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August 18, 2009

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Contents

Cluetrain@10: Recently, the tenth anniversary edition of The Cluetrain Manifesto came out, a book I co-authored. Here's some of what we got wrong in the original version.

Our kids' Internet: Part 1: Will our kids appreciate the Internet?: Will the Net become just another medium that we take for granted? Part 2: The shared lessons of the Net: The Net teaches all its users (within a particular culture) some common lessons. And if that makes me a technodeterminist, then so be it. Part 3: How to tell you're in a culture gap: You'll love or hate this link, which illustrates our non-uniform response to the Net.

The news' old value:  Part 1: Transparency is the new objectivity: Objectivity and credibility through authority were useful ways to come to reliable belief back when paper constrained ideas. In a linked world, though, transparency carries a lot of that burden. Part 2: Driving Tom Friedman to the F Bomb: Traditional news media are being challenged at the most basic level by the fact that news has been a rectangular object, not a network.  

Bogus Contest: Net PC-ness: What should we be politically correct about in the Age of the Web?


Oy! Why so freaking long?

I started this issue on March 5. Without taking off my socks, I can't even tell you how many weeks ago that was. What happened?

Well, I had this little article called "Five Types of Information" (later: "Misinformed Communication") that was going to lay out five different senses of information, and present one reason why #3 — Claude Shannon's difficult mathematical redefinition of it — kicked off the Information Age even though that age mainly took "information" in senses #4
(the stuff of computers) and #5  (the stuff of the universe), which are essentially unlike #3. It was going to point at Shannon's diagram of how information works and wonder why it looked to lay people (you and me) like a picture of what happens when we talk, argue, or play Pictionary, even though it's wildly off.

6,000 words later, the paper is done. And incomprehensible. And, as far as I can tell (remember, it's incomprehensible) pointless. Meanwhile, I've held off publishing an issue of JOHO until that article was ready.

Or until it utterly failed.

So, welcome to a new issue, now completely "
Misinformed Communication" free!

While Waiting for the Next Issue

I know that between the previous issue and the current one, you were sitting around with absolutely nothing to read except the back of your Cheerios box and the label of your cellphone battery. And there are only so many Gordon Ramsay shows you can watch. So, may I humbly mention that while I may have trouble getting issues of JOHO out, I seem to have no problem smearing dreck on digital pages every single day of the freaking year. So, feel free to drop by my blog or follow me on Twitter (dweinberger). I also do sort of weekly podcasts at the Berkman Center. And I occasionally update a page that lists videos of talks.

On the other hand, Project Runway is about to start up (it's on Lifetime now)...


 Expertise Wanted

For a project on the effect of the Net on expertise, I'm looking for examples of businesses that have used networks that provide expert insight. If you have any ideas along these lines, drop me a line: self@evident.com. Thanks!




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Cluetrain@10

In 1999, Christopher Locke, Doc Searls, Rick Levine, and I put up the Cluetrain.com site. It got a surprising amount of attention, which in turn attracted a book contract. Ten years later, a new edition of the book is out. It includes the original contents, plus new chapters by the four of us, plus essays by Dan Gillmor (who wrote the book on citizen media), J.P. Rangaswami (of BT, and a mad scientist playing with new social forms inside large enterprises), Jake McKee (community guy and former LEGO community builder). 

In the new edition's introduction, I list a bunch of ways the world has become cluetrain-y, many of which we take for granted. The fact is that I think Cluetrain was pretty much right. Of course, at the time we thought we were simply articulating things about the Web that were obvious to users but that many media and business folks needed to hear.

But Cluetrain also got some important things wrong...and I don't mean just Thesis #74: "We are immune to advertising. Just forget it."

What Cluetrain@0 got wrong:

First, the moderately obnoxious tone of the book was appropriate in 1999, but now it's sometimes odd. It reads as if being on the Web were an act of rebellion. Ten years later, the Web is the mainstream. 

