In the Pipeline:
Don't miss Derek Lowe's excellent commentary on drug discovery and the pharma industry in general at In the Pipeline
February 28, 2008
I’m delighted to say that online bookstores are shipping copies of Here Comes Everybody today, and that it has gotten several terrific notices in the blogosphere:
Clay’s book makes sense of the way that groups are using the Internet. Really good sense. In a treatise that spans all manner of social activity from vigilantism to terrorism, from Flickr to Howard Dean, from blogs to newspapers, Clay unpicks what has made some “social” Internet media into something utterly transformative, while other attempts have fizzled or fallen to griefers and vandals. Clay picks perfect anecdotes to vividly illustrate his points, then shows the larger truth behind them.
Here Comes Everybody goes beyond wild-eyed webby boosterism and points out what seems to be different about web-based communities and organisation and why it’s different; the good and the bad. With useful and interesting examples, good stories and sticky theories. Very good stuff.
These newly possible activities are moving us towards the collapse of social structures created by technology limitations. Shirky compares this process to how the invention of the printing press impacted scribes. Suddenly, their expertise in reading and writing went from essential to meaningless. Shirky suggests that those associated with controlling the means to media production are headed for a similar fall.
Shirky has a piercingly sharp eye for the spotting the illuminating case studies - some familiar, some new - and using them to energise wider themes. His basic thesis is simple: “Everywhere you look groups of people are coming together to share with one another, work together, take some kind of public action.” The difference is that today, unlike even ten years ago, technological change means such groups can be form and act in new and powerful ways. Drawing on a wide range of examples Shirky teases out remarkable contrasts with what has been the expected logic, and shows quite how quickly the dynamics of reputation and relationships have changed.
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February 7, 2008
I’ve written a book, called Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations, which is coming out in a month. It’s coming out first in the US and UK (and in translation later this year in Holland, Portugal and Brazil, Korea, and China.)
Here Comes Everybody is about why new social tools matter for society. It is a non-techie book for the general reader (the letters TCP IP appear nowhere in that order). It is also post-utopian (I assume that the coming changes are both good and bad) and written from the point of view I have adopted from my students, namely that the internet is now boring, and the key question is what we are going to do with it.
One of the great frustrations of writing a book as opposed to blogging is seeing a new story that would have been a perfect illustration, or deepened an argument, and not being able to add it. To remedy that, I’ve just launched a new blog, at HereComesEverybody.org, to continue writing about the effects of social tools.
Wow. What a great response — we’ve given out all the copies we can, but many thanks for all the interest.
Also, I’ve convinced the good folks at Penguin Press to let me give a few review copies away to people in the kinds of communities the book is about. I’ve got half a dozen copies to give to anyone reading this, with the only quid pro quo being that you blog your reactions to it, good bad or indifferent, some time in the next month or so. Drop me a line if you would like a review copy — email@example.com.
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November 13, 2007
It gives me unquantifiable amounts of joy to announce that the JCMC special theme issue on “Social Network Sites” is now completely birthed. It was a long and intense labor, but all eight newborn articles are doing just fine and the new mommies are as proud as could be. So please, join us in our celebration by heading on over to the Journal for Computer-Mediated Communication and snuggling up to an article or two. The more you love them, the more they’ll prosper!
JCMC Special Theme Issue on “Social Network Sites”
Guest Editors: danah boyd and Nicole Ellison
Please feel free to pass this announcement on to anyone you think might find value from this special issue.
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November 3, 2007
In June, I wrote a controversial blog essay about how U.S. teens appeared to be self-dividing by class on MySpace and Facebook during the 2006-2007 school year. This piece got me into loads of trouble for all sorts of reasons, forcing me to respond to some of the most intense critiques.
While what I was observing went beyond what could be quantitatively measured, certain aspects of it could be measured. To my absolute delight, Eszter Hargittai (professor at Northwestern) had collected data to measure certain aspects of the divide that I was trying to articulate. Not surprising (to me at least), what she was seeing lined up completely with what I was seeing on the ground.
Her latest article “Whose Space? Differences Among Users and Non-Users of Social Network Sites” (published as a part of Nicole Ellison and my JCMC special issue on social network sites) suggests that Facebook and MySpace usage are divided by race/ethnicity and parent education (two common measures of “class” in the U.S.). Her findings are based on a survey of 1060 first year students at the diverse University of Illinois-Chicago campus during February and March of 2007. For more details on her methodology, see her methods section.
While over 99% of the students had heard of both Facebook and MySpace, 79% use Facebook and 55% use MySpace. The story looks a bit different when you break it down by race/ethnicity and parent education:
While Eszter is not able to measure the other aspects of lifestyle that I was trying to describe that differentiate usage, she is able to show that Facebook and MySpace usage differs by race/ethnicity and parent education. These substitutes for “class” can be contested, but what is important here is that there is genuinely differences in usage patterns, even with consistent familiarity. People are segmenting themselves in networked publics and this links to the ways in which they are segmented in everyday life. Hopefully Eszter’s article helps those who can’t read qualitative data understand that what I was observing is real and measurable.
(We are still waiting for all of the JCMC articles from our special issue to be live on the site. Fore more information on this special issue, please see the Introduction that Nicole and I wrote: Social Network Sites: Definition, History, and Scholarship.)
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August 3, 2007
My class in the fall is called “User-generated”, and it looks, among other things, at the tension surrounding that phrase, and in particular its existence as an external and anxiety-ridden label, by traditional media companies, for the way that advertising can be put next to material not created by Trained Professionals™.
All right-thinking individuals (by which I basically mean Anil Dash and Heather Champ) hate that phrase. Now my friend Kio Stark* has come up with what seems like a nice, and more anthropologically correct version: Indigenous Content (which is to say “Created by the natives for themselves.”)
* ObKio: Best. Tagset. Evar.
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August 2, 2007
As many of you know, Nicole Ellison and I are guest editing a special issue of JCMC. As a part of this issue, we are writing an introduction that will include a description of social network sites, a brief history of them, a literature review, a description of the works in this issue, and a discussion of future research. We have decided to put a draft of our history section up to solicit feedback from those of you who know this space well. It is a work-in-progress so please bear with us. But if you have suggestions, shout out.
history of social network sites (a work-in-progress)
In particular, we want to know: 1) Are we reporting anything inaccurately? 2) What are we missing?
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August 1, 2007
I have never understood Nick Carr’s objections to the cultural effects of the internet. He’s much too smart to lump in with nay-sayers like Keen, and when he talks about the effects of the net on business, he sounds more optimistic, even factoring in the wrenching transition, so why aren’t the cultural effects similar cause for optimism, even accepting the wrenching transition in those domains as well?
I think I finally got understood the dichotomy between his reading of business and culture after reading Long Player, his piece on metadata and what he calls “the myth of liberation”, a post spurred in turn by David Weinberger’s Everything Is Miscellaneous.
Carr discusses the ways in which the long-playing album was both conceived of and executed as an aesthetic unit, its length determined by a desire to hold most of the classical canon on a single record, and its possibilities exploited by musicians who created for the form — who created albums, in other words, rather than mere bags of songs. He illustrates this with an exegesis of the Rolling Stones’ Exile on Main Street, showing how the overall construction makes that album itself a work of art.
Carr uses this point to take on what he calls the myth of liberation: “This mythology is founded on a sweeping historical revisionism that conjures up an imaginary predigital world - a world of profound physical and economic constraints - from which the web is now liberating us.” Carr observes, correctly, that the LP was what it was in part for aesthetic reasons, and the album, as a unit, became what it became in the hands of people who knew how to use it.
That is not, however, the neat story Carr wants to it be, and the messiness of the rest of the story is key, I think, to the anxiety about the effects on culture, his and others.
The LP was an aesthetic unit, but one designed within strong technical constraints. When Edward Wallerstein of Columbia Records was trying to figure out how long the long-playing format should be, he settled on 17 minutes a side as something that would “…enable about 90% of all classical music to be put on two sides of a record.” But why only 90%? Because 100% would be impossible — the rest of the canon was too long for the technology of the day. And why should you have to flip the record in the middle? Why not have it play straight through? Impossible again.
Contra Carr, in other words, the pre-digital world was a world of profound physical and economic constraints. The LP could hold 34 minutes of music, which was a bigger number of minutes than some possibilities (33 possibilities, to be precise), but smaller than an infinite number of others. The album as a form provided modest freedom embedded in serious constraints, and the people who worked well with the form accepted those constraints as a way of getting at those freedoms. And now the constraints are gone; there is no necessary link between an amount of music and its playback vehicle.
And what Carr dislikes, I think, is evidence that the freedoms of the album were only as valuable as they were in the context of the constraints. If Exile on Main Street was as good an idea as he thinks it was, it would survive the removal of those constraints.
And it hasn’t.
Here is the iTunes snapshot of Exile, sorted by popularity:
While we can’t get absolute numbers from this, we can get relative ones — many more people want to listen to Tumbling Dice or Happy than Ventilator Blues or Turd on the Run, even though iTunes makes it cheaper per song to buy the whole album. Even with a financial inducement to preserve the album form, the users still say no thanks.
The only way to support the view that Exile
is best listened to as an album, in other words, is to dismiss the actual preferences of most of the people who like the Rolling Stones. Carr sets about this task with gusto:
Who would unbundle Exile on Main Street or Blonde on Blonde or Tonight’s the Night - or, for that matter, Dirty Mind or Youth and Young Manhood or (Come On Feel the) Illinoise? Only a fool would.
Only a fool. If you are one of those people who has, say, Happy on your iPod (as I do), then you are a fool (though you have lots of company). And of course this foolishness extends to the recording industry, and to the Stones themselves, who went and put Tumbling Dice on a Greatest Hits collection. (One can only imagine how Carr feels about Greatest Hits collections.)
I think Weinberger’s got it right about liberation, even taking at face value the cartoonish version Carr offers. Prior to unlimited perfect copyability, media was defined by profound physical and economic constraints, and now it’s not. Fewer constraints and better matching of supply and demand are good for business, because business is not concerned with historical continuity. Fewer constraints and better matching of supply and demand are bad for current culture, because culture continually mistakes current exigencies for eternal verities.
This isn’t just Carr of course. As people come to realize that freedom destroys old forms just as surely as it creates new ones, the lament for the long-lost present is going up everywhere. As another example, Sven Birkerts, the literary critic, has a post in the Boston Globe, Lost in the blogosphere, that is almost indescribably self-involved. His two complaints are that newspapers are reducing the space allotted to literary criticism, and too many people on the Web are writing about books. In other words, literary criticism, as practiced during Birkerts’ lifetime, was just right, and having either fewer or more writers are both lamentable situations.
In order that the “Life was better when I was younger” flavor of his complaint not become too obvious, Birkerts frames the changing landscape not as a personal annoyance but as A Threat To Culture Itself. As he puts it “…what we have been calling “culture” at least since the Enlightenment — is the emergent maturity that constrains unbounded freedom in the interest of mattering.”
This is silly. The constraints of print were not a product of “emergent maturity.” They were accidents of physical production. Newspapers published book reviews because their customers read books and because publishers took out ads, the same reason they published pieces about cars or food or vacations. Some newspapers hired critics because they could afford to, others didn’t because they couldn’t. Ordinary citizens didn’t write about books in a global medium because no such medium existed. None of this was an attempt to “constrain unbounded freedom” because there was no such freedom to constrain; it was just how things were back then.
Genres are always created in part by limitations. Albums are as long as they are because that Wallerstein picked a length his engineers could deliver. Novels are as long as they are because Aldus Manutius’s italic letters and octavo bookbinding could hold about that many words. The album is already a marginal form, and the novel will probably become one in the next fifty years, but that also happened to the sonnet and the madrigal.
I’m old enough to remember the dwindling world, but it never meant enough to me to make me a nostalgist. In my students’ work I see hints of a culture that takes both the new freedoms and the new constraints for granted, but the fullest expression of that world will probably come after I’m dead. But despite living in transitional times, I’m not willing to pretend that the erosion of my worldview is a crisis for culture itself. It’s just how things are right now.
Carr fails to note that the LP was created for classical music, but used by rock and roll bands. Creators work within whatever constraints exist at the time they are creating, and when the old constraints give way, new forms arise while old ones dwindle. Some work from the older forms will survive — Shakespeare’s 116th sonnet remains a masterwork — while other work will wane — Exile as an album-length experience is a fading memory. This kind of transition isn’t a threat to Culture Itself, or even much of a tragedy, and we should resist attempts to preserve old constraints in order to defend old forms.
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July 26, 2007
One month ago, I put out a blog essay that took on a life of its own. This essay addressed one of America’s most taboo topics: class. Due to personal circumstances, I wasn’t online as things spun further and further out of control and I had neither the time nor the emotional energy to address all of the astounding misinterpretations that I saw as a game of digital telephone took hold. I’ve browsed the hundreds of emails, thousands of blog posts, and thousands of comments across the web. I’m in awe of the amount of time and energy people put into thinking through and critiquing my essay. In the process, I’ve also realized that I was not always so effective at communicating what I wanted to communicate. To clarify some issues, I decided to put together a long response that addresses a variety of different issues.
Responding to Responses to: “Viewing American class divisions through Facebook and MySpace”
Please let me know if this does or does not clarify the concerns that you’ve raised.
(Comments on Apophenia)
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July 25, 2007
im Spalding at LibraryThing has introduced a new wrinkle in the tagosphere…and wrinkles are welcome because they pucker space in semantically interesting ways. (Block that metaphor!)
At LibraryThing, people list their books. And, of course, we tag ‘em up good. For example, Freakonomics has 993 unique tags (ignoring case differences), and 8,760 total tags. Now, tags are of course useful. But so are subject headings. So, Tim has come up with a clever way of deriving subject headings bottom up. He’s introduced “tagmashes,” which are (in essence) searches on two or more tags. So, you could ask to see all the books tagged “france” and “wwii.” But the fact that you’re asking for that particular conjunction of tags indicates that those tags go together, at least in your mind and at least at this moment. Library turns that tagmash into a page with a persistent URL. The page presents a de-duped list of the results, ordered by interestinginess, and with other tagmashes suggested, all based on the magic of statistics. Over time, a large, relatively flat set of subject headings may emerge, which, subject to further analysis, could get clumpier and clumpier with meaning.
You may be asking yourself how this differs from saved searches. I asked Tim. He explained that while the system does a search when you ask for a new tagmash, it presents the tagmash as if it were a topic, not a search. For one thing, lists of search results generally don’t have persistent URLs. More important, to the user, tagmash pages feel like topic pages, not search results pages.
