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Rise of the robots - why we're excited about conversational computing #bots #convcomms

5 min read

Bots are taking over the web.

You interact with bots just like you would talk to your friends. Ask them a question, and they'll reply. Give them a command, and they'll go off and do it.

All without having to install a new app. Sometimes you don't even have to create a new account.

Natural to use

This was also the promise of web applications: you could run any application you wanted for any purpose, without installing anything other than a web browser. Web apps took off because workers could use software without having to go through their IT departments. Even if your IT department wasn't an obstacle, there was no need to have a specific operating system. Software just worked, across all your devices, with no technical obstacles.

Bots have all of these properties, too - and they have a consistent interface. Whether you have four chatbots installed or forty, you never have to learn a new set of menus or get your head around a new way of working. You just chat.

In a seminal piece last month, Chris Messina (inventor of the hashtag and open web pioneer) wrote about what he called the rise of conversational commerce:

No longer do you need to convince users to “download and install” an app — they can just invite a bot to a conversation and interact with it [eventually] like they would a person. Zero barriers to adoption, with minimal risk to the user.

(Mobile apps, by the way, are turning into a losing game: most users drop off in the first three days, and the vast majority of smartphone users never download any new apps.)

Bots at work

When XOXCO released Howdy, Ben Brown wrote:

Messaging and notifications. Software automation. Always-on connected devices. Machine intelligence. These elements can be combined to form a very interesting new type of application: the digital coworker — a piece of software that works along side you at your job and participates in the day to day activities of your company as an active and engaged member of the team.

Howdy allows you to ask questions to your team and turns them into a report to help you to make faster decisions. We use it at Known to power standup meetings, but it could also be used to take lunch orders or ask custom questions.

XOXCO raised $1.5m for Howdy, and hired the novelist Neal Pollack to give their bot a unique voice. For me, this is perhaps the most interesting aspect of bot design, and the bit I'm most excited to play with: character development. If you're building a virtual colleague, it had better be an interesting one.

Bots in the media

While announcing his resignation, Owen Thomas, formerly the editor of ReadWrite, noted that:

There’s an amazing opportunity ahead of us to redefine how newsrooms work, driven by data, assisted by artificially intelligent bots, and delivering narrative experiences through new mediums such as messaging apps.

Indeed, Ditherati, his content site, is "an experiment in short-form content delivered via messaging bots". Imagine having a friend who sends you interesting news stories from time to time.

I am interested in the potential of telling a story conversationally. Stories are how we interpret the world, and every relationship we have has a narrative. Again, the ability for writers and artists to craft a human story is suddenly much more important in a bot-led application universe.

More pragmatically, there's also huge potential for bots to be useful colleagues in working newsrooms.

Newsrooms are busy, hectic places, constantly working under tight deadlines. Fast answers are vital. What if you could ask a bot:

  • Where is [journalist's name]?
  • Did [photographer's name] submit their piece?
  • What are we missing for tonight's newscast?
  • What is our lead story?

What if we could ask it to let us know when [journalist] files their story? What if we didn't have to ask it?

Suddenly every human in the newsroom is freed up to do specialist work, knowing that air traffic control is taken care of.

A universe of bots

It's obvious that there are a million different use cases for this kind of supportive conversational computing. There are lots of repetitive, important tasks we do every day. In a startup, we're constantly checking what we call KPIs: Key Performance Indicators like monthly active users and revenue growth. Being able to ask a bot to track those for us saves us time, and holds us accountable.

Lots of different kinds of applications are possible. There's a universe of different contexts to support, data providers to integrate with, and services to provide.

In all of these situations, you're always having a conversation with information. For the first time, the bot paradigm makes this explicit.

What does this have to do with Known?

So far, most bots have been fairly closed: one bot per application, with very little ability to customize. Meanwhile, every organization has a different context, and a different set of data that they need to have a conversation with.

One of the key benefits of a chat interface is that no matter which bot you're talking to, the output will always be in more or less the same format. A stock ticker bot will tell you a number; so will a comparison shopping bot, a business intelligence bot, a Wolfram Alpha bot, and so on. Suddenly the data from every application on the web can be combined as easily as talking to a friend. We think this will be particularly useful for small teams of people who need quick answers.

It turns out there are lots of ways we can help you have a digital colleague that is yours.

We've been thinking about bots a lot, and we're building something new, that is very different to anything else out there. And we can't wait to share it with you.


