Charlottesville tech: a community that won’t be stopped by tragedy

Note: This post was written on August 17, 2017. I was living in Charlottesville, Virginia at the time; I had been based there since 2011 and would end up living there until 2019. Unfortunately, 5 days before this post was written, a tragedy happened in my town. This was my attempt to provide an alternative perspective on Charlottesville, the town, when this specific (terrible) tragedy on a specific (terrible) day became all anyone knew about it in the national headlines for months and years on end.

tl;dr — This New York techie moved to Charlottesville six years ago and witnessed a vibrant tech ecosystem develop. Though Charlottesville has some deep social problems, it’s also a place of creativity and optimism. Its best communities will prevail.

After spending my childhood, teenage years, college years, and early working years in and around New York City, in 2011, I was ready for a change. My wife was applying to medical schools across the country, and I was in the early stages of running my tech startup as a fully remote/distributed team.

Charlottesville’s pedestrian Downtown Mall on a calm fall day in 2013.

Charlottesville’s pedestrian “Downtown Mall” on a calm fall day in 2013. (source)

I think prior to the tragic events of Saturday, August 12, most life-long New Yorkers I know rarely gave much thought to Charlottesville, Virginia. Maybe they would hear the occasional news story about it, or had a friend, or friend of a friend, who attended the University of Virginia. But, for the most part, the locale occupied very little room in their brain — perhaps none — as was the case for me in 2011.
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A Different Way — Thoughtful Financing, Or Why We Said “No” to a Lot of Money

Note: This post was authored by Sachin Kamdar, my co-founder at, in 2017. It was written as CEO of the company we started together, but reflects our joint attitude, at least at that moment in time, toward fundraising. It is hosted on my blog as an archival project for the MuckHacker group blog we started a few years back.

I felt pretty good at the start of 2017. My company,, had just executed its best quarter without exploding expenses. We’d built the business to a point where we effectively had unlimited runway to stay the course and still grow. However, coming off of such a successful year made me realize how much more we could do.

2016 gave us a taste of how impactful launching new products and working with differentiated customers could be for our business. We’d only scratched the surface. I knew what we had in the bank wasn’t going to be enough to capture the full opportunity in the market. We needed to fundraise if we wanted to accelerate our momentum.

Sachin Kamdar, CEO at (left); Andrew Montalenti, CTO (right)

I know I’m preaching to the choir when I say fundraising is hard; the numbers are against us. Mattermark found that on average, just 17% of companies that raise a Series A go on to raise a B and that number dwindles to 0.3% for later rounds.

While raising capital is hard, there’s an emerging debate as to whether growing your business organically from customer revenue is even harder. The founder of Basecamp lambasted the VC market for misalignment with entrepreneurs, suggesting the market was architected with few windows for success, instead encouraging growth at all costs.
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The Great Reckoning in Digital Attention

Note: At the time of this post’s publication, I was the founder/CTO of, a company that worked closely with major media companies on a real-time analytics platform.

The attention economy is broken.

Brands are spending billions of dollars on a complex digital ad ecosystem to influence consumers, but with often terrible results. Publishers, meanwhile, have never had bigger digital audiences — but they only earn a fraction of the revenue, mainly due to the power of the Google/Facebook adtech dominance.

Spending on Google and Facebook

Spending on Google and Facebook ads exploded between 2010 and 2016, as shown by the orange areas above. Google and Facebook also have about half of all the advertising revenue in the Internet category. It’s very likely that by 2020, that will be closer to 60–70%, with every other Internet publisher on the planet fighting for a shrinking portion of ad dollars.

Consumers — you and me — are the ones footing the bill. We see increasingly slow page load times for publisher pages which are bloated with ad tech vendor code; increasingly invasive ads from brands who are desperate to catch a click; and, a media trend toward outrage, rather than thoughtful debate.

NYC city street

On this last point: it is outrage, not truth, that prevails in an Internet economy built around attention capture and auction, which is how our programmatic digital advertising ecosystem works.

This is because outrage — through a quirk of societal and brain evolution — is more effective at capturing our time. Indeed, as we’ve been learning, outrage decoupled from truth is one of the most engaging forms of content on the web.
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The Internet is a cult generator

Noam Chomsky once gave a great answer on what he sees as the “purpose of education.” I hand-transcribed this quote because it was so good:

“Technology is basically neutral. It’s kind of like a hammer. The hammer doesn’t care whether you use it to build a house, or a torturer uses it to crush somebody’s skull. The hammer can do either.

The Internet is extremely valuable if you know what you’re looking for. I use it all the time for research, as everyone does.

If you know what you’re looking for — if you have a framework of understanding which directs you to particular things, and sidelines lots of others — then this can be a valuable tool. Of course, you always have to ask yourself, ‘Is my framework the right one?’ Perhaps you need to modify it from time to time.

But you can’t pursue any kind of inquiry without a relatively clear framework that’s directing your search and helping you choose what’s significant and what isn’t; what can be put aside; what is going to be pursued; what ought to be challenged; what should be further developed; and so on.

You can’t expect somebody to become a biologist or a doctor by giving the person access to the Harvard University biology library, and just say, ‘Look through it, you’re on your own.’ The Internet is the same, but just magnified enormously.

If you don’t understand or know what you’re looking for — if you don’t have some conception of what matters — then you’re lost. And you should always be willing to question your framework and make sure you’re not going in the wrong direction.

But if you don’t have that, exploring the Internet is just picking out random factoids that don’t mean anything.