And you may also be asking yourself how this differs from a folksonomy. While I’d want to count it as a folksonomic technique, in a traditional folksonomy (oooh, I hope I’m the first to use that phrase!), a computer can notice which terms are used most often, and might even notice some of the relationships among the terms. With tagmashes, the info that this tag is related to that one is gleaned from the fact that a human said that they were related.
LibraryThing keeps innovating this way. It’s definitely a site to watch.
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July 20, 2007
Joel Spolsky approvingly quotes Dave Winer on the subject of blog-comments:
The cool thing about blogs is that while they may be quiet, and it may be hard to find what you’re looking for, at least you can say what you think without being shouted down. This makes it possible for unpopular ideas to be expressed. And if you know history, the most important ideas often are the unpopular ones…. That’s what’s important about blogs, not that people can comment on your ideas. As long as they can start their own blog, there will be no shortage of places to comment.
Joel then adds his own observations:
When a blog allows comments right below the writer’s post, what you get is a bunch of interesting ideas, carefully constructed, followed by a long spew of noise, filth, and anonymous rubbish that nobody … nobody … would say out loud if they had to take ownership of their words.
This can be true, all true, as any casual read of blog comments can attest. BoingBoing turned off their comments years ago, because they’d long since passed the scale where polite conversation was possible. The Tragedy of the Conversational Commons becomes too persistently tempting when an audience gorws large. At BoingBoing scale, John Gabriel’s Greater Internet Fuckwad Theory cannot be repealed.
But the uselessness of comments it is not the universal truth that
Dave or (fixed, per Dave’s comment below) Joel makes it out to be, for two reasons. First, posting and conversation are different kinds of things — same keyboard, same text box, same web page, different modes of expression. Second, the sites that suffer most from anonymous postings and drivel are the ones operating at large scale.
If you are operating below that scale, comments can be quite good, in a way not replicable in any “everyone post to their own blog”. To take but three recent examples, take a look at the comments on my post on Michael Gorman, on danah’s post at Apophenia on fame, narcissism and MySpace and on Kieran Healy’s biological thought experiment on Crooked Timber.
Those three threads contain a hundred or so comments, including some distinctly low-signal bouquets and brickbats. But there is also spirited disputation and emendation, alternate points of view, linky goodness, and a conversational sharpening of the argument on all sides, in a way that doesn’t happen blog to blog. This, I think, is the missing element in Dave and Joel’s points — two blog posts do not make a conversation. The conversation that can be attached to a post is different in style and content, and in intent and effect, than the post itself.
I have long thought that the ‘freedom of speech means no filtering’ argument is dumb where blogs are concerned — it is the blogger’s space, and he or she should feel free to delete, disemvowel, or otherwise dispose of material, for any reason, or no reason. But we’ve long since passed the point where what happens on a blog is mainly influenced by what the software does — the question to ask about comments is not whether they are available, but how a community uses them. The value in in blogs as communities of practice is considerable, and its a mistake to write off comment threads on those kinds of blogs just because, in other environments, comments are lame.
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July 10, 2007
I said that in Andrew Keen: Rescuing ‘Luddite’ from the Luddites, to which Phil, one of the commenters, replied
There are assertions of verifiable fact and then there are invocations of shared values. Don’t mix them up.
I meant this as an assertion of fact, but re-reading it after Tom’s feedback, it comes off as simple flag-waving, since I’d compressed the technical part of the argument out of existence. So here it is again, in slightly longer form:
The internet’s essential operation is to encode and transmit data from sender to receiver. In 1969, this was not a new capability; we’d had networks that did this in since the telegraph, at the day of the internet’s launch, we had a phone network that was nearly a hundred years old, alongside more specialized networks for things like telexes and wire-services for photographs.
Thus the basics of what the internet did (and does) isn’t enough to explain its spread; what is it for has to be accounted for by looking at the difference between it and the other data-transfer networks of the day.
The principal difference between older networks and the internet (ARPAnet, at its birth) is the end-to-end principle, which says, roughly, “The best way to design a network is to allow the sender and receiver to decide what the data means, without asking the intervening network to interpret the data.” The original expression of this idea is from the Saltzer and Clark paper End-to-End Arguments in System Design; the same argument is explained in other terms in Isenberg’s Stupid Network and Searls and Weinberger’s World of Ends.
What the internet is for, in other words, what made it worth adopting in a world already well provisioned with other networks, was that the sender and receiver didn’t have to ask for either help or permission before inventing a new kind of message. The core virtue of the internet was a huge increase in the technical freedom of all of its participating nodes, a freedom that has been translated into productive and intellectual freedoms for its users.
As Scott Bradner put it, the Internet means you don’t have to convince anyone else that something is a good idea before trying it. The upshot is that the internet’s output is data, but its product is freedom.
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July 9, 2007
Last week, while in a conversation with Andrew Keen on the radio show To The Point, he suggested that he was not opposed to the technology of the internet, but rather to how it was being used.
This reminded me of Michael Gorman’s insistence that digital tools are fine, so long as they are shaped to replicate the social (and particularly academic) institutions that have grown up around paper.
There is a similar strand in these two arguments, namely that technology is one thing, but the way it is used is another, and that the two can and should be separated. I think this view is in the main wrong, even Luddite, but to make such an accusation requires a definition of Luddite considerably more grounded than ‘anti-technology’ (a vacuous notion — no one who wears shoes can reasonably be called ‘anti-technology.’) Both Keen and Gorman have said they are not opposed to digital technology. I believe them when they say this, but I still think their views are Luddite, by historical analogy with the real Luddite movement of the early 1800s.
What follows is a long detour into the Luddite rebellion, followed by a reply to Keen about the inseparability of the internet from its basic effects.
The historical record is relatively clear. In March of 1811, a group of weavers in Nottinghamshire began destroying mechanical looms. This was not the first such riot — in the late 1700s, when Parliament refused to guarantee the weaver’s control of supply of woven goods, workers in Nottingham destroyed looms as well. The Luddite rebellion, though, was unusual for several reasons: its breadth and sustained character, taking place in many industrializing towns at once; its having a nominal leader, going by the name Ned Ludd, General Ludd, or King Ludd (the pseudonym itself a reference to an apocryphal figure from an earlier loom-breaking riot in the late 1700s); and its written documentation of grievances and rationale. The rebellion, which lasted two years, was ultimately put down by force, and was over in 1813.
Over the last two decades, several historians have re-examined the record of the Luddite movement, and have attempted to replace the simplistic view of Luddites as being opposed to technological change with a more nuanced accounting of their motivations and actions. The common thread of the analysis is that the Luddites didn’t object to mechanized wide-frame looms per se, they objected to the price collapse of woven goods caused by the way industrialists were using the looms. Though the target of the Luddite attacks were the looms themselves, their concerns and goals were not about technology but about economics.
I believe that the nuanced view is wrong, and that the simpler view of Luddites as counter-revolutionaries is in fact the correct one. The romantic view of Luddites as industrial-age Robin Hoods, concerned not to halt progress but to embrace justice, runs aground on both the written record, in which the Luddites outline a program that is against any technology that increases productivity, and on their actions, which were not anti-capitalist but anti-consumer. It also assumes that there was some coherent distinction between technological and economic effects of the looms; there was none.
A Technology is For Whatever Happens When You Use It
The idea that the Luddites were targeting economic rather than technological change is a category fallacy, where the use of two discrete labels (technology and economics, in this case) are wrongly thought to demonstrate two discrete aspects of the thing labeled (here wide-frame looms.) This separation does not exist in this case; the technological effects of the looms were economic. This is because, at the moment of its arrival, what a technology does and what it is for are different.
What any given technology does is fairly obvious: rifles fire bullets, pencils make marks, looms weave cloth, and so on. What a technology is for, on the other hand, what leads people to adopt it, is whatever new thing becomes possible on the day of its arrival. The Winchester repeating rifle was not for firing bullets — that capability already existed. It was for decreasing the wait between bullets. Similarly, pencils were not for writing but for portability, and so on.
And the wide-frame looms, target of the Luddite’s destructive forays? What were they for? They weren’t for making cloth — humankind was making cloth long before looms arrived. They weren’t for making better cloth — in 1811, industrial cloth was inferior to cloth spun by the weavers. Mechanical looms were for making cheap cloth, lots and lots of cheap cloth. The output of a mechanical loom was cloth, but the product of such a loom was savings.
The wide-frame loom was a cost-lowering machine, and as such, it threatened the old inefficiencies on which the Luddite’s revenues depended. Their revolt had the goal of preventing those savings from being passed along to the customer. One of their demands was that Parliament outlaw “all Machinery hurtful to Commonality” — all machines that worked efficiently enough to lower prices.
Perhaps more tellingly, and against recent fables of Luddism as a principled anti-capitalist movement, they refrained from breaking the looms of industrial weavers who didn’t lower their prices. What the Luddites were rioting in favor of was price gouging; they didn’t care how much a wide-frame loom might save in production costs, so long as none of those savings were passed on to their fellow citizens.
Their common cause was not with citizens and against industrialists, it was against citizens and with those industrialists who joined them in a cartel. The effect of their campaign, had it succeeded, would been to have raise, rather than lower, the profits of the wide-frame operators, while producing no benefit for those consumers who used cloth in their daily lives, which is to say the entire population of England. (Tellingly, none of the “Robin Hood” versions of Luddite history make any mention of the effect of high prices on the buyers of cloth, just on the sellers.)
Back to Keen
A Luddite argument is one in which some broadly useful technology is opposed on the grounds that it will discomfit the people who benefit from the inefficiency the technology destroys. An argument is especially Luddite if the discomfort of the newly challenged professionals is presented as a general social crisis, rather than as trouble for a special interest. (“How will we know what to listen to without record store clerks!”) When the music industry suggests that the prices of music should continue to be inflated, to preserve the industry as we have known it, that is a Luddite argument, as is the suggestion that Google pay reparations to newspapers or the phone company’s opposition to VoIP undermining their ability to profit from older ways of making phone calls.
This is what makes Keen’s argument a Luddite one — he doesn’t oppose all uses of technology, just ones that destroy older ways of doing things. In his view, the internet does not need to undermine the primacy of the copy as the anchor for both filtering and profitability.
But Keen is wrong. What the internet does is move data from point A to B, but what it is for is empowerment. Using the internet without putting new capabilities into the hands of its users (who are, by definition, amateurs in most things they can now do) would be like using a mechanical loom and not lowering the cost of buying a coat — possible, but utterly beside the point.
The internet’s output is data, but its product is freedom, lots and lots of freedom. Freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of association, the freedom of an unprecedented number of people to say absolutely anything they like at any time, with the reasonable expectation that those utterances will be globally available, broadly discoverable at no cost, and preserved for far longer than most utterances are, and possibly forever.
Keen is right in understanding that this massive supply-side shock to freedom will destabilize and in some cases destroy a number of older social institutions. He is wrong in believing that there is some third way — lets deploy the internet, but not use it to increase the freedom of amateurs to do as they like.
It is possible to want a society in which new technology doesn’t demolish traditional ways of doing things. It is not possible to hold this view without being a Luddite, however. That view — incumbents should wield veto-power over adoption of tools they dislike, no matter the positive effects for the citizenry — is the core of Luddism, then and now.
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June 27, 2007
Over at the Britannica Blog, Michael Gorman (the former president of the American Library Association) wrote a series of posts concerning web2.0. In short, he’s against it and thinks everything to do with web2.0 and Wikipedia is bad bad bad. A handful of us were given access to the posts before they were posted and asked to craft responses. The respondents are scholars and thinkers and writers of all stripes (including my dear friend and fellow M2M blogger Clay Shirky). Because I addressed all of his arguments at once, my piece was held to be released in the final week of the public discussion. And that time is now. So enjoy!
(Comments at Apophenia)
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June 24, 2007
Over the last six months, i’ve noticed an increasing number of press articles about how high school teens are leaving MySpace for Facebook. That’s only partially true. There is indeed a change taking place, but it’s not a shift so much as a fragmentation. Until recently, American teenagers were flocking to MySpace. The picture is now being blurred. Some teens are flocking to MySpace. And some teens are flocking to Facebook. Which go where gets kinda sticky, because it seems to primarily have to do with socio-economic class.
I’ve been trying to figure out how to articulate this division for months. I have not yet succeeded. So, instead, I decided to write a blog essay addressing what I’m seeing. I suspect that this will be received with criticism, but my hope is that the readers who encounter this essay might be able to help me think through this. In other words, I want feedback on this piece.
Viewing American class divisions through Facebook and MySpace
What I lay out in this essay is rather disconcerting. Hegemonic American teens (i.e. middle/upper class, college bound teens from upwards mobile or well off families) are all on or switching to Facebook. Marginalized teens, teens from poorer or less educated backgrounds, subculturally-identified teens, and other non-hegemonic teens continue to be drawn to MySpace. A class division has emerged and it is playing out in the aesthetics, the kinds of advertising, and the policy decisions being made.
Please check out this essay and share your thoughts in the comments on Apophenia.
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June 20, 2007
Michael Gorman has his next post up at the Britannica blog: The Siren Song of the Internet. My reply is also up, and posted below. The themes of the historical lessons of Luddism are also being discussed in the comments to last week’s Gorman response, Old Revolutions Good, New Revolutions Bad
Siren Song of the Internet contains a curious omission and a basic misunderstanding. The omission is part of his defense of the Luddites; the misunderstanding is about the value of paper and the nature of e-books.
The omission comes early: Gorman cavils at being called a Luddite, though he then embraces the label, suggesting that they “…had legitimate grievances and that their lives were adversely affected by the mechanization that led to the Industrial Revolution.” No one using the term Luddite disputes the effects on pre-industrial weavers. This is the general case — any technology that fixes a problem (in this case the high cost of homespun goods) threatens the people who profit from the previous inefficiency. However, Gorman omits mentioning the Luddite response: an attempt to halt the spread of mechanical looms which, though beneficial to the general populace, threatened the livelihoods of King Ludd’s band.
By labeling the Luddite program legitimate, Gorman seems to be suggesting that incumbents are right to expect veto power over technological change. Here his stand in favor of printed matter is inconsistent, since printing was itself enormously disruptive, and many people wanted veto power over its spread as well. Indeed, one of the great Luddites of history (if we can apply the label anachronistically) was Johannes Trithemius, who argued in the late 1400s that the printing revolution be contained, in order to shield scribes from adverse effects. This is the same argument Gorman is making, in defense of the very tools Trithemius opposed. His attempt to rescue Luddism looks less like a principled stand than special pleading: the printing press was good, no matter happened to the scribes, but let’s not let that sort of thing happen to my tribe.
Gorman then defends traditional publishing methods, and ends up conflating several separate concepts into one false conclusion, saying “To think that digitization is the answer to all that ails the world is to ignore the uncomfortable fact that most people, young and old, prefer to interact with recorded knowledge and literature in the form of print on paper.”