You should follow Known on Twitter: @withknown.

Robot photo taken by Justin Morgan.

Announcing Known 0.9, named for Delia Derbyshire

2 min read

We're delighted to announce the release of Known 0.9.

This version contains a huge number of enhancements, new features and fixes. It's much faster; it supports non-Latin characters in post URLs and hashtags; it supports Twitter cards; autosave works better and posting is more reliable; search is better; and much more. A lot of this is due to contributions from Kyle Mahan and Marcus Povey, as well as lots of energetic activity across the open source community. You can download it here.

Every version of Known is named to highlight someone whose creative work has influenced our lives. Previous versions have been named for Katherine Dunham, Miriam Makeba and Giotto Di Bondone.

A pioneering musician, decades ahead of her time

Delia DerbyshireDelia Derbyshire joined the BBC in 1960, originally working on a classical music review show. Her scientific approach to music presented itself immediately: she was able to look at the grooves in the vinyl records and determine exactly when a certain instrument was playing.

However, she came into her own at the Radiophonic Workshop, an in-house sound effects studio that had been established at the BBC. Here, she famously recorded the theme tune to Doctor Who:

To begin with Delia thought she had found her own private paradise where she could combine her interests in the theory and perception of sound; modes and tunings, and the communication of moods using purely electronic sources. Within a matter of months she had created her recording of Ron Grainer's Doctor Who theme, one of the most famous and instantly recognisable TV themes ever. On first hearing it Grainer was tickled pink: "Did I really write this?" he asked. "Most of it," replied Derbyshire.

Grainer fought for her to receive a composer's credit, but the BBC's policy was for Radiophonic Workshop members to remain anonymous. Broadcast in November, 1963, it remains one of the most hauntingly original theme tunes ever recorded:

Her later work is less well known, but is stunning: it predated EDM by around 30-40 years, but would not be out of place on a modern record label. (Her lost tapes are astonishing.)

Sadly, she didn't receive the recognition she deserved in her lifetime.

Download Known 0.9 Derbyshire

You can get Known 0.9 in .zip and .tgz formats. Our source code is always available on GitHub.

Alternatively, you can host your Known site with us.

Why we built Known

7 min read

Known has become the easiest way to create an online community to support your class or group. We've built an easy-to-use platform that lets people publish in a group with a variety of media, from blog posts and photographs to files and points on a map. Each post can be private or public; every Known site as a whole can be private or public. And it all works on any device, from the biggest, strongest desktop to the most entry-level smartphone, as long as it comes with a web browser.

Institutions like Harvard and MIT use it to run classes; so do groups teaching web skills in rural India, activists promoting racial justice, writers who need to control their identities, and open source hackers.

Here's how we got here, and here's where we're going.

Finding a fit in higher education

We arrived at Matter knowing we wanted to give people more ownership over their conversations and content online. As well as investing in our team and creating a structured environment for us to grow our company, they gave us a grounding in design thinking which helped us change the way we think about technology businesses.

It was through this process, and hundreds of hours of conversations with teachers and students, that we discovered a deep need in education for social platforms. 98% of higher educational institutions use something called a Learning Management System - platforms like Blackboard and Moodle - but very few report that they are satisfied with the experience. These platforms focus on administration, rather than learning. While they are often used for classroom teaching, they fall comically short of the kinds of social experiences students are used to.

Enter Known. Our platform runs as a stand-alone community site, but it can also integrate with a school's LMS to add those much-needed social features. We offer single sign on to campuses, and unlike many social platforms, let you publish any kind of file you need to. All our plans come with unlimited storage and bandwidth, so you don't need to worry about capacity. We sell SaaS subscriptions, and enterprise licenses for organizations that want to run Known on their own infrastructure.

We also understand that conversations don't just happen in tiny sites on the web. Known sites can push their content across social networks: audio, for example, can be immediately copied to a SoundCloud account. Using, we can pull replies and likes from those social networks back to the community, so everything is always stored in one place.

Social infrastructure for campuses

The possibilities are endless. Any campus can run as many Known communities as they need to. We also know that discovering all the content being created on a campus is key, so we've started to provide social hubs and search engines for all of it. On-campus users can search for content that only they can see; visitors to a campus can search for and discover content that has been made public. The result is an easy-to-use gateway to everything happening at a campus. It's never been done before.

