“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.”

Ancestry subscribers stick around for 17 years — LOL — a big oops for MadMoney

Ancestry.com, which will trade under the ticker symbol ACOM, runs a subscription-based genealogy site. The company digs through billions of historical records to help subscribers name the branches on their respective family trees. While the venture may seem boring to the younger social-media set, a million people are willing to pay for the service.

And still more are signing up. Subscriptions are growing at a rate of 11%, with an average monthly fee of $16.50. Two-thirds of the subs are annual, though, and 38% of the site’s clients pay up for a premium package. Lifetime revenues per subscriber come in at $300, meaning that these people stick around for over 17 years. That explains the low 4% churn rate, which dwindles to 2% for Ancestry members who’ve stuck around for two or more years.

One of the worst pieces of financial journalism I have ever seen. Speaking of Ancestry subscribers:

“…these people stick around for over 17 years.”

LOL. Yes, Ancestry has had subscribers for 17 years — since 1992, years before the internet was even invented. That’s how a lifetime value of $300 is calculated. :)

That’s what you get when you don’t realize that MONTHLY REVENUE is $16.50 per person — not ANNUAL REVENUE.

Seriously, someone ought to QA this kind of stuff before people go out and buy or sell stock on weak analysis like this.

Posted via web from Paul’s posterous

Jim Cramer discussed Ancestry.com on Mad Money

But why the heck would you want to buy it?… I mean the flipper guys like it… the investors like it… what are they seeing?… I will tell you what they are seeing… first of all I bet many of you would never even consider going to a website that lets you identify and search thru your family tree… I mean this company may seem like many of the pointless .com IPO’s that have were foisted on us from 1999 to 2000… only to get wiped out not long after… when investors finally started evaluating them on sales and earnings instead of eyeballs, pagers, unique visitors.

Who wants Ancestry.com when you have Facebook to help you with people who are still alive?… just because you do not see the appeal of a companies product does not mean that there is not any appeal… let me explain to you… Ancestry.com runs a very sophisticated subscription model… and it seems to be working very well right now… and I should know, I am the Chairman of the .com myself, and subscription models rather than all advertising businesses are great annuity streams… if you do not understand Ancestry.com, I want you to think of it as one of the… let’s say the internet for the older demographic… Facebook for the over 65 crowd…

Interesting take on Ancestry — “the internet for the older demographic”, “Facebook for the over 65 crowd.”

Posted via web from Paul’s posterous

This Week: Ancestry IPO, FamilyLink goes viral, Navigating Facebook Platform changes

This week is going to be amazing. Possibly, the most interesting week of my career. I’ll explain.

Ancestry.com is slated to go public on Wednesday. I always dreamed of being part of that IPO, but I’ve been out of the company (7 years) longer than I was in the company (6 years). But my excitement about watching a company I helped create trade on a public exchange is mounting. I cannot wait to see what happens when ACOM debuts on the NASDAQ this week.

I’m thinking about holding an IPO party at my house on Wednesday for the early Ancestry.com employees who are no longer with the company. It would be fun to reminisce a bit and see where everyone is now. If “public demand” for a party is high, I’m sure we’ll be able to pull it off on short notice. Between LinkedIn and Facebook, my blog and twitter, we should be able to get at least a dozen or two people to show up. If you’re interested already (and qualify as a “former Ancestry employee”), shoot me an email. (paul AT familylink.com) We’ll watch a couple of old company videos and hopefully some Tivo’d coverage of some of the business news about Ancestry from Wednesday.

This week is also exciting because FamilyLink.com is going viral. Our FamilyLink.com Quantcast chart shows that we’ve had more than 6 million unique visitors since we debuted last month and we are just getting started. We think our Flash-based family tree tool is the funnest online tree ever created, and it is getting tons of usage. We hope to be a top Facebook Connect site soon. In fact, Facebook’s Wiki shows FamilyLink as an example of how to create invites and requests using Facebook Connect. Facebook has been an incredible platform for our company to build on.

Even though Compete.com shows us as having more unique visitors than Ancestry.com, and even though we are classified by them as a genealogy site, we are actually a totally different creature. We are a family social site. Users of our Facebook applications (we have about 60MM users) can easily navigate to FamilyLink.com and enjoy an enhanced family experience there. We connect you to your living relatives. We help you share content and life experiences and memories with your immediate and extended family. Family trees are a fun part of our overall experience (because everyone loves to see how they fit into their family) but we are not currently a deep research site for ancestral records.

About 15% of our users consider themselves genealogists (which means 85% do not).  Many of them already subscribe to paid services like Ancestry.com or use free genealogy web sites for research. We believe that genealogy will likely be an important advertising category for us in the future, since we are attracting millions of families to our service and as the saying goes, “there’s a genealogist in every family.” But you can also say there is a photographer, event planner, scrapbooker, top chef, health nut, sports fanatic, vacationer and couponeer in every family. When we ask customers what additional features they want us to build into FamilyLink, we get everything from photo albums to recipe sharing to online chats and event planning tools. We will generate ad or product revenue from a  lot of categories as we try to meet the needs of millions of families worldwide.

This week is also intense and interesting because of all the upcoming changes Facebook announced for their Platform last week. Here are some links:

  • Video of Facebook’s platform changes. Ethan Beard, who heads up the Facebook Developers Network, describes the product roadmap in this nearly one hour video. Mark Zuckerberg introduced him.
  • Facebook’s developer policies have been condensed from 17 pages to 3 pages — all policies are now in one place
  • Nick O’Neill’s This Week in Facebook post shows how much is going on at Facebook right now. The pace of change is incredible, and it is hard to keep up with everything, but the pay off for being in the Facebook ecosystem can still be amazing.

More information has been coming out in the last few months about the best ways to monetize social web sites than I have ever seen before. The Social Ad Summit in NYC provided a lot of good information, especially about virtual currencies and virtual goods; PeanutLabs followed the Mike Arrington “Spam Facebook Like a Pro” blog post with some great survey data about how users prefer to pay for in-game virtual currency; and this article from VentureDig covers monetizing social networks with recommendations for 2010.

It’s a great time to be in social networking. Investor interest in social networking related companies seems really strong. For years the conventional wisdom was that social networks could not be monetized, but it turns out that for most of that time the fastest growing social networks (like Twitter today) weren’t even focused on monetization. They were sacrificing revenue or deferring even thinking about revenue to capitalize on the fact that millions of people would be joining social networks and that the network effect would lead to a few winners, with a winner-take-most outcome. That was a very good bet.

It is well known that Facebook has turned cash flow positive, Twitter raised money at a $1 billion valuation, and Zynga is generating a ton of revenue, some say about $250 million this year. But it is not so well known that teen social network myYearbook turned profitable this year (in Q1 according to CEO Geoff Cook) because of “Lunch Money” and virtual goods. There are other under-the-radar social networking companies and app/game developers that aren’t well known at the moment that will breakout in 2010 and become widely known.

Here’s to hoping that FamilyLink.com will be one of them.