Joho the Blog

November 21, 2014

APIs are magic

(This is cross-posted at Medium.)

Dave Winer recalls a post of his from 2007 about an API that he’s now revived:

“Because Twitter has a public API that allows anyone to add a feature, and because the NY Times offers its content as a set of feeds, I was able to whip up a connection between the two in a few hours. That’s the power of open APIs.”

Ah, the power of APIs! They’re a deep magic that draws upon five skills of the Web as Mage:

First, an API matters typically because some organization has decided to flip the default: it assumes data should be public unless there’s a reason to keep it private.

Second, an API works because it provides a standard, or at least well-documented, way for an application to request that data.

Third, open APIs tend to be “RESTful,” which means that they work using the normal Web way of proceeding (i.e., Web protocols). All you or your program have to do is go to the API’s site using a standard URL of the sort you enter in a browser. The site comes back not with a Web page but with data. For example, click on this URL (or paste it into your browser) and you’ll get data from Wikipedia’s API: http://en.wikipedia.org/w/api.php?action=query&titles=San_Francisco&prop=images&imlimit=20&format=jsonfm. (This is from the Wikipedia API tutorial.)

Fourth, you need people anywhere on the planet who have ideas about how that data can be made more useful or delightful. (cf. Dave Winer.)

Fifth, you need a worldwide access system that makes the results of that work available to everyone on the Internet.

In short, API’s show the power of a connective infrastructure populated by ingenuity and generosity.

In shorter shortnesss: API’s embody the very best of the Web.

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November 18, 2014

[2b2k] Four things to learn in a learning commons

Last night I got to give a talk at a public meeting of the Gloucester Education Foundation and the Gloucester Public School District. We talked about learning commons and libraries. It was awesome to see the way that community comports itself towards its teachers, students and librarians, and how engaged they are. Truly exceptional.

Afterwards there were comments by Richard Safier (superintendent), Deborah Kelsey (director of the Sawyer Free Library), and Samantha Whitney (librarian and teacher at the high school), and then a brief workshop at the attendees tables. The attendees included about a dozen of Samantha’s students; you can see in the liveliness of her students and the great questions they asked that Samantha is an inspiring teacher.

I came out of these conversations thinking that if my charter were to establish a “learning commons” in a school library, I’d ask what sort of learning I want to be modeled in that space. I think I’d be looking for four characteristics:

1. Students need to learn the basics (and beyond!) of online literacy: not just how to use the tools, but, more important, how to think critically in the networked age. Many schools are recognizing that, thankfully. But it’s something that probably will be done socially as often as not: “Can I trust a site?” is a question probably best asked of a network.

2. Old-school critical thinking was often thought of as learning how to sift claims so that only that which is worth believing makes it through. Those skills are of course still valuable, but on a network we are almost always left with contradictory piles of sifted beliefs. Sometimes we need to dispute those other beliefs because they are simply wrong. But on a network we also need to learn to live with difference — and to appreciate difference — more than ever. So, I would take learning to love difference to be an essential skill.

3. It kills me that most people have never clicked on a Wikipedia “Talk” page to see the discussion that resulted in the article they’re reading. If we’re going to get through this thing — life together on this planet — we’re really going to have to learn to be more meta-aware about what we read and encounter online. The old trick of authority was to erase any signs of what produced the authoritative declaration. We can’t afford that any more. We need always to be aware the what we come across resulted from humans and human processes.

4. We can’t rely on individual brains. We need brains that are networked with other brains. Those networks can be smarter than any of their individual members, but only if the participants learn how to let the group make them all smarter instead of stupider.

I am not sure how these skills can be taught — excellent educators and the communities that support them, like those I met last night, are in a better position to figure it out — but they are four skills that seem highly congruent with a networked learning commons.

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November 12, 2014

“Netflix is a data hog” and other myths of Net Neutrality

Medium Backchannel just posted my piece on six myths about Net Neutrality. Here’s the opening:

Netflix is a data hog

“…data hogs like Netflix might need to bear some of the cost of handling heavy traffic.”?—?ABCnews

That’s like saying your water utility is a water hog because you take long showers and over-water your lawn.

Streaming a high-def movie does take a whole bunch of bits. But if you hadn’t gone ahead and clicked on Taken 2 [SPOILER: she’s taken again], Netflix would not have sent those bits over the Internet.

