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Founder Bio

J.R. Johnson is the CEO and founder of Lunch.com, a social media website that helps people share and discover relevant information and opinions, and create free, custom Communities on any topic.  It is based on the premise that finding our common ground with one another online will help to make the world more tolerant and understanding.  

Before starting Lunch, Johnson launched the user-generated content website VirtualTourist.com in 2000. Under his leadership, VirtualTourist grew to one of the largest online travel communities in the world earning multiple honors, including Time Magazine’s ‘Recommended Travel Forum,’ Newsweek’s ‘Favorite Website,’ and one of Travel + Leisure’s ‘35 Best Travel Sites’.  

In 2004, Johnson launched OneTime.com, an online meta comparison tool focused on booking flights and hotels.   Both websites had over 8 million monthly users and in 2008 when Johnson sold them to Expedia.

A Southern California native, J.R. attended the University of Southern California and graduated with a Bachelor of Science Degree in Entrepreneurship, he also holds a Juris Doctorate from S.M.U. Law School and is a member of the State Bar of California. Being a pioneer in the field of user-generated content and a frequent speaker at industry events, Johnson co-founded the Lunch for Good series, a program designed to encourage offline discussions and thought leadership around issues core to the future of online participation.


Can Facebook Unring the Privacy Bell?

Silicon Valley Watcher

by J.R. Johnson
Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Remember when Facebook was called the "walled garden" because it felt so nicely protected from the outside world?

Privacy was core to Facebook's original success and brand identity. Recently though, the social media giant has begun to dramatically open up its users' information to be more public. The topic has earned a Time magazine cover and sparked active debate over their "real" agenda for privacy with everyone from Capitol Hill to Silicon Valley. Facebook's attempts to quell the backlash, resulted in 50 privacy settings with 170 options, which are now getting yet another makeover.

At this point, the number of privacy controls is actually irrelevant.

When you start as an open platform right out of the gate, expectations are set and clear. However, when you invite people into a walled garden and then start taking those walls down, that creates a fundamental change to the basic definition of your product.

The Catch: Facebook's Product Is Produced By Its Consumers

These privacy changes can have such a chilling effect on contribution to Facebook, that the resulting product can be comparable to Budweiser deciding to sell only non-alcoholic beer.

While Budweiser is the producer of their product and we, the public, are the consumers, Facebook is different because we are both the consumers of the product and the producers. This means the product itself is at stake. Not because people will leave Facebook entirely (though we've seen a few high profile Internet mavens make that move already). Rather, people will simply ... hesitate.

For example, they may hesitate before updating a new cell phone number, wondering who might see it; "liking" a new TV show, if they're not that committed to it yet; or posting vacation photos, letting potential strangers know we're not home.

As soon as that happens, then for all of us "consumers" on Facebook, our stream of personal entertainment and information just got a little less interesting. The best content on Facebook, the product that keeps users coming back to the site, might not be there anymore. We'll no longer have the same product.

We'll have non-alcoholic Bud.

First Self-Inflicted Demise in Social Networking?

Myspace overtook Friendster by building a faster and more scalable product. Facebook then supplanted Myspace, again because it was a better product. Privacy was the biggest differentiator in that case, and people flocked to it.

What's so interesting here, is that no one actually beat Facebook with a more innovative product. If they're unseated, it will be death by their own hand.

The more intertwined with the concept of privacy the Facebook brand becomes, the more the product will change, regardless of any privacy settings they may offer. It will be an erosion rather than an exodus, but the outcome could be just as detrimental.

Facebook has bounced back from past growing pains before, like allowing non-university users in, changing the newsfeed, and the Beacon debacle, among others. Some changes stuck, and some were rolled back.

In the case of privacy though, I'm not so sure that's a bell that they can un-ring.

For the sake of social media's future, and how much better it will be if transparency prevails, I sincerely hope Facebook can figure this out. I'm just afraid that every time we hear a friend, the media, and especially Facebook itself, talk about privacy, the bell gets rung yet again.

The Big Picture

If privacy was at the root of their success, why would Facebook even consider changing course to open things up?

I believe Facebook's intentions are actually very valid. Mark Zuckerberg believes in the power of connecting people around the world and all the potential good that can result. His stance seems to be that if we all open up a little bit and get comfortable sharing things about ourselves more openly, the world will be a better place.

Personally, I share these beliefs, and have since I was 15. My approach with my current company is actually based on very similar values, seeking to uncover people's points of common ground in order to help us all become more thoughtful and tolerant.

