Joho the Blog » culture

October 24, 2014

[clickbait] Copyright is sodomy

A year ago, Harold Feld posted one of the most powerful ways of framing our excessive zeal for copyright that I have ever read. I was welling up even before he brought Aaron Swartz into the context.

Harold’s post is within a standard Jewish genre: the d’var Torah, an explanation of a point in the portion of the Torah being read that week. As is expected of the genre, he draws upon a long, self-reflective history of interpretation. I urge you to read it because of the light it sheds on our culture of copyright, but it’s also worth noticing the form of the discussion.

The content: In the Jewish tradition, Sodom’s sin wasn’t sexual but rather an excessive possessiveness leading to a fanatical unwillingness to share. Harold cites from a collection of traditional commentary, The Ethics of Our Fathers:

“There are four types of moral character. One who says: ‘what is mine is mine and what is yours is yours.’ This is an average person. Some say it is the Way of Sodom. The one who says: ‘what is mine is yours and what is yours is mine,’ is ignorant of the world. ‘What is mine is yours and what is yours is yours’ is the righteous. ‘What is mine is mine and what is yours is mine’ is the wicked.”

In a PowerPoint, it’d be a 2×2 chart. Harold’s point will be that the ‘what is mine is mine and what is yours is yours.’ of the average person becomes wicked when enforced without compassion or flexibility. Harold evokes the traditional Jewish examples of Sodom’s wickedness and compares them to what’s become our dominant “average” assumptions about how copyright ought to work.

I am purposefully not explaining any further. Read Harold’s piece.

The form: I find the space of explanation within which this d’var Torah — and most others that I’ve heard — operates to be fascinating. At the heart of Harold’s essay is a text accepted by believers as having been given by God, yet the explanation is accomplished by reference to a history of human interpretations that disagree with one another, with guidance by a set of values (e.g., sharing is good) that persevere in a community thanks to that community’s insistent adherence to its tradition. The result is that an agnostic atheist like me (I’m only pretty sure there is no God) can find truth and wisdom in the interpretation of a text I take as being ungrounded in a divine act.

But forget all that. Read Harold’s post, bubbelah.

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October 23, 2014

Pieceful Collaboration

I gave a talk last night at the BookBuilders of Boston collaboration awards. It’s a non-profit that since 1937 has networked publishers, book manufacturers, and other book folk…although I don’t think people would have described it as “networking” back then. The nominees each gave a 2.5 minute presentation on their collaborative publishing project, many of which were very cool. Plus it was in the Brattle Theater.

I was the filler as the judges went into a sealed room to decide on the winners. So I gave a 30 talk pitched around a pun that I sort of like: a pieceful difference.

The idea was that lots of collaborative efforts bring together multiple people to build a single object — a barn raising or a Wikipedia page. But other collaborations break something apart and allow different people to build different things.

The ability to bring strangers together around a project is a gift of the Net. But so is its making available lots of little pieces that can be made into mosaics by a mosaic of people. The Johnny Cash Project is one sort of example. But so is any set of things created from stuff retrieved through an API or mashed-up APIs.

I’m not sure why I am drawn to pieceful collaboration, other than because of the cheap pun. I guess I like the way individuality is maintained around a shared but differentiated set of materials. I’m a little surprised. I thought I was less of an individualist than that.

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October 3, 2014

The modern technology with the worst signal-to-noise ratio is …

…the car alarm.

When one goes off, the community’s reaction is not “Catch the thief!” but “Find the car owner so s/he can turn off the @!@#ing car alarm.” At least in the communities I’ve lived in. (Note: I am a privileged white man.)

The signal-to-noise ratio sucks for car alarms in every direction. First, it is a signal to the car owner that is blasted to an entire neighborhood that’s trying to do something else. Second, it’s almost always a false alarm. (See note above.) Third, because it’s almost always a false alarm, it’s an astoundingly ineffective true alarm. The signal becomes noise.

