“If you’re an executive at a company, and Bill Gates is calling you going, What the hell’s going on? And you have the answer, you’re going to get called more.”
– Robert Scoble
About Robert Scoble
On this episode we learn from technology evangelist and author Robert Scoble whose work as a blogger and communicator for Microsoft, Fast Company, Rackspace, and others has truly shaped the evolution of social media. He is the author of 4 books about technology including ones dedicated to AI and spatial computing. Find out how Robert is always the first to know about what’s coming in consumer technology.
What you will learn
- How Robert keeps up to date on the latest technologies (01:33)
- A lot of information also means a lot of noise (03:29)
- So be selective on whose Tweets you listen to… (06:22)
- …because Twitter is still the best place to get information (07:16)
- Why you should get off social media as fast as you can (12:13)
- Watch your blog’s comments section for interesting people (14:12)
- Speed matters (16:30)
- Where Robert got his start (21:36)
- His routines and structures (25:27)
- He keeps his focus and says no to everything else (28:56)
- You need to think of what’s going to happen in 5 years (31:51)
- AI is changing everything (35:30)
Ross Dawson: Robert, it’s fantastic to talk to you. Thank you so much for joining us.
Robert Scoble: Hey, thank you much for having me on the show.
Ross: Since I’ve heard about you a very long time ago, you’ve always been on the very, very edge of new technologies and what’s going on. How do you do it?
Robert: 40 years of community building online, that’s part of it. For people who don’t know what I’ve done, if you go over to Twitter, you can see my TweetDeck. I have about 70 different lists, all raining down like the matrix. This is something that every listening team at a corporation uses. They watch a wide variety of people online, and new sources and things in real-time, and they can respond to that in real-time. I was part of the listening team at Rackspace for seven years and helped them quite a bit with figuring out who to listen to, and how to deal with the information flows.
Ross: Let’s dig into that. How do you build your lists? And how do you keep scanning?
Robert: Thousands of hours of OCD. There are different ways to look at this. If somebody needs to learn something from scratch, I’ll have one set of advice. If you told me I have two years to learn everything there is about artificial intelligence, I’d take you down one path. If you’re already up to date on artificial intelligence, and you’re already working at a tech company, you’re already working at Tesla or Apple, building AI systems, then I’ll have what I’ve built, which is a system to keep you up to date and refreshed. We could probably come out in both areas.
Ross: I’m interested; since we’ve got probably people of both groups listening, let’s look at both parts. In a way, we’re really looking at those who already know the basics and saying, Okay, what’s new? What’s changed?
Robert: That’s getting a little easier now; particularly on Twitter, there is a search engine. Now you can type artificial intelligence into the search engine, and you’ll see anybody who says artificial intelligence on a tweet, it’d show up on that stream, on that feed. That’ll lead you somewhat to the right place. But the problem is, now you’ll get a lot of noise, a lot of trolls, a lot of advertising, a lot of things that have nothing to do with artificial intelligence. Or if they do, they’re from people that you probably don’t care about, and probably on topics you don’t care about because you’re already fairly advanced on artificial intelligence; you’re not just trying to learn about the space and build your own list; you’re trying to stay up to date on the advanced stuff. For me, that’s when you start really building your own lists, and you have to get to know people who you’re listening to. That takes time, or you can steal my list.
Ross: You can very generously share.
Robert: I built a list on artificial intelligence, one on computer vision, and another one on autonomous cars for this reason. But if you don’t know who you’re listening to, you’re still going to get a lot of noise and a lot of fluff. Filtering out that is really tough.
Ross: You share all your lists, so everyone can benefit from all of your work in building them.
Ross: Of course, the people might prioritize different people in the list or have other people they think of or different ways of framing it.
Robert: What I would recommend is you start with my list and a search, and you build your own lists. Because you’re probably focused on something very specific in AI, and you want to keep up to date on your very niche thing. Therefore, you don’t want to listen to 2000 people because they’re across everything. You want to listen to maybe 20 or 30 people who are very focused on the same thing you are, and that means you’ll get fewer tweets every day, and you’ll get a lot higher likelihood of some signal and not a lot of noise. You’ll still get noise but you’ll get a lot more signal that’s interesting to you. Then if you do a search on AI, and get everything that everybody says, every tweet with the word AI in it.