Dispensing with the obvious straw man of “all that ails the world”, a claim no one has made, we are presented with a fact that is supposed to be uncomfortable — it’s good to read on paper. Well duh, as the kids say; there’s nothing uncomfortable about that. Paper is obviously superior to the screen for both contrast and resolution; Hewlett-Packard would be about half the size it is today if that were not true. But how did we get to talking about paper when we were talking about knowledge a moment ago?
Gorman is relying on metonymy. When he notes a preference for reading on paper he means a preference for traditional printed forms such as books and journals, but this is simply wrong. The uncomfortable fact is that the advantages of paper have become decoupled from the advantages of publishing; a big part of preference for reading on paper is expressed by hitting the print button. As we know from Lyman and Varian’s “How Much Information” study, “…the vast majority of original information on paper is produced by individuals in office documents and postal mail, not in formally published titles such as books, newspapers and journals.”
We see these effects everywhere: well over 90% of new information produced in any year is stored electronically. Use of the physical holdings of libraries are falling, while the use of electronic resources is rising. Scholarly monographs, contra Gorman, are increasingly distributed electronically. Even the physical form of newspapers is shrinking in response to shrinking demand, and so on.
The belief that a preference for paper leads to a preference for traditional publishing is a simple misunderstanding, demonstrated by his introduction of the failed e-book program as evidence that the current revolution is limited to “hobbyists and premature adopters.” The problems with e-books are that they are not radical enough: they dispense with the best aspect of books (paper as a display medium) while simultaneously aiming to disable the best aspects of electronic data (sharability, copyability, searchability, editability.) The failure of e-books is in fact bad news for Gorman’s thesis, as it demonstrates yet again that users have an overwhelming preference for the full range of digital advantages, and are not content with digital tools that are designed to be inefficient in the ways that printed matter is inefficient.
If we gathered every bit of output from traditional publishers, we could line them up in order of vulnerability to digital evanescence. Reference works were the first to go — phone books, dictionaries, and thesauri have largely gone digital; the encyclopedia is going, as are scholarly journals. Last to go will be novels — it will be some time before anyone reads One Hundred Years of Solitude in any format other than a traditionally printed book. Some time, however, is not forever. The old institutions, and especially publishers and libraries, have been forced to use paper not just for display, for which is it well suited, but also for storage, transport, and categorization, things for which paper is completely terrible. We are now able to recover from those disadvantages, though only by transforming the institutions organized around the older assumptions.
The ideal situation, which we are groping our way towards, will be to have all written material, wherever it lies on the ‘information to knowledge’ continuum, in digital form, right up the moment a reader wants it. At that point, the advantages of paper can be made manifest, either by printing on demand, or by using a display that matches paper’s superior readability. Many of the traditional managers of books and journals will suffer from this change, though it will benefit society as a whole. The question Gorman pointedly asks, by invoking Ned Ludd and his company, is whether we want that change to be in the hands of people who would be happy to discomfit society as a whole in order to preserve the inefficiencies that have defined their world.
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June 18, 2007
Technorati reports approximately one buptillion disputatious replies to Fred Wilson’s observations about age and tech entrepreneurship. These come in two basic forms: examples from industry (“Youth doesn’t matter because Steve Jobs is still going strong”) and examples from personal experience (“Youth doesn’t matter because my grandmother invented DoS attacks when she was 87!”)
These arguments, not to put too fine a point on it, are stupid.
Fred is not talking about intelligence or even tech chops. He is talking about a specific kind of tech entrepreneurialism: the likelihood of coming up with an idea that is so powerful it will shift the tech landscape. He is then asserting that, statistically, young people have an edge in their ability to come up with these kinds of ideas.
The first counter-argument, whose commonest explanandum is Steve Jobs current success, not only fails, it actually supports Fred’s point. Back In The Day, Jobs’ best decision was to work with Wozniak, and together they brought out usable versions of the GUI and the mouse. These changes were so radical that they didn’t catch on until they were copied in more pedestrian and backwards-compatible forms. And now? What is Apple doing with a seasoned Jobs at the helm? They are polishing the GUI to a fare-thee-well. They are making Diamond’s idea of an MP3 player work better than anyone imagined it could. They are making (brainstorm alert!) a phone! Woz was a mere tinkerer in light of such revolutionary moves, no?
As a Mac user, I love what Jobs is doing for the company, but no way am I willing to confuse the Polecat release of the current OS with what Lisa tried and the Mac achieved in the early 80s.
Then there is the personal attestation to brilliant ideas, coming from the outraged older set. I guess I should feel some sort of pride that my fellow proto-geriatrics are still in there fighting, but instead, I think they kind of prove Fred’s point by demonstrating that they’ve either forgotten how to read, or that they can’t do math so good anymore.
Fred’s basic observation is statistical: In the domain E, with the actors divided into two groups Y and O, there are more Y in E than you’d expect from a random distribution, and many more if you thought there should be an advantage to being a member of O.
This observation cannot be falsified by a single counter-example. Given that Fred’s argument is about the odds of success (he is a VC, after all), the fact that you remember the words to the Pina Colada song and you recently did something useful is meaningless. Fred’s question is about how many grizzled veterans are founding world-changing tech firms, not whether any are.
There are lots of possible counter-arguments to what Fred is saying (and I am echoing): Maybe so many young people start companies that the observation suffers from denominator bias. Or: young people raise money from VCs in disproportionate numbers because they don’t have the contacts to raise money in other ways. Or: the conservatism of the old is social, not mental, and concerns for family and quality of life turn otherwise undiminished imaginations to lower-risk goals. And so on.
It would be good if someone made those arguments — the thesis is provocative and it matters, so it should be scrutinized and, if false, destroyed. But Fred has said something important, something with both internal evidence (the list of successful recent entrepreneurs) and external existence proofs (mathematicians careers are also statistically front-weighted, so the pattern isn’t obviously absurd.) Given this, the argument cannot simply be whined away, robbing many of the current respondents of the weapon with which they are evidently most adept.
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June 16, 2007
My friend Fred Wilson had a pair of posts a few weeks back, the first arguing that youth was, in and of itself an advantage for tech entrepreneurs, and the second waffling on that question with idea that age is a mindset.
I think Fred got it right the first time, and I said so at the time, in The (Bayesian) Advantages of Youth:
I’m old enough to know a lot of things, just from life experience. I know that music comes from stores. I know that newspapers are where you get your political news and how you look for a job. I know that if you need to take a trip, you visit a travel agent. In the last 15 years or so, I’ve had to unlearn those things and a million others. This makes me a not-bad analyst, because I have to explain new technology to myself first — I’m too old to understand it natively. But it makes me a lousy entrepreneur.
Today, Fred seems to have returned to his original (and in my view correct) idea in The Age Question (continued)
It is incredibly hard to think of new paradigms when you’ve grown up reading the newspaper every morning. When you turn to TV for your entertainment. When you read magazines on the train home from work. But we have a generation coming of age right now that has never relied on newspapers, TV, and magazines for their information and entertainment.[…] The Internet is their medium and they are showing us how it needs to be used.
This is exactly right.
I think the real issue, of which age is a predictor, is this: the future belongs to those who take the present for granted. I had this thought while talking to Robert Cook of Metaweb, who are making Freebase. They need structured metadata, lots of structured metadata, and one of the places they are getting it is from Wikipedia, by spidering the bio boxes (among other things) for things like birthplace and age of people listed Freebase. While Andrew Keen is trying to get a conversation going on whether Wikipedia is a good idea, Metaweb takes it for granted as a stable part of the environment, which lets them see past this hurdle to the next one.
This is not to handicap the success of Freebase itself — it takes a lot more than taking the present for granted to make a successful tool. But one easy way to fail is to assume that the past is more solid than it is, and the present more contingent. And the people least likely to make this mistake — the people best able to take the present for granted — are young people, for whom knowing what the world is really like is as easy as waking up in the morning, since this is the only world they’ve ever known.
Some things improve with age — I wouldn’t re-live my 20s if you paid me — but high-leverage ignorance isn’t one of them.
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June 13, 2007
Encyclopedia Britannica has started a Web 2.0 Forum, where they are hosting a conversation going on around a set of posts by Michael Gorman. The first post, in two parts, is titled Web 2.0: The Sleep of Reason Brings Forth Monsters, and is a defense of the print culture against alteration by digital technologies. This is my response, which will be going up on the Britannica site later this week.
Web 2.0: The Sleep of Reason Brings Forth Monsters starts with a broad list of complaints against the current culture, from biblical literalism to interest in alternatives to Western medicine.
The life of the mind in the age of Web 2.0 suffers, in many ways, from an increase in credulity and an associated flight from expertise. Bloggers are called “citizen journalists”; alternatives to Western medicine are increasingly popular, though we can thank our stars there is no discernable “citizen surgeon” movement; millions of Americans are believers in Biblical inerrancy—the belief that every word in the Bible is both true and the literal word of God, something that, among other things, pits faith against carbon dating; and, scientific truths on such matters as medical research, accepted by all mainstream scientists, are rejected by substantial numbers of citizens and many in politics. Cartoonist Garry Trudeau’s Dr. Nathan Null, “a White House Situational Science Adviser,” tells us that: “Situational science is about respecting both sides of a scientific argument, not just the one supported by facts.”
This is meant to set the argument against a big canvas of social change, but the list is so at odds with the historical record as to be self-defeating.
The percentage of the US population believing in the literal truth of the Bible has remained relatively constant since the 1980s, while the percentage listing themselves as having “no religion” has grown. Interest in alternative medicine dates to at least the patent medicines of the 19th century; the biggest recent boost for that movement came under Reagan, when health supplements, soi-disant, were exempted from FDA scrutiny. Trudeau’s welcome critique of the White House’s assault on reason targets a political minority, not the internet-using population, and so on. If you didn’t know that this litany appeared under the heading Web 2.0, you might suspect Gorman’s target was anti-intellectualism during Republican administrations.
Even the part of the list specific to new technology gets it wrong. Bloggers aren’t called citizen-journalists; bloggers are called bloggers. Citizen-journalist describes people like Alisara Chirapongse, the Thai student who posted photos and observations of the recent coup during a press blackout. If Gorman can think of a better label for times when citizens operate as journalists, he hasn’t shared it with us.
Similarly, lumping Biblical literalism with Web 2.0 misses the mark. Many of the most active social media sites — Slashdot, Digg, Reddit — are rallying points for those committed to scientific truth. Wikipedia users have so successfully defended articles on Evolution, Creationism and so on from the introduction of counter-factual beliefs that frustrated literalists helped found Conservapedia, whose entry on Evolution is a farrago of anti-scientific nonsense.
But wait — if use of social media is bad, and attacks on the scientific method are bad, what are we to make of social media sites that defend the scientific method? Surely Wikipedia is better than Conservapedia on that score, no? Well, it all gets confusing when you start looking at the details, but Gorman is not interested in the details. His grand theory, of the hell-in-a-handbasket variety, avoids any look at specific instantiations of these tools — how do the social models of Digg and Wikipedia differ? does Huffington Post do better or worse than Instapundit on factual accuracy? — in favor of one sweeping theme: defense of incumbent stewards of knowledge against attenuation of their erstwhile roles.
There are two alternate theories of technology on display in Sleep of Reason. The first is that technology is an empty vessel, into which social norms may be poured. This is the theory behind statements like “The difference is not, emphatically not, in the communication technology involved.” (Emphasis his.) The second theory is that intellectual revolutions are shaped in part by the tools that sustain them. This is the theory behind his observation that the virtues of print were “…often absent in the manuscript age that preceded print.”
These two theories cannot both be true, so it’s odd to find them side by side, but Gorman does not seem to be comfortable with either of them as a general case. This leads to a certain schizophrenic quality to the writing. We’re told that print does not necessarily bestow authenticity and that some digital material does, but we’re also told that he consulted “authoritative printed sources” on Goya. If authenticity is an option for both printed and digital material, why does printedness matter? Would the same words on the screen be less scholarly somehow?
Gorman is adopting a historically contingent view: Revolution then was good, revolution now is bad. As a result, according to Gorman, the shift to digital and networked reproduction of information will fail unless it recapitulates the institutions and habits that have grown up around print.
Gorman’s theory about print — its capabilities ushered in an age very different from manuscript culture — is correct, and the same kind of shift is at work today. As with the transition from manuscripts to print, the new technologies offer virtues that did not previously exist, but are now an assumed and permanent part of our intellectual environment. When reproduction, distribution, and findability were all hard, as they were for the last five hundred years, we needed specialists to undertake those jobs, and we properly venerated them for the service they performed. Now those tasks are simpler, and the earlier roles have instead become obstacles to direct access.
Digital and networked production vastly increase three kinds of freedom: freedom of speech, of the press, and of assembly. This perforce increases the freedom of anyone to say anything at any time. This freedom has led to an explosion in novel content, much of it mediocre, but freedom is like that. Critically, this expansion of freedom has not undermined any of the absolute advantages of expertise; the virtues of mastery remain are as they were. What has happened is that the relative advantages of expertise are in precipitous decline. Experts the world over have been shocked to discover that they were consulted not as a direct result of their expertise, but often as a secondary effect — the apparatus of credentialing made finding experts easier than finding amateurs, even when the amateurs knew the same things as the experts.
This improved ability to find both content and people is one of the core virtues of our age. Gorman insists that he was able to find “…the recorded knowledge and information I wanted [about Goya] in seconds.” This is obviously an impossibility for most of the population; if you wanted detailed printed information on Goya and worked in any environment other than a library, it would take you hours at least. This scholars-eye view is the key to Gorman’s lament: so long as scholars are content with their culture, the inability of most people to enjoy similar access is not even a consideration.
Wikipedia is the best known example of improved findability of knowledge. Gorman is correct that an encyclopedia is not the product of a collective mind; this is as true of Wikipedia as of Britannica. Gorman’s unfamiliarity and even distaste for Wikipedia leads him to mistake the dumbest utterances of its most credulous observers for an authentic accounting of its mechanisms; people pushing arguments about digital collectivism, pro or con, known nothing about how Wikipedia actually works. Wikipedia is the product not of collectivism but of unending argumentation; the corpus grows not from harmonious thought but from constant scrutiny and emendation.
The success of Wikipedia forces a profound question on print culture: how is information is to be shared with the majority of the population? This is an especially tough question, as print culture has so manifestly failed at the transition to a world of unlimited perfect copies. Because Wikipedia’s contents are both useful and available, it has eroded the monopoly held by earlier modes of production. Other encyclopedias now have to compete for value to the user, and they are failing because their model mainly commits them to denying access and forbidding sharing. If Gorman wants more people reading Britannica, the choice lies with its management. Were they to allow users unfettered access to read and share Britannica’s content tomorrow, the only interesting question is whether their readership would rise a ten-fold or a hundred-fold.