Is there any modern technology with a worse signal-to-noise ratio?

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October 2, 2014

What does Men, Women & Children think it’s about?

I went to a screening of the new movie “Men, Women and Children” last night. The only positive thing I can find to say about it is that it squandered some good performances from some great actors. In fact, I left wondering why on earth anyone made this movie. What did the director and co-writer, Jason Reitman, think he was achieving? Why did he make it? What’s it about? I don’t know, I don’t know, and I don’t know. By 30 minutes into it, I didn’t care. And now that I’ve had time to think about it, I think it’s actually worse than I had at first thought. [Spoiler: Everything you think might happen in this movie does happen.]

I liked Reitman’s Up in the Air, detested his Juno, and had mixed feelings about his writing on Thank You for Smoking. I wanted to like Men, Women & Children. But it is one of the most intensely unlikeable films ever. Some of that is on purpose. Most of it is not.

The movie was introduced to me as being about the Internet. That threw me, because although much of it documents its characters’ interactions with and over the Internet, it seemed to have nothing to actually say about the Net. In this movie, most of what happens via the Net is anti-life: a student is swayed by a pro-anorexia site, another is unable to get erect with a real girl after all of his extreme masturbatory encounters online — there’s more masturbation in this movie than at a boy’s camp the night after a social — another goes online to hire a prostitute, etc. But the Net also shows up, briefly, as the only way the two most positive couples are able to sneak out together, and as the pitiable source of salvation for a lonely soul. In fact, the clearest villain in the movie is Jennifer Garner’s cartoonish anti-Net control freak. (It’s not her fault. She was written that way.) While overall the movie presents a hugely negative picture of the effect of the Net, most of its characters’ issues are ones they have brought to the Net. The movie thus seems to have no coherent hypothesis about the Internet.

So this morning I concluded that whatever the hell this movie is about, it’s not about the Net. Which is too bad, because what I think it is about makes it an even more of an epic fail, as those young rapscallions say on the Net.

It’s an ensemble piece that follows a set of young high school students and their parents. It only cares about their love lives. It is completely by the book. These are types, not characters. They get what they deserve. End o’ story. At that level, this is merely a vapid, incompetent, trite movie.

But Reitman apparently is after something bigger. The movie is framed by long shots of the Voyager space craft (CGI, natch) sailing through space, with an elegiac narrative intoned by Emma Thompson. Now, Emma to the T has no bigger fan than me, but you have to ask why Reitman chose her. A woman’s voice? Great. A British voice about this very American movie? Was he thinking that a British voice would lend it some class? Really?

In any event, the space framing and the overvoice completely fails. The heavy-handed point it makes is that the troubled lives we are about to see are nothing in the grand scale of things. It is an intensely gloomy perspective. It is in fact the “philosophy” explicitly mirrored by one of the teen characters. It suits a depressed teen. It does not suit an adult. And, yes, the movie ends back in space with Thompson reading a long modestly hopeful quote from Carl Sagan‘s Pale Blue Dot. But did we really have to sit through a two-hour movie to be reminded that we only have each other?

Not to mention three problems with the overvoice: First, I couldn’t get Hitchhiker’s Guide out of my head every time it started. (No, I’m not proud of the fact that for me (British Narrator + Space) = Hitchhiker’s Guide.) Second, Reitman uses it for endless explicit exposition of the plot. Third, he actually has Emma’s overvoice interrupt the action midway through in order to make a jokey comment about the scene we’re watching. If you’re going to have a narrator, it’d be good to have her role be a little consistent. At least make the joke funnier.

Which brings up something you should know about this movie. It is unbelievably depressing. Or it would be if it were any good. It is a movie without joy. Everyone is unhappy. Always. I laughed once, and not that hard. There’s nothing wrong with presenting a bleak picture of life. But you have to earn it.