I believe this is really important work, so ultimately I'm rooting for Facebook. Though they'll have to pull off a branding Houdini like we've never seen before.

Social Media Can Change The World Through Common Ground


by J.R. Johnson
Sunday, November 15, 2009

J.R. Johnson is founder and CEO of Lunch.com, a user generated content platform focused on finding common ground, and host of the Lunch for Good event series

There’s been a rising interest in the concept of “social media for social good.” In large part, that discussion has been focused on cause-related social good. I have a different take, related more to the greater good of humanity as a whole. To my view, the Internet, specifically social media, has the potential – and responsibility – to make the world more thoughtful and tolerant by showing people their shared common ground.

The Web’s World Changing Potential

At 15 years old, I entered an essay contest where the first prize was a trip to Moscow. The subject: how to create world peace. I wrote about a board game that would pose questions about different cultures. The more you played, the more you learned about other cultures, and the less likely you’d be to want to nuke them. Voila! World peace. I ended up getting second place and a $50 savings bond. More than 20 years later, I’ve still never been to Moscow, but I haven’t given up on the belief that people around the world are fundamentally the same and share many of the same values.

Meanwhile, I’ve seen the advent of the Internet, and more recently, participated in the explosion of social media. What I’ve yet to see is for the Internet to fulfill its true potential to connect people by focusing on our common ground in the interest of growing our mutual understanding of each other. It’s certainly off to a great start – but we’ve barely scratched the surface.

Uncovering Common Ground

Utilizing commonalities has been a staple of many of the most successful online companies to date. Large e-commerce brands like Amazon and Netflix rely on the common ground among shoppers to make product recommendations. Facebook’s social graph is built entirely around areas of commonality, namely schools, work and offline friendships. Going even further back, we’ve seen discussion groups formed online around specific topics, originally through Usenet, and now across many sites.

In each of these examples there are threads of common ground that link people together, providing a significant value and benefit to the website as well as their members. However, I believe that the benefits of discovering our common ground can extend far beyond a good product recommendation or reconnecting with high school friends.

We are sharing unprecedented amounts of personal perspective through the online platforms mentioned above, as well as on blogs and user generated content sites like Twitter, Wikipedia, and YouTube. This increased sharing, combined with the technological transparency and connectivity that the Internet provides, is exposing our points of common ground more than ever before. The stage is set for a positive change in the way we view “us” and “them.” The more we understand our common ground, the more likely we are to understand each other’s differences.

The Common Ground Paradox

Yet, a common ground paradox exists. Often, when we gather around a common interest or passion, it creates a self-reinforcing silo, resulting in resentment or hatred toward anyone with opposing viewpoints. Finding common ground within one group often blocks our ability to find it outside of that group. It’s a natural human reaction and we all do it.

If I’m passionately in favor of public option healthcare, for example, and encounter someone strongly opposed to it, I feel alienated from them simply because of their take on that issue. If all we know about someone is that they disagree with us on something we care about, it’s almost impossible not to transfer our feelings about that issue onto the person. With zero common ground, it’s easy to hate them, or at a minimum dismiss them, which can be equally divisive. Once the “us” and “them” mentality sets in, we are unable to hear what they’re saying or understand the point they’re trying to convey.

Creating Connections

But today, we now have the ability to reduce that innate animosity through common ground discovery. Even if the only things we share are as trivial as loving Cherry Coke or Seinfeld, that’s a start. That trivial little something has the potential to change the way we see the person with whom we disagree. They’re no longer an image of what we hate or don’t understand, but someone with whom we’re similar in some small way. We will become more tolerant, understanding, and thoughtful when interacting with them. Does that mean, we ultimately agree with them? Of course not, but we will be able to hear them. At that point, we can learn something from someone we’d previously perceived as completely different.

In order to experience the benefits of this scenario, we need to take full advantage of the current landscape and put common ground at the forefront of our online interactions. It’s going to take more than good intentions though. We need the right set of tools and online platforms to make it a reality. It’s unlikely that we’ll all start analyzing the Twitter streams or Facebook Fan Pages of everyone we come across to learn that we share a love of Cherry Coke and Seinfeld before passing judgment about each other. As a Web entrepreneur, I’m tasking myself as well as my colleagues in the industry, to foster these types of connections through innovation.

Overall, this will be a subtle change to each individual interaction, but when multiplied by the millions of connections taking place online daily, the impact will be monumental. Imagine millions of people understanding their common ground with every other person in the world. Over time, this will change the way we look at different races, religions and nationalities, and shift the natural first impression that we are all different to a new first impression – that we are all somehow similar.