Ross: One of the challenges with the Twitter lists I find is that you can’t do a 24-hour scan. I mean, if you’ve got anything in it, then you’re just time slicing. You just say, Okay, I’m looking out for this time, I can see what’s in there, but I missed everything else, which is going on the last whatever period.
Robert: That’s true unless you listen to very few people. If you listen to very few people, then you can go back through the past 24 hours at 20 people’s tweets because 20 people are not going to tweet that much in a day, particularly if you pick the right 20 people, because then these are AI people. They’re not influencers who are doing 100 tweets a day, these are people who are probably going to do 10 tweets a day, so that’s 200 tweets. That’s the trick. It is to find the 20 people that will keep you up to date, and they will retweet into your feed the important things that are happening in the field.
Ross: Twitter has changed a lot particularly in the last three, four years. How has the value or the use of Twitter lists changed for you in the last period?
Robert: I do the same thing on Facebook, so I can spend a lot of time with you about optimizing Facebook for trying to get some signal out of that thing, which is really difficult. The same thing on LinkedIn, I have 30,000 connections on LinkedIn. Then I come to Twitter, and I have 100,000 people or news brands and things on my lists, and I watch them on one screen. Twitter has some real advantages over the other two.
One, you can follow people a lot easier than finding a month on Facebook or figuring out how to follow a friend. Two, if you’re using TweetDeck, which is how I read Twitter, it has columns across the screen. Those are in real-time, so if somebody publishes a new tweet, you don’t have to refresh the page or the browser to see a new thing. This is really important for watching breaking news, for instance. This is why almost all the world’s journalists are on Twitter because they can watch the world on one screen without hitting refresh on the browser, it’s really important to do that. Three, you can search for things. If there is breaking news, like, Haiti just had an earthquake, if you care about that, you can put the Haiti earthquake into the search engine, and you’ll see everybody who mentions the Haiti earthquake in a tweet. It’ll be a lot but if you’re highly interested in what’s going on in a specific news event, that’ll be very interesting to you.
The others are still important for community building and for engagement. I get more engagement when I publish something on both LinkedIn and Facebook than I do on Twitter because Twitter is going so fast that people just don’t have a lot of time to sit there and chat all day long. Also, it doesn’t have the affordance to do that. It’s really not meant as a chat room or as a thing where you put a lot of comments underneath something and go back and forth on a topic.
A lot of times if I care about engaging with somebody, I’ll take them out of Twitter and take them over to LinkedIn, or Facebook, or some Messenger, or even direct messages in Twitter, where I can chat with them fast back and forth and learn something, and not do that in public because you’re spraying that stuff into the public view, and it pisses off your readers and makes all their noise levels go up.
Ross: Do you spend any time on some of the private messaging apps like Telegram or Signals or things like that?
Robert: I’m on all of them: WeChat messenger, Facebook Messenger, Signal, Telegram, Discord, there are a lot of places to spend your time. This is also starting to become a problem because where do you spend; let’s say, you have an hour to be online, where do you spend that hour? You can split that hour, up amongst communities in a bunch of different places. Maybe that’s fun to you but usually, most people just want to get what they need and get out. By the way, I can’t look at TweetDeck for very long. This gets into information overload. If there is breaking news, and I’m highly interested in something, like if Nvidia announces a new video card today or an earthquake breaks up, yes, I will watch TweetDeck and I’ll be highly interested in it, and I’ll be very focused on it, but my brain will fry after about half an hour.
We did not evolve to look at that quantity of information and try to figure out who is writing and what’s going on that long, your brain can do it for short periods, but not for eight hours a day, it’s a very specialized job, and if you’re doing one of those jobs, you’re probably at a listening team at one of these companies, and your job is to look at TweetDeck all day long. You need breaks if that’s your job because you’re going to go fry your brain.