Behind any significant use of contemporary technology is some well-constructed directive apparatus. It is very unlikely to be helpful — it is very likely, in fact, to be harmful.

It turns out, for example, that a random exploration through the Internet turns out to be a cult generator. Pick up a ‘fact’ here, another ‘fact’ there, and someone else reinforces it, and all of a sudden you have some crazed picture that has some ‘factual’ basis, but nothing to do with the world.”

–Noam Chomsky, transcribed from this YouTube video

This is why I am personally so careful about my internet media diet, which has been a topic of reflection on this blog going back to its creation in the 2000s. Stay healthily skeptical!

He Who Controls Traffic Reigns King

Note: This post was authored by Sachin Kamdar, my co-founder at, in 2016. It was written as CEO of the company and when he refers to “we” in the post, he is speaking about’s customers, most of which were independently-run top-ranked websites who were struggling to compete on the open web with the digital advertising and internet traffic duopoly held by Google and Facebook. It is hosted on my blog as an archival project for the MuckHacker group blog we started a few years back.

Last week we saw earnings reports from the two giants of the internet: Google & Facebook. Alphabet (formerly Google) beat expected earnings handily in Q3 2016 and announced a $7B buyback. Facebook did the same showing that a slowdown in user growth doesn’t equal a slowdown in revenue growth.
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The Twitter growth conundrum

Note from the future: this post written in November 2016. A lot has happened to Twitter (or, Twitter/X) since then. But, the fundamental analysis of Twitter’s growth dynamics outlined in this post continues to hold true even 8+ years later.

Twitter is the public Internet company everyone loves to hate these days. It’s not growing. No one wants to buy it. And people are genuinely confused: what, exactly, is Twitter? Is it a social network? A “micro-blogging” platform? A “live events destination”? A social data company?

Twitter 2011–2015 user growth.

I am one of Twitter’s active users, tweeting on topics such as analytics, Python programming, and the media industry, in which I work. In my day-to-day dealings with journalists, editors, social media managers, audience development folks, and others in the media industry, it’s clear Twitter has a special position among the professional class of media raconteurs.
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Simple and Universal: A History of Plain Text, and Why It Matters

My first computer did not have a web browser. But I remember using my first web browser (Mosaic) with some awe. It was the late 90’s and though the web was not nearly as beautiful or functional as it is now, it worked. It was clear — even to my young self — that there was something very special about it. The web had separated text from paper.

Mosaic wasn’t much to look at, but its potential was inspiring nonetheless.

You see, before the web, we were already exploring alternative forms of text, in the context of the “desktop publishing” revolution, whose killer app — especially in media circles — was QuarkXPress. However, even desktop publishing still had a conceptual model of printed pages of text. The “output” of desktop publishing tools was almost always a paper printer. The “publishing” part of “desktop publishing” was “printing”. QuarkXpress and Adobe InDesign fought an epic battle to determine who could generate the best-looking paper, most efficiently.
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You won’t know it when you don’t see it

The NYTimes wrote about a study on how the Chinese government mass fabricates posts on social networks to control public opinion. The studied group is the famed “50 Cent Party” (aka 50c).

Contrary to prior findings, these researchers reveal that these posts are not meant to confront or defend the government, but instead to distract attention away from timely political issues that could result in collective social action. Specifically:

… the 50c party engages in almost no argument of any kind and is instead devoted primarily to cheerleading for the state, symbols of the regime, or the revolutionary history of the Communist Party.

I’ve always thought the best propaganda blends in so well to its surroundings as to not draw any attention. For example, we all see political campaign slogans as discrete pieces of propaganda in the wild, and we can recognize them for what they are.

When we know somewhat was made to support a political campaign, it’s easy to put on one’s own “analysis cap” and cut it down from that perspective. We can detach ourselves from the message, and thus choose not to be influenced by it.
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What is a muckhacker?

Historical Context: back in 2013, I registered a domain and hired a designer to work on a logo for something called I also registered a short domain to go along with it, The main goal was to launch my own group writer blog as a way to put myself into the same mindset as the publishers we were serving as customers at The topical focus was going to be media criticism. This post laid out why I picked the name “MuckHacker”. Eventually, this project became a “Custom Domain” at But, over time, I relocated the “MuckHacker content” that was published over the years back to this blog. All the posts from the MuckHacker group blog, which operated from 2014-2017, can be found via this post listing with the “muckhacker” tag.

Some definitions of related terms may be helpful:

  • muck, n: something sordid or corrupt
  • hack, n: a colloquial term for a writer or journalist
  • hacker, n: an enthusiastic or skillful computer programmer, often associated with the Free Software movement
  • hacker, n: someone who seeks and exploits weaknesses in a computer system or computer network
  • muck, v: to mishandle or spoil something
  • hack, v: to cut with rough or heavy blows
  • muckraker, n: a writer who investigates and publishes truthful reports to perform an auditing or watchdog function

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The media and “objectivity”

Chomsky — the same one behind “Manufacturing Consent”, an excellent analysis of newspaper and TV journalism in the pre-Internet era — walks us through a structural analysis of modern media here:

There is a concept of “objectivity” to which journalists are supposed to adhere: report honestly what is “within the Beltway” — that is, what is considered acceptable by major power centers, state and private. Departing from that framework is “biased.” There are to be sure exceptions, but there extensive documentation showing that this framework is upheld with quite impressive consistency. It can be changed in so many ways.

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