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October 6, 2015

Doc Searls’ "The Adblock War" series

Adblocking is, as Doc Searls claims, “the biggest boycott in human history.” Since August 12, Doc’s been posting what I can only call an in-depth, analytical, evidence-based rant. It is not to be missed.

  1. Separating advertising’s wheat and chaff (12 August 2015)
  2. Apple’s content blocking is chemo for the cancer of adtech (26 August 2015)
  3. Will content blocking push Apple into advertising’s wheat business? (29 August 2015)
  4. If marketing listened to markets, they’d hear what ad blocking is telling them (8 September 2015)
  5. Debugging adtext assumptions (18 September 2015)
  6. How adtech, not ad blocking, breaks the social contract (23 September 2015)
  7. A way to peace in the adblock war (21 September 2015, on the ProjectVRM blog)
  8. Beyond ad blocking — the biggest boycott in human history (28 Septemper 2015)
  9. Dealing with Boundary Issues (1 October 2015 in Linux Journal)

Doc says (in an email) he is “building the case for what ProjectVRMCustomer Commons and Mozilla (notably its Content Services group) are quietly doing to disable surveillance capitalism.”

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October 2, 2015

Reason #2,645 to love the Web

Back in the early 1980s—yes, children, it’s time for an anecdote from the Dark Ages—WordPerfect was my writing tool. I was a power user and was quite attached to it. But there were some things I thought they could do better. So, I wrote a four page letter that was (as I recall) very appreciative of the program overall — not a set of gripes, but a fan’s notes. I sent it to the WordPerfect corporation.

I never heard anything back. Not even the form letter I expected.

That was back then.

On my Mac I frequently use Sync2Folders “its techie rawness is one of the reasons I like it”to, well, sync two folders. It does exactly what I want, and it’s free, although donations are suggested. (I’ve donated the suggested €6 more than once.)

In terms of the look and feel, Sync2Folders isn’t slick, and in its functionality it tends towards the techie. But it’s simple enough that I can do the basic things that I want to do. In fact, its techie rawness is one of the reasons I like it: It does a job that’s not trendy, and it does it without gussying itself up.

Also, and perhaps more important, it looks like something that a developer created and put out in the world for free. Which is exactly what it is.

A couple of days ago I got an automated email from the developer, Thomas Robisson when I donated for the third time. I’d like to pretend that I’m just that generous, but the truth is that I’m just that forgetful. So, I appreciated that the developer noted the duplication, told me how to avoid the app’s request for fiscal aid, and reminded me that a single license can be used on multiple computers.

I responded by email to thank Thomas, and also to point out a feature that I’d like and that I’d thought was in an earlier version. I was confident that this was going to turn out to be a DUM— a dumb user mistake — and at least I was right about that.“ The Net occasions the generosity of people like Thomas” Over the course of a couple of emails in which Thomas asked for some basic debugging info, it turned out that, yes, I had simply missed the button that did what I was asking for. D’oh.

I know that the Internet is the defiler of youth and the death of civilization. But it also occasions the generosity and creativity of people like Thomas.

Further, before the Net, there was only the slightest chance that a user and a product creator could engage. And if they did it was likely to be in the stilted, inhuman voice of the Marketing department.

So, thank you, Thomas. And thank you, Internet.


July 20, 2015

How far wrong has the Net gone? A podcast with Mitch Joel

My friend Mitch Joel and I talk for about an hour (sorry) about whether our hopes for the Net have proven to be forlorn. You can listen here.

The spur for this conversation was my recent article in The Atlantic, “The Net that Was (and Still Could Be).”

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July 3, 2015

Joining Reddit

Reddit is in flames. I can only see one way out of it that preserves the site’s unique value.

I say this as an old man who loves Reddit despite being way outside its main demographic. Of course there are outrageously objectionable subreddits—topical discussion boards—but you don’t have to visit those. Reddit at its best is wonderful. Inspiring, even. It is a self-regulated set of communities that is capable of great collective insight, humor, and kindness. (At its worst, it is one of the nightmares of the Internet.)

Because Reddit is so large, with 169M unique visitors each month, it is impossible to generalize accurately about what went on yesterday and is continuing today. Nevertheless, the precipitating cause was the termination of the employment of Victoria Taylor for reasons Reddit and she have not disclosed. Victoria was not only the wildly popular enabler of Reddit’s wildly popular AMA‘s (“Ask Me Anything”), she was the only Reddit employee visible to most redditors (Reddit users).

Victoria’s sudden dismissal was taken by many as a sign of the increasing misalignment of Reddit’s business goals and the culture of its communities. Reddit, it is feared, is going commercial. The volunteer moderators (“mods”) of some of the large subreddits have also complained that their requests for support over the past months have gone unanswered.

In protest, many of the large subreddits and a long list of smaller ones have gone private and are thus dark to most of the world. This will have some financial effect on Reddit, but it is better understood as a political protest, applying the technique used successfully in 2012 when Reddit, Wikipedia, and other major sites went dark to protest the SOPA/PIPA bills that would have limited Internet freedom. It is an assertion-by-deprivation of the cultural value of these subreddits.

It is, I believe, a mistake to view this uproar primarily in terms of economics or business. This is an attempt by a community to stay a community despite perceived attempts by the business underneath it to commercialize it. Up until now, Reddit the Company has understood the importance of accepting and promoting its community’s values. Advertising is unobtrusive, some of which lets users comment on the ad itself. Reddit makes money also from its users buying “Reddit gold” to bestow upon comments they find particularly valuable. Reddit gold has no monetary value, so users are consciously paying Reddit money for the privilege of paying another user a visible compliment. And Reddit has sternly defended the free speech of its users even when that speech is, well, horrible—although the management did controversially shut down some shaming and hating sites a few weeks ago.