Realizing that Reitman probably thinks this is a movie with a big idea makes it even worse, in my estimation. He thought he wouldn’t make the usual ensemble teen comedy. He’d tell it like it really is. And he’d spend equal time on the parents as well as the children.

Fine. But what message does he have for us men, women and children? What does he have to tell us that justifies the time and expense and contribution of useful hours by his cast and crew? And our time and money as an audience? It turns out that Reitman, who is about 37 years old, has come to the adolescent’s recognition that none of us is the center of the universe despite the way our parents’ focused on us. Reitman thinks this audience is stuck on that awful teenage truth. But you can’t become an adult without getting past that truth and incorporating it into a idea of meaning at a more modest scale.

Perhaps that’s why I didn’t recognize a single human being among the ensemble he put on the screen. We are not all miserable creatures, wrong about ourselves, masturbating ourselves into sexlessness, frittering away our time on our pale blue dot. And if we were, this movie would not help, not only because it’s bad art but because in lieu of providing any vision of meaning beyond that of a disappointed adolescent, it leaves its characters either in their misery or in a phony-baloney Hollywood wrap up.

There is not a single reason to see this movie. Not even Emma Thompson.


Here’s the end quote from Pale Blue Dot from a much earlier production. Now you don’t have to see “Men, Women & Children.

You’re welcome.


So, one more thing. You know how at the end of Casablanca Bogart, er, Rick says that “the problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world”? That’s an important thing to remember, but only because the film has shown us that problems of three little people do amount to something.

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September 18, 2014

Et tu, U2?

A few days ago, when Apple pushed the latest from U2 into everyone’s iTunes library, you could hear the Internet pause as it suddenly realized that Apple is its parents’ age.

Now in the ad-promotion succubus occupying the body of what used to be Time Magazine, you can see U2 desperate to do exactly the wrong thing: insisting that it wasn’t a gift at all. You can learn more about this in the hilariously titled cover article of Time: “The veteran rock band faces the future.” This a future in which tracks we don’t like are bundled with tracks we do (the return of the CD format) and people who share with their fans are ruining it for U2, boohoo.

Or, as Bono recently said, “We were paid” for the Apple downloads, adding, “I don’t believe in free music. Music is a sacrament.” And as everyone knows, sacraments need to be purchased at a fair market value, the results of which Bono, as a deeply spiritual artist, secures in sacred off-shore accounts.

In my head I hear Bono, enraged by the increasingly bad publicity, composing a message that he posts without first running it through his phalanx of PR folks:

Dear fans:

You have recently received a copy of our latest album, Songs of Innocence, in your iTunes library. U2 understands you may be confused or even upset by this. So, let me clarify once and for all the most important point about this — if I may humbly say so — eternal masterpiece. It was not our intention to cause you stress or to wonder if you have the musical sensitivity to full grasp (if I may, humbly say) the greatness of our work. But most important, it is essential above all that you understand that it was not our intention to give you a gift. No freaking way.

We understand your mistake. You are, after all, just fans, and you don’t play in the Jetstream world of global music. As I said to my dear friend Nelson Mandela (friend is too weak a word; I was his mentor) shortly before he passed, music is a sacrament, just like tickets to movies, especially ones with major stars working for scale, or like the bill at a restaurant where you and any two of the Clintons (Chelsea, you are a star! Give yourself that!) are plotting goodness.

To tell you the truth, I’m disappointed in you. No, worse. I’m hurt. Personally hurt. How dare you think this was a gift! After all these years, is that all U2 is worth to you? Nothing? Our music has all the value of a CrackerJacks trinket or a lower-end Rolex in an awards show gift bag? Do you not understand that Apple paid us for every copy they distributed? We were paid for it, sheeple! Massive numbers of dollars were transferred into our bank accounts! More dollars than you could count, you whiny little “Ooh look at me I’m sharing” wankers! We’re U2 dammit! We don’t need you! You need us! MONEY IS LOVE! EXTRA-ORDINARY LOVE!!!!!!