Britannica will tell you that they don’t want to compete on universality of access or sharability, but this is the lament of the scribe who thinks that writing fast shouldn’t be part of the test. In a world where copies have become cost-free, people who expend their resources to prevent access or sharing are forgoing the principal advantages of the new tools, and this dilemma is common to every institution modeled on the scarcity and fragility of physical copies. Academic libraries, which in earlier days provided a service, have outsourced themselves as bouncers to publishers like Reed-Elsevier; their principal job, in the digital realm, is to prevent interested readers from gaining access to scholarly material.
If Gorman were looking at Web 2.0 and wondering how print culture could aspire to that level of accessibility, he would be doing something to bridge the gap he laments. Instead, he insists that the historical mediators of access “…promote intellectual development by exercising judgment and expertise to make the task of the seeker of knowledge easier.” This is the argument Catholic priests made to the operators of printing presses against publishing translations of the Bible — the laity shouldn’t have direct access to the source material, because they won’t understand it properly without us. Gorman offers no hint as to why direct access was an improvement when created by the printing press then but a degradation when created by the computer. Despite the high-minded tone, Gorman’s ultimate sentiment is no different from that of everyone from music executives to newspaper publishers: Old revolutions good, new revolutions bad.
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May 31, 2007
In my last post, i shared my case study response to the Harvard Business Review Case Study “We Googled You.” Since then, thanks to a kind reader (tx Andy Blanco), i learned that HBR made this case study the First Interactive Case Study. This means that you can read the case (without the respondents’ responses) and submit your own response.
You are still more than welcome to read my response, but i’d be super duper stoked to read your response as well. I found this exercise mentally invigorating and suspect you might as well. HBR wants you to submit your response to them, but i’d also be stoked if you’d be willing to share it with us.
Feel free to add your response to the comments on Apophenia or write your response on your own blog and add a link to the comments. Either way, i’d really love to hear how you would handle this scenario in your own business practices.
(Note: the reason that i use comments on Apophenia is because they notify me… i don’t get notified here and i find it easier to keep the conversation in one place.)
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May 30, 2007
I have recently uploaded a bunch of talk cribs, a new book essay, and a case commentary for your enjoyment.
Harvard Business Review Case Commentary
The Harvard Business Review has a section called “Case Commentary” where they propose a fictional but realistic scenario and invite different prominent folks to respond. I was given the great honor of being invited to respond to a case entitled “We Googled You.”
In Diane Coutu’s hypothetical scenario, Fred is trying to decide whether or not to hire Mimi after one of Fred’s co-workers googles Mimi and finds newspaper clippings about Mimi protesting Chinese policies. [The case study is 2 pages - this is a very brief synopsis.] Given the scenario, we were then asked, “should Fred hire Mimi despite her online history?”
Unfortunately, Harvard Business Review does not make their issues available for free download (although they are available at the library and the case can be purchased for $6) but i acquired permission to publish my commentary online for your enjoyment. It’s a llittle odd taken out of context, but i still figured some folks might enjoy my view on this matter, especially given that the press keep asking me about this exact topic.
“We Googled You: Should Fred hire Mimi despite her online history?”
Cannes Film Festival
At the Cannes Film Festival’s Opening Forum on “Cinema: The Audiences of Tomorrow,” i gave a keynote about youth, DRM, remix, film, MySpace, YouTube, and other such good things. Check out: “Film and the Audience of Tomorrow”
Last fall, i spoke at BlogTalk Reloaded. They’ve turned a bunch of our talks into full papers packaged and published as a book titled: BlogTalks Reloaded. My piece is The Significance of Social Software. I look at the culture surrounding, technology of, and practices embedded in social software.
Personal Democracy Forum
At the Personal Democracy Forum, i argued that politicians should reach out and shake virtual hands with young people rather than just putting up flat profiles on social network sites. Check out the crib: “Digital Handshakes on Virtual Receiving Lines.”
Internet Caucus Panel
The Internet Caucus recently held a panel in DC called “Just The Facts About Online Youth Victimization.” David Finkelhor (Director of Crimes Against Children Research Center), Amanda Lenhart (PEW), and Michele Ybarra (President of Internet Solutions for Kids) all presented quantitative data while i batted qualitative cleanup.
panel video and audio | YouTube video | PDF transcript
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May 24, 2007
A month or so ago, Micah Sifry offered me a chance to respond to Andrew Keen, author of the forthcoming Cult of the Amateur, at a panel at last week’s Personal Democracy Forum (PdF). The book is a polemic against the current expansion of freedom of speech, freedom of the press, and freedom of association. Also on the panel were Craig Newmark and Robert Scoble, so I was in good company; my role would, I thought, be easy — be pro-amateur production, pro-distributed creation, pro-collective action, and so on, things that come naturally to me.
What I did not expect was what happened — I ended up defending Keen, and key points from Cult of the Amateur, against a panel of my peers.
I won’t review CotA here, except to say that the book is going to get a harsh reception from the blogosphere. It is, as Keen himself says, largely anecdotal, which makes it more a list of ‘bad things that have happened where the internet is somewhere in the story’ than an account of cause and effect; as a result, internet gambling and click fraud are lumped together with the problems with DRM and epistemological questions about peer-produced material. In addition to this structural weakness, it is both aggressive enough and reckless enough to make people spitting mad. Dan Gillmor was furious about the inaccuracies, including his erroneous (and since corrected) description in the book, Yochai Benkler asked me why I was even deigning to engage Andrew in conversation, and so on. I don’t think I talked to anyone who wasn’t dismissive of the work.
But even if we stipulate that the book doesn’t do much to separate cause from effect, and has the problems of presentation that often accompany polemic, the core point remains: Keen’s sub-title, “How today’s internet is destroying our culture”, has more than a grain of truth to it, and the only thing those of us who care about the network could do wrong would be to dismiss Keen out of hand.
Which is exactly what people were gearing up to do last week. Because Keen is a master of the dismissive phrase — bloggers are monkeys, only people who get paid do good work, and so on — he will engender a reaction from our side that assumes that everything he says in the book is therefore wrong. This is a bad (but probably inevitable) reaction, but I want to do my bit to try to stave it off, both because fairness dictates it — Keen is at least in part right, and we need to admit that — and because a book-burning accompanied by a hanging-in-effigy will be fun for us, but will weaken the pro-freedom position, not strengthen it.
The panel at PdF started with Andrew speaking, in some generality, about ways in which amateurs were discomfiting people who actually know what they are doing, while producing sub-standard work on their own.
My response started by acknowledging that many of the negative effects Keen talked about were real, but that the source of these effect was an increase in the freedom of people to say what they want, when they want to, on a global stage; that the advantages of this freedom outweigh the disadvantages; that many of the disadvantages are localized to professions based on pre-internet inefficiencies; and that the effort required to take expressive power away from citizens was not compatible with a free society.
This was, I thought, a pretty harsh critique of the book. I was wrong; I didn’t know from harsh.
Scoble was simply contemptuous. He had circled offending passages which he would read, and then offer an aphoristic riposte that was more scorn than critique. For instance, in taking on Andrew’s point that talent is unevenly distributed, Scoble’s only comment was, roughly, “Yeah, Britney must be talented…”
Now you know and I know what Scoble meant — traditional media gives outsize rewards to people on characteristics other than pure talent. This is true, but because he was so dismissive of Keen, it’s not the point that Scoble actually got across. Instead, he seemed to be denying either that talent is unevenly distributed, or that Britney is talented.
But Britney is talented. She’s not Yo-Yo Ma, and you don’t have to like her music (back when she made music rather than just headlines), but what she does is hard, and she does it well. Furthermore, deriding the music business’s concern with looks isn’t much of a criticism. It escaped no one’s notice that Amanda Congdon and lonelygirl15 were easy on the eyes, and that that was part of their appeal. So cheap shots at mainstream talent or presumptions of the internet’s high-mindedness are both non-starters.
More importantly, talent is unevenly distributed, and everyone knows it. Indeed, one of the many great things about the net is that talent can now express itself outside traditional frameworks; this extends to blogging, of course, but also to music, as Clive Thompson described in his great NY Times piece, or to software, as with Linus’ talent as an OS developer, and so on. The price of this, however, is that the amount of poorly written or produced material has expanded a million-fold. Increased failure is an inevitable byproduct of increased experimentation, and finding new filtering methods for dealing with an astonishingly adverse signal-to-noise ratio is the great engineering challenge of our age (c.f. Google.) Whatever we think of Keen or CotA, it would be insane to deny that.
Similarly, Scoble scoffed at the idea that there is a war on copyright, but there is a war on copyright, at least as it is currently practiced. As new capabilities go, infinite perfect copyability is a lulu, and it breaks a lot of previously stable systems. In the transition from encoding on atoms to encoding with bits, information goes from having the characteristics of chattel to those of a public good. For the pro-freedom camp to deny that there is a war on copyright puts Keen in the position of truth-teller, and makes us look like employees of the Ministry of Doublespeak.
It will be objected that engaging Keen and discussing a flawed book will give him attention he neither needs nor deserves. This is fantasy. CotA will get an enthusiastic reception no matter what, and whatever we think of it or him, we will be called to account for the issues he raises. This is not right, fair, or just, but it is inevitable, and if we dismiss the book based on its errors or a-causal attributions, we will not be regarded as people who have high standards, but rather as defensive cult members who don’t like to explain ourselves to outsiders.
What We Should Say
Here’s my response to the core of Keen’s argument.
Keen is correct in seeing that the internet is not an improvement to modern society; it is a challenge to it. New technology makes new things possible, or, put another way, when new technology appears, previously impossible things start occurring. If enough of those impossible things are significantly important, and happen in a bundle, quickly, the change becomes a revolution.
The hallmark of revolution is that the goals of the revolutionaries cannot be contained by the institutional structure of the society they live in. As a result, either the revolutionaries are put down, or some of those institutions are transmogrified, replaced, or simply destroyed. We are plainly witnessing a restructuring of the music and newspaper businesses, but their suffering isn’t unique, it’s prophetic. All businesses are media businesses, because whatever else they do, all businesses rely on the managing of information for two audiences — employees and the world. The increase in the power of both individuals and groups, outside traditional organizational structures, is epochal. Many institutions we rely on today will not survive this change without radical alteration.
This change will create three kinds of loss.
First, people whose jobs relied on solving a hard problem will lose those jobs when the hard problems disappear. Creating is hard, filtering is hard, but the basic fact of making acceptable copies of information, previously the basis of the aforementioned music and newspaper industries, is a solved problem, and we should regard with suspicion anyone who tries to return copying to its previously difficult state.
Similarly, Andrew describes a firm running a $50K campaign soliciting user-generated ads, and notes that some professional advertising agency therefore missed out on something like $300,000 dollars of fees. Its possible to regard this as a hardship for the ad guys, but its also possible to wonder whether they were really worth the $300K in the first place if an amateur, working in their spare time with consumer-grade equipment, can create something the client is satisfied with. This loss is real, but it is not general. Video tools are sad for ad guys in the same way movable type was sad for scribes, but as they say in show biz, the world doesn’t owe you a living.
The second kind of loss will come from institutional structures that we like as a society, but which are becoming unsupportable. Online ads offer better value for money, but as a result, they are not going to generate enough cash to stand up the equivalent of the NY Times’ 15-person Baghdad bureau. Josh Wolf has argued that journalistic privilege should be extended to bloggers, but the irony is that Wolf’s very position as a videoblogger makes that view untenable — journalistic privilege is a special exemption to a general requirement for citizens to aid the police. We can’t have a general exception to that case.
The old model of defining a journalist by tying their professional identity to employment by people who own a media outlet is broken. Wolf himself has helped transform journalism from a profession to an activity; now we need a litmus test for when to offer source confidentiality for acts of journalism. This will in some ways be a worse compromise than the one we have now, not least because it will take a long time to unfold, but we can’t have mass amateurization of journalism and keep the social mechanisms that regard journalists as a special minority.
The third kind of loss is the serious kind. Some of these Andrew mentions in his book: the rise of spam, the dramatically enlarged market for identity theft. Other examples he doesn’t: terrorist organizations being more resilient as a result of better communications tools, pro-anorexic girls forming self-help groups to help them remain anorexic. These things are not side-effects of the current increase in freedom, they are effects of that increase. Spam is not just a plague in open, low-entry-cost systems; it is a result of those systems. We can no longer limit things like who gets to form self-help groups through social controls (the church will rent its basement to AA but not to the pro-ana kids), because no one needs help or permission to form such a group anymore.
The hard question contained in Cult of the Amateur is “What are we going to do about the negative effects of freedom?” Our side has generally advocated having as few limits as possible (when we even admit that there are downsides), but we’ve been short on particular cases. It’s easy to tell the newspaper people to quit whining, because the writing has been on the wall since Brad Templeton founded Clarinet. It’s harder to say what we should be doing about the pro-ana kids, or the newly robust terror networks.
Those cases are going to shift us from prevention to reaction (a shift that parallels the current model of publishing first, then filtering later), but so much of the conversation about the social effects of the internet has been so upbeat that even when there is an obvious catastrophe (as with the essjay crisis on Wikipedia), we talk about it amongst ourselves, but not in public.
What Wikipedia (and Digg and eBay and craigslist) have shown us is that mature systems have more controls than immature ones, as the number of bad cases is identified and dealt with, and as these systems become more critical and more populous, the number of bad cases (and therefore the granularity and sophistication of the controls) will continue to increase.
We are creating a governance model for the world that will coalesce after the pre-internet institutions suffer whatever damage or decay they are going to suffer. The conversation about those governance models, what they look like and why we need them, is going to move out into the general public with CotA, and we should be ready for it. My fear, though, is that we will instead get a game of “Did not!”, “Did so!”, and miss the opportunity to say something much more important.
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May 19, 2007
A couple of weeks ago, Fred Wilson wrote, in The Mid Life Entrepreneur Crisis “…prime time entrepreneurship is 30s. And its possibly getting younger as web technology meets youth culture.” After some followup from Valleywag, he addressed the question at greater length in The Age Question (continued), saying “I don’t totally buy that age matters. I think, as I said in my original post, that age is a mind set.”
This is a relief for people like me — you’re as young as you feel, and all that — or rather it would be a relief but for one little problem: Fred was right before, and he’s wrong now. Young entrepreneurs have an advantage over older ones (and by older I mean over 30), and contra Fred’s second post, age isn’t in fact a mindset. Young people have an advantage that older people don’t have and can’t fake, and it isn’t about vigor or hunger — it’s a mental advantage. The principal asset a young tech entrepreneur has is that they don’t know a lot of things.