We know that in education, one size rarely fits all. So we offer design sprints, where we'll arrive on campus and run design thinking sessions with students, faculty and staff. These allow us to tailor the product to meet the needs of a particular institution, so it complements their activities, their design, and their culture. (These sprints turn out to be useful whether you end up using Known or not.)

Because that's the other thing about Known: it's open source and extremely customizable.

An open source core

In VentureBeat, Lightspeed's John Vrionis writes:

The OSS companies that will be pillars of IT in the future are the companies that leverage a successful OSS project for sales, marketing, and engineering prioritization but have a product and business strategy that includes some proprietary enhancements. They’ve figured out that customers are more than happy to pay for an enterprise-grade version of the complete product, which may have security, management, or integration enhancements and come with support. And they also understand that keeping this type of functionality proprietary won’t alienate the community supporting the project the way something such as a performance enhancement would.

This is our strategy. Our core platform is available on GitHub: you can get it right now. We offer a fully-managed service, with unlimited storage and bandwidth, so you don't need to worry about server maintenance or capacity. But we also offer premium features like LTI integrations, file uploads, and searchable user directories.

We love our open source community. Thousands of people use Known to publish on their own site as an indieweb blog, and the activity helps us build a better platform for everyone. Every single page on every Known site has a little heart icon. Click it, and you're prompted to send us feedback. We read every single message personally, and it allows people who aren't developers or designers to contribute to the community and help us develop the product.

John goes on to say:

OSS businesses turn the customer discovery process completely upside down. Open source software is put into the wild, and the company immediately receives signals from those who are interested. Entrepreneurs get the benefit of real data and usage to help them decide where to focus engineering and sales-and-marketing resources. This is tremendously helpful and important. Data, not guessing, drives prioritization of the limited resources at a company’s disposal.

The combination of an open source development model and a design thinking product process means that we can rapidly prototype new ideas, and get strong signals from real people about the desirability of our platform.

Beyond education

It's obvious that a flexible community platform that runs on any device has applications beyond education. With LDAP / Active Directory integration, you can run it alongside your intranet to support a project or a company. Because you can make a community private, we've even seen families use it to share photos of their children that they wouldn't feel comfortable publishing on Facebook.

Mozilla's CEO Chris Beard said today that he thought of revenue as "a means to do better for the world". We agree: it is important to be a growing, valuable company, but in service to being able to provide a platform that can support any class and give anyone in the world a voice in a space they control. The total market for Known in education is measured in billions of dollars, but our potential goes beyond that.

We're living in a world where everyone can be connected, but only a handful of companies control those conversations. Censorship and surveillance are growing threats. By creating an open, easy-to-use platform that works on every device, we can help everyone own their own conversations. Not only can top-tier universities and companies benefit, but we can help disadvantaged communities, too. From non-profits sharing resources in developing nations to vulnerable groups who need to protect their identities right here in America, we believe we can make a difference.

Our role as technologists is to build a better future where everyone is represented. That's the promise of the web, and it's something core to our mission and beliefs. We're building what I call respectful software, and by showing it can be successful, we will encourage other vendors to follow.

Today, it's the best way to build an online community. But Known has an even brighter future ahead of it. We're excited to bring it to you.

Get involved

Check out our website, and follow us at @withknown on Twitter.

If you're a developer, you can find our core platform on GitHub, and you're invited to join the developer mailing list.

And you can always email me at I'd love to talk to you.


This post was originally published on

We spent a great weekend helping @DavidsonCollege design their @DavidsonDomains program. Excited!

Every Known site has a way to send us direct feedback. We read every message personally. Feedback is a gift!

A short note about web standards from your friends at Known

5 min read


As a company, we have a mission. We've read lots of advice since we started about how you should show, not tell, your reason for being. That makes sense to us, but here it is:

Known empowers every group and individual to communicate from their own space on the Internet.

It's a pretty simple idea: the Internet should be a level playing field for everybody, whether you're a student in a developing nation, a lone hobbyist, or giant tech company. The Internet works best when everyone can communicate with everyone else, without censorship or uneven distribution. It's an ideal we share with other open organizations like Mozilla.

One of the things that makes this work is standardization. Everything on the Internet talks the same underlying languages. It's worked pretty well for the low-level networking protocols that move data; it's worked well for applications like email; and it's worked well for the web.

The web in particular has become the most powerful communications medium human civilization has ever known. That's a pretty big statement, but consider the cultural impact of blogging and social media on society in a relatively short space of time. Facebook - undeniably part of the web - has, by itself, at least 1.44 billion people who use it regularly to talk to their friends, share photographs and learn about the world.