Have a beautiful day.

Meanwhile, as always, Amanda Palmer expresses the open-hearted truth about this issue. It almost makes me regret making fun of Bono. Almost.

>Bono makes it clear U2 was paid for the

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September 17, 2014

The problem is not with our imaginations

Yet another brilliant post by Ethan. (I think I’m going to turn that into a keyboard macro. I’ll just have to type ^EthanTalk and that opening sentence will get filled in.) It’s a reflection on the reaction to his piece in the Atlantic about advertising as the Net’s original sin, and the focus on his “confession” that he wrote the code for the Net’s first popup ad.

But I think I actually disagree with one of his key points. In other words, I’m very likely wrong. Nevertheless…

Ethan explains why the Net has come to rely on advertising money:

We had a failure of imagination. And the millions of smart young programmers and businesspeople spending their lives trying to get us to click on ads are also failing to imagine something better. We’re all starting from the same assumptions: everything on the internet is free, we pay with our attention, and our attention is worth more if advertisers know more about who we are and what we do, we start business with money from venture capitalists who need businesses to grow explosively if they’re going to make money.

He recommends that we question our assumptions so we can come up with more imaginative solutions.

I agree with Ethan’s statement of the problem, and admire his ability to put it forward with such urgency. But it seems to me that the problem is less a failure of imagination than the success of the power of incumbent systems.Is access to the Net in exactly the wrong hands because of the failure of someone to imagine a better way, or because of the structural corruption of capitalism? Similarly, why are we failing to slow global warming in an appreciable way? (Remember when Pres. Reagan took down the solar panels Pres. Carter had installed on the White House?) Why are elections still disproportionately determined by the wealthy? In each of these cases, imagination has lost to entrenched systems. We had innovative ways of accessing the Net, we’ve had many great ideas for slowing global warming, we have had highly imaginative attempts to get big money out of politics, and they all failed to one degree or another. Thuggish systems steal great ideas’ lunch money. Over and over and over.

Ethan of course recognizes this. But he ties these failures to failures of the imagination when one could just as well conclude that imagination is no match for corrupt systems — especially since we’ve now gone through a period when imagination was unleashed with a force never before seen, and yet the fundamental systems haven’t budged. This seems to be Larry Lessig’s conclusion, since he moved from CreativeCommons — an imaginative, disruptive approach — to a super-Pac that plays on the existing field, but plays for the Good Guys ‘n’ Gals.

Likewise, one could suggest that the solution — if there is one — is not more imagination, but more organizing. More imagination will only work if the medium still is pliable. Experience suggests it never was as pliable as some of us thought.

But the truth is that I really don’t know. I don’t fully believe the depressing “bad thugs beat good ideas” line I’ve just adumbrated. I certainly agree that it’s turning out to be much harder to overturn the old systems than I’d thought twenty or even five years ago. But I also think that we’ve come much further than we often realize. I take it as part of my job to remind people of that, which is why I am almost always on the chirpier side of these issues. And I certainly think that good ideas can be insanely disruptive, starting with the Net and the Web, and including Skype, eBay, Open Source, maps and GPS, etc.

So, while I don’t want to pin the failure of the Net on our failure of imagination, I also still have hope that bold acts of imagination can make progress, that our ability to iterate at scale can create social formations that are new in the world, and that this may be a multi-generational fight.

I therefore come out of Ethan’s post with questions: (1) What about this age made it possible even to think that imagination could disrupt our most entrenched systems? (2) What makes some ideas effectively disruptive, and why do other equally imaginative good ideas fail? And what about unimaginative ideas that make a real difference? The Birmingham bus boycott was not particularly imaginative, but it sure packed a wallop. (3) What can we do to make it easier for great acts of imagination to become real?