The Web-as-rebellion is also central to my essay "The Longing," a chapter in the original book. It says that how much you love the Web is how much you hate your job. As time passes, that idea gets increasingly irrelevant, but I think there's still a little truth in it. Being on the Web isn't sticking it to The Man, but much of the Net culture in fact pushes back against mass culture. LOLcats appropriates the very worst of mass culture — the "Hang in there, baby" cat posters — and twists it wryly, absurdly, and collectively. The common use of clip art in Net culture mocks mass business culture. And Auto-Tune the News mocks modern mass culture on several fronts at once, hilariously. 

Nevertheless, the strident, self-righteous tone of the original version now sounds a bit, well, quaint.

Second, the original version is caught up in a swell of techno-determinism. We assumed — although I think "hoped" is the more accurate term — that the Net would have an inevitable effect all by itself. Nope. The Net doesn't route around all attempts to block it or censor speech, and it doesn't by itself lead to an open world of sharing carers. 

Psychologically, I'd be happier just to leave it there. But I think the truth is messier. Yes, the book has the stank of techno-determinism about it. But there's an element of truth to techno-determinism. Tech doesn't deterministically cause social effects and those effects are not independent of culture, but technology can have momentum within a culture. My ambivalence is evident in the article later in this issue where I argue that simply being on the Web teaches users some lessons, and in my new chapter in the new edition of Cluetrain that talks about the challenges to the open Net; that there are challenges implies that this techno is not entirely determined. I am ambivalent because the phenomenon itself is complex.

Third, although I think the Cluetrain authors knew ten years ago that much of the world would eventually be getting its Net on over the the phone, we were nevertheless thinking about the Internet as something you access via a nice big monitor and a keyboard larger than your hands.

Fourth, I am not so hot on the topic of authenticity any more. I agree with Chris Locke that it's just about impossible to apply that term to a company, because a company doesn't have an innerness that can accord with its outerness. Besides, if a company is authentically rapacious because it's in touch with its inner greedy child, I'd rather deal with a different business that's treating me well inauthentically.

Fifth, I honestly don't remember how long we thought this all would take, and the Web has worked its wonders in some ways that are so obvious that we don't even notice them, but it seems like we should have gotten past some of the most obvious stuff already. Where's copyright reform? Why does so much of marketing still suck? On the other hand, I think the changes in the music, newspaper, and government sectors would have pleasantly surprised the Ten-Years-Ago Me. YouTube and remix culture? Amazing! Blogging and tweeting? Astounding! Social networks? Transformative! 

So, I continue to say what I said when the book first came out: Cluetrain is basically right. But it's also wrong in some important and telling ways.

[You can read the full text of the original for free here. You can buy a copy of the new edition wherever fine, slightly quaint books are sold.] 

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Our kids' Internet

1. Will our kids appreciate the Internet?

During the interminable interregnum between Bush and Obama, every day I consciously reminded myself that we could be looking forward to a McCain-Palin inauguration. Then I'd get a little rush of Obama Joy. (Why isn't anyone making an Obalmond Joy candy bar?) Even now, I keep a McCain-Palin T-shirt ("Reform") nearby just for the tweak of euphoria-by-contrast. (If you have the contrary feeling every time you see Obama, you have my sympathy. Really. Eight years is a long time. I know. I really, really know.)

I'm the same way about the Internet. I love the Internet because even now, fifteen years into the Web, I remember what life used to be like. In fact, give me half a beer and I'll regale you with tales of typing my dissertation on an IBM Model B electric, complete with carbon paper and Wite-Out. Let me finish the beer and I'll explain microfiche to you, you young whippersnappers.

The coming generation, the one that's been brought up on the Internet, isn't going to love it the way that we do. (Note: Throughout, I am, of course, talking about the affluent parts of the world, and America in particular.)

Nevertheless, I'm not convinced the Net is going to become entirely blasé to the digital natives.

First, the current generation of young folks still encounter libraries, land lines, newspapers, TV, and occasional CDs. They can see the contrast. They are living through it.

But even when a generation has grown up in a world in which the Net has elbowed aside those other, wimpier technologies, I wonder whether they'll take it for granted the way we oldsters take telephones, television, and tin lizzies for granted. At some point — not as soon as we'd like or as easily, according to Eszter Hargittai and danah boyd's research — ubiquitous access will be the norm and only its absence will be noticed. But even then, the Net is so much more open than other media that people will keep on innovating on it. Probably not at the same pace as today, but the Internet will continue to be a source of surprises the way the telephone and TV could never be.