Opinion: Online, accountability's hot and anonymity's not

San Jose Mercury News

by J.R. Johnson
Saturday, September 12, 2009

As someone who spends a good deal of time focused on how people interact online, I've recently concluded that we are witnessing a powerful shift away from anonymity and toward accountability. I believe this will have a lasting positive effect on the nature of how people contribute content on the Internet. I've noticed the signs of this shift in many ways, but one last month really caught my attention.

A New York state court ordered Google, which owned the blog software at issue, to turn over the e-mail address of an anonymous blogger because the judge determined that content on the blog may be defamatory. The outed blogger has subsequently threatened to sue Google for $15 million.

In the past, most online comments posted in response to a case like this typically defend anonymity. Often, the commenters themselves are anonymous and obviously sympathize with anyone being forcibly unmasked.

More importantly, though, this sentiment comes from the general perception of the Internet as an "anything goes" forum, giving rise to an online culture where it's OK to say anything if you're anonymous. That lack of accountability emboldens people to behave without even the most basic civility or decency.

Just reading a few of the comments posted on this case helps to highlight the shift in overall tone and opinion regarding anonymity. One said, "OK, let's get this straight. A blogger using a free media service defames someone while hiding behind anonymity and then when she is charged with having to take responsibility for making such defaming statements sues the media service for her having to do so. Anyone else feel sick?" Another boils it down simply, "I'm glad this Blogger's identity was revealed. Trashing someone else & hiding behind anonymity is cowardly."

For too long, we have accepted the idea that the Internet is the supposed "Wild West" communication medium where people say whatever they want without consequence. Granted, there are valid and important reasons for having some degree of anonymous contribution, such as whistle-blowing and political expression. However, with the propensity for anonymous contribution to be so negative and hateful, we have also suffered an untold loss as a result.

Most online contribution is from a very small minority of people. Studies report anywhere from 1 percent to 20 percent of the online population is actually contributing; I'll just use 10 percent. If we are getting contributions from such a small but vocal minority, we are losing out on what 90 percent of the online population has to say.

One of the roadblocks to getting the other 90 percent to contribute has been the negative culture that has been acceptable online. But, with this recent shift toward accountability, we finally stand to benefit from the ocean of untapped potential that lies in those who may now feel more welcome to participate in a more evolved online community.

As a general optimist, I've always believed in our ability to elevate the quality of online interaction. I now have even greater hope that we're reaching a true tipping point. If we can get to a place where responsible participation is the benchmark for being a credible contributor, the benefits will be exponential.

More people will contribute, increasing not only the quality of what's written online but, in turn, our mutual understanding of one another.

More understanding begets more tolerance and a more thoughtful society as a whole.

Are those some big leaps? Certainly. Are they entirely possible and worth working toward? Without question.
How Twitter could overtake Google


by J.R. Johnson
Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Last week I did a simple Google search. I was looking for an old article about "bootstrapping" written by a woman named "Mitra," so I did a search for "Mitra bootstrapping." The number one result was from Twitter. It was a page containing a single tweet by Ms. Mitra which mentioned bootstrapping.

No big deal you say? Well, let's consider a couple of other things. Timing and position. First, she wrote the tweet only two weeks earlier and it was already the number one result. If there was no other content online matching my search, that would be one thing, but Ms. Mitra has written extensively about bootstrapping for her own blog, for Forbes Magazine, and she has written books on the subject which are all over Amazon. Each of these shows up in the results, but all below the link to Twitter.

Historically, Google's algorithm relies heavily on inbound links to help determine if a page is important and therefore where that page should rank in the results. This is a complex algorithm that Google is constantly tweaking, so by they time you read this, the results for the search I described above may even be different, but the message to take away remains. The priority that Google is giving to Twitter content represents a major change to the way the algorithm has historically worked. For Google to assign such a high priority to Twitter content, it must see Twitter content as being extremely relevant and valuable.

What exactly is the content being created on Twitter? I break that down into two categories. First, there is the very popular "I'm baking brownies" category which is very similar to the Facebook status update - sharing a mostly useless fact about what someone is doing or thinking. The second, and exponentially more important category are those with links in them. For example, "I'm baking brownies and here's the link to the recipe I'm using." That tweet just went from a meaningless status update to something that is actually useful - well, sort of useful if you are thinking about baking brownies yourself at that very moment.