So Netflix isn’t a data hog. You are.

You’re a data hog.

No, you’re not.

Some people use the Internet ten minutes a day to check their email. Some people leave their computers on 24/7 to download entire video libraries. None of them are data hogs.

How can I say this so unequivocally…?

more over at Medium.

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November 10, 2014

The invisible change in the news

The first chapter of Dan Gillmor‘s 2005 book, We the Media [pdf], is a terrific, brief history of journalism from the US Colonial era up through Sept. 11. And in 2014 it has a different lesson to teach us as well.

Ten years later, what Dan pointed to as extraordinary is now common as air. It’s now so ordinary that it sometimes leads us to underestimate the magnitude of the change we’ve already lived through.

For example, he ends that first chapter with stories from Sept. 11. News coming through email lists before it could be delivered by the mainstream press. People on the scene posting photos they took. A blood drive organized online. A little-known Afghan-American writer offering wise advice that got circulated across the Net and worked its way up into the mainstream. Personal stories that conveyed the scene better than objective reporting could.

This was novel enough that Dan presented it as worth listening to as a portent. The fact that in 2014 it seems old hat is the proof that in 2004 Dan’s vision was acute.

Think about how you heard about, say, Obama’s Net Neutrality statement today and where you went to hear it explained and contextualized, and then tell me that the Net hasn’t already transformed the news, and that much of the most important, vibrant journalism is now being accomplished by citizens in ways that we now take for granted.

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November 8, 2014

Italy’s Declaration of Internet Rights

An ad hoc study commission of the Italian Chamber of Deputies has published a draft “Declaration of Internet Rights” that should be cause for cheers and cheer. It’s currently open for public comment at the Civici Platform — which by itself is pretty cool.

TechPresident explains that this came about

thanks to the initiative of the presidency of the Chamber of Deputies, a dedicated Committee of experts and members of the Parliament from the Committee on Internet Rights and Duties. The bill aims to inform the debate about online civil liberties and fundamental freedoms during the Italian semester of the European Union presidency…

I like the document a lot. A lot a lot. The principles are based on a genuine understanding of the value that the Net brings and what enables the Net to bring that value. This is crucial because so often those who seek to govern the Net do so because they see it primarily as a threat to order or a challenge to their power.

The Declaration focuses on the rights of individuals, taking the implicit stance (or so I read it) that the threat to those rights comes not only from Internet malefactors and giant Internet conglomerates run amok, but also from those who seek to govern the Net. It includes as rights not only access to the Net, but access to education about how to use the Net, a point too often forgotten. (Not by Eszter Hargittai, though, who has done the seminal work in showing that Internet skills are not as easily acquired as we often assume.)

Since my larynx seizes whenever its faced with the prospect of talking about governing the Internet, I personally wish the document would be even more direct about the dangers of trying to “fix” the Internet. For example, it could recommend principles such as these to our Internet Overlords:

  • Every effort will be made to enable the governance of the Net bottom up and by the edges.

  • Controls and regulations should only be introduced when less coercive and restrictive attempts have demonstrably and repeatedly failed.

  • Controls and regulations should be created as far up the stack as possible when they are necessary. (Or is that a bad idea??).

  • The advice of engineers who are not beholden to particular constituencies or entities shall be consulted and heavily regarded. (Not sure how to state this.)

But that’s probably just me. Far more important, this draft Declaration of Internet Rights is an important reminder to the Internet’s wannabe regulators that the Net is a powerful force for human good that should be helped to flourish, not merely a negative force that needs to be restrained.

For more information, I strongly recommend the TechPresident article by Fabio Chiusi.

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November 7, 2014

The Blogosphere lives!

There was a reason we used that ridiculous word to refer to the loose collection of bloggers: Back in the early 2000s, we were reading one another’s blogs, responding to them, and linking to them. Blogging was a conversational form made solid by links.

It’s time to get back to that. At least for me.

Tweeting’s great. I love Twitter. And I love the weird conversational form it enables. But it’s better at building social relationships than relationships among ideas: I can easily follow you at Twitter, but not ideas: hashtags (lord love ‘em) let us do a little tracing of tweetful interactions, but they’re really more for searching than for creating dense clouds of ideas in relation.