The Net may be the first medium that we never quite get used to.

2. The inevitable lessons of the Net

At the Berkman Center, where I'm a senior researcher (nče Fellow), there's a schism. Some of us like to make generalizations about the Net. Others then mention that actual data shows that the Net is different to different people. Even within the US population, people's experience of it varies widely. So, when middle class, educated, white men of a certain age talk as if what they're excited about on the Net is what everyone is excited about, those white men are falling prey to the oldest fallacy in the book. 

Of course that's right. My experience of the Web is not that of, say, a 14 year old Latina girl who's on MySpace, doesn't ever update Wikipedia articles, doesn't have a Twitter account, considers email to be a tool her parents use, and — gasp — hasn't ever tagged a single page. The difference is real and really important.

So, one side of the debate concludes that those of us who talk about "The Internet" as if it were a single thing are falling prey to "techno-determinism," that is, the belief that technology does determinate things to us all on its own. For example, "The Internet will result in the rise of grass roots democracy" commits the Fallacy of Techno-determinism, because it draws a direct, causal connection between tech and social effect, without mentioning that the Internet can have many different social effects, depending on many, many different factors outside of the tech itself. 

My first impulse is to deny the charge of techno-determinism. In fact, I defy you to find anybody who believes that technology by itself has the same effects on everyone and in every culture, independent of all other factors. Nah. 

And yet, at another level, I accept the accusation. Even given the deep differences in the experience of the Net among various social, generational, economic groups, I think there are some things someone in our culture learns just by being on the Net. What you make of that knowledge depends upon on your own personal contingencies, but the "learnings" themselves have a certain inevitability, especially if we confine ourselves to one broad culture, such as, say, America today.

For example, simply by being on the Web you learn:

Ideas can be joined by links.

The structure of ideas joined by links is extremely loose and disorderly overall.

You can easily express yourself. You may not know how to make your own blog or create and post a video, but you come across plenty of sites that have a "comment" button.

Your friends are a click away even after they've moved away.

Lots of people like you are creating stuff. Some of it is good.

Lots of people are spammers.

You can find what you want whenever you want to, not when Web Guide Magazine tells you that it's on.

There's just about always more information about anything you want to know about.

There's more stuff than you could ever ever ever look at.

One idea leads to another; attempts to confine ideas usually fail and do not express the shape of the ideas themselves.

Many people have different views than you, and they seem to take their own views quite seriously.

But with such basics the techno-determinism ends. Having learned these lessons, you may become a full time digital creator, a passive watcher, a freedom-loving rebel, a tagline-spouting consumer, a corporate gamer of the system, a bit-based artiste... None of that is determined by the technology. But the technology does have an effect on how we think about who we are and what our world is, just as growing up in the city or in the country conditions your expectations.

So, boo on the full-blown techno-determinist idea that tech is a cause independent of all else. But that shouldn't stop us from looking at what tech, taken within any particular culture, tends to teach us. Generalizations remain capable of being generally true.

3. How to tell you're in a culture gap

I love this ridiculous thread at Flickr that I found via BoingBoing.

I love it for its ridiculous, excessive creativity. You may find it to be the epitome of Internet stupidity, a waste of time, and all around scary. This thread could be waved around by either side in an argument about whether the Internet is good or bad.

So, even the Net arguably teaches some shared lessons within a broad swath of a culture, there are gaps everywhere, many far more serious and worrisome than this particular silly link illustrates.

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The News' Old Value

1. Transparency is the new objectivity

Note: This is a variant of something I posted on my blog.

Outside of the realm of science, objectivity is discredited these days as anything but an aspiration, and even that aspiration is looking pretty sketchy. The problem with objectivity is that it tries to show what the world looks like from no particular point of view, which is like wondering what something looks like in the dark. Nevertheless, objectivity — even as an unattainable goal — served an important role in how we came to trust information, and in the economics of newspapers in the modern age.