For me, #1 has to do with the Internet. (Color me technodeterminist.) I don’t have anything worthwhile to say about #2. And I still have hope that the answer to #3 has something to do with the ability of billions of people to make common cause— and, more powerfully, to iterate together — over the Net. Obviously #3 also needs regulatory reform to make sure the Internet remains at least a partially open ecosystem.

So, I find myself in deep sympathy with the context of what Ethan describes so well and so urgently. But I don’t find the rhetoric of imagination convincing.

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August 28, 2014

The problem with civility

Talk about “civility” on the Internet always makes me a little nervous. For a bunch of reasons.

First, I generally try to be civil, but I’d hate to see a Net that is always and only civil. Some rowdiness and rudeness is absolutely required.

Second, civility as a word feels like it comes from a colonial mentality, as if there are the civil folks and then there are the savages. I’m not saying that’s what people mean when they use the term. It’s just what I sometimes hear.

Third, civility is so culturally relative that demanding that someone be civil can actually mean, “Please play by our rules or you shall be removed from the premises!” Which is I guess what gives rise to my second reason.

Fourth, civility seems to be more about the form of interaction, the rhetoric of the interchange. That’s fine. But given a preference, I’d be hectoring people about dignity, not civility. You can be civil without according someone full dignity. If you treat someone with dignity, the civility — and more — will follow. For example, you’ll actually listen. (Note that I fail at this frequently.)

Fifth, civility and dignity are not enough to make the Net the place it ought to be. I would love to see being welcoming taken as a core value for the Best Net, that is, for the Web We Want. Welcoming the stranger is one of the originary traditions of the West, from Abraham inviting strangers into his tent, to the underlying theme of The Odyssey. (Another of our originary traditions: killing or enslaving strangers.) In embracing the stranger, we accord them dignity, we recognize our differences as something positive, and we humble ourselves. So, given a choice, I’d rather hear about a welcoming Net than a merely civil one. (Here’s a shout-out to the new Pew Internet study that reports that we’re not welcoming unpopular views on social media.)

Point five-and-a-half is: Just as welcoming precedes civility, safety precedes welcoming. This is a half point not because safety is a half point but because the outstretched welcoming hand entails reassuring the stranger that she is safe. And more than safe. Safety is essential, but it is obviously nowhere near enough.

Let me be clear, though. When I talk about “the Net,” I’m being misleading. The entire Net is not going to be characterized by any one set of values. And we don’t need the entire Net to be welcoming, civil, and a place where all are treated with dignity. (Safety is a different matter.) But we do need more of the Net to be welcoming, civil, and dignifying. And we absolutely need the networks where power and standing develop to go far beyond civility.

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August 25, 2014

Have social networks replaced groups?

Maxim Weinstein responded in an email to my post about what the social structure of the Internet looked like before Facebook, making the insightful point that Facebook meets the four criteria Clay Shirky listed for social software in his 2003 keynote at eTech. Here are the four with Max’s comments appended:

1. Provide for persistent identities so that reputations can accrue. These identities can of course be pseudonyms.
2. Provide a way for members’ good work to be recognized. < "Like" buttons, sharing
3. Put in some barriers to participation so that the interactions become high-value. < have to accept friend requests
4. As the site’s scale increases, enable forking, clustering, useful fragmentation. < pages

Max goes on to note some nuances. But his comment, plus a discussion yesterday with Andrew Preater, a library technologist at the Imperial College of London, made me think how little progress we’ve in fact made in supporting groups on the Net.

For example, Clay’s post from 2003 marvels at a “broadband conversation” in which the participants communicated simultaneously by conference call, through a wiki, and through a chat, each from a different source. Since 2003, there are now services that bundle together these different modalities: Skype and Google Hangouts both let a group talk, video, chat, and share documents. (Google Docs are functionally wikis, except without the draft>compile>post process.) So, that’s progress…although there is always a loss when disparate services get tightly bundled.

