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Yahoo’s editor-in-chief on feeding the web 24/7

Yahoo’s editor-in-chief on feeding the web 24/7
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First Published: Sun, Feb 22 2009. 06 53 PM IST

Updated: Sun, Feb 22 2009. 06 53 PM IST
This is Kamla Bhatt. We bring you part 2 of our conversation with Ninja Srinivasan, Editor-in-Chief at Yahoo! Inc. Here is Ninja.
Kamla: Yahoo early on went ahead with this decision to get an editorial team. So, you were known as an…
Ninja: “Ontologist” or I was “Ontological Yahoo!”
Kamla: Yes. So, how has that decision-that early decision influenced Yahoo’s competitive advantage in the changing landscape, where we have gone from Web 1.0 to Web 2.0 to Web 3.0?
Ninja: Yes, I think it has actually held a very interesting place. I think this role, this editorial role and this policy-making a role has held a very interesting place in the
broader organization. I would like to think that it has been critical to our success. It has been a great driver for long term value because the kind of things that I and my team focus on are what standards and practices are going to demonstrate our brand at its best. And why does that matter? It is not just for the commercial reasons of brand building which are in themselves very important. But in this medium trust is absolutely essential. It is the bedrock. We live and die by whether our users trust us. In the early days we had a tag line contest inviting users to submit their entries for a marketing tagline for Yahoo! And one of the tag lines that Jerry picked up early on and never failed to remind us of was one person told us Yahoo also stands for ”you always have other options”. And that is a very humbling thing to remember and many many, years later of course I keep it in mind. Because our competitors and the alternative is just one click away. There is nothing magic or forced about a user coming to Yahoo. It is a choice and every single time they come it is a choice. It is a URL they type in the box and it is a link they choose to click. So, what keeps engagement and what gives us the right to develop an ongoing relationship and develop these products and services and be a real value is that we start with a foundation of trust. So things like our standards and practices and content, things like responsible data use and transparency and choice in our privacy policy, things like being inclusive in our accessibility efforts and our corporate responsibility arm. All of these things go to establishing and re-upping on that foundation of trust and goodwill that we have thankfully built over the time.
Kamla: So do you find yourself talking to newspaper associations, editors on how they create their policies and standards and norms?
Ninja: Absolutely. I think in the traditional offline print media actually in this case, they have decades on us in terms of the ethics of the trade and of the craft .We want to borrow and steal from everything that works. I think that there are some very interesting things about this medium that do make it different. Because of its interactive nature and because it can be both broadcast and one to one and everything in between. I think there are some opportunities and some challenges in this medium for broad based participation that give us new challenges. But I absolutely think over the years we have hired so many people who are-we are talking about categorization, who have a background in library science and in editorial who have a background in journalism school who have been writers and editors, who have owned the body armor to prove it.
Kamla: You said something about new changes and I was thinking of Wikipedia. Is Wikipedia a game changer for you?
Ninja: Wikipedia is a powerful demonstration of the potential of this medium. That to do something literally could not have been done before. So I do not know if it is-I mean it is a game changer because it puts out there in mass, free, display. Exactly the kind of things that got us so excited that we wanted to start the company in the first place. That is one solution to be able to cover everything under the sun. It is I think actually very encouraging example that on the margins people tend towards truth and goodness. You know people tend towards getting it right. That if somebody goes to abuse the system that they are correcting forces by other people who care enough that it will eventually get stamped out.
Kamla: What do you think are going to be the new challenges for you as we move on? The number of devices have multiplied, proliferated. Number of people who have access to the Internet has multiplied across the world. Mobile phone is one challenge that you have talked about. How do you think the nature of content is going to change in the next 5 to 10 years because there is the 3-4 billion that are still not connected that is going to jump into this bandwagon and you have to factor them in.
Ninja: Absolutely, I mean in the emerging markets are always a place of real focus for us and obviously a real center of our future growth. I guess, I sort of naively look at that as yes, it is going to change in ways that I cannot begin to imagine and I have no crystal ball to predict but towards ever thus. When we started, we were bombarded with hundreds of people, sounds like such a paltry number today. Hundreds of people emailing did you see the site? Can you list this site? Even then kind of the scale of growth in diversity and complexity was really hard to get your arms around. But, what has surprised me all along is that applying finite resources to an infinite problem actually is useful. That the human element, that notion of human subjectivity of creation is invaluable and that it can even be valuable in finite increments for an infinite problem. So, I have a lot of faith based on all of these experiences and that will continue to be the case. In fact it is the sheer explosion and diversity of information and content, devices, everything you just mentioned that I think makes that level of human judgment, human creation more important and not less important, more critical than ever before. Because at the end of the day the reader on the other end is a human being and we go through these very ,very complicated filtering mechanisms in our brain to get to what interests me and what does not interest me. So I think to have a human on either of the equation and throw all of the technology we possibly can in between and keep building a mouse trap I think that is going to continue to be the right answer.
