some sharing of the best ideas and plans of the day, and we’ll have a discussion about how to form and fund a new corporation with all the assets that Provo Labs currently owns in the history space (including data, web sites, and software code).

I don’t know if we’ll actually hold a vote on who the Founding Team should be; but if the attendees want to this, we will.

I’m excited about this summit. Read the Connect article about team formation, and get your hands on a copy of the original team formation ideas in The Entrepreneur Manual. You can buy it used on Amazon for as little as $5.74.

I really believe this idea is a big one. I believe that millions of people worldwide will one day subscribe to a mobile history content subscription service, so that whereever they travel in the world they will be able to pull up text, audio, and video clips that describe or explain the history of that location. If we get the right team in place, and can get the right content and design the right interface and market this service through the right carriers (or “off portal” if necessary) I think we can pull this off right here in Utah.

I guess that makes us a Four Domino business model, right Josh?

But if we get the right team together, then we’ll be down to Three.

I also think that “history” is way down the list of the content types that all the biggest players have on their radar, and so it won’t be immediately launched by the larger players. History is kind of like genealogy–it’s not a multi-billion dollar category like travel or finance or real estate–so it’s not at the top of the list for the carriers or internet media companies.

Like I said in Connect, I promise to write an article about this experiment and what we learn from it.

Let me know if you want to come. We can only take a few more people, but if you think you are qualified and have a lot to offer here, please apply, and we’ll let you know.

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Governor Romney Interviewed by Bill O’Reilly

I’m trying to find a recent video clip from Fox News. I heard that Bill O’Reilly suggested on The Factor earlier this week that Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney is the only Republican presidential candidate for 2008 that can rally the conservative base. Has anyone seen that clip?

I did stumble across this clip from last month where Governor Romney explained his decision to not provide taxpayer funded security for the controversial visit to Harvard by the former President of Iran. Powerful stuff here.

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Google and History

I am very impressed with Google’s recent launch of its News Archives Search. Basically, in partnership with major content owners, Google is indexing newspaper and magazine articles going back to the 18th century.

I spent an hour doing various searches and found the content very interesting, although a lot of the historic newspaper content is full of typos and OCR errors, and much of the best content is available only for a fee. Over time, more and more good historical content will be free. The Time Magazine content is very useful.

I’ve been listening to an audio book called “Lies My Teacher Told Me” that reviews 12 American History textbooks and shows how false and full of misinformation they are, especially when it comes to religious, race, and economic class issues in American History. Textbooks gloss over these issues and almost never quote from original sources.

Google’s News Archive Search is a step in the right direction. Combined with Google Print, which will bring millions of public domain books onto the web (and into PDF format for free downloads), more people than ever before will be exposed to actual historical content. I really wonder what it will do to our view of ourselves when we realize how racist and bigoted we have been in this country (like under Woodrow Wilson), and how interventionist we have been (according to “Lies My Teacher Told Me” the U.S. has intervened in Nicaragua 17 times) and how the way other nations view America is shaped in part by what they teach in their history books and we omit from ours.

My own political views have been affected by listening to this audio book and discovering some historical facts I have been ignorant of. I look forward to learning more.

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