You can see this in newspapers’ early push-back against blogging. We were told that bloggers have agendas, whereas journalists give us objective information. Of course, if you don’t think objectivity is possible, then you think that the claim of objectivity is actually hiding the biases that inevitably are there. That’s what I meant when, during a bloggers press conference at the 2004 Democratic National Convention, I asked Pulitzer-prize winning journalist Walter Mears whom he was supporting for president. He replied (paraphrasing!), "If I tell you, how can you trust what I write?," to which I replied that if he doesn’t tell us, how can we trust what he blogs?

So, that’s one sense in which transparency is the new objectivity. What we used to believe because we thought the author was objective we now believe because we can see through the author’s writings to the sources and values that brought her to that position. Transparency gives the reader information by which she can undo some of the unintended effects of the ever-present biases. Transparency brings us to reliability the way objectivity used to.

This change is epochal.

Objectivity used be presented as a stopping point for belief: If the source is objective and well-informed, you have sufficient reason to believe. That was part of high-end newspapers’ claimed value: You can't believe what you read in a slanted tabloid, but our news is objective, so your inquiry can come to rest here. Credentialing systems had the same basic rhythm: You can stop your quest once you come to a credentialed authority who says, "I got this. You can believe it." End of story.

We thought that that was how knowledge works, but it turns out that it's really just how paper works. In a linked medium transparency prospers, for you can literally see the connections between the final draft’s claims and the ideas that informed it. Paper, on the other hand, sucks at links. You can look up the footnote, but that's an expensive, time-consuming activity more likely to result in failure than success. So, during the Age of Paper, we got used to the idea that authority comes in the form of a stop sign: You’ve reached a source whose reliability requires no further inquiry.

In the Age of Links, we still use credentials and rely on authorities. Those are indispensable ways of scaling knowledge, that is, letting us know more than any one of us could know on her own. But, increasingly, credentials and authority work best for vouchsafing commoditized knowledge, the stuff that's settled and not much worth arguing about. At the edges of knowledge — in the analysis and contextualization that journalists nowadays tell us is their real value — we want, need, can have, and expect transparency — the embedded ability to see through the published draft.

In fact, transparency subsumes objectivity. Anyone who claims objectivity should be willing to back that assertion up by letting us look at sources, disagreements, and the personal assumptions and values supposedly bracketed out of the report.

Objectivity without transparency increasingly will look like arrogance. And then foolishness. Why should we trust what one person — with the best of intentions — insists is true when we instead could have a web of evidence, ideas, and argument?

In short: Objectivity is a trust mechanism you rely on when your medium can't do links. Now our medium can.

2. Driving Tom Friedman to the F-Bomb

Freedom to Connect is an annual conference that collects hugely technical do-ers who are actually out in the world bringing open networks to entire cities and swaths of rural acreage. These folks are missionary geeks and wonks. (It also lets in people like me.) I admire these people immensely, even if I often don't understand what they're saying.

This year, the organizer, David Isenberg, invited Tom Friedman to give a talk. That worried me, because Friedman's stump speech is not technical enough for this audience, and isn't directly on topic for the conference. Still, he's Thomas Freaking Friedman, thrice of the Pulitzer awarded, so I was personally eager to hear him. And his talk was good — perhaps a tad artificially constructed, but, heck, speeches are a performance art with a structure dictated by the needs of narrative, drama, and comedy as much as by strict logic. In any case, my worries were for naught. The audience reacted quite positively.

But then came a question from the back channel. In essence it was: How can we trust the NY Times after it apologized for a year of wrong-ness in the run up to the Iraq war, after the fictional news spewed by Jayson Blair, etc. 

Friedman began with a straightforward answer, acknowledging the fallibility of the NY Times and all institutions. It was a gracious response, and a well spoken paragraph. But then he seemed to think he need to say more. "F* ck you," Thomas Friedman explained. 

It was an unusual moment.