Facebook’s great. I mean, not so much for me, but I understand it’s popular with the kids today. But there again the nodes are social more than ideas. Yes, you can certainly get a thread going, but a thread turns the post into the container.

Medium.com’s great. I actually like it a lot, and publish there occasionally. But why? I don’t use if for its fluent writing experience; these days I prefer more rough-hewn tools such as Markdown. Medium is a comfortable way of publishing: posting something in an attractive form in the hope that strangers will read it.

I’m in favor of all of these modalities: the shout-out of tweets, the social threading of Facebook, the old-school-made-new publishing of Medium.com. But…

Blogs are — or at least were — different. They are an individual’s place for speaking out loud, but the relationships that form around them were based on links among posts, not social networks that link among people. I’m all for social networks, but we also need networks of ideas.

Bloggy networks of ideas turn into social links, and that’s a good thing. An entire generation of my friendships formed because we were blogging back and forth, developing and critiquing one another’s ideas, applying them to our own circumstances and frameworks, and doing so respectfully and in good humor. But the nodes and the links in the blogosphere form around topics and ideas, not social relationships.

Blogging was a blogosphere because our writing and our links were open to everyone and had as much persistence as the fluid world of domains enables. You could start at one person’s blog post, click to another, on to another, following an idea around the world…and being predisposed to come back to any of the blogs that helped you understand something in a new way. Every link in every blog tangibly made our shared world richer and more stimulating.

Appropriately, I’m not the only person who misses the ol’ sphere. I came across a post by my blogging friend Thomas Vander Wal. That led me to a post on “Short-form Blogging” by Marco Arment. He links to the always-interesting and often awesome Gina Trapani who also suggests the benefits of thinking about blogging when you have an idea that’s about the size of a paragraph. Jason Snell, too. Jason points to a post by Andy Baio that’s exults about what could be a resurgence of blogging. In the comments section, Seth Godin raises his hand: “I never left.”

Isn’t it obvious how awesome that is? A clickable web of ideas! What a concept!

So, I’m happy to see all the talk about shorter posts as a way of lowering the hurdle to blogging. But my main interest is not in getting more paragraph-length ideas out in the world, although that’s good. But it’s especially good if those paragraphs are in response to other paragraphs, because I’m mainly interested in seeing webs of posts emerge around ideas …. ideas like the value blogs can bring to an ecosystem that has Twitter, Facebook, and Medium in it already.

Blogs aren’t for everyone, but they are for some of us. Blogs aren’t for everything, but they sure as hell are for something.

(And now I have to decide whether I should cross-post this at Medium.com. And tweet out a link.)

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November 5, 2014

[liveblog] CV Harquail on generative business

I’m at a lunchtime talk by the Harvard Business School Digital Initiative (led by Colin Maclay) by CV Harquail. (I’m an advisor to the DigInit.) CV says she is a academic and am enthusiast of “something going on out there” that she calls “generative business.”

NOTE: Live-blogging. Getting things wrong. Missing points. Omitting key information. Introducing artificial choppiness. Over-emphasizing small matters. Paraphrasing badly. Not running a spellpchecker. Mangling other people’s ideas and words. You are warned, people.

CV defines generativity as the ability to create things that didn’t exist before. Generativity as a term comes out of a few spaces. It’s used in the world of tech innovation and platforms. (See Jonathan Zittrain.) If you’re a systems thinker, you think about generativity as the source of emergence. But on other sides such as the positive organization studies group, which CV identifies with, or feminist organizing, generativity shows up differently. The phrase itself comes from Erik Erikson‘s theory of adult development; it’s the moment of “Holy crap! What am I leaving behind when I go?” CV is particularly interested in how organizations can have an effect outside of themselves, particularly on other businesses.

Generative business practices: how we can create opportunities for other businesses to grow, by tweaking what we do anyway? Maybe with a small change we can create some generativity.

She looks to the Internet bubble in 1999. We could see that the Net was giving rise to many new ways of being together, including B2B. What can we do with it beyond the usual? The network technology “enables a network mindset.” She points to four areas where this mindset manifests itself:


  • p2p: mutuality of effect and benefit


  • multi-type: polysemous exhange (more than one story in the exchange)


  • multi-directional: small bets gently made


  • interdependent: compounding effects


So, she asks, what is happening?