Kamla: Do you have a dictionary on your desk?
Ninja: I use the dictionary online. I use the Yahoo shortcut. I constantly am in there saying things like define, edify and then Yahoo gives me the definition from the dictionary.
Kamla: So do you find yourself looking upwards constantly?
Ninja: I do it all time and partly I do that because I am a word person, I love words and I love language. You know what my under graduate degree at Stanford is in what they call Symbolic Systems and most schools would call it Cognitive Science. It was a heavy dose of linguistics and computer science and a lot of philosophy and a little bit of mathematical logic and a little cognitive psychology. The idea of that whole exploration was to think about how human language and human intelligence are interdependent. For example, can you know a thing, really know a thing if you do not have a word for a thing? Do different sort of linguistic systems give rise to different kinds of intelligence? And then to apply that to a machine. How would you give rise to machine intelligence from machine language?
Kamla: You are preempting my question but...
Ninja: So, it turns out that what I just pursued as a liberal arts degree in a liberal arts institution because I could not think of anything to focus on and I figured graduate school would actually be career defining. I did not have to figure that out then, it turns out it was directly relevant to what I end up doing now, you know here at Yahoo. That that under-graduate experience led me to work in artificial intelligence project.
Kamla: So the reason I said you preempted is because you have admitted elsewhere that your education was a fantastic mix of logic, language and cognitive psychology. And then you ended up working as in your first job in that artificial intelligence project which Wired magazine called it a “Lunatic Fringe Project” and you were feeding information to some kind of a machine. Is that what you were doing?
Ninja: That is exactly what we were doing. Personally, I am proud to be associated with the lunatic fringe project but I do not want to cast any aspersions on my former colleagues, who I respect greatly. But I think all of us can agree it was a brazen effort. To the point of the psych project was to encode all of human common sense knowledge. Now that is boldly ambitious, but it had a real purpose.
Kamla: Were you Star Trek fans or something?
Ninja: There were a lot of sub-cultures in the group for sure. Yeah, there were plenty of sub-cultures in the group. The project was based in Austin, Texas and I actually worked in a satellite office in Palo Alto, California .So, I stayed out in the Bay area and we were trying to build a machine that has all of human common sense knowledge. Now, this was surprising both backwards looking and forward-looking because I never thought in my under graduate career that that would give rise to a directly relevant career experience. I did not know I can get a job that would use my logic courses and I would get paid to basically do my logic mid-term. I did not know that it was possible. I was delighted to find out that those things-that there could be a tie. But, then there was another very clear conceptual bridge to joining Yahoo. Because when Jerry and David were starting out what did they have? They had a heterogeneous database full of information about anything and everything you can imagine and they were trying to figure out how to architect that database. How to bring it some order or structure so that people can make sense of this, people can find what they want, while not wasting time in what they did not want. So, the conceptual parallels were really significant. Now the practical parallels were few and far between. I went from a artificial intelligence project, a basic research effort in AI where the milestones were every 6 months to into the frying pan of the web that is 24x7 and global and you got to fire every 6 seconds. And like it or not you are getting the feedback immediately. But that was accelerating to be doing something that was with that kind of immediacy of feedback and action and reaction.
Kamla: Today you are feeding information to an insatiable animal: the web. Right?
Ninja: Absolutely.
Kamla: What keeps you awake at night?
Ninja: Just enthusiasm for what is possible. I have never been a person who knew what I wanted to be when I grow up. I have never known, I have never had a very ,very clear cut 2 year or 5 years or 10 years plans or goals. And this is a place to have this lens, you know this vantage point on the world. I feel really lucky to be in the middle of the nexus of so much human activity to get to reflect on that and project onto that. What am I learning about the world and what am I learning about my own capacities and then what can I do with them back in the world? That is what keeps me up at night. It is the sheer possibility.
Kamla: Ninja we could have gone on, but we have run out of time. Thank you so much for a good conversation.
Ninja: Thank you so much it was a pleasure.
You were listening to Ninja Srinivasan, Editor-in-Chief at Yahoo! Inc. In case you missed you may want to tune in and listen to Part 1 of our conversation with Ninja. This is Kamla Bhatt. This interview is brought to you in association with LiveMint Radio. And as always thank you for tuning in.
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First Published: Sun, Feb 22 2009. 06 53 PM IST