Ross: A lot of it is trying to find what is the signal. You say, Okay, this is really interesting, and it’s not much seeing the 100 tweets. You say, Okay, here’s one tweet, which just points to a link or makes some particularly important point. Often there are links, and we say, Okay, I hadn’t seen that before; that’s interesting, that’s new. If that’s where you’re scanning, and then that’s pulling you to wherever it is, you should be going.
Robert: I’ll give some heretical advice. Get off of social media as fast as you can. Social media is really good about presenting you a group of people interested in the topic, autonomous cars, AI, photography, art, whatever you’re into. But you will learn a lot more from an hour conversation off social media, like what you’re doing here, than if you tried to listen to me on Twitter. I never talked about information overload on Twitter, so you’re probably not going to get too many tips out of me. But in a conversation like this back and forth, you’re going to get a lot more depth.
I built my whole career around doing what you’re doing, which is to go to people’s offices, take my video camera, sit down for an hour, and learn something. That’s a much better technique. The problem is how do you learn who is really up to date on AI, Twitter’s really good about that, or LinkedIn, maybe, but it’s not really good about depth. The trick is, I assigned myself a goal of having a conversation like this every day, at least one conversation, and that would get me the depth I needed to keep up to date on the industry, and also find out little tricks and techniques.
If I’m a programmer, I’m not going to learn how to program C sharp very well on Twitter. I might learn it in StackOverflow online but for the really secret stuff, you got to talk to a programmer who knows it. That’s why pair programming works so well. Sitting next to somebody else, and programming with somebody else really amps up your knowledge on something.
Ross: As a part of just knowing who do you have the conversation with, I suppose, it’s getting them to give you the time to have the conversation with you.
Robert: That’s really hard. Here’s an example, I wrote a blog post about the Consumer Electronics Show several years ago; a big blog post. There were about 100 comments underneath the blog post. One of them was from Gary Shapiro, who runs the Consumer Electronics Show, he’s the CEO of CTA. But the commenting system that WordPress uses, doesn’t show that that person is important. The only way you would know that comment is important is to know who Gary Shapiro is, and know that he runs CTA, which runs the Consumer Electronics Show. You have to do a lot of mental work to figure that out. Most people will not do the homework to figure out who is commenting underneath a blog post. If you go to the Verge or go to TechCrunch, are you going to look up each person commenting and figure out who actually has something to say here or not? No.
There are some ways to figure that out. Google is actually pretty good at telling you who somebody is if you care but how many people are going to do that homework? The shortcut is to rely on somebody like me who has already built a list of who’s important in the industry, or who’s in the industry. I don’t put a lot of low-quality people on my list. If you’re low quality if all you do is tweet about politics all day, that’s what I call low quality, unless you’re a politician. If you’re a politician, you’ve got to tweet about politics all day long. But if I were an AI engineer, I don’t want 100,000 tweets about politics. I want to know about what’s going on inside Tesla or Apple or something like that, what the latest techniques are, what the latest tools are, what the latest challenges are, or where to get the best service.
Ross: People talk about information sources, such as New York Times or The Economist or whatever, but for you, they’re all individuals.
Robert: The Economist and the New York Times are people like me, they choose the experts you want to listen to. It’s a shortcut because you don’t have time to figure out who to listen to. You don’t know who Gary Shapiro is, you don’t know who Andrej Karpathy is, he runs Tesla’s AI. I know who that is but you might not know who it is, so you rely on people who know what things are, report, get rid of all the noise, and bring you the nuggets of information.
I learned this in college; I ran the Associated Press wire machine at San Jose State University, and I was running it when OJ was found not guilty; There were 600 plus stories in the first hour on my wire machine. The next day in the San Jose Mercury News or local newspaper, there were two stories. That leads you to be biased because you’re only getting somebody’s filtered view of the news, you’re not getting the entire story. I like to have the entire story. I like to know what is actually going on right now. Also, that gives you faster speed, which if you’re an investor or a news person, having the speed matters. If you’re an executive at a company, and Bill Gates is calling you going, What the hell’s going on? And you don’t have an answer, you’re not going to get called anymore. If you have the answer, you’re going to get called more, and you’re going to get promoted.