The web grew organically, like the Internet before it. Like any technology, it's a little older now, and it's missing a few things. There's no agreed-upon concept of identity on the web, and no way to represent actions like "sharing" and "liking". We are also in a multi-device world, rather than one where we access the web solely from a computer screen. Understandably, work is underway to upgrade and improve the standards we rely upon. Just as we need HTML to have an agreed-upon way to display information on the web, we now need a way to deal with these new uses of it.

Standards without grassroots adoption are just bureaucracy. It's crucial that any new "standard" is broadly embraced without coercion.

These standards can't be dictated by large corporations alone (although they're an important part of the web ecosystem). If we want the web to continue to be the platform for innovation it has been to date, it must serve the interests of individuals: both individual developers, and people who rely on it to live and work.

In the latest version of Known, we shipped experimental support for Accelerated Mobile Pages. This is an answer to something called Facebook Instant Pages, which caches website content inside a mobile app so it can be displayed immediately. While Instant Pages content must be negotiated with Facebook, anyone can publish AMP content. So far, so good.

Unfortunately, AMP redefines the HTML standard with some custom tags. That's not great. It also requires that we load JavaScript from a specific source, which radically centralizes website content. We assume this is a shim until these features are more widely supported, so we can live with that. What's less impressive is that AMP whitelists ad networks that participating pages can be a part of. If you're not generating ad revenue from one of A9, AdReactor, AdSense, AdTech or Doubleclick and want to have your websites load swiftly inside social mobile apps, you're out of luck.

We've shipped support for AMP because we see potential here, and recognize that something should be done to improve the experience of loading independently-published content on the web. But attempting to bake certain businesses into a web standard is a malformed idea that is doomed to fail. If this is not corrected in future versions of the specification, we will withdraw support.

Elsewhere, we see other web standards efforts attempt to bake in certain ideologies or approaches. I think it's important to understand that the web succeeded because:

  • It's open
  • It's easy
  • It's agnostic

Here's what I think that means in practice:

Open: Any new web standard must be created as part of an open process. Imagine if Marc Andreessen hadn't been free to propose the img tag, for example. It also can't be created behind closed doors, or solely as part of organizations that require an entrance fee. The conversations that shape the standards have to be open, too, which means being welcoming to newcomers and understanding of different personal contexts.

Easy: Any new web standard must be easy enough to understand and implement that a developer can get something up and running in an afternoon. HTML, HTTP and RSS all adhere to these principles. So do the indieweb protocols, which is why we support them and think they are likely to succeed.

Agnostic: Any new web standard should not give preference to any company or organization.

We believe in the web, and the Internet as a whole, as an incredibly powerful platform for innovation, business, communication and personal expression. To do that means standing up for openness and accessibility.

Self-hosted Known 0.8.5 has left the building - with better indieweb, micropub and AMP support.

1 min read

We just released Known 0.8.5, which you can download from our website.

This version contains expanded support for the micropub open standard, so you can use open tools like Quill and Woodwind to post to your Known site. It also contains experimental support for Accelerated Mobile Pages. We have more to say about both, and open standards on the web in general, at a later time.

There's also a new command line tool, with a simple plugin interface, so server administrators can script certain tasks to run automatically.

Here's the full list of changes:

  • Experimental AMP support
  • Better support for embedded content
  • A slew of indieweb improvements, including upgraded micropub support for actions like likes and reshares
  • A command line tool (with extensible plugin interface) to automatically create a config.ini file, among other things
  • Themes now take template precedence over plugins - so a theme can create a new style for a plugin-provided feature
  • Known now works better under FastCGI on some shared hosts
  • Lots of API fixes and consistency changes under the hood

If you prefer, of course, you can get a fully-featured Known site on our fully-managed service.

Known Announces DreamHost as Exclusive Web Hosting Sponsor

3 min read

SAN FRANCISCO, September 29, 2015 – Known, an open source publishing platform used to empower both individuals and groups to own their social activity online, today announced that it had entered into an exclusive web hosting sponsorship agreement with DreamHost, the Los Angeles based web host and domain registrar. This exclusive sponsorship will help fund further development on Known, and allow Known users to easily find high-quality hosting for their sites at a special price.