In almost every other circumstance, this would be a disadvantage, but not here, and not now. The reason this is so (and the reason smart old people can’t fake their way into this asset) has everything to do with our innate ability to cement past experience into knowledge.
Probability and the Crisis of Novelty
The classic illustration for learning outcomes based on probability uses a bag of colored balls. Imagine that you can take out one ball, record its color, put it back, and draw again. How long does it take you to form an opinion about the contents of the bag, and how correct is that opinion?
Imagine a bag of black and white balls, with a slight majority of white. Drawing out a single ball would provide little information beyond “There is at least one white (or black) ball in this bag.” If you drew out ten balls in a row, you might guess that there are a similar number of black and white balls. A hundred would make you relatively certain of that, and might give you an inkling that white slightly outnumbers black. By a thousand draws, you could put a rough percentage on that imbalance, and by ten thousand draws, you could say something like “53% white to 47% black” with some confidence.
This is the world most of us live in, most of the time; the people with the most experience know the most.
But what would happen if the contents of the bag changed overnight? What if the bag suddenly started yielding balls of all colors and patterns — black and white but also green and blue, striped and spotted? The next day, when the expert draws a striped ball, he might well regard it as a mere anomaly. After all, his considerable experience has revealed a predictable and stable distribution over tens of thousands of draws, so no need to throw out the old theory because of just one anomaly. (To put it in Bayesian terms, the prior beliefs of the expert are valuable precisely because they have been strengthened through repetition, which repetition makes the expert confident in them even in the face of a small number of challenging cases.)
But the expert keeps drawing odd colors, and so after a while, he is forced to throw out the ‘this is an anomaly, and the bag is otherwise as it was’ theory, and start on a new one, which is that some novel variability has indeed entered the system. Now, the expert thinks, we have a world of mostly black and white, but with some new colors as well.
But the expert is still wrong. The bag changed overnight, and the new degree of variation is huge compared to the older black-and-white world. Critically, any attempt to rescue the older theory will cause the expert to misunderstand the world, and the more carefully the expert relies on the very knowledge that constitutes his expertise, the worse his misunderstanding will be.
Meanwhile, on the morning after the contents of the bag turn technicolor, someone who just showed up five minutes ago would say “Hey, this bag has lots of colors and patterns in it.” While the expert is still trying to explain away or minimize the change as a fluke, or as a slight adjustment to an otherwise stable situation, the novice, who has no prior theory to throw out, understands exactly what’s going on.
What our expert should have done, the minute he saw the first odd ball, is to say “I must abandon everything I have ever thought about how this bag works, and start from scratch.” He should, in other words, start behaving like a novice.
Which is exactly the thing he — we — cannot do. We are wired to learn from experience. This is, in almost all cases, absolutely the right strategy, because most things in life benefit from mental continuity. Again, today, gravity pulls things downwards. Again, today, I get hungry and need to eat something in the middle of the day. Again, today, my wife will be happier if I put my socks in the hamper than on the floor. We don’t need to re-learn things like this; once we get the pattern, we can internalize it and move on.
A Lot of Knowledge Is A Dangerous Thing
This is where Fred’s earlier argument comes in. In 999,999 cases, learning from experience is a good idea, but what entrepreneurs do is look for the one in a million shot. When the world really has changed overnight, when wild new things are possible if you don’t have any sense of how things used to be, then it is the people who got here five minutes ago who understand that new possibility, and they understand it precisely because, to them, it isn’t new.
These cases, let it be said, are rare. The mistakes novices make come from a lack of experience. They overestimate mere fads, seeing revolution everywhere, and they make this kind of mistake a thousand times before they learn better. But the experts make the opposite mistake, so that when a real once-in-a-lifetime change comes along, they are at risk of regarding it as a fad. As a result of this asymmetry, the novice makes their one good call during an actual revolution, at exactly the same time the expert makes their one big mistake, but at that moment, that’s all that is needed to give the newcomer a considerable edge.
Here’s a tech history question: Which went mainstream first, the PC or the VCR?
People over 35 have a hard time even understanding why you’d even ask — VCRs obviously pre-date PCs for general adoption.
Here’s another: Which went mainstream first, the radio or the telephone?
The same people often have to think about this question, even though the practical demonstration of radio came almost two decades after the practical demonstration of the telephone. We have to think about that second question because, to us, radio and the telephone arrived at the same time, which is to say the day we were born. And for college students today, that is true of the VCR and the PC.
People who think of the VCR as old and stable, and the PC as a newer invention, are not the kind of people who think up Tivo. It’s people who are presented with two storage choices, tape or disk, without historical bias making tape seem more normal and disk more provisional, who do that kind of work, and those people are, overwhelmingly, young.
This is sad for a lot of us, but its also true, and Fred’s kind lies about age being a mind set won’t reverse that.
The Uses of Experience
I’m old enough to know a lot of things, just from life experience. I know that music comes from stores. I know that you have to try on pants before you buy them. I know that newspapers are where you get your political news and how you look for a job. I know that if you want to have a conversation with someone, you call them on the phone. I know that the library is the most important building on a college campus. I know that if you need to take a trip, you visit a travel agent.
In the last 15 years or so, I’ve had to unlearn every one of those things and a million others. This makes me a not-bad analyst, because I have to explain new technology to myself first — I’m too old to understand it natively. But it makes me a lousy entrepreneur.
Ten years ago, I was the CTO of a web company we built and sold in what seemed like an eon but what was in retrospect an eyeblink. Looking back, I’m embarrassed at how little I knew, but I was a better entrepreneur because of it.
I can take some comfort in the fact that people much more successful than I succumb to the same fate. IBM learned, from decades of experience, that competitive advantage lay in the hardware; Bill Gates had never had those experiences, and didn’t have to unlearn them. Jerry and David at Yahoo learned, after a few short years, that search was a commodity. Sergey and Larry never knew that. Mark Cuban learned that the infrastructure required for online video made the economics of web video look a lot like TV. That memo was never circulated at YouTube.
So what can you do when you get kicked out of the club? My answer has been to do the things older and wiser people do. I teach, I write, I consult, and when I work with startups, it’s as an advisor, not as a founder.
And the hardest discipline, whether talking to my students or the companies I work with, is to hold back from offering too much advice, too definitively. When I see students or startups thinking up something crazy, and I want to explain why that won’t work, couldn’t possibly work, why this recapitulates the very argument that led to RFC 939 back in the day, I have to remind myself to shut up for a minute and just watch, because it may be me who will be surprised when I see what color comes out of the bag next.
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May 8, 2007
Over at Knowledge Tree is a recent essay i wrote called Social Network Sites: Public, Private, or What? For many who follow my blog, the arguments are not new, but i suspect some folks might appreciate the consolidated and not-so-spastic version. At the very least, perhaps you’ll be humored to see my writing splattered with the letter ‘s’ instead of the letter ‘z’ (it’s an Australian e-journal). There’s also an MP3 of me reading the essay for those who fear text (which is very novel since y’all know how much i fear audio/video recordings of me, but i did resist trying to sound funny while pronouncing the letter s instead of the letter z). And here’s a PDF of the essay for those who wishing to kill trees.
In conjunction with this essay, there’s a life chat at 2PM Australian Eastern on 22 May. This translates to 9PM PST on 21 May and midnight New York time (which is where i’ll be so hopefully i won’t be too loopy, or at least no more loopy than i am feeling right now).
Enjoy! (Comments at Apophenia)
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April 25, 2007
Four years ago, I wrote a piece called Fame vs Fortune: Micropayments and Free Content. The piece was sparked by the founding of a company called BitPass and its adoption by the comic artist Scott McCloud (author of the seminal Understanding Comics, among other things.) McCloud created a graphic work called “The Right Number”, which you had to buy using BitPass.
It didn’t work. BitPass went out of business
in January of this year. I didn’t write about it at the time because its failure was a foregone conclusion. This isn’t just retrospective certainty, either; here’s what I said about BitPass
BitPass will fail, as FirstVirtual, Cybercoin, Millicent, Digicash, Internet Dollar, Pay2See, and many others have in the decade since Digital Silk Road, the paper that helped launch interest in micropayments. These systems didn’t fail because of poor implementation; they failed because the trend towards freely offered content is an epochal change, to which micropayments are a pointless response.
I’d love to take credit for having made a brave prediction there, but in fact Nick Szabo wrote a dispositive critique of micropayments back in 1996. The BitPass model never made a lick of sense, so predicting its demise was mere throat-clearing on the way to the bigger argument. The conclusion I drew in 2003 (and which I still believe) was that the vanishingly low cost of making unlimited perfect copies would put creators in the position of having to decide between going for audience size (fame) or restricting and charging for access (fortune), and that the desire for fame, no longer tempered by reproduction costs, would generally win out.
Creators are not publishers, and putting the power to publish directly into their hands does not make them publishers. It makes them artists with printing presses. This matters because creative people crave attention in a way publishers do not. […] with the power to publish directly in their hands, many creative people face a dilemma they’ve never had before: fame vs fortune.
Scott McCloud, who was also an advisor to BitPass, took strong issue with this idea in Misunderstanding Micropayments, a reply to the Fame vs. Fortune argument:
In many cases, it’s no longer a choice between getting it for a price or getting it for free. It’s the choice between getting it for price or not getting it at all. Fortunately, the price doesn’t have to be high.
McCloud was arguing that the creator’s natural monopoly — only Scott McCloud can produce another Scott McCloud work — would provide the artist the leverage needed to insist on micropayments (true), and that this leverage would create throngs of two-bit users (false).
What’s really interesting is that, after the failure of BitPass, McCloud has now released The Right Number absolutely free of charge. Nothing. Nada. Kein Preis. After the micropayment barrier had proved too high for his potential audience (as predicted), McCloud had to choose between keeping his work obscure, in order to preserve the possibility of charging for it, or going for attention. His actual choice in 2007, upends his argument of four years ago: he went for the fame, at the expense of the fortune. (This recapitulates Tim O’Reilly’s formulation: “Obscurity is a far greater threat to authors and creative artists than piracy.” [ thanks, Cory, for the pointer ])
Everyone who imagines a working micropayment system either misunderstands user preferences, or imagines preventing users from expressing those preferences. The working micropayments systems that people hold up as existence proofs — ringtones, iTunes — are businesses that have escaped from market dynamics through a monopoly or cartel (music labels, carriers, etc.) Indeed, the very appeal of micropayments to content producers (the only people who like them — they offer no feature a user has ever requested) is to re-establish the leverage of the creator over the users. This isn’t going to happen, because the leverage wasn’t based on the valuing of content, but of packaging and distribution.
I’ll let my 2003 self finish the argument:
People want to believe in things like micropayments because without a magic bullet to believe in, they would be left with the uncomfortable conclusion that what seems to be happening — free content is growing in both amount and quality — is what’s actually happening.
The economics of content creation are in fact fairly simple. The two critical questions are “Does the support come from the reader, or from an advertiser, patron, or the creator?” and “Is the support mandatory or voluntary?”
The internet adds no new possibilities. Instead, it simply shifts both answers strongly to the right. It makes all user-supported schemes harder, and all subsidized schemes easier. It likewise makes collecting fees harder, and soliciting donations easier. And these effects are multiplicative. The internet makes collecting mandatory user fees much harder, and makes voluntarily subsidy much easier.
The only interesting footnote, in 2007, is that these forces have now reversed even McCloud’s behavior.
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April 3, 2007
I love Etech. This year, i had the great opportunity to keynote Etech (albeit at an ungodly hour). The talk i wrote was entirely new and intended for the tech designer/developer audience (warning: the academics will hate it). The talk is called:
“Incantations for Muggles:
The Role of Ubiquitous Web 2.0 Technologies in Everyday Life”
It’s about how technologists need to pay attention to the magic that everyday people create using the Web2.0 technologies that we in the tech world think are magical. It’s quite a fun talk and i figured that some might enjoy reading it so i just uploaded my crib notes. It is unlikely that i said exactly what i wrote, but the written form should provide a good sense of the points i was trying to make in the talk.
I should give infinite amounts of appreciation to Raph Koster who took unbelievable notes during my presentation, letting me adjust my crib to be more in tune with what i actually said. THANK YOU! I was half tempted to not bother blogging my crib notes given the fantastic-ness of his notes, but i figure that there still might be some out there who would prefer the crib. Enjoy!
(PS: If you remember me saying something that i didn’t put in the crib, let me know and i’ll add it… i’m stunned at how many of you took notes during the talk.)
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March 18, 2007
SXSW has come and gone and my phone might never recover. Y’see, last year i received over 500 Dodgeballs. To the best that i can tell, i received something like 3000 Tweets during the few days i was in Austin. My phone was constantly hitting its 100 message cap and i spent more time trying to delete messages than reading them. Still, i think that Twitter and Dodgeball are interesting and i want to take a moment to consider their strengths and weaknesses as applications.
While you can use Dodgeball for a variety of things, it’s primarily a way of announcing presence in a social venue where you’d be willing to interact with other people. Given that i’m a hermit, i primarily use Dodgeball to announce my presence at conference outtings and to sigh in jealousy as people romp around Los Angeles. Dodgeball is culturally linked to place. I’m still pretty peeved with Google over the lack of development of Dodgeball because i still think it would be a brilliant campus-based application where people actually do party-hop on every weekend and want to know if their friends are at the neighboring frat party instead of this one. When it comes to usage at SXSW, Dodgeball is great. I know when 7 of my friends are in one venue and 11 are in another; it helps me decide where to go.
Twitter has taken a different path. It is primarily micro-blogging or group IMing or push away messaging. You write whatever you damn well please and it spams all of the people who agreed to be your friends. The biggest strength AND weakness of Twitter is that it works through your IM client (or Twitterrific) as well as your phone. This means that all of the tech people who spend far too much time bored on their laptops are spamming people at a constant rate. Ah, procrastination devices. If you follow all of your friends on your mobile, you’re in for a hellish (and every expensive) experience. Folks quickly learn to stop following people on their mobile (or, if they don’t, they turn Twitter off altogether). This, unfortunately, kills the mobile value of it, making it far more of a web tool than a mobile tool. Considering how much of a bitch it is to follow/unfollow people, users quickly choose and rarely turn back. Thus, once they stop following someone on their phone, they don’t return just because they are going out with that person that night (unless they run into them and choose to switch it on).