Reddit is in bad shape today. The meme-making forces of sarcasm it’s famous for have been turned inwards.The most loyal users are feeling betrayed. Some of the communities that have driven Reddit forward as a cultural force are feeling abused. It’s hard to come back from that.

A big part of the problem is that Victoria, the face of Reddit to its own community, was accepted as “One of us! One of us!” as redditors sometime self-mockingly invoke the movie Freaks. Indeed, she embodied many of the virtues of Reddit at its best: curious, accepting, welcoming, helpful, funny. Many redditors saw themselves reflected in her.

Victoria was thereby an important part of Reddit’s support of what I call “The Gettysburg Principles“: She helped Reddit seem to be by, for, and of us. Now the face of Reddit is Ellen Pao, the interim CEO who is largely derided and detested at Reddit because she seems to be “One of them! One of them!”— a Silicon Valley player.

If we view this first and foremost as a problem in maintaining a community rather than strictly as a revenue issue, then I can only see one way forward: Pao should get off her executive horse, engage with the community in public, and show that she’s a redditor too. Alexis Ohanian, the co-founder, also should step forward with his best redditor face on. Alexis when free of corporate pressures is a redditor through and through.

There is still an opportunity for Reddit to show that it understands the source of all its value: communities trusted to run themselves, and a strong sense of shared cultures.


January 8, 2015

New Clues

The project with Doc that I mentioned is a new set of clues, following on The Cluetrain Manifesto from 16 years ago.

The clues are designed as an open source publishing project: The text is in the public domain, and we’re making the clues available at Github in various computer-friendly formats, including JSON, OPML and XML.

We launched this morning and a happy hell has broken loose. So I’m just going to posts some links for now. In fact, I’m copying and pasting from an email by Doc:

Gotta run…


December 13, 2014

[2b2k] The Harvard Business School Digital Initiative’s webby new blog

The Harvard Business School Digital Initiative [twitter:digHBS] — led by none other than Berkman‘s Dr. Colin Maclay — has launched its blog. The Digital Initiative is about helping HBS explore the many ways the Net is affecting (or not affecting) business. From my point of view, it’s also an opportunity to represent, and advocate for, Net values within HBS.[1] (Disclosure: I am officially affiliated with the Initiative as an unremunerated advisor. Colin is a dear friend.[2])

The new blog is off to a good start:

I also have a post there titled “Generative Business and the Power of What We Ignore.” Here’s how it starts:

“I ignore them. That’s my conscious decision.”

So replied CV Harquail to a question from HBS professor Karim Lakhani about the effect of bad actors in the model of “generative business” she was explaining in a recent talk sponsored by the Digital Initiative.

Karim’s question addressed an issue that more than one of us around the table were curious about. Given CV’s talk, the question was perhaps inevitable.

CV’s response was not inevitable. It was, in fact, surprising. And it seems to me to have been not only entirely appropriate, but also brave… [more]


[1] I understand that the Net doesn’t really have values. It’s shorthand.
[2] I’m very happy to say that more than half of the advisors are women.


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: 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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June 22, 2014

This Week in Law: Not all that legal

On Friday I was part of the This Week in Law vidcast, hosted by my it’s-been-too-long friend Denise Howell [twitter: dhowell], along with Nina Paley [twitter: gorgeous + righteous. You must see it. That is an order.) It was a non-lawyerly discussion, which I was relieved to find out not because I dislike lawyers but because I could not have participated except by intermittently interjecting, “I object! On the grounds of say what now?”

Anyway, I can’t remember everything we talked about, except I know there was stuff about the effficacy of online advertising, the emerging norms for privacy, Amazon’s weaponized drones, Google Real-Death Bumper Cars, and nude photos of Robert Scoble.

You can get the vidcast/audiocast here. It’s a 1:35 long, where the first digit represents HOURS.


A Nina sample:


December 12, 2013

How to introduce a change in its user agreement

Reddit shows us how to introduce changes in a site’s user agreement. The agreement itself is admirably minimally jargony, but the discussion with the community is a model of honesty and respect.

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September 27, 2013

[2b2k] Popular Science incompetently manages its comments, gives up

Popular Science has announced that it’s shutting down comments on its articles. The post by Suzanne LeBarre says this is because ” trolls and spambots” have overwhelmed the useful comments. But what I hear instead is: “We don’t know how to run a comment board, so shut up.”

Suzanne cites research that suggests that negative comments on an article reduce the credibility of the article, even if those negative comments are entirely unfounded. Thus, the trolls don’t just ruin the conversation, they hurt the cause of science.

Ok, let’s accept that. Scientific American cited the same research but came to a different decision. Rather than shut down its comments, it decided to moderate them using some sensible rules designed to encourage useful conversation. Their idea of a “useful conversation” is likely quite similar to Popular Science’s: not only no spam, but the discourse must be within the norms of science. So, it doesn’t matter how loudly Jesus told you that there is no climate change going on, your message is going to be removed if it doesn’t argue for your views within the evidentiary rules of science.

You may not like this restriction at Scientific American. Tough. You have lots of others places you can talk about Jesus’ beliefs about climate change. I posted at length about the Scientific American decision at the time, and especially about why this makes clear problems with the “echo chamber” meme, but I fundamentally agree with it.

If comments aren’t working on your site, then it’s your fault. Fix your site.

[Tip o’ the hat to Joshua Beckerman for pointing out the PopSci post.]

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