“DreamHost is one of the most trusted web hosts in the world, as well as a prominent supporter of open source software, and we’re excited to work with them,” said Known CEO Ben Werdmuller.  “Web hosts like DreamHost empower anyone to own a space on the Internet, and this collaboration makes it easier than ever. DreamHost services are fully compatible with Known, and we recommend them for supporting Known sites.” 

DreamHost will be visible across Known’s websites, and in the administration panel of the software itself. Known has also committed to make installation of its software as simple as possible across DreamHost services.

DreamHost has long been a supporter of open source platforms, and is a major supporter of Open Stack solutions. As well as affordable web hosting, the company provides virtual and dedicated web servers, standards-based block storage, and domain registration.

Known was a graduate of Matter Ventures, a values-based accelerator in downtown San Francisco backed by the Knight Foundation, PRX and KQED. It released its first beta version in September 2014, and powers tens of thousands of social community sites. Its group sites are used by universities and organizations around the world.

For organizations in sectors other than web hosting, the benefits of sponsoring Known include:

  1. Value from association with the project and its mission of allowing everyone to own their social activity online
  2. Recognition of sponsorship on Known web presences and in the administration panel of the Known software

About DreamHost

DreamHost is a global Web hosting and cloud services company with over 370,000 entrepreneur and developer customers, and 1.3 million blogs, websites, and apps hosted. The Company develops and uses Open Source software throughout its infrastructure, and is a leading proponent of OpenStack and Ceph. DreamHost offers a wide spectrum of Web services including Shared Hosting, Virtual Private Servers (VPS), Dedicated Server Hosting, Domain Name Registration, the public cloud storage service, DreamObjects, and the public cloud computing service, DreamCompute. Please visit for more information.

About Known

Known is a provider of open source social software solutions for groups and individuals. Its flagship product allows anyone to run a group website where participants can publish and discuss using a variety of media. Known also provides consultancy services to media companies, universities and corporations, helping them own their social activity online. Please visit for more information.

Self-hosted Known 0.8.4 has left the building!

1 min read

We just released Known 0.8.4, which you can download from our website. Here are some of the fixes and changes:

  • See who you've invited to Known, and resend or rescind invitations
  • Hashtag linking improvements
  • List your Bitcoin, Spotify and SIP addresses in your profile
  • Upload SVG pictures
  • Numerous interface improvements

Known 0.8.4 also contains many more fixes and improvements. You can download the Known 0.8.4 package from our open source page.

If you prefer, you can get a free Known site on our fully-managed service.

Create an enterprise social discussion space in 3 minutes

3 min read

Over 90% of organizations have some kind of social network running internally. As the co-founder of Elgg, one of the first internal social networking solutions, I find this gratifying: 12 years ago, few people saw the potential for social technology beyond personal blogging and sharing.

Unfortunately, too many organizations choose to purchase an enterprise social solution with a Field of Dreams mentality: "if you build it, they will come". On the contrary, as Harvard Business Review noted recently:

The reality is that the landscape is littered with failed technology deployments. Altimeter’s research shows that less than half of the enterprise collaboration tools installed have many employees using them regularly.

When we work with higher education, we're keen to point out that technology should support teaching, and not the other way around (a curriculum shouldn't be moulded around the capabilities of your technology). The same is true in organizations: the way your enterprise functions should be in tune with your business goals, rather than the software you happen to be using.

Forcing people to use an internal social platform is counter-intuitive. Instead, it makes sense to provide a platform that supports you when you need it, in a flexible way. That means it's got to be simple, support ad-hoc use, but allow you to keep your activity around in case you need to refer to it later. Many organizations also require the ability to audit activity.

If you just need to create a one-off simple space to bring up to 200 people in to discuss a project either privately or publicly, you can use Known Pro. $10 for up to 200 users with unlimited storage and bandwidth is hard to beat. Signing up and inviting your users in takes less than three minutes. (I know: I've timed it countless times.)

If you're the kind of firm that needs to run social spaces on your own infrastructure, for compliance or legislative reasons, Known can provide this too. We can also run Known on a fully-managed private cloud for you.

We can also create a system for your organization that allows you to create unlimited social discussion spaces, all linked to your existing accounts via Single Sign On (in education, we use LTI; in enterprise, LDAP and Shibboleth are available). You can easily keep track of all the project spaces that have been created, and you can control access individually - which means you can invite people from outside your organization to help with a project, on a project-by-project basis.

It's completely customizable, flexible, easy-to-use, and mobile-first. We're proud to give you full control over your data and discussions.

To learn more about how Known can help your enterprise, get in touch.