What’s missing is the concept of a group. As my 2003 post said, members of a group know they’re members of a group with some persistence. Skype and Hangouts let people get together, but there are no tools there for enabling that configuration of people to persist beyond the session. Groups are important because they enable social ties to thicken, which means they’re especially useful now to mitigate the Brownian motion of sociality on the Internet.

Likewise, Facebook, Google Groups, Twitter, and the other dominant forms of “social software” (to use the term from 2003) are amazing at building social networks. At those sites you can jump into borderless networks, connecting to everyone else by some degree. That’s pretty awesome. But those sites do not have a much of a concept of a group. A group requires some form of membership, which entails some form of non-membership. Usually the membership process and the walls that that process forms are visible and explicit. This isn’t to say that groups have to have a selection committee and charge dues. A group can be widely open. But the members need to be able to say “Yeah, I’m part of that group,” even if that means only “I regularly participate in that open discussion over there.” A group is a real thing, more than the enumeration of its members. If all the members leave, we have to be able to say, “There’s no one in that group any more. Too bad.”

If the walls around the group don’t include and exclude the same people for each member, then it’s a network, not a group. Not all of your friends are my friends and vice versa. But everyone in the Chess Club is in the Chess Club. The Chess Club is a group. Your friends and my friends on Facebook are part of a social network. Not that’s there anything wrong with that.

Now, I realize in saying this I am merely expressing my Old Fartdom. “Why, in my day, there were groups and not all these little networks of people with their twittering and their facial books.” The evidence for this is the generational divide on email. Email remains my most important social software for all the reasons that The Kids have moved to Facebook: email goes to the people I choose, is slower, results in semantically sequential threads of call-and-response, and is archived. But I especially like email because mailing lists are crucial to my social and intellectual life. I have been on some for over twenty years. Most of what I know about the Internet comes from the lists I’m on. I’ve reconnected with some of my academic philosophical roots via a mailing list. Mailing lists are so important to me because they are online groups.

So it’s entirely possible, in fact it’s probable, that the Internet has not made a lot of progress supporting groups because our culture no longer values groups. We’ve gone from Bowling Alone to Twitch Bowls 300. Old-timers like me — even as we celebrate the rise of networks — should be permitted a tear to dampen our dry, furrowed skin.

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August 22, 2014

The social Web before social networks: a report from 2003

The Web was social before it had social networking software. It just hadn’t yet evolved a pervasive layer of software specifically designed to help us be social.

In 2003 it was becoming clear that we needed — and were getting — a new class of application, unsurprisingly called “social software.” But what sort of sociality were we looking for? What sort could such software bestow?

That was the theme of Clay Shirky’s 2003 keynote at the ETech conference, the most important gathering of Web developers of its time. Clay gave a brilliant talk,“A Group Is Its Own Worst Enemy,” in which he pointed to an important dynamic of online groups. I replied to him at the same conference (“The Unspoken of Groups”). This was a year before Facebook launched. The two talks, especially Clay’s, serve as reminders of what the Internet looked like before social networks.

Here’s what for me was the take-away from these two talks:

The Web was designed to connect pages. People, being people, quickly created ways for groups to form. But there was no infrastructure for connecting those groups, and your participation in one group did nothing to connect you to your participation in another group. By 2003 it was becoming obvious (well, to people like Clay) that while the Internet made it insanely easy to form a group, we needed help — built into the software, but based on non-technological understanding of human sociality — sustaining groups, especially now that everything was scaling beyond imagination.

So this was a moment when groups were increasingly important to the Web, but they were failing to scale in two directions: (1) a social group that gets too big loses the intimacy that gives it its value; and (2) there was a proliferation of groups but they were essential disconnected from every other group.

Social software was the topic of the day because it tried to address the first problem by providing better tools. But not much was addressing the second problem, for that is truly an infrastructural issue. Tim Berners-Lee’s invention of the Web let the global aggregation of online documents scale by creating an open protocol for linking them. Mark Zuckerberg addressed the issue of groups scaling by creating a private company, with deep consequences for how we are together online.