A couple of days later, Isenberg circulated a message he had received from Friedman:

Dear David, Thanks for your note and your stand-up attitude. You are a mensch and so is Micah [Sifry, who had sent an understanding note to the group]. And thank you for having me. To those who understood where I was coming from, thanks. To those who didn't, thanks also. We should all learn from our critics. I believe passionately in the New York Times, a place I have worked at my whole adult life. Lord knows, it has made its mistakes. Which newspaper or blogger hasn't? But I believe that when it is at its best it plays a vitally important role in our democracy, and flippant, denigrating remarks about it, at a time when it is in economic peril and our country desperately needs serious journalism to sort through this crisis, struck me as deeply unserious. That said, when I'm trying to make a point, especially a heartfelt one, and my choice of words ends up getting in the way of that point — even if for just one person — then I chose the wrong words. So thanks to all for a great discussion and a learning afternoon. Allbest, Tom Friedman

Friedman's right that compared to most blogs and other newspapers, the Times is quite trustworthy. But the fact that it misreported on Iraq for a year, in a way that consistently tended towards the Bush administration's misguided policies, taught a definitive lesson we would be fools not to learn.

It's not just a lesson about the New York Times. The Times is best of breed. Nor is this is about the integrity or professionalism of reporters, journalists, and thrice-Pulitzered columnists. Rather, it's about the most basic structure of the news and the most basic value the news media have promised us:

The news is divided into stories. That reflects our instinct to understand through narratives, but the constrained nature of traditional media — paper, broadcast media — requires snipping news stories out of the cloth in which they're embedded. Hyperlinks enable a closer approximation to the way events are nothing but folds in an uncuttable fabric.

Stories compose "the news" as if there were any "the"-ness about, as if it were a country that could be explored or colonized, as if a restaurant insisted that its menu was all the food we need ever eat.

Much of the value promised by the papers and broadcast news shows is that they give us comprehensive global coverage of The News. Read the morning paper and you've read The News. Give us 8 minutes and we'll give you the world. Hahaha.

Traditionally, the news is published. It comes out at some moment and then the cycle starts again. The world, on the other hand, is in continuous rotation.

The news is reported in a calm, neutral, objective voice. That voice increasingly seems like it's hiding something.

All of these changes reflect the move from media that handle the problem of scale — the amount to communicate so far outstrips the capacities of the medium — by putting things in neat rectangles. When the news is published on paper or according to the rectangles of a broadcast schedule, the news looked like a set of side by side stories. Now that the medium is a network, the news is starting to look much more like a network itself, linked as inextricably as are the events and the cultures that produce them. 

The news is a network. And not a broadcast network. An actual, Internetty, bottom-up, wazoo-linked, easier-to-include-than-exclude network. 

Newspapers as august as the NY Times are not such networks. They are bounded objects. Bounded objects often don't do very well in the ecology of networks. I only hope that we can find a way to sustain the network of talented, dedicated people and processes that currently produce the bound boxes full of day-old stories.

If not, we will be hearing a lot more F-bombs from Tom Friedman.

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Bogus Contest: Net PC-ness

I'm all about the political correctness. Being politically correct more often (in my experience) means thinking about how our assumptions have excluded classes of people, and have reinforced the unearned authority of the incumbents. So, please don't apologize to me for writing "s/he," or for adding "if that's your sexual orientation" to your discussion of marriage, or for using "BCE" instead of "BC" when talking about the years before the birth of one particular religion's Messiah. We ought to be adding more awkward tips of the hat to those we otherwise have assumed need not be acknowledged. Seriously. For example, we Americans often should preface remarks that with a reminder that we're talking about life in America. 

So, what new political corrections should we add to the list, especially when it comes to the Internet?

Ism

Sample Apology

Spellism

"...for those who choose to abide by a spelling standard"

textism

"...and I apologize for those unable to render bold or italic fonts"

Tweetism

"...accepting that what I'm saying is worth more than 140 characters of my reader's attention"

:) ism

"...if you believe in a universal syntax of facial expression, and are capable of mentally rotating images 90 degrees"

Your turn! To enter — which is, remember, functionally the same as not entering — post your Net PC-ness entries here


Editorial Lint

JOHO is a free, independent newsletter written and produced by David Weinberger. If you write him with corrections or criticisms, it will probably turn out to have been your fault. To unsubscribe, send an email to joho-request@freelists.org with "unsubscribe" in the subject line. If you have more than one email address, you must send the unsubscribe request from the email address you want unsubscribed. In case of difficulty, let me know: self@evident.com

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