People are tweaking what they normally do in order to create opportunities for other people, throwing off extra value.

Why care? Because it creates an environment that is more resource-rich for everyone, including the generative firm. Also, it is a “leadership” opportunity for the generative company; it makes them influential in lots of different ways. “The more generative they are, the more influence they have on institutions around them.” They can guide new practices, promulgate their organizational values, and become beloved by those in their circle.

E.g., CV went to a Buffer meetup. A hundred people showed up because it was advertised on the Buffer Facebook page, and because people wanted to meet “the Buffer guys.”

CV doesn’t want to argue that your business should be generative in order to make more money because it diminishes the generative impulse. But it often does have that effect.

Generative practices come from:


  • Open Source.


  • hacker culture


  • DevOps mgmt


  • social business


  • inbound marketing


  • customer orientation


She notes that many of these practices come from people who are kind, generous, and loving…and their companies reflect that. (She notes that this is a Dale Carnegie idea.)

Generative practices with products include building products that help others, or that are generate when used. Also, consider enabling co-creating by opening up some APIs. [woohoo!]

Our basic model of a business model is that our company should extract the max value from our employees and customers. But we can create generative business models:


  • win win win structures


  • platforms (real and metaphoric) that encourage experimentation and creativity


  • “catalytic containers” and serendipity engines


  • barn-raising (E.g. Community Sourced Capital: a kickstarter within your community), matchmaking, upcycling (take stuff we throw away and turn it into value. E.g. Waze).


Generative practices in relationships: She points especially to cultivating the commons (or network citizenship). And social keiretsu: multiple companies creating a safe environment for someone to experiment.

Q: Do you see bad actors?

A: Yes. And I ignore them. That’s my conscious decision.

Q: Is this a governance issue? How do the generative companies discipline bad actors?

Q: Elinor Ostrum‘s commons talk about how they are maintained. Often the biggest sanction is exclusion.

Q: [me] There are plenty of bad actors in what you say because these generative pockets are often carve-outs from nests of vipers.

Q: Are you making an assumption that generative business models open the business to everyone? Does generativity imply that sort of openness. E.g., curate models: you deal with the bad actors upfront by excluding them.

A: I don’t assume generativity implies open for all. Some generative organizations are extremely choosy about who they partner with.

Q: Is Anonymous a generative organization?

A: I’ll ask Gabriella Coleman. [laughter]

Q: Generativity need not be used positively.

Q: Why aren’t more businesses adopting this?

A: The bottom line is a fiction because we don’t think about externalities, which are just costs we’re ignoring.

CV looks at two examples: Etsy.com and Buffer.

Etsy is “the marketplace we make together.” They have an engineering blog called Code as Craft, and a Code as Craft initiative that employs generative learning practices: open workshops at which they invite their heroes, and livestreaming them. They have hacker schools, hackathons, an API developers program, GitHub open repositories, and each of the 150 engineers is expected to give two presentations a year outside their company.

Underneath this are Etsy’s engineering values and philosophies. They have a “learn to fail” culture, etc. [I’m not keeping up] Generosity of spirit is a “core Etsy Engineering principle.” It’s a whole bundle of practices related to learning.

Buffer has about 25 employees. With Buffer, you can highlight a line you like, and it gets put out into social media spread out over time. Buffer uses who it is and what it believes in to inform and inspire and influence other organizations. People underestimate the value of walking the walk. Buffer and Etsy are happy to amplify the good things that others do. Buffer is shifting to “gift-mindedness. They posted nine values at Slideshare. Other companies are picking up on those values.

Some of buffer’s practices for generative transpaarency:


  • open blog


  • engineering blog


  • monthly financial status report


  • public revenue dashboard


  • open salary (the formula and how much everyone makes)(Everyone had to agree.)


  • open equity


  • YouTube & Slideshare


  • Employee growth goals


  • Online book club


Q: Could AT&T adopt these values and reap the same kind of benefits?

A: No mattter how much they try, they have a PR legacy.

CV says that last year Buffer got hacked. A week alter they shared all the data about the effect on their company of the hacking. E.g., they lost 8% of their customers. (They recovered most of them.)

Q: [me] This seems like the company saying that they’re on our side. But it doesn’t seem particularly generative, unlike an open API.

A: It’s generative in the longer term.