Google has spent its entire existence trying to find and prioritize all online content, but they have never had the real time answer to their most important question: which content is most relevant? Twitter gives them just that, a real time answer to what the most popular brownie recipe is right now. It appears that Google understands the importance of this and that is why Twitter's pages are being indexed above more relevant and keyword dense pages like Ms. Mitra's blog, Forbes and Amazon.

It will be interesting to see if Google begins to apply more complex algorithms to content on Twitter, taking into account things like number of followers, follower/following ratios, number of Tweets sent, @ mentions, or tweets re-tweeted, and adjusting the relevance of a given tweet based on those calculations. Google can also take the relevance of a given tweet and then apply that relevance score to the underlying webpage that was linked to in the tweet. So as a user, if I searched for brownie recipe, I wouldn't have to land on the Twitter page "I'm baking brownies, here's the link to the recipe," I could just go directly to the recipe page.

This creates an interesting dilemma. We have the content creator, Twitter, being crawled, scraped, and indexed by the search engine, Google, but Twitter may not even get the benefit of that in the form of traffic coming to Twitter. Google, on the other hand, will dramatically improve its search results by getting real time access to the most popular content online. Seems a little one-sided, so what does Twitter do?

How Twitter turns the tables

I'm guessing Twitter does nothing right now. It just keeps on being Twitter and watching the number of relevant, time-sensitive links continue to grow. Google, and the other search engines, continue to crawl, scrape and index Twitter. At some point in the future, Twitter contacts Google, along with Yahoo and Microsoft and lets them know that it's building its own search engine based on all of the extremely relevant content that Twitter has on its site and will be blocking all external crawlers. That would effectively cut off Google and other search engines from having access to all the indexing information on Twitter.

Next, Twitter becomes the most relevant search solution out there and is able to follow the success   that Google has seen over the last 10 years. This may be one reason why Twitter isn't worried about revenue right now.
Obama's ideas for small business don't go far enough

San Francisco Chronicle

by J.R. Johnson
Wednesday, March 18, 2009

On Monday, President Obama, acknowledged the importance of small business by saying, "Small businesses are the heart of the American economy. They're responsible for half of all private-sector jobs - and they created roughly 70 percent of all new jobs in the past decade." He then took steps to encourage more small business by announcing tax and loan incentives. Most attention was focused around SBA loans, but to me the more important portion related to capital gains treatment for entrepreneurs.

Capital gains tax is generally a tax on the sale of stock held for longer than one year. When an entrepreneur sells a business to another company or to the public market through an initial public offering, the gains are typically taxed as capital gains. These exits drive many entrepreneurs to take the risks necessary to start a business.

I'm an entrepreneur. My startup employs 26 people with good jobs. Eighty-five percent of our expenses is salaries.  In addition to the jobs we create, we're hiring lawyers, accountants, designers and printers; as well as buying furniture, computers and renting office space. We are still building our product, so we have zero revenue. Sometimes this feels like my own little economic stimulus program.

I know many entrepreneurs. They're smart people with a risk-taking mentality and are very capable of stimulating the economy. Yet they're skiing, sitting on beaches and buying gold in offshore accounts. They e-mail headlines about the dire economy and lecture me on why I should be hedging myself with investments in gold. They have no intention of getting back in the game right now.

Obama proposed a decrease in the capital gains tax for 75 percent of the investment if it were held for five years or more. This is a step in the right direction, but it falls short and it doesn't excite or encourage entrepreneurs to get off the sidelines.

I propose that we create a tax holiday for small businesses created from 2008 to 2010. These entrepreneurs would be exempt from paying capital gains, if they have a successful exit, through an IPO or sale to another company, at any time in the future. To focus the exemption on creating jobs, companies would qualify by having salary and related expenses for nonowner employees equal to at least 50 percent of the investment during the exemption period. Many tech startups are labor intensive, creating jobs in a burgeoning sector. Limits on transferability to discourage creating shells to take advantage of this exemption would be needed. This would end in 2010, leaving those who wait on the sidelines until 2011 left out of the exemption.

No longer standing around, testing the water by dipping a toe into the pool, entrepreneurs would be cannonballing into the deep end - rushing to create jobs before the exemption ends. This will build some of the companies that will carry us out of these difficult economic times. Rather than rely so heavily on government to spend our way out of this recession, let's fully encourage people who create small businesses to do it for us. If, along the way, some of those people who put their time, energy and private money at risk are rewarded with a large payday, we should congratulate them. We should also remember all those who don't make a successful exit. They helped to create jobs and stimulate the economy at this crucial time, and we should thank them.
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