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Yahoo goes punk with a Zen twist

newsmaker Product strategist Bradley Horowitz is on a mission: Help Yahoo "break its own rules for its own good."

Google made a huge splash with its $1.65 billion acquisition of viral video site YouTube last week, but rival Yahoo is quietly shaking things up from the inside out.

Search pioneer Yahoo has assembled a plethora of its own Web 2.0 acquisitions, from photo sharing Web site Flickr to bookmark site Delicious, into a veritable Web-hosted media empire.

The company also has its own Web 2.0 guru whose mission is to hack Yahoo "for its own good." Bradley Horowitz, vice president of Yahoo's product strategy group, told CNET News.com that he is drawing on his background in yoga, meditation and even punk rock to embark on a spiritual effort to improve the company and its products, one Web-based software application at a time.

Q: Eveyone's talking about Google's acquisition of YouTube. What is going to be Yahoo's response? How can you make Yahoo video get the buzz in traffic that YouTube has?
Horowitz: We've been crafting our response for 10 years. Yahoo has always been about people: It's a company whose very roots are seeped in social media, and so I think in some ways, YouTube is Google's response.

I run a group here called "Hack Yahoo"--and by Hack Yahoo, I don't necessarily mean "hack it down at the root with an axe." I basically mean help Yahoo break its own rules for its own good.

We have very strong hands that we've held for a quite some time, and it's not just Yahoo Video. If you look at social media, broadly defined, it includes things like Flickr photo sharing, Delicious link sharing, Upcoming social events, MyWeb social bookmarks--things like Yahoo Messenger, even, which are about connecting people, or Yahoo groups, a franchise we started long ago about helping people to connect other like-minded people.

So social media, broadly defined, spans a huge number of categories. Our strength is in the network, our ability to leverage across those categories and provide a place for half-a-billion people a month to come and share information, share entertainment and interact.

Might we see a Flickr for video, especially when so many digital cameras shoot video too now?
Horowitz: Well, I'm not going to speculate on anything...but if you look at Yahoo Video today, it's increasingly converging toward the Flickr for video. It's designed for user-generated content. It includes things like tagging. So you will increasingly see Flickr features percolate through everything we do at Yahoo and a lot of those kind of Web 2.0 things, if you will, are not about cloning the site. It's about taking the spirit of what it means for community, and user-generated content, and user tagging, and organizing content, and applying them to all we do.

Do you think Yahoo will be pushing more and more into media, maybe with more into video, and maybe doing more with Hollywood, given (CEO) Terry Semel's ties there?
Horowitz: We already do quite a lot?It is about both the long tail of media--which is user-generated content and things like Flickr--and the relationships we have and the partnerships that we have with the major publishers. Unlike other companies that are in the space, Yahoo prides itself on being able to find win-win relationships for these companies.

Can you discuss Yahoo's strategy with regard to social media and user-generated content?
Horowitz: It's crucial. It's crucial to our past and to our future.

Again, I think what's cool about being at Yahoo (is) that it's not as if there is a bandwagon that we're jumping on, or something that happens this week, or last week, that we need to respond to. This is core to the DNA of the company and has been for a decade.

So yes, it's absolutely crucial. But it's not something that we need to get very reactive about, because it's already baked into who we are and the products that we put to market and the acquisitions that we've done over the years.

What do you think of Yahoo acquiring (social networking site) Facebook? Would that be a good move?
Horowitz: I absolutely have no comment on that. It's not in my purview and what I can say is, generally, Yahoo has always had a willingness to buy, build and partner. We will always continue as a company to look at those alternatives.

I've been calling you Yahoo's Web 2.0 guru, given what seems to be your focus on spurring innovation and bringing that start-up feeling back to the company. What exactly is your mission?
Horowitz: Well, I run a group here called "Hack Yahoo"--and by Hack Yahoo, I don't necessarily mean "hack it down at the root with an axe." I basically mean help Yahoo break its own rules for its own good...uniting these like-minded people around the spirit of change and this start-up culture.

What's interesting: When I came to Yahoo, I didn't find an innovation deficit. It's not as if this company had grown complacent or sleepy or anything like that. But I think it was undercelebrated, both outside the company and inside the company.

So my mission has basically have been very much akin to a roadie and the group that looks after this for me is run by Catarina Fake, who is the co-founder of Flickr. It's called the Technology Development Group. We built the stage, we worked the soundboard, we get the drugs--in this case, sugar and caffeine--and we hand the microphone over, we hand the spotlight over, to our 10,000 best and brightest employees. We think of what we're doing as kind of introducing these jam sessions into the company, and unlike other companies and other programs, it's not prescriptive.

So you've had a number of Yahoo Hack Days. How have those gone, and are you planning more?
Horowitz: Oh, absolutely! It's become a cultural institution here, and we'll be doing these at least quarterly internally. We've taken the decade of technology and infrastructure that we've built, exposed it to the outside world and basically said come to Yahoo. You can also virtually come onto our Web site, look at these APIs and innovate, build something and use it in ways that we never anticipated.

You've got an interesting background. You worked on computer graphics, image processing and other things as a Ph.D. candidate at the MIT Media Lab. You founded Virage and took it public. You've also spent time on maybe more philosophical and other pursuits, like meditating in India and doing yoga--am I correct?
Horowitz: That's right.

What are your other passions, and how are you bringing a more holistic perspective to Yahoo?
Horowitz: I hope that I can apply some of the other extracurricular pursuits that I am passionate about in a business context. So if you think about things like meditation and my own experiments with yoga and spirituality, I think that they do color and inform my management style.

In addition to the yoga and meditation, I think my experience as a musician--back to the kind of punk rock roots that I have. There's so much that I love about that culture of punk rock, which is the spirit of "can do," "do it yourself," that everyone has something to express that is somewhat irreverent and counterculture. All of those things I think color who I am at work, and it's the reason we do things like bringing musical artist Beck here to Yahoo (for the Yahoo Hack Day last month).

I think that that was significant; it wasn't just entertainment. We didn't just bring a major recording star. We brought Beck specifically because we see Beck as the hacker musician, someone who gets it. His most recent album was released as remixable tracks, as opposed to a big monolithic recording, and that is very, very sympathetic to the hacker ethic of giving people the tools and the pieces to recreate something wonderful.

So, I do think that my musical background, and that of the people on my team who share this, definitely bleeds over into my work life.