For instance, I have an example of this. One night, I was watching Twitter, long before any of these new tools, this was years ago; there was a big earthquake in China, and three tweets came up about the earthquake, 1000s of miles apart. We beat CNN on the story by 45 minutes. Now, that’s not going to be true anymore, because CNN is using these same techniques, and they’re using AI tools of their own to watch the news and bring just important news that’s breaking in the world so that they are not beat by 45 minutes anymore. You can still beat other news sources in a lot of areas by being on Twitter, or LinkedIn, or Facebook.
You’ll see things happening in your industry like people dying, or news events breaking; somebody announces a new product, you’ll see it before anybody else. If you care about being up to date, and that’s part of your brand, you want to be the engineer at your company that everybody calls all the time because you’re always up to date, then you got to play a different game than just watching the New York Times because once it’s in the New York Times, everybody knows it.
Ross: Do you go direct to any mainstream media? Or is it always through social channels?
Robert: One of my TweetDeck columns is the entire world’s media. I have the BBC, The New York Times, Fox, CNN, every news source I can find, in one column and if there is news breaking in the world, I go there and I can see everybody’s opinion, like my wire machine back in college. I have the same thing for the tech industry because I care about the tech industry. I have all the tech news sources in one list. You can watch them, they are public on my Twitter, you can go to my Twitter list and search for World News list, and Tech news list, you’ll get the entire world’s news and all of the tech news.
Ross: One of the key things here is about sense-making. Take augmented reality, for argument’s sake, you are “The man”; who you need to know, let’s call Robert.
Robert: If you’re at Apple or Salesforce, there is a strategy team. People like me and I talk to many of them, they figure out where to go.
Ross: Exactly. But the strategy is not an accumulation of tweets, it is an understanding of the whole, and the sense of what’s going on, and what are the possibilities and pathways that we could follow? You are across the edge of everything that’s happening. How do you go from that to that having made sense or grokking that space?
Robert: I was lucky, I fell into this at Microsoft. I was on a team called Channel Nine, I was one of the first five people to start this thing. It is still going today, 15 years later. I noticed that I learned a lot by taking people to lunch when I got my job at Microsoft. Because I had a blog, people would invite me to lunch and say Hey, let me show you something cool. and I’d be like, Why don’t we ever put just this lunch out on the public view and let everybody know what I know. I started doing that. That led me to go around the world.
First of all, I interviewed 600 people at Microsoft, from Bill Gates to the janitor. I got to understand Microsoft really well. I got to understand what Microsoft Research was, what are they doing? What are all these pieces doing? What’s the Xbox team doing? What’s the Windows team doing? What’s the tablet team doing? What’s the mobile team doing? I had friends all across the company, I interviewed them and spent a lot of time going around every day. I had an unfair advantage there. It’s really hard to do that unless you’re an executive.
If you want to be a strategist, you better figure out how to do this, because that’s how you’re going to get the insights that Bill Gates doesn’t have. That’s why Bill Gates is going to call you because you’re going to have an answer that he doesn’t have before. Or you’re going to bring him, Hey this is what Apple’s going to do next year, and here’s how we should react or what we should be doing. Generally, they’re more than a year ahead.
I went to the world’s research labs. I went to South by Southwest 25 times, I did a lot of parties, which is part of relationship building, hanging out with people who are cool and learning what they care about, who they are and what they’re working on. When they’re drunk, they tend to leak a little bit more than when they’re not. A little life hack. Now that I’m sober, I hear this all the time that the sober people love getting other people drunk, because they say things, the mouth gets a little looser when people get a little alcohol in them.
I was also at Consumer Electronics Show, and I would work my butt off going to all the littlest sweets in the back halls, which is where all the little startups were. That gave me insights that I could bring back to the big corporations and write books about. That’s still playing out. 10 years ago, I saw PrimeSense, a little Israeli company at one of those suites, and the founder showed me 3D sensors. My iPhone just got the 3D sensor last year. It took eight years, from when I saw it at the back suites in CES to when it’s actually in a mainstream product, so I had an eight-year lead on every normal people. The same things are happening right now. I’m talking to people who are building AI systems; and talking about automatic labeling systems, I knew Tesla was building one a year ago before they even announced it a few days ago.