Last Tuesday they announced they’re raising $3.5M…and they published their term sheet and why they’re doing it.

Q: Is transparency is always a good thing? E.g., there’s some thought that the lack of a private space keeps politicians from being able to compromise.

A: Don’t be transparent about anything that would kill your business. Or if there are people in the process uncomfortable with it, don’t do it. You could be transparent about being a crummy organization and I don’t know if that’s generative. (She mentions that at Buffer they all wear FitBits and share their sleep data.)

CV says that this sort of transparency is generative in that it tells other companies about new possibilities.

Q: Don Tapscott says that the increased transparency will force people to be more like Buffer.

Q: But this might be a selection effect: the company is attracting people who agree with its values, but the companies that don’t support these values therefore won’t be affected by what more open companies do.

Q: Buffer’s product is trust.

A: They’re selling a different way of running a startup, and they’re funding it with their Twitter scheduling tool. [Nice way of putting it!]

So, how does this create opportunities for people? People respond and tell Buffer how powerful it’s been for them. It may influence those people’s practice in the future.

Generative practices let us be more like the people we want to be. “People and companies blossom into these opportunities.”

Q: It sounds like Us vs. Them. If everyone does this, where will the selfish people work? [laughter] It’s nice to carve out a space for us nice people, but what about generativity can apply beyond the Us?

A: I will think about that. I’m trying to call attention to, and articulate, alternatives. I’m articulating ideas, and we together will discuss them and see what becomes of them. This is a generative conversation.

Q: Mob programming is a step beyond agile programming. When there’s an intractable problem, ten people spend a day working on it, with two screens. People say it’s the best way to tackle difficult problems.

Q: [karim lakhani] When you were describing Etsy, it sounded like Bell Labs. The ideal university is based on the same ideas. An hypothesis: Generativity won’t work commercially without subsidies.

A: Interesting. There are no completely generative organizations.

Q: [me] Gaming industry is hugely generative. Modders can sell their mods.

Q: [karim] But only because Steam allows them and takes their cut. [Me [unexpressed because I’d talked too much]: But it’s the game companies that are the example of generative entities here, not Steam as a platform.]

Q: Your examples all are about sharing information. It’s harder for humans to share physical goods that are in limited supply.

[Quite a generative discussion! CV walks the walk.]

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November 4, 2014

[2b2k] Thinking needs Making

Here’s the opening of my latest column at KMWorld:

A couple of weeks ago, I joined other former students of Joseph P. Fell at Bucknell University for a weekend honoring him. Although he is a philosophy professor, the takeaway for many of us was a reminder that while hands are useless without minds to guide them, minds need hands more deeply than we usually think.

Philosophy is not the only discipline that needs this reminder. Almost anyone—it’s important to maintain the exceptions—who is trying to understand a topic would do well by holding something in her hands, or, better, building something with them…

More here…/a>

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How to autograph an e-book

I went to see To Be Takei last night, and George himself was there for an interview afterwards. It occurred to me that I’d like him to autograph his book Oh Myyy, but I only have a copy on my Kindle.

So, here’s a proposal for the Kindle, the Nook, and for any other DRM-ed ebook reader: Allow us to embed one and only one photo into our copy of an ebook. That photo can never be replaced. It can be deleted, but then the slot is gone forever. This could be implemented as a special one-time-only annotation, and it would be managed by your fearsome machinery of control.

That way, I could take a selfie with George, post it into my Kindle copy of his book, and have the digital equivalent of an autographed copy.

I don’t see a way of doing this for open access e-books. Stupid open access e-books what with their “Oooh look everyone can read me!” smirks and their “Now everyone can learn and participate in culture” attitudes.

PS: To Be Takei was really enjoyable. Totally worth seeing, especially with an appreciative crowd.

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October 31, 2014

R paragraphs 2 long?

Over the years as I’ve edited my own writing, I’ve come to rely on two heuristics: 1. Most paragraphs are better off without a topic sentence. 2. The ends of paragraphs sometimes make better beginnings.

My obvious hypothesis is that the Web has made us impatient readers who won’t wait to get to the end of the paragraph to decide whether the paragraph is worth reading. That’s true for me, anyway. Thorough reading takes more of an act of will than I remember.

TL;DR: Paragraphs are obsolete. Skip to the TL;DR.

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