Clay’s 2003 analysis of the situation is awesome. What he (and I, of course) did not predict was that a single company would achieve the position of de facto social infrastructure.



When Clay gave his talk, “social software” was all the rage, as he acknowledges in his very first line. He defines it uncontroversially as “software that supports group interaction.” The fact that social software needed a definition already tells you something about the state of the Net back then. As Clay said, the idea of social software was “rather radical” because “Prior to the Internet, the last technology that had any real effect on the way people sat down and talked together was the table,” and even the Internet so far was not doing a great job supporting sociality at the group level.

He points out that designers of social software are always surprised by what people do with their software, but thinks there are some patterns worth attending to. So he divides his talk into three parts: (1) pre-Internet research that explains why groups tend to become their own worst enemy; (2) the “revolution in social software” that makes this worth thinking about; and (3) “about a half dozen things…that I think are core to any software that supports larger, long-lived groups.”

Part 1 uses the research of W.R. Bion from his 1961 book, Experiences in Groups that leads him, and Clay, to conclude that because groups have a tendency to sandbag “their sophisticated goals with…basic urges,” groups need explicit formulations of acceptable behaviors. “Constitutions are a necessary component of large, long-lived, heterogenous groups.”

Part 2 asks: if this has been going on for a long time, why is it so important now? “I can’t tell you precisely why, but observationally there is a revolution in social software going on. The number of people writing tools to support or enhance group collaboration or communication is astonishing.”

The Web was getting very very big by 2003 and Clay points says that “we blew past” the “interesting scale of small groups.” Conversation doesn’t scale.

“We’ve gotten weblogs and wikis, and I think, even more importantly, we’re getting platform stuff. We’re getting RSS. We’re getting shared Flash objects. We’re getting ways to quickly build on top of some infrastructure we can take for granted, that lets us try new things very rapidly.”

Why did it take so long to get weblogs? The tech was ready from the day we had Mosaic, Clay says. “I don’t know. It just takes a while for people to get used to these ideas.” But now (2003) we’re fully into the fully social web. [The social nature of the Web was also a main theme of The Cluetrain Manifesto in 2000.]

What did this look like in 2003, beyond blogs and wikis? Clay gives an extended, anecdotal example. He was on a conference all with Joi Ito, Peter Kaminski, and a few others. Without planning to, the group started using various modalities simultaneously. Someone opened a chat window, and “the interrupt logic” got moved there. Pete opened a wiki and posted its URL into the chat. The conversation proceeded along several technological and social forms simultaneously. Of course this is completely unremarkable now. But that’s the point. It was unusual enough that Clay had to carefully describe it to a room full of the world’s leading web developers. It was a portent of the future:

This is a broadband conference call, but it isn’t a giant thing. It’s just three little pieces of software laid next to each other and held together with a little bit of social glue. This is an incredibly powerful pattern. It’s different from: Let’s take the Lotus juggernaut and add a web front-end.

Most important, he says, access is becoming ubiquitous. Not uniformly, of course. But it’s a pattern. (Clay’s book Here Comes Everybody expands on this.)

In Part 3, he asks: “‘What is required to make a large, long-lived online group successful?’ and I think I can now answer with some confidence: ‘It depends.’ I’m hoping to flesh that answer out a little bit in the next ten years.” He suggests we look for the pieces of social software that work, given that “The normal experience of social software is failure.” He suggests that if you’re designing social software, you should accept three things:

  1. You can’t separate the social from the technical.
  2. Groups need a core that watches out for the well-being of the group itself.
  3. That core “has rights that trump individual rights in some situations.” (In this section, Clay refers to Wikipedia as “the Wikipedia.” Old timer!)