At SXSW, Twitter is fantastic for mobile. Everyone is running around the same town commenting on talks, remarking on venues, bitching about the rain. But dear god did i feel bad for the people who weren’t at SXSW who were getting spammed with that crap. One value of Twitter is that it’s really lightweight and easy. One problem is that this is terrible if your social world is not one giant cluster. While my tech friends who normally attend SXSW moped about how jealous they were upon receiving all of the SXSW messages, my non-tech friends were more of the WTF camp. Without segmentation, i had to choose one audience over the other because there was no way to move seamlessly between the audiences. Of course, groups are much heavier to manage. Still, i think it’s possible and i gave Ev some notes.
I think it’s funny to watch my tech geek friends adopt a social tech. They can’t imagine life without their fingers attached to a keyboard or where they didn’t have all-you-can-eat phone plans. More importantly, the vast majority of their friends are tech geeks too. And their social world is relatively structurally continuous. For most 20/30-somethings, this isn’t so. Work and social are generally separated and there are different friend groups that must be balanced in different ways.
Of course, the population whose social world is most like the tech geeks is the teens. This is why they have no problems with MySpace bulletins (which are quite similar to Twitter in many ways). The biggest challenge with teens is that they do not have all-you-can-eat phone plans. Over and over, the topic of number of text messages in one’s plan comes up. And my favorite pissed off bullying act that teens do involves ganging up to collectively spam someone so that they’ll go over their limit and get into trouble with their parents (phone companies don’t seem to let you block texts from particular numbers and of course you have to pay 10c per text you receive). This is particularly common when a nasty breakup occurs and i was surprised when i found out that switching phone numbers is the only real solution to this. Because most teens are not permanently attached to a computer and because they typically share their computers with other members of the family, Twitterific-like apps wouldn’t really work so well. And Twitter is not a strong enough app to replace IM time.
Of course, this doesn’t mean that all teens would actually like Twitter. There are numerous complaints about the lameness of bulletins. People forward surveys just as something to do and others complain that this is a waste of their time. (Of course, then they go on to do it themselves.) Still, bulletin space is like Twitter space. You need to keep posting so that your friends don’t forget you. Or you don’t post at all. Such is the way of Twitter. Certain people i see flowing 5-15 times a day. Others i never hear from (or like once a week).
There’s another issue at play… Like with bulletins, it’s pretty ostentatious to think that your notes are worth pushing to others en masse. It takes a certain kind of personality to think that this kind of spamming is socially appropriate and desirable. Sure, we all love to have a sense of what’s going on, but this is push technology at its most extreme. You’re pushing your views into the attention of others (until they turn it or you off).
The techno-geek users keep telling me that it’s a conversation. Of course, this is also said of blogging. But i don’t think that either are typically conversations. More often, they are individuals standing on their soap boxes who enjoy people responding to them and may wander around to others soap boxes looking for interesting bits of data. By and large, people Twitter to share their experience; only rarely do they expect to receive anything in return. What is returned is typically a kudos or a personal thought or an organizing question. I’d be curious what percentage of Tweets start a genuine back-and-forth dialogue where the parties are on equal ground. It still amazes me that when i respond to someone’s Tweet personally, they often ignore me or respond curtly with an answer to my question. It’s as though the Tweeter wants to be recognized en masse, but doesn’t want to actually start a dialogue with their pronouncements. Of course, this is just my own observation. Maybe there are genuine conversations happening beyond my purview.
Unfortunately, i don’t know how sustainable Twitter is for most people. It’s very easy to burn out on it and once someone does, will they return? It’s also really hard for friend-management. If you add someone, even if you “leave” them, you’ll get Twitteriffic posts from them. This creates a huge disincentive for adding people, even if you welcome them to read your Tweets. Post-SXSW, i’ve seen two things: the most active in Austin are still ridiculously active. The rest have turned it off for all intents and purposes. Personally, i’m trying to see how long i’ll last before i can’t stand the invasion any longer. Given that my non-tech friends can’t really join effectively (for the same reasons as teens - text messaging plan and lack of always-on computerness and hatred of IM interruptions), i don’t think that i can get a good sense of how this would play out beyond the geek crowd. But it sure is entertaining to watch.
PS: I should note that my favorite part of Twitter is that when i wander to a non-functioning page, i get this image:
How can that not make you happy?
(Conversation at Apophenia)
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March 17, 2007
When adults aren’t dismissing MySpace as the land-o-predators, they’re often accusing it of producing narcissistic children. I find it hard to bite my tongue in these situations, but i know that few adults are willing to take the blame for producing narcissistic children. The issue of narcissism and fame is back in public circulation with a vengeance (thanks in part to Britney Spears for having a public meltdown). While the mainstream press is having a field day with blaming celebrities and teens for being narcissistic, more solid research on narcissism is emerging.
For those who are into pop science coverage of academic work, i’d encourage you to start with Jake Halpern’s “Fame Junkies” (tx Anastasia). For simplicity sake, let’s list a few of the key findings that have emerged over the years concerning narcissism.
- While many personality traits stay stable across time, it appears as though levels of narcissism (as tested by the NPI) decrease as people grow older. In other words, while adolescents are more narcissistic than adults, you were also more narcissistic when you were younger than you are now.
- The scores of adolescents on the NPI continue to rise. In other words, it appears as though young people today are more narcissistic than older people were when they were younger.
- There appears to be a correlation between narcissism and self-esteem based education. In other words, all of that school crap about how everyone is good and likable has produced a generation of narcissists.
- Celebrity does not make people narcissists but narcissistic people seek fame.
- Reality TV stars score higher on the NPI than other celebrities.
OK… given these different findings (some of which are still up for debate in academic circles), what should we make of teens’ participation on social network sites in relation to narcissism?
My view is that we have trained our children to be narcissistic and that this is having all sorts of terrifying repercussions; to deal with this, we’re blaming the manifestations instead of addressing the root causes and the mythmaking that we do to maintain social hierarchies. Let’s unpack that for a moment.
American individualism (and self-esteem education) have allowed us to uphold a myth of meritocracy. We sell young people the idea that anyone can succeed, anyone can be president. We ignore the fact that working class kids get working class jobs. This, of course, has been exacerbated in recent years. There used to be meaningful working class labor that young people were excited to be a part of. It was primarily masculine labor and it was rewarded through set hierarchies and unions helped maintain that structure. The unions crumpled in the 1980s and by the time the 1987 recession hit, there was a teenage wasteland No longer were young people being socialized into meaningful working class labor; the only path out was the “lottery” (aka becoming a famous rock star, athlete, etc.).
Since the late 80s, the lottery system has become more magnificent and corporatized. While there’s nothing meritocratic about reality TV or the Spice Girls, the myth of meritocracy remains. Over and over, working class kids tell me that they’re a better singer than anyone on American Idol and that this is why they’re going to get to be on the show. This makes me sigh. Do i burst their bubble by explaining that American Idol is another version of Jerry Springer where hegemonic society can mock wannabes? Or does their dream have value?
So, we have a generation growing up being told that they can be anyone, magnifying the level of narcissism. Narcissists seek fame and Hollywood dangles fame like a carrot on a stick. Meanwhile, technology emerges that challenges broadcast’s control over distribution. It just takes a few Internet success stories for fame-seeking narcissists to begin projecting themselves into the web in the hopes of being seen and being validated. While the important baseline of peer-validation still dominates, the hopes of becoming famous are still part of the narrative. Unfortunately, it’s kinda like watching wannabe actors work as waiters in Hollywood. They think that they’ll be found there because one day long ago someone was and so they go to work everyday in a menial service job with a dream.
Perhaps i should rally behind people’s dreams, but i tend to find them quite disturbing. It is these kinds of dreams that uphold the American myths that get us into such trouble. They also uphold hegemony and the powerful feed on their dreams, offering nothing in return. We can talk about reality TV as an amazing opportunity for anyone to act, but realistically, it’s nothing more than Hollywood’s effort to bust the actors’ guild and related unions. Feed on people’s desire for fame, pay them next to nothing and voila profit margin!
Unfortunately, union busting is the least of my worries when it comes to dream parasites. When i was trying to unpack the role of crystal meth in domestic violence, i started realizing that the meth offered a panacea when the fantasy bubble burst. Needless to say, this resulted in a spiral into hell for many once-dreamers. The next step was even more nauseating. When i started seeing how people in rural America recovered from meth, i found one common solution: born-again Christianity. The fervor for fame which was suppressed by meth re-emerged in zealous religiosity. Christianity promised an even less visible salvation: God’s grace. While blind faith is at the root of both fame-seeking and Christianity, Christianity offers a much more viable explanation for failures: God is teaching you a lesson… be patient, worship God, repent, and when you reach heaven you will understand.
While i have little issue with the core tenants of Christianity or religion in general, i am disgusted by the Christian Industrial Complex. In short, i believe that there is nothing Christian about the major institutions behind modern day organized American Christianity. Decades ago, the Salvation Army actively engaged in union-busting in order to maintain the status-quo. Today, the Christian Industrial Complex has risen into power in both politics and corporate life, but their underlying mission is the same: justify poor people’s industrial slavery so that the rich and powerful can become more rich and powerful. Ah, the modernization of the Protestant Ethic.
Let’s pop the stack and return to fame-seeking and massively networked society. Often, you hear Internet people modify Andy Warhol’s famous quote to note that on the Internet, everyone will be famous amongst 15. I find this very curious, because aren’t both time and audience needed to be famous? Is one really famous for 15 minutes? Or amongst 15? Or is it just about the perceived rewards around fame?
Why is it that people want to be famous? When i ask teens about their desire to be famous, it all boils down to one thing: freedom. If you’re famous, you don’t have to work. If you’re famous, you can buy anything you want. If you’re famous, your parents can’t tell you what to do. If you’re famous, you can have interesting friends and go to interesting parties. If you’re famous, you’re free! This is another bubble that i wonder whether or not i should burst. Anyone who has worked with celebrities knows that fame comes with a price and that price is unimaginable to those who don’t have to pay it.
How does this view of fame play into narcissism? If you think you’re all that, you don’t want to be told what to do or how to do it… You think you’re above all of that. When you’re parents are telling you that you have to clean your room and that you’re not allowed out, they’re cramping your style. How can you be anyone you want to be if you can’t even leave the house? Fame appears to be a freedom from all of that.
The question remains… does micro-fame (such as the attention one gets from being very cool on MySpace) feed into the desires of narcissists to get attention? On a certain level, yes. The attention feels good, it feeds the ego. But the thing about micro-celebrities is that they’re not free from attack. One of the reasons that celebrities go batty is that fame feeds into their narcissism, further heightening their sense of self-worth as more and more people tell them that they’re all that. They never see criticism, their narcissism is never called into check. This isn’t true with micro-fame and this is especially not true online when celebrities face their fans (and haters) directly. Net celebrities feel the exhaustion of attention and nagging much quicker than Hollywood celebrities. It’s a lot easier to burn out quicker and before reaching that mass scale of fame. Perhaps this keeps some of the desire for fame in check? Perhaps not. I honestly don’t know.
What i do know is that MySpace provides a platform for people to seek attention. It does not inherently provide attention and this is why even if people wanted 90M viewers to their blog, they’re likely to only get 6. MySpace may help some people feel the rush of attention, but it does not create the desire for attention. The desire for attention runs much deeper and has more to do with how we as a society value people than with what technology we provide them.
I am most certainly worried about the level of narcissism that exists today. I am worried by how we feed our children meritocratic myths and dreams of being anyone just so that current powers can maintain their supremacy at a direct cost to those who are supplying the dreams. I am worried that our “solutions” to the burst bubble are physically, psychologically, and culturally devastating, filled with hate and toxic waste. I am worried that Paris Hilton is a more meaningful role model to most American girls than Mother Theresa ever was. But i am not inherently worried about social network technology or video cameras or magazines. I’m worried by how society leverages different media to perpetuate disturbing ideals and pray on people’s desire for freedom and attention. Eliminating MySpace will not stop the narcissistic crisis that we’re facing; it will simply allow us to play ostrich as we continue to damage our children with unrealistic views of the world.
(Conversation at Apophenia)
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March 16, 2007
I’m often asked what “Web 3.0” will be about. Lately, i have found myself talking about two critical stages of web sociality in order to explain where we’re going. I realized that i never succinctly described this here so i thought i should.
In early networked publics, there were two primary organizing principles for group sociability: interests and activities. People came together on rec.motorcylcles because they shared an interest in motorcycles. People also came together in work groups to discuss activities. Usenet, mailing lists, chatrooms, etc. were organized around these principles.
By and large, these were strangers meeting. Early net adopters were often engaging with people like them who were not geographically proximate. Then the boom hit and everyone got online, often to email with their friends (and consume). With everyone online, the organizing principles of sociality shifted.
As blogging began to take hold, people started arranging themselves around pre-existing friend groups. In this way, the organizing principle was about ego-centric networks. People’s “communities” began being defined by their friends. This model is quite different than group-driven structures where there are defined network boundaries. Ego-centric system are a (mostly) continuous graph. There are certainly clusters, but rarely bounded groups. This is precisely how we get the notion of “6 degrees of separation.” While blogging (and to a lesser degree homepages) were key to this shift, it was really social network sites that took the ball to the endzone. They made the networks visible, allowing people to put themselves at the center of their world. We finally have a world wide WEB of people, not just documents.
When i think about what’s next, i don’t think it’s going more virtual, more removed from everyday life. Actually, i think it’s even more connected to everyday life. We moved from ideas to people. What’s next? Place.
I believe that geographic-dependent context will be the next key shift. GPS, mesh networks, articulated presence, etc. People want to go mobile and they want to use technology to help them engage in the mobile world. Unfortunately, i think we have huge structural barriers in front of us. It’s not that we can’t do this on a technological level, it’s that there are old-skool institutions that want to get in the way. And they want to do it by plugging the market and shaping the law to their advantage. Primarily, i’m talking about carriers. And the handset makers who help keep the carriers alive. Let me explain.
The internet was not made for social communities. It was not made for social network sites. This grew because some creative folks decided to build on the open platform that was made available. Until recently, network neutrality was never a debate in the internet world because it was assumed. Given a connection (and time and literacy), anyone could contribute. Gotta love libertarian idealism.
Unfortunately, the same is not true for the mobile network. There’s never been neutrality and it’s the last thing that the carriers want. They want to control every byte and every application that can be put on the handsets that they adopt (and control through locking). In short, they want to control everything. It’s near impossible to develop networked social applications for mobiles. If it works on one carrier, it’s bound to be ignored by others. Even worse, the carriers have a disincentive to allow you to spread bytes over the network. (I can’t imagine how much those with all-you-can-eat plans detest Twittr.) Culturally, this is the step that’s next. Too bad i think that inane corporate bullshit is going to get in the way.
Of course, while i think that people want to move in this direction, i also think that privacy confusion has only just begun.