Ross: Do you build any frameworks, or visuals, or written, or even construct your mind to be able to pull together these pieces into something which is coherent?
Robert: I wrote four books about technology and I wrote them about 10-year trends before the trend happened. The last one, Qualcomm’s Head of AR – Augmented Reality, said it’s a must-read. I’m pretty good about seeing where things are going to go over the next decade and talk to 1000s of people about that. I still do that today. That’s how I synthesize what’s going on and then I write a book about it and put the book out.
Ross: Do you synthesize through writing the book?
Robert: A book is a forcing function because you got to have something to say, 70,000 words on the topic, you better figure out what you’re going to say. It forces you to put it into a form, with chapters, and an outline to start with, Hey, this is what I’m seeing happening. That outline can be a white paper that you bring to your boss, it could be a speech you give inside your company, whatever the package is, that forces you to get an insight and package it up, that’s going to be pretty hard for most people. This is why they say if you really want to learn something, teach it to somebody else; because if you’re going to teach it to somebody else, you must know what you’re talking about; because if you don’t, it’s going to be obvious very quickly.
Ross: The speech is a great one because the book is a lot of work. Whereas the speech, you can give a speech and it does force you to do the work.
Robert: Speeches are a lot of work. Ask somebody who speaks on the main stage at TED, how many months they put into their speech. I know people who put a year into their speech. First of all, they put a lifetime into the speech. I saw a woman give a talk on spiders, that’s all she studies, so she knows her topic really well. Then she had to practice her speech so that she could do it in front of 4000 of the world’s richest people. It’s hard. If you’re giving a speech to Bill Gates, I guarantee you, you’re preparing a lot before you get a one-hour meeting with him.
Ross: It forces you to structure your thoughts.
Robert: Not only your thoughts, but you’re working with a team that probably is going in there. You probably only have 10 or 15 minutes of an hour with him on a topic, or a technology, or a thing that’s happening in the world, or a competitive thing; you’re working your butt off for weeks to go in for a beating because that one meeting with an executive like that, changes not just lives, it changes businesses, many lives can come changed out of that one meeting.
Ross: Do you have a routine structure to different slices of how you scan stuff or dig into stuff?
Robert: I have a focus that I turn a lot of things down. This is a trick. You can’t be an expert on everything now. You can be a generalist and know something about everything, but you can’t be an expert. I can’t be an expert on AI. I’m not Andrej Karpathy who’s working at Tesla every day building the autopilot system. He knows way more than I’ll ever know. He’ll even forget more than I’ll ever know about AI. I can’t do that. But if you want to try to get up to him, you got to say no to everything else because the only way you’re going to beat something like that is to focus.
I focus on consumer electronics; I have for 40 years, and I say no to things all the time that aren’t on my focus. Right now, it’s spatial computing, that’s what I care about, and what it means for the home. I get that Ethereum is really important, and crypto is really important, I have a list on that too. But that’s not on my interest level, so I don’t take an interview about it. I don’t write books about it. I don’t chase that. I want to be the world’s expert on where Apple’s going, or where business with augmented reality is going. There are a bunch of reasons I focused on that. That’s where I spend every moment of every day other than playing with my kids and watching Ted Lasso or something like that.
In my professional time, I focus right on that topic, and I say no to everything else. That’s the real key. You got to know why you’re saying no, and how to say no because it’s really hard to say no. I know I’m the world’s worst person to say no, but it gets easier when you say Hey, it just doesn’t fit into my focus area man, I’m focused on Apple and you’re working at Salesforce, asking me to talk about AI tools in the corporation and not my thing. I might take it, which is why I’m bad at saying no. But I know that every time I take a meeting that’s not on my topic area, I’m not getting further to my next project, or my next book, or my next job.
Ross: Thriving on overload, we are talking about looking more to the ones who are already pretty good at all of this, but what’s your advice? Somebody comes along and says, Okay, I know a lot. I’m trying to keep across the change. He’s getting a bit overwhelmed, what’s your advice? What are the things that you would tell a person to do?