Then there are four things social software creators ought to design for:


  1. Provide for persistent identities so that reputations can accrue. These identities can of course be pseudonyms.
  2. Provide a way for members’ good work to be recognized.
  3. Put in some barriers to participation so that the interactions become high-value.
  4. As the site’s scale increases, enable forking, clustering, useful fragmentation.

Clay ends the talk by reminding us that: “The users are there for one another. They may be there on hardware and software paid for by you, but the users are there for one another.”

This is what “social software” looked like in 2003 before online sociality was largely captured by a single entity. It is also what brilliance sounds like.


I gave an informal talk later at that same conference. I spoke extemporaneously and then wrote up what I should have said. My overall point was that one reason we keep making the mistake that Clay points to is that groups rely so heavily on unspoken norms. Making those norms explicit, as in a group constitution, can actually do violence to the group — not knife fights among the members, but damage to the groupiness of the group.

I said that I had two premises: (1) groups are really, really important to the Net; and (2) “The Net is really bad at supporting groups.”

It’s great for letting groups form, but there are no services built in for helping groups succeed. There’s no agreed-upon structure for representing groups. And if groups are so important, why can’t I even see what groups I’m in? I have no idea what they all are, much less can I manage my participation in them. Each of the groups I’m in is treated as separate from every other.

I used Friendster as my example “because it’s new and appealing.” (Friendster was an early social networking site, kids. It’s now a gaming site.) Friendster suffers from having to ask us to make explicit the implicit stuff that actually matters to friendships, including writing a profile describing yourself and having to accept or reject a “friend me” request. “I’m not suggesting that Friendster made a poor design decision. I’m suggesting that there is no good design decision to be made here.” Making things explicit often does violence to them.

That helps explains why we keep making the mistake Clay points to. Writing a constitution requires a group to make explicit decisions that often break the groups apart. Worse, I suggest, groups can’t really write a constitution “until they’ve already entangled themselves in thick, messy, ambiguous, open-ended relationships,” for “without that thicket of tangles, the group doesn’t know itself well enough to write a constitution.”

I suggest that there’s hope in social software if it is considered to be emergent, rather than relying on users making explicit decisions about their sociality. I suggested two ways it can be considered emergent: “First, it enables social groups to emerge. It goes not from implicit to explicit, but from potential to actual.” Second, social software should enable “the social network’s shape to emerge,” rather than requiring upfront (or, worse, topdown) provisioning of groups. I suggest a platform view, much like Clay’s.

I, too, ask why social software was a buzzword in 2003. In part because the consultants needed a new topic, and in part because entrepreneurs needed a new field. But perhaps more important (I suggested), recent experience had taught us to trust that we could engage in bottom-up sociality without vandals ripping it all to part. This came on the heels of companies realizing that the first-generation topdown social software (e.g., Lotus Notes) was stifling as much sociality and creativity as it was enabling. But our experience with blogs and wikis over the prior few years had been very encouraging:

Five years ago, it was obvious beyond question that groups need to be pre-structured if the team is to “hit the ground running.” Now, we have learned — perhaps — that many groups organize themselves best by letting the right structure emerge over time.

I end on a larger, vaguer, and wrong-er point: “Could we at last be turning from the great lie of the Age of Computers, that the world is binary?” Could we be coming to accept that the “world is ambiguous, with every thought, perception and feeling just a surface of an unspoken depth?”

Nah.

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August 12, 2014

Robin Williams was a mensch

I admired Robin Williams even though he wasn’t exactly my cup of tea as a comedian. But, he was obviously brilliant, and by all reports was humble and kind. We need to celebrate people who turn down every opportunity to act like assholes.

Here’s just one example. Robin Williams met Christopher Reeve at Julliard and the two remained close friends. When Reeve became paralyzed, Williams stayed by him, a source of laughter and hope. From what I’ve heard, you could not have asked for a better friend.

It makes me all the sadder that Robin Williams just couldn’t carry on with his extraordinary, difficult, and very human life.

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