(Conversation at Apophenia)
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March 10, 2007
On Wednesday, Twitter tipped the tuna. By that I mean it started peaking. Adoption amongst the people I know seemed to double immediately, an apparent tipping point. It hasn’t jumped the shark, and probably won’t until Steven Colbert covers this messaging of the mundane. As Twitter turns 1 on March 13th, not only is there a quickening of users, but messages per user.
Twitter, in a nutshell, is mobile social software that lets you broadcast and receive short messages with your social network. You can use it with SMS (sending a message to 40404), on the web or IM. A darn easy API has enabled other clients such as Twitterific for the Mac. Twitter is Continuous Partial Presence, mostly made up of mundane messages in answer to the question, “what are you doing?” A never-ending steam of presence messages prompts you to update your own. Messages are more ephemeral than IM presence — and posting is of a lower threshold, both because of ease and accessibility, and the informality of the medium.
Anil Dash was spot-on to highlight “The sign of success in social software is when your community does something you didn’t expect.” A couple of weeks ago it became a convention to start messages with @username as a way of saying something to someone visible to everyone. Within the limited affordances of the tool, people started to use it not only for presence, but a kind of shouting at the party conversation. Further, when you see an to someone who isn’t in your social network, you find yourself inclined to go see who it is or add them if they are a friend who just joined. This kind of social discovery goes beyond seeing friend lists on profiles, aids network structure and quickens adoption.
While the app is viral (you have to get others to adopt to be able to use it), mobile social software has great word-of-mouth properties. At Wikimania this summer, a buzz went off in my pocket when I was having dinner, which prompted me to get Jason Calacanis, Dave Winer and the brothers Gillmor to adopt. Wednesday was the first day of TED, so a bunch of A-listers spread it. At SXSW it seems to be the smart mob tool of choice, and there is even a group for it with a feature I’ve never seen before, JOIN.
Most recently there has been a rise in fake identities and even celebrities. Partially because people want to form more than one group, sometimes as integration points with other communities. Some of the groups I’ve spotted include AdaptivePath, Barcamp, Technorati (a hack that begs people for blurbs in WTF), Techmeme (a hack that posts new top stories) and Wordpress (release updates). Andy Carvin hypothesizes Twitter could save lives in a catastrophe, but group forming is already ahead of his theory with the USGS Earthquake Center on Twittter.
This week most of my company joined Twitter and I set up http://twitter.com/socialtext for no reason in particular. I posted the login in a private wiki page to let anyone contribute. But when Moconner saw how simple the API was, he wrote a bot to let us post from our IRC channel. Now we have a low threshold way to express group identity that fits with the way we work.
Liz Lawley well addressed the differences of this form of presence and criticisms of mundane content and interruption costs. She highlights “exploring clusters of loosely related people by looking at the updates from their friends. There are stories told in between updates.”
However, I do think the the interruption tax is significant — especially with the quickening of adoption. You use your social network as a filter, which helps both in scoping participation within a pull model of attention management, but also to Liz’s point that my friends are digesting the web for me and perhaps reducing my discovery costs. But the affordance within Twitter of both mobile and web, that not only lets Anil use it (he is Web-only) is what helps me manage attention overload. I can throttle back to web-only and curb interruptions, simply by texting off.
Good thing too, because back when it was called twittr people held back believing what they posted would be interrupting on mostly mobile devices. Lately I think people just go for it, and most consumption is on the web or other clients. I’d love to see some research on posts/user, client use, tracking @username, group identities, geographic dispersion and revealing other undesigned conventions.
Cross-posted on ross.typepad.com
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March 7, 2007
So a few weeks ago, I started getting spam referencing O’Reilly books in the subject line, and I thought that the spammers had just gotten lucky, and that the universe of possible offensive measures for spammers now included generating so many different subject lines that at least some of them got through to my inbox, but recently I’ve started to get more of this kind of spam, as with:
- Subject: definition of what “free software” means. Outgrowing its
- Subject: What makes it particularly interesting to private users is that there has been much activity to bring free UNIXoid operating systems to the PC,
- Subject: and so have been long-haul links using public telephone lines. A rapidly growing conglomerate of world-wide networks has, however, made joining the global
(All are phrases drawn from http://tldp.org/LDP/nag/node2.html.)
Can it be that spammers are starting to associate context with individual email addresses, in an effort to evade Bayesian filters? (If you wanted to make sure a message got to my inbox, references to free software, open source, and telecom networks would be a pretty good way to do it. I mean, what are the chances?) Some of this stuff is so close to my interests that I thought I’d written some of the subject lines and was receiving this as a reply. Or is this just general Bayes-busting that happens to overlap with my interests?
If it’s the former, then Teilhard de Chardin is laughing it up in some odd corner of the noosphere, as our public expressions are being reflected back to us as a come-on. History repeats itself, first as self-expression, then as ad copy…
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March 6, 2007
I’m completely fascinated by Twitter right now—in much the same way I was by blogging four years ago, and by ICQ years before that.
If you haven’t tried it yet, Twitter is a site that allows you to post one-line messages about what you’re currently doing—via the web interface, IM, or SMS. You can limit who sees the messages to people you’ve explicitly added to your friends list, or you can make the messages public. (My Twitter posts are private, but my friend Joi’s are public.)
What Twitter does, in a simple and brilliant way, is to merge a number of interesting trends in social software usage—personal blogging, lightweight presence indicators, and IM status messages—into a fascinating blend of ephemerality and permanence, public and private.
The big “P” word in technology these days is “participatory.” But I’m increasingly convinced that a more important “P” word is “presence.” In a world where we’re seldom able to spend significant amounts of time with the people we care about (due not only to geographic dispersion, but also the realities of daily work and school commitments), having a mobile, lightweight method for both keeping people updated on what you’re doing and staying aware of what others are doing is powerful.
I’ve experimented a bit with a visual form of this lightweight presence indication, through cameraphone photos taken while traveling. A photo of a boarding gate sign, or of a hotel entrance, conveys where I am and what I’m doing quickly and easily. But that only works if people are near a computer and are watching my Flickr photo feed, and that’s a lot to ask.
I also use IM status messages to broadcast what I’m doing. My iChat has a stack of custom messages that I’ve saved for re-use, from “packing” and “at the airpot” to “breaking up sibling squabbles” and “grading…the horror! the horror!” But status messages have no permanence to them, and require some degree of synchronicity—people have to be logged into IM, and looking at status messages, while I’m there. Because Twitter archives your messages on the web (and can send them as SMS that you can check at any time), that requirement for synchronous connections goes away.
Blogs allow this kind of archived update, of course—but they’re not lightweight. Where one might easily post a Twitter message along the lines of “on my way to work”, a blog post like that wouldn’t be worth the effort and overhead.
I’ve heard two kinds of criticisms of Twitter already.
The first criticizes the triviality of the content. But asking “who really cares about that kind of mindless trivia about your day” misses the whole point of presence. This isn’t about conveying complex theory—it’s about letting the people in your distributed network of family and friends have some sense of where you are and what you’re doing. And we crave this, I think. When I travel, the first thing I ask the kids on the phone when I call home is “what are you doing?” Not because I really care that much about the show on TV, or the homework they’re working on, but because I care about the rhythms and activities of their days. No, most people don’t care that I’m sitting in the airport at DCA, or watching a TV show with my husband. But the people who miss being able to share in day-to-day activity with me—family and close friends—do care.
The second type of criticism is that the last thing we need is more interruptions in our already discontinuous and partially attentive connected worlds. What’s interesting to me about Twitter, though, is that it actually reduces my craving to surf the web, ping people via IM, and cruise Facebook. I can keep a Twitter IM window open in the background, and check it occasionally just to see what people are up to. There’s no obligation to respond, which I typically feel when updates come from individuals via IM or email. Or I can just check my text messages or the web site when I feel like getting a big picture of what my friends are up to.
Which then leads to one of the aspects of Twitter that I find most fascinating—exploring clusters of loosely related people by looking at the updates from their friends. There are stories told in between updates. Who’s at a conference, and do they know each other? Who’s on the road, and who’s at home. Narratives that wind around and between the updates and the people, that show connections. Updates that echo each other, or even directly respond to another Twitter post.
There’s more to it than that, but I’m still sorting it all out in my head. Just wanted to post an early-warning signal that I see something important happening here, something worth paying (more than partial) attention to.
(cross-posted from mamamusings; since comments have been unreliable here, any comments can be posted there)
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February 16, 2007
Not long ago, I wrote an article on “Social Publishing” here on Many-to-Many, which suggests the possibility of a system where
“authors create and distribute their work, and readers, individually and collectively, including fans as well as editors and peers, review, comment, rank, and tag, everything.”
So I followed up on the post and, along with a colleague Richard Adler, started Oort-Cloud.org
Oort-Cloud is a site where science fiction and fantasy readers and writers can build precisely the kind of community that I alluded to in Social Publishing. Oort-Cloud utilizes a process we have termed “OpenLit” which you can read more about on the OpenLit page. Basically, OpenLit is a simple catalytic cycle:
Write - Share - Read - Respond
First, writers write.
Second, writers share with others what they have written.
Third, readers read what is available.
Fourth, readers respond to what they have read.
In this way, writers become better writers by virtue of having a distribution outlet that embeds constant feedback, and readers have access to better and better stories, where “better” actually means better for them based on their interaction with the writers.
Hopefully, this all means new opportunities for everyone involved in science fiction and fantasy — readers, writers, and publishers alike.
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February 13, 2007
Last week, Facebook unveiled a gifting feature. For $1, you can purchase a gift for the person you most adore. If you choose to make the gift public, you are credited with that gift on the person’s profile under the “gift box” region. If you choose to make the gift private, the gift is still there but there’s no notice concerning who gave it.
Before getting into this, let me take a moment to voice my annual bitterness over Hallmark Holidays, particularly the one that involves an obscene explosion of pink, candy, and flowers.
The gifting feature is fantastically times to align with a holiday built around status: Valentine’s Day. Valentine’s Day is all about pronouncing your relationship to loved ones (and those you obsess over) in the witness of others. Remember those miniature cards in elementary school? Or the carnations in high school? Listening to the radio, you’d think Valentine’s Day was a contest. Who can get the most flowers? The fanciest dinner? This holiday should make most people want to crawl in bed and eat bon-bons while sobbing over sappy movies. But it works. It feeds on people’s desire to be validated and shown as worthy to the people around them, even at the expense of others. It is a holiday built purely on status (under the guise of “love”). You look good when others love you (and the more the merrier).
Of course, Valentine’s Day is not the only hyper-commercialized holiday. The celebration of Christ’s birth is marked by massive shopping. In response, the Festival of Lights has been turned into 8 days of competitive gift giving in American Jewish culture. Acknowledging that people get old in patterns that align with a socially constructed calendar also requires presents. Hell, anything that is seen as a lifestage change requires gifts (marriage, childbirth, graduation, Bat Mitzvah, etc.).
Needless to say, gift giving is perpetuated by a consumer culture that relishes any excuse to incite people to buy. My favorite of this is the “gift certificate” - a piece of paper that says that you couldn’t think of what to give so you assuaged your guilt by giving money to a corporation. You get brainwashed into believing that forcing your loved one to shop at that particular venue is thoughtful, even though the real winner is the corporation since only a fraction of those certificates are ever redeemed. No wonder corporations love gift certificates - they allow them to make bundles and bundles of money, knowing that the receiver will never come back for the goods.
But anyhow… i’ve gone off on a tangent… Gifts. Facebook.
Unlike Fred, i think that gifts make a lot more sense than identity purchases when it comes to micro-payments and social network sites. Sure, buying clothes in virtual systems makes sense, but what’s the value of paying to deck out your profile if the primary purpose of it is to enable communication? I think that for those who actively try to craft a public identity through profiles (celebrities and fame junkies), paying to make a cooler profile makes sense. But most folks are quite content with the crap that they can do for free and i don’t see them paying money to get more fancified backgrounds when they can copy/paste. That said, i think it’s very interesting when you can pay to affect someone else’s profile. I think it’s QQ where you can pay to have a donkey shit on your friend’s page and then they have to pay to clean it up. This prankster “gift” has a lot of value. It becomes a game within the system and it bonds two people together.
In a backchannel conversation, Fred argues with me that digital gifts will have little value because they only make people look good for a very brief period. They do not have the same type of persistence as identity-driven purchases like clothing in WoW. I think that it is precisely this ephemeralness that will make gifts popular. There are times for gift giving (predefined by society). Individuals’ reaction to this is already visible on social network sites comments. People write happy birthday and send glitter for holidays (a.k.a. those animated graphical disasters screaming “happy valentine’s day!”). These expressions are not simply altruistic kindness. By publicly performing the holiday or birthday, the individual doing the expression looks good before hir peers. It also prompts reciprocity so that one’s own profile is then also filled with validating comments. Etc. Etc. (If interested in gifting, you absolutely must read the canon: Marcel Mauss’ “The Gift”.)
Like Fred, i too have an issue with the economic structure of Facebook Gifts, but it’s not because i think that $1 is too expensive. Gifts are part of status play. As such, there are critical elements about gift giving that must be taken into consideration. For example, it’s critical to know who gifted who first. You need to know this because it showcases consideration. Look closely at comments on MySpace and you’ll see that timing matters; there’s no timing on Facebook so you can’t see who gifted who first and who reciprocated. Upon receipt of a gift, one is often required to reciprocate. To handle being second, people up the ante in reciprocating. The second person gives something that is worth more than the first. This requires having the ability to offer more; offering two of something isn’t really the right answer - you want to offer something of more value. All of Facebook’s gifts are $1 so they are all equal. Value, of course, doesn’t have to be about money. Scarcity is quite valuable. If you gift something rare, it’s far more desired than offering a cheesy gift that anyone could get. This is why the handmade gift matters in a culture where you can buy anything.
I don’t think Facebook gifts - in its current incarnation - is sustainable. You can only gift so many kisses and rainbows before it’s meaningless. And what’s the point of paying $1 for them (other than to help the fight against breast cancer)? $1 is nothing if the gift is meaningful, but the 21 gift options will quickly lose meaning. It’s not just about dropping the price down to 20 cents. It’s about recognizing that gifting has variables that must be taken into account.
People want gifts. And they want to give gifts. Comments (or messages on the wall) are a form of gifting and every day, teens and 20-somethings log in hoping that someone left a loving comment. (And all the older folks cling to their Crackberries with the same hope.) It’s very depressing to log in and get no love.
I think that Facebook is right-on for making a gifting-based offering, but i think that to make it work long-term, they need to understand gifting a bit better. It’s about status. It’s about scarcity. It’s about reciprocity and upping the ante. These need to worked into the system and evolving this will make Facebook look good, not like they are backpeddling. This is not about gifting being a one-time rush; it’s about understanding the social structure of gifting.
