In a fog shrouded neighborhood of Cape Cod homes on the California coast, a development of tightly arranged homes with pitched roofs and white picket fences, Robert Scoble became the poster boy for the banality of viral—chubby and wet and wearing computer-equipped specs. “We were in competition with other journalists for story lines,” he says, when he realized that “nobody had written about waterproofness.” It might have been another failed meme if Scoble had gone with one of his earlier thoughts, like submerging Google Glass in a fish tank.
His wife Maryam snapped the shower shot and posted it to her Facebook page. Scoble reposted and tweeted the image. “The next thing I know, my wife was on the phone saying ‘you’re on top of Buzzfeed with 11 million views,’ and I’m like, ‘What’s Buzzfeed’?”
Long before becoming a digital age celebrity, Scoble, who was born in New Jersey, grew up in Cupertino and attended Saratoga’s Prospect High School, helped his mom stuff components into Apple II motherboards. That was in the 1970s, before robots and foreign outsourcing. His father was a Lockheed engineer. Teen-aged Scoble worked in camera stores, like the long-gone LZ Premiums on a Saratoga Ave. strip mall, and still keeps two 35mm SLRs on the bookshelf at his home office.
He dabbled in photojournalism at West Valley College’s student newspaper and switched to writing while at San Jose State University. After college, he worked at a niche magazine for computer programmers. It had a circulation of 110,000 and revenues of $10 million. Now he has nearly 4 million Google Plus followers, he says with a laugh, and hardly makes anything off it.
He still reports on technology but is he still a journalist? “I’m a hybrid,” he says without missing a beat, conjuring images of the eye camera-wearing cyborg plugging himself in like a Tesla at a charging station. What he means though, is that during a string of marketing jobs after the trade magazine, including one as a technology evangelist for Microsoft in Seattle, he swung over to what purists consider the dark side of public relations.
Today he serves as the Startup Liaison Officer for the web hosting company Rackspace, promoting the brand as open (“I only have one number, and I pick it up.”), transparent, community engaged—and cool. He does that by seeking out the bleeding edge technology, not by trying to be hip. He wears white gym socks and drives a minivan. “I’m a dork,” he confirms.
“I always try to have a first-row seat on technology—and have something to say about what it means,” Scoble says.
“I’m one of the last independent tech brands. Most of the other independents have turned into corporate brands, like TechCrunch or ReadWrite or GigaOm. Om Malik started a blog and turned that into a company. I never have turned into a company. It’s just me and my blog and my Twitter feed and my Facebook and my LinkedIn and Google Plus and Flipboard.”
Modern digital journalism can be a paradox. While he acknowledges the phenomenon of endlessly reposted factual mistakes, Scoble sees the benefits of crowdsourced journalism that leverages the collective brain. “I came along in the blogging world, and very quickly I realized the audience was smarter than I was. The audience helped me write my stories. Take the plane crash on Saturday here at SFO. In my comment stream was a guy who was on the plane and a guy who shot the plane that crashed in the Hudson and some pilots who have jet experience. By commenting they’re adding on to the story. They’re either correcting stuff that you got wrong or adding on to the understanding or sharing facts.
“That’s what I like about the real-time open Internet … The story could evolve and does have some incorrect stuff in the early hours. It did on the pro stuff too like CNN. You saw stuff that turned out not to be true for a whole lot of reasons because witnesses aren’t very accurate with their language.
“One witness said they saw a plane cartwheeling. It was obvious in looking at the plane, it never cartwheeled but eyewitnesses aren’t always good with what they saw. Their mind plays with them, and they’re not professional communicators. To her it looked like it cartwheeled. To me it looked like it went up a little bit. That gets repeated.
“There’s lots of incorrect information or rumors or things that aren’t yet confirmed by officials. But I’d rather have that than the old days when I had to wait to hear the story and even then, I couldn’t be sure it was the correct story because I couldn’t argue it out with pilots and passengers and the mayor. And SFO Airport is on Facebook and Twitter, and they’re able to correct stuff that they see is incorrect. They’re able to pass along information in real-time.
“I far prefer this new world where we’re all connected and all able to add onto the story than the old world where there’s a committee sitting in some corporate office to decide what the story was that I should read.”
As one of the first to see new technologies, both physical gadgets and web services like Instagram, of which he was one of the first users, Scoble enjoys geeking out to new products. He says he opens his video interviews with “So who are you?” because he’s bad with names and would forget to write them down. And it evolved into a signature shtick.
Scoble has a serious side as well that goes beyond the light-hearted jousting, gimmickry and fanboy enthusiasm and probably accounts for his staying power as a digital era talking head. He’s now trying to sort out the accelerating pattern of technological change in a more scholarly way, under the umbrella of The Age of Context, the book he’s co-authoring with Bay Area writer Shel Israel.
Ensconced amidst paper photo backdrops and light boxes and multiple monitors in his Half Moon Bay studio/office, where the one-man media machine manages his broadcasts and posts when he’s not in the field or on the road, he makes it back to the area where he grew up and was educated. He spoke at the 2011 TedX San Jose and will lead both a keynote interview and a session on The Age of Context at the Creative Convergence Silicon Valley technology conference in September. (C2SV is produced by a spinoff company of this newspaper.)
With seemingly endless energy, Scoble sits at his perch at the center of the media and technology worlds, calmly checking his messages and news feeds. He never turns them off, and says his job’s as good as it gets, and pays well to boot.
“I don’t have much down time. I don’t look at what I do as work. To me a job is putting a roof on a Dallas house in July. That’s work. I don’t do work. Most of my work is fun anyway. Why do I need down time from fun?”
For an industry that’s been hammered and decimated in the digital age, Scoble’s reinvention as a journalist with a personal brand, a short commute, a sponsor and his own distribution network offers hope that informed and independent voices can prosper amidst the wreckage of legacy media.
Jake Pierce and Bryan Kramer contributed to this piece.
Sept. 27, 2013
San Jose McEnery Convention Center