Robert: I think we’ve already said several of them. Know how to say no to people and why, have an idea, thesis of where are you headed. I can ask even you, where are you headed in five years? What are you doing this for? What drives you? What makes you happy? Where do you see yourself in five years? If you don’t have answers to that, think about that because that’ll help you focus your efforts. If you say I’m going to be CEO of Salesforce in five years, how are you going to do that? We can have a really interesting conversation about how to become CEO of Salesforce in five years. I know lots of people become like the CTO of Facebook, after being in normal people for a long time. Two, you got to know who to listen to, and start with 20 people. Make a list of 20 people that are really baller in this industry, or in the topic.
If you’re trying to learn how to do pottery, you better know who Lynda Weinman is, because she has a pottery studio with 3D printers in it. You should go down and visit her if you want to do bleeding edge pottery. She would be one of the 20 people on your list. If she’s not, she will be, pretty quick, once you start building a list like this, because you’ll find the other 19, and then they’ll all start saying, Hey, look at Linda’s stuff. You start looking at Instagram who has the hot pottery pictures, and who’s charging $6,000 for a piece of pottery? It’s Lynda Weinman. The world starts pointing you at these people and that gets you up to date.
Start building a list of just people. You don’t need to follow 100,000 people like me. That’s a little crazy. You might in 20 years, you might become me. I’ve been watching 20,000 people on behalf of Procter & Gamble or something, but most of your audience is probably not that, so find 20 people that are in your industry, who’re in your focus area, that you really care about. I guarantee you if you follow 20 people, they will pull other people who are cool, interesting, knowledgeable, bleeding edge, doing weird shit, into your view.
That’s how Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn, all work. They all bring other things into your view. Start with 20 people and away you go. Read a book. As you said, read the New York Times, it’ll get you up to date pretty quick on a lot of topics, or The Economist, especially. You can read an Economist article, and do some homework on that article; Google each person that’s mentioned, and you’ll have your 20 people in one article.
Ross: There are a lot more exciting times to come and since you’re a futurist, keeping across change, what’s going to change and how do we keep across overload in the coming years?
Robert: AI is changing everything. My oven has AI in it, it looks at meat or bread I put in it and doesn’t burn it. My audio system has AI in it. Now my phone has AI in it. My car has self-drives, my Tesla self-drives and it has 19 systems that are all running on AI. That’s where I’m focusing a lot of my effort on, understanding how the world is going to change. The real question is, how do you get five years ahead of everybody else because that’s pretty obvious today? If you’re in business and you don’t understand AI, you better catch up because it’s going to really change everything about the world, every product, and every company.
The trick is now how do we get five years ahead? What does Elon Musk going to need in 2026? Carwashes. How did I come up with that? Because I talked to a lot of people about second-order effects. If this happens, if autonomous cars happen, and I can lay out why it’s going to happen, and it’s going to happen sometime in the next five years. If that happens, what happens after? That’s a little bit of creativity but it’s about hanging out with people who are at the bleeding edge and writing books with the bleeding edge people.
You call up Sebastian Thrun who ran the Google self-driving team, when you talk to him about what’s going to happen after self-driving because he’s thought about it a lot, he has some answers, like, car washes. Cities are going to change and he lays out how. MIT built simulators to simulate what happens if we take parking garages out of cities? What does it look like? How do people move around? There are people working on that. You interview somebody working at MIT Media Lab and all of a sudden you figure out how cities are going to change. That’s how WIRED magazine writes its articles.
Ross: Yes, prescribe the edge.
Robert: Just 20 people, it’s really easy. You start with the right 20 people like Sebastian Thrun, and you’re going to hear some crazy stuff.
Ross: Yes, and it’s all fun. Thanks, Robert. That has been really insightful and it was great to talk to you. Have a wonderful day.
Robert: Thank you. It’s fun hanging out and talking about something I don’t usually get to talk about very much because I’m nuts. People don’t really think about how did he write four books that predict decade-long trends. Thank you.