(See Apophenia for comments)
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Wikipedia’s policy of neutrality sometimes forces resolution when we’d rather have debate. Yes, competing sides get represented in the articles, and the discussion pages let us hear people arguing their points, but the arguments themselves are treated as stations on the way to neutral agreement.
So, there’s room for additional approaches that take the arguments themselves as their topics. That’s what Debatepedia.org does, and it looks like it’s on its way to being really useful.
Like Wikipedia, anyone can edit existing content. Unlike Wikipedia, its topics are all up for debate. Each topic presents both sides, structured into sub-questions, with a strong ethos of citation, factuality, and lack of flaming; the first of its Guiding Principles is “No personal opinion.” Rather, it attempts to present the best case and best evidence for each side.
Debatepedia limits itself to topics with yes-no alternatives and with clear pro and con cases. To start a debate, a user has to propose it and the editors (who seem to be the people who founded it…I couldn’t find info about them on the site) have to accept it. This keeps people from proposing stupid topics and boosts the likelihood that if you visit a listed debate, you’ll find content there. It also limits discussion to topics that have two and only two sides, which may turn out to be a serious limitation. But, we’ll see. And it can adapt as required.
Will Debatepedia take off? Who the hell knows. But it’s a welcome addition to the range of experiments in pulling ourselves together.
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February 6, 2007
Introduction: Last week, Henry Jenkins, Beth Coleman and I all published pieces on Second Life and virtual worlds. (Those pieces are here: Henry, Beth, Clay.)
We also agreed we would each post reaction pieces this week. Henry’s second week post is here, Beth’s is here. (I have not read either yet, so the reactions to those pieces will come next week.) My reaction to Henry’s first piece is below; my reaction to Beth’s first piece will appear later in the week.
I hope you’re a betting man, because at the end of this post, I’m going to propose a bet (or rather, as befits a conversation between academics, a framework for a bet.)
Before I do, though, I want to react to your earlier post on Second Life. Reading it, it struck me that we agree about many of the basic facts, and that most of our variance is about their relative importance. So as to prevent the softness of false consensus from settling over some sharp but interesting disagreements, let me start with a list of assertions I think we could both agree with. If I succeed, we can concentrate on our smaller but more interesting set of differences.
I think you and I agree that:
1. Linden has embraced participatory culture, including, inter alia, providing user tools, using CC licenses, and open sourcing the client.
2. Users of Second Life have created interesting effects by taking advantage of those opportunities.
3. Most people who try Second Life do not like it. As a result, SL is is not going to be a mass movement in any meaningful sense of the term, to use your phrase.
4. Reporters and marketers ought not discuss Second Life using phony numbers.
The core difference between our respective views of the current situation is that you place more emphasis on the first two items on that list, and I on the second two.
With that having been said (and assuming you roughly agree with that analysis), I’ll respond to three points in your post that I either don’t understand or do understand but disagree with. First, I want to push back on one of your historical comparisons. Next, I want to try to convince you that giving bad actors a pass when they embrace participatory culture is short-sighted. Finally, and most importantly, I want to propose a bet on the future utility or inutility of virtual worlds.
One: Second Life != The Renaissance
You compare Second Life with the Renaissance and the Age of Reason. This is approximately insane, and your disclaimer that Second Life may not reach this rarefied plateau doesn’t do much to make it less insane. Using the Renaissance as a reference point links the two in the reader’s mind, even in the face of subsequent denial. (We are all Lakoffians now.)
I disagree with this comparison, not because I think its wrong, but because I think it’s a category error. Your example assumes I was writing about Second Life as shorthand for broader cultural change. I wasn’t. I was writing about Second Life as a client/server program that creates a visual rendering of 3-dimensional space. Not only is it not the Renaissance, it isn’t even the same kind of thing as the Renaissance. Your comparison elides the differences between general movements and particular tools.
Participatory culture is one of the essential movements of our age. It creates many different kinds of artifacts, however, and it is possible to be skeptical about Second Life as an artifact without being skeptical of participatory culture generally. Let me re-write the sentiment you reacted to, to make that distinction clear: Second Life, a piece of software developed by Linden Labs, is unlikely to become widely adopted in the future, because it is not now and has never been widely adopted, measured either in retention of new users or in the number of current return users.
If you believe, separate from the fortunes of Linden Lab’s current offering, that virtual worlds will someday become popular, we have a different, and far more interesting disagreement, one I’ll write about in the last section below.
Two: Participatoriness Should Not Be A ‘Get Out of Jail Free’ Card
I care only a little bit about the future of virtual worlds. I care a great deal about the future of participatory culture. And for the moment, the debate about and the hype surrounding SL is keeping alive the idea that we might design and inhabit our own worlds and construct our own culture. That’s something worth defending.
Reading this, I get the feeling that if I opened Clay’s Kitten Mulching Hut™, so long as it involved participatory kitten mulching, it would get the Jenkins seal of approval.
Of everything you wrote, I think this is likeliest to turn out to be a tactical mistake, for two reasons. First, for every Second Life user, there are at least 5 former users who quickly bailed. (And that’s in the short term; more have bailed the long term. We don’t know how many current return users there are, except that the number is smaller than any published figure.) Giving a pass to laudatory Second Life stories that use false numbers, simply because they are “keeping alive” an idea you like, risks bootstrapping Second Life’s failure to retain users into unwarranted skepticism about peer production generally.
More importantly, though, lowering your scrutiny of people using bogus Linden numbers, just because they are on your team, is a bad idea. To put this in Brooklynese, everyone touting the popularity of Second Life is either a schlemiel or a schuyster. The schlemiels are simply people who were fooled by Linden. The schuysters, though, are people who know the numbers are junk but use them anyway; making participatory culture a Get Out of Jail Free card for that kind of deceit is an invitation to corruption.
And I mean corruption in the most literal sense of the word:
- “As I write this, there are just over 1.4 million residents in Second Life, with over $704,000 spent in the last 24 hours.” Ian Shafer, at Clikz Experts
- “…one million users and growing by hundreds of thousands of users each month, that may well care about that virtual fashion crisis. They’re members of the virtual world Second Life, and when you consider all the places you need to reach consumers, this is by far one of the strangest.”David Berkowitz of 360i.
- “A new market emerging from virtual reality into the real-world global economy is growing by leaps and bounds […] such as the hugely popular Second Life - where the lines between online and offline commerce are rapidly blurring. Rodney Nelsestuen of TowerGroup.
- “At the rate Second Life is growing — from 100,000 registered users a year ago to one million in October, and now all the way up to two million — it may be over thirty million a year from now. At thirty million users Second Life is no longer a sideshow, but is something everyone has heard of and many people are experiencing for themselves.” Catherine Winters at SocialSignal
Shafer, Berkowitz, Nelsestuen and Winters all know that the figures they are touting are inaccurate, if inaccurate is a strong enough word for claims that would make a stock spammer blush. (30 million users at the end of 2007? Please. Linden will be lucky to have a million return users in any month of this year.)
And why are these people saying these things? Because they are selling their services, and they are likelier to get clients if people wrongly believe that Second Life is hugely popular, or that millions of people currently use it, or that that tens of millions will use it in a year. If, on the other hand, those potential clients were to understand that both the size and growth of the active population was considerably more modest than the Hamburger Helper figures Linden publishes, well that wouldn’t be as good for business.
Perhaps, so long as it is about user-generated experiences, this sort of lying doesn’t bug you. It bugs me. More to the point, I think it should bug you, if only for reasons of self-interest; accepting Second Life hyperbole now, on the grounds that people will later remember the participatory nature but not the falsified popularity, is whistling past a pretty big graveyard.
Three: ‘Virtual Worlds’ is a failed composite
Aside from historical comparisons and concerns about abuse of population numbers, there is one area where I think we understand one another, and come to opposite conclusions. Even after we’ve agreed that Second Life will not become a mass movement, and that 3D worlds will not replace existing forms of communication, there’s still this:
Most of us will find uses for virtual worlds one of these days; most of us will not “live” there nor will we conduct most of our business there.
(When you say ‘most of us will find uses for virtual worlds…one of these days’, I assume you mean that something like ‘half of users will use virtual worlds at some future date amenable to prediction’, something like half a dozen years, say.)
We both seem to have written off any short-term realization of a Snow Crash-ish general purpose, visually immersive social world (though probably for different reasons.) Here’s my read of your theory of virtual worlds — you tell me where I’m wrong:
1. The case of immersive 3D representation creates enough similarity among various platforms that they can be reasonably analyzed as a group.
2. Though we’re not headed to a wholesale replacement of current tools, or a general purpose “we live there” cyberspace, the number of special cases for virtual worlds will continue to grow, until most of us will use them someday.
If I have this right, or right enough, then our disagreement seems potentially crisp enough to make a bet on. Let me lay out where I think we disagree most clearly:
First, I think the label ‘virtual worlds’ makes no sense as a category. (I’ve already covered why elsewhere, so I won’t repeat that here.)
Second, I think that 3D game worlds will keep going gangbusters, and 3D non-game worlds will keep not. (An argument covered in the same place.)
Third, even with games driving almost all uses of 3D immersive worlds, I do not believe the portmanteau category of virtual worlds will reach anything like half of internet users (or even half of broadband users) in any predictable time.
#1 is just a thesis statement, but #2 and #3 are potential bets. So, if you’d care to make a prediction about either the percentage of game to non-game uses of virtual worlds, or overall population figures in virtual worlds, expressed either as an absolute number or as a percentage, I think we could take opposite side of a bet for, say, dinner anyplace in either New York or Boston, set for the year of your prediction. (If the date is too far out, we can also pro-rate it via compound average growth, to make the term of the bet shorter.)
Game? Lemme know.
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In the tech circles in which i run, the term “walled gardens” evokes a scrunching of the face if not outright spitting. I shouldn’t be surprised by this because these are the same folks who preach the transparent society as the panacea. But i couldn’t help myself from thinking that this immediate revulsion is obfuscating the issue… so i thought i’d muse a bit on walled gardens.
Walled gardens are inevitably built out of corporate greed - a company wants to lock in your data so that you can’t move between services and leave them in the dust. They make money off of your eyeballs. They make money off of your data. (In return, they often provide you with “free” services.) You put blood, sweat, and tears - or at least a little bit of time - into providing them with valuable data and you can’t get it out when you decide you’ve had enough. If this were the full story, of course walled gardens look foul to the core.
The term “walled garden” implies that there is something beautiful being surrounded by walls. The underlying assumption is that walls are inherently bad. Yet, walls have certain value. For example, i’m very appreciative of walls when i’m having sex. I like to keep my intimate acts intimate and part of that has to do with the construction of barriers that prevent others from accessing me visually and audibly. I’m not so thrilled about tearing down all of the walls in meatspace. Walls are what allow us to construct a notion of “private” and, even more importantly, contextualized publics. Walls help contain the social norms so that you know how to act properly within their confines, whether you’re at a pub or in a classroom.
One of the challenges online is that there really aren’t walls. What walls did exist came tumbling down with the introduction of search. Woosh - one quick query and the walls that separated comp.lang.perl from alt.sex.bondage came crashing down. Before search (a.k.a. Deja), there were pseudo digital walls. Sure, Usenet was public but you had to know where the door was to enter the conversation. Furthermore, you had to care to enter. There are lots of public and commercial places i pass by every day that i don’t bother entering. But, “for the good of all humankind”, search came to pave the roads and Arthur Dent couldn’t stop the digital bulldozer.
We’re living with the complications of no walls online. Determining context is really really hard. Is your boss really addressing you when he puts his pic up on Match.com? Does your daughter take your presence into consideration when she crafts her MySpace? No doubt it’s public, but it’s not like any public that we’re used to in meatspace.
For a long time, one of the accidental blessings of walled gardens was that they kept out search bots as part of their selfish data retention plan. This meant that there were no traces left behind of people’s participation in walled gardens when they opted out - no caches of previous profiles, no records of a once-embarassing profile. Much to my chagrin, many of the largest social network sites (MySpace, LinkedIn, Friendster, etc.) have begun welcoming the bots. This makes me wonder… are they really walled gardens any longer? It sounds more like chain linked fences to me. Or maybe a fishbowl with a little plastic castle.
What does it mean when the supposed walled gardens begin allowing external sites to cache their content?
[tangent] And what on earth does it mean that MySpace blocks the Internet Archive in its robots.txt but allows anyone else? It’s like they half-realize that posterity might be problematic for profiles, but fail to realize that caches of the major search engines are just as freaky. Of course, to top it off, their terms say that you may not use scripts on the site - isn’t a bot a script? The terms also say that participating in MySpace does not give them a license to distribute your content outside of MySpace - isn’t a Google cache of your profile exactly that? [end tangent]
Can we really call these sites walled gardens if the walls are see-through? I mean, if a search bot can grab your content for cache, what’s really stopping you from doing so? Most tech folks would say that they are walled gardens because there are no tools to support easy export. Given that thousands of sites have popped up to provide codes for you to turn your MySpace profile into a dizzy display of animated daisies with rainbow hearts fluttering from the top (while inserting phishing scripts), why wouldn’t there be copy/pastable code to let you export/save/transfer your content? Perhaps people don’t actually want to do this. Perhaps the obsessive personal ownership of one’s content is nothing more than a fantasy of the techno-elite (and the businessmen who haven’t yet managed to lock you in to their brainchild). I mean, if you’re producing content into a context, do you really want to transfer it wholesale? I certainly don’t want my MySpace profile displayed on LinkedIn (even if there are no nude photos there).
For all of this rambling, perhaps i should just summarize into three points:
- If walls have value in meatspace, why are they inherently bad in mediated environments? I would argue that walls provide context and allow us to have some control over the distribution of our expressions. Walls should be appreciated, even if they are near impossible to construct.
- If robots can run around grabbing the content of supposed walled gardens, are they really walled? It seems to me that the tizzy around walled gardens fails to recognize that those most interested in caching the data (::cough:: Google) can do precisely that. And those most interested does not seem to include the content producers.
- If the walls come crashing down, what are we actually losing? Walls provide context, context is critical for individuals to properly express themselves in a socially appropriate way. I fear that our loss of walls is resulting in a very confused public space with far more visibility than anyone can actually handle.
Basically, i don’t think that walled gardens are all that bad. I think that they actually provide a certain level of protection for those toiling in the mud. The problem is that i think that we’ve torn down the walls of the supposed walled gardens and replaced them with chain links or glass. Maybe even one-way glass. And i’m not sure that this is such a good thing. ::sigh::
So, what am i missing? What don’t i understand about walled gardens?
(Conversation at Apophenia)
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